CreatureCast – Fried Egg Jelly from Casey Dunn on Vimeo.

If you have never watched Creature Cast, you should. Creature Cast is fun, and fun is good. Seriously, if you haven’t noticed it, and you teach in the field of Biological sciences, you should notice it, if not for the content, then at least for a model of what an engaging blog and podcast series can look like.


Ever since ISTE 2010 this past summer, I have been thinking about ways to open up the walls of my classroom.

Prior to this, my ideas of opening up those doors were centered around integrating web 2.0 technologies into my classroom. For example, I developed online classroom networks, where my students interact and ultimately post their work for a potentially global audience.

However, this wasn’t really opening up doors in terms of global communication. Rather, these openings were of a pedagogical sense. Students were communicating better with each other, and creating new products in different ways, but their sharing was still very geographically limited.

So, an idea began growing in my brain to invite the members of Creature Cast to talk to our classroom, thinking I would be lucky if they even answered my e-mail, let alone said yes (such are the tribulations of hero worship).

To my surprise, Sophie Tintori, the producer of CreatureCast , answered my e-mail, and agreed to Skype into my classroom to speak with my students. She also added that Rebecca Helm, a grad student at Brown University and member of the Dunn lab, would be joining her.

So for one classroom period, my first hour Zoology students spoke with young, excited, female scientists who told them everything they had learned and explored with regard to Cnidarians (jellyfish, coral, sea anemones, etc), but even more importantly, everything they hadn’t learned, or wondered about. They incited the students to explore their own questions- even telling them that someday, they might have a chance to research the questions they were asking.

The ladies were fun. They weren’t stuffy and boring and wearing white labcoats – they talked about tasting jellyfish (spicy apparently), and being startled by beauty and the seemingly infinite nature of siphonophores in the ocean’s depths.

Siphonophores are colonial animals that are related to jellyfish.

Siphonophores are colonial animals that are related to jellyfish.

My students never seemed fazed by the fact that they were talking to graduate students who worked for one of the top Invertebrate Zoology labs in the country. Any time I research something about siphonophores (the animals above), Casey Dunn’s name is attached to that research. Even though I told my students this, this fact seemed much more important to me that it was to them.

What was important was that my students were able to see a tie between art and science. Science is so often perceived as a dry, linear, left-brained pursuit. This work is truly a confluence of creative minds and ways of understanding the world. They were able to connect to Rebecca, who told them she grew up with a background entirely similar to their own, and is now attending an ivy league school. And their viewpoint of a scientist was entirely altered – hopefully permanently. No more crazy mad scientist mixing wild chemicals and waiting for explosions; but rather, young girls excited about science, their work, and art.

It was an amazing experience, and we’re always looking for someone new and exciting to connect with. Any takers?

Note: This event was uStreamed, so I wasn’t certain how to edit out the first few minutes. I would start viewing it at 1:00.

Note #2: As a class, we also used Today’s Meet as a backchannel to the main conversation. This was an excellent organizational piece, because my students always had a questions ready, and they could record one whenever one popped into their heads, rather than having to wait.

Comments 6 Comments »

Landlocked in the middle of Missouri surrounded by farmland – watching the oil spill from afar,  all I have felt to this point is helpless. I watch the news on television, read about it on the web – incredulous. How could this large-scale environmental problem be happening? Why do I have to sit here and feel condemned to watch it, feeling helpless and angry?

What could I possibly do to help? Donate cotton? Give hair? Is giving hair even doing anything anyhow?

Inspiration sometimes comes from unexpected places.

At ISTE 2010, I came expecting to feel inspired about education and technology. Environmental issues seemed to be on the back burner, at least in my little brain.

However, global issues have been a theme at the conference this year, beginning with the kickoff keynote. While this address was not the best in terms of actual presentation value, the message was clear – we have large global issues that are currently not being solved. Where does change need to start? Education.

Unfortunately, the presenter did not pose in a funny fashion.
Unfortunately, the presenter did not pose in a funny fashion.

The keynote itself didn’t inspire me to great acts. It only got me thinking, ” I know we have serious global issues, and I know education is a key, and social networks should play a role” but I left feeling as if the keynote answered nothing.

In Will Richardson’s session yesterday morning, an overarching theme of the presentation was that small actions, especially when using the vehicle of social media, can create big changes. Will  provided several specific instances, some coming from his own life, some from students, some from the “interwebs” in general, where he demonstrated how one person could make a difference or be a catalyst for change.

One of the most familiar examples to me is this video, “The Most Terrifying Video You’ll Ever See.” Not only is this a video created by a high school science teacher in his classroom, it is a video that has been viewed over 7,500,000 times, and has even led to a book deal for its creator, Greg Craven.  The real power here is not what I just stated, but the fact that this video about a pertinent issue, global warming, was created by one man, and through the power of social media, his message has spread globally.

Another example that Will gave was the recent Facebook groups that have formed in response to the oil disaster.  The Gulf Coast Oil Spill Volunteer group on Facebook, again, designed by one person, now has over 13,000 members. The group works to mobilize in response to the oil spill – where can we be to help with cleanup, how can we help rescue, how can we just provide support?

My husband understands what the power of one can do – through his classroom networks, he is constantly engaging students in discussion – discussions that truly have a global audience. He has recently developed a forum for his Marine Biology students to discuss the impacts of the oil spill, and these students are not only learning about the disaster in an effective way, but their responses are being viewed by people all over the world.

Too often I feel like the power of one means nothing. How can I evoke any meaningful change? My vote doesn’t really count. My ideas don’t really matter – I can’t truly change anything.


But I really think we can – one of the stories I always look forward to reading with my three year old is The Lorax -  my favorite line always fills me with tingles of  hope – every time.

“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better.  It’s not.”

As we read this line together, I think, “I hope she is remembering this. I hope it sinks in,  settles, and grows”

Sometimes we just need a reminder.

The Lorax

Special thanks to Mrs. Logic for her photo “One year on…”

Comments 6 Comments »

Out of all possible defenses, you choose poison.
Toxic, excruciating, painful poison.

Touch me, paralysis.
Consume me, death.

Nudibranch, nudibranch, living in the sea.
Bright flashing colors say, ”Don’t eat me!”

Come closer mister, and I’ll sting you in the eye.
Come even closer, and you just might die!

A woman in a restaurant glances across the table.
She smells of hyacinths – her beauty whispers of summer rain.
She clutches her throat, gasps.
Aflame with fire, her throat swells.
Suffocation, paralysis, death.
On the sea slug sashimi, she should have passed.

Nudibranchs live their lives as thieves.
Stealer of stings, pilferer of poisons,
Brilliant criminals borrowing weaponry.
A first-rate defense for something so seemingly stupid. And slow. And soft.

I have read that nudibranchs only live for about one year.
After one year’s time, the brilliant colors fade.
Because their bodies are so soft, they often leave no trace of their brilliance.
No fossil record – no remnant of their life.

Inspiration for this poem can be found here.  On another note, I don’t think I’m done with this yet. It doesn’t quite seem finished, but perhaps it never will be?

This poem is a type of writing and reflection that is quickly becoming referred to as a Sci-Po.  Yes, you read it correctly.  This sort of writing starts during the reading of scientific text- perhaps a current science news article.  Ultimately, the goal is to transform scientific thought into poetic verse.  The payoff comes in the mental gymnastics involved in this transformation of text and thought.  A strong influence of my husband’s, Dr. Punya Mishra (who is an associate professor of Educational Technology at Michigan State University), recently wrote a post on his blog about a little project that his daughter had developed. Shreya is ten years old and writes Uniquely Mine.  Even our upper-level biology students have enjoyed reading the words she leaves here from time to time.

This little blend of science and mathematics with poetry has stirred up quite a bit of dust recently.  Check our Dr. Mishra’s post on this engaging little writing challenge: “Poetry, Science & Math, OR why I love the web.”  Sean’s post that contains a personal example, links to student work, and a description of the “project” can be found here:  “Is This a Sluggish Strategy?”

Overall, Sci-Pos are quickly becoming a new “genre” of literature if you will. The melding of science and literature, with positive connotations, is blazing through the blog-o-sphere. Try to concoct one of your own- relate it to math or science, and share it with your students.  Sci-Pos are just one more excellent example of science literacy, as well as the interconnectedness of the web!

Comments 5 Comments »

As my blog is, to this point, a rather small endeavor, I also only have a few individuals I would like to nominate for the Edublog Awards this year.

My first nomination is for Best Teacher Blog. For this award, I am nominating a blogger I read for many reasons -  insight, information, and inspiration. He is an excellent writer, and his posts are always thoughtful. This year, for the Best Teacher Blog, I would like to nominate Michael Doyle’s blog – The Science Teacher.

My next nomination is for the Best Educational Use of a Social Networking Service. For this award, I would like to nominate the Principles of Biology classroom website. I consistently find inspiration here – whether it be from actual student work, or as a model of a networking site to use within my own classroom. When examining actual class websites -this one has been highly successful in terms of student involvement as well as showcasing high quality student work.

Thank you for the opportunity to nominate a few of my favorites.

Comments 2 Comments »

Innovative interplay

As a Biology teacher with dual certification in Communication Arts, I feel thrilled when the two disciplines can be creatively interwoven.  When my high school implemented a building wide read-aloud model two years ago (we require a minimum five minute teacher led read aloud every period in every classroom) I was truly excited!  Now I had an actual excuse to read in class with my students every single period.

The Genetic Disorders LibraryBecause of this, I am always on the lookout for interesting items to weave into and “update” the curriculum.   Discoveries in the life sciences change the content so frequently that textbooks become obsolete just a few years into adoption.  Using short web-based readings is a cheap and effective way to freshen the content and, often, to bring in primary resources.

Alternatively, the read aloud can be used as a way to add relevance by integrating high interest pieces that challenge and motivate teenage students.  For example, the past few years in my Zoology course, we have read excerpts from Mary Roach’s novel Stiff. The sordid and sundry details of the history of human dissection or cadaver crash test dummies seem to provide a rather gripping way to engage students using text with a high reading level.

So here’s what I’m thinking

Last year during our study of genetics, I incorporated information about certain genetic disorders from Learn.Genetics. Specifically, I used readings from the “disorder pyramid,” so students could see the different “levels” of genetic disorders, from single gene to multi-factorial conditions.  This website also incorporates still images as well as video clips so students can better visualize concepts.  After introducing the site on the first day, I allowed students to determine subsequent readings.

The Human Genre Project

Just this past July, I found a website that really inspired me.  The Human Genre Project is the perfect interplay of literature and science. The website displays a colorful interactive karyotype of the 23 human chromosome pairs.  For example, a click of chromosome #11 brings up poetry or short stories related to that particular chromosome.  Attached to this chromosome is a short story entitled, “Seeing Light.”  Written about the PAX6 gene, it deals with the evolutionary development of what we would call the sense of sight. Ideally, a specific gene could serve as the writer’s muse, but some of the works are about the actual chromosomes themselves. One of my personal favorites is from chromosome X and is featured with permission of the artist at the end of this post.

The value I intend to add this year comes from the use of both websites in tandem.  In other words, I plan to begin with a more information-focused reading from Learn.Genetics , followed by a more artistic piece from The Human Genre Project.  I hope that this will not only appeal to a wider spectrum of students in the classroom, but will also serve to show that scientists aren’t a bunch of grey-haired old guys in white lab coats.

What are you thinking?

Am I weird here? Would you be comfortable discussing elements of poetry with your Biology students?  Am I the only biology teacher focused on the literary side of the field?  At times I wonder how much of an oddity my dual background in both Biology and English makes me.  However, my husband, friend, and coach also tends to align with me on this, and he doesn’t have a formal background in Language Arts.  So perhaps I’m not so odd after all.  Or maybe we both are.  This is certainly possible.

PS- The Human Genre Project is still accepting submissions.  Anyone interested?  ;)

the telomeric tale of the mouse's tail (after carroll)

Thanks to

*Screenshot from Learn.Genetics website, University of Utah
*Screenshot from The Human Genre Project, various
*Artwork: the telomeric tale of the mouse’s tail (after carroll),  with permission from shardcore

Comments 5 Comments »

All of my students aren’t just naturally interested in science? I have to actively engage them in some way? They don’t want to sit quietly, listen, and write down all of the details scientists have already discovered? According to constructivist ideals, learners need to develop their own knowledge, and any time they encounter something new, they build upon pre-existing knowledge. First however, they must be interested in what they are learning.

Engage is the first stage of the 5E lesson format from BSCS- often used in science classrooms. It is similar to the “anticipatory set” put forth in the Madeline Hunter model. In both designs, these represent the portion of the lesson when the teacher tries to show his/her students why their upcoming lesson is interesting and relevant. The instructor attempts to evoke the curiosity of students by stimulating them with some captivating topic. For example, teachers may tell an interesting story. In science, we often stage demos or incorporate a “discrepant event.”

Enter Animoto for education. Animoto is an application that allows its users to upload music and pictures, and it does the actual work of customizing the video. Registration for Animoto has always been “free.” However – this free-ness limits the user to the creation of a 30 second short video. When making a free video, one could upload anywhere from 10-15 images– less if text is included. Constructing a short video is great for certain projects, but what I have found is that once I begin my creation, I tend to want to make it longer than 30 seconds. When I started experimenting with Animoto, this was a small problem. Either I would end up paying three dollars to make a full-length video or fork over thirty dollars for a full year account.

Animoto for Education

However, if you are an educator, not only are you eligible for a free full-access account, but your students can also make videos for projects in your classroom using the same link. Easy, huh?

Animoto is Engaging

To this point, I have mostly seen both teachers and students use Animoto as more of a culminating project. “Here is a video of what we did.” However, Stacy Baker, a colleague on The Synapse and a fellow “Tweeter,” uses Animoto within the classroom to illustrate what her students will encounter. She uses Animoto to create movie trailers for upcoming units. Why is this idea educationally sound? Because you can use a short video to engage your students over what is coming up in your classroom.

Below is a movie trailer I created for my Zoology students for our upcoming unit on Mollusks. The creation of the movie was fun, relatively easy, and I felt like I really constructed something that I was proud of.

I also have a hunch that students will find this interesting in the classroom. Too often in secondary science, teachers find they are trying to illustrate abstract concepts to students with precious little schema. This is difficult when students can’t physically encounter the object to explore and investigate. This is also exactly why engaging them with a three-minute movie trailer to start off the unit is such a solid approach. The students are confronted with the “big picture” of the upcoming unit of study… and are allowed to connect it to their own framework of knowledge. The only challenge remaining? Be certain to create such an engaging overview that it really does provide something to connect to.

Comments 5 Comments »