In a past article, we looked into teaching students to think like disciplinarians in language arts and social studies. Think Like A Disciplinarian can also be used to define roles within a scientific activity.
At our school, the 6th graders participate in an annual egg drop. This experiment utilizes the scientific method and is an individual project.
Students are given few rules (size limitations, a ban on glass, etc) to encourage interesting ideas. We drop the designs off the library and give a cute prize to all survivors. Overall it’s a fun way to set the tone for our school year and reintroduce the scientific method.
However, let’s see how thinking like a disciplinarian could be used to enhance this project by creating roles within a group.
Creating Disciplinarian Roles
Let’s break the project down, looking for separate roles that correspond to scientific disciplines. After looking at how students approached the project over the years, I thought of three jobs: designing a parachute to slow the egg’s descent, testing materials to pack inside the structure, and developing the structure itself.
Here are three scientific disciplines that parallel these jobs (taken from this list of scientific fields):
- Aerospace Engineers: Designs the parachute.
- Materials Engineer: Researches the cushioning materials.
- Structural Engineer: Designs the egg’s container.
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Defining The Roles
As with language arts, we need to define these disciplines in a focused, student–friendly way that also pushes our kids further than they would go without the roles.
Introduce essential, discipline-specific language and develop scaffolded questions that utilize this language. The questions should move students toward a final product and incorporate the scientific method.
An aerospace engineer working with parachutes needs to use words such as:
- spill hole
- chute size
- line length
Found on this parachute site
These steps make use of the discipline’s language and encourage the scientific method:
- Find three resources on parachute design. List their titles and/or URLs below…
- Research how spill hole, chute size and line length affect parachutes.
- Design three prototypes utilizing different line lengths, chute sizes, or spill holes. Develop a hypothesis about which prototype will work best.
- Conduct an experiment to test your hypothesis. Keep records to determine which prototype slows the descent most effectively.
We’ll follow the same pattern for our other two roles:
Language of the Discipline
- planar truss
- geodesic dome
- crumple zones
- Find three resources on truss design. List their titles and/or URLs.
- Research how trusses, tetrahedrons, etc affect the strength of a structure.
- Create three prototypes utilizing different structural designs, developing a hypothesis about which prototype will work best.
- Conduct an experiment to test your hypothesis. Keep record of which prototype is the strongest to include in your team’s design.
Language of the Discipline
- molded packaging
- loose fill
- inflated packaging
- environmental impact
- Find three resources on packaging materials. List their titles and/or URLs.
- Research how various types of packaging materials protect the contents of a package.
- Create three prototypes utilizing different packaging materials, developing a hypothesis about which prototype will work best.
- Conduct an experiment to test your hypothesis. Record which prototype best protects the contents and will become part of your team’s design.
Now the entire group will combine forces to construct their final product, using the lessons they learned from their own experiments. These groups will create more sophisticated designs than they could have without the depth provided by discipline-focused thinking.
Further, students will experience real scientific careers and use the authentic language of those disciplines. Each student will bring a unique expertise to their group, encouraging actual collaboration.
Extending The Concept
So, do you have to put on an Egg Drop competition to incorporate scientific disciplines? Of course not!
Have your students build a different product, such as bridges, catapults, wind powered cars, earthquake-resistant buildings, paper airplanes, etc. Each lends itself to unique scientific roles.
Consider other ways that scientists actuallyuse their skills. They often provide insight into public debates ranging from adding new freeways to building new power plants.
In my neighborhood, we have an ecological reserve that is being considered for real estate development. Students could think like economists, marine biologists, bird experts, and geologists to debate the best course of action.
Developing a project such as this takes some serious planning and research on your part, but encourages deep and authentic scientific thinking. Consider transforming a piece of your science curriculum by having students think like disciplinarians.
Photo by AMagill