A Successful Build!

6 underwater robots swimming in a pool.

Day four of building our OpenROV underwater robots was very eventful. The original thinking was that it would take 4 full days of our 5 scheduled classes to finish building our robots, and not until the 5th day would we be able to try them out. However the teams of  2 to 3  teachers proved the power of collaboration as it became apparent last week that they would be ready in less time. In fact we did take time from building to have lectures on different aspects of underwater robots and we even took a tour of the facilities at the Tahoe Science Center.

The past 2 days included finishing assembly, testing out controls, aligning and focusing the scaling lasers, calibrating the compass and a bit more. While engaged in those activities a local TV station showed up and produced this story about what we were up to.

Below: Aligning the scaling lasers by projecting them on 2 dots 10 centimeters apart on the wall.



Right: Still wiring and soldering to finish up as well.


Above: The OpenROV’s starting to look like underwater robots.

Below: Touring the Tahoe Science Center facilities and learning about field trip possibilities.












The TV cameras were rolling: DSCF0179

Saturday morning was the last push to be ready to swim our ROV’s. The local public pool had reserved time between 2:00 and 3:30 to use their pool as a test facility, so 1:30 was our  deadline to pack-up and get to the pool. Every detail was checked. Connections to the Chromebook computers, camera operation, thruster operation, lights, lasers, all checked.

Below: The connection to the computer checks out. Once the connection is made the interface opens in a web browser of your choice.












Before we knew it we were off to the pool. The unheated water was cold, but even so one of the life guards volunteered to jump in and help us with a few early tests for water tightness. Once we had the first one cruising the pool she also swam into view so we could take underwater photos of her. We still haven’t downloaded this yet, but we might share them in the future.

Below: First step is to place the ROV into the water and check for any bubbles. Bubbles mean LEAK! and immediate removal to find the source. All 6 of our ROV’s passed the leak test with flying colors.














Then it was time to swim:


Below: Each teacher in the institute received a waterproof digital camera. Here the daughter of one of the teachers uses one to get underwater photos of Mom’s vehicle.

DSCF0208Below: Testing the scaling lasers and maneuvering towards a rubber crab on the bottom of the pool.


Below: Lights check out OK.

DSCF0211Needless to say the excitement was palatable. Visitors and people that work at the pool followed our progress and wanted to touch the devices. Next we plan to launch them in Lake Tahoe and swim them for a day. Then they can be checked out by teachers to use in their classrooms. Woo hoo! It was a great day.

Learning is messy!


Nevada STEM Underwater and Aerial Vehicle Computer Science Institute

I shared on Twitter not long ago, “The good news is I got a grant! The bad news is I got a grant!” There is too much truth in that dichotomy, but in spite of all the extra work and rules and policies and bids and other “red tape” to be dealt with to purchase the supplies and organize the classes … this is an awesome opportunity for all concerned.

The grant requirements demanded a focus on middle and high school teachers and students, computer programing, and a STEM learning emphasis. You’ll note by the name of the grant (see the title of this post) that the grant department folks that helped in editing, implored me to mention as many aspects of the program as possible in the title.

The choice of underwater and aerial vehicles was an easy one … Nevada has been designated one of 5 states where regulations about drones have been eased to encourage research, testing and innovation in drone use (the fact that Nevada contains huge expanses of open land and 4 seasons of weather may have helped). In addition, with the emphasis on encouraging students to study computer programming … and the fact that these vehicles can be programmed … using drones in class to motivate students to engage in both seemed like a perfect match.

CgDx3-2UAAMh6Et24 teachers, 2 middle school and 2 high school teachers from each of the 6 school districts I serve will be chosen to participate. We will start by doing 2 days of computer programming and 3D modeling utilizing the ncLab online course guided by its developers (a local startup company). Just enough to get teachers started in programming, but also to acquaint them with the online course since it will be available for them and all their students for the next year. I felt that if teachers had even some experience with programming and the online course they would be more likely to use it with their students. Students will have access to the course at school, but also at home or anywhere they can get online, so they can go as far as they like.

Each teacher will receive a Parrot Minidrone Rolling Spider – the kind you control with your phone or pad device, and a waterproof (to 10 meters) and drop proof (from 1.5 meters) digital camera to archive their learning in the institute and student learning in their classrooms. ParrotMiniDrone

Next, teachers will spend 3 days learning about aerial vehicles from Kirk Ellern (a former high school physics teacher) at AboveNV – a local startup. They’ll fly their “Parrots” and learn how to program them (after the institute they’ll have 4 sets of 10 Parrots they can check out for use in their classrooms). After that introduction to aerial vehicles we’ll move on to Phantom 3 Advanced drones. Here we will put the programming we learned (and note what we want to learn more about) in the ncLab course to work. Four sets of three Phantom 3 drones will be available for checkout by participating teachers forphantom3-drone-300x200 use in their classrooms.

The next 5 days of class will be spent partially assembling and utilizing OpenROV 2.8 underwater vehicles. “Maker skills” will be emphasized as teachers will be taught soldering, wiring, gluing and more to prepare the vehicles for use.  6 OpenROV 2.8’s will be available for checkout by participating teachers. The 2.8’s are operated using a laptop and tether and are capable of depths up to 100 meters. They come with a camera – video/photos and sound can be recorded on the connected laptop … there’s even room for small payloads for doing research – another opportunity to use those computer programming skills as well. Alex Forrest from the Tahoe Environmental Research Center and the University of California, Davis, will lead this portion of the class. Alex has done research in Lake Tahoe utilizing those big “torpedo sized” vehicles you’ve probably seen on the news. He is just back from 3 years in Tasmania.

OpenROV 2.8 Underwater Vehicles







Throughout the school year the course instructors, all specialists in their fields, will be available to consult teachers, visit classrooms and provide follow-up instruction – to me this is a key component of the grant.

Field trip buses will be paid for so participating teachers can take their classes to a water source (lake, pond, wetland, river/stream pool) to operate and do research with the OpenROV’s.

The institute should start up in August and the initial classes will be done by October. I’ll post updates here. I’ll also set up YouTube/Flickr/Wiki and other accounts to archive our progress.

Learning is messy!

STEM Ambassadors Program

Bringing STEM experts into our schools

STEMamb1Beth Wells, the Executive Director of the Nevada STEM Coalition (I’m on their board of directors) asked us to provide a training to STEM professionals that have volunteered to be part of our new STEM Ambassadors program. From the STEM Ambassadors web site:

“The STEM Ambassador Program is a statewide initiative by the Nevada STEM Coalition and partners, designed to connect students with volunteers who use science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) skills in their majors and careers.

Volunteers register on the STEM Coalition website with their availability, interests and skills. Teachers contact the Coalition when they need speakers, project participants, or contest judges. Training is offered for volunteers who would like more knowledge about what to share and what kinds of activities enhance the new Nevada Academic Content Standards in Science.” (Next Generation Science Standards)

We fed them dinner and then got them involved in a hands on engineering activity building a “cart” from a bag of materials …  but no directions. The idea for the activity (which we tweaked a bit) came from FOSS (Full Option Science) out of the Lawrence Hall of Science in Berkeley, California. FOSS is really the only hands-on program out right now that is fully aligned to the Next Generation Science Standards and provides all the materials required to facilitate the lessons in a classroom.STEMamb2

After 20 minutes or so each pair had successfully constructed a cart that had rolling wheels. Next we had participants rotate around the room and inspect each others’ designs. They were require to “push” each cart as they inspected it to learn how well each one rolled. We encouraged taking photos of designs they liked and some did.

Next we asked them if all of the designs were the same and they noted that no two were alike. We gave them 8 minutes to incorporate anything they learned into their cart (re-engineer). All changed at least a little, but over half made changes based on designs that rolled better. Half made aesthetic changes to their carts when they noted they still had time. That was a discussion point and the connection to STEAM (adding art to STEM) was noted.







Ramps were set up and the STEM Ambassadors ran trials and collected data on how far their cart would roll from the top of their ramp.





Then we debriefed the data and experience in general.

The goal of the night was to prepare the participants, some from non-profit organizations, some business owners, but all with connections to STEM, to volunteer in schools. We informed them that there were multiple ways they could be involved in promoting and supporting STEM in our schools (see quote above) and we wanted them to be aware of the kinds of activities we were training teachers to facilitate in their classrooms. That way they could better support those kinds of learning experiences and even facilitate and provide the materials for their own hands-on learning piece when they visited schools if it fit their situation – for example if they were a transportation company the activity we did tonight, or one similar would be a great fit.

It was a great night that ended with a round of networking (sharing contact info).

Learning is messy!

Some Thoughts About The “T” in STEM

And Technology Integration In General

In several of my presentations on STEM Learning I share how it seems some grade level planning sessions approach STEM.

X   Science – “We have science twice a week now for 30-45 minutes.” “Check”

X   Technology – “We go to the computer lab once a week for 30-45 minutes and run apps on the school iPads in class occasionally.” “Check”

X    Engineering – “We’ll fold paper airplanes the last 30 minutes on Friday, fly them, then refold them to see if we can get them to fly further.” “Check”

X    Math – “We do math every day!” “Check”

“LOOK! We’re a STEM school (or grade level) and we didn’t even know it!”

There are several (at least) major issues with the above scenario, but this post will deal mostly with the technology piece. I’ll just say it right up front. When I visit schools, attend trainings or presentations that purport to be about “model,” or even just “pretty good,” STEM learning programs, what I mostly see are what I’ll call “SEM” learning programs. I’m not saying there are no good STEM programs, just what I mostly see is “SEM.”

Why no “T”? The technology use/integration I observe is usually poor … often just an afterthought or so we can say it was there, rarely used powerfully, rarely used as a collaborative/connecting piece, rarely used beyond fairly mundane, “instead of a pencil,” …  “to look something up” kinds of ways. There is some interest now in using computers to “code” or program using computers, and that is definitely a good thing, but not if its just during “The Hour of Code“. One issue is some STEM programs teach that anything from a rock, stick, pencil or paper cup, if used thoughtfully is technology (which is true) … but then pretty much anything anyone ever does would involve technology. But I don’t think that “T” in STEM was included with that in mind. DSC06565

Blogging and video conferencing and making a web page or podcasting or producing a video or programming and any other way someone might use technology are OK. But if they are not being used consistently to produce, analyze, problem solve and share, its a bit like dieting to lose weight a few days a year.

I see time and again students involved in inquiry and other lessons that involve data collection and drawing conclusions and more, but that’s where it ends. Often these experiences are engaging and motivating and kids are excited and we end right there. We have the students right where we want them, where they are motivated and have reason to analyze and learn more about what happened … and to get there they should be discussing and arguing and deciding (maybe agonizing over) how and what to post that their data and observations showed AND their conclusions.

Now, how best to share that? (another creative problem to solve). It involves that “making” piece online.” What are we going to “make” to publish our learning, and how can we make that piece engaging as well? Something we can create that will make others want to learn what we learned and perhaps converse and even collaborate about? The process of sharing learning is often where misconceptions or errors in trials, basic understanding or data collection arise and can be dealt with.

I’ve found that this is when students relive what they did and get excited about it again (even though this is hard work). Partly through the give and take and creative release from designing and writing a program or producing a video/podcast/blog post/captioned photo or whatever, and since they have shared … now they have the opportunity to discuss and perhaps collaborate (if that wasn’t already part of the learning) with others … perhaps experts they or you have found to share their work with, or just others that come across their posted results, … there are so many possibilities here that utilize that “T” in powerful ways that stress problem solving, communication and collaboration … and too often this vital learning is left behind. Perhaps because it’s value is not understood or valued and because the perception is that, “We don’t have time.”.

I’m not saying you to go this deep EVERY TIME, but MORE of the time for sure. It is how technology actually becomes a powerful learning tool.

I emphasize all the time how all those publishing and analyzing pieces are what make a solid STEM program the best ELA and math learning your students will do. But not if we leave it behind. It’s hard work on the students’ and teacher’s (facilitator’s) part … and it is time consuming … and we have that incessant “tick, tick, tick” that time is going by and I have to get through this and move on! Maybe just to get done, or worse so we will be ready for testing. But this is the “messy” learning our students deserve. Publishing to the world is another reason to be accurate, clear, concise, creative and much more.

What are your thoughts?

Learning is messy!


The Eclipse That Almost Wasn’t

Have telescope, will travel

Along with millions of others last night we set out to witness and observe the “Blood Moon, Supermoon Eclipse.” Living in the high desert has an advantage when it comes to using telescopes since we have a greater percentage of sunny days and “Moony” nights. But that wasn’t the case on this night. There was a thin cloud cover that we were optimistically hoping would clear, or be transparent enough to see through at a bit at least. We set up two Celestron 9 inch wide telescopes and hoped for the best.

When the time came for the Moon to make its appearance however it was a no show. We instead found a tower on a distant peak and zeroed in on it. The image, per how telescopes work, was upside down and backwards … and not all that interesting to see … but a crowd that grew to over 200 people on the top floor of a parking garage at the University of Nevada, Reno, didn’t care. Soon there was a line at least 20 people long queued up to take turns peering at whatever we could find.

Hopeful eclipse watchers line up to view tower on top of mountain peak since eclipse is obscured by clouds.

Hopeful eclipse watchers line up to view tower on top of mountain peak since eclipse is obscured by clouds.













Actually what was behind us to the west was much more interesting to look at than the cloud shrouded sky where the eclipse was happening.

Note the mirrored surface in the back of the telescope looking into a blank sky while the real show is behind it.

Note the mirrored surface in the back of the telescope looking into a blank sky while the real show is behind it.


















Next door, the Flieschmann Planetarium was showing a brief video about the eclipse and how eclipses work, as well as a live stream from NASA of the eclipse from a cloudless location. Little by little the tower on the mountaintop became less and less interesting and the crowd dwindled to a handful. Most made their way to the planetarium until the live feed stopped coming in from NASA.

A local TV news team showed up to do a story about the eclipse and they were as disappointed as the rest of us. They did shoot a photo of the eclipse shot from somewhere else in the country that I pulled up on my phone. I held it out in front of their camera approximately where the eclipse was actually happening and they taped it and we all had a good laugh. Then, since things weren’t looking good they interviewed us and left.

Dan Ruby, Director of the Fleischmann Planetarium is interviewed about the eclipse.

Dan Ruby, Director of the Fleischmann Planetarium, is interviewed about the eclipse.

Cars full of disappointed viewers departed and we were left behind to watch in case the clouds cleared (the eclipse was still going on up there for another hour or so), but eventually we decided to pack up.

Move along, nothing to see here!

Move along, nothing to see here!















So we started to take down the telescopes when I looked up and saw just a hint of Moon which quickly disappeared again, but others had glimpsed it too. We stopped and waited, and sure enough several minutes later the Moon popped out … mostly … still clouds partly obscuring the view, but there it was and we quickly started resetting the telescopes.

As we were getting things lined up people started showing up. Some were here before, others were new visitors.

There it is!

There it is!

Soon we had a line of viewers. Once everyone had had a chance to look we took turns holding our phones and cameras up to the eyepiece to try and snap photos. Holding steady and pushing the button at the same time without moving is a challenge, but we got some views:




















What you see is the part of the Moon coming out of eclipse. The dark area is still red, but too dark for the phone’s camera to pick up.













We managed to get one that showed some of the "Bloodmoon"

We managed to get one that showed some of the “Blood Moon”













So what could have been a disappointing evening turned out to be a good time had by all. We managed to answer questions about eclipses and made some connections with people in the community. As usual there was some messy-ness involved … but that’s what made it a great evening!

Learning is messy!














Pathways To Space 1st Launch Day

Recently we obtained a Space Grant that has enabled us to offer a class we are calling “Pathways To Space.” It is a 32 hour/2 credit class for middle school science teachers.

During our 1st class teachers constructed their own tissue paper hot air balloons. By taking the class they qualify for free supplies to have their students build their own tissue balloons that will be launched at the Reno Balloon Races next September. IMG_3375 IMG_3369 IMG_3368










The second night of class this past Thursday they constructed solid rockets from kits, and water rockets constructed from 2 liter soda bottles, cardboard for fins, and clay for weight in the nose cone to keep them going straight. IMG_3414 IMG_3423







In later classes teachers will learn about high altitude ballooning and planes. Today we had our third class, which was an all day Saturday extravaganza. We met out at White Lake north of Reno, Nevada, to launch our balloons and rockets. Below I’m posting photos and  slow motion video of both a water rocket launch and a solid rocket launch. In addition here is a link to many photos and videos from our day.















Water Rocket launch

Solid rocket launch

After our launches we headed to the campus at the University of Nevada, Reno, and visited the Planetarium and several museums. Next we headed over to the Reno offices of the National Weather Service where Chris Smallcombe gave us a tour of the facilities.








Next we observed the launch of a weather balloon. They launch 2 balloons every day – at 4:00 AM and 4:00 PM. The balloons climb to above 100,000 feet along with an instrument package that records temperature, humidity, air pressure and more. The instruments send their data back to the weather service in real time.













After watching the balloon rise out of sight we were done for the day. This Thursday we will learn about electromagnetic radiation and high altitude ballooning. We might even start to design and build the payloads we will launch to near space later in the month.






Learning is messy!



Next Design Challenges For Students

Originally posted at the High Hopes Project Blog

Lots has happened since we last checked in with students at Sparks High School that are designing and engineering several of the payloads we will send up to 100,000 feet (33,000 meters). The students finished one design for releasing the world’s High Hopes. The plan is to solicit the world’s “Hopes” – (you can add your students’  “Hopes” here) print them out on small strips of paper that will biodegrade rapidly, release them at 100,000 feet or higher and then have them spread out over the world and become one with the Earth. The challenge is to make that happen under the severe conditions the payload will experience.

Above is the simple, lightweight design that includes a framework inside to mount a camera that will record the release of the “High Hopes,” as well as a latch to hold it closed. Next we will turn the payload over to Sparks Middle School students to design a way to open the payload at just the right time. The high school students are also working on a second release payload that will release some of the “Hopes” at a lower altitude – local elementary students are designing some of the “Hopes” so they will glide or helicopter down … but that has to happen at a different altitude for reasons we will leave to you and your students to figure out. 🙂

Next we shared the other engineering design problems the high school students will take on. One of our launches will be from Lake Tahoe. We were working out how to do that last year when we had this failure and this success, Now we plan to drop cameras over 100 feet deep in the lake and part of that camera package will include a water pressure gauge the students have to design and build (they will also need to become familiar with Noble Gas Law). One of the cameras will track the gauge to record the water pressure from it’s deepest point to the surface of the lake. An air pressure gauge will also be deployed on the payloads above the surface. We will share the data from those and other readings … your students can inquire to figure out what will happen to those readings during the flight as well as temperature and other readings.

In addition, they have to reel the 100+ feet (33+ meters) of line the cameras and gauge are attached to back up to the other payloads so they aren’t dangling, possibly causing instability. So after they break the surface of the lake, those need to be retracted.

As a model STEM project, one of our goals is to set up collaborations not only between students at various schools, but also between students and engineers. The Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science departments at the University of Nevada, Reno, are experts in high altitude ballooning, and they have agreed to mentor our student participants. So on this visit we brought along Sierra Adibi,  a junior in the mechanical engineering department. Her minor is in unmanned autonomous systems … so we felt she just might be a good fit. 🙂

Above: Sierra answered their questions and gave them some background and ideas on how they might utilize the Noble Gas Law in their water pressure gauge design. She also noted materials they were utilizing and asked questions about what they needed to consider for the conditions their designs have to deal with. Such a great opportunity to have students connect with people really working in the field … to see what others are doing. We’re planning to have Sierra come back to talk to the students more about the note-taking and writing pieces required for this kind of work. Their teacher, Mr.Walsh mentioned that students were struggling somewhat with those skills and Sierra offered to return soon with examples.

Finally we also gave them a problem to start on we will share at a later date. However it does tie-in nicely with the paper airplane design project Mr. Walsh already has planned in the coming month. Needless to say, by the end of the discussion it was hard to tell who was more excited, the students or us! With all the challenges the high school students are given, they are turning over some of the design and building over to the middle school and elementary students as needed. The whole world can join in by learning about the characteristics of our atmosphere and water, drawing informed conclusions and then using the data and media we will share after our launches to see if their conclusions were correct.  We’ll share more about how anyone can be part of this project in future posts.

What are your “High Hopes!?”

Next we meet with the middle school and elementary students to inform them of their challenges.

Learning is messy!

Take a Virtual Field Trip To the Deserts and Grasslands of Africa

I still work with too many teachers that are reluctant to jump into the online learning world with their students because they don’t know how, don’t know how to make connections with classrooms or experts, and other various reasons.

So here is a chance to  jump in to Google Hangouts or YouTube in your classroom. Nature Works and The Nature Conservancy are offering to take you and your students on a virtual field trip to the Grasslands of Africa on February 5, 2015, at 12 pm ET. The Nature Conservancy’s lead scientist in Africa will be teaching the science behind how people and nature can work together. You can learn more about the virtual field trip and sign up to participate here.

This is the first in a series they are offering aimed at students in grades 3 – 8. You and your students can watch the event live using Google Hangout On Air on the Nature Conservancy’s Google + Channel: https://plus.google.com/+TheNatureConservancy  The host of the Hangout is Tyler DeWitt, science teacher – his TED talk on making science fun.

or live streaming on YouTube at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B7DzF7EQzd8 

or if you can’t make the timing work to see it live, it will be available later to watch on their YouTube Channel:  https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCUJMHqab_uJsqNZiwfNyg8w


Here is the description of the program from Nature Works and the Nature Conservancy:

The Deserts and Grasslands of Africa

Science and geography, grades 3-8

Thursday, February 5, 2015, 12:00 noon Eastern Time, on YouTube (40 minutes)

Join The Nature Conservancy, PBS LearningMedia, and field scientist Charles Oluchina for a live virtual field trip to Africa to learn how people and nature work together. Your students will visit Burkina Faso and learn how one African farmer invented an ingenious method to help restore forestlands that had been lost to desertification. Then they’ll head to Kenya to learn about the importance of grasslands and how ecotourism has benefited both the people and Kenya’s majestic wildlife. Finally, you and your students will get a firsthand look at a PBS LearningMedia collection of videos, digital games and educational resources from the new PBS series EARTH A New Wild.

So if you’ve been looking for a way to utilize powerful online tools like video-conferencing here’s your chance.

Related Resources for teachers:

PBS LearningMedia’s full collection of educational resources for EARTH A New Wild, a television series.

Learning is messy!

Close Reading? OK, How About Close Doing?







 “Reading” Sebastien Wiertz

Close reading is one of the “strategies du jour”.

From the Common Core State Standards in ELA:

1. Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.

In addition from the Harvard Writing Center:

The second step is interpreting your observations. What we’re basically talking about here is inductive reasoning: moving from the observation of particular facts and details to a conclusion, or interpretation, based on those observations. And, as with inductive reasoning, close reading requires careful gathering of data (your observations) and careful thinking about what these data add up to.

In pretty much all trainings and presentations I deliver about STEM learning, I stress how STEM is language intense. I go so far as to state that it is one of the most powerful language arts interventions available. But that is only true if you take advantage of the language learning (and loads of other learning possibilities) that STEM provides.

STEM learning is somewhat its own enemy because often the activity or experience involved is so interesting, intriguing or engaging (or all 3) that the students get excited and talk about it excitedly (and often parents voice how excited their child was when they came home) and teachers assume everything (or enough) important was learned. What is probably more often the case is that the lesson/learning experience was just about the STEM learning and integrating the language arts either isn’t part of the plan, the time to integrate isn’t perceived as important, or the usual issue of not feeling there is time rears its head.

This is a powerful learning opportunity missed. Really opportunities missed. Let’s focus on just one. Instead of “close reading,” we’ll refer to it for lack of a better name as “close doing” (but we could call it “close making” or “close observing” or other possibilities).

I point out repeatedly how too often field trips or major hands-on activities (doing or making activities) are planned to be experienced  as either stand alone experiences or end of unit experiences with little to no emphasis on how they tie to the overall learning plan. Will the learning be integrated into all subjects or are those connections just assumed to be made? What if instead these experiences were provided early on in the unit? Example: Students are learning about animals- adaptations, habitats, and so forth. After a bit of learning about what adaptations and habitats are, we take a trip to a zoo or wildlife park to observe and learn about animals. Students are required to take notes and ask questions about the animals habitats and adaptations and take digital photos and video clips of animals, but also information displays and more.

Trips like these are usually exciting for students and even lead them to wonder and wanting to learn more. But often (as stated above) this also marks the end of the unit; “That was fun kids, next week we start learning about the planets!” Here’s where I propose “close doing” comes in. Using students memories, notes and photos (which I always archive somewhere like Flickr (free) so students, families and collaborators have access to them) we make close observations about each animal – what were some of the characteristics of each animal that helped them adapt (claws, fur, shells, eye size, … ) – colors, but more – not just white, but creamy white and white like a cloud or milk – even emphasize really what color white was it, cloud white? Pearl white? Cream white? Which is the best descriptive color, or texture, or simile to something man-made for example.

All the senses should come to bear: What did animals, their parts, their habitats, etc. look like, feel like (or look like they feel like if you couldn’t really touch them)) smell like, sound like … go deep! This takes time AND should probably happen during your language block, not just a science period (but could be both) because this is language study as much as it is science. Students should be taught and challenged to be close observers and inferrers. Just as close as they have to be when they are close reading.

The same is true for the hands-on activities- the doing and making experiences the students have. What did you observe during that experiment or construction/engineering piece? What were all the happenings, colors, actions, reactions and so on that you saw and explain what each one had to do or didn’t have to do with the overall result?  Thinking “close” about how you observe and do and problem solve and more, about any of these aspects of a project or unit. (NOTE: You wouldn’t do the super intense “close doing/observing” with every part of the project – that’s as stifling as overdoing close reading – I’m saying consider picking some part of the learning or doing and do it every once in a while – a couple/three times a year maybe – then you have built and practiced those essential skills and have those “close doing” schema experiences to relate to in other subjects as well).

Just like it takes many readings and lots of probing questions to facilitate “close reading” skills and thinking, the same is true of observing and noting all of what was observed and/or done in “close doing.” Getting students to note all the meaning is the goal here too.

The vocabulary that comes from these experiences is amazing … and because it is based on schema all the students build together, and have in common, it becomes a valuable reading instruction resource later; “Remember when we saw that bear at the zoo and he seemed both scary and cuddly at the same time? How does this character remind you of that? Or how is this character different than that?” OR “Remember how we noted that the bear’s fur was brown like the bark on a redwood tree?” Why do you think this author chooses the colors she uses to describe the buildings and streets in this chapter?”

Then, because students have thought and taken notes about not only facts, but color, texture, actions, behaviors, and much more, they are scaffolded to write incredible descriptive poetry, stories, captions for the photos they took, narrations for videos that share and assess their learning and so much more.

“The second step is interpreting your observations. What we’re basically talking about here is inductive reasoning: moving from the observation of particular facts and details to a conclusion, or interpretation, based on those observations. And, as with inductive reasoning, close reading requires careful gathering of data (your observations) and careful thinking about what these data add up to.”

Remember this quote about close reading above? Re-read it and note how it fits with STEM learning. Ingesting  that motivating, hands-on learning and taking the time to “interpret” it – then sharing through text or video, or podcast, or any number of other publishing portals … and preferably shared online to promote and obtain the benefits of connected and collaborative learning as well – emphasizing that “close” idea, just not only with text.

Let’s change out some of the words from the definition of close reading from above:

Think about and do closely to determine what the research, experience, investigation and inquiry says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific _ evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the research, observation, collaboration, inquiry and experience.”

So what I am saying is, is that STEM or inquiry learning is just as important and valuable a language arts learning opportunity as reading text, if the vocabulary and writing and research are emphasized and connected to close thinking and inferencing skills. And it provides another avenue or method to connect students struggling to interpret text to thinking about and explaining meaning and learning. Not saying it takes the place of reading text, just that it is as important to do because students are just as weak at interpreting, citing and inferring from other inputs, and articulating from them is just as important.

And if you build students “close doing” skills, the next time you are doing “close reading” – you have built schema for being successful at that as well: “Remember how long it took us to come up with “redwood bark” as a great description of the bear’s fur? How frustrated we were for awhile? But then when we came up with that and saw how near perfect it was as a description … how excited and motivated we were? That’s what we have to do now as we think about this text passage.”

Also note – if you are trying to jam STEM learning into a crowded schedule (STEM is a culture, not a time of day or day of the week), here is your valid reason and method to truly integrate it.

Learning is messy!

Tissue Paper Hot Air Balloons to Launch at Great Reno Balloon Races

From a Press Release today:

“900 Students from northwest Nevada will descend on Rancho San Rafael Park in Reno, site of the Great Reno Balloon Race, on Friday, September 5, 2014, to launch their own hot air balloons which they designed and constructed from tissue paper. In addition they will witness the launch of several high altitude weather balloons that will carry student authored “High Hopes” to altitudes of 30,000 feet or more.”







LEFT: Teachers learning to construct a tissue paper hot air balloon during a training in July 2014.






Specially designed launchers will be utilized to fill each balloon with enough hot air to send it aloft.


About 10 of these launchers will be available to launch student balloons.


BELOW: The tissue paper balloons are slipped down over the launcher and filled with hot air, then released when they become buoyant.



As part of learning the “engineering design process” required by the Nevada Academic Content Standards in science (Nevada adopted the Next Generation Science Standards), students will have resources available on-site to improve their design and then relaunch to assess their engineering skills.

BELOW: A video clip of a launch from last year’s event.

Learning is messy!