Real Science in School == Real Motivation

Today I spent the day out on Port Phillip Bay, watching dolphins and seals, and helping one of my students from last year test and deploy his Computational Science Project. This student worked in a team to develop software to help Polperro Dolphin Swims record data about the dolphins they see and work with every day.

The team worked on it for 6 months at school, starting 2 months or so before I even set the assignment. They worked on it at home. Once the subject was over, the assignment was in, the marks returned, and the reports written, what do you think they did?

They kept working on it.

It’s no miracle. It’s the magic of doing real science in schools. These kids were given a hugely open ended project description that basically said “Here is a company with masses of data about the dolphins in Port Phillip Bay. The data is handwritten, and has never been analyzed or even digitized before. Do some science with it.”

In reality there was a little more in the way of guidance than that, but not much.

The crew of Polperro were incredibly generous with their time, talking to the kids about what they want to know about the dolphins, and the kinds of conservation and protection that can be achieved with actual information, rather than the speculation that often serves to influence political policies. They even took the class out on the boat to show them what they were working for.

All this meant that my kids were able to do real, meaningful projects with the potential for real world impact. The final projects varied widely, including

  • read in some data and print out a graph
  • visualise the locations of the dolphins on a dolphin heat map, to show where dolphins are usually seen and how that changes over time
  • write an app (in an entirely new and unfamiliar language) to record all the data, automated wherever possible, together with a server-side system to process the data, print out the mandated reporting sheets as pdf files, and convert the data into different formats as required.

Each and every project was the students’ choice, and indeed their own design. Some worked in teams, some worked individually. Not all of them, obviously, went on working on their projects after the subject finished. In fact only a handful did. But all of them understood the relevance of the data, and the reality of the projects.

This is the part that gets me so excited. They were doing real science, with real world significance.

Happily, it is also the part that gets the students excited.

For some of the groups I helped a lot with choice of project and progress along the way. For others, the best thing I could do was provide opportunities and stand well clear. Occasionally I would look over their shoulders while they explained the problem and worked out a solution (often in the same breath), with very little input from me.

There was a fair bit of work involved in setting up the project, and in working out a fair marking scheme. It took up a lot of time, but it was time incredibly well spent, and spectacularly motivating for me, just as much as for the students.

I’ll write a lot more about this project, and about what I’ve learnt in the last 3 years about the kinds of projects that work in this context, in my (copious) free time over the coming year. I’ll also write more about what Computer Science looks like at my school.

Do you do real world IT/CS projects? What have they taught you?

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About lindamciver

Australian Freelance Writer, Teacher, & Computer Scientist
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