Connecting classrooms through sharing science.
FEATURE | by Joel Knopf
At age 10, Amy O’Toole was one of the youngest people ever to have published a peer-reviewed science article. Her inspiring article, which she wrote with her classmates as part of a playful participatory science program, is perhaps the only peer-reviewed science article to begin “Once Upon a Time”; it is both good science and a good story. As Amy’s article and TED talk show, play helps students learn science, and storytelling can help them share it.
Most exciting, we realized this collaboration could work for any subject, not only science.
We as educators now have the tools to empower every student to be like Amy. This fall, inspired by Amy’s talk, I worked with two elementary school educators to connect their classrooms using Toontastic, an iPad app for creating and sharing animated cartoons. Using Toontastic’s School Edition, students created science cartoons and conducted real-world peer review. We wanted to see how connecting classrooms through sharing science cartoons would reinforce students’ learning goals and increase their engagement. This is the story of what we learned from OUR experiment, along with resources for setting up your own collaboration in science, math, creative writing, or any other subject.
STEP 1: Create a Connection
Project Pen Pal was a collaboration between two amazing teachers, Leah Lacrosse and Mike Harms, and their students over two thousand miles apart. Leah teaches fifth-grade science at Woodlands Intermediate School in Huron, Ohio. Her students tackled a NASA engineering challenge: prototype robotic arms with using cardboard, rubber bands, string, and tape. Mike teaches fifth-grade science at Burkes School in San Francisco, California. His students photographed objects such as combs, zippers, and pencil cases under the microscope, and constructed collages from images at different levels of magnification. While Leah and Mike used different tools, they shared the same learning goal — to teach their students about the scientific process — which made them great candidates for collaboration.
STEP 2: Student Introductions
Working in small groups, students in each classroom exchanged cartoons asynchronously over two months. First, they introduced themselves to their peers. After exchanging get-to-know-you cartoons, the students then set out to create a second round of cartoons about their science projects. Toontastic’s Story Arc helps student break their cartoons into scenes, and we encouraged students to treat these scenes as different sections of a scientific report. Mike’s students sent reports about their magnified objects to Leah’s students, while Leah’s students sent detailed instructions for building robotic hands and shared some instructive misfires that occurred along the way. Here are two of our favorite cartoons:
STEP 3: Conduct Peer Review
After each group watched their pen pals’ cartoons, we asked them to critique each other’s work. Since the robot and microscope activities were different, we scaffolded students’ feedback by asking them to consider science ideas like hypothesis, process, and results. It worked out beautifully. Mike’s students asked their pen pals about the process of building robotic hands and suggested ways for them to clarify their cartoons. Leah’s students asked their pen pals to think more deeply about their magnified objects. Why, for instance, did a butterfly wing look like a piece of snakeskin?
We had planned for groups to revise their cartoons based on this feedback, but two new and exciting developments caused us to change course. First, Leah’s students loved the idea of creating microscope collages so much that they decided to undertake their own microscope project – with moon rocks! Second, Mike’s students made great progress on their collages and had much more to share. We challenged students to create entirely new cartoons.
STEP 4: Final Presentations
In the final part of the collaboration, Leah’s students produced cartoons about their moon rock investigations, while Mike’s students showed off their personal collages (and some of their friends’).
As students finished, they gathered for a real-time Google Hangout. Meeting synchronously for the first time, students traded ideas and app suggestions, reflected on what it felt like to learn two subjects at once, and wished each other a well-deserved school vacation.
With Project Pen Pal we wanted to see how connecting two science classrooms through sharing science cartoons would reinforce students’ learning goals and increase students’ engagement with their curriculum. Armed with Toontastic’s Story Arc – a guide to putting together different kinds of scenes into a cartoon – students had a ready-made structure for organizing their questions, hypotheses, observations, and results, and even their peer critiques. “I cannot think of a better tool to get kids to write about science,” Leah said. “It takes a little bit longer, but the time that you spend pays off later.” Mike added that throughout the project, “I saw my students grow as communicators, leaders, and shared decision makers.” In addition to growing in this way, Leah’s students were so intrigued by their partners’ work that they asked their teacher to add a microscope unit to their curriculum.
There were the inevitable challenges of coordinating busy schedules and getting up to speed on unfamiliar curriculum. Yet because Leah and Mike shared the goal of teaching their students about the scientific method, the differences in their curricula became an asset. Their students had the opportunity to learn about two subjects at once, and to ponder what connected them, like the ideas of structure and function.
Most exciting, we realized this collaboration could work for any subject, not only science. With Toontastic, students could create book reports, display art projects, or record fieldwork. Creative students will find new uses we haven’t even imagined yet.
Conclusion: “Play with a Focus”
Students not only learned about the scientific process, but also saw how sharing playful science cartoons can create new learning relationships (and be lots of fun!).
“We’re always trying to justify how I use the iPads, because to outsiders, it looks like you’re just playing,” Leah said. “And this is play with a focus. It’s a phenomenal tool.”
Amy O’Toole had better watch out – and so should your students, because…
Resources to Connect YOUR Classroom
Are you ready to try collaboration in YOUR classroom? Explore these resources:
- Download a step-by-step Classroom Guide
- Find collaborators
- Download a Connected Educator starter kit
- Browse Edutopia’s Connected Educator tips
- Browse these Connected Educator Month resources
- Learn about digital storytelling.
- Download Toontastic: School Edition for your classroom
Joel Knopf is a Bay Area-based writer and graduate of Harvard Law School and Yale University. His interest in how new digital tools help people share stories, make music, and learn inspired his work with Launchpad Toys on Project Pen Pal. Find out more by contacting him on Twitter or visiting his website www.meltsinyourmind.com.
A logistical solution to making those unforgettable education experiences a reality.
GUEST COLUMN | by Jillian Kando
Looking back at the time spent at school, most people would point to field trips as some of their favorite and most vivid educational memories. Aside from being an exciting adventure that students see as a ‘treat’ from their normal routine, field trips promote better critical thinking, expose students to culture which results in higher tolerance, and facilitate hands on learning in ways that are not attainable in the classroom. As students learn throughout their lives more often than not, this learning will occur outside of a classroom. Field trips are an effective teaching tool that teachers can use to present curriculum in a meaningful, unforgettable way. This teaching tool also happens to promote bonding both between student peers and between students and teachers. In the U.S. alone, over 200,000 educational trips are taken each day, according to data from the Department of Transportation and the Student Youth Travel Association. Yet, regional cultural and STEM venues are seeing a decline in attendance because of shifting views on field trips.
When schools actively ask their teachers, “Is this field trip going to help students meet learning goals?” teachers will be able to clearly define how and why.
More and more, field trips in the U.S. are seen as a reward for good behavior rather than a cultural enrichment tool. More emphasis on improving test-based math and reading skills, financial cuts and requirements to teach to Common Core standards in schools have led to reduced class visits to museums across the country.
If this continues, students will lose out on important developmental experiences and venues that work hard to preserve American culture will be threatened.
Another reason educational field trips are often lacking variety is that they are increasingly hard to plan. Once a teacher has planned the perfect trip, that trip tends to be replicated year after year. It is just not that easy to plan the logistics for and actually find alternative venues that fulfill the same requirements for their lesson plans. This means that the big “blockbuster” venues get a lot of traffic, but other venues lose out.
At our company, we believe in the power of learning outside of the classroom and we are on a mission to bring the number of field trips happening in the U.S. to an all-time high. We’re especially interested in helping teachers find field trips that not only entertain, but also help enrich the educational experience.
It is my belief that technology has a very defined role in the classroom. Technologists should never aim to replace the role of teachers, who work hard to influence the lives of their students. The hands on learning, one-on-one time, and enrichment teachers give to adolescents is an important part of their development that cannot not be replaced by technology, and will affect them for the rest of their lives. Instead, technology should enable teachers to work more efficiently in order to free up their time both mentally and physically, allowing for more bandwidth to come up with creative, effective and sometimes alternative forms of educating. That is exactly what our team strives to do: Make planning and taking school trips less of a burden on the teacher so that they have more time to focus on what is important: impacting the lives of their students. How do we accomplish this?
Through our experience working with teachers to plan amazing, impactful trips and through our years of experience with technology, we have created a solution that is the connecting piece in the field trip ecosystem. For the first time, teachers have a tool to let them search for specific field trip programs which tie into their curriculum (and soon the Common Core and other standards). Venues have a platform to showcase the real value they provide. No more need to spend hours looking through museum directory listings, or searching online for already known venues. They also don’t need to rely solely on word of mouth from their own network, which is necessarily often limited to their own districts. They can find venues on any topic, anywhere they want to go.
Teachers can now search by criteria that is important to them, such as location, grade level and subject, to find the best program for their class. For instance, a teacher on our site may go to the Explore section and filter the venues in our database by ‘8th grade’, ‘Science’, ‘MA’. A list of relevant venues and programs are then shown.
This can make a huge difference in adding diversity and variety to the field trip experience. For instance, if you are a teacher from Boston looking to get your students excited about science, the first venue that probably comes to mind is The Museum of Science. While this is an amazing venue and I encourage people to go and go often, there are other venues out there that may bring a really unique, life changing experience to students. One venue in particular that I love is the Beyond Benign Green Chemistry Education Lab in Wilmington, Mass., which brings K-12 students to their lab to learn about green chemistry, which reduces and eliminates the production of hazardous substances: Beyond Benign
Their mission is to ‘revolutionize the way chemistry is taught to better prepare students to engage with their world while connecting chemistry, human health and the environment’. It is gems like Beyond Benign, which may be the most impactful on students, inspiring them to take a certain direction in life, and yet these are generally the hardest to find. We’re aiming to help bring health to the field trip ecosystem by adding back the variety and thus increasing the ways students can learn.
Once a teacher has found a venue they would like to attend on EdTrips’ Explore page, communication with that venue is as simple as clicking a button. In addition, teachers can browse educational programs and see the wonderful variety out there, getting inspiration for new student experiences. We’re seeing museums posting amazing, sometimes underutilized programs such as an opportunity to learn Morse code aboard a historic Baltimore battleship, just as it was used in WWII. Teachers and venues can come together to provide kids with life-changing experiences like never before.
We know that the future of field trips is bright. As we move forward, there are exciting features our team is releasing. The algorithm for most relevant venue will rely on ratings by teachers, number of visits and other peer validation factors. This will push venues to provide a complete and satisfying experience for students and allow teachers to branch out, fulfill requirements for their class, and enable their students to have new experiences.
From our perspective, we are currently seeing a trend that learning outside the classroom is on the rise: we’re asking teachers what types of trips they’re planning, and a majority are now saying that they plan to increase the types that are educational rather than “just fun”. We believe that the push for standards combined with tools like EdTrips, which can match field trip programs with specific standards, is going to catalyze the number of trips taken. When schools actively ask their teachers, “Is this field trip going to help students meet learning goals?” teachers will be able to clearly define how and why. It’s a really exciting time to be in education, and we can’t wait to see more of the innovative ways teachers and venues are using our platform!
Jillian is the Chief Technology Officer of the edtech startup EdTrips. Jillian brings 7+ years engineering experience working on small dynamic teams to rapidly build web applications and advance product development. At EdTrips, she leads the development of their product, built in Ruby on Rails. She is also extremely active in the Boston startup community, including being the leader of Boston EdTech Hack Night. Jillian graduated from Northeastern University and believes in knowledge sharing, being an active member in the Boston startup community, and paying it forward.
This tool allows students to work together on their flashcards in realtime. This way, students save time, as the work of creating a set of flashcards can be split up between a group or a class. Students can copy the link of a flashcard set and pass it along to fellow classmates. Alternatively, students can invite their Facebook friends along these lines: “I need flashcards for 10 chapters in my biology book? Well, if I invite 9 friends to collaborate with me, I only have to do 10 percent of the work. Amazing!” After every interaction with a flashcard, students can rate their level of recall with a thumb up, thumb down or thumb in the middle. The better a student’s understanding of a flashcard, the less frequently will it be shown. This makes studying a lot more effective as students can focus on flashcards which still need work. The spaced repetition algorithm in the background will show a student flashcards shortly before they are about to forget them, and if you can follow this, the cards are spaced out along the “forgetting curve”. In any case, it’s pretty cool, so check it out.
An immigrant teacher from a world away makes the world his classroom.
GUEST COLUMN | by Qazim Aliu
After teaching English in Kosovo for over 30 years, I decided it was time for change. I retired and immigrated to the U.S. to live with my son and grandchildren in Seattle. Soon after, I ventured beyond the borders of the traditional classroom by exploring the virtual world of academia. In 2013, equipped with my teaching materials and a partnership with EDUonGo, I founded “Te Profi Qaza,” the first online English language school for native Albanian speakers. You can imagine my surprise when I saw class enrollment exceed 2,500 students in six months! I have students that range from middle school to working age and are learning from locations such as Kosovo, Albania, Macedonia, Montenegro, Germany, Switzerland, Turkey and France. I am now teaching students around the globe from the comfort of my couch.
I am now teaching students around the globe from the comfort of my couch.
Transitioning from a traditional classroom to a cloud-based system initially felt like foreign terrain. I possessed limited computer skills and felt overwhelmed by the digital world. However, with the platform’s user-friendly layout, I quickly grasped the site with ease.
The platform has provided me the virtual space and tools I need to effectively mentor my students. My learning materials have been transformed into an interactive experience with features similar to that of YouTube, Kindle and Facebook. But instead of leveraging multiple sites to teach my students, it consolidates all of these features, allowing me to operate from one simple system. It has also been a more effective alternative for preserving my teaching methods, as opposed to the more expensive process of publishing a book.
Similar to many of today’s social networking sites, the site’s layout makes it intuitive for students to navigate. For instance, the Course Lounge is a forum designed like a Facebook newsfeed. Here, students collaborate by posting comments and asking questions.
In order to help students take command of their own learning I require active participation. To monitor their level of participation, I review Class Progress, a place where student interaction and assignment completion can be observed. This allows me to determine whether students have read their lessons and completed their work. Thus far, I have seen a high level of peer-to-peer interaction between students as they help each other understand the concepts they are learning.
In the e-reader, I upload class readings in the form of eBooks and also embed accompanying video lectures. Students can highlight and create notes throughout these materials, just as they would in a physical textbook and notepad. They can then store their entries for later review and test themselves with electronic flashcards. Students are also able to leave questions, responses and comments in the video lectures. Known as Video Noting, this interactive system allows students to view and post notes in the video timeline.
Should a student fall behind in their assignments or if I want to remind everyone of an upcoming quiz, the system will send them notification reminders by means of email or SMS. I control this feature by deciding what types of notifications should be sent out as well as their timing and frequency.
As enrollment continues to climb, I have turned my attention to Live Sessions, where I host Web meetings with my students. Like office hours, these streaming events allow students to ask questions and review materials with me in real-time. They are also able to see me via screen share and view my writings on the electronic whiteboard.
For anyone thinking about creating their own online academy, I recommend finding the right platform and being creative with lesson plans by incorporating interactive modules and games. I would also encourage instructors to establish a channel for student feedback and to make a point of reviewing their input.
Like many other teachers around the world, I wanted to build my own brand and community. With a smart class platform, I have established my own brand of teaching and mentorship in a way that would not have been possible in a classroom setting. Student collaboration has surged to new levels and I no longer grapple with setting a maximum capacity to the size of my classes. As long as students have access to the Internet and aspire to learn English, no one is turned away.
While I may have embarked online teaching as a computer novice, the platform helped streamline the revamp of my tutoring methods and cultivated a sense of community for my students. I continue to be amazed with the results and look forward to seeing even more Albanians enroll to become part of the online community.
If it wasn’t for a dummy-proof and easy-to-use system, I never could have done this.
Qazim Aliu’s teaching career has spanned nearly 40 years. Well-known throughout Kosovo’s academic community, Qazim is recognized for his unique and effective approach in teaching English. After graduating from the University of Prishtina’s school of English Language and Literature, Qazim began teaching as an English instructor at Vuk Karaxhiq, an elementary school in Gjilan. Later, in 1992, he founded and operated a private English school, COME, which has been nominated best private school with the highest rate of placing job seekers with English speaking skills. Additionally, the school was awarded by the Ministry of Education in 2013 for being the only operating private school during the 1999 Kosovo War. In July 2013, he founded online academy Te Profi Qaza, where he continues to teach and mentor students.