Electrifiying EXCEL!

What a crazy few weeks we have had leading up to Fall Break.  This past week, third and fourth grades didn’t have a chance to come to EXCEL due to our hurricane days, and fifth grade was making up for the day that we missed last week.  So each class did something different this week, and it looks as if it’s going to be that way next week as well!

First and second grade started with our mystery.  In our mystery this week, we had to figure out who had a February birthday by completing a logic puzzle.  Logic puzzles are tricky for most kids, and some of my youngest thinkers had some difficulty figuring this one out, so we did it together.  It’s an adjustment, learning how to think in this way, and many of us are not used to not understanding things the first time, so this was hard all around!


As an introduction to our learning about electricity this week, we started with an experiment.  First we rubbed a piece of plastic wrap with a paper towel, and then we watched what happened as we put the plastic wrap onto our rice krispies.  We made static electricity!


Before we got started, we had to first find out what we knew.


Part of establishing our prior knowledge was a matching game where we tried to match terms and definitions related to electricity.


Our next step was to watch a Magic School Bus about electricity, and then play a fun game about circuits.  You can find the neat games we played  here!

I had planned for us to start building circuits during this class period, but Hurricane Irma had different plans, and only one of our packages of supplies arrived.


Instead, we built models of circuits out of legos!


Fifth graders started out with one of the favorites from last year:  hinky pinkies!


Then we went to the computer lab to turn our drafts of our Mars Colonization brochures into the final copies!


After watching a short video that chronicled the Mars exploration program of the last 50 years, we got to work making our edible Mars rovers.  First, we planned.


Then we created!  Most people wanted to work by themselves.  I suspect this is because they knew that they could eat their creations after they were finished!


Some of us wanted to work together!


And some of us learned the value of sticking with a simple idea! (He wasn’t really upset!)


With all of our supplies now safely at school, we’ll start working on our circuits and eventually our remote-controlled Mars rovers!


Researching Rovers!

What a fun week in EXCEL as we researched and reinvented the Mars rovers!  We started our day warming up our brains with our mysteries.  In first and second grade, we worked on cracking a secret code.  Third and fourth grades had worked on this last week, so it was fun to see the different ways that my younger thinkers approached the problem.  First we solved one together…Rover24

Then we picked sticks to divide into groups to work on our mystery.


Next we watched a video about the huge amount of money that the United States spends on Mars exploration, especially the rovers.  After the video, I split them up into groups and they listed the pros and cons of spending that much money on exploring the red planet.  Then we came together, listed the reasons it is or is not worth it, and decided as a class that, well, we just weren’t sure!

Then it was off to the computer lab to create our digitally produced brochures that we worked on last week.

After lunch, we needed to find out about more about the different versions of the Mars rover that the United States has sent to Mars:  Sojourner, Spirit and Opportunity, Curiosity, and the to be launched, Mars2020 rover.  This time, though, it was up to the students to teach.  Each group or pair got the name of a rover, a list of websites, and an iPad.  Their job was to research each rover, create a poster with a drawing and information, and then present it to the class.

Our final task of the day was to take what we learned about the rovers and complete an engineering challenge ~ to make an edible, moving rover!  First, we planned.

Then we created…

And after a little bit of nibbling and a little bit of trial and error, we were finished!

Fifth grade didn’t have EXCEL this past week, but they will do their rover exploration next week!  Next in EXCEL, we’ll learn all about electrical circuits in preparation for making our real, working Mars rovers!

Thank you for sharing your precious children with me for one day per week.  They are truly blessings!

If you would like to donate to our EXCEL class, we are always in need of the following supplies:  Clorox Wipes (we are messy!), tissues, paper cups, and paper plates.

Have a great week and stay safe!


Dr. Stone

Thinking About Mars

Wow!  What a week in EXCEL!  We have had our growing pains, as we get used to having 10-11 students per class – a big change from the 4-7 of last year.  While it has been wonderful learning with our new friends, we all have been through an adjustment period as we learn each other’s personalities and learning styles.  We also had Grandparent’s Day practice thrown in there for some extra confusion, but we still learned a lot and had lots of fun!

We started each class with a warm up activity.  One class had a building challenge while the others had mysteries to solve.


I tried teaching them how to solve a cryptogram, but before I could finish, they had cracked the secret code.  Each letter in the scrambled message stood for the letter preceding it in the alphabet.  What smarties…I hadn’t even thought of that!

After our brains were warmed up and ready to go,  I posed a question:  Would you like to go to Mars?  Each student wrote their name on a sticky note and placed it on the “yes” or “no” side.  Throughout all of our other activities, I asked them if their answer had changed.  While some were absolutely resolute in wanting to stay on Earth, others were a little more curious and thought that the contributions that they would make for science would far outweigh never being able to come home again!  Below is the final count.  As you can see, most wanted to stay put, a few wanted to take a giant leap into space, and a few were on the fence.


We played a round of Mars Jeopardy on the Smartboard–one of their favorite games–to review and apply all we had learned about Mars.  It was a close game in all grade levels ~ we have really learned a lot!


We also worked on finishing our alien critters and filling out some information about their adaptations.


After lunch, all grades learned about how scientists use soil samples to find out about the Earth, and even Mars!  First we looked at actual soil samples from different places around the school.





Then, in third, fourth, and fifth grades, we talked about how scientists took core samples so that they could study the layers of the planet they were studying.  We discussed and hypothesized about how different layers are made on both planets, and then we took some core samples of our own…from candy bars!  The straw was our drill, and after we had taken and examined our core sample, we cut our candy bars in half to see how the layers in the sample matched up with the actual samples of our “soil.”


Third, fourth, and fifth graders ended their day making brochures for a fictional trip to Mars.  Even if they felt that people should go and live on Mars (and fifth graders felt very strongly that they shouldn’t!), they had to make their brochure to try to persuade people to come.  We read an article written by one of the 100 people that have been chosen for Mars One’s 2025 colonization to get an opposing point of view, to see what made people want to leave our Earth behind and spend the rest of their days on Mars.

We’ll use Microsoft Publisher next week to finalize our brochures and present them to a panel of teachers to see how persuasive they were!

First and second graders completed a different project as their final activity.  After watching a neat video about the launching and voyage of the Mars Rover, we looked more carefully at the rocket, the Saturn V.  Then we made our own rockets out of materials that I provided.  Each child had the same task and the same materials, but as you can see, each rocket was unique! (And Yummy!)

Next week, we’ll use our research skills (and if we’re new, or in 1st or 2nd grade) we’ll learn some research skills, as we learn more about the Mars Rover program.  We’ll make edible Mars Rovers in a STEM challenge to get ready for our big project the following week:  Working Mars Rover models!!!

Have a great long weekend!

Dr. Stone

Exploring Life on Mars

This week, once the eclipse was over, we could get back to our matter at hand:  Mars.  But first we had mysteries to solve.  For the 1st-4th graders, many were just learning about our mysteries that we liked to solve and the logic grids that we use to help us keep track of the clues.  For the fifth graders, they jumped right back in with both feet.  It took a while for us to get our footing doing logical thinking again, but before long, they had solved the first phase of the case!


After we had warmed up our brains, it was time to do some learning about Mars.  To learn about the relative size of Mars to the Earth and the distance between the two planets, we used balloons.  For this, we used measurement skills, as we blew up our “earth” balloon to a size of 20cm.  Given a chart of planetary data, we estimated with the younger grades and actually did the math with the upper grades to find the relative size of the moon and Mars.


This is the 3rd and 4th graders showing the moon’s relative distance from the Earth.  Mars’ relative distance from the earth was too far to demonstrate ~ almost a mile away!


Then it was time to learn more about Mars.  We watched two videos about Mars, and the fifth graders played an online game that tested our launching skills, given the orbits of the Earth and Mars.  We learned that this was tricky because of Mars’ more elliptical orbit.


Then it was time for us to put our knowledge to the test as we sorted Mars facts as true or false.



Now that we knew all about Mars, and we knew it was inhospitable to human life, our next task was to come up with a creature that could survive and thrive on the red planet.  First we had to decide what differentiated living and non-living things.  This was a two step process.  First we did some soil experiments with “Martian soil” to determine which samples contained living things.


Sample B did not smell good, according to Elijah!


Sample B did indeed contain a living substance ~ active yeast!  One of the characteristics of living things is that they react to stimuli.



The second step in our process was to decide what made something alive.  We brainstormed and discussed and came up with some basic characteristics of living things.  In the lower grades, we did this as a group, but in the upper grades, each small group came up with their own definition of life and then we came up with a group definition accordingly.


Now we were ready to create.  The task was simple:  Design and draw a creature that could survive and thrive on Mars, given what we knew about Mars and what we knew about the needs of living things.  Students could choose to work in a group or on their own.  Only 3rd and 4th grade finished this week, so I’ll save the rest of the creatures for next week’s post!


As you can see, there are a lot of new faces in EXCEL this year, so it was more difficult to make sure I got pictures of everyone.  Please be assured that I will do my best to include each student each week, but that I may not always be successful.  Some days, there are more demands on my time and attention during the class period, and sometimes, the excitement of the students requires that I put down my camera and reign us in!  And still other days, like Thursday, kids are in and out of the classroom taking tests that they would miss, practicing for Mental Math, and actually going to see Mental Math!  So if you don’t see your child this week, I promise you will next week!


Welcome Back to EXCEL!

Welcome back to EXCEL!  I was so happy to get my kiddos back in the classroom this week.  We welcomed some new friends and reconnected with some old, learned a lot, and had lots of fun doing both!  This is the weekly account of what we do in EXCEL, so that others can get an idea of how we stretch our brains and use STEAM – science, technology, engineering, art, and math – to dive more deeply into learning.  Usually, it is full of pictures of all of the grade levels, but this week, I had some technical difficulties and many of my pictures were erased.  The pictures that remained are below, but rest assured, that next week, I will take precautions to get all of the kids in the pictures and onto the blog!

We started out each EXCEL class with a review of the rules, a review of the growth mindset that we try to adopt in the EXCEL classroom, and introductions all around.  At the heart of the growth mindset is the theory that mistakes are learning tools, and that it is good to do hard things, even if it’s not easy.

We then dove into our weekly brain teasers.  My old friends had to get used to thinking outside the box again and my new friends had to get used to thinking about things in different ways.  I think they will find them easier next week because they are starting to retrain their brains!

After that, we started with our first challenge- Save Sam!  Sam, a worm, went out for a sail one day and his boat capsized, trapping the life jacket under the boat.  Our job?  Retrieve the life jacket and place it on Sam…using only two paperclips!  Teamwork and communication were key!

Save Sam

First we planned.


And then we worked.


Some of us were successful!


First and second graders participated in a different challenge, Help Harry!  The other students had done this last year.  Their task was to create a perch for Harry so that he could see what was going on in the classroom, using only 2 cupcake wrappers, 2 index cards, 4 pipecleaners, a piece of aluminum foil, and 24 inches of tape.


After everyone had finished their challenges, we learned about how scientists harness the energy of the sun by making solar ovens.


The s’mores that we made in them were yummy!


After our tummies were full, the 3rd-5th graders started researching Mars with a scavenger hunt on the iPads.


1st and 2nd graders used what they had learned about the stages of the solar eclipse to make a culinary representation of the first, second, third, and fourth stages!


Next week (when my camera is working!) we’ll dive into our Mars exploration!  Hope you enjoy the Sun-sational solar eclipse!

Roller Coasters!!

This week was a short week in EXCEL, as fifth grade (plus me!) went to St. Augustine for a three day field trip.  Before we left on Wednesday, though, I made sure to make time to see lower grade class on Monday instead.  Continuing our study of carnivals, we worked on learning about and creating our own roller coasters!

We started out with our usual brain teasers.  This week’s brain teasers started with a carnival themed riddle and then a word puzzle.  Then we started on our review.  We reviewed many of the concepts that we had studied earlier in the year:  kinetic energy, potential energy, Newton’s Three Laws of Motion, gravity, inertia and acceleration.  First we watched some videos to help us remember, then we played a Smartboard game, and finally we played a card game to help us remember the concepts.


After we had reviewed the concepts and I was sure everyone remembered the terms and could demonstrate them on a roller coaster, we started making our very own roller coasters out of Kinex!

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This took a while and the fun part was that the students had to complete it by themselves, following the directions very carefully.  One wrong part, and it wouldn’t work, so they had to be careful and they had to read carefully!

We didn’t finish, but I’ll post the pictures next week!  3rd grade is off on a field trip this week, so we’ll miss our time together.  In all the classes, we will be working on our final carnival games!

Wrapping Up Geology

This week in EXCEL, we wrapped up our geology unit with the study of speleology, better known as the study of caves.  As always, we started with some brain teasers to warm up our thinking.

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Then, we looked at our posters from last week.  Last week’s task had been to, in groups, create a poster – using words, pictures, or a combination of both of them – to express our knowledge about caves.  Each group had an additional task of asking three questions about caves as well.

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Each group had the opportunity to present their posters, and from the information that the students knew, we created a poster.

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Each group got a set of their own questions and they used them to guide their viewing as we watched some informational videos about caves.

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We also made “caves” in mason jars, using sand and rocks, with sugar cubes simulating the erosion of limestone.

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We then read a really neat book about a fascinating subject:  the ancient cave paintings of Lascaux.  We also took a virtual tour of the caves and the little town of Montignac, France where the story took place.  If you are not familiar with the story, ask your EXCEL student or look it up.  Very interesting stuff!

After we had learned all about the cave paintings, the meaning behind them, and the process and materials that ancient man used in this first documented example of art, we made some of our own.

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The fifth graders were especially intrigued by “the wall of hands” and decided that they would, too, include this in their display.

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The fifth graders also had a chance to finish and refine their designs for their pet rock slides for their playgrounds.

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We have had a great time in EXCEL learning about geology.  I honestly could do a year long study on this, as it is my very favorite, but we must move on!  I apologize for the lack of a post last week, but I had a conference presentation out of town and then had a family member die suddenly, and I just lost track of time.  Hopefully things will start to slow down as the year comes to a close!

Look for lots of fun stuff in our next post, when we begin planning our classroom carnival!