Project Tips!

Typically, when students complete a project, they spend time researching information, creating a presentation, and then presenting. Students usually become comfortable and knowledgeable with their topic through the time spent researching, creating, and presenting on their topic. In some ways, projects are a type of discovery learning. Students learn information about a topic as they research information, and students, then, solidify their knowledge of the topic as they prepare the project (or presentation). This can be very helpful. Personally, I remember knowing very little about areas of history in high school, and then, when I had to research and create a project, I learned and internalized the historical concept. Take a look below at some of the tips and pitfalls that will help you use projects effectively in your chemistry classroom!

Tip #1 - Students only internalize what THEY research.

While the jig-saw method can be a time-saver (each group or person researches a different topic and then presents their topic to the whole group), students do not internalize what a PEER researches even when the peer presents that research. Students will only internalize and truly learn the topics that they themselves research. Peer teaching sounds great, but it can be fraught with pitfalls. Students learning material for the first time will not present the material well to their peers. They do not know the common mistakes and misconceptions, and they could easily misinform their peers. Be careful when relying on students to teach other students. This requires much oversight.

Tip #2 - Provide research resources!

It is very tempting in this age of technology to simply tell our students to research something on the great web. At one point, I remember speaking with a fellow colleague wondering why our students who use the internet so proficiently couldn't simply look up some of their educational questions online. The answer, I believe, is in background knowledge. My students can tell you all kinds of things about shoes - the most popular, the most expensive, best for sports, best for dancing. This is a part of culture and experience for my students. If they did a project on shoes, they could easily recognize and differentiate between a bad and a good online review or website because they are familiar with the topic. Students are not familiar with chemistry! They have no clue what type of website to look for or use. Typically, students will put a topic in Google and click on the first thing that comes up. Internet research involves a lot of sifting through material. We are so used to this process that we often fail to acknowledge it's existence as it becomes second hand to us. However, when faced with researching something we know nothing or very little about, we don't have the ability to sift through those search engine results. I remember one time asking my dad how to research a topic, and he responded that I just put it into a search engine. Well, I did. I got tons of results but none seemed to answer my question. I just had no idea where to begin in the vast realms of knowledge presented to me by the internet or how to make sense of that knowledge.

This has turned into a rather lengthy explanation, but I believe it is important. We should provide students with websites and books they can use in their research process. It is not a matter of students lacking the ability to search, but that they lack the content knowledge to sift through the available material in a meaningful way.

Tip #3 - Projects do NOT take the place of the teacher teaching!

It is very possible and very likely that students will learn through the project but learn incorrectly. Students NEED some kind of foundational knowledge before being set loose to research. I hate the idea of researching to learn. This can be helpful...kind of...that is... It can be helpful when used correctly but really and truly...students cannot divine chemistry. Yes, I know we don't want them to divine it but more practically they can't Google it.

One time I assigned a water project. Before completing the project, students were to watch a few YouTube videos that would provide some foundational knowledge. One of those videos was about surface tension as it pertains to water. Those who watched the videos did a good job on the project. Those who did not watch the videos and just Googled surface tension gave some very interesting definitions - most of which looked like they came from a physics class. Now those definitions were technically correct, but they were in no way related to the definition of surface tension as it pertains to water. I think this demonstrates well the need for some type of background knowledge. Of course in this case, the background knowledge was provided and students ignored it...sad day.

Keep in mind that when it comes to chemistry, you MUST provide some teaching and direction for projects! Most of the time, students have no prior knowledge or background in chemistry. As a result, they need some teaching and direction with chemistry projects.

Happy Teaching :)

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