Active Research

Online Practice Suite: Practice Spaces, Simulations and Virtual Reality Environments for Preservice Teachers to Learn to Facilitate Argumentation Discussions in Math and Science (NSF DRL 2037983)

In teacher education it is widely acknowledged that learning to teach requires that preservice teachers have robust, authentic, and consistent opportunities to engage in the work of teaching–ideally across different contexts, with diverse student populations, and for varied purposes–as they hone their instructional practice. Practice teaching experiences in K-12 classrooms, such as field placements and student teaching, are the most widely used approaches to provide these opportunities. In an ideal world these experiences are opportunities for preservice teachers to observe and work closely with mentor teachers and try out new instructional strategies with individual, small groups, and whole classes of K-12 students. While these experiences are critical to supporting preservice teachers’ learning, it can be difficult to help preservice teachers transition from university classrooms to field placements in ways that provide them with opportunities to enact ambitious instructional strategies. This need is particularly acute in mathematics and science education, where classrooms that model strong disciplinary discourse and argumentation are not always prevalent. This challenge is amplified by the COVID-19 pandemic environment; with schools and universities across the nation operating online, many preservice teachers will miss out on opportunities to practice teaching both within their courses and in K-12 classrooms. To address this urgent challenge in STEM education, project researchers will develop, pilot, and refine a set of coordinated and complementary activities that teacher education programs can use in both online and face-to-face settings to provide practice-based opportunities for preservice teachers to develop their ability to facilitate argumentation-focused discussions in mathematics and science, a critical teaching practice in these content areas. The practice-based activities include: (1) interactive, online digital games that create targeted practice spaces to engage preservice teachers to respond to students’ content-focused ideas and interactions; (2) facilitating group discussions with upper elementary or middle school student avatars in a simulated classroom using performance-based tasks; and (3) an immersive virtual reality whole-classroom environment that allows for verbal, textual and non-verbal interactions between a teacher avatar and 24 student avatars. The online practice suite, made up of these activities along with supports to help teacher educators use them effectively, represents not just an immediate remedy to the challenge of COVID-19, but a rich and flexible set of resources with the potential to support and improve teacher preparation well beyond the COVID-19 challenge.

This study will use design-based research to create this integrated system of practice teaching opportunities. This approach will involve developing and refining the individual practice activities, the integrated online practice suite, and the teacher educator support materials by working with a teacher educator community of practice and engaging up to 20 teacher educators and 400 preservice teachers in multiple rounds of tryouts and piloting during the three-year project. The project will proceed in three phases: a first phase of small-scale testing, a second phase trying the materials with teacher educators affiliated with the project team, and a third phase piloting materials with a broader group of mathematics and science teacher educators. Data sources include surveys of preservice teachers’ background characteristics, perceptions of the practice activities, beliefs about content instruction, perceptions about preparedness to teach, and understanding of argumentation and discussion, videos and/or log files of their performances for each practice teaching activity, and scores on their practice teaching performances. The project team will also observe the in-class instructional activities prior to and after the use of each practice teaching activity, conduct interviews with teacher educators, and collect instructional logs from the teacher educators and instructional artifacts used to support preservice teachers’ learning. Data analysis will include pre and post comparisons to examine evidence of growth in preservice math and science teachers’ beliefs, perceptions, understanding, and teaching performance. The project team will also build a series of analytic memos to describe how each teacher educator used the online practice suite within the mathematics or science methods course and the factors and decisions that went into that each use case. Then, they will describe and understand how the various uses and adaptations may be linked to contextual factors within these diverse settings. Findings will be used to produce empirically and theoretically grounded design principles and heuristics for these types of practice-based activities to support teacher learning.

Collaborative Research: The Notion of Failure and Maker Programming for Youth: Supporting the Professional Development, Reflection, and Learning of Informal Educators (NSF DRL 2005860)

Interest in making and makerspaces — collaborative workspaces where people can engage in a process of creating something from separate elements (using high and no tech tools) — has grown steadily in recent years. While these spaces offer opportunity for individuals and multi-generational groups to work together, there is also more broad interest in structured youth programming that involves maker-related activities and content. Yet, research-informed professional development that focuses on how informal educators implement, plan, and handle ongoing, just-in-time support during moments of failure is scarce. Prior research supports the important role of failure in maker programming to increase learning, resilience, self-efficacy and other skills such as independence. This project will address the gap through adapting, implementing, and refining a professional development program for informal educators to productively attend, interpret, and respond to youths’ experiences with failure while engaged in maker programs. The contexts for this research are museums that provide maker programming. This Innovations in Development project uses a train-the-trainer approach to professional development. Up to two lead facilitators at each partnering institution experience an initial three-day workshop and ongoing support meetings during the first phase. In the second phase, the lead facilitators support other informal educators at their institution implementing making programs for youth. This project will enhance the infrastructure for research and education as collaborations and professional learning communities will be established among a variety of informal learning institutions. Core partners include: The Tech Museum of Innovation, The Bakken Museum, Montshire Museum of Science, The Minneapolis Institute of Art, Thinkery, and Amazeum Children’s Museum.

The central hypothesis framing the work is that a professional development program focused on supporting informal educators’ instructional practices on ways to respond to youths’ experiences with failure will have a positive impact on developing participants developing pedagogical practices around failure, as well as developing youths’ affinity for resilience during making tasks and a strong sense of self as a maker. The project utilizes a strengths-based perspective of the resilience that allows the team to consider promotive factors or variables that help youth overcome negative effects of failures. The project draws from research highlighting the positive impact of professional development on teacher knowledge and beliefs, classroom practice, and student outcomes adapting the Problem-Solving Cycle model of Borko, Koellner, and Swackhamer to the context of museums. The specific R&D aims are to: (1) Investigate features of the professional development models that best support lead facilitators in supporting informal educators in attending, interpreting, and responding to youths’ experiences with failure while engaged in making tasks; (2) Investigate changes of informal educators’ pedagogical practice around youths’ experiences with failures through engaging in the professional development models; and (3) Examine shifts in youths’ resiliency and perception of failure. A goal of the work is to raise the importance of failure in the overall learning process. The iterative nature of this project will be informed by the collection and analysis of video data of professional development sessions and informal educators facilitating maker programs, reflective journaling, surveys regarding the professional development, and pre-post surveys from youth engaged in the maker programs. Dissemination will address multiple stakeholders, including informal educators, program developers, evaluators, researchers, and public audiences.

This project is funded by the Advancing Informal STEM Learning (AISL) program, which seeks to advance new approaches to, and evidence-based understanding of, the design and development of STEM learning in informal environments. This includes providing multiple pathways for broadening access to and engagement in STEM learning experiences, advancing innovative research on and assessment of STEM learning in informal environments, and developing understandings of deeper learning by participants.

RAPID: Rapidly building a collaborative network of informal educators to address extended school closures related to the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic (NSF DRL 2027368)

This RAPID award is made by the AISL program in the Division of Research on Learning in the Directorate for Education and Human Resources, using funds from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. COVID-19 presents a national threat to the health of children and families, presenting serious implications for the mental and physical health of children. This project addresses two critical aspects of the impact on COVID-19 on families: (a) the large-scale shift to at-home learning based on nationwide school closures and (b) the critical need for families to understand the basic science of virus transmission and prevention. To address these needs, the CoBuild19 project team will develop a series of STEM activities for families with children in grades K-6 that make use of items readily available in most households. The activities help children and their families learn about viruses, virus transmission, and virus prevention while also developing other STEM-skills, particularly related to engineering design. Importantly, the project team also considers the emotional well-being of children and families during the disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic. Led by researchers from Indiana University and Binghamton University, and experts in educational resource development from Science Friday (a non-profit organization dedicated to increasing the public’s access to science and scientific information through podcasts, digital videos, original web articles, and educational resources for teachers and informal educators) the project is further supported by partnerships with the Amazeum (AR), The Tech Museum of Innovation (CA), the Indiana State Museum, and Sonoma Country Office of Education (CA). The activities will be shared with families through live-streamed web sessions that introduce the activity, give tips to adults for facilitation, share a bit on related STEM careers and engage the audience in dialog about the activity and their current experiences. Versions of the sessions that are recorded will be edited and include closed-captioning and subtitles in multiple languages before being posted on platforms such as YouTube.

This project uses a design-based research approach to investigate strategies for enabling families to actively engage with STEM while home and away from their traditional institutions during a period of crisis. The research components focus on: 1) Engagement: How do families engage in the activity tasks, in terms of processes, practices, and use of resources? Who participated, why did they choose to participate and how did they engage (including modification of activities)? What barriers prevented interested families from completing activities? 2) Impact: How did the activities change participants’ feelings of: a) efficacy around STEM and b) connectedness/ isolation, during extended school closures? and 3) the Activities: Which activities had the greatest uptake? How many activity ideas were submitted by those outside of the team? What was the age/content focus of each of these activities? The researchers will analyze social media data (including data on resource downloads and use of tracked links, YouTube and Facebook views, comment threads during livestreams and Likes/Shares/Follows across social media sites) to refine and improve the activities and programming as well as learn about the ways families are engaging in the activities. The researchers will solicit survey responses from website visitors to gather more information on participants, why they participated, how they engaged and how the activities impacted participants’ efficacy around STEM and their feelings of connectedness or isolation. The researchers will also ask participants to submit images, videos and text that describes what they are making and their process along the way. Analysis of this data would lead to insights on how children and families use STEM language and practices; how children and families ask questions and use COVID-19-related and other information as part of their design work; and how ideas are formed, shaped and refined as families engage in design and making. While the project focuses on a unique opportunity to collect data on family STEM engagement as families respond to disruptions from the COVID-19 pandemic, this project and its findings will provide a knowledge base that can be utilized to inform future responses to national emergencies, other work aimed at promoting family learning at home, and approaches to supporting children in open-ended problem solving.

Engineering a Community-Family Partnership: Developing a Program Aimed at Making and Design Practices in Home Environments   (NSF DRL 1759259)

Families play a vital role in children’s paths toward STEM careers yet little is known about how this influence works. This project addresses this knowledge gap by developing, implementing, and refining a program for integrating Making and engineering design practices into the home environments of families from under-resourced communities. The researchers hypothesize that an intervention focused on engaging underserved youth and their caregivers about ways to implement Making/engineering design practices in their home will enhance their awareness of and affinity for STEM careers relative to those who do not participate. The project has 3 specific aims. (1) Investigate features of the intervention that best support participation and implementation of Making/engineering design practices in home environments. (2) Investigate changes in each youth’s STEM identity in relation to engaging in Making/engineering design practices with caregivers in their home. (3) Examine shifts in parental: (a) views of engineering, (b) support for their child’s engagement in engineering design practices, and (c) beliefs about engineering as a viable degree/career option for their child.

The project is unique in that it takes a rare process look at how students and families engage in home-based STEM activities. It concurrently assesses families’ readiness to support STEM career awareness and children’s engagement in home-based STEM activities. The target audience is families with children in grades 3-6 enrolled in Title I schools in Bloomington, Indiana and Broome County, New York. Project partners include the Boys and Girls Clubs in these communities who assist with recruitment and with the delivery of the intervention, Family Making Nights. At home, families will document their design activities as they unfold. Stimulated recall with video and semi-structured interviews will help the research team understand families’ thinking about what occurred during the activities. The use of a comparison group allows the team to compare the behaviors and outcomes associated with “trained” and “untrained” family supports. Grounded in social cognitive career theory and research on interest, the project’s focus on identity development has potential to inform theories of social learning. As such, the project will advance the Innovative Technology Experiences for Students and Teachers (ITEST) program’s efforts to better understand and promote practices that increase student motivations and capacities to pursue careers in fields of science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM).

Role Models in Engineering Education (NSF DRL 1657519)

The Role Models in Engineering Education project (Tufts Center for Engineering Education and Outreach and Indiana University) will improve the impact of engineering outreach programs through research and tool development. Providing role models through outreach is widely practiced and recommended, yet little is known about how elementary students, particularly girls, choose engineering role models. Engineering interest declines as girls enter middle school, making elementary school a potentially critical developmental window for bolstering engineering aspirations. The project will generate and share knowledge of female elementary students’ selection of role models in a university-based engineering outreach program. Specifically, it will increase understanding of the ways in which girls identify and select engineering role models and it will contribute to understanding how role models promote interest in engineering careers by girls. This project will inform best practices in engineering outreach, and help university outreach leaders develop more effective educational interventions for female elementary students. Ultimately, this research aims to increase the number of girls and women studying engineering and working as engineers. Increasing the number of girls and women interested in engineering increases educational and economic equity for women and increases the pool of skilled engineers, thereby improving technology development in the nation. This project will advance efforts of the Innovative Technology Experiences for Students and Teachers (ITEST) program to better understand and promote practices that increase students’ motivations and capacities to pursue careers in fields of science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM).

The Role Models in Engineering Education project goals are to advance the understanding of the mechanisms by which female elementary students identify engineering role models and to develop resources to support effective role model-student interactions that can be used by any university-based engineering outreach program. The intervention model draws on the stereotype inoculation model, role model theory, and design-based research practices. Over three years, the project will study 160 elementary students and 96 undergraduate engineering students in an established engineering outreach program, and will focus on positioning the undergraduates as emulable role models by making their engineering identities evident and by building supportive relationships between the undergraduates and the elementary students. The project will utilize in-depth qualitative analysis of the interactions between role models and students, complemented with quantitative tools to evaluate identity and career awareness. This research will inform an iterative process of designing resources and training to prepare role models in engineering and optimize their interactions with elementary students. This project aims to increase understanding of how girls take up engineering role models and to develop effective role model training. By adding to knowledge of engineering role model identification and uptake, this research may help outreach providers spark and sustain more girls’ interest in engineering study and engineering careers.


In this project, our team is creating suites of tools—including surveys, assessments, and observation protocols—that provide educators, researchers and program administrators with information to evaluate maker programs and experiences with youth. We identified a set of five initial targets for evaluation, based on a surveys and interviews with formal and informal maker educators. The targets include: creativity, critical thinking and problem solving, agency/independence, engagement in STEM practices and development of interest and identity in STEM/making. More about this project, including draft versions of our instruments, can be found here: MakEval

Older Projects

MakEngineering Kits (IMLS LG-99-17-0025-17)

In this IMLS-funded project we conducted a pilot study to investigate the circulation of maker kits in school libraries at Title I schools. We sought to better understand how engaging children and their parents/caregivers in engineering design practices in home environments may impact students’ interest in engineering. The project was informed by perspectives from university researchers, school libraries, and a children’s museum. Results of this assessment will be shared broadly with library and museum professionals to inform STEM oriented family learning experiences nationwide. More about this work can be found here: MakEngineering Kits

Studying the Role of Failure in Design and Making   (NSF DRL 1623452)

While the term ‘failure’ brings to mind negative associations, there is a current focus on failure as a driver of innovation and development in many professional fields. It is also emerging from prior research that for STEM professionals and educators, failure plays an important role in designing and making to increase learning, persistence and other non-cognitive skills such as self-efficacy and independence. By investigating how youth and educators attend to moments of failure, how they interpret what this means, and how they respond, we will be better able to understand the dynamics of each part of the experience. The research team will be working with youth from urban, suburban and rural settings, students from Title I schools or who qualify for free/reduced-price lunches, those from racial and ethnic minority groups, as well as students who are learning English as a second language. These youth are from groups traditionally underrepresented in STEM and in making, and research indicates they are more likely to experience negative outcomes when they experience failure.

The intellectual merit of this project centers on establishing a baseline understanding of how failure in making is triggered and experienced by youth, what role educators play in the process, and what can be done to increase persistence and learning, rather than failure being an end-state. The research team will investigate these issues through the use of qualitative and quantitative research methods. In particular, the team will design and evaluate the effectiveness of interventions on increasing the abilities of youth and educators in noticing and responding to failures and increasing positive (e.g., resilience) outcomes. Research sites are selected because they will allow collection of data on youth from a wide range of backgrounds. The research team will also work to test and revise their hypothesized model of the influence of factors on persistence through failures in making.

Assessing Multinational Interest in STEM
Keeping America at the forefront of research and innovation is a common talking point at the highest levels of government (e.g., Obama, 2011). The US is not alone in expressing these goals, which have become a signature of global education and economic reform policies (e.g., Osborne & Dillon, 2008; Tytler et al., 2008; Woolnough et al., 1997). Recent analyses of interview (Maltese & Tai, 2010) and survey (Maltese & Tai, 2011; Tai, Liu, Maltese & Fan, 2006) data indicate that student interest in STEM coursework, informal experiences and career options plays a significant role in STEM persistence, above and beyond achievement and enrollment. While prior findings establish the importance of early development of career interest, how such interests develop and evolve over time, particularly at critical stages (e.g., choosing a major), to influence persistence remains unclear.

Student Interest in Science
Keeping students engaged and interested in the classroom is an essential factor in successful teaching and learning. To educators, the approach seems obvious: get students interested and they are more likely to engage in classroom activities. The fundamental question is how to foster this level of student interest and engagement in content, specifically, science, mathematics, and technology. Currently, we are working on a non-interventional, survey research study designed to track the interest and engagement students have with topics and activities related to science, mathematics, and technology.

A related project is our Assessment of Multinational Interest in STEM. The goal of this project is to investigate the elementary, secondary and tertiary experiences individuals had in STEM in both formal and informal educational settings. We seek to learn from those who continue to pursue STEM as well as those who were once interested but left the pathway toward a STEM degree or career. By collecting data internationally, we can begin to compare the experiences of individuals across a wide range of contexts.

Undergraduate Scientists: Measuring the Outcomes of Research Experiences from multiple perspectives (US-MORE)
Undergraduate research in the sciences is increasingly identified as a critical experience for students. However, the true nature of what occurs in these experiences and how they lead to learning has generally been under-investigated. In this project we will used mixed methods to improve both the breadth and depth of our understanding of how these experiences benefit students and more broadly, science.

Data Interpretation along the Novice – Expert Continuum
The goal of this line of research is to investigate the differences in data analysis skills along a continuum of expertise. While our original project focused on individuals on a spectrum from novice undergraduates to practicing science professionals in the earth science content domain, our current NSF Pathways project focuses on children and caregivers at science museums. Specifically, this research is intended to better understand how people read, interpret and create graphical representations of numerical data.

Learning from the Learner’s Point of View
The goal of this work is to gain a better understanding of learning by studying formal and informal educational experiences from the learners perspective. To do this we are using point of view cameras and video analysis to gauge attention and behavior during various educational activities, including science lectures, lab research and fieldwork.

Making Initiatives