Friday, December 30, 2011

Modelling Expansion of the Universe – blog post #48

Teaching The Big Bang Theory to Ontario grade nine science students forces a teacher to embrace their sense of humour. First one must address the prior knowledge the students have which is: The Big Bang Theory is a television show. All good teachers know that they need to meet their students where they are and I had anticipated that my students would be familiar with this tv show so I printed out the lyrics for the theme song before class. The students were happy to sing it; following the bouncing ball on the smart board is always a fun activity!
Eventually we got into the fact that there is actually a theory about how the universe was formed and it is the Big Bang Theory. (It all started with a big bang!) My students were amazed by even this little snippet of information! As I explained the Big Bang Theory to them with the help of numerous visuals and video clips, while constantly referring back to both the lyrics and what they had learned in the chemistry unit, their engagement was obvious by the questions that came pouring out of them. My favourite was: “Why didn’t anyone ever tell me about this before?”
After spending an entire period on the Big Bang Theory I left the class with the thought that the universe is expanding and the promise that tomorrow would be a hands-on activity where we would explore this phenomena. In order to organize a hands-on activity that models how the universe is expanding to students with weak mathematical skills I used my best friend, the internet, to help me come up with a great idea! (This activity is not original to me, it is found on many web pages, I was unable to track down its origin.)
1.      Initiate and Plan = Engage

Together the class used the Smarter Science template to design a testable question. It was: “Can we model how the universe is expanding?”
The variables were:
Independent - Amount of air in the balloon
Dependent - distance between the points
Controlled - shape of balloon and keeping balloon tightly sealed during measuring
In small groups, the students were given a new balloon and a marker. Each group marked six random points onto their balloon. One was labelled home while the other five were labelled A, B, C, D and E in no particular order. 
Using a string to measure the distance between two points

Using a ruler to measure the string

The surface of the balloon represented a 2-dimensional universe. Each point represented a galaxy with home being the Milky Way.
Each individual then made a hypothesis regarding what would happen to the distance from home to each of the other galaxies if the universe expanded. 

2.      Perform and Record = Explore

Recoding the data
They students measured and recorded the distance from home to each of the other five points. This measurement was taken at time one. We used this data sheet. 
An assigned group member then inflated the balloon to about the size of a grapefruit. This represented time two. The distance from home to each of the five points was measured again, while the air in the balloon was sealed inside.
This procedure of blowing more air into the balloon and measuring the distances was repeated six times and the data was collected in an observation table. 

3.      Analyze and Interpret = Explain
The students graphed their data in a simple line graph of time versus Distance from home point. They used a different colour for each line on the graph and a key to define each line.

4.      Communicate = Extend
In their final report the students had three questions to discuss. They were:
1.      How did the distance from the home dot to each of the other galaxies change each time you inflated the balloon?
2.      Did the galaxies near home or those farther away appear to move the greatest distance?
3.      How could you use this model to simulate the Big Crunch, a time when all the galaxies might collapse in on themselves?

This activity was very successful. It helped students who are not destined to be rocket scientists of astronomers understand our concept of an expanding universe. Although they used simple mathematics, measuring and line graphing, it helped them understand why I am always telling them that a lot of what we know about space has been proved mathematically.
I recommend this activity for hands-on learners of all ages!

Canadian Space Agency Sponsors Guest Speaker at Our School! – blog post #47

 Just three days after returning from their Christmas holidays the science and math students at St. Pius X High School are in for a special treat! Sponsored by the Canadian Space Agency, Adam Vigneron, graduate student at Carleton University will be speaking to a select group of senior St. Pius X High School students in the school library during period two.

Born and raised in Wilcox SK, Adam holds a bachelor’s degree in Engineering Physics from the University of Saskatchewan.  While at the UofS, he was an active member of their Space Design Team (USST), competing in a space elevator challenge (focus area: wireless power transmission) and a Canadian nanosatellite competition.  Adam also spent a term studying space physics at U of Tromsø in northern Norway.  In his leisure time, Adam enjoys waterskiing, playing cards, curling, and is an avid scuba diver.

While at St. Pius X High School, Adam will also be facilitating workshops on Solar Max with two of our grade nine classes. During these interactive 75 minute workshops students will be engaged in a variety of hands on activities. He will also be lunching with the science and math teachers; they are looking forward to discussing what essential skills he took away from high school with him.

If you are going to be in Ottawa on Wednesday, January 11, 2012 and would like to be invited to Adam’s 10:20 a.m. presentation please send me a direct message on twitter (@EurekaTeacher) with your email address and I will extend one to you personally.

You can be sure that there will be a follow up blog posting about this exciting day!

From the Space Quarterly Magazine -- Education Section

During the summer of 2011 I had the opportunity to attend the Canadian Space Educator’s conference which is sponsored and held at the Canadian Space Agency (CSA). It was fantastic and all expenses are covered by CSA! Subsequently I was interviewed by Randy Attwood from Space Quarterly magazine and am cited as a primary source for his article on the conference. The article appears below.

32 Space Quarterly December 2011
Inspiring the Next Generation of Space Explorers
By Randy Attwood
Randy Attwood has been following the space program for over 40 years. He has appeared on television and radio for over 30 years as a commentator. He is a Senior Editor at SpaceRef Interactive Inc. And Managing Editor of Space Quarterly.

While the space shuttle program was winding down earlier this year, NASA produced several videos profiling the people who worked on the program. Astronauts, mission controllers, and support personnel were asked why they chose to work in the space business. Many had the same answer: they had watched the first Apollo moonwalk at a very young and impressionable age. The idea of going into space stuck with them through school, and they made it their careers.
Now, with the remaining space shuttle orbiters heading to museums and the number of opportunities to fly in space reduced to a minimum, who will inspire today’s young people to follow the same paths to space? Not everyone wants to be an astronaut; some want to be engineers and technicians. But all have a story about a certain event or individual who inspired them to stay in school and follow their dream to space. For many, that person is a teacher.
Approximately every 10 years or so, the Canadian school curricula are revised. In the late 1990s, astronomy and space program material appeared in the grades 6 and 9 science curricula
for most provinces. Not all science teachers have a background in astronomy; so many teachers were suddenly facing classrooms full of eager students with a thousand questions. The teachers cried out for help.
One resource for teachers to turn to is the annual Space Educator Conference held at the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) headquarters in Saint-Hubert, Québec. This three-day conference held in early August provides an opportunity for educators to participate in workshops with CSA engineers and scientists. The conference covers space-related, curriculum-relevant topics at the primary and secondary levels.
Marilyn Steinberg is the Program Manager, Space Learning Program, at the CSA. In a recent interview with Space Quarterly, she talked about how it is a challenge to bring space to the students in the classroom: “Space is a natural hook because children tend to look outward. Space is not a concept; it is a context. From that context, you can explain and teach a vast variety of concepts that appear in the science, math, and technology curricula across the nation. The challenge for teachers,” she says, “is how to translate content so students can understand, engage, and apply it to their own experiences.

“The children are glowing with anticipation. They want to get their hands dirty; they want to think about the problem, they want to attack it. For a teacher who does not have a background in space, it is hard to satisfy the students’ expectations. The program we have developed here attempts in a variety of ways to address that. We give [the teachers] the opportunity to live, breath, and know space. We do this by offering the same kind of workshop that we would offer students. “We also want to make sure that the educator community has an opportunity to integrate with the scientists and engineers. The two communities speak vastly different languages. We take the time to train the scientists and engineers. They learn about curriculum, and they learn about teaching strategies. Ultimately, they are speaking the language of the classroom to the educators.”
One of the educators who attended this summer’s conference was Kay Stephen, a high school teacher from Ottawa: “The Educators Conference was amazing. My background is chemistry and biology so I didn’t know a lot [about space]. For teachers without a space background, the textbook is a good starting point. But things are changing all the time in space. After the conference, I felt current with what was happening in space and knew where they were going to next.”
An important aspect to teaching in Canada is STSE, which stands for science, technology, society, and the environment. (In the United States, they use STEM, which stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics.) Essentially, STSE is the application of what the student learns in science to other areas, including his or her own environment and daily experiences. It is answering the question, what does this have to do with me?
Applying STSE to teaching space exploration is very important to Stephen: “That is what it is all about. That is where it all comes together. That’s where the kids take all the theory and apply it to real life.”
Stephen teaches applied-level students and says that without STSE, her students would not be engaged at all. “Every day, that’s all they want to do: get their hands on an activity, get their critical thinking engaged, and apply what they are learning.”
Stephen says that the highlight of this year’s conference was the workshop on Mars. “They
have an area that simulates the surface of Mars. They took us through the different labs where the actual research scientist made the presentation. There were no stupid questions. They spoke to me at my level. I can take the information back to my own grade 9 students. I was very impressed.”

The CSA does more than run the educator conference, though. Students can visit the CSA headquarters for workshops, and the CSA also sends presenters to schools. They perform 280 workshops a year. The educators who cannot get to the CSA can access online resources on the CSA Educator website.
And there are other programs for educators to use. The Tomatosphere project, which the CSA co-sponsors, has been active for the past nine years. Tomato seeds that have travelled in space are made available to students to grow and compare to similar seeds that have stayed behind on Earth. Students receive two packs of seeds; they conduct a scientific experiment and compare the germination rates of the two seed sets. Only after the experiment do they learn which pack of seeds had been exposed to a space environment and which were Earth seeds. During the nine year program, Steinberg estimates that 2 million students have participated in the Tomatosphere project.
A major project the CSA is working on for educators will be released a year from now. It
is a 3D interactive program that immerses the student into the space environment. With a Chris
Hadfield avatar as the student’s guide, they will learn to live on the International Space Station or fly the Russian Soyuz spacecraft. All along, they will be given problems to solve that require them to apply the scientific method and understand several important concepts. Their teacher will be linked in to monitor the students’ progress and act as Mission Control. The student avatars will join the Hadfield avatar and shrink down to either explore the internals of a green plant on the space station or examine the insides of a rocket engine on the Soyuz.
The challenge for the CSA? Canada is a large country, and there are thousands of teachers struggling to bring space and astronomy to their students. Unlike NASA, which has education centres spread across the country and a much bigger budget, the CSA is isolated on Montreal’s south shore.
“Many teachers don’t even know there is a CSA. [It’s] Canada’s best kept secret,” points out  Kay Stephen. “Canadian educators need to know that there are grants to get CSA scientists to visit your schools.”
The CSA is about to undergo potentially severe budget cuts. Hopefully the CSA programs, which are meant to help educators across the country inspire our future space scientists, will not be too severely affected.

All photo credits in this blog post: Kay Stephen

Saturday, December 3, 2011

I Wonder: What’s In the Package? Blog #45

Christmas is coming! I am a champion of guessing what is in all the beautiful packages under my tree! My family has despaired of even trying to trick me; I can simply look at the gift and proclaim its contents. This talent has taken me many years to refine!

I.                    ENGAGE = INITIATE AND PLAN
This week I received a package at school which made me think of setting up an inquiry based lesson. I placed the package strategically on my desk where the students couldn’t help but notice it. Questions such as “What’s in there?”, “Whose that package for?” and “What’s in the box?” were posed ad hoc as the students came into the room and got settled for their lesson.
My response to each question was simply: “I wonder . . .” When students are engaged with a sense of wonder their inquiring minds quickly fill with fabulous questions. It is WONDERful!
We decided that the question we wanted to answer was: “What’s in the Package?” Hence the package contents were the independent variable of our inquiry. What was in there was completely independent of anything we controlled. Opening the package would be the dependent variable, because it would depend on our actions.
In order to solve our inquiry, “What’s in the package?, several wonderful questions were posed:
1.      How big is the box?
2.      How much does it weigh?
3.      Who is it from?
4.      Who is it addressed to?
5.      How was it delivered?
6.      Does it make a sound when it is shaken?
7.      Does it have an odour?
This list of variables could all be observed and measured.
The students worked together to determine the answers to their list of variables. It was determined that:
1.      The box was the size of a small shoe box.
2.      The box was very light.
3.      The box was from Boreal Scientific Suppliers.
4.      The box was addressed to me, their teacher.
5.      The box had been delivered by courier.
6.      There was no sound when though box was shaken.
7.      The only detectable odour coming from the box was one of cardboard.

Now that the information gathering phase of their inquiry was complete the students were ready to do some research before making informed predictions about the contents of the box. Because they had no prior knowledge of the items available from Boreal Scientific I directed them to the web site and allowed them to use the technology they had in their pockets.
Predictions came fast and furious. They included:
Test tubes, clamps, beakers, periodic tables, magnesium ribbon, dissection material!
The students were so engrossed in the possibilities I actually had to cut them short due to time constraints. Honestly, I think they would have been quite happy to look at all the items available from a scientific supplier all day!
It was time for the big reveal! Please make your own prediction before reading any further in this blog!

The box was opened!
A large packing bag full of air was removed!

A small bubble wrapped item was revealed!

What was the item?
Discussion, explanations, and reflections ensued!
Did you guess the contents of the package?
By establishing a fantastic list of questions to guide their inquiry my students demonstrated to me that they were engaged in critical thinking skills. Maybe one day they will be as good at guessing the contents of their Christmas presents as I am! (= real world transfer of skills)

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Twelve Hour Field Trip is Eleven Hours Too Long -- Blog Post #44

In Ontario our Ministry of Education has a relatively new initiative called Specialist High Skills Majors (SHSM) in our high schools. SHSM is designed to allow students to focus their learning on a specific
economic sector while meeting the requirements to graduate from secondary school.  At our high school, in addition to teaching science and math,  I also run the SHSM Program in Justice: Community Safety and Emergency Services which is aimed at students who may be interested in pursuing a  career in policing, fire fighting, paramedicis, law, social work, child youth worker, border patrol, security, park ranger, etc.
Last Friday the students in our Specialist High Skills Major program had the opportunity to participate in a 12 hour field trip with me. Looking sharp in our black SHSM tee-shirts, we started at Algonquin College where we visited the fire fighting, paramedic and police services labs. After a nutrition (?) break at MacDonald’s we travelled by public transportation to a local rock climbing gym where the students  participated in over 2 hours of training and participating in rock climbing.
Rock climbing is, for the most part, a buddy activity and students who do not normally interact with each another quickly buddied up in order to maximize their participation time. I had no idea that so many of our students are part monkey, or possibly related to Spiderman but they were all extremely adept at climbing and very proud of their accomplishments. I hesitate to describe the “happy dance” that one chronically depressed student did upon reaching the apex of a cliff because it was so graphically disturbing, there was however, pure joy on his face!
By now it was 3 o’clock in the afternoon. All students were respectful and orderly all day.  Five of our students had to leave the group due to either employment or family commitments. The remaining ten went onto “volunteer time”.  Together we taxied over to one of the local elementary school s where our students were the facilitators for the Grade 6 Leadership Camp. If you knew the stories behind the students that were participating you would completely understand why I may be considered, by some, to be a risk taker.
During this camp I made some observations of our students as they interacted with the 11 – 12 year olds.
1.       A new Canadian hesitant to speak English in public and a young lady who has been “thrown away” by her family
An amazing pair who were in charge of an “Agree- disagree” Activity Center.  They came up with amazing topics for the youngsters to debate and asked great questions to keep the debate going! They couldn’t believe how engaged the children were in what they considered to be a boring activity!

2.       An weak academic grade 10 student and a hyper-active grade 11 student who has had to raise himself
A fantastic partnership that ran a “parachute” Activity Center. They both spoke with authority but respect to the students.  They modelled learning and improvised on the fly. At one stage, the ADHD student asked permission from his partner to move over to the adjacent Activity Center where he could see his peer was struggling with a rowdy group of students!

3.       Tiny little gymnast
Single-handedly (until ADHA guyn offered to help) put small groups through their paces as they passed hula hoops around a closed circle. Came up with lots of variations on the theme! Her height may be instrumental in bringing out the caring and compassionate side of people.

4.       Grade 12 girl who keeps her nose clean and flies under the radar
So calm and in command with the tee shirt Decorating Activity that after she had explained the concept to the first group no other group needed instruction and each became calmer and calmer in her presence!

5.       Grade 10 boy, anxious to please!
OOOoooh grade 6 girls love this boy! His self-confidence, energy and deportment make him quite the (young)ladies man! Who knew?

6.       Shy Gradde 11 girl
Her shyness is her biggest obstacle. She really struggled when trying to facilitate each group of youngsters in coming up with their team cheer. Once Michelle was imported to help her the cheering really took off!
7.       Struggling ADD grade 12 girl
Possibly the most flexible, compliant and enthusiastic of the group. She moved from group to group helping where she was needed. She is almost too independent to work with a partner! Her organizational skills (when it comes to others) are phenomenal!

8.       Chronically depressed happy dancer
Our official photographer / videographer for the Leadership Camp. This may have been his big break!

This may all sound very civilized and organized but let me assure you if I EVER comment about the noise level in my class room again please remind me of the sound of 40 excited grade sixers echoing off the walls of a school gym on a Friday night. It is not an exaggeration to say that my ears were ringing for hours afterwards!

So it was a fantastic day on many levels but I am not going to lie to you, by 7 o’clock I was out of Tylenol, I had dined on a potluck supper of salad and potato chips, my head was spinning and I was plotting a way out! At this time the most unlikely student of the group came over to me with a cookie, gave me a hug and reassured me that I could get through this! Can you guess who that student is?

Thank you to this student for reminding me that this is why I teach!

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Using Molecular Modelling Kits to Predict, Explain, Observe, Explain the Relationship between Chemical Formulas and Molecular Shapes – Post #43

 In my grade nine applied science class the students are typically very good at both interpreting a chemical formula and in building molecular models, using the tradition ball and stick kits. However, when it comes to the higher order thinking required to add or subtract an atom from a molecular compound they are not able to visualize how the molecular shape is changed. This semester I decided to use the Predict, Explain Observe, Explain (P.E.O.E.) model that is encouraged by Smarter Science to help the students move forward in their thinking.

Prior to performing this activity the students were taught how to deconstruct a chemical formula. That is, they could articulate that H2O (water) was a molecule composed of two hydrogen and one oxygen atom whereas H2O2 (hydrogen peroxide) was a molecule made up of two hydrogen and two oxygen atoms. Although the students were familiar with the Periodic Table and knew that families or groups represented the vertical columns and atoms in the same family shared chemical and physical properties they were unable to interpret the number of valence electrons each atom has and how this influenced chemical bonding.
1.      Initiate and Plan
To engage the students in this activity I began by distributing the molecular model kits and explaining the reason that different coloured balls had a different number of holes. Together we observed the colour coding of the atoms, their position on the Periodic Table, the number of holes drilled into the model atoms and the number of valence electrons they each had. Most students were very confused at this stage.
2.      Perform and Record
In pairs, the students found the correct coloured atoms to build one molecule of water and built it. It quickly became apparent that unless the oxygen atom was placed in the center the molecule could not exist. It was further observed that the molecule was “bent” or angled, and could not be a straight line.
I distributed the P.E.O.E. template to the students and had them predict how the look (shape, geometry) of an atom of H2O would change if one atom of oxygen was added, making H2O2. When asked to make this prediction on paper most students just drew an oxygen atom to the oxygen atom that was central to the water molecule.  They did not take into account that there were insufficient valence electrons to make this possible. This concept appears to be too abstract for these learners at this stage of their academic career. 
Once the students had completed box 2 of their P.E.O.E. template they were then instructed to build the H2O2 molecule. When given the hands-on model to build they immediately realized that their predictions were incorrect, took their water molecule apart and constructed the correct molecule for H2O2. 

3.      Analyze and Interpret
When the students compared their models of water to that of hydrogen peroxide they were able to contrast their shapes (bent vs. straight line)
.4.      Communicating
Students used the PE.O.E.  to communicate what they had learned about the relationship between the chemical formula and the look of the molecule. They went on to build a number of various molecules. Initially I supplied them with a list of chemical formulas to build and draw. Subsequently they built molecules ad hoc and determined their chemical formulas. Lots of authentic learning occurred, everyone had fun and my learning outcomes were achieved.
What learning outcomes?
From Strand A of our Ministry document – Scientific Skills and Investigation we demonstrated scientific investigation skills (related to both inquiry and research) in the four areas of skills (initiating and planning, performing and recording, analysing and interpreting, and communicating) (A1). We also selected appropriate instruments and materials for particular inquiries (A1.2). And from the Chemistry unit we demonstrated an understanding of the properties of common elements and simple compounds, and general features of the organization of the periodic table (C3). 
What strategies do you use to help these learners understand that importance of chemical bonding in molecular geometry?