Independent Study Projects: Learning Science While Exploring Interests

Science is about learning and solving problems. Ask a question, research, collect data, analyze the data, and communicate the results. As students engage in independent study projects, they are doing exactly that.

There is no limit to what types of projects students can explore. Students can choose to write original music, design a hybrid car, create lessons to teach others computer programing or coding, knit a sweater, research how other cultures define beauty, and more.

independentstudyEven my daughter, who in the past has chosen fly tying as her independent project. Along the way, she found instructional books or videos, followed instructions, made mistakes, diagnosed the problem, and tried again. These strategies are the cornerstone of science.

By giving students time to learn what they want to learn, you give them a chance to experience what adults are expected to do every day at the workplace or at home. They discover that learning for the sake of learning is a wonderful experience that should be enjoyed as they head out into the real world.

These real-life learning experiences give students (and teachers) the time they need to be innovative, and it makes learning as enjoyable as it should be.

Where Do We Start?

Ask students what they would like to learn about. Some students may be overwhelmed with possibilities and take a few weeks to decide. Others will change their minds after a little research. But with guidance and encouragement, students can identify a topic that interests them.

Once they’ve chosen their topic, students then set a goal, make a plan, and choose a method of documenting their plan, research, and progress. Some will blog or keep a notebook, while others prefer to track their progress with a Pages or Word document.

How Do We Stay Focused?

To assure students stay focused, a few simple rules can help:

  • Your project must involve new learning
  • Your project must be safe
  • You should be able work on your project at least once each week
  • You should document learning while working on your project
  • You should plan to spend the whole year working on your project
  • You will give two presentations on your project – one at the end of each semester

passionprojectIn our homeschool, we set aside time each Friday for independent study projects. However, they often work on their projects throughout the week. At times, it is even difficult to pull my son away from his projects to get other tasks completed. I can’t blame him. Who wants to take out the trash when you are focused on weaving a 12-plaited paracord bullwhip ?! {click the link to watch a video}

We also provide the kids with an opportunity to share with us the progress they are making during our monthly Family Five Share. They are expected to share examples in at least five areas: reading, writing, handcraft, music, and memory work.

Build Life Long Skills

Independent study projects also provide students with opportunities to connect with others – to learn from their peers and from adult mentors. Through my daughter’s interest in fly tying, she developed relationships with other fly tiers who took her under their wing (pun intended).

In some circles, independent study projects are referred to as The Passion Project or Genius Hour. Google allows it’s engineers to spend 20% of their time to work on any pet project that they want and thus they use the term 20-Time Projects. Whatever you choose to call them .. get started today. You will love the autonomy that students develop through discovering their passions.

 Our goal as educators should be to create lifelong learners.  Independent study projects are a huge step towards that goal.

Myths & Legends: A Middle School Unit Study

I recently sat down with my daughter to discover what subjects she wanted to study. Greek and Norse Mythology were at the top of her list. I was not surprised. For the past few months, my middle school aged daughter has been fascinated with thePercy Jackson series. I thereby was not surprised that she used the Barnes & Noble gift card she received for Christmas to purchase the boxed set.

mythslegendsTeaching mythology in middle school and high school is a great way to get students interested in reading, writing, and researching ancient history. With the recent popularity of Percy Jackson and the Olympians series by Rick Riordan as well as Harry Potter and The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings, it has never been easier to capture their attention.

Getting Started with Myths & Legends

Using the book Myths & Legends from DK Publishing as a spine for this unit, I began to gather materials and projects to engage her in a self-guided unit study.  {Many thanks to DK Publishing for providing the book to us for review. Please see my full Disclosure Policy for more details.}

This book retells the stories central to every culture that have been passed down from generation to generation. Well known tales from the Ancient Greeks, as well as lesser-known, but richly colorful, myths of the Americas and the East are included.

What was most appealing about this book was how universal themes such as creation, heroic trials, tricksters’ tales, and death and the afterlife are compared across different cultures. The cultures featured are:

  • Classical Europe (Roman & Greek)
  • Northern, Western, and Eastern Europe
  • Asia
  • Africa
  • The Americas and Oceania

Myths & Legends Philatelic Exhibit

The past few months, my daughter has been utilizing her knowledge of myths & legends to put together a philatelic exhibit entitled, Mythology of the World. She has gathered a variety of philatelic material (postage stamps, first day covers, cancellation marks, as well as postcards and maximum cards) to create a visual story of of how myths & legends continue to captivate us today.

She has entered her project in both local and regional exhibitions and placed well considering how quickly she put it together. She is excited to use the Myths & Legends book from DK Publishing to expand her projects. Her vision is to improve on this one as well as create additional exhibits – one each for British, Greek, and Norse mythology. {A single frame exhibit, as shown below, typically has 16 pages (8 1/2 x 11″).}
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A philatelic exhibition is an exhibition of stamps and postal history where stamp collectors (philatelists) compete for medals. The displays are shown in glass frames, and the exhibition is normally accompanied by stamp dealer bourses and post office stands where stamps and other philatelic items may be purchased.

National Mythology Exam

During our research, we also learned of the National Mythology Exam (NME), the most prominent undertaking of Excellence Through Classics, a committee of the American Classical League dedicated to promoting and supporting the study of classics. This seemed like the perfect challenge for her and she was equally intrigued. She plans to take the exam in 2016.

For students in grades 6-9, the examination process consists of a basic 30-item exam, 10 questions on the theme (Theseus), and at least one 10-item literary sub-test of the student’s choice of the following:

  • Iliad
  • Odyssey
  • Aeneid
  • Native American tales
  • African tales
  • Norse Mythology

Homeschooled students are welcome to take the NME. Parents are expected to serve as proctors of the exam, following the same procedures lined out for regular classroom teachers.

The National Mythology Exam website also provides suggestions for texts and resources.

Myths & Legends Unit Resources

In preparation for the NME, I will continue to gather materials and resources for her. We’ve begun to discuss additional projects and activities to help her in her quest.

Some teachers use mythology as a stand-alone unit; other teachers have entire, year-long courses dedicated to the study of myths and legends from around the world. No matter how you choose to teach myths and legends, you’re bound to find some helpful resources here.

  • Greek Mythology – This website contains copies of the Greek stories as well as a wide variety of notes, worksheets, and activities
  • Ticia shares a fun scavenger hunt activity in her post, Greek Mythology Lesson
  • The Scholastic book Greek Mythology Activities includes a mock interview with a god or goddess, a reproducible board game, mapping activities, a read-aloud play, and lots more
  • Classical Mythology – This website provides an extensive list of activities and lessons for the study of mythology with middle school students

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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This post contains affiliate links. Please see my disclosure policy.

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.

 

Fly Tying 101 – Week One

My daughter has been interested in fly fishing since she was a toddler.  Fly fishing is a big sport in Central Oregon and we were surrounded by avid fishermen and women who loved their sport and were keen to share their passion with others.  The retail store, Orvis, even had an outdoor casting course downtown.  Our neighbor welcomed her into his ‘office’ on a few occasions so she could ask questions and admire his amazing collection of flies.  He even took us out for a lesson one afternoon for our first lesson in casting, Fly Fishing ~ A Future Hobby.

Since then she has occasionally talked about getting her own fly pole (though they didn’t make a weight light enough for her until now – she has grown, after all), taking fly fishing lessons, and even getting a fly tying kit with which to tie her own flies.  We never knew how serious she was until recently – after all, my husband and I aren’t fly fishermen.  Then again, we were not archers either until Buddy took up the sport.

Shortly after we moved to Northern California, a nearby children’s museum featured an exhibit on fly fishing that provided us a greater understanding of the art, science, and history of fly fishing.  Her interest was peeked even more and she asked for a fly tying kit for her birthday.

Serendipitously, at this same time, I stumbled upon an advertisement in a local publication of an upcoming fly tying class for youth.  Perfect!  We thereby informed her that we would buy her a kit upon completion of the course.  In this way, we could also make an informed decision about what type of vise and other tools to purchase.

She has been looking forward to this class for a couple of months now.  To make it even more exciting for her – a new friend we met this summer is joining her for the six-week course. Finding her passions is great – sharing that passion with a friend is priceless.

Over the next few months, she will be featured as a guest blogger to share what she has learned in fly tying class. I encourage you to follow along – I know she’d love to hear from you.

Week Two – Caddis Fly

Week Three – Zebra Midge

Week Four – Lures

Week Five – Pheasant Tail Fly

Week Six – Copper John