Tag Archives: middle school

Q & A with Science from Scientists

logo2I have been working as an Instructor with the Boston-based educational non-profit organization, Science from Scientists, since the fall of 2013. This was a lateral career move for me after a number of years in the biotechnology industry and as a project manager in academia (more on those in another post–maybe).

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Chromosomal Ride

I realized when I was doing the Blogging 201 class last month that my blog’s tag line, “The Brain–is wider than the Sky,” is not well explained.

Aside from the fact that the tagline is taken from an Emily Dickinson poem and is therefore supposed to be–ahem–literary, my original idea for using that tag line was to write as a neuroscientist, a person who studies the brain.

I earned a PhD in Neuroscience in 1993 from Stanford University. Since then I have taken a circuitous ride through different jobs in science, including a postdoc at Caltech, a stint in the biotechnology industry, another role in academic project management, and am currently employed in science education and outreach. I teach with an educational non-profit called Science from Scientists, which was founded in the Boston area where I used to live, but has recently opened an office in the SF Bay area.

KarenTeaching
Giving a presentation to a group of 7th grade students.

I discovered an interest in teaching when I had children and taught them in Sunday School and in Girl Scouts.  I feel like hands-on science education is more play than work. It brings me back to why I wanted to become a scientist in the first place.

Up until now, though, that interest hasn’t been reflected very much in my blog. So I’m going to try to remedy that with an occasional series of posts on scientific or science education topics that I’ve taught recently, or just topics that interest me. Continue reading Chromosomal Ride

EGBOPP: taking soccer-mom-hood to a new level

In the past, I have referred to myself ironically as a “soccer mom.” Both my kids have played soccer, and one of them still does.

I say ironically, though, because it’s not a natural fit for me. Growing up, I never played any team sports. I was 2 years ahead of my school classmates and graduated high school when I was 16. I’m also old enough that there weren’t as many opportunities for girls to play youth sports back then. When talking, or even thinking, about why I didn’t play team sports, I tend to emphasize those aspects of the experience–that I was younger and smaller than everyone else, that there was sexism–with the fond hope in the back of my mind that if I had grown up in a different time or place, things might have been different for me too.

But that’s debatable. Furthermore, the past is the past. We’ll never know whether I could have successfully played a team sport as a kid. All I have is now. When I was in my mid-20’s, in graduate school, I went skiing in Lake Tahoe. I remember riding up the ski lift with a woman who told me that she was there because, for her 50th birthday, she had learned to ski. I also remember thinking something like, “wow, good for her, she’s still doing new things and putting herself out there at such an advanced age!” Well, I apologize now for any internal condescension I might have felt. Because here I am now, a few months before my own 50th birthday, learning to play soccer.

Before the move to CA, I felt I needed to make sure that my 12-year-old son had some activities outside of school when he got here. He played soccer in Belmont so I looked online for a soccer team. I found a couple: AYSO region 45 in Mountain View, and a private competitive league. Of those, AYSO seemed to be the most like what we were used to: a reasonably priced, recreational town league that competes with neighboring towns and has boys and girls divisions. And, just like back in Belmont, it was run by a small number of super-dedicated and amazing volunteers who had way too much to do. Furthermore, registration was already over and my son was on the wait list. I emailed the competitive team and let them know we were interested. But then, a few weeks later, I got a familiar-sounding email from AYSO: “Help, we need coaches!” And if you agree to coach, your child is guaranteed a spot on a team. I decided to do it.

Fast Forward a few months, and practices have started. My son’s team has bright yellow uniforms and is called the Wasps. I’m an Assistant Coach under a British Head Coach, Coach David, who likes to use words that sound like they are straight out of Harry Potter: striker, sweeper, stopper, keeper. (In Belmont, we just called the players forwards, midfielders, and defenders.) And he’s very experienced. Which is good, because our team has two assistant coaches, both of us moms with kids on the team, neither of us with soccer experience.

There are two major ways in which my soccer experience has been different here so far. The first is that individual teams have to paint the fields.

What?

Field-painting machine
Insert spray can and roll with it!

You mean fields don’t just magically paint themselves? Oh, right, this isn’t Quidditch. You use one of these little machines, put in a spray can, and follow the lines that someone else (hopefully) laid down last week. When I got to the field, there were still some people playing, but they understood what we needed to do, and let us have at it: three parents rolling these carts around in the fading twilight. One of the coaches on the field who didn’t know me even took the trouble to thank me for doing this, and he reminded me to be sure to paint the penalty spot. “That often gets forgotten!” It was fun. And it gives you a better idea of where all the lines are and how far they are from each other. I will also note that the school where this field is, which my son does not attend, is within walking distance of our house. Unlike the school he does attend. Such is the crazy school districting in CA.

The other aspect that is different from what I did before is the training classes. In Belmont I assisted too, and I got occasional emails about the existence of coaching classes but no one checked up if I took them or not, and I decided that I was too busy. Here, if you volunteer it’s required that you sign up and take a training class appropriate to your level. There was one on Labor Day weekend. When I signed up it seemed very far away, and “it’ll be good for me,” I thought. But as Labor Day approached, I got nervous. “Any plans for Labor Day weekend?” people were asking. “Uh . . . yeah.”

The weekend dawned and it soon became “so hot you could fry an egg on the sidewalk.” Or maybe an EGBOPP. That was one of the many acronyms that they gave us so that we could remember equally many lists: lists of attacking principles, defending principles, mission statement, vision statement, red cards, yellow cards, laws of the game. It was a little like being back in high school. I even made flash cards, because there was a test at the end.

I chose to highlight that particular acronym here, because that is the acronym for the AYSO philosophies, which I think are worth memorizing, and repeating: Everybody Plays, Good Sportsmanship, Balanced Teams, Open Registration, Positive Coaching, and Player Development.

I support all of those philosophies and think they apply equally well to other youth sports and activities. So it’s an organization I’m proud to support and be involved with. I hope keeping these philosophies in mind can help me be a better educator wherever I am involved with youth. This is not the impression I had of most youth sports/activities when I was growing up. Everybody plays? Player Development for all players, even the less talented? Not really. Some things do appear to have changed for the better.

Cache Maintenance

The first geocache I ever placed was with my daughter’s Girl Scout Troop, back in the fall of 2009. Our family was kind of new to geocaching then, and our daughter, then in 5th grade, was still more or less excited about caching too. When I looked online for resources to share with the troop, I found that Boy Scouts at least were already into caching in a big way. They even had a geocaching merit badge, which we did not. Nowadays, I’m happy to report, there is a whole program called Geoscouting, and there is a Girl Scout merit badge too.

Trefoil Travel Bug
Trefoil Travel Bug

Back then, though, most of our Girl Scouts had never heard of the activity of geocaching before. But they brought GPSs to the meeting and all gamely traipsed around in the woods, which were kind of muddy that day. We started a trackable from that cache as well. It was a chain of trefoils, one made by each girl scout, and we hoped it could reach Girl Scout Founder Juliette Low’s home in Savannah, GA.

Five-and-a-half years later, the troop members are in high school, pursuing other interests. The trackable made it to North Carolina and then went missing somewhere in New Hampshire, but the cache lives on. Even it has had to move once because the original location turned out to be too near someone’s private property.

The American Girl Place log book. All wet.
The American Girl Place log book. All wet.

I read in the geocaching forums that a lot of scout-related caches are poorly maintained because both the scouts and the troop leaders move on to other things. This, however, is not one of those caches! It has 214 logged visits: some of them have been other scout troops, and recently it served as somebody’s first-ever geocache find. But people had started reporting the container was in bad shape, its lid was no longer latchable, and worst of all, the log book was wet. (I have to say, one of the things I hate most in geocaching is a wet, slimy, unsignable log book).

So, yesterday, my husband and I went out to fix the cache. At a geocaching event raffle a couple years ago, I won a cache container that I never used. Someone put a lot of work into making it camo and cache-ready. It had a fresh logbook, a nice ziploc bag, and even some new swag. I don’t usually launch real geocoins anymore; too many of them go missing, like the trefoils did. But I made a proxy for my 1000 finds geocoin, and launched that in this cache too. If you’re ever in the Boston area, come find it!

A new container for the GirlScoutTroop71915 cache
A new container for the GirlScoutTroop71915 cache

Feedback Fatigue

Bowen-knot-in-rope

There is something I don’t know
that I am supposed to know.
I don’t know what it is I don’t know,
     and I am supposed to know,
and I feel I look stupid 
     if I seem both not to know it
          and not know what it is I don’t know.

—Psychologist R.D. Liang, Knots

At the educational conference I attended this past weekend, we received lots of feedback. We gave feedback. There were handouts about how to do so in our binders. There was written daily feedback, oral feedback sessions, feedback on the feedback, and an online survey I still have to complete.

Well, here’s my feedback: I’ve got feedback fatigue.

Although my formal student days are in the past, I know I was a good student, and reasonably compliant in class. I have an Ivy League degree and a PhD. But I also know that underneath the placid exterior, I was not the happy little learning sponge that seems to be how good students are conceptualized these days. And I know I was never asked for this much feedback back then.

I think a renewed appreciation for feedback is mostly a good thing. As an educator, I don’t want to go along, blithely repeating errors or poor practices class after class, harming student learning without even realizing it. I think this happened too frequently in the past. For example, my science teacher in 7th grade spent most of his time sitting at his desk, while we students struggled alone through an incomprehensible student-directed learning workbook. Where was the feedback then? I think we all could have used some.

But these days it goes too far the other way. I can’t even get an oil change without being asked whether the cleanliness of the dealership where I took my car “exceeded my expectations.”

And, for me, there’s the rub: the expectation that I will have expectations.

Therefore I pretend to know it.
     This is nerve-wracking
     since I don’t know what I must pretend to know.
Therefore I pretend to know everything.

The last day of the conference involved the attendees dividing into groups and each group facilitating a shortened practice lesson for 30 minutes. I felt more nervous than everyone else looked, or acted, except for one other person (out of about 25 total), who was the only one who admitted out loud to being nervous. And the fact that we had to not only give each other feedback on our facilitations but also be self-reflective, aloud, about our own performance in the exercise, just increased that nervousness.

When we were not presenting, we sat in the audience, pretending to be the adolescents who will be our students when we go back home to teach the course on our own. Like my real adolescent self, I didn’t do anything very inspired to test the other facilitators’ classroom management skills. I just took out my phone once or twice and played a game on it until the facilitator asked me to put it away. But it was remarkable how quickly I slipped back into my old student mindset anyway. Back then I was a little anxious, usually, about how classes were going to go. I could almost always follow the teacher, and the main lesson, but the student social behavior tended to move too fast for me. Other students would be giggling or laughing or interacting behind the teacher’s back and I wouldn’t understand what was going on. This happened again, even in the present. I started to disengage a bit, as the words started to wash by and around me, too fast, and I had to bring myself back. To my delight, in this time and this place, I could.

I feel you know what I am supposed to know
          but you can’t tell me what it is
          because you don’t know that I don’t know what it is.
You may know what I don’t know, but not
          that I don’t know it,
and I can’t tell you. So you will have to tell me everything.

As a student, I was much like Liang’s narrator, insisting that someone “tell me everything.” But at this point in my life, much of my learning process involves trying to untie one or another of Liang’s knots. Rather than expectations, what I usually have are questions. What am I supposed to know here? Do I know it? Can I know it? If not, can I cope anyway?

The hard truth is that I will never know everything I don’t know. And you won’t either. I’m glad I did this workshop, because it helped me embrace this discomfort.

Looking forward to OWL Training

I’ve been teaching middle school science for about 2 years now, in non-traditional settings. I sort of fell into teaching the age group after applying for a high school AP Biology tutoring position and finding out that they needed someone to teach the middle school ages instead (roughly ages 11-14). Since then, I’ve not looked back.

But it is a remarkable, and unexpected, place to find myself at this point in my life. Even when I made a conscious career change out of research administration and into K-12 teaching, I was expecting to teach high school. I wasn’t sure of the subject–biology or chemistry, or both–but it would high school, preferably Advanced Placement.

And when I was middle school age, I was not particularly enamored of school. (Actually, that’s an understatement.) Based on my experiences, I had written off middle school science as a waste not worth further exploration. It was my wonderful high school teacher, Mr. Webb, who had turned me on to biology. I was ahead in school, and two years younger than my peer group. They were going through puberty and I wasn’t. At least that’s a short, easy, believable explanation of what the problem was. But as I talk to adults now, I have yet to find one who really liked middle school and felt comfortable there. Even in my misery, which seemed so unique and poignant at the time, I wasn’t unusual. Reading about the subject of middle school education can be a little harrowing: this interesting article about middle schools quotes one teacher calling middle school “The Bermuda Triangle of Education.”

While I have to admit, I have had students both break-dancing in the corner and climbing under tables (not at the same time), I haven’t been as daunted as I feared, or as given to hyperbole, even in private moments. I think maybe the fact that I remember that time so well in my own life gives me a little window into what’s going on in that of my students.

It’s in that spirit that I’m approaching OWL training this weekend. In this case, OWL stands for “Our Whole Lives,” it is a sexuality and decision-making program created and run by the Unitarian-Universalist Association.  I will be training to be a teacher of these classes at my UU church.

It’s a long way from science education in some ways, but not in others. My daughter went through it at our church a couple of years ago. I don’t if “enjoyed” is quite the right word for her experience, but I have seen her grow in maturity and thoughtfulness around all those issues. Parents aren’t allowed to teach their own children OWL, which is a good policy. I’m looking forward to being able to help the growth and maturation of other kids in the congregation.

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