Doing labs the Write way

29 Jul

I like things that make my life easy. I like things that make my students’ lives easy. Things that do both? Pure awesomeness. And so it is with LabWrite.

You can't go wrong with LabWrite

I spent my first couple of years as a teacher “experimenting” with various styles of lab reports and lab notebooks. Sometimes grading makes me grumpy. Often times, the quality of these reports sucked was less than satisfactory. This made me grumpier. Then it was time to grade more labs. It was a vicious cycle of grumpiness.

I have only myself to blame. If you haven’t entirely bought into the set of “rules” for reporting on labs that you’re giving to your kids, your students sure as hell won’t. Annual tweaks to the guidelines or rubric helped a bit, but at some point you can’t polish a turd. Switching to LabWrite last year made my life easier, helped students understand the process of science better, and helped me lose 30 lbs in 30 days! (Ok, I made that last part up)

Here’s why I’m digging LabWrite:

  • Intuitively organized into sections – PreLabInLabPostLab
  • Each item is defined and clearly explained
  • Detailed, but still flexible for different types of labs e.g. inquiry-based, hypothesis w/ predetermined procedure, demonstration labs, etc
  • The interactive tutor guides the writing process for each section of the report with questions to probe student thinking
  • Most importantly, students enjoy using it (eventually) and the quality of labs compared to previous years is WAY better.

I’ll quit talking it up (until NC State starts showin me the $) and let you check it out on your own.

Anyone used this for Chemistry or Physics classes? I’m interested to hear your feedback. I picked up a section of Chemistry for this coming fall and would like to use it for Chem labs as well…thoughts?


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.

is this data significant?

26 Jul

If the word kurtosis brings to mind Grandma and a desperate need for Listerene, then we’re probably in the same boat when it comes to statistics. I love numbers, data, infographics, etc, but statistical tests have always challenged my patience intellect. For the longest time, I felt p values were like those magic eye paintings where you stare at them for awhile in frustration, and then when you finally glimpse a bit of what might be the image (is that a triceratops? sailboat?), you blink and the image vanishes.

magic eye image

magically annoying

Needless to say, this summer I bit the bullet and took a class in experimental design, methods, and stats as part of my masters degree. Totally changed my understanding of how statistics fit into science. I’ve still got plenty to learn, but I’ve resolved to take my newfound appreciation for statistical analysis and revamp my lab curriculum.

I mentioned in a previous post my recent change to teaching evolution first. One of the first lab activities I usually do is something to demonstrate the variation that exists in populations (e.g. measuring height/weight data in class, etc.).

I’ve taken this idea and created a scenario-based lab where students have to figure out a way to compare two populations. Here’s a snippet:

“Just the other day your boss, Pedro, was thanking you for saving the store money after you found a new local mealworm distributor offering cheaper prices. A few dead reptiles later, and your boss is threatening to fire you. He claims the new mealworms you ordered are different, and he’s blaming the new worms for his dead reptiles. And you thought all mealworms were created equal.

You need to design an experiment or experiments to determine if there is a significant difference in the two populations.

How will you ensure standardized data collection procedures? What outside factors might influence your data collection? How will you use the data you collect to make a comparison? How can you quantify the differences between the two populations (or lack thereof)?”

This of course leads into all sorts of interesting discussions related to statistics. This could be a little statistical appetizer or a whole can of worms, depending on the direction you want to go. By my count, at least three different statistical tests could be used to compare the samples, one of which barely requires any calculations (tukey’s quick test).

Like what you see? Download the whole shebang here: MealWormStats

(CORRECTION: Mann-Whitney U test actually compares the median values of two populations, not the mean and has been corrected in the file posted above.)

Feedback welcome.

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

drinking from the fire hose…safely

24 Jul

The other day I was lamenting the challenges of dealing with the overwhelming amount of information at a mouse click’s distance. Last year our school made the move to Google Apps for Education, which I was genuinely excited (some might say stoked) for. I’d already been using Google Docs a lot by requiring my students to create a gmail account and register their info on a Google Doc. Loving the collaborative benefits of Gdocs, I figured I’d have my students put lab data into a class spreadsheet and then create lab reports in small groups. 36+ emails later with (or w/out) various subject headings, email names (e.g. cutiepie70356) that are unidentifiable, and entirely informal content.

A year later, and slightly wiser, I’ve learned a few things. A few basic steps ahead of time can make life a lot simpler. Here’s a screenshot I marked up to show a couple of these tips described below:

  1. Labels – these are great for organizing the daily glut of emails. Labels are superior to folders (sorry Outlook) because you can have multiple labels on the same email, whereas an email can’t be in multiple folders at once. Labels can also be nested so that they are organized under other labels (e.g. classes>apbio). This is easy to do, just add a a new label that is preceded by the desired parent label followed by a backslash (classes/apbio) See (a) & (b)
  2. Standardized titles – When kids first started sharing boatloads of Gdocs with me, they were coming in a totally uncontrolled fashion. Now I require that any doc they share with me is titled in the following way: FirstLastName_Period_Assignment….This makes it easy to sort them out into folders. I create folders for each class in my Google Docs page and then subfolders for each assignment. See (c)
  3. Filters – I require each student to include in their signature (call me old fashioned but I require that they actually address me with Mr. Paulson and conclude their message with their name) a label that identifies their class. For example, “apbioC10” corresponds to my (surprise) AP Bio class, in period C, 2010. I’ve created filters (see (a) in the pic) that automatically direct messages containing the content “apbioc10” to be labeled “classes/apbio/c” This is a tiny thing initially but saves me the hassle of manually labeling each message day to day. (UPDATE: forgot to mention that filters could also be designed to sort out shared documents based on their titles, provided they follow a standardized format like described above. For example, I could create a label for the assignment “photo vocab” that was nested – classes/apbio/photo – and use the “Has the words” criteria to select for emails that were sharing their presentations with me automatically.)

That’s the tip of the iceberg anyways. I’ll revisit Google Apps again soon…a Wave post is in the future blog pile….

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…

a drink from the fire hose

23 Jul

Lately I’ve been feeling a lot like a character from a favorite movie of mine, UHF

No, not Weird Al.

I’m feeling more like little Joe Miller after finding the marble in the oatmeal…

thanks Stanley Spadowski.

I jumped on the Google Reader bandwagon last fall when I started feeling like I was killing too much time surfing the web (I blame you StumbleUpon) thinking that it would streamline the assortment of internet gems that were consuming too much of my precious time. The end result was a huge organizational improvement. Thousands of articles on science, education, sports, trivial factoids, all a few clicks away!

An unintended side effect was that the ease of organizing and adding feeds led to extra feeds finding their way into my daily routine. I love the amount of personally selected, relevant info available in one central location but its hard not to feel like little Joey drinking from the not so proverbial fire hose.

My recent foray into Twitter has only compounded the flow of information. Just starting to get that dialed in but digging the possibilities, so long as I can convince a few folks to start following me who aren’t tweeting about #justinbieber or #freeipads…

PLN is a buzz word (acronym?) that teachers can’t seem to get enough of these days. While I’m the first to admit that I’m a huge slave to fan of connectivity, I’m also continually reminded how much I value interacting with human beings and how this is often lost in all the tweeting and blogging about PLNs. Maybe it’s the summer vacation away from my teaching buddies but I’m looking forward to getting the ole gang back together again.

The notion of information management is one that I’ll be revisiting again soon, right after I finish reading these 6,328 items in Reader…

fyi: if you haven’t seen UHF before, put it at the top of your Netflix queue – you’ll thank yourself, and then me.