Designing Project-Enhanced Environments: Students Investigate Waves and Sound

By Wilhelm, Jennifer; Confrey, Jere | The Science Teacher, December 2005 | Go to article overview

Designing Project-Enhanced Environments: Students Investigate Waves and Sound


Wilhelm, Jennifer, Confrey, Jere, The Science Teacher


The concept of waves is fundamental due to its occurrence throughout the natural world (water, sound, and electromagnetic waves). Because the concept occurs in so many places, students come to the classroom with prior knowledge, as well as misconceptions, about waves. Students have misconceptions about what is waving in a wave, what properties of the medium determine wave speed, and how waves interact with each other (Wittmann 1996).

Our project-enhanced unit on sound waves was intended to address misconceptions, foster content learning (via benchmark activities) by all students, and give students the freedom to choose a question to study in depth. We implemented the unit within an Industrial Electronics (IE) course of an inner-city, low-performing high school in Texas. The goal was to have students gain conceptual understanding of sound waves and wave phenomena (medium, interference, propagation speed) and the related trigonometric reasoning associated with sinusoidal curves and superposition of sinusoidal waves.

Make learning a project

Research indicates that instructional environments that are learner-, knowledge-, and community-centered are the most conducive to support learning (NRC 1999). A project-enhanced classroom incorporates all these features, which when implemented with effective design and instruction create an ideal environment for learning.

According to Pea and Gomez (1992), projects involve conversations that have two-way transformational communication, whereas the standard textbook-lecture-lab approach has only the one-way (teacher to student) transmission. Classrooms that incorporate projects enable learners to "think scientifically" (Polman 2000), where learners encompass both students and teachers.

The topic of wave phenomena is included in Content Standard B of the National Science Education Standards. The Standards state that developing student "understanding of the microstructure of matter can be supported by laboratory experiences with the macroscopic and microscopic world of forces, motion (including vibrations and waves), light, and electricity" (NRC 1996, p. 177).

Project criteria (Figure 1) within our design include a student-driven research question (Krajcik et al. 1998; Barron et al. 1998), benchmark lessons to build up content understanding (Singer, Marx, and Krajcik 2000), and milestones (Polman 2000) to give students feedback and time for revisions.

Benchmark activities

Our unit consisted of benchmark activities and group project work. The benchmark activities (Figure 2) introduced fundamental ideas and facilitated classroom discourse and project progress. These activities incorporated inquiry learning in which students analyzed motion and musical waveforms using probeware (for sound and motion) and wave simulation software. Other activities bridged the ideas of triangle trigonometric ratios to the graphs of sinusoidal curves. Although this IE classroom was equipped with many technologies (oscilloscopes, computers, Lego robotics equipment), the University of Texas at Austin provided most of the technologies used within this particular waves unit. Our university and high school partnership allowed for the sharing of technologies and project design in order to study how technology enhanced students' project progress and facilitated students' learning of the benchmark activities.

Sound time

Students using two separate benchmark activities calculated the speed of sound in air. In the first activity, students standing at least 185 m from a student ringing a bell observed (using binoculars) the bell being rung and recorded the time delay (using stopwatches) between seeing the bell being struck and hearing the ring. The speed of sound was calculated using the time delay and distance traveled.

Tune up

The second measurement activity used a tuning fork and a resonance tube partially filled with water (Figure 3, p. …

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