Monthly Archives: June 2013

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.)

Whiteboard Holders

I’m very excited that we are replacing the individual desks in one of the classrooms in which I teach physics with tables. I’m anticipating much more effective collaboration among students with the tables.

However, one of my projects for this summer was to build something that would discourage “collaboration” during exams. So, I build some very simple whiteboard holders that can serve that function as well as, well, hold whiteboards for display.

I cut 24 holders from an eight foot long 4″ x 4″ using a chop saw. I then used a table saw to cut a kerf in the middle of each block just slightly wider than a whiteboard is thick and almost 2″ deep. (I actually cut the 4″ x 4″ into 2′ sections, cut the kerf in the 2′ sections, and then chopped them into 4″ blocks to be more efficient.) Finally, I cleaned up the rough edges with a belt sander. It only took a couple of hours to make enough holders for 36 whiteboards (a set of 12 for each of our three physics classrooms). Here are two individual blocks to illustrate how they are constructed:

whiteboard holder blocks

Here they are holding a whiteboard:

whiteboard holder

One summer project completed; many more to go!

Fractal Tree Lab

I’m currently working on curriculum development for our AP Computer Science and our new textbook (Cay Horstmann’s Java Concepts: Early Objects, 7th edition). As part of this effort, my counterpart at our district’s other high school and I were sharing some of our favorite labs. One that I shared was the Fractal Tree Lab that my class did this year as part of the recursion unit.

I found this fractal tree assignment online when searching for a fractal example of recursion that my students would find interesting. I believe this assignment is authored by George Peck at Lynbrook High School, but I couldn’t find a reference to it other than through a Google search.

We started with example code for an applet that generated a Koch Snowflake. We then built upon this example to create our fractal trees. I’m fortunate that my inaugural AP Computer Science students were fantastic about providing me honest feedback throughout the year. For this lab, they shared that the assignment provided way too much support and I should have let them figure more of the algorithm out on their own. Based on this feedback, I edited the original assignment to provide less direction.

GDE Error: Error retrieving file - if necessary turn off error checking (503:Service Unavailable)

The fractal tree should look like this:

Fractal tree

Along my goal of providing differentiation and choice in programming activities, I encouraged students to “add more awesomeness” to their fractal trees. Here are some examples of what they did:

Fractal Tree 1

Fractal Tree 2

Fractal Tree 4

Another student made an interactive fractal tree where you could adjust the growth of the tree with a scroll bar. Another made his fractal tree animated and grow slowly.

I’m looking forward to seeing what next year’s students come up with when provided less explicit support but some cool examples from this year’s class.