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College of Education > News and Publications > 2018: 01-03 news > New scientific model to aid young students in understanding biology

New scientific model to aid young students in understanding biology

Researcher presents "Transformation Boxes (TBs): A system-based guidance to support elementary student teachers to teach and learn scientific modeling" at Waterbury Lecture.

A new aspect of scientific modeling in childhood classrooms called Transformation Boxes can help young students better understand biology, an international researcher says.

The Waterbury Lecture panel, from left: Scott McDonald, Lynn Liben, Andres Acher and Richard Duschl.
Andres Acher, associate professor at University of Halle, Germany, presented his findings recently at the College of Education's Waterbury Lecture in the Chambers Building Krause Learning Space. The Waterbury Lecture is sponsored by an endowment from Kenneth Waterbury to the Penn State College of Education to create the Kenneth B. Waterbury Chair in Secondary Education.

Acher's research focuses on different aspects of teaching and learning scientific modeling in the classroom, and his presentation was titled "Transformation Boxes (TBs): A system-based guidance to support elementary student teachers to teach and learn scientific modeling. An example through Biological Core Ideas."

Acher told a group of professors and doctoral students that Transformation Boxes facilitate articulations of core ideas, cross-cutting concepts and scientific modeling practices, and said they serve as a teaching tool to guide decisions made while explaining exchanges between organisms and environment.

He also joined a panel discussion with Richard Duschl, Waterbury Chaired Professor of Secondary Education; Scott McDonald, associate professor of (science) education; and Lynn Liben, a McCourtney professor of children's studies in the Department of Psychology.

Acher's idea has not yet been implemented in science education at Penn State, but McDonald said that it's a possibility.

"In the fall we're hoping to have some our pre-service elementary teachers use these to help them think about biology, to help them understand biology and then help kids understand biology," McDonald said.

Andres Acher presents his Transformation Boxes research at the Waterbury Lecture.
Acher also explained that the TBs construct is used as a tool for epistemic guidance, such as epistemic dimensions of scientific modeling, problematizing individual or collective actions encouraging disciplinary uncertainness and revising models.

"It's a support tool to organize what is the idea, what is the practice, what are the concepts, so it's just a tool for (teachers) to organize these things," Acher said. "There's a strong correlation with the core ideas; certain core ideas allow more information, allow more energy. The difficult one is energy. It depends on the whole idea. We can't control everything but we see the problems."

Acher, Duschl and McDonald are constructing a yet untitled paper about scientific practices and the idea about epistemic practices. "What is knowledge in science and how do we think about how knowledge gets produced in science? And then how these transformational boxes can support that?" McDonald said.

Duschl added that children over the course of K-12 education should know something about how at times they'll struggle with scientific knowledge and how it is constructed and how it is debated and argued.

But the key takeaway from Acher's presentation, according to McDonald, all comes down to understanding biology.

"These new kinds of ways of science teaching that we are trying to accomplish are about scientific practices, so kids engaging with science content – like scientists would do – basically trying to explain real things in the world, that that work is really difficult and requires special supports and tools," McDonald said.

"And what Andres has developed is a little tool that's also a complex philosophical tool that helps you understand a lot of things about biology in a relatively straightforward way."

Jim Carlson (February 2018)