A Little Philosophizing

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Science Instructional Strategies in My Classroom

I believe the purpose of education at the middle and secondary level is to develop in students the social, emotional, and academic competencies required to meet the demands of our 21st century society. Specifically, this education must build in students the ability to think independently, critically, and creatively in order to answer questions and solve problems. Additionally, this education must meet the social and emotional needs of adolescents and instill in them the confidence necessary to become the next generation’s leaders. One important aspect of adolescent development is the emerging idea of an independent self and the need to find a place for that self in the world around them. Essentially, adolescents need opportunities in the classroom for responsibility and autonomy, and most importantly, they need to be engaged in activities that matter. As middle school students seek to find their place in the world, I have found that they are most engaged by activities that allow them to leave their mark as well. For that reason, I constantly work to engage my students in authentic activities that require cooperative, creative, and student-driven learning.

For example, during our Ecology unit, my students focus on our local watershed and work with community organizations in “citizen science” endeavors. Through Allegheny College’s Creek Connections program, we participate in monthly water quality monitoring of a nearby stream, and through Pennsylvania Sea Grant’s Great Lakes-Great Stewards program, my students complete a service learning project on a relevant topic.

Through their participation as “citizen scientists”, students engage in science practices like asking questions, collecting data, and communicating results. Simulating the work of real scientists, students work in teams to plan and carry out investigations on topics of their choosing, and they ultimately finish the year with a tangible service project of their own design. While I establish guidelines for the project, I try to allow students the autonomy to pursue their own interests as much as possible. For that reason, some students carry out investigations in “controlled laboratory settings” while others choose to gather data from the natural world to analyze. Project goals for some teams are to answer questions, while others focus on designing solutions that work. Historically, these projects have significantly exceeded the quality expected from this age group.

Before students have the background knowledge to engage in these activities though, we spend a good amount of time studying basic concepts and applying them to real world situations. For example, students learn unit terminology like biotic and abiotic factors, species, populations, and communities, and then they apply these terms to model ecosystems in our classroom, like our aquarium and frog terrarium. Students discuss and explore how changes in these ecosystems would cause further changes, and they study the interactions between the organisms housed there, building food chains and food webs to represent these interactions. When students have a firm understanding of the basic concepts, we move on to real world applications through the examination of science news articles. Students became “experts” on issues like the impact of PPCPs on freshwater ecosystems and on the problems posed by invasive species. Through the examination of the problems scientists identified, the methodologies they developed to study them, and in some cases, the solutions these scientists proposed, these news articles have effectively modeled science practices and helped students to generate ideas for their own research and service learning projects. In the initial stages of learning, my goal is to expose students to a diversity of issues and ideas, and to support students as they begin to apply the concepts learned in class. Then as we progress, I allow students to hone in on areas of interest to them and pursue projects of their own design with increasing independence. This autonomy is an incredible motivator, and students demonstrate great interest in science as they progress through this project. Parents consistently express the excitement they see at home, as well.

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