Back from Antarctica!

If you have been following the blog, you will have noticed that I was gone for a while.  This was because I was in Antarctica doing field research for a while.  It was a great experience, and you can check it out at the blog I kept while I was there,

I am back in the classroom twice a week now and get to teach the students of all grades (5-8) for at least two periods now.  It has been great to be back and hilarious to hear the students’ opinions of the beard I grew while I was gone.  Who knew 5th graders had such a strong sense of what was fashionable!  Now that I am back I hope to have some lessons up shortly.  The big project right now is a big weather unit for the sixth graders.  More on that in a bit.

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Hurricane Sandy, etc.

This last week started off with a touch of excitement in the form of Hurricane Sandy, the largest hurricane on record.  We were fortunate to not be in the path of the major destruction, but there was enough potential for dangerous conditions that school was cancelled on Monday.  Which gave us the perfect opportunity to discuss weather with the students.

6th Grade

To capitalize on the excitement generated by a day off, I designed a lesson for the students on how to interpret a weather map, a modified version of which will be posted in the lessons area of this blog.

7th Grade

They continued their study of the very small with microscopes.  Their powers of observation are increasing every single time they look through the microscope, which I think is largely because they are gaining the ability to recognize the important aspects of an object that help give the object its identity.  This was difficult for the students at first because they had never looked through a microscope before or seen cells magnified.   It has been really exciting to see this class get excited about the observations they are making and want to improve their powers of observation by looking at different things.

8th Grade

These students were reviewing their ideas about how light was both a particle and a wave, which was a very exciting concept for them.  These ideas were formulated during several lessons Mr. Hess had previously done with them, so it was exciting to see

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Microscopes, maps, and light

This was the second week of actual investigation of scientific topics for the students, with each grade, of course, doing something different.  The 5th grade is on a slightly different track from the middle schoolers and their lessons are less curriculum-based and more focused on getting them to learn about science and the world around them.


5th Grade
These students are working on a set of lessons that teaches them about the plant world.  We had them go out behind the school and dig up plants to perform 3-2-1 observations on their roots.  Mr. Hess then did an activity to demonstrate some of the differences between thin roots and thick ones.  The first half the activity was demonstrating the difference in surface area between lots of little roots that occupy the same area as a single larger one.  He assembled a bunch of straws that fit into a paper towel roll, then cut each up and had the students measure the total surface area.  The importance of surface area to nutrient intake was drawn from an analogy of painting a wall with a big sponge versus a little one.  The second activity was to have a dowel, a pencil, and a straightened paper clip that student volunteers pushed into a bucket of sand to see which was the easiest to push through soil as the root grows.

6th Grade
These students are beginning their Earth Science curriculum with a unit on maps.  We introduced the concept of scale and how to use it last week, so this week we moved on to topographic maps and how to get information out of them.  I taught a lesson where the students used clay to build islands and then added water to raise “sea level” and mapped out the changing shoreline to get the topographic contour lines.  We also did an evaluation of the students’ understanding by setting out several maps and asking them questions about them.  I brought in a USGS topographic map of Boston and the students got to inspect it and answer questions about it.

7th Grade
They are working on a microscope skills unit where they are observing various objects under a microscope, practicing how to use all its functions, and learning how to make good drawings.  They were split into groups of 3-4 so that each group could get a microscope.

8th Grade
Their overall lesson set is about light right now, so they were investigating pinhole cameras.  They first made the cameras out of cardboard tubes with tinfoil with a pinhole in it as the lens, and tissue paper as a screen with a black piece of paper taped around the screen as a shade.  Then they made observations (brightness, clarity, orientation) about the image on the screen.


5th Grade
The students loved that they got to dig up plants, but it took some of the less-focused groups a lot of time to pick a plant and then actually dig it up.  They loved making observations about the roots as well, but were not able to understand the discussion about surface area and nutrient uptake.  Many of them lost interest in the lesson at that point and clearly had their minds wandering.  Being outside for this part of the lesson probably added greatly to the distraction.  However, they got excited again when the got back inside and saw the demo about root size and ability to grow through soil.

6th Grade
Understanding scale continues to be a problem for these students.  We presented a clear formula (below) where they could enter all the values they know and use their cross-multiplication skills from math (we had to be very explicit about that part for them to do it correctly) to solve for the missing value.  This seemed to help, and most students were able to use scale correctly on the map by the time we assessed them.

Equation for distance conversion using a map scale

They had difficulties with the topographic map as well.  They easily remembered that lines close together meant steep slopes and far apart meant flat areas, but had difficulty figuring out what that actually physically means.  The water demonstration did not really help their understanding as they were more excited about the clay and water, and I was not able to bring them back to the task at hand.  They did reach an understanding on some level how an island appears on the topographic map (concentric circles), which was cool.

7th Grade
The students really really enjoy working with microscopes, but have difficulty making good and accurate drawings.  Mr. Hess has been sure to emphasize the importance of being able to make accurate drawings by tying it to letting them observe more advanced objects under a microscope, which seems to have helped a little.  The students generated a list of objects they want to observe, which was pretty cool because a lot of them were things that I would be interested to see as well (iPhone screen, blood, bugs, etc.).

8th Grade
The students were really excited to make the cameras and make observations with them.  Their observations about brightness were all really good and it was nice to see their faces when they realized that the image was flipped upside down.

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Week 5

This week was an interesting change of pace.  Monday was off for the Columbus Day holiday, and then Tuesday the eighth grade went on a retreat climbing Mt. Monadnock in New Hampshire, leaving me to teach the 5th-7th graders in science.  The students at this point have all wrapped up their introductory investigations into the basics of science and are now beginning to move into the specific types of science they are all learning.  The school uses the FOSS curriculum, which is what we began teaching in the higher grade levels.


5th grade

The students planted seeds of their choosing to begin a unit on seeds and plants.  They were very good about following directions, but I was not very good at giving directions to keep everything organized and clean while the chaos of planting was occurring.  The students were directed to do a 3-2-1 on their seed before planting it, and began making observations in a data table after.

6th grade

The students had a quiz wrapping up their metric unit.  They then were given 10 minutes to complete a global change content knowledge quiz for use in a GLACIER metric.  I went over some of the rocks they had previously seen, explaining where each came from, and allowing them to touch whichever they wanted.  They then began a mapping unit as an introduction to Earth Science.  Groups were given different maps and asked a series of questions to get them to think about scale and how sizes in the real world relate to those on the map, which was extremely difficult for the students.  I even had trouble explaining the concepts to the students in a way that they understood, but the most successful method was one I figured out right at the end of class where I explained that there is “map world” which is related to the “real world” by size and the way to go between worlds is to multiply or divide by the scale, depending on which way you are trying to convert.

7th grade

These students began their diversity of life unit with an investigation into what life is.  The lesson was taken from FOSS and worked very well.  The students started by looking at a “mystery substance” that was crumbled shavings of camphor (one of the main ingredients that gives the distinctive smell too Vicks Vapo Rub) that they all thought was rock salt.  However, when these crystals were added to water, they begin whizzing around as if they are alive.  The students could observe this because the crystals were placed in a petri dish on an overhead projector.  This led to some good discussion about what the crystals were doing and whether they were alive, which segued nicely into the next part of the lesson, which was taking cards with pictures on them and trying to categorize the pictures into groups of living or non-living.  There was a lot of agreement from the class on the items, but a good debate got started over things like fire, the Earth, and the Sun.  One of the students brought up that living things were somehow defined by their usefulness to us (and therefore the Sun was alive because it made energy that grew plants that we could eat), which was really interesting in light of the great talk the GLACIER fellows got from Deb Kelemen at the BU cognition lab about how people, and especially children, tend to view the world teleologically, with everything existing for a self-centered purpose.

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Week 4

We spent this week wrapping up the investigations into the basics of science.  The students created posters of their work with all the variables described and the data presented.  They put the posters up around the room and spent a few minutes at each, giving each other feedback.


Poster presentations

Used poster visitation as a way for the students to present their work and actually have them engage with other students’ work, instead of disengaging powerpoint presentations.  To guide their thinking, they were given a worksheet that asked them to get information out of the poster, such as the independent, dependent, and control variables and data trends.  Each poster also had a sheet for visiting groups to record constructive criticism, divided into two columns for aspects that were good and those that could be improved.  They were told to continue critiquing the poster until the allotted time expired so that they would continue thinking about it.  At the end of the class, the groups were asked to look at their own posters and the feedback they had received and to first rate themselves, then think whether they agreed or disagreed with the comments left by other groups.

Contemporary science video

We showed the Seven Minutes of Terror video (from NASA, about the Curiosity rover’s landing) to get the students thinking about the design challenges that real scientists and engineers face when designing for a difficult task, like landing a rover in a specific crater on Mars.  We gave the students a worksheet with a few questions designed to guide their thinking, and then spent a few minutes doing a Think-Pair-Square-Share exercise.


Poster presentations

The first thing the students had trouble with was utilizing the whole time they were given.  This was probably because they did not know well enough what made a good versus a bad poster.  Their responses on the comment sheet were mostly about aesthetics, which also led me to believe that they did not feel comfortable with their knowledge about what makes a good science poster versus a bad one.

Contemporary science video

The students thought that the video was very cool and “exciting like a real movie.”  The questions we wrote to guide their thinking did not get them to ask the questions we were hoping.  The questions were worded above the students’ level and did not get at what we wanted, though we did have a good impromptu discussion, thanks to quick thinking and an awesome knowledge of the students by Mr. Hess.

Improvements for next time

One of the things I have been stressing a little bit throughout the class is that good science is about good communication (e.g., the plant observations where I asked that their drawings include parts that made it obvious what plant they are drawing).  I therefore should have stressed quality of communication as a guide for commenting on other posters, and used the worksheet to ask about their ease or difficulty finding everything on the poster.

Contemporary science video

Keep question about ‘did you enjoy this video,’ but include more questions to get the students to think about how much effort was involved in the project compared to their own and how little margin of error.  Also could have included more facts initially (e.g., ‘The rover is the size of a car!”) that Mr. Hess added to the discussion on the fly.  Could have done a shorted TPSS and had more time for group discussion so that we could lead the thinking in the appropriate direction.

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Week 3

This week’s post is going to be rather short because I spent much of the time I would normally use to write this instead preparing for and taking a bunch of BU undergrads on a geology field trip to the Berkshires in Western Massachusetts, which I highly recommend.  If you are interested in seeing more about that, there should be some info up on the blog of the undergraduate group that helped organize the trip.

This week, the students were exploring some of the fundamentals of science, such as what independent and dependent variables and controls are, how to approach scientific drawing, and teamwork.

Fifth Grade

Practiced their 3-2-1 Observations (a structured observation method, courtesy of Ryan Keser; see my “First Week of Classes” for a description) on the garden.  We made worksheets that had spaces for the 3 observations, 2 questions, and 1 inference/prediction as well as spaces for three drawings.  We asked that one of the drawings be of the whole plant and the other two be closeups of the parts.

The students had trouble focusing, but were much better this week than previous outside trips.  Drawing caused some furrowing of brows because many of the students felt they were not good at drawing.  We explained that a scientific drawing is not supposed to look pretty, but instead should be good at communicating the important details enough that it is recognizable.  We therefore asked the students to swap papers and look at each others’ drawings; it was good if their partner could tell what it was.  We clearly need to work on getting the students to identify the key parts of an object and draw those.

Sixth Grade

These students started their paper-airplane building unit that will help teach the ideas of independent and dependent variables.  They had some trouble with group work and with drawing out a good plan, but we are working on both those skills.

Seventh Grade

We had the students launch the rockets they had been building to test different variables.  They were very excited about this, but some of the competitiveness to launch the rocket the farthest got in the way of some of the enjoyment and understanding of the exercise.  This class also has the most complicated and clicky group dynamics, further making group difficult.  However, the students did a good job identifying some of the variables that needed to be controlled during the launching while we were doing it.

Eighth Grade

I only saw these students once, on Tuesday, so they were building their parachutes for their parachute experiment, which is their version of the exercise to learn about independent and dependent variables.  They did an awesome job and were building quickly and designing around any new challenges that cropped up.

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Week 2

This week started with a slightly different schedule that allows me to get more time in class than the previous arrangement; instead of two 5-hour days, I’m spending one full day in the classroom and getting my hours up to 10 with an additional afternoon.  This means that I now see all the grades (5-8) once, and the sixth and seventh graders an additional time.

The classes are all still working on foundations for the year.  Things are moving slowly because the behavior expectations are being set, and also because basic science concepts are still being instilled.  The younger grades, which had more difficulty with measurements and metric conversions, were still doing exercises to help them with that.  The older grades had other projects going on that are also laying the groundwork for their year.  The seventh graders assembled the hydroponics systems they and the garden club will be using throughout the year and the eighth graders did an activity using paper helicopters with different length rotors to learn about independent and dependent variables.

Methods Used

The sixth graders had a difficult time staying on task during their measurement activity, so they were sat down and asked to reflect on what they had done.  This was done by asking them to take out their journals and to write down a number reflecting their focus during the activity, then an explanation, then repeating those two metrics for the focus of their group, then class.  Each successive prompt was only given after several minutes on the previous, helping the students focus their thoughts and attentions only on the current prompt.  The class then was asked for how they thought the teacher would rate their performance, which was discussed as an entire class.

The fifth graders went on a “field trip” to measure things in the garden out back.  They were to copy down a data table from the board into their notebooks.  They were then partnered up and walked out in two lines, with the teacher stopping every once in a while to make sure that the stragglers could catch up.  The student pairs were each assigned something in the garden to measure the three dimensions of and if they finished the first item, they could move on to another.

The seventh graders assembled the hydroponics systems that had been designed, built, and disassembled by the high schoolers the previous summer.  We did not give them instructions, but broke them into teams and had each team work on a particular section.  We guided the thinking of the teams a little bit by asking leading questions to get them on track and using a good engineering thought process.

The eighth graders cut out paper helicopters from a printed form, then timed the descents off a balcony.  They loved this activity and were quite focused during the setup, but I was not around for the debriefing where they did the actual science part of learning what dependent and independent variables are.

How it Went

The most difficult part with the fifth graders was getting them to focus on the task at hand rather than being afraid of insects and being distracted by each other and their own minds.  They also had difficulty figuring out how to measure garden boxes if there were plants overflowing them (measure parallel to the box or through the plants since they had meter sticks).  I was surprised by how long it took to get them to copy the empty data table into their notebooks and by their difficulty with measurement.

The sixth graders all continued to have difficulty with the metric system and measurement.  They understood some aspects very well but were quite bad at applying the concepts to be able to convert.  They also had huge difficulty focusing, which is what necessitated the reflection.  It is not yet clear what effect the reflection activity had on them because I have not had a chance to see their (hopefully) modified behavior during group work.

The seventh graders really enjoyed the building activity, but it took them more time than we anticipated, even on the second frame, which we had figured that they would breeze through after having completed one.  They did not really think in terms of any planning, and instead just jumped in and started building by trial and error.  The only real difficulty was the difference in investment by the students; some really thought it was a great activity and worked well together to get it built, while other students just sat back and watched.

The eighth grade helicopter activity went super smoothly.  They were all invested in the lesson and all really wanted to know which rotor length would descend the slowest to the point where they were have arguments, which was great because it forced them to really use their reasoning abilities to figure it out.  Still, after arguing there were people who thought that the long blades would descend fastest while others thought it would be slowest, making the testing even more interesting.  The one difficulty with testing was synching the timers with the helicopter drops, so we used a countdown for everyone to drop and time at the same moment.

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Week 1, Continued

The second day of class went a bit differently because the schedule for the students is slightly different, so I only got to see the 6th and 7th graders.  Both classes were doing a lesson to learn about the metric system since none of them had very much experience with it previously.  The main focus of the lesson was to have them gain practical experience with the metric system and get them to understand the powers of ten for unit conversion.

Techniques Used

Journal Warm-ups

We started off having the students draw a table in their warmup notebook with columns for measurements in meters, centimeters, and millimeters.  The students then recorded measurements of their desks with a partner in each of the units and then reported their measurements back to the class.  We asked them questions to direct their thinking so that they recognized the measurements were the same, just with shifted decimal points.

Worksheet and Measurement ‘Cheatsheet’

We then gave a cheatsheet showing the relationship between each power of ten with spaces for the students to fill in the relationship between more distant units (e.g., cm and km).  They carried this cheatsheet around with them as they went to different stations where they had to measure various items (pencils, their height, their shoes, a stack of pennies).  There were a few thought questions as well  where the students had to think about how many of their shoes it would take to span 100m and how tall a stack of 1000 pennies would be.

How it Went

Journal Warm-ups

These went quite well, and the students all easily saw the pattern of shifted decimal point.

Worksheet and Measurement ‘Cheatsheet’

The seventh graders did very well with the measurements, understanding the conversions, and doing the math.  The sixth graders, however, were not as successful and had real difficulty converting between units and could not understand how to convert from distant units like centimeters to kilometers.  Some of the problems were solved when we gave concrete examples that they could work with instead of just asking them to do abstract math in their heads.

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First Week of Classes!

Classes started last week, but this was my first week actually in the classroom.  I saw the 5th-7th grade science classes on Tuesday, and 6th and 7th on Thursday.  The first day was mostly spent talking to the students about my research at Boston University, and they were very excited to see a ‘real, live scientist.’  My goals for the first lesson were to:

1. Show that I am actually doing science
2. Introduce the students to actual science
3. Assess some of their preconceived notions about science
4. Give some practice with scientific ideas
I started by introducing myself and asking what they thought a scientist was, and whether I looked like what they imagine one to be.  Most of the classes gave the stereotypical answer that scientists were bald, wore lab coats, and had glasses, but the 6th graders all discussed that scientists were people who worked for the betterment of humanity.  That class was also the most visibly interested in my research and asked a lot of really good questions that showed they were thinking beyond what they were hearing.  In the presentation, I had the students learn to read a map showing predicted increases in surface air temperature from 1960-2060 in addition to teaching about the unique climate that exists in Antarctica and its relation to that on Mars.  To tie some science into the lesson, I brought some rock samples I had collected from around the world and had the students do a ‘3-2-1 Observation’ (see below) with a partner and then share their results with the class. 

Techniques Used:

Powerpoint Presentation

I plugged my computer into the smartboard set up in the classroom.  In order to keep it engaging, I included a world map of predicted increases in surface air temperature from 1960-2060 (below) and taught the students to read it by first having them read the title to see what the map is telling, then looking at the legend to see how exactly the information is expressed.  I tested their knowledge by asking them if anywhere on Earth is predicted to cool, then what is the prediction for where they live (Boston area), and finally which area is predicted to warm up the most.  Since the answer to the final question is ‘Antarctica,’ this was the perfect segue back into my talk and why studying climate change there is important.  Throughout the presentation, I asked them questions to assess whether they were understanding the material (e.g., what happens to sea level if Antarctica warms up a lot) and allowed them to ask a lot of questions.

Surface air temperature increase, 1960 to 2060
3-2-1 Observation (courtesy of Ryan Keser)

The students generate three observations, two questions, and one inference/prediction about something.  In this lesson, it was about a rock sample, so the inference was about the source location or history of the rock.  Mr. Hess had previously introduced the thought process with a picture of a set of tracks that converge, scramble, and only one set that lead away. 

How It Went:

Powerpoint Presentation

The different grad levels responded differently to the presentation, and according to Mr. Hess this was more due to the class personality than any sort of developmental maturity.  The 5th and 6th graders all asked a lot of great questions, making it difficult for me to get through the whole presentation, but the 7th graders stayed tacit, but engaged, throughout.  One question every single class asked was whether I saw any animals in Antarctica (the answer was yes; a large and aggressive type of seagull called a Skua, and the huge and docile Weddell seal).  As far as map understanding, the 5th graders had the most difficulty, but that also could have been because they were the first class I taught because I definitely improved my explanatory skills with the later classes.  I have given similar presentations to similar ages before, so I was quite comfortable with the presentation, but I struggled to balance answering their questions with getting through the content I wanted.  I will have to consciously decide on a question to content payoff strategy for the next time I give such a presentation.

3-2-1 Observation

Students have a difficult time differentiating between observation and inference because many of the observations they make are actually inference.  For example, several students made the following (flawed) observation: ‘Observation – My rock is from Antarctica because it feels cold’ instead of ‘Observation – My rock feels cold; Inference – It is from Antarctica.’  In the future I would also like to emphasize that the questions inference have to come from the observations, since all scientific questions and inferences are generated as the result of observation.

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