Life Changing Professional Development, what positive PD are you doing to change your teaching?

There are moments in our lives when we know we are forever changed for the better. Not very often does a single experience transform a professional philosophy like this one has. I have had the privilege of witnessing the beauty and excellence of teaching in its most pure form.

My professional career as well as my personal life changed forever in 2011. In the summer of 2011, I participated in a program called Classroom Leadership Operative in µ-gravity Discovering Science (CLOµDS) through Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL). This program gave teachers a real-life science experimental experience. Moreover, it allowed me to change the way I think about teaching science, modified how I teach students, and then revised how I view professional development and prepare me fully for the implementation of the Next Generation Science Standards.

In 2010, I was selected to participate in Department of Energy’s Academies Creating Teacher Scientists (ACTS) program at PPPL. The ACTS program was unique professional development for science teachers because it allowed the groups of teachers to simulate real science in a laboratory setting. The PPPL’s ACTS program then grouped a mentor-scientist with a group of five teachers for the following year’s CLOµDS program. My group of teachers from New Jersey consisted of 2 high school teachers, 2 middle school teachers, one elementary school teacher and one scientist from PPPL. Our group decided to test the effects of microgravity on surface tension. One of the participating teacher’s 4th grade students had asked what happens to soap bubbles in microgravity.

jsc2011e072154A Trip in the ­­­­CLOµDS, what does the engineering process look like as professional development?

One of the most valuable parts of the CLOµDS experience was being able to design a real experiment through the scientific and engineering design process, something I began to notice was not happing in the classroom setting. We were given a challenge to design an experiment to be tested in microgravity. Each group had to come up with an experiment that had not yet been tested under various gravitational conditions. Then the experiment had to be designed in the laboratory setting in one-g and once completed, then packed up and flown out to NASA CLOµDS’s Johnson Space Center and rebuilt and tested in zero-g.

Our first duty was to get our Test Equipment Data Package (TEDP) approved by NASA. The TEDP was an in-depth document that detailed every part of our experiment. It listed all the hazards and how we would contain them as well as all the details of our testing and design process. Diagrams and lists of our design were to be approved here. Being that the teachers were from all different areas of the state, planning often was done via 6 am conference calls starting in January of 2011. Once we had approval of TEDP, we began our build. We designed how we would test it, how we would record our data and how we would meet the parameters of NASA’s flight restrictions. We used different ratios of soap to water (variable). It was to be tested in one-g first (control) then in microgravity. We even had our extra barrier, a Plexiglas case we designed with two camera mounts, because NASA has strict guidelines for using liquids on the flight. We were then able to start building our experiment and testing it. Our lab notebook had to be perfect in order to communicate what our jobs were during this experiment and what was left for the next person since we all couldn’t met at the lab at the same time.

Deputy working out 'kinks'

Deputy working out ‘kinks’

Even after starting to build the experiment, we realized that some of our engineering needed to be redesigned. How do you get uniform bubbles? I found a bubble gun, a toy that one could hand crank out uniformly sized bubbles. We would not have to blow bubbles; the gun would do it for us! A motor was added in place of our hand crank. Subsequently, the bubble gun became the inspiration for our team name, Space Cowboys. There were things we didn’t think about until we were in mid-process of our engineering design:

  • How do you record your data while in flight?
  • How were we going to measure the size of each bubble or record when it bursts?
  • What happens to the excess soap on the bottom of the box?

These were all valid questions that needed to be answered to complete the design process. It took our team the whole seven months to complete to design and build our experiment to be ready for flight.

P1000833Once we arrived at Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, we needed to reassemble the experiment in a glove box. NASA let us have about 4 hours to reassemble our experiment in the glove box for the Test Readiness Review (TRR). Our seven months of work with PPPL’s CLOµDS program was riding on passing the TRR. Was our experiment ready for the microgravity flight? As many scientific experiments go, we didn’t plan for everything that could go wrong. We did not think about the position of the gloves in the glove box! Our bubble gun power switch was not easily accessible from where the glove box openings were located. The TRR was our final approval before we were “Go for Launch” with our experiment and we had to fix a problem before we passed inspection. Luckily, we were able to mount the power switch closer to the opening without much adjustment. We passed TRR! We were flight ready.

Flight day was incredible. Seven months of planning for a 90-minute flight. It was a perfect flight: 32 trials- thirty parabolas at zero-g to 1.8 g; one equal to gravity on the moon; and one equal to gravity on Mars. There was one small problem: one part of our experiment broke during the first parabola. A loop came undone during the first microgravity trial. We still were able to achieve some data but due to the harsh conditions of microgravity we were unable to fix the problem mid-flight. The team did not realize until we were in flight that we would not be able to control our own bodies’ movements in micro and macro gravity, let alone try to manipulate small items like screws or string. Luckily, NASA divides the team into two smaller groups, which allows for the experiment to be flown twice. We were able to fix our design flaw and achieve recordable data.

The results were not what we expected. We analyzed the data over the next month. Our claim was that microgravity would have an effect on the surface tension of soap bubbles. Our data did not support that claim. The evidence showed no effect on the surface tension of soap bubbles. We concluded that the fuselage’s pressurized cabin might have had a role in the surface tension not responding to zero-g as we had claimed and that further studies would be needed.

I remember thinking: “Wow, this is real science!” Even with all my years of experience in the science field, I have never been given the opportunity to test an experiment where the outcome was still unknown let alone build the experiment from scratch. We struggled with frustrations of not knowing what would happen or what to expect or even how we were going to record data. I do not do this in my class. We do activities in my class that the students record data from but we all have an idea what the results are going to be. From this experience, I realized we don’t do real science; this needs to change.

Back on earth: PBL begins with NGSS

We, as science teachers, need to create scientists by doing real science, not just from a textbook! This is when This Efficient House, my shoebox project, was born. I wanted to create the same research experience I had for my students. I use project-based learning to teach them real science like I had during our CLOµDS trip. Students work to build a model of an energy-efficient house, a project that was inspired by my experiences that summer. This project replaced a traditional classroom learning activity with open-ended exploration. Learning that scientists don’t always have the answers and that they often revise their experimental design after preliminary tests are done, I wanted my students to experience the same thing that real scientists experience. Often in the classroom, we test a concept, and move on to the next content that our curriculum tell us to teach. Normally, we don’t have time for redesigning or retesting our ideas or concepts because our curriculum is full. Since this project incorporates multiple strands of standards it allows for the engineering design process to happen in my classroom without sacrificing curriculum plus it allows for real scientific research to be experienced in a middle school classroom setting. It is a win-win!

The Shoebox Project allows students at all levels to work through the scientific and design process with success. The students worried about failing, but the goal is to understand that in science there are no failures, just ways that do not work. Yes, the results are not always what we hope. But data is data. It isn’t good or bad, it just is what it is. The students learn that their claims may not be what they had hoped. They learn that their supporting arguments may need to redone but that they will not fail if their data isn’t what they had predicted or had claimed.µds

Ultimately, students realize that most scientists do not have all the answers, but rather can learn from the process. Certainly, inventors can fail but learn from that failure. These students take this experience and learn not only what real scientists go through on a daily basis but learn that even if their claim doesn’t work, they learned something. Unquestionably, scientists and students learn that what doesn’t work is just as important as what does work. Guess what? This is what the Engineer Design Process is all about! Our group actually lived through the Next Generation Science Standards before they were even released. It turns out we were very prepared for the transition of the implementation of NGSS.

Professional Development, a larger impact

Since attending the CLOµDS program, I learned that not all-professional development experiences are as remarkable and life changing as this one. The CLOµDS experience gave me insight to how science should be taught and a preview into NGSS. In the CLOµDS program, I was the student. I came to that realization that giving me total control over my learning was the best way to learn. During this trip I was the student and then transferred my own learning that first year after the trip to my students on the shoebox project. I learned first hand what PBL was by experiencing it for myself on that trip. From the trip, I learned that project-based learning and engineering design are the way students learn. That was how I learned. Hands-on, student-lead. The CLOµDS program modeled this. I realized there was very little PD going on teaching teachers how to do PBL. Very little PD teaching teachers to let go of direct instruction and have the students lead the learning. The CLOµDS program was the progressive example of professional development that taught me, through modeling PBL, how to do PBL and how to let go of direct instruction by giving me the task of designing an experiment. The CLOµDS program was student-lead learning, the teacher being the student. Project-based learning gives students a problem to solve with some limiting factors. The students do all the research, engineering design and testing. The students take the lead in their own learning during PBL. This has been the best way I know for long term learning, by doing.

CLOµDS inspired me to facilitate professional development sessions and collaborate with other teachers on presenting best practices so they can teach real science through project-based learning too. Since I have started teaching with PBL, the outreach has become national. Teachers and administrators from around the country have participated in my professional development workshops and continuing dialogue for student lead learning. Additionally, I have been asked to present both national conferences and local workshops on PBL. Clearly there is a growing interest in this progressive philosophy of teaching.


Having a project-based learning experience gives students of all academic levels success in the classroom. The students look forward to project days. Students who are labeled “problematic” are often found busy working on the project, free from any discipline issues. My colleagues were afraid to add the engineering standards to their lessons. Not me. I lived the process a few years back and already started adding them to my lessons and units. I love teaching but this overall experience has propelled my career into places I never thought it could reach. Now, I’m a Next Gen pro!




About Hillyer

I'm a passionate 7th grade science teacher looking to inspire others.
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