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IES Grant

Title: When STARS Align: Exploring Spatial Thinking and Relational Scaffolding (STARS) in Elementary Astronomy
Center: NCER Year: 2015
Principal Investigator: Anggoro, Florencia Awardee: College of the Holy Cross
Program: Cognition and Student Learning      [Program Details]
Award Period: 2 years (7/1/2015-6/30/2017) Award Amount: $311,139
Type: Exploration Award Number: R305A150228
Description:

Co-Principal Investigator: Jee, Benjamin

Purpose: The purpose of this project was to identify malleable instructional factors to help students with spatial perspective-taking, a critical process for learning astronomy topics and a central concept in elementary school science curricula and the Next Generation Science Standards. There is evidence that spatial thinking skills are malleable and that these skills are important in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) fields. Researchers (1) tested the theory that relational scaffolding—successive comparisons of different perspectives of the solar system (e.g., an Earth-based perspective versus a space-based perspective)— helped children integrate different perspectives and better understand scientific explanations of the day-night cycle, and (2) described the relationship between children's spatial thinking skills and their astronomy learning. The STARS project stands as a promising step toward the development of new and effective methods of STEM instruction.

Project Activities: The research team carried out two studies. Study 1 tested whether teaching students about the day-night cycle using relational scaffolding is related to student learning and spatial skills. Study 2 examined the effects of actively comparing different perspectives of the solar system on learning and spatial skills.

Key Outcomes: The main findings of this exploration project are:

  • Relational scaffolding, which was achieved by showing students the same events from both an Earth-based perspective (a view of the sky) and a space-based perspective (zooming out to see planet Earth and the sun), improved students' understanding of the day-night cycle.
  • Showing the Earth-based and space-based perspectives simultaneously appears to be a core component of relational scaffolding. When these events were shown one at a time rather than simultaneously, most students did not reach the same level of understanding of the day-night cycle.

Structured Abstract

Setting: Participating after-school programs were located in an urban area in Massachusetts.

Sample: Study participants included 207 third-grade students (108 in Study 1, 99 in Study 2). The sample reflected the diversity of students in the participating schools, which includes 64.2% non-White students and 73% of students classified as low-income.

Malleable Factors: Researchers developed the Spatial Thinking and Relational Scaffolding (STARS) approach and provided students with training using it to address the exploratory questions. In their studies, students in the STARS condition participated in a series of study sessions in which different perspectives of the day-night cycle (e.g., first-person perspective, third-person/space-based 3D model perspective), were explicitly compared. The goal of these studies was to identify malleable instructional factors to help students with perspective taking when learning about the day-night cycle in astronomy. The findings are informative for the development of spatial thinking interventions in STEM courses.

Research Design and Methods: The research team carried out two studies, one during each year of the grant. Both studies used a between-subjects design where children were randomly assigned to study conditions. Study 1 manipulated the presence of relational scaffolding. Students in the Spatial Thinking and Relational Scaffolding (STARS) condition participated in a series of study sessions in which different perspectives of the day-night cycle (e.g., first-person perspective, third-person/space-based 3D model perspective), were explicitly compared. This condition was compared to two other conditions: no scaffolding and typical instruction. Study 2 examined the role explicit comparison plays in learning. Students were randomly assigned to either the STARS condition or a condition in which different perspectives were viewed sequentially with no explicit comparison. Students' knowledge of the day-night cycle and related concepts were assessed in pre- and post-tests. Students also participated in pre- and post-interviews so researchers could assess the students' conceptual representation of the solar system and give them an opportunity to express their knowledge through alternative methods such as drawing and modeling. Students also had an immediate assessment at the end of each study session. Spatial ability and vocabulary skills were assessed before the study began, and spatial ability was assessed again at the conclusion of the study.

Control Condition: The control condition differed across studies due to the research question being addressed. In Study 1, participants in the control condition received typical instruction of the day-night cycle, which included a live demonstration with a 3D model of the day-night cycle but no other viewing perspectives. In Study 2, participants in the control condition received the same instruction as those in the STARS condition except they were not given opportunities to explicitly compare the different perspectives of the day-night cycle.

Key Measures: Children's knowledge of the day-night cycle and related concepts were measured using items from the Astronomy and Space Science Concept Inventory, researcher-developed interview questions, as well as researcher-developed drawing and Play-Doh modeling tasks. Spatial ability and vocabulary were measured using mental rotation and perspective taking tasks, and the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test (PPVT-IV).

Data Analytic Strategy: The research team used multiple regression techniques to predict children's performance on post-test assessments. In addition, the research team tested each subcomponent of spatial ability (i.e., mental rotation and perspective taking) as a unique predictor in alternative models to evaluate the contribution of each subcomponent. Vocabulary ability and pretest performance were entered as control variables in the analysis. Nonparametric analyses were used to compare the frequency of scientifically accurate and inaccurate beliefs between conditions at pre- and posttests. The research team conducted qualitative analyses of the interviews used to assess children's' conceptual representations of the solar system.

Publications and Products

Journal article, monograph, or newsletter

Gaudreau, C.M., Anggoro, F.K., and Jee, B.D. (2020). Children's Spontaneous Gestures Reflect Verbal Understanding of the Day/Night Cycle. Frontiers in Psychology, 5(11), 1123.

Jee, B.D. and Anggoro, F.K. (2019). Relational Scaffolding Enhances Children's Understanding of Scientific Models. Psychological Science, 30, 1287-1302.


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