Connections to the real world

I’m looking for project ideas or activities that fifth grade students can do to connect what they learn in science with the “real world” outside of the classroom. Do you have any suggestions?
–Frank, Delaware

Helping students to see these connections addresses students who ask (as they should),”Why do we have to learn this?”  By engaging in authentic activities, students have a chance to apply what they are learning to new situations, they can experience what scientists actually do, and many of their experiences could evolve into lifelong interests or career choices.

Rather than add-ons or special events, these projects and activities should relate to and extend your learning goals.

  • Have students expand their study of living things to other parts of the school. Set up and maintain aquariums or plants in the office, library, or other public areas. Create and maintain flower gardens, vegetable gardens, or water gardens.
  • Spearhead a schoolwide recycling project, especially for paper or cafeteria waste (see the article Trash Pie in March 2010 Science & Children).
  • Set up and monitor a weather station and include the students’ report as part of the daily announcements. Some local television stations even provide the equipment and share student data on the nightly news. I know a teacher whose students gather weather data for the day and share it with the principal to help her make decisions about indoor/outdoor recess.

  • Contact the director of a local park or nature center for ideas. For example, students could identify trees and make identification signs for them. A nearby college or university may have projects in which your students could participate.
  • Inventions can give students a chance to turn ideas into real products. See the Invention Connection website  and NSTA Reports for connections between inventions and STEM topics.
  • Armed with digital cameras, students could inventory the environment in and around the school. They could create their own virtual “museum” displays of local rocks, landforms, shells, insects, or leaves.

Another possibility is involving your students in authentic “citizen science” projects. In these regional and national projects, participants record observations in their own communities and upload data to a project database. Students get to see “their” data used as part of a larger project and are encouraged to pose their own research questions. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has several ongoing projects, including BirdSleuth. The article Using Citizen Scientists to Measure the Effects of Ozone Damage on Native Wildflowers in April 2010  Science Scope describes an air quality monitoring project. In Project BudBurst participants chart their observations of plant growth. Monarch Watch has teams documenting the migration of these insects. For more ideas, see NASA Citizen Scientists and Scientific American.

Search the archived issues of Science & Children and Science Scope for more ideas.  To get you started, I’ve created a Resource Collection via the NSTA Learning Center with the articles mentioned previously and others that showcase authentic projects.

When you and your students choose and conduct a project, consider sharing your experiences via an NSTA journal!




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