Programming and Puzzles in Math

One way I relieve stress with my students is with puzzles. We are currently preparing for our school wide exhibition "Festival del Sol". I'll be sure to follow up with pictures when it happens in a couple of weeks, it is amazing. Even though our students have done two exhibitions (the challenges of engineering project, and a Edgar Allen Poe play) there is still a high possibility of getting stressed out as the deadline approaches. I have a weekly puzzle on the board so we can take a moment to have some mathematical play.

I always choose puzzles that I do not know the answer to or that I have forgotten so I can enjoy working it out with the students as well. Often it inspires me to write a Python program to solve it. My students think I am cheating but I always tell them that someone has to program the computer, it can't just solve it for me.

This week's puzzle was:

Find the five digit number in which the first digit is two more than the second, the second digit is two more than the third, the fourth digit is two less than the third, and the last digit is two more than the fourth. The sum of the third, fourth, and fifth digits equals the first. The sum of all the digits is 19. What is the five-digit number?

Here is my solution, it is definitely one of the most nested loops I remember writing. Although I wasn't writing it for efficiency, I still reduced the loops to 9 because that is the biggest it could be for a single digit. I never cease to be amazed at how quickly the program can solve the problem.

for first in range(1,9):    
     for second in range(1,9):         
              for third in range(1,9):             
                     for fourth in range(1,9):                
                           for fifth in range(1,9):                     
                                if first+second+third+fourth+fifth == 19:                         
                                        if (first == second +2) & (second == third+2) & (fourth == third-2) &((third+fourth+fifth)== first):                                         
                                             print ("The answer is first: %i, second: %i, third: %i, fourth: %i, fifth: %i" % (first, second, third, fourth, fifth))   

Now for a real challenge. One of my favorite puzzles came from Henry Dudeney almost 90 years ago.

A college student sent a letter home to his parents saying, "Hey Mom and Dad, I need some more cash because college is expensive." The parents wrote him back saying, "We have spent all of this money to educate you and yet you ask us for money like this? You didn't even say how much you need." The student sends a letter back saying:


Where each letter represents a unique digit from 0-9. How much money was the student asking for? Now you can of course Google the answer but I hope you will give yourself the time to either solve it by hand or program it.

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What College Did I Go To?

The title of this post is a question that I get asked a lot. For my students it is a running joke because they know I won't tell them. What I will tell them is why I won't tell them (yes, I am a complex person).

College acceptance letters are coming right now which means that an entire generation of students are anxious and worried that their lives will not turn out as they planned if they don't get into XYZ college. The pressure is intense from the job market, parents, schools, and peers and the question I have is why? Not why do we push college, but why do we push the top universities as if they have something special that cannot be offered elsewhere?

When I was in high school, I hung out with the geeky/nerdy crowd. Yet I did not make the same choices as them in high school and so when our senior year came around, they received letters from Harvard and CalTech and I was accepted to the only school I applied to. I ended up joining the Navy and taking the long way around and while many of my friends were graduating, I was discharged from the military and just entering college.

I received a lot of training in the military, I was an Electrican's Mate (Nuclear) and learned a lot in a very short amount of time. I also continued my own research and learning during that time and so when I finally entered University about 5 years after graduating high school, I had already learned and experienced a lot. Looking around me, I realized that for many, college was just an extension of high school. The classes were structured the same, the homework was similar (perhaps slightly longer), and student's attitudes were much the same. There were those who cared and those who didn't.

What I learned was true for college is true for life. It is what you make of it.

My university was very small and while my peers were getting a "superior" education with class sizes in the hundreds, I learned calculus with only 5-10 fellow classmates. All of my professors knew me personally and we had incredible 1-1 talks for hours about physics, philosophy and educational pedagogy. Please tell me if any of your Ivy League buddies had a chance to do that?

Now this wasn't common at the college, I pursued these opportunities. I made my passion and interest known and worked harder than anyone else I knew so I could make the most of my time with these great minds. Yet, if I were to say where I went to college most of you have never heard of it.

Last year, our school was hiring engineering teachers and since I teach robotics I was interested in ensuring that the teachers would be as incredible as the students. I would have conversations with the candidates asking, "what would be the coolest project you could do" or "what are you passionate about"? After a while they would ask me, "what college did you study engineering at?" I always laugh when I hear that question and respond, "YouTube University" or the Library. Aside from the Navy Nuclear Power Training Classes, I never took an official engineering class in my life, but that has never held me back from helping my students learn to design, build, program, and innovate.

One day, I was talking to my Dad about whether or not he felt it was more difficult to be a cinematographer without having gone to film school. He said it was quite the opposite, because he had never been forced into a mold or a certain way of thinking he was always seen as thinking outside the box, when the truth was he had never been put into a box in the first place.

Here is my advice, if you are a student and you do not get into the college of your dreams, don't worry about it, make the best of it. You will not be held back by what college you went to. In fact very few people care which college you went to after you graduate. I know Harvard graduates who are unemployed and I work alongside colleagues who went to far more prestigious (and expensive) universities than I. I am achieving all of my personal and professional goals because I am working to make them happen. All of these supposed barriers like which college you went to, your GPA, financial status, etc;  these things will only hold if you let them, so don't!

Make your life what you want it to be and don't let anyone ever stop you from achieving your dreams.

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Physics and Math for Everyone with Exploriments

Last week I spoke at the CUE Conference and having arrived early, I was able to check out all of the vendors. About 90% of it was similar to last year and SMART/Promethean boards and projectors always have a huge presence. I also saw a few companies promoting Augmented Reality, which you can see in the video below.

The research is showing that when students can interact with learning in a visual, kinesthetic way they are more likely to remember the content.

I am not promoting or encouraging these tables/tables/boards etc as they are expensive and do not promote learning in and of themselves. However, when you can make the content itself interactive, then your students can really get into it.

I have created a few of these myself with Geogebra, and also some modules with Python but I have always wanted something more complete that would support the learning in the classroom. PhET is definitely the kind of thing I am referring to. It is interactive and has lots of features. Plus it is asynchronous so students can learn from it even when I am not specifically working with them. You can find these and many more free applets on my Math and Science Resource page. My only frustration with these are how few there are and sometimes they are intended for college students and are thus over complicated for high school students.

Exploriments - Amazing Science/Math Modules

Back to the CUE Conference, I came across a booth whose demure appearance understated the excellence of what they were promoting. Exploriments has created amazing Shockwave based demonstrations, experiments, and explanations.

Too often, I want to demonstrate a concept but a powerpoint or whiteboard explanation will not suffice. Sometimes there is a YouTube video but there are far too few quality videos out there. Additionally, if your school is suffering budget setbacks like the majority are, then it is difficult to afford the expensive lab equipment and materials. Yet, with Exploriments, much like Geogebra and Khan Academy, this levels the playing field so all students have an opportunity to learn even if their resources are limited. All of the benefits of online learning software come along with it:

  • Students can learn at their own pace any time (could be given for homework before a lab or lesson).
  • Repeatable and accessible anywhere that has a computer with internet.
  • Interactive learning and teachers can follow along to see how they are progressing.

There is a free trial which allows you to explore the quality and thought that went into designing these simulations. However, the cost is far cheaper than any science video set or even the cost of a single lab experiment for an entire class. In the full version, you have access to:

Physics - Electricity, Electrostatics, Weight vs Mass, Motion (1D), Projectiles, Force, Friction, Momentum, Moments, Simple Machines, Gravitation, Oscillation, Pendulum, Spring, Pressure, Fluids, Light, Heat, Vectors and the list goes on!

There are experiments and demonstrations that would be expensive (electrical charges) or impossible (gravity at high altitudes) that are brought into the classroom and easily accessible for you and your students.

The math portion is growing as well as currently offers number sense and basic algebra. Chemistry has just started with compounds, but the representatives spoke with me about all of the modules they are working feverishly to add. If you have a subscription, you have access to all of the newest stuff.

If you are a math/science teacher, I strongly encourage you to check Exploriments out. I think that you will see that these can help your students learn and understand in a way not possible before.

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Increase Student Accountability and Responsibility

I am a strong believer in student's need to advocate for themselves. Almost to a fault, I believe that the sooner a student is able to find that confidence they will ask more questions, challenge themselves, set goals, and begin to create their own path. I feel like too often, students are talked about or talked at with the intention of supporting and motivating them. But when will a student be allowed to make adult decisions? Some would say after college or thereabout which is way too late in my opinion. Too many people can take advantage of you with long term repercussions.

School is a place where a student can learn such responsibility and need to plan. I was at a morning meeting and heard others sharing how they communicate with parents and although there are many options out there, this can be time consuming and it often takes the student out of the equation. So I set out to try an experiment and see what could be done to inform parents of their student's progress in a meaningful way that does not require a large portion of my week.

For a month now, I ask my students to write an email to their parents each week. In this email they copy and paste important dates and announcements that my teaching partner and I send to them in an email. The student accesses their grade online and pastes that into the email with a description of missing assignments and why. Then they reflect upon the week citing something that went well and perhaps an area of growth for them.

After they send it to their parents and cc my teaching partner and myself, I ask the students to respond to the email by Tuesday morning (they have sent it by Friday). The parent simply has to say, "I got it" or something similar in order for the student to get the citizenship points, but what I have found is that many parents write a longer reflective piece back about how they can help their student improve.

What saddens me is the direct correlation between parent involvement and student achievement and how many parents do not write back. We still follow up other ways but I feel so much pain for those who are not able to have as much interaction with their parents. On the other side of that, these students who were previously failing, are beginning to see their grades as their own and not something that the teacher "does to them" but a reflection of their work. I am seeing them begin to take responsibility and seeking out ways to recoup those points.

Now anyone of my students will tell you that grades are not the central focus of my classroom but if this is helping them to advocate and stand up for themselves and carry out an action plan for how they can succeed then I am extremely glad that they went through the frustration of the first semester and are figuring it out while they are still young enough to make these kind of mistakes and recover beautifully. I have seen so many students go to the edge of failing or dropping out and realize that they were better than that. But it has to come from them, no amount of browbeating, coercing, or punishment will make them see their potential. It has to come from them, we can only give them opportunities to succeed.

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Google Docs Discussions Lead to Stronger Collaboration and Refinement

If you have grown accustomed to writing in the cloud using Google Docs, you are collaborating with others in writing your documents. I use them for grant proposals, feedback from fellow bloggers, and documents within my district. This is wonderful as long as you and your collaborators are all online at the same time or you remind them to check the document. With the new feature "discussions", you can have a more focused and efficient collaboration.

Note: This will only work on newly created documents (but you can always cut and paste into a new one). 

You are already able to insert "comments" into a document from the Insert menu (or by selecting Ctrl + Alt + M), now just add the person or person's you wish to notify that something has changed or needs changing. The way to do that is by typing the person's email address with an @ symbol in front of it. I have placed an example of how this might look on the right.

This will send an email to the person notifying them that changes have been/need to be made.

This will be tremendously helpful in moving classrooms away from needless paper waste while refining or groups creating a document collaboratively. Now you can leave comments on your student's work and they will be notified what they need to change in order to create beautiful work. 

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Geogebra CUE Conference Resources

This is an online version of a presentation that I gave at the 2011 CUE Conference in Palm Springs. This presentation is designed to give an overview and some of the functions of Geogebra. For more resources please check out the BrokenAirplane Geogebra page.

Click on the link to start using Geogebra. Then click on download. You will be presented with two options.
  • Choose Webstart if you would like to install Geogebra on your computer. This is the best option as it will not require the Internet but it requires administrative access on your computer. Talk to your school's IT person about getting this installed.
  • Select Applet Start to run Geogebra from within your browser without installing anything.
The first example is in reference to helping students understand Slope. This is a critical concept for students and also crucial to completing my Slope Art project. I have my students create "sliders" which allow them to change the values in the slope-intercept equation y=mx+b. Students can move these values back and forth to see the effects it has on the equation. To learn how to use sliders, check out my Interactive Math post about Geogebra.

In the following example, I use sliders once again but to demonstrate how to make any quadratic equation and see the effect of changing the coefficients of a,b, and c.

Geogebra is just as powerful with Geometry as it is with Algebra and you will find it excellent for creating proofs and constructions.
To create the perpendicular bisector (see the pictures on the right):

1) Use the new point tool and the line tool to create three points, A and B and make a line through them. 

2) Create a new point C and place it more than halfway on line AB.

3) Using the compass tool, create a circle with a radius from A to C and the center at A. Then create another circle with the same radius and with the center at B.

4) Then create new points at the intersections of the two circles and connect them with a line. You have created a perpendicular bisector!

Often, students need or want to see a concept again. Click on the "View" menu and then "Navigation Bar for Construction Steps" this will put a playback control at the bottom of Geogebra that you can replay for your students again and again. There is a way to animate movements as well in Geogebra.

Geogebra can explain math in a way that paper cannot convey. Here is a link to a visualization of the Unit Circle and its relation to Trigonometry.

While there are many more features, one that has been beneficial to me as a math/science teacher has been the ability to easily and clearly work with data. While Excel and other software provides this functionality, it is often too complex for younger students. With Geogebra you can quickly make graphs and equations that can be manipulated and modified.

There is so much that Geogebra can do I hope that you are interested in learning more. Be sure to check out the resources on BrokenAirplane as well as links to other great sites about Geogebra. Thanks for stopping by.

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CUE Conference Today! Post will Appear at 2:30PM

Sorry for the inconvenience. Today's post accompanies my CUE Conference presentation on using Geogebra to create interactive math. This post will coincide with my presentation today at 2:30PM in Oasis 4 at the Palm Springs Convention Center. Hope to see you there!

ALEKS Math Software for Differentiated Classrooms

Tracking is the practice of placing students on different paths of learning based upon how they did in the previous class. Nowhere is tracking more predominantly seen than in the math curriculum. Take it from me, I know. From a very young age I loved puzzles and math. In middle school I was invited to take a higher level of math but when they consulted my 6th grade teacher, she said I wasn't mature enough to handle it (I was a class clown aka bored). There was no way for me to move onto a more difficult math class and when I reached high school and took Algebra as a Freshman, my class was at comprised of at least 50% Seniors.

Even within a tracked math class, there are still many levels of understanding. Some took the class previously and need support while others still struggle with concepts never really understood years ago. I have been amazed to hear from students how missing just a couple of days because of illness put them in a position of confusion from which they have never felt able to catch up from.

At the school where I teach, we do not track our students, all 9th graders take "Math 1" which is intended to be fully differentiated. This prevents the "brain drain" of students into upper division classes but also ensures that all students are challenged to work on problems that require critical thinking as opposed to just "Algebra or Geometry". Differentiation is an enormous task because it requires almost constant assessment to see what students know and to determine what they are ready to learn next. I once heard during my student teaching, a teacher say, "Differentiation! Do they expect me to give 30 different tests and teach 30 different lesson plans?" Which is probably how many of us feel, that this is a utopian ideal that can never come to pass.

Over the last 30 years, Dr. Jean-Claude Falmagne has developed the Knowledge Space theory (a fascinating paper about learning and math) and many other advances in cognitive science. Based upon his research and a National Science Foundation grant, ALEKS math software was created to support and encourage students to succeed in math. I would like to share my students' and my personal experiences with you. 

We had tried other differentiated curriculum and software in the past but they were too time consuming to generate and often very wasteful of paper. ALEKS is completely based online and can be accessed from any browser connected to the Internet. The technical requirements are intentionally as low as possible so it can work in almost any classroom/computer lab/home/library/etc. Once a student signs in for the first time, they are given an initial assessment which upon completion they will receive a pie chart similar to the one below.

This tells the student and the teacher where their strengths and struggles lie. Based upon the aforementioned cognitive research, ALEKS will determine which objectives a student is ready for based upon those it already completed. The students can choose the order they wish to learn the topics and no two student's learning path will look the same. Students who happen to be working on the same topic will have different questions so they can work together without sacrificing learning.

Students complete objectives by working on various objectives that can be assessed/learned visually (graphs and charts), algebraically, linguistically (word problems), and many more. The software can determine whether or not a student gets it even if the answer was wrong and will continue to assess them until satisfied that the student has demonstrated mastery. If it sounds like I am anthropomorphizing ALEKS, it really has a strong dose of artificial intelligence.

After a certain amount of time, ALEKS will give a cumulative assessment to see what has been retained. If what was already learned has been forgotten or not understood well enough, the software will reset those objectives or encourage review. Teachers can also setup quizzes based around particular topics in order to assess understanding of a topic.

Now for the ultimate question. With every student learning at their own pace and different material, what is the need for a teacher or how do the students learn in the first place? Well in my class this is a messy answer. 

ALEKS provides an "Explain" button that students can click on to follow step by step instructions to solve the problem after which they can return and try a new similar problem. There is also a built in math dictionary and the option to see the question/explanation in Spanish so language is not a stumbling block. But, what if a student does not understand even after clicking the explain button? 

This is where I come in, being freed from lecturing an entire class, I can move around the room providing one on one tutoring to each of my students. It is a dream come true to be able to work with my students and learn their individual needs. Some students never need my help but for a moment to clarify, others need it often. Yet, I have never been in a situation where I could not spend all of the time necessary to help a student understand, and then they are back on track even able to help each other.

My students have learned to seek their own answers, via the Khan Academy, the Genie, and many of the other online resources. This teaches the students a skill that is far more useful than any one concept they will learn in my class. Yet, when they are frustrated they ask each other or me for support. 

ALEKS is highly customizable so you can create quizzes or assessments as needed. Teachers are often frustrated at the difficulty of acquiring or compiling assessment data, but with ALEKS the amount of data you can retrieve is astounding. Imagine being able to see what state standards your students are struggling most with or how long they were practicing math. This is the amount of information I can see at anytime with a couple of mouse clicks. 

In my classroom I see 80% or higher achievement on assessments which is astounding. Upon a student's request if they are ready, I can switch them into the next higher subject matter so they are not held back by anything but their own motivation. I have done this with at least 15% of my class and they are motivated all the more to keep going and love learning at their own pace.

ALEKS has made my math class a dream come true. I can finally be the teacher and support that I always wanted to be to all of my students. I should mention that we do not use it more than 20% of our weekly class time (some use it more and others less) but the confidence and skill boost they receive is worth it. The software is affordable to the largest district to the single child being homeschooled. I highly recommend you take the free trial to see what is all about. In closing, I leave you with some of the quotes that I have heard from my students as they use ALEKS:
  • "I learned to take my own notes instead of just mindlessly copying what a teacher would write on the board."  (from a students Presentation of Learning)
  • "YAY!" (A student's outburst when they finally understood a concept that had confused them since middle school)
  • "Let me help you, because I get it now" (a student who struggles in math but was excited to be able to help another student understand)
  • "He completed 10% of the Algebra pie!" (Me to my teaching partner and the resource specialist regarding a student who tested at a 3rd grade math level after spending a few months in ALEKS)

Check out my follow up end of the year post with more qualitative and quantitative data.

ALEKS is a registered trademark of ALEKS Corporation The ALEKS logo is used with permission from ALEKS Corporation.

Chaos Vortex Experience at the FRC San Diego Regional Part 2

Wow, is all I can say, and I am not referring to the exhaustion or excitement of FRC. I am referring to the amazing things that my robotics students, Chaos Vortex/Team 3477 achieved this weekend. After a very long inspection process, my students did not get the driver practice they were hoping for. However, it was excellent for them to see how important attention to detail really is.

The following day (Friday) had one surprise after another. With its mechanism not fully functional and untested, the drive team decided to focus on blocking. This was a strategy that worked really well for us as a VEX team last year and many teams fail to see the importance of this. FRC has three teams on each alliance and if you can get one robot to score well for your side while one or two of the other robots block and prevent scoring for the other side, you can really control the game.

This was proven by the fact that our team was ranked in the top 10 for the entire competition out of 60. Our rookie team was blown away to find out that they were even in 1st place for an hour or so.

San Diego Regional is a high visibility event bringing incredible veteran teams like Spyder, Cheesy Poofs, and even our sister school's team the Holy Cows. We had a great time learning and seeing what other teams were doing both with their robots but also to spread the message of FIRST and STEM.

Friday afternoon, Jim Beck the Western Regional Coordinator for FIRST came to our booth. He said, "I keep hearing from the judges and the other teams about this rookie team Chaos Vortex, so I came to see it for myself." Our robotics President and our head of Finance spoke to him for a good amount of time. Soon after he came back with a camera crew from Time Warner Cable/Connect a Million Minds and said that the team was going to be recorded for a piece about FIRST Robotics!

Now everyone on our team was smiling ear to ear, and whats more we got our mechanism working so we were capable of scoring points. Other teams were coming to our booth asking to be on our alliance which was a new experience for us as we are not used to being asked, we are usually doing the asking. We were able to secure Team 1717 Dos Pueblos Engineering and Team 2102 Paradox onto our alliance making us a very formidable opponent. We made it all the way to the Semi-Finals which was exciting and I loved seeing our team go head to head with Team 254 Cheesy Poofs, a team that we respect greatly.

As the awards were being handed out, our small 15 person FRC team was proud of all they accomplished, but just when we thought that our day was done, we received the Rookie All Star award and the Highest Seed Rookie Award. We heard the stadium erupt with applause and recognition because each team had seen and commented on the gracious professionalism and coopertition that Chaos Vortex had at the competition. So now we are preparing for World Championship in St Louis in a little more than a month. There is so much to do but we are so grateful to be honored for the hard work put in this year.

Thank you to the teams, judges, and admin who made this regional one to always remember. My students have been transformed and are so passionate/motivated about STEM and their futures as only FIRST and robotics can. If you have any questions about starting an FIRST or VEX team please let me know.

Join the excitement and follow the team on Facebook or Twitter. You can also follow this and other education developments by subscribing to BrokenAirplane.

FRC San Diego Regional Rookie Team Experience Part 1

To quote my sophomore programmer, "Today was an educational experience." I couldn't have put it better myself.

The excitement grew as all of the teams entered the Valley View Casino Arena (formerly the San Diego Sports Arena) and as we opened our robot crate, it was like seeing an old friend. Having spent over 100 hours working on it, it was so wonderful to find out that our robot had safely made it. Other teams weren't as lucky.

We tightened up all of the screws and added the winch that we had designed to compensate for the extra torque when the robot is coming back up. It worked beautifully! Now all that was needed was to pass inspection, we would be driving in an hour or so, or so we thought.

We go up to the inspection booth only to find out that our weight was 4 pounds over. Now for one who is not familiar with FRC, 4 pounds may not sound like much but when everything you put on the robot was essential at one time, making the decision what to drill holes in or take off is aggravating. We had already decided to not deploy the minibot simply because we felt it was more important to replace it with the winch. While this may not have been the best game playing strategy, I made that call because it was more important to me that this team had a working big robot.

In the mean time, our team received safety pins, which are the judges way of saying good job. We found some of our old friends like team Spyder, the Holy Cows, and Hilltop's EPIC. They helped us out tremendously, and in turn we were able to help out other teams by lending tools, parts, and knowledge. That is what Dean Kamen and Woodie Flowers refer to when they speak of Coopertition and Gracious Professionalism and some of my students for which this was their first robotics event kept commenting on how nice and awesome everyone was.

The team became a little stressed as the hours ticked by and they had an issue with their cRio's (robot brain) firmware, and bumpers but they kept each other calm and ended up passing every part of inspection with the exception of the bumpers (which were fixed by a student after another long night of working last night). The team kept getting complements on their marketing materials, people were excited to come take pictures of our robot and see it shoot out tubes, but we ran out of buttons way too fast and so we will be making them throughout the day.

Even though the official build season was over, our team learned a lot. Our programmer learned how to download the code much faster, saving us hours of time collectively, our team became experts in drilling holes, and while it sounds cliche the team became even closer than they already were. They keep talking about how they are always going to keep in touch and having fun. Keep in mind these are students from all grade levels and different social circles. That is one of my favorite things about robotics is how it brings people together to have fun and make something awesome!

I will post updates about the team during the Week in Review and you can follow us on @ChaosVortex. Onto day 2 of 3! I hope the team as an equally awesome day (perhaps a little less stressful)!

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SAM Animation is the Standard for What Educational Software Could Be

A couple of months ago, I was contacted by our organization's COO about SAM Animation software. He was really excited about it and at first I'll admit I didn't see the point. That was until I downloaded and tried out the software. I have not seen anything else that makes it so easy for students and teachers alike to create movies and animation to demonstrate learning.

This is a really high quality piece of software, that has been rigorously tested and refined in the classroom. It began a few years ago at Tufts University funded by the National Science Foundation. The software was released to the public and quickly gained a following of tens of thousands. Try out the free download by going to SAM Animation and clicking on the "Download Demo" button. The demo will let you see all of the amazing features and I am sure you will see how powerful this software can be.

SAM Animation software can be used to create stop motion or time lapse movies. 

Stop motion is where you take a picture, move the object, take another picture, and so on. This is how animation was originally done with films like Snow White and it is still how claymation movies like Wallace and Gromit or the Nightmare Before Christmas are made. With this, your students can create instructional videos using a variety of props and tools. Students of all ages love making movies, and there are many examples on the SAM website (some by Kindergarden children). For example check out this Life Cycle of a Tree video. Students are creating videos about science, math, history, the arts, and more.

Here is my former robotics team having some fun with this year's FRC Game Pieces

Time lapse movies are equally amazing to create and watch. A time lapse movie is used when you have something you want to capture but it takes a long time. For example, a sunrise/sunset, the sprouting of a seed, the solving of a Rubik's Cube, building of a robot, etc. This is the type of technology used for many parts of the award winning series Planet Earth

You might think to yourself that this sounds way too complicated, but within 5-10 minutes (I promise) of installing the demo you will have figured out the main idea and can start recording right away. You will need a webcam (every one we have tried so far has worked) and the installed demo.

After creating a project you will come to the stop motion page.Where capturing action is just a click away. There are two great features that you will discover right away. First, each picture that you take shows up in a timeline on the bottom and can easily be deleted with a single button.

The second main feature, and my favorite, is called Onion Skinning. You can see this in the window on the right. SAM Animation will show you in a ghost-like form where your last picture was taken so you can make sure you are positioned correctly for the next shot. This is perfect to make sure distances are realistic as well as being able to pickup where you left off when class ends.

Double clicking on a frame will bring up the editing window where you can draw, type, and even Chroma Key which is the professional term for replacing a background with another image. This allows your students to create a video in space, underwater, or anywhere else.

Recording audio is a snap, and a joy as you can record afterwards or import sound into the animation. 

If you would like to create a time lapse animation, simply click on that tab and you are presented with options for how often each picture is taken and for how long you want it to continue to snap the shots.

There are a many more features but if I don't have you convinced yet, here is the best reason why your classes will love using SAM Animation software. If you have used Adobe Premier or another expensive video software, then you know about the time lost to rendering or crashing while saving. With SAM, you click on File and then Export, and up pops a host of options like Flash, Quicktime, formatted for iPod, etc. that you can save to. Then for those of us who work on antiquated computers/networks, you can choose how fast your Internet speed is so the save is far less likely to crash your computer or slow down your network.

From speaking with Melissa, co-founder of iCreatetoEducate, every decision and feature has been driven by teacher and classroom feedback. From how easy it is to use, to the consideration of varying needs and technology, this software is a shining example of what educational software can be when there is passion and a love of learning driving it.

If you are interested in giving your students an innovative and exciting way to learn and share their learning with the world, then check out SAM Animation for the free demo and examples. I also suggest the iCreatetoEducate site where you can find support for SAM and suggested camera and props to help make your animations, and some great examples and tutorials. You will find the service and support to be excellent and product will continue to wow you every time you use it.

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Why do We Have to Learn This? Programming is the Literacy in the 21st Century

My friend Patrick says I encourage students to be rebellious. I know it comes from my Punk rock days and my defiant nature that was instilled in me ironically by my parents. So it comes as no surprise that I get the typical "Why do we have to know this?" question. What may come as a surprise is what they are referring to and that I have an answer.

The topic is programming. Every math/physics student that comes through my class is exposed to programming either through Python, Processing and Arduino, or Blender Scripting to name a few. Well one day I was asking them to come up with an algorithm that would generate the Fibonacci numbers and one of my students (female and an excellent student, as a matter of fact) asked me, "Mr. W, why are we learning this?" A couple of other students nodded their heads in agreement and I took a moment to gather my thoughts.

I replied, imagine you are in a classroom 150 years ago in America. You more than likely help out your family on the farm, because our economy and society was largely agrarian. Your parents are able to read but only do so as needed or for enjoyment. Now you are sitting in a classroom being asked to read a classic text and are frustrated as this is far beyond what is required for your life. It would be impossible for you to realize that your future would be dictated by your ability to read.
As opportunities opened up for more to enter college, the need for literacy increased and determined your earnings and perhaps the quality of your job. Many states realized this and prevented slaves from being able to learn to read and write because of the power that came from literacy. It was only because of influential individuals who refused to give up, that literacy essentially became elevated to a citizen's right in America. While literacy rates are tragically low especially in struggling communities, there is at least an understanding of the importance of it.

Flash forward to the present day. There are very few jobs that do not utilize technology. Farming was one of the first to broadly adopt technology which started the industrial revolution and the population explosion that we see in this century, but soon after other companies saw what would be afforded by using technology. Now nurses, teachers, chefs, and using technology in order to do their day to day job. 

If the shift was from a labor based economy to a knowledge based economy where everyone is expected to have basic computer skills then my prediction continues to be that we will need a large part of the population to be able to program. Programming is not about making software or about programs. It comes down to working with data and information is the basic building block of the universe.

Programming is art, it is creation. Even though technology adds a layer of difficulty towards creation in the learning process it enhances what we are able to do. Just as Adobe Photoshop makes the graphic artist's potential creative power grow so also with the programmers. Even more so since the artistic software is programmed. It is as Eckhart Tolle might say, "pure potentiality".

While I would never reduce life and its experiences to 1s and 0s, think about all of the data that we use. From our banking, medical information, communication, records, and the list continues. Programming is the ability to work with that data and interpret it in a way the fits your needs. The economy will be based upon how well we can adapt our data to various and innovative new situations.

So, I tell my students, that very few students in America are learning programming. Not because they shouldn't be, but because their teachers didn't see the importance in teaching it nor did they likely learn it themselves. This puts them at a huge advantage and if they decide that it isn't for them then they are free to dump it during summer vacation along with Newton's Laws and the Quadratic Equation if they so choose. 

But, many students are taking advantage of it and it is exciting. I have students create beautiful art and some have created software to encourage others to save the environment. One of the students who asked me that question is creating a motion based video game and the other is creating an animatronic teddy bear for a big exhibition (check out their work at Festival del Sol).

Programming is the literacy of the 21st century and the great part is how few barriers there are. If you can get on a computer you can program. Software to create is free, tutorials are abounding, support is everywhere. Get on board, learn it and share it with your students! All of the programming resources and tutorials that you need to start can be found on

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BrokenAirplane Feedback and Refinement

Every semester since I began teaching I ask students for feedback. I hope I never stop asking. Sometimes it lifts me up to cloud nine and other times it causes me to rethink everything. There is nothing like honest feedback and I hope to get some from you, the readers of this blog.

What I ask of you is the same thing I ask of my students, please provide kind, helpful, and specific feedback. I likewise promise to put a lot of thought and reflection on your responses. Out of respect to your time, the longer answers are not required so you can provide quick feedback and be on your way. To others, if you have a moment, I would greatly appreciate more in depth feedback.

It is my mission for this blog to be as useful and helpful to as many people as possible, maybe even transformative. With your help, I can achieve that. Thank you for your time!

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Learn Modern Electronics with Arduino

How much do you know about electronics? I am not talking about using your Android phone or your Wii, I mean how much do you know about making electronics? Chances are not much. Most textbooks have very little about the subject, including Ohm's law and maybe some DC Circuits but with most Physics teachers strained to get through all of Newton's Physics it is difficult to spend more than a week or two at best on the topic.

Yet, do we see catapults and inclined planes prominent in our society? No, but everyone wants the phone with the most transistors. Will your students know a thing about electronics? Lightbulbs and switches are a great start but anything invented after 1980 has a brain inside it and is more complex than a battery and some wire.

I would love to see a spring cleaning of the physics standards in this country. Most of us are taught, and subsequently teach a physics curriculum centered around ancient to renaissance discoveries/inventions. I know it takes a while for education to catch up to society but 500 years? If we are to help students innovate and become interested in STEM then we need to teach them relevent materials.

So what do I do with my students? If you follow my blog, you know I spend a lot of time helping them to create visual models of math and time learning how to program software. This year, through fundraising I am able to provide a new opportunity for my students to learn 21st century skills and science, physical computing.

Physical computing, is the act of taking software and having it interact with the physical world. This can occur through sensors and data analysis, movement via motors, sound and light, etc. I love it because it blends heavily with my philosophy that math is art. Although there are many avenues by which one can explore physical computing, I have discovered the easiest and most enjoyable way for students and teachers is through the Arduino Microprocessor.

A microprocessor is the brain of any electronics and is vital to running todays applications and programs. A microprocessor for our computers or even the ones inside my robotics team's robots can run a couple hundred dollars. But the Arduino is Open Source Hardware/Software and eventually via economics and design reached a price of less than $30! This is about the price for a family of four and far cheaper than much of the education science equipment out there.

What can it do? It is cliche, but the better question is what can't it do. Depending on what you connect to it, you can light a led, take temperature readings of a chemical solution every minute, create a toy car driven by a Wii controller, sense changes in acceleration or light, and the list goes on. It is designed for learning but powerful enough to do pretty much anything you want.

I have created a few video tutorials using Patrick's newest video tutorial methods (which we are going to release soon). Here is the first two in which I teach you how to make the LED fade in and out (like a Macbook).

In order to do this you will need:

  1. Arduino - As of this writing, the newest was the "Uno" which you could purchase from Sparkfun or your favorite electronics supplier. Don't forget to download the software!
  2. LED - This is your basic LED that you can purchase from Radioshack or any where else (Sparkfun)
  3. A couple of pieces of wire (jumper cables, not the ones that go in your car)
  4. The A-B printer cable which connects your Arduino to the Computer
That's it enjoy the tutorials! Afterwards, I'll share some great resources for learning more about Arduino. (I recommend making them full screen so you can see the code and what is happening).

Part 1: Pulse Width Modulation (PWM)
Part 2: The LED and Arduino

There are great ways to learn more about Arduino:
  • The main Arduino Page has a lot of free books and resources as well as explanations for all of the built in examples.
  • The Arduino Cookbook is an essential resource for any one who is serious about Arduino.
  • Learn from the great Lady Ada (aka Limor Fried) Arduino, electronics and more.
  • Udemy has a good overview of the Arduino, its parts, and how to get started.
  • Another video about PWM via Make Magazine
  • The 2011 First Quarter Issue of Make Magazine is all about Arduino. If you don't get the free newsletter or subscribe, you really owe it to yourself to do so.
I hope you take advantage of the convergence of cheap software/hardware and a large volume of free resources. Your students and the future will thank you!

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