resources for teaching science

I decided to make this resource page that lists everything I’ve learned about teaching science: strategies, tools, blogs, etc that I use.  Hopefully it can be a useful resource for other teachers as well as we all scramble to put together the best learning experiences we can for our students. I don’t think I’ve discovered a silver bullet, but I do think I’ve learned some things that work well.

Resources for Teaching Science:

My experience is in teaching physics and math to high school school students and in running science camps for kids 8-12 years old.  So, almost all my stuff is in the physical science realm.  My plan is to expand this resource page into the life sciences and earth sciences as I collaborate more with colleagues in those areas.  Here is a little about how I see teaching and learning: My Philosophy.


Strategies for Teaching Science

strategies for teaching science

photo courtesy of Sean MacEntee

Ranking Tasks–these are a series of similar scenarios that students have to order based on some outcome.  They usually involve multiple characteristics or variables.  The strategy forces students to think about what traits are important without you telling them first.  I have 2-4 students tell me their ranking and why they ranked them that way.  We then discuss as a class the ideas behind the phenomenon.  I started out using Ranking Task Exercises in Physics: Student Edition.  Here is an example:

motion diagram-average velocity12

and then I started developing my own.  Once you get the feel for how they work and what you want your students to make decisions about, they are pretty easy to develop.  Here are a few of mine:

wire resistance ranking

Stench Ranking—this one I setup up with a scenario.  Your great Aunt Mildred wears really stinky perfume and her car is infused with the retched smell.  You find an old baseball in attic that reeks of nasty locker room body odor.  Mysteriously the baseball odor will cancel out the perfume odor of Aunt Mildred’s car.  The perfume car and BO baseball are opposites yet equally stenching (The size difference is a nice tie in to protons and electrons as well). Now they are ready to do ranking.  Once they’ve done this they are primed to investigate net charge.

Remember it is very important to have students think about their reasoning and not just make a guess.  It’s that whole metacognition thing.  They first need to realize what mental models they have in their head.  Theyn they can assess how good they are and whether they need changed or not.  I have them write down their reasoning.  Why did they put them in the order they did?

Clicker Style Questions–these are multiple choice questions that tease out common alternate  or  naive conceptions (misconceptions) and help students discuss in small groups their ideas.

Motion examples from Peer Instruction

practice forces quiz for conceptual–this is my own.

Dykstra Learning Cycle–Dewey Dykstra (retired from Boise State University) introduced me to constructivist learning and he used this cycle in many of materials.  I don’t have a better name for it so I’m calling it the Dykstra Learning Cycle.  It is a basic pattern that facilitates small groups in constructing meaning without being told what to think.  It can be summed up as:

  1. What do you think?  (write it down)
  2. What does your group think?(write it down)
  3. Try it (the activity or demo or experiment)
  4. Make sense of it. (Why did it happen that way)

This technique is designed to create cognitive dissonance (basically that confused/awkward feeling that occurs when your prediction and reality don’t match up!)  It is at that point that students will either a)try to sweep it under the rug and forgot about it or b)try to construct a new and better mental model that explains what just happened.

I love this simple 4-step cycle and use it often with demos and activities and clicker questions.  You don’t really need any worksheets or other materials, just have the students take out paper or their lab books or whatever and write down their thoughts as you go through the activity.  One downside is that you as the teacher do have to direct traffic and tell them what step to do next if you really want them to think and write and discuss.  But, the upside is that you can modify almost any activity with it and it makes it a better learning experience.  It works well in teaching science, but I think it would work in most other subjects too.

Modeling Instruction–this approach has students do an experiment and collect data to determine the relationship between two factors. They then determine the mathematical model (equation) that fits the data and what it means.  It is a very successful approach developed at Arizona State University by David Hestenes–here is a great blog post by physics teacher Frank Noschese explaining it.  You can also go to the American Modeling Teacher Association for more info.


Simulations for Teaching Science:

Phet Interactive Simulations–A very well done collection of simulations from the University of Colorado Boulder that are a great aid in teaching science.

simulations for teaching science



moving man–this is an older one that helps students to correlate different types of motion to distance-time and velocity-time graphs.

force and motion—this is a new version now available in html 5 for tablets.  It allows students to play with the ideas associated with forces: balanced/unbalanced forces, acceleration, mass,  and friction.

energy skate park – this a great one where students get to play with a roller coaster type track.  Kinetic, Potential and Thermal Energy can be tracked by pie charts (I love energy pie charts) or bar charts.  This is one of my favorites!

circuit construction kit–this one allows students to build circuits and “see” the charges as they move.  It allows you to measure current, voltage, and resistance in the circuits you build.

gas properties–this one allows students to see how volume, temperature, pressure, and the number of molecules are related.

states of matter–I like this one for a quick visual reminder of the difference between solid, liquid and gas.  It’s also nice to select water and see how the molecules form a larger crystal structure when the water freezes.  That’s why ice floats!

balloons and static electricity–this one also has the new html5 option for tablets.  It demonstrates charging by friction with insulators–How a balloon will scrape electrons off a wool sweater.  It also gives the option of messing around with two balloons and then a neutral wall (You can show why a balloon will stick to a neutral wall–the wall becomes polarized).

sound-students can measure the speed of sound, visualize interference, and see the effects of lowering the air pressure.

Others I sometimes use or are more specialized for high school: Color Vision, Bending light, Charges and Fields, Electric Field Hockey, Faraday’s Electromagnetic Lab, Gravity Force Lab, Gravity Force Lab, Masses and Springs, Projectile Motion, Radio Waves and Electromagnetic Fields.

Electricity Explained (Furry Elephant)—I use these animated tutorials to help students visualize many difficult concepts around circuits.  There are ten lessons that cover a wide variety of topics from atoms to series and parallel circuits.  This is a subscription site but you can try it for free and a single subscription is only $5 for a month.  You could subscribe for a month or two while you are teaching the unit and then show all the lessons on a projector.  I did that for the first couple of years I used it.  Now I buy a year-long school subscription for $150 and the students work on it in small groups in my lab.

tutorials for teaching science

Topic help for teaching science

This is a work in progress.  These will be summaries (with worksheets and videos) outlining ways to teach units.
The 5 parts of a graph— This recaps the main things to include on a scatterplot graph.

lab template both sides — This is a generic one-page lab report template.  Students make a prediction, explain the procedure, write down their data, graph the data and write a one-paragraph analysis and conclusion.  A rubric to grade it is on the back.

Pressure: Marshmallow bullet shot throw a soda can and Standing on a bed of nails barefoot!


Waves: Make string dance (how standing waves work)


Energy: a splat ball and energy diagrams

If you would like to beef up on your understanding of energy or would like to see a new way to teach it then check out my lesson course on energy at


Light: atmospheric optics–this powerpoint shows cool examples of refraction, reflection and scattering in the atmosphere.


Projects for Teaching Science

rubber band cars

small catapults

pumpkin catapults

Balloon hovercraft

egg drop

water rockets—How to build a water rocket launcher

bungee egg

simple dc motors

physics photo contest—the annual AAPT national contest

standing wave generators

cardboard canoes–students only get to use cardboard and ducktape to make their boats.  The visible portion of the boat can only be 15% ducktape (that is pretty much just the seams).

LED dry-erase marker flashlights


OneNote–I LOVE this for lesson plans.  Here is a post that includes a screencast illustrating how I use it.

Video Analysis

Logger Pro–by Vernier–powerful data collection  and analysis software that also makes it easy to to video analysis.

Vernier Video Physics–app for iphone and ipad.

Tracker–free open source video analysis and modeling tool.  Steeper learning curve but the price is great!

Making Videos

Zoom H1 Handy Portable Digital Recorder
A sound recorder that lets you collect audio separately from video and then put them together during editing.  An inexpensive way to get good audio but still use low end cameras (point and shoot).

Microsoft Movie Maker

Casio High Speed Exilim Ex-zr200 Digital Camera Black Ex-zr200bk

This is what I use because it shoots in slow motion as well as in HD.  The slow motion is really grainy at 1000 fps so I typically use 240 or occasional at 480 fps.  I like the HD though and it takes nice pictures as well.

Screencastomatic–I use this to make screencasts.  It is simple and fast.  Create an account and plug in a microphone and you are good to go.  No download necessary (you can if you want though).

Apps–more to come

Sparkvue–free for tablets (both IOS and android).  I have only use their accelerometer but I really like it.

Video Physics and Graphical Analysis—I mentioned this earlier, but the the grahical analysis app lets you import they data from video physics app and then find the slope of it and other math-y things like that.

Remind–students sign up with the phone number to receive anouncements/reminders via text.  The teacher can email out texts to students.  It is very handy.

Seesaw–I have students take a picture of their lab write-ups and submit it electronically.  I can then leave them feedback and/or grade what they’ve submitted.

Plickers—I haven’t used this much, but students hold up response cards and you scan the room with the camera on your device and it tallys up their responses.

How to Run a Science Camp–coming in Spring 2015.

Blogs I recommend

Dy Dan–math advocate and reformer Dan Meyer–known for using video to stimulate thinking and entry into problem solving and for improving math instruction in the digital age.

Action Reaction–physics teacher Frank Noschese—good at physics modeling, famous for angry birds analysis and posts on pseudo teaching

Math with Bad Drawings–math teacher Ben Orlin–entertaining and insightful posts.

Think Thank Thunk–Physics/Programming/Math Teacher and Visonary Shawn Cornally…really good about authentic learning with projects and authentic grading with Standards Based Grades.

Dot Physics–physics professor Rhett Allain—long-time blogger–uses physics to determine if movie scenes, videos are possible–analyzing physics of other interesting things–also has great insight about learning and our educational system.

Quantum Progress–physics teacher John Birk is into modeling physics, metacognitition (mindset) techniques, and for mentoring and learning from others.

Science Geek Girl–Science Education Communicator/Reformer Stephanie Chasteen has great posts about using clickers, assessing learning and education reform.

You Tube Channels


Minute Physics

Smarter Every Day

Sci Show

Stoked About Science–I’ve got to plug my own:)

The Spangler Effect

Books I recommend

Mindset: The New Psychology of Success

Carol Dweck has changed the way I see learning and mistake making.  This book teaches the difference between a fixed mindset (you either have the math gene or you don’t) and the growth mindset (if I work hard on challenging problems I can become better).  I try to teach mini-lessons on mindset to students throughout the year.

Engaging Readers & Writers with Inquiry

This book is written from a language arts vantage point, so it has a little different take on “inquiry” that science does.  However, it does a great job of teaching you how to build a unit by starting with the project you want students to complete and working backwards from there.  I’ve also found some of the reading strategies useful as I try to incorporate more critical reading into my curriculum for common core stuff.

Conceptual Physics: The High School Physics Program

I think anyone who teaches any concepts of physical science should have this as a resource.  Paul Hewitt’s philosophy of “concepts before computation” is exactly in line with my approach.  It’s the easiest to read science textbook I’ve ever seen, complete with loads of cartoon illustrations by Hewitt himself.  I would get a cheap/used one.  I don’t think it matters which edition.

College Teaching and the Development of Reasoning

The book has a different feel to it.  It is written by constructivists who what you to construct a new understanding of reasoning skills as you study it.  That makes it a little awkward at times, but it also has some really great reasoning puzzles with student responses at various stages of reasoning development.  Those puzzles and their responses highlight how important it is as an instructor to develop topics starting with concrete reasoning and ending with abstract reasoning.

Physics for Future Presidents: The Science Behind the Headlines

A great book for understanding the science of things that affect our nation and the decisions our leaders must make.  I think the chapter or two on energy is really great.  I have copied it and have my students read it during our energy unit.  It spells out the efficiency and cost of the various ways of the generating electricity, both what is possible now and in the future.

For physics

The Cartoon Guide to Physics

Six Easy Pieces: Essentials of Physics Explained by Its Most Brilliant Teacher

Peer Instruction: A User’s Manual

Guesstimation: Solving the World’s Problems on the Back of a Cocktail Napkin

Five Easy Lessons: Strategies for Successful Physics Teaching