Use the Unit Library to pilot Challenge Based Science Learning in your classroom.
Teachers created these middle school science units to pilot the Challenge Based Science Learning framework in their classrooms and provide feedback that would inform the development of the scope and writing process during the Challenge Collaborative. The units are designed to be and include Open Educational Resources, and they are free for you to download and remix to your preference.
The units use the CBL framework to address problems in specific communities and will need modification for the phenomena and content to be relevant to your students. The units detailed below emphasize some of the ways that taking a challenge based approach to designing science learning can lead to meaningful outcomes for students that go beyond the content. In each of these scenarios, the teachers look for phenomena that would be relevant to their students and offer them an opportunity to solve problems, design features that give students more choice over their learning, and provide an authentic and challenging learning experience. Explore the design process to learn more about how you can create these units in your own classrooms.
At Chaboya Middle School, during the pilot of a commercial curriculum offering, students were learning about the concept of plate tectonics through observations of Mars. Though well thought out, Leslle Schafer found the connections to students’ lives to be lacking. Understanding California’s long history of significant earthquakes and wildfires, Schafer considered a better process to get her students thinking about plate tectonics, in a way that mattered to them and their community, and also would engage them in authentic, meaningful, and hands-on science learning.
Building on the background knowledge students developed through the pilot, students are prompted to go further with the question: “How can we mitigate the effects of a natural disaster?” Then, they are given the option to investigate the earthquakes or wildfires that happen close to their homes. After choosing a natural disaster, students create essential questions and individual project organizers, which they use to collect questions and resources about mitigating the effects of disasters, and to plan investigations that will help them as they develop their challenges. Potential challenges such as “create an emergency plan” and “build a prototype early warning system” are identified in the template.
With challenges identified, students move into the Investigate phase where they use their individual project organizer to collect new questions like “What makes a building safe?” and “How quickly are people notified?,” which they use the NGSS Science and Engineering practices to investigate. This process repeats twice, with the students collaborating to share information and make a final decisions about the scope of their solution prior to moving into the Act phase. Once students agree on a solution, they work to build and test their prototypes before providing an oral presentation to their classmates of their work.
The 50th anniversary of the moon landing provided the inspiration for this unit at South Fayette Middle School and gave students the opportunity to address a real-world challenge issued to the public by one of the most well known science-focused national institutions. NASA announced, as part of Space Policy Directive 1, that it would begin the process of long-term human exploration on the moon. In addition, NASA asked commercial space companies to submit ideas for habitats, landers, and other technologies to support the mission. Nicole Bianco saw this as a chance to help her sixth grade students learn about engineering and earth/space science by challenging them to think deeply about how to provide what humans need to survive on the moon.
To start the unit, students are asked to model their current understanding of moon phases and then create a driving question board to organize their questions. They then engage in the essential activities of the Engage phase, which include exploring the atmosphere of other planets, investigating seasons, and modeling eclipses. With the background knowledge gained from these activities, students are prompted to identify and solve a challenge associated with moon colonization so they can blueprint a long-term human habitat. Potential challenges identified in the template include food production, access to water and oxygen, and power generation.
With the challenges identified by the students, they go back to identifying new questions with the driving question board, then create investigations to answer their questions as they move into the Investigate phase. Student challenge groups are split apart during the investigation phase so that each group can have an “expert” on the four areas when they reconvene to create their habitat blueprints. In the Act phase, students collaborate to create their long-term habitat blueprints–using what they have learned through the investigations–and then present their solutions to the class.
Like many Midwestern cities, Middletown Ohio has seen periods of economic growth and decline, and the landscape that used to be farmland has changed dramatically through the years. The seventh grade teachers at Middletown Middle School chose to use this change to deepen student thinking around native species, ecosystems, biodiversity, and human impact. The unit kicks off with an activity that compares modern day Middletown with its counterparts as far back as the turn of the century. Using aerial photos sourced from the local library and comparing them to images from Google Maps, students complete a gallery walk, making observations and recording their questions. These questions are moved to a driving question board, and additional questions are generated and added before moving into the essential activities of the unit, which include readings on biodiversity and predator prey simulations.
Following the activities, students are asked to reflect on the initial gallery walk activity, and think about how the changing landscape of Middletown might have impacted the ecosystem and biodiversity. From this reflection session, student challenges are identified, and students begin drafting questions that they can investigate to get more information. The template provides two examples of potential challenges: How might we create a space for healthy ecosystems in Middletown? How might we help [specific animal] grow its population size in Middletown? With these challenges, students can undertake additional investigations, like identifying native species and surveying spaces for limiting factors, before developing their solution concepts.
Students have time to draft their solution concepts, which are then submitted to the teacher for feedback before going into a cycle of peer review. These products, which can have multiple formats, are then presented to the class before being shared with the public in the Middletown City Building Community Room.
Considering the severe weather that Ohio experiences in the spring and summer months, the seventh grade team at Middletown Middle School saw an opportunity for students to investigate and explain the causes of tornadoes and hurricanes, while developing solutions that can help keep their community safe when they occur. The Engage phase of the unit starts with a video of a tornado and hurricane, which is used to prompt a discussion with students, and the development of a KLEWS chart where students record their questions and investigation results as the unit unfolds. Prior to the Investigate phase, students develop background knowledge through essential activities, which include a water cycle simulation, an investigation of warm and cold fronts, and modeling the coriolis effect. With this knowledge in hand, students are presented with options for their challenge, keeping people safe during either a hurricane or a tornado.
With their challenges set, students move into the Investigate phase, where they draft questions like: How do tornadoes form? How does the ocean affect the severity of a storm? How do we know when we should expect severe weather? After answering these new questions through investigations, students develop solution concepts. Potential solution concepts are provided in the template and include creating an emergency response plan, creating an emergency kit/bag, or developing a public service announcement for residents.
With solution concepts created, students are asked to participate in a peer review process for their projects before finalizing their solutions. When the projects are ready, students share them with their classmates and then reach out to local businesses and organizations to share their work and ask for feedback.
With the recent focus on the loss of pollinating insects in the news, the Middletown seventh grade teachers saw an opportunity for engaging their students in exploring how the food that we eat is impacted by a range of ecological factors prior to arriving in a grocery store or restaurant while learning about science content like ecosystems, abiotic and biotic factors, and food webs. After starting the unit with a video, students reflect and engage in a discussion around the loss of pollinators and then create a driving question board with questions they want to investigate. Prompted by these questions, students participate in essential activities like flower dissection and a pollination simulation to build background knowledge and context needed to address the challenge “How might we protect the pollinators of our food supply?”
In the Investigate phase, students are asking questions about pollinators, then researching and investigating those questions. Potential student questions identified in the template include: Why is our food supply at risk? How does weather affect pollination? What other types of insects pollinate? The template includes several examples of activities and investigations students can use to figure out the answers to the questions they have before moving on to their solution concepts, which include developing infographics to share with the public, developing a “pollinator kit” that includes items needed to support pollinator survival, or social media/video campaigns.
In the Act phase, students become familiar with the design process through a “taco party” activity before moving on to building and testing their prototypes. For the final presentation, students participate in a “Pollinator Convention,” where all classes share their solutions, and students are given the opportunity to see how others chose to address the challenge before completing a final reflection on their learning process.
This unit begins with a video detailing the impacts of the spring 2019 floods in the Mississippi basin, giving students an opportunity to reflect on how their lives and the lives of people they know were impacted. After a classroom discussion, students build out an initial model of why flooding happens, which is updated throughout the course of their investigations when new knowledge is developed. With initial models created, students then create a driving question board that they populate with questions about why flooding happens, which they will investigate first with essential activities and then with investigations they create. Essential activities build knowledge and context for identifying challenges, and in this unit students are calculating precipitation rates and stream flow rates, exploring soil composition, and modeling the water cycle.
With the essential activities completed, students then create challenges. In the template, potential student challenges are identified, including “keep people from getting sick or dying after a flood” and “prevent floodwater from polluting rivers and oceans.” The challenges serve as the prompt for drafting Guiding Questions, which students use to get more information about their specific challenge through investigation. The template includes potential student drafted guiding questions and activities that can be modified to support investigation, with data sets about floods, models of stormwater systems, and guidance on emergencies from federal agencies. From these investigations, students develop solution concepts like “create an emergency response plan” or “change the way stormwater is managed in my town,” before moving on to the Act phase.
In the Act phase, students create a design brief to prototype their solutions, then test and iterate based on user feedback provided by the teacher and peers before finalizing and building them. For the presentation portion of the Act phase, this unit asks students to create posters that summarize their solutions to be hung for the school open house, and to create an additional presentation that will be shared with the class.
“How might we help our friends?” is a simple question that had an outsized impact at Middletown Middle School. The Special Olympics is a school-wide celebration at Middletown, attended by hundreds of participants, students, teachers, and community members. For the eighth grade science teachers, who share their wing with the self-contained special education unit at the middle school, they saw the Special Olympics as an opportunity to build empathy and understanding into the curriculum by partnering with their colleagues who work in special education.
This unit challenges students to help their friends participate in the Special Olympics. Students are prompted into action by a request from Cathy McCausland, the special education teacher, who asks them to assist the students in the MD Unit. With this request, students begin an initial phase of questioning and investigation around the Special Olympics, acquiring needed context and background about why the events were created, what they hope to accomplish, and how people can participate. After sharing their learning with classmates, Mrs. McCausland provides students with new information: a video of the students she teaches, the disabilities that they face, and their barriers to participation in the Special Olympics event.
With this new prompt and a challenge in place to help the students in the MD Unit, the science students then enter the Investigation phase. Students research the disabilities they learned about in the video, ask questions about how it might limit participation in the games, and then develop solution concepts. In the provided template, the Middletown students think about creating prosthetics for those with limb differences and visual directions for those with auditory processing issues. With a solution concept developed, students begin creating their prototype and testing it with the MD Unit students. In the Act phase, the science students take these tested prototypes to the Special Olympics and work with the participants to use them. To wrap up the unit, students are asked to write a letter to the incoming eighth grade students about what they learned from the process.
Building on the aviation heritage of the region just a few miles away from the national historical area that commemorates the work and lives of Wilbur and Orville Wright, Middletown Ohio is host to the Ohio Challenge each summer, a large hot air balloon festival that features balloon rides, games, and more. The eighth grade teachers at Middletown Middle School saw this event, which is well loved by students, as an opportunity to learn about physics in an engaging way. The Engage phase begins with videos of the festival, including one of a hot air balloon losing control, which prompts a classroom discussion about the competitions that occur at the Ohio Challenge. This discussion leads to the creation of a driving question board around the question: How can we be a successful hot air balloon team?Students are then split into teams.
These student teams work together to investigate the balloon competitions at the Ohio Challenge, carrying out activities that give them answers to questions like: How to hot air balloons work? How do you steer a hot air balloon? How does the weather affect a balloon? In the Investigate phase, these teams break apart as they work through the activities, so that each person can be an expert in one area of the balloon competition when they reconvene to develop their solution concepts. Potential solution concepts identified in the template include creating a comprehensive training program for new participants in the challenge, redesigning balloons to address safety concerns, or developing an app to help navigation.
Prior to moving into the Act phase, students are engaged in a round of peer review before creating a design brief that they will use to guide their solution development. Once the solutions are developed, students test and iterate them, using a prototyping resource from the Interactive Design Foundation. The final presentation of their solutions happens in front of a board member of the Ohio Challenge, who has offered to visit the school and answer additional questions that students may have.
The science teachers at South Fayette Middle School have been in a partnership with the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission as a “PA Trout in the Classroom” school. Through this partnership, the teachers receive a fish tank and all the supplies needed to raise Pennsylvania brook and rainbow trout from eggs, which they release into local waterways. This grant supports schools in obtaining hands-on materials, training for teachers, and a curricular guide, and provides a service to the communities of Pennsylvania by stocking their streams with fish. The teachers felt that while this was a positive addition to their classroom and the students were interested in the spectacle of the tank, there was room to improve its implementation and integration with the learning goals across the middle school sequence. There was also an opportunity to turn the great physical resource into an exemplar of next generation science learning.
This unit asks students to decide the best site in the local watershed ecosystems to release the trout they have raised. The teacher starts the unit by introducing the phenomenon of a fish kill. To help students build a personal connection, the teacher then asks students to write letters to the trout babies that have just arrived from PA Trout in the Classroom.
Using a driving question board and concept mapping software, students then begin to build out their models of fish kills and collect questions about why fish kills happen. Using resources and activities identified in the Questions and Activities template, the teacher guides students through investigations to answer questions on their driving question board and prepares them to identify a challenge to solve. In the Engage phase, students are measuring dissolved oxygen, simulating eutrophication, and analyzing population data, among other activities.
For this unit, all the students are addressing the same challenge, which is to choose a suitable release site for their trout. With the challenge identified, students begin the process of developing Guiding Questions like “What kind of streams do trout live in?,” which they investigate with the support of the teacher. Throughout their investigations, they identify the important factors for fish survival, eventually completing real-world tests and comparing potential release sites of their choosing. After completing these investigations, students create their solution concept, which is to make recommendations on ideal places to release their trout. In the Act phase, they present their solutions to stakeholders in their community.
The unit culminates with students going to their selected sites and releasing their trout. In years past, this release was simply a field trip for the students, with the sites preselected by the teachers. By involving the students directly in the decision-making and leaving space for students to ask and investigate questions, the teachers at South Fayette Middle School helped increase student engagement and agency, and helped students see the authentic applications of the science they learned.
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