Thursday, December 1, 2011

Seeing is believing… we are cramming to capacity.

Once again the seasons appear to have changed overnight! A couple of weeks before Thanksgiving Day, I was in Colorado where we’d already had 3 snows (8-9 inch accumulations each) and bitterly freezing temperatures. Just 12 hours later, when I arrived home in north central Texas, it was 80 degrees outside and spring green had replaced the chaff of an historically hot summer. According to the LCRA, “The 12 months from October 2010 through September 2011 were the driest for that 12-month period in Texas since 1895, when the state began keeping rainfall records.” My hometown is now enforcing Stage 3 Water Conservation Measures as the winter forecast does not hold much promise for relief. But the temperature has dropped and the leaves have changed to signal Fall, finally!

On a grander scale, climate changes naturally over a long period of time. This gradual progression usually allows plants and animals to balance the carrying capacity of their environment. Whether or not you ‘believe’ in global warming, the impact of human activity is causing rapid changes in our shared environment. Adults have actually seen the changes manifest: we know that the current local weather patterns are different from what seemed relatively predictable when we were kids; we see the impact of that on flora and fauna, not to mention the domino effects of continued habitat destruction. Today’s students, however, often have difficulty connecting our need for the same resources as other organisms with the amount of life the planet can support. Many times they also fail to associate changes in climate with the earth’s ability to sustain life. That’s why the No More Room activity is designed to provide a tangible representation of carrying capacity from the bottom of a food web up!

Instructor Notes: This activity can be used as a summative assessment to see if students really grasp the fact that climate change is a problem that is affecting people and the environment – and that they can take action to make a difference right now. There’s a lot of great information in A Student’s Guide to Global Climate Change on the EPA website, which is available in the Learn the Issues section on Climate Change. In addition to a virtual field trip around the world to explore the effects of climate change, students can calculate their impact on the environment and learn about specific ways to help solve this global challenge. Please share your ideas for incorporating the interactive Global Warming Effects Map too!

Somewhat related to this topic, I am a visual learner, always have been and hopefully always will be. I suppose that’s part of the reason I so love to ‘watch’ the seasons change. Regardless of my preference, experts say that over 80 percent of what a child learns in school is presented visually. And sadly, up to 25 percent of schoolchildren may have vision problems that can affect their ability to learn. The good news is that many of those roadblocks can be reduced if not eliminated with rehabilitation or therapy! The COVD website is a great starting point for finding out more about vision development and vision therapy – and vision and learning. Please review their Symptoms Checklist of common signs and symptoms of conditions to look for that may indicate a vision problem. They can occur at any age and typical eye exams and school screenings do not check for these critical functions, unfortunately.

As we continue to leverage new tools and technologies to track global climate change and to assess neuro-sensory diagnostics, teachers have exciting opportunities to incorporate new techniques and strategies for more meaningful learning for an increasingly diverse audience. For example, Environmental Science is a wonderful topic for exploring ways to use infographics as creative assessments. As explained on Wikipedia, “information graphics or infographics are graphic visual representations of information, data or knowledge. These graphics present complex information quickly and clearly”. When checking the forecast for my recent drive from CO to TX, I was naturally and immediately drawn to the GraphiCast (graphical short term forecast) produced by the National Weather Service.

In Teaching with Infographics, the New York Times acknowledges that it’s becoming increasingly important for students to be able to read and interpret visual representations of information. I started my explorations with 10 Awesome Free Tools to Make Infographics and The Anatomy of an Infographic: 5 Steps to Create a Powerful Visual. What changes in teaching and learning are you noticing? What ideas could you develop to inspire your students to share facts and figures about their place in the changing environment?

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Food webs offer serious food for thought!

I am just starting to recover from my summer ‘vacation’… Having revised my Educational Technology course, I had to realign elements to the various standards: the TEKS, the NETS, the PPR, and so on… I’d need a 3D Microsoft Surface table to show you how each ties into the actual course – and over to the others – really. Because my course is cumulative across 15 weeks, the spiral design creates a fantastic interweaving of connections. I’d bet your practice produces a similarly intricate mesh when you take a step back from the general lessons and add in all of the IEPs. Representing such complexity is a challenge. My dream is to realize an interactive volvox model to literally connect the dots within and around the parts that make up the whole of education.

On a more practical note, the Oops, I Broke It activity provides a memorable way for students to dramatize a food chain. Hopefully you’ll have time to extend that simple linear model into a food web. Making the connection to energy, they sometimes forget that all food chains and webs begin with the sun. It’s also important that they realize how inter-dependent both chains and webs are when considered within an environmental context. As a formative assessment, I’ve found this to be a fun way to introduce the topic of food webs or to check for a thorough understanding of the importance of protecting endangered species.Click here to download the ‘analog’ activity detail.

Please refer to the EPA’s website to learn more about the issue of Pesticides, Chemicals, and Toxics and incorporate that issue into your discussion of food webs. Their Design for the Environment Safer Product Labeling Program is one tool for empowering us all to help protect human health and the environment.

HippoCampus Connections: Depending on your curriculum needs, there are several wonderful resources to support this activity in the HippoCampus collection. Hydrothermal Vent Food Web in NOAA: Chemosynthesis and Vent Life provides a real-life simulation of a unique underwater food web. In NOAA: Ocean Pollution, the Biomagnification animation shows how toxins move into and through a food chain.

Instructor Notes: Depending on your students, I was also pleased to find several interesting ‘games’ on the web that might offer additional assessments or appropriate remediation. Exercise your creativity to integrate this topic with geography and social studies! In the food chain game you drag the parts of the generic progressive food chains (from simple to full) to their correct places; when the chain is complete it ‘comes to life’! There are locale specific activities for meadow, arctic and pond chains, Canadian northern or forest food chains, and endangered animals in the Mexican ecosystem and/or you can learn about other animals by level then see complex webs for Australian or African Grasslands and Antarctic or Marine food webs. While the Oops, I Broke It activity targets a particular environmental science concept, you’re certainly not limited to addressing a single standard with such real-world examples!

An obvious benefit of new technologies is the ability to individualize teaching to accommodate different learning styles and special needs cases. With a slightly different tack, I try to design content that fosters individualized learning for everyone. (Yes, I am a true constructivist.) In fact, for my doctoral work I helped my graduate students weave their areas of interest into a single virtual field trip. The closest I’ve come to pursuing my volvox dream is an ancient, home-made project called the GEMweb. (Yes, I use it in my Science Education course each summer! The inter-relationships of ecology, geology, and humankind are basically the same still. Students help expand the site by contributing their own pages.) I’m eager to implement the playlist feature on the new HippoCampus site to let students to exercise a little more of that ‘shared control’ measured on the CLES. How are you empowering students to explore their interests within the scaffolding of our current educational system? How is that changing how you continue to learn?

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Adapting to and surviving in new environments with infinite horizons

I truly am a digital immigrant. I like keeping one foot in the analog world while wiggling my toes in the digital world. They’re both quite real and uniquely wonderful – as well as complementary. ‘Home computers’ were introduced the year I graduated from high school. Realizing that was about as shocking as hearing my favorite songs on an ‘oldies’ station a decade (or so) ago… How dare they label my generation! If you read last month’s post, you may have returned to see if I was trying to shock unassuming readers: black-eyed peas? Seriously? Absolutely!

While some religiously champion digital evolution as the solution to the world’s problems, I maintain there is an urgent need for blending tools and strategies – especially in education. Existing and emerging technologies offer empowering tools for meaningful learning. Simply participating in this blog, actively or passively, is evidence that we’ve survived the information revolution. Technology has infiltrated the ranks of higher education even as explained in an enlightening Adobe whitepaper called The Silent Transformation. Eleven years into the 21st Century, what do your students really need to learn? What do you think is the best way to teach them? Both teachers and students must adapt to a changing environment if they want to survive!

Adaptation means survival in any environment on every level. Critical issues impacting our own physical development are detailed on the EPA’s Health and Safety webpage: “children may suffer disproportionately from environmental health risks and safety risks; as we age, our bodies are more susceptible to hazards from the environment which may worsen chronic or life threatening conditions”. Although not as rapid as iPhone releases, the relatively contemporary story of the pepper moths provides a perfect example of how such change can happen in the real world. The Moth Mothers activity demonstrates why the pepper moth had to adapt to survive England’s industrial revolution. Click here to download the ‘analog’ activity detail.

I typically use this activity as a summative assessment, but it’s equally useful as an introductory assignment. Because the effects of environmental changes often occur slowly and slightly over extensive time, students may not realize the link(s) to biological evolution. Few species can adapt quickly enough to survive the rapid impacts of human activity. Leveraging digital advances, I found a comprehensive Flash interactive that beautifully complements this hands-on physical simulation on Mr. Tevis' Class Web. Click here to review the Peppered Moths: Natural Selection in Black and White. This would be a great alternative accommodation for anyone who had to miss out on the lesson.

Instructor Notes: Unfortunately, it’s probably pretty easy to make Moth Mothers personally relevant today. Fortunately, there are many instances of coordinated efforts to shift the balance of the systems involved. For example, because more kids have asthma and other environmentally induced diseases, regulations and policy are critical to our health and safety as global citizens.

Back to the realm of teaching and learning, I love that this ‘science’ lesson affords so many interdisciplinary opportunities. That’s the exciting part about these ‘interesting times’… Case in point: “The mission of the International Mind, Brain, and Education Society is to facilitate cross-cultural collaboration in biology, education and the cognitive and developmental sciences. Science and practice will benefit from rich, bi-directional interaction”. Hands-on, inquiry-based activities that simulate or model environmental issues and concepts are more than applicable than ever today… and the research says that “Action Based Learning” (friend ‘em on facebook) is more critical than ever today. Seriously! See for yourself how well it works with any age learner!

Thursday, September 1, 2011

How a ‘half-life’ can impact a whole life…

In the aftermath of unexpected earthquakes in unlikely locales, in anticipation of the already interesting hurricane season, and in preparation for 10th anniversary remembrances of September 11, 2001, we start these content-focused blogs with the timely EPA issue of Emergencies. Addressing ‘uncertainty’ within the context of Environmental Science, we can empower students to be prepared for and respond more readily to natural disasters, hazardous spills, and the unexpected by helping them understand the basics. These future decision-makers may be able to safeguard against the rapid changes happening on a global scale and certainly cope better with the consequences with an understanding of the complete process.

Think back to last month's Balancing Acts activity... often, seemingly unrelated subjects are tightly linked. For example, the nuclear emergency in Japan that most of us watched in real-time this spring was caused by a tsunami. In the event of a nuclear disaster, calculating the half-life of radioactive contamination will determine when an area is safe. We tend to dismiss radioactivity as a natural phenomenon; many people think that it only occurs in nuclear power plants or as the result of a nuclear accident. Radioactive rays are emitted when a radioactive atom decays. Nuclear radiation can be a good thing depending on how it is released. Nuclear medicine is a specialty that relies on the process of radioactive decay in the diagnosis and treatment of disease, for example.

Students often associate ‘half-life’ with nuclear power, but do not understand always that it equally applies to other naturally radioactive elements - nor do they associate the dangers of the long-term ramifications of radioactive materials disposal with respect to nuclear waste management. Best used as a formative assessment, A Dating Game helps learners internalize what a ‘half-life’ really represents with a simple, fun, and safe activity that stimulates discussion. Click here to download the assignment details!

HippoCampus Connections: The ability to transfer knowledge across situations is a sure sign of understanding and mastery. The Coral Age Dating activity in NOAA: Seamounts is a real-life simulation of the concept presented to actually define and apply isotopic age dating of corals.

Because some students may not comprehend the drastic effects of natural disasters, the before and after images in NOAA: Hurricanes can help them appreciate the powers at play. And, in the case of natural disasters, we can show students a proactive aspect as early warning systems have been implemented to evacuate threatened areas, for example see the Tsunami Warning System in NOAA: Ocean Waves.

Instructor Notes: As those of us who replay the vivid images of the 2001 terrorist attacks in our mind’s eye realize how ubiquitous communication networks can have equally positive and negative impacts that do not cancel out, but accumulate over time. Therefore, it’s important to identify, acknowledge, and possibly discuss the differences in perspectives among the many stakeholders who influence your students. Remember that most of today’s high school students were likely just 3-8 years old way back in 2001! I’m excited about the potential of leveraging new technologies for the betterment of the environment and its inhabitants – come whatever may… Challenge your students to make a difference right now! What Apps for the Environment might they propose?

Monday, August 1, 2011

Education and the Environment: The same, but different

We've talked a little about students and teachers and environmental science. As the vet on the net, I feel compelled to share my thoughts on being the guide on the side, so to speak, with respect to curriculum before we dive into content-specific labs. And be it known that I think our students desperately need to hear a sage on the stage from time to time. It’s just that what we more experienced folk ought to tell/show is different in this post-information revolution age. We are living in 'interesting times' indeed…

Anyone reading this blog is likely familiar with OERs (Open Educational Resources); HippoCampus is a great example of a rich environment that is keeping up with both new technologies and new directions for education. Being in higher education (and highly skeptical of this sort of significant change), I felt it was my duty to see how/if these new OERs might be useful. Having been an online learner as well, I am especially sensitive to maintaining a reasonable balance between my expectations for students and what all I could deliver via distance and face-to-face courses. I was happy to find that the licensed resources in the NROC Environmental Science course enabled the efficient development of and supported the effective delivery of an online Integrated Earth Science for Teachers course that I designed and taught. Visualize your own favorite teaching activities and supplements as you review the Balancing Acts activity.

Balancing Acts banner
Balancing Acts is a formative activity that helps students operationally define the center of mass. That’s how you might integrate it into a constructivist Physics classroom. In an Environmental Science class, imagine how the bigger picture of an intricately related system, like a local habitat, an ecosystem, our planet, and perhaps even this universe ultimately, is easily transferred to the model. Think about the implications for your teaching practice! That’s the power of experiential learning as we all know. Click here to explore various representations of this activity as it was presented in a professional development program.

Focusing its resources on several key issues where it believes it can have significant impact (Community Juggling), the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation has been a strong proponent of OER development. Its focus on education and environment programs provides another powerful application of Balancing Acts. Pay particular attention to the many aspects of the CLES scales introduced earlier with the Rope Trick activity and reinforced in this brief clip.

Today's educators are challenged to provide hands-on experiences, inquiry-based activities, and problem-based labs with direct application to real world situations. Combining that with mobile learning technologies and social networking capabilities, the trendy pedagogical approach has been tagged as 'connectivist'. Like the many standards revisions underway, this re-focusing of educational priorities makes the role of the teacher even more critical. Innovative models for education are being designed with the intention of, as explained by James Zull (2002) in The Art of Changing the Brain, "creating conditions that lead to change in a learner's brain. We can't get inside and rewire a brain, but we can arrange things so that it gets rewired. If we are skilled, we can set up conditions that favor this rewiring, and we can create an environment that nurtures it" (p. 5).

The great news is that the reasons great teachers teach will not likely change in spite of the fact that the tools and techniques of the profession will transition continually. The exciting business of these 'interesting times' is that we can realize the goal of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) by "re-defining the very idea of a course, creating an open network of learners with emergent and shared content and interactions" right now. The field of Environmental Science not only offers a personally relevant context for education, but also a practical preparation for 21st century leaders when one considers the opportunities for differentiating instruction based on the MOOC principles of content aggregation, remixing, re-purposing, and feeding forward. What is it that drives your practice? How are you managing such rapid change to maintain balance in your classroom? What advice would you give to new teachers?

Friday, July 1, 2011

Real solutions for real problems

Paraphrasing a classic line, ‘Humanity, we have some problems’. In terms of the environment, like any other system, one ‘solution’ impacts another and so on… so we must unravel things together with lots of communication, collaboration, and creativity to flourish. At least that’s what some who know how to ‘fix’ the educational system are saying right? I’m pretty sure that’s what most environmental scientists and exemplary environmental science teachers have been doing for decades!

Remember how the Community Juggling activity looked and sounded? That experience is one way we can identify stuck patterns of thinking and doing. If we give students a chance to exercise their own visualization skills along with the freedom to imagine possibilities, they’ll likely devise ingenious solutions that fit the complex situations faced today. Rope Trick is a diagnostic activity targeted at fostering that critical ability for any field; check it out!

Could you get loose? Click here to see how other teachers fared at a professional development workshop! Do your students build mental images of the concepts you cover? An oft-overlooked part of our job is to give students a frame of reference and conceptual understanding that naturally transfers to other contexts. Click here for an in-depth explanation of why Rope Trick really works.

That’s how collaborative problem solving happens in real-world success stories. And that’s how it’s happening in real student projects right now! For example, I was re-charged by the phenomenal work displayed at Catamount Institute’s Student Symposium this spring. Community leaders, parents, teachers, administrators, and students teamed on their own time to figure out what they would/can do to make unique contributions to solving global environmental issues. And they’re making it happen!

We tend to forget that it’s just as important to learn what doesn’t work as what does work. That’s called research. The inherent power of problem-based learning can be exponentially increased by building on personal relevance, attending to uncertainty, and developing student negotiation, critical voice, and shared control. These are the 5 scales of the Constructivist Learning Environment Survey on which I base my research. From another perspective, Shelly Blake-Plock shares her Thinking about Collaboration on the TeachPaperless blog. The only trick is in adapting (or replacing) current practice with practical accountability.

With unprecedented amounts of information at the fingertips of most of our students, our role as educators (no longer teachers) is made even more exciting with the power of digital media and electronic tools. The HippoCampus site empowers even greater advances! How are you keeping pace with new technologies? More importantly, how do YOU set a proper pace for YOUR students?

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Breaking the ice – and maintaining focus...

Environmental Science: what a timely, important, and interesting interdisciplinary topic; we can blog about anything and everything! As John Muir put it: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” That good news is also the 'bad' news if you have a targeted objective to achieve in this multimodal, multimedia society. Productive conversations build on common experience. Regardless of the group, I always introduce myself by way of a fun team-building activity. Quickly scan the Community Juggling activity detail.

Community Juggling detail
In this case we have the topic. As facilitator I'll direct the focus to lifelong learners, our curious students of all ages and backgrounds.

You can see how this icebreaker is easy to focus on systems, a key concept in environmental science. I've used it as a diagnostic assessment to gauge student knowledge of system components and awareness of issues that bombard the system flow. Attempting to find patterns and causal relationships is evidence of reflection – and a skill that can be developed from an early age; students often need to practice transferring that skill to other areas as they grow. They too can become overwhelmed with too much information and too many options.

As an educator, you know what's going to get your students from point A to point B. My goal is to point out some useful tools and to inspire innovation for creating new and different applications of them in your particular context. Via this blog, I'll link simple, targeted (and teacher-tested) activities to vetted, professional (and freely-available) NROC resources that you can weave into your lessons appropriately. Future posts will be organized by the topics detailed on the EPA website so you can incorporate breaking news.

No matter how many links I string together, I bring just one perspective to this on-going work. It’s going to take more than that to make a difference in our classrooms, communities, and countries. So, fellow jugglers, how could/do you leverage the Environmental Science course content to support your practice?