Challenge-Based Learning in ACPS

Challenge-based learning has been taking over classrooms across Albemarle County Schools! A form of Problem-Based Learning, these challenges act as the impetus to engage students in applying and adapting a variety of strategies to solve new and increasingly complex problems. In this environment, students learn class content in context while simultaneously developing their skills in science and engineering practices in the process.

Two such instances – Build to Write: Making & Communicating with Michael Thornton at Meriwether Lewis Elementary and Learning About Levers Through Challenge-Based Learning with Beth Tice at Cale Elementary – have already been shared on the #ACPSScience blog. Since those posts, Mr. Thornton & Ms. Tice have continued to offer new challenges, and teachers like Broadus Wood’s Karen Heathcock and her 3rd grade class have joined in the mix by sharing examples of their #STEMFri challenges via a variety of social networks (such as the class blog Heathcock’s High Achievers and Ms. Heathcock’s twitter feed).

Some of the more recent challenges that have emerged:

In order to keep up with it all, #ACPSScience has developed a Storify collection of the internet artifacts from these practices that will continue to grow with more examples of challenges as they emerge across the school system.

If you have a challenge-based learning experience that you would like to share, feel free to write about it in the comments, or connect in with the practices on twitter through the Early Childhood Challenge (#ecchallenge), the STEM Friday Challenge (#STEMFri), or the ACPS Science hashtag (#ACPSScience).

What Do These Numbers Mean? Bringing Context to Dimensional Analysis

I ran into a couple of fun stories recently of chemistry teachers working with students who were trying to bring context to the concept of dimensional analysis. In case it’s been a while since your last chemistry class, dimensional analysis is a common practice in physical sciences like chemistry and physics where students use equivalent relationships in order to describe the size or quantity of some physical property in a variety of ways. Check them out!

Block 3's Chalk Art - so many billions of molecules of CaCO3!

Block 3’s Chalk Art – so many billions of molecules of CaCO3!

Jenn Peairs at Monticello High School brings students together to make some collaborative classroom decorations while also bringing the size and number of molecules into context. As part of the community-building activity, the class made chalk art designs that adorn the classroom all year. Students frequently return to the classroom to see their names on “the class wall” over the course of the year.

One added caveat- students are asked to measure the mass of the chalk both before and after drawing on the board, which tells them how much chalk they left on the butcher paper. Since they know the chemical makeup of the chalk (a compound called calcium carbonate – CaCO3), the students can calculate the number of molecules that they left on the paper. As an added context builder, Mrs. Peairs leaves the students with an interesting follow-up question: How many words are left in your piece of chalk?



Similarly, Carey Oliver at Albemarle High engaged students in determining the mass and volume of a mole of split peas. Students use the unit of a mole often in chemistry, though frequently in reference to the number of less-than-visible molecules. By working with more-than-visible split peas, students can put into the unit of the mole into context – no small feat, given the number’s size (6.022×10^23, which is over 60 sextillion, or 60 billion billions).

Students huddled around a graduated cylinder filled with (uncooked) split peas, measuring the mass using a balance. While they calculated the requested values, a couple of students found answers but were not sure if their answers were reasonable. All it took was one extension question to help them gain context: Would a mole of split peas fit inside this room? This kind of question helped put their large-numbered answer into a familiar context. As a result, students were able to make sense of their answer…and do more dimensional analysis in the process!

These examples of engaging in dimensional analysis are but a few of the ways that students are “think[ing] analytically, critically, and creatively in order to pursue new ideas, build new knowledge, and make decisions.” Teachers: what are some ways that you bring context to hard-to-imagine topics like dimensional analysis in your own practice? Please feel free to share in the comments.

#ACPSScience BioBlitz!

For all those interested in joining, one of our schools is looking for partners to engage in a county-wide BioBlitz on October 7th!

Murray Elementary School’s 4th grade class is very excited about connecting schools together in the process of learning about our environment and the plant and animal species that live together with us in it.

Here is the message that their class sent to all of our county’s 4th grade classes:

Dear Albemarle County 4th graders,

Murray Elementary 4th grade is planning a bio blitz! A bio blitz is a group of people coming together to count different animals species and plants. A group of people looking for biodiversity. We had an idea to try getting as many Albemarle County schools as we can to bio blitz.  That way we could learn about the plants and animals in our county.

We will have our first bio blitz on October 7th 12:30-2:00 in the afternoon. You would spend the afternoon outside in your schoolyard counting species. Please contact us before the 30th if you are interested.

We would also love to Skype with your classes to share more of what we have learned. Please let us know if you are interested in Skyping.

The Murray 4th grade

For additional information about engaging in a BioBlitz, here are some resources:

Please contact the Murray 4th grade class if you would like to join them on their BioBlitz on October 7th!

How Many Words in this Piece of Chalk?

building community & building understanding of unit conversion

Jenn Peairs

Mass of the stick of chalk

Write something on the community chalkboard – posted in the room to provide decoration & promote student ownership of the space

Mass the chalk after writing. Given the chemical make-up of chalk, how many molecules of chalk are there on the community poster?

Extension question: how many letters are there left in that unused chalk?

After previously staying connected by sharing “nerd-cool” math & science memes using a class Facebook group, Jenn and her class are moving to build community using twitter. You can connect up with her and the chem-learning crew via @chemwithmrsp’s twitter feed.

Scottsville Players present: Egg to Butterfly!

Check out the Scottsville’s 2nd graders in the play about the life cycle of a butterfly that they wrote, produced, narrated and performed! #ACPSScience brings you, Egg to Butterfly.

What a fun way for the kids to grow their understanding of life cycles while expressing themselves through the arts! The sense of audience for the performance also seemed to up the students’ engagement in the project, as they performed their play for K and 1st grade classes.

I talked with the students after the play, and (after a round of high-fives) asked them: Which stage of a butterfly’s life would you most want to be, and why?

From a butterfly actress: “I would be a butterfly…because I could fly!”

Many agreed, except for one of the writers: “I think I would want to be a caterpillar, because then I could squirm around and hide.”

Below are the thoughts of Kathy Allen (the students’ proud teacher) who gives us her “director’s commentary” for the experience of the students writing the play.

How did the idea for this experience come about?

This is actually the first year I have ever had the children write a story about the butterfly life cycle and act it out. Since I knew we were not starting our “formal” reading groups until Sept. 4th, I wanted to do something during our reading time where the students could develop their knowledge of the butterfly life cycle using art, music, reading, writing, and acting.

IMG_2402How did you get started?

On the first day of school, we went out to the butterfly bush and observed the butterflies, getting a chance to see what they looked like when feeding.  I then had the children tell me what they knew about butterflies, and we created a KWL chart.

For Thursday and Friday’s lesson, I pulled out the butterfly books and resources in our classroom, and had the children read books with partners. I asked them to write two new ideas that they learned from their books, and we made a chart of new ideas. On Friday, I asked the students if they would be interested in writing and performing a play about the butterfly life cycle, and boy were they excited to do this!

Tell us about the writing process that the students used.

On Monday, six children volunteered to be our writers. We talked about how the story should look and what was needed. We made a plan of key ideas and words that would be needed to explain the life cycle from the books they had read. While I got them started with the first few sentences, the only request was everyone had to write some sentences. They worked well together.

Preparing the costumes and props!We also had a group of costume designers. They made a list of props they thought they would need to help explain the story, each volunteering for the part they wanted to design and / or act out. Everyone was very polite, choosing another part if their “favorite” part was already taken. After choosing, they got busy drawing, coloring, cutting and stuffing. Honestly, the only thing I did for costumes was show them how big the drawing would need to be on the paper so that the audience would be able to see them.

On Tuesday I met with the writers and fine-tuned the story. They read it aloud to the costume designers to be sure all of the necessary props were created. Then everyone got busy helping each other draw, color, cut out, staple, and stuff the costumes.

Thursday we did a couple of dress rehearsals. The first one was rough. I had to explain how they could not talk while waiting for their part to happen (leading to Friday’s Morning Message about listening for their cues). They got better at it each time they practiced, and they were terrific when “on stage” on Friday for the kindergarteners and 1st graders!

IMG_2415After our last performance we made butterflies to eat out of celery, peanut butter, pretzels and M&M’s. They sipped nectar from juice boxes like butterflies!

What was your favorite part of the whole experience?

I do believe it was a great authentic assessment of their learning. I believe they clearly acquired and used precise language to communicate ideas and their knowledge of the life cycle. My favorite part was how well they worked together and collaborated. It made my job more about the role of observer and facilitator.

If you had it to do over again, would you change anything?

If I had to do it over again, I would remind the students to show once the butterfly lays her eggs she dies. Then when the eggs hatch the cycle begins again, thus the “Life Cycle of the Butterfly”.

We had already discussed that not all butterflies die after laying their eggs. They knew the monarch butterfly flew south to a warmer climate after laying their eggs. Some die and some fly. When we performed for the kindergarteners, we had a question-and-answer session at the end which made me think this time would be important for all children.

I’m also thinking that we could incorporate social studies by researching the butterfly migratory paths. Then the student could create maps of the butterfly’s migratory pattern, which lets them develop their map skills / elements required in second grade.


Keep up with the Scottsville Players, prepping for a performance near you!

How to Do Labs Online Using Google Docs

Albemarle High School physics teacher Tony Wayne has developed an interesting way of using Google Docs in order to have students do their lab work collaboratively online. This specific example outlines his thinking on one lab where students use a high-speed camera in order to learn about motion along an inclined plane.

The keys to the process that he outlines in the video:

  • Right from the outset, he identifies key goals for his own use of Google Docs for labs. His goal is to create a lab with: clear instructions for the students, a way to communicate the grading process, an ease of use for the teacher’s grading, and a “self-organizing” feature once it gets “turned in” to the teacher.
  • The labs themselves are developed using two different documents: one file that is only editable by the teacher that is specifically made for the student directions for the lab, and another that is a template for students to make a copy of and use for their own personal work.
  • Both documents have a variety of links built in to other files (e.g. videos of the set-up, links to relevant Google forms), making it so that these two documents are the primary “jumping-off points” for the variety of supporting files that students use to help them in their completion of the lab.
  • Color-coding and naming conventions were very helpful for ease of reading in the future. Tony uses a “blue” format for headers in the teacher documents, and a “red” format for the student document. Naming conventions for the files make them “self-organizing” for future access.
  • At 6:32, Tony describes how he uses the “Insert comments” feature for the purpose of providing students feedback on their work. This practice helps to give students clear feedback for the purposes of clarifying their thinking prior to turning in a “final” product.
  • At 10:28, he describes the “Completion Confirmation” Google form, which asks the students the following question: “Imagine your group is paid $10,000 for this project. If it was your decision, how would you pay each member of your group, and why would you pay them that way?” It’s a nice question that helps to clarify over time what the students’ contributions have been in a collaborative project, and helps the students receive feedback on how their teammates perceive their role as a teammate.

Tony makes many videos both for his students to use in class and for teachers to use in planning instruction (over 350 on YouTube at the time of this blog’s publication). Check them out on his YouTube channel, as well as the other resources he has developed and shared on his class webpage.

Learning about Levers through Challenge-Based Learning

Check out this new post from Beth Tice, one of our local 3rd grade teacher teammates. In Lego Levers for Challenge Friday, Beth tells the story of helping students learn about simple machines by engaging in a challenge using Legos. It’s a story of student exploration, non-fiction texts in context, and the teacher’s role in facilitating learning.

Some excerpts from Beth’s post:

To try to make sure that I’m incorporating STEAM on a regular basis in my third grade classroom, I’m going to try to hold “Challenge Friday” each week.  The hard question for me is since I’m the language arts teacher, how can I get the kids to do STEAM projects while not losing one day every week from language arts instruction?

The challenge was that the kids had to build a lever out of Legos to help a Lego minifigure lift a 50g Lego block.  Of course, the kids immediately asked me, “What’s a lever?”  So we watched a quick 2-minute YouTube video so they could get a very basic understanding of what a lever is and what it’s used for.  Then we read a book about levers with a 10-book set.  The kids read the book with a partner and took notes about levers that they got from their nonfiction reading.  Then we met together to discuss what levers are, how they are useful, what parts they have, and examples of levers.  This background information took about 45 minutes.

The remaining 45 minutes was for the kids to build levers.  I gave almost no instruction on HOW to build the levers out of Legos.  I gave each pair of children a bag with Lego pieces (each bag consisted of the same pieces).  The only thing I told them was that they had to build a working lever to help the Lego minifigure lift a 50g block.  (I also told them that their Lego minifigure had to wear his little miniature hard hat at all times, since lifting a 50g block when you are only an inch tall is very dangerous.)

To learn more about the kids as they engaged in the challenge, as well as stories of the teacher’s role in facilitating learning, read the rest of Beth’s post. Follow her blog for future Challenge Friday posts!

Build to Write: Making & Communicating

Check out Build to Write, a post from the blog of Michael Thornton. Michael is one of our #ACPSScience colleagues helping 2nd grade students at Meriwether Lewis Elementary develop as both makers & communicators.

In his post, Michael tells the story of building from an observed student interest in marble runs in order to help them grow as writers and communicators. It’s a really nice example of “riding the wave” of student passion & interest in order to help them develop key knowledge and skills in the curriculum, as well as tying writing together with science content & inquiry.

An excerpt from the post:

Today I challenged my students to either build a marble run or a tower. As they built, they had to record directions.  The project was a great success.  The students were engaged and they truly took a scientific approach to building and writing.

See below for an example of student writing that came from this building process. The ultimate assessment? See if you can recreate the marble run as described by this student writing, and tweet an image of your marble run re-creation to #ACPSScience!



Check out more images from the Build to Write lesson in the original post on mthornton78’s Blog. and keep up with Michael’s students’ continued adventures in 2nd grade via his blog posts and twitter updates.

Welcome to #ACPSScience!

Welcome to #ACPSScience, Albemarle County’s blog chronicling the development of a community of scientific learners and scientific learning!

On this blog, we plan to collect stories from across the county of the variety of ways that our teachers are helping our kids learn about science. Through sharing our stories, we share our practice, helping us to learn from both our successes and our challenges as stories travel from classroom to classroom and from school to school.

If you are an Albemarle County teacher and you have a story you would be willing to share, please contact Tony Borash (ACPS science vertical team facilitator and the editor of this blog) and we will prepare your story for publication. Thanks to everyone for sharing your practice, as well as for your continued dedication to helping our students develop as lifelong learners!

Looking forward to learning together with you on this journey.