Take-home projects

I’m thinking of requiring some “take-home” projects for students this year. (I teach at the elementary level). I think these would provide a good opportunity for students and parents to work together on science topics. Do you have any suggestions or guidelines?
—Janine, Boise, Idaho

I suspect the most dreaded words many parents hear from their children are “I have to do a science project,” often spoken the night before it’s due!
Optional or supplementary take-home projects may be of interest to many students (and their parents or other caregivers). But I’d consider some questions before requiring all students to complete take-home projects.
What kind of project do you have in mind? How does the project relate to the learning goals or objectives for the unit? I’ve seen many traditional “projects” such as models of volcanoes or the solar system, pretzel-stick log cabins, and shoebox dioramas, but I wonder how they demonstrate student learning of specific content knowledge or skills. Take-home packets with items such as coloring pages or word searches may be enjoyable for students, but I question their instructional value in terms of learning science.
Does the project rubric relate to the learning goals and focus on content, organization, and depth of information? Some students (and parents) may not know what a presentation looks like or how to design a science fair poster, so having pictures or videos of projects from other years may help. How much will the project count toward final grades? Remember, giving “extra” credit for take-home projects penalizes students who have limited resources at home.
What level of parent involvement is acceptable? “Involvement” may range from providing materials and some guidance to taking over the project and doing it for the student. Some students have parents who work evenings, have other children to care for, or may not have a lot of skills or self-confidence to assist with projects. Do your students have the knowledge and skills to complete them on their own?
How much time will be required? Many students have evening schedules with various community activities as well as homework in other subjects.
Does the project require costly materials or resources? How will you accommodate students who either cannot afford materials or get to a store to purchase them? Do all of your students have access to computers and the Internet at home? Students may be concerned whether the finished project can be transported on the bus.
Your intention to connect parents and their children through science activities is commendable. It sounds like you want the projects to be enjoyable, but you must keep in mind formal take-home projects with ironclad deadlines could be a burden in terms of time and resources. Much has been written about project-based learning in the classroom (see Edutopia’s Why Teach with Project Learning? or the September 2009 issue of NSTA Reports). These formal projects require intensity, planning, and resources and should be structured so all students, regardless of their home circumstances, can participate. But don’t give up on finding ways to involve students and parents with informal, science-related activities.
In your school or class newsletter, website, or blog, include information about free events at local parks, nature centers, libraries, or museums. Encourage students who attend these events to share their experiences. NSTA’s SciLinks can help you create a list of appropriate websites related to your unit topics to share with parents.
Annotate the school or class calendar with prompts for family conversations—What is your first memory of being outdoors? How have inventions and technology changed over the years? Play I Spy at home and find objects made of metal, plastic, glass, wood. Talk about where food comes from. If other subject areas get involved, every day can have a conversation-starter. The “Everyday Science” calendar in NSTA’s Science and Children each month could be a starting point.
I worked with an elementary school that had take-home “kits” in plastic bags, created by a high school service group. The materials were donated or bought at a dollar store or flea market. For science, these kits included CDs or DVDs with podcasts or science programs, trade books to read at home with suggested discussion questions, vocabulary flash cards (even better if your students make them), small collections (such as leaves, seashells, rocks, or pictures) with directions for sorting or classifying, a plastic ruler and a magnifying glass with some simple directions for observing and collecting data, maps of the night sky for star gazing, an inexpensive pair of binoculars and a field guide on birds, and a set of building blocks. Students signed out a kit to take home, and they were not “graded” on the use of the kits. Of course, some kits never made it back to the classroom, but that did not discourage teachers from continuing the project.

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