This article describes the results of an action research on middle school student attitudes about three different science projects. Each project had a technology component and was of varying levels of challenge. An online survey collector was used to gather student feedback on their computer comfort levels, skills, and feelings about each project. The author was able to easily disaggregate the data to see gender differences as well as student engagement and challenges to more effectively evaluate the science projects.
As a 20th Century teacher in a 21st Century seventh grade science classroom, I am trying to integrate all of the technological skills my students will need to become successful science learners. From an instructional viewpoint, every year I integrate more technology skills in my general science classes including making interactive media presentations, using websites to show an animation and video, or using data projectors to display spreadsheets that graph student lab results. I am also increasing the amount of student interactions with technology from day-to-day computer use to long-term, real-world projects.
How would I describe the students I teach? They have been using computers since they began kindergarten. My students love using computers and going to the computer lab. They demonstrate a positive attitude about a lesson in the computer lab even when they have no idea what they will be asked to do. Knowing this I wanted to explore how students' attitudes are affected as they complete science projects of varying levels of difficulty with technology components. In this study, the focus of my questions were:
Did the students enjoy projects that were relatively easy to complete as well as those that required more thought?
Did they like projects that required them to learn a new skill?
How did relying on the contribution of partners or using additional time outside of the classroom to complete their projects affect the students' attitudes?
I also wanted to know if there are gender issues that separate males from females in attitudes and computer comfort levels and skills. To gather student feedback on the projects, I used an online survey collector, SurveyMonkey. Because I was collecting data from 125 students, I wanted a system that would allow me to easily design multiple surveys, collect and tabulate the data, and make it available to me in a spreadsheet format that I could easily analyze. By using an online survey collector, it was simpler for me as the teacher/researcher to evaluate the effectiveness of each project.
Review of Literature
Many of today's teachers did not use computers for learning when they were elementary or secondary pupils. “Digital natives” is a term that has been coined to describe the students of today who have grown up with computers, and thus process and think about information in a way that is different from the majority of their teachers (Prensky, 2001). According to Prensky (2005), if we want to be relevant teachers of 21st Century students, it is imperative that we learn how to engage students with electronic methods. Teachers feel that the advantages resulting from using technology in the classroom are that it (a) improves instruction, (b) is able to meet the needs of the students, (c) can update the science curriculum, and (d) can make science more fun and motivating for the students (Czerniak, Lumpe, Haney, & Beck, 1999).
Researchers have conducted studies that show students of both genders have positive attitudes towards using a computer. As more schools have increased computer access, girls' access to the school's computers is equal to the boys' (Miller, Schweingruber, Brandenburg, 2001). But studies of gender differences in student attitudes towards computers find that even though girls are being encouraged by teachers, boys remain more confident than girls in their computer skills (Young, 2000).
Student confidence and attitudes toward computer use may be linked to the person with whom they are working. Students like to work with their friends, and Prensky (2005) believes that students should be allowed to choose their own learning partners. Science students' self-efficacy and knowledge was enhanced in a technology–rich environment where students were able to collaborate and direct their own learning (Hsieh, Cho, Liu, & Schallert, 2008).
This study was developed to investigate the attitudes of students in their computer comfort and skill levels, to analyze their attitudes toward varying levels of science projects, and to look for any differences between genders.
Participants in this study were twelve to thirteen year old seventh grader students from a suburban middle school in the southwestern U.S. In the 2008 state ratings, all nine schools in the district were rated as “Exemplary” (the highest rating possible according to state standards) as defined by scores on state-mandated tests. The seventh grade science course is a combination of earth, physical, and life sciences, with an emphasis in life science. A total of 114 students, 49% males and 51% females, in five heterogeneous science classes completed science projects that were of varying difficulty, and all projects included a computer component. Classes consisted of 86% White/Caucasian, 8% Asian/Pacific Islander, and 6% Hispanic students.
After each project was submitted, the students took a survey about their feelings relating to the project using SurveyMonkey , an online survey collector (for more information visit http://www.surveymonkey.com ). Students were emailed an invitation to the survey and were given class time to complete the survey questions. In each survey, students were asked a variety of questions such as (a) How did you enjoy the project? (b) How much time did it take to finish the project? (c) Did you teach someone else a computer skill? The initial survey also included a few questions about personal computer availability and computer comfort levels and skills (see Appendix A).
The three projects were of varying levels of difficulty in creativity, computer knowledge, and group organization. The first project, Periodic Table (PT), was an individual project. The students used basic computer skills for searching the Internet for images that could be downloaded and resized into a template they were given. In the second project, Animation, the students learned a new technology skill of using animation in Microsoft PowerPoint (PPT) to produce a cartoon-like movie. They also chose whether to do this project by themselves or with a partner of their choice. In the third project, Zoo Design, all students were placed in groups of three to four people. Groups were chosen by the teacher. Students were able to choose one of four tasks to complete for their group. Each task used a different skill such as drawing or writing and/or a computer program such as Microsoft Word, PPT, Microsoft Publisher, or Microsoft Excel, to complete the task.
Periodic Table Project
The first project required students to make a Periodic Table (PT) of common objects, people, books, etc. such as college football teams, earrings, movies, and novel genres. Students used their knowledge of how Dmitri Mendeleev developed his periodic table with groups and periods to design their own table. Student designs demonstrated their understanding of how objects can be grouped according to similar characteristics and periodicity. Students worked independently in class. They were given a grading rubric and a template of a blank periodic table on an Excel spreadsheet in which to input their images and words. The template was in Excel, but it did not use any spreadsheet features; it was used so the final product could be printed on several pages, cut out and overlapped, to make one large periodic table. Students accessed the rubric and template through the school district's Student Shared Folder or the teacher's website, and saved their final work in their individual student folders on the district's server. Students found images on the Internet to place into the columns and rows of their periodic table. In addition, they had to label pictures and title their project. Students were given two days of class time in a computer lab to work on the project, and it was due several days later. This project involved students in the use of basic computer skills such as accessing different folders, downloading and pasting images onto a document, resizing images, using WordArt, making text boxes, and other basic word-processing skills.
The second project was an Animation project using PowerPoint. The students were originally given the task to make an animation of soil formation or weathering. As the students became engaged in the work, they asked if they could expand the project's topics that they could animate to include other areas they had previously studied that semester including simple machines and force and motion. Therefore, the students had many more choices that they could animate. The animations demonstrated the students' understanding of a process or action in science that had movement as an integral part of the concept. A demonstration of how to make an animation using PowerPoint was given, as well as a project requirement sheet and grading rubric, examples, and online tutorial sites including ones that demonstrated special motion techniques. Students had three class days in a computer lab to work on the project. Projects were saved to student's individual folders. Students were given the option to work individually or in pairs in which the students selected their own partner. Those that worked with a partner had to have twice the time minimum on their animation as those working individually. This project used basic computer skills such as using drawing tools and importing graphics while using a familiar program, PPT. Even though they were using a program most were comfortable with, they were doing something with the program that was new and different to the students. The new skill they learned was how to make small changes from one slide to another so that when the final product was presented, the PPT looked like a cartoon movie with figures moving, tumbling, blowing up, etc.