So far, I have discussed developing the question, conducting background research, and determining a hypothesis for an OLE project. All of these lead to an idea of what and how the investigation will proceed. The next step for my students is to put that idea into words.
Though there are many forms one can use to write a procedure (or methods), I ask my students to write in numbered steps using second or third person. For some, writing their own procedure is a new experience. It is possible the students in my middle school class have only read procedures from “canned” experiments in previous science classes. It is also possible some have been designing their own investigations for several years. Again, I need to work with the spectrum and ask them to turn in work in the same format. This is a quick chance to share writing guidelines for authors, too. In other words, I’m not the only person to ask students to follow a specific form of writing.
Using our forest fire example, here is a possible procedure:
- Make ash.
- Pour ash onto different soil amounts.
- Measure pH and soil moisture.
This is a typical first draft. I will admit I still get frustrated when students turn a procedure like this into me because I always feel like I have explained the expectations of this part until I was blue in the face. BUT, this is a first draft and they always get better. After giving some guiding feedback, I might receive this next draft:
- In your backyard, burn wood from Oak tree and collect ash.
- In OLE, prepare four plots of soil. Be sure all plots are similar in size and soil type.
- Pour ash onto soil plots as follows:
- Pour ash enough to make a 2 inch layer on top of the soil.
- Pour ash enough to make a 1 inch layer on top of the soil.
- Pour ash enough to make a 0.5 inch layer on top of the soil.
- Do not pour ash on this plot.
- Measure pH and moisture level of the soil at 1 inch depth below the ash.
- Record data.
- Repeat steps 4 and 5 weekly.
I would likely ask for a few more details, like identifying the size of the plots and the type of soil. I might also ask them to consider using metric measurements.
Here’s a catch: the procedure the students start with does not always match what they actually do in the OLE. Having done this for years, I know the procedures change. Because of this, I have the students revise their procedures about 4-5 weeks into the investigations. I encourage them to make the written version match the actual physical version (write what you do).
You may object to this last point, but here goes anyway. If an investigation is not working out, I allow the students to modify their strategies. They are only allowed to do this if we talk it through first, and they must note the changes on the written procedures and I identify when the changes occurred in their data tables. Some people do not allow changes to the procedures and I understand why. In my class, though, I have found sometimes a change in the investigation is the only way to keep the kids engaged and learning. If a procedure is failing, they will give up and shut down, and then I have wasted a learning opportunity.