Session 8: Project-Based Teaching

Charlene D'Avanzo introduces the session on project- or investigation-based learning. The panelists for the session are: Richard Yuretich (geosciences, UMASS), Brian Schultz (ecology, Hampshire), Sue Pac (gifted/talented, Powder Mill Middle School), Bob Newton (geology, Smith), Jeff Kenney (math and science, Great Falls Middle School), and herself.

Richard Yuretich is the first presenter and suggests how instructors can build projects around "investigating the everyday." To illustrate one example of this approach, he asks participants to consider the following three questions which might be presented to a geology course: 1) What are tides? 2) What causes them? 3) How can you prove it?

Richard gives participants approximately 10 minutes to discuss these questions with a neighbor/partner and then calls everyone back to the plenary. In answer to the first question, respondents provide a number of definitions and/or characteristics of tides: "the rise and fall of the ocean," "regular fluctuations of large bodies of water," "a worldwide phenomenon," and "observed along shorelines." In answer to the second, respondents list a range of causes: "gravitation," "position of the sun and moon," "centripetal acceleration," "other weather conditions," and "sloshing."

Participants also have various ideas about how students could go about "proving" various causal explanations of tides, most relying on quantified data. Richard suggests a good and accessible source for such data: the lunar and tidal tables that appear in some newspapers (e.g., The Boston Globe). Students can use these data to correlate lunar and tidal sequences.

The next presenter is Brian Schulz. Brian discusses a number of ecological projects that involve bringing the outdoors indoors and enable students to develop their own hypotheses about natural phenomenon (e.g., using crickets to model ecological systems). He also discusses how "people examples" can be used to suggest ecological activity (e.g., counting the numbers of people in a cafeteria pizza line vs. those at the salad bar, or counting the number of women who sit in the front of the room vs. the back). He also reveals the results of a small experiment he conducted by leaving out equal numbers of (healthy) Fig Newton bars and (less healthy) donut holes for the workshop's morning repast. Such experiments can help students better understand empirical methods.

Brian also offers a number of tips for constructing good student projects: Sue Pac is the next presenter and talks about community-based problem solving. Her middle school students draw on a range of community issues to define the problems they wish to address. A sampling of the projects coming out of her classrooms: Basing student projects on community issues or controversies is beneficial for students and communities alike, according to Sue. Students learn more about their communities, they develop a range of skills (social and political as well as empirical), and they grow to see the relevance of science for their own lives. Communities often gain much-needed research and insight into local problems and attract more parents to the political process.

Sue offers advice on how to organize community-based problem solving. Teachers should encourage and enable students to: Sue then describes the Southwick Rails to Trails Project as an example of the process and outcomes of community-based problem solving.

Bob Newton is the next presenter. He talks about a ground water contamination project in which his geology students engaged.

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