Wednesday, November 05, 2003

Starting the Science Expo

Today, I launched the Science Expo. No, folks, this school's Science Expo is not a one-day event, it's a year-long process. The first step for the children is to choose a partner, topic, and specific question, not necessarily in that order. We started the period by brainstorming and discussing characteristics of a good partner - someone trustworthy, responsible, smart, resourceful, cooperative, with whom you work well. I added that it should be someone you can meet up with easily after school and on weekends, not someone who lives far across the Bronx from you. Also, since you have to do this project for a year, you should work with someone who shares your interests so that when you choose a project, one person is not miserable for the whole year!

From there, I handed out a sheet listing some tips for coming up with a good question, plus a list of example questions that I found on DiscoverySchool. We went over the tips and I listed general topic areas (chemistry, weather, force & motion, engineering, water, insects, plants, etc.) on the board and tossed out a few examples for each. Next, I went around the room and asked each child to say which topic areas interested them most, as a way of seeing whether someone else in the room might be a good partner based on shared interests. Finally, I gave them a few minutes to mill about and talk to other kids in order to find a partner. Their homework is to bring in a list of ten or more possible questions. I find that they have a really, really hard time developing a testable question that fits within the scope of a one-year, low-budget, middle school science expo project. The more questions they brainstorm, the greater chance they've got a few leads on their lists. Students who did not find a partner today will find one tomorrow, by comparing lists with the others who do not have partners (and a little social engineering on my part).

I'm cautiously optimistic about the direction the kids are going, so far. The seventh graders have done this before, and had been bugging me about when we would get started this year, so I'm hopeful that they will take their projects to the next level. I learned a lot from doing it last year, and I think that will make it easier for me to anticipate their difficulties and provide more support for the new sixth graders, as they learn the process of inquiry. For example, last year I had them pick general topics, research those topics, then brainstorm questions. This year, I am saving all research for later, as it is fairly difficult and needs to be taught. After they do a research paper or two, we will start doing background research for the Science Expo. This year I gave them lots of sample questions in the hopes that it will make the process of thinking of a question easier. Last year I was hoping they would come up with more original questions if I didn't give them too many ideas; this year I've decided that coming up with a good question is hard, and it's okay if they use one from the list of ideas, and it may help them get started on thinking of their own questions on diverse topics.

I already have a few groups who know what they want to do. Two boys want to test the effect of playing video games on grades. Another boy wants to test the relationship between space and time. He's a pretty cool kid, but we're obviously going to have to chat about project scope!

One girl confidently declared her interest in chemistry experiments. After class, she came up to me and asked, "What are some projects I could do for chemistry? 'Cause, I don't really know what it is!"

And, of course, we had The Volcano Talk. No, you may not do a volcano model. It's not good science! Real volcanoes do not contain vinegar & baking soda, and it's not even a good metaphor for how & why volcanoes erupt. *disappointed muttering among student-body* Naturally, if a student came up with a really creative way of modifying the volcano model to make it an informative project, I would give him or her two thumbs up, but it hasn't happened yet!

And, we had The Animal Talk. No, you may not torture animals (including people). If you want to do an experiment on animals, we need to discuss it and think it through carefully. For one thing, if you get a pet to use in your project, the pet is yours for its entire natural life, and pets entail a good deal of Time and Responsibility (and can live surprisingly long). Don't think I'm going to take your hamsters home when you get tired of them! Also, you need your parents' permission. Not every Mom or Dad is thrilled to host an ant farm or a cricket cage. Also, you generally need more than one of the same type of animal to do a good experiment. I do mention a few successful animal projects - Do hamsters prefer light or darkness? How far can a lizard smell? The Talk really makes a difference, too: by the time the kids share the topics that interest them, they all want to do animals. "I'm interested in the solar system, the human body, and hamsters." "Hamsters or chemistry." "Lizards... or hamsters."

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