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Teaching science for all in low-income urban communities . Angela Calabrese Barton, PhD Michigan State University July 2010 Support from the National Science Foundation (HRD 0429109, D RL # 0737642 ) National Institutes of Health (NCRR (SEPA) R25 RR020412)). Overview.

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teaching science for all in low income urban communities

Teaching science for all in low-income urban communities

Angela Calabrese Barton, PhD

Michigan State University

July 2010

Support from the

National Science Foundation

(HRD 0429109, DRL # 0737642)

National Institutes of Health

(NCRR (SEPA) R25 RR020412))

  • The challenges of teaching science for all in low-income urban communities
  • A pedagogical practice that matters: Noticing and leveraging students’ “repertoires of practice” for meaningful science engagement
  • Discussion
framing the challenge
Framing the Challenge

In the US, low-income urban youth are…

  • Not performing as well in science (GCCS, 2009)
  • Less interest & motivation to pursue science (Gilmartin et al., 2006)
  • Less likely to know a professional scientist or engineer (Aschbacher, 2008)
  • Less likely to think they are good at or could be a scientist or engineer (Aschbacher, 2008)
  • Not moving into science & technology trajectories (NSF, 2008)
looking at the other side
Looking at the other side…

6th grade girls: From marginal to central participants…




Janis’ story: Bringing art to science

Beginning of 5th grade

  • Wants to be a singer
  • Has never heard of or met an engineer
  • “Loves” English & Music, “hates” Math & Science
  • Science is for geeks
  • Good student, but disengaged
  • “We do the same routine [in science class], every year, over and over and I can’t take that because it’s boring.”

Janis’ changing participation

6th grade

  • Joins afterschool club on green energy
  • Develops technology skills that help her blend art & science
  • Uses art to investigate green energy & to educate others
    • Creates a digital short that is shown on television
    • Creates a science documentary that contributes to getting a new green roof
    • Presents her work to the Mayor and at City Hall
    • Helps get the club a new green roof
janis rap 3 rd place statewide competition age 13 19

“I’m a make a difference expert”

Janis’ Rap – 3rd placeStatewide competition, age 13-19

Verse 1

Just sit down and take a seat

Open your ears and listen to me

I gotta tell something that you won’t like

Somethin’ you didn’t know ‘bout your lights

Incandescent light bulbs help global warming

A solution to pollution in this bulb is forming

Fluorescent light bulbs they do last longer

Fluorescent bulbs are brighter and are stronger

So give CFLs a try ….

And wave those ugly bulbs goodbye

Take aim … at climate change

Cut down your bills, it ain’t so strange


Do as I do

Take and unscrew

Throw out the old

And put in the new

One simple thing you all can do

Is change to CFLs, & don’t be a fool


7th grade: I want to be an engineer

  • “We know what we are doing. We know how to make a difference. [We know] how to save energy and how to convince other people of better ways to do things with electricity.”
  • “The roof is probably the best example because we actually helped the club save money. They spent a lot of money getting the roof but now they have probably already saved enough to get that roof again. In the long run it saved money.”
  • “It would kinda be hypocritical if you can’t influence your own.”
melanie at the beginning of 6 th grade
Melanie, at the beginning of 6th grade
  • Shy in class, but silly and fun out of class
  • “Passing girl”
  • 23% first quarter and proud of it
    • “Look! I got a 23 out of a 100!”
  • Example: Save the Animals Poster
    • Hides behind paper
    • Leaves most of the reporting to her partner
    • Plays the role of the giraffe

We drew the giraffes saying “ I’m hungry! Help us! Help my family! We need trees to eat the leaves!” and the little one, the baby says “Help me! And my Mommy! I’m starving!”


Animal Project on Gorillas

  • Presented report by impersonating scientist Jane Goodall
    • Met requirements by reporting on habitat, food and life-cycle of the animal
    • Enlisted help of Pat and Chantell to act as gorillas while she “taught” them sign language
  • Her teacher used her report as an example of “how to go above and beyond”
    • “There are many ways to make science interesting. I like how Melanie told us a story rather than just gave us the facts.”
  • Received 100% on her report and the presentation.
melanie s changing experience in science
Melanie’s Changing Experience in Science
  • Transition in participation
    • Project participation through “impersonation” and “telling stories”
      • 100/100 on both projects
    • Began to participate through more and different forms of talk
      • Telling stories
      • Answering science questions
      • Volunteering ideas

Teacher: Melanie’s got the last word.

Melanie: Okay… When you go to the D.R, you are one color…

Teacher: Listen to her please! *The class was starting to chat*

Melanie: When you go to the D.R. from the United States, you are one color, but when you come back from the D.R, you are another color, a darker color like Kate…

Tan, E. & Calabrese Barton A. (2008). From peripheral to central, the story of Melanie’s metamorphosis in an urban middle school science class. Science Education 92(4), 567-590.

what can we learn from these cases
What can we learn from these cases?
  • Janis and Melanie entered 6th grade not liking science & not viewed as a “smart” science student
  • Over multiple years they moved from peripheral to central participant:
    • ACHIEVEMENT: Excelled on science projects and exams
    • RECOGNITION: Viewed by others as an expert
    • INTEREST: Expressed confidence, capability, and interest in science

“I’m a make a difference expert!”



Why did Janis and Melanie become more engaged and more successful in science?

a pedagogical practice that matters
A pedagogical practice that matters
  • Each had a teacher who noticed and leveraged their cultural knowledge & experienceto scaffold participation and learning in science

Mr. M (Melanie’s teacher): “The students that I teach have value. If I give them an opportunity and a safe environment, they’ll rise to the challenge. It is them feeling comfortable and not being intimidated and frightened. I think it goes back to them sensing that what you’re trying to do for them is valuable, where it’s not abstract and unusable…You don’t know why they are in this high poverty, urban environment, but it doesn’t mean that they aren’t as intelligent and motivated.”

ways to think about cultural knowledge and experience
Ways to think about cultural knowledge and experience
  • Patterned ways of engaging in activities
  • Made up of the tools, resources and discoursesthat individuals acquire over time and in the different communities in which they participate
  • Reflected in identity work
melanie a storyteller
Melanie: A storyteller

Patterned way of engaging in activity:

Engaging others through story/narrative

Being a storyteller allowed Melanie to:

  • Play with identities of animals & scientists to try out scientific ideas
    • learning to talk scientifically
  • Share personal experiences that expanded content-based conversations
    • learning to make connections and deepen content explorations
  • Create a space for a voice in ways that reduced risk
    • changing expectations & modes of participation
janis an artist
Janis: An artist

Patterned way of engaging in activity:

Seeing the world through music & art

  • Making raps (songs) on topics of investigation
    • Initially a “hook” into science
  • Creating digital shorts on issues that matter
    • A form of talk for engaging others
  • Using art to transform the science investigation
    • A medium of exploration
leveraging for change
Leveraging for change

Cultural knowledge and experience can be powerful pedagogical resources for

  • meaningful science learning
  • changing participation
  • identity development

How might teachers recognize and leverage students’ repertoires of practice?

  • Studies based upon three large data sets
    • Urban Girls Science Practices Project (2004-2008; NSF)
    • Choice Control & Change Project (2004-2009, NIH)
    • Green Energy Technologies in the City (2007-2011, NSF)
  • Investigations of teacher practice during science units on dynamic equilibrium and the human body & body systems and green energy
research questions
Research Questions

Across the three studies…

  • How are youths’ cultural knowledge & experience noticed and leveraged by teachers in the classroom towards meaningful engagement in science?
  • How do teachers create opportunities for cultural knowledge and experience to emerge authentically?
  • In what ways does leveraging and noticing youth’s cultural knowledge and experience support students in developing:
    • Deeper science understandings
    • Science identities
    • Empowering forms of participation?
conceptual grounding sociocultural studies of learning
Conceptual Grounding: Sociocultural Studies of Learning
  • Learning is an embodied activity made evident through changes in participation and identity trajectories (Lave & Wenger, 1991; Rogoff, 2003)
  • Learning is shaped by the power dynamics that play out in communities of practice (Moje et al, 2001; Gutierrez, 2008)
  • Learning is both horizontal and vertical (Gutierrez, 2008)
    • Vertical and Horizontal dimensions exist dialectically allowing learning to be transformative
  • Self-transformative (as individuals learn new knowledge, & Discourses, they take up new identities)
  • Socially-transformative (knowledge& practice are co-opted and informed by the knowledge & practice/ individuals bring from “other worlds”
  • Design Experiments (7 teachers)
    • Reflective study groups with teachers/students to reflect upon and analyze how pedagogical approaches support student learning
    • Collaborative adaptation of curriculum
    • Study of enactment (observation, interview, reflections, and pre/post tests)
  • Classroom ethnographies
      • Participant observation in and out of school
      • Test scores, report card grades, class assignments
      • Interviews, focus group conversations , think alouds
      • Co-planning, multiple standpoint analysis
emergent patterns in practice
Emergent Patterns in Practice

Teachers recognize and incorporate “mediating artifacts” as central to their teaching in order to elicitstudents’ cultural knowledge & experiences.

Effective use of mediating artifacts allows boundaries between scientific and students’ cultural knowledge and practice to become transparent (accessible) and negotiable (disrupted and transformed)

Mediating artifacts have multiple functions: Supporting students in grappling with scientific ideas in ways that legitimize and account for their cultural positionings

what are mediating artifacts
What are mediating artifacts?
  • Science
  • Scientific norms & routines
  • Discourses
  • Patterned ways of knowing and doing
  • Youth worlds: cultural knowledge & experience
  • Cultural norms and routines
  • Discourses
  • Patterned ways of knowing and doing
  • Blur or merge boundaries between science & everyday
  • Porous boundaries to allow movement between worlds
  • Can be scientific OR everyday tools, objects, practices and representations
  • Tangible anchors of students’ personal connections throughout science inquiry

Tangible symbols of a negotiation between the knowledge and practice of school science & the learner

3 short cases
3 short cases
  • Mr. M: Learning about body systems through the bone song
  • Mrs. T: Navigating the complex food system through real food and a survey
  • Mrs. H: Negotiating practical and reasonable goals with the help of a bar graph
case 1 mr m
Case 1: Mr M
  • Teachers recognize and incorporate “mediating artifacts” as central to their teaching in order to elicitstudents’ cultural knowledge and practices.
mr moreno
Mr. Moreno


  • Mr. M is a white teacher in his late 20s, with 6 years of experience and Science Department Chair, although not certified in science (elementary general certificate)
  • School demographics:65% African American and 35% Latino/a
  • Located in the poorest congressional district in the “city” (a large east coast city)
  • 100% of the students are on the school’s free lunch program
  • School is surrounded by convenience stores, fast food restaurants and apartment buildings
  • Most students walk to and from school

Ginny’s Bone Song

  • End of series of lessons on skeletal system: Test Prep.
  • Students to prepare teacher endorsed method of flash cards
  • In addition to flash cards, Ginny “wrote” a bone song, using the tune of a popular song (Mambo #5)
  • Taught bone song to a few peers who encouraged her to sing it to Mr. M.

Ginny’s bone song

A little bit of cranium on my head

A little bit of mandible on my jaw

A little bit of scapula on my back

A little bit of humerus on this bone

A little bit of radius on the back

A little bit of ulna on the front

A little bit of carpals just like that

A little bit of meta carpals on my hand

A little bit of phalanges on the end

A little bit of tibia on the front

A little bit of fibia on the back

A little bit of torso just like that

A little bit of metatarsals on my foot

A little bit of phalanges on the end

Just wave your phalanges, yeah yeah yeah

Just wave your phalanges, yeah.


How did this experience matter to Ginny?

  • Deeper Content Understanding
  • Successful in test, 95/100
  • Re-phrasing definitions to fit song phrases
  • Teaching lyrics to friends akin to additional revision
  • Identity
  • Successfully merged her social, pop culture identity with her science student identity with this product
  • Increased participation/Agency
  • Creative talent publicly acknowledged as important learning resource
  • Taught lyrics to friends, science class, 6th grade

How did the Bone Song impact the learning community?

  • Teacher
  • Typed up the song, distributed it to all 5 sections, and hung a copy in the hallway.
    • Designed a follow on lesson to the song which used the song and dance movement to focus on structure and function of the skeletal system: support, structure, mobility and protection
  • Used bone song in 3 important ways
    • as an example of how students can be creative in science class
    • as an opportunity to expand the curriculum
    • as a pedagogical tool to teach skeletal system following year
  • Peers
  • Liked bone song immensely, used it as a learning tool, also scored well on test
  • Could remember lyrics of bone song three months after the test
case 2 mrs t
Case 2: Mrs T
  • Claim: Effective use of mediating artifacts allows boundaries between scientific and students’ cultural knowledge and practice to become transparent (accessible) and negotiable (disrupted and transformed)
mrs tiller
Mrs. Tiller


  • Mrs. Tiller is an African American teacher in her 50s and teaches 6th grade science out of field.
  • School demographics: 64% students categorized as African American, 21% White, 8% Hispanic.
  • Located in a city in Midwestern state that is one of the most economically depressed in the state.
  • Surrounding school is a neighborhood with convenience stores & fast food restaurants about a block away.
  • Many students walk to and from school, while others take the school bus.
lesson overview
Lesson Overview
  • Lesson 2 in a unit on the complex system of influences on food and activity choices
  • Learning Goals for lesson: To investigate how taste influences food choices
    • To understand humans’ innate biological preference for sweet and fatty foods;
    • To describe the relationship between biology and food preferences.
  • Lesson Overview
    • French Fry visualization & discussion
    • Tasting experiment with partners: Taste, record, discuss and build initial theories about human taste preferences
    • Reading for LiFE on biology of taste
french fry visualization
French Fry Visualization

You are walking down the street and smell French fries cooking at a fast food restaurant. They smell hot and delicious. You and your friends are hungry so you decide to go in and order some food. The French fries smelled so good you decide to order some with your meal. When you get the Fries, they are exactly what you wanted. They taste even better than they smelled! Each one is crispy and satisfying. You eat all your fries.

Mrs: T.: I know what I’m going to do for this lesson. I’m going to get some potatoes and cook up in my classroom some home-made French fries. Just imagine how the smell of those fries will linger in the hallway as they walk to my classroom. I’m even going to let them eat the fries. Savor their taste. Enjoy them. They are going to have to answer those questions honestly with the fries right there in front of them! (Fieldnotes, PD session)

mrs tiller s classroom
Mrs. Tiller’s classroom…

“Mmmmm… Now that’s science!”

  • Mrs. Tiller cooked the French fries…and her students entered her class curious, excited, and hungry.
  • “OK, who wants fries? Hot, crispy fries? Hmmm. Don’t they smell good? Sit down and raise your hand if you want fries!”
  • As she passed out the fries, she re-created the initial visualization scenario
  • Mrs. T. then enticed the class, “The smell is just making my mouth water. How about you?” and then asked them to record their observations and to provide a score on the following three questions, on a scale of 1-5 (never to always):
    • The smell of foods like French fries make me want to buy and eat them.
    • I order French fries after smelling them in fast food restaurants
    • French fries and other fried foods taste really good to me.
mmmmm now that s science
“Mmmmm… Now that’s science!”
  • Mrs. T. tallied the student responses.
  • She began asking questions to encourage her students to talk about the patterns they might detect:
    • “Who liked the fries?”
    • “Did you want to buy the fries?”
  • The students keyed in to what they liked about French fries…
    • “I liked ‘em. They were good.”
    • “Hot and crispy. I would buy them everyday!”
    • “The smell just makes my mouth water. How can they be bad for you?”
  • Created bar graphs from the chart to represent the data differently…

Mrs. T: Look at my beautiful graphs. It’s nice isn’t it? What do you notice? [pause] Look! Look at how big or little the bars are!

Marla: Well, just about all of us picked 4 or 5 for all of the questions?

Mrs. T: That’s right! Our bodies are naturally inclined to want fast food and we are hardwired to want to eat fries! We want that fatty food!

Shawn: Why say fast food is bad if we are supposed to like it?

Mrs. T: Great question! Write that down under your observations. Jillian?

Jillian: Why did Casey vote that French fries don’t ever taste good, if [the human body] is suppose to want fatty food?

Casey: Hey, my body doesn’t have to like it.

Jillian: Yah, but that’s not what [the reading] says.

Mrs. T: Ok, Ok. Someone else?

Jasmyn: I was just wondering why more people would buy fries than wanted to buy them.

Mrs. T: What do you mean?

Jasmyn: 12 people wanted to [buy them], but 17 did.

Alex: They were gonna buy them anyway. I don’t need smells to tell me what to do.

Mrs. T: But what do you think our experiment shows. . . I mean do you think all 19 of you would buy the fries with out smelling them first?

Alex: That they was making money off their smells!

Mrs. T: Alex, enough. Marla?

Marla: Smell helps us to taste better?

Mrs. T: Raise your hand if smell helps you to taste better…

french fry survey
French Fry Survey

Biological taste preferences and their intersections with the complex food environment required understandings of students’ cultural practices – what students cared about and did on a day by day basis, such as eating fries.

French Fries

  • “honest answers” & “savor the taste”
  • animated atmosphere full of student stories
  • French fries survey data representations: Making Boundaries Transparent
  • Survey results (Chart): Elicited stories about experiences with fries
  • Data Representation (Graph): Movement between cultural practices and reasoning with evidence
  • Complex conversation: Negotiating new boundaries – what is healthy eating?
  • Taste + food preferences + complex environment
  • Tensions: Mrs T’s movement between…
    • Student stories – scientific thinking
    • Final form science – knowledge in the making
case 3 mrs h
Case 3: Mrs H
  • Claim: Mediating artifacts have multiple functions: Supporting students in grappling with scientific ideas in ways that legitimize and account for their cultural positionings
mrs hanson
Mrs. Hanson


  • Mrs. Hanson is a white teacher in her 40s who teaches 6th grade science.
  • School demographics: 44% students categorized as African American, 31% White, 21% Hispanic, 5% Asian/Native American
  • Located in a city in Midwestern state that has experienced major economic decline (unemployment ~16%)
  • Immediately surrounding the school are convenience stores, fast food restaurants, and local neighborhoods.
  • Many students walk to and from school, while others take the school bus.
overview of lesson putting it all into play
Overview of Lesson: “Putting it all into play”

Lesson 12 in unit on dynamic equilibrium in the human body

Learning goal:To use scientific evidence to make healthy food and activity choices.

Lesson overview:

  • My Pyramid recommendations
    • 5 key practices
    • Scientific evidence for practices
  • Graphing personal serving intakes (24 hour food recall) in five areas
  • Using personal data and government guidelines to set up healthy goals

“Last week we were keeping track of the things that we ate and drank. And we talked about Calvin, he kept track of what he ate and drank. And when you did your research project a lot of you were on websites that showed the food pyramid.

Today, we’re going to kind of put that all into play.”


Setting up the initial graphing activity: personal narrative

Mrs. Hanson:

“In the last 24 hours how many times did you eat at a fast food restaurant? Think about how many times a week you go…. all the way last Wednesday including the weekend, how many times did you recall going to fast food for breakfast, lunch, dinner or a snack.

You might be like oh yeah, last Saturday we were running around doing some shopping, we stopped at a fast food place for lunch. Or yeah, you know, we stopped and picked up a pizza. Maybe you stopped at McDonalds for breakfast this morning.”


Setting up the initial graphing activity: personal narrative

As students start to record their fast food activities, Rita calls out:

Rita: But sometimes my parents don’t feel like cookin.

Mrs H: Alright. Sometimes you know, your folks are like, I’m not cooking tonight. I’m tired. I’ve been working. We’re gonna go out and grab something.

Sam: Yah, my mom is tired of cooking and we just go out. And ya know it saves money if you go to the dollar menu.

Mrs H: OK. These are the reasons you eat fast food.

Sam (calling out): Cause it’s good, too. It’s greasy.

Mrs H: Cause it’s greasy? So you like the taste of greasy foods.

Marcus (calling out): You can make greasy foods at home!

Sam: But not for a dollar!

Mrs H: OK. Alright. These are good reasons to think about. But go back to your charts. Now use your totals to make a bar graph for each category. This will let you see how you are doing compared to the [official] recommendations.

working with data
Working with data

Mrs. H: Let’s talk about how your graph compared to the recommended amounts. What did you notice about the first graph, which was fruits and vegetables. When you graphed your amount, compared to the recommended amount, what did you notice?

Carl: Mine was more than the recommended amount.

Mrs. H: OK, who has something different for that one? Rita…

Mrs. H: What’d you find?

Jason: Mine was a lot lower.

Mrs. H: Yours was a lot lower. But how much lower?

Jason: Um, mine was 0 instead of 5.

Mrs. H: Right, he doesn’t even have a bar!

[a few students gasp]

Mrs. H: Because he had no fruits and vegetables over the last 24 hours. We’re not making a judgment, we are just looking at information.


The bar graph is a great visual tool for us to compare what the recommended amounts are to what we actually do in our daily lives. This will help us as we are choosing a goal. When you look back at the three graphs you just did, does anything really jump out at you and you say, whoa! I’m really off here? I’m not even close to what the recommended amount is for something? Does anybody have one of those graphs?...

wrapping up
Wrapping up…

Mrs. H: From what you learned about your current eating from analyzing your 24 hour food intake and what you just wrote about why healthful eating is important, think about the goal that you want to choose. . . .

Marcus: It’s important to choose something that is practical--

Mrs. H: --and realistic

Marcus: --and realistic for your life.

Mrs. H: Alright. You’re going to choose a goal right now. And as Marcus just said, the goal needs to be practicaland realistic.

noticing leveraging students cultural knowledge and experiences
Noticing & leveraging students’ cultural knowledge and experiences

Bar graph

  • Trying on the norms and practices of science:
  • Representing data accurately and quantitatively
  • Reasoning with data
  • Comparing and contrasting with government recommendations
  • Making reasonable and defensible recommendations for personal goals
  • Legitimizing student lives as valid sources of data and critique.
    • Analysis based on personal experience
    • Contrasts with guidelines viewed as generative
    • Expanded talk about guidelines to include what is realistic and practical

A representation of scientific data & cultural and familial practices, and place-based constraints that mediates sense making of scientifically-based guidelines

looking across the teachers
Looking across the teachers
  • Noticing and leveraging students’ cultural knowledge & experience made possible in part through strategic use of mediating artifacts.

Bar graphs: Grounding healthy eating goals in scientific evidence, personal data, and cultural practices


Mediating Artifacts: Implications

Tangible symbols of a negotiation between the knowledge and practice of school science & the learner


Youth worlds

Community Outcomes

Individual Outcomes

implications community outcomes
Implications: Community Outcomes
  • Increased opportunities to develop awareness of and trying on of scientific norms, practices, identities
  • Hybrid spaces created that
    • Merge vertical and horizontal learning
    • Link everyday/cultural knowledge and experience and science
  • Everyday discourses, values and priorities become visible and pertinent to the classroom community
    • Tangible anchors of students’ personal connections throughout science inquiry.
    • An unfolding of student's personal connections to the science content through this process

Bar graphs: Grounding healthy eating goals in scientific evidence, personal data, and cultural practices

implications individual outcomes
Implications: Individual Outcomes
  • Expanding identities
  • Expanding resources for learning
  • Expanding forms of participation & agency

Amelia as caretaker, Sweet Water girl, and worm poop expert.


Mediating Artifacts: Implications

Teacher or student initiated

Expanded opportunities, resources & practices

Tangible symbols of a negotiation between the knowledge and practice of school science & the learner


Youth worlds

Community Outcomes

Individual Outcomes

pedagogical implications
Pedagogical Implications
  • Engaging Mediating Artifacts is an iterative process and builds over time
    • Productive responses lead to new opportunities to notice
    • Repertoire of legitimate practices and identities allowable in CoP expanded
    • Value of struggling with scientific meaning making elevated

Bone Song changed Mr. M’s teaching of the skeletal system, including focusing on more productive scientific ideas & encouraged a broader range of student participation

French Fry episode: student engagement with fries (and eating practices) fostered further data reduction and more complex claims about the food environment

questions discussion thank you
Questions & DiscussionTHANK YOU!

I would also like to thank the students, teachers, and families whose stories are told here.


Typical School: Carlson

  • Public middle school, grades 6-8, 700 students
  • 38% African American, 6% Latino population, 2% Asian, 54% white
  • >70% of the students are on the school’s free lunch program
  • Each class receives five periods of science each week, each period lasting 55 minutes
  • Partner teachers have been 2 and 15 years of teaching experience
  • Using reform-based curricular materials (i.e., PBIS, LiFE) supplemented by personal teaching materials
  • NASA Explorer School