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Thursday, January 17, 2019

Student-Created Scientific Investigations

Recently our 7th grade students at both Dartmouth and Union Middle school designed and carried out their own scientific investigations to learn about chemical reactions. Working collaboratively across both middle schools, our 7th grade science teachers created an authentic, phenomena-based opportunity for students to explore a concept while practicing the skills of writing accurately and to a specific audience. It was the first time this year our 7th graders were asked to develop an entire investigation from scratch.

The Setup: Students were provided a collection of safe substances that they knew little to nothing about and a collection of various lab equipment. They were asked to create a step-by-step process to determine what happened when the various substances were combined, and whether the changes they observed were physical or chemical in nature. After drafting their process in small teams, the groups then peer-reviewed each other’s directions and had the opportunity to make revisions.

Implementation: It was time to put student plans to the test. Students followed their own directions and observed all sorts of interactions. While the expectation was that their written directions were followed to the letter, they were allowed to make changes as they experienced problems with their initial plans - as long as they recorded their revisions. These opportunities to iterate were crucial, because instead of being locked into procedures that were either inefficient or would not work at all, students were able to learn from their oversights and mistakes and make adjustments along the way. A great example of this is a team that decided to use only one cup to mix chemicals. They quickly realized how time-consuming it was to thoroughly wash the cup between trials, so they adjusted their investigation to use multiple cups at the same time. A simple revision, but one that allowed students to experience the impact of the changes they were implementing.

Students created their own data collection and analysis tools, such as tables and graphs, which guided them to think critically about the types of information they needed to collect and how to best organize and analyze the data, instead of simply filling out a data table that was provided by the teacher. The investigation was followed by a Claims Evidence Reasoning formative assessment that asked students to determine which reactions they observed were physical and which were chemical, and to use the data they collected to support their conclusions.

The Outcome: Many of the teams struggled with different parts of this activity, especially when it came to writing specific and accurate directions, but they all came a long way throughout the process and made meaningful, real life connections to the concept of a chemical change. Students shared their experiences with working in teams and reflected on what they could do to improve when they work together again.

The next time our students create a scientific investigation in 7th grade, they will have to follow another team’s directions instead of their own. This will add another layer of accountability to their writing and allow them to see how others interpret their work!

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