Essential questions are a great strategy to help middle school students make connections between big ideas in science, their own lives and the learning objectives investigated in class. Choosing the right essential questions can frame an entire unit in a way that engages student curiosity.
The nature of science is based on the assumption that science addresses questions about the natural and material world. The scientific way of knowing brings new knowledge that can, in turn, describe the consequences of actions which humans may use to solve (or create) problems. In this activity, students explore three essential questions related to Inquiry and Forces and Motion:
How is scientific knowledge created and communicated?
How do science and technology affect the quality of our lives?
Where do we see laws of motion in our daily lives and how can knowledge of those laws help us?
These essential questions become engaging as soon as students realize they are really just questions about talking, technology and running into things!
This lesson occurs over the course of a unit during which students ask and answer questions that can be investigated within the scope of the classroom with available resources and, when appropriate, frame a hypothesis based on observations and scientific principles (SP1). Students also apply scientific ideas, principles, and evidence to construct, revise and use an explanation for real-world phenomena, examples, or events (SP6) and communicate scientific and/or technical information in writing and through oral presentations (SP8 and CCSS.ELA-Literacy.WHST.6-8.1).
In order to ENGAGE students in this lesson, students are introduced to the questions briefly at the beginning of the unit when they receive their Forces and Motion Study Guide. Since the questions have not been contextualized this early in the unit, each question is re-introduced at a relevant point in the instructional sequence. In order to re-introduce the questions, it is important to link the question to: 1) a relevant instructional activity and 2) a high-interest experience.
For example, for Essential Question #1, a pertinent relevant instructional activity could be when students are learning to communicate their scientific results. The high interest experience can come in many forms such as: video, cartoon, article, anecdote, story or a mini-research project. For my class, we read about the controversy surrounding, "Who is the father of evolutionary theory - Charles Darwin or Alfred Russel Wallace?" For a text, read: Alfred Russel Wallace: The Forgotten Man of Evolution.
After re-introducing the question, students spend five to ten minutes recording their thoughts on the Forces and Motion EQ and Warm Up Organizer. We engage in a discussion of what students are thinking about; during this discussion, it is important to balance unfettered student enthusiasm while pushing students to make deeper connections. These discussions can spread out in my interesting directions, which is a worthwhile endeavor. To bring it back to the essential question, the following prompts can help:
How does this relate the essential question?
Where do you see _______________ in your life?
How does that idea connect to what we are learning about?
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 essential questions, concrete examples and experiences need to be provided throughout the unit. This student need can be addressed by the strategy called "Point it Out", which is described in this section's reflection: Helping Students Connect the Dots. As these golden moments for connections to the essential questions happen, students are encouraged to record additional thoughts on their Forces and Motion EQ and Warm Up Organizer. This running record of ideas will be used to complete a final draft project during the EXPLAIN stage of the lesson.
As the unit comes to a close, students use the Forces and Motion Essential Question Final Project Handout to decide how they would like to finalize their ideas about the essential questions. While students have choices in terms of the final format (as explained in the Final Project Handout), this opportunity to communicate what they have learned has the following requirements:
â Make a claim
â Explore the core idea of the essential question using details
â Support your EQ with evidence from at least one class investigation
â Identify and explain at least one relevant connection to reality
Many students struggle with synthesizing all of these pieces into one coherent argument. Providing structure and instruction is necessary during the first few go-rounds with writing essential question arguments. For more on this topic, view an associated lesson: Writing Arguments from Evidence. Simple sentence starters like these also help promote coherent arguments:
What I think about Essential Question #___ is__________________________________.
One investigation that helped me understand this Essential Question is_______________.
This investigation helped me understand by____________________________________.
One way this question relates to my life is_____________________________________.
This connection to my life is important because_________________________________.
To EXTEND is to apply the essential questions to novel situations. Extension opportunities are built into this lesson since students are encouraged to make deeper connections as they analyze the essential questions. Students are able to draw upon outside resources, background knowledge and current events to make their responses even richer.
The EVALUATION stage is for both students and teachers to determine how much learning and understanding has taken place. Evaluation takes two forms in this lesson: students evaluate the completeness of their essential question responses using the Essential Question Checklist. This video shows the self-evaluation process.
Upon submission, I use the same checklist to provide feedback on student work such as these examples: Forces and Motion Essential Question - Student Work and Forces and Motion Essential Question - Student Project. Other than completion feedback, students really appreciate receiving feedback on their creative connections. This feedback can lead to inspiring dialogue in both written or verbal form.