Tag Archives: science

Nathan’s Notes

Welcome to Nathan’s Notes, your monthly report from middle school! Each month I’ll share some moments from the classroom, curriculum thoughts from me and/or our amazing teachers, some ideas about education that I’m excited about, and more.

One thing that got me excited this month…

Janis Chun’s 5th-grade science class. The students were using ratio tables in conjunction with Google Maps to discover how eating different foods change the carbon footprint. The students collaborated in pairs as they used math, technology, and science concepts to create a poster that highlighted their findings. I loved how the kids were able to have an application of math to deepen their understanding of a real-world issue about the environment. They were able to work on collaboration skills while using technology in a thoughtful way. Most importantly, the kids were engaged and excited about what they were doing in class!

A curricular question I’m pondering is…

How we can continue to build confident math students? The other day I heard one of our teachers say, “I am not a math person.” Immediately after she said it, she recognized that this statement is something that we have been actively working to vanquish from our language at Prospect Sierra. A growth mindset, especially in math education, is a topic we have discussed regularly by sharing our own personal math stories. Many of the stories that exist within our educational community are of struggle, self-doubt, and external factors that took away our math confidence. We understand that these are the kinds of experiences that lead towards the declaration of believing one is a “math person” or not. For the past few years, the math department has been working hard to unpack not just personal stories of discouragement in someone’s math journey, but also discussing how larger movements of math education in our country have contributed to self-doubt in this subject. How do we continue to foster confident math students? How do our own math journeys as adults impact our children’s experience in math?

One moment that made me think, wow what a special community this is…

When I spoke to the students from the “Be the Change” elective about the climate strike. To be honest, I was worried about this day. How do I support student activism while still upholding the integrity of the middle school? In this case, the activism the kids wanted to take directly impacted school because it required them to miss school. This question rattled in my mind. One day a group of 10 mixed-grade students appeared at my office door. They were from the “Be the Change” elective and were hoping to organize a Prospect Sierra group at the climate march in San Francisco. I wasn’t sure exactly what to say, but as we dove into dialogue it became clear to me that these students truly understood the tough situation that I was in as an administrator. They had empathy for me, and they also made clear that this was an event that they felt very passionate about. The way that these students engaged in discussion showed that they had been given a Prospect Sierra education. They spoke with empathy, respect, organization, and passion. We came to an agreement through thoughtful discussion, and we decided how to move forward. What initially felt like a stressful conundrum ended up being an inspiring moment.

Project Based Learning Comes to Life in 7th Grade Science

Project based learning, a dynamic classroom approach in which students actively explore real-world problems and challenges and acquire a deeper knowledge about a subject, is one of many approaches that our classroom teachers use at Prospect Sierra. But what does project based learning actually look like in the classroom? And how specifically is it employed in a middle school classroom?

Every year 7th grade science teach Hannah Grimm teaches a unit on paper circuits. She recently documented her thinking and teaching process for this project for fellow educators, and by sharing this with us is able to show us how PBL comes to life in 7th grade.

Typically Hannah spends twelve days of class time on the paper circuit project, two days of introductory lessons and ten days of project time, and her goals for her students during the project are as follows:

  • Learn how electricity moves through a circuit
  • Learn how loose connections and short circuits can cause circuitry to fail
  • Learn to solder
  • Practice prototyping
  • Practice troubleshooting problems
  • Meld art and science

Hannah begins with a basic introduction to circuits, how electricity moves through them, and how buttons and switches work. Students practice working with the materials to get a pair of LEDs to light up using prototyping tools (scotch taping them down instead of soldering). Then, each student gets a soldering lesson and works on the design stage of their circuit. Next, they diagram their circuit. Each student draws a first draft in red (for the positive line) and black (for the negative) of their circuit. Hannah makes some suggestions to this draft, and then they do a second draft to scale on the actual paper they’re planning to use.

Once they’ve drawn out the second draft, they’ll cover their lines up with copper tape; this ultimately becomes the final project. They’ll first use prototyping tools (scotch tape) to make sure the different parts of the circuit work, and perhaps most importantly, here they learn how to troubleshoot. They’re given troubleshooting steps on paper and on the board that are accessible throughout the project, and Hannah helps them to understand that their circuit not working is an expected and important part of the process.

Once they’re sure their design makes sense, they begin soldering on lights and adding artwork. The first few lights test their manual dexterity, but during this stage they quickly move from nervous, shaky-handed solderers to confident adepts.

Here are some examples of how a concept translates from a diagram to the actual circuitry to a piece of art.


In addition to the goals set forth for this project, Hannah notes that this project lends itself especially well to differentiation. For example, one of the finished cards has six LEDs, the other has nearly 100. But if we go back and look at those learning objectives, both kids have succeeded! Both kids understand how electricity runs through a circuit. Each designed and prototyped their card. They both learned to solder, and had to deal w/problems in their circuitry and troubleshoot. Both integrate their circuitry with art. Most important, both are proud of what they accomplished.


The baseline for this project is doable for all students: 5 LEDs in a parallel circuit as part of a piece of art. Hannah knows that every student will hit that goal post and that most will vastly exceed it and seek ways to extend it: adding buttons, switches, origami, pop-up art, arduino microcontrollers, and more. Her advice to fellow educators seeking to create this kind of “low floor/high ceiling” activity: never forget what your goals are for the students, and make sure there is a way of reaching those goals that is accessible to every single student. From there, allowing kids the freedom to experiment and try new things is critical. Hannah often finds that students will essentially design their own extensions for this project, and many of her favorite techniques, like these animated slide buttons, were actually invented by students!

Thank you Hannah for sharing your work with the PS community and beyond so that we can deepen our own understanding of project based learning in the middle school classroom.