Scientific Investigations – Group vs. Independent Work?

This year, my sixth grade students worked in small groups to design a scientific investigation of their choosing that connects to the watershed content we were studying with the help of Allegheny College’s Creek Connections program.  Students first gained an understanding of watershed science, participated in water testing for Cascade Creek, and completed a biological and physical assessment of Cascade Creek’s health. Then, I assigned them to groups based on expressed interest (biological, chemical or physical studies) as well as my perceptions of their ability levels and leadership skills.  Students began background research in class, composed the first two sections of their final reports (introduction and methodology), and finally, were released to carry out their investigations. While several groups designed and carried out excellent studies, some groups really struggled with the group-work aspect of the project.  While it was my intention for the grouping to be an aid to students who may have otherwise struggled with carrying out such an extensive science project, the grouping actually became, for many, the most challenging aspect of the project.

As this became clear to me as the project evolved, I began to make adaptations to the assignment to increase accountability to their work and to their group.  While students were expected to carry out the investigation together, some students ended up doing the bulk of their project alone.  To recognize those students’ hard work, I asked all students to turn in an individual written report for their project.  This report was designed on the traditional format for all organized research and included the following sections: introduction, methodology, data, and conclusion. While all students were required to turn in a separate report, students who worked together and wrote their reports together could simply turn in two copies of the same report.  For students who felt they carried the weight of the project, they could write and turn in a report of their own, and they were under no obligation to share that report (or any aspects of it, such as data, research, ideas, etc.) with their group members.  In this way, students who had no part in the project were not able to skate by on their group members’ work. However, students still received a group grade for the display, as only one display was turned in.  Finally, I asked students to write a reflection of the project in class – How were responsibilities divided? Who did what, in terms of the work? How would you grade yourself and your group-mates? Is there anything I should know about the project? What would you do differently? What recommendations would you give me for next year? Etc.  I found students were very honest, admitting their own lapses and recognizing their partners’ hard work. I added a “participation” grade to their project based on my own observations, these student reflections of others, and the student reflections of themselves.

As I continue this project next year with the new sixth grade class, it is my intention to complete more of the project in class, so I can personally see student involvement.  Also, I have not yet decided if I will group students for this assignment, or ask them to complete an investigation independently.  I believe there are pros and cons to both approaches. The ability to work in a group, and for some to take on leadership roles, is an incredibly important skill, and scientists in the “real world” are constantly working with others, even when they may not be thrilled to!  In that way, this project simulated an authentic scientific investigation, and I think that experience is valuable. At the same time, I don’t want this project to cause more grief than learning.  I also want to be able to truly assess student understanding and mastery of science practices, and group work may make that assessment more difficult if one student carries more of the weight. Whatever way I choose to go, I will definitely make some improvements in terms of accountability.

Do you readers have any thoughts or recommendations? How do you hold students accountable during group work?

Science Unit: Introducing Ecology

Right now, my sixth grade students are working through a unit on ecology.  Our first topic is “Interactions in Ecosystems,” and we are looking at everything from the biotic/abiotic factors that are impacting each other to the various types of ecological relationships between organisms in ecosystems.

My school goes by standards set through the Catholic Diocese.  Some of the standards that this first topic addresses are:

S63.22 Define environment.S63.23 Explain characteristics of his/her environment.S63.1 Describe characteristics of living and non-living things.S63.2 Classify familiar objects as living or non-living.S63.3 State basic needs of living things.

S63.29 Construct food chains/food webs illustrating energy flow in an ecosystem.

S63.30 Define and correctly use the terms: producers, consumers, decomposers.

S63.31 Describe ways in which populations of plants and animals in a community interact with one another and their environment.

S63.24 Give examples of changes in environments.

Additionally, I have been trying to incorporate into my curriculum the Next Generation Science Standards.  The activities in this mini-unit begin to address NGSS MS-LS2  Ecosystems: Interactions, Energy, and Dynamics.  According to NGSS, “Students who demonstrate understanding can analyze and interpret data to provide evidence for the effects of resource availability on organisms and populations of organisms in an ecosystem. MS-LS2-1”  Similarly, this unit’s focus on interactions in an ecosystem, such as competitive, predatory, and mutually beneficial, aligns with MS-LS2-2, “Students who demonstrate understanding can construct an explanation that predicts patterns of interactions among organisms across multiple ecosystems.” Finally, the MS-LS2-3 standard that addresses the flow of energy in ecosystems is considered in this unit.

I begin each class period with a “Warm Up” or “Bellringer.”  Sometimes my Warm Ups review information from the last class, while at other times they preview the information to come.  I also use these questions to assess prior knowledge.  The first Warm Up for this unit asked: What do you need to survive?

Huh, I don’t see a cell phone anywhere on there.

Water, shelter, air, and food – those are our basic needs.  We tied these needs to the idea of a habitat, or where an organism lives.  A habitat must provide these basic needs if we are to live there.

Branching off from this, we started discussing different types of habitats, and then took a closer look at  a few. Each group received a picture, like the ones below, and were asked to make a list of all aspects of the represented environment that interact in the image.

 

 

After students shared some of the things they listed, I asked them to sort their lists into living and nonliving things.  We then discussed the terms “biotic” and “abiotic” by first discussing the words “symmetrical” and “asymmetrical.”  Students easily put together that “a” in front of the word indicates it is NOT something, and with that knowledge, they were able to make the connection between biotic and abiotic. 

I followed up this discussion with a similar activity, in which students listed the biotic and abiotic elements of a fish tank.  For this activity, I gave them a drawing, although we also have a tropical aquarium in our classroom that they could use as a resource.  After identifying biotic and abiotic factors, students made predictions about the consequences of various actions.

For example:

  • If the water suddenly dried up, I predict…
  • If the temperature increased, I predict…
  • Without soil, I predict…
  • Without sunlight, I predict…

After this introduction to ecosystems and the elements within them, we moved on to the concept of populations and completed a hands-on population sampling activity to estimate population sizes.  Students enjoyed this very much, and it was a great way to tie in math as well. You can download the papers for the activity at my TeachersPayTeachers store – just click on the image below! Also, you can download the entire plan, for FREE, right here: Mini Unit: Community Interactions!

population sampling science learning activity

Population Sampling Activity