A New Member to the GR!S Family

This week, my cohort and I are discussing some of our friends/role models that we would like to introduce to the Get Real! Science family. I would like to introduce a friend and long-time science enthusiast: Emily.

Emily is a recent college graduate that majored in history and psychology, with minors in biology and art history. Her experience denotes an interesting mix of science as it enmeshes itself with art, with people, and with society. From basic biological principles, to the history of the body, to behavioral medicine, Emily practices her relationship with science in a much more creative and dynamic fashion than what society traditionally defines as a “scientist”. Part of the reason I admire her work stems from her constant reminder that STEM fields are unique ways of viewing and experiencing the world, but they are only a part of the larger picture. Her experience as a scientist truly enmeshes creativity and science not as the convergence of separate entities, but a fluid exchange by which one continually interacts with the other. Science is a unique field, but it is not isolated knowledge. She serves a constant reminder to me that science has much more relevance than balancing a chemical formula, calculating equilibrium concentrations, and reciting parts of the body. In her words:

“I am a history and art history fanatic and love to be able to use my scientific knowledge in those fields. I can study how different mediums in art interact and how mummies have been preserved for the afterlife. I can figure out how monuments were made and how the military technology has evolved through mankind’s history.”

Her description of science as an interdisciplinary fund of knowledge reinforces connections and relationships that teachers should foster in their classrooms. When we treat science as interdisciplinary, we more easily reinforce its core practices through expanding their focus. Interdisciplinary teaching, as Emily practices in her daily life, expands upon a purely scientific context to include historical, social, and artistic lenses. This model of teaching not only provides opportunities for application-based lessons, it fosters connections between student’s personal understandings of scientific concepts as well as between the other subjects they study in school. Her scientific identity is one that truly believes in and communicates multimodality, and I hope that I can embrace this spirit when I begin formally teaching. 

Beyond embracing multiple means of expressing her scientific knowledge, Emily works to use this knowledge in a way that helps and heals others. As a Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) as well as a future Physician’s Assistant (PA), she uses her breadth of knowledge of science and biology to interact with and ameliorate her patients’ illnesses, anxieties, and fears. She takes her learning one step further to include and remedy the mental, emotional, and physical health of her myriad patients. Her knowledge is not just her knowledge – it guides her in a larger process of bettering the lives of those around her as well. She is an inspiration and a role model for my teaching.

Knowledge does not “belong” to a person once they acquire it – it begs to be shared, to be experienced, to drive one’s pursuit in creating a better tomorrow for those around them. Emily’s experience of science highlights this for me every day, and I hope to guide my future students in embracing lives that embody this sentiment. 

Hardly a Toxicologist

I am reminded this week of a project that I completed during my undergraduate time at the University of Rochester. I took a class called “The Chemistry of Poisons” with Dr. Alison Frontier, a brilliant synthetic chemist and professor at the university. Upon learning about various types of poisons, from strychnine (the classic poison used in The Mysterious Affair at Styles, a novel by Agatha Christie) to saxitoxin (a toxin found in many species of puffer fish that causes Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning), I loved learning about how such a taboo topic in science was vastly intertwined within our culture. Poisons are often thought of as inherently bad, yet we so often use them as medication. Think about it – there’s a reason our drugs have dosages. They’re poisonous, they will kill us if we take too much! Okay, enough about my obsession with this topic, back to the project…

(Source: Wikipedia, Contributed by: Tubifex, Added on: 26 March 2010). Accessed at <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anthony%27s_poison_arrow_frog">https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anthony%27s_poison_arrow_frog</a> on June 16, 2017

The poisonous frog from which phantasmidine is derived. (Source: Wikipedia, Contributed by: Tubifex, Added on: 26 March 2010). Accessed at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anthony%27s_poison_arrow_frog on June 16, 2017

For the final project in the class, we had to analyze a poison and essentially re-write the Wikipedia page for it. Phantasmidine was my poison, so I spent a great deal of my time outside of class researching this poison, pulling scientific papers and dissertations to substantiate the claims I made about it, and overall attempting to cater each section of the page to different audiences. I learned its source (a poisonous frog species), its mechanism of action (as a nicotinic agonist, meaning it binds to the body’s receptors and mimics the neurotransmitter acetylcholine [which the body’s cells use to signal for the activation of muscles]), and the current studies attempting to use it as an analgesic (pain-reliever). By the end of the project (and the class), I was hardly a toxicologist, but I nonetheless felt like a leading expert on this particular poison.

I could go on forever about how amazing this project was, but I would instead like to analyze it from a curricular standpoint. This is the kind of learning in which we should be engaging our students in our classrooms. I was not only engaged because I was researching a poison (come on, how often can we say we get do to that for CLASS CREDIT?!), but I was doing something that went beyond my own involvement in the project. I was actually updating a web page that many individuals frequent to begin their own research. Through focusing on an end goal of providing some TLC to a Wikipedia page, I was motivated to learn about the poison’s source (where it comes from), its synthesis (how it can be made), its mechanism of action (how it works), and current research in the field (what people are using it for at this moment). In crafting this page, I had to consider the audience for each section – for example, I did not want to get too “scientific” in the introduction because I wanted the general information about the poison to be the most accessible. But most of all, I left this project having actively contributed something tangible to the greater community of Wikipedia users. I hit upon all the major points we should be focusing on in our classrooms – gathering evidence, analyzing the data, and figuring out a way to communicate those findings to a broader audience.

Maybe not in the same fashion, but I hope that my students can say the same about their education in the future – that it wasn’t just personally motivating, but that they felt their education had a larger role in the community as well.

To learn how a hammer works, it’s usually best to USE it rather than to study it.

How would YOU teach someone how to use a hammer?

You’d probably give them the hammer, a nail, and let them figure out the rest from there, right? It seems asinine to let them study the hammer, theorize that the head is probably hard and dense for pounding objects, the teeth are probably there to remove a nail (the tools we often use with hammers) when mistakes are made, the handle is probably long to give you more leverage when you hit things, etc. etc. etc. Why let students ponder unnecessarily about something when they can just use it and draw conclusions about why the hammer was created the way it was for themselves?

That’s exactly the point that authors John Seely Brown, Allan Collins, and Paul Duguid made in their piece “Situated Cognition and the Culture of Learning“. They argued that using tools helps to situate any knowledge gained through its implementation, such as through its utility in the world and why the tool’s properties exist as they do. The description is a larger metaphor for cognitive apprenticeship, a theoretical framework that argues we must experience knowledge as an “apprentice” (an active participant within the field) if we are to truly learn anything. In learning more about the tool and its utility, we gain an understanding about how it interacts with the world around us. Cognitive apprenticeship has obvious implications for science education: it makes more sense to give students the equipment to gain knowledge for themselves rather than spew theories on a board at the front of the room. I would gladly and without hesitation give a student a temperature probe and a cold pack to let them learn more about the endothermic chemical reaction taking place. Science is a hands-on, immersion-based discipline; to rob students of the opportunity to explore for themselves seems equivalent to denying them the true nature of science altogether.

The authors further contextualize this “tool know-how” through the following quotation: “Because tools and the way they are used reflect the particular accumulated insights of communities, it is not possible to use a tool appropriately without understanding the community or culture in which it is used” (p. 33). The example in the text is the different uses a carpenter and a cabinet maker might have for a chisel. Another more comical example might be to ask a plumber and a chemist to pronounce “unionized”. (I know this is a word, not a physical tool, but are words not the tools of language?) Regardless, while scientists might only have one use for a temperature probe (i.e. to measure the temperature of a system and/or any changes this system has over time), it is nonetheless important to understand that different scientists might gain different understandings of the physical world through measuring something like temperature. Environmental scientists can gain a greater understanding of the impacts of climate change. Chemists can theorize about rates of reaction. The much-belabored point is, while the same basic tool might have a limited array of functions, the context in which we use the tool can determine a great deal about the kind of information we seek through its use.

And through the different perspectives our students bring to the classroom, our knowledge of these “tools” and the information they gather can only expand.

Reference:

Brown, J. S., Collins, A., & Duguid, P. (1989). Situated Cognition and the Culture of Learning. Educational Researcher, 32-42.

My Meliora “Teaching Top Ten”, Thanks to East School

I have the daunting task of wrapping my experiences of this week into a single blog post.

On Thursday (6/08), we presented our Lake Ontario projects to a class of 6th grade scientists at East School in Rochester. Science involves not only gathering the research, but it also involves communicating that information. I thoroughly believe our identities as scientists and as educators are shaped through the ways in which we choose to convey our understanding of science to others. Our intonations, our movements, our language, our emotions – all can connote the passion we exude for this special field of knowledge. The task of communicating our relationship with science, then, is not only a formative experience, it is a necessary one.

Given that, I would like to try something a little different for this blog post. I want to make a list. I first wanted to frame it as “things I wish someone told me before going to speak in front of 6th graders”, but I realize how ridiculous that sounds. Part of this necessary identity work comes with realizing that there is a certain extent to what our educators can teach us – the rest is up to us to figure out for ourselves. This title also invalidates that, as educators, we are ourselves students. As cliche as it sounds, we are truly never done learning. There will always be a new student, a new standard, a new idea that flips our thinking completely on its side. We must be receptive to that and model this spirit of “meliora” for our students. (“Meliora” is not only a latin phrase meaning “ever better”; it is also the motto of the University of Rochester, and this experience has made me connect with this phrase not only as a theme, but as a way of life.) With that, I present: My Meliora “Teaching Top Ten”.

1. Educators and meteorologists have a lot in common.

ESPECIALLY in Rochester – the weather changes every 5 minutes! The amount of times I’ve checked my weather app only to look outside and see the exact opposite would astound some people. But I think this analogy has a lot to say about preparedness of teachers for lessons. We can have a lesson that we’ve spent HOURS crafting, planning every second, pouring our soul into a few pages outlining how we will construct an entire classroom of scholars. But there is always an exciting (and sometimes intimidating) understanding that we never know for certain exactly how every variable will come together. Balancing time constraints, lesson plans, student input – it’s hard! Prediction and speculation can only get us so far, and especially with this project, my cohort member and I did not get to present on almost half the material we had prepared because the students were so engaged with the first part of our presentation. In realizing this, we shifted focus from the data we wanted to present and instead honed in on the equipment we used. We put our tools their hands, we let them pull strings and hold dirty samples of water. Rather than tell them what we did like we had planned to do, we let them do what we did. Don’t get me wrong, it was hectic – but it went far better than anything I could have planned.

Lesson: Always bring an umbrella. Contingency plans are never a bad thing, and sometimes desperately needed on the fly. Hell, sometimes they’re even better than what you planned initially.

2. Diversity is NECESSARY to science.

And I mean this in all forms. When we embrace diversity in our classrooms, we open the discussion up to different perspectives with unique funds of knowledge. Our major goal for this science talk, beyond communicating our data, was to further open the door for marginalized identities in science. (And if you do not believe this kind of work is necessary, consider clicking this link here to watch a female physicist having her own theory mansplained to her until an audience member advocates for her to speak.) We wanted to demonstrate that science isn’t just white men in lab coats doing chemistry experiments – everyone can do science. In the short minute-long discussions we had about a scientist with a marginalized identity, the students’ eyes lit up. From Rosalind Franklin, the scientist that discovered the structure of DNA yet received none of the recognition, to Katherine Johnson, an African American woman who calculated the trajectories for many NASA spacecraft launches, we made it a point to discuss the people who have been excluded or discriminated against for so long and continue to be discriminated against within the scientific community. Through emphasizing that we idolize these women for their scientific work as well as their commitment to social justice, we demonstrated that we need people who look, talk, and think differently in order to advance scientific research.

Lesson: Call on the student in the back row. Talk about people with marginalized identities that have contributed something to the discourse in your field. Pictures are always more accurate when you color with more than a few crayons in the box.

3. Remind yourself of why you went into teaching in the first place.

I say this because, as I was about to go up to present, I was struck with what our advisor’s daughter fondly calls the state of being “nerve-cited” (a combination of “nervous” and “excited”). Yet some part through the presentation, I locked eyes with a girl in the front row who was engaged beyond belief with our presentation (she will remain anonymous). Afterwards, she came up to me and asked me why I decided to become a science teacher. I told her it was because I wanted to share my passion for science with my own students one day, much like I shared this project with her and her class. She said I looked really excited the entire time, thanked me for answering her question, and walked away. That was it. While incredibly simple, I think it is in these pure moments, regardless of teaching experience, that we remind ourselves what education means to us. For me, it means sharing my passion for science with others in every way, shape, and form that I possibly can. Regardless of whether this program gets extremely hectic, or when I have been teaching for 30+ years, I will always remember her smile when she told me that my excitement for science showed.

Lesson: Remembering your best moments will be important to remind you, even on your hardest days, that teaching is where you belong. Like running a marathon, thinking of why you started running in the first place helps to get you through mile 20 when you can’t even catch your breath. A smile when thinking of your personal highlight reel can really help you to persist.

4. Teaching is risky!

This was something that I struggled with in particular. As teachers, what we say, how we behave, our every action is under scrutiny from our students. We put our identities in front of a class of students in the hopes that they connect with us, but our actions and words have much more of an impact than we ever set out to imagine. Students remember the fun mnemonics we use to help them remember the 7 diatomic elements (BrINClHOF), but they also remember when we mispronounce their names or fail to recognize their different perspectives in the classroom. These have much more of a profound impact than we recognize in the moment, but in reflecting on it further, I am humbled by the teachers that have mastered this skill. When we make mistakes, when we fail to live up to our students’ expectations, they remember. Teaching comes with a lot more responsibility than most give credit to the profession because we are not only teachers, we are role models, we are mentors, we are friends, we can be everything to these scholars. But that pressure should never make us afraid to be who we are, to take risks in our profession. Hell, science and innovation are birthed from risk. In taking a step back to reflect, I never truly appreciated the risk this profession shoulders until I lived it for myself.

Lesson: Be bold. Teaching is risky, and oftentimes our innovative methods of teaching proliferate learning ten fold. But always reflect on the following question, especially when things get crazy in the classroom: what impact will ___ (insert comment) have on my students?

5. Metacognition is the lifeblood of development.

Metacognition: thinking about thinking. Reflection. A process necessary to our development through our professional and personal identity, one that is particularly relevant in the field of teaching. This point was inspired by my cohort member Kristy when discussing students’ roles in self-evaluation. We were tasked with grading ourselves on our science talks because our opinions of how it went matter just as much as that of our evaluator. In assigning grades to each aspect of our science talk, we can compare how our assessment matched that of someone professionally trained to evaluate our presentations. This helps us to further refine our evaluative skills and notice when discrepancies exist between an objective view and our view. Most importantly, however, it enables us to reflect on our own experience and troubleshoot how we can improve upon our planning, skills, and evaluation measures in the future.

Lesson: We are not and can never truly be perfect. Critically analyzing our own experiences helps us to reflect on what we can do better in the future. Much like the coach of any team will ask players how they can improve, so we too can evaluate how our skills are developing over time and what “plays” may need more work.

6. Evaluations and rubrics are not one-sided.

And they are ESPECIALLY not stagnant. This was a point inspired by my cohort member Patrick. This point goes along with metacognition – in evaluating ourselves, we are enabled to metacognitively reflect on our engagement with a task and evaluate how we can improve. This means that evaluation measures should include some sort of student column where they can self-evaluate their success at a particular project, presentation, or learning activity. Learning is a process – as students develop greater skills, so we too can develop our methods of evaluating them. We can modify our evaluations over time in such a way that they require greater skills as time passes and as instructional scaffolds are removed. On a scale of 1–5, a score of “4” in September might become the minimum requirements for a “3” in January. In modifying our evaluative methods as students improve, we convey to them the importance of their input while demonstrating flexibility in our instruction by not demanding too much at the beginning of their academic year. They can first practice and develop their individual skills before their teachers and their grading scales expect more from the students.

Lesson: Student input on evaluation measures is of the utmost importance to establishing transparency in the grading process. Scaffolding evaluation measures enables students the chance to work on particular skills over time without being graded too harshly as these skills are still developing. You have to run a mile before you can run a marathon!

7. Everyone deserves to be nurtured. That includes teachers and adults, not just students.

Just as students need to be nurtured to grow and develop, so must the students and individuals in the room do the same for the teacher. Education is a symbiotic process whereby all parties should benefit from its establishment, not just the students and certainly not just the teacher. Constant and open communication between the teacher and their students helps to open the door between what either party wants/needs to succeed, grow, and learn. That can involve anything from the students requesting more/less challenging material to the teacher admitting being overwhelmed and requesting 3 minutes of silent work to regroup and engage with the class. As long as both parties are honest with each other about what they need, we can all adapt and adjust accordingly to ensure everybody gets what they deserve.

Lesson: Learning does not occur in a vacuum; life and experiences exist outside the classroom that can influence how we engage with the classroom on a daily basis. Being honest and open about what we need to succeed helps keep communication open so that we may all get what we need out of our educational experiences. It is always easier to adjust and modify our practice when we know what the other person(s) is(are) feeling.

8. Listen and Write.

One of the most useful tips I learned from our GR!S advisor April is to write things down that you don’t want to forget. From things the students say to insightful quotes our cohort members provide during seminar, I have found the practice of writing to not only help remember what they say, but to reflect on their words in my own time. Often, school is fast-paced and there is not much time to take a step back to think about everything that happens on a daily basis. This blog has been instrumental in helping me to remember things that happen throughout the course of this program. This blog has enabled me to reflect on this entire process from the comfort of my own home, outside of the hustle and bustle of everything that happens during the course of a normal hectic day in the life of an educator, and to record them in one place for future reflection. Especially in the classroom, though, it is important to jot down “notes and quotes” of what is discussed because you are not going to remember everything, no matter how hard you try. A few insightful points written down from the entire class period helps to spark your memory of the most important themes that you want to remember in the future.

Lesson: Keep a journal of the most important events that happen during a class, an event, or experience that means something to you. It is important not only to keep a written record, but it also helps to go back later on and reflect after some separation from the event. Memory is unreliable; that’s why we have pens and paper.

9. Have fun.

I do not wish to belabor this point because I feel it is relatively self-explanatory. It is easy to get swept up by the language of standardization and accountability, novice and veteran teachers alike. When we feel overwhelmed by the language of the ever-changing field of education, we can often forget to enjoy the short amount of time we have with our students. Oftentimes, when we simply have fun in our classrooms and demonstrate our passions to our students, they learn so much more than if we were to simply teach them how to take a test. Focus on turning students toward being life-long learners, show them how knowledge relates to the real world; we can always tailor the practice of fostering a lifelong love of learning into the language that academic standards utilize.

Lesson: Take the time to go beyond the lesson and find ways to make it more universally engaging. There are always methods to making learning more fun and engaging than what we traditionally view as “education” (such as rote memorization or teaching to the test), and these are sometimes written into the language of standards (for example, the Next Generation Science Standards [NGSS] idea of science and engineering practices). Having fun and being engaged in a classroom demonstrates to students that education and enjoyment are not mutually exclusive.

10. “Science provides an understanding of a universal experience. Arts provide a universal understanding of a personal experience.”

I decided to end on this quote by Mae Jemison, the first African American woman to orbit space. Part of this project involved sharing the identities of scientists from marginalized backgrounds, as I discussed earlier; when I encountered this quotation, I thought it was of the utmost importance to include in this post. As a participant in theater since I was 9, I understand the benefit of demonstrating one’s passions through art. Teachers have a unique vantage point to incorporate art and science into a cohesive entity; bringing students’ individual identity into their education establishes a unique relationship to and with science. One example of this can be found on my cohort member Kaitlin’s blog through a “Dance Your Ph.D Contest”. Identity is essential to education, it motivates what we do and how we do it – formulating lessons that enable students to physically put themselves into the course content creates a deeper understanding beyond the knowledge that we simply impose upon them.

Lesson: Sing about the bones of the body, create a dance to understand gravity, perform a scene in class that demonstrates how reactions occur. Teaching from a multimodal perspective enables students to formulate knowledge according to what makes sense to them. In the wise words of Lin-Manuel Miranda in the musical Hamilton, “Get your education, don’t forget from whence you came.”.

I hope this has been as informative for you as it has been reflective for me. A main goal in crafting this post is for me to have my thoughts written somewhere; I wish to re-visit this post and evaluate how I have attained some of these in my future classrooms.

Agentic Engagement and Science Education: Two Peas in a Pod

I have been thinking a lot recently about how my identities as a chemist and a psychologist overlap. That most recently resulted in the following realization while researching a project for another course at Warner:

Science education and agentic engagement go hand-in-hand.

Agentic engagement in the classroom is prominently studied by researcher Johnmarshall Reeve, a professor at Korea University who focuses on motivation through the lens of teacher’s motivation styles and student engagement. It branches off of Deci and Ryan’s Self-Determination Theory, which posits that there are three basic psychological needs: for autonomy (volition and choice), for competence (skill and mastery of one’s environment), and for relatedness (connectedness with others). In Reeve and Tseng (2011), the authors describe agentic engagement as “the process in which students intentionally and somewhat proactively try to personalize and otherwise enrich both what is to be learned and the conditions and circumstances under which it is to be learned” (258). A working definition of agentic engagement in the classroom, then, is a process by which students become motivated through developing personal connections and constructive contributions to the material being studied.

(Image retrieved from Reeve, 2012, p. 151)

As I researched this topic more and more, I kept thinking about the link between this motivation theory and scientific inquiry and exploration. Scientific inquiry and exploration is all about how students engage themselves in science through asking questions. With help from the teacher, these questions can be funneled into testable hypotheses that enable students the opportunity to find answers for themselves and contribute relevant data to the field. Through this, students develop a sense of voice through analyzing data and presenting this data in front of an audience (peers, teachers, the scientific community, their community at large, etc.). In addition, these questions help students to understand and engage with the world around them, enabling them to take science into a personal domain that helps them to understand their role in and influence on their environment.

I found this connection interesting and insightful, as it succinctly explained why I find science and science education to be so personally motivating. (It was also a really cool experience to synthesize my chemistry and psychology backgrounds into a new domain as an educator!) As an educator, I am now even more motivated to highlight my students’ identities in the classroom. Everything is interconnected; taking a minute to reflect on how our identity breathes life into everything we do also enables us to analyze how the intersectionality of our identities synthesizes entirely new pictures of ourselves or helps to explain more accurately how/why we are the way we are. I encourage you to take a minute and do the same:

How might your identities and experiences overlap to contribute to the overall picture of how you view yourself?

References:

Reeve, J. & Tseng, C-M. (2011). Agency as a fourth aspect of students’ engagement during learning activities. Contemporary Educational Psychology36(4), 257-267. Accessed at: http://johnmarshallreeve.org/publications/journal_articles

Reeve, J. (2012). A Self-determination Theory Perspective on Student Engagement. Handbook of Research on Student Engagement. 149-172. Accessed at: http://johnmarshallreeve.org/yahoo_site_admin1/assets/docs/Reeve2012_Engagement_handbook.1051050.pdf

Practicing What We Preach: Individual Inquiry in Investigating the Water Quality of Lake Ontario

It is considered good practice in education to be versed in what you ask your students to do. This week, that meant getting our feet wet (metaphorically) with designing a research question, creating protocol, collecting data, and analyzing the results. For the students in the GRS program, that also meant getting our hands wet (literally) with investigating the water quality of Lake Ontario.

Samples gathered at 0 meters, 5 meters, and 10 meters below the surface. We tested the temperature, turbidity, lux, and dissolved oxygen concentration at these depths.

I partnered with my fellow cohort member Kristy to investigate the following research question:

How does turbidity from the Genesee River affect the photic zones of Charlotte Beach and Durand Beach?

Basically, we were curious as to whether or not clarity of the water changed with depth and, if so, how that would impact the amount of light that penetrated the surface. We were also interested in analyzing the clarity of the water that flows into Lake Ontario from the Genesee River, as this might have implications for the future health of the lake. Overall, turbidity has negative implications for the ability of autotrophs (organisms that can produce their own nourishment) to achieve photosynthesis, particularly if the water is especially turbid. Since photosynthesis requires light, a high turbidity would mean that light cannot reach deeper water, thereby impacting the ability of seafloor plants to sustain themselves. As a result, we wanted to investigate the turbidity and light availability at different depths to attempt to construct a photic zone of this area. We also tested the temperature and dissolved oxygen concentration, as we believed these variables had further implications for the capabilities of organisms to achieve photosynthesis.

Google Maps image of the locations I was able to sample while on the motorboat. The wind cooperated enough to allow us to take samples of the water in the Genesee River as well as along the Southern coastline of Lake Ontario!

We were fortunate enough to partner with sailing instructors from the Rochester Yacht Club in this endeavor. Our captain, Liam, took us to six different locations along the Genesee River and coast of Lake Ontario (and kept our spirits up the entire time, even as we shivered from continuously sticking our hands in 12ºC water). As a child who grew up around the water, it was a wonderful experience for me to be back out on a boat and engaging with my environment in ways I had never considered (or even dreamed of achieving). But beyond that, it emphasized to me the importance of authentic inquiry and exploration in the science field. Through designing our own experiments (with an immense amount of help from our GRS advisor, April, and various environmental science faculty and graduate students at the University of Rochester), we were afforded the opportunity to investigate something that we designed. Our triumphs, failures, excitement, apprehensions – all were genuine emotions directly resulting from the amount of work that we put into this project design. Science is unique in this respect; with a curious mind and the right tools, we could explore aspects of our surroundings that interested us, aspects to which we were contributing factual and relevant data. The experience of being a novice researcher is one that I will never forget as well as one I hope to bring to my students as a chemistry educator.

I have created a separate page on my blog that has photographs of the lake as well as data we gathered from it. As I could go on forever about the importances of exploration and genuine experiences of collecting authentic data, I think this is a good compromise. In short, it was both an amazing experience to establish camaraderie within my cohort as well as to investigate science research questions in which we were curious to learn the answers for ourselves.

If you are curious about the research questions and/or experiences of my cohort, please click on any of the links to the right! (We all wrote blog posts this week about our engagement with this project.)

Modeling in Science Education: The Value of Diverse Perspectives

“Diagram what you see in front of you.”

Before me sat a plastic cup full of ice and water. The assignment, pertinent to the use of models in science education, asked for a diagram as well as a written explanation of the science happening in front of me. Okay, I said to myself, this should be easy. But I learned an incredible amount about myself and the structure of assignments in science in diagraming this one plastic cup.

The wonderful thing about a cup of ice and water is that multiple processes occur at the same time within the system. Ice melts. Density differences and buoyant forces hold the ice cubes at the surface of the water. Moisture in the air condenses on the side of the cup due to temperature differentials. Depending on how I viewed the system, myriad possibilities existed as to what I could have diagramed. That’s the beauty of science – personal differences play a large role in determining what it is we observe from the same system. I decided to model buoyancy and how, as the ice melts, the hydrogen bonds within the ice break to change phases and to create a homogeneous mixture of water molecules.

“The assignment was for you to model condensation. Your task now is to score your responses as you would score a student’s response.” What? In a crapshoot what I could have chosen, there was a “right” answer? In switching lenses from “student” to “educator”, I found myself sympathizing with the student who had selected a different but nonetheless correct model to diagram. How could I score my [the student’s] response low for accurate information when I did what I thought was asked of me? It is neither the fault of the teacher for lacking specificity in the assignment, nor is it the fault of the student for selecting the “wrong” physical aspect to model. There is no “fault” on either side – yet the student still earns a low score. Technically, the student correctly modeled a process occurring within the system, which made it difficult for me to justify scoring it any lower than I would have if the student had modeled the “correct” condensation process instead.

So then what is the right answer? What scores the points in this diagram? To be honest, I don’t see a “right” answer, and I hope this has encouraged you to at least entertain that same possibility. Rather, I think this exercise helped me to understand the concept of teacher flexibility as more valuable than a factually correct but nonetheless “incorrect” model. To me, teacher flexibility in this scenario comes in the form of recognizing lax assignment parameters and adjusting grading scales accordingly. Teachers can most often do this when they realize a question did not contain the degree of information their students needed to answer a question, and it can oftentimes be a humbling and sobering experience when treated as such. As teachers, we often assign tasks without critically analyzing how the written words might come across to someone who did not create the assignment. Our intentions might not always be clear to students, as they are not well-versed in the theories and rationale behind why we construct assignments in the ways that we do. Nonetheless, in recognizing and adjusting how we view our students’ responses given appropriate rationale for their answers, we can not only teach our students about the importance of modeling but also about the benefit of supporting their own view of science as valid and rational. A student with a factually correct and well-supported model should not be marked less for a correct response that was never clarified to be “incorrect” – their view of science and of what is noteworthy to diagram might be (and in some cases might always be) different than an instructor’s view of science. Our task as educators is not to constrict these views into one cookie-cutter model of science, but to compromise and adjust our teaching methods accordingly in the spirit of keeping our students’ inquiry and passion for science alive.

These emotions, after all, are the very lifeblood of science and innovation.

Eutrophication in Aquatic Environments

Hello science blogosphere! My name is James and I am very excited to begin blogging for the first time! A bit about me: I was previously an undergraduate student at the University of Rochester majoring in chemistry and psychology. I am currently a graduate student at the Warner School of Education in the Get Real! Science program. I am seeking my Master’s in Teaching and Curriculum with the eventual goal of teaching adolescent chemistry. I am sure my blogging journey will be a learning experience in more ways that one; nonetheless, I am equally apprehensive and overjoyed to begin expanding on my relationship with science through an online blogging forum. For my first post, I will focus on the impact of eutrophication on aquatic environments.

Eutrophication, by definition, is a process by which runoff from land that contains nutriments essential for primary producers. These nutriments typically consist of phosphates (a source of phosphorus) or nitrates (a source of nitrogen) that enable photosynthetic organisms a faster and increased capacity to grow. The unintended consequence of this, however, is that photosynthetic organisms like algae also utilize these nutrients to grow at faster rates. As photosynthesis results in the production of oxygen, one might consider this a beneficial process. On the contrary, algal blooms eventually lead to anoxic (oxygen-depleted) water conditions. When phytoplankton die, they are decomposed by aquatic bacteria that consume the oxygen dissolved in the water, which eventually leads to its overall depletion. Without dissolved oxygen, aquatic animals like fish die; this eventually leads to what is known as a “dead zone” in aquatic environments.

So why do we care about eutrophication? Because, in many cases, humans are the cause! As shown in Figure 1, the usage of fertilizer has increased since the 1960s (ERS, 2016). Fertilizers contain the nutriments required for algal growth as they do for the photosynthetic organisms for which they are initially intended. But with processes like rain and erosion, unconsumed nutriments find their way into larger bodies of water where eutrophication processes flourish (particularly along coastlines and within enclosed systems such as lakes).

Figure 1: Fertilizer use in U.S. agriculture, 1960–2011

Beyond the creation of anoxic conditions, the use of fertilizers has other unintended effects. Have you ever gone swimming in a lake and been unpleasantly surprised by a slimy object brushing against your leg? No – it’s not your sibling playing a prank on you. It’s seaweed! (Or, if you’re like me, it’s a combination of the two whereby your sibling plays a prank on you with seaweed.) Regardless, the growth of seaweed and other unwelcome vegetation also benefits from this nutriment runoff to a disturbing degree.

Why am I writing about this? We are “getting our feet wet” in the GRS Program (literally and figuratively) through investigating water quality issues in Lake Ontario. In learning more about eutrophication and its disturbing downstream effects on fish populations (pun intended), I would be curious to see if eutrophication is taking place in this lake system and if the Genesee River has anything to do with it. If so, it would be wise to create restrictions on the usage of fertilizer along the river to prevent eutrophication in Lake Ontario.

References:

Economic Research Service (ERS). (2016). Fertilizer Use & Markets. Prepared by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Accessed at: https://www.ers.usda.gov/topics/farm-practices-management/chemical-inputs/fertilizer-use-markets/