Wednesday, December 11, 2013

What's UR Rxn? A chemistry class blog, part 1

I emailed my students the rubric for the class blog project today.

Ever since starting THIS blog last April, I have been ambivalent about the whole endeavor. I tend to be much too particular to be able to write quickly or easily. The act of posting my writing to the “world” reminds me a bit of piano recitals, which were not my favorite evening growing up.

Maybe I wanted my chemistry students to experience some of this angst.  (OK, that sounds mean, but I am a chemistry teacher AND an organic chemistry teacher, I know how to cause angst.)

I introduced the assignment to my AP classes back in September. We used a block of time to brainstorm ideas for the requirements of the project. It was not a tightly structured block, so a few students rose through as leaders. These students volunteered to be editors for the project. I gathered the ideas into the start of a rubric and then let the project sit for three months.  (I’m a cross country coach—there were other things on my mind.) Just recently I discussed the project with my organic chemistry students and, similarly, I now have editors and ideas for the assignment from those two classes. I sent the rubric outline out for the editor's review.  Here are a few of their responses.

About a minimum word limit: 

“I'm not sure if any of the grading categories account for writing quality. Some pieces of writing feel as if they have "filler" information with redundant or irrelevant sentences intended to get the article over the word minimum. This sentence that you're currently reading, which is not really necessary and a bit of a run-on, restates exactly what I just said about adding a sentence to increase the length of one's writing through superfluous words, when actually it doesn't serve a useful purpose, since I just mentioned that and you don't really need an example, but I have read a lot of papers that are written this way, even if they do have interesting content. :)”

About the lack of structure:

“Anyway, while nothing within the rubric is wrong, that in itself is the problem. The rubric you created, no offense, offers mostly generalities, lacks explicit goals and instructions, and desperately needs more criteria that can be effectively evaluated and graded.”

About the distribution of points:

“I agree; the point distribution for the final draft should be altered a bit; fewer points should be awarded for "interesting/entertaining" (probably 5, at most 10) and there should be more focus on clarity and cogency of the writing itself.”

From these ideas, I have constructed the assignment. 

  • 30 points for a rough draft (on time, has a copyright-free image, current source, written in colloquial voice.)
  • 20 points for 2 different peer-edits (check grammar, sentence structure, sources, and give ideas for improvement)
  • 50 points for the final copy (creative title, thoughtful and organized, correct voice, image supplements writing, general creativity, and meets all requirements)
  • 20 points extra point assignment, if the post is published:
“The publication standard will be met only by posts that are current, thoughtful, creative, entertaining, well-written, and worthy of a blog post representing our school. The publisher will discuss selections for publication with the editors, but the ultimate decision is made by the publisher.” (I am the publisher.)

I decided to go with a looser writing rubric, contrary to one of my editor's request. If I want my students to “find their own voice” when writing this piece, I did not want them to be hamstrung with a rubric that details what I think good writing looks like. I like the bonus points for “above and beyond” needed to be met for publication. 

This assignment is a work in progress. The goal is to have my students write about science with a personal voice, but also to be involved in creating the assignment and learn leadership and communication skills as they produce the blog with the rest of the class.

I’d love to know UR Rxn!

Monday, September 2, 2013

Smells of Summer

There is this earthy, sweet, musky smell of ferns that I associate with our wonderful vacation home in northern Michigan. If I smell it, I am completely moved to Beulah, no matter where I am.

Or the smell of an outboard motor and lake, I am back at my parents' Minnesota cabin, re-living the summers turtle hunting and swimming. (We always practiced “catch and release” with the turtles.)
So with summer ending and these marvelous transporting odors being put away for the season, I decided to investigate the world of olfactory recognition. (That's a normal thing to do, correct?) Amazingly, the biochemistry of smell is still rather poorly understood, even though the 2004 Nobel Prize in medicine was awarded because of research into smell receptors.

My inspiration was not just the ferns, but a recent article in the Washington Post detailing two studies published in the journal Current Biology by researchers from New Zealand, listed here and here. The biologists were trying to find genetic links for the smell recognition of specific molecules. What I found truly fascinating was that the scientists used emotional response to measure the ability to detect a smell. Subjects described feelings and events when exposed to different concentrations of a molecule. In a scientific chart are phrases like "eat lots of chocolate" and "Grandmother's gift." So my pleasant thoughts from summer smells could be used to identify odor receptors. I can see a graph with "walks in the wood" or "canoe trip" as descriptors for my response to these odors.

My husband insists that my 'fern' smell is actually that of the nearby pine trees, and he may be correct, but the combination of fern and pine results in that marvelous Beulah bouquet. Aromas are not just from a single molecule, but from a sets of molecules and each person perceives odors differently, hence the necessity to “measure” smell with emotion. Though humans have a few hundred odor receptors, we can discern the difference between thousands of different smells. I am reminded of the eighty-eight keys on the piano and how many different combinations can be played, smelling is like that. Some of us play chopsticks and others play Chopin.

The New Zealand biologists’ work suggests humans around the world experience similar differences with respect to smell: it looks like nature seems to beat nurture in this realm. So go out and smell the world and appreciate your own unique aroma experience. I will head to the upper lower peninsula of Michigan and enjoy the smells of fall.

After first drafting this piece, I took a walk with Belle, our Jack Russell Terrier, on our dirt road in Beulah. She decided suddenly to take me on a detour off the road into the ferns and pines. No, it was not the romantic sense of fern-smell she was chasing, but the reminiscence of one of the most exciting days of her life. (See photo: there are also hundreds of quills INSIDE her mouth.) In no more than a minute we were face-to-face with a porcupine. Thank goodness for strong leashes! 

Monday, August 19, 2013

Lessons from Finland

I spent a year in Lukio (the Finnish equivalent of the German Gymnasium) as a Rotary Exchange student as an 18-year-old in 1979. I have kept in touch with my three host families from Ilmajoki throughout the years and went back to visit in 2005. There are some interesting and constructive ideas that come from the Finnish education system, but to say that the Finnish system produces “innovation-ready” students without any background of how this is accomplished is rather misleading.
  • Finland is a land of 5.3 million people in an area of 130,000 square miles (bigger than New Mexico, smaller than Montana.) It has an incredibly homogeneous population.
  • The Finnish education system tracks students after middle school. The academic track goes to Lukio and the vocational track goes to either some kind of ammattikoulu or goes to work. Typically less than 50% of the students move on to Lukio and application to some Lukios is competitive; this is especially true in the city centers of Helsinki, Turku, and Tampere.
  •   In Lukio, the entire goal is to prepare for the national matriculation exams. (Here is the great Finnish word for these exams: Ylioppilastutkintotodistus.) I knew many students who would opt to repeat 11th grade to be ready for these exams. To secure a spot in the university, a student would have to earn high scores on these exams.
  • Teaching programs are especially competitive: only 10% of applicants are accepted to some elementary programs.
  • Teaching programs are designed around content, as opposed to pedagogy. Teachers, being masters of their subjects, are given a great deal of autonomy in the classroom. 
So are the students “innovation-ready” because they are the best students in this small country and have had to jump over many hurdles in pursuit of a coveted spot in the universities? Are they “innovation-ready” because they have had teachers all along the way who are experts in their subject area and who have also had to jump over the same hurdles?
I am not sure where Thomas Friedman and Tony Wagner get the idea that students in Finland “learn concepts and creativity more than facts,” and with “almost no testing.” This may be true in the lower grades but the academic/Lukio track in secondary school is fact and content-driven and grounded in competition between students with very high stakes culminating examinations. I contend that it is this competition that inspires the innovation and drives the educational success of the Suomi people. That, and a healthy dose of Finnish Sisu thrown in!
(This post was originally written as a response to a Thomas Friedman NY Times op-ed that was shared with our faculty by our school’s professional development director.) 
With my second Finnish Father/Isä,
Yrjö Hirsimäki, in front of Ilmajoen Lukio in 2005.
(Isä Hirsimäki died within a year of this picture being taken.)

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Bricks/Mortar to Clicks/Cloud

I believe in the power of a classroom. I have started many 'philosophy of education' pieces with that phrase. Until the summer of 2013, that classroom would be the traditional space with a white board, demo table, student desks, and lab stations. Now, my new classroom will include a flipped approach with multiple sets of podcast lessons and video conferencing with a screen share of my writing tablet and uploading student structures via iPads and drawing apps.

It has been a very steep, intense learning curve for me to get to this point. I have been told that snowboarding has a much steeper learning curve than skiing, so I like to think of all the detours and struggles I have encountered in the last four months much like the time a novice snowboarder spends sitting on the slopes.
This OChemPrep endeavor started in the spring with a visit to my accountant. I told her that I wanted to start a company to help students get ready for organic chemistry in college. She said she could file the incorporation papers, and she also wrote down the name of a client who might be able to help me with website development.  It was not more than one minute later when that client, my ‘producer,' walked into her office. I gave him my OChemPrep ‘elevator pitch,’ he took the hook, and I was the owner of an edtech start-up!

I have learned so much in such a short amount of time that I sometimes feel like a first-year teacher again. Maybe with a bit more control over my life, but like then I am awestruck by those who seem to know so much more than I do. 

What have I learned?
·        Podcasting—Wow, it takes FAR longer than I ever expected to produce good educational videos.  From planning to recording (and re-recording) to editing and rendering and then compiling a list of all the links in a cloud-shared document, this process required many days, and some nights.

·        Marketing--the most time-consuming, frustrating, but ultimately rewarding part of the project. I have a healthy respect for anyone starting a new business. The effort paid off and I cheered with each and every ding from the Gmail app as a student registered for a summer 'boot camp' class.

·        Tweeting--Oh, the world of educational twitter!! The #satchat and #tlap chats with tweets flying past faster than one could read. (It took me weeks of lurking before I knew what #tlap stood for--you teaching pirates out there know who you are!!) This was the most amazing (and fun) professional development tool ever.
So now, having worked all summer to build a website, a blog, a forum with a set of interactive games, a video textbook for organic chemistry prep and a PLN on twitter, I am ready to take the step out of my bricks-and-mortar classroom into my cloud-based one.  I just read a post by Jake Clapp of Global Online Academy, and I will quote:  “Teaching and learning in the online environment demands creative approaches to instruction, assessment, community building, and formative feedback.”  So maybe there is a reason why I have felt like a first-year teacher again.
So into the virtual classroom I go, hoping it’s a steep curve up, but a great ride down.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The GLR: The Gypsy Caravan of Michigan Runners

I struggled with finding the correct metaphor for the Great Lakes Relay (the GLR).  There are a few other possibilities of itinerant events: 
  • a wagon train (we do carry our own food and some carry shelter, but we don't circle the wagons in the evening for protection)
  • a traveling circus (yes, there are performances, and a three-ring atmosphere at times, but there are few, if any, spectators.)
I settled on the Gypsy Caravan, especially after reading some of the descriptions of the Romani/Roma people (the politically correct name for “Gypsies”).   From a website devoted to understanding the Roma: “In travelling communities extended families travel together and share resting sites. Regardless of type of dwelling, the extended family is the unit within which resources are shared, work is organized, and food is prepared and shared.”  And from a Romani Proverb:  “You cannot walk straight when the road bends.” 
So with that preamble I hope to illustrate why so many of Michigan runners spend the third weekend of July, year after year, running and racing in heat, bugs, and storms on questionable trails and dirt roads with just a sheet of paper full of directions in our hands to tag the next runner on our team. 

The Gingerbread Girls, end of day 2, Grayling, MI, 2013
For the all but one of the last ten years, I have participated in the Great Lakes Relay. I try to describe the event to people, especially non-runners, with very mixed results. 
  • We run from one end of Michigan to the other with 9 other people and 3 cars in 3 days to cover over 275 miles of roads and trails
  • We get up at 4 am every day to make it to the start at 6 am
  • We don’t have organized places for bodily functions to occur
  • We compete with other teams, but at the same time cheer them on as they finish, especially after the tough legs
  • We sometimes get lost in the woods (but hopefully not for long, but sometimes for a LONG time)
  • We are sore and tired and pushed to the limit of endurance
  • We do this every year and vow at the end of the event to come back next year and run better
In my long running career (almost 40 years at this point), there are few experiences that come close to the GLR in terms of reward.  Yes, I remember my first marathon in 1982, and my marathon PR at age 44, and running on my cross country teams in high school and college, and coaching a few special cross country teams, but there is nothing that compares to the feeling of community that surrounds the GLR.  Each year’s team has a different chemistry (some better than others—2013 was one of the best), and the Gypsy Caravan of the GLR has the feeling of a small town on wheels. 

There are co-mayors (Bob and Nick) and sheriffs (Punch, Sue, Jackie and the rest of the race officials) and other characters that give rise to legends, stories, and myths associated with the GLR.  (Each group has its own ‘characters,’ and many of these tales start to overlap as the web of teammates grows from year-to-year.)

There is a set of rules and customs associated “The Relay.” Some of these rules are written down:
Other rules are not written down:  Faster teams should not run concurrent, but should cheer on those concurrent runners as they fly past on the later legs of relay.  (‘Concurrent’ is a method for teams to finish before nightfall, by breaking the relay chain, and running the legs at the same time as their teammates, and adding the splits together to find a finish time.)

Another feature of the GLR is the lack of service on our phones.  It is a wonderful thing to be disconnected from the “real” world as our little town with its 700 participants, and 200 vehicles, moves through the north woods of Michigan.  It is a culture shock to wake up on Monday morning after the GLR and realize that the weekend is over and we have bathrooms, clean beds, and an alarm that rings at a reasonable time.
So why is this event so special? 
  • The amazing sights:  the woods and fog in the morning, a view from the top of a hill on a nasty trail, the Empire beach.
  • The unique experiences:  having a tank flying past you as you run through the sand of Camp Grayling on the “Graveyard,” a run through a lightning storm on the top of a sandy hill, the final sprint to the end of the last miles of the weekend on those oh-so-tired legs.
  • The wonderful people:  teammates who inspire you to run better than you think possible, folks who understand that running is not an odd obsession, and dedicated athletes of all shapes and sizes, young and old.
These are all pieces that make the event extraordinary.

It will be 360 days until the next GLR. 
I am not sure what will happen to “The Gingerbread Girls” in those days, but I hope we can stay together in some form. 
I DO know that I have seen many a straight road, and many a bent road over this past weekend, and I intend to come back next year to follow them yet again.

Relay hand-off, 2007

Friday, July 5, 2013

A Teacher's View from the Fourth of July

It may not exactly be mid-summer (and in Scandinavia that was actually June 21), but July Fourth seems to be the day that I finally say good-bye to last year's classes and start looking forward to next year's.

Saying good-bye. This is sometimes the hardest part of teaching. The beauty of small (<20) and sometimes very small (<10!) class sizes is that each class becomes a small community of its own. In fact, many of my classes have referred to themselves as a family, like the 'Block 4 Families' that have coalesced these past two years. Teaching and learning in such a tight group is an amazing experience for all of us. This year on the last day of class, the last block of the day, my very small block 4 did not want to disband. We knew that the moment the first student left the class, the magic would be gone. We stood in a circle and waited...

Yes, someone finally had to leave, but no one wanted to be the first. Block 4 was a blessing.

(As with so many other Block X Families over the years, but this year even more so.)

Looking forward. The summer emails just went out to my future students. The teaching wheel starts rolling. Sometimes I look at those people who do not have school-related jobs and wonder what it would be like to have their year-round schedule. They can take vacations in September (!) and they can even have free weekends in the fall (I'm a cross country coach), but will they ever experience that excited, first-day-of-school (or practice) feeling that comes with teaching and coaching?

Other post-7/4 questions start to rattle around in my brain. Will my next year's classes/team learn to work together and with me? Will I find new ways to present chemistry to make the classroom better for my students and to keep teaching interesting? Which of my students/athletes will attain the badge of legend? ("Legends" are those characters who for better or worse, usually worse, become part of my many stories of teaching.) Which block, if any, will transform into a Block 4?

So tonight we watch the fireworks over a lake in northern Michigan. As far away from my classroom in time and spirit as I will be this summer. But tomorrow starts the slide toward the new school year. The cycle begins again.

Monday, April 22, 2013

A Big, Deep Yoga Breath

The West, Texas fertilizer plant explosion of last Wednesday killed many of the town’s first-responders and leveled buildings and homes and left behind a giant crater. I heard the question asked, how can fertilizer be so dangerous? (I even heard someone mention manure when referring to fertilizer, so there’s a chemistry lesson here.)

Close your eyes. (Oh wait, you can’t close your eyes and read at the same time!)  Ok, read the next few sentences, THEN close your eyes.

Take a big huge breath with your eyes closed.  As my yoga instructor would say “a big, juicy, fill-the-bottom-of-your-lungs yoga breath,” and then hold it for just a moment and let it all out.  (Ok, now close your eyes and do it.)



Waiting for you to finish…



You just breathed in air that contained mostly nitrogen molecules, N2.  Your lungs took in 1023 (or so) molecules of nitrogen and you did not use single one of them. They just took up space in your lungs.  Dry air is composed of 79% nitrogen and 20% oxygen and then a smattering of other gases like carbon dioxide and argon.  The nitrogen molecule is rock-solid stable.  There is a triple bond between the nitrogen atoms and not much can cause that bond to break.  But N is essential to our bodies:  muscles and enzymes are composed of amino acids which have nitrogen atoms in them.  How do they get there? 

We eat them those N atoms. We eat plants, or eat animals that ate plants. If nitrogen is so hard to break apart, how can plants get the nitrogen?  There are two principal methods for nature to get the N into the plants. One, lightning passes through the air and can break up nitrogen into compounds like nitrates containing both nitrogen and oxygen. Marvel at that, it takes a lighting strike! Or, bacteria on the roots of plants such as beans and peas can “fix” the nitrogen in the air. That’s it. So, the miracle of nitrogen-based fertilizer is that it helps nature along a bit by putting the N into plants. The stuff is explosive because it can release the N2 back to the air and the energy flies from the fertilizer into the atmosphere as that super stable triple bond forms. 

So next time you take a yoga breath, first, say a prayer for that grieving town in Texas and next, remember you may not be able to touch those nitrogen molecules, but you need them all the same.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Pressure Cookers: Put a lid on it

The Boston Marathon bombers used pressure cookers. Before Patriot’s Day 2013 I had no idea that many of the IEDs used in Iraq and Afghanistan were fashioned from these wonderful cooking devices.
Every year when we discuss boiling points and vapor pressure in my chemistry class, I talk about pressure cookers. My mom had a pressure cooker when I was growing up, and many of my Indian students’ families routinely use pressure cookers.
It was common for my mom’s generation to can or “put up” fruits and vegetables. They had been children of the depression and had been teenagers during the Victory Garden years of World War II; growing and preserving vegetables and fruits were expected practices in the summer and fall. The problem was that non-acidic vegetables like green beans and corn could not be canned safely without risk of botulism contamination. Botulism spores can survive boiling water; they need to be heated to 250 degrees F or 120 degrees C to render them harmless. (You could pickle the veggies: the acid in thevinegar kills the bacteria.) 
The heavy-walled pot has a lid that can be sealed tightly with a rubber gasket keeping the steam from escaping. Excess steam can be released through a release valve. Pressure builds up inside to the pot. Water boils when its vapor pressure (a measure of the amount of forces holding water together) is equal to the surrounding pressure. Since the pressure is higher in the pot, the water boils at a higher temperature and food cooks faster and botulism bugs are killed. Dentists and hospitals use them to sterilize instruments between patients. These are truly marvelous inventions.
Now, when I talk about boiling point and vapor pressure, I will have to add comments about pressure cookers being used as bombs, just as I discuss the Oklahoma City bombing when I discuss nitrogen-based fertilizer. Sometimes connecting chemistry to current events just stinks.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Chemical Vision

If I were to start a blog about writing, I would make sure that every single post that I wrote was free of spelling errors, punctuation problems, and awkward or incorrect grammar.  If I am writing about writing—I better be able to demonstrate to the world that I can write.  Split infinitives and dangling participles are abhorrent to those that read good writing.

If most people look at the two molecules at the top of this blog post, they do not see anything other than two rather similar structures rendered to be pretty and shiny, blue and yellow (and red, in the case of the second molecule.)  Someone who knows chemistry, would look at the pretty shiny molecule on the left and say, “Hmm. Something is funky here, that does not look quite right.” Or maybe a bit more forcefully, “Whoever put together that drawing does not understand chemistry.”  

The molecule on the left is gibberish.  It is spelled wrong.  It simply does not exist.  (Maybe it could exist if the gold atoms were assumed to be oxygen and the hydrogen atoms that should be attached to the gold oxygen atoms were implied, but that is stretching it.)

The molecule on the right makes perfect sense:  four bonds to carbon, three bonds to nitrogen, two bonds to oxygen, and one bond to hydrogen and the angles between the bonds have the correct measures.  In fact, the coolest thing is that someone who knows chemistry automatically sees those atoms (carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, and hydrogen) in those positions, without being told what they are. In fact, there are chemists out there that would look at that molecule and think of coffee.  (The molecule is caffeine.)

I have been teaching chemistry for twenty years.  It is a truly marvelous thing when my students start to “see” molecules and structures as a chemist would.  In my organic chemistry class, we call this magical moment the epiphany, the “AHA!” moment when all the reactions, mechanisms, electrons, and arrows seem to dance in an organized way.  

Organic chemistry then becomes a set of puzzles instead of a bunch of note cards, because my students have learned a new way to see.