Archive for March, 2011

Marriott Hotel

Marriott Hotel in San Francisco

On Thursday, March 10, I experienced my first full day of the NSTA Annual Conference in San Francisco. It was a remarkable day for me, for several reasons. I attended some excellent sessions with ideas on how to improve my teaching of chemistry and integrate technology into my classroom, I presented a session on this project (The Elements Unearthed) and the Science Demonstration Program at Walden School, and I received an important honor from a well-known person.

Periodic Paint Swatches

Periodic Paint Swatches: An Introduction Activity to Periodicity

All of my sessions today were at the Marriott hotel, right across the road from the Mosser where I stayed. My first session taught me an easy to implement idea on how to introduce the periodic table and the idea of periodicity of the elements using paint swatches from a hardware store’s paint department. Students are given a variety of basic hues with variations in tint and shade and are asked to put them into a meaningful two-dimensional array. In educational parlance, we would say this type of activity is de-contextualized (that is, removed from the context or content of the lesson far enough that students can easily relate to it). The presenters (Jesse Wilcox and Scott Moore) went further to suggest how to do the next step: an alien periodic table with missing elements very similar to what I already do (more contextualized), before introducing the actual periodic table (full context).

My second session was by D. J. West, a Senior National Science Consultant with McGraw-Hill, on good websites, sources, and ways to integrate Web 2.0 technologies into the classroom. He mentioned quite a few that I hadn’t heard of, and I now need to check them out and start using them.

My third session was on ways to improve Back-to-School Science Nights, which we will be doing in May.  Bruce Wear gave many ways of improving my planning and execution that I hadn’t thought of and which will come in handy. He presented about 25 steps and ideas, and he also showed some simple activities for physical science demonstrations that will be useful if I teach physics next year.

After lunch, I attended a session by the folks at Google on how to use Google Earth, including many features such as how to access new layers of data that can be found freely on the Internet. They mentioned that when natural disasters strike, they try to act quickly to provide before and after imagery, such as images of New Orleans before and after Hurricane Katrina. Little did we know they would have need of such fast data updating just the very next morning. I loaned the presenter my MacBook Pro video dongle, and they promised to send me something (what I don’t know).

The Google session was in the Pacific C room, which was where my presentation was to be held, so I stayed and prepared. I had finished creating some sample videos of my student’s presentations and of my visit last fall to Cripple Creek, Colorado. Here’s the Cripple Creek Video (which I will add to the downloads page along with the chem demo videos over the next few days).

I knew my presentation would be pushing the hour limit, but I wanted to show recent progress. My title was “Sharing the Stories of Chemistry in Your Community Through Video.” Perhaps a bit esoteric, so I knew my audience would be fairly small. I also knew I was going up against Bill Nye the Science Guy, who was speaking as the Executive Director for the Planetary Society. Despite all this, my presentation went well; I had six people there by the end and one stayed after to talk more about what I was doing. I had been promoting my session rather shamelessly all day, and quite a few people expressed interest, but not many of them came. At least they have my e-mail and can contact me if they want information.

I took my computer back to the hotel, then walked back to the Marriott for the reception I had been invited to. This was from 5:30 to 7:00. It was for ExploreMars, the organization I’ve mentioned that is promoting the human exploration of Mars within the next ten years. Here’s the press release:


Artemis Westenberg and Chris Carberry were there to make the awards. They began just one year ago, and one of their first projects was to create the Mars Education Challenge, where high school teachers create curricula and lesson plans that promote Mars exploration and science as part of regular classes. I had submitted several lesson plans at the end of January, and I was notified on March 2 that I had taken third place in the contest, which not only means a nice award check but some money toward my travel expenses to this conference. It was a very nice day when I got the e-mail saying I would receive this award (I did quite the dance of joy in my classroom)!

Major Award

Third Place Award for the Mars Education Challenge, presented to me by Bill Nye

The second place winner, Andrew Hilt, and myself were there to receive our certificates and checks – handed to us by Bill Nye himself. So maybe Bill competed with me for attendees at my afternoon session, but he kind of made it up to me. Andrew and I both said a few words about why we were competing and how we decided to do this. Andrew is from Wisconsin and spoke about the controversy there where the governor is trying to eliminate the teachers’ union and cut back on salaries, benefits, and retirement in a misguided attempt to cut expenses by cutting back on education (which will only come back to haunt them). He mentioned how under-appreciated teachers are, and how hostile many people in Wisconsin are just because teachers ask for the same rights to collective bargaining that other workers have. I spoke on my visit to the launch conference for the Mars Odyssey probe, and how I watched the moon rise over the Atlantic Ocean, and decided then to dedicate myself to promoting Mars education, just as ExploreMars has done.

I ran into several Solar System Educators during the day and Nancy Takashima invited me (or I invited myself . . .) to dinner at Buca de Beppo. I was a bit lake because of the reception, but had a chance to talk to Shannon McConnell from JPL, who is now the lead education director for the GAVRT (Goldstone Apple Valley Radio Telescope) program. Julie and Gary Taylor, Nancy, Martin Horejsi, Kay Ferrari, and others were there, and it was fun to get back together with them even though I am not active in the program any longer. But now I’m back in a high school setting, teaching science once again, maybe its time to get hooked back in.

It was quite a busy and exhausting day. I learned much, shared much, was rewarded for my time and efforts, and met up with old friends. A great day!

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The Mosser Hotel

The Mosser Hotel, San Francisco

The last two weeks have been crazy busy as our third term has ended, our Intersession classes have begun, and I’ve prepared to travel to San Francisco for the National Science Teachers Association Conference.

During Intersession our history teacher at Walden School (Eric) and I have put together a CSI class, coming up with a scenario, clues, evidence, witnesses, etc. On the first day, we trained the students what to expect and divided them into groups, including three students to be lead detectives. I also ran them through my old “Murder on the Carob Bean Queen” activity, where they must solve a paper mystery that requires group collaboration. On Tuesday we planted the evidence, including a very well made up dead body, multiple sets of footprints, and various physical clues. I even got some beef blood from the local supermarket and splattered it over the scene (getting quite a bit on myself – I was a bit overenthusiastic on how I smacked the container). While I was doing this, Eric had the students inside with a guest lecturer from the medical examiner’s office. She brought slides. I was glad to miss it. Then we took the students outside to the crime scene and had them collect the evidence. They did pretty well, except they only got two footprints cast, the rest of the prints either being ignored or obliterated as the team walked all over the scene. Wednesday we started cataloguing and analyzing the evidence, as witnesses started to come forward and the crime started shaping up.

Lobby of the Mosser

Lobby of the Mosser Hotel, San Francisco

At the same time, I was busily getting my bags packed, last minute changes on the presentations ready (including quick videos of Cripple Creek and my students’ chemistry demonstrations), and all the details done that must be done.

On Wednesday afternoon, I flew on a small Skywest Puddle Jumper from Salt Lake to SFO. I sat by a pre-teacher from Louisiana State, behind two other teachers, and they behind yet another teacher, all going to the conference. There must have been quite a few more on the same plane. We teachers are quite the gregarious bunch.

The plane flight was uneventful, and in between chatting with the other teachers I watched an episode of Star Trek Enterprise on my laptop. There’s just something oddly fulfilling about watching Star Trek on a laptop computer while flying at 35,000 feet. We had a nice view of San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge from the air as we circled around to land. I rode into San Francisco on a SuperShuttle van with yet more teachers to the Mosser Hotel. I selected the Mosser because it is inexpensive (about $60 per night, which is really good for a San Fran hotel). The drawbacks are the tiny rooms and shared bathrooms, but the beds are comfortable and the hotel staff friendly. After settling in, I walked over to the Moscone Center and picked up my registration packet. I found a Mexican restaurant in the Metreon, and sat with a teacher named Matt who teaches in an ex-patriot school in Bangladesh. We had an interesting conversation about the challenges of teaching in a country with such severe poverty and population issues; he tried to paint a picture of just how terrible the traffic is, for instance, and how prone to disasters of every sort the country is.

San Francisco skyline

San Francisco Skyline from the Moscone Center

After dinner, I returned to the hotel and crashed. It was a long day, and tomorrow will be very eventful. I present the Elements Unearthed project, and I have a reception to go to where I’ll receive a “major award” (although not from France or in a box marked “Fragilé”). Just thought I’d end on a note of suspense . . . .

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Blue gak

Blue gak, part of a student demonstration

Last December right before winter break, my chemistry students prepared demonstrations to present to each other and to the elementary classes here at Walden School. This was their first attempt at it, and they received evaluations from me and from their peers with suggestions on how to improve. Now we have just finished the second round of presentations, and each team has added new features and made improvements.

Green slime

Green Slime

I had each team improve their presentations in four areas: first, their presentation skills, such as speaking with good diction, showing enthusiasm, and having a smoothly scripted and rehearsed narrative. The second area was improving the visual appeal of their presentation by adding some sort of poster or handout that could be used as an activity for the audience while the team sets up. Some of the groups made posters, some made paper games such as word searches or worksheets. The third area to improve was to add a multimedia component, such as a powerpoint slide show, a video, or a game. The final area for improvement was to make their presentation more hands-on for the audience, such as having more audience participation, or some sort of kinesthetic activity, or turn the presentation into an inquiry-based lab.

Girl with pH samples

Girl with pH samples

The results were very good; all the presentations have improved. Their science content was already good, but is deeper and more engaging now. By adding slide shows, posters, games, activities, and participation, they have gotten their audiences much more involved and excited.

Here are some examples: One group presented on the properties and uses of silver, and their demonstration was how to untarnish silver. They not only had a good slide show, but created a kinesthetic activity where the elementary students linked arms to form first silver sulfide (tarnish) and aluminum, then reformed to create aluminum sulfide and pure silver. This demonstrated the idea of conservation of matter in chemical reactions.

Sofia activity

Sofia leads a kinesthetic activity

The cabbage pH group turned their presentation from a demonstration into an inquiry lab by pouring samples of many types of household chemicals and food (such as grapefruit juice) into small clear plastic cups, then having the elementary students predict whether the chemicals were acids or bases, then use the cabbage juice to prove their guesses.

Marni and kids

Testing the pH of household chemicals with cabbage juice

My favorite improvement was in the saltwater density group; they had some difficulty during their last presentation with not having practiced enough and having things not work out as planned. This time it went smoothly, and they even created a computer video game called Salt the Slug. Jess created the graphics and Josh did the programming. The purpose of the game is to use the trackpad of the computer to shake a salt shaker up and down, shaking out salt onto a slug that is crawling across the screen trying to steal food. If the player can kill the slug before it gets back to its home with the food, he or she wins. Yes, the concept sounds a a bit cruel but it taught the idea of osmosis and concentration of solutions and besides, the graphics were hilarious. The elementary students were jumping up and down for a chance to play, so the team had to ask them some review questions to decide who would get a chance to try the game out.

Slug game

"Salt the Slug" game by Jess and Josh

Josh has become an excellent game programmer and created another game, which he has been working on for a year, where the player places towers that then shoot into a maze to repel invaders. He presented this game at the Charter School Science Fair for all of central Utah, and now has qualified to go on to the regional science fair at BYU in late March. I was a judge at the fair last week, and it was amazing to see the caliber of some of the projects.

Josh at science fair

Josh at the Charter School District Science Fair, Feb. 24.

One of my favorite things about doing these presentations is that many of my high school students have younger siblings in the elementary classes; what better way for my students to show off what they’ve learned, and how they can do science, than in front of their younger brothers and sisters? Dallas, one of the students in the group that demonstrated gunpowder had his little sister in the class. They kidded each other a lot, and Dallas had to tell her, “Don’t get sarcastic with me, I taught you sarcasm!” This group also included a nice demonstration of the “toast the runt” reaction, where potassium chlorate is heated to start it decomposing and giving off oxygen, then a runt candy is rolled down the test tube as the fuel source, resulting in a stationary solid rocket motor.

Toast the runt

Toast the Runt: A Solid Rocket Engine

We had to reform some of the groups, since a few students had switched sections at the semester, but the same presentations continued. Those teams that presented to their peers last time presented to the elementary classes this time, and vice versa. Each team has now presented twice and received feedback. Now they will present one more time at the end of the year at our Mad Science Night, where their parents and siblings are invited and we will take over four classrooms and run simultaneous sessions. It will be a lot of fun, and their presentations will be amazing.

Carbon dioxide and magnesium

Burning magnesium in carbon dioxide gas

Meanwhile, it has been quite a bit of time since my last post. I haven’t been ignoring it; rather, I’ve been so busy teaching, grading, entering competitions (such as the Explore Mars competition I mentioned previously), creating some video projects on the side for clients, presenting at the Utah Science Teachers Association conference (the Mars lessons again), and preparing for my trip to the NSTA conference next week that I simply haven’t had a chance to do many blogs. However, I have quite a backlog of student written blog posts that I will be adding over the next week, then posting each day from San Francisco, so you’ll see quite a few posts this month.

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