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.