What’s the Difference…
…between a single performer and an energetic band? Can students teach themselves?
by Jim Martin
CLEARING Master Teacher
n an earlier set of blogs, we followed a middle school class whose science teacher had started them on a project to study a creek that flows at the edge of the school ground. The last time we saw them, groups were analyzing and interpreting the data and observations they collected on their first major field trip to the creek, and preparing a report to the class. The blog focused in on the group doing macros, macroinvertebrate insect larvae, worms, etc., who live on the streambed; aquatic invertebrates large enough to distinguish with the unaided (except for glasses) eye.
They eventually organized themselves into three groups, one to cover the process of collecting the macros, one to describe how they identified and counted them, and a third to find out how to use their macro findings to estimate the health of the creek. Sounds like they’re on a learning curve, moving from Acquisition to Proficiency. They would need some feedback, both from withn the group and from their teacher. She gave each group one more task, to find out what they could about effective student work groups.
The macro group prepared the presentation they would make to the class. Each of their groups prepared their part, then they gave their presentations within the group, and used this experience to tweak them into a final, effective presentation. Their presentation included the interpretation they made based on their collected data that the creek’s current health was Fair, tending toward Good.
They used the rest of their prep time to begin a search for information on effective student work groups. During their web search, they were surprised there was so little there about middle school work groups, since they are finding their work invigorating, and feel they are learning a lot. Some of the sites they visited were confusing, some targeted high schools, but most described college work groups. Among those things related to effective work groups they found and were interested in were those which described the work, maintenance, and blocking roles individuals play within work groups, and those which described how groups can make their work visible while they’re processing by using whiteboards, posters, etc. They saw how these aids would help clarify concepts as they were learning. They decided to report on these two findings, roles group members play and making the work visible so that it is easier to discuss and process.
Of the two group characteristics they decided to report on, the idea that individuals play roles in a group, and these roles affect the work of the group were the most interesting to them, and a bit of a revelation. They were especially intrigued by one of the Blocking roles, which interfere with a group’s capacity to complete its work. The one they found most interesting was the Avoidance Behaver role. Each of them had engaged this role when they were madly fighting for the D-net while first collecting macros. (By joisting to control the D-net and collecting tray, they were avoiding the work in the way in which they behaved. They had employed Avoidance Behaviors; each of them, as they joisted, was an Avoidance Behaver.) They still laughed at the fun they had been having, but also felt the odd juxtaposition of this role with the Work and Maintenance roles they also played to move the work along, clarify the processes they used and identifications they made, keeping communication lines open, and sending out consensus queries about what they thought they were finding out.
They were encouraged that most of the roles they assumed were positive ones which lead to a successful project. As they talked, they also came to consensus that this was a finding of their work as important as their findings indicating that the health of the stream was Fair, tending toward Good. A revelation for them, and would become one for their teacher.
This group has made good progress on their new learning curves, macroinvertebrates and group roles. One curve is facilitating their conceptual understanding of macros; the other curve is empowering them to understand the dynamics of an effective work group. They entered these learning curves because (1) their teacher set them up in the first place, and (2) the Acquisition phase included finding out about macros. And, perhaps inadvertently, their, and their teacher’s discovery of the importance of developing effective work groups. Because the students were first finding macros, then learning about them, they started their work seeking information and patterns which would help them know who was living on the bottom of the creek. They didn’t consciously couch their investigation in these terms, but this is what they were experiencing.
The experience of seeing if they could actually capture macros, and the fun involved in collecting and seeing them stimulated the limbic’s Seeking system in their brains, which added dopamine to the neural soup that facilitates human efforts to make work interesting. These feelings and felt interests, in turn, drove them to the books and the web to follow up on the needs to know generated by their inquiries. Under their own power. First, the excitement of learning how best to capture macros, then residual interest carried them to the manuals to begin to identify who was there. ‘Finding Out’ is a powerful student (and human) motivator, one we stamp out as students move through the grades we teach. Perhaps because many of us don’t understand the content we teach well enough to allow our students to have their own thoughts about it. (Parenthetical comment on the 50%)
We could learn to use this motivator to engage conceptual learnings in ways that involve and invest our students in their learnings, and empower them as persons. There is a big difference between memorizing for a test and trying to find out the same information. The difference between a single performer and an energetic band. One way that difference expresses itself is in our standing in global scales of learning, where we are consistently near the bottom, rarely in the upper half. Our current model of school is memorizing for tests. How well does that work? We need to rediscover this active, group-centered, collaborative way of being human, and exploit it in our classrooms and outdoor sites. Telling students what is before them doesn’t stimulate long-term conceptual memory; helping them find out does. I’d like to say, “Freeing them to find out,” but for many teachers those words, especially the first one, might be intimidating to hear.
Building effective work groups takes time and patience. Fortunately, it goes quicker if the process takes place while the groups are pursuing an inquiry. Engaging in this kind of work develops needs for just the sort of group processes which make inquiries successful. While she may not have consciously planned it, dividing the class into groups, each with its own part of the creek to study, set the stage with students who were ready to learn about effective work groups. They weren’t consciously aware that they were ready, but their needs to do the work did the job for them.
(I’m interested in Jaak Panksepp’s work at Washington State University on the brain’s limbic system’s Seeking System. It’s important to learning for understanding because this is one of the few instances in which engaging the relatively primitive Limbic System leads to effective activity in the cortex, where critical thinking happens. When educators speak of the brain and learning in the same sentence, eyes in just about any audience tend to either roll or glaze over. Even though the brain is our organ of learning, teachers and administrators tend to think of learning and publishers’ products as the only bundle that matters. No room for neuronal bundles. Connecting. In effective ways. Evolved bottom up, and may work best that way.)
First, by sending students to find out, the emotions of the Seeking system move them to the cortex and critical thinking. Then we organize the learners’ environment so the information they (their cortices) need to know is readily available. And we can watch as our students learn for understanding. My experience was this: First engage students in their inquiries, then see how much of the reading I would have assigned or lectured on that they get into on their own. My observations on learners over the years told me that any movement away from total inertia on the part of the student indicates a determined effort to learn even if it’s a small move, say 10% of the way to mastery. Perusing the research on the brain eventually clarified that particular parts of the brain, when they were working, elicited the learning behaviors I observed, and clarified students’ involvement and investment in the learning, and empowerment as persons, and prepared them to form effective work groups.
So, the teacher and her class were learning that one thing which will enhance student performance is to learn how to get group members to interact. You can facilitate this by ensuring that students’ work calls for the communication skills it takes to develop consensual decisions about complex topics. The teacher whose students we just followed did this by asking each group to research information about effective student work groups. They do the work, she gleans the information. Win-win. A further step would be deciding how to include minority opinions in final reports. Simple to do; you just announce that you allow it. In my experience, this helps students achieve ownership of their learnings. A surprise for me was that sometimes students presenting a minority report saw something other groups presented from a new perspective, that of observer, not of learner. Whether that altered their interpretation of findings wasn’t as important as the fact that they were developing the capacity to hear another view and think about it. And validate the right to hold it. And, holders of the majority opinion often did review their thoughts.
The macro group is moving through its own learning curve. Does their progress look like a learning curve? Where did they start? Where are they now? How does the learning curve differ for an individual student vs. an effective work group? I picture this difference as one between a single, good performer, and an energetic band; the interactions between group members, while they’re working, can make a routine school activity become an exciting experience, a performance to be remembered. If you’re a teacher, listen to that last word.
This is a regular feature by CLEARING “master teacher” Jim Martin that explores how environmental educators can help classroom teachers get away from the pressure to teach to the standardized tests, and how teachers can gain the confidence to go into the world outside of their classrooms for a substantial piece of their curricula. See the other installments here, or search Categories for “Jim Martin.”
Is Science Communication? Can students, moving around and talking, do science?
by Jim Martin
CLEARING Associate Editor
You’re trying to answer a question. Student work groups have designed their own investigations to understand the question, develop inquiries to investigate what they have found and thought about, then present their findings to the other work groups in a symposium. There are many processes going on here. Let’s look at a few as they engage them to see what emerges in addition to discovering and testing possible answers to the original question.
Start small. In groups, you help students learn to communicate effectively. How to say, “Here’s what I think, and why;” and to listen and respond when other group members do the same. This is very basic to developing effective work groups. You have them keep notes on these conversations, and use them to elicit concepts, plan work, etc. (Basic, but essential. They need to know why they think what they do, and make what they think and why clear to others. And to learn to be advised or informed by others in their group.)
When your groups are communicating effectively, you observe for outcomes of their collaborative discussions. Do they understand their data, its patterns, its shape in graphs, etc. Are they showing signs of being able to relate data patterns to their question: Is it answered? What is the convincing evidence? What if the evidence doesn’t support their guesses about the answer to question? Or, does their question itself come into question? Are they becoming less mechanical and more purposeful in their work?
Further questions can move the groups along the learning curve by developing their critical thinking capacities: Are their interpretations of data supported by evidence? How confident are they of their data? Can they explain or justify data interpretations they have made, and their validity? What do their interpretations say about possible next steps?
You can continue to build on this conceptual foundation, each step easier because the foundation is becoming broad and more stable. You have them assess the design of their investigation and interpretations of data: How certain are they that they got the right data and used the best techniques of data acquisition? How certain are they that their data do, in fact, tell them what they need to know? Has their knowledge and expertise increased during this process? How much do they really know? Questions like these will tend to focus their thoughts on how they are learning and doing. Metacognition. Students who know how to learn know how to learn. Communication within effective work groups helps generate this capacity.
When they are ready, you have the groups report in a symposium. This is where their communication skills will be called upon to build conceptual understandings. How familiar are they with their evidence and its interpretation? How well do they comprehend other groups’ data and interpretations? How well do they generalize what they’ve learned and developed about collaborative communication within their work groups? Do they move it outward to carry on effective discussion with all of the work groups in the class? When an entire class develops the capacity to engage in substantive conversation about what they are learning, they’ll learn and nail down more than you could ever teach them using the publishers’ prepared materials and recommendations in the Teachers’ Editions.
Learning about science, but not doing science, does not develop the capacities described here. By only collecting and reporting data, students don’t engage the critical thinking capacities of their brain. I’ve observed science classes in which students looked up the boiling point of a liquid, say water, boiled the liquid and noted that it did boil at that temperature. What do they communicate amongst themselves? Is communication actually involved here? Or, are they simply engaging a perfunctory ritual? Might they have learned more if they had heated 3 or 4 liquids, noted their boiling points (or figured out how they’d know the boiling points, then test that), then looked up boiling points and made a guess about what their liquids were?)
Nor do they develop their capacity for conceptual learning when they simply learn about science, and commit science facts to memory. When students do engage in self-directed inquiries, examine the relevance of their collected data, critique it and the process of collecting it, and formulate interpretations they agree upon, they become involved and invested in the work, and empowered as persons. Engaging life. Engaged students are learning students. What our schools need today.
There’s not a lot of information out there on how to engage this part of teaching. There should be. This kind of work supports critical thinking, so it is of value. Critical thinking uses a part of the cortex that is especially well-organized for conceptual learning. That’s the prefrontal cortex, where relevant information from associative memories throughout the brain are brought together in working memory to nail down this new learning, then send it back out to associative memory; not as a fact to memorize for a test then forget, but as something more akin to common sense – something integrated into associative memory that you ‘just know.’
This critical thinking system turns on when you ask a question that is meaningful to you, and seek an answer to it. Science inquiry is a perfect complement and extension of this cortical learning system. In contrast, learning simply to prepare for a test won’t, of itself, entrain critical thinking. Instead, because of its aversive nature, learning content in order to answer test questions is accompanied by some level of anxiety, and entrains the limbic system, which isn’t good at engaging critical thinking. At least in this context, learning facilitated by anxiety about passing a test.
As the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) continue to influence teachers’ and students’ experience in school, they present some level of anxiety to many, whether from an unfamiliar expectation for performance, change from structured, curriculum-directed teaching and learning to a more open-ended, active learning model, or from increased paperwork and accounting with no accommodating increase in free time for such work. Anxiety is processed through the limbic system, which impacts how the brain learns; which of its resources are freed for the task. As student and teacher stress levels increase, it becomes increasingly difficult to engage critical thinking. Instead, the limbic system, busy processing anxiety, increasingly limits communication with the prefrontal cortex, where critical thinking does its work. Instead, learning is limited to simple thoughts, which remain connected solely to the need to pass questions on a test, with little or no integration into associative memory, as occurs in critical thinking.
On the other hand, when students and teachers are free to explore new learnings (which the CCSS and NGSS seem to be interested in), to ask questions and seek answers to them, the limbic system supports this work with a heightened sense of pleasure and excitement, and feelings of well-being and inquisitiveness. And by assuring the doors to the prefrontal cortex are open.The different limbic involvements in learning are entrained by the properties of the learning environment. As they were when our brain evolved in the savannah during the Pleistocene. Might we use that history to revisit how we teach? How we organize student-student interactions while they learn? In the classroom and on-site in the natural world? In these cases, the limbic supports the work of the cortex, especially the prefrontal cortex, where working memory resides, and the brain’s conscious executive functions do their work. Work in which goals direct effort, reasoning and abstract thought are supported, and critical thinking takes place. Where we actively construct knowledge and commit it to long-term associative memory; ask questions, design investigations, develop needs-to-know which drive us into the information we seek, desire to complete and communicate our work.
When we are driven only by anxiety about not being able to answer questions on tests, this wonderful part of our brain is lost to us. The limbic system limits its use, and we simply memorize disconnected bits of information long enough to use them on a test, then forget. Are we teaching for fight or flight, or for higher-order critical thinking?
Used knowledgably, communication as practiced in doing science has the capacity to produce a foundation for critical thinking. By the information it generates, the testing of the information, and its processing and communication, it involves and invests students in critical thinking; in using their prefrontal cortex, its executive and working memory functions. The key feature is that the students, not the teacher, are involved in constructing knowledge. The teacher, while responsible for producing an environment where a constructivist approach to learning will probably happen, becomes a facilitator of their work. A difficult transition for many of us to make. I went into it willingly, but once committed, sorely missed lecturing and wowing students with the wondrous things I could show them in the lab. In spite of this, when I would pull out my old lesson plans, it would be immediately clear to me that this constructivist model was much, much more effective and empowering. And I eventually discovered this was because it used those sites and connections in the brain which were organized to engage conceptual learning. Something my pre-service and graduate education in teaching never addressed. It should have. Had it, and we learned as our brain is organized to learn, we just might have learned well.
Communication, when it is substantive, has the capacity to facilitate critical thinking. It does this by requiring us to consider what we are saying and doing, which is a readily useable road to the prefrontal cortex and working memory. Sort of like working in a shared workspace, a place with all the resources and facilities you need to focus on what you are learning, and the executive capacity to follow up on what you have learned.
This is a regular feature by CLEARING “master teacher” Jim Martin that explores how environmental educators can help classroom teachers get away from the pressure to teach to the standardized tests,and how teachers can gain the confidence to go into the world outside of their classrooms for a substantial piece of their curricula. See the other installments here, or search Categories for “Jim Martin.”
Rivers reveal their secrets to Idaho students researching water quality through rigorous scientific inquiry
Photos and story by Suzie Boss
Squiggly blue lines cover the map of Idaho, a state with more than 2,000 lakes and hundreds of miles of rivers. From the perspective of veteran science teacher Bob Beckwith, all that water means that nearly every Idaho student has easy access to a creek, a stream, or a lake. “Probably 95 percent of the state’s population lives along a watershed,” he estimates. And where there’s water, Beckwith can promise you, there’s a science project worth pursuing.
On an early winter morning, for example, Beckwith and fellow Eagle High School biology teacher Steve DeMers loaded three classes of warmly dressed sophomores and armloads of scientific gear onto a school bus and headed off on an all-day investigation of water quality along the Boise River. By the day’s end, students had made four stops to gather data between the mouth of the river and headwaters in the mountains west of Boise. They waded midstream to collect invertebrates and dipped their hands into icy currents to test ph and oxygen levels. They checked and rechecked their measurements, keeping careful track of resulting numbers for future analysis.
Despite the frosty weather and the high spirits that come with escaping the classroom, students resisted the urge to hurl snowballs. And all day long, there was no whining. Every student participating in the trip was there by choice, doing what Beckwith calls “real science.”
Since he began teaching in 1972, Beckwith has been using projects to introduce his students to the scientific method. There’s no shortage of evidence that it’s an effective strategy. Beckwith himself is a past recipient of the Presidential Award for Excellence in teaching secondary science. Several of his students have won regional and national honors in elite science competitions, and many have gone on to launch careers in engineering, biology, medicine, and other fields that require a deep understanding of science. Even students who aren’t destined for technical careers, Beckwith points out, gain the benefit of “learning to ask a question and figure out the answer. That’s how I define science literacy.”
On the banks of the Boise River, three girls from Eagle High interrupted their fieldwork to explain the appeal of project-based learning. “We learn so much more this way compared to reading a book,” said one. “You get to experience it yourself, so you really understand what something like turbidity means,” added another. “This applies to me,” explained the third girl. “This is a river where I might want to swim or go fishing. The quality of this water matters. It’s important. And I have the tools right here to find out whether or not it’s clean,” she said, holding up a vial of river water she was evaluating for the presence of nitrates. Although she knew there would be more analysis to be done later, back in the classroom, she had already gained one insight from taking snapshots along different parts of the river: “Upstream, away from the city, the water gets cleaner.”
photo, kids gathering specimens from the river bottom
photo, examining a screen for macro invertebrates
photo, testing water quality
photo, giving the results to the teacher
During a winter day spent collecting data along the Boise River, students in hip waders used a kick screen to gather specimens from the river bottom (at top); examined the screen for macro invertebrates; tested water quality; and, finally, reported their numbers to teacher Bob Beckwith (bottom, right, with clipboard).
Through an ambitious effort he launched several years ago, Beckwith also helps other Idaho teachers acquire the skills, equipment, and confidence they need to incorporate project-based learning into their classes. Project SITE—which stands for Students Investigating Today’s Environment—engages students and teachers across the state in projects involving scientific inquiry into water quality, noxious weeds, and other real-world concerns.
Beckwith co-directs SITE with David Redfield, dean of health and science at Northwest Nazarene University in Nampa. Support for the project has come from a variety of sources, including several Idaho colleges, school-to-work partnerships, the state department of education, Idaho Rangeland Commission, and private funders such as the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation.
More than 200 teachers have gone through SITE training, which immerses them in the same kind of project-based learning they will later orchestrate with their own students. The core of training is an intensive, five-day summer workshop that reminds teachers why science is best understood through active learning. Little time is spent listening to lectures or reading texts. Instead, teachers do real fieldwork, rafting the Salmon River to collect data that relate to water quality or surveying plant life to assess the spread of noxious weeds.
“It’s not lecture/read/do a canned experiment,” Beckwith says. “We might talk for short periods about things they don’t understand very well, then provide them with an experience where they can pose questions and do research to figure out the answers. So it’s a steep learning curve. We model how science works. Science is not a textbook—that’s a history book of facts that scientists have already learned by asking questions. Those facts are an important foundation,” he acknowledges, “but real science involves going out and answering new questions.”
Between Monday and Friday of a typical training week, “teachers learn everything they need to be classroom ready,” Beckwith says. Participants also come away with armloads of gear provided by SITE. “We don’t just train them and then expect them to find a way to buy their own equipment,” he says. “We give them all the stuff they need,” he says, such as test kits, digital cameras, and a manual he wrote in accessible language to guide students through nine scientifically valid field tests designed to measure water quality.
In return, teachers agree to take their students out on data-gathering projects at least three times during the school year. They also bring SITE students together to present their projects during an annual Idaho Student Showcase Day in the spring. By fulfilling their end of the bargain, teachers can earn a stipend.
Providing teachers with such extensive support means that the SITE organizers have had to devote considerable energy to writing grants and reaching out to potential funders. The program invests about $1,500 per teacher on training and supplies, Beckwith estimates. But the investment pays off, he says, by “freeing teachers to focus on teaching.” Water quality —which integrates biology, chemistry, and physics—continues to be a prime focus of fieldwork, but funding for research on weeds has led to new SITE projects in the area of life sciences. “As long as we can collect data, work as a team, and ask questions, then it’s a valid project,” Beckwith says.
To be sure, project-based learning puts high demands on the instructor. “This takes energy,” Beckwith admits at the end of a cold day spent outdoors with a busload of teenagers. But for teachers who enjoy being learners themselves, this style of teaching “helps prevent burnout,” he adds. “It lets teachers engage in questions, too. They have to know enough to help students figure out the answers. As a teacher, you have to allow students to go places even if you don’t know the answers.”
Some teachers need a little “nurturing,” Beckwith admits, to gain the confidence to launch students on challenging projects outside the confines of the classroom. “For others, this way of learning fits so well with their teaching style—it’s natural. They pick it right up.” When Beckwith explains SITE methods to teachers who already believe in active learning, “you just have to put the idea on the table and then run to get out of their way!”
photo, girl using water quality equipment
Students use scientific equipment to measure water quality indicators— not once, but three times. Later, back in the classroom, their numbers will be added to a statewide database. Their first field lesson: accuracy counts.
Shannon Laughlin was in her first year of teaching middle school science when she saw a flyer about Project SITE. She signed up for two weeks of workshops last summer, including a five-day raft trip along the Salmon River.
“You work your tail off,” she recalls, laughing. “You’re on the river nine hours a day, then talk more about science at night. It’s wonderful!” Although Laughlin holds degrees in both plant science and entomology, she had never done fieldwork. “This kind of hands-on training gives you a chance to prepare,” she says, “so you’re ready when it’s time to take your kids out.”
Last fall, Laughlin began introducing her students at Marsing Middle School to project-based learning. For students and teacher alike, Project SITE has been a journey of surprises. “My kids started by asking me, ‘What are we going to find out?'” Laughlin would tell them: “I don’t know. You’re the scientists.” Project SITE is worlds removed from what Laughlin calls “canned labs, where you can guess what the results should be. What’s neat about this is, you don’t know ahead of time what you’re going to learn. I like to do things where I don’t know the answers in advance.”
Laughlin’s students have been using SITE protocols to test water quality along the Snake River, which runs right through their community and is only a five-minute bus ride from the school. “They fish in this river and swim in it. The river is a part of their life. So they have a personal stake in asking: Is it clean?” That question has led them to others, such as: What affects water quality—agriculture? pollutants? animals?
Although Laughlin says SITE has opened the door to powerful learning opportunities that build science literacy, that’s not the only benefit she’s witnessed. Using field-tested SITE methods, she asked her students to break into teams and choose their own captains. “The ones they chose as captains are not necessarily the usual leaders. But these kids blew me out of the water,” Laughlin admits. “Natural leadership does not always show up in the classroom. These kids did a great job, and it gave them a chance they might not have had otherwise to demonstrate their leadership, their competence.” She enjoyed sharing that observation with her principal, who came along on the first field trip and has become an enthusiastic supporter of the project.
Power Of Teamwork
Beckwith knows from experience that teamwork is a valuable component of SITE projects. “The tasks are such that one person can’t do it alone,” he explains. “Students have to work in teams, and team members have to depend on each other.” Back in the classroom, teams share test results as part of their quality assurance. “If the teams get similar results,” he explains, “they know they’re on target.” Because data are entered into a SITE database that students all over the state can access for research, accuracy is critical.
What’s more, the team approach to research allows all learners to contribute, no matter how diverse their skill levels or how different their learning styles. “Out in the field, they all can be active participants,” Beckwith says. “Nobody’s sitting on the bench. When they come back into the classroom, they can share their data. Every number offers some valuable information.
David Redfield, a professor of chemistry at Northwest Nazarene University in addition to being co-director of SITE, is convinced that such projects “are not just for the elite students. It’s amazing to see kids who are not particularly strong in traditional classroom settings step up and take on a leadership role on a team. They all can use their strengths.
At the university, teamwork skills are valued, Redfield notes. The depth of science literacy that SITE fosters should help prepare students for the rigor of college-level work. “By the time they reach the university, we should be seeing students who are further along as scientists,” he predicts.
SITE not only introduces students to the process of scientific inquiry, Redfield says, but also gives them enough practice in fieldwork so they can start to become confident researchers. “It’s important for them to go out at least three times during the school year to gather data,” he explains. “The first time they do the tests, it feels like a lab exercise. They’re just learning how to use the equipment, take the measurements. But by going into the real world to gather data, then returning to the classroom to analyze results, they can start to look for patterns. They ask questions to figure out why they got the results they did. It becomes a real experience—the numbers have relevance.”
As students repeat the data-gathering process, “the repetition builds their skills,” Redfield says. “If the data seem off, they can take a close look at how they’re collecting samples. That’s a problem-solving exercise right there—to figure out how to correct their methods in the field. They start to know enough to question results if the numbers seem flawed or wrong. That takes confidence.” As students repeat the cycle of posing a hypothesis, gathering data, and analyzing results, “it takes them deeper and deeper into understanding what’s happening, and why,” Redfield says. “When they’re confident about their numbers, then they can move on to ask: What are these numbers telling us? Why did the oxygen go down? What else changed? Is there a relationship, a pattern?”
Beckwith also takes a long-term view of where Project SITE might lead. “Once they learn to use this model, students should be able to apply scientific inquiry to questions of their own. There should be some students in every class who get really excited, really curious. They can take off on their own investigations,” he says.
He’s seen it happen. One of his former students became curious about Mars, and went on to design an experiment that won a national competition sponsored by NASA. Another girl had to miss some class time because her family was traveling to India. She packed along a water quality kit and tested samples of the Ganges and other rivers, which she compared to the water quality of Idaho rivers.
Recently, Beckwith received an e-mail from a student, now a junior in college, asking for a letter of reference for graduate school applications. It was in his biology class, doing Project SITE, that she did her first fieldwork and became inspired to become a scientist. Beckwith will know when project-based learning really takes off in Idaho and transforms the culture of the classroom, “because we’ll be flooded with letters like that one. It’s far better than any test score,” he says, “for measuring success.”
What’s in SITE?
Teachers currently involved in Project SITE recently came together for an all-day workshop to share information about their classroom activities. Their experiences show that project-based teaching methods can work in a variety of settings and appeal to a wide range of learners. Among the examples:
At Kuna High School, students can start participating in SITE activities as freshmen, in Ken Lewis‘s ninth-grade biology class. “We focus on ecology, and use SITE to explore biotic indicators like macro invertebrates. Working in groups, they come up with some great hypotheses,” he says. Later, when students take chemistry and physics, they use SITE inquiry methods again. “I see a bump in their understanding,” says teacher Mike Weidenfeld. “They have better techniques, deeper understanding.” In chemistry, for example, he uses SITE “as a springboard.” Collecting water samples “gets kids to ask questions like, Why is ph important?”
Roy Gasparotti teaches a yearlong projects class for seventh-graders at New Plymouth Middle School and says SITE “fits right in. Interdisciplinary projects are part of our curriculum.” He asks students to assess whether water samples “are good or bad. Then they develop PowerPoint presentations with their data. It’s more fun for kids to work with their own numbers, to graph data they have collected. It’s more meaningful to them.” Fellow teacher Craig Mefford works with the same students on writing their hypotheses and making carefully worded observations.
Will Zollman, who teaches agricultural science at Midvale Junior-Senior High, took a SITE training session on weeds last summer, along with his superintendent and a school board member. So district support for project-based learning is a given. “This has added to my teaching,” he says. “It’s made me look at weeds in a different way—how do they affect rangeland? What can we do about them?” Those are questions he hopes to have his students exploring through fieldwork this spring.
Steve DeMers, who teaches at Eagle High School, has been involved with SITE for three years. “I want to take it a step further,” he says, to get students to consider deeper questions after they have gathered data. He has students use their test results to create graphs with Excel software. “Then I ask them to look for trends. What should a graph look like? Can they explain what’s happening, and why? I’m trying to get them to recognize patterns.”
John Pedersen, a middle school teacher in Nampa, took a SITE workshop early in his teaching career and has been using project-based methods ever since. This year, students are doing water and weather studies. “One student trains the next to enter data,” he explains.
Chad Anzen at Fruitland High School is starting to see students who have had the benefit of project-based learning as early as middle school. “We have a middle school teacher who does SITE, and I’m getting those kids now in high school. They take off so much faster. They act like teachers themselves,” he says, “helping their classmates understand how to do field tests.” By the time the same students take advanced biology, he adds, “they’re ready to go to the step of analyzing. It’s exciting.”
Do It Yourself First: Leading Student-Directed Inquiry
by Jim Martin
CLEARING guest writer
f you’ve never taken your elementary, middle, or secondary students out of the classroom to learn, and can’t find a helpful mentor or workshop, it’s okay to learn to use the real world to generate curricula and teach for understanding rather than to pass tests just by doing it. Just make a plan and stick to it, and you’ll be okay. Try a place on your school grounds first, then move to a place in the community when you’re comfy.
There is a simple way to do a student-directed inquiry outside your classroom, involving observations on invertebrates. You can use it to discover whether this kind of work is comfortable for you to do, and if it generates curricular content that satisfies your anxieties about meeting mandated standards and benchmarks. You can start it on your school grounds, or if you’re not comfortable with that, right in your classroom. The only caveat is that you have to let your students think and ask questions, and follow the parts of the project that capture their interest. That is, after you’ve first guided them (and yourself) through the process.
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The nice thing about the project we’ll be describing is that it begins with you facilitating a guided inquiry. It doesn’t matter what grade level you teach, the basic work applies to all of them. The vocabulary and complexity of conceptual content will vary with grade level and student experience, but the basics apply to all levels. The plan is this: We’ll make a small compost heap, then see what comes to live in it. Then we’ll have our students do the same. Simple, but loaded with potential.
First, do your own inservice, perhaps this summer. Start the compost in your own yard or somewhere on the school grounds as your source. Don’t place it where it will always be in direct sunlight, since it needs to stay moist. Put about 5-10 gallons worth of different kinds of plant material in it and turn it once a week with gloved (or ungloved) hands. Keep it moist, but not wet. It’s necessary to start outdoors to attract the invertebrates and microbes which will populate your students’ compost ‘piles.’ As you tend your compost heap, notice what is living there. (If you’ve already done this, I’ll bet you’ve gone to a book or the web about what you’ve found. That’s your brain doing what it’s designed to do.)
As you do your work, try out some learning activities. What is the temperature at the surface of the heap, and in its depths? How do you go about measuring the temperatures? Any glitches? Ask yourself how any temperature differences might have come to be. If it’s not directly explainable to you, who might you ask to find out? (This is a skill we all have to develop when we move out into the real world.) What mathematics activities can you use to make sense of the temperature data? What tells you more, the numbers themselves, or their graph, average, median, range? Would the data be different if the compost heap was larger or smaller? Let’s look at more of the things we can learn.
After your compost heap has been working awhile, you should be finding an increase in the numbers of invertebrates living there. If this isn’t the case, go to places where plant material is obviously decaying and bring samples back to your heap. Keep a record of how many species you find in your heap as you turn it, and how many of each you observe. This means you’ll have to be systematic about how you turn the heap. And about how you record the information you measure, count, and observe. You can pass these skills and understandings on to your students.
As you count species and their numbers, use that data to track species diversity in your compost heap. As a rule of thumb, the greater the species diversity, the healthier the system. Whether you work with kindergartners or high school seniors, you’ll need to know something about species diversity. You can google the term, find some sites which explain it in a way you can understand, and which detail some of the math used to make sense of the numbers. Here’s one you can use; a little esoteric at first glance, but ultimately doable; Simpson’s Index, D = Σ ni(ni-1)/ N(N-1), where D is Simpson’s Diversity Index, Σ stands for ‘the Sum of,’ ni is the number of organisms you counted in the ith species (so the number of organisms in the 3rd species you counted would be n3, and i goes from 1 to the total number of species you counted), and N is the total number of individuals counted among all species. This means that you take the sum of the numbers you get from multiplying the number you counted in each species times that number minus 1, then divide that sum by the total number of individuals you counted times that number minus 1.
Try it for 3 species: Species A, with 10 individuals; Species B, with 5 individuals; and Species C, with 20 individuals. The first ni set is 10(9), the second is 5(4), and the third 20(19), which totals to 490. There are 35 individuals all together, so the denominator is 35(34) = 890. Dividing 490 by 890 gives you about 0.56. What if the counts were 23, 51, and 36? Your numerator and denominator should be 4,316/11,990. If this is confusing, say so in a comment below, and I’ll get back to you with more details.
Sounds complicated, but by the time you’ve done three or four sets of species, you’ll get it down. Just be sure that you sum all the individual counts times themselves minus 1 before you divide by the total counted times the total counted minus 1. The answer to all this, D, gives you a number you can compare with other counts you or your students make. Remember, the reason you need to try this diversity calculation is to get an idea of one way that diversity is described. With your students, you can just use the total number of species present to stand for the same thing. This is the simplest math which can be used to estimate species diversity, the total number of species, a number students can use to compare the number of species in different compost heaps, and which may correlate with other measures of diversity.
There is a spectrum of ways to name diversity: number of species, species richness, species evenness, or a calculation like Simpson’s Index. None do a perfect job, since diversity is a dynamic with many aspects. For now, you can only choose one and use it consistently until you have good reason to use another statistic. We’ll take another look at this in the next blog.
Use your counts of living things to graph a population curve. Choose one species and plot it with time on the x-axis, and number of individuals on the y-axis. This is a population growth curve, and they are an indirect way of determining how an environment treats a particular species residing within it. In setting up your compost heap, you’ve created a new environment, and populations living within it should increase during the initial exploitation phase. Soon enough, those curves will change, raising nice inquiry questions.
Use the heap itself for learning. How big is it? Is it always that big? Bigness can be derived from measurements that students make. How tall is it? How wide? How long? How can you determine its volume? Do any of those numbers correlate with the range of temperatures in the different compost heaps? Species diversity? Population curves? Temperature range and diversity?
What about the biology of the organisms living in the heaps? If you’re up to it, you can take a piece of liver, blend it with a little water or electrolyte like pedialyte, then introduce a drop of this to a container with 250 ml or more of hydrogen peroxide (H2O2 ). Take the temperature of the hydrogen peroxide before adding the liver extract, then periodically during the next 20 minutes. As simple carbohydrates are metabolized to produce useable energy in the form of ATP in nearly all organisms from microbes to Homo sapiens, the extra oxygen atom in one of the intermediary products, hydrogen peroxide, is released leaving water (H2O), an oxygen atom (O), and the energy which held the oxygen atom in place. That energy isn’t re-used, and goes off as heat. Compare the results of this experiment with your data on population and temperature. Is there something to be learned? Might your students understand the basics of what they observed?
What can you find out about four of the species in your compost that explains how they are able to live there? The organisms you find are living in a dynamic relationship which keeps the entire community alive, an economy which cycles materials and moves energy in a productive way. Can you build some elements of a food web from the information you have? What else can you find out about the biology and ecology of compost heaps?
If you teach or use language arts, how can you use the compost heap and its components as metaphors to drive a piece of writing? A piece of art? Music? If you teach science, and have never used these arts and humanities deliveries, try one. You might be surprised at what you’ll learn. I certainly have been.
When you’ve studied your compost heap long enough to feel comfortable with it, have your students learn some thing about them. Use the piece you have the best handle on. The first time through the process with your students, you demonstrate each step. Let students ask questions or make observations as you feel comfortable. You can use your own compost, and demonstrate how to turn it to expose the invertebrates living there. (If you’re up to it, you can find out how to plate out microbes that will be living there, and find out what they do and who eats them.)
When you’re ready for your students to do theirs, have each group start compost heaps somewhere in the schoolgrounds, one 5 gallons in size for each group of four or five students. You can also have students bring in their own mulch, etc., or place boards on the ground at home then collect what’s living on and under them including any molds they find. You might suggest they place the animals in a jar of moist compost, keeping the lid slightly ajar for air, and simply bring the board in and set in in their compost heap. Once compost heaps are doing well (outside the building), you can make ‘sand traps’ by filling plastic bucket lids with a layer of sand and placing them next to a compost heap. Any small mammals or birds who are attracted to the compost will leave footprints in the sand. These don’t always work, but are pretty neat when they do. This will raise questions they can begin to answer.
This is the twenty third installment of “Teaching in the Environment,” a regular feature by CLEARING “master teacher” Jim Martin that explores how environmental educators can help classroom teachers get away from the pressure to teach to the standardized tests, and how teachers can gain the confidence to go into the world outside of their classrooms for a substantial piece of their curricula. See the other installments here, or search Categories for “Jim Martin.”
by Sally Hodson, Ed.D.
author of Granny’s Clan, published by Dawn Publications
See Part 1 of this series.
Part 2: Asking Questions
ow do we prepare young people for the 21st century challenge of caring for our planet so that it can sustain future generations of plants, animals and humans? In short, how do we educate our kids to be eco-literate?
To be literate in the language of our planet, we need to understand how life on Earth functions and how we interact with it. And we need tools to help our heads to think, our hearts to feel, and our hands to act. (more…)