Stop Saying I Don't Know to Student's Questions

Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler - Albert Einstein

The above quote is the challenge of every science teacher. My professor once told me that Einstein would walk up to people on the street to tell them about his theories and if he was unable to explain it to them or answer their questions sufficiently, then he felt he did not understand it well enough himself.

I am a big fan of the Mythbusters as well as books like There Are No Electrons which show us when our conceptual models are too limiting to our understanding. So when David Rudel, editor of the excellent ExploreLearning site (home of the awesome science Gizmos) asked me to review his book Science Myths Unmasked, I couldn't wait to check it out. I have to say I was not disappointed, in fact I would have written this review sooner but I was enjoying the book too much to stop.

Science Myths Unmasked takes the most common experiments and models that every middle and high school student encounters.  In Vol 1: Earth and Life Science, Rudel challenges some of the big questions that teachers encounter every day from students.

If you have ever had students question the genetics and evolution curriculum they are right to do so. Textbooks ask students to go from Mendel's pea pods and variation within the species to evolution into new species which leaves them wondering how Dominant and Recessive genes can accomplish this. With clarity and research to back it up, the book explains how evolution can occur as well as the modern viewpoints on the mechanism for evolution.

There are many other topics covered in the book like:
  • How do clouds form?
  • Why do my veins appear to be blue?
  • What is the "greenhouse effect"
These topics are those that keep coming up in classrooms and from our own children, unfortunately the canonical explanations are often half true or completely false (the blood in your veins is not blue). These books read like a mystery novel rather than a textbook and you will find it hard to put it down.

I especially enjoyed Vol 2: Physical Science, having spent time as a 8th grade physical science teacher. Students are wonderfully skeptical and with encouragement will have no problem speaking out about it. When something doesn't match their view of reality they must ask WHY?

Unfortunately, our textbooks in an attempt to make things simpler often omit or erroneously explain natural phenomena. I have reviewed most of the textbooks out there and there is always one or two places where I reread a paragraph over and over because it just doesn't seem right.

I must admit there were a couple of times in Rudel's book where I thought, "Oh that's why, that never made sense before!" I too have misconceptions that I have explained away and it has been a great week to reaffirm and test my own understanding of Physics.

Some of the explanations include:
  • Why does the water in an overturned jar rise when the candle inside burns out?
  • Does electricity only flow in a "closed circuit"?
  • What do we mean when we say a wave of light and why do we draw a sine wave to describe it?
The best part about these books is how accessible they are. They contain no additional math and the descriptions are clear enough to be read by anyone with an inquisitive mind. Rudel takes all of the questions teachers and textbooks sweep under the rug and finally bring them to light.

If you go to the book's website, you can download sample chapters. At the price these books are being offered, they make a great gift for the science teacher in your life.

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Sage Removes Barriers for Technology in Math Classrooms

If you are not yet using programming with your math and science students, you might have a couple of excuses why.

1) I don't have the time to learn (give me 30 minutes)
2) My school won't let me install the software.

Technology in schools is difficult especially if you are working with older hardware or infrastructure. Many schools will only install new software at the beginning of the year, but if you are going to start programming you'll want to get started now.

Sage makes programming more convenient than ever while adding in some powerful math packages. You might see your graphing calculator's packaging saying it can carry you through college, Sage will take you from elementary math to your PhD and beyond. Created by William Stein with the intention of being a powerful free and open source alternative to technology like Mathematica.

You might wonder how Sage changes anything. Well Sage contains multiple programming languages so you are not constrained to one, but more importantly the Sage Notebook provides the ability to program in the cloud. While there are other options out there, Sage makes it really easy and puts it all together in a dead simple interface.

Let's explore the Sage Notebook (the cloud based version).

There are so many options for logging in, you can create a Sage Notebook account, use your Google/Yahoo/OpenID credentials or you can browse the worksheets without logging in.

Much like Geogebra, you can browse the public worksheets of other people in the community of users.

Click New Worksheet. Once in the worksheet, you can click on the drop down menu that says Sage and see how many options you have for languages. This covers the many programming languages one would need. If you are just starting out, you may want to use Sage, Python, or R (statistics).

If you read this blog, you know I love Python for its simple syntax and ease of use. With Sage you don't have to give that up, the syntax is essentially the same.

To see what really makes Sage a great fit for math try entering a fraction and hitting Shift+Enter. In Sage, fractions are treated like an actual object. You can multiply it, add two fractions, and all of the other manipulations you would do on paper.

A feature very popular in Wolfram|Alpha is the equation solver. Try this out in Sage:

It couldn't be easier to graph:

Once you have a worksheet you can share it with people so they can interact with it or publish it for viewing. In fact most of the examples in this post can be seen here. Just click on the buttons in the upper right of the workbook.
This is just meant to whet your appetite, there are so many different ways this can be used, especially when you consider all of the different functionality and the ability to work online and save/share your work. The documentation is very helpful and there are numerous tutorials created by the community to help you learn. Take a look at Sage's tour for more examples of what is possible.

You will not be disappointed as this is no toy but a powerful full mathematical suite. Student will love this for the same reason they love Geogebra. It takes abstract concepts and manipulation of symbols, variables, and functions and treats them like objects in a game. Now you can play with the math as opposed just focusing on calculating.

Being able to quickly see the effects of an equation or its graph means students can draw conclusions faster rather than being unnecessarily distracted by the arithmetic or plotting of points.  I hope you will take me up on this invitation to use this free tool. The hard work that the Sage community has put into making this available to all should not be in vain.

If you are already using Sage (and I know many of you are) be sure to share in the comments or on Google+ how you are using it.

Stay connected and check out the other tutorials on BrokenAirplane by following the links on the top and the most popular posts on the sidebar.

LearnBoost is Changing the Rules for Student Data

Unfortunately teachers have so many things to do besides working with students. Technology should minimize or eliminate these distractions and administrative tasks so we can focus on what is important.

From my time in the classroom, I have used all of the major student information systems and they go against everything I want in technology. The websites crash constantly, the interface is confusing, getting reports is tricky, entering grades is tedious and the list goes on.

It makes sense why this is the case, these companies market their services to schools at a premium and with little competition there is no motivation to improve the product. What's far worse is if you change companies, your data is locked up in some proprietary format making it difficult to make decisions and refinements on how to best serve students.

This isn't right. Education deserves a better product that is intuitive and fits the environment. This is where LearnBoost comes in. Developed by people who were dissatisfied with the current set of options, they sought to make disruptive change within this area of education.

Does LearnBoost follow my three guidelines for effective technology in education? Absolutely!

LearnBoost has followed the number one rule of technology design, ask your users. Its clear from the start that this was designed and refined with help from educators. Not too many of us arrange our classrooms in alphabetical order but this is the way most systems take attendance. LearnBoost's roster is in graphical format so you can take attendance by glancing at your classroom and seeing who's missing. Now you can focus on your students at the start of class.

Recently, another game changing feature was rolled out, the ability to share lessons with others. Now the feature itself isn't necessarily mind blowing, it's how they are doing it. Rather than requiring you to link back to their site and have viewers register an account, you can share it the way that makes sense to you: on your blog, via social network, or email. Being able to share our best lessons, will benefit our students in the way that open source code and APIs have benefitted our  educational landscape with a boon of free technologies for the classroom.

The gradebook is exactly what you would want to take the frustration out of entering grades. But, you might say, "My school uses a different software, what's the point of doing all of this work in LearnBoost only to have to repeat it elsewhere?" Your grades can be exported as a CSV file to import into your gradebook. You might ask, why can't I sync them? While the team is working on this, most SIS companies do not want you to be able to move your data freely in and out of their system. It's just not good for business. Check and see if your school's system will import the file.

Or better yet, convince your schools to use LearnBoost. The cost is far lower than other systems but with even more support and features. Best of all, if you are using Google Apps for Education, LearnBoost has integrated the two platforms so you can have one place for all of your calendar, files, lessons, grades, etc.

Oh did I mention that this software is free and it works on your Chromebook, Laptop, Mac, PC, Linux, tablets and more coming soon. You can integrate it with Google+, Twitter, Wordpress, Facebook, and Posterious so you can integrate it with the social features that flip your classroom.

I am not the only one who is impressed by this technology, many of my fellow bloggers (David and Audrey, among others) have been covering/using LearnBoost for some time now and there are  testimonials of teachers and districts who swear by it. We can't lose, between saving our districts money and ensuring that our data will always belong to us the users, we ensure that there is one less thing preventing us from keeping our focus on our students and helping them to achieve.

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Computer-Based Math Education Summit

Conrad Wolfram's TED Talk brought world wide attention to the growing frustration towards skill based math curriculum. We have technology that can do calculation far faster and more accurately than we can and yet we are still teaching students as if the best tools we had were paper and pencil.

There are big questions out there and to solve them, we need students who are able to understand what tools they have at their disposal. For those who are shocked that much of their curriculum would be removed, Wolfram's talk reminded us that math != calculating (programming syntax for not equal to) but that math > calculating (greater than).

I once gave a professional development where I asked teachers, what would you do if all of your students magically knew how to do everything in a math textbook. Some teachers expressed silence while others fear that they would be irrelevant. Far from it! If we can restart our thinking with the premise that calculating is a tool we use to do math, then if we can teach computers to do the calculations we can focus on those attributes of math that human excel at. Teachers can give students the tools to DO math and science instead of just watching others and hearing how they will use it "one day" or in the "real world".

The Computer-Based Math Education Summit (Nov 10-11) will give this movement resources and further guidance towards the goal of transforming math education for the modern age. Humans previously had no choice but to have math dominated by calculation but this does not have to be the case any more.

During the 2 day summit in London, attendees will hear from a wide variety of speakers on how math is greater than calculation and how we can use the tools we have available right now to provide amazing learning opportunities for our students today!

Notable speakers include:
We are learning so much, so quickly that students are forced to learn much too quickly in college how to use these tools and thought processes just to understand their intended disciplines. We as K-12 educators can help by starting with our students now rather than waiting until they get to the university. Google's Computational Thinking Lessons are one way you can start using technology for more than just calculating and after this summit, I am sure we will have even more resources for reforming our math curriculum.

Paradigm shifts are always frustrating and it is completely normal to be afraid of the unknown. Use that energy to create and innovate. We don't have to let the benefits of technology be limited to smartphones and video games. Let's raise the bar for what math education looks like!

I have heard of quite a few educators who are making the trip to the summit. Be sure to share with us when you get back what you saw, heard, and discussed.

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New Google Computational Thinking Lessons

New lessons are available on Google's Exploring Computational Thinking website!

When students are taking tests on data analysis what they see is this:

But, what they will find when they actually start using data analysis in the "real world" is this:

Our schools and universities puts Calculus at the top of the heap. Don't get me wrong, Calculus is fun, amazing, and an excellent challenge in analytical thinking. While many careers require it, many more do not. When I went to school, the "lower tracked" math class was called Statistics and Data Analysis. Therefore, I did not get any in depth understanding of this topic until college and beyond. In fact, I have heard some admissions counselors say that a student who takes statistics is less competitive than a student who took calculus! A worrisome example of how tradition trumps what's best for the student. 

A gap in what kids are learning and what they need is what drove me to make these lessons.

In the Google Computational Thinking lessons and those that follow, students will learn to use math and science in a way Gailieo, Newton, and Maxwell could have only dreamed of. Up until the last 50 years, our problems have always been larger than our potential to solve them. Those that labored to solve some our world's biggest mysteries did so at great expense to their time. Think of all they could have done if they had faster methods available to solve them.

Our students today spend so much time calculating instead of analyzing that they leave the class filled with skills that they have no understanding of or use for. With Computational Thinking, students create algorithms capable of solving big problems (e.g. how to drive a car across the country, what is the optimal shape of an enzyme) and then let the computer quickly calculate it for them. This gives students time to make mistakes, refine their understanding, and most of all draw conclusions and analyze big picture questions.

Computational Thinking has 4 components (see explanation here):
1) Decomposition
2) Pattern Recognition
3) Pattern Generalization and Abstraction
4) Algorithm Design

By using these 4 practices students can do incredible things with large amounts of data, create simulations and models of their world, and begin to understand the concepts and skills through real world use.

Our hope is for these lessons to inspire you to adapt them to your own classroom and content. Some of them involve physics while others focus on biology but they can be adapted to any content even beyond science and math. Computational Thinking is not necessarily computer science. Many of these lessons require no programming experience at all, so you can get started with them right away. Of course if you want to start using programming with your students to supplement these lessons it will give them another applicable skill. 

If you have resources, questions, or want to find out more you can connect with others on the Google Computational Thinking forum, there are quite a few educators out there using Computational Thinking. During my time as Google's Curriculum Fellow I plan to have G+ Hangouts, discussions, and district training to help classrooms implement Computational Thinking. There is awesome technology out there, I hope to see it being used to help students create and innovate rather than do the same things they could have done with paper and pencil.

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Android + Science with Physics Gizmo

Science equipment can be expensive and yet many of your students have Android phones. Why not put this incredible technology to use for learning. Physics Gizmo allows you to collect scientific data in your classroom, at home, or even in space using only the phone.

Download Physics Gizmo from Google Play

Physics Gizmo is Open Source
I've put the source to Physics Gizmo on GitHub. If you are interested in helping me develop a tool for students to collect and analyze scientific data in an affordable way I encourage you to join the project.

Physics Gizmo on GitHub
Discussion Group Forum

For inspiration, here's an experiment using Physics Gizmo - via +Roberto Catanuto (@RobertoCatanuto)

Version 2.3
This version no longer requires you to turn on Bluetooth when the app starts. The only time you need to turn it on is if you wish to use two phones as a photogate (see below).

Version 2.2
Physics Gizmo is updated to version 2.2 for phones running Gingerbread, Honeycomb, or Ice Cream Sandwich.

If you are running Ice Cream Sandwich (Android version 4.0), this update brings with it a visual refresh in alignment with the new look and feel.

For everyone else, Physics Gizmo will no longer close if you choose not to turn on Bluetooth. This is a bug I have wanted to resolve for a while, and I appreciate your patience.

Bluetooth is necessary to connect two phones as a photogate (video), but if you don't turn on Bluetooth the other sensors work just fine.

Version 2.0
Now there are more opportunities to conduct scientific experiments with your phone.

New Sensors
Using the phone's proximity sensor (usually in the upper left of the phone), Physics Gizmo has three new options for collecting data:  
  1. Photogate Pulse - Triggered each time the proximity sensor is covered. Use it to count events. 
  2. Photogate Pulse with 2 Phones (Beta, only for Android 2.0+) - Connect two phones for accurate event timing. Similar to the 1 phone photogate but one phone starts the timer and the other one stops it. If you are tired of inaccurate experiments from human error with a stopwatch this is for you. See how long it takes for an object to fall or roll down a ramp like Galileo's and more! With Bluetooth's range ~30 ft/10 m there are many possibilities for learning. Watch a video of the 2 Phone Photogate in action.
    1. Click yes to turn on Bluetooth Discovery mode.
    2. Select another phone running Physics Gizmo from the list.
    3. The timer starts when the first phone's proximity sensor is triggered.
    4. The timer will stop when the second phone's proximity sensor is triggered.
  3.  Pendulum - Notoriously difficult to time accurately, an event is recorded for each completed full swing/period (two triggers) of a pendulum passing by the proximity sensor. Watch a video of the pendulum sensor in action.
  • If you don't see the new sensors your device does not have a proximity sensor (some tablets). 
  • If you don't enable Bluetooth in the beginning, you will not see the 2 phone photogate.

Updated Accelerometer Sensing
  • Continues to sense from the accelerometer even if the screen is turned off (note: be sure to try this with your phone as results may vary). Useful when the phone is in your pocket on a roller coaster.
User Interface 
  • New layout with higher resolution.
  • When finished sensing, press the "plus" button to add more time and sense again.
  • Pressing the question mark button in the upper right opens contextual help for you to successfully use Physics Gizmo and upload your data.

Using Physics Gizmo
  1. Turn on Bluetooth to access all sensors.
  2. Select your sensor
  3. Give your data a name or leave it with the time and date.
  4. Set the timer.
  5. Click start to collect data.
  6. Upload your data to analyze later using Google Docs, Fusion Tables, Geogebra etc. It is also saved in the ScienceData folder on the SD card as a csv.
Think of all of the experiments you can do, considering how much more likely you are to have enough phones in the classroom to do the experiment

I am really excited to see it used by students. I was originally inspired to create the app for my colleague who takes his students to Magic Mountain for Physics Day. Now they can collect accelerometer data on all of the rides and analyze the data back at class! That data will help them build their own roller coasters. The photogate sensors were inspired by my other colleague who creates pinewood derby cars but was always looking to improve the accuracy of the racing data.

The point is, now students can learn science with a phone they already use everyday. Please share in the comments how you used the app!

How Did I Get Here 
A while ago I created an app using Python and Android so everyone could collect data for science experiments. That post became one of my top all time read posts. But, I worried that all you did was read it. You see, I made a couple of mistakes that I wouldn't let students get away with:
  1. I made it relatively difficult to access. The instructions are there, and it would probably take about 20 minutes to get the app on your phones, but 20 minutes is a huge chunk of time in the Internet world and we have so much to do. I have seen people pass up learning Geogebra because they thought it would take too much time to learn!
  2. My second mistake was I didn't push myself to learn. Instead of learning Android programming, I asked all of you to do the work of getting it working so I could play it safe with Python. 
I decided to fix that right away. Now I love Python for its syntax, therefore Android (which is built upon Java) seemed more complex than I would have liked. But, if I wouldn't allow a student to get away with that, then I certainly couldn't.

So I did what I always do when trying to learn something new: I read, and read, and read until I stored up all of the confusing syntax and methods in my head. Keep in mind that this didn't make any sense to me whatsoever. 

Then I came across this excellent tutorial by Chris Blunt. It takes you through the setup, installation, and programming of an android timer app. The clear instructions, pictures, and hints made it really simple to see how an Android app comes together. Eureka! Everything clicked together and suddenly, I was writing all kinds of additions to the app. 

Now, that makes it sound pretty simple huh? Well there were still plenty of bumps in the road, but I did learn than programming for Android is a lot easier than I thought and it makes sense once you get the hang of it. Not to mention I had two powerful tools that kept me going. 
  1. Eclipse - It's free, it's open source and it's incredible! It will generate templates, spell check, find errors, suggest fixes. I can't imagine how I would have come this far without it. 
  2. The Web - Yes, I know it sounds obvious, but books take too long to root through and sometimes your question doesn't fit the examples in the book. I must give special appreciation to Stack Overflow which always seemed to have the right answer. Although, when it had a similar answer, but not the exact one I needed, it pushed me to understand the concepts even more.
The Apress are my favorite Android books so far. I used, Android Apps for Absolute Beginners, Beginning Android 3, and I just ordered Learn Java for Android Development so I can gain an even deeper understanding of how this works. I intend to fully immerse myself in Android programming this year so I can make some apps that can support learning.

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Steve Jobs Dies: The World is a Little Less Awesome

Even if you never owned an Apple product. The technology you use every day was driven by Steve Job's vision. In a world of boxes, Jobs always demanded that his products be works of art and a pleasure to use.

Not everyone knows how their story with technology began, but I do. Sitting with my dad trying to code out programs on his Apple IIc and staring in awe at the graphics. I would not be who I was without that experience and I want to express my gratitude to the man who allowed it to be possible. My dad has never known anything else. He followed Apple wherever it went because of he respected the man's passion for beauty.

That vision went beyond computers, it allowed another group of visionaries to bring us movies like Toy Story and Nemo. It birthed the smartphone market and spurred innovation in handheld technology.

I cannot imagine the loss his family and colleague are going through, my deepest sympathies. His life touched everyone around the world and I want to say to Mr. Jobs, wherever you are, thank you for all the joy and creative freedom you gave to the world. 

Of all the videos and speeches I have seen, this one still makes me cry whenever I see it. Watch it with anyone you want to inspire to do innovate, create, and do incredible things.

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