Saturday, August 22, 2020

Cosmos in the Classroom updated for Distance Learning

Carl Sagan's Cosmos: A Personal Voyage spoke to many of us of a certain age who were interested in science. I remember watching every episode of the series with my family as it aired on PBS in 1980.

That series remains relevant in science classrooms, today. I began showing it in my Physics course a few years ago. We watch one episode after each unit, and there is a set of questions for students to answer while each episode plays. Eventually, I posted those question sets to a Cosmos in the Classroom web page that I added to the site.

In 2014, season 2 arrived. It was called Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, and featured Neil deGrasse Tyson as host. I developed a question set for each episode and integrated that series into my Conceptual Physics and AP Physics 2 courses. (AP Physics 1 gets no Cosmos. Shoehorning Kirchhoff in with All Things Mechanics means we have no time for any enriching tangents.)

When I entered the strange, new (to me) world of Teachers Pay Teachers, my Cosmos question sets were early product offerings. Originally available only as a complete season bundle, I have since made individual episodes available while offering the complete set at a discount. The first episode is free.

I purchased both series on optical discs (DVD and BD) so that I could easily show episodes in class. In the era of streaming, both series have gone through various iterations of streaming/not streaming on various services. Presently, episodes of Sagan's 1980 series stream on YouTube and episodes of Tyson's 2014 series can be purchased on YouTube. It may stream on a pay service, too. I can't always keep up.

Showing these episodes during Distance Learning presents a new challenge. Any series that streams on YouTube is easy and can be assigned as an asynchronous activity. Non-streaming episodes can also be shown. But only over Zoom, during synchronous sessions. 

But the question sets? In class, they'd be printed and given to students to write their answers on. Remember those days? 

Soon after the pandemic shutdown and the imposition of crisis teaching, I slogged through the task of turning video question sets into Google Docs format, so I could assign student-editable copies to all my students in Google Classroom, and they could turn in their digital copies when they completed the assignment. The task of converting each and every question set was not at all enjoyable.

I've worked out (through trial and error) how best to show episodes to my classes over Zoom. But as my EL student population grew, the language-intensive nature of this exercise worried me more and more. Such is the challenge of language instruction in high school: we want it to be challenging, but we cannot leave our EL students behind.

To mitigate what could be an overwhelming language load, I sought out and linked transcripts to each episode of both series. It's an open question as to whether or not transcript support is enough. But I'm grateful that the transcripts are available.

The Cosmos in the Classroom page, newly updated with transcript links, Teachers Pay Teachers links, and video search links, can be found here:

Cosmos in the Classroom 

I know that season 3, Cosmos: Possible Worlds, has been released. I hope to produce question sets for it someday. Perhaps a project for summer, 2021.

Friday, August 14, 2020

PASCO vs the Pandemic

I am sure everyone has a compelling narrative about how the COVID-19 pandemic upended their lives. This post is my story with an emphasis on how we responded at my company, PASCO scientific. One of our main responses was to create distance learning lab resources. They are described and linked to at the end of this post. Feel free to skip right to them. 

At the end of February my wife and I found ourselves at the Kaanapali Beach Hotel in Maui. We have been going there annually for the last 6 years for what used to be my ski week break. We used to go every few years and take our daughter and son. After they were out of high school their schedules didn't permit it. I remember telling them about our plans to go to Maui when they were in college. They replied, "but we don't get that week off anymore". We said "we know" with big smiles on our faces. We had a great week for what would be our last trip for many months. On our last day we went to nearby historic Lahaina. We went on a whale watch trip and walked up and down Front street. We were joined by hundreds of cruise ship passengers who were shuttled into town on small boats. We learned a week later that the name of the ship was the Grand Princess and it had passengers and crew infected with COVID-19. This was the ship that was stranded in San Francisco Bay for weeks as they tried to decide what to do with them.

Humpback whale spouts with the Grand Princess in the background

On our return we heard about the first known case of COVID-19 in the United States that was not due to travel. We were concerned because it was in nearby Sacramento. It also was troubling because the victim was not even given a test when they first went to the hospital with COVID-19 symptoms. Still, this was just one case so we felt safe about our plans to attend the Harry Potter and the Cursed Child play at the Curran theater in San Francisco. Our daughter is a big Harry Potter fan and this play was our birthday gift to her. We never considered not attending the play even after we learned that the cruise ship stranded in the Bay was the same one from Lahaina. We met our daughter, her boyfriend and two of her friends at the theater and had a great day. They were not concerned about COVID-19 but it did occupy a lot of our conversation. The coughing woman behind us caused some anxiety but no panic. The play is so long it is split into two parts with a long break in between. We had a nice dinner during the break at the San Francisco landmark, John's Grill. Little did we know that this would be our last large public gathering for many months.

One last large public gathering before the lock down, March 8 2020

Things happened fast at PASCO the next week. On March 9 all of our travel was cancelled. This included a trip to Qatar to conduct training and to Boston for NSTA. I was most disappointed about missing the Red Sox vs White Sox game at Fenway on April 4. That would be the first on a long list of disappointments that seem trivial compared to the hardship and suffering that would be inflicted on millions of others. On 3/11 my group, Curriculum and Professional Development, met to discuss how to respond to the developing crisis. Since preparing for Qatar and NSTA was on hold, we had time to do something for teachers who were quickly transitioning to remote teaching. We came up with a plan to create a distance learning page on our website. On it would be links to videos we would produce that would show us explaining and performing many labs that are typically done in a second semester physics, chemistry and biology class. We would post the data files and student handouts so students could perform the analysis. We also would post the teacher guide with sample analysis. We increased the trial period of PASCO Capstone and SPARKvue analysis software to 180 days. That extension continues so teachers wanting to use video analysis should check out PASCO Capstone. Additionally, we gave free access to our online textbooks, Essential Physics and Essential Chemistry. Now all we had to do was produce 21 physics, chemistry, and biology lab videos before PASCO had to shut its doors! That happened sooner than we thought. Placer County issued a shelter in place order effective on Friday, March 20. We succeeded with our goal, making and posting 21 distance learning labs with videos. We went into lock down knowing we had created something useful for teachers that were struggling to teach science online. The distance learning page is still active but the free access to Essential Physics and Essential Chemistry has ended. Here are the 10 physics labs that we posted. Make sure you log into your PASCO account to be able to access the teacher guide and data files.

We remained away from the PASCO office for a lot longer than the original 4/10 specified in the Placer County shelter in place order. We were instructed not to work but were paid our full salary until March 28. After that we could use paid time off or file for unemployment. I did the latter and found the online system worked pretty well. I never thought I would file for unemployment but since I had paid my taxes all those years, I went ahead and did it. My wife and I were thankful every day that we had recently moved from the Bay Area to a house on a lake near Auburn, California. The lake is like having a 240 acre back yard. I did a lot while in lock down, some of it even useful. Among my pandemic projects were a set of labs and videos experimenting with a chain on a pulley and a chain hitting the ground. I later used this work to create a talk for the virtual AAPT summer meeting. 

The view from our deck as mist rises from Lake of the Pines at sunrise

We remained in lock down until 5/4. At that point my group and a few other key personnel were allowed back into the office. I felt safe since there were few people there and we were spaced very far apart. We were scheduled to work a 4-day 32-hour week so no more unemployment. I was able to work at home but when you develop physics curriculum you need a lot of stuff and I missed my stuff! Over the next couple of weeks more people started coming in to the office with everyone back by 5/18. We also went back to a 40 hour week. Everyone wears a mask when away from their cubicle and meetings are on Zoom. Some employees are starting to work part-time at home to reduce the density at the office too. I still feel safe there.

I had a lot of things to work on but one was a collection of labs for two new products, the Physics Starter Lab Station and the Physics Extension Lab Station. These are bundled wireless sensors that come with a lab booklet, 10 labs for each station. There are chemistry lab stations , biology lab stations, elementary lab stations, middle school lab stations, and agricultural science lab stations too but I am going to focus on physics. We also committed to make a video for each of the labs in the Physics Starter Lab Station. This was an opportunity to make more distance learning labs. Originally we had wanted to make some for first semester topics but the lock down prevented that. Over the last couple of months I finished creating the labs and we made videos and posted data files for the labs listed below:

Position, Distance, and Displacement

Newton's Second Law

Designing and Testing Crash Cushions

Impulse and Change in Velocity

Change in Kinetic Energy

Rotational Collisions 

We plan to make more of these but they are on hold because of our new project called PASCO Academy. It was inspired by the popularity of the distance learning videos but motivated by the need to create something that will bring in revenue. Schools, teachers, and home schoolers that subscribe to PASCO Academy will get access to 15 weeks of a lab video program, access to our online textbooks, and unlimited license to SPARKvue software. The lab program will consist of a teacher preparation video, a lab overview and data collection video for students, and a follow up analysis and discussion video for students. The labs will all come from the Essential Physics or Essential Chemistry online textbooks that are targeted at a regular to honors level class. My colleague JJ Plank and I are in charge of the physics PASCO Academy. If you found the distance learning video labs useful I suggest you check it out.

Monday, August 10, 2020

Remote Learning Best Practices (Sort of)

I've been teaching high school physics for 22+ years, and for 18 of those years I've also been a professor at a nearby community college, where I teach every summer. Most of my colleagues think that I need to have my head examined for voluntarily teaching in the summertime, but - what can I say? - I'm hooked on this teaching gig.

This past summer I had the opportunity to teach a completely online class for my college, and it was a great experience! I’ll admit that at first I was concerned about delving into this brave, new world of remote teaching, but now that I’ve gone through an entire course, start-to-finish, I wanted to share with you my thoughts and advice for how to teach a class remotely in terms of what I have found to be best practices. Of course, not all of this advice will apply equally for all situations or classes, and I encourage you to experiment with what works best for you and your students.

1. Synchronous vs. Asynchronous Instruction: having done asynchronous teaching last spring for my high school and synchronous teaching for my college this summer, I think it is far better to do live, synchronous teaching. It provides a regular structure for the students, and many are reassured to have regular "face-to-face” contact with their teacher. However, I plan to structure my classes with a strong asynchronous component as well – in the form of required, regular discussion board posts to keep students engaged and accountable even when they aren’t “in class”.

2. Student Interaction During Live Class: if you are doing a class live, then something that worked out very well for me was for students to disable their video and audio. The reason for this is two-fold: 1) It lessens the bandwidth that you need to use (which decreases lagging and/or dropped sessions), and 2) it lessens distraction on the students’ part since they have to watch you. In terms of having students interact live, the way that worked best for me is to have them post questions and answers in the online chat; of course, you have to keep an eye on that chat window while you’re doing a lecture, so you have to be on your game!

3. Make Use of Breakout Rooms: the breakout room feature is very helpful; whether it was having my class do group discussion, in-class problem solving, or remote lab work, I found that providing time for students to work directly with each other was critical to both their learning and positive social interaction. I recommend having some kind of breakout room session at least once per week, but make sure you “run laps” and drop in to keep those kiddos on task!

4. Record Your Live Class: for every live lecture/class I did at the college this summer, I recorded the sessions and uploaded the videos daily so that students who wished to go back through the lesson could do so. This is also very useful for students who, for whatever reason, were absent from class.

5. Outfit Your Teaching Space: make sure that you have your own teaching space or “classroom” at home, if you’re teaching remotely. This will help provide you with a degree of familiarity and comfort, and if you are comfortable it will help set your students more at ease.

6. Use Tech to Your Advantage: as a follow up to #5, if you are doing live teaching, there are a *lot* of options – you can use your computer’s webcam and set up a white board to lecture at; you can use a digital writing pad (I personally use a Gaomon, cost $70 on Amazon) in conjunction with the Paint program on your computer (Paint is easier to use and more versatile than the digital whiteboard on Zoom or Google Meet, in my view); you can also get a document camera to write on paper directly for display; on that last note, doc cams are rather expensive and can be quite finicky, but here’s a cheap teacher hack that I’ve used in a pinch J

Make your smartphone a webcam -

7. Regular Assessments: again, in order to provide structure and a degree of accountability for students, I recommend that you work regular assessments into your remote teaching. For example, something I did at both my high school last spring and the college this summer is require students to do a weekly quiz over that week’s material. Working properly with your institution's online CMS, you can set up such assessments to be timed (and adjusted accordingly for students with extended time) and draw questions from a question bank so that no two students’ quizzes look exactly the same, etc. There are lots of options, and if you play around with it you’ll find something that works for you.

8. Take Brief Breaks: my college class over the summer was 3-hours every morning, Monday through Thursday, and that is a *lot* of screen time! Both teachers and students this fall semester will be experiencing a lot of screen time as well, so try to work in regular, short (roughly 5-10 minute) breaks during any live classes to give your eyes a rest, go to the restroom, etc.

9. Check Email Regularly: some students won’t feel comfortable engaging you in class, so make sure to check your email a few times per day to see if they’ve sent you private questions. I’ve found that many students are quite appreciative of that “personal” touch.

10. Embrace the Insanity & Ask for Help: honestly, these past months I’ve felt more like a first-year teacher than any other time since I actually was a first-year teacher back in 1998! While it has been quite a challenge, I’ve taken the view that this situation is an opportunity to adjust and hone my skills as a teacher, and that positive outlook has definitely helped me during the rough patches. Also, DO NOT HESITATE to ask your colleagues for assistance when you need it. Due to the wonders of modern technology (such as this blog), we are not separate from each other, so maintain your connections with your colleagues and lift each other up. In short, we can view this challenge in the following manner…

Those are my thoughts and advice, such as they are; if you have any questions, feel free to reach out. Semper Gumby! J

Cheers – Matt Lowry

Saturday, August 08, 2020

Phone app Phyphox looks promising

Like many, I've been trying to get a handle on potential distance learning tools over Summer Nocation. It seems there is a vast library of resources and web tools for instruction in general and physics instruction. 

I use PhET already. I'm working with my district to gain access to Pivot Interactives. My district's LMS is Google Classroom, while our SIS is Q (Aequitas).

I have never used Flipgrid, Padlet (or Wakelet), EdPuzzle, Quizizz, Socrative, Screencastify or Screencast-o-matic, Loom, Zoom, Peardeck, Jamboard, Desmos, Edulastic, Flippity, or any other must-have tool that is explained in a video that features a noodling xylophone over a strummed ukulele while a narrator announces, "This ... is <ProductName>. The tool that lets you <do the thing you didn't even know was critical to your instruction program, but is—especially now in distance learning>". If a personal favorite of yours is in that list, you may be tempted to cast me as a luddite. 

There is no shortage of webinars of experts who have been using these tools for years, where importance of Bitmoji is made unambiguous, as is the value of carefully curating of your virtual Zoom background.

At the virtual AAPT Summer Meeting 2020, the phone app, Phyphox, caught my eye (thanks to Susan Johnston's presentation). Like Google's Science Journal app, it leverages a phone's many sensors.

In addition to the activities available from Phyphox, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory has prepared a series of physics distance learning lessons. I already had the app on my phone, but I was compelled to open it and play around on my own.

As with so many things in the realm of Distance Learning, there is a question as to whether it's appropriate to assume our students have access to a smartphone. 

I'm not going to be able to construct a new and better version of the curriculum I've been honing for over 30 years in the snap of a finger. Or at all. If things work out, we'll be back to face-to-face instruction by ... 2022 is my prognostication. Maybe even Fall, 2021. For now, we're going to do our best with the situation we're in.