Choosing Student Choice


Other than sheer panic and terror, what is the best guide for designing new projects?

A week ago, I wasn’t sure.   I certainly had plenty of the panicky terrors, with little to answer for them, as I tried to resurrect work from last year in an effort to bring forward an understanding of binomial distributions, Poisson distributions, and perhaps some cellular respiration, for my upcoming project…if I could generate an idea.   I couldn’t just repeat last year’s project, because there have been structural changes in the course.
Even so, the funny thing was that I had a driving question in hand:  “Why or why not should the US approve the Keystone XL pipeline?”  Plenty of opportunity for debate, and certainly you can calculate the probability of leakage based upon previous leaks in the pipeline (Poisson distribution), and you can explore bioremediation for those inevitable leaks.
But my students have reached that stage one faces in taking (and teaching) environmental science:  everything is so HEAVY.   The depressing statistics can quickly stack up, and so I found it increasingly important to remind the students, and myself, that there are local issues that are worth addressing, even if the globe continues to warm, and species continue to disappear.    Not only are those local issues worth addressing – there are some problems about which students can make a difference in our fair state.
So I called up Geoff Krall (@emergentmath – the math coach at NTN), of course, to brainstorm.   We threw around several ideas, discussing maps showing the probability of pipeline spills in New Mexico (where I live), or some sort of map showing locations of places to recycle oil in the city.   It was so helpful having another person challenging the rut I was in.    
The next day, I was sure that all the discussion and all those ideas had come to fruition.   I had it:  Students would create an infographic that shows the dangers of spilling motor oil, and also provide instruction for what to do with oil in the ground already.  They would have to pitch it to local auto parts stores in an effort to get the infographics posted.    
My confidence lasted but a short time.  Something bothered me, but I wasn’t quite sure what, so I pitched the idea to my colleagues at lunch, and got bowled over by a simple question:  “That’s a cool idea – but could the students come up with it themselves?”    BOOM.     Why am I dictating final product to Seniors who have been doing PBL for 4 years?    Aren’t they creative?   Don’t they want to practice some agency in the world?  
Immediate change in the project.  Rather than write some contrived entry document, I’ll start by invoking imagery of cars and trucks parked in yards, and then pour some used motor oil in a box of dirt, and ask, “How do you clean this up?”      After a discussion, I will give them the driving question, and see where they run with it:
“What is the best way to educate the public about the problems of dumping motor oil in the ground, and how do we educate them about how to take care of the soil if the dumping has already occurred?”
This shifted the onus of coming up with final product onto the students, and empowered them simultaneously. 
The amazing thing?   At least three different groups independently came up with the idea of interacting with auto parts stores, even creating a poster.   The beautiful thing?   There are other really interesting ideas that have emerged from groups:

  • Create stickers to place on quart containers of oil, urging buyers to recycle their own oil.
  • Create small flyers to place on cars parked at a big car show in town in the next month
  • Generate a radio PSA, since one of the students has a mentorship at the public radio station
  • Create incentives for people to recycle oil via discounts negotiated with local oil-changing shops  (one student was on the phone today with Corporate at Jiffy Lube.   I kid you not)

Now… to get all mathy:
  1. Before they do their project, students have to create a survey that has either yes/no questions or multiple choice questions that provides them with some market research.   They can then analyze these with binomial distributions, so they can say, “How probable is it that my campaign will make a difference?”
  2. During the project, we’ll test for hydrocarbon-consuming bacteria from the local soil (by growing bacteria in petri dishes with lighter fluid), which creates a need for counting colonies per square centimeter – which then gives a chance to employ the poisson distribution.
  3. We have already checked out a distribution as a result of looking at 3 mL of used oil soaking into 40 g of soil, providing students with an example of data that could create a continuous distribution (because the oil can seep to any depth).  To wit:


Presently, I feel like I am getting the best of both worlds – on one hand, my students have choice, which motivates them, makes them happy, and educates me, and on the other hand, I can prescribe several activities that scaffold their work, and make my planning more predictable.
It would not have happened had I not (1) consulted with several different colleagues, and (2) made the choice to make student choice a central part of the project.    
Despite the fact that I thought I knew it all along, I will try to remind myself that my own collaboration and student choice are extraordinarily important for project design.  (Perhaps I should read my own damn blog)  Hopefully, this will happen before the panic and terror set in.

Update On My Class

Last year, I started this blog with an ambitious name, explaining that it would be, in part, an explication of an experiment:  the full integration of 4 subject areas into a single class that used projects, not subjects, as the guiding structure for the class.   If you want to know more, read the intro to the blog, and the last several entries.

The year proved to be great.   I spoke about it at the New Tech Annual Conference in New Orleans last July, if you want to hear about it.   Apologies to @emergentmath.   Heh heh.


Alas, the experiment became very difficult when my previous teaching partner moved on to a new profession at the end of last school year.   The new teacher in her stead is awesome, but with a senior class of twice as many people, and little time to plan out the year, our paths diverged after project 1 this school year.

All that to say:  I am now talking about my curriculum with said new teacher, but we are no longer integrating the Math/Science with the Humanities.   Rather, I continue to work on integrating Environmental Studies with Statistics, creating projects that are more self-contained. 

This news should set the context for a couple of posts to follow about my class this year, which has, as it turns out, been a great deal of fun, but sometimes not so easy.   Without the constraints of the other subjects, I find that choice paralysis creeps up on me now and then. 

The good news: in our independent work, we are finding that there are great possibilities for integration next year.  

The dream doesn’t die.