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Increasing Student Engagement

in Science 10 Lab Activities

Jason McCarron
Memorial University of
Newfoundland
Research Problem
Science 10 is a required credit for graduation in Nova Scotia. All students who enrol in high
school will take Science 10 whether they like the course or not. As a result, teachers of Science 10 must
prepare instruction for a very heterogeneous class. From my experience over the last 10 years of
teaching Science 10, there is a lack of student engagement with respect to completing and handing in lab
assignments. As a result, a significant number of students are not successful in obtaining their Science 10
credit or obtain their credit by passing within a small margin of 50%. This leaves many students with
negative attitudes towards science, school and life long learning in general.
The goal of my action research is to investigate what effective student engagement looks like,
analyse past research that suggests ways to design science lab activities to promote students’ engagement
and test the effectiveness of these strategies in a Science 10 classroom at Cobequid Educational Centre.
If students are more actively engaged in science labs, perhaps there will be an increase in lab assignment
completion and an increase in the overall achievement and attitude towards science and life long learning.
For the purpose of this action research project, my research question is:

How can I design a lab activity that increases student engagement in Science 10?
The Experiment to Measure Student Engagement
The Study Site: Science 10 Lab, 29 students
present. Day 1: Traditional Lab – using
thermometers and heat formula
to calculate heat gained by
water over 15 minutes. Baseline
data on student engagement
collected using checklist,
student work and feedback from
students.

Day 3: Solution Strategy 2 Implemented


– Conduct lab activity using Vernier
Day 2: Solution Strategy 1 Implemented – Probeware to measure heat absorption
Conduct two online science simulations at in water and sand. Student engagement
Explore Learning. Student engagement data data collected once again.
collected as outlined on day 1.
Instruments

to Measure

Student Engagement
Data Collection Instrument 1 : Observation Checklist to Assess Student Engagement
Attributes Not at all observed On occasion Observed most of the time Observed consistently
(1) observed (3) (4)
(2)
Full Attendance

Lab Completion

Following Directions

Respecting Property

Positive Emotional Tone;


enthusiasm,
optimism,
curiosity,
interest,
Willing to persist, not giving up.

Off task social interaction (Talking,


texting and disrupting other
students.)

On task group discussion

Asking Questions

Overall Effort

Comments
Data Collection Instrument 2: Student Feedback
Students were asked to complete the following feedback questions for each of the two solution
strategies implemented. Data was analysed for emerging themes.

Technology Lab Feedback

Explain at least three aspects of this activity that


you liked compared to the traditional lab.

Explain at least three aspects of this lab activity


that you did not like compared to the traditional
lab.

What would you suggest to the teacher as a way


to improve this lab?

What are some important characteristics of this


lab activity that kept you interested and engaged
in the activity?
Data Collection Instrument 3: Samples of Student Work
After each of the lab activities students were asked to submit their work. Work was
evaluated on effort only. If not completed, students were allowed to complete work at
home to be handed in the next day.
Sample from Traditional Lab Sample from Simulation Lab
Results
and
Conclusion
Results Scores on Probeware Lab
Student Scores as a Percent on Lab Activities
4.5
Scores on Traditional Lab
4
12
3.5
10
3
8

Frequency
Frequency

2.5
6 Frequency Frequency
2
4
1.5
2
1
0

0.5
5

e
75
15

25

35

45

55

65

85

95

or
M

Bin
Scores on Computer Simulation 0

5
20

35

50

65

80

95
18
16 Bin
14

12
Frequency

10
Frequency
8
6

4
2

0
5
20

35

50

65

80

95

Bin
Class Average Comparison Between a Traditional Lab, Computer
Simulation Lab and Probware Lab

Measures of Traditional Lab Traditional Lab Computer Computer Vernier Vernier


Central Tendency (10pts) Percentage Simulation Lab Simulation Lab Temperature Temperature
(25pts) Percentage Probe Lab (10pts) Probe Lab
Percentage

Mean 6.7 67 20.3 81.2 7 70

Median 7 70 25 100 9 90

Mode 10 100 25 100 9 90

n 29 29 29 29 12
Student Feedback From Each Lab Experience

Traditional Lab Feedback


Explain at least three aspects of this activity that you liked.

“Fun and easy” mentioned 10 times.


“Time off class” mentioned 4 times.
“Hands on” mentioned 3 times.
“Observing changes” mentioned 3 times.
“Working independently” mentioned 1 time.

Explain at least three aspects of this lab activity that you did not like compared to the traditional lab.

“Could not work in groups” mentioned 3 times.


“Keeping track of temperature each minute” mentioned 5 times.
“Had to complete for homework” mentioned 2 times.
“Too simple” mentioned 1 time.
“Calculations” mentioned 1 time.

What would you suggest to the teacher as a way to improve this lab?

“Group work” mentioned 1 time.


“More challenging” mentioned 1 time.
“Make it more fun” mentioned 1 time.
“Complete in class” mentioned 1 time.

What are some important characteristics of this lab activity that kept you interested and engaged in the activity?

“Seeing changing temperature results each minute” mentioned 9 times.


“Talking to others” mentioned 2 times.
“Hands on” mentioned 2 times.
‘Time constraint to complete activity” mentioned 1 time.
“Fun and interesting” mentioned 5 times.
Computer Simulation Lab Feedback

Explain at least three aspects of this activity that you liked compared to the traditional lab.

“Easy and fun” mentioned 8 times


“Using computers” mentioned 16 times
“Hands on” mentioned 4 times
“Ability to interact” mentioned 3 times
“Less time consuming” and “visual” was mentioned 1 time.

Explain at least three aspects of this lab activity that you did not like compared to the traditional lab.

“Too Repetitive” mentioned 4 times.


“It did not feel like a lab, it was on the computer” mentioned 3 times.
Technical problems were mentioned 10 times.
“No partners” mentioned 1 time.
“Not hands on” or “as fun as the real thing” was mentioned 4 times.

What would you suggest to the teacher as a way to improve this lab?

“Work in Groups” mentioned 2 times.


“Too repetitive” make it “more interesting, more interaction with better animation” was
mentioned 5 times.
“Have back up computers to prevent tech issues” mentioned 1 time
“Use games” mentioned 1 time.

What are some important characteristics of this lab activity that kept you interested and engaged in the activity?

“Seeing changes happening on the computer” mentioned 7 times.


“Interacting” mentioned 3 times.
“Keeping track of data” mentioned 3 times.
“Time constraint to complete lab” mentioned 1 time.
Vernier Probeware Lab Activity
Explain at least three aspects of this activity that you liked compared to the traditional lab.

“Easy and Fun” mentioned 4 times.


“Working in groups” mentioned 2 times.
“Showed the results we were looking for” mentioned 1 time.

Explain at least three aspects of this lab activity that you did not like compared to the traditional lab.

“A lot of waiting” mentioned 2 times.

What would you suggest to the teacher as a way to improve this lab?

“Have an activity to complete while you wait” mentioned 1 time.

What are some important characteristics of this lab activity that kept you interested and engaged in the activity?

“Seeing the temperature increase on the computer so dramatically” mentioned 3 times.


“Working with computers” mentioned 1 time.
Observation Checklist Scores
Summary from the Classroom Teacher
Attributes
Following Directions – No change (score of 3)from traditional lab to the labs using simulations and
probeware. A comment was made that indicated that students seemed more confused when using
technology.
Respecting Property – No change, a score of 4 was achieved in each activity.
Positive Emotional Tone – No change (score of 3) in each lab activity. A comment was made that
students seemed very enthusiastic to be doing something new but frustrated at the start with
technology problems.
Willing to Persist – Score of 3 in each lab activity.
Off Task Social Interaction – Score of 2 in each activity, no change. Comments were made
addressing the talkative nature of the class with a few students using their cell phones for “texting”.
On Task Group Discussion – Score of 2 on the traditional lab with an increase to 3 on the
simulation and probeware labs.
Asking Questions – Score of 4, observed consistently in all three activities.
Overall Effort – Score of 3 in each activity.
Comments: Overall the group was quite receptive and remained engaged the entire class period.
Something new and challenging was great for this class.
Observation Checklist Scores
Summary From the Researcher
Attributes
Following Directions – No change (score of 2)from traditional lab to the labs using simulations and probeware. 14 times I
observed students that had other websites such as games and entertainment opened and minimized in the task bar.

Respecting Property – Score improved from 2 to 3 on the simulation and probeware activity. Students treated the
equipment with respect and used it appropriately.

Positive Emotional Tone –A change from 4 on the traditional lab to 3 on each of the technology labs. Students seemed
to become easily frustrated with computer delays and procedural directions.

Willing to Persist – No change, score of 4. Students showed excellent perseverance. Although they seemed frustrated they
did attempt to solve problems and ask good questions to move forward in the activities.

Off Task Social Interaction – No change (score of 3) from the traditional lab to the labs involving technology. There was
just as much off task social interaction and during times when there were dropped internet connections and other technology
problems disengagement increased.

On Task Group Discussion – No change with a score of 2 with this attribute being observed on occasion.
Asking Questions – Score improved from a value of 2 on the checklist rubric to a value of 4. The technology labs
resulted in more questions about procedural issues and questions directly related to understanding the activity.

Overall Effort – Score improved from a value of 2 to a value of 3. In the traditional lab many students packed up 10
minutes early as soon as data was collected – only seven students worked to the bell. During the simulation lab and
probeware lab all students worked to just a minute or two before the bell for dismissal.

Comments: The built in quiz at the end of the simulation and the chance to see a final printout of a graph during the
probeware lab seemed to keep students engaged longer into the class period.
Conclusion
Student Work Samples

It is clear from the graphs and table that the use of the computer simulations and lab interfacing probeware resulted in an
increase in completed labs and the overall class average. This supports research conducted by Bayrak (2008), Sun et
al.(2008) and Pyatt and Sims (2007), who also found significant increases in student achievement when virtual labs were
used.
Student Feedback
By looking at the student comments a few themes emerge as important results. For example, activities should be designed
as fun but also challenging, providing an opportunity to interact with the environment. Students like to see changes with
respect to the relationship between variables. Many students indicated that they enjoy working with computers, in a hands
on environment within groups. Students liked the ability to interact in a group when they were using the probeware
compared to the individual work in the traditional lab and in the simulation. Finally, careful consideration must be taken
to minimize downtime as a result of slow log in, dropped internet connections and wait time during data collection.
Procedures should be planned to keep students engaged during these times.

Observation Checklist
A significant finding by the classroom teacher was an increase in on task group discussion during activities using
technology. Perhaps students are more engaged in collaborating with their peers in order to facilitate the use of technology.
This is a good opportunity for the tech savvy students to “demonstrate their skills” and take on the role of the teacher.
From the researchers point of view, technology integration resulted in an increase in engagement with respect to questions
students were asking in order to complete and understand the activities. Furthermore, because students were more engaged,
they were less likely to disrespect property as was observed during the traditional lab. This supports the findings of Dede et
al. (2005) who also found an increase in engagement and a decrease in disruptive student behaviours when virtual labs were
completed. Finally the most significant observation by the researcher and the classroom teacher was the way technology
problems resulted in a negative effect with respect to students’ emotional tone. Much care must be taken to minimize
technology problems before the activity so student engagement can be maximized.
What’s Next
The class observed did not contain a large number of at risk students. In
the future a class with more at risk students should be selected with
specific observations and data collected from those students rather than the
entire class.

The use of games in science should be investigated as a way to increase


engagement. Students mentioned in the feedback form that fun was very
important and some students indicated that games should be worked into
activities. Past research is split as to the impact games have on student
engagement.

Finally, video and data collected from focus groups consisting of at risk
students could yield more valuable results. Furthermore, triangulation of
data collected from other classes would help to improve the validity of the
results. Perhaps a study that employs a quantitative research design with a
large number of particpants may help clarify the complex relationship
between the variables that influence student engagement in science.