Activities and investigations

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I was once on a planning committee for a citizen-science¬† project. Several of the other teachers on the committee remarked that it was a great project but that they probably wouldn’t be able to use it in their own classrooms. “It’s an awesome project, but we have too much content to cover first” was their reason. I can still see the puzzled look on the face of one of the scientists on the committee. “Why is there a need to ‘cover’ content before engaging students in real-world science. Why can’t the students learn content within the context of these projects and experiences?” A good question.
Integrating content and activities/investigations in a planned and purposeful way is a challenge for teachers. The articles in NSTA publications have many examples of how this can be done, including planning tools, rubrics, connections to standards, and assessments. Tools such as SciLinks can provide just-in-time content and background information for both students and teachers.
For example, The Hudson River Plume uses a combination of online and laboratory activities (the authors include a detailed overview) to explore the impact of human activity on watersheds and coastal environments. The content addresses water movement and characteristics beyond a textbook discussion. (SciLinks: Watershed, Water Movement, Eutrophication, Pollution)

A Life-Cycle Assessment of Biofuels focuses on the context of alternative fuels (ethanol in this case): what resources are used to produce them, how they are processed, what does it take to transport them. Students may find it interesting to look at the “life cycle” of other products such as cell phones, pencils, bottled water. (SciLinks: Carbon cycle, Alternative fuels)
Wolves in the Wild incorporates a jigsaw cooperative learning activity with content related to social, economic, and ecological issues.  (SciLinks: Wolves, U.S. National Parks)
Your principal may do a double-take seeing high school students use a sandbox or Rubik’s cubes. but you can reassure her that real learning is taking place.¬† In Puzzling Science: Using the Rubik’s Cube to Teach Problem Solving, the teacher-author had mastered the cube before designing this problem-solving activity. It might be an interesting action research project to study what happens when the teacher learns along with the students! The Classroom Sandbox shows how a physical model can be used to illustrate concepts, manipulate variables, or test hypotheses. See Deformational Sandbox in the Classroom
You probably have some athletes in your classes. In another real-life connection (using the 5E Learning Cycle) students consider Why Do Athletes Drink Sports Drinks? (SciLinks: Osmosis, Electrolytes, Sports Drinks)
This month’s HealthWise column What’s the difference between an x-ray, a CAT scan, and an MRI? describes these medical processes that students hear about in the news and family discussions. (SciLinks: CAT Scanning Fossils, MRI).
In conversations with teachers and administrators, I’ve often heard these terms used interchangeably: activities, experiments, labs, investigations. Are they the same? How would you explain the differences?

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