About Lightning Strikes

Monday, May 25, 2015

Mission Geography with NASA

I am a big fan of  NASA's educational materials. I wrote previously about using a lesson from Mission Mathematics as part of problem solving in math. NASA also has an excellent geography curriculum, Mission Geography, which is available free on the NASA website.  They have created different curricula for grades K-4, 5-8, and 9-12. Teaching a gifted 4th grade class, I have used units from both the K-4 and 5-8 bands.

My class has just completed Investigation 1 in the unit "Mars and Earth - the Quest for Life." This is part of the 5-8 units. Investigation 1 is "Where do we choose to live and why?" This is a question our 4th graders have been exploring for the entire school year in Social Studies, beginning with the early English colonies. In an earlier blog post I shared the lesson plan from Colonial Williamsburg in which students are charged with examining the characteristics of several potential settlement sites, ranking them according to different criteria, and defending their choices of site. Later in the year, we saw the importance of waterways as transportation in the French and Indian War. We noted in colonial times leading up to the Revolutionary War that the colonies were all on the Atlantic coast and the major cities were all ports.

"Where do we choose to live and why?" reinforces these aspects of geography in history and brings the ideas into the present. In the first activity, Students are introduced to the concepts of patterns, dispersion and density in populations. Then students are given a satellite photo of New England at night, so what you see are the lights of human activity. The photo is not identified, so the first task students have is to identify from it was taken, what time of day it was, and what it is. There are a number of questions to answer about what can be seen in the photo, including, what are the completely dark areas (water), what patterns do you observe, and finally, what cities, water bodies, and other features can you identify. In my experience using this for a few year now, students usually need some scaffolding in understanding the concepts of pattern and dispersion when talking about human population, so I give additional examples beyond what Mission Geography offers. I also have students work in partners to have someone to discuss the questions with.

In the second activity, students receive a photo of the continental United States (and parts of Canada and Mexico), but it has been turned into a puzzle, being cut into eight rectangles. Their job is to reassemble it using their mental map of the country, with the night lights of cities as the guide. Most students can easily identify the east coast, and often California and Texas with the Gulf of Mexico The center of the country is the challenge. At this point I encourage students to use an atlas, look for the major cities, and assemble the country from those clues. There is a more extensive set of questions to answer after putting the country together. Some questions ask students to think about why there are no cities in parts of the continent. Using an atlas, they discover that the more empty portions of the country are mountains and deserts. They also use a plastic overlay and markers to outline the U.S. and highlight certain features. This is always a popular part of the activity! I collect the clear plastic from the ends of laminating to use as the overlays.

So far these activities have been a cooperative effort, working with partners, and then discussing answers as a whole class. The final activity in this section is applying everything they have learned to determine where people would settle on an unidentified satellite photo of Australia. This photo is a color image designating elevation. I have been disappointed in past years when I taught this lesson because my students had difficulty in successfully picking logical places to settle. They would often pick a place in the middle of Australia, rather than the coastlines, even though we has been discussing this for most of the school year. I decided that part of the problem was with a lack of scale. Though many of my students recognized that it was Australia, they didn't have a clear idea of how big the country/continent is. So this year I gave them the area and the distance north to south and east to west. Another possible issue is the color code for elevation uses a deep green for the lowest elevation, which may give a mistaken impression of lush forests. Students had frequently chosen the center of Australia as a good place to settle, while in reality is is about a thousand miles from the coastline and a desert. This year I went over the color code carefully.

I had students begin work alone and after about 15 or 20 minutes offered them a chance to partner up and share their ideas. This gave me time to walk around checking on understanding and misconceptions before they worked together. I was very pleased with the results of these tweaks. Almost all of my students demonstrated understanding of what people look for in a settlement, as well as the types of places people tend to live.

NASA's Mission Geography gives context to geographical concepts and allows students to apply them. Students are required to think and use what they know. There are many more units than the ones I use - I wish I had more time to teach geography!

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

The Pencil Problem

It seems that pencils are always in high demand in my classroom. Where do they all go? I start the year with 18 pencils per student and sometimes by the end of April, I have none left.

I decided to do another Quick Challenge on this issue to see what my 4th graders could make of it. I had some ideas about what was happening to the pencils, but since I had learned so much about lunch from the last Quick Challenge,  I didn't share any of my thoughts.

We started by partnering up and brainstorming together what some of the problems were. I stressed that they were only to think about the problems, not figure out solutions. Then we collected them all on the white board.

As you can see, they came up with quite a comprehensive list. Next, I asked them to choose one of the problems, or more if they thought they were connected, to come up with some solutions. I suggested they choose problems that interested them or that they thought would be fun to solve. The solutions were pretty straightforward. The erasers on the ends of the pencils get used up quickly, but they can use a separate eraser instead. Students could write their name or initials on their pencils. (I though this was a bit extreme, but several of them did this.) There were a few pencil hoarders in the class, who had more pencils in their desks than they could possibly use. One of them came up to me privately and asked if he could return some!

We didn't take this too seriously and had some fun with this problem. The activity reenforced the idea of taking time to examine the problem, and only after determining the cause(s) to move on to exploring solutions.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Problem solving in Geography and History

Geography is another area that lends itself to including problem solving. There are many essential questions that elementary students can consider while they're learning basic ideas of geography.

In our 4th grade social studies we explore the early British colonists and Jamestown and Plymouth before moving on to later colonial times and the American Revolution. We look at exactly what the settlers at Plymouth were looking for in a site for their colony and what circumstances led them to pick Plymouth. Then we contrast that with the decisions that the settlers of Jamestown made about their location. Neither group made the ideal choice. The Pilgrims were very pressed to find something before the winter weather grew even worse. The Jamestown settlers were being directed long distance from England by investors who were mostly concerned with finding gold.

I had the idea that we could incorporate geography by having students use a map of the Plymouth area to decide on a settlement location. They knew that the Pilgrim were looking for a spot with a high hill for a lookout over the ocean, flat lands for growing crops, fresh water, a nearby forest for both hunting and lumber, and a deep enough harbor for ships. Students had to apply their knowledge of map scale in choosing a location, and note the lakes and streams in the area. The other three criteria, however, were not apparent on the map we used.

Then, I attended the the Colonial Williamsburg Teacher Institute and came home with so many wonderful teaching activities! One of them was a geography activity with a scenario set in 1630. It included all the concepts we wanted our students to deal with in their problem solving. They need to evaluate the conditions and connections of five possible settlement sites. The map is a made-up location. Each of the sites has advantages and disadvantages, so there is no correct or easy answer. Students have to think about what the settlers' goals in starting a settlement are, as well as what the site is like (conditions) and what is nearby (connections). This is the map from the activity:

We have the 4th graders work in small groups on this activity. There is always a lot of discussion. They are asked to rate each site for both positive and negative aspects, and to pick the locations with the best conditions, worst conditions, best connections, and worst connections before deciding upon the best site to build a fortified town in 1630.

I have not been able to find this activity on the Williamsburg teacher site, but I found two versions when I did a Google search. They are both a little different than the version I have, having been adapted for specific teaching situations. They can be found at Conditions and Connections Near Jamestown and Geography Activity: Conditions and Connections.

Another wonderful source for geography curriculum that requires problem solving is NASA. I will post about those activities later.