Another school year begins and the year eight students walk into their new science class. To the right of the blackboard, is the obligatory hanging plastic skeleton and a large poster of the periodic table of elements on the wall just behind. There are other pieces of science brick-a-brac displayed on the counter in much of the classroom, most of which will be used solely as decoration. The students’ desks are arranged in neat rows facing the teacher, who will spend most of each period giving well-rehearsed lectures while the students silently take notes.
Hopefully, this classroom exists only in memories. While this may have been reasonably successful several decades ago, today’s classrooms need to be a bit more interactive to gain the attention of our technologically overwhelmed students. Below, I have listed a few suggestions for making a science class into an interactive, modern learning environment:
- The first consideration is the student desk configuration. The teacher should be a facilitator rather than the perpetual center of attention, and therefore, desk arrangement should allow students to easily transition from teacher directions to collaborative work. Desks arranged in one or two semi-circles may be preferable to rows.
- Second is the need for activities that acknowledge and utilize technology. Memorizing obscure facts and formulas is of little benefit when they are instantly available at your fingertips. Much more important is to teach students to solve problems using logic and evidence to produce a reasonable conclusion. In order to do this, students should be given a problem to solve and then tasked with devising a procedure for solving it. The internet should be available as a resource and students should work in small groups. The teacher will emphasize that in many life situations, there is no instruction manual and students must learn to invent their own methods of problem solving.
- Thirdly, examinations and large projects should test the ability of students to solve problems using skills and concepts they have learned. When possible, students should be allowed to use appropriate websites. The problems should relate to something the students can identify with such as the environment, health, technology, careers in science, or human behavior. If a question on the exam can be answered merely by searching online without any critical thinking and reasoning, or has no clear relevance, then it may not be an effective assessment.
At work and in private life, there isn’t always a key at the back of the book or an omniscient teacher who can provide the correct answer to a problem. While today’s students are inundated with more information in a week than previous generations were in a lifetime, they still need to learn how to assess and utilize that information for solving problems and forming credible conclusions. While facts and figures can be easily forgotten after the exam is completed, problem solving skills and the ability to use logic and reasoning can become lifelong, invaluable assets to our students.
Seth Robey is a science teacher in the Chicago area