An Example of teaching with GIS

Camden’s post about using technology to allow students to gather field data reminded me about an activity that my Field Ecology students and I completed this past January.  The objective was to use student cell phones, google docs forms, and Edgis to gather fox squirrel (Sciurus niger) leaf nest locations at an urban park close to our school.  The activity enabled my students to get outside and collect squirrel leaf nest (called dreys) locations using their cell phones.  The overall intent was to estimate the fox squirrel (Sciurus niger) population from the number of leaf nests in the park.  This activity itself opened up a huge discussion about how accurate our estimate would be.   This discussion triggered quite a literature search by the students to determine what other researchers have found!  As a class we did end up using research literature to help us estimate the fox squirrel population in the park, along with squirrel density and average nest height.  I included the poster that explains the project below.

Squirrel Poster KAS 2014 2

NSTA 2014: More Resources

Thanks to Michael Ralph getting things started.  I would love to have made it to the epigenetics/arabidopsis workshop that he discuss but there is only so much time in a day.  Here are a few of the highlights from my 1 1/2 days at the convention.

Citizen Science with Bats

batconservation  wildlifeacoustics

The world’s leading bat conversation organization, Bat Conservation International ( has teamed up with Wildlife Acoustics, a manufacturer of acoustics equipment for field researchers, to produce a product for educators called the Echo Meter Touch, which is a device that can sense ultrasonic wavelength and transfer that information via a user frienldy and free app available for the iPhone and iPad.  A promotional video will give you the details.

Written details on the product can be found here:  One Echo Meter Touch will set you back $523 and will include the Discover Bats Curriculum Guide produced in conjunction with Bat Conservation International.  The only draw back may be the double flipping your classroom so that you can meet your students in the field at dusk to collect some data.  If I get around to purchasing my own, I’ll let you know more of what I think.  If any of you plan to purchase let me know.  It would be a nice thing to test on our KABT Spring Field Trip.

Cornell Lab of Ornithology – Birds-of-Paradise Project


Every since I read David Quammen’s “Song of the Dodo” years ago, I have been interested in the Wallace’s independent discover of natural selection and his observations of the Birds-of-Paradise (a part of the larger story of Island Biogeography).  Well now the famed Ornithology Labs at Cornell have developed some curriculum.  I have not explored these activities but in the presentation they showed the work by two of their researchers in capturing video of all 39 species.  I can’t wait to have some time to check it out. – This website contains information on the project to document the 39 Birds-of-Paradise – This site contains the “lessons” that have been developed to teache about the scientific process, natural and sexual selection, and behavior and heritability.


GIS in the Classroom

Today at KU Edwards Campus I attended the “GIS in the Classroom” workshop, part of April’s PD opportunities provided the KU Center for STEM Learning (under who the UKanTeach program can be found). Skipping right to the chase, you can find my notes, ideas, and instructions for using GIS in the classroom here. Most of what I have to say about the workshop can be found there so I’m not going to re-hash much here, in fact I would enjoy comments on KABT as well as within the document, especially ideas on how to engage students in projects involving GIS, which is what part of the workshop was dedicated to. The other main focus was showing how student devices (smartphones and tablets) can be used to do this, no sophisticated GPS systems needed (although they definitely can be used).

I think for biology the primary opportunity this allows for is field sampling. The ways it could be used in the field is pretty vast, not limited to creating trails, collecting probe data, mark and recapture, basic sampling, etc. Obviously the benefit here is quick data collection that is forwarded to a central data sheet (CSV file) that is live and can be uploaded straight to many types of maps for data visualization. In the workshop today we recorded various life stages of dandelions in mowed and unmowed regions of Edwards Campus and uploaded and manipulated that data on a map.

So with that, what does everyone else think? What type of capacity do we visualize students using the technology (even outside of field studies)?

A Little Birdie

The role of social media is rapidly evolving, but education can still be a part of those interactions.

 I am a millennial.  I was a college freshman when Facebook exploded in popularity, and although I was reluctant to join I have been a part of the social media giant’s clientele long enough to watch it mature over several turbulent phases.  There was a time when Facebook was essentially a repository for mementos from the past weekend’s… social activities.  The idea of having more benign social interactions via social media like Facebook and Twitter still doesn’t sit quite right with me, but I would argue that is indicative of my increasing age and not the current role of those services in students’ lives.  That shift also means social media can play a role, albeit a dynamic one, in education.

My AP Biology students have always formed an AP Bio Facebook group to collaborate on their work throughout the year.  I never suggest it to them and I refuse to be a part of it personally, and yet every year it happens.  Biology is a big part of their lives and so it is perfectly natural that they have it represented in their social media presence.  Later in the year we use the group to share lab data, organize review sessions, and get help on difficult material when there are questions.  This kind of peer support is amazingly valuable, and this kind of behavior is something many teachers try to force with very limited results.  Somehow, Facebook is better at encouraging scientific collaboration than I am.

My Biotechnology program is also wrestling with communication problems this year.  I spent at least 12 hours during the summer setting up an online lab notebook system.  There were spaces for each individual research project, organized tables for data, systems for assigning tasks and culturing deadlines, and much more functionality that would allow the whole lab to run seamlessly without any direct daily supervision from me.  Not one single student wanted to use it.

They all agreed we needed a new communication system to replace the paper notes that littered the lab.  Yet not one would willingly use the Sparklix system I had setup.  A month into the school year a senior decided to setup a Google+ community for the lab group to use.  The system was 100% redundant and had zero support from me.  The picture below is our group recently:

Birdie 1
Biotechnology Google Community – In Use

One of my students developed a system in 30 minutes that I couldn’t get off the ground after a dozen hours and several weeks of prompting with students.

All of this experience with social media has led me to the conclusion that most of us will struggle to predict the role of social media in our students’ lives in the future.  Where we are now is not where we were five years ago, and I’m betting we’ll be somewhere else again in five more years.  However, we don’t have to understand or fully control social media to make use of it in facilitating student learning.  A recent assignment I gave required students to summarize life cycle information into a “tweet” format.  This was good practice with summarization, and provided the logical extension that students could tweet at me if they wanted to.

Birdie 2

I don’t maintain an educational Twitter account.  I tweet a couple times a month, and they are just as often silly musings as quality content.  Despite the unpolished nature of my account, it is authentic and real.  Students were immediately engaged by the legitimate nature of the interaction, and have taken to the Twitterverse to come up with interesting or clever tweets about their organisms.

 I actually had students follow my account while I was still giving instructions for the assignment.

Birdie 3
They may be using their phones during class…

All it took was a little encouragement and willingness to try.  Don’t force it, but recognize when students could really use what is already a big part of their lives to engage with your content.  Students may surprise you with the great ways they can use their social media to enhance their learning, because they sure surprise me.

I asked two students in my Biotechnology program to write a short piece to share about their views of social media today.  Here are their thoughts:

Every day, students are using social media, but they are not the only ones using websites to stay connected. Classrooms are also employing websites like Edmodo which are valuable resources for students to keep up with their homework during their busy lives. The Biotechnology Lab group at Olathe East High School in Olathe, Kansas is currently conducting research on methanotrophs(prokaryotes that utilize methane as their sole source of energy) in the local area. With students in differing grades, it can be difficult to find a time to meet. To keep connected, everyone is on a Google+ Community to stay updated on lab progress,upload videos, and write posts on individual progress. By allowing students to upload videos of them speaking, those who dislike writing are still able to get their point across clearly and efficiently. This way, students are able to get information from other students from both school and home. Another website that the Biotechnology Lab uses to store files is Sparklix. This website holds files that the teacher uploads, and the lab participants are able to view and save them. Social media may be a large consumer of precious time in students’ lives nowadays, but when used correctly, it also helps students learn and stay connected with their teachers and peers.

                Deanie Chen and Yulissa Cantero

Facebook is still not a good place to create a primary class website (heck, it’s blocked in most buildings anyway).  I don’t follow my students on Twitter, but I allow them to follow me so maybe I can sneak some science into their lives outside of school.  I think social media can be valuable if we don’t take ourselves too seriously and are willing to use the media in an organic and authentic way.  Be funny, be social, and let the science happen on its own.

Michael Ralph is a 4th year teacher with no LinkedIn, a Google+ community his students created, an underserved Twitter account, and a Facebook profile that shows he did at one point have a life…

Assessment with Google Forms

Recently while at the NABT conference in Dallas I used a Google Form embedded in a webpage to assess students on a PhET simulation they used while I was gone. The webpage can be found here.

What’s nice about Google Forms is that I can create a variety of questions to assess what they learned from the assessment. I can insert multiple choice, multiple response, short answer, paragraph response, scales (for surveys), and grids. All have their own use and and can be made required fields so that students have to answer them before submission.

I start each form with a “Name” short answer field and a “Hour/Period” multiple choice question which makes it easy to sort for grading if I want. It’s great for easy data mining and for formative assessment because once a student submits a form it is sent to a master spreadsheet that I have access to. Then I can create a formula that “grades” columns (or you can insert color rules) and searches for correct answers so i can easily see where misconceptions lie. Here is an snapshot of the spreadsheet I used:

Another way I’ve used it is by embedding a video (either one I made or one off of youtube/teachertube/teded) and then had a form below it that students filled out so I know they watched them. It also can be used as a formative tool as well. Here’s an example of that. (No judging, I literally created this one in 5 minutes to illustrate how it could be used)

There you go, a very practical way to use Google Forms to assess students when working with computers. How does everyone else use Google Forms?