"The Essential Question"
An essential question is a specific question that is asked which leads the students to use higher-order thinking skills to seek out knowledge, and is usually a question for which an answer cannot be looked up in a book or journal or website. In "Understanding by Design: Curriculum and Assessment"(1), a guidebook for designing essential questions, the authors recommend that the question:
have no one obvious 'right' answer: essential answers are not self-evidently true. Even if there are 'truths' and essential theories in a discipline, the student comes to know that there are other plausible theses and hypotheses to be considered and sorted through along with the 'sanctioned' views.
Students will be required to use the information they gather to analyze, synthesize, and draw conclusions. The student is always asked to go beyond the information given to develop a response that is personal, thoughtful, and supported by evidence.
In this unit I am using the question -- "
The Greenhouse Effect and me: How Do We Affect Each Other?"
as the essential question.
In 9th grade we typically explore the ideas of heat and energy and of chemical reactions. We also look at the model of light energy through the electromagnetic spectrum. Our standards also state that students should be made aware of their impact on the world. In this new unit, I think that focusing specifically on the human activities that changed the global environment will capture the attention of my students in a concrete way. Students will construct a greenhouse where they choose a scenario to investigate, model that scenario and collect scientific evidence from that model. They can then apply that information toward an understanding of how the greenhouse effect takes place and what are the pros and cons of the phenomenon. Additionally, students will be able to investigate a range of current issues about the environment in order to answer the essential question. The students will look not only at why the greenhouse effect is essential to life on Earth, but also how a runaway greenhouse effect could change the way that life on Earth looks and how biodiversity will be affected.
In Connecticut high schools, students need to demonstrate their ability to apply knowledge and learning on a standardized test (CAPT); I think that the ability to research and use facts and data to evaluate a scientific phenomenon is a useful step in developing skills to achieve this goal. I hope that the students will be able to make the connection that human influences by way of technology have an impact on the world that they live in, and that thinking about a complex question can generate even more curiosity and more questions about a topic.
The Greenhouse Effect
will probably span two to three weeks and is sandwiched between the unit on heat and temperature and the unit on weather. After five class periods devoted to vocabulary, background, and hands-on exploration of basic concepts related to the greenhouse effect, the unit will culminate with students working in teams to research and develop arguments to support an opinion which is then defended in debate format. This will show whether they understand the ways that people are having an impact on the environment and how policy decisions influence it. Each team of students will research both sides of an environmental issue, and then will choose a point of view and defend it using the evidence they have collected. The essential question should be at the back of their minds as they work on any facet of the project.
As a class, we will discuss the science of the greenhouse effect as it is currently understood before students embark on their own research. Students will be aware of the need to define and refine their own notions of the environment before drawing any conclusions based on their gathered evidence. Of course, the evidence itself might contribute to a change in their view. We will discuss classroom generated definitions and questions. We will talk about the areas where students would clearly expect to see pollution and then also discuss some other lesser known contributors to the environmental dilemma. After these classroom discussions, students should begin to think of evaluating the essential question on the greenhouse effect as a complex issue.
The students will be writing a daily journal to record whatever new ideas they are mulling over as they conclude each session of research. These remarks will be used the next day to remind students where they left off and to trigger research for the new day. Students will be required to answer the 'Essential Question' more formally in a final concluding essay, but the daily notes will help to remind them of their changes in viewpoint. While conducting research, students will be encouraged to use at least one primary source as well as text-based resources to supplement any information taken from reliable websites. Students will include a bibliography of works cited in their final presentation.
Students will take notes from books and online resources and save their materials in a portfolio. "Cutting and pasting" huge paragraphs of information will not be allowed -- the value of using an 'Essential Question' to guide research is that the use of the material will be unique to the student and not easily imported from a website. Research that must answer an 'Essential Question' avoids the "download online information and call it a report" behavior that many students have developed when using the Internet as a tool.
Students will present their findings to the class in two ways. First, they must prepare a PowerPoint presentation of the data that they collect from the greenhouse lab. This will be presented in seminar style forum, with each team presenting their evidence and drawing conclusions from it. Secondly, students will present information in a debate format, where they use evidence that they have gathered to defend a political position on a global issue. Students will also be asked to write an essay and design a poster to illustrate the causes and effects of a greenhouse effect on Earth. Students will follow rubrics (available in resource packet) to guide them through the requirements of their assignments so that each student will address the same general topics in answering the essential question. Text-based resources for the topic will be collected and made available in the classroom. Students will access some pre-selected websites that explain the greenhouse effect. Students will be given Internet research guides so that the time spent on the Internet is directed and focused -- in other words, students will be looking for specific information rather than surfing the Internet for inspiration. Students will maintain a list of works cited and include citations for images and animations.
Integrating technology is an essential part of this unit. The unit's theme about the greenhouse effect and the impact of human population on Earth is also about technology, since technology, according to the American Heritage Desk Dictionary is "the application of knowledge to develop tools, materials, techniques, and systems to help people meet and fulfill their needs". The purpose for integrating technology in this unit is to encourage students to use information from the world-wide web judiciously; to use technology tools to help answer important questions and to evaluate and analyze the material they are reading online with a critical eye. Additionally, integrating office technology, such as PowerPoint and Excel, will help students develop confidence is using multi-media resources that will be expected of them later in high school and in college.
The websites included in the unit are often interactive and can illustrate a combustion engine or the electromagnetic spectrum to give students far better than a one-dimensional illustration. Although this unit will be implemented in a classroom where each student has access to his own laptop everyday, it should also be possible to use computers in the library or computer lab and have the students work as teams.
What factors should students consider when analyzing their topics? What will help the students analyze the good and ill effects of the global warming as it ties into their lives? To help them focus, students will use mapping tools and planning guides during their lab investigations and research. Creating these visual outlines will help students formulate questions for research; creating visual rankings of data to organize their evidence about the positive and negative impacts of humans on global warming.
The state of Connecticut lists the core scientific content and performance standards that are expected to be met during the high school science curricula. This unit is designed with many of these content and performance standards in mind. The specific standards that this unit addresses are available as part of the resource packet (available from author upon request).
Additionally the critical thinking skills the students will acquire in completing this project -- researching and finding evidence, taking a personal stand, recognizing divergent viewpoints, supporting a point of view-- are directly applicable to the Interdisciplinary Section of the CAPT that they will first encounter as sophomores in high school. The
Writing Across the Disciplines
section of the CAPT requires students to apply knowledge and skills they have gained through their school career to an important contemporary issue. This assessment consists of two Interdisciplinary Writing tests. The tests measure how well students take a clear position on the issue and use accurate information from the articles to support their position. Students are assessed on how well they organize their ideas in a logical and effective manner so that their audience understands and follows their thinking, and express their ideas clearly and fluently using their own words.(2)