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84- 3 Easy Ways to Add Purpose To Your Science Investigations

May 24, 2021

Are you making the most of your science investigations? When Erin started teaching, she definitely wasn't.

She started by using a mostly lecture-based model for her classroom. Then, when she began to incorporate investigations she didn't consider the purpose of the investigations. Therefore, they didn't add as much value to her classes as they could have.

In this episode, Erin shares easy strategies that she has adopted to add purpose to the science investigations in her classroom.

Common Mistakes Teacher Make with Science Investigations

Often, teachers use investigations or labs to reinforce what students already know about a topic. While there isn't anything inherently wrong with reinforcing content, this strategy doesn't maximize the effectiveness of labs. In fact, investigations are more beneficial when they take place early in a lesson sequence. This way, they help students to discover the content. When students discover the content, it is more meaningful.

Also, teachers often include lab days in their lesson sequence to provide students with a hands-on experience. However, this strategy is short-sided and doesn't the many potential benefits these activities have when they are well thought out.

Add purpose to your science investigations without making it overly complicated.

It isn't difficult to make your investigations more purposeful. Here are three easy ways that you can add purpose simply and easily.

1) Consider your instructional sequence.

This change is easy because you are basically just changing the order that you teach the material. Often, students aren't given a chance to investigate until the teacher has taught the content. But this isn't the most effective strategy.

Explore Before Explain

Whenever possible, use an “explore before explain” strategy in your lesson sequence.  Have students do the investigation first, before you provide an explanation.  

Keep it REALLY simple in the beginning.

Sometimes, teachers hesitate to do this because they don’t think that students know enough to be able to do the investigation.  So, in a sense, they front load that information to get them ready for a lab.  Often, this comes in the form of background information provided on the front of a lab sheet. However, these pieces aren't necessary for learning.

When you are creating an investigation at the beginning of your lesson sequence, strip it down as much as possible to allow students to discover information.  That way, students can begin to make sense of the content and you can help provide clarity later.  

You CAN let them investigate again later in the lesson sequence.

This doesn't have to be the end of the investigation process.  You can do an exploration piece at the beginning and come back to it a little later and add more meat to it, if you will.  For example, it can be really difficult for students to plan an investigation when they don’t know anything about the content.  So, let them do a little exploration, give them more background info and then hand the investigation back to them.  

2) Target at least one SPECIFIC subcomponent of the Science and Engineering Practices.

This one likely seems obvious. Still, many of the traditional labs that we use don't actually connect to a Science and Engineering Practice. If you want to be sure, check out the NSTA matrix for the Science and Engineering Practices. See if you can circle one of the science and engineering practices that you are connecting to.

Rethinking Your Lab Activities

For example, Erin recalls a strawberry DNA extraction activity that she did in her classroom for years. In this activity, students extracted and observed DNA. Students loved this activity, but there was little or no connection to the Science and Engineering Practices.

In that case, there are a few things that you can do:

  • Use the activity as an engagement-style activity and incorporate the practices elsewhere in your lesson sequence.
  • Find a way to include one of the practices.
  • Replace the activity with one that incorporated the practices.

Whatever you decided to do, make sure that you are included the practices at some point in your lesson sequence.

3) Make sure that there is a context for your activity.

The best way to make sure that there is a context is to make sure that the activity connects to your anchor. This connection doesn't have to directly relate to the anchor. For example, the activity can help answer one of the questions that the students had when the anchor was introduced.

Check out these episodes to learn more:

Are you interested in student-driven science investigations?

Erin has developed a signature 5-step method for making the shift towards student- driven investigation in your science class. The waitlist is open now for this exciting new course. Fill out the form below to get on the waitlist.

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