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Connect English learners to science with online projects

By Emily Walden
July 21, 2014
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For many of us, learning science in school meant opening worn textbooks, watching projector slides in a stuffy classroom and dissecting rats once you got to eighth grade. Did you ever ask yourself, "How is this relevant? How can I take this knowledge, go out into the world and use it in my life?"

Students learning with the COPELLS Project don't need to ask. They're already applying science directly in their lives. Through a variety of blended learning  approaches, they learn concepts they will carry with them long after middle school. They might play an online game where they label parts of the digestive system, watch a video on viruses or run a simulation on animal variation. Other students might post about local environmental issues and discuss them with students in another country. The COPELLS website also offers a forum where students from different cultures can post work, ask and answer questions, and practice their language skills.

Collaborative online projects

The Center for Advanced Technology in Education  at the University of Oregon created the COPELLS Project with support from the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study group to improve science literacy for middle school students, especially English learners (ELs). NAEP (2011) scores show that ELs score significantly lower in science and reading assessments. They often lag behind their peers, mostly because language is a barrier to science comprehension. But both ELs and general education students have made statistically significant gains in their science understanding after taking part in this project. And, perhaps more important, they say they enjoy using the website to talk to peers in other countries.

Collaborative online projects (COPs) in science use open sources organized with a project-based learning (PBL) framework, where students work on real-life projects, collaborate with other students and engage in the curriculum content. Here's what it looks like in the classroom:

Driving question: The teacher gives students a question that relates to a real problem that scientists encounter.

Active investigation: Students research and conduct field investigations to solve the problem posed in the driving question.

Collaboration: In groups, students come up with solutions to the problem and share their results with the class and other classrooms.

Online tools: Students use online, cognitive tools in their research and collaboration, such as hypermedia, graphic applications, computer-based laboratories, games, videos and other technology tools.

Here is an example of how PBL works with the COPs. In one unit, students answer the driving question: "What do students in your school do that increases their carbon footprint, and how can they reduce it?" Students get into groups and actively investigate this question, based on their own experiences and what they learned in the unit. Students then collaborate to solve the issue, such as recommending that more students walk to school. When sharing their work, students use the forum, an online tool where students can post their work, including images like this one.


COPELLS also uses the Cognitive-Affective Theory of Learning with Media, a model of different types of interactivities encountered in multimodal learning environments that includes:

In discussion forums, students ask and answer questions and then take interactive quizzes to get immediate feedback.

Controlling: Although teachers provide guided instruction, students decide the pace of content learning. They may, for example, decide to replay a video or play a game again before taking on the embedded assessment.

Manipulating: Students decide the parameters for the activity they are doing, which may involve choosing what to run in a simulation or designing their own experiment.

Searching: Students look for content material either by searching the internet or through the COPELLS website.

Navigating: Students decide where to go in a digital environment. On the COPELLS website, students can click on stage or lesson menus to access the content.

COPELLS has two COP life science units  What Your Body Needs and Let's Help Our Environment which are aligned with the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). Each unit is divided into stages of learning that are like chapters in a book. For example, in one stage students will examine cells, and in the next they will explore bacteria.

Alignment with education standards

Today's teachers are faced with the challenge of aligning content to the CCSS and other standards. The COPs let teachers easily link content with the CCSS. Charts are available on the website, which participating teachers may access through a login, so that teachers can see how the COPs and CCSS align. Here are some examples:

CCSS for English language arts for literacy in science and technical subjects (grades 6-8)


Determine the central ideas or conclusions of a text.

Students write summaries or provide information on the topics in their science notebooks and/or the forum.

Follow precisely a multistep procedure when carrying out experiments, taking measurements or performing technical tasks.

Students are expected to follow steps when conducting lab and hands-on activities that incorporate scientific inquiry.

Determine the meaning of symbols, key terms and other domain-specific words and phrases.

Each lesson provides vocabulary supports where key scientific words link to online definitions.

Compare and contrast the information gained from experiments, simulations, videos or multimedia sources with that gained from reading a text on the same topic.

Students encounter content in multiple ways so that they need to compare the information they gain from each source and integrate it into their overall understanding of the concept.

The COPs are also rich in content related to the ISTE Standards for Students. For example:

  • Designing a cell gelatin model to show the different cell parts addresses Standard 1: Creativity and innovation.
  • Participating in forums addresses Standard 2: Communication and collaboration.
  • Studying multimodal content addresses Standard 3: Research and information fluency.
  • Researching local environmental issues addresses Standard 4: Critical thinking, problem solving and decision making.
  • Learning appropriate behaviors addresses Standard 5: Digital citizenship.
  • Using COPs within the digital environment addresses Standard 6: Technology operations and concepts.

Using COPS

The COPELLS website is for science teachers and their students. Here are the steps you can take to use COPs in your classroom:

  1. Contact the COPELLS Project to get login access for you and your students.
  2. Choose the unit you want to teach.
  3. Guide instruction for students.
  4. Check in with students to make sure they understand the concepts.
  5. Give students both formative and summative assessments.

The COPELLS project combines collaboration, technology and PBL to give students experiences that will help them learn science concepts they will carry with them throughout their lives.

Want to learn more ways to incorporate STEM skills into your curriculum? Check out ISTE's STEM webinars.