Oh my goodness, the power of focusing on STEM (or, really, just having a purpose truly integrated throughout the school). It is easy to see why Bicol Regional Science High School is such an outstanding school: the dedication and quality of its teachers. I had the good fortune to sit in Mam Noemie’s independent research course for two hours. It'[s sort of like Science Fair, only a class, and geared towards teaching students the fundamentals of science research, not winning a competition.
Students had spent a week researching potential questions to investigate. Then, they filled out a research proposal form, that summarized their preliminary research, gave a title to their experiment, and then began a draft of their methods and potential future applications. After this, they were expected to develop a slideshow presentation to share their initial proposals with the class (and Mam Noeamie) for consideration. The focus, at the moment, was more conceptual than quantitative: Mam Noemie wanted to make sure that the research proposals were solid and safe before the course progress towards quantitative methodologies (I jumped the gun a bit though, and discussed controls and variables with each group to help them refine their research methods). Each group was also required to discuss how they would test their ideas, either through a setup at school, or by securing assistance at local universities.
The groups that presented (there were only 2 in one class, and 3 in the other.. because I tend to talk a lot and wanted to know more about their research) were largely prepared and very articulate. I say this because these were 9th graders and, since Science is taught in English, all of their work was in English. Of course they were shy, and playful, and, at times, very informal. They ARE kids after all. These were students that I hoped my students would become.
I discussed teaching methodologies with Mam Noemie, and she uses many of the same strategies I do. She believes that the best way to teach research and inquiry is to do it. We improve our abilities to ask questions and design methods for experimentation by actually practicing those skills through self-directed lab work. The teacher, and peers provide advice and guidance, but experience is the best the teacher in these circumstances. It’s the only way to truly teach the habits of mind that build strong critical thinking.
I truly appreciated that she had the students present and defend their proposals before the class. The rigors of a crucible like that forces students to take their work seriously. They need to examine every aspect of their work before they can commit to even a draft proposal. Such methods, I believe, are what motivate her students to work faster and harder than they might otherwise: they know that in a short amount of time they will be standing before their peers sharing what they know. They need to work fast, and well.
Also, Mam Noemie never once said “that idea is bad”. She critiqued their design, their methods, their stated objectives. But, she never said “this is not a good research topic”. She encouraged them. She gave pointers for improvements, and commented that she had reminded them that their topic could be hazardous i they decided to go a certain way with it. But, she shied away from outright discouraging their ideas. In the end, the discussions remained solely on the proposed methods and research, and not their ideas themselves. I saw students who welcomed questions and critique. They were kids, however, and moaned and begged for “mercy”. But, all the same, they thanked their audience for their comments and wrote down reminders to make revisions and edits later.
It’s exciting to see a process that I use in my own classroom from a different perspective. I said before that I don’t have enough public speaking in my classroom. And, when it occurs, it’s often at the end of the assessment, as a final product. I was refreshing to see work presented publicly in the raw, unrefined, and ready for critique. It may have been faster to read the proposals over one night, but the students gained valuable critical thinking and speaking skills by having to defend their work in a symposium. I’ve played with using this strategy before, and, after seeing it in practice, I think I’m going to give it a try.