MINT Learning Center Information in English

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Hinweis: Die folgenden Inhalte sind in Englisch verfügbar.

Why does a ship made of steel float, whereas a massive piece of steel sinks?

The aim of the MINT-Learning Center consists in improving science education at school in the MINT areas so that students gain a better general education about the natural sciences and are better qualified for studies and professions in the natural sciences and technology.

"MINT" stands for mathematics, informatics, natural sciences, and technics. The MINT-Learning Center is part of the ETH competence center for learning and instruction, EducETH.

In the MINT-Learning center, scientists and teachers are closely cooperating to develop teaching units on central topics from physics, chemistry, and informatics. These teaching units are developed on the basis of recent empirical research on learning and instruction. Hence, cognitively activating forms of learning such as prompts for self-explanations, instructions for metacognitive questions, and inquiry learning are integrated into these teaching units.

Since science education has to start early, the teaching units are designed as a spiral curriculum for all grade levels from elementary school to the Gymnasium. Thus, students will be confronted during their school curriculum with the same central topics repeatedly on different levels with differing requirements. In this spiral curriculum, students have the opportunity of developing their concepts and theories stepwise at each level.

Teachers who are interested in cooperating with the MINT-Learning Center to develop teaching units can be hired on a part-time basis.

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Intelligent Knowledge- the Aim of Science Education

What does it mean to understand a scientific concept or principle? One condition is that one must be able to describe it and to elucidate it by examples. Regarding the understanding of the physical concept of mechanical energy, for instance, one should be able to describe what mechanical energy is, and which kinds of mechanical energy can be distinguished: kinetic energy, potential energy of height, elastic potential energy. Furthermore, one should be able to elucidate the concept of mechanical energy by different examples like, e.g., a rolling bowl, a reservoir, or a crossbow.

Cognitively Activating Forms of Learning

Figure 1: Will all bowls arrive at the same time at the goal?

Promoting the Construction of Intelligent Knowledge by Cognitively Activating Forms of Learning

In the last two decades, psychological research on learning and instruction has established different trainings and forms of learning that were proven as effective means for promoting the construction of intelligent knowledge. These trainings and learning forms are characterized as cognitively activating because they stimulate learners to work actively on their knowledge organization, i.e. to reorganize their conceptual knowledge. However, there still is a gap between the results of research on learning and instruction, on the one hand, and the implementation of these results in concrete teaching units for different grade levels, on the other hand (Newcombe et al., 2009). To fill this gap, the MINT-Learning Center at the Swiss Federal Institute for Technology aims at optimizing the quality of science education by integrating the following cognitively activating trainings and learning forms into teaching units: 

1) Introducing new topics by “unexplainable” phenomena:

Knowledge construction and reorganization starts with the learner’s insight that there is a problem that cannot be solved by the concepts and theories available to him (Chinn & Brewer, 1993). Therefore, in order to involve students into knowledge building activities, they first have to be confronted with phenomena which cannot be explained by them, and which thus reveal to them the limits of their own concepts and theories. For this reason, the cognitively activating teaching units in science education which are developed in the MINT-Learning Center are introduced by phenomena which are interesting for the students, but which cannot be explained by them and thereby reveal to them the limits of their knowledge.

2) Inventing with contrasting cases:

How can students be better prepared for learning? Recent studies provide evidence that learning can be promoted by instructing students to develop certain concepts by themselves before presenting the scientific theories to them (Schwartz et al. 2011). In this form of learning, learners are first presented with several contrasting cases, for instance, linear graphs with different slope, and guided by specific instructions to discover an abstract common feature, for example, to invent a common index to describe the slope of these linear graphs. After they have completed this task, the scientific explanation is presented to them. By this instructional method, they are guided to think a particular problem through, and they are thereby better prepared to understand the advantages of the scientific solutions than students who just received the information about the scientific concepts and theories right from the start. For this reason, the MINT teaching units also contain instructions for developing important scientific concepts like, for instance, the distinction between the three kinds of mechanical energy, the distinction between temperature and internal energy, or the mathematical concept of the slope of linear graphs by inventing with contrasting cases.

3) Prompting self-explanations:

Explanations which are constructed for and addressed to oneself in order to clarify and to rethink concepts and theories are called “self-explanations”. Many experimental studies show that prompting self-explanations by specific questions is an effective way of enhancing students’ understanding (Berthold et al., 2008; Chi et al., 1994; Schworm & Renkl, 2007; Siegler, 2002). By prompting self-explanations students are instructed to deliberate central points of the learning content. For instance, students could be prompted to elaborate how they would explain a certain concept or theory to another person who lacks their specific knowledge. Furthermore, self-explanations can also be applied to make a productive use of students’ misconceptions by prompting them to describe how they would explain a certain topic to a person who has a particular misconception. In addition to improving students’ understanding, repeatedly prompting self-explanations also has the function of training students’ competence to ask themselves regularly for such explanations. Thus, by establishing this routine this training also promotes students’ competence for self-regulated learning. For these reasons, specific self-explanation prompts are an essential part of the cognitively activating teaching units of the MINT-Learning Center.

4) Holistic mental model confrontation:

Although prompting self-explanations is a very effective way of promoting conceptual change, under some circumstances a different kind of instruction is even more efficient. In particular, in the case of understanding complex models, when learners have to change their ideas about the relations between the features of models, the holistic confrontation of a their own flawed mental model with an expert model has been proven to be even more effective than prompting self-explanations (Gadgil et al. 2012). In this kind of instruction, learners are informed which of the models is the flawed model of a layperson and which is the correct model of an expert. Subsequently, they are instructed to describe relevant differences between both models. In this way, common misconceptions can be directly confronted. In the MINT teaching units this kind of instruction is used for instance to confront a flawed model of a battery with an expert’s model in order to replace misconceptions about the cause of the flow of electrons in batteries.

5) Metacognitive Questions:

Successful learning requires a realistic appraisal of the learner’s knowledge as well as of his actual learning progress. Therefore, in order to promote students’ learning it is helpful to prompt them to reflect their state of knowledge and their learning progress. Metacognitive questions have exactly the function of stimulating this kind of reflection. There is broad evidence for the effectiveness of metacognitive questions with regard to learning and understanding of students of different age groups and performance levels (Berthold, 2007; Koch, 2001; Mevarech & Fridkin, 2006; Mevarech& Kramarski, 1997, 2003; Zohar & Peled, 2008). Moreover, repeated trainings with metacognitive questions can also improve students’ learning aptitude because students thereby acquire learning strategies which help them to estimate which parts of their knowledge need further elaboration. For these reasons, metacognitive questions which are adapted to the specific topics of the lessons are also an important part of the cognitively activating science lessons developed in the MINT-Learning Center.

6) Inquiry learning:

Science education not only has the aim of teaching knowledge about scientific concepts and principles, but also of giving students an idea of how scientific theories are developed and empirically tested. An effective approach of promoting students’ understanding of the essential elements of scientific research is inquiry learning in small groups (Chen & Klahr, 2006; Wahser & Sumfleth, 2008; Walpuski & Sumfleth, 2007; White& Frederiksen, 1998, 2000, 2005). In this cooperative learning environment, students develop their own questions and hypotheses, test them by their own experiments and interpret their observations. Thus, in order to foster students’ understanding of scientific research, the cognitively activating science lessons in this study also contain instructions for inquiry learning. These instructions will be placed at the end of the teaching units in order to use inquiry learning as an opportunity for students to rethink and to elaborate the concepts and theories of those teaching units.

7) Mental tools:

Recognizing the similarities between the learning situation and new situations with regard to the problem and the affordances is the precondition of knowledge transfer (Mähler & Stern, 2006; Miller, 2000). Someone who understands that two superficially different tasks share central elements is in a much better position for transferring problem-solving and reasoning strategies from one task to the other than someone who does not recognize this congruence. Knowledge transfer can be supported by mental tools like diagrams and graphs which have the function of directing the learner’s attention to the abstract common elements of superficially different tasks (Hardy et al., 2005). The active construction of linear graphs, for instance, has positive effects on students’ ability to transfer their knowledge between tasks with different contents (Stern et al., 2003). Therefore, trainings with mental tools which are relevant for science education are an essential part of the cognitively activating teaching units in the MINT-Learning Center.

8) Connecting abstract concepts and theories to technical applications:

Intelligent knowledge is characterized by multiple connections between abstract concepts and concrete examples of them (King, 1994; Stern, 2005). Knowledge which is organized in this way has the advantage of facilitating learning because it provides many points of reference to which new information can be connected. In addition, if a physical principle, for instance, like the already mentioned “golden rule of mechanics” is connected to different technical applications like the nutcracker, the door handle, the ramp, the pulley and the hydraulic press, recognizing abstract similarities of these different applications is much easier as if this principle is mentally represented just without such connections. Knowledge transfer is thus facilitated because abstract principles and their concrete applications are represented in a way that makes it easier to retrieve relevant information. For this reason, a further important element of the cognitively activating teaching units of the MINT-Learning Center is that scientific concepts and principles are connected to multiple examples of their technical realization.

9) Peer Evaluation:

Peer evaluation can help students to reflect on the criteria that indicate good quality of learning tasks and later to apply those criteria to their own tasks. Research shows that peer evaluation such as reflective assessment helps students to improve the quality of their own tasks (Chang et al., 2009; Linn & Eylon, 2006; White & Frederiksen, 1998, 2000). Achievement tests provide evidence that particularly younger and lower achieving students profit from peer evaluation. Moreover, peer evaluation allows students to understand that, for instance, their explanations need to be evaluated and improved toward valid scientific explanations. For these reasons, tasks with peer evaluation are an important part of the teaching units of the MINT-Learning Center.

10) Spiral curriculum:

Constructing an intelligent knowledge base by reorganizing one’s conceptual knowledge requires time. Hence, it is important that science education starts early and promotes the construction of knowledge which can be later used for understanding abstract concepts. From the perspective of research on learning and instruction, students should thus be confronted during their school curriculum with the same central topics repeatedly on different levels with differing requirements (Stern, 2005). Therefore, the teaching units which are developed in the MINT-Learning Center are designed as a spiral curriculum so that students will have the opportunity of developing their concepts and theories stepwise at each level.

Taken together, these cognitively activating learning forms and trainings should optimize the quality of science education so that more students than under regular conditions will achieve intelligent knowledge about the natural sciences and technology. Since differences in intelligence can be compensated by knowledge, at least up to a certain amount, it is expected that cognitively activating science education according to the optimized teaching units which are developed and used in the MINT-Learning Center will produce less underachievers than regular science lessons.

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