Takeaways from The NSTA Convention – Part 1

IMG_0260The National Science Teachers Association annual convention is a 4-day exhibition of the latest and greatest in science teaching. From workshops and presentations (the details of which fill a phonebook-sized guide!) to an exhibit hall packed with vendors and exhibitors, I always find the convention to be a wealth of information and ideas. In this series of posts, I’ll be sharing my favorite takeaways from the 2013 event.


At the tinkering and making events I’ve attended over the past several years, I’ve heard countless people share how they’ve used Arduino both in their own projects and in the classroom. Arduino is an open-source micro-controller (think small computer chip with sensors and LEDs) that are programmable with a C++ esque language. At a workshop offered by exhibitor SparkFun Electronics, I had my first opportunity to play in Arduino. Within minutes, I was programming an RGB LED to blink in different colors in response to different light levels detected by a built-in light sensor on the board. I believe the incredible potential for Arduino in the classroom lies in its being easy to get started using while still having incredible potential for advanced projects. As with any computer programming implementation in the classroom, SparkFun and Arduino offer opportunities for students to develop critical thinking and problem solving skills.

10311-01bWhile incredibly easy to pick up, the Arduino programming language may challenging for younger students – I’d readily teach it to my 6th grade students but I am concerned that the syntax might not be accessible to the 3rd and 4th grade students I’ll be teaching in a maker camp this summer. Enter the SparkFun PicoBoard – an external board and set of sensors that interface with Scratch, the visual programming software developed by MIT. Instead of having to write code, programmers drag programming blocks into chains to create and control animated “sprites.” For example, a student might create an animated cat that closes its eyes when lights in the room are too bright or that runs off the screen when it hears a loud sound (light and sound are sensed by the PicoBoard – readings are then used to control the on-screen animation). I’d recommend starting by playing around with the free Scratch software (version 2.0 to be released soon!) and then adding a PicoBoard when you and your are ready for more complicated programming and animating.

More updates from the NSTA Convention to follow. Stay tuned!

Full disclosure: I received a free SparkFun ProtoSnap as an attendee of their NSTA Workshop. I was under no obligation to use or review this product and receive no compensation from SparkFun for this posting or for any of the links included in this blog.”



04 2013

Deep in the heart of SCIENCE!

San Antonio Convention CenterI’ve just wrapped up my second day at the National Science Teachers Convention in San Antonio, TX. The buzz of the conference has been the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), which were just released this week. Developed by scientific education organizations in partnership with 26 states, the standards seed to define 21st century science education.  The NGSS establish learning expectations for students that integrate three important foci—science and engineering practices, disciplinary core ideas, and crosscutting concepts—outlining science and engineering concepts from kindergarten through 12th grade. The new standards are available at www.nextgenscience.org

Stay tuned for updates from the conference… from animatronic toy dissections to Arduino boards and sewn circuits to iPad microscopes I have tons to share!


04 2013

Greetings from the 2013 CAIS Conference!

Screen Shot 2013-03-11 at 8.16.56 PM March 11Today, over 2,000 teachers from across Northern California came together at Head Royce School in Oakland, CA for the California Association of Independent Schools’ Annual Conference. It was wonderful catching up with former colleagues as we perused exhibits, attended workshops, and enjoyed lunch outside on an unseasonably warm March afternoon.

I had the opportunity to present two workshops at today’s conference, one on National Board Certification and a second on using technology to engage students in science education. I’ve uploaded resources from both workshops to this website (see the CAIS Workshop tab above) and will post more in the coming days, sharing both some of the ideas I presented and those that I took away from today’s conference.


03 2013

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