Marcia Linn, Ph.D.
Marcia Linn, Ph.D.
Professor, Development and Cognition (Education)
University of California, Berkeley

Science Instruction Gets WISEr (Elementary to High School)

Practicing scientists critique each other’s work, turn to each other for advice and build on each other’s ideas. They come up with creative ways to gather data to support their claims. They design compelling, media-rich ways to present complex information to a variety of audiences, from scholars and policymakers to educators, parents, healthcare providers, college students and even young kids.

Today’s scientists in every discipline—math, technology, engineering, reading, writing, art, sociology, psychology, philosophy—contribute fascinating insights. In many schools, though, science instruction obscures the fascination by asking students to listen to lectures, read textbooks or watch demonstrations.

Right now research is underway to improve science instruction. And partnerships of experts (educators, scientists, artists, computer programmers, psychologists) are making it dynamic, enticing and more rigorous for kids. How, exactly, is science education changing? One way is through the use of technology, particularly virtual learning environments.

At the University of California, Berkeley, we created a virtual environment called WISE, the web-based inquiry science environment. WISE is a simple, powerful learning environment in which students from 4th to 12th grade analyze current scientific controversies, examine real-world evidence and come up with creative solutions. WISE is free and available to the public.

How does it work? When students sign in to WISE, they find a simple user interface for units that feature highly interactive simulations and models. Teachers select units from among many alternatives for their grade spans. The units challenge students to investigate complex, real-world problems: How can we slow climate change? How can NASA safely deorbit the International Space Station (ISS)? How can we grow energy-rich plants? Which International Space Stationindividuals are at risk for inheriting cystic fibrosis? What makes a good cancer medicine?   

Once in the virtual space of a project, the learning starts. Students explore a complex problem and come up with a plan. In the case of the project about the ISS, they learn everything they can about the space station and deorbiting controversy, and then come up with a plan for NASA to deorbit it safely.

A number of tools support the process and help students process information and develop ideas. Students take notes, organize their ideas in our “ideas basket,” collaborate with peers and participate in discussions—all in the virtual space of WISE. Most importantly, they conduct virtual experiments where they can test ways to deorbit the ISS. When needed, they can access hints and guidance. For example, they are reminded that they need to develop a plan that works under varied conditions.

Teachers using WISE can monitor the progress of their students using a visual interface that shows the progress of each student. They can flag student work to display in a class discussion, identify students who are behind and need help and provide guidance on the comments that students write in response to each prompt. Teachers can also use the grading tool to give guidance to individuals or groups of students—even taking advantage of “premade” comments that have been developed for earlier runs of the unit.

WISE is exciting and robust but also a work in progress. We build on research on how children learn to improve our units. We continuously test and refine our materials to ensure that they communicate the main points and do not distract learners with extraneous information. We conduct comparisons to investigate relevant questions. For example, in several studies, we compared static pictures of scientific phenomena (like chemical reactions) to dynamic visualizations. Our findings demonstrate the value of dynamic representations to help students understand phenomena that are too small (atoms), fast (electrons) or vast (solar system) to observe.

When done well, virtual learning environments are transforming—and improving—the way we teach science. They simulate some of the experiences and interactions of practicing scientists. They give students opportunities to make predictions, conduct experiments, interpret the results, discuss their findings with others and revise their ideas. And they allow designers to author new activities using proven tools. Comparison studies show that students become wiser when they use WISE.