Case study: Using website templates in Science lessons

Matthew Broderick

Matthew Broderick is a head of department for Science in a Middle Eastern IB school. He has written several textbooks for Science, has taught in different education systems and is a proud teacher who loves to try new things to inspire the next generation of scientists. Matthew is also hard of hearing and is proud to show the world what he can do as opposed to what people think a deaf man cannot do. His main areas of expertise in Science education are scientific literacy, ICT in the classroom and being an efficient teacher.

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As I approached the fourth year in which I had delivered a sustainability-based project for my secondary school students, there was one issue that troubled me; how could I make the project itself more sustainable? Why do I use so much paper in making my students more aware of the issue of sustainability? This year, the project was to research, design, and build, a sustainable home suitable for the Finnish Tundra. The students were all in Y8 (or Grade 7) and have the benefit of a Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) policy at our school.

"I initially encouraged students to use any of the recommended sites for their website templates and all seemed to be equally user-friendly."

My attention was caught by Wix, and subsequently, Weebly and Google Sites. What better way to engage and promote sustainability than to produce a permanent, paper-free record of the students’ projects while allowing them access to a new skill? These sites allow students to show off their ideas and it is as simple as writing text directly into a template, or uploading a photograph into a box. I initially encouraged students to use any of the recommended sites for their website templates and all seemed to be equally user-friendly. Some students struggled with the brief initially, but guidance towards help tutorials helped embed further independent learning skills, rather than simply asking me to show them. I am sure that there are metacognitive gains in this process that could be further explored. Students were allowed five ninety-minute lessons to plan, research, and build a home, as well as completing a website and preparing a presentation.

My primary aim was for students to document their work for assessment purposes but without using any paper (I am immensely proud of my paper-free curriculum, but that is another article entirely!). Previous projects produced very little research or documentation as students, quite predictably, focused on building models and painting. However, they were suddenly allocating duties for blogging and website development to describe in much greater depth about sustainability, biomes, and the environment. It seemed to me that students wanted their websites to have ‘depth’, and this led to informative, well-organised pages about the very thing I wanted to teach.

I expected students to produce pages within their websites that simply explained the facts behind their biomes, homes and the project. To my delight and wonderment, I saw the following:

  • Online ‘shops’ where customers could buy helipads, water desalination plants and energy-saving lightbulbs to name but a few.
  • Regular blogs that explained what had been learned and how they felt along the way.
  • Links to the IB learner profile and a lovely piece about how I was a risk-taker for rolling out the project (you have to love a child who is so keen to please).
  • Video interviews, news reports, commercials and mini-dramas.
  • Competitions to encourage higher visitor numbers for their sites.
  • Multiple pages to layout their work clearly.

The level of creativity was astounding and a pleasure to see. I evolved, too, as I picked up new skills and ideas along the way. I quickly built my own website to lead the project that included a blog of my own, rewards for excellent progress, information for parents, grading criteria and my own competition where students, parents and teachers could vote for the best model home. Each vote was entered into a prize draw to win a box of my home-made macarons (caramel buttercream flavour, since you ask). The competition received over 180 votes; a stunning figure given that I only have 78 students in the project. I posted links to the best sites for parents to see their children getting their work ‘published’, as well as updates of student progress and photographs. "Each vote was entered into a prize draw to win a box of my home-made macarons (caramel buttercream flavour, since you ask)." The feedback was almost entirely positive as students loved the opportunity to try something new. Students clearly enjoyed the creative licence afforded to them and there was a ‘buzz’ around the lessons. Students that were not in my class were asking if they could do the same in their lessons (and will be doing so, next year). The minor complaints were largely related to not liking their chosen groups and one pupil who took over his groups’ website rather than sharing the responsibility.

I hear you wondering if the students actually learned anything. I knew they had, but wanted to gather some tentative evidence to encourage my colleagues to follow suit, as well as appease the potential IT-policy related queries that might arise. End-of-unit testing was able to tell me that:

  • There was a value-added increase of +0.8% across the four classes, compared to their average test scores and target data
  • The classes were given the same test (using SAT questions) as the previous cohort and the average grade increased from 79.1% to 89.8%.

Of course, there are many factors that could influence this data trend, but no other unit has thrown up any similar patterns. The target data and average data across the two years are similar.

Pupil satisfaction was higher (in my observational opinion), and the level of engagement was visibly excellent. For me, the best part of this project was the day that I graded the websites. I simply could not believe the quality and depth of the work produced. The range of creative and innovative ideas, compared to the drab paper offerings of previous years produce one of those moments of teaching where pride and happiness were bursting out of me. I spent weeks showing colleagues, friends, and family the sites to demonstrate the brilliance of my students. As this was my first foray into building websites, there are things that I will change for next time:

  • Have my own site fully built and ready before starting.
  • Either demonstrate or produce video tutorials of my own, for basic aspects such as selecting the right template, editing and moving text boxes, uploading photographs, how to start a vote and other top tips for innovation and creativity.
  • Differentiate the groups to reflect the range of IT competency in the classes.
  • Grouping based on devices so that Apple/Windows users are in the same groups.
  • Allow parental access to the blog from the beginning.

As you can see, this is largely an anecdotal account of trying something new and I will be looking to quantify and link the potential gains to current research, in the future. In the meantime, I would love to hear what other teachers have done in a similar area that might guide my future practise. If you have not tried this then I urge you to do so; it is fun, engaging, great for learning and allows both teachers and students to try something new. Even without computers in the classroom, this could be done in a computer lab and/or at home. I look forward to reading your comments and experiences.

What do you think of this project? Let us know in the comments!

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