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Archive for June, 2012

Back in April, we hosted a Science Collaborative Workshop with 21 PreK-8 science teachers from 5 international schools. (Check out these previous posts if you’re interested in the planning process or my take-aways from organizing the event.)  Since we all use the same AERO science standards, one of our goals was to work together to create standards-based science units that could be used as exemplars for other international schools. We nearly accomplished that in the span of the 3-day workshop, but making these units accessible (and legible) on a website took over a month of continued collaboration remotely (and a little bit of arm twisting on my part!)

I’m happy to announce that these exemplar science units are now published and freely available on our website www.AERO-Science.org. The seven units are:

Please take a look and let me know what you think of our work! Each of the units was designed using the Understanding by Design approach and was a collaborative effort between teachers from different schools.

Next fall we will be holding a follow-up workshop at the NESA Fall Training Institute to continue and expand this collaborative project, so if you also teach at an AERO school, please join us!

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Nothing beats the learning potential of a field trip: piling onto a bus in anticipation, stepping out into an unfamiliar environment, the excitement of the experience cementing new learning in lasting memories. But what’s a teacher to do when there are no good options for a field trip? Some of us (especially in the Middle East!) aren’t lucky enough to be surrounded by educational museums or natural wonders, so we have to get a little creative… introducing the Virtual Field Trip.

Our Kindergartners have a unit Objects in the Sky where they learn about the Sun, the Moon, and the stars, and how they relate to our Earth. Though there’s plenty to observe and investigate with shadows, moon phases, and constellations, even these kind of experiences are indirect (heck- we even tell our students NOT to look at the Sun!). No matter how many photos, videos, or stories students look at, the Sun, the Moon, and the stars still remain really far away- both literally and mentally for students.

So why not take a field trip to the Moon? For young students a virtual field trip can be just as exciting and memorable as a real one, and it also fosters the kind of imagination that seems to be sorely lacking in today’s kids. A virtual field trip uses 1 part technology and 2 parts imagination to make it possible to visit inaccessible or even impossible places with your students.

Even though it’s virtual, a virtual field trip starts with the same kind of planning as a real field trip. First you send home permission slips (here’s a permission slip our Kindergarten teachers made for our trip) to make your field trip more “official” and to get families involved in the imaginary adventure. To help share teaching resources we created a virtual field trip website so all our Kindergarten teachers could easily access video clips, handouts, and activity instructions for the trip. We even had our students get ready for the journey by creating their own space helmets. Here they are seriously awaiting their turn to board the rocket ship:

When the big day arrives, you still “take a trip” by travelling to your destination with the help of props and technology. For “international” destinations this means giving students a paper passport to get stamped, a boarding pass to help them find the right seat in the classroom rows of airplane seats, and then watching a video clip of  airplane takeoff. For our extra-terrestrial destination, our science lab carpet was transformed into our rocketship, the lights were turned off, and we watched  this simulated Apollo mission to help us lift-off. It was a blast!

Once we arrived at the Moon, we did a variety of activities to let students experience what the Moon is like:

Searching for “Moon rocks”: Actually samples of basalt buried in the hot sand of our playground, which is not a bad approximation of the sunny side of the Moon this time of year! After discovering their moon rocks, the students observed and drew them for display in a museum when they returned to Earth.

Creating a Moon surface: To experience the surface of the Moon, students got to feel a sample of lunar soil (made with kitty litter! For more info, check out this Moon crater resource by NASA). Then students made a lunar surface of their own out of white clay or moon dust (flour).

Experimenting with craters: With their Moon surfaces ready for action, students simulated meteorites by dropping marbles down on them from different distances. The highest drops made some pretty realistic pock marks with ejecta and all!

At the end of the trip, don’t forget to come home! We re-boarded our space ship and headed back to Earth along with the end of this clip. After splashing down into the ocean, our students had a chance to reflect on their adventures by drawing and writing a story about their trip that they can share with their families.

Done separately these activities would be just that- activities, but when done together as part of an imaginary journey the students readily make connections between the models and their ideas of what the Moon is like. That’s the power of a virtual field trip- it engages students’ imaginations to help them look past the literal and make abstract models come alive.  So next time you dream about a cool field trip that would be impossible to take- make it happen virtually!

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When I first arrived at my school 4 years ago, outside the new elementary science lab was a large sandpit surrounded by a fence. In the middle of that sandpit was an empty swimming pool.

My initial reaction was WTF? Then it was explained to me that when the school recently expanded the intent was to build an outdoor pond area. Unfortunately this desire wasn’t communicated clearly to the construction company, who interpreted “pond” to mean “pool” (such is life in Qatar). So we ended up with a swimming pool in a sand pit…. grrrrreat.

Thus began my 4-year quest to transform this wasteland into something of educational value. Since our school is located in the often-sweltering desert city of Doha, students don’t have much of an opportunity to explore the outdoors. They don’t have the same connection with nature that I was fortunate to have growing up in the woods of Connecticut- which is a problem if we expect our students to care about the environment or life sciences in general. (For a great read on this subject of “nature-deficient” kids, check out Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv) So my vision was to create an outdoor classroom, or as a wrote in the grant proposal:

To create a naturalistic outdoor learning space where students can be inspired to learn about the natural world even in the confines of our urban surroundings.  Upon entering the outdoor classroom through a vine-covered gate, students will be immersed in a lush, active ecosystem, surrounded by a diversity of plants and animals: butterflies pollinating flowering bushes, birds nesting in trees, and fish thriving in the pond. Opportunities for learning in this natural setting will be diverse as well, from learning about life cycles by growing vegetables in the planter beds, to collecting weather data using meteorological tools at the weather station, to understanding the relationship between sun and shadows on the sundial patio. 

It’s taken 4 years with several setbacks along the way (unsuccessful applications for funding, multiple contractors with conflicting visions, and many different designs and revisions), but I’m happy to report that it has been well worth the effort. This year our outdoor classroom has finally taken shape, and  it is a swimming pool sandpit no more! 🙂

Here are some of the features of our new learning space:

Koi pond and waterfall: Not only is this the atmospheric centerpiece for the area, it’s also a wonderful tool for the 4th grade to learn about a real live ecosystem. Producers, consumers, and decomposers are all present in the pond to observe and learn about how they interact. The wooden dock enables us to easily (and safely) collect water samples for closer study.


Human sundial:  Kindergarten and 5th grade students both learn about objects in the sky, and a human sundial is a great way to observe how the Earth and Sun interact. Kindergarteners can observe how their shadow changes length and direction over the course of the day, and 5th graders can puzzle about why you need to stand in certain spots at different times of the year to make the sundial work correctly. For more on how to make a human sundial, read my previous post.


Tortoise habitat: How does Eddie the tortoise survive in the desert? 1st graders compare the form and function of desert tortoises with the turtles we have swimming in our lab aquariums.  3rd graders study the adaptations of desert animals to figure how Eddie beats the heat (hint: he’s currently hibernating under the sand!).


Weather tree: Even though the weather in Qatar is almost always sunny, our 2nd and 4th graders learn there’s more to the weather than that! Our weather tree is equipped with digital thermometers to keep track of temperatures over the course of the year, a psychrometer to measure the (often terrible) humidity, a barometer to track air pressure, and an anemometer to gauge the speed of the wind. Oh yes, there’s a rain gauge too- but in case you’re wondering, it’s empty.


Gardening beds: As long as you avoid the summer months, Qatar with all its sun is a great place for a garden. 2nd graders can grow beans to observe how they grow and change throughout their life cycle, and 3rd graders can experiment with different types of plants to see which are best adapted to the desert climate.


Renewable energy investigations: How can we harness the renewable power of the sun, wind, and water? 5th graders learn about energy sources by designing solar ovens, and then testing their efficiency at heating up a cup of water. For next year we’ve also ordered some K’Nex renewable energy kits, so we can experiment with the design of wind turbines, water turbines, and solar cells.


But wait- that’s not all! Besides scientific pursuits, the outdoor classroom is also a great setting for art, writing, or any activity that benefits from a natural surrounding. With water and many flowering plants the area is a haven to local birds and insects, so there’s plenty of life buzzing about to inspire words or pictures.

I must admit I’m going to miss having this right outside my doorstep next year when I move up to the Middle School, but you’d better believe I’ll be bringing my students down here for visits!

Many thanks to Exxon Mobil for their generous grant to fund construction, Hussein Jameladin for transforming the swimming pool into Doha’s largest man-made waterfall (out of recycled playground structures!), Khaled Mansour and company for completing many of our unfinished projects, and the Doha Public Gardens for donating so many of our plants and trees.

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