Archive for March, 2012

March 28, 2012

Our *TOP SECRET* NSTA Annual Conference Preview…

Alright, it’s not really top secret. Hopefully that got your attention, though!

The trees are starting to bud; the nip in the air is starting to mellow; the days stretch a little longer; and flight confirmations are crowding the inboxes of TERC staff. That’s right—it’s Spring Conference Season!

From March through May, the bustling hallways of TERC quiet down a bit as TERC researchers travel to the NSTA, AERA, NCSM, and NCTM Annual Conferences as presenters and attendees (among others). This year, I’m ‘holding down the fort’ as my Institutional Development colleagues are off to represent TERC in the NSTA exhibit hall (go visit TERC at booth #1668!). For those of you (us) not headed to Indianapolis, check out the great roster of TERC presenters at NSTA:

Click to download the official listings document and descriptions!

• On Thursday, March 29th, our own Tamara Ledley will be presenting “Climate Change Essential Knowledge and Beyond: Using the Past to Predict the Future” from 8:00-9:00 a.m. in Indianapolis’ Omni Severin. On Friday, she will be presenting as part of NESTA’s Share-a-Thon session “Atmospheres, Ocean, and Climate Change” from 11 a.m. to noon at the Indianapolis Westin, and later from 2:00-3:00 p.m. on “Teaching Climate and Energy”—a presentation full of teaching tips and tools available through the CLEAN (Climate Literacy and Energy Awareness Network) collection of resources. Tamara is a Senior Scientist at TERC, and conducts research on Earth system science and climate change.

• Also on Thursday the 29th, TERC Senior Scientist Sara Lacy and Senior Science Educator Sally Crissman will be presenting the BEST Pathway Session entitled, “How Can Students in Grades 3-5 Understand Energy?” On Friday, Sally will be sharing her materials and strategies for teaching inquiry-based elementary science as part of the NSTA Elementary Extravaganza. Sara is a physical scientist currently working on this project dedicated to developing learning progressions for teaching energy and matter. Sally Crissman is a former classroom teacher and Co-Developer of The Inquiry Project.

 • Last but not least—Gary Curtis of Dublin Public Schools in Dublin, Ohio will be speaking about Investigating Astronomy on Friday afternoon from 3:30-4:30 p.m. Investigating Astronomy is TERC-developed, and the first comprehensive astronomy curriculum for high school students. The IA textbook is available through It’s About Time publishers.

Bon voyage, science teachers, administrators, and presenters en route to NSTA! And be sure to stay tuned for more ‘top secret’ conference previews for AERA and NCSM/NCTM!

March 22, 2012

The ‘Weigh’ of Inquiry

When was the first time you thought about density? When was the first time you understood density?

I’d imagine most of us conceptualized weight at a young age—perhaps before we were even able to articulate as much. In my case, there were certain objects in my everyday consciousness that felt heavier, and certain objects that felt lighter. My red wooden wagon containing my kid brother qualified as ‘heavy’, but my Hop 100 (a giant rubber hopping ball with handle) was mysteriously ‘light’—despite being the same size as said brother-filled wagon. I didn’t comprehend why two objects of the same size were drastically different weights—at least not until I got through the molecular theory unit in 9th grade physical science.

Admittedly, even then, understanding density— as both an a) ratio and b) volume-related notion—was NOT an easy, intuitive process. I got hung up on seemingly simple questions like: If two objects are comprised of the same material, does the heavier object take up more space than the lighter one? What if the material is different? Oil looks like it should be denser than water, but how come it isn’t? I was stuck between a rock and a hard place in my learning trajectory. And was that ‘rock’ denser than a compressed particleboard ‘hard place’? How would I go about figuring that out?

Check out "Measure Lines" by Sally Crissman to learn more about Inquiry Project activities and techniques!

I would have been better equipped to answer these kinds of questions (without the loads of help I received from my educator parents) if I had been exposed to The Inquiry Project. The Inquiry Project is a free, inquiry-based curriculum that provides 3rd-5th graders  with a solid foundation for working with the topic of density in the middle grades. Check out “Measure Lines” by Sally Crissman, Co-Teacher and Curriculum Developer for The Inquiry Project, to learn more about how Inquiry Project guided talk involving ‘felt weight’ and measure line data plotting can prepare today’s 8-10 year-olds for those later ‘dense’ discussions.

For more information, check out The Inquiry Project website at:

And see you next week, reporting on this year’s NSTA presentations!

March 14, 2012

Games for Thought

“What is your favorite game?”

That question caught me entirely off-guard when I recently attended an after-hours user testing event hosted by EdGE (Educational Gaming Environments) @TERC with the sole intention of jotting down a few notes for this web feature.

After a quick scan of my memory, I was at an impasse. I hastily blurted out “Scrabble. I’m a lexophile”. Blank stares from the young, hip, and connected console and mobile players around me. In that very moment, time caught up and lapped me. “But on the iPhone as well,” I added. It was already too late. The world had moved on. Generation Y, meet Generation Z. There’s no need to shake hands or exchange contact info—just bump Androids. And definitely download the Temple Run app—it’s going viral.

There had to be something I was forgetting.

I worked my way around the room multiple times after that, recording (with a pen and paper) gamers chatting over Where’s My Water?, Angry Birds, Physics 101, and Limbo. And then it happened—I remembered something. I heard a gamer say, “I like it when I can learn about topics and try new things that would be impossible in real life—and pick up and try again if I make a mistake”. Strangely, I could almost hear a lone bongo drum, and then the rattle of maracas…was that the distant yowl of a black panther? There I was, photographing the fauna of the forest floor, consulting my guidebook, searching for the elusive, near-magical cinchona…but was I running low on supplies? Would I stave off malnourishment and get to the next level before dinnertime?

The Amazon Trail. Memories came rushing back, carried on a swift current. Propelled by an in-game glimpse of the Blue Morpho butterfly, I took it upon myself to catalogue the Monarchs and Swallowtails in our backyard. I would sneak out of bed to the window when my dad took our puppy out at night—hoping to catch a glimpse of an errant Luna moth by the floodlight. My world—and that of the digitized Amazon jungle—blurred together around the edges.

I didn’t realize then that I was learning (let alone learning a lot). I certainly didn’t realize that I’d remember researching Blue Morphos only to discover that they live for a mere 115 days. That broke my heart at the time, and still pulls at my heartstrings.

Check out ‘Games and Ubiquitous Science Learning Environments’ from EdGE’s Director Jodi Asbell-Clarke for the 2012 Cyberlearning Research Summit

In a dizzying time where the allure of many technologies doesn’t last much beyond 115 days, the R&D work that the EdGE team is doing has lasting implications for the intersection of meaningful science content and gaming. More specifically, they’re researching and developing the kind of gripping, highly-visual transmedia experiences that cutting-‘EdGE’ gamers like to play (and will likely continue to like to play in the future) and measuring these games’ impact on science learning.

Suddenly, it’s not so difficult to imagine a future where we’re all engaging in science-centric gaming and real-world learning through our various devices. Even as a lexophile/Luddite, I guarantee that I’d be doing a lot more mobile gaming and Lepidopteran observation if MECC made an app version of The Amazon Trail

So I leave you with two questions—what’s your favorite game to play? And what did you learn from it?

I bet it’s more than you think.



March 7, 2012

To Drink or Not To Drink the Water? That is the Question…

Statistics for Action has some answers.

Environmental organizers and citizen groups encounter math-dense technical documents in their day-to-day livelihoods—including test results, permit applications, environmental impact statements, and risk assessments. How often do they read them and help their communities make sense of them? Because of Statistics for Action (SfA)—now, more than ever.

Thankfully, too. I recently moved to Cambridge and became painfully aware of my own rusty data analysis skills when I perused a copy of the 2010 Drinking Water Quality Report. I tried to imagine if the ‘high reading’ of 2.6 ppm (parts per million) of chlorine in Cambridge tap water would be discernible by taste—and how this 2.6 ppm might compare to the 4.0 ppm of chlorine that is the MRDL (maximum residual disinfectant level) and how that 4.0 might compare to the ppm chlorine content of—let’s say—pool water. And what I really didn’t get was whether or not that 2.6 ppm of chlorine recorded in Cambridge water was definitively a good number or a bad one. Stay with me here—2.6 ppm seemed relatively good as compared to 4.0 ppm, but was there an optimal proportion of chlorine to water? Should I still drink the water?*

Needless to say, my ruminations left me with way more questions than answers. My analysis skills were not just rusty—they were fully oxidized. And I know from talking to my peers and colleagues that most of us were in the same boat of not being quite able to recall those “quick math” techniques that would help us make sense of unfamiliar units.

The good news? SfA offers a downloadable activity dedicated to understanding and quantifying units  and another one dedicated just to measuring, along with a lots more statistical analysis activities that help to elucidate things like—oh—parts per million. Also, SfA has content-rich downloadable guides on water quality, soil quality, and hazardous waste. Though they are designed primarily for environmental organizers, I found them helpful and readable too.

*And in case you were curious—thanks to SfA’s guides and activities, I have determined 2.6 ppm of chlorine in tap water is still drinkable, and doesn’t pose any known toxic risk at under 4.0 ppm.

Check out this video on one of my favorite topics of late—yes, that would be water. Martha weighs in contamination in surface water and concerns about tap water vs. bottled water quality.

Another great tool SfA offers—video! And now the truly exciting bit of this blog—SfA’s Project Director, Martha Merson, is featured on a panel for the Eco-AlertTV with Nadine Patrice series, 3 episodes of which are airing on Miami’s WLRN (public television station) twice weekly, from March 4th-24th with a premiere date of Wednesday, March 7th. For all you Floridians, these episodes will air on Wednesday evenings from 8:30-9:30 p.m.(EST) and Saturday evenings from 10:00-11:00 p.m.(EST). And for all you other citizens of the world, the videos are available on the Statistics for Action website here.

See you next week with thoughts from the “EdGE” of TERC!


SfA is made possible by funding from the National Science Foundation (grant #DRL-0812954). SfA Partners include the Toxics Action Center, Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, the New England Literacy Resource Center, Pesticide Watch, the River Network, and Operation Green Leaves.