Teacher resources and professional development across the curriculum

Teacher professional development and classroom resources across the curriculum


The Smoking Gun of Cosmic Inflation

Physics_cosmic inflationYoung Alvy Singer got it partially right.The main character in the Woody Allen film Annie Hall explained why he gave up doing his homework: “Well, the universe is everything, and if it’s expanding, someday it will break apart and that would be the end of everything!”

The Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics recently announced that the BICEP2 collaboration (its research partnership with Caltech/JPL, Stanford/SLAC, and UMinn) had observable evidence to prove how this expansion got started from the point of the Big Bang: through cosmic inflation.  “These results are not only a smoking gun for inflation, they also tell us when inflation took place and how powerful the process was,” said Harvard theorist Avi Loeb. Physics for the 21st Century at Learner.org provides explanatory text, images, and video to help you make sense of the discovery and the theories that led to it.

Start by looking at the text for unit 4 on String Theory to understand how cosmic inflation is responsible for the structure of the universe as it is today.

Short of running backwards the movie of all time, the Cosmic Microwave Background, or CMB, is the best link to the first moments of the development of matter. The CMB is the detection of the relic gas radiating from the Big Bang. Astrophysicists also have been able to find in their data the finger prints of gravitational waves, which are described as ripples in space-time. Dr. Nergis Mavalvala of MIT explains the relation of gravitational waves to today’s astronomy. Watch the segment of the video Gravity, beginning at 14:30 through 16:21, to learn about how these waves are propagated.

The final unit looks in on the work of two astrophysicists, Robert Kirshner and David Spergel, both trying to determine the cause of the acceleration of the expansion of the universe and whether there may be an end to it. Their chief suspect is Dark Energy. Their research may assuage Alvy Singer’s concern about the universe ultimately breaking apart.

A Teachable Moment: Returning Sacred Artifacts to Their Owners

Pomo basket_AFAnnenberg Foundation trustee Gregory Annenberg Weingarten has purchased sacred artifacts to return them to their Native American owners. Twenty-one of these items will be returned to the Hopi Nation in Arizona, and three artifacts belonging to the San Carlos Apache will be returned to the Apache tribe. Laurel Morales of Fronteras reports that “The Hopi call the ceremonial items friends and believe them to be living spirits.”

For a perspective of the importance of ceremonial items to the tribes they belong to, look to two resources from Annenberg Learner—the educational media arm of the Annenberg Foundation—that describe the ceremonial and cultural significance of native artifacts.

In session 8, “Ceremonial Artifacts,” of the workshop series Artifacts & Fiction, teachers pair religious items with literary texts when teaching students about different cultures and how those cultures change over time. See how two intellectual products produced by members of different Native American tribes—two Pomo Indian gift baskets and Leslie Marmon Silko’s novel Ceremony—are used to help students better understand the beliefs and values of two distinct Native American cultures.

The worldwide art history series, Art through Time, unit 4, “Ceremony and Society,” features an installation of religious items created by members of the Skokomish Indian Nation to conduct a soul recovery ceremony. An explanation of the ceremony and items used begins at 20:00 in the video. Use this video as a point of discussion with students about the importance of preserving these artifacts and how nations use the items for healing, teaching, and reconnecting with their communities.

Ways to teach about climate change (Part II of II)

HP_surface air increase(See Part I: Why should schools teach about climate change? here.) Teaching about climate change can be daunting: the science is complex, multi-disciplinary, and evolving quickly. But many key ideas about how Earth’s climate system works can be used to illustrate basic ideas in biology, chemistry, and physics.

For example, when biology students study how organisms adapt to their environments, teachers can introduce the idea that climate change is shifting many species’ ranges and altering the timing of seasonal events, such as the first flowering of plants in spring. When students study the carbon cycle in chemistry or earth science, teachers can point out that human activities are adding carbon to the atmosphere, and discuss how Earth’s atmosphere and oceans act as “sinks” for carbon.

What should students know about climate science? The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), America’s weather and climate agency, suggests that a climate-literate person:

  • Understands the essential principles of Earth’s climate system,
  • Knows how to assess scientifically credible information about climate,
  • Communicates about climate and climate change in a meaningful way, and
  • Is able to make informed and responsible decisions with regard to actions that may affect climate.

NOAA’s Climate.gov library breaks climate science literacy down into key principles – how energy flows from the sun to Earth, the interactions among Earth’s systems that regulate climate, factors that make climate variable, and the impacts of human actions. The site also offers visuals, videos, experiments demonstrating key concepts, and interactive tools.

Many climate change concepts can be explored through projects, which give students opportunities to apply ideas – and often, to see the impacts of their personal choices. Clarkson University worked with the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority to develop ten project-based climate modules on topics ranging from the greenhouse effect to the climate impact of a “dream vacation.” Lessons target grades 6-8 but can be adapted for other levels.

School groups can also join ongoing citizen science projects across the United States, many of which focus on climate-related events. Three national examples:

  • Journey North, from Annenberg Learner, is a free program that uses observations from students and citizen scientists to track wildlife migration and seasonal change. Teachers can use Journey North to help students learn which indicators of changing seasons are unaffected by climate change (such as the length of daylight at a given time of year) and which are impacted (such as the first arrival of migratory birds in spring).
  • Project Budburst, sponsored by the National Science Foundation, tracks how plant species are responding to local, regional, and national climate changes. Participants submit ongoing or one-time reports on specific plants. The project offers classroom resources for grades K-12.
  • Project FeederWatch, run by the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, is a project that surveys bird populations in back yards, parks, and nature centers across North America from November through April. Researchers use the data to track changes in bird species’ winter abundance and distribution.

The Habitable Planet series from Annenberg Learner also provides tools to teach about climate change. The series, presented in videos and an online textbook, explains fundamental environmental science concepts that support an understanding of climate change. Key units include “Atmosphere,” which describes Earth’s energy balance and the role of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere; “Oceans,” which shows the important role that oceans play in absorbing carbon; and “Energy Challenges,” which explains how fossil fuels were created and describes the pros and cons of these and other energy sources. “Earth’s Changing Climate” ties these issues together to show how greenhouse gas emissions from human activities are altering Earth’s energy balance. (Note: for the most current international assessment of climate change science and impacts, see post here from October 30.)

Why should schools teach about climate change? (Part I of II)

EarthAs new findings about global climate change make news, some science teachers are caught between a rock and a hard place. Hundreds of scientists who contributed to the most recent international assessment of climate change science say they are 95 percent certain that human activities are the cause of global warming in recent decades. That’s the same level of confidence experts have that smoking cigarettes causes cancer.

But over the past five years, more than a dozen bills have been introduced at the state level that would allow teachers to present material challenging that scientific consensus. Recent reports* have spotlighted a textbook review panel in Texas, which includes several members who have questioned evolution and climate change science, and is scheduled to vote this month on an approved list of biology textbooks. (Publishers have not altered texts in response to comments from these reviewers.)

The Next Generation Science Standards offer a counterpoint. The standards recommend introducing students to global climate change in middle school as students learn about weather and climate. High school students are expected to learn about using models to understand Earth’s climate system, and to make evidence-based forecasts of the current rate of global climate change and associated impacts.

The high school standards also link global climate change to human sustainability. Students who understand these concepts should be able to explain how human activities are affecting relationships among Earth systems, such as the atmosphere, hydrosphere, and biosphere, and to think critically about solutions that could reduce human impacts on natural systems.

Twenty-six states helped develop the standards, and eight states have already adopted them: California, Kansas, Kentucky, Maryland, Rhode Island, Vermont, Delaware, and Washington. Kentucky’s Gov. Steve Beshear overruled a legislative subcommittee that voted against adopting the standards, which had already been endorsed by the state Department of Education and Board of Education. “My job . . . is to make sure our children are college and career ready when they leave high school. Part of getting them college and career ready is to make sure they study all the different scientific theories [that] are out there that everybody else in the world will be studying,” Beshear said.

By emphasizing critical thinking and investigation, the Next Generation standards are designed to help students understand how scientists develop and test ideas, and to think across disciplines. Climate change is a topic that is well suited to this approach. It draws on multiple fields of science: for example, we need some basic physics to understand atmospheric circulation, while ocean acidification is a chemical process. And scientific understanding of climate science and climate change impacts is evolving in real time today, as researchers test theories and refine models that help us understand past climate shifts and predict what may happen in coming decades.

*Post update: On November 22, 2013, the New York Times published a new piece on the ongoing controversial textbook process in Texas. See the article here.

(Stay tuned next Wednesday, November 20, for Part II: Ways to teach about climate change.)

Higgs and Our Understanding of the Atom

Bohr's Model of the Atom, © Daniel Kleppner.

Bohr’s Model of the Atom
© Daniel Kleppner

This year’s Nobel Prize in physics was shared by Peter Higgs of Britain and François Englert of Belgium who in 1964 independently theorized the existence of a subatomic particle that gives matter its mass. The eponymous Higgs particle was found to exist in 2012 after an international team of scientists sifted through data collected of high impact proton collisions at the rate of 40 million collisions per second.  The discovery filled in a hole in the Standard Model, which includes all known types of subatomic particles and the forces acting upon them. That is to say, all the matter that we know about.  To understand how we got to this point in our scientific knowledge, travel back through time to see how our understanding of matter has developed up to the quantum age.

It all started with Empedocles who classified all matter into four types: earth, wind, fire, and water. In Essential Science for Teachers: Physical Science, session 1 demonstrates that children’s ideas about matter, based on their own observations, are not far from the original concept.  See 3:10 to 12:06 in the video.  Science historian Dr. Alberto Martinez explains how Aristotle then based his theory on the behavior of different types of matter on earth. Start at 29:00 minutes.

Another early Greek philosopher, Democritus, who predated Aristotle, had proposed the idea of the atom as the smallest possible unit of matter. Read about Democritus’s and Aristotle’s ideas in the Periodic Table interactive.

In the early 1800s John Dalton, an English chemist, returned to the concept of the atom, but posited that all atoms of the same substance were alike. About 70 years later, Russian Dmitri Mendeleev brought order to the 60-some known elements in an early Periodic Table.  The modern concept of the atom is chronicled in Physics for the 21st Century, unit 2 text Early Models of the Atom.  At this point properties of the atom were being revealed and, importantly, quantified.

The following advancements came relatively quickly, compared to how long it had taken to get back to the idea of the atom.  J.J. Thomson discovered the first subatomic particle, the electron, in 1897. Chemist G. N. Lewis developed the shell model of the atom, placing the electrons in orbital shells.  Ernest Rutherford, found the heart of the atom, the nucleus, which refuted Thomson’s idea that electrons were scattered randomly throughout a large positive mass.  All of these developments and a few more are detailed in The Mechanical Universe, program 49, “The Atom.”

The next great leap in atomic theory came from Danish physicist Niels Bohr, who proposed the quantum model of the atom in 1913.  See a deceptively simple depiction of Bohr’s hydrogen atom in Physics for the 21st Century’s visuals.  Click on the link to the Online Text to learn how Bohr’s model closed the door on classical physics and established quantum physics. Bohr’s work was followed by that of Shroedinger and Heisenberg, whose contributions are noted in the same chapter.

 From this point, lasers, lenses and other highly specialized instruments allowed physicists to detect and manipulate subcomponents of atoms, including single electrons.   Harvard physicist Lene Hau was successful in slowing down photons (light particles) to bicycle speed.  Read her fascinating interview about her work,  and see some of it in the video for unit 7, “Manipulating Light.”

Moving ahead to finding the Higgs boson, the hunt for the elusive particle was as mysterious as the particle itself.  Hear from scientists Srini Rajagopalan and Ayana Arce who lead teams that collected and combed through the data from the Large Hadron Collider at CERN to build the case for existence of the Higgs.

Are we done yet? Let’s just say that all the scientists up to this point have been thoughtful enough to leave a few questions unanswered and posed some new ones.  So today’s scientists and your students have plenty to work on.

Annenberg Retreat at Sunnylands Hosts a Meeting Between East and West

Home_MainImage_SunnylandsThis week U.S. President Barack Obama will meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Annenberg Estate Sunnylands in Rancho Mirage, California.  The estate was the winter home of Ambassador Walter and Leonore Annenberg and has recently been re-established as a retreat for high-level meetings such as this one.

What will the two leaders talk about?  The press suggests that cyber security will be high on the list of topics, as well as global international hot spots.  But before the two men get to those subjects, they will no doubt spend time admiring the beauty of the estate, its gardens, and the numerous works of art that the Annenbergs had collected over the years. 

They might admire the Annenbergs’ collection of Chinese porcelain. See an example here. View a museum quality porcelain plate from the Tang dynasty and learn how the Chinese artisans made porcelain that was copied worldwide but never equaled in our online resource Art Through Time: A Global View.

No doubt Presidents Obama and Xi will discuss global as well as domestic economic matters.  In discussions of this sort it is helpful to have a grasp of similar issues both countries face.  The Power of Place: Geography for the 21st Century provides a case study of two Chinese cities on the physical and cultural frontiers of the country: Lanzhou and Shenyang. This case study turns up familiar themes from cities in transition — an influx of foreigners, urbanization, and industrialization.

When it is time to relax, the leaders might enjoy watching the antics of a classic and beloved Chinese cultural figure: the Monkey King, depicted in the tale Journey to the West, which was regarded in China as one of the great masterpieces of its era, according to Harvard Professor of Comparative Literature David Damrosch.  They can watch a video on the work that is part of the series Invitation to World Literature and hear from some of the foremost scholars and artists on the story’s longevity and influence through the ages.

Since security will be tight at the meeting, you can visit Learner.org and immerse yourself in Chinese art, literature, and geography and savor the parts of the historic meeting that didn’t make the headlines.

In Memory of Chinua Achebe

achebeThe world lost an important voice with Chinua Achebe’s death. Critics consider the writer, born in Ogidi, Nigeria in 1930, one of the finest Nigerian novelists. Chinua Achebe eschewed trends in English literature and wrote by embracing the African oral tradition. (See the Chinua Achebe biography page from In Search of the Novel, Ten Novelists, for background on the author and his writing style.  The Ten Novels page provides a synopsis and reviews of Things Fall Apart.)

Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart asks readers to consider, that while people often resist change, what if  their whole way of living was suddenly threatened by a group of outsiders? Okonkwo, the protagonist of this work, faces the imminent influence of British values on his Nigerian community.

Anthony Appiah, Achebe’s friend, explains his view of the novel Things Fall Apart in the program Invitation to World Literature: “One of the things that Achebe has always said, is that part of what he thought the task of the novel was, was to create a usable past. Trying to give people a richly textured picture of what happened, not a sort of monotone bad Europeans, noble Africans, but a complicated picture in which mistakes are made on both sides.”

In Teaching Multicultural Literature, workshop 8, “Social Justice and Action,” author Joseph Bruchac talks about his friendship with Achebe and how Achebe influenced his writing. He says:

“I asked Chinua why he wrote that novel (Things Fall Apart). He said that when he was in college, he was forced to read a book called Mr. Johnson by an English writer named Joyce Cary. In that book, which takes place among the Ibo people, Mr. Johnson is a pathetic figure, an Ibo man who wants to be like an Englishman but can never achieve that level. He dresses like an Englishman, tries to walk and talk and act like an Englishman. And he fails utterly.

And Ibo culture is just a background of this, is seen as savage and dirty and primitive and of little worth. Chinua said, ‘I had to write Things Fall Apart. To represent my people as they really are. As full human beings.’ Not perfect, because his main character has a tragic flaw. But ‘as full human beings in their own right.’”


Science Education for a Melting Planet

An article in the October 6, 2012 issue of ScienceNews shares some distressing statistics about the health of our planet. Satellite data from the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colorado indicates a new record for ice melt in the Arctic Sea. The previous record was set in 2007. The current ice cover is 4.10 million kilometers—70,000 square kilometers smaller than reported in 2007.

The amount of Arctic ice has been declining at about 12 percent, or 60,000 square miles, each decade since 1960. As the area covered by ice grows smaller, the remaining ice grows thinner, putting the entire ice mass at risk of melting by 2040. Walt Meier, an NSIDC scientist, told ScienceNews “The Arctic is becoming like a fighter with a glass jaw.”

In effect, the ice mass serves as the planet’s cooling system. As it shrinks, the liquid sea absorbs more light (heat energy). This warming trend affects wildlife habitats and weather patterns. Our growing human population and the parallel demand for energy ensures that this troubling trend will continue.

As educators, what are we to do with such grim announcements? How do we encourage students to take on the present and future scientific challenges that are presented by our warming planet? How do we make sure that our own knowledge is keeping pace with new developments and is appropriately integrated into our work with students?

Resources from The Habitable Planet, the award-winning environmental science course produced by the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, can help you and your students understand and observe the environmental impact of the Arctic ice melt. For example, unit 12, section 7, Observed Impacts of Climate Change, provides a graphic comparison of Arctic Sea ice coverage in 1979 and 2003. The supporting text outlines scientifically observed and recorded ecosystem changes such as shifts in animal, bird, and insect ranges.

Section 8, Other Potential Near-Term Impacts, reviews scientific projections of climate change based on the increased rate of Arctic ice melt and the resulting increase in global surface temperatures. Students can practice making their own scientific projections by using a simulator, Carbon Lab, similar to those used to inform the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

What do educators do when modern science brings us bad news? We teach our hearts out.

Taking the Debt Personally

The economy is a major issue during this election year. We look to our elected officials to help us determine how to “fix” our sluggish economy, and we will vote for those we think have the right solutions.

But what can we do in the classroom to help the economy? According to Howard Dvorkin, author of Credit Hell: How To Dig Out of Debt, when students learn about personal finance, they help break the cycle of debt in the United States. “In the same way children learn about writing and reading, they should learn to manage money,” Dvorkin writes in “Lack of Education Linked to Record Levels of Debt” (Dvorkin, 2012, para 4). “In an ideal world young adults would know how to budget and administer their money,” Dvorkin states (para 5). He adds, however, that the reality is far from ideal.

Fortunately, students at Smoky Hill High School in Aurora, Colorado have a chance to learn about personal finance. Marc Johnson, a featured teacher in The Economics Classroom, makes sure his students understand how to build their wealth.

In workshop 4, “Learning, Earning, Saving,” Johnson says what he most wants students to grasp is the need to start early. Students need to know that “their greatest ally is time,” Johnson says. “If you start young you can really set yourself up well financially. If you wait too long, it’s too late.”

Watch the video-based workshop to learn strategies for teaching your students about personal finance. Early in the video, for example, Johnson conducts a discussion about how long it would take for students to become millionaires. He asks students to identify a “decent hourly wage.” Then they assist Johnson in calculating the yearly gross and adjusted income for a worker making 20 dollars an hour. Students play a game that helps them explore the characteristics of people who actually become millionaires. Through the game, it becomes clear that an education, hard work, and an aggressive investment plan are essential in their early years.

Do you teach your students about the importance of personal finance?

To Vote or Not to Vote

Now that the political conventions are over and each party has thrown down its gauntlet, the Republican and Democratic nominees for president have hit the campaign trail. From now until November, the American public will be barraged with information and images, both positive and negative. Indeed, many citizens will become weary of the endless petitioning for their votes.

Still, despite the intense focus on the presidential election in everyday conversation, in schools and college classrooms, and in non-stop media coverage, only a little more than half of U.S. registered voters aged 18-to-29 say they will “definitely vote” this fall, according to a Gallup poll released in July. Gallup asked registered voters to rate how likely they were to vote on a scale of 1-to-10, with 10 indicating they would “definitely vote.” The poll revealed that the percentage of those who intended to vote was lower than the percentage found in similar polls taken during the 2004 and 2008 election seasons.

Why is voter apathy a problem in the United States? What can be done to make it easier for citizens to cast their votes? Or is low voter turnout a sign of a satisfied electorate, as some suggest? Help your students explore these questions with the video and activities found in program 13, “Elections: The Maintenance of Democracy,” of Democracy in America.

Encourage students to discuss why elections matter with questions from the pre-viewing activity and possible reasons and remedies for low voter turn-out with the post-viewing activity. Use the critical thinking activity to help students grapple with real-world issues, such as gun control. Students are asked to take a position on an issue and then explore how their actions can influence the political process.

How are you discussing the importance of voting with your students?