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2013 September 23

Science Fair Workshop

Filed under: home school,Science fair — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 20:45
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Suki Wessling, my son, and I ran science fair workshop last week for middle school and high school home-schooled students.  Our attendance was meager (one student other than our two sons).  So that the effort we put into the handout will not be wasted, I’ll put it in this blog post.  The next time I do a handout for science fair, I’ll want to add a section on doing engineering projects also, since those have a somewhat different process than the simplified version of the “scientific method” that we described.

The remainder of this post is the handout:


Science Fair Workshop for Parents

Why science fairs?

The science fair is a lot of work. However, it is also a very rewarding project to do with your child. Benefits include

  • Helping your child do a project that has a beginning, middle, and end. This can be very useful for children who tend to be scattered and unfocused.

  • Completing a cross-discipline project, including science, math, language arts, and public speaking.

  • Supporting your child to approach more challenging work.

  • Meeting other families who love science.

The Scientific Method

The scientific method:

  • Is the basis of science

  • Is the opposite of having a belief and finding a justification for it

  • Is not weakened when hypotheses are disproven

The steps of the scientific method are

  1. Observe

  2. Form an investigative question

  3. Read what others have written, and make competing models that explain the observation

  4. Come up with a hypothesis (a prediction that is different in the competing models, not a guess)

  5. Conduct experiments

  6. Accept or reject hypothesis

An example of the scientific method in action:

  1. Observe that a plant in the shady part of your garden didn’t grow well.

  2. Why didn’t that plant grow as well as plants you put in at the same time in the sunny part of the garden?

  3. Read about what plants need to grow, noting that different plants need different amounts of sun and water.

  4. Hypothesis: This plant needs a certain amount of sunlight per day to grow well.

  5. Plant a good number of seedlings (6–8) and subject half of them to sunny conditions, half to shady conditions. Keep a notebook of the plants’ progress, with observations and measurements.

  6. Consider whether the data support the hypothesis.

How to find a project

There are many places to look to find a good project:

  • The best projects grow out of a child’s actual interest.

  • The best projects take advantage of what children like to do (e.g., messy projects, outdoor projects, math-based projects).

  • Try out examples on a science fair project website just for ideas, then try to expand on or change them based on your child’s interests.

  • Don’t just replicate the steps of a project outlined on the web!

Tips for getting through the process

  1. Plan early: Get all the dates on your calendar, and make sure your child has enough time to do all the steps (including writing the report).

  2. Don’t bite off too much: If your child’s idea is too BIG, help him whittle it down to size. Don’t be tempted to finish it off if the child resists finishing—this is also part of the learning process.

  3. Plan to be completely done well before your school’s science fair (if you’re taking part in one).

  4. There is nothing wrong with preparation: successful kids do actually practice their spiels. However, don’t overprep your child so that she seems to be reciting something you wrote. Make sure she understands what she’s talking about and only uses words she really understands.

What do judges look for?

See more details from Kevin:

  • Multiple replication of the experiments—generally the more the better, but 3 is usually a minimum.  More replication is generally better than more different conditions.

  • Proper controls (both positive and negative, when possible)

  • Graphical display of the results with correctly labeled axes and no chart junk

  • Correct use of units of measurement

  • Proper (simple) statistics (averages, best fit straight lines, …) High school students may add standard deviation and significance tests (chi-square or Student’s T)

  • Measuring the right thing

  • Measuring and reporting inputs as well as outputs

  • Lab notebook with detailed information recorded as the experiment is done

  • Clever use of simple equipment

  • Careful thought about how the experiment could be improved if it were to be repeated

Homeschoolers and the SC Science Fair

  • Students doing projects involving invertebrate or vertebrate animals, human subjects, recombinant DNA, tissue, pathogenic agents, or controlled substances, need to get approval from their sponsoring teacher before they begin their research. A Certificate of Compliance Form must be signed by both student and sponsoring teacher, then submitted by the registration deadline. (The detailed rules have not been published yet for this year—they will be in the “Science Fair Guide”.)

  • Put the schedule on your calendar, including the awards night.

  • If your homeschool program takes part, make sure your teacher meets the school roster deadline.

  • If you are independent or your program doesn’t take part, fill out the registration form and choose your school if it’s in the list. If not, put your private school’s name in the Other box. Submit a school roster after you register.

Winning and losing

Although it’s a competition, the SC Science Fair does a great job of making all the kids feel like they have achieved something. It’s always good to focus more on the event itself—setting up the display, talking to judges, and looking at other kids’ work—than talking about the prizes.


2013 May 24

Black out poems

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 18:43
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Paul Bogush in his blog post Black out poems… describes a rather neat creative writing exercise for middle-school students:

After a couple of days of research we took three books that the library wanted to get rid of.

We ripped out all of the pages … they loved ripping out the pages.

And then the kids “wrote” poems that summarized the life of a mill girl.  I found that in most cases, the student’s ability matched how many words were blacked-out.  Some came back with only 5–10 words not blacked-out, but it matched what I thought the student’s ability was.  This is harder than it seems!

The kids “black-out” all the words they don’t want, and obviously leave the words that will make up their poem unmarked.  Each one took about 10 minutes.

The kids read them afterwards and explained why they “wrote” what they did.

After collecting some and reading them myself, having the kids read and interpret is necessary.  Many were very symbolic, and how you read them can easily change the meaning of what is left on the page. While they were working on these, that really cool “I-am-thinking-so-hard-I-can’t-even-make-a-sound silence” came over the room.

He provides some examples as pictures on his blog: go look at them to see the results.

I suggested this idea to my wife, who is a school librarian, but she has not de-accessioned any suitable books lately.  If any of the teachers at her school wants to do the exercise, she would find suitable books at the Goodwill bookstore or the Friends of the Library lobby store in the Central Branch Library in downtown Santa Cruz.  A suitable book does not need to be particularly well-written, but it needs to have a sufficient density of useful words on each page. In fact, a poorly written book that repeats the same words frequently may be better for creating poetry. Ideally, it should be a book in bad enough shape or of sufficiently low value that a librarian would not shudder at the idea of tearing all the pages out.

2012 May 26

Next Generation Science Standards

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 21:48
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The first public draft of the Next Generation Science Standards is available from May 11 to June 1. We welcome and appreciate your feedback. [The Next Generation Science Standards]

Note that there are only 3 weeks given for the public review of this draft of the science standards, and that time is almost up.  I’ve not had time to read the standards yet, and I doubt that many others have either.  We have to hope that someone we respect has enough time on their hands to have done the commenting for us (but the people I respect are all busy—particularly the teachers who are going to have to implement the standards—so who is going to do the commenting?).

I’m also having some difficulty finding a document containing the standards themselves.  There are clear links to front matter, how to interpret the standards, a survey for collecting feedback, a search interface, and various documents about the standards, but I had a hard time finding a simple link to a single document containing all the standards.  It was hidden on their search page, rather than being an obvious link on the main page.

I glanced over some of the high school standards, and I was not particularly impressed by either the clarity or the content.  The “Engineering Design” standards seemed to be contentless, and several of the physics standards seemed rather arbitrary in what they included and excluded.

Why, for example, is

f. Obtain, evaluate, and communicate scientific literature about the differences and similarities between analog and digital representations of information to describe the relative advantages and disadvantages.

considered part of “HS.PS-ER    Electromagnetic Radiation”?

There is no mention in the standards of any computer science, and precious little mention of computers (usually invoking the use of a simulation of something).

There are some good points in the standards (like requiring that students understand evolution), but I’ve no idea how well the standards align to what can and should be taught to middle school and high school students.  I hope that there are teachers who are familiar with the capabilities of average students who will comment on the standards relevant to classes they teach, to make sure that the standards are neither ridiculously vague nor unrealistically rigorous.

Teachers wanting to look at only a tiny subset of the standards (not all 87 pages) can use the search page to pick out just the relevant standards and comment on them.

2012 May 21

Can’t do value-added measures with a low-ceiling test

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 18:35
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Everyone who know anything about state tests knows that they are mostly low-ceiling tests, designed to separate those who have not learned any of the material from the marginally competent.  Few of them are designed to measure the performance of students in the top 1%.  This makes the use of state tests for “value-added” measures of teacher performance a serious hazard for teachers of gifted students—their students start out well ahead, so there is no room on the test for them to improve.  The mismatch between the test and what the students are currently learning can result in lower than expected scores due to student boredom and resulting clerical errors.

This is not just a theoretical concern: one teacher in New York has left the profession after being unfairly branded The worst eighth-grade math teacher in New York City.  This teacher got over 1/3 of her honors 8th grade math class to get a perfect score on the Regents Integrated Algebra exam, and all of them passed (much better than most classes of 10th graders).

But they did not do well on the 8th-grade state exam, which tested basic arithmetic that they had done 3 years earlier—they had no reason to work hard on the boring test (no consequences for the kids, just for the teachers) and goofed off.

The only way a value-added measure of teaching can work is if the test measures what the teacher is teaching.  If the test is arithmetic, and the teacher is teaching algebra, then the test cannot be used to measure how much value the teacher has added.  If an appropriate pair of pre- and post-tests had been used (like the Regents exam), I suspect that this teacher would have come out looking reasonably good.

2012 April 22

New Yorkers opposed to nonsense stories

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 05:54
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Anemona Hartocollis reports in the NY Times about a Daniel Pinkwater story used in New York’s standardized English tests: Standardized Testing Is Blamed for Question About a Sleeveless Pineapple.

The story itself is a good nonsense story, and only one of the questions should be tricky for 8th graders (asking for the motivation of the characters in the story).  If you want to see whether students can read and understand text, using a nonsense story is an excellent strategy, since students can’t rely on prior knowledge to answer the questions.  (That is unlike a reading test my son took in kindergarten, which relied on prior knowledge of who Amelia Earhart was.)

True to form, New Yorkers were up in arms about the questions “And by Friday afternoon, the state education commissioner had decided that the questions would not count in students’ official scores.”

Antitesting advocates have decided to make this story into a symbol for their mission of eliminating testing.  Because the story is a good one, with a memorable punch line (“Pineapples don’t have sleeves”), I’m sure the antitesting advocates will succeed in getting their message out.  Unfortunately, I think that they are attacking the wrong target, and their efforts are likely to make tests worse, not better.

If any reading that is amusing and memorable is going to be attacked by activists, and the education commissioner is going to throw out any questions about such reading, then the tests are going to be populated with the driest, most boring passages the test makers can find.  This is not the direction I want testing to go.

I suspect that this story and set of questions, which got students discussing the story after the test, may have been the most effective literature prompt that the students have gotten all year.

Quite frankly, I think that education commissioner, John B. King Jr, has acted here as a spineless politician, throwing out all the questions regardless of whether they are measuring what the test is supposed to be measuring.  Of course, it gets his name before the voters in a way that makes him look like he is defending the integrity of the tests, when what he is actually doing is pandering to the loudest and most ignorant activists. This sort of brainless “leadership” is what has made our government so dysfunctional in the past few decades.

My take on this flap is that the story and questions did a very good job of determining what the test writers were asked to determine—whether students could read and interpret literature that they had not previously seen.

Deborah Meier, a founder of a “progressive” school, appears very opposed to close reading of the text, believing that only very vague questions (like “Is this a spoof? Is it intended to make sense?”) are reasonable.  That is an appropriate question for a 4th grade test, perhaps, but I expect more of 8th graders than that sort of superficial question that could be answered without reading most of the story.

I wonder whether the anti-testing advocates actually read the story, or just decided that “nonsense” on tests is bad.  Certainly Ms. Meier’s comment that the story is “an outrageous example of what’s true of most of the items on any test, it’s just blown up larger” does not suggest that she understood what the testing is supposed to be measuring.  She just wanted to be outraged, and people who want to be outraged find any excuse for it.

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