Lab Notebooks: the grown up interactive notebook

In the last decade, interactive notebooks have exploded in popularity. I tried them with my students, and I loved them. The majority of my students did not.


  1. I was doing all the work. The students were still just talking notes or doing worksheet style activities. Just in this thing called an “interactive notebook”. The students pointed out that they could accomplish the same thing a lot easier if I gave them worksheets and had them use a binder. Put hey wanted flexibility that interactive notebooks could not give them. The students were right.
  2. They were frustrated by taping/gluing. Even when I trimmed the pages to fit with a paper cutter.
  3. I had an administrator tell me I couldn’t have notebook checks, unless I personally graded all the notebooks (because I couldn’t be sure who was cheating on peer checked notebooks and who wasn’t otherwise). This took me 8 straight hours one day at the end of the semester.

There had to be a better, “realler” way for students to record their lab notes and classwork. I thought back: what would a scientist do?

For one, a lab and classwork are two different endeavors. One is scripted (classwork/worksheet problems), and (in my class) one is not (labs). I now use a dual system – if I give you something printed, it goes in your binder. Otherwise, write it in your lab notebook. (I rarely lecture, so notes go in the lab notebook.) and for those students who love organization, I make a cover page for each unit on colored paper.

Notebooks. Notebooks are quad ruled, bound composition notebooks. The students name and course name/my name is on the front. They must have a number on each page. They must be dated on each page. Each page gets a title. Four pages for table of contents.  They are their own notebooks. Each students work for the day gets recorded in them. Sometimes, I let them use their notebooks for quizzes. And I don’t limit what they can put in them.

Why? Well, I don’t emphasize memorization. I want my students to make useful complete notes and be able to problem solve.  Assessments are hard.  Scientists use their notebooks as an ongoing record of their work – students who think of their notebooks as a record of class participation can use them the same way.

The start of the school year.

This is the first year I don’t have a “big” thing to do. The last few years have been overshadowed by earning a degree, completing Ohio’s RESA (I passed!) and just getting used to being a working mom. That’s why I’ve been a little absent from my blog.

Tomorrow is the start of my school year. Kinda. It’s not really.  Like many teachers, summer break is a time when I don’t have to go to the school building (thankfully – it’s not air conditioned!), but there’s plenty of work to do.  I took a graduate course in Physics that was offered through Ohio State and affiliated with the American Modeling Teachers Association

But, work with my students really began months ago – in May.  That’s when we get a “heads up” from the guidance counselors, and when we get to assign… summer work.

I’ve written before about science fair, and I will do that more this year. For my honors track science students (sophomers), their summer work was to choose a question they may want to investigate, identify a half-dozen peer reviewed articles, and write an annotated bibliography. 

Yes, this is challenging for students.  So I created several ways I could work with them through this process. Yes, in the summer. I kept working.

Here are some ways I’ve communicated with students this summer:

  1. Email. A classic.
  2. Facebook messenger.  I created a page for students from my school interested in science, and invited the students, STEM teachers, and a few other staff (including our media relations person). Students can the. Ask questions to the group (students and teachers) or get to me directly without me “friending” them.
  3. Another thing I sorted out with a student waste could communicate through Google Drive. Google drive is not really natural to me, so I was delighted to discover I could share files with my students from my iPad – which I pay far more attention to in the summer than I do my laptop.

The point is, long term projects require students to have accessibility to a mentor. Some get that other places (a parent or a professional they have a working relationship with) and that’s fine. Some have that, and want to talk to me anyway. Some don’t, they have my assignment, and that’s all they need. 

So, the “start” of the school year is really when I get to see the product of the first three months of their efforts. I’m really excited for that.

My “Research Group” Model for Science Fair

A teacher friend posted this on my Facebook wall:


It seems everyone dreads science fair but me – no one likes science fair. Teachers say it’s a lot of work. Students say it’s a lot of work. Parents say it’s a lot of work. Well, it is a lot of work.  I was thinking back to what I enjoyed about my projects. I enjoyed the science, I enjoyed the fairs. I loved winning prizes. I loved knowing I was a scientist.

 There is a weird (and I think artificial) thing that happens with science fairs – an over emphasis on doing the whole thing alone. Problem is, scientists don’t really work alone, do they?

My first goal this year for science fair (which is well underway in my class!) is that we will build a community of learners in our classroom. Even though we are doing different projects and have different goals, we will chip away at the tasks ahead, and work together to achieve them. I’m thinking of this as the “Research Group” model (yep – like grad school). We will meet throughout the year, discuss the ideas we are working on, and get feedback from each other. We will raise each other up. We will read each other’s papers (peer review), we will look and and evaluate each other’s data analysis (more peer review), and discuss our display and presentations before the science fair (more peer review). Does the writing make sense? Will the data generated by the experiment answer the question? Does the presentation of data convince the audience? Does your analysis lead to more questions?

I will be at every fair my students are at, up through state. We will support one another on fair days with water and snacks or glue and post-it notes and sharpies. We will have the presentation done early, not 15 minutes before we leave for the fair (me? I never did that!) and we will accomplish our projects with the help of our peers, because that’s what scientists do

Density, proportional reasoning, and misconceptions

It’s a simple question: what is the relationship between mass and volume?


Some students immeadiately said, “Density!” So, I asked them to describe density in terms of particles, and they couldn’t.

There was a whole day of collecting data. A bunch of plastic blocks, mass on a triple-beam balance and cubic centimeters. Aha! As the volume increases, the mass increases. Blocks that have more volume also have more mass! 



It wasn’t long before a misconception appeared in the group. 

“No! There is no relationship!” said one student. The other students were silent and looked at me.

Me: “What do you mean?”

Student: “If you take a block, it has an amount of stuff in it. If that stuff got bigger, it would take more volume but be the same stuff and so, the same mass, so it would be less closely packed and the ratio of mass to volume would change. Therefore, there is no relationship.”

Me: “Would the stuff be the same, then?”

Student: “Yes?”

Me: “In your experiment, is that what happened?”

Student: “No. We looked at different pieces of the same stuff, different sizes.”

Me: “None of the ‘stuff’ changed volume?”

Student: “No, they were different sizes.”

Me: “Class, anyone agree or disagree?”

Student2: “He’s right, but that wasn’t our experiment.”

Student3: “Maybe we should check gases.”

Me: “I think he’s right too, and let’s save gases for another day.”

At this point, I wonder how many students we lose during discussions about density because they think we are talking about somehow changing matter, rather than talking about different kinds of matter. I would have never known my student was thinking this if I had been lecturing and assigned homework from the text book.

Then, I prompted the students to have a discussion about what is density at the particle level (By saying, “OK, remember our particle boxes? Would the particle boxes for each kind of matter be different?”), which was slow-going. We did not reach a confident consensus, but we will circle around to density again with density of a gas. 

Proportional Reasoning

I was very interested in developing the students’ ideas of density, in terms of the way we had measured and identified it. Because they were so comfortable with the relationship between mass and volume being density, and also Density = Mass / Volume, I asked them to find it on the graph. 

Nope. This was a new idea for them.

I asked what the units of density were (since they kept insisting on density = grams / cm^3). 

And then one student saw it. Then, another. “its the slope!”

But not all the whiteboards had the same graphs.  Some were grams / cm^3, others cm^3 per gram. They had a discussion about maybe next time they should check with each other to make sure the groups set rules for the board meetings, so it will be easier to compare data.

To close the day, I reminded them to make sure the info on their whiteboards was in their notebooks. Then I asked, “Ok, so which of the blocks will float?”

More complaints – one student suggested floating was related to surface area, so multiple shapes of the same kind of stuff had to be tested. Finally, it clicked for him too – what mattered was density, that the floating thing had fewer particles in each unit of space compared to water, sinking stuff had more.


(There were also good ideas about why the cork floated so “high” – it’s in the back right corner.)

There were a few things that are standing out to me at this point in the year:

  • Three weeks down, and we still aren’t using usual chemistry words like “element”, or “atom”. We are using “stuff”, “matter”, “space” a lot.
  • We do not say “per”, as in “grams per milliliter”. We say “for every”, as in grams of matter for every cubic centimeter of that matter.”  We try to speak intentionally, with clarity.
  • I do not do most of the talking, which is the most amazing thing because I can constantly check for student misconceptions and challenge them with Socratic questioning.
  • The students are really having fun! And so am I.

Modeling and volume, with precision and accuracy

Activity to investigate the relationship between cubic centimeters and milliliters.  Students carefully (or not so carefully) calculate the base area for their container, fill it to various heights (depths) of water, and measure the volume of water in the container.

One group of students recalled a prior teacher told them that one centimeter cubed equalled one milliliter, “because that’s how metric works”. I asked how they knew. 

“Our eighth grade teacher told us.”

Another student (10 classes into modeling) responded with, “but our data doesn’t support it!”

So the team of now six students set out to calculate their data both ways. The measured volume expected for their calculated volumes, and what size volume in the shape based in their measured volumes. They quickly determined that neither data set would solve their problem. The only solution would be better data. And the bell rang.  (And I silently laughed an evil laugh.  This group almost tortures themselves with these educational cliffhangers.)

The next day at the start of class, I asked how they thought the previous day of data collection had gone. This group immeadiately spoke up. “Not good. The containers you gave us were terrible.” (They were. I used what I could find. The sides curved. Sorry, kids.) 

I asked if they had the chance, if they would like to collect more data – as I put two very square rectangular pans on the lab bench at the front of the room. A student for each pan ran up, grabbed some tools, and got to work.

This is what they produced:


Look at that! A slope of 1 mL/cm^3!

Compared to others:



So, which is better: accuracy, or precision? Turns out students in the 10th grade think these terms are basically the same. I drew the classic three targets on the board: one with a cluster of dots at the center, one with a cluster off center, and one with a cluster that was spread out, but “averaged” to the center. I told them two were precise, and two were accurate.

One student told me her brain exploded. She got it. 

The kids almost immeadiately yelled which was which – and I asked, “how do you know the difference between accuracy+precision (the cluster close together at the bullseye), and precise but inaccurate (the tight cluster not at the bullseye)?

And we looped back around to discussing careful measurement and definining variables. And why. Context makes learning so much easier.

Teacher Evaluations – and what you can do for teachers you care about

A brief story about teacher evaluations

I am in the state of Ohio, so some of this is about to be a little Ohio-centric, because its what I know. The purpose of evaluations of teachers in the state of Ohio is:

  • To improve instruction by facilitating professional growth and development
  • To identify needs for staff development activities
  • To ensure teaching quality by bringing assistance to marginal teachers
  • To inform personnel decisions (retention, transfer, tenure, promotion, dismissal)

Evaluations are currently composed of two parts, each with equal weight: observations of teachers in class by a trained observer.  For me its my principal, and for me and my professional growth, she’s great for mine because she was a science teacher herself and can offer constructive feedback on how to make my class flow better.  I actually enjoy and look forward to those parts of my evaluation because it will make me a better teacher and therefore, will benefit my students both now and in the future.

The other part is “Student Growth” – and that’s the part for me that doesn’t really make sense or help inspire me to be a better teacher, because there are many things shown to be a bigger factor in student growth than the skill of their teacher.  Ideally, you can test each student at the beginning and end of the year, see how much they learned, and use that to measure a teachers effectiveness.  Right? What happened this year, is that my district told me they would provide that important pre-test… but didn’t.  However, there’s a legal backup if that data is missing.  I (along with many of my peers) was assigned the district average score for “Value Added Growth” from the previous year. My district has 30+ buildings.  From k-12.  My building usually scores the “best” in the district (but no, the board didn’t choose to use building scores.) So, half my evaluation comes from the standardized test results from students I’ve never met in buildings I’ve never set foot in before I was even employed as a teacher in my district.  And it really hurt MY ratings, because that score was an “F”.  (We got this news the Friday before Teacher Appreciation Week, too.) I feel like this will impact who my school will be able to hire in the future.  Why risk working in a district where students are struggling so much, if its going to bite you in the butt by giving you a poor evaluation?

So what?

The part of teacher evaluations that the public sees either comes in two flavors:

A.  The general public who feels that teachers should suck it up and submit to the evaluation, and

B.  Parents of kids who are being standardized-tested until their hair falls out (not kidding).

So, if you find yourself shaking your head at how terrible teacher evaluation is, you can do a couple things.  Here are my suggestions, particularly if you are a parent of a child in school now.

  1. Write to the school board.  They are elected, and they are close to the local situation.  Its good for them to know how you feel.
  2. Write to state legislatures.  They make the rules we are playing by.  The evaluation system is part of the Ohio Revised Code.
  3. Write a letter to your kid’s teacher if they were positive.  This is gold.
  4. Then change the information so the letter is to the principal of your school, and tell the principal how that teacher helped your child learn.

Every bit of the first half of the evaluation is based on things with evidence: either direct observation or something documented.  (The second half is standardized tests.  Feel free to write about those too, if you’re so inclined.)  Letters from families on behalf of a teacher count as evidence, and electronic copies can even be directly loaded into our state database of information.

What can a parent say that will matter?

Part of the evaluation specifically mentions how a teacher interacts with parents.  Keep in mind that when most principals hear about a teacher’s relationship with a parent, its because a parent is complaining about a perceived slight their child is getting at that teacher’s hand.  Its only rarely good things.  I suspect when I offered an after school field trip not one parent contacted my principal either with stories about how much their student enjoyed the trip (even though I was told that personally over the phone by several), or thanking her for supporting the field trip (which she did with phone calls for special approvals and $$$ for a bus.) So what are the things a teacher would really like to hear they have done well for your child?  Here are some excerpts of standards from our evaluation rubric (these are for the highest possible ranking in their category) which are not only things a teacher is grateful to hear they get right every once in awhile, but also is something they can use as evidence of meeting professional standards and goals:

In “Instructional Planning”

“The teacher uses the input and contributions of families, colleagues, and other professionals in understanding each learner’s prior knowledge and supporting their development.”

Did your child’s teacher use your input in teaching your child?

In “Instruction and Assessment” under “Classroom Environment”

“The teacher engages in two-way, ongoing communication with families that results in active volunteer, community, and family partnerships with contribute to student learning and development.”

Do you feel like you were a partner in your child’s learning with the teacher?

In “Instruction and Assessment” under “Assessment of Student Learning”

“The teacher uses assessment data to identify students’ strengths and needs, and modifies and differentiates instruction accordingly, as well as examines classroom assessment results to reveal trends and patterns in individual and group progress and to anticipate learning obstacles.”

Did the teacher make an effort to not only get to know your child, but understand their history and do things that your child would enjoy in order for your child to learn better?  Its easy for a teacher to be inflexible about assignments and due dates – did your child’s teacher make learning personal for your child?

“The teacher continually checks for understanding and makes adjustments accordingly (whole-class or individual students).  When an explanation is not effectively leading students to understand the content, the teacher adjusts quickly and seamlessly within the lesson and uses an alternate way to explain the concept.”

Did your child’s teacher help him/her understand a concept by allowing them to retry at the information?

The teacher provides substantive, specific, and timely feedback to students, families, and other school personnel while maintaining confidentiality.  The teacher provides the opportunity for students to engage in self-assessment and show awareness of their own strengths and weaknesses.”

Did your child learn new ways to monitor their own understanding in a teacher’s class?  Was the teacher in contact with you about their progress?

In “Professionalism” under “Professional Responsibilities”

“The teacher communicates effectively with students, families, and colleagues.”

Do you hear from your child’s teacher?  Is that helpful to you in some way?  Do they do something special for parents like a weekly letter or blog?

In summary, let the teacher and the principal know how the teacher effectively communicates with you and give specific examples of how the teacher helped YOUR child learn.

 If you’ll excuse me, I have some letters to write for my kid’s teachers.  Have a great weekend, everyone!

Course Design – The value of online lab course materials (college version)

As a graduate student, I was assigned the TA job for an introductory course in geology. I really like physical geology – its the course where you get to look at all sorts of rocks and minerals, learn about specific gravity (a favorite of mine) and other physical characteristics, and maybe some introductory geology. Sounds like fun, right?

Why yes, I was that kid who collected gravel from parking lots. My church had some nice white limestone with pyrite in it. Don’t worry, I’ve stopped. Mostly.

Imagine my surprise when my top-tier geology program was running their labs for undergraduates by requiring students complete exercises from a widely published manual, but with only a few manipulatives, like specimens! Rather than looking at rock and mineral specimens, we used a book with pictures in it (with no scale in the pictures). How are students supposed to learn to identify rocks and minerals by using pictures? What about luster? What about turning it around in your hand to look at cleavage of a mineral? What about heft? What about process skills like using a hand lens?

I tried to help my students out by making answer sheets for them so they didn’t have to tear up their pricey manuals, but it wasn’t enough.  They didn’t like taking that lab and I didn’t like teaching it.

A couple quarters later, I found myself offered the head-TA spot for this course for a faculty member I knew well. I told him that I thought we could do better… and asked if I could rewrite the labs. He said yes! (I do recognize that good k-12 teachers do this all the time. Frequently, college lab TAs don’t get that kind of freedom.)

There were things that definitely needed changing.

1.  We needed to abandon the lab manual.

2. We needed to use hand samples! (This meant cleaning the supply closet. Repeatedly.)

3. We needed to rewrite the lab exercises.

4.  We needed to publish the labs for students.

Over the course of the quarter, I worked with this faculty member to create labs that complimented his lectures, and emphasized hands-on skills that couldn’t be taught any other way.  He wrote a couple new labs too – and we did wet chemistry to look at water quality on campus – definitely not an experience students using the manual ever got!

The most useful thing I learned through this process was how handy it was to distribute course materials online.  Because I was producing full labs as the quarter moved along, we could not publish the labs as a manual in advance and put it for sale at the bookstore. I also could not afford to make copies of each page for every student (I wrote introductions as well as instructions and answer sheets).

We compiled a terrific website for the course – not only was each lab activity posted, but also notes, homework, and even podcasts of the lectures (courtesy of the faculty member).  There was a student hospitalized for a couple weeks that quarter, and geology was the only class he didn’t have to drop – he just followed along with the podcasts and online homework submission.

Through my time as a graduate student I had the opportunity to be head-TA for this course many times, and each time it got a little better and we could change it to fit the emphasis of different faculty members.  What students loved best?  I like to think they liked the hands-on part of the labs, but they didn’t know it was ever any other way.  Every quarter I got comments about the online manual – they could just print it out (on campus if needed! no forgetting your manual at home!) and it didn’t cost more than the cost of printing.

This was a great model for us, and reflecting back on it, I’m hoping to develop more course materials online for my students. I’m still in the research stages of how to do this best (I get twitchy about protecting copyrights), but I would love to see your comments on this!