One of the first assignments I had my 5th and 6th grade students complete was something called Save Fred. If you haven’t heard of it, the basic premise is that Fred the Gummy Worm was out boating when his boat capsized. His life preserver has become trapped under the capsized boat, while Fred clings to its top. Students must figure out how to get the life preserver out from under the boat without knocking Fred off. The catch is that they can’t use their hands — they can only touch Fred, the boat, and the life preserver using four paperclips. Students have to work together to find a solution, trying out different strategies and evaluating what works.
Afterward, I directed students to the Next Generation Science Standard’s eight practices of science and engineering, identified in the NRC’s A Science Framework for K-12 Science Education. Students Think-Pair-Shared, and then as a class we discussed, which skills students had to use as they worked through the activity. We talked about how the “Scientific Method” is not always the linear series of steps they had been taught — sometimes (most times!) scientists used these practices out of order.
Overall, the activity was a great “ice breaker” for the beginning of the year. Students were able to do something fun, get a little treat (they ate Fred and his gummy life preserver afterward), and begin developing those scientific practices right off the bat!
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?
The first unit my students in both 5th and 6th grades are learning is the scientific method — specifically, how do we use scientific inquiry to solve problems? To start the year off, I wanted to expose my students to some “scientific inquiry skills” that they are probably already pretty familiar with — and to identify those as tools scientists use. Instead of reading about these skills in books, though, I created a series of mostly hands-on stations that asked students to use those very skills!