Thursday, December 20, 2018

Research Project - Extreme Environments

The redesigned BC Curriculum emphasizes hands-on experiential learning. This isn’t always possible or desirable. Scientists do much more than simply conduct experiments. Scientists classify, observe, research, and above all think critically about the natural world.

It is very difficult to create hands-on learning and experimentation when the topic is Space. The obvious choice is to have students do a research project. But, many research projects are simply a checklist of facts to find on the internet and then put into some kind of slide show or poster presentation. It amounts to a copy and paste exercise with little meaningful thinking required.

However, if the research question is crafted carefully, the research project can be an excellent way for students to consider and develop criteria, think critically, evaluate based on criteria, and communicate a scientific argument.

Sample Inquiry Research Question
Some sample inquiry questions for the Grade 6 Space unit can be found on the Curriculum document by hovering over the Big Idea. One of those questions is:

“What extreme environments exist on Earth or in our galaxy?”

I might pose this question to my students like this:

Describe the extreme environment on one of the following objects in our galaxy
(asteroids, comets, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Neptune, Pluto, the moon, Europa, Io…)

The projects I am likely to see will be detailed information about the environment including temperature, pressure, atmosphere, lack of water, lack of food, lack of life. It will probably include some nice pictures. And students will learn a lot about the conditions on their topic.

But, I think we can do better…

Why is this not good enough?
I see 2 major problems with the question as it is written above:

  1. Students are not required to think deeply about the content. They only have to find information and relay it to the teacher and the class.
  2. Students will only learn details about 1 topic. Even if students share their learning through an oral presentation, they will not have interacted with the other topics to the same degree.

To correct these problems, we need to re-craft the question so that it engages students in thinking critically about the topic. And we can structure the sharing of learning so that it provides opportunities for students to connect with other topics in a meaningful way.

Re-crafting the Extreme Environment Research Question
I propose restating the inquiry question like this:

“Which object in our galaxy is the most extreme environment?“

This simple change turns our project from a fact-finding mission to a critical thinking extravaganza!

Notice that students will still have to find all the facts about the environment as they would have in the previous questions. But now they have to do something with those facts. They have to evaluate the conditions in the environment against some criteria to determine if it is the most extreme.

Notice also that students will have to compare the conditions on their object with conditions on other objects from other students’ projects. And not just hear about the facts from an oral presentation. But actually interact with the information to decide which is the most extreme environment in the galaxy.

Both of our problems have been addressed.

Some thoughts about structuring the project
Defining the criteria
Students need to know what constitutes an extreme environment. Starting with more familiar environments on earth (deserts, arctic, deep caves, oceans, mountain tops), the class can discuss and agree upon what criteria to use to evaluate an extreme environment.

In fact, this is a good way to practice the skills needed for the space project. I might have brief information cards for earth environments. Hand out a card to each student. Let them take 5 minutes to read and make notes about the environment based on the criteria. Then pair off and debate which is the most extreme. Take back the cards, redistribute new cards, repeat. Students can self-assess their ability to use evidence to support their claim and think critically about the topic. They will be well-prepared to use these skills in the space project.

The research
If only 1 object is assigned for research, it is mostly just finding facts. So, the initial question might randomly assign 2 objects to each student (or group). This starts the critical thinking right away. They must decide which of the 2 is the most extreme and provide evidence as a part of a scientific argument.

Sharing the learning
Students can still create a slideshow or poster. But it is far more important that students are able to discuss the evidence and debate which is more extreme using criteria.

Rather than oral presentations, students could be paired or grouped to share the object they researched. And discuss and debate with the other students to reach some consensus about which is most extreme. The idea here is not to “win” the argument but rather to critically consider evidence and make an evaluation with colleagues.

The groups could then rotate in a “speed dating” style activity so that all objects are considered. This allows students to be exposed to information about all the researched objects while engaging in critical discussion with classmates about the criteria.

Communicating the scientific argument
Although consensus is desired, it may not be possible. Students may disagree about which environment is most extreme. That is OK. There are ongoing disagreements in the scientific community.

What is important is that students are able to communicate their reasoning using evidence.

“I think Mercury is most extreme because it is small and it was my project. I like Mercury.”

There is some evidence here (small) but also some emotional attachment. And “small” is not a good criteria for extreme.

“Mercury is most extreme because it has high temperatures and no water.”

This is a much better argument because it uses evidence based on criteria. We might not agree with the conclusion, but at least it is a well constructed argument.

After the group sharing, it might be a good summative assessment to have students craft a final argument for which is the most extreme environment. This could follow the Claim, Evidence, Reasoning format where students back up their claim with evidence and explain their reasoning using scientific principles.

Extending the project (Applying and Innovating)
Some students will want to extend their learning. One way to do this is to ask students to design and create a way to survive in the extreme environment.

Notice that this extension is a lot different than simply asking students to research another object (like a black hole). It is not more work of the same type. It is asking students to apply their learning to a new situation. Students would need to have a good grasp of the details of the extreme environment but also understand the effect that would have on human life. They might connect with learning from the Body Systems unit. They would need to do more research on how to survive in extreme conditions on earth and in space. This is a true extension because it requires higher order thinking and application of learning.

A simple change
This all started with just a small change to the inquiry question. Students become scientists who research and think critically about what they discover. Crafting the question carefully elicits deeper thinking, scientific reasoning and argumentation.

Monday, November 5, 2018

Monday, September 24, 2018

Monday, June 4, 2018

Infusing Science in Story Workshop - Intermediate Grades

Story Workshop is gaining popularity in many classrooms. I am even hearing about teachers continuing to use Story Workshop in intermediate grades. It got me thinking about how science could be woven into the writing process when play-based learning is not as prominent as in early grades.

In grade 5 Chemistry, students explore the Big Idea: Solutions are homogeneous. There a lot of hands-on inquiry possibilities. I am imagining a lab with a lot of white powders (salt, sugar, baking soda, flour, chalk dust, laundry detergent, cold pack crystals). Students can explore various mixtures and observe properties like dissolving, temperature changes, fizzing (baking soda and vinegar). Students can go much deeper with solubility in a more formal lab. Looking at various changes like amount of salt, amount of water, temperature of water, stirring or no stirring. Here is a link to a document on my Google Drive with lab ideas about solubility.

What if students came in a few days after the lab and found one unknown white powder on their desk? They would have to run some tests to identify it. Add water. Does it dissolve? Heat up? Fizz? Make a Claim stating what the powder is based on Evidence from various tests and Scientific Reasoning.

Related image

Better yet, what if they came in and found a crime scene? A small part of the classroom set up to look like someone ransacked it and stole something. And one of the main clues is a footprint in an unknown white powder. Now you have the elements for a Story Workshop. What is the story about the crime? What was stolen? Who stole it? Who is investigating? How do they catch the thief?

And they would have to write about the science to explain how the white powder clue helped solve the crime. How did investigators figure out what it was? Does it taste salty? Did they add water and notice a temperature change? Did they spill vinegar on it and see it fizz? How does that lead them to the thief? This might also lead them to research forensics and further their scientific understanding.

Embedding science materials into a Story Workshop scenario allows students to weave their science learning into their stories.

A note on materials:
It is important to have a variety of white powders that will react in different ways. Salt and sugar for dissolving, baking powder to fizz with vinegar, and some powders that don't do much at all like flour or chalk.

I suggest using So Clean! laundry detergent from London Drugs (also available from It will heat up when you add water.

And I also suggest the cold packs at London Drugs in the First Aid aisle. These are not the ones you put in the freezer, but the ones you activate by squeezing. Just cut them open and remove the small bag of water that is inside (squeezing breaks this bag and mixes the water with the crystals starting the reaction). Then you have crystals that will get cold when added to water.

Neither of these are toxic but I would have students wear gloves, safety glasses, and wash their hands after. That’s just good lab safety behaviour.

Friday, May 25, 2018

I Wish I Had a Bag of Atoms

I try very hard to create learning opportunities for students to engage in "hands-on" inquiry. This works very well in physics with toy cars, potato cannons, and electric circuits. But when we start to learn about the structure of the atom, chemistry, and quantum mechanics, I am a little stumped. I wish I had a bag of atoms I could dump on the table for students to play with.

Recently, I was at Guildford Park Secondary to work with the science department in creating inquiry activities to align with the new BC Curriculum.  The teachers were frustrated about the lack of hands-on activities and labs for the grade 9 chemistry Big Idea: The electron arrangement of atoms impacts their chemical nature. This essentially means using the Periodic Table to understand how the electrons in the outer shell of atoms determine how chemical bonding will take place. Ionic and covalent bonds forming chemical compounds.

Students need to practice identifying atoms, maybe draw some Bohr models, and name the compound. Unfortunately, this usually means a whole lot of worksheets like these:

Now, these worksheets aren't horrible. They give students the practice they need. And they do require more than just naming compounds and writing chemical formulas. Students need to use the periodic table, draw Bohr models, and calculate some things. But there is not a lot of thinking required. I wish I had a bag of atoms!

I can hear you saying, "But wait! Don't we have atomic model kits? That's like a bag of atoms." The teachers at Guildford Park brought out the model kits and gave me a mini-lesson on ionic and covalent bonding (it had been so long since my last chemistry class, I had forgotten everything). I built some compounds and then asked, "How do I know which is ionic and which is covalent just by looking at it?" There was no visual way to tell. The bonds look identical.

An idea had been percolating in the back of my mind throughout our discussion. What if we created our own bag of atoms? It might look something like this:

What if students were given Bohr models and simply asked to create as many compounds as they could? Instead of a worksheet telling them to combine Hydrogen and Fluorine, they have to decide which elements they could combine. Instead of a worksheet asking them which type of bond it is, they have to decide how to bond the elements. Instead of a worksheet with 10 questions, they have to decide how many combinations they can make. The act of deciding changes everything. Students are doing the thinking. And it is deep thinking.

I would start with the 10 elements on the left that include the chemical symbol. Students must find a way to combine all the elements into compounds without having any left over (Helium is thrown in for fun).

Here is a sample of what this might look like:

Notice how the two types of bonds are now visually obvious. At the top, there are two ways to visualize covalent bonds. On the left, the pictures have been trimmed back to allow the electrons in the Hydrogen atom to be taped onto the Oxygen atom overlapping the outer electron shell. On the right, the sharing of electrons is emphasized by the use of brad pins to bond the two Hydrogen atoms. I like the brad pins because they demonstrate the strength of covalent bonding. At the bottom, an electron from the Berylium atom has been cut out and taped into the outer shell of the Oxygen atom. The elements are placed near each other to show the ionic "bond" through electrostatic forces between the ions.

Later on, I would repeat the process with the 10 unnamed elements on the right. In fact, I might choose to start with the unnamed elements and ask students to simply sort them however they wish. I imagine students will notice how many shells each element has and how many electrons are in the outer shells. Which is exactly how the Periodic Table is organized. That would lead naturally to a discussion of the Big Idea: The electron arrangement of atoms impacts their chemical nature.

I tried this out with Science Department Heads. I started with the worksheets, then brought out the Bag of Atoms. We talked about how the activity is different and improves on the worksheets. One comment encapsulates everything I wanted to accomplish. "We had to think."

Here is a link to my Bag of Atoms cards.

Special thanks to the Science Department at Guildford Park Secondary who were instrumental in developing the Bag of Atoms concept and activities