NOVA recently launched the Cloud Lab—an online interactive that enables authentic student research with scientific data. NOVA Education celebrates the release of this third Lab with a special blog series exploring the importance of Big Data and its implications for STEM education, starting with the following.
Big Data. If you haven’t already heard about it, your hard drive has. We are generating digital information at such a frightening pace that some scientific fields are now dealing with a “data catastrophe”—where more data is being collected than can physically be stored. In 2011, Science magazine explored the issues surrounding this increasingly huge influx of research data in a special edition. From this collection of articles reaching across a breadth of scientific fields, two themes emerged:
Most scientific disciplines are finding the data deluge to be extremely challenging
Tremendous opportunities can be realized if we can better organize and access the data. (Source)
It is this second theme of opportunity that I would like to explore through the lens of K-12 formal education and teacher Professional Development in a series of blog postings that I am calling Big Data in the Classroom.
But before I start throwing any facts and figures at you, here is a personal story about what this transition looks like to someone engaged in scientific research.
When I was an undergraduate physics major, I spent 4 nights in 1996 on a mountain in Arizona observing a few individual stars to research their variability. My method involved measuring the rate of incoming photons and graphing the data to generate a light curve for each variable star. Between weather and equipment issues, I was able to gather only a few hours of usable data over the course of four nights—thankfully this was enough to finish my senior research project.
Now, 1996 wasn’t that long ago (at least I like to tell myself that), but if I was doing research in astrophysics today, my methods would look quite different. Thanks to robotic telescopes and a fleet of different satellites, many sky surveys have gathered and stored spectra and images across multiple wavelengths of light, offering researchers large collections of data just waiting to be queried and downloaded. Gone is the image of the astronomer sitting with their eye to a telescope eyepiece. Now, I could simply go to the AAVSO or SDSS sites and download the data I need for my research. More importantly, I would never need to travel to a mountain, wait for good weather, or possibly even operate a telescope or learn a constellation!
But why should you, as a science educator, care about this? “Big Data” represents the fundamental evolution of the tools and methods of scientific research—and the gathering and availability of data is no longer the limiting factor. The Digital Renaissance is here, and in many fields there is now more data than scientists know what to do with. Adding to this volume of new digital data, there are also efforts to bring specimens that are currently deep in storage in natural history museums—called “dark data”— into the digital age, making their secrets available to researchers, to the general public, and to you and your students.
As a science educator, the implications of this sea-change in the very nature of scientific data and information touches everything from you and your practice, to what your students—future scientists or not—will face in their careers and lives. It also informs the very design of your classroom laboratory equipment and lessons, as well as your selection of professional development experiences. In the next blog in this series, I will explore some of the implications of “Big Data” for your classroom instruction.
To further investigate “Big Data” in science, visit:
Even though it was 1:30 in the morning, about 1,000 people gathered in Times Square, August 6th , to stare up at a 53-foot LED screen. Having lived in New York City for many years, I know there are always lots of people in Times Square. And getting them to stop and watch—or even to notice anything—would be a big deal. But here they were, adults and children, their mouths agape and eyes fixed in suspense, looking up at that giant screen. What was it that so captivated them and many others around the globe? Some wild publicity stunt? The trailer for a new blockbuster movie? No. They had gathered to peer into NASA’s Mission Control Center as the rover Curiosity landed on Mars. Reminiscent of the Apollo 11 moon landing, watched by 500 million people worldwide some 43 years ago, these people were here to witness human exploration in real time. Many of these enthralled viewers were kids, given a late-night reprieve to watch history being made on a neighboring body in our solar system. While the grainy black-and-white TV sets may have been replaced by high-definition LED screens, iPads, or even smartphones, the looks on peoples’ faces and their excitement as the car-sized robotic explorer touched down on Mars have not changed over the decades. The scene made me think: How will the story of the Curiosity rover influence this audience and all the others watching worldwide?
I have talked with many NASA scientists and engineers over the past decade, and I have learned that watching events—like the Curiosity landing—played a critical role in inspiring them to pursue their career path. They were engaged by these powerful stories and found ways to get involved and contribute.
Children examining a model of MER at JPL. NASA/JPL-Caltech/Tony Greicius
It’s clear that events like these play an important role in inspiring our youth, which makes it all the more crucial that the story of the event is told well. During the Apollo missions, people observed the Moon through telescopes. Now, we have new technologies that let us learn more about these important events, and also allow us to tell an even more compelling story. Besides the availability of online telescopes controlled via the Internet, the Curiosity rover has its own Twitter account and an interactive 3D rover simulation that allows you to track it online. We can “see” Curiosity land through a computer simulation that looks, for all intents, like a video game of Mars. This is no game, though. Data is being accumulated at record pace. The exciting part is that we can access data like never before, it’s real, and there is a lot of it!
So what do these new methods of storytelling and changing technologies have to do with teaching? Everything. Each lesson unfolds as a story—you determine your message (the concept you wish to teach). Each inquiry or lab is a mission to find a solution or test a hypothesis. And we know from educational research that our students learn socially and would prefer to work in teams, just like those large teams that we see in every NASA Mission Control scene.
Of course, we can’t land a rover in our classrooms every day, but we can tell great stories, give our students a sense of mission, and the pathways to extend their engagement and support their interests. The developments in scientific fields are having an impact on how we can and should be teaching STEM subjects. A quick look at the newly released framework for the upcoming Next Generation Science Standards (to be released in 2013) is a good place to get a sense of what these changes can be.
NOVA Education is also working to innovate our own STEM Resources so that educators can better support these new modes of teaching. Our print resources have shifted to media and digital formats, searchable by topic and aligned with standards on the NOVA Education website. Social media allows us to grow our community and connect directly with you through our Facebook page and Twitter feeds.
The tools might change from decade to decade, yet the core story remains one of science and exploration. This is what NOVA is all about. Next year, we turn 40. Maybe NOVA inspired you along the way, as it did me. I watched it as a child, taught with it for many years in my classroom, and now work with a great team on the mission to become NOVA’s new Education Department. We hope you will join and participate in our community and along the way, find resources and PD that help you in every mission you face in your classroom.
One teacher on our Facebook page asked, “Could you explain the scientific process? There seems to be tremendous difficulty for my 3rd graders to grasp it.”
So I went to Dr. William McComas, who holds the Parks Family Endowed Professorship in Science Education at the University of Arkansas. When it comes to the history and philosophy of science in science education, he literally wrote the book. At the heart of “doing science” are questions. Here is what Dr. McComas has to say about explaining and exploring the scientific process for younger students:
Perhaps one reason why some students think that the scientific process is hard to grasp is that they believe that scientific thinking is somehow different from other kinds of normal organized thinking. Scientists are not any smarter then other folks but they do have curiosity that inspires them enough to spend time and effort to ask questions about the world.
So, scientists start to ask questions that other folks might not have been so curious about. To answer these questions scientists make observations, do experiments and review the work of others printed in books. They also take notes about what they have discovered and try to put all the information together in a way that makes sense based on the evidence. There isn’t any special order to these tasks. Science use all of these tools to try to answer the question.
Some textbooks include a six or more step process called the scientific method, but scientists don’t all use this same step-by-step technique. Some scientists start to answer the question by going to the library, some start with observations, some start with experiments, some start with hypotheses to guide their thinking and some have a much more open-ended approach. The steps in the “scientific method” are all useful and used by most scientists at least some of the time, but the scientific process is really just the careful, organized way that scientists look for information to try to answer questions. The most important thing to know is that anyone can use the scientific process to solve problems as long as they look at all the evidence and make conclusions carefully when there is enough evidence to do so.
Core Nature of Science Ideas to Inform K-12 Science Teaching
The Tools and Products of Science
Science produces, demands and relies on empirical evidence
Knowledge production in science shares many common factors and shared habits of mind, norms, logical thinking and methods such as careful observation and data recording, truthfulness in reporting, etc. The shared aspects of scientific methodology include the following:
Experiments are not the only route to knowledge
Science uses both inductive reasoning and hypothetico-deductive testing
Scientists make observations and produce inferences
there is no single step-wise scientific method by which all science is done.
Laws and theories are related but distinct kinds of scientific knowledge. Hypotheses are special, but general kinds of scientific knowledge.
There are two types of scientific questions. Questions of the relationship type are “laws” and question of why such relationships exist are “theory type” question.
Science and the Human Aspects of Science
Science has a creative component
Observations, ideas and conclusions in science are not entirely objective. This subjective (sometimes called ‘‘theory-laden”) aspect of science plays both positive and negative roles in scientific investigation
Historical, cultural and social influences impact the practice and direction of science
Scientific Knowledge and its Limitations
Science and technology impact each other, but they are not the same
Scientific knowledge is tentative, durable and self-correcting. (This means that science cannot prove anything but scientific conclusions are valuable and long lasting because of the way in which they are developed; errors will be discovered and corrected as standard part of the scientific process)
Science and its methods cannot answer all questions. In other words, there are limits on the kinds of questions that can and should be asked within a scientific framework
McComas, W. F. (2008). Proposals for Core Nature of Science Content in Popular Books on the History and Philosophy of Science: Lessons for Science Education. In Lee, Y. J. & Tan, A. L. (Eds.) Science education at the nexus of theory and practice. Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.
About Dr. McComas:
William F. McComas, Ph.D. is the inaugural holder of the Parks Family Endowed Professorship in Science Education at the University of Arkansas following a career as a biology teacher in suburban Philadelphia and professor at the University of Southern California. He is involved in many areas of science education research and policy development. He has served on the boards of directors of the National Science Teachers Association, the International History, Philosophy and Science Teaching Group, the Association for Science Teacher Education (ASTE) and the National Association of Biology Teachers (NABT). Dr. McComas is widely published in the areas of the history and philosophy of science. He is a recipient of the Outstanding Evolution Educator award from NABT, the Ohaus award for innovations in College Science Teaching and the Outstanding Science Teacher Educator award from ASTE. He is interested in the improvement of laboratory instruction, evolution education, the interaction of the philosophy of science and science teaching, science for gifted students, and science instruction in museums and field sites.
I asked teachers on our Facebook page ”What would you want to know if you could ask a scientist how to explain anything?”
Our first question was about the concept of molecular polarity and how to explain its relation to VSEPR geometries. I brought this question to Jeff Levy, a teacher with his Master’s Degree in Chemical Engineering from Carnegie Mellon University and who has taught high school chemistry and physics at the Cranbrook Kingswood School in Michigan, the Horace Mann School in NYC, and The American School in London. I asked him about this concept and about how he teaches it to his students. Here is his answer:
In a nutshell the process goes like this:
Find the molecular geometry using VSEPR theory
Use electronegativity to decide if any bonds are polar
Use the geometry to decide if the polar bond vectors will add or cancel each other out.
VSEPR means this: electrons repel each other (that’s the E and the R) because of the electrostatic force. This repulsion dictates the arrangement or geometry of atoms within molecules. When you’re talking about molecular geometry then you only need to consider the bonding pairs and unbonded or “lone” pairs (that’s the P) of electrons that are located in the outer or “valence” shell (that’s the V and S) of each atom. Valence Shell Electron Pair Repulsion.
When teaching this I always started with gum drops and tooth picks and asked the kids “place X toothpicks in your gumdrop in such a way that all X of your toothpicks point as far away from each other as possible.” Eventually they come up with the proper geometries (once they start to think in 3D). I also demonstrated with balloons (tie 4 balloons together at the knot and they naturally form a tetrahedral geometry.)
And then, after you’ve figured out where the atoms are arranged in the molecule, you look at their relative electronegativities and decide where charges will aggregate and if the whole molecule will be polar.
I wish Angry Birds had been around when I was teaching high school physics. Please don’t think of the game as a hate crime against hogs, or an avian anger management program—instead, think of it as a computer interactive lab to explore projectile motion and force diagrams. Your students are playing it anyway, at least let them know that they are learning some physics along the way. Launching a bird? No! They are varying the initial angles and velocities to hit a target distance. Take advantage of student interest with the following strategies to help you integrate Angry Birds into your instruction.
Before Pythagoras (the equation, that is) even comes into the discussion, we should be asking our students to describe projectile motions that they see in their everyday lives. Focus on the big picture question: What are the different factors that determine the range of a projectile? Projectile motion problems can easily become algebra problems that focus on identifying the right number in a diagram and substituting it into the correct equation. We want them to see projectile motion in baseball games, long football throws (think the famous Hail Mary, game-winning touchdown pass by Dallas Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach to Drew Pearson in a 1975 NFL playoff game), the human cannonball at the circus, rockets, and shooting hoops.
And then there is Angry Birds. The game actually helps your instruction by outlining the bird’s path with dots that are placed at the same time interval, as well as leaving these trajectory paths visible for the next turn. This allows for an overlap and visual comparison of bird trajectories that have different initial angles and velocities. I stress, the goal here is not to try and knock down the structures and take out the pigs, but to use the game platform as a demonstration tool that will get their attention, and to see the flying birds as your projectiles. In a later blog we will look at the structures for teaching force and motion.
Using Angry Birds, you can highlight many of the main points about projectile motion. Things like:
How do you get a bird to travel the farthest? Answer, 45-degree initial launch angle.
Can you find multiple launch angles that will land on the same spot? Answer, there are two per spot, and they are complementary angles.
What happens when you launch birds at the same angle but change the initial velocity?
What happens when you launch birds at the same velocity but change the initial angle?
What launch angles have the longest time in flight? The shortest?
The best levels to use for teaching projectile motion meet these criteria: good open field and no high structures to get in the way of the flight, use of the basic red birds, and having many birds to play with. Theme 1, levels 2 and 3 (see video at the beginning of this blog) offer many birds and a fairly open field for long-range projectiles. Videos of all levels can be found here.
In a Wired Science blog, Rhett Allain demonstrates how you can use a simple video tracker program to map the trajectory of the birds in these videos to actually calculate the size of the birds (with the assumption that gravity in the Angry Bird world is also 9.8 m/s^2). You will be surprised at the result—these red birds are BIG!
When NASA selected the first civilian to travel into space, it wasn’t a rock star or a journalist—it was a teacher. January 28, 2011 is the 25th anniversary of the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, when seven explorers lost their lives doing something that they believed in. On January 28, 1986, I was a sixth grade student, and I’ll never forget the immediate silence that fell over my middle school cafeteria when the principal announced the event over the PA system during lunch. We all filed back to our classrooms to watch the television coverage for the rest of the school day.
Christa’s Portrait — Image from NASA
That event solidified in me what had been a growing desire that began when I was four years old and watched Carl Sagan champion the need to explore the stars in his Cosmos series. Ten years after Challenger, I graduated from college with a degree in Physics and Astronomy and took my first job teaching high school in the Bronx. I learned more science that first year of teaching, and found more inspiration trying to help my students’ explore their own questions, than I had ever considered possible.
In the wake of September 11, 2001, NASA reached out to New York City students and offered 52 student experiment modules that would travel on a Space Shuttle mission. I found myself working with a group of NYC middle school students to help them develop their own collection of experiments that we would pack and send off to be launched into space. The Space Shuttle became our classroom. As we watched the Space Shuttle carry our experiments into orbit on January 16, 2003, I finally felt like I was playing a small role in space exploration. This was mission STS-107, and it tragically would be the last flight of the Space Shuttle Columbia, which disintegrated on reentry into the atmosphere, killing all seven crew members.
As I faced the loss of another Space Shuttle, I found myself on the other side of sixth grade. Now responsible for helping a large group of sixth graders try to understand the enormity of what had happened, I reconnected with my Challenger experience. I found new inspiration in the words of Christa McAuliffe, a teacher from Concord, NH who was one of the seven crew members lost on Challenger—“I touch the future. I teach.”
As NOVA’s Director of Education, Rachel considers it her mission in life to find new ways to make complex concepts accessible. Before joining team NOVA, Rachel has served as the director of the planetarium at the University of Louisville, as the Astrophysics Education Manager at the American Museum of Natural History, and as a high school physics teacher in New York City. She studied physics and astronomy at Denison University, and is currently working to complete her PhD in Science Education at Columbia University. The randomness of her previous life experiences includes being the webmaster for the band Boston and consulting on an educational project for the queen of Jordan.