Dissecting a frog: When virtual isn’t enough

Dissecting a frog is a middle-school rite of passage, reports Will Huntsberry on NPR.

Students get their first look inside a frog in Rob Glotfelty's life sciences lab at Patterson Park Public Charter School in Baltimore. Will Huntsberry/NPR

Baltimore seventh graders get their first look inside a frog.
Will Huntsberry/NPR

At Baltimore’s Patterson Park Public Charter School, Rob Glotfelty’s life sciences lab contains a stack of “dead frogs, vacuum-sealed and piled five high,” writes Huntsberry. “Once those seals are broken, these leopard frogs emit a pungent odor.” And they’re slimy.

In 1987, a 15-year-old California refused to dissect a frog in her biology class and took her case to court. California and nine other states require that students be given an alternative to dissecting a real animal.

Glotfelty uses computers to help his seventh-grade students understand anatomical theory. But they look forward to dissection, he says. It’s the real deal.

“There’s something visceral and important about the real thing,” says David Evans, executive director of the National Science Teachers Association. “What does this particular organ feel like? How stiff is it? Is it compressible?”

Glotfelty’s students have cut open an earthworm, and later a chicken wing. Frogs are a step up. The teacher reminds the class what they’re studying. Not frogs. Humans.

Frog dissection diagram

Frog dissection diagram

Taylor Smith says she doesn’t like science. She thought cutting into an animal would make her throw up.

Instead, she uses tiny scissors to cut through the frog’s collarbone. Taylor and her lab partners lay the organs on a sheet of paper. “I’m not a chicken anymore,” she says. “I like this.”

“The smell was awful, but it was worth it,” says Melissa Torres-Gutierrez.

Teens must save the world from ‘DUST’

NASA has launched an alternate reality game called DUST to get teens excited about analyzing data, testing theories and communicating ideas. It’s also supposed to attract girls and minority teens to STEM problem-solving. (I wonder why the kids in the promo trailer are white.)
NASA's 'DUST' Gets Students, Young Women Excited About STEM

In the game, dust from a meteor shower puts every adult in a coma. “It is up to the players, whose target ages are 13-17, to save the world [and their parents’ lives] by the end of seven weeks of play.”

Players receive new parts of the story and science clues every few days through social media, email and game apps. They interact with other players and with fictional characters.

NASA, Brigham Young and the University of Maryland developers collaborated on the game with help from college students.  Middle schoolers tested mobile apps and the player community website.

Updating the Magic School Bus

Has The Magic School Bus reached the end of the road? asks Alexandra Ossola in The Atlantic. After all, the popular science series requires kids to read.  That’s so 20th century.

I recently came across a copy of a relic from my childhood: The Magic School Bus Inside the Human Body. In it, Ms. Frizzle, the “strangest teacher in the school,” shrinks down her class (and their bus) so they can travel through the human body. They see the digestive system hard at work, blood cells up close, and muscles in action, with quips from characters in the comic book format.

School Bus, which debuted in the mid-1980s, made it to video in the ’90s.

Despite the shift to digital devices, “the heart of science communication still hinges on narrative,” argues Ossola. But the story may be told through video games, movies and websites.

Girls in particular are captivated by stories, including those that involve science. . . . By integrating STEM and narrative literature, educators hope that more girls will stick in those fields.

This year, I gave GoldieBlox engineering kits to my six-year-old niece and five-year-old step-granddaughter. Each kit comes with a story about how Goldie and her friends design and build something to solve a problem.


Learning from TV

Fordham’s Netflix Academy is a list of free streaming videos on science, history and literature.

Via Walking with Dinosaurs, “my five-year-old already has a rudimentary understanding of evolution (paving the way for many scientific and theological conversations in the years ahead) and has absorbed key vocabulary, to boot (carnivore, herbivore, omnivore, Cretaceous, Jurassic, etc.), writes Mike Petrilli.

Elementary schools try ‘platooning’

Starting in first grade, students have more than one teacher in low-performing elementary schools in Maryland’s Howard County, reports Fawn Johnson in National Journal. One teacher specializes in math and science, another in reading, spelling and social studies.

“Departmentalization” — also known as “platooning” — gives teachers more time for lesson planning, says Superintendent Renee Foose. “You ask teachers what they want, and they always ask for more time,” she says.

Specializing reduces teachers’ stress, according to a Valdosta State study. It’s not clear that it improves student achievement.

I think hiring math-science specialists, at least by third grade, could strengthen teaching in elementary schools. And maybe it could draw more male teachers.

Less praise, more young scientists

Too Many Kids Quit Science Because They Don’t Think They’re Smart, write Alexandra Ossola in The Atlantic

“For most students, science, math, engineering, and technology (STEM) subjects are not intuitive or easy,” she writes. (Barbie said it: “Math is hard.”) Overpraised children aren’t prepared to struggle, Ossola argues
Praising a child’s ability or talent too much makes them unwilling to take on challenges that might test their intelligence, Carol Dweck, a Stanford psychology professor, tells Ossola.

By contrast, talking about a child’s actions — “their hard work, trying many strategies, their focus, their perseverance, their use of errors to learn, their improvement” — builds resilience.

 . . . we found that when we gave kids lots and lots of praise then discontinued it, they either lost motivation or they did a variety of strange and distorted things to get the adults’ approval back. . . . When you praise someone, you are making their actions and performance yours. So they’re looking over their shoulder and not owning their work.

Employers and career coaches have told Dweck that workers require constant validation and feel crushed by feedback. “We’ve created several generations now of very fragile individuals because they’ve been praised and hyped. And feel that anything but praise is devastating.”

Atlantic‘s Left-Brain America has more on STEM education. Here’s a story on introducing math and science concepts to preschoolers.


Reading exam can test science, history

What gets tested gets taught. Ohio is trying to decide whether to test science and social studies every year, writes Aaron Churchill. It would prevent narrowing the curriculum to only math and English language arts. But teachers and parents already are complaining there’s too much testing.

shutterstock_156369128Core Knowledge Blog’s Lisa Hansel proposes a solution: Test students’ ability to read and comprehend science and social studies texts on topics they’ve been taught.

Reading comprehension tests contain a random smattering of “common” topics that “inevitably privilege students who have acquired broad knowledge (usually at home),” Hansel writes.

Unlike English language arts standards, science and social studies standards usually specify some core content to be taught in each grade.  All students will have a chance to learn the background knowledge and vocabulary necessary to understand the readings. “For the cost and time of just one test, we would have a decent gauge of three subjects,” writes Hansel.

It makes sense to me.

74% of teachers use games to teach

Seventy-four percent of teachers are using digital games for instruction, according a Joan Ganz Cooney Center survey, Level Up Learning. About half of game-using teachers do so at least weekly.

Seventy-one percent say games help teach math concepts, but they’re less persuaded that games help students learn science and other subjects.

Most teachers play digital games at home, at least occasionally.

From ‘meh’ to ‘muahaha’

The Halloween Decorating Kit at Steve Spangler Science promises 10 activities to take your trick-or-treaters from “meh” to “muahaha.”

. . . make your home or classroom into the spooky and ghastly fright-fest you’ve always wanted. No more peeled grapes for eyeballs and spaghetti for brains and guts. You’re going to use amazing hands-on science to create an unforgettably haunting experience!

The kit includes “glowing ghost eggs, growing brains and, of course, toxic zombie blood.

Boys need male teachers

Taught overwhelmingly by female teachers, boys are falling behind in school, writes Glenn Reynolds in a USA Today column. Why aren’t schools under pressure to recruit male teachers?

Brandon Bell teaches third grade in Georgia.

Brandon Bell teaches third grade in Georgia.

If elementary teachers were predominantly male and girls were doing poorly, “Title IX-style” equity legislation would require gender balance, writes Reynolds, a law professor who blogs as Instapundit.

Boys get the message that they’re naughtier and not as smart as girls, say researchers. They’re disciplined more and suspended much more often.

Female teachers also give boys lower grades than girls for similar work, according to research in Britain.

“More and more, it’s looking like schools are a hostile environment for boys,” writes Reynolds.

“Boys perform better when they have a male teacher, and girls perform better when they have a female teacher,” concludes Stanford Professor Thomas Dee.

Yet only 18 percent of elementary and middle-school teachers are male.

If elementary schools hired math/science specialists, it would be easier to get more men in elementary classrooms.  Single-sex classes also would increase boys’ odds of having a male teacher.