Researchers Win $3 Million Grant to Probe Surprising Science Learning Gap

UConn researchers, backed by a $3 million federal grant, are beginning an ambitious project aimed at understanding why some urban schools are excelling in science education, research that could ultimately change the way the subject is taught around the country.

The five-year School Organization and Science Achievement Project, funded by the National Science Foundation, is unique by specifically examining science education not only in the classroom, but in terms of the entire educational environment. John Settlage, a professor at UConn’s Neag School of Education and the principal investigator, said the idea for the project came from studying elementary science test scores. What was surprising was that certain urban schools in Connecticut were outperforming not only their city peers, but also many suburban schools.

That’s prompted researchers to look beyond what happens in classrooms to learn how successful science performance arises from systems of relationships. This includes examining all stakeholders, from the building’s principal to the lead science teacher, and even parents and volunteers who partner with the school.

John Settlage
John Settlage, associate professor of curriculum and instruction, is principal investigator of a study aimed at understanding how certain schools excel in science education. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

“We’re taking an ecological view of science education,” Settlage said. “How we teach science is obviously important, but we should not ignore the bigger picture. The interactions among people throughout the school, including with the surrounding community, all contribute to children’s science learning.”

Studies have repeatedly demonstrated that uneven success in schools translates into unequal access to college and career options for certain students. Settlage’s study promises to shed light on improving the quality of all children’s science experiences.

A multidisciplinary project, UConn researchers joining Settlage are educational statistics guru Betsy McCoach, educational leadership experts Morgaen Donaldson and Anysia Mayer, and post-doctoral fellow Regina Suriel. Right now, the researchers are working to firm up arrangements with school districts including Hartford, New Haven, and Bridgeport. In total, Project SOSA will involve 150 schools in Connecticut and Florida, where researchers at the University of Central Florida are collaborating with the UConn team.

Ultimately, the goal is to craft a set of recommendations about school leadership and organization practices that can be used by educators around the country. The result will be improved school environments where science teachers and science students can thrive. These efforts will also inform UConn’s science teacher and school administrator preparation programs.

“You can be the best science teacher in the world, but if you’re not in the right environment and there is not solid leadership, then those problems will show on the science test,” Settlage said.