Real Life Learning Experiences: Geography & Science

Learning by doing is generally considered the most effective way to learn. The Internet and a variety of emerging communication, visualization, and simulation technologies now make it possible to offer students authentic learning experiences ranging from experimentation to real-world problem solving.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology mathematician Seymour Papert once said,

“We teach numbers, then algebra, then calculus, then physics. Wrong! Start with engineering, and from that abstract out physics, and from that abstract out ideas of calculus, and eventually separate off pure mathematics. So much better to have the first-grade kid or kindergarten kid doing engineering and leave it to the older ones to do pure mathematics than to do it the other way around.”

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Everybody is motivated by challenge and solving problems. Project-based learning gives everybody a chance to sort of mimic what scientists do, and that’s exciting. Better still, it’s fun if it’s done well.

Geography

While classroom experience is necessary to learn the foundational skills, nothing beats real life experience gained through travel and simply being open to opportunities. In real life, we don’t spend several hours at a time listening to authorities who know more than we do and who tell us exactly what to do and how to do it. We ask questions of a person we’re learning from. We link what the person is telling us with what we already know. We bring what we already know and the experiences we’ve had that are relevant to the topic to the front of our minds.

Students can be engaged in identifying, researching and graphically representing different types of “resources” in their own neighborhoods to create a Community Resource Map. 

  • Where is the library? Where are the parks? Where are various types of businesses?
  • What services are offered at these sites?
  • How can families access them?
  • Where should the neighborhood prioritize building new resources?

Students can also create a directory or a documentary style video. Through these real life learning experiences, students learn research and communications skills, graphics, and computer skills as they create an actual map of their neighborhood.

Additionally, students can develop skills in surveying, geographical information systems (GIS), aerial photography and satellite digital image manipulation; digital mapping, and geographic positioning system (GPS) topographic data.

The process of creating a community map can also help students to identify areas of need. Roots & Shoots utilizes this model for their service learning programs.

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One of our favorite hands-on activities is to Create a Geography Picture Dictionary.  As a special travel keepsake, target the illustrations to the region you visit.

Another great hands-on activity is to build your own 3-dimensional topographical map.

When we travel, we engage the kids in using maps to aide in identifying natural landmarks. Read of our experience in discovering the Geology & Geography of the Galapagos.

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Sciences

Like geography, the sciences are a natural first for real life, project based learning. Students can utilize scientific principles and methods to conduct research and develop solutions to medical, forensic, and environmental issues that impact our community.

In a CSI/Criminal Forensics Lab, high school students can explore issues in medical science and human anatomy/physiology through their involvement in scientific research projects, and would investigate how a healthy body functions and how it reacts to disease.

Students could investigate the inner workings of the human mind on the chemical level. Why people behave in certain ways? What factors influence behavior? How is behavior controlled, changed and modified?

Students can use investigative science techniques to solve intriguing problems involving the law. Students would use scientific evidence to paint a picture of what happened in the past. DNA, fingerprinting, physical evidence analysis, scene reconstruction, and biotechnology are some of the techniques that would be introduced.

Students could conduct field research to develop an awareness of the impact of human activities on the environment. The data collected could be used to design and produce environmentally friendly products, solve problems and investigate policies that ensure sustainability and stewardship of the Earth’s resources.

lifelearingscienceMiddle school students may enjoy a Theme Park Project whereby students are required to:

  • Decide on a theme for a new amusement park
  • Design a physical layout
  • Design four rides/attractions and create models of them
  • Determine an initial business plan
  • Create marketing materials to attract the chosen demographic

Real Life Learning is Interdisciplinary

Real life learning allows students to practice thinking across disciplines in organic, natural ways similar to what will be expected of them once they leave their formal education. Because projects reflect real-world challenges and unknowns, students work within a complex environment. They must be able to solve problems and refine their strategies.

Real life projects integrate various content areas and instructional methods and require students to plan their tasks in advance, sequence their work, check their progress. Most projects involve collaborative and group learning scenarios which reflect the demands of the modern workplace. In the end, students celebrate and demonstrate their learning with an exhibition or performance.

My kids are engaged in a long-term project to study the impact of invasive turtles in our local area. Utilizing Google maps, they have begun to create an interactive map to illustrate the locations where native turtles and non-native, invasive turtles have been found. They are also working alongside resource specialists and connecting with community leaders.

These real life learning opportunities enable students to learn how planning, literacy and math skills are foundational in all curricular areas as they put together and present community development proposals.

Real Life Learning Resources

reallifeFor more resources and Ideas for Real Life Learning, visit the iHomeschool Network.

 

Wonder & Asking Questions: 6 Steps to Project Based Learning

As a homeschool family, we have read about the first European colonists in the Americas and constructed paper models of Jamestown.  We have explored the ecosystems of North America and created posters to illustrate food webs.  We have created travel brochures to teach others about Alaska. We have even created multimedia news reports to share our experiences at Chinese New Year.  And the lapbooks.  When we first started homeschooling, we created many, many lapbooks. Sound familiar?

These are common examples of the kind of assignments that teachers and homeschool parents bill as projects. A classroom filled with student work may suggest that students have engaged in meaningful learning. However, it is the process of students’ learning and the depth of their cognitive engagement— rather than the resulting product—that distinguishes projects from busywork.

A project is meaningful if it fulfills two criteria. First, students must perceive the work as personally meaningful, as a task that matters and that they want to do well. Second, a meaningful project fulfills an educational purpose. Well-designed and well-implemented project-based learning is meaningful in both ways.

Many students find schoolwork meaningless because they don’t perceive a need to know what they’re being taught. They are unmotivated by a teacher’s suggestion that they should learn something because they’ll need it later in life, for the next course, or simply because “it’s going to be on the test.”

With a compelling student project, the reason for learning relevant material becomes clear: I need to know this to meet the challenge I’ve accepted. Teachers can powerfully activate students’ need to know content by launching a unit in a way that engages interest and initiates questioning.  This can take the form of a video, a lively discussion, a guest speaker, or a field trip.

Come along with me as I share an example of one particular project we have recently undertaken utilizing the Project Based Learning Cycle. You’ll discover that the cycle isn’t a concrete, step-by-step approach, but a fluid, natural progression of learning and growth.

PBL Cycle6 Steps to Project Based Learning

1. Identify the Problem

A good driving question captures the heart of the project in clear, compelling language, which gives students a sense of purpose and challenge. The question should be provocative, open-ended, complex, and linked to the core of what you want students to learn. It could be abstract (When is war justified?); concrete (Is our water safe to drink?); or focused on solving a problem.

On a Roots & Shoots nature walk a few months ago, we observed that the population of native pond turtles had significantly declined.  In the past, we had observed many pond turtles basking in the sun but this time, we saw only two native turtles and a large number of non-native Red-eared slider turtles. 

This led us to question, “Why the change in population size? What was happening to the native pond turtles and what could we do to combat the decline?”

2. Analyze the Problem

In terms of making a project feel meaningful to students, the more voice and choice, the better. However, teachers should design projects that fit their own style and students.

You may choose to limit the choices, allowing learners to select what topic to study within a general driving question or choose how to design, create, and present the final product. You might provide a limited menu of options for creative projects to prevent students from becoming overwhelmed by choices. On the other end of the scale, students may decide what products they will create, what resources they will use, and how they will structure their time.

A few days after our outing, the coordinator emailed the kids suggesting they take action to increase public awareness and ultimately, prohibit the sale of red-eared sliders in pet stores.  My daughter was quick to pick up the challenge. She was eager to make a difference. 

3. Field Studies & Investigation

Students find project work more meaningful if they conduct real inquiry, which does not mean finding information in books or websites and pasting it onto a poster. In real inquiry, students follow a trail that begins with their own questions, leads to a search for resources and the discovery of answers, and often ultimately leads to generating new questions, testing ideas, and drawing their own conclusions. With real inquiry comes innovation—a new answer to a driving question, a new product, or an individually generated solution to a problem. The teacher does not ask students to simply reproduce teacher  or textbook provided information in a pretty format.

On a family walk a few weeks later, we observed numerous Red-eared sliders once again (a different location than the first).  My kids both lamented pet owners releasing these turtles into the wild without considering the consequences. My daughter began to further her questioning, “Where is the population of Western Pond Turtles the largest? Where is the population of Red-eared sliders the largest? Is the population of Western Pond Turtles changing at the same rate at Mary Lake as it is at Turtle Pond?” 

As she posed these questions to me on our walk, we discussed strategies for answering the questions.  She expressed an interest in collecting real data – capturing and tagging the turtles.  “I can bring my fishing net and I can paint a number on the back of their shell so I don’t count the same turtle over again.”

I suggested she reach out to local agencies (Fish & Wildlife, Parks & Recreation, Forest Service, etc.) to see what efforts the resource specialists had made (if any) in this regard.  Would they allow her to pursue this is more depth?

4. Identify Resources & Research

A project should give students opportunities to build such 21st century skills as collaboration, communication, critical thinking, and the use of technology, which will serve them well in the workplace and life. This exposure to authentic skills provides the project with an educational purpose. A teacher in a project-based learning environment explicitly teaches and assesses these skills and provides frequent opportunities for students to assess themselves.

One step in the research process is to understand the natural history of both the Western Pond Turtle and the invasive, Red-eared sliders. My children have kept nature journals for years and so it was a natural decision to illustrate the turtles in their journals as a way to record their knowledge and research.  See my earlier post, Saving the Native Turtles: Part One – Naturalist’s Notes.

5. Test Solutions and Revision

Formalizing a process for feedback and revision during a project makes learning meaningful because it emphasizes that creating high-quality products and performances is an important purpose of the endeavor. Students need to learn that most people’s first attempts don’t result in high quality and that revision is a frequent feature of real-world work.

In addition to providing direct feedback, the teacher should coach students in using rubrics or other sets of criteria to critique one another’s work. Teachers can arrange for experts or adult mentors to provide feedback, which is especially meaningful to students because of the source.

At every step in the learning cycle, the kids have been making changes and revisions. As my daughter brainstormed ideas to investigate the population size, she modified her action plan with suggestions I made.  When she meets with the resources specialist, she will undoubtedly make additional changes to her approach.  As the kids work on their posters and letters (see step 6 below), they will create a rough draft and seek feedback from one another as well as from their parents.  

6. Present Solutions & Engage the Public

Schoolwork is more meaningful when it’s not done only for the teacher or the test. When students present their work to a real audience, they care more about its quality. Once again, it’s “the more, the better” when it comes to authenticity. Students might replicate the kinds of tasks done by professionals—but even better, they might create real products that people outside school use.

One of the projects the kids have planned is to create posters to educate the public about the dangers of releasing exotic pets into the wild. They have invited their friends to join them in this service learning activity and they intend to hang the posters at local pet stores and the science center. They have also begun to write letters to their state congressmen to encourage them to take legislative action.