Handbook of Engaged Learning Projects




Student Pages


Thornridge 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 resources.

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, smelly fish.

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.

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 get substantiation.

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 Canal.

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 address..
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.

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 Town Council.

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, Illinois
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