Category Archives: Activity

Flippity flash cards

I like tools that are flexible and easy to use. So while I was recently looking for a flash card tool to use with my students (there are many!) I found that lots of them required registering, or were pretty but limited in what they did, or wouldn’t allow images or text formatting. Formatting is important – I teach science, so I use a lot of subscripts and superscripts.

I was pleased to find (somewhere on page three or four of my search) This simple tool uses a google sheet to generate flashcards. You grab a template, enter your information in two columns (the two sides of the flash card), along with colour formatting if so desired. Publish your spreadsheet, grab the link, and paste the link into the second page of the sheet, and voila, instant flash card set. No sign in required.

flashcard image

There are ads displayed prominently on the site, which may make it unsuitable for some. But as a simple, non-login flashcard game/study aid, that allows html formatting and embedding urls for images and video, I think it has a lot of potential. I could see having students easily generate flashcards for themselves and each other as well.

The site also has templates for generating quizzes, a Jeopardy style game, name picker and  progress indicator, so there’s a lot of potential there.


A little organizational idea

So, I had this idea. And here’s the funny part – it came to me in a dream. No. Seriously. But it’s not the sort of thing I would ever think up, so I must have heard it from someone and it’s been fermenting in my brain for lord knows how long. But anyway…

In this dream I was volunteering somewhere (because it was a dream the “somewhere” was kind of vague, but maybe a museum?), and there was a box full of little slips of paper. On each slip was a job that needed doing. We volunteers would take a slip, do the job, initial it, and drop it in the “done” box.

See? beautifully simple. Totally unlike me.

This little idea, id seems to me, would be perfect in the classroom (and is probably being used in classrooms all over the place – like I said, this is not likely an original idea). Not only can you get jobs done – sorting craft supplies, organizing resources, returning materials to the library, etc – you have a record of who did what, and you can do a quick check to see how well each job was done.

While this would likely be very useful in an elementary class, an art room, music class, etc, I am not entirely sure how to implement it in a grade 11 Physics class, nor what motivation I could use even if I did have jobs.

But if I was organizing volunteers…

Desmos is another great math tool

Yesterday I wrote about g(Math), a tool for adding formulas and graphs into Google docs, like an equation editor on steroids. Today I’m going to talk about Desmos, a full-featured, web-based standalone graphing calculator.

Desmos can be run from the website, or installed as an app in Chrome. You don’t need an account to use it, but if you create an account you can save your work – even saving a copy to Google Drive, which is nice. The interface is clean, with the list of functions down the left side, and a large central grid (which can be switched between Cartesian and polar) to display functions. It responds well to double touch, so using it on an interactive whiteboard is easy.

There are many, many saved examples on the Desmos site which highlight it’s capabilities – including animation and drawing pictures with multiple equations.

I’ve started using it to illustrate the parabolic functions of acceleration, finding the roots, intersection of functions (solving two equations and two unknowns), and illustrating standing waves and beat frequency. I’ve just scratched the surface – there is a lot more that can be done with it, I just need to find the time to figure out what all else it can do. But for teaching transformations of functions? Just throw in a function with sliders and watch what happens. It is a very user-friendly interactive tool.

It’s teacher friendly, student friendly, works beautifully on the interactive white board, it runs animations, and it’s fun. What’s not to like?


Trouble with Static Kits

My grade 9’s are doing static electricity at the moment, and I am experiencing some weirdness and frustration with the kits I have. Firstly I have a combination of new and old kits, but they all come with a standard collection of items – glass, ebonite and plexiglass rods, fur, felt and silk pads, and a few other odds and ends. My problem is I am finding it hard to reliably, and consistently, get a good charge, especially a positive charge.

The instructions usually suggest rubbing glass with silk to produce a positive charge on the glass. This, in my experience, never works. Last year I discovered that rubbing the glass rod with the plastic baggie the kit comes in worked well – but with the new kits I just received that doesn’t seem to work, no idea why not.

And then there is the mysterious flip-flopping plexiglass. Acrylic when rubbed with fur should become negative – but when I held it up to a negatively charged electroscope, the leaves dropped – indicating a positive charge. I tested it with a positively charged electroscope, and the leaves spread apart, confirming the positive charge. Okay, so it’s positive. But then when I tried to demo that it was positive, it suddenly had the opposite effect. It was bizarre, and my students were totally confused – as was I.

I love a teachable moment as much as the next guy, but when the message seems to be that science is arbitrary and unpredictable, I don’t think it is the right lesson to convey. I hate it when that happens.

A little Google docs win – almost

Today I played the Deer Game with my grade nines to illustrate population dynamics, limiting factors and carrying capacity. We usually iterate a dozen or so times, counting and recording the dear population on each turn, and then enter the results on a spreadsheet and graph it when we get back to the classroom.

Well, this year I did something a little different. I created a Google sheet, and created a chart based on a set of (presently empty) cells. I left this display up in the classroom when we went outside. During the game, I recorded the results each round on my phone, in the same spreadsheet. So when we wrapped up and went back to class the graph was already waiting for us on the screen. As a bonus, we ran this activity with two classes combined, and both classes could see the same data.

This was a great little timesaver, and I would rave about it, except for one little thing – scatter plots. The scatter plots in Google sheets do not show connecting lines or curves, just the scatter points. For this activity a line graph is sufficient, because we are iterating equal intervals, but uncovering a glaring hole in the capabilities of Google sheets slightly tarnished my esteem for this set of tools.

How do you science?

Yesterday in class one of my students asked “am I sciencing right?”

After giving him a high five for cleverness, I got to thinking more seriously about that question. In courses like Drama, Art, Music, and Physical Education the students spend a minimal amount of time learning theory, and maximal time practising it. Doing it.

In Science, at least in the introductory courses, there seems to be so much emphasis on basic facts that there is little time left to do science, or as my student would to science. Now, admittedly, there is several centuries worth of background to what goes on in our daily lives. Even up through much of my undergrad studies my courses were pumping me full of background knowledge, with little emphasis on doing science. It wasn’t until my undergraduate thesis and grad school that I got to actually science.

Science is often touted as a subject that requires inquiry, but most science courses actually don’t. Researching facts is an important aspect of science, but it is the preliminary legwork before the actual science begins. When we actually science, we are actively investigating and experimenting, troubleshooting, problem solving, analyzing, and synthesizing. Using our brains, designing, building, testing.

I realize there are some programs, such as the modelling method, that allow (or require!) students to science in high school, but availability and training for these types of programs is not (yet) widespread. I think it’s time to spread the science. If you implement a course, particularly an introductory science course at any level, that is built on students actively doing science, I would like to hear from you. How do you science?


Why can’t we follow a recipe?

Chances are you know someone who can’t follow a recipe. When they try your favourite recipe, it comes out as a disaster. Why is that? Why is it that someone following step by step instructions can mess it up so badly?

I don’t know the answer for sure, but I suspect it has something to do with lack of familiarity. It seems perhaps ironic that in order to follow a set of step by step instructions you need to know what you are doing already, but I think that is what is required, and here’s why: If you don’t know what you are doing, you won’t know if you made a mistake, whereas if you have an idea what you are doing, you can recognize mistakes and correct them along the way.

The same is true for lab activities. Many of them are cookbook style, with step-by-step instructions. And foolishly we think, well, how can they possibly screw up? And the answer, I’m afraid, is very easily. Step by step instructions instil a false sense of confidence. Students, like cooks who can’t follow a recipe, assume that they have done each step correctly, because they don’t necessarily have the experience to recognize missteps.

The other day in Biology class we were using the popular pop-beads to simulate mitosis and meiosis. They are good in that they give students a tactile, visual representation that they can manipulate and see the process as dynamic, as opposed to series of discrete steps. But it was a disaster. The set comes with very explicit, step-by-step instructions. But either they could not follow the directions, or they were so focussed on the directions they virtually ignored the beads, or they simply skipped the beads altogether and drew the results from memory, rather than observation.

Next time I try this lab, I will do it very differently. I will introduce them to the beads one day, have them plan out exactly how they would represent the steps, and then on lab day have them make a stop-motion animation of the sequence of events in Meiosis. That way they are responsible for planning it out, and will have an idea what it should look like, so they can recognize mistakes when they arise, and then the videos can be critiqued afterwords to see if there are any glaring (or subtle) errors or omissions.

Now I just have to keep this in mind going forward, and plan ahead knowing that cookbook activities (not just labs) have a built-in human flaw.

Shouldn’t it be blue?

I love how people think, and I love teachable moments.

We were using extracted red cabbage juice as a pH indicator today, and a student came to ask what he should do if he made a mistake. I asked what had gone wrong, and he said “Something happened with our strong base sample. It’s yellowy green, but it should be dark blue”.

Since this was the part of the lab where we were observing what the colours were, I asked him why he thought it should be dark blue. His reasoning went like this: neutral is purple, mild acid (pH=3) was light pink, strong acid (pH=1) was red. Mild base (pH=9) was blue, and therefore, strong base should be dark blue. Rather than simply correct his misconception (which was, after all, a hypothesis based on extrapolation), I simply had him take another sample.

His result? Yellow green. He faced a pre-conception head on, verified for himself his results, learned that double checking results is valid, and that things can sometimes – but not always – be extrapolated. Lots of learning from one little transaction. Yay science!

Alright, GO!

My grade 9’s are doing ecology first this year, and like last year, I kept the number of teacher-led lessons down to a minimum. But this year, instead of everyone working with invasive species, they are allowed to choose their own project (or projects, the number is unimportant) as long as it address the effects of human activity on ecosystems (one or many), water, and soil, and it must include one original hands-on investigation.

Since the investigation part seemed to be the part that was throwing them, the other day I told them that by the end of the 80 minute period they had to submit a description of what, exactly, they intended to do as an investigation, where and when they would perform it, and what specifically, they would be looking for (qualitatively or quantitatively).

I then told them we had a set of microscopes, dishes, jars, pond water, random soil samples from around the school, and a few litres of simulated acid rain. And then I said “alright, GO!”

I was pleasantly surprised by the inquisitive chaos that ensued, and by the end of the class I had detailed descriptions of most of the investigations, as well as at least a dozen experiments actually under way.

It was a frenetic, chaotic, inquisitive class. As a science teacher, I couldn’t have been happier!

Real EdTech, Part Deux

Yesterday I posted about using portable everyday technology to do simple but spectacular things.

But wait, there’s more!

One of my students was with me in the library two days ago when I posted the microscope video on YouTube. Not only did he subscribe to my channel and post a question about what he was seeing in the video, he also told his friends about it. So when we did the activity in class the following day, almost everyone brought smart phones and wanted me to show them how to do microscope videography.

How cool is that?!