- Keywords: Collaborative learning, project-based learning, science
- Learner English level: Beginner to low intermediate
- Learner maturity: First year technical high school and above
- Preparation time: 2-3 hours
- Activity time: Varies, but for the project described 3 x 90 to 100-minute sessions
- Materials: Varies for each project.
Collaborative science-based projects offer English teachers working with Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) majors a means for building motivating, meaningful, and enjoyable learning opportunities into their language curricula. As a classroom activity, they provide scope for practicing general English communication skills: building specific vocabulary, practicing English grammar forms commonly used in science/engineering reports, practicing English information structures commonly used in science/engineering reports (Description; Sequence; Cause and Effect, Comparison), learning the basic introduction, method, results, and analysis (IMRA) structure of an experimental report.
This framework provides details on how to plan and organise a classroom-based science project for second language learners. It is based on several years of practical experience developing and implementing such projects at a Japanese technical high school and a college of engineering.
Step 1: Research/select an appropriate project for your group (see Appendix B for links to web resources). Important criteria are group level/size, available budget, available time, and students’ specialisations. Projects based on scientific concepts related to students’ specialisations are often appropriate. For example, for mechanical engineering majors, a catapult project is suitable because it incorporates the principles of torsion, potential energy, and kinetic energy. Also, as students will probably be familiar with these concepts from their disciplinary studies, the cognitive focus is on language learning.
Step 2: Write introductory notes for students detailing: project theme and sequence of tasks to complete (build machine, test machine, write-up results), language learning objectives, time schedule, scientific background.
Step 3: Assemble materials. Note that while many science projects use everyday materials, others require more specialised parts, such as solar panels, electric motors, etc., that may need to be sourced from a supplier.
Step 4: Depending on the L2 writing experience/skill level of the group, develop a writing guide to help students prepare project reports (see Appendix A).
Step 1: Distribute and talk through the introductory notes. To ensure that the focus stays on language learning, tell students they will be assessed on their language output, not the design or performance of the machine. Also give design advice and tips. For example, in the case of a solar-powered car project, the importance of power/weight ratio, drive train ratios, and so forth. Or in the case of a catapult, the importance of strength (rigidity), stability, power, momentum, or trajectory.
Step 2: Ask students to preview materials, then brainstorm and design their machine in their assigned groups.
Step 3: Ask students to begin construction. Remind them of the deadline for completing construction. While they engage in the task, circulate and interact with students by asking questions related to design, pointing out design features, and suggesting improvements/modifications where necessary or requested.
Step 1: Remind students of the need for development testing as a project process. Again, make suggestions as appropriate.
Step 2: When all groups have finished construction and testing, have them evaluate the performance (e.g., load-carrying capacity, velocity, range) of their machine/structure and record the data.
Remind students that they have to produce a final experimental/project report. Explain that the report should have four major sections and specify the content and purpose of each section. Where necessary, give each student a copy of the writing guide (Appendix A). Talk through the guide, explaining that it can be used as a framework to construct sentences, but that they can also add their own ideas and opinions. Then, ask students to proceed with writing their report, emphasising again that this is a collaborative effort, that they should consult their dictionaries, and moreover that they can request advice and help with their writing at any time.
Students do a mini-presentation on the project.
The appendices are available below.