Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Why Physics? Part One

May 25, 2010

One of the beauties of the end of the year is that there is time to reflect. This year was at best a so-so year professionally. Too much of my energy was spent in an confused muddle of ideas without purpose. I doubt I would have viewed it that way 3 months ago. Instead I would have focused on the lack of control I felt over the materials, pacing, and evaluation of my classes. Nothing has changed about that; I did feel out of the creative control loop and it had the expected result on my motivation and satisfaction.

Like all changes in thought this one just seemed to crystallize out of the gestalt. However the clearest statement of the difference is found in Simon Sinek’s video on asking why?

This past year was a year of starting with what or how. What was I teaching? What was in the state and county curricula? How did others How could I present these ideas in a way that made sense and might connect? These aren’t bad questions. In fact they need to be answered. The problem was that the underlying why question for the non-magnet physics class and physical science class was basically “Because it is the course you are signed up for and I am paid to teach,” I had features I could point to as to why my class was good, met goals, and so forth but I had no inspiring vision. Note that my two magnet classes (AP physics B and C) did not suffer from this due to an underlying vision of rigor and challenge. In fact I believe that they went better this year then last because I was focused on the vision of making them as fast paced and challenging as I could.

Brazil vs. Hungary

April 15, 2010

Brazil and Hungary have similar per capita incomes but very different levels of inequality; Brazil being one of the most unequal countries in the world while Hungary is one of the most equal.

1. Would you rather live in Hungary or Brazil?
2. Would you rather be an 18-21 year old Hungarian or a similar aged Brazilian?

For these question you should ignore geographic and language effects.

1. If you asked me to move to one or the other right now I’d chose Hungary due to cultural and geographical issues. However that’s not allowed and on purely economic issues I’d pick Brazil. My perception is that in an unequal society my current net worth would lead to a higher lifestyle. This might be a rather short sighted choice as my worth might be enough to make me a target but not enough to keep me safe but if pressed I think its the way I’d go.

2. Hungary without any hesitation. I think this one is a personality issue; I generally lean towards a lower risk/lower reward path in financial matter. I’d rather be reincarnated as a random average Hungarian instead of risking the very like result of being a really poor Brazilian.

This is what a Kindle’s hardware should be

April 14, 2010

A color e-book reader using a different type of display. Its a ways off but it looks really slick.

Manual Deskterity

April 14, 2010

I doubt that this is ever going to catch on but Microsoft has come up with another silly twist on pen based computing. I guess I’m not the main audience but the ergonomics of one hand with a pen and one hand reaching in to touch things on the screen is really wrong.

Tablets Galore

January 11, 2010

Apologies in advance. I haven’t been blogging but I had some time over the weekend while waiting for my son so I browsed some info from the recent CES.

It looks like 2010 is the year of the tablet or at least the year of the tablet hype. So I figured it was time to restate, at least to myself, what I want in a “tablet.” Note that I have to put tablet in quotes because what I want does not seem to be what everyone else wants. In no particular order I want a computer that can …

Surf the internet
Note taking (including applications for intelligently archiving and searching handwritten notes)
Digital Whiteboard
Word Processing
Excel (although my usage is generally light)
Reading documents in Word, text, and pdf
Watching videos both streaming and local
Editing videos and pictures (limited right now but something I want in a future tablet)

I want a laptop replacement not a media machine (in the jargon of one website I want a Tablet 1.0 instead of a Tablet 2.0). That means there are also some form factor things that I want that are not directly connected to the tasks I will ask the computer to do.

1. Pen input with good handwriting recognition.
2. Light and small enough that I can carry it with me in the same manner I might carry a laptop or netbook.
3. Usable by my not great eyes. This is the only place where I really differ from other computer users. I’m both nearsighted and have the normal aging eyes of those past 40. I want a screen that can be placed comfortably at various positions and distances.
4. Usable while holding it like a clipboard (in either portrait or landscape mode). Nestled in the crook of one arm while standing or sitting is important.
5. Battery life either 6 hours (8 is better) or unimportant.

Since I want to carry it in one arm I will have one hand free for input. A pen is the perfect input tool in that one hand. While a keyboard is great for typing longer text handwriting is an unsurpassed input method for one handed use. This one handed use also limits the device to around 3 pounds or less and a screen size of no more then 12 inches diagonally (limited by my wrist to elbow length as well as the issue of heavier mass acting as a larger torque). Smaller screens are cute and can reduce weight but below about 10 inches the text is just too small. Yes, I could use the zoom feature in applications to make things work with my eyes but then I have to scroll on screen to view the entire document. Even with grab and drag, or flicks, or gestures (whether with mouse, stylus, or finger) scrolling is bad.

Note that while the list of tasks required is not seriously processor intensive an Atom processor is basically the minimum required. My preference is for a stronger processor but its not really critical. Similarly, hard drive space is not that important. An optical drive is not desired. Things can either be loaded over a network or with an external drive. Battery life is sort of the same; either it should be good enough to go through an entire day without significant amounts of charging (at least 6 hours) or it doesn’t matter. Plugged in mode is fine for most usage so a short battery life isn’t a big deal as long as it can last through a long meeting (say 2 hours).

Note that a touch screen is not a desired feature. Its nice for a media player I guess but I’m looking for a working computer. Touch only allows hunt and peck typing if I am using it in my preferred mode. In addition, touch does not provide the tactile feedback of a physical keyboard so I do not envision being able to use it to type even if I had two hands free. Finally, and the real killer, is that touch screen technology doesn’t allow for handwriting recognition. Handwriting input is what allows the tablet to function as a real computer instead of an browsing device and media player. I’m middle aged, academic in nature, and biased towards text over video; deal with it.

The future of education (with an emphasis on science education)

August 4, 2009

I love where education is headed. This is a weird statement to make as a teacher; my income is currently based on the existence of relatively traditional schools. I could of course switch to tutoring, non-traditional educational institutions, become a consultant, or otherwise use my skills in related areas. But the truth is that I like working with high school students* and find the traditional setting perfectly acceptable. Yet I love the change that I see building up around me to invert some of what we now think of as schooling.

I recently mentioned Dan Meyer’s “Be less helpful” comment. It fits very well with the ideas of Modeling Physics (building from experiences and models of them with a big dose of Socratic Questioning), Peer Instruction, the recent explosion of the podcast (or vodcast) in education whether in chemistry or in general, and the flourishing of free online resources in the form of OpenCourseWareand textbooks (sorry for the physics centric link – follow links to go to the overall sites) or even whole Universities. Moving the basic transmission of ideas into a student centric space and focus the time in the institutional (social) setting for discussion, activities, and assessment (including more informal feedback style assessment similar to Eric Mazur’s Peer Instruction as well as formal tests). Its powerful stuff even if it isn’t really new. As I’m sure many people have noticed its really what a good literature class already does!

There are questions of course.

1. Can this inversion do anything about the smart under-achievers? Can such a switch motivate them to gain something from a podcast, video, or web site that they wouldn’t get a from a lecture, textbook, or teacher led activity?

2. Can this work in a setting with underprivileged students? The quantifiable data seems to say that this group isn’t doing much outside of class. If you combine that with the possible digital divide it might be rough. The flip side is that podcasts and audio are accessible with minimal and ubiquitous hardware. Plus playing them, or even a vodcast, might not seem quite a publicly nerdy as reading a book.

3. If perfect is the enemy of good and many teachers are at a good point right now is the benefit worth it? Purely thinking as a classroom teacher I find this the biggest question. It is not a matter of the amount of work but instead its a matter of having the transition from one style to the other disrupt the learning and lead to a result that is worse then either method. Or, to put things another way, is there enough buy in among all stakeholders that a teacher can safely learn these methods while doing them. Clearly this is a case by case basis.

LEAF Question

August 3, 2009

I posted about the LEAF yesterday. I love the idea of an electric car from a traditional manufacturer with reasonably normal looks, a non-sports car mission, and a useful combination of speed and range. While I’m sure that the LEAF can not go 100 miles at 90mph I think its reasonable to make the assumption that it can go fairly close to 100 miles given a blend of 35 – 65 mph speeds like many people would see in a commute. Of course there are chicken and egg problems concerning recharging stations but all new technologies have this.

However as I went to sleep I was wondering about the recharge rate. It seems awfully fast. The batteries hold 24kWhr of energy. 80% of that is roughly 19kWhr. Given half an hour of charging time and a 200V outlet (yes, its probably 220V but the math is easier this way) I’m getting a 190A average flow of charge. That’s doable but its fairly large – this is not your normal dryer circuit.

Nissan LEAF

August 2, 2009


nissan leaf electric car

90mph top speed (that’s actually much higher then I think it needs to be but I understand why it makes little sense to cap it at around 65mph) and 100 mile range make it very practical. Stated recharge to 80% of battery in 20 minutes (listed as 30 minutes on a different site) is even better. Nissan’s official website is here.

Dan’s Ignite Presentation

July 28, 2009

Once again Dan Meyer has summed up one of a key insights into teaching in a pithy statement “Be less helpful!” I’m not sure what I can really add to it as its really the same inside as the one behind guided inquiry teaching, problem based learning, and even the ideas expressed by AP workshop presenters. His restatement is terrific and is something that I at least, and possible others, need to reconnect with every so often. If I can get an embeddable link I’m going to put it on my permanent videos page.

On the other hand I think I can usefully comment on the ending of his presentation. His audience is made up of open source aficionados and coders so his ending plea is quite appropriate but unneeded. We already have collaborative spaces for sharing teaching methods, teaching materials, and teachable media. Dan’s blog is a great example. We have blogs, Nings, wikis, forums, mailing lists (how quaint but effective), various social networking sites, and multiple author blogs if the idea is to get away from one person directing the conversation. Do we really need another site or app or communication method? We do need more interactivity between social groupings but that is not a technological problem.

Of course maybe I’m not getting his message. From Dan’s response in one comment I suspect the distinction is that he want’s collaboration on the media itself while I would be satisfied with expanding the use of collaboration about the media and easy access to the media. In particular I see little purpose in editing some media in such a way that the original is lost. If I have an edit that I believe is of general utility I should upload mine with citation to yours as the inspiration and let people compare, contrast, and critic them in context. Again, the value seems to be in building a useful size community not in a new technological fix.

Alternately he might be referring to the fact that most online communication still has to go through a text medium. The idea of being able to easily add comments to a post via audio or video might be terrific. If that’s what you were meaning then my hat is off to you Dan.

Active versus Modeling

July 28, 2009

First off, the title is more confrontational then it needs to be. Both curricula (Modeling Physics and Active Physics) are guided inquiry ways to teach high school physics. While there are some differences in approach they really have a very similar underlying philosophy.

The problem is that “high school physics” is a rather vague phrase; it covers approaches from no math to rigorous calculus and academic levels from the not as academic ninth graders to the most academic college prep seniors. Active Physics is aimed at the lower math, younger, and all inclusive end of the spectrum. Modeling is aimed as the upper end of high school ages with a more academic focus. Which explains why I am a little hesitant about my school’s* attempt to teach a college prep physics class to juniors and seniors using a combination of Active Physics and Conceptual Physics (I’m leaving out the fact that the other physics teacher wants to try out an independent study approach** and any possible problems caused by the mixing of two not necessarily compatible curricula).

* Really one of my two schools. The non-magnet physics class.

** More on this approach later. Conceptually its a good idea if the practical aspects work.