Research

Right now my physics classes are researching how different types of power plants work.  Each group is responsible for a different type of plant and will make a poster presenting how that plant works, along with the work they have done to explore electromagnetism and create hand generators that utilize Faraday’s Law of Induction.  In addition to learning about how the power plants work, students are looking information on amount of CO2/kilowatt-hour, cost per kilowatt-out, and what percentage of all US power is made by their type of power plant.  This information will help them compare values across all types of power plants. 

They are a little slow at research and anything reading related and have difficulty with overall comprehension.  I’ve done some work with them to help them use subtitles to their advantage and identify key words for the different topics they need to learn.  All of this is helpful and they will be successful in the end, but I worry that their may be too much structure.  I identified the common information for them to find and then they searched for that information.  Being able to find information is an important skill, but I want to help build their ability to figure out what to look for.  Maybe carbon emissions and cost makes sense to me but something else might be more important to them. 

Most of the advice I’ve gotten from mentors about projects is that more structure leads to more success, but if I’m creating the structure then they never learn to create that structure on their own.  I’ve been trying to think back to how/when I learned how to do research and I don’t recall many science classes that included any research projects.  More often, we just focused on the lab side of things and as a result had less real world connections.  Applied physics was just examples here and then, and then my own drive to apply what I learn to the world around me.  Most of that work was never part of the curriculum, but came from random conversations and working with physics/astronomy clubs after school.

I think most of my research ability came from history classes.  From elementary school through high school there were projects where I had to get books to learn about a topic or (later on) search online.  Most of my structure and ability to do large research projects came from my 10th grade World History class where I had to write an 8 page paper on the leadership qualities of a chosen person (I chose Gandhi).  It was this project where I learned a method of writing a sing note on an index card with the source, page number, and a tag from the different sections of my outline.  I learned a process for doing research that I was able to then apply in later history classes and in a few classes in college.  If I had a different teacher, or the teacher didn’t lead us through this process, I might not have any good method for writing a research paper.

While this process was helpful, I still don’t know where I learned how to identify the important information that went on each index card.  It may have just been years of practice.  When I look at my students, many of them cannot identify key information like that from a larger text.  I could teach them the index card method, but it isn’t much good if they don’t know what to write on each card.  Learning from reading is such an important skill that many of my students lack, and we never explored it during any of my education classes.

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