Jan 29, 2013

Moving over to Jux

Well guys - it's been a while since I've posted anything here (such is the life of a blog, eh?) - and I've decided to move my content over to the new platform Jux. We'll see how it goes, check it out yourself: https://qd.jux.com


Oct 17, 2012

Space Jump: Inspiring a new generation of big thinking?

If you missed last weekend's "space jump" (Felix Baumgartner's jump from 128,000 feet above New Mexico), you really missed quite the generation-inspiring event. On an otherwise unimportant Sunday afternoon I tuned to the Discovery Channel after watching a forgettable show with my wife expecting to see some pretty-cool daredevil type event. As soon as the channel was flipped we were presented with a seated Felix who had already ascended to a remarkable 117,000 feet and who apparently had been sitting in that position for over 2 hours on his journey up. Thanks to the on-screen information (which was wonderfully presented in both U.S. customary and SI (metric) units) we were well aware of Felix's altitude, flight time, cabin pressure, and the incredibly harsh outside environment (essentially zero pressure and very, very cold).

Do you remember the last time NASA live-streamed a camera view from inside the space shuttle while simultaneously commenting on the extreme danger with which the subjects of that view were then presented?

At that moment I became quite aware of a couple things: this was no "pretty-cool daredevil" type event - this was seriously perilous, and an incredible feat of engineering. RedBull has been working on this project for the healthy part of a decade - this is something no one has ever, ever done before, and the highest any other man has come to such a thing was in 1960.

1960 - the inaugural year in a pretty good decade for space stuff as it turns out. The decade that Kennedy said this:

"We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard" - John F. Kennedy, 1962

The same decade that we actually went to the moon. The decade that this country was captivated by the extraordinary achievement of science and engineering. The horror of the first Apollo test (later named Apollo 1) which ended in a cabin fire and the loss of the crew was honored not by a near-decade-long review of safety protocol but by the subsequent victory over the prevailing challenges and at length an actual landing on the moon. 

When Columbia disintegrated over the Texas skies I was a student participating in a high school debate tournament, and "Space" was a last-page mention (at best) in most newspapers across the country. Space shuttles were going to space, regularly, and most people had no idea. NASA was a line item in a government budget relegated to the backs of everyone's mind. Somewhere, somehow, since 1960 this country no longer thought big. Truly, the Columbia disaster was the most publicity NASA had received in years; it really is no wonder then why so many had (have) a negative view of space sciences and would rather have that line cut from their tax strains. 

For years the government reviewed the tragedy while the public marveled at how such a horrible thing - the death of several fine men and women - could ever happen. Many thought how possibly NASA could survive if such things from them were to be expected. But then - the death of a few men and women has never been reason to shut down the military, or public transportation; why now should such deaths kill a program which costs the taxpayer orders-of-magnitudes less than either of those items?

Well, quite simply: space didn't matter. The achievement of going to the moon was just not that big of a deal. Building a space station cooperatively with the rest of the world was just not worth the sacrifice of a handful of people. Of the important things, the great ideas, the big thinking that was going on in this country - space was just not welcome as one. 

So Sunday, sitting there next to my wife, watching Felix sitting in a tiny balloon carriage 20-something miles above the Earth, I was shocked. Shocked to see someone taking a chance; shocked to find an organization willing to broadcast live, to the rest of the world, that hey - this is a really big deal. For the first time in a long time, I was on the edge of my seat for what was a public demonstration of nothing more than incredible engineering and blatant, ballsy human curiosity. This was freaking awesome. 

When Felix started depressurizing the cabin, I was struck by thoughts of his suit exploding - did they design it right? Does RedBull know what they are doing here? It's a vacuum out there! Good gracious this could be really, really bad!

From time to time Felix wouldn't respond to the commands of his land bound counterparts - was he listening? Was he having second thoughts? Was he going to make it?

When the door of his little capsule finally opened, an icy-mist blew into the cabin and a striking view of the Earth emerged. I can only imagine what Felix thought as he saw our little globe through that doorway. Completing the checklist, standing out on the limb, miles above where any man had ever before jumped, Felix said these words:

"Sometimes you have to go up really high to understand how small you are" - Felix Baumgartner, 2012

And then he jumped. He vanished to a dot below the door in just a few seconds. The ground-based cameras followed his descent but soon showed he was spinning quite quickly. Can his body take it? Was he going to die? Am I actually watching a man's life come to an end on live television?

Quite honestly this was the most dramatic, heart-pounding, suspenseful event I've seen in many, many years. I can only imagine what the Apollo 13 adventure was to the audience of that time; but in my imaginings it was not to dissimilar from what I felt watching Felix fall from that balloon. 

Finally he steadied and in just a few moments he was back on the ground, alive. Felix did it; RedBull did it; and a ton of people saw it happen.

This was a scientifically significant event - the data gathered from this experiment will help us in our development of high altitude escape mechanisms, balloon flight, and space-suit technology among many other things. But more important than the data gleaned is the profound sense of "that was awesome" that has hopefully struck many, many children across the world.

For the first time in a long while people are talking about space, about engineering, and about taking risks for science. I truly believe this "space jump" has inspired a new generation of curious boundary pushers. We can only hope that others like RedBull and Felix will pick up the flag dropped sometime after the 1960's and push our imagination back into space. 

Space is a big deal, not a line item. We need more of this and more of that kind of thinking. If you haven't seen the video, you must. 

Oct 9, 2012

Leap Motion: Any Surface is a Touch Surface

If you are just dying to get a Promethean board, or a Smart Board, or any other sort of large "touch screen surface" and have been yelling at some administrative contact for years now to get one, you may want to hold on for just a minute. Personally, I think the large, expensive, and immobile "smart boards" are anything but smart choices for your classroom. I can only imagine what our district paid to have one of these in each math and science classroom, at every school, but I'm sure it was quite the pretty penny. My experience with the technology has left a resounding "meh, whatever" in my head and I would counsel districts who are contemplating such a purchase to seriously reconsider.

In line with what I see as a ubiquitous problem in schools today - most teachers and districts blindly buy "cool" technology and hoping to fix problems extant in their rooms. If the tech is cheap - sure give it a shot - but more often than not it is expensive and wholly not worth that expense.

Enter the Leap Motion. What we have here is a compact replacement for the smart boards of the world. Essentially you'll be able to place this, well, anywhere and turn the 'air' above the device into a "touch region." Walls, screens, TV, whiteboards, hallways, or even open space could be turned into touch surfaces in a snap. Check out the promo here:

If you're not convinced that this can step into the role of the "next-gen smart board" check out the price: $70. That's right, for the price of your kids next X-Box game (that you really shouldn't buy anyway), you get touch-screen capabilities anywhere you want. You can buy more than one, chain them together, and turn entire walls into touch regions.

The catch? Well, it's not available, not yet anyway. The Leap devices should start shipping early next year, just in time for your 2013-2014 budget plans and you can already pre-order them. If you are a district official and are looking for a pilot device program, I would seriously consider taking a look into this device.  

Sep 30, 2012

Sell the lessons you create; make money

A few weeks ago my brother sent me this article about the website teacherspayteachers.com. The gist of TeachersPayTeachers is simple: you make a lesson and people pay you to download it (or, of course, you can offer it for free). TeachersPayTeachers takes a cut off the top, but in the end you can actually make money on the education material you create.

So I've spent the last couple of weeks taking a look at other people's material, downloading free lessons, and creating my first couple of resources that I've uploaded to their site. Teachers from all over have made available tools from simple worksheets to hundred-page e-books; all of them priced from nothing to more-than-I-would-want-to-spend.

I find it hard to imagine that a teacher could make a substantive profit with worksheets and the like which are uploaded with little care. Rather, those few teachers who have the time to create original, complex, and successful lessons will be themselves successful in potentially raising a respectable profit.

So - if you are in the business of making quality resources and would be interested in making a penny for your work - check out TeachersPayTeachers. I think this could actually be worthwhile for those extremely hard-working teacher friends of mine, who I'm sure would appreciate this heads-up (and for whom this short post has been written).

For those of you with a million teacher friends who haven't heard of this site, you'll be happy to know that there's a referral program as well. (Here is my personal referral link - thank you!)

I think there is potential here, it is most certainly not for everyone, but I strongly suggest you all check it out - if for nothing but to see that there are a ton of free resources that may be helpful to you in your classroom. Good luck to all those who attempt to make something here!

Ninth, Tenth, Eleventh, Twelfth - TeachersPayTeachers.com

Sep 25, 2012

Use Your Phone as a Document Camera

Smartphone as a "portable document camera" using Google+ hangouts

Way back in the day classroom teachers used an archaic contraption called the "overhead projector" to present handiwork to the class. I've been told these monsters used bright lights, a mirror, and an exorbitant amount of glass to project some scene to the masses. The best ones came with a big 'ole knob to focus your image...

Ok, I'm not that old (and I promise to only sparingly use "way back in the day"), but this is the second decade of the new millennium and most of us don't rely on what we can universally agree is yesterday's technology. The presenter du jour is now the "document camera." The glass, lights, and mirrors are replaced with an auto focusing camera whose video is digitally flown to a projector facing a nearby wall. Some of these "document cameras" are quite sophisticated with a lighted surface over which a piece of paper can be placed and illuminated from below. Others are more accurately described as a "web-cam on a bendy stick". 

Just as our old friend the overhead was ubiquitously adopted by districts as a tool teachers could not live without, I see in almost every single classroom I've visited recently some form of this document camera. I suppose someone, somewhere, again decided that this thing, this bendy stick with a camera tip, was just absolutely necessary to learning. You may feel the same way, but if you don't already have one and can't afford it, don't fear: you can create the same tool with what you already have in your pocket. 

What you'll need

- A smartphone (Android or iPhone) with a camera that works
- The Google+ app
- A Google+ Account (which is free to set up)
- Possibly a second Google+ account you can log-in to

For this tutorial I'll be using the "Hangouts" feature in Google+, but if you've found another video-casting service (such as Ustream or FaceTime) you should be able to follow the steps not related to Google+ and produce a similar result. I've found that Google+ hangouts is more reliable than Ustream and can reach a larger audience. Also - I have a bias an affinity for Google products (especially with using their phone apps) and you'll find plenty of Google support on this blog. 

You could probably use an iPad or Android tablet and produce similar results - but those are a bit bulky for this application - I'd recommend using a phone over a tablet. 

Start a Google+ Hangout

Now this can be a bit tricky - once you've done it the first time it should be simple for you thereafter. Prepare to start a Google+ hangout by choosing "hangouts" from the Google+ app. To start a hangout you either need to make it "Public" or invite a specific friend to the hangout. 

If you make the hangout public, then anyone on the web can view the video stream from your phone - which is something you may be interested in. This would be a great tool for hosting help-sessions or doing live-tutoring to the masses.

Many of you will not want your cell-phone camera public to the world; if that's you then you'll want to follow these steps.

1. Go to Google+ on your COMPUTER

2. Login with a DIFFERENT account than the account you're using your phone with

Yes, you'll need two different Google+ accounts. I recommend logging in on the computer with one of your student accounts, with your husband/wife's account, or simply create a "dummy" Google account. 

3. Once you have two separate accounts, start a Google+ hangout from your phone and "invite" that other account to join.

4. From the COMPUTER join the hangout you've been invited to and you'll be able to see the stream from the phone's camera. 

5. "Full-Screen" that window and show it to the class - you now have a "document-camera"

Naturally, you could also invite people individually so anyone (anywhere) can watch the stream from your camera.

What you will see on your computer

Now, the quality of your screen cast will depend on your internet connection and the quality of camera on your phone.

Things to Watch Out For

You're going to want to prop the phone up some how, or rest it on a ledge so that you can work underneath it - but come on - is that really so hard to do? You may also have to increase the lighting in your work space such that the image is bright enough. Again - this shouldn't be so hard to do.

If you're worried that this approach might not work - who cares! This takes a little bit of time to set up and (assuming you have a phone with you) costs you nothing to set up. Go ahead and give it a shot. Google+ is valuable to the classroom in many other ways and this would be a good introduction to that tool even if you don't end up using Google+ & a cell phone as a document camera.

Document cameras are expensive

So are cell phones - but you probably already have a cell phone - you might as well use it for more than its standard utility. Additionally, you can take this "portable" document camera with you anywhere and stream a lesson from wherever you can find internet access. 

I'd like to see the results of you (out there) using your phone as a document camera; report back, let me know how it goes.

Sep 23, 2012

Which Graphing Calculator to Buy?

From students, students' parents, other teachers, former students, and even my parents on occasion comes the question asked of every math teacher since the days of the slide rule: "What calculator should I buy?" The trouble with what seems to be such a simple question is that the answer is certainly not simple. Here is my best attempt at it though and I hope this will help those of you out there currently plodding to Staples with a big question mark in a bubble over your head. Please keep in mind that this advice is almost exclusively for a high school or middle school aged student - undergraduates should talk to their professors to understand exactly what is expected of them.

Before I get to my specific recommendations, let me throw out some general wisdom:

You probably don't need to buy one

That's right, you don't need one. No - this isn't coming from some old curmudgeon who insists that every student do arithmetic by hand lest his fingers get rapped - rather, it is important to understand that your math teacher more than likely has a calculator that you can use during class time. Bringing your own calculator to school exposes you to the liability of losing it, having it stolen, or broken. Further, you may find that your teacher is less willing to help you with "technical" difficulties if you bring in a calculator that is significantly different that the class-set of calculators available in that class. 

I bought a TI-89 my sophomore year in high school for my Pre-Cal class and it was stolen less than a month after I had it. That was a very, very sad day for me - but I have not bought a calculator since. Yes, it is nice to have your own, but you really don't need one. 

You might not be allowed to use it anyway

In just about every single upper-level engineering course that I took at Texas A&M I was not allowed to use a calculator during the tests. At home studying we almost always used online tools like Wolfram Alpha or even simplier, Microsoft Excel, to do all the math we needed. 

Many high schools prohibit the use of personal calculators on standardized testing as well, so your fancy $100 toy that you've been studying with for the last several months turns into a brick that you can't use - I'd rather not be put in that situation.
HP 32sII - Just Awesome

You don't need the best, or newest

The funny thing about calculators - not much has changed in the last several years. We're not talking about the mobile phone race here kiddos - the software behind plotting y=2x+2 has remained relatively unchanged since I was in high school. That means you can go on Craigslist, buy a 10-year-old calculator, and be just as equipped as the next guy. Another funny thing about calculators is that they last for a really long time. One of the few things that routinely dies on a calculator is the battery - which can be replaced!

An "old" TI-82 does most of what the latest-and-greatest TI-eighty-something can do but can be found used for probably less than $10 without looking too hard. 

You might not even need a graphing calculator

Since that TI-89 was stolen from me back in high school, I've been using my trusty HP-32sII RPN scientific calculator just about every day (and have replaced the batteries maybe once in ten years). Unfortunately, HP stopped making the 32sII but eventually replaced it with the 33s, and then the 35s. Any of these scientific calculators is more than an adequate tool and (once you get the hang of them) may actually be more handy than any graphing calculator. 
HP 35s Scientific Cal.

Interestingly, the 32sII can only be found at exorbitant prices because it is just such a novel find. A used 32sII in decent condition is easily several times the price of a brand-new 35s.

So after much ado, here is my list of calculators you should think about buying.

1. Hewlett Packard 35s Scientific Calculator

The HP-35s is a more than capable scientific calculator which can be had for about $40 and does everything you'll ever need a hand-held calculator to do.

2. TI-Craigslist

If you really must have your hands on a TI-something-or-rather (which, quite frankly, are all very nice machines) I strongly recommend doing a craigslist search for "TI-82" or "TI-83". If you can find either for about $10 go ahead and buy it. Honestly, there is no sense in wasting ten-times that amount on a TI-89 that provides marginally more utility. 

3. Microsoft Excel (or similar)

My last recommendation is not a hand-held calculator at all - please do all of your future engineering professors and employers a favor and learn how to manipulate numbers in a spreadsheet function. Your graphing calculators skills become almost useless after high school, but your spreadsheet skills will become more and more relied upon. Please, please, please learn Excel. Please. Thank you. 

So that's that - I supposed if I could answer our title question more succinctly it would be : "well you don't need a graphing calculator at all!"

Sep 19, 2012

Trello: An online collaboration platform

I am continuously looking for collaboration tools that are simple to use, that work and are (ahem) not blocked at school. If I could use Google Docs with my students on a regular basis I would probably stop there - Google really has put together quite the user-friendly collaboration experience. As budgets get tighter across the country I would not be surprised to see more districts drop their Microsoft contracts and opt for Google's free suite.

That day has not arrived where I'm at - and unfortunately Google Docs is just not a viable option for during-the-school-day collaboration. But hey - this isn't a post lamenting the lack of Docs for my students - rather I want to share with you a very cool tool I've been using to replace my fix on Docs.
Trello's logo, from www.trello.com
Let me say - a new collaboration platform I've found is even better than Google Docs. If you knew how much I love the Google infrastructure, you'd know how tough it was for me to write that; but this new tool is absolutely that good. For those of you who didn't read the title - I'm talking about Trello. 

What is Trello?

Trello is a collaboration tool that, well, in their own words:
"Trello is a collaboration tool that organizes your projects into boards. In one glance, Trello tells you what's being worked on, who's working on what, and where something is in a process."
Trello is a monster "to-do" list that you can modify with team-mates. Let's say you wanted to create a new task, assign that task to someone, give it a due date, upload an attachment to it, color code it, vote for it,... that's Trello. Trello was built for project management; specifically it was designed by a company whose business is making project management simpler. (Even more specifically it was designed by FogCreek Software, check them out, for software developers to help them manage their development tasks).

My brother turned me toward Trello a few years ago and I've been using it since for my own software projects. It only recently occurred to me - what if I used this as a collaboration tool for my students? What if I showed my students how to use this tool, a tool which is being used prolifically in the contemporary software industry, and have them build their own projects with it?

Why didn't I think of this before?
The sign up page

How do I get Trello?

When you go to Trello you'll be confronted with the typical sign in or sign up mechanisms. Go ahead and create an account (you can even just sign in with your Google account - and interestingly you can allow your Trello account to talk to your Google Docs account - which is AWESOME. But seriously, this is really cool). 

You'll need an email address - something any effective collaborator should have already - if you don't have an email address I'm calling you out (high school students, this means you). 

Important note - Trello does not work on antiquated browsers. If you're using Internet Explorer, I'm talking to you (and interestingly, so is Germany). I'm using Chrome and Firefox and have no problems. If you get the "browser is not supported" warning, just head over to chrome.google.com and download away. 

I've got a Trello Account; now what?

Options on the right
Trello may automatically direct you to a "Welcome Board" - this is your own personal sandbox to play around with and get acquainted with how Trello works. It's fine to play around on the Welcome board, but you'll eventually want to graduate to your own, self-made, boards. To do to that, go back to the main trello page (www.trello.com). 

On the right you should see some options. You can change your profile here, see which organizations you belong to, create a new board, or create a new organization. 

I think it's best to start off with creating a new organization - this will just be your group's presence on Trello. The organization can be public or private and will be used to collect all of the "to-do-lists" you will eventually create. After you've created an organization, create some boards!

The boards...

The meat-and-potatoes of Trello are in the boards. Here you can create custom lists, such as "Today's Assignments" and within each list create individual cards which you can populate with attachments, due dates, check lists, etc.. A student who logs into Trello and visits your "assignments" boards knows exactly what you are doing that day, when it's due, and can download attachments directly from cards.

One of the best features of the boards is the "drag and drop" mechanism of the cards - when you want to move something from "Today's Assignments" to "Past Assignments" just drag it over!  I've been using Trello in developing my calculus course and love the option to just move a "planned" task to a "completed" task with the drag-and-drop of a mouse. 

Drag and Drop - Move a card from one list to another in a snap!
Trello Android App!
I strongly recommend playing around with Trello before using it in your classrooms - but you probably will because it is that great. If you use it for nothing more than a personal "to-do-board' I feel like this will please you still. Perhaps the icing on the cake is that Trello has recently released an Andriod and iPhone app that is quite well polished. Your students will love that as well. 

A wrap up

If you are looking for an effective collaboration tool, check out Trello; it is my favorite (and I'm picky). It really is nothing like anything I've used before and it works, period. 

If you teach a class where students are working on projects together this is a great tool to teach them project management skills. 

Give it a shot!

Sep 18, 2012

How Manual Transmissions Work - An Instructional Video from 1936

Here's a quite fantastic instructional YouTube lesson on manual transmissions. You read the post title correctly - this comes to us from before the war (the second World War kiddos). No need to muddle this with a fancy caption - it's just awesome. Enjoy.

Thanks to my brother for sending this my way!

Sep 10, 2012

Mobile Spectrometer (Kickstarter Project)

Back in June I briefly spoke on the uses for a cell phone in the science of spectroscopy. As it turns out, there is a group of folks out there who have a pretty awesome project to turn the everyman's phone into a mobile spectrometer using their web-based, open source, software. From the kickstarter project:
A spectrometer may not sound like what you wanted for your birthday, but it's a ubiquitous tool for scientists to identify unknown materials, like oil spill residue or coal tar in urban waterways. But they cost thousands of dollars and are hard to use -- so we've designed our own.
Now we need your help in collecting data to build a Wikipedia-style library of open source spectra, and to refine and improve sample collection and analysis techniques. We imagine a kind of "SHAZAM for materials" which can help to investigate chemical spills, diagnose crop diseases, identify contaminants in household products, and even analyze olive oil, coffee, and homebrew beer. 

It's clear that they aren't building these spectrometers for their explicit use in the classroom, but I can already see a huge benefit for them there. Physics, chemistry, and astronomy teachers might want to take a look at this on-going project and perhaps fund their kickstarter to get your hands on one of the simple paper-folded spectrometers to play around with.

I'm quite certain this could be used to really modernize the classical spectrum labs done in secondary schools these days, and they really aren't that expensive. Plus, you can go ahead and check out the software if you already have a portable spectrometer. Check it out here

Big props to this group for their awesome idea, if anyone gets a chance to use it in their classroom, report back to the STEM Room and let us know!

Sep 6, 2012

qCalculus: Online Short Courses in Calculus

Introducing qCalculus (qcalculus.appspot.com): a free online tool for learning the basics of Calculus! I've been working on this project for the past several weeks and am excited to officially reach out to you - my friends, colleagues, and blog readers to help iron out the kinks of what has become quite the consuming hobby.

What qCalculus is at its heart is a collection of online calculus short courses aimed at the beginning calculus student (someone with no prior calculus instruction). My AP Calculus students are all utilizing this website as a supplement to the in-class instruction they are receiving.

There are two major components to this site: Lessons and Discussion. My lessons are very short ~1 minute videos. I feel strongly that long recorded lectures don't quite reach the online audience as effectively as shorter videos which perhaps don't lose kids in their ever shorter attention spans. Following each video is a focused quiz question that the student needs to correctly answer (or achieve a streak of correct answers in some cases) to unlock the next lesson video.

The discussion board is simply a forum for students to ask for and give help pertaining to the lessons they are currently working through. As students ask good questions (determined by the community at large through the simple vote-up vote-down mechanisms popularized by similar discussion boards currently extant on the web) their reputation grows. Students can earn ribbons for their accomplishment in the lessons and for their reputation on the discussion board.

I hope that this new approach to "homework" refreshes the average student and reaches those who otherwise struggled in Calculus. Please feel free to sign up for a class and participate, that will certainly help me work out the kinks and you may just learn some math along the way.

Link: qcalculus.appspot.com