Friday, February 29, 2008

STEAMing Up Middle School Science

The Science and Technology Enrichment for Appalachian Middle-schoolers (STEAM) project has been bringing together graduate students, middle school science teachers and middle school students to improve student learning through games. As reported by Caitlin Bowling in The Post (Athens, OH), the project, begun in 2006, has Ohio University graduate students creating games and interactive digital experiments to help students learn concepts in science, technology and math. Currently, 6 Ohio middle schools and 8 teachers participate in the project.

Graduate students in engineering, computer science and software engineering not only create the games but bring them into the classrooms. Students enjoy the games so much, says Fellow Mark Smearcheck, that they play the games on weekends and compete to beat their friends' scores, all while learning and retaining complex scientific concepts. In "Mind Games: Technology in the Classroom," a video available on the STEAM homepage, the superintendent of the Southern Local Schools District, Cindy Hartman, explains her encounter with a student "who struggles some," and who she had worked with before, playing Star Life: "I looked at him and asked him how he knew all these complicated concepts and he got this big smile on his face and said, Well, I learned them, which seems like a really simple kind of response but it was wonderful."

A side benefit that doesn't escape the attention of the Fellows or teachers is the mentoring aspect of the Fellows' presence in the classroom. Students interact with "real-life" engineers who talk about their field and their projects and interests. They also bring the college experience to students in a district Hartman describes as poor and rural, students who may not have considered college as an option before. The Fellows not only motivate and inspire students but teachers, too. Angela Adams, eighth grade science teacher at Miller Middle School, says in "Mind Games" that before the collaboration, she used her computer solely for word processing and "some Internet." She has since expanded to creating and maintaining her own web site for classes and looks forward to using more technology in her science classroom.

Superintendent Hartman calls this project exactly what it is, "a wonderful collaboration and partnership between public schools and the colleges." At the SMART site, you can find two videos that introduce the project, "Interview with Cindy Hartman" and "Mind Games: Technology in the Classroom" and links to lists of participating Fellows and teachers. Don't miss the software releases page where all the games are--one goal for the project is to have teachers nationwide using the games in their classrooms. The games range from Ground Shakers (plate tectonics) to Fruit Fly Genetics to The Redi Experiment.

SOURCE: "Grad students play ‘virtual scientists’ for middle school students" 02/27/08
photo courtesy of NASA via Ping News, used under this Creative Commons license

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Jefferson Middle School: Podcasting the Self

At Jefferson Middle School (JMS), podcasting has become not only an academic tool but a personal one. Most recently, students in a drama class taught by Mandy Williams created their own personal belief podcasts based on National Public Radio's "This I Believe" series. It gave students a chance to express what is important to them, what changes in the world they'd like to see, their hopes for the future and just what it's like to be a middle schooler today. One student based her podcast on her Muslim faith and being the only girl in school wearing a headscarf. In her podcast, she says, "I say all that really changed was my clothing...I believe that now it is who I am. And no one can change that."

Jodi Heckel reports in the News-Gazette (Champaign, IL) that this foray into podcasting was far from JMS's first experience with or use of the technology. The principal, Susan Zola, first used podcasts to update parents and the community on what was happening at the school. Then Williams' class branched out by documenting JMS's Cabaret Night drama production in November. A current group of students is documenting the spring musical for a podcast; they call themselves the "Pod Squad." A sixth-grade class just finished up a series of podcasts on the city of Champaign. One English teacher, Susan Huffman, had her students research a current issue that matters to them and, instead of writing the usual research paper, students are making news podcasts. Some are trying out vodcasts.

Students like the excitement and variety of making their own podcasts:

"You get to use more technology instead of just going to the computer lab and just typing," said Antonio Mapson. "You get to record on real microphones like you would do if you were singing, and you get to record videos."

"It's more active," added Jonathan Sherrick.

And it's not just fun. Principal Zola feels that podcasting helps teachers reach students with different learning styles. English teacher Huffman sees students who dislike writing papers or who tend to do poorly on written assignments thrive while podcasting: "It's so exciting to see what students are able to do, and watch the students that were more reticent, more quiet, be able to blossom...It's been a highly rewarding project."

You can find links to student podcasts at the Jefferson Middle School website. And other schools in Champaign are jumping into podcasting, too. Franklin Middle School and the band program at Central High School have just posted their own podcasts.

SOURCE: "Students use podcasts for class projects, self-expression" 02/25/08
photo courtesy of Irish Typepad, used under this Creative Commons license

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Steven Elwood: DIY Science Videos

Steven Elwood, an 8th grade teacher at Roosevelt Middle School in Monticello, Indiana, has a surefire teaching tool for his science classroom: videos he makes himself. Cara Bafile reports in Education World that Elwood had used video before to present classroom activities, so when he had an opportunity to make a science program for the Twin Lakes School Corporation, he jumped at the chance.

"I ha[d] wanted to implode a large barrel for several years," said Elwood, "I had only one barrel, so I knew that I would have to videotape it so I could show it to everyone. This sounded like a good opportunity." Elwood taped the implosion in his classroom with tripods and 2 digital cameras, edited the footage on a laptop, then posted the video online. It was a hit with students and their parents:
"I used the video in my classroom to demonstrate the power of air pressure, and my students really enjoyed and understood the concept," reported Elwood. "The video made in our science classroom and posted on the Internet made the topic more interesting. Several parents have since come up to me around town to tell me that their sons and daughters dragged them to the computer to watch the video. They have enjoyed it too."
Elwood is a teacher who believes that students retain information better if they are also entertained. In addition to videos, he uses toys to show advanced concepts like Newton's Laws. At the end of the year, students get to keep a small collection of toys to help them remember the concepts from class.

For those who want to make their own videos, Elwood advises teachers to make sure they "have good editing software" and "try to keep the final video down to around five minutes in length. Most of the time, a longer video takes too much time to download, especially for people with a dial-up connection."

If you don't have the time or equipment to make your own science videos, or homeschool or just want some enrichment for your own middle schooler, you can check out the links at MiddleWeb Science, a roundup of websites, profiles, lessons, reports and related resources for middle school science. The page also lists science fairs and links devoted to biology, the environment, and outer space. Also take a look at Brain Pop, which offers animated videos explaining science concepts.

SOURCE: "Students Tune In to Science Online: Starring: Steven Elwood" 01/26/07
photo courtesy of jurvetson, used under this Creative Commons license

(Note: There is no current link to Elwood's video.)

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Eighth Graders Mapping a Safer Neighborhood

A new addition to the technology and social studies curricula at Spain Middle School in Detroit has students mapping their neighborhood with Geographic Information Systems (GIS) software.

In a program called Mapping Out a Safer Community, run by the Urban Safety Program of the Wayne State University College of Urban Labor and Metropolitan Affairs, college faculty train eighth-grade students at Spain Middle School to use GIS software and PocketPCs to map various hazards in their school's neighborhood. The project, as reported by Ellen Delisio in Education World, is intended to help students learn about and advocate for their neighborhoods.

At the Wayne State University Taking Stock of Neighborhoods web page, the project is further described:
Using PocketPCs, students map locations and characteristics of dangerous properties, take photographs, and research property ownership. They also set priorities and identify the most problematic locations near their school. Properties with the most egregious violations, known as “The Dirty Dozen”, offer a compelling picture of hazards Detroit children face daily. This information is presented to community leaders and city officials who attempt to correct dangerous situations.
The computer technology teacher at Spain Middle School, Debra Blocker, said the program gives "students an awareness of their community and their surroundings and how they can improve it and be involved." Lessons in technology are combined with lessons in civics, geography, local government and community activism. For example, Global Positioning Receivers attached to the PocketPCs give students in the field precise locations, especially important for problem properties that may have no visible or clearly indicated address. Identifying an address is the first step in finding an owner, says David Martin, a research professor at Wayne State who has worked with Spain students.

In addition, students get to see results of their field and classroom work -- students prepare PowerPoint presentations for the city council and see change happen. In one case, students presented data that clearly showed a 50% increase in abandoned houses in one neighborhood alone, prompting county prosecutors to increase enforcement in the area. This hands-on aspect to the program makes it a popular one, says Blocker: "They get excited when they see their streets on the Internet, and can identify different landmarks. It gives them a different way to address problems. We have full attendance on those days."

Interactive Adobe Scalable Vector Graphics (SVG) maps from the middle school project can be found at the Wayne State University website. ESRI's website offers more information on GIS and mapping software. Try the link especially for educators.

SOURCE: "Students Map Neighborhoods With GIS" 05/30/06
SOURCE: "Taking Stock of Neighborhoods: Geographic Information Systems Capacity Building"
photo courtesy of Phanatic, used under this Creative Commons license

Monday, February 25, 2008

Sally Ride: Drawing Middle Schoolers Back to Science

The 2008 Texas Computer Education Association (TCEA) conference in Austin brought together over 8,500 attendees and 430 education-technology vendors and featured two keynote speakers: David Pogue, technology columnist for The New York Times, and Sally Ride, former NASA astronaut and the first American woman to travel in space.

As reported in eSchool News, some of Ride's comments should scare middle school teachers, especially those who teach science. Research shows that in fourth grade, most students, boys and girls, say that they like science. But in grades five to eight, that interest drops precipitously, especially in girls.

"We have a culture that encourages students to pursue other interests," Ride said. "Kids want to be accepted. They want to do what their peer group or their parents expect of them." And, too often, she said, that isn't to pursue a career in science.

It's around this age that students also start to internalize the messages they see all around them, Ride said. And the image that most students have of a scientist is a geeky-looking guy in a lab coat--"not what anyone would aspire to," she added.

But the good news is, "we don't need to convert these kids to get them interested in science and technology," she said. "We just need to sustain the interest they already have when they're younger throughout the higher grades."

Ride sounds the alarm not only because the U. S. needs engineers and scientists but because modern life increasingly requires some level of "scientific literacy." Should I eat organic fruits and vegetables? What happens to the plastic exfoliating pellets in my body wash after they go down the drain? What makes cigarette smoking dangerous? What is climate change? All of us need ways to understand and interpret the technology and research around us.

To help, Ride started Sally Ride Science to help educators and parents keep middle schoolers plugged into science. One great feature for middle school students and their teachers is Google Earth's Sky feature. A YouTube video at Sally Ride Science features Ride and a Google employee demonstrating Sky, which offers a fascinating tour of space for class and home use. Constellations are easier to see and understand, especially for city kids who rarely get a clear look at the night sky and its stars. In the video, Ride and friend also show us a stellar nursery! The program contains details on the photos, such as whether they were taken by the Hubbell Telescope or the International Space Station, all great information for follow-up or further research.

On the Resources page, educators and parents can find lots of useful links, including
  • Contributions of 20th-Century Women to Physics
  • Women of NASA
  • howstuffworks which features explanations of how various things, from the human body to technology, work (the home page features videos and popular articles like "How can sugar explode?")
  • Quest, NASA's K-12 Internet Initiative that features chances to talk with people at NASA
  • and Science NetLinks, a site from the American Association for the Advancement of Science for K-12 science teachers
The site also features a page of links for "Engaging Girls." Middle-school girls, their parents and teachers can take advantage of links to EarthKAM which offers searchable photos of Earth from space, Expect the Best from a Girl, the Role Model Project for Girls, science summer camps and much more!

SOURCE: "TCEA 2008 serves up ed-tech wisdom" 02/21/08
photo courtesy of mknowles, used under this Creative Commons license

Friday, February 22, 2008

Maine: Laptops + Middle Schoolers = Better Writing

Do school laptops help middle school students or are they distractions? All too often, we rely on anecdotal evidence or a gut feeling about laptops in school, but that kind of evidence is not enough to inform a teacher, school or district about the benefits or drawbacks of a potentially multi-million dollar program. Now, a comprehensive study asserts that Maine's first-in-the-nation laptop program for middle school students has improved their writing skills.

Maine's laptop program, called the Maine Learning Technology Initiative (MLTI), began in 2002 and 2003 with the distribution of about 36,000 laptops to all seventh and eighth graders in the state's public schools. eSchool News reports on a study which focused on the scores of eighth graders on the Maine Educational Assessment to see if the positive views of the laptop program from parents, teachers and students held up to scrutiny. They do.

David Silvernail, director of the Maine Education Policy Research Institute at the University of Southern Maine and one of the authors of the study, said, "If you concentrate on whether laptops are helping kids achieve 21st-century skills, this demonstrates that it's happening in writing."

The study compared 2000 Maine Educational Assessment writing scores to 2005 writing scores and found that whether they used computers or pen and paper for the test, eighth graders showed improvements: in 2000, 29 percent of eighth graders were considered proficient in writing, compared with 49 percent in 2005. (In that same period, math scores stayed the same and reading scores actually dropped a few points.)

Silvernail proposes that laptops make writing somewhat easier for students; with laptops, it is easier to edit and revise which encourages students to work longer or more intensely on their writing. The principal at Piscataquis Community Middle School, Virginia Rebar, agrees: "It's just a lot easier to edit, to self-critique. Our teachers engage students in a lot of peer editing. Not only are they helping themselves, but they're helping each other as they get to their final projects." She isn't surprised by the results because she has seen that the laptops encourage and develop language skills every time students use them, whether for math, social studies, language arts or other subject.

The study also explains that it is the actual use of the laptops that improves student scores:
A secondary analysis of the 2005 scale scores revealed that how the laptops are being used in the writing process influences writing performance. Students who reported not using their laptop in writing (No Use Group) had the lowest scale score, whereas students who reported using their laptops in all phases of the writing process (Best Use Group) had the highest scale score. The difference in Effect Size is .64, indicating that the average student in the Best Use Group scored better than approximately 75% of the No Use Group students.

You can find a PDF of the research brief at this link. Details on the MLTI can be found at In addition, you can check out the Maine Education Policy Research Initiative website that features other reports and related links. New updates to the site are coming soon!

SOURCE: "School laptop program begets writing gains" 02/04/08
photo courtesy of Shareski, used under this Creative Commons license

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Eric Langhorst: Podcasting American History from Liberty

Eric Langhorst teaches 8th grade American history at South Valley Junior High School in Liberty, Missouri. For years, he has used digital content to enhance the learning experiences of his students. In Cara Bafile's profile in Education World, Langhorst discusses the creation of his very successful and popular StudyCasts:
"I began recording an audio review to help my students prepare for upcoming unit tests. With my portable MP3 player, I record an overview of the important material. I then transfer the audio, which lasts about 20 minutes, to my computer, and then upload the MP3 file to our classroom Web site. Students then are able to listen to the study review at home on their computers or download it to their personal MP3 players; they can review for the test anywhere."
Langhorst says he knew it was successful the night an error appeared in the link for the podcasts and he received multiple emails from parents and students asking for it to be fixed so students could review for the unit test. Students without access to the Internet, iTunes or an mp3 player can check out CDs of StudyCasts so no one is left behind.

In addition to StudyCasts, Langhorst produces "Speaking of History," a regular podcast that allows him to bring in varied sources to discuss history: interviews with experts and museum personnel, dramatic readings, and other audio enhancements. Langhorst's podcasts are heard around the world and are available at iTunes or at Langhorst's blog, Speaking of History.

Check out the blog for details on his latest pilot project: Microsoft has donated enough Zune mp3 players for each student in Langhurst's third period 8th grade American History class. Langhorst, in the post "Podcast #132: The Student Zune Pilot Project at South Valley Jr. High," expresses great excitement about this pilot which will allow him to "'beam' content -- in the form of audio or pictures -- to their players before they leave for the day." On their own time, students can listen to or view audio content, videos and even slide shows of relevant images to make lessons more palpable and interactive. Listen to the podcast for details on the specifics of the pilot program and details on how Langhorst will incorporate the Zune into the classroom. He will also explain how he will measure outcomes of the pilot.

Is it any surprise that Langhorst also teaches a graduate course called "Technology for the Classroom"? Or that he serves as the current 2007/2008 Missouri Teacher of the Year?

SOURCE: ""Speaking of History" Through Podcasts, Starring: Eric Langhorst" 09/08/06

photo courtesy of Wesley Fryer, used under this Creative Commons license

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

New Programs to Help Middle-School Teachers with Algebra

"Mathematics Teaching in the 21st Century" (PDF), a recent study funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and conducted by Michigan State University (MSU), claims that too often, middle school teachers aren't prepared to teach algebra. Three different surveys are summarized in the report: a Teacher Preparation Institution (Program) survey, a survey for Future Teachers of Middle School Mathematics, and brief faculty surveys. The news is not good:
"Our future teachers are getting weak training mathematically and are just not prepared to teach the demanding mathematics curriculum we need for middle schools if we hope to compete internationally in the future," said William Schmidt, an MSU distinguished professor and director of the study.

In comparison with other countries in the study, future teachers in the United States ranked from the middle to the bottom on measures of mathematics knowledge.

"What’s most disturbing is that one of the areas in which U.S. future teachers tend to do the worst is algebra, and algebra is the heart of middle school math," Schmidt said. "When future teachers in the study were asked about opportunities to learn about the practical aspects of teaching mathematics, again, we rank mediocre at best."

Laura Devaney, associate editor of eSchool News, outlines several math programs created by education companies for elementary and middle school students to help this disturbing trend but the most exciting effort has been spearheaded by the nonprofit National Math and Science Initiative. NMSI has offered grants worth up to $2.4 million each to several U.S. universities to help them set up programs modeled after UTeach, a teacher-preparation program at the University of Texas at Austin. In UTeach, students majoring in math and science earn teaching certifications, financial incentives and early classroom experiences to draw, and hopefully keep, talented people in K-12 classrooms. The program acknowledges that talented teachers are needed to support and train future users and innovators of technology:

"The UTeach program invests in the teachers of those who will become future leaders in key technology industries critical to the development and competitiveness of the United States," said Tom Luce, chief executive of the National Math and Science Initiative. "As society demands more and more technological advancements, investments in those who teach in math, science, and technology become critical for continuous success and long-term growth."

The apparent strength of programs like UTeach is not just in the value placed on developing the math and science skills of elementary and middle school students but also in the value placed on those who teach those skills, something that often seems missing in the scramble over standardized test scores and school rankings.

SOURCE: "Schools aim to solve huge math problem" 02/12/08
photo courtesy of Stefan Heinemann, used under this Creative Commons license

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

JacketFlap: Connecting Authors, Illustrators, Teachers and Students

Sally Lodge, writing in Publisher's Weekly, gets us up-to-date on the huge success of JacketFlap, a social networking site for those involved with children's and young adult (YA) literature. Receiving over 200,000 hits a month, JacketFlap features over 1600 author and illustrator profiles:
In addition to offering online chatting opportunities -- the site offers a "Blog Reader" that aggregates posts from more than 650 children's book-related blogs -- JacketFlap also features a searchable database of almost 900,000 children's books, 200,000 published individuals and 20,000 publishers.
And JacketFlap has reached this level of success in just 2 years. Tracy Grand, the founder of Word of Net, a developer of Internet marketing research and measurement tools, started JacketFlap in 2006 because of a love for children's literature. She saw that the site had potential beyond her original purpose of linking children's and YA authors and illustrators to each other:
"I soon realized that there was a real need for online networking in the children's and YA book community and for a central information resource," Grand says. JacketFlap quickly became a social networking site, she adds, giving writers and illustrators “the opportunity to promote their work and publishers a chance to promote their authors’ books."
Author Cynthia Leitich Smith, whose book Tantalize was published by Candlewick Press last year, calls JacketFlap "our place on the Web—a social-professional network in which youth literature writers, illustrators, teachers, librarians, publishers and publicists can step out of our various boxes and interact. It facilitates greater understanding and camaraderie, inspires and educates newcomers and keeps us all up to date."

Most important for schools, the site offers online chatting opportunities with authors and illustrators, contact information for authors and publishers, and the blog reader that can keep teachers, librarians and students up-to-date on their favorite authors and new releases. It's free to register and a great tool for middle school librarians and language arts teachers.

SOURCE: "JacketFlap on the Rise" 02/14/08
photo courtesy of Windy Angels, used under this Creative Commons license