Project Overview

Promoting Reasoning and Conceptual Change in Science (PRACCIS) is a National Science Foundation funded project with the goal of investigating instructional strategies and scaffolds for supporting student engagement in scientific modeling and argumentation in middle school science classrooms. We describe the goals and key outcomes of the project.

PRACCIS is our NGSS-aligned program of research and design intended to promote the mastery of scientific practices and content knowledge in science. The acronym stands for Promoting Reasoning And Conceptual Change In Science. Our focus to this point in our research and design has been middle school life science. With our first grant, our aim was to advance theory and practice in the area of promoting scientific reasoning among middle school students. Our goal with the second grant has been to address emerging topics in STEM education by investigating scaffolding strategies that can promote reasoning abilities, understanding of the nature of science, and conceptual change on topics in middle school life science.

We view scientific reasoning as a process of using evidence to construct, revise, and evaluate scientific models (Giere, 1988, 2004; Morgan, 2004). Scientific inquiry centers on the dialogic discourse and epistemic activities of coordinating explanatory modeling with evidence (Chinn & Malhotra, 2002; National Research Council, 2007, 2011). Thus, our core instructional aim is to develop students’ abilities to construct and revise models, to coordinate models (and model revisions) with evidence, and to engage in effective, criteria-driven written and oral argumentation in support of model-evidence coordination. Students also learn to think with and about multiple models, as when alternative models are proposed to explain the same body of data.

To promote effective reasoning, we have developed a series of model-based inquiry units (ranging from one to seven weeks) that engage students in model-evidence coordination as they learn core scientific concepts and practices. The instructional units focus on content topics that students learn as a regular part of their seventh-grade curriculum, such as cell organelles, photosynthesis, cellular respiration, mitosis, and food webs. The learning units are structured around driving explanatory questions, are data-rich, and often require students to integrate their own data (generated in hands-on experiments) with the data of others, while generating and evaluating models in a dialogic social context (cf. Palincsar & Magnusson, 2001). Students work regularly in groups on a variety of tasks involving dialog centered around coordinating models with evidence. Some of these units and materials associated with them can be found on the “Classroom Resources” page.

The instructional units are centered around reasoning seminars. Reasoning seminars are small-group and whole-class discussions in which students engage in collaborative argumentation using evidence to construct, revise, compare, and evaluate explanatory models. The PRACCIS program makes heavy use of these forms of discussion, and it also encourages extensive writing by students as they develop and write down arguments for their positions.

We have used a variety of methods to scaffold argumentation, model building, and evaluation. Some of our key scaffolds are linked on the “Scaffolds for Scientific Reasoning” page. We have additionally worked with teachers to develop and implement a variety of approaches to enhancing students’ interest and motivation.