In my first blog post, I wrote about how students design and carry out controlled experiments during the second unit of my microbiology class. As my problem of practice, I wanted my students to design experiments that they felt personally invested in. I asked- how might we get students to design experiments on protecting themselves from pathogens based on their interests and experiences that test their personal beliefs, values of views?

I tried a few different things in order to tackle this problem. I launched the project by giving each group a variety of articles about experiments that were done on health, hygiene, and everyday ways that we are exposed to pathogens. For example, there were articles on hand washing, food spices, using paper towels or air blowers, and the 5 second rule. They were asked to read the articles and share any wonderings, disagreements, or surprises. From there, I tried to find points of disagreement (ex: student A thinks flossing is a waste of time, student B thinks flossing is important, studies have shown different things) and push students to think about how they could use an experiment to further explore this question.

Another thing I tried was giving students time in groups to brainstorm, do research, and refine their question. During that time, two questions they needed to answer were: Why is this experiment important / relevant? Why did you choose this experiment? I hoped that in writing these answers, students would push themselves to have topics that really did feel interesting and meaningful to them!

Ultimately, I think students designed some really interesting experiments and some groups took ownership over their work. Here are some of my favorite experimental questions that groups came up with:

  • How does drinking tea affect the amount of bacteria in your mouth?
  • Does wearing braces affect the amount of bacteria in your mouth?
  • How do spices affect the amount of bacteria that grows on chicken if you leave it out overnight?
  • How does the amount of clothing you wear during the school day affect the amount of bacteria on your skin?
  • What is the effect of diluting hand sanitizer on how effective it will be at removing bacteria from your hands?
  • How does makeup affect the amount of bacteria on your face?
  • If you drop food on the floor for 5 seconds will it have more or less bacteria than if you drop it on a table for 5 seconds?

In their final lab report, students had to complete a significance section where they were asked to write informally and “explain why your experiment is important to you and others, why your group chose to study this question, and who could benefit from your results.” I hoped to get a sense of how successful I had been by reading these responses.

Here are some excerpts from student lab reports:

This experiment is important because a lot of the time people are sick they turn to tea to make them feel better. So by doing this experiment I will be able to find out if tea actually makes a different. My group and I chose to  do this experiment because we all related when it came to our parents telling us to drink tea or making us a cup of tea when we are sick. I went around my school community and my community back at home and asked people what were they more likely to do first when catching a cold. A lot of people answered and said that they first would drink either peppermint or ginger tea first.

This experiment is important because this has never been tested or really been brought to anyones eye. This experiment matter to me because i wear makeup and with the results that my group and I found out may change the way I use and buy makeup. The results can also help our community because people can further understand how makeup has a impact on our skin and bacteria. With the results it can show makeup brands that they can improve their ingredients and making improvements to make their makeup as good as possible.

This experiment is important because lots of people wear heavy clothing throughout the day even if they’re inside. This experiment could show them if they are putting their health in jeopardy. Since there are so many things that could cause clothing to collect additional bacteria it might be smarter to strip down those layers and go back to just a simple T-shirt. I fall into the habit of wearing my sweatshirt a lot so this could show that I need to stop covering myself up all of the time. This could lead to lots of people getting sick a lot less often because the less chances you give the bacteria to infect you the less you’ll get sick.

This experiment is significant, because many people wear braces, and studying how braces affect bacteria will help these people understand the environment of their mouths and how to protect against tooth and gum diseases. In a survey conducted by Karen and myself, we found out that 7/23, or 31.8%, of the students in this class wear or have worn braces. This illustrates the importance of this experiment, because it affects almost a third of the people in this class alone. This experiment also holds important for me personally, because I wear braces. I want to understand how this affects my dental health, so that I know if I should take extra precautions against bacteria.

One of the challenges I had was that some groups struggled to find a topic that they cared about and seemed to be more focused on assignment completion than designing an experiment that felt personally authentic. I am still unsure about how to re-engage learners like this! I am thinking that a greater variety of article topics or finding a way to start with the students’ interests may be options. Another challenge I had was that the project launch was meant to generate interest and excitement, but I think some students were overwhelmed with the quantity of articles and amount of reading. In the future, I would like to add more videos and/or podcasts and scaffolded readings. I would also like to find more articles that question something I think most students assume to be true (like this article on flossing). I think that generating areas of surprise help keep students excited and engaged.

Overall, I feel like adding the project launch articles, looking for points of disagreement, giving group brainstorm time, and asking students to justify the significance and importance of their project helped more groups come up with experiments that felt personally authentic. In writing this blog post and reflecting, I felt a greater sense of achievement than I did while I was caught up in the whirlwind of actually teaching this and managing 6 different group projects happening at once! Next semester, I wonder if I can build some reflection and sharing time into the unit, both for me and my students, so that we can all take a minute to share and appreciate the many different exciting projects going on around us.

If you have any other ideas, comments, or suggestions, I’d love to hear them!