Navigating Research Project Season

Aron Early

Research Project Season is coming.

During Research Project Season, generally the last month or two of the school year, teachers are more likely to assign research projects. As the Research Technology Specialist, I collaborate with teachers in teaching research, information, and technological literacy skills. In my building, this can be a busy time of year for supporting class projects, integrating technology, and helping students find information.

Not all research projects are created equal. Sometimes these are fantastic, cumulative projects that allow students to showcase their learning over the course of the year or a unit. Other times they are lacking the relevance and rigor that makes them worthwhile and we work together improve on them.

There are plenty of blogs out there about creating engaging lessons, but in this space, I really want to focus on multi-day, research project experiences. I’m not writing here to bury Research Project Season. There’s a need for problem/project-based learning and there’s clear value in having students solve problems in support of critical thinking development. The expectation is mentioned within the standards as well:

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.W.7 - Conduct short as well as more sustained research projects based on focused questions, demonstrating understanding of the subject under investigation.

Students should be developing essential information literacy skills and  allowed the time to do more sustained academic research. These lofty goals are not always the reality and it leaves me asking the question: How can we ensure these projects are worthwhile?

Side note and question: I empathize with students in middle and high school taking a full load of classes and being asked to complete multiple projects at the same time. As I think about answering the above question, how can we also ease the burden of multiple projects on students?

I think we can answer both of these questions with some reasonable new goals in mind. As I think through these questions and collaborate with teachers, a few ideas come to mind.

 Raise the stakes

Expecting more isn’t going to ease the burden on students, but it will make projects more meaningful and (ideally) relevant - which is a positive for all students. Ask yourself these questions when designing a research project:

  1. Can students google the answer to this question and not have to look anywhere else?
  2. Could they probably find all of the answers on one site?

 If the answer is yes to both of those, think about re-phrasing the essential question of the project. For example, take a project like students studying endangered species. If the essential question is “tell me about an endangered species,” students could probably find all of the information they need on a site or two. Think about what might happen if the project is slightly tweaked with a new goal in mind of not just reproducing information found on a website but creating new understanding through analysis of different media and sources. What if the project asks them to apply what they know to a larger question like developing a specific plan for saving that species that might include consideration of political, environmental, and geographical factors? They can’t just google search (although many will try) “how to save polar bears.” They’ll need to understand the specific needs of polar bears, where they live, what’s being done already, how their plan might be different, and other research questions that hopefully they’re identifying themselves.

Changing the essential question is a start. Alan November’s 6 Questions for Transformed Learning encourages us to think of the following when designing lessons and I think these apply to designing projects as well. The six questions are:

  1. Did the assignment build capacity for critical thinking on the web?
  2. Did the assignment develop new lines of inquiry?
  3. Are there opportunities for students to make their thinking visible?
  4. Are there opportunities to broaden the perspective of the conversation with authentic audiences from around the world?
  5. Is there an opportunity for students to create a contribution (purposeful work)?
  6. Does the assignment demo “best in the world” examples of content and skill?

Challenge your students and amplify the goals of your lesson to enhance student knowledge construction. 


Collaboration is a key to many of these projects for students, but collaboration amongst teachers can be even more important. This collaboration may be at the building, district, or global level. Look for new partnerships through tools like:

  1.  iEARN - find a class around the world to collaborate with on a project
  2. Sign up for Flipgrid #GridPals (guide for getting started)
  3. Skype in the classroom
  4. Centre for Global Education (CGE)
  5. Find a classroom on twitter.

Global collaboration can be great, but cross-curricular collaboration in your building can have multiple benefits. Not only does it help students see broader connections across class content, it can make their learning more relevant. Combining projects with another class or two also can significantly lessen the workload on students while enhancing application and depth of learning. If I know students will be working on the same project over multiple class periods, I know students will have more time to research a greater diversity of resources and address multiple essential questions. At a previous school, teachers in science, social studies, ELA, and math at the 9th grade level collaborated on a “Zombie Apocalypse” project that engaged students through the science of pathogens, the geographic distribution and spread of the virus, while math calculated spread of the disease. This led to an opportunity for students to apply knowledge to a real-world(ok, zombies can stand in for bird flu or another pandemic) situation and see how content areas connect to understand and solve a problem.


Project Season is a great opportunity for research - and creation. Inspire students to design, code, build, create, or make something new. Many libraries are developing makerspaces that can help support this work. Student creativity can be tapped into in new ways when they are asked to design and build. Last year I worked with a Biology classroom that had students design Mars biospheres as part of learning about photosynthesis, cellular respiration, nutrient cycles, and necessary molecules for life. One simple tweak from the previous year was having students create these Mars biospheres within the world of Minecraft. Students then gave tours of their biospheres through video screen recordings on their laptops.

Screenshot of student's Mars biosphere project

Screenshot of student's Mars biosphere built in Minecraft

Even if you don’t have access to Minecraft or if digital tech is limited, asking students to physically build in ways they may not have in the past, engages a different part of their brain and a higher level of interest in the project. Now they aren’t just imagining their biosphere, they are building it.

As we approach Project Season, work with your library support staff and colleagues to create purposeful research projects for students. What are some ways you can design a cross-curricular project that can engage students in creating, collaborating, and thinking critically?


While you’re here, check out some other recent posts from this month:

Love Over Level: Building Lifelong Reading Culture

5 Keys to Teacher Nirvana or, at least, Life/Work Balance

Growing Student Engagement Through School Gardens

Pass the Peas Please

Making College Accessible: moving past Operation Varsity Blues


  • Collaboration
  • Common Core State Standards
  • makerspaces
  • Project Based Learning
  • research
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The opinions expressed by the CORElaborate Bloggers, guest bloggers and those providing comments are theirs alone, and do not reflect the opinions of the Puget Sound Educational Service District (PSESD), Ready Washington or any employee thereof. PSESD is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the Washington State Teacher Leader or Guest Bloggers.

Aron Early Board

I currently serve as a Research Technology Specialist for the Bellevue School District. I am focused on working with teachers and students to improve research and information literacy skills. I believe the ability to find, evaluate, and synthesize information is a defining life skill of our digital age. I'm also passionate about using technology as an enhancement of good instruction. Let's talk about how we can work and grow together! Connect with me on twitter.

Twitter: @earlyest


Youtube: aronearly