Under the Sea and On the Moon with Third Graders

We have had a great response from teachers in the Chicago area to our offer of making classroom visits. Yesterday marked out first visit to West Ridge Elementary in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood.  After consulting with Ms. Tschaen, the third grade science teacher, we decided to present Seafloor Explorer and Moon Zoo to the students.  Apologies in advance for the lack of pictures, we were having way too much fun to think about proper documentation. 

One of the challenges while preparing for this school visit was figuring out a quick and easy way to explain crowdsourcing to third graders.  I scoured the web for a nifty interactive or video,but in the end decided a low-tech solution, a story, was the best solution. I told the students that when I was a kid my friends and I loved to play soccer.  One we were planning to play but my Mom told me I wasn’t allowed to until my room was clean.  When I was a kid, the floor of my room generally resembled a soup of toys, clothes, books, and papers.  Cleaning it was no small task and usually entailed the better part of a whole day.  I asked the students how they thought my friends and I solved the problem.  Every group offered the solution that we could work together to clean my room and then have time to play soccer together.  Voila! The principle of crowdsourcing quickly and easily explained.  Granted, I settled on a somewhat simplified definition, that crowdsourcing is getting a bunch people to help solve a bigger problem, but it did the trick and the students “got it”.

Next we were ready to set the stage with how Zooniverse projects utilize the efforts of many to solve problems involving large datasets.   With the first two classes, we decided to test a newly developed Seafloor Explorer classroom activity. For time’s sake we modified the activity by focusing on species identification and left out ground cover identification component.   After a 10 minute group discussion of Seafloor Explorer’s science goals and how to identify the different animals we were off and running.  Just like with the example of cleaning my room and soccer, the students called out that we needed more people to identify the 30,000,000 + images comprising this project’s dataset.  Success!  They were challenged to work together as a class to beat the time it took me to identify species on 40 different cards.  Working together each class about 1/3 of the time it took me to do it alone.  Double success!

Laura engaged the third class in lunar adventures using Moon Zoo.  Students learned a little bit about the history of moon exploration.  Next they discussed craters and the different ways we can find out information about our nearest celestial neighbor.   After a brief introduction to the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, they divided into groups to explore individual portions of the moon.  Students worked together to mark any craters larger that their thumbprint on their section of the moon.  They tallied the total number of craters on their group’s individual moon section and compared them to the other groups’ moon sections. Finally students identified potential sites for a lunar lander to touchdown.

So, what did we learn from our adventures with third graders?  I’ve long suspected that, while students certainly have the ability to participate in most any Zooniverse project, it sometimes helps to introduce the project “offline”.  This may help students feel more secure when they begin participating on a project’s website.  Many teachers I’ve spoken with point out that students don’t always feel empowered in their practice of science.  By frontloading students with a little bit of a project’s background content and walking through the classification task together, students can easily see that they are more than capable to make an important contribution to current scientific research.  Working as a group also fosters a sense of community that we, as a class, are working together to help scientists make important discoveries and maybe even making some important discoveries ourselves.   I’m sure that there will be many lessons to learn over our remaining visits to Chicago-area classrooms.

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