Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Inquiring Minds Want to Know: Sixth Grade Science Inquiry

During winter, the students in Mrs. B. Smith's sixth grade science classes embarked on an exciting project about planets.  Since this project was inquiry-based, the project required students to take responsibility for the direction of their own learning and work effectively in teams.  This unit culminated in students preparing and executing a lesson to teach their peers about their chosen planet.

It took me a long time to write about this project because I wanted to make sure that this blog post did justice to the excellent work produced by students.  Mrs. Smith and I were proud - VERY proud of the effort displayed during the course of this inquiry project.  We decided to share this project at the NYSCATE Digital Wave Conference.  If you are a teacher looking for project documents or more of the technical aspects of this unit, click here: Inquiry Project Information Page.  Continue reading to see the steps the students followed.

On the first day of the project, students were divided into groups by Mrs. Smith and assigned a planet to be the focus of the inquiry project.  The groups were then introduced to the specifics of the project.
This slide outlined all of the important details students needed to know about the project.
Once students were introduced to the project, the inquiry steps could now begin.  In the past, students have been accustomed to researching questions or topics predetermined by their teachers.  This would not be the case with the planet project.

To begin inquiry, we asked the students to brainstorm questions that they would like to answer about their planet.  During this phase of the project, it was important that students worked independently and without judgement.  We weren't looking for perfection - instead, this was just a brainstorm designed to generate questions that may possibly turn into a research focus.
Step 1 of the inquiry process required creating research questions.
Each question was written separately on a small square of paper.

Group members worked individually to generate questions.
The students did an excellent job creating a ton of questions!  Now that there were lots of possible research questions available to all of the groups, it was necessary to begin sorting and eliminating some questions.  For each of these steps, Mrs. Smith and I modeled ways to work through this part of the process.
Students learned that they must eliminate duplicate questions and questions that cannot be answered through research.
Using the sun as an example, we modeled the process of removing questions that were more opinion rather than fact based.  For this project, groups would only be researching questions that were fact-based.
This list served as a model for sample questions.

Students successfully picked out the questions that contained opinion language.
Groups sorted through their questions, eliminating duplicates and opinion questions.
After the questions suitable for research were selected, the groups then organized the questions into groups.  These groups would later serve as the basis for their research topics.
The directions for Step 3 of the process.

The example showed students possible ways to group their questions.

Teams used different strategies to organize their questions.

Students needed to work together to agree on grouping ideas for questions.
 Next, groups looked through their topics.  In order to make sure that the research stayed manageable, groups decided on 3-6 different groups of questions that they were interested in researching.
Directions for topic selection.

Students grouped similar questions then labeled each group with a Post It.

An example of a finished student topic list.
Groups were ready to prepare for their research.  By this point of the project, many of the students were very excited to begin researching.  Since the students would be answering their own questions that were of personal interest, there was a high level of engagement and investment evident.
This step outlined how to transfer the research questions into packets.

This is an example of a outline.
On each outline, groups wrote down their topic.  Each individual question within the topic was written onto the question block.  There was space on the organizer to record the answer to the question and write down the sources used.

The sixth grade teams were already familiar with the different sources available for research, but they received refreshers about how to use books, approved websites, and library databases.  Students also used SNAP, a resource provided by CA BOCES, to compile video clips and other multimedia resources.  In order to avoid plagiarism and stay organized, groups filled out a MLA-style note sheet for each source used.  By accessing these resources, groups were able to find the answers to their questions about planets!
Student groups working on research.

The books were great resources!

An example of a note sheet.  Students filled these out for every book, website, and database article used during the research process.
 Now that all of the questions were answered, the student groups were definitely experts on their given planet - it was time to share that expertise with others.  Each student group was responsible for teaching a lesson about their planet.  This was much more involved than simply giving a presentation.  The groups needed to cover learning objectives, how the material would be presented, and even assign assessments.  As you can imagine, the students really enjoyed assigning homework to their classmates!  Mrs. Smith modeled lesson planning for the science groups.
This is an example of a lesson plan template completed by a student group.

Some groups used PowerPoint to organize their lessons.

Brain Pop was a popular way to assess student learning.
At the end of this project, many students commented on how this was a project like no other.  Students were able to work effectively with other peers that they might not previously had known very well.  Due to the demands of the project, it was a true team effort.  Perhaps one student said it best - this project allowed each group the "freedom to teach instead of being taught."

Due to the positive response from students, we will be looking for more ways to incorporate inquiry across subjects and grade levels.

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