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Cross-classroom collaboration—student scientists as teachers

Today’s post was written by Cheryl McClure, science teacher and MIE Expert at the International School in Bellevue, Washington.

Collaboration is the name of the game in education these days. We want students to be able to converse and collaborate in the classroom. But what if we add technology to collaborate across grade levels or even to other schools? As a school district with Office 365 it is pretty easy to do. In my school, we are fortunate to be a school where each student receives a district-issued laptop for the school year. The fact that we have technology at our fingertips makes this technology collaboration easier. We utilize Skype for communications with another school, take notes in OneNote class notebooks, make videos or use Sway and PowerPoint Mix as presentation tools. We also use as a platform for sharing.

For an introductory chemistry unit, my middle school science students became the teachers to a class of 1st– graders in another school. When 7th-grade students were tasked with creating “States of Matter” lessons for younger learners, they had to ask themselves, “Can 1st-graders even understand what a molecule is?”

Since our two schools were across town, we Skyped a series of introduction calls to meet each other. We chatted with the 1st-graders in three different sessions, since they were only one class and we had three classes. The 7th-graders absolutely fell in love with the 1st-graders, with their endless questions about a myriad of topics, while the 1st-graders were in awe of the knowledgeable big kids.

OneNote Cross-classroom collaboration 1

Student scientists as teachers

As the 7th-graders began learning the core ideas of solids, liquids and gases, we used the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) Disciplinary Core Ideas (DCI) for middle and elementary grade levels as our benchmarks for understanding. In order to best understand the science of the states of matter, we first played with oobleck (corn starch and water) to experience an amorphous solid—a solid that flows like a liquid when pressure is applied.

We followed this by experimenting with dry ice (CO2), an ice cube, water and heat to watch all three states of matter within a few moments. Lastly, students worked through a series of online simulated labs to further build their foundational understanding of the energy and particle nature of matter.

OneNote Cross-classroom collaboration 2

After discussing the key concepts of the states of matter, students made a list of learning objectives and determined the story or theme to teach solids, liquids and gases to the 1st-graders. The goal was to teach the basic idea of what makes up a state of matter and how to know if it is a liquid or a solid. The 7th-graders began brainstorming how best to engage their young audience to demonstrate the different states of matter and how the energy of the particles changes between states. Finally, students had to figure out how best to stay scientifically correct, but simple enough for a 1st-grader to understand.

OneNote Cross-classroom collaboration 3

Students organized their work into our OneNote Science class notebook, where they wrote up their notes, lab observations and even planned their group tasks for developing their lessons. The OneNote Collaboration Space makes it extremely easy for students to share what they are working on with each other without multiple copies or lost papers floating around.

OneNote Cross-classroom collaboration 4

Utilizing technology to master science concepts

The students agreed that the lesson needed the following elements:

  • Scientific content.
  • An engaging, age-appropriate format.
  • Examples for 1st-graders to confirm their observations as a solid or a liquid.
  • A wrap-up summary.

They then made their lessons into videos, Sways or a PowerPoint Office Mix. Since we had just been introduced to, we were eager to try Microsoft’s new sharing platform for Word documents, Sways and Mixes.

OneNote Cross-classroom collaboration 5

A great feature of is a pop-up summary that allows a viewer to quickly see what the content is prior to opening the document. This meant that students had to write their own brief “marketing” summaries of their lessons. The purpose of the summaries was to help guide which lesson the 1st-grade teacher and students would watch. Once their summaries were written, we uploaded the lessons to Another nice feature is the ability to set the privacy settings to either public or within an organization, which is especially helpful within a school and district setting.

OneNote Cross-classroom collaboration 6

We Skyped again after the 1st-graders had time to watch and learn from our science lessons. The 1st-graders shared which lessons they liked best and which ones they thought were silly. We answered to clarify their questions about how an object could change from a liquid to solid and vice versa. We also learned that sometimes 1st-graders understand that a rock is just rock and we shouldn’t make it too complicated. The outcomes were positive: the 7th-graders mastered their understanding of states of matter and the 1st-graders reported they loved our lessons and the variety and creativity.

Cross-class collaboration for content

Traditionally, science lessons begin with a lecture of content material, such as the amount of energy in a given state of matter. Next, students dutifully write down the concept, vocabulary and complete the worksheet. Hopefully the lesson is learned.  Although this may be tradition, it also may not be the best way to learn, remember and engage with the science in the world around us. We are science “doers.” We learn by doing. Watch any toddler figure out the world around them: they try, experiment, re-try and then show us what they have learned. The same applies to us and our students. Using collaborative technology, 7th-grade students became not only teachers but creators, role models and collaborators. The 1st-grade students were not only our inspiration but also our selective consumers, providers of feedback and our collaborators as well. Once we try something for ourselves, we master what we learn by showing or explaining it to others. Students are excellent teachers, and when students have technology as a tool, they are immeasurably creative when it comes to teaching others. Kids get a kick out of watching, reacting and listening to their voices. It’s a powerful tool for learning.

OneNote Cross-classroom collaboration 7 and 8

I presented this classroom collaboration partnership at the MIEE U.S. Forum in Denver and at a Redefining Learning Conference at Sammamish High School. Watch a short clip here: cross-classroom collaboration demo or see the Sway here: school partnerships Sway on

A little bit about Cheryl McClure

OneNote Cross-classroom collaboration 9I am a science teacher who is totally geeky about science education, technology, soccer and sailing. I teach 6th-grade Life Science, 7th-grade Earth Science and high school Biology at the International School in Bellevue, Washington. I am passionate about utilizing technology to assist the “ah-ha” moment of discovery and understanding. I am Microsoft Innovative Educator Expert (MIEE) and member teacher in the Partnership for Ambitious Science Teacher Leaders (PASTL).

(Artwork courtesy of one of Cheryl’s Biology students.)


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