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

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