Sunday, October 24, 2010

Bacteria Unit

Vibrio cholerae (AJC1 on Flickr)

In 6th grade science, we are currently finishing up a unit on bacteria. Because my 6th graders seemed to lack the desire to learn the different parts of the bacterial cell, I decided to focus this unit on 'interesting bacteria' instead of the details that make prokaryotes different from eukaryotes. My senior thesis research was on the infection process of the plant pathogen A. tumefaciens, so I was pretty excited about this unit and the kids knew it.

For one of the assignments, I created a list of pathogenic and beneficial bacterial species, split the class into groups of 3, and gave them the task of researching their species and making a presentation for the class over the course of 3 days. Tomorrow is the culmination of the assignment, when the final 2 groups will present their research, and here is what I have learned so far:

1. The students lack a lot of the fundamental skills required for researching and acquiring knowledge on their own. Next time, before I ask them to do an independent project, I need to present a tutorial on how to conduct research, gather information, and synthesize it.

2. They enjoy working in groups, for the most part, and really enjoy making projects and presenting them. While this may be obvious to some teachers, 6th graders (and likely all students) love doing projects and labs and other hands-on activities.

3. Some teachers argue that there is some fundamental information that is best provided through lectures, but I'm not sure the issue is that black and white. Are lectures ever necessary? For this 2 week unit on bacteria I didn't lecture a single day, and I think I was able to accomplish my goals for the unit, namely: to show that bacteria are ubiquitous, give an idea of what they look like, show that they can be beneficial and harmful, and demonstrate how critical they are in our daily lives. I accomplished this mainly through projects and activities where we discussed current events and talked about what we could learn from them. Students enjoyed reading through the articles, it helped them with their reading comprehension skills, and they really enjoyed the videos accompanying the articles. I actually learned a lot too. Tomorrow, for example, we will discuss the recent outbreak of cholera, an illness caused by V. cholerae, in Haiti and watch the related news clip.


  1. Okay, having had my first, very long reply not "take," I'm just saying this was a great post, and very useful to see your take on what's up with 6th graders. I'd say you're not seeing something unusual, since I'm finding all the grades I teach to be lacking in preparation for scientific work, so I'm backing way up, and teaching the "how" as much as the "what." I'd also say congratulations for jumping in with both feet to projects rather than lectures. Studies show students learn less that 10% of what we tell them, but more than 20% of what they learn for themselves, so congrats! And keep it up. I want to see what else you learn!

  2. Amulya,

    This is a great post -- a model for open and transparent reflective thinking by teachers period (never mind the first year part).

    I agree that teaching the students the "how" is important. Our students are not alone in their lack of research skills. We're seeing this, other skills are seeing this, colleges are seeing this. Perhaps we all thought someone else was doing it for too long? Perhaps the skills we need to teach just proliferated so quickly we couldn't keep up? Perhaps we all need to teach the kind of research that is needed in our particular discipline or for each particular project. Regardless, you thinking is spot on.

    I am most interested in your comment #3. Is there a way to get some data on your classes here? Learning with lectures vs. learning without lectures? Of course, the best result will be when you assess your students and see for yourself. The students' engagement in their own learning is key!