Teaching Research Methods through Science Projects

I recently read Everybody Bugs Out by Leslie Margolis.  The middle grade novel is a new (May 2011) publication from Bloomsbury and a continuation of a series that began with Boys are Dogs.  The main character, Annabelle Stevens, is a 6th grader who teams up with two classmates to work on a science fair project.  While the plot and characters are charming and the book will undoubtedly appeal to tween girls, what I really noticed was the way the author incorporated an age-appropriate lesson about research and plagiarism.

When Annabelle and her classmates receive the guidelines and rules for the science fair, it is clearly stated that all work must be original and done by the students.  Parents and siblings can help with carpooling and shopping for supplies only.  The teacher also warns against purchasing a project on the Internet or using other people’s data.

The story includes Annabelle’s brainstorming sessions with her partners as they try to come up with a topic.  Most of the team’s decisions and procedures are described, along with conversations among the entire 6th grade about everyone’s various experiments and data collection.  When a student attempts to cheat, Annabelle faces an ethical dilemma because she is unsure if she should rat out a friend.

Overall, I was pleased to see a great lesson in research and academic integrity within a fun, believable story about a typical, likable middle school girl.  I do not think this book is appropriate “required” reading as it does not have much “literary value” but it is a good title for librarians and teachers (especially science teachers) to be aware of.  A scene from a movie or an episode of a popular television show that deals with research and plagiarism would be another useful tool in teaching younger students about these topics—does anyone know of an example or two?

I am curious to know how science fair projects are approached in middle school these days.  I recall my own projects in 6th and 8th grade—I was lost and overwhelmed from the time I had to choose a topic all the way through the judging.  This seems to me to be the perfect time for teachers to explain the steps involved in research, skills that may be applied across the disciplines and into higher education.  It’s kinda embarrassing to discover in graduate school that your approach to research, however common and seemingly effective, is completely nonsensical.

In my city this past spring there was a week-long, city-wide science festival to raise awareness about careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).  At a free public event called “Science Expo Day,” many organizations representing all branches of science offered opportunities for families to learn more about the STEM related work being done all over the county.  As far as I could tell, there were not any official representatives from the field of information science, yet it was an event that I believe youth services librarians and teacher librarians could both contribute to and benefit from.

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