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Graphing Skills Are Life Skills!

Graphing: Make this a part of as many lessons as possible!

The lessons learned in a science class go much further than just learning the parts of the cell, or the parts of an atom, or the names of the invertebrate phyla, or the trends seen on the periodic table.  We teach important skills that our students will carry with them for the rest of their lives.  Skills such as graphing, metric measurement, cause and effect, percentages, scientific method, logical problem solving, and critical thinking are required for LIFE!

For this blog post, I would like to focus on graphing skills.  I fear that the use of graphing calculators and laboratory probe systems is doing too much work for our students.  I do love using technology in my classroom and lab, but I think that too much of it is actually hurting our students.  Many students are reaching my high school science classes without a clear understanding of how to construct a graph. We need a healthy balance between allowing technology to do the work for us, and doing the work for ourselves. 

There are so many benefits of giving the student a pencil, a ruler, and a piece of graph paper.  

  • Graphing the "old-fashioned" way improves fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination.
  • Graph construction forces the student to think about the independent and dependent variables and to consider which axis to place them on to show a logical correlation between the two.
  • It provides an excellent opportunity to teach our students to "think ahead of the problem" to consider if an outcome or conclusion is logical. 
  • Every standardized test our students take will require them to analyze graphs and tables.  Data analysis is a hard concept for many students, but requiring them to construct their own graphs and tables encourages deeper thinking of the data shown on the graph.
  • There is no better way to teach "cause and effect" than by graphing data.
  • Graphing provides a pictorial representation of data which helps students learn to draw accurate conclusions.

Obviously, we want students to become masters of problem solving and critical thinking, and teaching graphing skills all year long is one way to assure that our students are good thinkers.  Make your labs and classroom activities "quantitative" in nature whenever possible.  Especially in biology, many activities are "qualitative" and involve drawing and describing, but we need to constantly look for opportunities to use labs and other lessons that are math-based and involve the collection of numerical data. 
  • Look at the labs you are currently using with your students. Is it possible to have students graph the data they collect?  If so, then always require it!
  • It is really important that students construct graphs that have more than one line of data on the same graph.  By placing several lines of data on the same graph, students can quickly see the correlation between the independent and dependent variables.  It provides excellent practice in how to analyze data to reach a proper conclusion.
  • You can provide additional problem solving questions to accompany the graphing activity, such as "What do you suppose would happen if this were changed....", or "What would be the outcome if...."
  • Include interpolation and extrapolation questions whenever possible. Students need to be able to predict new outcomes based on the data shown on a graph.
I hope these reasons will convince you to include more tabling, graphing and analyzing of information.  But, please!!!  No graphing calculators until your students are proficient at graphing and data analysis skills!!!  I firmly believe the calculator is crippling our students.  The calculator is a wonderful tool.....but AFTER the student can do the skill without the calculator.

If you need help with incorporating more graphing and data analysis into your classes, these resources will help:

Tabling, Graphing and Analyzing Data - PowerPoint with Notes for Teacher and Student

Graphing Practice Problems - Great graphing practice with critical thinking questions.

Graphing and Data Analysis - This is a free download that provides good review and reinforcement in graphing and data analysis.

Graphing, Scientific Method, and Scientific Writing - More great science skills practice!

The following lab activities require graphing as a means of data analysis:

Using a Graph to Find Area - This is another free download and a good graph is the only way to solve the problem.

Lab:  Acids, Bases and Cells   Requires extensive graphing of results.

Modeling Population Growth

The Effect of Concentration on the Rate of Diffusion - Another free download!

Teach the Skills, Please!

Science classes can be crammed so full of facts and memorization that I am afraid that we lose site of what science is really all about.  Science is about discovery and inquiry.  Science is about investigation.  Science is about applying a method to solve problems and answer questions.  When I first began to teach, I thought long and hard about what type of science teacher I wanted to become.  In my years of schooling I had science teachers that never did an experiment and made me memorize a bazillion facts that I forgot as soon as I took a test.  I also had science teachers that set me on fire with curiosity and a desire to learn "more."  I wanted to become a teacher like this!

It is important to make your science class lab-based and inquiry driven.  As a teacher of biology, I know that Biology is full of facts and details.  I still try to teach all of these facts, but the facts are mixed in with as many science skills as possible.  No matter what the topic, you can have the students graph, analyze, predict, and describe.  Students need to be taught to design and carry out a controlled experiment.  At every opportunity, I ask my students, "What do you THINK would be the affect of changing this variable?"  And as often as possible we go to the lab to see if their predictions can be proven or disproven.

When I first began to teach, the science portions of many standardized tests were testing the students to see if they knew the "facts."  This is no longer the case! When I took the ACT, I received a score in "Science."  When my daughter took the ACT, she received a score in "Science Reasoning."  Standardized testing in science has changed!  The students must be able to read and comprehend scientific passages.  They must be able to analyze graphs and charts.  If you are not teaching these skills to your students, then you are not preparing them for these tests.

Please don't think I am a proponent of "teaching to the test."  Nothing could be farther from the truth. If you are teaching the necessary problem solving and critical thinking skills, your students will ace these tests.

What have I learned after 31 years of teaching science?

  • If I teach the necessary "skills" first, the "facts" will fall nicely into place.
  • Spending extra time at the beginning of the school year on graphing, metric system, experimental design, scientific method, and math skills such as scientific notation and dimensional analysis will make the rest of my school year much, much easier.
  • The skills we teach in science class are life-long skills.  By teaching critical thinking and problem solving, we are preparing students to be competent in whatever they decide to do as adults.

If you are a biology or a life science teacher who is wondering how to get started, you might want to give some of these activities a try.

How to Write a Clear and Concise Lab Procedure
Graphing and Data Analysis
Using a Graph to Find Area
The Student-Designed Experiment

Science Teaching: The Old Way or the New Way?

What Has Changed?

I can remember (many, many moons ago), as a young teacher, being very nervous and sometimes panicked, whenever something “new” in education would come along that teachers were forced to implement.  Just when I thought I was getting a handle on how to be the best possible science teacher, I would be told that now I had to teach using this model or that model.   I resented spending hours preparing lessons, only to be told the following year “we aren’t doing it that way anymore”.  Teachers as a group are very organized, precise, and compulsive creatures.  We are willing to spend hours preparing to teach and we want it to be perfect when we teach it.  I would often drive myself crazy wondering the “why” of some new educational innovation.

In my 28 years of teaching, I have been through the TIM Model, Curriculum Maps, Lesson Line, Homework Hotline, No Child Left Behind, and Race to the Top.  I have survived state standards and national standards that are constantly changing.  Finally, after a few years it dawned on me!  These are just educational buzzwords that come and go.  This year’s “educational innovation” will go away in a couple of years and will be replaced with something new.

The new buzzword is, of course, “Common Core Standards”.  Don’t sweat it!  Here is the wisdom that many of years of teaching has bestowed upon me:  If I am teaching to the best of my ability, if I am dedicated to giving my students a rigorous science education, if I give them loads of hands-on opportunities to learn, if I make the concepts I teach relevant and practical, and if I am teaching my students to be good thinkers and problem solvers, then it will not matter what this year’s buzz word is.  We do not have to re-invent the wheel year after year.  Give your students a solid education in your subject area and you WILL be meeting the new standards.

I spent some time online reading about Common Core Standards.  You can find it here:

I zeroed in on this page:  since I am interested in the science standards.  Finally, on page 62 of this pdf, I found what I was looking for.  What are the new standards for science?  Without going into great detail, here is what we are now expected to teach our students:

  •           Cite specific evidence to support….
  •           Determine the central idea of….
  •           Identify key steps….
  •           Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in the text…
  •           Describe….
  •           Identify aspects of…
  •           Reading graphs and tables…
  •           Distinguish among…
  •           Analyze the relationship between…
  •           Follow a multi-step procedure….
  •           Compare and contrast….

See what I mean?  I have already been doing these things for years!  So if you have been hyperventilating over Common Core Standards, breathe easy…it’s going to be okay!  And remember, in a few years, it will go away and be replaced with something “new and better”!

Laboratory Safety

The takeaway from this blog post is simple:  You must teach a deep and thorough course on laboratory safety to the science students in your class EVERY. SINGLE. YEAR!  It's not debatable or open for discussion.

{{ Insert whining voice here. }}  "But my students have heard this so many times before.  Do I really need to make them sit through it again?"

YES!  It doesn't matter how many times your students have received lab safety instruction in the past.  It is your duty, obligation, and responsibility to ensure the safety of your students while they are in your care.  Can you imagine the nightmare if a student was injured in your lab, and you had to admit that you had not taught a lab safety unit?  All teachers who teach science......please listen to me!  You must cover lab safety thoroughly and appropriately for the students you teach.  If an accident should happen while the child is under your "care", you must be able to prove that you provided instruction in lab safety.  If you are not teaching the lab safety rules, then you could be found negligent in the event there is an accident in your class.

Lab safety instruction should be the first unit you teach at the beginning of each school year.  Since I am a high school teacher, the lab is an important and integral part of my class.  In all my years of teaching, I have been fortunate that there has never been a serious accident in my lab.  I have had a minor cut or two, but nothing more serious than that.  I attribute my great safety record to the fact that I stress lab safety on the first day and continue to stress it all year long.

What are the elements of good lab safety instruction?
  • First and foremost, students must be given a paper copy of all lab safety instructions.  I use a PowerPoint presentation that is packed with pictures and photos.  Fun images and lots of color will help keep your students interested and engaged as you go over the rules.  I give my students an outline of notes that they complete as we go through my PowerPoint presentation on lab safety.
  • Lab Safety Contract:  Parents must receive a copy of the lab safety rules.  Have the parents and the students sign a Lab Safety Contract and keep these on file on year long.
  • Student Medical Form:  I require that each student complete a Medical Emergency Form.  This form is sent home to parents to give the parents the opportunity to list any "conditions" that I might need to be aware of.  I once had a student who had very severe mold allergies.  She was excused from doing my mold lab.  I have taught several students with peanut allergies who were excused from my "Energy in Peanuts" lab.
  • Students are not allowed to go to the lab until they have returned a signed Lab Safety Contract and a completed Medical Emergency Form.
  • Take your students to the lab and teach them about the lab safety equipment.  I have a first day activity that students complete when we visit the lab for the first time.  Students are instructed on how to use the eyewash fountain and safety shower.  Students are shown the location of the fire extinguisher, fire blanket, and fire alarm.  Students are informed on how to exit the lab in case of an emergency.
  • Lab Safety Quiz or Test:  Students must be tested on the safety rules.  My students are required to score 90% or better on their lab safety quiz.  If they score below 90%, I require them to take the quiz again until a 90% score is obtained.

I love the old saying, "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure."  This is so true in relation to lab safety.  Make safety instruction a priority and keep your students safe!

If you are looking for resources to use in your classroom, click on the images below to check out these in my TpT store:


Have you read this book?

This is a "must-read"!

I just finished reading one of the best books I have read in a long, long time.  It is called "October Sky".  It is an older book (1998), but I just came across it this summer when someone mentioned to me that it had been made into a movie.  This book would be appealing to any teachers, but science teachers will especially love it.

I am not going to give anything away, but this book is about the "rocket boys".  It is placed in the 1950's and early 1960's, and is a true story about a group of boys living in a coal mining town in West Virginia.  They teach themselves to build rockets, but more importantly they (and some key teachers in their lives) teach themselves that they can overcome hardships and can accomplish anything if they work at it hard enough.  It is an amazing story of what can be earned by hard work and dedication.  I cannot wait to see the movie.  I have just added it to my NetFlix cue.

I highly recommend this book.  It is well written and you need not be a science geek to enjoy it!

Wildflowers Anyone?

Take the Wildflower Test!

I am currently vacationing in the woods (along the shores of Lake Huron) in the eastern upper peninsula of Michigan.  I love the wildflowers, and have been taking pictures of them as I find them.  My camera skills are nonexistent, so many of these are not of very high quality!  And I had to take them with my phone camera, since I was a dufus and left my camera cord at home!!  I know the name of a lot of these flowers, so I thought I would put together a little wildflower test for you!

I have been unable to identify some of these.  If you know their names, please post a comment and let me know what they are.  

The answers can be found at the bottom of this post.  Good Luck!












Spoiler Alert!!  Here come the answers!
1 - Bluets
2 - Coreopsis
3 - Daisy
4 - Hairbells
5 - Lake Iris
6 - Indian Paintbrush
7 - Pennyroyal (Smells like peppermint!)
8 - Pink Pyrola (I may be wrong on this one!)
9 - Thistle
10 - Twinflower
11 - Wood lilly

Okay, the next pictures are of the flowers that I am unable to identify.  Can anyone help me with these?