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Autonomy leads to creativity and understanding

May 5, 2015

Human_Digestive_SystemIn senior biology each year, I have the students do a travel brochure through the digestive system.  I had them use an analogy of a travel tour to explain what was happening in each organ with the hope that the students would better understand the concept when they were finished.  For the most part, the projects were good and the students did pretty well on the unit test.

This year I loosened up the expectations.  I told them they could do ANY project to show their understanding of the digestive system learning outcomes.  The only criteria was they needed to use an analogy for each term and function in the system.  I joked that the presentation format could be anything from an essay to interpretive dance.  The students, initially, did not know where to start.  Open ended projects are a challenge for students that are usually told exactly what they need to do to be successful.

With how much of a time constraint we are under in senior biology it is hard to “burn” days thinking of project ideas.  Luckily, using the flip model, I was able to free up some time usually dedicated to lecture.

I gave the students a week to finish the project and made it due the day before the test.

The creativity and the level of effort the students put in was amazing!

They immersed themselves in their projects as they chose ideas that interested them.

Here is a list of some of the projects that they created:



Abstract Painting:




House Demolition:

20150505_084611 20150505_084624 20150505_084638

Pirate Ship:


Video: Digestion Dundee


I always reflect after I do activities, labs, and projects to see if it was beneficial.  After seeing the results of the tests it is obvious that the understanding of the concepts improved.  In addition to the understanding, I could also see that students were proud of the projects they created.

Looking back, the key to the success of this project was autonomy.  In letting the students come up with their own ideas and presentation style the students were invested in the project and the finished projects blew my expectations out of the water.


The snowball effect creates the Forensics Club

March 31, 2015

During one of our many conversation @benarcuri and I decided that we need to try to do a lab that incorporates both Biology and Chemistry.  Ben would do a portion of the lab with his senior chemistry students and then I would do the other portion with my senior biology students.  We figured we could find a way to apply our subject areas in a way where there is overlap.  ~Snowball rolled up and packed between our gloves~snowball

We weren’t planning anything big.  Perhaps one lab where we run a DNA sample.  The chemistry group could work with the buffer solution and the biology students could run the gel electrophoresis.   ~little snowball dropped at the top of a snowy hillside~

We then began to think about what the running gel would look like.  It has been many years since I did one in university so we hit the internet. We came across a kit that allowed students to test multiple DNA samples and compare the DNA evidence at the scene of the crime.  ~Snowball is beginning to roll and gain momentum~

We thought, DNA is great but how about fingerprints?  ~Snowball is getting bigger~

How about blood sample pattern analysis?  Hair samples? ~Bigger and bigger~Snow ball

Are we just going to have a bunch of independent labs?  Where is the story?  Are we going to create a CSI worthy story to keep the students interested?  ~Snowball has grown to an obscene size and is speeding out of control~85618456

Uh oh…we have a problem.  How are we going to do this and continue to get through our content-heavy curriculum?  How are we going to plan this massive undertaking with just the 2 of us planning it.  ~Bam! Monstrous snowball hits the side of a building and explodes~6556031529_9f2841a637

The solution…create the forensics club and open it up to all students that are interested (we figured we would get 15 or so interested students in gr 9-12).  We also reached out to our staff for help.  Luckily, our entire science dept, admin, and another couple staff members were willing  to help out.  ~Blown apart snowball is now gathered up and put back together by numerous helping hands~


With our giant snowball created and hopefully under control, here is what the Forensics Club is going to look like:

We found a Dinner Party Murder Mystery online and adapted the story so that it fits with the labs we planned.  Each piece of evidence (each lab) will lead to more evidence or to a suspect.  Here are the labs:

Bloodstain pattern analysis and Blood typing

Fingerprint collection and analysis.  We are lucky and have a law enforcement officer that specializes in evidence collection leading us through the process.

Identification of unknown white powder

Hair analysis

Physics Lab (by the physics dept) to figure out the trajectory and force of the murder weapon

DNA Gel Electrophoresis

Morgue visit where the Forensics Pathologist will show the students around and show them what her job consists of.

We advertised this to our school and held a meeting to determine interest levels.  We were absolutely floored with the amount of students interested. There was so much interest that we had to limit the club to grade 12s (We plan to do this again and the 12s obviously won’t be at the school next year like the others will).  After expectations and levels of commitment were expressed we still had 46 confirmed club participants.

There will be some twists and turns around the way but, in the end, the evidence should point to one suspect. Each group of students will submit their findings in the end.

Up first is the blood lab…I’ll post another once the first lab is finished

I hope it all goes as planned!  It should be an exciting journey

Scott Harkness (@hark07)

Quizzing: New twist on an old tradition

October 17, 2013

Yesterday, in Biology 12, I tried something new.

The previous week, the class build a cell membrane on the wall of the classroom (2D)  This was meant to help students visualize the composition of the cell membrane.  The next concept was osmosis and diffusion.  To quiz this concept, I decided to branch out and let the students do the quiz in groups of 2 or 3.  I gave them 8 minutes (I don’t know why I chose the number) and told them they can use any materials in the class to illustrate the concept of diffusion and osmosis.  The only rules is they needed to use the cell membrane on the wall and they weren’t allowed to use words to DESCRIBE the process.  They were working so well I let them have more time so it took more like 15 minutes.

Overall, I was blown away with the level of engagement and teamwork.  The students went straight to their tasks, consulted with their classmates, and adequately showed their understanding of the concepts (or not).  In either case, I was able to circulate, touch base with students, and see what specific parts they were understanding or struggling with.

If you know your bio, you will notice some of the pictures illustrate the concepts of osmosis/ diffusion…and some do not.  But, they all showed the students’ understanding of the concepts.

photo 1

photo 2 photo 3 photo 4 photo 5

Whiteboards…a must have

March 23, 2013

Last year I stopped by to watch Carolyn Durley’s (@okmbio) flipped class in action and I got more than I bargained for. Of course, I saw how wonderful her flipped class was but I also saw students using whiteboards in the classroom.  Luckily, my VP, Myron Dueck (@myrondueck) was with me and saw how useful they were so he found some money to buy me a class set.

I originally figured that the whiteboards would increase engagement due to the novelty factor and they would also save paper when students do practice problems on the boards instead of the paper but I never realized how powerful they would be.

Student Collaborationphoto(1)
When students are in their group discussions, based on the flipped video content, they use them to compile their thoughts and work through problems and concepts. The white boards are 3ft x 2ft so it allows for multiple students to use them at the same time. The large size also allows for students to see what other students are writing down.

                                                                     Formative assessment tool
photo-11This is the greatest impact of the whiteboards in my opinion. I have stolen and also created a number of games/ activities that allow both students and myself to check in and see their current understanding of the concepts.  Whiteboarding (yes, it is now a verb) creates a snap shot of student understanding so I can see where the students are at in terms of their understanding, and consequently, where we need to go next.  The picture below shows the biology 12 “silent debate”.  The learning outcome was to understand the function of each “organelle” in a cell.  In groups of 2/3, students choose one organelle and argue, concisely, on the whiteboard why their organelle is the MOST important in the cell.  Students rotate to the next whiteboard and argue why their organelle is more important than the organelle on the white board.  They write their argument down.  They continue to go from one whiteboard to the next until they have argued each case.  The students finish at their original board where they can see the other arguments.

No white Boards?

If there aren’t any whiteboards available, you can always improvise.  To mix things up, I started “Fluorescent Fridays”.  We have black lab tables and so using neon “white” board markers works pretty well.  The only downside of these markers is they are a bit more difficult to erase.

photo-10  photo-11

If anyone is looking into using whiteboards I recommend getting them as I have found them to have a number of benefits for myself and my students.

Here is a list of some of the whiteboarding activities I have compiled.  Thanks to Kelly Oshea (@kellyoshea), Graham Johnson (@mathjohnson), Carolyn Durley (@okmbio), and Geoff Waterman (@geoffwaterman) for sharing some of these ideas.  There are so many other activities or variations out there but these are my “go to”.

Silent Debate- In groups of 2/3, students choose one organelle and argue, concisely, on the whiteboard why their organelle is the MOST important in the cell.  Students rotate to the next whiteboard and argue why their organelle is more important than the organelle on the white board.  They write their argument down.  They continue to go from one whiteboard to the next until they have argued each case.  The students finish at their original board where they can see the other arguments

Monkboarding- In complete silence, pairs of students work through a series of questions.  One partner solves while the other examines the process.  If there is a mistake, the partner explains/ corrects the mistake without talking.

Sports Commentary– One student does a “play by play” commentary based on what steps the other student uses to solve the problem.  Can use iPad to capture the process.

Speed Dating- Like the “romantic” dating scenario, speed dating has students sitting on opposite sides of a desk with the whiteboard in the middle.  Students each start solving a problem for a set amount of time/ steps.  Students then get up and move to the next whiteboard to continue solving/ correcting another student’s question.

Find the Mistake- Students, in pairs, solve a problem on the whiteboard but intentionally make a mistake.  The mistake should be a common conceptual mistake (not changing a 4 to a 7).  The students switch boards, or present, and the other groups find the mistake.

The perfect recipe: 1 part playdough + 1 part ipad

March 20, 2013

DNA replication is a complicated process and students struggle to learn the process. The students struggle trying to visualize the steps and as a result don’t completely understand the process.

This year, I tried a more hands-on approach using play dough and iPads.

Students came to class on day 1 after watching a video on DNA structure and the steps of DNA replication. See video if you would like:

In groups, students then whiteboarded the steps of replication and came up with acronyms to remember the steps.

My favorite acronym for the process was:

Hot- helicase
Dog- DNA polymerase
Lunch- Ligase
This pneumonic device translates to each enzyme or step of the process.  The hot dog lunch acronym also illustrated what the enzymes do.      

 Helicase breaks apart the DNA just like you would break apart a bun.
DNA polymerase adds nucleotides just like you would add a wiener.
Ligase seals the backbone of the DNA just like you would add your condiments to seal in the wiener.

At the end of the day, students had a pretty good idea of steps but they still needed work in the understanding of what was happening during each step.

Day 2: Bring in the Play doughPlay_dough

The students used the play dough to model the steps they had been learning the previous day.

The students then used iMotionHD on the iPads to take a picture of each step.  This created a stop-motion animation of the process.

Once the students were finished, we used Apple TV to project the finished projects on the screen.  Here each group of students described the steps that were occurring as they happened on the screen.  Other students gave constructive feedback if any steps were missed.

Here is one example of the final project:

The video goes pretty fast but we are able to slow down the amount of frames per second using the actual app.

The feedback from the students was great.  They enjoyed the activity and the results on the replication section of the test were outstanding!

Knowing when to fold ’em

March 1, 2013

Poker-HandI’ve been flipping my biology 12 class for the past 3 semesters and have recently flipped my Biology 11 and Chemistry 11 classes as well.  In biology 12, the flip has helped me reallocate time so more meaningful learning can take place in class.  I freed up 40 minutes x 3 or 4 per unit and have filled in that time with more activities and labs that help students better learn the concepts and also help them reflect on their learning.

Without a doubt, the flipclass model has created a better learning environment for my biology 12 students

Move to Chemistry 11.  I’ve just recently flipped this class and I like the direction the class in moving in. We have time for better activities, more labs to show the application of the concepts and have been trying to introduce more inquiry into a usual cookie cutter lab style that is common in a lot of science classes.  Basically, the labs were “follow the recipe step-by-step and come up with the result you knew you were going to get”.  I still think there is a place in the course for students to learn to follow instructions but I have added labs where inquiry is the main focus.  In these labs, I pose a question for them and they need to come up with the procedure and along the way they uncover the result.  These labs take longer, students get frustrated along the way, but eventually their hard work pays off when they discover the intended learning outcome.

Finally, lets move to Biology 11.  This course attracts a larger variety of abilities and effort levels, for some reason of another.  I have tried to incorporate the same goals/ activities/ labs as biology 12 but I have had students that dig their heals in anytime they are expected to be creative.  This group, more than any other, would like to be spoon fed the content so they can regurgitate it a week later on the test before forgetting the concepts forever.  It seems like there is a disconnect somewhere along the line.  I want to use the videos to free up time for the activities but the engagement isn’t there and consequently the learning is happening like I hoped it would.

So here is where I am at in Biology 11.  I know I have a killer hand but if no one else buys in then what is the point?  Is it time for me to fold the flipclass in biology 11? Or do I keep doing what I’m doing and hope that it eventually attracts some action?


The end of an era? I hope so

October 27, 2012

I teach senior high school level biology and chemistry and over the past year I have changed the way I deliver, and the way students “acquire” content in my course. I have shared my journey and ideas with other colleagues along the way. Many have been receptive, and others…well…

Working in a department it is important to work as a team rather than against one another.  It is great to bounce ideas off of each other but some days it feels as if I am constantly fighting an uphill battle where I defend one argument and then another takes it’s place.  Even still, I feel comfortable moving in the direction I am, until university is mentioned.

The thinking goes something like this:  “Students in senior science courses are headed to postsecondary. They need to know the INFORMATION before going to university or they will not be successful. We at high school need to make sure we cover the CONTENT otherwise these students will be at a disadvantage and it will be MY fault.”

Is this in fact accurate? Is this what universities’ want?

I’ve never asked them…until now.

I sent emails to professors from UBC, U of A, and SFU asking them what their biology/ science departments are doing in terms of classroom format (lecture, etc), educational trends and expectations of students coming out of high school. I included in my email a description of a flipped classroom and how I am trying to move away from content acquisition and towards skill based, process oriented, and collaborative learning. I mentioned that I was hoping to get some insight into what the instructors were doing and to help get my students ready for the next level.

I had no idea what to expect or whether to expect any replies at all. I was blown away, excited and amazed at the responses I received. Below are summaries from 3 university professors.

Dr. Samuels
Head of Botany at UBC

Her suggestions on how to best prepare students for their post-secondary education:

  • “Encourage all activities that promote active learning in high school [such as skill based, process oriented, and collaborative learning.]
  • Develop…”habit of examining their own thinking will have a more successful transition to university.”
  • “Apply what they have learned in novel contexts.”

Dr. Jonathan Schaeffer
Dean, Faculty of Science, University of Alberta

Upcoming changes he mentions for the university :

  • We have been experimenting with flipped courses. Come September 2013 we will be expanding our number of flipped courses, at least two of which will be in Biology. If all goes well, then we will continue to move in this direction.

Dr. Lam
Biological Sciences at SFU

Upcoming changes he mentions for the university (Note the second one!!) :

    • “More inquiry-based and critical-thinking-heavy exercises. “
    • “Experiment with a flipped classroom design (like the one you mentioned) for the lectures.”
    • “Away from content acquisition and move towards skill-based, process-oriented, and collaborative learning.”
    • “Shift the focus away from knowing content and towards the useful skills and conceptual understanding that we want students to have when they graduate.”

His suggestions on how to best prepare students for their post-secondary education:

    • Break the habit of memorizing things instead of understanding them. The more you can shift their focus towards understanding concepts with the goal of being able to use them as tools to solve novel problems, the better.”
    • Build their confidence in their ability to figure things out for themselves. Give them challenges and problems that they don’t think they can solve, refuse to give them hints or answers, and teach them to ask themselves the right questions and to test the validity of their educated guesses until they start to understand the problem and stumble their way towards a valid solution. “

These suggestions from university educators tell me that a big change is on the horizon at the university level. They also indicate to me that change can starts at the high school level.

We, who teach high school students, can no longer hang on to the illusion that if we focus on content  we are “getting them ready for university”.  Push for change in your classroom, in your department, and in your school.

The change is coming…will you be part of the new era of education?

“I think, increasingly, anything you learn is going to become obsolete within a decade and

so the most important kind of learning is about how to learn.”

                               Lawrence Summers- Former President of Harvard

For more on this topic I suggest reading the following articles from the Globe and Mail:

Classroom of 2020: The future is very different than you think

Why university students need a well-rounded education

Scott Harkness
Thanks to Carolyn Durley (@okmbio) for helping me write/ edit this blog!