3 Ways to Make Research Fun
A MiddleWeb Blog
Anne Jolly began her career as a lab scientist, caught the science teaching bug and became an award-winning middle grades science teacher. Today she works on an NSF-supported team, developing standards-based STEM curricula for grades 6-8. Anne’s blog appears weekly at MiddleWeb, and one important focus is to engage readers in chats around STEM subjects. See all of Anne’s posts here.
R~E~S~E~A~R~C~H. I could almost see the students shudder. The teacher in the class I was visiting announced that students were going to do some research for their engineering challenge. I knew what was going through their heads. They were conjuring visions of poring over volumes of print material and filling in the blanks on a research handout.
Well, that is one way to research. But it’s not a particularly appealing approach for most middle grades kids. No wonder the whole class gave a collective “sag and sigh” — and the teacher looked like she wanted to join in.
It doesn’t have to be that way!
Before you warm up the copy machine and drag out the books, let’s look at the role research has in the engineering design process. What is it? What do we use it for?
Consider this definition for engineering challenges: Research is the systematic process of collecting and analyzing information to increase our understanding of our challenge. And part of the process involves communicating our understanding to others.
With that definition in hand, you’re set to broaden students’ grasp of what STEM research is all about. Let’s look at three ways you could engage students in research that won’t involve them in poring over musty books looking for discrete bits of information.
1. Scientific investigation
In one STEM project, students needed to construct an effective set of barriers for slowing down the flow of sediment from a model streambed. In order to make good decisions about this, they first needed to find out what barrier properties would work best. For example, would the length of the barrier matter? What about the shape? What about the distance between the barriers? Student teams needed to test these kinds of properties using a scientific approach that carefully controlled all variables except the one being tested. Then data from all teams could be compiled and analyzed.
This investigation was actually the research phase of the project because teams were collecting and analyzing information they would use to make decisions about their final barrier design (their engineering challenge). Hands-on investigations are exciting ways to engage students in research. Be sure students know exactly what information they need to collect for their engineering challenge.
2. Digital investigations
Students need to be efficient, smart users of media and the Internet. One engineering project required students to investigate genetically transmitted diseases. Students worked in pairs on computers to investigate websites specified by the teacher and collected the information they needed for their project. The websites could include text, infographics, video and more.
In another engineering challenge, students developed environmentally friendly plastics that could be used to replace petroplastics for making hockey pucks – or, maybe they should make hockey balls. Which would be better? Teams used eLab books to research this question and get information they needed to make that decision. These eLab books were actually on DVDs that students accessed through a computer.
You probably have a variety of digital tools that students can use for researching, gathering, and sharing information – wikis, podcasts, VoiceThread, and so on. For ideas, check out 6th grade teacher Bill Ferriter’s Digitally Speaking wiki.
3. Talk with an “expert”
Provide ways for students to interact with a person who has information students need to make decisions for their projects. This can happen face to face, or through a program such as Skype or a video conferencing service, if you have one in your school or district. It can even happen in an instant messaging type format that you project on the screen so all students can see it.
In one of our engineering challenges, students set out to solve a real problem at the school. They wanted to build a wetland to help with the runoff from their newly constructed school site. An environmental engineer from a nearby university came in and discussed with students what they would need to know about building a wetland. He and the students walked around the campus as he guided them with questions that would help them choose a good site. He and his college class remained a resource for the students as they constructed the wetland. A Master Gardeners group helped students select plants suited to live in the wetland. How about that for “research”?!
I know that many readers have used inventive and engaging ways to involve your students in research. I hope you’ll share one of those ideas here!