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

Jeff — Grade 6

Teacher Profile

Name Jeff
Experience Student teacher; Cooperating teacher, Bernie
Grade & Subject(s) Grade 6; science and mathematics
Classroom 2 classes; 55 students total; multiethnic
Demographics Middle school in a suburban town
Science Teaching 50 minutes, 5 days per week
Curriculum Specified by district
Other Holds undergraduate degree in business. Will hold master's degree in education with elementary and middle grades certification


Module 1 - Introducing the Case

Jeff is two weeks into a six-week middle grades practicum. Bernie, Jeff's cooperating teacher, has told Jeff that, as student teacher, he is free to try new things, recognizing that some may work and others may not. Additionally, Jeff met with Tom Dana of Pennsylvania State University before beginning his practicum. Jeff and Tom discussed problem-centered learning, since that is the approach Jeff has decided to use in teaching his ecology unit. Jeff tells us that he is planning his ecology unit as he goes, in an attempt to allow students to identify for themselves an ecological problem that needs to be solved. As a means of working toward this goal, groups develop concept maps, using the broad topic of ecology broken down into five subtopics and their related terms.

Bernie and Jeff discuss what he learned from the students' concept maps. Jeff knows now what students prior understandings are. But he still seeks a method for identifying a problem that can become the focus of his problem-centered teaching and learning.

Ecology Concept Map Activity

Students work together, making concept maps as a way of showing what they know about ecology and uncovering those topics that each student may want to explore in more depth. Ecology subtopics shown in the concept maps are food webs, community interactions, and environmental problems. Groups present their concept maps to the whole class.

Discussion Questions

What do you think the concept map activity reveals about Jeff's approach to problem-centered learning?

In your opinion, what are some of the characteristics of problems appropriate for engaging students?

How would you go about deriving appropriate problems for student investigation?

Module 2 - Trying New Ideas

Jeff decides to approach problem-centered learning by posing a problem whereby students learn in the process of solving that problem. After generating a list of environmental problems that humans face, groups of students choose a problem to investigate. Jeff poses three questions to help students structure their investigation. Next, students conduct research and explore the many aspects of the chosen problems. Finally, students explore the phenomenon in terms of its being a problem within their community.

In addition to library searches and multimedia research, some students decide to learn more about the problems they chose by doing simple experiments, which later become the bases for classroom presentations. One group, for example, is engaged in"making" acid rain as the class observes. Students pose questions to one another, sharing their understandings and articulating their answers to the original questions.

Ecological Research Project

As a means of investigating ecological problems and then proposing solutions, groups of students conduct their own research. To demonstrate what they know about their ecological problems, students give presentations and demonstrations to the whole class and then answer questions posed by classmates.

Discussion Questions

What processes did Jeff's students use to explore, enrich, and explain their understandings of specific ecological problems?

What do you think is the appropriate relationship between reading about science and "doing science" in understanding and proposing solutions to problems?

How might a teacher provide students with opportunities to connect problem-centered learning in the classroom with the"real world?"

Module 3 - Reflecting and Building on Change

As a culminating activity to the study of ecology and the environment, Jeff and his students embark on a field trip to a nearby wildlife preserve located on the Atlantic coast. There, professional environmental educators guide Jeff and groups of students on a field study of the area's various habitats.

Jeff considers himself as much of a curious observer as his students. He coordinates what has been explored in his class with what is being presented by the guides. This encourages students to bring their knowledge from previous projects to this new experience. By asking questions and proposing answers, students transform their classroom ecological understandings to real-world experiences and begin to see how science connects their own lives with the world around them.

Ecology Field Trip

As a culminating activity, students participate in a guided exploration at a coastal ecosystem, which is different from their community.

Discussion Questions

What role do you think the field trip played in the unit on ecology?

How can a teacher know if his or her approach to problem-centered learning has been successful?

What rule of thumb would you use to design a unit based on a problem-centered approach to science teaching and learning?


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