Archive for the ‘From the Classroom’Category

Greetings from the Boston NSTA Conference!

It was so wonderful meeting with many inspiring science educators from the world at this week’s National Science Teachers Convention in Boston, MA!


In addition to attending workshops and scouring the expo floor for ideas and resources, I presented two workshops, one on National Board Certification and another entitled “Full STEAM Ahead” on integrating art into STEM education. Click on the “NSTA WORKSHOPS” header at the top of the page to access the presentations and resource pages from my workshops.


04 2014

Google Glass in Science Class

Trying on Google GlassToday I had the incredible opportunity to go pick up my school’s new pair of Google Glass. As part of the Glass Explorer Program, we’ll have an early edition of the glasses to try out before the glasses go on sale to the public later this year. Being in the Bay Area, my colleague Jenny and I took advantage of the option to trek down to Google’s San Francisco offices where we were able to pick up the glasses with a one-on-one tutorial and set-up session with a Glass expert.

Google Glass Patent DrawingFor those of you who aren’t familiar with the technology, the glasses (officially called “Google Glass”)  consist of a small screen and camera that are contained within a pair of lens-free glass frames. The screen sits about one inch away from your eye, just above your line of sight. Thanks to the screen, a set of sensors, a camera, GPS sensor, and a data connection, Google Glass is able to take pictures and video, respond to user voice commands, and display information related to the user’s location. For a basic example, to take a picture, simply look up to trigger the glasses then say “Ok glass, take a picture.” The device captures the user’s field of view in a picture which is then uploaded to the cloud. Things get more interesting when using glass apps – imagine sitting in a cafe in Paris, looking at a cafe menu while wearing Google Glass. Without hesitation, the menu item you’re looking at appears translated into English on the screen of the glasses.
Read the rest of this entry →


01 2014

Back to School with Discrepant Event Science!

After a restful summer (which included a move to a new school!), classes are finally back in session! I always begin the year with a set of activities that challenge students to practice science process skills (observing, recording data, asking questions, etc.). My approach includes a series of quick “discrepant event” demos that captivate (and baffle) my students. From trying to figure out why two ice cubes melt at dramatically different rates to brainstorming explanations for how a sealed opaque balloon suddenly starts self-inflating, these demos engage students, assess students’ science skills, and emphasize the processes and habits that scientists use to inquire about the world around them.

Asking Questions

My first demo begins with two black plates upon each of which I place an ice-cube. Within seconds, students notice a difference between what is happening to the ice cubes. As a puddle forms around one cube, the other remains solid ice showing now signs of melting. I then ask students to record two questions, the answers to which they think will help them understand the difference between the two ice cubes. Students share their questions (Are the ice cubes both made of the same substance? Is one plate hotter than the other?) and explain why they the answers to their questions will help them more fully understand what’s going on. After a few minutes of sharing (but not answering) questions, one student invariably suggests moving the not melting cube to the other plate. When it begins melting and students exclaim that it must be that the one plate is hotter than the other, I pass around the plate sitting under the rapidly melting cubes. To students surprise, it is not warm but instead ice-cold! We continue the discussion and questioning, eventually discovering that the plates are made of different materials (wood vs. metal) and discussing conduction and relative temperature. In this 20-minute investigation concludes with a discussion of how asking questions helped us (and scientists) understand an unexpected phenomenon.

Ideas & Resources

My discrepant event introductory lessons typically include five different demos, each practicing a different skill (recording observations, asking questions, recording data, making predictions, etc.). Below are some of the materials I use in my classroom and resources on how to bring discrepant event science into your classroom.

Brain-Powered Science 

From NSTA Press:  Author Thomas O’Brien created his Brain-Powered Science series for educators who love to surprise and challenge their students with unanticipated results. Using his inquiry-oriented experiments based on the science of discrepant events—hands-on explorations or demonstrations in which the outcomes are not what students expect—teachers can challenge students’ preconceived ideas and urge them to critically examine empirical evidence, draw logical inferences, and skeptically review their initial explanations with their peers.

Ice Block Demo – As described and pictured above.

Self-Inflating Balloons – A sealed, opaque mylar balloon mysteriously begins to self-inflate

Two-Balloon SurpriseTwo balloons are connected by a valve. When the valve opens, the smaller balloon inflates the larger one.

Happy & Sad Balls – A ball suddenly stops bouncing after being secretly switched for one made of a non-elastic material

UV Detecting Beads – Beads change from colorless to vibrant colors, but only in some types of light.

Sinking & Floating Spheres – Two spheres with identical masses respond differently when placed in a bowl of water

Astro BlasterA red ball mysteriously bounces five times higher than the height from which it was dropped.



09 2011

Rube Goldberg Machines (Innovative Ideas Video!)


In 1990, I created a 14-step machine that, after 2 minutes of toppling dominoes, cascading marbles, and straws sliding down makeshift zip lines, popped a balloon. Inspired by the cartoonist Rube Goldberg, I entered my machine into the Ingenuity Challenge 300, a science & technology competition held to celebrate the 300th anniversary of Schenectady, NY, the town where I grew up. I remember the excitement when I finally got all of the carefully engineered steps to work… and the thrill of winning 4th place in the county-wide for my balloon-popping device.

Over twenty years later, the Rube Goldberg project has become an integral part of my teaching, serving as a culminating assessment for my 8th grade physics unit. Students apply their understanding of Newtonian physics to create 8 or more step machines that include 5 or more different simple machines. After presenting their finished machines to their families and younger students, my 8th graders engage in a detailed written analysis of their machines and a reflection on the engineering process. I find this project to be particularly powerful for how it pushes students to not only apply content knowledge but also to think critically, problem solve, and work collaboratively.

Students presented their machines just yesterday (my classroom is filled with K’NEX towers, marble ramps, dominoes, and Lego contraptions – all to accomplish tasks like pulling a tissue from a tissue box, stirring a glass of lemonade, or ringing a bell). To share some of my successes with this project, I’m posting the lesson plans and student materials that I use to guide students through the construction process. The downloadable materials include a rubric to assess student work and ideas for how to best implement the process in your classroom.

As a new feature on The Science Guru blog, I’m also posing a video from my classroom in which I share tips on implementing the project with your students. Please share your successes and challenges – post a comment, send me an email, or post your own video response. Good luck and happy engineering!

Rube Goldberg Project Download


06 2011

Maker Faire Weekend

One of my favorite events of the year is being held this weekend in the Bay Area. Maker Faire, now in its 6th year, is an exposition of hands-on workshops, do-it-yourself projects, and demonstrations that bring together art, technology, and lots of creativity. I remember when I visited for the first time 5 years ago, being wowed by the Eepy Birds Diet Coke & Mentos geysers and a life-size version of the “Mouse Trap” game (the marble and tiny plastic bathtub in the board game became a bowling ball and an actual bathtub!).

Each time I’ve attended, I’ve been amazed by the creativity and ingenuity evident in the hundreds of projects that fill the exhibit halls. How does one bring the innovation, critical thinking, and problem solving that make Maker Faire so inspiring back to the science classroom?

First, the sponsors of Maker Faire publish “Make,” a quarterly magazine that celebrates inventive do-it-yourself projects. While some of the projects are a bit complex for my middle school students, many of the clearly explained projects in Make use everyday objects and are appropriate for an inspired 13-year-old student. When I taught a “Design Challenge” elective, having this magazine on my classroom bookshelf both gave me projects to complete with my students (i.e., engineer your own alarm or doorbell system for your bedroom) and served as a resource for students to turn to for inspiration for their own projects.

Secondly, Maker Faire is expanding – adding more cities and a “Maker Education Day” to their schedule. The event is next headed to North Carolina, Vancouver, and Detroit, with New York City to follow in the fall. Instead of bringing Maker Faire back to your classroom, bring your classroom to the event!

Finally, the San Jose Museum of Technology and Innovation has developed a “Design in Mind” curriculum that is sure to inspire creativity and critical thinking in your students. Their program includes both an engineering competition at the museum and a set of lesson plans that a teacher can implement in his or her classroom. The lessons present students with real world problems along with a process for acquiring knowledge, brainstorming solutions, and then testing (and retesting) their ideas. From designing earthquake-proof structures to engineering a tool to help a friend reach the top shelf of a cabinet from her wheel chair, I’ve found my students both inspired and engaged by the “Design in Mind” lessons.

I’ll be taking my camera along to Maker Faire this Saturday and will share some of my discoveries in the coming week!


05 2011