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My Favorite Tool

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I’m not a techie, but I look like one. Since flipping my classroom in 2009, I’ve been on the hunt for the Goldilocks toolkit to make videos and other digital materials. As a result, I’m constantly evaluating the tools I use in my teaching which requires a lot of Googling, downloading, playing with, and deleting things from my phone and computer. I also pride myself in finding ways to mix and match different apps to get something done. After seven years of creating materials for my students, I do have one, must-have app to recommend:

The stock camera on your phone.

Yes. The humble camera.

Science is the practice of observation. As a scientist, I have been trained to pay attention. Observing and analyzing patterns is how we make sense of the world. As a science teacher, I find it important to teach these habits to students. In reality, they are already keen observers and they’re using their phones to document and share those observations. We may not call them “observations,” but when they share a photo through Snapchat or Instagram, they’re sharing an observation of their surroundings.

In biology, we’re observing life. Living things don’t often enjoy sitting still for a period of time in order to be observed. In chemistry and physics, the phenomena – though not living – are often too fast to discern in real time. Plus, they’re too small to see, even with a microscope, so we’re observing the result of an interaction, which takes reflection and practice.

By grabbing my phone and using it to document the world, I can create a record of the event that can be unpacked and discussed at our leisure. Because we all have access to cameras, I can invite my students to participate in the process.

“Journalist” flickr photo by Tony Webster https://flickr.com/photos/diversey/22886270963 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-SA) license

Another positive of using a mobile camera is that it allows me to grab fodder for lessons anywhere. I stop when I’m walking places to take pictures. I’ll lay down on the floor to get the best angle. I grab video of birds and bushes in the yard and always invite students to take a video during a demonstration. In labs, I encourage them to pull their phones out and snap pictures or take videos of the microscope slides or chemical reactions. Again, this isn’t a foreign concept – they’re already taking pictures and videos! Students are put in the role of scientist when they document their work and class becomes much more meaningful and (wait for it…) exciting.

Habitual observation has also caused me to think creatively about how to document some of the things I would normally do as a demonstration in class. Setting up a quick video is easy – I often have students make the video while I run the demo, but production value matters. If you can grab a ring stand or a cheap tripod, you can get video of just about anything you’d like. (See here and here for examples).

“ring stand” flickr photo by bennettscience https://flickr.com/photos/bennettscience/32456604092 shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

What does this look like in action?

Here’s one of my favorite examples from the last couple of years: how could you demonstrate that a wave moves faster through a solid than it does a gas? This is a tougher idea to abstract because it’s very difficult to see a wave unless you have specialized equipment. So, I came up with an analog to model the particle density of a solid versus a liquid. Then, I set up my ring stand and pointed my camera at the floor.

In class, I had two rows of dominos set up. Immediately, students started asking questions, which means they’re engaged. (Dan Meyer has a huge body of writing on inquiry and getting students to ask, so I encourage you to go check that out.) I started with some review of particle density and then we made connections to wave motion.

This is all well and good for students in class, but there were some who were absent. To fill in the gap, I took a very simple video with my phone and cut it in half with a strategic pause. Here’s part 1. In the description (and in the assignment) I prompt students through the same set of questions to make observations and analyze the situation. Then, I link the second half with the reveal and a simple explanation.

The point…

Sometimes low tech is the best tech. There is no learning curve with the camera. You can even make some simple cuts like in the example above on the phone, so you don’t need any complex editing suite. Additionally, notice that the video allows for deeper exploration in the lesson. That’s the power of Flipped Learning – I’m able to document something very quickly with the camera in my pocket to enhance and supplement the learning during class.

More pragmatically, there are some questions that come up about memory space, bandwidth, etc. Well, once the video is on YouTube or the photo is on Flickr, I don’t have to worry about keeping a copy on my phone, so space doesn’t become an issue. There are no project files to manage. Even better, the more you use the camera, the bigger your personal library becomes and you’ll find yourself reaching for your camera regularly.

The most important thing to remember out of all this is that teaching takes discretion. My content is intentional: I think very carefully about what to present and how to present it. Carrying a camera with me everywhere has helped me become better at catching and leveraging those opportunities.

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Brian Bennett
Brian Bennett is a biology teacher and Instructional Technology Specialist with the Elkhart Community Schools in northern Indiana. He has flipped his instruction since 2009 and has blogged about it for nearly as long. You can read more at Nodes or follow him on Twitter, @bennettscience. For questions longer than 140 characters, email him at brian@ohheybrian.com.

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