Man vs. Chicken 2.0

Last year about this time I wrote: Man vs. Chicken: A Battle in the Name of Science describing a laboratory investigation into the different types of fractures using chicken bones. As most teachers, from year-to-year I create new activities, get rid of the flops and tweak those that have been successful in the past. That’s just what I did with this investigation.

There were two major adjustments this year:

1.Instead of simply using cleaned, dried bones students used a combination of cleaned bones and wings with muscles (that’s the meat) and cartilage still intact. This allowed them to compare the differences between imitating fractures in both situations, and analyze which represents more true-to-life fracture events.

2. This is where the 2.0 comes in. In past years I have had student make sketches and observations based on the fractures they had created, and then answer discussion questions related bone structure and fractures. However, this year we went paperless. Most students carry with them a small computer in their pocket; smart phones complete with a video camera. So the assignment became filming their fracture events while narrating the process. There were 5 main idea they were to include in their video:

  • Describe how they will be fracturing the bone.
  • Predict what type of fracture they will produce.
  • Explain how this fracture may occur in real life.
  • Observe the fracture, describe and determine if their prediction was accurate.
  • Determine which bones best modeled accurate fractures, why?

These videos were then emailed to me, which I then compiled into a class video that was viewed as a class. Overall, the new tech version of the chicken bone lab was quite successful. Students seemed much more engaged and provided great narration and dialogue regarding the fractures that would not necessarily have occurred in the same fashion if they had been simply writing about what they had observed. Also, filming provided a role of cinematographer to students who were not interested in getting hands-on with the chicken bones. Finally, students love an opportunity they get to use their phones in class without having to sneak a text message from under the desk of a sweatshirt pocket.

Already looking to next year, I plan to delegate the video editing to students who are interested in creating videos. Here is the final video, enjoy.

A Time for ‘Cell’ebration!

Animal cell. Check out the actual phosopholipid bilayer of the plasma membrane.

This time of year opens up a can of worms for political correctness, emotional turmoil and distraction. Anyone who follows the media understands the sensitive nature of celebrating or recognizing religious holidays at public schools. Students experience a variety of emotions, many excited for the vacation ahead and the holidays, others in dread of spending a week at home in perhaps a not so good home situation. No matter the emotions, the week leading up to vacation is a wild one.

My method for working with all of these issues: celebrate for alternative reasons. It’s been a busy few months, I know my brain is ready for a break, so I am sure my students’ brains are as well. Thus, a perfect time to recognize the  hard work over the past months and take some time to breathe prior to midterm exams. To create this break we had our own personal ‘Cell’ebration.

Plant cell. Excellent 3D representation.

Given we are in the middle of our cell unit, students created edible cell models. Choosing to construct either a plant or an animal cell and represent those structures which define that type of cell. To accompany their model students either labeled or provided a key to identify how they represented all of the different organelles that would be found in their cell.

The final aspect of the assignment was that each student briefly presented, 1-2 minutes, how they made their cell, and what they used to represent each organelle. This provided an opportunity to practice cellular vocabulary and identifying the parts of the cell. By the end other students were helping each other with pronunciation of terms like golgi apparatus and rough endoplasmic reticulum.

Then we dug in. Enjoying the sweet reward of the past nights’ baking and decorating. A bit of happy downtime that all students got to experience. A Biology Cellebration.

It was a great day to be a teacher. I had the opportunity to watch as my student interacted in a low key, relaxed atmosphere. Many of the groups that have been defined throughout the year merged and enjoyed the time together. Though only a portion of the day was dedicated to science, the whole day was dedicated to our class community, something I feel is just as important.

I am glad I was able to create at least a few minutes out of the day when all students had something to smile about, and when you’ve got a piece of cell cake in one hand and cell cookie cake in the other that’s surely something to smile about.

Plant Cell. Yeah, that's two whole cakes.

Get Your Hands Dirty; Learn Something

If you look up the definition of Biology in any textbook you’ll find something to the gist of “the study of life.”

Now, if you didn’t notice, life is all around us. You can’t get up from your bed every morning, go through your morning routine, and walk out your front door without being aware of Life.

From the mites that thrive in our sheets feeding off our flaked off skin, being constantly replaced and healed to keep our first line of defense from infection intact.

Even washing the sebum (that oily substance) from our hair and body in the shower, which we secrete as another secondary protective mechanism. Finally, the glory that is the outdoors, it is a whirlwind of the interactions and symbiosis of life. Photosynthesis, predation, decomposition, mitosis, I could go on. Countless phenomena I don’t go a morning without having the chance to experience.

For most people these mundane routines are not filled with Biology, and maybe some of you are thinking, ‘I wish I didn’t know about those mites…’ but my goal is to show my students that Biology, life, and all its intrigue surround us in our everyday life, in all that we do.

In my opinion there’s only one really good way to do this, only one really good way to learn Biology: You have to get your hands dirty. We have get out there in the world and look at it with new eyes. Biological eyes.

My first unit of the year is a projected-based learning opportunity that focuses on Ecology, studying the interactions between organisms and their environment. This is very conducive to getting out into the world. The project is to create a miniature ecosystem that we then use as a model to study topics such as food chains, competition, symbiosis, and succession.

So, this week was spend outside, surrounded by Biology getting dirty as we searched for, and collected specimens that would inhabit our ecosystems. Some students stayed to the path and collected from the edge, some climbed and crawled through brush and grass to chase a critter, and some got more dirty than others, but everyone was out there engaged in the Biological world.

My personal favorite part was when two students went barefoot, ankle deep in a pond to get an illusive tadpole, reminded me of what I would have done.

And I’d say most of my students’ favorite part was when I end up shin deep in a mud hole, in dress shoes and chinos.

But hey, in Biology that’s what it’s all about. Sometimes you’ve just got to get your hands (or feet) dirty.

Give Creativity a Chance

Earlier this year, two of my classes made videos teaching about different threats to the environment and how we as humans can reduce those threats. This was the first time that I, or any of my students had made academically based videos. Needless to say this was a busy, stressful and bumpy ride.

Mainly due to dealing with technology issues both with the hardware videos were made with, but also using software to edit the video for the first time, and helping to facilitate creativity and progress. One group even used VHS, not easy to digitally edit with the technology we had at hand, but it did bring me back to my childhood.

Even with the struggles and obstacles we had to overcome together some great videos were produced. You can check out these videos here: Conservation Videos.

Though the three weeks it took were a blur and not the easiest, the outcome was worth it. Students have been able to recall information from the videos in class, even months after we concluded the project. Given the success and the learning that was achieved through the videos 3 weeks ago I decided to undertake our second video project.

“Why do I look different than you?” A simple question that gets at the heart of our genetics unit. Students were charged with creating a video that answered this question. Making connections to the information we have discussed thus far in our genetics unit regarding DNA, our genetics code, and protein synthesis.


I felt like I was taking the risk to attempt a second work intensive and time consuming project so close to the end of the year. As any teacher can tell you, productivity steadily decreases as you approach June. I was happily surprised at the excitement and eagerness students showed as they jumped at the opportunity to create another video.

The second time around saw many less hurdles; though the were there. All students used digital video recording equipment, and having used our video editing program previously they were able to jump right in a pick up where they left off with it. As with the first set of videos there was a spectrum of quality regarding the final product and depth of content; however, I can say all students were much more engaged in the project and willing to go out on a limb to create a better video than the first round.

This year I have worked a lot with project based learning, designing an implementing projects throughout our course of study that promote students taking an active role in their own learning and how they will be assessed on that learning, beyond just a test. Of all my trials as I have made this journey I can say for sure: The things that are worth doing in education are not easy.

Take a risk. Go beyond the text book and test. Give your students the chance to be creative,  and then, give them more chances. Creativity like everything else must be nurtured. If you provide your students with opportunities to surprise you, they will.

Destiny in the Classroom

Today I had an experience that sent tingles down my spine.

First, background. We have been studying cells in my Biology classes, and today we were starting a project where students would study and learn about either photosynthesis or cellular respiration. Students’ task then is to create a children’s book that both teaches about the process they are studying but also incorporates  a storyline to engage the reader.

In order to increase success we did some research to determine what some of the key aspects of a good children’s story are. The best way to do this, read some children’s books. So today, two classes of 15 and 16 year-old sophomores got to have read aloud, one of my personal favorite times as a kid in earlier grades, but also at home with my parents.

I couldn’t help but have a smile cheek to cheek as I read aloud. That 20 minute period today was by far the quietest, most intently engaged period for each and every student, at the same time all year. I even had some students protest when I did not show the pictures quite far enough their way. It was a return to youth, seeming to forget about texting, Facebook, popularity and returning to a simpler time, if only for a few minutes. I never was one to jump at the chance to read out loud as a student, but its funny how things change, how we change, as we progress in our lives.

Some of you may think, “I can see why this would give you tingles.” Though it was amazingly rewarding to see such interest and engagement, this is not the end.

When planning this activity I assumed the library would have some children’s books, if only a small section. This morning when I went down to the library to peruse them there were in fact just a hand full. But, I spotted the book I would read without trouble; “The Cat in the Hat” by Dr. Seuss, a classic. So, I checked it out and I sat down with my sophomores and we read “The Cat in the Hat”, engaged, rewarded and unaware.

Today is Dr. Seuss’ birthday. A holiday celebrated traditionally in elementary schools by reading some of his classic stories.

Today, Dr. Seuss found his way into a high school science classroom.

I had no idea until later in the day, long after the reading was done. I saw an email about it from some spam education mailing. As soon as I saw this I was speechless. Tingles, shivers you name it. How is it, of all the days, that today in a Biology classroom Dr. Seuss was read, was remembered and honored, without even knowing it.

Happy Birthday Dr. Seuss. Thank you for your contributions to literacy.

P.S. Really, all those rhymes? Even for an adult I got tongue twisted a couple times.