New Curricular Material for Science Classes: How Do Students Evaluate It?

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New Curricular Material for Science Classes:

How Do Students Evaluate It?

Sofia Freire&Cláudia Faria&Cecília Galvão& Pedro Reis

#Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2011

Abstract Living in an unpredictable and ever changing society demands from its’citizens the development of complex competencies that challenges school, education and curriculum. PARSEL, a pan-European Project related to science education, emerges as a contribution to curricular development as it proposes a set of teaching-learning materials (modules) in order to make science classes more popular and relevant in the eyes of the students and as such to increase their interest with school science. The goal of this study was to understand how students evaluate those innovative modules. This paper presents data concerning 134 secondary students, collected through interviews, questionnaires and written documents. A quantitative analysis of the data collected through questionnaires was complemented by a qualitative analysis of the data collected by interviews and written documents. Results show that understanding the relationship between science and daily life, participating in practical activities based on problem solving and developing critical thinking and reasoning were the issues most valued by students.

Keywords Students’interest . Science relevance . Science popularity . Science education

Introduction

Science has been acknowledged not only as a structuring dimension of today’s society (Osborne and Dillon 2008) but also, as a means of economical and social development (European Commission2004,2007). Important goals of science education nowadays are to

DOI 10.1007/s11165-011-9247-0

S. Freire (*)

:

C. Faria

:

C. Galvão

:

P. Reis

Institute of Education, University of Lisbon, Alameda da Universidade, 1649-013 Lisbon, Portugal e-mail: asraposo@ie.ul.pt C. Faria e-mail: cbfaria@ie.ul.pt C. Galvão e-mail: cgalvao@ie.ul.pt P. Reis e-mail: pedrorochareis@netcabo.pt

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educate enlightened citizens, who are aware of the potential and the limitations of scientific and technological knowledge, who are able to reflect critically about the world around them and to make responsible and informed decisions concerning issues related to their lives (European Commission 2004; Osborne and Dillon 2008; Schreiner and SjØberg 2004). However, empirical evidence illustrates that scientific literacy levels in the general population are low (Autio et al. 2007; European Commission2004), making us wonder about the competencies that citizens have for using scientific knowledge to understand the surrounding world and to make informed decision about issues that emerge from science, but whose consequences (social and human) go far beyond science. In addition, science education faces another challenge: students’disinterest with school science (Schreiner and SjØberg2004). Indeed, several studies have illuminated that not only students’disinterest in school science increases along with school progression (European Commission 2007; Murphy and Beggs2003) but also that science subjects are perceived as less interesting by the students (Osborne and Collins 2001). Besides, many students do not choose science subjects at school or pursue science careers (European Commission2004; Juuti et al.2009). Considering this overall scenario, many authors have been questioning what should be the goals of science education and how best to achieve those goals. Recently, interest in science subjects has been gaining increased attention. Several studies centered on interest in science subjects revealed that the arguments most frequently reported by students themselves for explaining their disinterest in school science is essentially its degree of difficulty (Osborne and Collins2001), the perception of low self-efficacy concerning science subjects (Lavonen et al. 2005; Trumper2006) and the lack of relevancy of the studied themes (Osborne and Collins 2001; Schreiner and SjØberg2004). In addition, students also mention that another source of disinterest are the teaching practices that, according to them, do not allow for participation and questioning, and are not based on their curiosity and amazement concerning the surrounding world (Lyons2006; Murphy and Beggs2003; Osborne and Collins2001).

Numerous studies suggest that challenging learning situations, which facilitate choice, which allow students’autonomy to explore issues and to make decisions and which foster curiosity and imagination, are factors associated with the promotion of students’interest (Lavonen et al.2005; Osborne and Collins2001; Palmer2009). Alongside these factors, the connection to students’ previous knowledge and experiences, and the active involvement of students in discussion and argumentation activities, which allow and promote critical thinking and reasoning also seem to be associated with the promotion of a greater interest in science subjects (Lavonen et al. 2005; Osborne and Collins2001). Therefore, it seems that teachers’strategies can play an important role in activating and maintaining interest (Juuti et al.2009; Lavonen et al.2005). Based on these considerations, PARSEL was developed with the objective to build and test a set of teaching-learning materials (modules). These modules include activities with certain characteristics and a strategy for implementing those activities (three stage model). These modules aim at making science classes more popular and relevant in the eyes of the students. After modules have been implemented, it is now worth knowing how students evaluated it. The present paper aims at understanding how did students react to PARSEL’s innovations and how they evaluate the distinctive characteristics of PARSEL modules.

Introducing PARSEL

PARSEL emerged from the need of the educational systems to respond to the increased disinterest of students in science subjects. Its main purpose was to create innovative science modules that would make science subjects more relevant and popular in the eyes of the students

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(www.parsel.eu). So, one of the goals with the implementation of the PARSEL modules was to make students find a purpose in the study of science and in Science itself; i.e., that students would be able to understand the importance that Science has in their lives and, hence, the importance of studying science (relevance) (Holbrook 2008). Another goal was that students would experience enjoyment in developing the proposed activities, leading them to wonder more about a topic and to want to develop more activities such as the ones proposed within PARSEL (popularity) (Holbrook2008). In addition, PARSEL aimed at developing complex cognitive competencies, as well as social, communication and attitudinal competencies, among others.

Taking these goals into consideration, modules present certain specific characteristics. Firstly, they were meant to be joyful and meaningful, and to promote involvement and arousal in students. Secondly, the proposed activities (such as experimentation, discussion and argumentation, role-playing, investigation activities, mathematical modulation, texts reading and analysis, graphs reading and interpretation, writing reports, questionnaire construction, among others) involved a practical component, were student centered and involved questioning and manipulation and an element of problem solving and decision making. Finally, two further important characteristics of the modules were: contextualiza-tion of the activities and linking school science with socio-scientific issues.

These are main ideas underlying the three stage model—the idea that all learning should be contextualized and that it is essential to establish a clear link between science and society, as a means to increase interest. Thus, the modules begin with a social theme, linked to daily lives of students (Stage 1. Scenario construction). The theme will then be analyzed through scientific procedures and using knowledge and scientific concepts (Stage 2. Inquiry-based problem solving stage), leading students to make a decision concerning the initial topic (Stage 3. Socio-Scientific Decision Making).

As modules are not primarily chosen considering students’interests but its suitability to curriculum (as evaluated by the teacher), the scenario construction plays an important role in activating students’interest with the theme. This is a very important stage for teachers to create certain conditions that enact students’interest about a topic. Our general literature review shows that the teacher can play a key role in expanding students’understanding about the relevance of the topic for their own learning (Lavonen et al. 2008). Also, the teacher can play a key role in illuminating the personal relevance of the topic, by allowing students to relate it to personal experiences (Waden2001), or to relate it to daily issues, their needs and their social and physical contexts (Schraw et al.2001; Trumper2006). The teacher’s role at this stage is even more important for capturing students’interest, as often students’reactions to certain topics are not based on informed choices; i.e., students are not interested in a topic because they do not understand its importance to aspects of their life or because they do not understand the importance of certain concepts or scientific procedures to highlight certain phenomena (Jenkins and Nelson2005).

After this stage, students are supposed to implement the activity in order to answer the initial raised question (Stage 2). One important characteristic is that activities should have a clear objective in the eyes of students, who should be able to see a purpose in activities that they are developing, i.e., they should realize that they are developing the activity in order to solve a problem and that the reached solution will facilitate their decision-making concerning the initial problem. Developing activities in order to solve a relevant problem, for which students do not know the answer, confers authenticity and meaning to the activities, which is extremely important to engage students with science learning (Koballa and Glynn2007).

Finally, the last stage consists in making a decision based on the evidence collected in stage 2. This is also a very important moment, as in order to make a socio-scientific decision, students have to communicate evidence collected from their previous actions, to

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present their positions, to discuss and to argue, all essential steps for helping students to consolidate ideas and to construct new meanings (Abell et al. 2000). In addition, when students present and explain their positions to others (peers and the wider school community), they develop not only complex cognitive competences but communication and social competences as well.

Methodology

In order to know how students evaluate innovative PARSEL’s modules we used a quantitative methodology, through the application of a questionnaire. In order to gain a deeper understanding of students’evaluation, we complemented the quantitative data with qualitative data collected by way of interviews and written documents.

Sample

All participant students (n= 134) were following science curricula and most of them wanted to pursue studies within scientific areas. The students, who were distributed among different secondary school grades (from 10th to 12th grade), came from four different schools, one of which has a private school, where students come from a high social and economic class. The other schools receive students from low and average social classes. One of the teachers implemented the modules in a chemistry class that was part of a program of special education and training. These are special classes designed for students aged 15 years or older, who are at risk of dropping out of school (Law nº. 453/ 2004). All classes were formed by a similar number of male and female students, except the class from the program of special education and training, which was just composed of ten male students.

One important characteristic of PARSEL was to facilitate teachers’ownership of the modules. So after being introduced to all the modules, teachers were encouraged to choose those modules that they thought were more adequate to curriculum and to students’ interests and characteristics. As teachers were teaching different science subjects and school grades, they choose to implement different modules. Some of the teachers implemented more than one module and students had to fill out one questionnaire per module. In all, 207 questionnaires were analysed.

In this study there were five teachers involved. Four of them had a formal connection with the Institute of Education, either because they were studying for their PhD in the area of science education (three of the teachers), or they had been studying for their master’s degree (one of the teachers). All of them had graduated in either geology or chemistry (Table1).

Next we will describe the modules that were used by the teachers and for which the students appreciated (for a fuller description, seewww.parsel.eu).

Modules Characterization

A Big Problem for Magellan: Food Preservation. (Food Preservation)

The objective of this module is to learn more about food preservation. For that, students will read texts, search for information on the web, develop an investigation activity about food preservation and present their findings and communicate them to the whole class.

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Analysis of a Journal Article and/or Magazine News (Analysis of News)

The objective of this module is to facilitate comprehension of the possible tensions that often surround scientific enterprise and technology and impact society. To promote this comprehension, students will collect newspaper or magazine news stories related to controversial issues in Science, Technology, Society and Environment. They will analyse newspaper or magazine news stories by taking into consideration some critical points, present their analyses to the class, and discuss the main ideas with peers.

How Can We Avoid Energy Losses in Our School? (Energy Losses)

In this module, students are to investigate how their school manages energy use, in order for the school to remain warm during the winter and cool during the summer. For that, students will develop a plan for resolving the initial problem (How can we avoid energy losses in school?), identify places and “equipments” from where energy losses or gains might occur, during winter as during summer, and search for relevant information. Based on their research, students will suggest a number of actions for reducing energy transference, they will develop a pamphlet or a model about ways to render school energetically efficient and they will present it to the school community.

Shall We Create New Organisms?(GMO)

The objective of this module is to evaluate the impact of different applications of genetic engineering on our society, with the aim of deciding on the allocation, or not, of a large funding for research in this field. For that, students will have to search for information on the web, analyse information concerning their initial questions, write an individual report where they present their decisions and their arguments, work in group to make a decision

Table 1 Characterization of teachers Name of teachers Initial training Academic degree Modules implemented

Subject School level

Alice Geology Science Education Master (still to be concluded)

Food Preservation Biology 12th Milk

Margaret Physics and Chemistry

Science education master Energy losses Chemistry 12th from a second chance programme Science education Ph.D (still to be concluded) Analysis of news Trip to Mars Cigarettes

Oscar Chemistry Science education master Zero emission Chemistry 10th and 11th Science education Ph.D

(still to be concluded)

Driving 50 not 60 Energy losses

Saul Geology Science education master Food preservation Biology 12th Science Education

Ph.D (still to be concluded)

GMO

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concerning allocation of funding for research in the field, present their decision to the class, and defend their ideas and discuss other’s ideas and arguments.

Planning a Space Trip to Mars (Trip to Mars)

The objective of this module is to facilitate reflection on environmental issues, namely on the need to adequately manage environmental resources in order to survive. For that, students are expected to search for information on the website, analyse information concerning their initial questions, write an individual report where they present their decisions and their arguments, work in groups to make an overall plan of the trip to Mars, present their proposed plan to the class and defend their ideas and discuss other’s ideas and arguments.

How Happy are You and Your Family with the Electricity Bill? (Electricity Bill)

This module leads to a decision making activity, designed to consolidate learning about consuming energy, and energy saving, taking examples from everyday life and to introduce the concept of power. It involves the reading of an electricity bill and checking that the calculation of the bill is correct and the construction and application of a questionnaire concerning habits of energy consumption. It introduces students to the (kilo)watt as a unit of power and the kilowatt hour as the unit used in the home for energy consumption.

It Wouldn’t Do Any Harm to Drive 60 km/h in a City Instead of 50 km/h Would It?(Driving 50 not 60)

This module involves a series of student centred activities that engages groups of students to apply modelling tools in relation to braking distances of cars. It will allow them to construct their own rules of thumb in relation to driving within a safe distance.

Milk—Keep Refrigerated (Milk)

In this module, students get to know the composition of milk and various kinds of milk. Furthermore they study and understand the role of acidity in the spoiling/turning sour of milk, as well as the effect of temperature on increasing of the acidity of milk. In addition, students prepare yogurt at home. Finally, a distinction is made between healthy food and non-healthy food products.

Should Zero Emission Cars be Made Compulsory—Is It Feasible? (Zero Emission)

This module involves a set of activities that allows students to consider factors which need to be considered if a car is to give zero emission (or the emission of water vapour only). The module is planned so that students suggest the scientific learning they need to understand about hydrogen and how fuel cells have a potential advantage over hydrogen itself, once the technology has been developed. The discussion centres around the feasibility of a zero emission car given the many social factors involved and the properties of hydrogen.

What is Worse, Cigarettes or Narghile? (Cigarettes)

This module describes laboratory activities that examines the chemical process of smoking and the components of smoke, of both cigarettes and water-pipes (narghiles also known as

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“hookah”). The aim of this activity is to expose adolescents to the scientific findings related to smoking and to present the relevance of chemistry in everyday life situations. [This module was adapted for the Portuguese culture and so narghile was not considered.] Data Collection

This study is part of a larger study aimed at collecting evidence of the effectiveness of implementation of these modules from the perspective of both students and teachers. In the present paper we consider only the perspective of the students. For analysing students’evaluation of the modules, we used mainly inquiry by questionnaire, which was complemented by an interview with a few students. Besides these methods, we collected written documents (students’ papers and written comments about the modules). Finally, one of the researchers carried out participant observation of one of the modules (Food Preservation) during four lessons.

The questionnaire was applied to all participating students at the end of each module and the interviews were carried out with only four students, from a 12th grade class. Lack of agreement either from the school or parents, as well as time constraints, explain such a small number of interviewed students.

Questionnaires, developed by the PARSEL group, were composed of 30 items, which students had to answer by selecting one of the following options: totally agree, partially agree, partially disagree or totally disagree. The main goals of the questionnaire were to understand: 1) Students’ overall evaluation of the modules, concerning cognitive and affective dimensions; 2) Students’ perceptions about the process of implementation and about the characteristics of the modules.

Students were interviewed in groups of two, after the implementation of the modules GMO and Food Preservation. As the researcher had carried out a participant observation for the module Food Preservation during four lessons, she was already familiar with interviewed students and she was able to question them concerning specific issues of implementation. Interviewees were recommended by their science teacher, considering their gender (two males and two females), their performance in science classes (high versus low achieving students) and also taking into consideration their ability to reflect and to express their opinions and positions. According to the teacher, their demographic as well as academic characteristics were representative of the class. Interviews were open ended (and lasted for about 1 h), and the main goal was to gain further understanding of the students’ experience with the modules and their evaluation of the modules’relevance and popularity, achieved learning goals, and the modules’impact on students’vision of science and science classes, as well as the students’overall perception of science.

Data Analysis

In order to analyse all 30 items presented in the questionnaire, a Principal Components Analysis, followed by Varimax Rotation, was used (KMO=0.80), from which eight components were extracted (61% of the variance explained). To establish the internal consistency of each factor, the Cronbach’s alpha coefficient was computed for each component. Any items that substantially reduced the homogeneity of each factor were subsequently removed. As a result, three items were removed from the analysis, leaving in a 27 item-instrument structured into eight components that were considered indicative of the following dimensions:Promotion of Cognitive Competencies(structured by five items;

α=0.73); Engagement with the Module (mainly structured by six items; α=0.77); STS Relation (structured by four items, α=0.79); Development of an Interventive Attitude

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(structured by three items,α=0.73);Teacher Feedback(structured by three items,α=0.75);

Rhythm of the Module (structured by two items, α=0.69); Importance of Experimental Work(structured by two items,α=0.60);Relevance of the Social Topic(structured by two items, α=0.35). Table 2 presents the items in each scale with their corrected item-total correlations.

As the internal consistency of the first six dimensions was acceptable, a score for each student was computed for each dimension (i.e. the average of the answers for all the structural items of the dimension) as a measure of the student’s opinion about the modules. These computed scores were compared between the different modules by a Kruskall-Wallis analysis, followed by a post-hoc Dunnett’s Test for unequal variances. Statistical analysis was performed using the computer program SPSS for Windows (Ver.16.0, SPSS Inc.).

For analysing qualitative data, arising from interviews and written documents, we used a method of content analysis. Through an iterative process, of reading and re-reading data (Milles and Huberman1994), we assigned meaningful pieces of text to previously defined categories (relevancy and popularity, enacted learning, modules’impact on students’vision of science and science classes, and their overall perception of science).

Results

In general, the great majority of students gave a very favourable evaluation of the modules tested (see Table3). Although there was some heterogeneity among the students’opinions, with the answers ranging from“fully agree”to“fully disagree”, in general the patterns were very similar within dimensions, and even between them, with more than 80% to 90% of students agreeing with the majority of the statements.

The students fully appreciated the activities (Engagement with the Module dimension, mean value = 2,“partly agree”, see Table3), and they experienced the promotion of some cognitive competencies like critical thinking, reasoning and a better understanding of science and technology (Promotion of Cognitive Competenciesdimension, mean value = 2, “partly agree”, see Table3).

Data from interviews is consistent with these findings. One male student defined the modules as: “They make us engaged. We learn in a different way. We became more motivated to learn some science content”. In general, the interviewed students mentioned that they appreciated the modules and pointed out the possibility for doing research work, and having to discuss and to argue with others in order to defend a position. Commenting on one of the modules, a female student explained her position:

“What we liked the most was the discussion between the groups and the fact that some of us were against and the others of us in favour of a position. We had to make the others change their mind about the issues regarding topic.”(Group interview) One female student, commenting on the discussion, wrote:

“…it was a very interesting and stimulating moment. We could really“see”the way they work in the scientific world. We were able to recognize that it is not a simple thing to reach a conclusion and make a decision about such important and polemic themes.”(Written document)

Learning was another much valued issue in the interviews. Students liked the modules because they thought that they learned things. For instance, one female student reflected on what she learned with the module, “We learned about genetically modified organisms. I

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Table 2 Items structuring student perception dimensions, reliabilities and corrected item-total correlations

Dimension α Items Corrected

item-total correlations

Promotion of

cognitive competencies

0.73 Q.05 [Having to think a lot makes science more interesting] 0.33 Q.15[I liked the discussion leading to making a socio-scientific

decision]

0.54

Q.17[I believe the discussions in this module were relevant for improving my reasoning skills]

0.54

Q.18 [Knowing why I was studying the science in this module made me understand the importance of learning science for my daily life]

0.58

Q.26 [This module provided me with opportunities to get answers to my questions]

0.49

Engagement with the module

0.77 Q.02 [I wish I could study more modules like this one] 0.62 Q.03[The tasks given to me through studying this module were

interesting]

0.65

Q.04 [This module made me think a lot] 0.49 Q.08 [Studying more modules like this one would make science

learning more useful for my life]

0.39

Q.21 [This module provided me with opportunities to participate in activities]

0.52

Q.28[With this module I was able to plan and develop my own experiments]

0.43

STS relation 0.79 Q.09 [The social issue helped me to know why I needed to study the science]

0.53

Q.10 [I solved practical scientific problems, related to everyday issues] 0.55 Q.11 [Solving practical scientific problems, related to everyday

issues, can be important and useful for my life]

0.68

Q.12 [The tasks given to me during the studying of this module allowed me to learn scientific knowledge that is useful for my daily life]

0.67

Development of an interventive attitude

0.73 Q.23 [This module encouraged me to share ideas with my friends] 0.51 Q.24 [This module helped me to be critical about scientific news in

the media]

0.54

Q.25 [This module encouraged me to ask questions] 0.60 Teacher feedback 0.75 Q.07 [Feedback from the teacher in class made the study of sciences

more interesting]

0.52

Q.14 [Feedback from the teacher in class made me understand the importance of learning science for my daily life]

0.64

Q.16 [The teacher introduced the module in a manner which I came to understand the importance and usefulness of science for my daily life]

0.58

Rhythm of the module 0.69 Q.06 [The pace of teaching this module was so fast that it made my

learning difficult]a 0.53 Q.13 [The pace of lessons in studying this module did not make the

topic interesting]a

0.53

Importance of experimental work

0.60 Q.29 [Planning my own experiments made me appreciate the importance and usefulness of the science for my everyday life]

0.44

Q.30 [I like to devise experiments] 0.44 Relevance of the social

topic

0.35 Q.01 [Science learning is useful and important when it involves a discussion of a social issue that includes a science component]

0.24

Q.20 [This module showed me the importance of science for decision making about social issues]

0.24

a

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didn’t know much about it. Now, I can make a decision based on my knowledge, for instance when I hear news on TV about the GMO”. Another female student, reflecting on the modules, mentioned that “we have been born within a certain state of affairs, about which we have little concern. But I think that these modules may help us think about all those things that make up our lives, they will help us question those things”.

The importance of science and of science classes for understanding the students’daily reality was another issue that emerged from the questionnaires. Indeed, students stressed the interaction between the activities performed and the understanding of the importance of science, both in general and for their daily life (STS Relationdimension, mean value = 1,“fully agree”, see Table3). Concerning the relevance of science, one of the male students stated that:

“We were taught certain subjects, certain methods and we started to acknowledge that all that we have at home comes from science… That is why we have so much comfort at home. This is a lifestyle completely different from the old times.”(Group interview)

Finally, the questionnaire analysis revealed that almost all students (99–100%) agreed about the importance of the inclusion of a social problem in the activities (Relevance of the Social Topicdimension).

Concerning students’personal attitudes, they felt that the activities changed their will to participate in society, referring to the fact that they became more critical about actual scientific issues and more secure to share and discuss their opinion with others (Development of an Interventive Attitude dimension, mean value = 2, partly agree, see Table3). As one male student explained in the interview,

“In the case of genetically modified organisms, we know more details about different opinions—public opinion, specialized opinions… And that make us more critical (…). This topic is extremely useful nowadays and it will be further useful in the future with all the technological evolution. So it is extremely significant that we can make up our mind concerning this topic. In that sense, this module was important for us.”(Group interview)

Concerning the development of the classroom activities, students stressed the importance of the teachers’behaviour for success (Teacher Feedbackdimension, mean value = 2, partly agree, see Table3), and they felt that the rhythm of the activities was all right (Rhythm of the Moduledimension, mean value = 2, partly disagree, see Table3).

Lastly, the questionnaire analysis highlighted the importance for students to plan their own experiments (Importance of Experimental Workdimension) (99–100% agree).

Table 3 Descriptive measures of the computed scores

Dimension n Average SD Range

Promotion of cognitive competencies 207 1.73 0.48 1.00–3.00

Engagement with the module 207 1.71 0.53 1.00–3.67

STS relation 207 1,39 0.50 1.00–3.50

Development of an interventive attitude 207 1,81 0.62 1.00–4.00

Teacher feedback 207 1,64 0.52 1.00–3.67

Rhythm of the modulea 207 2,07 0.78 1.00–4.00

Each score could vary between 1 (fully agree) and 4 (fully disagree)

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This was another salient issue in the interview. Students stressed positively the practical character of the activities (namely, having to plan and to decide about a course of action). One female student explained her position on an aspect of one of the modules.“[I liked] the experiment part. Manipulating the food and then… planning [an experiment] and then having to make conclusions”.

Additionally, one of the male students stressed in the interview the type of learning that arose from the possibility of taking full responsibility for planning and implementing an experimental activity.

“By implementing an experiment we started to understand the methods that the scientists use and we were not used to it. We had to plan and to implement our own experimental plan, something that we were not expecting to do. We are used to starting with a ready-made experimental plan and, then, having to implement it. But now we started to understand the difficulties that the scientists also have in posing questions, in identifying problems and in solving problems. They have to develop new plans; they have to be constantly changing old practices and plans. They realize that some procedure is not perfect and they have to change. We acknowledged that it is a very demanding work.”(Group interview)

Finally, mention should be made of the collaborative process involved in solving a socio-scientific problem. The students felt that it was not only important for facilitating the development of communication and argumentation competencies, but also for facilitating learning. According to one female student,

“I think that when we develop cooperative work, if someone does not understand something, there is always another member of the group who understood and who can help explain it. That person will explain differently from the teacher and in a certain way he will be able to make us understand.”(Group interview)

Another student pointed to the joyful dimension of collaborative work.

“I think that working in groups and the fact that so many professions (doctor, vet, farmer, environmentalist, animal rights activist) were involved, made the work more dynamic and fun, as each of us had to face his/her profession. And this made us more conscious about the different positions and interests included in the theme.”(Written document of a male student)

Considering the comparison of the students’evaluations between the different modules tested (Table4) (Kruskall-Wallis Analysis: χ2=51.63, df=9,p<0.001 for Promotion of Cognitive Competencies dimension; χ2=82,59, df=9, p<0.001 for Engagement with the module

dimension; χ2=35,86, df=9, p<0.001 for STS relation dimension; χ2=45,27, df=9, p< 0.001 forDevelopment of an interventive attitudedimension; χ2=62,18, df=9,p<0.001 for

Teacher feedbackdimension;χ2=32,47, df=9,p<0.001 forRhythm of the moduledimension), there were three modules that stood out:Trip to Mars,Analysis of NewsandCigarettes. The first two modules were fully appreciated by the students, presenting the lowest score (fully agree) in all considered dimensions. On the contrary, the third module presented the higher score (fully disagree) for the Engagement with the Moduledimension and the lowest score (fully agree) for theRhythm of the Moduledimension. However, in this module, theTeacher Feedbackdimension revealed a very positive appreciation by the students. It should be noted that these three modules were only implemented with the class from the special education and training program which was composed of just 10 students. Thus, the findings related to the evaluation of these particular modules should be interpreted with caution.

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Table 4 Descriptive measures of the computed scores for each module (n=207)

Module Dimension Average SD Range

GMO Cognitive competencies 1.86 0.50 1.40–2.80

Engagement with the module 1.72 0.53 1.003.00

STS relation 1,54 0.31 1.25–2.25

Interventive attitude 1,82 0.65 1.00–3.33

Teacher feedback 1,79 0.59 1.00–3.00

Rhythm of the modulea 2,31 0.75 1.50–4.00

Food preservation Cognitive competencies 1.97 0.62 1.00–3.20

Engagement with the module 1.69 0.46 1.17–2.60

STS relation 1,65 0.68 1.003.50

Interventive attitude 2,04 0.62 1.33–3.33

Teacher feedback 2,00 0.54 1.003.67

Rhythm of the modulea 2,04 0.82 1.004.00

Trip to Mars Cognitive competencies 1.11 0.27 1.00–1.80

Engagement with the module 1.02 0.07 1.00–1.20

STS relation 1.00 0.00 1.00–1.00

Interventive attitude 1.19 0.38 1.00–2.00

Teacher feedback 1.11 0.24 1.00–1.67

Rhythm of the modulea 1.89 0.55 1.003.00

Analysis of news Cognitive competencies 1.06 0.10 1.00–1.20

Engagement with the module 1.02 0.06 1.00–1.20

STS relation 1.02 0.08 1.00–1.25

Interventive attitude 1.00 0.00 1.00–1.00

Teacher feedback 1.00 0.00 1.00–1.00

Rhythm of the modulea 1.25 0.42 1.00–2.00

Energy losses Cognitive competencies 1.64 0.44 1.0–2.60

Engagement with the module 1.57 0.37 1.00–2.50

STS relation 1.43 0.45 1.003.00

Interventive attitude 1.69 0.56 1.00–3.00

Teacher feedback 1.51 0.38 1.00–2.00

Rhythm of the modulea 2.16 0.71 1.004.00

Milk Cognitive competencies 1.96 0.56 1.20–3.00

Engagement with the module 1.66 0.32 1.33–2.17

STS relation 1.87 0.82 1.00–3.50

Interventive attitude 1.97 0.55 1.00–3.00

Teacher feedback 2.03 0.51 1.33–3.00

Rhythm of the modulea 2.40 0.61 1.003.00

Electricity bill? Cognitive competencies 1.99 0.38 1.20–2.60

Engagement with the module 1.89 0.30 1.33–2.50

STS relation 1.44 0.32 1.00–2.25

Interventive attitude 2.08 0.51 1.33–3.00

Teacher feedback 1.83 0.43 1.00–2.67

Rhythm of the modulea 2.32 0.69 1.00–3.50

Cigarettes Cognitive competencies 1.88 0.38 1.40–2.80

Engagement with the module 3.10 0.40 2.50–3.67

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Concerning the module Cigarettes, the majority of students seemed to consider it difficult to understand (80%) and saw it as a closed activity, giving them little autonomy. This attitude was reflected by their disagreement with the following statements: “This module provided me with opportunities to participate in activities”(100% disagreement), “This module made me think a lot”(100% disagreement),“This module provided me with opportunities to get answers to my questions”(80% disagreement), and“With this module I was able to plan and develop my own experiments”(80% disagreement).

The other two modules (Trip to Mars,Analysis of News) were not only popular with the students but they also seemed to have been considered relevant for their lives, as evidenced by the total agreement (100% of the students) with the statements:“The tasks given to me during the studying of this module allowed me to learn scientific knowledge that is useful for my daily life”;“Studying more modules like this one would make science learning more useful for my life”; “The social issue helped me to know why I needed to study science”;“Solving practical scientific problems, coming from everyday issues, can be important and useful for my life”. This idea that science learning can be useful for their life is also evident in the written report concerning the moduleAnalysis of News. One male student expressed his willingness to share with his father what he learned in science classes concerning radioactivity.

“I also learned about Radon gas. My father is from Guarda (an inner Portuguese town) and I have to tell him some things about granite.”(Written document)

Discussion

Evidence collected for this study is consistent with the recent literature concerning the importance of developing contextualized and meaningful activities in the eyes of the students for increasing interest (Lavonen et al.2008; Osborne and Collins2001; Schraw et

Table 4 (continued)

Module Dimension Average SD Range

Interventive attitude 2.23 0.85 1.33–4.00

Teacher feedback 1.17 0.36 1.00–2.00

Rhythm of the modulea 1.20 0.48 1.00–2.50

Zero emission Cognitive competencies 1.78 0.37 1.40–2.60

Engagement with the module 1.67 0.38 1.00–2.67

STS relation 1.68 0.59 1.002.75

Interventive attitude 1.67 0.57 1.00–3.00

Teacher feedback 1.72 0.54 1.00–2.67

Rhythm of the modulea 2.16 0.85 1.004.00

50 km/h not 60 km/h Cognitive competencies 1.70 0.35 1.00–2.60

Engagement with the module 1.82 0.38 1.17–2.50

STS relation 1.48 0.40 1.00–2.75

Interventive attitude 1.87 0.58 1.00–3.67

Teacher feedback 1.70 0.46 1.00–3.00

Rhythm of the modulea 2.10 0.82 1.003.50

Each score could vary between 1 (fully agree) and 4 (fully disagree)

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al. 2001; Swarat2008). Indeed, the relevance of the modules was a salient issue in the students’evaluations. Understanding why it is important to study certain science topics and the usefulness of science for their daily lives and for the promotion of a more critical participation in society, were some of the dimensions much emphasised by the students.

But, it was not only the nature of proposed activities that increased students’interest; the teachers also played an important role. Indeed, teachers chose modules for the students, and so they were not based on the students’explicit interests. In this way teachers played a key role in stimulating students’ interest by contextualizing the studied topics and linking science with social issues so as to highlight the importance of science for understanding the social issue (as had been pointed already by Jenkins and Nelson2005; Lavonen et al.2005; Osborne and Collins2001). Especially in this study, the students’answers to all questions related to the dimensions ofTeacher FeedbackandRelevance of the Social Topicreveal that the strategy used by the teacher to implement the modules was a crucial issue in promoting the students’interest in the studied topics.

One other issue that emerged from data concerns popularity. Modules were perceived as popular which involved practical activities based on problem solving and involving planning, decision making and discussion. But more than that, despite accounting for a modules’ popularity, these characteristics of the modules also promoted the development of critical thinking and reasoning, which were seen as important issues in the eyes of the students. Indeed, students appreciated most the activities that had a practical character as well as those that involved higher order thinking skills. This point was made particularly clear with the module that had a more prescriptive character (Cigarettes). According to the students, this module limited their autonomy in planning and decision making and even in the kind of interpretations they were allowed to make, and it was not perceived as favourably as the other modules.

The research literature is rich in evidence supporting the importance of developinghands on

activities for enacting meaningful learning and for motivating and engaging students in science and science classes (Holstermann et al.2009). However, another dimension has been emphasised: minds on. For the kind of finality one wants for science education it is not enough to develop practical activities (hands on), which do not involve higher order thinking and reasoning (Abell et al.2000; Bybee2006; Hofstein and Lunetta2003; Wheeler2000). This minds on dimension is reflected in the implemented activities that involve decision making, discussion, taking on different roles, argumentation, justification, explanation and interpretation. By developing all these actions, students are required to think critically, to take deeper looks at issues and, as a consequence, they also are required to develop more complex visions of socio-scientific topics. Additionally, all of these minds on related issues were shown to be associated with increased interest in school science themes.

Another important issue concerns the students’vision of science. These students, who were already familiar with science and were following science curricula, seemed to consider science as a body of distant, de-contextualized facts not related to everyday life. In this work, they mentioned that science became a more familiar process that they can use in their daily activities of producing and negotiating meaning, a process that impregnates their lives. Students’ accounts suggest that they began to recognize many life situations as involving science and technology, and that they developed an awareness of the complex interactions among science, technology, and society. Developing this kind of understanding about science and about scientific knowledge is an important goal of science education nowadays, as it allows students (future citizens) to act responsibly and to take part in decisions concerning societal and scientific issues (Millar and Osborne1998). The current aim of scientific literacy in science education not only involves facilitating knowledge of key concepts, but also understanding scientific inquiry as a human enterprise (DeBoer

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2000; Ryder2001) and understanding science as an interplay of competing ideas instead of one unique, correct and non-controversial set of theories (Millar and Osborne 1998). According to Millar and Osborne (1998), this image of the scientific enterprise and of science may contribute to the development of a deeper understanding and appreciation of science. This relation was clear in some of the students’answers, for whom the experience with the complexity inherent in scientific enterprise made them more conscious about science and about the nature of scientific knowledge and enhanced their appreciation of science and of school science.

Conclusion

Considering the present sample of students’evaluation of the given modules, we emphasize two points that stand out from the data: (a) The importance of providing students with the opportunity for planning empirical experiments and/or researching theoretical evidence, in order to find an answer to one specific problem related to everyday life. (b) The importance of promoting students’engagement in discussion tasks, where they can question and argue with peers, based on evidences obtained and researched by them. Although these results are based on a small local sample, they are consistent with other studies (e.g. Lyons 2006; Osborne and Collins2001). This consistency strengthens the idea that curriculum proposals which are based on methodologies that promote student engagement by stimulating their scientific thinking skills, are seen by the students as worthwhile.

These results should be seen by the teachers as an indication that the science curriculum has to be understood not only in terms of content knowledge to be assimilated by students, but especially it has to integrate new forms of teaching and learning that take into account the European recommendations, that stress, among other important points, the introduction of inquiry-based approaches (European Commission2007) and the importance of facilitating students’active intellectual engagement and the creation of situations that facilitate personal and meaningful knowledge construction mediated by social interaction (European Commis-sion2004). This indication is particularly important for Portuguese teachers, who are often somewhat reluctant to change their practices, citing the difficulties related to the broad expanse of the science curriculum and students’negative attitudes toward science. However, the results of this study show exactly the opposite. The curriculum is better managed with integrative activities that appeal to different types of knowledge and competencies. In addition, students’attitudes concerning school science are directly related to the creation of stimulating learning environments that provide students with challenging problems and that facilitate the construction of personal meaning in learning science.

Acknowledgements Part of this study was supported by the European Commission (6th FWP) as part of the Project PARSEL—Popularity and Relevance of Science Education and Scientific Literacy.

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