A new direction…

Today is the second day of the 2016-2017 school year, and for the first time since early in George W. Bush’s administration, I’m not in a classroom. I have self-identified as a teacher for so long that I’m not entirely sure what to think of this situation. Part of me feels like I’m still on my summer holiday, and part of me feels relief that I won’t be grading papers and sitting through meetings after a long day of lessons, duties, and after-school activities.

There’s a new baby in my family, and my partner works long hours at her job. With two other children on two different campuses, our daily lives were already hectic enough, so we decided that I would take some time off to be with our wonderful son Aaron. After all, he’ll only be a baby once! When he’s old enough for preschool, I intend to go back to teaching full time. I love what I do professionally, but my family is my highest priority. Besides, who could resist this cute guy? Aaron collage

I’m still fascinated by all things scientific, and I can’t help but follow the latest developments in biology, astronomy, and environmental science. With that in mind, I plan to spend a portion of my time away from school enhancing my professional ‘bag of tricks’ and honing my social media skills in order to be a better teacher when I do return to the classroom. My focus for this academic year will be tweeting relevant science news articles, developing more student-centered activities and units of study, and, hopefully, earning a certification in Google Apps for Education. I’ll continue to write about science and teaching resources in this blog, but you’re more likely to see me active on Twitter (@bradleymkremer).

Good luck this year!

Climate change or El Niño?

I’ve been in Tanzania for 8 years, long enough to get a feel for the seasons here juse south of the equator. In most years I expect a few weeks of rain in October or November, wit’s a more substantial rainy season from February through late May or early June.

2016 has been a little different. The short rains of October/November 2015 didn’t seem to fully materialize in Dar es Salaam, with only a few showers scattered here and there. The “long rains” didn’t hit Dar until April, a month later than normal, and when they did arrive, they were intense but short-lived.

Why do I bring this up? This year’s rains exemplify a few important points to understand about science.

First, the intersection of a wildly complex system such as the global climate, with literally thousands of inputs (variables), and a separate-but-related phenomenon such as El Niño produces patterns which we don’t yet fully understand. These patterns require further study, which brings me to my second point.

The tendency of some people to attribute an odd rainy season, intense storm, or other singular event to one overlying cause is a profound misunderstanding of how science works. Repetition is critically important to understanding the underlying interactions between variables, whether in a controlled lab experiment or an open ecosystem. That’s why climate-change-deniers are wrong to seize upon a big snowfall as evidence of no glocal warming. It’s also why those who point to one particular heat wave or drought as proof of climate change are equally wrong.

Let me be clear: there is an overwhelming consensus based on reliable evidence from thousands of repeated observations that our planet is warming as a result of human activities. I’m not denying that scientific consensus. I’m simply describing the danger of basking conclusions on non-scientific thinking.

Enjoy your summer holiday!

Wonderful Amani

tree frog

Hyperolius sp. in Amani Forest Reserve, East Usambara Mountains, Tanzania. (Photo credit: Brad Kremer)

I’m back in Dar after another incredible week at the Emau Hill camp in Amani Nature Reserve, where I got to spend several days hiking in tropical forests, chasing chameleons and tree frogs at night, and exploring the tea estates surrounding the forest reserve.

I owe a big thanks to Roy Hinde and his staff at Wild Things Safaris for their support, extensive knowledge of the local ecosystem, and fine cooking.

This ESP trip is one of my favorites because of its location. The Usambara Mountains are still my favorite part of Tanzania, even after 7 years in this country. I’ve traveled there six different times, and I look forward to going back again because there’s always more to explore and something new to do.

Amani is one of the best places for birding in East Africa. Over 400 species have been recorded within the reserve, owing to its habitat diversity: tropical montane forest, miombo woodland, river valleys, and agricultural fields. During this trip, I spotted 14 bird species new to me, bringing the total number of bird species I have encountered in Tanzania to over 150. Unfortunately, I don’t have a fancy camera with a telephoto lens, which means I don’t have any photos of these new species, but here are my latest observations:

chameleon 1

Three-horned chameleon, Amani Forest Reserve, East Usambara Mountains, Tanzania. (Photo credit: Brad Kremer)

  • Uluguru violet-backed sunbird, Anthreptes neglectus
  • Trumpeter hornbill, Bycanistes bucinator
  • White-tailed crested-flycatcher, Trochocercus albonotatus
  • Augur buzzard, Buteo augur
  • African palm swift, Cypsiurus parvus
  • Lanner falcon, Falco biarmicus
  • Waller’s startling, Onychognathus walleri
  • Yellow-bellied waxbill, Estrilda quartinia
  • Pin-tailed whydah, Vidua macroura
  • Striped kingfisher, Halcyon chelicuti
  • Yellow wagtail, Motacilla flava ‘superciliaris’
  • Mountain buzzard, Buteo oreophilus
  • Red-rumped swallow, Hirundo daurica
  • Martial eagle, Polemaetus bellicosus

All in all, despite averaging over 15 km a day of strenuous walking and hiking, I came back from the trip refreshed and energized because of the chance to get out of the city for a week.   If you have the chance to visit the East Usambara Mountains, please do – you won’t regret it.

 

Excited for ESP

We are rapidly approaching one of my favorite things about my job: the Extended Studies Program, or ESP. ESP is our school’s “week without walls,” when students and teachers leave the comforts of classrooms and campus and travel to different parts of Tanzania to learn about and experience the people and ecology in those locations.

Each year, students in grades 6 through 11 spend a week in one of an awesomely diverse locations around Tanzania:

  • 6th graders go to Zanzibar for an exploration of art and architecture, reef and mangrove ecology, and a history of the east African slave trade.
  • 7th graders spend a week in the Uluguru Mountains on a service learning trip with the Waluguru, the only matrilineal ethnic group in Tanzania.
  • 8th graders venture to Amani Nature Reserve, where they experience the differences between managed and natural forests, as well as night hikes searching for rare species of chameleons and frogs (my personal favorite).
  • 9th and 10th graders have several options for their ESP trips:
    • Mountain biking in the Usambara Mountains
    • Service trips in Arusha or in a Maasai boma
    • Hiking in Lushoto district
    • Trekking across the Ngorogoro Crater Highlands
    • Ecological monitoring at the Makatube Island Marine Reserve
    • Service work on the Chem-Chem school project
    • Morogoro photography
  • IB1 students in grade 11 engage in a field course for biology and geography

In my opinion, these kinds of trips provide the most engaging educational experiences our students will get during the school year. There are no worksheets, no essays, no problems to solve, no presentations to make. Students push themselves, and teachers push them, in ways that are generally not possible during lessons. The interconnectedness of different fields of study becomes evident while out of the classroom – the impact of climate on agriculture, which in turn influences economics, culture and family structure, which then have further knock-on effects on music, literature, and politics.

ESPs are wonderful because of their ‘big picture-ness’.

Enjoy your break!

Since I’m on paternity leave in Madrid and not sleeping for more than 90 minutes at a time, I’m going to take a break from the blog for a few weeks. I’ll return to MrKremerScience.com once my family is resettled in Dar and the second semester is underway.

Take a genuine break from school: don’t study or write papers. Just enjoy the time you have off to concentrate on your friends and family. You’ll come back to school more refreshed and more ready to learn if you haven’t been slogging away at an assignment hanging over your head while you’re on holiday.

Have fun and stay safe everybody. I’ll see you next year!

cheers

Mr K

Big News!

Greetings from Madrid!

I’m writing with some big news – my family got an early Christmas present when our son Aaron was born 7 weeks prematurely on Wednesday the 18th of November. I’ve attached a picture because that’s what all proud new parents do. Because he was so early, he can’t leave the intensive care unit for a couple more weeks, which means I won’t be back in Dar es Salaam until after the December break.

2015-12-08 10.16.16

Owner’s manual sold separately!

Since I will be gone, you will have to work independently to finish the summative tasks you have before the break:

  • DP Biology: Topic 5 quizzes and summative unit test
  • Science 10: Genius Hour for Chemistry, the Cola Lab B, and the Conservation of Mass Lab C
  • Science 8: The Heavy Metals essay for chemistry and the summative chemistry unit test

I’ve given written instructions to the school administration and my co-department head, which should also be in my room with your cover teachers. In case that doesn’t happen for some reason, I will also try to send lesson-by-lesson instructions through Google Classroom, so that you know from me what my expectations are for each lesson between now and the break. The plan still follows the calendar I gave you in class last week.

cheers
Mr K

Information Overload?

Well, the first few weeks of the school year are in the books, and if you’re anything like me, you’re a little overwhelmed by all the ‘stuff’ you need to know to survive modern schooling. I’m not talking about content knowledge. I mean the ‘how to’ of navigating the virtual side of 21st-century education.

At my school we have 5 different official platforms where students and parents get the resources they need for classes:

  1. Email: The official means of communication between school and home. It seems simple enough, but I’m finding that many students just haven’t developed the habit of checking their email daily. That means a lot of messages go unread until it’s too late – the deadline has been missed.
  2. Moodle: A well-established online course management tool, IST has been using Moodle for several years now, and it has quite a bit of versatility once you dig into it. This is where everyone is supposed to go to find homework, class notes, and other resources for every unit, but teachers don’t use it in a consistent manner across the school. Unfortunately, it’s also beginning to look a little dated, and its interface is less intuitive than other options out there.
  3. ManageBac: You’d think that a purpose-designed digital platform aligned with the International Baccalaureate’s Diploma Program and Middle Years Program would be a no-brainer for an IB World School, but it’s generating more questions than answers at my school. All the components are there – complete curriculum documentation and unit planning, assessment tasks, dropboxes linked to Turnitin.com, CAS and after-school activities, a gradebook function, and personalized calendars. However, teachers, students, and parents all see different sides of the platform, and no one is entirely clear about which parts we’re required to use and which are optional. There needs to be some serious professional development around this platform before we can fully take advantage of it, because right now it’s like a semi-operational Death Star: lots of potential power, but riddled with holes.
  4. Google Classroom: My personal favorite of the platforms we use, Classroom integrates seamlessly with Gmail and Google Drive to make it easy to share announcements and assignments with students. It can automatically generate individualized copies of assignments (including those elusive student names in the file name!!) and it organizes student work into Google Drive folders accessible to both teachers and students. It incorporates the shared collaborative capability beautifully and makes documented feedback on rough drafts a breeze. Offline editing is also available for unreliable networks like Tanzania’s. Google Classroom also makes a paperless class an achievable goal – if there’s a 1-to-1 program at the school. Which we don’t have yet.
  5. Ed-Admin: The clunky 1990’s AOL version of school management software, developed (I think) by a company out of South Africa. Our business office loves it, and the rest of the school seems to despise it. While it may be tweaked to meet the demands of individual schools, that requires phone calls and emails to HQ, who will then make the changes for the school. I suspect this platform is on its way out in the next couple of years.

Each one of these platforms brings strengths to the educational possibilities for our students; however, their interoperability is limited, and the resulting jumble of passwords and access points creates chaos for our students, families, and staff alike. In an ideal world, I’d like to see us rely on the Google platforms, since they’re relatively cheap, accessible from everywhere on the planet with an internet connection, and integrate with one another in a way that the other platforms don’t. Perhaps some ManageBac training and a commitment to the Google universe will simplify everything for our families and faculty.