Practice: Exploring Science Through Projects and Problems
Practice in Action
Exploring Science Through Projects and Problems involves real-world learning experiences. Ideally, the problem or project comes from a community need or a case study based on students' interests. Problems and projects that students are interested in engage them, make science relevant, and encourage them to make decisions to solve the problem.
Begin by connecting with the school-day teacher to find out what science concepts, skills, and standards students are studying, and what kinds of activities might lend themselves to science projects. For example, raising fish from eggs can extend what students may be learning about habitats, species, and life cycles. Or, you can combine science and literacy activities by reading a book and developing an activity that builds on the story, such as building the bridge from The Three Billy Goats Gruff.
Work with students to select a topic or experimental question that interests them. Then discuss the project, identify what students will do, make a project plan and timeline, identify resources you will need, and conduct the project. Projects work best when students can work on them in a regular, ongoing way, as some projects can take several days or weeks. You will also want to determine how you and your students will present and evaluate their projects.
Investigating science through project- or problem-based learning works because students are directly involved in their own learning as they develop problem-solving skills, learn new content, and apply what they learn in authentic, real-world situations.
Planning Your Lesson
Great afterschool lessons start with having a clear intention about who your students are, what they are learning or need to work on, and crafting activities that engage students while supporting their academic growth. Great afterschool lessons also require planning and preparation, as there is a lot of work involved in successfully managing kids, materials, and time.
Below are suggested questions to consider while preparing your afterschool lessons. The questions are grouped into topics that correspond to the Lesson Planning Template. You can print out the template and use it as a worksheet to plan and refine your afterschool lessons, to share lesson ideas with colleagues, or to help in professional development sessions with staff.
Lesson Planning Template (PDF)
Lesson Planning Template (Word document)
What grade level(s) is this lesson geared to?
How long will it take to complete the lesson? One hour? One and a half hours? Will it be divided into two or more parts, over a week, or over several weeks?
What do you want students to learn or be able to do after completing this activity? What skills do you want students to develop or hone? What tasks do they need to accomplish?
List all of the materials needed that will be needed to complete the activity. Include materials that each student will need, as well as materials that students may need to share (such as books or a computer). Also include any materials that students or instructors will need for record keeping or evaluation. Will you need to store materials for future sessions? If so, how will you do this?
What do you need to do to prepare for this activity? Will you need to gather materials? Will the materials need to be sorted for students or will you assign students to be "materials managers"? Are there any books or instructions that you need to read in order to prepare? Do you need a refresher in a content area? Are there questions you need to develop to help students explore or discuss the activity? Are there props that you need to have assembled in advance of the activity? Do you need to enlist another adult to help run the activity?
Think about how you might divide up groups―who works well together? Which students could assist other peers? What roles will you assign to different members of the group so that each student participates?
Now, think about the Practice that you are basing your lesson on. Reread the Practice. Are there ways in which you need to amend your lesson plan to better address the key goal(s) of the Practice? If this is your first time doing the activity, consider doing a "run through" with friends or colleagues to see what works and what you may need to change. Alternatively, you could ask a colleague to read over your lesson plan and give you feedback and suggestions for revisions.
What to Do
Think about the progression of the activity from start to finish. One model that might be useful—and which was originally developed for science education—is the 5E's instructional model. Each phrase of the learning sequence can be described using five words that begin with "E": engage, explore, explain, extend, and evaluate. For more information, see the 5E's Instructional Model.
Outcomes to Look For
How will you know that students learned what you intended them to learn through this activity? What will be your signs or benchmarks of learning? What questions might you ask to assess their understanding? What, if any, product will they produce?
After you conduct the activity, take a few minutes to reflect on what took place. How do you think the lesson went? Are there things that you wish you had done differently? What will you change next time? Would you do this activity again?
Students are presented with a problem: construct a prototype of a bridge or other device to get the goats in the story, The Three Billy Goats Gruff, to the other side of the river without getting eaten by the troll.
The Three Billy Goats Gruff (3-5)
Duration: 90 minutes (or 45 minutes per day)
- Use reading, math, and science skills to solve a "real-world" problem
- Construct a model and design a solution
- Keep journals or records of scientific investigations
- Learn and use appropriate science and engineering vocabulary
- Work together to solve a problem
- Copy of The Three Billy Goats Gruff
- Index cards
- Pencils (1 per student)
- Scissors (1 per student)
- Assessment Rubric (PDF) for each team
- Cereal box, individual portion size, empty
- String, any type, 45 cm
- Thread spool, empty or taped to keep from unwinding
- Plastic spoon
- Clay, non-hardening, 2" ball
- 12 craft sticks
- Tape, transparent, small roll
- 3 pipe cleaners
- 3 three-ounce paper cups (bathroom cups)
- 3 plastic goats (optional), or additional pipe cleaners for students to make goats
- Assemble all materials for easy distribution.
- Purchase or check out from the library a copy of The Three Billy Goats Gruff.
- Read through The Three Billy Goats Gruff and develop questions for discussion.
- Decide on the best grouping of students and roles to be assigned.
- Prepare the area for each team to work. Locate display area for finished products.
- Consider using a large piece of paper as a word wall for terms such as "engineering model" or "prototype."
- Allow enough space for students to work safely.
- Engage students by introducing and reading aloud the story of The Three Billy Goats Gruff. As you read, ask what problems the goats have to solve (getting across the river safely).
Explore possible solutions. Divide students into small groups, hand out the rubric, and present the challenge: Your team is an engineering company hired by the goats' parents. Each team needs to come up with a solution without harming the troll. Design and make a model of an invention that would enable the goats to get to green grass safely every morning. You have 60 minutes to complete your solution. This time may vary and be extended to the next day.
- Ask students to brainstorm and discuss with you four possible solutions, the pros and cons of each, and their final decision. Allow about 15 minutes for brainstorming. Ask students to record their ideas as they go. Remember that the goal is to have students create an invention (like a bridge) to solve the problem.
- Once each team has shown you its ideas and decisions, give students their kit of materials so that they may begin making a model. Students should create a name for the device, label it with an index card, and create a company portfolio for the goat parents to consider.
Explain the solutions. Have students present their models and completed rubrics to the whole group while the remaining students and the instructor ask probing questions about their model and how it works.
- Each team cleans up by returning leftover materials to the bags.
- Debrief about the invention process, the brainstorming, and the difficult and fun elements of designing like an engineer.
- Extend students' learning. If time allows, ask students to write a reflection of what they learned. Create a display of students' inventions in the school library or other public area. Based on what did and did not work, have students plan how they might change their models.
Evaluate (Outcomes to Look For)
- Student engagement and participation
- Students work together cooperatively
- Ideas and answers that reflect an understanding of the problem, use of problem-solving skills, and possible solutions
- Journal entries or records of ideas, pictures, what worked, and what didn't
- Final designs that reflect an understanding of how to engineer a solution (see the Assessment Rubric (PDF) for one idea of how to evaluate students' work)
Learn more about the 5Es.
Students receive a mysterious case study about a girl who has fainted, use clues to discover the problem, and learn about diabetes, its symptoms, and treatment.
What Happened to Mya? (6-8)
Duration: Several 45- to 60-minute sessions
- Work collaboratively to solve a problem
- Use the inquiry process—hypothesizing, questioning, researching, analyzing data, and communicating results
- Understand health issues, specifically diabetes and nutrition
- Problem-based learning case study, What Happened to Mya? (PDF, 80K)
- Notebooks and pencils
- Computers for Internet research, word processing, and presentations
- Familiarize yourself with the case study and information about diabetes.
- Identify and search the Internet or other sources to guide student learning about Mya's symptoms in general, and diabetes in particular.
- Engage students in the story of Mya by reading aloud the Day 1 Scenario. The next day, read the Day 2 Scenario to give students more clues.
Explore what happened to Mya. Discuss Mya's symptoms and list the data or clues provided in each scenario, as well as any questions students want to research. Working individually or in small groups, students should use computers or previously copied articles to find the answers to their questions. Remind students to take notes and cite the Web sites where they found answers. Monitor students and ask questions as they do research. By the second day, students should be able to focus their research on diabetes, its symptoms, and types. The following questions also appear on the handout. Ask students to answer each question and record their answers.
- Why do people faint?
- What is glucose, and what happens if you don't have enough?
- What are the symptoms of diabetes?
- What is the difference between type I and type II diabetes? What is the cause of diabetes? What is pre-diabetes?
- What is insulin, and what happens when a person has too much or too little?
- What kinds of exercise and nutrition are helpful in controlling and preventing diabetes?
- What do diabetics do to monitor their glucose levels?
- What complications are associated with diabetes?
- What can you do to prevent diabetes?
- How can you help a person with diabetes?
- Explain findings. Using the questions students asked and the notes they took, students should present their findings. Leave time for questions and answers, encouraging students to explain their answers and how they reached them.
- Extend learning if time allows. Ask students to present the case and findings to younger students. Invite someone who is diabetic or who works with diabetics to talk to students about nutrition and diabetes. Have students plan healthy snacks for the afterschool center based on their new understandings. Collaborate with a local hospital or clinic to plan a family health night and include information on diabetes as well as free glucose testing.
Evaluate (Outcomes to Look For)
- Students work together to problem solve
- Answers that reflect students' ability to hypothesize (guess) what happened to Mya and develop follow-up questions to research
- Reading and research skills that help students find answers to their questions
- Good note-taking
- Presentations that reflect an understanding of diabetes and how it relates to Mya's symptoms
Learn more about the 5Es.
Students gather data to explore the problem of adolescent obesity and develop potential solutions based on the observations they have made at their school.
Heavy Weight (9-12)
Duration: 6-8 weeks for this lesson (45-60 minutes weekly); length variable if extensions used.
- Practice the problem-solving process, including crafting and considering questions and key factors, making observations, recording data, analyzing data, communicating results, and planning further investigations
- Measure using tools such as scales, tape measures, and calipers
- Keep journals and/or log records of scientific investigations
- Apply mathematical weight concepts
- Compare results and draw conclusions
- USDA Food Pyramid (PDF)
- My Pyramid Data sheet (PDF)
- PBL Planning Form (PDF)
- Data/statistics about health and weight for local area
- Weighted scales
- Measuring cups
- Clear rulers and/or plastic tape measurers (centimeter)
- Journals or learning logs
In this lesson, students will consider the problem of adolescent obesity. Here are specific steps to take as you plan this activity:
- As preparation, the instructor should familiarize herself or himself with the issue, as well as inform school cafeteria staff and/or school/district nutritionist of planned actives.
- Research the topic by obtaining current scholarly and popular articles in the media about nutrition, the impact of food intake on health and weight, and foods/ingredients recommended for health (reasons provided should vary).
- Organize materials in team folders (one for each team), rulers, tape measure, pencils or pens, learning logs, calculators, scales, metric conversion charts.
- Create a plan for storing all materials for the duration of the project.
- As this is a topic that is relevant to the larger community, elements of this activity can be used with as part of a community or family science night.
- Engage students by providing them with local and national statistics on adolescent obesity and its negative health impacts. Have students work in groups to determine the key elements of the problem that they will investigate.
- Explore by having each group work through the steps below in problem solving/project based learning. Tell each group that one person should be the Reporter, and be responsible for generating the final report based on the group's findings. The reporter will also facilitate the group presentation.
Each group's tasks:
- Learn about the problem through research. Prepare a list of questions or issues related to adolescent obesity that need to be researched and develop a research action plan for the group
- Develop and administer surveys. The group should do this by generating questions, testing them, and administering them to a population within the school (for instance, their grade or a given class). The survey should assess students' eating habits.
- Identify the food and food types most frequently consumed by students as determined by the survey results.
- Conduct analysis of the nutritional value of the top-ranking foods by checking the nutrition facts on the foods, or by other means.
- Decide which information collected by the surveys is useful in helping to solve the problem.
- Propose a solution. Prepare a presentation of that solution, including why it might work and how the data gathered supports it.
- Explain that the steps involved in this process are equally important in yielding the results. Students should complete data charts based on their research which relate directly to the questions they identified at the start of the project. After these are complete, each team will report their results along with these charts. The reporter should take the lead.
- Extend learning if time allows. Here are a few ideas of extensions for this activity:
- Extend the project to include analysis and writing. Students could analyze the results, and then develop a written report or newsletter proposing solutions that can be distributed to all students.
- Expand the research component by having students obtain popular diets, and having them determine if such diets would help create a solution to the problem.
- Students could look at obesity figures for other age groups (for instance, younger students, adults of various ages) as well as obesity figures for other countries.
- Students complete their journals or learning logs correctly with accurate data tables and charts
- Students are engaged in the problem-solving process and use appropriate steps to develop and test hypotheses
- Students collect data objectively and accurately
- Students record data with the proper units (for instance, ounces, serving size)
- Students compare and contrast their data appropriately and present it clearly in charts or other formats
- Students work responsibility and appropriately in their groups
Learn more about the 5Es.
For more information and ideas to support this lesson, see the Resources page.
Explore these resources to assist in implementing the Exploring Science Through Projects and Problems practice in your program.Resources for Sample Lessons associated with this practice:
The Three Billy Goats Gruff Galdone, P. The Three Billy Goats Gruff. New York: Claron Books, 1981. [ISBN 0-90010-035-9]
Case Studies in Science, The National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science, State University of New York in Buffalo
Projects Ready for Participation:
Cornell University School of Ornithology, "Citizen Science" programs
Global Learning and Observation to Benefit the Environment (GLOBE)
ProbeSight! Taking a Closer Look at Computer-Based Probeware in Education