Friday, November 22, 2013

The Lesson Behind the Lesson

The lab activity was designed to show the energy transformation from potential to kinetic and then back  to potential energy. There was a marble and a ramp involved, and the students flew through the main activity. They measured the speed of the marble at seven different locations along the ramp, and explained where the marble got the energy to move over each hill.

And then once the official lab activity was over, the unofficial experiments began. Some students decided to try adding more than one marble to the ramp. A group of boys created their own half-Newton's-Cradle-half-Jacks game. Another group decided to design their own Rube-Goldberg type of device, where they drop the ball off the highest point on the ramp, bounce it along a series of desks, and land it inside a trashcan fifteen feet away.

They continually remind me how much learning can happen when the other "official learning plan" gets out of the way.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

And So It Begins...

After posting my last blog about rethinking the Science Fair, I decided to get brave and ask for some online interest in collaborating on an "Experiment Swap" on several of the Schoology groups I've joined.

The exciting part is that I am now in contact with five different teachers around the United States and Canada who are all interested in trying to do this in some way!

To get the ball rolling, we will need to nail down a few things:
1) A dependable form of technology that will allow our classes to interact. Ideally, I'd like the students to be able to comment on and reply to the work of other students. (A Schoology course or group? A Google doc or site?)

2) A lesson plan or experiment (or series of experiments) that would work between two different classes, and perhaps even two different grade levels.

3) A way to offer constructive peer feedback between students. Perhaps a checklist or rubric?

For new projects like this, perhaps the best place to start is with the end in mind. It's 4:30pm here in my classroom, and my brain is pretty much fried, but here's what I envision my students getting out of a project like this...

As a result of this collaboration activity, I would like students to be able to:
a. Recognize the importance of and hone their skills in writing a clearly written procedure
b. Understand and verbalize the importance of multiple trials in an experiment
c. Critically analyze another student lab report and give feedback about sources of error
d. See how science is a cyclical process of experimentation and revision which is dependent on many scientists validating the work of others.

Now to craft the collaboration so that my students (and perhaps other students around the continent) can actually master these objectives!!

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Science Fair, Reimagined

We are knee-deep in eighth grade science fair projects at this point in the year, and students have been busy wrapping up their at-home experiments, writing a final draft of their lab report, and polishing their presentation boards. You know, those cardboard tri-folds we all used in school to display our construction paper lettering and store-bought borders. The same boards that have been used since... well, since as long ago as I can even remember.

Every year about this time, I grapple with how effective this whole science fair behemoth really is for the students. As with any project, unless you design with the end in mind (the goals/objectives you want the students to meet), often times the projects themselves (and all the minutia involved with executing it successfully) become the focus, instead of the learning that should result along the way. 

I can't help but wonder whether the learning goals have gotten lost in this thing we call the science fair. As a result, we cling to the trappings. The instructions, the guidelines that we have always used. But why? "Well, because we've always done it that way." 

The quintessential science fair component seems to be the cardboard tri-fold display, and to me, this display has evolved into one of the biggest relics in science education. Each year that I do a science fair project with my students, I lose both in-class and out-of-class time because of these antiquated boards. Students spend days and weeks gluing, cutting, pasting and arranging. Not only that, but the boards themselves are horribly cumbersome and a downright pain to move around. Especially at the end of the year when I have a classroom full of unclaimed projects that inevitably meet their demise in the recycling bin. To me, this is such a horribly unfortunate end to all the science work the students have done. (I fear that what I'm inadvertently teaching them is that, in real life, science experiments just get abandoned and then tossed out with the garbage.) 

With this being my ninth year as a teacher, I continue to advocate for a transition to a digital version of these mammoth cardboard monsters. I have used Glogster's virtual poster program successfully in the past with 6th grade science projects, and have wanted desperately to expand their use in my class. However, there are always important concerns to consider: 

1) How will the students accurately present their projects from a tiny laptop screen? 
2) How will our school-wide Science Expo have the same feel without the large boards?
3) How will our students compete at a regional or state level without a board?

While these are all valid concerns, I've never been able to successfully address them until now. After reading Kevin Hodgson's blog post about the pro's and con's of a virtual science fair, I am more impassioned than ever to push these cardboard dinosaurs to their final extinction. 

Kevin does a great job of summarizing some of the pluses and minuses of going virtual, and part of his list is summarized below:

Virtual projects are...
1. permanently archived (i.e., making science much less "disposable")
2. easily embeddable (hello, Google/Schoology!)
3. multimedia rich (students can display their learning through multiple modalities)

and my personal favorite:
4. expanding the traditional idea of "audience." 

As far as I can tell, this last idea is the biggest obstacle in transitioning from a old-fashioned science fair to a virtual one. Traditionally, the audience is the students and faculty and parents who walk by the cardboard display during the one-day Science Expo. But after weeks (or perhaps months) of working on an extensive out-of-class science project, it hardly seems fair for only a handful of people to view the students' work, and an even smaller number (usually just one: the teacher) to critically analyze it for a grade. 

What if the audience became as wide and as broad as we wanted it to be? What if students could continue learning from the project, long after the original experiment had been done and the poster had been constructed?

A virtual poster would allow students to share their work with others in the school, in their city, and even around the world. Just a few of my ideas for a new kind of "science fair" are below:

1) Students create a virtual poster of their work, and posters are linked to the class Google site or Schoology page for all other students to see. Classmates are then tasked with completing one or two "Peer Reviews" in which they (either virtually or in person) make suggestions and ask questions about the experiments. (Perhaps we even begin a conversation here about what happens after a body of experimentation is published in a scientific journal, and use our class peer review process as a model for how science is really done.)

2) Students could also use their virtual posters to do an "Experiment Swap" with another group in class, or with students from another science class somewhere else in the world. They would be challenged to replicate an experiment done by another student in order to validate their findings, and then share their results in a follow-up review. (Again, reinforcing the idea of how science is actually done in the real world.)

3) Student virtual posters could essentially become working documents, (because isn't that what most real science is?) with students changing their independent and dependent variables over the course of time, depending on peer feedback, expert feedback (from both teachers and scientists from the community) and their own interests. These working documents could continue to collect reviews and opinions and praise over time from a wide audience, including family members. (Students can easily invite Grandma Louise from Kentucky to log on and view their projects online.) 

4) Students could easily reformat their virtual posters for submission into any of the emerging digital science fairs appearing each year, including the Google Science Fair, the ExploraVision competition and AEOP's eCybermission contest, just to name a few. (Perhaps students could even be given the choice of which contests to enter, increasing their buy-in and personal interest.) This way, schools can still gain recognition through their students' science achievements as well as encourage healthy competition among classmates. 

The take home message here:
Let's transform the science fair. From a cumbersome semester-long project that ends in a puny, one-day presentation in front of a piece of cardboard to a digital, collaborative, peer-reviewed process that more closely mirrors the way science is done in 2013. 

No, students won't necessarily have the same sort of "face time" that we are accustomed to with the cardboard displays, and our current model of a school-wide Expo might not look the same at all. But that's okay. If we want our students leaving our classrooms with a passion for SCIENCE (and not the classroomitized-compartmentalized-version of science that we often present) then our plan for the science fair project needs to look drastically different indeed.

(For an example of a virtual science poster that I created in Glogster, click here.)

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Flying on a Jet Plane

I recently entered an essay contest for the National Science Teacher's Association. They were giving away 30 free plane tickets to their local conferences, and our science department was planning to attend the one in Charlotte on November 7-9. All I had to do was write a 150-word essay on what I wanted to learn most from the conference, and I won! Here's my entry.

"In Version 1.0 of my science classroom, I was relying heavily on a textbook and worksheets, with students passive for most of the class. In Version 2.0, I began to explore inquiry-based instruction, and had students trying experiments before we ever opened the book. The release of Version 3.0 has been jam-packed with improvements. I am using video tools and a YouTube channel to screencast lectures, explain lab procedures and even animate classroom supplies. Some of these videos have been part of “flipped units” where students pace their own learning according to what they need. At this year’s NSTA conference in Charlotte, I’m looking for ways to advance to Version 4.0. I’m envisioning a fully paperless classroom, synced with augmented reality, and gamified into a “Choose Your Own Adventure” experience for students. Version 4.0 is bold, uncharted, and just what my students need. Will you help me get there?"

Thursday, April 4, 2013


Teaching is a job that is never finished. Each lesson could always be a bit more structured (or unstructured), each unit could be a little more student-guided (or more teacher-facilitated), and each year could always be restructured and reorganized. Couple that with the constant barrage of new technology, fancy 21st century teaching terms that are in style this year but may not be next year, along with my dearest 64 emotional and psychological preteen roller coasters who are just trying to find their place in the world, and it makes for an exciting, challenging career. 

For the most part, I am energized by this career. But today I am tired. 

Tired in my bones and in my brain. Today it feels like it doesn't matter what I try or don't try, what I do or don't do. It won't ever (in any of the countless iterations or improvements of my lessons or units or plans) be good enough.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Oh the Joys of Technology!

When it works, it is GLORIOUS!

To refresh my students' memories of the scientific method and lab report writing, I gave them a simple question to test: How does the height of a dropped ball affect how high the ball bounces?

They brainstormed with their group, downloaded a simple (and mostly empty) lab report template from our class Schoology page, uploaded it to their Google docs account, and shared it with their group members. Each member was then easily able to type in the document at the same time from their own laptop, collaborate about each section of the lab write-up, and discuss how it should be written. (This was my first time really using the collaborative feature of Google docs, and I'm now officially HOOKED!)

Collecting data, WITHOUT PAPER!

When it came time to actually test the question, several groups decided to film the dropped ball using the built-in camera on their laptops, and play each trial back in slow motion using iMovie or PhotoBooth. Genius!

Students lining up the camera on the laptop to film the ball bounce.

Replaying the ball bounce in slow motion to more accurately measure height.

What amazed me most is that not only did the students accomplish the entire experiment in one class period (with no other guidelines except the starting question), but they effectively collaborated on all sections of the lab report, and even polished off properly labeled tables and graphs using Microsoft Excel, inserted them into the lab report, and uploaded their finished report to our class Schoology* page for me to grade digitally!

With the help of some fantastic technology, we accomplished in 50 minutes what it would have traditionally taken me to do in twice that time. Not only was I amazed at how much got done, but also at how the technology allowed their creativity, ingenuity, and fluency with the science concepts to shine. For the first time in my teaching career, I felt that I was no longer having to teach the technology alongside the science content. This time, the technology quietly slipped into the background, and the students' understanding (or lack of) the science became more clear to me than I could have seen it otherwise.

Here's to hoping the rest of the year's technology is as beautifully seamless as it was today!

*If you don't have Schoology, you should definitely check it out. It's like Facebook for school use, has fantastic gradebook functions, allows you to give tests and quizzes online, sends out assignment notifications, and enables great discussion thread features. The very best part? It's free!

Friday, May 11, 2012


I am not really a scientist. Just a nerdy teacher disguised as one. In my trusty lab coat and goggles, which at times feel more like props than safety equipment.

Is this somehow a detriment to me as a science educator?

In the core of my teacher-heart I am in love with pencils and paper and staples and folders. Flash cards and highlighters and black and white marble composition books. Multiple choice questions and white board markers and three-ring binders. Gold star stickers and "Way to Go" stamps and red felt tip pens. Cooperative learning and glue sticks and graphic organizers.

Am I more in love with "doing school" than "teaching science?"
(I worry this affects my ability to actually help students integrate new science information. Especially those students who aren't as naturally gifted at "doing school." *Swallowing hard...*)

Or perhaps have I just been teaching middle school too long?