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Troy Sadler wins $1.9 million NSF grant to extend development, study of science lessons

Project will explore impact of scientific modeling on learning; emphasis on Latinx students
Troy Sadler feature image

A $1.9 million grant from the National Science Foundation will extend work led by Troy Sadler that seeks improved ways to teach science concepts to high school students using lessons about the COVID-19 pandemic.

The new grant will support work over four years to develop lesson plans in which students create scientific models to study complex issues in science, then to study the effectiveness of the modeling on student learning. The project will include an emphasis on studying how effective the lessons are in helping Latinx students.

The project builds on earlier work supported by NSF funding in which Sadler and his team have created lessons plans for middle and high school students centered around the COVID-19 pandemic. The work is based on research by Sadler and colleagues in which they have demonstrated the effectiveness of engaging students in scientific learning by building lessons plans centered around “socio-scientific issues-based” instruction — hot topics of interest to young people, such as climate change, sexually transmitted disease, and vaping.

Last year the NSF awarded a $200,000 Rapid Response Research grant to Sadler to produce a set of lessons aimed at engaging students in lessons centered on the virus and the pandemic. The lessons included having students produce models about the virus’s behavior, and wrestle with questions around how a society works to slow and eventually contain a pandemic.

With the new funding, Sadler and his fellow researchers will develop lesson plans in which high school students build different types of models — mechanistic, computational and system models — to learn about virus outbreaks and other complex societal issues centered around scientific concepts.

The co-principal investigators on the team are Li Ke, a postdoctoral researcher at UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Education, and Patricia Friedrichsen and Laura Zangori, both of the University of Missouri-Columbia.

“There is little research available regarding how learners coordinate sense-making through the use of different types of scientific modeling,” said Sadler, the School of Education’s Thomas James Distinguished Professor of Experiential Learning. “This project will address the gap by studying student learning with different types of models. Then we plan to use these findings to develop and study new curriculum materials that incorporate multiple models for teaching about viral epidemics in high school biology classes.”

Reaching out to Latinx students

In recognition that the COVID-19 pandemic has had particularly devastating impacts on marginalized groups, the project will include an effort to recruit Latinx students into the study, giving them new opportunities to engage in innovative, model-based curriculum centered around important scientific issues.

“Part of the purpose of our Latinx recruitment is to ensure that we design lesson plans and other products that are culturally responsive and account for Latinx learner needs,” Sadler said. “We also recognize that Latinx students are underrepresented in STEM learning opportunities and fields, and we hope this project develops a way to broaden Latinx participation in STEM pathways.”

Structure of the project

The project will research three aspects of student learning: 1) conceptual understandings about viral epidemics, 2) epistemic understandings associated with modeling, and 3) model-informed reasoning about viral epidemics and potential solutions.

The project will be conducted in three phases. The first will explore how students make sense of viral epidemics through different types of models. This research will be conducted with small groups of students as they work through learning activities associated with viral epidemic models.

The second phase will research how opportunities to engage in modeling across different types of models should be supported and sequenced for learning about epidemics. These findings will inform development of a curricular module for high school biology classes.

The third phase will study the extent to which students learn about viral epidemics through engagement in modeling practices across different models.

For the final phase, teachers working as part of the project will participate in professional development about viral epidemics and modeling, and then implement the viral epidemic module in their biology classes.

The research team plans to widely share its results and the lessons plans and modules through publications, conference presentations, and professional development opportunities for teachers.

The team has published resources from its ongoing work — including a wide range of lesson plans centered on COVID-19 — online here:

The NSF grant award notification is here: