Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Using the Smarter Science framework with a grade nine applied science class.

The Smarter Science framework provides science students and their teachers with a structured, step-by-step method to guide them through collaborative inquiry based activities. I am currently teaching a grade nine applied science course at St. Pius X High School in Ottawa. Although I have taught this course many times this year I am taking a different approach to it. I am using the Smarter Science framework of hands on collaborative lab activities in which the students design and run their own controlled experiments. We are experiencing unprecedented success!

The Beginning and Exploring Science Learner

Initially the learner uses the framework to become familiar with controlled lab inquiries that they have designed themselves. The learners collaborate to determine what all the variables in an experiment will be (star burst design).

The Emerging Science Learner

The students design their own experiment with one, measurable dependent variable and as many of the independent variables they think are necessary (fishbone diagram). The group brainstorms together to determine how the independent variables will be set up (cloud diagram). They may do some quick preliminary investigating to test if their controls are in an acceptable range. For example, when deciding how long to let a chromatograph run they may dip the chromatography paper into some water to determine how quickly the solvent migrates up the paper. Because they have no prior knowledge of chromatographic techniques they initially have no idea if it would be feasible to set the run time at one minute, one hour or even overnight.

The Competent Science Learner

While using the smarter Science framework the students not only learn new lab techniques on a “need to know” basis but they also experience “just in time” learning with lab equipment. For example, rather than have a teacher directed lesson on measuring liquids with a graduated cylinder the students will learn to use a graduated cylinder when the need arises in a real life situation. One of the primary roles of the teacher during the learner-led inquiry process to ensure that safety is embedded in the activity. In my teaching experience, it is often at this stage that the learners become aware of the sources of error in their inquiries and will either redesign the procedure or repeat the entire lab, at their own initiative, in order to correct for the sources of error that have become evident to them.

The Proficient Science Learner

By using the Smarter Science framework the learner takes charge of their own lab design which allows them to make sense of the theory that is covered in class before, during or after their lab inquiry. The Smarter Science framework empowers the student to become a self-directed learner. Initially they just wanted to have some fun in the science lab, which they do not interpret as ``doing any work`` but gradually, as they come to an innate understanding of the scientific process they use it to question the world around them. They learn how to collarbone and communicate with their peers, who are not necessarily their academic or social equals.


Grade nine applied science is one of my favourite courses to teach. I always request it on my timetable, every semester. Over the years I have taught this course over 30 times. The main reason I enjoy this course so much is not the curriculum but rather the nature of the learner. In general, students who enroll in the grade nine applied science course come to me not liking science, partly because they have rarely experienced success in a science course. Often they bring other factors into the classroom like learning disabilities, attention deficits, oppositional disorders, mental health issues, language barriers, and so on.

Until this year I always honoured the hands-on nature of these learners by having them perform many labs yet I was always extremely prescriptive in how the lab was to be done and what was expected in the write up, ie. ``cookbook labs``. I believed this approach was necessary in order for me to maintain control of my classroom as well as for the safety of the learners. At the end of the day I was often left wondering what had been accomplished during the lab, because I saw no evidence of learning and the students did not extrapolate their lab experiences to the theory covered in the course.

Using the Smarter Science framework has allowed me to follow my philosophy that all students can experience success in my classroom while teaching me that grade nine applied learners can be trusted to work safety and efficiently in the lab. When they are given control of their learning experiences they not only act but think like scientists. The collaborative approach of Smarter Science allows them to share their collective knowledge to deepen their understanding of the course content.

Although marks in themselves have become meaningless to me during this journey my midterm marks have never been higher. On the midterm report cards my class mean was 82% and the median was 90%!

See also: http://smarterscience.youthscience.ca/

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