As part of a problem-based learning unit on the West Nile virus, high school seniors and fifth graders in Grapevine, Texas, analyzed water and organism samples they collected from water sources at Grapevine High School’s Ecology Center. (Grapevine-Colleyville Independent School District Communica tions Services)
In Grapevine, Texas, last fall, a high school science teacher and two fifth-grade teachers partnered to create a problem-based learning (PBL) unit in which the fifth graders and high school seniors formed blended-age teams and collected and analyzed water and organism samples to study the West Nile virus and develop preventative measures and solutions to the problem. The unit was especially relevant because north Texas experienced a high incidence of the mosquito-borne virus in 2012.
“My first connection with the fifth-grade teachers [from Timberline Elementary School] was through my EcoBuddies program,” says Deanna Showalter, Grapevine High School’s (GHS) science department chair and Ecology Center curator. In EcoBuddies, Showalter has her seniors research the fifth graders’ science Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) state standards and create a lesson that incorporates the TEKS and one of the six areas of the GHS Ecology Center. “We then invite the fifth graders from Timberline”—located across the street from GHS—to visit the Ecology Center, “and my students teach their lessons [there],” she relates.
Julee Vorachard, Timberline’s fifth-grade science teacher, recalls, “My principal contacted me in July and said that she had been thinking about comments that my students had made last year…[showing] they cared more about making a difference through their learning than about the grade they received.” When the principal suggested Vorachard and social studies teacher Michele Colebrook create a PBL unit on the West Nile virus—from which Colebrook had recently recovered—both teachers were eager. “Michele and I worked very closely on integrating all of our fifth-grade TEKS for a completely cross-curricular project,” explains Vorachard.
Meanwhile, Showalter says that after Vorachard contacted her about having their students work together, she “was able to line up a [PBL] experience for my seniors that I felt would hold the rigor needed for their education, as well as fitting into the fifth graders’ needs for their project.” Seniors in her aquatics science classes study units on “water quality, aquatic invertebrates, viral infections caused by water quality and invertebrate issues, and aquatic habitats. By studying West Nile, I was able to start my students into these topics,” she notes. To increase the rigor for her students, she also had her students research another virus that interested them.
She and Vorachard “aligned our rubrics for our students’ age levels and incorporated the fact that we are both digital classrooms [so we were] able to do satellite lessons, Skypes, guest speakers, professional interviews, global research, and central storage apps that both [schools’] students could use,” Showalter observes.
At the end of the unit, the students “came together…to present [their work and the results] to a public audience,” reports Vorachard. “Each group of our combined students shared their projects with [invited] guests,” including instructional coaches, district personnel, other teachers, and parents, says Showalter.
A Winning Combination
What are the benefits of pairing the two age groups? Vorachard responds, “Our district is moving toward a learning platform with a strong focus on 21st-century skills—communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity. It was incredibly powerful to allow fifth-grade students the opportunity to collaborate with high school seniors. They were able to see that their learning has many of the same strands that the high school students’ [learning does].”
For example, both age groups “study systems, interactions, cycles, change, and energy,” so the fifth graders “were able to make deeper connections and see the progression of scientific thinking,” she reports. In addition, “the seniors were quite impressed with how much the fifth graders had to bring to the table,” so both age pairs “were able to develop a deep appreciation for the work that each side was doing,” Vorachard maintains.
Showalter adds that several seniors said “doing this project solidified their thoughts of pursuing careers in teaching, virology, environmental issues, public health, and politics.”