The Very Spring and Root

An engineer's adventures in education (and other musings).

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Working toward Science Literacy

Science literacy has been a hot topic of conversation in education for several years now. As part of the national push for more STEM focus, science literacy encompasses a number of skills (as opposed to content) that are essential for STEM and other professions in the 21st century workforce.

Our science team centered its goal this year around science literacy:

Based on the fact that students currently score below the state and national averages on MCAS, AP, & SATII exams, our goal is to increase scientific literacy across grade levels. We will develop monthly assessments that measure proficiency in scientific literacy skills. We will review student performance on these monthly assessments and if 70% of the class does not receive a 75% or higher, we will reteach and reassess.

We made this year’s goal in response to the fact that our data shows our students are consistent unprepared for the level of rigor of high-level assessment, most of the time not due to lack of content knowledge but lack of skills in breaking down and interpreting complex texts, graphs, data, etc. The skill deficiency was also noticed by 12th grade teachers who get wave after wave of students who lack the skills for researching, writing, and defending their senior thesis.

The need for these skills is more urgent now for us as well because of the Common Core standards, and the accompanying PARCC exam.  Last year, students struggled with both the ELA and Math PARCC pilot tests, again not due to content knowledge, but due to being unable to parse the question and figure out what was even being asked.

So our administration basically said, top-down from the skills we know they are missing in 12 grade AP, PARCC, and senior defense, everybody align all the way down in every grade, every content, every student.

Over the summer, we used two references as guidelines to construct a draft vertical alignment. Both are attached. The first is a pdf of the pages relevant to Scientific and Technical Literacy from the Common Core ELA standards, which are obviously PARCC aligned. These will serve as classroom-level guides on constructing tasks, assessments, projects, etc. All major projects and assessments should include components from this rubric.

The second is the NMSI Process Skills Progression chart, which is based on the NGSS Science and Engineering Practices. The nine skills are broken down into three levels of increasing abstraction: Factual Knowledge, Conceptual Understanding, and Reasoning & Analysis. We have loosely decided to base the assessments we will use to measure our Science Team goal on these skills. We will assess one of the nine skills per month, and try to establish a baseline set of data for what level our students are at on the progression in each skill by grade level. Then next year, we will use the baseline data as the starting point to construct a full vertical alignment of what needs to be taught by grade level and in what depth.

Both of these overlap very well with what we’ve been using to design projects until now, the Hess Cognitive Rigor Matrix (also attached). We will continue to measure our major projects against the Hess rubric.

That’s about all I really know at the moment, since we are just starting this initiative. I’ll try and update with any significant developments throughout the year as we continue to take a look at it.



Debrief from the NSTA National Conference

Thanks to the BTR Avengers team, I was able to attend the National Science Teachers of America national conference here in Boston last April. I was floored by how large the conference was — taking up three hotels in South Boston, beyond the large Convention Center itself. NSTA was easily eight times the size of even the largest conference I ever attended in my former profession, the annual AIAA Aerospace Science Meeting. I suppose there are far more science teachers and vendors to same than aerospace engineers.

Highlights:

I got some great ideas for project-based learning around sustainable energy from KidWind. They have complete lesson plans and materials online for FREE, as well as awesome turbine kits available for purchase. Though I did conclude this school year with a unit on sustainable energy, I was not able to plan enough in advance to incorporate any of their materials. Maybe next year. I’m particularly interested in their equipment that would allow me to do wind turbine blade design competition.

I sat in on a session about the DuPont Challenge science and technology essay competition. Students write 700-1000 word essays about any of the following four challenges:

  • Together, we can feed the world.
  • Together, we can build a secure energy future.
  • Together, we can protect people and the environment.
  • Together, we can be innovative anywhere.

I’m seriously considering incorporating the essay into my 11th grade Physics classes.

I’m also excited about the Toshiba Exploravision competition, which I am planning to implement with a colleague as a joint Honors Physics / Honors ELA interdisciplinary project for next year’s 9th grade Honors cohort. The competition asks students to envision how a particular technology might change 20 years from now, research the technology, and propose/present their persuasive argument. The task combines many of the 21st Century Skills while simultaneously addressing several NGSS and Common Core standards in a creative way.

Finally, though I think I’ve been pretty good about using technology in the classroom so far, I will be ramping it up next year. Science reflective journals? Hit me up on Vine now, students. Show me what you learned and why its important. Six seconds of clips… go.



We Need More Science Teachers

One more video posted from BTR, this one an interview on science teaching in particular and why we need more science teachers.



Why Teach? – BTR Promo Videos

My teaching residency program, Boston Teacher Residency, has released a series of video interviews about the program and about urban teaching. Including my colleagues Randyl and Malcolm, as well as yours truly! Check them out below:

Randyl Wilkerson giving an introduction to BTR:

Malcolm Jamal King on being a male teacher of color and why he chose to teach:

And here’s me talking about why I chose to change careers from engineering to teaching:



Waves Project: Earthquakes and Tsunamis

[Note: Scroll down to the Files section for downloadable lesson/project materials.]

Background

I’ve been reading and learning a lot this year about the benefits of incorporating authentic tasks, project based learning, data, analysis, synthesis, and scientific discourse into the classroom. As we approach the end of the year, I’ve finally felt confident enough to try putting together my own project to fit with the principles I want to apply in my physics classroom.

Today is Day 1… I’ll post again with a reflection on how the whole thing goes.

This project is taking place about halfway through our unit on Waves — after mechanical waves but before electromagnetic waves. My hope is that students would be able to apply what they have learned to an authentic task that mimicked how science is really used to study the world and try to help people.

I want to emphasize that I am still near the end of my BTR residency year and M.Ed. program while designing this project. This is the first time that I attempted designing a project of this scale, and also the first time teaching it. I would definitely appreciate any feedback or suggestions for further refinement.

Project Overview

The project is based on the 2004 Sumatra Earthquake and Tsunami that devastated much of South East Asia. Students are given an introduction to earthquakes and tsunamis, provided with a project overview handout, and shown some video clips and photos.

Students are told that a massive earthquake and tsunami scenario has just occurred in the Indian Ocean, and that their lab groups are an investigative team that will be responsible for constructing a “What Happened” story using scientific analysis. Each team is assigned a particular city of interest: Banda Aceh (Indonesia), Chennai (India), Dar es Salaam (Tanzania), Mogadishu (Somalia), Padang (Indonesia), or Trincomalee (Sri Lanka).

The first part of the Work Packet involves background reading in the textbook 1, interpretation questions, and group discussion. The teams then receive two “technical memos”: one from the USGS National Earthquake Information Center, and one from the NOAA Tsunami Program. The data, properly interpreted, allow students to calculate the basic features of the earthquake p-waves and s-waves as well as some properties of the tsunami wave (such as arrival time at various cities, difference in speed and amplitude between open ocean and shore, etc). The third component of the project is an interpretation and discussion segment, followed by a final poster to present the final conclusions.

Design

This section describes my thought process and sources while putting together the project.

Lesson plans for every day of the project include silent individual work and think time. This is an access issue — many students prefer and may even require individual reflection and a chance to organize their thoughts before being ready to participate in group work.

I also have planned time into each day to allow for class-wide or group discussion designed to share information between groups, make sense of new vocabulary or concepts as a class, and engage in dialogue. Video clips, photographs, and eyewitness accounts from the real 2004 Sumatra disaster are also used to engage and interest students, as well as to maintain connections to the big ideas about how science is used in the real world.

Alignment With Standards

As per UbD philosophy, I started with the standards for which I wanted students to show evidence of applied knowledge. Based on where we were in the unit, I selected the following Massachusetts Physics Framework standards for focus:

  • 4.1 Describe the measurable properties of waves (velocity, frequency, wavelength, amplitude, period) and explain the relationships among them. Recognize examples of simple harmonic motion.
  • 4.3 Distinguish between the two types of mechanical waves, transverse and longitudinal.
  • 4.5 Recognize that mechanical waves generally move faster through a solid than through a liquid and faster through a liquid than through a gas.

And though they are not yet binding on BPS, I figured while I was at it to take a look at the relevant Next Generation Science Standards as well. I did not consider NGSS when designing the project; these suggested alignments are made in retrospect.

NGSS Dimension 1 – Practices2:

  • Practice 1 – Asking Questions
  • Practice 4 – Analyzing and Interpreting Models
  • Practice 6 – Constructing Explanations

NGSS Dimension 3 – Core Ideas3:

  • HS-PS4-1. Use mathematical representations to support a claim regarding relationships among the frequency, wavelength, and speed of waves traveling in various media.

 Technical Aspects

Nearly all scientific and technical information that I used concerning the physics of earthquakes/tsunamis, including how they are studied and measured, was found at the USGS Earthquake Hazards Program and the NOAA Tsunami webpages. Specifics for the 2004 Sumatra earthquake and tsunami, which formed the baseline data set I started from, were either directly on, or linked from, the USGS 2004 Sumatra quake page and the NOAA Center for Tsunami Research.

Earthquake p-wave travel times were estimated based on data from the USGS National Earthquake Information Center. S-wave arrival times were estimated using a base speed of 4.5 km/s, and then adjusted lower based on the distance from the epicenter to the arrival point. This accounts for the fact that both P and S waves move faster through the deeper layers of the earth.

My initial thought was to have students interpret a real seismogram trace from the USGS archives. However, I had to balance the complexity of teaching/learning all the features of a real trace with the objectives of the project. Since the point of the project was to learn about and apply knowledge of waves (not earth science per se), I decided to sacrifice some realism of the seismology aspect and focus on wave physics.

I made my own simplified seismogram trace in Matlab using a base sine function for each of the p-waves and s-waves. Wave parameters (amplitude, frequency) were taken from representative values for the Sumatra quake. Both waveforms were then perturbed with an additional, superposed sine wave with a randomized small amplitude, in order to give the waveform the look of “real” noisy data. I know it doesn’t quote look like a real seismogram trace would (especially the duration), but again, my focus for now was to see how they handle interpreting the wave information.

Tsunami arrival times were estimated from a simulated reconstruction of the wavefront propagation done by Japan’s AIST.

Surface distances from the epicenter (3.316°N, 95.854°E) to the selected cities of interest were calculated using the Latitude/Longitude Distance Converter from the National Weather Service.

Tsunami heights reaching the shores of the selected cities were eyeballed from a mix of published simulation results and from Googling eyewitness accounts and field reports.

Files

I would love to hear back from anyone who uses these! Feedback, comments, and areas for improvement would be greatly appreciated.

(Note: Only the most recent versions of each file are shown. The changelog is below, and see the comments thread for the thought process. I would be happy to share old versions by request, though bear in mind that there is usually a good reason I would take the time to update them.)

If you make use of these materials, please consider leaving a comment or contacting me with your thoughts. 

CHANGELOG:

v130522 – original project files

v130606 – revisions made after trying it on three blocks of junior-level high school physics:

  • Data: Earthquake waveform made more realistic. (Though this is still greatly simplified.)
  • Data: p/s-waves lumped together into body waves, then surface waves added.
  • Data: body wave arrival times distributed around assumption of  7.1 km/s
  • Data: surface wave arrival times distributed around assumption of 3.8 km/s (down from about 5 km/s)
  • Data: separation of non-related sentences (reduce confusion).
  • Work Packet: adjusted to ask for body waves and surface waves instead.
  • Work Packet: rephrasing to be more specific about what is being asked.
  • Rubric: tightened the difference between Partial and Acceptable (was very wide before)
  • Rubric: added point values
  • Rubric: more specific phrasings
  • Rubric: moved 5% of weight from poster to teamwork/participation
  • Added Matlab waveform generator .m script and .fig file. (You should be able to run this in Octave too if you change the % comment markers to #. The plot commands probably won’t work.)

Acknowledgements

Many of the resources available at Tools for Ambitious Science Teaching (particularly the Discourse Tools) were enormously helpful in the planning process for this project. Additionally, the GRASPS method of planning a rich learning task (part of the Understanding By Design framework) was used to lay out and organize the initial ideas, as part of the full UbD plan for the unit.

Also many thanks are due to my BTR co-resident Akil Srinivasan, my residency collaborating teacher Sotiris Pentidis (Boston Community Leadership Academy), and my clinical teacher educator Andrea Wells (Boston Teacher Residency).

 

Show 3 footnotes

  1. We are using CPO Science’s Physics: A First Course this year.
  2. I haven’t really sat down and scoured these for intended implementation. My claim of alignment is based on the summary descriptions in the Framework.
  3. As much as I love many aspects of the NGSS, I am disappointed that the Core Ideas dimension contains wave physics almost solely in a technology/application context. This is the only “pure” wave standard I found.


What is 21st Century Education?

In PD last week, we watched this video as a precursor to a discussion on how to incorporate more leadership skills into our school curricula and activities:

I love this; it’s a great visual montage of data is continuing to change.  To me this is among the best arguments for designing curricula that go well beyond what we simply want students to know. Because knowledge itself is changing so quickly (and so instantly and comprehensively searchable now to boot), the value of content knowledge for it’s own sake has become necessarily rather dilute.

My only complaint with this video is that it makes it seem like the disconnect between rote content instruction and more authentic learning is some recent deficiency in how we approach education, brought on by the sudden techno-boom of the 21st century. This is not a recent problem which we have been merely a little slow in recognizing.

While the contemporary world certainly comes with unique challenges that we cannot ignore, great minds in education have long railed against the futility of teaching nothing but facts and expecting the process to result in authentically well-educated individuals.

In 1968, Paulo Freire wrote in Pedagogy of the Oppressed:

Education this becomes an act of depositing, in which the students are the depositories and the teacher is the depositor. Instead of communicating, the teacher issues communiqués and makes deposits which the students patiently receive, memorize, and repeat. […] [The students] do, it is true, have the opportunity to become collectors or cataloguers [sic] of the things they store. But in the last analysis, it is the people themselves who are filed away through the lack of creativity, transformation, and knowledge in this (at best) misguided system. For apart of inquiry, apart from the praxis, individuals cannot be truly human. [pg 72]

In 1916, John Dewey wrote in his collection of essays, Democracy and Education:

Why is it, in spite of the fact that teaching by pouring in, learning by passive absorption, are universally condemned, that they are still so entrenched in practice? That education is not an act of “telling” and being told, but an active and constructive process, is a principle almost as generally violated in practice as conceded in theory. [pg 38, III. “Education as Direction”]

That science may be taught as a set of formal and technical exercises is only too true. This happens whenever information about the world is made an end in itself. The failure of such instruction to procure culture is not, however, evidence of the antithesis of natural knowledge to humanistic concern, but evidence of a wrong educational attitude. [pg 219, XVII. “Science in the Course of Study”]

So even without cellphones, YouTube, and Google, these educators (writing 45 and 97 years ago, respectively) understood that a good education (and particularly for Dewey, a good science education) cannot be measured in units of facts-retained.

So why hasn’t anything changed in at least a hundred years or so? What Freire calls the “banking” model of education continues to be the bread and butter of mainline K-12 pedagogy — driven not by teachers, but by the archaic curriculum standards to which they are beholden. Of what value is the ability to regurgitate Newton’s Laws on an exam if the student’s curiosity and ability to engage with humanity’s understanding of the world is left underdeveloped? To be sure, content and curiosity are not mutually exclusive. But in the presence of so much negative pressure from quantitative standards and positive pressure from the ease of rote instruction, where is the weighting of that balance going to inevitably lean?

With the onset of the kind of change highlighted in the video, the imperative for “21st century education” does not become any different, though it certainly becomes all the more emphatic. When Dewey set up his University of Chicago Schools near the end of the 19th century, I think it likely that he made many of the same kinds of arguments that we are making in the early years of the 21st. That means that at least several generations of the status quo have passed by since this idea was proposed. What shall we do now, in the times we have been given?



Recruiting STEM Professionals into Teaching

When I tell people that I went from working as a NASA research engineer to a transition into teaching physics in urban public schools, the response I most often get is something along the lines of “oh, how noble of you!” or perhaps “what a selfless thing to do!” I’ve been finding it difficult to react to these kinds of statements. There is nothing really wrong with this perspective I suppose, and I certainly don’t wish to appear as if I am ungrateful for the well-wishes of those who clearly intend to be positive and supportive of my career choice. But I have to confess to a nagging discomfort about what it feels like such statements imply.

Why is it assumed that my motivations for entering teaching were altruistic? That it is somehow a step down, or a sacrifice of some kind, or a service, for me as an educated and personally accomplished engineer to enter teaching? Why is this not applauded as a strong career choice to which I was aspiring and then achieved? I mean, it’s not like the BTR admissions process was a cakewalk; in fact, I don’t think I have ever been through such a rigorous screening (not even for NASA), nor have I ever before been in the same cohort with so many uniquely accomplished people as my present colleagues. And so far, teaching is among the hardest things I have done in my life — my no-kidding, dead-serious goal for last week was simply “suck less.” I’m certainly not here graciously bestowing my munificence on the yearning masses.

So why the implicit attitude that teaching is only for them that can’t do? Have we lost sight of the possibility that there could be so many reasons besides money or status to choose a profession? I chose teaching because I know it is an important profession that has a wide impact on people and our nation’s social well-being. I also like the daily challenge and creativity required when trying to manage the intersection of people and ideas all the time. These are important qualities for me.

I have no idea how to fix the tangled paradoxed of teaching entry, but I can say what I would ideally like to have in teaching as a profession. Want more trained scientists and engineers entering teaching? I can’t speak for everyone with a STEM degree, but here’s my stab at what my wishlist would have looked like for teaching just coming coming out of my undergrad with a Bachelors in Aerospace Engineering:

  • Actively recruit me. It probably hasn’t occurred to me that I could teach. Convince me based on how teaching is a meaningful, useful, and challenging career, and be able to truthfully tell me most of the following:
  • The offered starting salary need not be competitive with top engineering jobs, but it should be comfortable and secure.
  • Acknowledge that not all teachers are equal in effectiveness. My salary level above the baseline should depend solely on my merit as an educator.
  • Define merit as an educator as a combination of:
    a) Peer review of my teaching (by other respected teachers/colleagues, highest weight factor)
    b) Positive outcomes for students (prepared for future classes/college, increased scores on authentic assessments of skills that matter)
    c) Contribution to the field (making my practice open and public, publishing and sharing results from both innovation and failure in my classroom, attending conferences, collaborating with and assisting other teachers, mentoring, etc)
  • Acknowledge that not all teaching positions are created equal.
    a) Actively incentivize needed specialties such as STEM, ESL, and Special Education.
    b) Actively incentivize needed placements such as rural and urban schools.
  • Affirm that the following factors are irrelevant to student learning, hence irrelevant to my performance as an educator, and hence irrelevant to my pay/incentives:
    a) standardized test scores
    b) time in grade / time in service
    c) tenure
  • Don’t make tenure a given or a time-dependent milestone. Challenge me to earn it.
    a) The primary factor in granting tenure is the assessment of my peers and colleagues, my fellow educators.
    b) The primary factor in revoking tenure is the assessment of my peers and colleagues, my fellow educators.
    c) Grant me tenure only if I demonstrate the long-term potential to innovate and/or perform exceptionally. If I don’t need to excel to earn it, I don’t feel like it’s an achievement.
  • I recognize that teaching is it’s own profession and that content knowledge is not the same thing as knowing how to teach. But I’m an engineer and I already have a degree.
    a) Don’t try and get me to buy into theory; teach me to teach with case studies and a rigorous, practicum-based program that embeds me in the environment I’ll be teaching in. I’ll learn the theory I need to know through practice. I’ll read the textbooks if I decide to do a doctorate in education, not before.
    b) Don’t patronize me and risk a year of lost learning for students by letting me teach before I’m ready. I don’t want to be coddled — I want to be prepared.

Hmm. Acceptable list for now. I may revise it later. Thoughts from other STEM professionals or post-secondary students? What would teaching as a profession have to look like for you to seriously consider teaching? Would these suggestions improve or harm the perceived status of the profession to you and those with whom you interact most?



Gender Gaps in Engineering and Teaching

Katie Mangan over at the Chronicle of Higher Education has posted an article called In Terms of Gender, Engineering and Teaching Are Lopsided – Diversity in Academe. The article includes a photo and some quotes from me.

I don’t think it comes across well in the article, and this is probably just due to how I phrased things, but it’s not so much that I see myself as a role model for girls to go into STEM careers (for starters, I’m not female).  Rather, I see it as part of my job to ignore what society tells anyone that they can’t do and focus on bringing out what they can do. That includes women in STEM fields, among a vast array of other demographic disparities. Mangan’s article does draw needed attention to this important issues, and I’m glad I had the conversation with her.

To take a step back though and look at the big picture… I think the gender gap in any profession, including teaching and engineering, has a lot to do with the perceived status of the profession. That’s why I got raised eyebrows for my career move (that and maybe the salary hit) — not because engineering is “testosterone-fueled” as Mangan writes. (What does that mean anyway? That engineering requires testosterone to run? I disagree with that perhaps unintentionally reinforcing implication.)

The real question some people were wondering, whether consciously or not, was why would I want to voluntarily move from what society treats as a high status profession to one it treats as a low status one?

By extension then, we see the layer underneath: despite the advances women have made in graduation rates, they are still unconsciously relegated to lower status within almost any profession. It’s not a huge leap to predict from there that our highest status professions (doctors, law firm partners, CEOs, superstar athletes, engineers, etc) are going to be predominantly male. We can claim neo-liberalism all we want, but the statistics repeatedly show that our underlying assumptions and how we have chosen to structure society are still infused with inequities — among them, allowing women to reach their potential in all fields.

We have a long way to go, on so many issues. It starts in the classroom. Which is why I’m here.



It’s Snowing on Venus: Students as Sense-Makers

Oh yeah, almost forgot to post it here. My latest blog post for BTR was posted about a week ago: It’s Snowing on Venus: Students as Sense-Makers.

Here’s a teaser:

As I enter deeper into the “disillusionment” phase of the new teacher cycle, I’m certain that there will be times in which I doubt myself and the systems in which I find myself. But it’s moments like these, in which students show that they are brilliantly capable of making sense of science on their own terms, that provide the islands of inspiration that I know will keep me going.

It’s an outbrief of sorts from one of the clinical interviews that I am conducting with specific case study students throughout the year.



Six Women Who Changed Science – And the World

ikenbot:

hydrogeneportfolio:

Minimal Posters – Six Women Who Changed Science. And The Word.

I want these in my room.




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