Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Discussion on implementing student research

Talk to other readers....Feel free to respond to any or all of the following questions. 

1.  How do you currently include student research as part of your curriculum?

2.  What benefits do student receive for conducting research?

3.  What parts of the scientific research process do students excel? struggle?

4. What aspect of teaching research is most difficult for you?

5. If you don't currently include research components in your curriculum, what scares you most about considering it?

6. What encouragement do you have for teachers or parents who want to get started but are feeling overwhelmed and inadequate?

Monday, February 27, 2012

Schools Using the STEM Student Handbook

If you are using the STEM Student Research Handbook, we'd like to know. Please post the name of your school (with a link) and how the Handbook is being used!

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Algebra Tiles

I've heard about Algebra Tiles and since I know some of the boys at our school are having trouble with Algebra, I thought I would look into what these are. I've not wrapped my head around it completely yet, but I have tiles on my desk that I'm "playing with" in order to figure some things out. There are plenty of places online to download printable tiles. I printed mine on colored paper, blue for the positive, and red for the negative.

Here are a few introductory videos that have helped me with the beginning stages of understanding the concept.

Introduction to Algebra Tiles

Solving Algebra Equations with Tiles

Algebra Tiles to Factor Equations: Introduction

MathCast_03: Area Model to Illustrate Constant times a Monomial

I really like the content of the math cast tutorials, because he moves slowly, which I need because I'm so new to these "Alge-Tiles" as he calls them, but the narrator's voice is soft and makes me sleepy. More later when I figure more of this out!

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Dichotomous Keys

Learning to classify using everyday objects

I confess. I love categorizing, grouping, organizing, and labeling. If you can laminate it, even better. Its human nature right? Even my 4 year old son will take all his "army guys" and divide them into two groups by color. Then he'll take those two groups and further divide them by what gun they are holding. So its no surprise that scientists too, like to classify things into groups, subgroups, and sub-sub groups--not the technical term by the way. So teaching students about dichotomous keys is my idea of a good time!

Here is a copy of the lab, and here is a copy of the graphic & key I used as an example.

If this concept is new to you, a dichotomous key is a way to determine the identity of something (like the name of a butterfly, plant, or tree) by going through a series of choices that leads the reader to the correct scientific name of the specimen. With basic vocabulary and individual with little ability can become an expert in identifying. I like it because it hones students observations skills. When a key asks them whether the leaves on a tree branch are arranged across from each other or alternating, it is focusing students to details they may have never before noticed. (Here is a good dichotomous key to use as an example: It is for identifying deciduous trees, and is good for middle/high schools students. Wisconsin's K-12 Forestry Program)

But since it is winter, and I can't get students to Parklands yet to identify trees, I decided to have my students make their own dichotomous keys. They get the same observation skills, and in addition must decide what traits they will use to communicate the identity of our common objects. To introduce the idea I used 6 animal finger puppets from Ikea but you can use anything you have around the house.

To ease into the idea, I first used a graphic and then introduced the text version of the dichotomous key. To start, I put the six puppets on the lab table and have them make painfully obvious observations. I find whenever I do this, students are always reluctant to get started. They're thinking, "She isn't possibly just wanting me to say that 2 are brown and the others aren't, that's too easy!" But that is exactly the types of observations I'm wanting them to make. It leads to a good discussion of how to classify into two groups. The categories don't have to be "brown or green" but instead "brown and not brown." Next I hand them each a puppet, and give them the following graphic, which is also available as a pdf file.

In Part 1 of the lab, I ask them to follow the graphic to identify the animal puppet that they have. The blue boxes are essentially questions. Is the puppet brown?; yes or no, then follow the arrows. I have each student verbally share how the used the graphic to get their answer. This means they share their observations and how the graphic took them to the next decisions they had to make. Yes, this step should be easy too, but we're building up to designing one ourselves, and it gets more complicated as we go; so baby steps.

In Part 2: I ask them questions about other characteristics we could use to classify these 6 puppets. This is where the real good discussion comes, because the tendency is to want to use comparisons like, "has big ears." But I remind students that when a person uses the key, they won't have all 6 puppets in front of them, and they won't know what "big" means! This makes students really look objectively at these items. Another common mistake is that they make assumptions about the items, but aren't things that can be observed. For example, "Eats peanuts" is meant to help classify the elephant, but is not helpful in this situation. I remind students that we are classifying the puppets, not the animals they represent. Do you see why this can get a bit complicated? So after our discussion, as a class we design a new graphic for classifying the same 6 puppets. This helps them see that classification can be done many ways, each path designed by different people but each will still enable someone to classify the items.

For Part 3 I decided to use Matchbox cars for students to design their own dichotomous graphic that leads the user through a series of yes/no questions until all the objects are correctly identified. I warn them to be careful in the characteristics they choose, so that the user will be able to correctly identify each object. You could use any other groups of items of which you have a large collection. It works OK to have students work in pairs, but is best best if each student has their own group of items with which to work. Since color is an easy way to begin classification, I took that out of the equation, giving each group of students a certain color of Matchbox car. Yes, this is what I have plenty of around my house. I'm embarrassed to say that even with groups of red, blue, yellow, green, purple, white, and brown cars (6 items in each group), my son didn't even realize I had taken his toys!

Before beginning a new key, the items must be officially identified. So I have my students turn the Matchbox cars over, and write their official names in the box in the upper left hand corner of page three.

Here is an example of a graphic done with the cars shown above. Once the graphic was complete, I encouraged students to take each of their cars and run them through to make sure they can only get one answer. Then I had the groups exchange cars to double-check each other's work. I walked around the room, checking their graphics as well, and marking them as I went. This saved me time in my grading.

Then for Part 4, students made a key of paired questions that accomplish the same task as their graphic. Here is the key for the previous graphic example.

There are plenty of ways to increase the difficulty of this assignment. Its mostly up to the number and type of items you choose for the students to use to classify. Six items allows us to get through the entire lab in 40 minutes or so. Increasing the number of items will increase difficulty and the time it takes for them to complete it. Another way to mix this up, is to assign students to find the items, photograph them, then design their graphics and keys.

I love this lab not only for the fun organizing/classifying aspect but also because its a lab that students really enjoy! This lab works with a full classroom of students, small groups in an informal science environment, or with homeschooling.

Again, here is a copy of the lab, and here is a copy of the puppet graphic & key I used as an example.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Starting Student Research

If you have considered, or are considering, implementing student-centered, long-term research projects, my guess is you have a few questions; such as, How do I monitor students doing various projects, at various stages? What is students want to design an experiment on a topic I know nothing about? What if the students get in over their heads? Can I include long-term research projects as part of my curriculum and still cover the required content? How can I ask my students to design an experiment if I have never done one? Questions like these are enough to send any teacher into a tailspin and drop the idea forever. However, I'm here to tell you, it can be done. You've come to the right place to get support! 

I am passionate about allowing students to perform their own research projects. Students should be allowed to develop questions about the world around them, and then use scientific skills to make observations and ...

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Marine Oil Spill Lab

I completed a version of this lab after Hurricane Katrina to demonstrate the major issues that flood water bring. You don't need any fancy equipment and it is a high-level inquiry. While the lab poses the question, "How do you separate oil from water?" the materials and methods students use is up to them. The lab is posted here in this Google Doc., "Marine Oil Spill." I'll admit, like any honest teacher will, that some of the labs we've done this year are better than others. My favorite so far is a lab I modified from Joel Beller's book, "25 Low-cost Biology Investigations." The lab in the book is called "Cleaning Up an Aquatic Oil Spill" and is found on page 43. I rewrote the lab and titled it, "Marine Oil Spill."

One of the first things you'll notice about my labs, is that I always include prelab questions. I have several reasons for this. For starters, my prelab questions often ask what they already know about the topic of the lab. I do this to address any misconceptions before we get started. [Although, sometimes the purpose of the lab itself is to help them sort through the misconception.] So, in this oil spill lab, the first prelab question is, "What do you know about how well water and oil mix? Use an example to explain your answer." My purpose here is to see if they know that oil and water don't mix. Common examples students think of, is salad dressing where the oil separates out of the mixture, or oil dripping from a car, and seeing it in a puddle. They don't mix!

Another main reason I have prelab questions is that I want students to read the lab before the scheduled lab time. Our time together is short, and if students have read the lab before coming, they are familar with what procedures they will be performing, and what equipment they will be using. Those of you out there that teach, know that this is easier said than done. Science literacy is not easy for students. The science vocabulary and strange apparatus often make student timid about what they are reading. In this oil spill lab, the second prelab question, "What is the difference between skimming and absorbing methods of oil removal?" helps students to read the lab and distinguish between the two major ways they will be trying to remove the oil from the water. The question, just by being asked, provides context for the lab's purpose.

Another purpose in having prelab questions is to force students to make a prediction regarding the outcome of the experiment. Ideally then, there is a postlab question that asks them whether or not their prediction was supported by the data they collected in the lab. In this oil spill lab, the third prelab question, "Make a prediction of what material will best help remove oil from water. Why do you think this material will work better than the others?" forces them to do several things. First, it requires them to look at the materials list, and see what items are available for removing the oil. Then they must think about what they know about oil, and pick the materials they think will do the best job, and explain why they picked that material over another. My last reason for having prelab questions is to address any safety issues. Whenever there are biological specimens, chemicals, heat, flames, etc...I use a prelab question to make sure they know how to handle the risk, and what to do if there is a problem.

The reason I like this lab so much is because the procedure is simple and the results vary. Meaning, even if 2 students both use a sponge to remove oil from the water, one may use it in a way that is successful while used by another, it may not remove the oil nearly as well. It brings up an opportunity to talk about the importance of scientists and engineers clearly describing HOW they perform their tasks. I also like the lab because the students can choose whatever materials they want, they can use materials in combinations, and then "grade" each materials' effectiveness.

This lab is conducive to a lot of discussion, not just teacher-student, but the more treasured, student-student, and student-teacher. Naturally, students share what they're finding. "Hey, using Rice Crispies made a huge mess..." or "....that worked much better, I wonder what would happen if..." I encourage students to think out loud. I want to hear how they are coming to their conclusions. I also want them listening to one another. [Sometimes I have to let them know this is not cheating, but collaborating!] I want them to provide suggestions to one another and challenge each other's methodology.

You'll notice that some of the boys chose to add food coloring to their "ocean water." That was their idea, hoping it would help them differentiate between the oil and the water. In the photo above dishwashing soap is being used in conjunction with corn chex. Several of the boys found this to be the best method for absorbing the oil, because it was easier to remove inside the cereal. Feel free to use this lab.

Whether you teach in public, private, or in your home, try this lab and let me know how it works for you and your students!