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?

Thursday, May 3, 2012


For my girls in 6-1, 6-2 and 6-3:

1)Click on the simulation below. Then on the right side, click "Mystery" button. Use the scale and the water to measure the densities of each block A-E, and compare them to known values in the table. Write down what you think each block is made of on your paper, and check your answers with a neighbor before going to the next simulation.

2) Click on the simulation below. Then click on the tab, "Micro" and shake some sodium chloride into the water. Answer the following questions in your composition book.

A. What does the sodium chloride look like before it enters the water?
B. What happens to the sodium chloride crystals after they enter the water?
C. What do the purple dots represent? What do the green dots represent?
D. What can you do to increase the concentration of the salt water? (Make it saltier?)
E. What can you do to decrease the concentration of the salt water? (Make it less salty?)
F. Click "remove solute" and change the solute to sucrose (a type of sugar similar to glucose). Describe what the sucrose looks like before it hits the water.
G. What happens to the sucrose molecules after it enters the water? How is this different from the sodium chloride?
H. Click on the tab "Water," and see what happens on a smaller scale when you add sodium chloride and sucrose to water. What colors represent the water molecules?
I. Why do the all the molecules seem to move around so much?
J. What do you think would happen to the speed of the molecules if we heated the water? Why do you think this?
K. Click back to the "Macro" tab and experiment with the conductivity device (the lightbult and battery). Talk to a classmate and come up with an explanation of why you think the salt solution will light the lightbulb but the sugar solution will not.

Check all your answers with a classmate before you finish. Turn in your paper when you are done.

Have fun!

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Why I Teach, Vulcan Version

If you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth." - Mr. Spock
I teach because science makes sense. It answers questions. When all is upside down and inside out from a heartbreak, a loss, an unexpected turn of events, science sets things right again. The predictability smooths out the rough edges of the rest of my life. I know that if I ask a question, make observations, and conduct a controlled experiment, then my results will either support or contradict my prediction. In this way, fears can be quelled, and renamed mere uncertainties. For example, a fear of the darkness is (at the risk of sounding like Spock) irrational.

Darkness is merely an absence of visible light. Darkness is the photoreptor cells in the back of my eyes not being stimulated, and in a way, resting. They are not busy distinguishing different wavelengths of light energy, and so my brain interprets this resting as darkness. In this way, life, when it is hard or scary or unpleasant, can be made manageable. Understanding, then, equates to clarity, which gives me (a sense of) control.

On a daily basis, I feel like I'm trying to impart this idea to my students: "Let not your heart be troubled. There is an explanation. For everything."

Yet, I sense there is a hefty trade-off here. In all my attempts to calm troubled minds, to answer the questions, to bridge the gap between a world off-kilter and one that makes sense, I remove the mystery. Without mystery, I fear there is no wonderment. No curiosity.

When a child is twelve years old (as most of my students are), how much of the balance should I be tipping toward the unknown then? My mind tells me that there will be plenty of time for mysteries as they grow and mature. Plenty of time for unanswered questions, for results that still don't address the heart of the problem, for ghosts and gut feelings and human fallibility. So I think, now must be the time for certainties.

My heart, however, reminds me that those same mysteries, if administered to the students in carefully measured doses (look at me, still trying to quantify and control!), can provide the impetus for not just a sixth grade love of science, but a lifetime of love for it. (*And oh, how the weight of this responsibility feels massive on my shoulders.)

Alas, what started as a statement of why I teach has somehow transformed itself into both a professional and personal challenge. One way (out of many) to become a better educator, and perhaps also a better human being. To embrace more of life's uncertainty and mystery, for myself. To stop trying to quantify those things which cannot be contained. To let go. For without the unknowns (things that are not known at the present moment) and the unknowables (things that can never be known), I risk sending my students out into the world believing that all questions do indeed have answers. That all of life is calculable, measurable, and perfectly logical. And that is probably the most detrimental scientific misconception I could ever propogate.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012


I can explain to you why the Moon has phases.
I can show you in the lab how temperature affects the solubility of a substance.
I can demonstrate why air is considered matter.
But when you ask me,
"Miss K, why do you have all these butterflies around your room?"

I am stopped in my tracks.

Like a clogged drain.
All the words get stuck in my throat
And my brain spins around
off-balance and awkwardly empty.

All I can manage to say
Is something cliche and pre-packaged
About how butterflies first begin their lives
As squishy, wandering caterpillars.
And that likewise, we all go through
To become more capable,
More beautiful
Versions of ourselves.

Except I don't even say it as eloquently as that.
Because I fear your eleven-year-old minds
Won't understand what it means to have
Another version of who you are today.

There is a part of me that wants to say instead,
"Ask me in ten years."

It would be like asking a caterpillar
Why he couldn't stop staring at the butterflies
Above him in the air.
"I don't quite know," he would say.
"But something about them just feels so familiar."

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Speak Not

I have a YouTube channel. On it, I store recordings of my voice, reading through and explaining the lessons we cover in class. To date, there are 51 of these uploads. In a month, I am going to present with a colleague at a state-wide tech conference about the various tools we use in our middle school science department. YouTube. Screencasting. Glogster. It is flattering, but I am not exactly pleased.

Don't get me wrong. I am excited to travel a bit, to share in front of others who signed up for our "session" and to sound like I have accomplished something in my teaching career. But I am not really very proud of my work. I am dabbling in the "flipped classroom" model by creating the YouTube channel, and by offering a lecture resource online that the students can access at home. But it's still lecture. It's me droning on about storms and air masses and viscosity and plate tectonics.

I am tired of hearing myself talk.

Lately I have been feeling the need to just stop talking altogether. To somehow conduct my daily classes in silence, using only pictures and gestures and the students themselves to teach. (Crazy teaching challenge, perhaps? The kids would love it, I'm sure.)

Today I read an amazing blog article by Susan Eckert (who was actually a guest blogger on one of my favorite teacher-blogger blogs "The Science Teacher"), and it perfectly captures the feeling I have. Her last line is the most telling. "Let our words not distract from their wonderment." (This phrase is now written in big green letters on a Post-It note that hangs from my computer screen.)

Not only do I need to stop talking so much because it tires me and my students, but also (and more importantly) because it hinders and kills their curiosity.

Since when has my major job role been to constantly answer questions and babble on with big words they won't remember five minutes from now? (Mind you, I think answering questions is great. I am the teacher. I have all the answers. At least, that's what my sixth graders think. But it is really not as productive as letting the students discover the answers themselves.) Since when has it been appropriate to fill a room so full of my own words that the students have none left that they feel they can contribute? The self-absorbed nature of my own teaching suddenly hits me. And saddens me.

I want to get rid of my ridiculous Powerpoint notes. I want to redo the screencasts. Make them shorter, more intense, less wordy, and more interesting.

I want to stop talking so much, and start letting the science (the beauty and the mystery of it) speak for itself.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Build an Atom!

Click on the simulation below to discover a fun way to reinforce the basics of atomic structure.

This program was created by a team at the University of Colorado at Boulder through a program called "PhET." You can find their website here. Each free simulation (like the one above) can be run online (through their website) or downloaded locally to your computer. Categories of simulations range from biology (membrane channels, molecular motors, etc) to physics (circuits, buoyancy, etc) to chemistry (balancing equations, molarity, etc) and more! The website also includes teacher lesson ideas and downloadable worksheets. This is a wonderful resource!

(Students: At the end of the lesson, click here to take the exit poll!)

Visualizing Scale

Thanks to a wonderful friend of mine, Zero Dean, I recently learned of a fantastic website designed to illustrate the scale of objects in our world. From the tiniest atoms (and parts of atoms) to the largest stars in our universe, this magical little website is truly breath-taking! I've included a screenshot below, but you really must click on the link to truly appreciate it. Be sure the sound is turned up as well. The music is the icing on the cake.


Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Earth as a Peppercorn

It started with a pink bouncy ball. Eight inches in diameter, sitting in a bird bath in the school courtyard. Standing around it with my class, the girls and I marvel at our feeble representation of the Sun.

"This plastic ball represents the most important force in our solar system, and the reason we have life on our planet," I say, trying to impart a sense of importance to the round pink ball. We stand for a moment and look up at the real sun, letting it warm our faces in the chilly morning air.
"Who has Mercury?" I call out. Behind me, a voice pipes up,
"Here it is!" A student is holding a white index card with a tiny ink dot in the center.

"Alright, Mercury. According to our scale, if the Sun is here, then you are positioned ten paces that way." I point toward a clump of bushes. My little Mercurian princess takes ten large paces away from the Sun, then turns around to face us and holds up her index card proudly. We take a moment to admire how tiny Mercury looks on that index card, and then I lead the group to join her. From our spot at Mercury we look back at the Sun and I ask,
"What kinds of surface temperatures does Mercury have? Who researched Mercury for their planetary brochure last week?" Two girls jump up excitedly and call out, "We did! Mercury has temperatures over 400 degrees Celsius on the side facing the Sun!"
"Wow," I reply. "400 degrees seems really hot. Would you agree?" All the girls nod in agreement. "But look at this tiny dot." I point to the index card."Now look at the Sun way over there. How does Mercury have such high temperatures?" A few girls suggest, "Maybe it's because the planet is so small?" Another one adds, "And maybe because the Sun is soooo hot!" I reply with a simple, "Interesting," and let the suspense build as we continue on our trek.

I call out, "Who has Venus?"
"I do!" one of my students replies happily, holding up a tiny black peppercorn between her fingers.

"Good. Venus, you need to take nine paces from here in order to fit our scale." Venus marches away from us as we count off her paces one at a time. At nine, she stops, turns around and holds up the peppercorn. It is barely visible to us. I ask Mercury to stay put for a few minutes while the rest of us journey on to Venus' position. We stare at the tiny peppercorn, then to the tiny dot of Mercury, and then to the pink ball of the Sun.

"Who has Earth?" I ask.
"Me!" another girl says, holding a second peppercorn carefully between her fingers.

"Okay, Earth. From Venus, you will need to take 7 paces to find your place in the solar system." We excitedly count as she marches away from us, then turns and holds up the peppercorn. The group leaves Venus behind momentarily and joins Earth. I ask everyone to look up at the tiny peppercorn.

"This, girls, is our home. It is life as we know it. On this tiny bit of rock you wake and eat with your family, drive to school, grow and change and learn every day. There are seven billion other humans on this same rock with us." There is a collective silence as I say this, and a few hushed "woahs" pass over the group.

Next I ask, "How far away do you think our moon is from this peppercorn?"
Several girls point with oustretched arms and guess aloud, "About this far?" I tell everyone to hold up their thumb and look carefully at it's length.

"That is about the distance from the Earth to our Moon." After the shock passes through the group, I add, "And that is the farthest human beings have ever physically traveled in a spaceship!"

We look back at Venus and Mercury, whose places didn't, until this very moment, seem so far away at all. The girls are now completely stunned.

While we stand at Earth we reflect on the temperatures on our planet, how they compare to Venus and Mercury, and we even venture to think on how strong the pull of the Sun's gravity must be to hold all these tiny objects in orbits so far away. Little minds are expanding as we discuss these ideas, and in this moment, it seems my science teacher heart has never felt so proud of these girls.

"Where's Mars?" I say loudly now over the commotion.

"Here it is!" and a girl holds up a white index card with an ink dot drawn in the center.

"Alright, Mars. You will need to take fourteen paces to reach your place in the solar system. Let's all count with her as she goes!" Mars takes off marching, and we count excitedly to fourteen. We leave Earth behind for a moment and walk over to the little white index card.

"Look at this tiny dot. Then look back at Earth, then Venus, then Mercury, and then the Sun. These are the inner, rocky planets of our solar system. Who wants to guess how many paces we need to get to the next planet in line, Jupiter?"

The girls blurt out various numbers, ranging from around 10 to 20. I ask the girls who have been modeling Mercury, Venus and Earth to rejoin our group before I continue.

"Jupiter, where are you?" I ask, and one girl holds up a small pebble above her head and replies, "Right here!"
"Alright, Jupiter, you need to take... 95 paces to get to your place in the solar system!" The girls gasp, and then laughter erupts.

"Don't waste time, girls, let's get counting!" and we take off together, some of us joined arm in arm, counting aloud, all the way to Jupiter. When we arrive, we are a bit winded but all smiles. We have had to bend our solar system path around the sidewalk and are now on the other side of the main building. We cannot see the Sun anymore. I ask our Jupiter girl to hold up her pebble.

"This, girls, is mighty Jupiter! The largest planet in our solar system!" The girls are giggling again. I point back toward the Sun and then ask, "What kinds of temperatures do you think exist on Jupiter?"
"Very cold temperatures!"
"And what makes you say that?" I ask.
"Because look how far away from the Sun we are!" one girl blurts out excitedly.
"Exactly! Imagine how tiny the Sun is right now, sitting in that bird bath in the courtyard." We pause for a moment to marvel at the scale we are creating.

"On to Saturn, girls! How many paces do you think we need to take to get there?" The guesses are wildly extravagant now, and I quiet them down to announce, "We will need to take... 112 paces to get to Saturn!" The girls shriek in amazement and feigned exhaustion, and we take off together across the parking lot toward the soccer field.

This pattern continues with each successive planet. With each announcement of distance, the girls are amazed and entertained all at the same time.
112 paces to Saturn.
249 paces to Uranus.
281 paces to Neptune.
242 paces to Pluto.

At each stop along the way, I remind the girls to look back and picture that pink ball, our Sun, sitting in the bird bath in the courtyard. We have had to turn our solar system model in on itself several times for the sake of space, and within the hour we have wound around and made our way back to the courtyard.

I gather the girls, all of them panting heavily from our trek, around the pink ball in the bird bath. We return to the Sun. I congratulate them on creating a life-size model of our solar system, and we gather the ball, the index cards, the peppercorns, the pebbles of various sizes, then head for the classroom.

Once there, I place in front of them another, more familiar, model of the solar system.

I ask them: How is this model different from the one we made in the courtyard? How is this model both less useful and more useful than the one we made in the courtyard? If you had to define the term "model" based on our activities today, what would you say it is?

Finally, I ask them, "What other things did you learn today?" and the answers that pour from them far outnumber the answers I could ever have taught them in a lecture with a Powerpoint presentation.

(To check out the resource I used to create this class activity, click here.)

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Poll Everywhere!

So, I just discovered another quick and easy way to get my class started: instant online polls! I use the free website Poll Everywhere to create quick multiple choice questions for the girls to answer as they come in.

Not only does it save paper, but it gives me immediate feedback and allows us a concise way to discuss a science concept. The website only allows each user to vote once, so data is an accurate representation of your class. You can also keep and reuse your polls as many times as you need!

Technology? Check!
Instant assessment? Check!
Fun for students? Check!

Try it in your classroom today!

Friday, January 6, 2012

The box

How do I teach them that we are but tiny dancing dots on a spinning ball of rock in the middle of a vast universe of gases and fusion and gravity? How do I teach them that the shadows that follow them on the hopscotch game grow and change not because the sun rises and falls in the sky, but because this giant ball of rock we are stuck to is twirling on its axis at over a thousand miles per hour? And not only that, but we are also hurtling around the Sun at a face-peeling speed of over 66,000 miles an hour. At any given moment, the sun's position in the sky never changes. It is our place in space that is changing.

This is an effort in opening up the box they have sealed so tightly around their heads. The box that tells them, and has always told them, that the sun appears and then disappears every day like a puppet rising into view, dancing a jig and then disappearing beneath the stage.

Today I am a box tapper.

Some days I am content to let them live and breath and speak muffled science to me through their closed boxes. Other days, like today, I give their boxes a little tap. "Hey. Consider this," I prod. "What about this idea?" I suggest. I let the tap echo inside their box and wait patiently to see what the brain inside will do in response. And on some very special days, I get to be a box poker. I carry a pointy-ended stick that I use to punch a little hole in the bottom of their box. It is a small hole, and I am careful never to harm the thinker inside. But it is also a happy, sometimes anxious hole, that makes the thinker think a bit harder, look a bit farther and consider a bit bigger.

Today, I watch my little boxes reverberate the tap I tapped today. They buzz and bounce and a few brave ones even tap back, from the inside.

This is why I teach.

*Photo taken from: http://www.incrediblethings.com/home/come-up-with-a-million-dollar-idea-with-thought-box/

Thursday, January 5, 2012

A bad day

It is thoroughly disheartening to realize that you can spend sixty minutes doing a great hands-on laboratory activity and then at the end of those sixty minutes your students don't leave with anything more than they came in with.

"But they are getting their hands dirty," you reason. "They are having much more fun than if I was just standing up in front of the room blabbing on about something."

THAT has got to count for something, doesn't it?

Yet, a word keeps rattling around in your head.
Relevance. Relevance. RELEVANCE!

These girls need to be walking out of my room on a daily basis with more skills, more practice, or more experience than they walked in with. Otherwise I am not doing my job.

Today was just a very bad day.

Am I making the girls guess what it is they should be learning about in my class? Have I lost track of my daily objectives? Of course *I* know what they are. I'm the one teaching. But I think I've forgotten to make sure the girls are clear on them. (*Smacking palm on forehead repeatedly*)

I need to investigate the whole "exit card" system that some teachers use. And I need to get back to posting the objectives on the board for the girls.

The Relevance Monster

A snapshot of today's lesson: The girls begin their warm up. Read the lab procedure in your textbook, summarize it in steps on your paper. Ten minutes later we discuss what we will be doing in the lab exercise, with me modeling the steps with the materials at one of the lab stations. Tie one end of a string to a flashlight and the other to a board. Use binder clips to secure a "Tracking Shadows" poster to the board. Place a pencil upright in the pre-drilled hole in the board. Use the flashlight to create a shadow of the pencil on the poster. Measure the height of the flashlight above the table for each shadow on the poster. Record your measurements on the data table. Plot the data on a line graph.

The lights went out, and the girls got to work. Several realizations occurred to me as I supervised the shadow lab.

1) Initially the girls did not understand that their shadow of the pencil needed to be completely within the premarked outline on the poster.
2) Several girls found it difficult to manuever the flashlight to even create a shadow. Many would be staring hard at the dark line cast on the poster and say they couldn't make it move. Others would fail to notice that they no longer had the flashlight pointed directly at the pencil at all.

I did not anticipate these difficulties.

Also, the overall goal of this exercise was for the girls to understand that
1) The position of the sun in the sky is different in winter than it is in the summer.
2) The higher the position of the sun, the shorter the shadow. The lower the sun, the longer the shadow.
3) The sun is higher in the sky during the summer and lower in the sky during the winter.
4) The position of the sun in the sky appears to change over the course of a year because the tilt of the earth changes as the earth revolves around the sun.

We have already learned that the Earth has a continual tilt of 23.5 degrees in relation to the sun, and that this tilt is responsible for the different seasons we experience on Earth. We have discussed the term "apparent motion" and talked about how the sun "appears" to move across the sky, but in actuality, it is us on Earth who are moving.

But we haven't made the connection between the apparent height of the sun in the sky and how that translates to the position and orientation of the Earth in space. (Ah, yet another place to help the girls learn valuable spatial skills that I have squandered.)

At the end of our sixty minute class period, several thoughts occur to me. This lab is currently an isolated, irrelevant set of measurements for the girls. They have no prior knowledge to which they can attach this activity. No understanding of what the flashlight represents, what the pencil represents, or even what the different lines on their new graph mean.

Why did I think this lab could be done cold turkey, without a lot of prior knowledge cultivation? How did I miss the necessity of explaining the concept of our setup as a model?

Tomorrow I am going to have the class stand in the hallway with a big, blank wall, a lamp and a two liter bottle of soda. I'm going to recreate the winter and summer shadows that they measured on their posters, and have them mark the height of the lamp along the wall. It will be a giant wall version of the graph they made today. We will discuss how the height of the sun in the sky relates to the length of shadows. Maybe this will help them understand why we used a pencil and a flashlight yesterday.

Where is their more value? Getting them to take data they don't understand and then explaining it later? Or explaining it first and making them take data that they already expect?