Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Part I: Giving Up Control - Student Led Projects

By Quinn Loch

This is part one of a two-part blog post documenting my experience with planning a large student-led project in my freshman biology classes. In this post I will share the background of the project from the teacher perspective, while the second part will focus on the thoughts and experiences from the student perspective.

What?

Our school recently built a detention basin to accommodate rainfall due to a newly constructed gym. The space offered a blank slate and it was decided that this space would be great for a native pollinator garden - a garden full of native plants that will both attract native pollinators (bees, butterflies, hummingbirds) and soak up water during heavy rains. I acquired some grant money from the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation and began to brainstorm how I could incorporate this project into my biology classes.

The future garden space from the roof of the school.
I saw this as a great opportunity to have my freshman students plan the space. Over the course of three weeks, each of my four classes developed a proposal that included the major components such as design, plant choice, budget. At the conclusion of the planning process, students presented their proposals to a panel of staff members. The class with the best overall proposal would have their plan carried out.

How?

Before starting the planning process, students learned some basics about plants and pollination through activities and readings. Each student also researched a native plant of their choice in preparation of the plant selection process.
A student sample of a plant ID used during the planning process.

The class was split into five student-chosen groups that included specific roles and responsibilities for the overall project. They included:

  1. Project Managers (facilitated communication between groups, organized presentation)
  2. Survey & Design (measured space, drafted overall layout)
  3. Plant Research (researched and chose appropriate plant list & layout)
  4. Materials & Logistics (developed materials list, budget, and calendar)
  5. Public Relations & Social Media (shared class progress on Twitter, designed garden signage)
I shared some guiding questions and some expected outcomes from each group, but the groups had significant amounts of freedom during the planning stages.

Group Responsibilities in the Plant Research Group

Each day, one student from each group completed a daily reflection form (google form) that included the progress they made for the day, their goal for the next day, and things (supplies, advice, etc.) that they needed from me. Each day, I shared these responses with the project managers so that they could help groups set goals and make progress. I spent most days during the planning process just monitoring the class, making observations, and saying very little as I wanted this project to be as student-led as possible.

Why?

When finished, the garden will serve several purposes - a functional habitat for important native pollinators, a location for future learning experiences in life science classes, a place for students to earn service hours through maintenance, and an aesthetically pleasing feature in the front of our school.

However, the planning of the project served another purpose - learning by doing. Students learned quickly how complicated planting a garden can be, and through the struggles and problem solving, I witnessed so much authentic learning. While some of the planning process had little to do with biology, important communication and collaborative skills were being developed. Students struggled at first, but learned the importance of setting goals and delegating to make sure that deadlines were met and everyone was engaged and contributing.  Below is a clip of students planning the layout of one of the gardens:


What I Learned

During the several days in which students were planning, I often said nothing to students other than say that they had the class period to work. Most days I walked around and took notes on how they were doing and when students asked me questions, I either shrugged or responded with questions only. While somewhat amusing for me, it forced my students to problem solve either on their own or in groups.

Too often I feel as though I am enabling students when I just "give them answers." Making experiences students-driven allowed for the problems that they needed to solve their own problems and not problems that I was dictating for them. I've learned that giving up control, something that can seem counter-intuitive to classroom teachers, can actually increase engagement and learning. 

Progress on the garden will be ongoing and will start this Spring and continue throughout the next school year. You can follow its progress, and the Tweets from the planing, on Twitter - @EGPollinators

Next week, I will share feedback that students provided at the end of the planning stages through a survey and class discussion.

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