It opened with simple hellos before the conversation turned to favorite foods and hobbies.
Peering into webcams, the strangers made small talk across oceans through the power of Skype. This was only Day One, though; the real conversation would come 48 hours later.
And when that began – at 7 a.m. Wednesday, March 22, inside an eighth-grade science classroom at Downers Grove’s O’Neill Middle School – hour-long scientific argumentation between U.S. students and their Taiwanese counterparts proved lively and educational.
For the next hour, they argued this question: If funding were limited, which form of alternative energy would you select as the best to promote and advance?
“Everything went well. The students were really engaged, and we got lucky – we didn’t get into any technical issues,” said Pi-Sui Hsu, an associate professor in the NIU Department of Educational Technology, Research and Assessment.
“They really enjoyed the opportunity to talk to students from a different culture – that’s a really big thing for them – and they were glad to learn some Chinese,” she added. “They were so excited. They kept repeating phrases they learned from me.”
Meg Van Dyke, an eighth-grade science teacher at O’Neill, is grateful for her classroom’s involvement in what she calls “a wonderful opportunity.”
“The research project allows students a unique opportunity to receive a global perspective on alternative energy. For example, the students in Taiwan don’t have as much exposure to nuclear energy as students in the United States,” Van Dyke said. “It also forces my students to think about how small Taiwan is and what alternative energy would work best for them.”
O’Neill’s international collaboration with Taiwan’s National University of Tainan Affiliated Primary School is part of Hsu’s research project on scientific argumentation, a process which enhances understanding of science, sharpens critical thinking skills and aligns with the “Science and Engineering Practices” dimension of the Next Generation Science Standards.
“Scientific argumentation is a process that scientists engage in by talking and presenting different perspectives to reach consensus,” she said. “We don’t teach science as a mere learning of facts. Our students need to engage in reasoning, just like professional scientists.”
Darby Sawyer, a senior in the College of Education with a contract major, joined Hsu in the early-morning trip to O’Neill.
Sawyer walked around the classroom, checking in on the groups and keeping them on track. Further help came from Lucidchart, a web-based diagramming tool with real-time collaboration that allowed the students to put (and point to) their ideas in flow charts.
“The students were definitely excited to talk to their counterparts in Taiwan,” Sawyer said. “I definitely learned a lot about the scientific argumentation process by watching them engage with the different culture and seeing them put their heads together.”
Hsu’s work is funded by the Taiwan Ministry of Education, which now has put three rounds of money behind the project. She returns to her native Taiwan each summer to provide training in scientific argumentation to teachers there, something that continues online during the fall, winter and spring.
“My goal is encourage collaboration, and I’m interested in cultural differences,” she said. “We train students in the concept of scientific argumentation, and we give them a global view of what goes on in different countries.”
The recent collaboration continues her work with Van Dyke, an NIU alum.
In the summer of 2014, Hsu and Van Dyke welcomed 26 young students from Taiwan to DeKalb for the College of Education’s three-week “Argue Like a Scientist” academic summer camp. The two also have published research together.
Students in Hsu’s NIU College of Education classes also are benefiting from the work. The college values and prioritizes research as part of its vision and mission.
“As a researcher, I like to see how technology supports students in their learning,” she said. “In my doctoral-level classes, I share with them about my research design and the successes and struggles. I share project ideas with them, and this gives them ideas about how to use technology to design international collaborations.”
Hsu and Sawyer plan to co-publish and/or co-present the results of the project; meanwhile, Van Dyke’s students are writing essays on what they learned.