Grant Awarded to Holy Cross Professor Has Worcester Elementary Students Reaching for the STARS

Florencia Anggoro, assistant professor of psychology at the College of the Holy Cross, has been awarded a two-year grant of $311,139 from the Department of Education – Institute of Education Sciences, along with her colleague Benjamin Jee, assistant professor of psychology at Worcester State University. The research project titled “When STARS Align: Exploring Spatial Thinking And Relational Scaffolding (STARS) in Elementary Astronomy” examines cognitive factors that support student learning in elementary astronomy. Anggoro and her team of 10 Holy Cross student researchers are working with third-graders at Worcester Public Schools and community centers, including Quinsigamond School, Tatnuck Magnet School, The Goddard School of Science and Technology and Girls Incorporated of Worcester. Anggoro’s team is exploring ways to help students understand the day-night cycle, including everyday phenomena such as sunrise and sunset. Specifically, they are testing instructional approaches that support students’ thinking about spatial relationships in astronomy—where objects are in space and how they relate to one another.

“We believe Worcester Public School students will benefit from this project,” says Anggoro. “The students that we are working with are mostly from underrepresented populations in the City. The research study is providing students with the opportunity to engage in a rich science learning experience that few students get exposed to. During after school hours, students are receiving individualized, technology-enhanced instruction that is informed by cutting edge research in cognitive science.”

Anggoro hopes that by students learning these concepts early on in their education, it will provide a strong foundation for future learning in astronomy, such as seasonal change, as well as other related topics including climate change and global warming. Anggoro says, “What’s unique about this project is that the instruction is done by supporting students’ spatial thinking skills — perspective taking in particular — skills that have been shown to predict success in STEM disciplines.”

Students will engage in hands-on activities that are designed to make learning fun and will include embodying Earth, drawing, and modeling. Throughout the STARS program the students will discuss and compare different spatial perspectives of the day-night cycle; for example, students will compare what sunrise looks like from Earth and from outer space using videos captured by head-mounted, first-person cameras (showing the Earth-based perspective), as well as third-person cameras (showing the space-based perspective). The program will include 112 students in the first-year and 104 in the second-year. At the end of the lessons, students will be tested to assess their learning.

Carmen Garcia, a third-grade teacher at Quinsigamond School, is thankful for the opportunity her students have to work with Holy Cross students in the STARS program. She says, “The extra time to accomplish standard based third-grade curriculum experiments and activities is valuable, as often we don't have time to complete them throughout the academic year.” The proof for Garcia that this study is having a positive effect on her students is hearing them express enthusiasm about attending the program and watching them participate in new discoveries. For Garcia, there is no greater reward than hearing students say “Wow, I am starting to love science!" or "I didn't know science was so much fun!"

A second goal of the project is to examine the contribution of vocabulary and spatial skills in student learning. A great deal of research has shown that vocabulary is related to academic success. “What new research is uncovering is that spatial thinking skills may uniquely contribute to STEM learning, over and above vocabulary ability,” adds Anggoro.

The benefits of the study have a much higher reach than elementary school students alone. There are eight Holy Cross student research assistants who are in their second, third, and fourth-year at the College involved in the project, as well as two first-year students who are shadowing the upperclassmen. Anggoro and Jee have expertly trained the research assistants to run the study sessions, which are quite complex. The students administer standardized tests of vocabulary and spatial skills, conduct interviews on third- graders’ astronomy knowledge, work with the study materials and technology, and teach the astronomy content itself. The day-to-day activities of the students in the project consist of learning how to conduct the research procedures in the "real world.” This includes participant recruitment and data collection—which can be both challenging and fun when children are involved—as well as time spent in the lab working with data. “I am grateful that this grant offers psychology students the opportunity to get involved in an interdisciplinary research project at the intersection of cognitive development and education,” says Anggoro. “It is important that they not only are learning the procedures, but also are deeply understanding the theoretical motivation for the study and its potential impact.”

Caitlin Murphy ’16, a psychology major at Holy Cross from Foxborough, Mass. is the lead research assistant in the program. She says, “Working in Professor Anggoro's lab has served as a capstone for my academic experience.” Murphy explains, “Throughout my involvement in the STARS project, I have had the pleasure of testing and teaching a fantastic group of third-graders. Their excitement about the project and their love of science is truly infectious. Their constant curiosity and willingness to learn keeps us motivated to collect solid, conclusive data.” Murphy hopes that the findings from the study will influence the way in which future students learn and process STEM material.

The goal of Anggoro’s research is twofold: to test the theory that viewing and comparing different perspectives of astronomical events will help students understand the day-night cycle, and to measure the relationship between children’s spatial thinking abilities and their learning of astronomy. The STARS lessons incorporates several important components— embodied cognition, analogical comparison, and perspective taking. Anggoro and her team believe that these cognitive factors will help students achieve the learning goals.

Anggoro feels that her study could not come at a better time as the Obama administration and the Department of Education has made STEM education a priority in schools throughout the U.S. “From a developmental psychology perspective, we know a great deal about how children think and learn, but often these findings are not tested in authentic educational settings,” Anggoro explains. “We’re excited to be supported by the Institute of Education Sciences, who have prioritized the integration of cognitive science in education.”

The day-night cycle has been taught to elementary students for many years in curriculums throughout the world. Research out of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics has shown that the day-to-day observations of the sky lead us to believe what we think we see. However, it is not always scientifically accurate. Over the years, research has shown that even the brightest students coming from the most prestigious educational backgrounds share common misconceptions about the solar system. Anggoro wants her study to identify ways for elementary-age students to develop a coherent understanding of basic astronomy, and she also hopes that this experience will spark an interest in the students to pursue further studies in STEM.

Media Coverage Telegram & Gazette, Oct. 21: A place in the sun: Federally funded study helps Worcester kids grasp astronomy