Friday, December 30, 2011

Tweaking Inquiry

When I was in the classroom, the break around Christmas was always a time when I retooled what was going on in my classroom. It was my half-time for the year, a time to step back and make important changes so that my students would learn better. Half of my time with them was gone, and I wanted the rest of the time with them to be as good as it could be.

If you're new to teaching science by inquiry, you've got a chance to make some key tweaks to teaching and learning in your classroom now. You probably don't need to make huge changes, even if you're frustrated with inquiry. Inquiry is a great approach for teaching! Don't doubt that. Instead, step back and think about small changes that you can make that can give big benefits.

I constantly use the five essential features of inquiry from Inquiry and the National Science Education Standards as my diagnostic for how well I'm doing with guiding learning. Here, I've flipped those around into questions you can use for diagnosing how well inquiry is going in your classroom:
  1. How engaged are your students in scientific questions?
  2. How do your students give a priority to evidence when they are learning science?
  3. How adept are your students at developing explanations based on the evidence they're seeing?
  4. How adept are you at guiding your students to consider alternative explanations for the evidence they're seeing?
  5. How are your students constantly communicating and justifying their explanations?
I've found that if I think through the five essential features, I can usually figure out what's not working well in the inquiries I'm leading and how I can improve my students learning. 

I'll be tweeting out tips based on each of these questions in the next few days. I hope these help you as you teach with inquiry. Please let me know with a comment here or a reply on twitter if you have any questions. I'm happy to help.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

FCR STEM Conference links

Thanks so much to those of you Florida teacher who attended my sessions over the last two days. Here are the links I promised:

Friday, November 11, 2011

Teaching Evolution Resources

A big thanks to all of you who attended my sessions at NSTA in New Orleans. I posted resources from both sessions on the Facebook page for The Missing Link (since I was having trouble with uploading to the NSTA site). If you have any questions, feel free to write them on the wall there or as a comment here. 

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

See You in New Orleans?

It's almost time for NSTA's Regional Convention in the Big Easy, and I'm getting excited. Please let me know if you're coming so we can connect up. I'll be speaking twice on teaching evolution, and the image here gives the times and locations.

  • My Thursday session is workshop-styled, and we'll be focusing on specifics in the classroom. You'll walk away with a lesson plan for teaching whale evolution and an overview of the evolution unit I created in The Missing Link. If you've been to one of my sessions before on teaching evolution to resistant students, this is a good follow up.
  • My Friday session is a big picture look at the issues involved in teaching. Do you have students afraid of evolution, maybe even hostile to it? I'll give you some good traction on the issue and show how you can be faithful to the science without attacking any faith-full students in your class. 
Both sessions feature inquiry as the heart of science teaching. 

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Backstory of a Tweet

I just tweeted. No big deal really. It was a quote from an Educational Leadership article I was reading. But, in case you weren't aware of how teaching and learning is happening now in today's university, here's the gist of what happened:

  • In my online class, I posted an assignment on Blackboard for students to find & read good articles on how schools at changing.
  • My students log in and read the assignment.
  • They log into our university library and find the e-version of the journal.
  • One of my students, B, selects an article on today's tech savy students.
  • He reads the PDF of the article.
  • He posts a summary of the article and the PDF in Blackboard for his peers in the course.
  • I click through all of their posts on my laptop as I grade their article submissions.
  • His article catches my eye.
  • I don't want to forget to read it; so, I email the PDF to myself as a reminder.
  • Later I'm sitting by the fire taking it easy. I'm listening to music on my iPad.
  • I see the article in my email and decide to take a look.
  • I realize I think I'll want to hang on to the article for future reference, so I open it in iBooks.
  • One paragraph catches my eye, and I think about tweeting it out.
  • I zoom in on the paragraph with a flick of two fingers, and click with my iPad to screen capture an image of the paragraph.
  • I open Twitter, type in my tweet, and attach the paragraph image.
  • The good find from one of my students is now out to my 300+ followers, one of which is B from my course.

And, it took me as long to write this post as it did to read the article and post the tweet.

Friday, August 05, 2011

Mirror Inquiry Ideas

I got inspired this week to move an inquiry I've been doing for years onto Prezi. Here's my vlog entry on what I learned in the process, including the following thoughts.

  • Here's a link to the Mirror Inquiry on Prezi.
  • The original concept for the inquiry came from Video #1 of the Minds of Our Own series.
  • Transitioning from a hard copy to Prezi. An image of the old Word file is below.
  • Starting to implement web-based video for bursts of instruction. Find all of the videos I researched at my mirror inquiry Delicious tag collection.
  • Aha! I could use these videos from my iPad when working with small groups.
  • Kids can go back to this Prezi whenever they want.
  • Teacher's corners & Facilitator's corners.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Celebrating Authentic Assessment

The celebration graffiti from EHS 401/600
I've been using authentic assessment for over a year now, slowly transitioning away from projects my methods students did for me to projects that they do for authentic audiences. In June, I taught Methods I at UAB in a compressed format, and I really pushed the students to make each project authentic. I was really pleased with the work they did, and I think they were too. The image shows the celebration graffiti from the last day of class. I asked them, "What do you celebrate?"at the end of the course and to post that in a visual form.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

5 Kinds of Scientists: The Theists

The most provocative kind of scientist mentioned by the National Academy in Science, Evolution and Creationism are theists. As I've presented to audiences around the country on how to teach evolution inclusively, seeing theists as a credible group of scientists has been a game-changer for many people. It was for me. As a theist myself, I always had a tendency to duck my head every time supernatural beliefs and science came up. I was always on the defensive, feeling like I had to explain how I was still rational and believing. The National Academy changed that for me and many in my audiences, however, when they stated unequivocally that theists can be good scientists: "Others are theists, who believe that God actively intervenes in the world" (p. 15).
Image from 

Francis Collins stands as a modern example of a theist who is a great scientist. Great is a strong word, but how else would you describe the scientist who led the Human Genome Project and now heads the National Institute of Medicine? He's a great scientist, and he's quite clear about his belief in the supernatural. In his book, The Language of God, Collins traces his move from atheism to Christian belief. He founded the BioLogos Foundation, an effort at integrating science and faith. He has recently co-authored The Language of Science and Faith

(Collins's work reads to me like theistic evolution, but please don't be confused. Theistic sciences are not necessarily theistic evolutionists. I am a theist, but I have serious doubts about the appropriateness of trying to integrate science and faith into one nice, neat picture of agreement, especially since most theistic evolutionists work from a Christian perspective. They then are dangerously close to imposing any integration they achieve on scientists who are not Christian, since what theistic evolutionists seek is a search for ultimate truth.)

Theists have always been in the mix among scientists. Before the 19th century, theists were prominent among scientists, as they were prominent in all fields in Europe. As an example, Isaac Newton consistently wrote on religious issues as well as scientific ones. In the transitions of the 19th century, fewer mainstream scientists ascribed clearly to a theistic position, but many clearly did. Louis Aggisz is one of my favorites. As I studied the history of science in American, Aggisz as a great scientist and a devout Chritian became a role model for me. 

The New Atheists get it wrong when they insinuate that theism clouds scientists' judgment and bars them from practicing science well.  The National Academy got it right by including theists among scientists, and the history of science clearly shows the contribution that theistic scientists have made. The challenge for theistic scientists is maintaining their commitment to methodological naturalism in their scientific publications. They can't bring their beliefs about the supernatural into their scientific explanations, or they cross the line into the error of Creationists. Talk about supernatural actions and the hidden hand of Providence in the natural order are great conversations to have over beers after work or while tromping around collecting data in the field, but those speculations can't find their way into the write up of the data and still be scientific. 

Saturday, June 18, 2011

5 Kinds of Scientists

Something has been rolling around in my head for a while. I'm beginning to see that there are 5 kinds of scientists when it comes to how they view evolution. The good scientists at the National Academy got me thinking about the first three kinds, but recently, I've realized that there are two more.

First, the three kinds identified by the National Academy: On page 15 of Science, Evolution, and Creationism, the authors line out how scientists can be scientific materialists, deists, or theists. This statement has been a game changer for me and for many of the teachers I have spoken to. In it, the National Academy has clearly kept the door to practicing science open to religious people like me. They refused to exclude us, and I'm grateful for their courage and clarity. Their statement has been a key platform in my talks on teaching evolution. If religious scientists aren't excluded from practicing science, then religious students shouldn't be excluded from learning about evolution. We must stop telling students, "Check your faith at the door. This is a science class."

What I'm seeing now, though, is that there are actually two other kinds at the fringes of the National Academies three. These other two kinds break long-standing scientific traditions about methodological naturalism, which is probably why the National Academy didn't consider them. One fringe group stands at the edges of theistic scientists; the other lurks at the edge of scientific materialists.

The first fringe category is pretty clear, and it's the Creationists and Intelligent Design advocates. They argue that science should consider supernatural as well as natural causes. As I heard Michael Behe explain last night, scientists should follow the evidence wherever it leads. If it leads to an intelligent designer, as Behe believes, then that's good scientific thinking. He just crossed the line of methodological naturalism, however, and that opens the door to the chaos of scientists having to figure out which supernatural explanations from all the religions in the world get considered.

The second fringe category is more subtle, and as a religious person, it's the one that concerns me more. It's closely aligned with the New Atheists, and it basically says that religious people themselves, not religious explanations, should be excluded from practicing science. Here, think about Dawkin's God Delusion and how delusional people don't make good scientists. The problem with these fringe scientists is that they are breaking long standing scientific traditions about philosophical naturalism. Science has never excluded people who believe in the supernatural, but in its modern formulation it has always said that scientists must stick to natural explanations in their work and publications. These fringe scientists make scientific materialism not just one of three possible views, as the National Academy has said. Instead, they make it a requirement for all scientists, excluding me and every other religious person from doing science. They have just opened the door to the chaos of elite science where only a few enlightened individuals can understand science, and the implications of that stance are hugely sinister.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Eagle Evolution: An Inquiry with Prezi

More and more, I'm seeing the power of Prezi for teaching well today, including teaching science by inquiry. Over the last week, I developed a Prezi-based lesson on eagle evolution for teaching to a local middle school. I'm really pleased with how the lesson came out on Prezi.

The lesson uses 4 species of sea eagles, including the bald eagle, to help 7th graders begin to grasp how variety in a population can lead to speciation over a long period of time. The students responded well to the lesson, and I think part of the reason is how easy it was to make the lesson image-based. The students jumped right into their research, using laptops, and were able to find evidence about the differences in the environment and traits between eagle species. I was also pleased with how easy it was to adapt the lesson between classes, since it was a lesson I'd never taught. The school is on a testing schedule; so, their teacher is going to finish it up today when I can't be there. With Prezi, all he needed is the link, and he'll be off and running to teach the lesson.

Saturday, February 05, 2011

Remembering the Mimeograph

One of my first memories of teaching has to be the smell of the mimeograph machine in the teachers' lounge. If you are young enough that you don't remember anything before photocopiers, mimeographs were what teachers used to make copies back in the day.

You made a master by handwriting or typing on a special combination of paper types. By the way, I do mean typing, not word processing. We were using old-style typewriters and any mistake was a real pain to correct. Then, you removed a sheet from the master that had your original turned into purple on the paper. You attached that sheet to the drum on the mimeograph machine, loaded in a stack of blank paper, and started turning the handle. If your school had a fancier machine, it turned itself with a motor. As the drum made contact with each sheet of blank paper being fed through, the machine transferred an image to the paper. A little of your master wore off with each sheet; so, masters wouldn't make copies forever. The smell came from the fluid in that gallon container in the picture, and you could smell it far down the hall whenever someone was making copies. Here's a YouTube video showing a mimeograph machine in action. They were loud!

Do I miss mimeographs? No, not at all. I don't even miss photocopiers now that I've moved to almost-paperless teaching. Mimeographs do remind me, though, of a very different day of teaching the first time I was in the classroom. No photocopiers, no word processors, no spreadsheets, no cell phones, and no Internet! The last one seems to be the one that amazes my Net Generation students the most. We taught without any Internet support. All we had where our textbooks, the supplemental materials that came with them, and any resources we had collected on our shelves or in our filing cabinets. We were all little teaching islands in our own classrooms.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Teaching 25 Years

(image from
This month marks my silver anniversary of teaching. 25 years ago, I took my first teaching job. I decided late in my pre-med studies in college that I didn't want to go to med school, and I really didn't have a plan B. I tried working as a youth director in a Baptist church for awhile, but quickly realized I didn't like being a professional Christian. My parents were both educators, and I had often wondered if teaching was in my blood, too. So, when my church job was cut to part time, I went looking for jobs as a substitute to give teaching a try. The first school I walked into, a small private school in Greenville, Mississippi, hired me on the spot. Their junior high math teacher had just walked out, and I took over that class when spring semester started.

I learned over that first semester that I didn't like junior high, I didn't like math, but I really liked teaching. I thought I had found my niche, and 25 years later, it's clear that I had. I am my teacher. It's one of the main ways I define myself. I do it naturally, and it brings me great joy. There's nothing quite like those times in my classroom with my students in which we're all engaged in true learning.

I'm not sure yet how I'm going to celebrate this silver anniversary, but I really do want to mark this milestone. I may be blogging over the next semester about key moments in teaching across the last 25 years. (It's funny--the first thing I think of is the mimeograph machine!) I find myself being reflective and a little nostalgic as I think of a quarter century of teaching. That's a long time doing a really valuable job!