ExoLab and Our Study of Microgravity

Imagine my surprise when I was able to squeeze my way into the final spot available for this year’s pilot program of the ExoLab! The ExoLab system is a self-sustained experimental platform. From their website, the “ExoLab is a plant biology investigation with Arabidopsis thaliana, a model plant organism used in many scientific investigations. The International Space Station (ISS) is home to advanced microgravity research for academia and industry. Working with school districts across the United States along with the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space, Magnitude.io seeks to provide an extraordinary exobiology experience mapped to accepted local science standards while dramatically reducing the cost to access experiments in space.”

Image of a student with the ExoLabThis partnership with Magnitude.io brought my classroom two exciting experiments this school year. On Saturday, November 11th, 2017 (Veterans Day) an Antares rocket blasted off from Wallops in Virginia launching a Cygnus spacecraft to the ISS. There aboard with other experiments and supplies, was our ExoLab experiment. The third experiment launched on Wednesday, April 4th, the SpaceX-14 resupply mission from Cape Canaveral was on its way to the ISS. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9AgT1L1QkGQ

In the classroom, my students were conducting our own Earthly experiments, in our ExoLab container. We learned about the lightwaves of different colors and those wave effects on growing organisms. We measured plant growth, CO2 levels, temperature, and other environmental factors that might differentiate our experiment here at Hoover, from the identical one being performed above in orbit on the ISS. The International Space Station is traveling at an average speed of 17,150mph (or about 5 miles per second!). We studied light intensity and direction, which helped to explain several NextGen Standards about space and light to my 5th-grade students.

Picture of student looking at ExoLab

A future astronaut in Mr. McCarty’s class studies the growth of plants in the ExoLab.

One of the most exciting parts of the experiment(s) was watching the students get excited to see the (live) video on board the ISS itself. They always had questions and ideas and stories about what they might get to witness. This experiment allowed my students in the city of Stockton to participate in something that was…something global. Something that no one they knew had ever done before. This was huge. With technology advancing more and more each day, there are always going to be more and more discoveries. But for a 10-year-old? For a 10-year-old to experiment with plant life, and watch the successes and failures that go into the scientific method, it was quite an experience as an educator.

We were sad to find out that there was a mechanical failure a few weeks into Experiment #2, that increased the temperature too much and our samples died while onboard the ISS. We discussed this for many weeks trying to investigate and explore some of the possible reasons for this to have happened. Listening to their ideas, evidence, and reasonings involved with the ExoLab was definitely a highlight of the 2017-18 school year.

I feel the students appreciated the magnitude of knowing that they were doing the same science as an astronaut right above them. That they were asking the same questions, and trying to solve the same problems. We learned about gravity, and how it can change the life and growth of plants during future space missions (it does). One girl confessed, “This is like, totally dope Mr. M., like we are doing real science, like for reals.” The English teacher in me cringed upon hearing this and wanted to cry, but the science teacher in me was thrilled to get them excited. I wanted to let them explore topics, professions, and subject matter that might not even exist. They were hooked. They know, the future is here. Now.

I encourage any teachers, administrators, and parents to look into the ExoLab system by www.Magnitude.io for your school and district(s). What a prime example of Next Generation Science and what that might actually look like in the classrooms of the future. Yes please, sign us up. Why not?!

Gaining “Experience” Without Becoming Stagnant

By Sam Jones
 ***Disclaimer – I don’t mean to make any implications in this post, other than the idea that everyone could benefit from a little more education about how to use technology in the classroom environment.

Recently, I was on a hike and came across a pond that appeared to be completely stagnant.  As I briefly gazed into the pond, and to no surprise, I didn’t see my reflection. However, I did reflect on something that has been happening in education in the last few years.  As I have entered my second decade as a teacher, I have noticed that there are some negative connotations surrounding the word “experienced” when it is attached to teachers. Maybe this has always been the case and I am only starting to notice it as I have gained 10+ years of experience, but maybe this is also a new symptom of the greater challenges that face education, and to a greater extent, our society.  I know it plays into the whole “can’t-teach-an-old-dog-new-tricks” trope, and sometimes it may be warranted, but sometimes it also seems to be very misguided. When did “experience” start to become a word that generally meant something good, but now also has the possible implications of being a bad thing?

Picture of stagnant water

Don’t let your teaching become stagnant.

I will be the first to admit that when I started teaching, I observed some “experienced” teachers that appeared to be “burned out” to a certain degree.  I pledged to myself that I did not want to end up like that. But what I can’t help thinking about now is the amount of experience that veteran teachers have.  I am no way saying that all veteran teachers are advanced or competent merely because they have taught for a long time, but maybe veteran teachers are not always being utilized in a manner commensurate to their skills.  And, as I ponder this predicament, I can’t help but think of myself and how I can avoid “burning out”, as it were, as I begin to settle into “veteran” teacher status. As a member of the Edtech Cadre, and as a minor league tech-friendly sort of person, I have seen many teachers that are still progressing in their personal tech journeys.  My thoughts might be a little scattered on this, but it would be remiss of me to not make the connection between technology and its swift and steady progression in all areas of our lives and avoiding stagnation as a teacher.

I can't help but think of myself and how I can avoid "burning out", as it were, as I begin to settle into "veteran" teacher status.I don’t have data to back this up, but of course, I believe a teacher can be successful and avoid stagnation without ever using technology in their classroom.  And of course, technology, on its own, is in no way going to make or break a teacher. However, as technology continues its prevalence and dominance in nearly every aspect of our lives, it only makes sense that teachers have a healthy and abundant relationship with it as well as an ability to facilitate its use in the classroom environment.  (On a side note, why there are not required programming courses at the earliest levels of education is beyond me, but I digress.)

Ultimately, the objective of this post is to further the conversation about how learning new skills that involve technology could very well be the single most impactful thing that could help a teacher – veteran or rookie, experienced or novice – overcome the very real threat of becoming stagnant.  For better or worse, much of the content will stay the same. And there probably won’t ever be a better substitute for organized, systematic, charismatic and dynamic teaching. But, even the most organized, charismatic and dynamic teacher could still be enhanced with some technological tricks up their sleeve.  Now, if I had all the answers about how to best implement that, then I would probably have a book or two under my belt as well as many scheduled speaking engagements across the educational landscape.

One thing I do know (or at least, think I know), is that if we don’t learn to harness and control the technology that is so prevalent in our lives and the lives of our students, then this technology will almost certainly harness and control us.  I’m not getting all SkyNet/WALL-E/Future-man conspiracy theorist now, but I think it’s plain to see that technology is strengthening its grasp upon our society in a potentially, if not already, controlling manner. This is no more true than in our classrooms and with our children and students.  I will always be one of the first to say that it begins at home with the parents, but this does not eschew teachers of a shared responsibility of staying ahead of and on top of technology and how students develop their own relationships with it. Teachers, administrators curriculum developers, and even legislators need to take a more active approach towards learning about technology and how it can fit into the curriculum…and I’m not talking about using more PowerPoints or simply using a SmartBoard as a basic projector.  And obviously, parents have the most responsibility in teaching their kids how to manage their technology, and thus need to be the most vigilant in establishing proper protocols and parameters when it comes to their child’s use of it.

Unfortunately, much of this is either not going to happen, or it will take a long time for it to occur, ya dig?  Teachers cannot always wait for the slow wheels of bureaucracy to change the system. This is just as, or even more true with the teachers that want to avoid stagnation in their careers.  

Hopefully, we can be more encouraged to try to learn some new technology tricks, tweaks, and twists.  Hopefully, we can be more proactive in learning how to infuse technology in our classrooms in a way that enhances our lectures and lessons.  And hopefully, we can all avoid stagnation so that we can enjoy teaching until the end of our careers which will lead to a better educational experience for all participants.  


Google Classroom for Kinders

Google Classroom in the Kindergarten class? Yes!  This platform gives students the opportunity to create, collaborate, learn and explore. Students discovered that they were capable of creating digitally. I would love to get more K-2 teachers on board with using Google Classroom!   It is not as hard as you think!

Picture of students working with Chromebooks.

Kinder students can work with Chromebooks!

To begin with, procedures must be established.  My students first became familiar with their Chromebooks using Imagine Learning. This program uses their Google account to login. You can use other programs as well. Each child should have their account information on a card which is taped to their desk.  They only need to input the one to one correspondence for each digit in their passcode. The problem with Kinder is that some of them are not developmentally ready to achieve the one to one correspondence successfully. They either lack the fine motor skills or the hand to eye coordination. This problem can be solved by the students who were more advanced.   They can simply go around and help other students logon. The first time we used Google Classroom I modeled it on the overhead projector. I went through the steps a couple of times then had a student come up and model the procedure also. The first few lessons should be done whole-group in order to help each child become successful. They learn how to navigate the site and what the expectations are for each lesson.

It might not be all smooth sailing at first.  We had a few problems. Five of my students could not log in at all.  They kept receiving a message that said their account had been blocked by the administration.  After looking into their accounts I discovered that they did not return their GAFE forms. My Kindergarten colleague has had the same problem in her classroom so it might be quite common. We thought we had 100% returned. After looking into the GAFE forms 3 of the students in question did return their GAFE forms. We are not sure what happened.

My school is an I.B. school.  This means we use an inquiry-based curriculum. Students are required to ask questions and research answers. Usually, the Kinders have their parents complete the research and share it with them. Google Classroom is more powerful.  They have some ownership of their research and they absolutely love it!

Student using Google Classroom.

Kinder students are able to navigate to Google Classroom on their own.

For example,  we were studying Endangered Animals. For the first lessons, I linked some introductory videos to the Google accounts and let the kids loose.  It was easy for them to log onto their accounts as they had previous experience. I was not prepared for the results. Two of the video links I had assigned worked perfectly well on my computer but were blocked on the student Chromebooks. I learned that this is a problem that happens because students and teachers are on separate networks and go through different filters. I need to test the videos using a student Chromebook and student account. How could I have known?

I encourage all Kindergarten teachers to embrace Google Classroom, challenge your students, and provide a more meaningful online experience.

Using WeVideo in the Classroom

There are many reasons why students should be allowed to use video in the classroom. In this blog, I will focus on five.

Independent, active learning

One of the greatest ways to gauge students’ understanding is to let them demonstrate a concept in their own words. When they create videos, students are able to work independently to clarify a topic in ways that can be appreciated and understood by their fellow classmates. To put it plainly: they learn by doing which increases their retention rate. If a student is able to explain math concepts with audio, visuals, Serpa Quoteand text in a video they created, they will most likely retain far more information than if they had simply written down the definition.

Differentiated instruction

Video demonstrations allow students to work at a level they are comfortable with. Even students whose skills are still progressing can create a memorable video they can be proud of. More advanced students are able to focus on creating a video that is more complex linguistically and visually. Lessons that allow students to create videos also provide opportunities for ELL and RSP students, who may have difficulty when producing written assignments, express themselves visually and audibly in a video.

Real world application

When students see the purpose and reason for acquiring a new skill, they tend to work harder. A teacher may assign a lesson where the student is asked to illustrate a poem. Students will welcome the chance to apply their acquired video skills in other ways outside of school by gathering video and audio outside of the classroom. Knowing they are learning a skill that will allow them to create a video for YouTube that may develop into a much sought after job skill in their future after they graduate may motivate them to focus on classwork during the school day.

Student engagement

Student engagement will increase when students use real-world applications when creating their video projects. The benefits of this are that engaged students tend to disrupt class less frequently, as well as participate more in lessons. They also retain what they’ve learned far longer than students who do not see value or meaning in what they are learning.

Peer collaboration

Many video lessons are often created as group projects and offer students a chance to work with and help their fellow students complete the task. Learning to problem solve when working collaboratively is a skill that will be much needed in the future. Finally, technology assignments, like creating a WeVideo, will help support equity among all students, since students who understand and are proficient with technology can help students who do not have the same skill set.