Sunday, September 29, 2013

In which I attempt to wrangle the Hewitt Drew It! screencasts

Paul Hewitt is on a screencasting rampage, and no topic in Conceptual Physics is safe!

He's been producing and releasing short video lessons for over a year, and he isn't finished yet. They're going up on YouTube, and I haven't been able to keep up with the proliferation.

By the way, he's currently working on one in which he hopes to show the cover of the original Conceptual Physics: The High School Physics Program textbook (Addison-Wesley, 1987), but doesn't have a copy on hand. Neither do I. If you do, please contact him at and let him know. I couldn't even find an image of the CP1 high school textbook cover using my image search Google-fu. Second edition? Third? Fourth? No problem. First? A bit of a problem.

Anyway, Paul Hewitt is loading YouTube up with these 5-10 minute physics lesson gems, but I was finding them difficult to incorporate in my curriculum. I'm not keen to show them during class, but I do want students to see them. And I want to be a bit more helpful than to say, "Watch that one Hewitt Drew It about Newton's Second Law."

What I needed was a convenient directory, like a table of contents, for the Hewitt screencasts. So I started to create one. I aligned it, to the best of my ability, to Conceptual Physics 11/e, but that's not a critical issue.

On one web page, I list all the topics covered in Conceptual Physics. Each topic listed is a link to a page that collects all the screencasts relating to that topic.

The work is very much "in progress". But I'm done with Part One: Mechanics. The topics include
Newton's First Law
Linear Motion
Newton's Second Law
Newton's Third Law
Rotational Motion
Projectile and Satellite Motion

This gets me through my entire first semester. I'm guessing it will do as much for you.

My next goals will be parts four, five, and six: sound, E&M, and light. I'm indicating which topics are "connected" by showing them in boldface type. Topics listed in regular (roman) type are, as yet, not yet finished.

Hewitt Drew-It! PHYSICS Screencast Directory

The end of The System makes front-page news

The System was my homework/classwork/general incentive policy for about 20 years. I developed it in the early 1990s and was very happy with what it did. But I abandoned it this year, and the abandonment led to a front-page (below the fold) article in the school newspaper with two photographs.

Baird Terminates System

Because few things are as exciting as my 20-year old homework policy. Winning the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching did not result in nearly this much Mirada ink. Ah, the whimsical and fickle world of The Press.

The System was my attempt to encourage good behavior and discourage bad behavior. If you came to class on time, prepared to learn, and kept up with daily assignments, I'd grade you on a relaxed grading scale. Instead of the traditional grading scale, students who qualified for The System were graded as follows: 80%-100%: A, 60%-79%: B, 50%-59%: C, 40%-49%: D. In 20 years of The System, I could count on my fingers the number of students who qualified and earned a C or worse. My fingers on one hand.

My hope was that The System would make Physics an attractive course in that you could earn a pretty good grade (B) even if you routinely performed badly on tests, etc. (60%).

I gave out plenty of non-A or B grades. Many students elected to not partake in The System. With no immediate gratification ("Scoobie Snack") offered for homework completion, many students chose not to do it. Such a choice invariably leads to poor test performance, and sub-80% totals. But there was a lesson to be learned there, as well.

Homework was checked randomly and at random intervals. Different assignments were checked in different periods. Other elements folded easily into The System (tardiness, on-task behavior, excessive use of the bathroom pass, etc.).

Doing the right things earned you System Points. Angelic, perfect students could end up with 20 System Points at the end of each semester. To qualify, all you needed was 10. Ten out of twenty. Plenty of room for lapses of any sort. Great flexibility. But not unlimited.

Every semester would end with some students having 9 of the 20. They missed more than they earned. They naturally saw unfairness. If it were only for that one thing that one time. But it was never one thing one time. Their bargain with me was that they would behave in a manner so as to earn all the System Points.

Every student of Intro to Psychology is taught to despise B. F. Skinner, but Skinner works surprisingly well while "higher-minded" psychological schemes do not. Still we harbor a visceral hatred of what Skinner tells us: that we often operate so as to maximize extrinsic rewards and minimize extrinsic punishment. To oversimplify: psychologists despise Skinner; economists swear by him.

Over time students figured out ways to game The System. The Holy Grail in this pursuit was to qualify for the relaxed grading scale while not completing daily assignments. Assignments were copied, word for word, mistake for mistake, among students. Students with older siblings who took my class would turn in the older sibling's work as their own.

I could catch some of them by changing the numbers in my numerical problems. Cheaters would blissfully turn in homework with all the wrong numbers. No such cheater ever confessed to their transgression. But oh, the stories they would spin.

Changing the numericals for this purpose was a giant hassle; changing word questions was essentially impossible. All of it wasted time and energy spent to beat the cheats.

And as the years went by, students became less and less apologetic about copying homework. They were too busy with other things to be bothered with homework. Consider this student sentiment expressed by a Rio student, "Work is for school. I go to school to learn, but I go home to have fun. I don’t think homework helps. It really just ruins my day. It ruins my day 100% of the time."

Many parents take the position that there's too much homework. They're forever hoping for a school wide homework restriction policy.

Some teachers are in on this, too. A language teaching colleague complained that so much homework is tantamount to child abuse.

Another colleague invited us—his fellow teachers—to examine our homework practices. He invited his faculty piers to ponder these questions.

"How long will it take students (slowest AND fastest) to complete?
If all of a student's teachers assigned the same amount, how many hours would that take?
How much time is left for sleep, family and other interests that make up a full life?
Is the assignment absolutely necessary for the curriculum, or is it homework for homework's sake?"

When parents and teachers give comfort to the notion that there's too much homework, students feel entitled and licensed to subvert the homework load by any means necessary. "Of course I copied my homework, everyone knows the homework load is too ridiculous around here. My parents support me in this, and so do the cool teachers."

Since offering any extrinsic incentive ("sugar") for homework completion was resulting in more and more homework subversion, I had to pull the plug.

Front-page news.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Twenty-eight years at Rio

Rio Americano is 50 years old this year. We're trying to celebrate it. So there is cause for thoughts of nostalgia. Faculty and staff get a portrait taken every year. Sometimes, those portraits get included in the school's yearbook.

As far as I know, I never missed a portrait and I've never thrown the resulting photos out. But 28 years is a long time, and it turns out I was only able to lay hands on images from half the years of my tenure.
The rest were cobbled together from the yearbook, for the most part.

In any case, here it is: portrait shots (mostly official) or yearbook shots from each year, 1986-2013. Nostalgia? Narcissism? Entropy? Vanity? Garfunkelization? Decide for yourself. Traveling downward along a column, each photo moves you seven years forward. Click to embiggen... if you dare.


Wednesday, September 18, 2013

A Capella Science: Bohemian Gravity

Last time we saw Tim Blais, he was "Rolling in the Higgs", repurposing Adele's smash hit "Rolling in the Deep" with particle physics-based lyrics and a one-man, a capella orchestra. At the very end of that video, he teased "Bohemian Gravity".

It's now a year later, and Blais is back with the fully-realized version.

Blais' "Bohemian Gravity" repurposes Queen's iconic "Bohemian Rhapsody" with String Theory-based lyrics. The content is unapologetically high-level. Blais was in the midst of writing his master's thesis while developing this track, so the video shows us where his mind was during the process.

And he got a haircut. No doubt his parents will be pleased.

If you haven't seen his work, stop punishing yourself and watch. Do it now!

When the lyrics make sense to you, you will be ready for your MS in physics, too.

As I post this, the video has fewer than 100,000 views. That won't last.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Extra Credit: Voyager in the news - September 12, 2013

I offered this assignment to students so inclined last week.

CTT.1 (Credit Toward Unit Tests)
Voyager in the News: September 12, 2013 +
A news item on NPR (National Public Radio) mentioned that NASA’s Voyager spacecraft is now 17 light-hours from Earth.
Page 1: Questions
1. What is NASA’s Voyager?
2. Why was Voyager in the news on this day?
3. What did Voyager do sometime during the year prior to this news item?
Page 2: Problems (Work must be shown; use ERSA where appropriate)
1. How far is 17 light-hours a. in meters? b. in miles?
2. As of the news date, what was Voyager’s average speed since being launched
a. in m/s? b. in mph?
Page 3: Evidence of Research
Cite at least five serious references: “Article Title”, Information Source, Date, URL
Submit as an electronic document to no later than 11:59pm 9/22/13.
Preferred format: Presentation (Google Presentation, Microsoft PowerPoint, Apple Keynote)
Acceptable formats: Google Document, Microsoft Word
Reward: 15-30 points CTT (Meets criteria: 15 pts. Meets criteria and is awesome: 30 pts.)
No awesome response would fail to mention the blockbuster movie that Voyager had a starring role in.

Monday, September 09, 2013

A Cracked compilation of publicly documented psychic failures

It appears there is no such thing as a "real psychic". James Randi's Million Dollar Challenge continues to go unclaimed.

Cracked has a nice compilation of publicly documented psychic failures.

Brace for cringe-worthy crashing and burning. And be thankful for science.

Sunday, September 08, 2013

Sports bracelets: They're not dead yet!

When I present the "Skepticism in the Classroom" workshop at AAPT meetings, physics instructors often dismiss the silliness. "No one believes that stuff," they say. That's when I share with them the reported annual sales figures for Power Balance, and the fact that for too many months, they owned the naming rights to Sacramento's premier sports and entertainment complex. (What had been ARCO Arena became Power Balance Pavilion.)

I also discuss the continued success of similar products such as the Phiten Titanium-infused necklace, especially popular among baseball players at all levels. These products do very well.

And while Power Balance and their closest knock-off, Power Force, may have fallen by the wayside, Trion:Z remains.

Since The University of Michigan Wolverines handled the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame so nicely last night in The Big House, I thought it would be good time for a progress report on officially licensed goofy body wear.

So we now have the Michigan "twist titanium" neckless.

The Michigan site is careful to couch this as a simple show of spirit. But the richest purveyor of this "idiot noose" (my term), Phiten, pitches a different story. They post a page purporting to describe their "technology" which lists health and fitness platitudes, but is careful to make no claims. But it also links to "Research ... conducted by the Society for Aqua Metal Research". I am reminded of the fraudulent Tobacco Institute, the research arm of the tobacco industry charged with casting doubt on the medical science of smoking.

We also have the Trion:Z bracelet. When I say then name out loud, I feel an urge to try on the bracelet. Not sure why that is.

Trion:Z uses animations to describe how their negative-ion technology. Perhaps the most convincing graphic is at the bottom of the page: it appears to be digitally displayed numbers on a scientific-looking metal box. With buttons! And a model number (the EB-13). It's amusing to see Trion:Z calling out Phiten as ineffective.

Here's a challenge: see if you can buy yourself an Eco Holistic EB-13. And I'm no expert in generating negative ions, but if I had to, I'd look for a beta emitting radiation source.

Thursday, September 05, 2013

London skyscraper melts cars

The latest example of architecture that ignores geometric optics brings us to London. The so-called "Walkie-Talkie" building includes mirrored panels arranged on a concave surface.

No doubt the architect thought it looked so cool. But it burns so hot.

It was sure to stand out; no other building in the city has such bold curves. But there's a good reason for that. The building claimed its first victim of note recently.

The contractors blow this problem off, blaming the sun for its current position in the sky (how dare be up there so unexpectedly?) and suggesting the problem will be short-lived (a few weeks).

The US is not immune to such architectural oversight. Las Vegas is home to VDARA Death Ray:

I wondered if no one took physics anymore. But then I remembered that I have not taught geometric optics in my Physics 1 course since before California Academic Content Standards were adopted. Our "Grade A" Physics Standards dropped geometric optics.

But geometric optics do not return with Next Generation Science Standards. And with the AP Physics B redesign, geometric optics is relegated to the second year of AP Physics (AP Physics 2).

So expect to see more of these "death ray" buildings pop up in America and around the world. The increased sunshine from climate change will only add to the trouble.

Monday, September 02, 2013

HTML5 and the future of PhET

At NTSA/Boston in 2008, I made my first contact with a human being associated with PhET. I was a big fan even back then. I was beginning to include PhET sim-based lab activities in the lab manuals I was authoring for Paul Hewitt's conceptual science lab manuals.

Apple introduced the first iPad in 2010. When I ran into the PhET people at NSTA/Philadelphia in 2010, I prodded/goaded them a little bit that they would need to rewrite their Adobe Flash-based sims since Flash did not run on iPads. Flash was out, HTML5 was in, at least according to Apple's Jobs. In March 2010, the good people of PhET didn't want to hear this and derided me for the absurdity of my suggestion. They did not see a problem with Flash. They certainly weren't going to abandon Flash just because that oddball, Steve Jobs, didn't like it!

{Sitcom fast-forward to August 2013} PhET is pleased to announce their transition to HTML5, the Flash replacement that is iPad friendly. Shortly after Steve Jobs died, Adobe announced it was going to abandon Flash. And iPads have been selling at insanely unexpected rates. Especially to schools. So PhET didn't really have a choice if they were to remain relevant. And as a fan of PhET, I'm glad to see them remain relevant. And they've got a new logo. A logo that would look good on a T-shirt, I might say.

Anyway, check out PhET's blog post: "The Future of PhET".

There's even a nice movie:

Goofus and Gallant classroom poster 1.0

As teachers, we like to imagine we a modicum of control of our classroom environment. I have the relative luxury of "my own" classroom: I teach in one classroom and I have unfettered access to that room during my prep period. Not all teachers have this. I did not always have this.

When the school year starts up, you want to conveys some simple dos and don'ts. (Yep, I wrote "dos and don'ts". Because that's the correct way to write it.)

So I made a poster, borrowing from the old Highlights magazine cartoon, "Goofus and Gallant". I don't presume anyone gets the reference other than me. But one or two students might google it at some point, and that's good enough for me.

In any case, here's the first production of my poster. It's designed for print at 13" x 19".

Red is bad (Goofus); green is good (Gallant). Yellow lies somewhere between.

A nice physics bonus will emerge when we study colors and discover what red+green makes.