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?

Watershed Monitoring with Creek Connections

The fifth and sixth grade science curriculum at my school has traditionally been taught on a four quarter basis, one quarter dedicated to meeting the standards for life science, earth science, physical science, and health, respectively.  While health is tacked on at the end with a separate book, our science textbook is neatly divided into those categories: life, earth and physical science.

I can’t exactly say why, and I am certainly not prepared to debate their merits or lack of, but I really don’t like textbooks.  I think they are boring, and I don’t like how they are written.  They use a lot of words to say very little, and I think my students can handle a lot more information than they give. And they’re just boring.

So, determined to make a lot of extra work for myself, I decided I would arrange my curriculum differently. Instead of working our way topic to topic like they aren’t completely and totally interrelated, my fifth and sixth graders are following an environmental theme that (the goal is) will tie all of these interrelated concepts together.

My sixth graders’ theme is watersheds, and I am using a study of our local watershed to look at everything from how the land was formed to stream macroinvertebrates.  But I wanted them to do more than just learn about watersheds – I wanted them to do something or somehow contribute to our community.  Authentic learning experiences and the idea that you are making a difference, that what you are doing matters — that’s important to adolescents.  To reach this goal, I teamed up with Allegheny College’s Creek Connections program to engage my kids in a year-long watershed monitoring project.

First, students from Allegheny College came to our school and taught my students the water chemistry tests they would use to evaluate watershed quality.

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Then, we took our first trip to the creek to look at the physical characteristics of the stream and see what macroinvertebrates we could dig up!

We are wrapping up our first unit, which looked at the water cycle and watersheds, and then we will be moving on to looking at the geological processes that created our watershed!  We will continue to collect data about our creek throughout the year, and students will be starting small group research projects on watershed topics after the Thanksgiving holiday.

So far, the kids seem happy with science class this year.  I am just hoping I cover the standards in our curriculum enough to keep everyone satisfied… Wish me luck!