Stop Multitasking, Tips to Take Back Your Life

For as long as I can remember, I have felt a push to become better and better at multitasking. Between work, home, family, life we are taught that it is possible to have it all and do it well. I truly believed that I was capable and actually quite good at multitasking, but as I spend more time in reflection and meditation, I can tell that it is taking a toll on my body.

The fast paced life is a result of the life that we live, we were told that computers and technology would cut our 40 hour work week in half, but quite the opposite has occurred. We are more busy than ever, and while we are connected around the world, we certainly are more distracted.

I have noticed that I find myself more anxious and less willing to sit and enjoy myself doing nothing or simply being. Email, Facebook, Twitter, and other projects provide instant gratification that are not bad in and of themselves but create an addictive quality that can creep into other parts of your life.

New research has shown that multitasking is doing multiple things poorly. We have a hard time writing, reading, or simply working on a task for a long period of time because we are trained to switch between tasks frequently. This means that we skim articles and lose our focus while writing. The result is lower quality and less creativity as we try to get multiple tasks done in the same time it took us to do one.

These tools were not meant to become our masters and these things can be incredibly useful if used correctly and with proper boundaries. I have some suggestions from what has helped my life, these can be implemented immediately and I would encourage you to not delay.
  • Turn off notifications of new emails, tweets, messages, etc on your phone. There is a Pavlovian response that we can't help but look at our phone when we hear the ring or buzz.
  • When working on a task requiring your fullest attention and focus, remove all distractions (e.g. Internet, computer, phone, lock the door if necessary) so you can devote your fullest attention to what is necessary.
  • Set boundaries for yourself so your work life and home/social life do not become one. There is so much to do, believe me I know that, but you will lose vital time with your family/friends and valuable time for yourself if you do not stop taking work home with you. I enjoy my work very much, which makes it all the more tempting to work on it at home but if you don't draw the line somewhere, then when will you?
  • Put a limit on the number of tasks or projects you take on. Determine what you can comfortably do and stick with that. There will always be more to do, so you need to take control of your workflow.
  • Examine your life. Are there more efficient ways of doing your work? If you are an educator, are you assigning busy work that your students hate to do and you end up spending hours grading? I read an article about an efficiency expert who saved an office hours of wasted time because the printer was placed down the hall instead of near the desks. A little change can make a big difference.
Leo Babauta maintains the ZenHabits blog. His habits and insights are invaluable and he has recently condensed and solidified these ideas in his new book Focus. There is a free version, but the premium version gives you a lot more resources and benefits that may justify the cost for you.

We run the risk of becoming so connected and engulfed in our hairballs that we could lose our individuality. Each of you has so much to contribute as a person and should enjoy life and not simply live it. Those of you who say this is impossible because of your current situation must realize that you are not in control of what happens to you, but you are fully in control of how you react to it.

A deep breath  can do wonders and I encourage you to take a moment and step away from it all. Even a hectic life can maintain peace, but it requires focus. When you realize what is most important you will be able to find balance and peace. It will result in a happier, more creative you.

San Diego Computer Using Educators Convention November 6th

Yes, that's right the SDCUE conference is coming soon and if you are in the San Diego Region, you might want to check it out. It is a great way to hear best practices on how others are using technology effectively in the classroom as well as connect with other educators in our community.

SDCUE Members pay $50, University Students pay $25, and it is free for Administrators. See this page for more prices and register (pre-registration ends this Friday Oct 29th). If you can get a group of 5 or more you can get an even bigger discount. If you wait until the day of the event it is $60 so make sure you sign up.

The sessions go from 8:30am to 3:00 and the overview schedule can be found here and a more detailed schedule here.

For more information check out the main site Are you planning on being there? Let me know in the comments and lets connect at the conference!

Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics at the National Mall in Washington D.C.

What an exciting event. America is renewing it's support and interest in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) with the first annual USA Science and Engineering Festival. It was exciting to bring our virtual bike to the fair, but there were many other exciting booths and events.

It was uplifting to see hundreds if not thousands of people come to ours and the other booths. Organizations, Corporations, and Schools of all types came out to get citizens of all ages excited about science and engineering. So often we forget that it is possible to have fun while learning but events like this are just what is needed to remind us. I also appreciated the chance to meet and talk with educators and business people from all over the country and hear their passion and interest in getting interest reignited about science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

Everyone did an amazing job and brought some wonderful exhibits. Here are a few highlights:

There are so many potential discoveries and opportunities in biology and genetics so it was great to see so many exhibits teaching about DNA. Students of all ages learned trascription/translation, how to extract genetic material from fruit, mutations, and much more.

Robotics was a big player in this festival. Almost every type of robotics team was represented at the fair. VEX Robots were playing soccer, BotBall bots were following obstacle courses, but FRC stole the show with its high powered catapults and launchers. Who wouldn't want a robot that could shoot a soccer ball 20 feet into the air?

The National Academies of Engineering and Disney's Tron had a line out the door with their exhibit on Virtual Reality (you can imagine why we took an interest). Partnered together because of the NAE Grand Challenges. It was mindblowing to see the virtual technology being used to improve neurosurgeon's precision. As they practice, they are able to see if their stress levels are high, as well as practice on a realistic simulation. Apparently one cannot learn everything by practicing on a cadaver. It will be amazing if the top surgeons of the future can trace back their skills to practicing on video games like this.

Thanks to all who made this event possible. My students and I would definitely come back to exhibit another ground breaking innovation by the Chaos Vortex Robotics Team from Chula Vista, CA.

Did you go to the event? Share your experience below!

Virtual Bike at the National Mall in Washington DC

After almost a year of preparation 4 of my students are bringing our virtual bike tour of the Otay Valley Regional Park to the first ever USA Science and Engineering Festival in Washington DC. How did this happen? Let me back up and tell you the story.

The incredible Lisa Davis approached me about participating in the HP Grant our school was receiving to encourage the implementation of technology in the classroom. Through this grant we received laptops and scientific sensors.

One of the organizations we were were connected to work with was Wildcoast and the Otay Valley Regional Park. Through our discussions, we learned that the largest obstacle the park was dealing with was obscurity. There are miles of beautiful trails and natural resources that much of the San Diego community is not aware of. So we decided our project would be to help make the community more aware of this park while encouraging the use of technology.

After some brainstorming and prototyping, the students developed a basic 15 second movie of what was possible. The video was created using Blender a free and open source 3D Rendering Software. I have embedded below the prototype video (which the students despise because they have learned and improved their skills so much since then). 

Wildcoast and HP were extremely happy with our idea and so we received the green light and funding to move forward. After months of work and learning along the way, the students refined their work significantly. The user sees the virtual park through Virtual Reality Googles we received through a sponsorship with Vuzix. With the built in accelerometer, it is possible to look around 360 degrees within the virtual park.

The bike was donated by REI, and while were unable to bring it with us for logistical reasons, it is quite an exciting experience to ride. Using force sensors from Sparkfun Electronics and the Arduino Microprocessor, the game is able to detect when the rider pushes on the pedals and moves them forward in around the park.

The final video file is huge and I am unable to show you a video inside the final version of the park, but here are screenshots, pictures of the students working, and pictures of people enjoying it at the USA Science and Engineering Festival.

I hope you will be able to stop by and say hi, this is a result of a lot of student (and teacher) effort and we are honored to be a part of such an exciting event. We will be located in National Mall 3 on 4th Street. Next week I will post pictures and a report about the other events and exhibits at the festival.

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Project Foundry Empowers Students and Supports Teachers in Project Based Learning

It is really difficult once you have seen Project Based Learning in action to want to experience education in any other way. Students really enjoy hands-on-learning and the lessons last a lifetime. With that being said, Project Based Learning is exhausting. Students are working hard researching, creating, and learning by doing. Teachers are managing multiple groups and projects at once all the while planning the next one.

Project Foundry is the best solution I have seen for creating and managing projects. Praised by some of the best PBL schools in America, its open ended and easy to use interface makes it possible for students and educators to effectively communicate and collaborate on projects. A lot of educational management software is created by companies for whom their edtech is an oft neglected side product that provides a steady revenue. 

This is not the case with Project Foundry. From conversations I have had with Shane Krukowski, the Managing Director of Project Foundry, it is clear that this is more than a business. He and his colleagues are passionate about education reform and helping education to transform into what research and experience show to be authentic and meaningful learning experiences for all.

One fear when implementing a new technology is that it would diminish or degrade the student and teacher relationship. With Project Foundry, the goal is actually to encourage and increase effective communication and feedback between the two and it does it quite well.

There are two main roles in the software interface, the Student and the Mentor:

Students are considered the main driving forces at Project Foundry. It makes sense that if a student learns in their own way and in what they are passionate about, then they will be more motivated to learn and remember. Students learning process begins with a project proposal. The questions asked to help develop a project proposal are not only thorough but thought provoking,. I have seen students use this to create very well thought out projects because of the structure of the project proposal. 

The student also aligns their project to core content standards or any standards your school uses to determine proficiency. In order to receive a High School diploma, they will need to earn enough credits to graduate. Rather than a teacher attempting to create one project/assignment that fits everyone, each student (or group) can decide for themselves the best way to learn the concept and demonstrate their evidence of learning.

Once a project is created and approved by a mentor, the student journals/logs about their daily progress and builds a portfolio of evidence that they are completing the project. This culminates in a presentation or exhibition of their work and if it meets the agreed upon standard for completion, the student receives credit towards their diploma. Below is an example of the main student screen where they can track their progress in various projects simultaneously.

Mentors is the term which Project Foundry applies to educators because their role is to provide assist the student in completing their project. With so much information already on the Internet and in books, the idea that teachers must deliver content for students to learn it is outdated. Students are fully capable of learning from their surroundings as we all do naturally from the time we are born. The important thing is that the research and motivation comes from the student. When educators are mentors they are able to spend their time helping the student develop their own skills and habits as opposed to solely concerning themselves with the degree to which content is learned.

Mentors use Project Foundry to manage the projects their students are working on. Mentors review proposals, time logs, journals, evidence, to provide feedback, resources, and wisdom/guidance on the students path of discovery. All of the information is stored and managed in an easy to view way so to provide efficient and effective feedback to a large group of students. Below is a view of what a Mentor's portal would look like. 

There is also an Admin role which allows for even more customization to suit the needs of the learning environment. As Students complete projects and earn credits for their work, Project Foundry keeps track of it and automatically creates portfolios of learning and an official transcript.

Implementing Project Foundry:
There is no one right way to learn or educate and Project Foundry respects this principle by providing numerous ways to use it in your classroom/school to suit everyone's needs and goals. Some possible implementations are: 
  • Independent Projects - The Student fully creates the project and all aspects of the process and assessment. The Mentor provides feedback and support throughout this process.
  • Seminars - Teacher creates and guides the project. Project Foundry is used to disseminate information and assign roles within the project. Students use Project Foundry to log their time and work completed.
  • Thematic Common Projects - The Teacher creates a project template based around a theme or unit and students create their own project proposals. 
    • Our Physics department has used this in the past where students create their own videos on Forces, Newton's Laws, etc.
  • Capstone Project - Whether it be the end of a large unit or the final project of a student's high school career, Project Foundry provides the structure to support a long term project that demonstrates the students ability to apply their knowledge.
Project Foundry is a service to educators and students that has the power to free you from the copious amounts of data tracking and planning that is necessary with Project Based Learning. With that taken care of, you and your students are able to spend more time working together and learning. I encourage you to check out the benefits of Project Foundry and then try it out for yourself.

My school is broadening its use of Project Foundry over the next few months and I will update you on all of the exciting accomplishments. I am committed to the mission of the BrokenAirplane Blog, to promote technology and services that make it possible to for students to learn more effectively. Project Foundry does an incredible job of helping educators work with large numbers of students and projects and I would highly recommend you look at how your school would benefit from using it.

Use Puzzles to Promote Critical Thinking and Fun!

I think puzzles capture the essence of math and the scientific method. Sometimes it requires very logical steps and other times it involves lateral out-of-the-box thinking. I love to see students, especially those with an aversion to math, get into the fun and freedom of a puzzle.

I use math to encourage this kind of thinking but also to reduce the math anxiety that is so prevalent in our society. Everyone enjoys a game, but puzzles are non-competitive and allow for everyone to win. Here are some great resources for games to enjoy with your students.

Sudoku - Fill in all of the numbers from 1-9 horizontally, vertically, and in the box. Extremely popular. Play online or print out for class or home.

Kakuro/KenKen - Like Sudoku but with an added twist, the numbers inside a "cage" must add up to a certain total. Great for building number sense. I actually had a student shocked that they were enjoying math so much (she said she was addicted to the puzzles)!

Math Puzzles:
Dr. Math @ Drexel - From the famous to the obscure, I put up a problem from here every week to challenge my students. Problems of all levels and abilities are available and it is also an excellent resource for math help that students can submit their own questions.
Math Games - Broad assortment of casual games for class or at home with family. If you can get the family to enjoy math and encourage it at home, it is a proven fact their student will be more interested and stronger in their math skills.
Mr. L's Math - Already mentioned this in a previous blog post. Great ideas for a classroom filled with math and fun. Teacher to Teacher Press has some materials for sale which are well worth it.
Ken's Puzzle of the Week - While the site is no longer being updated, there are still many great puzzles to enjoy.
University of Idaho Math Challenge - No longer updated, but another great resource for fun mathematical brain teasers.

Word Puzzles:
East of The Web - General grouping of word puzzles.
Merriam Webster - The popular dictionary provides crosswords, scrambles, and word searches.
Scrabble - Play the popular game online
Word Games - This site touts itself as the place for the most popular word games.

General Puzzle Sites:
These sites include your riddles, math puzzles, visual, and otherwise.

Optical Illusions - This site is just too good to leave out  of a thought provoking post like this. They will blow your mind and your students will not believe their eyes.

Do you have another great site? List it in the comments below.

This Week on October 11-15

This week on BrokenAirplane:

  • Reflected on my life and what made it interesting and exciting. Lots of lessons learned along the way. I had no idea how popular it would be and people have written in asking for more detail in some of the stories.
  • Looked at a successful math project called the Slope Art Project. This project provides feedback so the student teaches themselves the concept of slope as well as reinforcing algebraic manipulation. Most importantly it provides a way for students to be creative while learning an important concept.

  • Discussed some ideas on how to enhance your classroom culture. With so much concern about bulling, it is important to provide a safe place for your students to be and learn. Additionally, we can help create a positive culture about our curriculum and encourage people to feel comfortable helping and sharing.

Middle and High School Culture - Simple Things You Can Do to Enhance It

These are some of the things I do daily/weekly/yearly to help foster a positive classroom culture.

Greeting Circle: I have my colleague Patrick to thank for this but on the first day of the week, we sit in a circle and we take turns answering a question about themselves. Some great examples of this are, "what super power do you wish you had?", "what word do you wish could be deleted from the English Language," or "if you were given one million dollars but had to give it away what would you do," (more great circle starters can be found in books like The Book of Questions).
In order to be effective (not take up a whole class period) you want to phrase the questions so they can be answered quickly in a sentence or less. There are also 5 rules of greeting circle that keep it respectful and sacred:
      1. No talking when others are talking.
      2. Do not comment on what others have said (even laughing is considered commenting)
      3. Share seriously so others feel comfortable sharing seriously.
      4. Use your Jamba Juice voice. I managed a Jamba Juice at one time and part of the training was helping new team members be loud enough to be heard by anyone.
      5. You may pass once but we will come back to you.
             Some weeks the conversation is silly and lighthearted, some weeks it is somber and deeply reflective. But it is always powerful and a good use of time. The first couple of times it may take a little longer but if you are hard and fast on the rules it should take no more than 10 minutes.

Chair Ceremony: I have a very nice chair that the school purchased for me but just does not work for my back. The students were always asking if they could use it so I devised a little ceremony on Fridays that incorporated this as well as contributing to our culture. The first week I announce that someone in this class has really helped make this class a better place for people, then I will say a couple of examples. That student then receives the chair to sit in for the entire week. The next week that student will perform the same ceremony and pass it on to a new student. A couple of key points are:

  • This is for culture not necessarily academics so it is not about best test score etc.
  • If you don't want to give up your chair feel free to use something else that is awesome.
  • After the official chair ceremony, I ask the students to honor others who have contributed to the class/school culture and made their week better. Often I have to pause for a minute while they reflect. I ask them to keep the ceremony sacred and not simply give shout-outs to their friends and they must say something more specific than "he is nice".
  • This ceremony takes about 10 minutes tops once a week, but with News and media bombarding us with all the negative things in our world, I think it is worth it to highlight the good that people are doing.
Content Conversations or Geek Time: Geek has typically been applied to technology fanatics but it is actually a more general term applying to anyone who is exceptionally good or interested in a certain topic. So there are Football Geeks, Spanish Literature Geeks, Computer Geeks, and the list goes on forever. If you just became aware by reading that last sentence that you are a geek, welcome to an awesome club. 

You are most likely paid to teach a particular curriculum and adhere to very specific standards. Once in a while (I will leave the frequency to you), I encourage you to geek out with your students. The science/math curriculum in particular takes a few years to update itself with all of the new advances and so you might love Black Holes, Quantum Mechanics, or a new technology but there is no established time to talk about it in your class. Whether it come up from a conversation, an article that you ask them to read, a YouTube video, please take the time to have a conversation about it. 

Students will feed off of your interest and energy and they might discover an interesting topic that they never knew about. You will form powerful connections with your students. I understand that if you did this too often you would fall behind or gain a potentially negative reputation so you need to be mindful about how you do it but please do it.

Note: If you don't have anything you can geek out about. I encourage you to immediately go to your bookstore/library and find something of interest (just wander around). BBC has incredibly interesting documentaries you can look at. Check out your local paper for groups or to connect with others. No one should just go through life without something they are passionate about, and your students want to see you passionate about something.

Puzzles: I love puzzles and I have one up weekly in order to challenge my students. You can have one that is academically challenging as well but I also try to have puzzles that can be figured out and understood by anyone so the class culture is enhanced. This helps students see that math, science, literature is as fun as you consider it to be. You can find a tremendous number of puzzles online (I would suggest you slightly change the wording or your students will find them too), there is also great show on NPR if you get it called A Way With Words which provides a weekly puzzle as well.

Clean Up Procedure: Whether or not you work with power tools like my math/physics students, classrooms can get pretty messy. I discuss the Broken Window Theory with my students to stress how important it is to their learning that we keep our room clean. We spend the last 10 minutes of every class cleaning up my room. If you do not work with tools or computers you could shorten that a bit I suppose but it really makes a difference for students to come into a clean put together classroom. 

My jobs include computers, floor, desks, lab equipment, calculators, notebooks, etc with a description of each. There is also a supervisor who ensures that others do their jobs. The supervisor checks that each job is done and when they believe they are all done, they come to me and tell me that it is done. I excuse the other students and the supervisor will stay and clean up anything that isn't finished. This plus the rotation of the jobs each week ensures that the students do their jobs well and that my room is put back together. The supervisor allows this all to happen without me needing to be involved, which provides me an opportunity to prepare my classroom for the next group of students.

Saying Hello: Seems obvious but you would be amazed at how your relationship with your students will change if you hold the door open for them and greet them each morning by name.

One-on-One Conversations: Student are human beings, they are not just a GPA and every time they do not turn in an assignment or come late, there is a reason. Even if you think the reason is silly, they do not. Rather than acting in a vacuum and creating frustration with your students, seek them out and have a discussion. Some thoughts to consider:
  • Don't make it about a specific assignment, make it about the person. Instead of saying, "Why didn't you turn in your  homework," perhaps you can ask them how they are feeling, are they really busy, how is the family, etc. A student who was typically doing well in my class, stopped turning in work. I asked him how things are and he told me a lot about how things are frustrating at home. Our students are human beings just like you with stress, concerns, hopes, and dreams.
  • Try and have a conversation with all of your students at some point. All students regardless of their grade or status deserve to be heard and supported. Conversations should initially be a few minutes long so you can have more depth than one word answers.
Class Discussions: I try at least once a semester to have a class discussion about my class and school in general. You can do it sooner if you need to as Anne blogged about here. It can be as meaningful as you are willing to be open to. The conversation should focus on getting their collective opinions and thoughts on how a test went, a policy is working, a news story that impacts them, etc. They are already talking about it outside your class, the question is do you want to be a part of that conversation?

Habits of the Heart and Mind:
At our school our culture stems from our adoption of the Habits originally created at Central Park East Secondary Schools (CPESS) in Harlem by Debbie Meier and her faculty. The Habits are Refinement, Evidence, Mindfulness, Perspective, Perseverance, Cooperation, and Compassion. I will do another post about these in the future.

Isn't this obvious/Why do we need to do this?
You are right, many of these things are what you would do anyway with other people and perhaps you already do it in your classroom. However, many classrooms focus so much on the content and the impending standardized tests that they believe there is no time to acknowledge your student's personhood. I can tell you that your students will be happier and more able to do a great job if they know that you care and you will be able to better serve them if you are aware of what is going on in their lives.

If you have any additional suggestions for what works well in your classroom, please leave a comment!

Math Project - Slope Art

I wanted to share out this project that I have done for 2 years now with great success. For me a project should ideally be: cheap enough that it can be done in any school, effective at teaching content, and encourages learning through the project itself.

The Slope Art project (examples above) meets all three requirements and provides an opportunity for students to learn some programming. Students have a lot of creativity in the designs and the project provides feedback to the student so they can learn and correct their work. The project is called the Slope Art project but it also teaches/reinforces Cartesian graphing, domain and range, slope intercept equation, manipulating variables, etc.

I have used the project in different ways with my 9th graders. Last year I gave them the template and had them write all the code for each line, the second year I had them develop the functions which makes the code a little cleaner but may take a little more time to understand.

This project could also be scaled down and created using string and nails in wood. You just wouldn't get the self-correcting feedback that you do from the Python.

I dedicate this project to Ms. Dairiki who first had me create a hyperbola with straight lines.

Slope Art 1.0 (with each line individually)
Slope Art 2.0 (with functions)

Some resources that helped inspire this:

If you have any questions about the resources, the instructions, or the Python code let me know. I hope your students learn as much as mine do through this project. Enjoy!

Update: VPython (required for the Slope Art Project) now works with Python 3.0 so unless you have reasons to do so, I would highly recommend using Python 3.0.

Lessons from Those Who Made My Life Interesting

These are not meant to be prescriptive, but I hope you can learn from what went well and what did not and pass it along to others. Thanks to everyone who encouraged me, trusted in me, and told me like it is.

Lessons from My Parents:
  • Dad passed down advice he got from his Father which was, no matter what you do in life. Be the best and do a good job. 
    • Also, love what you do. No amount of money can compensate spending a third of your life in a job that you hate.
  • "A Jack of all trades, a master of none, is always better than a master of one." I know my parents didn't invent this quote, but they sure lived it. I would rather know a little about everything, there is too much interesting stuff out there to stick to just one.
  • When my parents were dating, my Mom wanted to be a Nurse. Her family told her she could never do it and she should just play it safe and go to school to become a secretary. My Dad told her to read Nursing Magazines. Even though she had no idea what they meant, when she went on to Nursing school she understood faster than anyone else and graduated in the top of her class. Even though my parents are divorced, my Mom will still say how grateful she is to my Dad for that advice.
  • It is a wonderful thing to be a Geek, never be ashamed of it. You will have more fun than those boring people who have nothing they are passionate about.
  • Schooling is really good at teaching you to think inside the box. It is just a game to get a piece of paper. 
    • Dad says his lack of formal schooling is probably what allows him to be as creative as he is.
    • Both of my parents taught me that learning is for life and we are responsible for taking charge of that learning.
  • Always read books that are challenging to you. If you didn't learn or think during it, then what was the point?
  • Dad always had to have the newest technology, he bought the first Laserdisk, Betamax, Intellivision, Apple II C, Newton, Powerbook, Palm Pilot, etc. This meant I had a great teacher and a lot of awesome hand-me-downs.
    • Dad once sat down and learned BASIC programming with me. To this day, that is the coolest thing in the world.
    • I learned how to take things apart and see how they work.
  • Mom and my Dad took me to the Library all the time so we could all check out books. I still think the Library is one of the most sacred places on Earth. Before the Internet became so widespread, we could go in and learn anything for free. I hope the Library is able to reinvent itself and continue as a hub for learning in the 21st Century.
    • Read! If not for yourself, then for your kids.
  • Road trips were never boring with either parent because we would have deep scientific, political, or philosophical discussions.
    • Talk to your kids as adults, and they will appreciate it and learn more from you. 
  • Both of my parents found success in very unorthodox ways. Enjoy life's journey. Reminds me of Woody Allen's quote, "If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans for tomorrow."
  • Mom had to learn how to fend for herself at a very young age. She made sure that my brother and I learned to cook, clean, and take care of ourselves because you never knew when you would need to be on your own.
  • Don't use your parent's failings as an excuse for your life. Use it as a reason to do it better than they did.
  • If you are feeling depressed, it may be because of your situation. See if you can get out of that situation. Having bad times, whether in love issues or family issues, makes you realize that no one can make you happy, except yourself.  You cannot look to others for your happiness. If you can't find your way out of your pain, it's no shame to ask for help, from loved ones or professionals. 
    • Also I suggest Feeling Good as a resource in helping you to survive the situation.
  • Music is so important to ones' life. We always had a lot of music in our lives, and hearing it, playing it, or going to see performances is one of our family's most important bonding and growth experiences. I  have such great memories of all our musical times together. 
    • Learning to play instruments was a very important and fulfilling lesson to my brother and I. To this day, I still enjoy playing music and the feeling of creating or copying my favorite songs. For my brother it turned into a career.
  • Go camping outdoors in a tent. I went a lot when I was in the Boy Scouts and it gave us an important bonding experience as well as an appreciation for the Earth.
  • Live within your means, it is so easy to spend more than you make. A lack of money  will not ruin a family but certainly make it more stressed and strained.
  • Divorce will be the worst day of your child's life. Rather than getting your children therapy afterwards, get some counseling to stay together. If you absolutely must divorce, don't put your kids in the middle of it. Trust me it affects your kids when you fight.
    • Encourage and love your kids, there is nothing worse than the self doubt that comes when they do not have their family intact.
    • Learn from your first attempts at romantic love, don't think life is over if it doesn't work out, it's not supposed to. The more you love, the more you will know when the right one comes along. Don't settle for anything less. 

Lessons from School:
  • I still cannot believe I stood up to the school bully. That day changed my whole perspective on what I was capable of.
  • Do not get caught up in romantic relationships in Middle or High school. You may feel like an outcast for not doing it, but you will save yourself a ton of drama and you will accomplish so much more. Trust me on this one!
  • People who have knowledge will always take advantage of those who lack it. I learned this when I sold math programs, games, and the original instant messaging program that I wrote for the graphing calculators to others. They got their homework done faster and I made some cash. 
  • I am responsible for the first ever tie at my school for Band Drum Major. This told me that exactly half of the people in this world will probably like me and the others might not. It was a very humbling lesson. Ben Franklin said,"Be civil to all; sociable to many; familiar with few; friend to one; enemy to none."
  • Adventures always happen after 10pm.
  • I feel so bad for bullies. They must be so unhappy. If you are being bullied please know that you can eventually be tremendously happy so do not give up and please don't change who you are for others.

Lessons from the Set:
  • Many people dream of being on a movie/tv set but I have spent my entire life on one. It is truly my home as I spent more time on location and at studios than I probably spent inside an actual house.
  • I have known and met so many celebrities and supposedly important people. I am here to tell you that they are just like you and me. There are so many people out there who are worthy of our respect that will never be on the screen. Consider carefully who you and your family hold in high esteem.
    • The crew on movie sets are the most interesting people you will ever meet. I learned something amazing from each and everyone one of them. You will never be bored hanging out on a set.
  • If you ever get the chance to go down a giant hill in a kart that you and a Grip built, wear protection or you might regret it for the few months while you heal. However, it is totally worth it.
Lessons from the Military:
  • Don't think about time unless you need to. In Boot Camp we learned that "the days are long but the weeks fly by". I have tried to enjoy the moment or at least not think about what looms ahead because it only creates stress.
  • While I was in the Navy an Admiral once told me that the secret to his success was to show up to work on time, do a good job, be kind to others. Words to live by.
  • Doctors are not all knowing. I spent 2 years asking doctors what was wrong with my back, spending lots of money on my own therapy. Do your own research and be open to anything. Medical science is incredible but they do not know everything.

Miscellaneous Lessons:
  • You have no idea how little you can be happy with until you have nothing. I have lived with lots and little and you are more likely to find happiness when money is not involved. Having little money teaches you thrift and to be thankful for small things, and  to appreciate life's more important lessons, such as learning, loving, and giving. 
  • Learn Aikido, I have had to defend myself from those who wished me hurt or dead twice and I am grateful for the few things I knew, everyone should know how to defend themselves.
  • If you live in a city like Los Angeles or San Diego, go out into the desert away from all civilization and look up. You will finally see why our galaxy is called the Milky Way. I still don't think our technological advances were worth the loss of our sky. Of all of the things I have ever seen, our night sky is definitely the most impressive.
  • There is nothing like meeting your heroes and finding out that they are just as awesome as you though they were. 
    • I used to wake up at 5am everyday to watch Mr. Wizard's World. One day I met Don Herbert (Mr. Wizard), and he was so gracious and willing to talk to a kid who was forever transformed by his show.
    • Teller (Penn and Teller) sat and spoke with me for 3 hours about magic and performing.  
  • Never give up, it took me three times to become a member of the Magic Castle. Took me that long to overcome my fears and develop as a performer.  
Do you have a tribute or lesson from your life that you would like to share? Leave it in the comments and thanks for contributing.

Wolfram Alpha for Powerful Science, Math, and Humanities Research

Data is everywhere, it doesn't matter what you teach, you need data and researching the web is a fast and great way to do it. Sometimes, we don't always get what we want.

If you have not tried it, enter 5 pounds to grams in Google. The effect is even cooler because of Google Instant. Or try entering 60/2.5. For all that Google can do, it is also a great calculator or conversion tool. In fact Google is able to do all kinds of helpful things besides just searching for websites (link)

Yet, try entering y=2x+5 and you will receive websites that may help you understand linear equations or maybe eventually show you the graph but this isn't exactly what you meant. What if you are researching different countries and comparing demographics? England and China, England vs China, no matter what you try, you will still need to root through search results.

Now I love Google, this would happen if you were using Yahoo, Bing, or any other search engine because that is what they do, find and return web pages that match your search terms. This all changed last year when emerged on the scene. Developed by Stephen Wolfram and his colleagues, it touts itself as a "Computational Knowledge Engine". For those of you familiar with Stephen Wolfram's previous work with Mathematica, the website is powered by the same algorithims.

Try it out or look at some of the examples. I honestly, could spend a lot of time going through each one. They are just so beautiful and helpful. Going to our original examples, go to and type in y=2x+5 and hit enter. There is the graph you were looking for. is a full fledged graphing calculator.

Now try England vs China. This will not pull up sports scores or obscure websites with those keywords. You are presented with a useful side by side comparison of the two countries' demographics, landmass, etc.

I enjoy typing in my name as it will tell me how many others of me there are in the world. The examples are certainly worth your time. Click around and see the possibilities of seeing data in a way that is truly useful.  This isn't surprising from Stephen Wolfram who has spend a great deal of time and energy trying to make the world's knowledge not only searchable but computational. Data is worthless if we cannot work with it and that is exactly what Mathematica and were intended to do. You can see more of Mr. Wolfram's philosophy in this TED talk where he draws from his research and writings in A New Kind of Science.

In an effort to make Wolfram Alpha more accessible, others have implemented this in Firefox, and Chrome, (free) and now Android, iPhone, and iPad (for $1.99).

Two other free options for educators are Wolfram Alpha Demonstrations, and Widgets. Demonstrations are similar to the examples, but with a large amount of interactivity. Show your students a physics or math principle, art and color, sports examples, optical illusions, and more. Widgets are an option for you or your students to create your own mini Wolfram Alpha program. It is easy to create one to add to your website or for your classroom, there is also a gallery of premade widgets.

Whether you teach the humanities or sciences, WolframAlpha has the power to make data managable and useful. If you haven't already go over to the site and browse you will find it hard to leave.

Crowdsourcing - Be a Part of Something BIG!

Those who coined the term "Information Age" were certainly not kidding. We produce information and data at such a steep rate that it is near impossible to track and store it all. The major search engines like Google and Microsoft's Bing are scrambling to build new Data Storage Facilities just to keep up. According to the thought provoking video Did You Know, last year we produced 4 exabytes of information (that's 4 with 19 zeros after it). 

Now while this data includes YouTube videos and SPAM emails, it also includes new galaxies discovered in the heavens, potential new medications for AIDS, maybe radio signals from other planets. Yet, there are not enough professionals out there to look through all of the data and find what is useful and what it irrelevant.

Humans built computers so they could communicate, calculate, and simply do things faster. Now computers need humans to look intelligently at the data and interpret it. In 2006 Jeff Howe wrote an article in Wired Magazine called "The Rise of Crowdsourcing". A combination of crowd and outsourcing, it details a necessary new route for our species to work with data. According to Clay Shirky we have lots of free time (as a species), if useful projects are able to harness that free time we can collectively accomplish some great things.

To make this point clear, this is not an individual task but something that simply could not have been done easily or at all without the collective power of all of us. You and your students are capable of being a part of these projects. Some need active participation but some only need your computer's spare cycles (e.g. when you are not working on it). 

Here is a video from the Solve for X conference where one of the founders of Foldit (more info below) demonstrates how powerful crowdsourcing can be.

Some examples of crowdsourcing effectively serving a need are:
  • Ushahidi - Referred to in the Cognitive Surplus Video, allowed reports of violence in Kenya to be collected easily. This software was later Open Sources and used in the Haiti earthquake, and to know when road conditions are bad in Washington D.C.
  • Netflix - After you watch a video on Netflix, the site will recommend others to you. A couple of years ago, Netflix offered a one million dollar prize to someone who could improve the service. Groups stepped up and competed back and forth to best each other's algorithim.
  • Open Source - The philosophy behind open source is summed up in Linus' Law, "Given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow". This refers to Linus Torvalds who started the development of the Linux Operating System. Rather than have a few programmers working on software/hardware, the code is freely published so others can improve and modify as needed. This has proven to be extremely successful with the Mozilla Foundation's Firefox Browser, Open Office, and many more listed on my software recommendations page.

So what projects are available for you and your students to participate in? The number grows every day and spans all disciplines:
  • Guttenberg - An amazing site with lots of free literature available for download. But how did all of that literature get there? Through their Distributed Proofreaders program, you can sign up and review books that have been scanned or transcribed for typos or grammatical errors thus making more resources available to the public. LibriVox provides an opportunity to record books to audio.
  • Galaxy Zoo - This is fun for all ages. Telescopes are becoming more and more powerful and scientists cannot keep up with all of the new pictures coming in. After taking a brief training, you are provided the opportunity to classify what type of celestial object you are seeing a picture of (e.g. galaxy, star). The most famous instance of this was when a Dutch School teacher named Hanny van Arkel discovered such a unique object that scientists are still studying its nature. This object might never have emerged as relevant had it not been crowdsourced.
  • FoldIt - When was the last time you could say that playing a video game could win you a Noble Prize for science? Innovative thinkers at the University of Washington developed a game that made it fun to discover new proteins and molecule structures. This has led to greater understanding of protein folding and structure and can reduce the amount of research and development needed to create new cures for HIV/AIDS, Cancer, and Alzheimer's.
  • BOINC - Perhaps you want to contribute but just don't have the time, then BOINC is for you. Created at UC Berkeley, it allows scientists to run complex data analysis by using the combined computing power of humanity. 
    • For example, creating models of what could happen if our global average temperature increased by 1 degree is too difficult for any one computer, and super computers are expensive and at a premium for time. However, when you download the BOINC software to your computer, it will run the calculations when you are not using your computer (like a screensaver) and then send the completed data back to the scientists.
    • There are projects related to global climate change, the search for extra terrestrial life, prime number calculation and more. You don't have to do anything except download the software and let it do all the work. Note: this will not affect your work or privacy.
  • Brainrack - Companies post challenges and how much of a reward they are willing to offer. Then students submit their ideas and they are voted on by the community. The winner gets the prize money and an awesome resume/college application blurb.
  • Phylo - Support research in comparative genomics by playing this game simple enough for elementary students.
Maybe you are saying to yourself, "well this is amazing stuff but what has crowdsourcing done for me lately?" If that is you, then you might want to consider looking at crowdfunding websites like Kickstarter, where anyone can propose a project and ask the world to fund it through micropayments. 

Projects that individuals or groups were previously unable to do because of funding, are now happening. That is the fundamental lesson from crowdsourcing. Some might say the computer is taking away our humanity, but the combined power of our species connected by the Internet is making altruistic acts, discoveries, and creative expression more possible than ever before. When we choose to give our free time or resources to a worthy cause, we can make a huge difference.

Impact a Student's Life by Starting a Robotics Team

I have spoke in the past about the importance of After School Programs. My after school program is a robotics and engineering program. I love robotics because it teaches all of the major aspects of engineering (mechanical, electrical, programming, pneumatics, etc). It is wonderful to see something that you built come to life (very Dr. Frankenstein).

The students love it for this reason, and that every year the organizations frame the challenge in the form of a competitive game. Through teamwork, and ingenuity, students learn engineering and life skills.

At every competition I see educators in the audience get hooked by the excitement and motivation of the students. They want that for their students and the question is, "Which robotics competition is right for me and how do I get started?" Here is an overview of each of the main organizations and some tips on how to get started:

FIRST - FIRST is For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology. It was started by Dean Kamen who invented the Segway but also the Insulin Pump, and a Water Purification machine. His philosophy is summed up in the following quote, "In a free culture, we get what we celebrate." Seeing sports and celebrities being idolized by students but not engineers and scientists motivated him to start FIRST.

FIRST has been around for over 25 years and is a huge and diverse organization. The original competition FRC (First Robotics Competition) involves students building a large 120lb robot from scratch. Students have 6 weeks from the Kickoff event in early January to design, build, refine,  and test a robot. The students compete in regional competitions and the winners move onto the World Championship. The events are truly exciting and newcomers will be hooked immediately as they are just as exciting, if not more, than any sporting event.

Tips for FIRST:

  • FRC has a significant cost, teams spend $6500 to register and pay for their first regional, and up to $3500 for the actual building of their Robot. However, there are many companies willing to help out. FIRST has been around long enough that companies and colleges are well aware of it.
  • Creating a robot from scratch can be a daunting task, but while this is a competition, FIRST seeks to usher in a world of Gracious Professionalism. This means that teams are willing to share and help out one another for the true goal of learning and enjoying STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). If you are interested in starting a team, the FIRST robotics website will help you find workshops and other teams in your area who will gladly help out.
  • Do not be discouraged if you are not yourself an engineer. Companies will gladly donate mentors to your team to help you out in all aspects of the program. This is another component of FIRST, getting students integrated into the community of professionals. Additionally, my previous Robotics Team MorTorq won the 2010 Chairman's award, the highest award one can receive in FIRST. This was done through the incredible leadership of Eileen Kahn who herself is a businesswoman. Through their partnerships though, the students were never at a loss for expertise. 

VEX Robotics: VEX was originally a part of FIRST but became so popular that it became its own organization and competition. These robots are much smaller (18"x18"x18") but the excitement and learning is as significant as with FRC. 
  • The cost is far lower than with FRC. Teams can build a great competition robot for well under $500. Many teams will use VEX to start their robotics team and then a couple of years later add on FRC.
  • VEX is great for prototyping, or testing ideas and designs. It takes less than a week to build a VEX robot and the parts are analogous to larger parts (e.g. gear ratios, torque).
  • These robots can be built by elementary/middle schoolers with support and the programming software Easy C teaches programming concepts while keeping the difficulty to a minimum.

Botball - Similar in size and cost to VEX, Botball has a much more significant reliance on programming and sensors as their robots are completely autonomous. This means that there is no human controlling the robot duing the competiton. Additionally, the parts are Lego Technic pieces. So while they might not be as robust, the time to build a robot is much faster. This makes it very useful in a classroom for exploring programming and robotics.

BEST - The BEST robotics program was inspired by Woodie Flowers of MIT (and later FIRST) with the hopes of bringing engineering and robotics to High Schoolers. The robots are larger than VEX or Botball but tend to be smaller than FRC robots. The parts are hardware like PVC and Wood, in addition to standard motors and electrical components. BEST is significantly different from other competitions in how heavily they rely upon other aspects of a team besides the robot. To go see a competition you will see beautiful and elaborate booths filled with detailed engineering notebooks, research, and financial documentation.

If you wish to sign up for any of the above Robotics teams, there is still plenty of time. Go to and sign up your team and register for competitions. Opportunities for funding can come from the numerous grants available for STEM, private corporations, community businesses, organizations, fundraising, and many more. People are going to come out of the woodwork to donate to your noble cause if you keep your ears open and mention it to everyone you meet.

Let me know if you have any questions about starting, funding, maintaining a robotics team. Trust me, once you start, you and your students will work hard but love every minute of it.

Collaborative Learning Strategies in the Digital Age

Every teacher at some point will arrange the classroom into groups either for a specific project, ease of walking around, or perhaps because they believe they will help each other. A few days later many of these classrooms will revert to a more individualized seating chart. Why? It could be noise of students talking to each other, copying each other's work, or not getting any work done at all.

There has never been a better time for you to move their desks back together. You might need to make a couple more adjustments to your classroom though to make it truly effective.

Let's state the obvious, students want to sit next to each other. Stated even more generally, humans are social creatures. We as educators love to meet in the lounge or department meetings and catch up and talk even if it isn't always about education. I believe that if the students already have motivation and energy to do something we should not fight it but harness it.

When students are sitting next to each other they are going to talk, the question is what will they talk about? Well if your assignment is compelling and worthy of their time then they will talk about that. Maybe not the entire time but we ask our students to work for 8-10 hours straight. This flies in the face of all wisdom about productivity. Those of us who are great at getting things done know that it can't be all work and no play.

You might say, well some topics are boring and simply must be learned and there is no way to make it otherwise. I say you are not being creative enough. Can the topic be placed into a social context like a game or involve peer review? Yesterday my students played the game battleship on graph paper to review/learn coordinate graphing, and I heard so many of the coveted "Ohhh now I get it" and there wasn't a student not playing/learning (and no I do not teach a magical class of students who love any and all things math).

So if you have a compelling assignment and are willing to accept that they will not be 100% efficient (no one truly is), then lets consider the benefits of putting them in a collaborative setup:

Peer Feedback and Instruction: If you have instituted a culture of collaboration and team success, then your students will look at each others work and give them ideas on how to refine their work. Most useful is when they start to help each other to understand their work. Students can speak to each other and explain things much more efficiently and effectively than those outside their circle can. If you constantly are encouraging your students to help each other to understand (and not cheat them by giving them the answer) then you will quite simply be blown away by how much students will want to help each other.

This also allows you to help more people because when you have explained something to someone else, you can ask them to help the other person with the same question. Every educator knows that teaching a concept to someone else helps them understand the concept even more. Give that gift to your students as well. As they struggle to coherently explain it to someone else they create deeper understanding. I tell both students that if either of them still have questions they can come back and ask me. You will find overtime that even those who are not typically well versed in math will eventually come around and become better at asking for help and giving help at what they do understand.

Initially students can be reticent to ask or give help to each other. This is due to years of training the students to be solely reliant upon the teacher. When I have given instructions to the students, placed them on my website for later reference, and/or placed them on the whiteboard. I ask the students for 2-3 questions as a class(and then wait until they ask them, sometimes they need some time to think about it). Then we begin group work.

When the students want to ask me questions, I will redirect them to students. "Have you asked everyone around you?" If they answer yes, then I have 3 or 4 students to work with, otherwise I move onto another student and only answer the questions that the students can't answer. This can be painful for students and teachers to do initially but it pays off greatly and will allow you to spend more time with struggling students or with those who need an additional challenge.

Social Innovation: When you are in the presence of thoughtful colleagues great ideas emerge. When students are working on projects or assignments and are in a creative mindset, it is an exciting environment to be in. This culture that is so willing to explore and try new things can take your curriculum to new heights. This is especially useful when my students are programming in Python. Some great side collaboration projects in the class and outside have emerged out of this.

21st Century Skills: Report after report from business leaders says that the two skills they wish their incoming employees had were the ability to think creatively (outside-the-box) and collaborate well with others. Collaboration  is also listed as one of the 7 survival skills in Tony Wagner's The Global Achievement Gap Please do not deny your students the opportunity to grow in this critical area. Using effective social skills to communicate ideas and learn is just as important if not more than any one thing you will teach them.

Digital Natives: A term coined by Marc Prensky, it describes those who have grown up in a world with YouTube, Google, Smartphones, and everything else that provides instant information. Just as teachers in the past needed to adapt their teaching style to incorporate other innovations (e.g. television, radio, chalkboards, books) we would do well to observe their natural learning state and utilize the power inherent in it.

Students from this generation and those of us who have migrated to this type of thinking, use the vast information of the Internet to learn skills and understand. What brought about "Web 2.0" was the increase in video content but also the ability to share information with others. Where the Internet used to be a digital repository, it has now become a living breathing community, truly a World Wide Web.

My students are often sharing ideas on others blogs and finding people from all over the world to collaborate with. Through free communication tools, they have found experts willing to work with them and bounce ideas back and forth. This was simply not a feasible option for them a few years ago. Bring in an author, expert, community member through video conference for free and see how it will change all that you do. Make sure that you have coaching sessions about how to professionally meet and speak with others as this tends to be a skill that students need improvement.

If you can find and encourage opportunities for your students to use this to learn traditional content (e.g. Personal Learning Networks - PLNs, Instructables, YouTube Tutorials, Khan Academy) your students might be more willing to "buy-in".

My experimenting with Social Learning began a couple of years ago when I asked students to work together on an SAT Math study packet. After they finished, I asked them to honestly share. Their responses included that they felt like they had understood it better than when they had heard it in a lecture (and their scores reflected this), they also admitted that the chances of them "cheating" and simply getting the answer was likely.

When we discussed this, I explained to them that the goal of these group activities is not simply to get the "A" but to learn and understand. I remind them that while they might have good short term results, "no one cheats their way through medical school". A statement that may not be true, but it drives home the point that at some point they will be asked to demonstrate their knowledge on their own and it is in their best interests to not take the shortcut.

I am not saying that students should only learn via the Internet or games, these are just some ideas for encouraging social exchange of information, and yes I do assess individually via tests, so while individual learning is the goal, you will find that the learning occurs will just as much and creates an environment electric with discovery and ideas.

If you need further convincing of how powerfully this can transform your classroom, I suggest you watch this TED Talk. Sugata Mitra is showing the world the power of each of your students. Below that is the Dean of Pixar Univerity (yes that Pixar) about the need for students and adults to collaborate.