Monthly Archives: November 2012

Far From Home

I’m in New England for a winter birding and school-visiting expedition.  Although I went to college in Connecticut, visiting this part of the country always feels a little alien to me.  I panic when I get to the toll plazas on the Mass Turnpike – which lane for cash?  Do I need exact change?  What is the ‘tickets’ lane?  What the heck is an EasyPass?  Everyone always seems in such a damn hurry.  Some lady in a silver sedan blitzed passed me in a no-passing zone (right next to a school) and shot me a dirty look when I was going 22 in a 25 mph zone – I was lost, what can I say?  I can barely understand those Baahstun accents, I don’t know why Highway 28-South actually goes north, and I certainly don’t get why main thoroughfares have the cross-street stop signs at a 45-degree angle (wait – is that stop sign for ME?!).  And it’s COLD here (26 F when I arrived at my first birding stop this am).  Sometimes traveling in South America or Europe feels more familiar and more comfortable than venturing up to the Northeast.

Nevertheless, I’m here, far from home (at least compared to the relatively cozy confines of North America).  I spent a quality hour this afternoon in a field of corn stubble with another critter far from home, this Northern Lapwing:

Lapwings are a kind of plover, distantly related to our North American plovers (like the Killdeer).  Northern Lapwings are common throughout much of Europe, but they are hardly ever seen on this side of the Atlantic.  Turns out this poor fella was trying to migrate south to his wintering grounds in Africa when he was swept off course by a powerful storm system that later became part of Superstorm Sandy.  A small group of Lapwings made landfall in New England along with the hurricane, and they have been trying to scrape by on a foreign continent ever since.

Lapwings are so rare in the United States that they even warranted an article in the Boston Globe.  My favorite quotation from the article is from Joan Walsh of MA Audubon: “It’s the equivalent of walking down Mass. Ave. and seeing 15 double-decker buses filled with Brits wearing Burberry jackets.”  Yep, pretty unusual.  Most of the Lapwings have since disappeared, but this one south of Bridgewater, MA is hanging on amidst the corn stalks.

Often we are far from home, physically or metaphorically, arriving by choice or blown there by the winds of fate.  We could do worse than to take a page from this Lapwing: soaking up a little sunshine, enjoying some local food, and checking out the new scenery.

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Emu Composting

I am taking full advantage of my sabbatical by spending as much time as possible on the Olympic Peninsula, one of my favorite places in Washington.  I love the wild confluence of the Olympic Mountains, the Hoh Rainforest, and the Salish Sea.  And all just a short ferry ride away from my home in Kirkland.

Near the Dungeness NWR north of Sequim, I ran into two more Tropical Kingbirds.  Are they more lost souls, or the vanguard of a coming Tropical Kingbird invasion force?  I’m betting on the former, although I will check to see if my insurance covers flycatcher damage.  Here’s one of today’s Tropical vagrants:

At Ediz Hook in Port Angeles, I watched shorebirds and seabirds as the sun set behind the mountains a little before 4pm.  Sanderlings (the lighter ones in the picture below) and Dunlin (the darker ones) fed nearby.  They are some of the most common sandpipers in the County in November.

Much more rare in these parts was this Rock Sandpiper that my wife spotted under the Pilot House:

This was a new bird for my Big Year, and one that I thought I’d have to drive back out to Ocean Shores to do some more jetty walking to see.  They had not yet arrived for the Winter when I was last at the Point Brown Jetty.

Finally, adding to my collection of unusual signs, I offer this one – seen near Hansville on the Kitsap Peninsula.  I have composted many things in my life: leaves, sticks, fir needles, vegetable peels, pizza boxes, and moldy jack-o-lanterns.  But I have never had the need to compost 6-foot tall Australian birds.  Now I know where to go when the need arises:

I wonder if they take Ostriches, too?

 

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New bird added at the Aquarium, almost…

At the Seattle Aquarium this morning, I added a new bird for the year: Cassin’s Auklet.  My intrepid assistant was the first to spot it, and alerted me to pair of them diving (for frozen shrimp).

We did have a great time at the Aquarium, but of course birders don’t “count” captive birds in zoos, aviaries, or aquaria.  They must be “alive, wild, and unrestrained” to count for my year list.  Seeing Cassin’s Auklet from 6 inches away was an amazing treat though, especially since my most recent sighting in the wild was from the deck of a heaving ship at range of 100 yards, squinting through the fog with my spray-drenched binoculars.

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Goosed at Nisqually NWR

National Wildlife Refuges have been protecting habitat for wildlife and providing recreational opportunities for Americans for over a century.  Founded by Teddy Roosevelt and currently administered by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Wildlife Refuge system has over 500 sites encompassing 95 million acres of land.  NWRs are great places to go for a nature hike, watch birds and wildlife, hunt and fish (in season), and even buy a bison.  Yes, I said buy a bison.  Go figure.

My favorite refuge in the state of Washington is Nisqually NWR, about an hour south of Seattle.  Founded in 1974 on former farmland, Nisqually now is home to protected wetlands and estuary habitat where the Nisqually River joins Puget Sound.  I spent a couple hours last week walking the trails and boardwalks there, enjoying the fall weather and the newly returning ducks and geese that have spent the summer up north in Canada and Alaska.

Geese flying in formation crossed the sky throughout the afternoon.  It is thought that formation-flying reduces the drag of air resistance on the geese following the leader, and is thus an efficient way to fly long distances.  A number of different species of geese were present on the refuge when I was there, including this chap:

If you recognize this as a Canada Goose, you used to be absolutely correct.  But not anymore.  Same with these birds:

The Canada Goose, formerly considered just one species, was split in 2004 into a pair of species: a physically larger one breeding primarily in the Lower 48 and eastern Canada, and a physically smaller one breeding primarily in northwest Canada and Alaska.  The larger species retains the name Canada Goose, while the smaller one is now called the Cackling Goose.  And while their summer ranges are mostly distinct, in the fall and winter these two species mix and mingle, especially in places like western Washington – site of Nisqually NWR.

Telling these two species apart isn’t always easy.  In general, Cacklers have a smaller body, shorter neck, and shorter/stubbier bill.  Some of them are barely bigger than a Mallard duck.  But there is quite a bit of variation in both Cackler and Canada Geese, with a gradient of sizes, shapes, and colors represented in the field depending on the subspecies.  For comparison, here are a few Canadas – note especially the longer necks and longer bills.

If you want more information on how to tell Cacklers and Canadas apart, David Allen Sibley has a great page with photos and maps here.

You might think that deciding which animals comprise a single species and which are really two or more species might be straight-forward.  And sometimes it is.  But often it is more complicated than you might think.  Originally, animals that looked the same were considered the same species, while those that looked different were classified as a different ones.  The problem is that some birds that look different (like all of the different color morphs of Red-tailed Hawks) breed with each other successfully, share most of the same habits and habitats, sound the same (songs and calls), and are genetically pretty similar.  In contrast, some birds look almost identical (I’m looking at you, Alder and Willow Flycatchers!), but do not regularly interbreed, have different songs, and show notable genetic differences.  And then there are cases like the (Eastern) Yellow-shafted Flicker and the (Western) Red-Shafted Flicker.  They look similar, but the western (sub?)species has red feather shafts instead of yellow, and subtly different markings on the head and neck.  Their calls and behaviors are pretty similar.  But they have pretty distinct geographical ranges, so they don’t interbreed often.  Where their ranges overlap, they do breed with each other producing hybrids with a range of intermediate or mix-and-match characteristics such as a “red-shafted” head on a “yellow-shafted” body.  I once saw a pretty amazing “orange-shafted” flicker in Oregon.

Ornithologists sometimes have difficulty deciding which groups deserve status as full species, and which are just variations or subspecies.  And sometimes they change their mind in light of new information (take note, politicians, that changing your mind about something is not always a weakness!).  The two flickers mentioned above, once considered separate species, where “lumped” together into a single species a few decades ago, now called Northern Flicker.  For the geese, the opposite happened.  After decades of being considered the same species, Cackling and Canada Geese were “split” into two different species in 2004.  Sometimes, there is real indecision.  The California Towhee, once considered part of the “Brown Towhee,” was split, then lumped, then split again!  The confusion is in part based on the fact that the simplest concept of a “species” is purely a human construct.  We like to classify things as either/or and yes/no in a binary, black and white way.  Nature, however, is more analog than digital.  Changes in populations wrought by natural selection and evolution happen in a continuous curve, not in discrete quantum leaps.  Speciation, the creating of new species from a common ancestor, is a process not an event.  As such, we try to use our best judgment to decide where one species ends and where a new one begins, but sometimes it’s complicated.  Look for more splits and lumps in the years to come!

The handsome fellow above is a Northern Shrike.  It has not quite reached full adult plumage, as the mask isn’t completely black and there is still some brown wash on the belly.  Shrikes eat small vertebrates like lizards and birds, and have a reputation for impaling their prey on thorns, sharp sticks, and barbed wire.  The first Common Redpoll I ever saw became a Shrike meal about 4 minutes later.

Just past the Shrike, the Nisqually estuary was filled with ducks, ducks, and more ducks.  This area is a protected zone that is surrounded by hunting areas on two sides.  And the ducks are not as stupid as they look.  These are male Northern Pintails.  They are still in the process of growing in their very long “pin” tail feathers.

The northwestern part of the refuge features a relatively new boardwalk, which stretches most of the way to the Sound.

Nearby I found a Great Egret feeding.  These elegant waders are common over most of the United States, but are quite uncommon in Washington state.

Nearby was a wader that is NOT uncommon – the familiar Great Blue Heron.  Like the Mallards, GBH’s often don’t warrant a second look from birders.  But they are pretty spectacular creatures.

As I turned for home, I meandered by the Twin Barns, a reminder of Nisqually’s farmland past.  They are currently languishing in a state of majestic disrepair.

As the days grow shorter and colder, the Big Leaf Maples throughout the refuge have received the signal to stop chlorophyll production and drop their flat photosynthetic factories.  Winter is coming.

My winter schedule is beginning to firm up.  The week after Thanksgiving I’m traveling to New York and New England to see some schools (like the public Bronx High School of Science and the independent Groton School in Massachusetts).  I’ll also be looking for Atlantic sea ducks, gulls, and alcids.  I’ll post more from the Northeast!

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The Mystery of the Diving Emerald-Hooded Quackaneer

Saturday’s brilliant afternoon sunshine lured me down to the Kirkland waterfront.  My kids were busy at a play date and a birthday party, so I had a few hours of fading daylight to wander through my local patch.  Many birders have a regular park or wildlife area that they visit frequently, observing how this familiar “patch” of land changes throughout the seasons.  While I don’t have an official patch, the place I visit most often (especially when I only have an hour or so free) is Juanita Bay Park (and nearby Juanita Beach Park) in Kirkland, about five minutes from my house.  This little green space hugging the shores of Lake Washington always has some interesting wildlife present.  It’s one of the best places near my house to see a Wood Duck:

Although not uncommon, Wood Ducks are often shy and retiring birds.  But the boardwalk between Juanita Bay Park and the adjacent Beach Park is a great place to see them, as they seem to have become accustomed to people walking through their habitat.  I almost never fail to see them there, often at close range, and they always make me smile.

There were many other species of ducks present on Saturday: small black and white Buffleheads, rafts of Scaup, and a couple hulking Canvasbacks.  And of course Mallards.  Mallards are almost an afterthought.  They are abundant throughout almost all of North America, and often quite tame.  They beg for bread at many small urban and suburban ponds, loaf in the puddles of parking lots, munch grass on the lawns of homes and office buildings, and paddle through the shallow water of roadside ditches.  Most birders don’t pay much attention to Mallards.  They are neither rare nor hard to see nor a challenge to identify.  I guess they are a bit like a piece of common granite to a rock hound, or a 2010 quarter to a coin collector – “I’ve seen a million of ’em.”

Of course, if you’ve ever bothered to looked closely at a 2010 quarter, they are quite spectacular.  I used to be a small-time coin collector as a kid (mostly pocket change), and I love to study the new designs.  There are several different versions of the 2010 quarter, but here is the Mount Hood one (showing the reverse, image courtesy of the US Mint):

I think these quarters are quite beautiful, and worthy of appreciation – even if over 68,000,000 of them were minted, and they are only worth 25 cents each.

As with the new quarters, Mallards are spectacular and under-appreciated.  They are large and elegant ducks.  The male sports an iridescent green head that literally sparkles in the sunlight, a chestnut breast, golden bill, silver sides and back, and a cute curly tail.

The female is more understated, but she is a beautiful mottled brown with a flash of teal and white in the wing (this colorful wing patch, present in many ducks, is called the speculum).

Why do so many birders dismiss these gorgeous creatures as “junk birds”?  Why do so many people ooh and aah over Wood Ducks while ignoring nearby Mallards, which are almost as flashy and charismatic?  I suspect if Mallards were rare, or at least shy and hard to see, birders would pay them a lot more attention.  It would also help if they had a more exotic name, like maybe Emerald-hooded Quackaneer.  Wouldn’t you be a lot more interested in seeing the extremely rare and reclusive Emerald-hooded Quackaneer than the Mallard who comes to untie your shoelaces looking for a handout?

Anyhow, I was enjoying my walk in the park, admiring the Canvasbacks and ignoring the Mallards, when a duck that had been swimming underwater suddenly popped up next to me.  I did a double take.  And then a triple take.  It was a Mallard.  And with a small leap forward it disappeared again under the surface of the lake.  I was a bit dumb-founded.  This was no ordinary Mallard.

To explain my confusion, it helps to know that birders often separate ducks into two convenient groups: dabblers and divers.  Dabbling ducks usually forage by working their way along the surface, munching on floating plant matter and small invertebrates.  Or they use their feet to tip their heads and necks under the surface, leaving their rear ends bobbing high in the air.  Diving ducks, as their name suggests, submerge themselves completely using their feet to propel themselves under the water in search of plants and small animals.  David Allen Sibley, in his terrific book The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior, shows a diagram (from page 197):

Mallards, as shown in Sibley’s diagram (the middle duck), are dabblers.  You can see them feeding in their characteristic manner at your local pond or lake.  They look like this:

They are not divers.  They are dabblers.  My field guide says so.  In the class that I taught for Seattle Audubon last month, *I* said so.  Mallards don’t dive underwater.  Except, apparently, this one does.  The Mallard re-surfaced close by, and eyed me to see if I was hiding any bread in my coat.  “Mallards don’t dive underwater,” I informed him.  He responded by jumping back under the water.  This was not a quick dip; he stayed underwater for at least 10 seconds, going down several feet.  I whipped out my iPhone, suddenly realizing that I should capture this amazing moment on video.  I can’t embed video on this blog, but I did upload a short clip to youtube.  The quality isn’t great, in part because I cleverly used one fat finger to cover half of the lens – but you can see the video of the incredible diving Mallard here.

When I got home, I researched the matter a bit more.  Several reference books said things like “Mallards typically feed at the surface, and only very rarely dive underneath the water.”  Very rarely, huh?  I have watched birds pretty seriously now for about 13 years, and I’ve never seen a diving Mallard before.  Is this a one-in-a-million event?  Or is it an uncommon but regularly occurring one, an event that I arrogantly ignored because I wasn’t paying attention to the lowly Mallards?  Perhaps it is the former, and I should feel very lucky to have witnessed such an extraordinarily rare and unusual behavior.  But I’m actually betting on the latter.  In any event, the diving Mallard was an instructive reminder that amazing things are all around us, if we just take a minute to actually notice them.

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A Fog Enshrouded Nation on the Edge of the Map

On the northwest tip of the Lower 48 States lies the Olympic Peninsula, and on the northwest tip of the Olympic Peninsula you can find the Makah Nation.  The Makah Indians welcome visitors to their small but spectacular reservation, perched on a finger of land where the Straits of Juan de Fuca meet the Pacific Ocean.  The Makah call themselves “the people who live by the rocks and the gulls” in their native Klallam language, and their home is indeed nestled between a pair of rocky shorelines and hosts the highest diversity of gulls in the Lower 48.  The Makah lands are also on the edge of the largest temperate rainforest in North America, and it rains about 220 days a year (for an average total of 110 inches, or over 9 feet of rain).  When I visited last week, the forecast called for (surprise!) thick clouds, misty rain, and heavy fog.  Fortunately, real birders have waterproof binoculars.  I packed my things and started driving northwest.

My first stop was at a little tribal store in Neah Bay where I picked up a visitor permit ($10 allows access to all of the Makah’s recreational sites for a year), a map, and a snack.

The fog was lifting and the winds were calm, but the rain was coming down in the steady drizzle.  The waters of Neah Bay were teeming with ducks, grebes, loons, cormorants, and alcids (birds of the auk family).  My camera told me it was too dark for distant photography, but I snapped a few pictures anyway.  This gray and grainy image doesn’t begin to do justice to the handsome male Harlequin Duck, but it’s the best one I have:

“Rockpipers,” sandpipers and shorebirds that prefer rocky coasts were also present in great numbers, especially Black Turnstones (named for their habit of turning over small stones to look for lunch hiding underneath).  I also found a Surfbird, an unexpected treat here (and last seen near the end of the Point Brown Jetty).  As I continued my walk along the bay through the cold, November rain here in at almost 49 degrees north latitude, I ran into a …

Tropical Kingbird?!?

Yes, a Tropical Kingbird.  According to my field guide, Tropical Kingbirds are “… uncommon and local in southeastern Arizona and the Rio Grande Valley of Texas.”  In fact, Tropical Kingbirds are one of the most common and widespread birds of Central and South America.  Their normal range ends in the extreme southern portions of the US.  This was one LOST Kingbird, and he knew it.  He sat a bit forlornly in an alder tree, occasionally flying out to snap up one of the last flying insects of the season.

What was a Tropical Kingbird doing in Neah Bay?  This unfortunate fellow fell victim to reverse migration, sometimes also called “mirror migration.”  Most migratory birds hatch in the early summer, and are tended to by their parents for a few weeks.  By autumn they are on their own, and must rely on their genetic programming to figure out which way to migrate for the winter (exceptions would be gregarious birds like swans and geese which tend to migrate together in flocks).  In over 99.99% of cases, the juvenile birds go exactly where they are supposed to go.  But in rare cases, a bird gets mixed up and travels 180 degrees in the opposite direction.  Thus, a Tropical Kingbird born in Arizona does not migrate south-southeast to Mexico but instead travels north-northwest, eventually hitting the Pacific Ocean and following it north… to someplace like Neah Bay.  On this northwest peninsula, the Kingbird is now surrounded by ocean on two sides, and is probably seriously regretting not stopping for directions when he hit Fresno.  Some species are more prone to mirror migration than others, and while a Tropical Kingbird in Washington state is most definitely not an every day occurrence, they are seen almost every year – usually along the coast, and usually in October or November.

While this guy is probably doomed (like kingbirds everywhere, he depends on a robust supply of flying insects which are becoming in short supply in Neah Bay right about now), mirror migration might in fact be a genetic feature, not a bug.  Imagine that almost all of the kingbirds in a certain area travel to a known, safe wintering location.  This ensures that the vast majority of the population will end up in suitable habitat.  But a tiny fraction travel instead in almost the opposite direction, or wander at random (imagine they have, for example, a rare “crazy explorer” gene).  Most of these explorers will perish, but a few might randomly end up someplace hospitable.  This could be how kingbirds find distant new areas to populate.  They are one of the most widespread birds in the Americas, and perhaps their tendency towards vagrancy is one of the reasons why.

A little while later, I ran into another lost avian soul.  But this one was a visitor from Asia who has travelled too far west (actually so far east he made it to the west!) and too far south: a Eurasian Wigeon.  We have good old American Wigeons in abundance in Washington, but about 1 out of every 10,000 or so wigeon here in our state is actually a transplant from over the ocean.  There are a few differences between the two species of wigeon, but the most noticeable one is that the Eurasian Wigeon has a red head with a yellow crown stripe, not a gray and green head with a creamy white stripe.  The bird in the middle standing up and facing left (and again, too far away and too dark for good pictures) is the Eurasian one:

A little further along, I stumbled upon a pair of Snow Buntings.  These beauties nest in the high arctic, and winter in the northern tier of states (but rarely in western Washington).

This is a male and a female.  The males have a little more white on them, and the females have a bit more brown and yellow.  It’s hard to see all of the differences in this picture, but the female is in the background.  Here’s a picture of the male alone (he was a little less shy – or maybe more hungry for the grass seeds):

I spent most of the morning around Neah Bay, but had a little extra time before I needed to head back so I drove a short distance to the Pacific coast and Hobuck Beach.

Here a gale was blowing, waves were crashing, and I began to understand why the Makah identified themselves as the people who live near gulls.  Because there were a lot of gulls.  I mean, I whole lot of gulls.  I didn’t count them all, but my conservative estimate was at least 2000 individuals.

This photo only shows a tiny fraction of the multitude.  Contrary to popular belief, there are no such creatures as “seagulls.”  As a group, they are simply called gulls.  And of course there are many different species of gulls.  In this group, I picked out Western Gulls, Glaucous-winged Gulls, Thayer’s Gulls, Heerman’s Gulls, Mew Gulls, Herring Gulls, and Bonaparte’s Gulls (named for a French ornithologist and nephew of Napoleon).  And yes, the convention is to always capitalize the name of a particular species.  Capitalization is what helps you differentiate a blue jay (any kind of jay which happens to be blue) from a Blue Jay (a specific jay which lives in eastern North America, and/or the mascot of the Toronto major league baseball team).

All too soon I had to drive back along the winding route 112 to the south and east.  As I was leaving, the sun peeked out for a moment creating a brilliant rainbow.  And at the end of the rainbow?  (I checked with my binoculars!)  It was a gull.

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Washington Educators Working to Make a Difference – Part II

Another teacher I’ve been privileged to spend a few days with is Bill from SHS down in Bellevue.  Bill is a bit of a jack of all trades: science teacher, instructional coach, curriculum developer, technology guru, etc.  I honestly can’t remember what his official title is, but he is part science teacher and part education wonk (and I mean that in the best, most complimentary way possible).

Bill and a bunch of his colleagues down at SHS have a little release time paid through a grant, and have been using it to re-imagine their school to address the needs of kids in the 21st Century.  They are have decided to emphasize STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, & Math) fields in particular to help get students excited about new job opportunities in STEM fields and to help make them informed citizens in our new information and technology age.

The easy way to transform your school into a STEM institution would be to get big $$$ from local businesses, a school levy, the Gates Foundation, a federal grant, or whatever and use it to buy tons of laptops, iPads, science labs, and fancy machines that go PING!  Taa-daa!  STEM School!  Of course this approach, while exciting and sexy, doesn’t buy you good teaching (or good learning).  You have the same school (and program, and school culture, and teachers, and…), but now just with a lot of fun gizmos.  But gizmos don’t equal powerful learning experiences.  So instead, Bill and his fellow educators are doing this the hard way.  They are re-thinking what good teaching is in the STEM context, and helping to encourage and train their colleagues to use some interesting and innovative new approaches to teaching.

I won’t innumerate all of the cool things I saw at SHS in this one blog post, but I do want to tell you a little bit about the project-based learning that several of the classes are implementing.  The way Bill explains it, the curriculum is structured around something called “challenge cycles.”  Essentially, they give students really complex, challenging, real-world problems for them to solve – like for instance, “How can you grow the most amount of a food crop with the highest protein content using the smallest amount of resources?”  Then lessons are built around the content and skills the students will need to be able to solve the problem.  These lessons may include socratic seminars, lectures, reading, research, etc.  Projects and assessments follow – i.e., the students try to actually solve their challenge problem, are assessed on their learning and work during the unit, and reflect on their progress.

In the 9th grade science class, students started out with an aquaponics project.  The challenge question might be something like “How can you create a human-engineered self-sustaining animal and plant system that can provide nutritional benefits to people?”  This opening project is designed to teach students a bit about how science and engineering are done.  They also practice a “systems thinking” approach to a complex problems, in this case one that has interacting biotic and abiotic components.  Chemical reactions come into play in several places, especially with how nutrients like nitrogen cycle through the system.

The projects themselves take different forms (of course, because they are designed by the students), but most of them look something like this:

Students make a sand or rock bed, and select one or more types of plants to introduce to the container.  They set up a water system that runs into a reservoir below.  Other organisms are then introduced by the students to the system, from bacteria all the way up to fish.  The system interacts on many levels – the fish create nitrogenous wastes which are in turn processed by the bacteria and then absorbed by the plants as fertilizer.  Temperature, pH, oxygen levels, and dissolved organic solids can be monitored and adjusted in different ways.  Students can make hypotheses about what they think will happen, and then track the progress of their experiment over the course of many weeks.

Right now, Bill and his students are immersed in a study of nuclear chemistry and nuclear physics.  They are in the research phase right now.  After discussing the challenge question (something about nuclear power), the students decided there were a list of questions that they needed answered about nuclear science.  Here is the list that the students came up with:

Bill obviously helped to structure and scaffold their discussions, but the students made the actual decisions about what to learn.  This gives them buy-in, agency, and ownership of the process.  Now in the research phase, I heard Bill answer more than one student question with something like “Well, you decided that you needed to know this, right?  So what exactly are the important parts you need to know, and how do you know where to go next?”  The kids were using various resources including text books, the internet, and a fun-looking book called Physics for Future Presidents.

On my most recent visit, Bill and his colleague Keith were planning their next unit on polymers and organic chemistry (yep, these are the 9th graders!).  Their challenge question for the unit is going to be something like, “How can you create a custom organic polymer that can create and destroy micelles (tiny bubble-like structures) which can deliver anti-cancer drugs to precisely the correct location inside the human body?”  Bill and Keith are working with researchers at the UW who do exactly that, and the UW profs have agreed to help the kids synthesize and test polymers that will bind to the drugs tightly enough to get them into the bloodstream and into the cells, but loosely enough that the drugs can actually be released at the right time.  The students will need to learn a fair bit of organic chemistry, and will make important decisions about which kinds of monomers to utilize and how to test the resulting polymers using phosphorescent dyes.  Too cool!

There are of course trade-offs in adopting a problem-based learning approach (it takes longer, it can be “messy” on several levels, and it requires a thoughtful and patient teacher), but the potential benefits seem huge.  Here’s a little graphic that Bill shared with me, outlining some of the important components of problem-based learning:

One final thing that I think is really great about the work that Bill and his colleagues are doing is that it is “bottom up” education reform.  The changes that are going on at SHS were not dictated by the district or mandated in a directive from the school administration.  Classroom teachers have been instrumental in asking for change, for helping to secure funding, and for designing, implementing, and coaching each other in these new techniques and ideas.  This is not to say that I think there is no place for educational leadership at the district or school administrative level, but merely that teachers (like students) get more buy-in, agency, and ownership when they are directly involved in all phases of the process.  Keep up the good work, Bill!

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