Mostly Science

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I’ll get to the point of this post in a bit, but first, if you’re wondering what I’ve been doing this summer, here are some pics from my deck construction project in my backyard:

Deck construction site


Back Deck


Back Deck 2


Aside from bragging about my deck, there’s a point about learning to be made here. How did I “know” how to build this deck? Was I born a carpenter? Certainly not. It was something I wanted to know how to do so I learned how to do it.

Let’s think about how we learn, for a second. And by we, I mean everyone, including educators. Do you read about what you are trying to learn? Do you watch videos? Do you look for pictures of what you are trying to understand? I would argue that we do all these, but often the most powerful modes of learning involve visuals. Even textbooks are not just text. They’ve got lots of helpful pictures and diagrams to help explain the concepts in the text.

When I wanted to learn how to build a bench on my deck, I did an image search and came up with this:

Deck Bench Plans

I didn’t really pay attention to the text of the article, at least at first. The picture pretty much does the explaining: tie in framing members to your joists, cut the back support at a certain angle, make each piece so long, etc. I could adapt this basic design to my deck by changing the dimensions of the bench and the hardware that I had on hand to attach it. The point is that I could get about 90% of the important details of how to build a bench just from this image alone.

You could certainly argue that this is a special case of learning that only applies to construction, but I’m going to suggest that our classrooms could operate along similar principles, especially as related to our use of lecture software tools such as Powerpoint.

Powerpoint lectures are often the whipping boy of the #edchat crowd, and rightfully so. On the teacher side, canned Powerpoint lectures, often partially or entirely prepared by textbook companies, seem to deliver content, but really don’t teach content to students. On the student side, we are often happy to have students create Powerpoint presentations to show what they’ve “learned” even when we know that often the vast majority of what shows up in those slide shows is mostly copy/paste from their sources.

From a more #edtech perspective, I read all the time about “alternatives to Powerpoint” like Prezi, Keynote, or Google Presentations (all of which my students and I use and love, by the way). There’s also a lot of tips out there about how to make your Powerpoint slide shows better, if you must use them. Most of those hints seem to be along the lines of getting rid of text and bullet points and simplifying your slides down to just a few important images that you can talk about as you “deliver” the slide show.

If we are talking about removing the text from our Powerpoints and just including images for discussion, why do we need Powerpoint? I’ll argue here that you can run an entire lecture (ahem, discussion) just using image search results projected for the class. Sure its a little fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants, but we have another phrase for that these days: its called just-in-time learning and its fun.

To see how this works, try out this scenario taken directly from my AP Bio class: you are discussing the topic of photosynthesis with the class, maybe some specific aspect of it like the light reactions. Do an image search and see what pops up:

Photosynthesis image search

Project the search results to the class. Discuss with students which images they like the best and use those to get the discussion rolling. You’ll notice that lots of related ideas pop up so be prepared for conversations to travel in directions that you didn’t plan. That’s kind of the point though, isn’t it?

If you think about it, putting a slideshow presentation together automatically assumes that you have a flow that you want the conversation with your students to follow: we’ll talk about this, then this, then this. If you’ve made a “path” in prezi, you know what I’m talking about. There are times that paths work well, to be sure, but if you want to allow for student interests while still exploring your topic, then a canned, preplanned set of lecture slides is a hindrance to exploration. An image search, on the other hand, has a lot of potential to replace your lecture slides but still creates a focal point from which to start a whole class or small group discussion. Not only can teachers use this simple technique (no more building slide shows for hours) but so can students. When students want to explore an idea with you or other students, they can pull up image search results and project them to the class to start or support discussions as well.

I’ve done several of these image search discussions now and have found the conversations to be much richer than anything that I’ve managed to stimulate using lecture slides. Many students reported really enjoying the format and documented our modified lectures using cell phone or iPad cameras (see here). Sometimes students used the images that we discussed in class as the focal points for later blog posts about the topic (see here). Either way, the images that we found quite adequately replaced both expensive prepared Powerpoints and the tediously hand-made slide shows that I used to spend time creating.

I’ll definitely try to work in more of these image search discussions this coming school year, but I know they aren’t for everyone. It takes a fair bit of confidence in your subject matter in order to feel comfortable with discussing the unknown results that come up with any given set of search terms. You can get around this by narrowing your search down to a more specific topic so that there are fewer surprises. But I happen to like surprises, particularly if they get students interested in what I’m trying to teach.

Surprises. Free scientific illustrations. Conversations with students about science. No more slaving away formatting lecture slides to get them “just right.” Yep, I’ll be doing more of these kinds of discussions.

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SMACKDOWN: a confrontation between rivals or competitors

I try not to take sides in student disputes, which is why I’ll let you, dear reader, help sort out this situation:

Two of my best student bloggers have starteBoxing matchd getting scrappy with each other in class about how many blog views they have. These students have been with me for a couple years now and both have blogs related to biology, anatomy, and AP Biology courses. Their blogs seem to attract a fair bit of traffic around certain science topics at certain times of the year, so we assume that other students across the country (and world) are looking at their stuff. They’ve been arguing lately about who has the better blog and I, of course, have stated that they both have equally excellent blogs, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. They, of course, don’t want to hear that from me and want a winner declared (all in good fun and the spirit of collaboration).

Here’s where you come in. I’ll post links to their blogs and you can go see for yourself the great work they’ve been doing. You can even leave them some comments if you feel so inspired. At the very least you can “vote” with your views as to who might have the better blog. Be sure to click on individual blog posts that you feel are the best they’ve done. That’ll give them some feedback even if you don’t want to write a comment.

Ready? Here we go:

Mandi’s Anatomy Blog, AP Biology Blog, and her Biology blog

Steven’s Anatomy Blog, AP Biology Blog and his Biology blog

I’ll have them report how it turns out and I’ll get back to you with the results soon.

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I’ll share a “wondering” of mine that I’ve been chewing on for a while and see what you can throw my way in the comments. It revolves around the title of a course, in this case “Physics.” What does the course title Physics mean? Does it matter? Who notices and who cares?

Some background: I’m mostly a biologist by training and a chemistry teacher of some ability, but I occasionally get called on to teach high school physics. The last time I was called upon to offer physics resulted in some very interesting things indeed. If you are a new reader here, you might want to catch up on some of the Phunsics shenanigans here (or here if you prefer video). Basically, the students and I set about learning physics through a series of projects that they designed and carried out. Most anything was fair game, since, after all, everything is physics. Projects ranged from wind tunnels and hot air balloons to trebuchets and potato cannons.

I’ve fielded many questions about how this class operated: Did we follow a syllabus? No, it would have rapidly become obsolete since students were designing the class. Did I know more than one or two weeks out what projects we would be working on? No, students determined what we would work on. Did we have a set of standards that we based our work on? Yes, I created a standards document from Colorado and New York physics standards that students used in planning projects and students created their own wiki based on AP Physics standards. As I look forward to doing this course again in 2013, after this year’s “break” to teach AP Biology, my main question is this: can I still call this course Physics knowing now how it will likely operate?

Let me complicate matters more. It turns out that the Physics course at our high school has always (in recent memory) been a weighted course, weighted 5.0 (the highest) in fact, so that a B in the course averages in at a 4.0 (an A) for GPA calculations. So now I have the situation of a powerhouse of a science class, a weighted 5.0 class, that has no preordained syllabus, students can follow pretty much whatever lines of inquiry they desire, and it only has a list of “suggested standards” rather than requirements. Uneasy yet?

I am uneasy with the idea of continuing to call this class Physics, which is why I’m wondering whether I should try to rename this course something like Advanced Science Research (like this teacher) or Applied Science Practicum of Awesome. But then the little voice speaks: but colleges won’t know what that is, will they?

Ah. Here it comes: the role of colleges and universities in deciding how we do science down at the high school level. I’ve been asked to provide syllabi before for a student or two, so I know colleges are looking at them. Are they looking at the course name on a transcript or at what we do in that class to help students learn? I’m guessing usually door number 1, the name. And just like that, I’m back to keeping the name as Physics because that most closely matches the content and skills that my students are going to acquire during that course.

See my lovely logic loop? The old-school science teacher in me says I’m no longer teaching a Physics class but the practical considerations of calling the course anything else are maybe too much to fight for, especially once the diverse student/parent/counselor/college audience is factored in.

Now its your turn: would you call a project-based, student-designed course in which we tried to tackle a variety of physical principles and design challenges Physics or not? Weigh in in the comments.

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In my last post I described how I might try to conduct my AP Biology class a lot like I conducted the (in)famous Phunsics Class of 2011-2012. (Phunsics side note: I saw one of the graduated seniors from that class recently. He told me the story of how over the summer he and another member of the phunsics class were at the local grocery store when a little kid that they didn’t even know walked up to them and said “Hey, you’re the guys who built the catapult-thingy, right? Yeah, I was at your Physics Day.” Instant celebs, just add physics awesomeness)

Since that post was written (wow, is it October already?) we’ve had a great time and discovered a few things along the way. So far we’ve learned that:

Documenting Black Widow BehaviorYep, its a wormGreen stuff needs light

  • ants make terrible pets, but they do have awesome battles when ants from different nests are combined together
  • the ends of our grow-light enclosure have far less illumination than the middle (sorry Michael)
  • worms need to be kept moist, but do seem to prefer outside dirt to wet potting soil
  • a mating population of 7 students violates the conditions for Hardy-Weinberg equillibrium (as well as other school policies)
  • Black Widow spiders are awesome pets (if they don’t get out)
  • the old saying may be true: you can’t teach an old dog new tricks
  • a ZPA is not something on the front of your pants, but it might have something to do with genes
  • really pretty green caterpillars sometimes turn into really ugly moths

How much of this was my doing? Just the fast plants, ma’am. That and I’m making them read “Your Inner Fish.” I tried to foist my usual pillbug behavior lab on them as well but they were too distracted by worms, dogs, and Black Widows. I suppose my critters weren’t as cool as theirs. They do like watching the parade of roly-poly’s come out when we water their soil, but the sheer carnage of a spider capturing and slurping down a grasshopper is in a completely different dimension of awesomeness.

So what is my role in this type of class, where students are driving a lot of the day to day activities? Besides being head of the spider containment team and he-who-finds-dead-worms-on-floor, I suppose one of my jobs is to give these kids grades that communicate how well they are doing in my class. Yet I consistently find, year after year and especially this year with the new and improved inquiry-based curriculum, that, out of all my courses, my AP Bio kids always have the fewest assessments listed in my gradebook. What is that about and should I (or their parents) be concerned? Isn’t AP Biology supposed to be a tough class, a Test-o-Rama? What about the piles and piles of learning objectives that are supposed to be assessed by the AP Biology Exam?

Its like this: sometimes stopping for formal assessments can feel like hitting a brick wall. Instead, we just go. We do science. Not in an unplanned and chaotic way, although there are certainly elements of randomness that come from being responsive to student interests. We do labs, hopefully mostly student-driven ones, because labs are way more likely to get students to learn how to think scientifically, not some vocabulary exercise followed by a quiz. Is there assessment of student learning? Yep. Assessment of learning is something that happens with every conversation about the lab procedure or results or omglookatthat and often doesn’t find it’s way into the grade book in the same way that a chapter test or a fancy blog post will. We’ll do those things, too, just not as often. For example, right now the students are working on a big writeup for their population genetics lab as well as a writeup of their observations of different animal behaviors.

But here’s the catch: it’s taken us over a month to even begin to get major assessments into the grade book and I’m starting to get twitchy over the massive scope of material that these kids are supposed to know. I’m already having to restrain myself from launching into a powerpoint-fueled frenzy of content-spewing vocabulary-laden gibberish in the name of “Getting them ready for the test,” and its not even March or April yet.

If you haven’t heard, the AP Biology course got a major overhaul this year with a focus on, you guessed it, inquiry. I’m down with that and love the emphasis on the seven science process skills outlined in the course description. But there’s a ton of plain ol’ biology factoids still inherent in the system, some of which are going to be pretty ugly to inquirify, if that’s a word. I suspect at some point that as a class we’ll need to start striking a balance between the wild carefree days of inquiry past and the rote memorization of tomorrow. AP Biology is a college-level course, you know ; )

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I’ve waited to post this set of thoughts until I was back at school, mostly because I was up in the mountains for the last bit of the summer. Yes, I had wifi, but, well, there were other things to do that were better than blogging.

But I’m back to writing, and in terms of changes for this school year that you might be interested in, there are two big ones:

1. I’m replacing my GoogleApp spreadsheets for tracking student progress with Shawn and Vic’s BlueHarvest. By the end of last year I was using the spreadsheets almost exclusively for comments back and forth with students so having to create and manage one for each student this year seemed silly when BH is built to do that. I’m through the setup phase with BH and have managed to get login info to nearly all of my 110 students. There were times that I wished that I knew how to pull all my student info (names with emails) off of Infinite Campus into a nice, importable spreadsheet, but in reality there have been so many schedule changes that I would have had to add/delete a bunch of kids anyway. The big downside of not adding emails for each kid was that I ended up having to get them their passwords via Edmodo, which took a bit of typing today to accomplish (harrywookiewookie is still my favorite).

2. SBG for AP Biology! Remember the experiment last year with my student-led Phunsics class? I’m going to apply some of the philosophy of that class to my teaching (or co-teaching, maybe mentoring?) of AP Biology this year. What’s that you say? There’s an audit process for approval of my curriculum documents? Oh dang. Guess we had better start writing them together.

Naw, it’ll be fun. The College Board was nice enough to follow my model of emphasizing skill standards for AP Biology students as well as providing a short list of content standards. Ok, maybe the list is a bit longer than I think is necessary, but I’ve grouped them into 13 content standards, not too far from my usual 10-or-so content area standards per course. With 7 skill standards and the 13 content areas (see the course description or the prezi linked on my AP Biology page), we’ve got a basic framework from which to set up the course. Once the students get over the rush of holding their newly-acquired iPads, we’ll get down to work on prioritizing our goals for the course and agree on a basic plan for the year.

The big difference between this AP Biology course and the phunsics course, besides the obvious content-area shift, will be in assessment. AP Biology will follow the pattern I’ve established for my other classes, namely activities->blogging->portfolio building. I think the new structure of the AP Biology course in the College Board’s documents lends itself pretty well to a standards-based portfolio that students can fill with evidence of each standard. I’ll post links to some apbio student portfolios once they are sufficiently underway.

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Scott McLeod recently asked this question in his post Reconciling Convergence and Divergence:

How do you reconcile…

principles of standards-based grading; “begin with the end in mind and work backwards;” understanding by design; and other more convergent learning ideas


project-, problem-, challenge-, and/or inquiry-based learning; creativity; innovation; collaboration; and our need for more divergent thinkers?

My answer: I don’t reconcile the two, nor am I sure that I should. I do both. Separately.

As frequent readers of this blog will know, I’ve been experimenting with standards-based assessment and grading for a couple of years now and am to the point that I feel reasonably expert in structuring my classroom around standards. I typically start off each course in the fall by discussing the specific standards that students will meet during the year and explaining how they might go about proving that they’ve met those standards. We then proceed to work together as a class to do a variety of activities and labs designed to help students meet the standards that I have laid out. This works well in my biology, anatomy, and chemistry classes, all of which are concurrent college credit and so are matched to my state’s community college system guidelines for each particular course. Very, very convergent stuff. All students focus their learning on mostly the same set of ideas, even going so far as to complete electronic portfolios based on a common template that I provide for them. This system works nicely and the portfolios that students are producing are excellent, with lots of evidence that they’ve learned particular skill and content standards.

But what about physics? This year I had the opportunity to take over the job of physics teacher because: a) no one else wanted to teach it, and b) I had a lot of proto-engineers begging me to teach anything besides biology or anatomy.  This class turned out to be radically different from anything else that I’ve ever taught. It was radically different because I didn’t go into the class with a defined set of standards. The class was not concurrent college credit so I didn’t have to concern myself with matching a college syllabus. The state of Colorado does have physical science standards for students, but they had mostly fulfilled those in their freshman and sophomore level courses, and the kids taking physics were Juniors and Seniors.

With nothing to prove to anyone about whether I had correctly learnified my students, I was free to structure the class as I saw fit. I decided to let the students run it. On the first day of school I explained that they would be designing the class, not me. We spent the next few days brainstorming what sorts of things normally go on in a physics class, which topics they ought to leave physics knowing about, and how to do assessments of said goals. In other words, the students and I were still in a very standards-based frame of mind.

But then we diverged. Big time. Our brainstorming sessions had revealed a lot of different student interests: What about building that hovercraft you were telling us about and just how much power does a shop vac produce? Can we build some sort of catapult?  How about a potato gun? By the third week of school, we had all carried out a couple of the standard labs on measuring motion using video analysis and motion sensors but that was the last time we did anything as a whole group. The rest of the year was project based. Completely student designed and initiated to the point they started calling the class “phunsics.” My lesson plan book for the class was a mess. Usually it just said “Projects” until after class when I could actually fill in what students worked on that day, and when I did fill it in, I often had to summarize four or five different projects for the same class period. And so it went all year, sometimes in great bursts of activity, sometimes in lulls of senioritis and apathy, but always there were one or two major projects underway and several on the back burners.

To try to explain the course to future generations of phunsics students (and anyone else curious about what the class looked like), students created several videos about their experience.  A playlist of some of their videos is worth watching for some different perspectives on the class. Also, here’s my tribute video for the Phunsics team.


How then do we decide which type of course is better for learning, the convergent “let’s meet the standards” kind of class or the divergent “follow your interests” kind of class?  That all depends on how you measure learning, I suppose. On the one hand, students in anatomy, biology, and chemistry have portfolios of the work they accomplished during the year and anyone curious enough could see exactly what sorts of standards they had met. On the other hand, the phunsics students exhibited self-direction, organizational skills, coping with failure, teamwork, and creativity. Our current set of standardized assessments would completely overlook the achievements of these students, should we choose to assess them that way.

Would I teach the anatomy, biology, and chemistry courses the same way that I did physics this year? I’m not so sure I would. Some subjects lend themselves to true inquiry and self-direction better than others. Disciplines like physics and engineering will always have an advantage over subjects like biology and anatomy where real inquiry involves very specialized equipment and a ton of background knowledge that students may not yet possess. Likewise inquiry in chemistry has to be bounded both by safety considerations and the background knowledge of students. Don’t get me wrong, I work in as many open-ended and inquiry labs as possible in these disciplines but these labs or “problems” are still often defined by the teacher and not the learner. Probably I still suck at PBL and just need to get better at it, but for now any sort of PBL short of giving full control to students seems kind of artificial to me.

In conclusion, I’m going to try to offer the physics course as often as I can, which at this point is every other year in rotation with AP Biology. I think a student-designed course like that is vital to help students understand what real scientific inquiry is like, with teams working together to solve problems and meet design challenges they meet along the way. And, at least for now, I’ll keep the anatomy, biology, and chemistry courses as standards-based courses, but attempt to move them in a direction of more student control about how and when they meet the particular standards.

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In which an Apple fan chooses a cheaper alternative for sharing iPad screens.

Simply put, there are times that I need to show content-related stuff to my class so we can engage material as a group. Call it lecture, call it discussion, call it whatever you like. When I first started teaching, that consisted of a chalkboard and my lame drawing skills. These days I’m much more of a tech geek, but even tech geeks have to experiment with what works for sharing material with the class.

For a long time I ran my classroom primarily with a standard setup of a laptop and an LCD projector that could project to a pull-down screen in the front of the class. A good setup, of course, but it requires the teacher to either be at the computer or use some sort of wireless mouse or controller to take over the computer if they want to walk around the room during discussions.

Enter the smartboard. I got one even though I didn’t request one. I learned to use it well enough but never fell in love with the software that came with it. What the smartboard does do reasonably well, though, is allow students and teachers to poke and prod the screen to make things happen. On the whole, I’ll overlook the software aspects of that particular tech fiasco and say that yes, the smartboard added some capability to the projection system.

Enter the iPad. Unlike the smartboard, I actually requested one of these, an iPad2. I also heard about teachers using AppleTV to mirror the iPad to their projector screen/smartboard so I requested and got one of those, too, the 2nd gen model that allows AirPlay streaming. At only $100, it seemed a cheap way to go to get some more functionality out of the iPad during class discussions. It works for that purpose, if you have an adapter for your old LCD projector to change the HDMI output of the AppleTV into something the projector can use. At first I used a HDMI to video converter box that worked through composite video. I was not too happy with the poor image quality, as might be visible in these pics:

AppleTV menu, composite videoiPad mirrored to AppleTV and composite video

I then upgraded to an HDMI to VGA converter box (with audio) that worked pretty well. Color reproduction was closer to the iPad and images and text were sharper:

HDMI to VGA adapter AppleTV menu with VGA adapteriPad mirrored to AppleTV with VGA adapter

My major beef with this setup was the shrinking of the screen. Why does the AppleTV menu take up the whole screen while the mirrored iPad, even in landscape mode, fills up only half of the screen? Text is just too small to see, both in the main menu and in several presentation apps. Sure you can pinch and zoom, but being crippled with a tiny screen area annoyed me. Plus, with this setup, the single VGA cable to the projector is occupied by the AppleTV, so the only way to share a laptop screen with the class (for the occasional flash site that doesn’t work with Puffin Browser, or some animations I use from a Windows XP virtual machine) is to use an iPad app like Splashtop that streams the laptop screen to the iPad and from there to the AppleTV. It works, but the small screen area was still a problem. Also, though I hate to admit it, I sometimes missed the smartboard functionality of tapping on the projected image. Since the laptop was mostly out of the loop, so was the connection to the smartboard, except in some amazingly convoluted smartboard-laptop-splashtop-ipad-appletv-projector chain of events.

Enter Airserver. Airserver software for the Mac has been around for a while, but apparently has only recently acquired AirPlay functionality and the ability to mirror an Airplay device (latest iPads or iPhone) to the screen of the laptop. There’s another Mac app, Reflection (edit 9/1/16: now called Reflector 2, not tested by me), that does something similar but in my hands it had some glitches with video playback and I never made it past the 10 minute trial period. Airserver on the other hand, has been a gem. Its only $12 for education types, a good start. It installs and fires up easily and my iPad quickly found my Mac on our school’s network. Basically, you connect the iPad to your laptop just as you would to mirror to the AppleTV. I set my Mac to not mirror displays and set the AirServer preferences so that it would stream to the second display (my LCD projector). This way I can have a set of resources open on the Mac screen that only I see (attendance, grades, email), a set of student resources on the projected display from the Mac, and, when I connect the iPad, a set of shared resources that are controlled from the iPad, all without switching any cables. The audio, video, and smartboard all run through the laptop, but I can take over the projection screen with an iPad at any time, including projecting student iPads when needed.

With Airserver, not only do I have the option to poke and prod my smartboard since the Mac is back in charge, but now the streamed iPad image fills the entire screen of the smartboard:

AirServer fixes the size issue in my iPad mirroring setup

In case you are wondering, the streaming performance of this Airserver setup seems pretty comparable to what I saw with the AppleTV in terms of framerate on streamed video and mirrored apps. I experienced a little audio lag every now and then with Coaster Physics, but haven’t noticed it with other apps. AirPlay-enhanced apps like Zombie Gunship work fine, too (after students have gone home, of course).

In summary, I traded a $100 piece of hardware for a $12 bit of software that allows streaming of iPad screens to my smartboard in a format large enough to read from the back of the classroom. This software-based solution, Airserver, seems to be superior in video quality to the AppleTV, particularly when used with an older projector without an HDMI input. Also, smartboard functionality is maintained by a setup that keeps a laptop as the primary driver of the projected image.

Edit: Another use for AirServer – If you are presenting iPad content, apps, etc. in a location with no network connectivity, connect the iPad to the Mac via Bluetooth to still allow the iPad screen to be projected to a large audience.

Edit 1/7/13: Your network infrastructure may need to be tweaked to get the best performance with either AirServer or AppleTV over WiFi. Both operate using AirPlay which relies on Bonjour technology to find devices on local networks. On our network the two devices (iPad and Mac or iPad and AppleTV) had to be on the same subnet, as Bonjour works best on the local subnet only. This means that if you have a big network with several subnets, as most larger organizations will, you will occasionally have the two devices pull addresses from different subnets, in which case AirPlay will not work. We got around this at my school by creating a separate subnet that is just for student iPads, a few AppleTV’s, and laptops that they connect to. This also solved a problem we were having with teachers using Doceri on the iPad where they could not connect to their laptop due to being on different subnets. If your network administrator doesn’t want to juggle WiFi subnets for you, a Bluetooth connection is your best bet.

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kazoo testing

What do you do with a physics class full of bright, independent, high school kids? Well of course you march through the physics textbook so they can learn how to plug and chug all the right equations turn the class over to them so they can do the experiments that they want to do. At least that’s the way I thought we’d try it this year in my admittedly experimental foray into teaching a full-year physics course again. We had an awesome first semester, with lots of small student groups that self-organized around a number of major projects such as the trebuchet, hovercraft, hot air balloon, potato “accelerator,” wind tunnel, Road Runner/Coyote video analysis, and multi-stage rocket (and Barbie launcher) design. We capped off the semester with a traveling physics hover-tree built by the students that was decorated with mementos of all their projects for the year so far and lit with whatever light bulbs we could find, including a car head light.

The tree was quite the conversation piece once we parked it in our school’s common area/cafeteria, but more importantly it let the whole school community get a glimpse of what the students had been up to in our physics “workshop.”

On the first day back from Christmas break, with the hover-tree mysteriously removed back to our workshop, I challenged the physics kids to make a switch for the new semester. I explained, and they agreed, that the first semester had been “about us.” We had done all the fun, dangerous, and occasionally goofy projects that were at the top of our to-do lists, or in some cases our as-seen-on-You-Tube lists. It was time now, I said, to change the focus to become “about them” (insert image of me pointing outside the classroom) meaning that we should take on projects that would be either educational for younger students or benefit the entire community in some way.

And so Physics Day was born. Physics Day will be happening on March 31st from 10:00 to noon in our gym and the nearby parking lot. We’re going to demonstrate the trebuchet, rockets, potato accelerator, and the hovercraft. Inside the gym we’ll have several stations with hands-on experiments such as wind tunnel testing of objects, slime creation, electromagnet building, an alternative energy showcase, and maybe our Rube Goldberg machine if we get it done in time. We plan to distribute promotional fliers around town, especially to students at our Intermediate and Jr/Sr High schools. We’ll publicize it in our local paper, too, as the day gets closer so that all the great folks at the local hardware stores can come see what all their lumber and pipe get used for.

Student designed, planned, and performed. Completely. I can’t wait to see what sort of turnout we get. I can’t wait to see how the trebuchet team manages to move the trebuchet halfway across the school grounds. I can’t wait to see if we can inspire students to enjoy science again.

P.S. —The student brains behind the trebuchet are at work on a plan to provide free Internet access to students at home throughout town by bouncing the school’s WiFi signal off of some strategically placed reflectors. This may be the “about them” message taken to the extreme, but if we pull it off, it’s going to be a big deal for the whole town. I’ll share more on that as it progresses past the ugliness of setting up the backend RADIUS server.


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iPads as sketchpads

Group drawing of a neuron using iPads

I’m going to return to my roots as an edtech blogger for a moment and recap this past semester’s iPad deployment project, so those of you used to reading my notes about SBG will have to wait for the next post.

Let me begin by saying that this project would not have been possible without Erik, my district’s technology guru and grant writer. He was open to the purchase of iPads, found the money to do so, and has provided advice along the way. An additional word of thanks goes to our student tech interns Kiel and Michael for the initial unboxing and setup of the iPads this past summer. It really has been a group effort to get to the point we are at now.

Begin with the laptop
I’ve been lucky enough to run my classroom with 1:1 laptops for the last couple of years through the use of a dedicated cart of MacBooks. While students normally don’t take the laptops home, every student has an assigned MacBook so that they always logged into the same one every time and so were able to customize their tech setup to their liking. This is a huge point that I’ll be coming back to: students (and teachers too) love to customize their devices. This allows for local and cloud saved files, bookmarks, passwords, and user interface tweaks that collectively define a student’s workflow using the laptops in my class.

Enter the iPad
I had been an iPod Touch user for a while and knew the ins and outs of Apple’s iOS but really hadn’t played with an iPad much outside of an Apple store. Several students had their own iPod or iPhone in class and we managed to do some productive things with them such as web access, calculations, and the occasional reference app like wikipanion. So when Erik mentioned that he might have some funds available to buy a small number of iPads, I was of course interested in trying them out to see what students would be able to do with them. We ended up purchasing several iPad2’s over the summer and I managed to snag one for myself to play with.

Preparing for 1:1 deployment
After tinkering with the iPad for a while over the summer, I saw that the best use of the iPad in a pilot trial would be as a vehicle for sharing resources for my anatomy and physiology class. In particular, I wanted to replace our old mangled anatomy textbooks with an iPad-based text such as that offered through the Inkling app. There were a number of anatomy apps such as Visible Body and VueMe that I wanted to use with students as well, so I pitched the idea to Erik of a pilot iPad trial with my anatomy class, since that seemed the best audience for a limited number of iPads. That’s indeed what we agreed on and later we added a few more iPads to the project by also distributing them to my physics class, for a total of 42 students with iPads, since there was a lot of overlap with students taking both classes.

Setting up the iPads
As I mentioned above, our awesome student interns did the unboxing and initial prep of the iPads, which consisted only of loading a profile that allowed access to the school’s wifi. The rest was up to me. I set up my school MacBookPro as the sync station by creating an iTunes library in a different user account than my normal login with a unique Apple ID. I bombarded Erik with requests for apps from Apple’s Volume Licensing Program and got those installed. I begged our principal to allow the purchase of the anatomy textbook on Inkling and, after some discussion about whether this was a technology or a textbook purchase, he was able to find the money in the budget to buy the texts. The folks at Inkling were really helpful and got me set up with a class set (30) of anatomy texts, each tied to an Inkling account that I manage so that I can reissue the textbooks even after I wipe the iPads at the end of this year.

Distributing the iPads
My philosophy from the beginning of this pilot project was that students should have their own iPad to use at school and at home and that they should be able to take full advantage of the iPad’s capabilities by having full control over their own device. So after preloading the iPads with a set of apps that I thought they might find handy, I had students sign the required paperwork, did a brief orientation session, then turned them loose with their new iPads to see what they could do with them. Most students immediately set up their own Apple accounts on the devices and added new apps and music to their iPads. This started the process of having the students customize the device for their own use, a process that is still ongoing.

iPads as cell nuclei
iPads as cell nuclei in human models of tissue types

What do students do with the iPads?

We’ve been using the iPads for a semester now, and they are just there, quietly a part of what we do, now that the rush of a new toy has faded. Sometimes they replace the MacBook. Sometimes they get replaced by the MacBook.  I wanted to get a better sense of what the iPads were being used for, so I gave students a survey last week about their use of the iPads and here’s what I found:

    1. With few exceptions, students claim that they use their iPad a lot, both at school and at home.
    2. Students claim to spend about equal time on school and non-school related activities on the iPads.
    3. Students’ most used app varies widely among survey participants. Top apps listed were Safari, Pandora, Facebook, Pages, Calculator, Mail, and FaceTime.
    4. Similarly, students favorite app varied widely among survey participants. Some of the favorite apps listed were Safari, Camera, Shakespeare, GarageBand, SimplePhysics, GoodReader, YouTube, The Elements, Angry Birds, Opera Mini, Osmos, and Evernote.
    5. The most interesting responses were to the question of whether the iPad was worth it and would they use one again next year:

I would because I can continually do my school work and do multiple assignments without finding a laptop.

YES IT IS. They’re fun and useful.

yes greatly for the fact of accessibility and learning about tech.

Yes I would because it helps with more than one subject and it is much more convenient  than carrying around a lap top.

yes i would, Sometimes when assignments are due that need to be done the next day, the iPad come in handy to get those done.

DEFINITELY. The iPad has been extremely useful in completing various types of schoolwork.

Yes I would. I would use it because it works fast and is easy to take everywhere.

Yes! i use it all the time! Even though i do mess around on my iPad its still get a lot of work done.

Yes I would use it for school-related work next year. When I do use it for school-related work such as notes and projects it is extremely helpful. Also if I ever have a question that needs to be answered, I can easily get on the iPad and find the answer.

I think the iPad is worth it however a laptop may be more convenient because it allows more programs to be used. For example I don’t have a computer at home at the moment and Most of my school work requires some sort of technology and thats when the iPad comes in handy however I can’t do everything on the iPad.

I am not a technology based person although I was born in the tech-boom era. I appreciate technology to an extent with its resources, but I believe that some things should not be “turned into an app”. For me, I would stick to using the laptops. iPads are higher quality, and more notorious, but I find their powers to be limited. They are difficult to keep clean as well. It is a great idea though, for saving space. That’s coming from a traditionalist. I’d say keep the iPads for future use, just not for me.

Not any more than I do now.  I don’t like Apple products, they’re overpriced and overhyped.  Not to mention the nonsensical programs you have to download just to use an Apple product.  They aren’t worth the trouble.

YES!  I use Pages all the time to take notes for all of my classes and to type up reports.  I also use it to connect to things like Edmodo and GoogleDocs whenever i need. The IPads come in handy many times during the day!

Some takeaways from the survey

Given their own personal iPad and the freedom to modify it, high school students use the iPad in a variety of different ways and for multiple courses throughout the school day. Nearly every student had their own beliefs as to which apps were the best or the ones they used most. Games are on the iPads, but so are a variety of tools for school-related tasks and the students who took this survey believe that they can find a balance between the two. The overwhelming majority of students would use them in coursework again next year if given the chance, which was an interesting result given that most students taking the survey were seniors who are unlikely to get an iPad from me next year since they’ll have graduated.

In conclusion, after a semester with 1:1 iPads, the reviews from students are very positive on the whole, although not every student chooses the iPad as their primary learning tool. iPads seem to allow students to personalize the technology that they use to navigate the requirements of their different courses. Furthermore, by allowing students to take the iPads home, both students and their families have been able to use the devices for a variety of tasks that they might not otherwise have been able to accomplish. Efforts are underway at our school to integrate the iPad into other disciplines besides science and to increase the number of iPads that we can put into the hands of students.

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A triumph of math

After much scribbling on whiteboards, iPads, calculators, restaurant napkins, and most anything else you can think of scribbling on, the math was done. Theory. Numbers on a screen or slip of paper. Are they the right numbers? How will we know?

Build it. Cut the lumber according to the calculations. And they did. The math was right.

20111023-193001.jpg To be continued….

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