How can you utilize group work in science classes?

When I revamped my school’s “science fair” — turning it into a full-on “STEM Expo,” I asked my sixth grade students to work in small groups to carry out their “science fair project.”  All too often, these types of projects become “cookie cutter labs” taken from online websites. The answers are already known, the procedures are provided, and little student thought or initiative is required.  I wanted to move away from that, so I required my students to develop an investigation that related to the “local watershed” theme we were studying.

Through a partnership with the Allegheny College Creek Connections program, students first gained an understanding of watershed science, participated in water testing at a local creek, and completed a biological and physical assessment of the creek’s health. Then, I assigned them to groups based on expressed interest (biological, chemical or physical studies) as well as my perceptions of their ability levels and leadership skills. Students began background research in class, composed the first two sections of their final reports (introduction and methodology), and finally, were released to carry out their investigations.

While I would like to dive more into the structure of the projects themselves at some point, today’s post really focuses on the challenges of the collaborative nature of those projects.

While several groups designed and carried out excellent studies, some groups really struggled with the group-work aspect of the project.  While it was my intention for the grouping to be an aid to students who may have otherwise struggled with carrying out such an extensive science project, the grouping actually became, for many, the most challenging aspect of the project.

I’ve outlined below just a few of the changes I made during the course of this project to address the challenges I encountered.  This is still a work in progress, for sure, and I’d love to hear more about what YOU have found successful!

 

One Product Per Student

As this became more and more clear as the project evolved, I began to make adaptations to the assignment to increase accountability to their work and to their group.  While students were expected to carry out the investigation together, some students ended up doing the bulk of their project alone. To recognize those students’ hard work, I asked all students to turn in an individual written report for their project.  This report was designed on the traditional format for all organized research and included the following sections: introduction, methodology, data, and conclusion.

While all students were required to turn in a separate report, students who worked together and wrote their reports together could simply turn in two copies of the same report.  For students who felt they carried the weight of the project, they could write and turn in a report of their own, and they were under no obligation to share that report (or any aspects of it, such as data, research, ideas, etc.) with their group members.  In this way, students who had no part in the project were not able to skate by on their group members’ work. However, students still received a group work grade for the display, as only one display was turned in.

 

Student Reflections

Finally, I asked students to write a reflection of the project in class – How were responsibilities divided? Who did what, in terms of the work? How would you grade yourself and your group-mates? Is there anything I should know about the project? What would you do differently? What recommendations would you give me for next year? Etc.  I found students were very honest, admitting their own lapses and recognizing their partners’ hard work. I added a “participation” grade to their group work project based on my own observations, these student reflections of others, and the student reflections of themselves.

 

The Struggle and Why It’s Necessary

Group work can be a struggle in science classrooms, whether it is done in class or outside of class.  Some students simply don’t want to step up, while others tend to commandeer the entire project or task.  At the same time, teaching these collaboration skills is valuable not only in the science field but in any workplace environment.  We all know the ability to work in a group, and for some to take on leadership roles, is an incredibly important skill.  Scientists in the “real world” are constantly working with others, even when they may not be thrilled to! In that way, this project simulated an authentic scientific investigation, and I think that experience is valuable. At the same time, I have struggled with balancing the “grief” of collaborative tasks with the learning I am aiming for.  

Another complication is assessment. It is always my intention to truly assess student understanding of content and mastery of science practices, and group work can make that assessment more difficult if one student carries more of the weight.

 

Spill It!

What tips do you have for utilizing collaborative work in your science classes?

 

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If you are anything like me, transitioning to the NGSS can be totally overwhelming.  Teaching is hard as it is – you’re busy keeping up with the “normal” lessons day to day and week to week, plus grading, meetings, IEPs, behavior management, so on and so forth. I get it. Who has the time or energy to figure out all that goes into these new standards and their impact on your curriculum, let alone what it means for your teaching!

Well, I’m happy to say there IS an easier way. You don’t HAVE to muddle through everything, and you definitely don’t have to do it alone!

Imagine feeling confident that the curriculum you designed is actually aligned to the standards, that your units incorporate the three dimensions and engage your students in Science and Engineering Practices that matter. Imagine classes full of students who take ownership of their learning, who thrive on “figuring it out” and “puzzling through it” and come to learn the content through discovery.  Imagine days where you DON’T have to stand in front of the class, battling for their attention, delivering boring lectures and notes, printing worksheet after worksheet, and wasting tons of time on review and reteaching — only to have your students fail to perform anyway. Imagine learning that sticks, and engaging activities (that you may already be doing!) but that lead to true understanding.  It’s not magic, and it doesn’t necessarily come easy, but it IS possible.  

Learn more at the Science Teacher Tribe Course and Community.