Ozarks students discover hands-on teaching during summer project

Release Date: 10/7/2011

Many of us have similar memories of middle school: fidgeting in our desks as the teacher wrote things on the blackboard or directed us to the assignments in our textbooks. Listen, read, memorize, regurgitate.

Whitney Berg at PBIS.

Whitney Berg and her students explored how water quality affects the ecology of a community.

For 90 or so middle-school students in Michigan last summer, however, learning science took a fresh spin with the help of some visitors from the south.

"Project Based Inquiry Science (PBIS) is an approach to learning science that takes kids away from their desks and puts them in an active environment," says Dr. Kim Van Scoy, Associate Professor of Science Education and Environmental Studies at the U of O. "Last December, I ran across some information on Project Based Inquiry Science at a conference in Nashville, and I thought, this is what I need to be exposing my students to."

Following the spring semester, Dr. Van Scoy began meeting with three secondary education majors following Maymester – Elodie Adams, Whitney Berg, and Tess Montgomery – to study In Search of Understanding: The Case for Constructivist Classrooms, a text devoted to this approach to teaching. "We discussed the book and blogged about our questions," said Dr. Van Scoy. "At the end, we took part in a two-week camp at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor at the Instructional Development & Education Assessment (IDEA) Institute, an innovative joint venture of the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts, and the School of Education at the university to implement constructivist ideas about teaching."

How does Project Based Inquiry Science work? "PBIS is about projects," said Dr. Van Scoy. "The idea is that students engaged in a question who have a project will be able to learn science. At the end of the unit they will have an answer to the Big Question, which is the project they will have to complete. Along the way, students must learn the content that is required in all the state and national standards. It is the expectation of PBIS that students will learn that content, but in a way that's engaging, for 8 to 10 weeks, around one big critical question. When students are engaged in a project over a long period of time, we know they learn things more deeply, that their learning isn't superficial. For them to really understand the context and topics and their application to new situations, we're asking students to understand so deeply that when faced with a new problem, they can think about what they did and make connections to their previous understanding to go forward and have that knowledge to draw from."

Tess Montgomery at PBIS.

Tess Montgomery challenged her students to design a vehicle that would go far, straight, fast, and carry a load.

The trip was paid for through an annual $1,000 grant awarded competitively to a U of O faculty member by the Ozarks Alumni Association. Additionally, the three participating students were hired as "camp historians" by the Idea Institute, and each student taught one section of the summer camp.

"The camp is taught by undergrad science students at the University of Michigan," Dr. Van Scoy said. "So our students all worked really well together with them. My students actually had more of an education background than theirs did."

Whitney Berg, who graduated at the U of O in May and is a first year elementary school teacher in Scranton, participated in the event and taught a section on water quality.

"She'd already graduated but wanted to learn new techniques for being a better 1st grade teacher," said Dr. Van Scoy. "The Big Question for her group was how water quality affects the ecology of a community. Their scenario was that a big company was moving into your town and they need to set up on the river to use the water for cooling purposes. The community has a big trout festival every year, but it's also a low income community, and they need the jobs that will come from the new factory. So the students learned about things like watersheds, land use, food chains, eco-systems, water quality indicators, etc. They had numerous opportunities for field trips as well as lab work. Since many of the students in the camp come from low income communities, they were able to understand the importance of bringing jobs to a community."

U of O sophomore and biology/secondary education major Tess Montgomery taught a physics and engineering section called "Vehicles in Motion."

"I'm basically a life science person," said Tess, "so I was learning some things as I was teaching them. My students' Big Problem was to design a vehicle that would go far, straight, fast, and carry a load. The kids learned a lot of things, especially about dependent and independent variables. I worked with an architecture student and a pre-med student, but even though I was only a freshman at the time, I was the one with the most educational experience."

Her students designed two cars, a coaster car and a propeller-propulsion car. "They got to learn about propulsion forces and propulsion systems as well," she said. "It was neat to watch them problem solve and figure things out on their own. I felt the kids got a good grasp of the material in the two weeks."

Elodie Adams at PBIS.

Elodie Adams shows students how bacteria can be cultured in a petri dish.

For Elodie Adams, a senior biology/secondary education major, the subject was communicable diseases. "Their Big Question was, how can your prevent your friends from getting sick?" she said. "They were very excited to get to use the microscope. The first experiment we did was to show how bacteria travel. We used a model of a germ, only the size of a toy, and we secretly covered it with powder that would show up under the black light. So we played a game asking questions and tossed the bug to the student with the correct answer. After that, with every correct answer the bug was tossed to another student. Then we used the black light to show where all the bug had traveled. The students were interested and enjoyed seeing the results, powder on their faces from their hands and so forth. It was interesting."

Elodie's class also learned about the immune system and how to fight against diseases. "Their book talked about the respiratory, circulatory, and digestive systems," she said. "We separated into three groups and make models to present to the others. We had a few speakers, including an epidemiologist who talked to the kids about her job. We also had a health inspector come in and speak on the topic of restaurants and restaurant food health safety."

Dr. Van Scoy says that one important thing that happens in PBIS is the students learn to work collectively and collaboratively. "It's the craziest thing," she says. "We put kids by themselves and tell them to learn, and then they graduate and get a job and we expect them to be able to work well with others. With PBIS they debate, argue, come up with best guesses. Sometimes their best guesses are wrong and they have to go back to the drawing board. But in the process they learn fundamental scientific concepts in a way that is relevant and meaningful to their lives."