“I felt their enthusiasm for their unit. I saw the students were engaged. This unit seemed more meaningful to them. I enjoyed seeing students’ purposefulness in this unit. I could feel a difference in the class between the usual hands-on activities we do and this unit.”
– Helen Hurgin, Seventh Grade Teacher
Helen Hurgin, Windham, Maine middle school math and science teacher, planned and implemented a two and a half week Challenge-Solving Project on energy conservation. As a result of this unit, Hurgin’s students progressed with deeper learning such as critical thinking, communications, collaboration, creativity, and literacy, numeracy, and appropriate use of technology. They learned and will retain content knowledge. Their concept of themselves as lifelong, capable, self-directed learners has been strengthened.
Choosing the Topic
Energy conservation at the Middle School was chosen as the topic based on curriculum standards, relevancy to students, and potential resources in the school community and wider community.
Before beginning the unit, Mrs. Hurgin provided direct instruction of some of the reasoning skills students would use – for example, experimental inquiry, understanding diverse perspectives and logical decision-making. The students already knew how to effectively work in small groups, as they were used to performing experiments collaboratively. They also already had some experience in presenting to audiences.
Hurgin provided a lesson to students on creating digital slide shows, which was a new skill for many of the students.
Before the unit, Mrs. Hurgin sent a letter to families with an overview of the unit, and the rationale for this kind of learning, including research findings. Families were asked whether they have resources they would like to share.
“Students show better long-term retention and ability to apply new material if the instructional method is one that actively engages them to put new ideas to use.”
Wirkala & Kuhn. (Oct., 2011). Problem-based learning in K-12 education: Is it effective and how does it achieve its effects? American Educational Research Journal.
To ensure students’ interest, Mrs. Hurgin began the unit with three hooks. Students used a process for generating and testing hypotheses to analyze which appliances in their homes use the most electricity. The students watched a video of melting glaciers and discussed why this is an indicator of climate change. The most motivating hook was when the students’ assistant principal, Mark Jaronczyk, came into their classroom to speak to the students and read a letter he wrote to them about the school’s need to conserve energy.
Once the students were motivated, the challenge was framed in the question “How can we reduce energy usage at Windham Middle School?” and later refined to, “How can we reduce energy at Windham Middle School to address both environmental and economic costs?”
Connecting to Prior Knowledge
Individually and then together, the class filled out a Know, Need to Know, Ideas chart. This activity encouraged students to tap into prior learning and use analysis to determine information needed to solve the problem, form research categories, and identify information sources. Possible energy saving methods students listed included quiet time (without lights), motion sensors, energy monitor, solar panels, and power strips.
Groups of four-six students were formed to address energy saving methods listed in the Know, Need to Know, Ideas chart. Students chose a group based on their interest in a particular energy saving method. The students also had choices within their groups of what subtopics to research and, within parameters, how to go about researching. In preparing their presentation, groups had choice of what kind of format to use for their presentation and what visual to use with their presentation, a poster or slide show. Students within groups chose the part of the presentation they would prepare and deliver.
Teacher as Facilitator
Mrs. Hurgin facilitated students’ learning by actively listening, analyzing the direction of discussions and asking open-ended questions to encourage the students’ reflections and deeper thinking. The students, themselves, determined what further questions needed to be researched in order to solve the original challenge. Individually and collaboratively, the students searched for information on the Internet, using both links Hurgin provided and relevant information sites of their choosing.
“I mostly listened to see where they were headed and made suggestions to help them get the information that would be useful and understandable. Often times I would ask the groups what questions they had for me or if they felt like they were on the right track.”
– Helen Hurgin
Mrs. Hurgin provided supports to students such as a list of experimental inquiry steps, small group work roles chart, energy sources web, and reminders about best interdependent work process.
Collaboratively, groups planned presentations of their findings. Presentations were required to include a computer slide show or other visual.
The audience for the presentations included Mrs. Hurgin, the rest of the class, the assistant principal, and an additional evaluator.
In their presentations, students cited research findings including statistics they had analyzed to substantiate their conclusions. One group concluded their presentation with an oral quiz of audience members.
Service to the School Community
Towards the end of the unit, some of the students began implementing their groups’ solutions, for example by putting up signs to remind people to shut off lights when not in use.
Mrs. Hurgin continuously assessed students’ progress and needs. As she went around to each small group, she noted whether they were on track and whether they had questions for her.
By analyzing students’ discussions, end of class reported-out statements, Thinking Log journal entries, Noteshare (an Apple application) notes, and small group self-assessments, Mrs. Hurgin gained data she used to determine further content information, process instructions, charts, and graphic organizers that were needed.
At the end of the unit, students wrote essays in response to the prompts, “Write what you know about how we can save energy at the Middle School,” “Write how your learning can transfer into your life at home and in the future,” and prompts that elicited positives and difficulties about working with their group.
A substantial part of the summative evaluation was the groups’ presentations of their findings, which were assessed with a rubric the students had helped to develop. Formative assessment data also contributed to summative evaluation.
Relevant video, web sites, Apple Noteshare, and students’ digital slide shows were used to support learning goals.
For Next Time
During and after the unit, Hurgin reflected on how it could be enhanced and devised plans for refining it the next time it is implemented. Mrs. Hurgin’s plans for future implementation include connecting her students to an energy professional who will respond to students’ questions, so that students have access to an expert; and having students engage in a debate.
Extended, Personalized Learning
After the unit concluded, a group of students chose to write a grant proposal to the Maine Energy Education program. Hurgin commented that she was impressed by these middle school students’ unusually strong focus, as they worked to complete the application by the deadline.
The students’ care was rewarded – they received a $500 grant for motion sensors to turn lights on and off in their classrooms.
Copyright © 2015 Lee Anna Stirling All Rights Reserved