When ninth grade biology students were prompted during the first week of school to share the scientific questions that they were curious about, they didn’t realize that those questions would inform the structure of their winter term.
Under the guidance of ninth grade biology teachers Chris O’Connor and Science Department Chair Gus Halwani, students planned, iterated, and executed their own research projects while learning valuable research and project management skills along the way. The projects culminated in March with a science symposium where students presented the results of their research to the Fay community.
Working independently or in a small group, students wrote proposals, writing several drafts to ensure that they had identified a fully-formed project as opposed to just a thin idea. Given that students would be immersed in their research project for an entire term, it was critical to choose a topic that would sustain their interest. “We talked about the importance of choosing a topic that they were passionate about,” says Dr. Halwani. “The students who did so produced high-quality work that felt meaningful and purposeful.”
Students expanded each project proposal into a prospectus, with a timeline and deliverables that they would be responsible for along the way. With their teachers as mentors, students followed the framework of the Fay Design Process as they continuously evalu- ated and refined their work. Every two weeks, students had deliv- erables to keep their project on track, including written tasks like outlines and reflections. Students also regularly updated classmates, discussing their progress and roadblocks and soliciting feedback and questions.
While all students began by familiarizing themselves with the work that had already been done in their field, they took their projects in very different directions. Some ninth graders designed and conducted an experiment, some interviewed experts for insight, and others chose to create a model of some sort.
“Some students stepped outside their comfort zone and learned something brand new, like digital animation,” says Chris. “They found online tutorials and learned a whole new set of skills.”
One student interested in conformity conducted a study within the Fay community to see how the introduction of confederates giving false answers affects the responses of others in a group. Wondering if high-priced sneakers are really worth the money, another group of students set up a series of agility tasks in Harlow Gym and tested a regular sports sneaker against specialized running and basketball sneakers to see which performed better. Intrigued by the Mozart effect, one student tested whether student performance on a math test was better when listening to pop music or classical music. Parents may be dismayed to discover that pop music listeners had a clear advantage!
While students were developing expertise in their field of study, they were also honing key project management skills and learning how to address common pitfalls. “Time management was a challenge for some groups, while others dealt with team chemistry issues,” says Chris. One noteworthy evolution was the teams’ shift in perspective from worrying whether the teachers would approve of their progress to being motivated by their own high expecta- tions for the project. “Many students developed a good definition for what quality work is to them,” says Dr. Halwani, “and that’s a benefit that they will take with them when they leave Fay.”
The project culminated with the Science Symposium on March 4. Each student created a poster to explain their project and brought copies of their research paper and materials to share
with attendees. Throughout the morning, Upper School students, faculty, and staff visited the symposium to talk to the students about their research and ask questions. For the ninth graders, this is where their hard work paid off. Rather than a memorized presentation, Dr. Halwani notes that the students had been living the material for so long that there was an authentic atmosphere of sharing. “The students were so comfortable with their work that they exhibited a mastery of their subject area that impressed the attendees.”
The symposium didn’t feel like a regular science fair, where students might compare their work to that of other students. Each project was entirely unique, and, Dr. Halwani notes, the students took pride in their work because it was completely their own. “From the beginning, they were clear about their vision for the project, and when they looked at the final product, they didn’t see my fingerprints all over it. They had become experts in the field.”