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