Science Education

tt_icon_170Here’s my latest Science Teaching Tips podcast — As any teacher knows, the ability to ask good questions — and use students’ questions — is a valuable skill to have in your teaching toolbelt.  In this podcast, TI staff biologist Karen Kalumuck describes how she tries not to answer every question that’s asked during a class, however tempting it may be. Instead, she’s learned how to guide her students to discover ideas for themselves.

Episode 66:  That’s a good question!

Karen Kalumuck’s Web site

41yvwdlpiil_bo2204203200_pisitb-sticker-arrow-clicktopright35-76_aa240_sh20_ou01_That’s the title of a very well-done  book that I just finished (Who’s Afraid of Marie Curie by Linley Erin Hall) which outlines a lot of the challenges facing women in science, technology, and medicine, from grade-school to college, graduate school, post-doc, and faculty and professional positions, plus concrete recommendations based on the research on how to improve the numbers of women in science.

For example, a gender-fair classroom, she says, would offer boys and girls similar amounts of criticism and praise, since girls tend to get non-specific feedback like “that’s good,” or “OK,” which doesn’t actually help them improve.  Teachers need to push girls to work on problems that challenge them, instead of “rescuing” them.  They’re smart enough to figure it out (whatever problem “it” might be), and it’s important that they develop that confidence in their own skills and abilities.

There is also a very good summary chapter on the research on gender differences in scientific ability.  As you might have guessed, males and females are more similar than they are different on most (but not all) aspects of mind.  She reviews the questionable ability of standardized tests (like the SAT) to demonstrate gender differences that are real (boys tend to score higher on the SAT than girls, but girls’ SAT scores tend to underpredict their grades in college math classes).  She talks about stereotype threat, which I’ve written about before.

Most of the book focuses on career choices facing women, however.  If you’re a woman considering a career in science or tech, I’d suggest giving this book a gander.  Some interesting factoids:

  1. Female scientists and engineers tend to marry other scientists, or at least other professionals.  68% of female physicists are married to other scientists, but only 17% of male physicists are.  Women seem to enjoy having this compatibility and understanding in their partner, plus men outside of science can be intimidated by women scientists.  However, this can result in the “two-body problem” where both members of the couple try to find similar positions in the same town.  It can also penalize the woman because she ends up being more responsible for domestic duties, but both members of the couples have demanding careers.
  2. Unconscious bias can play a large role in discrimination against women in science.  I’ve written about this before (Advice for Girls in Science and the Meritocracy).  It can be very hard for women to know they’re being treated differently.  In one study (looking at evaluations of postdoctoral fellowship applications) women had to be 2 1/2 times as productive as a man to get a similar rating of competency.  Another study looking at letters of recommendation for medical school applicants found that letters written for women tended to be shorter, and tended to include phrases that raised doubts about her competence.  <sigh>
  3. Women tend to under-estimate their ability, whereas men over-estimate theirs.  I’ve seen this to be true, and a friend of mine who leads outdoor activities has also remarked upon it.  When a man says that he’s sure he’s in good enough shape to do a long trek, he’s more doubtful.  And when a woman isn’t sure if she can do it, he usually encourages her, because experience has shown him that they’re usually selling themselves short.  In undergraduate life, this can mean that women are more likely to leave the sciences than men, because they’re more likely to doubt their ability when challenged.  This can be particularly prevalent in “weed-out” courses.  One study found that while women regained some of the confidence they lost in weed-out courses, they never fully recovered.  Those courses did permanent damage to their sense of their ability to succeed.
  4. Men spend more time trying to figure things out on their own. Women ask for help sooner.  But women might clam up, she says, when surrounded by men who aren’t asking any questions.  I’ve had this experience myself, many times.  It’s part of the reason I left the physics major.  I wanted to work on homework with a couple of the guys from class (there were no other women), but they just sat and worked on their own, and blew off my questions and attempts to talk about what we were learning.  I concluded that they knew this stuff better than I did and if I was cut out for this, it should be easier for me.  (Years later, my instructor told me I was one of the best students in the class.  Why didn’t he say so earlier?)
  5. Men tend to have an instrinsic sense of self-worth whereas women are socialized to rely more on the approval of others.  This ties in to the self-confidence problem, and helps explain why women tend to leave the sciences.  When we’re used to feeling good about what we can do when others give us praise, then when things get tougher in college and grad school, it’s easy to get demoralized.  It seems that while both men and women find the later stages of scientific training demoralizing, it’s tougher for women.  Men will tend to stick with it.  I know that this was true for me, and still is.  I feel good in response to what others say about me and my abilities.  I know that other studies have shown that it’s not good to believe that failure reflects poorly on your self-worth.  If you fail a math test and think that means you’re stupid, then you’ll just avoid math.  If you fail a math test and think that you should have studied harder, then that gives you ammunition to improve in the future.  I wonder if that has any bearing on the intrinsic/extrinsic sense of self-worth stuff.
  6. Some women go into science because they can. That is, there’s this sense that if you’re smart enough to do science, then you should.  Social science or other fields are not as high of a calling.  Plus, we need women in science as role models.  So some women feel guilty if they leave science.  Again, I know this was true for me to some degree.  Physics was the hardest science could get, and so I wanted it….
  7. Fathers’ involvement with their daughters is important. Women who were only children or didn’t have any brothers reported (in the author’s small sample) having more mentorship from their fathers in tech and science.  As an only child, and the daughter of a chemist, I found this observation very interesting.  One female graduate student observed, “I wonder if part of the reason I’m comfortable with science is that my father didn’t have a son to help him.”  Myself, I always wished my dad had brought me down into his woodshop and taught me to hammer things together.  But he did take me fishing.  I’m a bit of a tomboy, in some ways, perhaps because of that relationship I had with my dad.  And I wonder if I got more mentorship in science from him than I think.
  8. Women often have lower salaries than men because they don’t ask for more money. This is the primary message of a book called “Women don’t ask” by Babcock and Laschever.

The book had a wealth of websites and resources for encouraging girls in science, and for professional women in science to connect.  I’m not sure how much of that I’ll put in here, but if there is interest let me know and I’ll be sure to do so.

tt_icon_170For this week’s episode of Science Teaching Tips, I’ve got a story from a veteran teacher about her first year of teaching — which was quite unusual.  She was placed in a rural school in Guatemala.  You think you’ve got it tough?!  Hear about her challenges in Episode 63 – Teaching Abroad.

Two local teachers in Colorado (Jon Bergmann and Aaron Sams)  just put together a wonderful little video about how they completely transformed their high school chemistry classrooms, so that students would actually master the material.  In the video, two dynamic presenters show and talk about how they used video podcasts to make better use of lecture time by taking the non-interactive part (lecturing) out of class time and putting the stuff that kids were struggling with (homework and problem solving) into class, to improve their mastery. I didn’t think I’d want to watch a 20 minute video but I was utterly charmed by these two teachers, and their explanation of their journey along this transformation is very compelling. Their website has more on their approach to using vodcasting in the classroom.

Watch the video



Here is a long description in text of what they’re doing in case you don’t have time to watch the video (but you should watch it, you’ll get it much more, and they’re fun folks).

Peer into Jonathan Bergmann or Aaron Sams’s classes and you will see something exciting happening.  What you will observe are students taking responsibility for their own learning.  Students conduct experiments, watch video podcasts, work on assignments, interact with the class Moodle site, have one-on-one discussions with their teacher, and get tutored by their peers and cadet teachers.  This is mastery learning at work.  Students work at their own pace through science curriculum.  When they complete a unit they must demonstrate that they have learned the content by taking an exit assessment that includes both a lab and a written component.  If students score less than 85% on these exit assessments, they must go back and re-learn those concepts they missed and retake the exam.  Grades are no longer determined by a percentage but rather how much content they have mastered.

What Caused Us to Change?
We discovered software that would capture our lessons and simplify distribution over the internet.  Then we began to record our lessons and post them for students who missed class.  This was very successful in our rural school where students frequently miss class for sporting events and other school activities.  Then we realized what students really need from their teachers is not to hear us talk and “do the sage-on-the-stage thing,” but rather, to get help when they get stuck.  This prompted us to dramatically change the way we teach.  In the 2007-2008 school year we began to have students watch video podcasts at home and then use class time to do directed problem solving, more experiments, and generally get the help that they needed.  This was highly successful and the scores of students made dramatic increases.
Then it struck us.  Now that we had a library of instructional podcasts, students no longer have to all receive the same instruction on the same day.  So, in the 2008-2009 school year we implemented a mastery teaching method.  In this method students have a check-list of things to master in each unit of study.  The list includes the required video podcasts, experiments, one-on-one demonstrations with the teacher, and appropriate Chemistry problems to solve.  When students have completed ALL of the assignments and labs, they must pass the exit exam with a minimum of 85%.  If students do not score 85% or better they retake the exam as many times as needed to pass.

Implementation of Mastery
Our classrooms now resemble three-ring circuses.  Students are in various places in the content on any given day.  Lab stations around the room are set up so students can complete the experiment that is next on their check-list.  This poses some safety issues in a Chemistry class, however, with the proper training, the students have quickly adapted to this method of experimentation.  Before each lab we spend time with a much smaller group of kids and discuss the main points of the lab and safety considerations.  This makes for a more intimate learning experience for each student, giving each student far more one-on-one time with their teacher.

All Students are Successful
A huge benefit of this teaching paradigm is that ALL students are leaning.  This is the ultimate method of differentiation.  Slower students are given the extra help that they need to master the content.  Advanced students are allowed to learn on their own, which ultimately helps them to become more independent learners.

Learning Outcomes from Podcasting
In the 2006-2007 year, we gave common assessments. We agreed to use the same tests in 2007-2008 as we did in 2006-2007 and compared scores after every unit.  In addition, the math pre-requisite for chemistry was lowered from Algebra II to Geometry, thus our students came to us with lower math skills.  In addition, enrollment in the course increased by 80%.  The average scores of the students on identical science tests given before and after implementation of the podcasting model were nearly the same, showing that the podcasting model gave equivalent results with students of a lower mathematical ability.

Proof of Success with Mastery
Now, in the 2008-2009 school year, under the master model, every student is now required to master the content before progressing, and ALL students are learning.  This has been magical!  Students of all ability levels are really learning!  As much as we were excited about the 2007-2008 results, mastery learning has been an even more positive experience for our students.  Now, EVERY Chemistry student demonstrates proficiency on EVERY topic in the class, which far surpasses the level of understanding of prior student success.

tt_icon_170Have you ever really listened to the sound of a bouncing ball? There’s some elegant mathematics to be had in this simple thing. In this episode of my Science Teaching Tips podcast, staff educator and physicist Tom Humphrey takes us to the most perfect bouncing ball I’ve ever seen (or heard) — an exhibit at the Exploratorium. The platform the ball is bouncing on is a huge chunk of heavy marble, bolted to the floor. (What does that have to do with anything? Think about conservation of energy and momentum). You hear some surprising things as a small metal ball bounces on that surface. Even without the exhibit, this is something you can do with your students, and integrate science and math into your curriculum.

Listen to the episode – Follow the bouncing ball

I just found out about a neat free service for science educators.  It’s mostly for those in Colorado, but those outside Colorado are welcome to use it as well.  It’s a free email servicer for teachers to ask questions directly of a science education expert, who will go out and find the answer for you.  How fabulous!

It’s called MAST WebConnect.

Here is some text from their site:

The Problem
Obviously the problem is not that the Internet does not contain enough math and science education resources, but finding quality resources can be an overwhelming task for teachers and students alike. Teachers often do not have the time to do a quality web search or seek experts in the field.

The Solution
MAST WebConnect will answer your questions and find high-quality web-based Internet resources personally for you! Supported by the MAST Institute and the University of Northern Colorado, WebConnect is staffed by math and science educators and professors with access to these resources and references.

How it works.
The idea is simple. We know that the Internet provides a wealth of information, but sorting through and filtering that information to find quality materials can be an overwhelming task.
That is where we come in. Contact MAST WebConnect with any mathematics or science question, and our coordinators will find the information either by contacting experts in the field, or finding high-quality Internet sites.
MAST WebConnect has a pool of available volunteer mathematics and science experts to help with more difficult inquiries. These include college professors and working scientists within Northern Colorado.

tt_icon_170Despite my better judgment, I invite TI staff educator Eric Muller to do one more set of activities on my Teaching Tips podcast —several things you can do with soda straws.  Listen to the episode – The Last Straw.

Holding Charge activity (PDF)
More of Eric Muller’s activities

This is from the Exploratorium — several opportunities to connect your classrooms with polar science, including via live webcast three times a week!

Ice Stories: Dispatches from Polar Scientists
Webcasts at 1:00 p.m. PST
December 7, 2008–January 4, 2009
Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays, and Sundays
Connect Live with Antarctica!
E-mail or call (415) 561-0359
You’re invited to chat live with an Antarctic scientist during one of
our Webcasts! Contact us to arrange a connection online or by phone.
Or be part of our Webcast studio audience at the Exploratorium.

Watch Webcasts
In celebration of the International Polar Year, we begin a new Ice
Stories Webcast season from Antarctica on December 7. Visit
for a schedule of upcoming shows and to watch archived Webcasts on

Follow Dispatches
We gave polar scientists cameras and blogging tools and asked them to
document their fieldwork. Follow along on their adventures and see
what it’s like to be a research scientist in an extreme environment.
Questions and comments for the scientists are invited!

tt_icon_1701I just posted a new episode of my Science Teaching Tips podcast on Mini Labs. Give it a listen!  “Zeke” Kossover is a teacher in the bay area, and he’s always posting wonderful tips about teaching — from great organizational tips to the best places to find cheap electronic components to astute tips for teaching physics.  In this podcast I got him to talk about an idea he’s used in his classroom and taught to many other science teachers — Mini Labs.  The idea is to take a science concept and write a very focussed, brief lab activity around it.  He has some concrete tips for making these labs successful and why they can be a useful addition to your class, without taking the amount of time and equipment that full lab experiences can require.

A free workshop for educators on December 9th from the National Science Digital Library:

This Web Seminar will focus on dynamic online resources you can use to teach your students about the chemistry of water through the NSDL Chemical Education Digital Library. Join presenters Dr. John Moore, W. T. Lippincott Professor and director of the Institute for Chemical Education, and Dr. Lynn Diener, Assistant Professor, Mount Mary College in Milawaukee, Wisconsin and guests Jon Holmes, Editor of Journal of Chemical Education Online and Dr. James Skinner, Chemistry Professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison for this seminar for educators of grades 9-12.

Register for this free seminar

Learn more about NSDL NSTA Web Seminars

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