Virtual Collaboration: Vertical Lab Groups

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SWBAT collaborate with students from other classes or grades to design and carry out investigations.

Big Idea

Lab groups that can travel in time? Why not! Vertical lab groups promote collaboration and 21st century technology skills.


Students can transcend time and space by using technology to collaborate with science students in different grades or different sections of the same class. This lesson is a strategy lesson that can be used with any type of longer-term collaboration project or as students plan an investigation collaboratively or solve an engineering problem (SP3). For illustrative purposes, this strategy will be described as used in a recent collaborative Crime Scene Investigation (CSI) between my 6th grade physical science classes and the 7th grade life science classes. For CSI ideas, try these resources: Forensics in the Classroom or CSI Web Adventures.

This CSI is a life science project that includes forensic study of blood types, fingerprints and hand-writing analysis to solve a "murder" in the science class. This project spans several weeks and includes students collecting evidence from around the school in CSI teams. This year, several powders were found at the "crime scene". We devised collaboration between the different grades by having the 7th grade students request assistance from the 6th grade "chemical analysts".

In order to ENGAGE students in this type of lesson, it is important to design a collaboration opportunity that requires collaboration for success (or at least seems like a necessity). In the CSI, 6th graders are invited to collaborate by the 7th grade students using this video:

Students are engaged for several reasons:

1) Call to help - Students love the idea of helping and contributing to the investigation. They take on the role of expert consultants and appreciate the opportunity to share their findings in a way that contributes to solving a problem.

2) Sense of community - By collaborating with students in other grades or in other classes, students join in a common purpose that brings everyone closer together. In the case of our CSI project, the entire school gets involved, which is fun and creates a creative scientific synergy.

3) Authentic opportunity - Students recognize authenticity and are more motivated when investigations solve real problems. By doing the work of forensic scientists, students explore science-related careers and practice science for a purpose.


The EXPLORE stage of the lesson is to get students involved in the topic so that they start to build their own understanding; the EXPLAIN stage provides students with an opportunity to communicate what they have learned so far and figure out what it means; and the EXTEND stage allows students to apply new knowledge to a novel situation. When collaborating across space and time, these stages depend on the type of investigation or project.

For the CSI collaborative project, 7th grade students completed a Google form: CSI Request for Consultation. This form provided a way for our students to make an initial connection. When all the responses were received, I matched 6th grade lab groups with each request: Request for Consultation Responses. Students refer to the document to start email correspondence. As students explore, there are several ways students can communicate:

1) Email

2) Shared Planning Documents: CSI Forensics Team Planning Document

3) Comments on Shared Report: CSI Report

4) Shared video or Vine clips. For more on using Vine in the classroom, visit: Three Ways to Use Vine in the PBL Classroom.

Teacher Note: As students use technology, it is imperative to review and require set norms and guidelines for proper academic use. Review your class norms or school acceptable use policy. It may also be helpful to include acceptable technology use as part of your evaluation rubric.

The levels of collaboration occur in real time when students complete the in-class activities, in this case: Properties of Matter Investigation - CSI using the Example CSI Instructions. As students collect data, record observations and generate inferences (Collecting Data: Observation and Inference), collaboration becomes virtual when they share their findings using the strategies above.

Teacher Note: In addition to teaching students how to use technology and use it appropriately, students need instruction around how to collaborate effectively. Using a strategy like a Contract for Group Work, may help students think critically about their roles in the group. Assessing for collaborative skills as a science practice provides students with constructive feedback so they can build good collaboration habits.


The EVALUATION stage is for both students and teachers to determine how much learning and understanding has taken place. There are a multitude of objectives that can be evaluated during this type of collaborative experience:

1) Evaluate the core disciplinary ideas to assess students' understanding of the standard. For the CSI project, students explored Matter and Its Interactions (MS-PS1-2). In this project, students created a final report Properties of Matter Investigation - Student Work using an Example CSI Report Template that was shared with their vertical lab groups and completed a lab sheet: Properties of Matter Investigation - Student Work.

2) Evaluate technology use.

3) Evaluate scientific collaboration: Scientific Collaboration Rubric. This rubric can serve as another collaboration tool as students develop the performance criteria needed to meet expectations for each section.

4) Evaluate other science practices like: Construct Explanations (SP6), Engage in Argument from Evidence (SP7) or Obtain, Evaluate and Communicate Information (SP8).