Oak Park and River Forest High School in Oak Park, IL, is a four-year (9-12) comprehensive high school with an enrollment of approximately 2800 students. The communities of Oak Park and River Forest are located just west of Chicago. Student backgrounds vary greatly socio-economically, ethnically (63% Caucasian, 28% African-American, 4% Hispanic, 4% Asian) and culturally. Average student standardized test scores are above the state and national averages. The chemistry class is a cross section of the lower 70% of the school community.
Students in Ms. Bardeen's regular chemistry class, grades 10, 11 & 12 enter the computer lab, access the Internet on their computers, and begin to work with their teams on their current project. Students are busy talking with one another and their teacher as they investigate the problem of air pollution in Chicago and around the world.
A week after students were asked to find and interview a person who has asthma or to interview a doctor about asthma, they enter the classroom and pair up with another student and share the results of their interview. The teacher moves from group to group listening to various discussions, occasionally asking a question. Then, the class creates a list of common problems people have with asthma, how they mediate those problems, and what can trigger asthma or make it worse.
After the discussion the teacher poses a question: what if a person with asthma wants to move to a new city or country, what might they have to worry about, which triggers could be different. One of the triggers students mention is high air pollution levels. This leads to a discussion of the unit project. The goal of the project is to investigate and compare air pollution problems in Chicago with those in another city or country using a variety of tools (laboratory technology, Internet resources, multimedia technology, etc.) and to propose the best solutions to those problems. The students will prepare a presentation to discuss the problems and explain their possible solutions using supporting arguments and information. The groups will present their projects to the class and send the information to someone in the city or country they researched. Students will form research groups of four students and sign up for one of the research locations the teacher has selected in advance.
The next day the teacher discusses the timeline for the project reminding students that they will submit weekly updates on progress a they do with all projects. The students have formed home research groups based on the location they wish to investigate. The teacher then asks each group to brainstorm for five minutes, making lists of what they know and what they need to know. The class compiles their lists together on the board and checks for new ideas. Each home group develops a plan for conducting their research. They initially determine what tasks they want to accomplish to address the problem, decide who will do each task and when they will report back to the group. They create an action plan on the computer and ensure that everyone, including the teacher, has a copy of the plan.
Each group has designated someone to look for general information about the location, another person to search for an official whom they can communicate with, and a third person to search for schools that they could collaborate with on the Internet. When the class enters the computer lab, several goups create their own subgroups. Each subgroup contains students from different home groups who are trying to find similar information. For example, one group is using Netscape to search for information about the locations using a search engine. The teacher is assisting another group in a discussion on what officials they might be able to contact and how to locate them on the Internet or by other means. The teacher asks how they are going to initiate contact with the official, how they will describe what they are doing and what questions they are going to ask. The students then share ideas with each other on accomplishing this task.
The project on air pollution is in the third week of the four- to eight-week inquiry. All but one of the groups have identified the air pollution problem in their location through their searches on the World Wide Web and their contact with local officials and organizations. The students have met with their home group to discuss what types of pollutants are in their area, and they redefine and reassign tasks. As the students enter the computer lab today, they join new subgroups each looking for specific information about different pollutants. For example, one group is searching for information about SOx pollutants and another group is looking for information about NOx pollutants. Another group is learning from the computer resource teacher how to use the available software to make graphics to show chemical reactions involved with the different pollutants. The teacher is meeting with one home group that has not redefined their tasks yet. After determining what the students have already done in their search, the teacher encourages them to look for more information, guiding them toward areas they have not yet tried.
With one week to work on their project, students are working with their home groups designing a presentation. The computer resource teacher is helping one group incorporate a video that they have found into their presentation. As the other teams work on their presentations, the teacher is moving from group to group. The teacher provides feedback and assistance and keeps track of noted problems and progress. She talks with students about their plans and decisions about strategies, organization and unique presentation ideas.
Presentation day allows home groups to share their work with their colleagues and evaluate the work of the other groups.