Author Bio: Bob Coulter
Bob Coulter is director of Mapping the Environment, a program at the Missouri Botanical Garden's Litzsinger Road Ecology Center that supports teachers' efforts to enhance their science curriculum through the use of the Internet and geographic information system (GIS) software. Previously, Bob taught elementary grades for 12 years.
- Connect articles
by Bob Coulter:
- Journey North for Great Learning
- For years, competing arguments for computer use in education have been swirling around schools, with no clear winner. Some argue that computers should be used as writing tools, some as data manipulation tools, and some as research tools. The recent explosion of Internet use in schools has only added to the uncertainty. Just what should we be using the computers for?
- Tracking Animal Behavior and Life Cycles
- A couple of years ago, I found myself growing very dissatisfied with how technology was being used in education. In particular, I found that the grandiose claims for how the Internet could be used in schools--with students generating meaningful inquiry and exchanging data and ideas with peers from around the world--far outstripped the reality of the projects. I decided to focus on supporting students' authentic learning, letting technology fit in ways which provided meaningful extensions to the students' work.
- Making Sense of Your Senses
- To get you started in exploring the mathematical dimension of your senses, here are three activities which involve the collection and analysis of data. In turn, these activities provide opportunities for a meaningful integration of technology into your classroom. Using computer software or graphing calculators, your students can make tables of the data, calculate statistics, and create graphs - and in the process develop an appreciation for the power of technology as a research tool.
- Forensic Math
- Forensics involves the study of human remains, such as skeletons unearthed at an archeological dig. Anthropologists can use their forensic knowledge to reconstuct the size of an entire skeleton from a few body parts. For example, the ratio between a person's forearm and their height is thought to be approximately 1:6. Collecting data with your students will help you to determine if this is true.
- A Whirlwind of Excitement:
- Studying tornadoes is one way to engage students in the excitement of weather. By employing current tornado sightings and archival data sets from the Internet, students can sustain an inquiry over the course of an entire season.
- Branching Out With Technology
- Opportunities for hands-on, authentic learning are almost endless as students study trees, their leaves, and the animals that call the trees home. As a teacher I found the many changes trees undergo throughout the year to be particularly interesting areas for discovery. The three projects described here can get you started.
- Getting the Drift of Motion: A Current Event
- Tracking objects in motion adds a dimention of "real-world" inquiry to a science investigation. Instead of simply learning generalized principles from their textbooks or encyclopedias, students have an opportunity to build a robust understanding as they gather, plot, and interperet motion data.
- Problem Centered Math:
- To achieve the level of higher order thinking which is at the heart of the various Standards documentswhile still teaching basic skillsrequires resourceful teaching and a clear sense of what we want our students to achieve. My experience over the past few years has taught me that this curricular vision is essential, but it is not enough. We also need to develop support throughout the school community for inquiry-rich learning in all disciplines. For lasting change to occur, colleagues, administrators, and parents need to be on board.
- Investigating Math in the Community
- By comparing prices for grocery items in the community, fifth and sixth grade students at the Atrium School in Watertown, Massachusetts found that what seems simple can be surprisingly complex.
- Investigating Population Changes Over Time
- Projects involving change over time are particularly well suited to support higher level inquiry, as they enable students to dig beneath a surface description to investigate the reasons behing the change they are observing. Of course the teacher plays an essential role in stimulating students' curiosity and providing the necessary scaffolding as students pursue meaningful investigations.
- Making Your Students Game for Learning
- In pursuing this issue's theme of prediction and problem solving, I invite you to explore one of the best games I've ever used with students: The Logical Journey of the Zoombinis. This popular award-winning, and comparatively inexpensive sofware program is still used- voluntarily- by some of my former students five years. after they learned it with me.
- Learning Conservation on the Wings of a Butterfly
- I have found that tagging monarch butterflies on their southern migration each fall, and tracking their return northward in the spring has been very successful in meeting this challenge of building a pedagogically sound conservation ethic.
- Tools for Inquiry
- We look at how graphing calculators and GIS software can support your students' inquiries.
- Standards are for the Birds!
- Bird studies offer outstanding opportunities to meet a number of the science and math standards you are accountable for while sustaining deep inquiry all year long. The project also provides an authentic context needed for effective use of technology in your classroom.
- Exploring the Mathematics of the Designed World
- As the NCTM Standards notes, "Real world contexts provide opportunities for students to connect what they are learning to their own environments. Students' experiences at home, at school, and in their community provide contexts for worthwhile mathematical tasks." A focus on the designed world offers just such an opportunity to make these connections.
- Calculating the Sun
- Looked at more broadly, solar energy can be seen indirectly in the many ways in which it "drives" the world around us. Much of the weather we experience, and the more general climate patterns around the world are driven in part by the amount and intensity of the sunlight reaching an area.
- Using Graphs as More Than Pretty Pictures
- To maximize the educational benefit of data-rich investigations, graphs need to serve as more than a pretty picture made at the end of the project.
When data analysis software is used effectively, it allows students to meet the standards more readily as they focus on the substantial questions they are investigating. By greatly simplifying students efforts to manage their data and freeing them from worrying about the mechanics of the calculations and plotting, the meaning of the data becomes central.
- Using Spatial Patterns to Organize Your World
- In this column I invite you to explore a different type of patterning: spatial patterns. This process of organizing how events are located geographically is an equally important skill with many applications in science and social studies classes. Also, your students will develop many critically important math and language skills as they interpret spatial patterns and discuss their observations.
- What's It Like Where You Live
- Studies which compare habitats near your schoolyard to distant places offer your class opportunities to bridge the often troublesome gap between first-hand experience and on-line learning. In the process, essential science, math, and geography concepts will be learned.
- Using Imagery to Measure Change in Ecosystems
- For practicing scientists, use of satellite imagery and aerial photography are providing the means to measure conditions. As educators, these same resources are increasingly available for classroom use, enabling your students to perform similar investigations of change in ecosystems.
- Bringing the Sky into Your Classroom
- The challenge we face as teachers is in developing means of bringing the vastness of the sky into a manageable frame of reference. For a child used to exploring in the back yard, the entire sky can be overwhelming. Fortunately, there are many hands-on investigations and literature-based extensions you can use to foster students understanding.
- Using Technology to Extend Students' Capacities
- In a well-structured science class, students are actively engaged in constructing meaningthe quintessential human endeavor. This is an important perspective to keep in mind, as the field is all too often seen as impersonal. We have all heard people say that they were never very good at science (or math), but that they are a "people" person. This artificial dichotomy is as untrue as it is unfortunate, as any biography of a scientist or mathematician would show. The examples in this issue of the very human skills used to investigate the real world should further put to rest this separation between people skills and rigorous science and mathematics learning.
- Exploring the Natural History of the L & C Trail
- Lewis and Clark were successful naturalists and today their work opens avenues for students to understand the role of careful observation in doing science, and to understand how climate conditions and landforms help to determine which species can live and reproduce in an area.
- Puzzles and Games Balance Your Classroom
- Games and puzzles can build understanding of fairly straightforward arithmetic concepts and also of complex understandings of ecosystem dynamics. Games most worthy of our attention as educators are able to engage students in thoughtful learning tasks that go beyond just rote recall and rapid-response activities.
- Learning Science by Serving Others
- Service learning projects provide an essential link between the academic skills that students are developing and the real world contexts that give these skills value. Perhaps equally important in this era of discretely measured skills, service learning provides the vehicle through which students can increase their empathy for others, whether it be through a social welfare or environmental monitoring project, or simply through helping others to understand the world a little bit better.
- Bringing Math and Science Back Together
- This perspective on the joint benefits to math and science through integration is important to keep in mind as pressures mount to cover the curriculum in a limited amount of time. As you bring out the mathematical dimensions of a science investigation or add a scientific context in which a math concept is used, you are deepening students understanding of the intended curriculum focus. Implementing this perspective can be challenging, however.
- Writing in the Math Classroom
- Writing is a vital aspect of the math curriculum. Though often neglected in the rush to "cover" all of the computation algorithms presented in a typical textbook, it is important that we include student writing as a major component of our math work. Aside from the obvious benefit of improving writing skills, frequent use of writing will improve students' understanding of the mathematical concepts being studied.
- Bringing the Powers of Ten Home
- The video Powers of Tenself-described as a film about the relative size of things in the universeis something of a classic in science and mathematics education, owing to its ability to capture core ideas of scale and perspective in a manner that is accessible to a wide range of students.
- Linking With the Past
- Linking with the past through a study of ancient technologies offers students an outstanding opportunity to increase their understanding of the human experience.
- Giving Students Latitude to Learn
- What is the shortest day of the year? Just how far is it around the Earth?
Students (and many adults) take textbook answers to these questions for granted, when in fact the question is much more complex than they imagine. As your students engage in these issues, core mathematics and science skills are practicedalways an important consideration given current accountability pressures. Even more important, however, students going beyond the surface can explore the rapidly growing field of modeling. Modern mathematics and science depend on models, and you can introduce your students to this process with just the two "simple" questions above.
- Going Local with Kits
- Science kits offer outstanding opportunities for teachers to facilitate hands-on, investigative learning. These kits might supplement an otherwise overly textbook-driven curriculum, or simply provide ready access to the materials for a more activity-driven curriculum. In both of these cases, the kits serve a critical educational function. In the hands of creative teachers, they can be extended in innovative ways.
- Mousing About With Color
- Hands-on investigations in this issue provide a base from which students can deepen their understanding of how we perceive light and color. Simple, easy to implement technological extensions to the hands-on investigations introduced here can make significant contributions to your students view of the world.
- Using Data and Modeling Tools
- In a classroom filled with rich investigations, judicious use of data tools and modeling software can play a vital role in advancing student communications. Innovative new data tools can go well beyond the capacities of a spreadsheet to help students organize, manage, investigate and present their data. Complementing these efforts, modeling tools can help students explore phenomena that they cannot manipulate directly. Both of these approaches can enrich the quality of the dialogue happening in the classroom, which in turn can help students achieve a deeper and more nuanced understanding of what they are investigating.
- Teaching the E-word
- This month Im going to take a diversion from the more typical activity-focused Technology for Learning column, offering instead reflections on one of the most pressing issues in science education today.
You may have guessed from the title that the issue under consideration is the currently raging debate between those who see evolution as the organizing principle of the life sciences, and those who advocate acknowledging supernatural influence as a driving force.
- Sketching a Path to Algebra
- Many students face a difficult transition from arithmetic to algebra as they move from numbers to unknowns. Three of something can be readily envisioned; representing quantities with variables such as X of one thing and Y of another requires a leap that all too many fail to make successfully. With algebra widely seen as a gateway course that enables or restricts access to many professional fields, the constriction of opportunities through poor understanding of basic algebra is unacceptable.
- Mapping and Graphing Diversity
- All cultures possess some degree of diversity, and somelike the United States and Canadathat have a long history of attracting immigrants have a remarkably diverse population. Race, ethnicity, and socio-economic status are only some of the many ways in which people differ. Investigating these differences provides a rich opportunity for your students to come to appreciate diversity and approach people with thoughtfulness and respect. Along the way, they can develop key math and language skills for which you and your students are accountable.
- A Healthy Approach to Math
- Class projects promoting physical health offer many chances to improve the vitality of your students data analysis skills in the process. From counting calories to monitoring personal exercise regimens, opportunities for individual and class investigations abound. One particular area worth considering is working with the data your students can collect with simple pedometers.
- Observing Even When You're Not There
- In other columns Ive shown how Web-based data can be used to gather data from distant locations, but there are also situations where events in your own backyard are not available or practical for student observation. Safety or time constraints sometimes get in the way of what would be optimal. Fortunately, simple technology tools can be used to bridge this gap.
- Concept Mapping for Complex Thinking
- One of the ongoing challenges teachers face is helping students to forge connections. Beyond memorizing names, dates, and other isolated facts, we want students to see how things are organized and the ways in which they are linked.
- Planning for Understanding
- Its no secret that recent accountability measures have presented challenges for teachers seeking to maintain rich and deep learning environments for their students. Those who do manage to achieve this are often put on the defensive, expected to justify why they arent following the plan. On the theory that the best defense is a good offense, planning a strong unit and being able to affirm why your curriculum is a better choice for students can head off the nay-sayers. To that end, on-line planning tools such as the Collaborative Curriculum Design Tool can be a valuable part of your technology tool belt.
- Sketching a Path into Geometry
- In this column I would like to consider SketchUp, a 3-D modeling tool. Originally designed as a professional tool for landscape architects, a substantially similar version is now available as a free download from Google.
- Keeping Students from Going Adrift
- From the plight of manatees to the threat of global warming inundating our coastlines, there is no shortage of environmental issues to examine with your students. Time is the much greater challenge.
Two free resources are presented here that foster students connection to oceans while promoting solid academic content. The potential each offers for a multi-disciplinary focus gives you hooks into other subjects, enabling ocean studies to spread across the curriculum.
- Talk of the Town
- This past summer I had the privilege of working with a group of pre-teen students from University City, Missouri in LIONS (Local Investigations of Natural Science), an NSF-funded program that engages students in their community as a means of developing science, mathematics, and technology skills. Over the course of two weeks, students developed their language skills as they explored neighborhoods through field study and used computer tools to analyze, compare, and contrast what they saw.
- Understanding Variability and Change
- Despite these misgivings about teaching climate change to younger students,
I do think there is important work teachers can do to lay the foundation for more complex work to be undertaken as students mature. Specifically, helping students as they mature to develop a more sophisticated and nuanced understanding of variability and change can equip them to better interpret the evidence supporting global warming claims.
- Using Technology to Help Learning Flow
As we look to scaffold student learning about liquids toward higher levels of understanding, several common educational technologies can be used to extend their investigations. Digital imagery, measurement tools, and data analysis software can all be applied with a minimum of additional effort required of you as the teacher.
- Keeping It All Together
- My twenty-year grail quest—first as a full-time teacher and now in my role as mentor to a couple dozen teachers—seems to have ended with the development of new (and free!) Web-based tools for managing all the intermittent pieces of information we need to hold on to if formative assessment is going to be useful.
The most significant addition to my professional tool belt in this regard is Highrise, a Web-based contact management tool from 37signals (
- Screen Time vs. the Environment
- Rather than throw our hands up in despair at how much screen time students have, it might be useful to look at computer games to provide another perspective. Just as a key martial arts strategy is to use your opponent's strength to your advantage, games can be leveraged for great learning opportunities.
- Picture-Perfect Learning
- Gone are the days when a digital camera was a near-sacred asset that had to be checked out with special permission from the school office or media center. In this column I'll share a few avenues to explore with your students. I'm sure there are many more that are great additions to your curriculum.
- Bringing the Past to Life with the Census
- One project we are doing in our "Local Investigations of Natural Science" after-school program is to use historic census data to understand how the community has changed over time.
- Bridging the Gap with Technology
- Bridging the digital divide isn't a simple matter of getting educational technology in the hands of students. After all, nearly all schools are online and have at least moderate access to computers. Instead, the divide now can be found in how the technology is used.
- Learning Without Schooling
- To illustrate some of the possibilities that emerge with pedagogically rich, technologically-enhanced OST [out of school time] learning, I'll share two projects I'm working on with colleagues at the Scheller Teacher Education Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
- Science Through Modeling and Simulation
- From an early age students get "The Scientific Method" drummed into their heads as a lock-step methodology that when followed, means that you're doing real science. The limitation of the scientific method appears when it becomes the only view of science in the curriculum. For students to develop a healthy understanding of science and its importance in their lives, we need to go further.
- Making Sense of Motion
- >As our students grow up in an increasingly digital age, keeping them grounded in the fundamentals of physics can be quite a challenge. With real experience being replaced by electronic representations, kids' intuitive sense of how things work can be altered in ways that may not be productive.
- Google Mapping Your Community
- Exploring your community through maps can promote learning in a number of dimensions, as students come to see the spatial arrangement of their neighborhoods, identify features they never noticed before, and explore the surrounding areas.