Sunday, October 18, 2015

Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) and the iPad (Part 1)

From Spectators to Scientists 

I think the iPad lends itself real well to teachers who instruct in accordance with the Next Generation Science Standards (from now on NGSS).  First a little background on NGSS: These standards are written to guide science instruction in the K-12 classrooms.  College professors like myself should be interested in these new standards as well for two reasons.  First, our incoming students will have learned science under these new standards and it is important for us to know what our students know coming into our classes.  Secondly, all college professors have potential science teachers in their classrooms.  These future teachers will be using the NGSS to teach their future students.  It is important that college professors are at least aware of the NGSS so that we can help this next generation of science teachers be equipped to teach the next generation of science student.  

The previous generation of science standards in California focused on content.  These standards listed the concepts and topics that students were supposed to know with their minds.  In my opinion these standards tended to underemphasize the hands-on aspects of science and the connection between mind content and hands on experiences.  This is a bit of an oversimplification, but the previous generation of science standards focused more on theory than on practice.  I sensed that the processes of experimentation were underemphasized.  

NGSS shifts the pendulum back towards practice.  It will remain to be seen if the pendulum swings to an extreme where content is underemphasized.  I am going to be initially optimistic that it won’t be an extreme.  There is plenty of content in NGSS.  Furthermore, my high school biology teacher and very good friend tells me that “NGSS is not the ceiling it is the floor.”  Even though certain content topics are not mentioned in NGSS we can still teach them.  In other words NGSS is not setting limits on content it is setting a minimum.  That is what my friend means by floor not ceiling.

But there is a heavy emphasis on practice in NGSS.  There are eight science practices in NGSS that cut across all levels of education and that we want to see all students mastering.  They are:

  • Asking questions
  • Developing and using models
  • Planning and carrying out investigations
  • Analyzing and interpreting data
  • Using mathematical and computational thinking
  • Constructing explanations
  • Engaging in argument from evidence
  • Obtaining, evaluating and communicating information

Currently in many science classrooms K-16, students are spectators.  They sit and learn about science but they are never given a chance to be a scientist.  Imagine a PE baseball class where the teacher discussed hitting and modeled pitching, lectured on fielding and showed videos of major league games.  Students were then tested on when to bunt or how many strikes a batter gets or what is the definition of a “pickle”.  One might ask, “When do the students get to go out and play baseball? The kids just want to be baseball players!”  NGSS is attempting to let the students be scientists at every level.  

Experience Matters

When I was a kid my parents could not afford a dish washer.  And guess who had to wash the dishes 3 nights a week?  Me!  It was washing the dishes where I learned about gas laws without even realizing it.  I would always take the glasses and turn them upside down while full of air.  I would submerge them in water and let go.  I always got yelled at for breaking glasses!  But I learned about pressure and volume.  Again, I did not use those words “pressure” and “volume” and I certainly did not say things like, “According to Boyle’s Law….”  But when I did get to chemistry in the 11th grade and I heard about all of these gas laws they just made intuitive sense to me.  Performing the mathematical calculations like P1V1 = P2V2 was easy for me to do because I understood the concept behind them.  I understood these concepts because I had personal experience, in the kitchen sink!

It was only about six years later that I was teaching my own chemistry class.  I explained the gas laws perfectly. (Ha!)  I modeled the calculations.  I gave the students guided practice at Boyle’s law and Charles’s law and Gay-Lussac’s law.  I assigned “independent practice as homework.  I followed the seven step lesson plan perfectly.  Then I gave a quiz.

The results were terrible!  It took me a long time to figure out that the students did not understand the concepts of gas laws.  When I went back to reteach I told them, “You know, it’s like when you are washing the dishes and you take a class and…”  

I heard back in unison:

“Teacher, we all have dishwashers at home!”  

My students did not all have the experiences that I had.  So back into the lab we go!  

NGSS  puts the experience back into the science classroom.  

I am already seeing the results.  My wife’s friend Teresa Collar at Raymond Elementary School in Fullerton is an early adopter.  She teaches kindergarten.  Around her room she has all kinds of experiences for her students.  She has broken appliances for the students to take apart.  I call it “appliance dissection”.  I have always secretly been jealous of the biology faculty.  Have a busted blender?  Mrs Collar can put it to good use!  She also has a “making table”.  It is a table with cups of “stuff” to make things with.  The cups have paperclips and popsicle sticks and tape and clay and different odds and ends that the students get to make things with at different times of the day.  She also had a “boat building contest”  She gave the students different kinds of paper to test the papers’ floating ability.  The next day the students were to choose the best floating paper to build a boat with.  Each group got a number of plastic bears to test the weight the boat could hold before sinking.  Then the students could modify their design.  Was this a kindergarten class? Or was it the skunkworks at Northrop Grumman?  These kindergartners were learning by doing: designing, building, testing, modifying.  That is the value I see in NGSS.  Someday when they finally do learn the vocabulary, it has an experience to stick to.  

So that is a little background on NGSS.  I apologize for getting carried away by my enthusiasm for NGSS and not getting to the iPad just yet.  In a future post I would like to discuss the ways that the iPad is an excellent tool for letting students experience the science practice developing and using models.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Link to my CSTA Presentation

California Science Teachers Association Sacramento October 2015

Link to PDF of CSTA Presentation

Link to PowerPoint of CSTA Presentation

Friday, March 6, 2015

The Limitations of iPads: Practice Still Makes Perfect

Is "Mere Understanding" Enough?

I have been writing about how my hope and expectation is that the  iPad will bring "deeper understanding."  I think that it does.  I have seen it.  I tell my students, "If you cannot explain it then you don't understand it."  I still agree with this.  I have seen the products of the student created screencasts.  They marvelously explain difficult concepts like VSEPR theory. Yesterday we used iPads to create a screencast of three net ionic equations. When I asked my students if using the iPad helped them better understand the concepts they overwhelmingly say "Yes!"   Only one student in my 1st semester General Chemistry class said no.  When I asked them if they think that the iPad experience will help them on the next exam two said "I don't know" and the rest said "Yes."  This is out of a total of 22 students.  In my preparatory chemistry class we used iPads to create screencasts of students performing mole calculations and drawing a Lewis dot structure of an assigned molecule.  I asked them if using the iPad helped them understand the chemistry better.  Here are some of the students' comments:

"When you can explain something you learn it better."

"I was able to hear myself do equations step by step. "

"I'm a visual learner so seeing step by step of something really helps."

"This taught me that I must have all units and watch what I do. The slightest error can ruin the entire problem."

Even a student that was unsure if it helped commented:

"It wasn't that helpful to learn chemistry better, but on the other hand was helpful to learn how to explain my work"

And of course explaining the work was the point. In that class 23 out of 24 students completed their assigned screencast.  When I asked them if it helped them learn chemistry better 12 said yes, 7 said they were not sure and 2 said no.  The two that said no were two of the last students to complete their work in the three hour time given (actually they went over by a half hour).  I think they were struggling with the technology as much as the chemistry.

But I think the data and comments overwhelmingly show that the students felt the iPad helps them understand better.


But this just does not seem to be reflected in exam scores in the lower classes.  In my higher level class, 2nd semester General Chemistry, I do think that the students understand VSEPR and Valence Bond Theory better after using the iPads and it does translate into better exam scores.  But this just does not seem to be the case in lower level classes.

So here is my hypothesis.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Pen Display Helps to Make Chemistry Videos for Posting or for Flipping

Using the Wacom 2241 Pen Display in the Chemistry Classroom

One of the main things the attracted me to the iPad in the first place was the way it is a tool for creating short videos demonstrating chemistry problems to be posted online for student viewing and reviewing.  One of the first tasks I completed when I got my first iPad back in 2010 was create a screencast using the ShowMe app that I posted to help my students review Lewis dot structures.  The last time I checked it had over 11,500 views!  (That's a lot for me.)

I started creating chemistry videos back in the early 2000's using an HP tablet.  It took forever.  The software was slow and then the video had to be "rendered" in an appropriate "codec" which could then be posted online as a Quicktime video or Windows Media Player video.  Here are some of my earliest examples that I called Chemistry mini web lectures.  I still use them today and many students have commented that the short videos have helped them understand problem solving.


Movie production just got a lot easier and quicker for me!  My department acquired 3 Wacom 2241 pen displays.

The pen display is a large tablet or (22")  extra monitor that can be written on with a special pen.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Chemistry App Nicely Helps Students See VSEPR Theory

Odyssey VSEPR (Valence Shell Electron Pair Repulsion) app shows molecular shapes

In my General Chemistry class this week we were learning about molecular shapes and VSEPR theory.  The whole point of VSEPR theory is to help us understand the 3-dimensional structure of molecules.  First we learn Lewis dot structures.  Lewis is a helpful theory but we soon see that Lewis structures have many exceptions and they don't really predict shapes.  VSEPR theory is an improvement on Lewis theory in that it does predict 3-D shapes.  The problem is that we then draw these shapes on 2-dimensional paper and the students don't really get a true picture of the 3 dimensions.  The Odyssey folks have created a neat little app that lets us get real close to the 3-D structures on the iPad.  Here is a picture of the app icon:

I have tried other apps that I really like and reviewed in earlier posts.  What is missing from the other apps is a depiction of the unshared or nonbonding electrons that are so important in influencing the shape of the molecule.  In this  Odyssey app the unshared electrons are shown:

In other apps I have used the shape of this bent molecule was clear but Odyssey VSEPR is the only app I have found that shows those two nonbonding pairs of electrons that cause this molecule to be bent.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Welcome to the iPad

Have students create introductory videos as a first use of iPads in your class

In my Organic Chemistry lab class about one third of the students have their own iPad.  Probably about half have used them in other classes leaving about half that have had little to no experience with iPads in an educational setting.  I have noticed that when students create a digital lab report in my class many of them have frustrating problems which arise.  Some of these problems are good as they cause the students to problem-solve.  This is a good skill.  But sometimes the frustration level is too high and it distracts from the real purpose of the iPad in that particular assignment.  The purpose is to utilize the technology as a tool to develop and express creativity as the students better articulate the difficult chemistry concepts they learned in a format other than purely written.  

Yesterday was the first time I took out the iPads in my Fall 2014 Organic lab.  I am starting out a little differently from previous semesters.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Mixed Experience with Net Ionic Equations

Generally, my thinking is that iPads will reinforce a skill but in a much deeper way than just practicing the skill on a homework assignment.  This did not turn out to be the case when I had students create screencasts of "net ionic equations."

I think that writing a net ionic equation really synthesizes many different skills and concepts learned in a chemistry class.  The students have to demonstrate that they know how to write symbols and formulas, balance equations, predict products, know the solubility rules, distinguish between strong and weak acids.  In other words net ionic equations are one of those things that "ties it all together."  So what a perfect type of skill to demonstrate on a screencast.  I assigned my students each a different equation.  They had to write the "molecular", "total ionic" and "net ionic" equations.  As they wrote they had to audibly explain what they were writing.  This is no different from other screencast assignments.  My thinking was that the assignment would make them learn the skill so deeply that they would all "ace" the exam.  This did not happen at all.  Here is a typical problem:

"Hydrochloric acid is added to sodium fluoride."  Here is a screencast of a student performing this skill.

This is the type of problem that gives students fits because you are given a strong acid HCl and it produces a weak acid HF.  In the total ionic equation H + (aq) and Cl- (aq) are written separately because HCl completely ionizes in aqueous solution.  Conversely HF(aq) is written in its molecular form because it mostly stays unionized as molecules.  Students have a difficult time with this.

Here is another example screencast of net ionic equations.  In that example a precipitate is formed.

Friday, August 15, 2014

iPads from a Parent's Viewpoint

A Small Revolution is Happening

I have been writing about the use of iPads in the college chemistry class.  But I am also a parent of three kids.  Two are now in college and my youngest, Sam, is just entering Junior High.  I think my youngest child's education will end up being very different from that of my oldest two.  For my oldest two they did not use iPads at all.  But  iPads were used quite a lot in my youngest's last year of elementary school and now they are taking over the educational process at his junior high.   I would like to write about my initial thoughts as a parent observing the use of iPads in my child's schools.