Learning Tracker Video Analysis with Napoleon Dynamite

I know I'm late to the game. Rhett Allain, John Burk, Frank Noschese, among many others have been sharing how they use Tracker (or a similar tool) to analyze the physics of videos. Since I'm working on picking up my teaching certification in Physics this year, I figure this would be a nice addition to the teaching toolbox1.

So, what is Tracker? It's a free and open-source video analysis and modeling tool designed to be used in physics education. It works on Macs, PCs, and Linux boxes. Logger Pro is a similar tool, but it's not free or open-source2.

Getting going

To begin, I watched Rhett Allain's video tutorial, but it includes a few more complicated pieces that I wasn't quite ready for. Luckily sitting in the Related Videos sidebar on YouTube was this tutorial, which went over the super-basics for n00bs like myself. Alright. Tracker downloaded & installed. Basic tutorial viewed. Now I need me a video to analyze.

I wanted something pretty easy to break myself in: a fixed camera angle, no panning, with an object moving directly perpendicular to the camera. I figured YouTube must be full of videos of people jumping bikes, and I went out to find my first video analysis victim. Amazingly, one of the first videos I found was both interesting, funny, and had the perfect still camera and perpendicularly-moving object:

Perfect! OK, now I needed to calibrate Tracker so it can accurately determine scale. Hmm...well Napoleon is standing fairly close to the sidewalk. I wonder if Jon Heder's height is online? Well, of course it is. In fact, Google gives me an estimated height right on top of the search results by just typing in height Jon Heder. However, I think I'll use IMDb's data, which lists his height at 185cm (sans 'fro).

Napoleon Dynamite's height
Calibrating size with Napoleon Dynamite

There might be a small error there since he is standing a few feet back from the ramp, but it should be OK.

Did Pedro get, like, 3 feet of air that time?

It took me awhile to realize that I needed to shift-click to track an object...once I figured that out things went smoothly. I tracked the back tire of Pedro's bike. Here's a graph of  the back tire's height vs. time:

There are a couple hitches in the graph. A few times the video would advance a frame without the screen image changing at all. Must be some artifact of the video. I added a best-fit parabola to the points after the back tire left the ramp. Hmm...the acceleration due to gravity is -8.477 m/s^2. That's a bit off the expected -9.8 m/s^2. That could be a result of the hitches in the data, my poor clicking skills, or my use of Napoleon Dynamite's height as my calibration. We'll go with it, since it's not crazy bad.

Coming up to the ramp the back tire sits at 0.038m and reaches a maximum height of 0.472 m. How much air does Pedro get? ~0.43m, or 1.4ft. Napoleon's estimate is a little high.

Maybe Napoleon meant Pedro's bike traveled forward three feet in the air? Let's check the table.

I highlighted the points of interest. We can look at the change in x-values from when the tire left the ramp (at 0 meters) until the tire lands back on the sidewalk (at y = 0). The bike traveled 1.3 meters while airborne; about 4.25 feet. So maybe that's what Napoleon meant.

Who was faster?

Let's check the position-time graphs for Pedro and Napoleon.

I added best fit lines to both sets of data. We can easily compare their velocities by checking the slope of their best fit lines.

  • Pedro's velocity: 5.47 m/s (12.24 mph)
  • Napoleon's: 5.44 m/s (12.16 mph)

If I account for potential errors in measurement, their velocities are basically the same. Though if forced to pick a winner, I'd Vote for Pedro.

How tall is Pedro?

It should be fairly straightforward to find Pedro's height using the data in the video. The first thing I need to do is verify that the camera angle is exactly the same when Pedro is standing behind the sidewalk as it was earlier. After switching back and forth between the two parts, it's pretty clear that the camera angle is a little different. Nuts.

So, I need to find and measure an object that is visible in both parts of the video. I chose the left window on the (Pedro's?) house. Going to the first part of the video where I'm pretty sure the calibration is accurate, I used the measuring tape to measure the height of the window. I got 1.25 meters.

Jumping to the second part, I calibrated the video by setting the height of the window to 1.25 meters. Then I used the measuring tape to determine Pedro's height. I got 1.67 meters, or about 5' 6". Seems like a reasonable result. Let's compare it to what the Internet says about Pedro's height. IMDb gives Efren Ramirez's (a.k.a. Pedro) height as 1.70 meters (5' 7").

Not too shabby for my first time using Tracker.



  1. You might notice this post is pretty similar in style to Rhett Allain's video analyses on Dot Physics. Well, it is. When just learning how to do something, it's always best to start by imitating the masters, right? Oh, if you haven't yet, you should definitely check out his many, many amazing examples using video analysis to learn all sorts of crazy things. The guy's a Tracker ninja.     (back)
  2. To be fair, it's only $189 for a site license of Logger Pro, which ain't too shabby. According to Frank Noschese, Logger Pro is a little more user-friendly. Tracker has a bit of a learning curve.     (back)

How I use LaTeX

In the last installment, I described what LaTeX is and my adventures in learning to use it. Today, I'll explain how, as a teacher still figuring out all this LaTeX craziness, I get things done using it.

As I mentioned, I've been using LaTeX to write up lab reports in the classes I'm taking this semester. LaTeX is great with formal documents, especially when they need to include symbols, fractions, and other exciting calculations. LaTeX works great (for me) to create formal documents. It has easy commands to create headings and sub-headings, bulleted and numbered lists, and (of course) it makes including formulas and symbols easy peasy.

That being said, I've been working for quite a while to make any handouts or slides for students more visually appealing. Lots of graphics. Design elements. And so forth. You can make slides and handouts using LaTeX. I don't think you should. Here's a slide deck I've used to introduce the basics of chemical reactions. In Keynote or PowerPoint it didn't take much effort to create. In LaTeX I think it'd take for-ev-er. Does that mean you can't get the awesome formula making of LaTeX in anything other than formal documents?


Lucky for you, there's LaTeXiT [update: Mac only]. It comes automatically with the full version of LaTeX. Basically, it lets you type in the commands to create the great looking formulas & symbols you'd expect from LaTeX then allow you to drag & drop them into your slide decks or handouts.

Commands typed in the text box. Output appears up top.
Dragging from LaTeXiT to Keynote

One of the great things LaTeXiT does is allow you to export the formula in a variety of image formats- including vector based pdf image files. While that sounds like geekily unnecessary information, it means that you can adjust the size of your formula so it's as huge as you'd like and it'll never get all pixellated.

Starting out

Since at first I didn't know any of the LaTeX symbols, I kept a couple pdfs that explained all the commands for different symbols open while I was using LaTeX. If I needed how to add, say, absolute value symbols, I just used the "find" function on my pdf viewer to locate where it described that command. At this point, I rarely need to look up new commands, since I've memorized all the usual ones simply through repetition. I've included below links to the mandi LaTeX package and it's documentation, which was made specifically for physics classes. Also included are links to a guide for all sorts of math symbols. Both have been super-useful for me while learning to use LaTeX.

[Update] LaTeXiT History & Library

Thanks to John Burk via twitter, I've discovered that LaTeXiT saves every formula you enter. That means you can pull up the history panel and drag & drop any of the formulas you've entered without having to re-type the commands. That's a major time saver.
The history. Drag & drop to your heart's delight.
Further, you can save equations in the "Library," and organize them into folders. Being the super-organized person I am1, I'll probably create folders like Kinematics, Newton's 2nd, Heat them dump equations I create into them as I go. Eventually I'll have an extensive library of equations and symbols ready to go.


  1. not so much.   (back)

Learning new things: LaTeX

I can usually get programs like Microsoft Word to format my documents so the way I envision the document in my head matches up pretty close to what I end up with on the screen. You know, however, that sometimes getting the document to look right can often take as much time as it takes to type the document in the first place.  If you add to that the hassle of trying to get equations for physics or chemistry to show up correctly, it's pretty easy to such down a lot of time simply knocking out a short and simple handout.

Last July, I caught John Burk's post on a new LaTeX1 package that makes writing physics equations much easier. Although I had been peripherally aware of LaTeX in the past, I really didn't know much. Since I had some extra time in the summer (and since I'm not teaching this year, freeing up more time), I decided to jump in and try to figure LaTeX out.

What is LaTeX?

Don't be fooled. LaTeX is not a word processor. It took me awhile to figure that one out. While you type in the text that you want to show up in your final document, you're also adding some code telling it exactly how you want your final document to look. Want a new section in your document? Type section{Section Title}. This automatically creates a section title with a larger bold font, and automatically adds it to your table of contents (if you have one).

Why bother?

Since I'm sciencey (is that how you spell sciencey?), I tend to use more formulas, symbols, and other weird notations in my documents than the average bear. As previously mentioned, getting these to work in pretty much any standard word processing software sucks. It's a major pain. Especially if there are special characters all over it. Even more so if you want the formulas to actually look right. LaTeX provides simple codes that allow you to make equations and symbols look exactly how you envisioned them in your head.

For example, typing
a=\dfrac{2(\Delta y)}{t^2}

will tell LaTeX to do this:
a=\dfrac{2(\Delta y)}{t^2}

If you'd like to see a full document in LaTeX, here's a plain text file that I wrote in a LaTeX editor. Here's the finished typeset product (pdf warning).

What I've learned

  • There's a learning curve. It takes awhile to figure (and remember) how to write in LaTeX as well as the different codes for symbols, parentheses, etc. If you're writing a document that's on a tight deadline it's not a good time to decide to experiment with LaTeX. When I started I sat down for a couple hours on a lazy Saturday afternoon and tried to figure it out. I've also committed myself to writing up all the lab reports I have to do this semester using LaTeX so I'll get the hang of things.
  • There's a lot of information online about LaTeX. If you don't know a command, you'll be able to find it by searching. As a bonus, you occasionally get some "interesting" search results due to LaTeX (the program) being spelled the same as latex (the rubbery material).
  • Once you get the hang of it, it's faster than messing about with Word. I've only been using LaTeX for a month and I'm already past the break even point. As a bonus, my documents have beautiful formulas that display correctly. I can only imagine things will get faster from here.
  • I doubt I'll use LaTeX as a teacher to create entire documents. I will use LaTeX as a teacher to insert formulas and symbols into documents and slides. I'll do a follow up post explaining specifically how I envision I'll use LaTeX as a teacher.
  • The "official" way to write it is \LaTeX, which of course, requires \LaTeX to make.



  1. pronounced "lay-tech," which of course makes total sense.     (back)

2 weeks later: myTEDxNYED

A major problem with public education is tradition. "This is just the way things are done here," is a refrain that I've heard many times in my own short career. One of my take-aways from TEDxNYED is this: The tools and services to make schools modern and relevant are available, but schools need to overcome their "traditions. I'll avoid a breakdown of what individual speakers discussed1. Instead I'll try to comment on the broader spectrum of themes and reactions.


Theme #1: Education should be open. To me it seems obvious that a high quality education should be treated more like a universal right than something only available to those in nice neighborhoods of rich countries. I think many of the educators I know as well as the speakers (& hopefully you, reader), would heartily agree. However, it's quite clear that the current schooling system puts an awful lot of faith in for-profit corporations to provide educational content. Clearly this doesn't have to be the case. Many schools and educators are resistant. Why? "Because that's the way things have always been done."

Theme #2: Education should be social. This definition of social goes beyond using collaborative groups within your classroom. Instead (as Andy Carvin did such a great job illustrating) we should empower our students to set up collaborations without our classrooms to help tackle real problems. John Dewey noted that learning is socially constructed and this movement towards using social networks to connect people around a common problem seems to flow quite nicely from that idea.

Theme #3: Better Problems = Better Learning. Whether intentionally or not, as educators we tend to  shelter our students from real-world problems. We don't think our students are ready yet, don't know how to connect students to the problems, or are afraid of relinquishing our control over the students. Many speakers pointed out the fact that one of the greatest motivations for learning is attempting to solve a really good problem. Hats off to Dan Meyer who did his typically great job showing us what that actually looks like in an Algebra classroom.

Theme #4: Do it for the kids. Chris Lehmann makes this case so well2. Make schools a place of great relationships and great learning. We can't continue allowing schools to be places students detest. While Michael Wesch and Dan Meyer's talks didn't focus on the topic, they've both been great advocates to creating educational environments that focus around positive relationships with students as a cornerstone (see here and here, respectively).


1: I'm much cooler online. This was the first large event I've been to with loads of people I've talked to through Twitter and blogs in attendance. I'm not so great at walking up to people cold and introducing myself. As a result I didn't meet nearly as many people as I would've liked.

2: It's great to meet locals. I had the opportunity to meet Dan Agins, who is the only other educator on Twitter (that I'm aware of) from Southeastern Connecticut. Perhaps it's a bit ironic that we first met in NYC instead of SE CT, but regardless of location it's nice to connect with people nearby. Let's hope we're just the beginning of a larger trend in the area.

3: Advice to sink in slowly. So much knowledge was dropped in such a short period of time at TEDxNYED that I'm really looking forward to the videos of the talks being posted online. There were several talks that I'd like to hear again to help me clarify my thoughts and ideas on the topic.

4: Post-TEDxNYED furor. There seems to have been a pretty big, "TEDxNYED-was-great-but-what-does-it-actually-do-to-improve-education" reaction from many attendees3. I was surprised that this seemed to be a major reaction. Perhaps that surprise is the result of me being a edu-conference newbie working in a school/district/state which doesn't sport a very high population of educators who are familiar with the ed-tech world. For me, this event was a reminder that I'm not crazy. A reminder that there are a lot of smart people out there who are on the same page. For me, that re-invigoration was necessary. It's easy to get worn down by the head-against-brick-wall experience that can be day-to-day teaching.

5: Oh, the irony. Coming back from my TEDxNYED weekend I had the honor of administrating practice CAPT (Connecticut's standardized test of choice) to 14 year old students that may very likely not even be graded. I'm sure the feeling was similar to Icarus' transition from delight in flying to despair in falling4.


  1. Several people have already done this quite nicely. My own observations wouldn't add much value to what already exists. Plus the talks should be available online in their entirety shortly.     (back)
  2. He deserves to be featured prominently in the education version of 40 Inspirational Speeches in 2 minutes.      (back)
  3. Check out many of the responses at this site curated by Shelley Krause (@butwait).     (back)
  4. This might be a little overstatement, but I was in a serious edu-funk the first week or so of school after TEDxNYED due to this crash back to reality.    (back)

Tim Gunn & the role of a teacher

As mentioned in previous posts, I've been spending a lot of time reading research and thinking about my Master's Project. I'm working on a self-directed learning1 unit in which students choose their own specific topics of study within a broad category (i.e. climate change) and follow their interests and passions while documenting and publishing their learning as they go.

Through all of this, my biggest struggle has been working out exactly what the ideal teacher's role should be in this type of environment. There needs to be guidance, scaffolding, and assessment, but how does a teacher do those things effectively in a self-directed learning environment?

I knew regularly talking to students and discussing their progress and understanding of their topic and learning was a must, but I was struggling to picture how that looks.

Then it hit me.

I've watched a few episodes of Project Runway2, and though I'm not really big into fashion design, I did realize there was something relevant going on here. For each episode, contestants are given some design challenge (i.e., make a more fashionable postal uniform) and given a limited time frame in which to complete their outfit. After working for awhile, Tim Gunn (one of the hosts) goes around and talks to each of the contestants about their designs. It's brilliant.

Conversation, questioning, and critique: Clip 1

Tim Gunn goes around to the contestants asking them how they're doing and to explain their design. He'll point out things that don't look right, offer suggestions for improving the design, praise designs that are well-developed, and overall do what he can to help and support the designers without interfering too much with their particular senses of fashion. Tim Gunn doesn't force his will on them but he does learn a great deal about who they are as a designer and their ideas behind the design. The best part? At 1 min 25 sec: "I don't want you to ask me that. I want you to ask yourself that." Pushing for self-assessment. Nice.

Joining a community of practice: Clip 2

In this clip Tim is more forceful. Wendy (a contestant) designs clothes for lower-end/more practical uses. However, the focus of the show (and that of the judges) is definitely "high fashion." Tim takes her aside, validates her viewpoint as being important and necessary, but goes on to suggest that if she wants to be successful on Project Runway that she rethink her viewpoint. In essence, Tim is trying to help Wendy join the "high fashion" community of practice.

Notable differences

The designers on the show are already members of a community of practice. They want to be fashion designers and, for the most part, they are familiar with what it means to be a designer and are motivated to pursue that route. In my 9th grade science class not all students will be as interested in the material. Those that are interested in the material are probably not familiar with what it means to be a scientist or act scientifically. Fix? More support. Tim Gunn stops by once or twice in a 4-6 hour design session. I'll have to be constantly circulating and talking to my students. Giving them stronger nudges than he does & providing more guidance.


Teaching students to be able to regulate their own learning and follow their own interests will probably be more challenging than it should be in our schools. Students have been trained to expect the teacher to tell them what to study, how to study it, and when to study it. It will take time and support to help students begin to take control of their own learning. To do that, the teacher is going to have to step back from the lead role, and start a role similar to Tim Gunn's. Talk to individual students or groups. Give feedback, offer suggestions, but allow students to express their personality and follow their interests.


  1. hat tip to @msansonetti for helping me discover that name (self-directed learning). I found lots of great research using those search terms.  (back)
  2. Wikipedia article for Project Runway if you're unfamiliar.   (back)

Meme: Summer Professional Development: My Goals

I picked this one up from Clay Burell thanks to his post at Change.org, and I believe it was Clif Mims who kicked of this meme.


Summer can be a great time for professional development. It is an opportunity to learn more about a topic, read a particular work or the works of a particular author, beef up an existing unit of instruction, advance one’s technical skills, work on that advanced degree or certification, pick up a new hobby, and finish many of the other items on our ever-growing To Do Lists. Let’s make Summer 2009 a time when we actually get to accomplish a few of those things and enjoy the thrill of marking them off our lists.

The Rules

NOTE: You do NOT have to wait to be tagged to participate in this meme.

1. Pick 1-3 professional development goals and commit to achieving them this summer.
2. For the purposes of this activity the end of summer will be Labor Day (09/07/09).
3. Post the above directions along with your 1-3 goals on your blog.
4. Title your post Professional Development Meme 2009 and link back/trackback to http://clifmims.com/blog/archives/2447.
5. Use the following tag/ keyword/ category on your post: pdmeme09.
6. Tag 5-8 others to participate in the meme.
7. Achieve your goals and "develop professionally."
8. Commit to sharing your results on your blog during early or mid-September.

Alright. Here goes:

Finish my Master's. I've completed all of my coursework for a Master's in Curriculum and Instruction, yet due to the big move from Michigan to Connecticut last summer I had to scrap my original proposal and push back the completion of the degree. This is going to be a pretty busy summer without this Master's busi/yness thrown in, but if I finish anything this summer, this needs to be it. Oh, by the way, I'm planning on creating a project-based unit for 9th grade Integrated Science and interweaving that with creating professional development for technology integration for other teachers. I'm sure there'll be more posts on this as it develops.

Post more often. You may have noticed: I fell off the blogging wagon awhile ago. I've found myself missing the depth that results from forcing myself to put my thoughts into writing. No promises on posts per week or anything- hopefully I'll just be quicker to posts thoughts/reflections that I'm having.

Read. more. books. Two summers ago I set aside a specific amount of time for reading everyday (both for pleasure & professionally). Last summer I didn't read nearly as much without that regimen, so I'm hoping this year to rip through several books. Professionally I have some Papert1 and Dewey2. For leisure I have no set plan except to read what sounds good to me at the time. You can keep track of my reading through the LibraryThing widget in my sidebar (or visit my LibraryThing catalog).

Stay connected. It's much harder for me to follow Twitter during the summer. I'm not required to be near a computer during the day, so often I'm not. I'm already missing the conversations and links that are a regular part of my Twitter communication. I'm hoping to keep up on my feeds a little better, and will try to interact  more through that end of things as I spend less dedicated time in front of the screen.

I'll refrain from tagging others specifically, but if you're reading this, consider yourself tagged. Here's to a fun, restful, productive summer.______________________________

  1. somehwere Gary Stager is smiling(back)
  2. despite having read an awful lot about Dewey's ideas and several excerpts, I've never sat down with his actual work. I know, I know...(back)

Communities of reformers & learners (great posts 2 & 3)

Communities of reformers

Some posts hit you exactly when and where you need to be hit. Dina over at The Line wrote a post that did just that recently. In a new school where I'm not exactly enthralled with the existing culture, I've found myself frustrated often. I haven't been posting as much in part because I felt like most of what I wanted to write about would be negative and complain-y. I'm not one to be content with school culture that needs some work so I've tried pushing some things here and there with very limited success. That's frustrating. Add that to teaching brand new classes and I'm frustrated knowing that this isn't my best year as a teacher, even if its simply because it's all new

In the midst of frustration the providencial interWebz sent Dina's post my direction. Frustrated working to change a school while working in that school she pulls in advice from several of my favorite names in education (featuring Deborah Meier and Chris Lehmann) who advise reforming with a posse (for support) and giving yourself a break when things don't work out they way you'd like. Check out this gem of a quote from Chris:

Trying to be Rafe Esquith or Debbie Meier is a good goal, but only if we don’t beat ourselves up when we fall short… teaching is a marathon, not a sprint. We desperately need wise, kind, thoughtful people who make this a career and a life.

And we need to forgive ourselves when we aren’t perfect or awesome or “A-game” every day. When the people who care leave because we cannot measure up to our ideal version of ourselves, in the end, that’s bad for our schools and our kids.

I have been in the habit of beating myself up for falling short this year, and Dina's post helped me remember that it's okay. I can fail without being a failure (and that I need to start forming a reform posse 😉 ).

Communities of learners

Michael Wesch teaches his college classes as if they were research groups. He does this to great effect and has received quite a bit of notoriety for his unique teaching style and the products of his students' research (some examples). In the post Our class on how we run our class, Wesch details how the class is organized and what the students are responsible for generating.

Wesch has effectively created and implemented a teaching style that I've been slowly working towards in my last several years as an educator. It's basically the definition of student-centered, authentic, active learning (I know that's a lot a buzz words in one sentence, but if they're ever applicable, it's here).

This post gave me a lot to unpack and think about in relation to my own teaching. I haven't had the time to sit down and decompress all the information he's slammed into this one post quite yet, but it'll definitely be something I spend time on this summer (if not sooner).

Michael Wesch was a guest on a recent Seedlings Podcast (#60) where he gives a little more insight into his philosophy of teaching. An interesting tidbit: he uses Eric Fromm's The Art of Loving to stay focused on what how he should think about his students. The whole show is worth a listen.

My podcast list

Podcasts are amazing. I listen to them when I do the dishes, when I'm driving by myself in the car, when I'm going for a run, and pretty much any time when I'm doing mindless work. I've come to rely on podcasts quite a bit for my entertainment/learning/information. I've found that since I've started using podcasts (as opposed to simply listening to the radio) I'm consuming more far more information than I ever did previously.

I often find so much valuable (or at least interesting) information through listening to my podcasts, allow me share my current subscriptions. I recommend all of them. If you have a favorite podcast that isn't on my list, feel free to throw it in the comments. I'm all for more quality shows.


  • Bit by Bit (SEEDlings): Bob Sprankle, Alice Barr, and Cheryl Oaks (all from Maine) meet weekly, generally with a different special guest each episode, to discuss education and education technology. Usually includes good discussion of educational uses of technology and they share lots of potential tools to use in the classroom. (~1 hr.; posts weekly)
  • EdTech Posse: Rob Wall, Rick Schwier, Heather Ross, Alec Couros, and Dean Shareski get together to discuss "learning, education, teaching and technology." I've only caught one episode so far, but I really enjoyed it. The hosts of the show are all involved in teacher education, which brings a different perspective to the discussion. Perhaps it's a little more academic, but it's not presented in a way that was off-putting or ivory tower-ish. (~1 hr.; posts now and then)
  • Moving at the Speed of Creativity: Wes Fryer creates this podcast, which frequently features recorded sessions from education conferences around the world. Sometimes the sessions aren't of great interest to me and I skip them, but I've heard many very interesting and thought provoking presentations through this podcast. (time varies, usu. < 1 hr.; posts at least once/week)
  • The Practical Principals: This currently sits as my favorite education-related podcast- which is odd since it's aimed more towards the principal crowd than the teachers. Scott Elias and Melinda Miller star as the Practical Principals relaying advice and tools to maintain your sanity. They're personable, funny, and extremely knowledgeable. It's a must suscribe. (~1 hr.; posts monthly-ish)
  • Always On: I actually haven't listened to an episode of this podcast; though it comes highly recommended from Scott Elias (of the Practical Principals). The most recent episode is on my iPod but I just recently subscribed and haven't gotten to it yet.


  • 60-Second Science: A quick bite of recent news in science. (60 seconds; posts weekdays)
  • 60-Second Earth: Same idea as 60-Second Science, but with a focus on Earth Science. (60 seconds; posts weekly)
  • Bytesize Science: Put out by the American Chemical Society, this podcast is a fairly recent addition for me. Each episode focuses on one topic; going over scientific information in a way suitable for middle and high school students. I haven't used this in my class yet, but it would be appropriate for such use. (~5 min.; posts every couple weeks)
  • Krulwich on Science: Long-time science correspondent Robert Krulwich explains recent scientific discoveries and science and current events in an accessible and interesting way. I found this podcast through my exposure to RadioLab, which Robert Krulwich co-hosts (see below). (5-8 min.; posts weekly)
  • NOVA | PBS: The podcast for the PBS television show. Includes interviews and information that relates to the topic of the TV (though you don't need to watch the show to enjoy the podcast). (~10 min.; posts weekly)
  • Quirks & Quarks: A CBC-radio show where the host (Bob McDonald) interviews guests about current events in science. You can subscribe the show split into its segments or all together. I personally like the segments, but the option is nice too. (1 hr.; posts weekly)
  • RadioLab: Favorite. show. evar. Each show focuses on one idea (i.e. morality, sleep, stress) and investigates it from a variety of angles. Amazingly well produced, interesting, and easy to understand. Hosts Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich have great rapport and make the show auditorially stimulating. It's so good I have every RadioLab show permanently saved to my .mp3 player. All other podcasts get deleted after one listen. Download them all. You won't be sorry. (1 hr., weekly during the season)
  • Science Friday: Ira Flatow hosts this call-in current events in science show every Friday afternoon. I love the show but never can stick out 2 hours in front of a radio. The podcasts downloads each segment individually. I enjoy getting it broken down into smaller parts so I don't feel like I have to sit down for 2 hours to listen to the show in its entirety. The show also has it's own twitter profile: @scifri (2 hrs.; posts weekly)
  • Science Talk (SciAm): Host Steve Mirsky discusses recent events in science, often through interviewing scientists or recording presentations. (1 hr.; posts weekly)


  • Baseball History Podcast: A homey yet well done podcast that showcases the biography of one player each week. Includes Hall of Famers, Negro Leaguers, and some other lesser known players. It's an entertaining and informative rundown of that players career. Excellent for me since I like baseball, yet my baseball knowledge pre-1988 is pretty limited. (~7 to 15 min.; posts weekly)
  • Car Talk: The NPR Saturday morning call-in radio show. It's funny, entertaining, and informative. If I'm behind in my podcasts I'll skip this one, but that's only happened once or twice in the last six months. (1 hr.; posts weekly)
  • Planet Money: I believe Clay Burell pointed me towards Planet Money back in September or October when the financial crisis really started to gather steam. The hosts of Planet Money make it their goal to explain the complex happenings of the financial world in simple and entertaining ways. I definitely understand the financial crisis waaaay better than I ever would've without this podcast. (~20 min.; posts Mon-Wed-Fri)
  • Sports with Frank Deford: The popular sports writer pontificates on various subjects of sport. Quick and interesting. Frank Deford has the honor of being one of the very few "famous" people I've actually met. He was giving a talk at my college and came into one of my classes to answer some questions. (~5 min.; posts weekly).
  • This American Life: An award-winning radio show which brings different stories around a single topic each week. Generally very interesting and well produced. It's one of the podcasts I look forward to listening to the most each week. (1 hr.; posts weekly)

If you have a podcast you look forward to every time you turn on your iPod, please let me know what it is, even if it doesn't fall in the science or education categories.

Alfie Kohn on Self-Discipline

Thanks to a tweet this morning by Will Richardson (@willrich45), I came upon the article "Why Self-Discipline is Overrated" written by Alfie Kohn and published in the Phi Beta Kappan in November, 2008.

5 bullet summary

Self-discipline is a trait that generally gets high praise from both progressive and traditional educators. However, Kohn points out that:

  • extreme self-discipline is as much of a disorder as extreme lack of self-control, yet we usually attempt to prevent the latter and praise the former.
  • all internal motivation isn't good. Students can be wrecked by always worrying about what they "should" be doing.
  • our pervasive cultural emphasis on self-discipline seems to be based upon conservative religious philosophies.
  • emphasizing self-discipline ensures that the fault lies with the students instead of the structure that the students find themselves in.
  • obviously not all self-discipline is bad. Just our total systemic bias towards it is.

Go Alfie!

What resonates most with me in this article is Kohn's point that focusing on self-discipline is a method of being sure the status quo remains unchallenged. Our educational system explains away student "lack of slef-control" as the students fault. Instead of examining why students have little desire to complete the tasks we set before them and questioning our current practices, we just pass students off as immature and lacking in some way.

This general theme also pops up between any groups that have authority over each other. Districts where teachers are "causing problems" according to administration often are simply challenging the status quo.

Psychologically (to the extent that I know psychology), I agree that simply because students are sitting quietly in class and focused on their work doesn't mean they'll be better prepared than their classmates who are often loud and disruptive. Anecdotally, I've known many friends, family members, aquantainces, and ex-students who were a handful in school and yet managed to go on to live happy and successful lives.

Yeah, but...

How do you teach students to lose control? Further, how do you teach students who are overly self-disciplined to loosen up while at the same time help students who really do need to learn some self-control? Kohn doesn't drop any hints towards that end. As a teacher, I can actively strive to provide lessons and activities which students want to work on, but how can I help a student who has become overly self-disciplined? Is there anything I can do?

I've always been frustrated that while I might really like most of Kohn's ideas, many of his writings don't offer practical examples. "What does that look like in action?" is question that keeps coming up as I read. I can hypothesize to some extent, but seeing a few real-life examples to benchmark would be wonderful.

Unfettered quotes

  • "Learning, after all, depends not on what students do so much as on how they regard and construe what they do."
  • "What counts is the capacity to choose whether and when to persevere, to control oneself, to follow the rules – rather than the simple tendency to do these things in every situation."
  • "There is no reason to work for social change if we assume that people just need to buckle down and try harder.  Thus, the attention paid to self-discipline is not only philosophically conservative in its premises, but also politically conservative in its consequences."
  • "...to identify a lack of self-discipline as the problem is to focus our efforts on making children conform to a status quo that is left unexamined and is unlikely to change."
  • "Some children who look like every adult’s dream of a dedicated student may in reality be anxious, driven, and motivated by a perpetual need to feel better about themselves, rather than by anything resembling curiosity.  In a word, they are workaholics in training."

Best quote taken totally out of context

  • "...children are self-centered little beasts that need to be tamed..."


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