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Successful Middle School Science
A collaborative article by Joel Bourque, Karen Chan, Ken Rohrs, Geoff Moulton, Ian Wylie, Luann Fragale, Mason Gordon, Barbara Le-Mond, Dean Lea, & Maureen McCann 06-Jan-16
As a teacher librarian in a dynamic international middle school, my heart beats wildly when I attend curriculum planning meetings and a unit of inquiry is the hot topic of discussion. While teaching at Hong Kong International Middle School, I have witnessed an increase in student learning in the context of many types of inquiry projects across the curriculum. Over the past three years, our science teachers have remained tenaciously wedded to the idea of refining project-based learning (PBL) projects to increase student learning. Success resulted because our science teachers were responsive to reviewing each year’s projects and then working as a team to make improvements for the following year. The other key ingredient that enhanced student learning was the collaborative nature of the projects, which invited more players to join the science team to assist in student learning support. Grade 7 and 8 science teachers truly created the magic recipe for optimizing learning for their students this year. Grade 7 students focused on human body systems, and Grade 8 students focused on energy transfers. What follows is a big-picture description of what happened over an academic quarter, including our students’ reflections on their learning during the PBL unit. Background Students worked in groups to brainstorm then create working models of specific human body systems that relate to a student’s personal health in Grade 7. In Grade 8, students designed and constructed energy transfer machines that could effectively transfer energy and be related to a real world “problem.” Science teachers supplied most building materials, such as tubing, wires, fasteners, and hot glue guns, but students were encouraged to use a majority of recycled materials. Student learning during project work sessions happened in the science classroom under the supervision of the teacher who acted as facilitator. Students chose their group members as well as their specific topic. Planning Teachers began discussing the PBLs far in advance of the start of the unit. They collaboratively clarified the project work and timeline. Students received explicit skill instruction from the technology coach on blog creation. Design work and regular self-reflections were documented in a blog that included text, image, and video. Additionally, science teachers provided lessons on background content information, then invited the teacher librarian into class to provide instruction on note taking, paraphrasing, and bibliographic citations using the tool EasyBib Student Edition. Students were required to read several nonfiction texts on their topic, take notes, and then synthesize their learning in a short piece of research writing. When the hands-on work sessions began, frequent formative check-ins using Google docs supported students in setting realistic goals and meeting deadlines. Students had opportunities to make mistakes, make corrections, and learn. Students presented their projects, applying effective communication strategies, then displayed them for the public during our parent/teacher conferences. Projects that failed were proudly presented next to those that succeeded. Process was valued over product. Team Effort Science teachers took the lead in creating and assessing the PBL unit and should be nominated to the middle school learning Hall of Fame, if there is one! The learning specialists assisted all students during the classroom work sessions and checked in on progress. Learning specialists were able to co-teach summary skills in small groups with the science teacher. Differentiation resulted. Some students on learning plans were thrilled to be able to learn in a hands-on, kinesthetic environment that required learning with peers. Gifted students could soar as far as they were able by creating clever videos and innovative products. The technology coach provided explicit instruction and ongoing support for blog creation. Meanwhile, the teacher librarian ensured that students were ethically using credible sources of information by teaching the CRAAP test (credibility, relevance, authority, accuracy, purpose) and assisting students in putting information into their own words to demonstrate their learning. Science teachers followed through by assigning this research work in manageable chunks and providing formative feedback during the research and work process time. Student Reflections “I understand that you need to think in many different ways, including the opposite of what you wanted before. You have to be very creative. You also need to be strong and not irritated if something doesn’t work the first time. You have to collaborate so that the work can get done on time and so that you don’t get overwhelmed by the workload.” — G8 student. “During this project, we’ve faced lots of failure as well as success. While constructing, we realized that our original bleach and food coloring model did not work as effectively as we thought it would. This problem had occurred because we didn’t know that the bleach took around a week to mix into the food coloring, therefore, making the water clear again. We solved this problem by researching more. We discovered that if we mixed vinegar into the bleach, it would take away the food coloring almost instantly.” — G7 student. “This project certainly required creativity. You need to have an idea you are genuinely interested in to start with, or you wouldn’t be able to make it your ‘own.’ Anyone can follow a guide and make a thermoelectric fan, but making it to your own design is much harder. Resilience and patience are also very important in this project. If you expected it to work on the first try, and it doesn’t, you can’t just give up. Scientists don’t just magically invent light bulbs and air conditioners and things on the first try. You need to keep going at it, because every failure is a lesson, and with every failure, you are closer to success.” — G8 student.
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