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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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A few weeks ago I started playing with video assessments as an engaging and efficient way to do assessments with multiple classes (as a coordinator I work with 7 classes per grade- so efficiency is key!). Initially I was planning on using this method merely for pre and post-unit assessments, but since then it’s grown into something much bigger.

The bolt of inspiration came from John’s post (and Kelly O’Shea’s idea) to give short weekly assessments each Friday, as a way of students (and teachers) knowing where their learning stands on a regular basis. This reminded me of the holy grail of formative assessments: those wonderful feedback-oriented assessments for learning that everyone at my school always talks about doing but rarely does. I know there are plenty of good ideas out there for how to work quick formative assessments into your teaching, but in the whirlwind of a segregated 40-minute period school day, there never seems to be enough time. Why not turn homework into a formative assessment opportunity?

So, for the past couple of weeks, my 2nd and 3rd grade students have piloted a online experiment with formative assessments, called Show What You Know! Each weekend, I create a simple assessment with something engaging (video clips, funny pictures, an online simulation activity) and a series of questions on our school’s science website. I use GoogleDocs Forms to create the assessment questions, which is simple (and free) to use and collects students’ responses for me neatly in a spreadsheet. Then with a little conditional formatting magic (setting correct answers to be highlighted green and incorrect answers to be highlighted red), the responses look something like this:

Quickly scanning the spreadsheet I can find out which students are getting it, which ones need some review, and which concepts in general need some work for the whole class. From my coordinator’s perspective, I spend less than an hour of work and I have formative assessment data for 120 students without the hassle of grading. Pretty nifty. Most of all, less time spent assessing means more time left over for the most important part of formative assessment: giving students feedback and letting the results reflect your future teaching.

One key to remember is that these formative assessments are ungraded. The value of formative assessments evaporates if they aren’t a true reflection of what a student understands. So cramming, googling, and parent assisting need to be completely discouraged, and that means not tempting fate by attaching a grade to it. Since we’re still early in the year, it remains to be seen how accurate the formative assessments will be, and whether good-intentioned “homework helpers” will skew the data, but I can say from the first few weeks that it’s already been a very good indicator for several students who are struggling.

Here’s a few examples of our Show What You Knows to check out:

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Khan Academy has stirred up a lot of debate among educators about the value of video lectures. On one hand the proponents tout the fact that students can watch them on their own time, at their own pace, and review again if needed. Some educators (like these guys) have even been employing video long before Khan’s rapid rise to notoriety, using video lectures to “flip the classroom” so valuable school time isn’t wasted on something students could just watch at home. The critics of Khan call foul because of the questionable value of lecture itself. A lecture on YouTube is still a lecture, a one-size-fits-all, listen-and-receive-my-knowledge affair. If lecture shouldn’t play a large role in the classroom, what is there to be “flipped” in the first place?

I agree with the critics that KA isn’t anything new under the sun. The media spotlight it enjoys is more about our country’s need to find a new direction in education than any new brilliance of KA. In fact beyond the videos, the “gameafication” of learning that has been created by KA team for teaching math through incentivized drills has much more in common with old-red-school-house pedagogy (Frank lays this out well here).

But despite all the flaws in KA-style teaching, lectures are still an occasionally useful tool in a teacher’s arsenal, and a video lecture probably even more so. So let’s not flush video lectures down the toilet in our disgust at the media’s KA lovefest, instead let’s figure out what this tool is good for. Without further ado, here are my 4 S’s for the best use of video lectures:

  • Short: This should go without saying. Any form of direct instruction needs to stay within the confines of its audience’s attention span. For my elementary students this seems like 2 to 3 minutes.
  • Shallow: If well done, students will remember the content of a video lecture, but only on a shallow, memorized level. Without first-hand experience and mental engagement to let them process the idea in their own mind, there’s not much opportunity for any deep understanding to be created. So keep expectations for learning shallow.
  • Sticky: I mean this in the Malcolm Gladwell sense, not like the gum on your shoe. For the (admittedly shallow) learning to take root, the video lecture must have some memorable appeal that sticks with you: humor, intrigue, a storyline, whatever. I usually opt for humor, maybe because I secretly wish I was Bill Nye.
  • Spot-on: How many times have you teachers out there put on a video for review and realized midway through that it’s not quite what you had hoped? (I know I have!) Maybe the vocabulary doesn’t match what you’ve been using in class, maybe the approach is too complicated or too simple, but it just isn’t fitting for your students’ needs- and you end up with more confusion than when you started “reviewing”. A good video lecture needs to be crafted for a very specific audience and purpose- most generic videos won’t cut it.
How do I put these into practice? I end up making a lot of my own short video lectures to teach scientific vocabulary or review simple facts. It’s not as dramatic as a flipped classroom, but it does mean small bits of direct instruction and basic review can be done at home, and available to the students who need it more than once. I know there are plenty of pre-made video lectures out there already on the internets (BrainPop is a biggie at my school, and is useful at times), but nothing beats a teaching tool that’s been crafted especially for a specific learning purpose. Plus students have a weird fascination with seeing their teachers on-screen. Maybe it’s the era of reality TV we live in, but sometimes I get the feeling that they listen more carefully to video me than actual me!
To give you an idea of what I’m talking about, here’s a few of the videos that I’ve made for our 2nd grade Forces and Motion unit. They were all edited using iMovie, and I swear I didn’t spend more than an hour or two making each one. In fact the gravity video I made yesterday in about a period. So from a cost-benefit analysis perspective, video lectures of this kind are a win-win, even if they don’t deserve headlines about “revolutionizing education”.  As long as video lectures are used as a supplement to thoughtful, contextual, inquiry-based learning experiences, they are tool teachers should keep handy.

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My 3rd graders will soon begin their first science unit on light and sound, which in my opinion is a great way to start the year- it’s hard to beat making noise and playing with flashlights. Despite all the hands-on investigations that we’ve done in the past though, there’s always one phenomenon that students have trouble with: refraction, the bending of light. 

I think refraction stumps students because it contradicts their particle-based intuition. Other kinds of light behavior (absorption, reflection, and transmission) make sense even from a particle perspective because they have simple analogies: a sponge absorbing water, a ball bouncing off the ground, sand passing through a sieve. But light bending inside something?? It’s a lot to wrap your head around, even for teachers.

Since we tend to stick to observable phenomenon in elementary science, we don’t get into a discussion of light changing speeds in different mediums (not that that makes it any easier to comprehend anyway!). Instead we merely observe different examples of refraction: a “broken” pencil in water, lens magnification, prism-made rainbows, etc. Sure, students can be trained to say that refracting light is “bending”, but that’s only a superficial understanding of the phenomenon- why bother? This would seem to make refraction a candidate for the chopping block with the new effort to trim standards to only core ideas, but even in the new framework refraction is suggested at the elementary level:

[By the end of 5th grade students should understand that]… because lenses bend light beams, they can be used, singly or in combination, to provide magnified images of objects too small or too far away to be seen with the naked eye. (page 108)

So, how to deepen student’s understanding about refraction? Similar to my past post about making sound waves visible, this year I’m planning on using a simulation to supplement the experimental observation, and hopefully deepen student’s understanding. The simulation is called Bending Light from PhET, the University of Colorado at Boulder’s fantastic treasure-trove of free, online physics simulations. Most of the simulations are intended for older students, like this one is, but the interface is user-friendly enough that I think even my 3rd graders will be able to get a lot out of it. From my Master’s in Ed days though, I remember reading that the main shortfall of using simulations is that students don’t always make the connection between real-life and the simulation. To avoid this, I’m going to try using the simulation and real-life observations in tandem.

For example, take one of our more traditional investigations, like observing the effects of concave and convex lenses. Students would usually look at a penny under the lenses and notice that the convex lens makes the penny look bigger, while the concave lens makes the penny look smaller. Big deal. Why do the different shaped lenses do this? Ummm…. What the students can’t observe easily is the bending of the light, so the lesson usually ends with me drawing a bunch of complicated looking ray diagrams on the board… and the students looking on blankly.

Let’s try that again. This year, right after students observe one the effect of one of the lenses on the penny, they’ll use the simulation to recreate the same setup. Take a look at the simulation screenshot of light shining through a convex lens. 

The cool thing about the simulation is that it shows what the light rays are actually doing with a simple ray diagram. So although they won’t necessarily understanding why refraction is occurring, they should get a deeper understanding of what is happening to the light. In the case with the convex lens above, the light is being bent together (or focused) so it makes objects appear bigger.

However, I should admit that I think there’s going to need to be some prep work done before we roll out the simulations to ensure that students understand what a ray diagram is in the first place. Since we begin the unit the more straightforward light behaviors, that would be a good time to introduce simple ray diagrams as a way of drawing what’s happening to light. For example, students should be able to observe and then draw what happens when light shines on glass: most of the rays transmit and a few are reflected. If students can grasp the ray diagram representation of light, and connect their observations of real-life with the simulations, I think their understanding of light will really shine this year (sorry, couldn’t resist :).

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Over my years of teaching I’ve probably used Google image search about 10,000 times. I like to create a lot of my assessments and worksheets from scratch, so I’m constantly searching for that perfect photo or piece of clip art to illustrate something. But as others in the bloggossphere like Dan Meyer have pointed out, using hokey clip art in this age of giga-pixelated multimedia is inexcusable. Using videos in the place of clip art leverages the engaging and real-world qualities of a video clip, and encourages students to see the science in real life. So, this year I’m going to experiment with video assessments. The idea behind a video assessment is that students will watch a video and then explain it demonstrating their scientific understanding (as a side note- videos could also be used to great effect for introducing a new concept, or could even be made by  students themselves to demonstrate understanding- but this is for another post!).

The inspiration for this came from Greg Schwanbeck and his post on dy/dan a couple weeks ago. In the comment thread one of the teachers asked about the logistics of doing a video assessment in the classroom, and it is a little tricky. After all, you want students to be able to watch the video at their own leisure, and go back to a certain part if they want. Anyway, I gave this some thought, and I’ll share with you my prototype Video Assessment 1.0 for your critique: click here to check it out.

The assessment is admittedly simple- I’m just reworking a pre-assessment that I give to my second graders at the beginning of their unit on Forces and Motion. What I’m looking for as a teacher is to see whether they can identify the kinds of pushes and pulls acting in each video, and whether they are familiar with their scientific names (friction, gravity, etc), and any misconceptions they hold. I would also like to include a clip with magnetic force, but try as I might I couldn’t find a good one, so I’ll probably just have to film one myself.

The webpage for the assessment was made using GoogleSites, which allowed me to embed the questions from a GoogleForm that I created (both of these Google tools are free, and I highly recommend using GoogleDocs if you aren’t already). There is an option to embed videos from YouTube directly, but because I wanted to resize the videos to make them fit together tightly on the page, I first ripped them from YouTube using this website and then uploaded them to GoogleDocs in the GoogleVideo format, which lets you resize them.

The cool thing about using GoogleForms for an assessment like this is that when students click “Submit”, their responses are automatically collected in a spreadsheet for you. I work with seven 2nd grade classes at my school, so this is a very seamless way to collect a lot of data. All I’ll need to do is simply send the link of the assessment webpage to teachers so they can share with their students. By using laptop carts and headphones, each student will get their own laptop so they can do the assessment on their own and watch the videos as many times as they need.

One design issue I have is that I would prefer to place each video directly next to the question, but GoogleForms doesn’t allow for embedding videos. So students will have to do a lot of scrolling up and down between watching videos and answering questions. Anyway, we’ll see how it goes down- but in the meantime I would appreciate any constructive criticism you have.

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