biology

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This rant about learning the facts of evolution will make a lot more sense if you realize that I’m a Christian, specifically a Presbyterian, a member of the Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians (ECO). I also have degrees in Molecular Biology and Neuroscience and have studied Philosophy of the Biological Sciences at the University of Arizona. You should probably also know that my wife, recently the Moderator of the Presbytery of the West in ECO, graduated with her degree in Physical Anthropology with a minor in Geology before becoming a minister of the Word and Sacrament.

Why start off with a pedigree like this? Because I want my readers to know that I can wholeheartedly share information about the fact of evolution in my science classroom without casting one shred of doubt upon my life of faith. I want you to know that my wife has an equally easy time reconciling her job and her faith with the facts of changed and changing species and a changeable Earth. Its possible to “believe” in both religion and science.

Now to the rant: here’s an observation from 15 years of high school science teaching:

The science teachers that I’ve known seem to fall into three general categories (with apologies for pigeonholing people on a very complex issue):

  1. Classroom Evolutionists: Regardless of/in spite of/because of their personal beliefs about God and science, these folks jump in and teach the facts and theories of evolution with the understanding that evolution is a capital-T Theory and as such that means that there is a massive amount of evidence and philosophy of thought that students should engage with when learning about evolution. These are the teachers who routinely point out that there are state and national standards that support, if not require, that students learn about evolution in school.
  2. Equal Timers: These folks think that science teachers should somehow present “both” sides of the “evolution debate” in their classrooms. These teachers show the Ken Ham/Bill Nye debate in class to prove that there is indeed a debate, and that there are exactly two sides to this issue. These teachers often share alternative sources of information that usually paint the scientific community as “Darwinists” that follow “Darwinism” (which does seem to be a real religion, judging by those bumper stickers of fish with legs).
  3. Conflict Avoiders: These folks recognize that evolution is a central idea in biology, but they just don’t feel that they can accurately teach about evolution without betraying their faith or the faith of their students. For these teachers, evolution is recognized as a state standard, it is listed in the curriculum, but at the end of the year, and often the evolution unit simply does not happen as the school year runs out of time.

I’m not going to argue with the Classroom Evolutionist approach, because that’s my style. I’ve been working on the “Argue from Evidence” skill with my classes even before the NGSS appeared. If students don’t leave my biology class with at least a basic understanding of the multiple lines of evidence that the earth has changed, species have changed, and will continue to change, then I haven’t done my job very well.

I’m not even going to argue with the Equal Timers, because I can’t change their minds. Their religious beliefs are so important to them that any challenge to their perceived precepts is met with denial of the facts. I value and share their faith, but I can’t shut out the results from thousands of years of scientific inquiry into the nature of the universe and our place in it.

I am going to take issue with the Conflict Avoiders, however.

Please take the time to get educated about what evolution is and isn’t so you can feel comfortable discussing it with students from a variety of religious (or not) backgrounds. To help you out, here is your summer assignment:

  • Go check out BioLogos to help your students learn that this isn’t a two sided brawl between atheists and Christians.
  • Go read The Language of God by the nearly godlike Francis Collins, Human Genome stud and Director of the NIH.
  • For a little fiber, read Dawkins’ Blind Watchmaker to get a sense of why atheists love evolution too.

Conflict Avoiders, it is a terrible thing to let time run out on your biology class without having helped students learn the science behind species change, the “descent with modification” that continues in our lives and in all of God’s creatures. You might as well let time run out on your Earth Science class without having discussed the merits of the evidence for the human impact on global climate change.

Science deniers arise when we deny them the chance to learn about these and other core scientific principles. Let’s please not make any more science deniers. There are plenty in the world already.

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I’ve received some requests recently to share the biology portfolio that I use with my students. Here’s a quick note about how to use my template to set up a Google Sites portfolio for students to use.
 
  • In experimenting with student-managed portfolios, I’ve found it best to create a Template Site that students can use to create their portfolio. If you have a set of standards for your class that you want students to reflect upon, then a template is the easiest way to make sure that those standards are part of their portfolio.
  • You’ll want to try this yourself first, especially if you want to modify my template site for your own set of standards. I’ll break this up into teacher and student instructions, which might be the same if you don’t use Google Apps for Education (GAFE).

Teacher instructions for creating your own template Site from my biology portfolio template:

The location where you publish your portfolio template depends upon whether you are using GAFE or regular Google Apps. GAFE users: I would make the template within your domain for students to find. Regular Google users need to post the template to Google’s Public templates like I did. You could even just point students to my public template if you don’t want to create your own.

  1. Log in to Google Apps (either a personal account or GAFE) and find Google Sites from the App chooser.
  2. Once in Sites, click on Create.
  3. At the top of the Create New Site page should be the option to “Browse the Gallery for More” templates. Click on this.
  4. If you are in GAFE, your district-wide templates appear first (this is usually the easiest place for you to put a template for students to use).
  5. For now though, you are looking for a public template, so click on Public>Schools and Education in the “Select Site Template” window.
  6. You are looking for a site template called “Skills-Based Biology Portfolio.”  Searching for “Biology” in “Schools and Education” templates will usually find it.
  7. Select the Skills-Based Biology Portfolio template to use for your Site. This will give you an exact copy of the site that I give to my biology students.
  8. Give it a name (which also determines the address URL) and you are ready to start editing it.
  9. Once you’ve edited the Site to your liking and you are ready to share it with students, go to More Site Options (the gear icon)>Manage Site.
  10. Under Manage Site>General there should be the option to “Publish this site as a template.” Click that.
  11. Give your Template a name and description then click “Submit.”
  12. Done! Now you have a template that students can find either within your GAFE domain or in the Public templates.

Student instructions for creating a portfolio Site from a teacher-created template:

  1. Log in to Google Apps and find Google Sites from the App chooser.
  2. Once in Sites, click on Create.
  3. At the top of the Create New Site page should be the option to “Browse the Gallery for More” templates. Click on this.
  4. If you are in GAFE, your district-wide templates appear first. Find your course’s portfolio template.
  5. Select the portfolio template that you want to use for your Site.
  6. Give it a name (which also determines the address URL) and you are ready to start editing it.
  7. Share the URL of your site with everyone who will be reviewing your portfolio.

Here’s a little screencast that I whipped up for the portfolio setup from the student’s perspective:

Setting up a student portfolio from a template

Let me know if you want me to post any of my other portfolio templates (Anatomy, Chemistry, AP Biology) to the Public templates.

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sharing ideas

A strange hobby…

I’ve been tinkering around with the Next Generation Science Standards a lot lately, mostly out of a sense of curiosity about how they line up with my current practice. 15 years of teaching biology has made me rather opinionated about what’s important for students to learn, so its always a good reality check to see where my practice lands in comparison to the “latest research,” which in this case is the NGSS. This post will discuss what I’ve found so far (at least in HS biology), and what we as science teachers can do to make the NGSS useful to ourselves and our students.

First, a warning of sorts. I teach in Colorado, which doesn’t subscribe to the NGSS, at least not yet. The science gurus at the Colorado Department of Education are seemingly content to stick with their latest revision of their science standards, which is relatively new. They are currently busy snuggling up with Pearson to develop online science tests for next year’s senior class, so I doubt there’s much pressure to switch to the NGSS at this point in time. Unfortunately, this means I’ve got two masters to serve, assuming I pay any attention to the NGSS. Keep that in mind as you read the rest of this proposal.

NGSS HS Biology overview

Regardless of my state’s stance on the NGSS, I’ve bought into them just enough to give them a good look-through to see what’s new, what’s the same, and what’s missing compared to what I do at the moment.

-New: The NGSS nicely integrates the Science and Engineering Practices into the teaching and learning of biology. If you’ve worked on upgrading your AP Biology curriculum to the latest version, you’re already pretty familiar with what the NGSS is aiming for in terms of science performances by your students. Also “new”: there are several places where “computer simulations” are mentioned along with the emphasis on modeling (the Colorado standards love computer simulations too). What these simulations are and who will sell them to me remains to be seen.

-Same: Most of the key content area knowledge domains are still there in the NGSS (with a few notable exceptions).

-Missing: Enzymes, cell structure, and membrane transport. I know that the writers of NGSS wanted to pare down the amount of stuff we have to teach in order to allow for deeper experiences, but wow, those are topics that have amazing labs that I think are perfect for the kind of science performances that the Practices are aiming at.

In short, the NGSS are a great step forward, but have some gaps that I think we can fill.

Who are the NGSS for?

Here’s the key question going forward with adopting any new set of standards like the NGSS: Who are the standards for? There’s been a lot of discussion of who wrote the NGSS and for what purpose, which are pretty darn good questions. Unlike the Colorado standards, the NGSS don’t appear to be written with specific test items in mind. That doesn’t mean that they won’t be used to develop tests, but the greater potential of the NGSS lies in how teachers will use them to focus more on the practice of science and less on the lame “testable” stuff. As in all thing education-related, its going to be how the NGSS change actual classroom practice that matters. So how will we make use of the NGSS in a valuable way as science educators? First, we need to know what they recommend that we should be teaching and how we should approach that material.

A crowdsourced NGSS biology curriculum

In the spirit of thumbing my nose at those companies that want to make money by selling us “NGSS-ready” materials, I propose that we crowdsource a freely-available collection of documents that are aligned to the NGSS and link to resources that we can use in our classrooms. I don’t pretend to be an expert on the niceties of curriculum design and generally hate being pigeonholed into someone else’s formatting, so the stuff I’m proposing as a starting point isn’t going to win any awards with your administrators. Adapt it as you see fit. Its just a beginning.

I had recently developed curriculum docs for the Colorado standards so I did some cross-walking to see where the NGSS matched up to my existing unit structure. This was the result (in public GoogleDocs):

Biology units aligned to NGSS and Colorado Standards

These docs include:

    • A checklist for the 8 Science and Engineering Practices for each unit. This could be improved and made more detailed, but for now the simple checklist is a survey of which practices will be demonstrated (often its all 8, but not always).
    • A list of NGSS and Colorado standards for each unit.
    • Essential Questions and Big Ideas for each unit, primarily based on the NAP Frameworks for disciplinary core ideas, but also drawing on my teaching experiences.
    • Activities for each unit, based on what I do now with students, which could certainly be expanded and improved upon.
    • A Correlation Matrix that shows roughly in which units the different standards are encountered, both for NGSS and Colorado standards.
    • A guide for adapting the NGSS practices and topic areas for standards-based learning in biology.

Next steps

Right now the whole folder of goodies is shared publicly so you can at least view what’s there. Feel free to copy anything into your Drive and adapt it as needed. It’d be more fun, of course, if you are willing to share activities and help edit the documents to make them more useful “NGSS-ready” tools for teachers. If you want to help edit the docs, leave a comment here or drop me a note on Twitter and I’ll set your google account as an editor. Or, if you prefer, you can send me links to good activities and labs and I’ll add them to the appropriate units. Thanks in advance for joining me in the strange hobby of curriculum writing!

 

Image credit: CoolTownStudios

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I’ve updated my list of biology standards slightly over the past few days.  The latest version with some explanatory notes can be seen here.

The motivation for the changes came from a great post by Paula White. She inspired me to add a couple more standards that are less about content and more about community. She reminded me that I should be assessing the 3P’s: performance, progress, and process. I had a lot of performance standards, which are easy to write for an upper level science class, but was lacking in the progress (self-assessment, metacognition) and process (group work, attitude, etc.) standards. I added two more standards and combined two others so that my total number of major standards sits at 9, which will translate into 9 columns in the gradebook.

This 9 standard system, assuming it doesn’t morph much more, will probably become the foundation for all of my classes, regardless of content. Only the first standard is content-specific and will vary between courses, but the other standards represent outcomes that should be achieved in any upper-level science class. I’ll keep a midterm and final in each course per semester, as well, to keep kids on their toes as far as standardized testing goes.

Although its a work in progress, if you see any glaring problems this system creates down the road, feel free to share a comment. Lots of folks are interested in SBG/sbar right now and as a collective unit we’ll come up with better plans than we can alone.

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I’ve made a little progress towards implementing standards-based grading (sbar) for next year and thought I would throw it out there for those of you in the same boat and for the sbar pros to critique.  It was actually pretty easy to choose the standards that will go in the grade book for my classes, since I teach mostly concurrent credit classes which need to be articulated with Colorado’s Community College Common Courses guidelines.  The guidelines are very handy in that they have lists of “standard competencies” that students are supposed to master in the course.  I have simply reworked those a bit to give my students the learning targets to achieve during the school year.

So far I’ve worked on my chemistry and biology preps and it is remarkable the difference between them in terms of the standards that are linked to each course. I am currently thinking of trying out 8 biology standards and 10 chemistry standards. As Shawn Cornally has pointed out here and here, there seems to be a difference between qualitative courses like biology (lots of facts to memorize) and quantitative courses like chemistry (lots of procedural skills to master) in terms of the standards one focuses on.

The biology standards are much more process-oriented and not necessarily tied to specific content topics. I like this set of standards because it downplays the sometimes disconnected trivial knowledge tidbits that we biology teachers get hung up on. Sure, the content is still important, but it will no longer make up the bulk of the grade.

Chemistry standards were much easier to organize, as I suspect physics standards would be, because we tend to teach sets of skills that build on each other as the course progresses. Understand atoms to understand compounds to understand reactions and so on. Hopefully with a standards-based system in place, I can have an easier time of reevaluating and assisting students who may take longer to acquire some of the skills taught earlier in the course so that they are not so lost in the later stages.

What I have yet to figure out, and some of you sbar pros can weigh in on this, is how to translate the standards that I have into what actually appears in the gradebook for students to see. I want students and their parents to know where their strengths and weaknesses are in terms of content and procedural knowledge, but I also want to keep the reporting and grade calculation as simple as possible: mutually exclusive goals, perhaps.

My initial thought is to have only the 8 or 10 major standards appear in my online gradebook along with midterm and final exam grades.  Progress towards the standards would be tracked separately, perhaps in a student-accessible spreadsheet or using Shawn’s SBG gradebook. I’ve wondered, too, about visualizing student progress using Roambi if I go the spreadsheet route.

I’ll be working on the standards for my other two preps, Anatomy and Physiology and AP Biology, over the next few weeks, but I suspect that the standards for those classes will look a lot like the biology standards, given their qualitative content. I’ll also be working out the mechanics of how to track grades, keep students informed of their progress, assess and reassess, and compute final grades in an sbar system. No small task, but that’s what summers are for. (Update: revised standards and the philosophy behind them are discussed here)

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