Exploring Environments: Student-Designed Units

This post is to summarise a recent student-designed Grade 10 Environmental Sciences inquiry unit that we planned for students to design and implement. I used this project as my trial for Hapara, a GoogleDocs dashboard system. More notes on Hapara are at the bottom. 


Our school runs a semester-based sciences course in MYP 4-5: Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Environmental Science. By the end of the third semester, students have experienced and made choices on Biology, Chemistry & Physics for their IB Diploma (IBDP) subjects. We don’t offer Environmental Systems & Society in IBDP. By the fourth semester, their minds are on the upcoming IBDP; this year instead of covering a series of topics on the environment we allowed students to specialise in groups, depending on their chosen IBDP discipline.

The Unit

Students were responsible in groups for designing their own unit of inquiry called ‘Exploring Environments’. Assessment of the summative tasks was individual. The following were required from all students:

  • A unit planner, with key questions and collaborative notes (not assessed).
  • A case-study article, written as a science communication blog post (Criterion B).
  • A lab or investigation (Criteria D, E, F, B).
  • A knowledge & understanding summative assessment (Criterion C).
  • A One World assignment (Criteria A, B) immediately followed the unit: Think Local, Act Global. Again this was published to blog.


Hapara was set-up and all work was carried out on GoogleDocs; I was able to see their progress on my dashboard. I set up GoogleDocs for the unit planners and each task, and was able to very easily share them (or makes copies into students’ folders directly). Students received the following:

Week 1

Students self-sorted into groups based on next-year’s IBDP sciences choices. My class had four chemists, four physicists and eight biologists. In the first lesson they looked through the links on the unit planner and the Habitable Planet web-text for ideas for a focus for their unit. By the end of the lesson the biologists had decided to focus on biodiversity, the chemists on water pollution and ozone and the physicists on global warming.

The second and third lessons were devoted to coming up with bigger concept-based questions, and then drilling down into more fact-based assessment statements: things they would need to know or be able to do in order to reach their goals. As they researched and discussed, they added links and notes to the bottom of their unit-planning document. This week was crucial, as we needed to be really on the ball as teachers to make sure the level of complexity that students were asking of themselves was suitably high.

At this point one student noted that they “didn’t know enough to be able to ask good questions“: a perfect teachable moment and I think a key to inquiry at this level. As groups stuttered, we pushed them to research further and learn more about their initial questions before using their answers to set new, deeper questions. Students must have a solid foundation to be able to inquire effectively: otherwise they cannot ask questions of any more sophistication than they would have done in middle school.

Hapara Dashboard: screenshot well after the project has finished, but you get the idea. Green = Bio, Orange = Chem.

Hapara Dashboard: screenshot well after the project has finished, but you get the idea. Green = Bio, Orange = Chem. Normally you’d see the names of the student(s) who have been editing the documents. It gives a nice preview and you can place documents directly into students’ folders (as well as check what’s there).

Week 2

Students continued working on their assessment statements and notes, and their four key questions and assessment statements were ‘locked in’ at the end of the week. This gave Paul and I time to prepare the summative knowledge and understanding assessments for each group.

The students’ main job for the week was to draft their Case Study article, the point of this being to find a single news article or piece of data that could be used to highlight some or all of their key questions. Through GoogleDocs and in-class negotiation, all students were able to come up with original questions, yet together their cases illustrated their group’s unit nicely. At this point we also started looking at great examples of science writing and preparing questions for our G+ interview with NY Times environment writer Andy Revkin.

Week 3

We had a great interview with Andy Revkin and spent the week writing the case studies and planning their investigations. The global warming group focused on different questions regarding ‘greenhouse in a jar’ variables; the chemists made and tested predictions regarding the profile of pollutants around Rokko Island; the biologists carried out different ecological surveys close to school. Again, all drafting and feedback took place on GDocs and was easily visible on Hapara.

At the end of the week, students published their Case Studies to their blogs. I read and commented on them, copying the comments and putting grades into PowersSchool. I then published links to them on i-Biology (I need to do this more often, to encourage a greater audience for students’ work).

Andy was great with the students who were able to attend this early-morning session, answering questions about writing, researching and the future of our environment. It was an inspiration, and one of his comments tied directly to our planned One World cap to the unit, about knowing our impacts as a school.

Week 4

Data collection, processing, completing the write-ups. Due the nature of the labs, work was moved to word and Excel for the graphing capabilities then submitted and graded in Turnitin.

Week 5

This was the final week of this part of the unit. Where Paul and I had planned to cover more content and ‘do a test’ based on the students’ assessment statements, we realised that was not at all authentic or in the spirit of the unit.

Instead we designed a two-lesson summative, open-internet assessment task. We used a range of questions, from the Level 1-2 Googleable to more analytical and evaluative questions. Separate tasks were prepared for each group, drawing mostly from real data and graphs. The questions were shared with students at the start of the first lesson, unshared after (with some more added), then re-shared for the second. Here is an example.

It was a challenge to design this: it needed to be online for access to material and long enough for students to get really into it. In the end we settled on students writing responses on paper, and questions 7-10 being added before the second session, to prevent as much interference as possible (though that is hardly an issue here). Another element of challenge for the teachers is the volume of questions to prepare. My class had three different tests, some were used by Paul but another couple had to be made to suit other groups’ unit questions.

This turned out to be an engaging challenge for students. Although some students were uncomfortable with the idea at first, they realised that we were assessing their higher-order skills. Their answers were generally well done, and they were expected to note their sources throughout. I usually have a noisy classroom – it was odd to have two whole periods of intense focus.

One World, Weeks 6-7

This last few weeks have been devoted to One World: Think Global, Act Local, in which students pick a single environmental issue and investigate our school’s impacts and explore possible solutions and mitigations. Their topics were diverse and interesting, based on real in-school data, and I hope that some develop into CAS projects for them in IBDP. It was intended to build on their blogging skills from the case study task, and the majority of students produced a higher quality of work.



We really enjoyed this project as a class and I am proud of their work. Students were much more engaged than last year’s march through the content, and the use of Hapara to keep the many balls in the air was a huge advantage. Feedback could be timely and specific on drafts, and it felt a lot like being an editor in a newsroom. The first two weeks were uncomfortable for a few students: those who typically like to be told what to do and are more comfortable with a list of assessment statements (they’ll be fine in DP); by the end most were on board and the diversity of work submitted made for interesting reading. I think a good measure of the quality of a task is if you enjoy grading it, and I loved their writing in this unit.

Through careful work with the groups at the start of the unit (and the use of relevant resources), we were able to ensure that although the unit was inquiry-based, it was of a suitable level of challenge and complexity.

I will develop the use of Hapara further for next year, for sure, though it is not a one-stop solution quite yet: GoogleDocs are still not as powerful as Excel for graphing (individual error bars, etc), and at one point my students disappeared (though were restored quickly by our excellent tech team).

This was a fun yet suitably challenging end to the year. It was easy to differentiate by interest, and students practiced skills in evaluating and using online sources. We were able to see the difference between factual, conceptual and debatable questions: the case study task was a good example of how concepts can unite many ‘fact-based’ knowledge items.


Notes about Hapara

If you use GoogleDocs, Hapara is a natural class management tool. I heard about it from our tech leaders in the school who went to a GAFE summit in Tokyo – I’m glad they shared it and got it set up. It’s power is not in its flashiness (though it does look quite nice), but that it makes doing good things easier.

Things it can do that I did: 

  • Group students in the class.
  • Share template documents, making personal copies for each student to edit.
  • Share documents to be edited only by members of a group.
  • See inside the shared folder that is put on their GoogleDrive (but not inside others).
  • Give you almost real-time updates on whose documents are being updated and by whom.

Things it can do that I didn’t do:

  • Include GoogleSites (I will next year)*
  • Include Blogger and other Google tools like Picasa
  • Calendars and G+
  • It has a shared document for each student that teachers only can comment on (Response to Intervention).
  • Remote Control allows you to see or push links to students’ Chrome, for easy classroom management. I can see the use in MS or younger, but wouldn’t be keen to activate this in HS.
  • Probably other things I don’t know about.

*EDIT: Aug2013 – it is connected now, for my new #IBBio class, so I can organise this GoogleSites project more effectively.

Things it can’t do that I wish it could: 

  • When I think of something I’ll post it here.

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