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Back on the horse

20 Oct

Get back on me!

After a brief hiatus filled with masters coursework, a trip to China, umpteen college recommendation letters, lots of grading and of course teaching, it’s time to get back to the blog. I’m looking forward to this weekend and a workshop on differentiation with Carolyn Coil. I’ll post some updates from the workshop this weekend.

Looking ahead, I’m presenting a series of PD sessions in early November and wanted to hash out some ideas here.

  1. Google Apps part 2, which is a follow up to last month’s “Get a Grip on Google” presentation
  2. Differentiation 2.0, which will highlight some ways to use the technology and web 2.0 tools to differentiate.

The Un-Conference Learning 2.010 in Shanghai gave me lots of great ideas which hopefully I can work into the above sessions after laying them out here. Now that all my leisure writing time isn’t devoted to college recs maybe I’ll be able to blog more than once a month!

In the mean time, here are some collaborative web 2.0 tools I’ve been experimenting with.

  • Google Apps – its hard to even call this an experiment, at this point Google Apps is my tried and true medium for lab data and report collaboration
  • Webspiration – the popular concept mapping tool Inspiration has gone cloud-based with a free, public beta release Webspiration. I haven’t had the chance to try it out with my students yet, but the possibilities here are exciting. Concept mapping seems so much more powerful to me when you have more than one mind to map.
  • Prezi – The hip presentation tool has also gone cloud-based and now multiple collaborators can work on single Prezi file ala Google Presentation. My students have enthusiastically taken to using Google Presentation to create quick group projects, but Prezi adds another great option for presentations
  • Dabbleboard – Turn the students laptops into whiteboards that they can write on collaboratively. Could be cool for project planning or group process modeling

More coming! Hopefully soon I’ll get some student samples up on here with these tools…

student skeptics

16 Aug

I recently received this email from a close relative who shall remain nameless:

Two moons on 27th August 2010
27th Aug the Whole World is waiting for………….

Planet Mars will be the brightest in the night sky starting August. It will look as large as the full moon to the naked eye. This will cultivate on Aug. 27 when Mars comes within 34.65M miles off earth. Be sure to watch the sky on Aug. 27 12:30 am. It will look like the earth has 2 moons.

Forwarding emails like this is basically the electronic version of regifting a crappy present. No one wants your label maker. This forward caught my eye though. Mars as big as the moon? Sounds fishy…Turning to a favorite website of mine for debunking silly email claims,,  my suspicions were confirmed, it was a hoax. In fact, as pointed out here, the picture isn’t even of our moon, but two moons of Saturn (see the rings at the bottom?)

Nonetheless, this got me thinking about the daily flood of “scientific” news, claims, and downright hoaxes. From the somewhat misleading claims of discovery of a  “____ (insert characteristic) gene,” to downright mischievous chain letters, sorting the good science from the bad can be quite a challenge.

I want to involve my students in the process of finding these questionable claims, and then working to validate/invalidate them. This presents a great opportunity to exercise the skill of evidence evaluation and critical thinking.

I recently came across Frank Noschese’s great physics blog Action-Reaction and his recent post on Physics Win? Fail? I love this idea and its right in line with what I’m imagining. This has got my gears spinning thinking of a comparable collection of biology fails. First to mind is all of the monster movies featuring creatures that push the limits of biomechanics (and physics…)

Checkout The Biology of B-movie monsters for a thorough and entertaining look at exactly that.

I welcome your suggestions for Biology Fails…

How do we know this? Encouraging skepticism

28 Jul

I want my students to challenge me. Allow me to explain. I’m not saying I want to throw down in an arm wresting contest or some other feat of strength.

Arm wrestling: Ok for settling child custody disputes, Not ok for classroom icebreaker

Better yet, I want my students to question the information that is being presented to them as “facts.” Let me clarify. I don’t want my students disrespectfully challenging my authority (not my idea of fun). I do want my students to be skeptical, to demand evidence, and to be able to evaluate ideas based on a rational, scientific way of thinking about the world (fun!).

To me, this is the single most important skill I can help ALL of my students develop. The phrase “critical thinking” is tossed around in school mission statements and ed philosophies more often than a sea lion pup at a killer whale party, but in this case its use is entirely justified. Many of my students won’t go on to become engineers or doctors or scientists, but every student, regardless of career choice, will be faced with lots of choices throughout their lives that require an ability to critically evaluate evidence in a logical and rational way.

Richard Dawkins has likened children to “information caterpillars,” gobbling up knowledge about their world unquestioningly [1]. This makes evolutionary sense; a young child inclined to test the validity of a parent’s rule, e.g. “don’t leave the cave after dark or bears will eat you,” probably won’t be celebrating too many birthdays.

information is yummy!

Of course, caterpillars have to become butterflies and adults shouldn’t believe in Santa Claus or fairies. Enter the teenager and the development of this way of thinking.

I envision two key parts (in the classroom anyways) to the development of a bullshit detector scientific skepticism

  • Understanding the process of science. I’m not talking PHEOC, I’m talking science as a way of thinking about the world. A non-linear process of making observations, asking questions, collecting and interpreting data, hypothesis testing and revision, etc. [2]
  • Applying this way of thought to real-world examples. After all, practice makes perfect.

One way I’m planning to emphasize this theme is a weekly ‘How do we know this?’ feature. In the spirit of acronyms (WCYDWT?) I’m inventing a new one: HDWKT. This is still a WIP, and as such, I haven’t figured out exactly what form(s) this will take in the classroom. Things it may include:

  • Background research by me ahead of time on to compile some key experiments, history, etc of how we know what we know about the topic(s) of that week
  • Students contributing to the background research
  • Analyzing and evaluating actual data from key experiments
  • Discussing/debating current issues (e.g. evolution/ID, GMOs/organic, natural resource conservation/consumption, global warming, etc)
  • Evaluating product claims (e.g. 8-minute abs (why not 7 minute abs?), 5-hour energy, weight loss pills, homeopathic medicine, etc) either experimentally or via research literature
  • Pseudoscience debunking

COMING SOON…HDWKT #1: The Age of the Earth

Some great resources for skepticism:

[1] “Unweaving the Rainbow” by Richard Dawkins – a great read!
[2] The website has some amazingly useful resources on the notion of “science as a process.” Full Disclosure: I will in no way benefit from you visiting the aforementioned website. On the other hand, your teaching probably will…
[3] Caterpillar image compliments of wikimedia commons. Baby image compliments of D Sharon Pruitt. Caterbaby hybrid compliments of Photoshop.

how much is inside ______?

24 Jul

Measurement is a fundamental skill in science, and the question of “how much inside” is an often practical question. The answer may be intriguing and occasionally humorous (see below). For students, this basic question presents some different lines for problem solving and inquiry. How to go about measuring it? What data to collect? How to present the data? Do two populations differ in how much is inside?

Here’s an example: How much is inside a samosa?

Samosas are delectable triangles of deep-fried goodness. But what is it exactly that contributes to their irresistibility? In an attempt to better understand the delicious mysteries of the samosa, we carefully examined this culinary treat’s inner workings.

Continue reading

twitter in the classroom

23 Jul

As I mentioned in a previous post, I’m a Twitter newbie. I’m officially a convert. Two main reasons I’m digging it :

  1. Twitter is like Google Reader only the content is selected by actual human beings instead of robots serving the will of XML code.
  2. It’s a two-way conversation. Ask questions and you get answers. Well not me personally, but a guy I know…I think my 23 followers is a little short of the “critical mass” needed to really take advantage, but you can imagine what it’d be like, right?

I also like the idea of boiling an idea down to 140 characters. It’s work. And it really makes you decide on what’s important. This is a valuable skill, and one that I want my students practicing in class.

In my school last year I facilitated a PLC focused on the topic “Brain Research Applied to Education,” and we used John Medina’s fantastic book Brain Rules as a jumping off point for discussions. One of the “rules” from the book is “repeat to remember.” The rule is humorously explained by Medina himself in this video…

The implication for the classroom is obvious. I’ve got 80 minute blocks, so the last few minutes of class is ideal. Last year I experimented a bit with a few different review strategies but this year I’m giving Twitter a go. I’ve created a Twitter id (you can follow our daily class tweets starting August 9th here) and we’ll take a couple minutes to generate a tweet or tweets to summarize the “big idea” of the day.

I think there’s lots to play around with here, for instance maybe I assign the task to one person at the start of class, randomly call on someone, or we do it as a class. Students with Twitter accounts could follow the tweets and the history of tweets could serve as a quick review. Still a work in progress…