December 4, 2016

Laser-etched map projections on wood.

Laser-etched map projections on wood.

This September a TechShop branch opened up in St. Louis. I’ve been aware of these neat Makerspaces for a few years now, so it was a pleasant surprise when one turned up in town. Even more surprising (and just as pleasant) was that a parent at our school, who was so excited by the opportunities that a place like the TechShop would offer to a school that tries to emphasize hands-on, experiential education, donated four memberships to the school–one for a faculty member and three for students.

Since there are some age restrictions on which machines minors can use–a lot of the woodshop is off limits until they’re 16 and even then adult supervision is required, I arranged a small application for the student memberships that was only open to middle and high-schoolers. Based on the response I got back, we split the annual memberships by semester, so we have three students using it this fall and three more will have access to them in the spring.

The way the TechShop works is that they have a wide range of equipment under one roof and once you take a safety and basic usage (SBU) class on the particular machine you want to use you can reserve time on the machines. There’s a wood shop with saws, sanders, a lathe, and a CNC machine; a metal shop with the same; a set of 3d printers; a set of laser cutters/etchers; a fabric shop with some serious sowing machines, including one that is computer controlled; an electronics shop; a plastics work area with vacuum forming and injection molding machines. They also do a set of interesting classes on using the design software and some interesting projects that can take advantage of the tools available–I have my eye on the Coptic Bookbinding, and the Wooden Bowl making classes. Finally, they’re set up with classrooms where you can bring students in for small STEAM classes, which includes things like using Arduinos.

Students etching an anodized aluminum luggage tag during their SBU class on the laser cutter/etcher.

Students etching an anodized aluminum luggage tag during their SBU class on the laser cutter/etcher.

So far, we’ve all taken the Laser class, and there’s just so much that you can do with the laser that we’ve been spending a lot of time experimenting. The students have been etching signs–including a grave marker for our goat MJ who recently passed away–as well as pictures, luggage tags, and making presents. Since this is a machine that the older students can use independently I’ve lost track of everything they’ve been doing.

I’ve also taken the woodshop wood CNC class, so my own experiments have been a bit more expansive, including making dry-erase erasers, floor-holders for quivers for the archery program, simple chemistry molecular model sets (just 2d), boxes for Ms. Fu’s math cards, and I’m trying to figure out how to make a clock.

Citing this post: Urbano, L., 2016. TechShop, Retrieved February 23rd, 2018, from Montessori Muddle: .
Attribution (Curator's Code ): Via: Montessori Muddle; Hat tip: Montessori Muddle.

Mushroom Hunting: A Biological Survey of the Campus

October 27, 2011

A selection of (as yet) unidentified fungi from the school campus in eastern Missouri.

It’s remarkable how interest drives motivation and motivation gets things done. We’re in an intercession right now and ten students signed up with me to do a biological survey of the school grounds. With a small creek on one side, and a fairly tall ridge on the other, the school has a nice variety of biomes.

Now, to be clear, I’m not a biologist. In fact, that’s why I was so interested in the biological survey. Everything in this area is new to me. But it also means that I approached this project as a novice. Mrs. E. was nice enough to lend me a veritable library of reference books, covering everything from the wildflowers of Missouri to the amphibians of the mid-West, but she was off teaching another batch of students how to cook, so I was on my own.

All the students in the group were volunteers, but a fair chunk of them just wanted to get outside, even though it was overcast and threatening rain. To get the students more engaged I let them choose either the environment they’d like to survey, or the types of organisms they’d like to specialize in. I also gave them the option of working independently or in pairs.

The Creek

The Creek team collected a pair of amphibians. They were documented, photographed, and then released.

One pair choose to canvas the small creek that runs past the school. I’d set a minnow trap the night before to collect fish for our tank, and they hauled that in. The stream water was somewhere around 14°C, while our tank was closer to 23°C, so, to prevent the fish from going into thermal shock, we left the minnows in a bucket so it could, slowly, thermally equilibrate. They monitored the temperature change with time, and I think I’ll use their data in my physics and calculus classes.

They also collected a pair of amphibians, which we photographed and then released. They tried to catch some crawfish, but were unsuccessful, despite the fact that one of them searched for “how to catch crawfish” on their phone; unfortunately they did not have time to follow the detailed video instructions they found on the web that described, in detail, how to build a crawfish trap.

Trees and Shrubs

Collected leaf specimens PL01 and PL02.

Because of the incipient rain, we did not take our reference books out with us. Instead, we collected leaves and sketched bark patterns so we could do our floral identification later.

Berries from an (as yet) unidentified bush.

A number of students really got into that. So we have a fairly large collection, though almost all of which come from the riparian area that bounds the creek. I would have liked a broader survey, but we only had so much time.

Unidentified wildflowers.


Part of our mushroom collection.

More than a few students were interested in looking for mushrooms – even one of the tree specialists came back a mushroom sample – but one student really got into it, canvasing all the dead logs from the creek, through the meadow, and up past the treeline on the side of the hill.

The underside of this fungi looks a bit like a brain coral.

And we now have quite the collection of fungi. They’re as yet unidentified, but they’re elegant bits of biota. Our fungi specialist is interested in coming back in and sketching them.


We had two hours. Not even enough time to do a complete survey, so we barely got started on identification. It will probably go slowly.

While our methods were not systematic, and our coverage of the grounds incomplete, this exercise was a good start to cataloging the local biology. I don’t know if I’ll be able to expand on the survey any time soon, but this type of project would be a great for middle school science next year when we focus more on the biological sciences, particularly on taxonomy.

Citing this post: Urbano, L., 2011. Mushroom Hunting: A Biological Survey of the Campus, Retrieved February 23rd, 2018, from Montessori Muddle: .
Attribution (Curator's Code ): Via: Montessori Muddle; Hat tip: Montessori Muddle.

A Night in the Slums (simulated)

October 18, 2011

Uncomfortable sleeping arrangements of the (simulated) slum.

One of the highlights of the Heifer Ranch trip was the chance for students to spend a night in their global village. It’s really a set of villages, each simulating a life in an under-developed part of a different developing country.

The Thai village. Everyone wanted to end up in the Thai village.

The Guatemalan house is pretty nice; it keeps you out of the elements, you have actual beds, and running water. The Thai houses are actually pretty awesome. They stand on stilts next to the open fields, giving good air circulation and elegant views. They remind me a lot of some of the older houses from where I grew up. The refugee camp, on the other hand is pretty decrepit. The slums aren’t much better but at least have one house with a wooden floor, though the door was so broken it was pretty useless.

Our students were assigned villages at random, but varying numbers were placed in each village to replicate the population densities more accurately. One adult was assigned to each village. We were supposed to act as if we were incompetent (not hard I know), either as two-year-olds or senile elders.

I ended up in the high population slums.

A dragonfly sits on the hard ground in the slums.

On the positive side, I was not the only adult there. Mrs H., who had joined our group with her daughter for the week of activities at Heifer, was also assigned to the slums. On the negative side, she and the girls commandeered the one “posh” building that had an actual floor to sleep on. The boys and I had to sleep on the hard, stony ground.

It didn’t help that one of the boys was “pregnant”. One person in each group been given a water balloon in a sling and told to keep it with them, safe, until dinner, when they would “give birth”, at which point the others in the “family” could help take care of the “child”. A key objective was for the child to survive until morning.

The boys scouted all the houses in the village and scavenged a large piece of metal grating to sleep on. It was not great, but it was doable. Better, at least, than the concrete-hard, uneven ground.

Making dinner over an open fire in the simulated slum.

There was a lot more that happened on that night. None of the groups was given enough to be comfortable on their own. There was a lot of haggling, trading and even commando raids, but, in the end, they pulled together and made something of it.

The experience was quite useful, I think. Conditions were uncomfortable enough to register with the students, though a single night is not enough to really internalize all the challenges of urban slums where over one billion people spend their lives. But it does provide some very useful context for the poignant images of Jonas Bendiksen (Living in the Slums) and James Mollison (Where Children Sleep).

Image from the book, Where Children Sleep by James Mollison.

Citing this post: Urbano, L., 2011. A Night in the Slums (simulated), Retrieved February 23rd, 2018, from Montessori Muddle: .
Attribution (Curator's Code ): Via: Montessori Muddle; Hat tip: Montessori Muddle.

How to Write Lab Reports

August 31, 2011

If I have seen further it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants
— Isaac Newton (1676) via Wikiquotes.

Science advances when scientists share their results. If someone tests an hypothesis and finds that it’s wrong, if they share their results, others won’t have to waste time by repeating the same experiments. If someone makes a breakthrough and publishes what they found, then scientists all around the world can use that information to develop new experiments and new applications of that newly discovered principle. Sharing is essential, so it’s important for students to learn how to share well.

Scientists usually communicate their results by giving presentations to other scientists at conferences and publishing articles in scientific journals. Often these presentations are full of the specialized language different types of scientists use with each other, so sometimes science journalists will translate that into regular English news articles that everyone can read and understand. The New York Times and the BBC have good science sections, but what they present comes first from scientists’ formal presentations and articles.

As a result, good presentations and good lab reports are a great way to start learning how to communicate like a scientist.

Lab Reports

A good way to figure out what should go into a lab report is to look at a published article. We have a bunch of copies of Science, which has research articles toward the middle and the back. Articles in Science tend to be brief and fairly dense because it’s one of the premiere journals, so the outlines are not as explicit as you’d find in other places; an Open Access Journal might provide better examples, especially if you’re looking them up online.

Based on our observations, we decided on the following parts for a good lab report:

  • Title: Be short, but unique to give a good idea of what your project is about. Since my classes seldom all do the same experiment, this is very useful. Answer the questions: What did you do? Why did you do it? and What did you find?
  • Authors: Who gets the credit for the work. Usually authors are listed by who did the most work first, but since everyone’s expected to work equally on their group projects you can choose some random or arbitrary order.
  • Abstract: A brief summary of the work, include: what is the problem you’re trying to solve; what you did to solve the problem; and what results you came up with. The abstract should contain all the spoilers.
  • Introduction: Go into some more detail about what the problem is you’re working on, and why it’s important. State your hypothesis and how you’re going to test it. Overview previous work your project is based on.
  • Procedure/Methods: Describe, in detail, what you did, what apparatus you used. Both words and diagrams are useful here.
  • Results: Tell us what you found. Graphs, charts and tables will be very useful here.
  • Figure 1. An example of a diagram. In this case labels have been placed on a photograph of the apparatus. Notice also the caption, which you are reading at this very moment, that goes with the figure.

  • Note on Figures: You should have figures, charts, diagrams and tables in your Procedure and Results sections, but you can have them anywhere they’re appropriate. Each figure needs to have a caption explaining the figure. A useful approach to figures and captions is to try to write them so that someone could understand the entire article by only looking at the figures and reading their captions. One of my students says that popular magazines, like People, are written that way (or at least that’s how they’re read).
  • Analysis and Discussion: To paraphrase a student, “Explain why you think you got those results.” Even if the results are unexpected, or especially if they’re unexpected, you need to explain them. This is also your chance to explain why all of your critics are wrong and you were right all along. If you do that though, it should be written in scientific, passive-aggressive language.
  • Conclusions: Summarize. In the abstract you’re telling them what you’re going to tell them. In the Introduction, Procedure, Results and Discussion sections you’re telling them. In the Conclusion, you’re telling them what you told them. Hopefully by that time they’ll have had enough chances to figure out what you were trying to tell them.
  • Figure 2. An example of a citation for a website.

  • References: Be sure to include a list of the references you used to do your work. This is how you give credit to the people who’s work you are building on. The Yale Library has an excellent page on citing sources. There are a different citation styles you can use but remember the purpose: to give credit where it’s due, and to allow others to be able to find those references easily. All citations should have the author, the date published (or when you accessed it if it is a website), the title, and a way to track down the work.

Note that scientific magazines, like Science and Nature, are very different from a popular magazine like People, for one thing, as was pointed out to me today, the pages don’t smell like perfume (instead they smell like science).


This paper, on how to bend a soccer ball, is a good example of a student research paper.

Citing this post: Urbano, L., 2011. How to Write Lab Reports, Retrieved February 23rd, 2018, from Montessori Muddle: .
Attribution (Curator's Code ): Via: Montessori Muddle; Hat tip: Montessori Muddle.

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