Thursday, May 15, 2014

Can we do this better?

This is a picture of a biology class from Washington High School in Chicago. It was posted on twitter by one of the students in the class. I was able to talk with them via Skype in early April while we were on an island in Florida conducting research with our wild study populations of lizards.

Our research group has been talking with classrooms live from the from the field via Skype for the last 4 years. These Skype sessions have given k-12 students a chance to see a side of science that they might not otherwise see and have been a great way for us to share our work with an audience outside of other scientists.

However, we think that this avenue of communication is just beginning to be seen as a go to option for teachers looking to connect their classroom to the wide world of science. We would like to know how to do this so it has the biggest learning impact for students. What can/should be done in classrooms prior to a chat with a scientist? How can we get students to develop the best possible questions during the conversation? What kind of follow up conversations with students can take place? How can teachers incorporate this tool into their most important curricular goals?

Are you a teacher with opinions about how we can do this better? We would love to hear from you. 

I am thrilled to be hosting a group of five teachers tomorrow at the Jefferson Scholars Foundation and the University of Virginia to discuss collaboration between teachers, scientists and k-12 students. This type of online communication will be among the topics that we discuss. The six of us will be together for a full day to think about how teachers and scientists can work together to have the greatest possible impact on students. I am looking forward to seeing what we can create together. I'll be sure to post highlights of our day in the coming week.

Monday, March 31, 2014

We are busy in the field.

We arrived here at our Florida research site on Saturday and have been extremely busy to collect the data that will help us answer questions about evolution. We spend months thinking about exactly what data we will need to collect to answer our questions about evolution. Since our time in the field is limited, we work nearly round the clock when we are here to capture, measure and mark thousands of lizards from our study islands.

We are excited for the chance to tell students about our work and share some photos and video of our work. Here is a look at what we have been up to so far.

The morning commute is one of the perks of being a field biologist

The brown anole lizard is the model animal that we use to answer questions about evolution

Lizards aren't the only animals that can climb trees.

                                                                    I see you up there.

Not a bad day of work. 

We enjoy your questions so send them our way!

Monday, March 24, 2014

Ever wonder how scientists learn about evolution with living animals? Follow us and we'll show you.

Evolution is not just a historical science. Through careful observation and clever experiments evolutionary biologists are able to learn a lot about how evolution works using animals that exist on our planet right now. That is exactly the kind of work that we do and we want to show it to you.

Photo by Vince Musi

We use  small islands in Florida with populations of lizards as living laboratories to estimate the strength of natural selection as it occurs in each generation. We take careful measurements of thousands of lizards on the islands to estimate how physical traits, such as body, size influence a lizard's chances of surviving long enough to pass its genes to the next generation. We have been keeping tabs on natural selection in this way since we began working on The Lizard Project islands in 2011.

Since we started this work we have always been excited to talk about it with students. When we are in the field, we post to this blog with photos and videos to give students a window into the work of an evolutionary biologist. In some posts we will talk science, but sometimes we just want to show you some of the cool animals, plants and places that we come across while working on the islands.  We are heading out to the field again and from March 29th to April 5th you can follow our work each day right here on Wide World Science. We love to answer questions and will answer every student question that gets posted here or on Twitter @mr_reedy. We are also looking forward to having classrooms join us on the islands via Skype to have a look around the islands and talk science.

We would love to have you follow us in the field. Talk to you soon!


Monday, July 15, 2013

Overcoming the scientific divide: We're on it.

Last February, TED-Ed had gathered a team of educators and Youtube stars together with their own in house staff, to discuss the future of TED-Ed and some exciting new directions they can take. One of those new directions involves creating materials for teacher professional development. They envision a series by educators for educators. They had a few of us give prototype talks for the series. If you are familiar at all with what I do, it will come as no surprise that I made my case for why teachers should work with scientists. If you like it, share it. Thanks.
I'm really excited about these ideas right now, and we have big plans in the works for an innovative experiment that will get teachers and scientists working together to push the limits of what is possible for science in the classroom. Look for an announcement in the next few weeks about our new idea. Right now we are calling it:

Friday, February 1, 2013

The Lizard Project: Why Scientists and Teachers Should Work Together for Science Outreach

Originally published on's Guest Blog

My high school students recently did something that rarely happens in a science classroom…they did science.
Student Salvador Jahen gets to know a new hatchling.
Student Salvador Jahen gets to know a new hatchling.
Although, inquiry based instruction has long been a science education buzz phrase, all too often when kids engage in developing experiments, the answers are in fact already known to science and could be discovered through a quick Google search on the topic. This is not exactly real science. The very nature of science is to ask questions with unknown answers and produce high quality evidence to help us better understand our world. My students took a very specific question with an unknown answer and made a small, but real contribution to what is known about life on our planet.
The results of our work, Maternally chosen nest sites positively affect multiple components of offspring fitness in a lizard appeared in the journal Behavioral Ecologyyesterday. This type of science rarely happens at the high school level. It certainly isn’t expected to happen in an urban high school like Thomas Kelly High School on Chicago’s southwest side, where more than 90% of the students are designated as low income and gang violence is a harsh reality in the surrounding neighborhoods.
Male brown anole in the wild
Male brown anole in the wild
Although it is extremely rare, it is possible for young students to be a part of real research. Two years agoBlackawton Bees was published in Biology Letters. That paper, which examined how bees use spatial relationships with color to find food, listed 25 elementary school students as coauthors along with neuroscientist Beau Lotto, head teacher David Strudwick and classroom teacher Tina Rodwellyn. This highly publicized work involved a rural British elementary school class in an authentic research process. Students developed the experimental question, carried out the experiment and then students analyzed the results and wrote the discussion in their own words.
That work, published as our experiment was ongoing, helped to give me confidence that what I was trying to do with my students was indeed possible. Like the Blackawton Bees experiment, our research can change perceptions of what is possible in a science classroom and produced results that I feel are relevant to the way that researchers approach outreach and the way that we think about science education in general.
Our experiment, quickly dubbed The Lizard Project by my students, asked the question, “How does the choice of an egg laying female’s nest site affect the survival of her offspring?” This question is the same type of question that is frequently asked by professional researchers like my collaborator Dr. Dan Warner, but it is not the type of question that is typically asked by high school science students. To ask this question we moved 80 lizards into our classroom and started doing science.
Attempting to do a large scale experiment required a shift in the way we did biology class.
High school kids were involved in all aspects of the experiment
High school students were involved in all aspects of the experiment
There would be no scripted set of procedures from the text book. Our question would not be answered neatly inside of two or three 45 minute class periods before we moved on to the next topic. My students and I were forced to improvise. Students got to take part in the process of figuring out the best way to answer our question. Rather than collecting data for a prescribed number of class periods, we collected data until we could reasonably answer our question with the level of confidence required of professional researcher. Although we didn’t completely abandon the other topics in biology, we committed to seeing the project through and it took us more than four months to do that.
I made the decision that my students would have the chance to be inspired to learn by diving deep into the process of actually doing science. In practice this meant that strictly teaching to the test would be impossible, but I don’t for one minute worry that my students suffered from doing science rather than learning about science. The look of wonder on a student’s face was unmistakable when they proudly held a tiny lizard egg in a dirt covered hand after diligently sifting through the potting soil in hundreds of our nesting boxes.
Brown anole
Brown anole. Photo: Vince Musi
That very same sense of wonder is what drove many of us to be scientists and science educators. Even though the personal love of science that I watched grow in so many of my students throughout the project would be justification enough for learning by doing, I was satisfied to see that despite straying from the prescribed curriculum, my biology students have been shown to score at or above the level of their peers in other classrooms at our school.
Although it is far from guaranteed when engaging in authentic research, my students did find an answer to our research question. The data my students collected showed that female brown anoles are highly sensitive to moisture when choosing a nest site and that this choice of nest can have serious survival consequences for her hatchlings through the first 12 weeks of life. We found that a good choice of nest can lead to as much as a 22% increase in offspring size, when compared to a poor choice.
The results of our NSF supported. classroom research were significant. However, more important is the way I think our project has the potential to change perceptions about the high school science classroom and what is possible for collaborations between researchers and teachers. Our experiment was considerably outside the bounds of typical high school curriculum and the logistics of converting my classroom to a functioning live animal lab was no small hurdle. My students managed more than 100 lizards in 30 controlled enclosures for more than 4 months.
Doing this type of science may be outside the realm of possibility for most teachers working i­ndependently. In this case, our experiment was only possible because of a long-term collaboration with Dr. Fred Janzen’s evolutionary ecology lab at Iowa State and particularly with Dan Warner (now an assistant professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham). This relationship has proven tremendously beneficial to me, my students and Dr. Warner as we all contribute to, and learn from, real science. Completing this project leads me to believe that our work can be a new model for both researchers and classroom teachers. Here are five reasons why I think it is in everyone’s best interest when scientists and science teachers work together.
1) Science outreach works best when it is ongoing.
Far too often the model for outreach is a classroom guest lecture from a visiting scientist. The ongoing collaboration, developed over three years, with Dr. Warner and the Fred Janzen Lab at Iowa State allowed for me and my class to tackle a much deeper exploration of the scientific process than ever before.
2) Teachers are experts in communicating science to kids in a way that researchers are not.
Although many researchers are great science communicators, they do not typically have education training that matches that of a typical teacher. Teachers also have existing relationships with students that are vital to motivating student learning. Students benefit when the collaboration leverages the relative strengths of both teacher and researcher.
3) Researchers are in a great position to work with teachers to foster intellectual growth and develop original experiments.
Our entire system of producing PhD scientists is already based on researchers working with motivated college graduates to encourage scholarly growth through independent research. Because of this system, it is very easy for researchers to work in this type of relationship with an interested and motivated science teacher to the benefit of both.
4) The best science learning experiences in schools are big enough to be shared.
Large scale projects offer enough hands on experience to draw students in before they have the opportunity to sink their intellectual teeth into real data analysis. This project was large scale by high school standards. To start with we had 80 lizards in 20 enclosures. By the end we had a total of 30 enclosures and lizards hatching out of the incubator almost daily. Typical public high school teachers have 100 to 150 students at any given moment. All my students got to be thoroughly involved with the experiment precisely because there was so much animal care, data collection, and analysis to be done. A smaller scale project would not have provided as many opportunities for the direct hands-on work of so many students.
5) Outreach doesn’t have to take away time from research.
When researchers and teachers take the time to establish true professional collaboration, the lines between outreach and research are blurred. Dr. Warner committed to working with our class in a truly collaborative role. Through his commitment we were able to produce data that advanced his research while having a broader impact of the type that funding agencies like to see. When scientists and science teachers truly collaborate, science happens, everyone benefits and kids everywhere are capable of doing real science.
Aaron ReedyAbout the Author: Aaron Reedy previously taught biology at Thomas Kelly High School in Chicago, where he used innovative projects to connect his classroom to the wider world of science. In pursuit of great education, he kayaked down the Mississippi River, immersed kids in studies of wild reptile reproduction and climate change, carried out professional-level science in the classroom and engaged schools in live video chats from the field. Right now, he's a team member on a National Geographic/Waitts grant to investigate the role that the sex ratio plays in evolution and population growth in island populations of lizards. Earlier this year he spoke at TED on teaching kids about how we know what we know about evolution. He is currently a fellow at the Jefferson Scholars Foundation at the University of Virginia working on a PhD in biology. His blog Wide World Sciencebrings field biology into classrooms and shares the work of his students with the world. Follow on Twitter@mr_reedy.
The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

If it's worth doing, it's worth

One of the best ways to make work meaningful and authentic to high school students is to have them share their work with an audience. This is a generation that, for better or for worse, posts their every waking move on line. If its important to them, they post it on Facebook or put the video up on YouTube. I began to notice this when we were working on an exciting lesson in class (dissecting sharks, simulating meteor impacts on the moon, racing cockroaches, etc.). Students would ask me if they could take video of the lesson to show their friends. To the typical high school student if it is exciting, it is worth sharing. For them, sharing often makes an experience feel important. By tapping into this, teachers have an opportunity to increase student engagement, and now that anyone can set up a blog in a matter of minutses, it is easier than ever for teachers and students to share student work with the wider world. When I told my students that they would be sharing their projects (podcasts) online, I was amazed to see just how much more important the assignment became to them.

Their assignment was to research the global extinction crisis currently facing amphibians.  With over 1,900 species of amphibians currently facing the threat of extinction, we run the very real risk of loosing 1/3 of all amphibian species in our lifetimes. These alarming statistics helped to grab their attention, but what really inspired them to make a creation worth sharing was simply the fact that I planned to share it with a wide audience.

Recently I found myself with the TED-Ed recording unit that I used to record the narration for this animated video I included my students in the process when I was making the video and I shared the rough draft of the animation with my students before it was released on My students were fascinated with the process of me creating and sharing my own work with the world.  Since I still had the recording equipment that TED had sent me, I decided my students should use it to record their own creations.  This set the stage for them as they began creating their own podcasts. I think they really got a kick out of using the portable sound recording booth (a well designed hood of sound dampening foam).

I asked them to write and record 30-90 second micro-podcasts that would each highlight the plight of one individual amphibian species.  While it might not be a very big step towards world wide amphibian conservation, I hope that it helped my students see that they have the power to create and that it is now easier than ever to share your creations with the world.

Here is what they came up with: It is a blog telling the world about the endangered amphibians that they learned about.  They have been thrilled to see it shared online. For them, and for many high school students, the important things are worth sharing.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

What I wish for my TED-Ed video.

In a few hours the folks at TED will be launching a new website, TED-Ed.  The site is meant to build on the popularity of the incredibly viral TED talks on the website.  TED talks have become so popular largely because, as the tagline says, they share "riveting talks by remarkable people, free to the world". However, I think that they have also become so pervasive because of their share-ability.  One click and they are posted on your Facebook wall or attached in an email to a friend.  This has been an extremely powerful tool for spreading ideas.  Indeed the average TED talk is viewed online more than 100,000 times and the most popular talks have been viewed millions of times. The most popular of which is Ken Robinson's talk, Schools Kill Creativity; it has been viewed more than 10 million times. (If you haven't seen it, watch it now!)

With the launch of TED-Ed, they are hoping to take that extremely powerful brand for sharing ideas, and extend it to the world of teaching.  They want to take the best lessons from teachers around the world and help that teaching go viral. To do that they are concentrating on a format that has the best chance of being easily spread online and into classrooms everywhere. They are keeping the videos short (all less than 10 minutes with most at around 5-6 minutes).  They are also pairing teachers with some of the world's best animators to give the lessons visual snap and and an element of surprise that can be tough to do with a straight lecture format.

After being lucky enough to be invited to give a TED talk last month at TED 2012, I am now also lucky to have one of my lessons up on the TED-Ed site for its official launch.  Therefore as TED's new creation is about to be judged by the world at large, so is mine. To be fair, it is not entirely my own creation. I worked with legendary animator Candy Kugel on the project and her work breathed a playful spark into my teaching that I wish could be there everyday. None the less, I do feel very connected to the work and I definitely feel a sense of shared ownership for the project.  As my lesson is about to take its first few steps out into the internet, I find myself reflecting on my hopes for its online future.

My lesson, Sex Determination: More Complicated Than You Thought, is really a 5 minute summary version of 3 of my favorite 45 minute lessons that I teach on sex determination in animals. Over the last seven school years of teaching high school biology, I have seen that these lessons consistently fascinate my students.  When the folks at TED asked me about creating a lesson, sex determination was immediately on my mind as a possible topic.  When they told me that they wanted it to be about 5 minutes long it forced me to stop looking for a way to recreate my best lessons on the topic and instead create a new type of lesson.  A lesson that would distill the essence of those other lessons, but still remain clear and would leave students wanting to know more.  That is indeed my biggest hope for this project; that it will make students want to learn more.

I know that in five minutes I could never thoroughly teach a topic as complex as sex determination throughout the animal kingdom.  I also know that videos, no matter how captivating, will never replace a passionate teacher.  However, I do believe that you can inspire a student's curiosity in a single moment and that curiosity can propel a student to learn for a long time. So that is my hope for this video and I think it is TED-Ed's hope for their new website.  I hope that it will help teachers to generate that spark of curiosity in their own students and become a great tool that is used to support and inspire great teaching as it was meant to be- curiosity driven person to person.