STEAM: Revolutionizing Education

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In order to be able to accomplish the skill of properly mailing a letter, in 5th grade I was expected to learn the abbreviation for each state of the United States. For example, my state of Missouri had the abbreviation Mo. while Mississippi and Montana were abbreviated Miss. and Mont., respectively. The first time I took the test over this content I forgot one of the periods. Thus, I was required to rewrite the entire test. I was furious and the second time through I wrote gigantic periods following each abbreviation, almost as large as the “o”s themselves. When the teacher collected my test she commented, “I see someone remembered all the periods this time.” Well, a few years later the postal codes were changed to two letter symbols without the periods i.e. MO, MS, and MT for Missouri, Mississippi, and Montana and I remember thinking back on that 5th grade exercise and feeling like it was the biggest waste of my time and energy. Not to mention that fact that now mailing a letter has become almost obsolete and if I need to know a postal code I have quick access to the information on the Internet.

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And as a teacher I often reflect on whether I have caused my own students to participate in similarly futile exercises. Have I ever forced content that will either become obsolete or is readily available to students via a quick Google Search? And the answer is, sadly, “yes”. So then I’m left with the question, “What is the purpose of education these days”? After all, the jobs my students will be employed in probably don’t even exist right now. So what am I preparing them for?

My thoughts and reflections have driven me to read and ponder a lot about the topic. I started searching for what companies will be looking for in employees in the future. My conclusion is that we, as educators, will benefit our students by fostering the development of novel and adaptive thinking, the ability to work in and think about multiple disciplines at once (transdisciplinarity), innovation, and collaboration. Furthermore, in allowing students to develop high emotional and social intelligence and the ability to make sense out of problems will empower them to interact with others face-to-face and through digital collaborations to solve the problems of the world. Finally, in fostering a service oriented mindset we might see a greater emergence of globally minded citizens intent on providing sustainable solutions. As Mike Newby argued back in 2005, we need to move away from a content-driven curriculum and incorporate an experimental and progressive curriculum that encourages students to take risks and be at ease with an uncertain future (Newby). 

In my current position I was hired to develop the STEM (Science Technology Engineering, and Mathematics) program at our school. To circumvent attempting to change the ways of others, I introduced an entirely new class to the school, our STEAM (Science Technology Engineering Art and Mathematics) Academy. The objectives of the course are actually to help students develop novel and adaptive thinking, transdisciplinarity, a design mindset, collaborative skills, and new media literacy. This is achieved through hands-on project based activities. The students also engage in daily mini-challenges that develop both design and drawing skills as well as the capacity to think outside of the box.

Mini-Challenge: 5 minutes to build a tower from 2 sheets of paper.

Students have competed in class-wide competitions that extended between all four STEAM classes to build the tallest tower, a bridge that could hold the most mass, the fastest zip-line carrier, and a cargo airplane that could carry the heaviest load and travel the furthest distance. Students also completed a larger project of a self-designed air-powered car and competed in a school-wide competition in the gym. Towards the end of this first semester, the STEAM designers and engineers have built a competitive mousetrap vehicle. Additionally, these scientists have established websites that create or build upon their digital portfolio to showcase their growth and learning in STEAM. 

As one of my colleagues said to me, “It’s a lot of work to keep students engaged in the classroom!” and what does she mean by that? Well, rounding up supplies and being prepared so that students participate in hands-on activities every single class period does take a lot of time and organization. Plus, it feels like the classroom is in a constant state of construction. And there is a lot of mess involved. However, the rewards are worth it. Student heads are bent over projects and they are deep in discussion or they are working intently together, hands gripping a project trying to engineer a specific component. Or, they are drawing a design and discussing different aspects of materials, physics, and construction. During “thinking outside the box” challenges my front wall becomes a display of creative ideas. At the beginning of the semester students struggled to list two or three novel ideas but now they can fill the paper. And then they look over the ideas of others and become even more inspired. Plus, they are learning first hand what the science actually transfers to in real-life. Recently a student said to me regarding his mousetrap car, “It is so fun to actually calculate speed. I mean I’ve done it before on paper in other classes but now it actually means something.”

Of course I’m taking these ideas and transferring them to my other classes. AP chemistry students benefit also from engaging in novel and adaptive thinking, designing experiments, and collaborating. Now let’s spread this type of thinking and education everywhere.  It’s time to revolutionize the way we teach our children.


Crompton, Jen Cohen. "The Future Of Work: 10 Skills You Will Need To Be Successful [INFOGRAPHIC]." Digitalist Magazine. Digitalist, 25 June 2014. Web. 09 Oct. 2016.

Gray, Alex. "The 10 Skills You Need to Thrive in the Fourth Industrial Revolution." World Economic Forum. World Economic Forum, 19 Jan. 2016. Web. 9 Oct. 2016.

Institute for the Future for the University Phoenix Research Institute. Future Work Skills 2010. N.p.: Institute for the Future for the U Phoenix Research Institute, 2011. Print.

Kim, Larry. "10 Critical Skills You’ll Need to Succeed at Work in 2020." Inc., 27 May 2015. Web. 09 Oct. 2016.

Newby, M. (2005). A Curriculum for 2020. Journal Of Education For Teaching: International Research And Pedagogy, 31(4), 297-300.

Samuel-becker. "Forward Thinking: 10 Skills That Will Be the Most Valuable By 2020." The Cheat Sheet. Money and Career Cheat Sheet, 08 Feb. 2016. Web. 09 Oct. 2016.

Student Voices: Dasha from Syria


  • Name: Dasha Said
  • Age: 17
  • Year: Senior
  • Home Country: Syria
  • Resident of KSA: 3 years
  • Hobbies: Basketball and Swimming
  • Favorite Foods: fruity yogurt and a Russian rice/chicken/carrots dish 
  • Dislikes: When people ask her what it feels like to be one of a quadruplet.
  • Future Plans: To study architecture

Her whole face lights up when her home country of Syria is mentioned. “It’s such a beautiful place. The people are nice and help each other. Everyone is down to Earth. It’s Safe.” She bows her head, “But now it’s not safe.” Her fingers run across the table top as she formulates her words, “We got used to the war. Got used to the bombs. Got used to not going out on some days.” A pause. “But you can’t stop living, you know? You have to keep carrying on with your life. And if you get hit by a bomb, inshallah, then it was meant to be.”

During her first year in Saudi Arabia at a friend’s birthday celebration someone set off a Birthday Popper.  She describes how it “freaked her out” and how scared she was just from the sound. She thought bombs were going off in Saudi Arabia too.

Her family left Syria after her father’s company suffered economic set-backs from the war. He moved his family to Jeddah in order to take a better job. “We didn’t want to come and we cried in the airplane the entire way here. People in the plane thought someone in our family had died.”

Despite the crises in Syria, Dasha and her family return to visit whenever they can. She mentions that they “are lucky” because they also have Russian passports so they can come and go as they please. Other Syrians are stuck and can’t leave. The good fortune of her Russian heritage partially protects her brothers from being taken forcefully into the military. However, her family is still afraid of this possibility. She says there was a time when there were check points, throughout Syria, even in the capital and all 17 and 18 year olds were captured. Even the husband of one of her mother’s friends was seized. The streets were void of men. “We’re Russians so we pass by easier but [there was a time] we were afraid my brothers would be taken.”

She says they “thank God every day” that they live in the capital because it is safer there than in the rest of Syria since that is where the President resides. She feels sorry for the people outside of Damascus because “those are the ones really suffering.” She says “those people feel bullets passing by their heads. They see blood and dead bodies in the street every day.”

When she visits Damascus she is shocked by the inflation. The price of a falafel has risen from 25 to 250 Syrian Pounds. Going out for drinks and food for 7 or 8 people costs 50,000 Pounds but the average monthly salary for a teacher is only 20,000 Pounds. 

Why return to a country where there is inflation and war? Because of family and friends. Because of her childhood home. “And being able to go out without abayas. Because of the freedom.” But when I ask her about being afraid of the war, she reminds me again, “You can’t stop living.”

After University she wants to return to Syria. She thinks her generation can rebuild Syria. She thinks it will take 10 years to recover from the destruction. But “there is hope”, she says. 

Note: both student and parents agreed to publishing of this post

A Data Point Supporting Arts in Education

My husband spilled the beans. And before I knew it I was involved in our High School musical production of the Sound of Music.

Dusting off my violin, I joined students in the pit to help provide the sound for the musical. The early rehearsals were rough and my admiration for my colleagues in the music/theater department increased exponentially as they guided, counseled, encouraged, and coached students through learning the music, songs, lines, choreography, and the staging. As with all productions, there was definitely that thought, “Will this ever come together?” But the students and my amazing colleagues never gave up, adding hours to their rehearsals and working together through difficult spots and troublesome glitches. Over time more notes were being played (in tune even!), beautiful songs were sung, lines were remembered, and a story was coming to life.

I love observing students immerse themselves in the creative process. Any student involved in acting, singing, playing, technical crew, or stage crew is positively affected. For those new to the process the growth is most remarkable. They gain new skills and confidence. Most importantly, they are filled with love and appreciation for music. In the hallways they hum or sing the songs from the musical all day long. In the classroom they share the latest triumphs from rehearsal or the challenges to be overcome before show time. And they exude happiness.  Indeed, there is scientific evidence that art and happiness are “inevitably intertwined” in that “people invariably report that art making is a source of joy for them” even when using art to facilitate the grieving process of a loss (Malchiodi).

photo courtesy of Roslyn Dotterweich

Finally, we’re running the show. Of course, it isn’t without flaws but to the audience it’s seamless. For all involved there is a thrill with the completed product and a true sense of accomplishment. I am impressed with how far the students have come and how wonderful the final product is. Of course, the benefits of such a production are not limited to those involved.

Students who attend the show are astounded. And those who came grudgingly with the claim “I don’t really like that kind of stuff” approached me in the pit absolutely gleeful. They reported “This is amazing” or “The music is so good” or “I’m so glad I came”.

Though shocked I was at the diminishment of some of my own skills since my symphony days, there was great gratification in playing again. I have been reminded of the soul filling joy that music (and dance and art) has provided me in my own personal life. It was the balancing thread that carried me through college and graduate school. I am determined that my resurrected violin will no longer remain silent.

There are scientific studies to support that participation in the arts lowers stress levels and improves overall well-being of individuals (Hopper). Using fMRI, scientists have even demonstrated that the creative process of art making actually enhances functional connectivity in the brain (Bolwerk). Who doesn’t want a better functioning brain?

My Sound of Music experience is another small piece of evidence as to why I, as a science teacher, advocated the “A” for arts in the development of our STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) program, making it STEAM.

This is my plea that whenever the chance arises in your community, please support art programs, funding of the arts and encourage student participation in these programs.


  • Bolwerk, Anne, Jessica Mack-Andrick, Frieder Lang, Arnd Dörfler, and Christian1 Maihöfner. "How Art Changes Your Brain: Differential Effects of Visual Art Production and Cognitive Art Evaluation on Functional Brain Connectivity." PLOS ONE:. PLOS, 1 July 2014. Web. 07 June 2016.
  • Hopper, Elizabeth. The Link Between Creativity and Happiness | HealthyPsych. HealthyPsychcom Site Wide Activity RSS. N.p., 30 Sept. 2015. Web. 07 June 2016.Ho
  • Malchiodi, Cathy. Art and Happiness. Psychology Today. Sussex Publishers, 27 Sept. 2011. Web. 07 June 2016.

Cultural Clashes Crumpling in the Classroom

It’s clear that I’m “not one of them.” The messages are subtle. Mumbled greetings. Ignoring me in the hallways. Grouping together in the classroom with disregard for what I have to say or present, heads bent on their phones or in huddled conversations between themselves. My 11th grade advisory students are all great kids but they clearly haven’t bought into the “advisory program” and they certainly do not see the purpose of my presence in their lives.

Through my current reading of the book, Understanding Arabs by Margaret K. Nydell (a must read for expats living in the Middle East) I learned that hospitality and the reception of hospitality is very important to Arabs. I asked my advisory students about Arabic hospitality and they went crazy explaining it to me. Using the expression “Welcome” itself is even important. It gave me an idea. If I could change their frame of reference when they entered my classroom maybe we could find a way to connect.

I decided to invite them into advisory as my guests. I brought in hand-made treats, chips, chocolate, fruit, sparkling juice and tea. I covered the table and arranged things nicely. Then I sent an email inviting them to come as my guests into my room for advisory.

 A couple of heads peek curiously into the room, surveying the scene. “Welcome!” I say and motion them into the room.  They spot the table and grins spread across their face. “"What is this?” they query as they begin seriously investigating the food on the table. “"It's a busy week and I think you need a break so I'm treating you like guests today” “This is so sweet.” “Wow, you did this for us?” Genuine expressions of gratitude erupt as they eagerly fill their plates.

 The second wave of students enter, my more skeptical ones. They are more hesitant, suspicious, perhaps expecting “"a catch”. They see the other students enjoying their munchies and they can’t resist. I emphasize my “welcome” and repeat the invitation to be my guest. Their proclivity towards disrespecting advisory is suddenly challenged by their ingrained cultural responsiveness and there is a pause as they are somewhat unsure how to proceed.

 However, they can't resist the draw of the food and drinks and they approach the table. Upon accepting the invitation to be my guest, their cultural reflexes surface and they don’t search for an excuse to leave advisory nor do they get on their phones and they do not ignore me. Instead, they press in, encircling me.

 Then, they start to talk. Really talk. Dreams are shared. Differences between what parents want and what they want are discussed. University hopes are expressed. And in a few minutes I learn more than I have in four months. 

 One even stays to help me clean up. He continues to talk about his fears and hopes for the future. 

 Two weeks have passed and every time I see my advisory students in the halls they call out to me by name. One student in particular comes to me at random times to update me on a project he’s started in an effort of pursuing his dreams. Even more importantly, I feel a connection to them and my care and concern for them has increased.

There is nothing new in this experience is there? It is just another example of the importance of bridging cultures and reaching out to our students in unique ways. It’s true, we didn’t get to the advisory lesson that day but what we did was so much more important and will hopefully lay the foundation for growth in our next year together.  

Project-based learning does work!

Students engage in a reading activity to introduce them to the vocabulary and the life-cycle of a star. Later a kinesthetic activity places all the students in the center of the classroom acting first as particles of dust and then hydrogen and helium atoms following the sequence a star’s life-cycle. A quiz reveals that the students are beginning to learn the concepts but I wonder if they'llmaster the standards if they immerse themselves in a project.

When introduced to the written guidelines and a detailed rubric the students actually seem excited about the activity. Autonomy is provided and they are thrilled to put their individual touch on the enterprise. They ask all sorts of questions and it is clear that the imaginations are already fully active.

As the due date approaches, the boards and posters start floating into the classroom. Colored foam balls representing different stages of a star’s life cycle or the structure of the sun complete the required 3-D component of the project. The creativity is abundant and the students are clearly proud of their work. I'm genuinely impressed with the diversity in approach and the individuality expressed by each piece of work.

We go through the rubric carefully one more time together and I have the students make a list of what they are still missing from their projects. They take their list home and bring back the final touches the next class period. Then I mark the rubric and allow them one more chance in class to add to their work based on my markings. Finally, nearly every project is complete and demonstrates mastery of the standards.

A colleague suggests giving the students a pop quiz with the same content as their previous quiz to determine whether the students have made progress in learning. The improvement is astounding, the average shifting from 60% to 73%.  As we continue on with the unit the students are able to maintain discussions using the proper vocabulary regarding. It appears that Vanessa Vega’s words ring true, “project-based learning (PBL) can increase retention of content and improve students' attitudes towards learning...

I’ve always known the value of hands-on, project-based learning but it’s nice to have the evidence!

Vega, Vanessa. "Project-Based Learning Research Review." Edutopia. Edutopia, 3 Dec. 2012. Web. 14 Mar. 2016.

Science Fair!

The counter tops and table tops have become delightfully cluttered with projects in progress. A calcium chloride bottle, spilled yeast, banana peels, beakers, pipettes and graduated cylinders are scattered throughout the classroom.

It’s that time of year when science fair projects are underway all across the world. We’re conducting, for the first time, a science fair in our high school. Initially, we were faced with an onslaught of protest from the students such as “But that’s so much work” and “We’ve already done a science fair!” as though participating once in 4th grade exempts them from the benefits of designing and conducting an experiment as an older, more mature person. Once informed that the Science Fair would contribute significantly to their second semester grade, there was more “buy-in”

Our secondary science department has been stunned with the realization of just how much investment there is in the process. Working with students who haven’t spent a lot of time immersed in scientific thinking requires incorporating extra training time into the classroom, time many don’t feel they necessarily have. Even guiding students towards a question to investigate was more time-consuming than originally expected. The idea of “wandering and wondering” is not yet part of the mindset of our pupils. Helping learners determine what background information they need in order to design an experiment and understand the results was yet another hurdle. Identifying variables and writing a procedure was like extracting teeth. But finally, some are starting to experiment.

It is my preference that students collect their data at the school. This way they have access to legitimate tools of science and guidance from their teachers. However, funneling 400+ students through our lab and classroom space isn’t logistically possible and some experiments are not conducive to completing in the classroom. For example, one student is measuring the heart rate of her canines (she has over 20 dogs) in response to varying types of food. Another pupil is querying whether feeding quails peanuts will result in larger eggs (as with chickens).

He enters with a big smile, “I have more news on my quails.” He then proceeds to describe behaviors he’s noticing. One quail is laying eggs so despite having purchased 10 quails only one is laying eggs. So, he’s doing his entire experiment with one quail but he’s excited about it. He thinks about it constantly. Even though he’s not one of my students, he drops in nearly every day to discuss the progress of his experiment. He shows me pictures. He’s genuinely excited and he’s learned so much about quail biology, their bahaviors, and their care. In my opinion, one of the most important things is for students to find a topic they are genuinely interested in.

“Look, Dr. Markham, my hypothesis is supported!” A grin erupts across his face as he points to his data table and gestures towards the beakers of his experiment.

“This isn’t what I expected but it’s still cool!” Her soap pieces weigh the same before and after soaking in various concentrations of lemon juice and the volumes of the liquid haven’t changed indicating that the soap didn’t dissolve into the liquid. “I think I’m going to let them dry and weigh again, just to be sure. Either way this is interesting.”

Several students are redoing their experiments for a second or third time, working out the details of their protocols, but they remain undiscouraged. In fact, they’re determined to figure out how to make it work. They analyze their technique and the age of the reagents, just like real scientists! It’s so fun for me to watch them in action, to see their enthusiasm, and to witness their determination.

Students who aren’t conducting their experiment at school are engaged in a VESPR project, studying molecular geometry in Chemistry and a Star Project in Physical Science. They’re equally engaged. The classroom is literally buzzing with activity and I’m pulled back and forth between the theoretical and experimental scientists in my classroom. My heart swells with joy.

Evidence of experiments linger long after the students have disappeared. It’s so worth the mess to have witnessed the students learning and experimenting.  But the best part are the grins and the students’ own declarations of “This is actually really fun!”

Of course, I’m not surprised because, even with all the trouble-shooting and the questions and the mess and the chao, science IS fun!

Insha’ Allah

Insha’ Allah: if Allah wills

Instead of being annoyed at, what seems to me, people not doing their jobs this phrase is employed. When an item is out of stock in the store this expression justifies the item not returning to the shelf for another month or more. It was used when my children’s visas weren’t processed. The store is closed for prayers and is supposed to open in 5 minutes but this statement justifies the opening time being delayed 15, 30, or even 60 minutes.

After 2 months of waiting for our visas to Saudi Arabia they finally arrived. We started school over a month late. No one was upset. Everyone just told us, "That's the way it is here." Insha' Allah

When things don’t work out here, everyone just sits back and utters, “Insha’ Allah.” To me it has become an excuse for inaction which goes against my mindset of “make it happen”, you know, do what it takes to make things work. Being a woman of faith myself, I can accept a philosophy of “It’s in God’s hands” but such an attitude  juxtaposes personal effort to work seriously towards the goal.  Only after I've exhausted all my own ideas is it acceptable to acknowledge an alternate plan. Here, however, it seems to me that if something doesn’t happen right away, everyone just nods and utters “Insha’Allah, accepting the fate. Sometimes it feels to me like a fatalistic approach to life resulting in a lack of motivation to take action.

 I began to think that if I heard the utterance “insha’ Allah” one more time I’d explode. “Your order will be ready on Saturday, insha’ Allah.” “Your visa will be ready in 2-3 days, insha’ Allah.” “Insha’ Allah, the store will open at 10:00.” “Insha' Allah, your food will come out in 15 minutes.” “So we have an appointment at 7:30, insha’ Allah.”

In the classroom, looking at the review sheet for one of our chapter tests sitting in front of each student it is clear to me that most of the students haven’t completed it.

“Did you not do the review packet?”

“Insha’ Allah, Dr. Markham.” My blood threatens to boil.

“What do you mean?” Of course I’m not really sure if I want to walk down this path.

“Insha’ Allah. If Allah wants us to do well on the test, we’ll do well on the test.” An explosion is hanging in the air.

“Without reviewing?”


The words are on the tip of my tongue, “I guess you won't do well on the test because you weren't inspired to do the review packet.” But I do not utter them. I also want to remind them that they will need to be pushing the pencil when they sit to write the exam and no one else can do it for them, however I do not. This expression, 'Insha' Allah', while part of the culture may mean "hopefully" is also linked to the religion that many of these students adhere to and in that case it is linked to deity. Thus, I do not wish to offend and must find away to work with the situation as is.

I’ve been pondering how to handle it. How can culture remain in-tact while building motivation to work?

Midterm exams. This time I have prepared an in-class review with questions in a Power Point format for the students to respond to and initiate discussion with. Empowered with white boards and note taking paper the students begin to reply to the queries appearing before them.

“Will you give us a copy of this Power Point?” If the answer is affirmative then all note-taking will cease so, of course, my retort is “no.” And I follow up with, “All of these questions are directly related to the exam, if you want to do well you must take notes and make sure you understand each point we discuss today in class.”

A student queries, “If we know everything from this review will be do well on the exam?

“Insha’ Allah” I reply. To my surprise, the entire class erupts in cheers.

“Here’s the deal,” I continue, “There are two ways to phrase this. Either ‘Insha’ Allah I’ll do my best and do well on the test’ or….” Students are silent, almost holding their breath, as they await my upcoming thought.

 “Or….I’ll do my best and insha’ Allah I’ll do well on the test.” Another giant eruption of cheers accompanied by the outburst, “Oooh” follows. It’s as though I've performed some tricky move in a sports event upsetting the opponent.

With a magnificent smile a student confirms, “We get it Dr. Markham. We get it. We have to do the work.”

 Just the simple implementation of my own personal syntax has eliminated my individual frustration with what I perceive as an excessive use of “Insha ‘Allah.”  It is my motto to appreciate and embrace the culture in which I live. And, by employing the use of “Insh’Allah” in my classroom rather than shunning  it as I was initially inclined to do, my students and I have each taken one step closer to each other.


"Essential Office Stationery... for the Middle East |" N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Feb. 2016.

Classroom Management: Lab Testing

Last November I reported on some classroom management issues I was having. I wrote about challenging my students with a lab that supposedly exceeded their capabilities (click here to read that post), hoping that the students would learn content and simultaneously become more engaged in the classroom. This approach required exceeding readiness on my part. Since the students’ lab skills were still lacking, everything needed to be prepared ahead of time so that their actual hands-on component would be relatively simple.  My efforts proved worthwhile because, in the end, the students stepped up to the task, learning content and become more serious minded.

However, basic science experiments were still required in order to develop student lab skills. A simple conservation of mass experiment could provide just such an opportunity along with an introduction to content. However, it would be difficult for them to complete it without being silly. They would play with the balloons and chatter and goof around because the lab would seem too easy to warrant their concentration. In the end, I feared they would neither gain the lab skills I was aiming for nor learn the content associated with the lab.

A last-minute stroke of inspiration came: make it an assessment of following directions. I sprang into action as this tactic would also necessitate significant set-up. I had to place students into a testing environment and ensure they could individually perform the experiment. Tables were arranged around the room in a circle so I could stand in the middle and students could work without knowing whether I was looking at them or not. Each seat was equipped with a balloon, a graduated cylinder, vinegar, baking soda and the lab instructions. They would only need to stand to use the measuring scales.

Before entering the room, students were warned that as soon as they crossed the threshold they were in a testing situation. Backpacks were set down at the front of the room and personal computers retrieved. Interest peaked by the unusual set-up, the pupils approached the tables with hushed respect.

First, an online quiz covering content from the previous days was completed. This settled them down right from the start.Then, as instructed, the students moved straight into the practical part of their quiz. Huge emphasis was placed on the fact that this practical portion was part of their assessment. This new approach instigated total silence among the group. Working at different paces from each other, no one needed the scales at the same time. Not a sound was heard when chairs were scooted away and towards the tables. No pushing, giggling, touching, or silliness. Complete silence. Total focus. If I had had a pin to drop, it we would have heard it.

The inherent nature of this set-up actually forced the students to read the instructions. Each person was required to conduct measurements with the graduated cylinder and weighing scale. Everyone was in a serious-minded setting gaining experience in how an experiment should be conducted.  And, unable to consult peers,  the students were coerced into studying and answering the questions connecting the activity to content in this arrangement of a testing situation.

As usual, I advocate thinking outside the box as we seek to meet our students’ needs in the classroom! In this case, both skills and content were attained as measured through later assessment. And, in a review session conducted last week (and months after this activity), formative assessment revealed that most of them had retained what they learned that day. Most importantly, a foundation was laid for how one conducts oneself in the lab, thwarting a tendency for silly behavior and creating an environment more conducive to learning.

Making Models to Build Knowledge

I needed a hands-on model that I could quickly assemble with articles found in the lab. A quick look through my cabinets yielded just such items: different colored marbles, an aluminum dish, and assorted other small items. But what about the electrons? Could I find something that could also help visualize the idea that the electrons are smaller and of much less weight than the protons/neutrons. Paper hole punches! Soon each table was equipped with the makings of an atomic model for every pair of students.

Almost immediately regret over the decision to select marbles settled in. The irritating sound of ricocheting marbles filled the classroom as students succumbed to the irresistible urge to repeatedly drop a marble from their hand onto the table allowing it to reverberate across the epoxy resin surface of the work space.  Clearly, there was no ill-will on the part of the students as they simply “needed” to handle those marbles. So, we carried on. Somehow students were simultaneously listening to instruction and were eager to assemble the atomic models as the theory was introduced. Dropping “neutrons” and “protons” into the “nucleus” was easy but they questioned how they should place the electrons outside the nucleus. Instinctively, they didn’t want to just drop their paper circles by the side of the dish. The concept of energy levels organically became part of our discussion and the students seemed relieved to have direction as to how to order their electron around the nucleus. Great care was taken to properly place their electrons.  Chatter about atoms was filling the classroom.

Later in the unit students easily built isotopes with this same model. They could visualize how the isotope carried the same charge and proton number as the “regular” atoms but that their mass was different. It was easy to accept that these isotopes, because of their varying masses, might have different physical properties and characteristics.

The same models were employed to make cations and anions by adding and removing electrons as the unit moved into ions. Students could easily visualize how charge became negative when electrons were added and positive when electrons were removed.

This same model provided variety to lessons, hands-on learning, and additional review as we built on the students’ understanding of the atomic theory. The models became a familiar tool in the classroom and as they sat before the students,  the marbles were heard ricocheting less and less across the tables. Just like with a beaker or graduated cylinder, the students began to handle the models as a simple piece of equipment required to accomplish a task, in this case, the task of mastering atomic theory.

Keep it simple! No fancy kits need to be ordered to provide our students with hands-on activities. Often things we have lying around can serve the purpose. The rewards include a buzzing classroom and student achievement.

Foster Learning by Making it Personal

A seemingly daunting task lay before me: teaching my chemistry students about the nature of light. That light behaves like a wave and is made up of particles, or photons. The textbook offers the example of the photoelectric effect as proof of the particle nature of light. Which, is cool, but not really imaginable. I wondered, “Could I make my own photoelectric cell and be able to demonstrate the effect in class?” That would make it so much more real to them. Thanks to Google, there were several examples and descriptions online as to how to make, with simple supplies, a photoelectric cell and demonstrate the photoelectric effect. It took a trip to the souks in search of a black light and several attempts of messing around with my materials before I had a functioning device.  I couldn’t wait to show my students.  

The class note-taking sheet was handed out and we began our series of demonstrations and discussions regarding light. The students were engaged with the slinky demonstration and discussion of the wave-like behavior of light. They were wowed by the power of the hand-held spectroscopes to distinguish different wavelengths of visible light. In fact, we lingered here a bit because they really thought this was “cool” and ended up conducting a small exploration by comparing sunlight with fluorescent light in the classroom. Then it was time to talk about photons. 

My little flimsy can with aluminum strips stood on the table. Students gathered in close as they were warned they needed to be looking carefully because what they would be viewing is subtle (the movement of the small pieces of aluminum foil). After charging the pieces of aluminum foil with electrons so that they repelled each other (of course a discussion centered on that!), I held the black light to the can. The students waited skeptically with baited breath for something to happen. Then, the pieces of aluminum foil jumped around a bit and fell side-by-side, no longer repelling each other. Excited outbursts followed. “Can we see that again?” Then we talked our way through what was happening and suddenly they realized they had just seen proof regarding the particle nature of light. One girl’s exclammation, “That is actually really cool” was followed by the others nodding and emitting little sounds of agreement.

Their next task was to explain the photoelectric effect in their own words. In their class notes they found images of the very can they had viewed that day. “Is this here?” a student asks in disbelief. “Yes, I thought having the picture of what you saw would help you make the needed connections.” Several grins spread across the room and soon they are all smiling. I’ll admit, sometimes I’m still never sure if they are laughing at me or with me. I run my tongue over my teeth searching for leftover parsley pieces from lunch and probe, “What is it?”

“Nothing. It’s just that we’ve never had a teacher take pictures for us before.”

Suddenly it hits me, they are appreciative, perhaps even touched, by my effort. They immediately sit down to complete the written task. They question, they ponder, they write. Granted not every student is swept away by my demonstrations but the majority are.

 A personal connection with the content has been made. The students that skeptically hung around the fringe of the group, unwilling to kneel down and see the effect never “got it.” One student actually said to the others, “There’s nothing happening. This isn’t real.” However, those who were on their knees studying the pieces of aluminum foil vehemently defended what they saw and countered the skeptic with scientific explanations.  These are also the students who were able to describe the photoelectric effect and later make connections in a flame test lab, being able to discuss the role of photons in the excitation of electrons and subsequent emissions spectrums while the skeptic remained somewhat lost throughout the unit.

I advocate the effort to “make it personal.” In this case a hands-on experience was provided coupled with the personal touch of the images in the class-note taking sheet. While a small subset of students remained uninvolved despite all efforts on my part, never mastering the concepts of the unit, the rest of the class become involved at different stages. Some students were riveted by only the can, foil strips and black light. Another set was drawn in following discovery of the photographs that related to the class experience. Still another set became interested by the “witnessing” of their peers. All of these students demonstrated learning in subsequent formative and summative assessment.

If even just a handful of students respond to our efforts to “make it personal” and to “make it real”, it’s worth it. The “aha” moments in the classroom, the joy in learning, and the success in assessment are the rewards.   


Inspiration for our Green Hope Group: Field trip to Al Baydha

Al Baydha: A prototype for settling the nomadic people of Saudi Arabia by providing ecological and economical stability through greening of their desert. Ultimately the Bedu people of this region will live off the land they are developing.

About 20 of us clamor onto the bus and shortly teenage rock music fills our space and the desert landscape scattered with camels expands out before us. Two and a half hours later and hundreds of kilometers of sand behind us we finally turn onto a narrow dirt leading to our destination, a lone building surrounded by a burgeoning farm scape. The women in the group all don their abaya and hijab. Several girls chose not to join us due to the clothing requirement so kudos to those who are with us today.


We are the first school group to visit Al Baydha. Our host, Neal Spackman, guides us upstairs to an open-air room of the isolated structure on the property. We seat ourselves comfortably and receive an introduction to this project site.

We study the greening desert immediately surrounding us and note the harsh and barren geography beyond the boundaries of Al Baydha. The  pigeon house, the terrace garden, the dams, and the swales are visible from our viewpoint. We eagerly head out to walk around the site and see the different aspects of the project close up. The students are part of the Green Hope group at school and have visions of making a difference in the world through their environmentally conscious efforts. They are here today to learn about a farming project that actually is building the local water reservoir.

A walk through the swale shows us an area blooming with flowering plants and alive with trees and shrubs. Just outside the swale lies rocks and sand, undisturbed by life. The students are stunned that a simple change in geography (basically building a ditch) can make such a difference. This swale traps water and allows it to absorb into the ground, adding water to the reserves below the surface. The stored water sustains the plant life that provides oils for the local people to sell and animal forage, ground cover, etc. to the developing ecosystem.


The bat cave has been sealed up, waiting for more bats to arrive and for guano to accumulate.

The bat cave is next on the tour. The Bedu workers are proud of this structure and pose for us. One week after the construction of this cave, bats were already sighted within and thousands are expected to eventually reside here. The bats will serve to eat mosquitos and flies and will provide their nitrogen rich guano for fertilization.


The Green Hope Group with Neal Spackman and his workers. On top of the bat cave.

When questioned whether they want to see the dams, the students do not hesitate to accept the offer. Off we march up the hills to observe the dam structure. Again, it is clear that the Bedu workers are proud of the results of their hard labor and eagerly lead the way up the hillside.

Our tour takes us past the pigeon house where pigeons exist without any feeding or maintenance. We climb up onto the garden terraces and step across lush greenery, a rare and amazing experience here in the harsh climate of Saudi Arabia. Here we end our tour with one last view of the project from the terraces.

Back on the bus, the women hastily shed their outerwear and position themselves under the relief of the air conditioning. A student exclaims, “It’s hard to believe that such a place exists here in Saudi Arabia.” The other students nod and utter agreement.

A peace settles in among us.  Climate change can be battled and water can be conserved. Awareness, in already broad-minded students, has been increased. A vision of possibilities has been provided. What a gift to have found this little pocket of hope in Saudi Arabia!

Would you like to know more?

Here is the Al Baydha web page (

And find Neal Spackman’s blog  here ( His blog describes his 5-year journey with the Al Baydha project.






Classroom Management: Tactile Learning and Insisting on Mastery

They’ve been given a piece of paper with random concepts and diagrams. These ideas relate directly to the lauric acid lab they just completed and to the content they will be reading about in their next homework assignment. This is a tactile experience engaging students in the content of Changes of State and the Kinetic Theory. The instructions are to cut the vocabulary terms and the sentences describing and the diagrams illustrating what particles are doing during each phase change and in-between.  Then, they are to glue them in the proper order beginning with “Solid” making the correct links between the words and the diagrams.

As soon as they pick up the scissors they are smiling. They read the words out loud as they cut. Then, they spread them out. “Do you think this goes with that picture?” Intensity fills the room as students concentrate to figure out the connections. First a comparison with each other’s work and then a final check with me before the final gluing. This gives me a chance with each individual to assess whether they are mastering the concepts. It is clear they are still struggling to make a connection between temperature and changes of state.

They are given the additional task to write what is happening to the temperature at each phase of their developing diagram (a direct link to the lauric acid lab).  These instructions are given verbally and written on the board. However, as soon as their last paper is glued down,  they are “done”. The chatter and joking and distraction begin and most of them simply ignore these additional instructions.  So, how do I get them to do it?

“Your exit ticket today is for me to see your written sentences regarding the temperature on your diagrams.” Suddenly they become productive again. They value their break time and do not want to be stuck in the class figuring out temperature and phase change connections. Hastily written sentences are shoved in front of me.  Instructions such as “I can’t read that, please make it legible” or questions like “What is actually happening when you add energy at this stage of your diagram?” or  “What is happening to the atoms and how does that relate to the temperature?” send students returning to their seats in a flurry. Some return three or four times before getting it correct. With each return to the seat there are heavy sighs and murmuring complaints. But once I give that final “OK a huge smile spreads across their faces. Grinning from ear to ear they insert their completed and accurate diagrams into their binders. Some even thank me. All of them cheerfully say “good-bye” as they head off to their well-earned break.

After a couple of months, they are already trained and fewer and fewer are needing to return for “redos” when we have similar activities. They realize I’m actually looking at their work and expecting mastery. Thus, they are making the effort to get it done correctly the first time. And, more and more are asking questions earlier on in the activity to make sure they understand.

Since this activity we have moved on to other topics but the discipline we have been developing is beginning to pay off. Many of the behaviors I described in my previous post have completely disappeared. They still have their moments but there is definite progress. And, my last assessment with them yielded individual ‘bests’ for all students and a drastic overall class improvement in performance at this stage of a unit. My genuine exuberance and expression of pride in them made them laugh at me but I could tell it also made them feel good.

My message from this experience? Give them a chance to “handle” the material, even if it is content but do not let it stop at being a ‘fun’ activity. Stay the course, not lowering standards, and insist that they demonstrate mastery. The results? Developing discipline and leaps in learning!

Classroom Management: Challenge Them

I’ll admit, for the first time in my teaching career I have struggled with classroom management.  It has come as a complete shock to me. Granted my experience isn't happening in every classroom every day.

Here are a few of the issues I have dealt (or didn’t) with:

  1. Students breaking out in outbursts of strange guttural noises, sounding like wild animals. Seriously, I thought one of the boys had Turrets syndrome.
  2.  In the middle of a discussion a student gets up to borrow the hole puncher, a stapler, or get some hand sanitizer, completely oblivious to the fact that I am talking or the timing is just inappropriate
  3. Laughter, background talking, and side conversations
  4. Cross-communication, literally, in the middle of the class between students on opposite sides of the room (“Hey, are you trying out for basketball?”)
  5.  Students not showing up for class or, in particular, tests.
  6. Cheating and plagiarism.
  7. Students doing no work. I mean no work. Seriously, how can you earn 8% in a class?

It’s like the very last item on the agenda was about learning. And actually I don’t even think learning was on the agenda. Have you seen the movie “Dangerous Minds”? A few of those classroom scenes remind me of some of the experiences I have had with some of the students here. However, these students are pampered and spoiled as compared to those economically depraved individuals depicted in the film.

My instinct has been to turn to the literature and to reflect on inspiring movies like “Stand and Deliver.” But I’m no Jaime Escalante.

So, my inspiration was to challenge my students beyond what any of my colleagues thought the students “were ready for.” It was time for my apathetic, singing, distracted students to attempt a legitimate scientific experiment: “What is the effect on the temperature of lauric acid as it is immersed in warm and cold water baths?” (in other words, the heating and cooling curvesfor lauric acid) in the context of studying changes of state.

I’ve loaded my portable lab station with all the necessary supplies. My planning has to be meticulous, trouble-shooting all the pitfalls and challenges the students will face and setting up the experiment in such a way that students can focus on what is happening without being burdened by too much manipulation of equipment. Because these students have, unfortunately, not had much time in the lab. Thus, their skills are not developed.


The students are questioned as to what they think will happen to the temperature of the solid lauric acid when it is heated. With white boards and markers in front of them, they make predictions. None of them are even close.

“You all have an idea of what might happen. Now you get to do the experiment and discover the truth.” Their eyes widen. The silence is broken with, “Is this the right answer?” as a student points to his white board.

“You will determine that for yourselves.  Your challenge is to keep your mind open as you do your experiment. Be careful so that you obtain accurate data. If you do it correctly, I predict that all of you will be surprised with the results.”

With their enlarged eyes they smile and look around the room at the prepared experimental set-up they will be using. Anticipation settles in and it is clear they are eager to get started. They actually want discover the truth!

After reading through the purpose and procedure, it’s time to begin. The students approach the lab bench with hushed respect like small children who have just been handed a “grown-up” task. Pride exudes from their teenage frames. Serious business is underway as the students operate the temperature probes, record data and make observations.

“The temperature isn’t lowering!”

“Why isn’t the temperature falling?”

And thus the discovery begins.  “Is it the equipment?”  “How is my prediction wrong?” “What is going on?” “Does this have to do with energy?”

And thus they begin their discovery of the role of energy in changes of states of matter. Graphing their data is energizing and clearly they enjoy seeing the visual of their own work. The curves are perfect. Their results demonstrate they are making the connections.

And, I realize that they are learning and that we have had several classes without management problems. Others thought these students couldn’t do it. But I thought otherwise.

My thought for today? Take students to higher levels: they will rise to the challenge and classroom management issues will diminish.

3-Dimensional Learning with the History of Atomic Theory

Simple supplies

It’s Thursday afternoon (the equivalent of Friday to the rest of the world). They’re tired. They would rather go to the volleyball tournament but our team isn’t currently playing. And we are discussing the history of the atomic theory. They clearly are not convinced this is going to be an interesting lesson.

In an effort to help them appreciate the study of the unseen world, practice conducting an investigation, collaborate to produce data to serve as a basis for evidence, to see that different patters observed can provide evidence for causality in explanations of phenomena all in the context of studying the history of the development of atomic theory, I set up a little activity for them that I had modified (by making it simpler, of course!) from one I found on the Internet (1).

A board, some textbooks, a marble, butcher paper, and they’re intrigued. On the floor and pencils in hand, they are intent on the task. Mental gymnastics begin to take place as they try to figure out the shape and placement of the unknown object under the board. Inadvertently my students find themselves in observation, recording of data, and discussion.  

It was intense. And, it was also the last school day before Halloween.

“If it bounces off in that direction, what does it mean?”

“Wait, does that mean a rounded or straight edge?”

“What do you think?”

“Should we mark it here or there?”

“What is another way we can approach this?”

They also make connections to the documentary film, “Clash of the Titans” on the development of atomic theory they were to have viewed before coming to class. The gold-foil experiment of Ernest Rutherford is suddenly appreciated. The students wonder at the determination, the intuition, the ideas, the experimentation of great scientists. More importantly they see how different and conflicting perspectives work together to come up with more accurate results. They perceive 

I concur that “Science is more than a school subject, or the periodic table, or the properties of waves. It is an approach to the world, a critical way to understand and explore and engage with the world, and then have the capacity to change that world..."  President Obama (2)

Furthermore, “The National Research Council's (NRC) Framework describes a vision of what it means to be proficient in science; it rests on a view of science as both a body of knowledge and an evidence-based, model and theory building enterprise that continually extends, refines, and revises knowledge.” (3)  Thus, students must be immersed in practices that connect them with this vision.

Even a discussion of the history of atomic theory can take students on a three dimensional journey that covers not only content but involves them in practices fostering connections with the world and broader ideas found therein.

  1. Muller, Eric. "READ: RUTHERFORD ROLLER - EXPLORATORIUM | THE MUSEUM - AWED.BIZ." AWED.BIZ. N.p., 2003. Web. 29 Oct. 2015.
  2. "Science, Technology, Engineering and Math: Education for Global Leadership." <i>Science, Technology, Engineering and Math: Education for Global Leadership</i>. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 Oct. 2015.
  3. "Three Dimensions | Next Generation Science Standards." <i>Three Dimensions | Next Generation Science Standards</i>. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 Oct. 2015.

Unplugged Costa Rica Ecology Service Learning Trip: Reflections and Was it Worth it?

Heads tip in wonder and discovery. Voices rise in heated debate over issues of sustainability. Fingers point and cries of excitement are uttered. Hushed awe. Quiet reflection is offered about humankind’s stewardship of earth. Friendships develop over nonelectronic games, shared experiences, and coping with humidity and insects. “Let’s save the world optimism” bubbles out of teenage minds and mouths.

That’s what Eva and I have seen. However, we also wonder what the students actually take away from an experience such as this. So, we asked them.

What was the best part of this trip and why?

  • “Watching baby turtles go into the sea”
  • “White water rafting”
  • “The night hiking”
  • “Playing soccer with the locals”
  • “I strengthened old friendships and built new ones”
  • “The places that we saw”

Every student experienced an aspect of this trip that struck a chord with him/her.


What difficulties did you experience on this trip and what did you gain from facing them”

  • “We did not have electronics…I faced it by playing games with my friends”
  • “Constantly being drenched in sweat and running out of clean clothes”
  • “Dangerous animals…I figured out that they are actually really cool” 
  • “The darkness…I gained that if I just face my fear I will get to see amazing things like an owl eating its prey (a mouse)”
  • “I had quite a hard time with giving up my phone, since I’m used to talking to my parents when I get scared…I learned that sometimes I   can deal with things myself”
  • “Facing my fear during the night hike…I gained the wonderful experience of seeing really cool animals”

Every student faced challenges and they all grew personally from them.



What have you learned from this trip?

  • “I learned to work in a team”
  • “I learned a lot about different animals species and how to conduct different types of scientific research” 
  • “I learned how to get good data for a good question”
  • “How to adapt to new living conditions”
  • “I learned to spend my money wisely”
  • “I learned about biology and ecology”
  • “The reason why certain species exist and how they function” 
  • “A surprise is always good!”
  • “That the rainforest is really important to the environment”
  • “The smallest things can have the greatest impact, for example, turning off our lights”
  • “The culture of Costa Rica”
  • “I learned a lot about sea turtles”
  • “I learned about rainforests and leatherback turtles”
  • “I learned a lot about conservation and about how we can make the world a more sustainable place like by reducing our water usage and only preparing what we can eat” 
  • “I have learned that electricity and clean running water should be used carefully…and they are luxuries that many people don’t have”
  • “I have learned about sustainability a lot. I did not even have a clue before I came here” 
  • “I learned that if people care more about sustainability then the nature can be saved”

Every student learned from this experience: socially, culturally, scientifically, and environmentally.

Are there any personal practices in your life that you might change as a result of this trip?

  • “I will take shorter showers” (the most common answer, several times over!)
  • “I won’t waste food” (the second most common answer, several times over!) 
  • “I will also take cold showers to reduce energy usage” 
  • “Support local economies”
  • “I will also tell my parents to cook less so we don’t waste as much food” 
  • I will try to become more sustainable: recycle more, turn off lights and I have some ideas to propose in school"


Would you recommend this trip to other students? Why or Why not?

100% of our participants recommend this trip to others and here’s why:

  • “It is a great learning experience”
  • “This trip is really an eye-opener”
  •  “It teaches a lot about the environment and about the animals and sea turtles”
  • “It is an amazing experience and a once in a life-time opportunity”
  • “It teaches people the importance of preserving our planet” 
  • “It also opens the minds of people to see how adaptable we really are to our environment. Conserve adapt, and be the change”
  • “An amazing opportunity to focus on what is actually important: face to face interaction with friends, laughter through sound instead of emojis, conserving and practicing sustainability, and becoming more aware of the world around us”
  • “You gain an appreciation of nature”

As Eva and I peruse through the student reflections on the plane ride home, we look at each other and say, “What more could we ask for?” Additionally, EPI has provided us with a wonderful curriculum, excellent instructors, an amazing program/itinerary, and an incredible support system in the country.

Indeed, this trip was worth it and we are already thinking of ideas, using EPI again, for next year!


If you're interested in knowing more about Ecology Project International (EPI), the group that organized our trip, click here.

leaf cutter ants at work

Unplugged Costa Rica Ecology Service Learning Trip PART TWO: Turtle Reserve

The rainforest has been hot and humid for us. Seriously, I’ve never been so permanently wet in my life. Nothing dried, not even our hair.  As we leave La Suerte we are hoping the sea might bring us refreshment. We endure a long bus ride and then boat ride before we arrive at Pacuare, a Nature Reserve on the Caribbean.  We lug our baggage from the boat along a forested trail to quaint cabins situated right where rainforest meets beach. Though there is no electricity and the fresh water is limited, we settle right into what we find to be cozy accommodations.

And, most importantly, the beach does afford us a refreshing breeze and we feel the sticky hot sliding from our skin. That evening we begin our night patrols: under a full moon, beautiful breezy weather with the water lapping at our ankles. “This is perfect. How hard can this be?” we ask. Well, the next night yields a different experience.

Eva grips my hand with the iron-man clasp prompting my comment, “This is the most ridiculous thing I’ve done in my life.” We can’t even see each other it’s so dark. Each step we take is into a black abyss leaving us completely reliant on the pair in front of us to give warning of any obstacles they encounter (i.e. dips in the sand, drift wood, logs, washed up coconuts, etc.). The rain drenches every part of my lower body and raindrops slide down my back as rain penetrates my jacket. The downpour pelts us ferociously and we stumble forward over sticks and other debris.

Unusually wet conditions and flooding of the beach has prevented many leatherback turtles from accessing the beach and has destroyed the nests of many who did make it ashore. Thus, our night patrols yield no sightings of mother leatherback turtles or hatchlings. Were any of our groups to spot either mothers or hatchlings they would have participated in taking measurements and recording important data relevant to the conservation of this magnificent species. We did, however, get lucky one day…

Part of the work at Pacuare involves monitoring known nesting sights (those that were observed being created on night patrols). Once a nest has passed it’s “due date” researchers dig up the eggs to determine whether there are survivors or whether the nests have succumbed to fungi or bacteria rendering undeveloped eggs.  Students were interrupted from their research projects with news that a nest of survivors had been discovered.! We ran to the beach to watch the nest-investigation process.

Baby leatherbacks exit their shells and begin the 1 m (more or less) dig to the surface, with the leaders resting while others take the lead. They work in shifts until the entire hatchling group makes it to the surface. However, if most of the nest doesn’t hatch (as in the case of the one uncovered), the survivors have no chance to get to the surface as they don’t have the energy to do it alone.

The woman in the green kerchief to the right is researching the correlation between fungus and bacteria growth on and in the eggs with survival of the hatchlings. She collects data on each egg and then saves the survivors in a bucket of sand until they are ready to make their “run” for the ocean (a process critical for their ultimate survival).  Another nest unveils even more survivors. We are fortunate to be invited to the release of these babies later in the afternoon.

At the given time we all meet on the beach and the bucket is turned over to allow the babies to begin their journey to the sea. Together we share in this amazing experience under beautiful blue skies with sunrays warming our skin. It’s perfect and I’m so glad the students (and teachers!) are fortunate enough to get this experience.

Data collection and turtle observation is coupled to real-life research experience for the students.  Now the students are working on their comparative studies. Heads are bent with intensity. Hands are holding measuring devices, recording data, or pointed at interested parts of the experiment. 

Their topics include:

  1. Do members of our group throw a coconut further over or underhanded?
  2. Is there a difference between two species of ants’ time to run through a maze?
  3. What is the difference in time between a leaf cutter ant’s walk over 1 m with and without a leaf?
  4. What is the difference in time between a leaf cutter’s ascent vs. descent on the particular stem of a plant?

Discussions on sustainability and conservation continue throughout our time there. Students sample Costa Rican fruits and play a football (soccer) game with local youth. Our experience is fully rounded with conservation, science, and culture.

During what was supposed to be our last day a Pacuare, we are evacuated due to extreme rain and possible flooding of the area. Though our time there is cut short, we leave fulfilled with what we experienced.  Our remaining time in Costa Rica includes a visit to the Botanical Gardens and a day of rafting.

We compare the food waste from our first days to our last days. We’ve reduced our food waste from over I kg down to fewer than 200g. WOW- habits have changed. Students are also masters of the 2 min (or less) showers. They are thinking sustainably. For their last activity, students engage in an activity that involves ‘building’ sustainable towns. They realize how difficult it is to communicate and bring people together towards one goal. They are humbled with the task of making the world more aware of the importance of conservation and living sustainably. They know they’ll start with their families.

Eva and I reflect  on this experience and whether it was worth it and whether we would consider doing another trip (I'll write about that next). We hope none of us will return home and forget about the lessons we have learned here. Cleansed from a warm shower and feeling fulfilled, Eva and I slip into slumber anticipating our long flight journey home.

NEXT POST: Costa Rica Ecology Service Learning Trip: Reflections and Was it Worth it?

A baby leatherback turtle entering the water

To learn more about Ecology Project International (EPI), click here.

Unplugged Costa Rica Ecology Service Learning Trip PART ONE: The Rain Forest

It all begins at the beginning of the school year with the question, “Should I take some of my summertime and chaperone students on a ecology conservation trip next summer?” Really I don’t have to think too hard to answer that question because I already know that it is incredibly fulfilling to be part of an exploration service-learning trip with students. Then, the decision must be made as to which organization to choose. Research and experience lead me to settle with Ecology Project International (EPI- click here to look at their site)

Announcements, posters, and parent evenings follow.  Sign-ups, emails, and reminders continue. There is more interest than expected so another chaperone, my dear friend and colleague, Eva, is added to the group. Coordination with EPI is paramount.  As our date approaches we schedule another parent meeting and review the packing list and the anticipated schedule. It’s real! We’re heading to Costa Rica for a leatherback turtle ecology experience.

June 28 is our departure date. Parents, students, and teachers meet with giddy excitement at the red and white cube in Schiphol airport. The 14- hour journey to San Jose, Costa Rica is relatively smooth and we meet up with our EPI guide, David. Later we are joined by Stanley, who the students affectionately nick-name “Sally” due to an initial misunderstanding of David’s pronunciation of the name.

The first item on the agenda is to surrender all electronics, teachers included. Students reluctantly hand in their devices, not sure if they’ll be able to survive without them

In addition to some sites near San Jose (Poaz volcano and the Turrialba Botanic Garden) our adventure includes time at the La Suerte Rainforest Reserve. The students are introduced to issues of sustainability, Costa Rican Ecology, and carrying out proper scientific investigations (descriptive, comparative, and correlative). They begin individual research on a specific species and plan descriptive investigations. Juxtaposed to these activities are hikes in the rainforest and lectures by scientists working in the field at La Suerte.

We are constantly serenaded by the cicadas. Presentations are interrupted in order to observe a mother sloth with infant traversing the trees flanking our camp or to snatch a peek at a woodpecker at work behind us or to watch a lizard passing through. Monkeys are seen jumping through the trees and their vocalizations ring out throughout the forest. The multiple and diverse noises of the rainforest fluctuate all day and penetrate into the night.

The students are enjoying and reflecting on the wonder of earth on a daily basis. “Wait a minute, look at this!” or “What is that?” are common outbursts coupled with “That is so cool” or “Amazing”. They appreciate the lush vegetation that surrounds them and the important ecosystems that it holds. They recognize the need to preserve these parts of our world if humanity is to continue to exist.

The students are becoming aware of reducing food waste and the need to save fresh water. The cumulative left-over food on their plates is dropping drastically and they are learning the art of the 2-minute (or less) shower. They spontaneously offer reflection on how amazing it would be if the entire world were to become so acutely aware of the need to conserve. They discuss how they would like to incorporate these changes in their lives back home. They evaluate practices of companies in Costa Rica, such as the banana and pineapple plantations and determine to be more selective in finding companies that practice sustainability when making future purchases.

The students are both enthralled and slightly appalled by a scientist’s lecture on his research into the homing patterns of the whipspider at La Suerte. He describes the capture of and the insertion of the GPS device onto the spider, the spider’s movements, and the different experimental approaches taken with the spiders. In fact the mention of the spider’s speed and danger deters three students from joining us on the night hike! It’s just too creepy for them.  However, they appreciate that his studies lead to understandings and advancements in the real world, including the field of bionics. The primatologist on site gives great insight into her experience as a field scientist that began with studies of the vocalization patterns of Lemurs in Madagascar.  She is at La Suerte leading primate field school studies for university students. On our hikes we have run into the student groups observing and collecting data on the howler monkeys, the white-faced capuchin monkeys, and the spider monkeys.

Our students are easily identifying heliconia species, ferns, epiphytes, strangler fig trees and more! They spot the red as well as the black and green poison dart frogs regularly. A pause to observe the leaf cutter ants is frequent. Anticipation of lizard and snake sightings is high. Unusual spiders, lizards, and creatures of all sorts result in squeals of delight and intrigue. Not only does each hike in the rainforest yield amazing sightings but our walks to and from the main cabin are equally interesting!

Before we leave La Suerte the students finish and report on their descriptive studies. As they observe they are intent on their work, fully engaged in discovery. Here are the topics they chose:


  1. What is the average number of coconuts on the tress in the La Suerte camp area?
  2. What is the typical shape of the leaves cut by the leaf cutter ants at the La Suerte camp site?
  3. What is the average number of mosquito bites obtained by members of our group thus far on the trip?
  4. What is the average number of veins on the leaves of the Aphelandra scraba plant (and is there a correlation to leaf size) at the edge of our La Suerte campsite.
  5.  How many poison dart frog sightings are there during our walks to and from the main cabin?
  6. How many centipedes can be found on the walkways around our camp?

At the end of PART ONE of our trip, my colleague, Eva and I are pleased with what has been gained thus far.  A noticeable change amongst the students has evolved: discussions, playing games, and interacting. The absence of electronic devices is a gift and a major feature of allowing students to fully engage themselves in this experience. The immersion in the rain forest is incredible. Students are duly awed, as are we, at the magnificent diversity found on earth. Awareness of the connection between humans and earth is heightened. Personal habits are being evaluated. The idea of sustainable living is beginning to form. At our last night at La Suarte we happily fall asleep to the chirps, tweets, and calls of the jungle outside our cabin as we anticipate the leatherback turtle ecology portion of our trip.

NEXT POST: Costa Rica Ecology Service Learning Trip PART TWO

One of our serenading cicadas: their cumulative chirping could almost be deafening at times.

Review Sheets vs. Review

“Can we have a review sheet?” To me this is code for “Tell us what is on the test”.  It takes the engagement out of the process. Students just want a list of what to review. They don’t want to have to think about what they’ve learned, what the standards are, and thereby what the key understanding are.

So, I’ve developed a technique for putting together a review sheet:  the students do it. For pupils new to the process, we take a class period and begin going through the text and class notes together. I help them identify the key standards and understandings focused on in the course. We discuss how different activities helped them gain necessary understanding and they begin making their own list of what to study. Often they make connections they hadn’t yet made. Then, their homework is to finish the review sheet. For students more advanced in the process, the assignment simply comes as a homework assignment leading up to the review day.

Recently as I outlined the assignment, students responded immediately with, “Can we have one of those whiteboard activities for review?” For me that involved setting up a set of review questions in a PowerPoint that addresses each standard and stimulates review conversation.  Over the next couple of days a set of questions is refined that will meet my criteria. Multiple-choice questions often have several “correct” answers that reveal deeper levels of thinking when chosen. Short answer clarifies thinking processes. Prompts to draw or sketch provide additional methods of assessing necessary content.

On our review day students enter the classroom with an air of excitement. They retrieve their “whiteboards” and sit in anticipation of the review to come. Then, they tackle the question set with those markers and whiteboards, holding up their answers for me to see after each prompt.  Great dialogue ensues and students furiously add notes to their review sheets. It is also clear to me who has taken my review sheet assignment seriously. They are able to think through all of the questions and generate thought provoking analysis that leads to solidified and deeper understandings. Most importantly, I see where the class is at in their mastery of the standards and some necessary refining can still take place!

It’s a process so much more satisfying and effective than cranking out some review sheet. We’ll see how they do on their exams!

Science Fun Night

An alternating event with the standard Science Fair

Has anyone experienced or heard of “Science Fair burnout”? I have heard so many parents complain about the imposition of the Science Fair on families. I think for students it can be taxing as well. We have developed a remedy for this dilemma by rotating different events over a three-year period. The students participate in a standard Science Fair one year. The following year they present posters compiled from literature-based research they have conducted. The third year is the Science Fun Night. At this event students demonstrate a fun phenomenon and explain the science behind it.

The project begins with an overview of the upcoming event and the instruction to search for YouTube videos presenting fun science. Faces light up with smiles as the command is given to act on a task they so enjoy: YouTube surfing. Students almost hesitate to open up their computers wanting to be sure they understand the instructions. As soon as it is clear that, indeed, they can freely search through YouTube the exuberance is palpable and the search is on.

“Ah, Dr. Markham, look at this! This is so cool!”

“This is sick!”


Exclamations continue all through the class. Partnerships eventually settle on three ideas they have genuine interest for and can be conducted safely with materials found at home and school. Over time the selection is narrowed to the topic they will pursue for the Fun Night.

Now the task becomes challenging, as they have to master the science behind it. They soon discover that the little explanation often accompanying the video is inadequate, incomplete, or even inaccurate. They have to research, ponder, discuss, analyze. It stretches them. They return to the Internet, to the teachers, to theory, and to their experiment over and over again. Slowly they begin to understand, at a molecular level, what is happening with their project. The understanding gradually “clicks” for each pair of students. The more they understand the more fluid their explanation becomes. As a team they put together an instruction sheet for participants attending the Science Fun Night. They must have a section, in their own words, on the “Science Behind It”. Though they have worked in pairs, they must present individually to the class before the actual event. Each student must demonstrate the project and explain the science on their own.

As with all student productions, there is a moment days before the event when we, the teachers, wonder whether this is going to work. Will the students be prepared? Or will it be a disaster?

All of the school community is invited. Hands-on activities and fun for the entire family has been promised. Student presenters have set the jeans aside and come dressed “professionally”. With anticipation and excitement they set up their stations. Participants begin to filter in and soon the event is underway.

The cafeteria is a buzz with the thrill of cool science and discovery. The parents and elementary students are equally wowed by the mind-bending activities. Laughter and exclamations from impressed participants fill the room. The flurry of activity continues throughout the evening.

Finally, it’s over. The last burst of energy is exerted to wipe up colored cornstarch, sticky glucose, volcanic baking soda leftovers, citric species, and a host of other interesting messes from the tables and floors. Glassware and supplies are washed in the science lab and put away. Student check-out forms are signed, students depart exuberantly, and finally, six science teachers collapse exhausted around a table together reflecting on the entire process and evening. We make a quick list of what worked and what can be improved upon in future years. Overall, however, it’s been a success: students have learned and are excited about science and have proficiently communicated that to the school community.

Science Fun Night.  An effective process to immerse students in scientific phenomenon and get them truly excited about science at a molecular level. It is also an opportunity for students to present and communicate in scientific language. It will surely remain in our cycle of annual science events!

Empowerment for students who teach

The IB courses are all two years in length. So the challenge arises at the end of two years to help students review for the entire course. Each student has different strengths regarding what he or she recalls from the two-year journey. Each student has his/her own favorite topics and individual weaknesses regarding what understandings are still incomplete. So, every year I face the task of making the review time most beneficial to the entire group of individuals.

One of my favorite approaches is the mini lesson. The students are expected to pick a topic they find especially difficult or that they know remains weak for them. They select specific assessment statements from that topic and prepare a lesson for the rest of the class.  Assessment is based on their ability to engage the class with their lesson by including an activity and not focusing on a lecture alone (as I have modeled for them for two years through my own instructional approach) as well as their accuracy in understanding of the topic.

The goal is to have the presenter transform an academic weakness into a strength as well as to provide the rest of the class with a productive review on a specific topic.

Student creativity is amazing. They create board games, note-taking sheets, crossword puzzles, and jeopardy games to engage their classmates in an active review.

The first presenter set the bar high as she has clearly understood the goal of this task. She has studied her topic with intensity and has become an expert. In fact, I marvel at her presentation and the ease with which she speaks of the intricacies of spermatogenesis and oogenesis. She can answer spontaneous questions from her peers. Mastery has been achieved.

“So, how has this exercise helped you?”

“Oh, it’s helped me so much! I know if I get a question about this on Paper 2, I will select it.” A topic she once would have steered clear of has now become one she hopes to see on her IB exam.

Another presenter has created a board game that her peers eagerly become involved with. Their competitive nature kicks in as they desire victory and want to land on those “candy spaces” which could earn them a  mini-snickers bar if they answer the question correctly. The presenter doesn’t even need to look at the answers as she has mastered the topic and can tell her peers if they are correct or not. The other students stop and ask questions and clarify points and try to commit ideas to memory.

Eventually everyone presents and I am left amazed at how far they have come. I wish we could do this for every one of their learning gaps, but alas, there is not time for that. As we near the end of the school year I wish everyone happy reviewing!