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."