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The Mastodon Matrix has arrived!!!!

“What is the mastodon matrix?” you ask with unrestrained inquisitiveness. “That sounds exciting!”
Well, let me tell you!  ------  Basically, it’s a bunch of dirt.

I know that was very anticlimactic. However, it is dirt that is 10,000 to 15,000 years old, gathered from an area immediately adjacent to mastodon remains…and we have 4 kilos (~8.8 lbs) of the stuff.

Our 5th- and 6th-grade scientists get to use it to learn about “science inquiry” – how and why we do science.  We will be searching through the matrix (the dirt) as part of an ongoing long-term research project to better understand Ice Age ecosystems being conducted by the Paleontological Research Institute (PRI) in Ithaca, New York.  PRI provides the materials and the protocols, BMS provides the enthusiastic curiosity and interest to actually sift through dirt looking for long-dead things and together we all expand our levels of understanding.

I am currently reviewing the protocols outlined by PRI and plan to have the students begin the research next week.  As it stands, this project will likely occupy 3 class periods for each group. That means we will be working through the processes and materials each day during 3rd and 4th periods from next Wednesday (12 Oct) through the following Thursday (20 Oct).

In this project we will be working with each of the DODEA STEM initiatives. We will be doing real-world scientific research, using technology to report our results and learn extra information, using our engineering design skills for creating and using specific lab equipment, and developing our math skills by sorting, counting, measuring, and tabulating data.

You are more than welcome to come down at any time to see what we are doing (or help in some way), if you are interested.  (I do request that no younger children come. I simply don’t have the means to keep my students on track with added distractions and all of the 5th and 6th graders will be taught how to handle this material in ways that minimize breakage and loss.) Please also keep in mind that I will limit the actual paleontological work to my 5th and 6th grade scientists. That will keep them focused on their tasks and help me keep things in order. We are all taking this very serious because PRI is counting on us to be accurate with our data collection, gentle with the materials, and mindful of the protocols that they have set in place – plus, we are required to send everything back to them when we are done.

So, if you are interested in watching or helping us search for real fossils from a real paleontological excavation, please let me know – or just pop on in to Bobcat Labs (BMS Room 514) during 3rd and 4th periods next week.

Maintaining acccurate, detailed knowledge at the same time as thinking creatively can be a very difficult, if not confusing, concept to master. This is especially true with young scientists who have such natural curiosity and clear, colorful imaginations.  It is easy for children scientists to transform what they observe to what they "think" their observation should be. Observations of insects can be easily drawn incorrectly (e.g., an ant drawn with three body segments but with a pair of legs for each segment, rather than their legs extending from their thorax). Science needs accurate details combined with highly creative ideas but the creativity needs to be appropriately placed inorder to prevent serious misconceptions.

Part of expressing creative ideas while representing observations realistically requires, at least, a basic understanding of the elements of art (line, shape, color, value, space, and texture). By understanding these aspects, students can do a better job of expressing their observations without introducing the bias of any preconceived ideas they might have. Describing data in written form goes hand-in-hand with presenting it visually and spatially and all of this beeds to be done accurately before any analysis or reflection on the the data can be performed.

Today we began with lines and shape. Observing and describing observations begins with understanding objects as basic geometric shapes. Once someone understands the basics of lines and shapes, and can apply that to the objects they are observing, (s)he becomes more able to observe and describe their observations verbally or visually in a more accurate manner.

Our activity today involved two primary steps.
  1. Studenst were provided a "Mystery Box" which contained 6 items of various shapes, sizes and textures.  Without looking at any of the objects, students needed to draw in their science notebooks how they perceived them.
  2. Each table of students were given a plastic cup and one of the objects from within one of their "Mystery Boxes."  After stacking them, they were required to draw what they saw, without moving the item or changing their perspective of the item.

In these activitities, students were able to see that our interpretation of what something is and how we observe it can be very different things.  They also learned first-hand that many people can be looking at the same thing but see it in very different ways. (Not to mention, seeing it in different ways and then understanding other peoples interpretations in ways that they did not intend.)

Science is teeming with misconceptions that arise from simple observations and misinterpretations.  Starting at the most basic understanding of observation and record keeping is the best way to minimize such problems.
The Mastodon Matrix will be here soon - or - at least, it will be here as soon as the Military Postal Service gets it to us.  When it arrives, I will be scheduling a series of days when we will be conducting our paleological dig. For those days, I will be sending out an invitation for parents to come in and watch, if they are interested and able to do so.  More information to come!
Another short day today. As a result, I decided that the best way to get the students interested in something challenging, educational, and good for developing spatial resoning and strategy was to play another challenging strategy game.  Today I taught them how to play Nine Men's Morris.  Their homework assignment was to teach a parent how to play the game during the weekend.

Enjoy it for a little family game night!

Last year, They Might Be Giants produced a new album called Here Comes Science. The album is entirely written about science. Of course, I bought it from iTunes immediately.  However, this past summer I found a number of videos that the group did for the songs.  I will play videos in class and embed them in this blog when they apply to the subjects we are learning.  This video is called Science Is REAL.
Today was an interesting day in class.  We discussed our ideas of what the terms hypothesis, theory, and law mean in regards to how they are used in science.  We started with the word "theory." In everyday usage, it tends to mean an untested idea or opinion.  However, this can be very confusing in science because the word means exactly the opposite.  In science, a theory (e.g., Theory of Plate TectonicsAtomic Theory, the General Theory of Relativity, or Heliocentrism) refers to a concept that is well supported through extensive and repeated study and testing.  Needless to say, we spent a great deal of our time discussing different scientific theories and how they have been supported by enough evidence to actually be categorized as a scientific theory.

There is a term for an untested idea or opinion, as well, that we spent a large portion of time learning.  That term is "hypothesis." A hypothesis needs has four important parts:
  1. A declarative statement must be made. (i.e., I think it will rain tomorrow...)
  2. Supporting evidence or prior knowledge/understanding. (i.e., ...because it rained today and yesterday.)
  3. Number 1 and Number 2 need to relate to one another. (e.g., it would sound ridiculous to say "I think it will rain tomorrow because I just clipped my dogs's toenails.)
  4. The hypothesis must be a statement with supporting evidence that can be tested through experimentation.

If a hypothesis is not false after being tested over and over and over again, then we as scientists come to accept it as being can become a "theory."

Finally, we spent a brief amount of time on Scientific Laws.  A scientific law is an attempt to describe the basic nature of the Universe. Some examples include Newton's Laws of MotionKepler's Laws of Planetary Motion, and theLaws of Thermodynamics. Although a hypothesis can become a theory, theories do not become laws. 

I realize that this may seem like some really heavy stuff for our 6th grade scientists.  However, they were all evry interested and following the concepts quite well.

The greatest portion of class was used in developing hypotheses regarding a specific group of dinosaurs. As we continue this particular activity in class, we will be shown "new" data so we can figure out whether our hypotheses still apply.
Today we took some time evaluating learning styles. Every 6th grader surveyed their ownselves about things that interest them, they compiled the data, summarized it, evaluated it, and then communicated the data using a colorful graph.  Here are a few examples that demonstrate how variable everyone is.
Short days are often difficult to plan for in a science class.  Anything that we could do as experiments or lab activities would likely take too long.  So, we will soon be discussing the details of Scientific Inquiry, I decided to teach a  simple game that helps to develop strategy, logic, forethought, and spatial reasoning (all important aspects of conducting scientific inquiry). The game is called Tapatan.  The kids all seemed to really enjoy it. If you have an iPhone, iTouch, or iPad, there is a free app for the game available in the iTunes Store.  If you do not have any of those devices, the game board and pieces are easy to make - take a look at the instructions here

Whew! I almost forgot to post the events that happened in class yesterday.  We took a pre-test for the school year to see how much students understand various scientific concepts. As a teacher, I don't think it makes much sense to blindly teach subjects without first understanding the students' conceptions (and misconceptions) of the subject. I realize the test was long and many have not yet completed it.  However, sacrificing this amount of time to identify student strengths and weaknesses will be gained back multiple times by not wasting time on concepts that students understand.
Being the first day that we all got to spend in class together, we spent our time reacquainting ourselves with each other.  I told students about how I had reached the point of becoming a teacher and they shared with me and the rest of the class experiences and accomplishments  about of which they are proud. I am always really impressed with the deep thinking, compassion, and enthusiasm that such young people can have.