From Bio to Bots: Summer Training and First Triumphs

Part of my identity has always been about Science and especially Biology. However, as part of my new assignment this year I have been given a robotics course. After receiving that initial email my heart sank as I began a mourning process for Biology and a frantic search for a robotics training program. My biggest question was, "Can I be as passionate about robotics as I am about Biology?" Because if not, justice will not be done for my students. 

The Course

A small group of people have assembled at the curb. “Are you here for the robotics academy?” I probe. Nods in affirmative are directed towards me. The shuttle arrives and we all climb aboard. We are off to the Carnegie Melon Engineering and Robotics Centre.

Our EV3 robot with some of our programming later in the course.

An EV3 robot awaits my attention. Two PCs sit behind it. We are instructed to look at the robot and find the input and output ports. Really? What in the world are those? The robot is awkward in my hands and my lego partner is equally baffled at our task. We fumble around with the robot and then set it back on the table. Opening the software and instructional videos, we begin our journey of becoming instructors of robotics.

Feeling Triumphant

Over the next 4.5 days we spend intense and concentrated time with our little EV3 robot. Immediate satisfaction is ours when it performs the first, simple tasks that we have programmed it to complete. As the week progresses our programming challenges become more complex and we find ourselves, along with the other participants rejoicing with each successful program. Entwined with our programming adventure are robotics pedagogy and incorporation of STEM. We engage in great discussions and brainstorming on teaching robotics to 4th graders as well as to university students taking introductory computer science classes.

We end the week with a battery of information, added confidence, 36 hours of professional development and a chance to take the instructor certification exam within the month.

After reviewing the course materials, I face the exam. Once again satisfaction was mine as I earned the EV3 Instructor Certification. And what a benefit it’s been as I embark on teaching a robotics course through a distance learning set-up! 

I’m officially excited about this new adventure! And cheers to all teachers out there facing a new class this year and to anyone learning something new! It stretches the mind, increases awareness of what it means to be a student, and keeps the brain young!

The Triumphs

The first submission I received. And others have followed!!!!!!!!!!!!

From 13100 km and 9 hours in times zones, my students have successfully built their robots and engaged in discussions with me regarding robots and programming. Each mini-challenge has resulted in students sharing their programs as well as their reflections regarding their learning and their challenges. For their first major challenge of each unit I have decided to have them send me a video of their robot completing the challenge, especially since I can't be there to actually see it. This week the first group sent me their video and I realized three important things:

  1. The distance learning is actually working and students are making progress (and it clearly helps that there is a fantastic substitute in the classroom facilitating progress)!
  2. I AM passionate about robotics! The thrill and joy that rushed through me when I viewed their simple video nearly resulted in me jumping from my chair rejoicing. Immediately I gathered those in the room to see. And how I longed to be there to celebrate my students' success in person. It was, indeed, as thrilling as waiting for my biology students to recognise the stomata under a microscope.  
  3. Just like I have, for years, said to my science students, "Isn't science AMAZING", I'll be saying to my robotics students, "Isn't robotics SO COOL?!"

I guess we can become passionate in nearly anything if we invest and commit ourselves. What a great relief this comes to me! Again, kudos to all of you out there embarking in something new and here's wishing you the discovery of passion for what you do!

P.S. I'm still teaching Science (Chemistry and Physical Science) as well as a Basic Apps course which is also really fun!

Delayed Visas, Culture Shock, and Distance Learning: The beginning of a new adventure

Delayed Visas

My husband, in Saudi Arabia, with his Iqama. The aquisition of this document is a significant step in getting us there.

We were supposed to be in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia by August 12. However, it’s early September and I remain at home with our 13-year old son awaiting visas. A week ago my husband departed for Saudi Arabia to secure proper documentation to bring us over. We have no idea when we will be able to fly.

The 24th of August marked the first day of our new school in Jeddah while schools locally began two weeks prior. Since the time-line of our visas was unknown, we made the decision to enroll our 13-year old in a local middle school.

Culture Shock (In the U.S.A.)

My son looks up at me with wide eyes in disbelief. He holds in his hand a bright orange piece of paper titled “Weapons Agreement." “It even tells you what items are considered to be weapons, like a pen!” he muses.  As we’re processing the contents of this friendly coloured paper, a 7th grade boy, eyes brimming with tears, walks into the office with his skateboard: all four wheels have been stolen. Our son looks at us with a look that clearly questions our judgment of bringing him here.

He adds his signature to the orange piece of paper and then flounders as everyone rises to say the pledge of allegiance. An 8th grader appears and escorts our son to his classes.

Skyler comes home with questions like “What is a quart and is the plural of it spelled with a ‘z’? And why aren’t they using the metric system?” His mechanical pencil is stolen the first day he uses it. He is stunned by a heated conversation between a boy and a girl and even more shocked when, following the departure of the girl, the boy says, “Yeah, she’s my ex”. 

Skyler’s accustomed to playing a full soccer game with this peers after lunch. However, here no one does that. They rush to eat and than hang out for a few minutes before returning to class.

Our son manages but he’s eager for the processing of our visas and the return to what he considers “normal education” 

Distance Learning

So where does this leave me as a teacher of Chemistry, Physical Science, Robotics, and Basic Applications? Well, I’m engaging in a “distance learning” experience. All of my lesson plans are submitted to a substitute. Instructions, discussion, and assignments for the students are posted on Schoology, a “learning management system” that works quite well. Each day I post daily activities and students upload their assignments as well as responses to the discussions.

Thus, I manage my classes from afar and it’s going as well as it could, I guess. I can't worry too much about it because I'm doing all I can do.  Being 13000 km and 9 hours in time difference away is, indeed, interesting. My thoughts and posts and classes are taking place on a Thursday while I'm living in Wednesday. It's a bit brain bungling. I wake up to read what my students have done and there's nothing I can do to rectify any problems that occurred during the school day. I just have to work with what happened. For example, I woke up one Friday and all the robotics students posted that they couldn't begin building their robots as planned because there weren't enough parts. In fact, they couldn't even build ONE ROBOT for the entire class because there weren't enough parts. So, I momentarily panicked thinking that there aren't robot kits as promised (supposedly one per student) and that the robot program couldn't work. However, after communicating with my sub (who taught the class last year) it became apparent that he had been sick and HIS sub didn't look in the closet to find the robot kits and the students were trying to build robots from the spare parts bin!!! Oh well. So, they began building on Monday instead of Thursday. I did have a good laugh about that one though!

Through their discussions and posts I’m slowly getting to know my students a little bit.  I Skype regularly with a colleague with whom I share a course with. Thankfully she’s a collaborator and we’re already working as a team despite our distance! I can’t wait to meet her, other colleges, and my students in person.

Thus begins our adventure! We are looking forward to the arrival of visas, flight arrangements, and meeting our new school family in Jeddah!

The Climb of Education (or life).

A young mother recently said to me after dropping her oldest son off at Kindergarten, “I stayed and waited for the bell to ring to see if he’d’ get in line. Then I went to look at him through the classroom door. He hung up his backpack and seemed just fine.” Many parents are sending their children off to school at this time of year. Whether it’s preschool, elementary, middle, high school, or even college each parent hopes their children will do well, be happy, and succeed.

Many different types of parents have passed through my classroom over the years. As a secondary school teacher I often have wanted (but have refrained) to say to the more concerned parents “It’s OK. Give your child some space to make his/her own decisions. Allow your child more independence. Allow your child to self-advocate. Everything will be OK.”

Recently, an experience with a couple of my children and a friend became an analogy to me of this universal life-experience of needing to “let go” and allow our children the freedom to discover and act independently.

We visited the tallest outdoor climbing wall in the world. It towered ominously up into the sky and our three climbers approached it each uniquely. The youngest raced ahead, unaware of the dangers. The older girls went with trepidation and even fear. However, they all faced the tower.  Each climber worked with a “belayer”, the team member who is responsible for maintaining tension in the rope to ensure that the climber doesn’t fall far in the event he/she slips. Additionally, there was a climbing coach giving tips and advice and suggestions for alternate routes when a climber became stuck.

Our youngest, taking the easiest pathway, scampered to the top of the tower with no problem. When challenged with more difficult climbing routes, he slowed down, required some guidance, and learned some new techniques that would help him on later climbs. The older two, gripped by fear during initial climbs took a bit longer and required more coaxing to get to the top, however, they gained confidence and skills that allowed them to ascend at a faster rate later in the day.

Triumphant climbers!

Triumphant climbers!

They strengthened muscles. They developed skills. They enjoyed the climb. They thrilled in arriving at the top. But even once at the top, they weren’t “done” - there are more challenging routes to try, more ways to develop oneself.

The students are the climbers. They must decide the route and perform the climb. In secondary school, students should make decisions about how to study, when to study, and eventually in high school what classes interest them and in college what major to choose and what career to pursue. Teachers are the climbing coaches. They facilitate learning and give tips and advice to help students find the best path to acquiring the understandings they need to progress in their education. And parents, along with the teachers, are the belayers. It is their responsibility to be there, in the background, ready to advise and offer help when it is needed. Both teachers and parents need to allow students to choose the more challenging routes so that they can learn the most.

Sometimes, however, parents think they must make the climb with their child or perform the climb for the child. And, in so thinking, become too involved, preventing the child the opportunity to grow and become strong in good decision making. A belayer who “hoists” the climber to the top is not allowing the climber to gain necessary decision making, troubleshooting, and muscle building skills to master more difficult climbs. A parent who becomes over involved with his/her child also prevents that child from gaining important communication skills and the ability to self-advocate (how many adults do you know who are afraid to ask for a much deserved pay raise). They also inhibit the child’s opportunities to learn how to make good decisions regarding study habits, balancing pleasure and work, and enacting good behaviours in school. 

It is OK for students to “slip” or make mistakes. It is during these moments that lessons are learned and the ability to make better decisions in the future is increased. As both teacher and parent, I speak to all parents: Keep that belaying rope in your hand but keep it loose. Allow your children to learn and grow by giving them more independence. They will find their route, they will find their passion, and they will thrill in reaching the top on their own.

Smiles come with Self-attained Success

Smiles come with Self-attained Success

The Gap Year: A Mother’s Perspective.

ACTs, SATs finished. College applications filled out and submitted. IB exam enrollment completed. The final year of high school was underway for my two seniors. However, despite the fact that plans were in motion for college, it wasn’t clear that the next step should be university, especially for my young 17-year old daughter.

A few of my students had elected to do a gap year following high school graduation and I was intrigued by their experiences, particularly that of one student who did volunteer work with human-trafficking victims in Thailand. She returned from her year full of vigor and experience and the glow of having done some good in the world. She then commenced with full force on her university career.

This example prompted me to encourage my daughter to consider a gap year. At first she was highly resistant fearing she’d “get behind” or “miss out” on something by not plunging forward with university plans. That drive to push ahead, get ahead, move on, “succeed”, and “follow the program” nagged at her. However, she slowly became interested in the idea of a gap year.

My daughter took this photo of black rhinos during a standard data collection event. The picture was taken just after the rhinos charged the research group.

Her inherent interest in wildlife and conservation led her down a path of doing volunteer work towards conservation efforts. Together we researched several organizations. She was clear that she didn’t want a “travel” experience as she already had that from her 6 years living abroad. She wanted to do real work that would make a difference in the world.

My daughter rode in the back of the truck to hold one of the lion's heads during the journey in order to prevent injury due to jostling of the truck.

A hand-raised cheetah that couldn't be successfully released into the wild and was traded with the rehab center for a cheetah that needed to be released and was successfully reintroduced into the wild. 

She embarked on a conservation journey in South Africa working in the bush. Her experience involved 7-day work weeks (at a wild-life rehabilitation center the animals must be fed every day!) without any time off or weekend excursions. She worked hard and she loved every minute of it. She participated in incredible conservation work, including darting and tagging rhinoceros in anti-poaching measures, transporting lions between reserves to increase genetic diversity within prides, tracking wildlife on horseback to record numbers of specific endangered species for scientific research, and caring for injured wildlife (often by poachers). In addition to rhinos and lions, she personally handled leopards, cheetahs, birds of prey, mongoose, and countless others. It was truly an amazing and life-changing experience.

She learned more about conservation, conservation efforts, and wildlife than any year in college would yield her. Furthermore, she developed into a fiercely independent thinker with a real passion for conservation. And importantly, she gained confidence in herself as an individual and knowledge of who she is, what she believes, and what she wants to do in life. I wish I had that when I was 17!

Now she is preparing to begin her university journey studying conservation ecology.  She has already signed up for the sustainability efforts at the school and is looking into research labs she might be interested in becoming a part of. She knows where she is headed.

Interestingly, my other graduating senior was ready to head to university. However, his top choice for this endeavor was a state school where he did not qualify for in-state tuition. After much deliberation, he chose to move to Michigan and reside there for one year to earn residency. Thus, he proceeded forth with an inadvertent gap year. Because his interests lie in the medical field he decided to earn his Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) license.

To support himself he hit the pavement searching for a job as an 18-year old with no work experience and no education.  After many rejections he walked into a Pizza Hut with a sign in the window advertising for employment with the added large letters, “No experience necessary”.  He got the job.

My son's facebook picture once the license arrived in his post box.

During his “gap year” he earned an EMT license, paid bills, held down a job, learned about good vs. bad management, and gained important insight about working with people successfully. Most importantly, during his EMT training he confirmed his passion in life. He absolutely LOVED his rotations both in the ambulance and in the hospital. He realized his strengths and is definite place in the medical field. He will begin his university career this fall studying molecular biology and biochemistry/biotechnology. And he knows what he wants.

So, I’ve had two children complete a gap year. I see new skills, maturity, and a deep development of intellectual and practical awareness. Both of them, on two very different tracks, have found a true passion in life. Both of them are self-confident as they enter their freshman year. Both of them are committed to working hard towards clearly formed goals.

Many parents seem afraid to allow their children such an opportunity, perhaps fearful that the child won’t continue on with higher education? Perhaps concerned that the child will be “behind” in the pursuit of that degree or that important high-paying job? A 17 or 18-year old still has an entire life ahead. And I ask, what is the rush? There is so much to be gained from life experience itself. 

Permission to write this post and include photographs provided by them was granted by my children.

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!

Challenge Yourself!

What are the experiences in life that yielded within you maximum growth or that you are most proud of? More than likely such affairs involved exiting your comfort zone and/or experiencing challenge or struggle.

In watching students pass through my classroom I have the opportunity to see how certain approaches yield the most significant results. And this is not about “getting the grade” or “getting that amazing IB score", it’s about personal growth and development. It’s about establishing patterns of hard work. It’s about the desire to learn as much as possible and to be the best that you can be.

This year I had the amazing opportunity of advising two students through extended essays (independent, self-directed research culminating in a 4000-word paper) in Science. I might be biased, but doing an extended essay in Science takes a bit of courage and a lot of work that some of the other disciplines don’t require. Not only do the science students have the same expectations regarding research and the written word, but they are also required to produce an original scientific experiment.

One student chose to research and work on a chemical on which there is hardly any literature available. As a result she had to research and make connections between similarly structured chemicals. Her idea required hours in the lab generating a calibration curve and troubleshooting how she would manipulate the independent variable, before even performing her ultimate experiment.  The final results were that the independent variable did not have an effect on what she was studying, a conclusion that initially came as a crushing blow. However, she picked herself up, learning that this is also part of Science and that such results are valuable. She pressed on to put together a thorough and coherent report despite feeling discouraged and ever so “done” with her project. She shared that she had truly learned the meaning and value of perseverance.

The other student built his own electrophoresis apparatus! He also passed hours in the lab just trying to get his protocol to work. He dedicated an entire week out of his summer coming in every day, all day, to work on his experiment. Then school started and he averaged about 10 hours a week through the first semester. I was getting ready to have the conversation with him that he might want to consider another topic. However, that very morning he was able to visualize genomic DNA in his gel. He announced this breakthrough in homeroom and every single student in the senior class cheered for him as they all knew how hard he’d been working. He went on to perform a most interesting, original, and very involved experiment with his set-up. He told me during the viva voce (the final interview with the advisor) that he “learned the importance of trial and error and to never give up.”

In another area of IB curriculum, a student at our school elected to take the Dutch Language B course of study.  Language B is designed for non-native speakers of a language with 2-3 years of background in the language. This student had one year of Dutch language before the IB DP years. She took a 2-week language course in Belgium to help herself prepare. This experience alone was agonizing as she was the only English speaker at the camp. All other students were native French speakers coming to the camp to learn either Dutch or English and she was compelled to rely exclusively on her “broken Dutch” to communicate. However, she returned with increased language skills and embarked on a committed journey to learn as much Dutch as she could. She ended up earning a “5” out of “7” on the IB exam and now claims that that score means more to her than any other as it represents how far she came.  She accomplished what many assert isn’t possible: to succeed on an IB Language B exam with so little initial exposure to the language. Additionally, she learned of the growth, personal development, sense of achievement, and empowerment that comes from exiting your comfort zone and tackling the impossible.

Another student has been exceedingly dedicated in all of her classes. However, she desperately wanted to bring her math skills up significantly. So, she focused with fervor on practicing her math. Hours and hours were spent on becoming a better math student. And, she demonstrated huge success on her mock exams this past December. She continues to heed the advice of each of her teachers as she prepares for the May exams, not slacking for even a minute. It hasn’t been easy but it’s clear she’s learned the value of sheer hard work.

What makes these examples special is that each student chose paths of challenge. Adversity wasn’t just thrust upon them. They knew they were taking a less traveled path and I think this element of choice makes their journey all the more enriching for them and inspiring to me.

It isn’t too late for the rest of us! We are faced on a regular basis to take an easier route or a more demanding enriching route. This year I took on three new curriculums! Both struggle and joy have enveloped me. I’ve learned and grown as a teacher and as a person as I dealt with very new issues in the classroom. And next year I will be teaching robotics and Computer Automated Design (CAD). I look forward to this experience and anticipate that it will be invigorating, mind stretching, and character building.

My question today is, what new challenge are you ready to embrace?

MS Drama Festival: A Science Teacher’s Perspective

“Would you be a leader for one of the groups during the drama festival?”

It seemed like an innocuous request. After checking my class and curriculum schedules, I agreed. Before I knew it, I was carried away in a 3-day adventure of guiding students through the artistic process of modifying a fairy tale into their own creation of a playlet.

There we sat on Day 1 with the fairy tale in hand, reading through the story my group had selected. In observing this little assembly of 6-8th graders struggle to just read and comprehend the 2-page fairy tale, it was unclear to me how they would eventually generate an original script of their own. However, trusting the guidelines of our amazing drama teacher, I embarked on the coaching process of encouraging the students to brainstorm about themes, characters, plot, and setting. Ere long they were engaged and their story began to unfold! What a thrill to take a step back and let them share ideas and create.

At one point students were given the task to take what they had and just start acting it out. They stood there looking at me like, “Seriously? What are we supposed to say?” However, shortly their improvisation skills took hold and slowly a script began to emerge!

Indeed the classic story of Rumplestiltskin was evolving into a modern tale of an evil mother, a cash-generating printer, a daughter, homeless children, and a new Rumplestilitskin.

Throughout Day 2 the students continued to develop characters and refine their script. It was amazing to see how far they’d come since 8:30 the morning before! Then they began to think about props and staging. One of them had a great idea for making a jail.  To work we went and it turned out perfectly!

One boy requested more lines. As we were developing his character I made a suggestion for him to insert a line about an idea the students were throwing around. He responded, “Why me?” and I reminded, “You asked for more lines.” “Oh yeah,” he replied. The students practiced their play and coached and encouraged each other throughout the process. For me the biggest challenge was to make them to SPEAK OUT!

On Day 3 we faced the tech rehearsal. Two of the students in the group were assigned to the tech role in which they downloaded and assembled sound effects for the play. So, the rest of the group had come up with ideas for the tech boys and we arrived at our rehearsal prepared to try it all out.  However, the tech teacher approached me with the question, “What lighting cues do you have?” This is when the realization hits me that I am totally out of my element. “Well, what are my options?”  After he responds, I attempt to give him some perspective by saying, “This is like me asking you to fill in the blank. Van der Waals, Schroedinger, or Sertoli. You choose. Pick one.” He laughed out loud but still couldn’t fully grasp that I remained clueless.

In any case, we survived the tech rehearsal and the students walked away slightly more confident having tried everything out on the stage.  After a few minor adjustments and last minute preparations, they were ready to perform!

Along with four other groups who had undergone the same transformation over the 3-day period of the drama festival, my students performed their piece late in the afternoon to our parent and student community.  All five performances were entertaining and unique! It was a huge success and each group came off the stage flushed with excitement.

It’s true, the students missed three days of classes but they gained much from the experience including, but not limited to: empowerment from the creative process, benefits of collaboration, joy in helping each other out, satisfaction of accomplishment, challenge in putting together a story, skill of scripting, and the thrill of performing. Yes, as a science teacher I once again advocate for the arts. Students need these adventures as much as they need lessons of math and science.

After their performance, as our group was waiting for the others to finish, one student (who just a week ago claimed he was too nervous to act) said to me, “You know what the best part about this was? Well, all three days and then the moment just before the curtain went up for us to perform" Doesn’t that say it all? Support the arts!





Sometimes, in the moment, it’s just too much. So, take a break!

It is the end of the day. It’s Friday. There are 30 minutes of school remaining. The entire class is a bit late, probably because of some other IB deadlines. They literally straggle in and plop down in their seats. An atmosphere of exhaustion hangs in the air. I know one student is operating on 20 minutes of sleep from the night before.

Making mug racks for part of a CAS project

Earlier in the day these four delivered their CAS presentations. Each presentation was full of activities that the student participated for their Community Action and Service (CAS) portion of their IB program. Impressive was the volume of activities each individual participated in over the past two years. Noteworthy was each individual reflection on his/her involvement, struggles, and what was learned from the experiences. They allowed themselves to be vulnerable, not necessarily an easy task for 16-18 year olds.

In addition to the CAS presentations, the day had been filled with final submissions for internal assessments, Extended Essays, and Theory of Knowledge essays for the IB.  I had perused the Extended Essay titles that morning: what an impressive stack of work. This pile of papers was evidence of what these students have recently produced. It represents long hours, late nights, and commitment to their studies.

IA work

I know the quality of the Biology Internal Assessments. My class has exceeded my expectation by actually heeding my advice over the last two years! They accepted and applied feedback throughout the course. Then, as they prepared their final internal assessments, they helped each other out, pouring over the rubrics and giving feedback to each other as they each finalized their work.  With pride those papers will be put in the mail to be sent off for moderation. Having worked with the students closely, it is clear they put forth their best effort, challenged themselves, struggled, and stretched themselves. And, they thereby grew from the process.

Here they sit. Wiped out. Without a doubt, the plans I have for review are, in this moment, too much. I suggest they can just go home and rest (especially the one with only 20 minutes of sleep) or they can relax for a couple of minutes. The 20-minute guy, who lives literally across the street from the school, replies, “I think I’ll just chill here for a few minutes” and then I realize he’s too tired to even cross the street right now!

I think it was this time last year, when my own children were going through the IB, that I wrote a post questioning whether the IB is worth it.  Right now, all over the world IB students are feeling the crunch and pressure of the rigor of the program.

So, we just take a step back. They share their hopes for university, their favorite form of exercise, and their summer plans. And it feels really good. Their curved shoulders straighten a bit. They smile. And in 30 minutes they are ready to move again. Their homework for the weekend? To relax and to rest. We’ll begin serious review next week.

I stepped back by taking a day for walking around Rotterdam and taking photographs.

Having also succumbed to over exertion, my Saturday was spent on a little “time-out” as well just taking photographs and spending some time with friends.

Over the weekend I received an email from a friend in which she wrote, “So I decided that on Friday I NEEDED to rest. I couldn't not rest. I hit a wall. Mentally, Emotionally. Physically. Spiritually. So, I decided to take some time and actually rest and not give myself guilt for it.” It reminded me of my IB students and many who are pushing themselves to their limits.  To all I say, it’s OK to stop and take a step back. Rest and reflect. In the end, this is what will make you stronger and more able to carry on.

Facilitate learning through mind mapping

Their quest is outlined. Examples are given. The purpose is revealed. They are presented with the task.

“But that’s a lot!”

What are they to do? Create a mind map of the past two years of study in IB Biology. There are 6 core topics for Standard Level and 11 core topics for Higher Level plus two options for each group. Nearly every topic links to the others. On their sheet of paper the student teams are to record all the assessment statements with words, diagrams, figures, symbols, and pictures and then make as many connections between them as possible, indicating on joining lines what the relationships are.

At first they take to the task with the end goal in mind. They just “want to get the mind map done” but then I reiterate the value of review and making connections in preparation for their IB exams and I explain that they will not be assessed on the mind map itself. They will take an exam and be able to refer to their (and only their) mind map when taking the exam.


Seriousness and intensity settle on the group. They bend over their texts, notes, and mind maps with greater purpose. Discussions over potential connections ensue. Before they know it, the class is over. As they roll up their maps they make plans as to how they will proceed during the next session.

The value of this “hands-on” collaborative activity is multi-faceted. The purposes of mind mapping include but are not limited to (1):

  1. Enhancing memory (everyone wants this, right?)
  2. Enhancing learning (so, if it was missed it the first time, maybe they’ll get it this time!)
  3. Helping in planning and organizing (students will know what they need to study for the IB exam)
  4. Improving writing skills (which will help students better communicate on the IB Exams)
  5. Encouraging critical thinking and problem solving skills (which will help students on the IB Exams)

Do not underestimate the power of mind mapping! It is worth class time to allow students to work towards building the connections within their studies. 

(1) Mind Mapping in Education. (2012, January 1). Retrieved February 24, 2015, from

Another resource, created by the ThinkBuzan company and linked here, references and outlines the scientific evidence for the value of mind mapping.

Getting dirty, service learning, and more inspiration

Garbage Audit #2 

Once again the space is scheduled and the supplies are stacked. Pupils have planned and prepared for this proceeding.

We meet at 15:15 in my room and the plan is put into motion. The students split up into groups collecting trash, spreading tarps, and organizing bins.

Finally it is time to don the gloves, open the bags and start sorting! The goal is to compare the results to last year’s audit and see if any improvements can be observed based on the implementation of the team’s proposals. Additionally, the students are focusing this year on the organic waste to determine how much of it is compostable

The most unusual discoveries? How about an entire briefcase with two phones in it? The bag of perfectly usable clothes? The intact mugs? The functioning umbrella?

The students are having fun. The sorted contents are analyzed. Data is recorded. Ideas for the proposals are formulating. They are disgusted, especially as they tackle the cafeteria waste, but they are still laughing. It’s 18:20 and we are nearly done.  We clean up and store a huge container to be wheeled off to the recycling station in the morning.

The next day data analysis begins. The data from last year is retrieved and comparisons begin to form. Have we made a change? An initial look suggests that there has been change! However, we’re still waiting for the final results.

One thing is for sure: there is satisfaction for the involved students. They feel ownership in the environmental status of their school. They are absolutely intrigued with the outcomes of the audit. They are eager to determine how to further reduce waste and energy usage at the school. The act of physically being involved makes the concept of Going Green so much more real. It spawns ideas. It inspires.

Oh yes, and it’s messy! Allow the students (and yourself) to get dirty. It will provide new inspiration and further ideas for service learning!

Uncomplicated but poignant activities

It was a simple idea. It’s possible they’ve even done it before in another class sometime during their education. However, I knew they would learn from it and would thereby approach the learning objectives. So, I prepared the materials.

The instructions, accompanied by an image, were simple: build a model of the ventilation system. The building part was easy and fun. With their hands and minds engaged, they were hooked and as the more challenging part of the activity faced them, they plowed ahead. With the expectations for the write-up in front of them, they reached for the models again and again, seeking deeper understanding. They discussed. They questioned. They pointed. They pulled.


“Oh, I get it” followed by an explanation of the role of air pressure in breathing.

“So, when the diaphragm contracts, the thorax expands.”

“The intercostal muscles are located here and contract and expand with the diaphragm”

Soon everyone in the room can accurately and biologically describe inspiration and expiration. And all it took were some plastic bottles and balloons.

VALUE the power of simple.

Later in the day the health teacher and I were comparing curriculum since we share students who are doing a unit on the respiratory system in both health and biology. He began to describe an activity he had completed with the students and then hesitated, “Oh, it was nothing. It was so simple” he says, almost discrediting the activity because it was simple. “The students were handed a straw and told to run up and down the stairs using only the straw with which to breathe in and out.  He continued, “But they really got it. As they came up the stairs, they described feeling panicked, even though they knew they could remove the straw. Suddenly they had a real idea as to what it would mean to have emphysema."

Today as we continued our learning about the structures of the ventilation system, I asked those same students about what would happen if the airways were constricted. They immediately piped in what they knew about emphysema. They added their experience in the stairways and I asked them what they learned from that. The response was unanimous, “Now I know how it might feel like to have emphysema.” And all it took was a straw.

VALUE the power of simple.

Recently a colleague came to me and said, “I think I need to change the way I teach. I’m too lecture based and I need more activity driven lessons” and then she followed up with an overwhelming description of what that might look like. She had grand but complicated ideas that would require hours of prep time, a luxury she does not have.  “Simple goes a long way” was my advice. “What do you mean?” she queried. “Look at this gap activity – students simply matching concepts with descriptions” but it engages them. We brainstormed a bit and she came up with a brilliant idea. In fact, it’s so brilliant that I’ll be borrowing and reporting on it someday! She ran back to her room and produced the activity in about ten minutes.  And all it takes is a story problem and a stack of paper cut-outs with words to enable hands-on, engaged processing of the problem.

VALUE the power of simple.

Be empowered by uncomplicated ideas. Think outside the box but look inside the box (i.e. your classroom) for your supplies. 


Last night I found myself sitting next to an elegant woman dressed in white.  Her delicate hands rested on her lap highlighting a perfect French manicure. It was quite clear that her hands would never find themselves where mine had been that day. I glanced down at my appendages hoping were no remains of dried blood under or around my nails.

That morning our lab assistant appeared in my classroom doorway with a heavy plastic bag and a huge grin on his face: his mission had been successful. He handed off the bag and I immediately took it to a lab bench. The items inside were contained within a series of thick plastic bags. As I removed each layer it became apparent why. The mounds of pig tissue within were dripping with blood. Untangling entwined trachea and esophagi, I lifted the first set of lungs from the bag and placed them on a work area on the lab bench. Dabbing off blood as I worked, I arranged the bright pink lungs so that the trachea and esophagi extended neatly from the top.

Then I covered them hoping to mask the rawness of the scene from those entering my classroom and giving myself some mental preparation time with the students before they had to handle the organs.

Some students literally fled the room upon the unveiling of the lungs. However, they quickly realized there was no threat and succumbed to their curiousity which was heightened by the “ooh”s and “aahs” of their peers within.

With gloved hands they carefully handled and explored the tissues. Eventually EVERYONE touched the lungs, followed the trachea to the bronchi, studied the pathway of the esophagus, and made observations on the differences between the structures. Several students were brave enough to insert a straw into the trachea, squeeze down and blow air into the lungs.  The inflating lungs were indeed an impressive sight drawing exclamations of amazement from all observers!

My Grade 10 Bio class was the intended recipient of this lab activity as they have just started a unit on the Respiratory System. However, my grade 11 General Science class studying the human body also benefitted from those lungs. Then, my Year 2 IB Biology students were able to review some of their assessment statements from last year as they investigated the organs. As one of them said following her time with the lungs, “That was a really good class”.  The bottom line? The Respiratory System became real to them.  Now they can imagine it. Now they can discuss it. Now they will remember it.

I’d much rather be part of this kind of journey than sporting beautifully manicured nails!  And as always, I advocate to all, risk the mess and find every opportunity to bring learning to the realest level possible.



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!

Fostering scientific creativity, before the IB years!

The lab is abuzz with activity. Various experiments are taking place at every lab bench in the room.

“Um, do you think I should use the large filter or the small filter?”

My reply is coupled with a smile, “That’s your call” Every subsequent question receives the same response.

It is the International Baccalaureate (IB) Internal Assessment (IA) time for seniors. At this point  in their educational journey, students are supposed to be independent enough to simply design and run their experiments. As teachers we are no longer allowed to provide input or guidance. Not even guided questions. And it takes a lot of control. Sometimes I literally have to bite my tongue and watch as obvious flaws in the experiment ensue.

Today, however, I had the grand luxury of giving some 10th graders freedom in troubleshooting a design for their lab on testing for photosynthesis.

Together we had studied the set-up of an initially faulty and cumbersome design. The students were given access to a cart of supplies from the lab. Their instructions were to come up with an experimental set-up that would work for them and provide the results they were looking for. Oh, how creative these students were!

“Do you have some sticky tack?” one student queries.  Well, that’s not on the cart but I love that he is thinking beyond the supplies on the cart and I rummage through my desk drawers to find the item he seeks. Upon seeing the huge glob in my hands he exclaims, “Oh yes, that’s perfect!” Triumphantly he bends over his plant with his lab partner and begins to assemble his idea.

When students asked for input, unlike with the IB IA experiments, I can actually provide guiding questions to help them reach the best decision. It’s so freeing and it reminds me why I enjoy teaching all levels of science. There is something absolutely thrilling about fostering scientific creativity in students.

Each pair of students deliberates and collaborates to come up with a unique idea. Questions abound. Cabinets are searched. Glassware is examined. Yes, it’s chaotic. Yes, it’s busy. Yes, it’s messy. However, how amazing to view the different designs that result! Clearly this is more constructive and interesting than telling the students what to do!

Don’t be afraid to free the students. It will take you and them on a glorious journey!

Costa Rica here we come!

The program and research itinerary are scheduled. The flight tickets have been purchased. The medical forms and travel consent forms are filtering into my classroom. The reality of our adventure is emerging but it’s still five months away!

This coming summer a group of students and I will travel to Costa Rica to participate in the Ecology Project International  (EPI) research program to study the nesting sites of leatherback turtles.

People often question my choice to spend two weeks of precious summer time to volunteer chaperoning students 24/7. I’ll admit, it’s not a vacation and it’s exhausting. However, I am given a front row seat to a rite of passage in which teenagers experience a once in a lifetime opportunity of rare contact with the wild. The students are offered new and unique perspectives to their relationship with the earth.  As they face issues involving their life-style choices and the future of our world, these students will self-reflect and discover their opinions and where they stand. And what a gift to be part of that!

Of the students still at my school who joined me on the South Africa trip last year, we share a special bond. For those who continue to study with me in the classroom, we enjoy repeated references and curriculum connections to our research experiences from the summer. Daily the exclamation arises, “We learned about this in South Africa!” What a joy to witness the assimilation of authentic science and legitimate issues that link to greater learning later.

Of course, with my students I will also have great pleasure in our participation in research in the Costa Rican wild. So, being in a beautiful area while fostering real education that results in maturation of youth is a perfect way to start my summer holiday. Yes, there is great anticipation for this June adventure!