2009 Kansas OBTA

The following announcement comes from the Kansas OBTA director, Sandy Collins:

Congratulations to Eric Kessler, Kansas 2009 recipient of the National Association of Biology Teachers’ Outstanding Biology Teacher Award (OBTA).

Eric has been teaching at Blue Valley North High School since 1992. Since starting at Blue Valley North, he has taught a variety of classes, including AP Biology, Field Biology, Zoology and 9th grade Honors Biology. Most recently he has added the title of the Bioscience Strand Leader for the Blue Valley School District’s Center for Advanced Professional Studies (that will open in fall of 2010). As the Bioscience Leader he has been working with colleagues to develop courses for teaching the molecular, cellular, and ecological biosciences. Eric’s educational background includes both a BS in Zoology and a BA in psychology from U. of Texas-Austin. He has also earned a Master’s degree in biology from Emporia State University. Eric continues to strengthen his knowledge of biology through involvement in summer workshops (for example, Woodrow Wilson Teaching Fellow, “Teaching in the Age of the Genome”) and presentations at state and national conventions. He is a recipient of yearly grants that enable him to enrich his students’ experiences (from supplies for molecular models to supplies for studying the Eastern Newt in Miami county). In 2007 he was awarded the prestigious Miliken Family Foundation National Educator Award.

Eric describes his teaching philosophy as “rather simple”. He likes for his students to enjoy themselves while they are being challenged by the content being taught. The techniques he uses are varied: if you were a student in his class you would experience lectures, discussion, thought experiments, and a diversity of laboratory activities. Eric incorporates authentic experiences as students explore biological content. For example, during the ecology unit, students visit a local pond to collect information on the pond’s aquatic organisms. The information is used to create food chains. In this unit students also participate in a Mark and Recapture activity to “work as scientists” to determine the size of a grasshopper population. Students are commonly asked to read primary literature to enhance their understanding of the nature of science and to deepen their understanding of the concept being studied.

Inclusion of technology to help students gain knowledge is also a component of Eric’s classroom. He maintains a web site that contains weekly review questions, online discussions, forums, chats and quizzes. Students use computers in class to enhance knowledge. One example is participation in the Milwaukee School of Engineering program in which students use computers to learn about and generate models of important biological molecules.

For Eric’s students, biology doesn’t end on Friday afternoon. Some of Mr. Kessler’s students spent six weekends on field trips to conduct research on the Eastern Newt in Miami County, Kansas. Other students worked with ecologists from Rockhurst University and KU to conduct research on a relocated population of timber rattlesnakes. Others helped remove exotic and invasive brush honeysuckle from a local natural area.

Eric has earned the respect and affection of students, colleagues and parents. A former student said “The passion and drive that Mr. Kessler displays in all his classes had an amazing effect on my future plans.” A parent of two students said that Eric has “… shown his ability to create a learning environment of rigor and enthusiasm for learning while working to meet the individual needs of each child.” Finally a colleague stated that “On any given day, Eric can be found before, after and during school hours surrounded by students discussing, learning, and experiencing biology. Mr. Kessler’s dedication to improving education extends well beyond the walls of his classroom to impact students and colleagues throughout the building and district.”

The NABT recognizes Eric Kessler’s outstanding contributions to biology education in Kansas. Congratulations on being the Kansas’ 2009 recipient of the Outstanding Biology Teacher Award.

Cellular Respiration Lab

 Cellular Respiration Lab with Grass Seed

This is a version of the AP Biology respiration lab that I’ve modified to be quicker and easier to accomplish in limited class time.  It also is teachers like me who realize at the last minute that they’re planning to do a lab for which a key supply is difficult to come by in a rush.  I’ve had problems a couple of times finding good seeds to use in the fall – grocery store beans have at times done a better job of growing fungus for me than of germinating.  In the fall in the midwest, the easiest and cheapest seeds to find that are guaranteed to germinate are grass seeds so that’s what I used for this lab. 

I had student aides mass out the seeds for me (into plastic petri dishes with dry paper towels cut to fit into the bottom of the petri dishes).  Then all I had to do was add enough water to thoroughly moisten the seeds (and towels) in half the petri dishes that evening before leaving school.  (Don’t forget to leave half of them dry – these are your dormant/non-germinating seeds.)  In the morning I checked the seeds again to make sure they were thoroughly moist but not too wet and continued to periodically check them until we used them in the lab. 

With this modification the lab went very smoothly and seeds begun on Monday after school were adequately germinated by mid-morning that Thursday (and perfect for the Friday classes).  I realize it’s better to keep the volume of seeds (and beads) constant in all the respirometers but most of my students fail to appreciate that subtlety and often get so wrapped up in technique that they miss the key concept – the changing oxygen volumes.  This version seemed to work well with those students.

 Cellular Respiration Lab with Grass Seed

Catalase Enzyme Activity Lab

Catalase Enzyme Activity Lab

This Catalase Enzyme Activity Lab has a technique which is easy for students (after the initial practice phase) and lets them gather multiple trials quickly and easily.  It’s powerful because it allows exploration of important biochemistry concepts while reinforcing data analysis and utilizing graphing techniques tested on state math assessments.

Each group explores one set of conditions in detail then uses the data of other groups to graph and analyze several other conditions.  I use this lab early in the year when I’m working on protein structure, enzymes, and how free energy relates to enzyme activity.  The lab utilizes filter paper disks (cut out with a hole punch to keep them uniform sizes) dipped in catalase solutions which are then dropped into hydrogen peroxide.  Students time how long it takes for the disks to rise (they rise when enough oxygen bubbles accumulate on the filter disks to make them buoyant in the hydrogen peroxide solution).  The data produced is easily graphed and analyzed using box and whiskers graphs (aka box plots).   Students are taught this graphing technique in math classes (and are tested on it on state assessments) but don’t often have the opportunity to apply them and therefore don’t appreciate their ease, elegance, and power.

Catalase Enzyme Activity Lab

Blackworm Lab for Beginning the Year

From Charlie Drewes Website (click to go there)
From Charlie Drewes Website (click to go there)

Here’s my favorite lab for the beginning of the year: Blackworm Lab

I modified information and labs from the iconic Charlie Drewes, formerly of Iowa State University, and Randy Dix of Olathe North High School and gave it a special twist I learned from Sandy Collins of West Junior High in Lawrence. For further information on Lumbriculus variegatus you can visit Charlie Drewes’ website which is still being maintained at the university and is a treasure trove of labs and activities with invertebrates.

Charlie Drewes’ Website

From Charlie's Web site (click to go there)
From Charlie's web site (click to go there)

Sandy’s idea that I love has students creating labs and experimenting with organisms they believe are being exposed to stimulants and depressants. After they have all completed the lab you tell them that although the water containers were labeled differently, there was no actual difference in the water. I find we can then launch into rich discussions of the reasons for blind and double blind studies AND how some of the greatest discoveries have come about when scientists got unexpected results and strove to understand and uncover what had really happened.

I also find that during the lab some students get data they believe to be wrong (no difference in pulse rates between the groups). They come to me and ask what is wrong – I use the opportunity to ask them if they were very careful in their technique, if they assure me they were I tell them they should trust their data and try to understand it. It’s fun to have students who think they’re getting poor data get rewarded in the long run with praise for having the most accurate results. (I also give a 5 pt bonus for getting good results and recognizing them.)

AP Biology Syllabus/Schedule

I’ve been asked if I would post my AP Biology Syllabus, so for what it’s worth, here it is.  I’m rather detailed in it – it helps the students see where they’re going but more importantly keeps me to the pace I find I need to maintain in order for them to be ready for the test in May (and helps to make up for my poor memory).  By the way, what I’ve attached here is what I call my teacher edition of the syllabus.  It contains details I don’t include in the students’ version – like exactly which essay it is they will be writing and when I plan to order flies, etc.   

AP Biology Syllabus – Teacher Edition

I start out working deeply in the concepts and use the 7th edition of Campbell’s Biology for this.  However, just before the end of the semester as I’m moving into molecular genetics and biotechnology, I switch to Campbell’s Concepts and Connections.  I feel lucky to have access to copies of both books for my students due to the fact that our school separates AP Biology from our dual enrollment College Biology course (AP students still have the option of dual enrollment in addition to taking the AP exam).  Finally as we near the finish line (the AP exam) in late April, I switch to Cliff’s AP Biology exam prep book, which we cover in its entirety.  This helps us review and fill in a few gaps. 
You will note we generally do quizzes and exams on weekends via Blackboard.  I do this to free class time for learning.  I also usually schedule 6-8 lab sessions on weekends through the year.  Anyone who wants to know more about either of these can feel free to contact me – via this blog or directly via my email listed on the syllabus. 

As you all know, the challenge with AP is teaching the students enough material while at the same time doing enough labs and critical thinking activities to help them build the confidence, skills, and knowledge to be successful on the exam.  I also want to do this while nurturing their love of biology.  Putting them under so much pressure that they leave hating biology or science would be a huge failure in my mind.  This is my ninth year teaching AP Biology and I’ve been a reader of the exams the last two years.  My students have very good success on the exams (usually averaging around 4 with ALL students in the class taking the exam) but I’m always tweaking my schedule and approach, striving to maintain and improve.