Successful project-based learning with Gizmos

More schools and districts are turning to project-based learning (PBL) in an attempt to move to a more student-centered learning model and to meet the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), which call for a deeper understanding of content knowledge.

With PBL, students work over an extended period of time on answering a question or finding the answer to a problem. This fits also within the CER framework (claim, evidence and reasoning) since students need to explain phenomena rather than just repeat something they have memorized. As students go through each stage of their project (question, investigate and share), they take a deep dive into complex subject matter and hopefully come out with a better understanding of concepts than they would by learning through other methods.

For some teachers, PBL sounds appealing. To others, it can sound like chaos. How can PBL be done in a way that enriches both the educator and student experience?

What is the question?

First, teachers need to make sure there’s a question that the students are setting out to answer that’s meaty enough to be worth investigating, and can’t just be answered with yes or no. It can also help make the project more appealing to students if they have a personal interest in the question.

For instance, students who care deeply about the environment may want to investigate the disappearance of coral reefs and the root causes of their destruction. They can ask, “what will happen to the coral reefs and creatures that are in the reef if the temperatures of the earth and ocean rise?” They could then further refine the question to address the disappearance of a specific animal or a defined issue (bigger storms or sewage spills, for instance).

Make a plan and line up the tools you’ll need

Students need to work with their teachers and/or groups to figure out how they’re going to answer the question. Very likely a trip to the Caribbean reefs is not in the budget for most students, so they’ll have to come up with ways to do their research from afar. Some ideas include doing research on websites, looking at government reporting on water temperature and storms—like NOAA—or finding relevant YouTube videos to build their argument.

Here are a few research links that students can use to investigate coral reefs and find out how current threats affect them:

National Ocean Service: How Does Pollution Threaten Coral Reefs?

World Wildlife Fund: Coral Reefs: Threats

International Coral Reef Initiative

Another resource students can use for PBL is ExploreLearning Gizmos. With the Coral Reefs Gizmo – Abiotic Factors, they can try various experiments to see what happens to the fish, the sea turtle population and the reef itself when there are storms, pollution, or temperature changes to the water. In the Gizmo, students can change three different ocean conditions in the reef: storm severity, ocean temperature, and ocean pH. Students can run the simulation multiple times and look at the impact of ocean temperature, for instance, over several years and on the different populations.

Gizmos are particularly well suited for project-based learning. Each of the 400 interactive simulations in the Gizmos library can help students run experiments quickly and cheaply. They can use two Gizmos to learn specifically about Coral Reefs.

Make a schedule

Once students have figured out the tools they need and have a plan to move forward, they’re ready to make a schedule. The project needs to have a finite beginning and end so they know when to start and when to wrap it up. Within that, they’ll need to break it down into smaller tasks so they will make progress and complete it on time.

For instance, they could plan to spend the first couple of class sessions running experiments with the Coral Reefs Gizmo and then record/output their results. The following week they can examine the data and figure out what it means, doing some more research on websites that their teachers recommended.

Students may be embracing the PBL model with enthusiasm, but it’s up to their teachers to make sure they’re not getting bogged down anywhere. The teacher will want to make sure students are meeting their deadlines and actually making progress so they can meet the final deadline.

Check out the results

Students will also need to present and/or do a write up of the research they’ve done. The writing portion is a good chance for them to reflect and go deeper. The Coral Reefs Gizmo enables them to use screen captures to create illustrations for their project, and export the data into spread sheets to present the results more easily.

Afterwards, students and teachers should step back and take a look at the outcome. Did it work? What were their conclusions? Did they prove it adequately? What roles did everyone have in the project? Did they agree on the results or have some disagreements on what the evidence showed them?

This final stage is as important as the others since it gives students a chance to reflect and learn from their process. In fact, a successful PBL helps students get a deeper understanding and engage with the content, helping to mold students into scientists.

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