A (Microscopic) Window into Science Class

This is a cross-post from our classroom website.

As part of our study of the flow of energy and matter through organisms and ecosystems we have been making periodic trips out to the creek behind the school. A couple weeks ago we constructed a food chain that might exist in the creek. The food chain featured a water strider.

To help us get a better sense of the lower parts of that food chain, we smeared microscope slides with peanut butter from the lunch room. With the peanut butter we hoped to attract small creatures in what microbiologists call a “biofilm.” It’s that layer of slime that you see on stuff in the creek.1

Here’s a video from our classroom this week as we looked through a microscope that we projected on our TV in the classroom.

In the first clip, you can see what appears to be some sort of nematode (I think??) moving very quickly. To the left is what appears to be an amoeba? Other creatures (Rotifers? Euglena? Paramecium?) dart in and out of the frame. At one point, a large tubular creature darts into the frame and out again. The kids’ surprise is audible!

In the second clip is a cluster of creatures that appear to have flagella, which create a vortex that draws food near. The kids seemed fascinated by these. We watched for about 10 – 15 minutes.

One student, Mason, exclaimed: “It’s like the microscope slide is New York City!”, which is so true. The kids marveled at just how many creatures must be living in the creek if there are that many on just one microscope slide. Suddenly, the world got to be just a little bit bigger and more interesting.

PS. Thanks to the College biology department for their long-term loan of the microscope and camera and to Dr. Enos-Berlage for the idea to make biofilms in the first place. My special thanks go to Mr. Fitton who made many trips to meet me after school to set up the microscope for this venture. Without his help, this would not have been possible.

  1. Biofilms are in a lot of other places, too, including the surface of intestines, your mouth, on the outside of many organisms…lots of places.

The School of the Outdoors

Long time, no post. My move to fifth grade has been good for me, but the change in routine took a long, I mean, a long-long time to get used to. The bell marking the end of class was the crucial factor for me, which necessitated some pretty serious thinking about learning and how I fit into a system of bells and measured time. I may reflect on what the move taught me in subsequent posts.

For now, though, school’s out for summer, I’m back from a six-day paddle in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) in northern Minnesota, and I’m getting ready for a week-long workshop on inquiry-based science.

I’m reminded of how much I learn about the world and myself by just being outside for long stretches of time.

I wish I could take the kids out on a field trip to such a place as the BWCAW. We saw a moose feeding at the edge of the lake (how immense they are!); what appeared to be a lone trumpeter swan spend the afternoon in the bay, then trumpet and lift off a little after sunset; and many loons, like the ones in the video, who sang their mournful song at dusk.

We also saw mosses (my partner is teaching herself how to identify the different species), beautiful sedges in the woods, marshes, and along the lake edge, and the first flush of brilliant green aspen leaves against the darkness of the black spruce. Spring comes slowly to the north country.

We experienced several nights in the low 30s, the first black fly and mosquito hatch (oh boy!), and observed dragonfly larvae crawl from the cool lake waters, split open, then transform before our eyes. Even now, I have to catch myself. The dragonfly is BOTH the acrobatic aerialist who hunted mosquitoes gathered near my head AND the monstrous looking larva that crawls from the underwater world only to open and, like the crew members in the movie, Alien, disgorge a winged creature with a very long abdomen and a voracious appetite. Two worlds, two lives, one dragonfly.

Until you actually see the still-wet larva split open and the winged dragonfly emerge, life cycles are abstract ideas.

We pulled out for lunch on a piece of Canadian Shield (some of the oldest exposed rock in the world, the spine of the North American continent), then marveled at the work of the beaver, master builder, whose fur drew hordes of opportunists to the north country and became the tophats of the fashionable people in Europe.


Each night we read aloud an account of a canoe trip the author took in the 1950s that followed the old fur trade route from Grand Portage, MN to the Red River of the North.1 While not great literature, this book reminded me that what counts as a “good book” can be situational. Packed with first-hand accounts from the 18th and 19th centuries, I learned more about the Hudson’s Bay Company, the Northwest Company, the XY Company, and the homme du nord than I had known before. While our fare was meager, it was nothing like the 1 quart of lyed corn cooked with pork grease that was the daily meal during the trip: “All the food that a man needs for 24 hours on the road.”

Small comfort, though, that three hundred years ago the fur traders cursed the black flies and mosquitoes, too.


Beth reads our travel narrative aloud from under her bug net.


  1. Bolz, Portage into the Past.

A Collection of Astounding Facts

SHYANGLE dalioPhoto via Compfight

So much on my mind these days. The events that have occurred ” inside the dog” of the classroom seem to break into fragments as soon as I place them within the frame of a story1 as if the frame does not hold the story together, but presses it apart into shards that glint and flicker like the flames caused shadows to dance across the wall of Plato’s cave. I suppose that I am that man chained to the floor, the one who cannot tell what is a shadow and what is a puppet.

I think that’s why I have not had a story to tell lately2, but I do have a need to connect things together even if I am suspicious of stories right now.3 So, if not a story, here are some things collected and arranged in close proximity to each other.

Here’s one piece: Mary Lee Hahn’s lovely Poetry Friday post about noticing the small things, the important things (as well as about Mark Strand’s poetry and something as small as the Universe.)

I don’t know that,
but we’re made of the same stuff that stars are made of,
or that floats around in space.

But we’re combined in such a way
that we can describe
what it’s like to be alive,
to be witnesses.
Most of our experience is that of being a witness.
We see and hear and smell other things.

(Line breaks are Mary Lee’s)

Another fragment tumbled through the ether: Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Most Astounding Fact, that not only are we part of the universe, but the universe is part of us: “Our desire is to be connected, isn’t it…?”

And, while splitting wood last weekend, a third bit arrived on the east wind of an overcast day during a break to rest my back: a visceral sense that locked deep within the rings of wood created on one sunny day over 100 years ago was the breath of people and critters who once lived in the place that I inhabit now, a carbon journey that moved in time from these breaths to carbon chains created through a clever bit of chemistry and the Sun’s own energy deep inside the organs of living beings so different than me (plants!), and all this, in turn, from bits of carbon created in the cores of stars many times more massive than our Sun, so ancient as to be unimaginable. Carbon loaned to me in the form of a body today will be somewhere else tomorrow.

Connected, indeed.

Somehow it seems really important that I ponder these things.

  1. For example, our Science engineering unit nearing completion is BOTH a successful attempt to provide space for analytical thinking AND a dismal failure to manage a couple groups who have children with prickly personalities…as well as a few more things I don’t even realize.
  2. Or, rather, I have too many stories to tell about the same event, which may be the same thing.
  3. My suspicion comes and goes.

Thinking Long and Hard, in which We Create a New Model for Seasonal Change

Our unit on the seasons has drawn to a close. Earlier I posted about how our understanding of what caused the seasons was consistent with the explanation offered by many other learners, including some Harvard University graduates. In that earlier post, I explored the model for seasonal changes first articulated by the children (that the seasons are caused by the distance the Earth is from the Sun) and how we tried to disrupt that model by presenting contrary evidence. For instance, we built a scale model of the Earth and Sun system and noticed that the orbit was almost perfectly a circle, and we graphed monthly average temperatures from locations in the Southern and Northern Hemispheres.

These activities convinced the students that the naive model we had created could not explain seasonal variation in temperatures.

However, we did not have adequate information to form an alternate explanation. And if, as I suggested in that earlier post, our minds create stories to explain what we do not know, then without an alternate explanation we were vulnerable to re-adopting our previous story as the passage of time caused us to forget the reasons we gave it up in the first place.

So, what we did next was to build an alternate story that the Earth’s tilt on its axis causes the seasonal differences in temperatures. This story is easy enough to say, but I worried that such a simple explanation did not allow the children enough time or data to build an alternate model.

I knew changing the story would be difficult because I ran a little experiment. I told the children that the reasons for the seasons was the Earth’s tilt, and then I asked them to tell me how the tilt might cause the seasons. Even with various props (tennis balls and golf balls, for instance), they had a difficult time articulating why the tilt should matter. In fact, because it was difficult to articulate, many reverted to a variation on the “closer to the Sun” story, arguing that the tilt brought one hemisphere “closer to the Sun” than the other, which made it warmer than the one “farther from the Sun.” Hmm…Asking the children to explain their thinking helped me see the persistence of the old model!

Somehow I needed to help them see that there were other reasons besides distance to explain the seasons. I developed some simple lessons and demonstrations designed to help us see that there is a “triple-whammy” that causes the hemisphere tilted toward the Sun to have warmer temperatures.

Increased Area in the Summer

First off, I showed them a video that helped them visualize the way the tilt made one hemisphere absorb more of the Sun’s energy.

We watched the video several times so we could see how during the months a hemisphere was titled toward the Sun it was exposing more of it’s area to the Sun, thereby causing it to absorb more energy over a given period of time. We drew sketches that showed the hemisphere that tilted toward the Sun had a larger area that got sunlight during those months.

N. hemisphere summer. Note the increased area that absorbs the sun's energy.

N. hemisphere summer. Note the increased area that absorbs the sun’s energy.

Finally, we thought of analogies to help us cement this in our minds.1

Here is one analogy that we used to help us: A room with a small window will let in less warm sunlight than a room with a large window. The room with the large window will be warmer than the one with the small window because there is a greater area exposed to the sunlight.

Increased Day Length in Summer

I found a website that helped me graph day length in Canberra, Australia and Dubuque, IA (the two cities that we were using as our reference points.) We examined the graph to see if we could describe how the length of day changed in each location over the course of the year. Then we compared the two locations. We noticed that the shape of the graph was very similar to the shape of the average temperature graphs that we had completed earlier.

Comparison of day length for Canberra, Australia and Dubuque, IA.

Comparison of day length for Canberra, Australia and Dubuque, IA.

Comparison of average monthly temperatures. Canberra is in blue, Dubuque is in red.

Comparison of average monthly temperatures. Canberra is in blue, Dubuque is in red.

Again, we tried to create an analogy that might help us better understand what we were seeing: The longer you leave something in the oven, the warmer it will be (until it is the same temperature as the oven!)

The children were starting to form an alternate story now. More area that gets baked, plus longer in the oven creates higher temperatures in the summer.

We still had one more reason to consider.

Higher Sun Angle in the Summer

While the two reasons we had explored were probably sufficient to cement an alternate story, I wanted the children to get a sense of energy per unit of area. Exploring this concept would provide another opportunity for the children to understand more deeply the idea of area, a crucial math concept that they had been exposed to in fourth grade.

First, I showed the students the angle of the sun in Canberra and Dubuque. We practiced estimating angles of the sun by pointing with our arms extended to the place in the sky the sun would be at different times of the year. 2 The children intuitively knew that the sun was lower in the sky in the winter than the summer, but the graph helped them see that the time of highest sun angle was different for Canberra and Dubuque.

Comparison of the angle of the Sun by month for Canberra and Dubuque.

Comparison of the angle of the Sun by month for Canberra and Dubuque.

Earlier that day I set up two heat lamps. Both heat lamps were set 80 cm from a penny, and contained the same wattage of heat lamp bulb. However, one heat lamp was at a high angle to the penny (the summer position of the sun) and the other was at a low angle to the penny (the winter position of the sun.) I turned on the lamps and let the penny absorb the heat for 1.5 – 3 hours, depending on the time of the three science classes I teach. We measured the surface temperature using a digital laser thermometer.

A sketch of the lamp set up.

A sketch of the lamp set up.

As we examined the heat lamp set-up, the children estimated the area lit by the heat lamp bulb. They could easily see that the same amount of energy was spread over a large area when the “sun” was at a low angle and was more concentrated in a smaller area when the “sun” was at a high angle.

We searched for a suitable analogy and came up with this: When the sun is high in the sky, it’s like the Earth is baking in an oven set up to deliver more intense heat. The heat reaching the Earth is more concentrated during the summer months so each location on that hemisphere absorbs more heat than in the winter.

So, finally we had an alternate explanation. The Earth’s tilt creates a triple whammy that increases the temperatures in the hemisphere that is tilting toward the Sun:

  1. The tilt increases the area that can absorb the Sun’s energy in the hemisphere tilted toward the Sun, and decreases the area in the one tilted away from the Sun. This causes more of the Sun’s energy to be absorbed in one hemisphere than the other.
  2. The tilt also increases the day length in the hemisphere experiencing summer temperatures. The longer the day, the longer the Sun can bake that hemisphere, the more energy that hemisphere absorbs.
  3. Finally, the tilt increases the sun angle in that same hemisphere. The higher the sun’s angle, the more concentrated the energy is, which is like putting that location in a hotter oven.

So, not only is the hemisphere experiencing a hotter oven (sun angle) for longer periods of time (day length) there is more of it in that hotter oven at a time (area).

Was it worth it to spend this amount of time on what causes the seasons? Couldn’t we just learn a song to remember the causes? 

I think it was worth the time.

If science is not just about learning a set of facts, but reasoning our way through arguments and creating explanations based on evidence, then I think the time we spent thinking through our evolving understanding was probably worth it. Perhaps one of the reasons we maintain our misconceptions even after we know the “facts” is because we create “stories” to explain the world to our satisfaction. That’s what I saw when I asked the children to explain the seasons even after they had left the “distance from the Sun” explanation in the dust. If we do not pause long enough to take in new information, to play with it, to bat it around, to consider the implications of that information, then we run the risk of not seeing the significance of that information and how it conflicts with the stories we create.

  1. One thing good science writers understand very well is how powerful a good comparison — most likely an analogy — can be for helping a learner understand an abstract concept. We humans are creatures of comparison! I tell the kids that comparison is one of our super powers.
  2. This was good practice estimating angles from reference angles. The students had to identify 90 degrees, then half of that for a 45 degree angle. Using these two reference points, we estimated other angles in each location.

Questioning the Stories We Tell Ourselves — Misconceptions in Science Class


misconception definition

Science educators have long noted that learners can hold misconceptions about important scientific concepts. These misconceptions are often formed in elementary school, and can be surprisingly difficult to shake. 1

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about how I might help students create stories to contain and connect the information they are learning in science class. I wondered if misconceptions might somehow be connected with the stories we tell ourselves. 2

As Daniel Kahneman, author of Thinking, Fast and Slow notes, our brains have a hard time NOT making sense of things. We create stories to help us connect things, to remember them, and to make sense of things. Sometimes we jump to conclusions because the “story” we tell ourselves makes intuitive sense, but might be built on flimsy evidence.

from http://www.stripes.com/sports/stuttgart-huge-indoor-playground-is-a-world-of-wonder-for-kids-1.130591

from http://www.stripes.com/sports/stuttgart-huge-indoor-playground-is-a-world-of-wonder-for-kids-1.130591

The fact that we can see a connection between things, even if it is superficial or tenuous, can serve as evidence that the connection is true and important. We sometimes don’t question the story we tell ourselves because it seems like the story confirms what we already knew. Contrary evidence is discarded or, perhaps, not even noticed because it does not fit with the story we have created.3

What if the stories we tell ourselves about why or how things happen is strongly influenced by this almost innate desire to create stories with some degree of coherence? What does that mean for how I address misconceptions in science class? Perhaps it is really important to interpret the stories we tell ourselves, to determine the underlying “theme” (theory or model) that holds the story together. Then we can test that unifying concept against alternate versions of the story to see what holds us to the evidence we see in the real world.

Such was my thinking when we entered our learning unit on what causes the seasons.

At the very beginning of our learning, I gave the students this task:

The weather in our area is much colder than it was at the beginning of the year. We started the year at the end of summer and now we are entering winter. What do you think causes summer and winter? Jot down some words to explain why this happens. Please make a sketch of the Earth, the Sun, and how they move in relationship to each other to help me understand your explanation.

That evening I looked at the stories that emerged and found some surprising commonalities. For instance, about 10% of the children drew diagrams that had the Sun revolve around the Earth. We needed to deal with that important minority opinion.4 A very large number of children described the Earth in an elliptical orbit around the Sun. In this model, the seasons are caused by the Earth being closer to the Sun in the summer, and farther away from the Sun in the winter.

This is our first model of the Earth and the Sun. It's purpose was to visually represent (model) our explanation for the seasons.

This is our first model of the Earth and the Sun. It’s purpose was to visually represent (model) our explanation for the seasons.

The next day I asked the children why they thought this was the case. The first thing most said was that they hadn’t thought of trying to figure out the causes of winter and summer before, so my request was a challenge for them. But then they offered an explanation that the elliptical orbit placed the Earth closer to the Sun during July (a hot month) and farther from the Sun in January (a cold month). They argued that it made sense to them because the closer you are to a heat source, the warmer you get; the farther you are from that source, the cooler you get. In other words, this explanation makes intuitive sense based on their lived experience. Even though they had not really thought about the Earth’s orbit much before, they worked backwards from that lived experience to fit the orbit with the experience. While it bothered some that the Sun wasn’t in the center (“It doesn’t look right.”) they were willing to let go of that to make the model fit with the notion of how distance and temperature are related.

In fact, this explanation was also the one provided to the interviewers who asked Harvard graduates the very same question back in the 1980s.

Given our model, we made some predictions:

  • The closer the Earth gets to the January position in the orbit, the colder the temperatures will be.
  • The closer the Earth gets to the July position in the orbit, the warmer the temperatures will be.

I gave the children average temperature data by month for two locations: Dubuque, IA (close to our school location) and from Canberra, Australia (about as far from us as we can get.) Their task was to graph these data and to check it against what our model predicted.

The children set out to graph temperature data from Canberra, Australia and Dubuque, IA.

The children set out to graph temperature data from Canberra, Australia and Dubuque, IA.

Within minutes I heard exclamations like these:

  • Wait! What’s happening?
  • This can’t be right!
  • What?
  • Canberra is almost opposite of Dubuque!
  • What could cause that…?
  • Wow. I didn’t expect that.

I also showed the children a video that I had asked my wonderful brother to make. (He happened to be in Australia this last month.) On the day he shot it, the temperature was 84 degrees on the beach in Australia and 11 degrees in our town.

Then I asked the children to gather into groups to talk about the implications of what they had learned. Their task was to discuss these questions:

  • Does the evidence support our model, or cause us to question our model?
  • If it causes us to question the model, then what changes to our model would you make?
  • What additional information do you request from me in order to revise this model?

After a few minutes in their groups to try to come up with a different model (using sundry balls we had in the classroom), we gathered together to talk. We discovered that almost everyone wanted to change the model. Most wanted to change it drastically. Now they felt that the Sun had to somehow be in the center. Since the Earth was both warm and cool at the same time, they felt that an elliptical orbit would no longer work as an explanation. However, they grappled with how to explain the seasons, then; how could they develop a model that would take into account the fact that winter and summer appeared at the same time, but in different places? The advantage of the previous model was that it had explained temperature differences between the seasons. The disadvantage of the model was that it didn’t fit the more complex reality of actual temperatures on the Earth. Now, we were left without an explanatory model. That’s an uncomfortable position to be in.

Acknowledging the work they had done to try to revise the model, I asked them what new information they wanted to make sure their next model was more accurate. Here is a list of some new questions/requests for information:

These are some requests for additional information from the students. The numbers to the left side are the number of votes each request garnered.

These are some requests for additional information from the students. The numbers to the left side are the number of votes each request garnered.

Toward the end of last week I gave them data about the orbit of the Earth around the Sun and the diameters of the Earth and the Sun in order to help them answer their question about the shape of the Earth’s orbit. Their task was to make a scale model of this system given the data that I presented to them. I’ll post about this fascinating discussion next week, if I get a chance.

This whole process has been intriguing and, well, scary — like walking a tightrope is scary: I don’t want to make a mis-step. For instance, I gave the children a lot of space in class to discuss the first “elliptical orbit” model, knowing that it was inaccurate. We even used class time to develop a rationale for why that might make sense. So, in a sense I was helping the children develop a misconception, maybe even solidifying that misconception in their own minds. I worried about that.5

But, I think it will work out okay in the long run. This has been a puzzle that they have to think about. They have had to be engaged, thinking through the entire activity: one child: “This is so hard! It’s confusing…but fun to try to figure out!” And now they are accumulating information that has caused them reject their first model. I’m noticing that they are not going back to it, even though they do not have anything to take its place. I suspect that reluctance to readopt it might stem from the fact that moving from it wasn’t imposed on them by an “authority figure” like me, but from their own reasoning through the implications of the model they created. I’m hoping that the next model we create will provide enough explanatory power that it will stick more strongly than the “closer means more heat, farther means less heat” model.

Our next steps will be to offer alternative explanations using data about day length and sun angle to help them see why the seasons happen when they do. I’ll report back on what I learn from this process.

  1. Check out the science-related website, Veritasium, for their Misconceptions playlist. It’s fun to watch. Here’s an example:

  2. My own inquiry explores the implications of the idea that our minds, as author Thomas Newkirk reminds us, are “made for stories.” I presented some of this early thinking with a panel of wonderful folks at the NCTE14 conference in Washington, D.C. in November. One recent project brought me to experiment with collaborative story creation as a way to more deeply learn science concepts. As I explored this process, I was impressed by how deeply the kids processed complex scientific ideas. It seems that being able to put ideas into words, to see and articulate the relationships between ideas, to tell the story of a particular idea really does matter.
  3. This is the definition of confirmation bias, the tendency to seek out and assign greater weight to evidence that confirms our preconceived notions. I suspect that this tendency ALSO might come from our ability to create stories. Coherence matters to those stories. But, maybe my attributing this tendency to our need to create stories is an example of confirmation bias, itself!
  4. We dealt with that by acting out the orbit of the Earth and the Sun as partnerships in various corners of the room. Then we compared our ideas and arrived at a community consensus that the Earth revolved around the Sun, not the other way around. This wasn’t “proof” in any scientific sense, but everyone had heard that this was the case, so could accept the idea once they had acted it out and they could see why it looks like the Sun is orbiting the Earth each day.
  5. One teaching associate who visited the classroom during one of those days later told me that she thought that she had the reasons for the season wrong after our discussion. That worried me!

Zombie Makers…a good book for a read aloud

Zombie Makers cover

I found a lot of good books at the NCTE14, some teacher books for me, but some kid books, too. I went with a focus –informational text — and I came away with some good ones. For read aloud today, I started one from the stack, Zombie Makers: True Stories of Nature’s Undead by Rebecca Johnson. I’ve read the first chapter to the kids so far. The children were fascinated, repulsed, enlightened, and intrigued.

I think those are good reactions to a book about parasites that literally take over the brains and bodies of their hosts. The book builds its chapters around “traits” of zombies. For example, chapter one explores Zombie Trait #1: Stares vacantly ahead. Moves slowly and mechanically. Behaves oddly. Using scientific research about the fungus E. muscae, Johnson describes how spores of the fungus drop on a fly. The fungus quickly grows its mycelia (the tough vegetative “root-like” structures of a fungus) deep into the fly’s insides. The roots release chemicals that basically take over the fly’s brain, causing it to climb mechanically to the top of the nearest grass. There the fungus expands into the fly’s abdomen, distending it and killing the fly.

Zombie Makers_2

Soon after that, the fruiting bodies of the fungus burst through the fly’s exoskeleton to release more spores. The process starts over again.

In chapter one we learn more about fungus attacks on carpenter ants, with similar results.

Zombie Makers_carpenter ant

Chapter two moves away from the realm of fungus and into the world of worms, one of which uses crickets as a host. The end result is a bad one for the cricket — it is forced to dive into the nearest water to drown — but fantastic for the worm: it is able to complete its life cycle. Oh, did I mention that the worm that finally comes out of the cricket is up to three feet long? That’s a lot of worm to fit into a cricket!

Zombie Makers_cricket

I loved this book for several reasons. First, who wouldn’t like a book that describes such gruesome real-life events? Also, the writing is crisp and clear, and the photographs are stunning; they really help the reader visualize what is happening inside the body of the host. I mean, it’s one thing to describe the distended abdomen of a fly, it’s quite another to see what that looks like in a photograph. Exquisite.

Each chapter has a segment that describes the science, and the scientists, who made these discoveries. From these short segments, you get a real sense of how scientists do their work, how they ask their questions, under what field conditions they make their observations, and what drives them to do what they do.

Finally, I love how these creatures are all so humble. No tigers, rhinos, whales, or wolves in this book. Instead, we find the lowly creatures of the world — the fungus, ants, crickets, and worms that live under our feet and beneath our attention. How cool is it that this unnoticed world is so filled with drama, strange behavior, and bizarre moral codes?

If you aren’t too squeamish to read it, I’ll bet your kids would love this book read out loud to them. If you are a bit too squeamish, get it anyway and set it out somewhere in plain sight. There’s someone in your class who wants to read it. I know it.

Are you feeling a compulsion to buy this book, maybe one you might not have bought otherwise? I thought so. Good. It’s working…

Tell Me a Story, Putting Ideas into Words in Science Class

A student writing The Story of Fossil Fuels. This was an experiment to see how story creation could help kids learn scientific concepts.

A student writes The Story of Fossil Fuels. This was an experiment to see how story creation could help kids learn scientific concepts.

Thinking,_Fast_and_SlowLast year I read Daniel Kahneman’s, Thinking, Fast and Slow, a book about the two main thinking pathways in the brain. As I read the book, I couldn’t help but think about the implications of this work for my teaching. One of Kahenman’s main points is that our brains are basically wired to create stories; we almost can’t NOT create them when presented with new information. The reasons for that are fascinating, and have to do with how much effort it takes to hold information in our working memories. But one takeaway from that work, for me, was that stories are a device to help us to see, and to remember, the relationships among large amounts of information.

Minds Made for StoriesRecently, I read Tom Newkirk’s book, Minds Made for Stories. He was also fascinated by the power of stories and how this is linked to who we are as humans. In a short conversation with me at the NCTE14 (thank you Vicki Vinton, for introducing me!), Newkirk conveyed his sense of awe at just how automatically we create stories, and what that might mean for how we read and write expository text.

Newkirk’s book is a great read and has formed the backbone of some of the teacher-inquiry that I’m doing in my classroom these days.

If our minds really ARE made for stories, then what does that mean for how I teach science? (Or reading, or writing…?) What if I offered students some compelling stories (or some compelling problems or questions) and then, crucially, cleared space for them to create and revise stories in class? What if these stories could become the containers for the new information they were learning? Might clearing space for learners to create stories be time well spent?

In a previous post, I wrote about reading together Molly Bang and Penny Chisholm’s, Buried Sunlight, in science class.1 As a culminating activity, in lieu of a “test” taken individually, I decided to give the kids a large piece of blank newsprint to be filled as a small group.

I gathered them around and outlined their task: tell me the story of fossil fuels, where they came from and what their presence means for us today. We brainstormed some key ideas that might need to be included in their story. Ideas like these — buried underground, plants, plankton, millions of years ago, carbon chains, photosynthesis, Sun’s energy — emerged from our short brainstorming session.

Then they set to work in groups of 3-4. My work was to roam the classroom helping groups figure out the big ideas they wanted to convey, how to work on a project like this effectively in a group, and to prod and probe their thinking as it evolved. I also documented their work through notes and photos.

What I observed was learning that deepened the more they dug into the task. I saw children grappling with how to put the ideas they had heard (and seen) through the interactive read aloud into their own words and their own drawings.

As they told and retold the story to themselves, they discovered parts of the story that did not hang together, places where they could not explain the cause of an effect, or a step in a process, or describe well enough the world they sought to draw on the paper. That brought them back to the text — one copy for the entire classroom! — which they gathered around to re-read and re-interpret.2

The posters that emerged were different, though the story was the same. As they presented their work to each other (we did a gallery walk around the classroom) the students remarked on these differences and looked closely at the drawings that each group had produced.

Here's one example of the posters that emerged from this activity. As the process went on, the blank paper provided a space to deepen the thinking by linking ideas to each other, and by adding details to explain key ideas.

Here’s one example of the posters that emerged from this activity. As the process went on, the blank paper provided a space to deepen the thinking by linking ideas to each other, and by adding details to explain key ideas.

The other adults who come into our classroom and I felt that this activity helped ALL of the children reach a deeper level of understanding. Did everyone understand everything at the same level? No. But those who struggled with understanding the information came to see the links between the pieces of information to a greater depth. I think it was because they got the chance to place the information in the context of a story that the relationships between the parts were made more explicit. And, because it was done collaboratively, the children couldn’t just tell any story (perhaps filled with inaccuracies and gaps), they had to tell a version that “held up” to the scrutiny of their community of scientists, their fellow classmates.3

I came away with a greater sense of how important it is for me to make the stories in science class very explicit, to highlight, not bury, the problem, conflict, question, or oddity that brings us to study what we are studying. But I also learned that I need to clear space for the children to put their ideas into words, and, crucially, to give them the opportunity to collaborate and revise as they create the stories that will become the vessel that contains the new information they are learning.

  1. I stayed away from the textbook version of this big idea for fear that it would do more harm than good. Thomas Newkirk has a great chapter in Minds Made for Stories about textbook writing and how it intentionally buries the story (for lots of reasons), which makes textbooks incredibly difficult to understand. A reader has to read very actively (and have lots of background information) in order to figure out the problem, question, or oddity — the story — that lies underneath the desiccated textbook language.
  2. I’m kind of glad that we only had one text. It forced the kids to move from table to table, which, I observed, helped foster a “cross-pollination” of ideas. Scarcity also seemed to raise the value of the text, too. It became a sought after commodity. “Where’s the book?” was a question often heard throughout the two days we worked on this project.
  3. In this way the process mirrors the scientific method.

Reading Buried Sunlight in Science Class

SDMS 2nd Co14120117010_0001I love Molly Bang and Penny Chisholm’s new book, Buried Sunlight: How Fossil Fuels have Changes the Earth. I’m reading it in science class because it does such a wonderful job of describing some key science concepts.

The book lays out the processes whereby the energy from the sun, millions of years ago, became the fossil fuels we use today.

Bang and Chisholm outline the way human use of these resources is changing the carbon balance in the Earth’s atmosphere, thereby increasing its capacity to hold heat.

As a science teacher at the upper elementary early/middle school level, I love the way they explain key science concepts so well. Here’s a quick run-down of some of the concepts that they make understandable. This clarity and accuracy make it a great interactive read aloud to do with the children.

Big Idea 1. Photosynthesis stores energy from the sun in the chemical bonds within the carbon chains.

This concept is crucial for understanding how energy flows within ecosystems.1 Everyone knows that plants create food, but not many of us have thought very deeply about what that means. As Bang notes, plants use the Sun’s energy to create (synthesize) long carbon chains, thereby effectively storing the energy in these chemical bonds.2 When Bang states this crucial connection so plainly, it is so much easier to reconcile photosynthesis with the Law of the Conservation of Energy, which states that energy cannot be created or destroyed, but can be changed from one form into another. Photons of energy from the sun get changed into chemical energy stored in the bonds of carbon chains. Cool beans. And it so wonderful to have a text that helps children see the synthesis part of photosynthesis, how really understanding it helps us see how energy is stored and then transferred through ecosystems or, in resources like fossil fuels.

Big Idea 2. Animals break down long carbon chains into carbon dioxide by “burning” it with oxygen. Where does our food go once we’ve eaten it? If you ask someone that question, many will say it either gets turned into more body mass (that happened this Thanksgiving!) or excreted, yup, as poop. But many don’t think about how a large portion of that food (those long carbon chains) is disassembled (burned, really) to release the energy stored in the bonds between the atoms. A by-product from this destruction is the carbon-dioxide we breathe out. We had a great discussion today about that Cycle of Life in science class. We came to see that animals basically destroy the carefully constructed carbon chains that plants make (the way your 2-year old brother destroys your Lego structure); plants take the small pieces of carbon-dioxide and make more carbon chains (the way you carefully build up another structure from the strewn pieces.) And that happens over and over and over again.

Big Idea 3. Plant tissues are made mostly of air. Now that’s hard to imagine. A few years ago the Annenberg Foundation asked Harvard graduates where the mass present in wood came from (See this link to A Private Universe.) Many responded that the mass came from the soil, even though they had studied photosynthesis in high school and college. Bang’s text makes it clear that plant tissues, including wood, actually comes from carbon dioxide, which is a colorless GAS, not a solid like soil. That’s counter-intuitive; it’s hard to believe that something solid and hard, like a piece of wood, can be created from thin air. But it is.

You can see that misconception is still alive in this video from the fine science YouTube video channel: Veritasium.

Big Idea 4. Global Climate change happens all the time, but this time it is happening FAST! Global climate change skeptics often argue that climate change happens all the time, so this is just one more example of how Ice Ages come and warm spells go. Bang makes it really clear that while this is true, the rate of change is tremendously fast. And that quickness creates problems that the other change events did not create. This is another crucial idea that Bang’s text makes really clear.

Big Idea 5. Humans have a choice. I love the way the book ends: “Or will you work together to use my ancient sunlight more slowly, find other sources of energy, and invent new way to thin the blanket of CO2? The choice is yours.”

And, yes, the choice is ours.

Thanks, Molly Bang and Penny Chisholm, for your choice to write this book.

  1. The idea of energy flow is difficult to understand, and is one of the Next Generation Science Standards for fifth grade. But Bang’s book makes it clear that most of the energy that enters the food chain came from the sun at first.
  2. One student in today’s class said: “Hmmm…that means that this stored energy is kind of like a battery, isn’t it?” Which is a really key conceptual understanding of the way energy is either used to create motion, or it is stored somehow in “battery” form. Wow.

Starting our Weather Unit with Questions

I have been trying to incorporate student questions into the work we are doing in science class, which seems like it should be a place where questions should dominate.

But it’s been difficult.

I have a whole raft of reasons why, during our recent unit on plate tectonics and the rock cycle, I did not ask students to generate questions but came at them with some of my own, instead. For example: How do I manage three sections of student questions? How can I get the children to engage with the concepts that assessments will require them to know when the questions that will drive our learning come from them, not the “curriculum?” How can I help the children learn to ask questions at all? Will they be any good?

Any one of these was enough to derail me.

Circles / Círculos (Abstracción 011)
Creative Commons License Photo Credit: Claudio.Ar via Compfight

Despite these worries, as my next unit on weather and climate was taking shape I decided that I shouldn’t let my fears/anxieties rule me. So, we started out our learning with the protocol suggested by The Right Question Institute and asked us some questions.

First, I thought of a focus statement that I figured would allow us to focus our inquiry on some of the key concepts about the atmosphere and how it creates different weather and climates. That was difficult, and I know I can do better next time, but here’s what I came up with:

It is sunny and warm today, but by Wednesday rain will fall from a cloudy sky.

Then, I set the kids loose to ask questions. Using the four rules outlined by The Right Question Institute, they generated a long list in a few minutes. After the initial brainstorming, we paused to determine if they were “open” or “closed” and then to change a few from closed to open, and open to closed. (Open questions require extended learning, research, or discussion to answer. Closed ones can be answered in a word or two.)

An interesting discussion came out of that process. Most groups created far more “open” questions than closed ones, and indicated that they thought open questions were “better” than closed ones. But as we talked, we came to see that closed questions might actually be at the root of the scientific method. And, besides, it’s nice to get a definitive answer sometimes!

While an open question like “Why can it rain one day and not the other?” might require an in depth look at what causes rain, and also what causes weather to be patchy across the landscape, scientific understanding is often built through a series of answers to “closed” questions like the following:

  • Will it rain tomorrow?
  • Does a north wind always follow rain?
  • Does rain always follow a drop in air pressure?

(By the way, these are the questions that are starting to come up as we collect weather data for our town.1)

From answering questions like these (through observation and data gathering), we can develop the kind of general understandings that are at the heart of how new scientific knowledge is created. We begin to gather data and see patterns: Yes, our observation/data suggests this always happens. No, this does not always happen. Sometimes it happens and sometimes it doesn’t. But under all circumstance, each answer points us toward asking more questions and gathering more data.

After we played with changing the question form, I asked the children to prioritize the questions they had created, telling them that the questions they picked would help drive our unit of study. My criteria was open-ended: Choose five questions that you think are most important. Now narrow that to two. Have reasons for why you think they are important. 

The students presented their choices and their rationale to the rest of the class.

The priority questions from the three classes ran the gamut, but showed a remarkable similarity, too.

Students thought important questions were related to dangers from weather, so there were questions like these: Will the river rise and flood? Will lightning strike? Why does lightning strike metal?

Or about the inconvenience of the rain: When will it rain, exactly? Will it rain all day?

There were also other questions like these: How can it rain one day and not the other? Why does it rain some places on the Earth but not other places? What causes it to rain? Where does the water come from?

We are using some of these later questions to structure the larger learning unit. But as Wednesday came and went (and the rain came and came) the students were able to answer some of the “convenience/inconvenience” questions, and I could see that they paid more attention to the weather because they wanted to answer their questions.

While the Upper Iowa River that runs through our town did not rise much, the students (and I) paid more attention to the way runoff changed the flow of the small creek that runs behind the school.2 For instance, on my way to the parking lot on Thursday afternoon, I paused to shoot a video of the creek. Would I have done that if the children had not asked a question about the river rising? Probably not.

Finally, because we spent two days on questions, and the children got to talk more, I got a better sense of what they do and do not know about the atmosphere. Their questions taught me some things. For instance, tomorrow we will take a little side-trip into what a gas is, so we can then talk about atmospheric pressure, because without knowing about air pressure, they won’t be able to more deeply understand fundamental concepts about wind and where clouds come from.

Would I have known that without taking time for questions? Again, probably not. And even if I did, it would have been much more difficult for me to situate the concepts in a context that would engage the students. I think the questions will help them see the connections better.

I am still worried about how to assess the student learning because the concepts we will learn are more wide-ranging (from states of matter and how gases act, to graphing, to air pressure, to what causes climates to differ) than they would be if I had done things in a more traditional way. But…it does feel good, and it is interesting so I guess we’ll have to figure out as we go what will be the end result of our learning.

An interesting process, this.

UPDATE: By the way, earth: an animated map of global weather conditions is a terrific tool to get kids wondering. I check it out several times a week. Mesmerizing.

  1. These questions would likely not have emerged if we had not had the opportunity to ask questions early in the unit. I can’t know that for sure, but I do see a difference in the willingness of the children to spontaneously ask questions like these.
  2. One child even made some good connections back to the learning we did about sediments and erosion from our last learning unit!

Dragonfly Research, or, Science That Doesn’t Fly Straight

I’m here to report out about the results from our impromptu research project on dragronflies. It started as simply an interesting observation that I made one day last week, an observation that I thought might offer a good way to practice some question-asking protocols developed by The Right Question Institute. I reported on the early stages in this recent post.

Rather than write out this story, I decided to tell it verbally in the manner we told it to ourselves in science class. Using a flowchart that depicts the scientific process, we logged our pathway through what we soon saw as a maze of connections. The story includes moments of seeming failure when it appeared the project would need to be abandoned, to moments of insight. (It also includes a bee sting to the rear end of a certain researcher…)

In the end (pun intended), I think the project helped the children see how science does not proceed in a linear path from question to data gathering to data analysis to presentation. It is much messier. Several times we had to regroup and learn new information in order to figure out where to go next. Sometimes we even thought we’d reached the end of what we could learn.

Finally, since I’m reading Tom Newkirk’s wonderful book, Minds are Made for Stories, (and, like Newkirk, I have puzzled about the implications of David Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow) I’m very happy to present this story as what it was, a story. What caused us to return to this project was the fact that we had developed a “need to know,” to complete the narrative in some way. If not to simply answer our question, at least to arrive at some satisfactory place to rest.

The result is a view of the scientific process that looks a lot like a dragonfly’s flight path, veering purposefully and flexibly from one place to the next.

And here is a short video of the common green darner.

And a video that shows some of the remarkable aerial abilities of dragonflies. I saw some of these stunts in my sit in the prairie.