Communication Center  Conference  Projects Share  Reports from the Field Resources  Library  LSC Project Websites  NSF Program Notes
 How to Use this site    Contact us  LSC-Net: Local Systemic Change Network
Newsclippings and Press Releases

LSC Reference Materials

LSC Case Study Reports

Annual Report Overviews

Summer Workshop Plans

LSC Reference Materials


Habitats - a case study for professional development

author: Deborah Bryant, Barbara Miller, Susan (Sinkinson) Elko
submitter: Partnership for Systemic Change: A School/Business Collaboration to Enhance Science, Mathematics, and Technology Teaching and Learning
description: This Case Study, along with an accompanying Facilitators Guide, is used as a professional development tool.

Copyright © 1997 by the Merck Institute for Science Education - Version 2.0

published: 12/18/1997
posted to site: 12/18/1997

Case developed by

Deborah Bryant and Barbara Miller
Education Development Center, Inc.
Susan Sinkinson,
Merck Institute for Science Education

Copyright © 1997 by the Merck Institute for Science Education - Version 2.0

"Okay, what's next?" Jake asked. "We've put the black paper in, and it covers all four walls. What do we do next? Check the sheet." Jake jumped up from his chair and looked over the shoulder of his partner Aaron at the worksheet Aaron was holding.

"Lemme see...okay, that was step number four," said Aaron. "Now, step number five is, 'Take the container of soil and spread it on the bottom of the terrarium,'" he read from the sheet.

"Ms. Caruso, where's the soil?" Jake asked. Gina Caruso was walking around the room, watching the pairs of third graders construct their terrariums. "Did you check the materials table?" she replied.

"Okay, let's get the soil from the materials table," said Jake, and the two boys hurried over to the side of the classroom, where a large table held buckets of soil, small plants, and other terrarium makings. Pat Brown was at the table, helping pairs of children to locate the materials they needed.

Gina and Pat were both third-grade teachers at Jefferson Elementary School. Gina had been teaching inquiry-based science for a couple of years, using science units or kits designed for hands-on exploration. Jefferson had recently decided to use the kits across the school, from kindergarten through sixth grade, and Gina was thrilled with the decision. She'd been teaching with kits for most of the last few years. But for many teachers at Jefferson, it meant a big change from the textbook-based science curriculum they had been using.

Pat, Gina's grade-level teaching partner, had never taught using an inquiry-based approach before, and she had never used a kit, either. On their inservice days late last summer, Gina had worked with Pat to help her get oriented to teaching with a kit. She had had a brainstorm, and shared it with Pat: What if they brought their classes together for science while Pat was getting used to the kits? Pat had agreed to try it. Gina had taught the first unit of the year to their combined classes, a kit on plant growth and development, and Pat had assisted her and observed. Now Pat was teaching the next unit, on habitats, and Gina was the one assisting and observing. They brought their classes together for science for two-hour blocks of time on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Pat was about two weeks into the unit on habitats. During the first week, the students had explored their school as a habitat. In the second week, pairs of students had identified a microhabitat on the school grounds and had spent a whole block of time exploring their habitat and making observations about it.

Now, on the first Tuesday of the third week, Pat was having the students work in pairs to make terrariums. The students had brought insects and other small animals in from the school grounds and were creating terrariums to house the organisms. Pat had constructed a worksheet for the lesson, from which the students were working.

Gina walked over to another pair of students, Tasha and Chris. They were placing insects into their terrariums. "Hold the bug box still," cried Tasha. "I've almost got him!" She held a cotton swab into the bug box and waited for an earthworm to crawl onto it. "Here's your new house, wormy!" she exclaimed as she transferred the worm from the bug box to the terrarium.

From what Gina could observe, Tasha and Chris, like Jake and Aaron, were engaged and having fun in the activity. But she didn't hear them talking about the terrariums as habitats or about what the organisms would need to survive--the critical elements of the lesson. The terrarium was an important part of the habitats unit because, in designing a terrarium, children had to make decisions about what constitutes the important features of a habitat and how the terrarium can support the earthworms, slugs, and small creatures that live in it. In designing terrariums, the students would have to work from their observations of the school and the school yard as habitats, and implement their understanding of the important elements of habitats.

"That worksheet," Gina thought to herself, "takes all the science right out of this lesson. It's hands-on, all right, but not really inquiry-based science."

"In fact," she ruminated as she wandered about the room, helping students spread the soil in the terrariums and place the creatures and plants, "it's not even really science. It's just putting the pieces of the terrarium together. Pat's done the science for them." By telling children what the elements of the terrarium should be, and providing step-by-step instructions for preparing the terrarium, Gina felt that Pat had, unwittingly, taken the science out of the lesson.

Gina had been concerned about the unit from the beginning. Pat was doing well in terms of getting the students engaged and getting the activities organized and flowing, but there was something missing. The explorations the students had done of the habitats on the playground were interesting and, again, Pat had had all the students engaged. But Gina hadn't seen Pat make use of those observations when they talked about the terrariums or started putting them together. It was as if the habitat observations and the terrarium activity were not linked.

Pat paused near Gina on her way to help another pair of children place their creatures in the terrariums. She put her hand on Gina's shoulder and said, "It's going pretty well, huh? I think we might even be able to finish up somewhere near on time today!"

"You're right," laughed Gina. "That's always a challenge when you're doing hands-on anything. Are we going to sit down for a few minutes after school today and go over our plans for the rest of the week?"

"Sure," agreed Pat. "Why don't we meet down here in my classroom? All the stuff is here anyway. At 3:00?"

Gina nodded. As Pat walked to the other side of the room, Gina wondered what she could say to Pat this afternoon to make her realize that this just wasn't working as well as it could. "Or maybe," she thought, "I shouldn't say anything at all to Pat right now. After all, she needs my support and encouragement. It took her a long time even to try this approach."

* * *

Gina was on her hands and knees in the science equipment closet, looking through boxes. "How's it going?" asked Maureen Hart, the principal at Jefferson Elementary, as she poked her head in the doorway. "Got a new project going?"

"Well, you could say that," Gina said. "I'm just trying to pull some things together for Pat. She's teaching habitats with our classes right now, and I'm helping and observing." She stood up and brushed the dust off her skirt.

"How's the observing going?" Maureen asked.

Gina furrowed her brow. "Well, it's going okay. Pat's really trying hard."

Maureen paused. "Sounds like something might be going wrong?"

"No, not wrong. Just hard. I mean, I see her do things that I did when I first started this inquiry-based science teaching, and I remember how hard it was. And I think, who am I to tell to her what to do? It's not as if I'm a real expert at this. It's not like I'm the master of scientific inquiry!" Gina looked at Maureen quickly and swallowed nervously. She thought to herself, Did I say too much?

Maureen looked concerned. "Gina, don't worry about it. You do know what you're doing. You've had a lot of training and support for science. You're our science person. You know more about it than almost anyone else on the faculty."

"But Maureen, that's just it. I mean, everyone keeps thinking I'm the science person, and I don't know that I'm always doing the right thing. I mean, I wouldn't hold myself up as exemplary."

"Look, Gina, I have complete confidence in you. You are doing the right thing. You keep up the good work and it'll all work itself out." Maureen gave her shoulder a friendly pat and turned and walked down the hallway.

* * *

Gina walked into Pat's room at 3:00, after the children had gone home. Pat was rearranging supplies in the science area. Pat looked up, saw Gina, and said, "Hi there. So, what did you think about today?"

Gina joined her in straightening out the supplies. "I thought it was pretty good. You seemed very comfortable with the lesson, and the kids were definitely engaged." She paused, "The worksheet is new. What made you decide to use that?"

"Well," said Pat, "I wanted to be sure that all the kids were able to make the terrarium and I didn't want them to make it wrong, otherwise they would have had to start all over again. And, plus, it was very confusing for them with all those parts. So, last night, when I was going over the lesson, I put together the diagrams and the steps to keep it organized."

"Do you think they might have explored a little bit more if they didn't have the worksheet?" asked Gina casually.

"Well, they might have, but I don't think they would have been able to finish the terrarium. It probably would have taken all week, and we would be behind schedule." Pat stopped what she was doing, looked at Gina quizzically and asked, "Why, do you think I didn't do it right? I put a lot of time into that lesson today."

"No, no, it's not that," Gina reassured Pat quickly. "The effort you put in really showed, it did. I guess I was just checking to see if you were feeling good about the exploration the kids were doing."

"Actually, you know, it was kind of exciting," Pat smiled, looking relieved. "The kids really seemed to have fun with the terrariums, actually whenever we're working hands-on with the materials. I think Jake and Aaron were really excited when they finally got the terrarium together right. And the kids did a lot of neat things with the habitats during the explorations last week."

Gina hesitated, unsure what to say. On the one hand, Pat seemed very enthusiastic about the class and about the children's excitement, and she didn't want to discourage her. On the other hand, Gina felt that Pat, in the approach she was taking, was missing some important opportunities for the children to be learning about habitats.

"Well, yeah, I think you're right. The explorations last week were nice. The children were exploring, finding the insects, and investigating their environments. Maybe we could think about how to remind them about that experimentation when they're thinking about refining their terrariums," Gina suggested.

"Okay, I can try to do that. I think I'll put together a set of questions, in a worksheet, for Thursday's lesson. And I'll include one that refers to the experimentation," Pat offered. She went to her desk, opened her planner and began to make a note of it.

"Pat," Gina said, with some trepidation, "maybe the students don't need a worksheet. Maybe they could figure some of the steps out themselves."

Pat paused and looked intently at Gina. "What are you trying to say, Gina? I don't get where you're coming from. On the one hand, you say I'm doing fine, but on the other hand, it sounds like you don't think it's going so well. What do you really think about how the unit is working?"

Gina hesitated, unsure of what to say. She wondered, "What do I really think? And what can I say to Pat?"

* * *