NSF Grant to Fund UMass Boston Chemistry Education Research

Anna Fisher-Pinkert | January 03, 2017
Hannah Sevian (seated, with laptop) and teacher collaborators

Hannah Sevian (seated, with laptop) and teacher collaborators
Image by: Anna Fisher-Pinkert

The National Science Foundation has awarded Associate Professor of Chemistry Hannah Sevian, along with collaborators in the Boston Public Schools and University of Arizona, more than $2.5 million to fund four years of research and curriculum development to help educators foster a new kind of teaching and learning around chemistry.

The grant supports both research and development of a training program for teachers. The research component is led by Sevian with Vicente Talanquer of the University of Arizona. The teacher training component is led by Sevian and Pam Pelletier of the Boston Public Schools, along with a team of six experienced teacher leaders. 

“The goal of this project is to design a grassroots, teacher-led professional development model for experienced chemistry teachers that focuses on using formative assessment in the classroom," Sevian said.

Formative assessment is a method of teaching that uses insights from the students themselves to shape the way complex subjects are taught. According to Scott Balicki, a chemistry teacher from the Boston Latin School and a teacher leader on this project, the formative assessment method starts with finding out where and how students encounter scientific principles in their everyday lives. Balicki gives the example of a student’s dad telling her to add a pinch of salt to a pot of pasta to make the water boil at a higher temperature.

“Students have had chemistry in their outside life, but maybe it wasn’t called chemistry,” Balicki said. “As opposed to thinking of students as a blank slate, [formative assessment] takes them as a unique person with outside experiences that they bring into the classroom.”

Sevian and a group of six teacher leaders and two graduate students are publishing several research papers as a part of this project. Their next paper will be published in The Science Teacher, a journal for high school educators in the sciences.

“Together, we’re studying how teachers use formative assessment, and how students’ thinking in chemistry is revealed to teachers and what teachers do with that,” Sevian said.

On a recent Friday, a group of teacher leaders met in Rebecca Lewis’s classroom at O’Bryant High School in Roxbury. These teachers spent all day in rooms like this one, teaching chemistry to middle and high schoolers. Long after the last bell, they gathered to discuss an upcoming workshop to educate more teachers on how to understand formative assessment.

“The day to day job of teaching is very challenging and very tiring sometimes, but one of the things you want to develop as you continue teaching for many years is ways to improve your practice,” Balicki said.

This year, Sevian’s team will focus on planning the professional development workshops for teachers. Over the next four years, they expect to have four successive cohorts, starting in the Boston Public Schools, and expanding out to include more districts in the metro area and New England region. Sevian has designed the program so that teachers who complete the training can then educate their colleagues.

“It’s like a chain reaction,” she said.

Eventually, the American Chemical Society, a partner in this project, will provide this training via an online portal to teachers across the country.

“Coming to this group I have to rev up the engine of my brain, because there’s a lot of smart people in the room,” said Greg Banks, a chemistry teacher at the Urban Science Academy. “We talk about where the research is going and it really pushes me to up my game. I really appreciate that, it’s a lot of fun, and it benefits my students too.”

Tags: cehd , chemistry , csm , education , high school , nsf , research , science education , sevian , teacher training

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