Monthly Archives: October 2014

Best advertisement I’ve seen in a long, long time…

My friend Todd just sent this to me a few minutes ago, and it’s got a great message. Just watch.

Stay safe out there.

Genius Hour in Chemistry

“Chemistry is, well technically, chemistry is the study of matter. But I prefer to see it as the study of change.”

-Walter White, Breaking Bad

My last class today was one of those moments that keeps me teaching. My two grade-level collaborators and I just launched a Genius Hour project for our Grade 10 chemistry unit – How have scientific and technical innovations in chemistry changed our world? – and some of the ideas our students came up with are pretty engaging. Check out this brief list of some of the more memorable proposals from today:

  • A discussion of the benefits and limitations of spray-on solar cells
  • Are methadone treatments for heroin addicts ethical?
  • How has molecular gastronomy impacted the food industry?
  • How has the development of cheap plastics impacted the lives of subsistence farmers in east Africa?
  • What are the potential environmental consequences of new-generation car batteries for electric and hybrid vehicles, and how do they compare to the consequences of internal combustion engines?
  • How has our perception and use of LSD changed, from a proposed Cold-War truth serum, to a recreational drug, to a possible treatment for psychological disorders?
  • A comparison of social interactions before and after the invention of indoor air conditioning.

I love the idea of kids exploring their own personal interests within the framework of a subject or topic. School should be more like this more often. It’s certainly less boring for the students, but it’s also considerably more engaging for us teachers as well. For one thing, I don’t have to grade 60 of the same tedious essay topic assigned year after year! Instead, students create videos and animations, write songs, and make public speeches à la TED talks.

In previous open-ended projects I’ve done with my classes, I have found that I am better able to judge individual students’ understanding of major concepts in science because we have many more two-way conversations, rather than the typical one-sided lectures common to so many classrooms around the world. Not only am I better able to assess their learning, but students’ learning goes considerably deeper.

For more on the Genius Hour movement in education, check out Chris Kessler’s blog,, and the video below.

Happy learning!

Reasons #493 – #514 I love living in Tanzania

Good morning. I’m back at school today after a fantastic break from classes, planning, and grading student work. It’s a bit tough to be here after the week I’ve had, which exemplifies exactly what’s kept me in Tanzania for six and a half years and counting.

My secret beach!

My secret beach!

The first 5 days of the break I spent with my family at what is unquestionably my favorite beach in the world, and in order to maintain its status, its location shall remain secret. Suffice it to say that it’s an amazing and deserted beach with good surf and spectacularly dark skies for observing the stars.  I followed up the beach trip with 3 days of camping in Mikumi National Park, where my daughter and I were able to observe over a dozen species of large mammals, including a pride of lions stalking and ultimately killing a cape buffalo, as well as a lengthy list of birds. Check out all the cool birds we saw:

  • palm-nut vulture (Gypohierax angolensis)
  • black-headed heron (Ardea melanocephala)
  • hadeda ibis (Bostrychia hagedash)
  • blacksmith lapwing or blacksmith plover (Vanellus armatus)
  • Egyptian goose (Alopochen aegyptiaca)
  • red-cheeked cordon bleu (Uraeginthus bengalus)
  • southern ground hornbill (Bucorvus leadbeateri)
  • pied crow (Corvus albus)
  • white-backed vulture (Gyps africanus)
  • yellow-billed stork (Mycteria ibis)
  • African openbill stork (Anastomus lamelligerus)
  • Jackson’s hornbill (Tockus jacksoni)
  • helmeted guineafowl (Numida meleagris)
  • wood sandpiper (Tringa glareola)
  • red-necked spurfowl or red-necked francolin (Pternistis afer)
  • lilac-breasted roller (Coracias caudatus)
  • greater blue-eared glossy-starling (Lamprotornis chalybaeus)
  • squacco heron (Ardeola ralloides)
  • African fish eagle (Haliaeetus vocifer)
  • malachite kingfisher (Alcedo cristata)
  • pied kingfisher (Ceryle rudis)

If you’ve never visited, I highly recommend coming to Tanzania. The people here are warm, friendly, helpful, and welcoming. The landscapes are quintessentially African, the beaches and diving are world-class, and in my opinion, birding and safari opportunities are unrivaled on the continent.

Science: The History of the Future

Good morning.

Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-S13651 / CC-BY-SA [CC-BY-SA-3.0-de (], via Wikimedia Commons

Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-S13651 / CC-BY-SA [CC-BY-SA-3.0-de ( /licenses/by-sa/3.0/de/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons

My friend and colleague Steve Loschi passed along the following Radiolab podcast last night. In our current grade 10 chemistry unit, we’re challenging students to reflect on ways that chemistry has changed our world. The story of Fritz Haber’s work is not only a great example of how scientific inquiry has had a massive impact on human society – some would argue that Haber’s discovery is the greatest discovery in human history – it’s also an intriguing tale of humanity and unintended consequences. Have a listen.

Mitochondrial eve discovered! (Well, a close relative of hers, at least.) ‘Mitochondrial eve’ is the name given to the theoretical common ancestor of all humanity. The DNA in mitochondria don’t replicate or mutate the same way as ‘normal’ DNA in cellular nuclei, and it’s also inherited solely from the mother. This inheritance pattern means that it’s the most reliable way to trace genealogical relationships in people. Awesome.

And while I’m on the topic of historic science, I have to bring up Nikola Tesla, who I think is one of the coolest and quirkiest scientists ever. According to this post, here are 10 of Tesla’s inventions that have changed our lives:

Nikola Tesla portrait via The Oatmeal.

Nikola Tesla portrait via The Oatmeal.

  1. Alternating current
  2. Indoor lighting
  3. X-rays
  4. Radio
  5. Remote control
  6. The electric motor
  7. Robotics
  8. Lasers
  9. Wireless communication
  10. Limitless free energy!

Here’s another link to Tesla’s story, but be warned: it’s distinctly NSFW and gets consistently blocked by my school’s web filter. Regardless, it’s a great and entertaining tale by the creative genius behind The Oatmeal comic.

Why TED-Ed is my new favorite teaching tool

Good morning!

Yesterday I was searching for some content to help my 10th graders gain a deeper understanding of the mole concept, when I got distracted. Like really, really distracted. I started with the TED-Ed video asking “How big is a mole?” and ended up spending about 2 hours adding video lessons to all the units I teach: plant physiology, the solar system and deep space in grade 8, physics energy transformations and evolution in grade 10, as well as every single topic in my Environmental Systems and Societies class.

Image from screen capture of a sample video lesson on TED-Ed.

Image from screen capture of a sample video lesson on TED-Ed.

These video lessons are great for flipping my classroom, which enables me to introduce new concepts or content on students’ own time and use our contact time together to push their knowledge deeper. If you haven’t heard of flipped classes or blended learning, check out these hyperlinks for a basic introduction to the idea. Using Google Classroom and Drive are a big part of the blended learning experience my students get in science. I think the graphic below neatly summarizes what I’m describing.

Flipped classroom image source:

Flipped classroom image source:

Back to TED-Ed: Each video lesson contains a brief series of activities which scaffold students’ learning. There are some comprehension-check questions in the form of a brief “Think” quiz, some additional resources in the “Dig Deeper” section to promote further exploration and higher-order thinking skills, and some lessons also include a “Discuss” section including guided discussions with other students around the world. Overall, I think it’s a pretty cool way to learn, and it’s much more engaging for tech-savvy kids compared with my lectures and/or presentations in class.

Happy learning!

Moles and Mr Avogadro: Why the Fuss?

Good afternoon.

Avogadro's number. Source unknown, but if it's yours, please contact me and I will offer proper credit.

Avogadro’s number. Source unknown, but if it’s yours, please contact me and I will offer proper credit.

For the past week, I’ve been teaching the mole concept and conversions between moles, mass, and particles, and even though I remember being somewhat confused by the concept when I was a student, I can’t figure out why this topic is so difficult year in and year out.

Part of me thinks it’s simply the magnitude of the number: 6.02e23, or 602sextillion, is just too big for humans to actually comprehend. But a mole is really just a name for a number, like a dozen (12) or a gross (144). So why is it that Avogadro causes so much grief? Here’s TED-Ed’s take on the mole.

Maybe it’s the dimensional analysis (ladder method) used to convert between moles, molecules, and mass? So many students tell me that they can’t remember when to multiply and when to divide, but that’s exactly what the ladder method does: it’s just an organizational tool! I’ll let Mr Andersen from Bozeman Science explain the conversions.