Thursday, April 28, 2011

A Judge's Perspective of the Google Science Fair, Spring 2011

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Using Gizmos to Grow Plants in Locally Developed Science Class – Posting #27

I have tried using the interactive Gizmos available from with my locally developed science classes in the past and have given up in frustration. This week I tried again but I was much more systematic in the way I scaffolded the lesson plan with the end result being real, authentic learning due to a rich, engaging task.
If you are unfamiliar with Gizmos they are online simulations that power scientific inquiry and understanding. In Ontario they are part of the Ministry of Education’s free software package (OSAPAC) which means they are licensed for use in all of our publically funded schools.  There are many other computer simulation programs available but I shall restrict my comments in this blog to the experience our class had with Gizmos.

If you teach science you are probably well aware that many of the students in our classrooms today have spent very little time outside playing – they have never made mud pies, they have never eaten worms, they have never squashed a bug and they have never grown a plant from a seed. In short, they have never experienced the wonder and awe of nature: one of the fundamental concepts essential not just to life but actually identified in our curriculum documents as  “The overall intention is that all graduates of Ontario secondary schools will achieve excellence and a high degree of scientific literacy while maintaining a sense of wonder about the world around them.”
Bearing the sad reality that our students don’t go outside I purchased two packages of different varieties of marigolds at my local hardware store. I photocopied and enlarged both the front and the back of the seed packages and distributed them to my students. We compared the claims made  while learning new vocabulary, ie. marigolds, germination, varieties. Hence, literacy was embedded into the day’s plan. I then showed them how to plant the seeds and each student planted five seeds of each variety into labeled flower pots.  We are not recording any information on these marigold seeds. We check them every day, we discuss our observations, we feel the soil to determine how damp or dry it is, we water and we even turn the plants since we have become aware of phototropism.  (Eventually these pots of marigolds will be sent home for Mother’s Day presents.)
Now that my students had some prior knowledge of how seeds grow I introduced them to the Tomatosphere Project. We used the Smarter Science framework to set up the tomato seeds as a controlled scientific investigation. (See blog posting # 26) This investigation is ongoing.
Every day we check both our marigold and tomato seeds. The students have a good hands-n understanding or the necessity of light, soil and water for seed germination and plant growth. I have not yet introduced them to the concept of fertilizers or compost – although while we are in the greenhouse we check on the vermi worms. It won’t be long now until they will delve into this project a little deeper!
Last week I introduced the class to Gizmos. In preparation for this lesson I pre-registered each student into a class on the ExploreLearning website.  Using a very large font size and bright yellow paper I then made each of them a checklist of:
1.      The name of the website (
2.      The class code
3.       Username
4.      Password
5.      Name of gizmo
6.      “Launch gizmo” instructions
Using checklists has been identified as an essential employability skill in the Passport to Learning produced by the Conference Board of Canada. I was surprised when I first read this but then I started using checklists with my students and I was amazed that they did not know what to do with them. After embedding checklists into all of my courses as much as possible I am pleased to report that they have become invaluable to both the students and the course delivery.
The Gizmo we used was Growing Plants in which the learner investigates the growth of three common garden plants: tomatoes, beans, and turnips. They can change the amount of light each plant gets, the amount of water added each day, and the type of soil the seed is planted in then observe the effect of each variable on plant height, plant mass, leaf color and leaf size. They determine what conditions produce the tallest and healthiest plants. Height and mass data are displayed on tables and graphs.
I provided them with the lesson material, Student Exploration Sheet, which is published on the website. As the computers were firing up the students answered the two questions that are to be done prior to using the Gizmo. Since these were both opinion questions the students were easily able to answer.  (What do you think plants need to grow? And How do you think soil helps plants? )  Thus, the students were feeling confident about trying the Gizmo. Although the handout provides clearly worded step-by-step instructions some of the students required individual instruction on how to drag the variables to the pots and let the plants grow virtually. The learning curve was extremely short especially when the students realized that there was no wrong answer! They especially liked watching the time fly by on the clock as the plants grew.
Spontaneously there became a class completion of who could grow the tallest plant. This led to lots of cheering and excitement! Everyone was truly engaged! As the students were able to grow their plants taller and taller they exchanged their strategies with each other.( It will come as no surprise to anyone who is familiar with teenage boys to hear that the boys were the ones most motivated by the competition – gotta love that testosterone!)
After declaring a “new world champion of plant growing”, who happened to be the newest student to arrive in my class, we carried on with the student exploration sheet handout which takes the students through a number of controlled tests.
The students were delighted with the entire process declaring that it was so much quicker than waiting for real days to pass so their plants could grow. Besides completing the Gizmo in a very satisfactory manner a lot of excellent thinking, questioning and discussion resulted from this activity. The talk was allowed to flow throughout the process proving, once again, that “Literacy floats on a sea of talk”.

How have you used computer simulations in science inquires?  Send me a tweet at:!/EurekaTeacher

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Conducting the Tomatosphere Project with the Smarter Science Framework – Posting 26

Now that our day length is increasing, bulbs are emerging and robins returning I am eager to start gardening. Since the ground won’t be warm enough to plant for at least another month I did the next best thing and had my class plant the tomato seeds which I had ordered from the Tomatosphere Project. This year however, I combined the Tomatosphere Project with the Smarter Science Framework to enable the students to design their own controlled scientific experiment. The fact that they are going to be sharing their data with the Canadian space Agency adds an extra layer of excitement to this rich, authentic learning task!

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the Tomatosphere Project I encourage you to view their comprehensive website. Briefly, schools can enrol to be part of a blind test. They are sent two sets of genetically identical seeds – one of the sets has been exposed to a simulated space environment at the University of Guelph, the other set has not. Students are asked to plant the two sets of seeds and track their germination rates. This data must be submitted online before the teacher is informed of which set of seeds was exposed to microgravity and which was not.
I like to start this experiment while we are studying the grade nine space unit. It leads to many questions, such as:
“What is microgravity?”
“How do seeds germinate?”
“Are tomatoes fruits or vegetables?”
“Why would they want to grow plants in microgravity?”
“What will people eat when we colonize Mars?”
All of these questions, and many more, come from the students and each one leads to a teachable moment.
The design of the Tomatosphere Project predetermines the dependent and independent variable for the students. Yet they still need to identify them. In addition, they determine what the control variables for the experiment are and decide on their values.
After distributing the Smarter Science starburst graphic to the students and describing the Tomatosphere Project to them the students were able to define “what would be observed” as the germination rate, as prescribed by the project. Therefore they wrote “germination rate” in the centre of the star burst as their independent variable. The dependent variable, which they filled in at the bottom of the page, was if the seeds had been exposed to microgravity, or not.
Together we brainstormed the control variables, each of which were written around the rays of the star burst. The list was:
• Size of pot
• Amount of soil
• Type of soil
• Location pot kept in
• Water
• Number of seeds
• Depth at which seeds are planted
Each student decided the value to give each of these variables then set up their experiment. This also led to a teachable moment on the important of labelling! Fortunately, I have a greenhouse attached to my classroom which allowed them all to choose their own spot in the greenhouse to place their two pots.
Once the seeds were planted the students then had to design their own observation tables. This was the most difficult task of the day. They really struggled with it. I kept telling them to make columns for whatever they were going to observe every day. Overall, this task was poorly done on the first day yet I managed to resist the urge to dictate the table headings to them.

The second day when the students came to class and checked their plants they were disappointed that no tomatoes had sprung up overnight. Nevertheless, I insisted that they still had to write down what they saw and what they did (if anything) to each pot. Now they could identify what was wrong with their observation tables. They asked me things like: “Where do I record how much water I gave them?” Eureka! Now I could tell them to add a column to their table! There were several aha! moments in class that day as the students realized what was wrong with their observation tables. Some even choose to redesign theirs from scratch.

For now we are watching, watering, recording and waiting. What will the two sets of tomato seeds do this year? I don’t know. It’s a blind test! But I will blog about it later when are results are in. In the meantime, I urge you to get involved!
For many of the students in my classroom it is the first time they have ever watched a seed germinate, thereby allowing me to provide them with some prior knowledge before we start our ecology unit. The students become very emotionally attached to their plants. They name them, they rush in to see them before class starts, they worry about them over the weekend, and they take them home and transplant them into their own gardens at the end of the experiment. There is a lot of friendly completion as they compare their plants to the others and a great deal of pride in the finished product. As the plants grow the students become more attuned to the importance of keeping everything equal between the two sets of plants and the importance of a controlled experiment becomes self-evident to each of them.

What types of seeds have you had success with in your classroom? Send me a tweet @EurekaTeacher

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Spiders In Space – Posting #25

I have signed my locally developed (essentials) science class up to participate in the spiders in space project that is being sponsored by NASA during the upcoming Shuttle flight (STS – 134). On board this launch there will be some spidernauts. Once the shuttle has established itself in a regular orbit these spidernauts will be used to observe the effects of microgravity on their ability to spin webs.
Our classroom, as well as many others, will be running the control experiment for this exciting experiment. While the spidernauts are spinning away on the space shuttle our spiders will be spinning away on Earth and we will be able to compare our webs daily through the beauty of modern technology and video streaming!
In order to facilitate this experiment I am using the Smarter Science framework. Before these high needs learners could jump into running a control experiment for NASA some background knowledge needed to be obtained. I have used the teachers’ resource manual*** provided from NASA as my primary source of ideas and information while planning how to scaffold this unit for the students.
We spent the first week learning about spiders. I started out by engaging the students’ prior knowledge by asking an open ended question: “Tell me about a time you saw a spider.” (In our part of the world we have all seen spiders.) Everyone was given a chance to respond and a variety of stories came out, proving once again that “literacy floats on a sea of talk”.
As a motivational opener I printed out a copy of the page*** in the manual with the labelled line drawing of the anatomy of the spider for each student. Then I cut them up into jigsaw pieces and put the students pieces into separate envelopes labelled with their names. (When cutting up the pictures I used my professional judgement to determine how many jigsaw pieces each student could handle – some received a page cut into only nine pieces while others received up to 24 pieces.) Each student received their “mail” and a piece of graph paper to glue their assembled puzzle on. (The graph paper helps them keep things organized in straight lines.) While they were piecing their puzzles together the students had to observe the anatomical features of the spiders very closely. They began to comment on what they were seeing:
“Why are there so many little hairs on the legs?”
“Are those pinchers on the ends of the legs?”
“Are the eyes really in rows like that?”
“What are these shapes at the back of the spider?”
By the time the students had completed their puzzles they had a deeper understanding of spider anatomy as well as the biologically correct terms for most of their major body parts. To reinforce this learning I then gave them a worksheet of an unlabelled anatomical drawing of a spider and they had to label it using their completed puzzles as a reference.
Now that the students had engaged both their prior knowledge of spiders and learned about spider anatomy I passed out the post-it notes and asked them to jot down any questions they were wondering about spiders. The questions were then read out and sorted into those that could be answered by research and those that could be answered by experimentation. After lengthy discussion it was determined that although many of the questions could be the basis of experimentation they could all probably be answered by research.
The questions were:
1. Why do spiders have so many eyes?
2. How do spiders climb walls?
3. Do spiders sleep?
4. How many types of spiders are there?
5. How many babies do spiders make?
6. How are the babies born?
7. How big do tarantulas grow?
8. Where do tarantulas live?
9. What do spiders eat?
10. How long do they live?
11. What do spiders do in the winter?

This was an excellent list of student generated questions and covered everything I wanted the students to learn about spiders except for how the web is woven, so I incorporated weaving a web into the next day’s lesson while the students used the laptops to research the answers. I set up the research session by printing out a set of the question list for each student and then gluing the questions onto cue cards. There was one question per card. Each student’s set of questions were on a different colour cue card. As the student’s found the answers to the questions they jotted them down onto the corresponding cue cards.

The next day the students were told that we were going to weave a spider web and catch all their correct answers in the web. I had cleared off one of my cork boards in preparation for this activity. I opened up a computer screen to a clear photo of a spider web. We discussed where to start in order to make a copy of the spider web on the cork board. The students quickly identified the center of the orb as the key to the entire construction design. So, we did some measuring to find the center of the cork board and used push pins and yarn to establish lines running from the center to the edges of the cork board. I then showed the students how a spider would start at the center of the orb and weave its silk in and out of the radii in an ever increasing spiral. This is when I learned that no one in the room knew what a spiral is and the importance of spirals in nature. Eureka! A teachable moment! (more later)
As we constructed the web together there was lots of discussion about how it was harder than it looks and that spiders must be very clever in order to be able to weave webs with such apparent ease. The students then took turns reading out the questions and answers they had written on their cue cards and attaching them to the spider web. This means that every single question was asked and answered several times, excellent reinforcement for those who do not learn something the first time they hear it.
Now my class are all experts on spiders. Tomorrow I am going to teach a whole lesson on spirals in nature. Then I will spend the rest of the week helping them to learn about microgravity and helping them design and built habitats for their spiders.
There will be much more to report on this project. Stay tuned!

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Assessment and Evaluation -- Post #24

Currently I am working as a judge in the first ever Google Science Fair. This experience has lead me to reflect more on assessment and evaluation in my own classroom practice. It has given me one more avenue to consider when determining marks for my students’ report cards. In general this year, I have been guided by both my professional judgment and the document Growing Success Assessment, Evaluation and Reporting in Ontario Schools (2010) from the Ministry of Education. I have also had to consider how using the collaborative inquiry based Smarter Science framework has influenced the students’ approach to science.
A. Judging the Google Science Fair
Entrants to the Google Science Fair are given a very strict set of guidelines to follow when preparing their entry. The student uses the scientific method to design, research and perform a science experiment of their own choosing. They then enter all their information and findings online using a variety of Google tools. The end result is a well organized entry with tabs for the judge to click on when evaluating each component of the entry. In addition to a 2 minute video or a 20 slide presentation the tabs, or categories, are:
1. “About Me”,
2. “The Question”,
3. “Hypothesis”,
4. “Research and Works Cited”,
5. “Experiment”,
6. “Data”,
7. “Observations”,
8. “Conclusion”,
9. “Bibliography, References and Acknowledgments”.
The contest entry form clearly spells out what is expected in each of these categories in order for an entry to be judged as excellent. Furthermore, entrants are informed that the judges will score all eligible entries on the basis of their 2 minute video or 20 slide presentation, “About Me”, “The Question”, “Hypothesis”, and “Conclusion”. Only those who excel in these categories will go through to the next round of judging.
In effect what Google has done is spend a considerable amount of time determining what is expected from each contestant. The onus is on them to do the work and present it in the manner specified. The judges’ job is then very quick and easy. We are provided with a simple rubric to evaluate each of these categories. By simply clicking on the appropriate tab an experienced marker (ie. Teacher) can easily determine where the work would fall on the predetermined rubric. The appropriate numerical mark is then entered into a spreadsheet and the world of technology takes over crunching and averaging the numbers to determine who comes out at the top of the heap.
It is only those students who score highly in these five categories that make it on to the next round of judging! Thus, Google and the judges, have determined which entries are the best without even assessing the “Research and Works Cited”, Experiment”, “Data”, “Observations”, or “Bibliography, References and Acknowledgments”. Thinking as both a scientist and a teacher one can see how this makes sense – if the experiment is not set up with a suitable beginning (question and hypothesis) which leads to a logical ending (conclusion), it doesn’t really matter what happens in the middle. By spending our time making it clear to the student what criteria we are looking for and how they will be marked a teacher can cut down the time they spend marking.
By further extrapolation of this logic to the science classroom setting one can appreciate the importance of guiding the student while they are determining what they are going to test (question) and what they propose will happen (hypothesis). Over the years I have spent in the classroom I have frequently witnessed students who want to wait and make a hypothesis after their experiment is over! It is a very difficult concept for them to realize that disproving our own hypothesis is perfectly valid science and does not result in a failing grade!
B. Assessment and Evaluation using the document Growing Success Assessment, Evaluation and Reporting in Ontario Schools (2010)
This document instructs teachers in the province of Ontario ”to focus evaluation on students’ achievements of the overall expectation” of a course (page 38). In secondary school science we call these overall expectations the “big ideas”. They are all well defined and documented for us in a variety of Ministry documents. I would like to argue that all teachers base their entire curriculum on these big ideas and therefore evaluating based on them happens naturally. It would appear, however, that I am wrong and many teachers set their own agendas, even going as far as using marks as rewards or punishments for classroom behaviour, and other factors that have nothing to do with what a student has achieved in a course.
If you recognize yourself in the description expressed in the preceding paragraph I encourage you to reflect on your motivation. Bear in mind that teachers are educational professionals. Our primary role is to help the student learn. There are other avenues available for you to express your joy or disappointment in an individual’s behaviour. One avenue is the “learning skills” section of the provincial report card, but more powerful than that is a heart-to-heart talk with the student and possibly, a phone call home.