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.

Plate Tectonics – Group preAssessment

Today, I’ve gone fishing. Next week my 7th grade science classes will shift their focus to geology. Personally, I’m rather excited about the topic and ready to get talking about the movements of the earth. But…what are my students bringing with them to this topic?

The room was a buzz with conversations as students worked in groups of three or four. Once reassured that my goal was solely to collect information regarding current understanding to help plan for an upcoming unit, student groups dove into working through a series of questions. Honestly, I was quite surprised by the level of engagement and felt good about the decision to give a group pre-assessment rather than individual questions. The collaborative nature of the task – talk to each other about topics you might or might not know anything about – stimulated vibrant conversations.

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The questions came from the Project 2061 work on the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) site. The work has led to a series of questions based upon researched misconceptions. A wide range of topics are available and a user can create question banks based on need. Multiple choice solutions are based upon possible misconceptions. As my students worked together, a support hand-out was provided so that students could identify unknown vocabulary and put down questions relating to ideas.

I wonder if the strong level of conversation and exchange of ideas came from the fact that many choices “making sense” to students were available. At that point, they had a starting point to discuss. In the end, I will have a general overview of groups and will later work to tease out the understanding of each student.

Unpacking NGSS #1: History of Earth

Note: Sept 29: This post is turning out to be more of a work in progress than I had anticipated. Score another point for the idea that blogging provides great opportunity for reflection. So far, my lens of looking at these topics has been affected by past experiences and I began to work on the next phase – processes – I wondered where convection lies as a driver for plate tectonics. It lies in the HS standards! My task is to rework things a bit but I am concerned over how many objectives are creeping into this unit.


Coming up on my docket is a geology-based unit and I would venture to think that I’m in a similar situation to most – trying to make sense of the NGSS standards and create units that are engaging for students. At the same time, I’m either missing the boat on my searches or there really isn’t much in e-land beyond what NextGen has published. With this post, I hope to begin a mini-series of unpacking standards into a way that I can use while potentially opening up an avenue for discourse on implementation (please comment, critique, question!)

What lens will I work through? As I moved over to a standards-based system, I’ve really enjoyed reading Jason Buell’s (Always Formative) well-thought out approach. In addition, my school reports on a 1 to 5 scale. Overall view:

1 = No evidence of learning
2 = Can do most of the Level 3 items with help.
3 = Base understanding. Key information.
4 = Connecting ideas. Using Level 3 items to making connections in order to link ideas and explain concepts.
5 = Going beyond what was directly taught in class

Students: I teach 7th grade students.

Focus Standards – History of Earth

  • MS-ESS1-4. Construct a scientific explanation based on evidence from rock strata for how the geologic time scale is used to organize Earth’s 4.6-billion-year-old history.
  • MS-ESS2-2. Construct an explanation based on evidence for how geoscience processes have changed Earth’s surface at varying time and spatial scales.
  • MS-ESS2-3. Analyze and interpret data on the distribution of fossils and rocks, continental shapes, and seafloor structures to provide evidence of the past plate motions.
  • MS-ESS3-1. Construct a scientific explanation based on evidence for how the uneven distributions of Earth’s mineral, energy, and groundwater resources are the result of past and current geoscience processes. (Update 9/29: This standard was added in as it appears to work well with the other three. The focus of these lies within constructing explanations based on evidence for why Earth has the features and resources in the locations it does…)

Associated Cross-Cutting Concepts

  • Time, space, and energy phenomena can be observed at various scales using models to study systems that are too large or too small. (MS-ESS1-4), (MS-ESS2-2)
  • Patterns in rates of change and other numerical relationships can provide information about natural systems. (MS-ESS2-3)
  • Cause and effect relationships may be used to predict phenomena in natural or designed systems. (MS-ESS3-1)
  • All human activity draws on natural resources and has both short and long-term consequences, positive as well as negative, for the health of people and the natural environment. (MS-ESS3-1)

Associated Science & Engineering Practices

  • Construct a scientific explanation based on valid and reliable evidence obtained from sources (including the students’ own experiments) and the assumption that theories and laws that describe the natural world operate today as they did in the past and will continue to do so in the future. (MS-ESS1-4), (MS-ESS2-2), (MS-ESS3-1)
  • Analyze and interpret data to provide evidence for phenomena. (MS-ESS2-3)
  • Science findings are frequently revised and/or reinterpreted based on new evidence. (MS-ESS2-3)

Overall Topic Scale

Level 3: I can describe different types of evidence used by geologists to determine the age of the Earth and its changes throughout time.

Level 4: Using evidence, I can construct explanations on how the Earth’s surface has changed over time and how these changes affect the distribution of Earth’s resources.

Level 5: Given my explanations on the changes of Earth’s surfaces, I can analyze new scenarios to describe probable geologic actions and also predict possible changes to existing landforms.

Concepts along the way (Student “I can” statements”)

Level 3
a I can describe the difference between relative and absolute age.
b I can describe how relative age is judged in rock formations.
c I can describe how fossils provide clues to the Earth’s past.
d I can describe constructive and destructive processes that take place on the Earth’s surface.
e I can identify & diagram the three major divergent plate boundaries (divergent, convergent, transform).
f I can describe evidence used to support the theory of plate tectonics.
h I can describe key resources affected by Earth’s geoscience processes.
Level 4
a I can interpret the geologic time scale from rock strata
b I can compare and contrast diagrams of rock layers to explain differences in their formation.
c I can interpret geologic interactions that have shaped Earth’s history and will determine its future.
 d  Using evidence, I can construct a scientific explanation regarding the distribution of Earth’s mineral, energy and groundwater resources.
Level 5
a Using the law of superposition, I can explain real-life phenomena not explained in class.
b Using evidence of current geologic activity, I can propose and support future changes to landforms.

In the levels of understanding listed above, the practices and cross-cutting concepts are embedded and will come out as student engage with the material. A central theme of the course is making sense of evidence. I want my students to use maps to collect evidence, design and perform experiments to test their potential ideas and to make arguments based upon their evidence.

Thoughts & Request for Feedback?

Again, the purpose of this (and the following related posts) is to help me iron out thinking while also putting thoughts out to the online community for feedback. What are others doing? Where are the holes in my structure? What am I missing? Thanks!