Forum on Education of The American Physical Society
Summer 2007 Newsletter



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Modeling Instruction for K-12 Science Education

David Hestenes

The Modeling Instruction Program (David Hestenes, PI) is an evolving, research-based program for high school science education reform continuously supported by the NSF from 1989 to 2006. The name Modeling Instruction emphasizes making and using conceptual models of physical phenomena as central to learning and doing science. Adoption of "models and modeling" as a unifying theme for science and mathematics education is recommended by both the National Science Education Standards (NSES) and the NCTM math education standards as well as AAAS Project 2061. However, no other program has implemented it so thoroughly.

The Modeling Program has evolved through several stages with progressively broader implications for science education reform. From its inception, the program has been concerned with reforming high school physics teaching to make it more coherent and student-centered and to incorporate the computer as an essential scientific tool. Recently it has expanded to embrace the entire middle/high school physical science curriculum.

Stage 1 : Foundations for Modeling Instruction. .

Principles and designs for Modeling Instruction were initially developed and tested (1980-89) by David Hestenes and his graduate students Ibrahim Halloun and Malcolm Wells. Success of full-scale implementation in university physics and (especially) high school physics provided foundations for further development and dissemination.

Stage 2 : Modeling Workshops for high school physics reform .

With NSF support, intensive summer " Modeling Workshops" were held to inspire and enable inservice physics teachers to adopt the Modeling approach to instruction. Initially a local effort in Arizona (1989-92), the workshops were soon extended to a nationwide program (1994-99). More than 200 teachers from almost every state in the country attended intensive 4-week Workshops on two successive summers that thoroughly reformed the standard one-year high school physics course. A follow-up survey found that more than 90% of the active teachers still use the modeling pedagogy that they learned in the Workshops !

Stage 3. Cultivating physics teachers as leaders of science education reform.

During Stage 2 many teachers reported that they were in demand in their schools for what they had learned about science pedagogy and the use of technology in science teaching. So, without changing the science content of the Workshops, the emphasis was broadened from reform of physics instruction to cultivating physics teachers as leaders of reform in science teaching with technology in their schools.

Stage 4. Institutionalization at Arizona State University (ASU).

This began in 1995 when the Modeling Workshops were adopted as courses in Methods of Physics Teaching for preservice as well as for inservice teachers. Half of the inservice physics teachers in Arizona have taken at least one Modeling Workshop. This has established common ground for a community of teachers committed to science education reform. Within this community there has emerged a number of exceptional teachers dedicated and able to serve as leaders of reform.

Stage 5. Physics graduate program for life-long teacher professional development.

Teacher demand for high-quality professional development stimulated expansion of the Modeling Program into a full-blown graduate program expressly designed to meet the needs of physics teachers and lead to a Master of Natural Science (MNS) degree in physics teaching. All courses are given in the summer and lodging is arranged to make the courses accessible to teachers throughout the nation. The curriculum includes pedagogical training in five Modeling Workshops for high school physics as well as an array of contemporary physics and interdisciplinary courses taught by senior research faculty.

Responses from both teachers and professors have been overwhelmingly positive. Unanimous support from the ASU physics department led to incorporation in the official ASU catalog. Each summer since it was established, the program has attracted an average of 150 teachers from across the country. The North Central Accreditation Academic Program Review Committee evaluating the ASU physics department reported in May 2005: "One of the important ways that ASU is currently elevating science education in Arizona is its unique Master of Natural Science (MNS) program for in-service teachers. There appears to be no comparable program at any other university in the United States , and it stands as an exemplary model of how physics departments can improve high school physics education."

Stage 6. Interdisciplinary teacher professional development in the sciences.

Driven by teacher demand, expansion of the MNS graduate program to serve inservice teachers of chemistry, physical science and mathematics is well underway (biology to be included later). According to AIP data, 80% of physics teachers are required to teach these related subjects, for which typical academically narrow preservice training has left them unprepared. Even more than university faculty, high school physics teachers need a broad interdisciplinary science background. A comprehensive graduate professional development program is the only feasible way to acquire it.

On the other hand, AIP data shows that 70% of high school physics teachers are crossovers recruited from other disciplines. Graduate professional development goes a long way toward rectifying this situation. Perhaps the single most encouraging finding from our extensive experience with inservice high school physics teachers is that the vast majority of them are able and eager to be excellent teachers. Though they are seriously under-prepared in pedagogy, physics and technology, after three summers in the modeling program they are as effective in physics teaching as physics majors.

Viability of a comprehensive graduate professional development program requires buy-in from all academic science departments. However, for the program to thrive and realize its potential to revitalize science education in the local schools, leadership at the highest levels of the university administration is essential to ensure commitment of adequate resources and to establish partnerships with local school districts.

Stage 7. K-12 science curriculum reform for the 21 st century.

The current MNS Program already has in place the academic resources and the broad involvement of committed teachers needed to attack the central problem of K-12 science education reform: to design and deliver a pedagogically sound, integrated, math/science curriculum framework for the 21 st century. Sufficient funding to support this complex enterprise has not yet been arranged.

How good is Modeling Instruction?

The most widely used and influential instrument for assessing the effectiveness of introductory physics instruction is the Force Concept Inventory (FCI). The Modeling Program has accumulated FCI data on roughly 30,000 students of 400 physics teachers in high schools, colleges and universities through the United States . This large data base presents a highly consistent picture, supporting the following conclusion:

In comparison to traditional instruction, under expert modeling instruction high school students average more than two standard deviations higher on the FCI .

Text Box:    Fig 1
Figure 1 summarizes data from a nationwide sample of 7500 high school physics students involved in the Modeling Instruction Project during 1995-98. The average FCI pretest score is about 26%, slightly above the random guessing level of 20%, and well below the 60% score which, for empirical reasons, can be regarded as a threshold in the understanding of Newtonian mechanics. Fig. 1 shows that traditional high school instruction (lecture, demonstration, and standard laboratory activities) has little impact on student beliefs, with an average FCI posttest score of 42%, still well below the Newtonian threshold.

High school teachers participating in the Modeling Instruction Program begin a shift from traditional instruction to modeling instruction in their first three- or four-week summer workshop. After their first year of teaching posttest scores for students of these n ovice modelers are about 10% higher, as shown in Fig. 1 for 3394 students of 66 teachers. For 11 teachers identified as expert modelers after two years in the Program, posttest scores of their 647 students averaged 69%. Since that time, numerous expert modelers have recorded posttest averages exceeding 80%. These are among the very best results reported for high school and even college physics.

Impact of Modeling Workshops on teachers.

Extensive and repeated interviews, surveys, testing and observations support the following conclusions:

•  The physics content knowledge of most teachers is increased substantially by the Modeling Workshops. When beginning the Workshops, about a third of the teachers score below Mastery Level on the FCI (> 85%). Within the next year nearly all of them improve to Mastery Level.

•  Modeling Workshops have been extremely successful in inducing transformations from traditional (teacher-centered) instruction to constructivist (student-centered) instruction in full accord with the National Science Education Standards . Nearly all of the participating teachers now use the constructivist Modeling Method for all or most of their physics teaching.

•  75% of Modeling Workshop graduates responded immediately and enthusiastically to a follow-up survey between 1 and 3 years after they had completed the program. More than 90% of them reported that the Workshops had a highly significant influence on the way they teach. 45% report that their use of Modeling Instruction continued at the same level, while another 50% reported an increase. Only 5% reported a decrease.

•  The most important factor in student learning by the Modeling Method (partly measured by FCI scores) is the teacher's skill in managing classroom discourse. That, of course, depends on the teacher's own ability to articulate the models clearly and explicitly as well use them to describe, explain, predict and control physical processes. Although the Modeling Workshops cultivate such skills and nearly all participants improve significantly, it takes many years to reach a high level of proficiency. We estimate that perhaps 20% had the background to reach a high level by the end of the workshops. The rest need a long-term program of professional development to reach their full potential.

•  Since initial development of the modeling workshops, an active group of 1500 teachers in 48 states and a few other nations have put the curriculum to use in secondary classrooms. They remain in contact through the Modeling listserv run by Jane Jackson. Workshops have been conducted at some 30 universities and colleges throughout the country, so the Modeling Project is truly national in scope and impact.

Conclusion: University Programs to Cultivate Teacher Expertise.

Ultimately, all reform takes place in the classroom. Therefore, the key to reform is to cultivate teacher expertise . The need is especially critical for high school physics and chemistry teachers, because they are in the best position to set the level and tenor of science in their schools and serve as local leaders of education reform. Above all, teachers need opportunities for professional growth and a supportive school environment.

Lifelong professional development is as essential for teachers as it is for doctors and scientists. It takes at least a decade to reach a high level of expertise in any profession. Few teachers have adequate opportunities for sustained professional development, and many have an inadequate background in science to start with, so most remain far from reaching their full potential as teachers. The NSES emphasize that "coherent and integrated programs" supporting "lifelong professional development" of science teachers are essential for significant reform. It states that "The conventional view of professional development for teachers needs to shift from technical training for specific skills to opportunities for intellectual professional growth." Such a program cannot be consistently maintained and enriched in any locality without dedicated support from a local university.

The MNS program at ASU has demonstrated how university physics departments can lead the way in creating effective professional development programs, an essential prerequisite for broader K-12 science education reform. For advice and assistance in establishing a comparable program elsewhere, contact .

Details about the MNS program at ASU and extensive information about the Modeling Instruction Program , including publications and reports supporting claims in this article and addressing related issues in science education, are available at the project web site:


David Hestenes (Distinguished Research Professor of physics at Arizona State University ) is founder of the Modeling Instruction Program.



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