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

Nancy — Grade 8

Teacher Profile

Name Nancy
Experience 5 years
Grade & Subject Grade 1; all subjects
Classroom Junior high school in an urban district
Demographics 20 students
Science Teaching 5 classes; each class 5 meetings per week
Curriculum Specified by district


Module 1 -- Introducing the Case

Nancy believes that one of her primary responsibilities as a teacher is to ensure that her students do their best. The issue that Nancy faces is that of encouraging her students to become independent thinkers and to use a scientific approach when solving problems. Until now, Nancy has observed that her students look to her for answers to questions and solutions to problems. Nancy wonders if her students will become more self-directed if they are presented with a problem to solve and are then asked to form an appropriate question, propose a hypothesis, test their ideas, analyze results, and draw conclusions- all as part of solving the problem.

To help enable this scientific approach, Nancy realizes that students need to understand that there is a process to finding answers to scientific questions. This process can, and often does, include wrong answers and unsatisfactory solutions to problems along the way. As a means of implementing her ideas, Nancy guides her students through a scientific approach in a chromatography lab activity in which students determine the colors that compose an ink marker.

Chromatography Activity

As part of their study of chemistry, students are learning about the properties of solutions. Using lab materials and chromatography paper, pairs of students separate colors to determine which color dyes compose the ink in a marker.

Discussion Questions

What do you consider to be the most compelling evidence that change is needed in Nancy's classroom?

In your opinion, what factors contribute to a situation where students depend heavily upon the teacher to guide them through a problem-solving situation and/or provide them with solutions?

How do you conceptualize your role as a teacher in the science classroom? The role of your students?

Module 2 -- Trying New Ideas

Nancy meets with Phil Sadler, a teacher educator from Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Phil is the Principal Investigator for Project DESIGNS-a project-based engineering curriculum. Nancy is one of the teachers piloting the program before final publication. Together, they explore how using metaphor as a way of reconceptualizing teacher and student roles might lead to more self-directed learning.

Nancy adopts the "Project Manager" metaphor with her class as they work together in groups to construct motors, following a unit focusing on electricity and magnetism. Students serve as members of a team that is charged with building a motor. They are to rely on one another when seeking answers to problems, and a "runner" seeks out Nancy only as a last resort. Nancy and Phil try to find a way to use this new curriculum to help Nancy's students become more independent learners.

Nancy hopes that by engaging her students in this sort of real-world work environment, combined with a design-to-constraint problem they will use higher-order reasoning skills and become more self-directed learners.

Motor Project

After students are successful in building a simple motor given a standard design, they are challenged to make changes to the design so that the motor goes faster. The activity concludes with students reporting their results and explaining how they were achieved.

Discussion Questions

What do you consider to be the most significant changes associated with the use of the Project Manager metaphor during the motor activity?

What situations do you think foster more self-directed learning in a science classroom?

What do you think are the strengths and weaknesses of an engineering curriculum in promoting self-directed learning?

Module 3 -- Reflecting and Building on Change

Because problem-based learning in science strives to engage students in applying their basic science knowledge to solve a more complex problem, students are encouraged to share their ideas as well as to find different pathways to a solution. The process whereby students express ideas, debate their merits, and then test these ideas is central to science.

A simple design problem involving limited numbers of variables is the source of Nancy's final project-based activity. As students are challenged to design the most efficient weight-bearing paper truss, they offer technical support to one another and find the answers for themselves. Again, Nancy uses metaphor in her teaching-this time as chief engineer.

Paper Truss Activity

At the end of the year, Nancy introduces a final "design-to-constraint" activity. Given one sheet of paper, students are challenged to trim away as much paper as possible, while using what remains to support a lead weight.

Discussion Questions

Using the Motor Project and the Paper Truss Activity as examples, what do you think the criteria are for a project that helps foster self-directed learning in science?

In your opinion, what is the appropriate balance between a problem-solving approach and other approaches to science teaching and learning?

In a content area appropriate to your classroom, what sorts of design-to-constraint (engineering problems/projects) could you develop? What metaphor might you use to accomplish your goals for your students?


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