Monday, December 29, 2014

Plickers: Student Response System for a One-Device Classroom

I remember the day the principal brought me my set of SMART Response clickers.  At that time, I wasn't a huge SMARTboard enthusiast, so I mostly mocked the clickers.  Until I tried them.  I had been circulating in my room while we did practice problems for years and felt I had a pretty good take on who understood what, but as soon as I passed out the clickers, I somehow upped the ante.  Though I used them anonymously back then, the students felt extra pressure to answer correctly.  They wanted to be right when they submitted their answers.  Now I have tried out a lot of student response systems, but I really couldn't get my head around this one until I tried it.  Once I did, it was super-easy and really fun.  A Plicker is a Paper Clicker.  A nice, low-cost, simple solution for a classroom without much technology.   Or even with a ton of technology. One device it all it takes.

The Set-Up:  I went to and created my free account.  Then I created 5 classes for the high school classes I teach.  I added my students by first name and last initial.  All very simple!  Then I printed out the plickers from here.  Each of my students would receive a unique paper clicker that I assigned with a number in my account.  I copied them onto heavy cardstock and made 6 sets, one for each class and one class set that will live in the room for when students don't have one.  

The Try-Out:  I ask a question with a multiple choice answer and give the students the choices.  I did this verbally, but you could use a worksheet or notes page with the choices if you want to plan it all out ahead of time.  Students hold the plicker in one of its four directions to indicate which answer they think is correct.  I scan the plickers.  The iPad shows who has been scanned and how they answered.  I can also see at a glance how many students have the correct answer.  You can create questions ahead of time or on-the-fly.  With some practice, I could easily scan the entire room from one spot.

In the picture at the left, I have scanned 21 of my 22 students in the class - only Gabe L has not been scanned.  Notice the names on the screenshot; they pop up as they are scanned and their names turn blue in the boxes at the top of the screen.  I can also see how they answer.

The Drill-Down:  After my lesson, I can look at the data.  Green squares show correct answers; red show wrong answers.  I can see which students chose each answer in case I need to target specific remediations.  Again, very simple and intuitive.  In the screenshot at the left, I can see which answer every student chose.  I can also see how many picked each choice and that 70% had the answer correct.

The Weigh-In:  My students thought the plickers were fun to use.  I had a SMART Response task lined up for them before vacation and it wasn't working, so one of my students suggested we use plickers instead.  Everyone reached in their binders and pulled them out and we were back to reviewing for the test.  I love the simplicity of this tool and the ease of data collection.  Of all the student response systems I have tried, it was easiest to set up and use with a big pay-off in the data it provides, so I am adding it to my apps page.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

A Small Change in a Cookbook Lab

Science teachers sometimes refer to "cookbook labs," labs where the prescribed procedure should be carefully followed and the end result easily predicted.  These labs have their place - with a set procedure, it's easier to ensure student safety and desired outcomes and they provide needed practice of a recently learned skill.  Unfortunately, though, sometimes students are so busy blindly following directions that they don't give much thought to what they are doing or why.  This often reveals itself in the work they do after the lab.  In an attempt to keep a set procedure, but increase the student understanding, I made a small change to a cookbook lab that my students did this month.

My typical cookbook lab goes like this: Measure out a small amount of sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) and add some acid to create salt, water, and carbon dioxide.  Boil away the water to leave the salt behind.  After the lab, write a balanced equation and calculate how much salt should have been made.  Then determine the percent error in the real product and explain how their mistakes contributed to the percent error.

My re-do went like this:  Ask the students to write the balanced equation and calculate how much sodium bicarbonate they would need to use in order to make 2.5 g of salt.  My hope was that this would focus them on the task and get them thinking about what they were about to do.  Instead of asking them after the lab how much salt they should have done, I took a recipe approach - if you want to make this much product, how much reactant do you need?  The procedure for the lab remained the same, but I hoped that there would be a different level of thinking during the lab because they completed the calculations before. 

So how did it go?  The lab itself took longer because students needed to complete the calculations before starting the lab.  With only 48 minutes to go over homework, complete these calculations and do the lab, we were really pressed for time.  The payoff, though, was in the work that came after.  The average grade on this lab was 5% higher over the two previous years' versions of the lab.  Does that mean the students understood it better?  Maybe.  It also could mean that they helped each other with the pre-lab calculations and that improved scores.  Where I really noticed the main difference - though this is completely an anecdotal observation - was in what they wrote in their error statements.  I ask students to explain their percent error.  If the product they made weighs too much, what else is in the dish?  If the product mass is too low, where did the product go?  Students often struggle with this task, but most of the error statements in this madeover lab were focused and logical.  This makes me wonder if they did understand the task better.  I am not sure, but I know I want to try this strategy again during second semester to keep thinking about it.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Predicting Products, Part 2

Now that the students have learned how to predict products, it's time to put the skills to the test in the lab.  Since this skill is about looking at the ingredients and predicting how they will interact, this is a great time for a Choose Your Own Adventure lab, a lab where the students design their own procedures.

We start with this premise:  Remember those logic puzzles that you did the day before vacation in elementary school that started with something like "Seven ladies live in 7 different colored houses with 7 different pets?"  This is going to be the lab version of that.  There are 5 beakers, labeled A, B, C, D, and E with 5 solutions that are AgNO3, BaCl2, CuCl2, K2CO3, and NaOH.  Figure out which solution is in which beaker.  The only things you can use to solve the puzzle are these 5 solutions.

With that, they move into the lab and start making a plan.  Eventually, they get the solutions and start mixing them together.  I have suggested they use a spot plate for this, but I haven't made many other suggestions.  They keep track of their data in different ways - some make tables, some make lists.

There is this great quiet buzz in the lab as they work; the conversations are awesome.  They have to know how to predict the products of a double displacement reaction because they have to predict the products of reactions between every combination of the above compoundsThey have to know how to read and interpret a solubility table because they have to predict the identity of the precipitates.  They work together.  They explain their reasoning to each other.  For some, their understanding of this reaction type deepens.  Others realize that they don't understand the work which ups the ante for them to dig in.

I have told them that their grades on their lab reports are entirely independent of whether or not they identify the solutions correctly.  But they don't care.  They want to be right because they want to be right, not because they are getting a grade.  They want to solve the puzzle.  When kids finish quickly, they ask if they are right.  Many leave class saying things like, "I really liked that lab" or, even better, "That lab was fun."  It doesn't get any better than this. 

Monday, December 8, 2014

Predicting Products, Part 1

How are you feeling about single displacement?
One of the hardest things I teach kids in a year is to predict the products of a chemical reaction.  It's not that it's such a difficult skill at face value but it does require students to synthesize several other skills they have learned so far:  They have to classify a reaction, determine if it occurs, write the correct formulas for the products, and balance the equation.  There are many places for things to go awry in those steps.

 When I teach a math problem, I can usually get almost all the way around my room to see how everyone is progressing because they take long enough to solve.  Predicting products is quicker, though, and I need a way to gather and review feedback quickly.  For this I use The Answer Pad.

The Answer Pad is a web tool - part student response system and part answer sheet - that has a free and a premium version.  The free version is very generous and allows teachers to push out response screens to students and see their responses in real time.  There are screens for multiple choice, true/false, yes/no, thumbs up/down, a slider, a fill-in, and 10 free templates that include a blank canvas, a graph, maps and more.  There is also an iOS app, TAPit (where TAP stands for The Answer Pad), but the tool can be used with iOS devices or any web-enabled devices.  What I like about using the app is that students can write with their fingers which is great for showing a math problem or predicting products.

When we predict products, I use the app in "Go Interactive" mode that allows teachers to just use interactive response screens to meet on-the-spot needs.  After I model how to predict the products of one type of reaction, I send the students the blank canvas and ask them to predict the products of another.  Then, as they submit their answers, I can see what they predicted in real time.  Then I know if we need another example or if we are ready to move on to another type.  I can still circulate - because I am looking at the results on my iPad - but when I don't make it all the way around the room, I can still see everyone's guesses.  At the end of each type, I can ask for a "thumbs up" or a "thumbs down" about how the students are feeling about the process (special note to The Answer Pad:  my students want a sideways thumb option).  As you can see from the pictures here, it is really easy to see at a glance how everyone is progressing.

I have written about ClassKick, an iOS app that I like for seeing student work as they create it.  There are some similarities between ClassKick and The Answer Pad, but they really are very different.  With both, teachers can see student work to give quick feedback.  With ClassKick , students can progress through examples at their own pace; that isn't possible with The Answer Pad.  I like ClassKick for more involved work, like math problems, but I like The Answer Pad better for quick feedback.  The Answer Pad will work on an web-enabled device, but ClassKick is an iOS app, so you would need an iOS device to use it.  ClassKick allows students to ask for help and help each other - I love that - and you can't do that in The Answer Pad.

There is another way to use The Answer Pad - as a bubble sheet for tests and quizzes.  I'll write more about this at some point this year, but kids can tap or click the answers on the bubble sheet and The Answer Pad grades the work and provides complete item analysis.  If you're looking for a way to start using some technology in your classes to get quick feedback, check out The Answer Pad .

Monday, December 1, 2014

Hour of Code

December 8-14 is Computer Science Education Week.  In conjuction with this week, educators are encouraged to design activities to allow students to create one Hour of Code.  Never tried any coding?  No problem.  There are many resources available for use at

Last year I jumped on the Hour of Code bandwagon as soon as I learned about it.  When I signed up, I really had no idea what I would do with my students or how to do any coding myself.  My superintendent and I actually joked about how when we were in middle school we both had the experience of running the three-line program that made our names repeat forever on a computer screen.  Still, with this limited experience, I wanted to try it, so I figured I would get an iPad app and ask my students to do something chemistry related in one of those.

Then I read one of the many excellent posts by Amy Gruen on her blog, Square Root of Negative One Teach Math (we share a first name and a knack for ridiculously long blog titles!).  She was raving about her experiences teaching students to program graphing calculators.  Eureka!  What a terrific idea!  Like their mobile devices, graphing calculators are carried by almost all my students and their power for learning is under-utilized.  I decided I would teach then how to program their graphing calculators.

I remembered that a previous edition of my textbook Modern Chemistry included a section on how to program your calculator for chemistry.  I tried to simple programs - how to calculate protons, neutrons, and electrons and how to calculate polarity of a bond.  Then I borrowed a crazy-looking device (I told my students it was retro) that sits on top of an overhead projector and links to a graphing calculator so students can see exactly what I type.

I demoed one program.  As I was typing, I explained what each step did for the program.  The kids followed along and created this program with me.  Then I told them they could create another program of their choosing for extra credit, as long as it could be used in chemistry for something useful.  At first, they moaned - they didn't have enough experience, they weren't programmers.  Then they got started and the results were amazing.

Many students wrote programs to solve for density or percent error.  Several tried other things too -- molar mass, stoichiometry.  Some got carried away and created program after program after program.  One of my best students created a program that used matrices to balance any equation! 

One student, who had been a solid worker but just slightly above average, told me she wanted to write something different; she didn't want to do what everyone else did.  I suggested that she start with density, but then make her program tell me if something would sink or float in water.  She started working while I mingled.  One of my best students was struggling to get his program to work correctly and we were troubleshooting.  All of a sudden, the denisty programmer jumped up and screamed - actually screamed - "I did it!"  My top student turned to her and asked for her help on his and she beamed.

I can't say for sure that it was the Hour of Code that turned things around for her, but she became one of my strongest students - almost unstoppable - by second semester.  Some students, though, did sign up for programming because they had tried it in chemistry.  Hopefully, everyone saw that programming isn't too hard for them or beyond their reach.  There were so many payoffs for the Hour of Code I did last year, that I am anxious to try it again this year.  If you can squeeze in an hour-long coding lesson, please do.  It will be a great day and may be the start of something big. 

Nearpod CyberMonday Offer

I wrote about Nearpod, one of my favorite webtools, earlier this year.  To celebrate the season of cyber-deals, Nearpod is offering a couple of deals today.  Nearpod offers a free account that gives users some basic tools.  By upgrading to a Gold account, users get more tools and more storage.  This week you can get a Nearpod Gold account for 39% off the regular price or around $7 per month.  In addition, you can buy web content at 40% off in the web store.  If you're looking for an easy web tool at an affordable price, Nearpod has a great bargain this week and is easy to use as a presentation platform and student response system.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Actively Learn on Thanksgiving

I don't give my students homework over the Thanksgiving recess, but I do like to provide a little extra credit opportunity for the holiday weekend.  Chemistry is, after all, the heart of everything, so why not inject a little chemistry into Thanksgiving?  I was anxious to try out a new web tool, Actively Learn, so I combined the two efforts for this assignment.

Actively Learn is a web tool designed to help students read closely.  Teachers can select reading material from the catalog or import a weblink or PDF.  Then questions and media can be embedded into the text, allowing teachers to create an experience that could mimic the PARCC assessments that will debut later this year.  Students can collaborate while they read and answer the questions.  Teachers can score the answers to the questions, provide feedback to students, and view the assessment results.

After I signed up for my free account, I quickly created my 5 classes.  The Get Started screen walks a teacher through the process with easy to access help screens.  The intuitive service had me up and ready to go in no time.  Creating an assignment was a breeze - find the reading material, highlight text, add questions and videos.

Students create accounts at Actively Learn - with or without email addresses - and use a 5 letter-digit code to search and join classes.  For my high schoolers, I created a quick handout that I shared with them through Google Drive that gave them 3 steps to creating accounts and finding the assignment.  So far, several have joined my classes and no one has asked me for tech support, so it seems pretty easy from the student side too.

For my reading material, I went to my go-to source of chemistry applications, the articles from the American Chemical Society's ChemMatters.  I easily found an article about the chemistry of digestion and imported it to create my assignment.  This article was associated with a video too, so I linked that to the PDF in Actively Learn.  Then I went to the ACS YouTube channel Reactions to find one more video about the chemistry of why we feel full after eating a big meal.  Reactions is a great Youtube channel for great and quirky chemistry applications.

My students have to read the article, watch the two videos that are about 2 minutes each, and answer three questions.  Once they do (Shout Out to the students who have already completed the assignment!), I can see all the answers and evaluate them.  On a summary screen I can which students have started and completed the assignment and how long they spent (I love that!).  There is a screen that shows me the answers and I can rate them as Incomplete, Basic, Proficient, or Advanced.  I can also add comments.  

If you're looking for a free webtool to help students read closely with the ability to add questions you design, Actively Learn is an easy one to try.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

The 2014 Edublog Awards

I keep tabs on a lot of blogs, but my faves are on a list along the right side of my blog.  These are the ones that I would recommend to others and the ones I nominated for the 2014 Edublog Awards.
  • Best individual blog:  Dan Meyer's blog is a constant source of inspiration to me - The ideas about teaching and learning are always fresh and thoughtful.  I love how his writing gives me so much to think about in my own practice.  The blog is worth following for Dan's thoughts alone, but the others who comment create a great dialogue.  It's the very best PLC around.
  • Best new blog:  Kasey Bell's ShakeUp Learning.  When I read somewhere that Kasey's excellent blog was nominated as the Best New Blog, I thought there was some mistake.  How could a blog this fantastic be new?  But it seems that she started this blog in 2014.  Wow, I am impressed.  Again.
  • Best ed tech / resource sharing blog: Richard Byrne's Free Technology for Teachers - if teachers only follow one blog for cool resources, this is the one to follow.
  • Best teacher blog:  Amy Gruen's Square Root of Negative One Teach Math  - this is a GREAT teacher blog.  Amy's enthusiasm is contagious and every time I read her work I wish we taught in the same building.
  • Most influential blog post of the year:  This post by Audrey Watters - well, it could be any one of her posts this year.  I have loved them all, but this one really had me wringing my hands days later.
  • Best free web tool:  Pear Deck, reviewed by me here.  I like this one a lot.
  • Best educational use of media (audio / video / visual / podcast): Two Guys and Some iPads - I was determined to learn augmented reality this year and started by getting to know the Two Guys blog.  Very cool stuff.
  • Best mobile app:  ClassKick, reviewed by me here.  If you haven't seen this app, take a look.  It is a great way to keep tabs on what students know and are able to do.
Tomorrow is the last day for Edublog nominations.  Who are your favorites?  Have you nominated them yet?

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Google Tools for ESPs

 Today is Education Support Professionals Day and I want to give a shout out to the awesome ESPs that I worked with during our Election Day Inservice.  My school district is a Google Apps for Education district and teachers have participated in some professional development to learn that platform.  Our secretaries, though, had not received any training, so we spent Election Day on just that.

I will admit that I went into the day feeling a little nervous.  I have done several teacher inservice days on GAfE, but never any for ESPs and I know they know how to do things that I don't.  Plus, a couple of the secretaries in my building stopped me in the hall when they heard I was leading the training.  They explained that many of the inservices they had attended were not worthwhile - that sometimes they felt lost or the material was irrelevant or the demonstrations were ok, but there was no time to practice.  Armed with this information, I tried to craft a day that would be none of those things.

My nervousness was for nothing because it was such a fun day!  I can't remember a time when I worked with a roomful of people so willing to try anything and so eager to learn and share with each other.  They were learning on Chromebooks, which most of them had never used before that day, and I thought this might be an obstacle.  Wrong again!  With lots of other professionals, if you asked them to learn a new type of technology on a device they had never seen, there would be instant shut down.  Not these ladies - they were plucky and bold and adventurous.  

We started with basics of Chrome (they loved the extensions!) and then Google Drive.  We worked our way through Docs, Sheets, Forms, and Calendar, looking at some basic features first and then spent time exploring and experimenting.  Addons were a big hit -- HelloFax, Autocrat, Yet Another Mail Merge, and FormLimiter were all very popular.  Autocrat and Yet Another Mail Merge had both been on my to-learn list and they were both very easy and very cool.  With Autocrat I quickly whipped up some personalized certificates.  When you open it, it walks you step-by-step through the process of merging data with a file.  Yet Another Mail Merge allows you to send personalized email messages from a template.  Again, very easy!

When we say "Google Apps for Education," I think we typically think of what happens in a classroom, but so much important stuff in a school originates in the school office.  Teachers often receive PD, but my experience showed that ESPs are eager to learn and apply their excellent skills with these tools.  Collaborations with these valuable members of our team are vital to student success.  If you are in a GAfE school, consider asking your ESPs if they would be interested in a workshop.  I know I will jump at the chance to work with this group again.  It was such a great day!

Hats off to ESPs today.  I hope you all have a great day today.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Apps Gone Free for ASD!

 If you have an iPod, iPad, or iPhone, you probably know that every day there are apps available in the App Store that are free just for one day.  The trick is finding them on the day they are free!  There are lots of ways to do this, but one of the easiest ways is to use an app that finds them for you.  The app that I use for this is Apps Gone Free.

Apps Gone Free is a free app in the App Store.  Every day the app pushes a notification to the user of 5-10 apps that are free for the day.  They are always apps that have not been free very often in the last year and they have to have a certain number of stars, so they are typically pretty good apps.  I have found a number of great tools this way. 

My notification of today's free apps just showed up and, when I opened the app, I got a pleasant surprise.  This week, Apps Gone Free is focusing on apps for autism.  In addition to the typical selection of quality apps, they are including some apps that would be helpful tools for kids on the spectrum or for their teachers and caregivers.  There are three autism apps profiled that are free today:

iComm:  a customizable picture and voice communication aid that allows nonverbal students to communicate their ideas and feeling by tapping to select photos or decisions

Language Lab: Core Words:  an app that teaches words like "stop" or "help" through visual association

iAdvocate:  a resource app to help parents as they advocate for their children's rights

Apps Gone Free was already a must-have app for me.  The selections are high quality, vetted apps.  This week it also might help find some terrific tools for a population that can make great gains by using tablets at school and at home.  If you work with, or live with, people on the spectrum, check out Apps Gone Free today.


Friday, November 14, 2014

Molecules is App-tacular!

On my apps page, I refer to the The Elements app as the only periodic table app you will ever need.  Just like its parent, the Theodore Gray coffee table book by the same name, it is packed with information, has beautiful interactive images, and rich text that is at once accessible but never talks down to the user.  When I saw its sister app, Molecules, in the app store this week, I knew I had to take a look. 

As a sequel to The Elements, Molecules raises the bar.  Part interactive textbook, part toy chest, part model kit, this app draws the user in with its fantastic photographs and interesting details about the chemistry of everyday things.  Touch the photographs and reveal a video or spin the image around to get a look at the back.  Touch one of the many interactive molecules and you can manipulate it or view it as a space-filling model or 2-D image.  While examining a molecule, touch "more info" for alternate names, chemical formula, molecular weight, and links to pages about the elements in The Elements app.  Take a look at the preview on YouTube:

The app and the book have many things in common, but the book includes the amazing interactive elements, literally elements, that make it even better than the book.  A bonus chapter called Wiggling Molecules explains the how much we can learn by fiddling with the models.  Drag the molecules around, try to rotate things, zoom in and out.    The author invites us to spin methyl groups like propellers and to explore why some molecules are floppy and some are stiff, claiming "you will gain more understanding of how molecules work in five minutes than an earlier generation of students did in five years."  I believe it.

Theodore Gray's senses of humor and wonder are evident on every page.  Why is bloodlust an expression that chemistry can explain?  What is the most toxic natural substance?  What does he keep his collection of animal pee in?  The answers to those questions and so many more - that I didn't even know I had - are found inside the app and the book.  He politely explains that he did not set out to write a textbook.  Thank heavens!  The fascinating details of biomolecules, pigments, perfumes, pain relievers and more reads better than any science textbook I have ever labored over.

So how could it be used in a classroom?  Kids as young as 9 or so could read and appreciate the curious facts presented on every page.  Middle school and high school students could also use it as a reference because it provides excellent background material on why and how elements bond and other topics like electron orbitals and polarity.  They could also use it as a foundation for inquiry explorations.  What do compounds that are used for similar things -- sugars and artificial sweeteners, for example -- have in common?  College students, too, could benefit from looking at these structures during lectures so they can immediately see examples, simulated with this powerful Nanoscale Molecular Dynamics system, of many organic concepts.

Casual admirers of the periodic table may bristle at the $13.99 price tag of this app, but it is worth every penny.  And it is eligible for Apple's Volume Purchasing Program, making it half-price for bulk purchases of 20 or more copies.  It provides an experience unlike any I have seen in my 24 years of teaching.  If you take a look, I think you will agree.

Full disclosure:  Touch Press provided me with a copy of this app, but my review is entirely based on my amazement with the incredible app!

Sunday, November 9, 2014

The Ethics of Lecturing . . . or of How and When to Lecture

I have written before about how much I value the virtual conversations that take place among the contributors on the listserv-turned-google-group of chemistry educators, Chemed-L.  This week there was a lively back-and-forth about the ethics and mechanics of lecture.  It started with a share:

Scott Freeman, lecturer in biology at the University of Washington, gave an outstanding talk at Arizona State University on Sept. 12, 2014, entitled (after Eric Mazur's comment last May) "Is lecturing unethical: A meta-analysis of active learning across STEM disciplines".

Since all chemistry teachers have lectured at one point or another, people quickly bristled at the idea of being called unethical.  Our original poster tried to re-focus the conversation, by indicating what about ethics would be considered unethical:

In his talk at ASU, [Freeman] made the connection between ethics and the large number of students who paid tuition for the course and then had to drop it, when the course was primarily lecture.  He talked about at-risk students in this population. His remarks are at the end of the hour, in the question-answer period, as I recall.

He does NOT lecture -- and he teaches 700 biology students in a huge auditorium. During 6 years of his experimentation with active learning, the LESS he lectured, the lower the drop rate; hence, overall, the BETTER the student learning.

The question then became "Exactly what do we mean when we say 'lecture'?"  That produced these great posts:

Lectures can be inspiring or they can be insipid. Just like active learning. Lectures can be spot on what one needs to hear or filled with factual errors. Just like active learning. Lectures can be rigid preprogrammed one-way activities or flexible, dynamic multi-way conversations, just like active learning. They can be 55-minute run-on sentences or 10-minute targeted, focused, extemporaneous nuggets.
Unethical?  Let's not be absurd.  Ineffective, maybe.  Yet there are times when the only source of information is listening to someone else talk -- think jury duty.  Instead of abandoning the lecture, which is the way many of us gained much of our knowledge of chemistry, how about working to make the students better listeners?  Intersperse the lecture with questions asking students to relate the new material to their previous knowledge and experience.  Provide a chance for students to ask for clarification.  Quiz them to see where misconceptions occur, then provide a demo, video, or new description to help them understand the material.

One of my lectures this week was on Percent Composition.  The photos of my chalkboard show that I had a clear idea of what I wanted students to know and be able to do at the end of the lecture.  One approach, as mentioned by my colleagues in the above posts, would be to provide the definition and the formula and then solve the sample problems.  This would give students a model for what I wanted them to know.

Another approach would be to give small bits of information and stop periodically to create opportunities for interaction.  Ask students questions, ask them to try to solve problems.  In truth, this is what I typically do during a lecture. 
Instead of either, I told the students that I knew THEY could generate the notes because they knew some things about percent problems and they knew some things about compounds.  I started with "What do you think Percent Composition is?"  Blank stares.  Uh oh.  So I put a formula on the board - NaCl - and said, if I asked you for the percent composition of this compound, what do you think I would want to know?  Lights went on.  A brave volunteer:  "How much of it is sodium and how much of it is chlorine?"  Yes, exactly.  And how much in terms of what?  What do you think we will measure?   Then more blank stares.  But one student looked at the periodic table on the wall, so I pounced:  I think Calvin has an idea.  Calvin?  "Is it mass?"  Yes!  Then the kids led me through creating the formula and solving the practice problems.  The problems on the second photo were the most fun because they did it on their own and then we compared methods for solving.

What I tried to do with this approach is show the students that the background they have acquired, in chemistry and in math, can help them understand the concepts without me telling them exactly what to do so that they start to see that they can think and form ideas without me.  Whether or not it worked, I guess I'll find out on the quiz this week.

I have done a few elementary school science programs in the last couple weeks and I have been very pleasantly surprised at what young children know about science.  I have begun to wonder, though, if, as they age, we discount that they can remember anything and we don't rely on students to bring much to the table.  Students say "I don't know" but I think often that means "I can't risk giving an answer that might be wrong."  I am going to try to draw more answers out of students and help them build meaning by helping them link what they learn to what they already know.

One more post from the Chemed-L discussion that I think is great:

the bigger question for me is what to do with what he presented. I get that passive, one-way teaching is bad and active engagement with and between students is good. What I don't really know is how to determine where my teaching is on that spectrum and how to maximize my own effectiveness. Data-driven adjustments seem ideal but some of us don't have a lot of our own "data" to work with.

Maybe the thing to do in this situation is to collect some data.  For this, I like the apps Classkick or Nearpod, or webtools like Pear Deck or The Answer Pad.  With so many students carrying smart devices, these free tools are easy ways to quickly take the temperature of a room.

The original share about Scott Freeman's talk referenced the work of Eric Mazur.  I googled him today and found this great blog post by Sue VanHattum.  Also, I saw Dr. Matthew Stoltzfus present at OETC 2014 (a lecture!) about the interactivity he is striving to create in his chemistry classes at Ohio State.  Both of these guys are going on my "further investigations list."  I don't know the answer to the question of ethics, but I know that a lecture with no interactivity is not my favorite way to learn and that I am grateful to be connected to people who want to talk about the topic and explore it.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Best of Mole-o-Ween 2014

In my most recent post - I have been falling down on the blogging job - I shared my Mole Day project, a Powtoon I made for this year's Mole-o-ween.  Later that week, my students presented their Mole Day projects with me and their classmates.  This was the first year I required the projects to be digitally delivered and, overall, it was a great success.  Tonight I have finally finished grading them, so I will share the best of the best.

In the project, students have to choose a common object and make three measurements on it.  I suggest mass, volume, and length, but they can really use anything as long as they have 3 measurements.  Then they have to calculate what those measurements would be if they had a mole of the object.  How much does a mole of pencils weigh?  How long is a mole of pencils if they are stacked end to end?  How much space does a mole of pencils take up?  Then they have to compare one of these molar quantities to some other known quantity so we get an idea of how big a mole is.  They earn extra credit if they incorporate the theme. 

There were many projects that used Google Slides, like this one:

There were many Prezis, but I liked this one a bunch because the students gave a lot of thought to its design and they made some of the artwork themselves (apples, in costumes, indeed!).  There was only one Animoto video.  There were several cute Powtoons, but I liked this one a lot because it looks like someone is explaining the math to someone else.

I liked the digital version of the project as much as the old fashioned "make a poster" way.  Plus, I could grade them at home without schlepping home a pile of posters.  Whether digital or old-fashioned, what I love best about the project is that the students seem to love to do this math.  One time a student even asked me, "Do other classes get to do this project?"  What starts out feeling daunting becomes a really cool project and a better understanding of scientific notation.  What could be better than that?

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

A Powtoon Mole-o-ween!

Recently I wrote about the makeover of my Mole Day project from a traditional task to a digital one.  Tomorrow is Mole Day and I am on pins and needles to see what my students come up with.  I made some suggestions for digital tools that students could consider -- Prezi, Thinglink, Haiku Deck, and more -- but students were free to choose any tool as long as it is digital.  

I always present a Mole Day project that I created myself, partly so they have one as a model and partly because I want to show my enthusiasm for trying to understand how big 602,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 things would be.  I was debating what digital tool I would use -- something easy enough I could do it efficiently, but challenging enough that it looks showy -- when I got an email from Powtoon announcing their Halloween template.  I really like Powtoon and the theme of Mole Day is "Mole-o-Ween," so I decided to give it a go.

It only took me about 15 minutes to make a couple quick changes to the template and create a 28 second video that I can share with my students.  All of the heavy lifting was done by Powtoon.  I changed some words and moved some images and here's what I came up with:

If you haven't tried Powtoon, it's worth a look.  They have a nice 4Edu account for educators and this fall they are giving away free premium accounts for teachers that have 60 classroom accounts for students.  You can start with a template or a blank screen, so there is something for every level of technology-ready.  

My first Powtoon was an attempt to reinforce for students the graphic relationship between two things that are directly or inversely proportional.  I searched other videos looking for just the right thing, but, when I didn't find it, I used Powtoon to create it.  Here is that one:

I hope by Friday or Saturday I will be ready to share the Best of Mole Day.  Come back and check them out.

Monday, October 20, 2014

An Alien Periodic Table

The story of Mendeleev is one that most chemistry teachers tell.  He is commonly considered the father of the Periodic Table.  A video I used to show referred to him as "a bearded Russian who liked to play cards."  He laid out cards with element properties, looked for patterns, predicted properties of unknown elements.  Hearing all that doesn't exactly make him exciting to kids.  Putting them in his shoes is another story.

I have just wrapped up my unit on atomic structure and the periodic table.  For years now, my colleagues and I have been using an alien periodic table as a common lab experience to help kids understand the magnitude of Mendeleev's work and the reference that hangs on our wall.  I had used some type of "alien periodic table" - give kids some pretend elements with pretend properties and ask them to arrange them - for years, but I really like the one we use now because it asks them to work in stages, each one with more information than the previous.  I like how this forces them to iterate an idea several times to come up with one that grows, even over just 45 minutes of class.

We start with information about element color, melting point, and hardness - all easy properties to observe - and ask for a first arrangement.  Then we add information about reactivity.  Make some changes to accommodate the new information while trying to maintain the original organizational structure.  We finish with adding mass to the known data and ask them to tweak and polish it up.  The next day we follow with an arrangement that mirrors our own table and ask them to use it to predict.  The results are often very good.

Here are three sample student papers:

I love how they all start in similar but not identical ways, but by Stage 2, they are settling on almost identical structures.  This is a great place to talk about how there may be many different ways to organize information, but often a way or two emerge as the best ways.  Of course, I tell them that there doesn't have to be a right way.  If they can justify their system, it's a good way.  I evaluate their work based on how well their tables evolve over the course of the activity.  Did they try to incorporate all the data?  Can I see growth from Stage 1 to Stage 3?  At the end, though, they all usually settle on something pretty similar to other groups.

I love this activity for so many reasons.  It's great to see them really try to make sense of and organize data.  It's a cool way to show them what scientists like Moseley and Mendeleev were doing.  And to give them a sense of how risky and pioneering new scientific ideas can be.  If you don't already so a "create a periodic table" activity, do a quick Google search and find one that you might try.  Kids like the puzzle nature of it and rise to the challenge.  As inquiry activities go, it's low risk - kids won't hurt themselves with element cards.  If you do one, want to share it?  Feel free to do so in the comments.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

This Works Like Magic

Have you seen this guy?  He is a toy by Hasbro called Magic Jinn.  This is basically a 20 questions toy, but with a few changes.  First, this version is only about animals.  Think of an animal.  Then Magic Jinn will ask you questions and try to guess what you're thinking of.  You can answer "yes," "no," "I don't know," or, my favorite, "It depends" and then he will come up with another question.  Also, he talks.  With a strange but charming accent and says very funny things.  It's hard to listen without smiling.

I first heard of Magic Jinn when I picked my daughter up from Girl Scouts a few weeks ago.  She wouldn't stop talking about how we HAD to get one.  This week I helped her troop with some water activities, so I got to see them use Magic Jinn during their circle time.  It was great to see the group of 15 third graders so quiet and attentive as they passed him around the circle, answering his questions, and dared him to guess "a snake."  They helped each other and worked as a team.  It seemed, at first glance, to be a silly toy, but the girls loved the activity and I was impressed at their use of teamwork as they played.

My daughter's persistence prevailed and we bought her a Magic Jinn to bring on a long car trip we took this weekend.  My daughter played with him a lot in the back seat, but when it was finally my turn, I thought I would stump him for sure with Triceratops.  At first the questions were simple enough:  Is it bigger than a microwave?  Does it mostly eat plants?  Does it have four feet?  Then came the question that let me know he was on to me:  Does this animal still exist?  It was just a couple more before he guessed it!  After a weekend of Jinn, I think he has only been stumped four or five times.

As we all played with Magic Jinn on the trip, I thought of use after use of this toy in a classroom.  Learning about animals?  Play Magic Jinn to test your knowledge of biomes and animals habitats.  Have students in a class compete against him to see if they are smarter than Magic Jinn.  Encourage good listening by asking the class to play as a team the way the Girl Scout troop did.  You could hear a pin drop as they passed him around.  Work on dichotomous keys.  Create some and then everyone can be Magic Jinn.  In fact, I like to use Google Forms to make dichotomous keys and I might get a Magic Jinn for me to take to PD sessions to help encourage teachers to use Forms that way!  For older students, talk and learn about the programming that makes Jinn work the way he does.  If nothing else, he is a fun reward for a job well done.

There is a Magic Jinn for animals and a Magic Jinn for foods.  There is an iOS app that will connect with the toy.  I might download that tomorrow.  I hate toys that talk.  And use batteries.  And don't allow for kids to DO something.  I can forgive all those things because this Magic Jinn really does seem to work like Magic.  This is one to put on your teacher gift list.  Like so many things that are not created for classrooms, this toy has great classroom potential.

Getting and Staying Connected

Several experiences this week have highlighted for me the importance of making connections with other educators.  This has been an unbelievably busy week - and one almost entirely without blogging as a result - but one that has me thinking a lot about the ways I want and need to continue to connect with people.

This week I was lucky to participate in a teleconference with some teachers from the Beijing Royal School in China.  This was my third interaction with teachers from this school and I continue to be excited about our intercontinental connections.  I first met Amanda Cheng, Executive Principal of the BRS, at Chemed2013 at the University of Waterloo last summer.  I was presenting on using iPads in the classroom and she was embarking on an iPad 1:1 project at her school.  We did some emailing following the conference, hoping to continue a collaboration.  This past summer Amanda was in the US to grade AP Chemistry tests in Kentucky and made a quick stop in my district to talk with me and some district leaders about our middle school iPad 1:1 project.  We all hoped the collaboration would continue.

That hope became a reality this week when a few teachers and administrators from our district met with teachers from the BRS in China via teleconference.  We shared ideas for using iPads in the classroom, including some of our favorite apps and uses.  It was such a great experience to get to talk with people from the other side of the planet about how similar (and different!) our students and teaching experiences are.  Near the end of the hour, they asked us to talk about one thing we would pass on as advice.  For me, it was to use the technology to connect with as many other educators as possible.  

Later in the week a fellow chemistry teacher emailed me for advice on introducing iPads.  She has just learned that she will be getting a class set of iPads and is looking for ways to use them to teach chemistry.  She found me through the internet and, again, it felt lucky to connect with another teacher who is trying some similar things in her classroom.  I hope we will start interstate collaborating on chemistry and iPads too.

Closer to home, I delivered some PD in my school this week.  My focus was the use of the Google Drive template gallery, but connections played a role here too.  Our staff is large (150+) teachers and we teach in a weird cloverleaf shaped building (well, minecraft cloverleaf) that doesn't always force interaction.  It's easy to see the same 15 colleagues every day and can be challenging to see the others.  When we can't always be in the same room together for PLC, the template gallery can be a great way that we can still share and help each other.  As my school moves forward with a large grant to increase our blended learning opportunities, we will need our staff connections more than ever.

Two of the digital ways I like best are Diigo and Google+.  I love the convenience of Diigo for saving and accessing my bookmarks from any computer on the planet, but I also love the social features too.  The other Diigo users find excellent stuff every week that I always enjoy checking out.  Google+ has some of the same features that I like about Diigo -- excellent education communities, an easy-to-use interface, and a great energy from forward-thinking educators.  Today I reshared a Richard Byrne blog post on Google+ and it is getting a lot of +1s.  Check it out if you are using chromebooks.  There is so much good stuff on his blog every day!

How do you best connect with others?  

Friday, October 10, 2014

Isotopes Make Cents, Part 2

Here's a great comment about my previous post from Dan Meyer
Oh man, I love this. Love the vacuum-sealed bags. Love the alternative definition for "flipped." Can you help me understand how the question is even solvable with the given information, though? I can calculate the average weight of a pre- and post-1982 penny but it seems like a random bag of pennies would be impossible to sort out.

I took some screenshots to show what I hoped my students would come up with the first time I did this experiment as an inquiry-based experience.  They need to know the mass of a pre-82 and post-82 penny.  Since those can differ slightly from penny to penny, the average is probably best (and isn't that a great conversation to have because this has probably not occurred to them).

Then they have to find the average mass of a penny in their particular bag.  And since the bags are all different, this will differ from group to group.

Then the use some algebra (and they groan when I say "and you suggested to your teacher in 8th grade that you'd never need this stuff!") and solve for x.

When you do this math for the pennies on the balance in the 10 random pennies picture, you find there are 3 pre-82 pennies and 7 post-82 pennies.  And again, that was what I hoped I would see.  I didn't anticipate that there would be so many great questions to ask and so many different ways kids tackle this.  

  • Based on the mass, which type of penny do you guess is more abundant in your sample?  Why does your answer make sense (or not make sense)?  
  • What are some sources of error that are built in to this experiment?  
  • How else could we solve this problem?

And that's where kids have really wow-ed me.  Some do it this way.  Some use guess and check.  The good estimators take a guess, based on the average, and guess and check up or down from their guess if they weren't exactly right.  This year one student tried something I had never seen (and I wish I would have copied his paper before I returned it).  He assumed he had 10 older pennies and created an equation where x = the number of newer pennies so he could mathematically adjust the mass down based on how many of the newer pennies in the bag.  When he explained it to me and his lab partners, he seemed totally mystified that this is NOT the way we were planning to do it.

Then, when I am teaching these calculations in the context of isotopes, a student notices this relationship:

And he suggests that we don't even need to do the math; we can just bank on the digits past the decimal point being the percent.  So I ask, "Does that always work?"  What happens if the masses of the isotopes are more than one unit away from each other?  Like these:

And he says, "That's easy.  We divide the digits past the decimal by 2."  So we named a postulate after him because he created a rule.  The next day, on the quiz, he came to my desk and asked if he had to show his work for the problem or could he just use his postulate?  What's the use, I asked him, of having a postulate if we can't use it?

Now if only I would have used ClassKick while we did this activity, then the students could have seen each other's solutions and heard all the great ideas I heard.  Well, that's something to look forward to for next year.  And the next flipped lab.