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Pondering Pendulums

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

How did you spend your Thursday night? Members of TISS Cohort 4 spent theirs playing with pendulums, those seemingly simple yet, in fact, complex contraptions made of a mass, a string, and a fixed support. The task for the evening:  reflect on how argumentation could help our understanding of how pendulums work.

Before we could argue about pendulums, we had to first investigate how they work. Groups of teachers worked together in small groups to try to uncover which variable would cause the greatest change in the number of swings a pendulum made in 15 seconds. TISS coaches pre-made all the pendulums so that small groups of teachers could focus solely on the exploration of variables. Would adding more mass affect the swing? Changing the release angle of the pendulum? What about length of string? Every group in the room came to the same, surprising conclusion: string length dramatically affects the number of swings, while the other variables don’t have any measurable impact.

The tough part came next. “Why does string length affect the number of swings a pendulum makes?” we asked.Each group was tasked with making an argument poster that clearly:

  • Stated an argument (or claim)
  • Supported it with evidence, including (but not limited to) observations and collected data
  • Included a drawing or diagram, if useful

Teachers presented their arguments in a round-robin format, with 2 group members remaining behind to present their posters, and the remaining members rotating around the room to hear the arguments of other groups.  Argument cards gave presenters and listeners sentence starters that helped clarify and question the arguments and evidence before them. The result? Rich dialogue, difficult questions, and revised arguments about pendulums.

Our goal of the PD was to use argumentation to focus on the “why” rather than the “what”; in other words, to give participants a chance to do some collective meaning-making by presenting and questioning their varying interpretations of the data collected in the room about pendulums. We based our PD on “Swingers” from the 5th Grade FOSS curriculum to show how incorporating  argumentation structures can add new depth to an otherwise highly-controlled investigation.

Group 6

Ta-da! Here’s my argument!

Group 3

Pondering that claim…

Have fun arguing (from evidence) in your classrooms!
Links to resources from the PD:

Additional resources for further reading:

Group 1

Does that argument say what I think it says?

Group 2 Group 5

Mystery Birds and More

IMG_0064Well, that was fun! At our last PD workshop, TISS Cohort 4 teachers dove deep into the world of amateur bird watching and the online birding community to solve a science mystery: what was that “mystery bird” spotted in Marin earlier this month? Was it a red-tailed, a rough legged, a Swainson’s, or a zone-tailed hawk? Using only a handful of bird guidebooks, bird sightings posted online, Golden Gate Raptor Observatory data, and the powers of argument, these veteran TISS teachers managed to reach an informed decision about the true identity of the mystery bird.

When it comes to the science teaching practice “Engaging in Argument From Evidence,” our focus for the evening, structure matters. In this case, we structured the activity by dividing the room into small “evidence groups.” Each group was limited to one specific type of evidence—bird guidebooks, for example—which they used to make an argument about the mystery bird. From there, TISS teachers reorganized themselves into “jigsaw groups,” heterogeneous groups made of representatives from each evidence group.  Members of each group shared their arguments for the likely identity of the mystery bird and worked towards consensus.

One central idea of our workshop was that giving groups access to different types of evidence created a real reason for participants to develop different arguments.

The purpose of this bird bonanza was to immerse teachers in the science teaching practice “Engaging in Argument From Evidence.” Turns out that Cohort 4 didn’t need much prompting to bring them out of their shells and engage in scientific argument! In fact, things got heated at times along the way:

"It's a Swainson's hawk!"

“It’s a Swainson’s hawk!”

While 3 out of 4 tables concluded that the mystery bird must be a rarely-seen Zone-tailed hawk, another table group made a convincing argument in favor of the more common Swainson’s hawk. So who was right in the end? Who?

Uh…we can’t say. This scientific mystery had no conclusive answer, much to the consternation of more than a few people in the room. What mattered in this activity, of course, wasn’t who was “right” or “wrong,” but how groups of teachers used the evidence available to them to promote their argument.

Zone tailed hawk!

“Look at that wingspan. Zone tailed hawk, of course!”

How have YOU used scientific argument in your classrooms lately? Here are a few resources that might help you:

Real samara

At our last PD, Cohort 5 teachers dove right into a new NGSS science practice – Planning and Carrying Out Investigations.  We all considered how to involve students in the design of a fair test using an old TISS favorite educational  prop – samaras! 


Teachers tweaked paper samaras  to see how wing length, base weight, and other samara features affect descent time. This play-time segued into a heated discussion about how to accurately record descent time and set up the investigation so that it is fair across groups.

Once we reached consensus, Cohort 5 teachers scrambled to the public floor to test their designs (following fair test protocol, of course) before Nightlife doors opened.  Paper samaras flew, floated, and fluttered IMG_0526around bartenders and other floor staff as they stared up in wonder at our teachers releasing their creations from the 3rd floor balcony.

Teachers then planned for upcoming lessons, brainstorming ways to bring their students into the design of an investigation.

Our goal for the night was to think about ways we might move students beyond prescribed experiments to more student-driven investigations that they are more likely to be invested in.  Involving students in fair test design is one way… share other techniques you’ve tried in your science classroom by clicking on “Comment” below.




Resources from the 1/23/14 Planning and Carrying Out Investigations PD:

Samara Powerpoint Slides

Samara Cutouts Large and Small

Cohort 5 TISS teachers are digging deep into the NGSS practice of constructing explanations, their focus science practice of the Fall. We’ve been seeing many great examples of science lessons with an emphasis on this practice across all our schools, and want to share some of their good work!

Making snowballs and constructing explanations about why some worked and some didn't

Making snowballs and constructing explanations about why some worked and some didn’t


Luann at Spruce Elementary is spreading holiday cheer through thematic winter science lessons. Last week, she had her 1st graders try their hands at making snowballs with shaving cream and baking soda – about half worked.  She turned this into a teachable moment, having students construct explanations about why some students were successful and why others were not.

This hippo's unique adaptations allow it to survive in its habitat - how and why? Ask Jackie's 3rd graders!

This hippo’s unique adaptations allow it to survive in its habitat – how and why? Ask Jackie’s 3rd graders!



And Jackie, also at Spruce, is getting her 3rd graders jazzed about animal adaptations.  Students gushed with pride as they shared what animals they sketched and why they thought their animals’ adaptations were well-suited for their habitats. Students then built animal habitats in teams, providing reasoned explanations for the design choices they made.



Marina and Emily at West Portal Elementary are exploring the water cycle with their 5th graders.  Students were asked to construct the water cycle in a way that made sense of them.  Emily’s class did a gallery walk to notice differences and similarities in classmates’ diagrams and used sentence stems to construct explanations about their particular diagram. Marina’s class will then verbally explain their posters with sentence strips!

And share their diagrams with one another

Students at West Portal share their diagrams with one another

Students at West Portal explain their water cycle diagram works and their reasoning

And explain their water cycle diagram and reasoning

TISS WISS (Weekly Interesting Science Stuff) coming your way!

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report earlier this year with lots of data on climate change.  The summary of this 2000-page report is a whopping 27 pages long – 27 pages of dense scientific data and explanations.  An oceanographer living in the Northwest, home one weekend with a cold, decided to communicate the science in this report using haikus and then even created watercolor paintings to complement the haikus.  Click on the pictures below to read more – great example of integration of science with art and less traditional forms of scientific explanations!



Explanations and Einstein

“If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”
-Albert Einstein

TISS agrees with you, Einstein…partially. After last week’s PD workshop with TISS Cohort 5 teachers, we also believe that you might not come to understand a topic well enough if you haven’t had a chance to explain it. And explain it again. And again.

What were TISS teachers explaining, exactly? These guys:


We spent time in the aquarium drawing and writing observations about several different kinds of shrimp, including this Golden Coral Banded Shrimp (commonly referred to as the “chicken shrimp” by a few TISS teachers). Teachers worked in small groups to explore these questions: What structures do you notice on the shrimp, and what function do you think they serve? Why do you think that?

The most important question, for the purposes of this workshop, was the last one: WHY?  Why do you think, for example, the shrimp uses its legs to move around, since lots of other ocean creatures do just fine without any legs? The key here was to push past our initial tendencies to make blind speculations–or, even worse, to say, “I don’t know”–and move towards reasoned explanationsThat is, to use our observations about behavior or environment, or to draw on our prior knowledge to give support to our proposed explanation.

These were some of the ideas TISS teachers shared:

Nov 14 PD

When teachers couldn’t stand not knowing the answers any longer, we gave them a reading with more information about shrimp. Groups found their original explanations confirmed or shifted–but all found themselves significantly more invested in searching for the answers after having the opportunity to explain shrimp structures.

You might not have easy access to an aquarium, but you do have relatively easy access to FOSS life science curriculum–which is what we based this workshop on.

A few other resources TISS hopes you might find useful:


Can you guess who this is?


Any idea which TISS teacher you see here?


It’s All About Data



We here at TISS love data analysis and interpretation, and last Thursday we shared the love with TISS Cohort 4 teachers. We kicked things off with a humorous look at displaying data that was entirely subjective. (See above photos for different interpretations of the importance of various Thanksgiving dishes.) Teachers also got a quick introduction to 3 new types of graphs: the bubble chart, the 4-quadrant index graph, and the target-like scatter graph.

Our hope for the evening was to prove that graphing really can be fun (!) and to give everyone a chance to use graphs that make patterns and trends more apparent. Here are some of the fruits of Cohort 4’s efforts:



While we’re on the topic of data, here are a few links that may be of interest to you:

Have fun with your graphs!

TISS Science Notebook Fridays: No, we were not affected by the federal government shutdown, but we did take a little hiatus from posting. We’re back, and on Fridays we’re posting snapshots of what’s happening in TISS teachers’ classrooms all over the Bay Area.

photo 1Today we’re reporting from the Mission, where students are honing their scientific observation skills through sketching and writing in their notebooks.

Jesse’s 2nd/3rd grade class at Synergy School has been carefully observing crayfish and collecting lots and lots of data to find trends in crayfish behavior. Jesse then cleverly asked students what they would do differently if they could do this experiment again.  Further down Valencia Street at San Francisco Friends School, Rich’s 3rd graders have been studying crayfish this week. Though Rich has taught crayfish investigations many times before, he was thrilled to see something happen for the first time in his science classroom: molting crayfish!

photo[1] copyHis students observed that one of the crayfish was looking “cloudy” and wondered why.  Rather than telling his students what was about to happen, he encouraged them to start writing questions about what they were seeing. Rich saved the exoskeleton of the crayfish for students to observe and draw next week. He’s also working with the school’s technology instructor to set up a time-lapse camera to catch other crayfish molting in progress over the weekend. Nice work taking advantage of an unexpected situation to push your students’ thinking, Rich!

Got a great science notebook story from your classroom? Please email us your photos!

TISS WISS (Weekly Interesting Science Stuff) — Cal Academy of Sciences is trending on Twitter this week. Why? iTunes U has just released a *free* online learning course co-produced by Cal Academy and the University of California Museum of Paleontology called “How Science Works.” Learn about everything from scientific practices to the ocean floor and King Tut–directly from the experts. What better way to inspire your students than to engage in your own personal scientific explorations?

“How Science Works” on iTunes U