Category Archives: In the Classroom

Decarbonation of Soda Water

My Year 12 Chemistry class were working on this *exciting* prac this afternoon, as part of developing their understanding of the equilibrium that occurs in the dissolution of carbon dioxide in water.

In the past, I have done this experiment as you might expect – take a small can of soft drink, crack the lid and let it sit for a few days alongside a control containing the same mass of water. You measure the mass of the cans before and after and calculate the mass lost due to CO2 loss. The control can helps to account for any evaporation, which tends to be most of the loss anyway. Not very exciting and not a lot of CO2 lost.

This time around I tried the salting out method, where you add 1-2 g of salt for every 50 mL of soda water. This causes the CO2 to effervesce immediately, leading to a totally flat bottle in about 10 minutes instead of days. Here are some sample photos:


20140522-165027-60627749.jpgAs you can see, some groups added some universal indicator to see if there was any colour change. The fizz at the top was distinctly yellow-orange, but interestingly the rest of the bottle stayed the same colour. A far more effective method – definitely a keeper!

Engaging the Whole Class with Large SOLO Hexagons

Yesterday my Year 9 class were finishing up our Ecosystems unit in anticipation of quickly moving onto our next unit, Splitting the Atom. We have our half yearly exam coming up very soon so I wanted us to do a revision activity but without spending a whole slab of precious class time on it. Enter the SOLO hexagons!

Now I’ve talked before about using the SOLO hexagon activity in class, with some examples of how I’ve used them. But when I’ve done these activities, I’ve used the small hexagon template and had the students write on the hexagons and cut them out with scissors. The good and bad thing about this, though, is that it can be time consuming to get the students to build solid connections between ideas.

So what I’ve done this time around (with the gracious help of our lab assistant) is to use the large hexagon template (which has 2 per page), cut them out and laminated them. I also had a brainwave and stuck some magnetic tape on the back. The lamination means that you can write on them with whiteboard markers and erase them. The magnetic tape allows you to stick them up onto the whiteboard and make a whole-class tessellation!

I asked the students to write one idea, word, concept relating to our Ecosystems unit and then take turns to put them up on the board, connecting their idea to the ideas already up there. Here’s a photo of their efforts:

20140522-071838-26318864.jpgAt the end we had a few clusters of ideas that I wanted us to recognise, so I wrote those subheadings based on the students’ suggestions.

All up, this activity took 10 minutes tops! Now admittedly we have done the hexagon activity a few times now, so they have some experience and know the format by now, but it was a productive and efficient way to summarise our ideas. There were a lot of ideas not represented (can you tell that we’ve covered the water cycle most recently?) but it was a helpful way to cap things off.

A word to the wise, though – it can be a lot harder to clean marker off laminate than an actual whiteboard!

Too Much Teacher Talk

20140520-071354-26034470.jpgThere’s too much teacher talk in my classroom! I’m feeling frustrated at how much time I spend talking during any given lesson, especially since the talking doesn’t seem to add to the students’ learning at all. I see the glazed looks and distracted chatting and I know I’ve lost them. Sigh.

I know that I’ve mused on this before and I knew it wouldn’t go away completely, but I just reached a point after my lessons yesterday seeing how ineffective it was. But what can I do instead? I already incorporate a lot of student-centred activities and I’ve deliberately structured my room to foster more collaboration, rather than purely facing the front bench. But how do you get students to get information at times when there’s just stuff they need to write down and hear?

Copying some notes off the board and then elaborating on them verbally seems to serve a role here, and I’m proud to say that I’ve done less and less of it this year than in the past. But the glazed looks aren’t exactly comforting or reassuring. What can I do instead?

Chemistry Revision Session

I had a revision session with some of my Year 12 students after school today, working through the gravimetric analysis of sulfate in fertiliser. Below is a whiteboard of the solution I wrote.


Fun with the Van de Graaff!

My Year 8 class were enjoying the Van de Graaff generator this morning!


Acidity of everyday substances

20140515-072513.jpgAs part of our acids and bases module, one activity that the students need to do is to use a range of indicators to qualitatively compare the acidity of different household substances. My Year 12s looked at the following:
Baking soda
Cream of tartar
Hand soap
V energy drink
Kitchen spray cleaner

They used phenolphthalein, methyl orange and bromothymol blue. Here’s their results:


SOLO Learning Intentions and Success Criteria

Today I moved to the next level in my implementation of SOLO (see what I did there?). In my Year 9 class we were revising the concept of food chains and webs, which they covered in Year 8 but now with the Australian Curriculum has become a topic for Stage 5.

We’ve recently introduced SOLO, developing a familiarity with the five levels and completed a survey on attitudes to learning and intelligence and the growth mindset. It was now time to start to introduce the concepts of learning intentions and success criteria.

Learning intentions are a way of articulating to students the purpose and goals of the lesson. I realise that having goals for a lesson isn’t a new concept, but it is an important part of using SOLO in the classroom. They allow students a clear point of comparison at the end of the lesson when they reflect on their learning. If the students know at the start what they are setting out to accomplish, then they can more effectively gauge where their understanding is at at the end.

Success criteria are a way of outlining to the students what success looks like at each of the levels of SOLO, i.e. what does a relational understanding of a particular learning intention look like? Alice puts it really well when she describes them as follows:

…success criteria are what students have to do to be successful in that lesson. The success criteria are classified by the SOLO taxonomy, which lets both the student and the teacher know how the student is progressing and adjust the teaching and learning process accordingly.

Here are my success criteria for this lesson:

The students really seemed to respond to the clearly articulated learning intentions and success criteria. They had a clearer idea of what was expected and what level of understanding they were working at. They were still a bit unsure of what to do – it’s all still very new and there were a number of new factors today – but overall it was very positive.

I definitely need to improve on articulating the strategies that the students can use to achieve success and I think I assumed that they had too much knowledge already. Many of the questions and problems that arose related to knowledge that I had assumed the students had and so I had to backpedal a few times to address this. Nevertheless, the students had a much clearer idea of how to improve and make progress and we’re definitely making positive moves towards adopting the growth mindset. Here’s a sample of one group’s effort that is working at the relational level for this lesson:

Definitely lots to celebrate here!

Introducing SOLO and the Growth Mindset

The new school term started back today, and so I’ve decided to start implementing SOLO into my everyday practice. At the moment I feel rather unprepared for it all, so I suspect that I’ll just have to feel my way through for a time.

Over the next few days I will be introducing SOLO to my students in a more explicit sense, discussing the levels in the taxonomy and what each one represents with some scientific examples. I have an introductory PowerPoint based on one that Alice posted that I showed to my Year 10 class today and will roll out to the others over the next little while (I’ll endeavour to put it up if I get the chance).

Tomorrow I’m also going to start giving my students a survey to find out their attitudes about intelligence, effort and scientific ability. I plan on using this as a way to introduce the concept of the growth mindset, which I see is crucial to success using SOLO.

Watch this space!

Paging Dr You – Help with Haemochromatosis PBL task


For the past two years, when Year 10 has been studying an evolution and genetics unit, I’ve included a PBL-style mini-project/case study/medical mystery to learn more about genetic diseases and heredity. I also incorporated a QR code scavenger hunt for the students to gather clues! However, I want to implement it differently this year differently and would love some feedback on both the task itself and how I can do it as a deeper, more engaging PBL task.

It was inspired by a post from Terie Engelbrecht, which she wrote as a way to try and clue us into her way of writing a PBL activity. In the example she was describing, she used a case study from the National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science about maple syrup urine disease to try and get her students to be the doctor. I loved how she deliberately made it a messy and complicated exercise for her students to untangle, and I wanted (in my ambitious, first year teacher way) to create the same sort of challenge for my students.

However, given that maple syrup urine disease is much more uncommon in Australia, I decided to do it about haemochromatosis, the most common recessive genetic disease in Australia and one that runs in my family. Incidentally, I created this mini-project right around the time that my son was born (clever, huh?) when I apparently had some time on my hands! So I’ll outline how the task has gone in the past.

So I start out with an introductory video, a “Skype call” from the patient’s mother (actually my mum!), explaining some of the symptoms. We then move onto:

Each clue is collected as a QR code in a scavenger hunt (clues are here), which involves a whole heap of fun of them racing around the school collecting this information using an iPad. The first year I did it, it was tricky for the students to do with their school laptops. They had to try and take screenshots using their webcams and so on – lots of tricky logistical issues that led many to throw their hands up at one point or another. Last year, at school we had gotten a class set of iPads that the students could use which made it much easier. They could scan the QR codes, access the files and record their video response all on the one device. I look forward to doing the same again when I run it this year.

Some good points about this activity:

  • They were really engaged and enthused, especially by the scavenger hunt aspect (who wouldn’t love that?) and the use of the iPads was novel for them as well.
  • They enjoyed solving the mystery, trying to work out the clues for themselves and sorting the relevant from the irrelevant just like a real doctor would do.
  • It was also great to develop their literacy skills, encountering scientific and medical language they hadn’t seen before and had to decode to understand the symptoms.

However, there were a number of drawbacks:

  • The students who just like to be told the answer were frustrated by my refusal to just tell them what it was. I’m not suggesting to change this aspect at all – I like making them think for themselves and make the decisions for a change. They’re just going to have to get used to it!
  • Some students were inclined to give up when it became challenging, especially as I had them working in groups and so it became easier for some to just coast and let their group mates do the work for them. Not much that can be helped here, but perhaps I will enforce smaller groups this time around.
  • Because of the timing of this 10 week topic (coming after the assessment task 5 or 6 weeks in), it’s been difficult in the past to give this mini project the time that it needs. I’ve typically done it for about 1 or 2 weeks if I’m lucky, often at the end of the term when the students are over it anyway. It’s also tended to come AFTER a lot of the content that they might need and yet they haven’t really learnt a lot of science through the project. The scientific content is definitely the part that has been done the poorest, due to time constraints. Naturally this needs addressing!

What I really want to do is to turn this 1 or 2 week mini-project into a more substantial 4 or 5 week PBL task, where the task DRIVES the learning about genetics and heredity instead of capping it off. I want the solving of the mystery and formulation of a response to create a need for their learning in manageable chunks – what are genes, how are traits inherited, how do faulty genes pass from parents to children? The timing of the assessment task may mean that this doesn’t work, but I really want this task to give the students an authentic REASON to find out the content.

How can I do this? How can I restructure this task to drive the learning, rather than follow it? I really don’t know what I should do to change it and would love some feedback and advice.

Using the SOLO Hexagons – Some Classroom Examples

Today was the last day of our first term, so for some strange reason I decided today would be the day that I would road-test the use of the SOLO hexagons that I learnt about the other day.

Despite the admittedly tricky timing, I wanted to use them today as a way for my Year 10 students to finish off their unit on Chemical Reactions. I had hoped that they would use the exercise to build connections between ideas that we had met and refresh their memories.

Unfortunately, the reality was a fair bit more lacklustre than that. I had pre-prepared the hexagons for them but i wasn’t around for the start of the lesson, so they were rather lost. They were clearly also in last day mode, but some of them got something useful out of it. Here’s some samples:


As a spur of the moment thing, I also decided to do it with my Year 9 class. With them I just got them to write ideas down on blank hexagons and then piece them together – much like we did when at the workshop. This class seemed to get into the activity a bit more, and with some direct guidance came up with some useful connections. Here are some more examples:



20140412-170738.jpgLots of quality work here, with great potential for using it in future. I think that I need to work on how much explanation and elaboration I do to help them understand how the activity works. Hopefully this will save some of the blank looks in future!

SOLO Hexagons

One of the fantastic activities we learnt about (and modelled) at the SOLO workshop yesterday was the SOLO hexagons. Alice blogs about them here.

At the workshop we were introduced to this activity by brainstorming about the topic of morning tea. We had a blank hexagon template and had to fill in as many of the hexagons as possible with words, phrases and images that related to the concept of morning tea. We then cut them out and combined our hexagons with the others at our table, lining up and tessellating our hexagons to highlight connections between related ideas and words.

Here is a snapshot of our work:

Every connected edge and vertex between hexagons is another connection to articulate and explain. It’s a beautiful activity because no two groups will make identical connections for identical reasons; there’s no right or wrong answer or “right way” to do it. If the students can thoughtfully make connections, they can succeed at this activity.

Pam Hook also has a free hexagon template generator that you can use to make your own labelled hexagons for a more guided approach.

Tackling the Big Issues

In Year 9, we are studying a unit on Cells and Life – all about reproduction, the nervous and endocrine systems and disease. As part of this unit, we’ve been looking into some of the big issues of reproduction, including IVF, “designer babies” and sperm donation.

One of the issues we wanted to focus on was about IVF. Here was some of the background information to help the students understand more about what it is.

20131120-093359.jpgThe students then had to wrestle with a big moral issue around IVF: what do we do with the unused embryos? Should we destroy them, keep them “on ice” indefinitely, donate them to another family or donate them to research? The students debated and discussed these issues and had to support and defend their positions. Here is a collection of their ideas:

20131120-093331.jpgIt’s so important that students get the time and space to discuss and consider these ethical issues, especially as these are things that they will undoubtedly encounter in their lives and may have even experienced themselves.

Making Scale Models of the Solar System

I know it’s been awhile between posts, but I can assure you that there’s been plenty of good stuff going on. Here’s just one example.

My Year 8 class have been looking into understanding the solar system, starting off by collecting a whole set of data on the 8 planets (neglecting poor little Pluto of course). They then used that data to create a scale model of the size of the planets, using Earth as a circle of 1 cm radius and creating the other planets relative to this. Here’s one group’s awesome effort:


“I felt smart today!”

A comment from one of my Chemistry students to another as he was leaving class at the end of the day today (i.e. not for my benefit!) This student has struggled with the content of this course but especially with confidence in his ability. Such an awesome thing to hear!

Models of the Universe

Well, we’re back into school now, kicking into Term 4. I know the blog has been quiet for the last few weeks – I was very deliberately taking a relaxing holiday with the family and trying to switch off as much as possible.

My Year 10 class is doing an astronomy unit (unimaginatively called The Universe), where we explore the Big Bang theory, the life cycle of stars, nuclear fusion and a whole lot more. In order to get themselves better acquainted with our current model of the universe, we need to know more about where we’ve come from.

I asked the students to research the models of Aristotle, Ptolemy, Copernicus, Galileo and Einstein, as well as comparing the ideas of a geocentric vs heliocentric universe. I really wasn’t sure how much they’d get into it on the second day back but they took to it straight away. Each group chose a model to research and put their information on a piece of butcher’s paper, which they stuck up onto the whiteboard when they were finished. Here’s their work at the end of the lesson:


Making Fossils – Reassembling the Skeleton

Today (in last period on our last day of term no less), my Year 9 class were doing the final part of our fossils activity – reassembling the skeleton! On Wednesday they cracked open the fossils and cleaned up the bones. For the last 2 days they have been drying out in the sun and we examined and sorted them this afternoon. Firstly we sourced a reference skeleton of a chicken to help us get things into perspective, as well as comparing similarities and differences to our own skeleton:

20130920-204924.jpgMost of the students (aside from a few who were a bit squeamish about the whole exercise) then worked to sort the bones into types and shapes, identifying the vertebrae, flat bones, sternum and humerus (in my preparation there were at least half a dozen chickens, hence the number of sterna in particular):

20130920-205235.jpgTo extend our activity a bit further, we then had a go at reassembling Ned Kelly’s skeleton from a worksheet I created. I wanted them to experience what it’s like to try and piece something together with whatever evidence is in front of you. Here’s the actual image:

20130920-205434.jpgSo all in all, making fossils proved to be a really rewarding exercise and the students had a great time doing it. Definitely a keeper!

Making Fossils – Conclusion

We finally cracked open our fossils today, using picks, sieves and brushes to uncover our chicken bones. Here’s the clay bricks being broken open:20130918-143601.jpgThe bones being brushed clean:

20130918-143619.jpgWashing them clean to remove the mud and clay:

20130918-143638.jpgUsing the sieve to collect the bones together:

20130918-143649.jpgHere the bones are, all collected together, ready for reassembly:

20130918-144108.jpgSuch a great experience and lots of fun too!

Year 12’s last day

A very thoughtful gift from one of my Year 12 students on their last day of Chemistry. So thoughtful! (Including checking the ingredients list to make sure that my pineapple-allergic wife can eat it!)

It’s been a real blessing to teach this class and I’m really going to miss them.


“Chalk” one up for Whiteboarding and the Mistake Game

20130913-204701.jpgRecently I’ve been seeking feedback from my Year 11 Chemistry class about their plans for moving on to Year 12. (For North American readers, our Year 11 is only 3 terms long, finishing 3/4 of the way through the year so that Year 12 can go for 12 months and finish in time for their HSC exams in October. They can choose to drop a subject at this point and so many students use it as a time to take stock of how they are going.)

As a part of this feedback process, I gave them a Google Form so they could signal their intentions and give me some feedback on how our class has been going. I’ve found it really useful in the past, even if it hasn’t always been pleasant. One thing that was really enlightening, though, was the positive comments about whiteboarding and the Mistake Game. Here are some highlights:

“Using the whiteboards has been extremely helpful, as you can keep trying, correcting and rubbing out your working to express the process of figuring out the question in a visual form, and I enjoyed that. Also the Mistake Game was good because not only did I realise mistakes people could make, I also realised some of the mistakes I was making myself.”

“I love the whiteboards. The mistake game was effective as I found I focused a lot harder on trying to find mistakes in problems rather than trying to solve them!”

So proud!

Making Fossils – Part 2

The other day was preparation for making the fossils. Wednesday was the actual making day! Even though they took a long time to to listen to the instructions and explanation, they had a blast making them. Totally messy, gluggy and yet totally worth it. Here they are scooping the clay soil (dug from our own garden beds by our Year 9 Agriculture class)

20130913-142538.jpgMixing it with water to make a pasty mixture:

20130913-142608.jpgAnd here they are drying out in the sun in our greenhouse area:

20130913-142636.jpgWe plan on cracking them open next week some time, if they dry out enough over the next few days.