Master's Project: Self-directed learning in the science classroom

Well...to be precise, it's titled "Implementation of a technology-rich self-directed learning environment in a ninth grade Integrated Science classroom." Catchy, I know.

To be honest, this is a bit old. I thought I had posted this a long time ago, but recently realized I never had despite always meaning to do so. I implemented this project in the spring of 2010 and officially submitted my project in June of the same year. It won me a "Scholar of Excellence" award, so it must be at least somewhat decent. 😉

The Goods

Though the full paper may not be of interest to you, let me recommend the Lit Review. I went through many, many papers on constructivist environments and instructional technology's impact on student learning. It'd make me very happy if anybody found this even remotely useful.

I've decided to release it under a Creative Commons Attribution license, so have at it. Here's the full paper in variety of formats for any of your consumption needs:

  • Implementation of a technology-rich self-directed learning environment in a ninth grade Integrated Science classroom

Description

Simply put, students worked in teams of four to five and shared a team blog. Students investigated any topic that interested them around the general theme of climate change. Students were tasked with researching the topic and sharing their learning and questions on their blog. There were no due dates (other than the end of the school year), though students were all required to write a certain number of posts and comments on their classmates' posts (for more details, check out the Project Design section of the paper). For a bit on the rationale, here's an excerpt from the Introduction and Rationale:

The purpose of the educational system in the United States has been described in many different ways depending on the viewpoint of the individual doing the describing. Creating individuals able to become positive members of society, providing skills for the future workforce, or preparing individuals for an uncertain future have all been cited by various people and organizations as the purpose of schooling- each relying on their own value set and particular social and political biases. While there is no doubt that these various beliefs about the purpose of the American educational system have been true, and may continue to be true in various times and places, it is this author's belief that one of the more important goals of the educational system is to create life-long learners who will be able to actively and knowledgeably engage in whatever ideas and issues may cross their paths. As specific information and skill-sets are quickly changing due to the rapid increases in knowledge and improvements in technology the importance of teaching students specific content information decreases while the importance of teaching students how to locate, evaluate, and interact with knowledge increases. As what it means to be productive members of society or effective members of the workforce changes, the ability for individuals to understand how to learn new knowledge when they need it is more valuable than simply falling back on information learned through formal schooling.

If schools are to become a place where students learn how to interact with, challenge, and develop new knowledge, then the traditional classroom structure- that of the teacher as the primary source of knowledge and assessment- needs to change as well. Students should be given a chance to work out the solutions to problems that do not have predefined answers. In doing so, students lose their status as passive recipients of information and instead become active creators of knowledge. A method of implementing this might be built on the problem-based learning (PBL) model that has been used for many years in many content areas with various age levels. The incarnation of PBL envisioned here provides students with real-world problems to solve that do not already have easy or "neat" answers, gives students the freedom to explore down side canyons as part of the problem solving process, allows time for students to share their ideas and work with others, and provides support and time for students to document and reflect on their learning and problem solving process.

Let me know what you think or if you found anything useful for your own purposes.

3+ Quick- Birthday, (grading) scale matters, exposing climate fraud, debunking handbook

These aren't brand new items, as they're things I came across awhile ago and am just getting around to posting now. In addition, I realized that the anniversary of this blog just passed. My first post was published January 12, 2008. As I look back at my first posts, it's clear that I've come a long way (hopefully for the better)- in my location, in my career, and in my thinking. So, in celebration of the 4th anniversary of this blog, let me present you with the following interesting tidbits:

Scale matters (Rick Wormelli)


Thanks to the ActiveGrade blog for bringing this to my attention. I don't know how many times I've had discussions with other teachers on the topic of what constitutes fair and effective grading. Often the most heated topic (where I never made any headway) involved the giving out of zeroes for either missing or poorly done classwork. Rick Wormelli gives a great explanation of why grading scales matter- and specifically why zeroes are no good. It's long for YouTube at 8+ minutes, but it's worth it:

Exposing a climate science fraud (Ethan Siegel)


The post is ostensibly a take down of Judith Curry's claim's that recent studies and reports on the topic of climate change are "hiding the decline1." However, the real appeal of this post (for me) is how it so effectively describes how science and scientists work. He goes through the data, the uncertainties in measurement, and explains how exactly it is that scientists determine that some effect is real and not just a statistical fluke.

The Debunking Handbook (Skeptical Science)


Somewhat related, the Skeptical Science blog (one of the best places to find science-based information about climate science) released The Debunking Handbook a while ago and just recently updated it. The Handbook provides guidelines for communicating about misinformation and gives tips to avoid falling into common pitfalls. In their own words, "The Handbook explores the surprising fact that debunking myths can sometimes reinforce the myth in peoples' minds. Communicators need to be aware of the various backfire effects and how to avoid them..." The handbook is a free PDF download available at their website.

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  1. "Hiding the decline" is the (totally false) idea that climate scientists are tweaking their graphs to make it seem like the Earth is getting warmer, when it really has been cooling the last decade (which it hasn't). Read the full article for more details. (back)

Problems with Pluto

The first year I taught about planets was 2006. As luck would have it, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) did me a big favor in August of that year. On August 24, 2006, the IAU clarified the definition of a planet, and thus changed the status of Pluto from "planet" to "dwarf planet." There was suddenly an popular pro-Pluto uprising.

Personally, I agree with the IAU's decision. With the discovery of several objects orbiting the Sun beyond Pluto's orbit that are similar in size and composition to Pluto (Eris, Haumea, Makemake, etc.), it seems to make sense that Pluto fits better into a category that includes these objects instead of being lumped with the classical planets1. However, the general public- including the general student population- vehemently disagreed. Perhaps it's because we've always known Pluto as a planet, or because the media mainly reported it as a "demotion" of Pluto instead of an updated classification, or because Pluto's always been the lovable loser of the Solar System, or perhaps because there's a cartoon dog named Pluto. For whatever reason, Pluto suddenly became a topic of discussion all over the planet Earth.

When teaching the topic of dwarf planets, I wanted students to understand that it wasn't just a random decision, but simply a reclassification because new information was discovered. If they disagreed with the IAU's decision, I wanted it not to be because (as one student noted), "the other planets are just being bullies." I had them read articles. I went over the reasons for the re-classification. Unfortunately, though the students knew the new guidelines for planets and dwarf planets by the end, they still wanted Pluto to be a planet for purely emotional reasons. I made minor adjustments from 2006 - 2008, but always with the same result.

In 2009 I decided to try something new. I invented a new planetary system orbiting the Sun-like star Tau Ceti2. I made a card for each object in the Tau Ceti system and in pairs, I had students categorize the objects into a few groups. The tricky part with this was that students wanted to just group them only based upon their size, temperature, or distance from the star. It required me constantly going from group to group and asking them to tell me why 2000 km makes sense to be the upper limit for a group of planets. Why not 2500km? Does it make a difference?

I had to continually push back on the students' categorizations. "Why is that object in that group? It orbits another object, not Tau Ceti. Is it really similar to the others?" "Those objects aren't round and are really small. Does it make sense that they're in with some really big objects?" It takes some work to avoid causing frustrations. Like all students, they want to just throw together a couple categories, call it good, and pick up their 10 points. I've also had to work hard to make sure I ask tough questions of students who've done an admirable job of categorizing like objects (Me: "Why are those two in the same group? One is really close to Tau Ceti while the other is way far away"; Student: "They're both moons! They go together!").

Once the students got their categories of planets down, I revealed to the students that though the planetary system they were categorizing is fictitious, I based it pretty much right off of our own Solar System. Then I went through and had them write the name of the object in our Solar System on the analogous card for each object in the made-up Tau Ceti System3. I then asked students to look at their categories to see if they still seemed to make sense now that they could compare them to known objects in our Solar System. Most found their categories still made sense.

Then, I asked them to find the object that was analogous to Pluto and look at what other objects were in that category. Students were shocked. All had put it in with either dwarf planets or asteroids (depending on the rules for their categories). Not one group had it lumped in a category with the other eight planets (though most groups did have categories that fit almost perfectly with the gas giant & terrestrial planet classifications). Not. One. Group.

Since this activity I haven't heard any protests to Pluto not being considered a "full" planet. The closest I heard was, "I'd really like Pluto to be a planet, but I know it doesn't really belong there."

Image source: Wikimedia Commons- Pluto Protest & Counter Protest

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Files:

  • PDF file of objects in the Tau Ceti system
    • When I printed, I put four pages on each sheet of paper, thus saving some paper & making the objects easier to handle. The pictures of the objects are all to scale- except Tau Ceti, which is about 10,000 pixels in diameter due to difficulties in making and manipulating the object in Keynote or PowerPoint (it should be nearly 20,000 pixels in diameter).
  • PowerPoint and Keynote file of objects in the Tau Ceti system
    • For your editing pleasure. Sometimes the huge circle representing Tau Ceti doesn't show up when you open these files. I can only assume it's because the object it too big to save properly.

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  1. I don't really want to get into a Pluto-is-a-planet vs. Pluto-ain't-a-planet argument- though if you have some useful insights, I'll take 'em.      (back)
  2. Bonus points if you know the source of the names for the objects.      (back)
  3. Here's the list:
    Boll = Mercury;
    Bender = Venus;
    Belior = Earth's Moon;
    Pern = Earth;
    Ruatha = Mars;
    Crom = large asteroid;
    Ramoth = large asteroid;
    Bitra = Ceres;
    Lemos = Jupiter;
    Nabol = Saturn;
    Timor = Titan (moon of Saturn);
    Tillek = Uranus;
    Keroon = Neptune;
    Golanth = Triton (moon of Neptune);
    Ista = Pluto;
    Igen = Eris;
    Nerat = Haumea;
    Telgar = Makemake
    I know the dwarf planet analogues aren't exact, but they work. 🙂      (back)