Midcoast RTC teacher blog

Use this forum thread as your blog. When you are getting ready to try out a new authentic science investigation, share your plans/ideas/questions here. If you find a useful resource, post it here. Use this to stay connected with one another as a community.


If you are looking for some science articles that your students can read, this site is great! I just perused some of the ecology related options, but you can search for just middle school reading level articles too. Check it out - http://www.sciencejournalforkids.org/

BTW, I just sent an email to sis.doe@maine.gov explaining what I thought we should do about science standards in Maine. They are taking comments until March 16. I bet you folks have already weighed in, but just in case you forgot about it like me, here's another reminder!! :)

Please post any words or phrases that come to mind when you think of these broad investigation themes (these are the 4 MWEE essential elements):

1. Issue/Question Definition
2. Outdoor Field Experiences
3. Synthesis & Conclusions
4. Action

When you reply, if you could indicate which theme you're reflecting on that would be great!

This year I really tried to implement the 4MWEEs. I think the biggest one that I need to work on the is issue/question definition and rolling that out to students at the start to get buy-in. My students really liked the outdoor field experiences, and I have planned four big ones this year. In addition, we also adding little mini excursions on our school site (nature journaling, biosphere gathering). I have had a lot of help from community members & local businesses/organizations with the outdoor experiences. This has made a world of difference. I could not have completed two bioassessments without their help and training. The synthesis and conclusions have not really happened yet. We will be working on these in the next couple of months. The action piece will also come in the next couple of months. Local environmental groups would like us to get a local landowner to stock elwives in his pond to assist the salmon we release in the Wescott Stream. We will be working on what type of action for my students would be best to make this happen and how can we use what we have learned from our bioassessment to support this action.

I think it is really difficult to get all of these four items in a project learning-based project in one year, especially for one teacher. Unfortunately, there is no carryover for this project to the middle school and no startup at the 4th-grade level.

1. Issue/Question Definition
Issues and questions should be local and connected to curriculum standards. I've just reached out to our land trust and 4-H to see if I can connect with them on the Vital Signs investigation for Vernal pools.

2. Outdoor Field Experiences
Experiences - I'm looking forward to working outside this spring and I hope the fieldwork that we did in the fall carries over to our spring experiences,

3. Synthesis & Conclusions - I need to keep reaching out to our local resources to connect the investigations that we do to our community and a big picture of the topic.

4. Action - Students need to feel like their work has had an impact I am thinking that I'll invite students to something like Citizen Scientist Club so that we can commit more time to this step.

When I think of those four elements, they come together if the investigation is authentic. My goal is to have students understand not only the process of inquiry, but that science is relevant in their lives. I have been lucky enough to have a natural resource literally right next to school that is in the process of restoring a native run of alewives. Several years ago, I volunteered my students as “boots on the ground” for the town’s Conservation Commission. In this capacity, students could carry out scientific inquiry on behalf of the town. The members of the commission were also aware of the empowerment of students to contribute to the project, as they accepted and acted upon student recommendations. This partnership of community organizations and our students conducting field research for actual purposes is a perfect fusion of all of the elements listed. So, in short, finding an authentic investigation that impacts a larger community is, in my opinion, the most difficult and is one the most rewarding aspect of teaching/learning.

Here, here! Or as Emily would say, "Word."

This is all a part of "keepin it real" for the kids. But that's what this RTC is all about, isn't it. That's the phrase that comes to my mind. I find the hardest part for me is the question part. The kids need to know a bit about something in order to ask a decent question. And it's a little tricky for younger kids to come up with investigable questions (but I realize everyone else here deals with MS kids all the time). But sometimes (or maybe a lot of times) I do the question part for kids. I feel I can get us rolling faster that way--and time is ever-so-limited.

The outdoor experience is invaluable--I feel kids don't get outside enough these days, so just getting them outside is fantastic. But we always want to make it meaningful, so having a purpose/question that we are addressing/attempting to answer is the "why." I love having the kids analyze data and try to make conclusions and figure out what we've learned--and what we haven't learned.

The action part is pretty golden, but I don't alway get to that. With 5th graders, after learning about green crabs, we made posters to put up around town to educate the public, and we cooked up some green crabs and ate them. With the winter moth club, we worked with a real scientist to collect data so he could determine if we had enough of a winter moth invasion to merit bringing out parasitic flies. That was the best, but very serendipitous. I'm hoping with this 5th grade plastics group, we may try to ban straws in our cafeteria--we shall see what happens. I guess the 3rd graders will be releasing the surviving salmon fry--so that counts too, I guess.
Without the action piece, it feels a little empty--like, "why did we learn that?"

Sometimes, and I hate to admit this, but I feel like sometimes students are just pretending to care about a subject. This could be because they are developmentally at the stage where they are kind of self-centered, (which is fine and normal), so I guess I'm looking for info on... how do we get students to really care? How do we know when they do? Anyway, I've been very inspired in general by this last round and I really appreciate this group for helping to pull me out of a bit of a teaching funk/slump with all of their excellent ideas and projects. Thank you all!

Good point, Ms. Cohn! I think it is developmental sometimes. Middle schoolers are surely focused on themselves and their "status" a lot of the time. But I have faith (and maybe I'm just delusional) that even if they don't truly care in middle school, we are still planting seeds for caring in the future. And things start to make sense a little later on. But to attempt to foster true caring in a middle school student, I think we need to do the MWEE things that Molly listed. But in addition to that, we need to make sure Maslow's hierarchy of needs is met first. No small feat in this day and age. (How old do I sound!) For students to listen to us, I think they need to know that we care about who they are, and that we like who they are. But if they are not getting what they need at home (food, shelter, safety, and love), I think it's hard for them to care about what we are teaching.....

Yes, I think you raise some good points about planting seeds for the future. I think that you're also bringing up some points I hadn't thought about consciously, but that we're always talking about with ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences) and I like the idea of Maslow. I also feel like the importance of team-building and cooperative games in the science room can help with this - it's definitely something that Tanglewood, HIF, and everywhere else does, too. Or, if we don't have the time, you can add in a reflective debrief after an experience where students are out in the field. Thanks for making those connections....

1. Issue/Question Definition - finding or identifying problems in the community or classroom that can be studied by students
2. Outdoor Field Experiences - getting outside to gather information about the issue or questions. Identifying species, measuring, observing different traits or events affecting a species or area.
3. Synthesis & Conclusions - taking the data collected from field experiences or other scientists' research and using it to try to come up with an answer to a question or solution to a problem
4. Action - sharing the answer or solution with other classes, students and the community.

The best classes where students are engaged (and are almost always having fun) usually incorporate all of these to some extent.

HI All,
I know there are lots of citizen science initiatives out there. Does anyone have a favorite? I was just checking this one out. It looks pretty good. Has anyone out there used it? It seems like it would be great if you are working on climate change with your students.....


Yes! Signs of the Seasons is wonderful. They are part of the National Phenology Network and use Nature's Notebook to observe some key indicator species. There were some teachers in the Western Maine RTC who mentioned using Nature's Notebook with students last year. Here is the Western Maine blog in case you all are interested in some cross-RTC chatter - http://vitalsignsme.org/western-me-teacher-blog

P.S. Molly Schauffler from the UMaine Hutchinson Center in Belfast, shared this phenology related dataset with my colleague. The first leaf and bloom for lilacs from 1879 - 2013... https://tuvalabs.com/mharvey/datasets/86b31d456fd84e4d8edfdb9d86f1328b/

P.P.S. We have a new VS Field Mission focused on the question, "How is climate change affecting the timing of seasonal changes in native and invasive shrubs?" -

So many great citizen science opportunities out there!

Maine's Project Learning Tree is having a gathering on February 2 & 3 at Camp Kieve in Nobleboro. You'll receive 12 contact hours for attending. Here are some details about the 2-days:

Learn about:

· New partnership between National PLT and the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) program.

· New Early Childhood through Middle School instructional models, including e-units and on-line courses.

· New workshop delivery methods and addressing on-line learning

· Opportunity to create supplemental Maine facts for generic e-units

· Updates: Forest Inventory Growth (FIG) website.

· New Maine graduation requirements and standards based connections to PLT.

There will be presentations by Jackie Stallard, National PLT; Pat Sirois, MESFI; Kevin Doran, Maine Forest Service; Tim Surrette, UMaine at Augusta; Shari Templeton, Department of Education; Olivia Griset, MEEA President.

Time: Registration at 1:45 p.m. Program begins at 2:30 on February 2. We’ll conclude no later than 4:00 p.m. on February 3, 2018

Cost: $25 Registration fee includes one overnight, 12 contact hours, dinner on Friday plus breakfast and lunch on Saturday. All made possible with a grant from National Project Learning Tree

Limited space so be sure to sign up today or no later than January 24, 2018.

Download the registration at: http://www.mainetreefoundation.org/programs/pltworkshopdates.html

Very cool findings - http://bit.ly/2EPFDOM

Hey All--Just a thought. When I was teaching on Vinalhaven, winter moth was becoming a big issue. I worked with a small group of students to map its range on the island, and then we worked with the local land trust who got a scientist from UMass to work with us. We did his field work, which eventually led to him coming out to the island to release parasitic flies as a biocontrol. It was an amazing project that came together with a lot of support from the community. I don't know how the winter moth population is doing out there (Emily?), but I have since moved to Tenants Harbor, and I have noticed a moth explosion around Thanksgiving and deciduous trees looking like Swiss cheese in certain areas. If you have noticed this in your community, it would be a great project to take on with students. Here is a link to information about winter moth, and I can share more if anyone thinks they might have it and want to do something about it.


Here is a guest blog post Amy did that describes the winter moth project - http://vitalsignsme.org/blog/vs-club-vinalhaven-collaborating-solve-prob...

And, here is a link to Mission: Winter Moth on Vital Signs - http://vitalsignsme.org/mission-winter-moth

I just read an article in Physics Today 71, 38 (2018);
Introductory physics labs: WE CAN DO BETTER.

This was mostly about college level courses, but it seems that it could apply to any science course. The authors found that labs do not enhance student learning of the content. Labs are more effective in teaching experimental practices. It also pointed out that if students are given a lab that is all set up so that all they need to do is follow the directions and take measurements, then they do not get much out of it. They are more likely to learn how to think like a scientist and how to do all of the processes of scientific experimentation if they are given a problem to solve and they have to run tests and look at their own results to figure out if the tests are working and what changes they need to make. This takes more time than cookbook labs, but interviewed students were not as frustrated when they did not get expected results ( as they would be from a cookbook lab) and could look at their work and make adjustments to their tests or ideas.

I think middle school students would be more excited about a science class where they were in charge of solving a problem themselves. Now the trick is to find the balance between getting them the content they need and the time to run authentic science experiments.

Thanks for the link Kelly. That is a really good article. I agree with you about finding that balance. Meeting all the standards doesn't always allow for all the work we want to do with our kids. Authentic experiences are so valuable but often take longer.

Thank you so much for sharing this article, Krobbins! I think that teachers in the other RTCs would be interested in this as well. Would you mind posting this in the other RTC blogs?

Here are the links:
Washington County RTC blog - http://vitalsignsme.org/washington-county-rtc-teacher-blog
Western Maine RTC blog - http://vitalsignsme.org/western-me-teacher-blog
Hancock County RTC blog - http://vitalsignsme.org/questions-or-ideas-community

Thank you for sharing this, Kelly! I feel like this article corroborated what was in my gut. There have been times during labs where I let go and allow the students to ask and answer their own questions, and that has been super fun and engaging for the kids. But I was also making that decision to spend an extra class period or two on something we "didn't have to cover." I felt it really paid off because student engagement is priceless. When their brains are curious, they are actually taking the information in. And when they are solving problems and answering questions they thought of, then it's meaningful to them, and they are actually doing the thinking, as opposed to following the directions.

I feel lucky I got to teach 6-8 science because 3 years felt like enough time to cover most of the science they are supposed to know AND go deep. I found I usually spent 6th grade as this exploratory year, where I encouraged them to ask questions and figure out how to answer them. I didn't cover much in 6th grade, but we went deep. Then after that foundation was laid, I felt 7th and 8th grade was pretty fruitful because they knew how to think.

I realize a lot of you don't have that luxury, and after teaching 5th grade, I understand how frustrating it is to have all those standards to cover (ELA, math, and science), and you have to decide which ones to skip if you are going to go deep with any single one. I guess in my mind, it's really important to get the kids to think, so going deep with something that the kids are really into is the way to go, but it's so hard to make those decisions to drop x, y, and z from the program! I realize I'm preaching to the choir, but it's fun to think about this!!

If you are interested in some really amazing climate visualizations, check out the Climate Reanalyzer from UMaine's Climate Change Institute - http://cci-reanalyzer.org/

Sorry to have missed the meeting. In addition to the Looking for Red activity, I was able to squeak in a quick study of macroinvetebrates, but I didn't have the time between Kieve and wind storm school closings to get the kids out to collect samples. To get started we played a matching game to see if students could match the nymph to its adult. This was helpful in getting students to connect the nymph to the insect they are more familiar with and to focus on some of the key characteristics for identification. I brought in samples from two ponds and had students work in groups to sort the macroinvertebrates and complete the VS data sheets identifying water quality. The students were very engaged and grossed out about what swims with them. The id sheets provided by VS were very useful.

Our next lessons focused on protist so we searched the water samples for micro organisms as a lead in to that work.

A great resource posted by a seasoned VS educator - http://vitalsignsme.org/fieldwork-management-strategies-supporting-docum...

*Don't forget to check out the blog post too - http://vitalsignsme.org/blog/fieldwork-management-strategies-and-teacher...

I had a unique opportunity to go to the beach with one of my fellow Midcoast RTC teachers and her class. I went along as I wanted to look for some of the new plankton that has shown up in Casco Bay and as far north as West Meadows in Bath. We went to Birch Point State Park in Owl's Head which seemed like a good place to look to determine if the species had moved that far north.
I used my plankton net to get samples on an incoming tide which was high around noon. It was 10:30-11:00 and seemed like a good time of day as these are photosynthetic organisms and are found most commonly when the sun is high. It was a beautiful, cloudless day.
Fortunately, I did not find what I was looking for. The students had fun looking at the water samples and identifying what we had found.

I took my students on their first outing. I laminated an invasive species card for each group, using the ones I thought they most likely might find. I had 7 groups, four out of them found what they were looking for. They took site pictures and we will look on the VS website to model how they should organize the data on their observation sheets. I must note I have very limited time as we have a structured curriculum. I have one group that is not GT but works well and quickly through lessons so I am using that group to start my VS program.

I know the feeling. It is a bit of work, but the kids do like to be outside and many spend very little time looking at nature around them. So any time investigating is well spend, even if the documentation isn't "proficient". At least that's what I'm telling myself.

We headed in three different directions around the school last week, "Looking for Red!" Since they are the easiest plants to find and identify at this time of year. I had students work on the field notes, using the id cards, to identify characteristics of their species before heading out. This seemed to help with a better focus on the plants they found when it came time to collect photo evidence. We shall see when they upload the evidence. Man! They wanted to find the invasives even though we had just watched the videos and talked about the Cane Toad Invasion!

I have started a unit on Ecosystem Dynamics with a focus on biodiversity.

Started with a video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GK_vRtHJZu4 with a focus on diversity of species, ecosystems, and genetics.
Played a categories game to emphasize biodiversity of birds, fish, mammals..
Watched the beginning of Bill Nye to the Jenga game (I have to say this is not my favorite Bill Nye so we didn't watch the rest)
Introduced Jenga as a model for the health of an ecosystem and collected data on the point of collapse - They loved it
Wrapped up with the analogy sheet which students found challenging. They wanted to describe the whole process vs looking at each separate component or action. One student who struggles a bit added two unique analogies. 1 - The directions on the box is like educating people about ecosystems and 2 - the guide that straightens the tower is like the things people do to protect ecosystems. Cool!

Activity 2 - We investigated the biodiversity of trees around our school to compare conifers to deciduous. This worked out to be a good first day outside because they were easy to find, and pretty easy photograph and to identify on the website GoBotany. I used string for the transect line and that was the biggest challenge. I think rope would be less of a challenge for them.

I'm now on Activity 3 - Students are investigating the diversity of plants/not trees in our area. This is a hard time of year to get great samples but we're finding enough to work with. Taking clear photos is a bigger problem as well as identification. Good practice. I'm super excited about Google Slides. We've been using it as a way to record what everyone finds and identifies and it is super slick. One presentation with everyone's work or 3 presentations in groups were both successful. In this activity I'm having them start documenting 3 characteristics that prove they they either think they found the right species or just something close.

Leading into a project of invasive species and then identifying if there are any in our area. Hoping to get that done next week because off to Kieve they go. It feels like a mad dash!!!!

Wow! You have been busy. All of these activities sound awesome and I love that your students were coming up with unique analogies. If you have all the photos and characteristics in Google Slides already, you could easily do a group post for a species on Vital Signs and get your kids connecting with scientists! Keep it up, you rock!

Hi Midcoast RTC Teachers,
I have done my first lesson exit slip. Guess the kids thought the lesson was too easy but it was difficult for me to tell that while they were struggling through it. LOL We had done an exercise using microscopes practicing focal planes. Not fascinating, but relevant for our upcoming cell unit.
I am starting out slowly with our VS investigations. First, I am going to have the students sign up for their accounts and demonstrate its function and purpose. Then I am taking the students outside to practice observations using the observation sheets. In order to introduce the process, I will ask them to choose a species to investigate and then show them how to identify it. I have no idea the quality of their observation or recording skills, so I thought this would be a prudent way to begin.
Kimberly M

If anyone is interested in creating student GIS maps with iPads, "iGIS" is a free app that is very user friendly. The only caveat is that that one iPad app be upgraded to a "pro-version" ($5 or less?) of the app and this allows editing of polygons than can be drawn and then the edited file can be pushed out for others via a dropbox. I really enjoyed using the app with 6th grade students last year and am happy to consult!

If you're working with Watersheds and Water Quality with Macro invertebrates, borrow the watershed table from the DEP or Knox Lincoln Soil and Water District.
Very Helpful resources on Vital Signs.

I learned a lot today. I need to work out the fact winter is coming and decide whether to try and squeeze an investigation in now or spend this time preparing students and then doing one in the spring.

When planning your investigations, check out your local community organizations. They are more than willing to help you out and are excellent resources for volunteers/mentors, background information/historical data, funding, and cheerleaders/supporters.

Looking forward to creating a new unit on invasive plant species in our area.

I had so much meeting everyone and exchanging ideas today!