Countdown to NETA: Bricky ideas 1

In a little less than a week, some students and I will present at the NETA conference in Omaha about how we operate in a 1:1 science class. The title of the presentation is “Super-Brickiness: Leveraging 1:1 environments for everyday tasks.” Find out some more on “brickiness” here.

As a lead up (and extension) to the presentation, I’m going to try and blog once a day about some ways we’ve been incorporating our Acer netbooks into daily activities this year. This post starts with one of our most recent projects – Science Fair.

Science Fair – Research

What we used
Our science fair journey started a little over a month ago. Students clicked over to Science Buddies and used their selection wizard to come up with a list of potential projects that interested them. I also provided a list of potential projects based on things we’d covered during the year. This is our 4th year using Science Buddies and they do a good job of adding new projects to the site regularly. There are some projects that students arrive at each year, but I let them know ahead of time that I don’t allow repeat projects from the previous year. After reviewing with me, students selected a topic that would be within their skill set and didn’t cost hundreds of dollars to complete. We spent a day reviewing basic research skills and then I set them loose on researching their topic.

Students used Diigo to highlight information from the websites they found and I reviewed their accounts periodically. While some students weren’t as diligent with the Diigo highlighting (they also had to take written notes on the websites), those who used it were able to easily cite their research and quickly review the information they found when it came time to write their papers. The notes served a similar purpose, but the Diigo highlights were much more content rich. It also made it a lot easier for me to help them once they started writing their papers.

Adjustments
In retrospect, it would have been better to spend an extra couple classes on research methods because it proved to be quite a challenge. Students did pretty well at refining search terms and finding relevant websites, but zeroing in on what was important within those sites was the biggest challenge. Sometimes the reading level of the site was too high – so I had them do an advanced Google search by reading level. This didn’t help much with science topics, as very few sites were returned at the basic or intermediate level. Those at the appropriate level tended to be too general or generally unhelpful (there were several exceptions to this, however). Other students came to me stumped, and struggled to come up with questions to get their research started so they could make an informed hypothesis for their project.

After looking over students’ notes and Diigo accounts during the first days of research, I saw several students going in the wrong direction. While I sort of kicked myself for doing it, I ended up creating a weblist with more directed sites – at the appropriate reading levels – to help a number of students forge ahead on their research. I would have preferred to spend more time helping students find good sites on their own, but the process was becoming very frustrating for some and they were beginning to lose focus.

Improvements for next year

Though I feel like the students have improved their research skills this year, I’ve been guiding it a little too much. They’ve gotten better at finding sites with relevant information and changing search terms, but they have a hard time formulating questions for topics about which they know very little. Research also takes some persistence, but the students crave instant answers – somewhat endemic in American culture today. Frustration, boredom, or apathy start to creep in (especially in middle school) when I keep pushing them, for several days in a row, to dig deeper on a topic. It’s one of the biggest challenges when teaching research skills. Looking ahead to next year, I think that I will do mini research units several times throughout the year. Breaking it up may not cure the persistance problem, but hopefully practicing it in smaller bursts will help them stay engaged with practicing good research skills.   While the students’ research was much improved by a 1:1 classroom, we’ve got a long ways to go.

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