Cosmic Chemistry Prepares High School Students for Science
Getting high school students excited about chemistry can be challenging, but even more so for students with limited background knowledge and little confidence that they will succeed. McREL, with funding from the Institute of Education Sciences (IES), undertook a three-year project to design, implement, and evaluate a two-week summer preparatory program to introduce students to some of the fundamentals of chemistry. The first challenge was recruiting 9th- and 10th-grade students for this unique summer learning experience, known as “Cosmic Chemistry.” The second challenge was preparing teachers for facilitating the curriculum and delivering the key ingredients of effective summer programs: building student background knowledge, setting high expectations, and motivating students to learn.
Prior to the summer of 2010 and 2011, McREL worked with the district (Union Public Schools in Oklahoma) to identify those students who needed additional support prior to taking chemistry. To generate excitement for those students, parents, and teachers who would be participating, McREL hosted a summer kickoff event at the Tulsa Air and Space Museum. Every day for two weeks, students engaged in a curriculum focused on the fundamentals of chemistry with an emphasis on understanding matter. Cosmic Chemistry uses the NASA Genesis Mission a Discovery Program space mission that collected, returned, and analyzed solar material as the real-world context. Cosmic Chemistry focuses on science as a human endeavor and addresses topics such as the sun and solar wind, how elements are made, and planetary diversity. McREL also developed student materials, facilitator guides, and a comprehensive program coordinator guide and associated websites that contributed to the success of the program.
McREL researchers collected data to determine (1) changes in student background knowledge, (2) changes in student motivation and self-efficacy for science, and (3) the level of expectation teachers had for student success. Using pre- and post-tests and surveys, classroom observations, facilitator logs, and focus groups, McREL determined that Cosmic Chemistry improved all three areas, most notably the level of student background knowledge, which showed a significant effect size of 2.25 percent. In addition, 82 percent of students in the program went on to take pre-AP Chemistry.
Cosmic Chemistry builds not only student background knowledge but also student confidence to take higher level science courses. With tested and refined materials for students and facilitators and a research-based curriculum based on scientific inquiry, McREL will continue to offer the Cosmic Chemistry program and evaluation services to other schools with a need to raise achievement in high school science.
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