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I had the opportunity to spend this week in Montana and Wyoming through Montana State’s MSSE program, studying the biology of the thermal features in Yellowstone National Park. I met science teachers from various states and countries that are all working towards using this material in their classes, and I was happy to be a part of such a rich discussion of content and pedagogy.

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A few reflections as I read through Suzie Boss’s book “Bringing Innovation to School” (reflections that I think are fairly in line with what she’s saying so far, but applied to my particular setting in school and in my science classroom):

First, in order to TEACH and coach the ability to innovate (which has future potential in the world, for kids to be ready and willing to MAKE something, or to make things better), we have to BE innovative ourselves as teachers. This idea of teaching the importance of innovation strongly resonates with our school’s mission, in that we’re charged with preparing students to go out and “make a positive contribution to the world.” This is not a light charge, nor one that will be easy for some who are used to delivering information, used to doing things the way they’ve always done them. That’s not to say that ALL are doing that.  How are we innovative? Many teachers are doing terrific things in their classrooms, asking students to come up with new ideas that have value (Ken Robinson’s definition of creativity), and to solve real world problems, and to demonstrate proficiency in various areas, by practicing and using skills in math, languages, writing, communication, and science. But, many teachers are comfortable simply delivering content. Sal Khan can deliver content, and his reach is MUCH wider than yours. Khan Academy provides an important role in the universe (because so many children on the planet have not previously had access to that kind of information), but if that’s the only thing that you’re doing as a teacher, you can be replaced by the Internet.

The only way to effectively teach what have been dubbed 21st Century Skills, we must innovate. We’ll also have to collaborate with colleagues. The only way to train students to do the things we want them to do, in the limited time that we have them, is going to be to come up with creative ways to check multiple skills of the list, preferably while checking off multiple disciplines as well.

What I like so far about the book is that she provides great examples of what’s going on in dynamic classrooms around the country, with teachers that are pushing the envelope in different disciplines, thinking big, and asking a lot of their students. She also presents how to APPLY these kinds of projects to your classroom, or to consider how you might do something similar. 

Now with a bit of a an airport layover, I’m going to take in another chunk…

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bison in spring from Scott Lilley on Vimeo.

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I just finished up a week in Montana and Wyoming with a group of ninth graders, studying the history of wolf reintroduction in Yellowstone, learning a bit more about the wildlife while we were here. We booked part of our program with the Yellowstone Association, the education arm of the park, and I would highly recommend them for educational groups or for any visitors looking for informative and helpful guides. They were like classroom/field trip teachers for three days; they got to know our students, and they really knew their stuff when it came to natural history, archaeology, geology, and ecology of the region. They also provided transportation in short tour vans, binoculars, and spotting scopes. As our students had been studying wolf reintroduction, the Association arranged for us to meet with two ranchers up in the Gardiner Valley, Martin Davis and Bruce Malcolm. The conversations with these gentlemen helped us all to gain some perspective on the complexity of the issues surrounding wolves, hunting, ranching, ecology, and economics; the students and teachers alike were moved by their equanimity, common sense, and insight. The ranching life is not one that too many of our students are familiar with, and it was eye opening for them (and me).

The week started out snowy and in the 20s, but got a bit warmer and sunnier each day. It is April in Northern Wyoming!

It was a pretty incredible trip.

Roosevelt Arch Yellowstone 4-22-13

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mammoth springs in snow 4-22-13

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group photo mammoth springs 4-22-13

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scanning for wolves 4-23-13

moose and calf Lamar Valley 4-23-13

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I just found this video/tutorial series from bozemanbiology as I was looking for a visual way to introduce cells, other than looking at the diagrams in the book (or using CellsAlive, which I also find incredibly useful). So we watched this video today in class with both my biology sections. Now, Andersen FLIES through this stuff, faster than kids can take notes on, but I think his explanations are really clear (and students can always watch the video again. That could be useful for them after they’ve learned more about organelles, as a way to tie it all together for review). I also love the podcast style and how he uses graphics and “smart pen” notes on the screen. It’s like listening to and watching Alton Brown explain animal cell structures. I’d like to make some of these tutorials myself, or have the kids make them to show what they know for assessments.

Paul Andersen is a high school biology teacher in Bozeman, MT, and he’s got a few hundred videos on his YouTube channel, most on topics on biology, but some in physics, chemistry, and scientific method. It’s like Khan Academy with more visual aids.

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We finished the field component of the predator-prey ecology class this week in the Daly Creek drainage, Montana, Yellowstone National Park. We worked to collect information on how elk browsing habits related to physical barriers in aspen stands affects recruitment of aspen saplings. Here’s a bit of what we saw.

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Halls of Learning

This is a nostalgic post.

I walked into Lewis Hall this morning for the classroom portion of my predator-prey ecology class, and was instantly transported back to undergrad, to that great typical old-school biology building: long halls, worn stone steps, stairs on either end of the building, glass display cases with taxidermied birds and mammals, frosted glass on the top half of the wooden doors, labs with those long black tables, microscopes in cabinets. Now part of the nostalgia included the fact that the building isn’t air conditioned, and it does have that special biology lab smell. If you spent any significant time in Arey, before they built Olin, you know what I’m talking about. It really brought me right back.

Tomorrow’s classroom is in the Daly Creek drainage, which is in the section of Yellowstone National Park that extends along the Continental Divide into Montana, the most northwestern section of the park. We’ll be looking at predator-prey interactions between wolves and elk, to see what effects those interactions have on aspen growth in the area. The big question relates to whether the observable positive effects on aspen growth (since wolf reintroduction in 1996/97) are due to behavioral changes in the elk (the so-called “ecology of fear”), or whether it’s strictly a density-mediated change, related to the reduced population of elk (which were at an historic high before wolf reintroduction, at numbers upwards of 20,000!). Time to collect some data…

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