Handbook of Engaged Learning Projects



HELP Index
Student Pages

Two branches of Salt Creek run through the city of Rolling Meadows, Illinois, not far from our school. Five members of our team of eighth grade teachers from different subject areas (science, language arts, bilingual education and special education), decided to develop an interdisciplinary study of Salt Creek as a way of giving our students authentic experiences in environmental studies. The unit begins when students enter school in August, running through the third week of September, and resuming for three weeks in October. Extension activities based on using the data gathered at the creek continue throughout the school year, culminating in a presentation at a city council meeting in the spring.


"What is the problem facing the river?" the teacher asks. In literature class, the students are reading the children's book A River Ran Wild by Lynne Cherry as a way of introducing the issue of streams and rivers. The students have read the story and worked in small groups of varying reading levels to identify the problem, the effects of that problem, and the interventions taken by citizens to restore the quality of the Nashua River. They share their findings with the whole class, as well as their reactions to the story. The teacher guides them into a discussion of what, if any, of these same problems might exist on Salt Creek. While most students know the location of the creek, some do not, and many have never visited the creek. When the teacher explains that the class will be visiting the creek and conducting tests to learn about the water quality, the students are intrigued and enthusiastic.

What is water quality? How would you measure it? These questions initiate a class brainstorming session about how different factors might affect or indicate the quality of the water in the creek. In the science classroom, the students learn to carry out a variety of stream monitoring tests: a habitat assessment, pH testing, temperature and dissolved oxygen measurements, a macroinvertebrate survey and stream discharge calculations. The students question why they need to carry out certain tests. The teacher refrains from handing the information to the students but instead tries to guide their reasoning and when necessary, helps them find appropriate resources to answer their questions. Finally, when all students have learned how to carry out each test, the teacher creates groups of seven or eight students of mixed academic and language levels that will conduct specific monitoring tests. Since our student population includes gifted, learning-disabled, behavior-disordered, and limited English-proficient students, groups are structured heterogeneously so that students can pool their strengths to support each other in their learning. The groups conduct their tests at two different sites on Salt Creek in order to compile comparative data.


Our visits to the creek are a highlight of the school year. Initially, the students ridicule each other about how they look in hip-waders, but soon they are intensely involved in their tasks. True leaders emerge as the kids direct themselves and their groups in order to complete their measurements and observations. While one group is splashing around trying to measure stream width and depth, another group uses a laptop computer with sensory probes attached to measure and graph the pH of the water and the temperatures of water and air. Squeals of delight and disgust rise from the knot of students kneeling over a pan full of creek water, identifying macroinvertebrates (bugs in the water). The teachers' announcement of "It's time to go!" triggers groans and pleas of "Not yet!"


Back at school, the students compile their data on templates entered onto computers in the science classroom. Since the science classroom usually has just two computers (one desk model and one laptop), two more desk models and another laptop facilitate the data entry. These data will then be posted onto the school's World Wide Web site, to be shared with the other schools involved in similar studies at different points on Salt Creek, and with anyone else interested in river quality.


To conduct the stream monitoring tests, the students are divided into heterogeneous groups, each group carrying out a specific test. So that the entire class learns about all of the information gathered, each testing group gives an oral presentation to their classmates. Within the presentation, the students explain why their test was conducted, how they carried out the activity, what data they collected, and how they interpreted this data in terms of the water quality of the creek. The students are encouraged to present their data in graphical form, and may use a laptop computer and LCD (Liquid Crystal Display) in order to project the graphs onto a screen.

The preparation and rehearsal of the group presentation occurs in the composition class. At the time of the presentation, the students draw slips of paper that tell them which portion of the presentation each individual will present. Therefore, all members of the group are invested in the project. They take on the roles of coach and teacher to ensure that each member of the group knows the information and is prepared to make an effective presentation. The students support each other as those with greater language facility coach those with lower literacy and speaking skills. During these preparation sessions, the teacher circulates through the room, stopping to make suggestions or provide assistance when the students request help. The class saves videotapes of the presentations for the Open House. By including segments of the video on the school's Website, students can communicate their research directly to a wider audience.


Our classes visit Salt Creek at least twice during the fall quarter; once in September and once in October. Lively discussions emerge as students compare the data gathered on these visits in order to determine possible reasons for variations in the data and identify long-term trends in conditions. With these conditions in mind, each student develops a hypothesis to answer the question, "What can be done to improve the water quality of Salt Creek?" The students submit written hypotheses for evaluation by the teacher. Students with similar proposals are grouped together to investigate their hypotheses.

The empirical investigation of most hypotheses will not be possible. Therefore, the students must rely on the work of professional scientists to determine if their hypotheses are workable or not.

The students choose from a wide range of resources to conduct their investigation. One student writes to the Soil and Water Conservation District asking for information on erosion control. Another searches the Internet for sites that provide information on water pollution. A third student has an e-mail conversation with the education coordinator at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. A Spanish-speaking child logs onto the International Rivers Network Web site in order to read information in Spanish. The teacher collaborates with the students by arranging for speakers to visit and address the issues identified by the class. Students must use at least one text-based resource and communicate with at least one expert, but they are encouraged to seek out a variety of sources of information. As the number of Internet-connected computers is limited to one per classroom, all of the teachers on the team collaborate in this phase of the project by hosting an investigative group on their computer during the students' Academic Resource Class time.


After a two-week period of time for investigation, the groups reform to share their information and evaluate their hypotheses. The students write a report of their findings, stating the problem and their hypothesis, listing their sources of information, summarizing the data found and drawing conclusions that evaluate their original hypothesis.

Students share the results of these investigations through a jigsaw activity. (The class reorganizes into small groups, with at least one person from each investigative team in the group. The students share their reports in their small groups.) This informal setting encourages the students to ask questions for clarification and give suggestions for alternative interpretations. Heated debates arise when students present conflicting information or contradictory conclusions. Students have the opportunity to resolve these conflicts on their own by finding and presenting data that supports their position or interpretation. Only if the group reaches a stalemate does the teacher step in to offer advice or guide them to a solution.

Because it would be impossible for the teacher to listen to all of the presentations, evaluation of the research is based on the written report submitted by each student. However, the teacher takes advantage of the jigsaw activity to monitor the student behavior, noting who participates, who makes challenges, who proposes solutions, who makes connections, etc. Once the students have completed the sharing of their research, the class as a whole evaluates the different hypotheses, trying to identify which ones could be feasible projects to carry out on Salt Creek.


After so much research, data collection and learning, the students are eager to use their new knowledge for an authentic purpose. The Rolling Meadows City Council becomes their target. Each class chooses two of its most articulate and active learners to form a committee that will develop a project proposal to be presented to the city council. This core group of students meets outside of class to choose those hypotheses which proved to be most feasible and to compile and, if necessary, enhance their research findings to support their proposal. Through e-mail contacts, these students consult with experts in the field who help them refine their ideas. They must also prepare a budget for the project and investigate sources of funding. The teacher works with the students, searching out sources of information and developing expertise.

Multimedia is the name of the game as the committee prepares a high-tech presentation for the council members. Videotape, photographs, scanned images, sound and text are combined in the school's multimedia lab to create a dynamic package of information. The students are equally excited about expressing all they have done and learned regarding the creek as they are about using the computers and cameras. Their goal is to give a concise overview of the monitoring activities, the data they collected, and the specifics of their proposed intervention to improve the water quality of the creek. They eagerly dedicate time before and after school to complete this project. The teacher has long ago ceased to "teach" and works as an equal member of the team, learning new skills and refining existing ones along with the students.


As the students will soon learn, governments are unpredictable. With their multimedia presentation completed and ready to show, the committee now learns about the political process involved in bringing a public project to fruition. Assuming they are given a hearing by the council, the students will make their presentation. That experience in itself is an important achievement. The results cannot be predicted.

Whatever the outcome, the presentation to the city government sets the stage for next year's students. If the project proposal is adopted, future students can find ways to participate in the project and can continue to monitor the creek to determine how the project impacts water quality. If the proposal is rejected, next year's classes face the challenge of designing a project that the city will be willing to implement. In either case, students have learned invaluable lessons about their environment, local politics and their ability to take actions that help shape their community and their future.

For examples of student work, go to Carl Sandburg's RiverWatch Web page.

Authors: Dr. Bonnie Kuhrt, Kathe Lacey-Anderson and Kim Provus from Carl Sandburg Jr. High School in Rolling Meadows, Illinois for the 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