Professional development to support culturally relevant science teaching

By Melissa Ballard - June 2013


Grimberg, B. I., & Gummer, E. (2013). Teaching science from cultural points of intersection. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 50(1), 12–32.

For students from non-dominant populations, learning science in school can bring together three distinct cultures: science teaching, scientific practice, and home culture. Science teaching and scientific practice can both be understood as specific cultures in which successful participation requires a knowledge of “norms, values, beliefs, expectation, and conventional actions” (p. 13). This study examined the effectiveness of intentionally designed teacher professional development that sought to integrate Native American students’ cultures with the way science is taught in the classroom. It studied teachers’ beliefs and practices and explored how the program contributed to improvement in science test scores. Informal science education (ISE) practitioners interested in reaching non-dominant populations can use this study as evidence that professional development focusing on cultural points of intersection can have a positive effect on teacher practice and student learning.

Local tribal advisory teams, higher education faculty, and teacher leaders jointly developed this three-year professional development program. They balanced science content with relevant Native American experiences and designed teaching strategies to complement tribal cultural practices. The 25 K–8 schools that participated in the study were located on Native American reservations in Montana; all were small schools with limited resources. The students in the study were in Grades 3–8. Participating schools had varying percentages of Native American students, many with 100%, and a few as low as 30%. Teachers participated in professional development through face-to-face meetings, including monthly daylong meetings, a two-week summer meeting, and a three-day camp. Online discussions offered continuous support throughout the program. Two cohorts of teachers who completed the program during a five-year period were split into treatment and comparison groups.

Data were gathered using classroom observations, lesson plans, student work, teacher surveys, and science content tests for both students and teachers. Teachers were surveyed at three points using the Surveys of Enacted Curriculum (CCSSO, 2005), which is designed to capture what content is taught and how it is taught. Four teaching practices and two teacher beliefs were the focus of this study.

The teaching practices studied include having students: 

1. Communicate their understandings and findings in multiple ways, for example, writing, discussing, and organizing information graphically 

2. Analyze and interpret information, make predications based on data, and so on 

3. Do exploratory activities such as hands-on investigations and simulations 

4. Make connections between science and relevant topics in their lives and between science content and hands-on activities

The study also focused on teachers’ beliefs about: 

5. Their readiness to teach science content at their grade level 

6. Their ability to implement equitable instruction

Findings show that, through participation in the professional development program, teachers experienced significant and sustained change in the teaching practices of getting students to analyze information (practice 2 above) and make connections (practice 4). Teachers also saw an increase in their own mastery of science content and in their confidence in their ability to teach equitably. Students in those classrooms saw positive gains in their science test scores. Two of the survey dimensions were predictors of those score increases: making connections and teachers’ confidence in their ability to provide equitable instruction. Both dimensions are directly related to culturally relevant teaching.

Theoretical Basis

The professional development program was directly influenced by the leaders’ understanding of “culturally relevant pedagogy.” Ladson-Billing’s (1995) framework posits that instruction must value and reflect students’ home culture if students of non-dominant populations are to be successful in school. Grimberg and Gummer believe that teachers must know and value students’ cultural backgrounds; understand that learning science means acquiring a new culture; and have the ability to bridge the differences between students’ home community and school science experiences. This type of teaching affirms students’ worldviews and supports the beliefs and practices of their home communities.

Implications for Practice

This study is relevant for ISE practitioners, especially afterschool program facilitators, because participants in such programs are often from diverse backgrounds and from populations traditionally underrepresented in STEM fields. A notable limitation of this study is that the researchers used a single metric to measure student outcomes. For ISE settings, test scores are not the best measure of engagement and learning. Further research could include broader measures of student outcomes.


Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO). (2005). Surveys of Enacted Curriculum: Tools and services to assist educators. Retrieved from

Ladson-Billings, G. (1995). Toward a theory of culturally relevant pedagogy. American Educational Research Journal, 32, 465–491.