Vending Machine for a Cleaner Future

Ben’s thoughts on his group’s efforts to make a “Solar Powered Vending Machine.” To learn more about their progress, and about other Innovation Lab STEM Projects from this semester, join us for our Exhibition of Student Prototypes and Design tomorrow night, May 10, from 6:30-8:30 PM at the Arch Street Teen Center in Greenwich, CT!!

A Week in the Life of InLab

The focus for quarter four in STEM is a project titled: Eureka! It’s Battery Power. The goal of this project is to create or repurpose something so that it can be more sustainable and/or more portable. The project will most likely require the use of either a battery or a solar panel, which connects to redox reductions, a chemistry topic for this quarter. In a battery, many redox reductions are occurring when it is in use. As well, before we started the project we learned about circuits and electricity, which then helps us with wiring for our project.

For the project, my group has decided to take a vending machine and attach solar panels to it, allowing it to run on solar power, instead of on non-renewable resources. This will thus make it more sustainable, as solar power is a sustainable, renewable resource. Our eventual goal is to make the…

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Why are we doing this?

If you were a rich Greek in 100 B.C., it was not uncommon to pay a tutor to come to your villa and teach you math. When it cooled off later in the afternoon, you might gather with the other men in the center of town and talk. Among the academic topics they discussed were philosophy, politics, and math. The image of a Greek drawing circles in the sand is not so much a stereotype as what some people did with their free time.

Math was a hobby. Before the Greeks, people only used math when necessary. To count, to design, to build. The Greeks were by all accounts the first to write down the rules of math in an effort to generalize them. Look at a door frame. How do you know those are four right angles? I suppose you could hold a square block to the frame to check. How do you know your square is accurate? It could be a parallelogram, which also has four sides of equal length. How do you know your angles are right angles? The Greeks proved how to prove a square was, in fact, a square. (An easy way to check is to inscribe a circle in the square. The radius should bisect the sides.)

But once you prove why something you can obviously see is true, what comes next? Mathematicians whose names we know – Euclid, Pythagoreas, Archimedes – were among the most famous Greeks who extended math beyond the door frame. They helped develop trigonometry to study astronomy long before it was needed to steer ships and fly airplanes.

We do very little of this type of math in school. In the past, to study math was similar to that of philosophy; unsolved problems prompted study until a one found a logical argument in support of an answer. Math was regarded with the same mysticism and authority. Boiling it down to a series of problem sets somehow assessed by a timed test runs counterproductive to the Greek model of study, discussion, argument, and proof. If tests are the way we evaluate a student’s mathematical reasoning, we ignore thousands of years of history in favor of the last hundred.

While Algebra 1, Algebra 2, and Geometry largely have been warped because of their presence on standardized tests, there could be some flexibility in Precalculus. After a long week of trigonometric book problems, I am wondering whether the study of trigonometry could feasibly be framed in the same manner as a Greek discussion. Could we start with a unit circle and spend class in groups developing a set of rules and proofs? Could we emulate the Greek town center in a classroom? We wouldn’t “get through” as much. Assessment would look radically different. And while we still might not satisfy the annual “why are we doing this?”, perhaps students wouldn’t be bored enough to ask.

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Spring Fever…

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Between the return to Daylight Savings Time, the beautiful weather over Spring Break, and this week’s April showers (come on May flowers!!!), it truly feels that we are finally throwing of the mantle of Old Man Winter and emerging anew.  Admittedly our … Continue reading

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The Social Studies Teacher

(The title is an allusion to one of my favorite poems, “The History Teacher”, by Billy Collins.)

Last week, I met with a professor from Sacred Heart University to discuss the role of inquiry in teaching social studies. After a brief tour of InLab, the conversation eventually morphed into a debate over the age-old question–at least among social studies teachers–about what exactly it means to be a social studies teacher.

While it may sound like the beginning of some ridiculous existentialist discussion–What is the meaning of life? Why is grass green? Why is green green?–the answer to the question informs everything about how a social studies teacher approaches curriculum and instruction.

Note to the reader: I am deliberately not saying “History teacher.” It’s kind of a sore spot in the social studies community. Yes, we have a community. One with conventions and meetings and books with names like Historical Detective and Sherlock History.

Anyway. A social studies teacher would say that we’re not only teaching history. We’re also teaching students how to be good citizens, decision-makers, problem solvers, writers, etc.

At least that’s what the professor and I concluded at the end of our discussion. Sometimes, however, this can feel like an added burden. Projects have to be subject-specific, but also focused on the bigger picture. Students not only have to understand the historical implications of the decision to drop the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but the ethical implications as well. There’s a big difference between asking why the US dropped the atomic bombs on Japan and whether or not it was justified.

Tomorrow, almost fifty Innovation Lab students will present projects at the National History Day Fairfield Regional Competition. This year’s theme is Taking a Stand in History. To be successful, a project must look at individuals as decision-makers, people who challenged the status-quo by standing up, sitting down, spying behind enemy lines, speaking up for the voiceless, or simply surviving in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

For the project, students brainstormed questions, researched their topic, crafted an argument, and then created a documentary, exhibit, performance, or website. Although this may sound like a “history project,” the content, skills, and concepts learned by students reach far beyond the purview of the discipline.

For one, students learned how to think. Not only as historians, but as citizens, and, dare I say it, human beings. I won’t bore you with the details of Bloom’s Taxonomy, but trust me when I tell you that the project follows his levels of thinking all the way to the top.



The taxonomy I won’t bore you with. 

Likewise, I don’t have time to go into all of the great historical research I’ve seen in the past two months–I’m pretty sure there’s something I’m supposed to be grading–actually, there’s always something I’m supposed to be grading–but I assure you that interviews were conducted, primary sources consulted, documentaries watched, and books read.

And I won’t be able to do the projects justice by simply describing them here. I’ll post pictures after the competition on Saturday–as long as I remember to take pictures. Neither social studies teachers nor history teachers are known for their social media prowess.

But the point is, “history teachers” don’t have to give up history and “social studies teachers” don’t have to give up all those, you know, sort of important things like teaching students how to empathize and make decisions and be good people.

Similar to many of the questions posed by students in their NHD projects, the answer to the history/social studies debate is a lot more complicated than a simple yes or no.


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Taking a Stand on the Syrian Refugee Crisis

Nicole’s thoughts on how the United States can take a stand to help solve the crisis in Syria, and how her work on her National History Day project addresses similar social and legal issues. Definitely worth a read…


Since the outbreak of the Civil War in Syria, an estimated 11 million Syrians have left their homes ( syring have fled to other countries such as Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq,Germany and Jordan allowing them to escape the danger that is prevalent in Syria.

Syrian-refugees-landing.jpg Syrian refugees escaping Syria

So far, Turkey has accepted about 2.7 million refugees, Lebanon has accepted approximately 1 million, Iraq has taken 3.1 million, Germany has about 1.8 million and Jordan has approximately 650,000 refugees ( All of these countries have taken a stand against for the Syrian refugees by allowing to stay in their countries.

However, there are still many countries in the world who are refusing to allow Syrian refugees into their country in fear of terrorists groups potentially entering. One of these terrorists groups that the countries fear is ISIS.

trump-syrian-refugees-tweet-1-1.jpg Trump Tweets revealing his actions are based on fear.

The United States…

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Can You Help Me with This?

In high school I worked, on average, twenty-five hours per week at the Staples Copy & Print Center in town. It was a cushy job in large part because roaming Office Supplies was the worst; I remember how satisfied customers were when you would “check the back” for a missing item. I’d just go for a drink of water and check my phone. If it’s not on the shelf or above the aisle, we don’t have it.

During my senior year, school administrators floated the idea of heterogeneously grouping otherwise tracked middle-school classes. Translation: mixing honors and college-prep students together. I used a slow night at work to write an op-ed for the town newspaper outlining why it was a terrible idea. Honors students like me shouldn’t be slowed down by kids from “lower” classes. It was a pretty angsty piece. The Westerly Sun published it, which is unfortunate, because I was wrong.

In the past two weeks, most of STEM 10 has been double-blocked math. Two hours straight of polynomial division, factoring trinomials, and rules of rational exponents – topics on the SAT that don’t fit into our projects. I made traditional math worksheets with problems of varying difficulty. Students of all math levels worked side-by-side.

Most math teachers agree that having students successfully explain a topic to each other improves both students’ understanding. It’s why we ask them to re-explain instructions to the group, pair-share, or put them in teams near a white board. It’s how I got through college Calculus; I had a D until I went to the university’s help center and a tutor made me explain concepts back to him. (I passed with a B.) Some parents have a hard time believing our mixed groups don’t significantly slow down honors students. Perhaps we should film perfectly capable Algebra 2A students understanding and explaining topics to their confused “honors” peers.

What makes an honors class? Traditionally in math, it’s a combination of pace and difficulty. Cram in two extra units, have students memorize more formulas, and make the tests longer and questions harder. So why can’t honors students and college-prep students share a room? Can they not learn from each other? They can and they do.

My assessments differentiate between math levels. I do periodically pull the honors students for their extra units. At our school, assessments count for more in an honors class and less in a class with more support. The course labels have a role at the moment and colleges don’t want us to ditch them anyway. But separating students into different rooms by level is just another byproduct of minimizing cost and maximizing efficiency. There is peer-reviewed research to suggest homogeneous grouping disadvantages medium/low ability students. The marginal gains by grouping by ability for higher ability students are outweighed by the harm it does overall.

Differentiating for students in a tracked classroom is hard. Differentiating for a class of mixed ability students in our rooms can be even tougher. But spending the time to meet the needs of a wider range of students is worth the time and effort because we can avoid the unintended consequences of tracking. Seventeen-year-old me did not understand this. I had only my experience to draw on. I hope experiencing InLab will provide my students with a better perspective than I had at their age.

Here’s some pictures of the introduction to electricity this week!

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STEAM Project Physical Piece Reflection

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For our STEAM project, (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math), we were told to make any form of art through which we expressed our thoughts on a social issue. Our projects were displayed in the…

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A Night at the Museum

On Wednesday, February 8th, GHS Innovation Lab sophomores exhibited their artwork at the Bruce Museum. A one-night event, hundreds of students, parents, and residents visited “Opposition and Change in Self and Society.” Today’s front-page story in the Greenwich Time features Jody, Lucas, Zach, and Jessica.

For the second year in a row, the Bruce closed their gallery the day of the exhibition. Curators met with students to stage and light their work in a space already full of professional artwork. When students arrived, they found name cards on tables; this small touch was just another reminder of how big a deal it is to have their artwork showcased in a museum. Many students were told their work “looks like it belongs here” and more than one person said the art “looks like something from MoMa.” The night was a victory lap of sorts – a culmination of months of work and a stage for students to shine.

Students presenting the artwork:

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Students’ physical pieces:

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Apparently I did not photo the finished Desmos artwork at the museum, but here are a few examples:

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Student Voice [Full Post]

A draft of this post was sent earlier in error. Below is the full post.

We would do well to listen to students more. They are more connected to the “real world” than most adults were at their age. They follow the President on Twitter. They watch live protests in Romania on Snapchat. They are learning to constantly question information. Part of this is being a teenager. But there are 15 million public high school students in the United States, who, as an entertaining collective, would be the fifth most populous state. Their voice matters.

Next week’s exhibition at the Bruce Museum (6:30-8:30, Greenwich, CT) is a testimonial to student voice. Our students are more mature than their snap selfies would initially suggest; they are thoughtful, deep thinkers. Their art is a filter between their thoughts and the public. Last week, Sarah explained why projects and exhibitions are worthwhile. In reading students’ museum cards, I am reminded that beneath the bright colors, there are bold statements being made. I invite you to read two in advance of the exhibition. We are excited to watch them find their voice in person next week.

Students were asked to make a piece of art using only equations in the graphing calculator Desmos. The prompt: create an image that symbolizes opposing aspects of your identity or which comments on a change you would like to see in yourself.




PS. Some photos from the week! To see the rest of the art, plan to visit the Bruce Museum on Wednesday, February 8, from 6:30 to 8:30 PM.

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Standards, NOT standardization!


“Accountability” is a hot topic in education today.  From Senate confirmation hearings, to state legislatures, to local districts and schools, everyone wants to know: How are we going to ensure that ALL students have access to a quality education and how will we know that they are learning?

From a philosophical point of view, consensus has largely been reached.  We agree that all students (and teachers) benefit from high “standards.”  That is to say, we all agree that having high, clearly articulated expectations of what students should be able to learn and do promotes student success and high levels of achievement.  Rosenthal & Jacobson’s classic 1968 paper “Pygmalion in the Classroom” represents just one of a multitude of studies demonstrating essentially that students will rise to the level of the expectations placed upon them.  Hence the emphasis on written standards (whether national, state, or local) demanding a high “level of quality or attainment.”

Where consensus breaks down is how to measure and verify student mastery of those standards.  In the quest to do so, we collectively have fallen victim to “standardization,” an over reliance on a specific “idea or thing used as a measure… in comparative evaluations.”  We administer standardized assessments to measure student progress, and hold both students and teachers accountable to performing adequately on those tests.  Sadly, this overreliance on standardized assessments misses the mark in many ways.  Test-taking becomes divorced from the active process of learning, is anxiety provoking, is devoid of student agency, and frankly in many cases is a better measure of the parents’ educational and economic status than it is of student learning.  I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had with my son’s elementary school teachers in which they tell me some variation of, “I know he understands the concept, but he made such-and-such mistake and only earned a such-and-such score.”  So he knows it, she knows he knows it, but the test doesn’t know he knows it!  Overall, we have substantial evidence that our tests don’t really measure what we are trying to measure.

So why are we so stuck on them?  I think, in large part, because we have bought into two fallacies, first that standardized assessments save time because they are easier to grade and second that they are more objective.  We are unfortuantely frightened away from the sort of performance tasks and student presentations of learning that we would all agree are a much more comprehensive and accurate demonstration of what students know and can do, because we think we don’t have time for them and that giving a multiple choice test is quicker.  This fear, however, ignores that such performance based assessments inherently combine instruction and assessment, so you are not “losing” any learning time by administering them (whereas any teacher, student, or parent will tell you that testing eats up too much valuable instructional time).  Furthermore, the “scoring” of the assessment also is embedded in the conversations between student and teacher, where instruction, feedback, and reflection all occur.  Again, grading becomes part of the learning experience.

educational-system-comicAs to the purported “objectivity” of such assessments, I refer you to the provided cartoon popular with educators.  We call standardized tests “objective” because they provide defined questions with very specific “right” answers.  But who decides what answer is “right”?  More importantly, who decides what questions are worth asking?  The very act of designing an assessment requires someone to decide what will be assessed, how it will be asked, and which responses will be deemed acceptable.  Thus, the design of these tests is inherent extremely subjective.  Personally, I would much prefer those subjective decisions be tailored to each unique student and, better yet, involve the participation of the student being assessed.   Again, in this aim performance assessments and presentations of learning fit the bill.

We don’t live in a land of unicorns and rainbows where everything works as it should, so I recognize that standardized tests are a reality I can’t run away from.  Just two days ago, our Innovation Lab students completed all of their more traditional subject-area midterm exams.

We refuse to let it stop there however.  Today our sophomores began the exhilarating scramble leading up to their first Exhibition of Student Work, being held Wednesday February 8th from 6:30-8:30 PM at the Bruce Museum.

bruce-museum-flyer-feb-2017-1The exhibit, titled “Opposition and Change in Self and Society,” represents the culmination of three months of work on a joint Humanities and STEM project in which students were asked to create digital and physical pieces of art that symbolize and comment upon their views of themselves and society. In the digital pieces, created using the mathematical interface Desmos, students symbolize opposing aspects of their identity and/or comment on a change they would like to see in themselves.  In second piece of art, students symbolize an important social issue and comment on the change they would like to see in that issue.  The students will then present their work and learning to any and all members of the public that care to join us.

That’s an impressive performance with an excellent assessment of student learning!  And it also happens to be a ton of fun!!

Hope to see you there! 



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