A mini research project can help students focus on the most important central theme of the lesson. The goal of the mini research project is for students to invest in learning about a new topic, and then sharing with their classmates what they learned. The project is meant to support and reinforce a specific central idea of the lesson or unit. I suppose this is true of any research project, but as you will see, the mini research project has some unique characteristics that make it a great choice!
Mini Research Project Learn and Share
There are two parts to the mini research project: first students learn, then they share!
The mini research project is designed to allow students to take a deeper dive into a particular topic. For example, in my Biology class we learn about the drivers of Climate Change. Students then do a mini research project to learn and share about new renewable energy innovations that work to fight climate change. Everyone chooses a different innovation to write about!
Structure of the Mini Research Project
The mini research project invites students to jump right into the meat of a topic. There is no introductory paragraph, no conclusion, no fluff to fill up space – just information.
Here I must confess, I am a science teacher. English teachers forgive me….this may not be the blog post for you! As a science teacher, my goal is to help students learn a specific science objective. This does not include how to write a formal paper. It does not include how to cite a formal paper. Nor even how to search online for resources. I just want them to learn a very specific central idea. If you, fellow teacher, have the same goal, read on!
Give students a short, concise rubric for what you want them to learn and share. Try to hone in on the two or three most important things you want them to focus on. Students write one paragraph for each part of the rubric.
In my example, they must describe how their renewable energy technology/innovation works, and then explain how the technology helps to fight against climate change. Just two paragraphs, but they both reinforce the central idea of the lesson, causes of climate change. They must reflect on the causes of climate change as they explain how their innovation combats climate change.
Here are a few other possibilities as inspiration for your own classroom:
- Topic: Adaptations. Project: Research an animal/plant. Describe two adaptations of the animal/plant. Explain specifically how the adaptation allows it to live in its biome. Central idea reinforced: Adaptations help organisms survive in their particular environments.
- Topic: Cell Organelles. Project: Research a disease that is caused by a faulty organelle. Describe two symptoms of the disease. Explain how the dysfunction of the organelle leads to the symptoms of the disease. Central idea reinforced: Organelles may be small, but they are vital to the function of the body.
- Topic: Cell Types. Project: Research a particular cell type (neuron, red blood cell, skin cell, sperm, etc- there are over 200!). Describe the shape of the cell type. Explain the function of the type of cell. Central idea reinforced: The body is made up of many different unique cell types that work together.
- Topic: Industrial Revolution. Project: Research one new technology of the industrial revolution. Provide a brief summary of who invented it, when and where. Describe what the invention did. Explain the impact of this invention. Central idea reinforced: The inventions of the industrial revolution changed the world!
Students Each Research Something Different:
Each student must pick something different to research. It can be very helpful to provide a list of possible ideas to choose from. This ensures they are choosing something that makes sense! It also prevents wasted time for kids who have trouble making a choice. Plus, by allowing students to sign up for a particular idea, first come first serve, you are ensuring that everyone is researching something unique.
In my example, I did a bit of research myself and compiled a list of 30 new innovations that combat climate change. The list is on a shared Google Doc. Everyone logs in and selects their topic by writing their name beside it.
To save even more time, consider providing a link to information about each topic on the list. Students can jump right into learning about their topic, rather than searching the internet. Again, my goal for this assignment is not to teach students how to find sources. I want them to spend their time learning about the central idea in a deeper way. So I have no problem providing them with the resources for their learning.
If there are not enough topics for your whole class to choose something unique, create a list of possibilities as long as you can, and still allow the fewest number of duplicates. For example, if you have 30 kids, and only 15 topics, allow each topic to be covered twice. On share day, they must still hear from two to three people that have unique topics (more on that later!).
Mini research projects are a great way to include art in science. Have your students create a drawing that represents their research in some way. In my example, they draw an annotated image of the innovation they choose.
The act of drawing utilizes different areas of the brain and strengthens learning. That is one reason doodle notes are so effective! They must think about the subject in a new and different way. A drawing is also super helpful for visual learners, both for the student doing the project, and for the students he shares the project with.
Put it on Paper:
I give kids a half sheet of white paper (cut ‘hamburger style’). They write what they learn on the front, and draw on the back. Mini research projects are simple and short – the half sheet of paper reminds them not to write too much. The small size is less daunting to timid writers.
The same is true of the drawing. Give them a whole sheet of whtie paper and you are likely to get back a drawing that is still mostly open white space! But a half sheet seems to encourage students to use the space.
Challenge them to fill the whole page! Fill one side with words, the other side with a colored drawing! My motto is ‘full color for full credit!’ But be sure to provide opportunity for students to use your classroom colored pencils or markers. Some kids do not have access to these at home.
Once students have finished their project, they are ready to share!
Traditionally, research projects are shared to the whole class at the front of the room, one student at a time. This can be an option if you have the time and inclination. Consider using a document camera to project students’ drawings. Or take a digital photo of the drawing so you can project it.
However, one of the joys of the mini research projects is that they are perfect for speed sharing!
Speed sharing is fast and interactive! Students pair up and share what they learned with each other, then move on to pair with someone new and share again. There are two ways you can do this.
Controlled Speed Sharing
Have half your class sit or stand, while the other half rotates around the room. Give students 5 minutes (or however long you think it will take) with each partner. When the buzzer sounds, the rotating students move one student to the right. You decide how many partners they share with!
Chaos Speed Sharing!
Let students wander around the room finding new partners to share with at will. To provide a bit more structure, set a timer and have them stay with one partner until the timer goes off, then find a new one.
You want to be sure that students are actually learning from their partners. Here are a few ideas:
- Have them write down what they learn as they go. Provide a sheet to fill out that is basically your rubric, but with space to write on. They will fill out one ‘rubric’ for each partner they talk to. Since the rubric is short and simple, you can fit four or five on a single page. Then collect the sheets for a classwork grade.
- At the end of the rotations, call on a few random students to tell the class what they learned from another student. Let the class know beforehand that you will be doing this – you will find that a lot of them will choose to take notes on their own!
- Tell students the central idea that you are looking to reinforce with this mini research project. Have them collect three (or however many) pieces of information from their classmates that supports the central idea. Write them down and turn them in.
- For an advanced class, challenge students individually to come up with what they think the central idea is! Have them collect information that supports their central idea. It is fun to have students share what they think is the central idea after rotations are finished.
Great Things about the Mini Research Project
If you are not yet sold on the mini research project, here are a few more reasons they are great!
- Student interest: They get to choose what to research!
- Save paper: Half sheet per student!
- Prevent plagiarism: The research is so constrained that students are forced to summarize what they learn.
- Save class time: Compared to a traditional research assignment, it is so much faster for students to complete a mini research project. I give around 50 minutes of class time, plus a night or two to finish for homework if need be. Share time can take only ten to thirty minutes, depending on how many rotations you want to go through.
- Save YOUR time! Grading traditional research paper vs a half sheet? Not even close!
- Focus students: The rubric and single half piece of paper force students to focus on just the important bits of the project.
- Challenge: Long winded students must practice brevity!
- Safety: Students who struggle with reading, writing, and sharing feel much more comfortable with mini research projects.
What do you think of the mini research project?
Let us know in the comments: what central ideas and topics would work well for a mini research project in your classroom?
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