Thinking – at Wash U with the Life Sciences for a Global Community Teachers

“The Thinker” on the Washington University Campus

In the middle of one of the Washington University quads is this wonderfully whimsical re-imagining of August Rodin’sThe Thinker – a lanky looking rabbit, assuming the well-known, contemplative pose.  I just returned from a quick trip to St. Louis and, while there, the sculpture caught my fancy.  A nice flash of quirkiness on an otherwise, very traditional looking brick campus.

I traveled down there to join my friend and colleague, Liz Dorland, for a participatory media workshop for the Life Science for a Global Community (LSGC).  This is an amazing NSF-funded program, run out of Washington University byPhyllisBalcerzak, for high school life science teachers.  Teachers accepted into the program come to Wash U for a three-week, residential summer program for two summers running. Then, during the academic year, they take online courses and put what they learned in the summer into action in their own classrooms. During the 3-week summer program, they get top-notch mini courses from some of the best Wash U faculty on topics like neurobiology, photosynthesis, and genetics.  The teachers work together, as a cohort, to do experiments, go on field trips, start their own research projects and take what they learned back to their home campuses.  At the end of the two-year program, they’ve earned an MA in biology from Wash U, along with a community of like-minded colleagues that will last into the future of their teaching career.  They also stand a little taller – as a result of their expanded science knowledge, research expertise, and professional development.

Phyllis invited Liz and I to come work with the teachers on their use of new social media and web 2.0 tools – for the LSGC projects, for their students back at home, and with each other.  We had two sessions with them – Friday afternoon and Saturday morning.  On Friday afternoon we gave them an introduction to blogging (with WordPress), wikis (usingWikispaces), and podcasts (using cell phones, Flip video cameras, Garageband, and Audacity).  The workshops went well and the teachers caught on very quickly.  They came up with some pretty creative suggestions for using these tools with their students:

A multi-author blog to document a field trip

A science “newsreel” created by students – shown weekly to the school

Collaborate with students from another school – pool data

A wiki site for each course they teach, with a page for each student to hand in lab reports where the teacher could discuss the lab report on the discussion page and keep a record of the year

Students use video to record short tutorials on how to use various lab instruments (post them on a wiki site)

Student blogs used to reflect on their labs (or just reflect in general)

Create a podcast to narrate a field trip to a zoo or museum – turn it into a scavenger hunt

Students video interviews with experts (parents, other teachers, professors at local universities)

Use short podcasts as vehicles for reflection (as in, “before you leave the lab/test, just record a few minutes of your impressions/take-home lessons/what was the main point”)

Podcasts as assessments

Student-created podcast libraries of tough topics (use for future classes)

Wonderful stuff.  And, as always, when I meet with teachers, I was inspired by their persistence, endless creativity, and their overwhelming enthusiasm for their students.  Of course there were low moments too.  Like when I listened to them talk about their frustrations – school districts that blocked all the web sites they’d love to use with their students, administrators who seemed bent on foiling their every new plan, lack of resources, over-crowded classrooms (40 students in an AP course?!)…Sigh.  And one bleak moment when a teacher asked me, “but if we use all of these web sites, podcasts, and blogs, it just seems that the students will no longer need teachers and we’ll be putting ourselves out of a job.”  Oh, no.  Guess I didn’t do as good a job as I hoped I had at the beginning when I talked with them about all of these skills their students were going to need (that they don’t have now)….Like how to read in linked environments, how to validate information they find online, understanding the notion of a “digital footprint”, knowing how to work privacy settings on social networking sites, how to produce a safe and effective video, how to look for their teachers, how to behave in an online community, how to leverage a network effect.  Who is going to teach them all of those mission-critical skills if not their teachers?  That is our job – and we should be taking it very seriously.

On Saturday, we put together an (optional) Second Life workshop for them.  After a hard week of all-day sessions, we wereglad to welcome 10 of the 30 teachers who came to the session. They arrived, registered, got their avatar, and went in world for the first time.  In three hours, they went from never having been in a virtual world to flying, teleporting, managing their inventory, chatting, joining groups, and making friends.  It was wonderful to see.  Here are a few shots of our cadre of newbies exploring a really interactive museum on the American Chemical Society’s island (check out the simulation of nylon formation) and running through the foreston Tempura Island.  I suspect they were frustrated to learn that they couldn’t bring their (under 18 years old) high school students into this virtual world but the way that Liz approached this was to suggest SL as a professional development tool for them.  A place to experiment, to meet other like-minded teachers from all over the world, and – possibly – a place for them to meet and collaborate with each other, once they are no longer together on the Wash U campus.  We wound up our short SL romp with a fireworks display – everyone lighting sparklers on a platform, 300 feet up in the air over Jokaydia, with the sun dimmed for maximum effect.  It was quite a morning.

New LSGC avatars setting off fireworks in Second Life

Nano Technology in Education

Opportunity for teachers to participate in a project and get summer pay!  Whoo hoo!

Read the following post:

Dear Teacher:

Please join us in supporting the National Science Foundation in facilitating the integration of nanoscience and technology into education!

NanoTeach is a National Science Foundation (NSF) funded professional development project that utilizes the Designing Effective Science Instruction (DESI) framework to integrate nanoscience and technology content into existing science curricula. It is a collaboration between Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning (McREL), the Stanford Nanofabrication Facility (SNF), the Georgia Institute of Technology, the National Nanotechnology Infrastructure Network (NNIN), and ASPEN Associates.

We are seeking 30 public high school science teachers to participate in our year-long, nationwide pilot test of NanoTeach beginning summer 2010. Teachers who complete all requirements will receive a stipend of $3,000 (15 days at $200/day) for the out-of-classroom time required for participation.

The application deadline is January 8, 2010. A special NanoTeach Question-and-Answer webinar is scheduled for November 17 at 5 p.m. EST. For more information, go to:  http://www.mcrel.org/NanoTeach/Recruiting <http://www.mcrel.org/NanoTeach/Recruiting>


Elisabeth Palmer, Ph.D.

Director of Research

ASPEN Associates, Inc.

John Ristvey

Principal Investigator

NanoTeach Project

Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning (McREL)


Using Spreadsheets to Introduce the Logistic Population Growth Model

This post is a continuation of exploring the use of spreadsheets in high school biology.  I’ve started with a rather obvious topic:  population growth.  What I present is only one possible scenario which is meant only as a starting point.  Two themes I hope are apparent as you read through these posts:  1.  I use questioning techniques to help the students connect to their previous knowledge while they are developing new understandings and 2.  I really work hard to have the patience to allow the students time to work out their own solutions on the spreadsheets with only a little intervention from me.  That’s the beauty of spreadsheets–they can quickly provide feedback to the students as to whether or not they’ve entered their formulas correctly or even if their proposed formulas work the way the student hoped.   In other words, making mistakes and fixing them is a critical part of these exercises.  Don’t cheat the students out of a learning opportunity by providing too much help/guidance.   In these posts I’ve suggested that you work out the spreadsheet yourself before checking out the embedded sheets.   In my experience, my mistakes help to inform my teaching as well.  I doubt that I’ve ever created an original spreadsheet model the first time from scratch that I didn’t subsequently correct or modify–that’s an essential part of the process.

Earlier posts in this series:

Sparrow Lab

Exponential Growth

At the end of the exponential growth post I mentioned that mathematical models can be additive–perhaps I should have said modular.  The exponential equation developed in the earlier sheet now serves as the core for more sophisticated models.


At this point with my students I enter a conversation that explores what they see in the real world.  Do populations continue to grow exponentially?  Why not?  What factors might limit population size?  Eventually, using guiding questions we follow a path that leads to a new concept:  carrying capacity.   At this point, with student input, I sketch a graph on the board that has the x-axis labeled time and the y-axis labeled population size.  I then draw a horizontal line across the top of the graph that I label carrying capacity.  I ask the student to do the same on a piece of paper and then challenge them to sketch a line that represents a population that grows exponentially at first but as the population size approaches the carrying capacity the population growth slows and the population size levels off.   Eventually, the class agrees that a likely scenario would be an S-shaped line, with an increasing slope early on, with a transition zone where the slope changes to a decreasing slope and an eventual leveling.

With the target in mind, I bring the class back to their earlier spreadsheet model of exponential growth that had two terms:  N and r.   I ask a number of question such as:  “Which of the two terms change as the exponential equation is recalculated”  “Which term is constant?”  “If we wanted to modify the exponential growth curve into the S-shaped curve what has to happen to r?” (no longer constant)   At this point I introduce a new variable to the work:  “K” which represents carrying capacity.  (Naturally, there is further discussion about carrying capacity in the real world and in the model.)

Now, for the hard part—having the students come up with the logistic expression themselves.  First I remind the students about the algebraic form of the exponential equation that they represented their earlier spreadsheet:

Nt = N(t-1) + r*N(t-1)

The discussion has already focused on the “r” term which is in the second expression.  I ask the questions such:  “What part of the graph is population growth maximal?  minimal?”  “How can we change ‘r’ to maximize growth? minimize growth?”  “Now if the spreadsheet has a constant value of ‘r’ how might we change that value during the calculations?”    At this point I will introduce the idea of adding another expression to the equation–the logistic.  “Is there some mathematical expression that we could add to this equation that maximizes ‘r’ early but minimizes ‘r’ in later generations?”  “Can you think of an expression that includes just the N variable and the K variable that can be multiplied times ‘r’ to fill the needs of the model?”  or  “Can you think of an expression that is approximately equal to “1″ when N (the population size) is small but approximately equal to “0″ when N approaches K in size?”  At this point I let the students “discover” this expression themselves.  I ask them to try out the expressions they think will work in their spreadsheet.  To evaluate their proposed expression put it in the spreadsheet and use the graph produced to evaluate whether the expression works as planned.

The first time I tried this, the students took most of an hour and went through quite a bit of frustration.  I’m not really sure why I thought they could “empirically” determine this expression or what I thought they’d get out of it but I realized part of the value of the exercise when all of a sudden, one of the girls jumped up and yelled “Yeaaaah, I’ve got it”.  I decided to not have her share her strategy with the others—but instead prompted them to keep trying.  Eventually the entire class came around to the logistic expression:  (K-N)/K    Definitely a powerful experience.  The students learn that they can solve seemingly impossible problems with hard work but they also learn how to think about mathematical models in of biology.  It’s fairly easy to discuss  now, the limitations and the power of the model.  BTW, that first student is now a professional biologist.

I hope that you try to create this spreadsheet yourself before you ask students to do so.  Here is an example of how the spreadsheet model might be formulated.

Link to the spreadsheet in case the embed feature is not working.


Two Evolution Education Workshops for teachers in WA, ID, and northern CA

Evolution 101: Evolution and Biogeography
June 12, 2009

Washington State University, Pullman, WA

Washington and Idaho teachers are invited to attend a one-day workshop on teaching evolution: “Evolution 101″.  This workshop will be held on the campus of Washington State University, in Pullman, WA.  This workshop will cover a diversity of topics and will include short lectures, panel discussions, and hands-on activities.  We will also be giving away free teaching resources to all participants, and will also be raffling off some bigger prizes as well.  This will be a relaxed and fun event that will help give you the tools you need to better educate your students.

As an added bonus, all workshop participants will also be given admission to the Evolution Meetings being held on the University of Idaho campus in nearby Moscow, Idaho (see http://www.uiweb.uidaho.edu/evolution09/).  These meetings bring together top scientists from across the world who do research on evolution and also teach it at the college level.  Workshop participants will be given full admission to the Evolution Meetings, including an Education Symposium and a lecture by Dr. Eugenie Scott, author of Evolution vs. Creationism. The Evolution Meetings are a great place to learn about the latest research in evolutionary biology and meet world-class scientists.
If you would like additional information, please go to 
Think Evolution: A summer institute for science educators
August 11-14th, 2009

University of California Museum of Paleontology

Calling all middle and high school science teachers!

Put on your evolution eyeglasses and your nature of science thinking cap and join us for a fun-filled four days of evolutionary explorations with biologists and educators from the University of California. The Think Evolution Summer Institute will combine lectures by prominent biologists with sessions focused on hands-on activities for the middle and high school classroom. Topics to include: tree-thinking; mechanisms and applications of evolution; molecular and human evolution; and the important role of developmental biology in generating new insights into evolution. Hear about the most recent developments in evolution and have an opportunity to explore how to integrate these topics into your curriculum. Follow up with biologists and participating educators at the Evo-Picnic to be held the following February.

Tuesday through Friday, August 11–14, 2009
UC Museum of Paleontology, Valley Life Sciences Building, UC Berkeley
9:00 am to 3:00 pm

$75.00 for four days (college credit available for additional cost); includes lots of free resources distributed to participating teachers plus morning and afternoon snacks.

Details at the following website:  http://www.ucmp.berkeley.edu/about/insitute09.php


A wee-bit of Math Geekery–Modeling Populations with Spreadsheets

I started teaching in the late 70′s but even then I was looking for math applications in Biology.  The BSCS Green version textbook had (and still has, I imagine) a very rudimentary exercise that introduced students to exponential models of population growth–we called it the sparrow lab.


Sparrow from Andreas Solberg's Flickr Photostream

The exercise introduces some of the main points of developing a model—deciding on your assumptions/simplifications, approximating but simplifying real world conditions and introducing the limitations of models, while introducing the power of models.  Secondarily, this lab provided for most students their first introduction to semi-log plots.  If you are not familiar with this exercise it doesn’t take long to explain or to model using a spreadsheet.


  • An island with unlimited resources and no limiting factors
  • Introduce 10 sparrows to the island:  1/2 male and 1/2 female
  • Each year, each pair of sparrow produce 10 offspring
  • All offspring survive to reproduce the next year
  • However, the parents all die before the next year (every sparrow reproduces and then dies)
  • No new sparrows immigrate to or emmigrate away from the island

It does not take long tease out these assumptions from a discussion with students and to write these on your board.  Note that the assumptions about births tend to balance out the survival assumption.  The students are then instructed to calculate how many birds will be alive on the island at the end of each year–for the next ten years.   Back before computers or calculators this calculation along with the graphing took the rest of the hour.  Scaling the graphs was particularly difficult.  When confronted with their inaccurate scales some of my students used to respond by taping 6 or 7 sheets of graph paper together.  Describing how to set up and plot on semi-log paper was another difficult challenge.  Today, with spreadsheets, this exercise seems almost trivial but it is not at all.  The exercise introduces a way of thinking about biological problems mathematically and helps to build a more intuitive sense of exponential processes that are fundamental to biology specifically and life skills in general.  Likewise, as trivial as this exercise may seem you’ll be amazed at the range of approaches that your students will take as they tackle this challenge.  Once you try this, I think you’ll agree it is time well spent.

After the discussions of our assumptions, as a class we sketch out how we might create a spreadsheet that would model the hypothetical sparrow population.  Generally, up on the board I sketch out a spreadsheet (don’t demonstrate this on an actual spreadsheet, just yet.)

We usually start something like this:

First we decide our labels:

year sparrows pairs offspring

(I usually prompt them for the “pairs” label–left over from the days when we did this by hand.  While it is not necessary to calculate “pairs” it slightly simplifies the offspring calculation.)

Next we simply calculate the first two rows in our collective heads and fill the rows in during a class discussion.

year sparrows pairs offspring
0 10 5 50
1 50 25 250

The conversation usually goes something like this:

  • “So, in year zero, how many birds do we put on the island?”
    • “10″ (I write down the 10 on the board.)
  • “How many pairs is that”"
    • “5″ (I fill in the 5.)
  • “How many offspring are produced?”
    • “50″  (You’d be surprised how often the student stumble here for a minute, remember it is all in their head at this point.)
  • “How many birds start in year 1?” (Again, the students sometimes stumble here but they get it pretty quickly.)
    • “50″ (I start and finish out the second row.)

At this point then I simply suggest that they create a spreadsheet that calculates and correctly graphs the hypothetical sparrow population on the island for 10 years.  In recent years, all of my students have had some sort of spreadsheet introduction but they’ve seldom had to create their own from scratch.  I provide very little guidance at this point.  It is important that each student has a chance to make missteps while constructing this spreadsheet–recognizing and correcting these errors are when valuable learning takes place.  Most often the first student constructed sheets have some fundamental error.  I use probing questions to help the students recognize these errors but generally let the students propose their own solutions.  What I’m trying to achieve is a mindset in the students whereby they propose possible solutions, enter them in the spreadsheet and then use the results from the spreadsheet calculations to evaluate their original proposed solution–sounds a bit like the essence of scientific thinking, eh?  As simple as this particular exercise is there are still a number of students in my classes that struggle a bit with this.  In fact, I’ve had teachers in workshops struggle a bit at this point as well.  It’s for this reason that it is important to not provide to much direct instruction in this exercise–it is accessible enough that the students can struggle a bit but still succeed.  This success is key to building the tenacity needed to solve problems and the  skill sets needed later in this modeling exercise.

Here’s some of the common problems.  Remember to use questions to the students to help them see these problems:

  1. Students generally just fill in the numbers from the board and fail to create formulas in the cells.
  2. Students copy cells incorrectly.
  3. Later, students fail to recognize fixed references vs. relative cell references.
  4. They have a difficult time evaluating their graph.

At this point you should create your own spreadsheet model.  In my experience, I’ve found that I can better teach the modeling process if I create the sheets from scratch myself.  Like doing any lab procedure you need that experience to teach it.  Once you’ve created your own, you can compare your spreadsheet to the following spreadsheet.  Since it is a collaborative spreadsheet you can check out the formulas in the different cells if you’d like.

You can find it here, if the actual spreadsheet isn’t showing up:


I ask the students to graph the model using a scatter plot and graph the model with the “y” axis logged.




So, what are questions that you’d want ask your students as they built this model? What are questions you might ask about the two types of graphs?  Please feel free to contribute some suggestions or questions in the comments. This is just the first installment of an multi-day lesson on population modeling and where it can take you.  I’ll cover more in a later post.




Math Science Partnerships

Hello from Chicago!  I’m in the Windy City this week at a US Department of Education Regional Conference focused on the Math-Science Partnership (MSP) Grants that come from USDOE to each state education agency as Title-IIb grants.  The language on ed.gov reads:

“This program is designed to improve the content knowledge of teachers and the performance of students in the areas of mathematics and science by encouraging states, Institutions of Higher Education (IHE), Local Education Agencies (LEA), and elementary and secondary schools to participate in programs that:

Improve and upgrade the status and stature of mathematics and science teaching by encouraging IHEs to improve mathematics and science teacher education;

  • Improve and upgrade the status and stature of mathematics and science teaching by encouraging IHEs to improve mathematics and science teacher education;
  • Focus on the education of mathematics and science teachers as a career-long process;
  • Bring mathematics and science teachers together with scientists, mathematicians, and engineers to improve their teaching skills; and
  • Provide summer institutes and ongoing professional development for teachers to improve their knowledge and teaching skills.

The Mathematics and Science Partnership (MSP) program is intended to increase the academic achievement of students in mathematics and science by enhancing the content knowledge and teaching skills of classroom teachers. Partnerships between high-need school districts and the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) faculty in institutions of higher education are at the core of these improvement efforts. Other partners may include state education agencies, public charter schools or other public schools, businesses, and nonprofit or for-profit organizations concerned with mathematics and science education.”

Some states award grants for three years, others award them year by year.  I’m in a state that awards yearly and this is the 5th grant I’ve directed or co-directed over the past 6 years (sometimes it’s good to be a high-need school district).  This summer our project is focused on middle school math and science and our higher ed partner is the University of Oklahoma College of Engineering and their engineering researchers. Two previous projects focused on elementary science in partnership with the OU research scientists and the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History and the other two awards were a partnership with St. Gregory’s University  and focused on the use of Lesson Study to improve teacher content knowledge and curriculum development.

I bring this up because now is the time when you should be looking for partners and kicking around ideas about ways you can increase teacher effectiveness and student achievement.  The average MSP grant serves 44 teachers a year, brings about 120 hours of inservice to them in the span of one year, and utilizes about $240,000.  The data on subsequent student achievement is just now coming in, but it looks like the programs are performing as advertised.  Do you work in a high need LEA?  down-houseIf you don’t, do you have one in your area who might take the lead role in a partnership?  Know someone in the department of science (or math) in a local college or university who might be interested in improving the local teacher quality and thus the abilities of their incoming freshmen students?  This is just one of many funding streams that will enable us to meet the challenge of the  job we’ve been called to do. To borrow from Red Green, I’m pullin’ for ya, we’re all in this together.


Written by bobmelton in: Workshops | Tags:

Kylee Sharp Intro


Hello! I am Kylee Sharp, and I have been in public education for 9 years. I have my Bachelors and Masters Degrees from the University of Kansas, and I teach at the Lawrence Virtual School, in Lawrence, Kansas. Our school is a public, state-wide, K-12 virtual school that is part of the Lawrence School District. Our high school program consists of grades 9-12 and we cap enrollment at approximately 100 students. We are a college-prep school, and all of our students follow the Kansas Board of Regents curriculum. In addition to my full-time job at the Virtual School, I also work with the University of Kansas at the Center for Science Education, in their UKan Teach program.

My husband and I are both high school biology teachers, and we have a 6 year-old son and a 3 ½ year-old daughter. We spend weekends birding, hiking, botanizing, catching critters at our local wetlands, and generally being outside and enjoying nature. I also enjoy running, bicycling, vegetable gardening, camping, traveling, and my newest adventure: beekeeping.

Written by Kylee Sharp in: Workshops |

NABT & sanofi pasteur Workshop

NABT & sanofi pasteur Workshop
NABT and sanofi pasteur are pleased to announce their upcoming workshop entitled, The Molecular Basis of Disease.   Designed for high school and college educators, this event will feature prominent scientists discussing the successes and challenges of modern biology as it attempts to solve important medical problems. Additionally, presented through a case study approach, the molecular basis of two diseases-influenza and cancer-will be thoroughly examined.

This workshop will be held on April 4, 2009 at the scenic 76-acre Lodge at Mountain Spring Lake in Reeders, PA. An optional Enrichment Seminar is also scheduled over breakfast the next morning (April 5).  A full schedule for the NABT/sanofi pasteur is available at Region II Workshop and continuing education credits will also be offered under Act 48. Please contact Pam Tabery at ptabery@northhampton.edu or (610) 861-5098 for details.

Two different workshop options are available to maximize your experience.


$80 for NABT Members 1-Day Workshop Cost

$40 for Students 1-Day Workshop Cost

$100 for Non-Members  1-Day Workshop Cost

$145 for NABT Membership and Workshop Costs

*Add $40 to cost for Sunday Enrichment presentation

The deadline for registration is March 20th so register today by completing the Registration Form

Written by admin in: Workshops |