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!

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.

Becoming a Scientist

It’s how you think.

The gas flame hissed at full height while a pot sat precariously askew on the burner. There, at eye level to the flame and pot stood my little 5-year old son.  He was trying to stabilize the pot with one hand while clutching a partially filled balloon in the grimy damp fingers of his other hand.  Sweat dripped from his temples as he focused intently on his task.  He didn’t even notice me approaching his hazardous situation.

“What are you doing?”

He looks up at me with his big, open, intense blue eyes. Maintaining his grip on pot and balloon he explains, “Trying to figure something out”.  I help him with the pot as he continues; “You know how when you have a balloon in the hot car it pops?  Well, I want to know if that has to do with the heat of the car. “

We study his experimental set-up and he adds, “The balloon should get bigger if I put it in the hot water”

And there it was. The inherent curiosity. The desire to know. The determination to find out. The pursuit of a test. A formed hypothesis. It wasn’t something we taught him. It was just there.

Of course, with my guidance he completed his experiment and jumped with joy when that balloon began to expand.  He loved the idea of air molecules speeding up so fast to take up more space and pushing on the sides of the balloon to make it look like it was “filling up”. 

“If we take it out now, it will shrink again, right?”  Of course, we did it.

It seems his entire childhood was spent in testing the world. As an adult this son continues to think like a scientist, answering everyday life’s questions using the scientific method. He can’t help it. I know, because I’m the same way. 

However, not everyone thinks this way.  I see it all the time in the classroom. One student sits in a stupor while his neighbor has ten great ideas for research questions. Despite learning the proper steps and being shown the way, it still is so much more difficult for some than others.

As science teachers, it is our responsibility to do everything we can to teach the scientific method and use it as the framework for all activities in the lab.  All students can learn to formulate a proper research question, to form a hypothesis, to generate a table of variables, and to carry out an experiment using necessary lab skills.   However, some students will be stronger at thinking up innovative questions and designing creative experiments because their minds think differently than their peers.

The different wiring of brains becomes more and more apparent as students progress into the more advanced classes and are expected to become more and more independent in the design of experiments.  Students really separate out during the internal assessment process in IB science where total independence is required.  Then, there are the students who choose to do their extended essay project in a science, which is an opportunity for them to design and conduct an experiment completely stemming from their own interests, not a small feat.

It is a pleasure to foster the growth of budding scientists but there is something really special about spotting that scientific mind and seeing it wonder and wander through a myriad of questions and possibilities.  It’s true, the best I can offer as a teacher is to teach the students the framework of the scientific method (and content) and to foster the growth and expansion of the mind.  Scientists need the freedom to meander intellectually and be free to test their ideas.  That’s my job, to give those minds that freedom. 

Making Biology Labs Happen

Yesterday after school I biked home, dropped off my bags, and immediately headed to the metro.  It was imperative that I make it to Pet Place before closing time.  I knew where to find the mealworms and found them easily.  After debating between one or two containers, I settled on two.  As I left the pet store I stopped at Blokker and Zena to additionally pick up fertilizer, antifreeze, and patio algae remover.  I couldn’t find a bag of soil before the stores closed so I made a plan to take my own bag from the bike shed, despite it’s large size.

At seven in the morning I haul the 50 kg bag of soil along with the mealworms and chemicals up to my classroom on the 3rd floor.   I set up the chemicals and soil on one side of the lab with an assortment of glassware, beakers, foam cups, stirring rods, and graduated cylinders for the students to select from.  I am glad neither of the labs today requires making solutions or excessive preparations. Opposite the collection of soil and chemicals, on another lab bench,  I place the mealworms next to a box of corn flakes.  Colleagues passing through are often disgusted by the experimental contents in my classroom and the mealworms are no exception.  “I could never do Biology” is often the phrase I hear, “It’s just so gross”.   

The IB Environmental Systems and Societies (ESS) students tackle their lab by initially formulating their research question (How does plant fertilizer affect the height of wheat plants), hypothesis, and table of variables.  Next they outline their procedure and begin weighing out soil, counting wheat seeds, and preparing solutions with varying percentages of fertilizer.  They discuss the best method to calculate concentration of fertilizer, they debate the planting technique, and trouble shoot a method to allow drainage of water.  They analyze each step of their procedure seeking to identify whether there is a controlled variable they need to add their list, for example, the planting depth.  Finally, they place their carefully prepared experiment under the fluorescent lights.

Meanwhile (yes, these classes meet together) the IB Biology students read through their “Transfer of energy lab” procedure and immediately a ripple of “Eww”s  is heard. I hold up the containers of wriggling creatures and the  students crinkle their faces, “Do we have to touch them?”  Facing the inevitable, however, they are eventually overcome with curiosity and begin sorting their worms and weighing out the corn flakes.  Their i-phones, of course, document the entire procedure. Once the lab is set up, the students plead to be allowed to feed the turtle a mealworm.  The entire class crowds around the turtle tank with i-phones in position and a worm is dropped into the tank.  It’s as though they’re watching fire works: exclamations erupt as the turtle ingests the worm, then spits it out, and ingests it again.  After that excitement, the students settle down with the last few minutes of class to start writing up the experiment.

I delight in the experimental aspect of all my courses, as it is during those times that true wonder and discovery envelop the students.  It is when they actually grasp the scientific method and develop analytical skills.  It is worth all the unconventional things I need to find and bring into the school.  Indeed, being a Biology teacher does have its quirky side but I wouldn’t trade it for any other job!  How about you, what unusual aspect of your job do you enjoy?

Teaching the Scientific Method

Sometimes I wonder what is being taught in science classes around the world.  Each year we receive transfer students in every grade arriving from nearly every continent on earth.  I teach 6th, 8th, 9th, 10th, 11th, and 12th grade Science thus, I have contact with practically every secondary student in our school.  My colleague and I took the IB lab report rubric for internal assessments and reduced the requirements gradually for each grade level down to 6th grade.  Thus, students attending our school from 6th grade on will have solid preparation in the scientific method and in lab reports by the time they enter the IB program.

For an overview of the expectations at our school, students entering 6th grade are expected to have a basic understanding of what it means to perform a “fair test” in science and to properly graph the results.  Some have an understanding of hypothesis.  By the December of 6th grade students are expected to be able to construct a research question in the “How does [independent variable] affect [dependent variable]?” format, to form a hypothesis in the “If [independent variable] affects [dependent variable] then increasing/decreasing [independent variable] will increase/decrease [dependent variable]”, and to identify the variables (independent, dependent and controlled with units).  Furthermore, they learn to put together a proper research report including the materials, procedure, raw data, processed data, graph, results, and conclusion.  They are introduced to designing experiments.  In 7th grade they are expected to create their graph in Excel and provide at least one weakness with suggested improvement regarding the experiment.  Their designs should include five values of the independent variables with three trials.  In 8th grade they need to include a trend line and at least three weaknesses with improvements.  In 9th and 10th grade they are practically completing IB quality labs as they add error bars to their graphs, descriptions of their calculations, and a thorough conclusion and evaluation.

So, when I get new middle school students who can’t follow any aspect of the scientific method I am perplexed.  When I get a transfer high school student who doesn’t know how to formulate a research question or identify variables, I am stunned.  How can a middle or high school student never have been exposed to writing a research report? In my opinion every scientific investigation should be framed by the scientific method.  In middle and early high school students should be immersed in the process in nearly every science class.  Gone are the days of lectures.  The science classroom should be a place of regular scientific discovery in the context of the scientific method.  

Soaking Students

Today I took my IB Environmental Systems and Societies (ESS) students outside to collect some water and soil around our school grounds.  The plan was for the students to perform pH, nitrate, ammonia, and dissolved oxygen tests on the samples to ascertain the health of the surrounding canal water and soil.  Additionally, they will determine the Biochemical oxygen demand (BOD) of the water.  Furthermore, they will calculate the Trent Biotic Index of the canal water.  Thus, they will have personally experienced every aspect of Topic 5.2 of the ESS course.  Sounds reasonable, right?  I thought so!

So, we eagerly headed outside equipped with labeled containers for their samples.  The students divided the labor equally and set to work.  One student jokes, “I’ll collect the water because maybe I’ll fall in again”.  I am not amused because he actually did “fall” into the canal water in the autumn when we were doing another experiment.  I recollect seeing him stroll towards me on the wooded pathway that fall day.  I wasn’t sure what I was observing so I turned to the other students and appealed, “Please tell me that David is not walking towards me in his underwear”.  The students solemnly confirmed that David was, indeed, walking towards me in his underwear.  I did not want a repeat event. 

Fortunately, we collected the samples without further ado and returned to the classroom for testing.  However, upon viewing the test instructions, the students realized that they actually needed more canal water.  Guess who volunteered to round up more water?  That’s right, David.  I hesitated but a colleague who had stepped into the room volunteered to accompany David to help him retrieve the water.  I felt assured with this plan and stayed with the other students while they prepped the rest of the lab.  A few minutes later, my colleague returned with the pitcher of water but not the student.  “David fell into the canal”, she reported, “and has gone to the shower room to clean up”.   Really?  Really?  Really?  Should I laugh or should I be furious?  I was battling both reactions in that moment.

Shattered beakers, cracked test tubes, broken thermometers, fractured syringes, splattered solutions, spilled powders, all kinds of random, unthinkable messes and even fires can be part of my job.  However, today, the drenched docent was my limit.  Thankfully, it was Friday afternoon.

Will I return on Monday with a full lab agenda for the week?  Of course! Despite the untidiness and chaos associated with guiding MS and HS students through the scientific method, it’s worth every minute!  Will I return to the canals for further investigations?  Absolutely.  But without David.

IB Internal Assessment (IA) - The positive

“It’s rising!  It’s rising!”  The gleeful shouts come from the chemical room.  Students in my classroom start laughing as they realize that Carl’s experiment is finally working for him.  He’s been trouble shooting this for days.  He’s made catalase beads with cucumber, with the intent of measuring the effect of pH on cucumber catalase activity on hydrogen peroxide.  Gail has set up a unique gas collecting system to measure the effect of salt on CO2 production by yeast.  She also has been struggling for days with her experiment.  Shortly she exclaims with glee, “It’s working!  It’s working!”.  Then, a loud “Oh NO!” followed by a crash and the overflowing of liquid at another lab bench.  Students hustle to help clean up the mess.  Simultaneous to this action, Barb checks on the growth of her wheat, “This is perfect….look at this!” as she reaches for the ruler.  Another student has just put her Daphnia under the microscope to determine how to measure the heartbeat. She summons the other students over and exclamations of “That is SO COOL” echo as each student intently peers through the optical lens on the microscope.  The energy in the classroom is palpable.  Despite darkness pressing against the lab windows, within the classroom there is warmth, comradery, and excitement.  It is a Friday evening but students are finding pleasure in their work.  I, personally, am energized by their enthusiasm and their hope for reasonable results. They are working independently on self-designed experiments.  They all have five values for their independent variables.  They all have unique designs.  The first step is underway.  Let’s hope excellent data collection /processing and thorough conclusions/evaluations follow. This is internal assessment at its best.