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My experience at STAO 2010

(Science Teachers Association of Ontario 2010 Annual Conference)

This post summarizes my experience on the second day of this conference.

The first session that I attended was hosted by Jenny Pitt-Lainsbury and was titled “Engagement, Enjoyment, and Encouragement in the Chemistry Classroom“.  Its description was “How do you get your students excited about chemistry? In this session, you will be presented with a series of activities and ideas to get students talking about chemistry topics and making connections to chemistry inside and outside the classroom.”

Her presentation initially focused on how to present some of the concepts of intermolecular forces through demonstrations and inquiry type labs and experiments.  She highlighted a lab kit that is sold by 3d- Molecular Designs that includes magnetic models of water molecules, an ethane molecule, a hydroxyl group (which you can add to the ethane molecule and change it from a non-polar substance to one that is polar), as well as a sodium ion and chloride ion (to model ionic compounds). The kit itself helps to make the rather ‘difficult-to-see’ concept of intermolecular forces easier for students to see.  In particular, the shape of the water molecule magnets make it easy to show how they form crystals so that it is easy for students to see why solid water is less dense that liquid water (which is why ice cubes float in water rather than sink to the bottom).

I was also intrigued by her demonstration of the mason jar that has a fine mesh screen placed in its open cover.  You can hold such a mason jar of water upside down and the water will not flow through it (even though you can fill the mason jar through it in the first place), demonstrating the concept of surface tension of water (related to its intermolecular forces).  The device is very easy to make with a mason jar and a piece of metal or plastic mesh (screening for windows, sold at many hardware stores, works well).

She also demonstrated hydrophobic sand which stays dry even when poured in water.  It is more dense than water so it sinks to the bottom of the container.  Again, this can help to demonstrate the concept of ‘like dissolves like’.  She also went over the history of the development of this product.  It was originally produced as a possible method of trapping oil spills in water (since oil is completely non-polar, as is this sand, the oil will be trapped by the sand).  This sand-oil mix can then presumably be dredged up to ‘clean up’ the oil.

She also went over several products available from educational innovations that can help teach some concepts from the polymer strand of the grade 12 organic chemistry unit.  She demonstrated how a thermo-polymer can be heated by hot water and remolded into different solid shapes.  She demonstrated two different forms of the polymer sodium polyacrylate, one that absorbs large volumes of water, while another forms generates artificial snow crystals.  Both are the same polymer, but one has cross-linking (absorb a lot of water) while the other does not (absorbs a lot of water and breaks up into smaller pieces = artificial snow).

All in all, this was a very worthwhile session.

The second session I attended was my favorite of the day.  It was hosted by Colin Jagoe, one of my twitter buddies.  Not only was it fun to finally meet him in person, but his session was very interesting, informative and fun.  His session was titled: “ECOO and STAO: Connecting and Collaborating: Tearing Down the Walls“.  Its description was “This session will be a collaboration between ECOO delegates and delegates at the Science Teachers Association of Ontario (STAO). A live video conference connection will be used to connect ECOO and STAO and discuss the opportunities for connecting and collaborating with educators around the world in learning for all.”   ECOO is the Educational Computing Organization of Ontario.  (Being a somewhat techie guy myself (but by no means an expert), I’ve always wanted to go to an ECOO conference.  The next time I have PD funding available to me, I’ll probably go to this one.)

This session was interesting simply by demonstrating how two different conferences could connect via video/audio link to discuss a common topic: teacher collaboration.  One of the things we did (other than just chat and wave to each other 🙂  ) was to work on a document collaboratively.  You can see some of the things we were talking and typing about by reading that document.

I want to concentrate on two points that really stuck with me.

First, we discussed some of the differences and similarities between the ideas of teachers sharing and collaborating.  Many of us are used to sharing with each other, such as ideas, resources and materials.  Although this is a valuable exercise in itself, it is rather one-dimensional in nature.  If I were given a final document from one teacher to use as a resource, it would prove useful to me.  However, I don’t get the benefit of having gone through the process of making that document that the other teacher went through.  I don’t see all of the revisions that this document went through as a result of trying the idea and changing things.  If instead I had collaborated with that teacher in making that document, I would have gained so much more information and experience by going through process together.  I also realized that sharing and collaborating need not be two completely separate ‘activities’.  I would argue that there is a whole continuum of teacher interactions that include features of both of these activities.

I’ve spoken many times in this blog on how collaboration can be made easy with tools such as twitter and wikis.  The google document in the previous link is but another example of how this can be easily done (and has some pretty far-reaching consequences to teacher and student collaboration).

The second ‘thought’ that really struck home with me was how to break down the walls that seem to prevent many teachers from trying to be more collaborative.

When I realized that Colin was hosting this session, I made sure I was in that room early, as I was expecting it to be a packed house and I didn’t want to miss the session.  It turns out that I was the only one in the room with Colin.  Back at the ECOO end of the video conference, I would estimate there were about 20 people.  This fact provides some evidence that there must be some barriers or walls that are preventing many teachers from actively seeking ways of becoming more collaborative.   The google document outlines what some of these walls might be.  (I think another possible reason is that Colin’s session was competing with other more ‘traditional’ science teacher sessions involving demonstrations, hands on ideas and ready-made lesson plans for the taking.)

Some ideas on how to break down some of these walls are in the google document.  What’s not in that document is a really good analogy that Colin came up with to outline what some of these ‘wall breakers’ might look like.  Consider teachers that actively collaborate as members of a band.  Each member of the band plays a particular instrument they have a talent for (a specific collaboration tool or method they like to use).  Although there are a lot of instruments to choose from, a teacher can become a very good participant in the band by concentrating on one particular instrument.  We can break down the walls by not only giving teachers a particular instrument to play (even a simple one like a triangle), but showing them how to play it.  By watching the other members of the band play, they may pick up some tips on how to play other instruments and encourage their friends to come and play in the band too.

The last session I went to today (but not the last thing that I did, more on that later in this post) was hosted by Rachel Muvrin.  It was entitled “Inquiry in Senior Chemistry”, with a description of  “Are you wondering how to bring Smarter Science Inquiry to a senior chemistry class? Give your students and yourself a new way to look at doing familiar labs (e.g., factors affecting rates of reaction; factors affecting a chemical system at equilibrium).”

I was expecting another demonstration of various labs and activities that can be done in the classroom.  What I got was completely different.  Rachel concentrated on one single lab. I don’t even remember what the lab was, it wasn’t the purpose of the presentation.  Her purpose was not to show how to do a lab, or to give an example of a ready-to-use lab, but provide a new framework in which to help design a lab called smarter science.  The framework is intended to provide a regular and repeatable method of designing and performing science experiments in school that focuses on giving students more opportunities to discover course content through inquiry.  I don’t know a lot about this framework yet, but you can bet I’ll be spending some time visiting their website over the next few months to see if I like what I read.

The very last thing I did today was to go out to dinner with Colin!  I had been looking forward to this ever since we set it up at the end of the joint STAO ECOO session.  It was the most enjoyable part of my day, and in some ways, the most valuable part as well.  In addition to eating some very good food, we talked about a whole host of topics, not surprisingly most centred about our experiences at the STAO conference (and in Colin’s case, the ECOO conference as well).  He was able to provide me with some more detail about the ‘smart science’ framework to making better designed inquiry based labs and experiments.  I’ll be looking into this idea much earlier as a result.

It wasn’t what we actually talked about it that made this the most valuable part of my day at this conference.  What made it so valuable was the thought processes that our quick paced discussions sparked in this little brain of mine.  I think this was one of those examples of true teacher collaboration, simply networking with each other face to face.   It can be so hard to do this in the course of a normal teaching day as time can be so precious.  Going to this conference has given me the chance to do this one simple activity that will probably have a long-lasting effect on me.  So thanks Colin for the networking.  And thanks to all the other delegates with whom I will have the chance to do so tomorrow!


(You can view yesterday’s post here.)


One Response

  1. Thanks pal! Back at ya, really enjoyed our talking and thinking.

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