When students tackle science hands on, they can save the world!
If inquiry is meaningful, real world practices improve student understanding.
Memorizing the periodic table, a formula to determine the circumference of an atom, or the genus of a frog can be important, but let’s face it… you’re looking at an uphill battle when you are staring down the barrel of sixty drooping eyelids trying to explain why it is important that the student retain this information.
There is ample evidence that students retain very little from lectures in science classes. There is a reason for this – when you are given lists of equations, tables, or dozens of names to memorize it can be difficult to see where this makes an impact in the real world.
So how do we change this?
Simple. We help students impact the real world using practical inquiry into local and global science. Or better yet, take the classroom to the science! Whether students are contributing data to global honey bee research or graphing the skies, citizen science allows students to participate in global scientific inquiry. As explained here, integrating inquiry based science meaningfully in the real world is a tall order for any educator. In this post, we will share with you an example project and supporting resources to inspire this integration in your classroom.
How do educators integrate scientific inquiry and real world relevance?
The Water Quality Project: A Map to Understanding was reported by Linda Weber of Natick High School in Natick, Massachusetts. The goal of this project at is to let students “do” science like real scientists by observing, questioning, and ultimately coming up with a solution to a problem that can be shared with the larger community. In the short term, participation allows students to see and experience the process of scientific inquiry first hand, rather than having someone dictate it to them. In the long term, students who participated would see how the decisions they were making now would impact their lives in the future. According to the National Science Teachers Association’s position statement:
“Scientific inquiry reflects how scientists come to understand the natural world, and it is at the heart of how students learn. From a very early age, children interact with their environment, ask questions, and seek ways to answer those questions. Understanding science content is significantly enhanced when ideas are anchored to inquiry experiences. “
What strategies can be used to increase the real world relevance of the inquiry process?
One of the long term goals of this project included helping students see how the decisions they make today influences their future. This ambitious goal required teachers to frontload curriculum earlier in the year and to engage students with relevant narratives (like PBS’ Poisoned Waters) and a guest speaker assembly including local and regional water quality scientists.
All of this preparation helped students prepare for real world and hands on activities for the project. These included:
- Helping out their community
For the annual Charles River Watershed Association’s clean-up day, students and teachers removed a variety of trash, from traditional cigarette butts and paper to more unusual things like television sets. For the nearly 50 students that participated (on a school vacation weekend, mind you) the experience was insightful. Class discussions about and concern for their environment lingered into the following weeks in class. These shared experiences became the “reason” to investigate water quality in the community rather than the “just the wrap up activity” of the project.
Collecting local data
After the students had returned to the area to collect water samples. They used collection robots they built during their classroom time to reach water samples they couldn’t normally get to. Using technologies like wikis, blogs, and Google Maps they were able to share their results instantly with their classmates.
- Contributing to global datasets
The project also included research for the testing parameters of The World Monitoring Day Organization or World Water Monitoring Day. The Water Quality Project isn’t the only program in the United States doing this. Many other schools (in over 24 countries) are participating in The World Water Monitoring Challenge. It charges its members to educate and engage students and citizens in the protection of international water resources.
- Presenting the results
When all the research was said and done there was a “massive poster presentation” where every student was required to present his or her findings and share ideas for how to improve the water conditions in their community.
Why does it work?
When learning is meaningful, the impact is tangible.
When students have the opportunity to showcase their skills to a larger audience than their teachers or peers it helps to internalize the lessons they learn in the classroom. This benefit accumulates when the students can see themselves using inquiry-based science to make a real difference in their communities.
- How do visual arts, science and literature come together for student engagement and success?
This month’s blog presents Valuing Place: A study of human impact on the American West an 8th grade integrated studies project that explores the impact of human activity on the American West’s ecosystems.
What is integrated studies?
Integrated studies connects two or more disciplines, showing ideas in context and giving students a more realistic view of how one works in the real world.
Teaching this way promotes:
- critical thinking
- an in-depth understanding of the areas being studied
For support developing an integrated studies approach visit the Edutopia website.
What can integrated studies look like for 8th grade students?
The project Valuing Place is a collaboration between science, humanities and visual arts teachers at the Salt Lake Arts Academy.
Through this project teachers have designed a cohesive curriculum that unifies the facts, skills, goals, and knowledge found within their core standards.
By designing a collaborative unit the teachers have created a powerful learning model for future integrated curriculum.
These powerful learning activities included standards-based connections to each content area:
- In the humanities, students read works of fiction and non-fiction, including primary sources about the settlement of the American West and Utah.
- In science, the standards addressed the theme of “change” and students were asked to analyze the influence humans have had on the environment. Students studied the geological forces that created the geography of the American West and its natural resources and eco-systems. Through experiments and fieldwork students studied how human activity, along the Wasatch front, positively or negatively impacted the local eco-systems.
- In visual arts, students were taught photography, basic drawing and watercolor techniques. Additionally they analyzed old photographs and artwork of the American West and Utah.
Students created original products that showed a deep understanding of the complex issues as a result of western expansion and how those issues remain relevant to the present as well as to the future way of life for Utah.
The Valuing Place project helped students demonstrate:
- increased proficiency in narrative, expository and informational writing
- targeted visual arts techniques
- multiple perspectives about how human activity has impacted their local eco-systems over time.
During Year One of McCarthey Dressman funding, students looked into the changes in the past 150 years to the Wasatch front, and the impact of mining on local eco-systems.
In Year Two of the project, the students looked into the water and the impact of expanding development in the 20th century, the Central Utah Project and reliance on the Colorado River system.
In Year Three the issues and costs of future expansion, green building guidelines, alternative energy sources and conservation were studied.
What is the impact of integrated studies?
In closing, this is an excellent example of how education should work, now and in the future. Instead of learning in discreet, separate subjects, the disciplines are taught in a more integrated manner. Students are studying real problems, understanding the content at a deep level, working in teams and producing products they can be proud of and that are shared with a larger audience.
Next Month’s Topic
BOOM Magazine – an after school program that helps kids of all abilities, from extremely talented to inexperienced writers, express themselves, improve writing abilities, and gain confidence and life skills.