Overnight Camping with Students

This year I’ve started bringing a small group of students on the Kansas Herpetological Society’s field trips. KHS has 3 field trips a year (fall, spring, and summer). The goal of these trips is to survey the reptiles and amphibians found in the county we’re visiting for that particular trip. Most of the herps we find are released after they’ve been identified and recorded, but some species of interest are collected and sent to various museums/universities for research purposes. These trips are attended by students, teachers, enthusiasts, and scientists.

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Blue Valley has been bringing large groups of students for years now, so they’re definitely more experienced (Eric Kessler and Kelley Tuel are both great people to talk to!), but I’ve received a couple of questions recently about bringing students on these trips, so I thought I would share my (limited) experiences, and information about how I got these trips going.

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If you want to take a camping trip with students, this is the best way to start. The overnight camping sites and surveying locations are planned for you. You just need transportation, food, tents, and other basic camping supplies. Every district is different, so the way you get these things will vary, but my school rents a 15 passenger van to use for the weekend. We also have tents, sleeping bags, and other camping supplies at the school. Many of your students may already have these things at home. For food, I ask students for a $15 trip fee. I use this to purchase easy camping foods, like s’mores fixings, hot dogs, bagels, pancake mix, PB&J supplies, etc. I also ask students to bring another $30-50 bucks to pay for snacks or any other purchases.

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The trip usually looks something like this:

Friday: We leave right after school ends and head to the campsite to set up our tents. We then head into the nearest town for dinner at a local restaurant (usually a sit-down place – my kids love this and get excited to eat out as a group somewhere nice). I have my students pay for their own meals using the money they bring. After dinner, we do some road-cruising for herps, or go back to the campsite to hang out.

Saturday: We make breakfast in the morning, then meet up with the rest of the trip participants. From 9-12 we collect herps. At noon, we eat lunch (either a bagged lunch or we might stop somewhere in town to pick up a quick meal). We’ll then head out again in the afternoon for more herp collecting. Around 5, we head back to the campsite to make dinner. We might do some more road cruising in the evening, but most of the time my students are exhausted and are happy to just entertain themselves (card games, books, whatever) until bed.

Sunday: We cook breakfast at the campsite then pack up. Some people go out again from 9-12 for more surveying, but we usually hit the road so we get back home in the early afternoon. We stop somewhere for a quick lunch before making it back to school.

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If you are new, many of the veterans and scientists will work closely with you and your students. They’ll teach you where to look for herps, how to catch and handle them, and how to identify what you find. I did this for our first camping trip, and it was very helpful. For our second trip, my students and I were confident enough to do our own thing.

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If you have a more specific question, let me know! For more information on the field trips, visit KHS’s website (http://www.cnah.org/khs/fieldTrips.aspx). I’ve also attached the trip proposal that goes to my district’s Board for approval (https://www.dropbox.com/s/7xe7zoqqfbiqfyq/Russell_County_Herpetological_Field_Trip_Spring_2015.doc?dl=0). This has been adapted from Eric Kessler’s proposal for Blue Valley. Feel free to edit as needed for your own district.

These trips are wonderful educational experiences. I would love for more KABT members and their students to attend!

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Tick-Borne Disease Lessons

Excited to share that finally the work several of us Biology teachers did last summer and this fall putting together a Tick-Borne Disease Unit for information and education about preventing tick diseases is uploaded online and is ready to share. Since tick season has started, please check it out. You can teach it as a 2 or 3 days lesson, or as a week or longer unit. Feel free to use whatever components you would like, and pass it on / share this with more Biology teachers in Kansas. Here is the access link to download the unit: http://www.bri.ksu.edu/education/tick-borne-disease-curriculum-overview.html

2015 Kansas Excellence in Math and Science Teaching Conference

2015 Kansas Excellence in Math and Science Teaching Conference
June 22-24, 2015

Hutchinson Community College
1300 North Plum, Hutchinson
Stringer Fine Arts Center

Get ready for three mind-blowing days as this year’s Excellence in Math and Science Teaching Conference takes on a whole new format!  The best math and science teachers in the state will come together to dig into the standards, refresh and retool current practices and ultimately become leaders for change in the classroom.

Dedicated content area experts will work with attendees to address instructional and content shifts reported as being most challenging. Bring your team or just yourself. Either way, you will walk away with your plan to move instruction to the next level this coming fall.

During these three days of intense professional learning, you will:

Network with some of the best math and science teachers in Kansas;

Acquire ideas and tools from Kansas math and science education researchers;

Dig deep into the standards with strategies to move your classroom, building, and district closer to your vision for math and science education;

Take your teaching to the next level.

Go to http://events.ksde.org/Default.aspx?tabid=823 for more info.


An Activity to Introduce Critical Thinking for Throwback Thursday

This is a write-up I did for a presentation back in the early 90’s.  I was sharing this activity that I did for several years with some KABT folks this evening and  I was sure they would find it on the KABT site but I can’t find it.  So, here it is.  I think it speaks for itself….and it is a lot of fun, if you can keep your poker-face.

Science teachers are working hard to respond to our needs for a scientifically literate citizenry. It could be just the crowd I hang around, perhaps it’s just our increased ability to communicate or it could be my occupational bias but I am certain that more science teachers provide more effective laboratory experiences more often than in the past. Without addressing the limitation of standardized testing, why do we (the U.S.) fair so poorly when compared to other countries achievement in science education?

I do not wish to provide an extensive analysis here, it’s neither the time nor the place but I would propose that a fundamental problem exits today that must be countered before the goal of “science for all Americans” can be attained. That problem is our society’s propensity for the acceptance of the weird and supernatural as viable models of the natural world. For want of a better way of describing this problem I am referring to it as a lack of critical thinking skills. The following activity brings home to you and your students an important message–the importance of skepticism when encountering and explaining weird phenomena.

Background InformationThis activity is based on an experience that I had at an NSF funded teacher enhancement project at Benedictine College in the 1980’s. Jim Teller, a teacher from Iowa, and I essentially conned the rest of the participants into believing that I had some sort of paranormal talents. Of course, I didn’t have any such abilities but I was struck by how easy it was to fool almost all of the other teachers into believing that I did. I am convinced that we all received a valuable lesson from Jim, one that you can share with your students.

This type of activity is difficult to standardize so that it works everywhere. I’ll simply provide a narrative of what I did with my classes this year. Hopefully, you’ll have enough detail so that you can repeat the experience for your students if you wish. Also, I hope that the broad concepts of what is involved will be clear enough that you can design your own experience.

Every year, at the beginning of the school year, something in the media really disturbs me. It might be a report on “crop circles” or a discussion of Nancy Reagan’s reliance of astrological consultation for scheduling former President Reagan’s social calendar. This year, it was the prevalence of network shows that are based on the presumption of alien life forms here on this planet or the ability to “profile” a murder. I wait until something that reeks of paranormal or pseudoscience occurs in the media. Unfortunately, you can count on the near ubiquity of this kind of material in the media. In response, without student foreknowledge, I arrange a paranormal experience in our classroom that fits seamlessly with whatever topic that we are covering.

The gist of the experience is to set up a situation in which the students discover that one of their classmates has ESP. I’ve pre-selected this student as an accomplice–no one is suspicious. The discovery is by accident. Once the claim is made then a series of tests or experiments are performed. I set the parameters for the first set of tests, all the while being openly skeptical. Students have input by modifying the experiment within the parameters. The students want to believe in ESP so badly that they will usually not suspect that the ESP student and I are working together. Basically, I provide various clues to the ESP student about the solution to various experiments. The ESP student “proves” they have special abilities. This year my students were either particularly gullible or we are getting pretty good at pulling off a con since most of the classes were so convinced that they wanted exploit the ESP student for money. One of my students said to me with his mom present, “Mr. Williamson, what you did in Biology today was absolutely horrible!” His mom naturally was interested at this point. He then went on to say, “Today was the best science class he had ever had!” Hopefully, at least one student is skeptical enough to figure out that I am part of the trick but if they don’t, we let them in on it towards the end of the hour. After this experience I have little trouble convincing them of importance of critical thinking.

Specific details of the “con”

  1. I selected a student accomplice at the beginning of each hour making sure to not draw any special attention to what I am doing. I select carefully. You need someone who can think on their feet but that no one will suspect. I tell them that today they are going to have ESP. Their interest is peaked at this point.
  2. I inform the student accomplice that sometime during class discussion the topic will get around to ESP and when it does be sure to volunteer.

It is important that this discussion seem to be spontaneous and unplanned. Bring the students into the discussion. Eventually what I actually do is that I ask for a show of hands for those who think that they have experienced some kind of ESP-type of event. Several, including the accomplice always volunteer.

  1. The student accomplice and I quickly agree upon a set of signals before class. Since I set the parameters for the test, this is easy. I tell the accomplice that six objects will be on a table and one will be selected while he/she is out of the room. When they return they will “know” which object is selected because I’ll tell them. I tell them that I’ll be holding a clipboard for taking data on the experiment. They should visualize the clipboard as the table holding the six objects. Where I am holding my hand on the clipboard will indicate the location of the chosen object on the table. That’s all there is to it. However, since any good con has to have a back up we also establish a set of clues in case something goes wrong. One set of clues is the manner that I call them back into the room. For instance, if I say “Ready, now” then that means that something has gone wrong. They are to feign difficulty and say that something is not right this time. Another set of backup clues is my own position around another table in the room or my position in the room. There are lots of ways of doing this once you have an accomplice. Be creative and make sure that you have signals for when things aren’t quite right.

During class discussion when the students volunteer that they have suspect they have some form of ESP I suggest that we take six random objects and place them on a table. I carefully arrange the objects on the table. The suspected ESP students leave the room. A students volunteer selects one of the objects. This is done so that all of us remaining in the classroom know which is the selected object. The students come back into the classroom. The class is asked to concentrate on the object that was selected but don’t give any clues. Each of the returning students takes a guess at which object was selected. There’s a one out of six chance the correct object will be selected by any one student so we have to repeat the experiment several times. I inform the class of the odds at each trial. Naturally, usually after a couple of trials only the accomplice is correctly “detecting” the object selected. At this point I let the students in the room select 2 objects at once or none. When the accomplice returns I signal that something is changed and they can usually read any new signal that I make. It’s important that when the accomplice returns to the room that you (the teacher) is talking so that the accomplice has a legitimate reason for looking in your direction.

Within a short time nearly the entire class will be convinced that this person has ESP. Hopefully there will be a few that are skeptical and will want to try other forms of tests. Ask why, use this skepticism as a starting point for experimental design. Let them find you out–if possible. If not, be sure to expose the charade with enough time to discuss the purpose. This activity is not designed to make fools or teach con games. It’s purpose is to let students know how easy to accept rather outlandish claims.

To complete the lesson, the next day I show the NOVA video, “The Power of Psychics.” This video features the “Amazing Randi” debunking various psychic phenomena. Try it you’ll be “amazed”.



In My Classroom – #6 (Getting Students Interested in Science)

Welcome to the KABT new blog segment, “In My Classroom”. This is a segment that will post about every two weeks from a different member. In 250 words or less, share one thing that you are currently doing in your classroom. That’s it.

The idea is that we all do cool stuff in our rooms, and to some people there have been cool things so long that it feels like they are old news. In this segment, if you are tagged all you need to do is share something you’ve done in your classroom in the last two weeks. It must be recent, but that’s it. If you are tagged, you’ve got two weeks to post your entry. Who knows… your supposedly mundane idea, lesson, or lab might be exactly what someone else really needs. Keep it brief, keep it honest about the time window, and share it out! Here we go:  

This year I’ve been on a mission to get students interested in science. On the first day of school, I asked my students to draw a picture of what they think a scientist looks like. As you can probably guess, their pictures were predictable and full of stereotypes. Sometimes they were holding a beaker containing a mysterious bubbling liquid, other times they were next to a microscope. But every drawing was of an older white male in a lab coat. Why would my diverse students be into science if they saw it as something for old white dudes? My students obviously did not know many scientists, so I decided to change that.2

I reached out to about a dozen biology graduate students at KU and asked if they would be interested in partnering with me for a semester-long project. Our goal is to design and plant a pollinator garden in one of the courtyards at Wyandotte High School. The grad students have been coming to my class every other Friday to work with my students on the garden project. Their lessons have covered a range of topics from Colony Collapse Disorder, to ways of measuring biodiversity. My students have researched native plants that attract pollinators and have made scale drawings 4of what they think the garden should look like. We’ve picked a winning design and plan to begin planting the garden early May. Once the garden is established, we plan on creating a database to continually monitor pollinator population data.3

Overall the experience has been extremely positive. I’ve seen a significant increase in the number of students interested in science careers. My students have taken real ownership of the project, are excited to continue their work, and have formed meaningful relationships with the grad students.1

Send some emails. Invite scientists into your classrooms. Help your students dispel stereotypes associated with science and get them involved in projects where they can apply real science skills.

Cat Genetics Mini Unit

This year I have tried a mini project-based unit that uses cats to teach genetics. I got the idea for this and some resources from an article written by Alan Christensen, a professor at the University of Nebraska. I started out by running through my normal unit on genetics to serve as a background on genetics vocabulary as well as skills to do Punnett Squares. Next, I had them go into the specifics of cat genetics. Cat genetics are well known due to years of artificial selection. Also, more recently their genome was sequenced and many of the genes that determine hair patterning has been investigated.  This entire mini unit was focused on the genetics of cats coat colors.

Day 1.

Students were introduced to cats and their genome. I went through a prezi to cover all eighteen autosomes of the cats and highlighted the specific loci where the genes that determined their coat color were located. I covered these observable genes and discussed their forms of inheritance. Then we talked about the Orange gene on the X chromosome. They then were given the chance to look at several cats from a local human shelter and score them for different genes.

Student Scoring A cat from a local shelter for its genetic traits

Student Scoring A cat from a local shelter for its genetic traits

At the end of class, they were given a chance to look up a specific gene from the NCBI genome of cats and try to determine what these genes does for the cell. (I would like to enrich this part of the unit but I don’t know how.) Their homework was to take a photo of their cat and bring it to school the next day on their phone or in an email.

Day 2. Students diagramed their cat based on a photo and posted this along with an analysis of the cat’s genome all around my room.

Student using a photo from their phone to diagram a cat. In the future these could be posted to a blog and other students could contribute to the genotyping of each cat.

Student using a photo from their phone to diagram a cat. In the future these could be posted to a blog and other students could contribute to the genotyping of each cat.


With a simple “cat scan” around the room I began to see some cool trends. For instance, that the dominant White gene was rare in our local population. This turned into a good discussion about why the dominant gene didn’t “dominant” all other genes. posting cats

After all of our gene pool was posted, I was able to use some manipulatives from my time judging of protein modeling to show how the mutations from different genes can cause changes in color. It was very helpful to have a three dimensional model of a “receptor” protein. I began to ask the question about how one gene such as white or orange could cause a change in color.

I'm trying to make Lin Andrews proud her by using some models. I attached them to my board with some magnets. It was so cool looking!

I’m trying to make Lin Andrews proud here by using some models. I attached them to my board with some magnets. It was so cool looking!

I used an explanation from Hopi Hoekstra from the University of Harvard about how fur color can cause a change in color. If the shape of the receptor protein is altered then the function of that protein will change, and in-turn its phenotype will change. Finally, the students read an article about Kermodism in black bears from British Columbia and answered questions about this article.  Here is a copy of the article for you to print (Spirit Bear). Kermodism is caused by the same Melanocortin 1 Receptor that I diagramed on the board.


The students drew a picture of their ideal “purrfect” cat. It had to have realistic traits and it couldn’t be hairless or all white. Students were able to take their “purrfect” cat diagrams and set up a breeding program to select from other student’s cats. They imagined that every time two cats bred they would produce eight kittens. I realized that some students were intentionally picking easier cats to breed for. So, I created several imaginary clients who wanted very specific traits for their cats. Each cat that they determined a breeding program for was an additional chocolate bar. Since all of the diagrams were in the classroom I could not ask the student’s to do any homework. In the future it would be neat to take all the pictures and post them to a blog so students could do homework as well as argue over the genes that different cats have.

Day 4.

We then concluded the unit with a section on natural selection with a video by HHMI on how mice in the desert have different levels of survival. The mice adapt due to a mutation in their Melanocortin 1 Receptor which is something that the students had heard about in previous lessons. I asked the students to select one single trait from our classes’ cat gene pool. For instance, we only had 5 out of 63 posted cats that were all white. I asked them to write out the percentage of their specific trait. Next, they described a realistic scenario where the environment selected for or against this trait. Several students imagined that there was a second ice age. I got as Socratic as I could with them and made students write out WHY the trait would be selected if an ice age came. Finally, they had to write in what they thought the final percentages of the population would be over time. Thus, I lead them through Variation, Selection, and Adaptation. This will help us lead into our next unit of evolution. One of my students lamented that they had their kitten eaten by a hawk earlier this spring. Another mentioned after class that if I needed a cat skin their family had about 30 cats in their barn… I laughed pretty hard until I realized he was serious. You’ve gotta love it when students start connecting genetics to their little small town.

I have just completed the mini unit and I have some mixed feelings as I process and reflect back on it. I think it was a good experience for the students. They were highly engaged in the process (58 out of 63 completed the task of determining the genes of their own cat instead of going online.) and I was glad to see that. The gaping hole in this project is that it needs more authentic artifact or product that the students produce so I can assess their understanding. The most fun part of the process was the number of cat jokes that I was able to work into each lesson. For that alone, it was worth undertaking. Let me know what you think and clue me into any ideas you may have.

Learning & Knowing – PD Opportunity

I’m pretty excited to offer an opportunity to attend a meeting to look at brain research and how it can/should impact a classroom. All are welcome and it’s free, but space is limited so shoot me an email if you’d like a spot. mralphoe[at]olatheschools[dot]org

Workshop Flier

Knowing and learning are not the same thing. Brain research has demonstrated repeatedly that the process of learning is distinct from what it means to know a concept. The traditional view of education focuses on learning processes but often neglects the skills required to know a topic afterwards. This has inexorably led to a linear view of curriculum, with teachers marching through content and providing carrots and sticks to elicit compliant students within their daily activities.

Join a workshop that offers a change in that paradigm. Learn what current research on brain physiology says about the best way to come to know something in the classroom. Discuss with other colleagues and current high school students alike what the impact of this cognitive research should be in a classroom. Be an active participant in a new kind of classroom that eliminates the trappings of the old paradigm.

Experience what it’s like to trash your notes following a lecture. Hear from students who create their own homework assignments and complete them without ever using the word “point” or “credit”. See how a fundamental shift in the approach to learning and knowing leads to 4 graded tasks a semester (FOUR!). Observe how a focus on building competency leads to natural differentiation of instruction.

Steve Young, the Anatomy and Physiology teacher at Olathe East High School, will be facilitating a free workshop to explore a new way to think about education. Bring nothing but a willingness to consider new ideas. All you have to lose is the old way of thinking.

Session Details:

Room 105, 14545 W. 127th St. Olathe KS, 66062

April 18th from 8:30a-1:00p


Electrophoresis is Hard

I know many upper-level biology classes perform some version of the classic (are they old enough to be classic yet?) biotechnology procedures at some point in the year. Bacterial transformation, PCR, and DNA electrophoresis are all experiments that occur in many labs at high schools and universities. I say occur but what I mean is attempt. At least in my classroom the success rate for these procedures is… let’s say <100%.

Par for the course...

Par for the course…

Practice makes improvement but in this setting practice is also really expensive. To solve this problem my predecessor (the venerable Paula Donham to cite her properly) allowed students to practice some procedures on dummy supplies first before using actual reagents and equipment. This is particularly useful in electrophoresis procedures. Micropipetting is difficult to novices and errors can ‘break’ the experiment with discouraging frequency. This is a particular problem in experiments that are culminating in the electrophoresis step after substantial investment, such as the arabidopsis epigenetics lab that I’ve raved about before.

A practice gel can be cast in a Petri dish with the much cheaper agar (as opposed to agarose) and water. Mix a 1% agar solution with tap water and boil to dissolve. Pour molten agar into Petri dishes to a depth of about 5mm. While it is still molten add a comb that creates several rows of wells similar to those in an electrophoresis gel. After the agar solidifies fill the dish with water. Use glycerol with food coloring to practice filling the wells with no harm from gel punctures, spills or other experimenter errors.

In the current model, the comb teeth are slightly more widely spaced.

In the current model, the comb teeth are slightly more widely spaced.

3D printed in red, store bought in white

3D printed in red, store bought in white

Usually you could buy equipment or kits (like here) but there is a DIY option. You can mix your own reagents as I’ve described above and you can 3D print your own comb. Download the STL file here and get your nearest 3D printer to create you an army of combs. Now every student can practice melting, pouring, comb-removing, and loading. This time your students can make much more interesting mistakes than simply misloading their wells.

Capture Capture 1