I have 20 years of teaching experience at the middle and high school level. I have taught a wide range of sciences, including high school biology and chemistry, middle school general science and computer science, and currently, 8th grade physical science.
I am fan of highly-structured notes and worksheets that make it easy for students to understand content and stay organized, but I primarily use these for intros and independent review assignments. I spend most of my time in class doing lots of fun activities to keep students engaged while practicing new science skills or synthesizing new knowledge. I am always trying to incorporate student-directed collaborative learning in my classroom, but it's not always easy or efficient in middle school. So instead of big student-directed projects, I try to do it in small bites. For example, I often present “real life” problems or situations that students use their existing knowledge to try to figure out. For example, for a unit on heat transfer, I ask my students why their feet feel warmer stepping out of the shower on a bath mat rather than a tile floor? The challenge is that both the mat and the tile are at the same temperature!
I acted as a science consultant for Gale Publishing and helped produce a science book/eBook entitled Ignition Science: Collaborative Projects that Inspire Learning. This 500-page, 2-volume publication features over 70 collaborative science projects for middle/early high school students. My own activities provided the basis for over 85% of the published activities, and I was able to write the 3000-word instruction guide, which focused on collaborative project learning in the science classroom.
I have been inspired by a number of other teachers in my life. I'd especially like to mention the professors whom I worked with as a student in the Biology and Pharmacology Program at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. This innovative program was built around the Problem-Based Learning (PBL) model. Each PBL class was made up of six students and one professor and typically lasted three hours. Unlike most university classes where the professor gives a lecture to a mostly passive audience, each of our classes was planned, taught and evaluated by the students themselves. In many ways, each lesson followed a script like the hit TV show “House”. The professor would present us with an index card that outlined a patient’s symptoms and a modicum of background information. It was up to the students to choose the best course of action to solve the problem. We we would typically start by collectively determining what we knew and what we didn’t know. From there, we would divide ourselves into teams of two and head down to the medical library to research our chosen aspect of the problem. The team would reconvene after an hour and we would teach each other what we had found out. Once all of the new information was presented, the team would then determine if our findings allowed us to come to a conclusion. If we were unable to do so, the team would repeat the process until we were fully satisfied. One of the most interesting thing about those classes was that the professor never told us if we had correctly solved the problem. I distinctly remember the first time we asked our professor if we were right. He slowly took off his glasses, smirked and said, “Who am I to tell you that? I am only your teacher.” Surprisingly, it was my positive experience in the Biology and Pharmacology program that stopped me from becoming an actual pharmacologist. With each passing course, I came to the realization that I was becoming far more interested in the WAY the content was being taught rather than the content itself. In my final semester, I dropped out of the program so that I could pursue a career in education. As a teacher of middle school students, I realize that I won’t ever be able to duplicate those Biology and Pharmacology lessons. There are practical limitations of class size, resources and time. There are also pedagogical limitations due to the fact that middle school students are young adolescents and not university students. However, I believe that children of all ages are fully capable of the type of flexible, creative and collaborative thinking that my pharmacology professors tried to instill in us. Science is less a subject than a way of thinking. One doesn't LEARN/TEACH science as much as they DO science. In my view, one of the best things about science is that it can be messy, complicated, strange, challenging, fun, and exciting. What I see in elementary school science lesson is very young students approaching each topic with an incredible sense of wonder; every lesson offers something brand new for them to discover. The key to preserving that sense of wonder in older students is by presenting science as only one way of exploring the mysteries of life; mysteries where the teacher does not always have the answer.
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