(This story was first published in the September 26, 2013 edition of the Vermont Standard.)
By Katy Savage
On any given day, students in Ryan Becker’s eighthgrade physical science class may be asked to “Sum up chemistry in < 140 characters + post.” Or watch a YouTube video about acceleration and then write 140 character reactions.
The Woodstock Middle School teacher is one of a few teachers to ask students to open up their netbooks to their Twitter accounts.
In an age where most children are using social media, Becker doesn’t deter his students from something they gravitate toward naturally — he encourages them.
All 50 of his students will soon have a Twitter account and use the social networking tool to tweet about science and follow those who tweet about science discoveries.
Some of his former students, for example, are following NASA’s Mars rover, Curiosity, which arrived on the red planet last August. The account has over one million followers and tweets as if the rover is an actual person living on Mars.
“To me that’s really meaningful because it’s real science happening this very moment…and we’re getting updates as we sit in the classroom,” Becker said.
Students may use Twitter to post reactions about Newton’s First Law of Motion or to share what they’ve read about science that’s happening right now. Earlier this year, for example, Becker posted that Saturn is so dense that if it were placed in water, it would float.
Twitter gives students access to more than 500 million people, including science educators, news organizations leading science companies. It allows students to explore sciencerelated topics outside of the constraints of what they would normally learn in a textbook. A student interested in outer space, for example, may follow NASA while a student interested in rocks may follow geological magazines. “If you have a class of 15-20 kids and you have 15 different perspectives and interests it’s really hard to take interests in that diverse of a group everyday all the time,” Becker said. “I’m hoping to use Twitter as a way to extend the communication about science outside of the typical class schedule because the thing that’s always the limiting factor, from my perspective, is time.”
Becker got special permission from administration to okay Twitter usage three years ago. Since then, more than 100 of his students have joined the networking site, using anonymous names from the periodic table of elements, such as eZinc30, as Twitter handles.
Becker’s found Twitter forces students to understand and summarize concepts quickly. Students aren’t graded on how often they tweet. He simply uses the tool to gauge their interest in science.
“Writing about science can be really challenging,” Becker said. “Correctly writing about velocity in a sentence is really hard to do. I use it more to encourage kids to make connections and share the thoughts of other people.”
Becker tweets what’s happening in his classroom, as it happens, allowing parents and peers to follow him.
In his class on Tuesday morning, for example, students were listening to and feeling how a steel ball rolls around the inside of the box using Ob-Scertainers, The students made predictions about how the inside of the box was configured while Becker took photos of students at work and posted them to his Twitter account.
Becker monitors every student account and keeps track of all usernames and passwords. His class is only allowed to tweet about science-related topics and is only allowed to follow those in the science profession.
Becker uses Twitter for his own professional development as well. He recently participated in a Google Hangout with a science teacher from Tennessee, a science teacher from New Jersey, two employees from the American Association for the Advancement of Science and an Australian scientist, communication specialist and founder of Sciengage, all while sitting at his kitchen table.
“To me what’s so exciting about Twitter and the potential that it holds is that it challenges all of these traditional paradigms about teaching and just learning in general,” Becker said.
Ryan Becker, a science teacher at Woodstock Middle School, tweets a photo of Ethan Earle’s science experiment.
Katy Savage Photo