Home      Papers     People     Contact Information

  •  Sustainability of Elementary Inquiry Science - In collaboration with the Education Development Center in Newton, MA, a study of factors that affect the sustainability of elementary grade science reforms.
  • Assessing Inquiry Science (ISIT) - A study of classroom practices and student learning in different elementary science education curricula, including hands-on inquiry and textbook-based programs.
  • Science Notebooks - A study of how use of notebooks in elementary inquiry science classes can enhance student understanding and writing in science, and how learning to use notebooks affects teachers' classroom practices.
  • Whygirls - A study of why adolescent girls are interested in a science-oriented educational web site, www.whyville.net, and the opportunities to learn science provided there.  
  • Is Science Me? - A longitudinal study of the development of students' interest in science as a possible college major and career field (particularly among girls and under-represented minorities) from 7 th grade into the first year of college.

Sustainability of Elementary Inquiry Science

Science Education and Systemic Change:   The Challenge of Sustaining Reform


(Century [EDC], Pine & Bower [Caltech], Principal Investigators. Aug 1998-July 2001; NSF REC-9805078


There has been a major effort to foster systemic change in K-12 science education across the country, fueled by National Science Foundation (NSF) grants, National Science Research Council leadership institutes, and the NSF Centers at the Education Development Center and CAPSI. All of these efforts, if they produce successful district-wide change, are faced with the issue of sustainability. The challenge is how to maintain the gains of the initial change process and how to support ongoing growth in the quality of the program over time. Furthermore, when the level of outside resources decreases, as at the end of an NSF grant, is the survival of the program at stake? It is critically important to try to learn the conditions needed for success.


This study focused on nine districts throughout the country, all with hands-on inquiry science education programs intended to be taught by all elementary classroom teachers. The districts differed in their sources of funding, the longevity of their programs, and the demographics of their student populations. The study investigated how these districts sustained their programs and the factors that contributed to this sustainability.


The study utilized a variety of quantitative and qualitative data collection methods including on-site interviews, classroom observations, teacher and principal surveys, and document analysis. It examined the following aspects of district science programs:


•  History of the science program

•  Description of current program (curriculum, instruction, assessment)

•  Financial support for program

•  Political and economic context, including accountability

•  Program leadership and strategies

•  Professional development

•  External partnerships and community support


The findings of the study were summarized in descriptive district profiles, a cross-site analysis, and several papers. EDC's cross-site analysis and site summaries are available on their web site http://cse.edc.org/ . See the Papers section for a paper from the CAPSI Research Group on classroom practices in sustained programs.   The findings of this study have implications for funding agencies as well as suggestions for districts wishing to establish or improve their science education reform efforts.

Back to top

Assessing Inquiry Science

Is Hands-On Inquiry Science Any Good? (ISIT)


An Examination of Teaching and Learning

in Hands-On and Text-Based Elementary Science Classes


Aschbacher & Pine, PIs.   Jan 2000-Dec 2004.   NSF REC-9980494


This study examines what students learn in different kinds of elementary science classrooms, from traditional expository, text-oriented instruction to hands-on, inquiry-oriented instruction. The latter is an approach to learning in which students are to acquire knowledge and understanding of scientific ideas as well as first-hand experiential understanding of how scientists study the natural world. The emphasis is on learning by doing and discussing, and the priority is meant to be on scientific thinking skills and conceptual understanding.


Millions of dollars have gone into supporting hands-on inquiry science reforms over the past several decades. However, these large-scale efforts, particularly important for less affluent students, are vulnerable, for they are viewed by some as too expensive or too demanding of teachers. Furthermore, there is little evidence of the relative merits of the two approaches. The nationwide emphasis on accountability, with an intense focus on literacy and math and a bias towards easily tested factual knowledge, pressures schools away from hands-on inquiry science. This study will contribute substantially to our knowledge base on the relationship between elementary science instruction and student learning, with important implications for practitioners, policy makers and the public.


The study compares 5th grade students' learning in two instructional conditions, with 20 classes in each condition matched for key characteristics. In addition, the study explores connections between student performance and instructional practice, utilizing qualitative and quantitative data from teacher interviews, assignments, and videotaped classroom observations. The study is a classic multilevel design, with students nested within classes, nested within treatments.  


Student background and achievement are assessed with an array of measures, including a student questionnaire, state standardized tests of language arts and math; a   cognitive abilities test (CogAT® by Lohman & Hagen, 2001, Riverside), a sample of science knowledge items from TIMSS, two short science performance tasks adapted from NAEP and science assessment research; and two extended science investigation tasks developed by CAPSI. The study addresses long-term, important outcomes such as those called for in Project 2061 : deep conceptual understanding and reasoning, persistence at difficult problems, retention of important knowledge over time, and application of investigation strategies to challenging novel situations. Some preliminary findings are discussed in Pine et al, 2003 and Alonzo & Aschbacher, 2004.

More about the ISIT project

Back to top

Science Notebooks

Elementary Science Notebooks :   Impact on Classroom Practice and

Student Achievement in Science   and Literacy


Aschbacher & Pine, PIs.   Aug 2001 – July 2005.   NSF REC-0106994


With today's high stakes emphasis on accountability in literacy, many elementary teachers have little time for science. This is especially so in schools with many English language learners and students living in poverty. In some schools, teachers are encouraged to have their students keep “science notebooks” in an attempt to support literacy. Although there is research on the value of writing-to-learn in science, it is not sufficient to provide the practical guide to effective practice that teachers need.  


This research is a three-year design experiment to study how science notebooks may be designed and implemented to improve teaching practices and student achievement in science and writing. A collaborative team of expert teachers and researchers is developing, implementing, and studying several iterations of a model for science notebooks in hands-on inquiry science curriculum in 4 th and 5 th grade classrooms. One variation of the model we are studying builds on innovative work by Annemarie Palincsar, Shirley Magnussen, and colleagues that utilizes supplementary text in the form of a reflective “real” scientist's notebook.


Since teachers often change grade levels and so many new teachers are entering the profession, we are examining the effects of notebooks used by teachers with varying levels of teaching experience and notebook training. Our approach utilizes both qualitative and quantitative data on learning from science performance assessments embedded in the curriculum and student work in the notebooks. We also use measures of classroom practice drawn from notebooks, classroom observations, observations of teacher professional development opportunities, and teacher interviews. This study explores the conditions under which science notebooks deepen students' conceptual science understanding and communication skills. The study should have important implications for curriculum and professional development. Some preliminary findings are discussed in Aschbacher & Alonzo (2004).

Instruments and Rubrics

List of CAPSI Science Notebook Project Measures Available on Web (Download this list)




Pre/post Test

for “Circuits & Pathways” unit

(gr 4/5)

Primarily multiple-choice test given at beginning and end of unit; contains 14 items addressing simple, series and parallel circuits; used to measure growth in conceptual understanding.


Pre/Post Rubric 

What's My Circuit

Performance assessment given in middle of unit to assess series circuit understanding; files include test form for student, directions for researcher or test administrator, scoring rubric codes, rubric points assigned to codes; used to measure conceptual understanding of series circuits.


What's My Circuit Test Form

What's My Circuit Directions

What's My Circuit Rubric Codes

What's My Circuit Rubric Points

Mystery Boxes

Performance assessment given at end of unit to assess circuit understanding; files include test form, directions and acceptable prompts for teacher or test administrator; and scoring directions.


Mystery Boxes Test Form

Mystery Boxes Directions

Mystery Boxes Acceptable Prompts

Mystery Boxes Scoring Instructions

Notebook Scoring Rubrics

Notebooks were scored on several scales to measure (1) opportunity to learn and feedback provided in different classrooms as well as (2)   individual students' achievement (conceptual understanding of simple, series and parallel circuits and inquiry skills. Rubrics focus on four lessons: LE 3,4, 8, & 10.   Files include: overview of scales; rubrics; and feedback codes and guide.  

Overview of NB Rubrics used in Years 2 & 3 (download this list)


S- achievement


# points


Extent to which question clearly addresses the science content behind the big ideas of this lesson and could lead to a substantive claim. Score based on best FQ if more than one. FQ may be in Ss' own words or a tchr-class-generated question. Include S's failed attempts, “I wonder” statements and goal statements. The point here is the extent to which the “focus question” directs students' attention towards the big idea(s) of the lesson, not how well the question is phrased.    Based on LEs 3,4,8,10

Download the Focus Question Rubric




DATA: Quality.

Quality of data (drawings) e.g. All circuits are clear and correctly identified (as to whether they light the bulb or not). Consider only circuits drawn as part of students' data.   [Do NOT rate quality of reviews, “pre-thinking,” hypotheses, predictions, or sense-making, i.e., claims & evidence or conclusions.] Based on LEs 3,4,8,10.





DATA: Examples.

There are enough examples and counter examples or other supporting information that the student could reasonably make an appropriate claim.   Based on LEs 3,8,10.





DATA: Organizing for Analysis

Attempt to organize data either during collection or afterwards. Based on LE 3,8.

Download the Data Rubric




CLAIM: relationship to science content of this lesson

The claim clearly addresses the science content behind the big ideas of the lesson.    These are generalized statements about the way the world works.   Score any sense-making writing that occurs after data collection.   The text does not have to be labeled as a claim.





CLAIM: relationship to focus question for this lesson

The claim directly answers the student's focus question.If the student has more than one claim, give a score to the one with the greatest relationship to the student's focus question. Reword a goal statement as a question for use in evaluating this rubric.





CLAIM: evidence

* Opportunity to Learn

  Student provides one or more specific examples to support his/her claim Drawings may be counted as evidence only if they are in close proximity to the claim . If the student has more than one claim, give a score to the one with the best evidence .

Download the Claim Rubric





Points awarded for understanding of designated content revealed in data section or later. (see rubrics for specific ideas to be included). Don't consider statements part of prediction or hypothesis. Only give credit for S-generated evidence (not copied from board) Based on LE 3,4.






Based on LEs 8, 9, 10






Based on LE 10.

Download the Conceptual Understanding Rubric






Student makes at least one connection between two concepts or between a concept and the real world. Applieis to writing, not drawing. Based on LE 3,4,8,10






This rubric assigns a code for each content area addressed in the student's writing whether it is part of the lesson being scored or not.. Each type of content knowledge is given separate code from A to M & X, e.g. A=(in LE3) In order to light the bulb, connections have to be made to the “critical contact points.”    This rubric applies only to sense-making writing (i.e., not predictions or other writing that occurs before data collection). It applies to claims & evidence, as well as other sense-making writing (e.g., summary, conclusion, “what I learned.





FEEDBACK: type (version 2)

26 different codes given to types of feedback provided by teacher to student, e.g. from generic to specific,   w/ or w/o request for action by S; Based on LEs 3,4,8,10.

Download the Feedback Rubric





*Opportunity to Learn

* Developed or adapted for use in the project “Elementary Science Notebooks: Impact on Classroom Practice and Student Achievement in Science and Literacy,” funded by NSF REC-0106994 (P. Aschbacher, Principal Investigator)

More about the Science Notebooks project

Back to top


Gender Differences in the Perception and Use of an Informal

Science Learning Web Site

Aschbacher: PI.    Dec 2000 --March 2003.   NSF SEP-0086338


While gender differences in K-12 science achievement and course-taking patterns have been shrinking, important disparities in aspirations and career paths continue to exist. Studies have reveled that gender differences in attitudes and interest in science are present by the end of the elementary grades (Simpson & Oliver, 1990; Baker & Leary, 1995; Catsambis, 1995; Jones, Howe & Rua, 2000). Thus, the upper elementary and middle school grades are a crucial time for retaining girls' interest in science and technology. Research suggests that pre-college programs incorporating hands-on activities, role models and mentors, internships, and field trips tend to increase self-confidence and interest in STEM courses and careers (Campbell & Steinbrueck, 1996; Darke, Clewell, & Sevo, 2002). However, these efforts have not been sufficient to close a pervasive gender gap in education, interest, and careers, particularly in the physical sciences.


This project investigated one web site's potential to promote understanding and interest in science among young girls. Whyville.net, an informal science learning web site, provides an environment for students to explore scientific phenomenon and participate in science and design activities.   Preliminary data suggested over 60% of Whyville users were girls, most from grades 4-8.


The project used several methodologies to investigate Whyville characteristics, participants, and effects. An online survey and online focus group of Whyville users gathered data on students' science interest, demographics, background and use of Whyville. A group of students recruited from local schools was given a science interest and background survey, then introduced to Whyville, and surveyed again after a couple of months use. A tracking program monitored the activities of greatest interest and appeal, and researchers analyzed the science activities for opportunities for science learning offered on the site. The findings in the final report (Aschbacher, 2003) suggest guidelines for improving the effectiveness of informal learning web sites to interest and educate students, particularly girls, in science and technology.  

More about the Whygirls project

Back to top

Is Science Me?

Is Science Me?   Tracing the Roots of Students' Decisions

to Pursue Science


Aschbacher & Pine, PIs.   Apr   2003 -- Mar, 2007.   NSF REC-0231878


Recent reports show that despite gains, women continue to be underrepresented in the physical sciences and engineering (Kahle & Meece, 1994; Lee & Burkam, 1996; NCES, 1997; NSF, 1996; Valian, 1999). A great deal of research in the last two decades has measured gaps between boys and girls in science attitudes and achievement and has identified a number of school and extracurricular influences on women's participation in science and engineering.   However, there has been little systematic investigation of gender differences in patterns of science interest across different ethnicities and economic levels. There is also little evidence linking specific influences to the decisions that young women and minority men make in middle and high school that determine their later participation in the science and engineering pipeline.


Our 4-year longitudinal project studies how students' attitudes, perceptions, and experiences in grades 7-12 influence both subtle and explicit choices leading towards or away from a college major in science. Participants include African American, Hispanic, Asian, and Caucasian students from a range of economic backgrounds in four urban and suburban school districts. The study follows two cohorts of students, one from 7 th to 10 th grade and one from 10 th grade into the first year of college. The younger cohort allows a broad look at students and their experiences before they formally enter the science pipeline.   The high school cohort focuses on students who are already enrolled in science and thus have the possibility to pursue science and engineering majors in college. The study includes an annual large-scale survey of each full cohort and an annual in-depth interview with a continuing subset of students from each cohort. Contextual interviews with selected parents, science teachers, guidance counselors, and others are also included. Both quantitative and qualitative analysis techniques are being used.


The results of this study will speak to many aspects of equity and diversity in science.   By specifically linking students' experiences and attitudes to their decisions about continuing in science, it will identify key aspects of school, extracurricular, and familial experiences that influence students' science career paths.   The study will also examine the extent to which common patterns are found for different subgroups of students. This information will help focus future research and inform policy, and may help re-conceptualize the science and engineering pipeline, specifically illuminating reasons why students enter or drop out at different points along the way.

Back to top