Science Buddies: An Unexpected Way to Differentiate Learning

April 22, 2014
Ryan Hill
Technology coordinator
Mount Si High School
Snoqualmie, WA

To help my high school science students really dive into a scientific question and explore all the steps that scientists use to conduct research, I worked with my cohort of science teachers to develop the Student Directed Investigation project. In this project, students design their own (or most of their own) scientific investigations using the scientific method. At first, students are excited because the project taps into their interests and personal creativity. However, they often hit a roadblock early on with the very first step of the scientific method: identifying a question or topic to investigate. This is where I introduce students to the website Science Buddies. The site not only helps students by offering tons of great ideas, but it also provides a model for the scientific method that students can refer to as they design their own scientific inquiry.

Identifying the Question
Some students have a lot of ideas but struggle to choose the focus of a self-directed project. Others may have trouble coming up with even one question to investigate. Science Buddies helps students in all grade levels choose a topic for their scientific inquiry. I strongly believe that when students have choice in their schoolwork, they take ownership of the assignment and are more likely to persist when they encounter challenges. 

On Science Buddies, kids can browse hundreds of project ideas covering over 30 areas of science. The Project Ideas tab includes collections of projects under physical science, life science, engineering, behavioral & social science, earth & environmental science, and math & computer science. Students can also use the Topic Selection Wizard to take a survey that helps them narrow their focus and pinpoint areas of interest.

Instead of simply letting students loose on the site, I find it beneficial to have them start with the Topic Selection Wizard Survey. This way, they can focus on a few project ideas that align with their interests. The survey begins by asking students when their project is due to narrow down the list based on how long a project will take. Students also input their grade level in school and the general area of science. A quick self-assessment on reading level completes the background questions. Once students enter the heart of the survey they respond "yes," "sometimes," or "no" to questions like "Do you enjoy gardening and working with plants?" and "Do you enjoy learning about lakes, rivers, the ocean, and beaches?"

Differentiating the Process
Once students complete the survey, they get a list of topic suggestions. I have them brainstorm and write testable questions for the top 3-5 topics the Wizard suggests. Before they make a choice and begin, I have them review the potential projects with me.

This is where I can differentiate instruction for my students. Every project idea has a difficulty rating from easy to hard for each of three categories: beginner, intermediate, and advanced. In addition, Science Buddies provides the background information, materials list, and procedure for all projects. For some of my students, it's entirely appropriate for them to choose an easy beginner project and follow the given procedure, step by step. A project like “Squirmy Wormy: Which Soil Type Do Earthworms Like Best?” is an easy beginner project that could be appropriate for a student with an IEP or 504 plan. For others, I wouldn’t let them choose anything but a medium or hard advanced project. An experiment like “Measuring the Speed of ‘Light’ with a Microwave Oven” is an example that would require a higher level of scientific knowledge and research. The “Make It Your Own” tab on each experiment allows students to redesign the experiment entirely. For my more advanced students, I encourage them to revise the given experiment in some way.

Analyzing the Results
Overall, I find students appreciate the scaffolding that Science Buddies provides for narrowing focus or for selecting projects that align to their interests. If students decide their selected project is too simple or difficult, it's easy to find other projects that are more appropriate and that fit into the timeframe for the assignment. There's just enough background information to help students get started and understand the science behind the topic. For teachers, Science Buddies is a great tool for differentiating science instruction to meet the needs of a diverse group of learners.