teaching science

Field Trip to the Science Classroom

Bunsen burners are lit, plants are everywhere, beakers, test tubes, and flasks scatter the lab benches, and students are bent over leaves stained with iodine analyzing the results of their experiments. We do not notice the movement in the doorway.

But we hear my name called and all turn to look at the classroom entrance. Then we see them cautiously filing in with their hands clasped in front of themselves. As they hesitate to join us in the lab area, it’s clear to me that they’ve been instructed, “Do not touch anything!” I beckon them towards us.

These wide-eyed 4th graders have been learning about the rain forests and photosynthesis. Their teacher came to me for additional resources and ideas and wondered if we were doing anything that might fit. And behold, we were! I gave her the link to the Photosynthesis song (click here if you want to watch it for yourself) and we decided that she’d bring her class up as my students were completing their photosynthesis experiments.

So, here they are. They receive a debriefing on the activities. When they are shown the variegated (green and white) leaves and are asked what part of the leaf will demonstrate photosynthesis they immediately exclaim, “The green part!” and off we go. With captivation the 4th graders listen to the 10th graders explain their various stages of research.  It is fun to watch the high school students carefully evaluate exactly what they are doing, deliberate the words they will speak, and embark on explanations that will be understandable to their elementary guests.

The 10th graders become more and more confident in their knowledge and the 4th graders get a taste of “real science”. Eventually the younger students must descend the stairs to their classroom and the reluctantly head out the door but before they leave, they shout out a series of “thank you”s.

This is definitely an advantage of our smaller school: An elementary class can take a field trip that merely involves climbing the stairs. High school students are afforded the chance to teach younger students, solidifying their own knowledge. If you have the chance to mix younger and older students, take the chance. You’ll find learning at its best!

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 (http://opwall.com/) 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?




The Biology Bus, Holiday Labs, and the Emergency Fire Blanket

It is the Crocus Vacation but several students have requested that we have a lab day so they can work on their internal assessments.  Two of the six students happen to be my own so, of course, I drive them in with me.  Another student is from our neighborhood and another lives on the way.  So, because we are part of a very small school with a family environment, we pick everyone up and I’m feeling very much like I’m driving “The Biology Bus” on the way to the school. Two other students meet us at the school.

We all enter the chilled classroom and within minutes there is a buzz of activity as everyone sets up his or her lab.  I am happy to be there with them and once again feed on their energy and enthusiasm.  The environment is considerably more relaxed considering that it’s a holiday week.  At one point the students whip out some marshmallows and roast them over a Bunsen burner while they are waiting on their experiments.  OK.  It’s a bit “on the edge” but I let it slide as they are so responsible and they’re working hard on their experiments.  I turn back to my work.

Suddenly, I hear an urgent, “Mom…..Mom…..Mom, what do we do about this fire” from behind me.   I swivel around in my chair to view my son with his outstretched hands motioning to a gigantic flame on the lab bench. The flame is spreading across the bench, enveloping the gas and electrical outlets.  I have the immediate thought, “This is a huge fire that we might not be able to contain”.  I push the thoughts of requiring the fire department aside as I do what initially needs to happen.  The students have, wisely, already turned off the gas.  It is an alcohol fire (spontaneous combustion of ethanol) and we opt for the fire blanket rather than the CO2 fire extinguisher.  Together we unfold the blanket and drape it over the monstrous flames.  We press down on the blanket and feel the heat beneath.  My son lifts a corner and observes flames licking at the blankets’ edge.  “Don’t lift it.  Don’t lift it,” he advises.  So, we let the blanket do its work of smothering the fire.  An awful stench fills the room, the result of the melted rubber tubing connecting the Bunsen burner to the gas outlet.  Near the blanket, a bottle of methylene blue sits strangely deformed from the heat it’s been exposed to.  It’s a surreal moment as I look at the aftermath of the event and the relief replacing the shocked looks on my students’ faces.

I learn that a student had taken his experiment from the fume hood (!-what !) to the Bunsen Burner, attempted to pour the alcohol into a larger beaker, experienced the spontaneous combustion of the alcohol as it was being poured, and proceeded to drop the beaker.  The result was the rapid spreading and growth of the flame.

Fortunately, all are safe, no major damage has occurred, and we are able to easily erupt into laughter as the students reenact the near disaster, my son’s persistent summoning of me, and my apparent slow-motion response. 

The students finish up their experiments and clean up the lab while I collect the turtle and his supplies to come home with me for the school break.  We work together to place the chairs on the tabletops with hopes that the cleaners will do a more thorough cleaning of the floor. The students perform a final check on ongoing experiments.  I turn off the lights and we exit the Biology room, the 3rd floor, and the school itself.  The magic school bus then begins its ride home, dropping students off at their destinations and wishing them a happy holiday.

Elementary Enthusiasm

I have the opportunity to offer science support to the elementary teachers at our school.  This has proven to be one of the most enjoyable things I have done.  First of all the elementary teachers I work with are amazing and they are so incredibly open to new ideas and to improving the learning experiences in their classroom so it is an absolute joy to work with them.  Second of all, those little elementary students are just so cute!

Just picture a third grade class.  The classroom is warm and inviting with an appropriate amount of student work and teacher scaffolding hanging all around the room leaving one with a sense of the great activity that happens there without overwhelming or cluttering the space.  True to form, when I walk in, the students simmer with excitement.  It doesn’t matter what I bring, it can be beakers and water, they greet me with eager anticipation.  The teacher has prepped them and they clearly cannot wait any longer for my arrival.  There is something about a guest from “the upper school” and when she brings cool and interesting things it’s just over the top fun. 

They seat themselves on a colorful rug in a circle around the portable white board.  I launch into a discussion of Newton’s laws with pictures and diagrams.  They soak it all in.  Then I explain that we will be conducting our own set of experiments to determine whether we can observe these laws ourselves.  They almost can’t contain their enthusiasm as I set out plastic cups, a notecard, and a coin for each of them.  We place the card on the cup with the coin on top of the card, preparing for an example of the Law of Inertia.  I ask them to hypothesize what will happen when they quickly pull away the card.  They can process that, according to the law we just discussed, the coin should fall into the cup but they can’t quite make themselves believe it.  So, they carry out the experiment. Almost immediately one boy, with all the energy his little body could possibly hold, leaps to his feet in complete wonderment and exclaims, “So Newton was right!”

I love those little ones and they inspire me as I head back up to my classroom in the upper school.  I know there is a way to ignite similar, albeit it differently expressed, enthusiasm in my seniors.