Saturday, February 28, 2009

Electronic music

For listening pleasure and huge concert productions, I prefer Jean-Michel Jarre. But for home-made, geeky "wow factor," the concept of Tesla coil music is hard to beat. Here's one video showing a rudimentary setup.

But there are many, many more vids to be had.

Brownie Point to 1st period physics student Joseph C. for the tip!

TAM 7 registration is open

I'll be there. Click the graphic for details.

Friday, February 27, 2009

The new STAR Physics RTQs are up!

The new Physics Released Test Question set was posted yesterday on CDE's STAR resources page.

The typographical issues (mentioned in the previous post) have been repaired.

Each year's RTQ set includes the previous year's set with 15 new items blended in. The new items come from the previous year's test (administered the previous Spring). The 15 new items are located as follows:

Investigation and Experimentation: 8
Motion and Forces: 14, 20, 25
Conservation of Energy and Momentum: 29, 35, 41, 44
Heat and Thermodynamics: 47, 53, 56
Waves: 63, 71
Electric and Magnetic Phenomena: 81, 87

The total item count in the Physics RTQs now stands at 89. It should be 90, but one RTQ was removed from the set in 2008. The removed item was authored in the very early days of the CST and was not up to today's standard of item quality. So it was discarded.

I wouldn't be a proper curmudgeon if I didn't have at least a minor quibble. While RTQs have been released each year for several years now, it seems each new year brings a new file organization structure at That is, one cannot hope that this year's RTQs will have the same URL as last year's. The new document is intended to replace the old document, yet a new file path is created each year. It could very well be that I am the solitary Californian whose style is cramped by this annual reorganization.

As always, let me know what you think.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Disappointing trend in RTQ release dates

One element of the Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR) program is the publication of a sample of the test questions that have been used on previous administrations of each test. The published items are called "Released Test Questions" (RTQs).

Twenty-five percent of the operational form from the previous year must be sent out into the world as RTQs. Those questions will never again be used on the operational forms.

The Physics CST is a 60-item test, so 15 questions are released each year. Classroom teachers always like to see actual items from previous tests to get a sense of the depth and scope of the assessment tool. The sooner the RTQs are released, the sooner teachers can use them with students.

The publication date (the day when the new RTQs are posted to CDE's web site) varies from year to year. In recent years, CDE/ETS appear to have been taking their cues from Steve Miller's "Fly Like an Eagle." The RTQ release date has been "slipping, slipping, slipping... into the future."

2006 RTQs were released 1/9/06 (As I recall, they were originally released 11/28/05, but there were some significant typographical errors in the initial release. The 1/9/06 update fixed the bugs.)
2007 RTQs were released 2/1/07
2008 RTQs were released 2/8/08
2009 RTQs have yet to be released as of 2/25/09

Why the date slips further each year remains a mystery.

ETA: I just noticed another disappointment: item 10 (on the 2008 Physics RTQs) continues to be missing axis labels in choices B, C, and D. Worse, one of the resistors in item 64 is not labeled, making the item unsolvable. These errors were pointed out to CDE on 2/8/08. Here's hoping the 2009 RTQs will correct this item.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Who has better science standards than California?

As it turns out, no one.

At least according to a comprehensive evaluation made by the Fordham Institute.

The study was published in 2005, but it was news to me. Thanks to SCAAPT President, Bill Layton, for pointing out this report to me. I freely admit you could fill the Grand Canyon with the things I don't know. And I'm embarrassed by how much of that is stuff I should know.

The upside is that--according to the study--California has the best science standards in the nation. The downside is that if you ever hoped (as I often do) that the standards might be open for amendment, the State Board of Education will cite this study (among other things) to prevent any such attempt.

ETA: Here are a few more teasers regarding the study.

Top Five States
1. California (97%)
2. Virginia (96%)
3. Massachusetts (94%)
4. South Carolina (93%)
5. Indiana (91%)

Bottom Five States
47. New Hampshire (36%)
48. Texas (34%)
49. Idaho (34%)
50. Wisconsin (29%)
51. Alaska (19%)

Note that there is one red state in the top five and two blue states in the bottom five. But the biggest blue state is number 1 and the biggest red state is number 48. Make of that what you will.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Interrogative websites?

A couple of nice "meta" websites for scientists and skeptics.

Why is Science Important?
It features a variety of scientists answering the question. Kind of a scientists' "This I believe."

What's the Harm?
Skeptics are often waved off with this question. Badmouth astrology, homeopathy, etc., by citing their lack of evidence, and adherents and sympathizers will say, "Well, what's the harm? Belief X doesn't hurt anybody!" Turns out, it actually does. This website provides the often-sad details.

Solid-liquid duality?

I miss more than I get when it comes to groovy science stuff jetting out on teh innertoobs. So when I catch something nice, I do try to post it here before I forget.

Here's a relative recent gem from NPR's Science Friday. It calls into question the distinction between solids and liquids. And it does so with some very groovy high-speed video.

1. I like Flora Lichtman's sneaky sense of humor and effective production sensibilities.
2. I didn't know that aluminum contamination was a problem for baking soda.
3. If you're keen to embed a SciFri vid, their embed code end of "/)" must be replaced with ")(/embed)".

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Eclipses as you don't usually see them

First up: planet Earth slips between the moon and the sun. The Bad Astronomer has the story of what that looks like as seen from the moon!

Last up: the moon slips between Earth and the sun. Here's what Earth looks like as seen from space.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

PTSOS photos from Sacramento

A few shots from the 2008-09 New Teacher Workshops 1 and 2 at Rio Americano High School. Click the pic to see the album.

Find older shots of San Mateo PTSOS workshops from 2004-05 here, and from 2005-06 here.

They're never too young to train

Target: doing what they can to encourage girls to study math and science. (This page was taken from a slick Target catalog/ad mailed out during the holiday season.) Thankfully, gender stereotypes in popular culture died out in the 1960s.

ETA: The versions of this ad in order of probability that you'll see them
1. Mom vacuums with daughter
2. Dad vacuums with daughter
3. Mom vacuums with son
4. Dad vacuums with son
(I might have 2 and 3 in the wrong order.)

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

PTSOS3 registration is now open!

Registration for the PTSOS New Teacher Workshop 3, "Come See the Light: Electricity, Magnetism, and Light" is now open. The Sacramento workshop will be held Saturday, March 7 at Rio Americano High School. The Bay Area workshop will be held Saturday, March 14 at San Mateo High School.

California's high school physics students consistently underperform in the topics of electricity and magnetism, according to statewide Physics CST results. We'll be showing and discussing strategies for engaging students in robust lessons on electricity and magnetism.

We'll also have demos and lesson ideas on light and optics. Reflection, refraction, total internal reflection, mirages, color, polarization, interference, diffraction, and scattering will be covered. Learn to teach how rainbows come about and why the sky is blue. And never fear, useful tangents will be visited throughout the day.

Topics for discussion may also include the use of hand-held generators, "skinny fish aquaria" (laser viewing tanks), and green lasers. I'm just sayin'... you will be very happy at the end of the day!

I didn't want to say this before, but past participants have rated Workshop 3 as the best of the series. After you've completed our very full day of E&M and light, you'll see why.

Don't delay! Supplies are limited! (That really is true.) Stephanie is standing by! (That's mostly true, too.) Click to let her know you want to register.

The first step in not being fooled...

is to understand how easily you can be fooled. Those who think they can't be fooled are easy prey for charlatans of all stripes.

Those of us involved in science often pride ourselves on being impervious to trickery. Physicists are especially given to this conceit. And so it is physicist who fall for psychokinesis, etc. Sigh.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Electric Field Hockey

When Rio received its first year of the Digital High School (DHS) grant in 2001, I was ready to go. It seemed that the rest of the world had moved into the Computer Age and my classroom had been left behind.

One of the software titles I got through DHS was Electric Field Hockey 3. But even in 2001, EFH was long in the tooth and, it seemed, abandoned by its publisher. The program came on an old-style floppy disk. I worked around that and installed it on our new iBooks. EFH was a port from another computing platform, and it showed. Apple's interface guidelines were not adhered to. Still though, the program was so much fun that the idiosyncrasies could be overlooked.

In 2006, our long-obsolete iBooks were due for replacement. With the transition to Intel-based MacBooks came the loss of all so-called "Classic" applications, programs that were designed for Apple's Mac OS 9 and earlier. We actually kept the iBooks around so we could play Electric Field Hockey.

One of the many reasons we needed to replace our 2000-era iBooks with 2006-era MacBooks was that some very groovy apps were coming along that required Apple's modern OS X to run. Such was the case with the PhET simulations.

PhET includes a facsimile of the original Electric Field Hockey. And it's well done! But it lacks the competitive gameplay of the original.

I wrote a student activity to accompany PhET's EFH and restore the competition angle. Teams compete against the clock, not against one another. Students find the activity to be highly engaging, and they do learn a few things along the way.

Here's a link to PhET's Electric Field Hockey.

Here's a link to my corresponding Quest for the Coulomb Cup activity.

Let me know if you find any typos!

Bed of nails: gone wrong!

The classic bed of nails demonstration (with cinder block burst) can sometimes end badly. My friend and Skeptical Teacher, Matt, does the bed of nails often enough to experience bad consequences from time to time.

Here's one that went bad two ways. Can you identify the two unfortunate events and which one was more regrettable? (The "good stuff" hits at 5:20ish.)

I hasten to add that neither bad result was really Matt's fault. But I'm guessing each one represented a learning experience for him. And teachers appreciate nothing so much as learning.

2009: Year of Astronomy -- FAR video

If you were to blend Tom Lehrer, Frank Zappa, and "Weird Al" Yankovich--musically(!)--you might just get George Hrab. Hrab is a rockstar among skeptical music aficionados. His "Brainsbodyboth" can be found on nearly any iPod held in a hand whose wrist bears a blue "Critical Thinker" band.

His latest amusement is "FAR," 365 Days of Astronomy's theme song for The International Year of Astronomy. Enjoy:

The M*A*S*H reference is priceless! And true sci-fi geeks will pick up the subtle 2010: The Year We Make Contact reference.

It was Hrab who regaled those of us on The Amaz!ng Adventure 3 with his ballad of the elements. Each element got its own verse. He's an incredible talent and a great guy.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Happy 445th, Galileo!

With all the appropriate hoopla surrounding the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birth and the 150th anniversary of The Origin of Species, I let Galileo's 445th birthday slip past.

Happy belated!

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Sounds like a heat wave: PTSOS2 RA09 afterlinks 1

The Sacramento PTSOS New Teacher Workshop 2 was held January 24 at Rio Americano High School. Steve Keith and Dean Baird led an energetic group of teachers through demonstrations, discussions, and projects on the topics of heat and waves.

Though we try to work through the day slowly enough that all the information can be absorbed at a reasonable pace, it might be helpful to review some of the info links discussed.

Here's a brief list of some of the topics we planned to cover. (Sometimes the day gets away from us before we get to all of them.)

Book of Phyz coverage of Heat and Temperature (Physics 1)
Book of Phyz coverage of Thermodynamics (AP Physics 2)

Although we didn't discuss it specifically, the good people at PhET have a nice Kinetic Theory / Gas Laws simulation.

My Web Video page gives access to video clips of the Leidenfrost Effect. And don't forget that nice video clip, "Putting Firewalkers to the Test." What an excellent example of Science shutting down the Woo! If you like that kind of thing, you might consider attending James Randi's The Amaz!ng Meeting in Las Vegas this summer.

Specific links to demo/lab ideas connected to goodies in the goodie bag. (The item name links to the vendor's product page.)
Colliding Spheres: Sheet
Ball & Ring: Sheet + Presentation
Compound Bar (Bimetallic Strip): Sheet + Presentation
Radiometer: Sheet + Presentation
(The Ove-Glove is a handy (!) aid whenever handling hot water, etc. It's an answer that you'll find questions for when working with hot objects.)

Sounds like a heat wave: PTSOS2 RA09 afterlinks 2

The second half of January's PTSOS2 New Teacher Workshop at Rio Americano was devoted to mechanical waves and sound.

Book of Phyz coverage of Waves (Physics 1)
Book of Phyz coverage of Harmonic Motion and Resonance (AP Physics 2)

We looked at (and listened to) Pasco's WavePort software. Lots of potential there. Try it for free when you get to waves and run the activities I designed for use in conjunction with it.

We also ran PhET's Wave Interference simulator. I wrote an activity for that simulator focused on the basics, but our participants ran through it like kids in a candy store, finding the interference modes, and the sound-generator, and the light/color-generator.

I use the Physics: Cinema Classics clip on the Bell Jar to show that "In space, no one can hear you scream." (Reference: Waves (I)>Periodic Waves>Sound.)

As a flashy demo combining heat, sound, and waves, Steve brought his Ruben's Tube. The Mythbusters have a nice Ruben's Tube clip on YouTube.

They also have a nice clip of another demo that Steve showed: Fun with Gas! (And kids: even if you can get your hands on sulfur hexafluoride, don't try this at home!)

My Web Video page gives access to a few supersonic fighter jet video clips. Nice when talking about shock waves and sonic booms. Another sonic boom classic is the opening sequence from the Imax film, The Dream is Alive.

We finished the day with Steve's "String Machine" make-n-take. He brought the parts and tools; PTSOSers brought the energy and labor! The Exploratorium has a similar String Machine snack posted online. This project garnered rave reviews from power-tool-wielding participants.

Jeff Milner's Backmasking page has nicely produced examples of auditory pareidolia. Jeff has a follow-up post, too.

If you like the Mythbusters and/or are intrigued by the backmasking site (and our ability to fool ourselves), please look in to the James Randi Educational Foundation and The Amaz!ng Meeting. Science teachers play a critical role in teaching critical thinking and skepticism. The JREF and TAM are great resources in that regard.

Also in the day's binder pages was the latest set of Released Test Questions from the California Standards Test in Physics. An updated set with 15 more questions should be appearing soon. Check the "Physics RTQ" link to the right. The 2008 edition had 74 RTQs. The 2009 edition should have 89.

Thanks--as always--to The Northern California and Nevada Section of the American Association of Physics Teachers and The Karl Leslie Brown Memorial Scholarship Fund for making PTSOS possible. And thanks to our participants for making PTSOS awesome!

Caturday feline physics

funny pictures of cats with captions
more animals

Troubling trend in teacher training

Skeptical Teacher Matt sounds a warning about the upcoming population of prospective teachers. There's a disturbing imbalance emerging.
...the problem is a double whammy - not only are there too many people going into teaching the humanities, but there is a lack of qualified teachers for core scientific & technical subjects such as math, physics, and chemistry!
Make no mistake. English is the single most important subject taught in high school. Math comes in second place. Physics is down the list a bit. Nonetheless, I agree with Matt in the concerns that surround this impending oversupply/undersupply. The United States stands to lose its leadership role in science and technology. Meanwhile the US is a uniquely hospitable environment nurturing the growth of antiscience in all its forms: from creationism to homeopathy to all manner of psychic woo woo.

So who should we concede our leadership role to? China? India? In reality we won't need to choose. The lead will simply be taken from us. The silver lining? We'll be able to read and write about it, and chronicle and analyze the transition.