Academic journal article The Science Teacher

The Community Connection: Engaging Students and Community Partners in Project-Based Science

Academic journal article The Science Teacher

The Community Connection: Engaging Students and Community Partners in Project-Based Science

Article excerpt


Bring education back into the neighborhood. Connect students with adult mentors, conservation commissions, and local businesses. Get teachers and students into the community, into the woods and on the streets--closer to beauty and true grit. Get the town engineer, the mayor, and the environmental educators onto the schoolyard and inside the four walls of the school."--Sobel 2004, p.7

In a regional gathering called the Youth Water Summit (see "On the web"), high school students present projects that respond to the driving question behind their science curriculum: "How can you address a significant water resource challenge in your community's watershed?" Students exhibit scientific posters, interactive presentations, films, art projects, and game simulations to judges representing the community from government agencies, businesses, nonprofits, and academic research groups. The Youth Water Summit is the culminating event for The Confluence Project (TCP), a yearlong, project-based science (PBS) model implemented in five schools, including three biology classes, one International Baccalaureate Environmental Systems and Societies class, and one elective environmental science club.

In this article, we demonstrate two PBS approaches that bring science and engineering to life. First, we immerse students in science and engineering to identify local challenges and design solutions. Then, we showcase examples of student-produced solutions and rubrics aligned with the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS Lead States 2013) and Common Core State Standards (NGAC and CCSSO 2010) to assess the projects. Throughout the article, we discuss how to adapt and scale this framework based on resources and how it can apply to various disciplinary core ideas.

Project-based science

The Confluence Project engages students in a science and engineering PBS curriculum and develops disciplinary core ideas (DCIs) around the hydrologic cycle, ecosystems, and Earth and human activity. The TCP model has deep PBS (Marx et al. 1997) and place-based learning (PlBL) roots (Sobel 2004).

The goal of PBS is for students to answer a driving question by exploring scientific concepts related to a real-world issue; developing deeper understanding; and creating more relevant, accessible, and applicable knowledge (HmeloSilver, Duncan, and Chinn 2007). Integrating PlBL and PBS within a local environment aligns well with the NGSS framework in that:

"[the] actual doing of science or engineering [can] pique students' curiosity, capture their interest, and motivate their continued study; the insights thus gained help them recognize that the work of scientists and engineers is a creative endeavor--one that has deeply affected the world they live in" (NRC 2012, p. 42).

In TCP's PBS approaches, students collect and analyze local water resource data, identify personally relevant water resource issues, and use evidence to design and propose solutions to answer the driving question. Students then share their watershed solutions with community experts and peers at the culminating Youth Water Summit.

"Doing science" and "doing engineering"

The field-based approach

Because we were working with five different classes with varied resources, time, and curricular constraints, we tested two different PBS approaches. One approach involved field trips and the other was based in the classroom. All students attended the same year-end Youth Water Summit.

In the field-based approach, students engaged in three fieldwork experiences that teachers wove into their curricular objectives. We took one field trip per academic quarter, sandwiched between prelessons of independent student research and post--field trip data analysis and reflection (Figure 1). After the three field experiences, students defined the challenge and possible solutions they wanted to explore in their respective watersheds for their final projects. …

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