How do we get students to investigate their own questions?

Educators are ambitious! I think we spend a lot of time asking ourselves big questions (like the question in the title of this post) and giving big answers (like, “I designed this lesson where my students are going to ask some questions and then investigate them!”). In order for students to even begin investigating their own questions, they need to be able to ask investigable questions, and in order to ask investigable questions they need to feel motivated and feel safe, and in the same way we need to break down the things we want our students to do into smaller parts in order to help them learn those smaller parts (and eventually put it all together), sometimes we need to break down our big questions into smaller, more manageable questions.

How do we motivate our students?

There are so many ways we can make our classes more accessible to students and more engaging. Students are motivated by opportunities to take initiative, by opportunities for self-efficacy, and by problematization of content (Engle & Conant, 2002; Larson, 2000), and luckily, science learning as inquiry (which is kind of what we’re getting at with this whole question asking thing) serves to activate motivation, culture, and prior knowledge, often through roots in community engagement (Magnusson, Sulivan-Palincsar, & Templin, 2004). We ask questions about what we see and what we know, so valuing students’ questions shows them that their experiences, cultures, and communities have value in our classroom as well, and THAT is motivating. The more we can get students addressing questions they have AND addressing problems that are real to them, the more I think we will get them asking questions in our classrooms.

How do we get students asking investigable questions?

Well, first of all they need to be asking questions, period, before we can even make sure those questions are investigable. I went to a workshop last year at which I learned about the Right Question Institute‘s Question Formulation Technique (QFT). I loved what I learned about their framework for getting students to ask questions, but more than anything, what I learned from the workshop was that we need to spend large chunks of time with our students simply practicing asking questions. In the QFT, students spend time just coming up with as many questions as they can about an anchoring phenomenon without evaluating how relevant or investigable or “good” the questions are. Once that process is completed, the class evaluates questions, which can take many different forms. Different classes and different teachers will value different things, but this is where I think we can help our students understand the types of questions that exist and the types of questions that we can actually investigate. I think with practice, before we even get close to really becoming practiced investigators, we can become really skilled at asking different kinds of questions and seeing the value and the place for each different kind of question. During this process, we should also, as a class come up with a way to organize those questions, so that if we don’t have time for them in the moment, we can still value them. That might be a whole other blog post coming soon!

Now, how do we get students to investigate their own questions?

I think if we’ve gotten to this point, our students will be willing to practice doing it. Obviously, it won’t be perfect at first, but I think once we have buy-in, it’s a matter of logistics! How do we schedule this? How much time can we devote to it? How do we get the students the resources they need to investigate? How do we pick the perfect prompts to get students engaged in question-asking?

And things get even more complicated from there. We need to help students learn to direct those investigations, interpret results, be persistent, but we also cannot spend every single moment of every single class doing this work. There are other things we need to get done as well, and we need to be practical! Plus, this is a lifelong skill! Scientists whose lives are dedicated to research are still improving their abilities to ask and address their own investigable questions. We cannot expect students to be anywhere near perfect just yet. And overall, to do this work well, we’ll need to take our time, and we don’t have all of the time in the world! We have a lot of work still left to do to figure out how to answer our big question by answering all of the little questions. Hopefully over time, we can learn and grow alongside our students, figure out what works and figure out what doesn’t, and find a balance. Until then, let’s keep being ambitious!


Engle, R. A. & Conant, F. R. (2002). Guiding principles for fostering productive disciplinary engagement: Explaining an emergent argument in a community of learners classroom. Cognition and Instruction, 20(4), 399-483.

Larson, R. (2000). Toward a psychology of positive youth development. American Psychologist 55, 170-183.

Magnusson, S. J., Sullivan-Palincsar, A., & Templin, M. (2004). Community, culture, and conversation in inquiry based science instruction. In L. B. Flick & N. G. Lederman (Eds.), Scientific inquiry and nature of science: Implications for teaching, learning, and teacher education: Boston.

Physical and Chemical Changes are Important TO YOU!

There are SO many physical and chemical changes that happen in the world around us (and in the stuff inside of us!) during every single moment of every single day. That isn’t enough to make studying them or even thinking about them important, though, right? I mean, if they’re happening all around us and inside of us all of the time without us thinking about them, then why think about them? The reason we should think about them is that sometimes if we’re able to understand what type of change we’re observing when something happens, we’re able to gain useful information that can help us make decisions about how to interact with the things we are observing! Not quite sold, yet? Let me prove it to you!

First, what do I mean when I write, “type of change?”

Changes in matter that we observe and describe using Chemistry are not always as simple as they appear! When water freezes to form ice, when we shred paper, or when an old car gets rusty, things are happening and stuff is changing, but, if we’re thinking about matter in terms of the tiny particles that comprise it, its easy to be left wondering what is ACTUALLY happening at scales so small we can’t see then.

There are actually two different major categories we use to describe changes in matter in chemistry: physical changes and chemical changes.

Physical Changes

In a physical change the chemical identity of the substance being observed does not change. In other words, the particles (atoms or molecules) that make up the substance do not change. What IS changing in a physical change is the arrangements of those particles. Some examples of physical changes include crumpling a sheet of aluminum foil, breaking a bottle, or shredding paper. Those seem like pretty obvious examples of physical changes, right? Before you crumple aluminum foil, it is aluminum; after you crumple it, it’s still aluminum. Same with a glass bottle before and after breaking and with paper before and after shredding.

Another example of a physical change is water freezing to form ice, which seems a little bit less obvious. However, before the water freezes, its chemical composition is H2O, meaning it contains an oxygen atom with two hydrogen atoms bound to it. Those H2O molecules are all moving around fairly freely, which is why liquid water flows. When it gets cold enough, the H2O molecules stop moving as freely and become stuck to each other, forming ice. The molecules have the same composition, but their arrangement has changed!

There are several indications that a change that has occurred is a physical change, and in this case, one way to know that a physical change has occurred is that the change can be undone. The ice can be melted to form water again.

But what about when the change that occurs cannot be undone?

Chemical Changes

In a chemical change, a new substance is formed with new bonds between the atoms that make that substance. In the examples of changes above, the car rusting is a chemical change! A reaction is happening between the iron in the car and the oxygen in the air (in the presence of water) to form a new molecule: iron oxide (or rust)!

Some other chemical changes include burning wood, cooking an egg, or baking a cake. In each of these cases, new molecules are being formed and the processes cannot be undone! Some good indications that a chemical change has occurred are as follows: energy is released or absorbed (which is also true of some physical changes, like water freezing or ice melting), a new gas is formed, a new smell is observed, or a change in color is observed. In the case of wood burning, a new smell is observed, the wood changes color, energy is released as heat, and a new gas (CO2) forms!

Check out the following video to learn more about chemical changes in two of the cases described above (burning wood and baking a cake)!

But still, why is this important?

Well, remember I mentioned that knowing if a change is a physical or chemical change can help you figure out how to interact with an object or substance? Let’s think about the cooking an egg example that I mentioned above. It’s a chemical change, meaning that the chemical composition of one or more molecules is changing; the particles are NOT just being rearranged. And this makes sense based on our indicators that a chemical change is occurring. You can’t “un-cook” an egg and cooking an egg results in a new smell, requires energy in the form of heat, and changes the color of the clear part of the egg to white.

The really cool thing about knowing that a chemical change has occurred when an egg is cooked is that it lets you know that you can eat it! See, when an egg is cooked, multiple chemical changes are occurring. For one, some of the bonds in the proteins that make up the egg break and new bonds are formed, linking the protein molecules together and forming networks of interconnected protein molecules! This makes the egg harder and rubbery.

Another reaction that occurs when you cook an egg is the breakdown of salmonella! Salmonella is the bacteria that exists in some eggs (and other foods) before cooking that can make people really sick. At high temperatures, chemicals that make up the salmonella undergo chemical changes that change their composition, killing the bacteria. Because the bacteria are no longer alive, we can eat the egg. If a physical change had occurred instead of a chemical change, the salmonella would still be salmonella, and we wouldn’t be able to eat the egg! An example of this would be if we had frozen and then thawed the egg. Freezing an egg does not cause a chemical change to occur in the egg, so when a frozen raw egg (and salmonella) is later thawed, it will still be a raw egg with salmonella, which we shouldn’t eat! Because we now know the difference between physical and chemical changes and how to identify which is which, we know when we can and can’t eat the egg!

Although this is just one example in which knowing if a change that has occurred is physical or chemical helps us choose how to interact with the substance being changed, there are tons of other examples in which this knowledge can help us! Think about rust. Because we know a chemical change is occurring, we know that the change cannot easily be undone, and we won’t waste time trying to figure out how to “un-rust” the car. However, if we realize that we would rather have liquid water than ice, but all we have is ice, we know that the ice made from our liquid water (through a physical change) can be turned back into liquid water by warming it!

I hope this discussion of physical and chemical changes can help you understand how this topic in chemistry can be important in your life or your students’ lives! Over the course of the first few weeks of my next placement, my students and I will be exploring physical and chemical changes—the differences between them, the ways to tell which is occurring, and the possible results of each! Through this process, we’ll be meeting some important New York State Standards and Next Generation Science Standards, including performance indicator 3.2 of Standard 4: The Physical Setting in NYSED’s Intermediate Level Science Core Curriculum document and multiple disciplinary core ideas in NGSS MS-PS1: Matter and Its Interactions.

Please let me know if you have any advice or thoughts about these topics that popped into your head while reading this, and as always, thanks for reading!

The Economics of… Teaching?

Having just finished teaching a mini-unit in the AP Chemistry classes in which I’m student teaching, I’ve had a lot of new experiences to reflect on. I wanted my mini-unit to be AMAZING, so I pulled out all the stops, designing lab activities that allowed students to experience the behaviors of gases at different temperatures, pressures, and volumes; giving students access to advanced computer simulations in order to allow THEM to discover Kinetic Molecular Theory of Gases; and giving them resources and tools that anchored their learning in a relevant phenomenon and that helped them make their thinking and learning public in fun ways! As a result, a huge part of my reflection has been on resources, and that’s what this post is about.

Here’s the list of resources I had access to (from friends or colleagues or that I already had) that I didn’t have to pay for:

  • Dry ice
  • Liquid nitrogen
  • 50 mL syringes
  • Plastic tubing
  • A bicycle pump
  • 4 Macbook Air Computers (YES, FOUR)

Here’s the list of resources that I had access to through my (incredibly helpful) cooperating teacher:

  • Acetone
  • Pipets
  • Beakers

Here’s the list of resources that I purchased with my own money:

  • A football
  • A pressure gauge
  • Balloons
  • Marshmallows
  • 3 packs of neon whiteboard markers

And none of that is mentioning everyday classroom resources: the chromebooks students have daily access to, a whiteboard, printing, etc., none of which are the point of this post.

When my cooperating teacher realized how much I spent and how much I borrowed from friends and colleagues, he wasn’t excited for me that I planned a really cool lesson. And now that I’m writing out this list, I think I probably shouldn’t have been surprised that he wasn’t excited. He said to me, “That’s not sustainable. You can’t be spending $50 every three days, and what are you going to do when you can’t borrow (and by “borrow,” he probably meant “take” because there’s no way to give some of these materials back) dry ice, liquid nitrogen, syringes, etc.?”

And also, having written that, part of my reflection surely needs to be thinking about how I can be more resourceful in the future rather than thinking about how I can get more money to pay for all the stuff I want, and now that I’m writing this, I suspect that a blog post in the near future will be about being more resourceful, but this blog post is about selfishly getting all of the cool stuff I want for my cool science classroom.

“Who cares about the fact that YOU spent a lot of money on classroom resources, Sam?”

Well, Sassy McReaderpants, it’s not JUST me! SheerID and Agile Education Marketing surveyed hundreds of K-12 teachers in the US, and it turns now, that on average, teachers spend nearly 11% of their paychecks on classroom expenses (Figure 1), and don’t make me remind you that teachers don’t make all that much to begin with!

Figure 1. Average out of pocket spending on classroom expenses for U.S. teachers and educators (SheerID and Agile Education Marketing).

This study also found that most teachers don’t currently use (or plan to use) crowdfunding platforms to help mitigate these expenses (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Data about teacher use of crowdfunding platforms (SheerID and Agile Education Marketing).

And while SheerID and Agile Education Market don’t provide any data on grant money used by teachers, I have yet to hear a teacher I have worked with mention applying for or receiving grant money to mitigate classroom expenses, so I’ve kind of been interpreting that as a lack of teachers pursuing grant money.

“Alright, Sam, I’m done being sassy. What can we do about it?”

First of all, thanks for toning down the sass. As I mentioned, I personally need to be a little bit more frugal and resourceful in the future, but I also started looking into sources of funding that I can use to constantly support my building an innovative science classroom. In the hopes that these resources will help you too, here are the links I’ve started looking into that are either crowfunding platforms, sources of funding/grants, or sites that curate links to other sources of funding/grants:

As I continue learning and growing, I’ll keep updating this list and I’ll also continue providing my thoughts about this issue, which I think is actually a surprising big one for teachers struggling to secure the funding they need to support their classrooms. I hope you’ll continue thinking about this issue with me, and that we’ll all support each other in thinking about the economics of teaching!

Thanks for reading! Are there any resources that you take advantage of that might be useful to add to this list? If don’t know of any resources or aren’t a teacher but still want to help, what would make you want to support a classroom? How can educators best ask for your help?

Also, if you’re interested in helping me think about cutting down on costs, what ways have you found to be frugal in the classroom? Thanks so much in advance for any help!

Digitally Rich Experiences in the Science Classroom Using Scientific Instrumentation!

One of the questions I’ve had since my first class about the integration of technology into teaching and learning has been:

Well, all of these tools are great for implementing Universal Design for Learning, encouraging collaboration, motivating students, connecting students with experts, and so much more. But in science, often technology (specifically, scientific instrumentation) is used for analysis. How can we incorporate that aspect of technology into a digitally rich learning environment?

In the Framework for K-12 Science Education, the National Research Council highlights meaningful engagement in science practices as an important aspect of K-12 science learning, and even though NGSS doesn’t seem to directly include “data collection using scientific instruments” as one of these science and engineering practices, I think that other practices (like planning and carrying out investigations, analyzing and interpreting data, using mathematics and computational thinking, etc.) link up really well with the use of scientific instrumentation in the laboratory. Additionally, if we’re trying to engage students in authentic investigations, but don’t give them opportunities to collect quantitative data in any ways that reflect authentic science practice, are those investigations really authentic?

As an example, chemistry teachers often use a flame test lab to illustrate the excitation of electrons in ions and the release of energy when those electrons return to their ground state. Check out the video below to see this phenomenon in action!

The color of the flames in each test are directly linked to the wavelength of light being emitted, which can be used to determine the energies of electrons in their ground and excited states. (This is complicated by the fact that the color is actually made up of multiple colors from multiple different wavelengths of light, and I’ll come back to this later. For now, don’t worry about it!) Often students will estimate the wavelength of light emitted by an ion based on the color they observe and then use that wavelength to calculate the energies of electrons.

My problem with this is that, in 2018, having the technology we have, no scientist would ever estimate the wavelength of light based on the color they feel like something was. Imagine a project funded by the NSF, in which the principal investigator said, “Cu(II) looks green-ish, so I’m gonna say that’s 560 nm.” That project wouldn’t be funded for too much longer.

So I started thinking of ways we can quantify what students see using technology that we have access to. I came up with a modification to the lab, in which students take pictures of flames with their phones, upload them to computers, and then use computer software that real scientists use to analyze those pictures. In a research internship I did at the University of Connecticut’s Institute of Materials Sciences, we used a free program developed by the NIH, called ImageJ, to measure the diameters of holes in porous foam materials we were developing in order to study the process by which these foam materials were templated. Check out a picture of one of my foams below! (I’m super proud of them!)

I realized that this program can also be used to analyze color, and developed a method by which students could pick out a range of wavelengths emitted by a flame using a picture taken of that flame on a cell phone. I made a video tutorial for this process, which you can see at this page, where I’ve been compiling resources for this unit!

My takeaways from this whole process have been as follows:

  • One great way we can make use of technology in the science classroom is by using it to collect data in the same ways research scientists do.
  • Understanding the ways scientists collect data is important in developing authentic learning experiences. I never would have thought to use ImageJ if I hadn’t used ImageJ myself in a research lab!
  • We need to be willing to critique even our best lessons in order to make them better and more authentic, even if they’re lessons that have been around since the beginning of time!
  • We can also use digital tools to share this content with our students. Even though I could have written a worksheet for students explaining how ImageJ works, doesn’t it make so much more sense just to watch someone use and explain the program?

In the spirit of my third bullet, I’m still noticing room for improvement! For example, remember that parenthetical above about the color actually being made up of multiple colors? Yeah, my method doesn’t account for this. My method is really good for identification of ions (if there’s an unknown, for example), but actually isn’t so great for measuring energies of electrons. I want to see if I can come up with some way to improve this process using a diffraction grating, like the one shown below, which separates the light into its different components. So, yeah, some room to improve, but I think we’re off to a good start!

Thanks so much for reading! I’d love to hear any feedback or suggestions you have, even unrelated to this lesson! If you’ve ever had experiences in a research lab, are there any tools you’ve used that you think might translate really well to a science learning environment? Please leave a comment! I’d love to hear what you think!

Also, did you miss me last week? I posted on the Get Real Science blog rather than on my own blog last week! Check it out here!

A Handful of Thoughts…

I have a handful of thoughts about the episode of violence that we experienced in Rochester, this week. While I don’t have one perfect thought about this situation for a more organized blog post, it didn’t seem right to skip over this issue, and I don’t think it can wait. I hope this collection of thoughts might get you thinking about your own thoughts on issues of violence that relate to schools.

A little background…

For those of you who don’t know, on Wednesday, a Rochester man shot three people near some of the Rochester City Schools, one of whom ended up at School 25 on North Goodman Street. While the shooter was not at any RCSD schools, the district briefly placed all schools on lockout, meaning that all doors are locked and no one is allowed in or out of the building, as a precaution.

While all students remained safe, I have heard that some students felt the impacts of this incident in very real and potentially damaging ways. While I understand the purpose of a lockout and am grateful for the quick action of administrators and teachers in the RCSD, I have concerns about lockouts. And while our students are tenacious, dedicated, and strong, I am worried about how stress and violence affects our students’ abilities to learn and grow.

Learning under stress

Before this week, I had a conversation with my cooperating teacher about teachers who think that being firm with their students is the same thing as being mean to them. We both think that students don’t respond well to a teacher being mean to them probably in part because of a “fight or flight”-type response. When a learner starts viewing their teacher as a threat, they can’t possibly continue learning from that person.

When the shooting happened and I realized the emotional stress students were under as a result of it, I wondered if that “fight or flight” response that they might feel would impact their learning in a similar way. Maybe it’s less about where the stress is coming from (though that is important), and it’s more about the fact that stress exists. I did a little bit of research and found this video, the first half of which talks about the relationships between stress, fear, and learning in this way:

And if you’re not a video person, here’s a really great article about the topic.

Some questions:

  • What are the affects of prolonged exposure to stress, fear, and pressure?
  • How is everyday violence in Rochester contributing to stress, fear, and pressure for students in RCSD?
  • How does the fear of violence in a school contribute?


I don’t want to challenge the idea of a lockout too much. There are reasons for this protocol. And actually, there are a bunch of different protocols in our schools for different situations, each of which has been considered very carefully. But I have some questions about these situations:

  • What do we do about a student who was off campus during a free period and is  knocking on the front door of the school wanting to come inside? (To my understanding, protocol says no one comes in or goes out.)
  • What if that student is in danger?
  • How many of us would break protocol?
  • What is the right thing to do?

After the school shooting in Parkland, The Guardian published an article about teachers who broke protocol to save students. One of the teachers, Melissa Falkowski said,

“You’re faced with an impossible choice. Do I hold the door open, and put the kids that I have in here at risk, or do I close it and leave those kids out in the cold?”

I don’t know.


I asked a lot of questions in this post that I don’t know the answer to, and I don’t know that they have definitive answers. I’m starting to think about these questions (or at least the ones related to learning under stress) through the lens of relationship-building: if we build trusting relationships with our students, we’ll be better equipped to help them deal with all of the thousands of things they deal with outside of the context of content. But regardless, these problems never go away. How can we keep thinking about them and talking about them in productive ways? Thanks for any ideas or thoughts you have!

How do we make significant figures significant? (Part 2)

After much thought and a little bit of research…

I think we’re on the right track! (You’re thinking, “Obviously, Sam. You probably wouldn’t have made that first post if you didn’t think that.” Well, hang on, there’s more!)

Learning to Elicit Ideas from a MASTER:

Thinking about Brown, Collins, and Duguid (1989) again and thinking about a lesson we had in class this week, taught by Dr. John Van Niel, Professor of Environmental Conservation and Horticulture at Finger Lakes Community College and MASTER of eliciting students’ ideas, I’ve realized that not only should we contextualize sig figs within authentic science practice, but we should also use students ideas, thoughts, and experiences to drive our inquiry about sig figs forward.

While we’ve talked a little bit about the first part (contextualizing our lesson), that second part (eliciting student ideas) is new to this weird exploration we’ve been doing together. John, for example, leveraged our ideas by taking note of our language and experiences and tying new knowledge to those things. When I talked about my experience seeing flying squirrels on the border between New York and Pennsylvania, John validated my experience and observation and used it to explain to us how and where we might find Flying Squirrels if we went looking for them.

Yes, this type of Flying Squirrel!!!

John would write our quotes on the board and use them to explain how he teaches his lesson and make references to movies we had watched and places we had grown up to make links to the content we learned. It was incredible and empowering.

But if this is the way, how have we been getting it wrong?

Interestingly, this got me thinking about ways that we usually stifle students who want to make these connections, and one of these ways is by introducing scientific language to them before they have come up with their own language to describe what they are experiencing or observing. Students hear “significant figures,” and get nervous or scared. Erica Posthuma-Adams, from, proposes something RADICAL. Don’t use the words “significant figures” at all.

In the context of experiments, “sig figs” just puts a name to what we’re doing with our numbers and how we’re representing precision. If we help students understand why precision is important and how they can represent it in the context of experiments, who needs the words “sig figs” at all? Posthuma-Adams even instructs students to create fictional units, use them to measure objects in the lab, carry out authentic scientific calculations. When students understand how to accurately represent their measurements and calculations, they learn how to use sig figs.

What does this look like in a lab activity?

Scott Milam, “The Chemistry Translator,” introduces a demo in his video about significant figures (below), which allows him to show how our instruments can vary in their precision.

What if we situate a laboratory activity in the context of an authentic scientific problem, like the one I described in my previous post, or better yet, find a real life example to use as an anchoring phenomenon (without a completed gapless explanation) and have students design a laboratory activity to learn more about it and create their own gapless explanation over time? What if we use representations like the ones in Milam’s demo, but let students use and grapple with those representations themselves? What if, in this whole process, we help students find their ways through scientific notation and dimensional analysis without ever using those names either? I think we could use this strategy to understand these concepts, by figuring out how they work for themselves, connecting them to authentic experiences, and describing them in their own language. I think I could do that!

Here’s the catch…

I think we need to be ok with students being maybe 60-70% of the way there after this type of activity. There are so many details that it would be difficult to fit them all into a single unit’s worth of activity. Even the “traditional methods” of teaching sig figs, dimensional analysis, and scientific notation often miss little bits and pieces here and there, which get picked up throughout the rest of the year as students continue to do authentic science. Chemistry teachers like to start their classes with this unit because students continue dealing with numbers all year, and “wouldn’t it be great if we got them to know the numbers 100% before they have to use them?” NO! That’s missing the point! (And it’s probably not possible.) Let’s help students get themselves to place where they can use the numbers in context and continue working on the details as we go!

And in writing that last paragraph, I think I finally figured out how teaching science in this way works: we’re not getting all of the way there all at once. We’re building skills and knowledge constantly, and we’re never done.

Weird…that sounds just like science.


Facilitators, how do you see eliciting student ideas and authentically contextualizing learning in your lessons?

Learners, how have you benefitted from learning that you did through an activity? Did it help you construct useful knowledge?

I’d love to hear from you!

How do we make significant figures significant? (Part 1)

Do you remember learning about significant figures in chemistry class?

I think most people who learned about “sig figs” learned them as a set of rules you need to follow in order to avoid losing points on a test. Most teachers outline the rules for students, with all of their exceptions and qualifiers (e.g. “zeros to the right of numbers only count as sig figs if it’s a Wednesday, and there’s a full moon, and it’s a leap year, and the north star is directly overhead, and there’s a decimal in the number”) and then  make students memorize the rules, practice using them, and then quiz or test them on their ability to follow the rules. After I learned about sig figs in high school, my teacher stopped enforcing adherence to these seemingly arbitrary rules, and I interpreted this as, “Sig figs aren’t important, and you can forget about them.”

I suspect that a lot of other students learning about significant figures have moments like these, and while working with my cooperating teacher over the past couple of weeks, I’ve realized that students also have a lot of trouble understanding significant figures and their use when they learn them outside of the context of authentic science activities. In my Theory and Practice in Teaching and Learning Science class, we’ve been reading and discussing the connections between what we learn and how we learn it. Brown, Collins, and Duguid (1989) write that knowledge is situated and that knowledge gained outside without authentic activity, context, and culture is limited in its usefulness to students outside of school activities, contexts, and cultures, reinforcing this belief for me that we’re doing our students a disservice by teaching the rules of sig figs without activity, context, and culture. Since realizing this, I’ve spent all week thinking about possible lessons and activities that can help us better situate the learning of sig figs. I don’t have all the answers, but here are the beginnings of my thoughts.

(This week, we’re starting with a story explaining the importance of sig figs. This is the sort of story that I would love to get students thinking about, and maybe a story like this could be used to frame a lab activity, and I’ll talk a little bit about my initial thoughts in that regard this week. Next week, I’ll finish relating this story and other thoughts back to instruction!)

Are sig figs a matter of life and death?

So let’s start with this thought: I imagine that someone somewhere at some point in time died because someone used sig figs incorrectly or didn’t consider sig figs at all. You probably think I’m crazy, but hear me out! Here is my imaginary scenario (with no real medical basis because I’m not a biologist, ok?):

Jim is a patient of Dr. Rodriguez and presents with parasites in his stomach. The parasites are causing lots of real problems for Jim and he wants to get rid of them. The only medicine that exists to kill the parasites is also poisonous to people, but Dr. Rodriguez realizes that, based on Jim’s weight, he can tolerate no more than 30 mL of the medicine and only 20 mL of medicine is needed to kill the parasites. Dr. Rodriguez calls the lab and asks for 25 mL of medicine: a little more than she needs to cure Jim and a little less than the amount that would kill Jim. The lab sends a vial that reads, “25 mL of medicine for Jim,” which Dr. Rodriguez gives to Jim. Jim takes the medicine and dies one hour later.


It turns out the lab only measures medicine out using a beaker that has graduations every 100 mL. The scientist measuring the medicine realized that he should only estimate one place or digit past the precision of the graduations, so he cannot measure 25 mL. However, this clever scientist realizes that he can estimate 50 mL, which is only one digit (the tens digit) past the precision of the graduations (the hundreds digits). Since 25 mL is half of 50 mL, he can divide his 50 mL of medicine into two equal parts and each should have 25 mL.

The problem is that 50 mL has only one significant figure: the “5.” In order for the “0” to be significant, the whole number would have to read, “50. mL.” The period after “50” would indicate that the “0” is the estimated digit, and that the scientist was absolutely certain the measurement was between 40 and 60. But the “5” is the estimated digit. The scientist is only truly certain that he has more than 0 mL and less than 100 mL. Even though he thought he measured out 50 mL, he actually measured out 60 mL, which gave him 30 mL in each of the two equal parts he divided the medicine into.

If the scientist had kept track of significant figures, he would have realized that 25 mL has two significant figures, and his initial measurement only had one. He artificially added precision when he divided by two. If he had kept track of significant figures, he would have realized that his final sample could only be as precise as his original number; he would have rounded 25 mL to 30 mL, and realized it could have been too much medicine and that there was no way to be sure.

And THAT, my friends, is why significant figures are a matter of life and death.

Instruction, though, Sam. How does this relate to instruction?!

To get started thinking about relating this back to instruction, I think a story like this does a really great job of hammering home the ideas that you can’t create precision (a.k.a. add more sig figs) using math and that precision is important. It may even help teach students the rules of sig figs that relate to multiplication and division of measurements. However, it certainly doesn’t teach all of the rules for counting sig figs, and that’s a whole other battle. I can really easily imagine this story being an anchoring phenomenon for a sig figs, accuracy, and precision unit, but how do we pull the other “rules” out of the story? Maybe we need to start by making sense out of the rules by having students measure out specific amounts of reagents and record what they’re measuring, and in that recording we can discuss why they recorded certain digits and didn’t record others and also in what cases a zero meant, “I’m specifying that this is zero,” vs. “I couldn’t write this number without a zero here, so it’s just there because it has to be.” Would that be enough? Would that take too long? Would it really be better than just teaching the rules?

I’m not sure, but I’m going to keep thinking about it. Look out for more thoughts next week!

P.S. If you’re reading this before I’ve had a chance to add my pictures in, check back in a bit! I’ve just been having some trouble formatting them, but I’ll try again tomorrow!

Camp: The Good, the (not so) Bad, and the (ehh a little bit) Ugly

Ok, hi friends who are reading this! It has been a long, long, long day driving 45 minutes to camp, teaching and learning and investigating at camp, driving 45 minutes home from camp, doing homework for my class, going to class, and lesson planning, and I am now absolutely pooped. I haven’t had a moment of downtime since 6AM. As a result, I’m stressing about things that are class/teaching practice-related, probably at the expense of thinking about fun, but I think that one of the best ways for me to deal with this stress is going to be to blog about it. So very sorry for the minor negativity later on, but here is my brain dump.

The Good

  • Kids are having so much fun! It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before! Every day, a new kid tells me how much they are enjoying the activities we have planned for them.
  • We’re using technology in meaningful ways! Our use of an app called iNaturalist is allowing us to do what we couldn’t otherwise easily do: identify the bugs students collect and connect “science words” to student experiences. I want to emphasize that the really important part of this to me is the “student experiences” part. They’re using technology in a way that puts value on the investigation they have done.
  • I’m learning! Every day, I get better at this whole name thing, I get better at talking in front of the class, I learn how to make incredible connections with students, and so much more. I’m gonna take a second to brag. One student today found out that groups were splitting up in different ways and asked me if she could be in the group that comes with me! Completely exhausted Sam is tearing up typing that.

The (not so) Bad – We’re doing a great job! Here’s what we could do a little bit better…

  • We definitely need to better prepare to use technology! In the picture below, you’ll see me frantically setting up a projector and a speaker, which kind of worked but also weren’t great. We could do so much better if we plan better, prepare better, and frontload some of the work!
  • I need to better interact with individual students on a personal level. What are Jamar’s interests? Does Sophia have any siblings? Does Isaac speak any other languages?

The (ehh a little bit) Ugly – AKA Sam’s ugly stressed face

  • I want us to do more to connect daily activities to our anchoring phenomenon and to our “action that matters.” I’m stressed that students don’t know why we’re doing what we’re doing. What can we do to better help them make those connections?
  • We need to make sure students are driving the investigation and the conclusions we’re drawing. I worry that some activities we do give them the answers too much. How can we avoid doing that moving forward?
  • Let’s use some of the things we’ve learned in class to facilitate the type of learning I’m talking about! These tools exist to make our lives easier! Let’s model anchoring phenomenon by drawing, let’s make activity summary tables, let’s actively hypothesize and draw our hypotheses!

I chose a terrible order for this and ended on kind of a negative note… If you’re reading this, go read the happy section again. It’ll make you feel better!

“What is your vortex collision?”

As the Stink Squad gets closer and closer to educational experiences in science investigation that are engaging, authentic, and impactful, I’ve been thinking about the timelines of science. At camp, we have five days (yes, FIVE) to enable students in practicing meaningful science. In labs and other types of investigations in schools and colleges, the timelines of science often range in length from 30 minutes to a few class sessions to a semester. But science research often takes longer than that. For example, the NIH typically funds research projects for four years! Can we create authentic science experiences for students without at least engaging in the idea of prolonged experimentation? What are ways we can help students consider extended investigations? How can we give students the tools to deal with long-term problems? How do we prepare them for the months and years that they might spend with data (or a life experience) that is “almost there?”

While I’ve been thinking about this, one of my favorite youtube channels, SmarterEveryDay, run by a mechanical engineer named Destin Sandlin, posted a video about a fluid dynamics investigation that has been going for three years! He discusses recreating what’s called a “vortex collision,” the direct impact between two masses of swirling fluid (in this case, water with food dye), and trying to understand the rings that the impact creates. There are a lot of science-y words in the video that I don’t totally understand, but one of my favorite things about Destin’s videos is that you don’t really need that information to understand the main ideas of his videos, which usually relate to developing and nurturing a love for science. Here’s Destin’s video about his three-year fluid dynamics project:

Near the end of the video, Destin says the following:

“So three years, and a bunch of ink, and an aquarium? No, this is so much more than that. This is what taught me persistence. For you, [for] example, what is your vortex collision? Is it something at school that’s hard? A subject? Is it a project at work that you don’t think you can overcome? Is it some skill you want to learn? What is the thing you have to overcome and how are you gonna do it?

This is a huge part of the reason that I think helping students consider long-term problems is important, not just for developing research scientists. Everyone has a “vortex collision” in their lives, often multiple. Can we use science education to give students some of the tools to persist through challenges and adversity? And beyond that, can we do it in a day? A week? One school year? I hope so, but I’m still grappling with it.

In some ways, though, this video is unsatisfying. So Destin got the video of this cool phenomenon. So what? Destin doesn’t make a single conclusion about his anchoring phenomenon even though he spent three years studying it. How is that possible?! And I think that this is a huge theme that students should consider in science investigations and in life. Every step of the way is just that: a step. Science doesn’t end, and three years just leads to a new stepping stone. Every investigation leads to the next investigation. What are the best ways we can engage students in investigations that don’t end and give them practice considering the next step?

Even more than those questions, though, I hope you will consider what your vortex collision is. Like Destin, I want to know, “What is the thing you have to overcome and how are you gonna do it?”

A Productive Week!

Let’s get personal this week, à la my friend Ellen’s awesome blog! I made two really cool things this week, and I’m so excited to share them!

Part I:

The first is the Stink Squad’s BlockUmentary, which I made with (the aforementioned) Ellen and Alyssa (whose blog you can find right here)!

This project, more than most things I’ve worked on in the past, was such an exercise in collaboration, and it was so exciting to learn how so many people combining ideas and working together can create something so much better than any of them ever expected! I also learned how to give up a lot of control which was really hard for me, but I also learned how to lean on and rely on other people, which can be so freeing! If you haven’t had an experience with group work yet where you’ve really engaged in true collaboration with other people, TRY IT! Trusting other people and their ideas can be a skill, just like any other, that requires work and is so rewarding to exercise.

The next incredible thing about this project was the enthusiasm the ~25 students who watched this showed from just the very first clip! The way this little movie connected to students interests, cultures, and identities was amazing! I just want to highlight my three favorite things I heard students say while watching and let them speak for themselves:

  • While the clip of the bug’s leg was on screen:


  • After the BlockUmentary ended:

 “It looked like a movie!”

  • During the very last clip of Sodus Jr./Sr. High School

 “That’s my school!”

Part II:

The second cool thing that I made this week is a comic strip about my friend Brittney’s discovery that started her project modeling heterogeneous metal-oxide catalysts with metal-oxide cluster molecules. I struggled a little bit with this one because I was already familiar with the chemistry, even though I didn’t know the story of the project very well, so finding ways to make the chemistry accessible wasn’t easy. I think I did an ok job, but still could have done more. I tried to make it so you could gloss over the chemistry and still understand the story, but I wonder if I could have made it so the reader could actually understand this complex chemistry to a certain extent! That’ll be my next goal! Here’s the comic:

To learn more about this chemistry, check out the Matson Lab Website! The chemistry they do in the Chemistry Department at the University of Rochester is unique and important, not to mention really interesting!

And finally, just as a reminder to myself that these kinds of personal posts about smaller moments in my life are important, here’s a quote that I just heard for the first time yesterday in a knick knacks shop in the 1,000 Islands:

“Cherish the little things, for one day you will look back and realize they were the big things.”