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On the first day of our unit on electricity three weeks ago, Lori and I told the students the following prompt:
“You and your group members are on a mission to Mars. Your job is to build a remote controlled rover to perform a task like collect soil from the planet, deliver a payload to a colony of explorers, or do a search and rescue. Our learning of electricity and your understanding of it will be vital to learning how to accomplish this task.”
And so it began. Not only a project based, but a problem based approach to learning with the end goal in mind from day 1. My partner and I used this backwards design approach and developed a short unit on electricity with an engineering component and tech tools for designing (Google Drawings) and formative assessments after lessons (Google Forms for quizzes and Infuse Learning for post lesson evaluation) Lori Uemura, being the flipped classrooom guru of our school was kind enough to make and record presentations with video lectures for our students which we both used to “front load” learning before the students came into class. When they did, they didn’t practice lighting up light bulbs on chintzy circuit boards, they made a circuit that was vital to their project and powered one of their electric motors.
I came in with a different angle. I gathered the materials and developed a project rubric and was in charge of assessments.Working together, Lori and I were able to cut the work load in half and make better quality presentations and better quality assessments. Our standards were pretty loose and didn’t specify all of the electrical components that we needed to use, so we thought we should just focus on the basic parts that would be useful for this given task. As this was our first time teaching this unit, we would reflect afterward on changes for next year.
Once students had the content and skills, they were able to synthesize what they learned and apply it to this creative endeavor. Our technology assessments allowed us to intervene and help groups that were struggling to stay on task and the authenticity of the problem made it more compelling to the students. I was inspired by Sal Khan’s use of data and Paul Anderson’s approach to playing and being creative for real learning. Although I supplied all of the electrical components, tape and balsa wood for the frame, students still needed to supply their own wheels. Students peppered me with questions such as “What should I use as wheels?” to which I inquired: “What material do you want your wheels to be made out of?” and “What’s your ideal diameter considering the diameter of the motor?”
Suddenly, math becomes relevant. Students start connecting the perimeter of the frame with an increase to wheelbase and the fact that a larger frame may not be the best. They dispute whether metal or plastic wheels would be better and wrestle with the best way to attach them to the metal axles. How is this all gamification might you ask? I believe it meets meets many of requirements that advocates of gamification argue are essential for real world learning. The first is persistence. Students learn by trial and error how a circuit works and trouble shoot their wiring and circuitry. There was also a progress report as indicated by rubrics which could have been “badges”. Finally, each student has a unique skill set such as technical skills, leadership or steady hands. James Paul Gee and Jane McGonigal discuss how such tasks are springboards for adult learning communities where skill sets are developed, marketed and sold.
What We Learned
My teaching partner and I learned so much through this project, and as groups settle into the last stage of their project, I think of the following things and how we can improve upon them next year:
- It helps to have volunteers. We didn’t anticipate the number of problems that groups would have and despite ample demonstrations (and perhaps deliberately leaving some things vague) we were often barraged for help. Mr. Hunt and Mr. Minh were a big help every day along the way.
- Persistence grows when the end is in sight. I noticed that some groups were close to desperation early on but once they got started and invested their time and effort into the project, re-motivating them was something we had to do less and less.
- Struggle is essential to learning. So often did I get asked a question to which would ask the group a redirecting question to really get them thinking about the task. This frustrated many groups, hoping I would simply give them “the answer” or show them “how to do it”. To quote Fredrick Douglass: “Without struggle, there is no progress”.
- Young adults don’t approach a task the same as educated adults. When our students started, some groups did a better job of collectively sharing opinions and ideas. Some just had an alpha student that charged ahead with directions. It was important to coach the students through the group working process to ensure that all members were involved.
Some of you may notice that we are doing more writing than usual in science lately. Although writing in science is essential for communicating clear procedures, we are starting to do more writing in science as a supplement to improving writing here at SSIS and that means writing across the curriculum.
Writing across the curriculum means that all teachers are teachers of writing. As a grade 6 team, we are using our school’s MAP test data to identify areas in student writing that we can develop, so we’re using a unified approach in our teams to develop these areas. Here are some recent examples.
1.) Writing to justify a stance. (Argumentation) I developed this writing warm up as a means to justify any issue. In this case, an image is inserted and students (working together) write a dialogue which supports opposing points of view. In this example, two students debate over which pulley makes work easier.
2.) Essay Reorganization (Sequencing) This is an activity to help students understand how ideas and sentences flow. I took an essay and reorganized it with the sentences out of order. In this case, I have the story of how Archimedes moved a ship with his hand! Students that chose this activity really develop and practice their skills of sequencing and writing with chronological order.
Expect to see more and more writing activities to serve as warm ups or debriefs following activities. Although I usually give students choices, sometimes I may pull some students aside to recommend activities for them, as their data picture may have indicated a particular skill they need to work on. Whatever their paths, we will take a team-wide approach to developing these essential skills and make use of standardized test data to tailor a learning plan that is unique to each student and helps them achieve their full potential as writers.
The sixth graders have been learning about forces and motion. Most recently, they have been learning about forces and collecting data on how machines make work easier. The “Lever” has been the primary focus of data collection, but we will get into inclined planes later this week.
They also had their first cooperative quiz which was used to help them review. To the students, I ask:
1.) Did you like the cooperative aspect of this activity? Why or why not?
2.) Did this help or hurt group communication?
3.) Is this “copying” or what questions does this give you regarding “fairness”?
4.) Did this help you learn?
I was really moved at basketball practice on Friday afternoon. I asked my students, “What was the highlight of your day?” To which 90% of the players said: “My Science Test!”
I thought I was in a parallel dimension. When are students excited about taking a test? I have found that reinventing science exploration through open-ended, authentic learning makes it fun and interesting. Students feel like they are “doing” science rather than just learning science theory.
Check out their work below. The introduction has a guest presenter: Mr. Post!
How is it Alive?
My base is what keeps me anchored. A good foundation is important, wouldn’t you say? I respond to stimuli by opening my arms to grab food and I pull my arms in when I feel threatened. Below you can see how I respond when a scuba diver tried to look inside my body. Although he pries my arms open, I quickly retract them.
“He dude, why are you messing with me?” I asked the diver above.
“I just want to see inside.” He says. “I’m curious.”
“Go be curious somewhere else!”
I also happen to be a female, although there are males too. We reproduce by releasing our eggs and sperm into the water and that is what causes the process of fertilization. Our children start out as larva and are all on their own. They attach to the bottom of a patch of coral and then grow into an adult. We are made of many chemicals, notably oxygen and carbon.
Looking at me, you wouldn’t exactly know what type of life form I am, which is part of my allure. I grip to the bottom of a reef, so you might think I’m a plant-but I’m not. I’m a crinoid, which are class of living things in the phylum echinodermata within the kingdom animalia. Because I am an animal, I am a heterotroph and must get my food by feeding. Because I’m so big, I’m made of many cells that carry out my life’s processes. In environments were there is not a lot of food to reach out and grasp, my relatives have grown longer arms, as it helps them reach further.
Evolution and Ancestry
I have been around a long time and I’m been able to survive and adapt to a variety of conditions. I’ve also been around for millions and millions of years. My current relatives and common ancestors are sand dollars, sea urchins, star fish and feather stars. Our body structure is very similar in that we are all very symmetrical. That means that if you cut us down the middle, what will be on one half will be the same on the other. The following classification chart will help you compare my physical traits with other life forms that are similar to me:
Survival in the Environment
I can’t run. My bottom is called the “holdfast” which holds me down. It doesn’t work like legs or anything similar, but it can grip tightly. If I need to, I can let go of the coral that I’m attached to and the current drifts me away to new places. The problem is, I can’t really control where I’m going and I only use this as a last resort if predators are trying to get me. My babies are eaten by fish, but by the time I’m an adult, I’m safe.
I feed by opening my 50 or so arms and grabbing any little particles I can reach. Sticky mucus grabs the food and I bring it to my center mouth. Because I eat plankton, I am a consumer.
We produce a lot of babies. We don’t take care of them either. The reason that we produce so many is that we don’t have to take care of them. Sadly, a number of them will be eaten, but hopefully some would survive. The following shows the relationship between the amount of care we give them and the number produced:
The above is a puppet pal animation of the element carbon. I think this will serve nicely as our end of the unit project for “chemical building blocks”.
To my students, feel free to comment on any of the following:
- What did you find interesting?
- What did you learn?
- What questions does this give you for your project?
- Are there any elements that you’d like to focus on for your study? Which and why?
The seventh graders have had their first “test” in chemistry. Rather than a content test, this is a skills test. Namely, can students make predictions, write a clear procedure, and write data based conclusions. We designed our learning around the GRASP task of testing various materials for design of an airplane. Here was the challenge:
- Design and conduct investigations with controlled variables to test hypotheses.
Form explanations based on accurate and logical analysis of evidence.
- Revise the explanation using alternative descriptions, predictions, models and knowledge from other sources as well as results of further investigation.
- Frame and refine questions that can be investigated scientifically, and generate testable hypotheses.
Accurately collect data through the selection and use of tools and techniques appropriate to the investigation.
- Construct tables, diagrams and graphs, showing relationships between two variables, to display and facilitate analysis of data. Compare and question results with and from other students.
- Communicate scientific procedures, data, and explanations to enable the replication of results.
- Use mathematics, reading, writing, and technology in conducting scientific inquiries.
The sixth graders are continuing their study of microscopic life by learning about life forms within the kingdom “protista”. Protista is sort of the “Odds and Ends” of the classification world as some life forms are single cellular and some others are made up of many cells. Some are autotrophs or “plants” and others are heterotrophs or “animals’.
The students have been furthering their microscopic use skills and identifying protists by their characteristics using a online drawing program. This allows us to compare our observations and deductive skills.