For the past two years, when Year 10 has been studying an evolution and genetics unit, I’ve included a PBL-style mini-project/case study/medical mystery to learn more about genetic diseases and heredity. I also incorporated a QR code scavenger hunt for the students to gather clues! However, I want to implement it differently this year differently and would love some feedback on both the task itself and how I can do it as a deeper, more engaging PBL task.
It was inspired by a post from Terie Engelbrecht, which she wrote as a way to try and clue us into her way of writing a PBL activity. In the example she was describing, she used a case study from the National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science about maple syrup urine disease to try and get her students to be the doctor. I loved how she deliberately made it a messy and complicated exercise for her students to untangle, and I wanted (in my ambitious, first year teacher way) to create the same sort of challenge for my students.
However, given that maple syrup urine disease is much more uncommon in Australia, I decided to do it about haemochromatosis, the most common recessive genetic disease in Australia and one that runs in my family. Incidentally, I created this mini-project right around the time that my son was born (clever, huh?) when I apparently had some time on my hands! So I’ll outline how the task has gone in the past.
So I start out with an introductory video, a “Skype call” from the patient’s mother (actually my mum!), explaining some of the symptoms. We then move onto:
- The doctor’s report from the emergency department (ED), which includes a range of relevant and irrelevant symptoms in dense jargon;
- The pathology report (complete with totally made-up letterhead and everything – very proud of this!);
- The family medical history; and
- Final instructions of the task.
Each clue is collected as a QR code in a scavenger hunt (clues are here), which involves a whole heap of fun of them racing around the school collecting this information using an iPad. The first year I did it, it was tricky for the students to do with their school laptops. They had to try and take screenshots using their webcams and so on – lots of tricky logistical issues that led many to throw their hands up at one point or another. Last year, at school we had gotten a class set of iPads that the students could use which made it much easier. They could scan the QR codes, access the files and record their video response all on the one device. I look forward to doing the same again when I run it this year.
Some good points about this activity:
- They were really engaged and enthused, especially by the scavenger hunt aspect (who wouldn’t love that?) and the use of the iPads was novel for them as well.
- They enjoyed solving the mystery, trying to work out the clues for themselves and sorting the relevant from the irrelevant just like a real doctor would do.
- It was also great to develop their literacy skills, encountering scientific and medical language they hadn’t seen before and had to decode to understand the symptoms.
However, there were a number of drawbacks:
- The students who just like to be told the answer were frustrated by my refusal to just tell them what it was. I’m not suggesting to change this aspect at all – I like making them think for themselves and make the decisions for a change. They’re just going to have to get used to it!
- Some students were inclined to give up when it became challenging, especially as I had them working in groups and so it became easier for some to just coast and let their group mates do the work for them. Not much that can be helped here, but perhaps I will enforce smaller groups this time around.
- Because of the timing of this 10 week topic (coming after the assessment task 5 or 6 weeks in), it’s been difficult in the past to give this mini project the time that it needs. I’ve typically done it for about 1 or 2 weeks if I’m lucky, often at the end of the term when the students are over it anyway. It’s also tended to come AFTER a lot of the content that they might need and yet they haven’t really learnt a lot of science through the project. The scientific content is definitely the part that has been done the poorest, due to time constraints. Naturally this needs addressing!
What I really want to do is to turn this 1 or 2 week mini-project into a more substantial 4 or 5 week PBL task, where the task DRIVES the learning about genetics and heredity instead of capping it off. I want the solving of the mystery and formulation of a response to create a need for their learning in manageable chunks – what are genes, how are traits inherited, how do faulty genes pass from parents to children? The timing of the assessment task may mean that this doesn’t work, but I really want this task to give the students an authentic REASON to find out the content.
How can I do this? How can I restructure this task to drive the learning, rather than follow it? I really don’t know what I should do to change it and would love some feedback and advice.