Sunday, March 13, 2011

Special Education High School Students Plan their Own Science Investigation – Post 23

Recently our locally developed science class started a major lab investigation to observe if bacteria will grow on lemons. When we started this inquiry I had no idea this would become the focus of our investigation, everything has been planned by the students while I have enjoyed the status of guide at the side. If you have been following my other blog postings you may realize how remarkable an achievement this is – this combined class of grade 9 and 10 special education students, who are studying SNC1L or SNC2L with me, includes individuals with a variety of disabilities including autism, fetal alcohol syndrome, mild intellectual disabilities and communication delays: all of these students have individualized education plans (IEPs).

In order to facilitate their investigation I provided them with a photocopied set of the Smarter Science framework Steps to Inquiry (set one) worksheets and I had enlarged posters of the framework on the front board for them to refer to. We used the set one framework because it is designed for use with beginning, exploring and emerging scientists.

Step 1: Observing and Questioning (=ENGAGE)

On day one I provided each student with a freshly cut wedge of lemon and told them that I had read on the internet that lemons could be used as a safe and effective cleaning product yet I was skeptical and not everything that one read on the internet was true. I asked them if any of them had ever heard this or tried to clean using lemons. Since none of them had I invited them all too simply take a slice of lemon and attempt to clean an area of the lab countertops. No further instruction was given and each student was left to their own interpretation of this instruction. After they had all made whatever attempt they chose to clean the lab counter with a lemon wedge they were asked to discard the lemon and wash their hands.

Then we went to page one of the Smarter Science framework worksheets to record what we had observed while cleaning with a lemon wedge. The following observations were shared and recorded:
· Smelled lemony
· Wet
· Not a good cleaner
· Worked better if area was rubbed with a paper towel after
· Lemon got dirty
· You needed to rub hard
· It sounded like scrubbing
· Sticky residue remained on the counter tops

Our next step was to think about using lemons as cleaners. Using the key word “wonder” I prompted the students to think about what they were wondering about as a result of their experience using lemons as cleaners. (Note: Half an hour ago none of these students had any prior knowledge of lemons as cleaners but now they had their own personal experience to draw on.) After some initial hesitancy the list of questions the students came up was phenomenal! Each question was recorded, in abbreviated form, on sticky notes by the students while I modeled this behavior for them at the front of the room. (Although the students were invited to record their questions in pictorial form none did, but some required the aid of their scribes.) In no particular order, these are the questions the students wondered about:
Can lemon juice remove paint?
Do people like squeezing lemons?
Does lemon collect bacteria?
Does lemon juice fade freckles?
Does lemon juice cause rust?
Can lemon juice be used to clean a car?
Can lemon juice be used as wiper fluid?
Is lemon juice expensive?
Does lemon juice remove make up?
Can lemon juice get rid of wrinkles?
Will sunlight change the properties of lemon juice?
Can other types of fruits be used as cleaners?

The following day we started with this list of twelve questions that the students had generated. We needed to sort them into three categories: those that could be answered by research, those that could be answered by laboratory testing, and those that would remain speculative. In order to aid with the sorting process I had prepared a “Question Sorter Template” for the students use and also put a copy of the template on the board so I could model for them what we were doing and they could all engage fully. Each question was discussed at length before being placed in the appropriate column of the question sorter template. The students realized that some questions did not fit neatly into one particular category so these sticky notes were placed on the line between categories. (These students’ excel at oral communication so I use every possible occasion to encourage them to share their thoughts aloud. Interestingly, they are especially patient and respectful with the one student who is often tongue tied and requires extra time to process his thoughts and form his words. )
Can you believe that I actually have a class set of laptops that not only work but are connected wirelessly to the internet! Wow! I can barely believe in myself but I am thrilled to report that my school board (Ottawa Catholic) has fully embraced 21st century technology in the classroom. Even better these high need students, who have difficulty remembering usernames and passwords, have been taught to have this information, in writing, available to them at all times.

So we logged on and each student got to work researching the answers to our questions. Many interesting and informative answers were found and discussed during this process. At the end of our research process the question that was the most poorly answered, on the internet, was “Will bacteria collect on lemons?” Therefore this became our lab investigation question.
Personally, I was uncomfortable with the wording of this question and prompted the class several times to reconsider what the question said, what they wanted it to say and if a different choice of words would be better but they were adamant that they liked it the way it was so I left it alone. This was their investigation, not mine. Did I want to empower them of dictate to them? Sometimes it is hard to let go!

Step 2 (a) What could we measure or observe about the object, or event?
“Will bacteria collect on lemons?”

Step 2 (b) What could we change or vary about the object or the event that may affect what we could measure or observe?” = variables
We brainstormed and recorded the following variables on sticky notes which were placed on page two of our framework handout:
· Temperature
· Time
· Adding water
· How many lemons
· Where to get some bacteria
· Size of lemon
· Weight of lemons
· Size of jar / beaker
· Where to put them

Step 3 (a) What will we change? (= changed variable)
This step required extensive discussion, debate and time. It could not be rushed or some students would not understand how this was a controlled experiment. Everyone had several opportunities to voice their ideas and opinions. Elimination votes were taken to narrow down the options. Final answer:
The one variable we will change is where we place the jar with the lemon in it and we will measure or observe how much bacteria will grow.
What this meant to our class is that each pair of students would run an identical lab but each group would get to decide the location of their test lemon, in the beaker.

Step 3 (b) What will we not change? (=unchanged variable)
Now we moved the rest of our sticky notes from step 2 (b) over to page 3 of our framework template and decided on what value to give them.
· Temperature = room temperature
· Time = check every day until we decide to stop
· Adding water = no
· How many lemons = one half, cut width ways
· Where to get some bacteria = one cough per group member onto cut lemon in the beaker
· Size of lemon = medium
· Weight of lemons = use an balance and record
· Size of jar / beaker = 1000 mL glass beaker, no lid or cover

Step 4: What is the question we want to explore?
All we had to do now was simply move some sticky notes to page 4 of our template so our question looked like:
“If we change “where we put the beaker” (changed variable) what will happen to “the amount of bacteria on the lemon” (to b e observed daily) compared to our control?”

Step 5: What is our prediction? State how we will change the variable and predict the outcome?
This was my teachable moment to do some just-in-time teaching about using “If . . .then” statements to make predictions. Each student was guided through the process and wrote their own predictions. In several cases they expressed what they wanted their prediction to say and were then helped to form it into an “if . . .then” statement. There was no student who did not have an idea about what they wanted to predict. The students required a lot of reassurance that no prediction was wrong, it was important to make a prediction using the correct format. The only wrong answer was not to make a prediction. Some students found it very difficult to commit to a prediction yet eventually they all did! In general they looked like:

We predict that . . . if lemons are placed in different locations then they will collect different amounts of bacteria.

We think this will happen because . . . (another difficult sentence starter yet everyone managed to write something eventually.)

2. Perform and Record (=EXPLORE)

All the events written about above fell under the “initiate and plan” (a.k.a engage) stage of setting up the experiment and took our class a full week of 75 minute classes to complete. Yet, as an experienced educator, I believe it was time well spent because the students were engaged in authentic, real life learning, they were being empowered to take ownership of their experimental set up and design and they were working collaboratively throughout.

Because we had determined the values for all of our variables during the design process it was relatively simple to set up the experiment. The students knew exactly what to do because this was their lab and they had invested a great deal of thought and discussion into each step.
Observations: Drawing tables in an extremely challenging task for this group of students. Even when I provide them with a ruler drawing straight lines defies some of their fine motor skills. So, today, I decided to try something different. I hooked my laptop up to the LCD projector and opened word processing software. I brought my printer over to my desk and plugged it into my computer. After typing the heading “Observation Table”, I announced, “Let’s design our observation table together.”

Step by step I showed the class how to set up a table and type in the headings. This information meant nothing to many of the students, but was helpful to a few. We made a three-column table with the heading: Date, day, and observations. Everyone got out a calendar while I explained that if Friday was day 3 then Monday was day 6, not day 4! This concept is challenging to lots of my students but for a student whose exceptionalities includes that they have no understanding of the concept of time it is particularity impossible.

Once we were all satisfied with the design, layout and spacing of the observation table I printed one out for each student and they were delighted! Now all we have to do is make our observations each day. Eventually we will stop the experiment and move onto analyzing, interpreting and communicating our answers. You will be able to read about that in 4 – 6 weeks from now. In the meanwhile, I am content to know that this special education class is learning to think like real scientists!

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Are Chemical or Natural Cleaners Better at Cleaning? – Posting 22

Today I used the Smarter Science framework to facilitate a lab with a grade nine science class that had never experienced this approach to science before. As usual in a classroom, the anecdotal comments told the real story of how things went. These comments ranged from:

“This is awesome!”

“Using the sticky notes and then moving them is such a great idea!”

“What do you mean; you aren’t giving us the procedure?”

“Shouldn’t we be writing more things down?”

“Can we do labs like this again?”

“It blew my mind!”

This is not to say that it was smooth sailing all the way. But let me fill in you on the details. In the Chemistry unit that we are currently studying one of the topics covered is that there are often safe,environmentally friendly alternatives to commonly used household chemicals. The question we investigated was: “Are environmentally friendly cleaners as good at cleaning as household chemicals?” Since this was the first time the class had used the Smarter Science framework my objective for the students was that they would learn to design and perform a fair test.

We had four cleaners to test. The cleaners were our dependent variable.

1. Slices of lemon (environmentally friendly)

2. White vinegar (environmentally friendly)

3. SOS pads (household chemical)

4. Scouring powder (household chemical)

I had the four types of cleaners on my front desk to provide a visual cue. This was especially helpful for my ESL students who were unfamiliar with the two household cleaners I brought in. (SOS pads and Comet). Photocopies of the Smarter Science Steps to Inquiry (set 3) and pads of small sticky notes were distributed to the students while the corresponding posters were mounted on the front board.

1. Initiate and Plan (ENGAGE)

We identified our objective as: “To compare 4 cleaners”. We recorded this on a sticky note and placed in the center of the star-burst diagram.

Together we brainstormed what factors would have to remain constant while testing all four cleaners in order for the test to be fair. These were the controlled variables. Our list read:

· Amount of cleaner used

· Amount of time scrubbing occurred

· How hard we scrub

· Type of motion used to scrub, ie. Circular or linear

· Type of surface cleaned, ie. Desk top, glass, floor tile

Each of these five control variables were recorded on separate sticky notes and placed around the rays of the star burst diagram.

Next, the students worked with a partner to decide what values they would give to each of these variables. They used the second page of their Steps to Inquiry handout to record agreed upon values. Our framework was nearly complete!

Turning to the last page of the framework (fish bone design) all the sticky notes were relocated. The dependent variable was stuck on the head of the fish, while the controlled variables were stuck along the bones.

The final instruction from me was: “Collect your materials and do the lab.”

2. Perform and Record (EXPLORE)

The students tied back their hair, put on goggles, collected one sample of each of the four cleaners and got to work. Questions that I was asked at this stage were:

“How much should I use?”

“What should we clean?”

“How hard should I scrub?”

“How long do I scrub?”

Each question received the same answer. “I don’t know. Check your design. Ask you partner.”

Initially the students were very confused by this. This was the first time they had been permitted to be in charge of their own experiment. Some groups were quickly empowered and got it! Others were like fish out of water. They wanted me to direct their every move. Just as I was about to cave-in and start directing them one of my weakest students from the previous semester dropped into the classroom to see what we were doing. I told the students she was the only one that could help them. This visiting student immediately grew two inches in height, tossed out the sucker she had in her mouth and took charge. Within three minutes everyone was happily scrubbing away while I walked around exclaiming, “Great work! Fantastic! Keep it up!” this positive reinforcement appeared to be an essential component to the lab.

Recording / Gathering data: Just as I was resting on my laurels the students started to demand what they needed to write down. “What do you think you should write down? What does your partner want you to write down?” was my reply. In some pairs of students one partner started dictating to the other partner what to write down, some started to draw tables, and one group even had the idea to rate all the cleaners on a scale of 1 – 5 and record how good they were!

After all the testing was complete the students cleaned up and washed their hands and sat down to consider what had just happened.

3. Analyze and Interpret (EXPLAIN)

Again, the students wanted some direction from me. I instructed them to go back to what our original question had been and see if they could answer it. The question was: “Are environmentally friendly cleaners as good at cleaning as household chemicals?”

The students looked at what they had recorded and started analyzing it from this point of view. A couple of the groups realized they had not recorded anything that would help them answer the question so they went back to where they had been scrubbing and started recording the results from their new, enlightened perspective. Somehow, in the excitement of doing the lab they had lost sight of what the question was.

I overheard students comparing and contrasting the merits of the four cleaners.

4. Communicating (EXTEND)

It came as no surprise to me that students in this applied-level science course are excellent oral communicators. With no prompting, groups shared their results with each other. The pros and cons of the different cleaners were debated; physical properties such as smell and stickiness were under discussion. Sources of error were even used as explanations for variations in results, although the students are as yet unaware that this is what they were doing!

Three of my ESL students looked a little confused by the discussion that was swirling around them. I told the boys that everyone was talking about the cleaners we had just tested and suggested that they do the same in their shared native language. What huge smiles rewarded me! (These students spend most of their day being told to only speak English, which is what they were here to learn.) Gleefully they started chatting amongst themselves. I can only guess that they were talking about the lab and judging from the manner in which they were pointing to their data I feel confident that the three minutes they spent not speaking English today provided them with some scientific enlightenment.

As the class drew to a close the students wanted to know what they had to hand in. Imagine their delight when I told them there was nothing to hand in! Tomorrow we will have a class vote on which cleaner worked best and the only thing they would have to do is put their hand up to vote.

From the perspective of a classroom teacher I am treating this activity as a formative or diagnostic event. My conclusion is that the Smarter Science framework will be very successful in this class, as the students learn to think and act like scientists, they will become increasingly independent and self-confident learners.