Project-Based Learning, Meet Scientific Inquiry

Project-Based Learning, Meet Scientific Inquiry.

This blog post was originally published by myself at our Secondary Collaborative Blog:

Years ago, in my excitement as a new teacher I would read a lot of books and attend every PD session I could get into.  I was a sponge and wanted to implement everything I learning about into my classroom: Differentiated Instruction, Project-Based Learning, Understanding by Design, Scientific Inquiry, Layered Curriculum, 21st Century Learning, Flipped Classroom, Blended e-Learning, Focused Instruction… I was learning a lot and doing my best to implement each strategy in my classroom.  It is a struggle, however, as a new teacher to take all of the strategies that you learn and meld them into your own style.  Here are two strategies that I have found work really well together for my students.

As you know, the goal of Project-Based Learning (PBL) is the engage your students with real-life problems and for the students to learn as the process towards the product.  Scientific Inquiry is a method of developing critical thinking skills while taking students away from the cookie-cutter lab experiments. 

How I Married PBL and SI
To keep myself the students organized I would use a weekly agenda like this one, that tells the student the topics being studied that week and their homework for each day.  It also introduced the problem of the week.  Some of these will take more than one week, but in a Grade 9 Academic Science class we were able to accomplish most of these within a 5-day week.

Here is how I tackle this wedding:

Step 1: Start with your curriculum.
Here in Ontario the Science curriculum is fairly detailed in what we have to cover for each course at each level.  This is your guide.  Start with one or two related expectations from a unit.

Step 2: Brainstorm problems.
Relate these objectives back to STSE and think of real-life problems related to your chosen expectations.  Here is it nice if you have a sounding board of cooperative colleagues.  After considering limitations (class size, materials available, costs, time, etc.) narrow down your problems.  It is okay to have a few – kids like choice.

Example problems:
-Create 5.00 grams of calcium carbonate in the form of chalk.
-What combination creates the most rust?
-Which shoes are the best for playing basketball?
-Why should we not text while driving? (Obviously no cars are involved with this one!)
-How can I grow the tomato plant with the most tomatoes?
Some are simple, while some appear simple but can be really complex depending on the grade and level of the course.

Step 3: Plan how YOU would go about solving the problem to plan how to make this work for the students.  Don’t forget to use those IEPs!
Put yourself in the students’ shoes given this problem.  How would you solve it? 
What do you already know?  Could the students use some review on this?
What do you need to learn?  Could the students learn this on their own?
What do you need to research?  Do the students have access to this knowledge?  Consider their accessibility to the sources and the amount of time they would need.
What materials do you need? Do the students know the proper handling method for these materials?  Safety first!
How do you know you’re meeting the expectations? Do the students know what is expected of them to be successful?  How will they be assessed?  Make sure you have posted success criteria and have provided them with a run-down and rubric for this project’s problem.
Once you have a good handle on what the students will need to do, proceed with caution the first time.  The road ahead can still be bumpy the first few times.

Step 4: Implement & Assess – Check Early & Often!
Since students will be working more independently of you, it is important to check in on them often – at least daily.  Schedule what you will be checking each day, whether it is a worksheet that shows they have the base knowledge, their research that shows good sources cited, their question, hypothesis and controlled variables (I use two graphic organizers for this that are huge time savers and really helps to focus the experiment), their procedure and materials list, safety precautions.  Keep track of what you have seen from each student and write notes as you go.  Consider how much you had to guide each student.  If they are working in a notebook, write in a different color so you can track how much assistance they received.

Step 5: Assess some more.
Use that success criteria and your rubric to help you assess here.  Now because it is project-based learning with scientific inquiry, don’t limit yourself to assessing via a (lab) report.  It certainly is an option, but inquiry tests are another great option.  Students can use all of their notes and research to answer test questions related to both the problem (PBL) and the process (SI).  Do what works for you and your students.

Step 6: Reflect and Adjust.
Keep this going.  The more you do it the easier it becomes to plan and implement and the better results you will get from your students.  It is worth it!

It will be more stressful for you this time around, but your students will benefit greatly from the opportunity to think critically.  Remember, our goal as Science teachers the critical thinking of our students!

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