Thursday, December 29, 2011

Setting the Audio

One of the goals of SCIENCE 21 (, the elementary science program I direct, is to provide teachers with a plethora of resources to utilize with their students.  Recently, a number of teachers have inquired about creating audiobook versions of the “readers” we have previously created (see below for an example).

We’ve already made the readers available online by saving the pages as Publisher files, and then converting them to .pdf files (here’s one as an example:  In this way, teachers can use the hard copy versions of our readers as group read-alouds and have the .pdf files up on interactive whiteboards or separate computer terminals for students to read together in groups and/or explore individually.

When I was asked to put together an audiobook, I wanted to make sure that I was able to utilize the files we had already created and would be able to format the audiobooks in such a way that every classroom could view and listen to them. 

So, I decided to design .ppt files with built in audio on each slide.  The creation was simple but time-consuming.  I migrated the images and text from Publisher, resized them to fit the slightly modified .ppt slide area and then began the process of generating audio (see below for a screenshot of one of the .ppt slides).

We have a recording studio on campus and I utilized Adobe Audition (a very user-friendly product, by the way) in the studio to record me reading each of the pages.  I created two versions, a standard one where I simply read the pages, and an extended version where I supplied a number of critical thinking questions as well.  I saved the files as .mp3 extensions to reduce the file size, and then embedded them in the .ppt.  To make the audiobook easier to use, I set the audio to play on each slide shift, and moved the audio “button” out of the visible field of the slide, so it would be less likely to be deleted or moved. 

We then placed both versions up on the web for teachers to review.  We also created a short survey about the books to get a sense of whether teachers felt they were more likely to use the standard or extended versions.  So far, feedback has been extremely positive and I’m excited to be able to offer additional curricular resources to our users!

Want to check out the audiobooks for yourself?  Visit and then click on “SCIENCE 21 Readers and Audiobooks.”  Listen to the two samples provided for the “What’s in the Box?” book, and let me know what you think!

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Learning (and "Unlearning") Every Day

My daughter is a little over a year and a half and she's a spitfire.  Every day she amazes me and my wife with what comes out of her mouth, and what actions she takes.  As an educator and scientist at heart, I'm always amazed at what she learns, and what she doesn't.

Take colors, for instance.  My daughter is at a stage where she loves picking up objects and telling me what color they are.  She readily identifies yellow, orange, blue, red, pink, etc.  However, she refuses to call orange, "orange."  Why?  Not a clue.

Or consider counting.  We count together up to ten, but she never says eight.  In fact, every number beyond seven is "nine."  What allows a person to build conceptual understanding but prevents them from tearing down "blockages?"  I find it all so interesting.

So interesting, in fact, that I ran a quick test with my daughter this week (the armchair scientist's work is never done).  As we were driving home from my daughter's daycare on Thursday, I started counting off by odd numbers, interested to see if my daughter would insert the evens.  After a few practice rounds, she did (of course leaving out eight).  The speed that she picked this up was amazing to me.  What was even more amazing is that over the last three days, anytime we ask her to count, she now only counts in even numbers.  In effect, by trying to teach her a new idea, I somehow made her "unlearn" the other numbers she seemed to know!

The connection to education (whether working with pre-K'ers or high school students) is that we all inherently have concepts and ideas that come to us very easily, and misconceptions that can arise at the drop of a hat.  As educators (and certainly parenting is all about education) it is our job to identify what comes easy (nothing provides challenge for those who "get it" better than encouraging them to assist others) and what just seems to be "blocked."  We also must do our best to not create gaps in understanding by trying to teach new ideas that others might not be ready for or that might confuse cognition.  What do we do to help when those obstacles seem to just pop up?  Well, that seems to depend quite a bit on age.  Based on my experience, I've provided a few thoughts below.

For the really, really, young, repetition and practice can often provide the push to overcome any misconception.  Since conceptual understanding of all things is occurring at a breakneck pace, ideas are constantly being relearned.  It's like continuing to add a new coat of paint.  Eventually, it looks just right.

For elementary level students, unpacking challenging ideas in truly concrete ways is helpful.  Small, discrete, ideas provided with ample time to explore in a variety of learning modalities is key.  So is avoiding creating misconceptions yourself as ideas "set" at this age often have a way of "sticking."  Explaining that plants conduct photosynthesis and animals conduct cellular respiration to a third grader "glues" the idea that plants do not conduct cellular respiration into their scientific consciousness.  This erroneous idea, like others, becomes much tougher to remove as students get older.

For secondary and post-secondary learners, the idea of metacognition is paramount.  Once students can truly think about their thinking, they can begin to explore why certain concepts challenge them, and what they, in fact, can do about it.  The self-motivated learner is what we hope all our students (and even ourselves) will become.

Finally, for "adults" collaborative opportunities keep learning fresh, and help us to see ideas from other perspectives.  Since we often get further set in our ways as we age, nothing works better to loosen these restrictions than engaging in evidence-based discussion with others.

The key, of course, is to always keep learning (and to strive to "unlearn" that which is not "correct").  We see it in the very young, and this trait of "learning everyday" should be something everyone sets on their daily "To Do" list.  While certainly a lofty goal, it is one that can be reached and never exhausted at the same time.

Friday, November 11, 2011

By Any Given Standard

It’s tough to engage in conversation about education without bringing up “standards.”  Standards documents mean different things to different people in different locations, and the recent move to put more emphasis on national benchmarks is one that will help to level the playing field in a number of content areas.  But, at least according to standards writers, not all content areas are created equal.

Take the recent creation of the Common Core State Standards.  This tremendous initiative brought forth English Language Arts and Mathematics standards that have been adopted by close to our entire nation.  Students, teachers, and community members now have common documents to utilize to map student progress.  While some states may utilize these documents in slightly different ways, the message is clear: a third grade in one part of the country should be able to exhibit the same skills as a third grader somewhere else. 

Science educators, being the analysts that we are, realized that there would be no better time to push for new national science standards than when education professionals were seeing the benefits (and challenges) of the Common Core State Standards.  So, over the course of the last year, new science standards have begun to take shape.  Last July a framework for standards creation was released, and standards are currently being penned.  While only twenty or so states have signed on so far, this initiative has the potential to be “game changing.”  While it is too early to speculate on what the actual standards will “say” (the first public draft should be released sometime this winter. . .see the “current” timeline below) the new national science standards will contain three “main” parts:
  • Core Ideas: The content piece, but with fewer main ideas in more detail (depth over breadth)
  •  Scientific and Engineering Practices: A set of skills that when combined with the core ideas will allow teachers and curriculum designers to put together excellent performance expectations.  And yes, you read correctly, Engineering will be a part of these new standards, occupying a scientific pillar alongside Life, Physical, and Earth and Space Science (engineers rejoice)!
  • Crosscutting Concepts: In an effort to help users further see the benefit of interdisciplinary exploration, the standards will focus on themes that can help educators “connect the dots” from one discipline to another.

Sounds good, right?  Of course, the proof will be in the pudding.  The last set of national science standards was released in 1996, and since then, much, both educationally and scientifically, has changed.  I, for one, am excited to see what transpires.

(This timeline shows what current standard writers assume will happen between this past summer and next fall.    Image property of Achieve, Inc. and taken from

On a less positive note, that seems to be all that is in the works for national standards development (or at least that is currently known to the public).  Social Studies?  Art?  Music?  Health?  Are they any less worthy?  Not even close.  Of course, with the continued push for, and emphasis on, strict Mathematics and English Language Arts testing, it isn’t really a surprise that these content areas are the “focus.”  Still, in all fairness, if we expect our students to have a well-rounded education, then it only makes sense for us to devote just as much time to those content areas that haven’t yet had a strong “push.”

Finally, since a portion of the work I do  involves using my content and policy knowledge to keep districts up-to-date with science education happenings, I've had the opportunity to share a number of presentations on this topic with curriculum leaders in my region.  If you're interested, let me know and I'll be happy to share.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Taking Stock. . . Literally

One of the challenges for any science educator is keeping tabs on materials.  As a department chair, I often struggled with inventory and equipment accounting.  All teachers had specific equipment that belonged to their rooms.  However, we regularly shared equipment for lab work, demos, etc.  This made it near impossible to locate that errant triple beam balance when a teacher needed it most.  I tried and tested numerous accounting methods from the age-old silver sharpie routine to a more "high-tech" Microsoft Access file.  For whatever reason, none of the methods I tried worked as well as I would have hoped.

One of the first obstacles I tackled in my new position was figuring out how to efficiently catalog and inventory our equipment.  I wanted a no-cost system that could be accessed whenever and wherever it was needed.  In talking with one of my colleagues, we identified a few options: marking them with markers, putting together a database file, tagging them into our regional library system, or using QR codes (if I could figure out a way to make them do some accounting).

The first two options were automatically out as I had tried them before with limited success.  My colleague, who runs our regional library system, was more than happy to add the equipment to her roster, but that seemed like an easy way out for me and one that took the inventory control out of our hands.  So, I decided to explore using QR codes (you know, those funky little designs that are rivaling bar codes for their simplicity and readability) for inventory.

QR codes are becoming more and more ubiquitous with every passing day.  You see them regularly in magazines, in advertisements, and even on business cards.  Here's an image of one in case you haven't really thought about them, or more importantly, what they can do.

QR codes can easily be scanned with reader apps for just about any smartphone, and the data embedded in them can range from text to URLs.  My thinking was if I could generate a database online, I could create a QR code with the database URL embedded.  I could then print the code on label paper, attach it to a piece of equipment, and by scanning it, be taken to the database for that item.

So, after some trial and error, that is just what I did.  I started by using Google Docs to create separate databases for each piece of equipment that we had.  While this was somewhat time consuming, it allowed me to generate an individual URL for each piece of equipment (which would be necessary later).  I then used a QR code generator to input the URLs and create a QR code.  Since I would be using these on a variety of different pieces of equipment, I created the smallest size codes to maximize my placement options.  I then printed these codes on label paper and attached them to our equipment (see below).

By scanning the code with a free code scanning app, I was able to access the database directly from my phone.  I could then edit in information, see who had the equipment on lease, etc.  In this way, whether I was in front of my computer or lending equipment during a training session, I always had access.  The best part was, this was an entirely free system.  The QR code generator is free, as is the use of Google Docs.  Add in the free code reader app, and this is an inventory method that included no overhead and provided our team with an ability to use current tools and technology to always know where our equipment is.

There are a few caveats, however.  I have yet to find a way to do what I would call "multi-linking" with QR codes.  The epitome of awesomeness would be to scan a piece of equipment and then scan a person's name tag or work badge thereby linking the item with the person and populating the data table without having to manually enter information.  Despite spending quite a bit of time trying, I could not achieve this, and I'm not sure if this is even possible. . .yet.  A second issue is that most reader apps can be finicky.  I find that with my Android phone I've got to be in a "Goldilocks zone" to read the codes accurately.  Too far or too close and I just look like a fool pointing a phone at a microscope, triple beam, or camera.  I've also found that Google doc editing capabilities vary from one phone OS to another.  Our program assistant can access the databases with her Blackberry, but has a heck of a time editing them.  My Droid Incredible is a breeze to access, read, and edit from.

All told, this proved to highlight just what one can accomplish with collaboration, determination, and a little technological know-how.  If you're interested in creating a free inventory system of our own, drop me a line. I'll be more than happy to help out.

Truly, "You are Here."


Sunday, October 23, 2011

Green Means Go

While I consider myself an early adopter of most things science, technology, and education, (and life, for that matter), it has taken me a while to put together a blog.  It isn't that I don't think I've got excellent thoughts to share, but rather I just didn't think anyone would really be that interested in reading them.  As time has passed, however, I'm getting the sense that some folks might actually be interested in hearing what I have to say, so I figured I would give it a try.

The title for this blog pretty clearly encapsulates where I consider myself today, standing (or to bettere go with the rest of the description, sitting behind the wheel) in the middle of a four-way intersection.  Education Avenue, Technology Way, Science Street, and Life Lane are my options, and I can head down any one I choose (for those of you keeping me honest, let's just say I somehow ended up in the center of the intersection without travelling down one of those roadways. . . some people are so critical :) ).  Yet, despite the fact that all four are clear, I'm content having a foot (and arm) where they all meet, in the intersection.  So, expect to see posts focusing on those four areas.

I have two goals for this blog:
1.  For you to read it.
2.  For both of us to learn something.

If both of those goals can be met, than my intuition about creating a blog was correct.  If not, then hey, it was free :).  Looking forward to sharing my successes and failures and learning from yours.

Truly, "You are Here."