Saturday, January 29, 2011

Setting Safety Rules in the Science

Over the years of teaching science I have always recognized that safety was the number one priority in the lab. I have used a number of approaches to setting the rules of conduct in the lab from dictating them, providing a contract for the students and their parents to sign, have them copy them from the textbook, providing cloze activities, and even a lab safety manual that I produced which gives visual prompts which the students have to interpret then write out the rule that is demonstrated in the graphic. This latter technique has been especially useful with the high needs learner because it provides evidence that the learner understands and communicates the rules.

Since using the Smarter Science framework to teach science I have witnessed first-hand the beauty of empowering the students by giving them ownership of their lab activities. So I decided to also give them ownership of the lab rules. Many thanks to Santa Claus for gifting me with the awesome sticky notes pictured below that sparked this idea for me।

Each pair of students was given one copy of each sticky note. They did a think-pair-share to decide on one rule to write on the “Thou Shalt” and one on the “Thou Shalt Not” sticky note. They then took turns coming to the front of the room and putting their sticky notes on the master rule sheets which I decided to make look like the Ten Commandment tablets. Because there was some confusion around the word “shalt” I put the words “Do” and “Do Not” at the top of the master sheets। This was to ensure that there was absolutely no confusion about what was and was not allowed in the lab।

One person from each pair presented one of their rules, thus ensuring that everyone had a turn to speak in front of their peers। The students also had to present the rationale for their rules. In the event that a rule was the same as, or similar to, a rule presented by another group it was stuck on top of the corresponding sticky note. Therefore, instead of ending up with 26 rules we actually ended up with about 10 on each side of the poster. Furthermore, because some rules correlated with each other there really were not that many rules and as usual, they were mostly just good common sense. For example, “Thou shalt not run” correlated with “Thou shalt walk”.

By pooling their collective prior knowledge, first in the think-pair-share then in the ensuing classroom discussions that arose around the presentations the students came up with every rule I have ever required in a lab. In fact, they were even more strict than my expectations. Even though the students did not know about wafting they did manage to articulate that it was not a good idea to take a big snort of an unknown substance!

I encourage you to give your students ownership of their learning in a controlled manner। The teacher does not need to be a dictator. By allowing your students to talk things through and pool their knowledge you will find both yourself and your learners in an excellent position to expand your knowledge!

Warning! I would never do this activity in a school that was not Christian centered in case it was considered disrespectful to other religions. It could, however, be modified, to become student created lists of “Do” and “Do not”.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Bottle Rockets – An Inquiry Based Culminating Performance Task!

In Ontario we are mandated by the Ministry of Education to evaluate the culminated learning in high school science courses at 30% of the total mark, the other 70% of the mark is earned during the semester. This 30% is made up of a combination of a Culminating Performance Task (CPT) mark and a written final exam. Each school board has the liberty to decide exactly how the 30% will be distributed for each course.

In my school board it has been decided that the CPT mark for grade nine applied science (SNC1P) will be worth 20% and the final exam 10%. This allows the students, who by virtual of enrolling in the course, have self-identified as hands on (kinesthetic) learners to demonstrate what they can do in practical terms rather than in terms of a pencil/paper written exam which is not their strong point. Within these guidelines the teachers are free to design and evaluate a CPT of their choosing.

This semester our CPT was to use the Smarter Science frame work to design, build and launch bottle rockets with the objective of achieving the best possible launch as determined by the height reached by the bottle rocket on lift off.

1. Initiate and Plan (= ENGAGE)

When introducing the project to the students I showed them some previously made rockets as well as some pictures and videos of bottle rockets in action (modelling)। The trick is to give them enough information that they have a clear understanding of what is being asked of them but not so much information that they simply copy what has already been achieved by others.

(A challenge in many science research labs!)

Because the students are so proficient at using the Smarter Science framework to design and plan their inquiries we started out with our pads of sticky notes while we brainstormed the variables inherent to the bottle rocket. Each variable was recorded on a separate sticky note. Our list looked like this:

· Type of empty bottle

· Number of fins

· Size of fins

· Placement of fins on the bottle

· Size of nose cone

· Amount of water put into bottle

There are other variables that could have been on this list but since the students did not think of them we did not write them down. Just like everything else in Smarter Science, this is a student-directed activity, which is why the students are always so engaged!

Other possible variables could be:

· Temperature of the water

· Materials used for the fins and nose cone

· Angle of the nose cone

· Total height

· Volume of nose cone

· Coating of the bottle rocket

· Liquid other than water for the pressure build up at launch

· Type of pump used at the launch

· Amount of pressure built up by the pump prior to the launch

· Weather conditions on day of launch

· Wind direction and velocity on day of launch

As you can see from the list of possible variables this project could quickly become a senior physics assignment. I have also seen it used, very successfully, in a kindergarten classroom. The limits are only set by the creativity of the teacher and students!

Back to our class: Since this was the first day of the project, our dependent variable was quickly established as the type of empty bottle since we were limited to empty 2 litre pop bottles that I had collected over the Christmas holidaysओठेर्स Because it is important to me, as a classroom teacher, to have some written record of the students’ learning, I distributed the fish bone diagram at this point of the lesson. The sticky note for the type of bottle became the head of the fish and the remaining sticky notes became the bones along the side.

2. Perform and Record (=EXPLORE)

Here is a list of the materials I had on hand for them:

· Glue guns

· Glue sticks

· Tape

· Construction paper

· Scissors

· Rulers

During the next class the students worked intently on building their bottle rockets. During this collaborative process they used instruments (compass, ruler, and protractor), measured, calibrated, recorded, invented and experimented.

Their final task, prior to launch, was to design a data table on which they could gather all their data. Our intent was to fire off each bottle rocket then manipulate one variable in order to have a bigger and better launch next time!

Launch day! There was great excitement and enthusiasm around going outside for the launch, despite the freezing temperatures. Naturally all the students were sent to get all of their outdoor gear on prior to launch. One group, who had not finished building their rocket the day before wanted to stay inside and build. When it was pointed out that the teacher could not leave them unattended in the classroom and they would have to come outside with the rest of the class they quickly got their act together and accomplished more work in 5 minutes than during the entire previous 75 minute period!

Every single bottle rocket experienced a successful launch! The students who had filled their bottle rockets almost to the top with water quickly realized that the quantity of water they had chosen was preventing a sufficient amount of pressure from building up to experience a terrific launch. Because time allowed them to re-launch with a different volume of water they actually got to perform and record two trials in one day.

3. Analyze and Interpret (=EXPLAIN)

Because everyone was present for the bottle rocket launches there was a great deal of ad hoc comparing and contrasting of the bottle rockets and how they performed during the launch while we were outside on launch day. Because the launch itself requires total cooperation between all members of the group it was quickly realized that each individual’s behaviour was also a variable. “I wasn’t ready when he pulled the trigger!” “She didn’t pump up the pressure enough!” “The launch pad was crooked!” are just a few of the exclamations over heard. In fact, if time permitted, a whole inquiry could be done just on the actual launch, which could compliment the inquiry into the design of the bottle rockets.

Upon return to the classroom, from the launch pad, the groups were given time to analyze, evaluate and review the performance of their bottle rocket during launch. This allowed the students to discuss the cause and effect of any problems they encountered with their launch. For example, fins that were not evenly distributed caused the rocket to veer to one side rather than launch straight up. It also gave them the opportunity of recognize both good and poor features of their construction. For example, duct tape worked better than scotch tape for attaching fins, we know this because the fin attached with scotch tape fell of whereas the one attached with duct tape did not.

4. Communicate (=EXTEND)

Yet again the communication component of the inquiry became important to me as a classroom teacher because it allowed me to collect samples of the students work in order to justify and document their marks. Each group could produce a report, in writing, which contains their reflections on the activity. To help guide their reflections the students could be asked to respond to these types of questions:

How important was your choice of building materials?

How closely did you follow your initial design?

What did each person contribute to the group?

What will you do differently next time?

Because the process is where most of the true learning occurs in this activity I chose to make the process worth 50% of the mark and the product (finished bottle rocket plus written report) worth the other 50% of the mark.


Bottle rocket launchers can be ordered from a variety of scientific suppliers. The one we used was purchased from Pro Lab Scientific for a cost of about $65.00. There are also several sites on the internet which provide instructions for building your own.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Robotics -- How hard could it be?

Posting 13
In the grade nine applied science curriculum in Ontario we study a unit on Earth and Space Science: Space Exploration. One of the overall expectations the students need to master is “analysis of the major challenges and benefits of space exploration, and assess the contributions of Canadians in space.” (The Ontario Curriculum, grades 9 and 10 – Science, 2008)

With this expectation in mind I led my students through some information on the Canadarm and Canadarm2. This included examining static pictures, appropriate grade level reading material and viewing a variety of videos. The students were fairly disinterested in what the text book had to say, I am not sure how many of them actually processed it. However, when I showed them actual video footage they expressed disbelief that the videos were even real. I had to actually show them where I got the videos (from NASA’s and the Canada Space Agency’s official websites) for them to grudgingly accept this was not some sort of a conspiracy theory I was trying to pull on them।

The students were amazed by the concept that the International Space Station (ISS) is really in existence, that it is constantly orbiting the Earth and -- what really blew them away – that astronauts are taking turns traveling to it and living there for months at a time! Now we were getting somewhere!

Using the “official” videos we became familiar with the three components of the Mobile Servicing System (MSS) – Canada’s contribution to the ISS. These components are the Mobile Base movable work platform, the 17 foot long robotic Canadarm2, and Dextre the robot that works in conjunction with the first two components to perform the fine motor skills.

Shockingly, now that the students believed me they adopted a blasé attitude towards this amazing R&D. “Yeah, yeah, Miss, so what? How hard can it be for a bunch of nerdy engineers to design a stupid robot to turn screws in outer space?” OMG! Are you kidding me?! This when I knew we needed to do a robotics lab to give these students a sense of just what robotics entailed but what robotics lab could I possibility do with them that they could perform successfully and I had the equipment for?? (A primary mandate for teaching struggling student is ALWAYS set them up for success!)

Time for the Smarter Science Framework to go back into action!

1. Initiate and Plan (Engage)

“Let’s identify a really simple problem that each one of us does every day that could be performed by a robot!”

Our brainstorm resulted in this list:

· Eating lunch

· Taking notes

· Going to school

· Putting on makeup

· Tying a shoe

· Walking to school

· Cleaning my room

“Is there anything on this list that we could practice right here in the classroom to see how hard it would be for a robot to do it?”

· Not eating lunch because not everyone has one. Besides we would still be hungry, why would we want a robot to eat our lunch?

· Taking notes would be good! I hate taking notes. I never read them after I write them down anyway. I don’t even read them while I am taking them down. Yeh! Taking notes is a good one.

· Going to school is good to, that way we could just stay home all day. No, I like coming to school, I get to see my friends. Not me, I hate coming to school, I would rather send a robot so I could just stay home and chill all day. That wouldn’t work, your mom would kick you out of the house anyway.

· Putting on makeup? It would be good for the girls that use make up. No, it wouldn’t, we like putting on makeup ourselves, and we don’t want some stupid robot to do it.

· Tying shoe is no good, I don’t even have laces I my shoes. I have laces but I just leave them tied all the time, I just slip my shoes on and off. I don’t know how to tie shoes! What! We learned that in kindergarten. The bunny ears go round the hole . . .

· Walking to school? Why not just build a car to drive in?

· Cleaning my room, that’s a good one! Wait, we can’t do that here, you have to be home to clean your room . . .

Okay so identifying a common problem was much more difficult than I thought it would be. Next time I might just identify the problem for them. How much would that affect their learning? Hmmm? Well, “Literacy does float on a sea of talk” and there was some excellent discussion while reviewing the pros and cons of each of the activities . . . If only we had unlimited time!

Like the phoenix rising from the ashes of our discussion our question emerges!

How can we simulate the performance of a robot tying a shoe lace?

This question is the center of our star burst diagram.

Once again we brainstorm different methods we could use to tie a shoe, keeping in mind the equipment that is readily available to us. Four options are agreed to:

1. Blindfolded

2. With eyes open, but wearing gloves (lowered tactile sensation)

3. With eyes open, but using pencils instead of hands. (No tactile sensation.)

4. With eyes open but using tweezers in each hand (still no tactile sensation but pinching is possible)

Our control, or dependent variable, will be how long it takes (TIME) the individual to tie a shoe as they normally would, ie. Wearing the shoe, with their eyes open and using both hands.

Holy cow! We were finally ready to start our investigation and the whole 75 minute period was over, yet highly productive! Also, because we ended on a high and the kids were actively engage in the process of planning the lab they were more likely to show up the next day! It’s win-win!

2. Perform and Record (EXPLORE)

Sure enough, the students come bouncing into the classroom the next day eager to get going on their lab. We refer to the starburst diagram to review what we agreed on for our independent and dependent variables. Before they could get started they needed to construct an observation table to record their data. The data that needed to be measured and recorded was the amount of time each trial took. Using instruments is one of the fundamental skills identified in the Smarter Science framework, however, I have had numerous stopwatches broken, stolen or malfunction over the years so I use this as a teachable moment!

“Everyone take out your cell phones!”

“No way, Miss. This is a trick. We will take them out and you will take them from us. No way!”

“I’m not kidding! Take out your cell phones. We are going to use the stop watches on them to time how long each shoe tying takes! Let’s go! You can absolutely trust me – but no texting!”

“Whoopee! Best teacher ever!”

So there they were with the technology right in their pockets। No more lost or broken stop watches for me! Okay, so I didn’t actually know how to use the stop watch function on a cell phone but that didn’t matter, they quickly taught each other. Because they were working in pairs it didn’t matter that not 100% of the students had a cell phone, those that did were eager to show them off and time each other.

Working in pairs or groups of three the students were completely engaged in the inquiry। As I rotated through the room I continuously drew them back to the original question which was, “How difficult would it be to design a robot that could perform this task?”

3. Analyze and Interpret (EXPLAIN)

The students drew a bar graph as a visual means of comparing their success in tying shoes using the five techniques outlined above. Although some of them still complain about having to draw graphs because it is math and it is not fun, they have become so successful at producing them that the grumbling is minimal now. They actually like selecting the colours they will use to shade in each bar and a surprising amount of thought goes into it. For example, “I will use yellow for the pencils because my pencils are yellow.” “I am using red for the gloves because the gloves I wore were red.” “How about gray for the forceps? They are silver which is sorta like gray.”

I had the opportunity the very next day to demonstrate to the students just how proficient they have become in constructing and analyzing graphs। One of our class clowns, who consistently pretends to not understand anything, was absent for the day of the lab but showed up the next day and actually asked what he had missed yesterday. So we told him and he asked how that had worked out for us. At this point I showed him one of our bar graphs and asked how he thought it had worked out for us.

He peered at the graph intently and quickly looked away with a smart-alex remark forming on his lips. But instead of blurting it out he looked back at the graph and cried “Wait! Wait for it! Hmmmm? Well, Miss, according to this graph,” he began and picked the graph up from the desk where it was lying. As soon as he actually touched the graph I knew I had him!

“This graph, Miss? It shows that it is very quick and easy to tie shoes with your eyes open and using two hands . . . but once you close your eyes it takes longer . . . then, if you put on gloves it will take even longer . . . when you use pencils . . Come on, Miss, who uses pencils to tie their shoes? Yeah, well, if you use pencils to tie your shoes it maybe can’t even be done according to this graph. Hmmm । . .this is interesting. What were you doing in here yesterday? Using forceps to tie shoes? Who uses forceps to tie shoes? Right, this is science! Who knows what those crazy scientists will get up to next? Well, if for some reason you use forceps to tie your shoes it will take 270 seconds and that is just for one shoe so really? Really,. Miss?”


4. Communicate (EXTEND)

This interpretation by our class clown led us directly into the final part of our lab, which is the debriefing, where we discuss, explain and reflect on what we did and what we learned. We orally compared the times required for each task, both individually and between groups. In every instance, the interpretation given by our class clown held true.

Once the students had actually performed the lab they had a much greater understanding of how difficult it would be for a robot to build things in outer space, even when being controlled by a person with a controller (“joy stick”).


It turns out that one of the major difficulties in teaching my grade nine science class about space exploration this semester is their lack of prior knowledge. These teenagers have seen so many special effects in computer games and movies that they have no actual knowledge of what is out there. Instead they believe that anything that is depicted as man made in outer space is just the result of special effects.

Next time I do this inquiry I think I will have the students predict or hypothesize what the outcomes will be। Will that require an extra day of class? Probably? Will it be worth it? Definitely!

Addendum: Here is a photo of me at the Honeywell Space Camp for Educators. In the photo I am in the simulator of the Space Shuttle. Space Camp is one of the best Professional Development opportunities I have ever had and I encourage everyone, from everywhere, to apply. All expenses are covered and it will be the best week of your life!