Tuesday, 23 February 2016

Taking science projects beyond the laboratory

At my school, Grade 11 students in the maths-science programme are required to work in small groups to undertake year-long science projects. Often these projects are laboratory-based, experimental-type projects, which are obviously important since science is a very practical subject. However, as the coordinator of these projects, I am also keen for students to engage in other types of projects that may not be quite so lab-based. This year provided a good example of how much learning may be achieved via a project that was not a lab-based experiment. 

The group prepares for their project presentation.

The group in question came to see me at the beginning of the year to ask me if they could do a project based around the Ebola and MERS viruses, both of which were very much in the news at the time. Obviously, this would not make for a suitable lab-based project for high school students! However, I was keen to let them pursue the topic of their choosing, and spent some time thinking of a way for them to undertake a suitable project. I then proposed to the students that they should carry out the following:

  • Background research into the aetiology and epidemiology of Ebola and MERS viruses
  • Develop a questionnaire to investigate the knowledge, awareness, and attitudes around these diseases
  • Undertake a pilot study to test their questionnaire
  • Revise their questionnaire based on the findings of the pilot study
  • Carry out a larger survey of other students, as well as members of the general public
  • Develop a website, based on their research, in order to publicise their findings and raise awareness, as well as providing them with a tangible product at the end of their project

Overall I was extremely pleased with the students' effort and attention to detail during this project. They worked hard on it throughout the school year, and consulted with me regularly for advice. I was pleasantly surprised when I asked them how many individuals they planned to interview for their main survey, and they told me 300 people. In the end they actually interviewed over 500 people, an impressive undertaking!

At the beginning of the project, when I suggested that they design a website to display their results, the group was initially sceptical since none of them had any web design experience. However, they took the plunge and, using Google Sites, created a very nice website which can be found here

A screenshot from the students' website.

Towards the end of their project, the group was very happy to be selected to display their work for a visit by the Royal School Award committee. To top things off, following the end of year project presentations their group was declared joint winners! 

The group's display for the Royal School Award visitors.

My feeling is that this project was a great success and has reinforced my view that science projects need not be lab-based in order to provide students with a valuable science learning experience. Additionally, the students themselves gave very positive feedback regarding the project. I would be happy to supervise similar projects in the future. 

Friday, 19 February 2016

Six findings from students' evaluation of their science projects

This year's Grade 11 science projects have come to an end, and once again I asked the students to complete an anonymous evaluation questionnaire to assist me with improving the projects next time around. Here are six key points arising from this evaluation.

Happy students having finished their final project presentations!

1. Scientific understanding

In terms of improving their general understanding of science, the majority of students agreed that this was the case. However, a significant minority reported they had no opinion about this, which is something I hope to improve with next year's projects.

2. Enjoyment and teamwork

More students reported that they enjoyed the science projects this time around, which may in part be due to the fact that they chose their own groups. There was also a big improvement in the number of students reporting that their group worked well as a team this year, compared with last. Again, this may reflect the fact that the groups self-selected their members. 

3. Project advisor

Each project group has a science teacher who acts as their advisor throughout the year. Groups overwhelmingly reported that their advisor had been helpful. This is encouraging because students and their advisor must work together closely for these projects, and a good relationship between them is important for the projects to be a success. 

4. Laboratory facilities

For those students who carried out a laboratory-based project, they reported that the time after school and at lunchtimes allotted for this had been useful. 

5. Project resources

Project resources, such as guidelines and templates, are made available to students via our school's LMS, Moodle, and increasingly through Google Classroom. The majority of students reported that these resources were useful, although 30% had no opinion about this, so there is definitely room for improvement here. 

6. Areas of concern

As in previous years, one of the main criticisms from students was the lack of dedicated class time for the projects. Unfortunately, given the already packed curriculum, there is little scope for this to change in the future. A number of students also commented that there was too much pressure towards the very end of the projects, with a number of deadlines occurring simultaneously across different subjects. Again, there are limited options for addressing this. However, one of the changes planned for next time is for clearer delineation of project milestones throughout the school year, which will hopefully go some way to distributing the workload more evenly.

Overall then, it would appear that students were generally satisfied with the science projects and what they learned from them. However, as always, there is scope for refining the projects and their administration, in an on-going cycle of improvement, based on the students' own thoughts and opinions.