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IMG_2501One of the highlights of my summer was watching my son Graham learn how to ride a bike. He’s only 3 years old- so I was blown away when he took off without training wheels on the 3rd day of riding. I’m pretty sure I didn’t ride a two-wheeler until I was like ten, and that was after many, many knee-skinning spills! How did Graham do it? His secret is using a balance bike and avoiding the pitfalls of “training wheel teaching”, which is a metaphor that I think will serve me well in my own classroom.

Last summer when we were shopping around for a tricycle for Graham, a friend recommended buying a balance bike instead (a bike with only two wheels, but no pedals). They claimed the balance bikes help kids to learn how to balance so well that their own child skipped training wheels and went right to a two-wheeler when they were older. I was intrigued, but a little skeptical: training wheels have been around since the early 1900s helping generation after generation learn how to ride a bike- was there really a better way? The more I looked into it though, the more excitement I found about the benefits of the new balance bike design, and so we bought it (literally and figuratively!). (more…)

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Another goal of mine with digital notebooks was to enable new forms of collaboration in my classroom. Because digital documents like GoogleDocs allow multiple people to access and edit the same document online at any time, it opens the door to new possibilities for both students and teachers:

1. Colaborating like scientists

Lab work in my classroom is almost always collaborative. Even before going digital my students would work in teams to plan and perform experiments, which encourages scientific communication and cooperation which are authentic science (and life) skills. Using digital science notebooks can take this collaboration a step further, because instead of individually recording in their own paper notebooks, with a digital notebook students can share the same document so that each of them can edit and view each others changes on their own screen. This is wonderful for typically collaborative tasks such as planning a procedure or collecting data. I’ll often have lab teams start with a collaborative document for an experiment so they each have the same document in front of them:

Saturation Puzzle doc

An added benefit of doing this type of group collaboration is that with a digital projector you can quickly turn it into whole class collaboration. Have a group that’s stuck? Display their document for the whole class on the projector and see if anyone has a solution. Have a group that’s doing stellar work? Share it with the whole class as an exemplar.

When it comes time for a more individual task (like writing a conclusion to an experiment) they can copy and paste the group work into their own document, and then finish on their own:

Saturation Puzzle individual

2. Researching as a team

Another collaborative task that is enhanced by technology is researching a subject as a team. This is similar to the classic jigsaw learning approach, except that all the students on a team are editing the same collaborative document. Depending on goal of the learning activity, you can either assign different students specific sub-topics to be responsible for and become an “expert” on them for their team, or you can let the team decide how to divide and conquer the research. Here’s an example of this from my 6th grade earth science unit:

collaborative research

I adapted this first learning activity from a fantastic inquiry-based lesson called Discovering Plate Boundaries developed at Rice University. The multi-part lesson engages students with real maps of relevant plate tectonic information (volcanology, seismology, geography, and geochronology) and challenges them to discover patterns at the boundaries of plates and then classify them. Each student on the team becomes an expert on one of the 4 maps, and then they use their combined understanding to classify all of the major plate boundaries in the world on a collaborative document (I still have them label the map on paper though- it’s just much more efficient for coloring!)

3. Giving feedback to peers

This is something I’ve only scratched the surface of this year, but with more modelling and practice I think it could be a game changer in the classroom. The power of peer feedback is particularly obvious with the Middle School students I work with, and digital notebooks make the process much easier and more flexible. Students can leave comments on each others documents in real-time, even while a student is still working on them. Multiple peers can comment simultaneously on a single document, and the commenting doesn’t need to be done in person- for example it could be assigned for homework. What’s more, students can reply directly to comments, opening up the door for a back-and-forth conversation. I haven’t done enough of this yet in my own classroom, but if you’re interested check out Oliver Quinlan’s post for more details on how to do it well. What I have done a lot of is teacher-student feedback using Google Docs comments, which works extremely well. If students are making edits to a piece of work, I suggest having them make any corrections in a different font color rather than deleting anything. This way students have a nice record of their learning in their notebook and better learn from their mistakes. Here’s an example:

feedback

4.What about plagiarism?

This was another one of my main concerns going digital last year: with most student work online, would the temptation for copy-and-paste plagiarism make it a problem I would have to constantly police? Yes and no. On the front end, for any digital work discussing plagiarism and making expectations clear to students is a must. We did this at the school level and I also reinforced it within my classes. Even so, instances of plagiarism popped up, but in my opinion no more than normally. Digital notebook may make plagiarism easier to do, but it also makes it easier for a teacher to identify. GoogleDocs shows the last editor of a document right in the Drive view and tracks all editors in the revision history. So if a student is editing a document they shouldn’t be (like doing someone else’s homework), it’s plain for the teacher to see. Checking for plagiarized work is easy too- if I’m ever suspicious on a research project I can just Google a sentence of a students work to see if it’s original or not. Same goes in Google Drive- you can search for text within documents, so seeing if a student is using someone else’s words is only a click away. So yes, digital notebooking does make plagiarism more of an issues, but it’s a issue that I think needs to be taught, and digital notbooking allows students to start practicing habits of a good digital citizen.

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photo[4]For some reason after a few years of blogging, my most popular post remains how to make a human sundial. Just last week I received an email from a PTA president in Texas who actually had a human sundial built at their elementary school and was looking for ideas on how it can be incorporated into their curriculum. Even though I don’t teach elementary school any more, building our human sundial (pictured above) was a blast and there’s some great teachable moments that it can provide. Here’s some ideas:

In Kindergarten we have a science unit about sun and shadows, and one of the learning goals is about how the length of shadows changes during the day. The sundial is a great focal point for this, as classes can visit it in the morning, at lunch, and again in the afternoon and observe the difference in the direction and length of the shadow. Depending on the grade, they could even measure the length of the shadow and compare it to the height of the sun in the sky at that time. It’s a clear way of understanding that the higher the sun is, the shorter the shadow, as well as the idea that the sun moves across the sky and the direction of the shadow changes. After observations, we’ve even done drawing assessments where students predict what the shadow would look like given a position of the sun. You could use an actual picture of your sundial for this, and students could then check their predictions the next day to see how accurately they predicted the length and direction of the shadow. Here’s the link to a hands-on science unit you can buy from Delta Science Education that gave me some of these ideas.
In 5th grade our students study the seasons, which is a good opportunity for students to learn about why you need to stand in different places on the sundial depending on the time of the year. It could even be a good opportunity for a long-term study: each day or once a week in the morning, have students observe the sundial at a particular time, noting the position of the sun (measurements could be made with a compass). Students will begin to see how the position of the sun fluctuates with the seasons, which leads to the idea that some seasons have more direct sunlight (and therefore more heat) than others. Another approach which I wish I could try would be to have no date stones on the sundial at all in the beginning of the year and explain to the 5th graders that you aren’t sure how the sundial works. Then you could give the students the job of “calibrating” the sundial, visiting it at the same time each day and marking where they need to stand to make the shadow point to the accurate time. After a few months they would begin to notice the analemma (the shape that represents the changing position of the sun, pictured below) and it’s this shape that allows you to know where to stand exactly to make the sundial work. Here’s a kid’s science site I found about someone who actually tried this with really neat results!

Image from Stanford Solar Center

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In my last post about reinventing science notebooks, I described my summer project to introduce digital versions of the traditional science notebook with my students next fall. Before I get into the nitty gritty techie side of how to do this, I’d like to state my goals for these digital science notebooks. Although I’m currently leaning toward a Google Apps/Google Sites combination for these digital notebooks, I’m not wedding to any technology in particular, and if anyone out there has a better idea for what tool could accomplish these goals, I’m all ears! So here goes:

#1: Help students stay organized, easily

Middle School students are notoriously bad at organization, so I’m looking for a solution that will make it easy for students keep assorted types of documents organized. Just like a 3-ring binder could have sections for homework, notes, lab work, project research, I want their digital notebooks to keep things orderly, well labeled, and chronological. Unlike a 3-ring binder I don’t want students to waste a lot of time hole-punching, sorting, and still ultimately misplacing their documents!

#2: Share students’ learning like a portfolio

We do student led conferences at my school, and it’s a powerful experience for students to share their learning and reflect about their learning with their parents. The past few years we’ve had students set up an “e-Portfolio” using a GoogleSite, so they can put all of their evidence and reflections in one place, but this is a time-consuming task. As long as it is set up in an attractive, reflective way, a digital notebook could double as an e-portfolio.

#3: Enable and encourage collaborative learning

Most science classrooms are naturally collaborative, but the collaboration doesn’t need to end at the lab table. Tools such as Google Docs make it easy for students to share work and ideas with others, as well as comment and build on each others ideas. A good digital notebook should allow for different types of collaboration (peer, small group, whole class) as well as allow for some documents to be private when collaboration isn’t appropriate.

#4: Connect students with learning resources

This is something that can really set digital notebooks apart from their papery counterparts: the ability to link up students with learning resources that can help them either review or extend their learning. Imagine a student finishes up a lab on the properties of solids and liquids, but they’ve still got some questions the lab activity didn’t answer. A digital notebook could allow the teacher to provide links to different online resources for the student to explore further. There could be links to similar content for the struggling student to review as well as links to new material to challenge those students that are ready to move on.

#5: Give students more feedback about their learning

This last goal might be the most challenging but also the most important. With traditional science notebooks the teacher could periodically collect the notebooks and write feedback to students, but we teachers know  how time-consuming that is. I began this past year with a goal of giving more formative assessment-type feedback to my students, but it became challenging to keep up with the pace. The more immediate feedback is, the greater the impact it will have on student learning, so a good digital notebook could help provide additional opportunities for learning feedback, as well a keeping a record of their progress. I’m imagining a kind of “learning dashboard” for each student that would keep track of all their learning progress from many types of feedback: graded teacher feedback, practice quizes results, self-reflections. I’m not the first person to think of this (Kahn Academy has a “gameified” learning dashboard, and my school is currently creating one a school-wide one), but I’ve yet to see something that takes advantage of teacher’s online gradebooks and feedback and create a student-friendly summary of their learning progress.

So there you have it. I know it’s an ambitious list, but I think there is a ton of potential in education technology tools that are currently being way under-utilized. Hopefully with the help of like-minded teachers out there, we can move science notebooking into the 21st century where it belongs! 🙂

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One staple of traditional science education is the scientific notebook: the classic composition notebook filled with kitchen chemistry experiments gone awry, detailed sketches of leaves, and dozens of exciting scientific discoveries written in childhood chicken scratch.

Surprisingly, after 8 years of teaching elementary science and 1 year of middle school science, I’ve never made traditional science notebooks with my students. I’ve always been wary of the potential for notebooks to value product over process, as a few of my own science teachers did: Did you carefully copy the procedure down as I told you? If you did, A+!

Instead I want my students to use their valuable time to think like scientists, not just go through the motions of doing something that appears to be science. So I’ve always opted to create my own worksheets that scaffold activities to save students time on less valuable tasks (copying down a procedure) so they can spend more time on the real learning. In my experience worksheets work very well in the moment, but they lack the portfolio quality of a traditional scientific notebook. Yes, I know you can try to have students keep sheets organized in a folder or a binder, or even try binding them up like books- and some of my colleagues have students paste sheets right into their traditional notebooks- but all of these methods take a lot of effort and class time to be successful. There’s got to be a better way!

Digital science notebooks to the rescue! Making an digital version of traditional science notebooks is an idea I’ve been kicking around for a long time. At first it seems pretty obvious: computerized communication has all but replaced pen and pencil in so many aspects of our daily lives, and there’s no sign of that slowing down. It stands to reason that our current students will be living in a paperless society by the time they are adults- so why can’t science notebooks join this wave of the future?

This is why I was more than a little surprised to find out how few teachers out there in the blogosphere (and scientists too for that matter!) have embraced a digital version of the composition classic. Googling around I could only find one teacher/blogger who has much to say on the subject: Greg Benedis-Grab, and unfortunately his blog on the subject seems to have been taken down (though it’s still cached here). Greg used the Google Apps suite with his students to do nearly all pen and paper tasks (including drawing!) in an online format, and students used a Google Site as their “notebook”. For more info on Greg’s digital science notebooks, check out his webinar video.

What about real scientists? Surely they have embraced modern technology, right? Again, I was surprised to find out in this article from Nature that scientists are only beginning to move away from paper notebooks even though the “electronic lab notebook” has been technologically feasible for more than a decade. However, it does seem pretty clear that many scientists are making the switch to digital notebooks- all the more reason for our students to do it too.

How do teachers make the switch to digital science notebooks? I’m not sure- but it’s my goal this summer to figure out a way, and then pilot the digital science notebooks with my 6th graders in the fall. So if any of you teachers out there are currently using some form of a digital science notebook- I’d love to hear from you! Currently I’m leaning towards a Google Apps/Sites solution since my students are already familiar with these and my school will be using Hapara next year which should make my life easier… but there are still lots of issues (both technical and pedagogical) to figure out. I will continue to blog on my thoughts and progress over the summer, and I welcome you to join in the discussion!

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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.

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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).

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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!

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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.)

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After splurging on Christmas gifts for the family, I was in a thrifty mood when surfing Amazon to find some new reading material for the break. So I checked out the free options in the Kindle store for science education books. Unfortunately there’s not much out there besides a few textbooks and Ontario school manuals, but one gem I discovered was Science and Education by Thomas Henry Huxley. To save you the trouble of checking Wikipedia: Huxley was an English biologist in the 19th century and is known for being a fierce advocate of Darwin’s theory of evolution, earning him the nickname “Darwin’s Bulldog”. He also coined the term “agnostic” to describe his views on the existence of God, and thanks in part to his efforts science became part of the British school curriculum.

The book Science and Education is really a collection of orations and essays that he gave discussing the nature of the sciences, its relationship with culture and relation, and why science should be taught in schools. A lot of the speeches seem dated (there are some cringe-worthy lines about race and intelligence in particular), but two stand out: one entitled “On the educational value of the natural history sciences” (the full text is available here), and “Science education: notes of an after-dinner speech” (full text). In regards to science education they are both so spot-on they could have almost been written today. So what did a guy in 1854 have to say about science education before it was even introduced into the school system? Check out these quotes…

“Science is, I believe, nothing but trained and organised common sense, differing from the latter only as a veteran may differ from a raw recruit: and its methods differ from those of common sense only so far as the guardsman’s cut and thrust differ from the manner in which a savage wields his club….The man of science, in fact, simply uses with scrupulous exactness the methods which we all, habitually and at every moment, use carelessly”

Putting aside the “savage” metaphor, Huxley makes clear that the method of scientific thinking is nothing extraordinary, it employs the same critical thinking and logic people use on an everyday basis, it is only the discipline and training through repeated use that makes scientific thinking so effective. In other words- scientific thinking is innate to all of us and can be taught to anyone.

On the issue of whether young children can or should learn about about science:

“I doubt whether any toy would be so acceptable to young children as a vivarium of the same kind as, but of course on a smaller scale than, those admirable devices in the Zoological Gardens.”

As I have already said, a child seeks for information about matters of physical science as soon as it begins to talk.”

“And  if not snubbed and stunted by being told not to ask foolish questions, there is no limit to the intellectual craving of a young child; nor any bounds to the slow, but solid, accretion of knowledge and development of the thinking faculty in this way.”

As an elementary science educator, is always surprising that even today there are those who don’t understand the appropriateness of science education for young children. So many people forget how utterly instinctive a child’s curiosity and urge to investigate is. A science education that taps into these instincts and develops them into knowledge and skills is obviously appropriate (and necessary) at any level.

OK- so far so good Mr. Huxley, but what exactly should be taught? What do you 19th century guys know about standards and benchmark?

“I do not mean that every schoolboy should be taught everything in science. That would be a very absurd thing to conceive, and a very mischievous thing to attempt. What I mean is, that no boy nor girl should leave school without possessing a grasp of the general character of science, and without having been disciplined, more or less, in the methods of all sciences; so that, when turned into the world to make their own way, they shall be prepared to face scientific problems, not by knowing at once the conditions of every problem, or by being able at once to solve it; but by being familiar with the general current of scientific thought, and by being able to apply the methods of science in the proper way, when they have acquainted themselves with the conditions of the special problem.”

Touche. Huxley goes on to describe an ideal scientific curriculum that begins in elementary with studying the phenomena of Nature (kind of like combined Earth and Life sciences) to deal with questions of the observable world. Then as students writing, reading, and mathematics skills improves with age he advocates for “physical sciences” to be introduced, including experimental physics and fields of biology such as botany, with a dash of chemistry and human physiology. Not too shabby.

And what about pedagogy? Surely someone writing over 150 years ago had a very different perspective than our enlightened educational understanding today… right??

“If the great benefits of scientific training are sought, it is essential that such training should be real: that is to say, that the mind of the scholar should be brought into direct relation with fact, that he should not merely be told a thing, but made to see by the use of his own intellect and  ability that the thing is so and no otherwise.”

“But if scientific training is to yield its most eminent results, it must, I repeat, be made practical. That is to say, in explaining to a child the general phænomena of Nature, you must, as far as possible, give reality to your teaching by object-lessons; in teaching him botany, he must handle the plants and dissect the flowers for himself; in teaching him physics and chemistry, you must not be solicitous to fill him with information, but you must be careful that what he learns he knows of his own knowledge. Don’t be satisfied with telling him that a magnet attracts iron. Let him see that it does; let him feel the pull of the one upon the other for himself. And, especially, tell him that it is his duty to doubt until he is compelled, by the absolute authority of Nature, to believe that which is written in books.”

Thud! **Jaw hits the floor** This was the icing on the cake for me- Huxley, in 1869 mind you, is literally describing constructive learning theory and advocating for an inquiry-based approach to science education. And this is of course, before there even was such a thing as science education. It was even taught in schools yet, and Huxley himself was basically self-educated. Perhaps that’s why he could see the issue so clearly- his opinion was clouded by any educational traditions or assumptions. In fact the traditional education of the time consisted entirely of rote learning and memorization via books, so he was well aware of the limitations of this.

It’s clear that Huxley was a man ahead of his time, but also the fact that his words resonate so well today underscores just how self-evident this approach to science education is. Yes, we have a body of educational research today that confirms best-practices, and we’ve invented a whole language of educational jargon to go along with it, but if the best approach to science education was obvious to someone 150 years ago, then it should be pretty freakin’ clear to us by now! So the next time someone starts waxing on about today’s educational reforms in inquiry-based science, you just tell ’em about Darwin’s bulldog, who figured it out before science education even existed.

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