Sunday, February 19, 2012

The Science Experience

Science inquiry through a Project-Based Learning approach is not a new concept, but the idea of tackling it in a multiage experience was new for Celina and me this year.  We approached it as we do any teaching and learning in our classroom through a lens of questions, not unlike the inquiry process:

1.       Students first: What would they need? We have three different grade levels that need high interest and engaging opportunities to build their learning.  They learn best through an active approach to acquiring knowledge, where they have ownership and are inspired.  Many also benefit greatly by building their social skills through interacting and conversing with others along the learning path.

2.       Standards:  Within the Earth Space Science strand there are standards in our state for grades 2-3 and 4-5.  Starting with the students and using the standards as a focus, the questions become around connections.  How could these standards connect to make a cohesive WHOLE to enhance the learning of all 3 groups? 

3.       Curriculum: What could we use to meet the needs of students and the expectations of standards?  Our district kits are big on process and thin on content, and in some cases the activities only connect tenuously to the standard they are supposed to be teaching.  Plus Celina and I feel to make strong connections the content needs to also be integrated across the content areas with authentic reading, writing, communicating, evaluating and thinking skills, just as the Common Core states reading and writing should be used to promote learning of the content areas.

The recent research Celina and I have done to further study and implement 21st century thinking within our classroom also fed into a need to use the 4C’s of critical thinking, collaboration, communication and creativity to enhance the learning process.  For us, this added more questions and more answers. 
  • How could the knowledge needed to meet the standards be gained through purposeful reading?  Reading high interest non-fiction text builds on students’ prior knowledge and increases buy-in, while meeting literacy goals.  Students could engage meaningfully with different kinds of text and build upon their listening and reading comprehension skills.
  • How could thinking skills be applied to help students think critically about selecting sites to view and pieces to read?  Student curiosity and essential questions drive learning and require students to ask questions, use metacognition, infer meaning, determine the important information, synthesize and recode the material into their own words.  This compels and motivates students to reflect on pieces for significance, validity and reliability.
  • How could collaboration promote a community of learning and sharing across standards and age levels? Could the diverse groups collaborate effectively if working on different topics? Our SLC is built on an appreciation for sharing what we know and helping others learn.  Discussing and informing others of what they found exciting, led our students on many different paths and expanded our collective base of knowledge.
  • How could students communicate their learning in diverse ways, and use their inherent creativity to engage meaningfully with the content?  By using a Project-Based approach all students could create products that showcase their learning growth.  Providing an audience, in the form of another grade visiting, would give students the chance to achieve higher levels of understanding through reframing their message to teach others.
The Process: First, we needed to determine where the students were in their current level of knowledge, as we never like to assume “we know what they know”!  A pre-assessment of sorts was set up in a strategy Celina and I affectionately call the Carousel, where students rotate through questions based around a topic.  At each rotation there was a question to be answered, observation to be made or discussion to be had that had entry levels for the diverse learners within our room.  These rich dialogues became places where students could confer, share ideas and misconceptions, and communicate through their lens of science.  Following this process we met as a whole group to clarify questions, discuss answers and curiosities, as well as collect student thinking for future reference. After these informal assessments students self-selected building blocks from the standards that they needed to learn.
Starting with their “need to know” building blocks, students began a two week process of doing research and sharing information with each other.  Menus were distributed for students to go deeper with their topics and as a way for students to use the 4 C’s in showcasing their evidence of growth in science knowledge.  A third week was spent editing work, refining projects, and practicing presentations.   
At this point Celina had the great idea to connect with our Kindergarten teachers to see if they would like to bring their students to visit our classrooms and be the audience for all this amazing knowledge.  Our students spread out their many posters, projects, experiments, and artistic pieces, then took the time to teach what they had learned to the Kindergarten students.  One boy in our class, who is challenged by social interactions, was leading several Kindergarten students in pouring water through his model of how soil acts as a filter.  Another student was talking about visualizing erosion, even taking the time to make sure that his Kindergarten listener understood the meaning of the word “visualize”.  In another example, two girls collaborated on making a news flash video segment, going so far as to erupt a mini-volcano, all with the help of two other students as their production team.  Many students shared Power Points that extended far beyond the standards and one boy (with the help of his parents who are both firefighters) explained the different parts of the water cycle and how it is used by firefighters to battle blazes.  Our students also took the time to teach the Kindergarteners how to be good audience members as they escorted them throughout the classroom to visit the variety of presentations.
The truly amazing thing was the continuous discussion around science topics and the excitement over learning new information, stretched into the weeks following.  It has been gratifying hearing students say, “I really get the Water Cycle after Beckett’s video.” Or “Thanks to Kassie and Taylor’s PowerPoint, I understand that there is a lot more to dirt!” Although I think my favorite was a response by a student who has been building his communication/presentation skills all year.  After leading the group in his self-created Weathering vs. Erosion song he exclaimed, “I feel good about myself!”

Following this process our students took the district science assessments related to the science kits and state standards.  As groups we met to discuss our answers, self-evaluate our learning progress and set new goals where necessary.  This is a natural progression within our room, a cycle of learning that flows through questions, resources, creations, self-evaluation, and setting goals. Then the process begins again. 
Learning is not a static thing, nor can it be constantly teacher decided or teacher led.  Students need the opportunity to self-select based on need and interest, to approach information at varying levels of expertise, and to think critically, creatively and collaboratively when it comes to finding solutions or building understanding.  Science in this type of environment was rich and all consuming: students were collecting clip art to fit their topic, sharing photographs from at home observations and making comments after seeing advertisements about topsoil!  This amazing process leaves me with just one question:  How soon until we can do this again? Stay tuned . . . ~Ann


  1. Your driving questions before you started shows thought and effort in the planning process. Looking at your thought process gives me better understanding on how to start.

    Thank you for sharing. It sounds like it really went well!

    1. Thank you for your comment.

    2. Nancy, We appreciate the feedback. We have many more conversations in our near future regarding our program. Your comment helps us see the perspective we need to come from. Thank you!

      And yes this learning experience was amazing for the students, as well as us! Genuine learning... Experiences they will continue to build upon. Would enjoy hearing additional feedback as you implement a PBL experience with your own students. ~Celina :)