Weather Stations, Web 2.0 Tools and John Merrow

This week, my colleague shanghaied one of my chalkboards for a weather station.  While the chalkboard & wind unit may not seem like much,

The hand-held reader really catches a teacher’s eye.

This type of scientific information begs to be utilized in the classroom.  Daily, nay, hourly temperatures can be recorded and used to find the mean temp, daily temp, range…mode, slope, points on a graph, equations for the daily rise in the temperature, regression lines, etc.  Science classes can study weather patterns, climate change or stasis, the water cycle.  A physics classroom can turn wind speed readings into kilowatt-hours.  Those figures can be amended into proposals for the installation of a wind turbine.

Wait…that’s my collegue put that device up there.

An English teacher can illuminate the difference between lab reports, short stories and literary analysis.  The data gathered in science class, analyzed in Math, interpreted and presented in English, can finally be acted upon in Social Studies.  In fact, this little weather station can become the technological center-point of a curriculum which could, theoretically be scaled between schools all over right?  A revolution?

John Merrow’s recent blog post proposes a similar comprehensive project, except with trash cans.  Some of his thoughts on the importance of a connected world:

“Analyze the data. Share the results with other high school students around the state.  Where there are anomalies, dig deeper.  Ask for explanations.  Publish the results.

Maybe this curriculum is really not about trash cans and rivers, but about democracy.  Practicing democracy is necessary, because it’s not a natural act.

It would teach other lessons as well: information is power, collaboration produces strength, social policies have consequences, and they themselves are not merely numbers or test scores but sentient, thinking individuals with potential.  They matter.”

And John is right, these lessons matter.  Curriculum units like this energize young people, excite teachers and can galvanize communities into action.  Students learn incredible, real-life lessons.  Students will finally stop watching cat videos on youtube and begin posting real content – they move from consumer to creator.

Only one hitch – Merrow’s project needs teachers.  And not just any teachers.  Teachers with skills in a spattering of areas well outside their normal comfort zone.  A project such as this needs teachers with skills and specialties in: working in large professional groups; teachers coordinating between groups; teachers adept at navigating between the educational, private and public worlds as a professional educator; teachers who can trouble-shoot blogs and Google and such when they go down and who can make this technology accessible to others; teachers to pilot the lessons; teachers to distribute those lessons; teachers to teach the lessons with flexibility, wit and expertise.

And as teachers we usually have one or two of these personal skills in abundance.  Merrow’s proposal needs teachers to have all of these skills, and probably more.  I have worked on large coordinated projects and I’ve done smaller labs.  I’ve found the success of those technology/science/literacy excursions depended more upon my own technical knowledge than my teaching skills.  For a GPS lab, I spent most of two class periods trouble-shooting devices which don’t work near metal roofs (guess what my trailer classroom was clad in?).  In Merrow’s trash curriculum, teachers without strong Web 2.0 skills will find sharing data difficult – what happens when the connection breaks, the school computer freezes, google docs requires a log-in or the IT department kills your plan to download an open-source MatLab-like program to help students analyze the data?  These small speed-bumps rapidly halt any progress in the project.  Lack of progress stalls the students, which stalls the learning process.

I’m not rejecting Merrow’s idea, I’m trying to critique it and show some of the larger logistical struggles teachers can face.  I love reading about and participating in innovative curriculum such as the one you propose. I believe these curriculum can turn a classroom into wonderful place and create teachers out of “yard cops” (as I called myself when I worked as an after-school educator). Almost all teachers innovate in their own classrooms. The corollary of course, is that all teachers don’t innovate in the same way. Sometime, we don’t have all the technical-skills necessary to pull off a unit like this. I’ve built a professional reputation on my blend of engineering knowledge, curriculum innovation and software skills. I’m confident I could teach students many science & math concepts while they count trashcans, analyze locations and publish the results through a Google Maps mashup. My teaching would halt on the steps of City Hall, as I don’t have connections or knowledge of the local civic system. Of course, I could simply partner with another teacher – which requires a different level of resources, brings in different motivations and skill-sets. Success can become harder to attain.
I try to keep up on the swirling currents in the “education reform movement”. It sounds easy, connecting learning between classrooms the way a spider builds a web. I would just like to point out, the logistical challenges inside the classroom happen to be more intractable than they first appear.

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