Sunday, July 26, 2020

Getting up to speed on airborne virus transmission

It's natural for us to harbor pride in our former students as they accomplish feats in the world. Of late, Dr. Linsey Marr, professor of environmental engineering at Virginia Tech has been filling my mainstream and social media feeds. Her insights into aerosol virus transmission are sought out by agencies and reporters. She's even smarter now than she was when she burned through my AP Physics B course once upon a time. So I'm beaming already.

When I tuned into this recorded webinar, I went from beaming too bursting. Because now she's the teacher and is doing a great job if it. In reality, she's been an excellent teacher for many years, but I've never managed to sit in on one of her classes.

In any case, it seems we all need to have a fundamental understanding of airborne virus transmission as we contemplate returning to classroom amid the pandemic. As always, knowledge is power. This is knowledge I had never hoped to be conversant in. But here we are.

This is not a brief lesson, but it is worth your time if you're a classroom teacher in the era of COVID-19.

SARS CoV 2 in Indoor Air: Principles and Scenarios

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Virtual Lab Reports

As we all embark on an uncertain journey of virtual learning, many science teachers are wondering what labs may look like in this virtual space. Most of us are familiar with PhET simulations and other resources to do a virtual lab, but how do students communicate their thinking? I was inspired by Lyndsay Schobel's tweet to write up a few quick thoughts. I'm no expert, but I thought I'd share things that I've tried.

Some Digital Lab Report Templates

Link to my template

In the past, I've used the template linked above with varying levels of success. I like that it prompts students what to do and gives examples of what is expected. This template is for a model development lab, where students are developing the mathematical model of a physical situation. This template is easily adapted to most model development labs, and it's easy to explicitly prompt linearization when that scaffold is needed.

By the way, the particular lab that is presented in that template is one designed by Marta Stoeckel. She wrote about it in her The Physics Teacher article Defining Electric Potential Difference by Moving a Multimeter’s Ground Probe. Which leads me to my next point.

Marta's lab template is better, and you can find it at the link below.

Link to Marta's lab template

It is designed for in-person instruction, but I think that it could be adapted pretty easily to virtual learning. It is more involved, but it also provides more scaffolding. I'll probably look at adapting it for my own curriculum this year.

Digital Graphs Tools

I have two tools I recommend: Desmos and Vernier's Graphical Analysis, and both are free! Tutorials on how to use them for graphing can be found here for Desmos and here for Graphical Analysis. A review of each follows.

Desmos wins as the the most intuitive math software that's ever been made. It also has the benefit of being a more universal tool, and your students will likely be familiar with it from math class. That sort of cross-curricular software support is great. It also runs in-browser, so you don't need to download anything. It's biggest drawback is that it is a math software first and a data analysis software second. As a result, sometimes data analysis things can slip through the cracks (like remembering to label your axes).

Graphical Analysis is made with graphing data in mind, which is its biggest benefit. It explicitly prompts students for axis labels and units. It also has linearization tools (tutorial here) built in as a feature. If your school has Vernier Equipment like ours does, you are also getting the students familiar with software with which their equipment can interface. The drawbacks are that Graphical Analysis requires a download (sometimes a pain for Chromebooks) and that it isn't a more widely used tool like Desmos.

Since Graphical Analysis is software and not a cloud-based solution, students also need to save their work as they are working. I've found that this is not common practice among many of my students who have grown up in the Google Suite age, so they need to be reminded of that.

If your students have access to a Windows or Mac computer and you want them to consider uncertainty, Kelly O'Shea has recommended LinReg in the past.

Where students need direct instruction

The biggest place students need direct instruction is in turning their graph into a readable image. Both Desmos and Graphical Analysis have options to export graphs as image files, but many students do not choose this option. Instead, they'll take screenshots of their work and then upload the screenshot. This often leads to a graph image with illegible axes.

Students also create graphs with a lot of white space instead of making their data fit the graph window. Again, this is not hard to fix, but you need to provide students with instruction on how to fix it.

I'd recommend just having students resubmit graphs without penalty until they get it right. If you're annoying enough, they'll only make the mistake once. This is one of the benefits of Google Doc based lab reports--they can always be updated!

Thursday, July 09, 2020

My Flexible Hybrid Learning Plan

Welcome to my debut Blog of Phyz post! I was encouraged by Dean Baird to write a bit about my current flexible hybrid learning plan for the 2020-2021 school year that I posted on Twitter. Great idea! I hope that it can be helpful to others as they try to plan in the face of uncertainty.

The Plan

Let's cut to the chase. Here is the outline for my plan. The rationale follows.

It is currently based on my typical pre-COVID schedule, where I teach a class two 105 minute blocks and one 50 minute class per week. It's likely that I will have to change the times, but I think the philosophy behind it is solid and adaptable.

Guiding Principles

There were three guiding principles in making this schedule: simplicity, consistency, and flexibility.

Simplicity. This structure allows me to make good use of many of the high-quality resources that already exist, such as TIPERS, Ranking Tasks, Flipping Physics videos, Interactive Lecture Demonstrations, and so on.

Consistency. The students will see the same general structure each week, and they will know what to expect if they have to miss class. There should never be any surprises. Hopefully this reduces the "Hey, Mr. Milliano! Did I miss anything? What did I miss?" type questions. They'll know to check the recorded videos and their independent module for the week.

Flexibility. Much of this plan is structured around helping students to self-study and manage their own time. Even if we start the school year in-person, I have a suspicion that we will be online at some point. Students will need to know how to self-study, so we should explicitly prepare them for that while we're together. The teacher-led parts of the plan are things that I'd likely be able to do over video or Zoom, allowing them to work for in-person or online classes.

Independent Modules

Each module would be one week long, starting on Wednesday and ending the following Tuesday.

A module would consist of seven 30-minute tasks, three to be completed in class and four to be completed at home. This could be adjusted to five 30-minute tasks and one 60-minute task, or so on.

These modules would each include at least one of each of the following.
  • An information transfer task. This will often be a student-choice between reading the textbook or watching Flipping Physics videos. For accountability, I will likely have students post pictures of their notes and respond to discussion board prompts in our LMS.
  • A virtual lab or activity. These will come from the usual suspects: PhET, The Physics Classroom, Pivot Interactives, etc.
  • Sense-making tasks. These will include traditional problems, non-traditional problems, making Flipgrid videos explaining a simulation, Google Meets with classmates to collaborate and discuss ideas, posting on discussion boards, writing activities, and more.
Students will be asked to plan their own schedule, with guidance from me and the help of a graphic organizer that I'll make. As an incentive to stick to the plan and as an accountability measure, I'll check in with each student during their independent work time and see if they've stuck to their plan. If so, I'll give them a stamp or a sticker. (I'll never cease to be amazed at how motivating stamps and stickers are to 15-18 year-old students.)


The grade will be almost entirely based on weekly quizzes, except for the occasional lab report. This means no long unit tests (to take or to grade)! I will use a version of the 10-8-6-5 flavor of Standards-Based Grading described by Kelly O'Shea on her blog.

The weekly quiz can assess any standard from throughout the whole year, and most standards will be assessed multiple times in class. The most recent standard grade will always replace an older one. Yes, even if it's worse. (Although that rarely happens.)

Student-initiated individual reassessment

Students will have the option to reassess any standard they want throughout the whole year, assuming they have put in the work to understand it better than they did previously. I will have several policies in place to make sure that these reassessments are (a) genuinely reflective for the student and (b) not an administrative nightmare for me.
  • Reassessments will be taken on Fridays in class during the typical self-study time. This gives me a specific time to focus on this reassessments, rather than try to do them in random spurts throughout the week.
  • The student must sign up to take a reassessment by the Tuesday of the week they want to reassess. This tells me that the student has put thought into what they want to reassess.
  • When signing up, the student must provide concrete evidence that they have done extra practice on that standard. This tells me that they have learned from their past mistakes and have put in the work to refine their thinking.
  • The student can only reassess two standards per week, and they must be from the same unit. This helps me write new assessments or find questions quickly and easily.
  • I will only write reassessments for two units and four standards per week. This means I'm not trying to write too many new assessments per week.
  • Only x number of students per class can reassess in a given week. I don't know what the optimal number for x is, but I know there needs to be a limit.
  • There is a definite final date to reassess. For me, that's Friday, December 4, 2020 for the first semester.

Why I like this plan

This plan provides flexibility. There is so much uncertainty surrounding school plans for next fall, and we all know anything could change at the drop of a hat. I believe that this structure could provide the flexibility needed to work fully in-person, fully online, or in a hybrid model. It also allows me to do both online and face-to-face with roughly the same lesson plan.

This plan is not complete. I teach in a St. Louis county school, and all county districts have agreed to release their plans together on July 20. So I don't really know what my schedule will look like yet. With this structure, though, I am confident that I can start working on building some independent study modules.

Some acknowledgements

This plan has been heavily influenced by several conversations that I've had recently with physics teachers on Twitter. I'd like to thank Wesley Morgan for encouraging me to keep things simple this year, Frank Noschese for talking about his plan to make one plan that works in any scenario, and Phillip Easton for sharing how his class has been structured in a similar way in the past.

Monday, July 06, 2020

My district's initial plan for 2020-21

My district plans to offer high school students three options as the 2020-21 academic year begins. 

1. On-site, face-to-face instruction (details TBD; may or may not involve physical distancing and a hybrid structure)
2. Distance Learning
3. Independent Study (K-8 students can also be homeschooled)

I sent this to my science department colleagues today:

As we consider returning to face-to-face, physically distanced instruction, let’s consider what has/hasn’t changed since the March 13 shutdown. Or things just worthy of consideration, period.

• There is no vaccine. The most optimistic estimates put vaccine implementation at late 2021. As in ... no vaccine throughout the entire 2020-21 school year. Seems cruel just to think about it, but not thinking about it may lead to poor decision-making.
• Predictions are difficult, especially when the future's involved. Experts seem to be convinced that a second wave will build in the fall. That presumes the first wave will subside prior to the fall. The first wave continues to escalate as of this writing.
• Therapeutics? Remdesivir (for those who can get it) may reduce hospitalization time by four days for those who pull through. That's not really much of a therapeutic. 
• We know transmission likelihood is increased when people congregate indoors.
• No school’s HVAC system was designed / can be easily modified to minimize virus transmission. Our HVAC doesn’t have HEPA filtration. I'd be surprised if we have any filtration at all. Some of us can endeavor to maintain a flow of fresh air by opening doors and window vents, but that’s case by case, and involves air temperatures that may not be conducive to learning, and it subject to day to day meteorological conditions. 
• What do we think about teenager discipline regarding mask-wearing and physical distancing? Every day they are on campus? Every period and during passing periods? Every student? 
• What do we think the consequences will be for students who violate safety protocols?
• The virus remains active in the region. People are infected with it every day. People die from it every day. Sacramento county is on the state’s watch list due its troubling C19 stats. We are in a viral hot spot.
• Parents are tired of providing daycare. They want their kids out of their house. They need day care to get back to their jobs. This factor seems to be trumping all other facts. 

Digging deeper into the ponderables and the realm of speculation ... and logistics that will eventually have concrete answers even if we don't know what they are now...

• Which students are most likely to be sent back to Face-to-Face schooling? And which ones will be kept away from school in Distance Learning? A purely academic / speculative question, but worth thinking about. 
• Will students in Distance Learning be able to maintain the course selections they made in the spring? I have a small AP Physics 2 class. What if half of them want F2F and half want DL? 
• If the DL requests reduce the F2F numbers on campus, will the district really maintain all the sections that were mapped out into the master schedule in the spring?
• Who has our best interests in mind is we navigate into the unknown: elected officials (or their health directors), the district, the union, who? I believe we are on our own here—even more than usual. And we know full well that policy-makers don't always make decisions based on science. 

The science seems clear on the virus: closing down suppresses infection rates and reopening leads to spikes. The virus spreads mainly through respiratory droplets and aerosols emitted when doing things like speaking. Enclosed spaces are conducive to transmission.

But human nature compels us to think we can get away with reopening if we simply engage in what seems like common-sense, general public health precautions: hand-washing, temperature checks, ask people maintain distance, don masks, and dole out copious squirts of hand sanitizer. 

The first schools to open will be the canaries in the coal mine. SJSUD is intent on being an early-opening district in a viral hot spot. 

Who sees this going well? In such a way that we magically dodge the well-established realities of viral transmission? If anyone has a case study to point to, kindly send me a link. 

I find it hard to disagree with this opinion/analysis:

[Parent surveys reportedly include a considerable bloc of advocates for students attending five days/week with no physical distancing or mask requirements: pre-COVID practices.]

We have until July 10 to request a voluntary transfer to Distance Learning for 2020-21. The details would be a post of its own. Not all requests will be honored. 

UPDATE: Concerns about aerosol transmission is emerging. If you want to keep up with the aerosol/virus science, follow Dr. Linsey Marr, Professor of Environmental and Civil Engineering at Virginia Tech on Twitter. She's also a Rio Americano PhyzMaster (1991). I am as proud as can be when I think of the work she's doing and I might "squee!" a little bit when she pops up in news articles and media interviews. I am nothing but confident of her abilities, and she's handling the attention with characteristic aplomb. But I regret the circumstances that have thrust her into the spotlight.

So, what is your district doing and what is your thinking about it?