Report – Digital Promise


Illustration of various science symbols

Read the Executive Summary below or download the full Research Report to learn more about the Challenge Based Science project and its larger implications for the fields of Next Generation Science Learning and Open Educational Resources


Throughout the 2018-19 school year, 18 middle school teachers and five administrators from three U.S. school districts partnered with instructional coaches and learning sciences researchers from Digital Promise to address an ambitious educational challenge: How might we deepen engagement and learning of middle school science in our schools and beyond? The overarching goals of the Challenge Based Science Learning Project, funded by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, included producing high-quality open educational resources (OER) for middle school science, and understanding whether and how activities built around these resources can promote deeper learning in science classrooms. Digital Promise organized this collaborative effort and also provided formative evaluation and research support. 

The project’s main activity was for teachers to create and implement science lessons that were “challenge based” and aligned with the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS)  (NGSS Lead States, 2013). Challenge Based Learning (CBL) is a type of problem-based learning distinguished by its requirement that students engage with, investigate, and act on authentic challenges they find personally meaningful (Cator & Nichols, 2008; Nichols, Cator & Torres, 2016). In accordance with this model, participating teachers designed science lessons where teachers prompted students with a phenomenon and had them come up with questions and a challenge to pursue. To align with NGSS, teachers identified in advance the set of disciplinary core ideas, science and engineering practices, and cross-cutting concepts that the challenges would target.   

The project’s overall goals were to promote deeper learning in middle school science lessons and to strengthen the ecosystem of K-12 OER by drawing from and contributing to the existing pool of resources and supports. The project was experimental in nature: No one to our knowledge had tried combining CBL and NGSS in this way, or examined the impact of this combination on student learning. Furthermore, it was unclear whether a curriculum design project could impact use and development of OER in K-12 contexts. Synthesizing what we learned from 54 teacher interviews, more than 150 hours of classroom observations, 32 student focus groups, 71 samples of science lessons and associated student work, and participatory observations and participant surveys of two multi-day lesson design workshops, this report addresses the following questions:

  1. What do teacher-created challenge based lessons aligned to NGSS look like?  
  2. If teachers make and implement challenge based lessons that are aligned to NGSS, does deeper learning occur more frequently?  
  3. What are lessons for the field? What are facilitators and barriers for standards-aligned challenge based learning? To what extent and in what ways do OER facilitate standards-aligned, challenge based science learning? 

Characteristics of the Challenge Based Science Learning Lessons

Both CBL and NGSS focus on student-driven problem solving, with NGSS emphasizing three-dimensional learning of science, and CBL bringing student self-direction and engagement to the fore. Combining the pedagogical ideals of CBL and NGSS, teachers in this project produced 15 challenge based science lessons that had several features in common. They centered around complex, real-world issues; they involved rounds of student questioning and student-led research (usually online, secondary research); and they involved students learning and working toward a goal greater than simply “learning the material” or “getting a grade.”  

The lessons ranged from examining human impact on the environment to engineering solutions and addressing public health concerns. In each lesson, students typically engaged with an essential question about helping others through raising awareness or designing innovations. Teachers often encouraged students to generate questions about an intriguing phenomena to help them internalize the lessons’ essential questions, and take ownership of their challenge. Students’ investigations of their essential question fell under three main categories. All lessons involved some amount of secondary research, where students searched existing information to better understand phenomena and/or inform their design solutions. Many students also conducted science investigations and used engineering design practices to solve problems. Finally, the lessons called for students to take action and rise to their challenge, with most student action steps having to do with awareness raising, or with conceptualizing products to help the environment or improve the human condition.

When possible, teachers used open access resources to ensure that the lessons they created could be shared with other teachers without any copyright barriers. While teachers co-created a resource bank of existing middle school science OER, and were provided some time to explore these resources, most lessons teachers created did not rely substantially on existing OER in either design or conception. Teachers relied most heavily on their personal knowledge and experience with their students as well as practical considerations (e.g., taking into account the content that needs to be covered when the lesson will be implemented) to decide on their lesson topic. Once the lesson topic was decided, teachers typically used Google search to find relevant materials rather than looking through different OER websites.

Many aspects of the challenge based science lessons felt new and beneficial to most teachers, particularly student ownership of learning and the engagement that comes with it. Most students also saw the challenge based lessons as being very different from their normal lessons and appreciated the lessons’ real-world relevance, the freedom to learn, and working with others. Teachers identified several areas in which the lessons could be improved, including sequencing and logistics, assessment, and promoting deeper research skills.

Deeper Learning Opportunities and Outcomes in Challenge Based Lessons

The project compared challenge based lessons with lessons that teachers characterized as representative of what students usually do in their classes (“typical”), and lessons that were relatively well-aligned with at least one of the NGSS science and engineering practices (“NGSS practices-aligned”). Independent scorers scored the lessons and associated student work on rubrics that were designed to assess deeper learning and grade-appropriateness of science content. 

The results were highly encouraging with respect to the potential for challenge based science lessons to provide deeper learning opportunities to students. On average, relative to typical lessons, challenge based science lessons substantially provided more opportunities for: real-world engagement, self-direction, practice of science and engineering skills, conducting critical research, substantive collaboration, and effective communication. Relative to NGSS practices-aligned lessons, the challenge based lesson scores were rated significantly higher in three of the six deeper learning dimensions (real-world engagement, critical secondary research, and effective communication) and equivalent in the remaining three areas (self-direction, practicing science and engineering, and substantive collaboration). Where challenge based lessons scored higher, they score higher by quite a lot (between 0.81 to 1.75 standard deviation units). Moreover, challenge based lessons did this while being just as strong as the two other types of lessons in terms of providing opportunity to learn grade-appropriate science content. Student work scores showed, unsurprisingly, that students’ deeper learning outcomes are positively and strongly correlated with rating of the opportunities to learn deeply. It also confirmed teachers’ and students’ reports that students engaged more with the real world, did more secondary research, and communicated more often and more effectively in challenge based lessons. 

These results also indicated that there is room for improvement in the challenge based lessons, especially in two areas: increasing opportunities for students to practice science investigations and engineering design, and to conduct secondary research more critically. Corroborating what the research team observed through classroom visits, the independent scorers who examined the challenge based lessons found that the deeper learning opportunities in these two areas, while stronger than the opportunities in typical lessons, were still just “emerging” (i.e., a score of approximately 1). So while challenge based lessons designed in this project significantly provided “more” opportunities than typical lessons (that scored on average approximately or a little over 0), the challenge based science lessons left room for improvement on this front. 

Lessons for the Field

Many of the project teachers said their key takeaway was that it was difficult but worthwhile to let students drive some of their own learning     students can rise to learning challenges when given the opportunity, and this type of learning can benefit all students, not just high achievers. Teachers found the lesson design process to be difficult because they had to step out of their comfort zone in many ways, and so much was left for them to figure out. They recommended that other teachers could benefit from having some examples of strong NGSS-aligned CBL units to start from. Finally, two teachers who were fully trained in project-based learning speculated that incorporating shorter-term CBL units, as teachers did in this project, might be a more scalable alternative than trying to shift teachers to doing all of their instruction through projects. 

Students had advice as well, mainly for their teachers. They wanted the projects to be relevant and wanted enough time to work on them. They expressed a preference for doing “hands-on” activities, such as experiments and prototype building, rather than just reading about things on the internet. 

We noticed, in addition, that student-centered, standards-aligned science teaching requires many skills, underscoring the importance of creating a rich learning ecosystem for teachers where these skills can be cultivated and developed. Particularly when a large transformation of values, beliefs, or behaviors is requested of teachers, professional learning experiences should: build on teachers’ knowledge and expertise; be experiential, intense, and affective; be professionally relevant; be organized around value-laden goals; provide sustained opportunities for critical reflection; and be founded on authentic relationships. 

Next Steps

The NGSS-aligned CBL units created through this project provide the content for a repository of middle school science materials Digital Promise has made available under a Creative Commons license. Future professional learning activities around student-centered, NGSS-aligned instruction can make use of these examples. A refined version of the rubrics used to rate deeper learning opportunities provided by the units and displayed in student work was also created. (Several of the rubric level definitions were refined based on suggestions from raters as well as reliability indices.)  

Published examples of CBL science units and deeper learning rubrics can raise interest and awareness. However, to really achieve high-quality implementation of challenge based science learning, an investment in professional learning and support systems for science teachers is necessary. Despite national efforts to promote NGSS, less than half of all middle school science teachers emphasize learning how to do science in their classrooms and less than 10 percent emphasize learning how to do engineering. Sporadic half-day professional development sessions are not going to be sufficient to overcome the present over-reliance on teacher-directed transmission of science concepts. While not all teacher professional development can (or necessarily should) be as extended and participant centered as the teacher learning experiences in this project, initiatives that encourage teachers to radically change their instruction to a more student-centered approach will always need a significant experiential component.

The next logical line of inquiry involves figuring out a cost-effective approach to supporting teacher learning and culture change to emphasize more active, Challenge Based Learning. Prior experience would suggest that giving students encouragement and access to existing, NGSS-aligned CBL units would be insufficient to support high-quality implementation by most teachers. But it may not be necessary for teachers to design their own CBL units from scratch as they did in this project. A hybrid approach, in which teachers have examples of well-designed units and unit templates but engage in customizing the unit templates for their own students and curriculum, could reduce time requirements and teacher effort while still engendering a sense of ownership. We believe it is important, though, that any streamlined version of professional development around challenge based science learning preserve key qualities of this project, including leadership support, modeling of the target instructional approach, an ongoing learning community, and multiple iterations with feedback and reflection.

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