Friday, August 9, 2013

Michelson ExxonMobil Science Teachers Academy Highlights

Hi! First off, I'm Keith from Mr. Magician. I don't have a blog. I hope you will forgive me. A lot of people know me better for my wife, Kimberly, and her fonts. I recently attended the Mickelson ExxonMobil Teachers Academy (MEMTA) in Jersey City, NJ, an all-expenses-paid week of math and science training for grades 3-5 teachers.

I had heard amazing things from past participants, but I was still blown away at how spoiled I was in my accommodations and my trainings.

I will let the pictures do most of my talking, but I hope by the end of this post, anyone who teaches math or science in grades 3-5 will apply for next summer's MEMTA at In my 12 years of teaching, I have never been to a training where they went out of their way and over and above to ensure the teachers felt taken care of and appreciated.

There were 200 teachers and not once did I hear a complaint about the accommodations, the meals, the instructors, or the trainings. I will get to the trainings later, but for now, let me allow the pictures to illustrate how well we were treated all week. When you stepped outside the hotel (Hyatt Regency), this was the view:


 Breakfasts and lunches were included every day, and we're not talking hot dogs and old sandwiches! Here's our lunch on day two.

 I could write an entire post about what I ate during the week, but here's a sampling from the dinner they served on our final night. They also served us dinner the first night. And heck yeah all three plates are mine!!

All training sessions were held at the nearby Liberty Science Center. It was a wonderful place to explore during breaks. We could even see the Statue of Liberty from a few of the classrooms!

The training sessions were equally wonderful. The big ideas I took away were:

 • How to teach the standards in a way that students gain a much deeper understanding than what I currently do now. I currently struggle to just teach enough information that will allow my students to pass a multiple-choice question on a test. This academy taught me ways that I can help my students truly grasp what they learn. I will provide an example of this later.

 • I have a better understanding of the Next Generation Science Standards. A person who helped write the standards gave a presentation, which I appreciated because I had next to zero knowledge of these standards, which came out at the end of April.

 • How to highlight for my students that in every science experiment, we are doing lots of math too. During the academy, we had these posters in our room and the instructors highlighted how we did several of the science and math practices every day.

The instructors did a fabulous job of modeling how to help students discuss ideas with each other and how to argue topics. Not argue in a yelling at each other sort of way, but how to calmly communicate different ideas and points of view using evidence to support your argument. This chart will also be going up in my room this year as I help my students redefine the word “argument” in an academic setting.

 • They also emphasized the 5-E model (Engage, Explore, Explain, Extend, Evaluate) and modeled this in every activity we participated in.  If you are not familiar with the 5-E model, please read this link >>here<<.

 • Finally, I discovered ways to help my students initially interact with new knowledge. In the rush to cover our curriculum and keep up with our district's pacing guide, helping students discover new ideas on their own as opposed to me just telling them has been tricky for me. But this academy helped me realize the importance of making time for this. Too often, in the rush to move on to the next topic, I rush through this discovery phase. But the academy put me in the position of my students, and as such, I realized the importance of slowing down and how to really dig deep into the standards.

One of my favorite activities was the egg-drop experience on day one. I'm sure lots of teachers have done a variation of this to demonstrate laws of force and motion, but I enjoyed the way the instructors allowed us to explore for a good hour before hitting us with Newton's First Law of Motion.

First, to help build background knowledge before the actual egg drop, the instructors gave us a penny, an index card, a plastic knife, and a paper cup. We were instructed to get the penny into the cup without touching the penny or picking up the index card.

After all groups shared ideas about what they did, we then moved on to the challenge of getting an egg to land in a glass of a water using only the broom as an outside force.

Our materials included:
• Toilet paper tube
• Glass of water
• Broom
• 1 egg (I'd use water-filled easter eggs with my students!)
• 1 round, metal pizza pan

Since most teachers had done something like this before, groups figured out how to accomplish this fairly quickly.

After this, groups shared their results and we constructed a t-chart with “Claims” on one side and “Evidence” on the other. It does not matter which side you complete first, but I LOVED this way to help students make scientific claims based on what they have just witnessed. I will be helping my students make claims/evidence charts for all experiments we do throughout the year to help them grapple with new concepts.

Also, they told us about an app called Coach My Video where you can record a video on your iPad or iPhone, then play it back frame by frame. This was an outstanding way to view the egg drop experiment frame by frame as the broom hit the pizza pan and the egg fell into the water. I can already see several ways to use the Coach My Video app in my classroom.  I hope you will find it equally useful.

Next, after all groups shared claims and evidences and about an hour after we'd started, the instructors finally displayed Newton's First Law of Motion and asked us to write how our claims compared to it. For the extend and evaluate portion of the lesson, we were issued a final design challenge.

The instructors read the first part of Sheep in a Jeep by Nancy Shaw. We were then given a sheep and a jeep (although sitting anything on top of a toy car would work too).

We then had to design a solution to keep the sheep in the jeep after pushing the jeep into a stack of books. The evaluation piece was when we explained how our solution (taping the sheep to the jeep like a seat belt) using Newton's First Law of Motion to explain why our method worked. Groups could also extend this to correlate Newton's First Law with seat belts in automobiles.

During the week, after every experiment, the instructors made us write an “I Wonder” statement. For example, “I wonder what would happen during the egg drop experiment if we used different lengths of tube?” Then on the last day, they let us find people with similar “I Wonder” statements and conduct our own experiments to answer our own questions! This was my favorite activity of the week.

Here's my group's conclusions, after several broken eggs!

We had to write up a report, including a claims/evidence chart, and present our findings to the class carousel-style. Some members of our group stayed to present while others listened to the 2-minute presentations from other groups, then we switched, so everyone got to listen to every group.

This year I'm going to try to have my students write these “I Wonder” statements in their notebooks. My goal is once a month they can get in groups an design an experiment to test these statements. This is a tremendous way for students to learn how to set up controls and variables that help answer their question.

And for the closing presentation, Phil and Amy Mickelson spoke to all the teachers, answered questions, and posed for a group picture.

I was amazed that Phil won the British Open the previous Sunday in Scotland, but still made time to talk to a bunch of teachers just five days later, across the country from his San Diego home. He talked in depth about how much he uses science, math, and engineering in golf while Amy encouraged us and shared stories about encouraging her own kids to recognize STEM in their own lives. As a golf fan, this was an amazing highlight of the trip for me.

Oh, and leave plenty of room in your luggage for the plane trip home for all the amazing books you will get for free!

As I'm reading over my post, I'm realizing that I have not come close to doing justice to this academy. I took 37 pages of notes, and I rarely take more than a page during a training. Even though we started every morning with breakfast at 7:15 and classes from 8:00-4:00, I did not feel like I was overwhelmed with information.

All of the sessions were hands-on where I got to be a 5th grader and experience these activities as a student. And it was so refreshing that the instructors never mentioned these best practices as a way to get students to pass a standardized test. Not once!!

Rather, they emphasized the importance of helping our students build knowledge and interest in STEM, and how to help our students think for themselves.

Please, if you are a grade 3-5 teacher, go to to apply for next year's conference. The deadline is October 31. I will be nagging my school's 3-5 teachers, math resource and science resource teachers to apply!

I have a hard time putting into words how much I learned from this week, and how nice it was to be spoiled (even though five days is a LONG time to spend away from my wife and daughters!!) Because of this academy, I am way more excited than usual to start this school year and help my students gain a deeper appreciation and understanding of STEM.

Thanks for reading this, and I hope some of you will take advantage of the opportunity to apply for this excellent conference.

--Keith (Mr. Magician)


  1. I'm excited about science just reading your post (and I don't even teach science). Thank you!

    Jennifer Smith-Sloane

  2. What a wonderful post, Keith. I loved reading about your experiences at MEMTA. I pinned your science/math pages to remind me to reinforce this idea with my students in the fall. Hello to Mrs G. as well! :)

    Finding JOY in 6th Grade

  3. I went to MEMTA in 2012 and second everything you have written! It was the best professional development opportunity of my career. Thanks for helping me relive it through your post!

    I strongly encourage others to apply.



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