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by Tamara Afanasyeva
Teacher, Canadian International School Bangalore, India

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Topic tags: Project Based Teaching Practice: Design & Plan, ELA


October 24, 2016
Science Fair Model + Literature = Gold Standard PBL

by Tamara Afanasyeva
Teacher, Canadian International School Bangalore, India


We often hear about integrating the arts into the sciences, STEM to STEAM we say. And that is a promising practice! But what can we take from the sciences that could be used in a literature class?

The Science Fair! I'm sure all of us remember the excitement of this event as a student. A good science fair is an example of a rigorous, engaging activity driven by student choice and inquiry; it taps into students' creativity and asks them to think outside the box. It revolves around skills and knowledge required to be successful at your experiment. It gets students talking about the science behind their projects. And when students are asked to articulate their knowledge to an authentic audience, they engage in deeper learning. Keeping all of that in mind, I decided to use the science fair model in an independent reading unit.

The science fair model is a perfect example of Gold Standard PBL. I will use the Essential Project Design Elements to describe the project.

Challenging Problem or Question

For this unit, students read novels of their choice over a period of a month. Just like in the science fair, students had to first present their project proposals to me, and once those were approved they could start working on their novels. In their proposals, students had to formulate an essential question/hypothesis using the following sentence starter: How can literature help me understand ____?

Sustained Inquiry

With this question in mind, as students read their novels, they traced the development of the themes. In other words, they collected evidence/data to support their hypotheses. Every week they shared their findings with peers, asked for feedback, and kept a journal/logbook recording their data. Just like in the science fair, students had to use the scientific method. They observed/read the novel, questioned, created a hypothesis, analyzed, and made conclusions.


In this case, the authenticity was personal. When students chose their independent reading books and were asked to formulate their hypotheses, they were encouraged to focus on themes that were of personal interest to them, whether it is social justice, loyalty and friendships, or achieving success in life.


Student Voice and Choice

As with the science fair, students got to choose how they demonstrated their understanding and mastery of content skills. The only thing that was set in stone at the beginning of the project, was the list of English standards students were supposed to get better at. In this case, students were working on identifying themes and tracing their development, and using textual evidence to support their conclusions. How they got there was entirely up to them. Students were in control of writing their own hypotheses, deciding how they recorded their findings, and how they presented their conclusions.

Public Product

To present their findings, students were asked to create a trifold to showcase their investigations, just like they would for a science fair. Their parents, classmates, and teachers were invited to watch and evaluate their presentations. For me to be able to grade individual projects, I asked students to create digital presentations using the ExplainEverything app on their iPads.

When I first presented the project to my students, they all laughed and could not imagine how we could use something from the sciences in our literature class. I guess it’s because they were thinking of the content and not of the skills. If you really look at it, we want students to be able to do the same things across all subjects: observe, question, create hypotheses, investigate/ experiment, analyze, make conclusions. And as with this project, these skills are set in stone from the beginning, how we get our students to master them is really up to us. As content teachers, we have so much to learn from each other and the science fair is just one example.


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