T2 - Helping Cocoa
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The goal of the first phase of a problem-based unit is to motivate students, to rouse their interest and to cause them to ask questions – to engage them in the problem situation. You do this, first, by presenting them with an intriguing scenario, and second, by initiating a lively discussion about the situation you have initiated.


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North Carolinians who have been eagerly anticipating the arrival of “Cocoa,” a brown bear coming from Yellowstone National Park, are now fearful that the bear is not thriving in her new home at the Asheboro Zoo. Cocoa arrived at the zoo three weeks ago, and at first she seemed to be adapting nicely. Lately, however, she has not been eating well, and she seems to have no energy.

You are a new zookeeper at the Asheboro Zoo. It is part of your job to ensure the health and safety of the animals there. You are concerned about Cocoa and you want to figure out what is wrong quickly, before she gets worse. The Animal Management Supervisor has asked you to be part of a team to try to find out what the problem might be and then to decide what could be done to restore her to good health.


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You begin the discussion with general questions, and then you guide students to identify what they know and what they need to know to begin work on this problem situation. You want to help them ask good questions that will guide them in their investigation.

Questions you and your students might ask as the discussion begins:

  • I wonder how Cocoa got here all the way from Yellowstone. Could something have happened on the way here, or even before she left?
  • What was her home like in Yellowstone? Where is Yellowstone? Is that where most brown bears come from?
  • I wonder if Cocoa is sad being away from home. Does she miss her family and friends?
  • What do bears eat? Maybe the new food is making her sick.
  • etc. (whatever questions you think would get your students started thinking and talking)

Inquiry is essential in PBL. Notice that some of the above are not questions, but “hunches.” It’s great to have students begin to voice their speculations. After all, hunches are simply rudimentary hypotheses. Point out to students that their first speculations (guesses) about what might be wrong with Cocoa are good ideas that need to be investigated, but not acted upon until they know more. Encourage students to continue to refine their hunches as they gather new information about brown bears.


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After you and your students have discussed the situation a short while, you can introduce a Learning Issues Board. This is a simple visual organizer that guides students to consider and record what they know and what they need to know in order to investigate the situation. Some teachers add a third column that has students list where they could get the information they need.

Questions you might ask to start contributions to the Learning Issues Board:

  • What do we know about this problem?
  • What do we know about brown bears?
  • What do we know about the NC Zoo in Asheboro?
  • What do we know about Yellowstone?
  • How do we know that?
  • What do we need to know?
  • Why is that important to find out?
  • Are there things that we need to find out about first?
  • Are any pieces of information especially important?
  • Where might we find the answers?

You probably will want to add a What We Found Out column during the Investigation phase, so it's a good idea to put the chart on big sheets of paper to post on a classroom wall and leave up for the duration of the unit. The Learning Issues Board should be visible, revisited, and updated throughout the problem-solving experience. Regular updating is a good instructional technique, too, in that it provides opportunities for review and information sharing. Click below to see a sample Learning Issues Board for Helping Cocoa or to get a blank version to use with your students.

Learning Issues Board - Sample-1PDF


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About Cocoa
Undoubtedly some student questions will be about Cocoa – what she looks like, how old she is, why she came to the NC Zoo, etc. Since this is a fictitious bear we have prepared an information sheet for you to give to students. (We call these scenario additions “Pointers.” You will read more about Pointers in the next section.)


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As you end the Engagement Phase and begin the Investigation Phase of this PBL unit, you might want to begin talking with your students about a general strategy for problem-solving. Click below to take a look at a strategy we call the "PGP HAM" strategy. Teachers and students who have used it have found it to be a helpful general strategy. It is probably more comprehensive than primary students need, however, so you should feel free to use whatever parts of it seem appropriate for your students. For some tips on how to teach a strategy to students, see the paper on Universal Design for Learning PDF where you will find a section on scaffolding strategy instruction.


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Go to the Investigation/Exploration HTMLsection to get started on your investigation.


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Before you proceed, please take a moment to go to the Communication Center and share your experiences HTML with us.


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