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This Launcher Unit for Project Based Inquiry Science (PBIS) builds a foundation for project-based inquiry science learning and serves to create a culture of collaboration and rigorous scientific discourse in the classroom. In this Unit, the Big Question students focus on is How do scientists work together to solve problems? Within the context of earth science, students explore criteria and constraints, iteration, variables, reliable procedures, fair tests, case studies, and using evidence to construct explanations and make recommendations. Throughout the Unit, students engage in the social practices of scientists as they address a series of small challenges of increasing difficulty.
In Learning Set 1, students read an imaginary predicament in which groups are challenged to build a small boat from foil. This boat must carry six keys for 20 seconds. Very quickly, this introduces them to criteria and constraints, followed by working in groups and reporting results to a larger body, the class. The science and engineering concepts of iteration and recording their work come into focus as they attempt to build a better boat. This second effort is reported in a Solution Briefing where they learn that they can build on the work of others, but must give credit for that work. More science knowledge is brought into the mix as students read about matter and density, as well as the opposing forces of buoyancy and gravity. Students design, build, and test their final boat before going Back to the Big Question and reviewing what they have learned about how scientists work.
Students encounter a second challenge in Learning Set 2 as they find they must develop a procedure that will measure the speed of hot, flowing, volcanic lava. They learn the scientific practice of modeling by using dish soap to simulate hot lava. After practicing with dish soap on a plastic plate, groups write an initial procedure and test it. Groups then report their data and the class data is graphed. Because large discrepancies in group to group data are obvious, the class works to develop a single, standard procedure which all will use. This leads to a more uniform graph and a return to the Big Question. Students find there is much more to learn in two important essays. The first tells of various kinds of lava, while the second contains information about various kinds of rocks—igneous, sedimentary, metamorphic—and how they form.
In a third challenge, students are asked to design the area around a proposed basketball court so that erosion will not damage the court or the surrounding properties. The school board has already turned down the basketball court proposal, because such damage was neither considered nor planned for. Learning Set 3 allows the students to use all of the science practices they have learned and to add two more. They use the Project Board to keep track of progress and they use of case studies as examples of solutions to the problem. In the first set of case studies, titled What Causes Erosion? students learn that wind and water are key elements in erosion. Then the class splits into two groups to investigate two variables in erosion, particle size, and slope. Both groups find the trends in their data and report in an Investigation Expo that smaller particles and steeper slopes lead to greater erosion. The second set of case studies, titled What Are Some Ways Erosion Can Be Managed? gives five examples of how erosion was alleviated. Students use the evidence from both investigations to design a model basketball court which will not suffer erosion damage. This model is built, tested, and redesigned and reported on in a Plan Briefing. While doing this, students continue practicing as scientists while designing their model and simulation, constructing scientific explanations, and applying the science they are learning to make recommendations. The school board receives a report on how to avoid erosion damage to the proposed basketball court and to the surrounding properties.
To conclude the Unit, students watch a video of a design team designing a new type of shopping cart while using all the practices students have been learning. Students see the value of the collaboration and scientific reasoning practices they have learned in a real-world situation. They use this as a context to pull together what they have learned to answer the Big Question.