This post will be out of sequence, but I want to add it and two others before posting on our activities this fall for the 2014-15 school year. I’ve been so busy doing chemistry activities with current students that I haven’t taken the opportunity to share them here. Time slips away.
During my first year at Walden School of Liberal Arts, we instituted the first “annual” Science Showcase to provide my students the chance to demonstrate what they have learned. Due to the nature of my classes and other factors, I wasn’t able to make the event quite as “annual” as I had hoped. But this year I taught chemistry, physics, and forensic science during the second semester and although my classes were small, I figured I had a critical mass of students to make the Showcase possible again.
Preparation and Peer Presentations (Alpha Test):
To prepare the students, I had them work in pairs to pick a topic related to their class (such as hair analysis or chromatography in forensic science). They researched the topic beyond what I had already taught them in class and wrote up a brief 15-minute lesson plan, which included an active, hands-on demonstration and a handout for participants to take home with URLs where they could find out more.
They practiced their lessons, as much as we had time, and presented them to their peers in class. This was their alpha test. There were many creative projects. One student (Jessica) brought in some old speakers. We cut holes through the grills over the woofers and glued wires to the center of the woofers, then glued small mirrors to the wires.
We played music with a heavy beat through the speakers and bounced three colors of lasers off the mirrors to create a laser light show. It took some tweaking, but we got it to work well enough. Their peers filled out anonymous evaluation sheets for each presentation, which I averaged and discussed with the groups so they would know how to improve.
Presenting at the Elementary School (Beta Test):
Once they had revised their presentations, we took the show on the road and visited classes in our elementary and middle school. This was our beta test. I had asked the teachers in advance which of the presentations they would like, depending on the topic and their own core objectives.
My students presented such topics as making ice cream (colligative properties of solutions) in plastic bags, the properties of magnets, colored flames, lemon batteries, making gak, and red cabbage pH.
Many of these are old standbys, but they also usually turn out well. Some of the more untried ideas didn’t work as well in front of a live audience, but that’s to be expected. I talked with the teachers and shared their suggestions with the student teams.
The Science Showcase Night:
Finally, with the presentations fine-tuned, we held a public Science Showcase night at our new high school building. I was going to present a few demonstrations myself, but got so busy getting all the students ready that I skipped over my presentation and simply introduced the night’s events. We met in the large common room upstairs, and the turnout was a bit smaller than I wanted. I must make a note to do more advertising next year. I had sent flyers home with the elementary students and advertised through the school newsletter, but I needed to do more sooner.
The student presentations were held in four different rooms, with a viewing of the student-created videos done this year in my media design room. We held a new session every 20 minutes for two hours over 4-5 rooms. Some of the sessions had a good number of people attend, some not so much. One of my former students who presented in our showcase three years ago jumped in and kind of took over one of the student’s presentations. I appreciate her enthusiasm, but the presenter needed the experience. The making ice cream session was highly attended and went overtime and made a big mess. Note to self: let’s not do that one next year. It was also expensive. We made homemade root beer as well and had root beer floats with the homemade ice cream. We had some nice tasting slush at the end.
We also had our science fair students display their projects – that needs to be more central where people going back and forth can look at them. I did put all the student STEM-Arts Alliance projects on tables in the commons, including our marbled paper, drawings with homemade ink, homemade watercolor paintings, and even our junk sculptures and jewelry from the Intersession classes I taught. I had signs out with them describing what we had done, and these were looked at by most of the participants. We also had students take cameras around to the sessions to document what we’d done, but they should have received more training.
When the Showcase was done the students stayed and cleaned up, and I was exhausted. I need to delegate more, and get more teachers involved. We had about 80 people there, total, including students. I think it was very successful overall.
Debriefing and Evaluation:
The day after I debriefed the students and had them write down suggestions and comments about how to improve for next year. I did this whole process in about three weeks. There wasn’t enough time for students to really absorb the experience and make improvements. Not all the students were ready, such as not having really polished handouts and lesson plans, so more time to review and improve is needed. I should spread each phase out over about 5-6 weeks, with a week off between to prepare for the next phase. We need to have ushers to direct attendees and avoid having too many in one room or not enough in another, and to keep the sessions moving and on time.
The Time Factor and Meeting Standards:
When I have discussed this project with other teachers, they invariably say how this could be a great thing for their students but they just can’t take the time out of their curriculum. It’s hard for me as well. It took about ten class periods to pull this off, and it wasn’t enough at that. I have to be able to truly justify taking all this time.
To decide whether to do any project or not, I have to look at all the standards that I am required to teach. I’ve tried to outline all of them in a comparative Excel spreadsheet. I have to teach to Utah’s science content standards for each of my classes. I also have to teach to what are called the Utah Intended Learning Outcomes, or ILOs, which contain objectives on the nature and history of science and its impact on society.
Utah is in the process of revising its science standards, and will likely adopt some of the ideas from the Next Generation Science Standards including engineering practices and crosscutting concepts (more on this in a later post). I am anticipating and initiating the changes now. As a technology teacher, I try to adopt the 21st Century Skills objectives. Then there are the Common Core standards for math and English literacy, including learning to write and communicate. Finally, we are becoming an International Baccalaureate school and I am beginning to work those standards for the nature of science, the IB Learner Profile, the key concepts of science, and information technology standards into my classes as well. I also have my own goals and priorities/objectives for my classes that are every bit as important to me as all these externally imposed standards. That’s a lot of standards to address!
It would be impossible to meet these standards if they didn’t overlap quite well. Even so, the only way to address them all is to create projects that cover multiple standards/objectives at once. Here are some of the ways a Science Showcase does this:
- Almost all of the standards I’ve listed above contain objectives for teaching communication skills and technology. Scientists have to be able to write proposals and grants, and communicate their ideas orally to the public and each other both formally and informally. The Science Showcase does this effectively and even efficiently. Unlike science fairs, where only a few students get to go on and have the full experience, the Showcase requires all students to learn communication skills.
- Students also learn science concepts very deeply; when you have to learn something well enough to explain and demonstrate it to others, you won’t easily forget it. So the Showcase can help students master science content objectives.
- The process of designing a lesson, presenting, getting feedback, revising, and presenting again is the same basic process used by engineers to solve problems, so I am teaching them engineering practices through the Science Showcase. It is also a good way to review for end-of-year Criterion Referenced Tests.
- Finally, having my students present to their parents and siblings increases the excitement for science in our entire K-12 school. This isn’t an objective on any list of standards, but it is necessary for the growth and advancement of a science program. This project is consistently one of the most memorable things my students do each year, and therefore worth every bit of the time it takes.