22 November 2014

Reflections of TEDYouth 2014

I had the opportunity to take three members of my TED Ed Club to the TEDYouth event this past weekend at the Brooklyn Museum and it was a fantastic experience. For those who don't know, TEDYouth is basically a TED Conference, but attendees are entirely Middle and High School students and their chaperones. The theme was "Worlds Imagined" and every talk had the underlying message of 'You can do whatever you want in this life' and 'Your ideas matter.' There were about twenty speakers ranging from a 15 year old chef to an astrophysicist to a street dancer to a social photographer to a leech guy. At the bottom of this post you can see some of the pictures I took.

As with every conference, there were good speakers and some less-than-stellar performances. I wanted to discuss 2 of them in this post: Ruddy Roye and Flynn McGarry.

Ruddy Roye is a photojournalist who describes himself as a 'social photographer.' One of my students had the chance to introduce him on stage and he turned out to be my favorite speaker of the day.
During his talk, he explains how he feels it is his job to tell the story of the people on the street that he meets through his photographs. He said everyone has a story and we rarely make any effort to learn other people's stories.  There was one story he told that I wanted to relay to you. He said he was walking down the street and heard some men behind him catcalling at a woman that he realized was walking up from behind him. He let her pass and noticed that she crossed the street to stand in front of a door with a cross on it. He thought this was very odd so he followed her to ask why she was standing there. She turned to him and told him that it was Easter and for Lent every Christian was supposed to give up something. On that day, she decided to give up being a prostitute and Ruddy knew he needed to capture her image (unfortunately not pictured above). I was so completely taken by surprise that I actually lost my breath for a second. The story was so touching and the picture was beautiful. I highly recommend following Ruddy on Instagram (@ruddyroye) to see his amazing work.

The other speaker who had a great story was from Flynn McGarry who is a 15 year old chef. He started cooking when he was 10 because his father kept serving him beets and he very much disliked them. One day he was watching a cooking show and thought 'what if I cooked them like meat?' So he started using methods you would use on different meats to cook the beets such as smoking, grilling, barbequeing.
He found a few recipes that seemed to work and began to apply them to other vegetables as well. Instead of meat being the focus, he would use the flavors of the meat to highlight the vegetables. Then he asked his mother if he could hold a dinner party in their living room. The family kitchen couldn't keep up with his experimenting so he asked his parents to turn part of his bedroom into a kitchen (seen above). Eventually his home-based dinner parties expanded to restaurants in both New York and Los Angeles. During the activities session we had the opportunity to taste one of his creations. It was a smoked, grilled beet with a cranberry reduction and Greek yogurt. I am not a beet lover and I found it delicious!

But, the most important part of the day had nothing to do with sessions or activities. One of the reasons I love being an advisor is the opportunity to build relationships with my students outside of the classroom; to see them as young people instead of just students. Eating lunch with my students, hearing their ideas, joking with them, recording a stop-motion animation, watching the smiles on their faces as they got to experience a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity; these will be the memories from TEDYouth 2014 that will stick with me forever.

02 November 2014

When Chemistry Becomes Math Class

At a convention I was at the presenter told the following anecdote:

A group of science educators wanted to see what students' impressions were of Chemistry class. Immediately before the first day of class, the evaluators asked the students to describe what they thought Chemistry was in three words of less. As they expected, words like fire, explosions, reactions, chemicals, dangerous were among those at the top of the list. At the end of the first quarter, the evaluators returned and asked the same question and were surprised at how the students' idea of chemistry had changed. Now words like math class, boring, work were at the top and nowhere could be found words about science.

One of my biggest complaints about typical Chemistry curricula and textbooks are that they start with significant figures, scientific notation and conversions, very little of which has no impact on Chemical principles or the understanding of Chemistry in general, but rather only how students report their answers. I decided to start with actual Chemistry and teach naming and forming ionic compounds. We then worked backward through the curriculum, through the Periodic Table, basic Atomic Structure, and now we are in the dreaded sig figs and scientific notation.

Since I am very activity driven in class I wanted this to be more than notes and worksheets. I trolled Googled looking for "innovative significant figures activity." It is amazing what some people call innovative. Some things I found were webquests, an "interactive" website that was a just a digital worksheet, and an activity that required students to count popcorn kernels. I decided to just make my own.

I went through my sons' toys and grabbed random objects as seen below.

Each student received either a 6 in ruler, 12 in ruler or a meter stick as they walked in the classroom. I then asked them to measure the length of the object in both centimeter and inches and compared the accuracy of both. This part was fun because I made sure the kids with large objects received small rulers and the ones with small objects got the meter stick.

We then calculated the volume of their object. This led to a lot of questions because we needed to figure out what was the better measurement to use for the calculation. After this, we answered the Essential Question for the day which was "How many of your object will fit into this room?" My room is an odd shape so the class needed to figure out how to find its volume as well as make the measurements of length, width and height with meter sticks.

Once each student calculated the number of their objects that fit in the room (the answer really surprised them as many of them had in the millions or even billions) we needed to discuss accuracy of their answers which is where significant figures came in.

As we just finished the Quarterly where they needed to use significant figures and scientific notation I saw a definite improvement in the scores involving those questions. There were still students who got those questions wrong, but I noticed during the exam students who were clearly recalling the rules we used and, hopefully, the activity.

Was this a fool proof method? Absolutely not. Did we have a lot more fun learning about something so dry as sig figs? Definitely!

06 October 2014

Leading With The Lab

As I mentioned in my previous post, I have been asked to write 2 articles for Carolina Biological Supply's monthly newsletter. My first was about transitioning students to using video as instruction. Sorry for not making this post last week. The second article is below:

Leading with the Lab


When I first started teaching fifteen years ago, I ran my classroom the way my high school chemistry teacher ran hers. I decided to become a teacher when I was eight years old so I paid close attention in school to what my favorite teachers did with us so I could duplicate it when I finally became a teacher. A typical unit would start with notes. We would cover basic definitions and vocabulary that would be used throughout the unit. I would then move on to example problems and have the students complete questions from the review sheet in class so I could see they knew how to solve the problem correctly. I would assign daily or weekly homework to reinforce what we were doing in class and administer 5 point quizzes every couple of days to check for retention of learning. Somewhere in the middle or latter half of the unit we would perform a lab to give a context to what we had been learning and then close the unit with some sort of major assessment, like a test.


This method proved to be effective for a long time. I thought I was a successful teacher because I would see the light bulbs go off for students during the lab.  I incorporated more and more lab activities to show students there was a practical reason why they had to balance reactions or memorize Boyle’s law.  Lab experiments were the “real-world” uses of the material we were learning because “this is what chemists do.” When I heard students say ‘now I get it’ I felt like a success.


Deep down there was something missing for me, though. Science is a ‘Why?” subject; we observe something in the world around us, ask ‘why did that happen?’, design an experiment to test our hypothesis, then go back and revise our original thinking. I wasn’t getting a lot of kids asking why. I got a lot of ‘Oh!’ and ‘Why did you say that in the beginning?’, but not a single ‘why did it do that?’ If lab is my students’ favorite part of class, why do I wait so long to have them perform labs?


I decided that I am going to lead my units with the labs. When we perform the labs first, students ask “why did that happen?” Now the questions drive the learning!  At the end of the lab, each lab group must submit 3 questions to a Google Form that I created. I look through the questions and rearrange the lessons for the next day based on what they want to know.  Let me give you a couple of examples:


  • For Atomic Theory, we start the unit with a flame test lab. It is a traditional lab in which students move to different stations, insert different ionic salts in a burner flame, observe and record their results. Questions that come from the lab are ‘why did each chemical have a different color?’, ‘what other substances change color in flames?’, ‘Could I perform this lab with any substance?’
  • For Solutions, we start by making kool-aid of different concentrations to set up our molarity and molality notes. Students choose how much Kool-Aid mix and how much water they want to make their drink out of. They weigh the mix and use a graduated cylinder to measure their water. Students will ask ‘why did I get a different amount of drink at the end if I used the same amount of water each time?’, ‘could I still measure concentration without measuring the Kool-aid in the beginning?’
  • For Thermochemistry, students design and conduct an experiment to determine the specific heat of substance. They are given standard lab equipment and a list of objects to study which include toothpicks, cotton, rocks, glass marbles, various metals, isopropyl alcohol, water, and  vegetable oil.  A thorough explanation of specific heat is given in the introduction along with links to videos explaining the topic on YouTube. They utilize Google searches to find experiments to model theirs after, conduct their experiments and collect their results. They analyze the results after we complete the lessons on heat transfer and specific heat. Questions that arise are ‘Why are metals the best objects to conduct specific heat experiments on?’and ‘How can you test the specific heat of a liquid when it evaporates easily?’

The labs we use in class are very similar to traditional lab experiments. What has made them more effective is their placement in the learning, how student questions are driving the direction of the lessons, and how students are beginning to see science as exploratory instead of sit-and-get.

20 September 2014

Transitioning from direct instruction to a Flipped Classrrom

I am writing a pair of articles for Carolina Biology Supply for their monthly newsletter that it is sent to science teachers around the country. I am not sure when they will actually appear, but I wanted to share the first one here.

This year will be my 5th year flipping HS Chemistry. My learning environment is very different than many of my colleagues and I find that my students function better by transitioning into a flipped model of instruction than by simply jumping straight into it at the beginning of the year. I start the year by changing their mindset about learning by altering my assessments (using mastery and student choice) and lab activities (introducing guided-inquiry), and then start using video for instruction about 2 months into the school year. By the time I remove myself from the front of the room and put myself onto the computer, they are so used to thinking differently that the adjustment period is much shorter.
If you are thinking about flipping your classroom, here are a couple of methods that have worked for me for transitioning the students:
  1. Use the videos to start a class discussion--The TED Ed website (ed.ted.com) is a wonderful resource for finding short, animated science videos to illustrate topics and taking the first steps toward using video for instruction. Just How Small Is an Atom? by Jon Bergmann (http://bit.ly/smallatom) and How Big is a Mole? by Daniel Dulek (http://bit.ly/chemistrymole) are two that I use as starter activities to introduce a lesson and begin a discussion on a topic. The TED Ed videos work well because the content is created by educators for educators so it uses simple terms and also gives real-world analogies to make it easier for students to understand. Also, the animation is excellent and helps keep kids’ attention. The TED Ed videos can also be used for instructional purposes as well. One of the few instructional videos I use in my AP Chemistry class is How to speed up chemical reactions (and how to get a date) by Aaron Sams and Mark Paricio (http://bit.ly/kineticsreactions). This video perfectly summarizes everything my students need to know about collision theory and reaction rates for the Kinetics unit. I assign this video for HW, ask them a series of follow-up questions the next day, then we perform a rate-law lab that demonstrates what they learned in the video. Students are then required, as part of their conclusion statements, to explain how the different reactions in the lab illustrate the methods for speeding up the chemical reaction that was shown in the video.  
  2. Record examples you complete in class--The first instructional video I created was simply a recording of me completing two example problems in class. A student made a comment that she really wished there was a way to hear me explain the hard examples again when she was studying. I used a video camera to record the computer monitor while wrote everything out on the interactive whiteboard (IWB) and then dubbed my voice over the writing later. You can do this easily now simply by asking a student to come by during lunch or after school, handing him/her your cell phone, and asking him/her to record what you write on the board. It will take 5 minutes to record and seconds to upload to YouTube or your website. Or, if you have an IWB, use a program like Snagit by TechSmith to capture all of your writing to share later.
  3. Instructional videos as notes only, no examples--One comment my students make is that either my videos are too long (keep them to under 10 minutes!) or that I provide too many examples. What I have started to do is create two sets of videos: one that is strictly notes that contain things like definitions or diagrams, and a second that contains only examples of how to solve problems. Some of my students watch the videos on their bus rides to athletic events and say they can’t concentrate well enough on a bus to truly understand the problems I show, but the definitions are easy to get down in their notebook without much thinking.
  4. Hold Student Accountable.  What you will need to remember, regardless of the purpose of your video, is you must hold the students accountable for watching the videos. You can use a Cornell notes system, have students generate original questions based on what they learned, tie all assessments directly to the learning in the videos, or have them complete reflection logs after each video. Kids are used to watching videos for entertainment only. You need to help them see them as learning tools as well and help them develop ways that aides in retention of that learning.

I hope these tips are helpful as you transition from a classroom utilizing a lot a direct instruction to a flipped classroom. Video is a powerful way to excite students about a topic and to deliver content that will help you better utilize class time.

19 September 2014

Play the ball where the monkey drops it

This post is again inspired by something I read in Creativity, Inc.

Story told in Creativity, In.:
When the British first brought golf to Calcutta, they were faced with an unforeseen problem. The monkeys that lived in the area around the course were fascinated by the flying balls and would run onto the course to snatch them. After trying a variety of methods to prevent the monkeys from doing this, this simply instituted the rule 'Play the ball where the monkey drops it.'

Related story not from the book:
I remember hearing a story about a university that was redesigning the buildings and green spaces along a section of campus. Instead of putting in walkways immediately after finishing the new buildings on campus and laying new grass, the landscape designer decided to leave everything dirt for 1 month. After a month, he returned and found the paths worn in the dirt by the students as they chose for themselves the best route to get to their next location. Then the landscaper poured concrete paths where the students traveled most and landscaped around it. The university never had worn grass sections or damaged landscaping because of this.

We often create policies and procedures to prevent behaviors from occurring. We do things like install heavy filters on our Internet firewalls to prevent students from visiting inappropriate websites or unlock certain bathrooms to limit where we need to supervise students or ban cell phones in the classroom because we feel they will be a distraction. But what if we stopped doing that? I mean all of it. What if we let the students use their best judgement and then developed policies based around their behaviors? Or better yet, create policies that encourage and reward proper behaviors rather than only punishing bad ones?