Saturday, January 28, 2012

Science Research Projects

The "research project." When I was in school, I (vaguely) remember doing research projects which mostly consisted of, "Pick a topic, write a paper, and hope for the best."  Given today's wide-open internet, what should a 21st-century research project look like? Unlimited choice and freedom can be daunting to many students, but overly-rigid parameters can stifle creativity. Somewhere in between is a healthy balance where students can explore a research topic in-depth and express their learning in a variety of creative ways.
Image credit: MorgueFile

Over the years, my biannual research projects have evolved to help students both efficiently leverage the latest resources on the internet and maximize their research potential. The "research paper" I produced umpteen years ago in school pales in comparison to the "power projects" my students create today.

While I believe strongly in giving my students choice in expressing their learning, I have found that completely open-ended choice can lead to less-than-excellent results. Students are more apt to achieve excellence when provided with guidelines, structures, and checkpoints along the way. It's my job to facilitate learning, and the research project provides an opportunity for me to help students really kick it up a notch.

For our ocean research project, I've established the following structures and guidelines:

Essential and Supporting Questions
Rather than instruct students to "pick a topic" at the beginning of the project, we spend time brainstorming and writing both essential and supporting questions. An essential question usually begins with either "why" or "how" and is not something that can be easily answered. Supporting questions usually start with "who/what/when/where," are more factual in nature, and serve as the anchor questions around which students conduct their research and write their final product.

To create these questions, I first have students start writing a stream of questions without stopping to edit or judge the quality of the questions. The goal is to get the ideas flowing. Once students have written 20 to 30 questions, they may then start to edit, sort, and condense these questions until they have one essential research question and a minimum of ten supporting questions. These supporting questions provide the keywords and ideas around which students organize their note system, conduct their research, and assemble their final product—a brochure or a comic book.

Organized Note System
At the beginning of the project, we have a discussion about taking notes efficiently and brainstorm various systems for note-taking, such as index cards, sticky notes, outlines, graphical webs, etc. As part of their project registration (via Google Forms), students must indicate what type of organized note system they will be using for the project, and I periodically check to see that students are using their system.

Primary and Secondary Sources 
Students are expected to use primary and secondary science sources for their research, which includes edited materials in our school library as well as various scientific websites that I have curated. During our initial discussions about the project, we talk extensively about the importance of using primary and secondary science sources, such as NASA Oceanography, NOAA National Ocean Service, Office of Naval Research Oceanography, and sites derived from them. Wikipedia is acceptable, as long as it it used as a starting point only. Blind, open-ended searches using large search engines like Google are discouraged, and use of "anybody can answer this question" websites (like eHow and are prohibited.

The key to success here is being an active curator—I set up a web page for our project which provides students links to quality resources, reference materials, tutorials, copyright-respectful clipart, and more. If students use other sites, they must justify their choices; if we decide their choice is a quality resource, it will be added to our list of curated websites.

Structured, Yet Flexible, Format
Our ocean project is the first of two research projects we do in science each year. As such, I am slightly more structured about the written expectations of the project. Students may choose to create a brochure or a comic book, either digitally or on paper. I've narrowed down these choices over the years for a couple of reasons: 
  • Left with open-ended choices, students tend to gravitate toward posters. Unfortunately, I have not been too impressed with the poster format—too often it is nothing more than cut-n-paste pictures and text randomly glued to a poster board (usually at the last minute).
  • Brochures and comic books allow for more creativity from students, but also require more planning and organization. This generally leads to much higher quality.
Bibliography and Picture Credits
As scientists, we must cite the work of others, giving them credit and respecting their copyright. One aspect of this project is the formal use of bibliography and picture credits throughout the project. This can be challenging and frustrating for students who view citations as extra work and who are comfortable (and sometimes complacent) about simply cutting and pasting everything from the internet. So, at the beginning of the project we also have a discussion about the importance of using bibliographies and picture credits in research projects in order to achieve three goals:
  1. provide readers with a mechanism for accessing the same material used by students, so that readers can learn more about the topic,
  2. give credit to the original authors of the research materials, and
  3. respect copyright and honor the creative process.
To help students with their citations, I employ both a Bibliography and Picture Credit Help Guide that I created as well as a wonderful bibliography template that I discovered online years ago. Both these tools (as well as various other digital versions) provide students with the structure to more easily and efficiently document their citations. "Make sure you have a bibliography" is not enough guidance for students.

The Journey Is as Interesting as the Destination
Research projects provide students with the opportunity to pursue their own ideas and interests, and I feel they are a vital part of science education. Open-ended research projects, while allowing for 100% freedom and creativity, tend to be too much for many students; rigid term papers are simply stifling and rather boring. A well-designed research project experience requires that teachers serve as active facilitators during the entire project (somewhat like a tour guide). It is time well spent: the experience becomes focused on asking students what they are learning, rather than struggling to keep them on task.

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