by Anthony Cody
I spent 24 years in the Oakland schools, 18 of them teaching middle school science. I first started experimenting with projects because I was a bit bored with predictable cookbook lab activities that were the standard in the textbooks. I wanted to challenge my students to think for themselves. I took a workshop one summer at the Exploratorium Institute that challenged the way I had been teaching. I realized many of the hands-on activities I was doing with students could be described as a “cookbook labs,” where students were following steps in a recipe book. Where was the inquiry? Where was the thinking for themselves? The next fall I decided to make a big change.
I spent the summer creating more than forty different “investigation kits.” Each kit had a theme. One was a collection of lenses of all sorts. Another was a variety of seashells. Another was a bunch of electronic components. My sixth grade students, working in pairs, were allowed to choose the kit that interested them, and then were asked to design an experiment that would give them new information. I worked with them repeatedly over the course of a month, trying to get them to create an experiment. But while they were initially curious about the materials, that did not translate into anything resembling a real experiment. They needed a bit more structure and support.
Although I was frustrated with this setback, I decided to regroup and try again. What I wanted most was for students to come up with their own questions, and work as scientists to answer them through their own investigations. They just needed a bit more help.
The result was an in-depth investigation of dry ice. I gave my students a chance to explore and conduct informal experiments with dry ice to get them started, and then had them brainstorm a list of questions. We worked with these, to sort them into those we could possibly answer with experiments in the classroom, and those which were more appropriate for research. Then each team chose a question, and developed an experiment to answer it. Their experiments had to be carefully designed to yield as much information as possible. They got feedback from classmates and me, and went through several drafts before we finalized the plan and conducted their experiments.
When they were done, they created poster presentations of their results, which were shared at a school-wide exposition. Students owned the process from the start to the finish. Some of the experiments did not work as the students expected, but that was part of the learning. When we shared their presentations, they spoke as scientists, describing how they had gone about designing their investigations. This was much more meaningful than doing the pre-determined lab activities in the textbook. Science is a process of asking questions, and figuring out how to answer them. For our students to learn this, they need to be asking questions themselves, not simply learning about the questions others have already answered.
The Spark of Spontaneity
In much the same way, as teachers we are often asking ourselves how we can get across a concept or set of ideas, and we need to investigate and experiment with our students to see what will really spark their imaginations. I enjoy the PBL 101 workshops because every time we are putting that challenge before the teachers, and every time they come up with new ideas for projects that will engage their students. In our classrooms and workshops the spark of spontaneity is what keeps us on our toes, and keeps us thinking. If we can create that sort of learning environment together, magic happens.
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