4 Steps to Becoming A Maker

You may have noticed in my Twitter bio that I refer to myself as a maker. The term is becoming more and more known but for those who haven't heard it used before, a maker is a philosophy/worldview that is an alternative to a consumer. Many of us have one skill or trade that we make a living from and we need to purchase everything else that we need or want.

A Maker will examine their life and see what they could do the reduce the amount that they buy and what could instead be made. Everything is fair game, food, entertainment, clothing, electronics, etc. Some do it out of financial necessity, because fixing or making something yourself is often the cheaper way to go. Others do it out of the sheer rush and excitement one gets by creating. To have full control over how a project turns out is priceless.

If I have piqued your interest, get started! There is no admission fee or club to join. The hardest part about being a Maker is that initial first step. Doubt and fear might keep you from trying something new and concern that you don't know enough to start could paralyze you into giving that control over to someone else and just reverting back to buying stuff. Making something is an act of love, so think about what you want to create whether it be practical or aesthetic, and do it.

My steps for creating are as follows:
1) Inspiration - Just being in this amazing world, you are going to see some incredible things. Sometimes I come across something that someone else has done and I want to replicate it. Other times I will have an idea come upon me and a powerful desire to make it. One great place to get inspiration from is Make Magazine.

If you do not already, subscribe to the free daily newsletter. You will get hooked. Everyday I start off reading what others have done and see pictures of what others have created and it always inspires me. There is also a Craft magazine section.

2) Become an Expert - With so many people connected online now, Solomon's lamentation that there is "Nothing new under the sun," is actually a huge relief to me. There is some value in struggling, failing, and learning by doing but there is no reason to reinvent the wheel and suffer when others have already done it for you. I could spend 2-5 hours programming something from scratch or I could use part of someone else's code to give me a head start.

There is also the thought of safety and cost. If there is a potentially dangerous component to what you are doing, it behooves you to learn all you can to protect yourself. Not doing something the right way the first time could also end up costing you and derailing the project.

People usually know when I am starting a new project because I will get a stack of books from the library bigger than me or I will stay up until the wee hours of the night because the excitement of making is so compelling that I want to make sure I know what I am doing. I would rather learn as much as I can before hand and not get as frustrated later.

If you have not already looked at the Instructables website, you owe yourself a look. They have tutorials on almost anything you want to make and the community of makers leave great comments to support and help you.

3) Tools - This is a simple one. Technology exists to make our lives easier. If you are interested in doing something the "old fashioned way", mazel tov to you, but there are parts of creating that I enjoy sweating for and others that I am more than happy to let something/someone else handle.

If you are just starting out, money might prohibit you from getting the best or all of the tools you need. That's ok, take your time, borrow or rent one from a shop or craigslist and over time you will find yourself able to take on bigger projects. If you need help deciding where to put your money there is a great list if you purchase a back issue of Make Magazine #3. There is an old proverb that I recite every time I am purchasing a tool with or for someone else, "Buy the right tool and you will only cry about the price. Buy the cheap tool and you will cry about it breaking and then again about the price."

4) Join Us - There is no reason why you should do it alone. There are great people who want to connect with you online, but also in person. Hackerspaces are places where you can go and work on your project. There are community tools and people there to help you. Think of it like Library 2.0. If you want to find a Hackerspace around you, check out this massive list. Go to one of the Maker Fairs. Find some friends and start a club, you have all the resources in the world to support you, so use them.

Manifesto/Maker's Bill of Rights: I leave you with this, one of the many rallying cries of the Makers and why we do what we do. Happy Making!

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Winter Break Book Recommendations

Winter break is soon upon us (for some of you it might already be here). A chance to spend time with family and perhaps get a chance to learn something new. I don't know if I am the first person to say this but regarding professional development I always say, "It is a lot easier to work on a car not running." We all have a desire to grow and increase our ability to help our students but it is difficult in the midst of all of that happens in our daily lives as educators and as human beings.

I would like to recommend a few books that really got me thinking about education. I am only mentioning books that are truly the best of the best so as not to waste your time. These are excellent for generating conversations or challenging what or why we do things the way we do. I hope you enjoy them and leave a comment if you have read any or afterwards leave your thoughts.

Book Recommendations:
Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns- Written by 3 incredible authors, one of whom will be speaking at the 2011 CUE Conference. This book outlines how education is undergoing a dramatic shift towards personalized differentiated learning. Outlining the different technologies and resources that are making this happen, this book is full of stories that will have you cheering for the student as they find success in ways they couldn't possibly before.

Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us- By bestselling author Daniel Pink, this book has interesting and applicable research and information on every page about what keeps us going as human beings. By making a few simple changes you can dramatically increase you and your student's interest towards any activity or project.

The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing - Alfie Kohn makes a strong case for why we should consider how and why we give homework. He outlines all of the reasons that educators, administrators, parents, and lawmakers typically offer in support of it and provides data and research which refutes these claims. If you really want an eye opening book you can't go wrong with any of Alfie Kohn's articles or books.

Measuring Up: What Educational Testing Really Tells Us - We all want to see our students be successful and challenged. The question is how do we do that and afterwards check to see how we as educators and they as students are doing. Both private and public institutions are swamping our schools with tests and overwhelming us with data. The data is being misinterpreted and misused to portray a shortsighted and false image of how our schools are doing. This book, written by a Havard Professor of Statistics, makes the facts and data more understandable so we can properly communicate it to those who have a vested interest.

No More Secondhand Art: Awakening the Artist Within - Do not make the mistake in thinking this book is only for "art teachers". This educator explains why everything a student creates should be beautiful work and originality. Many parallels between his work and other subjects. Every time he mentioned the word art I thought of math. How often are we asking students to do the same thing as everyone else has for the last 100 years and then asking ourselves why they are not interested.

Tinkering toward Utopia: A Century of Public School Reform - Another great book by Tyack and Cuban who do a thorough and detailed job of showing us what education has looked like over the last hundred and fifty years or so. Every generation a politician will make an outcry for how schools are failing and need reform. This book shows how these same statements have been made repeatedly throughout history and why they failed. There is a more complete book review here. Just remember Roy Roger's poignant observation, "The schools ain't like they used to be, and they never was".

Do you have thoughts or suggestions for another great book to read? Leave a comment and share it with us!

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Khan Academy New Features - Learn More than Ever Before

Everyday makes me wish more and more that I had been a student in today's world to have access to the amount of technology and resources students have that are free. A while ago, I was told I was autodidactic. This was said with the implication that I could learn anything and they were unable to. It is amazing how labels put us into boxes.

For those who think that learning on your own is impossible I teach you how to learn anything and give you resources for online learning. To think of what I was able to learn with the library and Web 1.0 and realizing the exponentially greater resources of today makes me hopeful that classrooms will shift from teaching skills to facilitating exploration and creative thinking.

Salman Khan has become a household name in recent months, and well deserved of that recognition. He created hundreds of high quality education tutorials of his own volition and shared them with the world for free at KhanAcademy.org. The tutorials cover a wide variety of topics in Science and Math and even a few on finance and history. Bill Gates gave him a huge amount of praise recently, saying how often his children and he watch the videos.

If you have been to the site before, you will want to check it out again because financial and technical support has rallied to Khan side to further improve the site. Go to KhanAcademy.org and browse through the tutorials. What you will notice is that these videos are intended to teach discrete skills. This is useful because many videos breeze through too many topics quickly before one can get the hang of it.

The second thing you will notice which is much appreciated is the built in ability to download the videos. Many schools restrict access to YouTube and while I had previously recommended Browser Extensions and sites like KeepVid, having an easy way to download a video is priceless. Note: the video will download as an FLV file which takes up little memory and can be viewed for free with the VLC Player (aka "the cone").

The most intriguing new feature are the exercises. Students of all ages can click on the Do Exercises button and conveniently login with their Facebook or Google Account.

You will see a game like interface with levels of mathematical knowledge ranging from addition to calculus. Students can travel through the exercises via multiple routes of their choosing and receive energy points for completing the objectives. Hints are offered if requested but bonus points are awarded if completed on their own.

Teachers can be added as a "coach" and see the progress and data on their students. Just click on the buttons at the bottom of any screen a student has logged into.

The videos have been wildly successful, with data showing dramatic gains in student performance. I appreciate the fun and interactive interface but I hope teachers do not rely to heavily on the extrinsic motivators to have students want to learn math.

What this could provide classrooms is freedom from skill building lessons and now being able to spend more time on activities and projects that apply and deepen learning. Thank goodness for the altruism of people like Salman Khan who choose to keep this free in order to help as many as possible.

If you would like to support the Khan Academy, they state that their primary need is to get the word out. Share this with all of the math/science teachers, IT Managers, Administrators, family members, and struggling students you know. If you have knowledge of a second language, they would appreciate your help in translating the videos. But, of course if you have the means to financially support the endeavor they would appreciate it. Information can be found here.

Let's make sure people and programs like this are supported and used as much as possible. It is a great time to be in education. This is the type of programs I was hoping for and encouraging in the Hub Proposal. Never before has quality education been available to all and I am excited to share these resources with you.

Update: Since this post was written, a developer has created an iPhone, Android, iPad app that allows you to easily watch the Khan Academy videos from the phone.

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Get Your Students Thirsty for Math

Many of you read the Is Calculating Math? post last week and are now considering what can you do to bring Math back into your classroom. There are so many resources out there to get students thinking mathematically. What does it mean to think Mathematically? Every student is different and we need to take that into account. Is our goal just to teach a canon of concepts or to inspire students to look at the world with the eyes of an artist? I think it is a little of both.

Howard Gardner's Theory of Multiple Intelligences refers to 9 various intelligences which describe a student's strengths and preferred method of learning. If we look at the logical-mathematical sphere of intelligence it refers to quote:

Less emphasis on traditional mathematical ability and more on reasoning capabilities, abstract patterns of recognition, scientific thinking and investigation, and the ability to perform complex calculations.

I believe all students are capable of enjoying these aspects of life and our universe and so in addition to the standard curriculum, wherever possible, I provide my students opportunities to explore.

One great resource that I have come across is James Tanton. His website provides a lot of great resources and ideas about math and how to make concepts more easily understood. Many teachers do not know the reasons behind why they do certain things in math and this can frustrate students when they want to understand. Mr. Tanton's resources and books are more conversational and geared towards students and teachers reading them for enjoyment and explanation. For example, here is a great free guide and resource about Quadratics.

I really enjoy using Math without Words and examples from Solve This. The post that inspired me to  check out these resources came from this Math Mama Writes blog post. In the post you can see some examples and see why my students and I were so excited about it. Every time I use one of these resources I seem to hook one more student into realizing that math is fun. The coveted, "Wow, this is really interesting" to the student who is working on a Kakuro puzzle you gave them after school for fun.

We can have the best teachers in the world, but if the students are not enjoying themselves then they will not be receptive to learning. In We Make The Road by Walking, Myles Horton is asked to comment on education as related to the quote, "you can lead a horse down to water, but you cannot make him drink." His response was:

This is a problem they deal with in academia by hitting the horse over the head and beating on him till they force his nose in the tub, and just to keep the blows from continuing, he'll try to drink. My system is to make him thirsty, so he'll volunteer to drink.

If you can get your students thirsty for math, they will be able to learn anything because they have motivation.

Updated: After writing this post, I received an email from BachelorsDegree.org with a link about 20 Incredible Math Ted Talks some of which I had seen before and some I had not but they are a really good list. It is important to keep learning all of the time so you can answer student's questions. Not just the ones about how to solve problems, but why and what makes math interesting.

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Download and Search Books from Any Device through Google eBooks

The opportunities for learning have increased dramatically since the emergence of the Internet. The ability to share and  help one another find resources and learn new information has removed many barriers for students who want to learn and develop their knowledge and  skills.

Google is again pushing the envelope for what should be public and free. Now everyone with a computer and Internet access has the ability to have EmailDocument CollaborationWebsitesTranslation/Phone, and soon even an Operating System. Our society has often needed to adjust to these changes and while Google has faced legal battles from their attempts to free books from restrictions, the time has come for Google to roll out its solution to book availability.

Announcing Google eBooks
Google eBooks is going to become one of your favorite websites. Now, you have access to search and read millions of books for research and preview. Through an agreement between Libraries, Publishers, and Google, you can now search the text of books to find relevant information for what you need. While this was available in part before, it has been greatly expanded to coincide with their ability to ready eBooks in the cloud.
Textbooks, magazines, and many other resources are available for search, viewing, and purchase. Through a new agreement you can now purchase digital versions of your media and then view them on  your computer, eReader, and mobile device.

While the resources available are expansive, I am sure that even more will be available with time since Google has devoted a large amount of resources and time to this venture.

I am grateful to all who have worked hard to create exciting new ways and methods for learning. 

Benjamin Franklin has always been one of my heroes (which is why my son is named after him). One of the most laudable and long reaching gifts he gave to this country was the US library system. How many of our lives have been enriched by a library? Yet, in much of our country access to high quality resources proves difficult for many in low income or rural areas. Thankfully, there are programs that allow libraries to share but it is time consuming and expensive.

Then Tim Berners-Lee dramatically cut down the barriers to learning when he opened up the World Wide Web to us all. Now information from all over the world was accessible through personal computers and while this can still represent a stumbling block, community resources are available so that almost all people can use the Internet, just maybe not as often as others.

Now as more and more people shift away from the traditional work/learning space and find themselves using phones and small devices, Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos made learning mobile with the Apple iPods/iPhones and Kindle respectively which made it possible to read large amounts of information on mobile devices (I should mention that I don't solely attribute this to Jobs and Bezos but their leadership certainly drove the innovation that led to the new technologies).

With each passing day, more and more people are able to learn the new and widely diverse skills that make our society so unique. I hope more people take Google's lead and provide their technologies for as little as possible to provide equitable opportunities for all to learn.

Google eBooks

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21 Easy Keyboard Shortcuts to Save You Time

You have probably been using a computer for years, maybe decades and either you already use keyboard shortcuts or you don't. Things have been going fine and you're thinking, "Why would I start using them now, that sounds like a lot of work!" While it may seem insignificant, in the long run Keyboard Shortcuts are going to save you a lot of time.

My love for them goes back to my days where my brother and I would fight over who would use the keyboard. We would try and mess up the other's work but the mouse was too slow so we would learn the shortcuts. Think about it, computer mice take up space, they require ergonomics separate from the keyboard and they are just all around slow.

If nothing else, you might want to learn them because your students know them. I guarantee if they see you coming and they are doing something else they are going to quickly hit Alt-F4 or Alt-Tab. 

One of my personal interests is optimization and efficiency. Having read books and reports by experts in this field, they will often make non-sensical suggestions to businesses like moving the printer 3 feet to the left, or getting a desk with an extra drawer. The point is that these small changes save minutes of time which compounded over a year can add up to hours and over a lifetime I would like to think that I didn't needlessly waste time.

I restricted my suggestions to the 21 keyboard shortcuts I use everyday and those that are relatively easy to remember. If you focus on just one a day you will find yourself picking them up so quick that you don't even have to think about them after a while. If you would like a more comprehensive list I suggest you check our Wikipedia's list.

Internet Browsing
Back / Previous
Alt + Left Arrow
Alt + Left Arrow
Forward / Next
Alt + Right Arrow
Alt + Right Arrow
F5 or Ctrl + R
Cmd + R
Close Tab
Ctrl + W
Cmd + W
Open New Tab
Ctrl + T
Cmd + T
Bookmark Page
Ctrl + D
Cmd + D
Bookmark Manager
Ctrl + B
Cmd + B
Ctrl + F
Cmd + F
Zoom In
Ctrl + Plus
Cmd + Plus
Zoom Out
Ctrl + Minus
Cmd + Minus
Jump to Address Bar
Ctrl + L
Cmd + L
General Computer Use
Select All (files, words, etc)
Ctrl + A
Cmd + A
Copy (files, words, etc)
Ctrl + C
Cmd + C
Cut (moves instead of copying)
Ctrl + X
Cmd + X
Paste (moves the files, words)
Ctrl + V
Cmd + V
Find or Search (web, document)
Ctrl + F
Cmd + F
Undo last action
Ctrl + Z
Cmd + Z
Redo last action
Ctrl + Y
Shift + Cmd + Z
Switch Between Open Programs
Alt + Tab
Cmd + Tab
Lock Computer
Windows Logo + L
Must be configured
Show Desktop (minimize all)
Windows Logo + D
F11 or Cmd + Alt + M
Is there a shortcut you cannot live without? Share it with us in the comments.

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Is Calculating Math? Part 2

The history of math bifurcated a few thousand years ago with the rise of cities. Humans have been using records and math to determine seasons long before the historical record shows otherwise farming would not have been possible. There is also evidence of games like Mancala and Nim going back very far into human history. There was no need for humans to play games or develop calendars for tracking the sun and seasons but we did because it was fun and useful.

As cities grew larger and empires formed, math served other purposes like machine/weapon making, business/taxation and other administrative tasks. Over time the prominence of calculation as math took hold and math as recreation became more and more esoteric. It was understandable that this would happen as calculation was necessary to get the necessary precision for engineering.

Flash forward to the early 20th century. Computers are capable of doing large calculations that would have been too time consuming for humans to attempt previously. Yet, there were very few people on Earth who knew how to program these machines. As time went on, new programming languages (e.g. Pascal, Basic) and the greater demand for software applications allowed more people to learn programming. Now we are a highly connected society, heavily reliant upon the Internet and technology to maintain "modern" society.

Wait, isn't this a post about math?

Over the last few thousand years, math has become more and more defined as the ability to calculate accurately and quickly. We know this because our classrooms reflect this in our curriculum. Almost all of our time is devoted to helping students become great at calculating. But wait...we have computers now. Do we even need to know how to calculate?

Gottfried Leibniz (co-discoverer of Calculus in the 17th century) said, "It is unworthy of excellent men to lose hours like slaves in the labor of calculation which could safely be relegated to machines."

In other words, let the machines do all of the hard work so we can use our incredible minds to be creative and inventive.

How do we do that, and how do we help our students to do that as well? Now more than ever, we are using software that we have no idea how it works. Whether it is guarding our bank information or the photos of our vacation, software is no longer on the periphery of our society. I have to agree with many who are calling Programming the new literacy. Clive Thomson says, We're All Coders Now and Douglas Rushkoff goes one step further with the title of his newest book Program or Be Programmed (Youtube interview with author).

Conrad Wolfram ,director of Wolfram Research, has a TED Talk that has gone viral. It is 17 minutes, but if you are a math teacher or interested in curriculum reform it is one of the best ways to spend 17 minutes. Here is the accompanying blog post with transcript.

Math has always been about four steps.
1) Posing the right questions
2) Taking a real world example and transforming it into something that can be described with math.
3) Calculating
4) Confirming that the results apply back to the real world situation and answer our original question.

Yet our math class spends 80% of it's time doing Step 3. As I previously stated, this was because computers and the software simply was not friendly enough for students to use so students had to learn how to calculate by hand.

I also appreciate his statement that

math!= calculating    math is greater than calculating 

Or translated from the computer terminology. Math is not calculating, it is greater than calculating.

Wolfram says that Calculus has typically been taught later because the calculations were too difficult, yet now we can teach it to students earlier because the computer can do the computation for us. The concepts and ideas of Calculus can be understood far earlier than when most students learn it.

I can hear the grumbling already. I have heard math teachers, department heads, and even students say that programming is cheating. If a student does not actually calculate the answer then they do not really understand the math.

Hmmm, well do you understand how Netflix suggests new movies to you? How about your car, if something big went wrong, could you fix it yourself? Yet you can benefit from these technologies. Let me clarify something, just because you don't understand how something works, doesn't mean  you cannot use the tool itself.

Calculus is not the chain rule or L'Hopital's rule. It is seeing patterns of slope and area/differentiation and integration in nature. If students cannot understand math until they understand the calculation, then the only people who understand math might be those with PhDs. Since we know that is ludicrous, lets stop implying to the students that math == calculating.

Let them use their calculators (better yet show them how to program their calculators) and spend that brain energy and class time analyzing graphs and patterns because that is what computers are not very good at doing. I used a programming calculator to make my own applications in High School which saved me a lot of time on homework or tests to derive and solve more complex problems.

Now, you might say, should a student never learn to add and subtract? Should we rely on calculators for everything and teach our students nothing about computation? Of course not, the pendulum shouldn't swing too far to the other side, but we are doing our students a disservice by not allowing them to spend more time developing their problem solving skills, creativity, and lateral thinking (and in my opinion, solving for the y-intercept in the point slope form is useful but not creative).

What are my suggestions for how we should begin to move forward?

1) Begin integrating computer science into the math/science/humanities curriculum. Note I am not saying separate computer science classes. I think we should continue to do those as well, but we need to begin integrating it into our STEM classes and allowing it to free up our time to do more interesting things as well as discover the joy of creating your own software.
  • I encourage you to start with Python as as programming language. It is free and open source so it can be implemented immediately no matter what your situation, be easy enough for students to learn, and still remaining powerful enough to do anything you want.
  • There is now one place on BrokenAirplane where you can find all of the programming resources, like tutorials, and software to get you started (all free). If you have any suggestions let me know but this section will always be updated.
  • You should certainly do something even if you yourself have never programmed until now. Even just a little introduction will whet their appetite for more. Don't feel like you have to jump in and do an elaborate project, just start with what you enjoy and feel comfortable with. Most students in America do not see programming until college and even then only if they are a CS, math, or science major. We must start as young as possible and you are the one to do it.

2) Less is more. We must shorten the curriculum of calculation so we can spend more time learning actual math. Calculating is unnecessary in large part so spend time analyzing data, finding patterns, discussing and writing about math, and so on. If your students begin creating programs and algorithms that do the calculating for you or confirm mathematical proofs, they will learn so much more deeply than any set of problems will ever accomplish.

3) Connect with others. I get my support from friends who teach computer science, fellow science/math  teachers, the Python Education mailing list, websites and people like Maria Droujkova's Natural Math, Allison's Infinigons blog, and many other relationships that you will develop once you start.

4) Realize that you are doing something important. We are the only developed nation that does not require computer science as part of the curriculum. I am not saying that I would want it to be, because then it might become rote and boring. This kind of literacy needs to be shared via motivated educators like you. I thank you and your students will thank you.

If you need any support, I am always available via comment, social networking, or email (phil@Brokenairplane). It is my goal to be a resource for all teachers and students seeking to implement technology and programming in their classroom and I thank you for reading and sharing. Your help makes what we do possible.

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