Tales of a science camp: 1. Forscherfreizeit Ratzeburg

Conny, Siska, Martin and myself just — we came back home only yesterday! — ran a summer camp for teenagers called “Forscherfreizeit Ratzeburg”. The idea was to combine a fun summer holiday experience at a beautiful lake with all kinds of opportunities for doing experiments as well going sailing, swimming, hiking, you name it. And we had a great week!

Today I’m gonna show you lots of pictures for a general overview, and then I’m gonna post on experiments and our experiences with the Forscherfreizeit over the next couple of days.

So, obviously, we began with some team building. What you see in the picture below is a tower tumbling over after the participants had build it using a wire sling which they had to coordinate using long ropes. Luckily we had a great group and they all got on really really well.

IMG_2137

Which meant they maybe even had a little too much fun occasionally. Hence the most relaxing part of our day was just before breakfast, when all the kids were fast asleep and we could go for a swim in the quiet lake. How beautiful is this?
IMG_2143

And if you have ever wondered how difficult it is to swim and take pictures at the same time with the horizon being close to horizontal, I can tell you: very difficult indeed.IMG_2152A little later and the lake wouldn’t be as quiet any more…

IMG_2208We were lucky that Søren lent us a raft-building kit. After some initial planning and intense discussions…

IMG_2232…the kids started collecting all the parts.

IMG_2246And then the parts needed to be put together, more or less following the plan they had designed.

IMG_2260

After a well-deserved break…

IMG_2286

…it was time to take the raft out on the lake and sail into the sunset.

IMG_2324

Then on the next day, it was time for some experiments! As I said, I’ll talk about all the “interesting” (as in “new to this blog”) experiments later, so for now I’ll just mention that, obviously, we had to do the melting ice cube experiment.

IMG_2460 IMG_2468And a real highlight were, of course, the model boats. Especially playing with a remotely controlled submarine which is explicitly designed for use in bathtubs and NOT in lakes… ;-)

IMG_2485

And putting wood instead of a candle in a steam boat is also a lot more fun :-)IMG_2490The participants’ fascination with the toy boats resulted in an impromptu project: build your own toy boat and develop a good propulsion system!

The ideas were really interesting. From balloons over pressurized air over mouse traps… Below you see a test run of one of the boats.

IMG_2695

For the instructors’ boat we had the brilliant idea to use the coke & mentos thing that you always hear about. So in order to keep the marina clean (imagine all the sugary stickiness on the nice sailing boats!) we took a raft out on the lake to test our boat. Unfortunately we were slightly underwhelmed by the result…
IMG_2713

Oh, and then of course there was a lot of sailing.IMG_2589 IMG_2599 IMG_2602 IMG_2660

IMG_2775And a lot of watching the sun set.

IMG_2753

IMG_2763And swimming.IMG_2842 IMG_2817

And other kinds of games with water and the sun.IMG_2742And luckily only on the very last day the weather got bad. At first, the wind died down.IMG_2868

Which gave us the opportunity for an improvised table tennis game.IMG_2905

But then later this happened:IMG_2919

Very pretty, but not exactly what we had hoped for.IMG_2922

Anyway, we’ll be back soon!IMG_2925

Thanks Conny, Siska, Martin and everybody else for a great week!IMG_2931

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How to plan a course from scratch

Where do I even start???
A very helpful concept, which is completely contrary to how most people approach course planning, is “backward design”. Instead of looking at all the cool experiments, the awesome, fun materials, the best case studies, we first look at the learning outcomes we want to achieve with our course. From those learning outcomes, we think about how we could determine whether they have actually been met (the assessment) and only then we look at how we can convey what students need to learn in order to meet the learning outcomes.
In practice that means that with every new course, the first step is to think about why are we teaching this course? What will students be able to do, and what attitudes will they have once they have participated in our course?
Imagine I were to plan a summer camp on oceanography for teen-aged kids. It would of course be most important that they enjoy their summer holiday, but once that is taken care of, there are a couple of things I would want them to take away from their week with me. As you’ve probably heard about a million times by now, learning outcomes are commonly written from the students’ point of view, using active, measurable verbs. So learning outcomes for that summer camp could look something like this:

Learning outcomes for an oceanography summer camp with teen-aged participants

After participating, students are able to
  1. give a broad overview over the field of ocean sciences to a lay audience, demonstrate practical applications of oceanography and illustrate their relevance to our lives;
  2. develop simple experiments following the scientific method, assess their validity with respect to answering a specific question and decide on further steps;
  3. develop joint questions and solutions in heterogeneous teams and reflect on team collaboration and their own contribution towards it; and
  4. perform independently and assess their own state of learning with the aid of the instructors.
Looking at those learning outcomes, you might notice that those cover all four groups of competences: 1 and 2 are professional competences (knowledge and skills, respectively) and 3 and 4 are personal competences (social competence and self-reliance). You might also notice that I am dealing with fairly high skill levels here: In Bloom’s classification, the knowledge learning outcomes are around level 2 and 3, the skills are even as high as Bloom-level 5 and 6. The personal competencies are more difficult to place in the Bloom categories, but are also on the high end.
Ambitious goals for a week with teenagers, you say? Yes, true. But I am really not interested in just conveying factual knowledge, and as soon as things become interesting, they also become more difficult. Plus note that following the conventions, I only mention the highest Bloom-level learning outcomes – in order to illustrate something (i.e. Bloom-level 3 “application”), I will need to have the factual knowledge (level 1) and also have understood it (level 2).

Assessment of the learning outcome

Obviously I don’t want to turn my summer camp into a permanent assessment of skills (or at least not the way that sounds to most people) – the main aim is still that participants have a good summer. But still it is nice to have some part of assessment included, both for myself so I know whether I achieved what I wanted to achieve, and for the participants so they realize how much they have learned in just one week. I have cleverly included “assess their own state of learning with the aid of the instructors” as one of the learning outcomes, but what would that look like in practice?
As you can see from my learning outcomes, the whole summer camp is about working in teams on understanding how the ocean works, and presenting that to a lay audience (so probably the parents when they come to collect the kids, or other guests at the camp). So a good assessment would be to have them do just that: Present an experiment that they developed themselves, in a team, to an audience and explain what it is all about. Since this is a summer camp, this is probably about the extent of the assessment I would go to, but knowing how I like to function as an instructor, there will be a lot of formative feedback along the way on all four learning outcomes.

Determining the instructional method

So now to the part that people usually start with: Finding an instructional method to prepare students for the assessment to make sure they take away from the course what I want them to take away.
It makes sense to only assess what the participants had a chance to practice before, so we should be practicing working in groups on developing experiments and presenting them. This means our course plan should look something like this (This is a half-day raster. Not mentioned here are the “purely fun” activities like the afternoon at the beach, the canoeing trips, the BBQ, etc, but the schedule below is flexible enough to fit in all of those weather-dependent activities, which are currently indicated by empty “-“s):

Course plan:

Day 1
– Arrive at camp. Get to know everybody. Rules & boundary conditions.

Day 2
– What is so exciting about the ocean? Collect questions participants are interested in.
– Introduction to the scientific method. How do scientists learn about the world? Melting ice cubes experiment to practice the process as well as learning to write protocols.
Day 3
– Develop own questions and experiments to answer them.
Day 4
– Conduct experiment
– Conduct experiment
Day 5
– Analyze and interpret data
Day 6
– Prepare presentation of results.
Day 7
– Present everything to parents & everybody else interested.
So there we go! Coming up with all of this and writing it down took me maybe one hour, and we already have a pretty good idea of what that course might look like. Of course, the course planning isn’t done. In future posts, we will look at individual units and see how learning outcomes are reflected in the activities, and we will likely enter into an iterative process which will change our initial plan. But such is life :-)
P.S.: So why, on this blog, do I keep talking about how awesome experiments are, and how we can use them for almost any class, and with any audience, in any setting? Shouldn’t I be talking about the learning outcomes first, and then the assessment, and only then the teaching methods (i.e. the experiments)? Yes. Totally. But, in my defense, even though I don’t always make them explicit on this blog, I know what my underlying learning goals are. But I’ll try to do better and make them more explicit on here in the future!