How my relationship with the space unit is changing (love/hate)

I normally hate the space unit in grade 9 science. I mean, HATE. In my personal life i have no interest in astronomy, even though many a canoe trippers have tried to engage me. I know very little beyond the curriculum requirements of grade 9 science, which makes me feel a bit uncomfortable. In the past it has been used as a way to put scientific notation into action. The last time I taught it, years ago, I had a few color overhead slides with neat images and a few websites and magazine articles to help engage.

This time however, I have Chris Hadfield and the Canadian Space Agency. We have a bubble detector in our classroom that is the same as @Cmdr_Hadfield has on the ISS, being used to measure radiation. We are sharing our results with people all over Canada and beyond. We have access to photos each day that show us what the Earth looks like from the ISS that are being tweeted out in real-time, not released years later. We have videos showing us how they wash their hands in space. We caught a live stream of Chris Hadfield talking from space with William Shatner, and tweeted with people from all over Canada about what we were watching. My students self-imposed homework was to learn about William Shatner and why those tweets between him, @Cmdr_Hadfield, Buzz Aldrin and Nimoy were funny (if they were not already Star Trek watchers). They have taken an inquisitive stance to learning neat facts about space travel and the International Space Station. Brainstorming a list of pros and cons of space exploration left them with more questions than facts.

We have been archiving tweets from the CSA, Chris Hadfield, NASA, etc. Students are actually looking at them on their own time and reading, following links, etc. Students are asking me questions that I have no idea how to answer. One googled the size of the space station and then with a small group, likened each dimension to something familiar to them.

I used the media as an engagement factor during the first week of grade 9 science and expected to quickly move on and still resort to the space unit as the last thing we do in science (knowing that time would be short and it would be rushed – it always is). What has happened, is that through student inquiry and passion, tweeted links and resources we have found a way to make space exploration the over-arching theme for the whole course.

Our research project with Chris Hadfield and other schools has us measuring neutron radiation. What is a neutron? Is a neutron always dangerous? A student with a vague understanding of the atom asked me “aren’t there neutrons everywhere?, why is the radiation detector not picking up those?”. And, so we go into chemistry next monday while doing a research project with the ISS and studying neutron radiation data.

Then, as I’m procrastinating and trying to avoid round three of digging myself out from under all this wonderful snow, I get a tweet “check out this video”. Its a video about space exploration and how our view of the earth has changed. It talked about viewing the world as one big ecosystem when looking down on it. And, with a flash a light bulb went off in my head. We can use space to lead us right into the ecosystems unit as well.

Now, I just need to find the perfect connection to get us into the electricity unit and we’ll be set. We’ll start by looking at energy consumption and balance in the thrust portion of take-off and then solar energy and the ISS.

This unit, which I have always secretly feared, has quickly taken over my grade 9 science course. The students passion and inquisitiveness has inspired me to feed that passion. They will each take a part of our space curriculum that speaks to them and share what they learn with the rest of the class. I am excited to see what they create and share.  I am forever indebted to the Canadian Space Agency for making education and public engagement a priority this year. They have greatly impacted my ability to teach a topic normally so far out of my comfort zone. They’ve also given purpose and a context for me to really focus on digital citizenship with my students this semester.

When the Grade 9’s Outsmart me (again)

The hazards of insisting students do what works for them in terms of choosing their own tools became a reality for me today. The network went down and so I asked them to draw the WHMIS symbols into their notes while I quickly formulated Plan B. On cue, half the class takes out their iPods or phones, take a picture of the symbols into evernote and say “done!”. Well then… I can’t argue with that. I would have done the exact same thing. So, instead, its time to quiz your elbow partner on what the symbols mean… Have a group discussion on how they are different from household product symbols. I just need five minutes to put plan B for today into action…  🙂

iPads and Scientific Literacy in SNC2P

This year I’ve been lucky to be able to support an iPad project. The project involves five grade 10 applied science classes and teachers. Each teacher has the full class set of iPads and a macbook for 3-4 weeks for a “learning unit” with a focus on literacy skills. We’ve just wrapped up the first block. Pam Jeffery was the teacher librarian teaching-partner with the SNC2P teacher and has shared some highlights of the project through her twitter account, @pjeffrey. I was only involved in the project in the background as a support person, Pam and John really drove this project, so I feel a bit odd writing about the project. However, I learned so much from them that it must be shared! 🙂

In summary (and, Pam/John, please add to or correct me), they used the iPads for a variety of literacy activities (the main focus was finding the main idea and supporting details in a variety of media including TED Talks), for a creation task around alternative energy sources (video, audio, images) and to increase collaboration among students (Facebook, Edmodo, Evernote and Google Docs).

Here are some of the highlights of what I learned:

  • the iPad is not always the “right” tool – typing on them was painful and students disliked typing large amounts of text
  • the iPad was great for “creative” tasks like creating video, images and audio. It allowed students to make good looking video quickly so the focus was on the content not learning the tools
  • students preferred Facebook to Edmodo because it was where “they were” already, but it was extremely limited in how it allowed them to share files and documents. Edmodo ended up being the teachers first choice.
  • using Facebook with students sparked some great conversation around privacy settings on Facebook (and resulted in a lot of changed settings by students)
  • the co-learning of how to use the devices between students and teachers was important and helped to create a great learning environment
  • there was not always the need for a full class set. In fact, it was often the fact that having about 6 iPads would have been better than 1:1. They were almost always used for group work and sharing a device created more accountability for how the device was being used. Computer labs are still available for times when everyone needs a device to complete something.
  • our devices could not be shared between students throughout the day – meaning only one student could use them each day. There is a thing between iOS devices and our guest wireless networks right now that keeps a login to the network stored for 8 hours, preventing others from logging in using a new login.
  • 30 devices take a lot of time and energy to maintain and manage. Lots of updating, wiping when needed, logging in things such as dropbox, evernote, etc. Initial set-up was the worst – updating operating systems, installing all apps, logging in some apps one at a time
  • the mail ports are blocked on our guest wireless, and because you can’t attach a file to webmail on the iPad, we used dropbox for sharing files. This worked well.
  • having a “network” or “team” to support each other while implementing new things is incredibly important. Watching the partnership between the teacher librarian and science teacher was fascinating. They collaborated on lesson planning, co-taught and then debriefed almost every single day. This type of partnership or team approach was invaluable.
  • Evernote for shared note taking and resource collecting was great. In this case they all shared an account, but it could have easily been set up as a shared folder between multiple users.
  • the cost of iPads is not glaringly “cheaper” than laptops. Our board can do a laptop, for 5 years for about $1100. From a schools point of view that is guaranteed to work for 5 years, updated with new osapac software as it comes out. The iPad is $519ish + $90 apple care + case + screen protector + project cord + charging trays if needed (super expensive, but makes storage much easier). At the end of the day, these devices are only guaranteed for two years with apple care and we still have to update apps and potentially add more apps to keep them relevant. Much more research needs to be done to determine how long they last in an educational setting and if they are economical at the end of the day. The need really must be for this particular device (touch screen, iOS), not just “any device” to make this worthwhile at this point in time.

We learned a lot from our first school (who were awesome to agree to go first and problem solve all the bugs and hurdles that go along with being first). In addition to the literacy and science learning that occurred, teachers found that the SNC2P students felt “special”. Often students taking applied courses do not feel smart. There is a misconception that students in the academic courses are the smart ones –> but this is an issue for a whole other blog post. This project made the students in SNC2P feel proud and special. We will be looking at attendance and achievement “data” soon. I use quotations around the word data, because the project wasn’t set up to be a statistically significant research project. With a  small population size, it was an inquiry and we will look at this information to guide our learning and options for next steps, but will not make decisions based solely on “data” that is not statistically significant.

I look forward to learning along with our other schools participating in turn throughout the rest of this year. Thanks Pam and John!