Global Hydroponics Project

As with many of our projects, I was looking for a science project that connected real-world learning and a positive impact on the world. Our Global Hydroponics Project accomplished both of those tasks. We started with a virtual connection via videoconference with a class in Belgium who were also learning about hydroponics. The Belgium students had already started their hydroponics systems, so they were able to share what they had learned with my 4th graders and show the systems that they had created.

My students then began the process of learning about plant structures and what plants needed for life, researching different types of hydroponic systems and how they were built, and researching the benefits of hydroponic systems in relation to climate change. We did some broader research about the causes and effects of climate change and learned that plants grown in a hydroponic system can use up to 10 times less water than traditionally grown plants, thus helping to conserve water and other resources.

We decided to grow lettuce and began the process of starting the seeds in peat pellets. Each student had their own lettuce seeds in their own peat pellet. As the seeds started to sprout, it was time for students to design and create their own hydroponic systems. Students got in groups of about three or four with other students who were interested in creating the same type of hydroponic system. I provided much of the materials, but students were able to bring in materials needed from home, as well.

After the systems had been built and the seed pellets had been transferred to the hydroponic systems, students took careful measurements and observations over the next few weeks as our lettuce grew. Students reflected about which type of system was allowing for the best growth of the lettuce and why and what they would do differently or change the next time. We connected again with the class in Belgium to update them on our progress. We also connected virtually with classes in Australia and in California to share our learning and to offer that as a possible mitigation to the drought and wildfires caused by climate change that was affecting their communities.

When the lettuce was ready to be harvested, we had a little salad-tasting party in class, and I have never seen kids so eager to eat their vegetables! Click here to see more pictures and details about our Global Hydroponics Project.

Empowering Students with the Global Goals

Connecting student learning to real-world problems empowers students to realize that they can help shape their future and change the world. One of the best tools for providing students with opportunities to tackle real-world problems is with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. The U.N. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are a set of 17 global goals put forth by the United Nations that aim to create a more equitable and sustainable planet for all its inhabitants. 

UN global goals

Facilitating student learning through the SDGs allows students to engage in real-world learning with a social impact for good. It also allows students opportunities for cross-curricular learning, as studying the global goals can include all subject and academic areas. When students begin to study the SDGs and look at the world through the lens of the global goals, it shows them that through their learning they can truly make a positive difference and change the world. This is the true meaning and purpose of education. 


Last year, I created a Genius Hour-style project that involved the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals and design-thinking. First, my 4th grade students learned about design-thinking through an activity involving the Extraordinaires Design Studio, which involves fictional characters and opportunities for students to write a backstory and create tools, vehicles, and other accessories for their fictional characters. In a later lesson, students were introduced to the SDGs. We went through each of the goals and explained it in simple language and gave examples. The World’s Largest Lesson website has some great resources and videos to help introduce the goals to students. 

global goals group

Students, in groups of two or three or individually, chose a global goal and developed a question or problem statement related to that goal. Then they researched their goal and came up with possible solutions that addressed their question or problem statement. After that, students wrote a fictional story involving their Extraordinaire character that infused real facts about their SDG. Students then created an invention prototype that would help solve the problem related to their global goal. The invention could be made out of recycled materials, cardboard, 3D printed, or out of any other materials that the students had available to them. Finally, students shared their fictional story with the research on the global goal and their invention prototype with the class. In addition, students could also share their projects with a partner class via video conference or video message, such as through Flipgrid. 


Allowing students the freedom and opportunity to tackle the world’s problems empowers them to know that they can change the world. The U.N. Sustainable Development Goals is a vehicle for students to realize their potential as positive change-makers. I have spoken and presented on this topic the last couple years at the ISTE conference, including giving an Ignite presentation on this project at the 2019 ISTE Conference in Philadelphia. Here is a presentation on this project with more details and resources. 

ISTE 2019 6

The Fake News Challenge

“Fake news” has been thrust into the national spotlight since the 2016 U.S. Presidential election. The term has since become widely used, mocked and, in some instances, abused.

That’s a problem. With an ever-increasing amount of news and entertainment sources available online, students have greater access to information now than at any other time. Anyone can create and upload content online, whether it is factual or not, and reach a wide audience. It is no wonder, then, that many students have a difficult time differentiating what online content is true and what is false. According to a recent Stanford study, many students lack an ability to think critically about information they see online. Distinguishing sponsored content and advertising from news articles, and identifying content sources, are skills that students often struggle at mastering.

How can educators help students recognize credible news sources and identify an information source’s potential bias? When teaching this topic to students, there are a number of items to discuss, according to a resource from the Newseum in Washington, D.C. Students should be able to recognize:

  • if what they are reading makes logical sense,
  • if the information is consistent with sources they already know to be reliable, and
  • if the information be verified through other sources.

It’s also wise to consider whether the source itself is well-known and widely considered reputable. Who authored and published the article? Does it have a copyright, and is it timely?


Educators should also discuss whether the article is only telling part of the story—if there is a hidden agenda (such as a political goal or financial interest), or if it is targeted to a certain group of people who may already share the same ideology. Considering these points will help the reader to better understand the author’s purpose or motivation for writing. A legitimate news article will inform and shed light on a topic for a mass audience. Untrustworthy sources of information may have stated or unstated agendas, such as to make money or perpetuate a specific ideology; these sources will often use persuasive, even hyperbolic, language and imagery.

The idea of gamification, or learning academic content through game elements, is one way to try to increase student interest in and retention of ideas concerning this topic. One simple classroom game helping students to identify false news stories works like this: First, the teacher reads an online or printed article to the class. Students will then have several minutes to conduct research, while applying the lessons and ideas from classroom discussions, to find out whether the article presented by the teacher is true or false. After the allotted research time, students communicate their findings. Points can be awarded for both a correct answer and for students justifying why they believe the article was accurate or inaccurate.

If students become adept at that game, there is another class-to-class collaborative game that my students have participated in. Last year, my 4th grade students played The Fake News Challenge, a game I helped develop with a teacher in California. Each class breaks up into small groups, with each group researching two factual news stories, and then finding or creating a third news story that is “fake.” My students decided to create their own fake news story, some groups adapting it from a real news story but changing major aspects, and other groups writing a story entirely from scratch. The students loved being creative in writing their own story. Some students, however, found that it was more difficult creating a fake news story than they had anticipated, since they had to make it believable yet false.

Fake News Challenge 2018

When the students finished researching and writing their stories, we connected with a partner class via Skype, and the small groups read their three articles, in no particular order, to the other class. The other class then had five minutes to research and figure out which article was false and give justification for why. Small groups from each class then took turns presenting their articles.

If we as educators wish to prepare our students for the workforce they will enter and the world they will inherit, we need to help them develop the critical thinking skills needed in all facets of life. A good educator teaches students what to learn. A great educator teaches students how to learn. We should prepare our students to not only read but to critically analyze the ever-growing amount of information and media they encounter every day.

This post was originally published in EdSurge on Aug. 31, 2017, and can be found here. I have also presented on this topic at the ISTE Conference, and the presentation can be found here

Cooking Cultural Exchange

Food is an excellent way to learn about a new culture. It was with that idea in mind that I created the Cooking Cultural Exchange a few years ago. The project consists of two classes partnering up in different states or countries. Each class researches the history of a traditional food item from their own state or country. Then, connecting via video conference, each class demonstrates how to make their traditional food item and then shares some facts about the food with their partner class. Teachers can then share their recipes with the other class so all students can make both food items at home. 


When my 4th graders did this project this fall, we partnered with an after-school cooking class in Uruguay. We started the project with a Mystery Skype, then each class challenged the other to do the project. My students choose pumpkin pie as our traditional food to share. Within the next two weeks when our classes would connect live again, my students researched pumpkin pie recipes, the history of pumpkin pie, and then made inferences about why pumpkin pie is considered an American dessert and why it’s typically eaten in the fall. 


The day we connected the second time with our Uruguayan partner class over video conference, I had brought in all of the ingredients for pumpkin pie from home. Each student was assigned to either demonstrate how to measure and add a specific ingredient to the bowl, or to share a fact or inference that they had researched. After students had demonstrated step-by-step how to make pumpkin pie and shared their research, our partner class demonstrated how to prepare a traditional Uruguayan dessert. 

Cooking exchange - Uruguay

After the call was over, several students had brought in pies from home so that we could taste what a finished pie was like! Each student went home with both class’ recipes so they could recreate the desserts with their families. It was a great way to share and learn about different cultures through food and cooking!


Plastic Waste Project

plastic waste sea turtle

Plastic waste is a big problem worldwide. Because of this fact, we wanted our 4th grade students at Wheatland Elementary to participate in a project that would allow them to better understand the magnitude of the problem and to learn about some possible solutions. In October of 2019, we began our Plastic Wastes Project. We first introduced the topic to the students through a Skype session with a turtle hospital in South Carolina. The students were able to see how plastic waste in the ocean was hurting and killing sea creatures that mistake the plastic waste for food.


Next, students researched about the problem of plastic waste – how long plastic takes to decompose, how it makes its way to the ocean, and what effects it has on the environment and wildlife. Students also did a Plastic Inventory, where they collected and recorded how much plastic waste their family uses in one week. The students logged each piece of plastic waste their family used and then brought in a bag full to be used for a later part in the project. We found out the total pieces of plastic the students had collected over the week. To gain a better understanding of how much plastic we all use in our everyday lives, we multiplied the total amount of plastic pieces for the class by how many classes we have in our school. Then we multiplied that by how many schools in our district, and how many districts in Kansas, and so forth. By the end, students were amazed at just how much plastic waste we all produce and its impact on the environment.

Screen Shot 2019-12-30 at 6.29.59 PM

Students showed their learning in a couple of different ways. First, students chose three of their plastic waste items that they had brought in to school and transformed them into a sea creature. Then they took a picture of their plastic waste sea creature in front of a green screen and then overlaid it on an ocean image and wrote a short problem and solution on that image. The second way students shared their learning was by creating a Buncee. Using text and images, students showed what the problem was with plastic waste, how it gets in to the ocean, and talked about ways we can help reduce the amount of plastic waste. Students even used the recording feature in Buncee to create a short video explaining about their families’ Plastic Inventory. They loved the creativity Buncee allowed them in sharing their knowledge on the issue.

Screen Shot 2019-12-30 at 6.38.12 PMScreen Shot 2019-12-30 at 6.37.47 PM

We also wanted to share our knowledge with others in order to help educate other students and perhaps inspire them to be part of the solution, as well. The fourth-grade teachers and art teacher constructed a giant sea turtle out of chicken wire that was about 12-feet long. After the students had brought in a portion of their families’ plastic waste for the week, they filled the giant wire sea turtle with their plastic waste that they had collected at home. We displayed this giant plastic waste-filled wire sea turtle in the front lobby of the school. It provided great talking points for the other students in the school, as well as the parents and faculty. Later, we even Skyped with a Spanish class at Andover High School that was looking to do a project on plastic waste, too. My 4th grade students shared about our project and what they had learned with the high school students, and evaluated and gave suggestions for the high school students’ ideas about their own upcoming projects.

This project was a great chance for my students to engage in a real-world, global issue and share their knowledge with others inside and outside of our own school. Hopefully it will inspire them to think about their responsibility as consumers and global citizens.

plastic project 1

Using STEM for the Playground

Toward the end of last school year, our 4th grade team at my school began to think of an end-of-the-year STEM project that would be a larger benefit to the school and have a more lasting impact than just something for our students to create and then tear down in a couple weeks. We decided to have our students build a 9-square-in-the-air game for our school’s playground.


There were several parts to this project which covered a couple of weeks. First, we introduced the students to what the game was through showing a short youtube video. Next, students had to research the rules to the game, and come up with some ways it might be adjusted for younger students. They also had to figure out the dimensions of the structure. We then gave students straws and twisty ties. They had to create a miniature model of the 9-square structure to scale. Then, students did research on what supplies and materials we would need to build the structure full-scale, as well as how much the materials would cost.

clone tag: 8970231357971966086

Once the students had researched and figured everything out, we ordered the PVC pipes to the correct length and the correct number of joints for the corners. The materials actually didn’t arrive until the day school was out for the year, so we saved the assembly part until the beginning of this year. We pulled the 5th grade students, our 4th graders last year, and took them outside to have them assemble the 9-square structure. They were so happy to see their hard work, planning, and research come to fruition! It has been a popular recess game ever since!


ISTE 2018 Recap

It was another busy time at the ISTE 2018 conference in Chicago. I had the opportunity to present several different sessions, connect with colleagues and peers from around the world, and gain new ideas and tools to try out in my classroom. The first day of the ISTE conference, I presented at the Buncee booth on digital storytelling. Several people stopped by their booth during my talk, and it was great to talk with and catch up with the people at Buncee. Later that afternoon, I presented a session on global collaborative projects and how they align with the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals. The presentation can be accessed here. We had a really good turnout for the presentation, and shared many collaborative global projects that we have done via Skype. After the session, I attended a Skype Master Teacher dinner and meeting. It was so nice to reconnect with many fellow Skype Master Teachers that I had not seen in a year or two, and I even met a few Skype Master Teachers that I had not met in person previously. It is a breath of fresh air to be a part of a professional learning network such as the Skype Master Teacher and Microsoft Innovative Educator Expert program where the expertise and opinions of educators are valued.

ISTE 2018 presentation

The morning of the second day of the conference was spent visiting several booths in the expo hall. I visited some booths of sites that my students utilize in class, and discovered several new tools and websites that I want to explore more this year. I particularly enjoyed perusing the booths in the start-up section of the expo hall, as many of those companies and organizations were new to me. In the afternoon, I did a Facebook Live session with Skype in the Classroom, and I volunteered in the Microsoft and Skype in the Classroom booth for several hours helping educators discover the possibilities of Skype in the Classroom and how to connect their students to the world. On the third day of the conference I presented on ways that you can use Buncee and Microsoft together. The session was well attended with people in the audience and viewing online. I also volunteered in the ISTE Digital Playground area helping educators connect with others through Skype in the Classroom. It was a fast three days, but I was glad to reconnect with some of my favorite global educators and share some of the great work my students are doing!

Disney Teacher Field Trip

For a first-time Disney visitor, preparing for our recent professional development teacher field trip to Disney World in Orlando was a little like jumping off a diving board and not knowing how far the water was. You trust that it’ll be great, but you’re going in blind and not fully knowing what to expect. Several week prior to the trip, we read The Wisdom of Walt by Jeffrey Barnes, and learned the history of the Disney theme park, the motivation and insight into Walt Disney, and how the themes and attributes of both the park and its founder can translate into the classroom. The book helped prepare me for the Disney experience as much as it could, but experiencing Disney World first-hand was like turning the lights on in a dimly-lit room; the sights, sounds, smells, and vastness of it all was something that I had to experience in order to fully appreciate it.

Disney 1

The professional development teacher field trip was the brainchild of Andover, KS, Instructional Technology Coach, Dyane Smokorowski, who designed the trip to inspire teachers to take the lessons Walt Disney implemented in his parks and apply them in their classrooms to better engage students. There were 41 teachers from across the country that attended, and each day of the trip consisted of some whole-group activities and small-group challenges within the four parks of Disney World. On the first day, we were tasked to discover how Disney World personalizes the experience for each guest. We had to interview and take photos with cast members, park employees, to hear a variety of experiences on what they do to make each guest feel special. We also had to make character videos with Disney characters within the park. I was able to create selfie videos with Minnie Mouse, Donald Duck, and Goofy, in which we wished my students a great start to the school year. Those videos will go a long way in helping build that trust, excitement, and relationships that students need to be successful.

Disney 4 - group shot

On the second day, we embarked on a scavenger hunt challenge at either Epcot or Animal Kingdom. Our tasks included taking pictures with various items or people, trying different foods, or interviewing various cast members. My small group visited numerous country attractions at Epcot, learning about various cultures and customs. The third day had us spending time at the attraction that we had done some mini research on before the trip, reflecting on how this attraction could be used in some way in our own classroom. The attraction that I researched was “It’s a Small World,” where participants are taken on a boat ride through different parts of the world. It was fascinating to see the automated dolls dressed up in traditional costumes from countries all over the world. We also had the opportunity to learn about the Walkin’ & Rollin’ Costumes, an organization that helps provide children with special needs a custom-built costume wheelchair. Many schools and classes partner with the organization to participate in it as a STEM project.

Disney 9

This professional development experience has impacted me professionally by causing me to pay more attention to how I create an environment of magic in my own classroom. At Disney, I was amazed by how all of the attractions infused sight, sound, smell, and feel. Many of the rides had different scents that went with what was being shown visually, and had sprays of water or gusts of air to add to the experience. What would it look like to incorporate these elements and senses into lessons and projects? I was also struck by how friendly and accommodating the cast members were. Everyone seemed to go above and beyond to help the guests out and make their experience magical. It was a good reminder that the tone we set for our students can go a long way in what they learn and how successful they are in school. We even had various sponsors donate things for our trip, including an anonymous donation of water bottles, t-shirts from The Wright Stuff Chics, Rocketbook minis, backpacks from Buncee, and Dole Whips provided by Brainpop. The Disney trip was a great reminder that if we pay attention to the details and go the extra mile, we can make magic happen for students.

Developing Empathy with Empatico

Having connected with classes from all around the world over the last few years, I had a pretty good idea of how setting up such a connection would work and how it would impact my 4th grade students. So I was curious to see how using Empatico compared to other connections we had made in the past. Empatico allows classes to connect with one another and explore ideas and experiences that foster student empathy, curiosity, and kindness. Teachers sign up, fill out their available schedule, and are matched with a partner class. With the calendar feature, teachers can see the common availability with their partner class, then use the chat feature to set up a time to connect their classes. There are numerous activities on the Empatico website that teachers can use when connecting with their partner class to help students interact with the other class and share similarities and differences. 

Empatico 2018

Our partner class was a third grade class from Nevada. For our first call, we decided to do the activity Weather Out the Window. We were able to video connect with the class directly through the Empatico website. Students in both classes shared about the current weather where they lived and about the climate for each state. That led to a conversation comparing the weather and climate in Kansas and Nevada. Students even discovered that despite having different climates, each state was currently in a drought.

When we had our second call a couple weeks later, we did the Ways We Play activity. On the call, the students shared their favorite recess games and sports they play after school or during the summer. The students discovered that they have far more in common than they had differences. It was great to see each class start to connect with one another over things they shared. One of the things I enjoyed about Empatico was the ease of use. Everything from the schedule and calendar to the activity lessons and resources to the video platform were all located on the Empatico website. It was helpful to have everything located together. My students gain so much when connecting with other classes around the country and world. They develop communication skills, empathy, and collaboration, and widen their perspectives of the world, continuing on their journey to become global citizens. Empatico helps them along that path. 

ISTE 2017 Recap

ISTE 2017 in San Antonio was filled with learning new educational trends, networking with great educators, and sharing the successes of my students in Kansas. Monday began with the IGNITE session. I shared my passions about global collaboration and shared several global projects that my students had participated in this year through Skype in the Classroom. I then shared why global collaboration is important for students, as well as for society as a whole. In part, it exposes students to other people, points-of-view, and culture, and helps them develop empathy. That in turn, makes the world a safer place by breaking down the barriers of fear, ignorance, and the unknown.

Todd IGNITE 2017

After the IGNITE session, I held a Mystery Skype poster session with two other teachers. Many people stopped by our table eager to learn more about how using Skype and doing mystery Skypes can help students academically and socially. We were able to introduce teachers to all that Skype in the Classroom has to offer students and the many doors it can help open. I then hosted a Skype in the Classroom virtual field trip to Yellowstone National Park in the Microsoft Experience room. It was great to see the expression on the audience members’ faces who were experiencing a Skype virtual field trip for the first time. Later, I spoke at the Buncee booth about how Buncee and Kidblog can be used for student assessments and as a way to communicate with parents.

Tuesday morning I gave a presentation on alternative student assessments. I shared many student examples and discussed why it is important to give students more voice and choice and creativity when assessing what they know on a topic or standard. Overall, ISTE 2017 was a great way to gather new ideas and talk with various education technology companies and vendors. I will take many new ideas with me into next school year!