Tag: middle school

The Flipped Lab

Not too long ago a concept called “The Flipped Classroom” entered into the education jargon. The idea was to have students complete the direct learning activities at home (lectures, reading) and complete the student-led activities in the classroom (projects, labs, exploration activities). So much of this concept appealed to me when I was first introduced. I am a big proponent of changing our education delivery. What with google and other resources right at our fingertips, information is readily available. Learning to discern, comprehend, and analyze information is really the new frontier of today’s classroom.

The problem for me, however, came in the form of logistics. I have, for most of my career, worked in settings where a student’s access to online resources could be limited at best, and this, it turns out, is a fundamental component of the flipped classroom. Everything from hardware to connectivity meant at least half my students would not be able to access the at home segments of their education. Still, I wanted to explore this idea of student-centered instruction more and do it in a way that ensured everyone had access. That’s when I discovered an idea I came to call “the flipped lab.”

The concept grew out of an ELD/ STEM initiative I worked on. The program aimed to design highly effective STEM lessons that met ELD standards and sought to promote language development through science. One of the guiding principles of the program was that students needed opportunities to experiment with phenomenon before being provided with direct instruction. And this didn’t just mean seeing a demonstration or putting their hands on the equipment for a few minutes. It meant really engaging with the science, on their own, then discussing their observations and thoughts with each other and generating their own questions. Only after they had really delved into a phenomenon would they then be presented with information. To me, this was like becoming Newton or Copernicus, Mendel or Pasteur. Instead of reading about what great minds before them had discovered, they discovered it for themselves then turned to the experts to seek answers to their questions.

My first revelation on how to make this happen came when I was teaching about the xylem and phloem in plants. Normally my lessons would go something like this: Lecture on the xylem and phloem, view artistic renderings of the xylem and phloem online or in the textbook, create our own diagrams about the xylem and phloem, then conduct a (common) lab where we stick carnations into colored water and watch as the white flowers turn a bright red at the edges and finally dissect the stems to observe actual xylem and phloem. In all honesty, by the time we got to the last part (the most exciting part!) most of them were so lost and confused, the phenomenon had little effect! That’s when I decided to flip the lab.

The next time I taught this lesson, I started with the carnations. No explanation, no reasoning, just a simple “Let’s observe and see what happens.” Within a day the color began to creep up the stalk and into the white petals. Small streaks of red made their way across and pooled at the edges. The students were fascinated! How had this happened? Could they cut the flowers open and look at the inside? Could they view it under the microscope? Why was it only moving up parts of the stalk while other parts seemed unaffected? They discussed ideas, thoughts and theories with each other, each bringing to the table their unique language, background, and experience. Soon we had a collection of theories and a ton of questions… and a reason now to move with engagement to the books, diagrams, and online resources.

In many ways, a “flipped lab” is the underbelly of the Next Generation Science Standards. As humans, we are natural observers and questioners of the world around us… natural scientists. The science classroom should be a place where we can celebrate this innate curiosity within us!

Looking for lessons to help flip your labs? Check out these great resources:

Student-led exploration of plant and animals cells

Exploration of Newton’s Laws through race cars

An introduction to cells and the basic needs of all living things

{ Add a Comment }

Making Microscopes

Did you know that you can turn your smartphone or tablet into a Microscope? Here’s How…

Light allows us to see objects. It reflects off an object and projects an image onto the retina of our eyes, which our brain then interprets. But, if we bend the light, we can change how the object projects. We can make the object bigger or smaller, or even distort the image completely. By using a lens (a curved piece of transparent material, usually plastic or glass), we can manipulate the light to make an object appear closer or larger.
In this activity, we will combine the camera lens already found in a smartphone or tablet, with a second lens to make a microscope (a tool to see (scope) small (micro) things).

*Inexpensive Laser Pointer *bobby pin
*super glue *tweezers or small screwdriver
*wire cutters (or other scissors strong
enough to cut through metal)
*masking tape
*tablet or smart phone

Disassemble the laser pointer until you are left with the light
and circuit unit. The small, silver barrel attached to the unit
contains the lens.

Break off the silver tube, setting all other pieces aside.

Using the tweezers or small screw driver, carefully remove the ring that holds the lens in place. The lens should fall out after the ring is removed.
If you are unable to remove the ring, complete the optional step below.

(OPTIONAL – only needed if step 3 was unsuccessful) Using the wire cutters, carefully cut notches into the sides of the top, loosening the hold on the lens (use caution and adult supervision here… alternatively, students can attempt to work the lens loose with the bobby pin and tweezers. It’s important not to scratch the lens, however.)

Turn the top upside down on a firm surface and gently bang the top against the surface until the lens comes loose. You can also attempt to work the lens loose with the bobby pin or tweezers. Be sure not to scratch the lens, however.

Once you have the lens, set it off to the side while you prepare the bobby pin.

Open the bobby pin slightly so that the opening is a bit wider than usual. (You want the lens to fit snugly in-between the prongs, without snapping out). Carefully place a small drop of super glue on both sides of the largest notch in the bobby pin.

Using the tweezers, carefully place the lens into the large notch of the bobby pin, being careful not to get glue on the lens. Allow the glue to dry.

Once the glue is dry, place the lens directly over the camera lens on your tablet or smartphone. Attach masking tape to hold the bobby pin in place. Your makeshift-microscope is now ready to use!

Turn on your device and access the camera function.

You will need to adjust the magnification and blurriness of objects in two ways, first by using the zoom-in function of your device’s camera and second by adjusting how far away you hold the device from the object you are attempting to view. (This is similar to using the focus knob on a traditional microscope).

Use your makeshift-microscope to explore the microscopic world around you! When you are ready to look at specimens, use a specimen slide just as you would with a traditional microscope.

Watch the process here!

{ Add a Comment }

I See Race Cars…

I have a confession. I collect bottle caps.  Small, large, from all sorts of bottles, everything from Gatorade to milk. In the summer, when my collection reaches mammoth proportions and I can be seen begging bottle caps off strangers and relatives alike, this obsession seems undecidedly bad.  But in the winter, when the first race of the season is underway, and my collection has been put to good use, it’s easy to see this was never an obsession at all.  Because in that moment it’s finally clear, I never saw bottle caps, I saw race cars!

There is growing research to support the use of hands-on, inquiry lessons in the science classroom (Kauble & Wise, 2015).  In fact, the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) adapted by most states puts a great deal of focus and emphasis on collaboration and student-led discovery.  But how does all this research and theory translate to the day-to-day of the classroom?

When I first started building race cars with my 8th grade students, pre-NGSS, I used it as a culminating activity. It was an active, engaging way for students to summarize and evaluate 4 weeks’ worth of Newton’s Law knowledge about how things move on Earth.  Powered by balloons, students had to engineer a car that could move fastest and furthest down the raceway.  Each of Newton’s three laws must be put into action for students to experience success and though the task sounded easy to most students at the beginning, a lot of hard work and critical thinking is needed in the end.  Race day was always a well-remembered highlight of the year and the students walked away with a much better understanding of motion after experiencing the hands-on engineering project.

But two years ago, when I started to evaluate my teaching in light of the new standards, I started to wonder… what if I didn’t teach Newton’s Laws?  What if students built the cars first?  Would they make connections and ask questions that would lead to a self-discovery of the laws of motions?  Or would my classroom devolve into a not-so-glorious mess of recycled boxes, glue, and, yes, bottle caps?  I decided to take my chances… we would build without knowledge of Newton or his laws.

When I first posed the question (Who can build the fastest race car made only from recycled materials and powered only by balloon?) there was a lot of excitement in the room.  But after the first build session, excitement turned to frustration… quickly.  A pack of frustrated middle schoolers can be a little scary, so it was important to channel this energy, thus the debriefing, an important strategy I discovered as I was making my transition to student-led inquiry.  I learned that it’s important to take time (10-15 minutes) to stop and generate questions when using this style of teaching.  Why are you frustrated? (The wheels don’t turn; the car won’t move.)  Responses from that first question turned into new questions.  (Why don’t the wheels turn?  Why is it important for the wheels to turn? (Newton’s Law #1!) How do wheels turn on actual cars?) And these questions became topics for research.  At this point, building stopped and research began but more importantly an atmospheric shift occurred in my classroom.  Suddenly the classroom atmosphere had shifted from ‘I want my students to know why’ to ‘my students want to know why.’  There was deliberate purpose behind their search for knowledge.  They had a mission to accomplish!

So, how did my quasi-experiment on the use of student-led science projects fair?  Well, as I would tell my students, more data and research would be needed to fully gage the impact of this method (they would roll their eyes too, don’t worry) but here is a bit of qualitative data I found… my students were far more engaged and present in the lessons.  The truth is, there is still direct instruction needed here.  The difference is instead of me saying “today we will learn about Newton’s second law of motion which involves the math formula force = mass x acceleration” the students are asking “why does my car stop moving when I add decorations?” and I am responding with a lesson. Additionally, students are assigning themselves homework, a phenomenon I find hilarious!  I am not a big advocate of homework and I don’t often assign it but in this situation, I found that most students would go home and do something related to their project.  Whether it was asking someone for advice, taking to the internet, or reading a book, the majority of students were considering the science well outside of the classroom.  And finally, the students were turning to each other for help and advice (collaboration anyone?).  Discussions about why wheels that turn are better than wheels that don’t turn supported by information from Newton’s laws and a few tests we did on friction were happening all around me.  It was enough to bring this curriculum nerd to tears.

So, the next time you see a bottlecap, or an old box, or even a scrap of paper, ask yourself what possibilities it might hold.  What could a little science, a little engineering and lot of middle school creativity bring to life from that simple recyclable?

Check out the complete balloon powered race car lesson here!


Kauble, A., & Wise, D. (2015). Leading Instructional Practices in a Performance-Based System. Education Leadership Review of Doctoral Research, 2(2), 88-104.

{ Add a Comment }

Earth Science: Up-Close and Creative!

Studying the formation of the Earth and all of it’s non-living parts is an exciting adventure for middle school student-scientists.  But what if they had to live under the Earth? How would that change everything they know about life?  Luckily for them, Jeanne DuPrau’s The City of Ember imagines just that, painting an existence where humanity has moved underground but the move was so long ago, no one remembers anything different.
The story begins with our two young heroes, Lina Mayfleet and Doon Harrow, on the day of their job assignment ceremony.  At just 12 years old, Lina and Doon are finished with their education and will select their jobs by pulling them out of a bag.  Such a random act of job selection is bound to create disappointment but as fate would have it, Lina and Doon each receive jobs the other was hoping for and quickly arrange a trade.  This small act is the catalyst that intertwines these two unlikely companions as the plot of the story builds.
The city in which Lina and Doon inhabit is a place riddled with problems.  The warehouses that have stored all of their food and resources since the beginning of known time are running short on supplies and the electric generator they rely on is slowing giving out.  The generator is the only source of light and heat in their world.  Without it, the entire city threatens to be plunged into utter and complete darkness forever.  Since no one alive knows that they actually live under the Earth, this existence is the only one they believe possible but it is quickly coming to an end.
Although they are both aware of the looming danger surrounding their city, Lina and Doon prove to be quite opposite in character, dealing with the uncertainty in different ways.  Where Lina is carefree, adventurous, and sometimes irresponsible, Doon is serious to a fault.  But, when Lina uncovers a secret that may save the city from certain death, she knows Doon is the only person she can turn to for help.
The City of Ember is choked full of mystery, intrigue, and suspense.  Built around characters that are 12 years old, this is a perfect novel for young readers, especially those in 6th grade who are likely studying components of Earth science as part of their Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).  Additionally, because we have both a heroine and a hero, the book is likely to appeal to both boys and girls.
Book Stats:
pages – 270
Lexile – 680
Accelerated reader grade level – 5
Grade level interest – 4-8
Science Tie-ins:
The City of Ember ties in well with NGSS standard MS-ESS2-4 (Develop a model to describe the cycling of water through Earth’s systems driven by energy from the sun and the force of gravity) typically taught in 6th grade.  Using the book as a jumping of point, students can explore questions such as:
*Do rivers or other water sources exist underground?
*How does water cycle throughout the Earth, allowing it to flow both underground and above ground?
*If people could live underground, what resources would they need?
*Is there a place on Earth where a city like Ember could exist? Can you made a model of such a city existing on our Earth?
Social Studies Tie-ins:
The City of Ember also ties in well with middle school social studies standards, particularly those found in 6th and 7th grade.  While reading the novel, students can examine the following characteristics of the city:
*What are the geographical features that make it an ideal place to build a city?  What are the restrictions?
*What are the political, social, economic, and religious structures in the city and how do these effect the inhabitants?
Students can use their analysis of these questions about this fictional city to compare to the real-life ancient civilizations of our Earth.
Happy Reading!

{ Add a Comment }

From the Beginning…

After writing her first two novels documenting Lina and Doon’s adventures out of Ember and into the new world, author Jeanne DuPrau visits the pre-Disaster world 50 years prior in her novel The Prophet of Yonwood.  In this third installment of the Ember series, DuPrau takes us to the small town of Yonwood, North Carolina.  Our Protagonist is 11-year-old Nickie, a visitor to the town of Yonwood during a time of tumultuous world events as well as strange events within the town.  Nickie’s great-grandfather has just passed away, leaving behind a mysterious old house packed with possessions.  The house intrigues Nickie, a precocious and curious young girl, who quickly decides that her family should keep the house and make Yonwood their home.  But Nickie has yet to discover the secrets of Yonwood.
As Nickie’s aunt Crystal sets to work preparing the house for sale, Nickie sets out to discover as much as she can about Yonwood, encountering many interesting characters along the way.  These characters include: Mrs. Brenda Beeson, a stern rule-abiding woman who believes that Yonwood can be saved from the troubles of the world so long as everyone follows the rules; Amanda, a teenager on her own, making a living as a caretaker; and the Prophet, Althea Tower.  At the time our book takes place, the world is in crisis with the possibility of a nuclear war on the horizon.  But Althea Tower has had a vision about the war filled with such great horror that its caused her to become bed-ridden while mumbling odd rules.  Mrs. Beeson convinces the town that the rules must be followed exactly so that Yonwood can be saved from this terrible fate.  Nickie also wants to do something good for the world and thinks Mrs. Beeson may be right… until she starts to question the prophets vision.
The Prophet of Yonwood is a fantastic book filled with mystery and adventure.  Although it is part of the Ember series, the book takes away from the time of Ember to ask the question ‘how did it all begin?’
Book Stats:
Pages – 289
Lexile – 760
Grade Level Interest – 4th -8th
Cross-Curricular Tie-ins:
Although this book could tie in well with 8th grade U.S. history curriculum, allowing students to ask questions about conflict and resolution between warring nations as well as civilization development, there are many explicit references to religion throughout the book.  Depending on the population of your learning environment, the religious aspects touched upon in this novel may be an issue for some families.

{ Add a Comment }

The Saga Continues…

In her fourth and final Ember book, The Diamond of Darkhold, author Jeanne DuPrau brings us back to Lina and Doon, picking up where they left off in the town of Sparks.  Lina has settled into a quite life in town working with the town doctor while Doon is working hard to build a new life for the people of Ember.  While Lina’s character has mellowed and matured (she’s not quite the carefree adventurer we remember) Doon is as curious and driven as ever.  So, when Doon proposes that he and Lina embark on their most dangerous journey yet, Lina needs convincing.  But, with their fellow townspeople suffering from harsh conditions and little food, Lina knows Doon has the right idea.  It’s time for them to return to Ember.
The Diamond of Darkhold provides the perfect end to this fun and exciting literature adventure.  Discovering along with Lina and Doon what is left of Ember after the mass exodus is both thrilling and sad.  Additionally, we are given a glimpse into the future for Lina, Doon, and the others of Ember as well as the town of Sparks.  Our protagonists are once again young heroes saving their home, this time led by Doon.
Book Stats:
Pages – 285
Lexile – 790
Grade Level Interest – 5th-8th
Science Tie-ins:
What I love most about this series is how well it can tie into middle school curriculum outside of ELA, with the exception, perhaps, of the third book.  Having said that, from a curriculum perspective it would ‘work’ to leave out the 3rd book which does not provide any necessary information to Lina and Doon’s story line.  Except for a short (no more than 1 paragraph) reference at the end of book 4, book 3 can be removed from the lineup allowing for a cohesive story line surrounding Lina and Doon that also pairs spectacularly well with other curriculum areas.  (And since I am a curriculum nerd, I love a good pairing!  Some look for a fine wine to pair with a lovely meal, I look for a fantastic read to pair with a unit of amazing learning).
In The Diamond of Darkhold, Lina and Doon discover a secret during their journey back to the city of Ember, one that could change their entire way of life.  The builders left behind one final gift, technology to harness the power of the sun.  This provides an excellent opportunity to encourage students to study alternative energy sources (solar, wind, water).  The NGSS for middle school outlines standards for students to learn about alternative energy sources, most of which is concentrated in the 8th grade.  This is a perfect opportunity to link literature to a study on solar power.  Consider having students design solar powered cars or researching other areas such as wind and water power.
For a cohesive middle school curriculum program that links ELA and science through all three grades, consider reading one book each year.  Book 1, The City of Ember, can be read in 6th grade along side a unit about the Earth and Geology.  Book 2, The People of Sparks, can be read in 7th grade along side a unit about the biology of plants, and Book 4, The Diamond of Darkhold, can be read in 8th grade along side a unit about natural energy sources.  Pairing literature with science… does it get any better?
Happy Reading!

{ Add a Comment }