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How TASIS Built an Exceptional and Cutting-Edge Science Program
Posted 09/23/2016 09:00AM

Amy Bloodworth and students working with Raspberry Pi devices

The excitement is tangible as 14 sixth-grade students stream into the state-of-the-art Middle School Science Laboratory in the Campo Science Center on a Friday afternoon in May. Several students are so eager to begin that they must be told not to open into their Raspberry Pi kits until their teacher, Amy Bloodworth, can explain the day’s lesson.

“It’s not always like this,” laughed Bloodworth, who has taught Sixth-Grade Science and International Baccalaureate Biology at TASIS since 2010 and recently received the 2016 Khan-Page Master Teacher Award. “Engineering and Invention is the unit they get most excited about.”

Where there’s a will, there’s a way

Created by both Bloodworth and Middle School Science Department Chair Dr. Brett Merritt in 2013, the Engineering and Invention unit combines inquiry- and problem-based learning to provide every student with the ability to achieve invention literacy, a concept defined by JoyLabz/Makey Makey founder and CEO Jay Silver as “the ability to read and write human made stuff, from toasters to apps.”

Back in September 2013, Bloodworth and Merritt, who taught at TASIS from 1998–2000 and then returned in 2010 after earning his doctorate in Curriculum, Instruction, and Teacher Education from Michigan State University, took steps to obtain funding for the devices necessary to kick off the Engineering and Invention unit. After applying for and receiving a TASIS Foundation grant, they were able to outfit sixth-grade students with both the Makey Makey, an ingenious invention kit used to turn everyday objects into touchpads and combine them with the internet, and the Drawdio, a pencil that allows students to "draw" music.

“We had an idea, we had a goal, and we found a way to fund it—and the goal was to try and get these devices in the hands of every single one of our sixth-grade students so that we could start to realize their potential for supporting student learning,” said Merritt, who was honored with the Khan-Page Master Teacher Award in 2014.

The devices have been put to use for the past three school years by Bloodworth and Merritt and have generated much enthusiasm and interest, inspiring Bloodworth to apply last summer for a Lighthouse Project grant for the amazing Raspberry Pi, an inexpensive, credit-card sized computer that plugs into a monitor and uses a standard keyboard and mouse. The innovative device, which was developed in the United Kingdom by the Raspberry Pi Foundation with the aim of promoting the teaching of basic computer science in schools and developing countries, enables people of all ages to explore computing and learn how to program in languages such as Scratch and Python.

Bloodworth’s grant proposal was accepted, and she was able to acquire seven full sets—a Raspberry Pi, small monitor, keyboard, and SD card—and a variety of accessory kits for particular experiments. Eager to take the next step, she obtained a grant to travel to the University of York for a three-day “Raspberry Pi in Middle School Science” workshop, completed a Python course on Codecademy, went to Raspberry Picademy to become a Raspberry Pi Certified Educator, and along with High School Science teacher Claire Thomas attended a workshop in England to learn more about computer programming with the Python language.

In support of the Hour of Code global movement, Bloodworth and Thomas then spent class time before the Christmas Holiday using a website called Trinket to teach all sixth grade and ninth grade students how to code in Python. Many other teachers in all three divisions at TASIS—Elementary, Middle, and High School—also provided their students an introduction to coding during that week.

Bloodworth’s students were enthusiastic about their introduction to coding, and many went on to fulfill her “choice homework” requirement by completing sections of Codecademy’s Python course. Her classes began working with electrical circuit trays upon their return from the Christmas Holiday and then created their own physical circuits on a smaller scale that they could manipulate and control using programming. They moved on to the Raspberry Pis in April and didn’t look back.

TASIS students working with Raspberry Pi devices

Science can and should be fun

In a model similar to the Boy Scouts of America’s merit badge system, students in Bloodworth’s class work their way through a set of increasingly difficult challenges in order to acquire Raspberry Pi badges. The approach has proven to be a powerful motivator.

“We’re used to seeing kids get awards for athletics and the arts, and we wanted to find a way to recognize their achievements in science,” said Bloodworth. “They really love getting the badges.”

Students’ confidence soared through the roof as the unit progressed.

"We’re used to seeing kids get awards for athletics and the arts, and we wanted to find a way to recognize their achievements in science."
-Amy Bloodworth

“The kids thought they could never do this when we started, and I didn’t think they could hold their concentration long enough to see it though,” said Bloodworth. “But now they’re amazing me with their patience. They’re getting really good at identifying their errors and correcting them. They love the creativity of imagining something and being able to see it through as a project. Whatever they come up with (even if it’s completely insane!), I try to help them make it happen. I am learning with them along the way.”

“It’s something very new,” said James Haunso, a sixth grader from Denmark. “You can experiment with new things that you didn’t have the option to before. You can put your creativity into your work, so it’s fun to come to class every day.”

On this particular afternoon, students have piled up outside the laboratory door well before class time. After Bloodworth admits them, calms them down, and prevents them from diving right into their work stations, she shows a short YouTube video that illustrates how to use a Raspberry Pi Sense Hat to work with pixels. The students pay close attention and fire off thoughtful questions. They then break into pairs and, without assistance from Bloodworth, build their Astro Pi setup for the day. Students are remarkably engaged, and the only chatter is related to their goal of creating an animation that will be activated when an accelerometer detects movement.

Bloodworth bounces around the room and helps answer the many questions that arise. (Students are already speaking a language no layperson would understand.) There are too many questions for one teacher to field, so many students are relying on assistance from their peers.

“They’re learning and borrowing from each other,” said Bloodworth. “They’re not always writing code from
scratch—they’re often borrowing and manipulating to create the outcome they want.”

Once students have mastered the basics of coding, Bloodworth wants to push them to use their newfound knowledge in novel ways, such as taking apart stuffed animals and working with different Raspberry Pi kits to create animatronics. “I want to see that they can apply the lessons we’ve learned in a more creative and open-ended way,” she said.

In the future, Bloodworth—who also teaches a course that is a mix of science, robotics, and food chemistry for the TASIS Summer Programs—plans to conduct Raspberry Pi units centered around the Wildlife Cam Kit, which produces a massive amount of data and allows students to learn how birds choose their food, and the Oracle Raspberry Pi Weather Station experiment, in which students build and commission a weather station.

“The applications of this device are limitless,” she said.

Science experiement in the Campo Science building

Why Engineering and Invention?

STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) has been a rising movement in educational policy and curriculum choice in recent years, as schools strive to improve competitiveness in both scientific and technological development. TASIS teachers have worked very hard for years to continue crafting the science and mathematics parts of the equation, but Merritt and Bloodworth recognized that there was much work to be done on the technology and engineering side.

"We needed to update our program and enact a curriculum for a world that does not yet exist."
-Amy Bloodworth

“We needed to update our program and enact a curriculum for a world that does not yet exist,” said Bloodworth, who earned both a degree in Biology and a degree in Teaching from the University of Southampton and a Master’s in Education from Open University. “We had to look beyond TASIS to see where we are heading and then try to filter that down into what we do.”

“Every UK university and most US college science courses now include at least one compulsory module on coding,” she continued. “New technologies lead to the production of huge amounts of data in all the disciplines, which needs to be organized and mined. We are now seeing this filter down into the International Baccalaureate (IB) curriculum with the introduction of database mining and bioinformatics. In order to properly prepare our students for this, we can’t wait for high school. We need to introduce coding and an introduction to these new technologies in middle school and even elementary school.”

Merritt believes it is critical to design a curriculum that strikes the right balance of being challenging, engaging, and exciting while also driving home the core concepts and skills necessary to prepare students for success at the high school level.

“I think that's where this Engineering and Invention unit seemed like a really good marriage,” he said. “We have found that these inventions enable us to teach much of our core content in a way that is new, challenging, and engaging while also allowing students with different ability levels to work at different paces."

Dr. Brett Merritt in the classroom

Measures of success

At the end of each school year, a large number of students ask Merritt and Bloodworth if they can borrow a Makey-Makey or a Raspberry Pi over the summer, where they might be able to buy their own, and if they can recommend any other devices that are similar.

“These questions aren’t coming from the parents,” said Merritt. “They’re coming from the students themselves, and we take this as evidence that our middle school students want to do science on their own time outside of school when they are not responsible for doing it at all.”

To read about recent TASIS graduates who have excelled in the sciences, click on the links below:

“I have my own Raspberry Pi at home,” said Leo Panella, a rising seventh-grader from Germany. “You can do anything that has to do with computers. You can program. You can use the program. You can even attach different things to make it do what you want it to do.”

High School Science Department Chair Alec Ogilvie, who has led the department since he arrived at TASIS in 2008 after a 10-year stint at the European School in Varese, often drops in on middle school lessons and has been struck by the level of student interest and enthusiasm.

“I think that's what matters more than anything because you are switching science on to be this cool thing,” he said. “You’re switching them on to science in middle school and that has massive repercussions later on. If they believe that science is fun, science is cool, and science is interesting, we’re on our way.”

While Merritt views the uptick in enthusiasm as a major success, he also understands how important it is that this renewed excitement for science also leads to improved classroom performance. So far it has.

“The internal assessments we've completed in class have shown us that our students are becoming more comfortable in and fluent with the language of electricity and energy and circuits,” he said. “And that, of course, is encouraging because if our students were failing our assessments, we would be a bit discouraged and think, 'We know our students are having fun, but they're not learning what we need them to.' In reality, however, we are seeing the opposite. Our students' performances on our assessments have demonstrated to us that our approach is helping them develop a deep, rich understanding of circuits—how to design, build, fix, and explain them.”

“I see it spilling over into other areas of science,” added Bloodworth. “They’ve become really good at articulating every single step. They’re much more detailed at explaining the steps of an experiment because of what they’ve learned from writing algorithms.”

Ogilvie is excited to see how this new set of skills translates to science at the High School level, as the first group of students to complete the Engineering and Invention Unit as sixth graders will be ninth graders this fall.

“I think this is the year where we will start to see a big difference,” he said. “And I expect to gain even more momentum as we move forward, especially with more and more students staying at TASIS all the way through Middle School and High School.”

The building that makes it all possible

A combination of great teachers, an inventive curriculum, and first-rate facilities has made TASIS a very attractive destination for science enthusiasts. It wasn’t always this way.

“I think we’ve put science very much on the map here, which it wasn’t, to be honest, a number of years ago,” said Ogilvie. “It was done in the basement down in Villa De Nobili, and people didn't come here to do science particularly, and now I think you could say that you can, and do—that you can come here and do really well in science, particularly if you’re interested in this area.”

Middle School science experiement with Dr. Prash Sinnathamby The transformation was years in the making, but science began to really take off at TASIS when the Campo Science Center—a state-of-the-art facility boasting two classrooms, three preparation rooms, and eight purpose-equipped laboratories for chemistry, physics, environmental sciences, biology, and general science—was added to campus in the fall of 2014.

Ogilvie was involved in the process of designing the labs, and he consulted all the middle and high school teachers to see exactly what layout they preferred for their lab and how they wanted to equip it. “As a result, we have individual labs that fit perfectly for each subject,” he said. “And the middle school labs are outfitted with portable desks so that they can create whatever space is needed for the particular unit they’re working on.”

Dr. Prash Sinnathamby, the third and final member of the Middle School Science Department, primarily teaches physics and chemistry to eighth-grade students, and the versatility of his laboratory has allowed him to pair virtually every lesson with a hands-on experiment—from physics experiments on speed, leverage, pressure, conduction, and convection to chemistry experiments designed to study combustion, displacement, electrolysis, and oxidation.

“The kids are very engaged,” said Sinnathamby, who earned a doctorate in Chemistry at Durham University and started at TASIS in 2012 after serving as Head of the Department of Chemistry for a grade 7–13 school in the UK for two years. “They keep asking me to do experiments. They come in, and the first question I hear is, ‘What are we doing today—are we doing an experiment?’ And because of the experiments, the visuals, and the demonstrations, they are able to actually better understand the concepts and the ideas, and they’re also able to link it to daily life and see the bigger picture.”

Sinnathamby’s experiential approach has resonated with students who concede that they had only a passing interest in science before starting eighth grade.

“My favorite part of class is the experiments because you can actually understand how the science works,” said Josh Hassan.

“I like how Dr. Sinnathamby explains what we’re going to be learning about first, and then we do the experiment and it helps us understand the lesson,” added classmate Angelica Fabiani.

Much like the Science Department’s innovative approach to teaching, the new center has done a great deal to generate enthusiasm in students of all ages.

“When middle school students walk into our labs at the beginning of the year, or when elementary school students come up to visit for Shadow Day, they often do so wide-eyed,” said Merritt. “Thanks to the generous support of our donors and the dedication of many hard-working people, we've been able to create an educational space here at TASIS where our students walk into a science classroom and it's not really a classroom—first and foremost, it’s a laboratory. It also happens to be a classroom, but students feel deep in their bones that it's a place where science happens.”

The science center has dramatically changed the trajectory of a department that desperately needed a facility worthy of its innovative and ambitious group of teachers.

“I feel like Campo is pushing our science teachers to be as good as the building."
-Dr. Brett Merritt

“The Campo Science Center has made all the difference in the world,” said Merritt. “Before 2014 we did not have a proper laboratory space in which to teach our 6th grade students. We taught them in a classroom with no running water, no sinks, limited storage, and only two or three electrical outlets. Try doing an Engineering and Invention unit when you can only plug in a few electronic devices. It would have taken days of logistical planning and a lot of backbreaking work to deliver such a curriculum.”

Teachers who were already excellent are now reaching new heights.

“I feel like Campo is pushing our science teachers to be as good as the building,” said Merritt. “It's pushing our creativity, it's pushing our dedication, and it's pushing our abilities to grow into a building that we know can handle just about anything we wish to do.”

TASIS High School Science Students with Alec Ogilvie

Pushing the IB program to a new level

Three well-equipped preparation rooms enable teachers—often with assistance from Olymar Marco Brown, a full-time lab technician—to prepare their lessons outside the classroom and safely store whatever they need. They also serve as a valuable space for High School students to work on their Individual Assessments, a critical portion of the International Baccalaureate (IB) science exams.

The Internal Assessment (IA) accounts for 20 percent of a student’s IB science score, and recent changes to the IB have allowed students to tackle database questions in addition to experimental questions. This and other mandates from the evolving IB have prompted the High School Science Department to integrate new units into its curriculum. Dr. Jill Price, for example, has added bioinformatics, a cutting-edge interdisciplinary field that involves the application of computer technology to the understanding and effective use of biological data, to her IB Biology curriculum.

The new building has enabled students to log and analyze large amounts of data much more effectively while also supporting a far broader range of Internal Assessments.

“Our IB students come up with eccentric and wonderful experiments that we've got to somehow support,” said Ogilvie. “And we now have the equipment and storage space to enable them to do it, whatever it is—the UV absorption of different sun creams, the aging of wine and the effect on the alcohol content, the different techniques for the extraction of silver, and so on.”

Students have responded with two consecutive years of excellent results on the demanding IB science exams.

Following the first full year in the Campo Science Center, TASIS students performed at or above the world average in each of the 2015 IB science exams. Each individual exam is scored on a 1-7 scale, and under Ogilivie’s tutelage TASIS students averaged a remarkable 6.0 on the very challenging Chemistry Higher Level (HL) exam—2.26 points higher than the world average. They also exceeded the world average by 0.47 points in Biology HL (taught by Price), 0.45 points in Ogilvie’s Chemistry Standard Level (SL), 0.32 points in Biology SL (Price and Bloodworth), 0.12 points in Environmental Systems SL (Marla Beimer), and 0.10 points in Physics SL (Matt Walker).

TASIS students followed up with another very strong performance in 2016, besting the world average in Bloodworth’s Biology SL by 1.06 points, in Ogilvie’s Chemistry HL by 0.62 points, in Walker’s Physics SL by 0.45 points, in Price’s Biology HL by 0.10 points, and in Walker’s Physics HL by 0.07 points.

TASIS High School Science Students

Seeing the big picture

Strong results at the tail end would not be possible without an unprecedented level of cohesion and collaboration between the Middle School and High School Science Departments.

The high school sets its 9th and 10th grade science objectives to the International General Certificate of Secondary Education (IGCSE), a curriculum developed by University of Cambridge International Examinations in order to prepare students for the International Baccalaureate. The middle school has followed suit by developing a curriculum designed to feed into the IGCSE.

“Our grades 6–8 science curriculum blends features of prominent science curriculum development from both the US and UK,” said Merritt. “When articulating our middle school science curriculum, we felt that following a blended model gave us the best chance of preparing our students for success in 9th and 10th grades and beyond, so that was a deliberate decision we made right from the start.”

Merritt understands that it’s important to build a program that takes both short-term and long-term goals into account.

"The long-term goal is enjoyment of science, and that enjoyment springs from understanding science—applying it, comprehending it, and being able to think for themselves."
-Alec Ogilvie

“Of course, we always keep one eye on the immediacy of the present: We want to sustain our students’ interest in scientific topics and, if we are able, to generate even more enthusiasm for learning and understanding science,” he said. “Our medium-term focus is to prepare students for what we understand are the academic rigors and challenges of their high school science classes. But I think we also have a long-term focus for our middle school students that results from knowing that they will eventually have opportunities to participate as adult citizens in critically important social, political, and ecological issues such as climate change, loss of habitat and biological diversity, threats to food and freshwater systems, overpopulation, and overconsumption. In the middle school, we are trying to do our part to begin preparing our young students to be able to participate in those future conversations, debates, decisions, forums, votes, etc. in ways that are simultaneously critical, creative, thoughtful, informed, and ethical.”

Ogilvie similarly recognizes that while the short-term goals of the high school are to help students perform better on IB or AP exams and get into the universities of their choice, his department’s most important job is bigger than that.

“The long-term goal is enjoyment of science, and that enjoyment springs from understanding science—applying it, comprehending it, and being able to think for themselves. Who knows what jobs will be out there in 20 years? Whatever line they follow, whether it is in science or other fields, they’ll benefit from being able to logically decipher data and understand trends and patterns and connections. I’m not interested in regurgitation at all. I’m interested in them being able to think.”

TASIS Elementary School students working with the Scratch iPad app

The final piece of the puzzle

Bloodworth believes TASIS has only just begun to scratch the surface of what is possible, and she envisions a future in which all students begin learning basic coding skills as early as age four.

“I’m really interested in making coding something that kids do from Pre-K to grade 12,” she said. “They wouldn’t need to use a computer at all until second grade because so many aspects of coding can be taught without one.”

"I’m really interested in making coding something that kids do from Pre-K to grade 12."
-Amy Bloodworth

That future may not be far away. TASIS Instructional Technology Coordinator Tim Venchus has been teaching Scratch, a free visual programming language, to middle school students, and in turn these students have taught the language to elementary school students. Students who receive this training are very well-prepared when they begin the Engineering and Invention unit in grade six.

“The key, whether it’s middle school or higher up, is getting them interested in it,” said Ogilvie. “It’s even better if you can start younger because they have a natural fascination with it.”

The benefits of learning to code at a young age are enormous. Students develop a fluency with technology, learn valuable problem-solving skills, become more creative, and establish a lifelong curiosity for understanding the “how and why” of their surroundings.

“Most kids today are just end-product users, and I want them to understand how things really work and to create things that are meaningful to them,” said Bloodworth. “There’s something very creative about coding, inventing, and robotics, and even just working with LEDS on tiny motor boards is great for a child’s fine motor skills. As students move up grades with these skills, we’ll be able to do so much more with them.” 

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