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!