Paging Dr You – Help with Haemochromatosis PBL task


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:

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.

4 responses to “Paging Dr You – Help with Haemochromatosis PBL task

  1. This sounds great!
    I am a bit jealous because I have never had a year 10 class with enough intrinsic motivation to take a PBL project full circle and find I really only have 1/3 of the class go with me. I’ve run the generic physics road safety thing but I find there are still a lot of holes that I have to go over because they have not fully understood the purpose of some of the practicals.

    I think genetics has a lot of big ideas and this does sound like an epic project. If I could suggest another aspect it would be adding a genetic counsellor to follow on from the doctor – this will help students to understand how traits get passed on. My friends have just had a baby with an unfortunate life threatening disease and their genetic counsellor has drawn up a pedigree of sorts which has led to a lot of their extended family being tested to see if they are carriers of the particular gene. Perhaps you could make another QR scavenger hunt which could represent searching for and interviewing family members to see if they have had a child with the similar condition, or test to see if they are carriers.

    I’ll follow how this goes!

  2. Hi Chris

    What you need to start off with is what you want the students to achieve at the end of the project and then think of a driving question. Something like ‘How can we prevent this haemochromstosis?’ so that it is open ended and students can choose how they will show their understanding in the final product. You will then have to backward map your “lesson” sequence, which can include the QR code scavenger hunt, etc. I find the templates on the BIE website really good. Try that and see how you go 🙂

  3. Totally agree with Alice, but I would go further and get the students to develop there own driving question. In my opinion the driving question it’s the most important part of PBL. If students develop their own driving questions this is intrinsically more motivating for them. The question formation technique QFT from the Right Question Institute @rightquestion is what I use. You need to provide a question stimulus and question focus statement. And I imagine you will need to broaden the scope of the pbl, thus your clues might need to be more generic, such as steps in the process of identifying and treating any disease. The aspect of PBL I have been thinking through lately is the evaluation and improvement of the product… like you we often seem to squeeze it in at the end without allowing time for feedback, deep reflection, retesting, redesigning etc.

  4. Hi Chris,
    I love this! I also really like the turning it into a longer PBL task. Did you have success in doing this? If o, I would love to know how you achieved it, or at least throw me some pointers on how I might go about it myself.

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