Denise Wright, who teaches 8th grade earth science virtually for Horry County Schools in South Carolina, is a virtual teacher of the year who writes an online teacher column for the National Science Teachers’ Association. Listen as she shares her passion and strategies for engaging students in science inquiry and learning. Her engagement of students in the “Tomatosphere” project provides a great example.
Find Denise on Twitter: @DenisecWright
E-mail Denise: firstname.lastname@example.org
Subscribe to the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast on iTunes or visit BarkleyPD.com to find new episodes!
Announcer: 00:00 Hello and welcome to the teacher edition of the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast. For over three decades, I’ve had the opportunity to learn with teachers in and out of their classroom settings. I have great respect for the complexity of teaching and I know that all great teachers are continuous learners. I invite you to join me as I explore my thoughts and insights on a variety of topics, connected to teaching and learning. Thanks for listening in.
Steve: 00:33 Teaching and learning virtually: what works for this middle school science teacher. I am joined today by Denise Wright, who currently teaches 8th-grade earth science virtually for Horry County schools in South Carolina. She combines a focus on STEM with a substantial virtual teaching background and experience. She’s also a past virtual teacher of the year, and she writes an online teacher column for the national science teachers association. Welcome, Denise.
Denise: 01:09 Thank you. Thank you so much for having me. Very honored to be here today to talk about virtual teaching.
Steve: 01:15 It’s my pleasure. Would you tell us a little bit about what led you to be a science teacher and how did you make the connection to teaching virtually?
Denise: 01:26 Well, you know, ever since I was a child, you know, science was always my favorite subject in school. You know, science creates that lifelong learner out of you. I truly believe that. I was always questioning everything around me, I think, all the time. I totally have a passion for technology and science. I also love all things space science, especially too. I run Grand Strand Astronomers here locally for an adult club. I also run a child’s club called Astro STEM, locally as well. Been to many NASA launches, been underneath the 61 inches reflecting telescope at the University of Arizona – an all-nighter. Got to view the night sky. So all of those have turned into my passions and then, you know, it’s great when you get to take your passions and actually teach about them as well. So incorporating those two areas.
Steve: 02:22 We know how heavily teacher passion influences student engagement and student learning so I can tell that that’s there. I made my first discovery of your work when I was reading an article about the Tomatosphere project. Could you talk a little bit about what that project is? And then I’m also interested in how you made the connection to be able to work with it virtually.
Denise: 02:54 Yeah, sure. I support and attend yearly, the Space Educators Explorers Conference at NASA, Houston. I attend yearly and I met a teacher there by the name of James Faletti and he told me about the Tomatosphere project, which basically, is a project where you apply to the First Seeds Foundation and when you apply, your school gets two sets of seeds. So basically, I received about 15 packs of tomato seeds labeled P and 15 packs of tomato seeds labeled N. And I received them right during the summer and I knew that we were going to be virtual or I was going to be virtual due to COVID. So, you know, with those seeds, one pack of those or one set of those seeds was on the international space station for about six weeks. They flew them up into outer space and they were up there for about six weeks.
Denise: 03:49 And we wanted to determine what does the – how do those seeds being in space affect their germination. So right away, I was like, I got the seeds. I was really excited. And I was like, how am I going to do this virtually? Because, you know – but I have quite a big array of virtual experiences. Over my 23 years, I probably did about 10 years online so far and about 13 in the classroom and I really believe anything can be done virtually. And you just have to have that correct mindset to get it to that, you know, provide those experiences for your students. So I went into my virtual sessions, I asked, “hey, students who want to be space farmers?” And I had a bunch of kids that were really excited about it and volunteered, you know, they completely volunteered.
Denise: 04:41 So I went into our school database system, took the package of seeds, the control seeds, and the space seeds, we didn’t know which one was which and mailed them to their homes, and a lot of the families got involved too. And you could see brothers and sisters and sending me pictures weekly of them planting the seeds. And then every week we would, you know, show our tomato seeds online and hold our progress up to the camera. And we were making predictions right way, you know, “Ms. Wight, are the tomato seeds going to grow sideways that was in outer space?” You know, is that going to have an impact? Are the tomato seeds to even grow at all? You know, those are some great questions that my students were asking immediately, even before we got the project started, and were super excited to participate.
Denise: 05:29 So they were really excited when they got them by mail and they planted them and then every week we were showing the progress. And we were doing things like graphs, you know, how many pea plants – because we had group P and group N. Let’s graph the number of pea plants, let’s graph the number of end plants that we’re seeing right now. What do you think? Which ones were in space? That’s the only factor we changed. We’ve got the same amount of water, the same type of soil, same sunlight. So we were making those predictions and it was fun and we made our final hypothesis we emailed it into the first seed foundation and they emailed us back and told us if we were correct or not with our final guess. Do you want to know or should I…
Steve: 06:12 Oh, you bet. [laughter]
Denise: 06:12 [laghter] Well, out of all the scenes that we had, we totaled all the students that participated – some kids didn’t participate and that’s okay, but they participated in the actual discussion online. So they may not have tomato seeds at their house, but they were seeing them on camera. So we had a hundred P plants and a hundred N plants. And 92 out of a hundred P plants sprouted and 56 out of a hundred N plants sprouted. So right away, the students were saying, Ms. Wright, we think the less amount of plants, the 56 out of 100, the N group was in outer space. And I said, “well, why?” They said, “well, you know, the space station is different than earth. The atmosphere on the space station could be different than earth.” And I said, “that’s a great assumption for middle school students.”
Denise: 07:05 They also said, you know, “the radiation, those astronauts aren’t protected from the sun like we are. Those seeds could have got some of that radiation up there in space that, you know, we have an atmosphere here on earth,” and we talked about that as well. So we sent the results in and we were correct with our hypothesis. Group P was in outer space. So that was a great project. I even had a local newspaper contact me because a family alerted a reporter about it. And you know, it just became a community kind of project and it was all done online and very successful and it was great to see students on that wavelength because they had everyone – all my space farmers had access to it. So they were posting pictures of the tomato sprouting, they were talking about it, they were showing me live on camera. So there’s a lot of excitement and fun and it brought that hands in hands-on learning component that sometimes you assume that has to be – you have to have in STEM and in the classroom. But you can do science at home and you can do it successfully.
Steve: 08:15 The thing that caught my mind when you said that, you know, not all the kids took part in doing the planting and growing the seeds, but as I thought about that, there’s no way that you could be in the discussion and not form a hypothesis.
Denise: 08:35 Right, right.
Steve: 08:35 The inquiry of that hypothesis in effect gets the student engaged in the important critical thinking.
Denise: 08:41 Right. And I had a set growing, I still have them here on the back porch growing. And you know, some of my students were very honest with me and said, “I forget to take out my dog, let alone be able to water my plants.” And they’re middle school kids. They’re very honest, let’s face it. Middle-School students will tell you the truth. They won’t hide anything from you. They’re very forthcoming and that’s okay for them to tell me that. Now obviously, if we’re in the classroom, we would be growing them in the classroom and watering them there and taking care of them there and you know, we’d all have that part.
Steve: 09:17 Tighter control.
Denise: 09:17 Right, right. But that’s, but that’s okay.
Steve: 09:19 That’s part of science.
Denise: 09:19 Yeah, exactly. So we were able to completely do that project remotely and it was lots of fun for sure.
Steve: 09:27 Denise, I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit – when you’ve got students in the classroom and you’re working with them face to face, what are some of the most important things you want students to be experiencing as part of science education? And then how do you think about those most important things when you flip from a live classroom to the virtual setting?
Denise: 09:54 You know, when I’m up there teaching science or what I’m teaching science in any setting, I want them to become critical thinkers. I want to raise that curiosity within them. I want them to see the passion that I have and spread that to them. And I think I do accomplish that in both, you know, environments. I do believe that science can be done here and in the classroom. I mean, here on this remote environment, we have, you know, virtual simulations. We can do those, obviously, there are tons of OER, open education resources out there. There is science from home with safety precautions because that has been brought up with me all as well as how do you make sure that students are safe at home? Obviously, you’re not going to put your students in any kind of situation where they can be at risk and you’re going to talk about safety.
Denise: 10:45 You can also do, you know, datasets, if you can’t physically do with a science experiment in this environment, you have data sets that you can look at. For example, we looked at our ocean tides and the moon and during a certain time of year, we have, what’s referred to as “king tide” where the ocean tides get really intense. Well, why is that? Let’s look at the data. What tells us that? So we look at the moon, it’s when it’s at perigee in its closest point in orbit over to the earth, and it’s when it’s full and that’s when our tides are the strongest. So just looking at a data set is helpful. And I also have this environment – I use teacher demonstration as well in the online environment. I have the ability to use my iPad and reflect it on the screen and use that as a document camera.
Denise: 11:37 I have also done the makeshift where I bought, at Amazon, a tripod and took my camera and face it downward – my phone camera that is, face it downward and added it as an additional screen. So now my students can, you know, see what’s going on in the science – happening on my lab desk right here. So, you know, definitely, I engage students in the classroom and in this virtual environment by doing hands-on experiments, by increasing that curiosity. But, you know, almost in some ways we – I guess we entertain them in some ways when you think about it.
Steve: 12:14 Thinking and wondering is entertaining. I’ll buy that.
Denise: 12:16 Yeah, sure. Absolutely.
Steve: 12:16 Denise, I’ve had the opportunity to read several of the pieces you’ve written as I’ve searched you online. I’m wondering if you could talk to the listeners about the easiest way that that they might be able to connect with you and also the best ways for them to find some of the resources that you’ve described.
Denise: 12:45 Sure. I am highly involved on Twitter. My tag is @DenisecWright, so you can follow me on Twitter. I am currently published this year in Science Scope, National Science Teaching Association, middle school journal for middle school teaching. My column is called, “The Online Teacher,” so you could read my columns this year in that. Also, you can contact me through my personal email, which is Ienjoyteaching@gmail.com. And I’m highly involved in ISTE, International Society of Technology Education. I’m going to be the incoming co-president of the STEM professional learning community. And I will be planning the STEM playground coming up in June on the 29th of June, we’ll be having a STEM playground from 4-5:15 PM Eastern, and we’ll be looking for presenters. So I’m highly involved in the International Society of Technology Education and just gave a webinar this week on conducting science in a virtual world. So any of those ways are great ways to contact me.
Steve: 13:57 Terrific. Thank you so much. We’ll be sure to pull those and list them on the lead-in to this podcast for anybody who missed it – catching it here. And I really would encourage listeners to to follow up. I found your writing intriguing as to the possibilities and you’ve got the resources right there for people to be able to follow up and use them. So thank you so much for joining us.
Denise: 14:25 Thank you so much for having me. It was an honor to be here.
Steve [Outro]: 14:30 Thanks again for listening. You can subscribe to Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud on iTunes and Podbean and please remember to
rate and review us on iTunes. I also want to hear what you’re pondering. You can find me on Twitter @stevebarkley or send me your questions and find my videos and blogs at barkleypd.com.