Rich Problem Solving – Experimental Design

I’m currently in the middle of Fall Break. As each moment goes by outside of school I regain a bit of my prior sanity, and am able to reconnect to goals and heart of my teaching philosophy. Conveniently, the week of fall break also coincides with the first challenge of the Explore the MTBoS Mission 1: Explore the power of the blog.

I found out about this challenge as school was starting and planned to be blogging all the way until it started and use it as a jumpstart to keep me going. Now, instead, its the jumper cables that hopefully will push me to keep growing during what has turned out to be a REALLY busy and stressful year. Turns out three new preps take up all my time.

I want to respond to the first challenge in brainstorm mode, as I feel that I have not done a great job so far this year (in any of my three preps) of teaching through rich problems. However, in AP Statistics in particular, I want to continue to replace the math in their heads (a loose collection of skills each with an associated step by step process) with struggle and critique and logic.

One overarching topic of the AP Statistics class is experimental design. Students are to engage in the art of creating surveys, studies, etc. in order to minimize bias and examine conjectures statistically. As the majority of my students have little exposure to reading about research, doing or taking surveys, I am interested to throw them in the deep end and see what they think is reasonable for experimental design.

I envision setting up a class near the beginning of the experimental design section as a role-playing scenario, where students are asked to take on the role of researchers trying to answer some big question about their community. In the beginning, I would give them little guidance, just a promise that throughout our unit we will continue to improve this research plan and build up to the point where we may actually be able to carry out a survey or experiment at the end of the unit that gives reliable data. As we discuss ideas such as bias, sampling, and blocking,  I would like to allow students time to synthesize the new ideas by making successive revisions to their research plans.

What I envision struggling with here is scaffolding the initial brainstorming activity for my students. The urban education system they have grown up in has made it very difficult for them to speculate, apply, or create new knowledge without having very explicit modeling first. I want to push them to move into a new topic even though they have little background knowledge and be willing to put something on paper even though they know it will not be good.

I’m thinking I will have them brainstorm based on a series of basic questions about designing an experiment. For example, “What data are we trying to obtain? How will we obtain that data from our participants?” and so on. Maybe I will have them read articles about research for a few days leading into this topic in order to answer questions about the researchers purpose and methods.

Any better ideas on how to scaffold them into this or more questions I could have them work through? Any scientists out there have a sample of the things that you would do to plan a study before you do it?

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4 thoughts on “Rich Problem Solving – Experimental Design

  1. I feel pretty out of my element here – I’m an elementary school teacher who is interested in obtaining a math credential, but who hasn’t taken a statistics class since…I-don’t-know-when. However, I have done some statistics with my sixth graders in the past.

    Could a possible entry point be to just start very small? Begin with simple investigations that can be done within your class (possibly designing a survey that each period in which each period could participate), examine the results, and determine if they’re reliable? Then, that could potentially be built upon as students expand their participant group.

    Again, totally out my element, but I’ve found that starting small often provides some of the inspiration and foundation upon which big ideas are built.

    • Thanks for the idea. I know I will need to find something like this to get them thinking small before we go big. I’m thinking giving some suggested survey topics (big open things like food, activities, music, etc.) and asking them to do two to three questions. I can have them set up a survey sheet with their questions and an opportunity to take tallies for the possible values for each question. After a couple days to gather a certain number of responses, maybe they could discuss the reliability of their results, potential problems that they see, etc.

  2. I love the idea of a long term project where students are referring back to *their own* research question throughout the unit. I’d leave it really open at the beginning and let kids refine as they go. Maybe by the end of the unit you could provide a checklist of all the elements of a good survey that you’ve worked on and kids could check to see if they’ve appropriately modified their project to meet all the requirements?

    • I love the checklist idea, but maybe I could even make the checklist a class product, as in we brainstorm together at the end of the unit: What potential problems must we consider to ensure our data is reliable?

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