Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Using the Smarter Science framework with a grade nine applied science class.

The Smarter Science framework provides science students and their teachers with a structured, step-by-step method to guide them through collaborative inquiry based activities. I am currently teaching a grade nine applied science course at St. Pius X High School in Ottawa. Although I have taught this course many times this year I am taking a different approach to it. I am using the Smarter Science framework of hands on collaborative lab activities in which the students design and run their own controlled experiments. We are experiencing unprecedented success!

The Beginning and Exploring Science Learner

Initially the learner uses the framework to become familiar with controlled lab inquiries that they have designed themselves. The learners collaborate to determine what all the variables in an experiment will be (star burst design).

The Emerging Science Learner

The students design their own experiment with one, measurable dependent variable and as many of the independent variables they think are necessary (fishbone diagram). The group brainstorms together to determine how the independent variables will be set up (cloud diagram). They may do some quick preliminary investigating to test if their controls are in an acceptable range. For example, when deciding how long to let a chromatograph run they may dip the chromatography paper into some water to determine how quickly the solvent migrates up the paper. Because they have no prior knowledge of chromatographic techniques they initially have no idea if it would be feasible to set the run time at one minute, one hour or even overnight.

The Competent Science Learner

While using the smarter Science framework the students not only learn new lab techniques on a “need to know” basis but they also experience “just in time” learning with lab equipment. For example, rather than have a teacher directed lesson on measuring liquids with a graduated cylinder the students will learn to use a graduated cylinder when the need arises in a real life situation. One of the primary roles of the teacher during the learner-led inquiry process to ensure that safety is embedded in the activity. In my teaching experience, it is often at this stage that the learners become aware of the sources of error in their inquiries and will either redesign the procedure or repeat the entire lab, at their own initiative, in order to correct for the sources of error that have become evident to them.

The Proficient Science Learner

By using the Smarter Science framework the learner takes charge of their own lab design which allows them to make sense of the theory that is covered in class before, during or after their lab inquiry. The Smarter Science framework empowers the student to become a self-directed learner. Initially they just wanted to have some fun in the science lab, which they do not interpret as ``doing any work`` but gradually, as they come to an innate understanding of the scientific process they use it to question the world around them. They learn how to collarbone and communicate with their peers, who are not necessarily their academic or social equals.


Grade nine applied science is one of my favourite courses to teach. I always request it on my timetable, every semester. Over the years I have taught this course over 30 times. The main reason I enjoy this course so much is not the curriculum but rather the nature of the learner. In general, students who enroll in the grade nine applied science course come to me not liking science, partly because they have rarely experienced success in a science course. Often they bring other factors into the classroom like learning disabilities, attention deficits, oppositional disorders, mental health issues, language barriers, and so on.

Until this year I always honoured the hands-on nature of these learners by having them perform many labs yet I was always extremely prescriptive in how the lab was to be done and what was expected in the write up, ie. ``cookbook labs``. I believed this approach was necessary in order for me to maintain control of my classroom as well as for the safety of the learners. At the end of the day I was often left wondering what had been accomplished during the lab, because I saw no evidence of learning and the students did not extrapolate their lab experiences to the theory covered in the course.

Using the Smarter Science framework has allowed me to follow my philosophy that all students can experience success in my classroom while teaching me that grade nine applied learners can be trusted to work safety and efficiently in the lab. When they are given control of their learning experiences they not only act but think like scientists. The collaborative approach of Smarter Science allows them to share their collective knowledge to deepen their understanding of the course content.

Although marks in themselves have become meaningless to me during this journey my midterm marks have never been higher. On the midterm report cards my class mean was 82% and the median was 90%!

See also: http://smarterscience.youthscience.ca/

Sunday, November 28, 2010

11. Chromatography – Pure Substances and Mixtures

This Friday we had a “snow day”, which means the amount of snow, or in this case freezing rain, that fell overnight rendered the roads too dangerous for sensible people to risk their lives driving to the school buses are cancelled. In our school boards the school buses get canceled but the schools never close, so all the teachers must report for duty! In addition, because it is a “regular school day” we must all carry on with activities that are directly related to the curriculum, not watching movies or playing games. (Unless they are curriculum related, of course.)

In my case, I view these “snow days “ as opportunities to do some fun labs, that I might not otherwise do, so we get the best of both worlds -- a learning activity that is related to the curriculum but a fun activity. I want to make sure that the students who show up for class have an enjoyable learning experience but those who did not make it into school are not left behind in the dust.

Our grade nine class is deep into the chemistry unit at present. We have mastered the concept that matter is subdivided into pure substances and mixtures, etc. So we took the time of Friday to do a simple Smarter Science chromatography lab to explore mixtures and pure substances further.

1. Initiate and Plan = ENGAGE

I started the class by explaining chromatography to them in real simple terms. I modelled how I could put samples on a start line on filter paper and place the bottom of the paper into a beaker with a small amount of water in it. The water moved up the paper by capillary action dragging the components of the sample with it. Before class I had prepared several chromatography papers which I dried and showed to the students. In all cases the samples I used were dots of ink from a variety of markers that I had lying around my classroom. When we examined the finished chromatographs we could observe either one solid coloured line or a line that split into a prism of colours. I posed the questions “Which inks made solid lines and which inks split into a prism of colours?” the students were quick to assert that if more than one colour could be seen in the chromatograph the ink must have been a mixture whereas chromatographs with a solid colour must have been a pure substance.

I then distributed the Smarter Science starburst diagram so we could determine all the variables that could be controlled or tested for in a similar experiment that the students would run. We brainstormed six items.

1. The amount of time the chromatograph was run

2. The amount of liquid placed in the bottom of the beaker

3. The size of the ink dot

4. The colour of the markers

5. The brand of the markers

6. Size of paper

The students discussed the list of variables with their partner to decide which one they would test for. They moved the post it note with their dependent variable to the head of the fish diagram. The other post it notes became their independent variables and were moved to the “bones of the fish diagram.

2. Perform and Record = EXPLORE

The partners continued to design their experiments by planning the values to give each on the independent variable, ie. How long to run the experiment, how much water to use, what brand of markers to use, etc. Once they had determined their variables they began experimenting.

Yet again I had the pleasure of watching student’s experience a lab technique for the first time and react in wonder. When the inks actually began running up the paper they were amazed! This short video clip illustrates the joy experienced by one group as they produced a rainbow.

3. Analyze and Interpret = EXPLAIN

The students analyzed their chromatographs to determine if the various inks they used were pure substances or mixtures. They compared their results with each other while classifying their inks.

4. Communicate = EXTEND

Because it was a snow day and these students had actually made the effort to come to school I allowed them extra time to reflect on this lab and play with the technique. I had them explain their results to me orally and write a one sentence conclusion.

N.B. The students were pleased that although they had come to class on a snow day they “didn’t have to do any work” and were allowed to experiment instead! After the lunch break we blew up a gummi bear and a sour patch kid (two different types of candies), in two separate explosions, using potassium chlorate. We followed up with a discussion of which one caused the greater reaction therefore contained the most reactant (sugar). Then we played a Periodic Table game using the smart board wherein they had to identify elements by the number of orbitals and outer most electrons they contained. Lot’ s of fun! No work! And even the administration is happy!

Monday, November 22, 2010

Posting Ten -- Discovering Physical and Chemical Properties

We’ve had a few more signs that winter is coming to Ottawa – a freezing rain storm last night resulted in a number of fender benders, including people smashing into ambulances and pedestrians falling down and breaking their bones. Yet in the classroom we persevere, the courses march ever onwards, we are over half way through the first semester now, midterm report cards have gone home, time marches on!

This week the grade nine applied science class started the chemistry unit (aka Exploring Matter) which lends itself to so many fun labs. It is important for the experienced teacher to remember that what has become ho-hum for them is new and exciting for the grade nine learner, who is often experiencing doing chemistry “in a real lab” for the first time! To that end I always make sure that the student has as authentic an experience as possible, which is easily accomplished if they wear safety goggles and use “real” scientific equipment instead of paper cups and plastic spoons. That being said I am fortunate to have an actual lab with real equipment, but the same results can be achieved using materials that are at hand.

I have taught the concept of physical and chemical properties many times and have always used a cook book lab as a follow up to the theory. This year I wanted to use the Smarter Science technique of having the students plan their own lab so I designed a table for them to use wherein they both designed the procedure and recorded their observations.

1. Initiate and Plan = ENGAGE

The students were instructed to test hair, magnesium and brom thymol blue for physical and chemical properties. The properties to be tested for were identified on the table provided.

Since we had already done a couple of labs this week the students were familiar with the equipment we have available and where it is kept. They were instructed to come up with a method of testing for each of the following physical properties: colour, lustre, solubility, density and texture as well as the chemical properties: combustibility, reaction with oxygen and reaction with acid. Only when they had filled in the middle column of the handout (above) were they allowed to gather the needed materials together.

2. Perform and Record = EXPLORE

The students’ favourite part of every lab is experimenting and recording and, as usual, they were enthusiastic participants. Although they had candles to test for combustibility the flame did not get hot enough for two of the groups to experience success with the magnesium so I brought them up to the fume hood where I have a Bunsen burner and let them use it. Wow!

3. Analyze and Interpret = EXPLAIN

In order to help the students analyze their results I posed the question “what is the difference between physical and chemical properties?” This question prompted them to review their table and analyze the techniques they had used when testing for physical versus chemical properties.

4. Communicate = EXTEND

Upon reflection most of the students were able to explain that physical properties could be detected using one of the five senses but chemical properties required a reaction, which did not seem to be reversible.

Why I love teaching!

My own favourite moment during this lab was when my shy ESL student completed her lab then came over to a group of yahoos who were dithering around , asked them if they had reacted acid with their brom thymol blue yet and proceeded to do it for them. Wowie - Zowie! They thought she was magical when the solution turned yellow. They quickly got their act together to test everything themselves. Seriously, it was beautiful! This girl had never even spoken to these rowdy boys before and now she had not only spoken to them but demonstrated her learning to them! Major props all round!

What about you? Why do you love teaching? Have you tried using the Smarter Science framework yet? Is this blog helpful to you? Please leave us a comment.