How many times do our students come up to us with excitement and say "have you seen this?" And, our reply is usually, "oh wow, yeah that is really cool, now let's take our seats and get back to notes or the totally lame worksheet I have prepared for you."
I think Albert Einstein may have said it best; "It is a miracle that creativity survives formal education." It is true. We mass produce students much like an assembly line in a factory. It stifles creativity, and it rewards complacency over innovation. What if when our students show us something "cool" we use it as the springboard in our classrooms to determine our curriculum and thereby truly empower our students to drive their learning?
Last spring, a student in my Biology class showed me a video that went viral on Face Book of a group of high school students in Japan who claimed to be the first ever to grow healthy chickens outside of their shell. I gave them the choice to try to replicate the experiment or learn the Reproduction Unit in the "traditional" way. I bet you can imagine what they chose. The students researched for almost one month, presented to our B.O.E. to get "funding" for their experiment (just like scientists do in the real world). I did not prepare, plan, or fix anything. In fact, I did not read the research article until the end of the journey; and this was crucial! I was their guide-on-the-side; their cheerleader. They had 3 trials, each with epic failures. Here is a quick summary of the trials.
Trial 1 Longest surviving embryo lasted until Day 8. Kids were trying to engineer a solution to our humidity problems and in the process fried the motherboard of the incubator. They used heat lamps to keep embryos alive as long as they could. I have attached the article from our local newspaper, who happened to come in the morning after the incubator died to interview the kids, of course.
Trial 2 Epic FAIL. Students refrigerated eggs so they could manipulate time of day to crack the eggs (had to be done at T=55 hours). When they cracked the eggs, they all had the dreaded blood ring, sign of early embryonic death. Don't mess with Mother Nature; lesson learned.
Trial 3 New incubator arrived, which the kids researched, talked to engineers, and ordered for the district. 6 dozen eggs to start, things were moving smoothly until they noticed this "white stuff" growing on many of the yolks. The kids took sample of the substance, smeared on slide, used the stain I had available, and with their smartphones concluded that 75% of their embryos had a yeast infection (hens can pass on to eggs). Yet another FAIL. At Day 17 (chickens have 21 days growth period), the kids had to give surviving cups 500 ml oxygen daily. They borrowed equipment from local dentist and our local ambulance refilled oxygen tanks for them every 8-12 hours. On Day 19, the kids performed "surgery" on the final two embryos because the yolk sac was not completely absolved, and chicks were beginning to use their beaks to break the membrane, and students knew the embryos would drown. I believe this was the first type of surgery ever to performed in the world. The final embryo died just after Day 20. Kids were devastated, but just then we heard sounds of baby chicks emerging from their shells in our group of control eggs. All sadness was washed away, after all what is more beautiful than the sound of new life.
Everyone found their "niche". Emailing scientists, calling universities, designing thank you cards, running to the store. There were "expert" egg crackers, students who made the chemical dilutions with confidence, and students who came in any time of day to turn the control eggs; everyone found "their thing". Even for their final project they got to choose how to show their work, and we had everything from power points, to large paper mache eggs that opened with pictures inside, to an APP of the experiment that was created for our smartphones.
The kids got down on themselves, a lot! Whatever could go wrong went wrong. It allowed us to talk about what success was. Was it really to grow chickens? If that was the case I could have bought 6 of them real cheap (and trust me I though about doing it once or twice, wink wink, just kidding).
If you want to empower your students you need to get out of their way, you need to take risks, and you need to value the process over the product. Was this experiment successful? Oh yeah! The kids who did not graduate last year said to me, we need another trial, and then write a research paper. I said to them, "you know it wouldn't be for class credit and you would need to do this on your own time?" They looked at me and said that none of that mattered to them, they want to see this through. As of right now, my students could not confirm the claim that healthy chicken embryos can be grown to infancy without their eggshell. For what it is worth, the value in teaching our students to question claims made by others, is also a very valuable lesson.
I will be attaching images that document the process and the trials as well as the original newspaper article.
Note: It would be helpful if schools budgeted for innovative ideas to become a reality. I do not think you need to look for more money; just reconsider how money is allocated to begin with. First thing that comes to my mind, TEXTBOOKS. Personally, I do not use them. They are outdated in science as soon as they are published, the reading level is not appropriate for all students, they are boring (in my opinion), and the resources on the internet are more than enough to meet the needs for my diverse learners.