Snow Day… Can’t Stop Digital Learning Day

Today is Digital Learning Day sponsored by the Vermont Agency of Education; it’s also a snow day. Perhaps snowing on the parade of the masterminds working to promote technology in the 21st century classroom, but I say ‘Nay!’

The beautiful thing about technology is it connects teachers and students even when not in the same place. Even as I write this is at 6:50am (physically impossible to sleep in really),  I have already created a tutorial using an iPad app called ShowMe, the tutorial will to aid my students in completing a Hardy-Weinberg Equilibrium homework assignment due tomorrow, since I won’t see them for questions today. Check it out: http://www.showme.com/sh/?h=JVCs1Ca.

But, since I won’t be able to document and share how technology would have been used as a learning tool in my classroom today; I figured I would share some of my favorite examples from earlier in the year:

1. Stop Motion Studio: A free iPad, iPhone app (as well as other smartphone and tablet versions I believe) that allows you to easily create stop motion productions by taking a series of images in the app, adjust the length of time for each image, as well as the ability to add voice over to narrate the images. Here’s an example from an AP Biology class teaching about G-Protein coupled receptors.

 

2. Puppet Pals: Free or paid versions, more tool options with paid version. This app lets students create a character (their puppet) that they can superimpose their face onto. Then as they manipulate and move around their puppet they can record the movements they are doing with the puppet while simultaneously narrating with a script.

 

3. iMovie: iMovie can be purchased both in desktop/laptop versions as well as on an iPad. Effects are slightly more limited on the iPad; however, video, images and audio can easily be imported from the camera roll and put into a well crafted video. This allows students to create a well crafted video product in a very short amount of time. Students in this example created a video of still shots of their earthquake project to share before doing a physical demonstration with their model. After their presentation, which they recorded, it was quick and easy for them to insert the recorded video of their model in action to support their video.

 

4. Garage Band: A fairly straight forward user interface allows for mixing tracks prerecorded with other devices or, recording directly from the tablet or computer being used. This allows for songs, vocal and instrumental to be recorded separately and then put together into on song. Using iPhones students recorded both vocals and acoustic guitar tracks on the voice memo option. These audio files were then emailed to a computer that edited to two tracks and aligned them to make the final songs. This song was then imported to iMovie serving as the music for the video the class made in parallel to the song, creating this final music video product:

 

The most important idea to remember when incorporating digital learning into the classroom is patience. Technology is an amazing tool, but their is certainly always going to be hiccups along the way. Be patient, be flexible and use our students as resources. They are great technology problem solves and should be part of the team as we work to blend technology and our classrooms. It is about their learning after all.

Even on a snow day, digital learning still can happen!

Don’t Stop Expressing.

When you think about AP classes most likely you are going to imagine the top academic students enrolled in fast paced, content driven courses. Taught similarly in depth, breadth, and pace as a college course because one of the end goals for many students is to do well on the AP test and earn college credit.

Admittedly I am slightly biased, but would suggest that AP Biology is one of the more difficult AP courses offered based on the level of information required by the curriculum, as well as student feedback at my school. Due to its level of difficulty and mass of content I’ve observed and experienced it instructed in highly lecture based manner. An effective method of giving facts and memorizing metabolic pathways, functions of organelles and other biological facts. For many AP students they thrive in an environment when they are told what the information is and then later have to spew it back in a glob of memorized facts. This is how they have grown up learning and their brains are quite successful at it.

However, a down side to this is that students often don’t develop the thinking or problems solving skills to apply these facts to an unknown situation, question or problem. So, when they are given a problem to solve they are unsure of, they surrender. Instead of being able to use their knowledge to show they know what it means and apply it often there is disconnect between the facts they have memorized and the big picture they apply to.

The college board has recently redesigned the AP Biology curriculum to be much more problems solving based, using the scientific method and biological knowledge to answer questions about the natural world. I appreciate this change and redirection of the curriculum, for the outcomes of the new model are much more important for students than the latter.

It is a continued effort to create question and problems that forces students to practice thinking. Quite often, meeting resistance and having to convince and coax students to keep working and not simple say “I don’t know” and give up. Perseverance is term I’ve recently begun to use often as a teacher, working to teach students perseverance because for many of them they haven’t had to learn that skill from a young age, but will certainly need it in the years to come.

Recently, I proposed to my AP class that for a midterm project the could take the information we have covered in our unit on genetics and turn it into a song and video. Now, this was an incredibly rewarding project 2.5 weeks later, but it surely was an exercise in perseverance. Many hurdles came up along the way. There were troubles writing just the right lyrics, many attempts with several varieties of technology to record vocals and instrumentals all with moderate success and lots of failed attempts (we ended up using iPhones), malfunctioning video equipment, but in the end every thing came together with a product everyone was proud of.

So, in the eyes of some, a less than tradition assessment for an AP class, but I am certain of several things: My students learned, they stuck with it and persevered, and they had fun while doing it.

I can’t think of better outcomes.

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.

“I saw a show on The Discovery Channel….”

In science, and all content areas, a common hurdle teachers are faced with is finding and correcting preconceptions. I find one of my biggest assets and resources for student engagement in science outside of the classroom is also the bane of my existence: The Discovery Channel.

Don’t get me wrong, there are very few shows on The Discovery Channel that I don’t love, ‘Myth Busters’ is a classic favorite and ‘Curiosity’ has been a recent interest, with many in between.  My problem is not with the content, I am sure I would be amazed by the amount of fact checking and rechecking that goes into the production of shows, on top of the steadfast use of the scientific method.

However, I personally know that if I listen to an hour of information and facts I’m going to remember the big picture, but the small details, not so much.

Students, on the other hand, seem to become instant experts (or at least think they are). They will watch a show on Discovery and something in class will trigger a memory of that show. Leading to the classic line, I’m sure hundreds of teachers have heard, “I saw a show on The Discovery Channel….”

For instance, tons of students love ‘Shark Week’ (as do I). They watch what sounds like hours of the programming and come to class as experts on sharks.

I get lines like:

“I saw a show on The Discovery Channel… and a shark can’t bite with a force of 3000 pounds per square inch”

or

“I saw a show on The Discovery Channel… and sharks have 15 rows of teeth that replace each other when one falls out.”

First of all, this is Great! To have students engaged in science outside of the classroom is excellent. Yet, students use the line ‘I saw a show on The Discovery Channel…’ as a way to make what they are saying instant fact. Yet, I often find the ideas they remember are correct, but the details are off.

For instance, according to The Discovery Channel the record bite strength measured experimentally to date is 42,000 pounds per square inch, a bit more than the student thought, but on the other hand some species of shark do have up to 15 rows of replaceable teeth. Batting .500, not too shabby.

The students’ information gets to the meat of the idea: sharks have powerful jaws; they do have rows of replaceable teeth. But it leaves out important details like: what type of shark, the difference between strength, force and pressure, and did the student remember the numbers, or the science vocabulary correctly.

(Check out these Top 20 Shark Fact videos from The Discovery Channel for more great shark info.)

Oftentimes, we end up fact checking and at times have discovered that students, in fact, had remembered the exact factoid, but we’ve more often found the alternative. The main idea is correct, but the details are off.

Again, I love that students are remembering some of these big picture concepts and making connections in the classroom (I’m a sucker for a good tangent), but when I get “I saw a show on The Discovery Channel….” I know that I’m going to have make sure we do some research as a class and make sure students learn and remember the accurate information. Because, for some reason students can remember a miniscule fact, right or wrong, uttered by a peer, for months after, but can forget something I told them a minute ago. Imagine that. Weird.

Discovery, I beg you, don’t stop what you’re doing. You get students excited about science at home! I’ll keep doing my best to make sure the next “I saw a show on The Discovery Channel…” gets handle and we learn from it, just like all the rest of them.

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.