I’m looking for project ideas or activities that fifth-grade students can do to connect what they learn in science with the “real world” outside the classroom. Do you have any suggestions?
Helping students see these connections can satisfy those who ask, “Why do we have to learn this?” By engaging in authentic activities, students have a chance to apply what they are learning to new situations, they can experience what scientists do, and their experiences could evolve into lifelong interests or career choices.
Rather than add-ons or special events, these projects and activities should relate to and extend your learning goals.
- Have students expand their study of living things to other parts of the school. Set up and maintain aquariums or plants in the office, library, or other public areas. Create and maintain flower gardens, vegetable gardens, or water gardens.
- Spearhead a school-wide recycling project, especially for paper or cafeteria waste (see the article “Trash Pie” in the March 2010 issue of Science & Children).
- Set up and monitor a weather station, and include the students’ report as part of the daily announcements. Some local television stations even provide the equipment and share student data on the nightly news.
- Contact the director of a local park or nature center for ideas. Students could identify trees and create signs displaying that information for them. A nearby college or university may have projects in which your students could participate.
- Inventions can give students a chance to turn ideas into real products. See the Invention Convention for connections between inventions and science, technology, engineering, and math topics.
- Using digital cameras, students could inventory the environment in and around the school. They could create their own virtual “museum” displays of local rocks, landforms, shells, insects, or leaves.
You could also involve your students in authentic “citizen science” projects. In these regional and national projects, participants record observations in their own communities and upload data to a project database. Students get to see “their” data used as part of a larger project and are encouraged to pose their own research questions. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has several ongoing projects, including BirdSleuth, a bird study. The article “Using Citizen Scientists to Measure the Effects of Ozone Damage on Native Wildflowers” in the April 2010 issue of Science Scope describes an air quality monitoring project. For more ideas, see these websites: NASA Citizen Scientists and Scientific American.
Search the archived issues of Science & Children and Science Scope for more ideas. To get you started, I’ve created a Resource Collection via the NSTA Learning Center containing the articles mentioned previously and others that showcase authentic projects.
After you and your students choose and conduct a project, consider sharing your experiences in an NSTA journal!
With the College Board’s increased emphasis on student inquiry as part of the AP Biology curriculum revision, I am struggling with whether to require my students to keep a written laboratory notebook, as is the practice in industry. Is the lab notebook going the way of the dinosaurs?—Dan, Missouri
We hear a lot about science notebooks, but the role of technology is a consideration. I forwarded your question to two science professionals for additional insights.
Rose Clark, PhD, is the department chair and a professor of chemistry at Saint Francis University in Loretto, Pennsylvania. She also works with classroom teachers as part of a math-science collaborative.
In academics, the laboratory notebook is still crucial. Documentation of research/experimental data is very necessary, and written analysis is still a major form of documentation. I do not know of any colleagues in chemistry research [who] have gone to tablet [computers]. We do have a lot of electronic data, on the other hand, that has to be saved and stored as part of the documentation of our work. I am sure there is a mix in industry as well.
In general, as an educator, I think it is critical that the students learn the process of keeping a good laboratory notebook on paper. Taking the time to write in the notebook allows the students time to organize their thoughts. They also take the time to create tables and organize data, since they will not be able to reorganize easily. I would hate to see students not trained to use a paper notebook. Once they get a job, they will easily learn software to keep notebooks if needed, but learning the process of keeping a good notebook is harder to teach.
Nicole Henderson is a biologist and an associate staff scientist at the Hershey Company.
This is an interesting and timely question. As we stand today, we [those working in research and development] are still using traditional lab notebooks for project work. There is a push currently to move to electronic lab notebooks as part of a “knowledge management” process. [The team is] looking at several systems, but it wouldn’t just be keeping the same information in e-mails or Word doc[ument]s: It has to be part of a bigger, searchable system.
Many of us in science research and education grew up with hard-copy notebooks. But it’s difficult to predict what tools our students will use in their future, and we want them to be able to adapt to new tools as they are developed. As Clark notes, having a strong foundation in organizing and analyzing data seems more important for students than mastering a technology that may be soon outdated.
You might consider how students will access electronic-only lab documents, both in and outside of class. Will they have to log in to a school network or document-sharing program to retrieve them? Will they maintain their own copies digitally? How will students access their notebooks later on (for example, referring to their work after they enter college)?
Electronic tools do have advantages in terms of communications. Files can be archived, updated, and shared for input and comments. (I know teachers who are using LiveBinders for students to create electronic portfolios.) As a teacher, I would welcome a way to avoid carrying around dozens of student notebooks to review. I also can’t imagine writing a report in longhand or organizing data without a spreadsheet.
I visited a biology class recently in which the teacher used a hybrid approach. The students were investigating the relationship between salt concentrations in water and plant growth. Student teams recorded their data in their notebooks. The teacher then guided the students through designing a spreadsheet in Google Docs in which all of the teams could combine their data. The spreadsheet was displayed on the whiteboard as each data set was entered. Right away, students began noticing patterns and anomalies. The class discussion was intense as they tried to explain them.
Whatever hardware and software students use today will probably be extinct “dinosaurs” within a few years. For example, in the 1990s, I prepared my dissertation with software that no longer exists. I was able to translate the documents into a version compatible with my current technology, but most of the formatting was lost. Fortunately, I still have the hard copy. I also have my yellowed and dog-eared high school and college science notebooks.
Rather than considering traditional notebooks “dinosaurs,” perhaps we should regard them as “horseshoe crabs”—predating and surviving the dinosaurs, and having a role to play even as other tools become available and relevant.
Check out more of Ms. Mentor’s advice on diverse topics—such as summer science camps, learning from students, and class presentations—or ask a question at www.nsta.org/msmentor.