Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Tools for Science Projects!

*Also check out my other posts on Science Project Tools:
  1. Science Buddies = True Science Project Love
  2. Using Google Docs in your Science Project Fair
  3. Paperless Science Fairs
  4. Memonic--your own Internet Research Secretary
We have our first big project of the year starting this month--the amazing 8th Year Expert Project!  This is the capstone project for our Montessori 8th graders at Fraser-Woods School in Newtown, CT.   Essentially a huge independent-study project, their job this month was to write the proposal for the project in a middle-school sized "thesis proposal" format.  Essentials for beginning a large scale project at the middle school level:
  1. One of the most important tools I have is my Timeline.  It helps me organize myself with backwards-design principles...starting from the nights I know they have to present and having an idea of how long each stage will take, I design the timeline to fit the time we have.  My class webpage is on Google Sites, and Google Sites has a page template called a "List" that you can use to create your timeline.  
  2. If you take a look at my timeline, you'll see that it is formatted like a checklist and has four columns, including one that is called "Related Documents".  This is my favorite column.  It allows me to attach a link to a template, related website, how-to video or google document that the students need to complete the assignment.  This relieves everyone of the "I lost my copy of the assignment" excuse and, frankly, the kids love this feature. **Note, if you put a link there to a google document, make sure you share the document publicly in GoogleDocs first.  
  3. I ask that all of my students print out the list at the beginning of the project and tack it up somewhere at home where they can easily refer to it at any time.
  4. You can update the list at any time.  I update due-dates regularly, because we are a Montessori school and our schedule is interrupted often with special events, trips, speakers and activities.  I always announce list updates clearly in class and I will often provide copies for major changes so the kids are aware of the changes.
  • To create that type of page, click on the create page icon on the top right side of the homepage after you have signed in.  Then click on the drop-down menu under the heading Select a template to use.  Select List from the dropdown menu.
  • Name the page.  Try a name that includes "Timeline", like "Science Fair Timeline".
  • You can even customize the URL of the timeline page by clicking change URL.  This will only change the last part of the url to your desired characters.
  • Select a location for the page.   If you have created the Google Site solely to create the timeline, then click Put page at the top level>Create and voila!  Your timeline page has been created.
  • Now the page prompts you to choose a template for the list.  If you know you have specific column headings for the list you want, click Create your own>use template.
  • A box entitled "Customize Your List" will pop up.  If you want your timeline to look like mine,  you will need four columns.  Type the column name "Completed?" into the box.  Click Type>Checkbox.
  • Add New Column>"Assignment name" under column name.  Type>Text
  • Add New Column>"Due Date" under column name.  Type>Date
  • Add New Column>"Related Documents/Websites" under column name. Type>URL
  • To sort your items by due date (which I recommend, but you can change this at any time by clicking Customize this list once you have created the list) click First Sort by> Due Date>Ascending>Save.  
  • To add items to the list once it is created, click the Add Item button.  Don't check Completed? until the due date for the item has passed.  Enter the assignment name, the due date and any related documents that you'd like to attach.  
  • There you go!  Project timeline Checklist!


Sunday, December 11, 2011

Teaching Students to Tell Time with the Stars and Google Sky

Wow!  The set of lessons on "telling time with the stars" from ARIES Exploring Navigation: Location, Direction and Latitude  was just amazing!  My middle schoolers loved it, too--on their self evaluations it was the highest rated set of explorations for them.

You can't get the lessons for free, however, you can contact Charlesbridge Publishing to receive some sample lessons, or purchase a download license for all of the teacher and student lesson materials ($30) from the website.

The tool that you and your students will build to tell time with the stars (and you'll learn how to find latitude and longitude with the stars, too)  is called a Nocturnal. or star dial, nocturlabe or horologium nocturnum.   It has been used for centuries to navigate by the stars.  The photo at the right is a working nocturnal that can be worn as jewelry!

The tricky part to these explorations is that you need to practice in the classroom to make sure the kids know how to use the tool, but they must actually do the star-gazing at home.  The teacher materials provide detailed ideas on posting constellations and guide-stars on the wall in the appropriate locations...but I had a fabulous idea!  Why not use Google Earth (in Space mode) and have the stars in the correct locations already?

I actually used the Google Earth method as a way to give my students a performance assessment on the proper use of the nocturnal.  It worked like a charm, because I could change the positions of the stars accurately for each class, without having to climb the wall.

Here are some photos of my students during their "test":


Monday, December 5, 2011

Exploring the Reason for the Seasons in Middle School--with ARIES from Charlesbridge Publishing

There is one essential question in middle school science that often is misunderstood, mistaught, undertaught or simply overlooked that is central to our experience here on planet Earth and that exists as a standard in every state curriculum in the United States and probably most all over our world (especially in areas north of the Tropics):  "What is the reason for the seasons?".

Many people, many extremely educated people (register with Annenberg Media to see the video "Private Universe" and you'll believe it when you see the Harvard professor and graduates explain their own misunderstandings) have incomplete or incorrect ideas about the reason for the seasons.  An overly-simplified reason is "The tilt of the Earth causes the seasons".  This answer is incomplete and provides lots of room for the insertion of ideas that are at odds with what scientists have agreed are the real "reasons for the seasons".  

An example of one of those ideas is that the orbit of the Earth around the Sun is a greatly exaggerated ellipse.   It is no wonder that most people hold onto this idea--it is reinforced by thousands of textbooks and diagrams that show the orbit of the Earth around the Sun at an oblique angle to save page space; the result is that the (nearly) circular orbit of the Earth ends up represented as an elongated ellipse--often with the Sun at the center.   Shown are several examples of that type of diagram:

Having seen so many of these images, which certainly COULD be useful for teaching some concepts accurately, but have so far managed to do more misinforming than informing--a student could hardly be blamed for believing that the the orbit is an extremely eccentric ellipse with the Sun located at the center, and not at one focus of the ellipse.

Here are more accurate (from above) diagrams that could help disspell these myths if used more widely...but simple exposure to the ideas illustrated here is not the answer, either.

"  Images from

Oh, alright alright...the whole point of this post is to offer a curricular resource that I have used for many years that addresses all of these ideas.  The ARIES physical science curriculum by the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (published by Charlesbridge) is an effective answer.  Students love the freedom of exploration.  Teachers love the lesson extensions and discussion questions, with included assessments of all types...including performance assessment ideas.

I worked with faculty from Harvard to train with and test the curriculum and I've used it for years.  It's fantastic and you can even buy apparatus only need to provide glue and scissors, usually.

Friday, December 2, 2011

StarDome:'s Interactive Star Map--Personalized for You!

Fantastic for use on an Interactive Whiteboard, or simply for use as a projection in the classroom.

"StarDome simulates a naked-eye view of the sky from any location on Earth, at any time and on any date. StarDome gives you a graphical overview of the sky and detailed information about stars, deep-sky objects, planets, and selected asteroids and comets. 

You can quickly jump to the next eclipse, transit of Venus, Mars opposition, or Full Moon. View the constellations and explore data on more than 2,500 stars, or zoom in for a closer look at planetary configurations.

The first thing you'll notice when StarDome displays is the large circular, all-sky map. This is an interactive version of the map you'll find every month inAstronomy's pull-out section. The zenith (the point directly above an observer's head) is in the center of the map, and the horizon, complete with compass directions, forms the outer boundary. 

The second thing you'll notice is that the only active tab is the one labeled Explore the Sky. All of the other functions are available in StarDome Plus, an observing tool available only to magazine subscribers."

"Tech talkStarDome is a small program — called an applet — written in the Java language from Sun Microsystems. When you visit, your web browser downloads the applet and executes it. For StarDome to function, you'll need the Java Runtime Environment version 1.3 or higher, and you'll need to set your web browser to enable Java content."

Click here to go to the webpage for full instructions on how to use StarDome