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Writing Advice for College Students
If you didn’t like science during your K-12 experience, you had the wrong science teachers. That’s how I feel, and I won’t be apologetic about it either. I can’t claim that it’s always easy to get your budding scientists to become engaged, but I will say that the ability for engagement is far more accessible than many other disciplines. In what other class do you have the potential to build vehicles, witness bubbles that can ignite, bio-engineer glow-in-the-dark bacteria, and occasionally (their favorite) blow something up in a controlled, supervised, intentional way? Whether a student is skilled at science class or not, it should be one of their favorite classes. Those who don’t necessarily excel in such courses might not love test day, but they should love every other day. And if they do, why, those test scores might just go up.
This is only my ninth year teaching science, and perhaps that it still feels exciting to me is why it feels natural to put “only” in this sentence. I’ve looked back at my own high school days, and I know that this excitement was instilled in me from a variety of great teachers I had during that time. Robert Weiss, my chemistry teacher, and Gregg Wagner, my physics teacher, brought their respective subjects to life. The portions of their classrooms that are cemented in my memory, though, aren’t fond memories of lectures and book work. Certainly, that was there, as it is a necessity in such classes. But no, it was the hands on lab activities, and the exciting demonstrations they had for us, paired with their enthusiastic and spot on knowledge of the concepts involved.
Before becoming a teacher myself, I had the “pleasure” of subbing for a year, and specifically, science classrooms. While I subbed for some teachers whose students obviously loved the class, multiple times (too many, really) I’d encounter a room of students who were unabashed to discuss how much they hated the course. The common theme in all of them was along the lines, “We never do anything cool,” and “We always just have worksheets, never any labs.” That’s the sound of students who want to do more science, and not getting to. I think such is a crime. Can you imagine an art class where you only learn about what other artists have done, and never get to pick up a paint brush or sketch pad? Can you imagine a physical education class where you learn all about the rules to a particular sport, take a test on how to play it, but never actually try it out for yourself? I have no qualms saying it: I think a major reason so many students give up on science is not the rigor of the class, the often inclusion of math, or other inherent difficulties that are necessary. I think it has much more to do with something that is within each science teacher’s power to change: How it is presented.
Science is not just a huge lump of knowledge that has been collected. Science is how that knowledge was gained. It is a process of discovery that involves at its core two very important things. The first is the awe and wonder that every student starts out with from a young age, and can keep for the rest of their lives if such is nurtured. The second is cutthroat attention to experimental evidence and the willingness to discard ideas that don’t match that evidence. If you teach science, your classroom needs to reflect those two things, or you’re faking it. (Hey, I said at the start of this, I wouldn’t be apologetic…)
You might notice that in the second criteria I offer as necessary in a science classroom, the adjective used for the evidence was “experimental”. Those two teachers I referenced earlier, (who will always be Mr. Weiss and Mr. Wagner in my mind) both had at least one lab and at least one demonstration a week for us. Often, it was more than that. If your teaching style of science doesn’t include hands on activities and experiments for your students often enough that they feel like they are “always” doing something, you aren’t doing it right. You might even have plenty of students who are doing great in your class and learning a lot. Realistically, though, they are only learning scientific knowledge. They aren’t learning what it means to be a scientist. I could be taught much knowledge about Van Gogh, Monet, Dali, and know every pertinent detail about them, but if you don’t let me pick up a brush, I still don’t know how to paint.
If in reading up to this point you’ve felt a tinge of guilt anywhere in there, let me give you some encouragement. First, you sought out this blog, which is already a great indicator that you want to enhance and improve your teaching techniques. Truthfully, getting a teacher to be willing to improve could be the most difficult part in all of this. Second, you’re still reading it. If you’ve read this far, while I can’t claim certainty, I will say there’s a likelihood you’re ready to try something new. So let’s move forward from here!
I often wonder how, with the internet as fleshed out as it is compared to my days in high school (or even college), why are students not using it more to look up and understand concepts they struggle with? Why aren’t they “Google-ing” the topics, or, as they seem more want to do, watching YouTube videos on the best ways to work through their tough problems? But, shouldn’t that questioning be turned on us teachers too? As an educator, you now live in a world where the internet has, right there at your fingertips, loads of exciting ways to present your topics. The ideas are out there, if you look for them.
In an effort to add to the plethora of said ideas, I’ve developed “Indy Labs”. (We put the science in your hands!)
Indy Labs #7 – Homemade Martian Sextant: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i4993Jo6HRM
I noticed some time ago, as I scoured the internet for better and better ways to present and “demo” concepts, many science videos are at my disposal. Yet, they all fit primarily into two categories. Many videos will try to explain concepts to you (what are black holes, why does salt melt ice, can bacteria communicate with each other, etc.) but give the viewer little or nothing to do. The other category would be videos which show you how to do/make something awesome, but teach you essentially nothing about the scientific concepts involved. I wanted to change this, at least on the small scale that I can. Indy Labs seemed to be the way I could try.
With Indy Labs, each episode presents discussion of a scientific topic, explanation of the concepts involved, a hypothesis to be tested, an experiment to be performed, and analysis of the results. It’s not just eye candy – it’s the scientific method. A crying shame that persists in our society is that where you live has a lot to do with how good (or how well) you are educated. Budgets, however, are a reality to be dealt with, and it’s never a problem of having too large of one. In the theme of making science accessible as my own science teachers did, Indy Labs is committed to showing “at home” (which easily translates to “in the classroom”) experiments that can be done with low cost, easy to find materials.
Want to show students evidence that atoms exist? All you really need is water and a 9 volt battery:
Indy Labs #4 – 9 Volt Electrolysis: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lPdRV5QjcaA
I’ve seen our science teacher catalogues try and swindle us year after year out of our already strained budgets. Why would you ever pay $20 – $40 for a static levitation kit when you can do the same thing for less than $3? (You could have a whole class of 30 doing this for about $10.)
Indy Labs #5 – Static Levitation: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=McrmHd5LZ8U
These labs are also meant to, at times, show students that the fields of biology, physics, earth science, and chemistry (to name a few) aren’t corralled in the real world like they seem in school. They overlap and intermingle. Why not learn about entomology, optical physics, and some anatomy all in one dosage? All you need is a flashlight!
Indy Labs #3 – Spooky Spider Optics: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ELYyOE_VlCw
If your class does try any of these, I’d thoroughly love to hear about it! Leave a comment on the video’s page and let the “Indy Labber” community know how it went. Also, snap some photos of your scientists doing it, and post them with Twitter or Instagram with the hashtag #IndyLabs and we’ll be able to see you in action!
One last thing, if you try any of these out with your students, I thank you wholeheartedly, but not because you decided to specifically use my videos. I thank you because you are a science teacher who is willing to try new things. We need more of you out there!