Dealing with the fear of being a boring teacher.

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Rocks & Weather: Radon!

[Those of you who are tuning out due to lack of math, please note that there will be a math competition of sorts starting on my blog's anniversary in February. With prizes! Until then, enjoy the qualitative science, it will put hair on your back chest.]

My geology class has now learned quite a bit about sedimentation and the once prime real estate that Iowa possessed in the middle Devonian.

As my students so eloquently put it:

“It’s -10 outside right now, and you’re telling me 500 mya it was like the Bahamas? We got screwed. Evolution is too slow.”

So true, so true.

I open with a salvo of Iowa geology, because, let’s face it, that’s what they know. They’ve lived their lives on Iowa soil and Iowa limestone. My students live near a lake, there’s plenty of awesomeness there, but I doubt many have troubled to look into it.

We’ve been on a field trip, and we’ve collected a lot of fossils and prints already. They’re starting to get a picture of how limestone is deposited and with nary a direct instruction from me.

To finish the menu that is Iowa’s geologic monotone, we land on Radon. A common household pest in the state.

How to introduce it? Tell them that it’s dangerous? Tell them that they should care? That never works. Let’s go the Dan Meyer route:

Radon levels across the US

What can you do with this, kiddos? The goal with any WCYDWT is to scream the question with the media. If you have to frame it, or if you feel like you need to “provide enough background information,” you’re not getting the point. The point is that background information is now free and accessible every second on nearly every student’s phone.

Your job is now investigation primer. Your job is the wind-up. Your job is to shut up and let them wonder for a hot second.

What questions do you ask yourself upon seeing that map? Here’s some my students spontaneously asked:

  1. What’s Radon? Why is it bad?
  2. What’s a pCi/L?
  3. Why is Iowa in the danger zone?
  4. Why are the colors where they are?
  5. Where does Radon come from?

The beauty here is that I don’t have to ask, motivate, or otherwise play dentist. They do it. They think it’s a gift when I say, “Geez, guys, I just don’t know, better get the computers and phones out and figure this thing out, huh?”

Like I’m some schmuck getting taken for a ride on their investigation carousel. If that’s what it takes, I’ll play the schmuck and the shlimil.


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6 thoughts on “Rocks & Weather: Radon!
  • kominki says:

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  • Those are some amayzing tips!!! Thanks ) I agree about prefolds and covers. I also find them so reliable come on people, be brave and give them a go Thanks for doing this series!!

  • Jerrid Kruse says:

    I think WCYDWT is great for math, and great for sparking inquiry in science, but if the experience starts and ends with WCYDWT type experiences, it misrepresents what science is – although I suspect WCYDWT is actually a pretty accurate portrayal of what math is.

    My initial reaction was to just leave radon out as it is simply not that fundamental to understanding geology. Then, I thought better of it. What if this leads to 1) exploring how to measure/detect radon and 2)making predictions about where radon might be most concentrated in your area and 3) going out and collecting data from kids’ basements (I think you can get fairly inexpensive radon detectors at lowes or home depot.

    What do you think?

  • Jerrid Kruse says:


    You know i’m a fan of your stuff, but I have some criticism lined up for you.

    How is “fact finding” on the web inquiry? How is fact finding about radon fundamental?

    Yes, the students are engaged, but the inquiry they are engaged in is not science inquiry, it might be better described as library inquiry.

    I think what you’ve done here is stellar, but worry about how other, less than stellar, teachers might perceive the implicit message of this activity.

    • Shawn says:

      @Jerrid: This is why we need comments! I totally agree with you, and I struggle with how to let students discover and frame knowledge, especially when that knowledge can’t be easily experimented with. This is the classic argument against inquiry, and I suppose I would say that the only true inquiry I’ll be doing in my geology course will be when we get out into the field. Otherwise it’s pretty much just using WCYDWT to motivate students to ask the right questions.

      You’re totally right. How can we restructure this lesson so that it’s actually inquiry based? (Student generates the question, procedure, and finally the reports out some findings.) I think I’m going to need a class set of Geiger counters…

  • Nordin Zuber says:

    Wow – what a great 3 minute explanation of WCYDWT!