Spice It Up With Videos

Let's face it. Science teachers are not taught how to make history interesting. Every year, I dread teaching the history of the atom. I've tried foldables, graphic organizers, games, etc... After years of watching students' eyes glaze over during the crucial beginning weeks of the semester, I stepped out into the brave new world of letting them teach it to themselves.

I designed an activity where students researched the history of the atom and created interviews with the most influential scientists. They were required to write a script and use iPads to animate or record the interviews. The students were shown several iPad apps that would work well for this purpose. Most of them chose to use Puppet Pals. This is a great app that allows students to create animations using popular figures such as talk show hosts and political figures. A few students opted to use Educreations, iMovie, and ToonTastic.

Students truly seemed to enjoy this assignment and learned a great deal about the atom. Below is one of their videos. I was impressed with how well they did.

A few tips for having students create videos:

  • Require a written script. Students will try to wing it if you let them. This drags out the video making process and usually results in lower quality products.
  • Play with the app ahead of time.
  • Define how much time they will have for research/script writing and how much time they will have to produce the video. 
  • Have a class YouTube account set up for them to upload videos to. I don't recommend giving them the password to this account. 
Do you have any suggestions of how to use videos in the classroom? Please share in the comments. 

A Chemistry Design Challenge

One of my favorite labs in chemistry class is the air bag lab. Students use vinegar and baking soda to produce carbon dioxide and fill up a Ziplock bag. This year, I set out make this a more STEMish lab by having students follow the Enginnering Design Process. In an effort to increase motivation, I also turned the lab into a competition. The winning team had to combine the correct amount of chemicals so that their bag would be as full as possible without busting. 

This activity requires a great deal of strategic thought from the students, as well as a thorough understanding of chemistry concepts. In order to be successful, students had to determine a way to measure the exact capacity of their bag, calculate the amount of chemicals needed to produce enough gas to fill the bag, and devise a strategy for keeping the chemicals separated until the bag is sealed in order to prevent gas loss.

One way that I differentiated the activity was by having hint cards that could be used for a small penalty. Students could request a hint card at any point in the process. The cards offered suggestions for how to measure the bag, how to carry out the calculations, and how to separate the chemicals while sealing the bag. The competetive nature of the activity caused students to save the hint cards as absolute last resorts. 

This proved to be a great culminating activity for my students. They had to have an in depth understanding of gas laws and stoichiometry in order to be successful. I'd love to hear about your favorite lab! Please share in the comment section.

Attention to Detail

I have a new favorite class activity - one that focuses on technical writing and attention to detail. These potentially boring concepts turned into something fun and insightful.

Students were placed into collaborative groups and asked to create a drawing using ten line segments and three colors. They were then issued the challenge of writing directions for how to recreate their drawing. Their directions were given to a different group to try to duplicate the drawing based solely off of their directions.

The groups of students produced a variety of drawings. Some consisted of random lines while others connected their lines to create pictures.

Reflection was an important part of this assignment. After a set of directions was used to try to duplicate the drawing, the original drawing and the duplicated drawing were returned to the original group. They were asked to reflect on what went well with their directions and what needed improvement.

Students became very aware of the assumptions they made when writing their directions. Many left out details such as how to orient the paper, where to start on the paper, how long lines should be, and what color the lines should be.

My students loved this assignment! The next day, when I asked them to write a lab procedure, I was thrilled with the level of detail they produced!

What has worked well in your classroom? Please share your activities in the comments section.

The First Day of School - Setting the Tone

One of my goals for the first day of school this year was to set the tone for collaboration and project based learning. This proved to be a welcome change from ice breakers and going over a syllabus. The first day of school was focused on establishing classroom norms and learning to appreciate the differences in our personalities.

A game was used to estabilish classroom expectations for the year. The class played a game called "Clutch" that required listening, multitasking, and speed. Students stood in a circle and placed the pointer finger of their left hand into the right palm of their neighbors hand. The word "clutch" was their cue to try to capture their neighbors finger and free their own at the same time.

Students then listed the behaviors they needed to exibit in order to be successful in the game. These behaviors were recorded on the board. A discussion followed about how these same behaviors would help them be successful in class. I used Tagxedo to create a poster from their list of words. I printed this using the school's poster printer and have it on the wall to remind students of how to be successful in my class.

The class then listed behaviors that would cause them to be unsuccessful in class. These behaviors were also made into a poster.

After establishing classroom norms, students took a personality test. The test divided their personalities into four colors. Students moved to different areas of the room to meet with other students who shared their personality. They discussed the strengths of their personaility, the weaknesses of their personaility, and how they work with the other personalities. This lead to a great class discussion about working together in teams.

Even my more challenging students were engaged during these activities. They all contributed to the classroom expectations for the school year. They also have new insight on how to work with their peers. The school year is off to a great start!

The Engineering Design Process

What does a STEM lesson look like in the classroom? How can I take a lesson and make it STEMish? These are questions I have asked myself quite a bit lately. They are common questions for teachers new to STEM education.

One model for creating STEM lessons is using the Engineering Design Process. The idea is to guide students through a process of discovery.

Engineering Design Process

As I reflect on how to drive my teaching more towards this model, I find myself focusing on the Imagine stage of the process. As we try to deliver as much information as possible to our students, this is an area that is often neglected.

One of my goals has been to turn some of my traditional lesson plans into STEM lessons. I have found that if my students are Imagining, the rest of the cycle falls into place. By Imagining, I mean brainstorming, looking at models or pictures and making inferences, researching, or discovering something on their own.

A chemistry example of this could be in the teaching of periodic trends. Traditionally I have used a lecture to teach students what the trends on the periodic table are and what causes them. I have followed that up by having them graph these trends. In an effort to have my students Imagine, I reversed this strategy last semester. The only front loading I did for the students was to give them the definitions of atomic radius, ionization energy, and electronegativity. I then challenged them with discovering the trends by graphing them. In groups, they analyzed their graphs and brainstormed causes for the trends. Rather than lecturing, I followed up the activity with a discussion that reinforced what they had discovered. This activity required the same amount of time as my traditional lesson.

Once I decided what part of the process students could Imagine, the rest of my lesson fell into place. Did they build a space shuttle or solve the world's energy crisis? No. Not yet. They did, however, take control of their own learning. They created a model for understanding the periodic table that we can improve upon throughout the remainder of the course.

Efolios For Education

I recently attended a great workshop about electronic portfolios for students. The speaker, Abbey Wood, is a science teacher in North Carolina. Her students create an electronic portfolio that demonstrates their understanding of each of the big ideas in her curriculum.

Ms. Wood put together a website that is an excellent resource for teachers interested in electronic portfolios. The Investigation section of her website has links to a series of videos she created that will take you step by step through the process of setting up an electronic portfolio. Her portfolios are made using Google Sites. There is also a self assessment you can take to determine how proficient you are with Google Sites. Your score on the self assessment will help you determine which video you should start with. Brilliant!

I am planning to use this with my AP Chemistry class this semester. I created a template that covers all of the Enduring Understandings in the AP Chemistry curriculum. For each Enduring Understanding, students will:
  • Write an overview.
  • Write a reflection about a misconception they had prior to learning the concept.
  • Post an artifact about the concept.
  • Provide the link to a tutorial about the concept. 
AP Chemistry Portfolio Template


Using a standards based portfolio is a great way to make students take responsibility for their own learning. Plus they will have an excellent resource to review when exam time comes.

Thanks Ms. Wood!


Wordle Word Clouds

Words are powerful. Research has shown that the number of words children hear on a daily basis is correlated to the education level of their parents and has a profound impact on their literacy skills. The 32-Million Word Gap is one of many articles describing this effect.

We, as educators, try to expose our students to as many words as possible. Word walls are one popular way to do this. www.wordle.net has provided a free way to spice up your word walls. Copy and paste text into the Create section of their website and prepare to be amazed. Wordle arranges the words in an artistic fashion allowing you to make changes to colors, fonts, and text orientations.

Wordle is a great way to post a vocabulary list, introduce a topic, or make an impact about a theme. Whole articles can be pasted into the Wordle editor. Below is a Wordle I created related to STEM Education.

 Quick. Easy. Effective.