Banning Dihydrogen Monoxide

The last day of class before winter break kicks off can be a crazy one. Students are jazzed up with all sorts of energy. I wanted to throw them a curve ball to make space for some thought so they came in to the following:

From National Public Radio (United States)

“A Web site is raising alarm about the chemical compound dihydrogen monoxide. The odorless, colorless substance is abundantly available in liquid, solid and gaseous form. Its basis is the unstable radical hydroxide, the components of which are found in a number of caustic, explosive and poisonous compounds. One city in Orange County, Calif., considered banning Styrofoam cups because they contained the compound.”


Website: DHMO Homepage

The class was divided into two large groups that represented those who want DHMO banned and those against the proposed ban. A small group of students represented Orange Co. Commissioners. I pulled information off of the DHMO web page and provided this to students as their research. They now had approximately 35 minutes to prepare for a debate. Meanwhile, the small group set up parameters for the debate. I sat back and listened to groups banter about ideas.

One student eventually came up to me asking for the chemical formula of DHMO. Smiling, I let him know that he had enough background to figure it out with the help of his peers. He returned but kept bringing it up to the group. “I know that ‘di’ is two so there are 2 hydrogens but what is oxide?”

“It’s oxygen – like in carbon dioxide,” came a reply.

“Yeah, and mono is one so there is one oxygen,” he responded. “But what does this mean.”

“We’ll get back to that later,” spoke another student who pressed for discussion about the harmful effects of DHMO.

This one student kept working on the chemical formula. He had all of the pieces but it simply did not make sense to him in light of all the information provided on the DHMO page. Meanwhile, the debate had started with quite eloquent initial addresses from both groups. As the debate progressed, the one student kept checking in with me as he became more and more convinced that it was, in fact, water. Talk about timing – I could not have asked for a better sequence. Just as the groups were given time to discuss prior to making final arguments, he figured it out. He whispered to his group, “It’s water.”

Hushed exclamations of “Huh!” and “What!” were quickly followed by a lot of giggles. This happened to be the group that opposed the ban and they had been dealt with a trump card. Final arguments opened with the group supporting the ban strongly declaring that DHMO needed to be banned in order to protect the rights of future generations.

The response was nicely done as the girl slowly began addressing points made by the “banners” and then let the bomb drop. “We can’t ban it because it’s water.”

Oh, the look on the faces of the opposing students was priceless. We wrapped up by listening to the NPR pod cast and a discussion about the credibility of web pages. Given the chaos that can be generated by a group of 8th graders in the waning hours before winter break, it was quite the enjoyable class.

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Assessments: Student Check

Assessments provide a way for both students and teacher to check-in with progress being made towards learning standards. As a teacher, assessments give me a glimpse into a student’s thoughts and processes. I am able to gauge whether one or two students are unsure about a topic or if the whole class has been left standing at the train station a couple of minutes after departure. 

Students also need this check. In a class that focuses heavily on doing science/math and group problem solving, a bit of individual time is important. At the same time, I realize that my students are middle schoolers and delayed feedback quickly becomes meaningless. I’m trying to provide quick feedback through self-evaluation and reflection.

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As a result, I’m spending more and more time writing out answer keys in a way that allows students to determine how they did while also providing a model on how to fully explain an idea or concept. When students finish work, they come to an area in the classroom set up like the one in the photo. Highlighters are provided and students evaluate their solutions. This gives them immediate feedback and also places some power in the hands of students. If they disagree with solutions, they can discuss with me while their energy of problem solving is still at a high level.

The second step is reflection. I’m still working on the questions but my goal is for students to think about themselves as explainers of ideas. How successful are they at transferring their ideas onto paper? My hope is that the process of reflection helps students improve their preparation for assessments while also expanding their ability to discuss ideas.

Caffeine charge-up

As students entered the class, they were met with this poster both on the screen and in a hand-out. I asked them to write down any thoughts.

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Thanks to Byrdseed for the link for this infographic.

Moments later they quickly came up with group names for the unfolding scenarios. Acting as race consultants, their job was to determine best caffeinated drinks that could be found in local stores. From some of my triathlon days, I remember grabbing the early morning caffeine to get me going.

Groups met to determine first steps. As they began working through the data, they realized that it was difficult to compare the caffeine amounts due to drink sizes. We’ve also been working with spreadsheets so they extracted information from the poster and inputted the data. Soon, members wanted to figure out the mg of caffeine in 1 oz.

By the end of the class, good discussions about data had taken place. Many started asking me for spreadsheet sorting techniques as they delved into their data and created graphs.

The next class, potential clients responded with a few questions for them to consider:

  1. My brother always wants to be up to date with the latest trends. He stood in line for the latest i-phone and he’ll go watch Twilight because everyone else is (he’s not even a vampire). He wants to know what drink to buy if he is to get the typical or most common amount of caffeine. Could you help him out?
  2. One of my best friends never pays attention to research, labels or, well anything! I’m trying to get him to slow down and pay attention because it would really help. At the moment he just grabs whatever is the closest drink. What amounts of caffeine could he possibly be putting into his body?
  3. Wow! What has happened to drinks these days. I asked my dear Aunt Sally to pick me up a drink before my race the other day. I told her to just get a middle-of-the-road drink. You know, nothing too strong, nothing too weak. She’s really nice and came back with a tall coffee from Starbucks. Talk about the prerace jitters! Was this really a middle-of-the-road caffeine drink? Please let me know.

Students are diving into the data. This project works on a quick turn-around as students will put together presentations about their recommendations by next class. I’ve found the poster and scenario to be good entry points for the students to discuss measures of center. Instead of a “typical” reply of, “Oh, what word is it? Mode?” students talk about the data. When they move over to spreadsheets, the formula word is the key to obtaining their desired values.

Using Google Docs has let me watch their spreadsheets develop. I can chat with them but large amounts of problem solving happen on their end. This shift to working with the data instead of crunching numbers has resulted in richer math conversations.

Procedure Swap

“Write your procedure so that anyone in this class could follow it and collect data like you.” This was a common refrain of mine as students prepared procedures for various inquiry projects. I got a lot of head nods but some students seemed to quickly slap a few lines together and declare their procedure the best ever. Oh, the shock on their faces when we actually swapped procedures.

I did it over a two class period. The first day, one partner stayed with his/her project and the other moved on to perform the procedure of another group. The “owner” of the procedure read it out line by line for the newcomer to carry out. The catch was that only what was written could be read out loud. If something needed to be added or modified, it had to be done before the step could be completed. One pair finished immediately and a large smile was on the face of the boy who had performed the procedure.

“Finished already?”

“Yes, he told me to take out the plants, move one to the window and then clean up.”

“Did you collect any data?”

“Nope, it wasn’t in the procedure.” With those words, the other scientist simply shook his head. His group had left out many sections but the two returned to work and rounded out the procedure.

On the next day, I again switched up partners. However, this time no conversation was allowed. The “owner” of the procedure played the role of an observer and was expected to take notes on how the newcomer carried out the directions. At the end, the two sat down and discussed difficulties or places that were not completed as expected.

All in all, these two days were well worth it. Students worked with both written and verbal language skills – an important aspect with the ELL population in my classes. I enjoyed each debrief session with the students as they discussed what they liked about the procedures they performed and what could be improved upon.

How are “reassessments” coming along?

Whew! It’s amazing how a couple of sick girls can stop a family in its tracks. Interesting “living in Taiwan” tidbit – antibiotics are given out on a 3-day rotation. Upon our return from the States last summer, both of our girls got ill. We took them to the doctor and received a course of antibiotics: 3 days. We found it odd of the small amount of days but others told us that is just the way it happens. They got sick again. And again. And again. Each time the antibiotic course increased their health for a short period and then back to sickness. Last weekend, we freaked. Our youngest did not appear to be hearing. Anything. Frantically we rushed to the doctor who quickly found a middle ear infection. He informed us that we would receive 14 days of antibiotics. Wow! At the pharmacy, we were given 3-days worth. Now we were confused and began questioning. As it turns out, insurance system mandates the small amount and the patient needs to return to the pharmacy every three days! Here’s to hoping for health after multiple pharmacy trips and a full course of antibiotics.

In the meantime, I’ve been a busy one with student-initiated assessments. I moved to a Google Form about a month ago with great results. The students who were already coming in still do so but many others – especially quiet students – are now coming in. It seems as if the form is providing a step forward that is easier than showing up for an assessment. Then, once the form is completed, they have made a commitment. I’m definitely pleased with the increased turnout (I am also better prepared – as students come in they simply pick up the assessment with their name on it since I was told what they would assess on).

At the same time, I think I need to vary the form from time to time so that there is reflection instead of hoop-jumping taking place as students think about concepts. In one instance, a student who regularly speeds through assessments without fully reading questions wrote multiple times “Yep, I read the problem wrong. Again.” Is some sort of learning taking place for him?

I haven’t kept hard data on the success rate of students who reassess but I feel that it has increased. Asking students to describe what they did wrong and to then rework the problem seems to be successful. It’s something that I am going to continue looking into.