Creatively engaging students in a school science conference

A research chat with EdD graduate David Carlgren

Tell us about your research project.

My study explored the gap between the science that is conducted in K-12 classrooms and that performed by scientists in the field. While much of this has to do with age and maturity, as well as knowledge, there are aspects of current practice that may not bridge the gap well and may enforce misconceptions.

As a science teacher for a number of years, I have become frustrated with the tendency of experiments in grade school science to replicate and validate already existing values and results. Doing science in this way enforces concepts surrounding the existence and rigidity of scientific facts, and that science is unchanging. It also presents the scientific method as a linear process – from one step to another – which does not consider the many possibilities that can come of each research project.

In today’s world, students require a different conception of knowledge, and understanding of how knowledge is generated; the scientific community is poised to lead this change, and introducing this to students in K-12 schools is essential.

I chose to examine the impacts of having students conduct scientific research, write about it, and present it in a school science conference. The participants were students in grades 6-10 at a small private school in Calgary; the students conducted independent research, and delivered presentations that summarized and described the results. Their chosen topics varied dramatically: from questions on genetic manipulation, whether it is possible to change blood types, and ways to solve an uninvestigated problem in group theory mathematics.

What did you discover?

In this study, the students generated meaning through the intricate balance of mentors, choice, time, expectations, and excitement. As students conducted their research, these features were significant in guiding their work and learning.

This approach highlighted that feedback that is direct, timely, and personalized garners more significant changes than that which is vague or disconnected from the students’ own work. By being able to choose a topic that interest them, the students were more motivated and seemed to engage more in the research process. Finally, the use of specialist mentors to guide students through the processes of research, writing and presenting their findings was essential.

I hope that this study will generate conversation about the very nature of science and how it is taught. Thinking of science as a collection of proven facts generated through a rigid process, to me has tremendous possible negative ramifications that stifle creativity and new knowledge generation.

Additionally, I hope that the concept of community knowledge and knowledge building become a topic of conversation and lead the movement away from individualized and ranked marking and testing systems toward more holistic assessment of community contributions. I would question educators whether it might be possible to move science education from a paradigm of “Prove your theory,” to one of “Improve your theory,” which is far more generative and creative.