Monday, December 24, 2007

Gas station ghost!

When will the madness stop? When there are no more people, I suppose.

The source? Always a local TV news program with minutes to fill. Always. Never CNN, never PBS, never even national nightly news. Always a local TV news show.

The tone? Always credulous. Virtually no skeptical sentiment to be found in these pieces. Ever. Providing the skeptical viewpoint would only point out the silliness of the piece and expose it for the timefiller that it is. Hence, the tone is always to promote the paranormal "explanation." (Of course, paranormal explanation--like jumbo shrimp or creation science--is an oxymoron.)

And paranormal explanations? Watch the video and try to keep a straight face through the patrons' "theories." The reporter loses points in my book for not hanging around long enough to find someone willing to proclaim that it was a visage of the Virgin Mary. I'm sure it wouldn't have taken more than ten minutes. Clearly she was up against an unyielding deadline.

The real cause of the image? Better to let you find that out on your own. But trust me, you can do that from where you are right now.

Trust teachers to select their own textbooks 6

[See post 1 for context.]

Some people have concerns about teachers choosing their own textbooks. They worry, for example, that teachers will just use the new edition of the same book they adopted last time. Maybe they will, maybe they won’t. Let’s suppose they do. What are the negative consequences? They have adopted a state-approved physics textbook. One they are familiar with. One who’s nuances they know. One they have worked with before. Is this really so bad?

The assumption among people who worry that teachers will adopt the same text is that those teachers will “stagnate.” They presume that a new and unfamiliar textbook would energize an otherwise unmotivated instructor. They must also be concerned that a motivated teacher would slump into lethargy if allowed to use the same text from one adoption cycle to another. I disagree. An unmotivated teacher will not gain motivation by having a different text foisted upon him or her. And an enthusiastic teacher will not lose that enthusiasm as a consequence of using a familiar textbook.

Suppose someone arbitrarily took your computer (or day-planner, PDA, cell phone, etc.) from you and replaced it with a newer model. You had been using a PC, so it was replaced by a Macintosh. (If you had been a Mac user, you will now be a PC user.) Your files are gone—you’ll have to reconstruct them. But this will keep you from stagnating in your daily management techniques. You had obviously lost your enthusiasm, and this will spark your time-management creativity. Who among us would enjoy living out such a scenario? Who thinks the benefits would outweigh the impediments?

Physics teachers can be quite vigorous and creative when it comes to building and maintaining their programs of instruction. Suppose a teacher were saddled with a book not of his or her choosing. That teacher would likely see to it that the previously used book remained the book used in class. Few expenditures are as worthless as new books that do not get used. The threat of jackbooted old-book removal squads forceably impounding previous editions does little to foster an atmosphere of school-district cooperation.

Again, let us do our jobs (teaching physics) as best we know how. That includes the privilege of selecting the textbooks used in our classes. We will choose State-Approved texts, and we will address the content standards. But each of us will do it in his or her own way.

Trust teachers to select their own textbooks 5

[See post 1 for context.]

Argument for top-down, one-size-fits-all textbook adoption:
It would ensure that all district students completing High School Physics would have a similar experience.

This would indeed be the case, assuming each school also had the same equipment and facilities, the students were of homogenous ability and motivation, and they all had the same teacher. Short of this, district students will have different experiences. They will all be taught the content standards. But they will be taught in widely varying methods honed by their individual teachers.

Teachers—who will be using the textbooks day in and day out in their classes for the next seven years—are best suited to select the textbook for their students.

Classroom teachers know better than anyone else which book is the best match to their students and program.

The district has a role in directing teachers what to teach. I can’t imagine the district would want to direct teachers how to teach. It would be untenable for the district to micromanage the delivery of instruction: which demonstrations to do on which day, the sequencing of topics and lab activities, etc.

The district hired physics teachers to do that. They hired people they trust to do the job correctly and effectively. I would ask that the district trust those individuals—the classroom physics teachers—to select the textbook that best suits their individual needs.

Trust teachers to select their own textbooks 4

[See post 1 of the series for context.]

Argument for top-down, one-size-fits-all textbook adoption:
It would allow the district to negotiate a better deal from the publisher: a volume discount would become available.

To the best of my knowledge, this is a myth. Like any persistent myth, it is intuitive and compelling. But a myth nonetheless.

Short of a presentation of publishers’ price lists showing the volume discounts, let’s dismiss this issue apocryphal. On the odd chance that this is in fact the case, I would nevertheless contend that it is not the best use of the funds available. Any monetary benefit is outweighed by the corresponding pedagogical detriment:

Forcing textbooks on teachers who would not choose them does damage to their instructional program.

Trust teachers to select their own textbooks 3

[See post 1 of the series for context.]

Argument for top-down, one-size-fits-all textbook adoption:
It would allow the district to warehouse surplus copies of the book that teachers could draw upon if the number of sections increased at their school.

To the collective memory of the physics teachers assembled for a recent text adoption meeting, the district has never warehoused textbooks for use by physics teachers in need. And what help will this be if several of us undergo simultaneous increases in enrollment?

Historically, when enrollment has increased, funds have been found to acquire the books needed. (This has not always happened in a timely manner, however.)

Trust teachers to select their own textbooks 2

[See post 1 of the series for context.]

Argumentfor top-down, one-size-fits-all textbook adoption:
It would facilitate a smooth transition for students transferring between schools during the school year.

It would be irresponsible to advance this argument without numbers to support it. How many physics students in the San Juan Unified School District transfer between district high schools each year? Compare this to the number who do not transfer. Is it 1 of 10 physics students who transfer within the distrcit? One of 100, 1 of 1000? What exactly is the ratio?

Does a small service made to a few students balance favorably against a great disservice made to the many? Should thousands of students be subjected to a book their teacher dislikes so that the occasional transfer student has a smoother transition?

And how much smoother will that transition be? At the new school, he or she will face a different teacher with a different set of rules, different expectations, different procedures, and a different grading system. It is highly unlikely that the new teacher will be at the same point in the book as the old teacher was.

A coincidence of textbooks will be similar in value to a coincidence of lab tables: familiar, but so what?

Trust teachers to select their own textbooks 1

[I've been meaning to post my "manifesto" about textbook adoptions. Well, now's the time. I'm mercifully breaking it into digestible (i.e., "skippable") chunks. Here's chunk #1.]

Imagination is more important than knowledge.
Albert Einstein

Some people think it would be best if all teachers throughout the district taught the same program (same lectures, same demonstrations, same laboratory activities, same reading assignments, same homework, and same tests) using the same methodology. For better or worse, such is not the state of physics instruction practiced in the district. Rather, the district is blessed with several individuals who teach programs tailored to their own students, their own strengths, and the equipment and facilities available to them at their own sites. This individualism allows for creativity and imagination.

Some would argue for the adoption of a single textbook for our standard High School Physics course. They contend that a single title adopted throughout the district would be the most efficient use of the district’s textbook funds and it would best serve the needs of our students.

In the posts that follow, I'll go through the reasons given in the past and why each one of them is wrong.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Music of the sphere

Consider the reversal of the earth's magnetic field that has occurred somewhat stocastically throughout history. What would it sound like if you transposed the data of those reversals into sound? Wonder no more: it's been done. You really do need to hear it!

Friday, November 23, 2007

Why top-down text adoptions are wrong #417

OK, the 417 might be an exaggeration, but there are many, many reasons that adopting one physics textbook title for use throughout a multi-school district is wrong.

I've listed the others in a "manifesto," but a new one struck me as I was examining the lab manual CD for Holt's Physics by Serway & Faughn. Many of the lab activities in that resource are Calculator-Based Laboratory (CBL) activities.

I'm not a big fan of CBL. For "tech-labs," I prefer the use of laptop computers. Small gizmos like calculators or single-user sensor monitors isolate students during lab work. One laptop shared by a group acts as a focal point and brings students together.

Still though, many teachers do like the CBLs. And teachers who like CBLs might lean toward adopting the Holt text so as to acquire the CBL-rich lab resource. And they should be allowed to do so.

Other teachers within the same district (like me) might be less keen on the CBLs and might be less interested in the Holt textbook. They might prefer a competing title for a variety of reasons.

Should they be forced to adopt a book they don't like and lab resources they won't use?

Better to let each school site decide which title meets the needs of its own program. That's always the best plan, actually.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

PftM2: "Mr. Physics Teacher, tear down this wall!"

In the old days, you had to pass chemistry and Algebra 2 before signing up for physics. Those prerequisites considerably narrowed the potential population of physics students. And the big secret? It turns out you can teach a perfectly good physics class to students who have not passed chemistry or Algebra 2. For a first-year physics course, there's no reason for either of those prerequisites. Let them go!

Will you end up with some "less-qualified" students in your classes? Yes. But accept the challenge and work your craft. You are fortunate enough to teach physics, so teach physics! (And rejoice!)

I don't encourage Honors Physics. I like a "big tent" in my Physics 1 course. Heterogeniety rules! I strongly recommend heterogeneous lab groups. Email me for details on how to make that happen.

Make it possible for all students to succeed. Not all students will succeed, mind you. You cannot have complete control over that. Without the barricades in place, you'll have students who don't intend to be scientists or engineers. And that's OK. Working your craft as a physics teacher means you'll have to guide those literature, arts, and athletic types to success in your class. They won't all follow, but success has to be accessable.

A wise vice principal once told me, "Not all baby sea turtles make it to the ocean." But let students choose their path in your course. Lay out the options. Make them "doable," and let students decide with their actions. You might worry this will water down the rigor of your course. I can say that I get some really bright students at my school and if even the smartest among them was ever bored in my first-year class or felt unchallenged, they never told me.

What am I suggesting, specifically?

Don't put all the weight of the grade on test and/or exam scores. Allow for the fact that some of the ideas of physics require time to settle in. Let students review tests after the fact. (I use a technique called "Test Correction Journal." Topic for another post some day.) Then give them more questions of "old" material on future tests. In EdSpeak, that's called "spiraling." Whatever it's called, it allows time for material to settle, and engenders the idea that "old" material is still important. As the semester progresses, unit tests look more and more like mini-final exams. And that's OK.

Don't grade homework for correctness. Credit for homework is tricky. Students want it and teachers don't want to give it. My analogy is to ask student athletes about practice. "Before the match on game day," I ask, "how many points do they put on the scoreboard in recognition of the practice you did all week?" There are clever ways to encourage the completion of homework. I use a technique called "The System" which is a general method to encourage good academic behaviors and discourage the bad.

Don't forget to have some fun from time to time. Throw eggs. Do groovy demos. Show Roadrunner cartoons. Laugh. You're teaching the grooviest subject on campus; there's gotta be some fun in there somewhere.

The biggest challenge for any physics teacher is simply to remember how hard the material was the first time. A tall order, especially for those of us who have had significant coursework and years of experience. Doubly challenging if physics came easy to you. (Happily, I was never "cursed" in that way.)

If you've got Algebra 2 and/or chemistry barriers in front of your physics course, you're keeping a lot of good students out of your course. And denying them an excellent high school physics experience. Don't do it!

Momentum lab sequence of happiness

In the canon of introductory physics experiments, the conservation of momentum lab is a classic. High school and college instructors have used a variety of techniques to bring conservation of momentum to students through the years.

I recall using skate-wheel dynamics carts and ticker-tape timers to complete the lab. Dragging paper tails from three-wheel carts had limitations, but it got the job done. By the time this lab was done, students had already learned how to analyze the purple-dotted ticker-tapes.

When I implemented the lab at Rio, I used slick Pasco carts and tracks and photogate timers. Details required attention. Students had to know how to use the photogates, timers, and cart flags to get initial and final speeds of the carts. And the timings had to be done close to the event to keep friction from interfering with the results.

As I recall, my early attempts were to do conservation of momentum as an inquiry activity. I later settled on more of a verification approach. It seemed that no matter what method you used, there were always abundant details of the measurement technology.

That hasn't changed. But now I use motion sensors instead of photogates or ticker-tapes. Nothing needs to be added to the carts. And measurements of speed can be made within a fraction of a second before and after the collision or explosion. Students still need practice and guidance to understand and use the speed measurement technology. But this approach strikes me as the most transparent version I've ever done.

The sequence I've written and implemented also involves the use of a spreadsheet. In one activity, students plug numbers into a spreadsheet that does all the calculations for them. In the the final activity, students must enter their own equations into the cells.

It's a nice sequence on a number of levels. But it does take some time. Six class periods to learn the technology, implement it in inelastic collisions, and implement it in explosions. When lab groups finish one activity, they move on to the next one. Some groups may finish early, but others will need every minute. My early-finishers got to compete for the high score on PhET's Lunar Lander. (One student scored an "out-of-this-world" 150!)

Anyway, here's the sequence.

1. Datastudious. This guides students through the the use of Pasco's DataStudio for the purpose of monitoring motion on the track.

2. Crash and Stick: Inelatic Collisions. How to use the carts to create an inelastic collision. How to use motion sensors and DataStudio to monitor an inelastic collision. And how to enter the data into a spreadsheet that then processes and interprets the results.
Inelastic Collisions Spreadsheet (Coming Soon!)

I know what you're thinking: students should have to program the spreadsheet themselves--this is simply a low-level, "cookbook" lab. Patience... we'll get there. One step at a time.

3. Such Sweet Sorrow: Explosions. Use motion sensors and DataStudio to monitor explosions. This time, you need two motion sensors. And this time, students must program Excel themselves. (See; I told you we'd get there.)

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Physics for the Masses (PftM)

High school physics is changing. In many ways, for the better.

In the old days, physics was a class reserved for the 20 smartest boys at a given high school. A rigorous, trig-based textbook, such as PSSC Physics, was used. All lab activities were quantitative, and the use of higher-level algebra and trigonometry was expected. It mirrored the introductory, non-calculus college physics course.

And very few high school graduates ever took the course. PSSC's focus on rigor was a response to Sputnik. America was being beat by the Soviet Union in the Space Race. But the drive to put us on the moon closed the door on most students. And it's not like physics was a class for the masses in the pre-Sputnik years.

Since the 1960s, things have changed. Paul Hewitt's Conceptual Physics gained wider acceptance with each passing year. Physics enrollments seemed to rise step with the rising adoptions of Hewitt's text.

A nationwide, "grass roots," Physics First movement has been afoot for over twenty years. Where it's taken hold, all high school freshmen take physics before moving on to chemistry and finally biology. But that movement has been effectively banned from California public schools, so we'll set that topic aside for now.

With California's push to enroll all high school freshmen, sophomores, and seniors into standards-based science courses, there is some additional pressure to get students into a physics class.

I'm all for it. I think every college-bound high school student should take physics. I'll add posts from time to time with "PftM" (Physics for the Masses) in the title. They'll include some ideas on how to increase physics enrollment. You probably have better ideas than I do. That's what the comments are for!

Saturday, November 10, 2007

The end of concertgoing

I see a lot of live concerts every year. Hey, everyone's got a hobby; seeing favorite musicians practice their craft is one of mine.

If I ever stop seeing concerts, it won't be because there aren't shows I'd like to see.

It will be because I can no longer take sharing the space with thousands of other people, many of whom don't know how to attend a concert. Going to see a big performance of live music is not rocket science, mind you. But it's far too complex for many to grasp.

More and more people seem to want to pay $100 to sit with someone they know and gab for 2+ hours while music plays around them. Of course the music is so darned loud at these shows that they have to yell at one another to keep the conversation going, They are dumbfounded by the rude people around them who stare and shush.

My first recollection of this being a significant problem was at Lilith Fair. I thought perhaps it was a "girl-thing." It seemed I was surrounded by women who weren't there to see or hear The Indigo Girls, Natalie Merchant, Sarah McLachlan, etc. They were there to sit and chat. Apparently Lilith Fair was the only time/place they could engage in such behavior, so they had to make the most of it.

But the two loud, chatty 20-something men next to me at James Taylor the other night put the lie to that theory. And they weren't the worst offenders in the audience that night.

No, the hands-down winner of the Audience Idiot award was the woman who paid her hundred dollars for the right to tell James Taylor to "Shut up and sing!" Taylor was introducing "Line 'em Up" with his typical wandering back-story. Several seconds into the story, idiot-woman decided she'd had enough. Though she was booed by audience members blessed with more than two neurons to rub together, Taylor stopped the story and launched into the song.

That was probably his only winning option. He later worked the line into his ad-libbed lyrics to "Steamroller Blues" to the delight of the otherwise mortified audience. Nevertheless, I'll go out on a limb and say JT will never burden Sacramento with his wandering stories or a live concert again.

It was also a Sacramento audience at the Genesis show who seemed transfixed by the cacophonous "Mama" (featuring Phil Collins' evil laugh as "lyrics") but headed for the bathrooms and concessions during "Ripples." No accounting for taste in this town! I could be wrong; perhaps "Mama" has an undocumented diuretic effect.

I don't recall the last time I attended a concert of any type anywhere in which the artist was allowed to fill the space with a quiet moment. No, any reduction of decibels from the stage is apparently a universally-understood invitation for screams and shouts from the audience. Everybody knows that! How do I not get that?

I don't see the trend reversing; I don't see concertgoers becoming more civilized in the future. Some people thought that the terrorist attacks of 9/11 had a sobering effect on the population. Casual Fridays were gone and everything was more serious.

The effect on concertgoers? More than three years after 9/11, I was at a big show in Reno. The artist was British pop legend Elton John. There were certainly audience members who brought to mind the Johnny Cash line, "I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die." They were composing flash photos of themselves at the show with the band performing in their background. But the crowning moment came in the audience's call for an encore. For reasons that elude me to this day, a chant of "U-S-A! U-S-A!" rose through the rafters.

Maybe they just need to stop selling booze at these shows.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Tales of textbook adoptions, part 2

This past Thursday, a group of SJUSD physics teachers met at a "re-purposed" former elementary school. The agenda: publisher presentations on textbook programs we expressed an interest in at our previous meeting.

My first textbook adoption happened when I was still wet behind the ears in 1987-88. I've been through two more before this one. This was my first time being pitched by publisher reps at a district-organized meeting.

The first, second, and third adoption cycles involved a few meetings of physics teachers throughout the year, culminating with selections of titles. In 1988 and 1994, each teacher simply identified the title of his or her choice and the books were ordered for distribution in the fall. In 2001 a new directive came down from the district: choose one title for physics and a second title for for AP Physics. The physics teachers balked, fought, argued, and won the case for selecting different titles at different schools.

The top-down, "one size fits all" directive from the district is back again (perhaps stronger than ever), and again the teachers are balking.

But there's another difference between the 1988 adoption and the 2007 adoption. In 1988 I was loaded down with a small library of complimentary copies of many, many titles. Back in those days, there were many publishers. Not any more. In this weeks presentation, we heard from Holt and Prentice Hall. Although Glencoe/McGraw Hill has a title, no one was interested in piloting it. There was notable dissatisfaction with that title throughout the district.

Holt had long published the venerable text, Modern Physics. More recently they retooled with a title authored by veteran authors, Ray Serway and Jerry Faughn. Though it got off to a rough start, holt's Physics is now a sophisticated, multi-faceted, resource-rich textbook. At first glance, I have no reason to think it's anything but a good, solid, high school physics textbook.

I'm obviously a big fan of Paul Hewitt's Conceptual Physics. I have used it since I started teaching. Other programs may have a more impressive fleet of ancillaries, but Hewitt's text will always have something they cannot match:

A student who doesn't know physics can read Conceptual Physics and learn physics from it.

You might expect that that's the case with any textbook. It is not. I have yet to see a text whose narrative matches Hewitt's in its ability to explain physics to a student who is unfamiliar with the subject. Most authors have long held a command of physics and simply cannot remember what it was like when they didn't "get it." Hewitt followed an unconventional path to his position as physics instructor and textbook author. And it shows. He seems to remember not getting it and thus speaks effectively to students who are learning the material for the first time.

Nevertheless, Prentice Hall has worked to make sure the armada of Conceptual Physics ancillaries can do battle with those offered by the competition.

At the end of the meeting, we signed up for piloting duties. Several signed on to pilot Holt Physics, several signed on to pilot Conceptual Physics. We also went in several directions for an AP text. I'm hoping to see the latest Serway & Faughn College Physics (7e); others like Douglas Giancoli's Physics Principles with Applications (6e).

It would appear that at worst, we would want two titles for physics and two for AP. It remains to be seen if the district will let us have our way or force us to fight amongst ourselves over which single title for physics and which single title for AP should be adopted district wide.

Which color laser multifunction printer?

Consumer color laser printing was a mature technology when I bought an HP 2500 in 2003. The printer itself was (as I recall) about $500. I paid extra to get an actual paper tray. And when the toner cartridges ran out, replacing them nearly matched the original cost of the printer.

The $175 imaging drum recently expired, and the $400 worth of toner was down to half capacity. To keep the HP going was going to take about $600 to keep going another couple of years. So I started looking for a replacement. I do like color laser printing. And now there are multifunction machines that will print, fax, copy and scan--built around color laser printers. My interest was piqued!

Since I had let four years pass since the 2500 came out, I was ready to be wowwed by the newer, better, and less expensive models that would surely be out there. For a nice multifunction, I'd be willing to part with up to $800.

Strolling through the local big-box office supply stores, I came upon fewer choices than I anticipated. No shortage of multifunctions, but most are built around inkjet printers. A few are built around monochrome laser printers. Just a handful are built around color lasers.

Canon? I own a top-shelf Canon photo inkjet, a Canon digicam, and a Canon digital SLR. I like Canon. They have an ImageClass color laser multifunction. But they decided not to make it Mac-compatible. I might understand that in 1987, but not in 2007.

Hewlett Packard? As mentioned, I have an HP color laser and do like the print quality. When "testing" the copying quality of the multifunctions at Office Depot, the HP 2840 outperformed the competition. Further research at C-net and Amazon revealed some downsides. Most reviewers seemed to hate the machine. The accompanying software was singled out for particular dislike. And the 2840 was born in 2005. HP has let this model wither in a continuing barrage of negative user reviews for two years.

Brother? The MFC-9440CN gets a lot of love in the online pro and user reviews. It came out just this past summer. The prints seem a bit waxy compared to the HP, but the quality is good. It's Mac-compatible. I was close to a purchase when I looked for the straight-through printing option.

Heavy card stock doesn't bend, so printers that guide paper through a circuitous printing path usually have a straight-through option. You feed the card stock in through a front flip-out tray and it emerges to a flip-out tray in the back.

The Brother has no such option. It can print paper no heavier than 43#. For a $700 printer, that was a deal-killer.

So for now, I'm ponying up for the imaging drum on the HP 2500. I'll be good for 1500 more pages on the toner set. By the time they run out, there may be a product out there I can get excited about. If not, I suppose I'll look for a deal on toner for the HP. That will buy me even more time.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Thursday, October 25, 2007

The Rio Phyz 08 photo album begins

The first Rio Phyz photos of the years have been posted. More to come...

Rio Phyz 2008 Photos

The Rio Phyz Photo archive is starting to show signs of depth.


Wednesday, October 24, 2007

We Are The Champions... Again!

We dropped a pop fly and let a ground ball go between our legs. We whiffed on a slider. And we caught a break from the ref on a call that could have gone either way. It went down to the wire with the two best teams knotted at 26. The tie-breaker did come into play. But in the end, "Teachers Do It With Class" (Kelly, Christy, Billy, Gary, James, and I) prevailed at TriviaBowl VII!

Monday, October 22, 2007

TriviaBowl VII

Our Rio Americano teacher group has been to Sacramento Brewing Company's TriviaBowls II, III, IV, V, and VI. And we're back for TriviaBowl VII, scheduled for Tuesday, October 23.

We've placed first in the quarterly point totals on our way to qualify for TriviaBowls V, VI, and VII. (Quarterly winning teams get a shiny Benjamin for their success.) Doing this requires we compete well every week. We rarely take first place in the weeklies, but we usually do place in the top three. Our team personnel drifts and shifts from time to time. And none of us study. Not even the topics that come up frequently!

Oh the damage we could do if only we applied ourselves!

(We won TriviaBowl V and came in second in TriviaBowl VI. I hope that doesn't preordain a third-place finish in TriviaBowl VII.)

Tales of textbook adoptions, part 1

The San Juan Unified School District here in suburban Sacramento is home to nine (yes nine) comprehensive high schools. This year we are piloting physics textbooks for adoption next year. Our last textbook adoption was for the 2001-2002 school year.*

Last time we adopted, I organized the physics teachers in a crusade of sorts. The district's goal was to have us adopt a single title for regular and honors physics, and one more title for AP. I wrote a thorough (some would call it lengthy) "manifesto" refuting every argument in favor of the district's "one-size-fits-all" directive. In the end, each school got the titles of its choosing. Pedagogical common sense prevailed over top down nonsense.

During the intervening years, my colleagues in biology and chemistry reported that they were forced into common, district-wide adoptions. I was disheartened, but could not gauge the voracity with which my fellow teachers rallied against the district instinct to micromanage. (Remember: if everyone does the same thing, there's only one thing to manage. Administrative nirvana.)

I kept my manifesto through the years. When the first physics adoption meeting was called together this year, I distributed copies to my physics-teaching colleagues. Most seem to support the principle of school site autonomy. We might have taken the district coordinator by surprise. We'll see if she is willing to support our position as the process moves forward.

So far, we're keen to pilot Conceptual Physics 4e (2009) and Holt Physics for regular physics and honors, and Giancoli and Serway & Faughn for AP. Those who had adopted Merrill's Physics: Problems and Principles (Zitzewitz) had less-than-complimentary reviews of it.

To be continued...

*Personal note: I had the good fortune of meeting Conceptual Physics author Paul Hewitt in 2000. He asked me to help him with the problem-solving appendix of the then-forthcoming revision of the third edition of Conceptual Physics for High School. As a result, I was listed as a contributor. Hewitt was kind enough to include me in the dedication as well. So for the past several years, my students have had the odd surprise of finding their teacher's name in the front matter of their textbook. I resisted the temptation of directing them to the dedication or contributor list, preferring that they find it (or not) on their own. When the district science coordinator (who has since moved on) saw the reference back in 2001, she asked me what kind of laser-printing trickery I employed to get my name in the book. In the grand scheme of Conceptual Physics, I play a small role. Still though, no man is a prophet in his own land!

Sunday, October 21, 2007

A new orbital mechanics lab

Yes, we're making up for an extended absence here at The Blog of Phyz. Today's third post is a link to a newly developed lab involving circular motion and gravity.

I always hoped to do a lab during our Uniform Circular Motion and Gravity unit. But gravity labs are hard to orchestrate. Tough to create and unleash stars and planets in the classroom.

That's where simulators come to the rescue.

The good people at The University of Colorado's Physics Educational Technology (PhET) group create and distribute a library of high-quality, interactive physics simulators. You should get all the PhET Sims for yourself. They're free!

I wrote an activity for the "My Solar System" simulator.

Check out Worlds of Wonder.

New circular motion demonstrations

If you fortunate enough to amass a well-stocked physics lab, you sometimes stumble across a nice apparatus synergy. The other day, I thought to set a Pasco Visual Accelerometer atop a rotational platform. Lo and behold, it worked as expected, with the accelerometer assuring us that the acceleration was directed toward the center. I milked it further to have two accelerometers show that the acceleration was greater farther from the center. The cherry on top was spinning my skinny fish tank half-filled with colored water for the classic parabolic waterline.

I'm often compelled to write demos up so I'll remember to do them next year. And I sometimes draw from my music collection when in need of a demo title.

So check out Will It Go 'Round in Circles? A demonstration of centripetal acceleration.

For those who enjoy "number puzzles" (traditional physics problem-solving problems), I've got you covered, too. Here's the sequel I'll use in my AP Physics B class. You'll need a Newton's Cradle for this gem.

Check out Will It Go 'Round In Advanced Circles?


NCNAAPT Fall Meeting cancelled!

The meeting planned for November 2-3 up at South Tahoe High School has been cancelled. The venue is undergoing some unanticipated remodelling and an alternate site could not be located in time for plans to work out.

Intrepids souls who need their physics pedagogy fix can journey south and are welcome to "crash" the SCAAPT's Fall shindig.

Northern folk will reconvene in the spring at Heritage High School in Brentwood.

Stay informed at the NCNAAPT website.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Magnetic battery connectors are back!

I really like simple circuit labs that explore the basic concepts of what electric circuits do. I know a lot of teachers want students to get into groovy, sophisticated circuits, but I prefer to spend time on the basics. And I have yet to encounter many students who find my elementary labs to be without challenge. Electric circuits are non-intuitive; students don't know what it's like to be an electron compelled to move through a circuit. So I'm a strong advocate of keeping it simple.

There are many things I do to that end. One is to engage my students in a number of "batteries and bulbs" activities. I like C- and D-cells, miniature screw-base bulbs and sockets, and connecting wires with alligator clips. And I like magnetic battery connectors. These gems hold batteries in series or in parallel. And they're easy to connect and disconnect.

I bought a set years ago from a now-defunct catalog. You had to buy them in packs of ten for about $55. Not cheap. But so useful in the lab their cost was easy to justify.

We use them in Physics 1 for PhyzLabs Batteries and Bulbs, An Open and Short Case, and Electric Magnetism. In AP Physics 2, we use them in our RC circuit labs.

It bothered me that such a useful item was no longer available, so I always nagged scientific supply company reps at AAPT meetings.

Arbor Scientific's Peter Rea saw the value in the item. He asked me to send him one and he'd send me ten in return. It took a while, so he sent me twelve when he made the product available. Arbor calls them Magnetic Terminals and sells them for $1.25 each. I recommend four for each lab group.

Once you use them in your hands-on labs involving otherwise "loose" batteries, you won't want to be without them.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

The old kilogram just ain't what she used to be

The standard kilogram near Paris is losing mass. Either that or the best copies are gaining mass.

Thanks to Darren for the link.

Attention Keynote-using physics teachers!

I've made my Keynote presentations available via my iDisk's Public folder. Here's how to access them:

1. From the Finder's Go menu, select iDisk > Other User's Public iDisk.

2. When prompted, type in my Member Name: phyzman.

If all goes well, my folder will show up on your desktop. Within, you'll find folders corresponding to the various units I teach. The Keynote files are in those folders.

These are essentially the same presentations that are available via my website, but in Keynote format. you'll need iWork 06 or better to run and/or edit them.

A number of teachers asked for access to these files, and it seemed the iDisk Public folder was the best way to make them available. Note that these files can only (as far as I know) be accessed from a Mac. Which is OK, because Keynote is a Mac-only application.

Let me know if you encounter any technical glitches and I will endeavor to rectify.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

It happened

It was really just a matter of time. It happens to a lot of teachers. I'm not the first and I won't be the last. But at Back-to-School Night this past week, I got official word.

I am now teaching the child of one of my former students. I am officially an old campus fixture at Rio Americano.

One of our chemistry teachers and one of our social studies teachers were students of mine. Those are no big deal. A matter of a few years is all that kind of thing takes.

But teaching the child of a former student takes some time to develop. Roughly twenty years, give or take a few. So as I begin my twenty-second year at Rio, I suppose I was--if anything--overdue.

Oh well, getting old is the best thing that can happen to you. Which reminds me I have a birthday coming up in less than a month. D-oh!

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Bringing new computers to life

It may be that the implementation and maintenance of classroom computers is a major production for every teacher fortunate enough to have them. If so, it's a thin gossamer thread by which educational technology hangs. Students in my classes have access to classroom computers only because

1. I see significant value in what computers can do for students in my classroom.
2. I was able to prepare a successful proposal for a portion of my school's Digital High School grant, and there was DHS grant money to spend toward the purchase of computers, software, and sensors.
3. I was willing to donate the time, talent, and energy required to transform the computers and software from boxes and discs to computers that students could use to sample and analyze data from sensors, prepare and print spreadsheets, etc. as well as to assemble the charging cart for the computers. All of these activities happened "off the clock."
4. There was support from my district for a wireless computing pilot program back when Apple introduced Airport.
5. My students handle and use computers appropriately in my classroom.

Take away any one of those factors and we're back to a 1970s-style classroom. Or in my case, a 1990s-style classroom. Though I used classroom computers in my high school physics class at Grand Rapids Creston High School in 1981, it wasn't until 2001 that students were able to use computers in my classroom, less than 100 miles from Silicon Valley. And it wasn't me keeping computers out of my classroom!

As the years since 2001 came and went, the classroom computers settled into their role in instruction. We used them where they added value. We didn't use them everywhere simply to use them. But neither did they gather dust. A few years ago, the batteries began failing to hold a significant charge, and the replacements were a nontrivial expense (10 x $100). But the school came through and we thus extended the useful life of the machines.

By 2006, the usefulness of computers built in 2000 had diminished critically. These computers were built to run Apple's OS 9, an operating system Steve Jobs conducted a funeral for in 2002. Though they might have been able to boot in OS X, their CPUs, busses, and memories were not built for it, and they would have struggled in performance and battery life.

So I prepared a proposal for their replacement with their contemporary equivalents, and the school was able to fund the proposal. But the process of preparing these machines for student use--simply to maintain the functionality we had in 2001--was again nontrivial.

The Airport pilot has been abandoned in favor of a new wireless protocol. But the corresponding hardware has yet to be installed at the school. Though it was originally slated for installation over the summer, it is now planned but not scheduled. Fortunately, a network-savvy parent was able to get a new Airport Extreme to pipe the internets to my new laptops. The fiddling and fussing he went through to make it happen was nontrivial, but he succeeded where I had failed in my own laborious attempts.

But other matters had to be attended to. The sensor software had to be loaded and registered to each computer. Each installation required a seven-digit serial number and two 25-digit alpha-numeric security keys. Configuration files I developed for specific labs had to be transferred from the old computers, titles modified for use by OS X, and correctly placed in the correct subfolder of the application support section of each computer's root directory library. Student accounts had to be configured so that commonly-used applications would be easy to find (on the dock) and storage folders for student work were in place before students needed to use them. On each computer. And each computer needed to be configured to print to our networked printer.

I also installed a set of physics simulations on the new computers that simply would not have run on the old ones. On each computer.

Sadly, there are simulations on the old computers that simply won't run on the new ones. They're going to be hard to give up.

So far I've spent many weekend and evening hours to get the new computers student-ready. Their maiden voyages happened this week and so far, so good.

But I imagine places where all the ducks don't line up in a row. Do they simply go without? Are there schools with better support for classroom computers, or is it all a patchwork of individual teacher projects?

Seems awfully late (2007) for things to be this fragile.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

What a week for Appalachian State

Sometimes when you're under pressure, ranked in the top five in a national competition, you melt in the heat of the spotlight. Even when asked to perform a simple task. No one knows that better than Lauren Caitlin Upton, Miss Teen South Carolina. Her on-stage, on-screen, impromptu response to a question in the Miss Teen USA competition has gone viral on YouTube.

She has since had ample opportunity to explain herself to the media throngs eager to give her the chance. She seems nice enough. And drawing a blank could happen to anyone. Then again, she did put herself in that situation. Among the outlets that gave her a second chance was NBC's Today Show.

It was on that clip that I learned she was on her way to college. At Appalachian State. The same school that went to the Big House in Ann Arbor and pulled off the biggest upset in NCAA football history. The Wolverines were ranked fifth in the nation. And they were asked to complete the seemingly simple task of defeating a Division I-AA school from North Carolina in a tune-up match.

What a week for Appalachian State.

The only thing that eased the pain for Michigan fans was the stinger that the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets sunk deep into the flesh of Notre Dame's Fighting Irish.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Best. Commercial. Ever.

And it never aired on TV, as far as I know. It's the best Rube Goldberg machine I've even seen, though better ones may be out there. (Pyromaniacs will certainly prefer this one.)

According to the lore (not all of it verified), the 2-minute sequence cost over $6E+6, was months in the making, required the dismantling of two of the six hand-built Honda Accords, and the first 605 takes didn't "just work." But enough of my jibber-jabber. Watch the Honda Cog ad.

"Simple," you say. The battle scenes from Lord of the Rings made better use of CGI. No doubt. The punch line is that there was no CGI or trick photography used in thise sequence. It all happened pretty much as you see it. has a pretty thorough page detailing the backstory. London's Daily Telegraph has an in-depth story. There's even a The Making of Honda Cog video companion to the ad.

At two minutes, it's too expensive to run on TV. Honda seems to have hoped for viral distribution. I'm happy to join the party (if a wee bit late). Any big corporation that wants my services as a shameless shill can have them free of charge if they produce an ad as good as this one. Maybe something with magnets.

I've added it to my Web Video page, but I do not--as yet--have a corresponding lesson presentation or worksheet for it.

Thanks to NCNAAPT Webmaster, Tim Erickson, for turning me on to this groovy vid. It's over four years old, but I would have missed it completely without Tim's link on the NCNAAPT page.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Book of Phyz Online 2007 updates

The Book of Phyz is my collection of high school physics curriculum materials. The organization follows the two-year sequence I use at Rio Americano. The first-year course covers the California Science Standards for 9-12 Physics. The second-year course covers the additional material at the additional depth for the Advanced Placement Physics B Exam. Enthusiastic physics students at Rio can get four semesters of instruction!

I have endeavored in recent years to polish up the online materials for Physics 1. I'm now giving some attention to the AP Physics 2 materials (as promised).

The third semester (AP Physics 2, first semester) has been scrubbed down and uploaded. The student documents are up; I'm in the process of posting the presentations. (I'd call them "PowerPoints," but I use Apple's Keynote. I post them as Interactive QuickTimes so everyone can use them.)

For what it's worth, all the student docs have been updated. The presos should be posted soon. Most of the fourth semester should be up soon, too. The end of the fourth semester is still a bit dicey. I hope all you AP teachers out there can sympathize with the fact that my attention gets diverted in April and May. Working on the Book of Phyz at that point simply isn't a priority.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Spring 2007 CST results posted today

Follow the link to the STAR reporting site.

Click the link to access the STAR 2007 Test Results. But don't imagine that this link will take you to the STAR 2007 Test Results just yet.

Then click the link atop the gray area on the left-hand column marked "Test Results." You're getting warmer.

Now you should be on a page with a multi-pop-up menu area at the top. No really; you're almost there. Stick with me. Stay the course!

Enter your particulars. The results you want are for the CST, your county, your district, your school. You must know these to access your results.

Leave the other options alone and procede to click "View Results."

Scroll down. Farther. Keep going. All the way down to the bottom. And you're there: Physics!

Happy hunting!

Monday, August 13, 2007

CST Schoolhouse Rock

The California Department of Education's (CDE) contract for the development and scoring of the California Standards Tests (CST) is a multimillion dollar agreement. But all the money seems to go toward developing and scoring the tests themselves. It seems a shame they couldn't carve out some part of the budget to put together a nice little Schoolhouse Rock-type bit. You know, puffy animation and an infectious jingle. Who can forget such classics as "Conjunction Junction" and "I'm Just a Bill (on Capitol Hill)"?

The latter would be an excellent model for describing the process by which a question (or "item") finds its way onto a live administration ("operational form") of a CST. Since it appears neither the CDE nor its contractor, Educational Testing Service (ETS) are willing/able to take on this challenge, I will. Not with the animation, jingle, or even a rhyme scheme one would expect from a real Schoolhouse Rock vignette. Just plain old prose.

1. ETS distributes California's content standards to its roster of item writers and solicits items that closely match individual standards.

2. Items submitted to ETS undergo content scrutiny and standards alignment at ETS. Item writers are paid for each item that passes ETS' screening process.

3. ETS sorts the questions by content standards, edits the language and prepares art as needed for the items.

4. ETS presents these questions to the CDE. The CDE convenes a special panel for the specific purpose of reviewing these assessment items, The Assessment Review Panel (ARP). The ARP for science includes professional scientists and science educators (primary through university-level).

5. The ARP evaluates each item for content and alignment to standards. Some items are accepted as is, some are rejected out of hand. Others are sent back to ETS for revision. Those items will have to pass through the ARP before they could move forward.

6. Items that pass ETS/CDE/ARP muster are then placed on operational forms as field test items. Field test items are blended in with operational items on the administered tests. They don't count toward student performance scores. But their inclusion allows for the generation of reliable psychometric data. The psychometric data includes the percentage of students who marked the correct answer, the ability of the item to discriminate between higher- and lower- performing students, and how well the item aligns in the Rasch Model of Item Response Theory.

7. ETS evaluates the performance of each item based on the psychometric data it generated in the field test. Items that perform very well are placed in the bank of questions eligible for use on future operational forms.

8. Items that don't perform well are not immediately discarded. They are submitted to a second meeting of the CDE's ARP. With the psychometric statistics in hand, the ARP evaluates the item again. Some items are given approval to go into the bank of potential operational items. Some are rejected in light of the statistics and unforeseen problems with the item. Some are sent back to ETS for revision. Those items will have to pass through the ARP and field testing before they could be used.

Does such an arduous filtration process guarantee that only perfect items are allowed onto operational forms?

Every bit as much as the process for The Bill on Capitol Hill guarantees only perfect laws are passed.

UPDATE: If you prefer to see a process flowchart without my charm and nostalgia, here it is.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

It was twenty years ago today

I moved to Sacramento in 1986. In August of 1987 I went to the Sacramento SPCA to adopt a cat. I grew up with a cat in the house and I was ready to adopt one for myself. I came home with two cats, Felix and Schroedinger. (The best toy you can give a cat is another cat.) They passed away in recent years.

Last week I returned to the SSPCA and adopted Ziggy and Sunshine. They're brother and sister. Though they're shy around people, they have yet to tire of rassling with one another.

Ziggy is dark, dark brown (nearly black) and has a huge, fluffy tail. Sometimes it appears to zigzag. I'd name him Zigzag, but I know everyone (including me) would just call him Ziggy.

Sunshine is very timid. She's unusual in that she's an orange/tabby. Most cats with that coloration are male. She broke one of her kitten canine teeth in her first three months; there was speculation we might find it lodged somewhere in her brother. She's several ounces lighter than her big bro, but none of that matters when they're tumbling across the floor.

They'll be four months old this week, so I'm getting them all caught up with their medical needs. Sunshine is already spayed and Ziggy is neutered, so these two won't add to the feline overpopulation of Sacramento.

Anyway, click on the pic for better, cuter pics.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

AP Physics: a Rio rollercoaster

Rio Americano's 2007 AP results are in and 22 of our 24 Physics B examinees passed! Seven of them with flying colors. Some aspect of congenital OCD (from my Hoogerhyde ancestry) forces me to continue my longitudinal study of Rio's AP scores. Among the several exams I've kept track of over the years, Physic B creates the most stochastic pattern (!). Many other exams at Rio show nice increases over the years, Bumpy to be sure, but general increases in examinees over the years. The Physics B "trendline" is a mess. The pass rate isn't bad, though.

As always, nice passing rates are a testament to the hard work our students put in to prepare for the exam. I give my students the weights, but they have to lift them.

The bumpy ride indicates a certain fragility to the enrollment in AP Physics B at Rio, and the fact that students enrolled in the course are not required to take the exam. (Many schools require students in AP courses to take the exam.) The bumps will continue: the upcoming year's enrollment is as low as I remember it ever being (possibly under 15). And if past trends hold up, enrollment for 2009 will rebound. Please keep arms and legs inside the vehicle at all times.

Friday, August 10, 2007

iHeart iWork

Earlier this week, Apple introduced newly redesigned iMacs. They sport an uncanny resemblance to the recently released and highly coveted iPhones. Funny how you don't see so many stories these days about the imminent demise of Apple. You did see wide coverage of the madness surrounding the iPhone's release. Did you see those lines? You'd think The Beatles were reuniting and going on tour.

But I digress. The other big news of the day was the new iLife 08 suite. Good thing I finally bought iLife 06 two weeks ago! So all-new versions of iPhoto, iMovie, iDVD, and GarageBand are available to go along with your always-free iTunes.

The smaller news was the introduction of iWork 08. The iWork suite of productivity tools began in 2003 with the release of Keynote 1.0. This was essentially the presentation software that Apple developed for use by Steve Jobs. He just couldn't bring himself to use PowerPoint. Who can blame him?

I had resisted PowerPoint Fever, even as it swept through California during the heady days of the Digital High School grant. Back then (late '90s/early '00s), many gazed upon PowerPoint as The Savior of Education. I sat through PowerPoint after PowerPoint in preparation of my school's turn at the DHS trough and realized that I had never seen a PPT that was effective. Most were complete snoozers!

When Apple released Keynote 1.0, I decided it must be possible (though not easy) to create an effective presentation. So I bought the program for $99 and started my attempts. I made a ton of lousy presos while honing my skills, and I still have much to learn. But it was the first step.

After a long and increasingly worrisome silence, Apple released iWork 05: a bundling of Keynote 2.0 and Pages 1.0. Now only $79. I didn't really need Pages, Apple's word-processing software, but I bought the package to get the newly updated Keynote. The following year saw iWork 06 with Keynote 3.0 and Pages 2.0. Keynote got better as my preso skills sharpened.

But MacWorld 08 came and went with no iWork 08. Steve Jobs' Keynote was all about iPhone. It seemed that there would be no new iLife or iWork until the new Mac OS X (10.5 "Leopard") was released. And that moment kept drifting back. Hopes for June faded into hopes for October. (My desire to try burning Keynote presos onto DVDs using iDVD 6 necessitated my purchase of iLife 06.)

Anyway, iWork 08 is out and Keynote 08 is now available. I don't have it yet, but I'm sure I'll have it soon. It's loaded with new features that I'll be able to use right away. Oh, and the oft-rumored Apple spreadsheet software, Numbers, is included. So now there are three apps: Keynote, Pages, and Numbers. Kinda like PowerPoint, Word, and Excel. Office, except designed by Apple.

Keynote 08 will set PowerPoint even further behind in the "my preso is cooler than yours" department. If you want elegant, good-looking presentations, get off the PowerPoint treadmill. It's not going anywhere. Jump on board with Keynote. PowerPointers will have a brief period of adjustment. But once you start creating gorgeous, captivating presos with Keynote, you won't look back.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Crater Lake, Canadian Rockies preview

Or postview, I suppose. After a 16-day sojourn to the Canadian Rockies via Crater Lake, I've made my first sort of the photos. You'll find them in this SmugMug album. A second sorting and post-processing will result in a slimmer album with properly cropped and tweaked images. For the digital photographers out there, I'll add that this was my first attempt at shooting RAW files instead of JPEGs; now I have to learn how to process RAW files. So it may be a while before I finish the finalists album.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The ongoing train wreck that is "Texas Science"

I know there are some good and decent people in the state of Texas. But they appear to struggle in the minority. Today, The Bad Astronomer alerts us to the latest bad news for science in Texas. The top post in the state's educational system will be occupied by a creationist. That's right: Texas governor Rick Perry has appointed dentist, creationist, and anti-intellectual Don McLeroy to be Superintendent of the State Board of Education.

Here are a few gems illustrating McLeroy's educational policy wisdom.

In 2003, Dr. McLeroy voted against proposed high school biology textbooks because he felt their coverage of evolution was “too dogmatic” and did not include possible flaws in Charles Darwin’s theory of how life on Earth evolved from lower forms.

In 2001, McLeroy and a majority of the board rejected the only Advanced Placement textbook for high school environmental science because its views on global warming and other events didn’t comport with the beliefs of the board majority. The book wasn’t factual and was anti-American and anti-Christian, the majority claimed. Meanwhile, dozens of colleges and universities were using the textbook, including Baylor University, the nation’s largest Baptist college.

And from McLeroy's own website, he lists this as a favorite quotation: "The belief seems to be spreading that intellectuals are no wiser as mentors, or worthier as exemplars, than the witch doctors or priests of old. I share that scepticism."

In a previous post, I mentioned that in the mid-'80's, Texas tried to bully textbook publishers into dropping the very mention of the word "evolution" from science texts. The size of the Texas market forced publishers to take notice. But California stepped in and told publishers that if they dropped evolution, they could kiss California's even larger market goodbye. As California quashed an anti-science initiative from Texas, I decided I could work in a state like California.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

A plug for rechargeable batteries

I am fortunate to have a reasonably well-stocked physics lab for my students. A number of the gizmos we use in the lab require batteries. Most of our battery-operated devices use the AA-cell.

A few years ago, I decided it would be worthwhile to invest in a lab set of rechargeable AA batteries.

Some people developed a distaste for rechargeables back in the 1970s when nickel-cadmium cells were used. Ni-cads had their issues, and they are disappearing from the rechargeable battery scene. They've been replaced by nickel metal hydride technology. NiMH batteries have enjoyed widespread adoption by digital camera users. They're good for hundreds of recharge cycles, and don't suffer the "memory" issues that NiCds were accused of having. They still check in with 1.2 volts (as opposed to the 1.5 volts of alkaline batteries), but I have yet to encounter that being a problem.

I use ten sets of four NiMH AAs and one eight-cell charger. The batteries and the charger get steady use throughout the year.

The current retail price of good rechargeable AAs is now less than $3 each ($10-$12 per set of four). Good alkalines run about $0.50 each. I'm happy with the performance of my NiMHs and I'm happy to not be filling the landfill with more and more discarded alkalines.

Buying advice? I've had good luck with Energizer and more recently Duracell. Look for high capacity values. As of this writing, I wouldn't go for anything less than 2500 mA h (milliamp-hours). Don't fall for fast recharge times--often that's how low-capacity batteries are marketed. Higher capacity batteries will serve longer between charges. And that's what's important.

Saturday, June 30, 2007

Goodwin Liu... twenty years on

Physics teachers know everything. Or at least it seems that way when you're an interested student in a physics class. I recall feeling that way when I was such a student. I was also in the midst of deciding colleges and careers at the time. The only career path I consciously eliminated from the realm of possibilities was that of physics teacher. Funny how that turned out.

Part of being a physics teacher is revealing the workings of reality to students who have not yet been so enlightened. Mysteries are solved and misconceptions are dispelled. It's easy for a perception omniscience to accumulate around the wizard instructor. Some teachers revel in this perception and everything they can to perpetuate it.

I do not. I have some understanding as to the magnitude of my ignorance and rarely cease to be amazed by the immensity of my density. I've been lucky enough to have some truly brilliant students pass through my classroom on their way to greatness. I often tell friends and colleagues that I'm always delighted to get such students. "I get students that are ten times smarter than I'm ever gonna be," I tell them. That puts people a little off-balance. The teacher is supposed to be the smartest person in the room!

Of course, I'm a couple of pages ahead of them in the physics book, so I still manage to keep my bright students duly entertained and I've got things to teach them. But I can see that they've got capacities beyond my own. And that does not bother me in the least. I'm happy for them!

I was reminded of this when listening to National Public Radio the other day. It was a Nina Totenberg piece on the Supreme Court's ill-decided school desegregation case. Mara solicited analysis from UC Berkeley law professor Goodwin Liu. Goodwin Liu was a student in my AP Physics class my very first year of teaching. He went on to Stanford, Oxford, and Yale before returning to California as a professor at Boalt Hall. Oh, and he clerked for Supreme Court Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg along the way. Totenberg sought Liu's analysis because he's something of an expert in the area.

I sent him a note to tell him how proud I was. And he wrote back! Mind you, he's likely got somewhere between 1E+3 to 1E+6 better and more important things to than return an unsolicited note from a blast-from-the-past teacher. A teacher who was, erm, far from perfecting his craft that first year. What can I say? He's a classy guy in addition to being a learned scholar.

I also let him know that he will be giving me a personal tour of the Supreme Court once he's appointed. I'm nothing if not courteous in providing advance notice on such things.

Can you spot him in this archival photo?

Monday, June 25, 2007

Honor Mr. Wizard for fun and prizes

Rebecca Watson of is an energetic character known to all who attend JREF TAMs. And she is throwing down the gauntlet. Well, she's actually extending an invitation. She's more eloquent than I am, so I'll let her do the talking.Now get out there and get. Those. Projects!

Saturday, June 23, 2007

California Capital Airshow '07

There's a certain energy, stress, angst, whatever associated with the end of the school year. Upon finalizing the check-out process, I'm typically overcome with an uncontrollable urge to go out and shoot something. With my camera, that is. Jeez, people!

Last year I spent some time in Sequoia/Kings Canyon National Parks. This year, I attended the California Capital Airshow. I had never shot an airshow before, so I stood to learn a thing or two.

I shot about 2000 frames with my trusty Canon EOS 10D digital SLR, most with my 100-400mm f/4L IS lens.

I winnowed that down to fewer than 200 keepers that I posted here.

I'm in the process of filtering that down to a smaller set that I'm willing to work on. The finished products are being posted here:

Again, this is my first airshow shoot. So I make no claims about the composition, sharpness, or quality of the post-processing work. This is not where the poetic champions compose. But some of the finished images turned out OK.

I'm finished with the Thunderbirds and B-2 shots and am working backward through other aerial spectacles and static displays.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

I've been AP-proved!

Shortly after my last post (blog-eons ago), I spent a day preparing the course syllabus for my AP Physics B course. Not for purposes of the actual course I've been teaching for over 20 years, but for the College Board's AP Course Audit.

Seems there's been too much ambiguity in what constitutes an Advanced Placement course as AP has grown more popular throughout the land (and around the world). The College Board felt the need to reign things in. So AP teachers were suddenly set upon with the burden of proving the worthiness of the courses they taught.

Yes, the very AP teachers who deliver college-level content to the best and brightest students, teachers who's "success" or "failure" can be seen in their students' pass rates, teachers who are--at some schools--asked to provide lesson plans to school administrators for purposes of documenting the fact that the portion of the school year following the AP exam will be spent doing academically rigorous coursework, those teachers had yet another task to perform.

And it was no trivial task. Rather it required extensive reading of background material and review of sample syllabi before beginning. Then it was off to matching your course to the College Board's expectations. I suppose if you were just starting a course, the process would be simpler. Just adopt one of the sample syllabi given.

For me, it was not so simple. I've crafted an AP course that was designed to work at my school for my students. I wasn't looking to scrap it and start from scratch.

Amusingly, the College Board recommends that AP Physics B should be a second-year course. But each of the example syllabi appeared to be AP Physics B as a first-year course. I suddenly discovered that my scheme of covering California academic content standards in my first-year non-AP course and covering everything else the College Board needs in my second-year AP course wasn't necessarily what this audit process was calling for. Suddenly the first-year AP Physics B course looked much more appealing.

The audit seemed to want every topic on the AP Physics B exam to be taught at the AP level. There appeared to be no benefit in having a first-year course to cover the basics and then a second-year course to build upon those basics. I was concerned, but I wasn't keen to scrap my two-year program. And again, other communications from the College Board openly promoted AP Physics as a second-year course. Having followed that recommendation suddenly put me in a bind for producing the kind of syllabus they wanted.

The sample syllabi were easy-breezy two- or three-page outlines. The monster I submitted was a nine-page tome. With small type.

I met the June 1st deadline for submission. Just. And I settled in for the promised two-month wait. Yesterday, I got the good-news email. The authorization is for Dean Baird's AP Physics B program at Rio Americano. If a new teacher comes along, they'll have to go through the audit. If I move to another school, I'll have to go through the audit again.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Which constants should students memorize?

High school physics students, specifically.

Some might argue for none. I can see some reason in that. Many think of memorization of any kind as a burdensome task that kills all joy for miles around. Such absolute aversion may be an overreaction to bad instructional experiences from one's own past.

At the moment, I can see some value in having high school physics students internalize five constants:

Gravitational acceleration at the surface of the earth: g = 9.8 m/s^2
Elementary charge: e = 1.6 x 10^-19 C
Speed of light in free space: c = 3 x 10^8 m/s
Universal gravitation constant: G = 6.67 x 10^-11 kg m^2/kg^2
Coulomb constant: k = 9 x 10^9 N m^2/C^2

High school physics teachers all tend to think alike and readily agree on all maters pedagogical. So I'm guessing that if these are the values I think should be memorized, the rest of you agree by default. Am I right?

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Why the sky is blue

Here is my lesson on why the sky is blue. It's a combination "springboard"/presentation. That means students get a sheet with questions to be answered through class discussion during the presentation. The presentation includes images and animations to illustrate what's going on. Read over the student worksheet (and especially the teacher's edition with answers) and step through the interactive presentation before trying this one in class. This is no autopilot-style lesson. The teacher must teach this one and you need to know some details to flesh the whole thing out.

Student Springboard (worksheet)
Teacher's Edition (answer key)
Presentation (zipped interactive QuickTime: 39MB)

QuickTime (free)
Means to project the presentation (not free)
Resonant tuning forks
PTSOS visible optics "skinny fish" tank
Scattering agent (Mop-N-Glo or equivalent)
Flashlight (mini maglite or equivalent)

As always, I'm eager to hear your comments.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

What's up with PhysicsBowl 2007?

I ask because I've been checking the official unofficial website at

and I'm not getting this year's results. I can see this year's test and answers, but not the results of the competition. If you know something I don't let me know.

You know what would be good in a situation like this? An online physics educator forum (see the post below).

UPDATE 1: Wednesday has come and gone; still no results. I posted a query to Richard Olenick, current head honcho/fearless leader of the AAPT Examinations Editorial Board; I'll let you know if I hear anything. In the meantime, it's fun to watch the page counter spin. When I started checking the page mentioned above, the counter was under 6000. At the moment of this update, it's pushing 9000. Yeah, I need to get out more.

UPDATE 2: The results are in. The Division 2 average was 17 out of 40 (typical of this challenging competition exam). In the California/Hawaii Region, first place went to Mission San Jose in Fremont, CA. Second place went to Mira Loma right here in Sacramento! The top scoring student in our Region/Division was Henry Tung of Torrey Pines in Santee, CA. Second place student was Erik Chen of Mira Loma! Congratulations to this year's winners. For complete results, click the link posted above.

Listservs are sooo 1995

Ah, institutional inertia. We physics educators might pride ourselves in innovative techniques and strategies, but in the end, we're likely as bad as anyone else.

So it is with listservs. When email was an emerging technology, the listserv provided a means by which people with similar interests could broadcast emails to each other. Responses were similarly broadcast, and conversations took place. Listservs were good. At least they were in 1995. The physics teaching community weighed in strong with the Physhare and Phys-L listservs, not to mention the AP Physics listserv.

Time and technology march on, though. So these days, people with similar interests typically communicate via online forums. These are webpages that fill with threads comments from individuals. Not strings of email to clutter up your email storage space. Webpages that occupy their own webspace. Brilliant! And de rigeur for online communities since about 2000.

Examples: The DPReview Forum (for digital camera enthusiasts) and the JREF Forum (for skeptics).

So here it is 2007. Physhare and Phys-L continue apace. But where are the true online fora for physics educators? If I had the skills, I'd set one up myself. Clearly, there are physics educators out there with the skills. It takes time, talent, and energy just to keep the listservs afloat. But listservs are yesteryear's news. Reminds me of ye olde BBSs: great in their day, but their day has passed.

If they're out there and I'm too dim a bulb to find them, please light my way! And if you can tell me why a listserv is better than a true online forum, please do. I'm clearly ranting here, but I'm open to education.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Science PhD gender gap narrowing?

It could be that I lack the proper optimism, but the trend didn't appear as earth-shattering to me as it did to the author of the article. Especially the most recent data points! When the top bar on the graph is at 50%, I'll breathe a little easier. Until then, there is work to be done. Click the graph to get the full story from the Sacramento Bee.

Among the best lines from the article: "[Suzanne} Barber, a fourth-year doctoral student, is one engineer who hopes the phenomenon leads teenage girls to discover the sciences and reject frivolous media portrayals of young women. 'This idea -- be like Paris Hilton or Mandy Moore. I think it's important to show a different side of what a woman can be,' said Barber, who is studying materials science engineering.

Bonus blogpoints if you can identify what's wrong with the graph. Comment away!

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Watch carefully to figure out the trick

Skeptical trickster Richard Wiseman is at it again. This time with "The Amazing Colour Changing Card Trick."
Props to The Bad Astronomer.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

We are the champions, my friends

Quizmaster Chris, Christy, Kelly, Billy, Gary, and Dean. Weapons of Mass Instruction Win TriviaBowl V. Photo by Todd Freund.

It started as a lark on a "Veterans' Eve" Thursday. A group of teachers entered the weekly trivia contest at Sacramento Brewing Company. Six of us huddled around an answer sheet as the Quizmaster bellowed questions from the bar area of the brewpub. We fiddled and fussed over our answers and cheered for each correct answer during the post-quiz answer revelations. We won on that very first outing in 2005, beating over a dozen other teams. Since then, our cast of characters has varied a bit, as has our Thursday night trivia success.

Tonight though, we won the Big Kielbasa.

To make things more interesting, team scores from each Thursday quiz accumulate to quarterly totals. This sum determines a quarterly champion. Our team, comprised almost exclusively of Rio Americano High School teachers, finishes in the top five each quarter. But last Thursday, we broke through and finished at the top of the heap. Team Rio was the quarterly champion at last! (The $100 cash prize paid for that evening's comestibles and libations.)

The top five teams (and a few wildcards) from two brewpubs then go at it at the quarterly TriviaBowl. You can see how serious this stuff gets! As Sac Brew quarterly champions, we went to the rival bar to represent our home pub and our school pride. We've been to these competitions before. As Sacramento trivia competition goes, this is The Bigs. We enjoy the contest, but we just don't take our trivia very seriously. So we usually finish in the middle of the pack.

The questions in tonight's TriviaBowl were brutal and we were short one player, but we stepped up and took top honors. The prizes included giant magna of Sac Brew's "Pickled Brains" Tonic (see photo above), limited-edition T-shirts, and the addition of a signed team vegetable to the "pickled brains" jar. And wow, what an aroma that thing unleashes when opened! I feared for my eyebrows.

As the member who contributed least to the win, it fell upon me to tell the story and spread the word. That and I was the guy with a camera and a blog. There is no history unless you record it.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Updated: Web Video for the Classroom

The Northern California and Nevada section of the American Association of Physics Teachers (NCNAAPT) met Friday and Saturday at Stanford, I presented a talk on the Web Video for the Classroom page I maintain. Pretty groovy to see these clips on a huge screen in a Stanford lecture hall, and those in the audience seemed to enjoy the show. I added a few clips to the collection, so I thought I should jot a quick post.

No doubt there are other physics video treasures out there. Let me know so I can add them to my page.

Oh, some attendees of the meeting asked about the skeptics group and conference I referred to when showing the firewalking clip. The group is the James Randi Educational Foundation and the annual meeting in Las Vegas is The Amaz!ng Meeting.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Peppermint party

As Rio Americano headed into the second week of STAR testing, a new test-preparation strategy was brought to bear. The tradition of providing snacks for student test-takers was continued as it had been practiced since the implementation of STAR testing lo those many years ago. But with a twist. Classroom snacks distributed for this week's tests included carefully counted and bagged peppermint candies.

The prescription, provided by the school's administration was to "hand one peppermint to each of your STAR testing students prior to taking the test." Why give students mint-flavored candy before a state-mandated assessment? The directive from the administration explained, "It is a proven fact that peppermint has been known to stimulate the human brain."

I was unaware of this "proven fact." My skeptical hackles were raised. I reflexively "reply to all-ed" with a request for evidence and some light-hearted criticism of the idea. Then I looked for the evidence (or lack thereof) on the web. There were some popular press items about peppermint aroma and cognitive tasks. But they seemed sketchy. There were also dismissals of those studies.

From the "Ask a scientist" column at Cornell Center for Materials Research, "Will eating peppermint candy help you to do better on a test? Probably not; there is no solid scientific evidence that peppermint will boost test performance."

From, "...on the basis of [a] newspaper article, some teachers are giving their students peppermint candy because 'research proves that candy improves memory.' Is it any wonder that some neuroscientists are beginning to accuse educators of engaging in pseudoscience or worse, becoming "snake-oil salesmen" for products and programs that have no real scientific foundation?"

I broadcast links to the dismissals to my colleagues, and the results were somewhat predictable. Though I took measures to couch the "bad news" in humor and good cheer, I was criticized for being such a curmudgeon. This wasn't my first rodeo, so I anticipated that result. Most people who have confronted woo among friends, family, or co-workers quickly learn that in polite company, woo is supposed to be given a free pass. Given the ironic twist that the peppermint strategy was deployed for the STAR tests in science, I couldn't just stand by.

I launched the topic as a thread on the James Randi Educational Foundation's Education Forum. The resulting banter was more enlightening than what occurred at school. Still though, you can always count on JREF forums for contrarians. And one did due diligence in an attempt to bolster the peppermint story. He fell short in my estimation, but not for lack of effort.

In the end, there's just no experi-mint-al evidence for this odoriferous claim. I made a funny!

ADDENDUM: JREF Forum member Suggestologist sent me the link to the NPR story on peppermint. They hasten to confess a lack of scientific support. But the story was just too tasty not to air. I'll be here all week; don't forget to tip the wait staff.