Teacher Roadmaps - Facilitating Online Conversations with Mentors

Teacher Engagement is an Important Predictor of Success

Where teachers take an active role in PlantingScience projects, conversations run more smoothly, students gain deeper understanding, everyone knows what to expect, and everyone has a better experience. Here are some tips for making the most of your teams’ scientist mentors by facilitating deeply meaningful online conversations and relationships.

Let Students Know What to Expect and What’s Expected of Them

Introduce the project before students register. Students in today’s digital age grew up with computers at schools and social networking. It is a relatively small step for them to join an online learning community. However, we suggest reviewing online etiquette with students.

We suggest you share with students Making the Most of your Scientist Mentor and discuss what communicating with scientists and peers might look like.

As you introduce the project to your students, introduce your grading criteria. We’ve found that teachers who require regular posting as part of a class grade often have teams with better online conversations.

Discuss in class how scientists think and how they work. With an idea of the general characteristics of scientists, your students might be curious about particular scientists, famous scientists mentioned in textbooks, and the scientist mentors collaborating with them on this project.

Prepare Students for Asking and Responding to Questions

What kinds of questions would your students like to ask the experts? What kinds of questions can be best answered by specialists, rather than by observation or reading?

To prepare your students for the kinds of questions scientist mentors will ask them as the teams initiate their projects, encourage your students to ask themselves questions such as:

  • What do I already know about this topic?
  • What do I want to know?
  • How could I go about finding possible answers?

Encourage your students to try and answer some of these questions by observing or reading books, articles, and Internet resources.

Encourage students to think of the “Conversations” area on their team research webpage as a parking space for their current and emerging ideas — a place to “think out loud” as they talk with their mentors. Encourage students to share online about the background information, class activities, and personal experiences that influenced their ideas, questions, and research plans. This is critical to provide context for the mentors. Otherwise, ideas appear to emerge out of thin air. Warn students that communication with mentor online is asynchronous.

Using Scientists’ Comments to Examine How Scientists Think

Scientists will often respond by providing information. But they will also be asking students for more information. In doing so, scientists are “data seeking” - looking for more data to understand the system and help the students build an explanation about it. This “data-seeking” behavior is an “instinct” that is part of scientific thinking.

Establish a Relationship with your Teams’ Mentors and Keep the Communication Flowing

"Sometimes it’s a little bit of a mystery to figure out what is going on in the classroom. Some students may say one thing about their experiment, and then others will correct them later...it can keep you guessing at times!”

This challenge reported by a mentor illustrates the “black box” the classroom can sometimes be for an online mentor.

Help the scientist mentors help your students. While a scientist mentor may respond with what seems like a pat answer, let students know that it’s okay to ask for an explanation or clarification. Or to push the question to a different level. By the same token, it’s important for you to help scientists communicate better with your students. If you have suggestions, use the teacher/scientist discussion forum or send the scientist an e-mail. Your suggestions will aid your students, as well as the mentors.

You are the expert on your students. You know the students’ background, the team dynamics, and what is going on in the classroom. For mentors to be effective, they need the information about the students and the class setting that you thoughtfully provide on each class.

Get students talking with mentors early and often. Mentors like to be involved in the whole project from a team’s first thoughts through the final presentation. To really help students come to a good research question, mentors need to be introduced to their teams at least a few days before the teams choose project directions. For the best success, begin conversations iwth mentors at least a week before the students will set up their experiments.

You provide an eye into the classroom for mentors. Mentors may not know what materials are available, what students are working on during class time, what your schedule is for completing projects, or which teams have particular needs. Frequent updates on what things look like “on the ground” gives mentors much needed context and can help them tailor their advice. Here is an example of a teacher using mentors as allies to keep the students on track and update the progress status of the class as it changes.

Hello Mentors!
Well, we’re off!  So I tried to buy celery on Wednesday last week and my small local grocery store only had the kind with the tops cut off.  So last night I went to the big chain grocery store – and, no joke – they were sold out of celery – I even asked.  So, we are already behind :).  That’s’ how science goes, right?

So today my students logged into the website for the first time.  They basically got their groups, registered, took their pre-test, and then read your posts (if you had already introduced yourself) and said hello. This went very smoothly, although I had lots of absent students. They know nothing yet except they get to work in groups, talk to a scientist, and will be looking at celery.  This week we will be doing the “Preparing for the party” scenario.  So Thursday when they login they will posting observations about that.  So feel free to ask them between now and then what the observed – they won’t look between now and then, so you won’t give anything away.

We are off next Monday and Tuesday, so I think maybe that Thursday or Friday we will hop back into the lab and post on “Celery Sucks.”  Which means we will actually start our own inquiry (how to achieve maximum bending) the week of the 27th.

I try to blog everyday we do something PS related in class (I do PS mixed in with my regular lessons, so you’ll see gaps of 2-3 days between when we login), so you as mentors have a better understanding of where we are.  Feel free to ask me questions, etc here so I can give you what ever information you need.  This is my third module (I’ve also done Brassica genetics and The Power of Sunlight) and each time I learn something new.  I very much believe in the importance of teaching my kids to think like scientists – so this inquiry process is priceless.  Please challenge them to think and EXPLAIN what they are thinking and why!!!

I’m looking forward to a great session of the Celery Challenge – thanks for being a mentor!~Jenn

Keep an Eye on Student Participation and Intervene if Necessary

What do you do when your students get behind? Or if the mentor is slow to respond? We provide you with several tools to keep track of your teams. These help you see when conversations are running smoothly and which teams need assistance getting stalled projects back on track.

Encourage your Students to Wrap Up

When the project comes to an end, have your students encapsulate what they’ve learned from the experience as they say their goodbyes. This is important to give the project closure (whether or not students complete a full inquiry cycle online) and inform mentors that the students won’t be posting any more.


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NSF_Logo.jpg This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant #2010556 and #1502892. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

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