Sunday, February 16, 2014

Creative Practice In The Science Classroom

By Sandra McNeil
My most memorable science class experiences were those that involved me creating my own experiment for the annual science fair. In grade four, I wanted to know if Sprite instead of water would prove to be a beneficial for bean plants, which resulted in a thorough experiment of the affect various fluids have on the growth of plants. In grade six, I was intrigued by campfires and how long wood burns, which prompted me to test the burning times of different types of soft and hard wood. I learned that teak was by far the longest burning wood, a discovery that caused me to ask another question “ why don’t we burn teak instead of pine when we have a fire?” This self-initiated inquiry prompted by a self-instigated and realized experiment led to my own uncovering of concepts of economics, supply and demand, natural resources and resource production. I was curious and I wanted to know more.
I don’t remember which units I studied in science or any of the facts I read in a textbook or printed out worksheet. Instead, I learned about variables and scientific experimentation. I learned about what it meant to be a scientist and how to live the scientific process. As a science teacher now, this is what I want my students to learn and discover.
I have worked in an inquiry based learning environment throughout my career and questions I always ask myself are “what’s worth knowing?” and “what do I want my students to take away, when we have finished this work?” I have the incredible situation of working with a teaching partner who is passionate about teaching science and is a scientist himself. The power of collaboration is evident every time we formally plan or have impromptu conversations in the hallway after class. The following is a result of our planning and work with students.
 Mechanical Systems is one of five science topics in the Alberta Program of Studies in the eighth grade. “The Testable Question” project:
We began our mechanical systems inquiry with an artifact study of a simple machine. Old artifacts can be so seductive. There is something about holding a 100-year-old wooden and metal wrench in your hand, imagining the stories it might tell. This was the hook, the catalyst for our inquiry. Students began to ask, what is it used for, how old is it? Where was it made? How does it work?
Following the artifact study we explored the 6 simple machines by experiencing stations in the lab, set up by my partner teacher and myself. This exploration opened a space for students to see the simple machines in action and to use their hands to feel how a machine makes “work” easier. It was during this time in the lab that we began to hear questions from our students, some Googleable, some begging to be tested. “Does the width of the string matter?” or “What if the fulcrum of the lever was at a different height?” to name a few.  

 After our time in the lab it became very clear that the students needed time and space to answer their own (self instigated) questions. In order to scaffold this work my partner teacher happened upon a scientific report written by 8 –year old scientists about an experiment involving Hawthorn Bee’s. This study served as a guide both for the scientific process as well as a model for communicating their new understandings. Armed with the knowledge of variables and sample size, students began to hone their own testable question. The result was an array of experiments, all of which provide the students with answers and discoveries.
The seven strands of creative development played an integral role in this work, yet the students weren’t working through a series of steps that they were aware of. Instead, they were prompted by us the teachers to brainstorm more ideas, ensuring they had a testable question that was worth testing such as “Does the string of a pulley system affect the mechanical advantage of the machine?” They were encouraged to research different types of rope, size, price, and purpose. They made several prototypes of pulley stands and systems tweaking and adjusting along the way. They performed the experiment, documented the data, analyzed the data and wrote scientific reports in order to communicate their discoveries.

Each project was original, each project required the students to research, collaborate, experiment, revise, and repeat. The highlight for the students was that they got to work with their hands and build something that they created using a saw, hammers and nails. In my opinion, the most important learning was their experience of having an idea in mind; testing it out and realizing the first idea wouldn’t work, eventually finding success by living in the struggle and modifying their designs.
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