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Last spring, Vernier Software and Technology released the LabQuest2 – a device that collects data from a variety of sensors and has the ability to share this data wirelessly with any device that has a browser. To me, this is a game-changer in science education.

I decided to test it out this year while teaching phase changes.

In the past, I’ve had kids collect data while ice water is being heated over a bunsen burner, with the goal of identifying the melting and boiling point of water.  Students often get lost in the data collection process, or tune out until after the data is collected (as if something magical will be revealed upon completion).

So I decided to do this as a demo, where students could use mobile devices (I have a classroom set of Motorola Xoom tablets) to access the data as it’s being collected.  I also had my iPad mounted to the lab table with a Hoverbar. Using the camera app, I mirrored the video via the AppleTV hooked up to the projector so students could see what was happening.

As there is significant downtime while waiting for the water to boil, I had them login to Edmodo and respond to a question after I lit the burner:



Students can touch and manipulate the data with the browser as it’s being collected.  And they can determine the time and temperature by simply touching the graph (or any X and Y axis variable).



What I really liked about this approach is that I could guide students through the data collection process, and match it to their visual observations.  For instance, I was able to ask “when did you first notice bubbles?,”  and “at what temperature did that happen?”.

After the lesson, students responded to the Edmodo question again – now with the hindsight of what they actually observed, complete with data.



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For more than a decade, I have made a fire-breathing pumpkin for my chemistry students around Halloween (see footage from 2008).  After seeing recent posts about making a Flamethrowing Jack-O’-Lantern, I have decided to share how it’s done.  It’s really quite simple, once you have all of the equipment.

Watch the Video:

1. Obtain the Equipment:

  • pumpkin
  • candle
  • carving utensils
  • rubber tubing/funnel (or turkey baster*)
  • cork-borer (same size as rubber tubing)
  • lycopodium powder*

The lycopodium powder is the hardest to obtain (unless you are a science teacher).  I ordered mine from Flinn Scientific.


2. Carve the pumpkin and insert the candle

I like carving a large mouth and eyes (remember the flame comes through every hole).  I used a bunsen burner to add a little detailing.

3.  Bore a hole in the back of the pumpkin

Ideally, this should be a few centimeters above the top of the candle.  If it’s too low, then you’ll blow the candle out.  Insert the tubing through the hole, and attach the funnel on the end.


4. Add the Lycopodium powder and BLOW!

(*during trick-or-treating tonight, I substituted the hose/funnel for a turkey baster, which worked quite well)


The demo works because Lycopodium powder has a high surface area.  When aerosolized, it easily ignites with a flame.  This is actually similar to what happens in a grain elevator explosion:

The work there also tends to be dangerous. Farmers take their grain to elevators to be stored, and sometimes processed, before it is marketed or sold. Fine, highly combustible grain particles flow through the buildings as corn and other grain are moved. A spark from equipment or perhaps a cigarette can ignite the dust, sending a pressure wave that detonates the rest of the floating dust in the facility.

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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.

While attending the WSST Annual Spring Conference this last weekend, I made sure to check out the Outstanding Science Trade Books for 2010 session.  Highlighting fantastic science books from Science Books & Films (SB&F) and NSTA’s Outstanding Science Trade Books, the organizers of the session also brought in hundreds of books from the collection housed at UW-LaCrosse.

Watching other people scribbling down book titles on scratch paper, I realized that there must be an easier way to remember these fantastic books (for my kids and kindergarten teacher wife).  I simply opened the Amazon Mobile app on my Blackberry, toggled to the Amazon Remembers tab, and started taking pictures of book covers.  They were instantly sent to my account, which promptly found all 13 book titles and displayed them in “Your Lists” in my Amazon account (see below).  Of course, I also got prices and a way to order each book.

Granted, I was searching for books – an Amazon specialty.  Still, this app has a lot of potential in that it identifies products from a crude smartphone picture.  Think about how Amazon could use this app to simplify our lives in making products that rely on personalized user input.  For instance, Amazon could make its own unviersal remote control.  The user could simply take pictures of all of their devices (TV, DVR, Blu-Ray player, etc), send them to Amazon and could send you a personalized remote – already pre-programmed.


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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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Usually the during the week of homecoming, my Biophysical Science class is just finishing up a basic chemistry unit on the properties of matter.  To keep the kids focused on science, I make sure to obtain a little dry ice to have my students observe a unique phase change known as sublimation.

We observe:

  1. Sublimation of dry ice
  2. Density of carbon dioxide (bubbles with hover over more dense carbon dioxide – see video)
  3. Carbon Dioxide as a liquid (under pressure) as it exists in a gas cylinder
  4. Carbon Dioxide as a liquid (by sealing off a pipette with pliers, students can safely observe carbon dioxide liquefy as the pressure increases – see phase change diagram of carbon dioxide)
  5. Rapid sublimation of carbon dioxide in water in a sealed Nalgene bottle (see videos below)

CO2 Expansion 2007 from Brian Bartel on Vimeo.

Note the rapid condensation that appears on the lab table once the pressure is equalized.

CO2 Expansion 2008 from Brian Bartel on Vimeo.

NOTE: this demonstration was done behind a Plexiglas screen when there were no kids in the room.  Below is a picture of the bottle before, after, and a piece that was lodged in the ceiling (of which I am quite proud).

Nalgene Bottle Before

Nalgene Bottle Before

Nalgene Bottle After

Nalgene Bottle After

Piece Lodged in Ceiling Tile

Piece Lodged in Ceiling Tile

I should emphasize that this rapid buildup of gas pressure can be very dangerous.  In fact, the rapid vaporization of liquid nitrogen in a sealed plastic container is exactly how I once blew up a sink (see About page).  This is why a safe alternative to a live demo is to take an extreme video for future use.

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Recently, our school was fortunate to have a visit from Billy Collins – former poet laureate of the U.S. He read a few entries from Poetry 180 – a collection of poems for each of the 180 days of the school year (geared at high school students). You can see all of the poems here.

Inspired by his visit, I asked my students to either select or write a poem about science – which they would post on our class discussion board. Not only did they really enjoy reading what others posted, a few did a fantastic job writing their own science poems:

We started a little competition you see
Between my bright lab partner and me
Well I made a fish that glows in the dark
So he made a cat that doesn’t meow but bark
To beat him made I a lobster with wings
So he made a crocodile that sings,
So well that I gave my dog a few extra legs
To run past his roosters laying eggs
Out of hand it then got with my alliperizebralion
Pronouncing his beast I ain’t even trying
And after I gave his firstborn the head of a moose
We both decided to call it a truce

There once was a chemist named Larry
Who wanted to be really hairy.
He brewed up a potion
That set into motion
Some hair-growing that was quite scary.

A naive young biologist, Shay,
Thought that rocks and stones had DNA.
With his rock-carving tools,
He looked like a fool,
And wasted there many a day.

As we were going over their submissions in class, one student questioned what poetry had to do with science. Of course, I took the bait and led the class into a discussion on the importance of creativity in science.

We discussed science in art, and art in science. We discussed science writing (like David Quammen and Lewis Thomas). We discussed wildlife photography, National Geographic’s CritterCam, and David Goodsell’s Molecular Art (see image right). And we also discussed one of the most important creative endeavors in science – experimental design.

Beyond the occasional creative assignment (Drawing Moles, Making Reaction Rate Videos, Einstein’s Facebook), I’ve never taught science using creativity as a common thread. And while this was readily apparent to me, I hadn’t realized how much my students had mentally segregated science from creativity.

So as I think about preparing for the next school year, I will be making sure that my students understand the influence of creative thought in science.

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