Scientific formulas. The Periodic Table of the Elements. Facts, figures and definitions.
It’s all memorization, but it’s not enough anymore.
Sixth-grade science students at Glacial Drumlin School have, for the past six years, been taught physics lessons from the Concept Mapped Project-based Activity Scaffolding System (CoMPASS) curriculum developed by Professor Sadhana Puntambekar in the University of Wisconsin Educational Psychology Department.
It’s more about participating in science instead of reading and being lectured about what others have done in science.
“It’s a different approach to teaching,” said teacher Liz Hoppenjan. “It’s a more effective way for students to learn. There is more discovery and questioning instead of presenting information to students through books. Teachers are more of facilitators, not just dispensers of knowledge.”
CoMPASS integrates three modes of learning science: digitally linked online text; inquiry-based, design challenge activities; and simulation experiments. It is used in the classrooms of Greg Sonsalla, Hoppenjan and Scott Amera.
“We spend a lot of time developing the scientific method,” Amera said. “The students love the hands-on approach.”
The scientific method has six parts: ask a question, do background research, construct a hypothesis, test the hypothesis by conducting an experiment, analyze the data and form a conclusion, and communicate the results.
Students experience science as inquiry, much like scientists and engineers. They can manipulate the computer system to create visual displays based on the concepts they choose. This supports students’ reading of the text to further aid them in seeing these relationships and gaining a deeper understanding of science.
“We want them to be problem solvers, not a container of knowledge,” Sonsalla said.
CoMPASS emphasizes solving problems through creative thinking over memorizing definitions and procedures.
“We’re trying to prepare kids for jobs that don’t exist yet,” Hoppenjan said.
Sonsalla said the students benefit from the different method.
“There is a lot of discussion among the students,” he said. “They process more because of it.”
When the CoMPASS program was first introduced, it was sometimes frustrating for students and parents. Students had to get used to not being spoon-fed the information anymore, and parents were occasionally at a loss as to how to help their children at home.
“I used to compare it to a canoe trip,” Hoppenjan said. “We all have to get to the same place, but how we get there can be different.”
And not every experiment works out the way students envisioned it would or should.
“It’s OK if it doesn’t turn out,” Amera said. “If it fails, you learn more about what works and what does not.”
As for the Periodic Table of the Elements, technology today allows students can call up the information form almost any electronic device, so memorizing the information isn’t as crucial at it once was for students.
“Today, we want them to understand how it was put together and how it works, so they can use it better,” Amera said.
Sonsalla recently returned from a series of workshops in Finland where he shared his experiences with CoMPASS and teaching in general. Hoppenjan was also invited to participate in the Finland trip, but family commitments forced her to stay home.
Sonsalla’s trip to Finland was funded by the National Science Foundation’s SAVI (Science Across Virtual Institutions) grant, on which \ Puntambekar is a primary investigator for the project titled “Dynamic Digital Text: An Innovation in STEM Education.”
STEM is an acronym referring to the academic disciplines of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
“The aim of this project is to design the next generation of digital STEM content for school and college level education by radically rethinking of content, organization and user interaction with digital text,” Puntambekar said. “A key aspect of the project is to foster collaboration between researchers in the U.S. and Finland.”
Collaborating institutions in Finland include University of Turku, University of Tampere and Aalto University, and partner institutions in the United States at Auburn University and Virginia Tech. As part of this project, partners in Finland are adapting and using Puntambekar’s CoMPASS etextbook in middle schools in Finland.
Sonsalla’s visit to Finland was aimed at further fostering the collaboration by having teachers from the U.S. visit Finnish schools and learn about their educational system. Teachers also presented their work to preservice teachers, highlighting what they had learned about integrating technology in classrooms.
“I feel like I'm a product of the work with my teammates and the partnership with UW,” Sonsalla said.
He visited several schools to talk about his experiences but also to observe the classrooms of his hosts.
“It was an overall positive experience,” he said. “It was interesting seeing their school system, as they are usually in the top five in the international setting.”
He said teachers there are held in high regard, and most need a master’s degree to teach. Of all the teachers that apply for jobs there, only about 10 percent get hired, he said.
“In some ways, it affirmed that what we do here is really good work,” Sonsalla said. “We do so much more interaction with our students and among the students.”