This past school year, my kids and I have been inundated in the study of coastal ecology. The kids worked through the curriculum along side me. Memorizing vocabulary and understand the ecology concepts came easily to them as I’ve immersed them in nature studies since they were toddlers.
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Yet all along, I knew in my heart that something was missing. While they were engaged in our lessons and activities, they were not captivated. I wanted them to be challenged. I wanted them to struggle to find answers to their questions. I wanted a problem based learning experience.
The units created by William & Mary from Kendall Hunt Publishing provide the perfect challenge. The books provide a wonderful framework for getting students to think, presented in such a way that they want to solve the problem. Along the way, students experience the processes and tools a scientist may use when presented with a difficult problem.
What is Problem Based Learning?
Problem Based Learning is a student-centered pedagogy in which students learn about a subject through the experience of solving an open-ended problem. Students gain content knowledge and develop skills by working for an extended period of time to investigate and respond to an engaging and complex question, problem, or challenge.
When I was given the opportunity to review the William & Mary problem based learning materials, I immediately jumped at the chance. The Animal Populations unit (designed for grades 6-8) was the perfect fit to further our understanding of ecology and wildlife sciences.
Problem Based Science Units by William & Mary
The William & Mary science units introduce real-world problems to initiate scientific investigations. All units incorporate a problem based learning scenario as the catalyst for initiating the discussion of content and scientific investigation.
Students not only focus on specific content learning in science, but they also develop scientific investigation skills as a way to develop the thinking skills of a scientist. Students pose questions, then conduct experiments to answer those questions. They also identify independent and dependent variables, constants, and controls as a guide for quality investigations.
Animal Populations Unit
Animal Populations is centered around the problem of a growing population of deer in a fictitious rural community and the increasing number of people afflicted with lyme disease. The story begins with an email a mother writes to her spouse relaying the symptoms their son has developed.
Immediately, both kids were intrigued and were searching for possible causes. As the story unfolded with newspaper articles and additional personal accounts, they began to collaborate to find solutions to the problem.
In addition to staging the problem, the lessons lead students through the process of inquiry and experimental design. Each step is clearly outlined and in context with the big picture or ecology. We started each lesson with a discussion on the vocabulary and review of where we left off in our previous lesson.
I was really impressed with the lessons on the concept of models. While we are all familiar with physical models, the lessons clarified the meaning of conceptual and mathematical models in-depth. The lessons built on each other and really helped the kids (myself included!) understand the mathematical models of a deer population: exponential growth model and logistic growth model.
Our favorite lessons were the field studies whereby we implemented a transect survey. We were fortunate at the time we implemented this unit to be able to partner with a local agency to take part in an ongoing bio-monitoring project at the national estuarine research reserve. Not only was our data useful in the context of our lesson but it was also critical for the success of their long-term estuarine research.
We all enjoyed this unit study as it was both challenging and fun. I look forward to implementing more problem based units in the near future.
Other Science Units
Kendall Hunt Publishing offers several other William & Mary science units to choose from, several have received National Association for Gifted Children’s Curriculum Studies awards.
* Where’s the Beach?—Grades 2-4
* What A Find!—Grades 2-4 (See Erin’s review at Royal Baloo)
* Acid, Acid Everywhere—Grades 4-6
* Electricity City—Grades 4-6
* Nuclear Energy: Friend or Foe?—Grades 6-8
* Something Fishy—Grades 6-8
* No Quick Fix—Grades 6-8
Unit content has been aligned to national standards and meets national grade level standards as well as standards for grades that are two to three levels above the current grade.