Thursday, October 25, 2012

Teaching Tools Series: Great K-12 Resource for Cellular Biology Teachers!

This website had the videos I was looking for (previous post) when I couldn't find them anywhere else!

Teaching Tools Series: Quizlet Flashcard Set on Moon Phases, Eclipses and Tides

I have a new role model and her name is Joan Le, author of science-teaching blog extraordinaire, The Science Room.  I haven't met her in person, and I don't need to in order to appreciate her innovative integration of technology into her classroom.  This flashcard set on Quizlet is a gift from her, that I am posting so more people can find it.


Friday, October 19, 2012

Difficult Concepts: Teaching the Reason for the Seasons in Middle School

My last post on teaching the reason for the seasons in middle school focused on the biggest misconception of  most people when it comes to the concept, and an excellent curricular resource that I have successfully used for years to help teach this concept that is difficult to teach.  It is difficult to teach mainly because of the misconceptions that many people (including very smart people--some of them are teachers!).

I didn't even talk about the ACTUAL reasons--I spent all of my time on UNTEACHING a misconception, which is one of the challenges of being a science teacher!  Kids come to us with all sorts of ideas about how the world works, and we have to ensure experiences that help them understand what is right about their models and what ideas need, ahem, "reworking".  So here they are:

Here is a summary of the reasons for the seasons:
Images from

1. The big, overarching, reason for the seasons is that the Earth is tilted 23.5 degrees from vertical on its rotational axis; and the Earth revolves around the Sun with the axis always pointing in the same "direction" in space. This results in several phenomena:

  • The number of daylight hours a region receives varies based on latitude and season.  If the Earth were not tilted, it would be like an equinox every day: 12 hours of sunlight and 12 hours of darkness.  In the northern hemisphere, in summer, Connecticut gets around 15 hours of daylight each day and 9 hours of darkness.  As you move north in latitude, the number of daylight hours in summer increases, so Anchorage, Alaska would get 19 hours of daylight on the same day that Jacksonville, Florida gets 14.
  • When there is daylight on a part of the Earth it warms up.  When there is darkness, it cools off.  In the summer, New England warms up for 15 hours or so and then cools off for 9 hours.  It warms for longer than it cools...this happens day after day after day so there is an overall warming effect.   In the winter, the opposite happens: there are many more hours of cooling time--15 hours of darkness--than warming time (9 hours) and day after day, this results in a cooling effect.
2. The other reason for the seasons is that the Earth is a sphere and so the solar intensity per unit of surface area differs based on latitude and time of year.  If daylight hours were the only thing that determined the average temperature at a certain latitude, then areas above the Arctic Circle would be the hottest places on Earth in Northern Summer, because it receives 24 hours of daylight (see chart above). So, there has to be some other factor at work here: many equatorial regions only have two seasons--hot and wet or hot and dry!  It's always hotter there than at the poles.  The solution is solar intensity per unit of area which changes based on the angular height of the sun.  
  • Angular height of the Sun in the sky changes throughout the day, with the Sun at it's highest point at solar noon; it also changes throughout the year, as shown in these diagrams:
Angular height of the Sun at 40 degrees Northern Latitude at different times of  the year.
  • Solar intensity changes in proportion with angular height. A great activity to do with students is using a flashlight held at constant height over a piece of graph paper.  Trace the outline of the circle of light and then tilt the flashlight slightly.  The new shape is an oval with a much larger surface area (count and compare the squares) over which the same amount of light is spread.  So the solar intensity per unit of area in the image to the right is much less.

Now my post is too long, and I have to teach a class in 5 minutes!  


Thursday, October 18, 2012

Boy oh, boy! Cellular biology and immunology have come a long way since I was in college!

The last time I took a college course in cellular biology or immunology it was about 1994.  Since I am a science teacher, my professional journal-reading tends to concentrate on methodology research in science education, for example: Science Scope, Teachers College Record, or the Journal of Science Education and Technology.

Because of that, I live for "current events" projects or assignments in my classes.  It gives me and my students an opportunity to dive into what fascinates us about science at the cutting edge.  One of my tools for current events is my TED-talk-Tuesdays! I choose a few TED talks from and show them to my classes after previewing them (always preview your TED talks! you want to be prepared for jokes by the presenter or images--diagrams of human anatomy and such--that the kids may not be expecting).

My mind was blown today, though! The talk we watched today was by David Bolinsky, medical director of BioVisions biological animations studio at Harvard University.  It is amazing to me how much MORE we know now about the molecular mechanisms inside the cell than we did when I was in college!  I feel like I need to go back to school just to catch up!

After watching the talk, I searched around the internet for the full version of the amazing 3-dimensional animated, narrated and annotated video and found it here:

The Inner Life of a Cell - Harvard University
More science games & videos on Cell Structures at  

I found it helpful to also view the same process in an animation format that was less visually complicated.  For a traditional flash animation of the same process (shown in 2D) with labels and explanations, click this link:


Tuesday, October 9, 2012

I absolutely love my job! (aka Best Science Teacher Annual Goal...Ever!)

Like many professions, each year teachers create professional goals that they would like to accomplish for the year. Establishing these goals is meant to spur the development of a set of professional skills. Periodically throughout the year, teachers meet with supervisors to discuss progress on the goals and to collaboratively problem-solve any items that are hindering accomplishing of the goals.

Last year at my final 'goal progress' meeting, I met with other teachers to discuss our goals and talk about ideas for goals for the present school year.  I had the BEST idea for a was the kind of idea that makes you so excited to get started on accomplishing it!  What a way to love your job.

Here is what I wrote:
"Goal : To develop a thematic tradition in the middle school science classroom of “Celebrating Science” and to begin bringing that theme outward into the community. 
Steps I will take to achieve that goal:
  • To develop lessons, materials or events in science class that celebrate science.  For example: to create special thematic lab experiments and classroom decorations for Halloween; to organize events that celebrate the astronomical phenomena of the changing of the seasons, lunar or solar eclipses, milestones in science—like Newton’s birthday, or to further develop events like last year’s Periodic Table of the Cupcakes or the Cell Cake Project.
  • To build community awareness and anticipation of the events with the school newsletters, parent “awareness” email blasts and other media.
  • To guide middle school students to create ways of sharing the actual happening of the event with younger students in the school.  For example, by visiting the classes and sharing the Periodic Table Cupcakes with them after explaining what the project was all about and answering questions from the younger students."
This entire goal can translate from teacher-ese into English as:  "Spend your energy on how to have fun in science class!"

So this year, as I plan Halloween Science in the lab (Halloween falls on our extended-period lab day this year--Hooray!) I can have fun planning it...get really 'into it' and elaborate on it, develop it into something that excites even me!  All the while, I know I am working on accomplishing a professional goal that I set for myself which adds to my feeling of satisfaction about it.  

I will definitely post about my Halloween Science Day this year and other events...but not yet...some of my students and parents read this blog and I don't want to give anything away.  If you need some ideas, try this link to Science Bob's site of Halloween science demos.

By the way, a big shout-out to Liisa Petersen, who is one of the best science teachers I have EVER met, and an absolute pro at loving her job and having fun.  One thing that is on the list this year is to try to model her FLUGTAG event.


Saturday, October 6, 2012

If At First You Don’t Succeed… GREAT!! — Maria Montessori

This article explains why a Montessori Education can be the key to an extraordinary beginning in the sciences, or any investigative field: 

If At First You Don’t Succeed… GREAT!! — Maria Montessori

This is one of the most important things about a good science program, too! My students were laughing the other day after watching an amusing TED talk by a researcher who said, "Do you know how I know that I made a measurement error? Beca
use that (dot on the graph/outlier) is messing up my data!" Guiding students to become friendly with error is essential in science because that is where many of the great discoveries have come from: what is assumed to be error or anomaly is actually a great discovery. Case in point: Kepler's ellipses.


Tuesday, October 2, 2012

TED Talk Tuesdays: The Science Of Happiness and Living Extraordinary Lives

Last year a friend gave me a book called Flourish by Martin E. P. Seligman, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. I didn't read it.  Until this summer.  I highly recommend this book to educators, business people, members of the military or people who love someone.  Click here for an extremely biased review of the book.

As a scientist, the ideas in this book appeal to me because the findings about improving well-being and happiness and the techniques that Dr. Seligman presents and teaches in his book are research-based.  Life is short.  If I don't have to figure stuff out by trial-and-error, if I can just try something new that is proven to work--great!    I'm a working mother of two. It saves me time and improves my satisfaction with my life.  I definitely have had a few, "if I only knew this when I was younger.." moments while reading this book.

As a teacher of adolescents, this book and the UPenn Positive Psychology Center website gives me concrete, ready-to-use tools (like this complete 7-day curriculum on teaching positive psychology to adolescents) that I can use with  my students to help them learn to take an active role in improving their relationships with each other, their satisfaction with school and life and improving their outlook on life in a cognitively lasting way.

Today was TED Talk Tuesdays in my classroom.  We watch TED talks for science and technology current events and to observe effective presentation styles.  Here is the talk we watched today.  Shawn Achor is a psychology researcher and professor at Harvard University and CEO of GoodThink, Inc.  His positive psychology class at Harvard in 2006 was the most popular psychology class in Harvard's history. He also happens to be a very effective--and funny--presenter.  He presents many of the ideas that Seligman discusses in his book.  Watch out!  He only has 12 minutes and he talks really fast!  Enjoy!