Be the Chimp! Teaching Students Independent Problem Solving

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SWBAT plan and carry out investigations while working together effectively.

Big Idea

Collaboration and experimentation are hallmarks of the human endeavor called the scientific process. In order to plan and carry out effective investigations, students need a tool kit for working together and solving interpersonal and scientific problems.


5 minutes

I like to monkey (ape) around in my room, so I teach students how to be "chimpy" as part of our exploration of the nature of science concept that scientific investigations use a variety of methods.

I find it is ideal to use this lesson as a way to introduce scientific methods and start the process of helping students gain independence during the planning and carrying out of investigations (SP3) in terms of interpersonal and scientific problem-solving. There are many great departure points for nature of science discussions -- about how the science process unfolds and a neat link to the crosscutting concept related to systems (CCC Systems and System Models). We look at lab groups as systems and what to do when the system stops working for some reason, which in middle school, it often does! Another link to crosscutting concepts is that of cause and effect since this lesson becomes the backbone for how our actions can affect others when working together.

In order to ENGAGE students in this lesson, I start with a one-minute guided meditation. We turn off the lights, close our eyes and try to think about what our lives would be like if we were chimpanzees. What would we need to live? What would we think about? What do we do to get what we want? Students share their insights, and often, stereotypes of chimpanzee intelligence and capability. I try to rile the group up a bit by asking them the question:

So, you think you're smarter than a chimpanzee?

Students briefly share some of their ideas using a sentences stem that engages students in simple arguments from evidence (SP7 Engaging in Argument from Evidence). The sentence stem is:

I think I am smarter than a chimpanzee because...

I've found that most middle school student think they are, so I challenge them to prove it in this lesson.


15 minutes

The EXPLORE stage of the lesson is to get students involved in the topic so that they start to build their own understanding. To help students explore the idea of whether chimpanzees are "smarter" problem solvers that middle school students, we watch a video:

The video guides you in terms of the questions to ask and moments for discussion. For example, at time :04, the video text says, "Then how do you get a peanut out of a clear fixed tube?" At this point in the video, I stop it and we discuss what limits that might exist for the chimpanzee in terms of tools and materials to help solve the problem. At time: 15, the video text says, "What would you do? Again, it is important to stop the video and discuss.

Students think-pair-share ideas for solving the chimpanzee's dilemma. During this sharing time, I like to make connections between students' ideas and correlations to the scientific process. For example, students suggest that the chimpanzee might use a stick. I might ask students what types of "sticks" or tools we might use in the science laboratory to help us solve problems. For example, this group of students generates several different strategies drawing on their background knowledge. These strategies include spinning the tube, hitting the tube with a food bowl, breaking the tube and even sucking the peanut out.

We watch the rest of the video, which ends with text that says "Chimp, 1; Humans, 0". This is a great teachable moment to take advantage of because very few students come up with the idea that the chimpanzee uses. We talk about whether the chimpanzee is "smarter" than we are, or if he is a "better problem solver". We also discuss whether the ideas we came up with would work or not, resulting in good discussion of the necessity of failure in scientific process. If students do suggest the solution used by the chimpanzee, I congratulate them for being our first class chimpanzee!

Some examples of probing questions to use with students during discussion that connect to science practices and crosscutting concepts might include:

So, we've learned that science is a human endeavor. Is it possible for chimpanzees to be scientists?

Does the chimpanzee plan and carry out an investigation, or was the final result just luck?

How is cause and effect shown in the video?


10 minutes

The EXPLAIN stage provides students with an opportunity to communicate what they have learned so far and figure out what it means. This stage of the lesson presents a great place for a quick formative assessment. Students complete a quick-write. Quick-writes are timed (1-5 minutes depending on ability level) sessions where students respond to a prompt. Students are expected to write for the entire time with the purpose of getting ideas on paper (rather than writing a polished piece) based on this prompt:

What does it mean to be "chimpy"?

If we have talked about scientific writing, I remind students to include a claim, evidence and reasoning in their answers. If students struggle with writing, I provide a sentence frame such as:

To be "chimpy" means I___________________________________ in science class. This shows I am a good problem solver because ____________________________________.


I may also provide a simple graphic organizer, such as:




At this point in the lesson, students identify the characteristics the chimpanzee showed that could be considered good scientific practice and make connections to our own practice. They share characteristics like "creative", "resilient" and "thoughtful" when asked to share their answers with a partner. I write these characteristics on the board as I listen in on student sharing.


15 minutes

The EXTEND stage allows students to apply new knowledge to a novel situation. The novel situation in this case is a new chimpanzee problem-solving video. Depending on the technology available, I have each lab group view a different video. Many videos are available by searching: "chimpanzee study". Each group is given the following instructions:

1) View the video.

2) While watching the video, write down different ways the chimp is being a successful problem solver and scientist.

3) As a group, finalize your top five chimpanzee problem solving characteristics or strategies.


10 minutes

The EVALUATION stage is for both students and teachers to determine how much learning and understanding has taken place. We evaluate what we have learned from chimpanzees about scientific problem solving by sharing each group's final lists to generate a class "top-ten" list.

From the list of student-generated classroom strategies, I create a Be the Chimp Wheel of Problem Solving. Students like to see their ideas printed out, laminated and included at each lab table for use during student work time. If a student or a group of students are struggling to figure out what to do or how to do it, I show them the wheel with the cue to "be the chimp".

To further model chimpy problem-solving strategies, I role-play with students a scenario in which a lab group isn't working well together. Together, we identify some of the problems and possible solutions. I pose the question, "What if you can't work it out?" At this point, I model for students the Protocol for Solving Interpersonal Conflicts, which is a protocol I developed based on principles for developing consensus in groups. If students practice and have a strong student facilitator, they can use this protocol independently. With middle school students, often, I am the facilitator. I also use this protocol when I have behavior or motivation concerns with an individual student; it has proven to me more effective than other management strategies.

To end our class, we participate in the "Be the Chimp" chant, which is a kinesthetic way to embody our new class philosophy. The chant involves two hand slaps on desks and one clap coinciding with the words "Be the Chimp". We get as loud and fast as possible to show just how chimpy we are!