I Told You So

01 April 2010

In August, I wrote a post about some impending plagiarism. My ideas were being kidnapped and there would be no ransom---just wholesale stealing with no credit offered or permission requested.

And, as unfortunately expected, things have turned up here (the "Physical Science and Inquiry" section). The materials are not the same format, but there is no mistaking what I published in August as being used. If there is any question of which came first, one only need right-click their page and view the Page Info (shown below):


They posted on December 15, 2009---nearly four months after I posted here. Rather sickening to think that one of the people who participated in the thievery is involved with conversations about national science standards. It will be quite ironic to see concepts of integrity show up in those, don't you think?

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Tiny Bubbles

17 February 2010

The Southern Fried Scientist recently updated his post explaining How to Brew Beer in a Coffee Maker, Using Only Materials Commonly Found on a Modestly Sized Oceanographic Research Vessel. For me, this post represents the essence of scientistness. It is the sort of innovation which is often found in research labs---but for very good reason, never makes it into the news. Scientists are playful creatures. We are problem-solvers. True blue MacGuyvers.

But there are times when we are too inventive for our own good. And @SFriedScientist's story reminded me of one such event. Where I taught, we often did a fungi unit in the fall. It was good timing as that point in the year had mushrooms springing up everywhere. Their variety, pungency, and shapes (I'm looking at you, Morels) was certainly attention-grabbing. So, in the spirit of the moment, we had classes make root beer. Mind you, I only did this once. Cost, storage, and less than stellar results were all enough to realize that this was an idea best left to others. One of my colleagues did not come to this same conclusion and continued to have students crank out root beer each fall as an extra credit project. This would not have been such a bad thing if the results had stayed in his classroom. They didn't. He would bring them to department meetings---old 2L bottles of root beer (made with baker's yeast, for cryin' out loud) and dixie cups, pouring shots for each of us as if we were involved in some sort of perpetual double dog dare. A circle of Hell undocumented by Dante. Eventually he retired, but the root beer lived on. Bottle after bottle was found squirreled away in his prep room. No dates. No official labels. No way we were opening any of it. I can't claim to have had root beer of any kind since then.

It is probably a very good thing that it wasn't real beer, as proposed at the start of this post. I think I would miss that. But I have to wonder how many similar experiments are going on in labs everywhere. I think there should be a poster session at the next ScienceOnline for people to share the various gerryrigged items they have constructed. I know there's more out there besides tiny bubbles.

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ScienceOnline 2010: Final Thoughts (For Now)

18 January 2010

---photo by MamaJoules


I don't really know how to eloquently sum up the whole ScienceOnline 2010 experience. All I can think of is a Keanu Reeves' like "Whoa."

I am sure that I will be processing all of the ideas, conversations, and experiences for awhile. There is quite the archive of tweets from the conference, if you are so inclined. Here are some of my Lessons Learned:
  • I will never be the owner of a Sleep Number bed. I tried to find my perfect sleep number---I really did. I inflated and deflated the inner balloon in the mattress. I set different numbers for each side so I could do a comparison before making a decision for the night. I even read the posts Bora suggested for us in my search for a comfortable night on such a mattress. It was all for nought. The problem with these mattresses is that they have no give to them---they don't conform to the shape of your body or your sleeping position. Very uncomfortable.
  • I gained a cold (courtesy of Scicurious) and lost my coat. Double sigh.
  • As frustrated as we educators are with our IT staff and administration when it comes to using web 2.0 tools in the classroom, I can guarantee you that similar frustrations are being voiced at colleges, universities, science museums/zoos, and other institutions. However, there are exceptions to every rule. Damond Nollan, web manager at NCCU, is just such an exception. While there is no doubt that there will always be concerns about web security and the "digital footprints" we leave as we make our way through the internet, these should not rule out our attempts to learn and connect. Thank you, Damond, for your leadership in this area.
  • Cell phones in learning (and not just for science) will become increasingly important. I understand the challenges of harnessing their power for the classroom---and that we educators will have to figure out how to manage that. However, I picked up two interesting pieces of information last week that has made me more determined to work on incorporating cell phones into instruction. First of all SMS (texting) is the "king" of communications---it works across all types of carriers and in all countries. Secondly, it is a tool that is not necessarily impacted by disparities in equity. (Data plans/Smartphones are---but not texting from a basic cell phone.) This means that the kinds of divides we see among "haves and have nots" for other technology and access don't exist with this tool.
  • I still cannot believe I really met all of the amazing people that I did. I will try to work on a list and some links to share of new-to-me blogs and conversations. There was only one session which was a disappointment to me---the moderators being the only evidence of a clique I ever saw for the conference and their approach to a topic which showed no hint of personal reflection was a bit insulting. However, the blogosphere takes all kinds. I can appreciate examples of what not to do just as much as the blogs which inspire me.
  • Finally, below are three screenshots of tweets from the conference. They are the ideas that intrigued me most, but didn't get explored. Perhaps they will serve as fodder for future posts. If you have some thoughts to share about any of these ideas, I'd enjoy hearing them.



Assuming that ScienceOnline continues and grows, I wonder if what makes it intimate and participant-driven will be able to stay as the center of things. What is the maximum size a conference can be for remaining a reflection of what attendees build for themselves?

Did you attend the conference either in-person or "ether"eally? If you're an educator, would you be interested in something like this---what sorts of topics would be most useful? Educon is coming up, which is probably akin to ScienceOnline in some ways, but does not attract the diversity and expertise we had last week (although it attracts plenty of attention from the EdTecherati). Maybe we need to reboot our educational gatherings.

Update: There is a great list of BlogMedia Coverage on the ScienceOnline 2010 site. One in particular, is a response to this post by Greg Laden. Go give him some comment love.

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ScienceOnline 2010: The Beginning of the End

17 January 2010

Today is the last day of ScienceOnline 2010. The conference experience has been one akin to a reunion---so many people I feel like I have "known" for a long time from their blogs and Twitter feeds, and this was our chance to finally meet in person.


I enjoyed the sessions I attended, as well as those I facilitated. The Data Visualization session I moderated was particularly interesting to me. I had adapted my material for the "unconference" format and also for a different audience. I almost exclusively present to educators these days. Scientists? Not so much. But I liked the connections that they made with the material and the discussions they had about the changes they see happening in the sciences. I expect that these conversations continue in one form or another, as DataViz seems to be of increasing interest.

One of the things I have appreciated the most at this conference is the diversity of connections to science. There are science librarians; artists who paint or photograph scientific concepts; online and print journalists, bloggers, authors, and editors; students and educators from public and private institutions; science industry reps; physicians; museum, zoo, and aquarium staff; and many others. These various areas of expertise lend so much to the conversation. Journalists are contributing to the discussions of ethics in science reporting while librarians give us different ways to document and catalog work. Teachers can help researchers understand what is needed for their students to participate in citizen science projects. Those institutions which are already using social media can help the rest of us understand what is and isn't working. I don't know what this would look like in the context of an educational conference, but we need to find a way to do this.

In a few hours, I will board a plane bound for the west coast, headed back to my normal quiet life. I am already anticipating returning here for ScienceOnline 2011.

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Enough Is Enough

16 January 2010

Regulars here at Ye Olde Blog know that I have posted many times about classroom grading practices. Regardless of which philosophy you ascribe to, at the end of the term, a teacher must make a decision about whether or not a student has learned (and to what extent). How much evidence is enough "to convict a student of learning," as Rick Stiggins would say? Is it by the number of assignments completed? Quality of work? Length of time information is retained? The answer is not as cut-and-dried as we might like. I have wondered if there is an answer at all.

I was pondering this particular conundrum again on Friday evening during a ScienceOnline 2010 keynote by Michael Specter, author of Denialism. The largest bone of contention amongst the crowd (and with Specter) was around how many expert opinions are "enough" to determine what the truth of the scientific matter is. For example---Is the H1N1 vaccine safe? How many doctors, virologists, physiologists, epidemic researchers, etc. must one talk to before accepting that the answer is "Yes."? Is just a doctor enough? Do you need three who agree? How much expertise is necessary for an opinion to be considered?



The struggle for some in the crowd appeared to be around defining the exact quantity of expert opinions in agreement that should be required. Others cared more about making sure the "right" experts were used. I can empathize with that sort of mental wrestling. It is similar to the questions I get from teachers at grading workshops: How many assignments should there be for each standard? Should I have three summative assessments...or five? I can never really answer their questions any more than Specter could provide a definitive answer last night about how much scientific expertise is enough. It isn't that I don't want to answer teachers or frustrate them. These questions just do not fall into black and white sorts of categories.

The danger, of course, in not thinking about guidelines and trying to get to the answer is that there continues to be wide variation in what is acceptable. Just as for one teacher, three tests and an essay is enough to say whether or not a student should receive credit for a course while other teachers need 8 tests and 5 essays, some people will accept one opinion about vaccines and others want four. Unfortunately, many of those who accept a single opinion often choose one that is not based on evidence. As Specter pointed out last night, "185,000 people died from measles last year...just no one Jenny McCarthy knew."

At some point, we all have to come to terms with balancing quantity and quality of information. While I doubt that the mothers of the 185K measles victims would share McCarthy's opinion about vaccines, it does not mean that those mothers have any more medical expertise than she. We have to make a decision about how to weigh both validity and reliability of the information we have access to, whether we are teachers looking at our gradebooks, or citizens and scientists evaluating information that impacts our health and environment. How do we determine when "enough is enough"?

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Notes from ScienceOnline 2010: Day 1.5

15 January 2010

The event has not begun in earnest yet, and I can already tell you that ScienceOnline 2010 is the best. conference. ever. It's a place where egos do not appear to exist---only enthusiasm to share and learn. People are very friendly, always willing to strike up a conversation and share a story. Bora is a delightful host, boundless in energy and as genial as I had always imagined.


I don't have enough headspace at the moment to fully develop a post, but I did want to share some of my observations from the first day or so.
  • It is a different sort of crowd here. Not only is everyone interested in science, but also in social media. Several people I have met have described that they are the only ones in their lab, library, or office who dabble in blogging and tweeting. Many of them have run up against institutional policies or disinterest in these endeavours. This is an important for me to note, because I run across so many teachers who feel the same way. It is not just schools which are undergoing growing pains when it comes to integrating "web 2.0" (or whatever you wish to label it)---we are not as behind as we might think.
  • Blog posts are like lesson plans. You know how we educators will spend hours crafting what you think is the most awesome engaging lesson in the history of your classroom, only to have kids chew it up and spit it out...only to discover on another day when you have 5 minutes to plan that students love things? I've heard a few comments here around the same sort of relationship with posts. Scientists who take a ton of time to research and construct a post only to find that they get more conversation and comments on the "toss offs." Maybe there is something to be said for deadlines.
  • People rarely resemble their avatars---even the ones who use their own photos. I don't care how many times I've seen someone's tiny avatar on Twitter or on their blogs, the 3D experience is very different.
  • Blogging 101 was a ton of fun. An hour was woefully inadequate for getting people up and running with their own blogs, but it was enough time to allay some fears and provide places to start. I so enjoyed their positive energy and enthusiasm. I really hope that at least some of them get into blogging.
Most of the sessions will happen tomorrow. Considering the atmosphere oriented toward personal learning, the level of participation, and the openness of this conference where everyone can contribute, I really think this may well be the most powerful learning experience I have had.

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ScienceOnline 2010: Sessions

12 January 2010

The countdown is on! I leave for North Carolina in the wee hours on Thursday. By Friday morning, I will be sleep deprived and jetlagged when I will be starting my first session at ScienceOnline 2010. Go me!

Blogging 101
This session is meant to be a boot camp, of sorts. Those attending will be new to blogging, so we'll start with the basics:
  1. What is blogging and why would anyone want to have a blog?
  2. How do I get started? (choosing a platform/hosting, template basics)
  3. How can I create and publish a post? (how posting works, including adding links, graphics, video, etc.)
  4. How do other people find my blog? (ways to connect and communicate your information; dealing with comments and establishing “house rules” for visitors; logging visits)
I have set up two blogs, one in Blogger and one in WordPress, for us to play with. We are scientists, after all. Why not experiment a bit?

After our boot camp, I'll be expecting them all to drop and give me 20 (posts).

Data Visualization
Readers here know that this particular topic is my new passion. I am really looking forward to a conversation which puts a science spin to things. Research scientists, physicians, science writers, and other stakeholders are going to have some unique needs.
  1. How do the capabilities of open publishing and associated tools change the ways in which we can visualize and share data with various audiences?
  2. What do you need your data to do that you can’t currently make happen (either due to lack of knowledge and/or tools)? For example, would you like to be able to overlay various samples with Google Maps?
  3. What tools (both commercial and open source) are you using to develop visualizations?
  4. How can we use visualization to better communicate messages with the general public?
I have pulled a few slides to use as a way to guide the conversation along and stimulate some thinking, but beyond that, our discussion will be participant driven.


Citizen Science and Students
This session is moderated by Sandra Porter of Digital Bio and we are joined by Antony Williams (ChemSpider). Sandra has written a post to get the conversation started on her blog. If you have examples of ways in which your students are involved with research science (e.g. water quality, bird counts...), please leave a comment on her blog. I know that ChemSpider has already done a bit of thinking about this and other sessions. Me? I'm a bit of a slacker in this group. You know---the person you never wanted to do a group project with because they totally biffed the whole thing and then got the same credit as everyone else? I'm teetering on that line, but I am working on getting my poop in a pile. My experience has been more from the classroom vs. researcher side, obviously; but I am hoping to speak to how schools can be engaged with ongoing work.

So, there you have it. As for sessions that I am just attending for my own edification...well, I haven't made my final decisions yet. I do know that on Friday morning after my Blogging 101 session, I want to drop in to the Podcasting workshop. In the afternoon, I've signed up to go to Duke's Immersive Virtual Environment to experience a "3-D simulator that shows the path a molecule of ethanol makes from a beer can to your brain, with molecular-scale stops along the way." I've signed up for the Saturday evening dinner and may nab one of the last Monti tickets for Thursday (although I worry about arriving late). I have time to attend a couple of sessions on Sunday morning before the long trip home. Amongst all of this, I hope to post updates here. I'll hang out the "Do Not Disturb" sign on Monday.

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A Preview of Coming Attractions

11 January 2010

---Science Online 2010 Promo by Cephalopodcast

Later this week, I'm off to North Carolina for ScienceOnline 2010. Bora from A Blog Around the Clock started recruiting me last August. And I, being a girl who can't say "No," decided to jump on in and participate this year.

I was telling some colleagues earlier this week that what intrigues me most about this conference is that while it is all well and good for us educators to promote "21st Century Skills" in classrooms---here is a group of adults (most of whom were educated in "traditional" environments) who are remaking their professional world. Can we, as educators, claim that blogs, wikis, cell phones, and other tools have a place in the classroom when we don't couple that with examples of how real world professionals use these? I won't pretend that the kinds of online tools available to a kindergartner today will be the same as the ones when s/he exits graduate school, but I will predict that open access and the ability to connect with others across the globe will be even more important. So I am approaching this conference with a bit of an anthropological take.

I am leading or co-moderating three sessions (more on that in another post). It has been fun for me to un-think my usual approach for this "unconference," where sessions are driven by the knowledge, skills, and interests of participants. I like the idea that I don't have to be the expert...and I also like the idea of being part of the collective expertise for the sessions I attend. My plan is to immerse myself in as many events as possible. I am hoping not to become too starstruck among the science blogerati that will be present: Carl Zimmer, PZ Meyers, Dr. Isis, and more.

So, expect a slew of posts (I believe that is the proper collective noun) this week about ScienceOnline 2010. You can also follow the event on Facebook, Twitter, and via the main conference wiki. Just click the ScienceOnline 2010 link at the beginning of the post. If you can't be there with us in person, at least you can be present in ether.

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All's Fair in Lovin' Science

01 December 2009

If you have a moment, stop by the science fair in Compton, California---where the scientists display their projects and students are the judges.

I'm intrigued with this idea. Not only does it provide research scientists with a different audience for their real world information, it also gives students some ideas about what they do and don't like about presenting science. Seems to me that this could be a great kickoff to the student science fair season.

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Science Online 2010

05 October 2009

This year will mark the fourth annual ScienceOnline Conference. The name might be seen by some as misleading, as the conference itself is not virtual (unlike the K-12 Online Conference). Instead it is a gathering of those who advocate for science using online communications. It is "a free three-day event to explore science on the Web. Our goal is to bring together scientists, physicians, patients, educators, students, publishers, editors, bloggers, journalists, writers, web developers, programmers and others to discuss, demonstrate and debate online strategies and tools for doing science, publishing science, teaching science, and promoting the public understanding of science."

And this year, I am going. (And presenting with Sandra Porter from Discovering Biology in a Digital World and Antony Williams from the ChemConnector. And doing a "Blogging 101" session.)

Although I have a greater association with the "online" vs. "science" part of things anymore, I find myself looking for more ways to integrate the real world with the virtual one. Spending time with like minded folks will be good for my working life...and more importantly, good for kids. I realize I'm biased, but I think the sciences have the greatest potential for connection between professionals in the field and students in the classroom. Especially when I run across articles like this one describing how blogs and other online tools bring scientific research within reach:

Every school year, teachers across the country set out to make the work of scientists understandable and appealing to students, who might otherwise find it indecipherable and dull.

This fall, a New Hampshire educator was helped in that mission by a group of scientists—working from a boat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

Those scientists were conducting research in the Phoenix Islands, a remote collection of atolls and reefs in the central Pacific. During breaks, they kept a blog on their work, which Julianne Mueller-Northcott’s students followed every day. Her students e-mailed questions to the marine scientists, who responded when they had time and a working satellite link.

That arrangement is just one of many aimed at connecting students through technology with scientists doing research in the field, an increasingly common practice in schools. Museums, colleges, federal agencies, and individual teachers have become more adept at putting students in direct contact with scientists, even those working in very remote locations—like aboard the NAI’A in the central Pacific, 6,000 miles away.

It's a very cool idea; and, one of many available to classrooms. I am hoping that the ScienceOnline conference will help uncover more ways for classrooms and researchers to connect. I suspect that at least part of that discussion will involve how we also support each group in learning to use online tools. From the education side of things, a recent survey has shown that while many educators use social networking or web 2.o tools, they believe that they could use professional development in terms of using these more effectively in the classroom. Perhaps there will be some good tips I can pick up in January to share with teachers---and maybe I can share some things with the scientists about working in k-12 environments.

See you there!

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Where Have All the Bloggers Gone?

03 October 2009

Like many internet users, I do most of my reading through an aggregator. It wasn't always this way. The motley crew of blogs on my sidebar represented part of my daily perambulations around the web. I still try to get out and visit sites every once in awhile. As nice as Google Reader is at collecting things for me to enjoy, I miss seeing the blogrolls and additional features that others have on their sites. I always have an eye out for a new read.

I recently made an effort to search for science education bloggers. You see, other than Science Teacher and Science for All, I really don't have anyone on my sidebar that represent science ed. I always enjoy Mrs. Bluebird, but her stories are more about kids and classroom than anything science. And as I searched through Twitter profiles and a recent collection of all things education blog, I noticed that there are three basic categories of extant science education blogs.
  • First, there is the "hobby blogger": someone who has a blog that is only updated every 4 - 6 weeks, at best. I removed these from my consideration because blogging (in my opinion) should be about sharing and conversation. Someone who only writes 8 - 12 times per year is not interested in using a blog to network or nurture relationships. Typically, these are teachers who just want to be able to say "I have a blog!" Sadly enough, this was the greatest percentage of science education blogs out there.
  • The second category represents teachers who use their blogs to communicate with students and parents. This is a great use for those stakeholders (and one I tried myself)...but it's not designed to be particularly reflective or used for connections outside that circle. I removed those from my search, too.
  • The final category is comprised of science teachers who only post about educational technology. These aren't bad blogs, either...but again, the conversation is not about science education. (For those of you who think this is a bit of the pot calling the kettle black, you're right. I'm not entirely science oriented myself, anymore---but I do try to keep a toe in.)
After eliminating all of the blogs that fell into the above categories, there were a few left. I have to say that I wasn't all that impressed with either the writing and/or the format. At the risk of sounding like an old fart, people used to have some pride in their templates and ease of use for readers. What is up with bloggers filling up every square inch of the page---with the text such a hot mess that you can't tell where a post begins or ends?

Blogging, like any medium, is bound to change with time. I don't expect permanance, but I am hoping for continuity of ideas. I have to believe that there are science teachers out there who are interested in sharing their tales. If you have a recommendation for me, please do leave it in the comments.

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Accept No Substitutions

30 September 2009

When I was in the classroom, lab days always had some extra baggage in the form of what to do about absent students. Most materials were not things that could or should be sent home as make-up work...many, especially in the realm of biology, did not keep well. A trail of students, each making up the lab separately was a drain on resources and time. I can't claim that I ever developed a solution I was entirely happy with. There's just nothing like the real thing, baby.

It looks like the College Board might agree with that observation. From Education Week's report on Simulated vs. Hands-on Lab Experiments:

In recent years, the College Board, which authorizes AP classes and offers college-level material to high school students, has been trying to determine whether simulated labs in some science courses can take the place of real-world experiments. It’s a debate that online science providers and hands-on teachers are grappling with as well.

In the coming years, some students taking online Advanced Placement science courses may have to leave their computers and head to an actual classroom as the College Board moves toward a model likely to require more hands-on laboratory experiences for those who take AP courses online.

“Some experiences can be set up online so they can manage and manipulate the data, but some skills we really want them to do in the real world to get college credit,” says Trevor Packer, a vice president of the New York City-based College Board...

Zipporah Miller, the associate executive director of professional programs and conferences for the Arlington, Va.-based National Science Teachers Association, says virtual experiments alone can’t equal real-world labs. “The simulation should be used only as a reinforcement,” she says. “If they go through the simulation, they may get the right answer on an AP exam, but they may not have the experience to apply that knowledge in the real world.”

Some virtual AP providers argue that simulations are being used by everyone from medical students to the military and can suffice...
I suppose that one could reasonably argue that simulations are not student-driven inquiry experiences---they're cookbooky. But then, so are the Dirty Dozen of AP Bio (the 12 labs required by the College Board). What is the role of simulations in the k-12 science classroom, then? What kind of experience is "good enough" to be called a lab? Are we equating seat time with learning---again? Are there attributes of physically manipulating glassware, chemicals, etc. that form the only pathway to conceptual understanding? Should we accept no substitutes?

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Have You Flipped A Rock Today?

20 September 2009

Just a reminder that today is International Rock Flipping Day---an opportunity for some informal ecosystem inventorying. A game the whole family can play (indeed, there is a certificate available for the junior rock-flippers out there).

I did go out this morning and do my scientific duty. Unfortunately, I am no photographer (as you might already have noticed). But here is a general description of the event...

It's a sunny morning here in western Washington. According to the weather station just across the water from me, current air temp is 57 degrees Fahrenheit and we have 81% humidity; winds are out of the west at 4 miles per hour. In short, it is shaping up to be a gorgeous day. Perhaps I should have delayed my flippin' foray, but I just couldn't wait. I had to head out into the yard. My neighbour might wish I hadn't, as I looked a bit unkempt; but, whatever. At least I wasn't the one in a bathrobe. Anyway...

I had a hard time picking a good subject for study. This was not due to a lack of rocks. My property has plenty of options---which was what made the decision that much more difficult. Should I pick something in the driveway? Nah...little likelihood of life under there. What about one of the flowerbeds? Rocks were too small. I was starting to flip out a bit, because I couldn't find a rock that was just right. And then, I spotted these lone rangers along the street side of the property:


Now here was some real potential. A good size, which might mean they hadn't been disturbed in some time...settled into organic material, so there was likely some life underneath...on the south side of the property, where there would be the most sun and warmth for small creatures. Perfect! Here's the gratuitous after shot:


Not very exciting, is it? Doesn't appear to be a flippin' thing under that rock! Well, chalk that up to my poor camerawork rather than lack of multi-legged fauna to observe. I did see 4 roly-polys (a/k/a wood lice, sow bug, pillbugs, Armadillidiidae reps). They scampered into the crevices in the dirt as soon as the sunlight hit them. They were obviously not morning crustaceans. I also saw a little critter that reminded me of a centipede or silverfish. It had many legs, was light orange in colour, and no more than one inch in length. It, too, scrambled toward darkness like a tiny vampire scared of turning to dust. On the underside of the rock was some webbing---perhaps the remnants of an egg sac from a long departed momma occupant. You might also notice that there were some crustose lichens occupying the upper side of the rock...and many tiny plant roots underneath. The rock is providing habitat services for any number of organisms. I will now have to stop thinking of it as an eyesore by the road.

So, get out today and find your own flipping rock. Be a naturalist in your own yard. Tell us what you find! Feel free to also check out the Flickr pool for this event or the #rockflip tag on Twitter for other posts and pics.

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Flip Rocks, Not Birds

15 September 2009


Sunday is International Rock-Flipping Day. This year, the event is being organized by Wanderin' Weeta, a nature enthusiast from BC. Cephalopodcast has supplied the above badge and organized the Flickr pool. All that's missing is your participation. Make plans for the following:
  • On or about September 20th, find your rock and flip it over.
  • Record what you find. "Any and all forms of documentation are welcome: still photos, video, sketches, prose, or poetry."
  • Replace the rock as you found it; it's someone's home.
  • Post on your blog, or load your photos to the Flickr group.
  • Send a link to Wanderin' Weeta or add a comment to her post that day.
  • WW will collect the links, e-mail participants the list, and post it for any and all to copy to your own blogs. (Maybe we can Tweet it, too, this year. Use the hashtag #rockflip.)
This event gives a whole new meaning to "social science," don't you think?

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You Heard It Here First

23 August 2009

In my previous job (the one that ended in June...not the one that ends this month), I was asked to think about what professional development might look like for Washington's new science standards. I believe in high-quality staff development...and working with educators is one of the things I do best. It's no secret that I am not a fan of the new standards; however, that does not mean that teachers shouldn't have the best support possible in trying to implement the beast. I had already seen enough poor PD offered around these standards. I knew that I could do better.

As I continued to think about creating some materials, I realized that there were quite a few challenges inherent in the task. First of all, the materials had to be appropriate K-12: there had to be places for teachers at all grade levels to connect. Secondly, any "stuff" had to be cheap and readily available---no special equipment and very little time/effort in preparation for those delivering the PD. Finally, there had to be a direct connection to the classroom. I know this last part seems obvious; but you and I both know that there is plenty of staff development floating around which does not provide time or opportunity for adult learners to apply what is relevant to their classrooms.

I struggled to come up with the perfect thing. And then...I did. An Inquiry activity involving no more than paperclips and paper...integrated with a Ray Bradbury story that framed the discussion...and tools for engaging with the standards that were flexible for every grade level. I captured my thoughts---and frankly, I think the basic plan is one of the very best I have ever created. I am sad that I will never get to present it.

I only made one mistake in this whole process: I told two people about my idea. And with me out of the picture (job-wise), these two people have decided to wholesale steal my idea and pass it off as their own. They are not ready to publish their version...but they are very close. You can be very sure that my name will not be credited anywhere in their information.

So, my friends, I am sharing my professional development experience with you. Although the references to the standards within are for WA, I'm quite sure every state has something on Inquiry and Forces/Motion. Just sub in your codes for ours.
I admit that these things are still a bit raw. There is always room for improvement. But I still think the basic concept is golden. I don't mind sharing, but I abhor outright stealing. Maybe it is a fine line these days in this digital world, but I would like to think that integrity transcends the medium. You may think this post represents sour grapes about my job, but I see this as a way to document the impending plagiarism. (And trust me, there is no way I want to work for those people again.) Just remember, you heard it here first.

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Common Ground

11 May 2009

Bug Girl pointed me toward this website asking Why Is Science Important? Oddly enough, this is a question I've been pondering a lot this year. While I have my own ideas around the topic, my job this year has shown me that as a state, we have no cohesive purpose when it comes to science. There are lots of cliques each pursuing their own goals. In some ways, this is all right. We don't all have to be doing the same things at the same time. We serve different stakeholders and fill various needs.

However, I do think that it would be beneficial to have some agreement about why we're doing it. This is the piece I'm missing as I travel around the state. I never hear anyone speak to the purpose of science education. Why should I care about one particular group's goals if they leave their mission up to my interpretation?

We will never have agreement here on some things. There is a large number of people who believe that the entity of science is more important than kids and teachers. What's best for science is their bottom line. And me? I and many others have the reverse viewpoint: Kids first. Science second. Either way, there must be something we feel is essential about learning science in the first place.

So maybe this question just needs to become part of my repertoire as I'm out and about. I wonder if I'll be surprised/repulsed/affirmed by the answers. More importantly, I wonder if there will be some common ground.

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That's Just How They Roll

17 April 2009


The photograph above is of a Tweenbot, a thesis project by Kacie Kinzer.

Tweenbots are human-dependent robots that navigate the city with the help of pedestrians they encounter. Rolling at a constant speed, in a straight line, Tweenbots have a destination displayed on a flag, and rely on people they meet to read this flag and to aim them in the right direction to reach their goal.

Kinzer was interested to see how New Yorkers would interact with these new objects---and was surprised by what she observed. I find the project interesting on a variety of levels and thought it might be nice to share on this Friday. It's good to see student learning that is not only driven by some questions---but generates so many others.

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Deep and Wide

25 March 2009

I can't think of any educators who aren't overwhelmed by the amount of material they are supposed to "cover" with their students. I hate the term "coverage" (and its variations) as conversation should be more about what kids learn than what teachers cover. But I digress. The question really is, do we as teachers succumb to the volume of content...or do we pick out a few concepts for our students and delve deeply into that subject matter?

A recent article in Education Week renews this debate as it applies to science:

The scientific world is vast. One key to students' developing a strong understanding of it could be having them focus on relatively few topics, in great depth.

That is the main conclusion of a recent study that examines one of the most enduring debates in science instruction—whether "depth" or “breadth” of knowledge is most important. Its authors come down on the side of depth.

High school students who focus more intensely on core topics within their biology, chemistry, and physics classes fared better in beginning college science than those who delved a little bit into a larger list of topics, the study found. Observers say those findings could offer direction to developers of science curricula, tests, and textbooks.

A central finding is that "breadth-based learning, as commonly applied in high school classrooms, does not appear to offer students any advantage when they enroll in introductory college science courses," the authors conclude, "although it may contribute to scores on standardized tests."

On the surface, the argument of depth-based high school courses leading to college success makes some sense. "Mastery also can help students overcome common false impressions in science...'If you study something in depth, you have the time to deal with some of the misconceptions that impede you when you get to college,' Mr. Sadler said."

But not so fast, says ASCD. ASCD is not against depth in courses, but seems to believe that the research study's conclusions may be incorrect.
He basically said that while it was fair to look at shortcomings in high school science teaching, not enough attention gets paid to how college-level science is taught. College science courses are heavily oriented toward lectures and covering reams of material, he said. The goal often seems to be to weed out people who don't have the skills to pursue college science majors, Eberle told me, rather than attempting to nurture and build the skills and interests they already have.

Eberle's organization, of course, represents the K-12 teacher's perspective. But he's not the only science advocate I've heard make this argument about college science instruction. And he raises an important issue, particularly at a time when policymakers are keenly interested in boosting the number of students who pursue "STEM" careers. What if the "STEM pipeline" as it's sometimes called, is springing leaks at the entry-level undergraduate, rather than high school level? If anyone can point me to any useful data or studies on this point, I'd like to see it.
I kinda like putting the shoe on the other foot, so to speak. Perhaps it isn't the "fault" of k-12 that students aren't performing well in college science courses. Maybe universities shouldn't throw stones at us until they have a look inside their own glass houses.

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What A Concept

11 February 2009

Education Week is reporting on a different approach to professional development for science teachers: the inclusion of a student partner from their classrooms.
When biology teacher Jessica L. McSwain guided students through a recent lab activity on genetic transformation, a colleague worked alongside her who understood exactly what she hoped to accomplish.

Not a fellow teacher, or even a teacher-in-training. A 17-year-old student.

The educator from Hilltop High School, outside San Diego, is one of about 200 teachers who have taken part in an unusual professional-development effort, which trains teachers and students together and has them work side by side in the classroom on science labs. Students in the program, called BioBridge, are expected to serve as leaders after they complete the training and return to class, helping their classmates make sense of the lab activity.

Schools often use students as "peer tutors" in science and other classes. But a number of observers say it is far less common for a professional-development program to have educators work so closely with their young charges in the hope of bringing about classroom improvement.

Yet that cooperation occurs regularly at Hilltop High, where last week Ms. McSwain was assisted in labs in four separate biology classes by Katie Talmadge, a junior with a keen interest in science.

The day before those labs, Ms. Talmadge, the 17-year-old, helped the teacher set up equipment and student kits. The day of the activity on genetics, the student checked those materials again. As the activity began, she moved from lab station to lab station, helping students who were working in small groups.

Some students had difficulty grasping the instructions. Others were confused by the content or the scientific terminology. Ms. Talmadge tried to explain it, one teenager to another.

"Students are grateful," Ms. Talmadge said. "A lot of students like science, but they're hesitant to push forward." Sometimes, she added, "a kid that's more rebellious will give me more respect because I'm their age."...

Teachers who sign up for the BioBridge program attend a full-day workshop at the UC-San Diego campus, in which they discuss and plan lab activities. They also visit the university's research labs.

Participating teachers then recruit three or four of their students to serve as in-class leaders. The teachers and students work together at a Saturday workshop, held at a local high school, to plan the labs. The students also attend sessions at that same site on how to be effective classroom leaders.

Working directly with students in planning and carrying out science lessons is a new experience for most teachers, and for some it can be an awkward one, Ms. McSwain acknowledged.

At first, she said, she wasn't sure which students to choose or how prepared they would be to guide their classmates. Ms. McSwain's own relative youth—she's 30 and been told she looks almost as young as her students—added to her initial unease, she recalled jokingly.

"It's odd" for students at the outset, as well, Ms. McSwain said. "You're recruiting them into a kind of club. You kind of don't know what they're thinking. You've got them there on a Saturday," she added, "and they're doing science....

Students who take part in BioBridge, perhaps not surprisingly, tend to be accomplished in science, Mr. Babendure said. Some want to develop leadership skills; others may participate for extra credit, he said. Teachers are encouraged not to pick only A-plus students, he added, but also those below the top tier with a knack for motivating their peers.

One encouraging result of BioBridge is that it has drawn a fair number of shy students, particularly girls, who emerge from it with confidence and a deeper interest in biology, Mr. Babendure observed.

"We're hoping to show that it's cool being good at science," he said...

One possible benefit of BioBridge, Mr. Bartels said, is that teachers are receiving an impromptu tutorial—from students—on how to translate scientific language and concepts for teenagers.

"You want it to be informing the teacher on how to reach the student," Mr. Bartels said. "You would hope that teachers get a much more finely tuned ear for what the student experiences."
I have to say that I like this idea. I can think of any number of students I've had over the years that might not have been the superstars of the class, but whose passion for science was sorely underused by both their peers and me. I am opposed to using kids as teaching tools; however, in this case, students are not being used to remediate other students or to forego extensions of their own learning. Instead, these peers act as instructional coaches alongside the teacher and are allowed to participate in additional opportunities. What a concept.

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What Shall We Test?

03 November 2008

In Washington, we've had a statewide assessment for Writing (grades 4, 7, 10) for as long as we have had state tests. I have been ambivalent about this test for several years now. As much as I believe in graduating students who have good writing skills, I don't know that this belongs as a performance area to compare schools and growth. There is also the question of the hundreds of thousands of dollars spent developing and scoring the tests each year. Finally, the feds only require that we test reading, math, and science (with the first two currently figured into AYP). Why lump more expectations upon schools than is necessitated by the legislation? I'm guessing that I'm not the only one thinking about this. I see that Maine is looking to cut its statewide tests for writing.

I was thinking again this week after reading a WaPo article about the decline in time spent on science in elementary classrooms due to focus on other tested subject areas:

Science advocates recommend 45 minutes to an hour of science instruction daily starting in upper elementary grades. But many elementary and middle schools now offer half as much science as they did before the law was enacted. Middle schools that used to teach a full year of science and social studies now may offer a half-year of each. Elementary schools have squeezed the two subjects into one block of time to make room for more reading and math.

While this observation might not really qualify as "news," what is new is the realization that NCLB requirements in science may well lead to a positive impact. "Science advocates predict that school systems...under pressure from the new tests, will begin to restore lost hours of instruction."

I'm not sure where the time will come from. Personally, I am a great advocate for integrating more non-fiction reading (science topics) and using experiences in science as a springboard for writing in elementary classrooms. Many elementary teachers agree with that philosophy...but lots of administrators do not. "Reading" and "Math" mean using the district programs (e.g. Open Court, Investigations...). To "implement with fidelity" (a la Response to Intervention) means no mingling can occur. There is going to have to be some sort of detente between the teacher and admin camps before we can seriously look at restructuring the precious bits of time we have available for student learning.

It is a shame, to say the least, that subject areas are left scrapping for time based on their importance to testing. I've heard many a social studies and world languages teacher musing on what it would be like to have a tested area---how they might have more serious consideration if that happened. It's sad to think that the answer to the question "What shall we test?" is leading to such narrow curriculum options for children.

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Get Your Mole On

23 October 2008


It's that time again! It's Mole Day 2008!

I may have a busy day of meetings ahead, but not so much that I can't make time to head over to the local Mole-Donald's at 6:02 a.m. to help kick off the festivities. Need more ideas for celebrating? Why not read the e-How guide or get some ideas from the National Mole Day Foundation (assuming their servers are back on-line).

Come on, baby, let the good times mole!

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AWOL

28 September 2008

I really don't know where the last week has gone. It's a blur of meetings, road warrior activities, and the occasional stab at sleep---some of it interesting, but mostly not. In other words, it doesn't make for very good blog fodder. And while I've never been 100% sure which purpose this blog would serve, I know that I don't want it to simply be a catalog of the days' minutiae. Most of the time I'm not interested in it. I don't think anyone else would be, either. Therefore, I've been AWOL from the blog.

Amongst the hodgepodge of my days, I have been trying to ponder something a bit larger. I'm just grasping at it for now, but perhaps my always astute Readers might have some direction for me.
What is the purpose in teaching science in public schools?
I think that when I was in the classroom, the answer to this question was much clearer to me. But from the level I operate in now, the answer is mushy. It comes from the difference between being someone trying to shape policy vs. my old life where I just had to carry it out; however, I can't help but think that at a state or national agency, there is an even greater need to have a clear vision. The reason I am wrestling with this now more than ever comes down to the issue of accountability. Here are the two driving questions:
Should adults and students in the public schools be held accountable for what students learn in science? If so, what should that accountability look like?
Let's talk about kids for a moment. If we hold students accountable, then what should that look like? Is earning credit for high school courses enough---if so, how many credits? Should we direct what kinds of courses would be eligible or leave it up to school districts? If we increase requirements, what do we do about schools which don't have enough lab space or can't find high qualified teachers? Do we, instead, insist on using standardized tests as a measure for kids? What does this mean if the number of credits required for graduation would be completed after the test? Do we need a second accountability factor? I've been pondering what types of accountability might make sense and how those might be implemented and monitored. I actually like our standardized test for science in this state---but I can't say that I like that it's tied to graduation (or will be in a few years). When I read something like What Does Educational Testing Really Tell Us? over on Eduwonkette's blog, I can't help but nod in agreement...and yet, I'm hard pressed to suggest alternatives.

As for adults, that's a more difficult issue in some ways. At my place of work, we've had a few discussions about the time students (especially in the elementary grades) have to engage with science content. It's no secret that with the increased pressure on schools to raise achievement in math and reading, science and other content areas are being squeezed out. (see previous posts on studies of time spent on elementary science and its push-pull with literacy) But this brings up another question: How much time is "enough" for each content area? I know that the answer really isn't simple---every child's capabilities are different and every school serves a different population. However, can we make some general observations? Education Week seems to think we might be able to draw a few conclusions on the Effects of Extra Time for Learning. Yes, quantity can help, but quality is more important. "More" does not automatically equal "Better."

The heart of this whole problem is that without an accountability measure (e.g. AYP), schools won't teach (very much) science to kids...which gets me back to my original question: What is our purpose? I think that if this was well-defined, it would be easier to determine whether or not accountability should be required and what that looks like. Instead, we're trying to figure out all of these things at once. It seems disrespectful not to give each part of this issue its own bit of attention.

So, if things have been a bit quiet around ye olde blog, just know that I'm trying to find a way to balance the noise and pressure of my day with what I think my job should really be about. What do you think I should be doing?

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Wanted: Glucose

13 September 2008

I spend a lot of my days with my stomach growling...which is both unusual and also a bit puzzling. Let's face it, it's not like I'm doing hard labour or undertaking feats of athletic greatness. I'm usually sitting at my desk fussing over spreadsheets, attempting to stem the tide of e-mail, or in some sort of meeting. These are not major calorie-burning activities. I assure you that little or no sweating is involved. And then, I saw this article from Science Daily:
A Université Laval research team has demonstrated that intellectual work induces a substantial increase in calorie intake. The details of this discovery, which could go some way to explaining the current obesity epidemic, are published in the most recent issue of Psychosomatic Medicine.

The research team, supervised by Dr. Angelo Tremblay, measured the spontaneous food intake of 14 students after each of three tasks: relaxing in a sitting position, reading and summarizing a text, and completing a series of memory, attention, and vigilance tests on the computer. After 45 minutes at each activity, participants were invited to eat as much as they wanted from a buffet.

The researchers had already shown that each session of intellectual work requires only three calories more than the rest period. However, despite the low energy cost of mental work, the students spontaneously consumed 203 more calories after summarizing a text and 253 more calories after the computer tests. This represents a 23.6% and 29.4 % increase, respectively, compared with the rest period.

Blood samples taken before, during, and after each session revealed that intellectual work causes much bigger fluctuations in glucose and insulin levels than rest periods. "These fluctuations may be caused by the stress of intellectual work, or also reflect a biological adaptation during glucose combustion," hypothesized Jean-Philippe Chaput, the study's main author. The body could be reacting to these fluctuations by spurring food intake in order to restore its glucose balance, the only fuel used by the brain.

"Caloric overcompensation following intellectual work, combined with the fact that we are less physically active when doing intellectual tasks, could contribute to the obesity epidemic currently observed in industrialized countries," said Mr. Chaput. "This is a factor that should not be ignored, considering that more and more people hold jobs of an intellectual nature," the researcher concluded.

Okay, so maybe I'm not an intellectual; but there's no doubt my brain is on a steep learning curve with the new job. I am inundated with various novel things to absorb. My body may be doing very little, but my brain is in Energizer Bunny Mode...and in its quest for ready energy, it's making me think I'm hungry. So, I've been stocking up on some 100-calorie packs of food and some fruit to have at work with me. Hopefully some small bites during the day will keep my mind going and my stomach quiet.

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Science Education News

04 September 2008

A couple of articles to share this week...

First of all, Dan over at the Principal Learner pointed out Stanford News' piece on how Using Everyday Language to Teach Science May Help Students Learn. Anyone who's taught science at any grade level knows that vocabulary can be a major barrier to conceptual learning---even in constructivist situations. The study reviewed here approaches science vocabulary in a similar fashion to learning a new language. Simpler terms are used first until the concepts are understood and this serves as scaffolding for the scientific vocabulary. There are some definite limitations to this particular piece of research, as pointed out in the article, and I'm not wild about all of the word choices made...but then, I'm not so sure that a fifth grader really needs to understand photosynthesis, either. What I do like, however, is that this study focused on kids actually using terminology---not just memorizing it. I think that's a move in the right direction.

Dan might be interested in this recent Education Week article on how Principals Are Seen As Key in Science Instruction. I suppose the argument might be made that such leadership is essential for all content areas, but the authors assert that it is especially important in science.

Most teachers in the early grades are generalists who are expected to cover all subjects, including science, despite typically having had relatively little grounding in it. Even science teachers in the upper grades may be more comfortable in one science course, such as biology, than another, like physics. Struggling teachers may need help from colleagues to plan science lessons, and prodding to spend time on the subject. Principals can carve out the time for that planning. They can also do the necessary prodding.

Yet taking on that role requires principals to acknowledge that they need help with science content, and in developing ideas for teaching it to students, Ms. Rosen said.

“It’s important for the principal to make it clear to people that you’re not always right, and you don’t always have all the answers,” she said during a break from one of the academy’s sessions. Her goal, she said, is that she and her teachers “begin sharing, going in the same direction, learning as a group.”

The article focuses on The Academy for Leadership in Science Instruction, something I blogged here nearly three years ago. There is a similar academy here in Washington now, but it has not been in place long enough for any solid results to be seen.

What I think all of this will eventually mean is that starting with intermediate grade levels, science really should be taught by specialists. If good instruction in this area requires such a significant commitment to planning, content knowledge, materials, and concept development, is it fair to assume that any one teacher can give it the same level of attention as reading, writing, and 'rithematic?

That's all the science news fit to blog for now. Drop me a link if you see something I should have a look at.

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The New Catch-22: Science and Literacy

26 May 2008

It goes without saying, I'm sure, that I have a particular bias about including science as part of a well-rounded education. It is not enrichment. It should not be an add-on to the curriculum, or something taught as filler when the teacher finds some time. I also believe that science becomes even more important in high-poverty areas because it provides students with background experiences as the basis for literacy. It is the concrete which allows teachers to tie on abstract words and symbols. It forms the foundation for students to make personal connections and have something to write about.

An area school is more or less eliminating everything which is not reading or math from the school day. Student achievement is poor. A great number of kids are not reading at grade level by 3rd grade (after which time, they never ever catch up according to the research). It would seem to make sense that spending even more than the 120 minutes per day set aside now for reading might be necessary. We need a literate society. If students are going to be able to break the cycle of poverty their families are in, they need basic reading and numeracy skills in order to have more higher education and job options. I understand that children who can't read will struggle with everything else.

So, this is my 22 that I'm caught in at the moment. Experiences in science build literacy (vocabulary in traditional settings does not). But students have to have the basic skills in reading and writing in order to support other learning. Which is more important? Which should be first? Do we do nothing but basic literacy and numeracy skills through third grade...and then allow students the "reward" of science and social studies? Or do we engage kids in all sorts of learning experiences at the primary level and use those as opportunities for literacy? Would science specialists at the elementary level take some of the instructional pressure off of teachers? (There was a great article in the Washington Post about science coaches in area elementary schools.)

I've been asked to give some advice in this area, but I know it's a losing proposition for science. "More...more...more..." will be the literacy cry. "Make them practice reading all day, if necessary, because more instruction is the same as better instruction." I can't argue with the need for developing basic reading skills, but I might be able to toss out a few shots against the "More = Better" stance. If you have any thoughts or ammo about breaking out of this Catch-22 cycle, send them along.

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A-B-Cs for Me

03 May 2008


I just bought this set of "Nerdy Baby Cards" on Etsy. (click on image to enlarge) I was driven to it by seeing the same set of letter/sound cards in every room of the school...including the office. I totally get why they're there, but I have to say that these cards are more my style.

Etsy is a dangerous site. I've been able to resist the Molecular Muse, but just barely. I don't know if I will be able to resist the charms of The Builder's Studio for much longer.

I'll content myself with these letter cards for now. I'm going to have to find a very special place in my workspace (a corner of a classroom/storeroom) for these. As a trained secondary science teacher moving into an elementary school world, these should help ease the transition.

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The Evolution of Biology

02 May 2008

My hunch is that for most adults, memories of a high school biology class conjure up memories of major groups of living things and some dissections. Times have changed---mostly increasing the amount of molecular biology (proteins, DNA, genetics) and decreasing the emphasis on a survey of living things.

As I finish up the year with my students, I am discovering that this may be the first year in which I do not actually talk about living things in a holistic way. I don't think we're going to talk about plants, animals, fungi, and protists---and only have a cursory look at bacteria. Imagine biology without snips, snails, and puppy dog tails.

Part of the reason for this is simply the standards themselves. Believe it or not, phylogeny is not part of the science standards here in Washington. As I've focused this year on getting kids to meet the standards that we do have, there isn't going to be time for "extras." I've been reflecting on this, wondering if it's still biology without whole living things. I've decided that I'm okay with this. We're spending nearly all of the last quarter of the school year on human biology---and perhaps an understanding of body systems is more important in the long run than being able to tell the difference between three phyla of worms.

I've also been thinking about something I heard at WERA. The keynote speaker was Dean Fink and he was sharing some of his ideas around Leadership for Mortals. The part which really resonated with me was how we (educators) have confused standards with standardization. They are not the same thing. Although we expect all students to reach the standards, they do not all have to follow the same path to get there. Perhaps that is a good reminder for me, too. There can be many pathways to "biology." As our understanding of the field evolves on a daily basis, maybe the classroom needs to as well.

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Detour Down Memory Lane

28 April 2008

Back in the early days of accessing the internet from home (when AOL seemed like a great option), I belonged to a group of science teachers organized through LabNet. I wish I had a link to share, but in the intervening years (this was almost 15 years ago), the traces of our work seems to have disappeared. It was hosted by TERC, which is still an active entity. The databases, idea sharing, bulletin boards, and other vestiges are all gone.

This blurry photo is one of the last reminders of LabNet that I have:


I know it doesn't look like much. It represents The Pringles Challenge. The idea here is that my students were paired with those at another school across the country to exchange a single Pringles potato chip. The goal was to have it arrive at its destination in one piece while using the lightest smallest packaging possible. The whole thing was a blast. I can't say that my kids did a particularly stellar job with their ideas, but the internet had opened up a whole new world of possibility for me---and for my junior high charges in the wilds of New Mexico. (It's hard to realize that most of these kids will be turning 30 in the next year or so.)

LabNet may have become extinct, but it appears that The Pringles Challenge is alive and well. I can't wait to play again.

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Out of the Box Thinking

27 April 2008

Over the last several years, I've had the opportunity to see some really good elementary science lessons...and some truly awful ones. As I think about what made the difference, some of it is due to general instructional expertise, some is due to the orientation of the classroom (teacher vs. student centered), but a lot of it seems to be tied to content knowledge.

In elementary schools, science comes in a box. I feel like that is a dangerous symbol to implant in young minds, but that's another battle for another time. Teachers have a manual with step-by-step instructions (including what to say) and prepackaged materials. Science by convenience. Teacher pull out the items, read from the manual, kids fill in worksheets...and Voila! they've taught science.

This would all be well and good except for one thing: kids have questions. Kids want to know why and how. They have their own hypotheses (often misguided, but at least they're thinking) and ideas. Some teachers are very good about allowing kids to ask and predict. Others are terrified to leave the scripted lesson and have some real exploration.

The other issue I've seen that gets in the way of real learning is the quality of the "output" provided. By this, I mean the worksheets that come with the curriculum (specifically those which come with the FOSS kits---STC is a far superior program). There is little or no critical thinking required by students. The lessons are wasted opportunities to have kids capture the process that is science. Again, this is not necessarily the teacher's fault. S/He is using what is there---and has been assured that the materials have quality. But so many were developed before a standards-based era where more rigorous thinking was required. The experiments themselves are still strong---but the lesson structure is not.

It is overwhelming to think about the kind of out of the box thinking that would be necessary to better support student learning in science. Teachers don't have time (or knowledge/expertise) to revamp things...and I'm only one person. I think that if we can get teachers to ask better questions during and after science lessons---even if they themselves don't know the answers---we'll be a lot closer to student achievement.

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What Is a "Science Generation"?

17 April 2008

A recent summit at the American Museum of Natural History made the case for the support of a "science generation" as a national imperative. The idea was noble enough---how can science education be improved and what is needed to make change happen---but after reading the summary in Education Week, I'm not so sure that the discussion moved things in the right direction. Here's a summary of the major ideas that were proposed:

  • a laptop for every child
  • more college science scholarships, new programs to train science teachers, and more research funding
  • national standards for science
First of all, I'm not convinced that America is ever going to be able to compete with China and India in terms of the science, math, and technology workforce we develop. It has nothing to do with smarts, and everything to do with sheer numbers. This doesn't mean that science isn't an important area for children to engage and for citizens to develop an understanding of---but rather that should be the goal in and of itself.

Secondly, all of the ideas listed above will have absolutely no impact on student achievement in science unless classroom instruction changes. Just because every student has a laptop does not mean that teachers will give up their overhead projectors and whiteboards. Ditto for standards. They are the end, not the means. And all of the scholarship and professional development money in the world will make no difference if that doesn't make permanent changes to they way science in the classroom is currently presented.

I certainly support NSF funding (with significant increases), but if Congress and private business really want to make a difference at the public school classroom level, they need to provide money for strategies and practices that support student learning.

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Last Call for Nostalgia

23 March 2008

I'm sure that there must be some of you readers who remember one or more science related products Ma Bell used to have available for the classroom. Whether it was a film like Hemo the Magnificent or a kit exploring sound, Bell Laboratories were an integral part of American science classrooms.

Believe it or not, someone has a stash of the old kits. These kits were never distributed---they are "brand new," in a sense. They've been waiting for 40 years for you to want them.


The bad news is that the distributor is going out of business. Now is your last chance to own a bit of science education history---and perhaps use these tools to inspire a new generation of scientists. If you're interested in learning more about the kits, pricing, and ordering, visit the Bell System Memorial page.

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A Better Mousetrap

26 November 2007

Do you ever have one of those "Duh." moments? The ones that are slightly embarrassing to admit? I had one today...and yes, I'm revealing it here for all the world to read---because I want other biology teachers to benefit from my revelation.

There is a lab that I have often done with students. You take three different solutions (water; yeast and water; yeast, sugar, and water) and place them in test tubes. There is a rubber stopper with the glass tube and some rubber tubing that lead from each test tube into a smaller test tube containing bromthymol blue, an indicator for carbon dioxide. The experimental set-up is represented below:The idea is that you're able to look at evidence of cellular respiration because the assembly with the yeast, water, and sugar will turn the bromthymol blue yellow. It's great, except there are always some problems. It's darned hard to get all the tubes to stay connected and upright. If you have more than a couple of classes, you struggle to have enough materials. Keep in mind that the experiment runs overnight, so it isn't as if you can use the same things for each class. Meanwhile, the length of the experiment means that there is ample time for things to get knocked over or otherwise screwed up. The tubing isn't always clean and so results can also be iffy. More than once, I've played the role of the "carbon dioxide fairy," and used a straw to blow in some carbon dioxide before the students arrived.

So, it's that time again. I'm thinking about this lab, and while I want to use it...it's a lot of trouble and the issues with the design get in the way of The Big Idea. There has to be a better mousetrap, right?

At lunch, I mixed up some yeast, water, and honey. I put some in 2 test tubes along with bromthymol blue. I covered one and left the other uncovered (just in case the whole rubber stopper thing was important). In a third tube, I put bromthymol blue and then inserted a pipette that contained the yeast solution (in case separating the yeast from the indicator was important).

Wouldn't you know it? They all worked. And what's more, the two where the solutions were directly mixed only took 15 minutes to show results. The third tube took longer, but the indicator was yellow within 2 hours. No rubber tubing. No glass tubes. No rubber stoppers. No test tube racks overflowing and falling over with stuff.

I could have been doing this for years, saving myself a tremendous amount of headache and heartache...but no. The answer and materials were in front of me all along and I just didn't look for it. I am glad that I have now, and while I feel a bit foolish for not making this discovery before, I hope that others can learn from this.

Duh.

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Biology Gangstas

08 November 2007

Show the picture on the left to any biology teacher worth his/her salt, and it will be quickly identified. "Elodea!" they will exclaim in rapturous delight. It's an aquatic plant, prized for its cell structure and thin leaves. Underneath the microscope, there are lots of big beautiful chloroplasts which are easily visible. There is often evidence of "cytoplasmic streaming," meaning that the skeletal structure inside the cell is circulating the chloroplasts in an effort to maximize exposure for photosynthesis. It's a great plant for many an experiment in biology. The cells readily show reactions to changes in concentration of salts, sugars, and water.

The only problem is that in Washington, it's illegal to sell. That's right, in this state, it's a bit of a contraband organism. It's not native to our area and far too many aquarium hobbyists (and bad bio teachers) have dumped their extra bits and pieces in lakes...where the plant is taking over. It grows rapidly and is squeezing out native species.

But what's a good bio teacher to do when she needs her some Elodea? It's not illegal to possess the plant---just to sell it. She can't go to a pet store or biological supply company to buy some. She's gotta call the godfather who has a free Elodea hook-up for her. That's what.

In talking about an upcoming lab with students, I mentioned the plant and its dubious distinction in our state. Most of them made the unfortunate association with another sort of weed and assumed that this plant is also controlled because it shouldn't be smoked. Um, no. They were completely disappointed by the real deal on this plant and that there are no pharmaceutical effects; however, the mystique has remained. I had told them that I was getting together with my "supplier" soon and we would have some to play with in the lab.

I couldn't have asked for a better setup for today. In one of my classes, the hand off was made in full view of the students...and they were enthralled. Mind you, it was one of the football coaches who brought it in---this big baggie of green weedy stalks floating around in aquarium water. The kids' eyes got big as they watched the happy delivery. "Look!" I exclaimed, after he left. "We have Elodea for tomorrow's lab!" Personally, I was ecstatic to get some of this delightful teaching tool. For the kids, however, they're sure that they've just been privy to some biology. Gangsta style.

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You Never Can Tell

07 November 2007

Although the content of this post will contain no surprises for any veteran teacher, it may dishearten a few noobs out there. I was reminded today that you can't always tell which way a lesson will go. Over the last umpteen years, I've seen the most carefully crafted lessons go completely sideways...then kicked myself afterwards for spending so much time and energy in planning them. And there have been other lessons that I spent five minutes (or less!) on went over like gangbusters. (Does the word "gangbusters" show my age?) But there is another kind of lesson---one that you have a feeling is good, but think the kids will hate anyway. It's always a shock when they actually love it as much as you do.

If you're a non-teacher reading this---or a newbie teacher---you may wonder how random this seems. Shouldn't all lessons which are thoughtful be appreciated? Maybe in the Utopic classroom. In the real ones filled with real kids and daily changes in dynamics, outcomes are not always as predictable as a teacher might like.

I have long been a Problem Based Learning enthusiast. I like the idea of giving kids a decision-making role, a purpose for asking more questions and doing some investigations, and having them think about real world applications. Yes, I know that this is the ultimate goal of all learning, but let's face it---sometimes there is material that you just have to dig in and do. I gave one of my classes a problem about red tide today. This is not a particularly with it group, and they actually ate it up. When I walked into class this morning, I was feeling a bit down. I love this particular set-up and haven't done it for a few years. I wasn't looking forward to handing it over and having a bunch of teens tell me how much this sucked. But they liked it! Hey, Mikey!

Meanwhile, I was doing a lab with my bio kids. It's a really cool lab, in my opinion. I modeled off of this lab on using yeast to investigate how different factors affect cell membranes. We boil, we centrifuge, we use different bases to look at pH. The first and only time I did this lab prior to today, kids were ho-hum about things. But I pulled out this old chestnut for one more try, and what do you know? The kids thought it was the coolest lab ever.

I suppose that if everything was predictable about the classroom, it would be dull. Maybe I should be glad that most days, you never can tell what's going to make sparks fly.

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