Environmental Concerns:
Cooperative Research in the Sixth Grade 

Tonya Beaty and Nancy L. Gallenstein

This group investigation project was conducted with twenty-one sixth graders at Houston Elementary School in Spartanburg, South Carolina. The class was diverse in terms of gender and ethnicity. Nine of the students in this class were female; twelve were male. Ten were African American; eleven were Anglo American. The project lasted about four weeks. Seven separate sessions of approximately two hours each (which included the time for student presentations) were devoted to the project. Students also worked on projects during the day when their other class work was completed. Additionally, some students devoted time to their projects outside of school. Before beginning the project, we sent a letter to each student’s parents with an explanation of their student’s involvement in the group investigation project.


Introducing the Project

To begin the project, we wrote the words “Group Investigation” on the board and asked students to define what each word meant to them. “Group” was defined as meaning more than one person. Students defined the word “investigation” as a way to find out, learn, question, or research something. Therefore, “group investigation” meant that students would work with others to conduct research about a topic. Students were informed that the group investigation method was an effective way to research problems or topics of concern. We chose “the environment” as the topic of research.

We wrote the word “environment” on the board and asked students to list any words on a sheet of paper that came to mind when they thought of the word “environment.” Next, we asked students to choose a partner and share their list. Then, as a class, students defined environment to mean surroundings, Earth, habitat, where they live, and what they need to live. At this time, we brought out a globe, emphasizing that the environment can be narrowly or broadly defined. For example, the students’ environment could be described as their classroom, the Houston Elementary school, the city of Spartanburg, the state of South Carolina, the country of the United States of America, the continent of North America, the planet Earth, or the Milky Way galaxy. Students were asked to consider a variety of perspectives when completing their investigation. A discussion of the environment also included various aspects such as the land we live on, waterways, the air that we breathe, and the animals and humans that move within the environment.

Then we wrote the word “concern” on the board and asked the students once again to provide their thoughts on what this word meant to them. Students shared comments such as a “worry,” “something to fix,” and “a problem.” At this time we asked students to think about concerns that humans have about the environment and to list as many ideas as possible on their individual sheet of paper. When they finished writing, we asked them to share their environmental concerns with a partner. Next, we informed the students that ALL ideas would be listed on the board as part of this brain-storming exercise. We asked students, one-by-one, to share their ideas. In the end, students had listed twenty-six “environmenta#148; concerns: air pollution, water pollution, animal extinction, plant extinction, human violence, littering, global warming, animal shelter, deforestation, human starvation, chemicals in food, homelessness, the cost of surviving, nuclear waste and warheads, spoiled food, government (politicians), ozone layer, mechanical efficiency, recycle and reuse, power loss, child safety, weather disasters, incurable illnesses, gambling, mercy killing, and the results of war. Because some of these items are not usually thought of as “environmental concerns” (such as “politicians,” “child safety,” and “gambling”), we asked students to share their reasons in support of each.

After we reviewed the students’ list of environmental concerns, we asked each of them to rank their top four choices of interest on a separate sheet of paper. We then had the students form groups on the basis of their choices. (Students were not informed of the strategy for grouping until after they completed their lists). We mentioned that, if possible, we would place each student in his or her first or second choice, but some of them might get their third or fourth choice. We also informed the students that they might not be placed with their closest friends, but instead we would place them with someone who had a similar interest. A discussion followed about how exciting it is to meet and work with others with similar interests as well as how important it is to make every member of a group feel that he or she belongs.

Before we informed each student of the group of which they would be a member, we held a discussion about what an effective cooperative learning group “looks” like. Students mentioned features such as listening when someone else was speaking, taking turns, looking at the person who was speaking, and talking softly. Additionally, we informed students that their end product should consist of a written report with a decorated cover as well as a presentation in a creative format such as a role-play, puppet show, or TV or radio interview.

We then informed students of the topic they would research as well as their group members. The final topics to be researched were weather disasters, air and water pollution, endangered species, deforestation, the general consequences of war, and the effects of nuclear war. When being assigned to groups, one boy mentioned that he did not work well with another group member with whom he was assigned. We then discussed appropriate citizenship traits and the value of learning to work well with others.

We asked students to go to their designated group meeting table and to develop a list of at least four questions that would guide them in researching their topic. The various groups approached this task differently. Some groups discussed possible questions, with each student recording every question on a sheet of paper. Other groups decided that each group member would construct his or her own set of questions first and then share them with the group. Both methods appeared to work well as students remained focused on their assignment. For example, questions from the group researching “deforestation” were

> Why are more trees cut down now than before?

> How many animals are losing their habitats when each tree is cut down?

> Why are so many trees being cut down when we need them to produce oxygen for us to breathe?

> How many uses are there for the trees that are cut down?


Let the Research Begin

During the second class period, students had fifteen minutes to refine their research questions before proceeding to the Media Center. We informed the students that they would be responsible for reviewing books, journals, the Internet, and other media for information on their environmental topic. During the next class meeting, they would assemble the information they had acquired.

The schoo#146;s media specialist had gathered numerous books and posters on the various topics of interest, which we had provided in advance. Unfortunately, only one book was available on nuclear war, and no books focused particularly on results of the war. Yet, one student researching the results of war located an Internet site on the effects of nuclear war. He graciously allowed the group researching the effects of nuclear war to use the computer that he was at, so the site would not be lost. He was the same student who previously mentioned that he did not work well with an assigned group member. We praised him for his good citizenship skills.

We encouraged each group to use the Internet as a source for current information on its topic. Group members sat together at one or two computers during their search. Much information was available in books as well as on the Internet for the topics of deforestation, endangered animals, air and water pollution, and weather disasters. The two topics that required in-depth research time for elementary students were “war results” and the “effects of nuclear war,” and because these topics overlapped a lot, the two groups were combined. The weather disaster group thought that it would be a good idea to interview a TV weather reporter by phone, and we encouraged them to do so. Time moved quickly in the Media Center, so some students checked books out for later reading.


In Their Own Words

The third class session was devoted to reviewing what had been accomplished to date, emphasizing the importance of paraphrasing acquired information and describing the necessary components of their written report. Group members and the teacher would assess the written project and the presentation. Each group’s booklet was to have a decorated cover, title page, introduction, heading titles, conclusion, and references. A sketch of each booklet page was provided on the front board for referral. Before we moved to the Media Center, as a class, we practiced paraphrasing a paragraph from a book the Effects of Nuclear War group had acquired. Students appeared to understand what paraphrasing meant. We also discussed the differences between references and bibliographies. We then asked students when they felt they could complete their written paraphrased information. Based on their responses, we set a due date. Some students completed their written portion of their topic during this session. Others copied pages to paraphrase later or to use as transparencies in their presentations. One student in the Effects of War Group could not locate the paper on which he had recorded a key URL, so extra time was required to locate additional information on the Internet for its project.

The challenge during this session was to focus on paraphrasing as well as to decide specifically what each group member could write that would contribute to the whole project. We encouraged each group to decide how their written product would fit together. It was critical that students sit together as a group and work through their individual roles. It was also important that each group be aware of what information each of its members had already acquired. Each person would be responsible for a piece of the puzzle. At times, this was challenging because some group members were writing on the same topic, duplicating information rather than specializing on a particular aspect. For example, one student in the Pollution Group thought that he was going to research the effects of air pollution while another would research air pollution causes. It turned out that one student did both the causes and effects leaving the other student confused about his role. The students and teachers decided that information was also needed on how NOT to pollute the air. In the Effects of War Group, a decision was made to discuss specific situations such as a nuclear war and the Vietnam War. One student was interested in researching the effects of the American Civil War, but over the weekend, she found information on the effects of war in general. She then wanted to work on nuclear war as well as the Civil War, which would duplicate other group members’ work. We discussed with the group the importance of each group member focusing on his or her piece of the puzzle.

When initially introducing a cooperative learning project, the teacher must monitor how students decide on specific roles to ensure that all students have an understanding of how each part fits into the whole. The students were all interested in investigating their topic, but did not grasp the concept that they needed to decide as a group who would research what element. The Endangered Species Group appeared to understand this concept as each student decided to focus on a separate endangered animal, but most other groups needed specific guidance. Students at this age are accustomed to working independently, but these students benefited greatly by learning the value of interdependence. They had to “see” and “experience” interdependence in action. Once they grasped the concept, they appeared to move full speed ahead.

Students who still needed to paraphrase more information checked out books and printed information from the web. The pop star Britney Spears appeared on one unoccupied computer screen, revealing that some students needed a reminder to stay on task. We had enough adults in the Media Center to guide students with their work. Four adults should be sufficient for a class of 20 to 25 students.


Continuing the Investigation

After most students completed their research, they typed their reports and made booklet covers. Some group members chose to type their reports at home, while others used the classroom or Media Center computers. We also reminded students of the importance of giving credit when it was due. Some groups referenced their sources at the bottom of each page. Other groups created separate reference sheets at the back of their booklets.

The Pollution Group needed additional guidance. Group members thought that they were to make separate booklets for “air” and “water” pollution. They had already paraphrased their data and had made separate book covers for each topic. After reviewing the necessary components for their overall topic on “pollution,” they seemed to understand that all of their work would fit nicely in one booklet. They titled their booklet “C.U.O.M” (Cleaning Up Our Mess).

The Deforestation and Endangered Species Groups used the globe when presenting their information. With teacher guidance, students located the areas on the globe that corresponded to their topics. The students and teachers decided that the Deforestation Group would precede the Endangered Species Group when presenting its project, because deforestation is one reason that animal species are becoming endangered.

One challenge was to make certain that those who finished writing their section were also contributing to the remainder of the booklet as well as to the final presentation. Some students, after they finished their particular role, began to loaf. With continual teacher visitation to each group, we reminded students to contemplate additional ideas that would add to their projects. Some students decided to draw educational posters, while others constructed creative props for their presentations. While most of the props were completed during class time, some students worked on additional ideas at home.


Preparing to Present

The time had come for each group to create an outline for its presentation, which would include who would be the major group spokesperson, and in what order each person would present his or her information. Students practiced their roles and decided what props would still be needed for their presentations. Every group except for one seemed to agree on what roles they would each play in their presentations. One group member in the Weather Disasters Group said that he did not want to act in the TV skit that his group members were eager to plan. The other group members accommodated him by saying that he could pretend to be a guest student from Houston Elementary School and then read his tornado report “on the air,” but he would not have to stand in front of the class. Later, the student decided that he did indeed want to participate in the skit, which was okay.

Students continued reading their reports and practicing their roles. We prepared a letter and forwarded it to parents and school personnel announcing the date and time for the students’ group investigation presentations.


Show Day

The big day arrived at last! Students practiced their presentations one final time before their guests arrived. Six parents as well as the principal came to the presentation. Students had their props ready and some were in costume. The groups presented their topics: Deforestation, Endangered Species, Pollution, Effects of War, and Weather Disasters. The presentations were videotaped for later viewing. Some of the students mentioned that they were very nervous. This was reflected in some too-soft voices as they read from their booklets. All groups described their well-constructed projects. Both the Effects of War and Weather Disasters groups created skits and performed their parts very well. The presentations were both informative and entertaining. Parents and school personnel in attendance commented that the students appeared to have worked very hard on their projects. And that they did!



Afterwards, we asked each student to complete a Self Evaluation form and a Peer Evaluation form. We asked students not to share their responses because of confidentiality. This activity would allow each student an opportunity to express his or herself honestly concerning his or her personal involvement in the project as well as the performance of each member of his or her group. We also asked them to state how they could have improved their individual portion of the project or presentation. Students wrote, “I could have written the script better.” “I could have made it more exciting by making the play more dramatic.” “We could have made it more realistick” (sic). “I could have read better and louder and not acted so nervous.”

On a scale from 1 to 5, with “5” representing “outstanding” and “1” representing “unsatisfactory”, students rated their peers, including themselves, concerning each person’s contribution to the project as well as his or her presentation and cooperation. A couple of students gave all of their group members 5 points, but the majority of students rated their peers between 3 and 5. We gave both a group and an individual grade based on the overall performance and contribution to the project. The criteria used for evaluation included the following components, with a rubric listing “yes,” “fair,” or “no” for each item. For the written report, we asked students to create a title page, use titles to organize information, paraphrase work appropriately, use and cite at least two reference sources, carefully edit their work, and create an attractive booklet. For the presentation, we asked students to provide a good introduction, be well informed about their topic, explain ideas clearly, speak so that everyone could hear, provide a good conclusion, rehearse their roles well, and use effective costumes, pictures, or other materials to make their presentation interesting.



The results of conducting this group investigation project with sixth graders were overwhelmingly positive. We were impressed to see what students at this grade level were capable of accomplishing both intellectually and socially, and what they could do without adult interference. During this cooperative project, when one group member appeared not to be interested in other group members’ suggestions, another member would make a comment that would pull the less cooperative member back into the flow. It was seldom necessary to encourage individuals to “pull their own weight” in the group. On the contrary, the majority of students were more than willing to stay involved and produce a quality project, while strengthening their interdependent skills. Morale was high. Intellectually, students acquired additional knowledge on all topics through their individual research and by being exceptionally attentive while their classmates were presenting. Additionally, research and language arts skills were strengthened by investigating topics through a variety of sources, learning to paraphrase information, creating a booklet, and citing resources. Furthermore, while studying environment concerns, students found connections between social studies, science, math, and language arts, which exemplifies life experiences outside of school. Finally, we hope that learning the subject matter of this project, and experiencing a group research project, will assist in creating well-informed, concerned, and contributing citizens, which is a major goal of social studies instruction.


About the Authors

Tonya Beaty is a sixth grade teacher at Houston Elementary School in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Nancy L. Gallenstein is an assistant professor in the Department of Teacher Education at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.