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This blog is written by members of UYSEG for the UK school science education community.
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Modelling and the solar eclipse

posted 19 Mar 2015, 09:11 by Alistair Moore   [ updated 19 Mar 2015, 09:16 ]

Why will the Sun appear to go dark tomorrow morning?  Why will the eclipse look different from various places on Earth? And what’s the difference between a solar eclipse and a lunar eclipse?

Tomorrow’s eclipse of the Sun offers teachers and students the opportunity to explore how models can help us explain phenomena and answer questions about familiar and unfamiliar events.

The ‘Working Scientifically’ strand of the new National Curriculum requires students, by the time they complete Key Stage 4, to be able to use a variety of models to solve problems, make predictions and develop scientific explanations. Models and modelling are fundamental to science, and are really very useful; even the simplest of representational models can help us to visualise scientific explanations and mechanisms using physical analogies. Almost anything will do – a lamp, a tennis ball and a football can help students at Key Stage 3 and Key Stage 4 to understand what’s going on with the solar eclipse.

We’ve teamed up with Oxford University Press to give free access to an activity from Twenty First Century Science, one of our biggest curriculum projects, that will enable students to explore models and explanations of the science behind the eclipse.

Click here to download a free copy of the ‘Modelling an eclipse’ activity.

This hands-on activity does not require any specialist equipment and comes with student worksheets and teacher guidance. The activity was developed by UYSEG, the Nuffield Foundation and Oxford University Press for GCSE Twenty First Century Science.

We hope you enjoy the eclipse tomorrow morning. Coverage of the sun will range from 85 to 98% in the UK (better the further north you are), and we won’t experience coverage like that again in the UK until 2026 – so it’s one not to be missed. And whatever you do – watch safely.

For further information on Twenty First Century Science please visit our curriculum projects page on the University of York Department of Education website, or follow @C21Science on Twitter.

Alistair Moore is a member of UYSEG with an interest in secondary science education and assessment. You can follow Alistair on Twitter.

Making links between science and maths in the science classroom

posted 13 Mar 2015, 10:01 by Beth Burroughs

The reformed science A Level and GCSE courses launching over the next two years will have an increased emphasis on the use of mathematics. Fundamentally, we might hope that all students of science will appreciate that mathematics helps us develop scientific explanations and solve scientific problems. Using mathematics is as much a part of science as using words and using apparatus, and is not just something that happens in a classroom down the hall with no relevance here.

So how can we make links between science and mathematics in the science classroom?

One strategy might be to highlight how a number of the explanations we explore in school science depend on mathematical ideas, and how a single mathematical idea can underpin many explanations in science. Proportional reasoning is one such idea, at the heart of scientific explanations in physics, chemistry and biology.

Teachers at a recent meeting of the UYSEG Network brainstormed science ideas
from the reformed GCSEs that depend on proportional reasoning.
Can you think of others?

Proportional reasoning is more than just solving proportions.  Some research in mathematics education provides examples of pupils who can solve proportions by setting up two equivalent ratios and solving for an unknown, but who cannot reason about proportions in a way that makes sense of a proportional situation (e.g., Lobato, Ellis, and Zbiek, 2010). Inability to reason proportionally presents more than just a problem in mathematics lessons, though. Pupils who lack an understanding of proportions are left without one of the essential tools for making connections between science and mathematics, or among different concepts in science.

Lobato, Ellis, and Zbiek (2010) offer this as the essential understanding about proportions: “When two quantities are related proportionally, the ratio of one quantity to the other is invariant as the numerical values of both quantities change by the same factor.”

Using double number lines is one way to focus on proportional reasoning. Consider this proportional situation:

40 ml of a substance has a mass of 31.4 g. What is the mass of 100 ml of the substance?

Maths and science teachers alike will recognize this as a situation about constant density.  Here’s one way to reason about the problem using a tool that’s different from the usual approach of setting up and solving a proportion. Using a double number line, the quantity of the mass and the quantity of the volume are represented by the same distance along the number line:

There are a variety of ways to reason what the value that corresponds to 100 ml is. One strategy might be to divide the distance between 0 and 40 ml into four equal parts; this leads to 10 ml corresponding to 7.85 g. Taking ten copies of that length gives 100 ml, which is equivalent to 7.85 g x 10 = 78.5 g. The number line is a visual and structural tool used to keep track of these lengths; it isn’t important that the line be drawn to scale:

Similar reasoning with a slightly different approach might be to divide the distance between 0 and 40 ml into two equal parts; this leads to 20 ml corresponding to 15.7 g. Taking five copies of that length gives 100 ml, which is equivalent to  15.7 x  5 = 78.5 g.

Other approaches include using strip diagrams or ratio tables to reason about proportions.

When a student appreciates that proportional reasoning can be used to solve other problems and explain other phenomena in science, the mathematical idea becomes a threshold concept that could transform the student’s approach to problem solving regardless of context.

By making clear the links between mathematics and science (and different ideas within science), teachers can help students see mathematical problem solving as helpful in the process of doing science, rather than as something just to be rote learned in specific contexts for an exam.

Professor Beth Burroughs
is a Fulbright Visiting
Scholar in the Department of Education at the University of York. In April she will resume her role as Associate Professor of Mathematics Education in the Department of Mathematical Sciences at Montana State University in Bozeman, Montana, USA.

This blog is based on a session led by Beth at a recent meeting of the UYSEG Network, which brings together researchers and teachers with an interest in implementing research in the classroom. Beth’s presentation from the event is attached below.

The Association for Science Education has launched a new project called The Language of Mathematics, which aims to develop guidance materials for teachers on vocabulary, processes and approaches to teaching. Visit the project page on the ASE website for further information.

Lobato, Ellis, & Zbiek (2010). Developing Essential Understanding for Teaching 6-8 Ratio, Proportion, and Proportional Reasoning. NCTM.

A practical solution for GCSE science?

posted 10 Mar 2015, 03:58 by Alistair Moore

Let’s get one thing straight: scrapping problematic summative assessment of practical work is not the same as ‘scrapping science practicals’. As is often the case with education policy announcements, Ofqual’s proposal about the future of GCSE practical work illustrates the need to look beyond the headlines.

What Ofqual published last week was the outcome of its public consultation on the assessment of practical work in reformed science GCSEs for 2016. The consultation presented, and sought to answer, the following problem:

How can we:
  • ensure students experience a variety of practical work in their science GCSEs
  • provide manageable assessment of practical skills in large GCSE cohorts
  • resolve the conflict for teachers between assessing performance and being accountable through performance measures?
With many schools due to start teaching the new GCSEs any time from this September, a solution to the practical problem needed to be provided quickly.

Direct and indirect assessment

The original consultation document considered the difference between direct assessment and indirect assessment of practical skills and understanding. Direct assessment generates a mark based on observation of the student doing practical work (manipulating apparatus and materials, working safely, etc.). Indirect assessment is based only on written work associated with a practical activity, which could be a student’s write-up of the activity or their answers to questions based upon it.

For both forms of assessment there are questions about who should do the marking (teachers or external examiners), whether the assessment is valid and whether or not the marks should contribute to the final grade.

Ofqual’s proposal

Summative assessment
  • indirect assessment via questions in the exam papers based on practical activities, contributing at least 15% of the final grade
  • no direct assessment of practical work
  • no ‘endorsement’ or separate mark/grade for practical work on the certificate

Other requirements
  • each specification to include a list of apparatus that students should be able to use and techniques they should develop
  • each specification to include a list of 8 practical activities (16 in Combined Science) that represent the minimum students must undertake
  • each school to confirm to the exam board that their students have undertaken the required range of practical work
  • each student to keep a ‘student record’ of the practical work they’ve done, which can be requested by the exam board

This proposal does not amount to the scrapping of practical work in science GCSEs; what it does amount to is the scrapping of direct assessment as a contributor to the final grade.

Some will argue that scrapping direct assessment means practical work will be seen as less important and will be squeezed out of lessons. I disagree. Most science teachers want to do practical work, they just want the freedom to do it their way. Removing the need for laborious internal assessment (characteristic of coursework and controlled assessment) will, hopefully, free up time for the planning and embedding of practical work into teaching to support learning.

The proposal includes safeguards to ensure that practical work will be done. The first – the carrot – is the indirect assessment in the exam papers. Students who have had a wide range of practical experience ought to be better able to answer these questions, and thus boost their grade as a result. The challenge for the exam boards will be setting questions and mark schemes that are a valid assessment of practical understanding and that differentiate between students who have experienced relevant practical work and those who have not. Examiners will need to be trained and predictability in assessment (which could have a narrowing effect on what practical work is done) avoided.

The second safeguard – the stick – is the requirement for schools to confirm that students have completed a range of practical work, and the threat of sanctions if they haven’t. Ofqual admits that how this will be regulated is yet to be decided, but any sanctions to be applied should be sufficient to deter a school from taking this course of action whilst not penalising the students themselves.

The format of the ‘student record’ is also yet to be decided, but the regulator and the exam boards should ensure that maintaining it does not become cumbersome and a disincentive to doing practical work. It should primarily be a useful learning and revision tool for the student, and it should take whatever format is appropriate for the student and the school.

A practical solution?

Claims of ‘government ire’ stem from a letter to Ofqual from the Secretary of State for Education. In the letter, Nicky Morgan expresses her desire that the new system should be properly regulated to ensure a sufficient amount of practical work is done, and that the system is monitored over time to ensure effectiveness. Reasonable requests. In return, the DfE should ensure that schools receive sufficient funding to provide for both the practical work they want to do and the professional development they need to excel.

Given the time scale in which the proposal was drawn up, it seems to be a sensible approach to a difficult problem and should enable teachers to embed a range of practical work in GCSE science lessons. It removes the need for laborious internal assessment and the conflict for teachers between assessing performance and performance measures.

Until somebody can come up with a form of direct assessment that is manageable with large GCSE cohorts and does not limit the range of practical work that is done, leaving direct assessment out of the equation may just be the best solution.

Alistair Moore is a member of UYSEG with an interest in secondary science education and assessment. You can follow Alistair on Twitter.

Read Mary Whitehouse’s thoughts on this issue on the
Education in Chemistry blog.

The University of York Science Education Group

posted 5 Mar 2015, 03:52 by Mary Whitehouse   [ updated 5 Mar 2015, 04:22 ]

The  University of York Science Education Group (UYSEG) is based in the Department of Education at the University of York and has an international reputation for innovative research-informed curriculum development which has had a real impact on practice in the UK and beyond.UYSEG team

Within the group there are both researchers and curriculum developers. Our main curriculum development projects lead to qualifications at A level and GCSE, so the projects teams are currently working to develop resources for the new qualifications, which will be taught in schools from next September (A levels), followed by GCSEs soon after.  There is more about all our projects on the University web pages.

We shall use this blog to share our ideas and work with the wider science education community. We hope that we can contribute to wider discussions about science education as well as linking to our research and curriculum development projects here in York.

Your can read more about us in the About UYSEG section.

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