The goal of our research is to provide effective science education for all students, with a particular focus on students with learning disabilities (SWLD), who often score significantly lower on standardized tests than general education students (National Center for Education Statistics, 2011).

Project ESCOLAR recently completed the first year of a three-year study testing the effectiveness of online units to help middle school students learn science in real classrooms.

In the study, 16 sixth-grade teachers in Oregon and Georgia used the Knowing My Body life science unit or the Our Place in the Universe Earth and space science unit in their classrooms with a total of 867 students. Another 12 teachers and 584 students served as controls.

Results show that students learning from the online units significantly deepened their science knowledge compared to control students.

Year 1 Results
Students using online units increased science knowledge

Student scores on content-specific assessments gained an average 15% in treatment schools compared to an average 7% increase in control schools, a statistically significant difference (p = .01).

Among general education students, those in the treatment group gained an average 20% compared to about 7% in the control group (p < .001). Gains were modest yet statistically significant among SWLD (the treatment group gained an average 16% compared to 7% in the control group; p = .015) and among English language learners (the treatment group increased scores 20% compared to about 7% in the control group; p = .04).

The second year of the study follows the same sixth-grade students as they learn with different online science units in seventh grade. Second-year implementation is now under way.

Project ESCOLAR evolved from a previously funded National Science Foundation study (Project COPELLS, 2009 – 2013), in which Collaborative Online Learning (COL) units were developed and piloted with middle school students. Project ESCOLAR upgraded these units to meet new Common Core State Standards and Next Generation Science Standards, and to better address the needs of students with learning disabilities by using eText Supports.

This work combines three converging lines of research:

    Project-Based Learning

    The Cognitive Affective Theory of Learning with Media

    Supported eText


Within the Project-Based Learning (PBL) approach, students learn curriculum content by working together on relevant projects. Students use digital age technologies to access and analyze information globally, and to create their own learning experiences (Boss & Krauss, 2007). PBL has been linked to positive learning outcomes (Hung, Keppell, & Jong, 2004; Henry & Semple, 2011).

SWLD in particular may do well with PBL, especially in classrooms with general education students (NYC Department of Education, 2009). With PBL, students at different ability levels can benefit from the learning experience of others because strategies and expectations in PBL may be adapted for each SWLD (NYC Department of Education, 2009).

PBL has been shown to help SWLD succeed in school, be motivated, and work in groups (Filippatou & Kaldi, 2010). PBL can help focus students with dyslexia on “big picture” problems, instead of forcing them to understand content in only one way (i.e., by reading) (Redford, 2008).

Our COL units incorporate components of PBL:

A driving question anchored in a real-world problem

Opportunities to make active investigations

Collaboration among students to create a shared “learning community”

The use of cognitive tools

The Cognitive Affective Theory of Learning with Media (CATLM) (Moreno & Mayer, 2007) examines how to structure multimedia features to enhance learning.

CATLM includes five instructional principles for interactive multimodal learning environments:


(i.e., learners ask questions and receive feedback)


(i.e., learners determine the pace and/or order of presentations, such as determining when to pause a video)


(i.e., learners set parameters for simulation, zooming in and out, and moving objects around the screen)


(i.e., learners engage in information seeking, selecting options, and finding new materials)


(i.e., learners move to different content areas by selecting from various available information sources)

We believe these principles are tied with constructivist approaches, and can be exploited during Project-Based Learning to help students learn.

In line with this theory, our COL units are designed to present auditory and visual information in ways that minimize working memory load and promote learning.

SWLD, who often struggle when presented with too much information at once, may especially benefit from our theory-based COL science units, which limit working memory load, engage learners, and motivate students to gain new knowledge. These students can create their own learning environment by:

Receiving feedback when needed

Controlling how fast they go through material

Viewing objects on the screen in ways that makes it easy for them to see and understand

Searching for and navigating to information sources that they need

Supported eText (Anderson-Inman & Horney, 1997, 1998) makes electronic text more accessible. Our COL units have embedded Text Supports, including text-to-speech, vocabulary words linked to online definitions, and digital note-taking—all of which have been shown to help students learn.

SWLD may find eText Supports particularly useful. Researchers have documented the positive effects of these supports on students with learning disabilities.

Text-to-speech increases literacy outcomes for students with learning disabilities (Izzo, Yurick, & McArrell, 2009; Douglas, Ayres, Langone, Bell, & Meade, 2009; Horney et al., 2009).

Phonological awareness improves in students using an ebook with supports for reading, including a dictionary, compared to students using a book without supports (Shamir, Korat, & Shlafer, 2011).

Taking notes increases student comprehension of science text (Horney et al., 2009).

By incorporating these supports within each COL unit, Project ESCOLAR ensures that all students have the tools they need to learn science.

The following publications focus on research by project staff related to the Collaborative Online Learning units (previously known as Collaborative Online Projects).

Terrazas Arellanes, F. E., Knox, C., & Walden, E. (2015). Pilot study on the feasibility and indicator effects of Collaborative Online Projects on science learning for English Learners. International Journal of Information and Communication Technology Education, 11(4), 51-66.


Terrazas Arellanes, F. E., Walden, E., & Knox, C. (2015). Learning science with project-based learning empowered by discussion forums. Edutopia.


Walden, E., Terrazas Arellanes, F. E., & Knox, C. (2014). Use collaborative online projects to connect English learners to science. ISTE Connects Blog.

Terrazas Arellanes, F. E., Knox, C., & Rivas, C. (2013). Collaborative online projects for English language learners in science. Cultural Studies of Science Education, 8, 953-971.

Terrazas Arellanes, F. E., Knox, C., Rivas, C., & Walden, E. (2013). English Language Learners’ online science learning: A case study. In J. E. Aitken (Ed.), Cases on Communication Technology for Second Language Acquisition and Cultural Learning (pp. 318-351). Hershey, PA: IGI Global.


Terrazas-Arellanes, F., Strycker, L. A., Walden, E., & Gallard Martinez, A. J. (in revision). Results of a randomized trial to test the effectiveness of online units to teach middle school science. Journal of Research in Science Teaching.


Terrazas-Arellanes, F., Knox, C., Strycker, L. A., & Walden, E. (in press). Online learning tools for middle school science: Lessons learned from a design-based research project. International Journal of Information Communication and Technology Education.


In Progress Publications

Terrazas Arellanes, F. E., Strycker, L. A., Walden, E., & Gallard Martinez, A. J. (in preparation). Effectiveness of a web-based middle school science instructional program: The ESCOLAR Project.