Evidence of gains in inquiry, reasoning, and problem-solving
Experimenting with Model Rockets Research Studies:
There is considerable evidence that the activities in the GEMS guide
Experimenting with Model Rockets significantly improve students
conceptual understanding of controlled experimentation, as well as their
abilities to design, conduct, and critique their own experiments and
the experiments of others. The findings of this research have been applied
to a number of other GEMS units that include a major focus on investigation
and experimentation. The body of research evidence is summarized in
the article "Learning to Control Variables with Model Rockets:
A Neo-Piagetian Study of Learning in Field Settings" by Cary Sneider,
Kevin Kurlich, Steven Pulos, and Alan Friedman. Dr. Sneider and others
worked on the initial research in the late 1970s and early 1980s. With
the help of a National Science Foundation grant (SED79-18976), a series
of studies with students in diverse learning situations, including schools,
scout organizations, and summer camps was conducted. A workshop for
teachers and other youth leaders was held, to train them in presenting
the activities. Both individual interviews and paper-and-pencil questionnaires
were utilized before and after students took the class from their newly
trained teachers. The research showed that children from 9 to 15
years old could significantly improve in their abilities to design and
critique controlled experiments as a result of the model rocketry course.
An article about these findings was published in 1984 in the journal
The article includes an analysis of about 40 studies showing that positive
results could be obtained in a wide variety of settings where students
were given opportunities to perform controlled experiments, and summarizes
this body of previous research. The experimental treatment was the model
rocket activities developed by Sneider. The study involved 275 children
and adolescents, 915 years old. Four criterion tasks were developed
and a scoring system developed. Subjects were also administered cognitive
tests. The details and results of Experiment 1 and Experiment 2 (designed
see if the results of the first experiment would be replicated and to
rule out alternative explanations for positive results, with both an
experimental and a control groupwho did not do the rocketry activities
until after the study was over). Both experiments showed a that subjects
did much better on the post-test than the pre-test. In Experiment 1,
among many statistical analyses, multiple t-tests were performed to
compare those who took part in the instructional program with those
who had not, within appropriate age level groups. The results showed
that all ages learned significantly, and that the model rocketry program
was effective in teaching controlled experimentation for children and
adolescents between the ages of 9 and 15, in schools and non-school
groups, and for both boys and girls. The results for Experiment 2 were
similarly positive. Interestingly, ANCOVA analysis of group task results
showed a significant difference between pre-test and post-test, but
no significant difference between the experimental and control groups.
When results were analyzed separately for boys and girls, these anomalous
results were seen to stem from the fact that girls in both the experimental
and control groups showed improvement in both pre and post-tests. The
paper speculates on possible reasons for this result, including possible
communication between girls who had taken part in the activities and
those who had not.
The overall positive results and other research-based information gained
during the model rocket study formed the basis for the development of
the GEMS unit Experimenting with Model Rockets, first published
in 1989, and revised in 1991 and 1997. Lessons gained from the study,
as well as the subsequent thorough local and national testing process
to which all GEMS units are subjected, were crucial in creating and
refining the GEMS unit. The same progression of activities validated
in the study is retained in the GEMS unit. The GEMS assessment handbook,
Insights and Outcomes, includes an updated and revised version
of two of the pre-post pencil and paper tests used in the original study,
"Experimenting with Cars," and "Experimenting with Plants,"
with instructions for how to use them both as an assessment for the
GEMS rocketry unit (Insights and Outcomes, pages 224-227, 1995).
This research provides clear and compelling evidence that the GEMS
unit Experimenting with Model Rockets helps students understand
the concept of a controlled experiment, and improve their abilities
to design, conduct, and criticize controlled experiments. Acquiring
this key capability and understanding improves students comprehension
of what scientists do, and equips them with an important ability for
living and working in the modern world. With the advent of the National
Science Education Standards and their strong emphasis on both the ability
to do and the understanding of scientific inquiry, this research and
the instructional units that grew out of it can help make a significant
contribution to the scientific literacy of students who experience these
units. This research has helped guide the development of many other
GEMS units. For example, the following GEMS units (in addition to Experimenting
with Model Rockets) help students learn controlled experimentation
and/or other related aspects of scientific inquiry and investigation:
- In Hot Water and Warm Homes from Sunlight, students are introduced
to the concept of controlled experimentation through an activity sheet
in which they reason about some plants that were given different amounts
of fertilizer. They then perform pre-designed experiments, discuss
why it is important to keep all of the possible variables constant,
and can go on to design their own experiments.
- In Bubble-ology, students are introduced to a technique for
measuring the size of bubbles so they can determine which of three
soap solutions is best. They need conduct the tests so all variables
are controlled except for the kind of soap solution.
- In Paper Towel Testing, students are challenged to design
their own experiments to determine which brand of paper towel has
greater wet strength, and which is more absorbent. They must identify
the variables and design controlled experiments.
- Both Acid Rain and Global Warming and the Greenhouse Effect
have key components involving student experimentation.
- In River Cutters students learn the distinction between systematic
observations and controlled experiments, using their river cutting
models to conduct a controlled experiment involving slope, and then
designing their own systematic observation or experiment.
- In Dry Ice Investigations the intriguing behavior of dry
ice provides a compelling way to systematically guide students through
the entire process of investigation, from exploration through systematic
observation and experimentation, with strong emphasis on areas that
research has shown to be difficult for students, such as coming up
with investigable questions and planning. River Cutters, Dry
Ice Investigations, and a number of other GEMS units provide excellent
platforms for the "full investigations" recommended in the
National Science Education Standards.
C. Sneider, K. Kurlich, S. Pulos, A. Friedman. "Learning
to Control Variables with Model Rockets: A Neo-Piagetian Study of Learning
in Field Settings." Science Education 68 (4) (1984): 463-484.
Sneider, Cary I., Experimenting with Model Rockets, Great Explorations
in Math and Science (GEMS) teachers guide, Lawrence Hall of Science,
1989, 1991, 1997.
Barber, J et al, Insights and Outcomes: Assessments for Great Explorations
in Math and Science, " Selected Learning Outcomes for Experimenting
with Model Rockets, pages 224227, 1995.
Barber, J., Bergman, L, Sneider, C: "The Educational Effectiveness
of GEMS activities" and Sneider, C. "GEMS and Research: Three
Case Studies," GEMS Leaders Handbook, pages 1932,
1988, 1994, 1997.
The GALAXY Classroom Science Project (for Grades 3-5): Evaluation
of this project was conducted by Dr. Gloria Guth of Far West Laboratory
(now WestEd). Galaxy is a package of integrated curricular and instructional
approaches, supported by the nations first interactive satellite
communications network designed to facilitate the introduction of innovative
curricula to improve student learning in elementary schools. The Galaxy
Classroom Science for Grades 3-5 features the organization of instruction
around themes presented through television broadcasts and classroom
hands-on activities that are facilitated by fax technology and ongoing
teacher support. Classroom curriculum included 8 units from the GEMS
programEarth, Moon, and Stars, Bubble-ology, Oobleck,
Investigating Artifacts, Crime Lab Chemistry, Fingerprinting,
Chemical Reactions, and Of Cabbages and Chemistry.
The evaluation found that GALAXY science for grades 3-5 is a highly
successful initiative. For example:
- On measures of classification processes, GALAXY students had a statistically
significant gain that was more than double the gain of non-GALAXY
- Scores on curriculum-based performance assessments indicate that
the majority of GALAXY students across all three grades were able
to demonstrate that they understood the "big ideas" or core
science concepts of the GALAXY curriculum.
- In general, when comparison non-GALAXY students were evaluated on
some of the same measures, GALAXY students outperformed them in almost
- In addition, GALAXY teachers displayed significantly more positive
attitudes than they had initially regarding their own comfort with
and preparation for teaching science and the adequacy of their science
- Participating in GALAXY Classroom Science led to statistically significant
positive change in attitudes among GALAXY students, when compared
to their non-GALAXY peers, toward participating in science class and
engaging in activities to which they did not know the right answer.
The Evaluation Approach: The evaluation gathered quantitative
data on GALAXY impact by testing student learning through performance-based
assessments, surveying student and teacher attitudes and teacher practices,
and asking teachers to record their use of the GALAXY Classroom Science
curriculum. Administration of four of the performance-based assessments
and the attitude surveys followed a pre/post design. Four other assessments
were more closely linked to the curriculum and activities, and they
were administered during the course of GALAXY science.
Developing Scientific Thinking Processes and Results From Performance-Based
Assessments: Researchers adapted four performance-based assessments
from the California Learning Assessment System (CLAS) to test GALAXY
and comparison students progress in several crucial areas. Researchers
measured classification and organization with two hands-on assessments
using fossils in the pre-test and leaves in the post-test. Skills related
to experimentation were measured by two other pre/post performance-based
assessments using rocks and soils, administered in a crossover design.
Additionally, students took a multiple-choice test of science process
Results from the Classification Pre/Post Assessments: The evidence
shows that participation in GALAXY had a statistically significant positive
effect on students classification abilities. These results are
based on testing 600 GALAXY and 610 comparison students in the same
grades at twelve GALAXY schools. Each of the two assessments had three
tasks that were scored from 0 (no attempt) to 5 (accurate and informative).
See Figure 1 in the Executive Summary to view the average (mean) scores
for GALAXY and comparison students in each of the three grades, both
before GALAXY science started (pre) and after it was completed (post).
Results from the Use of Scientific Thinking Assessments: Another
assessment evaluated how students reason about and investigate the causes
of unexplained phenomena. Overall, GALAXY students significantly more
often chose a scientific explanation than a supernatural explanation
than did comparison students. When asked to invent ways to prove their
explanations, those who had participated in GALAXY were significantly
more likely than comparison students to design an experimental approach.
In sum, this evidence shows GALAXY achieved its goal of helping students
understand the world through observation and experimentation and seek
rational explanations for the way the world works.
Results from a General Test of Scientific Reasoning: An additional
measure of GALAXYs effectiveness was a multiple-choice test designed
to measure specific scientific thinking processes. It was given twice
to GALAXY and comparison fourth and fifth graders, once when classes
were one third of the way into the GALAXY sequence and once at GALAXYs
conclusion. While fifth grade results were somewhat ambiguous, the fourth
grade results showed advantages for GALAXY students in items testing
skills such as experimenting and formulating correct hypotheses.
Curriculum-Embedded Assessments: In addition to comparing the
performance of GALAXY students with similar non-GALAXY students, researchers
assessed the GALAXY students on their level of mastery of the primary
themes of the GALAXY curriculum. Curriculum-embedded assessments were
used, together with videotaped performance assessments of small samples,
to establish the degree to which the curriculum was achieving its goal
of helping students learn about the core science concepts in each theme.
- Curriculum Theme 1: Using Patterns as Evidence: Approximately
seventy-five percent of the 1,678 GALAXY students who completed the
embedded performance task demonstrated a satisfactory capacity to
use patterns as evidence.
- Curriculum Theme 2: Doing Experiments: GALAXY students performed
five tasks associated with the experimental mixing of chemicals and
recorded their findings for later scoring. Overall, between 65% and
70% of the 1,256 GALAXY students understood the concept of experimentation,
could manipulate variables, and could predict probable outcome. Some
students, however, had difficulty explicitly stating the cause and
effect relationships among specific variables, a more demanding analytic
task. The videotaped assessment provides strong evidence that GALAXY
students approach unknown substances quite ready to experiment and
with the understanding that they can systematically and collaboratively
compare the properties of substances. (This was in contrast to comparison
students, who had difficulty organizing themselves to work together
and to begin to explore the problem systematically.) Taken together,
the evidence suggests that the GALAXY experience made a positive contribution
to student mastery of experimental methods.
- Curriculum Theme 3: Building Models to Explain and Invent
Ideas: A paper-and-pencil performance test involving several common
machines assessed students ability to draw and explain models
that showed how something worked or that could be modified to serve
a new purpose. The 1,503 GALAXY students performed very well, with
more than two-thirds scoring in the top two performance categories.
The videotaped performance task, however, indicated that for both
GALAXY and non-GALAXY students, the mastery of the process of going
from design to testing was limited, with no apparent advantage to
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