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When students become scientists…

The new standards are coming! The new standards are coming! The new standards…..enough already! After new science standards were adopted by Iowa, many of the science teachers in the state probably felt either a twinge of panic, a wave of “not this again,” or a strong desire to “get it done.” I felt a twinge of panic that quickly evolved into a desire to embrace the chance to up my game and improve my classroom.

I dove in without even testing the waters. I attended my local Area Education Agency’s Module One training, I attended a regional National Science Teachers Association conference in Kansas City, and began sifting through mountains of Next Generation Science Standards-related articles, websites, and social media outlets. By June 2016, I suffered some overload.

As the new school year approached I mulled over what steps I could take in my classroom that would expose my students to NGSS-styled approaches without drowning them in new strategies and new terminology. I decided that I would focus on phenomena. I decided to expose my freshman biology students to a phenomena in each unit that will lead them to developing a new understanding. As the first unit came together, I struggled to find an appropriate phenomena. I wanted something that would capture the student’s curiosity but still benefit the structure of the unit. Then I came across a bizarre photograph from the Rio Olympics:

So...forgive the pun...we dove right in! I chose the photograph and showed it to the students. I asked them to look at the photo and discuss it with a partner. Their goal was to list as many questions as possible about the photo. Comments/questions included:

“It looks like Voldemort swam in the Olympics.”
“Where is the nose?”
“Does this swimmer have any arms?”

I was hoping for more depth to the questions, so I asked the students to come up with three questions that felt “scientific” to them. Soon I heard:

“Why does it look like the swimmer is wrapped in Saran Wrap?”
“How fast would the camera have to be to capture a swimmer before they broke through the water?”
“Can water stretch?”

Finally, success!  Questions that a scientist could do something with! That is one goal with NGSS-styled standards: Get the students thinking and working like scientists.

The unit moved on as students started to apply some previous knowledge about scientific methodology and experimental design. Thinking on my feet, I decided to take the phenomena and direct our learning toward how we could apply our questions and develop experiments to test our ideas. The next step was an old penny lab I had used before. How many drops of water can you fit on a head of a penny?  The student’s love the competition of the lab but I directed them to make comparisons about what they saw in the swimmer photo and what they observed with the penny. To entice them to observe the penny closely, I asked them to photograph the penny with their cell phones. We got a lot of wonderful shots:

water on a penny

Now, I started to hear conversations that linked two different views of similar phenomena and within their comparisons, I began to hear ideas emerging. That was exciting.

Finally, how do I link up all their ideas and assess if they learned anything? I decided to have the students take all of their questions and claims from looking at the photo, combined with their observations from the penny lab and come up with a hypothesis about what was going on in the swimmer picture. Once a hypothesis was formed, they would begin to outline what sort of experiment they could do to test their hypothesis. 

The final step (the assessment) was a short student made video (filmed on Chromebooks using Screencastify) where each student described their understanding of the phenomena in the swimmer picture with a description of how they would test their hypothesis. They had to describe the variables in the experiment.

The results are not in. I still have to look at and assess the videos, but I already like what I see. Students thinking with a purpose. Students achieving some sort of “Eureka!” moment. Students engaged in what they are doing. Students developing thoughts not from what they hear from me, rather from conversations with their peers. Again, I like what I see.

My take away is much more revealing. As I watched these activities unfold, I was reminded that the division lines between the science disciplines (life and physical) are blurred. I wonder if we should have classrooms split by discipline. As students work like/as scientists, we should expect that they will cross discipline barriers and we should not be afraid to cross those same barriers in our instructional practices.

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