Passive Learning is Passé
In order to compete with the many distractions that students deal with on a daily basis, science education is turning to dynamic methods and models to capture students’ imaginations. In fact, Project-Based Inquiry Science (PBIScience) has branched a whole new style of hands-on science which includes the Maker Movement. And it’s all Janet Kolodner’s fault.
As one of the pioneers in the Artificial Intelligence sciences, Kolodner pioneered a type of computer reasoning called case-based reasoning. This allowed computers to understand and solve problems based on their past experiences. Furthermore, she’s been able to use her research to help students learn in the same way.
A passionate cognitive scientist, Kolodner was surprised, confused, and then concerned by her children’s’ apathy towards school science as she explained in a recent interview with EDUCATION INSIDER™:
“My children were coming home and telling me how uninteresting science was at school, and they were so confused because science at home was so much more interesting.” — Janet Kolodner, Cognitive Scientist
In response to her own concern as a parent, she began to research the teaching methods for science at the middle school level while she was a professor of Computing and Cognitive Science at the Georgia Institute of Technology. What she found was shocking: “I thought that science education should be very experiential, so I wanted to design software that would help kids learn from the experiences they were having in science. But, it turned out that there was no curriculum around that allowed the kids to have experiences that were worth learning from.”
Once she secured a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant for further investigation, Kolodner then led a team of researchers from Georgia Tech, the University of Michigan, and Northwestern University that resulted in the Project-Based Inquiry Science program used in schools across the country today.
But, PBIScience wasn’t just good research. In June of this year, an NSF-backed, efficacy study on project-based learning, performed in a low-income school district with middle-school students and teachers, found that PBIS curriculum, which is fully-aligned with Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), resulted in significantly increased student performance and engagement.
“The most profound finding to come out of the study indicates that students taught using Project-Based Inquiry Science curriculum aligned with Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) substantially outperformed students taught using traditional science curriculum. Project-Based Inquiry Science curriculum can help close the learning gaps among students of underrepresented demographics in STEM courses and level the field between boys and girls.” – PRWeb Press Release
The discussion around the profound findings this research is just beginning to pick up steam, with leading education blog, MindShift (@MindShift), posting a feature story this week, Can Project-Based Learning Close Gaps in Science Education? (written by Ingfei Chen).
Not only has Kolodner been an integral part of the PBIScience, her research is actively helping to bridge the economic, cultural, and intellectual barriers that many students have found when learning STEM subjects. And, in talking to Kolodner, it’s easy to see that improved student achievement and increased student engagement is just the beginning…
Interview with an Innovator
Education Insider: One of the first things you were involved in was artificial intelligence and case-based reasoning. Tell us more about that.
Janet Kolodner: So my original focus in doing research was in artificial intelligence, which is about how to program computers to be able to make decisions that require judgment or rely on inference. There were a lot of expert systems around, they were solving problems in medicine and manufacturing, but they couldn’t learn from their experiences.
Basically, I thought that we could have the computer learn from its experiences. Like humans, I thought a computer could imitate humans, and, if it made mistakes, it could then get the feedback it needed to be able to learn from its mistakes, to be able fill in gaps when it didn’t know something.
So that was what I did. I was actually one of the people who pioneered this approach.
Education Insider: And that work is it called case-based reasoning?
Janet Kolodner: Yes. I had the computer planning meals and I had the computer coordinating tasks that it needed to do, we had the computer doing mediation – all of it based on its experience. Somehow, from that, I just had this idea that I was learning some very significant things about how to help people learn from their experience by modeling something on the computer. There was no research at the time about how people learn from their experience, so we were kind of building models from scratch. My goal then was to say, “Okay. If we can help people learn better from their experiences than they would if they were not systematically working hard at it, then maybe we can help kids to learn science better.” So I began wondering whether what we’d learned from case-based reasoning could be applied in the middle school classroom.
Education Insider: So now, fast-forward to 2014… And now Project-Based Inquiry Science is being used across the country. What is that like for you?
Janet Kolodner: This morning someone showed me a video about Forest Park Middle School and Ben Franklin Elementary School, and the teachers were talking about all these wonderful things that they were doing there and they were talking about how the classroom is now easier to manage. The kids who are shy talk to their partners, and they talk to their groups, and they even become comfortable talking to the class. These are kids recognizing what their place in the world might be someday, imagining that based on these things. This response is happening wherever districts are using it. I mean, these are all things that we had imagined. It was so many years of work and some of it was not fun, but now it’s happening. I was so excited. It gave me goose bumps.
Forest Park Middle School and Ben Franklin Elementary School Using PBIScience
Education Insider: So, what distinguishes Project-Based Inquiry Science from other programs?
Janet Kolodner: I think the really special thing about PBIScience is its deep authenticity in every sense of the word – how personally meaningful the work is. Scientists and engineers work on the things that are interesting to them. They ask their own questions, they answer those questions; they get together with each other and decide what’s interesting to work on. In PBIS, the kids are always asking questions identifying what they need to learn more about and identifying what they need to investigate before they begin.
Another aspect of authenticity with respect to PBIScience is that the kids are asking and answering the same kinds of questions that scientists and engineers would ask and answer. So they ask, “Why are those volcanoes happening where they’re happening?” Or, “Why do these diseases spread around the school so quickly? Could we do anything about that?”
Education Insider: Doesn’t that happen in all science classrooms, even those without Project-Based Inquiry Science?
Janet Kolodner: There are a lot of different curricula that are focused on the Next Generation Science Standards. In every one of them, kids learn good science practices that are developmentally appropriate. They all consider the cross-cutting themes of science and draw together the different specialties and systems of science. But they’re not necessarily always doing that exactly the way scientists and engineers would. In Project-Based Inquiry Science, they are scientists and engineers every minute in the classroom and when they’re doing their homework.
Education Insider: Is the curricula actually built to help them do this?
Janet Kolodner: Yes, first of all, the curriculum is designed to help to do what scientists do. Second of all, to be successful doing it. And third of all, to be able to think about themselves as scientists and to understand the role that scientists play. And, it allows them to consider the role that they might play someday in the world as it relates to science, whether they’re scientists or engineers or not. The fourth aspect of authenticity that’s just so special to Project-Based Inquiry Science is that they’re doing it with the tools and the resources that scientists have available. That, in fact, is one of the foundations of project-based science. The fifth aspect of authenticity is that the kids are learning the way scientists do. They reflect on what the results they get, what they mean, and how they make sense with respect to all the other things the students know.
The sixth element of authenticity is perhaps the most important one. In Project-Based Inquiry Science, the kids are experiencing the joyousness that scientists and engineers experienced when they do what they do. The kids experience learning something new and getting excited about it. They get to experience somebody, maybe themselves, figuring out something really difficult and get joy from that. They’re able to put together some things they were never able to put together before. They’re able to make the science that they’re learning work to carry something out. They experience the joy of doing hard work and getting something from it. There’s something very powerful than that.
Education Insider: Some people say that this is a great program, but there is no content. What would you say to someone that said, “Inquiry program = no content”?
Janet Kolodner: I think that when some people look at Project-Based Inquiry Science, they worry that because there is so much reporting, processing, and evaluating that it’s too hard to cover all the content that needs to be covered. In fact, what happens in Project-Based Inquiry Science is that the sequences and structures of activities become just part of the way the classroom works. The kids always know what they’re going to be doing. And because the kids know what comes next, there are all kinds of classroom management issues that go away. What happens is that the kids can really concentrate on the science itself.
But, to answer your question, Project-Based Inquiry Science covers all the required NGSS content. Some content is covered in more depth than other content but all content is covered. It does a particularly wonderful job of covering all the practices.
Everybody Gets to Learn
Education Insider: You’ve mentioned in other interviews that the program is designed so students will really remember the content and the experience, because each unit is so meaningful.
Janet Kolodner: One of the really important things that we know about fostering learning is that all learners need to be able to come back to content and practices that they’ve learned and be able to consider them again in a variety of different circumstances. It’s actually called knowledge integration.
Project-Based Inquiry Science does knowledge integration in two different ways. One way it does this is by focusing knowledge integration within units. So within units, the students get a chance to experience phenomena and use what they’ve learned from those experiences to make some inferences about the science they’re learning. Then, they have other experiences with the same phenomena and go back to those old explanations in order to refine them. In addition, they’re enhancing their understanding of the different concepts that are being addressed in that unit over the course of the unit.
The other way the Project-Based Inquiry Science deals with knowledge integration is across the units. So when they focus on energy in the climate unit, the weather watch unit, they get reminded of their discussions on previous learning units. They’re always building on what they did earlier, and it’s not in any particular order that they must be doing it – just like in the real world.
In a standard science class, you did something on Newton’s law on 6th grade and then you go to 7th grade and you do something and then you get to 7th grade and nobody remembers what they did in 6th grade. Or even you get to the end of the unit; nobody remembers what they did in the beginning of the unit because it just hasn’t been interesting enough. But because the experiences that these kids have are so authentic to the way that scientists and engineers do things, including the joy, the emotions that go with doing things the way scientist and engineers do things, their experiences are memorable.
Education Insider: So, how do you do actually implement Project-Based Inquiry Science? Are there elements a teacher must include to be successful?
Janet Kolodner: I think there are three things that are really important. The first one is what we call the “launcher units.” Every year starts with the kids working on science that’s already familiar to them. That way they can concentrate on the practices of sciences and classroom community habits that will carry them across the rest of the year. The second thing is iteration. Scientists are always working with the best knowledge they have at the moment and they keep asking questions. We’ve built in structures and activity sequences for the kids to iterate more towards greater understanding, better answers to questions, and better solutions to challenges. So they’ve always got something that’s the best they can do at the moment, the best they can think at the moment, the best they understand that the moment and they make that better as a part of the classroom culture. The third thing is a PBIScience Project Board™, which helps to organize everything that they’re doing. It lists their the big question that they’re addressing at the top of the board and it has five columns: What do we think we know? What do we need to investigate? What are we learning? What is our evidence? What does it mean for the challenge or question?
As student scientists, they cycle through those columns. In every unit, what they’re doing is picking off some piece of that big challenge or that big question. They’re cycling through the PBIScience Project Board together as a class and they record all the things that they’re learning. At the end of each learning set, they look at what it all means for the big question, and they cycle back again. And, they’ve kept track of it as a class, as a small group, and as an individual.
Education Insider: One thing that we haven’t talked about yet is assessment. How do you assess student learning?
Janet Kolodner: I think that this is one of the real strengths of Project-Based Inquiry Science. We’ve got assessment embedded into every unit in ways that again is authentic to the way the scientists and engineers reflect on their own work. In every unit, in every learning set – whenever it is appropriate – we are asking the kids to reflect back on what they’ve learned.
Education Insider: So, students have self-assessments built into every level of the course, and the model lends itself to data points that teachers can use for assessment.
Janet Kolodner: Yes, and it comes in a lot of different places in the text, in the sequencing itself. Sometimes there are questions embedded in the course that are asking the kids reflect and find meaning in what they’ve done. Then there is another set of questions that allows students to summarize, analyze, and evaluate the results in regards to the big question.
Education Insider: How does it make you feel to know that your dream for hands-on science learning is becoming a reality?
Janet Kolodner: I’m just so excited. One of the things that’s really neat about it is that it works for everybody. You’ve got the kids who are at the top of the class and they’re helping their peers to go further than they could by themselves. You’ve got the kids who are struggling, but they’ve got roles to play and a chance to really experience the phenomenon in ways that help them to learn the science that would have been very difficult for them to learn otherwise. It’s naturally differentiated and everyone brings their skills to the class in order to solve the problem. Everybody gets to learn. It’s amazing! I never thought that kids who are failing out of school would all of the sudden use Project-Based Inquiry Science to find something that’s exciting to them. Suddenly, they’re involved in class. They’re making presentations that look like what the honors kids would be doing…
Education Insider: …and honors students are using it just as much as non-honors students.
Janet Kolodner: Exactly. Project-Based Inquiry Science is for all students, honors or not. It’s amazing.
Education Insider: If you could only say one thing final thing about Project-Based Inquiry Science what would you want it to be?
Janet Kolodner: It’s the real thing.
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