Category Archives: Random Thoughts

Gorillas in the Ugandan Mist

This past weekend, my wife and I were fortunate to travel to Rwanda and Uganda to spend some time with one of the world’s most endangered animals, the eastern mountain gorilla, Gorilla beringei beringei, in Uganda’s tiny Mgahinga Gorilla National Park.

It was awesome.

 

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Mountain gorillas are are a subspecies of the Eastern Gorilla and are listed as critically endangered according to the IUCN Red List. Our guides told us there are only 680 individuals left in the wild. They’re found only in Uganda, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), where they live in dense primary, i.e. uncut, rainforest and bamboo forests between 600 and 2,900 meters above sea level.  The IUCN claims that the major threats to mountain gorillas’ survival are poaching, habitat loss and fragmentation, climate change, civil unrest (especially in the DRC), and climate change.

Unfortunately for the gorillas, growing human populations in the surrounding areas have pushed farms farther and farther up into the mountains, dividing the forest habitat the gorillas depend on into two separate ‘islands’ of montane forest. This human encroachment prevents the remaining gorilla populations from interacting with one another, minimizing gene flow and increasing inbreeding.

Such genetic isolation can contribute to the process of speciation if both populations are large enough and have enough resources to thrive for many generations. However, large mammals with relatively long gestational periods need fairly large populations to ensure sufficient genetic diversity. Mountain gorilla pregnancies last about 8.5 months, and they only have babies about once every 4 years, which is a big part of the reason why the tiny populations found in Rwanda, DRC, and Uganda are critically endangered.

And now for a few words on Rwanda.

During our brief time in Rwanda, we visited the Kigali Genocide Memorial, where about 259,000 people are buried in the middle of town. I was working on my undergraduate degree when the Rwandan genocide happened in 1994, and I have clear memories of watching events unfold on television. But that doesn’t begin to do justice to the horrors of a million people losing their lives in the span of 100 days. During the genocide, roughly 10,000 acts of murder were committed Every. Single. Day. Most of those acts were by hand, with machetes, hammers, clubs, and axes, directed against neighbors, coworkers, teammates, classmates, and family members. It’s astounding. Twenty three years later, Rwanda is basically an entire country suffering from PTSD.

The Kigali Genocide Memorial doesn’t only focus on the events that shaped this small East African country – it also explores the Armenian genocide at the hands of the Ottoman Empire, German atrocities committed in Namibia at the start of the 20th century, the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia, ethnic cleansing during the 1992-1995 Bosnian War, and of course the Jewish Holocaust of World War 2. Overall the museum and the memorial are really well done, discussing the attitudes and actions that lead to genocide, as well as detailing the way Rwanda has seemingly successfully recovered from it. If you have the chance, I highly recommend a visit.

Steal This Presentation!

Good afternoon,

Communicating ideas clearly is one of those ultra-important skills critical for successfully navigating school, relationships, jobs, and…well, life in general.

As a teacher, I’ve had the unfortunate experience of sitting through hundreds of excruciatingly, mind-numbingly boring presentations over the past 15 years. Surprisingly, many of those were generated by educators, myself included. So many PowerPoints/Keynotes/Slides were little more than text on a wall. So many class presentations involved students standing at the front of the room, back to the audience, reading verbatim from the screen.

As my late grandmother Thelma “Toots” Hayden used to say when my cousins and I were in trouble, “For the love of all that is good and holy, DON’T DO THAT!

Several years ago, Jesse DesJardins‘ brilliant SlideShare presentation, “Steal This Presentation!” came to my attention, and I’ve used it ever since to push students down a more creative presentation path. It’s a great contrast between how most people create presentations and how they should create presentations.

In addition to Jesse’s presentation above, I collected a few rules from a teacher, whose name I have long forgotten, at the American International School of Lusaka, in Zambia. Those rules, which I’ve bullet-pointed below, along with “Steal This Presentation”, comprise my instructions to students every time they have to present to class.

The 10-20-30 Rule: How to structure a presentation for success.

  • Maximum 10 minutes – attention spans aren’t that long
  • Maximum 20 slides – don’t overwhelm your audience
  • Minimum 30 point font – make sure the people in back can read it

The Rule of 6: How to build great slides, engage with your audience, and avoid plagiarism.

  • Maximum 6 lines of text per slide – minimize temptation to read the slide
  • Maximum 6 words per line – focus on the most important key words and vocabulary

There you have it – short, sweet, and to the point, just like a presentation should be!

Happy learning!

Reflections on Genius Hour for Science

Good morning.
In response to an email I received from alert reader Tamara Gonzalez at the Baldwin School of Puerto Rico, I’ve been reflecting on the Genius Hour projects my students have completed over the past decade. Today’s post outlines how I structured Genius Hour to maximize student learning, facilitate meaningful feedback during the creative process, and minimize the stress of overseeing several dozen individual projects simultaneously.

Overview

My first attempt at a Genius Hour-like project was for the AP Physics and grade 9 general science classes I taught at The American School of Kinshasa (TASOK) in DRC. I’ve also run a Genius Hour for my MYP science students in grades 8, 9, and 10 here in Tanzania. In all of these classes, I’ve had the luxury of teaching in 85- or 90-minute blocks meeting on average 3 times per week. In general, students have had at least one full 9-week term to complete the project so that students complete four Genius Hour projects over the course of a school year. A couple of times my team and I elected to give students more time, so that they completed 2 or 3 projects during the year.

Structure

I ran 2 Genius Hours with the AP physics class: a projectile motion project in the 1st semester and a Rube Goldberg project during the 2nd semester. The objective of the projectile motion project was to design and build a trebuchet, catapult, or ballista capable of hitting a 1-m² target with a 1-kg projectile from a distance of 50m. I introduced each project at the start of the term with interim due dates every 2 weeks and a final due date in the last week of term. Students had “normal” lessons (notes, problem solving, lab practicals, quizzes and tests) in blocks 1 through 4, with every 5th block dedicated entirely to work on the Genius Hour project, when I’d conference individually with each student. The Rube Goldberg project had a similar structure, but the objective was to have 5 distinct steps from units other than those covered in the projectile motion project. In addition to the dedicated block every other week, students had access to my classroom every day after school so that they could work on their designs as needed. Students were also encouraged to work on their projects at home and film their work as evidence of progress.
For the MYP classes, I’ve made extensive use of Google Classroom and Drive to monitor students’ progress. I wrote and shared the Genius Hour task instruction sheet with view-only privileges. Then I created a color-coded organizational document, which I shared with the “make a copy for each student” option in Classroom. The organizational document is an easy-to-follow repository of information at all phases of the project, from brainstorm to publication, where the student completes formative tasks and records progress toward his or her final goal. Work is not lost or misplaced, and because it is a shared document, I can monitor each student’s progress and verify whether they’ve met interim deadlines.

Collaboration

I collaborated with our librarian so that my students were always in the library during that 5th block dedicated to Genius Hour. The first few library sessions incorporated her lessons on research, plagiarism, and citation skills, with students using my organizational document to keep notes and record progress toward their final product. During the GH-dedicated block, I opened every student’s organizational document and used it to guide a 3-minute individual conference about his or her project, during which I added comments to the document so that they’d have a written record of my feedback. This arrangement meant that every student received both verbal and written individualized feedback from me at least 4 or 5 times before the final product was submitted, and because of the commenting feature of Google Docs, they could ask questions at 1am if that’s when they were working on it.

Evaluation

Overall the quality and depth of student work was far superior to anything I’ve gotten via other projects or assignments, enough that Genius Hour has become a central feature of my teaching. The first time my team submitted student work for MYP moderation, our scores were moderated down because the projects weren’t all standard essays or research papers – we submitted videos and podcasts as well as traditional papers – but I view that more as a reflection on the IBO’s rigidity around moderation samples rather than on the quality of student learning. In subsequent years we figured out that it was best to only submit the essay/research paper products, and the moderation marks were fine.
That’s a bit of a rambling analysis, but it touches on most of the major questions I’ve had while discussing Genius Hour with other educators.
Happy learning!

Happy Holidays!

Today is the last day of the term for my children and for many of my teaching colleagues and friends around the world. In honor of all the hard work this year, I simply wish to share with you two videos. The first is, in my opinion, one of the all-time-classic Christmas songs. The second is brand-new, and I think I listened to it 4 or 5 times in a row last night.

Have a great break everyone!

 

Elections get in the way of science news

Good evening!

In addition to the professional presence I have on Twitter (@bradleymkremer) and here on my science blog/website, I have a personal profile on Facebook, which I think doesn’t make me unusual in any way. I usually make a fairly concerted effort to keep my personal and professional lives separate. I’m not Facebook friends with any current students (I’ll accept friend requests upon their graduation from university, though), I never tweet about politics or personal events, and I almost never post science articles or thoughts on my Facebook wall.

However, those personal and professional worlds do overlap sometimes. I have current and former work colleagues who have become friends. My personal interest in science frequently spills over into my professional involvement with science education.

Where is this leading us, you may ask?

Today I am sharing a collection of science news and updates from my Facebook feed. These are a few resources I’ve saved over the past few weeks and months because they’re either of personal interest or they’re directly relevant to units I teach – or both! Sometimes, life gets in the way, with things like visits from your mother, presidential elections, and an almost-one-year-old baby at home. So, without further ado, here are the science news items I’ve been following lately:

Elon Musk and Tesla reveal solar rooftops – Bloomberg News. Musk is one of my heroes because I think he’s a visionary who is unafraid to use his considerable funds to push the envelope of scientific innovation for the betterment of humanity and our planet. (Full disclosure: I own stock in Tesla.)

The “Zero Waste” grocery store – A Berlin shop which has developed a sustainable shopping model with the goal of reducing solid domestic waste. IB ESS topic 8.2: Resource use in society and 8.3: Solid domestic waste.

Zero emissions train unveiled in Germany – Not yet in service, but a step in the right direction to meet growing transportation needs. The train uses hydrogen fuel cells in place of diesel engines, and since it’s a public service, economies of scale may help advance more widespread adaptation of the fuel cell technology.

Climate change is having an impact on infrastructure – A story from Wired detailing how rising temperatures, thawing permafrost, and increased precipitation are having an effect on communities built permafrost. A case study for IB ESS topic 7 and IB Biology topic 4.

Captive breeding case studies from National Geographic – Students evaluate the effectiveness of various captive breeding programs designed to conserve biodiversity in this species-based approach to conservation. A solid link to IB ESS topic 3.

Are the water wars coming? – A look at dwindling freshwater resources in the face of growing human population pressure around the world. A good discussion for IB ESS topic 4.2: Access to fresh water.

How what we eat has changed (and will change again) – A short video from the BBC Future project examining the interplay between human population growth, food production, and ecosystem impacts. Relevant for IB Biology option C: Ecology and conservation, as well as IB ESS topic 5.2: Terrestrial food production systems and food choices.

Looking for good news about climate change? This is about all there is – The Washington Post outlines a scrap of good news regarding the rate of planetary warming in the context of the 2016 US presidential election. Useful for IB Biology topic 4.3: Carbon cycling, topic 4.4: Climate change, and IB ESS topic 7: Climate change and energy production.

That’s all I have time for tonight. I’ll post another set of news links soon-ish. And of course, I’ll have more on Twitter.

Happy learning!

Mr K

Ecology resources for students: Part 1

Good afternoon!

I’m back with another set of bookmarks for students and teachers. Because I’ve taught the IB Environmental systems and societies course for several years, this set of online resources is closest to my heart. Some of these links are here simply because I think they’re cool or fun. Many may also be applicable for studying biology and chemistry as well. Let’s get to it:

Happy learning!

Cheers,

Mr K

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’.