Fostering Project Collaborative Learning

My middle school science classes often just blow me away with their creativity and energy. To capture this, I strive to foster collaborative and creative projects. Specifically, this year, I have been setting up science projects that require students to productively function in teams, more specifically to shine within a team.

Project 1 – Step 1

For the first big group project, I offered students their choice of medium to create a weather “lesson.” Although there was choice in presentation, the group worked in a traditional project team. The students were excited to try out new tech for an audio-visual “Ted-Ed” style weather lesson, but without specific work to coach the soft skills of team collaboration, there were the usual pitfalls of who does what work, how much work, and whether the work was of good quality. The product of the “lessons” was amazing in the style and variety of creativity, but the downside was we didn’t work on improving how the team collaborative functions.

Project 2 – Step 2

The next big group project team experience gave us the reason for the next step in team collaboration a “Team Contract.” Students were to write a proposal for a small cube experiment to travel on a space flight. As students choose their teams, I asked them to review, discuss, and define their requirements to be a successfully functioning team. When we had group class time to work on our “Cubes in Space” projects, students referred to their Team Contract when a team member didn’t meet their work requirements. Students began to hone the essential skills of collaboration and communication that are so vital in our everyday world.

Project 3 – Step 3

Our current project, an Earth Safety Challenge PSA, takes all of the above and moves it beyond team collaboration to group creativity. Students initially completed background research on local earth science events such as earthquakes, volcanoes, and tsunamis. Students were grouped into 3 large “company” teams based on their research area. Their task is to create a company and assign the roles of research scientists, engineers, media specialists, and project managers. Their job is to create a Public Service Announcement (PSA) to inform the public about the science and safety of their assigned earth event. This project is majority student designed and managed. Students are using a variety of skills, research, technology, modeling, communication, collaboration, and creativity. I am so impressed with their level of positive engagement, motivation, and the direction of each company team to produce a creative and effective earth science PSA. Although I can’t wait to the see the final products, I am already extremely proud of the collaborative learning in which these students are engaged.

Lesson Details If you’re interested in the specifics of our Earth Safety Challenge Project, please see my lesson plans here: Earth Safety Challenge Project Lesson Plan

Lesson technology – for this project we utilized the following technology;

Since we are a 1:1 school (students are issued district laptops for the school year), we are comfortable with utilizing technology in our classroom. Class notes, agendas, and group project work is all conducted in OneNote. The final Earth Safety Challenge PSA will be posted in Docs.com for other grade level science classes to review and offer feedback. We also use Class Policy to group team members and monitor technology on task time. Modeling in Minecraft is an awesome way for students to use their analytic thinking in a creative format to make a 3D model – of anything. Making use of student voice was easy with FlipGrid and Forms. FlipGrid offers accessible technology for students to video respond and reply, it is fun and informative. Forms provides an easy means to access or survey online, providing accessible data to share. My students are using a variety of tech tools to make their PSA presentations, including PowerPoint, Office Mix, Sway, and video, to be posted in class collections in Docs.com. If used appropriately, technology can enable and amplify student knowledge and voice on any project. Totally amazing collaboration.



Challenge of Time

EdublogsClub – short #6 Challenge

This post is part of the #EdublogsClub – a group of educators and educational technology enthusiasts that blog around a common theme each week.


The challenge of time: Being full-time Tech and full-time Teacher.

I find the lack of time to be challenging. Specifically, the lack of time to do all the things I want and need to do as an educator such as;

  • synthesize science content into small bite size concepts
  • present engaging technology
  • concoct creative lessons
  • provide timely feedback
  • prep lab activities
  • write student growth goals
  • build routines to solidify learning targets
  • lead SEL (social and emotional learning) lessons
  • formulate efficiencies for grade data entry
  • articulate how awesome middle school students can be
  • encourage participation
  • teach digital citizenship
  • communicate how cool crafting minds can be
  • research and review content and concepts

Full-time Tech

I have always truly enjoyed sharing technology in the classroom. If used appropriately technology can enhance and supplement learning, but it takes time to teach how to use technology for both students and teachers. It takes time to learn the technology of an online curriculum. It takes time to teach teachers how to use digital technology devices. It takes time to walk students through accessing technology resources. It all takes time, but it can be well worth the time to do so.

Full-time Teach

I am a full-time middle school science teacher who happens to love technology. Throughout the school year my students gain proficiencies in using a digital notebook called OneNote, creating presentations in Sway, and sharing and posting on Docs.com. They also build their basic coding skills with lessons from Code.org and create programs from Project Guts in Star Logo Nova. They can successfully navigate within a digital environment whether it is in an online science curriculum with graphs and simulations or even just having fun in Minecraft. Teaching technology skills is important; it is critical for students’ future college and career endeavors. Today’s students need to be able to embrace and command their use of (academic) technology. As important as these skills are, they are not primary to my teaching science concepts that are essential to being a science literate life learner. The art of teaching science content lessons in conceptual chunks that are applicable to a student’s daily life takes time to create and foster. Again, the time is so worthwhile.

Question of Time

The challenge is to find enough quality time for both technology and teaching. The challenge is best solved by setting priorities, being organized, delegating when applicable, and occasionally saying “no” when you can’t do more. Of course, even as I write this, I am multi-tasking which means the above solution is easier said than done. I have wondered what if I cut back on the technology? If I did cut back on classroom technology would I simplify my schedule and create more time? Or if I cut back on technology would I narrow the scope of experiences in teaching science? The question of time is answered over time, for me it is striving to find balance between the “shiny new” technology and the status quo of science content.

To be an educator is to always be learning, particularly learning to master challenges. My challenge is to look for solutions to the challenge of time, learning how others master the time challenge. So, I’m curious, what do you do to master the challenge of time?

Cross-classroom collaboration—student scientists as teachers

Sharing a blog for a blog – specifically, sharing my classroom collaboration project as shared on the OneNote Education Office Blog.


I presented this classroom collaboration partnership at the MIEE U.S. Forum in Denver and at a Redefining Learning Conference at Sammamish High School. Watch a short clip here: cross-classroom collaboration demo or see the Sway here: school partnerships Sway on Docs.com.




Changing the Conversation

Changing the Conversation

Over the course of the typical school year students ask a myriad of “what do I need to do for an A on this assignment?” questions. This year the conversation changed in our classroom.  Instead the questions became “how do I explain molecules to first graders?” and “Can first graders even understand what a molecule is?” Students became teachers, teaching their own mastery of the content. Changing the audience changed the conversation which changed the focus of their learning.

How Did the Conversation Change?

Traditionally science lessons begin with a lecture of content material, such as the amount of energy in a given state of matter. Students dutifully write down the concept, the vocabulary, work on the worksheet, and the lesson is learned.  This is way I learned it, so this is the way you learn it; its tradition. Although this may be tradition, it may not be the way to learn, to remember, and be engaged with the science in the world around us. We are science do-ers, we learn by doing. Watch any toddler figure out the world around them–they try, experiment, re-try, and then show us what they have learned. The same applies to us and our students. Once we try something for ourselves, we master what we learn by showing or explaining it to others. Students are excellent teachers. And when students have technology as a tool, they are immeasurably creative when it comes to teaching others. Kids get a kick out of watching, reacting, and listening to their voices. It’s a powerful tool of teaching.

Science Teaching and Learning

A major focus of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) is science is central to our lives. The key to science education is to develop in-depth science content understanding and develop skills of communication, collaboration, inquiry, and problem solving. There are many ways to help students deepen their science thinking and understanding. Over the summer I participated with the Partnership for Ambitious Science Teacher Leaders (PASTL) whose goal is to support teachers in developing rigorous and equitable science learning in their own classrooms.

Over the course of this year, I have been working to help students make their thinking and understanding visual.  Students have to begin with a science wondering or question and then build on their ideas, build on their understanding. Student talk is essential to this process of learning. Students become engaged in the science. Through a series of online simulated labs, such as those found at ExploreLearning Gizmos or University of Colorado’s PhET interactive simulations, students begin to build their foundational understanding. Add a few in-class labs, such as working with oobleck (corn starch and water) or with heat, dry ice and water, and students see for themselves all three states of matter in a few moments.

Students as Teachers, Changing Their Questions

So what did we do to change the conversation? Instead of the traditional lecture and notes, my 7th grade students created states of matter science lessons for 1st graders. They changed the conversation by first mastering the content for themselves and then creating interactive visual lessons for a different audience. They began asking questions like “What will a younger audience understand?” “How could they explain the difference between a solid and liquid to a 1st grader?” “Would the 1st graders understand what they were trying to teach?” “Would it make sense to them?” and “How can we explain it better?”

Utilizing Technology to Master Science Concepts

We are fortunate to be a 1:1 laptop school where each student receives a district issued device for the school year. The fact that we have technology at our fingertips made it easier, but what we did could be accomplished in a computer lab as well. We utilized Skype for communications with the 1st graders, made videos or used Microsoft Sway and PowerPoint Office Mix as presentation tools, and Docs.com as a platform for sharing. After discussing and reviewing the key concepts about the states of matter, students made a list of learning objectives and determined the “story” or theme they would utilize to teach solids, liquids, and gases. We Skyped with our 1st graders, introduced ourselves, and the 1st graders asked a few questions. Then we went to work, thinking of ways to engage and hook our young audience. Students had to come up with examples to demonstrate different states of matter and how the energy of the particles change between states.  Finally, students had to figure out how best to stay scientifically correct but simple enough for a 1st grader to understand. Once the video, Sway, or Mix was finished, students posted their work on Docs.com to share with our young audience.

We Skyped again after the 1st graders watched and talked about our lessons. We learned which lessons they liked best, we answered their questions about how an object could change from a liquid to solid, and we also learned that sometimes 1st graders understand that a rock is just rock and we shouldn’t make it too complicated. The outcomes were positive; the 7th graders mastered their understanding of states of matter and the 1st graders reported they loved our lessons and the variety and creativity.

The Conversation Has Changed

This concept is codified in a 2012 NPR story, Physicists Seek To Lose The Lecture As Teaching Tool, in which the professor realized his students were not learning effectively from his lecture but instead responded well to real-world demonstrations. The same is true for my students using technology to teach others. The classroom landscape has been slowly evolving over the last few years, the conversations have changed. Students are doing more to master their own learning.