Where's the Dye Going?: Learning about Pollution Through PBL

"Today is a great day to make a mistake" that is the motto in Kim Schnier's 5th grade class, and if you were to observe one of her science classes, you would see the living proof in that. 

Schnier, who has been teaching for 26 years, is no stranger to letting kids get loud and messy in her class.  At any given time if you walk through her room at Johnson Elementary, you'll find kids reading and writing about their ideas, engaged in lively discussion or sprawled out on the floor with their hands covered in glue and paint.

This year, Schnier began to implement practices of Project Based Learning (PBL) into her science curriculum.As a science teacher, the idea of including PBL was not a totally foreign idea since she so often does hands on worth with students, the difference, in part, was procedural.

Schnier chose to implement her first official PBL unit early on in the school year and early on in the adoption of the Fort Thomas Elementary Schools Digital Conversion, where each student grades K-5 received an iPad that they take home. 

Project Basics

During the Fall, Schnier and her class began to explore the idea of source water pollution through the PBL format. According to Schnier the idea came to her after reading an article in Science Scope called "Chemical Connections". The article discusses source pollution from clothing factories in third world countries as a basis for challenging students to think through the problem and design solutions. Schnier's PBL was called "Where's the Dye Going?", and according to her it was "written to address the problem of nonpoint source water pollution and it correlated to a sanitation unit I complete every year with SD1".  

The PBL unit addressed this driving question: What impact does unregulated runoff from factories have on the hydrosphere and how can we design a solution that will protect the environment, and covered a number of NGSS standards:

  • 5-ESS2 Develop a model using an example to describe ways the geosphere, biosphere, hydrosphere, and/or atmosphere interact
  • 5-ESS3 Obtain and combine information about ways individual communities use science ideas to protect the Earth’s resources and environment
  • 3-5-ETS-1 Define a simple design problem reflecting a need or want that includes specified criteria for success and constraints on material, time or cost
  • 3-5-ETS-1 Generate and compare multiple possible solutions to a problem based on how well each is likely to meet the criteria and constraints of the problem
  • 3-5 ETS1 Plan and carry out fair tests in which variables are controlled and failure points are considered to identify aspects of a model or prototype that can be improved 
Through the course of learning experience, students learned about pollution from different sources, and then designed solutions in the form of different types of water filters that could be used to help minimize the amount of dye that seeped into the hydrosphere. In Schnier's words, "Having the students ask questions and then construct a solution to the problem was paramount to me.  By only giving them the situation and a few constraints they were to design their own water filter."

Inquiry and Project Design

Through the extended inquiry piece of PBL, students heard from DJ Scully, Extension Agent of the Campbell County Cooperative Extension and did research with teacher provided materials.  Schnier mentioned that "I really wanted the kids to see the real world implications of nonpoint source water pollution.  They hear me teach it and we do a lot of activities with the concept but I still wanted them to see what’s happening in their world. " 

Schnier embraced the District provided LMS, Schoology, to help connect students to the research that would allow them to see the problem more clearly. "After several articles (that were hard to find) were posted to Schoology (which was unbelievably helpful and easy) the kids read them and were able to really see the problem.  I only wish they could have seen the problem with the clothing dye a little closer to home.  East Asia is not in their wheelhouse," said Schnier.

To help manage the project development phase, Schnier used a model of design thinking that I've been working to develop for PBL and Makerspaces called ICE.

Students used ICE handouts to help them plan their filters. 

Through each part of the design process students needed to pause to reflect on their device and get teacher feedback.  

Many of them researched filter projects to try to come up with ideas.

Schnier mentioned that "I did a lot of research in order to have the background knowledge myself.  I began gathering supplies, soliciting them from parents and watching youtube to get the filtration ideas in my head.  The kids were free to build any type of filter based on the supplies I had or what they could build at home."

Hear how a few of the groups thought through the process.

Once students finished their water filters, Schnier chose a day for the presentation and testing of the final filters.  As a class each group got the chance to test their filter using water that contained clothing dye and discuss their findings to make claims.

Managing the Project

When it came to the process of turning things over more to students, Schnier's first experience with managing the middle of PBL was mixed, especially with individual iPads for students being so new. For the research piece, Schnier found it at times challenging to engage students. "The majority of the students were engaged, but if I had to steer one more kid away from the NFL draft and Pokemon I was gonna scream. The articles required concentration, focus and understanding.  And while I am not sure how I would have distributed the articles any other way, the temptations for 10 year olds to veer off task was inevitable.  Policing the iPads is a 24/7 job," Schnier explained.  

This kind of management can be daunting, especially for teachers and students who are new to a 1:1 technology environment and project based learning.  Overall, the results of the projects were really cool and it was clear that students were learning critical scientific concepts in relation to pollution and design thinking.  Even with great planning and well planned formative assessment along the way, the middle does get messy.  Using tools like daily project goal logs, conferences, and milestone due dates helps, but it does require constant monitoring.

For the project phase, Schnier saw a little more work. Students were "engaged for the building for sure.  I guess I can attribute that to the lure of getting messy, cutting with scissors, handling rocks, and red water.   I still had a few that sat back and were addicted to the iPads for all the wrong reasons."

Changes for the Future

As a whole, when it comes to making changes for the future, Schnier realizes that students "all want to build and get messy but the reading requirement will always be a challenge.  Not sure how I can change that for next year, but I will." She also mentioned that for future PBL experiences with tests and building students "could video it and share it, and if I could do it all over again, I’d let them redesign and redesign, test test and test some more."

When it comes to PBL, there will be frustrating pieces, Schnier recommends "be ok with chaos." She adds, "I do a lot of engineering and individual design of answering a focus question.  So my kids are frequently exposed to this process but not in such a formal way.  They always take away the idea of try anything, teamwork and my famous class motto that says, “Today is a great day to make a mistake”.


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