How can elementary teachers support their students in developing useable knowledge of science to understand their world and help solve the many pressing problems facing the world? This study aims to determine whether the ML-PBL curriculum intervention – which incorporates the features of Project-based Learning (PBL) to meet the vision of the Framework for K-12 Science Education and the Next Generation Science Standards – improves science academic and social & emotional learning. The ML-PBL curriculum was designed by incorporating the features of of PBL and 3-dimensional learning. The design of the ML-PBL curriculum and professional learning intervention takes a systems approach by integrating science teaching and learning materials, professional learning for teachers and student assessments. The ML-PBL curriculum was designed to increase students’ science knowledge, engage learners in literacy and mathematical skills and support students’ social and emotional learning through self-reflection, collaboration, and ownership of one’s work.
To test the intervention a randomized control trial in third grade classrooms throughout Michigan was conducted with 23 treatment and 23 control schools. The schools were located in 4 different regions throughout the state with a total of 2,371 students. A three-level hierarchical linear model (HLM) assessed the difference between the treatment and control students in science achievement. Results of the HLM show that the treatment students outperformed the control students by .266 standard deviations on an objective and validated summative test designed by the Michigan Department of Education to meet the NGSS. This relative gain corresponds to an eight-percentage point increase, meaning that students in the treatment schools improved by eight-percentage points. The treatment effect holds when accounting for differing initial reading levels, gender, [school level] race, ethnicity, and SES, and across the regions of the state (which include urban, suburban and rural areas). Students in the treatment group at all levels of reading ability outperformed students in the control group. A factor analysis conducted on a measure of social and emotional learning confirms the three constructs: self-reflection, collaboration, and ownership. A three-level HLM showed a positive treatment effect on students’ social and emotional learning in science classes for the constructs of reflection and collaboration.
These results suggest that the ML-PBL curriculum, by making use of the principles of PBL and 3-dimensional learning can bring about a meaningful and effective transformation in the way science is taught and learned in elementary school. All learners become equipped with scientific ideas and practices to make decisions, solve problems and learn independently.