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[Our] projects are outstanding in their conceptual sophistication, their real-world significance and their collaborative focus. Our newly funded projects help students achieve Common Core Standards, but also go beyond the standards to develop innovative contributions to their communities.”
-Sarah J. McCarthey, President
McCarthey Dressman Education Foundation
- Common Core and Disadvantaged Students (edweek.org)
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.
Addressing the Knowledge Gap
Among the many challenges facing us in education one of our most formidable foes is the comprehension gap, across all content areas, between students of low socioeconomic status and those of high socioeconomic status.
E.D. Hirsch, The Case for Bringing Content Into The Language Arts Block and for a Knowledge Rich Curriculum Core for All Children American Educator, Spring 2006.
[T]his neglect of [content] knowledge is a major source of inequity, at the heart of the achievement gap between America’s poor and non-poor”
The Importance of Literacy Skills
While there are many factors that attribute to poor performance, one of the chief offenders is a lack of literacy skills. This is often noted at the college level when students are forced to take non-credit developmental education classes just to catch up to the basics. This both demoralizes the student as well as extending the amount of time they have to spend in, and thus pay for, college.
By expanding literary sources, however, we expand the sphere of knowledge surrounding the content areas. Students can gain a broader context of how a given subject fits into the larger narrative of the real world.
“If they want their students to learn complex new concepts in different disciplines, they [content teachers] often have to help their students become better readers…”Chris Tovani in her text Do I Really Have to Teach Reading?
Peer Assistance and Review (PAR): A Teacher Development Project
Teachers need to move beyond textbooks to increase their literary skills so that they can better communicate their subject to students. So how do we get a teacher to step away from the science textbook and into some Sagan or Hawking?
One of the ways we can work to address the knowledge gap is through the model of Peer Assistance and Review. In order to address inequity, our featured project at The School of the Future has done just that. With a Teacher Development Grant from McCarthey Dressman, The School of the Future helped improve the overall literacy of their teachers and subsequently their students.
Supports for Improved Content Literacy for Educators and Students
- Collaboratively Created Curriculum
Teachers in high school met after school and collaborated to develop, create, and implement a curriculum that would enhance their students’ ability to read and write in the content areas (History, Math, Science and Technology) across the 11th and 12th grade.
- Shared Texts Across Content Areas
The group worked together to come up with a list of shared texts across content areas. While history and science have obvious literary sources outside the textbook, with a subject like math the teachers could study the history of math and biographies of mathematicians to give a wider scope to how the content area applies to the real world.
- Content Literacy Support
Included was a training program for inexperienced or ineffective teachers to improve their literacy skills across their content area, specifically focusing on grades 11-12 to start.
The Difference: Educator Driven Approach
The difference between this program and previous initiatives aimed at teaching reading in the content areas was that previous efforts were top down administrative mandates that focused on ensuring uniformity in how reading, whereas the current effort was focused on expanding the teacher’s actual knowledge base. Past “one size fits all” approaches to teaching reading in the content areas failed to account for the fact that students read different types of texts in every content area.
The unique aspect to this program is its need for a personal “buy-in” from the teachers. Not a monetary buy-in, but those teachers who want to get involved will need to be willing to pull up their sleeves and put a little more time on the table.
The Impact: Students Identify and Analyze Printed and Non-Printed Texts
What have the teachers accomplished with this project?
During year one, five teachers (half the 11th/12th grade team) studied professional literature in their content areas to be able to implement a plan for teaching students to independently identify and analyze multiple non-fiction printed texts and non-print texts, at the student’s own instructional level, appropriate for the content of the class. Classroom visits and observations of each other in the form of Lesson Study, analysis of student growth, refinement of practice, creation of videos, continued throughout the year. In year two, participants in year one become “Anchor” teachers and shared best practices with the half of the team that was not previously involved (“Innovator Teachers”). For year three, the 11th/12th grade teacher team will mentor the 9th/10th grade team.
PAR provides teachers with the opportunity to work collaboratively to improve professional development. But it is not easy; successful implementation of PAR requires commitment, time, resources, cooperation and flexibility from the teachers involved. In successful PAR projects teachers play a key role in the support, assistance and review of their colleagues. Everyone has to pull their weight for the program to be successful
Teachers can look to existing program models, such as the California Peer Assistance and Review program to get some idea on how they can best start their own. Those who have experienced it emphasize that PAR models should only be used as reference tools, not as fixed templates, which could hinder the development and implementation of plans tailored to meet individual schools and students needs and goals.
Learn more about PAR