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Designing for Student Engagement in Middle School Science: Collaborative Problem-Solving in Environmental Science Using Nanotechnology and Electron Microscopy. Andrea J. Harmer Director of Education Center for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology Department of Materials Science & Engineering

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Designing for Student Engagement in Middle School Science:Collaborative Problem-Solving in Environmental Science Using Nanotechnology and Electron Microscopy

Andrea J. Harmer

Director of Education

Center for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology

Department of Materials Science & Engineering

April 17, 2007

background and statement of problem
Background and Statement of Problem
  • In 4th grade, U.S. students rank 6th in science achievement
  • By 8th grade, U.S. students rank 9th in science achievement
  • By 12th grade, U.S. students rank in the bottom 10% in math and science compared to international peers (NAS, 2006)
  • Achievement in science and math are pressing needs for nanoscale technologies emerging worldwide, 2 million workers needed by 2015 (Roco, 2001; NAS, 2006)

93% of students understand scientific principals, 58% cannot apply them (NCES, 2002)

u s competition for economic health and a science literate population nas 2006
U.S. Competition for Economic Health and a Science Literate Population (NAS, 2006)

Differences in Science Achievement (NCES, 2003)

student engagement academic intensity with positive emotional response shernoff et al 2003

Theoretical Foundations for Designing Science Inquiry to Engage Students

Student Engagement = Academic intensity with positive emotional response (Shernoff,et al. 2003)

Flow Theory - union of concentration, interest, and enjoyment (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990)

Strategies include (NRC, 2003)

Relevant, meaningful purpose

Promoting student pride

Sense of belonging

Student control (creative freedom)

Social connectedness

Evidence of engagement

Look forward to science (Carlson, Humphrey, & Reinhart, 2003)

View themselves as scientists and seek to collaborate

Desire to learn more science and engage in exploration

what was missing
What was missing?
  • Combination of these methods AND ALLOWINGSTUDENTS TO CREATE OR GENERATE THEIR OWN DATA FROM RESEARCH SCIENTISTS’ INSTRUMENT, ex. in the form of images or databases
  • Or used these inquiry design elements to UNDERSTAND NANOSCALE science and engineering, and NANOTECHNOLOGY applications related to topic
purpose of study what west nile virus pilot study told us

Learning Design

  • Toexamine sixth-graders engagement with science while studying an authentic, relevant problem --

The Lehigh Gap Environmental Remediation Inquiry

  • To examine effectiveness and functionality of Web-based prototype in classroom

Purpose of Study *What West Nile Virus Pilot Study told us

  • Students reacted to problem
    • Real, relevant Purpose
  • Engaged with cutting edge content
  • Collaborated with experts using shared resources
  • Use microscopy to generate and analyze sample data
  • Freedom to design solutions
  • Contribute to database
  • Communicated outside class
  • Understand nanoscale
logistical adaptations to lehigh gap inquiry based on pilot

WNV Pilot Study - green

  • Lehigh Gap - green+brown

Important factors for

student engagement

Logistical Adaptations to Lehigh Gap Inquiry based on Pilot

Functionality Adaptations:Used XL30 remotely from classroom

Linked nanotechnologyto problem solution by:

Added nanoparticles to soil to see effect (suggested by W. Zhang during practice run to strengthen science)

Consulted with environmental scientists at Natural Lands Trust Co. about more relevant sample set

Revised Lehigh Gap WISE with COE faculty, Alec Bodzin, after practice run


Cutting edge content

Collaboration with experts

Working on same problem

(in class and at Lehigh)

Shared resources & access

to real SEM with EDS(Scanning Electron Microscope

w/ Energy Dispersive Spectrometer

to generate and analyze data)

Creative Freedom

Contribution (to database)

  • Lehigh Gap Environmental Remediation Project
    • Students studied underlying science about the toxic waste site near the Lehigh Gap, known by EPA as the Palmerton Zinc Pile Superfund Site.
    • Students generated and analyzed data from Lehigh Gap samples and contributed SEM images and energy dispersive spectra (EDS) to university database.
    • Students applied scientific knowledge of remediation techniques, formed hypotheses, experimental designs to test hypotheses, including dependent and independent variables
    • In process, students understood nanoscale science, nanotechnologyfor soil and groundwater remediation, electron microscopyas a tool for analysis, andconsidered social and ethical implications of new science

Research Design

Single case study research design

Population & Sample

Typical 6th Grade US suburban student

Primarily U.S. Caucasian

Age Range 11- 13, Mean age: 12

Sample: 55 total students

Class Female Male Total

Class 1 17 13 30

Class 2 12 13 25

lehigh gap project procedure
Lehigh Gap Project Procedure
  • Introduce local, relevant problem
  • Engage students in team effort

with expertsfor shared purpose

  • Over 5 weeks - 2x/week
  • 2 classes - 60 sixth graders/12 groups
  • Web-based inquiry on WISE, Duckboy in Nanoland
  • Intro to microscopy and nanotechnology on ImagiNations
  • Student groups control group name, sample, and presentation method
  • Groups remotely use XL30 electron microscopetogenerate images & EDS to identify elements present and contribute to database
  • Students visit Lehigh, relate to scopes & presentresults
data collection tools
Data Collection Tools
  • Students pre-response and post-response questions
    • “Attitudes Towards Learning Science” (LS)
    • “Content Knowledge” (CK) questions
  • Students daily journals
  • Students interviewed
  • Students comments
  • Teacher interviewed
  • Observation notes
method of data analysis
Method of Data Analysis
  • Qualitative Analysis
    • Constant comparative method
    • Reading and Coding data
    • Identifying recurring themes
    • Assigning categories for themes
    • Placing coded data into categories they represent
    • Determine common connections between data sources
  • Quantitative Analysis
    • independent variables t test - equality of means
      • pre and post responses to determine effect of inquiry on students’ understanding of nanotechnology-related content and changes in attitudes toward learning science
validity and reliability


  • Member checks
  • Peer examination

Validity and Reliability

  • Single Case Study
  • Providing raw data prior to interpretation
  • Details of research method and study

Limitations and Generalizability

Ethical Considerations

  • Thorough ORSP IRB review with revisions
design intentions to engage student

Design Intentions to Engage Student

1. Introduced authentic, local problem to which they could relate.

2. Simultaneously introduced them to nanoscience and electron microscopy, through cutting edge applications.

3. Gave them lots of freedom to promote creative thinking and learning.

4. Set up access to XL30 scanning electron microscope (SEM) with Energy Dispersive Spectrometer (EDS) capabilities.

5. Used vocabulary of empowerment, ex. “You are the scientist now!”

6. Emphasized collaborative team approach with outside experts.

collaborative problem solving in environmental science using nanotechnology and electron microscopy
Collaborative Problem-Solving in Environmental Science Using Nanotechnology and Electron Microscopy

Students contribute

SEM images

and EDS data

Real tools are accessed for

helping to solve

the problem

Cutting edge problems &

applications discussed

Students analyze

and inquire

Students see scopes, present at Lehigh and discuss problem solution with researchers

findings inquiry implementation and technology

FindingsInquiry Implementation and Technology

Twelve student groups successfully accessed SEM and used EDS, generating 16 micrographs and 13 spectra, although ran out of time to do both backyard samples.

Each student used a new laptop and

computer problems were minimized.

Students excited and frustrated with “chat” option in WISE. Some complained about too many questions.

Inquiry functioned well with Mrs. Bauer as only teacher (she attributed this to her past experience with WISE, ImagiNations).

findings continued how learning design affected student engagement
Findings, continuedHow Learning Design Affected Student Engagement
  • Raw data for 1st four categories associated with Behavioral Domain (active responses to task, relevance)
  • Raw data for 2nd four categories associated with Affective Domain (students’ investment, emotional response)
hierarchy of empowerment in behavioral domain

Hierarchy of Empowerment in Behavioral Domain

Highest Level

Of Empowerment

Lowest Level

Of Empowerment

hierarchy of investment in affective domain

Hierarchy of Investment in Affective Domain

Highest Level

Of Investment


Lowest Level

Of Investment

Findings How Learning Design Affected Students’ Knowledge of Nanoscale, Nanotechnology, and Electron Microscopy
FindingsHow Learning Design Affected Students’ Knowledge of Nanoscale, Nanotechnology, and Electron Microscopy
summary of general trends found in data
Summary of General Trends Found in Data
  • Inquiry implementation worked well technically.
  • Students related to inquiry problem and reacted positively to the inquiry design.
  • During inquiry, students exhibited various levels of behaviors and emotions associated with engagement in science (eight categories).
    • From personal relevance - contribution to community
    • From interest - career possibility
  • Students’ reacted negatively to some WISE activities, ex. too much reading, too many questions, not enough games, too much standing during microscopy tours.
  • Researcher bias was addressed in qualitative analysis.
summary of general trends found in data continued
Summary of General Trends Found in Data,continued
  • Generally, students reported feeling more favorable towards science after inquiry.
  • Specifically, significant gain (30%) in higher achieving students’ attitudes towards learning science (thinking their ideas about science mattered more to the world outside).
  • Generally, both groups demonstrated knowledge gain in environmental science, electron microscopy, nanoscale and nanotechnology applications (P1-8/11, P2-10/11).
  • Specifically, significant gain in 54% of questions in average achieving students’ knowledge about nanoscale, nanotechnology and electron microscopy.
  • Students engaged in Lehigh Gap Inquiry
    • Five design elements associated with engaging students were noted
    • Hierarchies of Engagement were noted
  • Inquiry design favorably impacted students’ attitudes toward learning science.
  • Design allowed students to gain knowledge and apply scientific principles used in environmental science, nanoscale, nanotechnology, and electron microscopy without traditional testing and textbooks.
five design elements associated with engagement
Five Design Elements Associated with Engagement
  • Cutting edge
    • Content (nanotechnology) and tools (SEM w/EDS) to which students could relate and be recognized for having “special knowledge and access.”
  • Contribution
    • To pollution problem, scientists, and scientific knowledge, and university database
  • Creative Freedom
    • Over identity, inquiry process and presentation style
  • Collaboration
    • With group peers and experts outside classroom
  • Communication
    • Students present research and discuss with experts
cutting edge content tools remote access to electron microscope nanonews
Cutting Edge Content & Tools (Remote Access to Electron Microscope, “NanoNews”)
  • Students desire for more science and technology
    • Bringing in additional objects to look at under scope (zinc penny)
    • Asking for more activities related to microscope
    • Making connections to other subjects, such as volcanic ash
    • Feeling special to be able to “drive” expensive instrument
    • Feeling especially knowledgeable about atoms, elements and nanoscale science as a result of daily Nano news and Lehigh tour
    • Interested in technology and how microscopy could operate remotely from Lehigh to classroom
    • Being recognized for their research results and contributions (micrographs and spectra on Lehigh database)
  • Confirms that students engage with science for various reasons when allowed to use authentic scientists’ tools related to cutting edge science.
collaboration communication and control
Collaboration, Communication, and Control
  • Sharing ideas and presenting research to faculty(Dr. Zhang, Dr. Harmer’s visit, Dr. DeLeo’s NASA presentation),and peer groupproblem solvers contributed to student engagement.
  • Technology-facilitated interactions contributed to student engagement.
    • Online “Chat” (P1-45%, P2-65%), sharing WISE resources, individual responses to prompts helped shape ideas for group discussion
  • Control of group name, creative control over solutions and style of investment contributed to student engagement.
    • Ex. building two mountains vs interviewing Palmerton native
summary of student engagement
Summary of Student Engagement
  • Students engage with science inquiry on various levels both behaviorally and affectively .
  • It is difficult to separate behavioral from affective, one affects the other so they were combined.

Disengagement (within context of problem as purpose)Engagement



no tools

no communication



Cutting edge


Creative Freedom

Collaboration with experts

Communication to experts


not relevant


not authentic



summary of students reactions to design elements
Summary of Students’ Reactions to Design Elements

Realm of EngagementRealm of Disengagement

  • Passionate
    • Has tools
    • Willing to communicate
    • Purpose is authentic
    • Purpose is relevant
  • Empowered
    • All of the above
    • Plus has collaborators
    • Purpose may become relevant through tools or collaborators
  • Disinterested
    • May not have tools
    • May not have collaborators
    • Purpose is not authentic
    • Purpose is not relevant
  • Powerless
    • Not tools
    • No collaborators
    • Purpose is not authentic
    • Purpose is relevant
inquiry effects on students attitudes towards learning science
Inquiry Effects on Students’ Attitudes Towards Learning Science
  • Four higher achieving student groups (or 66% of the class were chosen to present their research at Lehigh).
  • Many of the student presenters reported “being honored,” and said things, such as “it was awesome to present for Dr. Zhang.”
  • Overall, there was a 30% increase in the higher achieving class thinking that their “ideas about science matter to the world.”
  • Students strong, positive reactions to presenting among recognizable experts working on the same problem confirms that students do engage with science to a significant degree through collaborations with outside experts working on the same problem.

Communication with Experts and

Contribution to Community

Lehigh Eyer Team Presenters Spring 2007

inquiry effects on students knowledge of nanoscale nanotechnology and sem
Inquiry Effects on Students’ Knowledge of Nanoscale, Nanotechnology and SEM
  • Engagement is a robust indicator of improved student achievement (Finn,1994, Connell, et al.,1993).
  • Significant gains in content knowledge were associated with
    • Use of the electron microscope and energy dispersive spectrometer to identify elements in sample
    • Introduction to nanoscale and use of nanoparticles to remediate polluted soil (nanotechnology)
  • The use of the electron microscope to analyze problem and the association to university research in nanotechnology to remediate pollution, engaged students and provided a learning environment for achievement.
summary of implications for designing inquiry to engage students
Summary of Implications for Designing Inquiry to Engage Students
  • Lehigh Gap Inquiry confirms previous research (WISE, KaAMS, LeTUS) that middle school students prefer social inquiry with a clear, meaningful, student-relevant purpose to which they perceive they can contribute.
  • Access to cutting edge technologyand content should facilitate students’ research and interactions.
  • Need to design inquiry with elements found to empower and encourage student investment.
  • Additionally, this study implies that inquiry should be linked to problem-based research conducted by experts and there should be opportunities for collaboration and communication of potential solutions with real-world experts.


May be impractical for typical teacher

Access to scanning electron microscope

Lack of access to latest scientific research

Enlisting help of experts researching a problem suitable for classroom

Time to develop Web-based materials

Recommendations for Further Study

  • Implement inquiry with larger population and sample, with those typically disengaged
  • Focus topic on bio-nanotechnology or social science aspect of nanotechnology


  • In press, Harmer, A.J.(2007). Education efforts in K-12 nanoscale science and engineering education and related research studies using electron microscopy. In Nanoscale Science and Engineering Education, A. Sweeney & S. Seal (Eds.). Stevenson Ranch, CA: American Scientific.

H.Lynn Columba-Piervallo Martin Harmer

Gary DeLeo Joyce L. Weiss

Chris Kiely Lorraine Liptock

Wei-xian Zhang James & Laura Pressler

George Motter

Sue Bauer

Eyer Middle School

6th graders

Xiaoli Zhao

Hanyu Zheng

Bill Mushock

Dave Ackland

Carol Kiely

Shen Dillon

Dan Kunkle

*Pilot study,In press, Harmer, A.J., Cates, W.M. Designing for Learner Engagement in Middle School Science: Technology, Inquiry, and the Hierarchies of Engagement,Computers in the Schools.

** Funded in part by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Department of Commerce and Economic Development and the PA-MRSEC, (PIN) Pennsylvania Initiative in Nanotechnology.

pilot study told us

Cutting edge, relevant, authentic content Contributing to Purpose in classroomShared ResourcesCreative ControlCollaboration in classroom and by my association

Pilot Study Told Us

Unanswered Questions from Pilot Study

Cutting edge tool (SEM) shared with experts

Contribution to Purpose (Lehigh database)

Collaboration with experts from Lehigh

Communication outside classroom at Lehigh

How much science did they learn?