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bildeMy local newspaper recently interviewed me about cheating and cell phone use in the classroom (read the article).  While cheating and scientific integrity are important topics to talk about later, I have been thinking a lot about my new cell phone policy this year.

Overall, I am confident that allowing cell phones in the classroom was the right decision.  I encourage students to use their phones appropriately in labs and lessons, and even prompt them to search for answers (they seem to like texting queries to ChaCha most) There is no more hiding (at least much less) their texting shame underneath their desks.  While I have had to address using their devices at appropriate times, I haven’t had to confiscate a phone yet.

While the reporter got most of interview correct from what I said, the best quote came from my assistant principal:

We know they’ve got them, so it’s just teaching them to be responsible with them.

And that’s the idea.  I trust that my students realize the power of their devices, and that they can make decisions to use them in an appropriate manner.

Most importantly, I think that students feel more respected.

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ACT Science.  Scary stuff, right?  You can’t even use a calculator! (because  you really don’t need one).

You can be tested on biology, botany, zoology, microbiology, ecology, genetics, evolution, atomic theory, inorganic chemical reactions, chemical bonding, reaction rates, solutions, equilibrium, gas laws, electrochemistry, organic chemistry, biochemistry, and properties, states of mattermechanics, energy, thermodynamics, electromagnetism, fluids, solids, light waves,  geology, meteorology, oceanography, astronomy, and environmental sciences!

But in actuality, the ACT Science reasoning section is more about interpreting data, graphical analysis and weeding through scientific jargon than actual science content.  Sure, a broad knowledge base in each content area will help you cruise through the question more quickly, but simple reasoning and analysis will get you the right answer every time.

The best way to prepare for the science section is to review your basic graph reading skills and make sure you are still aware of the concepts that surround them (John Smith).

Here are some general tips:

  1. There are 40 questions to answer in 35 minutes, which equates to less than a minute per question.  Skip hard questions and come back to them later if needed.
  2. Read the questions BEFORE reading the narrative.
  3. There are usually 2 bad answers – cross them out, and focus on the two best choices.  That leaves only a 50/50 chance.
  4. Don’t leave anything blank – there is no penalty for guessing.
  5. Mark up your test – take notes, highlight sections in the passage, and sketch on your graphs.
  6. Don’t get confused by the terminology.  Focus on the reasoning and analysis.
  7. Look for extremes in charts and graphs.  Most graphs will require you to estimate your answer.
  8. Be aware of different viewpoints – especially in developing hypotheses and drawing conclusions.

Recently, a local school district decided to start charging teachers for personal use of “refrigerators, microwaves, coffee makers, pizza ovens, toaster ovens and toasters” in an effort to save over $12,500 per year in energy savings (read full story).

The cost for using a coffee maker?  $10.  While this is a seemingly small fee for a convenience, maybe there is an alternative solution to help save money (and energy) and keep everyone happy.

Energy Efficiency: Not all coffee makers are created equally in their energy consumption.  Why not choose an energy efficient model?  A thermal coffee maker (like the Cuisinart DTC-975) uses less energy than a standard coffee maker, as the brewed coffee is stored in an insulated carafe.  Thus, there is no energy wasted heating a burner underneath a glass pot.

Economy of Scale:  Why not consolidate a few coffee makers into fewer, more centralized pots?  On my floor alone, there are at least 3-4 coffee makers that are used daily and often make only half pots each.  Having fewer pots that make a full pot at a time would reduce multiple uses of heating elements.  It makes sense to avoid single-cup brewing machines.

Opportunity to Learn: Combining both of these ideas could even turn into a class project, where students could use wattage meters (like the Kill a Watt meter) to monitor coffee makers to identify the most energy efficient models and brewing practices.


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Here is a compilation of demonstrations I do for “Combustion Day”, which capitulates three days of demonstrations to identify the five main types of chemical reactions.  DO NOT TRY THESE AT HOME.

Combustion Day 2010 from Brian Bartel on Vimeo.

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Using video clips in the classroom is nothing new – a couple companies have even made a business model for this educational niche.  But Hollywood movies can also have educational value, especially when trying to find errors and discrepancies within them.  To assess some basic properties in matter in my chemistry class, I have been utilizing movie clips for help.

raiders1How Dense is Indiana?

When teaching density, I use a clip from Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark [You Tube Clip] whereby Indiana tries to swap a gold idol with an equivalent VOLUME of sand.  Obviously, Indiana gets the mass wrong, as sand and gold have quite different densities.  A similar exercise can be found at Glencoe Science.

I’m Melting?

Moving on to chemical versus physical change, I get a little help from the Wicked Witch of the West in the Wizard of Oz [You Tube Clip].  In the movie, the witch clearly claims that she is melting.  Using clear evidence in the film, I ask the students to defend if she is really melting, or if she is chemically reacting, sublimating or vaporizing.


Of course, movie clips can be used in many other areas of science (see below) and in other disciplines.  Imagine having students compare inconsistencies in the Hollywood version of a classic novel to its literary original.  How do you use movie clips in class?

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As bioinformatics grows up into a modern scientific discipline, the rules are being developed alongside its newest tools.  The scientific smackdown that arose from discovery of the collagen-like protein from preserved T-Rex protein only illustrates these developments.

To make matters worse, simple bioinformatics tools are already becoming outdated.  Instead of examining a few simple lines of As, T, Cs and Gs, scientists are more interested in seeing how these letters interact with each other in the diversity of cells across many living organisms.  For instance, some scientists are interested in gene regulatory networks, which can be thought of as “interlinked sets of genes that are regulated in a coordinated fashion in cells and tissues” (-PZ Myers, Pharyngula)

To understand the future and present of bioinformatics, our students must be savvy to navigate through the available (and free) tools that can augment their science education.

gene-gatewayBioinformatics Tools from the NCBI

The Gene Gateway workbook is a collection of five activities, complete with step-by-step instructions designed to introduce new users in using bioinformatics tools from the OMIM, Gene Reviews, NCBI Map Viewer, Entrez Gene, Gene Bank, Swiss-Prot, Protein Data Bank, and Protein Explorer.

Going Further: BLAST Activity with Insulin
Investigate the Insulin protein and the mutations which cause disease. This activity is an introduction to using and interpreting the Blast database. Inquiry extensions involve comparing human insulin to insulin in other species.  (From K12 Outreach – Fungal Genomics)

Using Jmol

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Recently, students at my school created clay tiles to make this mosaic, which is hanging in the foyer between the second and third floor hallways.


In the upper right hand corner, I smiled to see this tile:



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My school district has finally been able to distinguish a teacher from a student, at least in terms of their online access.

We recently received an e-mail explaining that teachers would be able to access previously blocked sites (i.e. YouTube and many blogs) for educational purposes.  In order to get this access, teachers will have to sign a form explaining they understand what “Acceptable Use” and “Educational Purposes” mean.

The district is responding to staff requests for increased access privileges. At this time, the district will provide access to the previously blocked resources of YouTube and external blogging. The district will open additional resources that are identified and approved for educational purposes.

To be clear, Websense (our internet filter) will still be in place.  When teachers come upon a site that is blocked through Websense, they will be able to pass through – offering them a gentle reminder that there is reasonable cause to have the site blocked in the first place.

Under the district’s interpretation of CIPA, students will not be granted this level of access.

Finally, I feel like a professional who can make decisions about what should and shouldn’t be used in the classroom.

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img00139At the beginning of each year, I usually receive an onslaught of survey material for my students to fill out.   These surveys are not supplied by the school or district, and usually query students about their backgrounds, interests and future plans.

While some teachers diligently have students complete them immediately, others simply use this material for ‘filler’, administering the survey when they have a few extra minutes in class.  The ones addressed to me take a two-step journey to the recycle bin.

I have always been curious about how these surveys are used, and apparently I am not alone.  In fact, the Educational Research Center of America, Inc (ERCA) recently (October 2008) agreed to change its practices for obtaining and handling personal information it collects from high school student surveys, under an agreement reached with the Attorneys General of 36 states and the District of Columbia.  See press release from Maryland.

Wisconsin is not on this list.

Nonetheless, my policy has been to avoid distributing these surveys for a variety of reasons:

  1. Administering a survey to my students is clearly a waste of my precious classroom time.  I can think of a hundred curricularly appropriate things to do with 20 minutes than cater to the wishes of a company masquerading benefits to me and to my students.*
  2. This information is a marketing tool, and is sold to interested parties.  I believe it is irresponsible to use taxpayer money to facilitate their business model.
  3. I am always weary of surveys that collect student information other than for blind research practices.  As we continually preach to students about protecting their online identities, we should model the same practice in school as well.
  4. In this day and age, students have many more options available to them in finding information about their future.  The fact that I don’t need to say the “I” word simply illustrates my point.

*There are a few entities that sell “educational products” and entice educators with freebies and other benefits in the name of education.  The bottom line is that they are businesses whose fundamental goal is to make money; beware of the wolf in sheep’s clothing.

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As we start a new school year, I challenge all educators to do more with technology in your classroom.  I wholeheartedly encourage you to use online tools that can increase your productivity, join social networks that can link you to other educators, and generally make the most of the hardware and software that is already available to you.  But I mostly encourage you to do what you do best – teach students how to think critically and analyze, no matter what medium they are using to access information.

We need to realize that newer technologies are simply tools that only change the way we interact with how we already live our lives.  That said, technology should not inherently change what we teach, but only how we teach.

While it is easier to dismiss new technologies that threaten to nudge us out of the ruts that we are comfortable with in teaching, the classroom is much more interesting and satisfying when we discover new paths to the same destination.

We will always have distractions in life and in the classroom.  Newer technologies have only merged a wealth of useful information with every other distraction in life.  The bottom line is that we have to teach how to sift through these distractions to harvest what’s useful.  As I mentioned before, teachers are already good at this; we simply have newer tools.

David Wolman summarizes this idea nicely in his article “When Tech Attacks” (Wired Magazine, September 2008)

“It’s naive to think that the digital age will magically remedy stupidity.  We need better schools, as well as a renowned commitment to reason and scientific rigor so that people can distinguish knowledge from garbage.  The web is not an obstacle in this project.  It’s an unparalleled tool for generating, finding and sharing sound information.  What’s moronic is to assume that it hurts us more than it helps.”


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