Teacher resources and professional development across the curriculum

Teacher professional development and classroom resources across the curriculum

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Case Studies in Science Education

Erien, Year One — Grade 5

Teacher Profile

Name Erien
Experience Student teacher
Grade & Subject(s) Grade 5 science, mathematics, and social studies
Classroom 30 students
Demographics K-8 elementary/middle school in an industrial suburb
Science Teaching 50 minutes; 5 days per week
Curriculum District specified
Other Undergraduate degree in environmental studies Will hold master's degree in education with elementary and middle school certification


Module 1 - Introducing the Case

Erien is focusing her attention on generating and responding to productive questions in her classroom. As part of her five-week middle school practicum, Erien and her students explore the wetlands that surround the school building, gathering data for a soil profile activity. While students are engaged in the activity, Erien circulates among groups outdoors, trying to pose questions that help students focus on the observations they need to make. Erien wants the discussions that take place to be student-centered, yet she wonders how that can be accomplished in such a way that all questions are addressed, effective classroom management is maintained, and specific learning goals are met.

Soil Core Activity

Groups of students investigate the wetlands that surround the school building. Each group digs a hole at a different site and records observations of soil texture, moisture, particle size, living things, and other features at five specified depths. Students collect a soil sample and return to the classroom to process their results.

Discussion Questions

How would you describe Erien's approach to science teaching and learning?

Which aspects of the soil profile activity are likely to contribute to meaningful class discussion?

What discussion management strategies do you think support a student-centered learning environment?

Module 2 - Trying New Ideas

After meeting with Tom Dana of Pennsylvania State University, Erien decides to try elaborating upon her discussion management strategies. Erien discovers that the soil profile activity has provided students with a common science experience that can contribute to a discussion that includes and is meaningful to all students.

Questions that focus on learning goals are asked of groups by Erien. However, the bulk of the questions and answers that are exchanged occurs between students. Erien observes that students can play a part in moderating discussion and discovers that their questions offer avenues for students to compare their findings and support or refute one another's ideas.

Erien shares with us her strategy of taking a poll, or vote, whenever she senses that attention is wandering or particular students are not being recognized. This vote-taking helps bring the class together and encourages involvement by all students. Erien hopes to apply her newfound strategies to other discussion situations.

Soil Profile Activity

Groups of students transform and interpret their wetlands data by preparing posters showing soil profiles, which are presented by groups to the whole class. Discussion questions are posed by class members to the presenting group.

Discussion Questions

In your opinion, what elements of Erien's approach to discussion seem to be most successful? Least successful?

What do you think are the biggest challenges that discussions pose for classroom management?

How do you think teachers can structure student-centered discussions to balance the need to meet learning goals with the need to foster student interaction?

Module 3 - Reflecting and Building on Change

Erien still finds herself trying to balance her content goals with her needs for classroom management and students' needs for individual recognition of ideas.

Having found success in relying on students to generate and answer one another's questions, Erien embarks with her class on a one-day activity. As part of a mock town meeting where townspeople are considering the construction of a retirement housing facility on or near a wetlands, students assume the roles of environmental experts, builders, concerned neighbors, even wildlife aficionados. As part of the role-playing, "town meeting participants" query "panel members," who have prepared diagrams and line drawings showing design and site plans as blueprints would.

By embedding science in such real-life scenarios, Erien shares with her students the valuable role that science understandings can play in meaningful decision making.

Town Meeting Activity

As the culminating activity in the wetlands unit, students apply their knowledge in a role-play activity that mimics a town meeting. Students become experts, business people, townspeople, and others who are charged with making an environmental decision involving the placement of a structure on or near wetlands.

Discussion Questions

What comparisons can you make between Erien's first and second class discussions?

What do you think are some of the necessary conditions for a meaningful class discussion in science?

How would you incorporate class discussion into other areas of your science curriculum?


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