Sunday, September 29, 2013

Human Dimensional Analysis

This week I decided to #BeBrave and try something I had never done before.

 The whole idea came about on a random Wednesday, when, by 4th hour, I was decidedly grumpy.  I knew I was grumpy, and I didn't want to be grumpy.

 We have been talking a lot about controlled experiments and variables in my class, so I shared with my class my hypothesis: If I stand on the lab desks, then I will be less grumpy.

 And, I jumped on the table top, pencil skirt and all.

There were a ton of variables in my experiment, and it wasn't exactly controlled, but the kids loved it. I taught all hour from on top of their tables, freaking them out when I stepped too close to the edge and making them giggle as I attempted to hop from one table to another in my dress clothes.

Despite the lack of control in the experiment, however, I have to admit that my mood was much better at the end of the hour than at the beginning. And it got me thinking about other ways to incorporate nonsensical fun like this in a legitimate instructional way -- and Human Dimensional Analysis was born.

 I love teaching dimensional analysis because I believe in its power and its ability to help in other areas outside of the chemistry classroom. For those of you who are non-science folks out there, dimensional analysis is basically a slick, no-mess way to convert units--that is, once you learn how to do it.  It can be very messy if you haven't mastered it.  I have had several students go away to college only to return telling me how valuable it is.

In my head I'm all like, "I KNOW...why do you think I spent so much time in class trying to tell you that?",

but in my heart I'm all like, "AWWWWW! I looooooove my job so much!"

and with my mouth I'm all like, "Good!  I'm so glad!"

Anyway, I like teaching it and it's important to me that they get it.  But it's not always easy, and it's an area where there is initially a wide range of ability.  Some students get it after only one short example. Some are totally clueless after 3 days of instruction.  Some saw it in pre-calculus and know it coming into my class.

So, here's what I did this year.

I taught the material like I normally do.  This entails explaining the steps and rationale to my students and going through a couple of examples in detail.

Then, instead of assigning a set of practice problems to work individually, I instead took the practice problems I normally assign and made a post it note for each numerical value that showed up in those problems.

For example, if a problem said, "If you are traveling 108 ft/sec across London Bridge, and the speed limit is 32 km/hr, are you speeding?" I would make the following post-its:

108 ft
1 sec
60 min
1 hr
60 sec
1 min
3.4 ft
1 m
1000 m
1 km

This represents all of the numbers needed for answering this particular question using dimensional analysis.  I did this for a grand total of about 5 questions, ranging from those with only 1 conversion factor to ones like this, which I saved for the end.

I asked students in my first hour to create a sign on 11 x 17 white paper that showed the number value in whatever color marker they wanted and the unit in black.

Along the back wall in my classroom is a countertop that spans the width of the classroom.  I told the students that a number on top of the counter represented the numerator and a number on the floor represented the denominator.

Then we talked about conversion factors.  I asked whoever had the sign with 60 seconds on it to come up to the counter.  I let them choose whether to stand on the ground or on the counter.  Then, I asked for someone who was equal to the 60 s person to also come up.  Of course, the person with 1 minute walked up.  If the 60 seconds person stood on the counter, then the 1 min person stood on the floor.  We talked about why it was okay for them to stand either way, why the numerical value of the conversion factor was actually one, and why it was so important to make sure that two people standing together as a conversion factor were equal to one another.

Then we set up a simple problem.  I asked a student volunteer to read the question.  For example, "Adelai Joy Sharp weighed exactly 7 lbs at birth.  What is her weight in grams?"

Someone out in the crowd had the given.  I decided to include the given because I often see students try to use conversion factors first or put the units for the given in weird places.  So we talked about how the given always goes on top and is not a conversion factor.

Then, we talked about how we would choose the first conversion factor to use by looking at the units of the given.  I asked students to look at the list of their conversion factors to find one that made use of pounds.  We would then get the two members of the 2.2 lbs = 1 kg conversion factor.  We talked through how if the 2.2 lbs person went on the bottom, then the "lb" unit would cancel, which I first started having students show by simply putting their hands over the unit, but eventually moved to folding the paper so that the unit no longer showed.  Then we would continue until the only unit(s) left showing were the ones asked for in the question.
This isn't the best picture, but it gives you the idea...I love the range of facial expressions.

You can't really tell from this picture, but this dimensional analysis reads (from left to right, not including me):

   7 lbs   x   1 kg      x   1000 g 
                 2.2 lbs          1 kg
After about 1 example, they started catching on pretty quick, and students would start getting out of their chairs when they saw that they were needed without me having to lead them too much.  My favorite part of all of this was the students shrieking "YES!" when they were needed and running up to the counter, or students helpfully waving students around from the audience to get their classmates in the right spots.  If a student was a part of the problem, they were excused from doing that one on their paper.  If they weren't a part of it, they were expected to copy it down as it appeared to them from the audience.
Another thing that was cool about this was that it was easy to see how to calculate the answer.  The given was multiplied by anything on top of the counter and divided by anything on the floor.  I think it made it visually simple for them to process.

I loved doing this and I believe the students loved doing it.  It got them up and out of their seats, made use of the bodily-kinesthetic mode of learning (good for a Friday afternoon), and made the hour fly by. It wasn't boring for the students who were already getting it, either. But I also feel that it truly helped the ones who were struggling still.  And while I wouldn't go as far to say that everyone gets it 100%, I think those stragglers now have a huge head start of where they would have been after struggling through one practice problem on their own in the same amount of time.

Finally, I felt empowered because I tried something new.  It wasn't perfect, but it was pretty darn good and definitely a step in the right direction.  It also helped me with my mission to have more fun and provided me with one more piece of evidence to support my hypothesis that standing on desks really does make you less grumpy. :)

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Accountability, Week of 9/16/13

My mission is to 

  • Create a classroom culture where being brave is encouraged, fostered, and deliberately and diligently taught.

  • Create a love and appreciation for science through exploration and discovery.

In order to stay true to my mission this year (even in the throes of the school year, when the novelty of "back to school" is long gone), I have hung a simple form behind my desk that I use to fill in evidence demonstrating my commitment to my mission.  

I hope to reflect on this document weekly.


Week of 9/16/13

I did two things that were fun:

_x___1) Read The Story of Fish and Snail by Deborah Freedman to my juniors

_x___2) Showed Kid President's "Pep Talk to Teachers and Students" for "Feel-Good Friday"

I did two things that encouraged exploration and discovery:

_x___1) Lab: Laboratory Techniques

_x___2) Lab: Make a Solution

I put up a new quote: "Don't wait for extraordinary opportunities.  Seize common occasions and make them great." Orison Swett  Marden

I put up a new joke: Why are ghosts bad liars?  Because you can see right through them!

I put up a new "way to be brave": Make conversation with a stranger.

I put up a new Throwback Thursday sign-up: __x___

I encouraged students to use the brave board:  __I didn't do a very good job of this. :(_


This week marked our first week of "real" labs in both regular and advanced chemistry.  With the new classroom set-up, I'm finding numerous issues that I have to deal with that I didn't need to in the previous arrangement.  But, I'm learning as I go.  It always amazes me how completely clueless the juniors come in as far as being able to operate lab equipment.  I always lose ( them break) about a dozen test tubes, along with several evaporating dishes and a couple of beakers or flasks.  This year, instead of doing a lot of micromanaging, I simply let the students try to figure it out, only intervening when safety was a concern.  It took much longer to complete the lab, but I think overall the students got a lot more out of it this way because they were able to experience and learn from their (many) mistakes.

One of my favorite things about this year so far is my implementation of "Feel-Good Friday" and "Throwback Thursday".

"Feel-Good Friday" started as a way for me to show something inspirational or encouraging.  It has gone over exceptionally well with the students, who only three weeks in are already looking forward to it.  This week I showed Kid President's "Pep Talk to Teachers and Students," which they loved.  Many of them had seen the original pep talk and were totally geeked to check out this new one.  This is considerably lighter than what we've seen so far, but it was fun to laugh and smile together as we watched.
"Throwback Thursday" is becoming my favorite part of the week.  The objectives are simple: choose a scientist who has done something brave, and describe a time in your past when you did something brave.  Students get the first five minutes of class to present both and a different student goes each week, with a maximum of two per class per week.  I love the scientists the students have chosen and learning what they think of as brave.  For example, this week I learned about Don Walsh, one of the first of very few people to have descended into the Marianas Trench and Roger Gonzalez, who designs low-cost artificial knees for amputees in developing countries.  I also love hearing their own brave moments, from stepping into a bullying situation, to supporting family members through illness or death, to rescuing loved ones from danger.  It has been incredibly powerful and I love all the stories and getting to know my students on this level.

Here's an example of a Throwback Thursday from this week:

This week got away from me a little bit.  At this point in the school year, it's easy to just put your head down and go.  Normally, when I felt this way, I would cross out things like Kid President and use those precious moments instead for jamming in more content.  I'm proud of myself for staying true to the mission and using those minutes for teaching about life instead.  It's different for me.  But I'm liking it more and more every week.

Sunday, September 15, 2013


My mission is to 

  • Create a classroom culture where being brave is encouraged, fostered, and deliberately and diligently taught.

  • Create a love and appreciation for science through exploration and discovery.

In order to stay true to my mission this year (even in the throes of the school year, when the novelty of "back to school" is long gone), I have hung a simple form behind my desk that I use to fill in evidence demonstrating my commitment to my mission.  

I hope to reflect on this document weekly, starting today.


Week of 9/9

I did two things that were fun:

_x___1) The Color Wheel Lab

_x___2) Scaredy Squirrel Does a Lab Project

I did two things that encouraged exploration and discovery:

_x___1) The Color Wheel Lab

_x___2) Scaredy Squirrel Does a Lab Project

I put up a new quote: "You have to expect things of yourself before you can do them." Michael Jordan

I put up a new joke: Why was the sand wet?  Because the sea weed!

I put up a new "way to be brave": Admit you were wrong about something.

I put up a new Throwback Thursday sign-up: __x___

I encouraged students to use the brave board:  __x___


I am not sure if it's lame or really cool that my "fun" activities were also the ones that encouraged exploration and discovery.  But, for now, I guess that I will say that I don't believe that those two have to be mutually exclusive.  

The Color Wheel Lab went beautifully in advanced chemistry.  I gave the students several topics pertaining to the lab to research prior to performing the procedure.  It's a beautiful, simple lab that demonstrates the principles of solubility, polarity, and convection currents.  After they finished making their observations, I allowed them to use any of their research to explain why they saw what they did during the lab.  There was a ton of critical thinking that took place and I was incredibly happy with the results.

Scaredy Squirrel Does a Lab was a project I dreamed up over the summer, while reading my kids the book Scaredy Squirrel by Melanie Watt.  You can read more about this project here.

I had some really cool Throwback Thursdays done by students too.  I learned that Albert Einstein was a member of the NAACP and called racism America's "worst disease".  Other students chose to highlight the bravery and innovation of Nikloa Tesla by defying traditional ideas about electricity.

The brave board is slowing gaining popularity.  My favorite additions this week were both by seniors. One posted "10 senior band members traveled to Olivet for a "home" football game to play and support the team." Another mentioned "_______________ singing live in front of the class during review karaoke."

Scaredy Squirrel Does a Lab

Instead of the traditional lab safety discussion I have done year in and year out (which I have always dreaded and is indeed as boring as it sounds), I decided to make this year's emphasis on lab safety take a decidedly different form.

I read Scaredy Squirrel to them on the second day of school, promising he would make another appearance later.  Then, on Tuesday, I introduced the project, placing a different Scaredy Squirrel book on each group's table.  The objective was to demonstrate their understanding of lab safety and the proper use of lab safety equipment using Scaredy Squirrel as inspiration.  I told them that they could create any "artifact" that would help them demonstrate their understanding.  My suggestions included a video, comic strip, keynote, children's book, or infographic.  Colby and I had even purchased two stuffed Scaredy Squirrel puppets that I allowed students to use if they wanted.  To make the assignment a little more well-rounded, I also included a component that required the students to include the proper names and uses of at least 3 pieces of laboratory equipment.  

On Tuesday, with roughly 20 minutes of class remaining, I asked students to form groups of 1, 2, or 3.  Then, they drew from a beaker for the 3 pieces of lab equipment and the 4 safety rules they had to demonstrate.  The rest of this time was designated for brainstorming.

Then, on Wednesday (an early release day), I gave them the entire class hour to work on their artifacts (approximately 48 minutes).  This was a super-fun day:

  • The fire blanket came out of its container for the first time in my career, because I allowed students to start small (safe, contained) fires on their lab benches to demonstrate its proper use. 

  • There were baking soda and vinegar volcanoes to show -- well, nearly everything; from the proper use of various pieces of equipment, to safety guidelines, to the "what not to do".

  • The safety shower was pulled and the eye wash triggered -- repeatedly.   This is another thing I've never done, worrying about the mess.  It was definitely messy, but it was worth it to see the students so into it.  The Scaredy puppet even used the eye wash and the safety shower...which was pretty entertaining.

The project went better than I ever could have imagined.  I loved seeing the students engaged, working hard and being creative.  

On Friday, I designed a "showcase" for students to display their artifacts.  Each group's work was displayed at a different table in the room, and I allowed them to rotate about the room, observing the work of others.

There were some really incredible artifacts, including some amazing children's books, some very cool audio/video "books" made using the "Show Me" app, Keynote presentations, comics made using "Comic Life", and iMovies.  There were even a couple of live skits.  I hope to post some examples of student work later this week.  In the meantime, here is a tiny example of one group's presentation, in which they used an app to graphically "enhance" an existing image of Scaredy:

I am so blowing this up to poster size and hanging it in my room.

I loved that I took a risk and tried this project.  Not only do I think it was more fun that what I have done in the past, but I know the students got a lot more out of it and will be more likely to remember it throughout the year.