Thursday, December 17, 2015

Reflections on Inquiry Learning - Just Jump in!

For the last three months I've been buried in my new graduate courses in a STEM Education master's program at California University of PA. One of the advantages of committing to this graduate program is that some of the projects we are trying to establish in the classroom are now part of for-credit courses, which is definitely a motivator. I am able to plan activities with the support of the program cohort and professors, and reflection has been in-depth.

My first semester included a general STEM education course and a physical science course. I studied science education basics, the Next Generation Science Standards, understanding common science misconceptions and how to address them, nature of science, project- and problem-based learning, engineering design process, constructivism, interdisciplinary learning, and inquiry learning.

Throughout the courses, I was given assignments to create lessons and activities that demonstrated inquiry learning. I saw this as the perfect opportunity to modify currently used lessons and to introduce some new challenges to my fifth graders.

Below are some of the projects that took place during the fall semester:
  1. Science Notebooks:The goal with science notebooks is to move students toward more independent thinking and analysis of their own understanding of content and processes. Students had a very hard time documenting learning in their notebooks, which is typical. Without worksheets and specific spots to fill in information, students are required to think more carefully about what they are learning and about how to organize their thoughts in an organized way. The good news is that the students are making progress - so wike they are not completely proficient in this task, they are moving forward. This is good news!
  2. Creature Feature, with an emphasis on design notebooks:  This year, we are working to convert our traditional "computer lab sessions" to a STEM Special. Our first project was called "Creature Feature," and each week during our scheduled time in the school's computer lab, students planned and worked on their creatures. Students were given the task of creating a "creature" using any materials and tools available. It could be digital, in the physical world, or a combination. They could work alone or in small groups. Training happened as needed, with mini how-to sessions scheduled weekly on such topics as how to use LEDs, how to create a lava lamp effect, and how to use Arduino materials. Individualized and small group support was provided for those who needed help with their specific projects, including Scratch support, training for LittleBits, and how to work with a Makey Makey. We were fortunate that our district STEM specialist joined us each week and provided additional valuable support. Projects were shared on the day of our Halloween celebration with adults and other students. Students worked up to the last minute making improvements to their creatures. Along the way, students also created "scary stories" that included their creatures, which was a great connections to our language arts program. As with the science notebooks, students had a difficult time writing down their plans, questions, problems, and modifications. Toward the end of the project, however, students began to realize the value of writing down their ideas. For example, one group who needed to recreate the lava lamp effect on the day of sharing creatures realized they should have written down the formula I provided during a training session. They had to do some research to find the formula, and they were successful. Students need support  with their notebooks and opportunities to use the notebooks as a resource so they can understand the benefits.
  3. Teaching Geometry with Scratch:  I have connected Scratch to math on a more informal level in the past. This year students are using Scratch as our introduction to fifth grade geometry, and it is part of their math instruction. Students are given the task of drawing various shapes, including a square, triangle, and circle. This was no easy task! Students benefited from collaboration, discussion of shapes with a need to understand the vocabulary, and having enough time to make mistakes, adjust, and keep trying. They also learned more about how to use Scratch programming along the way. Students took the task seriously, and some who began by spending a lot of their time with the artistic aspects, such as drawing a sprite and choosing various backgrounds, soon realized that they needed to focus on the challenge of creating shapes and learning the programming for their task. It was during this task that I noticed more students independently, without teacher prompting, using their design notebooks to write down their strategies and to record ideas they were getting from their peers. Students also were asking more questions about their work, and they showed progress with their programming along with a growing understanding of the geometry concepts. They also had MORE questions as they explored and made mistakes. When the designs did not match the task, students were excited to try to figure out how their various patterns, created by accident, were made. Fun!
  4. Mystery Matter: This was by far the messiest of our projects! Students began with a basic introduction to matter (solid, liquid, gas, plasma) and properties of matter. After the introduction, students were guided through the task of created data recording tables. The students would be given several mystery solids and liquids with the task of identifying various physical and chemical properties of the materials. The data table would be set up to record findings and would become part of their science notebooks. The task of creating the data tables, using Word, became a major learning experience for the students, who are used to being given pre-made worksheets for similar tasks. Student were also given training on how to use the tools and materials needed to test the mystery matter, such as scales, rulers, graduated cylinders, gram pieces, and more. Students had two days to work with the mystery matter, using safety goggles and gloves to keep them safe (students love this). Most students were only able to work with about three of the materials because they invested a lot of time exploring each item. We probably could have spent a whole week exploring, but we were not able to add on days because of our Thanksgiving break. As with the Creature Feature project, as-needed instruction was provided for groups. There were many questions about how to identify properties. For example, while the students had a quick introduction to density, many had questions about how to calculate the density of their materials. It was helpful to have several adults in the room to work with the groups, to ask questions, to clarify misunderstanding, and to learn along with the students. While the students had a lot of fun, they stayed focus on their tasks, and they were eager to learn. With hand-on discovery coming early in this chemistry unit, students were given the chance to use the tools and figure things out by doing rather than by reading about it. As students move through the unit, the expectation is that they will be able to get a better understanding of matter and properties because they have had these beginning experiences. As the teacher, I learned what is most challenging or confusing and can build lessons that support students in their understanding of complex topics. 
Here's what I learned from investing time in the development and implementation of these projects.

  • It's hard - but it's worth it. You really have to experience the type of learning that takes place through inquiry to truly understand how it changes how learners learn.
  • It's takes a lot of time to set up and to complete the tasks. Also worth it. The amount of learning that takes place as a result of investing time in planning and implementing projects is evident.
  • It's messy. Be prepared for messes. Take deep breaths, get students to help with set up and clean up.
  • It requires a lot of patience. Students and teachers will struggle through some challenges. Be patient, observe, ask questions, let students have the time they need to figure things out on their own, with guidance (not all the answers) given as needed.
  • There's more time to talk to and listen to students. With students taking the lead with the learning, teachers have more time to work with small groups and individual students to become partners in learning and to actually sit and talk to the students as co-learners.
  • Students want to be challenged. Students will appreciate being given challenging tasks and being able to be in charge of their learning. They will ask you for help, they will ask you for materials. They will ask for more projects!
  • It can work - just jump in! It can be intimidating to change a traditional lesson into something different. Take one lesson and give it a try. Start small if you feel overwhelmed. Get support from colleagues.
  • Students will have lots of questions. One thing that happened as we worked through these projects is that students had lots more questions the more we progressed through each task. Lots of whys, hows, and can you help me to do...? Lots of times students did not want to stop working because they were trying to figure things out, or they asked to stay in for recess, or they took their work home with them because they were determined to complete their tasks. THIS is what we wish for in all subject areas and with all lessons, right?
  • Support from outside the school is a great idea. If you can get help from parents, colleagues, and experts in a particular field, you and the students will benefit. With today's technology, it is easier than every to make connections. You don't have to know everything to introduce it to students. Just ask for help. 
I hope you will consider trying an inquiry project this year. Here are some basic resources related to the projects above. I could add a lot more but just wanted to provide some items to get you started.

Scratch - computer programming for kids
MakeyMakey - connect to Scratch to bring the digital to the physical world
LittleBits - electronic building blocks
Arduino - defined on web site as, "Arduino is an open-source electronics platform based on easy-to-use hardware and software. It's intended for anyone making interactive projects."
Science Notebooks -here and here
Design Process (there are several versions and no rules that you have to follow them exactly) - Engineering is Elementary
Introductory STEM Readings -  here and here

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