I’ve been thinking a lot lately about project-based science. That is, engaging students in a long-term, data collection project outside. It’s a way to teach science through an authentic context, with outdoor investigations that are conducted over time, peer collaboration, communication of results, and implications for a wider audience. Slightly different than Project-Based Learning, it shares its pedagogical roots.
An example of a project might be: After learning about watersheds on a field trip, students are interested in keeping their watershed clean. They do one schoolyard cleanup and notice that a lot of the trash is plastic water bottles. Students then embark on an awareness campaign and do another few clean-ups and trash audits throughout the year. They notice a reduction in the amount of water bottle litter from the data they collected. They share this information with the PTA and administration and get a water filtration station installed at their school.
The parts of a project-based science project usually include some sort of entry event, investigable question generation, planning the investigations, carrying out the investigations, data analysis, communicating results, and taking action based on results from all investigations.
There’s a lot to manage and plan to help facilitate such a project and the literacy integrations is a layer unto itself. So how and when do you read, write, and science talk throughout your project?
Examples of project entry events might include a structured exploration of your schoolyard. It might be a particular phenomenon that you engage your class with. A science talk is a great fit here to help students wonder, question, build off of each other’s ideas, and learn how to speak in a respectful, academic fashion.
Another great fit is an observation-wonder T-chart. This helps students (and teachers) see that observation time is necessary to develop questions. You can also turn these t-charts into sentence scaffolds (great for ELs) using this frame:
I observed ______________ and that made me wonder ______________________.
Allowing students to develop testable questions is a powerful experience. They can sort which questions they can actually investigate, which they should just Google, and which are impossible or off-topic. Afterwards, students can take one question and explain why it is testable and why it is connected to the driving question or phenomena you are trying to learn more about. Another science talk is helpful here to narrow down the testable questions into just a few you have time and resources to work on throughout the year.
Planning the Investigations
Often, we give students a step-by-step procedure to complete an investigation. But real scientists have to develop this protocol on their own, often through trial and error. When you have students create the protocol, try it out and then revise it, it is not only more authentic, but it also provides for a terrific opportunity to visualize their change in thinking though writing about the experience. In addition, in scientific papers, authors rarely describe the method step-by-step, instead it is put in narrative form. This checklist may help students write the methods section of a paper.
Carrying out the Investigation
One issue of long-term data collection projects is that a lot of the writing comes before and after the data is collected. However, students’ interest and motivation for learning is enhanced by content introduced as it comes up during data collection. For instance, if your project includes a monthly trash audit to collect data on the amount of plastic water bottles thrown away, then content on the properties of matter (plastic), watersheds, plastic in the ocean, human impacts on the environment, and community resources will naturally come up as you discuss your monthly results. Introducing science reading on these topics naturally will give your students context and motivation to read and apply the content to constructing their own understanding of the project. This is in stark contrast to more traditional front-loading of content.
As you and your students collect more and more data, a data analysis talk is helpful. Another way to integrate literacy in to this stage of the project is by helping students write captions for the graphs they are creating to show their data. Caption writing is a terrific tool because it is an authentic endeavor (all scientists must have captions for their graphs in peer-reviewed journals) and it is a great scaffold before writing longer explanations of the data itself. Captions often include three to four main parts: label, title phrase, explanation of the graphing notations (may not be needed for a 3rd-8th grade project graph), and a big idea sentence. Here is an example caption from an actual scientific paper:
Figure 4. Plastic concentrations in open ocean areas. Upper line in both plots is total pieces per square kilometer. Lower line is pellets per square kilometer. Vertical scale is logarithmic for both plots. The data show highest concentrations of both total pieces as well as pellets in the central gyre, particularly the northern part.
Using project to help students practice communicating their final explanations as a scientist is essential to the project process. A round of peer-editing can also help students argue from evidence, give respectful feedback, and learn to read critically. There are a variety of explanation graphic organizers out there to help here and here.
This final stage of the project cycle proves the importance of the project itself. The results and analysis of those results impact more than just the students in the classroom. The work they do should have implications for a larger audience. Because of this larger audience, students can take what they’ve written in academic format and come up with a way to disseminate those same results in a more informal style. This is an opportunity for students to think about how they can share what they’ve learned and the action people should take because of it to both younger students (maybe through a buddy class activity) as well as adults (the PTA, school administration, or community partners). It is also a way to help your students create content using technology applications. Here’s an example from my second grade Girl Scout Brownie Troop based on their beach clean-up data. Or there’s this school project video.
Of course science talks, reading, and writing should be integral to your curriculum. Being purposeful about how, when, and why you are using these important literacy tools will help make project-based science more robust, connected to the Next Generation Science Standards, and authentic to the true nature of science.