Because the students will be spending this class period and future class periods working on researching for and writing the research paper that will serve as the basis for their science fair project, I begin by leading a review of the basic skills that the students will use during this process.
In order to help the students better understand the purpose of this research paper, I ask students to remind me of the reasons that we perform research before we conduct an experiment. I expect them to know that this preliminary research will help them develop their experimental design as they research other experiments that have been conducted and learn more about the scientific principles that relate to their topic. Sometimes students have difficulty seeing the relevance of writing a research paper in science class, so this discussion is essential in helping the students identify the need to perform this research.
I also ask the students to tell me the best methods through which to conduct research. They readily answer that the internet is a good source of information and I have to remind them that the library and experts in the field are also good, reliable sources of information. I also ask the students to suggest how to tell if a website is a quality source. This is a topic we have discussed in class before and all of the students should be able to adequately answer the question.
It is important to point out that this is not the first research activity my students have conducted. Earlier in the year we completed lesson activities modified from this source: Planey, J. & Hug, B. (January 2012). Establishing Media Awareness in the Classroom: A Pyramid of Sources. The Science Teacher 79(1): 37-40.
Another resource to help students learn how to find credible sources is Phil Bradley's website, which provides links to various websites that can be used during lessons about website credibility.
This student explanation of quality websites demonstrates the level of knowledge I expect my students to posses when beginning to look for credible sources.
I return the students' background research plan worksheets from a previous lesson and explain that we will begin writing the research paper during class. I spend some time discussing how to use the key words from the students' research plan during their search for information. For example, I ask a student to tell me some of their key words and then I ask the rest of the class to offer ideas for what I should type into the search. I do this on the LCD projector, so all of the students can see the search results. I then ask another student to offer suggestions for a different search using the same terms, to show the students how the search results may differ based on how information is searched.
This research paper is very short, only five paragraphs, but it will serve as the foundation for the final paper for the science fair project. I then hand out the research paper guidelines. I review the requirements for the three components of the research paper: title page, research paper, and bibliography. Then I answer any questions that the students have regarding the paper. Additional resources for writing a research paper can be found at Read, Write, Think.org.
The research and writing that students put into the research paper serves a valuable function in meeting NGSS Scientific Practices and Common Core ELA standards.
The students begin their project by asking a question and develop an experiment to answer the question. As they seek out information to clarify their hypothesis, and write background about their their experiment, students are addressing SP1 - Asking questions and defining problems in 6–8 builds on K–5 experiences and progresses to specifying relationships between variables, and clarifying arguments and models. This research can help students ask questions:
that arise from careful observation of phenomena, models, or unexpected results, to clarify and/or seek additional information.
to identify and/or clarify evidence and/or the premise(s) of an argument.
to determine relationships between independent and dependent variables and relationships in models.
that require sufficient and appropriate empirical evidence to answer.
that can be investigated within the scope of the classroom, outdoor environment, and museums and other public facilities with available resources and, when appropriate, frame a hypothesis based on observations and scientific principles.
that challenge the premise(s) of an argument or the interpretation of a data set.
Additionally, as students research information, they begin the process of refining the rough plan for their experiment, addressing SP3 - Planning and carrying out investigations in 6-8 builds on K-5 experiences and progresses to include investigations that use multiple variables and provide evidence to support explanations or solutions.
Plan an investigation individually and collaboratively, and in the design: identify independent and dependent variables and controls, what tools are needed to do the gathering, how measurements will be recorded, and how many data are needed to support a claim.
Conduct an investigation and/or evaluate and/or revise the experimental design to produce data to serve as the basis for evidence that meet the goals of the investigation.
The Common Core standards addressed by performing this research include:
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.W.7 - Conduct short as well as more sustained research projects based on focused questions, demonstrating understanding of the subject under investigation.
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.W.8 - Gather relevant information from multiple print and digital sources, assess the credibility and accuracy of each source, and integrate the information while avoiding plagiarism.
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.W.9 - Draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research.
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.W.10 - Write routinely over extended time frames (time for research, reflection, and revision) and shorter time frames (a single sitting or a day or two) for a range of tasks, purposes, and audiences.
After I have reviewed the requirements with the students, they begin working on their own or with their science fair partner. During this time, I circulate through the room answering questions. The first paragraph is relatively easy for the students because they are introducing their topic and explaining how they became interested in the topic.
Some of the students have a little difficulty with the second paragraph, which requires them to define the key words related to their topic. I remind the students that this is where they should also explain their operational definitions for their experiment.
The third and fourth paragraphs are more difficult for the students, as it is sometimes hard for them to find similar experiments or scientists that have studied similar topics. During this time, I help them brainstorm search terms in order to find experiments similar to theirs. I remind the students that experiments from other middle school students may not have reliable results, so they should use that information with care. I also try to help the students understand that they will not find experiments exactly like theirs, but should instead try to find similar experiments performed with different items or experiments with other general connections.
As the students work on the fifth paragraph, I remind them of the importance of including their hypothesis and explain that they should take into consideration all of the information they included in their paper when they generate their hypothesis.
I allow the students three class periods to work on this research paper. During those sessions, I remind the students to complete in text citations as they work and to add items to their bibliography as they find them. On the second day of working on the paper, I review the guidelines for the bibliography as a reminder for the students.
Working on the research paper addresses Science and Engineering Practices 1 and 3 as the students perform research to better understand and define their science fair topics. The research component of the paper also meets CCSS RST.6-8.2 and RST.6-8.10 because the students are reading and summarizing research. As the students establish a formal style in writing their research paper, CCSS W.8.1d, and W.8.2, are addressed.
At the end of the class period, I lead a whole group discussion reviewing the requirements of the project. I double check that each of the students has their written requirements by asking them to hold their paper in the air. Students who do not have their guidelines will be given a new copy. The guidelines are also available online. I also remind the students to check the online review prior to submitting their research paper.