Friday, February 26, 2021

RT;DL Seeing Magnetic Fields

This activity shows a magnetic field projectual being used to reveal the magnetic field around various configurations of bar magnets. As with all RT;DLs, this activity began as an in-class lab and has been retooled for online delivery. 

Seeing Magnetic Field - Movie Export

Seeing Magnetic Fields - Student Document (to make your own copy)

Seeing Magnetic Fields Observations and Mysteries - HTML Export (this link is in the gdoc, too)

Seeing Magnetic Fields Observations and Mysteries - Movie Export (for devices that cannot run the HTML export—this link is in the gdoc, too)

I will confess that I find watching iron filings slowly align with magnetic fields on a large screen to be calmingly satisfying. I suppose it's my ASMR.


Thursday, February 18, 2021

Early Retirement



When I hatched it, I referred to my plan as “23AndMe,” like the genetics company. I would “graduate” (retire) in 2023, after teaching physics (and other things) at Rio Americano High School for 37 years. I was excited when my graduating class arrived on campus last year.

The CalSTRS numbers looked good. The last few years were going to be a bit bumpy, though. Physics, a course I've taught at Rio since 1986, was coming to an end. The vision of Next Generation Science Standards called for Physics to be replaced with Physics of the Universe (PotU). 

California published its vision of PotU, but textbooks and curriculum have been slow to emerge. The widespread expectation is that classroom teachers would absorb the NGSS PotU vision and leverage their creativity and ingenuity to develop curriculum ex nihilo. I had done some preliminary organizational work on how I would implement PotU at my school. But that first year promised to be an endeavor. There were two teachers at my school who could teach physics after I was gone. We met a few times to work on PotU.

In January of 2020 (years ago, now), my district offered a wee early retirement incentive to its oldest and most educated teachers. They hoped to clear out the highest paid faculty, easing pressure on a strained district budget. I looked at the numbers and was insulted. No way.

Then the pandemic struck. The district rescinded the incentive to those who applied for it. Many teachers retired without the incentive.

Our Last Day of School was Friday the 13th of March, 2020. Novel but unspectacular when it occurred. 

We have yet to return. Teaching is remote; learning is distant. It is awful. The school’s younger physics-teaching prospect moved to another district. An intended textbook adoption for all science courses was suspended.

For 2020-21, I had four preps: Physics, AP Physics 1, AP Physics 2, and Conceptual Physics. Transforming each of these classes to online versions has been ... difficult. And, to be delicate, the efficacy/effort ratio has not been high. I'm maintaining a headache that doesn't show signs of subsiding. My screen time exceeds any health-conscious dosage recommendations. 

In November, my district offered the same wee early retirement incentive. Same exact numbers as it offered in January. But they looked quite different to my newly throbbing eyes. Less insulting and more inviting. Bordering on irresistible

There's a significant pension prize if I stay the course for two more years. But here’s what I'm looking at. 

The course I polished over 35 years will be gone. A course I’ve never taught will take its place. There may or may not be a new textbook for the new course. There will be no 180-day curriculum with pacing guide/road map for this new course. No lab manual. No new lab materials. No test bank. Teachers might be given "release time" to develop such during the summer and/or during the year. Scratch that: there will be no budget for such extravagances. 

In fairness, this was what I walked into in 1986. I developed my course on my own, with direct and indirect help from mentors. And I was happy to do the work. Hard work. But I was bringing my vision of the course to life within my operational constraints. And I got better and better at loosening those constraints. The enterprise was enjoyable, challenging, and engaging. I was supported by the school and parents. I knew I was playing a long game, so I mixed patience with my determination.

What's happening now is different. I'm being compelled to implement a vision I was not invited to create. This has been true of the redesigned AP Physics 1 and 2 for a few years, and has not been enjoyable. Doing the same with the new Physics of the Universe does not appeal to me.

Predictions are difficult, especially when the future is involved. But it’s hard to see school districts in the next few years being flush with enough cash to fund curriculum development. Or anything else. We’ve had furloughs in the past. I don't see good times ahead for school district budgets. My district is keen to replace me with someone lower on the pay scale. The budget is prioritized over instructional quality. But that's always been true; you a priori-tize that assumption going in, and do well because it's important to you.

The recently-redesigned AP Physics 1 will certainly still be there. I haven't made a secret of my antipathy for that redesign and especially for the accompanying exam. But the College Board has convinced themselves that they are doing good in the world and so they will continue. Schools use AP courses to market themselves, so AP will continue as a thriving product line. I enjoy the course; I don't enjoy the test-prep aspect.

AP Physics 2 is a bit more on the bubble. It’s a tough sell, a second year of AP Physics in high school. My principal has made it a priority to run it, and I love teaching the material. To me, much of the AP2 material is more interesting than what we do in AP1. The district is in the process of adopting a new textbook for AP Physics 1 and 2. Our current textbook is ©2007 and was pretty shiny when we adopted it for AP Physics B in 2008. That was the last time we adopted physics books, now 13 years ago.

So two years of a developing course and one or two AP courses whose exams have lost their lustre. In a world of no books or piloting new books. With budget cuts looming. While we await full implementation of vaccines in a nation where anti-vaxxers stand loud and proud. 

Which part of that seems unappealing, right?

When I envisioned 23AndMe, Physics was transitioning to Physics of the Universe in a controlled manner with the participation of colleagues who would be left in charge of teaching it when I was gone. I actually designed the transition process for my school. The economy was such that I could expect a raise to be negotiated before I retired. And I had not experienced Remote Teaching/Distance Learning of four courses for the better part of a school year. 

There's more about short- and long-term issues that have altered my perspective, but this post has self-indulged quite enough (even for a blog post). Anything else I need to say will be posted in the comments. I'm dropping this post like a bread crum in case I ever wonder "What was I thinking?" in the years to come. (As Sade once sang, "The rose we remember, the thorns we forget.")

I think it's time for me to turn the page and move on. As the implications of this life-change settle into my features, I feel some subtle tingles of a weight being lifted normal force being reduced. 

I'm 35 years into the career. No one who was working at my school when I arrived is still there now. "Early retirement" feels like a misnomer. CalSTRS estimates over 16,000 California teachers will be retiring this year.

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Practical masking advice from Professor Marr

Rio Americano alum and Virginia Tech professor, Dr. Linsey Marr, was a guest on NPR's Science Friday. Host Ira Flatow asked her a tight sequence of practical questions, and she handled them all with aplomb. 

In my years of science lectures, colloquia, and conferences, I don't need that many fingers to count academics who communicate as effectively as Linsey Marr. And just because I'm biased, it doesn't mean it isn't true. Am I proud to the point of bursting? Pretty close. 

Judge for yourself:

Two Masks Are Better Than One - Science Friday 2/12/21 - Professor Linsey Marr (16:58)

Oh, and you'll get practical information on how best to handle the pandemic as it stands in February, 2021.

Monday, February 15, 2021

Just in time for Valentine's 2022!

Somewhere along the line I added four Scientist Valentines to my personal collection and failed to add them to the Flickr album. Why? I don't know. But I'm here to make it right. With ample lead time for Valentine's Day 2022. In any case, the collection expands from 24 to 28.

Scientist Valentines aficionados will have no trouble spotting the new items (two female; two male). I have a favorite, but I'm not saying.

Scientist Valentines

Scientist Valentines

Thursday, February 11, 2021

RT;DL Van de Graaff Demonstrations

What may turn out to be the most shocking (yeah, that didn't take long) aspect of my Van de Graaff demonstration sequence is how I could possibly have left your favorite VDG demo out. What was I thinking? By all means, let me have it in the comments—don't hold back.

Charging Ahead - Movie Export


If you can forgive me, I selfishly included all of my favorites. And they're not so bad. My favorites are ones I can mine for good physics that I believe my students can gather and grasp. 

Mop Head, Pie Tins vs. Styrofoam Bowls, Bubble Brigade (soap bubbles), Bad Hair Day, Green Wig, and I Blew My Top. Again, light me up in the comments for omitting the cool VDG demo you do.

There is also an explanation of how the generator works.



Sunday, February 07, 2021

RT;DL Electroscopia

Here is the second qualitative electrostatics lab redesigned and video clip enhanced for use in Distance Learning. The first was "A Pithy Matter" shown in a post below.

For "Electroscopia," we swap out the pith balls for a can form electroscope. These were sold with cardboard inserts with angle markings to make them more electrometer-ish. In practice, removing the insert allowed students working on opposite sides of the electroscope to see the pointer without obstruction. 

The activity works through a series of observations involving charge typing, induction, and the differences between conductors and insulators. It closes with some questions students should be able to answer with the benefit of evidence. 

There are appearances of the Fun Fly Stick, a latex balloon, and my head in this activity. Not to be missed!

Here's a taste.


Electroscopia - Student Document (Google Docs copy link)

Electroscopia - Observations (HTML export, preferred—linked to in the student document)

Electroscopia - Observations (Movie export for devices that struggle with the HTML export)

Mystery Objects and Mystery Charges - (HTML export for use by instructor while students collaborate in breakout rooms)

In practice, students "ask for help" to summon the instructor to their breakout room. Once there, students request an Object or a Charge and identify their room number. The instructor shares their screen while showing the appropriate clip, then leaves the breakout room as students interpret the observations.

Saturday, February 06, 2021

RT;DL A Pithy Matter

Sure, there's some kind of force involved in the rubbed plastic/pith ball interactions. But do we really need to consider it a whole new force? Isn't it just some form of gravity or magnetism? Let's experiment.

This qualitative exploration of electrostatics features: electrostatic attraction and repulsion, a triboelectric sequence (but we don't use the T-word here), an electrophorus (with pronunciation guidance), and two rounds of Pith Ball Ping Pong. What's not to like?

Let me just add that nothing—nothing—turned my most jaded, been-there-done-that high school seniors into elementary students more than this activity. When the pith balls started flying, their giddy glee was an involuntary reaction that expressed itself before they could so much as attempt to stifle it.

A Pithy Matter - Student Document (Google Docs copy link)

A Pithy Matter - Observations (HTML export as linked within the GoogleDocs document). This is a sequence of video clips showing interactions between cloth-rubbed plastic and pith balls, with special appearances by an electrophorus (ft. slow-motion electrophorus ping). Here's the movie export of the observations for use on devices that struggle with the HTML export—link also included in gdoc).

A Pithy Mattrer - Special Observations (HTML export for use by the instructor). They will seem silly to experts with content knowledge, but they are actually critical for the purpose of this activity.

This activity was designed for use with video conferencing (e.g., Zoom). Students need to check in with the instructor to see the "Special Observations". It's a redesign of what was an in-class lab. I consider it a mark of success that I am able to use the same lab quiz (ported to Socrative for online use, of course) to assess student performance on the activity. 

The roughest edge for students in this activity is recognizing that the brick is far and away the "most gravitational" object in the apparatus and how it can be used in this lab. The instructions make an attempt to steer, but still... Once they get past that, most groups catch on to the value of the bar magnet. Most; not all. 

To the best of my knowledge, this activity is not duplicated or even simulated elsewhere in teh interwebz. No Pivots; no PhETs. I will be corrected in the comments if I am mistaken.

In Distance Learning, I'm everyone's lab partner in addition to being the instructor.