Saturday, July 12, 2014

End of School Reflections Part 5: Student-Driven Research + Blogging Bonus!

This is a continuation of a week-long series of posts reflecting on the 2014-2015 school year, and directions for next year. Previous posts include:

End of School Reflections Part 1: Flipped Learning

End of School Reflections Part 2: Project-Based Learning

End of School Reflections Part 3: 1 to 1 Learning

End of School Reflections Part 4: Asynchronous Learning

Student-Driven Research Projects
During the summer of 2013, there was a lot of buzz amongst educators about 20 Time, Genius Hour, and other similar initiatives. The uniting idea behind these discussions was that students should be given time within their classes to pursue their own passions and interests. While I was intrigued by the potential in these kinds of projects, I still had this voice in the back of my mind that kept saying, "This is all well and good, but how will it relate to the standards?" The general answer to this is that it doesn't need to relate to the standards, of course. I understand this, but being it was my first foray into 20 Time, I wanted to make sure there were going to be some science skills involved if I was going to ask students to use class time while working on these projects. So, I came up with a plan for a 20 Time-ish endeavor for the College Biology students.

First of all, I decided to only attempt this type of project with the College Biology students because in general, they tend to be better self-regulators than my other students. Secondly, although I would allow the students to choose their topics, I had two requirements of them: The projects had to be science-related and the final product that they would be sharing would be a scientific paper, so the project had to be research-based. Finally, students were required to set up and maintain a personal blog that documented their progress during their research.

It wasn't until after winter break that I finally got myself organized enough to introduce this project to the students.  I started by having them fill out this Google Form:

The form gave me a basis from which to initiate one-to-one conversations with the students about their project ideas. Once the students settled on their topics, they created their first blog entry. None of the students had ever blogged before, so it took an entire class period to help them get their Blogger account set up, share it with me, and practice writing posts. Another twist I added to this project is that I arranged for a 3rd Grade classroom in our district to be the blog "readers." The third grade teacher wasn't familiar with Blogger either, but excited about combining reading, writing, and science in a connected experience for his students. Therefore, the College Biology students had to be very mindful about their audience while blogging, and were challenged to explain their ideas so that a 3rd grader could understand them. I also asked that they introduce themselves in this first post so that the Elementary students would have more of a personal connection to the blog writers.

In the second blog post, I tasked the students to describe the procedure they would use for their research. For this post, not only were the 3rd graders reading and commenting, but I also needed to use the post as a checkpoint for my students. They were doing a lot of the planning outside of class, and a blog post was a great way for me to keep tabs on their progress.

The actual research ended up taking place out of the classroom, for the most part. I initially told the students that they could use class time for research, but many of their projects ended up needing spaces, materials, or subjects outside of the classroom, so class time ended up being mainly used for planning and blogging. Since I was not involved in the research phase, I asked that the third blog post be a summary of the students' results of their research.

When the projects were completed, I wanted to bring the College Biology students and 3rd Grade students together one more time. Instead of doing this via the blog, I decided it would be more impactful to have the students interact face to face. So the 3rd Grade students took a mini "field trip" down the hall to the high school and spent a class period in the science classroom. During this time, groups of two College Biology students (who had worked on the same project together) sat down at a table with groups of two 3rd Grade students (which ended up being 10 groups of 4 throughout the room). Each group had about 5 minutes to chat about their project with the 3rd-graders, and then the groups rotated. Some College Biology groups shared their data via graphs, others had the 3rd-graders participate in a mini-experiment on the spot. While the third-graders rotated through the groups, they also rated the projects and voted for their favorite using a Google Form on the classroom set of iPads. In the end, all the 3rd-graders were able to have an informal conversation with each of the College Biology groups about their research.

Sample of Results for 3rd-graders' ratings for three different projects:

In the end, I let the College Biology students decide if they'd rather share the results of their research as a paper or a presentation. Both formats required the same sections: Title, Abstract, Question & Hypothesis, Procedure, Results, Discussion, and Citations. Students tended to prefer writing a formal paper, but some opted for a Google Slides presentation. 

Results: I was so happy with the excitement and interest that was generated for this project by simply allowing the students to choose their own topics. Here are all of the research questions that were investigated by the students:
  • What sport and gender are most prone to getting ACL tears?
  • Does bottle feeding have any relationship to food allergies?
  • What amount of time does a person need to be active or exercise for to maintain their healthy weight?
  • How does adding different chemicals to water affect the freezing point of water?
  • Does what you drink before you take a test affect your results?
  • Does being in a sport enhance a person’s proprioception?
  • If we present 25 students with an original vanilla wafer box and five different variations, a dark one, one with yellow tint, one with green tint, and one with red tint, which variation will they be most likely to choose?
  • We would like to find out if there is a correlation between being in sports activities and having ankle injuries.
  • We were trying to find out if eating Skittles before an event would make them perform better.
  • What sport causes more concussions between Professional Hockey and Professional Football?
As you can see, it turns out that high-schoolers seems to have two major interests: food and sports! I also loved the day when the 3rd Grade students visited our classroom and talked with the College Biology students about their projects. It never ceases to amaze me what awesome teachers and role models high school students can be for younger students.

Now, onto some aspects of the project that didn't go as well as I had hoped. The 3rd Grade class had some struggles with using Blogger, specifically the "password" they had to enter each time they wanted to post. It was challenging for the Elementary students to determine the scrambled letters and/or numbers Blogger had them enter to verify they "weren't a robot." Because of this, the commenting on the blogs was limited. Also, I would have liked to see more reflection from the College Biology students on their blogs, but being that they were so new to the platform they never really felt comfortable enough to simply write a post on their own. They always waited until I required a post before writing anything.

Actions: I am definitely going to incorporate student-driven research into all of my classes next year. I'd like the students to start their blogs during the first week of school so they become more comfortable with the process by the end of the year. I'm considering using a different blogging platform, such as KidBlog, but I need to do some more investigating. Whatever platform they use, it's important to me that it allows the students to have a "real" audience. I'd even like to contact some scientists to be mentors for the students and readers for their blogs next year. Another option is connecting with other high school science students across the country and arranging some sort of quad-blogging project. 

One additional note regarding last year's project: The College Biology students from the 2013-2014 school year will have the opportunity to present their research in-person during the Undergraduate Research Conference at a nearby college this fall. How's that for authentic audience?!

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