I was always a dedicated student, but by the end of the school year I was more than ready for a break. Those final weeks were especially difficult—dwindling motivation amidst a hectic schedule of final exams—all with summer on the horizon—was enough to make even the most committed students doubt their resolve.
During one springtime that followed a particularly rough winter in high school, it finally reached about 70 degrees, and my classmates and I asked to go outside for every single class. The 14 year-old version of me was disappointed that this request was only granted once or twice.
As the year comes to a close, it is more challenging than ever to keep students engaged, so NOVA Education has put together a list of our most popular videos and interactives. From DNA to earthquakes to the periodic table, there are resources to capture the attention of every student (even those counting down the seconds until their summer officially begins).
Our “best of” list is below, but if any of your favorite resources are missing, let us know!
1. Create a DNA Fingerprint—Create a DNA fingerprint and then compare it to the fingerprint of seven suspects to nab the perpetrator.
2. NOVA Elements—Like the popular iPad app, in this web version you can explore an interactive periodic table, build atoms, molecules, and elements, and play the “Essential Elements” game to construct elements found in everyday objects.
3. Forensic DNA Analysis—Follow a team of experts as they investigate the forensic evidence from the 1954 murder of Marilyn Sheppard, one of the most famous unsolved crimes in U.S. history.
5. Regulating Genes—Study how mutations in different regions of DNA impact the expression of genes, predict how these mutations impact development, and observe how mutations may give rise to any developmental changes.
6. Epigenetics—Learn what the epigenome is, and see how researchers are studying mice as well as humans to determine how gene expression is affected by environmental factors and lifestyle choices.
7. Hunting the Elements Education Collection—Explore our collection of resources based on the “Hunting the Elements” program, which showcases the world of weird, extreme chemistry. The collection includes resources like #4, one of our most popular videos.
10. What’s This Stuff?—Learn about the physical, chemical, and mechanical properties of ten mystery materials.
For those of you already working on your lesson plans for next year, these are the perfect resources to build into a curriculum. Try them out and see if our most popular educator resources can help you bring important science concepts to life for your students.
Right now, this moment, as I type, off the top of my head, I can count at least 7 devices in my cubicle that require electrical energy in order to function. That’s not counting our office’s overhead lighting system, the heating, or any of the other building-wide stuff. I’m just talking about things I can pick up. My laptop, its external monitor, my phone, my other phone, the lamps that I use at night to keep my space bright and work-friendly, the coffeemaker that keeps me bright and work-friendly…every one of these things requires electricity, and I use each of them every day, for hours. Often, I use energy without even thinking about it. The bills are paid, and services keep coming, seemingly limitless in supply.
The truth, however, isn’t nearly so idyllic. In the United States, we burn more than 100,000 tons of coal and nearly 800,000 barrels of oil every hour of every day in order to meet our energy needs. Coal and oil are fossil fuels, and they are anything but limitless. What’s more, their conversion into usable energy pollutes our environment and is a contributing factor of climate change. Our energy needs only continue to rise as our society becomes more and more reliant on electrical devices, so one sometimes wonders why technologies like Sweden’s Lillgrund Wind Farm or the SEGS solar arrays in California haven’t been leveraged effectively to solve our energy problems.
With NOVA’s Energy Lab, students learn just how complicated our energy crisis is despite the development of new tools. Through a series of video modules, students hear just how energy is defined, and about how we convert energy from various sources into the kinds of power we need in our daily lives. Students explore the promise of renewable energies like wind and solar, but they also learn about the challenges associated with using those renewables on a larger scale.
Once students have wrapped their minds around the contexts of today’s energy landscape, they jump into the online lab space and learn firsthand how complex the battle for clean renewable energy is. The Energy Lab’s Research Challenge charges students with the task of building efficient new energy infrastructures for cities across the U.S. Students use real scientific data gathered from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) as well as the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) to organize systems using renewable sources. There’s added incentive in this lab, as students compete with others to see whose designs can, given cost constraints, produce the most power.
As with all NOVA Labs, the Energy Lab includes an Educator Guide that can help you think of ways to use the Labs as a productive part of your classroom experience. NOVA Education has also produced a webinar to help walk teachers through the online resource.
All in all, the Energy Lab is a great opportunity for students to use tools provided by NOVA to learn through experience about the challenges of energy production and consumption. Far from being a service taken for granted on a daily basis, NOVA’s Energy Lab helps put energy usage in the foreground for future professionals, a space in which it will need to remain if those future professionals are to solve our looming energy challenges.
An almost manic enthrallment with neuroscience is sweeping the world and stimulating a booming market for educational technologies and programs to feed our obsession with making ourselves “smarter” and more productive. Neuroscience is shiny, new, and exciting, and some speculate that neuroscientific explanations are the key to solving the problems of education and learning. Despite the hype, we should approach neuroscientific quick-fixes with caution.
There’s no doubt that neuroscience is compelling. For one thing, neuroimaging is beautiful. Check out NOVA’s Mapping the Brain interactive to see what I mean. You can see how the brain is viewed using different neuroimaging techniques, and highlight specific parts of the brain implicated in processes such as memory, emotion, and the vital and involuntary mechanisms that keep us alive (e.g. breathing and heart rate). For a start, highlight “amygdala” to see where our fear response comes from, or select “hippocampus” to see the part of the brain most important to explicit memory formation. Info buttons can be found throughout the interactive for an overview of the most important imaging technologies in neuroscience today, along with the structures and functions they examine.
Data, images and digital resources provided by the Laboratory of Neuro Imaging at UCLA.
The beauty of neuroimaging, though, is part of what makes neuroscience explanations so believable. In fact, research (1) shows that the inclusion of brain imaging in explanations of psychological phenomena can make weak justifications seem more satisfying and valid for non-experts, even when the data are incorrect or irrelevant. In other words, when you talk about the brain, people believe you—even when they shouldn’t.
Why does that matter?
When a new finding in neuroscience takes hold in the media and the public imagination, it’s like a game of telephone: As information is whispered down the line from person to person, findings are generalized, taken out of context, and inappropriately simplified until the final message is far removed the author’s original intent. The outcome is a garbled mess of exaggerated research findings, sweeping generalizations, misapplications, and inappropriate policy recommendations.
For example, you may have heard that we only use 10% of our brains, or that people are either “left-brained” or “right-brained.” Both statements are inaccurate, misleading, and reflect that real-life game of telephone. Unfortunately, some school districts are justifying exorbitant expenditures based on just this kind of distorted information. They are attempting to improve student performance by investing in technologies and methods that lack sufficient empirical backing. Neuroscience research pulled out of context can lead us to make decisions based on “neuromyths” that, while well-intentioned, could be hurting our children and wasting valuable financial resources.
So if all these things we thought we knew are, in fact, incorrect, what can neuroscience tell us that applies to education?
The theme in neuroscience that I find the most hopeful and relevant is that of neuroplasticity—the brain’s amazing capability to rewire itself to learn, adapt to environment, and recover from injury throughout the lifespan. It’s not over after a critical period in infancy, and it’s not even over after puberty. Neuroplasticity is a lifelong phenomenon, occurring from our earliest development in utero until the day we die.
So, how can we make sense of all this neuroscience information?
Be careful. Be skeptical. Check your sources. Know the power of brain science, but also its limitations. Claims that seem “too good to be true” probably are, especially if reaping the benefits requires large financial investment. So, ask yourself: Are the people publishing the literature supporting commercial products or techniques the same ones benefiting from sales? If the literature on “My Awesome, Expensive New Learning Technology That Will Make You A Genius” is published in a journal called “My Awesome, Expensive New Learning Technology That Will Make You A Genius Quarterly,” alarm bells should start ringing. Run the other way, fast.
Finally, understand that neuroscience in still its infancy. With the rapid advancement of scientific knowledge, the “neuro-truths” we take for granted today may very well be the debunked myths of tomorrow.
1.) The seductive allure of neuroscience explanations. Weisberg DS, Keil FC, Goodstein J, Rawson E, Gray JR. J Cogn Neurosci. 2008 Mar; 20(3):470-7.
You’ve seen videos of the “seven minutes of terror” and the first stunning shots of the “Red Planet” taken by NASA’s Mars Curiosity Rover. Now you want to bring the excitement of NASA’s most recent Mars mission to your classroom.
Well, there’s good news! There are lots of excellent resources online that will incite creativity, spark imagination, and help your students learn to solve the real-world problems of the future.
Our new program, Ultimate Mars Challenge, provides an overview of all that is Curiosity and the latest deployment, landing, and sample collection technology in space exploration. NOVA goes behind the scenes of NASA’s latest mission to discover the secrets looming on the Red Planet. Viewers can follow along as scientists and engineers grapple with the problems NASA anticipated and the solutions they developed to overcome them, including landing the largest Rover ever on the surface of Mars by lowering it down from a massive sky crane as pictured below. You can watch the show streaming in its entirety online, or purchase a DVD.
Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Also, check out this video to relive the excitementof the landingalong with the NASA team!
Whatever the plan for the day, chances are you can incorporate some of the exciting new developments from Mars exploration into your lesson that will make classwork both fun for students and relatable to current events. If you’re a math or physics teacher, why not talk about the relative sizes of the planets, or how NASA calculated when to launch the rocket carrying the rover? If you’re an earth sciences or chemistry teacher, your students may be interested in the natural resources available on Mars, the chemical composition of the soil and air (why does Mars appear red?), and how Mars could be made habitable for human life. Even in a social studies class – how might social life and interactions on Mars be different from those on Earth? (Do we still shake hands in spacesuits?) And what kinds of new jobs might there have to be on Mars?
For inspiration, NASA has some excellent ready-made lesson plans for all ages as part of their Imagine Mars Project, co-sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts. Each lesson plan incorporates hands-on activities, reflection, discussion and elaboration of new skills and knowledge. In addition, short video clips accompany many lessons. These are perfect for some quick background knowledge presented in a clear, concise, and attention-grabbing way.
My favorite is the Soda Straw Rockets, where students get to make their own paper rockets, then aim and 3…2…1…blast off! at a model of a planetary target. Based on their results, students can make adjustments to the size and shape of their rockets to see if they can make them travel faster, farther, and more accurately. Students use the scientific method to make hypotheses, evaluate their results, and refine their methods.
Alternatively, you could have your students make a short infomercial or informational pamphlet to prepare the first Mars settlers for what they might expect. After all, the first humans to live on Mars might be in for a bit of a shock based on how different life will have to be out there! Each student can play an expert in a particular field, advising newcomers on what they’ll need to survive on their new home. (Don’t forget your ski goggles for those planet-blanketing dust storms. And you may want to pack an extra pair of gloves for when it’s 200-below!)
At Pine Grove Middle School in East Syracuse, NY, eighth grade students already have Curiosity on the mind. Six teachers have teamed up for a trans-disciplinary, project-based curriculum for their 8th grade students, focusing on science, technology, engineering, the arts, and math (S.T.E.A.M.). November marked the beginning of their six-week long ROVER drop project, during which students will design and build robots that will be able to land safely, orient themselves, navigate rough terrain, avoid obstacles, and collect data (temperature and pH) from a body of liquid they find on the surface of “Mars”.
The project works like this: During Phase 1, groups of 4 students follow blueprints to build LEGO Mindstorms robots of increasing complexity. The robots are controlled using ROBOLAB software, which allows students to create programs to perform simple tasks. During Phase 2, the students increase their skill sets while learning to solve increasingly complex problems and work around design issues. During the final phase, groups will join forces with classmates to build and program one ROVER per class to be deployed on the Martian terrain. Each small group will design, build, and program one system for their class’ ROVER. On drop day, each class of 24 students will run Mission Control for their robot, commanding its behavior remotely by running and sending computer programs to an iPod Touch affixed to each rover.
We will be following the development of the project as students simulate the experience of being at JPL, and discover how what they learn in the classroom is used to solve important, real-world problems. You can follow along too on the class Twitter and website linked below, where you can click on <ROVER> to learn more about the project and see daily progress updates. On drop day in January, you’ll be able to watch all of the excitement along with the team on their Mission Control Cam.
If you’re interested in the possibility of life elsewhere on Mars and beyond, don’t forget NOVA’s Education Collection, Finding Life Beyond Earth. Included are lesson plans, video clips, and other resources to bring exciting science to the classroom, and drive your students’ scientific inquiry. In addition, the Education Collection includes a chart of K-8 National Science Education Standards that align with the activities included therein.
If you have incorporated the Mars Curiosity Rover into your lesson plans in a creative way, we’d love to hear from you! Send us an email at NOVAeducation@wgbh.org.
In Cambridge, Massachusetts, right near the MIT campus, there’s a great little bar called “Miracle of Science.” It’s as if someone took everything from my science-outreach-filled dreams and made it a reality. Each delicious dish served up by the kitchen has a corresponding chemical symbol, and the menu looks, for the most part, like a periodic table. The veggie burger, for instance, has the symbol “Vb,” and can be found in the second column, where, as it happens, the alkaline earth metals would be in a real periodic table. I love this place. It’s like concentrated nerdiness mixed with good food and drink, and in my life, there’s not much sweeter, particularly given that one of my main outreach projects is an informal education model known as the “Science Café.”
While Miracle of Science uses clever themes to build its menu and décor, their periodic table, unfortunately, can’t hold a candle to the power and majesty of the real one. The true, Mendeleev periodic table, in all its form and glory, teaches us an incredible amount about the world we live in. It shows us not only that ours is a world comprised of constituent elements, that those elements fall into families, and that each member of a family shares characteristics with its relatives, but (and here’s the kicker), it also gives us clues as to why elements behave the way they do. Learning to read the periodic table is like learning to read music. It represents not just the individual chemical substances that make up our world, but the nature of the relationships between them. If you know how the elements relate to each other, you can use them, like notes on a staff, to create what some might call harmony.
NOVA’s series, Hunting The Elements (funded, in part, by the Department of Energy), is about understanding those harmonies and how they make up the chemical roots of our world. Host David Pogue takes us on a journey where we investigate some of our most familiar substances, and learn how the theoretical basis of the periodic table can be applied to them. We learn about gold, salt, plant fertilizer, and more. Through it all, we stay close to Mendeleev’s chart, and learn how it serves as a guide to explain much about the daily processes we take for granted.
At The Exploratorium in San Francisco, California, scientists are working hard to design ways to bring these every day discoveries about the elements into classrooms. Iron Science Teacher, an event series organized by The Exploratorium,borrows from the format of the famous cult TV series Iron Chef, and challenges its competitors (who are all instructors at the Exploratorium’s Teacher Institute) to produce, on the fly, an interactive science lesson that will engage learners’ curiosity and interest in a STEM-related topic. The lessons themselves are based on a “secret ingredient” which changes with every new episode. NOVA Education sponsored the last Iron Science Teacher presentation to be held at the Palace of Fine Arts Exploratorium location, and chose, as its secret ingredient, any one, or more, of the 92 naturally occurring elements.
The contestants took five minutes to devise a lesson. Using things like pocket change, a box of cornflakes, or plastic flatware, they worked hard to use materials that would allow their lessons to translate easily into classroom demos.
After the “construction phase,” the contestants presented their work to an audience comprised of museum visitors, some of them children, and some of them attendees and alumni of the Teacher Institute.
With the presentations complete, the audience voted on who they thought built the most fun and informative lesson. To find out who won, you’ll have to log on to Iron Science Teacher’s website at www.exploratorium.edu/iron_science/ and have a look. While you’re there, have a little fun investigating the resources made available by The Exploratorium, including webcasts of past events, as well as links to the Exploratorium Teacher Institute.
Also, please have a look at NOVA’s Hunting The Elements Education Collection. There, you’ll find a carefully curated space devoted to the most relevant online resources related to NOVA programming, designed specifically for use by teachers. Take some time to explore, and don’t hesitate to reach out to NOVA for guidance, to comment, or simply to connect. We look forward to hearing from you, and to helping you use NOVA to its highest potential.