Wednesday, December 5, 2012

A Flipper Just Down the Road

Tom Driscoll in his classroom at Putnam High School
I am so fortunate to have a Flipped Classroom veteran just down the road from my school!  I met Tom Driscoll through the Flipped Learning Network Open House.  He has been teaching his World History classes using the Flip for three years.  I was excited to meet Tom in person for the first time at the Flipped Learning Workshop that I attended in November.  Although I didn't visit his class on the day of the Open House Event, Tom agreed to let me visit during a free morning of my exam week.

I spent the morning with Tom observing two of his World History classes.  He teaches both classes using the Flipped Mastery model.  When the students arrived, Tom spent about ten minutes addressing the whole class.  During this time, Tom communicated his goals for the day and touched base with everyone.  He assigned kids to certain areas based on their task:  some kids were watching content videos and taking notes, other kids were working on response questions for their portfolios, and some students were starting a research project on world religions (the culminating event for the unit).  The students only took about five minutes to go from this whole class introduction to individual work time.  I was impressed at how easily they moved from the whole class meeting to individual work spaces.  The kids knew where to find the videos and the google docs for their notes (he also provided hard copies of the note documents for kids who preferred pen and paper).  Tom uses a website to host all of his course content, including videos and google docs, so that the kids can easily find what they need from any computer.  I asked one student to show me how the website works, and he gave me a quick tour through the embedded videos and other resources.

As I walked around the room, it was clear that each student was working at their own pace.  One of the two classes I watched had two resource teachers helping the students.  These teachers were very enthusiastic about the flipped learning model because it is easy for them to individualize instruction.  Tom's good organization of each unit provides the students and the resource teachers a well defined progression of work, quizzes, and projects.

Tom had a free period after the second class.  We took some time to talk about his work at the school and he showed me his classroom and computer lab.  One of my big questions was access to computers for his students.  He said that the majority of the kids have a computer at home, and the rest have access to computers both in class and before or after school in the library computer lab.  The bigger problem is the out-dated technology in the school, not a problem unique to Putnam High.  The lag in technology in schools has forced teachers like Tom, who want to use instructional technology, to use their own equipment.  I heard this same story from many of the teachers I met at the Flipped Learning Workshop in Hartford.

Tom has so many good ideas for implementing the Flipped Mastery model in a history classroom.  I was excited to see another version of this student-based teaching method.  Tom is committed to the Flipped Classroom because of the many improvements he has seen in his students engagement in class and critical thinking skills.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Collaborating Using Shared Google Doc

Testing the pH of an acid.
Two weeks ago I had the opportunity to observe Scott MacClintic and Naomi Appel, two teachers at Loomis Chaffee School, teach their flipped classroom.  I visited their school as part of the Flipped Learning Network Open House Event.  Teachers across the country opened their classrooms to visitors who wanted to see the flipped classroom model in action.  I enjoyed watching Naomi and Chris team teach their microbiology classes.  Not only did I get to watch, but I also peppered them with questions about their flipped classes.

Writing the lab report together.
One of the many ideas I got that day was to use shared Google documents for student collaborative work.  Naomi showed me a few examples of student projects from last year that used shared documents.  A nice feature of the shared document is that I can see who has typed what and when on the project.  While Naomi was showing me how to check the edits, she discovered that one of her students from last year had made changes to a group project this September, and may have used it as a paper for a college course.  We were both left wondering if the student gave her lab partners credit for the work the second time around!

This week I decided to pilot the shared doc concept with a classic chemistry lab.  We conducted an experiment in class to determine the pH of common household products using red cabbage juice, a universal pH indicator, and electronic pH probes.  This fun experiment is a great introduction to acids and bases and a nice technique lab.  My students tested many different products such as bleach, shampoo, saline solution, vinegar, aspirin, toothpaste, oranges, and laundry detergent.  After each group had tested several of the items, we compiled all the class data to look for patterns in the pH of household products.
No one is watching their partner write.

After the class discussion of the lab results, I introduced the Google doc lab report concept.  One member from each lab group created the file and then shared it with his/her partner and with me.  Using the shared file, the lab partners worked together and contributed simultaneously to the report.  The collaboration between the students was more interactive with the shared document because they could both contribute to the work at any time.  I didn't see anyone looking over the shoulder of his/her lab partner watching as the work was completed.  The twenty minutes of class work on this collaborative lab report seemed more productive and interactive than my previous experiments with group lab report writing.

Red cabbage juice is a great pH indicator.
Another aspect to the flipped classroom is the use of class time to do what used to be considered homework.  I decided to have the lab groups write their reports during class rather than as their weekend homework.  What resulted was a series of productive conversations about how to write a purpose statement, what information is most importation in a conclusion, and how to condense a whole lab report into a concise abstract.   Rather than sending them away to complete this lab report in their dorm rooms, and then making comments on their work that many students never read, my students learned in "real time" how to make their technical writing more accurate.
Collaborating on the lab report.

This acids and bases lab reinforced for me that the flipped classroom is so much more than instructional videos.  Talking to Scott and Naomi, who have three years experience with the model, really opened my eyes to the huge range of possibilities for active learning experiences in my classes.  I am looking forward to meeting more teachers next week at the Flipped Classroom Workshop in Hartford, CT.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Keeping It Real

Having Fun at the Poster Session
Educators strive for that "real life" experience that pushes students to take their work beyond the classroom.   Communication is one of the  Twenty First Century skills that we are striving to incorporate into the curriculum.  This year we started the chemistry classes with a project to get the kids to design an original experiment and then communicate their results to the school community.

Working out the details of their procedure.
The topic was paper towel absorbency.  This is not a new project, but I added a few new pieces to the project this year:  I asked the students to get reproducible data and we added a poster session as the culminating event.  

They're measuring their sample size.
The first task was for each lab group to develop their own technique to measure how much water a paper towel can absorb.  The challenge was to fine tune their procedure until they could obtain reproducible data on the same type of paper towel.  This proved to be more difficult than it sounds.   My students learned how important each small detail can be to the outcome of an experiment.  By the end of the day, groups were using stopwatches to measure drip time, rulers to ensure samples sizes were the same, and graduated cylinders to measure volumes. 

The students had access to anything in the lab.
Once the techniques were consistent, they had to develop an experimental question to answer using their absorbency procedure.  Here are some of the questions they tried to answer through experimentation:

Does the higher priced brand absorb more water?  
Does the temperature of the water affect how much is absorbed? 
Does a folded paper towel absorb more than a crumpled paper towel?

Each group collected multiple trials to get enough data answer their question.  The results varied from group to group because of the range of questions they asked.  

Students are explaining their project to my colleague.
The final phase of the project was to communicate their results.  Each lab group created a poster with their results and conclusions which they presented to the community in a poster session.  When I explained the poster session concept to the kids, they responded by putting the extra touches into their work that would make their posters more interesting.  I recruited teachers to engage the students in dialogue about their work and then give me their feedback.

The students had to explain their choices in the project.

I wish you could have been there to experience the great energy in the room as the students defended their work.  They surprised themselves by giving in-depth answers to the "whys and hows" that the teachers asked.  The next day, many of the students told me that the poster session was a lot of fun.  The students in my honors section asked me when they get to do one!  

Peer review is a very powerful motivator for students.

Everyone had fun at the poster session.

This group got prime real estate in the center of the room.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Creating the Chemistry Course of My Dreams

Popping popcorn for the first lab.
Everyone knows that a good experiment only has one variable that changes at a time.  How can you possibly know how a change has affected the system if you make more than one variation?  Well... this year, my Honors Chemistry curriculum is definitely not a controlled experiment because I have made three big changes to my teaching this year. 

Using Bunsen burners the first week of class!
The first big change was the decision not to use a text book.  Don, my co-teacher for the Honors course, and I came to the realization that our text book choices over the past several years were not meeting our needs.  And, more importantly, the book felt like a ball and chain dragging us down paths that we didn't want to go.  I felt a certain obligation to make the book part of the class because I asked my students to shell out their own money to buy it (and science text books are not cheap).  Even with our last choice of an on-line/electronic book, I felt frustrated by the resource rather than supported by it.  So we took the leap of faith and decided to scrap the book all together.  So far I haven't missed it at all.  I have plenty of on-line resources that I use along with my own stuff that I give the kids electronically.

Lab is the heart of my new course.
The absence of the book opened the door for us to create the "Chemistry Course of My Dreams".  Don and I spent time over the summer crafting a chemistry course that would fit the needs of our Honors students, draw on the things we liked from previous years, and incorporate some new ideas that we have wanted to try but couldn't figure out how to fit in with the book.  The back-bone of our course, and the starting point for our design, is the lab program.  We decided to create a progression of labs that would lead the students towards an understanding of the composition of matter.  The content needed to support the labs would fill in the "meat" on the bones of our course. 

They are so happy to have un-burnt popcorn!
The next big leap of faith was the decision to use the flipped classroom model to teach the class.  When I found the flipped classroom idea, it all fell into place for me.  It was a natural progression for me because we can use the video resources to teach the content that the students will apply in the lab work.  I feel that the flipped classroom is a perfect blend of lab experiences and content that is delivered when it is needed. 

So here I am, three weeks into the new school year.  I am very happy with the changes we have made to the Honors Chemistry Curriculum.  I'm so relieved not to have the pressure of covering chapters in the book.  That first decision we made to get rid of the book has opened up a whole new set of possibilities for my students.
Chemistry teacher selfy.  Way cool for me, not so much for Jack!

Sunday, September 23, 2012

A Weekend on the Deerfield River

Enjoying a day on the Deerfield River with my students.
One of the great things about my job is that I get to go on really fun trips with school groups.  This weekend I went with the Outdoor Adventure Team to the Deerfield River in western Mass for a great weekend camping and canoeing trip.  All I had to do was drive the bus, and in return I got to spend two days on the river doing eddy turns and running some rapids.  Thanks to Bill for leading a great trip!

We pulled out of Pomfret on Friday at 10:30.  We arrived at our campsite on the river around 1:00.  The dam release didn't start until 2:00 that day, so we took some time to set up our camp, spot the vehicles, and do some safety training.  We got on the river by 3:00 and enjoyed the last day of summer in the bright sunshine.  That night after dinner we journeyed into Shelbourne Falls to play candle pin bowling.  It was so nice to see the boys smiling and laughing as we tossed the balls down the lanes.

Saturday we enjoyed a hot breakfast in camp and some leisurely rounds of frisbee; no rush because the dam release didn't start until noon.  We got on the river by 12:30 amongst a healthy crowd of kayakers, tubers, and canoers.  It was a great day to enjoy the river and some good company along the Deerfield.  When he paddled into camp around 4:30, we all jumped into the river for a swim (JRI) and some jumps into the river from the rocks along the far bank.  For dinner that night, Rob taught us how to make camp pizza, a recipe he took back from his NOLS experience over the summer.  It was SO GOOD to eat hot pizza in camp.

Sunday morning David and I used the extra dough from the pizza to make hot apple turnovers!  Now that's what I call breakfast.  We ended the trip with a hike along the Dunbar Brook Trail to a nice swimming hole.  No swimming today with our two hour bus tip looming, but very nice scenery and an invigorating hike non the less.  We said our goodbyes to the Deerfield River as we drove back down the familiar access road to the paddling launch sites for the last time.  We pulled into Pomfret at about 4:00 with lots pictures and a fresh perspective on the week ahead of us.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

First Week of Flipping

I'm a week into the "Flipped Classroom" experiment.  I love it!  The change is challenging and also very right for my class. 

First Week of Flipping
The basic idea of the flip is to reverse the traditional in-class activities and homework activities.  So the typical in-class learning, such as listening to a lecture and taking class notes, is done at home in an individual learning space.  While the typical homework activities, like homework problems and application-type exercises, are done in class as group learning events.  In science class, the flip concept is very natural because we already do so many group learning activities in the lab.  Instead of assigning work from the book for homework, my students are using homework time to watch instructional videos and take notes.  In class, we are doing group activities, white board practice, and labs to apply the information.  (Okay, it's only been one week, so we didn't do all of that yet, but we'll get there.)

I decided to flip my classroom pretty early in the summer.  I spent some time over the summer reading about what other teachers are doing, researching the impact of the technique on student learning, and having anxiety dreams  about teaching (yes, they started in June this year).  I recommend the book Flip Your Classroom by Jon Bergmann and Aaron Sams if you're thinking of trying the flip. 

Students working on a group activity
At the heart of the flip classroom is the notion that the teacher is not focal point of class.  Students must engage in active learning to fully learn the concepts.  In order for this to work for me, I had to get myself away from the front of the classroom.  To make this happen, I rearranged my classroom so that the desks weren't facing the front of the room.  I knew that if the students were facing the front, then I would end up there on day one.  What a difference the desk arrangement can make for class dynamics.  This week, I found that I was walking around the room more and that the students were using the whole room, not just the desks in the front.  I have let go of my control freak nature of assigning seats because the kids are switching groups and moving around the room throughout the class.

As for the videos, they're getting better.  I've done five so far.  I'm collaborating with two other teachers on the flip.  We all enjoy making the videos together (thanks for the tip, Jon and Sam) and they are much more interesting to watch when we do them together. 

I'm hooked on the Flip.  There's no looking back for me.  I have opened up my teaching to a whole new set of possibilities.  I'm excited to see where this change will take us!

Friday, September 7, 2012

I'm Back in the Lab Coat Again!

The Fun Milk Experiment
I really didn't mean to take the whole summer off from  my chemistry blog.  As I do every year, I leave school in the spring with the best of intentions.  I make big plans to reorganize the lab, clean up the prep room, and this year write in the blog about new demos I'll try in the summer.  Well...

Enough apologizing, I'm back!

The kids are all smiles on Day One.
It feels so good to be back in the classroom with my students.  We started off the year with a fun, new-to-me experiment with milk, food coloring and soap.  I like to get the kids doing interesting lab work right away on the first day.  It's challenging to find something that is interesting, easy, not too laden with advanced content, and manageable in one day.  We found just the thing with this milk experiment.

I started a class blog for each of my chemistry levels this year, I call it GeyerChem.  Their first assignment is to make a post on the blog about what they learned today.  You can check it out here Honors GeyerChem Blog or here GeyerChem Blog.  The blogging addiction grows.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Swirling Round Bottoms: Viscoscity and IMFs

We swirled these liquids to see the effect of intermolecular forces on viscosity.
 This is a new demo that I worked up this year to help demonstrate the impact of intermolecular forces (IMFs) on the properties of liquids.  I found it in "A Demo a Day, Volume 2"; a great resource for quick and easy chemistry demos.  These beautiful liquids represent a range of IMFs, from the weakest (London dispersion forces) to the strongest (hydrogen bonding).  The purple liquid is hexane, with a little iodine for the beautiful color.  The orange liquid is ethanol, which has on O-H group that provides hydrogen bonding.  The blue liquid is water, a molecule that is famous for its efficient hydrogen bonding.  The bright green liquid is antifreeze, which contains mostly ethylene glycol, an organic compound with the same structure as ethanol but with an O-H group on each end.  The yellow liquid is glycerin, also an organic compound but with three O-H groups.
Glycerin vs. Hexane
 Swirling each flask is an easy way to see the difference in the viscosity of the liquids.  The stronger the IMFs, the less these liquids will swirl.  The hexane will swirl very easily and for a long time.  The swirling becomes increasingly sluggish as you progress to ethanol, water, ethylene glycol, and then glycerine.  Actually, the glycerine doesn't swirl at all.  It barely moves in the flask, much like cold honey.  I passed around the flasks to the class to get them to interact with the concept of IMFs.  It's hard to get the kids to understand the difference between the three IMFs and to appreciate how they affect the properties of a substance.  This easy demo sparked some good conversations about this difficult topic.
Everyone swirl!

Just kidding, they didn't drink their samples.
I just can't get enough of these cute little round bottom flasks.

Monday, May 7, 2012

The Front Row Girls: Why I Love My Job

So proud of their octahedron.
 Here are the girls in the front row of one of my classes.  Who knew that molecular geometry molecules would be so entertaining?  Well, actually I thought it would be pretty fun, but my kids always tell me that I say that every lab is going to be fun.  So here they are, making their marshmallow molecules and recording their results for their lab report.
This one looks more like a stick figure than a molecule.

Moments like this make my job extremely fun!
"We love Chemistry!"

Looks square planar, could be XeF4

Friday, May 4, 2012

Something Unexpected from Heptane

Setting up the burets.
Today I pulled out one of my "go to" demos to introduce the concept of polar and non-polar molecules.  Polar molecules, like water, will be attracted to an electric charge while non-polar molecules, I used heptane today, is not affected by a charged object.  Or so I thought!

I prepared two burets for the demo, one with water (with a little blue food coloring to make it easy to see) and the other with heptane.  I borrowed a plastic stick and piece of rabbit fur from the physics closet to generate a negatively charged object. 

When I passed the negatively charged stick by the stream of water, it bent toward the stick.  The challenge was to get the water to bend enough to hit another beaker.

Notice the cat fur and plastic stick, and the water stream bending.

A student hits the second beaker!
Heptane does not respond to the charged stick.

Here the heptane stream is not bending, just as I expected.
The stream of heptane was not as responsive to the negatively charged stick, at first.  But when I tried it another time, the stream of heptane bent toward the charged stick.  This observation was completely unexpected.  I actually exclaimed, "That's not supposed to happen!"  I tried it again, and again the heptane stream was attracted to the stick.  What we found is that if I passed the stick near the tip of the buret, the heptane stream would bend.  But, if I approached the stream farther down, away from the opening of the buret, there was no response to the stick.
What?!  This is not supposed to happen!  The heptane bent toward the stick.

Another look at the heptane doing what it's not supposed to.
 I have a few ideas about why this happened, but it requires further experimentation to develop a working hypothesis.  I tried a second batch of fresh heptane, same result.  So I took the heptane and tried to dissolve some food coloring into it.  In this case, the heptane behaved as any non-polar substance; the food coloring did not dissolve.  I'm wondering if anyone has seen this in their lab?  I'm going to rework this demo again this week to see if I can figure it out.
Here's some food coloring in the heptane, it doesn't dissolve
 Chemists often use the saying "Like dissolves like."  In the last part of the polar/non-polar demo I showed my students how this plays out.  I poured about 40 mL of water and 5 mL of heptane into a eudiometer tube.  Then I put a small pellet of iodine, a non-polar solid, in the tube.  As I slowly inverted the tube several times, the heptane layer took on a beautiful pink color from the dissolved iodine, but the water layer stayed clear.  The non-polar iodine only dissolved in the non-polar solvent.
The iodine only dissolves in the heptane, turning it pink.
 To make it even more interesting, I dropped some food coloring into the tube.  Food coloring is a water-based solution, so it should not dissolve in the non-polar heptane layer.  Saying that to the kids is one thing, but seeing it is really believing in this case.  The food coloring stayed in a tight drop and left no trace of interaction with the heptane, and then it began to spread out into the water layer.  It was very cool to watch.

Watching the heptane "bubble" float back to the top.

The final look at the polar and non-polar solvents.
Understanding the impact of polarity on the properties of a substance is one thing, but getting my students to identify which molecules are polar and which molecules are non-polar based on the structure is not as easy.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Getting Out of a Slump

I haven't written in the blog since my return from spring break. I've had a science teacher's equivalent of a writer's block. I returned from break to two of the most difficult sections of my course to show through demonstration: stoichiometry and electron configurations.

 I would love to hear from anyone out there with some ideas for making the electron configuration unit more interesting to teach. I struggle with it every year, trying to put on a good positive attitude and drawing on my own appreciation of the structure of the atom to get me through. It's so hard to get the kids to wrap their heads around the abstract world of quantum numbers. There are always a a few kids, the puzzle solvers, who really like this stuff. The rest of the class is glassy eyed and bored. It's hard for me to keep my spirits up when my class feels like a death march with no clear destination. I always think to myself "Do I have to teach this section? Can my students walk away from this course without any knowledge of electron configurations?" My guilty conscience always wins out. This year I delayed attacking this unit until the spring term, rationalizing this decision with the following logic: spring term means everyone is happy, it will be better. Wrong. I was just as miserable as usual during this unit. My kids grades dropped during this part of the course, it was a disaster (as usuaal).

Stoichiometry isn't any better for demonstrations. I love this part of the course because it presents great lab applications, and I did just that this year: tons of labs during the stoichiometry unit. But I get discouraged when my kids say, "Another lab, noooo." How can that be the response? Labs are what make my job fun and interesting. I don't understand why the kids would prefer to sit in their seats taking notes and doing more practice problems rather then getting into the lab. So I really like the lab work involved with the stoichiometry unit, but I find that the students are not energized by the topic. Again, I would love to hear from anyone out there with ideas for making the stoichiometry unit more lively.
Titration of vinegar, part of the stoichiometry lab work.

 I made it through, and now we're moving on to chemical bonding and molecular geometry. Still very little to offer for lab work or demos, but a topic that is easily digested by sophomore minds. We do lots of white boarding during this section and the kids get a lot of satisfaction from mastering Lewis Dot diagrams. I'm heading straight into the intermolecular forces concept. This concept is the "biggie" that the biology teachers want the kids to know when they move up to their class. I like the idea of doing it last so that it's fresh in their minds in the fall (theoretically). If the kids don't know what a hydrogen bond is, then I feel that I have failed the biology guys. Four more weeks, so much chemistry left.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Demo Show for the Third Grade

My son and I are testing the hydrogen gas.  Nice to end with a bang!

Today I did a demonstration show for my son’s third grade class.  The kids are studying the states of matter in school.  I asked him if he would like me to come in and do some demos for his class about this interesting topic.  He was very excited about the idea, so I set it up with his teacher and here we go.

Water and Ice Balloons
The first thing I did was pass around three balloons; one was filled with air, another was filled with water, and the third was filled with ice.  If you ever want a fun party favor for kids, just throw some water balloons in the freezer.  They were absolutely thrilled by the frozen balloon.  I described to the kids how I made it so they could repeat the experiment at home.  The three balloons provided a nice platform for comparing and contrasting the properties of the three states of matter.

Siphoning the blue water.
Next I turned my attention a common property of liquids and gases:  they both flow.  It’s easy to see how liquids flow and take on the shape of their container, but not as easy to see gases do this.  First I set up a siphon with some blue water to show the kids that water will flow through a tube to the lowest point.  Then I generated some carbon dioxide gas in the same container and tried to siphon it.  I did this demo successfully with my classes about a month ago, so I was confident that I could repeat it here today.  Although we confirmed the presence of carbon dioxide in the source container with a candle, I did not wait long enough for the gas to flow through the tube into the lower container.  I guess the high-energy third graders got the best of me on this one.

Making carbon dioxide
Pour the gas.

The next thing I did was another demo with carbon dioxide gas.  I filled a small fish tank with the gas by dumping a large amount of baking soda in the bottom and then pouring vinegar on top of it.  The kids loved watching the bubbling reaction.  Many kids asked what would happen if I added food coloring to the mixture, so I dropped in some green food coloring.  I think they were disappointed that the bubbles weren’t green.  I tested the carbon dioxide with the candle again to show the kids how much gas we had made.  Then I blew soap bubbles into the tank.  This demo is always a big hit because the soap bubbles hover on the top of the carbon dioxide.  I’m used to doing this for teenagers, who are mildly amused by the whole thing.  But I didn’t think about how excited kids get when they see soap bubbles.  The front row jumped up and started chasing the bubbles and popping them before they went into the tank.  Once I convinced them to let the balloons go into the tank, we got to see the effect.  But, honestly, I think they were more interested in the ones that missed the tank!
Making more carbon dioxide.
The floating bubble trick.

The finale was the electrolysis of water demo.  I wanted to show the kids a chemical reaction that would demonstrate the chemical formula of water.  Once I got the Hoffman appartus set up and going, I let them come up in small groups to look at the reaction going.  I’m not sure that the kids could make the connection between the two to one ration of hydrogen and oxygen gas to the water molecule.  However, I think they all enjoyed seeing the reaction and observing the color changes.  They also got to see the water displacement technique as we trapped the gases at the top of the tubes.  I finished off the day with the pop of the hydrogen gas.  Overall, it was a lot of fun to work with the kids.  I hope that they learned something from my show, but I’m sure that they walked away thinking that science experiments are fun to do.

Here I'm trying to get the third graders to understand that water is 2 parts hydrogen and one part water.  They were mostly interested in the colors, the bubbles, and the water displacement.  I'm okay with that.