Tuesday, January 8, 2013

New Science Teacher Academy Webinar

Phew.......that was fun.....

Thanks so much for the almost 200 new science teachers who attended a webinar I facilitated hosted by NSTA!  I know in this age of inquiry we, as teachers, shouldn't enjoy talking so much, but I'm sorry. Its fun!  (See my post on What Inquiry is Not.)

I enjoyed sharing about my book, and how it might benefit teachers looking to include authentic inquiry experiences for their students. I am writing a post here to welcome any additional questions that you may have about my book, about how to implement research, how to manage a large number of projects, or the benefits and drawbacks of student research. We were having such a great time chatting at the end of our session tonight, and didn't have time to address all the philosophical and logistical questions about how to implement student research.  

As I was going through the chat log, I found a great question that I never addressed, which was, "How do you encourage curiosity? How much of research is dependent on curiosity?"  

How do you encourage curiosity in student research?

I suppose there is a bad-news answer to that question and a good-news answer to that question. First, the bad-news; you can't force curiosity. Although students are naturally curious from a young age, often times curiosity is squeezed out of them sometimes because of the school system, other times because kids just want to have black/white issues, and not deal with difficult-to-answer questions. If you've never watched the TED video by Sir Ken Robinson titled, "Do Schools Kill Creativity?" you should, you will get a perspective of why its so hard to get students to think for themselves and outside the box after watching this video. 

The good news is that you as a teacher can encourage curiosity, but not whimping out on kids when they are picking topics. Don't let them go for the "science buddies" Gadarade/plant project. Force them to think. Provide opportunities for them to be inspired. Allison Hennings, a teacher at Oak Park River Forest in Illinois has her students search through TED videos. Students get ideas about how the world works, cutting edge STEM research, and what the great minds of our time are themselves curious about. Its a great example of people being curious and excited. One of my personal favorite TED videos is one of Dr. Bonnie Bassler on "How Bacteria Talk." This will give you an idea of what a good TED talk will do for you. She is funny, concise, clear, and obviously excited about her subject matter.  Watching videos like this help students make connections of what they learn in the classroom with how scientists work, and how their discoveries benefit mankind.

Here is another question that was posed in the chat room during our webinar,  "How can I provide adminstration and parents with information that supports Science Fair and Long Term Inquiry projects for middle and high school students? We had the opportunity to require all students to do a science fair project this year, and our department is very excited, but the parent backlash about requiring it as a grade has been ferocious. I really need support so that our program can continue."

How can I explain the importance of long-term inquiry to parents when they are do adamantly opposed to it? 

This is really a tough one. I believe that it is possible that many of these parents have had bad experiences themselves and project these emotions onto their kids. I think the best argument for student inquiry (aka student research) is to somehow draw a distinction between learning science facts, and learning how to learn science. While reading a text book (or on an iPad) helps you learn science facts, it doesn't help you discover how science is learned. Only conducting research, based on a question that students really care about can inspire students in this way. 

However, let's mention the elephant in the room. We've all met zealous teachers excited about science fair, and had all sorts of great projects from their students. We must be careful that we emphasize the PROCESS not only the product.  I know at times I was guilty of this. Students would fudge data, or change research topics because they thought it would please me. We have to be careful to celebrate all the learning that occurs, even from bad research design, even from poor execution of  a procedure, and even from a lack of understanding of the content. I assure you, students learn more in a project with which they are in control (ahem....not the parents) than any chapters or cookbook lab they could ace in class. 

I'm not sure I address this questions completely, but I'd love to hear what the rest of you think!  How can we convince parents (administrators) of the value of including student research? Or maybe we should open the discussion wider to include the question whether or not compulsory, school-wide student research projects should be required. I had a high school English teacher who believed (kinda joked, but tongue in cheek) that students should not be allowed to read or write poetry until they were 17 years old.  This was based on the assumption that forbidding younger students to partake in poetry would make students look forward to the experience as a right of passage. I won't say I agree with this, or that it translates perfectly to teaching research, but is there a chance that forcing kids to do science fair too early actually turns them off? What's our role as science teachers? What experiences are students ready for at what time? Not easy questions. Anyone want to give it a whorl? 

Again, Thanks so much for those of you who came to the webinar session, I had a great time. Please consider connecting with my either liking me on Facebook, follow me on Twitter, or on Google +. Click on the beaker icons in the upper right-hand corner of my page! Also for those of you who are interested in talking to your departments about having me do professional develop, please visit my professional development tab for information on how to bring me to you, or to sign up teachers in my online professional development course.

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