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.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Isotopes Make Cents

When most educators talk about flipping lessons, they are referring to delivering content outside of class so that students can apply and practice concepts in class with the teacher there to support their learning.  There are many variations of "flipping" and, like all other teaching innovations, people who teach effectively and ineffectively with all the variations.  The flipping that I am interested in is taking a lab or activity that has been done in a traditional cookbook way and turning it into a discovery or inquiry-based activity instead.

Many chemistry teachers do an experiment to help students apply atomic mass calculations to a sample of something.  I have used beans to ask students to find the atomic mass of "beanium."  Students count three kinds of beans in a sample (they are all beans but have different masses) and find the average mass of each type.  Then they find the average mass of a bean in the sample, the atomic mass.  It does give kids a chance to practice a calculation, but it isn't really an experiment -- there isn't an essential question to answer or a problem to solve.

Years ago, when I taught ChemCom, we did an experiment that compared pennies to isotopes.  Pennies minted before 1982 were solid copper and have a heavier mass than the zinc/copper pennies minted after 1982.  They are all pennies and all worth $0.01, but they have different masses.  Just like isotopes.  Take a look at these pictures:

Can you figure out how many pre- and post-82 pennies are in the 
random pennies picture?

I have a FoodSaver.  Instead of using it for meat and cheese like the infomercial recommended, I created vacuum-sealed bags of 10 pennies, each with a different combination of pre- and post-1982 pennies.  I challenge the students to determine the number of each in the bag.  The vacuum-sealed bags hide the dates on the pennies well, so the students are intrigued to find the answer.  I use codes like 55 to indicate 5 of each or 73 for 7 pre-82 pennies and 3 post-82 pennies, so I can tell them immediately if they solved correctly.  Though this isotopic abundance calculation is harder than finding a weighted average like in "beanium," there is still a high degree of success.  

The flip isn't the activity, though.  It's how you use the activity.  If you pass out a worksheet that tells them all the steps - in the lab and the calculations - it won't require much original thinking.  Instead, maybe show these pictures.  Or a video of weighing the sets of pennies.  Give them a bag (or an opaque box) and have them guess at how many of each type of penny are in there.  Ask them to figure out what they need to figure it out.  Let them craft their own route.  I have seen students describe some very interesting ways of solving this problem.  Try it before you do isotopic abundance calculations and then you can refer to it when it becomes about isotopes.  Let them open the box and see if they were right.  

I'll keep writing about my experiences in flipping labs like this and post them on my newest page, Inquiry Labs.  Check back for more activities from time to time.  Try a few.  Got a great one?  Suggest it in the comments.

Read the followup to this post here.