Simon Tech Science Fair
The freedom to design, implement, and showcase science labs can be a daunting task for high school sophomores. We end each year in my class with a month of self-paced group projects aimed at constructing an experiment that will test hypothesis around a subject of students' choice. Anything from crime scene investigation, to the chemistry of ice cream preparation, to the reactions involved in instant hand warmers is fair game during this unit. Students collect data that answers their hypothesis and create a website to display their findings. Having a publicly visible product makes sharing the results of student findings easy, and helps them contribute to the scientific community at large. At the same time, it helps hold them accountable to a higher quality of work, knowing anyone, anywhere, can see the incredible things they've created.
Getting high school students to collaborate effectively can be tricky, though certain digital tools do a great job of making teamwork more seamless. Groups in my class keep document their lab activities using video recording, Youtube, and Google Apps for Ed, and compile Wikispaces digital portfolios with their work (see “Lab Documentation” strategy). Before submitting final drafts students engage in a Critical Friends review period where groups present their portfolios and offer critical feedback. First, each group gets Portfolio Preparation planning time where they can revisit the data they’ve collected, make sure all charts, tables, graphs, images, and videos are accurate, and pair them with solid written analyses. Labs are power learning activities, but oftentimes students are too busy trying to “complete work” instead of reflecting on the meaning of their results. Groups exhibit better teamwork when they have time allotted specifically to prepare portfolios, ultimately leading to more polished lab reports and focused class time.
I’ve been interested in the power of checklists ever since I read Atul Gawande’s Checklist Manifesto. His book highlights how simple checklists have revolutionized industries like architecture, aviation, and surgery. When students are regulating their own work pace, I offer them structure in the form of Mastery Checklists that provide guidance around individualized learning paths. Students start each day by looking at data from previous assessments, and adjusting action plans with learning goals for the day. Then they work through their checklists and update their Trello boards with finished work samples. By pairing Mastery Checklists with a visual organization tool like Trello, it’s easy for me to keep my finger on the pulse of each student’s activity, and guide them in the right direction.
10 years ago, great teachers would hastily grade free-response questions overnight in an effort to provide feedback to students in a timely manner. However, the days of using data as taillights are behind us. Tools like Educanon, Formative, and Google Docs make it easy to collect actionable data and make informed, instantaneous decisions around dynamic grouping, individual competencies, and even customized learning paths. For example, Formative allows me to upload a document, designate areas for student input (multiple choice, free response, and even drawing), and then assign the activity to students. As students fill in the doc at their own pace, the teacher interface is updated in real-time so that I know which students need my help and when. I can pair struggling students with those who are just figuring it out, gather students for small group instruction, or re-teach concepts when there is a trend of misconceptions. Beyond that, catching student miscues as they happen makes it easier for me to help students polish unfinished work, fill in gaps in knowledge before summative assessments, and learn how to correct their own mistakes.