Category Archives: technology

Sharing Resources with Students via Evernote

I love reading about the latest developments in physics and technology. When I began teaching, I started collecting bookmarks for articles that I found online that were related to various topics we would study in class. I also started collecting bookmarks to resources for myself. At the start of each unit, I created a page organizing all of these links to articles, simulations, videos, and projects for students. This page serves as an extension to the class. Many of the topics go beyond the curriculum and are fascinating extensions to the unit of study. I would encourage students to browse this page when they were procrastinating: “If you are procrastinating instead of doing your homework, you might as well browse physics articles.”

I tried to optimize this process as much as possible. I stored the bookmarks in Yojimbo and somewhat automated the process of creating the page for each unit. However, there was still too much effort to keep each unit’s page current. I also wanted to share each unit’s page with a wider audience. Finally, while I collected a large number of links to resources for teachers, I didn’t have a completely automatic way to share them with anyone else.

Based on recommendations from several people, one of my projects this summer was to investigate Evernote. I was pleasantly surprised at how efficient a workflow I could develop.

My first step was to enumerate a superset of units and create an Evernote notebook for each unit. Actually, I created two Evernote notebooks for each unit: one for students and one for teachers:

Evernote Notebooks

I imported my existing bookmarks into Evernote which took a while but doesn’t need to be repeated. Evernote makes it easy to share a notebook publicly. However, I wanted to present the links within a notebook in an organized fashion. So, I created an index for each notebook of student links. This was really easy to do by filtering the notes in the notebook by various tags (articles, simulations, videos, make):

Filtering by Tags

I then selected all of the notes with the specified tag, right-clicked, and copied links to these notes:

Copying Links to Notes

Finally, I pasted these links into the index note under the appropriate heading:

Index Note

I didn’t bother with this level or organization for the notebooks containing teacher-centric links.

I was very pleased to see that it would be easy to keep track of new links that haven’t been added to the index note. Since the notes are sorted by when they are updated, when I start each unit, it is easy to see which links I need to add to the index because they are sorted before the index note:

Newer Notes

When I start each unit next year, I’ll update the index note and post a link to the shared notebook under the current module on Canvas. In addition, I now hope that a wider audience will benefit from these extensions of typical physics units. Evernote has a good web interface for exploring these shared notebooks:

Evernote Web Interface

Shared notebooks for the superset of units across my classes are enumerated on my web site. Feel free to share them with your student and I hope you leverage Evernote to share your own collection of links with your students and other teachers!

Mindstorms

I put Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas by Seymour Papert on my reading list when I started teaching AP Computer Science. Being unfamiliar with how best to teach high school students computer science, I figured I needed all the help I could get and heard that Mindstorms was the seminal text on how kids learn computing. If I had better understood what Mindstorms was about, I would have read it six years ago when I started teaching.

Mindstorms isn’t just about teaching kids about computer science. I was surprised at how frequently learning physics was a topic. Papert shared insights on everything from of what does “learning physics” consist (hint: it is not plugging numbers in equations) to how to support learners’ conceptual intuitions rather than attack their “misconceptions.” I was reminded of everything from Modeling Instruction to computational thinking using VPython as I read those sections.

I was also surprised at how useful Mindstorms was as a guide, and a cautionary tale, of the role that technology should play in education. I would recommend it to every teacher interested in leveraging technology to improve learning, every technology integrator, and every administrator who may otherwise approve a purchase order for an interactive whiteboard. It clearly presents how the focus needs to be on the student, on her learning, and not on the technology. A reminder that echnology enables us to do better things not do things better.

Mindstorms was written at the advent of the personal computer revolution. Papert was advocating for a revolution in education. While Logo continues to appear in classrooms (my nine-year-old used Logo some in Math class this year), unfortunately, the ideals of Mindstorms haven’t been realized and, with few exceptions, technology hasn’t been used to change the culture of education. It is sad to reflect on this history and the opportunity that has been lost. I feel that now thirty-three years later, we are at the advent of another technological revolution. Instead of a personal computer in every home, we have a personal computer in every pocket. However, how we will choose to leverage this technology in the educational sphere remains to be seen. With the proliferation and prominence of MOOCs, flipping, gamification, and Khan Academy, I worry that we will once again fail to seize this opportunity. There are beacons of hope: hackerspaces, FIRST Lego League, and The Big Ideas School. Personally, I’m reinvigorated to revolutionize my small sphere of influence through FIRST Robotics, Physics Club, and improving physics instruction.

(I had a slow start reading this book. If you encounter the same, I would recommend skipping the two forewords and the two introductions. In addition, the paperback that I purchased was visually awful. It looked like a printout of a poor scan. If you can find an older copy, your eyes will thank you.)

Computational Modeling with VPython

The second session I led at the DuPage County Science Institute was on Computational Modeling with VPython.

I tried to explain what computational modeling is and how it is more than just programming. I then encouraged teachers to use computational modeling in their classroom and shared why I think it improves student learning.

We used VPython and the physutils package.

We started with John Burk’s 1-dMotionSimulation.py example. I then asked each teacher to modify the model in some way and observe the results.

I then presented several starting examples that I created for my AP Physics B class and shared how students built upon these examples to solve everything from homework problems to their projectile motion lab practicum.

I left lots of time for teachers to explore these starting examples and help each other and get help from me. I saw teachers unfamiliar with Python create some pretty cool models in very little time.

Here are the slides I used to introduce computational modeling:

Download (PDF, 4.05MB)

Here are the links to the resources that I displayed at the end of the session:

LoggerPro Graphing Tutorial

I lead a session at this year’s DuPage County Science Institute on LoggerPro for graphing (a.k.a. because life is too short to struggle with Excel). The intended audience were teachers not familiar with LoggerPro whose students would benefit from using it for graphical analysis.

I started with the basics: specifying names, short name, and units for the dependent and independent variables; titling the graph; setting the graph options. I showed how linear the fit uses the specified variables and units and how to specify measurement uncertainty and see its affect with error bars.

We then focused on using calculated columns to perform linearization manually and then using LoggerPro’s curve fit feature.

Near the end of the session, I demonstrated some of the more advanced graphing features of LoggerPro with examples from this year:

  • multiple data sets on the same axis
  • multiple y axes
  • examine and tangent tools
  • grouped graphs (position vs. time and velocity vs. time)
  • histograms

Here is the tutorial handout I provided:

Download (PDF, 46KB)

Greatest Benefit of Canvas

Last spring, I was part of our district’s pilot for an LMS. I became a fan of Canvas and was very pleased when we selected it as our district’s LMS.

I absolutely love Canvas’ ease of use. I use all the typical features like announcements, discussions, and file storage. More unique features like modules help my students find everything they need for each unit and pages allow me to easily share enrichment materials.

However, looking back at this first full semester with Canvas, I was surprised which feature had the greatest impact on student learning. It wasn’t any of the above. It was SpeedGrader. Specifically, the ease with which SpeedGrader enables me to provide rich feedback to students on their assignments. Sure, I provided feedback before Canvas by writing comments on lab reports, but it was time consuming (I write much slower than I type) and not always legible (my handwriting is poor). I always had more feedback to provide than what I took the time to write. SpeedGrader has changed all of this.

Here’s my workflow for AP Physics B. Students create an ePortfolio in Canvas that contains all of the labs for which they perform analysis and are assessed. I create an assignment in Canvas for each lab and they submit a link to their ePortfolio. (The ePortfolio part isn’t critical, you could create assignments and have students submit their work in any number of ways.) In SpeedGrader, I can view their ePortfolio in one pane while typing feedback in another. This feedback is what has had the greatest impact on student learning.

SpeedGrader

I don’t score labs by subtracting a bunch of points, I read them. For my AP class, they earn a score of 1-5 which is reported in the online grade book, but doesn’t show up anywhere in Canvas. In Canvas, I just mark the assignment as complete or incomplete. In Canvas, the focus is on learning; not grades. What students do get is my feedback which often starts a discussion about their lab. My feedback is usually questions of the type I would ask of them in person. Questions that help them make connections between different ideas, clarify a misunderstanding, or illustrate an inconsistency in their analysis. In addition, I can easily point out sections that are incomplete. Many students have their notifications configured so that they receive an email when I submit feedback and some respond back almost immediately.

The integrated discussions in SpeedGrader is a perfect example of the role that technology should play in education. Enhancing a sound educational practice (rich feedback and discussion) by making it more efficient and easier for all involved.

Four of my five classes submit all of their assignments in Canvas. Guess what that fifth class will start doing this semester?

Near-Space Ballooning County Institute Session

My colleague and I, who advise our school’s Physics Club, volunteered to share our our experiences over the past two years designing, launching, and retrieving near-space balloons. Last year’s balloon reached an altitude of over 100,000 feet and captured amazing photos, video, and temperature and radiation data. We discussed the technologies involved in near-space ballooning such as GPS receivers, microcontrollers, programmable cameras, and sensors. We also shared different approaches to designing near-space balloons that fit a variety of budgets. Finally, we discussed this year’s project in which younger students are designing and building experiments to be launched as part of this spring’s balloon launch.

The slides we presented are below as is our handout with links to various resources. This is a fantastic project for a group of students to tackle. If you decide to try to launch a balloon, please feel free to contact me.

Download (PDF, 7.85MB)

Download (PDF, 37KB)

Something Has Replaced My iPad in My Bag

For the last year and a half, I’ve almost exclusively used an iPad as my computing device at school. I was pleasantly surprised that practically everything that I needed to do: email, web browsing, demonstrating how to solve problems, and playing videos; I could do on the iPad. I loved that the iPad turned on instantly, never needed to be plugged in during the day, and weighed almost nothing. At home, I still had a traditional computer, an iMac, which I used extensively in the evenings.

Lately, as I’ve been more and more busy, I’ve noticed that during the day, I would have to capture tasks and postpone their completion since I could not efficiently handle them on the iPad. (Perhaps, a future post on Getting Things Done is warranted to explain the methodology I use for task management.) My extracurricular activities are ramping up and they require me to complete a more diverse and spontaneous series of tasks during the day.

I finally decided to make a change. I purchased a MacBook Air and have been using it for the past week. It has been wonderful and I have been more productive. The MacBook Air has many of the characteristics of the iPad: near-instant on, incredibly light, and long battery life. In addition, I can do almost anything on the MacBook Air at school as I can do at home on the iMac.

I haven’t set up a new Mac in a while and I was surprised at how different my experience was with the MacBook Air. With the advent of Dropbox and iCloud, I didn’t copy any files when setting up the MacBook Air; these services synchronized, and continue to synchronize, my contacts, calendar entries, mail, photos, and files between my Macs and iOS devices. For the first time, when I pick up any of my computing devices, I feel that I am at home and not using a satellite computing device that is just a snapshot.

Not everything is perfect, however. The iWork Apps on Mac OS X, need better support for iCloud so that document management is round-trip between Mac OS X and iOS. I expect that this will be addressed, but, for now, I continue to use Dropbox and manually integrate changes made on iOS devices back to the Mac. Particularly annoying are the issues with the MacBook Air running Lion and wireless networks. I’ve hacked on my configuration enough to have a functional but annoying solution; so, I’m better off than some. Regardless, I’m amazed that Apple has yet to address these issues. Finally, the MacBook Air isn’t a tablet. I continue to use the iPad on its own when I want to demonstrate how to solve problems because I can write well on it with Note Taker HD, it projects well on the screen, and it is easy to export my notes to PDF files and post them to our class web site. Perhaps I’ll find an app that makes the iPad function as a drawing tablet for a MacBook.

I haven’t given up on the iPad by any means. I still hope to run an iPad pilot with my class. I think an iPad has several advantages when used in a classroom by students and teachers compared to traditional laptops and I want to explore these. Personally, I still use my iPad. I expect that when traveling or attending a conference, I will only bring my iPad. Finally, nothing is more immersive than curling up on the couch with a blanket and an iPad and reading.