OLE next step – Background Information

Just as I am walking you through this process, I guide my students. Providing an overview to begin, then breaking into smaller tasks each with individual timelines and expectations helps students progress and stay focused rather than overwhelmed. Please bear with me, or drop a comment and I can adjust. Here we go.

Once students determine their questions, we head to the computer lab for time to research the topics related to their questions. I begin this with a  seven minute free-write in their OLE journals. In a free-write, students keep pencil to paper the entire seven minutes, even if they repeat themselves. Grammar, spelling, and coherency are not assessed. The intent is to get the mind working on a topic and keep working. In this case, I ask them to free-write everything they know and wonder about their question or problem. If necessary, they may also write about their groups. The entries may include insights, current understanding of a topic, concerns about the process, uneasiness about how to experiment, etc. Anything that comes to mind can be written in the free-write time. Seven minutes is a long time. However, the time allows them (almost forces them) to dig deeper. Often repeating things when they are stuck triggers something new to write down.

After the free-write, I provide students guidelines for the background research:

Include in this section information gathered about the problem you are investigating. The information in this section should answer the questions so what? Who cares? Why is this important? Why? Why? Why? What are the implications of this experiment? Prior knowledge and experience should be included as well.  Begin your research with general information about the broad topic and then narrow the conversation to your particular question.  What you learn during your research should lead you toward a logical, informed hypothesis.  This section should be 3-5 pages and reference 4-6 sources.

I guide students through these requirements as they seem overwhelmed, especially by the last line. The first step is gathering information. I encourage students to first go back to their free-writes and look at what ideas might warrant researching. I also encourage them to talk to their group members and peers to gather ideas related to their question.

Let’s take the forest fire idea from the previous post. Topics related to forest fires include forest ecology, soil, ash, forest wildlife, smoke, etc. Forest fires are also local so topics to research could include historic fires and their effect, current forest fires in our state, recovery after a fire, ways to prevent forest fires and fire loss. All of these are potential topics for background research. However, as the guidelines stated, the background needs to lead the researcher toward a hypothesis. It is helpful to point this out and discuss what that means. In this case, some of the topics above are interesting and could be included in our research, but I want to make sure and hone in on the ones that will prompt an investigation idea and lead me toward a hypothesis.

Forest fires have an effect on soil. The research might provide ideas about what those effects could be, or it might discuss how ash from fires alters the soil. This information suggests an investigation – How does the ash left by forest fires affect soil quality in the OLE? I may have to change “forest fires” to just fires, but the idea has started. I could also look at micro- or macro-organisms in the soil instead of, or in addition to, soil quality. I also need to research what soil quality means and how I can measure it. All of a sudden, I have a legitimate idea of what to investigate in the OLE, what to research in preparation, and how this information might be important to my community. Plus, I am engaged in science!

Putting my teacher-colleague hat back on here. Most years, I expected students to write notes as they researched, create an outline from those notes, and then write a background research paper. In the Spring, the students would go back to these papers and work through a second round of “background” research to cover any topics they discovered while in the OLE but had not thought to include in the first research. Last year, however, I changed this approach. Instead of writing the full paper in the fall, I had students research their OLE topics and write notes from each of their sources. In the spring, they continued this research and used their notes from the fall along with the spring notes to write a research paper. There are pros and cons to both approaches. I share this with you because it is important to consider different strategies for meeting the same goal. In both cases, students immersed themselves in researching their topics, in terms of what was already known and published, twice during the project. They also participated in the writing process and learned about using and citing legitimate sources.

This was a lot to get through in one post.

How do you include writing in your classes? How do you engage students in background research collection? Do you have any thoughts on the two approaches listed? Let’s start a conversation.

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