LEWISTON — Why do we find so many squirrels, but we can’t find any stegosauruses?
That is one of the questions Johannesburg-Lewiston Area School’s third-graders are trying to answer.
Janet Serba, Lewiston third-grade teacher, said the students are part of a new science program that starts with driving questions like the one about squirrels and dinosaurs, and uses different methods to teach science in an interdisciplinary style.
“And we’re trying to figure out what squirrels need to survive,” Serba said. “And then we’re going to find out that some of those things that squirrels need, they didn’t have back then (and that) this is why we don’t see squirrels back in the dinosaur age, and why dinosaurs didn’t survive and we don’t have them anymore.”
Students went on a hunt to look for squirrels, examined different pinecone varieties, read books and watched videos about squirrels.
“It’s really just piecing it all together. It’s not reading a piece of information, finding the answer and regurgitating it,” Serba said. “The students are collaborating to find the information together and come to a generalized understanding.”
J-L is one of several school districts in Northern Michigan to participate in the Multiple Literacies in Project-Based Learning Project.
Serba said there is no textbook for the program. It also differs from traditional instruction methods by following a problem-based learning method that emphasizes more than one discipline and learning in groups.
Students start with the question and then observe, gather information and read. They then come together to discuss ideas.
The method also aims to show how the knowledge can be applied outside of the classroom — while giving more of a voice and choice to students on the topics and procedures.
“They can take whatever it is we’re learning, and apply it in other situations,” Serba said. “The students are working together to solve something that they find intriguing — it’s a cool new way of doing science.”
Serba said the program matches up with the state’s standards, known as Next Generation, more than any other program she has seen.
“I’ve approached science completely differently because of this,” Serba said.
She said while it is too soon to see how the project impacts student learning, the new methods have already changed how she approaches teaching as a whole.
The project is a collaboration between Michigan State University and the University of Michigan that is funded by the George Lucas Educational Foundation and aims to help with the state’s Next Generation Science Standards.
Certain participating schools in the program are called “treatment” schools, and they receive instructions and supplies to work on certain science teaching methods.
Remaining participating schools in the study are “control” schools that only receive materials and not the instruction on how to use the materials.
Cyndie Kievit, Lewiston K-5 principal, said the project also helps teachers in Northern Michigan who would not typically have the opportunity to collaborate with teachers outside of the district.
“This is allowing them to collaborate with … other teachers and they’re definitely diving deeper into those Next Generation science standards and that’s kind of the premise behind the whole Next Gen science standards,” she said. “It’s all these cross-cutting concepts.”
The program’s concepts run contrary to traditional approaches that tackle subjects individually.
“We’re really trying to blend all of these things. To be a scientist, you have to be a reader. To be a scientist you have to be a writer, you have to use mathematical thinking,” Kievit said. “It’s merging all of those multiple literacies into tackling science-based questions and inquiries.”
She said the project brings new and interesting ways for students to be more like scientists.
“Really what they’re exploring with that driving question is animal adaptations and fossils and climate. … Who wouldn’t want to know why there are more squirrels?” Kievit said. “There’s the driving question, but it’s bringing in the parts of the sciences and technology standards.”
The students have three units to learn as the project unfolds, and Serba said the units build on the previous units to span the rest of the school year.
She said the next unit handles force and motion and said it will be more of a hands-on process. As the unit goes on, Serba also learns new teaching methods from project organizers to implement in the classroom.
“I’m excited to go through the year and learn it, and then take what (I learn) and really learn how to integrate science into the rest of the curriculum and that’s a really big piece of this that I know is hard to do,” Serba said. “And I feel like I can really be a better English Language Arts teacher, because of this science (project).”