Finding a Way Forward

I had the pleasure of spending the bulk of last week at the annual North Carolina New Schools Scaling STEM Conference, and was even given the opportunity to give one of the keynote addresses. Dr. Sam Houston is a fixture on the innovative fringes of education in North Carolina. As such, he gave a brief talk at the conference. In his remarks, Dr. Houston outlined the qualities of an education that would adequately prepare students for their futures. One of the things he mentioned was that, "Students need to know what to do when they don't know what to do." Now, I've heard this comment multiple times, but over the past couple of days I've been mulling over what that might mean applied to a classroom setting.

As a teacher, I have students regularly ask me what they should do, or what their next step should be. Sometimes I will walk past a student who is staring blankly at a computer screen. Upon inquiry, I find out that they are stuck. Rather than trying to figure out what to do next, they just sit there. The world that my students are moving into is full of ambiguous challenges that don't have clear answers. If my students are to be successful, they will need to have a set of skills that will help them to make a path forward where there appears to be none.

To this end, my students are regularly the recipients of responses they don't like. When they ask, "What do I do next?" I generally respond, "Figure it out." If they are truly stuck, I might ask some probing questions to move them along the path, but I've done my best to get away from giving straight solutions to problems. Rather, I am doing my best to help my students develop the deeper skills that they will need to face the vague challenges that fill their futures. Just the other day I was presented with a challenge that I turned into a challenge for my students.

For several weeks I had been planning to have students conduct a lab investigation of the algae, daphnia, hydra food chain. This is a very simple food chain and its' interactions can be assessed by the amount of dissolved oxygen in the tank water. The lab that was planned relied on having all three organisms alive and ready to go. After my extended week away I came back to find that one member of the food chain (hydra) had died off. I didn't discover the demise of the hydra until I was walking up the stairs to get the lab going. I could have just told the students that we no longer had all of the supplies we needed and would, therefore, be canceling lab. Instead, I thought, "Hmm, can an experiment be designed to gather dissolved oxygen data to determine the nutritional requirements and food chain role of the daphnia?" So, without having the answer myself, I tossed the challenge to my students and let them struggle. When asked if there was a proper way to design the experiment, I told the students that I didn't know ... because I didn't. I followed that up with the acknowledgement that I had an idea of how I would proceed, but it was up to them to figure out what they were going to do. And they did! Each group put together some sort of experiment to meet my challenge.

This is the essence of science education; development of a set of skills that can be used to pursue an answer to a question. Cookbook style labs won't help my students build these skills. They only way they are going to learn to chart a path forward is by being forced to practice doing so.

Learning to forge a path forward also includes the development of small skills, such as the application of math to science. This is a task that we've spent our year wrestling. Sometimes the skill-building tasks have been tough, other times they've been easy. This week's reporter, Kayla Whitt, took a moment to reflect on last week's activity. Here's what she had to say.

Kayla Writes:

This week in AP Biology, we wrapped up our previous unit and anticipatingly began our last unit of the year-- Ecology. Most of this week ran as it usually does: taking notes, taking quizzes, answering questions, and making connections. And it was particularly easier for most of the class than previous units because it is review for most of us APES veterans, however, Mr. Kite was sure to make it interesting. Though this week’s material was familiar to a majority of the class (and consequently less interesting), Mr. Kite was able to keep our attention by providing us with a bean lab about population estimation. As my favorite activity of the week, students were instructed to remove a sample (handful) of beans from a larger population, count and mark them, and return them to the population. Then, after removing a second sample, we had to calculate the proportion of marked beans that recurred in the second capture, and using these numbers, provide an estimate and error of the number of beans in the entire population. It was interesting to discover that, as individuals, our numbers were very off. However, as a class we achieved a more reasonable standard error. This activity helped the class to have a better understanding of how scientists are able to almost accurately determine a population size, while also giving us a little more math help. While not a very challenging exercise, it still helped us learn and took off some of the pressures of the soon-to-be AP test day. We’re almost there, and I full faith in our abilities. Thanks to Mr. Kite, of course.