ALMA — Alma College Assistant Professor of Education Brian Hancock ’05 has been awarded a $200,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to enhance and study a program aimed at improving science education for preservice elementary school teachers. Hancock was joined in the research project by co-principal investigator Amanda Harwood, an associate professor of biology and environmental studies.

Their award, “Investigating Learning Progression Modules in Integrated Science Content Courses for Preservice Elementary Teachers,” will provide preservice, or student elementary teachers, with information about K-12 students’ common science ideas during two required courses in the pre-K through 6th-grade education program at Alma College.

The project will also fund the creation of two mini-conferences, designed to share ideas and findings of the project, and connect college faculty who teach science courses to preservice teachers. This is the first NSF grant award for Hancock, who has been a faculty member since 2018.

“We are excited to help start a conversation among science faculty at Michigan’s two- and four-year colleges and universities in order to better support science content instruction for preservice elementary teachers,” Hancock said.

“Right now, the vast majority of science faculty who teach content courses for preservice elementary teachers have limited experience working with standards for teacher preparation, which were just recently revised by the Michigan Department of Education. Our hope is that the two mini-conferences that Amanda will lead will help foster a shared understanding of what works when it comes to educating our future educators about science.”

The information provided to preservice elementary teachers in the integrated science content courses is based on learning progressions (LPs), a tool that shows how students’ ideas may increase in sophistication with instruction. LPs are structured with lower and upper anchors, spanning from the ideas about a particular concept that K-12 students may bring with them to the classroom to those widely accepted in the scientific community.

It’s anticipated that LPs can be a valuable tool for preservice elementary teachers, Hancock said, by helping learners examine and reflect what they know about the upper anchors of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education with respect to their developing understandings. The LPs are implemented within six learning progression-based modules (LPMs) and delivered into two required integrated science content courses at Alma College.

At the mini-conferences, Hancock and Harwood have an opportunity to share materials and findings regarding their LPMs and collaborate with science faculty from other institutions over challenges and lessons learned while implementing science content courses for preservice elementary teachers. It’s the organizers’ hope that the meetings will serve as a catalyst to spur further collaboration among STEM and science teacher education faculty members across institutions.

The project is timely, Hancock and Harwood say, because teacher education programs in Michigan are undergoing significant revisions in light of revised content and teaching standards for elementary programs. However, collaboration and communication among faculty who teach science content courses for preservice elementary teachers is lacking, as are the resources necessary to do so.

“These types of projects are important,” Harwood said, “because many elementary teachers, while certainly capable of high-quality science teaching, often do not have a strong background or sense of self-efficacy in science, and have limited opportunities to work with young students’ developing science ideas in their teacher preparation program. However, it is vital that high-quality and equitable science instruction that is responsive to student thinking and reflective of the real work of science begin at the elementary grades. Our program aims to do just that.”

Hancock, who graduated from Michigan State University in 2020 with a Ph.D. in curriculum, instruction and teacher education, said the award builds off of his dissertation work at MSU, where he studied how preservice middle and high school science teachers elicit students’ science ideas when supported with a LP.

Being awarded the grant represents an important accomplishment for Hancock and Harwood, they said.

“Securing funding from the NSF is not easy, to say the least. This most recent Improving Undergraduate STEM Education (IUSE) proposal was built on countless lessons learned from multiple prior NSF submissions alongside unending encouragement from my wife Kristie, and our daughters Grace and Harper, as well as our faculty colleagues including Dave Clark, Sheryle Dixon, the Alma College Education Department, John Davis, Jeff Abernathy and Janie Diels,” Hancock said.

“Finally receiving the notification of award in early August of this year felt so good, but it’s been quite a process to get here. We are really looking forward to starting this work, and are thankful to Alma College and the NSF for their continued support.”