Investigable Questions

This week, GRS was all about asking questions. My reflections on the topic can be found at our class blog.

Check it out!

Why should we learn about atoms?

A conversation with a middle schooler :

That’s quite the Lego creation you have there! What does that arm do?

Did you know that you are kind of like a Lego creation?

All matter is made up of things called atoms. Different types of atoms stick together in different ways to make up the parts that make up you.

But here’s the fun part. Unlike Legos, not every atom will stick to every other atom. They only combine in certain ways. And, it’s not random! If we learn about what each atom looks like on the inside, we can predict which other atoms they will combine with. This is how scientists and engineers create new materials and make new technology to solve problems in our world!

A Matter of Motivation

This week brought the end of the first marking period in my student teaching placement. And with that, there was a flurry of activity from some of the students as they scrambled to make up missing work and improve their grade. This brought me back to a topic we discussed in our theory class a few weeks ago – motivation. We were asked to consider:

Can’t we just make them learn science?

Among other things, we looked at the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. In other words, are students participating in learning because they are interested in the subject matter, or are students doing their work so that they get good grades? These two different motivations can lead to very different outcomes in understanding (Pintrich, Marx, & Boyle, 1993).

If we consider learning to be knowledge creation that happens within an individual when they reconcile a new experience with their current world view (Lorsbach & Tobin, 1992), then it becomes clear that students have an active role to play in learning. Students won’t do the cognitive work required to form this new knowledge unless they are motivated to do so (Pintrich et al., 1993).

Watching the students scramble this week, it seemed that their motivation was pretty solidly extrinsic. It was all about the grade. On the surface, that can feel pretty frustrating. Where was this motivation earlier, when the work was assigned? It would be easy to think that these students haven’t been doing anything all marking period. However, I don’t think that paints a complete picture of what has been happening in our science classroom.  We have students who are engaged in activities and who participate in class discussions. They seem to enjoy figuring out the science even if they are usually unmotivated by the school part.

The reality is, though, that school matters. We have assignments and assessments and grades. Much of what we have been reading for class this semester has been about fostering the motivation required for learning. But how do we foster the motivation required to participate in the culture of school at the same time?



Lorsbach, A., & Tobin, K. (1992). Constructivism as a referent for science teaching. NARST Newsletter, 30, 5-7.

Pintrich, P., Marx, R., & Boyle, R. (1993). Beyond cold conceptual change: The role of motivational beliefs and classroom contextual factors in the process of conceptual change. Review of Educational Research, 63(2), 167-199.

Phenomenal Resources

Before I take over our classroom as student teacher in a few weeks, I will have the opportunity to do a practice run. I am planning and leading a series of lessons to kick off our unit on bonding.  As part of my planning, I’ve been trying to think of the perfect anchoring phenomena.

A phenomena is an observable event that can be explained with the scientific knowledge. Using a phenomena to anchor learning provides students with the opportunity to puzzle out that scientific knowledge for themselves. It allows them to have something tangible to create their new knowledge around. This makes leaning more meaningful and is one of the key elements of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

In my search for some bonding phenomenon inspiration I came across a few great websites that feature collections of phenomenon for all different science topics. Finding the right phenomena can be a challenge, but it is a real game changer when you do. These resources are too valuable not to share!

Phenomena for NGSS is a collection of photos and short videos that can be used as phenomena in the science classroom. Also check out their Twitter feed!

#ProjectPhenomena not only has some great examples of phenomena, but also provides target grade levels, relevant DCI, and some suggestions for how to use them.

The Wonder of Science organizes phenomena by grade level and standard. Some even include anchor chart and assessment ideas!

I hope you find some inspiration here. And, if you know of any others, I’d love to hear about them!

Science As A Verb

In general, I have somewhat mixed feeling about the practice of “verbing.” That is, using a noun or adjective as a verb to describe an action for which a suitable verb does not already exist. I think most people are familiar with the term “adulting” to describe the practice of acting like a grown up. I’ve been a grown up for a while now, so “adulting” isn’t really in my vocabulary, but I have been known to create my own verbs out of other words when necessary. Usually I have a little warning sound in my brain when I do.

Except with science. I don’t feel guilty about using science as a verb at all. I think it kind of got a raw deal by only being allowed to be a noun. Of all the words out there, science should qualify as a verb. The noun, science, describes all of the stuff that we know about how the world works, but there is so much more to it than that. Science is also what we do, the action we take, to come up with that knowledge. Science is actively looking at the world with curiosity and questioning what we see.

I recently began my first student teaching placement in a chemistry class at the School of the Arts in Rochester, NY. My cooperating teacher kicked off the year by asking our students “Can an artist be a chemist?

If you think of science as a noun, and especially as being the information that will be on the exam at the end of the year, then the answer to that question might be not so positive. Things like stoichiometry, ideal gas laws, or the various models of the atom may not seem relevant to someone who is less passionate about chemistry than I am.

The danger in presenting that narrow, noun-centric view of science is that for many people, science will seem irrelevant, or even intimidating. It presents science as a thing that is reserved only for those who are “good at school.” By ignoring the verb part of science, the curiosity, the questioning, the investigating, and the problem solving that we are ALL are capable of is devalued. When science appears to be an elitist club, people don’t try to join.

Thankfully, many of our students do already see science more than the information they will need to learn to pass an exam. They see chemistry as something they are already a part of.

Student Responses

One of our students from period 3 really nailed it:

“Both artists and chemists need an open mind and a creative mind.”

So true!  

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I am going to go science.

Science STARS

September is here! I have always loved the beginning of the school year. There is nothing like fresh notebooks and new pens. This year is extra exciting since I have started in my first student teaching placement. My cooperating teacher is amazing, and I have already learned so much.

More about that later, though.

Right now, I want to talk about STARS! This fall, the Get Real! Science crew is hosting an after school club for local middle school students called Science STARS. Much like our summer camp in Sodus, we will be using this opportunity to do science with youth about topics that matter to them. We are going to be using what we find out to create a movie, complete with a red carpet premier at a real movie theater!

I have teamed up with Kristi and Alyssa to lead a group in investigating food. We know that the youth have been taught about the importance of healthy eating and that they know generally what is healthy and what is not. We have no desire to do any lecturing on nutrition. Instead, we will explore the barriers to healthy eating that the youth and members of their community encounter. We want to help them discover ways to overcome these barriers and the empower them to help others do the same.

Kristi, Alyssa, and I created a short video to introduce the topic to the youth when we met with them this week. Check it out!

A Different Perspective

Camp started this past week! Get Real Science is taking over a summer camp in Sodus, NY for a week. We are having fun and doing science!

One of our themes for camp is using aerial photography in order to look at things from a different perspective. Scale is one of the Crosscutting Concepts identified by the National Research Council (2012) in their Framework for K-12 Science Education. Aerial photography can allow us to see things from a larger scale than we can on the ground. Patterns, another Crosscutting Concept, may be revealed from this new perspective, as well.

In fact, just last week, Anthony Murphy discovered a previously unknown ancient monument site while flying his drone in Ireland. The drought conditions revealed the outlines of where the monument had been located, but it was only by getting a different perspective that the pattern could be seen.

Anthony Murphy, Mythical Ireland

As part of our introduction to camp on Thursday, Gavin, Robin and I led the students through an activity to practice aerial photography. Here are the athletic fields outside of the Sodus Elementary school. Our own dry conditions reveal ed two rectangular areas that look like they were once something other than a soccer field.

An aerial view of the field where we were practicing.

Despite a few hiccups, like the camera’s weight preventing the balloons from flying as high as we wanted, we had a blast! It was great to see the students excited to try this out. We had a laptop outside with us, so we could immediately download the pictures and show them off. The students got a huge kick out of seeing themselves from above. Even some of the students who were reluctant to participate had smiles on their faces when they saw the result. Those smiles were the best.

The students from above.


National Research Council (2012). A Framework for K-12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.


Asking Questions

Last night the Get Real! Science crew took part in a Collaborative Conversation in Sodus, NY to help us prepare for our science summer camp. We had members of the Sodus community, educators, family, and friends join us. With such a diverse group, we able to get a ton of great ideas.

Rather than talking about our specific camp plans, we asked broader questions of our collaborators. Ellen, Kristi and I wanted to know,

How can we encourage students to take their science inquiry practices out of the classroom and into their everyday lives?

When we met with students in Sodus earlier this month to talk to them about our ideas for summer camp, they were amazing. They asked some really thoughtful questions about the science that we shared with them. But, for some students, there is a disconnect between what goes on in the classroom and outside of the classroom.

Asking questions is one of the critical science and engineering practices that students should engage in according to the National Research Council’s (2012) Framework for K-12 Science Education. They state,

“Asking questions is essential to developing scientific habits of mind. Even for individuals who do not become scientists or engineers, the ability to ask well-defined questions is an important component of science literacy, helping to make them critical consumers of scientific knowledge.” (p. 54)

The conversation at our table took some very different paths, which was fabulous. One of our collaborators, Chuck brought up the topic of science literacy. He wondered where students would go when they wanted to look for answers to their questions. We also talked about helping students develop an understanding of the trade offs that scientists and engineers must wrestle with. We had been focused primarily on fostering a curiosity about the natural world in our students, but it is also important for students to questions why we do the things we do.

On the more practical side of things, Mary had some great ideas about ways to engage our students’ families in the science that they are doing. We talked about how students might bring aspects of their home lives into camp and ways that we can communicate with families and the community. We thought that using social media could get students excited about sharing their science and motivate them to keep noticing and wondering.

Overall, it was a really enjoyable evening! About half an hour into the event I realized that I wasn’t really even thinking about having to present my thoughts to an audience anymore and instead could just focus on having a conversation with some wonderful people.

Lab Girl

If you are anything like me, you have more books on your summer reading list than you could ever hope to read in a few short months. Well, I have another one for you to add, Lab Girl by Hope Jahren.

Penguin Random House

Jahren is a botanist/geologist/biochemist and all around fabulous scientist. Her book is part memoir, part science story. Both are fascinating.

In our Get Real! Science classes we’ve been talking about challenging the stereotype of the typical scientist. Jahren’s memoir chapters do this by telling her story. She talks about the journey she has taken to find her identity as a scientist and the struggles she has faced as to be recognized as a legitimate scientist because of her gender. She talks about the passion that drives her and the mania that at times has consumed her. She talks about finding friendship and love. She is not a scientist despite her role as a wife and a mother, or as someone who happens to have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. She is all of those those things together.

We have also been talking about different ways of communicating science in order to make it more accessible. Jahren shares rich descriptions of the lives of plants, and their stories mirror her own. These chapters are not told in the sterile, remote language often found in science literature. Instead they help us to share in the wonder and curiosity that drives Jahren to keep exploring. They inspire us to do the same.

Telling Stories

This week, the Loyal to Soil team, along with the rest of our Get Real! Science cohort, met with students in Sodus, NY to talk about our experiences as scientists exploring their community. We wanted to find out if they had any ideas for some next steps we could take on our quest to find out why some fruit is good while other fruit is great, even on the same farm, and to invite them to join us over the summer to do the investigating. They completely blew me away with the connections they made to our science and asked some really amazing questions. I can’t wait to get back to work!

Here is the video we made to share our science: