Monday, December 10, 2012

Birding Basics

We have been diligently watching our feeders every Thursday and Friday for the past two weeks.  Along with noting weather conditions each day, the children have decided to perform their feeder observations at different times of the school day.  On one day they make observations for fifteen minutes in the morning while on the other day they watch for fifteen minutes in the afternoon.  They are interested in seeing whether or not time of day plays a role in the total visitor numbers and/or in the types of bird species who stop by. Many students are now adeptly calling out the species names without identification guides. Others are starting to be able to carefully track the actual visitor number from each species (without counting the same bird over and over during a given observation period).  It has been absolutely amazing to see the students' knowledge repertoire and critical observation skills developing so rapidly.  Even asking about why some bird species might prefer to feed off the fallen seeds (Junco) while other visitors swoop in quickly, nervously snagging a snack before taking it away to a higher branch to enjoy (Black-capped chickadee).

Along the way, in order to sculpt our noticing skills further, we have spent a fair amount of time describing and drawing what we see.  Paying particular attention to the diversity of plumage, markings, and assorted morphology -- characteristics that eventually lead us to key into which bird species we happen to be looking at.  By taking the time to draw and accurately color-in some common bird species on work sheets, the students are using identification guides and colored pencils to try and make precise renderings of our avian visitors.  Current favorites are the Northern Cardinal and the Blue Jay.

Up next, we will begin to talk about the different ways that scientists plot data.  We will learn how to visualize our raw data (by making graphs of our collected observations) and the ways that plots help us to look for patterns in our data.  The students will begin to make their own bar graphs, line graphs, and pie charts of the different species that we have seen. They will continue to hypothesize and to ask whether temperature, time of day, type of seeds, or placement of feeder plays a role in bird visitation frequency or in a given species being attracted to our offerings.  Ultimately, students will be introduced to concepts of variables (noun), and to begin to consider the difference between independent and dependent variables.

I look forward to showing you the graphs that they choose to create!

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Bird Watch

Birches School students are so excited to be starting our project feederwatch.  As citizen scientists collecting data for Cornell Lab of Ornithology, we have chosen our winter count site.  Just beside the school building we will place three feeders. We plan to observe the bird-feeders for about fifteen minutes a day on Thursday and Friday each week that school is in session.  Students have already decided that they would like to offer a least two different seed types to our avian visitors, they would like to test whether different bird species have specific seed preferences.  We are learning to use tally sheets and to accurately record data just as scientists do.  Students will record the time of day we performed the watch and the length of time on a given day that we spent counting the birds in our feeder area.  They will document the daylight temperature extremes for each count day, the type/if any of precipitation, and the total depth of ice or snow cover during a given two-day count session.  Students will identify and report the highest number of each bird species that they see at one time.  Students will also have the opportunity to fill in paper data booklets and to participate in the online data entry of their recordings and to report rare, sick, or unusual bird sitings.  I look forward to updating you on their progress as we go!

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Seed dispersal - predictions, estimations, and fractions

Birches students have been closely investigating seeds for the last two weeks.  We made several interesting observations while on nature walks, including many of the different ways that plants have to spread their seeds. Using plants and seeds that we had collected, students learned to categorized their seeds based on the mechanisms of dispersal: wind, water, animals/humans, gravity, and mechanical force. We also tried our hand at designing our own seeds and testing them by gravity dispersal. And Kate H. found an excellent video to share with us as well.

We talked about why plants expend so much energy on making extra seeds, and wondered if size of the plant/fruit determined how may seeds are made.  Peaches, apples, pumpkins, and strawberries were compared and we decided that fruit size is not necessarily a good determinant of how many seeds a plant will produce.

Just before we sliced open a sugar pumpkin, students made predictions about how many seeds we would find inside, estimates ranged from 500 to 50 seeds total.  Bisecting the pumpkin, we scooped out the seeds of one half of the fruit.  Each student was given a fraction of seeds to count by themselves.  Students grouped their seeds on plates in sets of 5 seeds/group and then added all sets of five to give us their totals.  When it came time to estimate how many seeds we would find in the remaining half of the pumpkin, we were much closer to the actual number.  Plotting a bar graph together we noticed that our first seed number guesses were not as accurate as our second predictions were.  We decided that having a little more information and experience, from counting the first half of the pumpkin, provided us with enough confidence to make more accurate estimations about the quantity of seeds inside.

I think we were all surprised to find that half of our small pumpkin contained 399 seeds and once we added the remaining portion we found that the pumpkin contained 470 seeds total!

From seeds we are moving on to the animals who eat them.  Over the winter we will participate in project feeder watch.  Making our own feeders, we will have an opportunity to become citizen scientists, learn to identify species, talk about migration patterns, how weather may effect our count, and to record data.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Our listening walk

Last week, friends took me on one of their favorite trails near Birches School.  After almost a full week of rain, we appreciated the warmth of our "Science Friday" all the more and after reading Under One Rock: Bugs, Slugs, and Other Ughs by Anthony D. Fredericks, we decided to take our science lesson outdoors.

Our mission was to not only enjoy a beautiful autumn walk through the forest together but to also play a listening and noticing game. With particular focus on the many bug communities we could find just outside the school house, we had great fun describing habitat types and the invertebrates we found living in them.  While I scribbled notes, the children called out the names of animals they were seeing, as well as the noises they were hearing on our nature walk.

We were rewarded immediately on our hike with a plethora of spider web viewing, made even more picturesque by the morning dew clinging to their silk outlines:  spiral orb webs, tangle webs, and tubular webs; housing what appeared to include - orb weavers, cobweb spiders, jumping spiders, sac spiders, ground spiders, and grass spiders.  Friends brought up some excellent wonderings, including: "How long does it takes the spider to build its web?" and "Do spiders have to make a new web every day?"

Some spiders do make a new home daily, eating the old web, resting briefly, and then building a new web in the early evening, just in time for their nightly hunting spree.

While continuing our walk through a field, one friend wanted us to stop and listen to the crickets he was hearing. He had also caught one to show us (I thought crickets were nocturnal) and pointed out that the cricket was missing one leg! "Could he still sing?" and "What do crickets eat?" We had a chance to talk about omnivores and notice the combs on it's wings where male crickets produce their sound by rubbing their wings against each other or by rubbing their wings against their legs, so I guess the missing leg would not prevent him from chirping after all.

Stopping to count the rings of an old tree stump just beside a stone wall, friends noticed an extra large toad at the base; I almost missed it! The camouflaged coating blended in with the tree bark perfectly.

As we made our way deeper into the forest, one of our friends pointed out a large fallen tree that had turned into a rotting log. When she bent down to touch the surface, tiny pieces easily broke off and dissolved between her fingers.  This gave us a nice chance to discuss microorganism habitats too - bacteria and fungi, and the process of decomposition/decay that contribute to generating more soil.

Each week as we use our nature-classroom, I am eager to broadcast (to my friends in the early education community) about the fantastically rich teaching material that nature provides us with; the unparalleled opportunities for critical exploration, countless inquiry-based investigations, and the child-driven lessons that will keep them engaged with learning over their lifetime.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012


My friends at Birches have been making keen observations about many of the different trees that surround their school.  They noticed that the trees around campus hold leaves with a considerable variety of identifiable features.  A couple weeks ago, friends selected an assortment of leaves and decided to categorize them based on size and features, such as leaf outline shape.  They also made leaf drawings and wrote highly creative stories about each leaf they chose.  On a nature walk, friends noted that many of the trees' bark have quite different textures, and that some trees keep their thick bark covering while others have thin bark that is peeled away.  Theories about why certain species undergo seasonal shedding is a topic we will likely return to at another time this winter.

We decided to collect leaves from 5-8 of these different tree species and to use a field guide to make tree species identifications.  Since we have been talking about seasons and the weather changes that come with fall, friends were interested in making predictions about the leaf colors that they expect to see and in discussing why some leaves change color during autumn time.  

Our friends wondered what makes certain leaves turn from green to bright warm colors in the fall, and why some tree leaves turn brown, while others turn yellow or red and orange.  We decided to test what color we would find if we closely analyzed the green leaves that we had collected.

Using paper chromatography, we carefully rubbed leaf pigments onto a piece of special filter paper in a thin dark green line.  Then we submerged the paper strip into a small glass flask with a tiny volume of ethanol (solvent).  When our paper began to soak up the liquid, friends noticed that the green pigments began crawling up the strip as it was carried by the solvent. We were pleasantly surprised to see that, on some of our leaf rubbings, we were able to see other colors appear!  Over the autumn, friends plan to observe the trees from which they collected their leaves, and to see if the color predictions we made based on the chromatography experiment come true.

Friday, September 14, 2012


My teaching mentor and most sage advisor, in all things related to inquiry-based science curricula, told me that the first week of teaching science to youngsters would be an almost euphoric experience.  She of course was right.

But after teaching science to young children (from preschoolers to third graders) for over a year, I am happy to report that the experience has not lost it's initial honeymoon glow.  If you have not experienced it yourself, I can tell you, it is the most amazing rush in the world. To be able to play some small role in presenting scientific phenomena to young children, to witness their engagement, exploration, absorption, understanding, and wonderment, it feels like there is nothing else at that moment.

As pop psychology as it may sound, I do believe that in adulthood we seek to fulfill some need of our younger selves that may not have been fully met in development.  I know now that the inadequacies, insecurities, and doubt that I felt about my own educational upbringing is what moves me to bring child-driven science lessons to very young students today.  It is my mission to empower children with their own sense of intellectual curiosity, to engage them to express their own thoughts, to explore deeply what ever subjects they find most intriguing, and to encourage them to trust their own creativity in problem solving.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Critical Explorers

While attending a three-day teaching workshop in August, I felt honored to be able to meet and study with Eleanor Duckworth.  Over the past year I had read several of her publications, and meeting her in person only increased my admiration of and respect for her.

A former student and English translator of Jean Piaget,  Eleanor has developed a teaching approach called Critical Exploration in the Classroom.  Her teaching method is surprisingly straight forward but hardly simple, it is one that explicitly values the learners' experience and insight, and I wonder why it is not yet the standard in our public schools.

Critical Exploration relies first on teachers making careful and deliberate selections of rich source material (for example, historical artifacts) and on allowing children to investigate and make discoveries of these documents for themselves.  It offers a restructuring of the classroom, turning the straight rows and authoritative lecturing at the blackboard, to one where all chairs are placed into an inclusive circle and students are invited to express their own thoughts, to learn from each others ideas, and to, hopefully, think more deeply.

While the initial materials (and take-home objective) are selected by the teacher, the technique requires precise listening skills and careful following of the students thinking; so that the teacher is flexible in figuring out what her/his next step will be in designing the subsequent curriculum for helping students to go deeper into the subject.

I see Critical Exploration in the Classroom as providing a learning partnership or, dare I say, learning community where the teacher is acutely aware of each and every one of their students personal perspective and where learners benefit from listening to each others ideas, allowing for the active exchange of discoveries and revelations.

Read more:

Friday, August 3, 2012

Going for it

We are finally really going for it!  After talking about it forever, drafting, revising, and asking for expert-sisterly advice, my book idea is evolving into something I am proud of.

My Dad is illustrating my first science book for young children.  The project is amazing and it is a long time coming.  It's so true, how easy it is to think abstractly about all the things we want to do and how difficult it is to actually make them come to fruition.  I'm so happy we are moving forward.

Although we do have a long way to go, it is awesome to be working together and making something for kids.

More details to come, for now just wanted to share good news.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Why should we care about ants?

I want to share an update about a fantastic workshop I attended last week.  I was fortunate to have been offered a spot in the 2012 Summer Session of the Urban Ecology Institute along with some amazing science teachers from L.A. and Boston schools.  As participants, we had the opportunity to work along side leading field biologists and to contribute to their NSF-funded field-research by assisting them in data collection.  The project topics included: crow intelligence research, tracking feral cats, identifying invasive plant species, and classifying ant diversity within urban habitats. After a week in the field, each team collaborated to modify their respective field-work experiences into an inquiry-based curricula for kids and also presented their work to the entire institute.

My group worked on ants.  The projects' specific aim was to look at species diversity in three different urban green spaces: community gardens, forests, and tall grass/wild flower fields, in order to answer the question, do certain habitats aid in the preservation of native ant species?  Specifically, do green areas that are connected to larger green spaces (>150 Ha) preserve a greater diversity of native ant species than do isolated green sites?

While I vaguely knew that ants are important players in the garden, I now appreciate the magnitude of their countless contributions to the world ecosystem.  Just to list a few.  Ants disperse seeds, pollinate plants, and are said to turnover more soil than earthworms.  I was also reminded that ants are predators, herbivores, decomposers, and scavengers.

If you want to check out our teaching tools please visit the wikispace below for ideas on ant projects for kids!

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Inquiry-based awakening

Inquiry-based learning/teaching is something I've been recently bitten by.  Last spring I took a course with one of the most inspiring professors I have ever met; now I am completely hooked.  I am looking forward, but I can't help but feel some smidgen of regret at not having been taught this way myself in earlier schooling.  I think my whole outlook on testing, education, and knowledge evaluation, would have been changed, and for the better, by being exposed to this pedagogy earlier in life.

I guess the teaching method formally came about in the 1960's, but it's new to me.  As many of you may know, this form of active learning sets students (in small collaborative groups) upon a clearly defined problem to solve.  The instructor decides the objectives for the lesson and the project can last for several weeks before the task is completed.  This seems perfectly suited for teaching kids (or adults) about science.  Problem-based learning lends itself to building student confidence and developing skills for tackling problems they have never seen before. Whereas subject-based learning, lecture format, is perfect for being told just what we need to know, studying it for the exam, and regurgitating the information for a grade, problem-based learning starts with a problem being presented, then students themselves need to identify what they need to know to solve the problem, and finally through active team participation they learn the subject matter, critically apply their ideas in action, and make discoveries.

As with virtually all good things, moderation and balance are key.  Group assignments and individual work is equally important.  It strikes me that the inquiry-based philosophy achieves this balance.  This teaching methodology is labor intensive.  Effective curriculum and lessons are best designed by teachers who have already participated in doing the lesson themselves, ahead of time with a small group of colleagues.  This format requires a ton of time, effort, and foresight on the part of the instructor.

That said, I am thrilled to be attending two inquiry-based curriculum design workshops this summer!

Saturday, June 30, 2012


I'm afraid of blogging.  It feels permanent, exposed, out there for ridicule.  Aren't there too many people blogging already?  That said, I occasionally take a leap and force myself to do things that scare me.  What's life for, if not to try new things?  

For the past few years I have been ruminating about making a big change.  Now I am finally ready to take a leap.

What inspired me to act now was a conversation I had with a fellow scientist the other day about her decision to leave science.  That sounds melodramatic.  She's not leaving altogether but she is leaving life as she knows it, life at the bench.

There has been a lot of press lately about why highly educated women leave the field.  But I'm not sure that they are actually leaving; in the sense of completely abandoning their roots.  What seems closer to the truth is more nuanced.  Perhaps these scientists are actively deciding to set priorities in their own lives that allow them to balance work & home, and to rejuvenate.

Why does science stand in stark contrast to this trifecta?

For one thing, most of the work is background.  Long hours are required just to gain the skill and the tool kit necessary for the "real experiment."  The ultimate experiment (or more like several ultimate experiments) that you are expecting will give you great insight into the biological phenomena you're focused on, does not come cheap.  Virtually all your time feels like mere preparation for the real-thing.  Small steps forward are often mixed with large set backs.

I've wondered for the last three years how scientists - who are also mothers, are able to balance it all. I don't mean just getting by but really managing to balance: a healthy relationship with their significant other, cherishing their children, time to exercise; all while advancing their professional lives.

Is this struggle to balance really unique to scientists?  Speak to what you know is what they say.  The most successful scientists I know are OCD types who have channeled their obsessive tendencies into a highly productive work life.  And yet I wonder what gives.

Who is at home making sure the kids are happy, read to, bathed, fed, clothed, and nurtured?

So in hearing about my fellow scientists' decision to take control of her own life, set her own priorities (and after defending her PhD later this summer), to become a science educator (at the collegiate level) - I too felt emboldened to develop my own path toward science education (albeit for a much younger cohort).

As long as I have known this scientist I've been impressed by her dedication to research; her loyalty to her PI, her unwavering hours of devotion to bench work, her confidence, and her drive for understanding basic science.  

Why does it seem like she is giving something up?

Maybe it's just because I have always seen her as someone who could/would one day run her own successful lab. She has the ability and yet she is choosing to walk along a slightly adjacent path.  It's not a lesser path. I have to allow that realization for myself too. 

It is not a lesser path, but a peripheral one to traditional to hands-on-science, I feel sure she (and I) will now have the opportunity to inspire future scientists - many of whom will undoubtably be here - as I am - at a crossroad, needing to one day make a similar decision about how they want to spend their waking hours.  

I hope that through this blog I will push myself, educate myself, inspire and inform others about developing science curriculum for youngsters.