Because it’s cool and I can

I started my program at Warner after encountering what I perceived as a lack of curiosity in the high school students I work with. I taught a series of courses that involved “making” – Maker Madness and Junk Drawer Engineering. The first time I heard, “Miss, why are we doing this?” I blurted the response “Because it’s cool and because we can!” I’m developing a more formal and informed teaching philosophy, but “it’s cool and I can” isn’t something I want to lose.

In the theoretical framework I wrote for EDU434  I said:

Learners’ motivation has a direct effect on conceptual changes within the learners. Learners’ choice to engage in, level of engagement, and desire to persist in learning are all factors in conceptual change (Palmer, 2005). Learners’ exhibit this motivation during tasks that are cognitively demanding. These tasks allow novices to experience setbacks, learn from these experiences, and apply new knowledge that is constructed from these experiences (Larson, 2000).

What I want that to look like in practice is this:

The artist, P.Nosa, is using STEM to support his art. When STEM educators focus on “finding better ways to link the world of scientists with the needs of society, creating ‘productive’ citizens, and formalizing science as a legitimate school subject”(Barton, 2003, p. 25) they aren’t targeting the P.Nosas. While work like his isn’t being explicitly excluded it seems that federal funding supports programs that equate “productive” with a “globally competitive, knowledge- and technology-intensive economy” (NSF, 2010, p. 2). My theoretical framework doesn’t appear to touch on his motivation either.

Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math (STEAM) efforts don’t seem to miss capturing these obscure/abstract motivations. STEAM is an initiative started at the Rhode Island School of Design which list its three objectives on their website:

  • transform research policy to place Art + Design at the center of STEM
  • encourage integration of Art + Design in K–20 education
  • influence employers to hire artists and designers to drive innovation

I work with an undergraduate student who majors in studio arts. I brought up STEAM within earshot of her, she scoffed and said “When they say ‘STEAM’ they really mean ‘industrial design’”. Fair. But could they also mean “costume technology”? I doubt swimmable, light-up mermaid tails make the U.S. more globally competitive, but why can’t our kids make UFO-themed chicken coops simply because they can?

My task going forward is to do some more work understanding student motivation and refine my theoretical framework. Rather than connect what they learn to their everyday lives, I want to provide students the opportunity to apply STEM to their potential (future? aspirational?) lives. I’m working on it!


P.Nosa made a patch for me and my daughter at the World Maker Faire this past September.  My five words: “mother and daughter at makerfaire”. (I cheated).

I want to replace a video yule log with this chicken coop video on repeat in the Daniels Household this Christmas:

Barton, A. C. (2003). Teaching science for social justice. Teachers College Press.

Larson, R. (2000). Toward a psychology of positive youth development. American Psychologist 55, 170-183.

Palmer. (2005). A motivational view of constructivist-informed teaching. International Journal of Science Education, 27(15), 1853-1881.

Ambitious Science Teaching for Flat-Earthers

Michael Hughes believes the world is flat and disc-shaped. He is also a professional limo driver who was able to construct and launch a steam powered rocket that traveled over 1300 feet with him in it. That flight happened in January 2014. Hughes built another rocket and planned another, longer flight in November of this year. His goal is to take a picture during the flight to prove the Earth is flat. However, it has been postponed since he is unable to get federal approval to launch on public lands.

“I don’t believe in science,” said Hughes, whose main sponsor for the rocket is Research Flat Earth. “I know about aerodynamics and fluid dynamics and how things move through the air, about the certain size of rocket nozzles, and thrust. But that’s not science, that’s just a formula. There’s no difference between science and science fiction.” (Graham, 2017)

Okay science educators, what back pocket questions can we ask Mr. Hughes to help him relate his thinking to larger science concepts? I shared in an earlier post the story of room full of professional academics who could not explain how they know the Earth revolves around the sun. They just believed it. Hughes believes the Earth is flat and he knows enough about “aerodynamics and fluid dynamics and how things move through the air, about the certain size of rocket nozzles, and thrust” to build and launch a rocket. Can you imagine the amazing project-based lesson a teacher could do with a student-Hughes?

First, it would be helpful to learn a little more about what Hughes’s thinking. What has he observed that leads him to infer that the Earth is flat?

(Somewhere, Olivia feels a disturbance in the force and whispers “Scaffolds to make students’ initial thinking public..”)

Hughes has a significant online presence that doesn’t offer much information about his reasoning. However, other flat-earthers might help with this hypothetical lesson. Kyrie Inving plays for the Boston Celtics and also believes the Earth is flat. In the story The Ongoing Battle Between Science Teachers and Fake News  a science teacher laments:

“How have I failed these kids so badly they think the Earth is flat just because a basketball player says it?” He says he tried reasoning with the students and showed them a video. Nothing worked.

I can understand the teacher’s frustration, but there is opportunity here! Kyrie Irving’s argument seems to be that he can’t picture how the Earth can be round based on his observations of how things move in the world. Why not have the students address this? What do we observe in our everyday life that makes it hard to believe the world is round? The Flat Earth Society’s Wiki page states:

The evidence for a flat earth is derived from many different facets of science and philosophy. The simplest is by relying on ones [sic] own senses to discern the true nature of the world around us. The world looks flat, the bottoms of clouds are flat, the movement of the sun [emphasis added]; these are all examples of your senses telling you that we do not live on a spherical heliocentric world.

Now a quick review of back pocket questions:

  • The first question should be about what the students observed.
  • Next, the students should be asked to think why they think what they observed occurred.
  • Finally, the students should be tasked to apply this reasoning to something unobservable.

The world looks flat, the bottoms of clouds are flat, the movement of the sun” – These are all possible answers to the first BPQ! Next, a teacher could challenge the students to explain what they think is the cause of the observation. This would help give the teacher insight into what the students are thinking. This information will help determine what the final task/question will be.

It is easy to get discouraged by how science is portrayed in the news, but our job as science educators is to help our students learn to challenge these ideas for themselves. If we rely on our own knowledge and persuasion skills, we’re going to be foiled by basketball stars with more status and charisma. Our job is not to convince, but to teach.


BPQs in AST…

…or Using Back Pocket Questions in Ambitious Science Teaching

I was tasked this week, along with my peers, to come up with an “elevator pitch” for several foothold practices outlined by Tools for Ambitious Science Teaching. I focused on Back Pocket Questions (BPQ). My pitch is:

One of the foothold practices of ambitious science teaching is back pocket questions. These questions are designed to help students make connections between their thinking and larger science ideas. The questions consist of three steps. First, teachers should ask students a question about what they observed. Next, the teacher should ask students a question that requires them to think about how or why what they observed happened. Finally, the teacher should leave the students with a question that causes them to apply their reasoning to something unobservable.

The toughest aspect of BPQ for me to use in practice is leaving the students with a question. The video example of BPQ on the Ambitious Science Teaching Website showed 7th grade students working on a lab where they observed how a balloon placed over a flask containing mixture of yeast, warm water, and sugar inflated. Several students reasoned that the inflation was due to steam or warm air rising off of the mixture. The teacher challenged the students to think about why the balloon didn’t deflate when the air cooled off. She then asked them to think about other sources of the gas in the balloon…and she walked away. I had wondered about how to address student misconceptions in an earlier blog post. I am now acquiring several tools to do this*, but I still struggle to overcome my (very stereotypical) engineer tendency to have to be right and to let everyone to know I’m right.

I appreciated this exercise because it helped me address a misconception I had about BPQs. Somewhere along the line I got the impression that these questions should be fully fleshed-out questions to draw out student thought. I am learning how to anticipate student misconceptions in my lesson plans and prepare ways to address these misconceptions. BPQ are a different type of tool. These questions are more about revealing student thinking and helping students identify possible misconceptions for themselves.

*The footholds of AST are wonderful ways to work with student misconceptions. I’m a fan of making student thinking public, scaffolding debate, and the use of models in addition to BPQ.

NOS is for me too!

I’ve spent so much time thinking about NOS in the class this semester that I can’t help but see it everywhere. I’ve been trying to reconcile what I’ve learned about NOS in formal settings with how it is portrayed in “the wild”. I’m learning that I find the inherent nature of science to be extremely frustrating!

Nathanial Edward Davis –*bIwhxW4j-44ae0FUT__t5w.jpeg

I am a Teaching as Research Fellow and meet regularly with other TAR Fellows from all over the university. We use this time to talk about our progress on our research projects. I was particularly frustrated the last time we met because I had just realized that I would have to scrap my second project idea. My peers were mostly done with their data collection and were sharing interesting things that were showing up in analysis – and here I was facing the prospect of having to start from scratch with RSRB approval. Woe is me.

“Have you heard of My Shadow CV?”

No, I had not. Several people started talking at once; many of my peers had heard of it. Devoney Looser, an English professor at Arizona State University, published an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education called Me and My Shadow CV. In it he describes what his actual CV says versus what his Shadow CV would say.

What my CV says: I’ve taught at five fabulous institutions. What my shadow CV would say: This one is the worst. In the process of trying to solve a two-body problem, I was on the job market a lot. I think I’ve been rejected for nearly 400 college teaching jobs and postdoctoral fellowships. In other words, I got offered less than 2 percent of the jobs I applied for, and I’m by no means among the hard-luck cases.”

I don’t know if Looser came up with the idea. The concept has many names – Honest CV, True CV, Hidden CV. There are examples in blogs and articles all over the internet. Some are deliberately funny and others are brutally honest. In short, it’s hard out there for an academic.

One of the TAR Fellows summarized it for me “You can’t compare your blooper reel to their highlight reel!” Then she brought it back to the level of one research project, “This IS research. You’re obviously learning and you just keep going forward.” Another peer interjected, “But she KNOWS this! She teaches high school kids how to do research!”. This was Heta, I’ve worked with her on various projects since this summer. This is our relationship – we do not pull punches. She was right. I’ve spent the last six months trying to explain to high school students that knowing, getting more questions than answers, and starting over are all expected in science. I don’t know why I thought I was exempt!



Maybe This NOS Stuff is Useful

I planned on writing about school choice for this blog. However, I heard another interesting podcast recently and thought it would be a better idea to bring the focus back to science education. The EDU 434 class has spent a lot of time thinking about how to incorporate the nature of science (NOS) into our lessons. NOS wasn’t something I thought about explicitly prior to this course. My undergraduate degree is in engineering and I am unsure if I forgot or was never taught NOS. Norman Lederman says that K-12 students should understand six characteristics of the nature of science:

  • It is tentative – subject to changed
  • It is empirical – based on observations
  • It is subjective
  • It requires human interpretation and creativity
  • It consists of a combination of observations and inferences
  • It is socially and culturally situated (Lederman, 2007)

Lederman seemed to imply that, while there is not complete consensus on what NOS entails, these six are somewhat agreed upon. I was surprised at this list because my own, admittedly limited, experience with science led me to only understand that it is empirical.

I recently listened to a podcast of This American Life called “Things I Mean to Know”. It begins with Diane Wu telling the story of a talk she went to while a graduate student in chemistry. The Nobel Prize winning chemist, Harold Kroto, challenged the audience to explain the evidence that proves that the Earth travels around the sun. Only a few audience members thought they could and he chastised them for taking that “fact” on faith. The host, David Kestenbaum described it as, “Like, they were all running around talking with complete confidence about stuff we think we know, but we don’t actually really know. “ This was an example of a room full of scientists neglecting science empirical nature. The other stories of episode are examples of professional scientists ignoring various characteristics of NOS. The most impressive of these had scientists ignoring five of the six characteristics.

In the last story of the episode geography professor and filmmaker, Ian Mauro, shared the claims of various Inuit people he spoke with saying that the sun began rising from the “wrong” spot after the six-week-long night in the Artic. Dr. Mauro thought one possible explanation was that the earth had tilted on its axis and sought the opinions of other scientists. Though a different scientific phenomenon was later discovered that explained the change in sun position, Dr. Mauro received a lot of resistance from the scientific community when he began his search. He summarizes a letter he got from an astronomical society as saying “we’re the leads on whether or not the earth is tilted, and how dare you talk about any of this stuff? And they were quite incensed.”

My classmates and I talk about how challenging it is to consistently design lessons that tie back to NOS. Unfortunately, the podcast seemed to show that a deep of understanding of NOS is not a requirement for practicing science. That makes it easy to conclude that the time and effort it takes to make NOS-based lessons may be wasted. However, I was recently listening to a radio show about gun control. Two pundits on different sides of the disagreed on whether or not there were laws requiring background checks for online gun purchases. I found I believed one of the pundits even though I, in fact, knew nothing about the actual law. I believed this person knew they facts about the law because I agreed with the pundit’s politics. I took this “fact” on faith. This was a real-world reminder about why teaching NOS is important.

This American Life: Things I Mean to Know

Lederman, N. G. (2007). Nature of science: Past, present, and future. Handbook of research on science education2, 831-879.

Raising Kings

I ended my last post with a big question. Essentially, how do we move beyond public schools that merely accommodate students to creating just schools? I intended the question to be rhetorical when I posed it, but I was being lazy. Yes, it is a big question, but there is no reason I should be afraid of tackling it.

My husband works in an all-boys charter high school that predominantly serves young men of color. I openly admit that I have a hard time understanding the ways that he interacts his students. I started listening to a special podcast series on Ron Brown High School in Washington, DC in an effort to better understand the social and academic needs of the student population he serves. The three-part series, Raising Kings, was a collaboration between NPR and Education week that put two reporters in the school for its first year in operation. In addition to being an amazing listen and helping me understand my husband’s situation, Raising Kings helped me imagine new possibilities for a just education system.

One particular quote from the series broke my heart because, on my worst days, I agree with it and I really, really wish I didn’t.

We’re seeing goals socially and emotionally, and that’s great. But outside of these halls, no one cares. They only care about the scores. And they’re seeing these kids aren’t scoring, so the school is not working. – Matthew Lawerence, math teacher at Ron Brown High School

But outside of these walls, no one cares…*sigh*

I have never set foot in that school and I care. My family, colleagues, coworkers, and everyone I have ever had a face-to-face conversation about this with all care. But it is so easy to believe that no one cares when policy seems to define success exclusively by performance on standardized tests. We have an army of people who understand that education provides value beyond academics. So what’s going on? Why is policy not reflecting what communities believe?

…we still don’t agree as a society about what exactly a school is for.  – Kavitha Cardoza, Education Week Correspondant for Raising Kings

Oh. OH. Before I can begin to think about what just schooling looks like, I need to know what I want from my schools. To be frank, I don’t entirely know. I am struggling with what I want from my own children’s school (which I’m fairly sure my next post will be about). I’ve been doing a lot of reading on what to expect from schools in an unjust society. Not fun, fluffy stuff. Nevertheless, I look forward to working out my thought process on these topics publicly through this blog!

Equality, Equity, JUSTICE!

Equity versus equality has been a major theme of my week. This was the theoretical framework for class readings, a major component of a panel discussion I attended on Wednesday, and the topic for two presentations I saw on Thursday.

It was at the panel, Invisible No More: The Impact of the University of Rochester in Increasing Faculty Diversity on a National Scale, that I first heard that equity and equality are incorrectly used synonymously in conversations about inclusion. Dr. Laura Porterfield informed the audience that equality means treating everyone the same while equity is about fairness and providing everyone what they need. Dr. Paula Booke pointed out that, when these terms are confused, diversity efforts try to build on existing spaces with established traditions rather than creating new spaces where there are no privileged groups.

Left to right: Dr. Beth Olivares, Dr. Laura Porterfield, Dr. Alana Hackshaw, Dr. Paula Booke, and Dr. Michael Eric  Dyson

On Thursday I attended a presentation by the University of Rochester’s Diversity Resources department. Again, the topic of the difference between equity and equality came up along with a discussion about rethinking spaces so that specifics groups aren’t privileged. The Director of the department, Amy Wight, used the following illustration as an example.

She explained that her office focuses on equity by providing accommodations to students. However, since disabilities are environment-specific, the ultimate goal is to design spaces where certain characteristics aren’t privileged.

I encountered another version of this illustration later that afternoon in a webinar entitled Beyond Diversity: Confronting Racism and the Obstacles to Equity and Justice on Campus. In this case the speaker, Dr. David Leonard was speaking specifically about institutions of learning. He described the boxes in the illustration as representing things like the number of Advanced Placement courses offered at a school, access to tutoring, and the quality of the teachers.

What I am left to wonder is how do we restructure schools so that we don’t have to “accommodate” students? Is that something worth putting effort into? The speakers I listened to this past week seemed to focus on providing equity, giving all students what they need in order to succeed in spaces where they are disadvantaged. This may be where change agents will see the most change with respect to effort. Yet, how long will we have to continue to “accommodate” students. Is there a way to build public schools that don’t privilege certain groups?

Accidental Constructivism

In my quest to use more constructivist practices in my courses, I found a lot of writing about constructivist teaching and Scratch. Scratch is a free, visual based, programming software developed at MIT. I use it a lot when I teach coding because it is very accessible to novice programmers, can be run off of single-board computers like the Raspberry Pi, and (again) it’s free.

I read an account on ScratchEd by Sarah MacDonald about her experience teaching Scratch. She didn’t tell her students how to do certain tasks when they asked; instead she encouraged them to try different solutions on their own. The students would then try a series of solutions, complaining along the way, and would often come up with their own solutions. MacDonald discussed how this reflected constructivist pedagogy. This surprised me since so much of her experience was familiar to me.

I had a cursory knowledge of Scratch and I lot of knowledge of traditional programming languages when I taught a short programming course for high school students. My idea was to use Scratch to introduce coding structure and then move on to something more advanced. To my surprise, the students took my curriculum in an entirely different direction. We ended up spending several weeks on Scratch with students creating several video games and animations. The students were all working on different types of projects. But, for the first time in my experience, they were all engaged. I was learning right along with them. Together we learned how to program keys to control a car on screen, fire projectiles, and to get a character to jump on a platform.

Students demonstrating games they designed

I mentioned in class this week how teachers have to be careful to not act as a barrier to their students’ curiosity. As those words came out of my mouth, I realized why my Scratch curriculum was so successful. I got out of the way! I taught that course before starting at Warner or ever hearing about constructivism. Admittedly, I was just happy that I wasn’t having a hard time with classroom management. However, I realize that using these practices aren’t as difficult as I make them out to be. In the future, I definitely want to be more mindful about my curriculum now I know it’s something I can do.

More on Scratch and Constructivism (with lots of links to resources for learning Scratch):

Our Scratch Project


Low-Cognition Making

I recently had the opportunity to attend the 2017 World Maker Faire. This was my first year and the faire was amazing, hot, and completely overwhelming. I attended in my capacity as Director of Diversity in STEM and my intent was to look for ways to incorporate more art into my STEM programming (STEAM anyone?). I have incorporated a lot of projects inspired by the Maker Movement into my lessons. Unfortunately, I have come to realize that these projects weren’t cognitively demanding. If students followed the instructions, they would end up with some pretty cool projects that they could not explain or repeat.

So now my task is to find ways to incorporate some of the amazing ideas I saw at the Maker Faire in away that is non-formulaic and incorporates constructivist practices. Here are some of the resources I’m using as I rethink STEM programming.

Maker Ed is an organization provides resources in the form of professional development, an online community, projects, and lesson plans that incorporate maker practices into learner-led education. There is a strong focus on building on students’ funds of knowledge and intrinsic motivation. Sylvia Martinez is a STEM educator and researcher who focuses on constructivist maker and engineering curriculums. Her blog links to a lot of articles and other resources about maker education (including her book).

FabLearn is a research collaborative based at Stanford University. Their research focuses on assessment, pedagogy, and socio-cultural factors in K-12 maker education.


The Best Interest of the Students

The GRS team has been reading a lot on the roles of language and identity in science education over the last few weeks. Language and identity serve an important role in teaching and learning, particularly if you hold a constructivist view of knowledge. I am beginning to see how teachers help students “bridge” the language they bring to the classroom to language that is used by the larger scientific community. They also help students’ reconcile their outside-of-the-classroom identity with a new scientific identity they are developing. In Ball and Wilson (1996) describe a teacher’s duty as a balance between a knowledge endeavor and a moral enterprise. This is a balance that I’m struggling with as I think of how the theory I learn needs to be applied in the classroom.

In Integrity in Teaching, Ball describes teaching fractions to third graders. One student, Sheena, is adamant that 4/4 does not equal 5/5. She reasons that if you have a cookie divided into fourths, you cannot share it with five friends. However, if that cookie is divided into fifths, you can. Ball states:

I worried about what was in the best interest of the children. Which children? Only 4 out of 19 children were waging this battle – all girls. Two of the four – Jeannie and Sheena – were not regular participants in whole group discussions, and I was glad to have them involved. But I wondered what others were thinking. Were they engaged with this argument, and, if so, what was their position? I wanted to help all the students learn, not just teach four children, while the others observed. But how best to do it? (p. 169)

Ball does not come up with a solution that solved this problem and several students believed that 4/4≠5/5 when the class ends. Sheena was given the opportunity to present her, rather strong, argument as to why this was the case and won students over to her side.

I try to reconcile that anecdote with some of the teaching practices suggested in our reading. Cartier, Smith, and Ross (2013) describe “calling for volunteers but then strategically selecting from among them, the teacher signals appreciation for students’ spontaneous contributions, while at the same time keeping control of the ideas that are publically presented” (p. 31). I can understand why the authors recommend that teachers control the ideas that presented in their classrooms after reading Ball describe how conflicted she felt about the misconception that gained traction in her classroom. However, I love the discourse in Ball’s classroom. Though Sheena did not regularly participate in-group discussions, she was willing to present an argument and challenge the teacher. I would feel much more accomplished as a teacher if I had students willing to engage in discourse like Sheena. However, I struggle with whether or not students can afford to hold on to misconceptions. The fraction lesson Ball described happened at the very end of the school year and it is possible some of her students entered fourth grade not understanding this point. Thinking specifically of marginalized students, I wonder if it is in the best interests of the students to teach them the “right” answer or give them the tools and confidence to participate in discourse. I realize, like Ball and Wilson, that there is a balance. Yet there are times a choice has to be made.

Ball, D. L., & Wilson, S. W. (1996). Integrity in teaching: Recognizing the fusion of the moral and the intellectual. American Educational Research Journal, 33(1), 155-192.

Cartier, J., Smith, M.S., Stein, M.K. & Ross, D. (2013). 5 Practices for Orchestrating Task-Based Discussions in Science , NCTM, Reston, VA, (pp1-18).