Pipe Insulation Roller Coaster Assessment

Welcome back. If you haven't joined us for the last two posts, let me recommend that you first read about determining rolling friction on the coaster and the project overview.

On to the assessment...

Assessment is extremely important. It explicitly informs students what things we value (and thus the things we value). If we assess the wrong things, students will focus on the wrong things. This can turn an otherwise excellent project into a mediocre project. For this post, I'll share two methods of assessment: First, the "old" method I used when I last taught physics (in 2008). Second, my updated assessment scheme that I'd use if I did this project again.

The old assessment strategy

Embedded below is the document I gave to students at the beginning of the pipe insulation roller coaster project. Most noticeably it includes a description of the assessment scheme I used way back in January of 2008.

As you can see, I split the assessment of this project into two equal parts:

An assessment of the finished roller coaster

I wanted students to think carefully about the design, construction, and "marketing" of their coasters. I wanted them to design coasters that not only met the requirements, but coasters that were beautiful and interesting. Individual items being assessed under this rubric were weighted differently. For example, "Appropriate name of the coaster" was only worth 5%, while "Creativity, originality, and aesthetics" was worth 20%. Here's a link to the sheet I used when assessing this aspect of the coaster project.

An assessment of the physics concepts

In the embedded document above, you can see the breakdown of what items were being assessed. In my last post on pipe insulation roller coasters, you can see how students labeled their coasters with information on the marble's energy, velocity, and such along the track. Groups were required to turn in a sheet with the calculations they performed to arrive at these numbers. These sheets were the primary basis for determining whether students understood the physics concepts.


There are a lot of problems with the assessment scheme as described above. I'm not going to try to address them all, so here are a couple of the biggest issues:

  • Assessing coaster design
    • I'm a fan of elegant design. For this project I'm a fan of finished coasters that look well designed and exciting. That's why I included the first part of the assessment. I wanted to incentivize students to think about the design and construction of their coasters. In retrospect this is probably unnecessary. Students generally came into this project with plenty of intrinsic motivation to make their coaster the best in the history of the class. While I'd still stress the importance of quality design in the future, I'd completely cut this half of the assessment. Students already cared about the design of their coaster. If anything, awarding points for coaster design had an net negative effect. Especially because it doesn't assess anything related to the understanding of physics.
  • Assessing student understanding of physics concepts
    • As a normal part of working in a group while attempting to complete a large project in a limited time, students split up the work. Students are generally pretty smart about this in their own way. While I stressed that everyone in the group should contribute equally towards the calculations. Most groups would have the student who had the best understanding of the physics do most of the calculations. Why? Because it was faster. They needed to finish their coaster and just having the fastest person do the calculations meant more time for construction. While I generally knew when students in a group were adding very little to the calculations (and would assess them accordingly), on the whole this method didn't give me a good picture of each individual students' level of understanding. There were certainly students who skated through the project while minimally demonstrating their understanding of the energy and friction concepts involved.

The new assessment strategy

You've probably already picked up on a few of the improvements I'd make for this project.

  1. Use standards-based assessment. Standards-based assessment is an integral part of the classroom throughout the year- not just for projects. If you're unfamiliar with what this "standards-based" business is all about click the little number at the end of this sentence for plenty of links in the footnotes1. Here are a list of standards that would be assessed through this project:

    Content standards assessed

    • Energy
      • Understand and apply the law of conservation of energy.
      • Explain and calculate the kinetic energy and potential energy of an object.
      • Explain and calculate the amount of work done on and by an object.
      • Solve basic conservation of energy problems involving kinetic energy and potential energy.
      • Solve conservation of energy problems involving work and thermal energy.
    • Circular Motion
      • Solve basic circular motion problems using formulas.
    • Habits of Mind
      • Collaborate and communicate with others to meet specific goals.
      • Handle and overcome hurdles creatively and productively.

    The specific standards used can vary based on your specific implementation.

  2. No points for coaster requirements. As I mentioned earlier, it proved unnecessary to incentivize their coaster designs and meeting the basic requirements of the project. This decision also comes out of standards-based grading, which focuses assessment around, "Do you know physics?" instead of "Can you jump through the right hoops?" That isn't to say we don't talk about what makes a coaster "exciting" or "aesthetically pleasing" or whatever. It just means a student needs to demonstrate their understanding of the physics to earn their grade.
  3. A focus on informal assessment. Rather than heavily relying on a sheet of calculations turned in at the end of the project (and probably done lopsidedly by one or two group members) to determine if the group understands the physics, I'd assess their understanding as I walked around the classroom discussing the coasters and their designs with the students as they work on them. Starting with questions like, "Why did you make that loop smaller?," or "Where are you having trouble staying within the requirements?" can be used to probe into student thinking and understanding. The final calculations would still be a part of the assessment, but no longer the single key piece of information in the assessment.

On the whole I was very happy with this project as I used it in the past. As I've learned and grown as a teacher I've found several ways I can tweak the old project to keep up with the type of student learning I want to support in my classroom. If you have other suggestions for improvement, I'd be happy to hear them.

As a bonus, here's a student produced video of the roller coaster project made for the daily announcements. The video was made by a student who wasn't in the physics class, so there's a little more emphasis on the destruction of the roller coasters at the end of the project than I'd like. Kids. What can ya do?


  1. Here are posts I've written about my experience implementing standards-based assessment. I'm not an expert, so let me also direct you my bookmarks related to standards-based grading, and some resources written by a couple people who are more expert: Shawn Cornally and Frank Noschese (who offers blog posts, a shared google doc foler, and a collection of bookmarked links). There are certainly other great resources out there, but these are a great starting point. (back)

Pipe Insulation Roller Coasters: Rolling Friction

Fair warning: This isn't a description of the pipe insulation roller coaster (a.k.a. PI Coaster) project. It is the activity we did immediately before starting on the roller coasters.

The PI coaster project was one of those quality projects that students enjoyed while still requiring solid content knowledge. I last used this project in 2008- the last year I taught physics. I'd like to think that I've grown as a teacher since then, so I decided I should update it to be what I'd expect of a project from myself today. You know. SBG-it up. Throw in some video analysis. Etc. Suddenly I found myself driving to the local hardware store to pick up some pipe insulation at 9:30 at night.

The Goal

The goal of this activity is to find the coefficient of friction acting between the marble and the track. By the time we get started on this project, we would have already gone over kinematics, F=ma, friction, and uniform circular motion in class, and we'd be right in the middle of the Work & Energy unit.

Specifically, the following concepts are needed for this investigation:

  • Energy may change forms, but is conserved (minus any work done by friction):

    [latex, size=2]\Sigma E_{first} = \Sigma E_{last} - W_{fr}\(

  • The amount of work done on an object depends on the size of the net force acting on the object and the distance the force is applied:

    [latex, size=2]W=F\cdot d\)

  • The size of the frictional force depends on the coefficient of friction between the two surfaces and the weight of the object:

    [latex, size=2]F_{fr}=\mu F_N\(

Here's the setup:

Students set up 12 feet of track as shown in the picture above and measure the height from which the marble is dropped (on the left of this image). In order to find the coefficient of friction, you first need to find the amount of work done by friction on the marble as rolls through the track. To do this students use the following formula:

[latex, size=2]PE_g = E_k - W_{fr}\)

Solving for work done by friction and doing a little substitution for the energies:

[latex, size=2]W_{fr}=mgh - \frac{1}{2}mv^2\(

Looking at the right side of the equation, we need to find the mass of the marble, the height from which the marble is dropped, and the velocity of the marble at the end of the track. The first two are easy enough to measure.

Finding the final velocity of the marble isn't terribly tricky, but the method I used in 2008 had a lot of error. Students would measure out the final 50 cm of the track (as seen below). Then they'd send the marble through the track 10 times- each trial they would use a stopwatch to time how long it took the marble to travel the final 50 cm.

Timing the marble was hard. Depending on the height of the track, the marble takes less than half a second to whip through the final 50 cm. Using a handheld stopwatch often led to large differences between one trial and the next. Not so great for accurate data.

Using Tracker to find velocity

In rethinking this activity, it struck me that Tracker Video Analysis might be great to cut down on these timing errors. Only one way to find out: Break out the tripod.

After fiddling with the setup of the tripod and camera for a bit, I realized two things.

  1. The marbles were too dark to stand out in the video. No easily deterred, I took a few marbles out to the garage and spray painted them orange. I'd have used hunter's orange or neon green, but I didn't have any of that laying around.
  2. My "video camera" (a.k.a. an iPhone) only films at ~24 frames per second. When I started the marbles on the track 1 meter above the ground, they showed up as a long, faint blur when on an individual frame. I lowered the track to 0.75 m. The marbles still showed up as a blur, but they were much more distinct blurs1.

Once I troubleshot my way through those issues, I filmed this amazing & exciting clip for analysis:

I did six trials to get a good set of data I could average. You could easily get away with 3 trials and still get good data. I also measured the velocity of each marble during the final five data points to use as a final velocity.

The average final velocity from the trials above: 1.720 m/s


Using the same energy-loss method detailed above, I calculated the coefficient of rolling friction (\mu_r) for the marble over the entire length of the track:

[latex, size=2]W_{fr}=mgh - \frac{1}{2}mv^2\)

[latex, size=2]W_{fr}=(0.0045 \text{ kg})(9.8 \text{ m/s}^2)(0.75\text{ m})- \frac{1}{2}(0.0045\text{ kg})(1.720\text{ m/s})^2\(

[latex, size=2]W_{fr}=0.034\text{ J}\)

Then solving for the friction force:

[latex, size=2]W_{fr}=F_{fr}\cdot d\(

[latex, size=2]F_{fr}=\dfrac{W_{fr}}{d}\)

[latex, size=2]F_{fr}=\dfrac{0.034\text{ J}}{3.66\text{ m}}\(

[latex, size=2]F_{fr}=0.0093\text{ N}\)

Solving for the average coefficient of friction:

[latex, size=2]F_{fr}=\mu_rF_N\(

There's no up or down acceleration, so F_N = F_g.

[latex, size=2]\mu_r=\dfrac{0.0092\text{ N}}{(0.0044\text{ kg}\cdot 9.8\text{ m/s}^2)}\)

[latex, size=3]\mu_r=0.21\(

Is that a reasonable figure? According to the EngineersHandbook.com, wet wood on wood's coefficient of friction is 0.2. From my vast experience slipping and falling on a wet decks, I know wet wood is dern slippery, and I would've expected\mu_r for the marble to be pretty low as well.

Alternate method

Using Tracker, I can find the acceleration of the marble as it rolls along at the end of the track. Using someF=ma magic I can find\mu_r using acceleration instead of velocity.

I created velocity-time charts for each marble and added best-fit lines to find the average velocity and acceleration of the marble. I found the average acceleration of the marble to be -0.065\text{ m/s}^2.

[latex, size=2]F_{fr}=ma=(0.0045\text{ kg})(-0.065\text{ m/s}^2)= -0.00029\text{ N}\)

Then finding the coefficient of friction:

[latex, size=2]F_{fr}=\mu_rF_N\(

[latex, size=2]\mu_r=\dfrac{0.00029\text{ N}}{(0.0045\text{ kg}\cdot 9.8\text{ m/s}^2)}\)

[latex, size=3]\mu_r=0.0066$$

"Wait, what? That's two orders of magnitude smaller!" That's what I said when I first got that number. Then I realized I this method was calculating\mu_ronly for a straight and level section of the track. You'd expect the friction to be much less along a straight track than when the marble's being forced to do loops and turns.

Is it worth it?

Using video analysis is more time-consuming, but I also think it helps students see more clearly that the coefficient of friction between the marble and the track is constantly changing. I think I'd have to try this out with students once or twice before deciding whether it's an effective use of class time. The basic concepts are covered sufficiently using my old method, though they're fleshed out in more detail using video analysis.

Additionally, I think I'd have each group of students use a different track configuration- one with two loops, one with S-curves, etc. That'd give us an even better idea of how the track layout will effect the friction between the marble and track.

The Pipe Insulation Roller Coaster Series

  1. Pipe Insulation Roller Coasters: Rolling Friction
  2. Pipe Insulation Roller Coasters
  3. Pipe Insulation Roller Coaster Assessment




  1. If anyone would like to chip in for the Buy Ben a High Speed Camera Fund, let me know. ūüôā ¬† ¬† (back)

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)

Adventures in Engineering: What makes a quality project?

Some of the best times I've shared with students in a classroom have involved projects where they're making something. Not making as in making letters appear on a worksheet, as in building some object that needs to accomplish some task or solve some problem. There's something about working on a physical product that clearly demonstrates success or failure that resonates strongly with students.

As part of my attempt to make this site seem all professional and stuff, I proudly announce...wait for it...a series of blog posts tentatively titled:

Adventures in Engineering!

Here's what you can expect:

  1. A description and analysis of projects I've done in the past that involved engineering. I've been pretty bad about sharing these, so there are quite a few that have been wildly successful that I've never written about.
  2. Thoughts on engineering in the science classroom. Maybe you noticed that I previously asked for teachers to have their students fill out a survey related to engineering. That hasn't been forgotten, and I'll get to the results of the survey as part of the series. If you haven't had your students fill out the survey
    yet, don't fret, the survey is still open!
  3. Maybe, just maybe, I'll design brand new projects and share them out for criticism and critique. In fact, do you have any units that are badly in need of a project? Let me know in the comments and maybe I'll see if I can whip something up for you. Have a project that just isn't working out like it should? Let me know in the comments and maybe I'll test out my powers of project redesign1.

What makes a project an effective learning experience?

Let me kick the series off with some quick thoughts on what I think projects of this sort should include:

  1. It needs to be hard, but not crazy hard. I've discussed this a bit, but I strongly believe challenging tasks are good for us. However, the task needs to hit that sweet spot of being challenging enough but not so challenging that students deem success as an impossibility. I'd like to call this the Goldilocks Zo-ne of Proximal Development- a term that I'm sure Lev Vygotsky would've coined had he written fairy tales on the side (or been an astrophysicist). Truly great projects would start out fairly simple and increase the challenge as students are ready.
  2. Success requires the use and understanding of the desired concepts and skills. Not as in, "The teacher requires that I do this, so I'm doing it," but instead the task demands the students to utilize the concepts and skills as an integral part of successfully completing the task. To borrow an illustration from Papert, you could demand students to find 2/3 of 3/4 on a worksheet or you could have them make a 2/3 batch of cookies where the original recipe calls for 3/4 cup of sugar. Both require the same skill, but an incorrect answer on a worksheet provides little motivation to learn. A batch of crappy cookies does2.
  3. A project that fails isn't a failure, but a chance to improve. There should be time built in for students to reflect on their project's failings, attempt to address them, and retry the challenge. You may know this as the Iterative Process or Engineering Design Process. I haven't been great at including time for this in the past, but as I've thought and more about project design I've come to value the Design-Test-ReDesign-ReTest model.
Number 2 to is pretty difficult to nail. Most likely I've never done a project with students that has truly met this standard. The better of my projects have inherently require some of the desired concepts and skills, but I'm also often "forcing" some concepts and skills into the projects even when they're not necessarily required to complete the task. I'm not sure that's horrible.

Next up in the series:

Pipe Insulation Roller Coasters


  1. No promises I'll come up with anything mind blowing. Your mileage may vary.    (back)
  2. Cookie Monster would not be amused.     (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)

3 Quick: Engineering, For-profit schools, CIPA

Three quick items today:


I've been thinking about engineering in schools and student (& teacher) perceptions of engineering as a discipline and skill set.

My take: It's misunderstood as being dorky, nerdy, science-y. Educators (& politicians) sell engineering as a great profession that will save America- but then don't do much to actually let students DO engineering during the school day. On that note, I'd love if you educators out there could spare 5 minutes of your students time to have them take this survey. It asks two basic questions: "What do engineers actually do?" and "What do engineers need to know?" As a reward for helping me, I present Sheldon Cooper on engineers for your enjoyment. I'll keep the survey open indefinitely.


I've never liked for-profit organizations running schools. Also, I've never been very good about articulating what exactly skeezes me out about them. Chris Lehmann is good at articulation, and his post Why I'm Against For-Profit Schools nails my feelings on the topic. Read it.


Every try to convince your network administrator that they should unblock twitter? or blogs? or any social networking site? If your experiences are similar to mine, you'll get told that they're required to categorically block these sites if they school is going to get e-Rate funding through CIPA. Turns out that's bogus. CIPA makes no such claims. In fact, the FCC (the government agency behind CIPA & e-Rate) goes out of their way to point out:

"Declaring such sites categorically harmful to minors would be inconsistent with the Protecting Children¬†in the 21st¬†Century Act‚Äôs focus on ‚Äúeducating minors about appropriate online behavior, including¬†interacting with other individuals on social networking websites and in chat rooms, and cyberbullying¬†awareness and response.‚ÄĚ

Hat tip to John Pederson for finding and posting this. If you visit his post, you'll find the link to the original FCC document.


The "It's been awhile" update

So, yeah...it's been a while...

I'd better do an update, since a few things have happened since my last post in...um...May:

EdCamp CT

A few short months ago Dan Agins and I were attending EduCon in Philly when fellow Connecticutian Sarah Edson waltzed up nonchalantly and pitched,  "I think we should throw an EdCamp in Connecticut this year, you in?!!"  We were in, and it'll be happening in just under a week (as I write this). There are 125 people signed up (plus a wait list!), and we are all1 really excited to meet every one and learn all we can next week.


My brother got married in July, which gave my wife and I an excuse to visit Chicago and traipse across the MidWest and take in ballgames at two new ballparks together2. We both grew up in in Michigan and Chicagoland,  so it was nice to spend the week eating at all the restaurants visiting places we missed.

Back to school

I taught Physics for 5 years (even though I wasn't "highly qualified" in Physics) several school years ago and really enjoyed the entire experience. Ever since I've talked about going back to get my Physics certification. Due to some new circumstances I'm planning on taking a year off from teaching so I can go back and get both my Physics and Chemistry certifications.

I'm not crazy about being out of the classroom for a year (not to mention the lack of a regular paycheck), however, I think this will open up new teaching opportunities that will be both rewarding and challenging. It's a risk3,  but one I hope will pay dividends in the end.

In addition, since I'll be taking Calculus-based Physics this fall I've also been working to brush up on my calculus skills. I did decent in calculus during my undergrad years,  but my last calculus class was held in the fall of 1997. I'm a bit rusty. To brush up, I've been using MIT's OpenCourseWare to "take" their Single-Variate Calculus class this summer. I've discovered so far that I can do the calculus, but my algebra and trigonometry need some work.

Blog plans

This year's been a bit rough on the ol' blog. My posting hasn't exactly been regular. However, I've repeatedly found that the simple act of writing out my ideas in this public format helps me to think more deeply about instruction and education. While the feedback I receive from readers is also greatly appreciated, simply forcing myself to turn ideas in my head to text on the page is valuable enough to continue writing4.

Since I've been slacking on the writing I need a plan. Here it is:

  1. Post 1-2 times a month with a project or lesson that I've either used successfully in the classroom but haven't shared yet or sharing a new lesson or project that I've just created. I'm (perhaps unnecessarily) worried that I'll lose my instructional design chops. I'll hopefully design these lessons around content I'm covering in my classes this year.
  2. A "What I'm Reading" series. I tend to read a lot of science-y or education-related books, and I'd like to share basic reviews of these books here. I'll be a bit selective here. If I get into teenage vampire literature, for example, I probably will not include those books in the series. However, you can follow everything I read using the handy LibraryThing widget located on the right sidebar of the blog. Or you can view my LibraryThing library directly. I also welcome your suggestions. Drop 'em in the comments or send them to me via twitter. These will be posted as I finish the books.
  3. Sharing websites, posts, images, videos, etc. that relate to the general science and education theme of this blog. While  I do have a posterous site where I share all the "Random awesomeness I encounter," I'll try to keep the posts to this site more focused. I'll plan on posting in this category approximately once a week.
  4. Some personal photos, reflections, stories, etc. I'd like this space to be a little more "me" as opposed to just the science and education "me." Postings will occur as the whim occurs.
I'm creating dedicated "writing time" a few days each week to keep up with my plan. Feel free to call me out if I start to slack. ūüôā


  1. Let me not neglect Marialice Curran, Stephanie Fuhs, and Tracy Mercier, who are also co-organizers and have done a ton of work getting EdCampCT ready to go.     (back)
  2. We're attempting to visit every major league ballpark, and picked Miller Park in Milwaukee & PNC Park in Pittsburgh on this trip, which I believe has us up to 15 ballparks total.     (back)
  3. The economy is not exactly stellar, but a teacher with Earth Science, Chemistry, and Physics certifications should be able to find jobs no problem. Right? RIGHT?!     (back)
  4. I imagine the readership of this site isn't very large given my erratic posting as of late.     (back)

The best fun is hard fun.

Dr. Seymour Papert is one of my favorite educational thinkers. It's like he's in my head taking barely formulated thoughts and ideas and turns them into detailed, well articulated arguments that I might have never been able to get to on my own.

If you're not subscribed to Gary Stager's "Daily Papert," you should be. Little bits of Dr. Papert's work everyday, delivered directly to my Reeder. The May 25, 2011 edition contains this gem:

The third big idea is¬†hard fun. We learn best and we work best if we enjoy what we are doing. But fun and enjoying doesn‚Äôt mean ‚Äúeasy.‚ÄĚ The best fun is hard fun. Our sports heroes work very hard at getting better at their sports. The most successful carpenter enjoys doing carpentry. The successful businessman enjoys working hard at making deals.

The Marshmallow Challenge

In high school I'd spend hours in the back yard trying to perfect my curving corner kicks1, not because it was easy, but because it was something I enjoyed. More recently I've found myself drawn to other learning experiences that I undertake2 because I find them interesting- but often they take a lot of effort because when I start I don't know anything about them.

The traditional school curriculum more often than not misses this hard fun. Not because there's something inherent about what we learn in school that prevents it from being hard fun, but because designing hard fun learning experiences requires a bit more flexibility, a lot more student control, and a heckuva lot less "feeding" students the one right way.

I recently ran The Marshmallow Challenge with all my classes. For 18 minutes almost every student- and especially those students who will try to sleep through every class all day- were dedicated to building the tallest structure they could using spaghetti, string, tape, and a marshmallow. Half of the groups had a structure that was unable to hold a marshmallow off the ground- and most of these groups immediately wanted to spend the rest of class redesigning their structure and making it better. It was hard, but it was fun.

I've been greatly enjoying the work many educators have been doing recently towards providing students with hard fun in their classes. Notably:

  • Shawn Cornally's Inquiry Style‚ĄĘ
    • He continually throws interesting situations at students and lets them take over. I love it. Take these investigations into oscillations, for instance. Killer.



  • Dan Meyer's new meme: #anyqs
    • I've been focusing on turning content into a narrative story whenever possible this year. Dan Meyer has been taking this to the next level in math, noting that, "good storytelling is a first cousin to good math instruction." I'd argue this is true for most any subject. Here's an excellent little series on sharpening pencils.

While I worry about the increasingly standardized nature of instruction in this country, I'm happy there are so many educators out there taking instruction to the next level and sharing with the rest of us.

Perhaps the best hard fun is designing hard fun for others. ūüôā


  1. FYI: This was pre-"Bend it like Beckham"     (back)
  2. i.e. brewing beer, landscaping, fixing broken appliances myself.     (back)

Rubber Band Cars

There's something powerful about physically making something that works yourself. The tinkering, trial and error testing, and early frustration often lead to some impressive feelings of accomplishment in the end.

This year when covering the types of energy and energy transformations, I realized a project I ran for 6 years at my school in Michigan would fit in quite well: The Rubber Band Car Project.1

You can check out the handout and guidelines I provided to students, though the basic gist of the project consists of:

  • Building a car from found materials;
  • Using no more than two #33 size rubber bands to power the car;
  • Getting said car to move as great a distance as possible (6 meters is the goal);
  • Describing how the energy stored in the rubber bands is transformed and conserved as the car does its thing.

Testing Rubber Band CarsInitially students are generally pretty worried because the guidelines ban items like CDs & DVDs as wheels, and Legos or other such objects from being used. However, as I share some examples of cars from the past (see them here), and as students start tinkering and sharing ideas with each other, the worries start to fade.

Most of the building process takes place at home, but I provide one day in class for students to bring in their cars (or materials that will eventually become their cars) and work on them in class. This is often extremely helpful for students who are struggling to figure out how to put their cars together and get them to work. As they walk around the room, they can see how everyone else is tackling similar problems and get ideas for how to solve their own.


Standards-Based Grading. I had a pretty solid assessment system that I was quite happy with before I went all-SBG. I'm not sure I'm quite as comfortable with how I'm assessing it using the SBG system. As of right now I'm not too worried by this. The old system had many years of tweaks and adjustments to get it to that sweet spot, and it'll probably take a couple tweaks to get the SBG-assessment for the project there too.

"I didn't do it." In the past there was always a small minority (~2% to 5%) of students who just didn't make anything for the project. This year it seems like the percentage of students with no car will be higher. I'm not sure what to think of that, but it's worrying.

Cool stuff

Non-competitiveness. I try my hardest to make sure the assessment system and the general classroom environment is as non-competitive as possible for this project. I want students to share ideas and collaborate with each other even though they're all making cars individually. For the most part this works out. Students who've figured things out are generally happy to share their knowledge with students who don't. However, there's no getting away from the fact that most students want the bragging rights for having the car that went the furthest.

Engaging the unengaged. Having to physically make something that works is a different sort of project for many students. It's interesting to see how some of the "I-need-an-A-or-I'll-die" students struggle with the project while some who often struggle with traditional projects become the super stars.

Results. I've always recorded every students' results and shared who had some of the most successful cars,2 and this year I'll be using a self-sorting Google Spreadsheet to automatically post the results to the Rubber Band Car Project Page in near real-time.3 I'm not sure if that's really necessary, but it is a fun trick. Perhaps I'll have to do a post on creating self-sorting spreadsheets if anyone is into that sort of thing.


  1. A big tip o' the hat to Mr. Randy Commeret at Grand Rapids Christian High School; from whom I grabbed this project from nearly wholesale. Rumor has it this project has been around for 20ish years in total.    (back)
  2. Which might feed the competitive nature that I'm trying to avoid, but to date it hasn't gotten too competitive between students.     (back)
  3. Which means you can follow along with the results as we test cars on Thursday, March 24 & Friday, March 25. ūüôā ¬† ¬† ¬†(back)