Science class. Memorizing impossibly abstract concepts until your head aches. It doesn’t have to be that way. In fact, master teacher Judy Lee would rather start with a question than an answer.
You are known for bringing new and interesting methodologies into your classroom; how do you think science should be taught?
I believe it should be inquiry-based as much as possible–you start with a question and don’t necessarily know what you’re going to find out.
Can you give me an example?
Sure! My students were working with GLOBE (Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment) and NASA last year. We wanted to test for ground level ozone in our area. We kept hearing from the TV news that Houston and Galveston had high levels of ground level ozone especially in the afternoon. The students tested the air in Texas City and we expected data to reflect the TV news about ground level ozone. My students looked at the larger picture and found that around the ship channel and along the petrochemical areas of the ship channel and highways with congested traffic were the major contributors to air pollution. The particulate in this air pollution along with the sun and lack of air movement will cause ground level ozone. The plume of ozone grows vertically in locations were air quality is already poor. The ground level ozone will decrease and begin to spread horizontally toward the evening hours. NASA and GLOBE were surprised to see that the concentrations in the Texas City area were low. Blocker Middle school and the neighborhoods that were tested are very close to Galveston Bay. Students checked the wind speed and direction in every case and found a Gulf Breeze may blow the ground level ozone to the west of Texas City test sites. We do have ground level ozone, just not as high in concentration as Houston does along the ship channel.
Students learned about scientific bias, experimental design, variables, using technology in the classroom and how working with scientists can help with experiments, as a result both students and scientists benefit from the data collected. They also learned to expect the unexpected.
How did you get the testing equipment?
We were one of ten schools selected by GLOBE to try their ozone equipment. We continued to work with GLOBE and NASA the next school year. With the new school year, we wanted to include our city officials and the Mayor’s office. Our main concern was about air quality in general. “Yes, we have tested for ground level ozone, but what else is in the air?” Our school district had two lockdowns which means a chemical spill at one of the petrochemical plants has occurred. Students must stay in their classrooms with windows, doors and air conditioners off until the all clear is sounded. We would like to have air quality tested at the school to assure our air is safe. Place the test site right next to the school and share the information with all of us in the community. We know we need to do something now, so we contacted the Mayor’s office and said we want to show that Texas City is a good place to live. We wanted to work with them on this and test the air and share the data with the city officials.
We want to use GIS (Geographic Information System) maps with GPS (Geographic Positioning Satellite), so that we can see where we have tested alone with the data. If you use GPS you can see where you have tested and superimpose that onto the GIS maps. I need help withy this part and I have an idea how to get this done. If students and teachers could be trained in these two new technologies, it would cut the instruction time needed in the classroom by a half or possibly more. Our tests and equipment must meet EPA standards.
Would you describe what GIS and GPS are?
GIS is about maps, but they’re not maps that are made of paper and you roll out on a table. They’re maps that you can interact with on the computer and post on a web site for others to use. An example would be the on the University of Kansas website designed by Steve Case. The journey of the Monarch Butterfly is monitored through this web page and students can log on to help plot the path of the butterfly. The address for Dr. Case’s website is: http://pathfinderscience.net/ozone. Steve is comparing the presence of ground level ozone to the absences of milkweed needed for the Monarch Butterfly. Blocker would like to do somewhat the same thing except the data will be about air and water quality of the Gulf Coast. I would like to see NASA involved with the data by sharing views of our area as they fly over or a conversation from space on testing procedures in class. It would be a great lesson on the art of science.
You work with organizations, such as NASA Johnson Space Center, in your area. Can you give teachers ideas on how you go about doing that?
Attend the workshops offered by NASA and get into the network of teachers that work with NASA. Teachers that want to work with NASA or anyone must go find them. Make eye contact with the people you need, shake their hand, tell them what you want and see what happens. Even if nothing happens you have tried and you have demonstrated to the organizations that you want to work outside of the walls of your classroom.
You participate in lots of training institutes – is there one that stands out?
Several of the workshops are outstanding! NCAR the National Center for Atmospheric Research help to turn my teaching around. Project LEARN was designed to instruct teachers with the help of research scientist at NCAR located in beautiful Boulder, Colorado. I feel it was a great success. It helped me to change my style of teaching by including labs that would open inquiry. The labs not only involve the students with hands on materials for lab but also the use of their minds on a problem being researched by the students and teachers to share with NCAR scientists. Another group of fantastic people are at Rice University in Houston, Texas. TeacherTECH or GirlTech are the teachers responsible for getting me into technology and helping to keep my batteries charged for each school year. Cynthia Lanius and the other instructors with Teacher TECH at RICE stay in contact with to help and support participants of the program through the years. I attended in 1996, and here I am all the way into 2002-2003 and on still receiving help from them. Now these are real teacher workshops!
What do you think are some of the major problems facing science teachers who want to use technology?
That’s a good question! Blocker received a grant from Verizon that allowed us to buy a lot of high tech equipment. We purchased digital cameras for photos and movies and editing software for the computer. The “new” computer could not support some of the technology, which caused our project to move very slowly. I questioned why was the “new” computer not working as we had planned. It was explained to me that the purchase of new computers goes out for bid. The lowest bid is accepted and with that you get low-end computers that can do very little with cutting edge technology. We need computers that will support the new technology and help to educate young mind in the use of this technology. Administrators of schools must instruct teachers to use technology and provide teachers with computers to support their learning the new methods.
An idea that would help teachers would be laptops with a great deal of speed and space for software. This type of computer could go with the teacher anywhere and give them a more freedom to learn new technologies. Presentations, lessons, ideas, projects, photos and movies could be saved on a CD or DVD with a laptop. Want to make a difference, get your teachers a laptop with CD and DVD capabilities.
Instruction on the use of the laptop and its possibilities as a tool in the classroom needs to occur on a workday without students. If that does not work, how about students and teachers learning how the laptop can help in class by training both at once.
Would you say that science is a subject that really does require good technology today?
Oh you bet. First off, I like students using Power Point. When a student is having a hard time getting a point across in writing, many times, I can put him in front of a computer, and say, “Do you know Power Point?” And they say, “Yes ma’am,” and get their point across by using visuals along with their words. And I want them to also be able to, in some manner, post their work on the Internet; I want them to publish what they do, know how to write a website. I want the world to see it.
Then what do science teachers need as far as staff development goes?
When you start with teaching teachers about technology, don’t hit them with everything at once. If they don’t have time to take it in, digest it, and use it, they’re going to shut down on all of it. What I would like to see is all of us having laptop computers that we can bring with us if we want to collect data of ground level ozone, CO2 concentrations, water quality. I want that computer to go out to the field with me, and I want to plug in a probe. I want to collect the data and put it straight into a table. And I want training on how to do that.
Another thing I see that we need is graphing calculators. My students would learn twice as much that way, because they would have information that they can use in their math classes and they would also have the data I needed them to collect in science. And then have the math teacher take off what’s on the calculator that she needs, and I would download what I need. I see us needing more training in that.
So what’s the message you have for teachers then?
When you see something you want to try, and it’s not available locally for you, or even if it’s not available for you in the same state, don’t let that stop you. Find ways that you can go and find this knowledge yourself. Get on list serves. They will keep you in contact with cutting edge stuff coming up. Then take the information they give you and use it. Don’t say, “Oh that would’ve been nice”. Do it. Try it. Don’t overload yourself, just do a few things at a time.
Do you think that science teachers today are getting more technology friendly?
I do see that happening. I see those who were very, very reluctant a few years ago are now trying more. I think part of it is that computers are more user friendly.
Thank you very much.
Judy Lee’s web page: http://girltech.cs.rice.edu/Participants/lee/