Thursday, February 4, 2016

Sixth Grade Science Inquiry

This January, 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.

This is the second year that Mrs. B. Smith has chosen to study planets via inquiry.  The project went well last year, but we were able to work out some of the bugs encountered the first time we executed this project.  The results from this year were even better!

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.  The groups were then introduced to the specifics of the project.

This slide outlined all of the important details about the project.

To begin the inquiry, students brainstormed 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.
Brainstorming questions for research.

The students did an excellent job creating questions!  It was now 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.
Students discussed which questions should be eliminated.

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.
Groups used different strategies to sort their 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.
Groups labeled their topics using Post-Its.
An example of a completed topic list.

By this point of the project, the students were 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.
Students maintained their own graphic organizers to keep track of their research.

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.  World Book Student was a perfect database to use for this project.  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.

An example of a completed note sheet.

As an added bonus, our school signed up for a free trial of StarWalk Kids, a service spearheaded by renowned nonfiction author, Seymour Simon.  We are hoping to add this service to next year's purchases.  Students were especially excited to use these resources because Seymour Simon will be visiting our school on March 1, 2016!

Students utilized books, databases, and websites for research.

Now that all of the questions were answered, it was time for students 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. A detailed lesson plan was needed before students could deliver their lessons to the class.

A completed lesson plan.

The lessons delivered by the students were outstanding.  Most importantly, the information presented was clear and well-organized.  The time spent organizing the research questions and topics put students on the right track for creating their lessons.  Many groups chose to use PowerPoint to organize their topics.  Using the CA BOCES resources available via SNAP, students found relevant video clips to reinforce some of their larger concepts of their lessons.  The groups also generated their own assessments.

A student assessment about Saturn.

Each group chose a different 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.  Other benefits of the structure of this project include an increased interest in astronomy topics (I am envisioning many scientists emerging from Mrs. Smith's groups!) and added confidence with presentation and planning skills.

These wonderful students should be commended for a job well done!

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