Posts Tagged ‘creative students’

Magnet activity

Shannon and Kenzie demonstrate magnets

I’ve written before about my views on student engagement and involvement in education; that students learn best when they are most engaged and involved in the educational process (here’s a link to a previous post on the subject). This is all based on 20 years of observation that I am usually the person who learns the most in my own classroom, simply because as I prepare materials to present to my students, I have to learn them very thoroughly myself, and as I teach these materials, I am making a type of commitment to the concepts; staking my own reputation that what I am teaching is correct. The gist of my philosophy is that if I can get students to become teachers themselves and fully commit to the concepts they are teaching then those concepts will never be forgotten. You could compare this to the old often-repeated adage:

Feed a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach him how to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.

To which I would add: Train a man how to teach others how to fish, and you feed a whole village for eternity.

A number of years ago, while teaching at Juab High School in Nephi, Utah, I began a program to take my advanced physics and Chem II students to the Nephi Elementary School once per month to present lessons to the classes. I worked with the teachers there to come up with lessons that fit into their curricula but also could be easily demonstrated. My students had to practice the demonstration, write up a brief 20-minute lesson plan with a handout, and receive feedback from their peers, myself, and the elementary teachers.

Cael and his vacuum pump

Cael demonstrates his vacuum pump

It wound up being one of the most effective projects I ever developed. My students were always a bit nervous the first time, but after seeing how excited the elementary kids were, they caught the same enthusiasm and soon were asking me when our next visit would be. They also presented these mini-lessons at a back-to-school night at the end of the year for their parents and other students to see. It was a definite win-win activity; both the elementary students and my students benefited greatly and it was worth all the effort we put into it.

Since teaching at Juab High School my teaching assignments have not allowed me to continue this program, although at Mountainland Applied Technology College my multimedia students did participate in the Mars Exploration Student Data Team program and presented at a symposium at Arizona State University in 2004. My students also created a two-hour documentary on the history of AM radio in Utah that aired on KUED, Salt Lake’s PBS station, in 2007. You could say that they were teachers and content creators from these experiences.

Now that I am back at a high school teaching science, I have reinstated the students-as-teachers concept through what I am calling the Walden Elementary Science Demonstration Program. I’ve even written a small grant for the Air Force Association last week to support this. On Friday, Nov. 12, I took my astronomy students down to the elementary classrooms at Walden to present lessons. Just as at Juab Elementary all those years ago, my students picked a topic and a demonstration, practiced it, wrote up a script or lesson outline, and then presented in the classes. I videotaped parts of the presentations and took photos. The elementary students were excited, engaged, actively getting their hands on materials, asking questions, and participating. My students did extremely well for our first time. Here are some of the presentations that they did:

Lunar Crater Activity

Annette and Olivia demonstrate lunar cratering

Shannon and Kenzie presented the properties of magnets and did a demonstration of a gravity assist maneuver using neodymium magnets and steel shot to represent planets and a space probe (I once got two neodymium magnets stuck up my nose while presenting this same demonstration to a group of teachers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. It’s a long story . . . .) Shannon and Kenzie had the challenge of adapting their lesson to be understandable for kindergarten students and for 4-6 graders (they presented twice). They demonstrated some large industrial strength iron horseshoe magnets I’ve had all these years and the kids had fun trying to pull them apart.

Cael and Koplin taught about how difficult it is for humans to survive in space, and demonstrated the properties of a vacuum by blowing up marshmallows. Cael’s father helped him construct a homemade vacuum chamber out of a Bell canning jar and a hand pump (very ingenious, actually, as you can see in the photo). Students had fun pumping out the chamber, seeing the marshmallows expand, and then releasing the valve and seeing them suddenly shrink again.

Olivia and Annette demonstrated how the surface of the moon formed using the lunar cratering activity (dropping rocks into a pan of flour and cocoa powder). They also tied it into a map of the moon, and had the kindergarten students repeat back what they had learned to win a prize – a piece of rice krispy treats coated with frosting to look like the moon’s surface.

Inertial scale activity

Scotty and Colman demonstrate the inertial scale

Scotty and Colman taught inertia and momentum by demonstrating the properties of an inertial scale I made a few years ago. It’s basically a metal ruler with a film canister at the end clamped down on a table’s edge. The more heavy a rock you place in the canister, the slower the ruler will vibrate due to the rock’s momentum. They also demonstrated dominoes, yanking a piece of silk out from under an object, etc.

Mars site selection activity

Maxson teaches about Mars landing sites

Maxson talked about the surface of Mars and how hard it is to find a good landing place. His partner wasn’t able to attend that day (he had an activity in another class that went unexpectedly long), but Maxson was able to fill in for his missing partner by having the 4-6 graders look for possible landing sites on maps of Mars.

Alexi and Erika presented the scale of the solar system to 1-3 grade students, showing them various balls that represented the sizes of the sun, Jupiter, Earth, Mars, etc. They also showed GoogleEarth. Then they took the students outside and had them stand in positions of relative distances for the planets. I didn’t get a chance to go outside and photograph that part of the activity, but I heard from the teachers that it went very well.

Scale of the solar system

Alexi and Erika demonstrate planetary scales

For me, the best part of doing these presentations is at the end of class when all my students gather back in my classroom to report on how it went. I wish I had had my camera running. They were telling each other what went right and wrong, what the elementary students had said and done, and I knew at that moment I had achieved my real purpose: my students were excited about science, and this was an experience they will never forget. As for the concepts they had to learn in order to make their presentations, I think it’s safe to say they will never forget them, either. I uploaded the photos I had taken to my laptop and did a slideshow at the end of class so that they could all see what the other teams had done. At the end of the year, we’ll do a video presentation as well.  Not bad considering I hadn’t told them about this until two days before their presentations, so that they had only two days to choose and prepare their lessons. They did great! Now in December my chemistry students get their turn.


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This morning I accepted a job offer to teach full-time at Walden School in Provo, Utah. (here is their website: Walden School Website). I will be teaching a combination of chemistry, earth science, and multimedia courses at the high school level. Walden is a small charter school that follows the Montessori philosophy of providing a rich learning environment and letting students have a large say in the direction and content of their education. This happens to coincide very well with my own philosophy, which I have stated here before, that science classrooms need to go beyond hands-on learning and teach students how to be creative contributors to their own education, through building their own science content or conducting their own experiments.

Materials for Mars 3D activity

Materials for the Mars 3D activity

In fact, the fit for me is so good that if I had sat down and designed the perfect situation for what and how I like to teach, it would be very similar to what Walden School has to offer. And it will be ideal for The Elements Unearthed Project. It will provide a base of operations, so to speak, from which to apply for grants and gain support as well as a group of dedicated, creative students to work with. Teaching chemistry and earth science in addition to the multimedia I’ve taught for the last ten years will also allow me to cross-pollinate the classes so that students can do diagrams, animations, and videos for their multimedia class but also get credit in chemistry or earth science. This is the way project-based-learning (CBL) can be more efficient as well as more effective.

I’ve struggled this last year since returning from my fellowship at the Chemical Heritage Foundation to make financial ends meet by creating Business Profile Videos for clients. The economy being the way it is, all the businesses we’ve contacted love the idea of a YouTube video advertising their products or ideas, but hardly anyone can afford to pay what the videos are actually worth. So for the last two months I’ve been searching for full-time and part-time jobs; it takes a great load off my mind to know I will have a regular income. Although my days will now be spent teaching, I think the overall pacing of the project can increase; I no longer will have to spend all my evenings working on business videos and can devote almost as much time as now to the video episodes I’ve already filmed.

It will also be great to get back to science teaching. I’ve missed it, and I’m looking forward to dusting off and updating some of the great lesson ideas and activities I’ve learned from NASA and elsewhere. I can bring back the Elementary Science Tutorial Program I began at Juab High School so many years ago. Now my students can build the 3D model of the nearby stars I developed for my astronomy classes at Provo Canyon School. Now the Mars 3D project I developed at MATC can be shared between multimedia and earth science classes. Now The Elements Unearthed Project will be able to draw on students from multiple disciplines in a school that believes in student creativity, project-based teaching, and expeditionary learning.

Table top star model

Table-top 3D model of the nearby stars.

Instead of the factory model, one-size-fits-all style that is killing our public high schools, where subjects are fragmented and divorced from each other, I believe in teaching holistically and individually and expecting students to achieve highly creative work. Now I’m going to put this philosophy to the test.

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Philly from air

Flying in to Philly

I’m going to try the “instantaneous blog” style of posting today. I’m back in Philadelphia for the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) annual conference at the Pennsylvania Convention Center. I flew in yesterday from Salt Lake City and was met by a friend at the airport who drove me to another friend’s house where I will be staying (I have to do these things on the cheap, and saving over $100 per day on hotel fees is one way I could make this work). I’ve attended six sessions today, four of which have been excellent (as in useful for me professionally or for my project) and two that have been good but not quite as useful.

Philly City Hall

City Hall in Philadelphia

The first was on NASA’s Astrobiology program, presented by Pamela Harman of SETI (her office is just down the hall from the legendary Frank Drake of the Drake Equation) and Leah Bug, who was with NASA’s Explorer Schools program back when I was a facilitator for the program at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. She is now at Penn State, and I haven’t seen her since 2004, but it was good to catch up again. I attended because I love all things NASA and especially anything that might relate to the nearby stars and exoplanets, and even more so an interdisciplinary subject like astrobiology, which combines biology, evolution, astronomy, planetary science, and chemistry together.

Philly skyscrapers

Skyscrapers in Philadelphia

The second session was sponsored by ISTE (International Society of Technology Educators) about a school district that truly gets the idea of using technology to help students be creative. I talked with Ben Smith, one of the presenters, afterward and got his advice on how to sell this project to teachers and get the ball rolling. He’s found that having students be creative by building their own videos (on physics, chemistry, or other subjects he teaches), he has to teach content less than before since the students are taking the digital tools and expressing themselves creatively. They are engaged, and they learn the content they need on their own without him having to pour it into them through a lecture or some other ineffective technique. It takes standards of content rigor to make sure the students find out the depth of information they need, but it has been working. He gives them the tools, provides enough training to learn the basics of using them, then gives then a very open-ended topic (“Tell me about waves”) and lets the students run with it. And his test scores have gone up (always good to know).

The third session was in the Marriott by Gigi Naglak and Shelley Geehr of the Chemical Heritage Foundation to kick off their “It’s Elemental” video contest for students, where students (individuals and teams) will submit short (3-5 minute) videos on an element that they sign up for in advance. Videos will be judged in two rounds. Those making it to the final round will be judged by an august group of scientists and media specialists (including a Nobel chemistry winner) and the overall winners will receive a free trip to Philadelphia next spring, to coincide with the International Year of Chemistry. Gigi and Shelley asked me my recommendations last summer for how to kick off the contest and what the levels of equipment needed by teachers would be, and I hope to be able to help out more as they roll out the website this summer. I also hope to have some student groups submit their videos and win!

Exhibit Hall at NSTA

NSTA Exhibitors' Hall

The fourth session was by a coalition of teachers, media experts, scientists, and museum directors in Omaha called the Omaha Student Media Project, where a group of 16 students and 16 teachers attended a two-week workshop to learn video editing and science reporting skills, then created videos on viruses and infections and how they work. I talked quite a while with the museum person about how this coalition began and how they sold it to the school district and got media involvement. It’s given me some good ideas for how to sell my project and build a similar coalition in Utah.

I attended two other sessions on video podcasting and new media literacy, which gave me some good information but weren’t as useful as I would have liked. I will be going to a video program in about 20 minutes over at the Loews Hotel, so I need to sign off. I haven’t visited the exhibitors’ hall other than poking my head in and realizing I will need a plan of attack before attempting it. I hope to make some valuable contacts there. I’ll be presenting The Elements Unearthed project on Saturday at 9:30 in D-17. I’ll post again tomorrow.

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   For our last two entries I have written about the need and rationale for The Elements Unearthed project. In this post, I would like to present our third and final reasoning behind this project, journeying into the nebulous and contended realm of educational theory to present the conceptual underpinnings of our project.


   In the recent (Nov. 2008) issue of The Science Teacher, the editor, Steve Metz, commented on Project-Based Science instruction (PBS): “. . . learning is an active process and students learn most effectively when they are constructing a meaningful product.” He also said that “. . . individuals construct knowledge individually, through active and meaningful interactions with their environment, rather than by passively receiving transmitted information.”


   Student learning activities are often charted out on a continuum or dichotomy with Passive on the left and Active on the right. Such activities as taking notes, listening to lectures, and watching a video in class are passive whereas such activities as open-ended labs (inquiry labs) and research projects, simulations, and student presentations are active. I propose that this scale is only partially complete. Beyond hands-on or inquiry activities is a whole other level of student involvement in learning: students as creators, producing their own knowledge or making content for others. As such the spectrum would place Passive activities on the left as before, but now place Active learning in the middle and Creative activities on the right, where the student becomes responsible for creating material for and teaching knowledge to other students. Instead of being consumers of content or even interacters with content, students become the producers of new content. They become the teachers.


The Continuum of Constructivism Beyond Hands-On

The Continuum of Constructivism Beyond Hands-On




   In the diagram shown, certain educational models begin to fall into place when compared with this new scale of constructivism. On the left of the continuum, the teacher is the center of the classroom and dispenses knowledge with a focus on efficiency – pouring as many facts into the minds of the students as quickly as possible in assembly line fashion. As we move toward the middle, activities and assignments become more student-centered and involve the student actively, getting them out of their seats and into the lab or participating in a simulation. Instead of rote regurgitation of facts, student assignments become more open-ended and subjective, more imbued with meaning and interpretation; requiring evaluation and comparison on the part of the student. As we move beyond hands-on into the realm of student-created content, the student and the teacher reverse roles. The teacher becomes more of a coach or mentor, a facilitator of learning. This side of the continuum requires self-motivated students willing to dig for their own knowledge; having learned how to learn, they pursue their own lines of inquiry and even create their own experiments to uncover new knowledge. They ask questions and find answers, either through original experimentation or primary source historical research. They become scientists and teachers, training their peers and creating original content for fellow students and even for the general public. They now internalize their learning and own it; they won’t forget it or become uninterested or bored with it because they are fully engaged. Instead of writing a research paper that only the teacher will read, their work is actively critiqued and utilized by others. The focus now becomes quality and effectiveness of learning instead of efficiency.


   The effect of students creating their own content and knowledge is profound. Not only do students retain the knowledge they create longer (usually indefinitely) but the motivation and excitement of the students increases. As they see that what they are creating is meaningful and relevant, as they discover the scientist and historian within themselves, not only does their ownership of the knowledge increase but so does the quality and thoroughness of their work.


   I first discovered this effect by accident. As a first time teacher of chemistry at a small school in the Sierra Nevada Mountains called Tioga High School, I was presenting a unit on organic molecules and their naming conventions. Instead of lecturing on all the alkanes, alkenes, dienes, and so on I decided to let the students research this on their own and report their findings to the other students. This type of “jigsaw” activity can be useful as it puts responsibility on the students to find their own answers and learn from each other. I was also the computer teacher at this school, so I opened up the lab and had the students create their reports in the form of a Hypercard stack on the Mac Classics we had in the lab. They were required to present the information with graphics and also to create some kind of quiz or game based on their content that the other students would then take to demonstrate their knowledge. As students got into the project, I was amazed to see that instead of complaining about having to do research, they were actually asking me to open the computer lab during lunch so they could work on their Hypercard projects. They became very creative in how they presented their information but even more so on how they structured the quizzes; they wanted to do things that would be funny or surprising to their peers while also presenting accurate information. In the process, they truly learned the material. Their test scores were much higher on this unit than before.


   At other schools where I have taught I have instituted some form of student-created content made with the intent of teaching other students (instead of just the instructor). At Juab High School in central Utah, students in my chemistry and physics classes created demonstrations and mini-lesson plans on the chemical elements and principles of physics to present to each other for feedback, then perfect and present to students at two local elementary schools and to the public at a back-to-school science night. At Mountainland Applied Technology College, students have been required to look up tutorials on software packages such as Adobe Photoshop, practice them, write up their own lesson plan, and then present it to the other students. In each case student motivation and retention has been excellent. The only drawback is that such activities take more time than traditional rote learning so not as much content can be “covered.” But when the focus shifts from coverage to quality, I find that less is indeed more.


   Now I am not trying to say that the activities and types of assignments on the left are bad. There are times when a great deal of facts must be covered quickly and a lecture with note-taking is simply the best way of presenting the information. For students who are less self-motivated or less mature, the activities on the left and center are effective, and there are times when teachers need to have more control over the content and the direction of students. As students gain more experience and take more control of their own learning, they should naturally start moving toward the right side of the continuum.


   Even in the teaching profession we see this – teachers in training gain facts first in content area courseware, then go through various stages of methods courses and lesson plan development practice before presenting lessons to fellow teachers. They eventually move up to teaching a single class of students for a limited time, then move on to full scope student teaching for a whole semester under the direction of a mentor teacher, then finally gain their credential and full-time employment. If we expect our teachers to follow this process, then why not our students as well? They can become apprentices of knowledge, progressing to journeymen students who create their own content and conduct their own research, eventually progressing to masters who are now totally in charge of their own learning.


   This is what we propose for The Elements Unearthed Project. Student teams will progress from being researchers to scriptwriters to video editors, at each stage trained and mentored by experienced media professionals and local scientists and historians. Not only will they become producers of content, they will also learn to evaluate and present that content in an aesthetically pleasing and factually accurate way. Although the content they produce will be of benefit to many students and teachers worldwide, it is the student/community teams that will gain the most. Local museums will receive high quality media content that they can display in their museums and on the Internet. Local chemical plants and refineries will gain valuable public relations exposure by telling their stories to the wider community. Team members (students and mentor teachers) will gain video editing and scriptwriting skills, as well as the chance to do primary historical research. Communities will gain from increased public awareness of the history and environment of the town. In short, everyone benefits.


   It is our hope that you will support this project by becoming involved directly as a sponsoring organization (a refinery, chemical plant, or museum) or by creating a team of your own to document the history of your area. You can also contribute to this project financially and receive sponsorship credits in the final podcasts and on this blog. Next week we will discuss the timeline and phases of this project and more on how you can get involved.

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