Science is driven by questions- and science class can be too.

Questioning is a critical part of the scientific process. The infographic below shows the scientific method as aligned with NGSS, specifically the Science and Engineering Practices. Notice that ‘questions’ are a critical piece of the (non-linear, adaptable) process.

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When students genuine questions are used as the basis for an experiment, rather than predetermining the focus question, the whole investigation gains a level of authenticity that should increase engagement and eventual understanding by students.

But how can we elicit and then effectively utilize student’s questions? I think that there are a couple important aspects to this work:

  1. Student questions have to be elicited CONSTANTLY- In order to use student’s questions to drive investigations, you need to take time to get the raw material. This can be done in a variety of ways, from class discussions to daily assignments such as DNAs (Do Now Assignments) and Exit Tickets. I like the latter as a way of eliciting question as it gives you, the teacher, the opportunity to hear questions from ALL students, even those who may not speak up in class. I have also in the past given students time in small groups to generate questions that they post, either to a Padlet or to a physical space in the room via sticky notes. These questions can then be sorted and refined or tested.
  2. The skill of asking investigable questions must be practiced- Not every question is ‘testable’. Testable questions must have a variety of characteristics, including: Being interesting, being logistically testable, leading to a plan of action for investigation, and, for the sake of our work, the investigation must lead to some kind of content knowledge or increased understanding. This is a tall order! Many student questions start off far from here. However, many also start very close, and only require refinement in order to be testable questions. I therefore think its important to explicitly talk about what such a question looks like, and practice revising questions with your students. This should help refine the student’s skill in asking questions over time.
  3. The environment (and teacher) must be flexible to allow for genuine investigation-This final piece stipulates that using student questions as a basis for investigation has to be a priority of the teacher for it to actually happen within a classroom. This includes not only intellectual flexibility as to when and how certain content pieces will reveal themselves in the classroom, but also logistical flexibility and a willingness to support the students in designing and carrying out an investigation. Furthermore, the classroom culture needs to be such that students feel comfortable asking questions and taking reasonable cognitive risks. This takes clear culture-setting at the beginning of the year as well as throughout the year. Student ideas must ALWAYS be valued, and there must never be such a thing as a “stupid question”- just one that can be improved upon.

Science begins with a question. Scientists are constantly asking new questions as a basis for their investigations. If we want our classroom to truly embody science and engineering practices, it is critical that we allow our students to engage in this most central practice of science, and that it is used as a basis for classroom activities. I look forward to utilizing and refining this skill in my own teaching practice.


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“Why do we need to learn this?”

Admit it- you asked yourself this as a student, at some point in your schooling career. I know I did. When the links between you and what you’re studying in school seem elusive, it can be easy to become disengaged. Before you know it, science class may become “boring”, as you become more certain that you will never be a scientist.

Luckily, through making these links between our students and our subject matter explicit, and using these links to contextualize and guide instruction, we can help to show our students why learning science is important for ALL people, even those who don’t want to become scientists. For the remainder of this blog post, I will be talking directly to one of my students in 7th grade, studying ecology (the current unit at my upcoming placement). Here’s the NYSSLS we will be working off of:

MS-LS2-5. Evaluate competing design solutions for maintaining biodiversity and protecting ecosystem stability.

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Even though you might think you aren’t impacted by ecosystem stability, you are! Just by functioning, Ecosystems provide what is commonly referred to as ecosystem services. These are functions that directly impact human beings- yes, even you! They are grouped into four categories, shown in the table below:

Those all look like pretty important things, right? One important one not mentioned in the table is pollination. Do you like apples? Cherries? Pumpkins? Tomatoes? All of these food plants, and many more, rely on bees for pollination. Without that important ecosystem service, so much of our food would be impossible to maintain!

Biodiversity (or the amount of species in an ecosystem) plays a huge role in ecosystem stability- which is necessary for maintaining ecosystem services. A more biodiverse system is more resilient to disruption. This is true of both ‘natural’ and ‘human-made’ ecosystems.

Image result for Phytophthora infestans

Don’t believe me? Meet Phytophthora infestans, commonly known as the cause of the Irish Potato Famine, which killed about 1/4 of the population of Ireland during the 1840’s- all because they didn’t recognize the service provided by biodiversity.

Many people don’t realize that the potato, which is commonly associated with Ireland, isn’t native to Ireland at all. It comes from the Andean Mountain Range in South America, and had been cultivated for at least 7,000 years before the Spanish Conquistadors brought it back to Europe in 1539. Ireland, with its shallow, rocky soils, is difficult for growing wheat, but the potato did really well in this environment. However, the Irish people did not plant the potato like the Inca had….

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“The Lumper”, widely planted in Ireland
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Just a sampling of the HUNDREDS of potato varieties grown by the Inca

The Irish planted only one variety of potato, that they called “the lumper”, in huge, dense patches all over Ireland. The Inca, by contrast, have a tradition of planting different varieties in small patches all over their mountain home. This provided them a hugely diverse crop. What they learned through generations is that pests and diseases might wipe out one or two varieties in a growing season, but the sheer amount of varieties (aka the ‘biodiversity’) of their crop provided a defense, as there would never be a pest that could wipe out ALL of the varieties.

In other words, the biodiversity of the Incan potato crop created ecosystem stability by controlling pest populations. Pretty neat, huh? The Irish, on the other hand, went through a horrible period of famine caused directly by the lack of diversity of their crop- once the Potato Blight reached the island, it spread like wildfire as it consumed the vast majority of the crops, turning them to mush underground before they were ready to be harvested.

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A modern potato farm in Iowa, growing a single variety (monoculture)

I know what you might be thinking, “what does this have to do with me, now?” Well, just take a look at where our food comes from. The vast majority of it is grown as “monocultures”, or large farms dominated by single variety.  This has been made possible by modern agricultural chemicals that are applied to stop pests.  However, some of these chemicals interfere with natural ecosystems- a link that is a hot topic of research right now. 

So: the question of ecosystem stability through biodiversity has literally been a matter of life and death throughout human history, and is still a hot topic that impacts what we eat, where it comes from, and the land that surrounds it.  Maybe biodiversity and ecosystem stability does matter to everyone!

-Ms. C

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The Aquaponic Ecosystem

WOW! What a week!

This semester, I have had the pleasure of having access to a small greenhouse right outside of my classroom.  I decided to utilize this space and design a unit that would use aquaponics to contextualize and allow inquiry into ecosystem function and nutrient cycling. The guiding question of the unit is….

“How is our aquaponic system like an ecosystem?”

So… What exactly is an aquaponic system? Aquaponics blends aquaculture (raising fish) with growing plants without soil in nutrient rich-water (hydroponics) to create a system where the fish’s waste products are converted (by bacteria) into nutrients for the plants.  While most aquaponic systems are large, recirculating systems that often grow talapia or other fish for eating, aquaponics can be done even with small 10 gallon fish tanks!  Ours are 10 gallons, currently with 3 leopard danios and 10 lettuce seedlings.  More fish coming once the system has a chance to cycle (i.e. beneficial nitrifying bacteria has colonized the tank). Here’s a picture of our (very small) systems:

Throughout the week, we built an increasingly complex concept of how an aquaponic system functions like an ecosystem, beginning with the initial diagramming of the interaction between the living and non-living aspects of an environment, and ending with understanding flows of nutrients, with specific focus on Nitrogen, through systems.

Why Nitrogen, you ask? Nitrogen is one of the 6 macronutrients that is necessary in relatively large amounts to all living organisms, but beyond that, Nitrogen undergoes chemical changes as it is acted on by each member of the system that give us insight into the ecosystem’s function.  In other words, by testing the concentration of three different forms of Nitrogen (Ammonia, Nitrite, and Nitrate), we are able to make inferences about the biological activity of the various members of the system. Here’s a neat diagram of how Nitrogen flows through an aquaponic system:


Since we are just starting our system, we were also able to discuss carrying capacity and use that discussion to model what we suspect will happen in the system in the future. We are continuing to test the system, and are plotting our data over time in a class spreadsheet, so we will actually get to see how our models hold up over time.  We started 3 separate systems so that once the systems reaches a relatively stable state, each class section (there are two) can vote on an experiment they would like to do, and allow us to maintain a control tank.

Each week, 2-3 students are tasked with being “ecosystem stewards”, meaning that they feed the fish, measure (and harvest) the lettuce, test and record the N, and write a short blog post about the state of the system on a class blog.  We started this week, and I my heart nearly exploded when I asked for volunteers to be the first ecosystem stewards- and hands shot into the air!  I love the ownership that the classes are starting to take over the tanks- from naming the fish to wanting to be part of maintaining and collecting data on the system.  I plan to keep encouraging this by involving my students in all decisions about the tanks, including when we add new fish, and what species we add.  I’m sure this isn’t the last I’ll write on this blog about the aquaponic ecosystem… more to come!


Ms. Coonce 




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“I thought we were going to be more different, but we’re really all just highschoolers.”

First of all, I am sorry (Mom) for the extremely long posting hiatus!  I am keeping myself extremely busy, and there is a lot I could write about…. but I had an experience this week that requires that I share it.

The class I am placed in, SUNY-ESF’s Global Environment for 10-12th grade, has formed a partnership with the same class at Livonia High School, a rural school about an hour away.  The teachers planned an exchange of field trips- last week , our class from Rochester went to Livonia, and this week, the Livonia students came into the city to visit us.  This was planned not only for the educational benefit of the students, but also to help students get outside of their ‘bubble’.

Prior to the whole experience, some of my students expressed being a little worried about what the ‘country kids’ were going to be like, and unsure as to how the groups would blend.  When we went to Livonia, my students were immediately struck by how obviously different the environment is.  We met them at a local park, surrounded by farm fields, with a stream running through it.  After student-guided tours of the park in small groups, we returned to the lodge for a restorative circle lead by the Rochester students, for everyone to get to know each other.  After lunch, we all headed out to Livonia HS, where the students have a patch of forest where they have been conducting field research for the whole first portion of the school year on the seasonal water table.

Here’s a neat visual of a water table:

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The Water table is a name for the height of the ground water.   If you are standing in a swamp, the water table is at surface level.  Throughout the year in a forest, the water table changes.  As students from Livonia described to ours, when the leaves first emerge in the spring, they pull water out of the ground and lower the water table, which reaches its lowest point during the summer time.  As the leaves die off, however, the trees stop acting like straws, and water is once again available to replinish the aquifer.  The plot where the students are working is on a hill, with the foot of the hill becoming a swamp.  They had wells (like the one on the left in the diagram above) spaced along the hill, and through measuring over time, have been able to see the water table changing this fall as it moves higher.   We had a great time, ended the day with hot coco and a final circle, and by the time we left there was a group snapchat for students from both classes that had been spontaneously created.

Our teachers had structured the curriculum differently. We had begun the year talking about the topics that are closest to our students lives- the sustainability of cities, including industrial vs. local food production.  Our students have formed a company with different roles in which the students work collaboratively to propagate, market, and sell herbs such as thyme, oregano, and basil at a local grocery store.  When utilizing resources, our students are tasked with evaluating the sustainability of their decisions and developing a systemic perspective of resource use and the economy.

Yesterday, our students hosted the Livonia students, beginning with a student-lead tour of the school.  Our students proudly showed off the green house, including the Herb Project, and invited the visitors to plant a couple of seeds for us, so they could be part of our project.  They also showed off the school’s chickens and honey bees.  After an opening circle, we all packed up and went to the Rochester Public Market. At the market, we had guided tours of the market, as well as time to explore in groups.  I heard some really interesting conversations out of the students about ‘food miles’ and ‘carbon footprints’, which our students have recently become experts in.  They noticed the difference between the local produce and the sometimes internationally traded, and the visitors seemed shocked by just how huge the market was.

By the end of the day, there was no ‘cliques’ left.  All of the students were interacting as if they were all fast friends, and everyone seemed to know everyone’s name.  We ended the day with a large closing circle in an art gallery at the Market.  The prompt was, “What was your biggest takeaway from this whole experience, both going to Livonia and coming here?”  My heart was melting with joy as student-after-student talked about how they really cherished the friendships they’d made, how interesting it was to see how different the environments and schools were yet to experience how similar they all were.

I appreciate that our students got to learn about fluctuations in the water table, and see students doing environmental field work.  The Livonia teacher was glad that his students got to see and think about sustainable entrepreneurship, and to see such a large market with a rich history.  However, at the end of the day, it seemed that for everyone involved the most important learning experience was summed up by the quote of one of my students, “”I thought we were going to be more different, but we’re really all just highschoolers.” To be able to experience our shared humanity, especially with a group that you might have stereotyped, is arguably one of the most important learning experience that a person, young or old, can have.  I feel lucky to have witnessed it.

-Ms. C

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The Digital Fishbowl and the Active Learner


This week, I’ve done a lot of thinking on how digital spaces impact how we learn, express ourselves, and access the world.  Technology is integral to modern life, and is integral to the modern classroom.  Most of our students have never lived in a world in which information is not readily accessible, and use devices to learn everyday, both inside and outside of school.

Here’s a great video that makes the case for harnessing the ‘active learner’ in the modern, digital student:

Even I, at 25, am definitely a digital native.  I grew up with dial-up, and my laptop and smartphone are tools that I use extensively to access information and network every single day.  However, I have always been worried about the potential for technology to take away from experiencing the real world.  I found that it was hard to picture what my tech use in the classroom would look like.  However, I have to say… I am having a blast figuring it out.

This week in EDU498–  “Literacy and Learning as a Social Practice” with Dr. Lammers , the topic was ‘Produsage and the Digital Turn’.  No, that is not a typo. defines produsage as,”The collaborative and continuous building and extending of existing content in pursuit of further improvement”.  This is meant to describe the constant cycle in the digital world that blurs the line between producers and consumers as described in traditional economic models.  Produsage can be anything from Microblogging (i.e. Twitter, Facebook) to blogging with integrated multi-media (i.e. this post), to fan fiction, and far beyond.  The active learner and digital native described above is consistently engaging in this cycle, whether scholastically or not.

A classmate and myself were tasked with orchestrating a class discussion about the readings this week, a task that falls on a different set of shoulders every week. We had 24 graduate students to organize into any discussion protocol we wanted.  My partner had the idea to have a ‘fishbowl’ discussion, also known as a socratic circle.   Here’s a little graphic of what a fishbowl normally looks like:


Usually, only the inner circle are actively discussing and sharing ideas.  The outer ring is engaged in active listening, note-taking, and general sense-making.  At the end of a round the observers have the chance to bring their ideas to the inner circle, and participants can be switched out.   I like the fishbowl concept, but sometimes it can mean that the observers don’t have very many opportunities to participate, and it is hard to actually include every voice.

I was inspired by this week’s readings, and wondered what would happen if we had the outer ring keep their laptops open to a shared space on (if you have not played with, and you are an educator, you should really check it out!).  This provided a space for an online chat of sorts to happen between the members of the outer ring.  Members could draw connections between their comments, “like” and respond to each others content, and easily share multi-media within the discussion, all while still being able to hear the out-loud conversation happening in the middle.

Honestly, I was not sure if this was going to work.  I thought there might grow to be a disconnect between the inner and outer circles, or that the online space might get too chaotic to follow.   It definitely was an intense space, but an incredible amount of thoughts were shared, and the combination of the inner and outer circle spaces ended up yielding some really rich discussions.  If I could go back and do it again, I would have a few participants switch in the middle of one question, so that the perspectives from the Padlet could be brought into the middle for longer than the two minutes we allotted between topics, when we switched the middle out completely.   One thing is for sure: this discussion flew by and the engagement in the room was extremely high.  I would absolutely use this format again, if the occasion called for it.  I am calling it the “Digital Fishbowl”.

I bring this all up to make the point that if our students learn and express themselves on digital spaces, and are consistently engaged in the cycle of produsage, that we as educators should find novel ways to leverage that kind of expression in a way that enhances understanding and increases collaboration, both within the classroom and with the rest of the world.

Teachers: What are some ways that YOU leverage technology to increase engagement in your classroom?

-Ms. Coonce



Bruns, A. (2008). Blogs, wikipedia, second life, and beyond: From production to produsage, pp. 9-36. New York: Lang.

Mills, K. A. (2016). Literacy theories for the digital age: Social, critical, multimodal, spatial, material, and sensory lenses, pp. 17-40. Tonawanda, NY: Multilingual Matters. Chapter 2


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Sustainability Gets Personal

Hello World!

For a word with such a simple dictionary definition, “the ability to be maintained at a certain rate or level”, this concept when applied to the sustainability of the lifestyle and society of Homo sapiens is extremely complex and context-dependent.

This week, in my placement in a High School SUNY-ESF Global Environment class, we really began to dive into the concept of Sustainability.  This dual-credit course combines core themes of environmental science along with critical thinking skills to look deeply at the human context within the global environment and to attain an appreciation for the Earth as a system.

But what is required for a system to be sustainable?  One common model for describing sustainability is the Three Pillar Model, which identifies Environmental, Social, and Economic as the three Pillars to sustainability.  Here’s a neat infographic from the Sustainable Cities Index that describes the Three Pillars:

These ‘Pillars’ are represented in a variety of ways graphically, from a Ven Diagram to a bullseye, with Economic nestled within Social nestled within Environmental.  This week, our students learned about the Three Pillar Model and were tasked with taking this to the next level by creating their own graphic representation (poster) of the three pillars that defined each, gave an example (or counter-example) of each, and identified a fourth pillar that they felt was important for their own sustainability, and for the sustainability of the species in general. 

This directly advanced the goals of the course by having our students think critically about the concept and link their own worldview to the accepted model of sustainability, and give them the opportunity to outline pieces that they think might be missing.  The result was an array of fourth pillars, all of which had a depth of thought and consideration, and all of which directly supported the other pillars.  Here are some of the pillars our students came up with, and their definitions:

Personal Sustainability- The ability to live fully in the moment without compromising the future.

Cultural Sustainability– Being able to maintain cultural knowledge, heritage, language and customs into the future.

Spiritual Sustainability– The ability to make peace with your inner-self and to reflect.

Governmental Sustainability- Having governmental systems that support the other three pillars over war and non-renewable resources.

I agree with all of these interpretations, and I learned an immeasurable amount about my students through this activity.  The examples and discussions that came out of this activity were beautiful, and I will remember them forever.  What I heard and saw were our students thinking critically about their needs and the needs of their communities, and tying that in to a complex and highly academic topic. Honestly, after this experience, the three pillar model doesn’t quite cut it for me.

I look forward to continuing to help my students see themselves in science, even if they never plan to become scientists, and to decolonize scientific concepts so that they have the potential to actually increase the well-being of our society as a whole.

What is YOUR Fourth Pillar of Sustainability?

-Ms. Coonce


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What in the world is a Benthic Macroinvertebrate?

This was it, the week we’d all been waiting for… the GR!S Sodus Science TEAM Summer Camp!  My head is still spinning in the best way possible.   This week re-affirmed my belief in learning by doing.  I learned so much about being a teacher, by being one, just as our students learned about being scientists… by being scientists!  Here’s a picture taken by the local press, the Sun and Record/ Wayne County Mail!  The caption of the photo quotes the students as saying, “We are scientists”.  My heart is full and I can’t stop smiling.

The Ex-Stream Team had a BLAST this week, visiting three very different bodies of water; Metz Pond, Sodus Point Beach, and the drainage ditch behind the Sodus Junior-Senior High School! There is so much I could say about this experience….Check out Kristi’s post about our first day at camp and our introductory activity, and Madeleine’s post about our adventures sending up GoPros on helium balloons during day 2 for just a couple other glimpses of the week!  Since I’m writing this a bit later, I get the added benefit of being able to zoom out, and see the experience as a whole.

Here at GR!S, there is a focus on being culturally sustaining in the way we teach, and what we teach.  Looking back, I think that this possibly the most significant portion of the work that we did this week.  Across all three groups, we studied topics that were particularly significant to Sodus.  We sought to understand and celebrate Sodus, and to help our young scientists do the same. Along these lines, one of my favorite outcomes of this camp was our Benthic Macroinvertebrate exploration of Metz Pond.

What is a Benthic Macroinvertebrate, you say?  I know some rising 7-9th graders that could tell you, but since they aren’t here… Benthic Macroinvertebrates (Benthos, for short- or as we like calling them, “fish food”), are invertebrates that live on and in the substrate on the bottom of bodies of water that are big enough to see with your naked eye.  They include the larval form of many of the flying insects we know from above ground.  Here’s a neat picture of a dragonfly larvae we found at Metz Pond;

Benthos are often referred to as “indicator species”, because the presence or absence of certain species can indicate environmental factors.  Some species are sensitive to pollution, for example, so finding these species in an environment tells us that the body of water is relatively clean.  This is true of not only this Dragonfly larvae, but also of Mayfly, Stonefly, and Caddisfly larvae that we found!  Our scientists loved Metz Pond, and it turns out its immediately behind the house of one of our Ex-Stream team members!  None of them had really spent any time there, and all of them wanted to go back after our field trip.

In the context of GR!S Science TEAM Camp, TEAM stands for Teens Engaged in Actions that Matter.  We were encouraged, as facilitators of this camp, to encourage our young scientists to leave a positive mark on their community inspired by the science they engaged in.  While we were at Metz Pond, we found a diverse array of plants, and many species of benthos, including sensitive ones, as described above.  We also found those all-too-common marks of human disregard- fishing line, plastic, and even some broken glass.  The students didn’t like this, so we brain-stormed a sign that we could put at Metz Pond! We plan on getting approval from the town and actually getting this put up.  Here it is:

I was blown away by the authentic care they showed for their environment, and more than proud to facilitate them putting this care into an action that matters in their own community.  We come full circle, as this shows the power of learning science through doing science, especially in your own community.  After this week, I am more excited than ever for my career moving forward, and that’s saying something!  I feel so lucky to be where I am right now, and I can’t wait for STARS in the Fall…

Stay tuned!







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Dr. Kimmerer- Science Superhero!

This week, my GR!S pals and I made comic strips telling the stories of “science superheros” that we interviewed.  I created a comic strip telling Dr. Kimmerer’s story! Without further ado, here it is!


I believe that this story, especially told through a fun, colorful, accessible medium such as a comic strip, has the potential to inspire many young minds.  I chose to interview Dr. Kimmerer for this project as I had the pleasure of having her as my undergraduate adviser at SUNY-ESF.  During my time there, I got to know her as a compassionate, kind, principled scientist.  Her ‘superpower’ of seeing science through the lense of indigenous ways of knowing and of recognizing the human-land connection helped shape my own views on ecosystem sciences.  For my future students, Dr. Kimmerer’s story illustrates how you can integrate your own cultural ways of knowing and worldview into the science that you do.  I think this is especially important because it stops students from feeling like they have to totally assimilate to what they think a scientist is if they decide to become a scientist.  It illustrates that “scientist” is not a one-size-fits-all job title, and encourages students to personalize their path as scientists by “doing the work that only they can do”.  In particular, it is inspiring to children from backgrounds that are typically underrepresented in science.  I believe that a greater diversity of perspectives and ways of knowing in academia would work for the betterment of society, and help scientific institutions better serve traditionally marginalized groups.

If you’re interested learning more about Dr. Kimmerer’s work, she wrote a beautiful book that I HIGHLY recommend called Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants, also available as an audio book read by Dr. Kimmerer herself!  You won’t regret it!


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The Ex-STREAM Team Gets Their Feet Wet!

The Ex-STREAM Team (Kristi, Madeleine and I) have been having a blast shaping our investigation of the water around Sodus, NY!  This week, we explored the idea of ‘storying’ our science.  Putting science into a story can be a powerful tool in communicating science to a wide audience.   We took the investigation we have done so far and turned it into a lovely little movie:

On Tuesday, we will go to Sodus Middle School to present this short film to our potential partners in this investigation, a group of rising 7th graders!  We also made this nifty infographic, to lay out our investigation simply, and in color:

We have ten minutes to introduce our investigation to our future collaborators.  Having the infographic and the movie means we can spend most of the time on active discussion with the students! We plan on starting the lesson with students brain-storming with each other in small groups about how they measure their environment, and what they can measure.  We will then present them with the infographic and movie, explaining that we want to measure the health of the water around their community, with their help!

After a quick presentation of our materials, we plan to refer to the students we are working with as our local panel of experts, asking them about the local water features.  They have spent more time in and around them than we have, after all!  We want student input on any places they are curious to test, and as they know the area they might even be able to point us in the direction of the most accessible areas!  We will then use their input to shape our camp in July.

One of the most valuable parts of ‘storying our science’ this week was simplifying the investigation to ourselves.  Putting the investigation at this level helped us to distill the ideas we had into the most concrete and important.  I think this whole process helped us gain confidence in our investigation, and has made us ready to present it to a wider, and younger, audience.

I am so excited for Tuesday!  I am curious as to how the conversation is going to go, and I am looking forward to gleaning some insights into how to best bring the science to the student.

Go Ex-STREAM Team, Go!



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On Prairie Dogs and the formation of science identities

This week we reflected on how students form their identities, and how a student’s identity shapes how they interact with the world.  I want  to tell you a story about the formation of my identity as a scientist, and explore how I can integrate the lessons embedded in this story into my classroom.



When I was a second grader in Albuquerque, NM, A teacher of mine let it slip that the school administration was going to be poisoning the small colony of Gunnison’s Prairie Dogs that lived on the vacant lot next to our playground.   This didn’t seem right to me, so I went to the library and did some research.  What I found was that prairie dogs (of which there are five species, all native to North America), are what ecologists call a ‘keystone species’.




Like the keystone in an arch, a keystone species is critical for the proper functioning of an ecosystem.  Without the keystone, the ecosystem won’t work the same. Prairie dogs dig burrows in the desert that become homes for dozens of species, from insects to birds to other mammals.   The Burrowing Owl, for example, can’t dig.  This endangered owl lives exclusively in abandoned prairie dog burrows.  North America’s most endangered mammal, the Black Footed Ferret, eats almost exclusively prairie dogs.  Both of these species, and hundreds of others, have been negatively impacted by a long history of prairie dog extermination.  According to National Geographic, it is estimated that 98% of the prairie dogs were exterminated during the 20th century.


Image result for burrowing owl burrow

Burrowing owl, looking out of his home (built by a prairie dog)


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Black footed ferret, the most endangered mammal in North America

I was furious.  I took action. 

I went to the Principle with articles about the ecology of the prairie dog.  I found a non-profit organization called the Prairie Dog Pals that is dedicated to humane rescue and relocation of prairie dogs from areas where poisoning is threatened, and circulated a petition to have the prairie dogs relocated to a wildlife refuge rather than poisoned.

 It worked. 


The administration linked up with the Prairie Dog Pals, and the prairie dogs were relocated. This experience was formative to me in two ways:


  1. I connected the study of ecology to my own life, and in doing so sparked a love of biology that has been at the core of my identity ever since.
  2. I experienced the truth that we can make a difference in our world. I developed a sense of agency, the feeling that I didn’t have to be a passive observer, and that science could help me make a difference.


The summer before I entered high school, I began working with the Prairie Dog Pals full time. I worked on a two person field crew with a trained wildlife biologist, catching, processing, caring for, and subsequently relocating prairie dogs from around Albuquerque.  This was my life all summer, every summer, until I went off to college.   I read voraciously on my own about biology, especially about ecology, and hungered to learn everything I could.  I was sure, after all, that I was going to go to school to become a full-fledged biologist.  My identity as a scientist was locked in.


Ellie Coonce's portrait.

Me, with a freshly caught prairie dog, Summer of 2010, just before my senior year of high school.


What does my experience teach me about how to help students develop their own identities? 

I have come to realize that my science classes had very little to do with the formation of my identity as a scientist.  Most of my science classes consisted of memorizing vocabulary and concepts, and recipe-style labs.  I think that this classroom model does little to encourage students to see themselves as scientists.  I formed my identity as a scientist through participating in genuine scientific experiences in my immediate environment.  I connected my own life, my community, and my local environment to science.  I was incredibly lucky to have this experience, and it is what lead me to the career I am now pursuing.


I want my classroom to allow my students to have these meaningful scientific experiences within school. 


The question then becomes, how can I as a teacher give my students genuine scientific experiences that teach the concepts they are required to know while connecting science to their world?  In other words, how can science education Get Real!? There is no simple answer, and I plan on wrestling with the intricacies of this question for the rest of my career.  However, there are two basic strategies that I want to never lose sight of that I believe will help me achieve this goal:


  1. Using my student’s observations and questions as guides for our investigations, allowing them a sense of responsibility and agency over their own learning, and
  2. Teaching the concepts of biology as they relate to my students and their communities. I want to involve my students in their own physical environment as much as possible.


I hope that with these strategies, I can allow my students the intellectual freedom to see how they and their communities fit within the broader framework of science.






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