Fostering Project Collaborative Learning

My middle school science classes often just blow me away with their creativity and energy. To capture this, I strive to foster collaborative and creative projects. Specifically, this year, I have been setting up science projects that require students to productively function in teams, more specifically to shine within a team.

Project 1 – Step 1

For the first big group project, I offered students their choice of medium to create a weather “lesson.” Although there was choice in presentation, the group worked in a traditional project team. The students were excited to try out new tech for an audio-visual “Ted-Ed” style weather lesson, but without specific work to coach the soft skills of team collaboration, there were the usual pitfalls of who does what work, how much work, and whether the work was of good quality. The product of the “lessons” was amazing in the style and variety of creativity, but the downside was we didn’t work on improving how the team collaborative functions.

Project 2 – Step 2

The next big group project team experience gave us the reason for the next step in team collaboration a “Team Contract.” Students were to write a proposal for a small cube experiment to travel on a space flight. As students choose their teams, I asked them to review, discuss, and define their requirements to be a successfully functioning team. When we had group class time to work on our “Cubes in Space” projects, students referred to their Team Contract when a team member didn’t meet their work requirements. Students began to hone the essential skills of collaboration and communication that are so vital in our everyday world.

Project 3 – Step 3

Our current project, an Earth Safety Challenge PSA, takes all of the above and moves it beyond team collaboration to group creativity. Students initially completed background research on local earth science events such as earthquakes, volcanoes, and tsunamis. Students were grouped into 3 large “company” teams based on their research area. Their task is to create a company and assign the roles of research scientists, engineers, media specialists, and project managers. Their job is to create a Public Service Announcement (PSA) to inform the public about the science and safety of their assigned earth event. This project is majority student designed and managed. Students are using a variety of skills, research, technology, modeling, communication, collaboration, and creativity. I am so impressed with their level of positive engagement, motivation, and the direction of each company team to produce a creative and effective earth science PSA. Although I can’t wait to the see the final products, I am already extremely proud of the collaborative learning in which these students are engaged.

Lesson Details If you’re interested in the specifics of our Earth Safety Challenge Project, please see my lesson plans here: Earth Safety Challenge Project Lesson Plan

Lesson technology – for this project we utilized the following technology;

Since we are a 1:1 school (students are issued district laptops for the school year), we are comfortable with utilizing technology in our classroom. Class notes, agendas, and group project work is all conducted in OneNote. The final Earth Safety Challenge PSA will be posted in for other grade level science classes to review and offer feedback. We also use Class Policy to group team members and monitor technology on task time. Modeling in Minecraft is an awesome way for students to use their analytic thinking in a creative format to make a 3D model – of anything. Making use of student voice was easy with FlipGrid and Forms. FlipGrid offers accessible technology for students to video respond and reply, it is fun and informative. Forms provides an easy means to access or survey online, providing accessible data to share. My students are using a variety of tech tools to make their PSA presentations, including PowerPoint, Office Mix, Sway, and video, to be posted in class collections in If used appropriately, technology can enable and amplify student knowledge and voice on any project. Totally amazing collaboration.


Focus Week: Making of Minecraft – Part 2

Minecraft Part 2 – The How

At International School we have a Focus Week every spring, a one week, one class, CTE (Career Technical Education) focused week of study. The intent is to foster the opportunity for students to have quality work experiences, develop strong relationships with adults, and to cultivate relationships with students outside of their usual social group and outside of the regular curriculum and classroom. This year I offered a middle school “Making of Minecraft” focus week.

The pitch for my Minecraft focus week was: “What does it take to build, develop, test, and market new features in Minecraft? Come participate in a behind the scenes week with the Microsoft Minecraft Education Team. Try your skills at developing, marketing, and pitching your idea for a feature in Minecraft to the makers of Minecraft at Microsoft.”

Coordinating a focus week is as challenging as it is rewarding. The logistics basically mean you must create and schedule a massive, one week long field trip with all the backend planning, paperwork, permission forms, and prepping that encompasses, all while teaching a regular classroom schedule. Once planned and the focus week arrives, you only have one focus and that is what you prepped for previously.

To simplify things, I created a new focus week “class” in Microsoft Classroom and in Class Policy. Classroom allowed me to easily have a class OneNote, an associated Outlook calendar, and to promote group conversations all in one space. Class Policy, on the other hand, is a one-to-one technology management tool. Class Policy allowed me to monitor, and if necessary, lock student screens to help “focus” our Minecraft learning tasks during our daily schedule.

This week, we made creative use of the Minecraft Education Edition. As an Office 365 school district running Windows 10 laptops, we are able to take advantage of the classroom collaboration features within Minecraft.Edu. Specifically, my students found it helpful that they could see their (real) names within their Minecraft worlds and that it was easy to join and work within the worlds we created for Focus Week. Additionally, I also made use of the Minecraft “Classroom Mode tool, which allowed me to check-in on the progress of our challenge builds. Classroom Mode provided me a glimpse of who was where, what world, and what were they were working on, whether it was in the challenge build or in the survival game.

Our Minecraft Education Lead, Meenoo Rami, and I utilized our Minecraft class OneNote to post the daily schedule, warm up prompts, brainstorm pages, and links to FlipGrid questions. Since our focus week was tech-based, it only made sense to utilize technology for ease of communication and collaboration. Being smart with tech was especially important to me since half of my Focus Week students were not in my regular science classes. Since we are an Office 365 district using Classroom and Class Policy, it was pretty easy to do and absolutely essential in getting schedules and permission forms out to students and parents!

As the week progressed and my students were preparing to share their ideas for new features, we created a page to foster online sharing with the Minecraft Education Team. My students had two in-person opportunities to present their new feature “Design Ideas” and then later to also do a “Marketing Pitch.” Each student team was responsible for posting their Design Ideas and Marketing Pitches into The Minecraft Education Team members were excellent with their feedback, it was honest, targeted to middle school understanding, and futuristic with helping my student strive to improve. The skills my students learned and practiced were the real deal; they had to figure out how to concisely explain their ideas and they had to be ready when technology didn’t cooperate quickly or when someone forgot to update their presentation. We all learn from mistakes and feedback, and so did my students this week. It was a good week of teacher collaboration between Meenoo and me as well as student to student. It was truly amazing to see the ease of communication, the skill, and the cooperation that happened during our focused week of Minecraft.

 Interested in learning more?

Meenoo’s Focus Week in Review

Minecraft Education

Cubes in Space – version 1.5

My email to my students stated, “the cubes have arrived…” and in an after school flurry of fun, fascination, and excitement the box containing two cubes that flew into space was unceremoniously opened.


Let’s open our Cubes!


This is the second school year my 7th grade science classes have participated in the Cubes in Space program. Students are provided an opportunity to propose an experiment to be launched into space on a NASA rocket or balloon. The project requires students to design an experiment that will fit inside a 4cm sized cube. If the experiment proposal is accepted, the students’ cubes will be launched via sounding rocket from NASA Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Virginia in late June 2017 or on a high altitude balloon launched from the NASA Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility at Fort Sumner, New Mexico in August 2017.

Last year was our first year to participate and we were fortunate to have four student proposals accepted. The first two cubes launched on the sounding rocket the first week after school released for the summer. The second two cubes were scheduled to launch on the research balloon in late August but the launch was weather delayed until early October this school year. Although we are still patiently awaiting the final two cubes to review and analyze data, my students have shared their experiences with our local newspaper. It was delightful to hear what my students learned about the scientific process and the amount of collaboration and communication that is necessary to be successful with completing their experimental designs and proposals.

Bellevue students send science experiments to space

To be completely honest, it was extremely difficult to not open the delivered parcel that contained the first two (rocket) cubes this summer. I needed to be patient and wait until school resumed and let my student scientists open the package first. Since then my (now former, who are 8th grade) students have been periodically checking in at lunch or after school to provide updates on their summary and presentation of results, as this is a requirement of the Cubes in Space project.


Just delivery – Cubes from rocket launch


This year’s new 7th grade science students have just been introduced to the Cubes in Space project. We have begun the initial work of gathering ideas for objects that could be tested in space. A range of questions from “What materials will NASA allow?” “How much does gravity decrease as the rocket launches?” to even “What is a variable?” There is genuine interest and excitement to think scientifically about what can be tested in space.

A recent comment from one of last year’s student said it best, “It was the highlight of science last year.” By the smiles and questions from this year’s students, it looking like Cubes in Space is on track to be a science highlight again.

Changing the Conversation

Changing the Conversation

Over the course of the typical school year students ask a myriad of “what do I need to do for an A on this assignment?” questions. This year the conversation changed in our classroom.  Instead the questions became “how do I explain molecules to first graders?” and “Can first graders even understand what a molecule is?” Students became teachers, teaching their own mastery of the content. Changing the audience changed the conversation which changed the focus of their learning.

How Did the Conversation Change?

Traditionally science lessons begin with a lecture of content material, such as the amount of energy in a given state of matter. Students dutifully write down the concept, the vocabulary, work on the worksheet, and the lesson is learned.  This is way I learned it, so this is the way you learn it; its tradition. Although this may be tradition, it may not be the way to learn, to remember, and be engaged with the science in the world around us. We are science do-ers, we learn by doing. Watch any toddler figure out the world around them–they try, experiment, re-try, and then show us what they have learned. The same applies to us and our students. Once we try something for ourselves, we master what we learn by showing or explaining it to others. Students are excellent teachers. And when students have technology as a tool, they are immeasurably creative when it comes to teaching others. Kids get a kick out of watching, reacting, and listening to their voices. It’s a powerful tool of teaching.

Science Teaching and Learning

A major focus of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) is science is central to our lives. The key to science education is to develop in-depth science content understanding and develop skills of communication, collaboration, inquiry, and problem solving. There are many ways to help students deepen their science thinking and understanding. Over the summer I participated with the Partnership for Ambitious Science Teacher Leaders (PASTL) whose goal is to support teachers in developing rigorous and equitable science learning in their own classrooms.

Over the course of this year, I have been working to help students make their thinking and understanding visual.  Students have to begin with a science wondering or question and then build on their ideas, build on their understanding. Student talk is essential to this process of learning. Students become engaged in the science. Through a series of online simulated labs, such as those found at ExploreLearning Gizmos or University of Colorado’s PhET interactive simulations, students begin to build their foundational understanding. Add a few in-class labs, such as working with oobleck (corn starch and water) or with heat, dry ice and water, and students see for themselves all three states of matter in a few moments.

Students as Teachers, Changing Their Questions

So what did we do to change the conversation? Instead of the traditional lecture and notes, my 7th grade students created states of matter science lessons for 1st graders. They changed the conversation by first mastering the content for themselves and then creating interactive visual lessons for a different audience. They began asking questions like “What will a younger audience understand?” “How could they explain the difference between a solid and liquid to a 1st grader?” “Would the 1st graders understand what they were trying to teach?” “Would it make sense to them?” and “How can we explain it better?”

Utilizing Technology to Master Science Concepts

We are fortunate to be a 1:1 laptop school where each student receives a district issued device for the school year. The fact that we have technology at our fingertips made it easier, but what we did could be accomplished in a computer lab as well. We utilized Skype for communications with the 1st graders, made videos or used Microsoft Sway and PowerPoint Office Mix as presentation tools, and as a platform for sharing. After discussing and reviewing the key concepts about the states of matter, students made a list of learning objectives and determined the “story” or theme they would utilize to teach solids, liquids, and gases. We Skyped with our 1st graders, introduced ourselves, and the 1st graders asked a few questions. Then we went to work, thinking of ways to engage and hook our young audience. Students had to come up with examples to demonstrate different states of matter and how the energy of the particles change between states.  Finally, students had to figure out how best to stay scientifically correct but simple enough for a 1st grader to understand. Once the video, Sway, or Mix was finished, students posted their work on to share with our young audience.

We Skyped again after the 1st graders watched and talked about our lessons. We learned which lessons they liked best, we answered their questions about how an object could change from a liquid to solid, and we also learned that sometimes 1st graders understand that a rock is just rock and we shouldn’t make it too complicated. The outcomes were positive; the 7th graders mastered their understanding of states of matter and the 1st graders reported they loved our lessons and the variety and creativity.

The Conversation Has Changed

This concept is codified in a 2012 NPR story, Physicists Seek To Lose The Lecture As Teaching Tool, in which the professor realized his students were not learning effectively from his lecture but instead responded well to real-world demonstrations. The same is true for my students using technology to teach others. The classroom landscape has been slowly evolving over the last few years, the conversations have changed. Students are doing more to master their own learning.