Gradual Release of Responsibility

Oh scaffolding, how you continue to elude me!

I have been thinking a lot about gradual release of responsibility lately because I have continued to struggle to provide the correct level of scaffolding and structure to the activities we do in our after-school science club, STARS. Or, perhaps I am struggling with modifying my expectations to better align with the fact that students need more time than I allow to go through an iterative process when authentically working on activities and that initial attempts can…and should…result in products that are not as developed “as I would like.”

Most likely, my struggles grow from both of these circumstances and more!

Last week, we planned an activity during which students would create draft informational fliers to support our partnership with the Verona Street Pet Shelter. To structure this activity, we provided a Google drive of pictures from our visit to the pet shelter and sentence prompts that we thought the students would be able to use  generate guidance for pet owners about what to do keep pets happy and healthy. This idea has been the focus of our time together, so we wanted to give the students the opportunity to express what they have learned.

“Animal behavior benefits from ________ because ________.”

“Providing animals with ________ keeps them happy and healthy because ________.”

We also provided some rules that we thought would be sufficient to structure the activity:

Size = 8.5″ x 11″

Number of information sentences = 6

Number of pictures = 3

Things got off to a confusing start because we decided to have the students use the online tool Canva to make their flier drafts. None of the students were familiar with Canva, and although we had scheduled some play time, we really could have spent an entire session just trying it out. I had certainly spent at least that much time playing with Canva when I first used it!

In addition, although we told students to get started playing with the general format of their flier and the informational sentences while they waited for us to provide them with access to the Google Drive pictures, they were immediately focused on needing to get the pictures before anything else. We wasted a lot of time getting them all access.

We didn’t end up with any draft fliers that met our criteria; however, the students put together some really nice ideas! Check them out!!!


So, in the end, I think we tried to do way too much all at once. In such a brief after school session, we did not have enough time to introduce Canva and provide a chance to get comfortable with it, review all the pictures from our Verona Street visit to select which ones to include in the flier, and write up to six informational sentences using our previously developed knowledge and our sentence prompts.

If I were to do this again, I would:

  1. Use Google Slides because the students were already familiar with that tool. Canva has cool templates, but they really aren’t necessary for the project, and with our limited amount of time with the students, I don’t think providing sufficient time to play with Canva would be the best use of our time.
  2. Have reduced the number of pictures the students were reviewing and selecting from. We gave the students access to our full Google Drive folder of pictures, but we hadn’t vetted them ourselves yet. There was no need to have the students review so many pictures at the time they were making their flyer drafts.
  3. Have asked for their email addresses earlier so that we could have shared the pictures with them all before the activity started.
  4. Devoted an earlier session to writing up six informational sentences that all the students had reviewed and decided to use. The students had some great ideas, and we had briefly discussed these sentences before in earlier sessions; however, we needed to have explicitly generated these informational sentences before so that the students weren’t spending time at this session to  write them.

We plan to move towards finalizing our flier this week. Our plan is to have students review the drafts they made and select which components they want to include in our final version. Instead of having students choose from a world of options, however, we will narrow the selection of templates, sentences, and images. In truth, they did most of this work for us by making their selections next week! So, maybe we made a better start than I think?!!?

What about you? What would you have done differently to get this project off to a smoother start?

We’ll let you know how it goes!!!

Eliciting Student Ideas

As part of our program, we are learning about Ambitious Science Teaching (AST), which is an approach to teaching science that is both incredibly inspiring and incredibly intimidating.

In contrast to more traditional approaches to science teaching in which teachers impart their knowledge of the scientific content to their students who are listening patiently and quietly to learn the facts they are told, AST focuses on helping

students of all backgrounds to deeply understand fundamental science ideas, participate in the practices of science, solve authentic problems together, and learn how to continue learning on their own (pg. 3).

Eliciting student ideas is a key component of this process. The premise for eliciting student ideas is based on the fact that students’ backgrounds, previous experiences, and cultures not only influence how they make sense of new content, but they also serve as resources that can be used to make natural phenomenon more relevant and engaging.

So, eliciting student ideas is something we have been trying to incorporate into our work with our STARS after-school science club groups. I recognize how important this is, but it is also very challenging! As noted by Windschitl, Thompson, and Braaten (2018),

You can’t, however, just present young science learners with an interesting story and say, ‘Tell me what you think.’ You have to select a rich scenario, relevant to the science ideas, to get the students talking (pg. 88).

Identifying a rich scenario that is both accessible and challenging to students while also aligning with the learning goals we hope to accomplish is a daunting task!

In addition to the discomfort this shift from traditional approaches instills in someone like me who grew up simply digesting the content that was thrown at me, this shift also requires us to trust. We have to trust that we will frame the lessons, introduce the scenarios, and foster conversations in ways that guide our students to engage and take ownership of their learning. For me, this is going to take a lot of work and preparation.

More so, we have to trust our students. We have to trust that, when given the opportunity, they will engage with the material and use their resources to make observations, ask questions, and want to work towards understanding what they are seeing. Based on our initial experiences with our STARS students, I can already see that I have underestimated how well they would do all of this and more. They are absolutely capable making connections to what they already know and exploring ideas. I am looking forward to learning more from them!

Are you a teacher who uses these approaches in your classroom? I’d love to talk with you about how you do what you do!



Windschitl, M., Thompson, J., & Braaten, M. (2018). Ambitious Science Teaching. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

Back in Schools!

This fall we are running an after school science club for 7th and 8th graders at the World of Inquiry School (School #58). In order to determine what the students might want to study, we started with asking them about some of their science ideas during lunch for two days. To do this, we had:

  • A “Graffiti” wall on which students could answer a few questions

  • A spin wheel that students could spin for candy and a category assignment to write about science in their life

  • An Instagram frame for taking pictures with student-developed science phrases on it

We learned a lot about what is important to the students, and we had a lot of fun getting to know them a little bit better!


Collecting Soil and Making Connections

Although camp officially started last Thursday, today was the first day we really spent time with the students on our project. We headed back to Burnap’s farm to get some soil samples, get some aerial pictures, and learn about farming from the farmers themselves!

We avoided the rain, I think the students learned a bit, and I learned a whole lot! Most importantly, we made some great connections with the students.

Our plan was to break up into three smaller groups and rotate through three different sites on the farm. Two of the sites were fields from which we had collected strawberries during out last visit, and the third site was in the parking lot! At each site we made observations about the time of day, weather, and soil before we took soil samples to be analyzed later. We also had a chance to fly a GoPro several feet up into the air using a weather balloon and take some aerial photographs of each site. Tomorrow, we get to analyze all the soil and see if we detect any differences between the sites!

I have learned a great deal about teaching so far. Although this is summer camp and doesn’t need to adhere to any official standards, we are creating lesson plans for each day of camp. These haven’t included all the details that formal lesson plans will, but we have gotten a good introduction into the structure of a lesson plan and what types of things we need to consider during out planning. In addition, we are working with experienced teachers from Sodus middle school and high school. Not only do they know the kids and the area, but they model good teaching practice throughout our lessons. Today I learned some strategies for making sure students were listening and respecting each other when they were talking. In addition, I learned how to work with students when they are collecting data and to hold them accountable for completing their tasks. I look forward to implementing these strategies tomorrow and learning some new ones too!

Sitting Down With Some Folks

Last night we met with various members of the Sodus community, local schools, and our families to discuss some questions we had about our upcoming summer camps.

My group asked our guests for their thoughts on how we could encourage students during camp to continue to explore their local environment after camp ended. Could we start a project during camp that they would need to continue later? Could we finish camp with something that inspired them to explore? Could we follow up with them later to encourage them to tell us something new?

One thing we learned is that fishing and hunting is very important to the people of Sodus. There is so much science involved in fishing and hunting, and we look forward to the ways we can build on that with our students. As an example just from today, my brother-in-law just shared on Facebook this post from a lab at  Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada. They are researching how the timing of opening of bass season could affect bass spawning.

Go Science!


Out at the Bar

Thursday night we headed to Rohrbach Beer Hall on Railroad Street to be part of the University of Rochester’s Thinkers and Drinkers event. The Thinkers and Drinkers group is traditionally made up of science graduate students who go out to a bar once in a while to mingle with the general public and practice describing their science in way that makes sense to someone who isn’t working on it every day.

We had decided that our primary goal as education students would be to talk with people about what they thought about scientists and science education. We figured we would also work in talking about our plans for the science camp at Sodus if the conversation went in that direction. Our secondary goals were to interact with the community, grow together as a group, and have a great time!

I’d have to say I was not optimistic that interrupting people’s evenings would go over well, but everyone we spoke with was warm and welcoming and enthusiastic. Although we did have our goals of discussing science and science education, and we did learn quite a bit about what people thought about those things, I selfishly had a wonderful time talking to various folks about everything from the importance of being part of a union to where the get the best Italian food, Puerto Rican food, and pizza around. And, tripe. Somehow I also had a long conversation about tripe.

Heading to School

Last Tuesday, it was time for us to meet with some 5th and 6th graders in Sodus to invite them to help us improve our experiment this summer at science camp.

In preparation, The Loyal to Soil Team (Lisa, Gavin, and I) made a short video on Powtoon that described the current status of our project and asked the students about what they thought we should do next:

The two other groups of our colleagues, Stink Squad and Ex-STREAM Team, made videos too:

We had so much fun working with the students who spent an hour with us excitedly talking about science, proposing new questions to explore, and recounting how their lives were related to the experiments we could do.  There was so much laughter and joy in the room.

I was also extremely impressed by my colleagues. We are just starting our journey to becoming teachers and have a lot to learn, but each person clearly loved being there and interacting with the kids. I love being part of this group!


Back at the Lab

As you may have guessed from my last post, our soil testing did not go quite as planned. We planned to test the soil for nitrogen (N), phosphorous (P), and potassium (K) because those are the main nutrients used in fertilizers, and the lab already had some kits to test for them. We also wanted to test pH, mostly because we had a kit for that too!

Here’s what the phosphate test looks like. Note the tubes with solutions of various intensities of blue. The goal is to mix a sample with the chemicals in the kit and see how the sample changes color. Those tubes are the reference tubes. Each intensity of blue corresponds with a level of phosphate. Match your mixed sample to the correct reference tube, and you’ve got your phosphate level!

Easy, right? Well…not so much…

The problem was that all the kits we had were to test WATER, not soil. We thought, “Hey, no problem! We’ll just soak the soil in the water for about an hour. Then, certainly the nutrients seep out of the soil into the water. We can then filter the soil out of the water and test the water!”

Easy, right? Well…not so much…

Soaking the soil in water for an hour pretty much just made mud. And, when we tried to filter the water out of the mud, we ended up with…mud in a cone of filter paper.

We tried to use the kits to do the tests anyway with liquid we sucked off the top of the mud.

Easy, right? Well…not so much…

The mixed samples turned bluish (maybe?), and the sample from the “good” field was different from that from the “bad” field, but neither mixed sampled turned to a blue that matched any of the reference samples.

In an effort to get some data we could use, we then tested some of our muddy water using some test strips we had to test for phosphate and pH.

We were excited to see that the soil samples from the “bad” field matched each other, and the soil samples from the “good” field matched each other. Moreover, the “bad” samples were different from the “good” samples. However, because the water soak method clearly wasn’t a reliable approach for evaluating the soil, we did not trust the results .

So, the main thing we learned is that we will order a real soil testing kit before we do this experiment with middle school students in July. We had a lot of fun figuring that out, though!



Down on the Farm

Our preparations for a science camp in Sodus this July have begun!

Our goal for the camp is to do an experiment with the students that they will feel connected to and interested in. To get some insight into what kind of topics kids in Sodus are interested in, Gavin and Ellie accompanied our fearless leader, April, to a meeting with Sodus students, school leaders, and farming experts to ask them what they wanted to know more about.

We learned that one curious girl wanted to know why the apples she gets at school sometimes taste like chemicals.

So, Gavin, Lisa, and I teamed up to think about how we could test whether soil quality affects the quality of the produce grown there. Last night (5/31) was our test run at Burnap’s Farm.

Local folks, you’ll want to head out there to check out their Farm Market and Garden Cafe. Please take me with you when you go.

It was too early in the season to pick any produce – we expect to be able to actually pick fruit in July with the kids – but we decided we would take soil samples from two different fields and count the number of strawberry flowers and budding berries in a 5-foot section of plants. Does healthier soil produce more berries?

Here is a look at the farm:

We had brought trowels to take soil samples, but Ed Burnap (born in Brooklyn!) showed us the proper way to take a sample and then let us borrow his coring instrument. (We have great video of him explaining it all, but the file size is too big to upload here…unless I am doing it wrong…which is possible…)

Gavin was a natural with the soil samples.

We ended up with two samples from each field: one field Ed deemed “bad,” and the other he deemed “good.”

Lisa took some near-infrared pictures of the plants that we hope we can use to assess plant health. (Healthier plants have more chlorophyll so reflect more near-infrared energy. Learn more from NASA.)

So much fun! Here is a picture of me, Lisa, and Gavin with Kendra (Ed and Jan’s daughter who now runs the farm), Ed, and Jan.

As an extra bonus, we also learned about their hydroponic system for growing strawberries and lettuce…

…as well as their special approach to growing raspberries.

At the end of the evening, we headed back to the science room and laid out our soil samples to dry overnight.

In the next post, you’ll get to hear about how our analysis of the samples went. (Spoiler alert…we learned a lot from the experience!)





Getting Started

After an exciting first week of classes, the Get Real! Science program at the Warner School of Education at the University of Rochester is…getting real.

Throughout my undergraduate and previous graduate career, I was notorious for falling asleep during lectures, but I haven’t had to struggle to keep my eyes open once this week. I have rarely had such engaging conversations with so many thoughtful and diligent people, and this week I had the opportunity to discuss and ponder and question with my new colleagues four days in a row!

As a first step to kicking my brain back into gear and explicitly describing what lies ahead for this blog, I describe my blogging goals below. I look forward to the learning and growth that lies ahead!


Share how science education can work for everyone

After reading just two papers and preparing for one project, I can already see how changing science education is possible. Even as a scientist who takes pride in being able to discuss scientific topics in a way that a wide variety of people can understand, I have had difficulty imagining what it would take to make science education engaging and approachable to students from all cultural and academic backgrounds. I intend to use this blog to share stories and insights from what I learn so that others can also see how Get Real! Science can happen!

Explore ideas with intention and accountability

In today’s age of rapid-fire information and short attention spans, I am often concerned about how little time and energy I devote to thinking about important topics. It is all too easy to review a soundbite or read someone else’s review of an event, agree or disagree, and move on with my day. I intend to use this blog to explicitly explore topics and what I think about them.

Start conversations that promote change

I think that a great deal of conflict can be resolved and many problems can be solved with constructive communication. I also think that it is difficult for many people, including myself, to debate and disagree while really listening to and respecting others with a conflicting view.  We focus on winning instead of reaching the best conclusion. Often, even if we successfully manage to have a respectful disagreement, we dismiss a dissenting opinion and end with an “agree to disagree” result.  I intend to use this blog to pose questions about controversial topics and carefully analyze opposing viewpoints.