Teaching meaningful and engaging science in the 21st century.

The Teacher’s Balancing Act.

It’s July, and if you are like me, you have been thinking of next year’s classes for the past two months.  How am I going to engage my students?  How do I make science meaningful to them?  How do I maintain that excitement that permeates my classroom those first few days of the school year?

I have been mulling these questions since I began teaching science both in the classroom and at home.  My answers keep coming back to a simple idea.  Create.  Have the students create.

This year, I have the opportunity to teach Honors Biology to freshman students.  We live near Lake Erie and so I have decided to use this ecosystem and the surrounding habitats as a model system to examine biology.  Focusing on the lake and its neighboring regions, I will have the students examine the four big themes that Ohio State Standards address:  Cells, Heredity, Evolution, and Diversity/Interdependence of Life.  (Don’t get me started on the stark omission of environmental science as what better way to study the interdependence of life than examining the effects on the environment by changes due to human activities.  Notice by using a model system, environmental science can always be at the forefront of discussion).

I am a big proponent of  maintaining mental health throughout the school year.  After all, how can we keep teachers in the field for 30 years if at the end of the school year, no teacher ever wants to set foot in a classroom again due to shear exhaustion.  As teachers we should not be more exhausted than our students at the end of the day.  For one thing, we have families, life responsibilities as well as ourselves to take care of when we get home.  So I constantly try to find answers to the questions I pose at the beginning of this post while balancing work load on my end.

What I am going to try this year.

Focusing on the theme of Create, my students will examine essential questions focusing on our model system using three main approaches:  individual learning, small group learning, large group learning.  All work will be put into a spiral notebook.  A scientist keeps a notebook of her research, her learnings, her understandings.  Students of science should also create a notebook containing her research that form the basis of her learnings and her understandings.

Learning Approach 1:  Individual Learning.

All students will read the chapter on which the essential question has been developed.  In their notebooks, students will choose to either assemble notes on the reading materials, or answer guided reading questions.  If you use Miller and Levine’s Biology textbook, this part has mostly been done for you.  You can just pick and choose what questions from the textbook you want your students to focus on.  Depending on the material, this learning can also include assigned videos from textbook publishers, Khan academy, HHMI or other educational institutions and student-produced summaries on these videos.

Learning Approach 2:  Small Group Learning.

In pairs, students will complete 2 or 3 activities that are developed to practice important concepts in the chapter.  Again, Miller and Levine have already done the heavy lifting.  Interspersed throughout the chapters are small learning opportunities such as analyzing data and quick labs.  These would be assigned and the students would complete them in their notebooks working with each other.

Learning Approach 3:  Large Group Learning.

During this phase the students work together to answer key questions about our model system using the information they have thus far learned.  The students must create some sort of presentation that fulfills three basic requirements; 1) Answers the key question by applying the information from the textbook; 2) Engages the students in a short learning activity, and 3) Assesses each other’s understanding.

Every second or third essential question, a class exam can be offered and notebooks can be collected regularly to grade.

Below you will find a sample lesson plan for the beginning chapter of Levine and Miller’s Biology textbook, “The Science of Biology.”  This basic first chapter includes the main ideas such as scientific method, theory vs. hypothesis, characteristics of living things, and systems of measuring.  As you will see, key questions have been developed to probe understandings of these main ideas.

And since I’m a scientist and a teacher, this is only my first draft.


Essential Question #1:  How do we determine human impact on Lake Erie?


Learning Activities

  1. Individual Learning: Read Chapter 1, then answer guided reading questions or produce hand written notes on the chapter.
  1. Small Group Learning: Complete 2 out of the following 3 activities

Graphing Exercise (Hand out)

Microscope Usage (Skills lab pg. 26, using lake water)

Designing an Experiment (Figure 1-3)

  1. Large Group Learning: Sign up for one.

_________________Class Study Guide

_________________Presentation:  What procedures should be followed to assess the safety of swimming at Edgewater Beach?

_________________Presentation:  Toxic Algal Blooms a Result of Fertilizer Runoff.  A Theory or Hypothesis?

_________________Presentation:  What characteristics of life do we share with the smallest microorganisms living in our lake?

_________________Presentation: How does a system of measurement help us assess the dissolved oxygen content in the waters of Lake Erie.

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