George Lucas Educational Foundation
Technology Integration

The Ratzel Room Daily: Encouraging Kids to Think About Science in the Real World

An earth science teacher shares some tips for engaging students using free web 2.0 tools.

May 17, 2011

The other day, I found a fascinating video and blog post about a mass of plastic debris encountered by a diver in Belize. Today, I found stunning images of an active volcano in Ecuador and a fascinating story by Mika McKinnon, about her experiences as a science consultant for the Stargate: Atlantis television series. I can't wait to see what science stories I find tomorrow.

I didn't use Google, Bing, or a traditional aggregator to find these articles. I simply used the electronic newspaper, The Ratzel Room 66 Daily, that Marsha Ratzel, a science and social studies teacher at Leawood Middle School in Kansas produces daily for her students. Marsha doesn't comb the web looking for interesting stories either. Instead, she harnessed the power of Twitter and Small Rivers' free service to bring these current events to her and her students. Last week, I had a chance to ask her a few questions about how this innovative use of web tools has impacted her teaching and her students.

Eric: What led you to focus on incorporating current events as a driving force in your science class?

Marsha: It's a whole attitude not just using the Twitter feed...although that is definitely part of it. So little of what I find for middle school science teachers incorporates labs, experiences, or link-ups with scientists for those of us who teach earth science. I find more opportunities for life science, astronomy and even physics. But if you're assigned to teach about the inside of the earth, weather, climate, weathering, erosion, soil, rocks, minerals, have to make your own fun and connections. Current events was my #1 way to connect my students to the real world without leaving my classroom.

Eric: Why Twitter?

Marsha: It's free and you can do with it only one computer in your classroom so every student doesn't have to a computer in order for the class to benefit and/or for you to use it to incorporate into lessons. It's accessible from school and from home. And lastly because students have heard about and some have used it.

Eric: How did you build your classroom Twitter account?

Marsha: I started by looking at the most credible earth science sources of information that I already use. Places like NOAA, NASA and the USGS. I researched to see if they had social media feeds...most had entire pages devoted to social media. Here's the USGS page for example. I would scan thru these pages and see what applied to my curriculum.

Next I would search to find them on Twitter and then incorporate them into my feed. As we read those posts, sometimes other sources would be mentioned and we investigated those sources. Gradually we've built up the feed to include more sources including other teachers, bloggers, professors and news outlets. Always you have to keep an eye on things to make sure the information is credible and school appropriate...if it's not, then you have to delete that account.

Eric: What sources did you prioritize?

Marsha: Top priority is credible, accurate information. Second priority is information that my students can understand. Third is information that is "fun" and interesting. Visually interesting is a big plus, so things that have maps, videos and the like are big pluses.

Eric: How do you use and The Ratzel Room 66 Daily with your students?

Marsha: Mostly in 3 ways - I open it on the SmartBoard almost everyday. We scan to see if there's news that we need to review as a whole class. Then we do a featured moment in class to review what's being reported and process what it means.

Secondly, at the beginning of the year when students are just beginning to learn how to do this kind of information analysis, they are in groups with a topical focus like hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes. Their group checks the feed to see if there's been any activity to report. They record that activity on the class whiteboard and then we talk updates. As they get more tech proficient everyone starts to do this on their own and we don't rely on the whiteboard. Thirdly, they write current event reports using the Daily and the archived feeds. You can see how they did this with the Japan earthquake event. Students used the daily feed to pull what was happening from media reports into their own reports (and they could pick any output product format they wanted) and then uploaded their report to our class blog. The only thing I had to require was that they included the sources of their information. Here is an example report using Prezi and one using Glogster.

Eric: How have your students responded?

Marsha: They like it and have an amazing ability to talk about current events and how earth science fits in with all that is happening in the world. They love being on the computer and having the freedom to follow things that interest them. However, be prepared for occasional student complaints. It is much easier to read the textbook and answer worksheet questions. Homework with one right answer is much easier. So going down this path is wonderful but not without issues - students have to learn to problem solve, to analyze and to think.

Eric: What advice would you give to other teachers that want to replicate your project?

Marsha: Go slowly at first and blend traditional with digital tools as a whole class. After doing this a few times, break students into smaller groups and then finally transition them to individual projects. You will have to teach them how to do almost everything because they've been so conditioned to read a question and find the answer staring back at them in bold print on the page of a textbook - to search for answers in current events reports is much harder.

They also don't know how to have "discussions" about how to interpret what's happening. If there isn't one right answer, they have to learn how to support their ideas. They think they're wrong when what they are asked to cite their evidence. Until they get the hang of that, discussions are pretty lopsided towards the kids that are naturally good readers and higher-level thinkers.

Everyone can do it, but you will have to develop scaffolding organizers and provide lots of examples to show them how to gather information and use it in these discussions. Once they get a hang of it, these discussions are a blast!

Some parents struggle with this type of project. Their child has typically received good grades, and now that there are not worksheets coming home, they don't know where their children stand. They are used to seeing a simple worksheet with right and wrong answers. They can get frustrated when their child complains that s/he doesn't get it - the student actually does get it, but is uncomfortable without having a single right answer. For example, we are still arguing about what the Japanese communities could have done better to prepare for the tsunami. Sure, they built a seawall they thought was going to be sufficient, but the wave was much higher. Should they have anticipated that? How much higher should they have built it? How would they go about building a wall that would withstand all tsunamis? Should we (as a society) build power plants so near the convergence of so many tectonic plates? This is a great set of questions to think about and consider precisely because they have no clear answers. You need to make sure that you keep communication lines open with your students' parents.

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