Proceedings of CSCL '99

By International Conference on Computer Support for Collaborative Learning | Go to book overview

A Lab by Any Other Name: Integrating Traditional Labs and Computer-Supported Collaborative Investigations in Science Classrooms

Matthew Brown and Daniel C. Edelson

Northwestern University, Institute for the Learning Sciences and School of Education and Social Policy

Abstract: Among the most common form of collaborative discourse in middle school science classrooms is the carefully planned laboratory investigation, where groups of students follow prescribed procedures in order to reproduce and measure some scientifically explainable event. While there are clear pedagogical benefits to replicating scientific processes in a controlled classroom setting, students often have difficulty comprehending how such phenomena manifest on larger scales and connecting their lab results to the real world. The WorldWatcher data visualization software adds a novel dimension to classroom investigations by allowing students to investigate and discuss global climate phenomena within a globally situated geographic context. This paper will discuss the design of an integrated classroom curricular unit on global warning in which WorldWatcher activities and traditional classroom labs complement each other in order to support student collaboration in classroom science investigations. Based on analyses of students collaborating in pairs and in whole-class discussions, we will argue that our two-pronged approach to curriculum design represents an effective framework for introducing innovative computer-supported Inquiry tools in urban middle school science classrooms while remaining sensitive to the existing practices of teachers and students in these contexts.

Keywords: curriculum, project-based learning, inquiry, design framework, conceptual change, partnering, shared knowledge


1. Introduction: beyond traditional science labs

The role of traditional labs

Among the most common form of collaborative discourse in middle school science classrooms is the traditional classroom lab experiment, where students engage in prescribed tasks involving controlled variables, measurement tools, and data collection in order to observe or deduce some scientifically explainable event. In a typical lab, students may discuss a scientific phenomenon, make predictions, design an experiment, and discuss findings. Typically, such labs focus on isolated scientific phenomena, where classroom scale events are reproduced in an easily digestible format.

Traditional labs can help students to sharpen their investigation skills, facilitate understanding of the scientific method, and make difficult to comprehend events visible within a straightforward setting that allows novices to interact with scientific ideas. Furthermore, labs provide opportunities for students to work together (whether it be to design experiments, solve problems, or analyze outcomes) and provide stimulus for group discussions around a set of commonly observed events.


Limitations of traditional labs

However, there is a wide range of scientific topics which involve abstract, large-scale phenomena which are difficult to replicate on a classroom scale. For example, students investigating the issue of global climate change must understand concepts such as global variations in incoming solar energy, albedo (the reflectivity of solar energy), and carbon emissions, and how these factors correlate with surface temperature, surface characteristics, and human population. These concepts and the relationships among them are difficult to comprehend with conventional lab tools. In the absence of a means to explore the global datasets required for such investigations, the potential scope and scale of scientific inquiry is significantly narrowed.

Furthermore, most traditional classroom lab experiments simplify and decontextualize scientific phenomena such that novices fall to see their connections to scientific events outside the classroom. Research on student conceptions of scientific phenomena reveals that students often fail to make meaningful connections between scientific knowledge acquired in the classroom and "everyday events" (e.g., McCloskey, 1984; Reif & Larkin, 1991). Also, students are challenged to connect the experimental procedures of classroom labs with larger scientific issues - they have difficulty understanding the goals of science experiments and are often unable to coordinate investigation strategies with the ex-

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