Eighth-Graders Rise to Weather Challenge: Don’t Mess with Our Snow Days!
Thursday, October 17, 2019
At least two aspects of Mi-STAR Unit 8.5b, which focuses on weather, are bound to appeal to eighth graders: snow days and an officious, meddlesome government official.
Science teacher Carman Kessler explains. “There’s a fictitious state official called the HAC, for head of the academic calendar,” she says. The HAC, who hails from warmer climes, has decreed that Michigan public schools are allowed a maximum of three snow days a year, and those can only be observed when the Lansing schools close. If school anywhere else in the state is cancelled at any other time, it will have to make up those days at the end of the school year.
“That really got my students’ attention,” says Kessler, who is piloting the unit at Northeast Middle School, in Midland. “We had 12 snow days this year, and when they heard about the HAC’s new policy, they said ‘No! that’s not fair!’”
The solution: Write a letter to the HAC explaining why his order is bad policy for Michigan schools. But first, the students needed evidence to back up their claims, so they had to learn more about weather, especially snow.
In the beginning, most students had a vague understanding of weather, but they quickly found out how much they didn’t know. The unit focuses on three different drivers of weather: topography, or the orographic effect; the interaction of air masses; and the effects of large bodies of water, or lake effect. “It’s been pretty interesting for kids in Kalamazoo, because they live lake effect snow,” says Dawn Kahler, a science teacher at Milwood Magnet School who is also piloting Unit 8.5b. “They all had heard about lake effect, but they had missed the part about water evaporating from the lake. This unit is getting them to dig in and think more deeply.”
For example, most students hadn’t understood how dramatically terrain can affect weather. To illustrate the concept, one lab involved building a five-foot-high mountain. “Then we made soap bubbles and blew them into the mountain with a fan,” says Kessler.
Most students thought the bubbles would just land on the mountainside and pop, but that’s not what happened. “Some popped on the windward side, but most of the bubbles rose to the top of the mountain and hovered. They never reached the leeward side,” she says. “It showed that the leeward side of a mountain gets very little moisture.”
Exercises like this, as well as outrage at the HAC, kept students excited about science at a time when they would normally be gazing out the windows. “We’re doing this the last two weeks of school,” Kahler notes. “To keep kids entranced at this time of the year is almost a miracle.”
Furthermore, the unit appealed to students of all abilities. “The first time I piloted a unit was in a special education classroom, and now I can see how it is with the general population,” she says. “I find that Mi-STAR works with all of our students.”
Ongoing improvements to the Mi-STAR curriculum also helped keep students engaged. “The storyline is stronger now, compared to a few years back,” Kessler says. “Now we ask questions like, ‘What would the HAC think about the lake effect snows that don’t hit Lansing at all?’ That’s made Mi-STAR even better, and it shows the Mi-STAR leaders are using feedback from the teachers.”
Tim Kipfmiller, who co-teaches with Kessler, has a similar report. “The kids are pretty passionate about the snow day issue,” he says. “When they realized that they’d be going to school until June 17 if the HAC were really in charge, that hooked them. How can this guy from Delaware come in and mess with our snow days?”
This was Kipfmiller’s first time piloting a unit. “It was a lot of work,” he admits. Sometimes, a lesson would evolve drastically between the first and fourth class periods. “But it was great to be able to give feedback. The Mi-STAR guys are experts in content, but we know what will work in the classroom. When we told them ‘The kids didn’t really get this,’ they listen to us and together we’d come up with great ideas.”
Kahler, a Mi-STAR veteran, also has good things to say about the piloting experience. “I’m really enjoying our Zoom meetings. It’s been a great collaboration with teachers from Midland, Saginaw and Kalamazoo who are all passionate about what they do,” she says. “It’s especially nice to talk with someone who’s a day ahead of you, so you can tweak a lesson a bit based on their experience.”
At the end of the unit, the students wrote their letters to the HAC, incorporating what they’d learned in the unit. “I was really surprised at the quality of their work,” says Kipfmiller.” Almost to a person, they applied their new knowledge of Michigan weather to refute the HAC’s Lansing-centric policy using claim-evidence reasoning.
But one student bucked the trend. “This individual said he agreed with the HAC; we need to get snow days under control,” says Kipfmiller. “He said schools are taking advantage.”
To prove his point, the student researched snow days in districts throughout the state and found that there was only a loose correlation between the number of snow days and the amount of snowfall. “This kid went above and beyond,” Kipfmiller says.
That doesn’t mean that he’s right and all the other students are wrong, however. “There’s no automatic right or wrong answer in Mi-STAR,” he says. “It’s about justifying your claims with evidence. All our students are learning, they are all engaged, and that’s the beauty of Mi-STAR.”
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Mi-STAR was founded in 2015 through generous support provided by the Herbert H. and Grace A. Dow Foundation. Mi-STAR has also received substantial support from the National Science Foundation, the MiSTEM Advisory Council through the Michigan Department of Education, and Michigan Technological University.
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