Category Archives: Science Teaching with Technology

Student blogs of the week 9/19/10

This is the second installment of my “student blogs of the week.”  What follows is a hand-picked set of my student’s blog posts that I think are great examples of the learning that is happening in my classes this past week.  I’ve chosen them for their content, style, and the tools they use.

This weeks anatomy and physiology posts worth viewing are from Nikki who fought with GoogleDocs and won. She created posts on directional terms and homeostasis which show how easy it is to share GoogleDocs through a blog platform (once you get GoogleDocs up and running). I think I’ve convinced her to skip creating documents in Word and go straight for GoogleDocs next time.

Several excellent biology posts were created this week including this one by Ali, who discusses the properties of water using a combination of text, Sliderocket, and Wordle.  Another interesting water properties-related post from Kelsea included this PhotoShow that she made from images she captured and annotated using Jing. Tyler and Seth both tackle the water properties content with some Xtranormal dialogs worth seeing.

Chemistry students got positively self-reflective about their week in their latest blog posts including great ones from Kiel and Isaac.  Andre, one of our foreign exchange students, got tired of fighting with his Blogger account and was willing to try hosting his blog on our local MacServer. You can see his excellent reflective post here.

So far I’ve been very impressed with how easy it is to determine if a student is learning something by reading their blog posts. Sure, some students are still at the stage of typing definitions into web2.0 tools and making artifacts that don’t speak too much to their understanding, but I’ve seen a progression in some already who can move past the definitions of terms to the broader concepts that I want them to focus on. That’s where the whole standards-based grading system shines: kids that are stuck on definitions at first can come around later to produce artifacts that show deeper understanding once they achieve it without a permanent penalty to their grade.

As always, feel free to comment on these and any other of my students’ blogs, they will surely appreciate it.

Student blogs of the week 9/12/10

Some of you have asked for examples of student work as I roll out my standards-based portfolio/blog system for assessment this year. I’ll give you a few cherry-picked examples in a “blog-of-the-week” format, but also provide the links to all my students’ blogs so you can get a picture of where we are overall.

In anatomy and physiology, we are finishing an orientation to the human body with discussion of levels of organization, medical terminology (directional terms, in this case), and homeostasis as the major content standards. Sarah’s and Stephanie’s blogs have some helpful visuals embedded in their posts.  I hope to see more visuals like these happening soon from more students.

In biology, we are focusing on the basic chemistry that effects living systems, including the special properties of water. Michael put together an outstanding prezi on water properties and Makayla did a great job of explaining some of her results from the exploratory lab that we did early in the week. Audie wins a last minute spot for the first use of Glogster this year (he learned to be a pro at it last year, if you are wondering).  Since I didn’t choose blogs of the week last week, I’ll throw in a mention for Kandace, one of our pioneer Xtranormal users in the class.

Chemistry students started the year with a self-designed mixture separation lab which they described on their blogs to meet Standard 3 (understand the principles behind the techniques learned in lab).  Katrina and Drew are two of the many students who did a nice job summarizing what they did in the lab.

I’ll try to keep up some sort of blog-of-the-week nominations on a regular basis, although as more students catch on to what we are trying to achieve in my classes, I may be overwhelmed with awesome blog posts- what a great problem to have! So far we are on track to have just that happen.

If you want to get a feel for what all the student blogs look like and maybe encourage some students who haven’t been mentioned here yet, you can find the links to this year’s student blogs here or on my page for parents and families.

First week with SBG and portfolios

With about a week of school done, its time to break the communications blackout that I’ve seemingly been under lately.  I’ve mostly been dealing with the technical stuff that needs to happen at the beginning of the year to support the kind of classes I like to run.  I’ve been getting everyone logged into their own MacBook and signing them up for Edmodo, my Moodle site, textbook sites, Evernote, and Blogger, for starters.

Students spent the first few days of school visiting CogDogRoo and cooltoolsforschools to give them ideas on ways to share their knowledge in fun ways using web 2.0 tools. A few even created mini-reviews of what they did this summer and shared them with their friends (a really good use of Facebook by students is to pull a few pictures from Facebook into a web2.0 tool to share a bit about themselves).

I was visiting Apple HQ while they were working with the web 2.0 sites (more about that later, if Apple’s nondisclosure statement allows), but when I got back to school we started working on the vision for assessment and the class climate for the year.

When trying to communicate my vision, I found that its hard to stand in front of classes and admit that you are not sure exactly what they will learn this year, that you as a teacher have decided to let your students have some control over the content that they will learn.  I tried doing that, but I’m not sure they believe me, yet.

Standards-based grading was also a bit of a challenge to explain, as they have no experience of it in their other classes. I’m sure its the kind of thing that needs to be lived to be truly understood, but I think most students have a general idea of how they will be graded.  We just need to negotiate the details of what they will be graded on.

So far, portfolios seem to be the best way to collect student work for the purposes of evaluation of learning, especially if I’m going to allow students some autonomy in meeting the standards.  We are currently in the throes of getting set up with (mostly) Blogger accounts and figuring out the basics of blogging. Chemistry students will probably end up with a mix of online and paper portfolios, given the symbolic nature of some of the math and chemical equations, but the other preps (AP Bio, biology, A & P) will rely on blogs more, I suspect.

The next steps are to direct student learning in the major content and skill standards for each class, have them collect artifacts into their portfolios, and then evaluate them for their ability to demonstrate mastery of the standards. We’ll see how that goes over the next few weeks.

Bottom line: in the first week I’ve worked out some of the glitches in access to technology for students, shown them some tools to use, and begun to establish a student-centered classroom by allowing for multiple ways to demonstrate learning.

Putting the Cart Before the Teacher in 1:1

To steal a trademark joke from some of my favorite bloggers, the title really should read: Putting the Cart Before the Horse Teacher in 1:1. Or as Matt Townsley and Russ Goerend asked in an unplugged session here at ISTE10 (link), is having 1:1 computers the chicken or the egg? I’m going to interpret this question as: which comes first, the vision for what to do with 1:1 computers or the purchase of 1:1 computers? (Aside: I gave them an answer that Matt interpreted as “the barn”).

In my classroom, at least, the cart came before the teacher (me) really knew what to do with it.  I knew that kids needed computers because computers were cool for our digital natives and regular lectures were boring them and that so many cool things for science teaching were available on the web and…and…and. But that wasn’t really a vision for what to DO with the laptops, as such.

But I managed to get a cart anyway, thanks to my brave and hardworking IT staff.  And that has made all the difference.

As a science teacher I love doing experiments and, simply put, I couldn’t experiment with what works in 1:1 without the right tools. Most scientific experiments need some specialized equipment and whether its a thermocycler, mass spectrometer, or electron microscope, the experiment can’t happen without the tool.  1:1 computing is no different.  The tools have to be there or teachers will always teach the same way that they have for years.

But should every horse teacher get their own cart?  Not yet. Lets face it, some horses teachers are resistant to pulling anything new, and to saddle them with the extra load of a cart might cause them to buck and kick back.  Not good for students.

What will work to get to our ideal vision for teachers and their technology use? Jealousy!

Jealousy is the most important emotion in teaching. Use jealousy! -Leigh Zeitz @ ISTE10

Putting the cool tools in the hands of a few teachers who have the beginnings of a vision and desire for 1:1 is going to give way greater long term returns than a blanket purchase of laptops for every kid. First it will work out some of the kinks in your technology infrastructure with a more limited hardware expenditure.  Second, when these trailblazing teachers have success with 1:1, their neighbor teachers will notice. Teachers will notice because students will notice and talk about how different the 1:1 experience is.  Ideally, this is the point in which jealousy kicks in. Why do they get to do that? How come they get 1:1 computers?

Once jealousy kicks in, there may some desire on the part of the resistant teacher to also have a 1:1 classroom. From there you have them hooked. Administrators might link 1:1 hardware to achievement of a certain level of professional development or some other criteria. Now while this might seem to be awful that students are denied the technology in some classes, I guarantee that it is better than what might happen with a totally resistant teacher.

So try jealousy.  Let me know if it works.

Distributed Teaching and 1:1 Learning

Yesterday I had the privilege to attend EduBloggerCon at ISTE 2010 and participate in sessions about online learning, 1:1 implementation, student visions of education, and iPads as 1:1 devices.  I picked up some common themes in all these sessions that are worth putting in ink (bytes?).

First some centering questions: Why is 1:1 computing happening? The pain of setting up a device for every student, the cost of those devices, the legal crap about locking down certain sites, and the general hassle of it all should (and does) prevent schools from going 1:1. So why the big push? Is it being mandated by states or perhaps local boards of education? If so, what are the laptops/tablets/pad/touches supposed to be used FOR?

I’m not sure that everyone going 1:1 has a vision for why they are going 1:1, other than some general sense that technology is available and needed, so let me throw out some vision derived from our conversations at #ebc10:

Simply put, students need devices that allow for distributed teaching. Lets define this as students using and creating the resources for learning that are available online. For example, students in my AP Biology class spent hours this past school year watching the YouTube channels of other science teachers, their favorite being bozemanbiology. I’m a reasonably techie person but I haven’t managed to create my own series of video lectures yet, so I point my students to those resources that others have made. YouTube, iTunesU, and all the online college resources like MIT’s OpenCourseWare have way better resources than I could put together by myself and students can access them over and over whenever and wherever they want to. That’s the benefit of distributed teaching.

Some teachers are doing distributed teaching way better than I am. One of the conversations yesterday was with Monika Hardy (@monk51295) and her students about how they are taking advantage of distributed teaching to each create their own courses.  These students are planning their own courses based on what their interests are, rather than having to choose from a limited set of topics that the teachers in the physical school building are capable or willing to offer. The plan is for these students to design their own learning experiences with the help of experts in the field that they want to study. Some of those experts, by the way, are students that have set up their own YouTube channels and are producing their own tutorial videos, often at the request of other students (example here).

Imagine these brave, creative students trying to create their own online courses in a school that is tech-deprived, with a few laptops and crappy network infrastructure. These kids are out of luck, in such a case, as their videos fail to load, their Skype calls are dropped or painfully choppy, or they can’t add to the course wiki or upload to YouTube because the network is down or blocked.

What 1:1 learning ought to be about is enabling students like this to follow their passion beyond the bounds of the brick and mortar school to find and create the resources that will take their learning to the next level. In a final analysis, it does not matter which tools enable kids to do this, but they do need the tools to get to where the teachers are. As summarized nicely by Monika, our job as educators is to prepare them for this distributed way of learning by providing access, process (training), and a community in which to share their successes and frustrations. (Another good summary of Monika’s student session can be found here)

So why is your school going 1:1?

2009-2010: My Edtech Year in Review

My main challenge this school year was to experiment with what works and what doesn’t work in a 1:1 laptop classroom. While I have taught discrete technology-based lessons in past years using a shared computer lab, this year marked the first time I had access to a laptop for each student in my classroom and could begin to change how my class operates. This post will discuss what I’ve learned over the course of this “edtech year”.

What worked for me (good stuff to try):

Edmodo: I’ve used it enough to earn “power user” status (thanks to @zemote).  My biology classes, in particular, have benefited from Edmodo, since I had a variety of internet-based lessons that I adapted from previous years.  Edmodo allows for easy delivery of links for students to visit and allowed me to assign and collect assignments paperlessly. Students appreciated Edmodo for its ease of use and the text-message notifications they received when I posted new resources or assignments. Edmodo made several major improvements over the course of the year and continues to improve its service. It is currently free but expect some “premium” services to roll out soon that might cost a bit.

Moodle: I set up a Moodle site hosted by for free. This Moodle site became my main testing platform and really cut down on the amount of paper we used in class.  Moodle can import tests that are written in ExamView, with a few tweaks.  I also wrote a few tests using Moodle’s built in question editor or uploaded banks of questions available in Moodle format on the Web.  I like how Moodle can provide instant feedback to students during a test and that the test may be set up to allow students second chances if they miss questions. Short essay questions become easy to read and to grade when delivered via Moodle.

Planbook: What’s not to like about Planbook? It keeps me organized and it was created by a physics teacher. I use it to post lesson plans and files so students and parents can keep tabs on what we do in class. I believe in having a transparent classroom and this software allows everyone to see what I do.

XMarks, Delicious, and Diigo: These are social bookmarking tools that I use all the time. I use XMarks to maintain the content area links found on my homepage. As I bookmark new links, they are automatically added to the shared folders that my students access. Delicious and Diigo do pretty much the same job for me, which is to create a list of my bookmarks that is sortable by tags. I also love getting new resources sent to me from the groups that I belong to on Diigo.

Evernote and DropBox: When my chemistry students started a major online research project, I set up my macs with Evernote and DropBox and gave students a brief overview of how they worked.  Several students got hooked on Evernote, in particular, especially once they tried out the Evernote iPod app.  I’ll definitely be encouraging the use of these two next year for synchronizing files between home and school devices.

PollEverywhere: We used PollEverywhere a few times, and it worked as advertised. Students preferred it to the Senteo clickers because they could use either the laptops or their cell phones to participate in the polls.  However, since Edmodo introduced its anonymous polling feature, I haven’t gone back to PollEverywhere much.

What didn’t work for me (maybe it will for you?):

SMART Notebook software and the SMARTBoard: I found SMART’s premade science resources to be lacking and I never really took the time to create fancy Notebook-based lectures or activities. Notebook isn’t that well supported on Snow Leopard to begin with (yet?) and after the first few crashes I knew that I wasn’t going to waste my time with it. The students and I rarely use the touch function of the SMARTBoard itself, although it is nice when we do. Maybe I haven’t explored the software enough, but I find the SMARTBoard to be as useful as the LCD projector and screen that I used in previous years.

SMART Document Camera: I already had a ProScope that I used for projecting images of various specimens and it had decent microscope adapters so the SMART camera went mostly unused.  I don’t teach from transparencies or notes much either, so there was no need to project pictures of them on the board. Add in the fact that the SMART camera only works in Notebook and…well, you get the idea.

Posting resources to Moodle: I started the year with blank Moodle courses and on the whole, they are still fairly blank, aside from the occasional quiz.  While Moodle does have a powerful ability to organize your courses, the interface for uploading web links and files is tedious to use. Only one file at a time can be uploaded, or at least that is all that I ever managed to do. I switched to posting links in Edmodo once I realized students were looking there more often.

GoogleApps: While I’ve tinkered with GoogleApps this year, my district only switched over to GoogleApps for mail halfway through the year. The biggest drawback is that students do not yet have district-assigned Google accounts so the possible uses of GoogleApps are limited at this time.  I expect that next year we’ll have students on board from the beginning of the year, so I may get to play with GoogleDocs a lot more, although that might add to….

Spreading out over too many sites: All told, I have three major platforms that students access: my home page, Edmodo, and my Moodle site. I would love to have one system that easily collected my links in an organized way, was a paperless assignment exchange and grading system, serves as a student-teacher-parent communications board, and allows the kinds of flexible assessments that Moodle offers. Maybe Moodle or some other LMS can do all that, but I haven’t figured it out yet. Until then, my students will have to deal with several sites and their passwords.


There are several other edtech/web 2.0 tools that I tried out, but those listed above are the ones that I keep coming back to as the framework for my online coursework.  As you can see, my favorite online tools are those that provide the infrastructure for communication with students and parents and establish new ways to assess student learning. I hope that we continue to see free or low-cost services that meet the growing demands of teachers in 1:1 environments like mine.

When Technology is Needed: Fixing a Stale Chemistry Class

As discussed previously in this blog, I had observed that my chemistry students were not really experiencing the shift that 1:1 computing has brought to my other classes. They were using their textbook as the primary information source and slogging through practice problems by the dozen. In an attempt to mix things up a bit, I decided to have them educate each other (and anyone else who finds their work) about some aspect of current technology made possible by advances in chemistry. Last year at this time, I tried having students do a project about liquid crystals, since we were talking about states of matter.  The problem was, when it came time to present the projects, everyone had done pretty much the same powerpoint show with the same information, so that by the third presentation we were all bored because we knew it all already.

So a few weeks back I presented students with a broad list of possible topics about chemistry and technology that I thought that we all would like to learn more about such as alternative energy sources, bioremediation, quantum computers, and so on. Each student chose a topic and set to work finding good resources to post to a glog at In addition to making an informational glog, they chose a current article about their topic to discuss with the class and created a few short quiz questions about their glog. We spent about three weeks constructing the glogs and researching articles.  Glogster proved very easy to use, with a few delays in loading media files and a few false starts for some of the students whose work didn’t save at first. As students worked, they periodically left comments on each others’ glogs with kudos or suggestions. Overall, the finished glogs were fantastic. Links to their glogs can be found on my Learn/Share page.

When it came time to present their work to the class, we got to experience their glog together on the smartboard so that we could view the video clips and have each student talk us through their topic. But before the presentations even began, I had the students agree on how we would judge each presentation. Both classes decided to score the presentations on style/creativity, required elements, and quality of information in the glogs.

After working on their glogs for so long, students seemed eager to share them with the class and to discuss their topics. Clearly everyone had chosen a topic that they cared about and the discussions were lively and interactive.  Even the quiz over the glogs was fun and challenging at the same time, with an 88% average score. After taking the quiz, students filled out an evaluation form in which they scored everyone’s project, including their own, according to the standards that they had agreed upon.

Could we have done this project using the chemistry textbook? No way! Students researched cutting edge technologies and incorporated graphics and videos, things that paper textbooks could never hope to accomplish. Additionally, the laptops allowed us to quickly evaluate the projects and assess what students learned from each other using electronic forms and Moodle-based assessments.

I continue to be sold on the need to get laptops into each student’s hands and this project confirmed for me that all of my classes need to be doing more project-based learning.  These projects might take a lot of class time away from our normal routine and “required content” but they appear to provoke genuine learning and enhance relevancy for subjects that may have lacked it in the past.

Education without classrooms?

First, some background information. As our school district grapples with massive budget cuts, like other districts across the country, we seem to be approaching a solution in the form of closing one of our district’s four school buildings. This would result in some shuffling of grade levels between the remaining buildings and some interesting organizational challenges.  The most likely option has the 7th and 8th graders moving up to our high school building while the 3rd through 6th graders take over the middle school.

There are some valid concerns being raised about how to integrate the younger students into the high school environment. Some parents have expressed concerns at having 7th graders in contact with high schoolers during the school day, so some folks are thinking of ways to isolate the younger students in their own parts of the building. This would mean rearranging classroom assignments to allow for a middle school hex (or two) separate from spaces used by the high schoolers.

While some people are not too concerned, saying that we have done this before when the middle school was under construction and that in past years our HS building held twice as many students as it does now, I see some real problems ahead for our science department, at least, if we continue with our current model of how we educate students.  The most obvious issue is that of appropriate lab space. How can we expect the incoming 7th and 8th grade science teachers to teach science in just any classroom space? Will we ask them to leave behind their excellent science labs at the middle school and move to a math or English classroom at the high school?

At the bare minimum, a science classroom should have a sink and an eyewash station.  There are five classrooms that I know of at the high school that meet this description, three of which are currently used full-time by the three science teachers, one of which is a shared chemistry lab, and one that is used for safe chemical and equipment storage separate from student access.

Clearly we have some limited options as to where to put the two incoming science teachers in our building.  We can fit one of them into the chemistry lab, although there is only room for about 20 student desks since the room was not built as a lecture room. There’s no Smartboard or projector there either. We could clear out the science storeroom and create a new classroom there, but where would our chemicals and equipment go that would still be easily accessible to teachers during class yet secure enough to limit student access? The third option would somehow rotate the 5 science teachers between the three or four classrooms on a period-by-period basis, if they all follow the same bell schedule.

I suspect this last option is the most viable, although there are not enough class periods in the day to allow 5 teachers with 6 classes each to share four science classrooms with only one plan period per teacher (see here). We could, I suppose, give teachers two plan periods and pile the students into larger classes, which is a horrible idea when it comes to teaching science effectively through labs and hands-on experimentation.

Now for my solution to the problem: What if we could schedule classes so that they are only in the science hex when they were doing labs? That’s really what we are using the special facilities and equipment for.  The rest of the time they could be…..somewhere else. Now here’s the interesting part: what if the “somewhere else” meant ONLINE?  That could potentially free up our students, particularly the older students in upper-level sciences, to be ANYWHERE during the school day.  In such a scenario, the search for classroom space becomes only a minor annoyance rather than a major headache.

I think that students could spend a couple days a week in the actual classroom for lab work and face-to-face discussion, and the rest of the time be in the library, at home, or some other classroom while they learn from the online coursework established by their teacher.  Simple tools like Edmodo, Moodle, and others allow for creation of a shared online learning space for nearly every class that can be taught at the high school level. Students can complete learning exercises, take quizzes, chat with each other and the teacher, and create digital projects together without even going to school.

A lot of work and thought still needs to be done to come to an effective solution to our building’s challenges, but maybe some sort of blended online and face-to-face learning environment is what our school requires to best meet student needs and the harsh realities of the looming budget cuts.

When fancy technology isn’t needed (a.k.a Why is Chemistry different?)

“What’s my login again?” said a chemistry student.  He was trying to access one of our course resources on my Moodle site for the first time in weeks.  “Uh, don’t you have that plugged into your browser or written down somewhere?” was my slightly annoyed reply. He eventually figured it out, but it brought to my attention the fact that my chemistry classes had not been using our class set of laptops nearly as much as my other classes have.

In biology, for example, we use Edmodo at least once a week for sending out assignments that students also turn back in online.  Usually the assignments involve visiting resources on the Net and discussing what they learn.  We have also used Edmodo as a chat room during some of our online explorations.  The laptops are also used with Vernier probes to collect data during labs such as the enzyme catalysis lab. Students also take notes using the laptops.

In anatomy and physiology, students use the laptops every day for note taking and internet research purposes.  They also use them with Vernier probes for several labs such as EKG, EMG, spinal reflex, heart rate, and blood pressure labs.

AP Biology students use the laptops nearly every day for note taking and research. They also do many of the AP Biology required labs using Vernier probes such as colorimeters, pressure sensors, dissolved oxygen sensors, and carbon dioxide sensors.

My chemistry course, though, has used the laptops mostly for online (Moodle) quizzes and some lab data collection. We have pulled out the laptops for a couple special projects like the one that we are working on now, but most of the learning experiences have been from our textbook.   That bugs me.  As an experimenter with 1:1 environments, it really bothers me that I have a course that essentially went a whole month without touching the laptops in class.  So why is chemistry different?

For starters, chemistry books don’t go out of date as fast as biology texts do.  Sure there are some fun new technologies that are being developed at the frontiers of physical science (we’re studying some of those now) but most of the chemistry that gets taught at the high school level doesn’t change much from year to year. In biology, though, I mostly ignore our biology textbook when it comes to giving assignments, and those books are only two years old. That means that I am often sending biology students online for recent information and learning resources, while chemistry students head for chapter 12, pages 358 to 363.

Another factor has got to be the math and symbols used in chemistry.  It is simply easier to write out chemical and mathematical equations on paper. Our drought on the computers was timed exactly with our unit on stoichiometry, a calculation-intensive subject. Sure, there are stoichiometry tutorials online, but our class time was spent working practice problems on worksheets or out of the book, very low-tech indeed.

I wonder, too, how much of the difference is due to sheer inertia on my part.  In other words, am I teaching chemistry in a textbook-heavy way because that’s how I have always done it? Is this first year with the laptops so overwhelming that I can’t bear to transition one more prep over to completely new resources?

It could be, though, that there are at least some topics in chemistry that good old paper and pencil are still the best tools for.  I can also think of several chemistry demos that only work with old-fashioned overhead projectors and could not be done (live) with an LCD projector.

So in closing, I’d like to pass a warning on to administrators and parents and other “stakeholders” in educating our students to not expect teachers to be using laptop/iPod/netbook/iwb technology 100% of the time.  There are times when they are an awesome resource and powerful tools.  And yes, you just spent a ton of money equipping your school with them and feel entitled to see them put to use. But there are also times when they get in the way of student learning. Educators need to be trusted to know when an old-fashioned overhead projector, or even the lowly pencil, is the best tool for the job.