I tell you what, that 20% project was the project I was most excited about in my classroom all year long. I was excited by the idea. I was excited by finding other people doing it in their classrooms. I was excited by the ideas my students were coming up with. I was just excited but kept telling myself to be realistic in my expectations.
Once I heard a report that the Danes were the happiest people in the world. Why? Well, according to one source, they had low expectations.
When we don’t expect much, we are happy with what we get. Is this true for the Danes? I don’t know. I do think it is true for me. I had limited my expectations on the results of this experiment. I figured that if I got a few great projects out of this, I would be thrilled and that those would inspire next year’s students to even greater projects. Perhaps I was fooling myself a little with thinking I had limited my expectations. I was really excited 🙂
Below I am going to talk about/reflect upon what will be changed for next year. If you are just interested in looking at some of the projects, scroll to the bottom and take a look. This is kind of a wordy post so I understand. I don’t blame you.
Wrapping up the 20% Project
I felt like I had to set a deadline so I did.
Then I had to modify that deadline. Momentum seemed to have shifted. Was that because of spring break or Malaysia Week (our week-without-walls) or preparation for Student-Led Conferences or other random holidays that got in the way of our regularly scheduled classes? I think all of that played a part.
Whatever the reason, presentations were not pulled together by the magical deadline. Okay, there were a few that were pulled together, but overall, there was still a great deal of work to be done.
So when that realization hit about a week before the deadline, I started asking the students to give some feedback both in a class discussion and a formal survey. It was so interesting.
When asked what was great about the project, almost to a person, they said the freedom of choice. Of course! That was highly motivating.
Great! They were excited about learning science they were interested in. That part of the mission was accomplished.
When asked what was challenging about the project, the topics mentioned the most were time management and finding reliable sources. (Both areas of improvement for next year)
Here’s the one I found the most interesting: When asked what should be changed about the project for next year, suggestions included that they wanted more time, they wanted less time, they wanted deadlines, and guidelines.
Here’s what I find most interesting about that particular bit of feedback. I feel that it shows that this is a brand new kind of way of thinking for these students. They are very used to being told exactly what to produce and how to produce it. Those things are quite comforting to know. It is uncomfortable to have so much freedom.
I also think that it shows that they are 12 years old and know themselves. They know that deadlines keep them honest and on-track. I can say the same for myself so perhaps age has nothing to do with it 🙂
I was really fascinated by how the two classes responded in different ways. In the first class to give feedback, one boy summed it up by saying, “I thought it was going to be bigger than it turned out.” This class had a lot of ideas and did a lot of research but it didn’t get much past that. They weren’t sure about how to set up an experiment. Their research didn’t lead to experiments. Time ran short. Overall, they still liked the project but wished it had gone further. My sails were a little deflated.
In the second class when I asked for feedback and was expecting more of the same, I was pleasantly surprised to hear the first comment be: “This was the most interesting project ever! I feel bad for the other team of 7th graders that haven’t had a chance to do this project because it was fabulous! I learned so much.” (The other team is having a chance at the project now and next year it will be something that both teams do.) While the project supporter was saying this and more, I saw many heads nodding in agreement. Wind in my sails again!
What was different about this class that they had a more positive response?
Experimentation. It’s the key. More students in this group were able to and motivated to use experimentation and take the project beyond just research.
So some of the changes we talked about for next year include:
For research: I will limit time for research. All research needs to be done by a certain date. Part of me hates to do this because I don’t want someone to slow down because they have until a certain random date. I will need to make sure that they are fully aware and pushed to go ahead to the next step if/when they are ready.
For experimentation: Actually this would be broken into two sections: planning and experimentation. And here is where again, I need to not put inappropriate time limits. This is where I have maybe several different due dates depending on the experiment being done.
For presentations: When is it finally time to wrap it up? Again, this might vary student to student based on their experimentation deadlines. 2 weeks after experimentation is completed? How does that sound?
Peer check-ins: I strongly feel that I did not model well what I wanted to happen for peer consultations/check-ins. I want this to open up discussion amongst the students and inspire them to continue their work outside of class as well as allow them to be inspired by their classmates work and suggestions.
Teacher check-ins: I found it hard to make it all the way around the room sometimes. I need to take a hard look at how I can best manage that time that is available for consultations because they are so important. Perhaps since I teach the same kids for math and science some of these can spill over to the math class time? Maybe I need to become more flexible with keeping Math to Math Days and Science to Science Days. Why not mix it up more?
More “how-to” days
How to spot reliable sources: I saw a need and had to throw in a lesson on how to spot pseudoscience. Wow! That was something I had thrown out all along but it hadn’t really sunk in for the students until we did a 30 minute lesson on it. I showed them parts of a good video by Bill Nye I found on youtube. (Sorry, Bill. Probably a copyright violation but I needed something right away. I’ll look to buy it this summer.) We discussed how everything needs to be questioned.
How to set up an experiment/what equipment we have in our lab storeroom: Some students felt limited by resources and intimidated by writing up a brand new experiment. Clearly this is something that can and should be dealt with in a few dedicated classes early on in the year. Students need to know what is available and how to use it as well as how to feel confident writing up an experiment.
How to build stuff: How can I build a water collection/storage device inspired by a beetle if I don’t know how to use a hammer and a saw? This is really what limited one of my students. I was super excited about where he was going but he hit a wall and momentum dropped. He made a nice podcast and I love the fact that he thinks his career choice could be influence by beetles but, man, I wish I had taught him how to build stuff (or had more time to do so). I will add a link to his podcast once he changes his current share settings.
But enough of all this reflection. Maybe I need to stop looking at what to improve and enjoy what has been produced. I always tempered my vision of the results and really, there is much to be proud of.
Some 20% Project Examples
Malaria – Here is one that I thought was a well done research project. The young man’s father said it was his favorite part of looking at his son’s portfolio for the year. I felt he had put together a good presentation. I would have loved to see this turn into a service project to raise money for mosquito nets, but maybe if we had more time.
Life on Mars – Another one that was a good research project. The young man was clearly interested in his topic and put together something solid. Ready for taking it to the next level.
Sickle Cell Anemia – Here’s one that gave me goosebumps through the whole of the project. This average student who really cares more about football that science, took on this project full force and used it to really understand a disease that his mother has and that he is a carrier for. He was the most motivated student by far. He talked to his mother and her doctor. He looked at pictures of her blood. He learned how sickle cell anemia is passed down. This project gave him an opportunity to really understand what was going on with his mom. It gave him a better understanding of an issue that has a huge impact on his life. While I wish he could have added more to his presentation, I know this is just a taste of what he got out of this project.
Guppy Training – This is still a work in progress. The student needs to add his experimentation results. One of the things I liked about this project, was that he was looking to see if he could get the same results as someone else – so important in scientific research!
We just aren’t done yet. I look forward to posting more like the work of a student who gathered real data by filming himself sleeping, keeping a dream journal, and recording the day’s events to try to find connections. I haven’t seen him put as much time and effort into any other project this year. I look forward to posting the results of a girl who tested the effect of listening to music on learning. This was a lesson in how to control experiments!
In the end, there are good things that resulted the most important of which is that students were motivated to learn about science. I can’t wait for next year when we have more time and I have clearer direction as teacher/facilitator.