Project Based Learning, Session 5

During this session, SLA Science Teacher Tim Best shared six different project descriptions that he gives to students. A few are from senior-level elective courses, and a couple are from 10th grade Bio-Chemistry. In my humble opinion, these project ideas and write-ups are masterful. Here they are accompanied by my hastily-cribbed notes.

Food Project — students ultimately create an “SLA Cookbook” where the research different kinds of foods, and have to make their own recipe. The project is inspired by Michael Pollan’s “In Defense of Food.” It is a combination of health, environmental, social, and other factors. They also had to come up with a “Food Rule” and turned it into a graphic, inspired by the NYTimes.

Evolution Book Club — Tim described this as an “English project with science on top.” He has a collection of 10-12 different titles that deal with different aspects of evolution and its societal impacts. Seniors split into groups and set their own schedules. THey have different roles during the book club, and at the end they have to produce a half-hour lesson to teach the rest of the class.

Evolution Over Time — This project was co-developed with SLA Science teacher Stephanie Dunda. From the introduction: “The overall goal of your Q4 benchmark is to trace the evolution of a species over time, in response to a change in its environment.  You will select an organism that already exists on earth, research its evolutionary history, and then imagine how it might evolve if its environment slowly changes to something totally different.”

Anatomy “Specimen” Project — a project that teachers about the skeletal, digestive, and nervous systems. It asks students to follow their “specimen” — from infancy to ten years old — and then make a scrap book of its development, including its manufactured medical issues. An early part of the project involves picking unique anatomical issues out of a hat — something that sounds doom and gloom, but the students love.

Genetics — This one also co-created with Stephanie Dunda. From the write-up:  “You will collaborate with your team to research and present a genetic condition. Your work should demonstrate that you understand how traits are inherited, and how changes to our genes can affect the body. After researching a genetic condition, you will then teach the class what you have learned using a case study as an example.”

Here are some of the questions and comments from our discussion:

When you have a portfolio-style project, do you accept incomplete work?

Sometimes. If the work is clearly incomplete, students can take extra time to put in the last pieces — but then there’s always the risk that students forget to return things. The other option is to just accept everything and not do quality control in the moment the work is being submitted. You then run the risk of “discovering” incomplete when there’s no time for students to improve it.

Melissa shared the issue of having intermediate steps with papers — and what happens if students don’t do the outline first? And how do you balance the fact that some students don’t need that support, while others falter?

Tim said he does frequent check-ins for small point amounts during class — so students have some direct feedback about whether they are falling behind.

How do students know what your essential questions are?

Tim noted that he often doesn’t post his essential questions on his projects — in contrast to Matt Kay, who shares them constantly with his students. However, the group felt that this project still reflected a clear goal.

How do you maintain thorough scientific knowledge and research?

This came up while discussing the food research project. Tim described how he requires research of the ingredients in the recipe that the students pick. He guides them to useful sources, and ultimately they do a write-up.

How do you encourage working together?

Tim said that, this year, he is really encouraging students to do each piece of a project together — all sitting down and working on A-B-C-D instead of assigning each piece to a separate student (the danger being that they never look at each other’s work)

Tim also described a practice that Stephanie Dunda uses — each class period, a group has 120 points, and at the end of a class period they divide them amongst themselves as they see fit. This could serve as a good wake-up call to students who are slacking early on, as opposed to getting shut out or left off of the final project. It also requires the teacher to be more organized in keeping track of the points day to day.

How do you get kids to read the directions, especially on big projects?

For some projects, it takes students a couple of days to even really understand what they are doing. During a project like the “specimen” project, he has to remind students to write scenarios for their child that involve a clear reference to one of the anatomical systems they are studying.

How do you bring project based learning into science? How do you find the balance between knowledge acquisition and projects?

At SLA we would rather have students learn the underlying theory behind things rather than memorizing tables and sketches of the human body.

Some Summary: A good project has…

  • Student choice, where they decide what the focus of their research is. The choice can even be somewhat contrived.
  • Chunking the project into manageable steps.
  • Clear directions!
  • Multiple learning styles: something to write, read, draw, present, etc.
  • Collaboration / peer interaction.
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