What's for Lunch? Real-life projects energize learning.

Real-life projects energize learning.

David Kanter believes that the best way for students to learn science is to experience science — firsthand. That's why when he and a team of middle school science teachers set out to create a meaningful, human biology curriculum for fifth to eighth graders, they wanted it to focus on a real-world problem that the students would have to solve.

"We wanted to build a project-based curriculum where the students would learn the science content while pursuing a project they were clearly excited about," says Kanter, a research assistant professor of learning sciences. "Too often students learn about science in a way that is divorced from what they really care about, so they lose interest." In creating what he calls "inquiry-based" or "project-based" science curricula, Kanter is one of a handful of educators across the country who is changing the way teachers teach science. With these types of curricula, teachers show students how to apply scientific concepts to solve problems in the same way scientists do.

Several of these educators, including Kanter, are affiliated with the Center for Learning Technologies in Urban Schools (LeTUS), a National Science Foundation-funded partnership among the Chicago and Detroit public schools, Northwestern University and the University of Michigan.

"We have found that students leave school with a lot of inert knowledge that they aren't necessarily able to use," Kanter explains. "The idea behind inquiry-based learning is that instead of just learning an isolated set of information, students are put into a situation where they have to learn to apply knowledge to real tasks."

Kanter, who has his PhD in biomedical engineering, began working on this project shortly after he came to Northwestern from Georgia Tech about four years ago. Because he wanted to be sure the curriculum would be effective in the classroom, he teamed up with a group of middle school science teachers. He also asked Brian Reiser, professor of learning sciences, and Rob Linsenmeier, a professor in Northwestern's biomedical engineering department, to join the team.

At one of the team meetings, a middle school instructor suggested teaching students how to redesign their school lunch choices based on the principles of "energy in" and "energy out."

"The moment she suggested it, I knew it would be a great project, not only because it was timely, but also because it was something students this age have an interest in," Kanter says.

That was the beginning of what ultimately became the eight-week, project-based curriculum, called "I, Bio" (funded by the National Science Foundation and the Quaker Oats Foundation), in which students explore how well their school lunch choices meet their bodies' energy needs. Throughout this project, students use hands-on experiments to learn how to calculate the energy in the food they eat and to measure the energy they use doing daily activities such as walking, climbing steps and running.

Jimmy Le uses an oxygen senor to measure the energy he expends while walking. Jimmy is in Demi Lafkas' seventh-grade class at Mary Lyon School in Southwest Chicago.

Photo by Mary Hanlon.

By the end of the project, the students are able to redesign their school lunch choices based on the amount of food energy they take in and the amount of energy their bodies use up doing work.
"Essentially, students learn how their school lunch choices are impacting their energy stores and whether they need to change their lunch choices or their activity choices based on this data," Kanter says.

To date, hundreds of middle school students in Chicago and Evanston have used I, Bio. Kathy Roberson, a seventh-grade science teacher at Haven Middle School in Evanston, taught the curriculum last year and is enthusiastic about teaching it again this year.

She says that her students particularly enjoy the hands-on activities. For example, one day her class used oxygen sensors to see how much oxygen was in the air. Then they used the sensors to measure how much oxygen they used at rest and how much they used after exercise. (Kanter gives each teacher a technology kit made up of everything from calorimeters to computers that work with the oxygen and volume sensors with which students analyze their exhaled air.)

"The students were able to use different kinds of probes and equipment they might not have used before," Roberson says. "This made [science] more exciting, and I think there was a deeper understanding of what we were talking about because of it."

Although the curriculum wasn't specifically designed to get the students to change their eating habits, Roberson thinks her students gained a greater awareness of how the food they ate affected their energy levels

" I think some of the students are now making more informed decisions," Roberson says, "and have a better understanding of what their bodies need.

To support I, Bio, Kanter and his team also created a 10-week, graduate-level course called "Learning and Teaching Human Biology" for the teachers using the curriculum. The idea behind the course was that Kanter and co-collaborator, instructor and designer Emily Kemp, a Chicago Public School teacher, would teach the science content and inquiry-teaching methods to the teachers, who, at the same time, would be presenting I, Bio to their students.

The team is studying how to mix science content and inquiry-based pedagogy in this practice-based way to help teachers learn what they need to learn to teach curricula such as these. "The I, Bio curriculum crosses a lot of disciplinary boundaries between physics and biology and physiology and math," Kanter explains. "There's a lot to learn no matter what your background is."

In the last two years, Kanter and Kemp have presented I, Bio to 22 middle school teachers as well as to Northwestern undergraduates in biological sciences. For the undergraduate students, this is an exciting collaboration between SESP and the Undergraduate Program in Biological Sciences, directed by Professor Jon Levine.

Megan McDermott, a seventh-grade science teacher at Nichols Middle School in Evanston, took the graduate-level course last year and taught the curriculum to her students. She says she liked having the support of other teachers.

" It was really neat to have a professional group of colleagues doing the same curriculum at the same time," she says. "We stumbled on the same problems and were able to discuss them. This was ideal as far as a teaching situation goes."

"The course really did prepare us for what the children would be asking," agrees Roberson. "We learned a lot. Almost every week, someone would say, 'I didn't know that.'"

But changing the types of curricula taught in middle school and high schools isn't enough to alter the way teachers teach science, Kanter says. Having the teachers take the professional development courses while teaching the curricula is integral to the projects' success.

In fact, Kanter along with co-principal investigator Phillip Herman, assistant research professor of learning sciences, received a five-year, $1.3 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to continue creating professional development courses related to Kanter's inquiry-based curricula—I, Bio for middle school teachers and "Disease Detectives" for high school teachers [see sidebar]. The grant also supports research on the impact these courses have on teacher and student learning.

Kanter says that research on teacher learning of the new curricula is critical. "It's not because we are designing the curricula poorly; it's because it's hard to understand how to use inquiry-based curricula if you've never used them before, says Kanter. "These courses give the teachers the tools to help them teach science differently and better."

Katharine Duke is a freelance writer.

SESP Faculty and Project-Based Learning

The fictitious Dr. Mack begins her investigation, but students must take over to solve the mystery in "Disease Detectives."

Image courtesy of the center for Learning Technologies in Urban Schools.

SESP's Learning Sciences faculty are well on the way to the goal line for project-based learning in science: producting educational materials that allow students to study science the way real-life scientists do and to make their own discoveries rather than memorizing dull facts.

Through project-based science curricula, students "buy in" to a driving question such as "What is the water quality like in my river?" or "How can we make our school building more energy efficient?" and in the process learn scientific principles in an exciting way.

For several years Daniel Edelson, Brian Reiser, Uri Wilensky, Louis Gomez, Bruce Sherin and David Danker have been involved in the development of project-based science curricula. These include Investigating Questions about our World through Science and technology, an interdisciplinary middle school science curriculum; Modeling Across the Curriculum; Looking at the Enrinment, a research-based environmental science high school curriculum; and Disease Detectives, for high school biology students who use scientific principles to discover what's ailing a town's population.

Recognizing the unique opportunity for research that these curriculum development porjects offer, the National Science Foundation awarded a grant for the Center for Curriculum Materials in Science (CCMS), to a consortium comprised of Northwestern, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the University of Michigan and Michigan State University. One of only two dozen NSF Centers for Learning and Teaching, the overarching purpose of CCMS is to reverse the troubling national trend in science illiteracy.

The Center's research agenda focuses on the following issues: defining science learning goals; building pedagogical supports and incorporating technologies into instructional materials; encouraging student investigations and serving diverse learners.

By Katharine Duke