Why Algae?

When students first entered the classroom this semester, they were greeted by this sight:  
Needless to say, there were some questions asked.  The 10-gallon tank in the background holds the stock algae that we will be using for our “algae” experiments over the course of this class. (Special thanks to Dr. Belinda Sturm, Environmental Engineering professor at KU for the algae).
Inside the tank are two types of microalgae: Ankistrodesmus and Chlorella. My students have asked, “Why algae?” enough that Miranda Gray, plant pathologist at Kansas State University, developed a module on model organisms (doc and ppt). From this module, my students were able to come up with the following reasons to use algae when studying Environmental Science:
  1. Algae are prevalent in basically all ecosystems on Earth
  2. It is easy to tell when the algae have grown (Built in color indicator!)
  3. Very small size makes it easy to use in a HS classroom.  Replicating trials is easier also!
  4. Algae are cheap (free if you acquire it from a natural source), and hardy. [Something I have learned: It is always good to use an organism that is difficult to kill when dealing with HS scientists].
  5. Algae = Plant = Producer.  Since producers occupy the “lowest” trophic level in any given ecosystem, it is easier to make predictions about the impact on the other members of the community.
  6. Algae = Plant = No permission is necessary from an ethics board to experiment on algae.

Throughout the course of the semester, my students will be designing and implementing experimental treatments that will aim to test how algal growth responds to a number of factors, including:

  • Changing climate conditions
  • Acid deposition
  • Fertilizer run-off/Eutrophication
  • Invasive Species
  • Population dynamics (addition of primary and secondary consumers)
  • Oil spills and other point pollutants

If you have any questions, comments, or desire to collaborate with my students please email me at andrewising@usd475.org

***This post appears on our class’s blog, along with a few experiments.  We are currently analyzing the data from our climate experiments, and I will post the experimental protocols/data/conclusions soon.  Follow @Mr_Ising to know about any new updates first.***

Ongoing Study Examines the Possible Versatility of Inquiry Education

A project that originated in Dodge City is exploring the impact a curriculum steeped in inquiry-based laboratories and activities can have on student learning and attitudes.

Animal Behavior Lab

While inquiry is a term heard often these days in science education, a move to inquiry activities as a primary mode of instruction would still be a cause for some sleepless nights to many teachers.  Shannon Ralph (a co-author within the program) is no different.  She has been teaching for 9 years in Dodge City, and would have been considered a fairly traditional teacher several years ago.  However, since then she has been converted heart and soul to an inquiry-style teacher.  She writes about her experience with the transition:

“It’s a little scary moving to a new teaching style when it is not the pedagogy I was taught.  What I have found however is that my students are more engaged, enjoy science more, AND learn the content!  It’s a win-win for us!”

Group Cooperation is Critical

The project was formally commissioned a year ago to re-develop a curriculum to be delivered to general biology students in the 10th grade.  With an honors program in place, the curriculum was designed for use by students in the lower two-thirds of the class.  In the fall of 2009, two teachers (a co-author of the program, Shannon, and a teacher unfamiliar with the project, Kevin) used the materials in two pilot classes.  The classes that would implement the curriculum were chosen at random from the catalogue.  Numerical data was gathered from Kevin and compared to other sections of general biology that he taught using traditional materials (the lessons he had used the previous year, largely unchanged).  Subjective data regarding student opinion was gathered from Shannon’s classroom in the form of written feedback and a video interview.  In addition, both teachers have provided anecdotal feedback and both classes participated in an interview with the building principle during the school year.

Can Beta Fish Learn?

The classroom methods implemented included inquiry laboratory experiences, hands-on activities, a technology rich environment, and contemporary approach to note taking.  53% of all class days include laboratory work.  When hands-on activities are added to the figure and assessments, assessment reviews, and a lab safety day are removed the “active learning day” percentage jumps to 81%.  To supplement the classroom environment, the students had daily access to netbooks (very small laptops).  They used the computers to access the class website for notes, handouts, or assignment turn-in.  They also used the Internet as a resource for projects, the classroom forum for class discussions, and to interact with computer models and simulations.  Finally, the class did not use a formal textbook.  Instead, the students are trained to take effective notes (and use them).  Lectures with note taking are limited to 20 minutes maximums, and PowerPoint slide counts to eight or less.  The slides present the important information as it should be recorded, and nothing more.  Students are allowed to listen to the lecture, because the noteworthy pieces have already been extracted for them.  Afterwards, the product they have is useful to them during labs and activities.

Teaching Beta Fish

Results from the initial semester are promising.  One section of Kevin’s class used the new materials and was compared to two of his sections using traditional materials.  The standardized test scores showed significant change.  On the district specific CRAs (criterion reference assessments), students that pass rose from an average of 41% of the class to 56%.  This is a move of two and a half standard deviations.  On the state assessments, the percentage of the class that achieves an advanced or exemplary score increased from 27% to 49%.  Both control classes had percentages of 27% and 28%.  While the sample size is unfortunately small, these results are at the very least promising.  The numbers are compared in the graph below.

Class Test Performance

The project’s prime directive was to make biology relevant to students.  The student feedback from the semester was overwhelmingly positive.  Students gushed on the written forms, and two volunteered for a video interview.  The principal commented after her interviews that most students responded multiple times during the class discussion, and all had great things to say about science.  The students also had great things to say about themselves and what they felt they could accomplish.  They felt they were working to, and meeting, “higher standards.”

Ecology Biomass Fieldwork

The early results indicate that all kinds of students can flourish in an inquiry environment.  Many students in these classes are students that a teacher may consider unable to handle an inquiry-heavy environment.  One student had already accumulated over 50 discipline referrals in his young career!  However, there were zero behavior problems in either class all semester.  The students indeed surpassed everyone’s expectations in almost every way possible.  This study is ongoing, but the early data indicates science educators may want to rethink who can or cannot benefit from an inquiry-rich environment.

Students Study Macromolecules

For a more complete description of the semester’s results, including the students’ interview and all written feedback forms, visit www.biologyrocks.org.  Kevin is using the inquiry-based materials in all of his courses this semester, and Shannon is using them in her honors courses.  As the results from this semester become available, they will be posted to the project website as well.  Next semester, a third cooperating teacher will begin using the materials in the same building.  The project would also like to work with a beta site for replication.  If you would like more information on the program, materials, or are interested in working with the project, visit the website or email mralph03@gmail.com.

Inquiry with Termites


Before the weekend, I received an e-mail from a colleague asking “Do you know of a good place I can go gather termites… anywhere woody?”

I responded with my suggestions, and because I was intrigued, I replied with a question of my own, “What do you plan to do with them?”

Well, after a making my own way through portions of two decaying logs, and acquiring some special and not-s0-special writing utensils, see what we ended up witnessing by watching the following videos… 

  1. Termite and paper (30 sec.)
  2. Termite, paper, and pencil drawn Infinity (30 sec.)
  3. Termite, paper, and Sanford Uniball Black drawn Infinity (30 sec.)
  4. Termite, paper, and Papermate Red drawn Infinity (30 sec.)
  5. Termite, paper, and Papermate Red drawn Spiral (30 sec.)

Sorry for the out-of-focus imagery but I hope these 2.5 minutes of observation motivate you as much as they did us before we introduced these creature to our classes today!  Experiment with other colors, other writing utensils, and have fun googling to see what is already known about the behavior you witnessed.

Happy Inquiry!