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Monday, March 9, 2015

Get Real! Check out the Science happening Right Now!

This week your students can become a part of history!  They can become part of a team made up of artists, social media, NASA officials, and more to help celebrate the launch of the Magnetospheric MultiScale (MMS) mission this week.  What’s that, you say?  The MMS Mission is a set of 4 satellites that will be launched this week to study magnetic reconnections in the magnetosphere?  Still not clear?  These four satellites are going into space to study the explosions that cause “space weather.”  These explosions of energy can wreak havoc with our electrical systems, astronauts, other expensive satellites and our everyday tv, radio and phone transmissions. 

The first challenge
A couple of years ago, I was given the opportunity to help develop lessons around a new NASA Mission, The Magnetospheric Multiscale Mission (MMS) a mssion that was not even going to launch for a couple of years.  Our mission (and we chose to accept it) was to design a lesson that would teach kids around the world what the mission was all about and why it was important AND we had to include a social media component.  We decided to design a truly authentic mission and turn that challenge around to our students.  The MMS Challenge was born. Students from all over participated and shared their videos, artwork, models and activities that would teach other children about the MMS Mission.  Check out what students have done to meet the challenge.

A new challenge
Fast forward to today….the mission is launching this week and we are once again asking students to become an integral part of the team.  What better way to demonstrate in a very real way, the wide variety of careers involved in such an undertaking than to talk to some of the people that are directly involved.  We would love to have your students meet our team, learn about the mission and share through social media.  Our team includes Father of Digital Art Laurence Gartel, NASA MMS Education Outreach TEAM, NASA MMS Social Media Team, students and teachers. 
Introduction to the mission
There are a number of great short videos that you can use to introduce your students to the mission.

More Resources
Another way to get your students acquainted with the purpose of the mission is to use the SCAN tool at TregoED to learn and discuss why the mission is important from different points of view.  SCAN is a free, private online discussion tool.  Teachers should register at and set up the SCAN lesson, Space Exploration and You: SCAN the NASA MMS Mission to get a unique URL for their class discussion.  Each step of the SCAN critical thinking strategy will allow students to See the important issues, clarify them, Assess what is important and Name next steps.  Students discuss the issues from the point of view of an astronaut, student, electric company owner, and satellite company owner to determine how the MMS mission could have an impact on their daily lives. An engaging way to get them talking about the mission in a real time online classroom. 

Find lesson plans and activities that your students can do to learn about the mission. 
Make the math-science connections by mapping out the size of one of the satellites in your classroom with this activity.

Get them involved
Encourage your students to participate as a journalist, scientist, artist or engineer and share their knowledge of the launch through social media.
Details coming soon (email me at if you want me to email you the details) on how you can join a student led team, on the afternoon of March 11 or 12. Meet the Father of Digital Art Laurence Gartel, NASA MMS Education Outreach Team, NASA MMS Social Media Team, and other NASA MMS Officials and follow and post on our social media channels (#magrecon):

Thursday, January 29, 2015

How can you resist the (Science, LA, Character Ed) lessons of Deflate-gate?

It’s that time of year…a long winter stretch where many of us will need a recharge.  Why not re-energize your classroom with a topic that seems to have everyone talking!

Deflate Gate!   
Although there are probably a number of reasons why you might not want to discuss deflated balls in the middle school classroom, the great tie-in to the science curriculum, character education, sportsmanship, research and writing may overcome them all! Deflate Gate is a STEM PBL waiting to happen!  

Start with a little research
Have your students list all of the things that they “need to know” in order to investigate what happened.What are the facts? What are the precise rules that are involved? How did the rules come about?  
Listen to the coach’s scientific explanation.  List the science vocabulary and determine if he was using it correctly.  What do real scientists have to say?

Become a "PSI CSI"
Get them experimenting!  This is a great opportunity to have students see if they can replicate this experiment done on some footballs.
Have them design their own experiments to discover the effects of temperature on air pressure using balloons. Have them measure the diameter of the balloon at room temperature, and then after being in the refrigerator or the freezer.  Collect data.  Graph the results.  
Have them bring in their own footballs to measure PSI and see how much theirs differ from each other.  Which ones are easiest to handle? Throw? Lots of good science here:  measuring, graphing temperature vs circumference, graphing temperature vs PSI (with a good bike pump), determining variables (why weren't all the balls affected?).
Check out this "just released" Kahn Academy video on deflate-gate.  Sal asks "Does the Ideal Gas Law" show that there was no foul play?"

What about the cheating aspect?
If it is discovered that the winning team’s footballs were not properly inflated, on purpose, should there be consequences?  Perhaps your students might be interested in why some people cheat?

Some argue that the balls would not have made a difference in the outcome of the game.  Others argue that the integrity of the game is at stake and the team should be punished.  The team has been caught cheating before, but at this time it is unclear exactly what happened.  Should the team be held responsible?  If you punish the team do you punish the fans?  What actions would be fair?  Is it “just a game” or a billion dollar business that is supported by fans who expect better? 

Why not let your students get in on the conversation and collaborate on a solution using the free SCAN tool at  Set up the lesson titled “Sports, Cheating, and the Big Game” to get them talking and writing.

Deflate-gate has everyone talking?  Will it be part of your classroom discussions?

Friday, December 5, 2014

Ebola? Ferguson? Immigration? Too Hot to Handle or Great Learning Opportunities?

In light of recent events there seems to be no better time to teach children how to practice civil discourse and listen to and understand other perspectives.   However, it is often easy/wiser (and in fact sometimes even mandated) to avoid polarizing and emotional topics in the classroom.  So, how do we teach kids about them?  OR what do we teach kids about them?

It is difficult for any of us to get a clear understanding of what is going on through the filter and sound bites of the media.  One thing that has become clear (and is a lesson in itself) is that violence does nothing to solve problems and in the case of Ferguson, only clouds the issues or polarizes people even more.  The lesson that we want our children to understand can be taken right from the common core – to be able to develop arguments backed by facts and evidence.  We want to teach our kids how to think, not what to think.
Critical Thinking
Our children need to see that clear thinking is the only pathway to a solution to these complex problems and that there are ways to promote that clear thinking.  Once again, the simple critical thinking strategy SCAN (based on asking the right questions) can help you get kids to take apart complex issues, clarify them and create solutions.  A powerful way to get our children to practice civil discourse!

It doesn't matter whether you use the 4 step SCAN strategy to look at very tough emotional-ridden events like those in Ferguson (or desegregating schools from a historical perspective) or use it on simple situation like having cell phones in school (or should we be allowed to wear hats?) – The important thing is that we teach the kids (and adults for that matter) a way to deal with complex situations using a formula that helps them see different perspectives, weigh them and create solutions.

The SCAN tool (housed on the TregoED site) is an online discussion tool that has the SCAN strategy built in.  The advantage of using this tool, rather than just asking the questions in class are many:  kids find it engaging, roles and perspectives are built in, students use screen names, all students contribute, etc. Students read a scenario (write your own or use one from the library), select a point of view and discuss it guided by the questions that make up the four steps of SCAN.

Some typical SCAN lessons in our library:
Who owns Egyptian Artifacts?
Senior Pranks:  Crime or Tradition?
Cell Phones in School
Should there be zoos?
Should we all get trophies?
Who gets the Ebola Vaccine? (NEW!)- Have your students look at the perspectives of  ethicists, scientists, health care workers and vaccine makers and discuss how the Ebola Vaccine should be tested and distributed.

Write your own!
In addition, you can write your own lessons to meet the needs of your class.  Some hot topics in the media right now that are perfect for SCAN lessons:
Should kids be punished for parent’s behavior?  Parent’s brawl cancels children’s football championships. 
Should students have to do school at home on snow days?  Using technology at home can replace lessons in school.
Supreme Court tests the limits of free speech on social media.  Can you land in jail for something you said on Facebook?
Should we regulate E-cigarettes?  Should the same rules apply as regular cigarettes?
Who owns fashion?  Can you copy designs?

Bottom Line

The bottom line is that you may be able to avoid topics that you are uncomfortable with in the classroom, but you should never avoid the opportunity to demonstrate that clear thinking- seeing other perspectives, clarifying issues, evaluating importance and creating solutions- is a skill that can be learned and transferred to any problem.  

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Drive them to Think! My Favorite STEM Challenges

One of the key elements of a PBL is to provide a driving question.  That driving question provides the open-ended challenge or problem that we want our children to work on.  Bottom line, the question should be open-ended, require collaboration, critical thinking and teach students new skills.  These building blocks of inquiry are why STEM education goes with problem-based learning like macaroni goes with cheese! 

Driving Questions
Driving questions can, among other things, challenge students to solve a problem, design a better way to do something, build something useful or educate others.  Build, design, create and make are all verbs that bring the element of engineering into your classroom.  Adding constraints to a problem (things that students may or may not use, size/weight limitations, safety rules, etc.) not only adds to the challenge but reflects the reality of every day problem solving.

One of my all-time favorite examples of constraints in problem solving is the square peg in a round hole problem that was given to the Engineers at NASA to help Apollo 13 astronauts.  It has all the makings of a great problem:  It’s real and has real constraints. I use this great  video clip from the movie to have students practice defining a problem and listing the constraints

My Favorite STEM Challenges
Here are some of my favorite STEM challenges that I have used with kids to cover a variety of content:
1.       Build a better ________________.  Your students come across design flaws every day.  Ask them to listen to the complaints of their peers or parents about something that “just doesn’t work right” and develop a solution to the problem.  It could be a machine (like a mousetrap), law (like immigration), toy, or whatever.  They should gather information about the product, propose a solution, build a prototype, and present it to the class.  Example:  I recently had to use an airline travel toothbrush for a week – it collapsed into two pieces every time I brushed. Surely someone can come up with a better design!
2.       Rube Goldberg Contraptions.  The best engineering programs in the world participate in Rube Goldberg challenges.  Share a few Rube Goldberg cartoons, a couple of great YouTube videos and challenge your students to design and build a Rube Goldberg contraption that can do any or all of the following:
a.       Uses both a chemical change and a physical change.
b.      Uses 4 different simple machines.
c.       Uses both a mixture and a solution.
d.      Uses 4 different energy transfers.
e.      There is a whole lot of physics and chemistry that can be learned here.  Video tape their demonstrations and explanations to share with parents and post them to share with the rest of the world.
3.       Build a solar cooker with recyclable materials.  Food is a great motivator!  (and S’mores demonstrate both chemical and physical changes -burnt marshmallow, melted chocolate, broken graham crackers).  Have students research, design and build a cooker that will melt the chocolate for your s’more.  (Just saw that they now sell flat square marshmallows just for s’mores in the microwave-build a better marshmallow?)
4.       Build a SCALE Model of a large object (NASA’s latest MMS satellite, the solar system, the continents) or a small object (a life size lego man, cell, the Jolly Green Giant’s cell phone) using tape on the floor or string outside.  Lots of math involved!
5.       Make a model with moving parts using just paper (research paper engineering), Legos or recyclables of any science concept:  life, water or nutrient cycles, mitosis, meiosis, laws of thermodynamics, etc.  
Build, design, create, make, are all words that are key to putting engineering in your STEM lesson and developing problem solving, collaboration, creativity and communication.   Put the learning in their hands!

What are your favorite engaging STEM Challenges?

Monday, September 15, 2014

Wall of Fame and other Award-Winning Ideas

When I started back to school each year, one of my bulletin boards (not my forte) was a blank brick wall.  (Google: brick wallpaper).   I explained to my students (and parents at Back to School Night) that it was the Wall of Fame.  I had straight-forward-hard-to-attain-academic criteria which only a few students would reach in a marking period.  Once you had earned Wall of Fame status, you were allowed to design your own name to post on it (any font, size or colors.)  The kids loved earning that status (and designing their own names)!

My Wall of Fame was based on academic criteria, but that does not have to be the case, you could recognize all sorts of accomplishments.  You could even have students develop their own criteria.  Imagine if your students had to put together a portfolio to apply for the award? Just like using the Schools to Watch Rating Rubric as a great way to get your middle school to reflect on and evaluate their work, a student created Wall of Fame Rubric could be great way to get kids to reflect on their accomplishments in your class.  You could even accept peer- nominations for extraordinary leadership or citizenship.  Our school, like many, has a list of awards that we give out at graduation. Why not share those awards and criteria at the beginning of the school year and give them something to shoot for?

But wait, should all students get an award?  (I remember having to come up with a category for every child’s costume at a Halloween party so they could all get an award – my own child’s award should have been Best Working Mom’s Poor Attempt at Creativity, but I digress.)   What a great critical thinking/writing opportunity to get kids thinking and writing. Why not have students look at some of the issues from different points of view and determine what should be done?

Here are some points of view and articles that go with them:
Parent 1:  She wants her child to get a trophy for participating, the trophy is a reward for fulfilling a commitment on the team, it is both motivational and a memento for her participation.  My Loser Kid should Get a Trophy
Coach:  Not all players should receive trophies- trophies should earned.  You may earn a trophy for highest scorer, most improved, best sportsmanship, but it should be earned and not given to everyone.  Besides, the trophies cost a lot of money.  Participation Trophies:  Should Kids get Rewarded for just showing up?
Player:  If everyone has participated and worked hard, than everyone should be rewarded.  However, it is not fair to give an award to people who did not even show up for practice.  This award may be the only one some children will get.  Working hard regardless of results should be rewarded. Should everyone get a trophy?
Parent 2:If children know they will automatically get an award, what is the impetus for improvement? Why bother learning problem-solving skills, when there are never obstacles to begin with?” Giving everyone an award gives children a sense of entitlement.  Losing is Good for You
Other Resources:
Should Kids get Participation Trophies? presents different opinions.

What's your take on this issue?  What would YOU do?

Want to have your students discuss this situation online using TregoED’s free SCAN tool?  Just register at and set up the “Should we all get Trophies?”  lesson complete with different points of view and links to readings.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Education: Against all Odds

Imagine if you got ALL of your nourishment, for your mind, body, and soul from one place.  This place is not in your home or kitchen, your computer, or in the palm of your hand.  It is not on your TV, radio, or other electronic device.  In fact, it is not near-by; you will have to walk miles to get there.  It is your school.
Looking out the school window

I had the opportunity to travel to Zambia this summer to see firsthand how education can drastically change lives. I have seen it many times in the US, we give kids opportunities and choice and expose them to all kinds of resources in the hope that they will solve the problems of the world.  In Zambia, education is their one hope to bring a large portion of their country out of poverty.
We visited and worked in some of the poorest schools in the country.  These cement-block schools (many were churches) were in the middle of a compound, surrounded by high walls, locked behind gates – no electricity, no lights, no resources…and yet, the benches were full of eager learners.  Why not?  This is Zambian TV, as good as it gets, literally food for their mind, body, and soul. 
I have made a living teaching kids how to think critically, how to solve problems, and how to see things from different perspectives.  “Seeing things from a different perspective” has a whole new meaning for me.  Cultural differences are real, concrete, and amazing to experience.  Even more amazing is the human factors that we all have in common. 

Child with imaginary truck

Kids are kids
The kids that we visited lived in a city, they have seen TV, video games, computers – they do not own them.  They play like our kids play- they use their imagination – a shoe is filled with rocks and becomes a truck, a plastic bag on a string becomes a kite, or two fingers are used as a loom to make a bracelet.  They laugh, sing, recite, respond, and participate just like our kids do.  We tried out some lessons before the trip with some kids from the Mt. Olive Middle School – we made balloon rockets and trading cards.  The kids in Zambia loved the activities (as did their counterparts).  They loved reading the American’s kids trading cards (and true to Middle school kids, the boys all wanted a girls card!) and took great care making the cards that we were bringing back with us.
Holding the trading cards sent to them by kids in the US

On the edge of their seats doing math factors

Well-used blackboards!

Teachers are teachers
Despite having just an old chalkboard, the teachers in Zambia all had objectives on the board (btw almost all schools had a mission statement painted on the outside of their walls), the lessons were rigorous and relevant.  Although English is the official language of Zambia, children are taught their tribe’s language – one of 72 different languages in the country, so essentially they all start out as ESL students.  Posters around the rooms are handmade.  Electricity is optional.  Despite the almost total lack of resources, these teachers take their jobs seriously (after all, the children have a National Exam to take!).  They are proud of their students, their accomplishments and what they can give to them. 

Just like the teachers in Zambia, we take our jobs seriously, and work with what we have (sometimes an embarrassment of riches) everyday to maximize the opportunities to nourish the mind, body and soul of the kids that we serve!  We recognize that for some of our kids, we are the soul source of stability and nurturing in their lives.

For more details on our trip to Zambia go to:
PS  I was approached by a teacher with three computers - little to no internet...looking for educational games to use with his kids...must be downloadable....ideas?

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Wrap up the School Year with Just in Time Learning!

So many great lessons, so little time….
Wrapping up the school year is never easy.  This time of year is filled with disruptions, testing, field trips, assemblies, yearbooks and general havoc.  It is hard for both students and teachers to carry lessons on from one day to the next.  
I have found that students are always willing to get into a good argument if there is something they might feel passionate about.  Kids are very interested in and passionate about, well, other kids.  Why not use this natural enthusiasm to get them thinking?
Teachable Moment
I think that this local news story on a senior prank gone wrong is a great teachable moment to get students thinking and writing!  Have students apply SCAN, the critical thinking strategy to determine the issues surrounding the prank and arrests, assess what is important and develop a plan on what the consequences should be. 

You could start showing the different perspectives using this news video:

If you have computer access, you could have students participate as individuals or in small groups in an online guided discussion using the SCAN tool at   The tool is free and the class discussion will be in a private URL (students will not be identified (except to the teacher) - no passwords, registration, or email addresses are necessary).  Teachers can register at www. and learn more about this tool by watching this short video.

If computers are not available, students can be put in groups with like roles, discuss the issue and then jigsaw into groups with 4 different perspectives.  They should use the SCAN critical thinking strategy as their guide for discussion.

There are lots of great discussions going on right now that your students could and should get in on:  NSA and privacy, year round school, hashtag activism (300 Girls go Missing), and more.  Take advantage of these discussions and keep the learning going!