Handbook of Engaged Learning Projects
SUPPLYING OUR WATER NEEDS
High School is using an approach to science that integrates learning
strategies, math, social studies, and science. Dennis Condon, Gary Fryrear,
Bill Meder, and Shelly
Peretz share the same 40 students for two, 50-minute class periods. This
gives the teachers the flexibility to meet with one group of students (20), one class
period (50 minutes) every day or two class periods (100 minutes) every other
day, within the confines of the traditional school schedule.
The science classroom has three ethernet ports which allow teachers to
move computers around on the same network. In addition, the network is connected
to a router and an ISDN phone line, so the network is connected to the Internet
at relatively high speeds. Each classroom also has a telephone.
At the beginning of the period, students in Ms. Peretz's ninth-grade Physical
Science class at Thornridge High School in Dolton, Illinois, enter the science
room and sit with other members of their team.
Students are challenged to determine the existence--using critical thinking
and analysis--of a squawking, insect-like (number of legs undetermined),
penguin-eating ice borer that is found only in the Antarctic. Given an article
written for the April, 1995 edition of Discover
Magazine on the penguin-eating ice borer, the role of the students
was to validate it.
The class breaks into small groups to determine the existence (or not) of
the ice borer, using investigative skills and active group learning concepts.
As the teams go about their work, the teacher can be seen moving from group
to group. She provides feedback and assistance and keeps track of noted
problems and progress.
The conclusion? The ice borer was an April Fool's joke. The lesson was learned,
however. Students use this "real-world" problem as a context to
learn critical thinking and problem-solving skills, and acquire knowledge
of the essential concepts of the course. Students work cooperatively in
groups, seeking solutions to "real-world" problems by asking and
answering their own and their peers' questions. Students acquire lifelong
learning skills which include the ability to find and use appropriate learning
Students were told it was important for their success in the course that
they be able to apply the material we study in real life situations. The teacher asks students to spend a few minutes thinking about and jotting down
responses in their journals to the question, "What are all of the ways
that you use water in your daily lives?" She then asks the students
to turn to a partner and discuss their responses. Each pair summarizes and
shares their comments with the entire group. Several answers were given: drinking, washing dishes, flushing toilets, etc.
The project on water is expected to be a multiweek inquiry. The goal is
to investigate the problem, as defined by the students, using a variety
of tools. Students are assigned to base groups or teams, which are frequently
reorganized based on interest, but all students return to their base group
to share information and help each other fill in the information gaps. During
the project, each team is responsible for developing a plan for conducting
their research and for managing their plan.
The class was told they were to take on the role of different experts focusing
on the fictional town of Riverwood and problems with its water supply. The teacher said that the instructors would try to make this problem as real
as possible--both in real events, and in real kind of data real investigations
generate. The students were told that there was a need to suspend their
disbelief that everything in the role is not true.
At that point, the teacher received a phone call from the principal. She
sends two students down to her office to retrieve the package wrapped in
brown paper. It was labeled "perishable," and had a return address
from the mayor of the town of Riverwood. The package contained five dead,
As the teacher opens the package, the students begin talking to each other.
The teacher reads the letter from the mayor, silently to herself. The students
are asking questions about what is in the package and what the letter said.
She shares the contents of the package, receiving an assortment of reactions
ranging from groans to comments of, "that smells." She tells the
students that the letter was a request for help from the mayor of Riverwood.
Copies of newspaper articles on ("Fish Kill...." and "Townspeople
React....") introduce students to a troubling water-quality problem
in Riverwood, setting the stage for the major "story line" of
the unit. Students will follow the progress of Riverwood citizens in dealing
with this issue.
The room suddenly gets quieter as students start to read the articles. As
they read, students start talking with one another about what they have
read. The room is noisy, but it is productive noise. As the teams go about
their work, the teacher can be seen moving from group to group. She provides
feedback and assistance and keeps track of noted problems and progress.
The teacher asks students to identify what they now know about the cause
of the fish kill and what they still need to know. As a class, students generate
an initial know/need to know board from the documents that they have received
so far. Student questions include:
She then asks students how could they find answers to their questions.
The teacher tries to anticipate student needs in order to provide the resources
and experiences that are requested by the students as the information is
needed. She directs them without doing the work for them.
- Can we continue to obtain enough water to supply our needs?
- Can we get sufficiently pure water?
- How do everyday decisions affect the quality and quantity of our water supplies?
- How can chemistry help explain water's personal and societal importance?
The next day, Chris and his team are using Netscape to search for information
about water use on the World Wide Web using the Yahoo search engine. Another
group is using a variety of CD-ROM disks that contain images and information.
Another group is investigating properties of water in the lab. The teacher
encourages the students to find out more, to go back to their sources and
Students decide that it might be something in the water that caused the
fish kill and that it would be useful to find out what is in the water,
so water samples are brought in to the classroom.
Appropriate technology is used to collect and analyze water data. Telecommunications
is used to gather data and for collaborative research with experts and other
students. The interaction that occurs among teachers and students face-to-face
in the classroom is supplemented and extended by exchanges that occur among
teachers, students, and subject matter experts via electronic mail.
One group of students is working with experts from the Illinois Water Survey
and the Geological Survey via electronic mail. Chemistry students (grades
11-12) working at another school site are working on a similar problem.
They work to solve the problem separately at their site, then share their
problem-solving methods with the physical science students
(grade 9) electronically via e-mail and/or conferencing.
Another student asks if the water can be cleaned up, so a group of students
try to purify a sample of highly impure "foul" water to the point
that it could be used to wash their hands.
Other students are using ClarisWorks spreadsheet to collect and analyze
data on the large quantites of water used routinely in a home.
Some students have decided that they need to talk to Greg Cargill at the
Metropolitan Sanitary District to find out what happens with our waste water.
So they call him. They are also wondering if this is the same water that
we drink. Greg assures them that our water comes from Lake Michigan and
is not the same water that is discharged into the Illinois-Michigan Sanitary
Students are continually updating their know/need to know board as they
gather and share more information. Students are challenging each other to
back up their research with facts, not just opinions. Students develop concept maps to organize their understanding of the problems related to "Supplying Our Water Needs."
Students are asked to write out a problem statement and then share it with a partner. As a class, students tentatively come up with a problem statement (often changes with the addition of new information):
How can we...come to a decision about preventing a reoccurance
of the fish kill affecting our water supply..in such a way that we
At the end of each period, students are given time to reflect, in their
individual learning logs, on what they have learned. Some log entries are
"directed entries." Other entries are "non-directed,"
written when students feel the need to write because of something they have
seen or heard or as a result of a discussion they have had with the class,
friends, parents, or us.
- the cause of the fish kill.
- the large volumes of water released from the dam.
- operational or structural changes in the dam.
- loss of income resulting from the cancellation of the fishing tournament to.
- local churches and the high school planned family social activities
as revenue makers.
- adverse tournament publicity in future years.
- safety of Riverwood drinking water
- increasing levels of selenium
- cost to the Riverwood taxpayers for the water brought in during the
An announcement is posted that the Riverwood Town Council is convening in
one week to determine a solution to the problem. Students use a concept
map to make their thinking visible and redefine their problem statement
based on their additional information. Students make a list of all possible
solutions generated and develop criteria to select the "best"
solution to their problem.
Damarus, Jason, Jamaal and Amber, having selected the "best"
solution to their problem based on their criteria selected, begin to prepare
their presentation for the Town Council meeting using Microsoft PowerPoint.
Michael and his group downloaded pictures from the digital camera. They
had checked out the digital camera last weekend to take pictures of Lake
Michigan while on a tour boat.
Student groups present their "best" solution to the Riverwood
After the Town Council meeting, the teachers debrief with the students on
what they learned in terms of content, technology skills, and applications,
as well as collaborative and problem-solving skills.
Authors: Shelly Peretz, Thornridge High School in Dolton,
Handbook of Engaged
Learning Projects sponsored by
Fermi National Accelerator
Laboratory Education Office
and Friends of
Fermilab. Funded by the
Midwest Consortium for Mathematics and Science Education based at the
North Central Regional Educational Laboratory (NCREL).
Created: July 1, 1996 - Updated: July 24, 1996