Reflection on the Planning Process

How/why did you choose the focus of your mini-unit?
My mentor teacher, Jamie Woods, and I wanted to tap into the energy and excitement from our trip to Teva, the Jewish outdoor education program that we went to with the students for four days. At first, we thought about teaching several subjects such as decomposition, pollution, waste. I wanted to teach something very hands on, and we finally decided that I would teach about the scientific method, and use sustainability as the umbrella under which to teach it.
To narrow this down, I wanted to use approachable, real experiments to show a larger concept. For the first experiment, I chose to demonstrate how toilet paper might biodegrade at different rates depending on different variables. I wanted to take something so close to their lives – toilet paper – and relate it to a larger issue. Also, in lessons 3 and 4, the students will be breaking into groups and conducting an experiment having to do with how hazardous waste will affect groundwater. The guiding question is: what happens if you dump hazardous waste on the ground?
Finally, I narrowed down the final project to make it optional to carry out the experiment. I was facing time and resource issues, but also felt that designing an experiment from beginning to end would demonstrate an inquiry-based approach to answer a question.

How did you determine what content you were going to teach? How did you go about learning the content?
I decided that we would dedicate at least one full lesson to explicitly teaching what the scientific method is, and why we use it. The rest of the unit would be used to use the scientific method to learn about a topic. But what would the students learn? Sustainability is still a large umbrella, and I wanted to think about what the students could learn through experimentation within this larger topic. I was also confined by what type of experiments could be done during this time. Through research, I found myself gravitating toward waste. The students had learned a lot about psolet (waste) at Teva. They were excited about efforts to reduce their own waste when they were at Teva. I wanted to get them learning and thinking critically about real world problems.
After learning about the scientific method, I would use the process to model an experiment on biodegradable toilet paper. This would include introducing the concept of biodegradability, and give the students a chance to see the scientific method in action.

The next experiment, a more hands-on approach, would be conducted by the students, and would be about hazardous waste. This experiment would require some pre-reading on the topic.
Finally, I wanted to give them room to explore the topics that interest them. One recurring message for the unit is that the students are capable scientists, and are capable of answering some of the questions they have about the world through experimentation.

What resources and/or curriculum materials did you consult, adapt or extend in planning this unit?
Throughout the planning, I used my own vision of what message I wanted to send in this lesson. I wanted to impart that the students are capable of asking questions about the world around them and the resources and processes found within, and they are able to approach these problems in a systematic and effective process. I found my mentor teacher, Jamie Woods, to be an immensely useful resource. She was completely onboard with this goal. She suggested looking at the Environmental Protection Agency's special curriculum on waste called Quest for Less. I took some material from there, and will be using the experiment outlined in the curriculum.
There is a great deal of material online concerning the scientific method. I was careful to think about what I wanted the students to get out of my first lesson explicitly teaching them this method. I wanted to emphasize that the process, and the importance of each step, was the most important message.
The experiments came about by a lot of brainstorming, searching online, and looking at other science curriculum for this age group. Although I found some useful ideas, the vision of the unit was something I had to envision myself, with the help of Jamie.

What challenges or uncertainties did you face in planning this unit?

I found it particularly challenging to assess what the students already understand on the topic of the scientific method. I am banking on their knowing loosely the steps and purpose of the steps of the scientific method for my first lesson. In case they have no idea what it is, I also plan to explicitly teach it and assess them on their understanding.
I also found it challenging to determine what content I would teach. It is easy to overestimate what is possible to teach in five lessons. I was conscious of this while planning, and paid attention to ways in which I could narrow and focus my lessons.

What concerns do you have about implementing this unit in your class?
The largest concern I have is making sure that everything isn't so rushed that the students won't understand what the scientific method is and how it can be implemented. I am depending on the students having some prior knowledge about the steps and purposes of the scientific method. I am also hoping that the students will work efficiently to implement their group projects, and independent investigations.
This mini-unit was influenced primarily by the science focus of the class, and by logistics and resources.