Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘inquiry’ Category

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.

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

As a science teacher committed to inquiry-based learning, I was always wary of teaching excessive vocabulary to students. Scientific words without a strong connection to a real life experience lack meaning for students: sure they can “remember” them for a quiz, but this kind of knowledge is superficial and fleeting. Teaching scientific vocabulary seemed like a waste of time.

Then I learned about word inquiry. Learning the meaning of words doesn’t have to be done by rote memorization, because words have inherent meaning- their specific combination of letters come from somewhere. By breaking a word down into its pieces and learning the origin and meaning of each piece you can learn the meaning of words in an inquiry-based way. In fact, many forward-thinking schools are now taking this approach to learning spelling. Gone are the days of the memorized spelling lists (those never worked very well for me anyway!), now students investigate words by breaking them down with word matrices and studying the etymology of their pieces.

Does this sound a little time consuming? Perhaps, but keep in mind that instead of learning the definitions and spelling of words individually and in isolation, students learn the roots of words that will help them understand why words are spelled the way they are, and help them infer the meaning of new words they’ve never seen before. In my opinion, that’s time well spent! (If you’re interested in learning more, check out the websites for Real Spelling and Structured Word Inquiry)

Scientific vocabulary, with its linguistic origins rooted deeply in Latin and Greek, is perfect for this kind of word inquiry. So this year I’ve teamed up with Katrina, our talented elementary Language Arts coordinator, to create a video series we call Scientifically Speaking. (Before you get all Kahn-descending about  educational videos, please read my previous post on how videos can be used effectively.) The goal of Scientifically Speaking is to introduce the meaning of scientific words in an entertaining and memorable way, as a prelude or review to student-led word inquiry. In other words (no pun intended), the videos can be used by teachers to being a word study lesson that will investigate the meaning and spelling of other related words, or use them to review familiar words in a meaningful way.

Here’s a couple of the first Scientifically Speaking episodes we created for a 3rd grade unit on light:

For more Scientifically Speaking videos about ecosystems, life cycles, and the water cyclecheck out my Vimeo page. For more details about how to do a scientific word study, check out Pete Bower’s Scientifically Speaking page.

Read Full Post »

I know I’ve failed to blog much of anything the second half of this school year- but at least recently I’ve had a good excuse! Last weekend I organized a Science Collaborative Workshop at my school, which brought together 21 science teachers (elementary and middle school) from 5 international schools. For 3 days we shared ideas, exchanged resources, and collaborated on science units we had in common. It was an invigorating and intense experience, but when the dust settled we had collaboratively created seven standards-based units that we will be able use ourselves and share with other international schools on our website (still under construction, but you can check out the Electricity unit for a preview of what’s to come). 

I blogged about the preparations back in December, mostly to think out-loud about my ideas for the workshop. Now that the workshop has come and gone (and I have my life back!) I’d like to share a few of my reflections on organizing a professional development experience for my fellow teachers:

If you build it, they will come

Not only is this true for magical baseball fields, it’s also true for teacher collaboration. Too often in education we teachers toil alone behind closed doors, when a conversation with a colleague would make all the difference. But collaborating can be challenging- you need to find the time to do it, you need to find the right person with something to offer, and it needs to be mutually beneficial to make the collaboration last. For our workshop we gathered teachers from 5 select schools where we knew they were experienced with aligning to the AERO science standards and also shared a similar philosophy for designing units with backwards design. So we all shared a common language about teaching and unit planning, and everyone had something to offer. We also put teachers in teams where they all taught similar grades and had a unit in common that they could work on together. So everyone was invested in the work because it was something they could actually use with their own students. Just getting this right group of people together in the same room was probably the most significant factor for the workshop’s success- with the right playing field set up the game happens naturally.

Throw away your ice breakers

One of my main goals for the workshop was to build collaborative relationships between teachers and schools, in other words I wanted to make sure people hit it off with teachers from other schools. So why not start off the workshop with a couple “ice breaker” activities? Because ice breakers have always annoyed me- I don’t know why exactly- but something about their contrived content and obvious purpose always makes me want to rebel and complete the silly activity without actually getting to know anyone. Can you tell I’m an introvert?? 🙂 However, I knew I couldn’t expect teams to dive into curriculum design work comfortably with complete strangers, so the compromise we came up with was science conversation starters. These were based on one of the best PD experiences I’ve ever had: the Summer Science Workshop at Dana Hall. The entire week of that workshop basically consisted of teachers engaging in hands-on inquiry activities with other teachers, and then reflecting on how the activities could be used with students. It was incredibly fun and thought-provoking, and the experience seeing through the eyes of a student and working side-by-side with my peers made a huge impression on me. (Side note- their brochure still has a picture of me in it, so maybe I made an impression on them too!) So each time we began work with a new group of teachers, we had them first do a short hands-on activity for about 30 minutes with minimal instructions: build a sail car powered by a fan from recycled materials, figure out how much water a carrot is made of, investigate whether ice melts faster in tap water or salt water. These activities sparked discussion, demanded creative thinking, and were just plain fun. By the end of the 30 minutes the mood was lively and the ice was broken- but best of all we were doing and thinking about science the whole time.

Sustainability is not just for the Earth

How many times have you gone to a great presentation at a conference, filled up pages of notes with new ideas that you’re excited about trying with your students, and then promptly forgotten them all when Real Life runs you over like a truck when you get home? It happens all the time for me- if I don’t have a concrete plan or reason for using something immediately, it usually gets buried in the pile of good intentions. To avoid this fate for our collaborative workshop, we made sustaining collaboration one of our key goals and spent time during the workshop brainstorming and discussing ways to keep it going. Wheels are already in motion planning a second collaborative workshop for next fall, and each unit team is continuing to work together remotely to finish and publish their units online. Of course it remains to be seen how successful we are at this, but having a sustainability plan of action gives us a fighting chance.

Read Full Post »

I’m moving on up to teach Middle School next year, so this will be my last 5th grade science fair for the foreseeable future. After 8 years of overseeing these fairs, I’ve generated a ton of schedules, forms, letters, worksheets- all the structural stuff that I’m going to be passing on to my replacement next year. Unfortunately, no matter how much I want this transition to go smoothly- I realized today that the most important element of the entire fair can’t be forwarded in an email or printed out in a binder: it’s the careful coaching that I do with students in short face-to-face meetings over the course of the science fair preparations.

Thinking about it now, I probably should have recorded some of these conversations, because it would be much more interesting and informative than just sharing my recollections and impressions- but that will have to be another project for another time! To give you an idea of what this kind of science fair coaching looks like, here’s a recreation of a typical conversation that I had with a team of students who were investigating how different liquids affected the amount of rust that forms on steel:

  • Teacher: So what are you going to measure to compare the amount of rust?
  • Students: How long the rust is.
  • T: What tool are you going to use to do that?
  • S: A ruler. With centimeters.
  • T: OK- so let’s say your blob of rust looks like this (I draw a blobby shape on a piece of paper). How would you measure that?
  • S: Like how long it is. From here to here (pointing at two ends of the rust).
  • T: Why not here to here? (pointing at different ends of the rust). You see how this is going to be tricky? What if the rust looks like this (draw another blobby shape, smaller but longer)? Which blob of rust is bigger?
  • S: This one. (pointing at the first blob)
  • T: But the second one is longer, right? So what else could you measure?
  • S: We could do how long and how tall maybe. 
  • T: Length and height… so you would be figuring out area then instead, right? So instead of just measuring centimeters, you would be measuring square centimeters, like this (draw a square centimeter). But are your blobs of rust going to be perfect squares?
  • S: No, but we could estimate it. 
  • M: OK, that’s a good idea, you could try to figure out how many square centimeters each blob of rust. So how would you figure out this blob (pointing at the first blob on the paper)?
  • S: Like this (starts drawing square centimeters inside the blob), and count how many fit inside.
  • M: Good thinking, but won’t that take a long time? Instead of drawing square centimeters yourself, is there a way you could use something with the squares centimeters already drawn on them? Like a piece of graph paper? How could you use that to make your measurements easier?
  • S: (after some thought) We could trace the rust on the paper- and then just count them up! …But what about if only part of a square is full? 
  • M: Hmmm…. what do you think you should do? 
  • S: What if we only count the ones that are mostly full.
  • M: That sounds like a good rule for estimating. I think you have a good plan now, why don’t you try it out and see how if it works?

And now for some “post-game analysis”- here’s what I think makes these kind of coaching conversations work so well:

  • Leading from behind: The most difficult thing for me to learn as a science fair coach was how to lead a team of students without…  err… leading. It’s a tricky tension: we want our students to be active learners and experience inquiry-based learning, but our students don’t have the skills or understanding to go the distance independently. So yes, the teacher still has to take the lead to guide students through the process, but it’s a subtle kind of leading puts the students out in front so they have a feeling of ownership and an opportunity to make decisions (and mistakes). In the example above, obviously the students are going to run into problems trying to measure the length of several irregular shapes, and there’s no point in having them waste hours of time doing that to “teach them a lesson” (if students spend hours collecting data, they will cling to it for dear life no matter how “bad” you may explain it is later!). Instead I have them think it through beforehand and come up with a better solution. Notice that I’m while I’m driving the conversation towards this solution the entire time, it’s the students that are actually making the decisions. The best analogy I can come up with is driver’s ed: the students are at the wheel, but all the while the teacher is there to keep students focused on what’s important, and if necessary you have the ability to slam on the brakes.
  • Just right and just-in-time: My science fair coaching style is not a constant peppering of students with questions and suggestions- if you coach that way students will tune you out as faster than a nagging parent! Instead I pick 3 critical points to have these face-to-face conversations: when students have brainstormed their experimental questions, when students have written a rough draft of their procedure, and when they have collected their data (before analyzing it). That’s it. In between these points there’s plenty of modeling with exemplar science fair reports and example experiments in class, but the actual science fair work along the way is done without anyone looking over their shoulder. This way students truly do have ownership of their experiment, and have the opportunity to make plenty of mistakes! For example, the rough draft procedures are almost universally terrible when we meet- but that’s OK. As a teacher I can hone in on the most important issues to address, and lead from behind to guide student’s learning to improve their procedure before they start experimenting.
  • Student-centered learning should be… STUDENT centered: The last important aspect of successful coaching is more of a philosophy than a strategy. As science teachers we can’t help but have an idea in our mind of what a perfect science fair experiment looks like… the kind that impresses the judges, wins the Google Science Fair and gets our name in the paper. Part of us would love to stroll through our science fair and see table after table of these perfect clones- wouldn’t that be a successful science fair? Maybe in a teacher’s eyes, but of course our real goal is student learning, and that will only be successful if that students actually have a chance to learn! In my mind the most successful science fair experiments are the ones that inspired the most learning and sparked the most interest in scientific inquiry. These may not be the ones with the most polished poster or the most “scientific” topic. In fact often these will be the experiments where the students ran into the most problems with their procedure or data. At the end of the day though, with careful coaching these students will have learned far more than by following someone else’s directions on ScienceFairProjects.com, and they will be able to demonstrate that learning by explaining the problems they overcame (and the ones they could not).

Read Full Post »

Today I finished meeting with my last science fair team of students, and I’ve gotta say that I’m pumped about their ideas for experiments this year! It’s definitely the most creative and interesting bunch of experimental questions I’ve ever seen from 5th grade students. But it wasn’t always this way… after running a 5th grade science fair for the past 8 years, my ideas of how to guide students through this challenging endeavor have evolved quite a bit. Nowhere has this evolution been more apparent to me than this first critical phase of the science fair: choosing what to do for an experiment.

For one, I don’t use the word “project” with my students… ever. Any science fair “project” worth its salt is an experiment, and the word “project” makes it sound like anything will do as long as it takes a lot of time and effort… Build a realistic baking soda volcano? Create a scale model toothpick Eiffel Tower? Not in my science fair! I want to make clear from the get-go that these projects won’t do, that our science fair is about doing an experiment.

Even with this clarification, choosing what to do seems like such a basic step, and yet there are many pitfalls to watch out for that can undermine the whole shebang if you’re not careful:

  • Killing creativity: There’s a plethora of resources out there on the web and in print aimed to help students choose a science fair “project”. I know I’ve been tempted in the past by Science BuddiesTopic Selection Wizard… “Answer a short survey and the Topic Selection Wizard will find you the perfect project!” What could go wrong?? Actually a lot. As soon as students start looking at lists of pre-made experiments their brains kill the creative juices of curiosity and instead begin an analytical process of finding the “perfect project”. If students are confronted by some confusing vocabulary they are unfamiliar with (bacteria? refraction? air resistance?), they simply ignore that experiment and look for another. This process of elimination and path of least resistance will naturally drive most students to the same boring and undeveloped ideas that all science teachers will recognize: how do different drinks affect the growth of plants, etc, etc.
  • Ending inquiry: As I wrote about in my last post, one of the saving graces of the science fair is the opportunity for students to engage in more open and less structured inquiry learning. Even the first time I ran a science fair I know I stressed how important it was to have students choose an experiment that was interesting to them. But I kept ending up with student’s doing experiments that sounded like they would be more interesting to their parents. How did this happen? For one, 5th grade students don’t really know enough about the different fields of science out there to know what interests they might have. Maybe they’re interested in sports or music or video games, but they can’t connect these interests to science, so they get frustrated and just cave in to the advice of their “helpful” parent. Students’ views of science (and their parents’ views) are usually extremely narrow, so the chance for true inquiry often gets shut down because of this disconnect between their interests and what they view as an “acceptable” science experiment.
  • Dead-ending development: Even if you can get students past the lame lists of pre-made projects and the pressure of their parents, 5th grade students can’t be expected to come up with a developed idea for a scientific experiment if they lack the background knowledge about the topic. And they almost always lack the background knowledge! I was talking to a group today that wanted to do an experiment with water evaporation, but they didn’t actually know much more about evaporation than “the water goes up to make clouds”. How can I expect them to choose an interesting manipulated variable for their experiment, if they don’t know the basics of what makes evaporation happen in the first place? If I don’t give them enough time to figure this out and develop their idea, what happens is they’ll cling to the first idea they can think of, no matter how simple or doomed for failure. Rushing this phase of a science fair will stunt the growth of students’ learning big time.

So after having plenty of first-hand experience learning what not to do, here’s some solutions that I’ve come up with to avoid these problems:

  • Brainstorm in baby steps: To begin our fair, students do a science interest survey to find out what fields of science appeal to them. In a lot of cases they may have never even heard of some of these areas of science, or realized that science was deeply connected to sports, engineering, and health. The survey helps students connect things they like to do with scientific fields or topics of study. Only then do students begin brainstorming experiments.
  • Scaffold student choice: Students are then tasked with brainstorming experimental questions, not just a vague “project”. All of their experimental questions must be phrased in the form: “Does ______ affect ______?”. This simple scaffold is awkward at first, but with practice it makes sense to students and it ensure that all of their questions will be experimental in nature. It also forces unconscious thinking about their manipulated and responding variables. Even if they don’t know what a variable is, their questions in this form will naturally include their variables “Does (manipulated variable) affect (responding variable)?”
  • Coaching is key: Just because I’m wary of parent involvement at this point, doesn’t man I think this is a laissez-faire phase. In fact, I would say that my learning how to better coach students to develop their experiment ideas is the single greatest factor that has improved the science fairs I’ve done over the years (although I have no data to back this up!). Using the experimental question scaffold above, it’s very easy to take questions in this format and improve them, simply by challenging students do think of other possibilities for the first blank (the manipulated variable) or to get more specific about the second blank (the responding variable). Even the famous “different drinks on plants” can be coached into scientific legitimacy with this string of probing questions: Why do you think different drinks will affect plants? These drinks have lots of different ingredients, so which ones are the ingredients that you think will affect them? Do you know that gardeners use fertilizers with certain ingredients to help plant growth too? What ingredients do these fertilizers have? What about investigating some of these ingredients in drinks and fertilizers to see which help a plant grow the most? You get the idea!
  • Take your time: Very often my students will lack the background knowledge to choose an interesting manipulated variable that will yield understandable results… and that’s OK. I let them leave that part of the question blank, or keep it as a list of the possible manipulated variables they’ve brainstormed. The next phase of the science fair is researching their topic, so I give them some pointed research questions (there’s that coaching again!) that will enable them to help figure out a manipulated variable. By giving the students the opportunity to “let it ride” and learn more about their topic, you open the doors to many kinds of experiments that students might run from if pressured to craft a perfect question too early. This year I’ve got groups of students investigating refraction, car lubricants, memory, earthquake building design, weed killers… they know basically nothing about these topics right now, but they are interested as heck in them! So their questions just look like this for a while: “Does ______ affect how well a person can remember numbers?” “Does _____ affect how much light bends?” “Does _____ affect how well a building survives an earthquake?” Once they’ve done a little research they’ll be able to fill in the blank themselves, and they’ll end up with a much richer experiment in the long run.

Next week the students will dive into the research, and I’m looking forward to seeing how their thinking and questions develop. Then of course it’s off to the next big thing: designing their experiment and writing a procedure… so stay tuned!

Read Full Post »

The discussion about educational value from my previous post has me thinking like a teacher-economist lately, analyzing the cost benefit of all the kinds of choices teachers have to make every day. One of the most important choices we make is what to include (and exclude) in the curriculum (although the amount of choice teachers have in this matter varies greatly depending on the school system!). Since today I held a kick-off event for our 5th grade science fair, I’d like to put that classic bastion of science education on the chopping block, and explain why, for all its flaws, I think it should be saved.

“Science fair” conjures up many familiar images: tri-fold posters, plants grown in different kinds of light, judges peering over clipboards, and anxious students (and parents) milling about a gymnasium. Science fairs have been around for ages (according to a science fair poster manufacturer, since 1921!) and in a lot of schools I bet today’s students’ science fairs look strikingly similar to their parents’ science fairs (except with fewer experiments about nuclear radiation). In other words, the traditional science fair has become too… traditional, and as teachers we know we shouldn’t just keep on doing something because that’s the way we did it last year. What’s wrong with the good ‘ole science fair? Here are a few of the faults the pose the most trouble:

  • Conflict with the standards-based shift: Since students in a traditional science fair have the choice to pursue all different kinds of experiments, doing the science fair as a unit doesn’t check off any content from your standards. And in our age of bloated science standards, we barely have enough time as it is to “cover” everything, so how can time be wasted on something devoid of content?
  • Competition gets ugly : The student’s main goal in the classic science fair is to win, and often there’s a big deal made of the winners: ribbons, trophies, going on to regionals, etc. With that kind of competition, the pressure to succeed is high, causing stress for students and causing some parents to become  way too involved in their “child’s” project.
  • Same experiments every year: I’m willing to bet money that if I went back in time and attended a 1950’s science fair the experiments would be nearly identical to the experiments kids come up with today. Why so uncreative? Because conducting original research is hard for students who have been told what to do year after year. So they turn to books and websites for guidance and end up shopping around for something to do from the same tired list of experiments.

With these flaws, why bother doing a science fair at all? Does a science fair have enough education value to justify the large amount of time teachers and students must invest in it? I think it does, and here’s why:

  • Open-ended inquiry opportunity: You can’t pick up a current book on science education without being bombarded with the word “inquiry”. And yet, for all the talk about inquiry, from what I can tell, the amount of actual inquiry taking place in science classrooms today is pretty small. When inquiry does occur in the classroom, it’s almost always on the “guided” or “structure” end of the spectrum. Truly open-ended inquiry is a scary prospect for most teachers- because God knows what the students will do! How will I plan my lessons every day? What does a lesson even look like with open-ended inquiry? This is one of the saving graces of the science fair: in their ideal form, science fairs are meant to be open-ended, a chance for students to decide to investigate something that they are curious about, and figure out how to do it. Of cours it takes work to avoid the temptations of http://www.LameScienceFairProjects.com, but with the right amount of support and emphasis on creativity, student can come up with something better than moldy bread. As long as the teacher makes sure to stay true to the ideal of student choice and originality, science fairs can be the perfect piece of open-ended inquiry that’s missing from so many current curricula.
  • Scientific skills, the long lost standard: If your science standards document is like mine used to be, you will find at the end of it something like a “scientific inquiry skills” standard, along with a few generalities about drawing conclusions and thinking critically. One unfortunate side-effect of the standards-based movement was a hyper focus on content knowledge, to the detriment of skills. As I discussed earlier, scientific skills are in some ways more important than factual content. When my students are 40 they may not remember that carbon dioxide insulates the earth by trapping radiated heat, but if they can weigh the evidence presented in a scientific piece of journalism and draw a reasonable conclusion, I’m a happy teacher. This is another plus for science fairs, they offer teachers and students a chance to focus on these often-ignored skills. Even if everyone in your class is experimenting with different content, the scientific skills will be the same. So a science fair allows us the freedom to actually put content aside for the moment and emphasize skills.
  • Collaboration, not competition: Science fairs don’t have to become an ugly my-kid-is-smarter-than-yours fest. There are many ways to save the science fair from this terrible fate by emphasizing collaboration instead of competition. Have students work in teams instead of on their own. Have teams create a website for their project, so others can collaborate virtually like high school student mentors, or even students from another school. If you do things like this, your student’s experience will be a lot more like real scientific research, and they will learn more of the kinds of collaborative skills they will need in the future.

This post is hopefully the first of many as I navigate the waters of what will be now my 8th science fair as a teacher. Along the way I’ve learned a lot about the opportunities and pitfalls of doing a science fair, but I’m always eager to learn more. If you have experience with science fairs- bad or good, please join in the discussion, I’d love to hear from you!

Read Full Post »

This is not a joke. Today in the faculty room I discovered the secret to science teaching success. There on the front page of The International Educator’s monthly newspaper was an article celebrating a school presentation of a science show called Brainiac Live! In the presentation (which is based on a British television show) a guy who goes by the name Dr. Bunhead (not a joke either) lights his head on fire to inspire students about the wonders of science. So there you have it- being a great science teacher is simple. All you need to do is blow things up, create giant ballons, shoot lightning bolts out of your fingertips, but most importantly- light your head on fire!

I hope you notice a slight hint of sarcasm here. It actually seemed highly ironic that this newspaper which celebrates best practices in education would be highlighting something that I consider worst practice. Don’t get my drift? Read on…

Science shows like these are intended to get students excited about science, right? And there’s no question that they’re exciting- who doesn’t want to watch Dr. Bunhead nearly sear his scalp?? But what exactly are the students getting excited about? As teachers we would hope they’re getting excited about scientific ideas, scientific thinking, in short- excited about learning more science. But that’s not the case- instead students are only focused on the awesome scientific phenomenon in front of them (in this case Bunhead’s flaming head). They’re excited about the explosions, the noise, the surprising result, but not about the scientific explanation that usually comes afterwards.

Using a show like this to inspire your students in science is kind of like coaching your high school basketball team by showing them the NBA slam dunk contest. Are they going to be excited? Sure! Inspired? You bet- they can’t wait to start practice the next day and spend an hour on… dribbling drills. NOT! In fact it could be argued that this approach to coaching or teaching could even be detrimental- because kids will come to expect the flash-boom-bang and never develop an appreciation for the less obvious excitements that take place inside one’s own head (as opposed to in a fiery ball above it).

Example: Last week my 4th grade students were super pumped when they discovered by themselves how to create an electromagnet with a set of materials I gave them without further instruction. The fact that their simple electromagnets were so weak they could only lift up a few metal washers did not dampen their excitement one bit- because it wasn’t the phenomenon they were focused on, but the idea they had come up with. Imagine if instead I had started the lesson with a wow me demonstration of electromagnets- say lifting up a car with a giant electromagnetic crane and letting it  come crashing down when I turned it off, and then follow that up with some lecture or reading about electromagnets or even a hands-on activity building a smaller model of the one I demonstrated. What would students remember a week later? Of course they could all recall in detail how Mr. Mitchell totaled a car, but very few of them would remember much of anything about the scientific explanation afterwards, or the version they made that paled in comparison. They’d be stuck on the awesome phenomenon, and the idea behind it would be merely a forgotten afterthought.

For all you literalists out there, I’m not advocating that demonstrations be banished from current teaching practice, I just think we need to be more thoughtful about how we use them and what they will cause students to think about. We need to go beyond “whoa!” and get to “why?”. Going back to my actual 4th grade electromagnets lesson (which I should say was based on the great FOSS unit Electricity and Magnetism), I did actually start out with a demonstration: I showed students a video clip of magician Jean Robert-Houdin’s famous “Light and Heavy Chest trick“. In the trick, Houdin secretly used a hidden electromagnet to attract the small chest to the floor so that a burly audience member couldn’t pick it up, then he turned off the electromagnet so it could be picked up easily by a child. After showing the video I didn’t try to explain the trick (that would get me kicked out of the Alliance!), instead I had students think about it themselves. As a class they were able to figure out that some sort of special magnet must be involved that could turn on and off- viola- electromagnets. I then told them they could use their knowledge about circuits to try and turn a steel rivet into a magnet that could be turned on and off, gave them the materials, and let them have at it. Using a demonstration in this way, as a teaser to introduce a problem/question/challenge, is in my opinion much more effective. (The parallels with narrative are striking- you would never start a story with a resolved climax, so why would you start your lesson with the most interesting part first?)

So go ahead and enjoy Dr. Bunhead’s pyrotechnics, just don’t expect this approach to inspire the next generation of scientists, or expect it to work well in the classroom. Students (and adults) are already amazed by fiery explosions, and a bunch of wow me science demonstrations are going to result in excitement about more fiery explosions, but not kindle much learning. Our real challenge as teachers is to figure out how to get students amazed by their own observations, their own thinking, to spark that fire in their mind- not on their head.

(Short disclaimer: I have not seen Dr. Bunhead’s particular science show, but I have seen others which I believe are very similar. Perhaps while Dr. Bunhead’s head burns down he also engage his large student audience in hands-on inquiry-based activities that inspire scientific thought and discovery… but I doubt it.)

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »