Using an Online Community

kbrown2When teachers go online, one of the things that they are looking for is great resources for teaching.  If each teacher were to find just one of their favorite resources that they always point their students towards, then together we could amass an amazing list of great teaching tools that we can all untilize.  I think that with a list of great sites to visit we might all be a little more enthusiastic to teach with these new ideas and experiences for our students.  I think we can use a blog to explore sites and tools especially in areas that our students struggle. 

I will start with just two.  There are some great annotated web links that help our students understand concepts.  Go to and look at the organized list of animations that Lone Star College has put together.  This would take some time and my students love to look at these animations from across the web. 

The second site is the Genetics Education Center at Kansas University Medical Center.  Debra Collins has been updating this site for years and it is a great source for all things Genetic.

Check these out.  If you have not visited them, do so and share some of your own.

I hope you are all having a great start to your year.


Written by kbrown in: Teaching Tools |

E-Rate Funding to Re-Imagine Schools

Meet Chris Lehmann, Principal of the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia, PA. Lehmann is a interesting guy – he started out as a High School English teacher and technology coordinator.  Over the years, his abiding interest in and thoughtful blog (Practical Theory:  A View From the Classroom) about new technologies applied to teaching and learning has put him in the national spotlight.  On 8.20.09 he gave a talk at the FCC National Broadband Planning Workshop in Washington, DC.   The blog entry I’ve linked you to includes the ustream video of his talk as well as his notes.

I found his talk inspiring. I particularly appreciated his very well articulated point, that if all we do with new broadband technologies is find a more efficient way to deliver content, we are missing the boat. What do you think?

Written by rheyden in: Teaching Tools | Tags: ,

Past NABT President to receive award



Washington, D.C.—Scientist, teacher, and co-director of the Carnegie Academy for Science Education (CASE), Toby Horn, will receive the 2009 Bruce Alberts Award for Excellence in Science Education from the American Society for Cell Biology at their December meeting….more


To the Moon

Apollo 11 liftoff from launch tower camera

Apollo 11 liftoff from launch tower camera

Where were you on July 20, 1969?  I put that question to my friends and family last week and I got a wonderful collection of answers. A common element in all their stories was a small, scratchy (typically borrowed) black & white TV set, with a large group of people, crowded around to watch the flickering images of the first walk on the moon. Breathlessly.

I was 11 years old and a camper in the Feather River Canyon in California, attending a two-week summer camp. Apollo 11 landed at 4:18 pm EDT, so that would have been 1:18, California time, just after lunch.  I remember crowding into a room behind the camp’s dining hall with a hoard of other people, straining to see the small black and white TV screen.  The only broadcast they could receive in that remote location happened to be in Italian (go figure) and so, between the scratchy image and the fact that no one present understood Italian, we had to piece together and narrate what we were seeing.  I can remember the distinct feeling that this was history in the making.  This was something special. And this was something that I would always remember.  

At 10:56 EDT, Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon, and the world watched.  Buzz Aldrin, emerged soon after. Over 2 ½ hours, the two astronauts collected 47 pounds (!) of lunar surface material and re-entered the lunar module.

We Choose the Moon site.

We Choose the Moon site.

Just as the folks at the John F. Kennedy library hoped, their re-creation web site, We Choose The Moon, is tuning Americans into their memories of the historic mission. This is a wonderful site, well worth the visit.  It’s a real-time mission reenactment, tracking the actual mission events (with historic images and footage), just as they happened 40 years ago. You can follow newsroom feeds, monitor the flight path, get updates from mission control (via twitter or from the Mission tracker widget on your web page or social media site).  It’s a very good example of the kind of teaching that can be done with new technology.  My only gripe about it is that they missed the opportunity to make it a 2.0 site by failing to invite people to share their memories and embellish the site with their perspective.  Too bad.

Aldrin's boot.

Aldrin's boot.

After you’ve taken a look at that site, take a look at some of the other, amazing online teaching resources in NASA’s vaults and others – it’s just incredible, what’s available online. NASA has just released newly restored Apollo 11 footage – excerpts really – from the take off, to the landing, and the lift-off back to earth.  You can find it in this New York Times article, along with a hilarious “hoax” video (scroll down to find that one) – and, yes, apparently some people still think that the whole thing was a hoax.  And, in case you wanted to compare, here’s the actual landing footage (pre-restoration).


Here’s a QT movie of the mission, put together by NASA.  And the official NASA site on the history of the mission. NASA has also posted the private taped conversations between Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins, recorded aboard the command module, Columbia, and the lunar module, Eagle, along with an audio database of other recordings. You can find all kinds of downloadable images, videos and pdfs (from NASA) and here is the Apollo 11 image gallery (some great stuff to be found!). To get a better sense of the lunar landscape, here’s a QTVR image scape of the moon taken by Apollo 17 and first published on anniversary #35 of Apollo 11.  Use your mouse have a look around and around and around. The Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum’s Apollo 11 site has lots of information on the mission, the crew, the spacecraft, the landing site and some amazing images. Discovery Channel has an impressive archive of videos of the various NASA missions – lots of fun to explore there.  Just for fun, you can pick up a Lunar Module service manual or a space suit replica (for $9,500) on eBay. 

Unfortunately, as we learned from NPR this week, NASA isn’t the best steward of history. Check out this 7.16.09 story explaining how the original tapes of the Apollo 11 moonwalk probably destroyed during a period when NASA was re-using old magnetic tapes to reuse them for satellite data.   The newly restored video that I mentioned earlier was actually pieced together from a variety of sources, the best of the various broadcast clips.



The Apollo 11 mission fulfilled President John F. Kennedy’s inspirational goal of reaching the moon by the end of the 1960’s.  But it did so much more for all of us.  It gave us the first images of the Earth, taken from the moon. Images that undeniably changed our perspective on our fragile planet and the need for stewardship. The mission showed us men, closely encased in technology, operating dials, levers and computers to sustain their lives in an inhospitable environment. The mission gave us courage to strive for things that might seem unattainable.  It made us explorers again.


Jaguar Conservation and Google Earth

Südamerika - Peru - Manu Nationalpark - Jaguar by Meseontour (creative commons)

Südamerika - Peru - Manu Nationalpark - Jaguar by Meseontour (creative commons)

I just returned from a participatory media workshop that I organized for a group of high school biology teachers at Washington University in St. Louis.  They were there for the summer institute portion of a very special masters degree program called the Life Science for a Global Community, funded by the NSF.  These 30 teachers will work together, over the next two years, to expand their science knowledge and improve the quality of their teaching in a program that combines face-to-face summer courses (at Wash U) with online courses, taken throughout the academic year.  They are a wonderful group – very curious, quick to learn, and high energy.

The program’s director of professional development, Phyllis Balcerzak, invited me to organize a workshop for this year’s cohort on new media tools, as applied to teaching biology.  I had two sessions with the teachers – the first was a hands-on afternoon to experiment with wikis, podcasts, photos, and video.  The second was an optional hands-on workshop with the virtual world of Second Life, conducted with my colleague, Liz Dorland.  As usual, when I do these workshops, I ended up learning more from the teachers than they learned from me.

I was so struck by their observations – what was easy, what was hard.  Better ways to do things.  Creativity in the face of student (and parent) objections.  Clever ways to use the new tools (one of the teachers works with deaf children and makes video – to show signing – content units).  They took to the tools well but kept a healthy dose of skepticism in making decisions about what would work with their students and what was worth their time.

Google Earth screen showing the place-markers of the JCUs.

Google Earth screen showing the place-markers of the JCUs.

In order to get into this LSGC program, candidates have to submit a project that speaks to their creativity and teaching horse sense. One of the “students”, Brant Reif, a high school teacher from Valley High School in West Des Moines, Iowa showed me his projects and I just had to share it here. The project, The State of the Jaguar, is a lab investigation that examines the status of the jaguar in Central and South America, with the hope of preventing it from becoming an endangered species.  He taped into existing data from the Wildlife Conservation Society to create a KMZ file (KMZ – or compressed keyhole mark-up language – is a file format used for displaying geographic data as an additional layer in an Earth browser, like Good Earth) for Google Earth and then wrote up a lab activity where students assess the distribution and status of the jaguar in several sites, current threats to the jaguar, identify priority areas for conversation, and then compare their recommendations for conservation areas with those of research scientists.  Whoa.  Call me impressed.

He walked me through the Google Earth layer (KMZ file) he created, zooming in to show key topographical features and to click on related photos. He created about 20 markers (from which the student could choose), that linked the actual data with images and cleverly crafted journal entries that made sense (from the data and the surrounding terrain/features) to give the students a sense of presence.  For instance, you might click on a geographical site and read entries like, “Saw scat today…” or “Spotted a single jaguar near a farm…”.

In each Jaguar Conservation Unit (JCU), students are asked to estimate the percentage of the area threatened by a set of factors (habitat loss, hunting, human activity, insufficient prey, etc).  To get a better estimate of the threats to each JCU, the students pool their data with data from two other students. When they’ve completed all the data tables, they use them to estimate the priority that each JCU should be granted. Assigning a “3″ if they feel it is low in need of conservation efforts, a “2″ for one in need of some conservation, and a “1″ if it is high need.

I asked Brant how the lab worked with his students and he explained that they loved it, but it took longer than he’d thought.  The students didn’t read the directions and so wasted a lot of time figuring things out or failing to see important information (sound familiar?).  Brant already had a plan for how he was going to address this next time (demo one JCU site in class and have the students just pick three to investigate, find new ways to make sure they read the directions).

There’s so much to love about this activity, it’s hard to know where to begin.  First off, the clever and very specific use of a powerful tool. Google Earth has so much potential but it takes a carefully crafted investigation like this one (on a topic important enough to the course to be worth the effort) to harness it and make it relevant to the study of biology.  By zooming around from location to location on the virtual Earth, Brant’s students got a sense for the enormous distances, the inaccessibility of the region, the topography, the land’s relationship to water, the proximity to major cities, and the conservation issues.  The fact that he connected the investigation to real data gave his students a feeling for how we know what we know and the way scientists work.  The students had to make important judgments and decisions – but they weren’t left hanging at the end – they had a real-life index with which to compare their decision making (at the conclusion, he asks them to explain any differences between the conservation ratings they’ve given and the actual ratings).  I also liked the way that Brant mixed media types – in addition to Google Earth, he used photos, snippets of a National Geographic video, excel for the data tables, and text to create the master document.  And there was a storyteller’s flare to the whole thing (which Brant modestly assigns to the National Geographic article he references).  The student lab introduction reads like this….”At dusk one evening, deep in a Costa Rican forest, a young male jaguar rises from his sleep, stretches, and silently but determinedly leaves forever the place where he was born.”

A wonderful, shining example of new media tools used to improve teaching and learning.  In the true spirit of the networking, Brant says he’ll be happy to share the lab and the KMZ file with biology teachers – you can contact me if you’d like them emailed to you.


21st Century Skills

updatedrainbow_smI’ve been thinking a lot about “21st Century Skills” lately.  Mostly because the publisher of our high school biology program has asked us to add a section to the front-end of the textbook on the topic.  Seems a bit ironic to put such content into a print medium, but that’s ok.  People will at least read about it and, maybe, they will want to dig further.

Since that’s a phrase I’ve heard a lot lately but wasn’t sure I completely understood, I asked our editor what exactly is meant by “21st Century Skills”? She sent me to a web site called Partnership for 21st Century Skills, citing it as the definitive resource on precisely what these 21st century skills are all about.   The Partnership for 21st Century Skills is an advocacy group with the intention of rallying federal resources (Department of Education), businesses (publishers, network providers, hardware/software manufacturers), administrators, and educators around the idea of bringing 21st century skills to schools.  Here’s a quote from their mission statement:

There is a profound gap between the knowledge and skills most students learn in school and the knowledge and skills they need in typical 21st century communities and workplaces.

To successfully face rigorous higher education coursework, career challenges and a globally competitive workforce, U.S. schools must align classroom environments with real world environments by infusing 21st century skills.

Sounds good.  And when you read their materials there’s not much there to disagree with…creativity and innovation, problem solving, critical thinking, flexibility, self-direction, social awareness.  Those all sounds good.  But I thought that this “21st century skills” thang was about technology skills, social networking, and participatory media?

Well, there are technology skills listed on the web site too –  information literacy, using technology tools to access, manage, and evaluate information – but they feel awfully general and, to my eye, they get lost in a sea of impossibly wide-ranging, “achieving-world-peace” kind of goals.  It sort of reminds me of Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegone where “all the  children are above average”.   How can a school administrator or a classroom teacher be expected to apply this?  So many (many!) hoped-for skills here and not a lot of specifics. I worry about the mandatory media skills for future survival getting lost in the ocean of other goals that one might want to have for our students – a sort of unfortunate dilution effect.

So what to put in this front section of our book?  What would I want to put forward as fundamentally important media literacy skills, from my perspective?  Let’s make it real by making it personal.  My kids. When I think about the media literacy skills that I would like for my children (and I attempt to be precise and reasonable about it). Here’s what comes to the top:

How to distinguish between dependable and undependable information.  In a networked world where everyone is participating, the commentators number in the hundreds of thousands, and its all happening at lightening speed, I want my kids to be able to readily distinguish good information from less good.  

How to read (really read) in linked environments.  Reading linked text calls for a different set of skills.  There are new neural pathways to be laid down in order to keep track, make sense, remember, and connect.  I want my kids to be able to read with focus and attention but also to be able to skim, parse, suss, and then dig in when they need to.

How to search, tag, and organize.  My kids will need to know how to find information on line, yes – but beyond that, they will need to understand folksonomy and tag their information for later retrieval and sharing.  They will need to know how to use tools to organize, store, and manipulate information.  

How to find teachers and mentors.  For any problem with which you might be struggling, there is an expert out there somewhere who will be able and willing to help you.  Our networked world is a perfect way to map solution to need.  But getting the word out there about your need (framing the question), finding the right coach/mentor/teacher, and then making the most of the connection (in whatever form it takes) all require unique and nuanced skills.

How to edit in shared knowledge environments.  Whether its Google Docs, a classroom wiki, an Elluminate session or wikipedia, citizens of the world will need to be able to edit, contribute, constructively critique, and collaborate in these shared environments.

How to create a digital footprint.  I want my kids to understand how indelible the web is and that photos and videos uploaded, stories told, or blog entries posted will not only be around forever but might be shared, linked to, mashed up, amplified, and viewed by many.  But my hope here is not just to avoid the pitfalls and dangers.  I want them to be safe – yes – but I want them to go beyond that and learn how to build a lasting digital profile of which they are proud.  One where a future employer will type their name into the search engine of tomorrow and say, “nice.”

To understand the network effect.  I want my kids to fundamentally grasp what a network effect is – how to create it, leverage it, and ride it.  To understand, down in their bones, how much more valuable something is the more people know about it and use it.

I didn’t find any of these specifics on the Partnership web site.  Maybe they are there, in some form or in one of the many downloadable pdfs, but I gave up after swimming in a sea of generalities. Or maybe it’s the name given to this idea  – 21st Century Skills — it just seems so, well, HUGE.  And in its hugeness, ineffective.   I’m sure my list is not complete (and would love to hear your suggestions on what to add) but it’s a start – and its specific.  I think I know what I want to include in that textbook section. I think I know what I need to talk to my kids about this afternoon.

Written by rheyden in: Teaching Tools | Tags: ,

An Extension to the Logistic Model

This post describes how my classes wrap up their preliminary exploration into population modeling using spreadsheets.

Earlier posts in this series:

Sparrow Lab

Exponential Growth

Logistic Growth

Once my students have successfully modeled logistic growth, we sometimes wrap things up with discussions on the power and limitations of models followed with a sequee into human population growth models and predictions.  However, as often as not, if the class has begun to embrace modeling I’ll take them on a momentary side trip.  To begin this exploration, I ask them to identify the parameters in the equation that have the most impact as the parameter changes.  I ask that they systematically try out changes to N, to K and to r.  Generally, the students conclude that changes in N and K are pretty straight forward and predictable but that changes to r change the overall shape of the growth curve more dramatically.  Interestingly, since the inititial values for r that the class have used to this point have been less than “1″, I usually have to persuade them to try out values greater than “1″.  I ask them to record in their notebook, the shape of the growth curve for various values of r between 1 and 4.  Pretty soon I hear some “ohhhh’s” and some “wow’s” coming from different students as they discover the same type of patterns that Robert May (R.M. May (1976). “Simple mathematical models with very complicated dynamics“. Nature 261: 459) did back in the early seventies when he explored the effects of different r values on the logistic.  You can find more info at:

There are some difference between their models and accepted models, but soon the students find that there is a point where there are two stable points that the “population” oscillates between–then four and then chaos…..


From Wikipedia

Now, I’ve got a problem—how far do we explore?  Generally, I leave this particular topic at this point with a few quick words on complexity and how small differences in intitial conditions can have profound effects on processes through time.  Mostly, my goal here is to introduce students to an entire other field that they might find fascinating and be able to link to their math, to their biology and to their physics.  To that end I challenge them to explore this topic on their own time–and many do, each year, bringing back all kinds of links, fractals, and applications of complexity theory in biology.


Twenty of my Favorite Things

my favorite things

Recently, a colleague asked me what ideas I might have for interesting student projects that would take advantage of these new, participatory media tools.  I thought about it and started to make a list.  I came up with about 30 ideas but some of them were a little weak…. so I whittled the list down to 20 of my favorites.  And here they are.  With linked examples, where I had one. I hope you like…(and a yellow jelly bean to anyone who can name the song from the photo above).

1.  5-Photo Story
Plan and storyboard a five- (or ten?) image story. Take the photos with a digital camera and post them to a Flickr group. Ask all members of the group to comment on each others photos. Design a rubric to guide the comments (in order to avoid platitudes or uniformed praise)

2.  Annotated Reading
Start a conversation around an article. Bookmark the article’s online location (using Diigo) and insert comments/questions. Provide the group with your bookmarked version (url) and then they add their comments/questions. Example.

3.  Wiki Process Journal
Create a wiki space for a group to use over the course of a project or an experiment. Team members keep their notes and observations about the process.  The group’s final product will be in some other form; the wiki is there to document the process. The process journal could be organized chronologically or by team member (with each team member owning a page).  The team could document their process with video, photos, or text.

4.  Project Timeline
Use a web-based time line creation tool (xtimeline, timetoast) to document a product/process or to plan a future project.  Comments are embedded in the timeline, document/photos are attached, and links embedded. The timeline is stored online so that others can view it, edit it, and add to it.

5.  Self-Published Book
A book is identified as the outcome of a particular process or project. The team works together to write the book and then self-publishes, using one of any number of online publishing sites (LuLu, Myebook).

6.  Animated Movie
Make an animated movie to tell a story, present a case, or explain a principle. (Goanimate makes animation easy, xtranormal is a unique movie generation service that converts a text description to a movie)

7.  Introduce Yourself
Make a media piece that tells your personal story (or your school’s story) to use for group introductions (back to school night?).  Animoto, IAMUNIQUE, Eyejot, or Wordle are all good tools for this sort of high-impact, at-a-glance”capture”.  Perhaps post all individual “introductions” to a wiki page?  Example.

8.  Create a Bell-Ringer
To wrap up a chapter, a unit, or slam home a complex topic, have students create a “bell-ringer” (using Animoto) to summarize the main points or the experience. ExampleAnother example.

9.  Put it in the Funny Papers
Use a comic generator (Pixton) to create a comic strip to explain a concpet, describe an assignment, or model appropriate team behavior.  First build the story with a mistaken conclusion or a wrong answer and then build it with the right answer. Have a discussion around the two scenarios.

10.  Build a Collaboration
Use VoiceThread to create a conversation around a series of images, a concept or a scenario.  Use the audio recording to narrate a series of still pictures/photos. Once complete, provide the link and all members of the team can comment on the story (leaving their own voice recordings embedded or commented through text).  With time, the recorded observations, insights, and suggestions from all team members are captured within the case’s VoiceThread file. Maybe even invite an outside expert to add comments to a class VoiceThread. A VoiceThread allows a group conversation to be collected from anywhere and then shared in one simple place. Here’s a terrific example of a Voicethread created by Tod Duncan (UC Denver) for his cancer biology course. And another example built by Kelly Hogan  (UNC Chapel Hill) for her non-science majors’ biology course.

11.  Prezi Presentations
Traditional Powerpoint presentations can be boring and they don’t travel well without the presenter.  Create your presentation in Prezi which allows you to narrate, annotate, and focus the students’ eye on the points you consider most important.  Post your Prezi on your web site or put it on a CD. Students can create prezis too.  Here is an excellent example prezi presentation created by one of Cheryl Holinger’s (Central York High School) students.

12. Broadcast Yourself
With an internet connection and a webcam, you can create a live, broadcast show online with any of the interactive web streaming platforms (Livestream, Blogamp, or UStream). Broadcast an event, a talk-show, an interview, a field trip, a debate or deliver a live conversation with participants in different locations. Viewers can pose questions or comment in the chat window. The show can be recorded and archived for later viewing and reflection.

13.  Tell a Digital Story
Use digital tools to tell your story (a project, a personal story, a success story, a retrospective on a failure).  The Center for Digital Storytelling has a number of helpful tools and articles.  Example Stories.

14.  Produce a Film
Using small, easy-to-use low-cost video cameras (like the Flip camera), it’s relatively easy to create simple videos.  Video is an effective way to model behavior, demonstrate a successful encounter/experiment, document an event or a field trip, record an interview with a subject-matter expert.  Post your video online and use either veotag or bubbleply to annotate your video and direct students to particular segments.

15. Podcast It
Ask students to create a podcast (or a series of podcasts).  Short (3 -5 minute) descriptions or explanations, based on a script they write.  The podcasts can be simply audio or they can enhance them with video or still graphics (using Garageband or Audacity).  Podcasts can be posted and distributed online through iTunes or Odeo.

16.  Crossword
Use Crossword compiler to create an online crossword for others to complete.

17.  Analyze What You’ve Written
Challenge students to use Wordle to take a critical look at a report, an essay, or an assessment. Paste the entire document or block of text into Wordle and analyze the resulting map.  Are the most prominent words what you expected?  Does the document reflect the major points you wanted to make? If not, why not?  Make changes to the document and then paste the new version into Wordle.  Compare the before and after results.

18.  Locate Yourself
GoogleEarth works well for creating location-based stories (Darwin’s HMS Beagle Voyage, WWII battles, the expansion of the Roman Empire). Use it to visualize all of the member locations in a particular group or provide location context for research or world events.  Take someone on a tour of a city or a neighborhood by pre-locating place pins and recording your commentary with built-in audio recording.  GoogleEarth 5 also now includes historical imagery from around the globe and ocean images.

19.  Join the Blogosphere
Start an individual blog (your letter to the world) or do a group/class blog with rotating posting responsibility.  Blogs can be text-based or video blogs (vlogs). The best blogs have a strong voice, something worthwhile to say, and invite commentary.  Example, Howard Reingold’s excellent vlog.

20.  A Little Online Brainstorming
Online, shareable white boards (like Skribl or Scriblink) and mind mapping applications (like text2mindmap) can make a group brainstorming activity more interesting. Upload images, doodle, share the pen, chat and when you’re done, print, save, email the results.

Send me a few of your “favorite things”, and we’ll get the list up to 40.  Or more!


Survey on Synthetic Biology

Researchers at Davidson College are looking to learn high school teachers’ perceptions of synthetic biology. If you are a high school biology teacher interested in taking part in a 10 minute survey go to:

From their website:

The purpose of this study is to learn more about what high school teachers think about synthetic biology. You may or may not know anything at all about synthetic biology. Either way, it is important that you respond to our survey. Your response will contribute valuable information to the study. Through this research, we hope to gain a better understanding of what high school teachers and administrators know about synthetic biology and why schools choose to offer or not offer synthetic biology as part of their curriculum. In doing so, we hope to identify the areas where greater support and resources are needed in order to promote synthetic biology in a high school curriculum.


Say “hi” to Google Wave

picture-14Looks like there’s a new tool in town – Google Wave.  It’s basically a real-time communication platform.  One-stop-shopping for email, IM, wikis, chat, project management, and social networking. The press about it so far has been very, very positive.  One reason for the raves is that it is open source – so extensions and applications can be fitted to it in order to modify it to your specific needs.  It will be released later this year (according to the Google site).

Here are a few links to help you get a feel for it:

GoogleWave sneak peak (from Google).

Article about its release.

A guide to the terminology (but of course, there’s new jargon!).

A video clip showing a demo of it.

A few of the extensions that have already been demonstrated will allow collaboratin with maps, auctioning extensions for selling things, rating /reviewing items, and extensions that push content out to an existing blog.  Looks like this could be very interesting.  Keep your eyes and ears open.

Written by rheyden in: Teaching Tools | Tags: ,

Dung Beetles

Horned BeetleWhen I grow up, I want to be Terry Gross (the host and interviewer on the NPR show, Fresh Air).  She’s got to have the best job in the world.  For those of you who are fans of the show, you know that Terry Gross interviews the world’s most interesting people – from politicians, to artists, to scientists, to authors, to musicians, to entertainers.  And she’s so good at it.  She asks the best questions and always gets the full story.

She didn’t let me down this month when she interviewed Doug Emlen (University of Montana) who is an entomologist who studies dung beetles and has become an expert in insect weaponry.  Dr. Emlen described the creatures he studies and their amazing horns – so elaborate and intricate.  He walked Terry through a vivid description of the beetle’s turf battles and how they use their fancy armor to protect, defend, and establish sexual dominance.  His tales of collecting dung beetle specimens from around the world were entertaining and delightful.

Past Fresh Air episodes are all available online as podcasts.  Here is a link to the 40-minute interview with Emlen.  You can also find some amazing video of the dung beetles fighting.  And Dr. Emlen’s web  site includes a gallery of gorgeous photos of the beetles he studies.

This stuff is like biological bon bons.


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.


Make a Book Online


Here’s an online utility that you might want to consider using for student projects – - online book creation sites.  Sites like Lulu, XLibris, and Bookemon are free utilities that allow you to create a book, using your own assets (text and images).  These sites are well designed, easy and intuitive to use.


In order to build your own book, you go to the site of your choice, create a free account, upload your pictures or text (word documents) and the site creates the book for you.  On Lulu and XLibris, you can create your own cover design. In the case of Bookemon, you can go further and design your own layout, adding text boxes, borders, and frames.

Once your book is just as you want it, you can publish it and  – if you want – buy a copy.  The price of the printed book depends, of course, on a variety of factors (e.g. length, color, type of binding) but you can typically purchase a 50-page physical book for about $20.  On the Lulu site you can list your book in their online catalog for others to purchase and you can offer up ebook versions of it for people to download.

On the Bookemon site, you can share the online version of your book with others either by providing a link or embedding code into your web site or social networking site.

Here’s a 41-page book on Acadia National Park that one of Cheryl Hollinger’s (Central York High School) students created using the Bookemon site.  The photos above are pages from this students’ book.  Her wonderful creation gives the reader a very good feel for the park – both scenically and biologically.  And she was careful to provide references and options for more information at the end.

Poetry, cookbooks, memory books, or books on a topic (like Cheryl did with her students) all sound like useful and creative ways for students to express themselves.


hESC, the NIH, May 26 and SCES @ NABT

gresga1ckwjrlw5uqyz3uhobmcevn9_hsn2wav-khdu_5The deadline is Tuesday May 26th. Do you have an opinion about hESCs or human embryonic stem cells?  Have you weighed in on the request from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for feedback on their Human Stem Cell Guidelines?  If you are uncertain how to reply you can find out a lot more about the issues at the Stem Cell Education Summit in Denver in November. 


In my last post I introduced the Keynote Speaker, Dr. Mario R. Capecchi, Nobel Laureate, from the University of Utah.  Today I will tell you that there will be three panels held during the Saturday event.  The first panel will address the issues of Stem Cell Science.  One of the guest panelists is Gabriela Gelbrin Cezar, DVM., Ph.D. whose lab seeks to identify biochemical pathways and translational biomarkers that are altered by known disruptors of human development using metabolomics* of hES cells and neural precursors derived from hES cells.  Gabby also has her own company, Stemina Biomarkers Inc and is a wonderful model for our female students who are debating if science is for them.  Read Closing the Gap The Women Behind Stemina Biomarker Discoveries. ( 


I had the opportunity to meet Gabby at the World Stem Cell Summit in Madison Wisconsin in September 2008 and she is the epitome of South American charm, brilliance and an absolute fashion plate down to the bottom of her pointy toed shoes, of which she is notoriously famous! Visit her lab at and her bio at then check out her science during the first Panel on Stem Cell Science with the other interesting researcher participants.



Postscript: Metabolomics*???  Here is an explanation straight from Wikipedia to you!

Metabolomics is the “systematic study of the unique chemical fingerprints that specific cellular processes leave behind” – specifically, the study of their small-molecule metabolite profiles [1] (, The metabolome represents the collection of all metabolites in a biological organism, which are the end products of its gene expression. Thus, while mRNA gene expression data and proteomic analyses do not tell the whole story of what might be happening in a cell, metabolic profiling can give an instantaneous snapshot of the physiology of that cell. One of the challenges of systems biology and functional genomics is to integrate proteomic, transciptomic and metabolomic information to give a more complete picture of living organisms.


According to SEED magazine Issue 21 Science is Culture April 2009, this is just the type of biomedical science that needs attention in addition to stem cell research.  So,come to the SCES and get twice the information for one sweet registration.  

Written by bunnyj19 in: Biology Teaching |

A Father’s Day Observation

All that talk about baby birds fledging in my last post got me to thinking about a blog entry I made a number of years ago.  Actually I think the journal entry that this came from is dated June 15th, 2003, but it is just as relevant today.

Just a little observation I made last June—

What a day I had last Sunday. It was Father’s Day and the weather in Northeast Ohio was magnificent. I took the opportunity of a lazy afternoon to sit on my back porch and while listening to the music of WKSU (my local Public Radio station,) to read a new history of evolutionary thought that I had recently purchased. Evolution, the Remarkable History of a Scientific Theory by Edward Larson, it is called. Reading about the powerful arguments and discussions that resulted from Darwin’s 1859 publication of The Origin Of Species is always a pleasure for me. But especially when sitting in my back yard on a lazy afternoon. It is a wooded lot and I have had the pleasure of watching a nesting pair of house wrens all spring. Sunday was a special day for the House Wrens, and for my wife and I as well. It was a day that reminded me about being a teacher and also about being a parent. Sunday was the day that the young wrens first left the nesting bottle that had been their home for the past 15 days or so. Betsy first noticed them early in the morning. (I was out playing golf too early to even want to remember.) She told me that she saw four small wrens, First two then the next two. They were flitting around the garden. They would fly from the hanging nest bottle to the garden fence. Then to the branches just above the bottle, then back to the bottle. First two, then the other two. Then she said she saw the bigger “parent” birds leave the bottle for a while. By the time I got home the routine was being repeated over and over again, but by noon they were adventuring out much farther a field–to the split rail fence we have maybe 50 yards away–to the branches of more distant trees–then finally back to the nest. But as the afternoon wore on and I kept glancing up from my reading I noticed that there was a ruckus at the nest. The parent birds were not to be seen, but the young were still flying about. When they landed you could see them flutter their wings. Possibly getting feathers into place? Maybe getting used to the new skill of flight? Who knows? But I kind of thought that they were pretty amazed at this flying thing. Of course I was reading a book on the history of evolution, so I was really trying to be more scientific, more objective in my interpretations. Then I noticed what the commotion was at the nesting site. When the young landed and tried to get in there was a loud distress sound coming from the opening and the young bird would fly away. The noise was the same one I had been hearing for three weeks whenever I walked near the bottle, when I mowed the lawn or checked the holes in my garden fence that the local rabbits created when they breached the security of what I thought was an impenetrable barrier around my 5 tomato, four cucumber and 3 zucchini plants. But that’s another story for another time. This distress call was pretty effective. It got my attention and I tended to move away from the nest. Pretty much what was supposed to happen. But now it was being used for another reason. I was nowhere near the nest, only the returning young. I started to wonder about the sequence of steps in the raising of a young house wren, and since it was Father’s Day, in the raising of a young daughter or son (I’m a step-dad to two daughters, but I have an imagination.) Then I thought about being a teacher. It’s pretty much the same, and I have been doing that for 31 years now. I imagined the house wren parents’ thoughts.

“We have worked for almost a month to get to this day. We flew in to the yard, we scoped out the best nest site. We checked the big wooden apple that hangs in the Maple tree near the wooden fence. We looked at a nest we built two years ago in a bottle that is mounted on the shed and even looked at the new bottle on the other side of the shed. We found the hanging bottle that we used last year and started to “fix-it-up.” I added more twigs and some soft grass. Then I lined it with feathers from my own chest. That’s when I started to mark the territory. I marked it with sound. Calling out my bubbling, chatter song at each of the corners of the yard. I did this to attract the mate too of course. Since I had the best nest sites I guess the selection was rather easy. Nonetheless, we got down to the business of creating the new lives. We had four new eggs to care for and we did care for them. Every minute of every hour, one of us was there. Sitting-on or turning. Watching and protecting. Calling out when danger came near them trying to distract any intruders. We took turns getting food for one another and watching and turning and just waiting. The eggs hatched and that’s when the work started. Food, food, food. Both of us getting food for the chicks—four of them!!! Bringing it in and stuffing it into the biggest open mouths in the nest. Get food, fly in, stuff it in and then go get more food. For twelve to fifteen days. Soon we were also cleaning up. Fly in get the white fecal sack and take it out. We did not just drop it. That would make finding the chicks too easy. We flew it away and then dropped it. Fifteen days and then the day of flight came. We taught you to fly. We taught you to catch the winds and to land. We taught you how to look for insects, to feed yourself. Later in the day we started to repeat the song, the song for territory marking and for courting. We repeated it at the four corners of the yard. We sang it by the garden and by the big maple. But we also let you hear another sound. The distress sound. You heard it when you tried to return to the nest. You were tired from your lessons and wanted to come back to the nest. But we have given you gifts. We have taught you how to fly, how to hunt and how to sing. We have given you all the tools you will need to succeed, to survive. You can’t come back home now. That is what the distress sounds mean. Now you need to go out, to go out to find a new yard with your own wooden fence, your own maple tree, your own nest bottles and ultimately your own lives. This is the gift we gave you. We gave you knowledge, skills, tools. We were your parents and we were your teachers. Now you hear the distress sound when you return because you are ready to go off and be house wrens yourselves. Fly now, sing your songs.”

Of course I didn’t hear any of this conversation, but I’m sure it what was being said Sunday afternoon. It made me think about being a teacher (and a parent.) We work hard to get the site ready—the classroom, the unit, the lesson, the special project. We study, we prepare, we devise and we plan. Then we work to give the students the skills they will need to succeed and to survive. dsc_0058That’s what we do; we get them ready to survive. Sometimes they don’t want to leave, but they are ready. They can succeed and they move on to fly, to sing their songs, and we start all over again with a new brood the next season.

So I sit here and listen to the song lessons and to the distress sounds when the young birds try to get back in and I think about doing that for 31 years and then I smile.

It has really been 37 years, but I’m still smiling!!