Use These Free STEM Resources Made For Teachers, By Teachers

17:27 minutes

a woman standing in the forest
Andrea LaRosa, one of the teachers in this year’s Educator Collaborative. Credit: Andrea LaRosa

It’s back to school season for everyone: students, teachers, and Science Friday. Our Educator Collaborative is back with nine teaching resources from nine amazing educators—all inspired by Science Friday media. From a lesson in sauropod digestion, complete with simulated poop (yes, it’s gross), to inventing a way to get plastic out of the oceans, these resources offer learners in the classroom or at home chances to engage directly with complex science and engineering topics.

Program member Andrea La Rosa, an eighth-grade science teacher from Danbury Connecticut, joins Ira to talk about a topic near to our hearts: analog and digital technology. She explains how she used a drawing activity to help her students understand how the two kinds of signals are different.

Plus, in a world that’s getting increasingly complicated, with more concepts to learn every year, how do you make the most of students’ time in science class? Science Friday education director Ariel Zych talks about the ways educators are teaching young learners to learn, think critically, and take on increasingly high-tech concepts.

On Twitter, Ariel asked if you had a science teacher who had an impact on you. Check out the responses below.

Further Reading

Segment Guests

Andrea LaRosa

Andrea LaRosa teaches 8th-grade science at Westside Middle School Academy, in Danbury, Connecticut. She is a firm believer in “show one, do one, teach one.”

Ariel Zych

Ariel Zych is Science Friday’s director of audience. She is a former teacher and scientist who spends her free time making food, watching arthropods, and being outside.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. You can feel it in the air.

The days are getting shorter. There’s a break in the heat, and everybody is going back to school. And that includes Science Friday.

We have a whole team devoted to turning the great science you learned from Sci Fry into resources for school classrooms and other educational settings. And this year, our education team has been hard at work with a group of dedicated, passionate science teachers and educators crafting a whole set of new classroom resources inspired by Science Friday interviews, articles, and videos. Think of your favorite science lesson from school, then imagine hunting archaeological digs for clues about past civilizations, designing ways to get plastic out of the oceans, or exploring sauropod digestion complete with simulated poop.

Oh yeah, these are just a few of the things students can learn hands-on in new resources from the Science Friday Educator Collaborative. Here with me today, let me bring them on. Andrea Larosa, science teacher at Westside Middle School Academy in Danbury, Connecticut and a member of this year’s Science Friday Educator Collaborative– welcome.

ANDREA LAROSA: Hi. Thanks for having me.

IRA FLATOW: And Ariel Zych, our education director for Science Friday. Hey. Hey there.

SPEAKER 1: Hi, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: Hey there.

SPEAKER 1: How’s it going?

IRA FLATOW: Well, Ariel, let me start with you. It’s that time again. We have our educator collaborative partners. What have they been working so hard on?

SPEAKER 1: So these educators are, like all educators, creative, ambitious collaborative people. And so what we’ve done is really just invited them to work on something that they think would bring science or math alive for their students. So they’ve gotten full creative autonomy, the editorial and publication and promotional support of Science Friday behind them. And then we just let them free, and we let them– we let them create whatever they want to for their students.

IRA FLATOW: Well, Andrea, when we set you free, you decided to tackle digital and analog signals and the difference between them, which I find really fascinating.


IRA FLATOW: Tell us about that. Is it a difficult topic for an eighth grader to tackle?

ANDREA LAROSA: I don’t think it has to be. They use technology all the time. It’s just a matter of them understanding how it works. So that’s what I really wanted to focus on in my resource is to take the idea of how these signals are transmitted and stored and make them accessible activities for the students and teachers.

IRA FLATOW: Well, let’s talk about that. How do you help eighth graders understand these concepts?

ANDREA LAROSA: So for example, one of the first activities I did is just a simulation activity in which the students actually transmit digital and analog signals. It’s a lot like a game, so it’s great for the eighth graders. It’s like as if Pictionary and Telephone had a baby.

So that’s kind of the game that they’re playing. And the first person is given a little analog alien. So all of the lines are rounded just like an analog wave would be.

And they try to copy it as best as they can, pass it to the next person. They make a copy of the copy, and so on until it’s been copied about five times. And then they get to see how this signal is distorted and how it changes.

And then they do the same thing with a digital signal alien, which is on laid over a grid. So all of the lines are very straight at right angles. And the drawing is quantized kind of just like the digital signal. So it has to be on the line. And they can see that the transmission of that signal is a lot easier and with less noise and distortion.

IRA FLATOW: So they see the advantage of digital signals.

ANDREA LAROSA: Yes, that’s what we would like them to see.

IRA FLATOW: And do they see anything useful about the analog signals in doing this?

ANDREA LAROSA: There’s also another kind of claim evidence response activity where they get to think about if there was an endangered bird song they wanted to be recorded. Would they choose analog or digital? So there’s really no wrong answer for that, but they need to give me the evidence or give the teacher the evidence to prove that maybe analog is better in this situation because it has to do with sound recordings and you want to maintain the integrity of the recording for the endangered bird.

IRA FLATOW: You know, as someone who’s been doing this for decades, going through the digital age and starting with the analog age, I’m mystified by the beauty of an analog signal– the wave forms, that kind of thing. Do they understand that also? Do they see that?

ANDREA LAROSA: We do a little bit of waves for– they look a little bit at the digital analog waves, but they don’t really do– there’s not a lot of sound integration in that.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Ariel, what are some of the other things– what other kinds of things teachers put together this year? Are students really going to make a sauropod poop in the classroom?

SPEAKER 1: Oh yes, that was one where I– you know, we sort of leaned back. Nikki Van Acker is an educator out at Lansing, Michigan at the Michigan State University Museum. And he said, no, no, no, we really can.

We can simulate the entire sauropod digestive tract. And students are going to use evidence from a variety of existing vertebrates to try to form a hypothesis for how that digestive system is going to work. And then they’re going to do it.

And you know– and I said, oh no, that’s way too gross. Nobody will ever do it. And he’s like, no, I’ve just done it.

And you know, all of our educators test their materials with students before we publish. So all of them are vetted. And he vetted it.

And he said, you know, the only technical difficulty we had is making sure that we allowed for out gassing of some of these bags that had stimulated digestion going on inside of them. So yes, that’s one example. Some of them trend to much more pragmatic and this idea of, OK, well, let’s give students real climate projection data from multiple federal agencies and ask them to establish where they would want their house to live, OK?

So Peter Knutsen created this resource, and he’s really having students go through authentic data to try to make predictions about where a mortgage would be responsible after climate change has had its way with coastlines, severe weather, drought, et cetera. So you know, it’s all or nothing. All of these teachers use authentic experiences.

All of them are using really robust modeling in their resources. All of them are NGSS aligned. And you know, one of the things I’ve loved about Andrea’s resource is a great example, they’re all easy to implement and low cost to implement.

So her resource– Andrea, you didn’t use a whole lot of computers or expensive analog digital signal recording equipment. You used paper. It was a fully offline activity. That was totally rad.

ANDREA LAROSA: Yeah, I wanted to make it accessible for everyone.

IRA FLATOW: And in fact, these resources that you’re making are free educators who want to use them. Right, Ariel?

SPEAKER 1: That’s right. They’re all free to access on sciencefriday.com/educate. And that’s true of all of our educational resources.

They’re also low cost to implement, and they’re designed to be super adaptable and adoptable. So these teachers have thought really hard about what educators look for when they’re adopting a resource, and they’ve made sure that they’re going to be easy to understand and easy to implement.

IRA FLATOW: Andrea, tell us what a day in your classroom looks like.

ANDREA LAROSA: So I think it’s a lot different than what most people maybe experienced when they were in school. There’s not a lot of lecture anymore. I don’t do a lot of notes.

It’s really about the students and the students learning through activities and learning from each together and figuring out how these processes work on their own. So I do a lot of projects in my classroom and a lot of activities where the kids are playing with stuff. Yesterday was our first day, and I had them just play around with these little fortune fish.

And they got to do many experiments, and it just got them thinking. And that’s really what I want in my classroom. I want my students engaged in an activity and thinking about the science behind it.

IRA FLATOW: What if a student isn’t engaged? Are there tools, techniques, that you can use?

SPEAKER 1: I have a specific student who I really– I had him for two years in a row, and it was a struggle for the student to get engaged into science. And at the beginning of the last school year, I told my students, let’s get a classroom pet. It has to be low maintenance.

I don’t want it to smell. It’s got to be really easy to take care of. And so they all came up with ideas.

And this one student came to me. He ran to me before school even started. And he said Ms. La Rosa, I think we should get an axolotl.

I think that would be a great classroom pet. And I had one of these as a teenager, and it is really easy. And I said, you know what? That is an excellent idea.

That’s the one we’re going to get. And after that, he got really engaged into science mostly for the axolotl. But it also was just something that he owned, and he took ownership of his learning in the classroom for that.

IRA FLATOW: But he couldn’t do that without you. No, I’m serious. I always believed– I had in eighth grade Mrs. Pfeiffer who kept me interested in science. But it was the teacher took care of the student and stayed with the students. And I think as a student, I understood that. And I tried a little harder for that reason.

SPEAKER 1: Yeah.

IRA FLATOW: Do you think? Yeah, it’s the same thing as on a baseball, football team, the coach?

SPEAKER 1: Yeah, I want my students to be– I want them to be excited.

IRA FLATOW: And we have a lot of people who tweeted us about their favorite adventures in school with their teachers. James Anges writes, in high school, my physics teacher had us make roller coasters out of cardboard and tape. It had to have one loop, two hills, and a 180 degree turn, then stop. We had to do all of the math so that it could be built in a real world scenario. That’s a nice project.

SPEAKER 1: That’s great.

ANDREA LAROSA: That’s outstanding.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. What subjects do your students seemed to gravitate to the most, Andrea?

ANDREA LAROSA: Again, I think it’s anything where they get to play. We’re starting with our first unit is physics. And we’re going to be playing with rockets, and we’re going to be playing tug of war.

And they’re still kids. They’re 13 years old. So they want to play and learn just as much as any other child. And I think that’s what they gravitate to when they get to be active and they get to be part of the process.

IRA FLATOW: I heard that you wanted to start a coding club as a result of participating in the Sci Fry Educator Collaborative.

ANDREA LAROSA: That’s an extra bonus to the program. So after doing this coding activity and the technology, you know, it really is a topic that we need to prepare our students for, especially our female students. So I am starting a Girls Who Code club this year at Westside. I’m really excited about it.

IRA FLATOW: And Ariel, I’m kind of jealous of the kids who get to do these experiments and activities.

SPEAKER 1: Oh, me too.

IRA FLATOW: I was once one of those kids. It’s a long time since I was in junior high school. But are there any classic experiments that we did that are being taught anymore?

SPEAKER 1: Oh boy, there are a number of them. And you know, I think that’s what’s been so fun about working with teachers now, right, is that teachers today do come with a critical lens to ask whether some of those sacred cow experiments that we’ve carried over through the generations are worth it. And they may not be worth it for a number of reasons– one, because they’re passive.

So an example are these, you know, whiz bang demos, which can be fun for a moment. But they are not enough. You know, having something explode or having a volcano, you know, with baking soda erupt, they might look cool, but maybe nobody learns anything.

There aren’t ways to test hypotheses with that. There aren’t ways to collect data with that. And so, you know, I think as we’ve seen some of those get retired, it leaves this gap in curriculum that innovative teachers are now filling, right?

So they’re working on making sure that we’re practicing engineering skills, that we’re practicing scientific process skills, as we’re doing those experiments. And that’s a win, right? So the volcano is my favorite one to get on the case about just because there’s so many cooler ways to model lava and model pressure in volcanoes.

You don’t have to do it like that, but loads other. We’ve heard about this chemistry rainbow experiment that should be outlawed, right, because it’s this idea that you essentially pour an accelerant on a bunch of small flames with different colored salts and make a rainbow of flames. We know this is incredibly dangerous besides not really teaching anyone anything.

And so, you know, we’ve transitioned to safer versions of an experiment where students can explore through inquiry. They’re not just watching a sage on the stage. They’re really thinking for themselves and driving that experimental process themselves.

IRA FLATOW: Mm-hm. I got a tweet from Live who says, I almost switched majors due to Dr. Pinkler at UIW. He was so passionate and fun and made all the difference.

SPEAKER 1: Mm-hm.

ANDREA LAROSA: That’s great.

IRA FLATOW: You know that? And I have other tweets coming in. I had two professors in college who just took us into the woods, told us the name of things, and now I have a PhD in plant biology.


IRA FLATOW: I mean, Andrea, is teaching science different than it was when you were in grade school?

ANDREA LAROSA: I think the enthusiasm of the teacher hasn’t changed, and just like the people who have written in, I’m here because I had a great AP bio teacher and great college professors who were enthusiastic about science and about learning. And I think that hasn’t changed about science education, but a lot of the other mechanics have a little bit.

IRA FLATOW: Mm-hm. Do you think It’s harder to teach the concepts students are required to learn now? Ariel?

SPEAKER 1: That’s an interesting question and I– you know, it kind of goes back to this issue even of technology and how science is advancing really quickly. Science is advancing faster than it ever has before. And so this notion that, oh, we’re going to have to keep up and teach more and teach harder is kind of misguided.

I think as we discussed, right, like, it’s not about teaching them content. It’s about teaching them how to think about information, how to process information, and how to go through this process of collecting evidence to justify a theory, an idea, hypothesis. And so what we’re seeing change and what’s really exciting about teaching right now is it’s this totally different approach. It’s let’s teach them how to think, not teach them what to know about.

IRA FLATOW: I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios talking about teaching science. And this is Science Friday’s educator collaborative we’re talking about.

Here’s a really interesting tweet that came in. I had a chemistry teacher in grade nine that made a supersaturated solution of copper sulfate and then dropped a tiny crystal of same in. And it all came out into one big blue crystal before our eyes. It helped solidify my interest in material science. I almost cried.

SPEAKER 1: Oh, beautiful, and with a good pun hidden in there. That’s outstanding. So I think these experiences– I hope that every student leaves their K12 experience with those types of experiences.

And I can’t reiterate this enough either. This cohort that we have of educators is made up of classroom teachers but also informal museum educators, government agency educators, camp instructors. All of these people are creative professionals who their whole purpose, their thing they get out of bed in the morning for, is to encourage people to have those experiences, to get really excited about science. And so go meet an educator and talk to them because they probably have some really cool thing they can share with you right now.

IRA FLATOW: Are you excited about going back to school?

ANDREA LAROSA: I am really excited.


ANDREA LAROSA: One of my students asked me yesterday on the first day of school after our routines. He said, Ms. Larosa, I do have a question. What are you most excited to teach us this year?

And that made me cry a little bit. But I also– it made me think about what that actually means. And I think if they’re excited and they’re involved in their own learning and choosing their own adventure of, like, what they want their education to be, then that’s what’s exciting for me. And every year, you get new students, and it is pretty exciting.

IRA FLATOW: Well, that’s about all the time we have today. It’s great. I want to welcome, you know, everybody who’s going to join the Collaborate. And Ariel, how do we get involved in this if we want to join the collaborative?

SPEAKER 1: Well, applications open just after your Thanksgiving turkey. So check this back in November. In the meantime, you can stay in touch at sciencefriday.com/educate.

Sign up for our newsletter. See the resources that come out. And that’s where we’ll post that application when it opens in the fall.

IRA FLATOW: I want to thank my guests Ariel Zych who’s education director for Science Friday, Andrea Larosa science teacher at the Westside Middle School Academy in Danbury, Connecticut, and a member of this year’s Science Friday Educator Collaborative.


IRA FLATOW: Thank you–

SPEAKER 1: Thank you.

IRA FLATOW: –both in your work. And you can see all of this year’s classroom resources publishing throughout the fall right there on our website. It’s sciencefriday.com/educate. Quick program note– we want to hear your voice as we say every week on Science Friday.

We have a new app to help us do that. It’s called Science Friday Vox Pop. Science Friday Vox Pop lets you easily record, share your voice comments with us. We might even play them on the radio.

We’re working on a segment for next week’s show about football and helmets and concussions, and we want to know from you. Do you think football leagues are doing enough to protect players’ brains? Do you think football leagues are doing enough to protect players’ brains?

So tell us. Download the Science Friday Vox Pop app wherever you get your apps, and we would like to hear from you and put you possibly on the radio. If you want to say hi to us, yes, you can.

On social media, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, every day now is Science Friday. You can also email us scifri@sciencefriday.com. Send your feedback.

We’d love to hear from you. Have a great and safe holiday weekend. In Fairfield, Connecticut, I’m Ira Flatow.

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Christie Taylor was a producer for Science Friday. Her days involved diligent research, too many phone calls for an introvert, and asking scientists if they have any audio of that narwhal heartbeat.

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Ira Flatow is the host and executive producer of Science FridayHis green thumb has revived many an office plant at death’s door.