Northern Illinois University

NIU Office of Public Affairs

Jennifer Schmidt
Jennifer Schmidt

M Cecil Smith
M Cecil Smith

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News Release

Contact: Mark McGowan, NIU Office of Public Affairs
(815) 753-9472

November 6, 2008

Professors of educational psychology return
to high school to observe
how boys, girls learn science

DeKalb — Two professors from Northern Illinois University’s College of Education have gone back to high school.

Jennifer Schmidt and M Cecil Smith, who teach in the Department of Leadership, Educational Psychology and Foundations, are observing science classes this fall and spring to better understand how girls and boys learn and enjoy science.

What they glean from their research will help high school science teachers to design and deliver lesson plans that best engage and electrify girls as well as boys.

“These are the years where kids really start making decisions about what they’re doing,” Schmidt said, “and doing things because they want to.”

The project is funded by a three-year, $476,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, which supports work that can encourage girls to pursue careers in science. NIU’s researchers plan to write a book and several journal articles about their work during the grant’s third year.

“We just don’t know how students experience instruction in science classes. Nobody’s really done this sort of work,” Smith said.

“There really hasn’t been careful attention to how students respond to how they’re receiving instruction and their feelings about the kinds of instructional activities that are happening to them,” he added, “as well as the kinds of things they as learners are doing in a class, whether it’s lab work, reading out of a textbook or listening to a lecture.”

Schmidt and Smith cannot disclose the name or location of the Chicago-area high school, where they are conducting their “experience sampling method” study in 12 different classes: three each of general science, biology, chemistry and physics.

The school’s enrollment breaks down fairly evenly between white, black and Latino students, Smith said. Two hundred and 40 students, most of them freshmen, are participating. Younger students are preferred, Schmidt said, because their academic and career interests have not yet been solidified.

Teachers participating in the study are male and female and represent a broad variety of experience.

In the experience sampling method, each student has a pager that vibrates when the researcher wants to gauge reactions to the content. Four electronic pages are sent during each class period, although each teen will receive only two of those.

When signaled, the students immediately report what they are doing and thinking. They also must rate their engagement, enjoyment, anxiety and concentration levels on a prescribed scale.

Video cameras are recording every minute of every class and teachers are wearing microphones, which will provide Schmidt and Smith with audio-visual evidence of what actually was occurring at the time of each signal. Accounts sometimes differ between students and researchers, and the researchers also will obtain the teachers’ versions of what was being taught – and its purpose – at those moments.

Students also will complete written surveys where they describe their attitudes about science and their educational and occupational aspirations.

The researchers also are collecting more information on the teachers and their teaching styles and, at the end of the 2008-09 school year, will receive the students’ grades in science.

“We will have the richest set of data on science experiences,” Schmidt said.

Year Two will bring interpretation of the findings.

Using the video recordings for cross-reference, they will look at what instruction most engaged the students. What interested them? What bored them? What made them more or less anxious? What seemed important for their futures? What struck them as unimportant?

Most critically, what differences were seen between boys and girls?

“It may be that certain types of science activity ‘feel’ different for girls than for boys, which might be why they’re not choosing science careers,” Schmidt said. “Boys might get more energized about science and math because they turn them into competition. In science and math, there often are ‘right’ answers. They can race everyone else. Some research suggests that girls may be more cooperative.”

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