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PBL for NGSS: Engaging Elementary Students in Scientific Discovery

Using a hands-on and blended instructional approach to teaching science

by Kathryn Eyolfson

I adopted the quote by Roger Taylor when I first began teaching, “To be a guide on the side rather than a sage on the stage.” With this philosophy in mind, my goal as a science educator is to coach students how to work collaboratively, think for themselves, and make connections to their prior knowledge.

Using real-world applications and a hands-on learning approach helps achieve this goal, while intrinsically motivating and engaging my young students. One real-world topic we focus on heavily is the use of renewable and nonrenewable energy resources, which continues to be a hot topic in the news—Google uses 100% clean energy!

The performance expectations from the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) address expectations of building the idea of energy conservation over time. In grades 3-5, students should be connecting energy ideas to familiar phenomena. These connections deepen the conceptual anchor students began to build in grades K-2 and also provide a foundation for grades 6-8.

A Framework for K-12 Science Education describes the importance of natural resources in this way: All materials, energy and fuels that humans use are derived from natural sources, and their use affects the environment in multiple ways. Some resources are renewable over time, and others are not.

Given this, it is important for my students to be aware of the renewable and nonrenewable energy resources we use here in Colorado, as well as to be prepared to cite information that supports renewable resources and have an understanding that nonrenewable resources can be exhausted. For a fifth grader that is a lot of information to comprehend.

To teach about renewable and nonrenewable concepts, my students participate in a project-based learning (PBL) unit in which they construct wind turbines and use solar panels to better understand the idea of energy transfer. I started this unit with an icebreaker from the National Energy Education Development (NEED) Project called Energy Bingo. Students were tasked with getting an autograph from their peers based on their understanding of renewable and nonrenewable energy. It was telling to me that my students had limited understanding of renewable and nonrenewable energy. In fact, few were able to tell more than one way to save energy at home and many could not name a fossil fuel.

Next, students were exposed to wind turbines and solar panels during hands-on lessons from a collection of Vernier Software & Technology lab books. To design and construct the turbine models, they used KidWind experiment kits. Then they investigated blade design. Throughout the process, they used Vernier sensors to collect data which helped reinforce the energy concepts they were learning.

Students then started a HOWL (What have you heard? What have you observed? What do you want to know? and What have you learned?) chart in their science notebook on the topic of energy. The driving question was, “Should Colorado propose an initiative to use more clean energy?”

To answer this question, students needed to understand each of the resources. In addition to the KidWind experiment kits, Vernier data-collection technology, and NEED resources, students utilized National Geographic books, short videos, and other interactive sites to deepen their understanding of renewable and nonrenewable resources and evaluate each of the energy resources’ advantages and disadvantages.

Students also heard from members of the community who use solar panels and listened to scientists in the field. And, they read non-fiction books on the topic, such as The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind which is a book about a young boy in Malawi who builds his own turbine to charge small electronics in his house. The unit culminated with students collaboratively working in small groups to write a proposal to Xcel Energy about using more clean energy.

This multifaceted unit helped my students understand the importance of this real-world concept and immersed them in the learning process. Using a hands-on and blended instructional approach such as this not only helps young students master concepts outlined by the NGSS, it helps strengthen their overall interest in science and STEM throughout their educational career and beyond.

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