Sunday, December 24, 2006

Off Topic: CompUSA experiment

Years ago, I dreaded purchasing things at Radio Shack. Don't get me wrong: I'm a Radio Shack fan from way back. I cut my teeth on a TRS-80! And they're a handy source for electronic goodies for the physics lab. But if you went in to purchase a couple of D-cells for $1.59, the salesperson would initiate the check-out process by taking down your complete mailing address.

Each time you made a purchase at a different location, they'd ask for it all over again.

I tired of the ritual, so I became accustomed to engaging in a polite refusal. After I was asked for my name and address, I'd kindly respond, "How about I give you my money, you give me your product, and we call it a sale?" They'd look at me like I just spat on their hamburger. The audacity of a customer with money in hand refusing to volunteer personal information! What was that line from The Princess Bride? "Inconceivable!" What did I have to hide, they'd wonder, eyeing me now from head to toe and searching their memories for recently viewed police artist sketches.

And the smoke would really start to curl over their heads if I refused to give the contact info and then paid with a credit card!

After waiting too long in a post-9pm checkout line at CompUSA tonight, I had a recurrence. The cashier asked me for my ZIP code. I decided I wouldn't give it. I told her, "I won't give you my ZIP code but I'll be happy to give you money for this item." I showed that I had cash in-hand to clarify the point.

"Well, I need your ZIP code *and* your money."
"So if I don't give you my ZIP code, you won't take my money?"
"OK, have a nice night."

I left the merchandise for her to take care of as I departed. The title above includes the word "experiment." I intend to go back and try again but with a pricier item on the checkstand counter. I'm curious to see if there is a price point at which the the ZIP becomes optional. At this point, it's an open question and I don't presume the answer is obvious.

If you feel a need to chide me in the comments, please do so. But keep in mind that I was *not* rude to the cashier who was "just following orders," and "had no choice in the matter." I've seen skilled service-sector workers in action before and I know how they would have handled the situation. They would have typed in a common ZIP and moved on to the actual sale. They would have ended up collecting my cash instead of sending me out the door with a heavy wallet.

Anyway, I crossed the street to Best Buy and bought the item without surrendering any personal information. They were the closest among my many alternatives who
a. had the same product to sell and
b. required nothing other than legal payment in order to secure their wares.

Radio Shack eventually heeded the complaints of their customers and dropped their data mining operation. I fear CompUSA will be in Chapter 11 before they figure out why people opted for other--less nosey--vendors.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Carl Sagan blog-a-thon

Carl Sagan died December 20, 1996. If I were more eloquent than I am, I'd be able to write something profound about how his work changed my life. As it is, I will say that Carl Sagan was shining light in an increasingly demon-haunted world. Intelligent, smart, humble, and balanced. And indefatigable. To commemorate the tenth anniversary of Sagan's death, a blog-a-thon was announced. Bloggers with more to say and with better skills to it say are filling the web with remembrances this day.

In keeping with my concrete-sequential cognitive style, I offer a page of Cosmos-related curriculum material.

The worksheets offered are intended for student use while screening the episodes of Sagan's ground-breaking, award-winning PBS series, Cosmos.

If you're a teacher with the DVD set in hand, click to the page below and take whatever you find useful.

Cosmos in the Classroom

And thanks, Carl.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Skepticism in the Classroom 1.0

I posted a collection of curriculum materials to a new website. It includes quick lessons on skepticism and critical thinking. Many of these short classroom exercises were based on "news items" this past semester. Here's a list of the lessons.

Three-color Mind Control
Dead Psychic's Sketch of John Mark Karr
Football Clairvoyant
Chicago's Most Haunted
Columbia Explosion Photos
Angel at the State Fair

The curriculum links go to Word documents and PDFs, interactive QuickTime and Keyonte files, and links to offsite articles or video clips. At this point, I do not have any of the presentations available as PowerPoint files, because I really don't use PowerPoint. The interactive QuickTime files run as standard presentations, and QuickTime is a free download for Mac OS and Windows.

UPDATE: I posted PowerPoint versions of the presentations--I think! A Windows user will have to verify and let me know.

CST RTQ yellow alert!

Sometime between today and one month from today, the newly-updated set of CST RTQs should be posted as a PDF linked to from this URL.

Wow. OK, that was a lot of abbreviations. Let me take it down a notch. Each year, the California Department of Education releases 25% of the questions from the previously administered California Standards Test (CST). For physics, that means 15 new questions are released each year. The Released Test Questions (RTQs) become part of a document that includes previously-released items and additional information about the CST, including the reference sheet.

On occasion, some of the released items do not meet with the complete approval of the physics teaching community. Some people are less than enthusiastic about the mechanics or content of a specific question.

I am always eager to hear the criticism in the interest of improving future tests. So sharpen your knives, phyzcritics! And check that URL now and again. The RTQs up as of this post include items from the 2003, 2004, and 2005 administrations and were posted in January of 2006. The new set should be up within a month. So keep clicking that funky URL to see if the new document is up yet.

UPDATE: All quiet on the western front as of 12-Jan-2007. I don't 'spect we'll see anything until the second week of January at the earliest. As long as the status remains "Physics (PDF; 281KB; 21pp.; 09-Jan-2006)," it's last year's news.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Vote for the Stars!

My favorite science/skepticism blog is Phil Plait's Bad Astronomy. Normally, I'd keep that to myself. But suddenly, the good people at The Weblog Awards want to know. So I hustled over and placed my vote.

Now you should, too.

If you don't, a crazy blog devoted to cephalopods could win as best science blog. Cephalopods? Are you squidding me? I say stand up for those of us in the animal kingdom who have a backbone and can stand up. Or at least for the groovy posts that The Bad Astronomer authors and amazing space photos he shares.

UPDATE: Squids beat stars. Official. Bummer. See for yourself.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

The Amaz!ng Meeting 5

It's THE conference of the year, every year. The James Randi Education Foundation (JREF) assembles a truly amazing set of guest speakers and brings back some of the best from TAMs past. Thoughts are provoked, laughs are released, and for a few days in January, all seems right with the world.

Registration continues for TAM5: Skepticism and the Media which will be held Thursday, January 18 through Sunday, January 21 at the Riviera Hotel in Las Vegas. This year's luminaries include...

"Repeat offenders" James Randi, Michael Shermer, Penn & Teller, Julia Sweeney, Mythbuster Adam Savage, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Wiseman, Bad Astronomer Phil Plait, his good friend Hal Bidlack, illusion craftsman Jerry Andrus, and performers Banachek and Jamy Ian Swiss.

Media experts including NPR's Peter Sagal, The Onion's Scott Dikkers, Scientific American's John Rennie, Reason Magazine's Nick Gillespie, and MIT's Niel Gershenfeld.

Other specials guests include ID-warrior Eugenie Scott, Skeptics' Dictionary's Robert Todd Carroll, singer/songwriter Jill Sobule and many, many more.

Not to mention the audience, which should break the 1000-person mark this year. Smart, witty people you want to know.

Conference attendance has gone from 100 to 300 to 500 to 800. It grows because most people who go once become addicted. So past attendees return and bring friends/relatives next time. I dare you to attend just one!

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Nuke your nukes!

High schools in Illinois are doing it; you should, too.

I never thought it was a good idea to have radioactive samples of any kind in a high school lab. There's just no need for it. However, the high school physics teaching community is populated with many individuals who came from nuclear industry or research. Nuclear physics holds a special place in their hearts. So my aversion to radioactive samples seems like a minority view.

I'll lay out a few reasons for my "no nukes" view. Please feel free to add a "pro nukes" viewpoint in the comments. (Or "no nukes" arguments I forgot.)

1. We teach too many topics in high school physics already; nuclear physics can wait.
2. Listening to ticks from a Geiger counter doesn't have a lot of thrill-value.
3. Career-long exposure to the radiation coming from that "hot plate" (the lead-based glaze on that Fiesta ware you got in TJ that one time) cannot be healthy.
4. The California academic content standards in physics certainly do not call for nuclear anything.
5. Whatever coverage is called for by the College Board in terms of the AP Physics B Exam can be covered paper and pencil-style.

So poke around your storage area and round up your sources for hazmat disposal.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Ripping video from YouTube, Mac OS X style

Sturgeon's Law might appear too generous when applied to the web wonder, YouTube. Still, the online video resource does have its moments. Among them, physics and critical-thinking "teachable moments."

Having grown up in the Mac OS, I've become accustomed to easily acquiring anything in my browser window with a click (or at worst a modified click) of the mouse. But the videos on YouTube (and some other sources) exist in Flash Video format. You can't just click a QuickTime pop-up menu and download the clip to your hard drive.

If the video clips stayed at YouTube forever and I had universal, uninterrupted access to the Internet, there would be no problem. But, you know; reality...

So here's what you need to do, fellow OS X users hoping to acquire elusive video content. I admit I'm a complete neophyte at this, so easier/better ways may exist. Enlighten me in the comments.

1. Watch the YouTube (or other enlightening Flash Video) clip on Safari.
2. From Safari's Window menu, select Activity.
3. In the tangle of addresses, find the one URL that's big (MB's instead of KB's) and ends in ".flv."
4. Double-click it right there in the Activity window. This will download the file into your designated download destination.
5. Get iSquint. Open iSquint, and use it to transform the .flv file into a .mp4. You have some options; I don't recommend H.264 unless you've got lots of time to kill and hard drive space to spare.
6. If you want to completely transform the file to QuickTime format, you'll need QuickTime Pro. Open the .mp4 in QuickTime Pro and Save As a ".mov" file. And give it a more descriptive name than what it downloaded with!

Again, this post is for Mac folks only; PC-types can tell me how much easier their process is in the comments. If there is an easier way for OS X, don't keep me in the dark.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Angel of Carolina! Or not...

The story of an angel photographed over the South Carolina state fair has been making the rounds. I found it at Bad Astronomy. I promptly made a lesson of it. My students dug right into it. They had even less patience for this story than I did!

The original story from South Carolina is here.

The Bad Astronomy post and about 100 comments are here.

An interesting recreation of the pic can be found at the Xenophilia blog.

As far as the classroom lesson goes, here are a few of the questions I thought to ask after showing the video clip.

1. What was the source of the broadcast: cable news, network news, local TV news, etc.?
Local TV news is never-ending fountain of "too-good-to-verify news." Here in Sacramento, the ABC affiliate, News10, seems to take pride in their extreme credulity. Of course they linked to this story; they seem eager to jump on every wacky story that comes along.

2. Was the story skeptical/critical or accepting/sympathetic toward the photographer?
Once you've seen two stories of this nature, you know how they always play out. It wouldn't even *be* a story if an ounce of skepticism had been applied. So the "reporter" shepherds the story along to make it seem like there's actually a story going on.

3. Who provided the skeptical perspective?
The self-proclaimed believer in angels mentions that not everyone agrees with her assessment. She promptly dismisses the nay-sayers, but she provides the only hint that any kind of alternative interpretation is possible. Let's just say she's no James Randi. Or Michael Shermer. Etc....

4. Are there any inconsistencies between the photo shown and the verbal descriptions of the photo given by the photographer or her son?
Despite the short duration of the piece, there was enough time for a few to slip in. The photographer describes the "angel" as being centered in the middle of the photograph. Her son refers to legs that can be seen. Wha?

5. What's the best explanation for the photo and how could one go about reproducing such an image? Assume *no* manipulation of the photograph (via Photoshop or anything else).
The best I've seen was an argument in favor of a hummingbird. But the moth advocates make strong arguments as well. The illumination of the critter is due to the fact that nearly everyone who points-and-shoots a camera leaves the camera in "auto" mode. The camera meters the dark scene and fires the flash. The critter was in darkness before and after the shot was taken. Thus giving the photographer and her son the sense that the "angel" was invisible to the naked eye when they were at the fair. This "only the camera can see it" phenomenon is a common thread in paranormal flummery.

After the discussion on the true nature of the photo...

6. What's the key difference between moths/hummingbirds on the one hand and angels/fairies on the other?
The fact that moths and hummingbirds actually exist, as The Bad Astronomer says, is something of a clincher!

The guilty party in all such stories is the reporter. The participants might have shown poor critical-thinking skills, but the reporter is the one who exploits these people. Strokes them and encourages them, knowing better all along. But working on a deadline and desperate for a byline.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Better than two bikes and the bee?

My friend, Marion, sent me this one. It's from Car Talk's series of Puzzlers.

Doing the Math on the Ever-Slowing Drive

It may not become the classic that Two Bikes and the Bee is, but it's right there with it in my book!

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Chicago's Most Haunted

Did you know that ghosts haunt the site of a theater fire in Chicago? No really! It was on the local news.

Check the video clip right here.

Read the text of the report here.

They wouldn't report it as fact if it weren't really a fact. They didn't even include the token, highly-edited soundbite from a low-level skeptic. Obviously... because the ghosts are really real.

Anyway, back to reality. Here's the lesson plan, teachers.
1. Make a list of "facts" as reported in the piece. Have students label each one as to how it was reported: as fact or as speculation.
2. Were alternate explanations offered?
3. Who supplied the photos that included "images" of spirits or ghosts?
4. What "weasel words" did the newscast use to circumvent journalistic accountability?

Super-Bonus: "Psychic Detective" Ken Melvoin-Berg and "PhyzBlogger Extraordinaire" Dean Baird have something significant in common. What is it?

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Dodge Nitro TV ad

As I've been cheering on the DEtroit Tigers in the World Series, I've been exposed to an ad for the Dodge Nitro. Frequently. And I couldn't help but notice some kinematics problems embedded in the ad. The plot is that an ordinary car in need of a jump start is aided by a Dodge Nitro. The Nitro's power overwhelms the ailing car and launches it sky-high. Having gone up, the car eventually comes back down. But only after what can best be described as a "TV ad eternity."

You can watch the commercial here:

Check my math. I have the launch speed of the car at about 100 mph and the apex of the car's flight being about 100 meters above the parking lot asphalt.

Sadly, even with a good estimate of the car's weight (or mass), I cannot hazard a guess as to the launching force. Don't you hate it when that happens?

Sunday, October 22, 2006

So long, Motion and Forces

I'm now done teaching all the standards in Standard Set 1: Motion and Forces. Constant "and" average speed, Newton's laws, circular motion, and gravity--all covered. I might have even snuck in some topics that went beyond the standards.

Me being done teaching motion and forces doesn't mean my students are done learning motion and forces. My unit tests and semester final exam are designed to encourage retention of the academic content. Future unit tests will include questions on motion and forces. The drum beats until the semester comes to a close.

We're now moving on to Standard Set 2: Conservation of Energy and Momentum. That set will be finished well before Winter Break. Heat and Thermodynamics will close out the first semester.

With five standard sets to cover and the exam administered in April, you need to cover three of the five before the end of the first semester. That is, if you aim to cover most of the tested content before the test.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

My district *can* do it right!

My last two posts about the uselessness of the STAR result reports given to teachers by my district got me all worked up. So I wrote a frank missive to my school's STAR administrator, who passed it up/across the food chain to the district person who prepares the reports. She was able to generate exactly the reports I wanted!

Report 1: Standards Performance
Report 2: Student Performance Levels

These reports, especially Report 1, can be used to inform instructional decisions.

My administrator put in an order for reports in these formats for the other teachers at my school.

I'll score it as good news. It knocked a chip off the boulder that is my cynicism.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

STAR data in a useful format

In the previous post (below), I listed the problems with the STAR reports that my district generates for me. Extraordinarily useless. Here's a link that will take you to what I turn that data into. Mind you, it takes time and energy to do this. Anyone with a life wouldn't do it.

STAR Physics/Baird

1. It's a big file, an interactive Quicktime slideshow.
2. The results are pretty good. But me being on third base doesn't mean I hit a triple. I teach at a good school in a good neighborhood. The students generally know why they go to school. And their parents are quick to remind them should they forget. Anyway, the specific numbers aren't the issue here. It's the format of the data and how it's given teachers.

So what do I want from my district? I want to know how the whole group ("cluster") of my physics students performed in each of the six tested standard sets. That's the information that is most useful to me as a classroom teacher. I'd also like to know how many of my physics students performed at the Advanced, Proficient, Basic, Below Basic, and Far Below Basic levels. That info is interesting but not essential. The whole report would require about half a sheet of paper.

School district STAR reports for teachers

Each spring, California public high school students sit for a battery of state-mandated exams. The results are machine-scored and tabulated. Performance levels are set and imposed. Schoolwide reports are generated by the California Department of Education (CDE) and posted on their website by August 15.

The CDE passes then passes districtwide data on to each school district. Each district is charged with generating a report for each teacher, showing how that teacher's students performed on the exams corresponding to the teacher's course. For example, I am to be given a report showing how my students performed on the physics exam. I confess that I am genuinely curious about how my students performed on the exam. I hope that they do well.

The most valuable aspect of the report is that is gives some detail regarding the specific areas of strength and weakness among my students. There are six areas of the physics test for which data is collected: Motion and Force, Energy and Momentum, Heat and Thermodynamics, Waves, Electric and Magnetic Phenomena, and Investigation and Experimentation.

In theory, I could see how my students performed in each of these areas and modify my instruction so as to fortify any areas of relative weakness. Indeed, I interpreted an early report as an indication that I needed to beef up my treatment of electricity and magnetism. In subsequent years, my students have performed better on the exam's electricity and magnetism questions.

The problem is that the teacher report generated by my school district is amazingly useless. It was designed by someone who thought I would find utility in knowing how the 10th-graders in my 1st period class performed on the test, then how the 11th-graders in my 1st period class did, then how the 10th-graders in 2nd period, etc.

To me, such reports are mind-bogglingly useless. Who would want to know any of that? How could it possibly useful to a classroom teacher. "Next year I'm going to strengthen the treatment of heat and thermodynamics for my 4th period sophomores."

I spend a nontrivial amount of time and Excel energy melting down the data provided and reshaping it into a useful report. I'm pretty sure that I'm *the one* who does this at my school. Other teachers have lives.

What I want to know is how my students--all of them--did in the various areas of the test. Not how the 1st period sophomores did and how the 2nd period juniors did and the 3rd period sophomes and 4th period juniors, etc., did. I want all my students pooled together. Maybe I'm just lazy, but I don't differentiate instruction between grade levels or periods.

The report that I want would be much simpler and would require less than one tenth the paper to print.

Is it just me? Does anyone else out there even care? Bueller?

Saturn, backlit

The Bad Astronomer had a post about this image. When I saw it, I stayed up way past my bedtime to fiddle and fuss and made a 13"x19" photo inkjet print of it. Absolutely gwarjiss!

See The Bad Astronomer's post for details of how the photograph was taken. It's not a Photoshop illustration or a manifestation of CGI. But it is evocative of space explosions as envisioned by artists at Industrial Light and Magic. Think Star Trek VI opening scene or Star Wars IV ("Special Edition") Death Star explosion. There is something visually appealing (if not necessarily physics-ly appropriate) about an equatorial ring being thrown radially outward.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

The first law before Sir Isaac

Sorry about the absence. Between moving, a PhyzVan failure, a workshop, moving, a wedding, and moving, the blog had to simmer.

When teaching the concepts and subtleties of inertia and Newton's first law, I like to include some information on the understanding of the first law before the time of Newton. So I include a few relevant historical references.

1. "The cessation of motion is due to the opposing force…. If there is no opposing force…the motion will never stop."

2. "It is impossible to say why a body that has been set in motion in a vacuum should ever come to rest; why, indeed, should it come to rest at one place rather than at another. As a consequence, it will either necessarily stay at rest or, if in motion, will move indefinitely unless some obstacle comes into collision with it."

Both references precede Newton's Principia by about 2000 years.

Reference 1 comes from the Mo Ching, published in China approximately 2400 years ago. The source of reference 2 is a little more shocking.

When posed to groups of physics education professionals, I've never had anyone correctly identify the source. Some guess Newton, others guess Galileo. And these are smart people--many of them much, much smarter than I'll ever be. I'm pretty sure many of them don't believe me when I tell them the source.

The point of the lesson is a fundamental truth stated eloquently by Alfred North Whitehead: "Everything of importance has been said before by someone who did not discover it."

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

I'm done with kinematics

When I started teaching high school physics (during the Reagan Administration), I felt an obligation to "reinvent the wheel." I didn't blindly follow the sequence of chapters laid out by whatever textbook the school had. I was in charge of the curriculum! I wrote my own handouts, homework, tests, etc.

But what I turned out was a pretty true reflection of the introductory college courses I had most recently finished. Mostly the same topics. Mostly the same sequence. It wasn't so different from the textbook's sequence.

I had a whole unit on vectors. It followed my robust unit on "preliminaries" (scientific notation and so on). After vectors was the Month of Kinematics. One-dimensional, two-dimensional; graphical and algebraic. Ticker-tapes, falling bodies, the monkey gun... what's not to love.

The trees were losing their leaves before any mention of Newton was made in my class.

But I noticed a few things. My students never thrilled to the lessons of kinematics as I did. It's difficult, abstract material if you go into deeply. It took the human intellect about 2000 years to figure this stuff out. And we start the year in physics with it. And the year usually ran out before we got to how rainbows work or why the sky is blue.

I was thinking about slimming down my kinematics coverage when I saw Paul Hewitt refer to kinematics as a "black hole" in a Physics Teacher editorial.

Now I speed through motion. I cover it as much as I think it needs to be covered, then move on. (Sorry about the puns, but I'm a physics teacher; we breathe puns the way most people breathe air.) Newton's name will be uttered into air that could be 100F here in Sacramento. The leaves are still green in New England.

There are other ways to handle the problem of not getting to rainbows. The original PSSC program started the year with optics, an approach that galvanized a following even after PSSC abandoned it.

My point is to go easy on kinematics in particular and mechanics in general. First-year high school physics students don't need it to that depth.

The first year I went with the slimmed down kinematics, I held my breath and wondered which part of the sky would fall down. When June rolled around, I noticed that the whole sky was still up. And my students knew why it was blue.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Where were the psychics on 9/10?

I know I appear to harp on the poor psychics more than they merit. But do I really? They continue to get thoroughly credulous coverage in the popular press. On Oprah. On Montell. On Larry King. On the Eleven O'Clock News. On The Medium! And so on. It seems to me that science teachers have an obligation to cast a little light into the demon-haunted world whenever they can. (If my students know KE=1/2mv^2 but call up the Psychic Friends to inquire about the future, have I done my job?)

So where were the psychics, clairvoyants, etc., on 9/10/01? Did the events of the next day not register on their radars? Was the attack not significant enough to carry psychic energy (or whatever) through the temporal aether to them?

With their vast abilities to "see" and "feel," how did they miss something so huge?

Are fabricated Nostradamus quatrains the best they can do? (After-the-fact, as is always the case with Notradamus.)

I'll pose the question--simply as a question to be pondered by anyone who doesn't see that "real psychic" is an oxymoron. I'll pose it in class. Not on 9/11. That day is reserved for other things. But it's a fair question on 9/12.

Where were the psychics on 9/10?

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Quick Preso on the "Psychic Sketch"

The link below will take you to an interactive QuickTime presentation (export from Apple Keynote). It's slimmed down from the one I used in class to make it a quick download. The original included groovier transitions and build animations, and full audio for Gary Numan's "Cars."

Th!nk About It: Psychic Sketch

The presentation is done in the minimalist style that I prefer. It's all about the images. You can make up your own script based on the images. Mine went something like this

Title Page >
1. Who's this? >
Does this help? >
What do you think? >
Actually, it's supposed to be a sketch of him >
Good match? Bad match? >
2. News10 said this >
3. Here's a story from Denver >
4. And from New York >
5. I think this is a better match >
Gary Numan! >
Answer 3 of these 5 questions >
< > < >
> [End]

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Physics Begins With an "M"

A friend recently wrote me a kind note about the "First Day of School" post. In my response, I recalled the role that John Jewett's Physics Begins With an "M" played in the formulation of my first-day lesson plan. Jewett's idea is to introduce each new unit/section/topic/chapter with a small set of "M's." The M's are Mysteries, Magic, and Myth. The intent is plant to seeds of curiosity in students' heads. Each of Jewett's entries has a setup statement or question, then a subsequent response/answer.

Mysteries might include "Why is the sky blue" or "How do magnets work" or "How might you survive if your parachute doesn't deploy." Magic might include "Watch a test tube 'disappear' when placed in cooking oil," or "Use ice to start a fire." Myths might include "Astronauts in space are weightless because they are beyond the earth's atmosphere," or "Cats can see in the dark," or "Power is the rate at which work is done," or "Absolute zero is the temperature at which all molecular motion ceases." As a teacher, you cobble a small set of M's relevant to the topic you're about to teach, and present it before launching into the unit. On the first day of school, I present a large set spanning topics for the whole year. All questions. No answers. But with the promise that all will be answered before the year is out.

Another way I've used the book is as a source of extra-credit or lab make-up projects. A student will select an M and take home a photocopy of the text question/statement and the response/answer. They must then translate the text into the language they are studying at school (French or Spanish at Rio Americano). Then the student creates a poster with the translated text, splashy graphics, and a translation of "Take Physics: Understand the Universe" in big letters at the bottom. I get the poster, and give it to the appropriate language teacher to see if the translation is OK, then ask them to hang the poster in their classroom. Instant advertising for the physics program! AND cross-curricular synergy (or paradigm-shift, or whatever the latest buzzword is).

Jewett's original title was published b y a company that did an excellent job of keeping the book a secret. It's now available as World of Physics: Mysteries, Magic, and Myth. Get it! You'll use it all year long.

Since I'm recommending a book and I'll never have a MySpace page, let me make a few recommendations in the area of pop culture.. First, go see Little Miss Sunshine. In a theater populated with other people. Don't wait to rent it. The crowd reactions are part of the fun. As for music, you should all be listening to Zero 7, Corinne Bailey Rae, Los Lonely Boys, and Leigh Nash. Don't let yourself get stuck in the 70s (Rick), 80s (Bryce), or even the 90s (Linsey). C'mon, peeps, move into the 2000s! (/mySpace)

Thursday, August 31, 2006

Critical thinking lesson from current events

Sacramento's ABC affiliate followed a few other gullible media outlets in the recent frenzy of JonBenet Ramsey/John Mark Karr overcoverage. KXTV's news division found newsworthy this story of how a "psychic's" sketch drawn on the Leeza Gibbons Show in 1998 "bears striking resemblance" to suspect John Mark Karr. Internet forums were abuzz with comments like "spooky," "that makes me a believer."

In various accounts of this story, so-called psychic Dorothy Allison is given credit for having helped authorities with a manhunt for a serial killer in Colorado. The evidence of her help is notably absent, and research on the specifics of that case are notably devoid of any mention of Allison's help.

A sober viewing of the sketch reveals a decided lack of resemblance to Karr. The sketch looks much, much more like this shot of Adolph Hitler (sans mustache). Karr, on the other hand, looks much, much more like this shot of 1980s recording artist Gary Numan, who enjoyed success with the hit single "Cars."

The insidious part of such stories is that they credulously fortify the notion that psychics exist and that they have psychic powers. The sad reality is that much like Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, "real psychics" don't exist. Nor do psychic powers. James Randi is keen to give anyone with such powers one million dollars. So far, the million dollars is safe and sound.

Now that Karr has been found to have no connection with JonBenet Ramsey (outside of his twisted mind), I'll wait quietly for the media outlets that ran with this bogus story to present their retractions.

But I won't hold my breath.

In the meantime, Joe Nickell has written a more enlightened account of this non-story.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

"Planet Pluto" bites the dust

Beloit College releases an amusing list of "Things your freshmen don't know" every year. It's an attempt to keep againg teachers aware of the world that is familiar to students now entering college. This year's list includes items like, "Google has always been a verb." A previous list included, "The phrase 'you sound like a broken record' has no meaning to them."

In ten years, one item on the list will be, "Pluto has never been a planet."

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

The first day of school

It's arguably the hardest day of the school year. You don't know your students and your students don't know you. Eventually, you'll all work your way into a comfortable rapport.

But not on the first day.

I struggled for about seven years before I figured out the first day of school. (And by "figure out," I mean that I came up with something I was happy with.) So here's my advice for the first day of school.

DON'T spend half the period mispronouncing your students' names. It's a time-kill and a first day of school buzz-kill. The students are fairly jazzed about returning to school, and there's a honeymoon going that first day. No need to squander it tripping over all those "tricky" names. You quickly transform yourself into the classroom dunce. It doesn't inspire confidence, doesn't really doesn't serve much of a purpose.

DON'T spend the entire period going over the class rules. What a way to crush the first day. You know those inservice meetings you're required to attend at the beginning of the school year--the ones you have before students show up? You know how they suck the life out of you before you even see your students for the first time. Yeah, it's like that, except now you're doing it to your students.

On the first day, students don't know how your class works. They have no context for your rules. How many classes do you suppose they have where they're NOT expected to be in their seats and ready for class when the tardy bell rings? Do you really need to pound that in on the first day? Let the class operate a little bit, and bring in the rules and policies as they become relevant.

DO cool stuff on the first day of school. Let your students know why your class is the grooviest class on campus. It is! You know that, but they don't know that. Don't keep it a secret. "Tease" them with hints and glimpses of the topics that will be covered during the year. Pose questions that you have no intention of answering until later in the year.

Induce curiosity.

When the end of the first day comes, they should jostle out of your room energetic with anticipation of what your class holds for tomorrow and for the rest of the year. They should be talking to each other about what you presented.

I would hold off on any kind of demo or activity that might intimidate students. That is, hold off on the counter-intuitive stuff. There will be time for that later. You don't need to make them "feel stupid" on the first day. Many are already intimidated being in a class called "physics." Don't scare them off on Day 1.

Have some fun on the first day. Get into your schtick! There will be time to learn the names and discuss the policies. Later. On Day 1, make them eager for Days 2 through 180. It's better for your students and it's better for you.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

The Book of Phyz 2006

I have completed a fairly extensive update to The Book of Phyz online. Changes and corrections made during the past school year are reflected. That translates to many new documents and many more corrected (previously available) documents.

The update applies only to Physics 1. I hope to be able to complete a similar update for AP Physics 2 next year.

Many presentations were added as Zipped QuickTime exports of Keynote files. That means you can play them on your computer, but you can't edit them.

The Book of Phyz is an extensive collection of handouts, demonstrations, labs, worksheets, and other documents organized by topic and posted as PDFs.

Physics teachers are free to use Book of Phyz materials in their classes for instructional purposes.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

What are the odds... [OT]

that I'd meet the brother of an old schoolmate whose children were taught by my best friend's wife at an Applebees in Gillette Wyoming? And all because I endeavored to snap this shot of stringy lightning at Devils Tower (60 mi from Gillette) earlier that same day.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

What's with the "hairy" lightning?

Look closely at the discharge path of this giant van de Graaff generator. The full image is here. The generator dome is on the right, the discharge sphere is to the left. The primary discharge path is nicely bright. But look at the faint ("darker") blue spray. It follows the direct path where the discharge drops down to make the U-shaped part of the path. But there are other "hairs," too. Is that a clue as to the sign of the charge on the main dome? What do you think?

There are more discharge images here.

Vacuum Gun Still

The kids (and by that, I mean physics teachers age 18-108) have yet to tire of the ping pong vacuum gun. Monday evening's AAPT demo show included one. I like this particular still. Look carefully; the ping pong ball emerged from the PVC tube at the far left and has passed through the first can. It is beginning to pass through the second can. The third can is, as yet, unaware.

The full image is here.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Sunday Sunny Syracuse

Sunday may be the best day of the conference.

A workshop in the morning covered a significant portion of cognitive research in physics education.

At lunch, I was able to get Al bartlett's quick review of Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth. Bartlett was generally pleased with the presentation, but referred to it as An Incomplete Truth. Bartlett was disappointed by the omission of population growth as the most significant ultimate cause of global warming.

An afternoon workshop was a brief immersion into a robust family of physics simulations.

Dinner was a disappointment. Dorm food in all its dorm food splendor. I mean, "wow!" I had allowed myself to repress the memories. The trick is to enjoy a hearty breakfast and a heavy lunch so that dinner is irrelevant.

The High School Share-a-thon was next, and a number of groovy demos were show. There are photos here. The photos do some justice to the demos, but they fail to capture the bad puns and other clever banter. To get that, you had to be there.

I'd write more, but there's stuff going on!

Sunday, July 23, 2006

My AAPT Syracuse Photo Album here:

Included are photos from Sunday's High School Shar-a-thon and Monday's Demonstration Show.

Syracuse Saturday Sans Sunshine

Friday was flyday and in only three flights, I got from Sactown to Syracuse. Saturday was a rain day in Syracuse. Steady, warm, and... steady. Lots of soaked physics teachers around campus and brisk umbrella sales in the bookstore. I thought to bring my raincoat and an umbrella, so I was good to go.

I spent the day with Dewey Dykstra, a physics education rock star. I attended his optics workshop in 1989; to this day I have never seen a better set of inquiry-based labs on reflection, refraction, pinholes, and lenses. Upon completion of the pinholes-lens sequence, you really had an understanding of lenses, rather than a simple ability to draw ray diagrams and "get the right answer" to thin-lens equation problems.

Today's workshop focused on learning theory with an emphasis on elicitation of student conceptions. I'll wait while you savor my clever use of the term "focus." Some of the material was a bit heavy, but the point was how much you can learn as a teacher through sequences of elicitations and discussions. Dewey is a master of this, and he's a genious when it comes to uncovering misconceptions then devising activities that confront those misconceptions. Very groovy stuff.

I also got a kick out the tangents we were able to get him on. Hall's (of The Hall Effect) writings on the nature of the electric fluid, how he groups his students for lab work, etc. I'd pay for a workshop just to hear more of his stories!

Anyway, I didn't miss the 110F that Sacramento was enduring.

Friday, July 21, 2006

"Your mother and I were talking...

We see that you signed up for physics next semester. Hey, that's great; good for you!

The thing is, we've been keeping track of the latest research in gender-based differences in cognitive abilities, and it turns out physics is more of a "guy class." More males than females scored exceptionally well on a math test given in an enrichment course for high-achieving students at Johns Hopkins, and other studies show that boys often outperform girls in tests of spatial visualization.

So we were thinking you might want to drop physics and sign up for that communications class. The research says girls excel in verbal communication skills.

We only want what's best for you."

I'll give you moment to shake that off. You know, there's no prouder moment for a blog author than when he or she can ask colleagues, "So, have you been following that lively internet discussion on my blog?" I jest. It has been suggested that "lively internet discussion" is an oxymoron of sorts. But I digress.

Amidst the gender-based cognitive differences discussion going on at this blog, I've seen many calls for "let the research be done!" This sentiment follows a noted Ben Franklin quote, "Let the experiment be made." Then again, none of us would have to stretch our imagination too much to envision experiments that shouldn't be made.

What I haven't seen is anyone stepping up to tell me what the point would be. So let me start the song and invite anyone to chime in.

The research results are in. Gender-based cognitive differences have been identified. As a result of these findings, we're now going to... OK, that's where I got nothin'. Somebody go ahead and pick it up from here. (Kindly keep in mind that all such "findings" so far have been insignificant when compared to individual variations within a given gender.) I hope no one suggests parents start having the discussion at the top of this post.

Anyway, tell me the what the application of the research results might be. I am eager to learn.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Please disregard California

In 1985, California stared down Texas over the inclusion of the term "evolution" in science books. Texas' Mel and Norma Gabler were trying to establish Texas as an evolution-free zone. Publishers were warned that books containing the word "evolution" would not be adopted in the Lone Star State. California's Bill Honig promptly fired back: books that excluded evolution would not be adopted in the Golden State. Thus the nation's number one textbook market successfully quashed the wrong-headed notions of the number two market.

When I read about this clash, I decided I could work in a state like California. By the autumn of the next year, I had the job that I hold to this day. I love my chosen state and I love my chosen profession. I bear no body art, but if I were ever to inject ink into the epidermis of my derriere, it might say "California Physics Teacher."

But now I go to national physics teachers meetings with some embarrassment. When I tell my fellow high school physics teachers from around the country that I'm from California, I'm also on the verge of an apology. While the Golden State was a leader on the evolution front, it plays a rather different role in terms of Physics First (PF, the movement to teach physics at ninth grade, chemistry at tenth, and biology at eleventh).

My state has banished PF from public schools.

The No Child Left Behind legislation demands each state test its students in various subjects at various grade levels. One requirement is a science test to be administered to all students at a specific, senior high grade level (grade 10, 11, or 12). I serve on an panel that advises the State Board of Education on issues of assessment. It's called the Assessment Review Panel. The SBE solicited the ARP's opinion, then decided the implementation of NCLB would be a test of all grade 10 students in life science.

That's how the SBE killed PF with NCLB. With schools testing all grade 10 students in life science, PF students wouldn't likely perform well. The test would come before their study of high school biology. Of course, you could try to reason with your principal: "Hey, I've got this great idea for our science sequence. The students will learn science better, but our NCLB test scores will drop." Look, I made a funny!

What makes me groan even louder about this mess is that I was a player (albeit a small one) in the decision-making process. Clearly, the SBE did not implement NCLB as I would have liked, but my arguments failed to carry the day.

To my colleagues in private schools and to those in other states, I truly wish you well in your attempts to implement PF in your schools. There is merit to the approach of a physics-chemistry-biology sequence. So for this issue, pretend like California's not even here.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Everybody... Jump!

The Bad Astronomer is a never-ending fount of facts and funnies. He and I attended Michigan at the same time and had a friend in common, though we never met in Ann Arbor. Whenever you hear some wacko astronomy story in the news, proceed directly to for the real story.

He's posted a note about World Jump Day. What, it wasn't on your calendar? C'mon, basic physics tells us that if we can get 600 million people to jump at the same time, we can move the earth into a different orbit. If coordinated correctly, we can move the earth farther from the sun and save ourselves from the fate that global warming has in store.

Or not.

How many times do we see evidence that someone studied physics enough to learn of some classic problems or sketches of basic principles, but they didn't study thoroughly enough to internalize the solutions or consequences of the principles? Nevertheless, they go on to organize something like World Jump Day or design the next perpetual-motion machine.

Anyway, there's a hip lesson to be made from this kind of thing. A lesson that is especially groovy because it invokes real physics and throws in a splash of critical thinking as well.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Gender imbalances and horror stories

I had the good fortune of seeing Australian guitar sensation Tommy Emmanuel perform in Berkeley last night. As if that weren't enough, I was sitting next to Karen Stollznow a tireless Australian skeptic, author, and linguist (and creator of the pope-tart).

We had a chance to chat here and there, and I cringed when she recounted her high school physics horror story. Not because I hadn't hear such accounts before. I am well aware of the harsh treatment of girls and women in physics courses in high school and college. I wrote my master's thesis on the gender imbalance in physics education. So the novelty of hearing about the mistreatment, alienation, and marginalization of girls in high school physics classes is gone. OK, the stories still make me cringe because of the stupidity and shortsightedness of the teachers involved.

I cringed at this story because my Australian skeptic friend was not old enough to have been in high school physics in the 1950s or 60s when a girl in a physics class was a rarity. She was young enough to let me know this kind of damaging BS is still going on. Will these backward geezers never retire? Or at least realize that the 50s are over?

Anyway, my gender imbalance sensibilities were no-doubt heightened by the recent re-examination of the 2003 American Council of Education regarding gender imbalance on the college campus. In 2003, the council found that men were lagging behind women in terms of college enrollment. The re-examination finds the gap isn't quite what it was originally thought to be.

Women certainly don't outpace men in the physics and engineering programs. And while we would like to believe that male bias in physics education is a thing of the past, a 1998 study tells a different tale. In it, the authors concluded that males had a better sense of simple ciruits than females. The evidence? When males incorrectly wired a battery and bulb circuit, they created a short circuit. When females incorrectly wired a battery and bulb circuit, they created an open circuit. Of course, neither circuit was successful in lighting the bulb. But the males' short circuit succeeded in destroying the battery, and was deemed the superior incorrect solution.

So there you have it: the smoking gun! Larry Summers was right all along! I don't know why girls even sign up for physics...

Monday, July 17, 2006

AP Physics is a second-year course

About ten years ago, I began plotting a significant change in the physics curriculum at my school. My plan was to change our AP Physics B course from a first-year course to a second-year course. The reasons for this change are detailed here.

Briefly, AP Physics (B or C) is a second-year course. All AP sciences are second-year courses. Your colleagues who teach AP Biology or AP Chemistry wouldn't think of teaching their courses to first-year students. The College Board describes AP Physics as a second-year course.

Still though, many schools offer AP Physics as a first-year course. Why? The most frequently cited reason I've heard is that there's not enough time for students to take a two-year physics sequence. Well, there's not enough time for students to take a two-year biology or chemistry sequence, either. Nevertheless, those courses remain as second-year offerings.

We should encourage our most enthusiastic and gifted science students to complete a year of biology, chemistry, and physics, followed by an AP science course of their choosing.

The most successful first-year AP Physics teachers I've had contact with confess they do not do labs in their classes. What? A science class--a science class for the best and the brightest--with no labs? They assure me that they do labs--after the AP exam. The AP exam happens the second week in May. Most schools are out the first week of June. At my school, the last week and a half of school are devoted to staggered final exam schedule. So there's not much of a window, and I would suggest students are not at their best in that particular window.

Later I'll post some info about the consequences this change at my school.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

The Blog of Phyz?

I noticed two things recently.
1. I couldn't find a blog relating to issues of high school physics instruction.
2. I'm on summer vacation.
Hence this blog.

By the time I first started posting a website (now found at, I was an nine-year veteran of the physics classroom. I created a site because I thought it could be a useful vehicle for sharing information for my students, their parents, and for other physics teachers. That and I was curious about HTML, web page creation and posting. No better way to learn than to have a practical project at hand.

That was 1995. By 1997, the Phyz web site was fairly well fleshed out. And it was serving its purpose as an information portal. A few years later, I wanted to learn about Portable Document Format, so I turned my hand-crafted curriculum materials into PDFs and posted them on the site. With each step of its evolution, the site became more useful to its intended audience. And I'm happy to see many other teachers starting to create sites for their own classes.

Now I'm curious about the ins and outs of blogs. This one is intended as a conversation among physics educators and those concerned about physics instruction at the high school level. At its inception, I do not know how frequently I will update it or if eyes other than my own will see the words it contains.

AAPT Syracuse or Bust!

The Summer Meeting of the American Association of Physics Teachers is set for July 22-26 at Syracuse University in New York. My registration is in, my deluxe dorm-room accommodations are reserved, and the flights are booked.

This conference is a great chance to meet physics teachers from throughout the land and get a sense of what the hot topics are outside one's own neighborhood. I'm scheduled to attend a few workshops on the first two days; these are usually the best part of the meeting. There are activities for conferees from 8:00am through 10:00pm most days; you have to sneak off to effectively socialize.

While it is true that conferees are involved in physics education, it is not true that they are all males over 40 (age OR waist measurement). That bit of misinformation is both irresponsible and erroneous. Seriously!

I'm looking forward to a few days of learning and laughter among my colleagues. Or as the kids would say, "chillin' wit my phyz homies." Yeah, that's just wrong.