Teacher resources and professional development across the curriculum

Teacher professional development and classroom resources across the curriculum

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Citizen Science II: Making CS more visible

science students clip art(See Part I: From winter into spring here). Citizen science is a fast-growing field, and some practitioners would like to see it become a recognized scientific method. A panel at last month’s American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual conference in Chicago considered how to move toward “a science of citizen science.” Panelists agreed that citizen science is producing valuable information on a wide range of issues, and that it is time to start analyzing CS projects and comparing what works across different scientific disciplines.

‘Who makes knowledge? Where and how does it happen? As citizen science matures and becomes more prevalent and professionalized, researchers want to understand these questions,” said Caren Cooper, a research associate at the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, which manages multiple citizen science projects.

In Cooper’s view, scientists value and trust data from citizen science projects. CS data is appearing with growing frequency in studies, and authors typically do not qualify it or treat it as inferior to other data sources. By the same token, though, they often do not identify it as coming from citizen science projects. That makes it hard to quantify how many researchers are using citizen science data or what impact it has made.

The Citizen Science Association, founded in 2012, hopes to make CS more visible and professional by launching a journal and spotlighting best practices in citizen science. Those steps should make citizen science more visible and help new projects attract funding.

Several speakers at AAAS discussed the challenges of managing citizen science projects, such as encouraging participants — especially in online projects — and keeping them engaged. Typically, most participants in large-scale CS projects do relatively little work and make small contributions, while much of the input comes from a small group of more engaged players – a pattern that probably is familiar to many teachers.

Like classroom teachers, CS project managers are trying to create learning communities. But their relationships with participants are much more distant and temporary than classroom teachers’ interactions with students. Even so, panelists said, some players in citizen science projects have called their experience transformative and said that participating helped them realize they were good at science. In some cases, participating in a citizen science project had steered people toward studying specific science topics in school. Practitioners would like to know how to make that happen for more participants.

The White House honors a dozen scientists as “Champions of Change” for creating citizen science initiatives in fields ranging from neuroscience to paleontology. As scientists grapple with challenging research problems, teachers can expect that there will be even more opportunities for students to help them.

For ways to get your students involved in citizen science projects, see our previous post Citizen Science I: From winter into spring.

Solving Real-World Problems: National Engineers Week, February 21-27

President Nixon visits the Manned Spaceflight Center to award the Presidential Medal of Freedom to the Apollo 13 Mission Operations Team

President Nixon visits the Manned Spaceflight Center to award the Presidential Medal of Freedom to the Apollo 13 Mission Operations Team

When small children hear the word “engineer,” they may picture someone driving a locomotive. National Engineers Week, which runs from February 21-27, is an opportunity to show them another meaning of the word. Engineers use math and science to solve practical problems and invent new products. And older students should be interested to learn that engineering is a growing field with a diverse array of high-paying jobs.

For a sampling of the many different specialties that make up this field, check out the overviews at DiscoverE of disciplines such as aerospace, electrical, and civil engineering. This survey offers examples that draw on all of the sciences, and can be discussed in combination with course units on Learner.org. For example:

  • Unit 5 of Science in Focus: Energy explains how humans get the energy that they need to survive from food. Agricultural and biological engineers help people produce enough food to meet demand by designing farm equipment and innovative ways to grow food, such as hydroponic systems. They also design farming equipment, help farmers find new ways to plant and harvest, and develop ways to keep food fresh and safe while it is stored and transported to markets.
  • Unit 8, section 4 of The Habitable Planet describes how water moves through the ground and interacts with soil and rock. What happens if chemicals are spilled and seep down into groundwater that communities use for drinking? Environmental engineers know the chemical properties of pollutants and can calculate where they will flow and how quickly they will move. They also monitor and protect water supplies to keep them safe.

Sometimes engineers have to invent completely new solutions to problems that have never been seen before. One famous example was the Apollo 13 flight in 1970, which was dramatized in the movie Apollo 13. During a mission to the moon, an oxygen tank on the spacecraft exploded and ruptured, leaving the crippled flight with limited electricity and oxygen. The crew and flight controllers on the ground had to invent a new plan for getting the astronauts back to Earth.

“All we had to work with was time and experience,” flight director Gene Kranz wrote later. Engineers had to invent many new procedures and improvise a system for filtering carbon dioxide out of the spacecraft’s cabin so that the astronauts could breathe. After the successful return, President Nixon awarded the astronauts and flight operations team the Presidential Medal of Freedom. “We often speak of scientific ‘miracles’ – forgetting that these are not miraculous happenings at all, but rather the product of hard work, long hours and disciplined intelligence,” the award citation stated.

Inspire your students to become engineers with these examples and more of the important work engineers do.

How do you build a safe learning environment?

learningclassroom_5In this final Monday Motivation post for February, let’s reflect one more time on emotions and learning:

“How students feel affects whether and how they can learn. If they’re anxious or fearful they’re not going to be able to take in information. Teachers not only can learn to create a safe environment, they can learn to develop emotional intelligence. The students actually gain the skills of managing their emotions, solving conflicts, and interacting with others. And all of that can be taught and learned.”
Linda Darling-Hammond (Charles E. Ducommun Professor of Education at the Stanford University School of Education and adviser for The Learning Classroom)

For ideas on how to create an emotionally safe classroom to foster learning and how to deal with emotions and conflicts that can be an obstacle to learning, see The Learning Classroom: Theory Into Practice, session 5, “Feelings Count- Emotions and Learning.”

What are ways that you create emotionally safe, yet challenging, learning environments for your students?


Happy Valentine’s Day from Journey North: Owl Love

Barred Owl photo by Stephen J. Lang courtesy of Wisconsin Society for Ornithology

Barred Owl photo by Stephen J. Lang courtesy of Wisconsin Society for Ornithology

Whoooo’s Finding Romance? (from Journey North on Learner.org)

The calendar says it’s winter, but some birds have a different opinion. Many owls are in the middle of their spring courtship, and some are already sitting on eggs! Mother owls start to incubate their eggs the moment they lay them because, if an egg were to freeze, the developing chick inside would not survive. The mother spends all of her time sitting tight. Father owls normally do the hunting for both of them during this critical time.

Why do owls start nesting so early? It’s hard to be certain, but the timing does mean baby owls will be learning to hunt when inexperienced young mammals are in abundant supply and easy prey.

For more on owls:

  • See the owl facts page on Journey North. For example, find out how owls’ crooked ears help them calculate the exact distance to their prey.
  • Find a literature link to Jane Yolen’s Owl Moon.
  • Practice your owl calls using these recordings.

Finally, join Journey North this spring as we track how seasonal changes in sunlight affect the entire web of life. What signs of change are you seeing in February? Show your love for our Earth and report your observations of owls, butterflies, and plant activity on the Report Your Sightings page of the Journey North Web site.

Linking Emotions and Mathematics

Neuro_2_emotion_mathIn many classrooms, math is a bunch of numbers and operations seemingly unrelated to what students do in their every day lives. Math is not typically thought of as an emotional subject, but emotions help solve problems. People apply what they’ve learned from past experiences in order to act advantageously in future situations. In order to motivate students to solve math problems, it’s important that your students care about the problems presented. Why is the problem relevant to them in their daily life?

In this short video “Emotions and Math” for unit 2 of Neuroscience & the Classroom, hear Prof. Abigail Bard explain how actively engaging the brain’s emotional centers should not be separated from academic information in the math classroom. Also, witness a teacher engage her students in the math lesson by drawing from their daily experiences.

Share here with other teachers how you connect your math (or other subject area) lessons to real world situations in order to engage your students.

Invite Your Students to the Garden

Students Gardening (St. Mary's Hall, San Antonio, TX), image by Phyllis Swinney

Students Gardening (St. Mary’s Hall, San Antonio, TX), image by Phyllis Swinney

It’s February, it’s cold in many parts of the U.S., and it’s time to talk about gardening.

Ask an avid gardener like me about my devotion to the hobby and you’ll get an enthusiastic variety of responses likely along these lines:

  • Finding solutions to garden problems is challenging and satisfying.
  • There is joy in nurturing living things.
  • It’s great exercise.
  • Being a productive contributor to the health of the environment benefits everyone.

Many schools are acknowledging that these outcomes are as valid in the schoolyard as they are in the backyard. In fact, a study conducted by the Royal Horticultural Society on the benefits of its Campaign for School Gardening found that school gardening “boosts child development, teaches life skills and makes kids healthier and happier.” Here are some specific findings from the report:


  • Gardening helped use up surplus energy in active kids.
  • The process of growing something from seed to fruit helps teach children responsibility and managing a living organism. Some students learned valuable math skills as they sold their produce to the town for a profit.
  • Getting in touch with the dirt and bugs helped some young students overcome their fears.
  • An English teacher found her students’ creativity in poetry expanded after working in the garden.

In addition, gardening and environmental studies authentically connect to subjects across the curriculum. Science students can conduct soil tests and use monarch migration data collected by observing butterfly activity in gardens to look at climate change patterns. Language Arts students can write poetry about the butterflies and their long journey or exchange gardening logs with students in other parts of the country. Spanish students can write to penpals in Mexico about the migration. School gardening fosters collaboration, encourages problem-solving, and produces successes that all students share. And, even though it’s February, you and your students may start right now.

Monarchs Wintering in Mexico, image by Elizabeth Howard

Monarchs Wintering in Mexico, image by Elizabeth Howard

In February, your students can join students and scientists across North America in learning about the monarch butterflies that are currently living deep in central Mexico. Stunning images of the monarchs in this habitat divert cabin fever and inspire creativity. See the Journey North Web site for additional photos, lesson plans, and monarch migration tracking resources. Students can go outside to monitor the schoolyard for an existing monarch-friendly habitat and make predictions about what butterfly activity they are likely to observe when the migration reaches your region. If there currently is no garden in your schoolyard, start planning spring activities with your students to create a welcoming habitat for the butterflies that will begin making their journey north in March. MonarchWatch.org also provides helpful tips for planting and growing the milkweed that is so vital to the monarchs’ reproductive cycle.

While planning your garden now, save space for the tulip bulbs in the fall. In this Journey North international science experiment, track the greening of spring in the Northern Hemisphere through ‘Red Emperor’ tulip test gardens. Students plant tulip bulbs in the fall. When the plants emerge and bloom, children announce that spring has arrived in their part of the world. The relationship between geography and climate, and the greening of spring is revealed, one garden at a time. Students making observations in their own schoolyards, and tracking the greening of spring across the Northern Hemisphere begin to see how season-driven weather and climatic factors influence plant growth.

Encourage your students to join us gardeners across the country as we grow in our knowledge of the environment and make contributions to the health of the planet.