NASA Shares Awesome Science

Update 9:00 PM – I added a link to the docking procedure run earlier this morning.

If you teach science, get on Twitter or Facebook and follow NASA. Now.

I know a ton of science happens here on the ground, but what I love about NASA is that they’ve embraced the fact that science can be shared with social media. They have one of the best online presences by an organization I’ve ever seen. They have Twitter accounts for most of their major missions, including the Voyager spacecraft (which are still operating, if you didn’t know).

They livestream most of their satellite launches so anyone can watch.

Heck, this afternoon, I watched a Russian supply probe dock with the ISS live. That was quickly followed up by a tweet from a Canadian astronaut on the space station.

Long story short, NASA is making science real for an audience that will (most likely) never get the chance to experience the work they do first-hand. I share it with my students. Maybe, one of them will see what science is all about and be inspired to begin a science career.

I want to go to space now.

NASA media of note

Voyager 1 – Twitter

Voyager 2 – Twitter

ISS Research – Twitter

Commander Hadfield, Canadian astronaut currently on six-month ISS mission. – Twitter

Curiosity Rover – Twitter

NASA TV – Archived footage of launches, ISS events, briefings, press conferences, etc. Also, includes links to NASA UStream page.

NASA YouTube Channel

Chemical Equation Inquiry

Liza Basden is a chemistry teacher in Illinois that I connected with earlier this year. Periodically, we’ll share resources with one another for labs or other activities that we run in our classes. Last week, I was browsing for a lab to run with students on the different types of chemical reactions when Liza sent me some awesome pictures from her own class:


I really like the fact that she pulls in inquiry to get the students thinking about similarities and differences in the chemical equations before the students begin to categorize them as single replacement, double replacement, etc. It forces the students to make connections between various chemical equations that are really quite obvious when we sit down to compare. Plus, asking them to draw out a representation of the reaction pushes critical thinking and analysis of what they’re learning, which increases retention and understanding.

She was kind enough to share the prep materials and the student papers and has given me permission to share these materials with anyone that may want to use them in their class.

If you end up using this activity, we’d love to see some photos of your student’s work shared either here in the comments or shared Twitter.

All photos in this post are from Liza Basden, used with permission.

Adaptive Science Curriculum

I’ve been following Dan Meyer for about 15 months. I don’t teach math, but the way he talks about teaching math makes me want to teach it. If you’re not familiar with his writing and development of Three Act Math, you should read the linked post and go check out his site dedicated to free materials.

Recently, he’s moved into developing web-based “textbooks,” if they can even be called that. Essentially, he’s taking intuitive knowledge of math (draw a square) and then directing the user through the process of either confirming their previous understanding or correcting their misconceptions. What really caught my attention was this activity on squares. Stop reading now, check it out.

Dan teamed up with a teacher/programmer named Dave Major (who also wrote a post about the squares activity). I really began to think about how this could be done in science.

Flipped Learning is all over the web. I use it, my friends use it, and we’ve all seen some amazing things happen in our classes. Honestly, I think video is reaching a point where it can help move us into meaningful digital learning spaces, but it isn’t enough. We all know that.

I’ve been thinking a lot about how to move content into adaptive digital environments, much like the Better Best Squares activity. PhET simulations by UC Boulder are a good first step, but there is still a disconnect between the task (usually paper based) and how the student interacts with the program.

I’m wondering how we can begin to make responsive programs like the squares example for science. One thought, initially, is that simulation parameters could be set by a student, much like the square they draw. Every following step would be A) integrated with the class responses, and B) based on the initial setup.

How else could we do this in science? Are there any programmers that would be interested in trying to build some kind of pilot program? Any teachers that would be interested in writing curriculum for this project? Let me know in the comments.

More Faith

I did a webinar yesterday afternoon with Marc Siegel, Deb Wolf, and Ramsey Musallam on the various ways Flipped Learning can be incorporated into a science classroom. We spoke about changing mindsets, thinking about mastery learning and standards based grading, and using video tools in class along with other ideas and tips.

Ramsey spoke near the end of the broadcast about using inquiry learning in his Explore-Flip-Apply method. I asked him, “Ramsey, how do you train your kids to work well in an inquiry environment? I’m not sure mine could handle that from day one in the semester, so what do you do?”

Ramsey came back by saying, “Actually, I drop them right in from day one. I don’t really train them in anything at all. Kids have an innate curiosity that we have to tap into in order to fully engage them in the content.” (Or something along those lines.)

Now, let me preface this by saying I’ve heard Ramsey say this over and over as I’ve gotten to know him. But, I never really put any faith in my students.

I decided to take it to heart. Today, I had an entire lab planned out with procedures, data tables, and follow-up questions. I knew what my kids would do, and they would fill in the blanks and then move on. I decided to scrap the entire lab and go with one statement:

Photo is mine.

I have a sample. It has water attached to it. I need to know how much water it contains.

The only question I asked them for this lab is: “What percent of my sample is water?”

I didn’t have enough faith in my classes. I didn’t really trust them to do anything like this. I was proven wrong this morning. For you science folks, our average error from the first two classes is two percent. Two. My students have encouraged me, and from what I’ve observed, they’ve felt proud of their work. They were so excited to hear how close they had come. I haven’t seen energy like this in a while.

I’d lost sight of the excitement that should come from science…from discovery. I’d lost sight of the process because I’d focused too much on the end result. I can talk about the process, but I need to have them go through the process.

My students can now explain how to find the mass percentage of part of a compound. They can do it better than if I had stood up or recorded a video and taught them. Tomorrow, we’ll involve mols somehow and see what happens.

Hopefully, my students will begin to feel more trusted and more empowered in the process.

Full Immersion

My wife showed me this video the other night. If you haven’t seen it, consider taking thirty seconds to watch it. I’ll wait.

At the time, I was entertained. The ending really surprised me, and the video itself was engaging. But, as soon as it was over, I wasn’t thinking about buying a refrigerator or dishwasher any more than I had been before the clip.

How often are our classrooms like this? For me, I’m constantly asking myself whether or not a particular tool or activity is a gimmick (edutainment, if you will) or if it really has substance. There’s a very fine line between the two, and I’ve definitely been duped in the past.

To determine if its going to make a long-lasting impact, I have to be able to connect it to the unit-at-large. How will the tool or activity come full circle from the initial hook? I think Dan Meyer does this better than anyone I know with his Three Act Math website. He begins with a short video or image that prompts a question from the students. Teachers then work to scaffold through the questions to help students build meaning. I’m amazed at not only how thorough his work is, but also that he shares it for free. (For proof that these aren’t gimmicks, check out Dan’s post from December 12.)

In science, I need to make the move to labs before instruction. Terie Englebrecht wrote a short post earlier this week about how she’s moved to labs before instruction. Students move through the unit having been exposed to the “real” part of the content. I stink at this, and as I work on bring labs to the front of the cycle, I need to really make sure to build a program that feeds back on itself.

If you have ideas or suggestions on how to accomplish this, I’d love to hear about them.

Guest Post: Where I Am to Where I’m Going

Where I am to Where I’m Going

By the time you read this post, I will have already began my school year, crossing my fingers, and praying that what I put into motion will pay off in dividends down the road. This year is a lot of firsts for me. This year I will be pressing play on class, 6th Grade Science Applications, 1st year for 1:1 MacBooks, and I am dipping my toes into the flipped model. I caught the bug in a training on Macs when conversing with the trainer we had from Colorado (Aaron Sams’ and Bergmann’s home state). He teaches physics through this model using 1:1 iPads and I was intrigued by his enthusiasm, the tech applications, and by my own skepticism. I read further and went all in on the flipped method.

Moving from Smath

I worked in a co-taught science and math integrated class (6th grade SMATH). Most of class students would work in center rotations with a 20 minute small group lesson within each class period. One teacher would facilitate while the other would teach small groups for the day. It was a great constructivist model where students were lead through inquiry-based activities to construct their own understandings. There were some holes, however. Since these were going in a rotation basis, the direct instruction would be disjointed from the centers from which they experimented and worked with the content. They may have hit a center on density on day 2 of the rotation, but not receive direct instruction from the teacher on the content until day 10. Second was that students were assessed through observation or quizzes at the end of the unit. Students would receive small checks in the lessons, but students were not as accountable in center work. These led to some content missing its full potential and left students that weren’t able to transfer learning to practice in a bind. With now only myself at the helm, I wanted to keep what was good, but eliminate these known gaps in the model.

Flipping to Meet Knowledge and Application

What I have learned in my many nights of researching the model through blogs, PLN’s Twitter feeds, and other PD outlets this summer is that flipped model teaching is as diverse as it is direct. Though in its simplicity flipping claims to “implement instruction in class and practice at school,“ how many ways do teachers deliver content at school? There’s the acronyms of PBL, IBL, the 5 E’s, LFS strategies, as well the myriad of other philosophies that we use to impact our student. This leads me to believe that even though the majority of flipped learning PD is on how to screencast, this does not have to be the case. It is in this that I have implemented my pedagogy on the model. Here are some thoughts on how I plan to implement the flipped learning model (not mastery yet…) in the classroom.

  1. Align Content, Pedagogy, and Technology – Do not be a slave to the video, because its not about the video. In fact, your instruction doesn’t even need to be as a video. Make the content the driver of what tool to use. You may just need the students to research a concept, or follow a powerpoint, or read two conflicting viewpoints to contrast. I plan to use videos where prudent, and where it suits the content best.
  2. Class time for Lab time – Students will gain instruction at home, and use that knowledge to dig deeper into the content at school. I already have several projects and labs in the works for the beginning of the school year.
  3. Symbiotic instruction with meaningful assessment – To close the disjoint of instruction that SMATH presented, I plan to have many small assessments that will guide my instruction. Students will take notes and summarize their learning after the video using google forms and ask questions for the homework. I can use this to clear misconceptions in class, provide clarity if needed, and use the questions to guide further investigation.

I think if I keep these thoughts in the front of my mind while in the thick of things, I can create a flipped classroom that’s me, that’s meaningful, and produces lasting results. Any thoughts, questions, and comments on my plan are greatly appreciated. If you are looking to see my progress in the class, I will be posting updates, thoughts, and other tid-bits often on my blog, What Swords SED.

Mitchell Swords

6th Grade Science

Venus: The Aftermath

I promised people that I would post pictures and/or a video on how I watched the Venus transit last night. Well, they’re ready to share.

It was great to be able to watch this in real time. I was worried earlier in the afternoon because the cloud cover really picked up, but it cleared out right at six o’clock, just before the transit began at 6:09 PM.

If you didn’t see it, NASA put a great video out from the Solar Dynamics Observatory showing the transit in multiple wavelengths. I favorited it because it is something I can show my students over the next 105 years until they get to see the next transit for themselves.

Venus Flyby

Flickr CC, howzey

Tuesday, June 5th and Wednesday, June 6th, we have a great opportunity to see the planet Venus travel across the face of the sun. This event is called a

transit and it is significant because of the timeframe between each event. It is over 100 years between each transit, but they come in pairs eight years apart. The most recent transit occurred in 2004, so tomorrow’s event is the second of the pair. If you miss it this time around, unfortunately, you won’t be able to see it happen again until December 2117.

I’m sure you’ve heard of this in the news, but if you are interested in watching it for yourself, here are some resources to help you plan.

1) When is the best time to view the transit? – This depends on your geographical location. Luckily, the majority of the continental United States will be able to see a portion of the transit at sunset on June 5th. Because this is so rare, there are parties and events popping up all over the country where you can watch the transit with others in your area.

2) How can I watch the transit? – Never, never, never look directly at the sun. Ever. Unless, of course, you want permanent damage to your retina to occur. So, to safely view the transit, you’ll need to do some basic DIY using household materials. A great website, Transit of Venus has a list of six ways to see the transit safely.

Personally, I will be using a pair of binoculars mounted on a tripod projecting on a white space. Here’s a great video on how to set up your binoculars if you want to do the same.

3) What causes the transit? – It’s always good to learn something, so this website does a great job of explaining what causes the Earth and Venus to line up every 120 years or so.


I sat outside this morning drinking coffee and watching a bumblebee flop its way through a camellia, hunting for nectar. With each foray, her hairy body was saturated with pollen to be distributed to the next flower. All of the plant’s energy had gone into a gamble that an insect would visit and take some of the pollen and donate some to another lucky flower.

It's not a camellia, but that's okay.

Flickr CC, Express Monorail

The Indiana state biology standards do not have a place for pollination, or even basic plant and animal anatomy, unless you count identifying the differences between their cells, and even that has significant room for improvement. Kids do not care about the differences in the cells unless they can see how it makes a difference in their world.

Without bees, there would be no new flowers each season. Without the flowers, bees would not have a source of nutrition. Cells, when added up, make a difference.

Every day spent with students is an opportunity to question, observe, debate, explain, and create. Unfortunately, we are under the impression that our hands are tied. I chose to believe in standards, rather than observation and questioning, and I regret the opportunities I missed with my students.

Does the bee realize the opportunity it is providing each flower with each stop? I’m not sure, but it doesn’t matter. Be aware of the moment and let learning opportunities happen. Do what is right for your kids and the rest will sort itself out.

“Academic Bowl” Paradox

Last night, I read the science questions for the Indiana Academic Bowl our school hosted. The city schools all sent teams of students to participate in an evening of trivia and brain-power boxing. It was fun and it was great to see some of our own students putting their heads together to answer science questions.

I have a small problem with the name “Academic Bowl.” We all love our little bits of trivia, but labeling a trivia night as “academic” seems a little off to me. Academics should be pushing real-life problem solving and innovative thinking, and no question came close to that. Sure, our students can determine the initial velocity of an object with lightning speed, but what good is that in life? What are they going to do with that object once it is thrown?

Or better yet, why are they throwing that object at all?

I think we are sending a mixed message. We ask for creative and original thought in class, but when it “matters” (i.e. “tests”), we are still only asking for basic, rote-memorization, recall. This must change.

My Academic Bowl would look much more like Science Olympiad (do they still do that?). Teams are given a problem prior to the competition. Instead of drilling physics equations, they spend the time leading up to the event problem solving, planning, testing, and designing a solution. It could be something as simple as:

Design a system to keep an egg from breaking when dropped from a height of 50 feet.”

Or, something more complex:

“Design, sketch, and propose a location for a new power station in your city. Include resources needed, civic impacts, environmental concerns, and other pertinent information.

We need to remember that everything we expose our learners to sends a message and leaves some mark on their life.

Maybe I am feeling a little snarky this morning, but I do not want to let my kids think that “academics” equals “trivia.”