Wild Spirits: Measuring Life and Death with the Pasco Wireless CO2 sensor

A student once asked me why if carbon dioxide is so much heavier than air, how come the lower atmosphere doesn’t become thick with CO2 and kill everything?

“Umm, well…because it…umm…doesn’t?”

The student then asked if I was going to was going to answer her question with another question? Which of course is also a question. So how many questions are we up to now?

Anyway, before we all panic and run to higher ground, let’s stem the fear with the simple answer that convection (wind) and diffusion (mixing) keep the CO2 concentration in check and evenly distributed. But first, some history before moving on to measuring CO2.

Amazingly, the identification of carbon dioxide as a discrete substance was first reported a full two years before Sir Isaac Newton was born. In fact Galileo still had two good years of research left in his bones before taking his final break.

Now, 378 years later, carbon dioxide is a not just a proportion of our atmosphere, but potentially an indicator of the health of our one-and-only planet.  Our current concentration of CO2 is 405 ppm or parts per million. Estimates of pre-industrial levels of CO2 are around 280 meaning there has been a substantial and statistically significant increase in the global CO2 level.

For all its danger, Carbon dioxide is an elegant molecule that contain two oxygen atoms 180 degrees apart tied to a single carbon atom through double bonds.  Often symbolically written as O=C=O, carbon dioxide is an odorless, colorless gas that is 60% denser than the average handful of air.

Back when the chemist Jan Baptist van Helmont discovered that when charcoal was burned in a closed container, the mass of the ash was less than that of the charcoal at the beginning. The inference was that the missing charcoal mass had been turned into an some sort of invisible material that was named a “wild spirit” essentially meaning a gas.

That gas also just happens to absorb wavelengths in the infrared of exactly 4.27 microns allowing a digital sensor to record changes in the concentration of light with a 4.27 micron wavelenght. And those concentrations can be measured with a known light source and a known sensor. Well, actually a thermal sensor that converts temperature to electricity which makes sense since we are working in the infrared.

Essentially, the physics behind Pasco Wireless CO2 sensor works like a mini greenhouse effect where the particular IR wave that is the same size as a CO2 molecule is projected across a space that contains the gas to be measured. As the infrared waves move through the space, the CO2 molecules absorb the IR. So the more CO2 in the sampled gas, the less IR that reaches the detector. This type of sensor is called an NDIR or nondispersive infrared sensor. You could imagine it like measuring the amount of dust in or snow in the air by noticing how much less your car headlights illuminate.

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Kindergarten Citizen Scientists: Taking Action to Save the Earth

My kindergarten students recently became citizen scientists as they investigated their big questions about the natural world around them. The snow finally melted, the critters have made their appearance, and the plants are beginning to bloom. It’s early May, and Spring has finally arrived—not a moment too soon. Our class has been out walking on our school trails, observing the signs of life that finally have appeared!

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How much to teach?

I am a student teacher in a kindergarten class and I have been struggling with focusing on laying the foundation for my students. But how much is too little? How much is too much for students at such an emergent level? —Y., Arizona


This is something teachers in all grades grapple with! The first person I would go to is your cooperating teacher and other kindergarten teachers. They have taught this curriculum and should have a good idea of the expectations and will likely fill your repertoire with all kinds of strategies they have used. Next, look at the curriculum support documents. There should be activities, lessons, and assessment strategies that have been identified or created by the department of education to help you out. Check out your state’s science teachers’ association for their resources. Develop a professional development plan in which you attend and participate in as many opportunities to learn, network, and share ideas about your curriculum.

Your students probably have diverse backgrounds and abilities. Don’t be too afraid to over-estimate your students. It is probably better to back track to simpler stuff than underestimate your students’ comprehension of the content.

Foremost, reflect on everything you do and make self-assessments by asking yourself: Are my students getting this? How do I know? And, regardless of whether the lesson worked well or not, How can I teach this differently? From your reflections, you can create informal and formal assessments that will help guide you and determine your students’ understanding.

Hope this helps!

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Ed News: AZ Science Educators Raise Alarms About Revised K-12 Standards

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This week in education news, should STEM evolve in STEAM; North Carolina teacher rally for increased teacher pay and education spending; Chicago will invest $75 million to renovate the high school science labs; new middle school genetics and genealogy curriculum will be featured in the National Science Foundation’s STEM for All Video Showcase; and Artificial Intelligence’s progression has been evolving at unbelievable speeds.

Science Educators Raise Alarms About Revised K-12 Standards

The standards for teaching Science, and History, to Arizona school kids are undergoing their first revisions in more than a decade. A committee of 100 educators, parents and community members hammered out the Science document in a year-long process. But the Department of Education made unexpected last-minute changes, shifting from big ideas to vocabulary words and watering down the concept of evolution. Read the article featured on KNAU.org.

Is STEM Better Off As STEAM?

Should STEM evolve into STEAM? Bringing up the STEM versus STEAM debate to 100 people might elicit 30 different reactions. Supplementing the hard sciences with art may seem like a simple matter, but there are several well-reasoned arguments for and against STEAM. Read the article featured in Engineering 360.

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Finding Professional Balance

What can we do to better support our teachers in ways such as development to help decrease the burnout rate?
—I., Connecticut

Teacher burnout is a world-wide phenomenon. My predecessor, Mary Bigelow, addressed this issue a couple of years ago (https://goo.gl/PS4HWJ) but it merits continued discussion. I’ve maintained that strategies for avoiding or mitigating burnout should be part of teacher education, but most educators don’t receive any formal training in these strategies.

I tried to focus on the things in my control and kept my highest priority—the happiness of my family and myself— in mind. I wouldn’t have been any good to my family, or my students, had I burnt out.

You are not alone
Confide in friends, family and colleagues about what you’re facing. Teachers associations will likely have phone lines and councillors for you to contact. There is no stigma to admitting you need help. Also watch your colleagues for signs of burnout.

Work hard, but not stupid
Look at how you work and set some realistic goals. Modify your assessment strategies to reduce grading. Drop some voluntary committees, coaching or supervision no matter how much you like it. Try arriving a little earlier or staying later on some days to prepare and grade while preserving other evenings and weekends for you and your family.

Incorporate wellness into your life
Is your diet (reasonably) healthy? Do you have any exercise routines? Don’t dwell on things you can’t control and look at positive things you are accomplishing. Take up or revisit a hobby. You are no good to anyone if you are sick so take time off to address your health.

Take care of yourselves, people!


Photo Credit:  Firesam! via Flickr

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Beyond the E-Book: NGSS Professional Book Study

How much do you know about the Next Generation Science Standards and what they mean for your classroom? NSTA knows it can be challenging to learn the complex ins and outs of the NGSS on your own. That’s why we developed a four-week Online Book Study around Discover the NGSS: Primer and Unit Planner to provide science teachers with a comprehensive introduction to the NGSS.

Participating in a book study offers you a unique professional learning opportunity. Book studies are designed to extend learning far beyond simply reading a book. They supplement knowledge with discussions with colleagues, stories from the classrooms, and live webinars led by top experts in the field. Designed with convenience in mind, book studies provide intensive learning without the hassle of conference travel. You’ll have access to hours of personalized professional learning, webinar archives, and your own private forum to learn at your own pace.

“Hearing what other teachers had to say and their input helped me realize that it takes time, and with a little bit more practice, I can develop and grow my lessons.”

Past book study participant

The NGSS book study is no different in its array of benefits. The study provides the expert guidance and resources you need in order to learn and implement the NGSS in your own classrooms. During the NGSS book study, you’ll deepen your understanding of the NGSS with four live webinars led by experts Tricia Shelton and Jessica Holman. The webinars will feature examples and stories from the classroom to illustrate how to translate the NGSS into classroom teaching and learning. During the webinars, you’ll have the chance to learn from:

  • Tricia Shelton: Tricia is a science teacher and leader with a BS in Biology and Masters in Teaching with 22 years of experience in Kentucky. She is driven by a passion to help students develop critical and creative thinking skills necessary for success in a 21st century world. She is also a member of the NSTA staff.
  • Jessica Holman: Jessica is a special education teacher at Boone County High School with eight years of experience. She is active in her role as a science teacher leader in her school district, collaborates with peers, and integrates instruction into her blended learning classroom.
  • Other K-12 science teachers and leaders

Throughout the book study, you’ll also have access to a personalized forum, additional resources, and webinar archives in order to maximize your learning through collaboration and classroom lessons. After over six hours of live exchange with experts and 40 hours of personalized learning, you’ll know how to communicate your understanding of the three-dimensions of the NGSS, how to design your own NGSS lessons within a unit of study, and how to identify phenomena that can drive your students’ learning even further. After each webinar, you’ll also receive a certificate as evidence of your participation and attendance. 

Interested in participating? Register at http://learningcenter.nsta.org/bookstudy. The program runs this fall on four consecutive Tuesdays on October 2, 9, 16, and 23. You can sign up as an individual ($63 member/$79 non-member) or a district cohort (25 individuals at $1,250 flat fee). Please note that the e-book is not included and can be purchased separately here. Reach out to Flavio Mendez (fmendez@nsta.org) with any additional questions.

The mission of NSTA is to promote excellence and innovation in science teaching and learning for all.

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Is a seed alive? Is a seed magic? Where does a seed come from?

Cup of soil with 3 sprouts growingUnderstanding the complex lives and lifecycles of plants is a lifetime’s worth of work that can begin in early childhood as children feel the texture of seeds dotting a strawberry, watch a maple seed twirling down, or open a sugar snap pea pod to count the seeds inside. In John McCutcheon’s song, “Kindergarten Wall,” a seed-planting activity is included in a list of important things to remember from our kindergarten year.

As children notice seeds teachers may talk with them, asking children to describe or draw what they notice, and giving some information, such as the word “seed” and the name of the parent plant and fruit. If this is followed by seed sprouting or planting opportunities, the experience may confirm what children have been told about seeds: if you plant a seed it will grow. But what if it doesn’t grow? 

A tray of zinnia seedlings planted in pots made of newspaperThis spring I planted two kinds of zinnias, a smaller and a larger variety. For some reason only a few of the larger variety sprouted while almost all of the smaller variety grew well. I used the same potting soil, the same newspapers as pots, watered them from the same container, and put them in the same windowsill to sprout. Since I had seeds of the larger variety left in the packet I did a simple germination test, taught to me by a college roommate who was an agriculture major, by putting the seeds in a fold of a damp paper towel in a plastic bag. During the week I checked on the seeds and kept the paper towel damp. Only 20% of the seeds sprouted. Sprouting seeds in a damp paper towel rather than in soil keeps the process visible for children to see. After a period of time you can plant only those seeds that sprouted into soil. Be aware that early plant structures may break easily so don’t count on all sprouting seeds surviving children’s handling.

When children are very interested in caring for sprouting seeds you may decide to help each child plant a container and label it with their name so they can take it home. If there is a chance that some seeds won’t sprout, or will receive uneven care and not survive well, consider having children take turns planting seeds in a large tray of soil so everyone can jointly care for the plants, surviving or not. Those seedlings that thrive can be transplanted into individual containers or the ground.

From a Peep in the Big Wide World video, child planting seeds

Video on “Science Talks” about plants, from Peep and the Big Wide World.

Exploring seeds introduces the diversity of plants (so many different sizes and shapes of seeds!) and the variety within a plant genus (consider the shapes of seeds from plants that grow pumpkins and those that grow other squash).  See the “Teaching strategies” section at Peep and the Big Wide World with videos of both family child care and center-based educators  talking with the children in their care. One idea is to create a “seed museum.”  Children can do this with seeds they find in their food or bring from home. 

A Monarch butterfly on a pink zinnia flower.Learning about the needs of plants (and animals) is part of the Next Generation Science Standards, assessed in  performance expectation K-LS1-1, “Use observations to describe patterns of what plants and animals (including humans) need to survive,” and the Disciplinary Core Idea, LS1.C, “Organization for Matter and Energy Flow in Organisms, All animals need food in order to live and grow. They obtain their food from plants or from other animals. Plants need water and light to live and grow.”

As the weather warmed I transplanted all the zinnia seedlings out into the garden where I hope their nectar and seeds will provide food for insects and birds. Relationships between plants and animals can be part of an exploration of seeds. Making observations of animals interacting with plants takes time, over many occasions, some planned and others by chance, but all made possible by teacher preparation.

 The question, “What seeds do we eat?” is examined in children’s books. There are many wonderful books about children spending time in gardens but not as many focused on the seeds we eat. Stories such as The Little Red Hen include information about the seeds we eat (wheat). Both fiction and non-fiction books help children make sense of their explorations. 

Green Bean! Green Bean! by Patricia Thomas, illustrated by Trina L. Hunner (2016 Dawn Publications)

How a Seed Grows by Helene J. Jordan (1992 HarperCollins Children’s Books)

In the Garden with Dr. Carver by Susan Grigsby, illustrated by Nicole Tadgell (2010 Albert Whitman & Company)

Plant a Little Seed by Bonnie Christensen (2012 Roaring Brook)

Seed, Soil, Sun: Earth’s Recipe for Food by Cris Peterson with photos by David R. Lundquist (2012 Boyds Mills Press) 

Seeds by Vijaya Khisty Bodach (2007 Capstone Press)

Seeds by Ken Robbins (2005 Theneum Books for Young Readers)

Seeds and Seedlings: Nature Close-Up Photographs by Dwight Kuhn, text by Elaine Pascoe (1996 Blackbirch Press)

What’s in the Garden? by Marianne Berkes, illustrated by Cris Arbo (2013 Dawn Publications) 

Page Keeley’s formative assessment probes help educators determine what children think about a topic before they explore it.  Asking the questions and discussing the images of the probes helps to reveal the ideas students have about objects, organisms, or phenomena. Although they are designed for elementary and older students, preschool teachers can use them for group discussions and smaller conversations. Children’s initial claims and reasons for their ideas provide direction for exploration and instruction. See Keeley’s Formative Assessment Probe columns

Needs of Seeds in the February 2011 Science and Children 48(6) 

Seeds in a Bag November 2014 Science and Children 52(3)

Big and Small Seeds, July 2016 Science and Children 53(9)

Students’ Ideas About Plants: Results from a National Study” by Charles R. Barman, Mary Stein, Natalie S. Barman, and Shannan McNair (September 2003 issue of Science and Children) reports on research by teachers about elementary and middle school students’ often limited ideas about plants.  With additional first-hand experiences and later experiments, children can revise their early ideas, such as “Sunlight helps plants grow by keeping them warm,” and “Trees and grass are not plants.”

Early childhood educators can provide many first hand-hand experiences, and help children investigate seeds, the lives of plants, and their lifecycles so in upper elementary and middle school children will “…remember the seed in the little paper cup, First the root goes down and then the plant grows up! (©1988 by John McCutcheon. Published by Appalsongs).

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Inclusive Labs

Do you have some suggestions for how to modify a science experiment for students with physical disabilities that prevent them from doing the activities? – A., Arkansas

There are many ways you can modify the experience for students with disabilities. Specific labs may have special modifications, but here are some general ideas:

In general, you should team the student up with classmates to perform experiments. Developing collaborative team skills is an important skill for everyone. There are usually many steps to an experiment. If there are physical disabilities that prevent the student from, say, pouring liquids they could still help out with brainstorming, identifying variables, reading meters, recording data, calling time intervals, double-checking data and measurements. Use phones or tripod-mounted cameras to photograph or video record experiments for later observations or writing up lab reports.

Safety comes first! A person with limited mobility may have to take more precautions to ensure they can do the work properly or move away from danger quickly.

Keep in mind that the object of an experiment is to answer a question by deriving meaningful, objective data in a controlled environment. The skill of using lab equipment is secondary in my opinion. However, phone apps, infrared thermometers or computer-based probes could be easier to use and read when measuring physical data.

Hope this helps!


Graphic credit: Ltljltlj via Wikimedia Commons

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Ed News: STEAM Approach Increases Elementary Students’ Scores In Science

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This week in education news, science and technology have the power to do good; STEAM instruction from a well-trained educator can boost science achievement scores among students in high-poverty elementary schools; science is a front-burner issue for California students; S.C. districts are taking unusual steps to fill teaching vacancies — recruiting in other parts of the country; new study finds people who understand evolution are more likely to accept it; industry and government should work together to encourage more people to consider jobs in software development, computer programming and cybersecurity; and though remedial math was intended to help students succeed in college, research has demonstrated that the courses don’t enhance students’ chances of completing college and can even worsen them.

Why U.S. Students Are Bad At Math

Earlier this spring the U.S. Department of Education released the results from the 2017 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), and only 33 percent of eighth-graders tested proficient in math at grade level. This is unfortunate, and not at all surprising. In 2013, only 36 percent of eighth-graders were proficient in math, and in 2015 (the test is given only in odd-numbered years), only 33 percent were proficient. The silver-ish lining to the dark cloud of our schoolchildren’s poor math skills is that we’ve stopped getting worse. We’re not yet horrendous; we’re still just terrible. Read the article featured in U.S. News & World Report.

She’s A Champion Science Student. But She Loves History. What Should She Do?

Natalia Orlovsky had a hard time deciding where to go to college. Her options — Princeton University in New Jersey or the University of Oxford in England — reflected her internal struggle over competing interests: STEM vs. the humanities. It’s a debate roiling the education world, too. If Orlovsky chose Oxford, she would study history. If she chose Princeton, she would study science, a subject in which she recently displayed award-winning proficiency. Read the article featured in The Washington Post.

Bring More Girls Into STEM Workforce

Science and technology have the power to do good, by helping solve many of the great challenges of our day. They can mitigate global warming, hold the promise to cure cancer and help keep our national assets resilient to cyberattack. But we need more girls to unlock the potential of these next-generation innovations. Read the article featured in U.S. News & World Report.

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Active or passive science?

One of my biggest questions is how to get the younger elementary students involved in science. Should we do more hands-on activities, having them participate in the environment or should we watch videos? —F., Texas

“Every kid starts out as a natural-born scientist, and then we beat it out of them. A few trickle through the system with their wonder and enthusiasm for science intact.” ― Carl Sagan

We were all born with curiosity, a willingness to experiment and wanting to figure out how the world works. Science should be the easiest subject to teach – we just need to let human nature take its course! I think adults do a good job of stopping young people from exploring and asking simple, but tough, questions. Hands-on activities that encourage manipulation and experimentation along with exploring the real world is where students really learn science. Have them make their own videos. You may be surprised at how involved they will get in their projects!

The role of the teacher, in my opinion, is to provide opportunities to explore and inquire. Teach some basic things like: how to conduct a fair test; use observation not conjecture; record data accurately; how to reach a conclusion based on evidence and how to present data. In essence, teach children the nature of science – not just arbitrary facts. Let them see that science is an active pursuit of knowledge.

Hope this helps!


Photo Credit: Cblack95 via Wikimedia Commons

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