In My Classroom: NESC Videos are helpful

I have a student-teacher this semester, and he asked to teach our evolution unit as his “portfolio” unit. He is, at this point, mostly being left on his own to plan, assess, and manage the classroom. Our students were all on board for the Geologic Time Scale and natural selection (and it’s accompanying demonstrations and labs).

However, as we started talking phylogenies and focusing on ancestry, a handful of students started asking why people thought we evolved from monkeys, and why monkeys weren’t evolving into humans. I knew as a more experienced teacher (who had made many mistakes already while teaching students), that this kind of questioning is preventable with some different organization of your unit. But I was interested in how he would confront this in his classroom because it would tell me a lot about his progress and readiness to handle his own classes. As a cooperating instructor, I was interested in how he would respond to this. As a fellow biology teacher, I could sympathize with how he was probably feeling; even if you do everything perfectly, address every misconception, incorporate the nature of science into every lesson, this type of question is always going to get asked by somebody. So what did he do? He impressed me.

I have used “tree-thinking” quizzes and other resources available from Understanding Evolution but have never used any of their video clips. My student teacher had some productive discussions about making conclusions from evidence, why scientific explanations have to be falsifiable, and what it means to have a “common ancestor”. He followed all of that up with this video:

I had never seen this before, but our students really responded well to it. It is definitely something that I will be using in the future!

More Understanding Evolution and National Evolutionary Synthesis Center videos can be found here.

And perhaps it is time to remove my padawan’s braid.

Get Out and Get Data…

In September of last year, the University of Kansas Biological Field Station graciously opened its facilities to the environmental science students of Basehor-Linwood High School. Scott Campbell, associate director of outreach and public services for Kansas Biological Survey, received the 20 students at the Armitage Center. Scott, a true educator, engaged the students in a discussion about the broad mission of the field station. Students curiously asked many questions about the current research that was being conducted.

Students received some general guidelines about how to treat the animals ethically. Soon students began a fierce competition to catch the most frogs. In the classroom a discussion about population surveys would have been met with little excitement. At the side of the pond, with frogs leaping through the cool September grass, there was not a student in twenty who thought this was a meaningless exercise. The excitement was palpable.

Once the frogs were collected , students retired to the Armitage Center for sack lunches. The frogs were cooled in a large refrigerator to make them easier to work with. Students had practiced weighing and measuring frogs in the classroom. Now these skills were put to work- there were 134 frogs to weigh, measure, and score for color patterns.

This scene was punctuated by moments of chaos when a frog or two would make a dive to get out of the grips of the high school students. After all the data was collected students returned to the pond to release the frogs. On the way, Mr. Daniel Smalley, their teacher, caught a small black snake.


The snake made its way to Mr. Stan Roth who is an adjunct research assistant and educator for the Kansas Biological Survey. Stan identified the species and engaged the students in a conversation about the natural history of the snake. Many students touched a snake for the first time.

Finally, students were able to seine in the pond. They had a good harvest of small fish and invertebrates.

Before the students returned to class they visited the Rockefeller Prairie and walked the trails. Students collected 10 flowering heads of goldenrod. The flowering heads were quickly covered in gallon ziplock bags and sealed shut. Inside all the insect species that were foraging or hunting on the flower heads were sealed too.

Back at school the students compiled the data into a Google spreadsheet. This data was then analyzed and graphed by hand. Thus, students had the chance to analyze data about a population that they had collected. Mr. Smalley then entered the information into Plotly an online graphing platform. The computer allowed the students to more easily analyze the distribution variables like snout to vent length and weight.

The final graph that students examined compared the length of frogs to their weight. Mr. Smalley explained that we should expect to see a strong connection between these two variables. Further, he explained, that this was an example of a mathematical model that could be used to predict and explain the population. Who knew there could be so much math in environmental science?

After the frog data was analyzed students took out ten bags of Goldenrod. The bags had been frozen. Students separated out the insects from the Goldenrod. They had to identify the insect species. Thankfully, Mr. Smalley has had a lifelong obsession with collecting bugs so with his help and a few field guides students quickly were able to determine the species they were looking at. Mr. Smalley then helped the students put together a food web based on these species. The bugs could then be categorized by their tropic level . Students collected the bugs of similar trophic levels together. This included 14 jumping spiders that served as top predators! Each level was weighed together. The students turned this into a large bulletin board that was displayed in the hallway. Mr. Smalley explained that this too was a model that showed where the biomass (a proxy for energy) was located in this micro community. Students really took to the project and decided that It would be good to include the actual organisms. Thus, all 14 spiders, herbivorous insects, and Goldenrod flower heads found their way on the bulletin board.

Experiences like this empower our youth to see themselves as shareholders of knowledge rather than passive vessels who blithely learn facts about things like ecosystems only to recite them back on tests.

The Implications of Mindset Research on Science Classrooms

A recent article in Buzzfeed News shared an overview of some of the concerns surrounding growth mindset research and pedagogies focused on leveraging that research. The membership of KABT has considered the article and its critiques and has created the following response.


The Implications of Mindset Research for Science Classrooms

Mindset research, which focuses on the differences between growth and fixed mindset, has been popularized by Carol Dweck and her associates (Yeager, 2012) (Dweck, 2008) (Dweck C. S., 2012). While there is a growing market for classroom materials, publications and workshops related to promoting growth mindsets in students, there is a growing discussion regarding the inadequacies of the research base for mindset methodologies.


The initial work by Dr. Dweck has been criticized for some of its experimental design and statistical practice. Those mistakes have been accepted by Dr. Dweck and corrections and revisions have been acknowledged. The accumulating list of errors has led to concerns regarding the validity of the results. Statistical practice in social science is an area in need of considerable improvement and a demand for best practice from the consumers of the research, the practitioners, is a way to incentivize this improvement. Teachers should not shrug off statistical malpractice as only a footnote.


Strong statistical analysis improves the confidence of readers in the reproducibility (or lack thereof) of the work. In this instance the missing statistical confidence pairs with a lack of reproduction to this point. Reproducing education research requires tremendous skill in both pedagogy and experimental design. There are concerns that the small number of attempts at reproduction do not faithfully recreate the appropriate conditions for eliciting the effect. There are other questions about the value of the growth mindset effect if it is so small and fragile that reproduction by researchers is exceedingly difficult.


At its heart growth mindsets tap into a long-held belief that hard work is valuable. Many teachers find the idea of a student having agency over their own achievement to be desirable. Growth mindset is not the solution to classroom culture. Students need more than just hard work. Tremendous energy can be spent smashing into a door until you are through it, or you can simply turn the handle and open it. When mindsets augment a productive culture and a coherent curriculum they can be powerful.


When poorly-supported methodologies are used and the teaching practice is weak, a growth mindset is of little value. As the market saturates with products claiming to be based on mindset research, we must identify which are doomed to failure from unthoughtful application. Many flying machines failed due to ignorance of flight mechanics, but flight was always possible. Similarly, when a speaker with a shallow understanding of the literature fails to demonstrate value in a product we should remember that a failed application is not the same as a faulty concept.


Inquiry in the science classroom is well-supported by research as best practice. Interconnected understanding, developed through retrieval practice and responsive feedback, is superior to linear content delivery by a lecturing expert to passive audience members. Shaping that feedback through a growth mindset lens appears to have a positive impact despite the fact that reproduction of the research is proving difficult. Indeed, our job as educators is to do something that is hard! We must synthesize the research regarding mindset with best practices in assessment, classroom management, curricular design, differentiation, inquiry instruction, choice theory and many other overlapping domains to produce the strongest experience possible in unique students who change every semester. This is our job and they call us educators.


We must be faithful to the body of research. We can simultaneously incorporate aspects of the growth mindset research into our classroom and remain skeptical of the work. If future studies reveal flaws and allow us to develop a better description of how student perceptions shape learning, we should follow that work also. We also need to share our perspective from the field to shape investigations to be more useful and applicable. Perhaps more dynamic classroom methodologies will yield stronger signals in new mindset research. Perhaps responsive differentiation will allow us to visualize specific demographics who stand to benefit the most from a growth mindset. Perhaps training in retrieval practice as studying will increase the propensity of students to adopt and develop a growth mindset through greater yields from investment.


Ultimately we must close the gap between practitioner and researcher in education. Medical doctors consider experimental treatments and provide feedback on their results on a regular basis. Attorneys publish briefs and review frequently to respond to an ever-changing body of legislation. We, too, must become more than consumers of research. Teachers must communicate with researchers because our classroom experience can make experimental design better. We can demand stronger statistical practice, more meaningful treatment conditions and more targeted assessment tools. The improved research will return as more actionable results which we can use to improve our technique again.


We must allow our classroom practice to respond to the current literature while acknowledging and addressing its flaws. It is highly unlikely that a growth mindset is the educational silver bullet. It is also unlikely to be entirely smoke and mirrors. Instead we are trying to understand a remarkably complex system so that we can help it mature as effectively as possible. As far as promoting a growth mindset can further that goal, we should use it. When the body of research indicates there is a better approach, teachers should change methods. We should not switch a moment later than when the research publishes, but not a moment before either.


  1. Dweck, C. (2008). Mindsets and math/science achievement.
  2. Dweck, C. S. (2012). Mindsets and human nature: Promoting change in the Middle East, the schoolyard, the racial divide, and willpower. American Psychologist, 67(8), 614.
  3. Yeager, D. S. (2012). Mindsets that promote resilience: When students believe that personal characteristics can be developed. . Educational Psychologist, 47(4), 302-314.


TBT: Protein Synthesis Models (In My Classroom)


Thanks to a little idea from Brad I thought I would try something with my AP Biology students this week that I saw him try with his BIO 100 students at KU earlier.

We’re currently marching our way through the mind-bending terror that is protein synthesis. So we’ve gone over the whole process a bit but to make sure we were not getting lost in the details I gave them this:

Blank central dogma 1Blank central dogma 2

Two different models of the same process. Nothing earth-shatteringly innovative but how I framed it and worked with it was unique to me. I didn’t just say it was a worksheet to complete. I framed it as 2 different models of the same process. If they wanted to use the picture in their book that was ok because the diagram in their Campbell book also looked different. What I was surprised with was how much students struggle translating [pun] knowledge across models. Students struggled with labeling processes versus structures, labeling the same structure that was differently drawn in two models, and especially when one model added or removed details (like introns and exons).

The other cool part was that afterwards when students shared their answers on the board, they had lengthy discussion about what was “right”. For example, two students argued whether the 4th answer from the top was “pre-mRNA” or “mRNA” and explained why they thought that. After looking to me I shared that by their explanations both could be right. That’s what I think was cool, students argued different answers where with the proper explanations, either could be right. So because of that, I would avoid giving an “word bank”.

Also, at the very end I created a list on the board titled “limitations” and I had them share what was limiting about these diagrams. Some thoughts were “no nucleotides were shown entering RNA polymerase”, “no other cell components were shown”, “the ribosome on top only had room for one tRNA”, “no mRNA cap or tail were shown”, and many more.

I found this exercise useful because I struggle giving students modeling opportunities (especially non-physical ones) and this was a simple way for students to get practice comparing/contrasting models while also discussing the usefulness and limitations of them.

Alright, for the 4th installment I nominate el presidente himself, Noah Busch.

Sternberg Museum Summer Science Camps

Fort Hays State University’s Sternberg Museum is providing another year of high-quality field experiences for students. They are offering courses for elementary, middle, and high school students, and even have international trips available.

The full catalog is available here. If you need more information, or are interested in one of the available scholarships, contact education director David Levering using the information below.

Greetings from the Sternberg Museum of Natural History! We are excited to offer our 2017 Summer Science Camps and Programs designed to immerse students in the wonders of Earth and life science!
The Sternberg Museum education and science staff presents experience-driven lessons and activities that get students directly involved in the process of science. We emphasize building knowledge, skills and the mental tools to deal with information and questions in a scientific manner.
Outdoor exploration is at the heart of our science camps and programs. Getting students outside interacting with nature, each other and instructors helps to anchor our lessons with powerful firsthand experiences. We look forward to sharing the wonder of science and exploration with you this summer!
David Levering
Education Director

In My Classroom: Reading Peer-Reviewed Papers

Welcome to the KABT 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. However, there are new teachers that may be hearing things for the first time and veterans that benefit from reminders. So let’s share things, new and old alike. When you’re tagged you have two weeks to post the next entry. Your established staple of a lab or idea might be just what someone needs. So be brief, be timely and share it out! Here we go:

This year I am teaching a class that is new to me called “Honors Biology 2”. This course is split into Genetics the first semester and Microbiology the second semester. I was given a rough curriculum for the course and was encouraged to make it my own. Having only taught Freshman Biology last year (which was my first year teaching) I was a little nervous about how to challenge these students.

On the second day of school I asked my students to write down everything they could tell me about DNA. I not only got full molecular structures with phosphodiester bonds labeled, but some students drew full replication forks with all enzymes labeled. My next days’ lesson for reviewing DNA structure and replication was scrapped and I came to class the next day with 70 copies of Meselson and Stahl’s original publication.

My smarty-pants students said “they proved DNA replicates semi-conservatively”, to which I said “how did they prove that?”. Shocker, but they didn’t have a response.

The look I got when I asked students to explain “how”
via giphy

So we started into it. I gave my students a CER form and asked them to explain the evidence provided in the paper for how DNA replicates. They ended up needing 3 full class periods to get through the paper and really understand it, and they complained all three of those days. After students understood something they would say “why didn’t they just say that in the paper” or “why did that have to be so difficult” which lead us into good conversations about the content as well as science in general.

Despite my students’ grumbles we have read 4 scientific, peer-reviewed papers this year. For our most recent one, titled “A microbial symbiosis factor prevents intestinal inflammatory disease” I had students create a mini-poster that describes the experiment. I’ve also had students summarize each paragraph of these papers into one sentence, re-do a diagram in the paper, use the thing explainer method to explain the paper, or draw a graphic novel explanation of the paper. We have gotten to the point where students don’t actively hate these papers and have started to see them as a cool way to gain new information.

An example of a mini-poster that explains the research. Note the diagrams taken from the paper and the dead mouse.

I’ve used these papers to introduce new ideas or elaborate concepts with recent research. The thing I’ve found most rewarding as a teacher is how confident my students feel once they are able to explain these difficult readings. They face a challenge, overcome it, and then feel really great about it. It has also forced them to “think like a scientist” if I ask them things like “why did they do it that way”. Several parents have said things like “I couldn’t even understand the title of that” or “my student came home and explained this to me”. I haven’t had my Freshman biology students read a full paper (yet), but have had them read abstracts or analyze some cool diagrams.

That’s all for me. Sorry for going way over my 250 word limit. Kelly Kluthe is next at her own request!

P.S. thanks to Eric Kessler’s how-to for helping me stop making excuses for posting!

A 3D Gene Expression Lesson on Epigenetics

Disclaimer: As far as standards go, I really like the Next Generation Science Standards. Particularly important to me is the emphasis it places on learning not just the content (disciplinary core ideas), but how scientists work/think (science practices) and connections between ideas (cross-cutting concepts). Over the last 3-4 years, I have been giving my favorite activities and labs an NGSS facelift to modify them to better fit this framework. I am going to share with you a lesson that I feel address all 3 dimensions of the NGSS.


Is your lesson “3D”? Use the NGSS Lesson Screener tool to find out.  LINK

Many students really enjoy their genetics units, but one of the more difficult things to understand is gene expression. Several years ago, I would have presented my students with the “central dogma”, given some notes over transcription and translation, then worked through a few scaffolds to get them to understand how amino acid chains are produced. After reading Survival of the Sickest in 2008, I started to mention that epigenetics was a thing, though I didn’t have my students investigate it with any depth.

With the introduction of the Next Generation Science Standards, an emphasis has been placed on understanding the implications of the processes in the classic dogma without getting overly concerned about what specific enzymes might be doing at a given time. This has freed up more time to explore the regulation of gene expression, including epigenetics. There are a number of amazing resources out there (like this… and this… and this…), but here is how I cover gene regulation with my 9th grade biology students:

This format is something I have adapted (with few changes) from an NGSS training put on by Matt Krehbiel and Stephen Moulding, which I attended thanks to KSDE. I like this because it is flexible, provides students with the entire trajectory of the lesson from the beginning, and can double as a lesson plan. Can you guess the reasoning behind the color-coded words? That, too, is explicit, though it is in most cases more for my own benefit. RED words are commands for the students. It tells them how they should address the problem and how I will assess their work. The GREEN words relate to cross-cutting concepts (in this case, systems/system models and patterns), while the BLUE(ish) words are science practices.

Depending on how much time you have available, this could take 2 to 4 50-minute class periods (or 1-2 block periods if you’re lucky enough to roll with that schedule).  I like to use more time for this because I have designed discussion and collaboration into the process, but the “Gather Information” and (obviously) “Individual Performance” sections could be done by students on their own and wouldn’t require a classroom. Devoting a little extra class time will also allow for you to conduct ad hoc informal formative assessments (read over a kid’s shoulder and ask them questions) as you move around your room.

Part 1: Gathering Information

Have you listened to the RadioLab episode, “Inheritance”? If not, you should do that. I find that RL is a good way to indoctrinate your students into the world of science podcasts. And this episode is one of my favorites. 

I really like reading with my students, asking them questions that get them thinking deeper as they go, so I usually devote an entire class period to reading an article on epigenetics. I break my class into three groups with each group reading a different article, and students will (for the most part) self-select based on the length or difficulty of the reading.  I use readings pulled from Discover Magazine, Nature Education, Nat Geo’s Phenomena blogs. Students sit around large tables and talk and write and sketch as they read. There is structure and agency, direction and freedom, and I love those days. But if you’re in a hurry (in my opinion, one of the worst reasons to do something), I guess you could assign the reading as homework.


Part 2: Thinking Deeper

To really understand something, you need to really dig into it. This section is meant to be collaborative. If I have some really outstanding students grouped together, I will encourage them to divide the work in this section between them, then teach their group members in a scaffold.  I wouldn’t normally do this with an extension/research-based activity because I want to make sure each student has a chance to interact with each aspect of the activity. If I can’t trust all the group members to produce the same quality of work, I won’t recommend the divide-and-conquer approach.

When dealing with my AP/College Biology students, I would word a question like #5 differently. With the general biology kids, I recognize most of them will not end up in a biology-centric career. They will, however, be citizens of the world, and voters. So I try to incorporate questions where they reflect on their emotional response to the content. I know it is popular to think of scientists as unfeeling, opinion-less automatons, but that is disingenuous. I live with a scientist, trust me. I use experiences like this to really emphasize the importance of evidence-based, empirical thinking and using data to drive decision-making.

Part 3: Individual Performance

How do you know if your students “get it”?  A lot of the time, when using a science notebook or interactive journal, it might be several days before you go back and read everything your students wrote (and maybe, sometimes, you still don’t read everything). What I like to do is tell students they will have 15 minutes to produce the best possible answer after I give them 5 minutes to discuss with their classmates how they will address the last couple of items for this assignment. Once the writing starts, I am walking the room, reading over shoulders, and looking for patterns. Are there any things that I think they should have gotten, but most people are missing? Are we particularly strong in certain areas? Are students adding models to their answers in support? This lets me know if I need to reteach something or if we can move on.

I also look for answers that are good, but might be missing one bit of information to take it over-the-top. It is a good rule of thumb to think that, if one student is making a mistake, there are other students making the same error. I will then (not so) randomly ask students to read exactly what they have written down. By using an answer that is mostly correct, it takes some of the stigma away from making a mistake. We can then have a discussion with the class to see if we can identify where the answer can be changed or added to, and praise the parts of the answer that were done well. Students with sub-par responses are encouraged to add to their answers, and we learn more together.


If you are still with me, what do you think? What does this activity do well? Where can I get better? What are my students missing? If you would like to modify/use this activity, you can find a GoogleSlides version here. Send me an email (andrewising[at]gmail) or tweet (@ItsIsing) and let me know how it went!

Summary Post for Teaching Quantitative Skills

Part 1: Teaching Quantitative Skills using the Floating Disk Catalase Lab: Intro
Part 2- Teaching Quantitative Skills in a Lab Context: Getting Started in the Classroom
Part 3- Establishing an Experimental Procedure to Guide the Home Investigation
Part 4- Teaching Quantitative Skills: Data Analysis
Part 5- Curve Fitting AKA Model Fitting–the End Goal
Part 6- The Final Installment: Extending and Evaluating Quantitative Skills.

These are links to the posts on Teaching Quantitative Skills with the Floating Disk Enzyme Lab


In DNA, C pairs with G and X pairs with Y?

Big news! I recently read an article in the Washington Post that wasn’t about our current political leadership, and I highly recommend it to all Biology teachers. An international team of researchers has published their findings in a paper titled, “A semisynthetic organism engineered for the stable expansion of the genetic alphabet” in journal PNAS. (If you like to also read the primary literature on these newspaper and magazine science stories, it is unfortunately behind a paywall.)

via NIH Flickr Acct.

I am no Eric Kessler, resident KABT expert on synthetic biology (synbio), but I was amazed by what I read. It is incredibly fascinating to consider the scientific breakthroughs that have been made during my teaching career, not to mention my lifetime. I was lucky enough to have Mr. Kessler as my AP Biology teacher when I was a high school student, and we barely touched on the topic of biotechnology in the halcyon days of the early 2000’s. Even in my undergraduate education, little time was spent on biotechnology and genetics labs. Fast forward about a decade and scientists are able to build synthetic nucleotides that can be copied into E. coli and conserved for more than 60 generations. This leads me to an obvious question: what will be possible when my current crop of freshpersons are leaving college?

Environmental biochemists have long hinted about the possibility of a microorganism capable of safely remediating oil spills and other industrial accidents. Could this lead to what amounts to biomachines capable of conducting targeted medical therapies in a patient? I have a sister with cystic fibrosis, and would like to imagine a time when an SSO (semisynthetic organism) is capable of producing functional copies of CFTR1, effectively curing her of the disease that once promised to take her life.

What was your reaction? What application would you like to see for this technology?

Washington Post: “Biologists breed life form with lab-made DNA. Don’t call it ‘Jurassic Park’,” by Ben Guarino
Proceedings of the National Academy of Science of the United States of America: “A semisynthetic organism engineered for the stable expansion of the genetic alphabet,” by Y. Zhang and B. Lamb, et al.

KABT 2017 Winter Board Meeting

What: KABT Winter Board Meeting (RESCHEDULED)
When: Saturday, February 18th. 9AM-3PM (or earlier should we move through the agenda)
Where: Baker Wetlands Discovery Center; 1365 N 1250 Rd, Lawrence, KS 66046 (MAP)
Who: All KABT members are welcome to attend.

We will be having a potluck lunch. If you are coming and still need to “sign up” for something, Jesi Rhodes created a spreadsheet for us.

Tentative Agenda: GoogleDoc

If you have any questions or would like to have something added to our agenda, please don’t hesitate to send an email to

Hope to see everyone there!

Drew Ising