Category Archives: newest thing

A Curiosity Table

A curiosity table.  That’s what I call it.  Whenever my students have a free minute (which rarely happens), I encourage them to investigate the materials on the curiosity table in our classroom.

Today I added something new—an Atmospheric Mat .  20160908_143810

It was a gift from my good friends at Educational Innovations.  This unusual and uniquely shaped article elicited intense curiosity from my students.  They wanted to know what it was, how to make it work, what you could use it for, and what was the science behind it.  “Figure it out,” I told them.

As I watched them explore and experiment, I realized this mat was much more than something to elicit my students’ curiosity.  It was a way to teach them what scientists do.

Students first keyed in on the fact that the texture of the surface mattered.  They decided to try to lift a desk.  The surfaces of our desks are very smooth; we use them as whiteboards.  They could lift the desk a little, but not very far.

Deciding that it was because of the smoothness of the surface (as opposed to the weight of the desk), they decided to try something a bit rougher.  Success.  A rougher surface seemed to work better.  The fact that the second object was lighter was not obvious to them.

Next, they decided to try the hallway floor, given that it is concrete and supposedly rougher.  Obviously, they were not trying to lift the floor, but rather to see how hard they needed to pull on the mat before it came loose.  The floors in our hallway are sealed, which makes them relatively smooth.  This meant that the floor in the hallway did not give much more information about how the Atmospheric Mat worked.

20160908_144339_015-animationTo get back into the room from the hallway, students needed open the door.  Why not see whether the Atmospheric Mat had the ability to open the door?  This trial was followed by hoots and yells as the door opened.20160908_143903

This prompted a huge influx of questioning.  Students tested the mat on the wall.  They tested it on the board.  They tested on their iPads (which did not work, because the iPads are too small).  Would they reach a point where the surface was too rough?

Each test gave additional data which led to additional questions about how and why the Atmospheric Mat works.  They even tried using it upside down, expecting that it would behave like a suction cup.

As you can see, this is an incredible tool to study forces and atmospheric pressure… and more.  At some point, I’ll bring up the fact that there are no “sucking” forces in science. We’ll figure out together that the roughness of the surface isn’t what makes it hard to pull off an object.  That’s it’s atmospheric pressure. But for now, the Atmospheric Mat is a tool that I’m going to continue using to ignite my students’ curiosity.  I’m going to let my students explore it for as long as they want.  Their exploration won’t be driven by me; their curiosity will be what drives them.

At the end of the day, when it was time to stack our chairs, one of my students asked me if she could use the Atmospheric Mat to lift her chair onto the top of the pile.  “Give it a try,” I said.  She was delighted when it worked and worked very well.


“Hey, Mrs. Foote,” she said after the chairs were stacked, “I feel like a scientist today.”

“You are!” I told her.  And it was all due to the Atmosphere Mat that I put on the curiosity table.


Electricity from Mud?!

When a little kid comes up to you and asks you do science, it’s hard to say no.  But when you’re a science teacher, and that little kid is your granddaughter, you know you have to come up with something fast.

In July that’s exactly what happened to me.  I knew my granddaughter wanted something fun and exciting and preferably messy.  We’ve already done bubbles, gak, slime, chromatography, and helicopters, so what was left?  I had a MudWatt kit (a gift from my friends at Educational Innovations,  So I decided to give it a try.  What a great idea!


To make a MudWatt clock you need some really stinky mud, a kid who’s willing to help and a little patience, because this takes a few days.

Unsure of what type of mud to use (the smellier the better, the instructions said) I chose to gather some mud from our pond.  I know that there are wonderful microorganisms growing in that mud – they are thriving and surviving.  We looked at the pond water under a microscope for a previous science “lesson.”  Since it was teeming with life, I figured it was a good choice. And that proved to be correct.

I was skeptical to find out that you could make electricity from mud.  I had no idea how it worked – or even if it worked.  The user’s guide not only showed me how to set up the MudWatt clock, but it also educated me about why it works.

We used the mud, gloves (which might not be necessary) and set up the clock according to the very clear directions.  I’ll be honest; I was a little disappointed that the light didn’t start blinking immediately.  In some ways I’m no different than my six-year-old granddaughter. I should have read the directions, which explain that it takes 3 to 7 days for it to get going.  When you think about the fact that the exponential growth of microorganisms is required, this timeframe makes sense.

Soon after the red light began to blink and blink and blink and blink.  I quickly downloaded the apps I could see exactly how much power was being generated and how many microorganisms I actually had in that jar of mud.  Every day the blinking gets faster.  The electricity generated gets greater.  And there are more and more microorganisms.

This begs the question about why this is not used as a renewable energy source.  I suppose it’s because the amount of power generated is minute to compare to the amount of mud that’s required.  I’m not a biologist.  I’m a physical scientist, but this really had me very excited.  It’s addictive and fascinating.

In order to run the clock, you have to disconnect the light. That means you can’t use the app to measure the energy. My recommendation? Leave the light on.  Watching it blink faster and faster is addictive – and intriguing.

As a parent/grandparent this is a great tool to use with the kids.  It’s a long-range project so don’t expect results overnight.

As an educator I can’t stop thinking about all the possibilities for this tool.  My students can set these up in series or in parallel.  They can learn about renewable energy sources.  They can discover that there are microorganisms that actually expel electrons (something I didn’t even know was possible). We can learn about dependent variables and independent variables.  We can examine exponential growth – and really big numbers. The possibilities are endless.

If you’re looking for a science fair project, MudWatt is it.  Perhaps you want to test the pH of the soil vs. the amount of energy that is produced.  Perhaps you’ll test that temperature of the soil versus the amount of energy that is produced.  Perhaps you do want to conduct an experiment about series vs. parallel circuits.

I recommend this for parents and grandparents, for teachers and students.  I recommended for the person is hard to buy a gift for.  I’m fascinated with it.  Priced at under $40, it’s a steal.  You can get your own MudWatt here.

I’m so glad that little girl came over and said “Nana can we do some science today?”

Speed Dating + Science = Speed Geeking


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If you haven’t tried speed geeking in your class, you should.  You students will be engaged, communicating, thinking critically and having fun.

Although I teach physics, I have a handful of non-physics learning targets for my students to master.  One of them is “describe factors that allow for survival of living organisms.”  This includes things like beak design and protective coloration.  The final turn-in for the lesson is a drawing and description of their invented animal. I absolutely did not want to spend a day listening to students describe their animals.  That’s where my idea of speed geeking arose.

I split my class in two, labeling one half A and the other B.  They were in teams – with A and B facing one another.  They had to shake hands and introduce themselves to one another (although most already knew their partner). When I gave the signal, person A told person B about their creature. They had 90 seconds to talk.  Then person B talked for 90 seconds.  After that they had one minute for questions.   When they finished, both stood up, shook hands and thanked one another.  Person B moved on to a new Person A.  (Person A stayed in place.) Each rounds takes about 5 minutes.

I can see this being used in all subjects.  Give an even number of math problems.  Person A will teach the even numbered problems, Person B the odd ones.  Writing assignments, projects, timelines, etc. can all be evaluated using Speed Geeking.

How will you use speed geeking?




Listen Edition – Listen While You Work


I’ve always been a huge fan of NPR (National Public Radio).  Each time I listened, I heard something new, interesting and informative.  I shared what I learned with my students and family.  The fit of NPR and my physics classroom was generally not a comfortable fit.  All that changed when I went to Boston for the NSTA (National Science Teachers Association) conference. I learned about Listen Edition.  Immediately I was hooked.

For most of my career I have read aloud to my students.  I’ve taught grades 4 – 14, and read to them all.  Jim Trelease (author of The Read Aloud Handbook, and listening guru) has inspired me to do so.  Listen Edition had some of the same benefits of reading a book aloud like increasing vocabulary.

Listen Edition is easy to use with my students.  They offer robust lesson plans, Common Core aligned.  Student background is provided, quizzes on (a site I am not very familiar with) and homework assignments.  You can search by subject, grade level, look for current events and more.


How It Worked for Me

The first time I used Listen Edition with my 8th grade science students, I told my students to listen and take notes on those things they thought were important. Since I haven’t taken the time to figure out Socratic ( I put the quiz questions on Edmodo ( They didn’t do very well on the quiz.  I took a few minutes to debrief with the kids and realized my instructions were vague.

Next time I talked about listening skills and how they are different when you are having a face-to-face conservation, an on-line or texting conversation or when you are listening for information or entertainment.  We talked about living in a noisy world and finding some quiet each day.  They actually came up with that, which was a very good point.  They generated a list of actions they could take to be better listeners in each scenario.

I knew that if I gave them the questions before the listening they would be more focused and they were.  I put the questions on my interactive white board for them to see while they were listening.   But since in life we aren’t usually given the questions in advance I didn’t want the students to rely on seeing the questions.

After a couple of days I gave them all of the questions before listening, but only for a few minutes.  Once we began listening I gave them some questions so that they could see those while they were listening.  My goal is to not have question available either as a preview or concurrently with the listening.  But, truth be told, they (we) tend to be lousy listeners. It’s a skill that needs to be taught and practiced.

We also had discussion about why it’s OK to not get 100% on the post-listening quizzes.  What’s truly interesting to me is that once they finish the quiz, they now tell me things like, “that question was asking about trivia.”  All year long I try to teach them how to weed out the trivia and focus on the important stuff when it comes to reading the text or other articles.  It was gratifying to see them transfer that concept to the listening quizzes.  The students also tell me what they thought was important and why.  This week I am going to ask them to generate their own questions about the listening, in addition to answering mine.

I thought this was going to be an interesting warm up, something to keep the kids busy while I did attendance and other teach stuff.  Instead it has turned into a life skill building activity. As I told the kids, people love it when they are actively listened to.  I told them to try it with their parents and with other people who aren’t in my class.  They’ve already gotten a great response.

Thanks for Listen Edition.  I never considered doing listening training for my students, but now I see how important it is.  I’ve noticed that I repeat directions less (thank goodness) and that they seem to be getting more information from my videos (I have a flipped classroom).  I’m eager to see if this is reflected in test scores.

In the fall, Listen Edition will be used in my class on the first day of school.