Friday, 16 September 2016

Lab Report Alternatives: Clever Ideas to Cut Down Your Marking!

If you’re a science teacher, I’m sure you’ve been there: sitting at your desk with a stack of lab reports taller than the coffee mug you’d need to refill ten times before getting all of that marking done.  Let’s try to avoid that and explore some other options, shall we?
 Now, don’t get me wrong.  Writing lab reports are important!  Technical writing is a necessary skill that our young scientists need in university and can transfer to other courses.  But does every single experiment we do with our class require a full lab report?  

If you asked your students, “why do you think we’re doing this experiment?” what would they say?  If they said to get a good mark I think that’s exactly what we’re missing.  Experiments are opportunities to teach, to learn, to explore and discover.  If all we’re looking for is a mark, well, marking is all you’ll be doing - and then you might resent experiments and spiral into a hands-off science class.  Or, students may dread labs because they know 5 hours of lab report writing is in their future.  Yikes!  Let’s avoid that.

Purpose is the first thing students write about on their lab report, but science teachers should be evaluating the purpose of the lab long before the students begin.  Why are we doing this lab? What does it provide for the students?  The purpose of labs in high school will generally fall into one of these two categories:
To learn a skill, or,
To discover a relationship

Learning a Skill
Skills need to be built upon in order for or students to continue with their scientific careers.  Imagine a surgeon operating without ever having done a dissection.  Eek!  Anything from finding the mass of a substance, to performing a titration, to dissecting a frog, to planning an inquiry experiment classifies as a skill.  If this is the purpose of the experiment, consider these as some alternatives to requiring a full, formal lab report.

Talk about ease of assessment!  Teach the skill, let’s say a titration.  Have the students practice it (as opposed to starting with an experiment that requires titration as a prerequisite skill).  When students have had practice with this, get part of the class working on some seatwork, and another part performing the skill.  Can you assign a mark to an observation?  You bet!  Just make sure to have clear guidelines and document anything they need to improve upon.  I print off a class list, write the few skills I am looking for at the top and leave lots of space to write notes.

Student-Instructed Teacher Demonstration
Have your student guide you, the teacher, step by step.  Follow their instructions exactly.  When something is unclear - do it in the worst possible way!  I’m talking Mr. Noodle on Elmo’s World bad.  Students will learn quickly they need to be very detailed in their instructions.  This one would eat up a lot of time, so I would recommend doing this once with a whole class, to encourage them to be precise in their description.

Video Analysis
If you’ve got access to any sort of video taking technology you have a lot of options.  Have the students create a video of them performing the skill.  Obvious, but here the marking can be done when it is convenient for you.  Some variations of this include having some students record something incorrect with the skills they are trying to learn (AS LONG AS IT IS NOT UNSAFE).  Students in different classes, or in subsequent years can be quizzed on what was done incorrectly, and how it needs to be improved.  I also like this as a teaching method:
Record your students proficiently performing and explaining a scientific skill, then use that video in stations to teach skills.  This is best with simple, non-dangerous skills, like finding the mass, setting up ticker tape, or using a mortar and pestle.

Write It
Students can write the procedure for performing this skill in different ways.  Consider having students write their own wiki-how article on the skill, a letter home, or pair it with the next option and have students create a manual with descriptive steps and visuals on Google Docs.

Illustrate It
If you’re looking for the correct order of steps, could you have your students represent it in a visual way?  Have them take pictures and describe the steps, create a storyboard of the procedure or even draw instructions IKEA-style.  The hidden advantage here is that you can reuse this in subsequent years for students who need visual instructions.

Sections of the Lab Report
It’s not rocket surgery: if the skill is procedure writing, have students turn that in.  Choose an interesting lab with a procedure complex enough for the level of your students.  With my Grade 9s, I like the borax bouncy ball experiment.  If the skill is graphing, then that’s what they should submit.  Just make sure the success criteria is clear and students know exactly what is being assessed.

Discovering a Relationship
If you want students to discover a relationship, be sure to steer them in the right direction.  Having students graph data is an effective way to discover the relationship.

If students are performing their own inquiry experiments, they can create a short presentation that goes over the experimental design and materials they used.  Then they can show how data was obtained and the relationship they’ve discovered. Open it up to Q&A from the class.

Children’s Book
Students can explain the experiment in simple terms through a story and have their characters discover the relationship.  This is great if you want to turn your STEM into STEAM!

Have students create a website or blog.  After each lab they can report their findings here and BOOM - digital portfolio for the whole course.

News Report
Here in Ontario we have the Grade 10 Literacy Test that students must meet provincial standard on in order to graduate.  One of the components is a News Report.  I give my students practice on writing news reports in Grade 9 and 10.  Have the students write a news report about their discovery, including a headline, subtitle, byline, direct quotes and indirect quotes.

Be really picky here.  If all you’re having your student submit are calculations, make sure they align and organize their work, include all of their units and encourage them to learn an equation editor if they are typing this up.

Sections of the Lab Report
You know your labs best, so if you want your students to discover the relationship between angle and hang time have them graph it and describe the graph.  Discussion questions about their findings are effective for assessing their understanding of a relationship.  Writing a full RERUN conclusion covers a lot of bases as well.

Error Analysis
So they didn’t find a clear relationship... what went wrong?  Have the students examine their reading, random and systematic errors.  Have them redesign a procedure with these in mind.

I hope these ideas keep you from burning out when it comes to assessing labs. They are good alternatives to throw in the mix from time to time, but definitely still have your students write out formal lab reports! It is an important skill that my Scientific Method Bundle can help you out with.
Do you have any more ideas? Share them in the comments below.

Friday, 29 July 2016

Why Physicists Should Build Catapults

I can never contain my excitement for anything really - but catapult launch day is one of my favorite days in Physics class!  There is always so much buzz about it in the class and in the halls.

Check out the free, editable resource that includes the project outline, lab requirements, teacher suggestions and the Google Form I use to mark the project.  It's all available for free at my TpT store.
You should see some of these amazing catapults, trebuchets and ballistas that my Grade 11 students built.  One part of their task was to design, build and calibrate a projectile launcher that could hit various targets.  If the student worked alone they had to hit 2 targets at 4.0 meters and 6.0 meters.  Partners had to hit these two targets and a third target at 8.0 meters.  Three students is the largest group I'd allow and they had to hit four targets - the previous three and 10.0 m.

I keep a theme throughout this course where the students are basically in Jurassic Park (I call it Cretaceous Park to be more accurate and less copyright infringe-y) and trying to survive using their knowledge of Physics, these are the targets they had to hit:
 I printed these off at the local copy center across two tabloid-sized papers, taped them together and laminated them to use year after year.
 I recorded whether students were able to hit the center black area, or the green area to see how well they calibrated their launchers.
 It's far too difficult and dangerous to try and read the actual number they hit.  I'm happy to report that no one was hit by a projectile!
We had these taped down to the cement in our courtyard at the various distances the students needed to hit.

Why should you have your students build things in Physics class:
Learning new skills
Lots of students told me that this project had them learn how to use a drill or a saw (under their parents' supervision of course!)

Time with parents
If there is one thing Physics students want, it's marks - how do you get those marks?  By learning and working with your parents, apparently.

Ability to persevere
It's a big project with lots of complications, but the kids are motivated to see it through.

Ability to problem solve
So your catapult doesn't hit 4.0 meters?  Students didn't get any sympathy from me, but we did have a chat about changing factors and they all were able to figure it out.

Learn to calibrate
They probably have never had to calibrate anything before to achieve consistent results.  They would have to problem solve and test in order to hit the targets on launch day.

Learn to time manage
This is not a project that can be done in a day.  Students use Google Docs to track their progress and I can check in on them to see how they were progressing.  What a great real-world skill to develop!

Learn to work with others (or not)
Some students choose to work with others, and that's great!  They'll experience division of labor and cost.  Their workload is proportionally greater as they need to hit additional targets.  Some students chose to work alone, and they'll experience a different side of project management.

Create a reproducible test
In addition to the target shooting portion, I have the students design, implement and write a formal lab report for an inquiry question of their choosing.  They need to design their own test in order to achieve reproducible results and discuss the reading, random and systematic errors associated with the design of their lab.

Get ready for engineering courses
Gosh, wouldn't it be horrible if a student went into engineering without having ever built anything?  Hmm.. they probably wouldn't even have an interest in engineering if they have never tinkered with something.

In addition to this, as the number of Physics students ebbs and flows, I love the buzz the catapult project creates within the school!  Students, teachers and administration come down to watch the target shooting portion.  Whole classes toured our classroom to get a closer look at the catapult designs, and even watched the longest shot competition from their windows.  What a great way to get more students interested in Physics!

I want to share with you the outline I use for the project, the lab report, some suggestions and even the Google Form I use to assess the project.  It's all available for free at my TpT store.  Click to check it out!
When it comes down to it, whatever your students are building - catapults, hover crafts, or Pan flutes - they are gaining valuable experience far beyond how to solve math problems!

Thursday, 28 April 2016

Rollercoaster Physics - that DOESN'T take weeks to complete!

I'm sure you've seen those paper rollercoasters that some students make  - they're about a meter high and have all sorts of turns and loops.  Pretty neat - but who has the time?!  

Not I.

So instead of spending weeks sitting and waiting while my students cut colorful cardstock and glue and tape I do a version that only takes a couple of days to complete and is far more rigorous in terms of the Physics calculations.

After doing some research (like going to Canada's Wonderland) the students sketch out a rollercoaster ride that they would love!  Once they've got a nice shape that loops back to the beginning they need to come up with the dimensions for this rollercoaster.  

They'll do all sorts of calculations, but need to make sure that the rollercoaster meets certain restrictions:
-Max speed between 135 and 150 km/h.
-At least two hills – one high hill and one no higher than half the height of the other.
-A power calculation showing the power required to pull a 12000 kg train up the first hill.
-A calculation to show the deceleration of the train in no more than 10.0 m.  (They’ll have to determine the initial speed)
-A work calculation to show the work done by the brakes to slow the train to a stop in no more than 10.0 m at the end of the ride. 
-Optional: (Level 4) Includes a loop where the rider feels 2-4 gs.
-An obvious theme.
-A title.

To put it all together in a neat presentation, here's how the students layer their rollercoasters to show all the different features and calculations.
Layer 1: White board
Draw the rollercoaster to scale.
Layer 2: Plastic (clear drop cloth for painting or dollar store shower curtain works well)
Label the heights of all hills and loops.  Label all speeds at the top and bottom of hills and loops.  Label the power, deceleration and work as listed in parts 3, 4 and 5.
Layer 3: Plastic
Show all calculations for speeds, power, deceleration, work.
Layer 4: Plastic, optional
Any other cool design features, scenery, additional awesomeness.

These student came up with such great themes, drew everything to scale, calculated velocities, energies, work and power, made sure that the riders wouldn't experience too much speed or g-forces and added incredible design details - all in TWO 75-minute periods of class time!

How Google Forms Saved This Teacher's Sanity

I’m writing this tutorial as I sit at my kitchen island, eating a scone and drinking a coffee.  I know what you’re thinking – this teacher has time to sit down?! Oh yeah, sit, eat and have a coffeeHere’s my secret. 
I’m an idealist.  I want to give my students everything they need for success and that includes lots of descriptive feedback.  I’m sure, like many of you, I was doing this to my own detriment.  I was spending so many hours carefully going through assignments and projects to give specific feedback.  What I was finding, for the most part, is the comments I was writing were repetitive. 

 “Be careful not to use first person when writing a lab report.” x 5

“How could you rephrase your headline to catch the reader’s attention?” x 20

Refer back to the success criteria to be sure you are meeting all of the expectations.”  x infinity

My hands were sore and I was tired.  I’m sure you can relate.

I was bringing home so many projects to mark because they just took so long to mark I couldn’t get them all done at school.  With a toddler at home and another on the way, there is no such thing as down-time.  I needed a better way.

I played with trying to solve this problem with some programming in Excel, and debated getting out my old programming books, but the answer was much more obvious: Google Forms.

If I could put all the typical feedback comments into a Google Form I could just check the ones that apply to the student’s work.  Genius!  Except it didn’t format nicely.  That’s where the add-on docAppender comes in.  It takes the data from the Google Form and puts it so nicely into a document.

What I love about this is that I can still give my students plenty of feedback.  If the comment I want to include isn't already in my form, I can always add more comments at the end of the feedback question.  Plus, once I have this done for an assignment it won't take much work to use it again for a different assignment or even for next year's class.  What a lifesaver!

It does take a while to do the first time, but the time savings when it comes to marking is worthwhile.  Now when I do my Inquiry Projects, I can mark the entire classes work in one prep period!

Here's how I do it:

First set up your folders, files and forms in your Google Drive:

Next, make the form amazing by adding in the rubric, and all the comments you'd expect to be using for this assignment.  This takes a while, but the beauty of this is when marking you'll mostly just be clicking instead of writing by hand.  Also, you can copy this form for your next assignment.

Now we need to set up docAppender.  This is the add-on that makes the form's data presentable, so you can just print out all of the comments instead of writing by hand.

Once docAppender is all set, try assessing an assignment.  There is an extra little step to remove the commas that appear between each of the comments you check.

There you have it!  Once you do this once, a lot of the work is done forever.  You can copy forms and edit them for different assignments.  It's an upfront time investment, but I can't even believe how many hours it has saved me in marking even on just the first few assignments.  Oh, docAppender - I LOVE you!

This is so great for inquiry projects.  If you want to save even more time, check out my Inquiry Project Package that you can use for ANY subject.  It includes a Google Form template you can use (with comments and a rubric) you can use to save you an incredible amount of time!

Let me know if you've tried docAppender, or if you have any other tips for giving lots of feedback efficiently!

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