MCAS Testing

The 7th and 8th grade students are taking MCAS tests this week in science and math.  I think they will do a fantastic job!  I continue to be impressed by the students each week and I think they really understand their stuff. Good luck, students!

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Climate Change in the Northeast

Today was a really exciting day for me in the classroom and felt a bit like a culmination of my GK-12 experience.  Since we are basically through the required curriculum for our 7th graders, I got to take a full class period to teach them about my research!

I was amazed at how engaged the students were and what fantastic questions they asked!  Maybe I should keep them posted on a regular basis as a secondary committee….

I even used several slides that I typically use for talks and presentations within my community.  I just had to slow down and explain what the figures were trying to say so that a 12 year old could grasp it.  I know that I was able to do this better now than I would have been able to last year as a result of this experience!

Essentially, I presented students with the idea that scientists who study climate use what they know about the past and the present to predict what will happen in the future.  Currently, those predictions for the region we live in are that our average annual temperature will increase and that we are likely to have much less snow.  Using the analogy of an igloo, I was able to explain to the students that soils actually get colder when there is no snow than when they are covered in an insulating blanket of snow.

I presented students with the information that some scientists have done experiments where they warm the soils, and they found that this can be good for the plants (it’s a bit more complicated than “good”, but visit my research website for those details).  I also explained that other scientists have done experiments where they remove snow to freeze soils and they discovered this is “not good” for the trees.

But, the tricky part is that both the “good” warming and the “not good” freezing are going to be happening at the same time in different parts of the year.  So what is the overall effect?  <– THAT is the crux of my research and it was thrilling to have my students debate each other and try to process the question and think about how to answer it.

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MCAS Review

It’s getting close to MCAS time.  We spent this week reviewing old MCAS questions with the students in a very open format.  It was fun and challenging for me to have to recall and explain concepts across the entire 7th and 8th grade science curriculum, which includes history of Earth, systems of the body, ecology, chemistry, astronomy, and even a little bit of engineering.

I think the students are very well prepared to do an excellent job on their exam, but it was satisfying to be able to clarify some points of confusion.  As a perpetual and professional student, I have a LOT of experience taking exams.  I walked the students through the process of identifying why each answer was wrong in order to give them more confidence that their answer was correct.  This has always been really helpful to me.

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For the past 10 days, I had the amazing opportunity to travel to Belize with teachers from the Boston area and colleagues from BU and participate in a hands-on curriculum design workshop with teachers from Belize. We spent five days at La Milpa, in the rainforest and another five days at Calabash Caye on the coastal coral reef.  We got to see amazing animals, plants, and landforms, learn about the ecosystems there, and work together to create lesson plans that could convey some of that information to our students back home in Boston and also to students who live in Belize.

We met at 6AM in our first day at La Milpa to do some birding around the grounds.  We each had a set of binoculars and a birding guide to share.  We saw some amazing birds, including a keel billed tucan, the national bird of Belize.  After breakfast we headed out for a hike through the forest on the grounds, with our incredible guide Melvis. The plants are amazing.  There are so many different kinds of trees, palms, and epiphytes.  There are strangler figs all over the place, too.  These start as vines in the canopy of a tree and send out root tips seeking the ground.  Eventually, the fig has sent down so many roots that it creates its own trunk and the tree it had been growing on dies leaving a fig tree in its place.

In the afternoon, we went out with some measuring tapes and worked together to assess the size and species of trees in a few plots near the grounds.  In the middle of our sampling we were interrupted by a troop of spider monkeys.  They were so mad that we were in their jungle!  They started screaming and shaking branches and throwing sticks at us – it was amazing!  We watched them (while dodging projectiles) for 15 minutes until they decided that we were not moving and that they should just move along.

For the next couple of days, we did similar work interspersed with visits to the Menonite communities who are responsible for most of the agriculture in Belize, Mayan ruins, and land set aside for carbon sequestration credits.  All the while we would meet to discuss what kind of lessons we could create out of our experiences.  We decided to focus on the value of trees as a carbon storage pool. On our second-to-last day, we split up into groups to finish up work on the lesson plan that we have been developing about carbon sequestration.  It’s essentially a full week long unit that has three lessons, they will go out and measure all the trees in a plot, then calculate carbon storage and use it to scale up to a larger region and finally have a debate between  conservationists and developers about the value of forests from a carbon sequestration perspective.

On our way from La Milpa to Calabash Caye, we stopped at the Belize zoo and I got to see a black jaguar up close. It was so huge and beautiful and humbling. Animals at the Belize zoo are all native, wild animals who have been injured and are rehabilitated in a safe place where they can also provide education to Belizians about the incredible biodiversity in their country.

Shortly after the huge change of scene that accompanied our arrival at Calabash Caye, we began to collect specimens from our snorkeling outings.  One morning, I found a new addition that looked just like a vivid purple and blue bubble-wrap bubble with long long strings of purple hanging from it – a Portuguese Man of War.  Chris, our guide, had found it washed up on the beach.  They float on the surface and are at the mercy of the wind, and there has been a lot of it.  They are also very poisonous and have nematocysts, or stinging cells, all over those long purple strings.

For our first activity, we started off with a quick lecture on coral:  their life cycle, adaptations, and ecology.  This was my first hint that I knew nothing about coral as all the information was new to me.  Next we studied up on some species of coral, invertebrates, and fish that we would be likely to see. Then we suited up  with our snorkel gear, and headed out to the reef.  The reef is about a mile off shore in front of the research station where we are staying.  We all got in the water and snorkeled around and it was like nothing I had ever seen.  There were all kind of coral: lettuce coral, staghorns, star coral, fire coral, and all upper shallow!  I also saw huge parrot fish, yellow snappers, and a whole bunch of other amazingly bright fish that I couldn’t identify.  We laid out a transect and did some basic sampling of fish species and urchins.  It was a lot of work to stay on the transect with the current.  I was exhausted by the time we were done.

We came back for a big lunch and then spent some time identifying some of the specimens we had collected.  Then we geared back up and went out to snorkel again, this time in the mangroves (where we had seen a salt water crocodile the day before!).  We snorkeled around the mangrove roots which are covered in sponges of all sorts of crazy colors and shapes.  It was really cool to check them out and the water was calm so we just inflated our vests and floated around so as not to disturb the sediments and the upsidedown jellyfish who were hanging out all over the bottom.

After our hands-on activities, we did some serious brainstorming about how to translate our experiences, which were very place-based to the classroom.  We came up with a simulated coral reef transect sampling activity that I think does a good job capturing the data collection experience we had, and also teaches our students about the dazzling biodiversity of these ecosystems.

The lessons we created are available under “Lesson Plans.”

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Glacier Project – Part of a growing movement towards climate education?

Last week, the 8th grade science students were pulled out of regular class to attend an assembly presented by Alliance for Climate Education.  I had never heard of this group before, but I was very excited to hear about this effort to bring education about climate change directly into the classroom! They give short assemblies introducing the science of climate change and encouraging students to think of ways they can actually do something to lessen our carbon footprint.  I hope that the students were able to make connections to the Glacier themes that we have been learning throughout the school year.

Also last week, I heard about a push to introduce climate education into the new Next Generation Science Standards.  Check out this article on for more information!  It’s very exciting to learn about these new pushes toward educating kids about the science of climate change and I’m excited to be a part of it!

The Next Generation Science Standards will recommend that U.S. public school students learn about the climatic shift taking place.


The Alliance for Climate Education offers assemblies to introduce students to the science of climate change.

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Periodic Table of the Elements

Class time was hard to come by this week due to a combination of the Boston-only holiday known as “Evacuation Day,” followed by a snow day and then two days of MCAS testing for English Language Arts.  We used today to review what we have done so far in chemistry.

First, we learned about the different groups of chemicals in the Periodic Table of Elements and reviewed that the table is constructed not only by atomic number, but also by chemical characteristics.  We discussed the 10 groups, including things like alkali metals, noble gases, and halogens. We also learned that the Lanthanide series and the Actinide series are part of rows 6 and 7 respectively, but are typically drawn below the table just so that the table is easier to read. Next, we reviewed their homework about the most abundant elements in Earth, the Sun, Earth’s atmosphere, the oceans, and in organisms and identified oxygen as the one element that is common and abundant among all these systems.

The atmosphere is mainly composed of nitrogen and oxygen, even though we hear so much about carbon in relation to climate change.  All the other elements in the atmosphere, including carbon, make up less than 1% of the atmosphere. In fact, whereas the concentration of nitrogen in the atmosphere is 78 parts per 100, or percent, the concentration of carbon dioxide is only 396.8 parts per 1,000,000, or parts per million!

It’s hard to believe that a gas which makes up such a small part of our atmosphere can have such a big impact on the temperature of the planet, but because CO2 absorbs heat and traps it on the Earth’s surface, it is VERY important. You can track the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere at any given time at

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Last week in class, we were learning about electrons, protons, and neutrons.  I took a back seat in this lesson, because I was unsure about how much detail was appropriate for the course.

I find that it can be a big challenge to select the proper level of detail to share with students about complex concepts.  For example, in order to learn the basics about atoms students are told that protons, neutrons, and electrons make up an atom, and that as a good rule of thumb, the number of each of these particles is always equal.  However, when they consult the periodic table to find the mass of each atom, they quickly notice that the atomic mass is listed is rarely just the sum of nuetrons and protons (or protons x 2).  And of course, this is because the atomic mass reported is actually a weighted average of the mass of all the naturally occurring isotopes of each atom.  My students are smart!  And they see that the information we are giving them is not complete, but it is hard to describe exceptions to the rule without first making sure that the “rule” is quite clear.

Ms. Malden did a great job of keeping them on track and deferring questions to a an upcoming lecture.  Once the students have the concept down, I am planning to do a short lesson on how we can use stable isotopes in lots of fields to trace the sources of pollutants and other great applications!

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Virtual Water

Last week the geography class was studying a chapter in their textbook on Southwest Asia and how the economy and culture has been shaped by the abundance or scarcity of natural resources like oil and water.  Students learned that the Aral Sea has shrunken due to the pressures on the water supply to support agriculture in the region.  It struck me as a great time to introduce the concept of “virtual water” to the students.

Virtual water is a term used to describe the water that is required to produce a product, even if we can’t see that water. It was developed by a professor at King’s College London to highlight the real use of this scarce resource.  To begin class, I asked the students to review what their last chapter was about: water as a scarce resource.  I began to ask prodding questions like, “Is water evenly distributed around the globe?” and “How do we waste water.”  The students gave lots of enthusiastic answers about long showers, doing the dishes, wasting bottled water, playing in fire hydrants, etc.  These were all great answers and they were very engaged in the discussion.  Next, I asked students if we waste water when we waste food.  After thinking for a minute, students began to respond that yes, we do waste water when we waste food because we use water to make food, whether its boiling something or adding water to a soup.  Then I asked them how much water was in a cup of sugar.  After initially scoffing at the question, I was really pleased to see the students make the connection between the water needed for agriculture and the water needed to grow sugar.

© 2013 Water Footprint Network.

I spent the rest of the period going through a great infographic with them about how much water it takes to make the food we eat every day.  On Friday, we will build on this by calculating water footprints.  I sent the students home with an assignment to figure out (using the internet) how much water is takes to make one bottle of water.

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Substances, Atoms, and Elements

This week, we are really diving into the new unit on Chemistry. Science fair projects and winter break have gotten in the way so far. The students began FOSS Investigation #1 for chemistry by trying to to identify an unknown white powder substance. The idea is that students are given several known white substances, and based on observations on what happens when you mix various combinations together and add water, they are to identify the “mystery mixture.” I was impressed to notice that some of the students picked up on the pattern that substances with the word “acid,” like citric acid and ascorbic acid were the ones that forms bubbles when they reacted to any substance that had the word “bicarbonate” in it. I think this is very observant, considering we have not yet learned anything about what the chemical formulas mean.

Khan Academy - Elements and Atoms

I was a little concerned that students were not understanding the difference between an atom and an element. I found an online video, Khan Academy – Elements and Atoms, that I think does a good job explaining this concept with photos. I also tried different approaches that I read about on various teaching websites, like describing each element as a flavor of ice cream that you can choose from when assembling scoops (atoms) into a sundae. I hope that with all the different explanations and the coming chapters, students will get a handle on this fundamental concept of chemistry.

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Winter Break….

This week the students were off on winter break.  They should be working on finishing up their science fair projects and beginning to brainstorm their invention!

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