Sunday, December 22, 2013

Coming Up for Air

After being away on maternity leave in September, I came back to Birches. 

In October we began a unit focused on the many different types of mammals that are alive today. Students learned about the traits that scientists use to classify a given animal as a mammal. Some of the distinguishing traits that we covered include: feeding young with mammary gland milk, possessing 3 middle ear bones and a single lower jaw bone, replacing teeth only once or not at all throughout their lifetime (rather than replacing teeth continually), having hair, and the ability to regulate their own body temperature (being warm-blooded).

After discussing these key features in detail, each student selected a mammal on which to research and complete individual reports. Some animals included the: grey wolf, coyote, raccoon, kangaroo rat, lemming, tree kangaroo, and chimpanzee.

Drawing from print and online sources, the students wrote their reports in a mystery book format and outlined unique facts that they found about their animals, distinguishing characteristics or clues, without revealing their mammals identity - that is - until the very end, as a lift-the-flap reveal with artwork. 

The kindergartners, on the other hand, worked collaboratively to create an A-Z mammal book. Using large print sources with beautiful photos, they selected mammals by their first letter and made drawings of each animal – devoting one mammal per page (for example: “ape” Aa, “bat” Bb, “cow” Cc, etc.). The book also gave them a nice opportunity to sound out letters and practice their letter writing skills.

In November and December, we continued our mammal investigations, shifting focus toward learning about marine mammals in particular. Students decided to create a magazine devoted to oceanographic issues and started working on writing persuasive articles. I set up a collaboration with Grace Young, an extraordinary MIT student who generously agreed to come visit us and tell us about her work. 

Through our connection with Grace, Birches students will follow Mission 31, an exploration led by filmmaker and oceanographic explorer Fabien Cousteau. For 31 days the mission, set in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, will be seen by students via Skype into the classroom. In April, students will be linked with scientists as they explore the underwater world using robots in the undersea lab Aquarius. 

Through creating their marine magazine, Birches students are learning how to write effectively persuasive pieces that urge readers to take an interest in caring about the ocean ecosystem and to act responsibly in harvesting natural resources therein. 

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Testing Water Flow, Making Topographical Maps, and Experimenting with Buoyancy

May was another super month for continuing our water exploration.

We spent quite a few lessons testing the way water flows across and down different types of natural and man-made surfaces. It was fantastic watching the students make predictions about how water would flow along distinct geographical features that they selected around the school grounds. The students experimented by pouring water down asphalt inclines, grassy hills, ramps of small stones and large rocks, and over soil slopes. All this preliminary testing provided the students with a strong foundation on which to build their art installation at deCordova Sculpture Park in late May (More on that STEAM project!)

Since students were very interested in explaining the way mountains and valley's influence the flow of water I decided that we would use playdough to mold our own mini mountains and make individual topographical (topo) maps from them. Students found that topo maps are a great way to convey information about geographical features of a landscape and to visualize how water collects or flows around these physical elements. We discussed what these types of maps are especially useful for and students decided that topo maps are good for finding your way along "hiking trails" or while "canoeing and kayaking" and also for engineers who build roads and train tracks.

After molding their mini-mountains, the students measured the height and made slices through mountains at specific intervals. They then traced the outline of each layer of their cut mountain on a piece of paper - making rings that represented separate contour lines. (For details on how to do this lesson.)

Last month we also began exploring the physics of buoyancy. We started by defining density and buoyancy. To visualize density we talked about a cup of jelly beans and a cup of marshmallows and asked students to predict what would happen if they put each cup into the microwave. "They would melt!" responded the class. Yes, but the melted sugar and water from the jelly beans would almost fill the cup while the melted marshmallows would only fill the cup a little. Because the marshmallows are mostly air, they are less dense than the jelly beans. Next we discussed whether a jelly bean or marshmallow would be able to float in water. For those who enjoy hot chocolate with marshmallows in the winter time this was an easy question. We decided that for an object to be able to float it has to be "lighter" or have less density than the water...unless it is attached to something that helps it float, like a life jacket.

Next I asked if we could make a piece of clay float. I rolled a small piece of clay into a solid ball and asked the students to predict what would happen to the clay if we placed it in a tub of water. With contradictory responses, "It will sink." "It will float then sink.", "It will float." we decided to test it. After it sank, I gave each student a small square piece of plasticine modeling clay and asked them to try and make their clay float. Each student began to mold their piece into various shapes. They made cups, bowls, canoes, row boats, rafts, and even people. We had many "failures" before one student successfully produced a "boat". It was interesting that the students themselves came to define the clay as a boat only after they managed to make it float. Many students attempted to recreate the successful model but others kept to their original molds. At the end of class the students had decided that "No holes can be in the boat.", "Taller sides help it float.", "Make the clay thin.", "Keep the boat dry inside." and to "Put the boat into the tub carefully." They enjoyed the lesson so much so that we decided to continue with boats over the following Science Friday!

During the second session we began drawing comparisons by testing the buoyancy of clay boats to other objects. We compared wax paper, aluminum foil, and plastic weigh boats (of differing sizes) to the students' newly made clay molds. Students began by making predictions about which would have better buoyancy. After seeing the plastic float they wanted to test how much weight each of the boats could hold. Students used penny's to add weight to the clay and to the plastic boats and we were surprised to see that a few of the clay boats could hold just as much as the plastic boats.

Some students moved on to investigate whether they could make a piece of aluminum foil float. Using equal size pieces, a couple students made a loose ball while others made their foil into shapes that resembled their clay boat. Soon students were packing on as much as they could hold to see which boat would sink first. Near the end of class, students talked about how the shape of the sides determine how much cargo the boat will hold. We ran out of time but the class really wanted to test floating their boats in salt water!

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Water, water, water

I'm hoping to catch up on a number of lesson updates...finally. I'm many weeks behind and now that it's school vacation week let's see if I can remember all the water-related activities!

In March we all participated in a water survey with our families at home. This is a fun 'What if?' game that the explores the many uses of water in the form of a questionnaire written by WaterPartners International.

Based on the questionnaire results, the students collaborated on a large scale collage, selecting images from several old National Geographic Magazines - depicting different uses of water - they cut these photos out for pasting onto a large poster board.

At the end of last month we had an introduction to storm drains and a visitor from the town water treatment center. The students were especially fascinated by the water pipes, gauges, meters, and large purification filters that our guest expert brought into the classroom.

One of the original questions posed by the students at the start of the semester was, 'How do we get clean water?' We were thrilled to have a geoscientist come talk to us about the process of water purification and to find out how the town provides us with safe drinking water. The students asked our guest many questions about the watershed and town well. In the future we hope to be able to visit the pumping facilities and treatment center for a first-hand look at the process.

In early April we started anticipating salamander egg laying season, more aptly termed 'Big Night'. The one special dark and rainy night, usually in early spring, when the temperature is just right (at or above 40 degrees), the ground is thawed, and the adult salamanders venture out from their underground hibernation dens to mate in nearby vernal pools.

Our science lesson involved making our own salamander life cycle booklet and learning to identify the different species of salamanders that we might expect see in our geographical area. Students were also very interested in the features that define a vernal (spring) pool vs. a pond, and in talking about what other animals live part of their lives in vernal pools.

We are very fortunate that our school has several nearby vernal pools, streams, and ponds for us to visit as we continue our water curriculum. So far the Redback salamander has been spotted by the students on several occasions and they were also lucky enough to see several sticks and twigs partially submerged in the water that were covered with gooey salamander eggs.

During another lesson we began learning about the different features that define ponds from lakes. We talked about the flora and fauna generally found within a pond habitat (drawing from their rich and recent experience of going on a nature walk with an expert conservationist!) and the microhabitats that can be found within different strata of a pond. After our discussion we decided to make our own mini-diorama of the pond ecosystem. The students painted a large cardboard box and created lily pads and other surface plants, insects, frogs, fish, worms, twigs, birds, and beavers all out of clay. It's a work in progress I hope to take a photo of the finished product to post here soon.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Gases & Just how much water exists on Earth?

After our cloud in a bottle demonstration and discussions of the water cycle, students seemed to want to dive deeper into understanding water vapor and gases in general. This is an awesome initiative for a mixed age group of K-2nd graders. In looking into possible hands-on experiments for them to try, I found an easy and fun demonstration that uses the some of the same inexpensive materials we still had from our previous lesson. We used three empty plastic soda bottles filled about half way with warm water and several tablespoons of yeast. To turn it into an experiment rather than a demonstration, we fed each bottle of yeast/water with different nutrients: sugar, flour, or nothing at all. We placed thin walled balloons over the opening and waited. We all made predictions about which bottle would start to inflate the balloon first. The students had just recently baked pretzels with their teachers so we talked about how long they had waited for the dough to rise and what each of the ingredients were in that case.

We were very excited to see the balloons expand ever so slightly (in two of the three bottles) as we swirled the bottles to mix the bubbling yeast, sugar, and warm water. Some of our discussion as we waited included answering:

1. What caused the balloon to inflate?
2. What was the purpose of the balloon?
3. Which nutrient resulted in the best yeast growth? The most gas?
4. Do yeast require a food source to grow?
5. How does this relate to water vapor?

The following week we began by talking about percentages. We "made" a pizza (colored drawing on the board) and divided it up into quadrants - based on specific toppings that each of the students requested: plain cheese, or veggies with cheese, or meat with cheese, or no-cheese at all. Together we figured out the percentage of each favorite topping type on our pie and accordingly divided it up among the students. 

This provided us with a relatively standard starting point from which all students could move into a discussion of the overall water (percentages of: salt, fresh, frozen, potable) on our planet. Estimated at 97% ocean, 3% fresh water. 

To demonstrate we first filled a large graduated cylinder with 1000mL of water, this to represent all the water (in all forms) on the planet. Then we poured off 30mL of water into another cylinder, or 3% of the total water to represent earths fresh water. To the remaining 970mL we added salt, to represent the ocean, 97% undrinkable water. 

Next, using our globe, we asked the students what they noticed about the earth's poles...they are covered in snow! Almost 80% of the earth's fresh water is frozen in ice caps and glaciers. So we poured 6mL, from our 30mL of all fresh water, into another glass to represent non-frozen water. 

Using an eyedropper the students then removed a single drop of fresh water (from our 6mL) into a drinking glass, finally to represent clean, fresh, non-polluted water, 0.003% of the total! 

Students concluded that a very small amount of water is available to humans, but we stressed that this single drop is just a representation of the larger volume of water available to us on a global scale, remember we started with a pretend volume, 1000mL -- scientists estimate that there are over 300 million trillion gallons of water (in all forms) on earth, an inconceivable amount to picture even for an adult!

Friday, March 8, 2013

The water cycle

Last week we began talking about the water cycle, particularly as it relates to cloud formation. The students brought up many excellent questions for us to explore as we begin our spring semester on the topic of water. Here are just a few:

·      How are clouds made?
·      How is water made?
·      How does water get clean?
·      How does water evaporate? What is evaporation?
·      What is water vapor?
·      How does water get in the pond?
·      How does water stay in a pond?
·      How and when does rain happen?
·      How can animals live in water?
·      Why do we need water?

I was also thrilled to hear they were thinking about experiments that they want to try:

·      Will snow melt faster in the sun or shade?
·      Where is the best spot to collect the most water?
·      How long does it take water to evaporate?
·      Will snow melt faster than ice?
·      Which melts faster when you add water to it, ice or snow?
·      What melts faster, packed or unpacked snow? 

In order to introduce the water cycle we drew a circular diagram with arrows depicting land with a pool of water (rivers, ocean, lakes), the sun and clouds, and from the clouds, rain drops. The students were already aware of the terms: collection,  precipitation, condensation, and evaporation but not precisely what they meant. So we decided to go through each of the cycle terms together. 

For visualizing evaporation we each put a small squeeze of hand sanitizer onto our hands and talked about how it felt: "wet, squishy, sticky, cold". Then some of us waved our hands through the air to simulate wind and students described how our hands felt: "dry!". They decided that the hand sanitizer had evaporated from their hands. And we talked about how the sun does a similar process, as it warms the water that is collected on the land (in our rivers, oceans, lakes) it causes some portion of the water to evaporate and that means that water vapor - gas that we can't see - is able to rise up into the sky.  So what happens to water vapor as it rises into the atmosphere, I asked them. At a certain level in the sky the air temperature changes (many students were familiar with this thanks to being well-seasoned travelers; having seen water condensation on the windows of an airplane in flight) and at that high altitude, those vapors turn into tiny water droplets (and with dust) collect to form clouds. 

This came back to one of their original questions - How and when does rain happen? We talked about how on some days it is cloudy but also sunny and the shape and color of those clouds may appear fluffy and white, while on other days, clouds may appear quite grey even black.  Intuitively is seemed, they decided that on the grey-cloud days it was more likely to rain. I explained that as the clouds get more and more full of tiny droplets of water, they may appear grey at the bottom, at some point the cloud can't hold anymore water droplets, and it rains (thank you gravity). 

In order to visualize condensation we ventured to carry out by now universally famous, Make a Cloud in a Bottle Experiment. For those who are not familiar, we poured a small amount of warm water into a 2 liter plastic bottle and, in order to produce dust debris, we lit a match and let the particles/smoke fall into the bottle. We quickly closed the bottle off with the cap and began squeezing the bottle in the middle. By adding particles such as smoke and by squeezing the bottle we caused the air pressure to drop, and created a cloud!

Finally we made our way out to a nearby field with our clipboards, paper, and pencils, to look at the sky. We were lucky to find, on that chilly but beautiful winter morning, the sky was absolutely full of clouds. The color and shape of the clouds varied widely across the sky. 

One second grader knew the names of all the different types of clouds and he wrote down every name and definition. Many students actually sketched the clouds they saw, some chose those in the distance while others picked clouds right overhead. 
Here is a Kindergartner working on her sketch.

They made special care of the shading - for grey clouds that looked to be just about to empty on us, they used darkened pencil marks. 

Next week we plan to talk more in depth about gases that we cannot see and we have a very cool experiment that will help us to visualize water vapor.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Metamorphosis and life cycles

This week we began looking at the fruit fly life cycle. I brought several vials and bottles each containing eggs, larvae, pupae, or adults. Students used magnifying glasses to identify each of the life cycle stages and to also draw pictures of what they noticed about adult fruit flies. (The drawing to the right was done by a kindergartner who attempted to make careful note of the number of legs and the eye color of her chosen fruit fly.) We talked about many different types of organisms that undergo metamorphosis including: insects, amphibians, fish, and plants. The students are excited to track the timing of the fruit fly life cycle in their classroom. They will recording the different transitions that they notice in the vials, from egg to adulthood in about 2 weeks time!

Predator-prey board game

Last week we played a modified chutes and ladders game. I based it on the owl food web. As the students rolled dice and moved their pieces along the board, their goal was to reach the owl at the top of the food web.

If a piece landed on a picture-square (rather than a number-square), students read aloud from a "predator-prey" card that matched the image. Our cards held interesting facts about "who-eats-who?" depicting the plant or animal on the square and explaining how each member of the web fit together. Along the way students landed on different organisms that are linked to the barn owl's diet, sometimes their landing on a square involved skipping ahead - ladders - other times they landed on a chute and had to move their piece back down the food web. I was thrilled that the lesson kept them all engaged for the entire science period!

Saturday, January 19, 2013

The owl food web

We've been busy the last few weeks! After having fun with bar graphs - plotting all the different bird species who have been visiting our feeders so far this winter, students compared time of day (and temperature outside) with number of visitors seen at the feeders (morning vs. afternoon sightings) - we moved onto several exciting lessons on owls. We read a beautiful book about barn owls and then, working in pairs, dissected our own large owl pellets. The trick was to dissect slowly and patiently, the students did a fantastic job and were richly rewarded with several identifiable skeletons from voles and shrews. The lesson went better than I could have hoped, a couple students even decided to skip outside time in order to keep at the dissection! They were careful and attentive, and equally thrilled with finding a skull as they were with finding a tibia or a clump of fur.

Our lead teacher assembled a poster of some of the skeletal remains and she included several gorgeous owl drawings made by students.

During one of our next science lessons, we talked about ecosystems and the interconnections between climate, plants, animals, and microbes, with particular attention to the owl food web. Students were especially interested in the fact the weather patterns that effect conditions of plants, grass, roots, and seeds, in turn help to determine the health of the soil: balance of microbes, earthworms and insects living in the ground. They began to see the interconnectedness of food resources: that voles eat plants, grains, seeds, vegetation, tree bark and roots, while shrews eat voles (as well as worms, insects, snails, fungi, and other small mammals) and from our first hand experience with pellet dissections, they told me that owls eat shrews and voles! Students got so much out of the barn owl pellets, it was a great way for us to review concepts we have been working on this fall and winter - habitat and environment - as well as for introducing them to the communities of decomposers, producers, and consumers that contribute to food chains and food webs.