Special Report

Lessons From a Dirty River

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — October 01, 1998 6 min read
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For students at Lessenger Middle School, a glance at the nearby River Rouge is all it takes to gauge the health of the waterway that winds through this city. Even the littlest of observers can point to the broken beer bottles that line its eroded banks, the litter that floats alongside stray logs, and the jagged metal of a submerged car as evidence of the river’s chronic pollution.

But for science teachers at the school, the familiar scene offers a prime opportunity to get students to see beyond the obvious conditions that impact life in and around the water and to apply what they’re learning in class to real-life problems.

The students plod across. the overgrown field that separates the school from the river to observe the scarred landscape. Like novice scientists, they document their observations, collect water samples, and hunt for the leeches, nails, and larvae that thrive there.

Such hands-on activities offer a powerful entree into lessons about water quality and the environment. They also follow the advice of many educators who call for more real-world, or authentic, learning activities to engage students in complicated subject matter.

In this case, technology is making the lessons possible.

None of the 850 students at Lessenger has learned how to solve the differential equations that real scientists would use in, say, calculating how chemicals flushed into the river from factories cause various life form to thrive or die. But by using a software program called Model-It, developed at the University of Michigan, students can circumvent their cognitive limitation and get to the concepts behind the formulas.

“Seventh graders can memorize definitions of scientific concepts, but they can’t do the mathematical calculations that help them define the relationship between things,” says Karen Amati, the resource teacher who helps her colleagues use technology more effectively to engage students in science projects. “They come to understand that as oxygen in the water increases, water quality increases. And they have to know why. Because organisms need oxygen.”

First, the students use probes to collect information on water temperature, voltage, light intensity, phosphate levels, and dissolved oxygen.

Using a microcomputer that attaches to the probes, they can simultaneously record and graph the results, creating an instant picture. Back in the classroom, the students use Model-It to create a graphic of the watershed, showing the river’s path, the line of trees along its banks, and the houses and industry that have cropped up along it.

They put their findings into a qualitative sentence-"When the amount of nitrates in the water increases, the level of dissolved oxygen decreases"-and then build a model that calculates how higher or lower levels of pollutants affect water quality, according to Joseph S. Krajcik, an associate professor of science education at the University of Michigan who works on the project.

“Once they build [the model], they can simulate the different causes and effects,” he says.

When students add higher levels of pollution to the equation, the oxygen level decreases. When the amount of dissolved oxygen is decreased, the water-quality level also slides downward. In both cases, the changes appear in vivid color on a graph.

When students are ready to put quantitative information on the graph, the program can do the calculations for them.

“Before, I didn’t know how different pollutants have different effects on the river,” says 7th grader Chantell Bellanfant. “Now, I know that the river is not just polluted because there is trash in it, but that the trash causes changes in the water.”

Amati later incorporates broader lessons on the local and global environments and how human activities impact their intricate balance. The students have made presentations to the local Friends of the Rouge advocacy group about their findings.

Elliot Soloway, one of the developers of the low-cost software-about $40 per package-says periodic assessments of the Lessenger students show they have gained a deeper understanding of the scientific principles they are studying. He believes such activities are the key for boosting student interest and achievement in science.

“The only real way to get students engaged in complicated subject matter is to have the learning be authentic,” says Soloway, a professor who heads the Center for Highly Interactive Computing in Education at the University of Michigan, which developed Model-It. Some of the funding for the project comes from the district’s Urban Systemic Initiative grant from the National Science Foundation.

Other researchers echo Soloway’s remarks.

“Much of the reform efforts [in science education] are based on the idea of students taking charge of their own learning and being engaged in inquiry and projects that they care about,” says Robert F. Tinker, the president of the Concord Consortium in Massachusetts, a nonprofit research and development group that has been a leader in developing technology to enhance hands-on learning. “For that, good tools that are flexible can be used to support a wide range of projects.”

The decades-old goal of making science learning resemble science practice has been elusive, according to Daniel C. Edelson, an assistant education professor at Northwestern University.

“However, the increasing availability of computer and networking technologies for the classroom, as well as the growing role of these technologies in science practice itself, offers new opportunities for the successful adaptation of scientific practice for learning environments,” Edelson writes in the 1997 International Handbook of Science Education.

At Northwestern, Edelson, Roy D. Pea, and other researchers have developed the Learning Through Collaborative Visualization Project, or CoVis. With the help of video teleconferencing, the Internet, and software that allows users to visualize difficult scientific principles, high school students can access and study the same research data used by scientists to study the weather, Edelson says.

“Traditional mathematics has been an obstacle to kids being able to work with data,” he says in an interview. “Visualization allows them to work ... with large data sets showing global temperature or precipitation displayed in the form of color maps.”

While researchers claim the impact of technology-based projects on student learning is compelling, there are significant challenges to getting teachers to use the technology to enhance classroom activities, Soloway says.

Aside from changing teachers’ practices, no small feat in itself, these kinds of activities are time-intensive. Teachers must find ways to fit such in-depth exploration into limited class periods while ensuring that they meet district curriculum guidelines. They must also be able to manage the inevitable chaos created by a classroom of students collaborating on multiple tasks.

Where students’ elementary math skills may limit their ability to participate, the teacher must balance direct instruction with their independent inquiry into the subject matter. The teachers themselves may need some training in the use of technology as a cognitive tool, which takes considerable time and skill, the researchers found.

A final obstacle is in assessing what students have learned from such activities. Conventional tests may not measure the understanding students have gained from these projects.

The Lessenger students have been able to spend large blocks of time on the project, in part because of the time and resources the university professors have donated to it.

Amati, meanwhile, has worked closely with teachers to get their computer skills up to speed. And school administrators have been supportive of the experiment. The project is expanding to about a dozen schools this school year.

Incorporating similar technologies effectively into science classes is occurring slowly. Teachers in hundreds of districts around the country are still discovering its potential throughout the science curriculum.

“The challenge is to get more teachers to use the technology effectively,” Edelson says. “It’s only starting to happen in schools right now. But schools and school systems are expressing a real need [for this technology], because the new standards are calling for more authentic learning.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 01, 1998 edition of Education Week


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