Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Purposefully planning vocabulary in the Science Classroom

Have you ever wondered why we continue to teach the same thing over and over again...even when we know it isn't working for 80% of the kids? We hear "we've always done this".  "It covers the standards."  But if it isn't working, then why do we continue to waste time on it???

This summer I noticed a lot of chatter on Pinterest about the book Word Nerds. I figured I needed to read this book!

Guess what?  I loved it! When my team and I got together to plan for the upcoming year, we discussed the ideas in the book and decided it was worth a try.

First idea: Vocabulary should not be random words.  Instead they should be purposefully picked to tie into the curriculum in your classroom during the two week vocabulary cycle.  I also feel strongly that the words need to be experienced in order to connect meaning - rather through a science investigation, a math activity or a social studies role play.  Together, we searched through our curriculum to find words that would overlap in science, social studies and math content.  Words such as position, rapidly, current, prior and more.  We pick six words for the week.

Second:  Once we choose the words, we create a vocabulary guide sheet for the teachers. This is really powerful for us. It helps keep vocabulary consistent in each room as well as the skills we want to address.  As you see, we also add antonyms, synonyms, prefixes and suffixes to our basic six words.
Vocabulary JournalThird:  The students are finally introduced to the words.  First present cloze sentences in which the students predict what the words will be.  Next, share the words (I do it one at a time) while the students guess which words fit in which sentences. (Oh yes, that would be context clues!) Next the kids are given a vocabulary journal that is full of Frayer Model graphic organizers.  I bought this vocabulary journal at TPT for just $1.00.  It's a great buy! We are lucky to have laptops that we share as a grade level. Students work as pairs to search for the new vocab word, find antonyms (if there are some), synonyms, and a definition in kid friendly language.  Then they draw a picture and write a 7 up sentence (with at least 7 words). The kids like the ownership of searching for the words themselves.  Sites we use include and .
Fourth: Now, we meet up again and share words that the kids have found.  We add them to our class chart (and anymore that we have found in the planning phase) and post the chart in the room.     All of these parts take about three days to complete.  So what do we do for the rest of the two week cycle? Oh that will be another post! 


Monday, November 4, 2013

STEM....rocket ships!

To the moon Alice!  Our fourth graders have begun their first engineering project of the year.  They are designing rockets (paper) that will travel to the moon.  To hook the students I showed them the video To Moon, Mars and Beyond by NASA. It's an excellent video that shows what NASA is working on for the next stage of moon exploration. Using the Engineering process, students first asked the question:  How can I create (build, design, make) a rocket that will fly?

Our next step was to plan....what type of rocket will we create that will fit onto our rocket launcher (oh yes, we have a rocket launcher!) and successfully fly? Students imagined what it would look like and planned the design alone or with a partner.  Our Engineering lab has cushy seats for planning that we love!!!

On to the create phase....the only restraint that we gave them was that the rocket should fit onto the tube of the launcher.  They had recycled paper, markers, glue guns, bottle caps, index cards, duct tape, craft sticks, etc... What would they create?

 We had many designs that were created.... Here is one example.  There are many more that I can share another day!

Our final step was to can find directions to make a rocket launcher on line.  You need PVC pipe and a bike pump for the air pressure.  This one was donated by our local University (University of Mary Washington).  We have a partnership with Dr. George Meadows. The kids like this because it has a button to push and test!  It makes a loud noise too (which adds to the fun!)


Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Science and Literacy...a Natural Connection

Where have I been? Busy teaching in my classroom!  Between the start of the new school year and the duties of parenting a teenager and a ten year old (sports, band, etc..) I haven't had time to sit down and work on my blog.  It is something I miss terribly...especially with all the amazing connections we have made this year in science.  I'd like to share a few things we have been working on.

First, all of my science lessons start with a hands-on activity.  Our first unit was Environments - a FOSS third edition unit that explores environmental factors and how they influence organisms.  We have looked at conditions such a light with isopods, salt with brine shrimp, and temperature with mealworms. The kids have observed these organisms thrive and die.  We have watched the mealworms go through their life cycle already in the span of six weeks!

Many of you know that I have fought for science instruction in the elementary school and have made a case for at least 45 minutes of instruction.  We have worked really hard to integrate our reading/math lessons to tie in elements of graphing, equations, data collections and literacy.

Here are some ways that I have included vocabulary instruction in my science classroom. I have found that by introducing a topic with concrete materials and then moving on to the conceptual level most children are able to "hook" on to the vocabulary.  What do you think?

PS...I HATE my white walls.  My principal had them painted this summer and I absolutely HATE them.  I have two autistic students and finally realized that the bright white walls, white ceiling, and white tile floor combined with the fluorescent lighting was not a good combination! Luckily I have two sets of lights and have taken to only turning one on (dimmer setting) and that has helped.  I am thinking of at least painting a long rectangle between the bulletin board where those posters are to accent my posters.  Of course, that takes time!  ha ha!


Sunday, August 18, 2013

Looking for a way to kick off the year in science????

Looking for a way to kick off the year and teach students how to use observational skills along with concepts such as variables and inquiry projects? 

Several years ago, my colleague and I created a unit that was based on the great Steve Spangler's You Tube videos involving diet coke and mentos. 

I mean...what great fun! 
My son and I first tried it several years ago in the back yard, then we did it for a birthday party for 7 year olds, and then I decided...I gotta do this in the classroom.

So, we decided to tie it into a unit on introducing scientific investigations. Many teachers like to do this at the beginning of the year as a way to introduce science vocabulary words and observation techniques. 

My students loved it!  Check out my blogs about the experience from last year by looking at the side posting labels.  You can see what it looked like in action. It is such a big hit it is now my student's #1 favorite activity (three years in a row!) as well as my #1 seller on TPT.
      The package is more than a series of worksheets, but instead is a full blown lesson plan that teaches how to introduce variables and constants in a fun way.  It includes an inquiry approach where students get to choose which types of sodas to test!

Click here to see more about this great investigation!   Enjoy!

Friday, August 9, 2013

Early Childhood Science

Ten years ago, you couldn't walk into a K-1 classroom without seeing a nature center. There would undoubtedly be magnifying glasses, objects to observe and many other science centered activities.  Now when you walk into a classroom, what do you see? Reading and Math. Now, I am not saying that there shouldn't be reading and math in an early childhood classroom, I just want you to consider the reasoning behind early childhood science.
Recently, I have reread one of my favorite books.  Doing what Scientists do by Ellen Doris.   The book has gotten a facelift and upgrade since the original version, but the basic premises are the same.

How do children learn?

·       By doing

·       Constructing knowledge through collaboration

·       Behavior and thinking take time

·       As individuals

·       Revise their understanding of the world through experiences

·       Feelings are part of learning
All of these ideas are true, and are especially true in science.  As a constructivist teacher, I never tire of hearing these thoughts.  And to make science meaningful for every child, science lessons should follow these guiding beliefs:
        Science is a process of inquiry and investigation

·       Familiar everyday phenomena provide a rich focus for science study

·       Children learn through their own activity

·       Teachers can also be active investigators

·       Applying knowledge of child development contributes to science teaching

·       A balance between structure and freedom in the classroom is important

·       Each class member has an important contribution to make

·       Collaboration is important
 Do you agree? I agree that these beliefs are essential from pre K to grade 12...but what do I know? 


Tuesday, July 30, 2013

A is for Arts Integration!

Arts Integration!
Don't take it from me...take it from the US Department of Education!  This short video shares many examples of arts in action.  Our school is adding Arts Integration to our STEM model to create STEAM.  We are in the beginning stages of planning for next year but I thought I show you where we are starting.
Websites for Training and Lessons


Education Closet is a great website for professional development, lesson planning, and assessments.

Some of the projects that are in the works include:
  • Sunflowers from Van Gogh - in our Plants Unit
  • Breezy Energy - in our Wind Unit
  • Reading the Art
Another great resource that we are using to help us plan comes from the Kennedy Center in Washington DC.  The website is called "ArtsEdge".
           There are 28 different themes based on social studies, math, science and literacy. 
            We have found lessons that use print art, photographs, dance, music and more!

I can't wait to share with you some of the student work this year...until then, I leave you with two of my favorite paintings.  It is impossible to use art work from the real Van Gogh on a blog, so I have found some children's art work that is based on Starry, Starry night and Sunflowers.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

What's the T in STEAM?

T is for Technology!  Now, hear me please...there is a reason my blog is called ScienceGal and not TechGal! This is not my area of expertise.  Still, I am jumping in with both feet as we add new techno gadgets into our school this year.

Let me set the stage....we are in a partnership program with University of Mary Washington in which they are helping us create a "Maker Space".  The professor in charge is looking to see how elementary kids will use this space to create, design and innovate.  If you are not familiar with the Maker's Space movement, check out . This website is really fun and introduces you to all the goodies that are in the market today!

What goodies do we have coming?
*3 D Printer
* Squishy Circuits
* Makey Makey
* Humingbird Kits
* Lego Robotics
*and more!

When school starts again, I will be glad to take a few pictures and post them with comments about what we are working on at the time!


Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Introducing the design process

First...I want to remind everyone that the FIRST letter in STEM/STEAM is S = for SCIENCE!  So, that being said, I always link my STEAM activities to the Science Content.  My first unit this year is on the Environment.  Many people don't really think of Environment as an opportunity for STEAM integration....but that is where you are wrong.  There are so many connections to find..if you just start to think that way.

Before I go on a ramble and forget the reason for this post, I'd like to share with you the design process that we use.  It's from Engineering is Elementary (my favorite website for STEM lessons).  You can download a poster on that site or create your own, like I did!  I created a poster with the five key words - Ask, Imagine, Plan, Create, and Improve.  Then we brainstormed other words that mean the same as the key words and added them on the outside of the diagram.

When you are working with the students you are going to want to ask a lot of questions.  These questions below came straight from EIE's Website.   These are NOT my words, but I like the way they are worded.

  • What is the problem?
  • What have others done?
  • What are the constraints?
  • What are some solutions?
  • Brainstorm ideas.
  • Choose the best one.
  • Draw a diagram.
  • Make lists of materials you will need.
  • Follow your plan and create it.
  • Test it out!
  • Talk about what works, what doesn't, and what could work better.
  • Modify your designs to make it better.
  • Test it out!
What are some ideas for including engineering in the environmental strand? The Engineering is Elementary unit that goes with this strand is creating a new method for cleaning up an oil slick.  I'm sure it is an amazing lesson and one that we can all relate to since the accident in the Gulf in recent years.

What other STEM related tasks can you think of that would relate to environments and ecosystems?

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Engineering 101

Where to start? Where to start?  

When moving into our new STEAM plan, we felt VERY comfortable with our Science and Math curriculum.  We have been using TERC's Investigations for math and Delta Education's FOSS for science.  The still a work in progress.  Still, we have found some great resources, websites, and curricula.

Resources: Children's books

Head over to and check out some books we have found:  Engineering the ABC's by Patty Novak.  This book talks about everyday materials that engineers have helped create and how they effect our everyday lives.

Engineering Elephants by Dr. Emily Hunt is really good for early childhood K-2.  The book is told in rhythm and rhyme.  You can look through it at Amazon and take a sneak peak!

Websites: This is a really great place for you to use with the whole class or for students to explore one-on-one.  Start with a bunch of pictures of items that engineers have helped to create in categories from food to fashion.  Next, choose a picture and it will take you to a new link with videos, narratives and other websites! Fun!   My favorite "go to" place to find ideas for activities in my classroom.  I have used this site to find plans for creating balloon powered cards, towers and robo wheels.  I love this because there is a video that you can show to your class with step by step directions as well as ways to redesign. They have video episodes, simulations, games, etc... Materials are easy to find, inexpensive and developmentally appropriate.  This website offers lesson plans and online games for ages 8-18.  The lessons are a little cumbersome, but if you look through them you may find something worth using.


Hands down, without a doubt...the best stuff out there for elementary kids is Engineering is Elementary from the Boston Science Museum. They have created 20 units that are actually correlated to FOSS and STC units as well as the Next Gen Science Standards.  We purchased several units last year for our school. I used Alarming Ideas: creating an alarm circuit.  What I liked about this curriculum, is that each unit starts with a story.  The story has a global connection; this one is set in Australia! Each story has a real world problem which the kids are able to create solutions for.  The materials are easy to find, relatively cheap, and easy to use.

Next to introduce the engineering design process.


Thursday, July 11, 2013

STEAM school update

My school is quickly diving into being a STEAM school - something I am really excited about!  We wanted to really BE a STEAM school and not just SAY we are a STEAM school and that has taken some planning, thinking, and reflection.  Luckily, my school already has some AMAZING curriculum resources available to help with this endeavor and we think we have the perfect combination to create a really good program.

S = Science - FOSS science kits and science notebooks (K-5)
T = Technology - Lego robotics, squishy circuits, hummingbird kit, 3-D printer
E = Engineering - Engineering is Elementary
A = Arts - CETA program (in conjunction with the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC)
M = Mathematics - Investigations program (by TERC)

Top this off with a really good reading curriculum (FINALLY) provided by Benchmark Literacy that allows us to integrate science and literacy easily and effectively.

So what is this approach going to look like? It will look different at each level.  Our primary teachers will continue to teach Science and Math using the curriculum tools available as well as adding in more time for science explorations and engineering.

We have purchased a few kits for the younger grades from EIE including:  Catching the Wind: Designing Windmills :Students explore how various materials catch the wind and then design their own small windmills.
This curriculum is perfectly aligned with Air and Weather (a FOSS kit) and can be used as a culminating lesson or stands on it's own as a week long unit.

Are you ready to learn some more about what is on the horizon in science education? I'm back and ready to roll!

See you soon....


Thursday, May 2, 2013

Conference....Science in the Classroom! It's Natural

So I said earlier that I have been busy... that is an understatement!  Not only is it baseball and soccer season at my house but I have recently become more active in science leadership opportunities in my region.  My good friend, Sherrie, and I took on a new responsibility of being our Regional Directors for the Virginia Association of Science Teachers.  We have enjoyed going to meetings and really seeing what is going on at the front lines of science leadership. One of our new responsibilities was to offer a mini-conference for teachers in our region.

We were able to secure many high quality teachers (from our division) for an amazing day of science! I really wanted to focus on K-2 because they are often the "lost" ones in science educational development.  We had several really good sessions for them including "thinking like a six year old" - cognitive connections and more! We also had one on Art and Science connections, Science Notebooks and taking science outdoors.  Our master gardener spoke about local resources available to us as well.

Photo: Here we are with Einstein fellow Lynn Reed!My upper grade sessions were also high quality including an amazing session on Oceans for fifth grade teachers, nature journals, the flipped classroom, STEM in the classroom and polar habitats.

Our keynote speaker, Lynn Reed, was an Einstein Fellow from Richmond who is working with the NSF on polar science for two years.  She was able to go to Greenland and Antarctica to participate in scientific studies on polar changes, weather and more.

She recommended a few really good websites: is great! It is a place where students can learn about the Adele penguin, ask questions to the scientists studying them in Antarctica and even get a postcard stamped from the south pole! Click on the penguin to learn more!

Another site that I have visited before is Beyond Polar Bears and Penguins. This site is just what is says...something more than just cutesy arts and craft projects!This website is thematic in nature (cross curricular) that includes literacy, math and science.  It offers professional development articles, and kid friendly research from "in the field".

Here's to hoping that I can be more active on the blog scene again....of course, now it's time for State Testing! (Boo hiss)

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Earth Day is coming...

I have been really busy lately and admit I am behind on my postings.  Having said this, there are many exciting things going on at my school for next year - including a new STEM lab, a restructuring of our instructional day, and more!

So I thought that I would repost my favorite lesson for Earth Day from last year.  This is a GREAT activity that really makes its point!

I love the Lorax!  I have ever since I was old enough to read it...I remember watching it on TV long before there was such thing as Earth Day (or at least one recognized in schools!) I loved the idea of helping the planet then, and I love the idea of helping the planet now.  So when I saw an article using this book highlighted in NSTA's magazine Science and Children this month,(April/May 2012)  I knew I had to duplicated it in my classroom.  The article, Truffula Tree Troubles, was written by Robert Snyder and addresses the issue of tree harvesting. My class had just finished reading Owl in My Shower which is a great book that also addresses the issue of logging rights vs. ecological issues.   We were already familiar with the idea that there are two sides to every story.

Anyway, you can find the article for purchase at the NSTA store and I highly recommend you do that to get the full lesson plan.  The article gives objectives, materials and a detailed lesson plan that follows the 5 E's nicely (Engage, Explore, Explain, Elaborate and Evaluate),  I will give you a quick run down on the "gist" of the activity...

You will replicate the idea of cutting down trees like the Oncler did using 5 different types of noodles.   I started off by reading from the book until they get to the section where the oncler starts chopping down all the trees. At this point I have the children get into small groups. (My students already work daily in cooperative science groups with rotating jobs which really helped with this activity.) Each group is assigned a card with a noodle attached. That is the "tree" their group will harvest.  I pointed out to them that just like a real forest doesn't have an equal amount of trees, either will they.  Some groups will have more than others.

You will put all the noodles on a drop cloth (I used a plastic table cloth) for easy harvesting (and clean up).  Then each group will send one member to the "forest" to harvest their trees for 45 seconds.  After that time, they will return to their group and record the number of trees harvested.  They will do this 8 times.

The students (like the once-ler) were very excited at the beginning to harvest many trees at once.  However, after several trials...they noticed that they were getting fewer and fewer trees...and suddenly ... the trees were gone!

What a great opportunity to discuss with them the idea of renewable and non-renewable resources.  We discussed that some natural resources are non-renewable - meaning that once they are used up they are gone for good.  That's what happened to the Once-ler and the Truffula trees.  However, we learned in Owl in the Shower that forests can be renewable resources if loggers don't just clear cut and move on, but instead replant after each cut.  That is what we are trying to do here in Virginia with our logging industry.

In the NSTA article, Robert Snyder had included some fantastic follow up questions.  In keeping with my science notebook process, I re-wrote the form to include his idea of a data chart, a line plot, a conclusion (my idea) and a reflection (his idea).

You will notice that I purposefully left the line plot unmarked - that is so you can hand write the trials at the bottom (# 1-8) and the amount of noodles on the side.  I had written only up to 40 noodles per handful (counting by 5's) and I have to say the kids far exceeded that amount.  When I do it next year, I will write the numbers by 10's up to 80 instead.  You can down load it for free at my TPT store.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

American Idol Math

 Yes, I did just say math....I usually only blog about science, but today is an exception.  I've got to share with you my favorite way to teach probability, fractions and decimal connections.  My good friend, Sherrie Roland, came up with this idea many years ago and shared it with me. I have done it for the past three years and each year I believe it is one of the best ways my kids make sense of probability and fractions....through the events that happen on American Idol!

I must admit, this year has had me on my toes!  Usually we have some time to explore with 18 contestants and watch them dwindle down to the top 12.  But this year we went from the top 20 to the top 10 in one week!

Here's how we start....I created a bulletin board that shows the top 20 contestants with their official photo shoot pictures. 

 After they were eliminated, and we went from 20 to 10 we noticed that we had lost 10/20 contestants which is the same as 1/2 which is the same as 50%.  We also noticed that of the 10 contestants who were voted off, 5/10 were girls and 5/10 were boys.  So 10/20 = 5/10 = 1/2 = 50%.

Some of the ways that we keep track of the data each week is by comparing the fractions of girls vs. boys, subtracting fractions with like denominators and searching for equivalent fractions. 

We also practice probability by plotting the likelihood of a boy or girl winning each week on the likelihood line.  The B and G are on index cards that we can manipulate and move along the line - describing the data using percentages, fractions and vocabulary.

Next up, I create a journal for them. It's a simple white covered journal with about 7 pieces of notebook paper in it.  They get to decorate the cover with the title American Idol Math.

Inside I give them a copy of the top ten contestants with their names on it. For the next 10 weeks, we will count down the contestants that get voted off.  As we do we write in our journals to keep track of what is going on.  Last year I predicted Phillip Phillips early on and I have it in print to prove it!

Here is the general format:

Last night ______ got voted off.

9/10 - 1/10 = 8/10

5/10 Girls and 3/10 Boys.  There is a greater likelihood of a girl winning this year than a boy. 

(Draw a likelihood line on the notebook - plot the fractions on the line)

Sometimes we write our favorite part from the night before depending on the night or the time.

Hope you can use this!