Friday, February 25, 2011

SciVals, Take Physics, and Std posters EZ-links added

You'd think that having a week off might result in post after post of pithy pedagogical prose. But you would wrong.

The worst of it is that while my calendar insists it's already Friday, the number of items scratched off my to-do list would argue it's more like Tuesday.

Anyhow, I've added links to the "Sites, Pics, and Docs" sidebar to the right. The added links are for the Scientist Valentines, TAKE PHYSICS flyers, and the California 9-12 Physics Standards. I'd hyperlink the text in this post, but that would defeat adding the links in the sidebar.

I also gathered the links to my own content and moved them to the top because, hey, this is a blog: it's supposed to be about me!

Saturday, February 19, 2011

A "Race to Nowhere" student perspective

The latest edition of The Rio Mirada included a "man on the street" photo/quote piece based on the recent school showings of Race to Nowhere.

Those outside of K-12 education may not have heard of Race to Nowhere. My sense is that its release more or less coincided with Waiting for Superman. And in the marketplace of mainstream cinema, there's only room for one provocative K-12-based documentary at a time. Waiting for Superman is a big-budget, slickly-produced indictment of America's public school system. Race to Nowhere is much more modest in scope and production values. (While Superman enjoyed wide release and a John Legend soundtrack, Nowhere had a one-week theatrical run on two screens and a Weepies* soundtrack.)

Nowhere's real play has come from viewing "parties" organized in school communities. Its real market is America's "Kindergarten-to-Harvard" school communities. The film documents the pressures that mount on high-expectation students.

It turns out that some students who hope to gain admission to America's most exclusive ("elite") colleges and universities find themselves in over their heads with curricular and extra-curricular activities.

The consequences are shown: some students cheat, some drop out, some abuse prescription drugs, many are unhappy and unfulfilled. The film calls for a general "dialing it down a notch."

There are specific recommendations for students, parents, teachers, and administrators.

Although the Mirada piece polled students, it did not ask them if they were taking any of Nowhere's advice for students. Are they speaking to adults about how they feel? Are the getting plenty of sleep? Unplugging and slowing down? Limiting their extra-currilular activities? Seeking colleges that use a comprehensive [rather than objective] approach to looking at applicants? The Mirada asked none of these questions.

The one thing The Mirada did want to know was whether or not the students noticed an immediate reduction in homework assigned by teachers. I'll let readers speculate on what the resounding consensus was.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not trying to be any kind of Thaddeus Bristol here. And if I were a student who had seen Nowhere, that's what I would hope for, too: less homework and more play time.

A few years ago, The Mirada ran an article questioning the whole concept of Advanced Placement. The author wondered why anyone would subject themselves to an academically rigorous class—senior year—that culminated in paying money to take a test! The concept appeared flawed on at least three levels.

Rio's demographics have changed. And the school district has expressed an interest in removing barriers (such as preparedness tests or prerequisites) to Advanced Placement courses.

Taken together, we're hoping that more students (who don't want to take AP courses) will take AP courses, regardless of their preparation or aptitude. Once enrolled, students should not be assigned much homework and should be assessed without so many tests.

Am I a hopeless curmudgeon for not seeing how this plays out successfully? Check the comments for my perspective.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

55,296 and counting

As of 12:00 midnight, the Scientist Valentines had collected a cumulated total of 55,296 views in fewer than 10 days.

The Bohr, Celsius, and Curie cards got over 3000 views each. Most cards were somewhere in the 2000-range.

Seems they were pretty well received!

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Do not disturb: Teaching and learning in progress

A teacher at my school co-opted one of those ubiquitous door signs that any high school teacher will recognize. The unadulterated sign is to be placed on the door of any classroom being used for No Child Left Behind-era, state-mandated testing. This particular design was used for the recently administered California High School Exit Exam.

It cracked me up, but it also reminded me of some issues worthy of consideration. Opinions may vary; these are mine.

The presence of the sign during mandated state testing alerts potential classroom "intruders" (students delivering notes and summonses from school offices) that something special is going on behind the door. So special it is not to be interrupted.

That distinguishes it from the human warehousing that must be the usual activity behind that door. It presumes a level of pointlessness of typical classroom activity, a level that welcomes interruptions as breaks to the monotony.

Another colleague is reluctantly resigned to regard regular classroom as holding students in accessible spaces until someone of importance needs them. Nothing could ever be going on in a classroom that's so important a student would suffer from being pulled out of it.

What does the teacher in the classroom behind that sign think of the importance of state testing vs. classroom instruction? I think the sign modifications speak plainly.

What audacity to imagine teaching and learning are so important to merit uninterrupted time. Teaching and learning on the same level of priority as Testing? Sheer madness!

Color illusion

Saw it. Liked it. Enough to post it.

(I recommend downloading before showing in class so as to avoid pop-up ad distraction. You definitely want to go full-screen.)

Having posted it, I now run the risk of being deluged with the comment, "I've seen that one a million times." If that statement captures your sentiment, felicitations! And you've been spared from the chore of commenting.

Due to some flaw in my character, I hadn't seen it before and was so struck that I was compelled to share. I tried recreating it with a photo of my own and it worked, but not as well.

I'm conversant in chromatic retinal fatigue, but there's a wee bit more going on here.

The classic chromatic retinal fatigue illusion is to stare at a color negative of a US flag, for example, then at a white surface. You see a ghostly Old Glory in its standard glory.

But look at the color negative here. Seems to be just orange and blue. The orange becomes the blue sky. But the blue? Curious.

Follow this link to see some illusions you've seen a billion times!

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

New Scientist Valentines added

Max Planck: "Energy may be quantized, but my love for you is continuous."
Nicolaus Copernicus: "My whole world revolves around you."
Michael Faraday: "Your lines of force are highly attractive."
Aristotle: "My natural place is to be with you."

Jane Goodall: "Kiss me, you fool!" (a must-see)
Lise Meitner: "I've been fission for a Valentine like you"

Rosalind Franklin: "There's no DNA-ing my love for you"
Grace Hopper: "According to my computations, you should be mine!"
Johannes Kepler: "You bring harmony to my worlds"

I was holding off on Einstein. So many ways you can go. I made my choice. And I just want to say that I didn't go into physics because I was good at poetry.

UPDATE 4: Maria Goeppert-Mayer makes 24. Whew!

Scientist Valentines

This snow day swan dive is not normal

Teenagers do the darndest things...

PTSOSer, John Sphar shared this gem with the group.

Dan Burns asks his students why the board supports the diver until he jumps.

Monday, February 07, 2011

I blew my top today

Floating some pie tins off my head with the help of our Van de Graaff generator. Notice how the tins repel one another and are repelled by my body. One second is turned to four by shooting at 120 frames per second.

And yes, I feel each departure with a slight zap to my scalp.

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Scientist Valentines

Ironic Sans posted this idea years ago. Scientist valentines. Go look; I'll wait.

The idea is genius, and my mind spun with ideas for more. (The creativity is more of a curse than a blessing, I say with as much false modesty as I can muster. Still though, important errands and tasks languished while I set these ideas to electronic realities.)

I've posted a baker's dozen, and hope to add more. I don't have David Friedman's artistic skills, so mine simply exploit images found via Google Image Search. I did try to find portraits made when the scientist was in his prime, rather than the more more prevalent "venerable sage" renderings. After that, I fiddled and fussed over each valentine in my favorite obsolete graphics program, Canvas. The heart surrounded by a planetary-model atom graphic seemed like a good idea. Then I exported them as JPEGs, imported them in Aperture, added captions, and published the set as a collection on Flickr.

Featured scientists (so far) are Bohr, Celsius, Curie, Darwin, Galileo, Heisenberg, Kelvin, Newton, Ohm, Pauli, Sagan, Tesla, and Volta. For the physics-ly uninitiated, I included a brief explanation of each valentine. There's nothing that helps a joke kill so much as taking the time to explain why it's funny.

As a mark of highest flattery, I used a few specific scientist/slogan combos from the original Ironic Sans post. But I added a bunch of my own. I still have a few in the hopper, and there are countless more to be had, conjured by minds cleverer than my own.

Feel free to print and distribute them to appropriately deserving geeks. And I encourage you to develop the similar ideas that spring to your mind. Or leave your ideas in the comments so others might develop them.

There's still plenty of low-lying fruit here. Aristotle: "My natural place is by your side." Copernicus: "My world revolves around you!" Heinrich Hertz: "You and I are on the same wavelength." Charles Coulomb: "I get a charge out of you." William Gilbert: "You've got a magnetic personality."

Rio Phyz student opinion of teacher survey

I have administered a student opinion of teacher survey at the end of first semester nearly each year I've taught. Initially the survey was an item-by-item duplicate of the survey used at Ann Arbor Huron High when I did my student teaching there. I modified it a few years ago.

The current form can be found here. Students are told of the form at the beginning of the final exam period and asked to complete the survey after turning the final in. They are also told that I will not look at them until final grades have been submitted.

The first half of the survey consists of 24 statements that invite students to offer a rating on a 5-point scale. The second half of the survey consists of open-ended prompts that invite students to write out short responses.

Here's how I did on the first half among Physics 1 students. (Click to embiggen.)

Of course, it's more fun to look at a graphical representation (or two).

Here's a period by period comparison among the Physics 1 classes. There is no question 25; column 26 shows the average for each period. (Click to embiggen.)

Here's a comparison between the opinion in Physics 1 and AP Physics. (Click to embiggen.)

Here's a run-down of my Top-5 and Bottom-5 scores. (Click to embiggen.)

One's instinct is to defend against the perceived attacks represented by the low-scoring statements. But I can't be too unhappy overall. My lowest-averaging item comes in well above the midpoint grade of 2.0.

I would ask that gentle readers resist any temptation to judge too harshly, especially if they are teachers who have never administered such a survey. I would encourage colleagues to run such a survey in their own classes. The results may be better than you expect; perhaps better than you would grade yourself. I do recommend running it only at the end of first semester.

All tolled, I tend to hover somewhere around 3.27 (B+). This year's score was higher, so I'll enjoy a smile for a while behind that.

Rio Phyz first semester student performance

This is how my students did in Physics 1 and AP Physics 2 in the first semester of the 2010-11 academic year.

Physics 1 (N = 123): there was a 68% "Advanced and Proficient" (A and B) rate. I always hope for 75% A's and B's. Sixty-eight percent isn't bad. By my own recollection, it's the best my Physics 1 students have done in recent years. There was also a 14% D-F rate. I've never been able to drive that down to zero, though I have had years when there were no F's at all.

AP Physics 2 (N = 21): there was a 67% A-B rate and a 14% D-F rate. In fairness, that was really a 14% D rate, since thee were no F's. The A-B and D-F rates of AP Physics 2 and Physics 1 don't usually track so closely. The material in AP is significantly more challenging, but the students tend to be the school's top math/science students.

I don't have much deep analysis to make here; this is simply a snapshot of "Rio physics that was."

Saturday, February 05, 2011

The Two-Plate Special

I wrote another activity for PhET's new Capacitor Lab sim. The first activity I wrote, 'Lectronic Plates, focused on the nature of the uniform electric field between two oppositely charged parallel plates. (The title was a mashup between tectonic plates and Lectric Shave. I might drop that opening apostrophe in future revisions.)

The new activity, The Two-Plate Special, is substantially more sweeping in its scope. It replaces a lengthy Springboard on capacitors that I thought was pretty comprehensive and well-designed when I wrote it.

The new activity was written in two parts. The first focuses capacitance: its meaning and how it varies with the configuration of the parallel plates.

The second part focuses on the energy-storing abilities of capacitors. Students are also asked to confront some apparent paradoxes that can be played out in the sim.

And that's one element of the fun you have authoring a PhET activity: messing around with the variables and finding puzzles. (And solving them, too!)

In this case, it was seeing how the behavior of the capacitor seemed to change depending on whether it was connected to a voltage source (battery) or the plates were isolated and the plate charge were manipulated.

Having read the activity guidelines written by the good people of PhET, I fear I might run afoul of their intentions. My activities may well provide too much guidance and not enough open-ended exploration.

My defenses include my status as a classroom teacher whose students don't enter the room brimming with curiosity for the topic of the day's lesson. I have great students; don't get me wrong. But they're teenagers, and thus have many distractions vying for their attention. I also work under the stricture of a school-year with a finite number of days. There is also my youthful inexperience: someday I might write activities that conform to PhET's hopes. When I am older and wiser. Time will tell.

The complete list of my PhET activities can be found on my PhET page.