science teacher

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. 

High School Expedition to South Africa!

It all started over a year ago.  I was brainstorming some ideas on how I could organize some really cool field trips for more mature science students.  I desired them to participate in fieldwork and real research.  My ideas grew and I realized it would be an even more valuable experience if there was service and/or conservation involved.  My research led me to the Operation Wallacea group ( that conducts conservation research through academic partnerships.  Comparisons with a host of other organizations resulted in me selecting the Wallacea group with which to pursue an expedition.

A representative came to our school last April to speak with students and parents.  To my surprise there was enough interest expressed to warrant commencing the process of scheduling and planning an expedition.

Thus was my inauguration into arranging such a journey for a group.  Decisions regarding collecting, tracking, and distributing funds descended upon me.  Thankfully, even though this isn’t a school-sponsored trip, the school accountant has helped me with this process.  Next, expedition booking and flight arrangements were of precedence.  Then we had additional students and a chaperone join the group and I had to coordinate adding them in to the process mid-stream.  

Countless emails, discussions, and phone calls later, I reflect back on this past year and am amazed at how I managed to squeeze the time in outside of school hours to attend to the necessities for organizing this trip.  This afternoon I printed out the packing list for the expedition and documents for parents to sign in preparation for a parent/student informational meeting on the trip.  Upon placing these items in a folder for each student I felt a surge of excitement and realization settled into my mind: this trip (June 21 – July 4) is happening!

The students and parents filed into the classroom tonight eager for information.  During the course of the 2-hour meeting I see flickers of excitement from both students and parents.  Now I am consumed with a sense of adventure and thrilled to be accompanying these wonderful youth and my super colleague on an experience of a lifetime.  We will be collecting conservation data that will be submitted to the UN in an effort to seek funds for the community to establish conservation programs.  The work will benefit not only the organisms of that area but the local people as well since they will staff the conservation efforts.  The last part of the trip will be spent on the coast scuba diving and completing coral reef studies.

We haven’t even departed yet and I am sensing that this will definitely be worth my efforts.  Here is the crazy thing; I emailed my contact at Wallacea tonight to find out about scheduling a 2015 expedition.  Anyone want to join?




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.

Caught in the Middle: A Teacher's Time

"That's not my problem" she exclaims as we watch the boys run down the basketball court.

I’m somewhat confused by what my friend and fellow parent means.  After shouting, “rebound” to our team, I try to argue my colleague’s case.  "Well, in her mind she doesn't feel she should have to look at or answer emails after her 'work day' late at night or on the weekends"

I am attending the game as a parent but often I end up fielding questions as a teacher, as is the case right now.  We clap and cheer some more as my friend continues, “Well, that’s a teacher’s job.  That’s what she signed up for."

I turn my eyes to the court to mask that fact that I'm stunned to realize during this staccato exchange that some parents expect teachers to be available 24/7, to respond to every email regardless of when it was sent.

 My colleague had approached me about this very situation earlier in the week.  She had told her students in class that she would postpone the test and allow them more time to prepare for the exam if they communicated this need to her.  She claims to have told the students they needed to decide that day.  Well, the next night a student wrote her at 9:30 p.m. asking for an extension.  She read the email the next morning only an hour before the scheduled test. She felt the request had been made unreasonably late.  She felt it wasn’t fair to postpone for this one student while the others sat the exam.  She also realized it would require writing a second test on short notice.  She was torn but in the end decided to not grant the student an extension.  Though I probably would have made a different decision, I understood her view. 

 As I listen to this parent’s plea during the basketball game, I also see her point.  However, I am a little "put out" at the expectation that teachers are expected to dedicate their entire lives to their jobs.  It’s one thing that we already do that by default.  We care about the students, we try to plan engaging and well thought out lessons, we seek fair assessment, and we want to be up-to-date.  As a result, we spend a ridiculous amount of non-work hours at our jobs.  I do so because I enjoy what I do and I sincerely care about the quality of education I deliver.  My income does not reflect my education level, the thought I give, nor the time I sacrifice. Suddenly, it feels different, even painful to think that what I do is expected.  I think if it is expected, then it should be compensated for.  Would this parent be willing to pay double the tuition for her child to attend the school?  In the States, would taxpayers be willing to pay higher taxes to have their teachers paid according to what they really give to the educational system?  Somehow, I think not.

 In any case, I’m glad that I have the clause clearly written on my website “I am happy to answer all of your questions.  Remember if you have a question, someone else might have a similar concern.  I will answer emails as quickly as possible, however it could take me up to 24 hours to respond, due to my duties.”  I feel like I should have the option of not checking my emails when I am involved with my family at home or attending to my personal needs and wants in the evenings and weekends.  It has been confirmed to me that for sure as teachers we have to be exceedingly clear in our communications and expectations.  We must leave no room for interpretation for students or parents.

Do I wish I had another job?

While I take zero stock in the results of such activities, I recently took one of those Facebook surveys titled “What Career Should you Actually Have?” My results?  Astronaut.  The description read, “You are an explorer.  You are curious about the world around you and the way it works.  You look at things closely, and often with a different perspective than anyone else.  You’re quite unique, lucky you.”  I’m laughing because I just watched the newly released footage of daredevil Felix Baumgartner as he jumps from 24.5 miles (39.4 km) in the sky.  The entire time I was thinking that I have no interest in doing anything even remotely related to that.  The idea of being enclosed in the space suit alone fills me with dread of claustrophobia.  So, my lack of consideration of those surveys was confirmed.  However, then I read the “Other occupations” suggested: researcher, teacher.  I’ve been a researcher and I am a teacher.  It’s true; a teacher does need to be ‘an explorer’ and to be ‘curious about the world around him’.  I especially feel strongly about the need for these characteristics in a science teacher.  But then I also realized that I just took a survey that told me I should actually have the job that I have!  And I do love my job.  I love the students.  I love my colleagues.   I love the daily routine that isn’t routine.  I love how I feel energized by what I do.  I love keeping myself abreast of the “newest” in Science.  I love learning and exploring more about pedagogy and assessment.  It is, indeed, a wonderful way to spend one’s days and I don't ever think I should have taken another path.

On the Lighter Side: Classroom Pets

Two years ago some well-meaning IB students decided I NEEDED a classroom turtle.  I was hesitant as I was happy with my simple fish tank, especially when considering long breaks like Christmas and summer.  However, the students said they would get everything and set it up so I consented.  I let the students handle the entire situation and before I knew it there were two turtles, each named after a boy in the class.

Isn’t that a violation of Parenting 101?  You never name a pet after a child, as you do not want the child identifying with the pet in the event that the pet dies.  So there I was with two turtles named after two students.  One student’s parents were transferred at Christmas so that eased the stress of “What if a turtle dies?” Well, shortly after his departure, a turtle did die.  It took some convincing but I was able to assure the class that the deceased turtle was, indeed, the one named after the student who had moved. 

The remaining turtle has been a little companion for two years now.  He actually has personality and reacts frantically when I walk into the room.  His little head follows student movement in the classroom and he takes food from their hands, much to their delight.  Sometimes he glides to one end of the tank and then swims backwards, glides again and swims backwards.  It’s so adorable and brings visitors from all over the school, including elementary kids.  Most of all, however, I love how he brings big 12th grade boys to a state of absolute intrigue, especially when testing whether the turtle would eat mealworms left over from their transfer of energy experiment.

I’ve always had a fish tank in my classroom.  It’s easy.  It’s pretty.  It’s relaxing.  I read somewhere that people who spend a portion of each day observing a fish tank have lowered stress in their lives.  So, it seems like a good thing to have.  The students are always checking on the fish and it provides pleasure.

However, this past Christmas holiday disaster struck.  As soon as I entered my classroom I immediately observed mass death in my fish tank.  Of the 15 healthy fish I left before the break, only 3 stragglers barely moved in the tank, appearing to hang on for dear life.  What happened?  Did my colleague forget to feed them or put in the vacation tablets?  Why is the filter not running?  Upon closer inspection I discovered that someone, probably with good intentions of safety and/or energy conservation unplugged all electrical devices in my room, including both the heater and the filter system of my fish tank.  The dreary scene in the tank was disheartening.

I’ve transferred these three die-hards to a new tank while the old tank is cleaned and primed for new use.   I feel a strange attachment to them as “survivors”.   They have become a symbol of perseverance and are currently the highlighted feature of the classroom. The news of their traumatic experience has spread throughout the school and lured people to come visit these amazing little creatures again providing both staff and students with a sense of interest and hope.

Despite the risk of loss that living creatures bring, I think a biology classroom should have pets.