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Student Use of QR Code Readers

I recently blogged about how I am encouraging students to use a QR code reader to access information on my course website quickly.

I was curious as to how the students might have been using their QR code readers outside of the classroom (most of them had been introduced to QR codes by me).  I made a quick poll using Zoho Polls, asking them the following question:

I have them a few days to answer.  I have a total of 145 Grade 12 chemistry students.  Here are the results of the poll:

(You can see how ZohoPolls provides the poll results on their website here.)

I was a bit surprised.  I thought that the students would be using their QR code readers more often outside the classroom.  They seemed much more enthusiastic about using it in the class than the results of the poll seem to suggest.  Perhaps they aren’t finding good opportunities to use them outside of my class.  Hmm, sounds like a good opportunity to offer some after school PD to teachers at my school who might want to learn more about QR codes and how to use them in their classes.


A Different Approach to Grade 12 Chemistry Lessons

I’m trying a slightly different approach to some of the lessons I teach in my grade 12 Chemistry class.

Some of the concepts are quite detailed, and I find (I know, perhaps antiquated, but it’s me) a somewhat traditional ‘lecture’ style lesson, along with lots of examples, helps to get the point across.  I also write down ‘notes’ on the board that I suggest students copy or paraphrase into their notebooks. However, my classes are only 38 minutes long each day (full year class, not semestered, I see them every day, not every other day).  A lesson can eat up most of that time, leaving little time for examples.  Examples are often pushed to the next day.

What I’m trying different is to post ‘formal notes’ about the lesson to our course webpage (look at the ‘Handout’ section) prior to the lesson (sometimes the morning of, sometimes the day before).  These note are usually a lot more ‘wordy’ and ‘verbose’ than what I would usually write on the board in class.  I encourage students to not simply copy them (or worse, just print them and place them in their notebooks for later reference) but to read and paraphrase them into their own words.  This gives me much more time in class to do lots of examples, as well as provide them in-class practice and be a ‘circulating resource’ while they work on the practice questions.

Many students (not all, which is why I don’t use this technique for all lessons) have told me they like this approach.   Most of them state it helps to minimize the amount of homework they have to do at home, as some of it they complete in class (while I’m there to serve as a resource for them while they work).

I plan on polling the students later in the year to see what they really think of this approach and ask for suggestions on how I can improve it.

Using QR codes in my classroom.

I’ve been using QR codes in my Grade 12 chemistry classrooms this year.  It’s my new project to enhance my lessons.

A little bit of history: Our board has recently lifted its ban on the use of web-enabled devices in the school.  It has left it up to individual teachers whether they will allow the use of such devices in the classroom.  Our students aren’t used to using them in the classroom, so I went looking for ways of making it ‘interesting’ for them to do so.

I then read this post, which highlights different ways of using QR codes in the classroom.  I encourage you to read it, there are some awesome ideas there.

I decided to encourage the use of web-enabled devices through the use of QR codes in two ways:

1) I use QR codes on assignment handouts that point to the answer keys for those assignments on the course website I maintain for my grade 12 chemistry classes.  I normally make a hard copy of the answer key available at the front of the room while students have class time to work on assignments.  Including the QR code allows them to pull up the answer key on their web-enabled device right at their seat.

2) I like silly puns.  I post a new one outside my door everyday.  I now also post a ‘bonus pun‘ in the form of a QR code.  As silly as it may seem, many students have told me that ‘wanting to know what the bonus pun was’ turned out to be the reason they learned how to scan a QR code with their device in the first place.

I’d love to hear how you use, or plan to use, QR codes in your classes or lessons.

Topic searching can be Delicious

Just about everyone knows how to use Google to search a topic on the internet.  You’ll often be presented with 1000’s, if not more, of hits to websites that match your search.

I often do something a little different when I search an educational topic.  I  use Delicious.  Let me explain why.

You may have noticed that I have a list of links on the left hand side of my blog entitled “Some of my online bookmarks at Delicious”.  Delicious is an online social bookmarking service.  It allows you to save your bookmarks (or favorites) online.  You can organize them using tags and categories.  Your bookmarks are now available to you on any internet-connected computer.  If you use a browser like Firefox, you can add a Delicious app that integrates the adding and searching of bookmarks in your delicious account.

OK.  So what does this have to do with topic searching?  That comes from the ‘social’ part of this service.  Not only can you search your own bookmarks, but the bookmarks of everyone that uses the Delicious service.

OK.  So why is that useful?  Let me show you with an image, and then explain.  I’ve just done a search at Delicious for “inquiry science labs lesson plans”.  The results at Delicious look like this:

The numbers in the blue boxes are what makes this kind of search useful for me.  They indicate how many people at delicious have bookmarked these sites.  By search Delicious instead of a regular search engine, not only do I find websites that match my search, but I find websites that many other people have already found and decided they were worth bookmarking.  That means I am finding sites that have been ‘vetted’ by many other people.  There’s a good chance that my search for an educational topic finds websites that have been bookmarked by many other teachers.

What better way to find good educational topic websites than to search those already found by other teachers!  Try it sometime!


My Experience at STAO 2010

(Science Teachers Association of Ontario Annual Conference)

This post summarizes my experiences on the third day of this conference.

My first session was another Smarter Science demonstration of senior chemistry. This session was hosted by  Katy Farrow and was entitled “Introduction to the Smarter Science Inquiry Framework – Grades 11-12 Chemistry“.  Its description was “Learn how chemistry teachers in the TVDSB are addressing the scientific inquiry and investigation expectations in the revised SCH3U, SCH4C, and SCH4U courses. Course-specific experiences and strategies will be shared.”  As before, I left the session still scratching my head a little bit about what the framework of “Smarter Science” is supposed to be and how to use it to make labs more inquiry based and student driven.  However, this session was better than the one I had attended yesterday in that some more ‘see what it looks like’ activities were done to help make this process a little more understandable.  I think I’m going to need some serious time to look more carefully into the information on the website and contact some teachers that are more comfortable with this framework to make more sense of it and how I may apply it to the courses that I teach.

One extra piece of information I did received from the presenter is that next year, 2011, is the international year of chemistry.  A quick look at the website reveals there are a lot of resources available.  I think I’ve got part of my summer reading time already ‘booked’!

The second session I attended was for pure enjoyment.  It was a lecture style talk by Jay Ingram, host of the Canadian science  show Daily Planet. Its description was “Daily Planet has introduced us to innovative people, technologies and inventions, the extravagance of nature and the incomprehensibility of the universe. Jay Ingram seamlessly connects the dots among diverse ideas and structures.”

He started his lecture with a description of what drives his show.  Since it is owned by CTV, their main purpose is to produce shows that make money. The fact that a show that includes science as part of its content remains on the air after 15 seasons is a real accomplishment.  Jay was careful to point out that his show is not purely science content, as such a show would not survive on a private broadcaster’s schedule.  That being said, there is science embedded in each and every story on the show.  He was a dynamic speaker, fun to listen to and made this particular hour the fastest of my day.

The last session I attended was hosted by the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics called “Perimeter Explorations Resource – The Mystery of Dark Matter” .  Its description was “Over the last few decades, physicists have come to realize that about 90% of the mass of every galaxy in the universe seems to be made of a mysterious unseen substance called dark matter. This presentation provides an overview of the Perimeter Institute’s educational resource on Dark Matter for grade 12. Presented with Dave Fish who partnered in the development of this session.”

Although I teach chemistry, topics related to Astronomy (Dark Matter is an Astronomy topic) and Quantum Mechanics have always interested me, the former as something of a pastime, the later because of its pure craziness.  Also I thought to be able to bring some resources back for the physics teachers in our department.

The presentation was very well done.  They included a free resource package for teachers that includes a 25 minute video that is chunked into short 3-5 minute chapters.  Also included is a teacher’s manual that includes about 5 activities that can be done for students.  In particular, they concentrate on a topic in grade 12 physics called uniform circular motion with a very easy and well thought-out hands-on activity for the students.  The manual also has background information for teachers that may not know that much about the underlying physics of the activities (like me!), as well as sample answers to the students worksheets that are also included in the package.  I found that this hour went by very quickly as the presentation was very interesting, engaging and easy to follow.

I already know that the physics teachers in our department will like this resource package.

At those were my experiences at STAO2010.  All in all, a VERY worthwhile experience for me.


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.)


My experience at STAO 2010

(Science Teacher’s Association of Ontario 2010 Conference)

This post summarized my experience on the first day of this conference.


The first session I went to was called Differentiation in the Science Classroom.  It was hosted by Brent Campbell.  (He will be posting some of his resources on a website he maintains for his classes.)  It was described as “Differentiating your instruction in the secondary science classroom is not as difficult as you think. From simple ideas to technological enhancements, a variety of resources will be examined and shared.”

Brent very effectively demystified the concept of using differentiated instruction.  He helped me to realize that differentiating a lesson does not mean creating a specific lesson for every single student in the classroom.  He helped me see that much of what I do already fell into the definition of ‘Differentiated Instruction”, I simply did not realize it, or put that particular label on it.

He provided many different examples of activities that are easy to implement in the classroom that help not only in differentiating a lesson, but to collect valuable data from the students to verify that they are indeed learning the material being presented.  He stressed the importance of gathering ‘multiple intelligence‘ and ‘Learning Style Inventory‘ data from students to help plan for activities that can meet the various learning needs of the students in my class.

One activity that left a big impression on me was using a ‘glyph’ activity to collect information from students.  It is an easy and fun way to collect assessment data from students.  Instead of asking my students to answer questions on a traditional paper-pencil test, I  ask them questions that have ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers; however, instead of having them write these answers on paper, they make particular drawings to represent a yes or no answer.  An example helps to demonstrate this:

Let’s say I am assessing to see if students understand a few concepts about a particular subject.  Their ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers will generate a cartoon face.  It goes something like this:

Q1: If you understand ‘concept 1’, draw an oval-shaped head, if not, draw a circular head.

Q2: If you understand ‘concept 2’, draw large eyes, if not, draw small eyes.

Q3: If you understand ‘concept 3’, draw an open mouth, if not, draw a closed mouth.

In the end, each student will have drawn a ‘face’ that is a glyph of the answers to the above three questions.  The activity is very quick to perform and I have just collected a lot of formative assessment which I can use to plan future lessons or activities.  This kind of activity would suit the ‘visual learner’ the most.

Another idea he had that appealed to the ‘chemistry teacher’ in me was the use of large puzzle pieces to model chemical bonding with ions.  The puzzle pieces are designed so that a positive ion piece will fit properly only with a negative ion piece.  As well, the sizes of the pieces match their charge, so that the number of pieces necessary to complete a ‘molecule puzzle’ will match the formula of that particular compound.  This kind of activity would suit a ‘kinesthetic learner’.


I then attended a session hosted by McGraw Hill to promote their new Grade 11 Chemistry textbook.  The session very effectively showed some of the feature of this particular book (they had a full pre-publication copy we could take with us).  I found that some of the organization of the book was better than the previous version, providing more efficient chunking of information.  I was glad to hear that a companion interactive online digital resource would accompany the textbook, both for students and teachers; however, it was not ready for them to demonstrate it at the conference.

I did have an interesting side discussion with one of the publisher’s representatives about the online digital version of the textbook that would also be available in pdf format for the students (so they wouldn’t have to keep moving their textbook from home to school and back).  My experience from another publisher about an online version of their textbook was not a good one.  My students and I (and I suspect many other teachers and students in the province) found several errors in the textbook.  For a few months, we dutifully emailed the publisher about these mistakes (primarily in answers provided at the back of the book), and received friendly thank-you emails in return for our troubles.  However, the online pdf version of the textbook was never updated to reflect these corrections given to the publisher.  Most of us know how easy it is to update online content.  The representative from McGraw Hill told me that their online version of the textbook would be updated with corrections.  It will be interesting to see if this will actually be the case or not.

I attended a third session which I found to be very boring, uninteresting and a waste of my time. I won’t identify it here.

The last session I attended today was my favorite.  It was a ‘science works’ presentation by STAO itself on material that can be used to support the new ‘optics’ unit in grade 10 science.  It was presented by David Erb.  Its description was “This workshop is designed for teachers inexperienced with the concepts of optics. Experience strategies and resources which support the grade 10 Optics unit.”

The ideas that were provided to help support this unit I found to be very interesting and useful.  [His materials are available on stao’s website (you have to be a member of stao to access these materials).]  Not only was his presentation entertaining and engaging, but he demonstrated how many of the activities can be made with materials that are relatively easy to make on my own.  Many of them will also be made available for sale through STAO.

Among other things, he showed how yarn can be used to model the beams of light that reflect off  flat mirrors.  She showed how a laser pointer’s beam can be made visible by using a spray bottle and water (it’s one of those great and simple ideas that made me think “Now why didn’t I think of that?”).

What made the activities engaging was that we had time to try these activities in small groups with sample material he provided to us.  I don’t know about you, but I love playing with new toys! 🙂

All in all, it was a very good day.  I look forward to my second day at STAO.