Teacher Lee Briggs on technology in today's classroom. Brought to you by Weekly Reader.

Posts tagged ‘science’

Stuff to Blow Your Kid’s Mind

One of my favorite websites is HowStuffWorks.com. I like HowStuffWorks for its content almost as much as I like it for having a name that actually describes what it does. HowStuffWorks is home to countless videos and articles on topics as broad as genetics, bullfighting, gravity, and notorious Victorian-era gentleman-villain Adam Worth. Their podcasts alone are fantastic to listen to on any car trip, let alone their great videos. While looking around their site I discovered their video podcast “Stuff to Blow Your Kid’s Mind” with topics such as gravity, magnets solar power and salt.  These great, simple-to-understand videos describe complicated concepts, such as Einstein’s theory on space-time and gravity.

<a href=”http://videos.howstuffworks.com/howstuffworks/51310-stuff-to-blow-your-kids-mind-gravity-video.htm”>Stuff To Blow Your Kid’s Mind: Gravity</a>

If you have students that delight in peppering you with questions, this might be just the site for you!


Had a really fun activity this week; not exactly technology, but it was a really fun science lesson on alternative fuels.

We had just finished a unit in science on alternative energy. Being that all my students are burgeoning gear-heads, they were most interested in biodiesel. Biodiesel is a very broad term for diesel fuel that is at least partly made from natural oils such as vegetable oil. We decided that we were going to brew up a batch. Sort of.

I started by asking my students what we have a lot of in Wisconsin. Overwhelmingly the answer was dairy cows. Oil is basically a fat, and milk (especially Wisconsin milk—this is home to the happiest cows in the world) is anywhere from 3% to 5% fat. If you let that fat rise to the top, you can skim off cream, giving you cream and skimmed milk.

Now cream is about 40% fat, much better, but still a long way from being pure enough to burn. As any visitor to Colonial Williamsburg will tell you, you can then take that cream and churn it to make butter and buttermilk. The buttermilk can be used for pancakes, and the butter is now 80% fat. But it still has too much water to burn.

Here comes the fun part. You heat up the butter and allow all the water in it to boil off, paralleling the distillation process of oil refining, but in reverse.  After about 30 minutes, when your room smells like butterscotch, you have pure, 100% golden butterfat, also known as clarified butter, or ghee to fans of East Indian cooking. And ghee burns…. 

Powered by saturated fat.

Next year we’ll see if we can’t get some corporate sponsorship (hello, Paula Deen!) to feed a steam turbine on the stuff and charge up a go-kart battery.

Thingdom Takes Over My Classroom

I was first introduced to the idea of genetics when I was a high school freshman in biology class. I found the idea of recessive and dominant traits fascinating. It was also reassuring that the things that made me weird (being able to roll my tongue, my hitchhikers’ thumb, being the only blue-eyed child in my family) were not really my fault. They were my grandmother’s fault.

Now, I find Mendel Squares fascinating; my students, not so much. However, they are of an age where things like hair color, eye color, and all those inherited traits are becoming more interesting to them. Most of my students are also farm kids and so the breeding of animals is something talked about, even if the logic behind it is unclear.

Enter a great game that I was only able to touch upon in an earlier post: Thingdom. A game created by The Science Museum in London, Thingdom was created to teach children about genetics in a very approachable and fairly age-appropriate way.

The game is simple enough. You create a small, multi-colored blob-shaped creature called a ‘thing’ and then slowly raise it up like a virtual pet; feeding it, petting it, and making it dance. The real fun happens at around 5 minutes when the little bugger screams out: “I WANT TO MATE!” With cute little hearts all around.

After the giggling has passed, the science starts. You are challenged to breed your ‘thing’ with other things in order to get a desired trait from the babies, such as stripes, blue color, or size. Children are shown how recessive and dominant traits combine to increase the chances of traits. Students are not allowed to proceed until they have completed such tasks as breeding a thing to have large size, fuzzy fur, or spots. This explains to students in a fun, age-appropriate way how children inherit traits from their parents. It also helps explain such questions as how human meddling created both the Great Dane and the Chihuahua.

3-D Toad

Perhaps I have mentioned my rather macabre group of female students. Their interests include diseases, anatomy, and watching Bones. They once begged me to find them cow hearts to dissect and pour over books about the nervous system. My hope is that that they all become doctors, make six figures, pay their taxes, and donate a Dodge Challenger to the school fleet.

Encouraging these interests in the right direction gets easier with the internet.  I just found a fantastic website called 3D Toad that allows your students access to hundreds of specimens. Drag the images to rotate them and zoom. View 3D images of skeletons, organs and models! But it doesn’t stop there! See images of how to make guitar chords, ballet poses, and even yoga positions!  Best of all, several of the images are actually in 3D!  Round up your green and red glasses and check it out!


Futurecade and the Science Museum

I got a chance to play with a really nice set of games created by the Science Museum in England. They have developed a set of really fun games called Futurecade. Some of these games are based some of the real problems of the future. For example, removing land mines using robot drones you have to program (dealing with the real issue of mine removal) or creating strains of e-coli that can clean up oil spills. Others involve teaching genetics by having students care for, nurture, and breed ‘Things’ in the game Thingdom.

Many educational games are little more than regular arcade-style games with some math facts thrown in. These games were created to promote issues in math and science, but also to develop thinking and problem-solving. These could easily be adapted to lessons on global warming, energy, genetics, food distribution, and natural resources. What really makes them great is the optimism that science can solve these seemingly overwhelming problems, and that they allow your students to stand in the shoes of the problem solvers of tomorrow. Good thing too, since they will have to fill that role in the future.

Yes, It Is That Cold.

We have had the strangest winter anyone can remember. A few weeks ago it was nearly 50 degrees in the January, and now, less than a week later the temperature drops from that balmy number to -10.  That is not taking into account the wind chill, which today is -33. Are we complaining? No, this is Wisconsin. Yesterday, on a balmy 12 degree day, we took our elementary students to our local ski hill as a reward for reaching their reading goals.

Today is too cold to even go outside, so it’s a chance to read some books and play some games at recess.  It also makes for a great science lesson: turning boiling water into snow. Which, oddly enough, is the same principle that allows snow making machines to work, just like the ones we saw at the ski hill yesterday…

Boiling water becomes snow when it's this cold.

Bridge Building

My students are working hard on their next science club project: bridge-building. This is a project in engineering where students try and build the strongest bridge with the least amount of materials. The lesson is great as a practical way of showing engineering principles and teaching ratios, since the goal is not to make the strongest bridge but the strongest for its weight. Last year went well but my room was filled with broken ends of noodles and fluffs of hot glue for a month.

I was able to find a lot of resources, however, that showed kids how bridges work. A great site—as long as it’s teacher-led, since some of it is NSFSK (not safe for school kids)—is howstuffworks.com, home of the How Stuff Works set of articles and their fantastic podcasts. Videos were found that described in detail how bridges work and are maintained.

Another great resource has been a bridge-building game we found that lets kids build and test simple bridge designs. It was so addictive that we had to limit it to students who are actually in the science club.

Astronomy Night

As I mention frequently, we are a small school, and being a small school means that some people have to wear a lot of hats.  My official title is teacher; however, the reality is I teach fifth grade in the morning and technology to fifth and sixth grades in the afternoon. I’m the gifted and talented coordinator for the district and the de-facto technology coach for the staff.

Last Thursday I organized and hosted an astronomy night for the community put on by the Elementary Science and Engineering Club.  I have never organized something this big. In fact, I had wanted to hold it later in the month, but the weather report was getting ugly fast and the unseasonable warm, clear nights we had been having were numbered.

To say it was hectic was an understatement.  I had to train several high school volunteers (many completing a community service requirement and with little knowledge of astronomy) on how to use the telescopes. Due to an obligation to an after-school field trip, I actually got to the event location, a baseball diamond, as the sun was going down and people were showing up.

The next two hours were a blur.  If you asked me how it went at the end of the night, I would have said, “I don’t know.”  I spent most of the time running around, keeping the three telescopes lined up on Jupiter and the moon, although the high school kids were a great help in this.  Nothing teaches you that the earth is rotating quite like keeping a tiny point of light in your telescope only to find it racing out of your vision after a few minutes.

I don’t know how many people came—I suspect around 40. But I know that I went through more than 50 cups of hot apple cider during the evening.  I had three telescopes ranging from a small tabletop telescope costing about $60 to a $2500 one weighing at least a hundred pounds on loan from CESA (our educational cooperative).  I had a table set up with Stellarium and a scavenger hunt for constellations.

The tragedy of the evening came when I tried to adjust my new telescope and it fell off of the tripod, hitting the ground and cracking the eyepiece off.  I was crushed.  But a fellow teacher told me that “it did more good being used and broken, than being in a box.”  Despite my misgivings and the stress, I know that it went well, because the next day I had the kids who attended fill out a survey in Google Documents that told me as much. Also, the next day I was hounded by kids wanting to know more, telling me that they’d stood out on their decks with binoculars, and that they wanted telescopes for Christmas.



I want to share a great app for anyone teaching astronomy, the planets or the moon.  It is called Stellarium.  It is an open-source program—100% free—that turns any computer into an instant planetarium.  You simply tell it where you are in the world and what time it is (or what time you will be stargazing) and it will tell you what you can look at.  Students can find out exactly what constellations will be visible, what position the moons of Jupiter will be in, what phase the moon will be in Christmas night and even what satellites are currently overhead.

The Science Club

This last week saw the first meeting of the Science and Engineering Club. As the gifted and talented person at the elementary school, I set up the club last year to fill a hole in academic extra-curricular activities. We have done activities in the past such as building bridges out of spaghetti, launching model rockets, and building robots with our Lego Mindstorms kits.

You would think that lots of kids would want to take part, but there is one small problem. I can’t find a night that works where kids can come after school. Between basketball, football, kids club and the local religious education classes, there is not a free night! So the result is having the club meet one recess a week.

This last week I was lucky enough to get seven electronics kits on loan from our CESA office. These kits contain capacitors, transistors, resistors, and all the parts needed to make a noisemaker, a radio, or a thousand other projects. They all snap together as easily as Legos with no wires or soldering. Great stuff.

But I am up against the best fall weather we have had in recent memory. And football—there is always football. The first meeting 20 kids showed up; the second meeting, about 12; and the last meeting, eight kids completed their project.

I can’t lose hope; the first project is always the most difficult. I learned that from last year. Plus, the weather will be on my side by next week when the frost sets in hard. Electronics down; up next, building a computer from spare parts!

Tag Cloud