Let the students show the way (spreadsheets to Desmos)

Recently, I posted about the CER structure that I was starting to use more with my 7th graders in science. There, time was spent on representing evidence from multiple trials as well as different measures of center. I wondered about the use of Desmos in creating graphs. The goal is for students to be able to quickly create graphical displays so that the bulk of their time is spent discussing patterns within their evidence. Honestly, I hadn’t poked around in Desmos enough recently to know if it would be challenging or not. Graphing in Excel/gSheets often opens up the destructive side of me as it is quite cumbersome to make and modify graphs (at least at my skill level).

Today, students were finishing up assessments and and I tasked them with getting into Desmos and graphing the data they had recently done by hand. The goal was to explore, learn skills, reproduce the graph and then share out if it is possible.


Students got to cracking! I had them work individually to both allow for quiet in order for others to finish up assessments and to also allow for each student’s creativity in finding a solution. They were quite resourceful. Some began by putting in individual points. Others typed in entire tables. I nudged to find a way to copy and paste from the data in the spreadsheet. (I’m fully onboard in the power of spreadsheets to analyze data – I just can’t get the displays I want without frustration.) They reported back that they had. Entire tables can be copied from a spreadsheet and pasted into Desmos! Yeah! That’s quick! However, we had to do some restructuring of tables to make better meaning.

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gSpreadsheet Link

The trials and averages went into two different Desmos tables so that the formatting could be differentiated.

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Desmos Graph

Desmos Tip from students: Holding down on the color in the table provides extra options such as adding in a line between points if that is desired.

By the end of class, students were telling me that they were quite comfortable bringing tables into Desmos and then creating a graphical display. Desmos Tip: The wrench in the top right corner allows labels to be put on each axis as well as adjusting the scale.

So, I’m pretty excited both in having a potential system to make graphical displays and with the reward of putting my trust in the students. They could and did dive into the Desmos and finished by increasing the understanding of our community.


CER – Developing Structures

Evidence. It’s challenging for my 7th graders to keep coming back to evidence. Personally, I’ve struggled finding the right scaffolds for students to have them put together investigations and share their thinking. The following is my latest installment based upon some past work with Paul Andersen (@paulandersen) and continual shifts in thinking towards NGSS practices. In the end, student goals are to have strong conversations about their investigations, clearly model design, display key evidence and conceptually model their ideas.

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(Link to above document)

The structure above is used at the end of an investigation though students need to show their experimental design. (A topic for a different time – how much emphasis are people putting on the physical writing of a procedure versus setting up the experimental design and then moving forward?)

Experimental Design: In the experimental design, students create a model that shows their set-up with the independent, dependent and controlled variables clearly indicated. Below are a couple of student examples for an investigation where the mass of a dynamic cart was varied as students examined change in velocity with constant force or an applied force was varied.

What I like:

  • The visual nature of setting up an investigation through a model.
  • Highlighting the variables. My students are not always 100% confident on independent, dependent and controlled variables. This color connection makes them again talk about the variables. They also quickly realize if parts are missing from their model.
  • There is a focus on the experimental set-up. Students are talking about the parts of the investigation they are working with.

What I wonder:

  • For seventh graders, is this good enough? In the past, I’ve spent a lot of time word smithing on procedures and I’m not sure that that is necessarily time well spent. What do I really want? I would like students to have a strong foundation in designing investigations that focus on a relationship between an independent and dependent variable. I would like students to truly grasp the need to keep all other items controlled.
  • How can I mix in a strong foundation of procedure-type vocabulary that students then show on the model?
  • What can be done to improve on the current model? Does more need to be done regarding the independent / dependent variable relationship? What about the controlled variables – how do the key ones really stand out?
  • Multiple Trials – One group wrote to repeat for every trial though they did not indicate how many trials would be necessary. Maybe I should make this more specific.

Data: Once the set-up is ironed out, students move to collecting data. Organized data tables are challenging to set-up! We eventually get data tables constructed in a spreadsheet and students begin collecting. This post is more related to the workup of ideas so let’s move to the display of evidence.

What I like:

  • Paul Andersen was the one that led me to showing all of the data collected in trials on a graph. In the past, students showed the average only but a lot of information was lost. We now have conversations about the range of data and the confidence level of groups in whether or not they have a strong data set.
  • The graph is another place where we check in on independent and dependent variables.
  • Physics! We got reproducible data almost across the board and it really does make a difference.
  • Working up the data into a graphical display and then having students write a claim.

What I wonder:

  • Students are doing more with data in spreadsheets though get really turned around when it gets to graphing with the software. I like the investment of time to go into discussing the data instead of physically graphing but I don’t have a good solution yet for graphical displays. (I’m toying with Excel/gSheets, Desmos and CODAPany others?)

Conceptual Model of Claim: In support of the claim that student groups generate based upon their data, I’m working with the idea of a model to explain ideas. Evidence is shown on the graph, so the focus here is more in showing the big idea of the claim. This is definitely a work in progress and in need of refinement.

What I like:

  • Students are returning to the relationship of the independent and dependent variables.
  • By having this piece not focus on numbers, students talk more about representing their ideas.
  • A focus is placed upon the claim being a representation of the data. Our conversations were around what patterns are in the data and how can this be shown.

What I wonder:

  • Dot diagrams were provided as a way for students to model their thoughts. In other areas, is it good for groups to have similar models for better comparison or better to have groups represent in any way they like?
  • What additional description should accompany the conceptual model. Is the claim and the model enough?
  • Many more thoughts running around…

Reasoning – With my 7th graders, I’m finding that more structure is still a good idea when writing a claim. We return to the relationship of the independent to dependent variable and I want to see students including specific information from their trials of what was changed and what was measured. My focus has been on developing a solid reliance on evidence that I hope can then be used to eventually link to strong reasoning.

Making, Baking and Taking Samples

Geological-map-of-China Site Key

During earlier days working in an engineering consulting firm, I remember my geologist buddies heading out for days at time to drill sites. Some days, I envied them as they spent glorious spring days outside while I modeled or wrote reports back in the office. Other days, I enjoyed the warmth of the building as they toiled under the wet and cold conditions of a Pacific Northwest winter. My students are budding geologists and we tried to simulate a bit of the sampling experience.

The above map provides a basic overview rock in China. Eight different sites were overlaid. Sites were selected next to cities so that students could reference names as they worked. I was also curious how a wide spread set of “top layers” would work out. Would it allow me to differentiate groups? Would there be more conversations with a wider number of sites?

To begin the project, students joined a group that, depending on the numbers in the class, ranged from three to five students. As such, out of the eight sites on the map of China, student groups represented four or five. They did not see the overview map at the beginning. Instead, students were given a map of China with a box at their site and a zoomed in version of their site (the boxed area). As a group, they were asked to decide how the site would be split up and who would be responsible for each portion.

This year, I am experimenting with the line between group and individual work and trying to find a good balance. As individuals, I want each student to be engaged and have the opportunity to process on their own. As a group member, I want each student to work on collaboration and promoting ideas. In this task, once the site was split up and discussed, each student had to design his or her own cupcake of their portion of the site.


Stepping out of the classroom always provides interesting views into the picture of who my students are – some were quite comfortable working around in a kitchen space while others were almost paralyzed at layering their cupcakes. In the end, the cupcakes were all put together and baked. Five minutes passed as the students sat mesmerized in front of the oven watching baking bread. Hmmm – who knew it was so fascinating.


When cooked and cooled, the samples were iced to cover the top layer and then students were given an unknown sample. Their group’s task was to know identify which site was represented by the unknown group of cupcakes. Each student was allowed three core samples – using a straw they drilled down into the cupcake. Core samples were sketched and students asked to draw the cross section of their site.


With 12 to 15 core samples per group, students began processing information. At this stage, I felt that I did not do a great job in guiding students. Partly, I was curious in how they would work with the wide amount of data. Each sample had the possibility of four layers and some were more mixed up. This gives 50 or so “pieces” of evidence though for this task, students really only needed to look at the top layer of their samples. Some groups figured this out quickly and others took time but got there. What was not done well was how students represented this information. I feel that I need a bit more work in using images to capture data.


It’s great when spontaneous argument begins in class. As groups narrowed down their sites, I realized that some groups had picked the same site. I put these groups together to hash it out. Awesome, wonderful conversations ensued. Unfortunately, this was not replicated in the other three classes. Looking back, I realize that the spread of initial sites offered to much variety. I want the argumentation to come out and as such need to have sites that will hopefully lead students to a state where they need to really work with evidence and convince others of their ideas.


Long post note: I hope I will remember to look back over this post if this project is done in the future. Hence, a broad overview. Modifications:

  • Focusing on sites that are more similar in nature may also help with the batter issue. A few classes had shortages though not of the same color.
  • Sprinkles as fossils did not work out – the sprinkles disappeared while baking.
  • Straws as core sampling tool. A great student idea was to take the sample and then instead of trying to take the sample out (frustrating and often crumbles) simply cut the straw at the sample.
  • Work on labeling of cupcakes. What is the north side of the cupcake?
  • More scaffolding is needed turning evidence into a graphic.

Focus on Evidence (investigating water transport in plants)

We want to explain, solve problems, provide solutions. I see it in my two crazy toddlers. With their different ways of thinking, few problems are outside of their reach to solve. Together, they have learned to untie knots, unstrap buckles, remove latches, climb to amazing heights and more just so they can trash their room instead of going to sleep. By the time a student walks into my Grade 7 class, they have been conditioned to “answer the problem” and “provide a solution”.

What about the evidence? Those beautiful details collected from observation seemed to be noted in passing, processed somewhere in their minds, and rapidly discarded. I am trying to ask my students to slow down, pay attention to their observations and collect data. Moving back and forth between the desire for students to design investigations to the need for serious skill building in working like a scientist, we’ve been doing a series of observational-type labs.


My goal is for students to collect data related to movement of material through a plant. (We’re tackling MS-LS1-6. -Construct a scientific explanation based on evidence for the role of photosynthesis in the cycling of matter and flow of energy into and out of organisms – so please let me know if you have any additional ideas.) Water transport in plants amazes me and I am hoping for my students to collect evidence to begin putting forth a simplistic description of the process moving water up a xylem tube. The focus is on evidence and I know they are sick of me asking what evidence will you collect? What is your evidence? Describe your evidence. Wow! This is difficult.

As a group, my students consistently skip over describing evidence and begin talking about how it can be used to answer a question. I pull them back. Describe your evidence. What type of data are you collecting? They respond, “The red at the top of the celery means that…” Again, slow down describe what you are seeing. Pull apart the celery. Collect evidence.

Science Teacher Doyle often writes on the need for students to work on the processes of our world around them and to make strong connections to our own outside world. Evidence must be collected and students need to construct their meaning from their own observations, not heaps of text. At what point is their enough evidence to then make a leap into the abstract? We pulled apart celery as its xylem tubes filled with red food coloring and were amazed at how much quicker the stalks inside the bunch pulled up the liquid than the older stalks on the outside.


We slowly dropped different liquids on the top of a coin. Students saw a fat bubble form when dropping water and watched vinegar and soapy water slide away. We placed bags around branches on trees in the school yard and saw on a sunny day how quickly water vapor filled them up. Evidence was collected. We worked hard to only describe the evidence and then to put together pieces of the puzzle.

Students drew. Their evidence led them to a common “wall” – water goes up the plant and but now what? Where does the process start? Is there a push or a pull? The sun was brought in. “It must take part in this dance,” the students exclaimed. I think we reached the limit or I was simply not patient enough or did not have the right guiding questions. 







(A few more student examples are located at the bottom of the post)

In the end, we made a line from the door to the classroom and linked arms. I asked which experience collected evidence that as a bunch of water molecules we should have linked arms? “Ooh, the drops on a penny!” Why, explain your evidence. The line was broken into segments all the way down to a someone in the root zone. We laughed at the idea of being water molecules stuck in a xylem tube but then wondered about the starting of the process. Is there a push or a pull? “A push from the roots,” volunteered one. We had the last student in the root pull with all of his might. Nothing happened to the rest of the line. Hmmm….any other possibilities? “The other end could pull.” Make way for silly, middle school exaggeration as a tiny pull led to students falling all over themselves. Point made.

What evidence do we have that water comes out of a leaf? They again made the connection to our observations and slowly teased out evaporation. A leap was made by many students and they appeared to nod and smile of understanding. But, we’re not there. Next steps?

This process took time. Collecting evidence takes time, but the hard work lies in pulling that evidence together. I think my students are starting to appreciate data in a new light and I hear them beginning to refer to specific data.  I find myself struggling to find the balance between doing experimentation (they get excited about this) and making meaning of what we’ve done (bring on the crickets). Large whiteboards and group processing helps a lot but I’m looking for more ideas. Please share!

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Writing like a Scientist

The wheels on the Yeast is a living organism bus are almost wearing off. My 7th graders have performed an experiment, observed a demonstration, designed an investigation and worked with microscopes to collect evidence to support the claim about yeast. Beginning with characteristics of life, we’ve followed the pattern of experimentation for a class balanced with processing of information for a class. It’s been an engaging time and I’ve been impressed with the improvement in many students – and the year has just begun!

So far, feedback has revolved around classroom conversations. (Yep, I will work on collecting more responses from individual students as the year progresses.) To wrap up this series, I want my students to write up their evidence to support the claim. My thinking is to not focus on the structure of a traditional scientific lab report but to spend time on the processing of information and how students write up their ideas.

This year, I am super fortunate to work with a resourceful ESOL teacher who is helping me be more deliberate in the teaching of science writing. So helpful that he came in and worked with students in a mini-lesson. How do we write as a scientist?

Using the following excerpt from their text book, the students were asked to begin noticing features of scientific writing. Slowly, the page became more and more annotated as students provided examples of verb tense, linking phrases, active vs passive voice. The term “modal verb” was a new one for them but the idea of structure to explain things not fully certain was understood.

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They brought up the need for expanding vocabulary and using specific words. After the short mini-lesson, students began compiling all of their evidence and thoughts from the various activities into one place. They’re working on drafts to support the claim that Yeast is a living organism.

The need to be deliberate and explicit in my teaching becomes more and more apparent as the years go by. If the goal is for students to write a strong report, then they need to be provided with the support and scaffolding to improve their writing. We’ll come back to these skills throughout the year as I hope my students begin writing more like a scientist. I’m curious – what are other folks doing to help build writing skills in science?


Building Evidence: Yeast is a Living Organism

The claim that Yeast is a living organism started the process of investigation. My budding scientists have been thrown into the evidence machine and are working like crazy to collect evidence (the fun part), discuss it (the hard part) and evaluate how the evidence can be used to support the claim (the teeth-pulling part). The week began with students returning to characteristics of life and determining what evidence they had from the first experimentation. Large whiteboards served as the platform for this session:


Groups ranked the strength of their evidence: (+) if they believed it to be strong, (-) for weak evidence and (0) for no evidence. Many groups were unsure at this point of whether or not they had strong or weak evidence and few students seemed willing to go out on a limb and support their thoughts. This is new to them…

During this process I tried a new technique of shuffling groups and it turned out to be effective. Group members counted off so that each was a 1, 2 or 3. Then, during the analysis phase, a card containing a number was pulled and the student with that number rotated to the next table. Later on as we continued processing information, this process was repeated. In both instances, new insight was brought into the group and by the end new groups were also formed.

The new groups then focused on two characteristics: responding to a stimuli and being an energy user. Their task was to determine how to design an investigation (based off of the initial day of of experimentation) to collect evidence. We haven’t kicked around official terms for variables but most were getting the idea of controls and manipulating variables. A few surprises popped up. Groups investigating energy decided to experiment with sugar, no sugar and in a few instances, salt. The inflated balloon has sugar, the other was without or with salt.


At the end of the week, a few groups began processing this information. My goal is to bring out the idea of a scientific community between the four classes. I want students to share information throughout the classes. We’ll try a combination of poster and tech-infused ways to share data. This time, I asked students to create a poster that included a quick visual of the set-up (different colors for the manipulated and controlled variables), key observations, and an explanation of how their evidence supported or refuted their claim.

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