Sketch a Scientist

 A few years ago, I read a chapter in Tina Seelig’s book called “The Upside-Down Circus” and the concept was so sticky it did what sticky things do best – it stuck. The Upside-Down Circus is a case study in creativity and design. How do we go from a generic $5 circus show with elephants and clowns to a fully-fledged, high-end spectacle like Cirque du Soleil?  Much like the ideas presented in that chapter, The Upside-Down School is about questioning the traditional assumptions of schooling and education and flipping them on their heads – the same story with a different twist.

In science, one of the first activities I do with my students is have them sketch an image of a scientist. That’s it. The activity is simple but reveals a lot about our preconceived notions of what science is and what exactly it is that scientists do. The stereotypical image of a scientist is presented as follows: a white male with wacky hair in a white lab coat working in a laboratory with chemistry equipment. We talk about what these stereotypes mean and where they come from. We talk about why these images are problematic and what we can do about it. And then, we revise.

Scientist sketches, before discussion.
Scientist sketches, after discussion.
The most interesting part of this activity is seeing the variety and differences in approaches that students take when drawing the second sketch. By bringing to awareness our biases and questioning those initial assumptions, we freed ourselves from the initial, rigid, locked in notions of what constitutes “scientist.” I feel like this is what we need to aim to do more often in our own thinking DAILY. That’s what I’m going to attempt to do more often on my blog as well. 

Procedure Writing with Legos

I’ve been finding ways to sneak in lessons about the Nature and Processes of Science to my students in context of the curriculum we are exploring, but sometimes, these lessons are fun to have on their own. For their final assessment in chemistry, my ninth grade students will be designing and conducting an investigation to find the identity of two mystery powders. As a part of this assessment, they have to be able to demonstrate that they can write a clear, accurate, and reproducible procedure. I did some digging found an excellent resource published by the Muskegon Area Intermediate School District that I used to scaffold the procedure writing portion of this assignment. 

  • Two identical Lego sets per group (I would recommend no more than 20 pieces per set as the focus should be on the procedure writing rather than the Lego building) 
  • Student Handout: Designing a Procedure ​
  • Cardboard boxes (or some other material that can be used as a shield)

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I started the lesson by asking students two questions:

  1. What is a procedure?
  2. When do we use procedures in our everyday lives?

My classes are structured so that each class begins with a “Do Now” assignment. During this time, students silently and independently complete the “Do Now” assignment which is projected on the board while I check for homework. Ideally, students know to get started on this assignment the moment they walk through the door, though that is not always the case. #imstilllearning 

PART 1: Designing the Structure and Writing the Procedure

Notes: Although I gave students the option of either writing the procedure as they built the structure or after, all of them chose the latter option which I found interesting. I gave my students a time limit of 25 minutes to complete this part of the activity, which turned out to be a little rushed because it took them some time to settle on a design. In the future, I need to re-emphasize the main point of the activity, which is to write a clear, accurate, and reproducible procedure that someone else can follow. I ended up giving students closer to 30 minutes. Groups that did not finish within the time limit handed in an incomplete procedure. 
PART 2: Following and Evaluating a Procedure 

Notes: This was probably the most fun part of the lesson as students were very excited about putting their procedures to the test! At this point, I was busy at the front of the room comparing the structures groups built to the originals, although I wish I spent more time walking around asking probing questions such as, “What makes this procedure easy/difficult to follow? How can you tell which way the pieces are oriented? What would make this step clearer?” 

After students had a chance to follow another group’s procedure, they completed question #5 in Part II of the student handout (above). Once the students have had time to write down their thoughts I had them share their feedback with the other groups. 

Notes: Some students began to get overly critical and picky about each other’s procedure. At this point, I reminded them of what constructive feedback looks like, and reminded them that mistakes are OKAY – they are part of the learning process. 

An extension might be to have students follow-up this activity with a procedure about making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, brushing their teeth, or some other common, everyday task. 

Note: This would also be a good time to discuss how scientific procedures differ from everyday ones, and how the formatting may change depending on the class. For example, in my class, students will be expected to write their procedures in past tense and include labeled diagrams with figure captions written below the diagram. 

I will evaluate my students on their ability to write clear, accurate, and reproducible procedures as a part of their Mystery Solids Investigation performance task. 


Left: The original Lego structure built by the team. Right: the replicated Lego structure built by another team who followed the original team’s procedure.


Left: The original Lego structure built by the team. Right: the replicated Lego structure built by another team who followed the original team’s procedure.

Let’s Talk About Sex

I’ve been talking to my students about sex – a lot. Students are very curious about sex and have very serious questions and concerns like, “What happens if humans don’t have pubic hair?”, “Why do people feel so ashamed and embarrassed when we talk about sex?”, “Why do we have marriage?” and, my personal favourite, “What are the pros and cons of having a BF or GF?” It is rare to hear a question like, “What are the reproductive parts that a sperm must travel through in order to fertilize an egg?” and yet, that is what I am expected to teach and what students are expected to remember. To be fair, just talking about the pure mechanics of human reproduction makes my job and the student’s lives a lot less uncomfortable. If we all just avoid the touchy-feel-y emotional stuff, we can probably just leave it to fate and the off-chance that students can be trusted to educate themselves and make good choices, right? In all seriousness though, if we expect people to know about consent, safe sex, and healthy relationships, then we need to talk about those things. Teachers have so much power and influence over their students that I think we owe it to them to have open and honest conversations about topics sex, sexual health, and relationships. 

“Okay, Miss Biology Teacher,” you might be asking, “what makes you so qualified to impart knowledge about sex, sexual health, and relationships to students?” Okay, I admit, my five years of post-secondary education did not prepare me for this. Sex-ed did not prepare me for this. Truth is, I’m  improvising. I mean, I’m still trying to figure out a lot of this stuff for myself. What I do know is, I have been granted this incredible opportunity to start a dialogue with my students about a topic that’s very real and extremely relevant to their lives. Yes, it’s embarrassing, awkward, and hella uncomfortable to broach the topic of sex with a room full of hormonal teenagers. Do my students sometimes make inappropriate jokes or comments in class? Do they giggle uncontrollably whenever they use the word “ejaculation”? Are they expected to treat each other and themselves respectfully in the safe space we have created together? Are they just trying to figure out who they are and how they fit into this world just like the rest of us? The answer to all those questions is, absolutely, yes. 

The teenage years can be a strange and disorienting time, which is easy to forget when you’re legally an adult. Teens do a lot of weird things and say a lot of things they don’t mean. Coming from a person who’s already gone through that stage of life and lives to tell the tale, those teenage years don’t seem so consequential anymore. It is easy to be dismissive or indifferent to the problems experienced by my students because I forget that I am looking at their problems through my own eyes. Of course, I can’t make this time any less strange or disorienting for my students, but I can listen to them and help them understand that this stage of their life is anything but inconsequential. They are going to experience failure and make bad decisions – it is a natural part of growth and there is nothing shameful about it. Teens have the same needs adults have; to feel validated, loved, cared for, and to be given the time and space to figure themselves out.

For the most part, teaching and learning about human reproduction with my ninth graders has been a relatively matter-of-fact experience. Partly, I think it has to do with the fact that my students are English Language Learners who did not know what a lot of the vocabulary meant and so were completely uninhibited in its usage, “Miss, what is erection?”, “Miss, what does orgasm mean?”, “Miss, what is pubic hair?”. I think the other part of why this whole experience has felt so emotionally sterile  is cultural and has to do with the values and environment my students grew up in. I have noticed that they are generally shy about broaching the topic of sexual intimacy. We have not yet had a discussion about cultural norms and the role it plays in terms of our decision making when it comes to sex and relationships. A good next step I’d say.

Some cool sex-ed resources to check out: