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IES Grant

Title: Improving Teacher Capacity to Implement High Quality Service Learning in Elementary Science Classrooms
Center: NCER Year: 2015
Principal Investigator: Rimm-Kaufman, Sara Awardee: University of Virginia
Program: Social and Behavioral Context for Academic Learning      [Program Details]
Award Period: 3 years (7/1/2015-6/30/2018) Award Amount: $1,494,451
Type: Development and Innovation Award Number: R305A150272

Co-Principal Investigators: Merritt, Eileen; Harkins, Tracy; DeCoster, Jamie

Purpose: The project team developed, tested, and evaluated a program called Connect Science (CS). The program is designed to help upper elementary school teachers create service-learning opportunities for their students as part of their science instruction. Currently, educators are looking for evidence-based curricular approaches that engage students in authentic, meaningful work while also meeting required academic standards. Service-learning is a project-based learning approach that answers that need. In effective service-learning, students learn academic content, develop social and emotional competencies, and become civically engaged as they work together to address real problems in their community.

Project Activities: In the first two project years, the researchers partnered with Harkins Consulting, LLC (formerly KIDS Consortium) to augment and adapt existing service-learning materials and develop social and emotional learning and NGSS-aligned science materials. CS professional development, manuals, materials, and coaching were field tested with teachers to determine if they could be implemented with fidelity in fourth grade classrooms. The team gathered feedback from teachers to improve CS. In the first year, the project team received critique on individual lessons from approximately 20 teachers. In the second year, the project team delivered the professional development and coaching to nine teachers from seven districts in two states to receive input on the sequence and scope as well as on individual lessons. In the third year, the researchers randomly assigned teachers to the CS or a wait-list control group to determine potential impacts on teacher practices and student social skills, civic engagement, and science learning. The RCT involved 41 classrooms (20 intervention, 21 waitlist control) at 25 schools and 868 students (423 in the intervention group). Two research questions were addressed: 1) To what extent did CS impact teaching practices, and 2) To what extent did CS impact student outcomes? In addition, data were gathered on feasibility and usability of CS. During the fourth and no-cost extension year, the project team trained the waitlist control group, produced and submitted eight manuscripts for publication, presented CS work at five conferences, created CS marketing materials, secured a contract for a book for teachers, completed a CS professional development manual, brought CS professional development to a new group of teachers in a different state, and created partnerships to set up future CS institutes. Based on feedback from schools and teachers, it became clear that future PD will require a slightly modified version of CS that allows upper elementary teachers to adapt CS to the science content that they are teaching. To meet that need, the project team created a second, yet untested version of CS called Connect Science Blueprint.

Key Outcomes:

  • High quality tasks create conditions for quality science discourse in which students spend more time talking about science and building upon each other's responses as opposed to less productive conversation (Hunt, Rimm-Kaufman, Merritt & Bowers, 2020). Teachers showing adaptive expertise recognize and accept variation in students' products, encourage student-led explanations of phenomena, encourage students to build upon other students' comments, and notice and guide students' emergent understanding (Bowers, Merritt & Rimm-Kaufman, 2019).
  • Service-learning can be particularly useful for instruction on energy and sources of electricity, given that these topics are very abstract to elementary school students. After exposure to CS, analyses of students' understanding of energy sources showed that 88% of fourth graders students could list three renewable energy sources and that 90% of students could use evidence to explain why some energy sources are better than others (Merritt, Bowers, & Rimm-Kaufman, 2019).

Setting: The initial two years of iterative development work took place in Connecticut, Virginia, and Massachusetts including rural and suburban teachers. The randomized controlled trial occurred in a large district in the Southeastern U.S., which included teachers in rural, urban, and suburban schools.

Sample: The participants in this study were fourth grade teachers and their students. In Year 1, 20 teachers participated in reflection on CS lessons. In Year 2, 9 teachers took part in field-testing. In Year 3, 41 classrooms and their students participated in the pilot study (after attrition). The RCT enrolled 32 teachers teaching 41 classrooms (20 intervention, 21 control). Teachers characteristics were: 91% Caucasian, 9% African American, 90% female, with an average of 9.3 years of teaching experience. Of the 868 students, 34.4% were Caucasian, 36.5% African American, 23.5% Latinx, 6% Asian, 0.6% American Indian, and 0.3% Pacific Islander. Roughly one in five of the students (19.4%) were English Learners (EL). On average, the schools had 50% of students receiving free/reduced lunch. At the school level, there were no differences between groups at baseline. At the child level, there were more EL students in the intervention group but no other demographic differences between groups.

Intervention: Connect Science prepares teachers to integrate service-learning and social and emotional learning with science instruction. Connect Science is a project-based learning unit that takes 14ndash;22 weeks to administer with students. Many of the lessons replace existing science instruction, some are integrated into English Language Arts instruction, and a small portion are added on. CS guides teachers through an 8-step service-learning experience following the KIDS as Planners Framework (Harkins Consulting, 2011).

Teachers begin the sequence by teaching students social and emotional skills to prepare for collaborative work and introducing the idea of civic engagement so students understand how they can make a difference in their community. Teachers and students engage in a series of NGSS-aligned science lessons that orient students to problems related to the sources of electricity and use of renewable and non-renewable resources. While engaging in the work, the students discover problems related to energy use here in the U.S. CS guides teachers and students through the process of articulating those problems, identifying solutions, and engaging in activities in the community to educate others, change policy or take direct action on the problem that they discovered. An example makes this more concrete. In CS, a classroom learns about electricity, energy sources and renewable and non-renewable resources and then learns about the environmental impacts of using too much petroleum. The students then discover a problem—the plastic water bottles that they bring from home, use, and then throw away are made from a non-renewable resource, petroleum, which was formed hundreds of millions of years ago. The class brainstorms ideas for solutions, chooses a solution, and then begins a project to take action. For instance, they may choose a solution that involves sharing their new knowledge about petroleum use. They work in small groups and create "Did you know?" posters to hang in the cafeteria to teach students about petroleum and plastic. They prepare a pledge for students at their school to sign if they are willing to commit to using reusable water bottles. By working together, they raise awareness to the issue of petroleum use at their school, their entire class switches to reusable water bottles, and 300+ students at their school sign the pledge and transition to reusable water bottles. The class measures the impact of their activities as a way of reflecting on their efficacy to create change in their community.

Connect Science teacher training involves five days of professional development in NGSS-aligned science instruction, social and emotional learning, and service-learning. (Typically, four days are sequential, and the fifth day occurs after teachers have begun CS.) The intervention includes a manual, science materials, and trade books. Teachers receive one to two in-person or on-line coaching sessions during implementation with more upon request. Training is available from Tracy Harkins at Harkins Consulting, LLC for approximately $2100 per teacher including materials (depending on location and other logistics).

Research Design and Methods: In the first year, researchers at the University of Virginia partnered with Harkins Consulting, LLC to augment and adapt their existing service-learning materials. Fourth grade teachers provided feedback through focus groups and surveys to inform modifications through an iterative process. In Year 2, these modified materials and professional development supports were field tested with additional fourth grade teachers. In year 3, the researchers randomly assigned a new group of fourth grade teachers to the intervention or a wait-list control group to determine impacts on service-learning on teacher practices and students' social skills, civic engagement, and science learning.

Control Condition: Teachers randomly assigned to the waitlist control group used local curricula to meet the same science standards as the CS group. The control group implemented a science curricular unit focused instruction on analyzing how different natural resources are used to solve human problems and/or improve the quality of life. The activities focused on reading informational texts about natural resources and their impact on the environment, identifying and explaining properties of earth materials, exploring how power is created in their local community, and discussing how that production impacts the environment. One activity was to discuss and write an opinion piece about resource use in the community. To achieve the curricular goals, control group teachers used materials from two kits, one with materials pertaining to electric circuits and the other with materials on natural resources. Control group teachers were invited to CS training after data collection was complete.

Key Measures: Year 1 and 2 work primarily involved focus groups, interviews, observations, and basic surveys. For the randomized controlled trial, data were gathered from: (a) school-level district data, (b) teacher-report surveys, (c) student-report surveys, (d) qualitative interviews and focus groups. Key measures assessed: teacher demographics, energy literacy, NGSS Science Teaching Practices, CS practices, teachers' perception of CS experiences, science achievement, civic engagement, energy attitudes and beliefs, social skills, and social competency.

To the extent possible, measures were selected from existing empirical work. The project team developed teacher-report and student-report measures of CS Practices (fidelity of implementation). Further, the project team developed a science achievement assessment aligned with NGSS ndash; Earth and Human Activity for fourth grade.

Data Analytic Strategy: In the development and field-testing phases, the researchers engaged in qualitative data analysis using a four-stage, iterative process of data collection (focus group and survey responses), data reduction (etic and emic codes), data display, and conclusion drawing and verification. The researchers identified themes associated with variations in teachers' response to the intervention components (favorable versus unfavorable) and teachers' perceptions of principal support to inform the iterative development process. For the randomized controlled trial, the research team used regression analyses to determine the impact of the intervention on teacher practices and student outcomes. Analyses used a sandwich estimator to account for clustering. The researchers used exploratory moderation analyses to examine implementation as a moderator of social skill outcomes. Further, mediation analyses were used to examine the extent to which teaching practices (NGSS practices, CS practices) mediated impacts.

Related IES Projects: Predoctoral Interdisciplinary Research Training Programs in the Education Sciences (R305B140026). The project team included a pre-doctoral fellow funded through the Virginia Education Science Training (VEST) program.

Project website:

Publications and Products


Rimm-Kaufman, S. E. (2020). SEL From the Start: Building SEL Skills in Kndash;5. Norton Professional Books.

Journal article, monograph, or newsletter

Rimm-Kaufman, S. E., Merritt, E. G., Lapan, C., DeCoster, J., Hunt, A. & Bowers, N. (in press). Can service-learning boost science achievement, civic engagement, and social skills?: A randomized controlled trial of Connect Science. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology.

Bowers, N., Merritt, E., & Rimm-Kaufman, S. (2020). Exploring teacher adaptive expertise in the context of elementary school science reforms. Journal of Science Teacher Education, 31(1), 34–55. Full Text

Hunt, A., Rimm-Kaufman, S. E., Merritt, E. G., & Bowers, N. (2020). "Because the Sun Is Really Not That Big" An Exploration of Fourth Graders Tasked with Arguing from Evidence. The Elementary School Journal, 121(2), 256–-282.

Merritt, E. G., Bowers, N., & Rimm-Kaufman, S. E. (2019). Making connections: Elementary students' ideas about electricity and energy resources. Renewable Energy, 138, 1078–1086. Full Text

Rimm-Kaufman, S., & Merritt, E. (2019). Let's Power Our Future: Integrating Science and Social and Emotional Learning Improves Collaborative Discourse and Science Understanding. Science and Children, 57(1), 52–60. Full Text

Merritt, E., Harkins, T., & Rimm-Kaufman, S. (2019). Empowering Elementary Students through Environmental Service-Learning. CLEARING, 8–11.

Products: In addition to the empirical papers published in peer-reviewed journals, the project team created products to support the use and implementation of the Connect Science materials.

  1. The team created Connect Science materials and professional development (including a 400-page manual for teachers, a manual, content, and slide decks for 5 days of professional development, coaching materials (see project website for additional information for materials). In addition, the project team created a modified version of CS called Connect Science Blueprint for future use. Harkins Consulting, LLC currently offers the CS professional development to schools.
  2. The research team developed fidelity of implementation measures for current and future work on CS (see project website for additional information).
  3. The project team prepared products for educators including articles in Science and Children and Clearinghouse as well as a book for teachers, SEL from the Start. Further, the project team prepared materials for review of CS to be a Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) SELect program. CS has been identified by CASEL as a promising program and can be considered to be a SELect program when materials for more grade levels become available.