Science Literacy for Modern Students

When I look back at my own education, I had no intention of studying science (let alone teaching it). But what I always have loved is reading and writing. I can remember writing stories on my parents type writer, and I have no idea where they found the patience to read draft after draft after draft of these stories. I used to read next to my nightlight when I was supposed to be sleeping (huge rebel, I know). And as I got older and went through high school and college, I still loved to read and writing continued to be a strength of mine. But somewhere along the road, I ended up in science land. I wanted to know why and how the world worked. But as any science teacher can tell you, reading about science (whether a fictional story or informational texts) is tough. And it is even tougher the first few times you do it. But it does get easier as you learn to do it. And so here I am, teaching science classes but emphasizing the importance of literacy.

Science literacy has kind of become a soapbox of mine. I’ve written a few grad papers on its importance and ways to improve it. Most of the research focuses on reading, and understandably so. That’s how scientists have shared their information for centuries. I have written several posts here on different techniques I use (“But this isn’t english class.”, Updates to Biology Reading DaysMaking Biology Real) to improve students’ reading skills in science, so I won’t repeat that information here. I want to focus this post on how science literacy is different (and in some ways easier) than it was in the past and how we, teachers, can help our students.

More and more people are getting their scientific information from videos and podcasts. It’s just so easy to access. But that doesn’t mean it’s any easier to understand. Giving kids a link to a video and expecting them to be able to make sense of and analyze it is pretty unrealistic in most cases. It’d be the same as giving them a science text as saying “see you at the end”. So I created these note sheets that my students use when watching videos. It gives them a structure to follow and tells them what to look and listen for. Depending on the video, sometimes I change “Dates, People, & Places” to “Important Information”.

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After they finish the video, they write a one paragraph response. They have to include details from the video, not just address it as a whole (“this is confusing/great/dumb/interesting”). Having details right in front of them on their sheet makes this task much easier. I’ve also found that they like watching the videos individually (I’m lucky enough to teach in a 1-to-1 school) as opposed to as a class because they can pause whenever they need to.

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Sometimes I assign these as homework, sometimes I give them time in class. But either way, there’s one more important step if you truly want to improve science literacy and not just have them recite dates/events/facts. They need to discuss the video with their peers. What I have experienced is that students are much more comfortable discussing if they have their thoughts and questions written in front of them. Sometimes we do this as a class, sometimes I group them based on the questions they wrote. You could also use this discussion as a way to start or enhance a research project.

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And then there’s podcasts. I use the note sheets for those as well, but they’re a whole other beast. I will write a follow up post about that!

So  what I have found is that just like we have to teach them to read science, we also have to teach kids to listen to science. We have to give them structures and guide them on what to listen for, but they are more than capable. And most kids prefer getting their information from the videos instead of a reading (which has increased effort and work completion).  Give it a shot.

Here are some of the videos that I love to use. If you have suggestions of video or podcasts, I’d love to hear them!

Bad Blood (PBS)

In the Shadow of Ebola

Ted: The Case for Engineering our Food

Ted: Let’s Talk Crap. Seriously.

Updates to Biology Reading Days

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A while back, I wrote a blog post about my Biology Reading Days. When I started this project, I wasn’t quite sure where I was going with it. I now love it. You can read the original post here.

I will admit, not all my students share my enthusiasm for scientific literature. And that’s fine. What I really want them to get out of it is an exposure to this type of writing. Some of the books on the list are fictional stories (that are scientifically accurate). Some of the books are non-fiction explaining scientific ideas and events. Some of the higher level students actually struggle because they have never read something like this before. I don’t need them to have a Ph.D after reading the book, but just want them to come away with a greater understanding of the concept than they went in with.

So here are my updates:

1. Updated Book Lists: I now use this project with my freshmen bio and my jr/sr A&P….so two lists. I am always looking for new books to add, and taking off any I feel are too hard/boring based on student feedback. I post this for the students as a GoogleDoc, so I put positive student reviews in the comments.  AandPReadingList      BiologyBookList

2. Final Project: I still use the weekly reading sheets (found in the original post), but at the end they have to choose one of the following projects. This is a great way for me to see what their take on the book really was.  FinalBookProject

My final word of caution when doing this project: it is very much about you. This school year, I had a baby. I left reading days as a project for my sub thinking it’d be the easiest one. They pick a book, read it, and answer questions. Easy, peasy…. WRONG. I didn’t realize how important the conversations I was having with the students along the way were. When I returned the last week of the project, a lot of them were so confused, frustrated and bored with their books. They didn’t see the real world connections. And this is not a slam on my sub; she was great! But she hadn’t chosen and read the books (I’ve read about half). Those discussions about how awesome the author/story/concept is weren’t happening. Students weren’t getting productive feedback. And so a lot them felt lost. My point is don’t use reading days as a chance to catch up on grading/paperwork/endless other tasks we have to do. At least not the whole period. This is a chance to make real connections with your kids and get them excited about science (and maybe even reading!). I hope you AND your students love it as much as I (and most of my students) do.

Questions? Suggestions? I’d love to hear them n the comments! And don’t forget to Like me on Facebook!

Collaboration Concept Maps

We just finished final exams at my school (though my grading is far from done….). I usually dread the days leading up to exams because I find that the kids are as bored with reviewing as I am, though it is a necessary evil. I’ve tried review games, but find that the kids don’t really get as much out of them as I’d like. But this year I found an activity that I really like!

I’m always shooting for the application end of my content, not just memorization of facts. So on those review days, I handed each student an index card as the walked in. I had marked each card with a colored line (I had 4 or 5 colors). Then each student chose 5 words to write on their card. They had to choose words from the section of the study guide that was due that day (I had not collected the study guide yet). I advised them to choose words they understood since they were going to have to use them.

Then the students were grouped according to the colors of their card. They compared their lists and replaced any repeats. Then each group was given a posterboard and created a concept map using their words. Creating the map itself is tough for them when it’s from scratch and there are no bubbles to fill in. But the struggle is worth it.

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The next day we started the same way with new cards for everyone. This time they were in different groups, so when it came time for the concept map they had to choose a random one that was started the day before and figure out how to fit today’s words in it. This was a lot harder for them since they may not totally understand the words that were already on the poster, but it was beneficial for them to see what they really did and did not understand. They also had to not only know the meaning of the words (memorization), but be able to relate those words to other words (application).

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The third day was the same routine; card, 5 words, groups, concept maps. By the end, students were comfortable explaining words or concepts they understood to their group members that didn’t. And I always feel like they’re more willing to learn from their peers than from a teacher. This was, in my opinion, a much better use of review time!

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How do you review for finals?

By Popular Demand!

A while back I wrote about turning my classroom into bakery. Here’s the original post: Let Them Eat Bread  Since then, I’ve had a lot of people ask for the document I used for the yeast lab. I apologize that it took me forever to post it, but better late than never. So here it is: YeastLab. I have my students do a formal lab report with this one. Their initial hypotheses are usually all over the place, and someone always says the salt will kill the yeast.

This year I used both the yeast tube lab and the bread baking in our cellular respiration unit. I started the unit by having them write in their journals in response to “Why does bread dough rise?”. It was important to emphasize to them to just write whatever they thought. This gave me a good idea what their pre-conceptions were, but also allowed me to show growth throughout the unit. After baking the bread, they had a one question quiz. “Write one paragraph explaining why bread dough rises.” They had to include the words cellular respiration, yeast, glucose, and carbon dioxide. I graded them not by marking their answers right or wrong, but by asking questions. Then I put them into pairs based on their scores and had them revise together to raise their scores. I feel like they got a lot more out of it this year.

If you try it out, let me know what works and what doesn’t. I really appreciate your feedback!  Happy Baking!!

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Political Biology

Source: josiahandfriends.wordpress.com

Source: josiahandfriends.wordpress.com

Today I’m sharing another one of my quarter projects, meaning my kids work on it once a week for 9 weeks. I really like this one because it gives the students the freedom to dive into a topic that they really are interested in. It requires them to find out what is happening in the real world and decide for themselves what the best solution is.

Each student chooses a biological topic (ie. global warming, animal conservation, organic foods) and then researches political connections. The end product is a letter to a politician explaining what the problem is and what they feel the government should (or should not) do about it. In some cases, the government is not involved at all but the students can take the side that it should be! They can disagree or agree with what is already being done (which means they have to actually know what is going on). Here’s the student instructions and research questions: Politician letter   I’ve done this project with my freshmen bio and with my upperclassmen bio 2, so there are modifications for both levels. My freshmen all write to President Obama. My upperclassmen have to choose their own politician (anyone but Obama).  They edit each other’s letters, and then I edit again if needed. I do actually mail their letters (well, the ones that meet all the criteria). We always get a response from the White House (though it takes a few months). I post the letter in my room, and the kids really get a kick out of it. Some of the other politicians will respond as well, and I give those letters to the student who wrote them.

Here’s what’s great about this project:

-They have to think for themselves. They can’t defend their solution with “my parents say”. We also do a discussion day where they tell the class their problem and solution, and then the class gets to ask questions to make them strengthen their defense.

-Writing a letter that will actually be sent gets them to put in more effort. It gives the whole project a purpose beyond “it’s good to know”. It does make them feel important and show them their opinion is valued.

-It’s great way to teach about credible sources and even bring in primary literature if your students are ready for it!

The Dream House Challenge

Our last unit of the year in freshmen bio is the environment. It is really one of my favorites because there are just so many great, hands-on ways to teach kids. Last year, we built compost containers (I wrote about them here), but this year we just ran out of time. But have no fear- we did another project that I loved and hope to be able to do again in the future.

We spent a good deal of time talking about traditional and alternative energy sources. Students worked in groups and each did a brief presentation to the class on one type (ie. coal, hydro, solar, nuclear). We talked about recycling, composting, and zero waste. Then I set them loose to design and build a (model) dream house. The dream was to be as eco and environmentally friendly as possible. Some made it known that wasn’t THEIR dream house… but too bad for them.

They worked in groups of 2 or 3, which I let them pick… sort of. I split the class into 2 or 4 groups and they had to choose someone from another group. I strategically put all the “hands-on” kids in one group, the creative thinkers in another. Each student was given the instructions and the rubric (which included due dates for each step) on GoogleDrive.  Here they are: Dream House Challenge    DreamHouseChallengeRubrics

They had about 2 weeks total to work on this, which really could’ve been longer… Here is how we approached it step by step:

Step 1: Pick the location of your home. I was more interested in the type of environment than a place (at first, some picked California… which I pointed out could mean lots of different environments). They have to think about the pros and cons of that environment (ie. temperature, seasons, rainfall, sun/shade).

Step 2: Research ecofriendly homes and design your own. I really encouraged them to be creative, it didn’t have to look like any house we’d ever seen.  They had to make a blueprint and calculate square footage. We measured my classroom as a reference point. Students used the app Floor Planner on Chrome to create their blueprint. It’s a free app, but you can only save one design at a time and it’s not collaborative (only one account can work on it). Beware- this app is ADDICTIVE! If you were ever a slave to The Sims (yep, I was) this can suck you in.

 In the meantime… I had a local solar power installation expert come talk to my kids. Each group came up with 3 questions ahead of time, which helped a lot. He was great…. Check out his blog!

Step 3: Use your blueprint to build the model of your house! They could use whatever supplies they wanted, but it had to match the blueprint (which means the inside had to be visible). In addition to the model, they also had to turn in a written explanation of their choices (ie. “we are using solar panels because….” “our house is in a forest because…”). And their model had to show whatever was in the explanation.

Step 4: Present your model to the class and convince us it is the ultimate ecofriendly, environmental dream home. Here’s what I really loved- they graded each other’s models. The rubric is divided into “Peer Review” and “Teacher Review”. After everyone is done presenting, a rubric is put next to each model. The students go around and put a tally mark for whatever grade they think it deserves. Then I average the scores.

Here are some of my favorites:

They built a tree house for a rainforest... and included a sloth sanctuary.

They built a tree house for a rainforest… and included a sloth sanctuary.

No rainforest tree house would be complete without a rain barrel!

No rainforest tree house would b complete without a rain barrel!

The coastal dream house...

The coastal dream house…

Complete with floating solar panels and a slide ("to conserve your body's energy too").

Complete with floating solar panels and a slide (“to conserve your body’s energy too”).

Glass wall to absorb sunlight and a garden roof for insulation/food supply. (Do you kids love selfies as much as mine?)

Glass wall to absorb sunlight and a garden roof for insulation/food supply. (Do you kids love selfies as much as mine?)

Another glass wall for sunlight. This design was to be built over a river (which was supposed to flow between the basement pieces, creating hydropower).

Another glass wall for sunlight. This design was to be built over a river (which was supposed to flow between the basement pieces, creating hydropower).

Farmhouse on the plains. A really well built model, the roof came off to display the inside. Featured a wind turbine, solar panels, and a rain barrel.

Farmhouse on the plains. A really well built model, to roof came off to display the inside. Featured a wind turbine, solar panels, and a rain barrel.

And the mountain house. It was built into the side of a mountain (the green part) for insulation and protection from the wind. Also had solar panels!

And the mountain house. It was built into the side of a mountain (the green part) for insulation and protection from the wind. Also had solar panels!

Overall, I’m really happy with the results! Questions, comments, concerns? Leave them below!

“Today we made pee….” 

Last summer I attended a workshop through the University of Illinois’s extension campus. It was called “Mellow Yellow” and it was simply wonderful. Not only did they refresh my knowledge of kidney function (and dysfunction), but they gave us several hands on activities that were ready to use with students. The concepts that tied it all together were osmosis and diffusion, making it a great way to hook freshmen general bio students (face it, they’re interested in pee).

But what I am sharing today is a simulation that I use with my Anatomy & Physiology students. Again, this is in no way my own creation…. But I tried it with my students for the first time this past week and not only did they like it a lot, but I saw so many “ah-hah light bulbs” going off over their heads that I’m convinced it’s too good not to share.

Students obviously have to have a basic understanding of anatomy and I gave them an internal kidney diagram to look at as we went throught it. You use cheap, easy to find materials. I listed the specifics in the doc at the end, but the beads in water represent different components within blood, cups for blood vessels, a bowl and Latch-hook canvas are the kidney parts. 

Here’s how it works: 

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Start with all the beads and water in the Renal Artery cup. Put the latch-hook canvas over the bowl (AKA the nephron and glomerulus) and pure the “blood” over it.

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Right away the large blood components (red blood cells, white blood cells, and proteins) are caught in the filter. Move those into the Renal Vein cup. 

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Use the correct transporter proteins (colored spoons) to move the glucose, amino acids, and some of the salt out of the kidney and into the Renal Vein cup. This models reabsorption by the body (AKA diffusion). Stress that each spoon can only move that one specific molecule… That’s how it really works! This will take the kids a while (I have them work in pairs), and they’ll be amazed that your body does this so quickly in real life. 

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Last step… I ask what’s missing from the “blood” in the Renal vein. Thankfully, most of them notice there’s no water! Use the pipette or an eye dropper to simulate osmosis and move water from the nephron to the renal vein. 

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And that’s it. What’s left in the bowl is urine! It travels through the ureter and into the bladder. I finish up by asking what would happen if the glomerulus had a hole and that brings us to the next lesson on dialysis…. Which I’m hoping to actually have time for in next year’s class! 

Here’s my document with all the instructions if you want to save it:  Kidney Simulation

Questions? Thoughts on how to make this better? Share in the comments! 

Florida and Grad School and Facebook, Oh My!

I’m coming up for air just for a quick post. It’s been a BUSY month, and it’s not slowing down anytime soon. First up, I was in Orlando for a meeting with the Life Science Teacher Resource Center. You all know how much I love them, but this sealed the deal. I want to tell you all about it, but that will have to wait until I have time to do that post justice.

Mickey and Me!

Mickey and Me!

The following week I started grad school. I am getting my Masters of Science Teaching Biology from the University of Illinois (online). EVERYTHING about this terrifies me. I know online classes are not my “ideal learning style” and it’s not like I had a whole lot of time to kill to start with. I felt a little selfish when I first started for taking so much time away from my family and students to work on assignments (grading can wait), but now I see that this is already making me a better teacher and allowing me to make new connections through information with my family and friends. I just finished my third week (1 day early, by the way!) and I really love it. I am currently taking Sustainability and Global Change, and want to share some of the awesome resources with you here.

How Wolves Change Rivers: YouTube video, under 5 minutes, about reintroducing Yellowstone wolves is such a simple, but powerful example of a keystone species. I shared that video with a friend of mine who teaches geography, and she showed it her class then next day (the timing just worked perfectly!).

How Many People Can Live on Planet Earth: Another youtuber, this one is 45 minutes. But it is SO very interesting! I love that they point out the importance of educating women as a part of the solution. I’m planning to show this one  to my freshmen this spring.

And finally, podcasts. Yes, just podcasts in general. I started listening to them and the one that has me hooked is Horizontal Transfer. Those of you familiar with Bozeman Science will recognize Paul Anderson. At the end of each episode they give their “TWIL” (This Week I Learned), so  this week I started a “TWIL” activity in my HS bio classes. On Friday, each kid shared something the read, saw, or discussed with the class (anything related to biology). I also shared with them what I had read about for my grad school assignment. I have a refreshed perspective on what it’s like to be a student and want to share with them that I am still learning too. I hope they realize learning is a life-long process and will take that with them when they leave my room.

Last thing! Over winter break, I started a facebook page for this blog! Since I rarely find time to write whole blog posts, it’s a way for me to share little tidbits I come across. I’d love for you to check it out!

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