Saturday, February 26, 2011

Judging the Google Global Science Fair – post 21

I am excited to report that I have been invited to serve as a preliminary judge for the Google Science Fair 2011! This is the first time that Google has sponsored a Science Fair. They have partnered with CERN, the LEGO Group, National Geographic, and Scientific American to attract the brightest, best young scientists from around the world. Youth Science Canada, which includes Smarter Science, is the exclusive Canadian educational partner for this activity and is working to ensure that young Canadian scientists are well represented in the competition. Youth between the ages of 13 – 18 have the opportunity to work digitally, globally and collaboratively to present their projects.

Judges, including me, have been chosen from a panel of teachers and university professors from around the world for the first and second round of judging. As a judge I do not have to leave the comfort of my own home! Simple access to a computer with an internet connection along with some online training provides me with the confidence to access and evaluate the online submissions!

Entries that make it through the first round of judging then go on to be checked for scientific accuracy. Fifteen finalists will be flown to Google headquarters in California where they will present their projects before a panel of acclaimed judges including Nobel Laureates, tech visionaries and household names. (No, not including me!)

So in making a global Science Fair a sensational event for youth Google has also made it a wonderful opportunity for the humble science teacher, like me, to engage in our global village of digital opportunities!

Monday, February 21, 2011

What to Teach in the SNC1L / SNC2L Science Courses – Post 20

My blog posting last week contained several tips for teaching the locally developed grade 9 and 10 science courses, in Ontario. Since then I have been contacted by several readers who have asked me, “But what am I going to teach them?”And that my friend is the big question!

The Ontario Ministry of Education provides us with well thought out course outlines as well as detailed course profiles. These resources are an excellent starting point, especially for the new teacher. But, due to the nature of the learner in these classes I suggest that these two high school science courses are probably the ones with the most flexibility built into their curricula.

There are five units of study set forth for each of the courses. In grade nine they are:

Unit 1 Scientific Inquiry: Science in Daily Life

Unit 2 Biology: Staying Alive

Unit 3 Physics: Electrical Circuits

Unit 4 Chemistry: Properties of Common Materials

Unit 5 Making Personal Decisions

In grade ten they are:

Unit 1 Scientific Inquiry: Science in Media

Unit 2 Biology: Living Together

Unit 3 Chemistry: Interactions of Common Materials

Unit 4 Physics: Using Electrical Energy

Unit 5 Community Action Plan

The Ministry’s intention for the course is that the first units (Science in Daily Life and Science in the Media) be interwoven throughout the course content. In the grade nine course students examine personal and workplace situations with an emphasis on health and safety, for both themselves and others. In the grade ten course relationships between the student and the environment, the effect of individual choices and actions affect the community, and an individual can make a difference in his or her community.

It did not escape my notice that when the entire high school science curriculum was overhauled by the Ministry in 2009 the only courses that were left untouched were the SNC1L and SNC2L courses. I don’t know why this is, but I am sure that the Ministry has their reasons. One consequence of their failure to act means that these are the only two courses offered in my science department that are not subjected to the “big ideas”. The “big ideas”, as every high school teacher in Ontario knows, are the over arcing themes that the learner needs to take away from the course with them.

As an experienced science teacher who is intimately familiar with the documents used in our system I would venture to suggest that these are the big ideas:

Grade 9 – Health and Safety

Grade 10 – The Environment and what one can do to keep it healthy

So what should one teach? Here’s what it comes down to:

1. What the students want to learn,

2. What you are comfortable teaching,

3. What facilities are available to you?

What the Students want to Learn

The units defined by the Ministry and listed above are great suggestions, I have focused on all of them in various ways over the years but what one should really teach is what the students want to learn! How do I know what the students want to learn? Simple, first of all I ask them and secondly, I observe them.

It is not uncommon to have non-verbal students, or those identified with other types of communication exceptionalities, enrolled in these science classes so asking them has to be done in a different manner than just standing in front of the class and asking, “What do you want to learn?” Instead one must set the stage and employ some unconventional techniques to get the students to communicate their desires to you. I have the advantage of teaching in a real science lab so there are lots of visual prompts all around my room to get kids thinking and talking about science, these include lab equipment, posters, an aquarium, books, safety equipment, the layout of the room, examples of student work, a word wall and even an attached greenhouse.

To get the kids thinking about science and what it is we often do a walk-about where I point things out and invite discussion about them and also ask lots of open ended questions. Such questions usually begin with a how, what, when, where, and why. So I can point to a glass-fronted cabinet full of beakers and ask, “What could these beakers be used for?” or I can take the students into my greenhouse and ask, “Where could all these plants have come from?”; or I can offer a carrot stick to the turtle in my aquarium and say, “Why does this turtle like carrots?” The beauty of asking opened ended questions like this is that there are (almost) no wrong answers and gradually everyone becomes engaged, even if they are not talking.

The question remains, “What do you want to learn about?” After the students have completed their walk-about I give them large (8 cm x 13 cm) sticky notes and have them write, draw, sketch or DOODLE the answer to the question. Oh yes, research tells us that doodling is actually thinking in disguise! Each student is invited to tell the class what is represented on their note and post it on the front board. After class, I collect all the sticky notes, jot down what they mean and file them away. Now I have my ideas for the semester! Inevitably you will have someone who wants to “blow things up” and someone who is interested in “outer space”. The first is easily accomplished by demonstrating blowing up a gummy bear whereas the second is an excellent segue into a research inquiry.

Besides having the students tell you what they are interested in learning about your observations of the students will help you decide what they should or should not learn about. I once taught a student who was always talking about his dog and the weird and cruel things he would do with it – that semester I designed and taught my unit on “Pets”. This unit included not only a research project into maintenance of various pets but an experiential field trip to a pet store where students were presented with facts about the costs of a keeping a pet as well as a classroom visit from a therapy dog. On the other hand I once taught a student with Tourette syndrome whose tic was to shout out words associated with genital anatomy. That semester we did not study reproduction! Another time I had a student with extreme sensitivity to aromatic chemicals, a consideration to keep in mind when deciding what chemistry labs to do.

What You are Comfortable Teaching

Another important thing to consider when planning your semester is your own strengths and weaknesses. One of my passions is caring for the environment. I have kept a vermi composter for years and have integrated it into many lesson plans, which I will blog about soon. Go with what you know and love, your passion is contagious!

What facilities are available to you?

The facilities available to you are also an important consideration when planning your curriculum. For example, if you have no fume hood you probably don’t want to be blowing up gummi bears! If you don’t have running water you are limited even more. If you are in a portable, may God Bless you! Since I have a greenhouse I do lots of projects that involve plants, their germination, fertilization, growth rates, etc but don’t dwell on what you don’t have, look around you, take advantage of what you do have! Your biggest asset is the students and no matter where you are assigned to teach you will have those! And never overlook the myriad of learning opportunities right outside your classroom door – both inside and outside the school. Setting up a school recycling program or doing an electrical use audit gets the students out of their desks and into the rest of the building. And once you walk through the school doors, even if you remain on school property the possibilities are limited only by your creativity!

Have fun and good luck!

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Teaching Science to the Special Needs Learner -- Posting 19

On Ontario we have two courses that are designed for the student with weak academic skills. These courses are Essentials Science, grade 9 (SNC1P) and Essentials Science, grade 10 (SNC2P). Some schools will refer to these courses as “locally developed’ for historical reasons.

The students in these courses usually have a number of learning challenges. It is unlikely most of them will be success in the Ontario Secondary School Literacy Test (OSSLT). Most of them will probably be except and will be graduating with a certificate, not a diploma. When I am looking for science resources to use with them I usually look in the grade 4 – 5 level.

Now that I am a Smarter Science convert it makes teaching these students more fun than ever! No more cookbook labs. The students are in charge of what they learn and how they learn it.

Here are a few tips:

1. Treat them with respect! This may seem self evident but I have often had students tell me that this was the first time they didn’t feel like a dummy in class. Celebrate their successes, every time! When someone reads something for you tell them “Nice reading”, when someone asks a question respond with “That’s an excellent Question, I am so glad you asked”, when someone asks an inappropriate questions say” “This is not the time for us to discuss that but thank you for putting your hand up”, when someone screws up a lab tell them “some of the best scientific discoveries have been made by scientists making mistakes, you might be looking at the Nobel prize one day”. You get the idea.

2. Stay calm and smile! There will be days when you do not feel calm but the very worst thing you can do is YELL, it will take weeks to earn their trust back if that ever happens. When you are going to lose it do something drastic. One of my favourite strategies is to line everyone up and go to the water fountain. I tell them I need a drink of water and I cannot leave them unattended so they all have to come with me. After this, which will take at least 10 minutes, the atmosphere will have changed and you will be fine. Having a sense of humor cannot be over-rated!

3. They must treat each other with respect! Inevitably there will be a student in the class that believes they “do not belong there”. This may be manifested overtly by calling the class “retards” or more subtly by refusing to work with the other students. They have been put into your class for a very good reason so that is not a point to argue. (These may be learners with terrible attendance issues, major substance abuse problems, home lives in crisis, etc.) Instead, find a time to speak to them privately, maybe after class. Explain to them that you know they have a different aptitude than some of the other students but as long as they are in this class this is how is will be . . . . After they have been recognized by you are “not like the others” they feel better about themselves and they are able to participate in class with their dignity intact. In fact, sometimes when there is a funny question or incident occurring I will give this student a secret wink to let them know that I understand what they are also thinking. Another strategy is to ask them to be a “big buddy” for someone that needs a TA but does not have one.

4. They are “real scientists”! A real scientist has to know all about lab safety and wear their safety equipment at all times. Even if the students are simply boiling water and recording its temperature make sure they wear their goggles and tie their hair back. That is what “real scientists” must do. It’s even better if you have lab coats for you and them to wear. I only have a lab coat for myself but I ALWAYS wear it when we do labs. The kids love this! Gloves are a great idea but due to their cost I only let them wear them when absolutely necessary. Ie handling acids. By the way, simply butting vinegar into dropper bottles labeled “vinegar” for the students to work with makes them proud! Even better if you can let them react it with an unknown substance (baking soda) to create a drastic reaction!

5. Lab safety The most important thing for a science teacher to ensure, in any class, is the safety of the students. With most classes we simply hand out lists of rules. In order to prove that we have done our due diligence this is not acceptable with these learners. In the case of an accident a parent could quickly argue that a student with below grade level reading compression could not possible be responsible for knowing and understanding the safety rules. Furthermore, those parents are right. In order to protect both the students and myself I have developed a Lab Safety Manual wherein all the lab safety rules were illustrated with simple diagrams and the students fill in the blanks (cloze activity) to write the rules out. Unfortunately, my electronic copy of this has been lost in the bowels of one of the many computers I have gone through during my teaching career but it would be a simple matter to make a new one by down loading graphics from the Internet. Depending on the technology and time available to your class you could even use a digital camera and have the kids make their own.

6. Structure, structure, structure! Being in a big high school with different faces in each class, at least four different teachers to contend with, moving through the crowds in the hallway, all these little things that most teenagers thrive on can be overwhelming for the learner in essential level classes. Therefore it is paramount that they know exactly what to expect in science class. By removing their anxiety you have opened the door to learning. Your structure will be determined by you and your classroom set up. Here’s what works for me:

· We keep our binders in classroom.

· Prior to their entry put a short list of what will happen in class on board. This can be super simple. For example:

o Return worksheets

o Discuss today’s weather

o Take note

o Video

o Do lab

o Clean up

A list like the one above can serve many purposes. A common question the students will ask, once they are comfortable with you will be”What are we going to do today?” to which you can reply, “It’s on the board.” Since many of the learners will have weak literacy skills they will help each other read it. This will happen naturally and there will be ad hoc discussion around what it means. Encourage this; it leads to predicting and inferring, both of which important skills for building literacy (See how easy it is to embed literacy across the curriculum!) It also allows for some social interaction which is also something these learners often struggle with. Another important skill you will be teaching by having this short list on the board is “How to use a checklist”. Incredibly this is an essential skill identified by the Conference Board of Canada as being important for employability in many jobs yet our students are unfamiliar with them. As the lesson progresses refer to the list and check things off as they are done. Try to provide the student s with a check list of their own from time to time, for example, as part of a lab procedure, etc.

· I always stand at the door to greet the students, BY NAME. For some of these lost souls their names are all they have, honour them by learning it and using it. If a student is named Timothy and only likes to be called Timothy do not call him Tim, without his permission. This year I had a student named Antonio who insisted on being called TJ, don’t argue, just do it.

· As they enter remind them to pick up their binder on the way to their desk.

· Always have the date written in the same format, on the same place on the board.

· Insist that every single piece of paper be dated and put into the binder, in order by date. This sounds so easy but is a HUGE challenge for these students. You may want to keep an ongoing list of what should be in the binder, in the correct order, posted somewhere in the classroom. Once a week go through the binders together to make sure everything is in order. They can even be taken in for marking. Why? Organization is another essential skill that these students often need to work on.

  1. Notes
I often use notes as a settling technique in my class. The note taking is limited to writing down the date, the title and one sentence. Always print on the board, most of these students cannot read cursive writing. Even one sentence is too much for some of the students. For them I provide a print out with just a couple of words for them to fill into the blanks.

Whenever you do give a note ensure it is read aloud and discussed. If the students simply copy it down they will have NO comprehension of what they have copied.

  1. Print Resources

Do not look for a text book to use with these courses. These students are not about textbooks.

McGraw-Hill has published workbooks and teacher’s guides called Essentials Science 9 and Essentials Science 10. These are excellent!

You may find the useful articles in magazines that are geared to younger learners. Two magazine I have found helpful in the past are Science World from Scholastic, each issue comes with a teacher’s guide and Yes! Science magazine.

  1. Video Resources

These students are not able to watch a video and answer a worksheet at the same time. If you plan to do this you will have to read the worksheet one question at a time, pause the video after each question , re-read what the questions was, rewind and show the answer again, discuss it, write it on the board for them, wait while they copy it down, read the next question, repeat. I’m sure you can see that this will become very tedious. Here’s how to make it work:

Write one question on the board, for example; “At what temperature does water boil?” Before putting someone on the spot by asking them to read the question out loud tell the class that is what you are going to do and for everyone to take a moment to read the question silently to ensure they know all the words – some of the students may use this opportunity to confer with you, a TA or each other is they are unsure of any words. Have a student read the question out. After the question has been read out loud discuss it, either all together, a think – pair – share, whatever works in your classroom. Now you are ready to show a video clip which will answer the question. After watching the video clip discuss what the answer is. Oral communication is key!

Video Clips

This is the way to go! Two minutes maximum! As you know there are a zillion on you tube. Because I do not trust our internet connection at school I always download them onto my memory stick using free software called, Clip Extractor.

Bill Nye videos

The kids love these videos, but there is too much content for them to absorb.

I like to use them to show Bill Nye, or one of his colleagues, doing a lab. Then we do the lab. Or visa versa. We do the lab then watch it on the video. This helps the students feel like “real scientists” because they see other “real scientists” doing the same thing.

Most Bill Nye videos are available on you tube. The New York Teachers website has worksheets for most of them (good for the applied level.)

  1. Labs

This is the most important component of the entire course. This is the “hook”! Do at least one lab activity or one demo every day! This sounds insane but for these students almost anything is a lab. Take the temperature of the cold water from the tap and the cold water from the fridge then compare it. That’s a lab. In fact, be creative! This lab could easily take up more than one 75 minute period.

I like to train the students on one or two key pieces of lab equipment and use them over and over during the course. One of my favourites is the graduated cylinder. Why, you ask? First of all, only “real scientists” use graduated cylinders. Where else do you see them? No one has one at home or in their car. Secondly, I happen to have a bunch of plastic graduated cylinders in my lab. (Glass ones can be very expensive.) Thirdly, they are easy to learn to use. I have an entire set of worksheets on “holding the meniscus” as eye level”. Always wear your goggles! Spills can happen! And finally, measuring out a fluid (I like to use water a lot!) is generally a safe part of many labs in the essentials science course.

This semester I am using the beginning scientist Smarter Science framework to help the students work collaboratively to put their thoughts in order, then design and carry out their own investigations. You can see an example of this on my past three blog postings.


You are a hero if you have read this far! I just have so much to tell you. Instead I will stop now. Send me any questions or comments you may have.

Also, you are welcome to come into my classroom anytime to observe and visit. Maybe we could even plan an activity where we get out classes together.

Hope this helps and GOOD LUCK!

Friday, February 4, 2011

Testing the Absorbency of Paper Towels and the Sham-wowTM! -- Part Three

Part Three – Using the Smarter Science Framework to Perform, Record, Analyze and Interpret the Inquiry

(Posting 18)

Okay! So my grade nine / ten Essentials Grade Nine Science class has spent two days preparing to conduct an experiment to determine which type of towel is the most absorbent. The three types they have to choose from are brown paper towels like those found in school washrooms, white paper towels common in most North American kitchens and the Sham-wowTM a commercial product advertised for its absorbency. I spent the first day getting them engaged in the concept of the inquiry that we would be performing (see blog posting 16). Then we spent the next day using the Smarter Science elementary framework to plan our controlled test of the three paper towels (see blog posting 17).

You may be thinking that this is way too much time to invest in a science experiment, there is curriculum to cover, facts to memorize, textbooks to read and tests to write! I would like to counter any of these arguments with the reply that I have been using the Smarter Science framework in my classroom for some time now with the result that the students have an enduring understanding of the process of science and they have become able to think critically about a wide variety of concepts, not limited to science. As a veteran teacher I have often struggled with the question “But how do I get them to think?” I have read a plethora of books, taken too many courses, sat through endless hours of professional development and tried countless strategies to develop students’ metacognitive skills but it was not until I started using the Smarter Science framework in my classroom that I felt that the students were actually developing their metacognition.

The posters we used are available in pdf format on the Smarter Science website. Because my students have weak literacy skills I chose to complete one master set for this experiment which I had prominently displayed in my classroom. As the students entered my classroom today I met them at the classroom door and gave them a photocopy of the bottom half of page 4 as they entered with the instructions that the only other item they needed today was a pencil.

Together we reviewed the process we had gone through yesterday wherein we had ended by determining the question we wanted to explore. The question is: “If we change the type of towel what will happen to how long it takes to clean up (time)?”

The students were instructed to complete the handout I had given them of step five individually. This included changing the words “We” to “I”. Every single student completed the first half with: “I predict that the Sham-wowTM will be the best.”

They struggled a lot more with the second sentence starter, “I think this will happen because . . .” They wanted me to tell them what to write. Again I had to convince them that it was what they think, not what I think, as long as that is what they think then their answers will be right. There was a huge tendency to copy from the few risk takers who took the chance to fill in their thoughts so I had to ask them to turn their papers over when they were done. An additional problem I encountered was that due to the weak literacy level in the class some students asked me how to spell particular words, which is a practice I encourage with these learners. However, what happened today was when others heard what words were being requested they used those words in their answers. Thinking is a real challenge but one I now feel competent to deal with!

Eventually everyone had something written down. Some examples of their answers included, “I think this will happen because . . .

· the Sham-wowTM is made of fabric.”

· it is better.”

· material is good.”

· it is expensive.”

We referred back to poster3, step 3(b) on which we had written our three unchanged variables: blotting or rubbing, amount of water spilled, and amount of time spent cleaning up. Collaboratively we decided on the values to give each of these variables. They were:

· Blotting only, no rubbing

· Amount of water spilled = 25 mL

· Size of towel = 10 cm x 10 cm

I wrote these values right onto the poster for the students to refer to.

Almost ready to perform and record! We decided the instruments we would use would be the 25 mL graduated cylinder for the amount of water spilled. Consequently, we had some “just in time” teaching while I demonstrated how to use the graduated cylinders. We also decided to use pencils and rulers to measure out 10 cm x 10 cm squares of each towel and scissors to cut

Next we designed our observation table onto which we would record our data. We drew them right on the back of the small handout the students had used to make their predictions.

Type of towel

Volume of spill

Size of towel

Time to clean up

Brown paper

25 mL

10 cm x 10 cm

White paper

25 mL

10 cm x 10 cm


25 mL

10 cm x 10 cm

I did not worry about the fact that they were only going to do one trial with each type of towel. We can only cover so much ground at once! We can get into multiple trials and reproducibility another time.

Measuring out a 10 cm x 10 cm square onto the towels was very challenging for some of these students, as was cutting the squares out. After helping all of them cut one square out I showed them how to use it as a template for the next towel rather than measuring a new square out. In the future I may prepare some cardboard templates for the students who struggle with their fine motor skills. It would also be an opportunity to have a peer helper or buddy come into the classroom to help measure and cut the squares.

The students were happy to be measuring out their squares and using the graduated cylinders. I was pleased when one asked me if they should put their goggles on. I told them it was okay because we were only using water so they would be safe but they were disappointed so I got the goggles out and made them optional for this lab. About half of the students put them on, I have observed time and again that students like to be “real” scientists and do what a “real’ scientist would do.

The students were even more delighted that they were allowed to “spill” water onto the lab counter. As they performed the lab they required verbal cues to remind them to “blot not rub” and “don’t start blotting until you look at the clock”. In order to facilitate timing I had the students work in pairs, but each person performed the entire lab. This allowed them to focus on either timing or blotting at one time instead of both thereby ensuring that data got collected and recorded.

By the time everyone had performed the inquiry, recorded their data and cleaned up I had them all pass in their little handout for marking. There was much more learning than what was recorded on that paper but it allowed me, as a classroom teacher, to have some evidence of the students’ accomplishments so I could record something in my mark book.

There are so many extensions that could be done with this inquiry we could probably do nothing but this for the entire semester. Here are some questions that the students had while doing the inquiry:

· I wonder if the Sham-wowTM works as well after it has been washed.

· I wonder if the blue Sham-wowTM works as well as the orange sham-wows.

· I wonder how the no-name Sham-wowTM from the Dollar Store compares.

· I wonder why they don’t put Sham-wowTM in all the washrooms.

· I wonder why they don’t make diapers out of the Sham-wowTM?

· I wonder how the Sham-wowTM compares to an ordinary towel.

· I wonder if I could use the Sham-wowTM to dry my dog.

It is these questions that provide evidence to me that the students are engaging their metacognitive skills, and that is the power of Smarter Science!