Wednesday, August 13, 2008

SWBAT for biology this year

The New Jersey state curriculum for science opens with this:

The New Jersey Core Curriculum Content Standards for Science reflect the belief that all students can and must learn enough science to assume their role as concerned citizens, equipped with necessary information and decision-making skills. Students best learn science by doing science. Science is not merely a collection of facts and theories but a process, a way of thinking about and investigating the world in which we live.

Teaching science goes back to our fundamental purpose as public school teachers--creating an informed citizenry. I have spent the summer puffing out my chest, thinking grand thoughts on the high meaning of being a science teacher in a high-tech society, dreaming grand plans.

And now today all of a sudden I'm only 3 weeks away from over a hundred new faces waiting to be edumacated, and my high falutin' ideals flee south with the disappearing sunlight.

So in a moment of panic, I am writing down essentials I hope my biology students take away come next June. (Don't worry, I'll get to my physical science students, too.)

Students will be able to

1) ...comprehend that water is not alive. It is amazing stuff, with all kinds of wonderful properties, not all understood, but no more alive than a pebble.
Water chemistry is given short shrift, with reason--the stuff is amazingly complicated. I spend a period talking and playing with the stuff. I also talk a bit about the Mpemba effect (hot water freezes faster than cold water under some conditions), a phenomenom known to great minds in the past, reintroduced to modern science by a high school student in Tanzania.

I also like to show students water coming out of fire (just sweep a propane torch over cool glass or a mirror--and use, of course, proper safety equipment). Connect it to an exhaled breath, cellular respiration, and away we go!

2) grasp that plants are alive....really...and not just because they have a lot of water.

3) explain why just ab
out everything easily combustible in the classroom ultimately comes from plants

This is fun, and helps seal my reputation as a nut--ask students what materials can be easily lit on fire. (Don't do this on a bad day.) Ask what can be burned using simply a match.

Just about everything (wood, paper, cloth, hair, plastics) are ultimately products of photosynthesis, and the heat and light from the flame reflect solar energy captured and transferred by chlorophyll to hydrocarbon bonds.

4a) know where their food comes from....

OK, this sounds like pre-school, but it reflects the huge disconnect between the particulars of the curriculum, and the big picture.

I have spent time, too much time, trying to explain minutiae such as guanine and cytosine having 3 hydrogen bonds while adenine and thymine have two (or is it the other way round) when much of my class is amazed that a bean from a Goya package will grow when stuck in the ground. ("But it's food? How come it grows?")

So each year my class plants. And when 2 or 3 plants survive long enough to produce a few beans, I ask if anyone wants to eat them. And the answer is invariably no

So I do---and you'd think I was swallowing a live goldfish they way the kids respond.

4b)....and where their poop goes

I don't think I am sticking my un-tenured neck out too far when noting that a few things are askew in our environment. We mess things up.

Asking kids to figure out where the local sewage goes opens up new vistas in microbiology, ecology, taxonomy, and general ickiness.

5) visualize numbers

Most of my kids (and, to be fair, most adults I know) have little grasp of numbers beyond a few dozen. "Knowing" the Earth is over 4 billion years old well enough to bubble the right answer on a test is not nearly the same as having some sense of the vastness of time that represents.

I tell my students I will give an "A" for the year to anyone who can count to a billion one number per second. And invariably a few students try, and keep trying, throughout the remainder of the period.

Evolution is a deceptively difficult concept, and it requires some number sense.

If nothing else, a better grasp of numbers might help my future voting citizens have some idea what over 550 billion dollars means.

Photograph from the National Archive

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