Teaching Database   Teach about or use?   A new concept   Solar System Project   Follow on Activity  

Teaching Database. Students in Prince William County, Virginia are required to begin learning database software in grade three, and the biggest challenge is making it meaningful and relevant. Microsoft Access is a very professional product, and has many features that will NEVER be needed in the elementary school setting.

Yet, it is not a bad product for the students to begin using. There is a lot of flexibility for the students.

  • What to do first, teach about or use? I have always talked to the kids about the concept of databases before letting them plunge in with tables, records and fields. I tell them that grocery stores, banks, phone companies and even the school systems use databases to manage the individual items of importance each day.

    I start off introducing the concept of a "record" by identifying "them" as a record in the school student data base. We go to fields by talking of birthdays, first names, addresses, etc.

    We next talk about cans of tomato sauce, and how these are probably managed in a grocery store database. They have a bar code, a price, a vendor name etc. Phone companies have business customers, residential customers, bills, payments, individual phone calls etc.

    In these commercial companies, it is easy to get the students to realize that databases become very big as individual transactions are treated as a record. A phone call has a date, the phone number that made it, etc. I always teach the concept of electronic databases and telecommunications at the same time so students can see that databases touch our lives almost every hour of the day!

  • A new concept for using Microsoft Access. I learned a different way to expose children to database from an In-Service conducted by Priscilla Norton of George Mason University. She recommends teaching technology through the assignment of complicated activities that force students to become proficient with the software in order to get the assignment done. In the minds of the student, the end result is the most critical, yet with a properly constructed assignment, they will have waded through a lot of technology.

  • The fourth grade Solar System Project, or "What Planet are the Campers On?" In this activity, students were given:
    • a database of solar system facts in Microsoft Access

    • a set of letters from ficticious campers. These are futuristic campers on planets in our solar system who are writing home to their moms and dads. Their letters contain clues about their various planets, but of course don't say which planet they are on.

    • a quick lesson about records, fields, and how to query. The students had to use Microsoft Acess to query the data in order to determine the whereabouts of the campers.

    First, I want to say that this project was universally enjoyed (well, almost) and left the students asking to do more database work! Second, within 10 minutes of first seeing Microsoft Access, around 90% of the students (remember they are ages 8 and 9) were successfully building their own queries using the design view.

    Here are the steps I took:

    • I first created a small database with solar system facts. See the data base facts here in a table form. Of course, this table is a flat file because our server isn't quite up to online databases just yet.

    • Next I created a fantasy world of scouting for the year 2428, in which summer camp is held on the various planets. The Star Scouts have to choose one of three programs. Read all about it here. It's really quite comical. I read this to the classes, and the students had a copy to read along with.

    • At this point, I introduced some letters from campers to mom and dad. We read these together as a class. Letter 1, Letter 2, and Letter 3.

    • The last thing we did together as a class was to create a sample query, view the results, go back to query mode, modify it, and view the results again. We used the design view, and the students were instructed not to save queries because they would need to modify them too often. The vast majority of the students, surprisingly, caught right on. The graphic below shows a Microsoft Access screen in the design view.

    As you can see, in the design view, Access queries require a person to select the field they want from a list of all fields. The key for the students was to select fields for their queries which match the clues. Then after viewing the query results, they had to analyse the data.

      Example. If the letter indicated the camper was less than 90 million miles from the sun, the student must realize that the field "Distance from the Sun" is indicated. Then the student must create the query and study the results in order to determine which planets are eliminated and which are still possibilities. If more than one possible planet still exists, the student must go back to the query mode and find other fields to match other clues in order to narrow down the search results.

    The Follow on Activity, or "You are the Camper." In this part of the assignment the students had to write a letter from a ficticious camper. This required the students to think backwards, and to look at the data in a different way. No longer could they rely only on queries to view the data. They needed several views into the data. Here are the tools the students were given for this activity:

  • The students were shown how to use table view. This allows them to browse all data of all planets, but essentially only one field at a time. It can get a bit akward, though, because of its size. The graphic below shows a slice of the table view, and how only one or a few fields at a time can really be compared across the planets.
  • They were shown how to use a form view which gave them one screen with all data for one planet. They could scroll through the planets, but each screen gives data for only one planet at at time. The picture below shows part of the form view screen.
  • They were advised to continue building queries if they needed custom views of the data. They were also advised to use query mode to test their logic after they had finished their letter.

  • Their letters were required to make a person revise a query at least 2 times. In other words, the students were supposed to have at least 3 clues which had to be queried together before one planet was indicated. Here are some of the student created letters:

    Carolyn & Breanne

    Chris & Jonathon

    Miguel & Gary

    The son

    The daughter

    Dan & Kevin

    Kristin & Katelyn


    Can you guess which planets these campers are on? I'm not telling!


    Contact Gail Watson Here