Halloween Science Spooktacular

I am a middle school science teacher.  On any normal day, I am Ms. Nguyen, on of three loud and crazy science teachers.  But on Halloween, I transform into Professor Nguyen — a wizard who is part of a group of wizards called the Extremophiles. My students all stare at me and think, “Oh, man, what is she up to now.”  They already think I’m weird.  And on this day, I become extra weird. And I become their first science teacher who will go to great lengths to get them to like science — at least that’s what they tell me at the end of the show.

Students who show up for class today are part of a workshop called Wizardry 101 where they are Wizard Apprentices learning new spells.  Their only task for the day — make careful observations and recordings, be curious and have fun!

We always begin with the Pledge to Physical Science.  My Wizard Apprentices are asked to raise their right hand and recite the pledge together.

I pledge allegiance to the science of
Matter and energy.
And to the theories for which it stands
Many concepts, under great scientists,
With observations and experimentation for all.

And when they stumble on a word or phrase and are no longer reading the pledge in unison, my book gets angry and ignites in flames.  (The book shown above is made by my friend C. Smallwood — he’s phenomenal.  I come up with an idea of what I want and he builds it to perfection.)

After we recite the pledge, I get a feel for the mood of the room by filling beakers with “mood” potion.  (It’s really just a bunch of indicators in beakers with water and dry ice — but it makes for a spectacular show!)

Then I check their future with a dry ice crystal ball.

I brew up an amazing pot of eyeballs, water and dry ice.

And find some hair samples to add into the brew.

And with a bit of bubble solution (240 ml of water and 10 ml of Dawn dish washing soap) and a piece of absorbent cloth, I create a pretty impressive crystal ball.  My Wizard Apprentices are told how successful they will be as long as they are hardworking, responsible and respectful.

Next, I tell them that wizards always like to collect blood from unsuspecting victims to use in future spells.  I tell them that I have this remarkable liquid that has the ability to loosen up pores in a person’s skin and then soften the veins and capillaries inside.  It is a liquid that is being tested as a new way of obtaining blood samples.  Instead of using needles to draw the blood, all I have to do is put my hand in the liquid and shake the blood out.  The “blood” sample collected on this goldenrod paper will then be used for future spells.  (When I do this, I go into the pod and select a willing participant (most often a teacher) to stick their hand in a beaker of ammonia and then wipe their hand on a piece of golden rod paper.)

Then we “mush up the cranium” of someone who knows too much — or someone who needs an attitude adjustment.

And replace the cranium with good thoughts and ideas — thereby “hypnotizing” them to do good.

I tell them a story about a couple Wizards Apprentices who won a trip to the Johnson Space Center in Houston, TX and how we celebrate their grand achievement.

Wizard celebrations are filled with fire and sound effects — and special dances.

The “whoosh” demonstration amazed all of my young Wizard Apprentices.

Then I tell them about how much I miss living in upstate NY because of the abundance of snow for snowball fights and the building of snowmen.  Now that I live in California, the opportunities to play in the snow are rare … so I told them I’d bring the snow to them … or at least show them how to make snow …

and build a fantastic little snowman.

After the chill from playing in the snow, I lit the snowman and created an impressive fire.  I also allowed a few Wizard Apprentices to roast marshmallows while enjoying the warmth of the fire.

And after a long day of studying and playing, everybody likes to relax in a warm bubble bath …

I prepared a solution of dry ice and water in my apparatus.  (Again, this wonderful contraption was built my dear friend and colleague, C. Smallwood.)

I walked around the classroom and all of the Wizard Apprentices had a chance to bathe in a bubble bath of “carbon dioxide bubbles.”


Before I concluded the show, everyone had the opportunity to sample my Intelligence Potion.

And experience Harry Potter’s spell, Expelliarmus.

Halloween Science Spooktacular was spectacular.  It was spooky cool.  It was perhaps the best show I’ve ever done.  I owe the success of the show to the support from my students (especially Jaskaran who put in more than 10 hours to help me set up), my family, and colleagues/friends (Professor Delfino, Professor Brown, Professor Cervantes, Professor Malone, Professor Lawson, Professor Moua, Professor Smith and Professor Godwin).  Many of the apparatus used in the show were built by my dear friend and colleague, C. Smallwood.  Thanks Professor Smallwood for making my ideas into a reality.

I would also like to thank Patti Duncan for planting the seed at NSTA many years ago.  It was Patti who inspired me to do the show for my students.  In addition, I would like to thank great science teacher Bob Becker, who has inspired me with great demonstrations for many years.

Photo Credits: Julius F and Guillermo U.

2nd Annual Turkey Trot

27 weeks, 5 days preggo.  I’m suited up in my running gear (and lab coat) to run the 2nd Annual Turkey Trot at our school.

Hanging out with some of my favorite kids just moments before the race.

2nd Annual Turkey Trot from Autumn Nguyen on Vimeo.

The students all took off immediately after hearing the horn.  They left me in the dust until … they reached the fence (approximately a tenth of a mile from the start line).  Many slowed down and walked until they saw me.  Determined not to let a pregnant lady beat them, they sped up as soon as they caught sight of me.  And then they’d slow down until they caught sight of me again.

The three lovely girls to my right ran the last two-tenths of the mile race with me so I wouldn’t be last.  And the three girls with the pom-poms were part of my cheering committee.

Fluffy.  Me.  And Fluffy’s friend.

Me after the race.  Happy to be out running with the kids.

A Bit About Learning Science in the Words of 8th Graders …

I teach 8th graders.  I love that they are brutally honest and are not afraid to speak their mind.  Their moods are absolutely unpredictable which keeps me on my toes.  Some days are tough.  And I mean extremely tough (especially for a momma-to-be) and I leave campus completely wiped out — wondering why I teach.  But some days are absolutely fun and rewarding.  I teach 8th graders and and I can’t imagine teaching any other grade or subject.

Last week, my colleague and I had students write a Quarterly Statement about their experience in Science thus far.  They were to write about what they learned, elaborate on things they found surprising, interesting and odd (other than their classmates but their teacher is fair game).  They were asked to discuss the skills they’ve developed since the beginning of the year, comment on their impression of Science up to this point and comment on their progress.  My colleague and I love giving the students an opportunity to express their thoughts on paper.  Students enjoy the assignment as well because it gives them an opportunity to voice their opinion.  Who doesn’t love telling people what they think?

The Quarterly Statements were a joy to read.  I learned that I must slow down — I talk fast but really need to slow down for the kids who don’t process things as quick.  Apparently I’m odd — many of them expressed that in their statements.  I also learned that this year’s classes find such joy in simple experiments and are enjoying science for the first time!

A thing I found surprising was how much labs we do.  In seventh grade, I barely did one lab and only did bookwork.  It thought that 8th grade was going to be the same.  A thing I found interesting was how decorated the room was.  I didn’t expect the things hanging from the ceiling saying our group number.  The thing I found odd was how energetic Ms. Nguyen was.  The moment I walked in, she was already screaming with joy.  It kind of scared me.  I have nothing else to share now but … Brian is having a grand-ole time in Science class without it being to hard or too easy. — Brian

As I first started to learn about science, I was very thrilled; but they way I did science, I got real bored, real easy.  The experiments were boring most of all because I was a youngster and was unable to do the most important steps.  My teacher just showed us.  As I started to get older, I learned about safety and I was finally able to do the labs myself — that’s when science got exciting … and it never stops!  Science this year has been exciting, fun and NOT disappointing! –Neetika

During the first term, I actually find many things odd yet I have an interest in.  With how the teacher acts to how she greets us at the door.  Ms. Nguyen can be the most helpful person in the world and the friendliest.  Ms. Nguyen has that weird charm that no teacher has at Edward Harris.  She is one of the most craziest, funny, playful and kind teachers.  She can always put a smile on your face, when she wants to.  Yet, when it comes to business, she is tough and she gets straight to work.  She can be nice, yes, but when business arrived, she is like a dictator — tough and no exceptions. — Erik

So maybe learning about chemical compounds and memorizing the periodic table aren’t the most interesting things to do in science class, but that does not mean that I’d rather be running laps on the track than being in science.  Honestly, you never know what will happen in Honors Science.  It’s like one day it’s all note-taking, then BAM.  The next day, Ms. Nguyen is dunking Brian’s (or was it Kenny’s) dollar in the mystery liquid and lighting it on fire (which is one of the many odd things that happen on a daily basis).  The crazy thing is that it didn’t burn.  It’s not just burning dollars.  Another interesting scenario was when Ms. Nguyen told a story about why we shouldn’t take things from labs.  It ended with a student who burned his legs because his sweat caused a dangerous mineral to explode in his pants pocket.  And who knew that ice sink?  I didn’t.  That is, until I saw it with my own eyes one day during science class.  Now I feel paranoid to drink my ice, because I’m afraid that there something wrong with my ice, which is why it doesn’t sink.

But it’s not like we spend our mornings running around and blowing things up in graduated cylinders.  We do learn things, surprisingly.  I didn’t even know what a graduated cyliner was until I got to science class.  I admit, the pace of the class is a little faster and advanced than I expected, but it hasn’t fazed my progress throughout the months.  In fact, I’ve gotten a lot out of this class.  I learned how important it is to learn how to make different types of graphs.  From this, also learned the importance of being organized when researching and experimenting.  I’m sure this skill will help me now and later in life, especially at college or at my career.  I also leared that Greek and Latin roots play a key role in science.  Now, I can relate the challenging words I come by, especially in English class.  Little things I’ve learned, like how to measure mass and volume, can lead to bigger things, like what density is.  Learning bigger things can lead to even bigger things, and eventually, all this knowledge can help me strive to a career in science.  It may be far off, but I know that my choices start now; science class affects my life, mainly because it opens new doors for me in the future.

The skills that science class has taught me include: being organized, being responsible, and taking my time.  So maybe my teacher isn’t the most sane paerson at school and my class sometimes end up talking about sinking ice instead of the periodic table, but so what?  Science class to me is an unpredictable class where you learn the boring things in a better, more fun and less sane way than usual.  And guess what … it’s only been 3 months.  What else is next?  Well, whatever it is, bring it on!” — Anne

Goodbye Students. Hello Summer.

This is it — the last day of the 2009-2010 school year!  This day completes my 9 years of teaching — yes, that’s 9 years.  When I started in 2001, I intended to teach for a couple of years (maybe three at the most) and then apply to medical school.  It turns out that I’m pretty good at teaching — even though it was (and still is) quite challenging at times.

This morning, our lovely 8th graders arrived at school all dolled up for promotion.  The boys looked sharp and handsome in their suits and tie; the girls looked charming in their colorful Easter dresses.  The few boys with untucked shirts and saggy pants did not get past my door — I made them all step aside, fix themselves to look presentable at promotion.  Do parents really let their kids out of the house looking like slobs for a formal occasion?

Oh, one of my girls showed up looking like a “working” girl.  She wore a stretchy black lacy dress that was extremely short and several sizes too tight.  Her face was caked with make-up and her hair teased so high, it made her seem taller.  Not to mention, she could barely walk in her 4-inch heals!  What the heck!?!   Yeah … it was not pretty.  I took one look at her and quickly handed her my jacket. After a brief scolding from me, I demanded that she wear my jacket for the entire morning.  I’m sure she was pissed but there was NO WAY I was going to let her “working” girl dress grace the stage.  Now, how the hell did she get out of the house looking like that?

Alright, moving on to the more pleasant part of the day …

We had three promotion ceremonies in the gym.  Yeah, three.  Is that a lot or what?  I helped with the first one and my class was in the third one.  I snapped this photo right before I read the names of my promoting students.  The crowd is a bit scary to me — I hate speaking in front of an audience.  I get so nervous that I sound like a babbling idiot.  Luckily, I only had to read their names.

This little guy received the Edward Harris Jr., Middle School Student of the Year Award.  I nominated him for the award and was pleasantly surprised when they announced his name.  And the best part — he had no idea!  No flippin’ idea!  It was great.  He was shocked — he looked a bit confused when everyone around him was cheering him on.  (Ethan, I am so proud of you.  Thank you for being such a wonderful boy.  You are so deserving of this special recognition.)

Kelly (far right) is our school secretary.  Events like these run smoothly because of her.  And the gentleman in the middle is Edward Harris, Jr. — our school namesake.

At the end of each ceremony, the students and parents met on the blacktop for photos.

The few students who made a genuine connection with me searched the blacktop for the lady wearing a ladybug hat for photos.  I can honestly say that I was pretty easy to spot in the crowd.

And then there are a few shy ones who left thoughtful messages and wonderfully creative drawings in my mailbox.  I will cherish this drawing forever — even after I’m old and gray and crippled.

Isn’t it great?  That’s her take on me — her mad science teacher.  Love, love student artwork.  I love that she recorded the date and time she completed the drawing.

With that amusing drawing, I am saying goodbye to this school year.  Goodbye wonderful students.  Goodbye naughty students (I hope you get it together in high school).  Goodbye grading and planning (for now).  Goodbye friends and colleagues.  Goodbye NES requirements.  Goodbye alarm clocks.  Goodbye classroom.  Goodbye morning conversations with Jeanne and Jo.  Goodbye year nine of teaching.  Wooo hooo!

With that said, it is definitely time to welcome summer vacation!

Hello summer.  Hello fun projects + bike rides + hikes.  Hello sunshine (cold weather, it is time for you to go away).  Hello Hawaii.  Hello Utah.  Hello lunch with friends + carefree summer days.  Hello u-pick farms + fresh picked berries + homemade jams + pies.  Hello music in the park + screen on the green.  Hello Music Circus.  Hello new adventures.  I welcome you with open arms.

One More Day …

until summer vacation!

Spent most of the day yesterday packing up for the year.  I have a lot of stuff.  Way too much stuff … I should really take the time to purge some stuff but I’m not feeling it right now.  I’m just shoved everything in the cabinets and called it good.  It won’t be pretty in the fall when I have to unpack and set-up but I’ll just deal with it then.  Just like the kids, I’m so done with school.

I don’t eat stuff given to me by the kids but these homemade cookes were so tempting I could not resist.  They were freakin’ delicious!

Counting Lego pieces.  Spent the entire day sorting and counting.  Returned after dinner to finish because I don’t want to be hanging out on the last day of school counting Lego pieces.   13 kits done.  That’s a boatload of pieces!

It’s all about the eyes.

Jeanne and I both teach physical science, but for a couple days at the end of each year, we put our subject matter aside and give our students a chance to experience a dissection.  It is a lab that many students look forward to.  It is an exciting time.  And it is a perfect way to end our year.

Lance, my sweet autistic boy who is at my door by 7:45 am each morning with a wide grin on his face, says to me, “Ms. Nguyen, are we doing eyeballs today?” for two weeks straight. On the day of the big dissection, he’s extremely giggly and excited.  I go about my business of laying down the rules of the dissection, modeling to them what they will be doing, and explaining the procedures for clean-up.  During this time, I take out a package of eyeballs and place it under the Elmo, a document camera.  The bag of eyeballs, labeled “beef eyes” immediately appear on the screen and the students gasp in excitement and nervousness. “Ewwwwwwwww!”  “Oh my God, that’s disgusting!”  “Wow, that’s so cool!”  I stand back and laugh at their reaction. I try to calm the ones who are a bit anxious and look like they’re about to barf.

All of a sudden, I hear, “Ms. Nguyen, you said that we were going to dissect cow eyes.  That package says beef eyes.”  OK, so some of them don’t make the connection between cows and beef.

Another student says, “Ms. Nguyen, did they just pull out the eyes out of the cow for us?”  Oh, dear.  I explain that the eyes come from the steak that they may have had for dinner the night before or the burgers at McDonalds.  We have some pretty interesting discussions before the dissection gets underway.

I distribute the plates, dissection trays with tools, paper towels, gloves and goggles.  The students proceed to their respective lab tables and I instruct them to put on their gloves and goggles.  I walk around with a bucket of eyeballs and place an eyeball on each team’s dissection tray.  Many squirm and squeal while others cover their mouth and nose at the scent.  I instruct them to follow the protocol and encourage them to take it easy — one snippet at a time.  Many hesitate but a few dive in — telling their reader to read loudly so they can move forward with the dissection.

For the majority of the students, this is their first dissection.  I love experiencing firsts with students. I walk around to show them how to begin and point out some of the important structures.  As I approach Lance’s (my can’t-wait-to-dissect-cow-eye-boy) table, I don’t see him in sight.  I continue to walk closer to his table, my heart is beating a bit faster as I begin to panic.  Where could he be?  Did he go outside? Did the eyeballs put him over the edge? As I get closer, I see fingers gripping on the table and a head of black hair peering above the table.  Phew.  He’s alright, perhaps just a bit nervous. While his lab partners are busy working away at the dissection, Lance is hiding behind the table squealing and giggling at the same time.  Occasionally, I’d see his goggled eyes above the table, just long enough to get a quick peak.  He’s afraid to touch it but is totally fascinated.  At the end of the dissection, he tells me, “Ms. Nguyen, the cow eye was fun.”  (I’m bummed that I didn’t get a picture of Lance during the dissection.)


My students have all heard that the eyeballs squirt “eyeball juices” so they were especially careful during the dissection. As each group removes the fat and muscle tissue around the eye, exposing the sclera and optic nerve, I walk around to make the initial incision with the scalpel.  (Dissections make me extremely nervous so I don’t let the kids use scalpels.  They’re only given a pair of pointed scissors and tweezers.) As I make the incision, the students move far away from me for fear of getting squirted.  The few who don’t pay attention are often the ones who experience the wonderful spray of the aqueous humour.  Sometimes I make the initial cut in such a way that makes the stream of “juice” travel toward an unsuspecting victim.  I do this mainly to get a reaction — and boy, do I get a reaction!  It grosses them out but they love it!

On the second day of dissections, Karen, who had the pleasure of experiencing eye ball juice all over her the day before, warned everyone to stay away from me.  She told them that I could really make those eyeballs squirt.  Her advice: stay away from Ms. Nguyen or stay behind her to protect yourself.  Ha!  This cracked me up.

Dissections are pretty awesome.  It brings out new skills in students that I never knew existed.  Those who talked about the dissection all year chickened out when it came to the real deal.  Those who appeared disgusted by the whole idea of dissections, totally stepped it up and turned out to be great surgeons.  The patience and fine motor skills in some of my students are phenomenal.  I require each group to turn in a plate of eye parts — the plate must be clean with eye parts properly labeled and free of “eye juices” — and boy, those plates are clean.

A couple of students enjoyed the dissection so much that they asked their other teachers to let them come back to be my teaching assistants.  For the dissections that took place later in the day, I had great help which made the entire activity so much more enjoyable for me.

I love ending the year on a positive note.  I hope that I’ve turned some of these students onto science.  Even if they may not love love it as much as me, I hope that I’ve generated enough curiosity and enthusiasm that will make them want to explore science some more in high school.

Simply elated.

I’m thrilled that today is my Friday. I’m exhausted from two straight days of launching rockets — 6 periods, 6 set ups, 100 rockets, 200 eager students + lots of sunshine (and mild wind).  There were some great launches today but there was one that was quite spectacular.  And I mean spectacular.

With only 500 mL of water and 100 pounds of pressure, the rocket accelerated so fast and flew so high that it made tracking extremely difficult.   The crowd (my class + a couple others + curious adults) cheered, screamed, and clapped as it launched out of sight.  Upon its return to Earth, its parachute deployed for a stunningly gentle landing.  As it oscillated on its parachute, I briefly glanced at the spectators whose mouths were all open, completely in awe of its beauty.  For a brief moment, I experienced a feeling of exhilaration and triumph — as if I were at a NASA launch.  The silence from the spectators made me feel as though the earth stood still — watching and waiting for this exquisite, slow-moving bottle rocket (made by two squirrelly boys) to bring astronauts safely home.  Once it reached the ground, the roar of the crowd energized my students and many rushed over to congratulate the winning team.  There was no doubt that Louis and Terry won this challenge.

If the launching of a bottle rocket can make me feel this way, I wonder what it would be like to be at a real NASA launch.

Other thoughts not related to launching rockets:

1) I love giving baby gifts but I don’t do baby showers.  There are a couple baby showers taking place this weekend and I’m staying far away from them.  I did, however, send fun gifts for the mothers-to-be.

2) Meet Peter (left) and Penny (right).  So glad that this boy loves his new hat.  He wore it to our annual Spring Fling event in 80-degree weather!

3.  To be funny, a few students paid money to put me in jail at our Spring Fling event.

Hello Launch Day.

Hello excited students.  Hello bottle rockets.  Hello sunshine.

Things were going well until we came across the grumpy old man.  My 36 eager students walked out to the large field behind the gym carrying a ton of gear (4 launch pads, 1 launch station, 1 air compressor, 4 trundle wheels, 4 altimeters, 1 anemometer, 1 long extension cord and 1 ice chest of water) only to find out that we were not allowed to launch in the physical ed area.  So we moved.  This delayed our set-up and launch time so instead of worrying about data collection, we launched for fun!

Hello new launch site.  Hello heavy duty rocket launcher.  You sorta scare me.

Hello silly students.  I love that you make me laugh everyday.  I look forward to your smiling faces and enthusiastic greetings each time we meet.

Hello rocket in the sky.  You are so beautiful.  Your trail of water is refreshing.

Hello 6th period Green.  I love this photo of you.  Many of you came in disliking science.  I hope that you have had a great year and that your feelings toward my favorite subject has changed.  The beginning was tough and we still have our occasional challenges but we have come so far.    You are taller, smarter, more productive, and better behaved.  Thank you for getting it together!

Super excited because …

1) Yesterday, my Week in the Life project was featured on Ali‘s blog.  I’ve never had so hits on my blog in a matter of two days!

2) Today, my “Hanging out with my peeps” layout was featured on Write. Click. Scrapbook. (Two features in one week — dang, I’m on a roll!)

3) While reading Write. Click. Scrapbook., I decided to participate in this week’s rainbow challenge.  I cranked out this page in about half an hour — simple and colorful.

The journal card came from Stemma (part of a prize package I won a couple years ago at CKU-Anaheim).

4) Kelly delivered the April/May GT Kit!  Looks like I’ll be busy playing on Furlough Friday.

5) My vice principal borrowed this bad-ass 10-bottle-rocket launcher from a friend of his and my students are going to use it tomorrow to launch their rockets. I spent a good hour this afternoon testing out the launcher with various amounts of water. I’m having way too much fun with this project.

3, 2, 1 … Blast Off! from Autumn Nguyen on Vimeo.