Environmental Science Genius Hour

Recently I heard about a “new” idea that has roots in what is now something of an old concept. It comes from the creative release time that some companies are utilizing with their employees. Companies like Google and the like give their employees 20% of their time to work on independent projects and this leads to some very creative innovations. Teachers, being the innovators they are, recognized the worth in this and have begun to incorporate 20% release time for their students. In the classroom, this is often called genius hour. During this time, students are allowed to pursue interests of their own and create products related to those interests. Different teachers would of course set different limitations, but the idea is that students get to pursue some learning independently. Heading into the 2014-2015 school year, I’ll be teaching an honor section of an environmental science class. This is my first time teaching environmental science at this level and teaching environmental science at all in many years. I’ve been thinking about what to include in the course and the Genius Hour is very appealing to me.

My experiences with teaching about the environment go way back. I first was exposed to in high school when my most influential teacher, Doug Pens, taught me Ecology and utilized incredibly creative ways to do so. From there, I spent many years in college going up to Raquette Lake, in the Adirondacks of New York State, visiting Cortland’s educational camps there. After that, I spent years a Greenkill Environmental Education Center as a naturalist teaching young children to love and enjoy nature. Through all of this, one thing became clear, in order to truly embrace taking care of the environment students needed to first love the environment. And getting to that point is a very personal experience. For many, it means being outside and having those transformative experiences that keep you coming back outside and make you care enough to learn about and care for the natural world.

This bring me back to Genius Hour in Environmental Science. The idea here is that students will be given the so called 20% time, roughly 1 class period each week, to explore an Environmental Science topic that interests them. Ideally, it would involve research, exploration, investigation and the creation of a final product in a topic that mosts interests them. There is a part of me akin to a vestigial organ that wants to specify exactly what form this product should take. “Write a research paper”, “Conduct a scientific investigation related to XYZ”, “Make a video documentary.” These are in the class of directed assignments (and I don’t mean to imply they are bad, they just don’t seem to have the independence that goes along with my view of a Genius Hour.) I am interested in what students produce when released from the tether of my vision.

There is, of course, some risk in all of this. I have assigned small-scale projects that involved giving the students a great deal of latitude in what they did. Not all of these panned out. Some were far to simplistic, others far to overreaching. There is a sweet spot in there and I hope to give the students a chance (and the guidance) to hit it. It is the zone in which students tackle a project that is not so simple as to give no sense of accomplishment, nor not so overwhelming as to cause the student to give up. Now, getting there is the tricky part. This is new to me (experienced Genius Hour folks, please feel free to add your advice or comments.)

I do have questions that spring to mind around this concept:

-When do I introduce this idea to the class? Part of me thinks I need to get into the class a bit and cover basic concepts. The other part thinks that the point is to let the students find their own direction and run with it.
– What is my role in this process? Clearly, my role is more than to just sit back and grade papers or prepare lessons while the students do this. However, once I am involved in the process, there is an expectation that I will provide answers. That seems to run against the point of it all.
– Can my students handle such a thing? I am not questioning their intelligence or their work ethic. They are honors students that have proven themselves in the school setting. But this is different. My recent experience is that even my honors students are good at subjects and at school, but they lack independence in their learning. They need direction because they have always been given direction.
– How do I support the transition into the world of independent learning? Of course, just asking that question makes me feel the importance of pursuing this idea.

This is an idea I feel very good about and one that is certainly worth pursuing as I head into summer course planning.

Hydroponics in Biology Class- What I Learned

I recently conclImageuded a big project in my Honors Biology and Biology classes in which student researched, designed, built and shared hydroponics systems or Vertical Gardens in our school’s greenhouse and garden. This was a risky venture in many ways because I was turning my back on so much of what is expected in Biology class.  For one thing, this project took the place of all scheduled lab time.  My school’s schedule is such that I meet with my students 50 minutes each day (more or less…we actually have a rotating schedule) to go over content and 80 minutes each week to apply that content to a laboratory investigation. It is a system I have worked in and with for nearly two decades.  Turning my back on that was scary as a teacher, but it was also invigorating. We are basically done with the project (although some of the sharing has yet to be done), so it seems like a good time to reflect on what I learned from doing this.

I Like Inquiry Learning, Blended Learning and Learning Cycles
Really, all of this was possible because I have been questioning my teaching style for years now. As a traditional, “stand and deliver” teacher, the idea of NOT doing labs in lab was inconceivable. I believe that students need to experience Science to fully embrace what Science actually is.  Biology is far more than a collection of facts about living organisms.  It is a process of knowing living organisms and systems.  It is questioning, exploring, evaluating and re-questioning. The hands-on experiences are essential. So, dropping labs can’t be done in my classroom of 5 years ago (that’s really the last time I was a lecture-based teacher). By incorporating learning cycles that were based on inquiry investigations and utilizing online lectures and reading, I have reorganized how my students learn. Investigations are part of every learning cycle and set that stage for what that cycle is about.  It engages the student and creates the context for the facts that are to follow. Because investigations are regularly done in class, utilizing the “lab” time became a realistic possibility. (Not to mention that using online lectures freed class time for doing investigations.)

I Really Like Seeing My Students Engaged
This wasn’t a perfect process and did not cause a magical transformation in every student. However, I saw a light in the eyes of many students that I had not seen all year. One student in particular stands out in my mind.  This is the smart, but unmotivated student.  The one who sits in class passively and has mediocre grades because he just doesn’t care that much. Once we got outside and got tools in our hands, he was a leader and was basically running the show.  He had ideas that he brought to life and ideas that didn’t pan out. The light in his eyes is something I won’t forget anytime soon.

I Like Seeing Strong Students Struggle
My honors students get school.  They are bright, hardworking people that are used to getting from point A to point B using skills they have honed over years of schooling.  They are really good at making connections and critically examining different issues. What they aren’t good at is building a simple A-Frame structure to hold up a hydroponics system.  Neither am I.  In theory, we were simply applying basic Geometry to figure out what angles the 2×4’s needed to come together in a way that would allow the structure to stand.  We were all so stymied by this that we went with 90 degree angles that were both ugly and non-functional. It was both frustrating and exciting.  These students got a real-life lesson in the fact that it can be tough to bring theoretical idea into real life.  They also learned to adapt.  We went with one leaning system and laid the other on a table.  Sometimes it’s the simple ideas that are the best.

I Don’t Like Working Alone
I had many struggle with these projects.  They ranged from the simple construction problems described above to design problems to a host of other little issues that drove me crazy.  Here’s the thing- people who knew how to deal with these issues were all over the campus around me.  I could hear our carpentry expert working on the building next door as we struggle to put two 2×4’s together.  I was working outside the Math wing of the building where teachers may have been able to turn our problems into real life solvable word problems. All around me were people that could have been stepped in and taught my students skills and concepts that we were struggling with. One of my biggest goals lately has been to coordinate learning with others.  Whether it’s developing a school Science curriculum, sharing ideas on homework or building a silly A-Frame, I want to work with colleagues.  I am tired of being alone in my classroom doing my best to figure it out on my own.  I want this to change.  After all, there is a “me” in “Team.”

I Still Struggle with the Role of Content
I learned Biology content in High School.  I can still remember getting accolades from Mr. Powell for writing “sinoatrial node” on a quiz rather than the accepted “pacemaker.” That helped set the stage for me heading into Biology.  I was good at Biology and that’s where I went.  But what I was really good at was remembering stuff. I could just as easily have gone into the field of Movie Quotes or 80’s Song Lyrics. I wasn’t until I was teaching that I really became good at Biology. I began to see connections between the facts that I never noticed before. Ideas sprang up in my head.  I then taught Chemistry and I gained new insight into both Science and Biology. Once I had ready access to the “facts,” to cool stuff really came together. I would not have the appreciation or understanding of Biological Science that I have now without the facts.  But I also never had the easy access to them that my students do. If I teach like Mr. Powell did, and I do from time to time, am I making myself irrelevant? Why do these kids need me to explain that the stomach produces pepsin and HCl when Paul Anderson does it so well?  Can’t we start with bigger questions and go to the “fact sources” when we need to fill in what’s missing? Then again, if I had to look up every fact along the way, would I have ever gained the understanding that I ultimately developed? Honestly, I don’t really know, but hopefully the “I Don’t Like Working Alone” part of this post will help me develop an answer.

So, that’s (some of) what I learned.  There was other stuff like Home Depot is really good about returns, PVC pipe is easy to work with, but hard to drill big holes in and groundhogs eat plants left unguarded and too close to the ground.  I also learned that I want to continue in this direction.  Engaging students in different types of projects and exciting ways of learning.  I hope to gain more focus in my approach, but that’s really just the same kind of adjusting we did throughout the project. Live and Learn.