Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Dear STAR ARP member...

A previous post mentioned the suspension of the CDE's Assessment Review Panels. These are groups of educators and industry professionals who review and assess items intended for inclusion on upcoming STAR tests. ARPs approve or disapprove items based on science content and alignment to content standards. I am a member of the Science ARP.

Suspension of the ARPs represents a discontinuation of a significant quality control component of the STAR tests. I can say that ARP sessions are lively and spirited. Disagreements are not always resolved to everyone's liking. But significant and quality work is done in these sessions.

Without ARP action, there exists the potential for a decline in the quality of items on future STAR tests.

Dear STAR Assessment Review Panel member:

We appreciate your commitment to the Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR) Program, despite the challenges many of you are facing within your own districts. Thank you for the time and expertise you have contributed over the years to the review of the assessments that make up the STAR family of programs.

As you are aware, the state is facing serious fiscal challenges. The California Department of Education (CDE) was required to reduce planned expenditures for the 2009-10 fiscal year. The approved expenditure plan includes the elimination of “the external bias and sensitivity and content reviews” for the STAR Program. The CDE and ETS are committed to maintaining the current level of rigor across all STAR tests. We are exploring no or low-cost alternatives for holding a new-item review Assessment Review Panel (ARP) meeting. Should we be able to schedule such a meeting, we will notify you.

In the meantime, all STAR ARP meetings have been suspended for the remainder of the 2009 cycle. We regret the short notice you are receiving on this matter.

On behalf of the State Board of Education, CDE, and ETS, thank you for your dedicated
service to the STAR Program.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Help the planet with ULSD NiMH

As I've mentioned before, I'm a fan of not burning through single-use batteries. And we have plenty of need for batteries in the physics lab.

I've been using nickel-metal hydride (NiMH) rechargeable batteries for my AA needs for several years now. More recently, I switched to NiMH AAAs, too.

The trouble with NiMH batteries is that they discharge when not in use; they don't have much shelf life when charged. And the first thing you do with new NiMH batteries is to charge them.

Upon a recent visit to, I noticed something new. (New to me, anyway.) Ultra-Low Self-Discharge (ULSD) rechargeables. They're NiMH batteries that ship charged because they retain their charge when not in use. Rechargeables with shelf life. The compromise is that ULSD batteries have lower charge capacity: 2000 mAh rather than 2400-2700 mAh, the current state-of-the-art for high-capacity NiMH AAs.

With the assistance of our Rio Americano Science Boosters, I've been able to outfit my lab with AAs and AAAs. I also got a set of high-capacity NiMH C-cell batteries for our constant-velocity buggies and circuit labs.

As far as I know, my only need for single-use batteries is the occasional button battery or 9-V. Thank you, Science Boosters!

In other rechargeable battery news: nickel-zinc (NiZn) batteries are coming online. While NiMH batteries operate on a 1.2-volt reaction, the nickel-zinc reaction provides 1.6 volts. (Single-use alkaline cells yield 1.5 volts.)

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Back-to-School Night #24

Back-to-School Night is tonight at Rio Americano. Parents get a chance to see what their son's/daughter's teacher look like as they enjoy a trip down memory lane, sitting in a variety of high school classrooms once again.

Though my classroom started out quite Spartan and plain, it is now rather visually noisy. The wall of ego is in full bloom, and my landscape shots are all about.

Each year, it seems, I tweak the handout I give to parents. We have but 10 minutes together, so I try to load the handout with things they might want to know and spend the 10 minutes going over what their child needs to do to be successful in my class. Of course I could just say, "do homework and study for tests," but people want details.

Here's this year's handout, such as it is.

Though I might not recall in vivid detail all 23 BTSNs that I've experienced over the years, I do remember the first one well enough. I was fairly terrified because it was my first BTSN. It didn't help that I had yet to see twenty-two candles on my birthday cake. I was enduring a mild case of "homesickness." During my first month of teaching, my only credit card was taken (and not returned) by an ATM and the lights in my classroom burst into flames. I was still "finding my voice" as a teacher, and my Ann Arbor pace and intensity was proving too much for my California students.

Back-to-School Nigh '86 went better than I'd hoped. The parents seemed delighted with me. I even joined my colleagues at a local watering hole after the event. I didn't stay long, since I don't drink and it was a school night. But while I was inside, someone broke into my car and stole my "transportable" Macintosh 512Ke. They tried to steal the '76 Buick Century, itself, but I guess I didn't give them enough time. September, 1986 was not the best month of my life.

But I digress. I'm sure BTSN09 will go swimmingly. I always hope for a high turnout, and sometimes I get it. I may not get to a watering hole, but I will get a good night's sleep afterward.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

How science-smart are you?

Take this quiz. It's 12 questions, not all of them terribly difficult. Basic, "science and society" items.

Pew Research Science Quiz

My result is in the comments. Thanks to Skeptical Teacher, Matt Lowry, for spotlighting this gem.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Shoot-the-Target: I fixed it!

I took down the monkey gun demo today and decided to open up the malfunctioning Target Dropper box.

As mentioned in a previous post, the magnet in the drop box had mysteriously weakened so that it could barely hold a short chain of paperclips.

Upon opening the box, I discovered a neodymium magnet attached to a random point on an inner wall. I pulled it out and set it on the back of the electromagnet. I reassembled the box and gave it a try.

It worked! Still a bit weak, but more like 80% than the 1% it had been.

So it appears that the supermagnet that's used to give the electromagnet some permanence had popped off. It appears to have been glued. If I need to repair it again, I'll probably use a new supermagnet and maybe add a bit of glue. For now, I'm happy I was able to effect a repair.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

PTSOS Season Premiere

The 2009-2010 season of Physics Teacher SOS (PTSOS) gets underway this Saturday in San Mateo. Although San Mateo is "sold out," a few seats remain for the season opener in Sacramento, Saturday, October 3.

PTSOS is sponsored by the Northern California and Nevada Section of the American Association of Physics Teachers, and made possible by a grant from the Karl L. Brown Memorial Scholarship Fund.

Workshop 1 is "Overcoming Inertia," and focuses on mechanics (kinematics, Newton's laws, gravity, energy, momentum, and rotation), as well as beginning of school issues and the many tangents we inevitably fly off on.

The goodies are always good at PTSOS Workshops. So if you're a new physics teacher or feel new to teaching physics, register with Stephanie Finander: It's FREE!

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Tagging the monkey worm

Upon setting up the "Monkey Hunter" demo in AP Physics 2 today, we discovered that the tree's electromagnet would no longer support the monkey. For some reason, the magnet lost its magnetism after about 10 yrs of once-per-year use. Bummer. So we hung a chain of paperclips ("worm") from the weak magnet and gave it a try. Mind you, the worm is about 1 cm wide. The monkey target is more than 10 times wider! The students demanded that we use the high speed camera to capture the result. You'll need to go full-screen to see anything.

QuickTime File - MP4 (Unannotated)

Credit to my AP Physics 2 students: they had more faith than I did that this would work. I made the mistake of hyping the demo in their schedule as "The Best Demo in Physics," and they weren't going to let a technical problem get in the way. Having dealt with cantankerous monkeys in the past, I didn't think we had a chance at hitting the skinny paperclip worm. They were right; I was wrong!

Monday, September 14, 2009

Assessment Review Panel on hold for now

Details have not yet been fully disclosed, but the California Department of Education's Assessment Review Panel appears to have been... dismantled? put on the back-burner? placed on hiatus?

The ARP reviews potential test items for the STAR program's CSTs. ARP members are appointed by the State Board of Education and serve as an advisory panel regarding California Standards Tests. I have served on the Science ARP for several years now and have done my best to see to it that only the best items get used on our state's tests, especially the CST for 9-12 Physics.

The panel convenes about four times each year to look at new items, review field-tested items, review the upcoming operational forms, and to help determine the next items to be published as Released Test Questions.

In September, the ARP typically reviews the upcoming operational form to make sure it's everything the CDE hopes it will be. In October, the ARP helps determine what will be in the next round of RTQs.

Both of those meetings have been canceled "due to budget cuts," according to a spokesperson for Educational Testing Services. ETS currently holds the contract to develop the CSTs.

The ARP was one element on CST quality control. One is given to wonder what consequences might be visited upon CSTs and RTQs if the benefit of the ARP's counsel is removed from the process.

More details to come, or so I'm told.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Cosmos in the Classroom--now with YouTube links!

December, 2006, there was a blog-a-thon to commemorate the tenth anniversary of Carl Sagan's death. For my part, I posted a set of curriculum materials to support his classic work, Cosmos: A Personal Voyage.

Cosmos in the Classroom

The video series, itself, has since been posted to YouTube. So I connected links from the episode titles to the corresponding YouTube segments.

I plan to offer my AP students extra credit for watching the episodes and completing the corresponding assignments. (We refer to extra credit as "Credit Toward Final"--CTF).

Student instructions for Cosmos 101

I don't know if Cosmos is available through other web media outlets (Hulu, etc.). Someone will let me know in the comments.

UPDATE: Cosmos on Hulu is shiny. But it comes with "limited commercial interruption." Considering that the original broadcast was aired with no commercial interruption, watching Cosmos with commercials might be disturbing to some viewers.