Report: Science PD helps teachers, students

A study of online professional development experiences offered by the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) shows significant gains in teacher content knowledge and student learning among participants from the Houston Independent School District (HISD).

The study, by the not-for-profit research firm Edvantia, examined the use and impact of SciPacks, interactive web-based modules developed by NSTA and offered through its online Learning Center. The on-demand, inquiry-based units help teachers better understand the science content they teach and how to teach it by self-directing them through narrative, simulations, assessments, and hands-on experiences on specific topics. SciPacks also offers online and email-based mentors and advisors to provide subject-matter and pedagogical content knowledge support.

The Houston study focused on two specific NSTA SciPacks, Earth’s Changing Surface and Force and Motion, which are areas aligned with the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills for Science. The study involved nearly 60 elementary and middle-level teachers and nearly 300 of their students in grades 5, 6 and 8. It examined the extent to which teachers used the two SciPacks, the impact on science teacher efficacy, teacher and student content knowledge in both earth science and force and motion, and teacher instructional practices.

The results indicate that use of the SciPacks significantly increased teacher content knowledge of earth science and force and motion over the course of the study. Assessments given both before and after use of the program show that teacher knowledge of earth science increased by approximately 17 percentile points, compared to 8 percentile points for the control group. Similar positive results were found on the topic of force and motion with teachers showing increased content knowledge of approximately 16 percentile points, compared to 5 percentile points for the control group. The impact of the professional development program also gave teachers greater confidence in their ability to teach science. For both topics, teachers reported feeling better prepared to teach the science subjects.

The study also suggests that the gains in teacher content and preparedness can translate into significant gains for students. Fifth-grade students scored significantly higher on an earth science assessment than did those in control teachers’ classrooms. Students had gain scores of 17 percentile points, compared to nearly 12 points for students of control group teachers. In addition, 6th- and 8th-grade students had force-and-motion gain scores that were significantly larger than those of students in control teachers’ classrooms. Scores of these students increased approximately 10 percentile points, compared to 2 percentile points for those in the control groups. Although the number of classrooms included was small, these findings suggest that SciPack participants may be having a positive impact on their students.

The study was conducted in 2009 in the Houston Independent School District with financial support from the ExxonMobil Foundation. The research was based on a two pretest-posttest delayed-treatment control group design involving teachers recruited from HISD’s Abrazo and Science Learning and Leadership Collaborative programs. Several measures were used to answer the research questions, including teacher and student assessments, teacher surveys, and web use statistics. The study is available from the NSTA Learning Center at