09 January 2008

Active learning - building thinking skills

Invigorating is the best word to describe my classes today.

We are beginning to study DNA, yesterday for homework we read an article on deciphering DNA in types of dogs and comparing that to mice DNA and people DNA. That article opened the topic of “codes.”

I have found it works to use the scientific method in class. I reviewed it by talking about almost everything uses the scientific method, the example I used today was walking though buying a car. After that sunk in we agreed the best question to study codes has to be, What is the code for living things?

In the discussion that followed we uncovered some misconceptions about DNA students were holding. I’m not sure we removed them, but we got them out in the open. The next step was breaking into pairs and getting the instructions to create a code with the outcome being each group will give a presentation on their results.

I knew the instructions would make the gears start turning so we did it slowly. Students need to create a code to code a specific sentence. All students are working with the same requirements: 1) only alphabet characters can be used in the code, 2) it takes two characters to make a letter, 3) each group must code the same sentence … All living things are made of cells in Los Angeles, CA, and 4) they have to make a table as a key to the code they make.

Observing them as they opened their brains and creativity to write a code was inspiring. At first it was an impossible assignment for most. Then, as we broke it down into steps the frustration level decreased as they saw light at the end of the tunnel using a step by step approach. Isn’t process building cognitive skills – looking at a large task and then breaking it into smaller segments? I think so.

The beauty of this exercise was engagement. The entire time students, when on task, were comparing/contrasting and carrying out peer discussion to build their code tables. I was only the facilitator, student were driving the decisions about the code.

After some 10-15 minutes one student invariably asked about spaces, commas, periods, and capitals. That took us into a deeper discussion with students realizing they needed to code for those also, along with a coding for a “start.” Otherwise, a person, say from the far east, might come in and read the sentence from right to left …. instead of left to right. This whole segment of discussion had students struggling newly with the additional aspects of creating the code, which for me translates into they were actively learning and uncovering new understandings.

Once we get this code assignment done and can discuss the presentations we will have a class experience to use and apply when examining how DNA and amino acids code proteins. That we will be able to draw some parallel between how the sentence code works and how proteins get coded will be a strong support to students in assimilating required genetic knowledge.

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