Teacher resources and professional development across the curriculum

Teacher professional development and classroom resources across the curriculum

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News From Space: Liquid Water on Mars


#6003 Mars Crater Ice ESA/DLR/Freie Universitat Berlin/G. Neukum

Late last month NASA scientists confirmed that Mars has liquid water flowing on its surface, a finding that the agency’s planetary science division director called “tremendously exciting” because it supports speculation that the Red Planet might be able to support life.

Mars is extremely cold: the average surface temperature is about -60 degrees Celsius (-80 degrees Fahrenheit), far below the freezing point of water. Until now it was generally thought that all available water on Mars was contained in frozen ice caps at its poles. But by analyzing photographs that showed dark streaks running down slopes on the planet’s surface, scientists discerned that the streaks contained hydrated salts. That indicated that liquid water, either from Mars’ atmosphere or from underground, was dampening those areas.

Annenberg Learner’s Essential Lens: Analyzing Photographs Across the Curriculum course for middle and high school teachers uses photographs to demonstrate how scientists and engineers think about problems. It includes a case study that examines investigations of water on Mars to teach students about processes of science: posing questions, interpreting data, constructing explanations, and arguing from evidence. Students can compare geological features on Mars and Earth, form hypotheses about their functions, and look for evidence of water on Mars. Complement these with images and animations from NASA that were released to support the September 28 announcement.

And since a good movie hook is always handy in the classroom, note that NASA provided technical advice to director Ridley Scott for his just-released movie The Martian, which stars Matt Damon as an astronaut who is stranded on Mars in 2035 and has to figure out how to survive for four years until the next mission from Earth arrives. Planetary scientists have praised the movie as a well-told story rooted in sound science, with one exception: To generate a storm as strong as the gale that strands Damon’s character in Mars’ extremely thin atmosphere, winds would have to blow at over 10,000 miles per hour. But that’s a small issue to overlook in a movie where science is the star.

Vacation in Yellowstone: A lot to see, a lot to learn.


This summer my husband, teenage daughter, and I took a trip to Yellowstone National Park. The park itself is a natural wonder with majestic landscapes, and strange and smelly features, and the round trip from Salt Lake City airport included stops to learn about our social, religious, and geographic history, and view works of art as well. To better understand some of the background on the places we visited, I am looking at learner.org for more information.

Golden Spike National Historic Site/Spiral Jetty yellowstonetrain

I learned that the Golden Spike was for ceremonial purposes. Anyone with an understanding of chemistry knows that gold is too soft a medal to use as a railroad spike. Besides, they would have to guard it! The history of the joining of the Transcontinental Railroad is a fascinating one.

spiraljettyThe immense earth artwork Spiral Jetty, set in the Great Salt Lake in 1970, was only 12 miles away from the Golden Spike site on a dusty, dirt road. The lake water had receded since it was installed, but it occasionally comes back to the north end of the lake.

Yellowstone National Park

yellowstone geysersYellowstone was the nation’s first national park and it attracts millions of American and foreign visitors. We stopped by the Norris Geyser area to view Porcelain Basin, oozing with lava composed of silica.

MorningGloryPoolIn the Old Faithful Geyser area, there were smoking and erupting geysers as far as you could see. We saw Old Faithful erupt about a dozen times, also enticing thermal pools bathed in beautiful gem colors. Stepping into one would severely scald a human but thermophile microbes find the high temps quite agreeable.

MMCpettingmooseWe did see wildlife in the park. A coyote approached our group on a horseback ride and our car drive was held up by road-crossing bison. More majestic and idyllic views of wildlife and nature were on view at the National Museum of Wildlife Art in Jackson, WY. Here we learned about the connection between art and conservation of the wild.

We have wonderful memories of the trip and I am glad I have learner.org as a resource.

All photos on this page by Michele McLeod

Caught Reading: The Soul of an Octopus

Jenny Get Caught photoThree years ago on a family car trip I started reading a magazine article about octopuses out loud to my husband and daughters, who then were 14 and 10 years old. It held everyone’s attention for more than 20 miles. In the article Sy Montgomery, an award-winning science and nature writer, described meeting a sweet-tempered octopus named Athena at the New England Aquarium and learning about how amazingly intelligent these creatures are. My girls shrieked with laughter as Montgomery described octopuses escaping from laboratory tanks and evading college students who tried to catch them.

Now Montgomery has expanded her encounter with octopuses into a book that’s packed with amazing facts about these alien but engaging creatures. Did you know that octopuses can taste with their skin? That they’re deft and curious enough to take apart a Mr. Potato Head toy for fun? That they’re extremely social with people, and will hold onto a trusted person’s hands and arms for hours? Or that these shape-shifters can squeeze through tiny holes and transform their bodies, changing their skin’s color, pattern, and texture in less than a second?

The Soul of an Octopus is also full of behind-the-scenes stories about the New England Aquarium, where Montgomery spent many hours getting to know cephalopods (the class of marine mollusks that includes octopuses, squids, and cuttlefish). She recounts how keepers tackle challenges like luring reclusive electric eels out from hiding so visitors can see them, and describes the many practical roles that slime plays in the ocean. Her writing is deceptively clear and simple. Here’s how she explains that octopuses clearly have “theory of mind” – the ability to perceive what another creature is thinking:

“An octopus must convince many species of predators and prey that it is really something else. Look! I’m a blob of ink. No, I’m a coral. No, I’m a rock! The octopus must assess whether the other animal believes its ruse or not, and if not, try something different.”

May 2015 is Get Caught Reading Month. If you want to engage middle or high school science students, pick this book up, crack it open to any chapter, and start reading aloud.

More Than Just Numbers: Math Awareness Month

AAO_3_Lightning4Have you ever listened to weather forecasts and wondered whether there’s any difference between partly cloudy and mostly cloudy, or a chance of rain versus a slight chance of rain? In fact, all of those terms have precise meanings based on probabilities. If the sky is partly cloudy, about three to four eighths of it will be covered by clouds, and a slight chance of rain means the odds are about 20 percent that at least 0.01 inches of rain will fall somewhere in the forecast area.

Weather forecasts illustrate the central role that math plays in many aspects of everyday life. They are based on sophisticated computer models that analyze data from weather balloons, radar, and satellites. Modern weather forecasting saves lives and money by warning us in advance of major storms.

Mathematics organizations have designated April as Mathematics Awareness Month. This year’s theme, “Math Drives Careers,” focuses on the many fields where math plays an important role, from energy production to medicine to business. Many of these jobs don’t have “mathematician” in the title, but draw heavily on math and statistical skills.

Consider some of the ways in which math shapes your day beyond providing a weather forecast. Transit companies use algorithms to map the most efficient routes and schedules for the buses we ride to work and school. Utilities use math to forecast how much power they will need to keep our air conditioners running on hot days. Grocery stores use formulas to track how well goods are selling and decide when to mark down prices. And statisticians quantify how well our favorite sports teams are doing.

Spotlight math from many angles with the following resources:

Use Learning Math: Measurement to discuss the importance of measurements with elementary and middle school students. How do we rely on accurate measurements of weight, volume, and distance in our daily lives?

Against All Odds: Inside Statistics shows high school students how concepts like probability and inference can be used to understand topics such as weather, the spread of disease, and impacts of pollution in the environment.

For advanced students, Mathematics Illuminated explains uses for more complex concepts, such as infinity, game theory, and networks.

Many science courses on Learner.org also cover topics that are based on math. For example, unit 6 of Chemistry: Challenges and Solutions, “Quantifying Chemical Reactions,” explains why summarizing chemical reactions accurately and understanding the ratios in which elements combine are critical to producing chemicals efficiently and avoiding waste.

Unit 6 of The Habitable Planet, “Risk, Exposure and Health,” discusses how scientists quantify risks from exposure to different kinds of hazards in the environment and identify causal relationships between exposure and health impacts.

What are the odds that you can show your students how math shapes their lives?

Eadweard Muybridge: Photography and Film Pioneer

English expatriate Eadweard Muybridge (April 9, 1830-May 8, 1904) is one of the most influential people in the history of American film. He was a pioneer in film and artistic photography, as well as in scientific and industrial photography. His exciting work has connections to art, social studies, science, and mathematics topics.

PUPMath_Kid looking at Muybridge work

A student looks at Eadweard Muybridge’s photographic study of animal motion. From Private Universe Project in Mathematics.

Art: Muybridge took daring steps, cutting down trees and venturing into dangerous places, to get landscape photographs that would distinguish him from his contemporaries. See the story of his shot, Falls of the Yosemite, taken in 1872 while on a six-month trip West in Art Through Time, program 10, “The Natural World.”

Social Studies: Find a slideshow of 17 of Eadweard Muybridge’s images of Guatemala in Teaching Geography, workshop 2, “Latin America.” Below each slide is information about the content of each photo and questions to compare the past with the present.

Science and film: Muybridge developed photography techniques that captured human and animal movements in new ways. Read about these techniques in American Passages, unit 8, “Regional Realism.”  Muybridge also invented the zoopraxiscope (image #8245 in the archives), a device that projected a moving image from still sequences.

Math: In the video for workshop 6, “Possibilities of Real Life Problems,” of Private Universe Project in Mathematics, ninth graders are asked to solve how fast a cat, captured in a series of photos by Eadweard Muybridge more than 100 years ago, was moving in frames 10 and 20.

The Science of Light: Light and Life

ScienceinFocus_energyUNESCO’s International Year of Light offers many hooks for physical science lessons about the nature and behavior of light. (See part 1, “Waves, Particles, and More: The Science of Light.”) Another way to bring light into science classrooms is to examine the many ways in which light affects the growth and behavior of living organisms.

Start with photosynthesis, the process through which plants harness light energy from the sun and turn it into chemical energy. Life Science, session 7, “Photosynthesis,” explains this process in simple terms. Science in Focus: Energy, workshop 5, “Energy in Food,” shows how photosynthesis forms the base for food chains and provides the energy that we need to survive. To extend this idea further, see the overview of energy transfer in ecosystems in The Habitable Planet, unit 4, “Ecosystems.” This unit can set up a discussion about eating at different trophic levels and the energy impacts of various human diets.

Light also drives human and animal behavior in fundamental ways. Journey North’s mini-unit, “Reasons for Seasons,” includes five activities in which students in grades 4-8 can explore how the amount and intensity of daylight create what we know as distinct seasons. Next, see Journey North’s discussion of “Sunlight and the Seasons” for examples of the link between seasonal light levels and the behavior of living creatures. Daylight hours are increasing now in the Northern hemisphere. What kind of seasonal events are occurring in response? How do they vary from lower to higher latitudes?

Some parts of Earth are always dark – for example, areas of the oceans more than 200 meters deep (for details, see The Habitable Planet, unit 3, “Oceans”), and the insides of caves. But many life forms exist in dark zones. How do they adapt? What are their food sources? The Smithsonian Museum of Natural History’s “Ocean Portal” offers some examples of deep ocean life forms, and a photo gallery of bioluminescent marine organisms that produce light through chemical reactions in their body tissues. High school students in chemistry or ecology can tackle “Hot Food,” a lesson from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) about chemosynthesis – the process that deep-water coral communities use to obtain energy from light hydrocarbons in nearby sediments.

Finally, students may notice their own moods changing as daylight hours increase this spring. Our bodies move according to circadian rhythms that are regulated by the presence or absence of light. The Brain: Teaching Modules, unit 13, “Sleep and Circadian Rhythms,” looks at our natural rhythms and the stages of sleep. And when the sun becomes brighter and more direct in spring, we seek the outdoors. Some experts believe this behavior may have a biological function (perhaps restoring depleted levels of vitamin D), while others are skeptical. What can be said, though, is that these approaches to teaching the science of light will illuminate classrooms.

Waves, Particles, and More: The Physical Science of Light

ChemCS_fig3_8Light is central to all fields of science. It provides the energy that sustains life on Earth and powers numerous modern technologies, from lasers to fiber-optic communications. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has declared 2015 the International Year of Light to promote global understanding of light and its many uses.

What is light, and where does it come from? Chemistry: Challenges and Solutions, unit 3, “Atoms and Light,” explains that light is electromagnetic radiation, or energy emitted from matter, and has many of the properties of waves. It introduces students to the electromagnetic spectrum, including many types of light that are invisible to the human eye, and to the idea that light can also have characteristics of particles. Physics classes can explore the wave-particle paradox in more depth in Physics for the 21st Century, unit 5, “The Quantum World.

How does light produce color? Visible light looks white, but it contains the colors that we see in rainbows: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet. Each color has a different wavelength, and the wavelengths can be separated by passing light through a prism. When light shines on an object’s surface, it absorbs some wavelengths and reflects others. The color we perceive is created by wavelengths of light reflecting from objects. Science in Focus: Shedding Light, workshop 4, “Colors, Cones, and Corneas,” explains how humans perceive color when light energy enters their eyes. To learn why different substances produce different colors, see Chemistry: Challenges and Solutions, unit 3, “Atoms and Light,” for information on spectroscopy and the emission spectrums of different elements.

Light powers many of the technologies that surround us. For example, a laser (Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation) can cut materials as hard as wood or as soft as paper, read bar codes, and play music on CDs. Laserfest, a website commemorating the 50th anniversary of the laser’s invention, has images and videos that explain how lasers work and how we use them in its “About Lasers” section – including tips on laser pointer safety.

We can also learn about properties of light by looking outdoors at phenomena like rainbows and sunsets, which produce colors by refracting (bending light). The Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis) occurs when gaseous particles form Earth’s atmosphere collide with charged particles released from the sun’s atmosphere. “Light: Beyond the Bulb,” an open-source exhibition created for the International Year of Light, has an image gallery showing these and other examples of light in nature (click on the images for detailed captions).

How will you bring light into your science classroom?

Learning from the 2014 Nobel Prizes

Perhaps the Nobel Prizes recipients don’t make the same headlines as baseball’s World Series challengers, but every October the stories behind their work are just as exciting. These are discoveries, theories, works of art, and acts of humanity that have been years in the making. The work touches us in fundamental ways and constitutes the “shoulders of giants” referred to by Isaac Newton. If you don’t quite understand the laureates’ achievements, you can see the fundamental principles and related concepts at learner.org.


Learn how game theory applies to “rock, paper, scissors” in Mathematics Illuminated.

Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economics

Jean Tirole, a French theoretical economist, won the award for analysis of market power and regulation. Tirole studied how to regulate industries with a few powerful firms, such as telecommunications firms. You can hear from Nobel committee chair Tore Ellingsen on the significance of Tirole’s work.

Tirole’s work was based on the mathematical concepts of game theory, which you can learn about in Mathematics Illuminated, unit 9.  The online text provides familiar examples, including zero sum games, and prisoner’s dilemma. Watch the video to see how game theory even applies to “rock, paper, scissors.”

Once you have a handle on game theory, see how government regulations have been applied to big players in the auto, energy, and airlines industries in Economics U$A, program 7, “Oligopolies.” This program looks at how big industries manage to write the rules of the marketplace.

Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology and Nobel Prize in Chemistry

Several of this year’s laureates followed the principle of thinking small. The medicine/physiology and chemistry prizes involve looking at objects down to the size of a single cell or molecule. The Nobel Prize for Medicine or Physiology was awarded to three researchers who found the brain’s mechanism for establishing our position in space, a mental GPS-like system. John O’Keefe found that we carry “space cells” in our brains and May-Britt Moser and Edvard I. Moser expanded the concept to a grid in which these cells operate.  The Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded for work in microscopy allowing scientists to see down to this level at “super resolution.”

This level of microscopy has applications across all fields of science research. Wolfhard Almers at the Vollum Institute in Portland, OR explains how, using wave microscopy, he and his colleagues were able to isolate a single nerve cell to understand what it does after releasing a transmitter. His research is covered in Rediscovering Biology unit on Neurobiology.

“I still haven’t gotten over thinking it’s really cool, that I can go into work every day and take pictures of atoms and I can see individual atoms with this microscope,” says graduate student Tess Williams. The lab where she works at Harvard investigates the structure of superconducting materials. Find out more in Physics for the 21st Century unit “Macroscopic Quantum Mechanics.”

Nobel Prize in Physics

The three physicists who shared the Nobel Prize in physics gave new meaning to “keeping the lights on.” They invented a new energy-efficient and environment-friendly light source – the blue light-emitting diode (LED). In the LED, electricity is directly converted into light particles, photons, leading to efficiency gains compared to other light sources where most of the electricity is converted to heat and only a small amount into light. Explore the many facets of light and heat with your students in the workshop series Shedding Light on Science, especially unit 2, “Laws of Light.

Nobel Peace Prize

Indian and Pakistani activists Kailash Satyarthi and Malala Yousafzai attracted the attention of the international community to the issue of child rights and shared the Nobel Peace Prize. From the earliest waves of immigration in the U.S., children have been used as workers and denied a formal education. Thomas Rivera wrote about his experience as a migrant child agricultural laborer in the memoir, “And the Earth Did Not Devour Him/Y la Tierra no se traiga.” Read about Rivera’s background in American Passages, unit 12, “Migrant Struggle.” His translator, Evangelina Vigil-Piñón discusses Rivera’s work and its place in Chicano literature in the Learner Express: Language Arts modules.

Wetlands 1: Marshes and Mud Flats and Bogs, Oh My!

WetlandsIf you live in the Northeast, Midwest, or along the Pacific coast, don’t be surprised if you see small ponds or lakes appear suddenly in your neighborhood during the spring. These are vernal pools – wet areas that form in low-lying zones where water collects in winter and spring. By summer the water evaporates, leaving the site damp or dry through autumn.

Vernal pools are seasonal wetlands, but many other types occur year-round across North America. Wetlands are areas where the soil is always or usually saturated with water, so they support plants and animals that are adapted to moist conditions. Bogs, marshes, mud flats, swamps, and estuaries are all forms of wetlands.

They don’t always look impressive (that’s one reason why many wetlands have been filled in or paved over), but wetlands play important ecological roles. They serve as nurseries and feeding grounds for many types of fish, mammals, and birds; filter pollutants and sediments out of water; and protect coastlines from the impact of storms.

To put wetlands into context, unit 8 of The Habitable Planet describes Earth’s water resources, how they move through the global water cycle, and threats to fresh water. Section 3 shows how the world’s freshwater resources are distributed between ground and surface waters. Section 8 discusses how pollutants–including biological organisms, chemicals, and sediments–impair water quality.

Wetlands can serve as settings for biology, ecology, or chemistry classes. In  Journey North, learn how wetlands are especially important feeding and nesting zones for whooping cranes. Read about what the birds eat, track their migration stops, and discuss how human actions are affecting the wetlands that these birds use. For a biology or chemistry class, see unit 4, section 7 of Rediscovering Biology, “Microbial Diversity,” for a discussion of how archaea break down carbon in swamps. And the interactive on “Garbage – Solutions for Sewage” offers a case study of Arcata, California’s wastewater management system, which includes artificial (constructed) wetlands that improve water quality through physical and chemical processes.

And if you live in a region where vernal pools form, the Association of State Wetland Managers has news, videos, and links to additional materials about these seasonal spring wetlands and the many species that live in them.

Look for post #2 next Wednesday (April 23) with more ideas for teaching about wetlands during American Wetlands Month in May!

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.)

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