Spreadsheets in the High School Science Classroom

Scientists produce, manipulate and analyze vast quantities data, often on a daily basis. Contemporary spreadsheet software programs such as Microsoft Excel and Google Spreadsheets streamline these processes, enabling scientists to sift through staggering amounts of data accurately and efficiently. Training students how to access information stored in databases, as well as how to manipulate and analyze it efficiently via spreadsheet software should be part of every secondary science classroom.

While spreadsheets are an excellent way to record data, their true advantage over pen-and-paper data tables is the ease with which the data can be manipulated. Rarely do scientists use data “as is.”  Data is often converted into different units, mathematically combined with other data or inserted into mathematical equations. Doing this by hand is both time-consuming and error-prone. Instead, contemporary scientists write formulas for the mathematical operations they want to apply to the data and perform hundreds, even thousands of calculations instantaneously as entire columns of data are manipulated at once.   This YouTube video shows how this is done.

A second major advantage of recording data in spreadsheets is the ability to visualize trends and patterns by graphing the data. It’s notoriously difficult to identify what, if any, trend a data set is following when it’s displayed only in tabular form. Spreadsheet software allows the user to easily graph the data in a variety of forms: pie chart, bar graph, line graph, scatter plot, etc. This YouTube video demonstrates not only how to transform tabular data into graphical form, but also how to add a  trend line.

A third major advantage conferred by spreadsheet software is the ability to create interactive activities or simulations that do not require an Internet connection. An excellent example of this are the “Chemical Excelets” produced by Prince George’s Community College. In the “DNA and Thermal Denaturation” excelet (see below) students observe how changing the composition of the DNA double-helix affects its denaturation temperature, allowing them to explore the connection between Hydrogen bonding and DNA integrity:

Screen Shot 2014-10-06 at 7.58.09 PMThis site provides free, downloadable interactive spreadsheets that allow students to explore a variety of activities related to atomic structure, properties and chemical reactivity. Teachers interested in developing their own interactive “Excelets” can learn how to do so here.

The Relative Advantage of Using PowerPoint

The word “PowerPoint” strikes fear into many people’s hearts, particularly those who are routinely subjected to lackluster, text-heavy presentations with little flair or visual appeal.  Don McMillan illustrates this point in his now-famous YouTube video, “Life After Death By PowerPoint”:

Despite such criticisms, PowerPoint (and other similar presentation platforms such as Google Presentation and Slides) can be rather powerful and engaging tools for communicating information and ideas….if used correctly.  Instead of using PowerPoint as a presentation aide to illustrate key points, presenters pack them with words, facts and data, often reading what is on the slide verbatim.  To transform your presentations into engaging and interactive experiences for your audience, you should take advantage of PowerPoint’s primary strengths: to visualize ideas, to summarize and create key points and to impress and engage your audience (Kapterev, 2007).

Use PowerPoint to Visualize Ideas

Too many PowerPoints are text-heavy when they should be graphics-heavy.  High-quality photographs, illustrations, video clips, animations and models are just some of the text-free ways that ideas can be conveyed, summarized or communicated.  Perhaps the most salient relative advantage of PowerPoint over speeches, scholarly papers and other forms of communication is its ability to convey ideas visually, in addition to verbally/textually.   If you’re not taking the opportunity to illustrate your point graphically in your PowerPoint, you’re not tapping into its true potential (and likely boring your audience in the process).

Use PowerPoint to Summarize Key Points and to Engage Your Audience

Be honest, you’re probably guilty of it:  Instead of practicing your presentation until you know what you’re going to say and how you’re going to say it, you create a safety net for yourself by writing every (or almost every) word you’re going to speak on the slide.  However, if all you do is read the words that are written on your presentation, what is the point of you being there?  If your audience can read, then why not simply send your presentation to them via email?

Instead of creating text-laden slides that are likely putting your audience to sleep, embrace the opportunity to connect with your audience in person: practice your speech, limit your text to a few select words, and use the PowerPoint to help you tell a story.  What photographs, video clips and animations can help draw the audience in or illustrate your point?  What words or phrases should it contain that summarize your message or lesson?  What questions can you ask that encourage the audience to think?  Take the time to explore PowerPoint’s advanced options and make your presentations pop.  In short, stop thinking of PowerPoint as the main way you’re conveying information to your audience (that should be you) and start thinking of it as a tool to help your audience visualize what you’re saying.

Useful Links

References

Kapterev, A. (2007) Death By PowerPoint [Slideshare slides]. Retrieved from: http://www.slideshare.net/thecroaker/death-by-powerpoint

Instructional Software for High School Chemistry

Drill-and-practice software, tutorials, simulations, instructional games and problem-solving activities: these are just some of the types of instructional software that you might consider integrating into your classroom.  Making the right choice from this list can be a daunting task, particularly if you’re just now starting to explore the benefits of various educational technologies.  This post is designed to introduce you to these five types of computer-based learning activities and to highlight their relative advantages over more traditional approaches.  Specific examples and applications will be centered around high school chemistry.

Drill-and-Practice Software

Drill-and-practice activities provide students opportunities to test their current level of mastery or understanding without significant amounts of teacher input or preparation.  They are effective follow-ups to instruction that are usually conducted individually, eliminating students’ fears of feeling embarrassed over incorrect answers.  Because they provide instant feedback to students and teachers, appropriate instructional choices can be made by instructors in a timely manner.  Chemistry students can practice naming compounds here, or even create their own flashcards at cram.com.  Many more drill-and-practice activities can be found at chemistry-drills.com.

Tutorials

Unlike drill-and-practice software, tutorials provide comprehensive learning experiences, walking students through all stages of learning about particular topic or skill.  Many online courses are organized into tutorials in which articles, instructional videos, drills, simulations and other activities provide students with all of the tools necessary to master the particular topic, process or skill.  Because most tutorials engage students individually, they allow students to progress at their own pace.  Instant feedback and individualized learning experiences are also relative advantages of tutorials. Washington University’s Chemistry Tutorial website is a useful resource, as is tutorial section of chemcollective.org.

Simulations

Websites and software that provide high quality simulations are a favorite among science teachers for good reason: rather than the teacher telling students how the natural world works, students draw their own conclusions through “experimenting.”  Students not only find simulations highly engaging, they have the opportunity to test and re-test at will, generating much more data than they would conducting a lab in the physical world.  With simulations, no lab is too dangerous or too expensive: anything is possible.  The University of Colorado’s interactive simulations are top-notch, as are the virtual labs found at chemcollective.org.

Instructional Games

Students not only find instructional games highly engaging, integrating them into the learning environment may also lead to greater retention of information (Roblyer & Doering, p. 96).  While instructional games often incorporate many of the same features as drill-and-practice software and simulations, they are classified separately as games so as not to confuse or mislead students.  The opportunity to play an instructional games as a reward can also serve as an effective motivational tool for teachers.  At chemgametutor.com, students learn about atomic theory, chemical bonding, acids and bases and other topics in a game-based environment.  Sheppard Software offers free games designed to teach students about the periodic table.

Problem-Solving Activities

Problem-solving activities are designed to teach students problem-solving skills.  In chemistry, instructional videos are an excellent way to show students the common methods and techniques for solving problems surrounding stoichiometry, dimensional analysis, chemical kinetics, equilibrium and a host of other topics.  The advantages of using instructional videos over direct instruction are rooted in the fact that students can pause, rewind and rewatch videos as needed.  Many problem-solving activities and videos incorporate strong visual elements that most in-person instruction lacks, fostering deeper understanding, particularly among highly visual learners.  Khan Academy offers an excellent series of instructional videos focusing on the problem-solving skills needed for success in high school chemistry courses, and Purdue University’s “How Do I Solve It?” website focuses heavy on the process of solving chemistry-specific problems.

References

Roblyer, M.D. & Doering, A.H.  (2013). Integrating educational technology into teaching (6th ed.). Boston: Pearson Education, Inc.

Acceptable Use Policies in K-12 Schools

Technology’s influence on contemporary K-12 education is undeniable.  Students today routinely conduct research online, plan and execute virtual science experiments, debate current events in Internet chat rooms, collaborate with peers via wikis and review math concepts by watching online instructional videos.  While these and other technologies have opened new and exciting windows to the outside world, they have also exposed our students to risks not typically associated with K-12 classrooms.

Acceptable Use Policies (AUPs) are attempts by school administrators to promote responsible technology use among students and staff in ways that ideally maximize learning opportunities and outcomes, discourage student misuse of resources, and minimize student exposure to harmful or inappropriate words, images or interactions.   School administrators typically publish the AUP on the school/district website and in student handbooks, often requiring parents and students to return signed copies, acknowledging they have read the AUP and agree to abide by the policies within.

Education World suggests following the AUP guidelines created by the National Education Association when writing an AUP (“Getting Started on the Internet,” n.d.).  According to the NEA, an effective AUP should contain the following elements:

  • A preamble detailing the goals of the AUP, as well as an explanation for why it is needed.
  • A definition section in which key policy terms are clearly defined to ensure accurate reading of the AUP by all community members.
  • A policy statement which describes which technologies are appropriate at school, as well as the conditions under which students may use them.
  • An acceptable uses section which conveys what the school considers “appropriate use” of computers and technology.
  • An unacceptable uses section which gives specific examples of what constitutes unacceptable student computer/technology use (e.g. cyberbullying, sending or viewing violent or pornographic images, plagiarism, etc.).
  • A violations/sanctions section which provides information for how to report unacceptable use, as well as how violations in the AUP will be handled by school administration.

While most school/district AUPs contain the appropriate sections and information described above, many are written from an overly negative perspective, focusing primarily on the consequences of unacceptable student use (McLeod, 2014).  Compounding this problem in tone are the words themselves: AUPs often read like documents written by and for attorneys, not students and their families.  Many schools, however, have chosen to buck this trend and create more student-friendly AUPs.  Siskiyou Union High School’s AUP spells out what steps students should take online to “Protect Yourself” and “Respect Yourself,” while Anastasis Academy promotes responsible technology use with “I will” statements.  Administrators at Science Leadership Academy clearly believe that explaining the “why” behind their policies will encourage students to make better choices than focusing on consequences of misuse, and school leaders in the Washoe County School District included a section entitled, “Network Etiquette” in their AUP written in simple, student-friendly language.

Whether you’re writing your school’s Acceptable Use Policy or updating it to include recent advances in technology, consider creating a student-friendly document that seeks to educate students and families, not just inform them of the consequences of misusing technology.  Choose language and craft rules that are easy to understand, provide clear examples of what both “acceptable” and “unacceptable” use looks like, and provide insight as to why these rules are important.  In short, think guidebook, not rulebook.


References

Getting started on the Internet: Developing an acceptable use policy (AUP). (n.d.). Education World. Retrieved from http://www.educationworld.com/a_curr/curr093.shtml

Lehmann, C. (n.d.). Science Leadership Academy acceptable use policy. Retrieved from http://scottmcleod.org/SLA_AUP0809.pdf

McCloed, S. (2014). Instead of an AUP, how about an EUP (Empowered Use Policy)? dangerously!irrelevant: Technology, Leadership and the Future of Schools. Retrieved from http://dangerouslyirrelevant.org/2014/03/instead-of-an-aup-how-about-an-eup-empowered-use-policy.html

Siskiyou Union High School acceptable use agreement. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://docs.google.com/a/u.boisestate.edu/file/d/0B9J6Vg1nXv1XOW5FVWVRaHlTdVN1aUdRRlYwSGVadw/edit

Washoe County School District acceptable use policy. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://pinemscomputers.weebly.com/uploads/1/0/5/3/10532712/wcsd_technology_agreement.aup.docx.pdf

Vision Statement

The transition of teachers away from the role of “content-deliverer” and into that of “learning-facilitator” is among the most dramatic paradigm shifts in American K-12 education in recent years.  Technology has enhanced the ability of teachers to guide students through the process of knowledge-building in numerous ways, and the Association for Educational Communications and Technology (AECT) acknowledges this in its current definition of educational technology:

Educational technology is the study and ethical practice of facilitating learning and improving performance by creating, using and managing appropriate technological processes and resources (Januszewski & Molenda, 2008, p. 1).

Vision Statement

The ideal 21st Century Classroom is a student-focused learning environment in which technology is seamlessly incorporated into the daily lives of all stakeholders.  Teachers not only utilize technology to efficiently measure and record student progress through formative and summative assessment, they also use it to build educational ecosystems in which students explore aspects of the world not easily experienced in physical classrooms.  Students wield technology to demonstrate mastery in novel and creative ways and to communicate and collaborate with peers more often and with greater efficiency than through conventional approaches.  Finally, parents and guardians embrace technology as a means to more actively monitor their children’s progress through clearly articulated educational standards and benchmarks.

In order for this vision to be realized and to justify the time, effort and financial investment that such technology-enabled public classrooms require, additional commitment from all stakeholders is needed:

Teachers

Technology’s ability to motivate and engage students in K-12 classrooms is well documented (Roblyer & Doering, 2013, p. 25).  However, technology must be integrated thoughtfully and with purpose to maximize its impact on learning.  By adopting pedagogically sound approaches such as the Technology Integration Planning (TIP) Model (Roblyer & Doering, 2013, p. 52), teachers can ensure that the appropriate technology is matched to the desired learning outcome, maximizing its efficacy and justifying its adoption.  By leveraging the ability of technology to provide real-time formative data, teachers can use it to modify class instruction and to create individualized learning plans for students.  Simulations, webquests, virtual field trips and virtual experiments allow teachers to create activities for students in which they build their own knowledge base, often by exploring real-world scenarios.  Wikis, online forums, blogs, Google Docs and a myriad of other online platforms can be utilized by teachers to encourage collaboration and co-learning, as well to make the revision process less time-consuming for students (Resta & Laferriere, 2007).

Students

Students must embrace technology’s ability to take them “outside” of the physical classroom to explore more authentic learning environments.  They should embrace the challenge of solving real-world problems, drawing their own conclusions about the natural world via simulations and virtual experiments, and demonstrating their knowledge through the creation of multimedia projects.  In short, students must embrace the opportunity to control their own learning (NETP Executive Summary, 2010).

Parents

Parents and guardians must recognize the increasingly important role technology is playing in education and make every effort to ensure that their children have access to a computer and the Internet at home, if possible.  Families facing financial hardship should seek out when and where free computers/Internet access are available to students (at school, local libraries, etc.), and make every effort to allow their children ample time to complete computer-based activities at these locations.  Parents facing financial hardship should contact their school’s administration and their children’s teachers; many schools have programs in place to provide hardware and technical assistance.

References

Januszewski, A., & Molenda, M. (2008). Educational technology: A definition with commentary. New York, NY: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Resta, P., & Laferrière, T. (2007). Technology in support of collaborative learning. Educational Psychology Review, 19(1), 65-83. doi:10.1007/s10648-007-9042-7

Roblyer, M. D., & Doering, A. H. (2013). Integrating educational technology into teaching. Boston, MA: Pearson.
U.S. Department of Education. (2010) National Education Technology Plan 2010 Executive Summary. Retrieved from http://tech.ed.gov/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/netp2010.pdf#page=11