UI’s Cory Forbes helps foster K-12 science

Cory Forbes works at his desk

In the 2007 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), which assesses 4th-8th graders around the world, the United States ranked 11th in the science category. These kinds of results have both caused concern and spurred new research about how to better educate America’s youth in the sciences.

This is where Cory Forbes comes in. Forbes is an assistant professor of science education at the University of Iowa (UI) and a Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research (CGRER) member. Since arriving at UI in 2009, Forbes has led a series of research projects aimed at finding more affective ways to teach and foster learning of the sciences for elementary and middle school students.

“Whether a kid is going to become the next great scientist or your average citizen, they need a basic understanding of science and how scientific knowledge is constructed in order to participate productively in today’s world,” said Forbes.

The Research

Forbes most recent research projects are the Modeling Hydrologic Systems in Elementary Science (MoHSES), Reflective Assessment for Elementary Science in Iowa (RAES-Iowa) and Promoting Inquiry-based Elementary Science through Collaborative Curriculum Co–Constructions (PIESC3) projects.


The MoHSES project was partially funded by a CGRER Seed Grant. With the project, Forbes and his team will assess Iowa City 3rd graders’ ability to understand groundwater modeling. This is the first year of the three-year project.

Groundwater modeling was chosen because it’s an important but poorly understood concept.

“Groundwater is kind of forgotten topic in the elementary grades – even through high school,” said Laura Zangori, a graduate student working on the project. “The water cycle doesn’t really address groundwater. Consequently, there are a lot of misconceptions about it.”

Modeling is often thought of as beyond the comprehension of elementary school students. Forbes believes this is a mistake.

“If we provide students meaningful opportunities to use models to make sense of groundwater phenomenon, and support them through instruction and curriculum, I believe that they will be able to do a lot more than we think they can,” said Forbes.


The RAES project is also a three-year project in its beginning stages based in Iowa City. It focuses on helping 3rd-6th grade teachers employ Reflective Assessment in the teaching of sciences. As the name suggests, Reflective Assessment refers to students and teachers looking back at student work from the lessons taught and evaluating students’ understanding. This makes the students more involved in the learning process, and helps teachers learn how to reshape their lessons for future classes.

In addition to offering the teachers support, the project will also assess the effectiveness of Reflective Assessment.


The PIESC3 project is in its third and final year . This project observed elementary school teachers in Davenport as they taught science lessons. These observations were often done using video recordings. Forbes and his team would then score the video recordings using a standardized system. The teachers’ lesson plans were also scored because one of the project’s main goals was to compare the teachers’ enacted lessons to their lesson plans.

Mandy Biggers, a graduate research assistant working on the project, was surprised to find that there was little difference between the enacted and planned lessons’ scores. This indicates that teachers follow their planned curriculum closely.

A future extension of the project will compare how U.S. and German elementary classrooms engage students in inquiry.

Environmental Importance

Despite an abundance of evidence in support of climate change, many people still deny its existence.

The reason why organizations like the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research helped fund Forbes’ work is because it’s believed that denial of climate change is linked to a lack of understanding about the science behind it. By teaching children at a young age to use scientific thinking, they will hopefully be prepared to understand complicated subjects like climate change when they grow up.

Until climate change is more widely accepted, progress towards addressing it will continue to be limited.

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