Beyond Penguins and Polar Bears: Integrating Literacy and IPY in the K-5 Classroom

Beyond Penguins and Polar Bears, an online professional development magazine for elementary teachers, focuses on preparing teachers to teach science concepts in an already congested curriculum by integrating inquiry-based science with literacy teaching. Launched in March 2008, each thematic issue relates elementary science topics and concepts to the real-world context of the polar regions and includes standards-based science and content-rich literacy learning.

Lead Organization(s): 
Award Number: 
Funding Period: 
Sat, 09/01/2007 to Wed, 08/31/2011
Project Evaluator: 
Evaluation & Assessment Center, Miami University, Oxford, OH
Full Description: 

Blockbuster movies and even soft drink commercials have made our planet's polar regions and their inhabitants popular culture superstars. At the same time many people have either been confronted with what they believe to be climate change weather events, or find themselves wondering about how melting polar ice sheets and rising ocean temperatures might affect their lives in the future. Despite this onslaught of data, scientific discovery, drama, and speculation, misconceptions about the polar regions and their importance abound.

Beyond Penguins and Polar Bears, an online professional development magazine for elementary teachers, focuses on preparing teachers to teach science concepts in an already congested curriculum by integrating inquiry-based science with literacy teaching. Such an integrated approach can increase students' science knowledge, academic language, reading comprehension, and written and oral discourse abilities. Each issue reflects the four strands of science proficiency (as described in Taking Science to School: Learning and Teaching Science in Grades K-8) by providing scientific explanations and including lessons that ask students to generate scientific evidence and to reflect on and participate in the processes of science.

Launched in March 2008, each thematic issue relates elementary science topics and concepts to the real-world context of the polar regions and includes standards-based science and content-rich literacy learning across five departments (In the Field: Scientists at Work, Professional Learning, Science and Literacy, Across the Curriculum, and Polar News and Notes). The magazine has covered many common earth and space science topics (geography, seasons, rocks, minerals and fossils, the water cycle, energy, erosion) and is now turning to plants, animals, and other life science topics. The indigenous peoples of the Arctic, climate change, and polar research and explorers will round out twenty planned issues.

In addition to highlighting and contextualizing existing digital resources such as science and literacy lesson plans, the magazine also includes multimedia such as images, video clips, and podcasts. A monthly column, Featured Story, provides a nonfiction article written for students and available at three grade levels as text, printable books, and electronic books with narration. The Virtual Bookshelf, written by a children's librarian, recommends quality children's literature to complement and extend the science activities. A regular column details commonly held misconceptions and provides assessment tools for use classroom use. In addition to the online magazine, users can create and share knowledge and connect with colleagues through the blog and social network.

Early evaluation efforts for Beyond Penguins and Polar Bears have been positive. Science, literacy, and education experts asked to review cyberzine issues commented that it "provides a substantive dialogue regarding how integrating science-literacy instruction can enhance teaching and learning" and that articles and ancillary resources were accurate, developmentally appropriate, and easily accessible for teachers and students. Reviewers also described the web site as "beautifully designed, [containing] an enormous amount of helpful, practical information and...very well written." Preliminary pilot testing demonstrated that teachers felt they increased their own content knowledge about the polar regions as well as science in general, changed the science curriculum in their classroom and the ways in which they used educational technology, and gained confidence in teaching science to their students. Additionally, students whose teachers participated in pilot testing benefitted as well. Preliminary testing indicated statistically significant changes in third grade students' attitudes towards science. Following exposure to the Beyond Penguins materials and activities, they agreed less with the statement "Science is mostly memorizing facts" and more with the statement "Writing is important in science." Beyond Penguins also received an "A+" rating from the Education World web site in January 2009.

Beyond Penguins and Polar Bears, funded by the National Science Foundation, brings together a team of collaborators including an interdisciplinary team from Ohio State University College of Education and Human Ecology; the Ohio Resource Center for Mathematics, Science, and Reading; the Byrd Polar Research Center; The Columbus Center for Science and Industry (COSI); the Upper Arlington Public Library; and the National Science Digital Library (NSDL). The Evaluation and Assessment Center at Miami University in Oxford, OH is conducting ongoing project evaluation including teacher focus groups, pilot testing, and usability testing that informs the development process.

Contact Information:

Jessica Fries-Gaither
Project Director
The Ohio State University
College of Education and Human Ecology
School of Teaching and Learning
1929 Kenny Rd., Suite 400
Columbus, OH 43210

Mathematics Instruction Using Decision Science and Engineering Tools

A collaboration among educators, engineers, and mathematicians in three universities, this project is creating, implementing, and evaluating a one-year curriculum for teaching a non-calculus, fourth-year high school mathematics course and accompanied assessment instruments. The curriculum will draw on decision-making tools that include but go well beyond linear programming, to enhance student mathematical competence (particularly solving multi-step problems), improve students' attitudes toward mathematics, and promote states' adoption of the curriculum (initially NC and MI).

Project Email: 
Award Number: 
Funding Period: 
Sat, 09/15/2007 to Tue, 08/31/2010
Project Evaluator: 
Dr. Shlomo S. Sawilowsky
Full Description: 

Mathematics INstruction using Decision Science and Engineering Tools (MINDSET) is a collaboration among educators, engineers, and mathematicians at three universities to create, implement, and evaluate a new curriculum and textbook to teach standard mathematics concepts using math-based decision-making tools for a non-calculus fourth-year mathematics curriculum that several states now require and others may require in the near future. MINDSET has three goals: (1) enhancement of students’ mathematical ability, especially their ability to formulate and solve multi-step problems and interpret results; (2) improvement in students’ attitude toward mathematics, especially those from underrepresented groups, thereby motivating them to study mathematics; and (3) adoption of the curriculum initially in North Carolina and Michigan, then in other states.

Using decision-making tools from Operations Research and Industrial Engineering, we will develop a fourthyear high school curriculum in mathematics and support materials to teach standard content. Through a multi-state, multi-school district assessment, we will determine if a statistically significant improvement in students’ mathematical ability—particularly in multi-step problem solving and interpretation of results—and in motivation and attitude toward mathematics has occurred. Participating teachers will receive professional training, help to create a knowledge-based online community for support, and in-person and online technical assistance. Through extensive data collection and analysis, we will determine if this infrastructure is sustainable and sufficiently flexible to be reproduced and used by others.

A Longitudinal Randomized Trial Study of Middle School Science for English Language Learners (Project MSSELL) (Collaborative Research: Irby)

Project MSSELL will conduct a two-year randomized trial longitudinal evaluation of an enhanced standards-based science curriculum model. In Year 1, the project will refine and pilot the model based on learnings from its previous developmental phase and implementation with K-3 grade students. In Years 2 and 3, the enhanced model will be implemented and studied with fifth- and sixth-grade students.

Partner Organization(s): 
Award Number: 
Funding Period: 
Mon, 09/01/2008 to Fri, 08/31/2012
Project Evaluator: 
Dr. David Frances

Application of Evidence-centered Design to States Large-scale Science Assessment

This project aims to (1) determine ways in which Evidence-Centered Design enhances the quality of large-scale, technology-based science assessments for middle school grades and high school equivalency; (2) implement resulting procedures in operational test development; (3) evaluate the efficiency, effectiveness and generalizability of these procedures, and (4) disseminate findings to the assessment community.

Award Number: 
Funding Period: 
Sat, 09/01/2007 to Fri, 08/31/2012
Project Evaluator: 
Haynie Research and Evaluation--Doreen Finkelstein, Kathleen Haynie
Full Description: 

The project began as a collaborative research effort among six organizations—a non-profit research company (SRI International), a university (University of Maryland), a commercial test publishing company (Pearson), Minnesota’s (MN) state department of education, a software engineering firm (Codeguild, Inc.), and an educational evaluation firm (Haynie Research and Evaluation). Due to changes in the affiliation of key personnel, the project transitioned to a collaboration among five organizations--SRI International, ETS, University of Maryland, Pearson and Haynie Research and Evaluation. Together these groups designed and implemented several studies to document the influence of evidence-centered design when applied to Pearson's science assessment design and development processes.

The goals of the project are: (1) to determine leverage points by which ECD can enhance the quality of large-scale technology-based assessments and the efficiency of their design, (2) to implement resulting procedures in operational test development cycles, (3) to evaluate efficiency, effectiveness and generalizability of these procedures, (4) to develop two software wizards to support design of task-based scenarios and assessment items, and (5) to disseminate findings to the assessment community.

This project will develop an exemplar set of design patterns based on the critical benchmarks identified in the Minnesota Academic Standards for science and on the GED science practice indicators and content targets. It is of particular interest in this project that elements of ECD will be applied to an existing large-scale accountability and credentialing assessments, in the context of existing test development and delivery processes.  The project is constrained to maintain adherence to existing test specifications, “look and feel” of tasks, timelines, and delivery and scoring procedures.  Rather than designing new assessment systems or re-engineering existing ones, the present project seeks to identify and implement ideas from ECD in existing large-scale, high-stakes testing programs. Principles of ECD have been implemented in several training workshops for assessment designers and item writers to support the development of scenario-based science tasks. The project's technical report series is available at http://ecd.sri.com.

Accessing Science Ideas: Enhancing Curriculum to Support Scientific Reasoning of Students with Learning Disabilities

The Accessing Science Ideas (ASI) project is developing and researching content enhancements that support science learning of middle school students with executive function and related learning disabilities.  The goal of ASI research is to measure the extent to which curricular units with content enhancements lead to increased student understanding of science concepts, improved reasoning, and greater confidence.

Lead Organization(s): 
Partner Organization(s): 
Award Number: 
Funding Period: 
Fri, 08/15/2008 to Tue, 07/31/2012
Full Description: 

The Accessing Science Ideas (ASI) project is developing and researching content enhancements that support science learning of middle school students with executive function and related learning disabilities. These content enhancements are being designed for and integrated into two Full Option Science System (FOSS) curriculum units, Diversity of Life and Populations and Ecosystems. The goal of ASI research is to measure the extent to which curricular units with content enhancements lead to increased student understanding of science concepts, improved reasoning, and greater confidence for all students in an inclusive science classroom.  However, we anticipate that the students with executive function challenges who find it particularly difficult to organize and remember information, shift between concrete phenomena and abstract concepts and see relationships among ideas will benefit most.

Content enhancements are instructional strategies and materials that do not change content but rather ‘enhance’ it by making it accessible to all learners. They make ideas more explicit, prompt elaboration, involve students in transforming the information, and make concepts, ideas, and their relationships more concrete.  In this project, we design, pilot, and revise our content enhancements for each unit prior to the field test. 

The study employs an experimental design with randomization at the teacher level.  Teachers in the intervention are provided with training and then use content enhancements while those in the control group teach the FOSS unit as they typically would.  The control group receives training and the content enhancements at the conclusion of the research phase.

Integrating Computing Across the Curriculum (ICAC): Incorporating Technology into STEM Education Using XO Laptops

This project builds and tests applications tied to the school curriculum that integrate the sciences with mathematics, computational thinking, reading and writing in elementary schools. The investigative core of the project is to determine how to best integrate computing across the curriculum in such a way as to support STEM learning and lead more urban children to STEM career paths.

Project Email: 
Award Number: 
Funding Period: 
Sat, 08/01/2009 to Sun, 07/31/2011
Project Evaluator: 
Leslie Cooksy - Univ. of Delaware
Full Description: 

Computer access has opened an exciting new dimension for STEM education; however, if computers in the classroom are to realize their full potential as a tool for advancing STEM education, methods must be developed to allow them to serve as a bridge across the STEM disciplines. The goal of this 60-month multi-method, multi-disciplinary ICAC project is to develop and test a program to increase the number of students in the STEM pipeline by providing teachers and students with curricular training and skills to enhance STEM education in elementary schools. ICAC will be implemented in an urban and predominantly African American school system, since these schools traditionally lag behind in filling the STEM pipeline. Specifically, ICAC will increase computer proficiency (e.g., general usage and programming), science, and mathematics skills of teachers and 4th and 5th grade students, and inform parents about the opportunities available in STEM-centered careers for their children.

The Specific Aims of ICAC are to:

SA1. Conduct a formative assessment with teachers to determine the optimal intervention to ensure productive school, principal, teacher, and student participation.

SA2. Implement a structured intervention aimed at (1) teachers, (2) students, and (3) families that will enhance the students’ understanding of STEM fundamentals by incorporating laptops into an inquiry-based educational process.

SA3. Assess the effects of ICAC on:

a. Student STEM  engagement and performance.

b. Teacher and student computing specific confidence and utilization.

c. Student interest in technology and STEM careers.

d. Parents’ attitudes toward STEM careers and use of computers.

To enable us to complete the specific aims noted above, we have conducted a variety of project activities in Years 1-3. These include:

  1. Classroom observations at the two Year 1 pilot schools
  2. Project scaling to 6 schools in Year 2 and 10 schools in Year 3
  3. Semi-structured school administrator interviews in schools
  4. Professional development sessions for teachers
  5. Drafting of curriculum modules to be used in summer teacher institutes and for dissemination
  6. In-class demonstration of curriculum modules
  7. Scratch festivals each May
  8. Summer teacher institutes
  9. Student summer camps
  10. Surveying of teachers in summer institutes
  11. Surveying of teachers and students at the beginning and end of the school year
  12. Showcase event at end of student workshops

The specific ICAC activities for Years 2-5 include:

  • Professional development sessions (twice monthly for teachers), to integrate the ‘best practices’ from the program.
  • Working groups led by a grade-specific lead teacher. The lead teacher for each grade in each school will identify areas where assistance is needed and will gather the grade-specific cohort of teachers at their school once every two weeks for a meeting to discuss the progress made in addition to challenges to or successes in curricula development.  
  • ICAC staff and prior trained teachers will visit each class monthly during the year to assist the teachers and to evaluate specific challenges and opportunities for the use of XOs in that classroom.  
  • In class sessions at least once per month (most likely more often given feedback from Teacher Summer Institutes) to demonstrate lesson plans and assist teachers as they implement lesson plans.
  • ICAC staff will also hold a joint meeting of administrators of all target schools each year to assess program progress and challenges. 
  • Teacher Summer Institutes – scaled-up to teachers from the new schools each summer to provide training in how to incorporate computing into their curriculum.
  • Administrator sessions during the Teacher Summer Institutes; designed to provide insight into how the laptops can facilitate the education and comprehension of their students in all areas of the curriculum, discuss flexible models for physical classroom organization to facilitate student learning, and discussions related to how to optimize the use of computing to enhance STEM curricula in their schools.  Student Summer Computing Camps – designed to teach students computing concepts, make computing fun, and enhance their interest in STEM careers.  
  • ICAC will sponsor a yearly showcase event in Years 2-5 that provides opportunities for parents to learn more about technology skills their children are learning (e.g., career options in STEM areas, overview of ICAC, and summary of student projects). At this event, a yearly citywide competition among students also will be held that is an expanded version of the weeklong showcase event during the student summer camps.
  • Surveying of students twice a year in intervention schools.
  • Surveying of teachers at Summer Institutes and then at the end of the academic year.
  • Coding and entry of survey data; coding of interview and observational data.
  • Data analysis to examine the specific aims (SA) noted above:
    • The impact of ICAC on teacher computing confidence and utilization (SA 3.b).
    • Assess the effects of (1) teacher XO training on student computing confidence and utilization (SA 3.b), (2) training on changes in interest in STEM careers (SA 3.c), and (3) XO training on student engagement (SA 3.a).
    • A quasi-experimental comparison of intervention and non-intervention schools to assess intervention effects on student achievement (SA 3.a).
    • Survey of parents attending the yearly ICAC showcase to assess effects on parental attitudes toward STEM careers and computing (SA 3.d).

The proposed research has the potential for broad impact by leveraging technology in BCS to influence over 8,000 students in the Birmingham area. By targeting 4th and 5th grade students, we expect to impact STEM engagement and preparedness of students before they move into a critical educational and career decision-making process. Further, by bolstering student computer and STEM knowledge, ICAC will impart highly marketable skills that prepare them for the 81% of new jobs that are projected to be in computing and engineering in coming years (as predicted by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics).3 Through its formative and summative assessment, ICAC will offer intellectual merit by providing teachers throughout the US with insights into how computers can be used to integrate the elementary STEM curriculum. ICAC will develop a model for using computers to enhance STEM education across the curriculum while instilling a culture among BCS schools where computing is viewed as a tool for learning.

(Previously listed under Award # 0918216)

Making Sciences: Data Modeling and Argumentation in Elementary Science

This project develops ecosystems-focused instructional materials that use sensor data and technology to help second and third graders become more proficient at data modeling and scientific argumentation. The goals are to provide elementary teachers with a research-based curriculum that engages students in exploring and visualizing environmental data and using the data to construct scientific arguments, and to contribute to the cognitive development literature on children's ideas about and abilities for scientific argumentation.

Award Number: 
Funding Period: 
Wed, 08/15/2007 to Sat, 07/31/2010

The Role of Educative Curriculum Materials in Supporting Science Teaching Practices with English Language Learners

This project aims to determine whether curricula designed to support teacher and student learning have positive impacts on teacher knowledge, attitudes, and instructional practices; to what degree educative curricula help teachers with more and less experience teaching ELLs and how level of teaching experience relates to teacher knowledge, attitudes, and instructional practices; and the effects of the educative curricula in high implementation settings on ELLs knowledge and attitudes in science, and developing English proficiency.

Project Email: 
Award Number: 
Funding Period: 
Mon, 09/01/2008 to Fri, 08/31/2012
Project Evaluator: 
Jonna Kulikowich

Design and Use of Illustrations in Test Items as a Form of Accommodation for English Language Learners in Science and Mathematics Assessment

This project investigates how vignette illustrations minimize the impact of limited English proficiency on student performance in science tests. Different analyses will determine whether and how ELL and non-ELL students differ significantly on the ways they use vignettes to make sense of items; whether the use of vignettes reduces test-score differences due to language factors between ELL and non-ELL students; and whether the level of distance of the items moderates the effectiveness of vignette-illustrated items.

Lead Organization(s): 
Partner Organization(s): 
Award Number: 
Funding Period: 
Mon, 09/01/2008 to Sun, 08/12/2012
Full Description: 

This exploratory project within the Contextual Strand (Challenge a) addresses validity in the assessment of science and mathematics for English language learners (ELLs), and the urgent need for effective testing accommodations for ELLs. Motivation for this investigation originated from a previous, NSF-funded project on the testing of ELLs. We observed that items which were accompanied by illustrations tended to be responded correctly by a higher percentage of students than items without illustrations. We will investigate the factors that are relevant to designing and using a new form of accommodation in the assessment of science and mathematics for ELLs—vignette illustrations.

This three-year project will be guided by four research questions: What principles underlie the effective design of science and mathematics test items with illustrations in ways that minimize limited English proficiency as a factor that prevents ELLs from understanding the items? Is the presence of an illustration a moderator in students’ understanding test items? If so, Is the effect due to the simple presence of a graphical component or due to characteristics of the illustrations that are created based on principled design? Does the presence of an illustration have a different effect on the performance of ELLs and the performance of non-ELL students?

We expect to be able to: 1) identify the role of illustrations in the cognitive activities elicited by vignette-illustrated items; 2) determine whether any differences between performance on vignette-illustrated items and other kinds of items are due to the this form of accommodation’s capacity to address language as a construct-irrelevant factor; 3) identify the set of practical and methodological issues that are critical to properly developing and using vignette-illustrated items; and 4) propose a set of documents and procedures for the systematic and cost-effective design and development of vignette-illustrated items. 

We will test ELL and non-ELL students with items of three types (vignette-illustrated items whose illustrations are designed systematically, vignette-illustrated items whose illustrations are created arbitrarily, and items without illustrations) at two levels of distance to the enacted curriculum (close and distal). Diverse forms of analysis will allow us to determine whether and how ELL and non-ELL students differ on the ways in which they use vignettes to make sense of items, whether the use of vignettes reduces test score differences due to language factors between ELL and non-ELL students, and whether the level of distance of the items moderates the effectiveness of vignette-illustrated items.

Intellectual merit. This project will provide information that will help to advance our understanding in two assessment arenas: effective accommodations for ELLs, and item development practices. While illustrations are frequently used in test items, there is not guidance in the assessment development literature on how to approach illustrations. Furthermore, the value of illustrations as a resource for ensuring that ELL students understand what a given item is about and what the item asks them to do has not been systematically investigated. Semiotics, cognitive psychology, and linguistics and socio-cultural theory are brought together to develop systematic procedures for developing illustrations as visual supports in tests. Understanding the role that images play in test taking is relevant to devising more effective ways of testing students. While this project aims to improve testing accommodations practices for ELLs, knowledge gained from it will inform test development practices relevant to all student populations.

Broader impact. We expect outcomes of this project to contribute to enhanced practice in both classroom and large-scale assessment. The push for including ELLs in large-scale testing programs with accountability purposes is not corresponded by effective testing accommodation practices. Many testing accommodations used by national and state assessment programs are not defensible, are not effective, or are improperly implemented. Vignette illustrations have the potential to become a low-cost, easy-to-implement form of testing accommodation for ELLs. Results form this investigation will allow us to identify a set of principles for the proper design and use of vignette illustrations as a form of testing accommodation for ELLs. The project is important not only because it explores the potential of an innovative form of accommodation but because it uses a systematic procedure for designing that form of accommodation.

Project M2: Maturing Mathematicians -- Advanced Curriculum for Primary Level Students

Project M2 is producing and disseminating curriculum materials in geometry and measurement for students in grades K-2. This builds on success of the M3 U.S. Department of Education curriculum grant for students in Grades 3-5. (www.projectm3.org). Project M2 units are advanced units for all students designed using research-based practices in mathematics, early childhood, and gifted education. Curricular materials focus on promising discourse and hands-on inquiry of rich problem-situations.  

Project Email: 
Lead Organization(s): 
Partner Organization(s): 
Award Number: 
Funding Period: 
Wed, 08/15/2007 to Sun, 07/31/2011
Full Description: 

Project Publications and Presentations:

Gavin, M. K.; Casa, Tuita, M.; Chapin, S. & Sheffield, L. (2010). Designing a Shape Gallery: Geometry with Meerkats.

Gavin, M. K.; Casa, Tuita, M.; Chapin, S. & Sheffield, L. (2010). Designing a Shape Gallery: Geometry with the Meerkats Student Mathematician's Journal. Student Mathematician's Journal.

Casa, T.; Firmender, J. & Gavin, M. K. (2010, April). Designing a Shape Gallery: Making Geometry Connections for Primary Students. Presented at National Council of Teachers of Mathematics Annual Meeting, San Diego, CA.

Casa, T. & Gavin, M. K. (2010, March). Exploring Shapes in Space: Geometry with the Frogonauts. Presented at Keefe Bruyette Symposium, Saint Joseph College, West Hartford, CT.

Gavin, M. K. (2009, November). Mentoring Young Mathematicians: New Advanced Curriculum for Primary-level Students. Presented at the National Association for Gifted Children Annual Meeting, St. Louis, MO.

Gavin, K. M. (2010, April). Nurturing Mathematically Promising and Creative Students, Project M2: Mentoring Young Mathematicians. Presented at National Council of Supervisors of Mathematics Annual Conference, San Diego, CA.

Gavin, M. K.; Firmender, J. M. & Casa, Tuita, M. (2010, April). Project M2's Approach: Connecting Math and Language Arts through Communication. Presented at the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics Annual Meeting, San Diego, CA.

Gavin, M. K.; Casa, T. M., Chapin, S. & Sheffield, L. (2011). Using Everyday Measures: Measuring with the Meerkats.


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