Engaging young people with science through Communities of Scientific Enquiry: a mixed methods evaluation

University of Ulster, United Kingdom

Supervisors: Professor Valerie McKelvey-Martin and Professor Linda Clarke

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This thesis reports on the design, development, use and evaluation of a teaching strategy to engage young people in Northern Ireland with science. The research began in 2008 against the backgrop of a radically changed school curriculum (CCEA, 2007), which required increased emphasis on teaching skills rather than content, and more focus on the nature of science and the wider context in which science takes place. At the same time, concerns were expressed about lack of student engagement with science, particularly at Key Stage 3 and amongst girls (Bradshaw et al., 2006).

At the outset, the aim was to introduce students at Key Stage 3 (aged 11 – 14) to contemporary social and ethical issues in science through Philosophy for Children (P4C), whereby children explore philosophical questions arising from a stimulus. However, the nature of this approach is such that science often did not form a substantial part of the dialogue, and an opportunity for engaging with science was lost. An approach (Community of Scientific Enquiry) was developed, building on the foundations of P4C, but focusing on scientific concepts and related issues. In line with being responsive to the needs of teachers and students, the topics were decided in collaboration with teachers and included genetics and reproduction, astronomy, interdependence of species and drug development. CoSE was evaluated, using mixed methods, with academics, teachers and 507 students aged 11 – 14, each student participating in 4 – 8 enquries lasting one hour. CoSE created a postitive learning environment in which students were emotionally and cognitively engaged and able to make personal connections to scientific topics. Students enjoyed CoSE (93%), found it interesting (88%) and gained scientific knowledge (89%). Most (71%) talked about the science topics after leaving class.

Building on evaluation feedback of the effectiveness of the approach and research revealing a need for CPD amongst teachers (for example Green et al., 2011), the second phase of the research involved the creation of bespoke resources to support the teaching and learning of science at Key Stage 2 participatory workshop was developed and offered in 5 locations across Northern Ireland to enable teachers to use the resources to run enquiry sessions with their classes. The courses were evaluated by 38 primary and 45 post primary participating teachers, and adapted in light of each evaluation. The teachers were asked to reflect on the impact of the training in their practice 3 – 12 months after the training by taking part in an interview or completing a questionnaire.

The research revealed that the creation and development of Communities of Scientific Enquiry is an effective method to engage young people with science, particularly students in girls’ and co-educational schools at Key Stage 3. The strengths of the approach identified by students included listening to the ideas and opinions of others, being able to have a say in their learning and that it makes science fun. Teachers said that the approach developed key skills better than other strategies, that it prepares children for future study, helps them to learn science and that more reticent students participated more in class.

All 83 teachers reported that the training was effective and that it had an impact on classroom practice. Teachers reported that the provision of ready-to-use resources, the modeling of the technique and the shared experiences of a participating teacher was important in the success of the course. However, the development of effective facilitation skills requires further intervention.


Lynda Dunlop
Liverpool Hope University
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