StoriesMelissa Luna ’01

Teaching Science Through Doing

Melissa Luna uses her National Science Foundation Career Award to research elementary science teaching methods. She encourages teachers to focus on students' curiosity.

Incredible as it may sound, Melissa Luna was once an elementary teacher "who was afraid to teach science," she says. "I felt I didn't have the content knowledge or the pedagogical knowledge to teach science effectively."

Melissa's confidence took a great leap forward during graduate school at Lesley, where she received a Master of Science degree. She is now an assistant professor of science education in the department of Curriculum and Instruction/Literacy Studies at West Virginia University. In 2016, she was awarded a National Science Foundation Career Award, which is accompanied by an $800,000 research grant.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) gives career awards to junior faculty “who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through outstanding research, excellent education and the integration of education and research within the context of the mission of their organizations.”

Melissa is using the award, distributed over five years, to research West Virginia fifth-grade teachers’ “knowledge of noticing students’ science thinking,” she says, and will eventually develop teacher materials based on her findings. The work is "grounded on the premise that there is a relationship between teachers' practice and knowledge."

For part of the project, Melissa will use video technology that records the participating teachers’ instruction as they plan and teach science lessons and assess student work. 

In addition, when teachers notice students thinking, they will press a button on a remote that will leave a digital marker on the video, which will further contribute to Melissa's research. They will note such things as students sharing an experience, gesturing, sketching, or asking a question. Melissa's premise is that because teachers are key to in supporting children’s thinking and understanding, when they respond to what children say and do, children can better make sense of scientific ideas.

Melissa earned a BS in Elementary Education from Valparaiso University, an MS in Environmental Education from Lesley, and a PhD in the Learning Sciences from Northwestern University.

We asked her a few questions recently.

What are a few practical things you suggest to elementary teachers to better engage students in science learning? 

I do not think there is one way or a best-practice approach to teaching science; different approaches are effective in different contexts at different times. I do think, however, that no matter the approach, if teachers are responsive to their students’ thinking and ideas, they will support meaningful science learning. 

Being responsive to students’ ideas involves noticing, making sense of, and responding to students' thinking as it unfolds during science lessons. Through their interaction in the world, students already have ideas about the why and hows in the natural world, and in these ideas are elements of their thinking that are productive for their learning in science. If teachers understand that science teaching must focus on students’ ideas first—that is, not telling them what to think but giving them the opportunity to share what they think and recognize the productive pieces in their thinking—then meaningful science learning ensues. So no matter your approach, if you have your eye on students’ thinking, you will support students’ learning in science.  

What would you say to anyone who is thinking of becoming a teacher but who might be afraid of teaching science?

Frankly, I did not like teaching science at first because the only way I knew how was to use the science textbook and emphasize science vocabulary and facts. It was boring for me so it had to be boring for my students. 

When I began to understand that science teaching can (and should) focus on students' curiosity and questions in a way that engages students in “doing science,” not just reading about science, those fears disappeared. I joined my students in this pursuit of understanding how our world works. 

I tell my pre-service elementary teachers this now—start with students’ questions and seek answers to those questions together. Don’t worry if you don’t know all of the answers; in fact, if you do, don’t start by giving students answers. The pursuit of understanding how the natural world works involves “doing science.” When you “do science” and learn with your students, you will not be so afraid to teach science. 

Do you have an idea of what teacher materials will result from your research?

The teacher learning materials will be made available through a web-based platform and will include videos and interactive teacher learning/professional development activities to support teachers' knowledge construction around the practice of noticing their student disciplinary thinking in science. Designing and testing these materials is the focus of the latter part of this 5-year project. At first, these materials (and this interactive website) will be designed for fifth-grade teachers with a future goal to extend them to other elementary grade levels (but that is looking beyond the scope of this project).

You were in the Lesley/Audubon program* here. What was that like, where did you travel, and what did you get out of it?

This program is fondly referred to by fellow alumni as being “on the bus.” On the bus, I learned how to be both a teacher and learner of science in ways that were engaging and meaningful. I traveled to the US-Mexico borderlands, the Pacific Northwest, and the US and Canadian northeast coast. In my studies, I was completely immersed in different bioregions where I could pursue ecological, environmental, and cultural understanding of the ecosystems within these bioregions.

I learned by interacting with the people and places of these bio-regions and I engaged in “doing science,” teaching science, and living science. It was “on the bus" where I really began to understand how to teach science differently—starting with students’ ideas and thinking, engaging them in “doing science,” and supporting the refinement of their everyday thinking in their pursuit of scientific understanding.

The bus changed who I was as a teacher and because of this program and the impact it had on me, I became increasingly curious about how teachers think about science teaching and learning and about how to support teachers in learning to teach science differently. These questions drive my work as a professor and scholar of elementary science education.

*In cooperation with the Audubon Expedition Institute, Lesley offered a Master of Science in Environmental Education, in which students traveled on a bus to various parts of the US, camping out, studying, and participating in experiential learning situations. A current counterpart is the MS in Ecological Teaching and Learning program.

"When you 'do science' and learn with your students, you will not be afraid to teach science."
Melissa Luna ’01, Assistant Professor of Science Education at West Virginia University