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Project based learning? Some thoughts before you start


Recently I read in the Atlantic a statement that represents perhaps the greatest conundrum for educators:

While test scores can predict academic success, self-management and relationship skills may better prepare students to thrive and graduate.

Perhaps taking the time to involve your students in a science fair may provide you with a way to reconcile both sides.

A lot can be said about standardized tests, but the key in any plus/minus analysis comes down to the following:
  • Standardized tests are most important to the student since the results can be a major hurdle to acceptance into post-secondary education institutions.
  • Results can also be important to the school to justify its success and ensure future funding and community support.
  • Education includes helping students learn a full range of knowledge, skills and attitudes. A complete education cannot be measured by standardized tests. Educators teaching only to the test do not address the ‘whole child’ and may find themselves accused of a range of offenses from shirking their duty to educational malpractice.
A complete opposite of ‘teaching to the test’ seems to be the so-called maker faires and equivalents. They are described by the Calgary Board of Education as events “for students to show others an area they are really interested in. It can be anything from art to robots, exploding volcanoes to doll dresses. If you can make it with your hands and it’s something original, then it fits…” As soon as I read ‘exploding volcanoes’, I understood why some science and shop teachers I’ve spoken to have expressed grave concerns about maker faires. These professional educators spend a great deal of their time ensuring that students learn and incorporate safety skills into their classroom activities. These teachers are horrified by the apparent chaos and outright dangerous practices they have observed in some maker faires.

So how do you safely undertake project based learning that incorporates the old school traditions of doing, building, and creating while also addressing some of the knowledge, skills and attitudes of the curriculum including the thinking skills associated with the science-technology-society problem solving models? I suggest that you involve your students in a science fair project.

For more than 50 years students in Canada have been able to participate in science fairs. Teachers can help students gain a wide range of knowledge and skills through this form of project based learning. I have argued before that science fair is a fantastic opportunity for students to be in control of their learning, doing real world problems. It is a major way to promote cross-curricular learning including science, math, engineering and technology concepts, as well as demonstrating verbal and visual communications skills. And it is an opportunity to present findings to an outside audience.

Here are some additional hints.
  • Set up a timeline leading up to your fair. Revisit the timeline frequently to ensure students are making progress.
  • Collect a short list of possible projects based on the equipment that is available at your school. Direct students who are having problems deciding on a topic to pick one of these possible projects.
  • Discuss safety and ethics. (need help? visit Youth Science Canada)
  • Reinforce problem solving models.
  • Help students to make predictions and read graphs. (need help? visit Interpreting Patterns and Trends in Data)
  • Enlist some potential mentors – if not for the students, then for yourself.
  • Take pictures of the progress and the projects to show for inspiration in future years.
I would like to see in the next curriculum update a return of instructional time specifically devoted to project based learning. Even if you don’t think you can take the time, remember there are schools that do not do projects in the classroom, but they have organized extra-curricular science clubs for the pursuit of science fair projects.

What is your nearest regional science fair? Find it here.

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Project based learning? Some thoughts before you start

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