Teaching practices that matter in middle grades science

During middle school many students lose interest in science. Christopher Harris and Ronald Marx describe techniques that can help teachers create engaging and meaningful science experiences for these students  

THE MIDDLE GRADE YEARS are a critical time for engaging students in learning science. Yet, the way science is often taught during these years leaves many students bored and struggling to find relevance and meaning in their science classroom experiences. Educational research shows a steep decline in science interest and achievement among middle grade students. A challenge facing educators is to find new ways of teaching science that are engaging, relevant, and meaningful for students.

What we know
● Contextualizing instruction helps students see the relevance of science.
● Activating prior knowledge is an effective starting point for building scientific understanding.
● Supporting explanation and reasoning engages students in thinking deeply about science.
● Focusing on learning goals helps students stay on the intended learning path.
● Attending to student thinking is necessary for students to benefit from inquiry.

In this article, we describe a research-based approach to teaching middle grades science called Project-Based Science which has been shown to help address the problems of motivation and learning that students often encounter in science classrooms. We highlight five key teaching practices that make a difference when trying to use this approach with students.

New views on science instruction

We have learned much in the past 20 years about how to teach science effectively to middle school students. One of the most important lessons has been to make sure that when students learn science, they do the work of science. Students are engaged and successful learners when they do research and investigate the world around them. Through that research, they learn how scientists think about the world, and they learn that science is an active quest to gain deeper understanding.

This is a far cry from memorizing a list of terms, labeling a diagram, or mindlessly moving through the steps of a lab exercise when the whole class knows there is only one correct way to complete it. To be sure, it is important to engage learners in activities that are appropriate to their current knowledge and understanding. In general, middle school students cannot master tasks that are appropriate for high school students or beginning college students. But this does not mean that they can only memorize. They can think deeply about science if they engage in authentic, disciplined inquiry with carefully constructed support.

Project-Based Science

Project-Based Science (PBS) is a research-based approach to teaching science through inquiry. Projects are framed so that students investigate a driving question that guides instruction and organizes their investigations. Driving questions encompass science content and connect with students’ interests and curiosities about the world. In PBS classrooms, teachers create a meaningful context so that students can explore the driving question over several weeks. Students collaborate with peers and with their teacher to ask and explore smaller questions that contribute to understanding the driving question. They conduct investigations, weigh evidence, write explanations, and discuss and present findings.

Practices that matter

One of the most important concepts for teachers to understand as they use PBS in their classrooms is that the value of this approach to teaching science rests on engaging their students in thinking deeply about their work as learners. Unless students think deeply about their inquiry, they will simply be following steps in activities. Just as scientists do not merely follow steps in their research, nor can middle school students. They need to remember that their work is to engage in research to answer the driving question.

Many teaching practices are important in order to support PBS, but five are key: Contextualize science instruction; activate prior knowledge; support reasoning and explanation; focus on learning goals; and attend to student thinking.

  • Contextualize science instruction. For meaningful learning to happen, students need to be cognitively engaged and active in applying ideas. There are many ways to accomplish this, but we have found that creating compelling and relevant need-to-know situations for learning can be especially powerful for motivating students. For instance, students are more likely to be motivated to learn important ideas about force and motion by investigating why it is important to wear helmets when riding bicycles or skateboards, or to grasp key ideas in environmental science by investigating the quality of water and air in their communities. When immersed in such contexts, students can see first-hand how science can be used to solve problems that are relevant to their lives and community.
  • Activate prior knowledge. An important finding to emerge from educational research is the vital role of prior knowledge in learning. All learners, including children and scientists, use what they already know or have experienced to interpret the world around them and make sense of new information. Admittedly, students’ initial ideas about a science topic are oftentimes unrefined and off the mark. Research tells us that these fledgling ideas can actually serve as productive starting points for building more sophisticated science understandings. An important point for teachers to remember is that students require help in activating their relevant prior knowledge and using it to connect with scientific ideas.
  • Support reasoning and explanation. Another way to engage students in thinking deeply about science is to encourage and support reasoning and explanation. Scientists advance in their understanding not simply by describing the natural world, but by explaining it. They typically work in research teams to conduct investigations, generate and evaluate evidence, and then develop explanations of their findings. Scientists share their evidence and findings, and try to convince other members of the scientific community through their explanations. Similarly, students can advance in their own understanding by weighing evidence, interpreting results, evaluating claims, and sharing and critiquing explanations of their own and others.
  • Focus on learning goals. Scientific inquiry in school classrooms is typically carried out over days and weeks, rather than minutes and hours, and for this reason it can be easy for teachers and students to lose sight of the important ideas. When teachers organize instruction around learning goals and make clear the intended focus of learning for tasks, students are more likely to hone in on what they are trying to learn. This, in turn, may help students to better direct their learning when they are working together on inquiry tasks. Without some sense of the learning goals, students run the risk of missing relevant features of the phenomena under study, overlooking key science ideas, or picking up disconnected pieces of information.
  • Attend to student thinking. If students are to benefit from their science experiences, they must be skillfully guided in their participation. Teachers need to have a rich, flexible grasp of the science ideas under study as well as an understanding of how to move students forward in their thinking. One of the most important ways to understand and assess what students are thinking is to provide opportunities for students to make their thinking visible. Teachers can do this by orchestrating discussions that encourage students to talk about their thinking. As the class focuses on making sense of a science topic, the teacher carefully listens and assesses student understanding while also prompting for deeper engagement with science ideas. This productive form of discussion has been shown to help students reflect on their own thinking and participate in collective scientific thinking with their fellow classmates and teacher.


The teaching practices we describe here have been shown to benefit students. Though we feature them as essential characteristics of PBS, they can also be used with other inquiry approaches to instruction. Our aim has been to highlight practices that can help teachers create engaging, relevant, and meaningful science experiences for middle grade students.

About the authors

Christopher Harris is a Researcher in science education at the Center for Technology in Learning at SRI International in Menlo Park, California. He conducts research on teaching and learning in science classrooms and designs instructional interventions that aim to promote students’ achievement, interest, and motivation in science.

Ronald Marx is Professor of Educational Psychology and Dean of Education at the University of Arizona. His interdisciplinary research focuses on how classrooms can be sites for learning that is highly motivated and cognitively engaging.

Further reading

Duschl RA, Schweingruber HA, & Shouse AW (Editors) (2007), Taking Science to School: Learning and Teaching Science in Grades K–8. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

Krajcik JS, & Blumenfeld PC (2006), Project-Based Learning. In RK Sawyer (Editor), Cambridge Handbook of the Learning Sciences (pp. 317–333). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Krajcik JS, & Czerniak CM (2007), Teaching Science in Elementary and Middle School: A Project-Based Approach (3rd edition). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Michaels S, Shouse AW, & Schweingruber HA (2008), Ready, Set, Science!: Putting Research to Work in K– 8 Science Classrooms. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

Singer J, Marx RW, Krajcik JS, & Clay- Chambers J (2000), Constructing Extended Inquiry Projects: Curriculum Materials for Science Education Reform. Educational Psychologist, 35(3), 165–178.


June 2010