[Update] Changing student perceptions flyers are rolling in!

Earlier this week I put out a request for people who identify as scientists, engineers, or as working in a technical field who also happen to identify as women or people of color to share a picture of themselves and a brief summary of what they do and who they are.

The response so far has been pretty amazing.

As of writing this, I've received 9 profiles (some are shared below), and had many other people tell me they're planning on sending in a profile.

However, I'd love an entire wall full of profiles of women and people of color working in the sciences. There's no reason I can't keep adding to the wall throughout the school year, so feel free to share this with any of your science-y friends, colleagues, family, or even enemies. 🙂 (here's the link to the instructions & template)

Thanks again for those who have taken the time to share and send in profiles. It's much appreciated.

Jessica SciPerceptions - to Share.002 SciPerceptions - to Share.003 SciPerceptions - to Share.004 SciPerceptions - to Share.005 SciPerceptions - to Share.006 SciPerceptions - to Share.007

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. 🙂     (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)

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. 🙂      (back)

Teachable Moments, for all of us

On Friday, when discussing the earthquake and tsunami that had just struck Japan, I remember saying to students, "It looks like the death toll will be in the hundreds, which is horrible, but considering the size of the earthquake is pretty low." Well...as I write this,1 the official death toll is at 2,414 and expected to rise to perhaps as high as 10,000.2

Still image from a 1st person view of the tsunami
Still image from a 1st person view of the tsunami

We've been discussing the earthquake and tsunami in class, though I haven't done much "educationalizing" of the disaster at this point. So far my M.O. has been to show some videos or pictures, give news updates of what's going on, and then have time for students to ask questions or just talk about what's going on. At some level I feel like trying to craft organized lessons about subduction zones, Moment Magnitude scales, tsunami generation, or nuclear power generation would be taking advantage of the disaster.

I want students to know what's going on in Japan. I want students to understand the details. That's why I show the videos, why I spent a big chunk of time searching for video and images that seemed to capture the disaster. And the fact is, students want to know about the earthquake and tsunami and potential meltdowns at nuclear power plants. They want to know why tsunamis are so dangerous ("I don't get it, it's just water, right?"), what causes earthquakes ("I heard it was caused by the 'super moon.'3"), and how nuclear power plants work ("If there's an explosion at a nuclear power plan, how can it not be a nuclear explosion?").

The general public wants to know what's happening and why. Our students want to know what's happening and why. I want to know what's happening and why. However, I want student interest to drive our classroom learning about the disaster. I don't want to use the disaster to drag out a month of earthquake & tsunami lessons if the students aren't interested in learning more.4

I have been pleasantly surprised with the number of more "mainstream" media outlets doing some exemplary explaining about earthquakes, tsunamis, and nuclear reactors. I've especially been impressed with the time given to explain how nuclear reactors work and then what's going on at the Fukushima Nuclear Plants. Boing Boing did an excellent job describing how nuclear power plants work and NHK World explained simply yet thoroughly what was happening at Fukushima.

These are the times when it seems very clear to me that a little scientific literacy (or at least a healthy dose of skepticism) is an extremely useful skill. There are quite a few bits of misinformation out there, but there are also a lot of quality explanations of the science behind the disaster.


  1. at 10:10pm EDT, March 14, 2011       (back)
  2. via http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2011_Sendai_earthquake_and_tsunami#Casualties (back)
  3. FYI, it wasn't. See here for a in-depth take down of the super moon myth     (back)
  4. Yes, I get following the state curriculum means I'm essentially forcing this same thing most of the school year with students. My especially guilty feeling on these topics most likely derives from the fact that I'd feel like I'd be taking advantage people's suffering simply as an educational hook.    (back)

Summer thoughts

Summer...that magical time where I look forward to reading1, thinking, and relaxing...but in actuality it usually gets eaten up quickly by either Master's projects (last summer) or landscaping projects (this summer). Obviously my posting to this site has been drastically reduced the last couple months. There a few things floating around my head that I'll probably post on later this summer, but for now, here's a quick run down of what's going on:

Project Climate

I really don't fell that I've yet done the project justice in this space- either in explaining what it is or reflecting on how it all went the first time around. The more I think about it the more impressed I am with my students and how well it went down. There are lots of glaring issues to be fixed with the project- but despite all of those I'm extremely happy with the level of thinking, collaborating, and learning the students exhibited throughout the project.  The trick this summer will be to figure out exactly how to tighten it up as well as implement it in three classes simultaneously (instead of just implementing it in one class this past spring). If you have no idea what I'm talking about, check out the project overview, student blogs, and past posts on the project.

Master's Project

With the conclusion of the inaugural Project Climate I've also reached the end of my Master's program. I was able to write up some reflection and analysis of how Project Climate went (a topic of future posts) and officially submit my project and apply for graduation. My adviser has encouraged me to publish the project- if you know of any journals that would be a good fit for Project Climate please drop that knowledge in the comments.


I've really been inactive with Twitter this summer. With school over and my focus switched to projects around the home I just haven't felt like I've been in the edu-flow much lately. While I don't think this is necessarily a bad thing (it's good to occasionally take some time away from various aspects of our lives), I really do miss the camaraderie and knowledge sharing that goes on via Twitter. I have no thoughts of quitting Twitter for those of you who were worried (or hopeful) about that2. P.S. I'm @WillyB, if you're not following me and you'd like to. No pressure.

Standards Based Grading

My big education-related project for this summer is to take a good look at Standards Based Grading and try to figure out a way to use it in my classes. Since simply dropping the use of grades altogether isn't something that would be looked upon kindly, SBG seems to be a great way of really getting at what grades are supposed to measure: student learning.  I've been saving up Shawn Cornally's SBG posts over at Think Thank Thunk as well as a few other resources for just this occasion. I'm always open for SBG-related resources and implementation ideas- If you've got 'em, dropping them in the comments would be greatly appreciated.


  1. There's a sidebar with the last several books I've read/am reading, just in case you're curious.     (back)
  2. I'm sure that was all of you, right? Right!?!?     (back)

Me to Neil deGrasse Tyson: Let's do this!

I've been a fan of Neil deGrasse Tyson for a long time. He's even my friend on the facebook1.

Today, however, he earns a new level of respect plus several thousand cool points. Thanks to a post over on Stop Trying to Inspire Me, I found an interview he did with Linda Holmes for NPR where he discusses science literacy and education.

You should read the entire interview (it's not too long), but here are some of the good bits:

NdT: The center line of science literacy -- which not many people tell you, but I feel this strongly, and I will go to my grave making this point -- is how you think. If someone comes up to you and says, "I have these crystals. If you rub them together, it will heal your ailments." I don't want you to say, "Oh, that's bunk." No. Because extreme skepticism, such as that, and extreme gullibility are two equal ways of not having to think at all. And I don't think I'm the first to say that.

So the thought is -- what's your next thought when someone approaches you with the crystals? It should be, "How does that work? How do you know it works? By what mechanism does it work? How much does it cost? Where did you get the crystals? What evidence do you have that it would work on me?" Start asking questions. And people who are just charlatans out there, or are self-deluded, you'll reach a point where they don't have answers to those questions, because if they did, they wouldn't be trying to sell you crystals.

NdT (speaking on how we inhibit curiosity): You're afraid your dish might break, so you tell them to stop playing with the china. Well, what's the cost of replacing your dish? A few dollars. If it's expensive, maybe twenty dollars. Why is it that you don't spend that, but you'll easily write a check to send your kid to some fancy school for thirty or forty thousand dollars a year? "Oh, because at the end, they'll have the degree from this school." It ain't about the degree. It's about: How do you think? That doesn't have to come from an institution, it comes from your trajectory through life and whether your appetite for learning, whether your urge to query the unfolding of nature around you is nurtured or quelled. That's the difference. "Squashed." "Quelled" is too calm. "Squashed."

What happens, the kid goes and plays in the mud. "Don't play in the mud; you'll get your clothes ..." There's bugs in the mud. That's kinda cool. They turn over a rock. "You'll get dirt on your clothes." There's millipedes under the rock. Let the kid find the millipedes. Plucks the -- off the rose -- "Don't break the rose like that; that's a rose." No, they want to see what's inside the rose; it's kinda interesting. The middle is not the same as the outside. Let the experiment run its course.

NdT: Who is it that we say are the best kids in the class? The ones that shut up and pay attention to the teacher, not the ones who are jumping up and down and breaking things. Kids should be allowed to break stuff more often. That's a consequence of exploration. Exploration is what you do when you don't know what you're doing. That's what scientists do every day. If a scientist already knew what they were doing, they wouldn't be discovering anything, because they already knew what they were doing.

This is a fundamental disconnect between what's going on in the educational system and what it takes to be a scientist. So the system does not promote interest in science. People who are scientists today are scientists in spite of the system, typically, not because of it.

LH: So there's a lack of support in the educational system for science, but not necessarily in the ways people would think about.

NdT: That's correct. There's a lack of support for scientific curiosity. There's a curriculum, there's a book ...

And then, near the end of the interview, he drops this:

NdT: "They told me it wasn't going to be on the test." "Oh, I should know that -- I got straight A's." See, the measure of what they should know comes to them from their grade, not from the act of gaining insight itself. So I don't ... I'm going to ... it's not time for me to do it yet. I'm saving up for it.

LH: Saving up for what?

NdT: Saving up my energies to make that case. I mean, it's in this interview now, but I'm not ready to make that why I show up on television. There's still some universe things I want to get off the table.

LH: But ultimately, that's your bigger agenda.

NdT: I'm going to be in your face.

LH: You're going to be the pro-curiosity guy.

NdT: I'm going to be back in your face. That's right.

Well, Neil deGrasse Tyson, this is something that I'm trying to get done in my classes this semester. I've outlined my formal plan, I've discussed very similar ideas about scientific learning & curiosity, and I'm trying to push the whole "engage your curiosity for science" bit with my students. I know you're a busy guy who has "some universe things" you want to do first, but when you're ready, I know a science teacher in Groton, CT2 who'd love to work with you to help revamp science education. Drop me line. Seriously. Let's do this.


  1. It's pretty rare to have an astrophysicist that can discuss his field in a way that is interesting and informative to non-science fold. My students recognize him nearly instantaneously thank to several video clips I've shown them which happen to feature Dr. deGrasse Tyson.     (back)
  2. That'd be me, for clarification.     (back)

Take 2: Student produced video projects

I previously vented my frustrations about the losing so much time to preventable problems while doing my first video project, though despite these issues I decided to give it another go. I feel the project design is pretty strong, so I didn't want to just scrap it because of some technical issues. After today's "Grand Premiere" of student videos, I'm very glad I didn't give up on it.

Why did it go so much better this time around?

I'm not entirely sure, but I'm going to suggest it was mainly due to two factors:

  1. I was better able to anticipate where we'd run into problems. Last semester I was blind-sided several times leading to lots of scrambling and inefficiency. We ran into similar problems this time, but I already had a protocol in place for how to deal with these issues1.
  2. I had exemplars. I could point to some well-made videos from last semester to illustrate my expectations. More than anything, I was impressed by the overall increase of video quality this semester.

The Grand Premiere

I haven't always done a great job at championing my students' work. One thing I admire about Christian Long is how frequently he tells his students how awesome they are. (especially visible during the Alice Project & the 1984 project). I'm generally proud of my students, but I felt I needed to celebrate their work in a more special and obvious way.

Today I popped 12 bags of microwave popcorn during my prep and stitched together their finished video projects complete with introductory fanfare, the THX sound, an opening red curtain, and a fun intermission song. We spent about half the class simply watching each others' videos2.

The videos

Enough of me. More of them. Here are every one of my 2nd block's video projects. Feel free to leave comments on this post or on the the YouTube video pages. I'll be sure to share your comments (both praises & critiques) with my students.

(Update: This post has received a lot of attention by people doing Comments 4 Kids. While I'm grateful for that, unfortunately the kids really don't read this blog. My suggestion would be to leave comments on each video's YouTube page. That way the students are much more likely to see your comments. Thanks!)

Alkali Metals:

Alkaline-Earth Metals:

Transition Metals:

Metalloids & Semi-Conductors in Plain English:


Noble Gases:


  1. For a more detailed explanation, see my guest post over at the Free Tech 4 Teachers site.      (back)
  2. We later did, and are still doing, some self- and peer-assessments.     (back)

Science = Curiosity + Skepticism

Okay, so there is more to science than just curiosity & skepticism- but if my young students leave my class with that understanding, I'd be a happy human.

I've been grappling for awhile now with how to introduce my 14-15 year old freshmen to what it means to be a scientist. Science is too often presented in our schools as static: Here are the facts; this is the way the world works.

Our state standards push us towards teaching science as sets of information. Even the "inquiry" standards provide a fairly rigid framework for what it means to "do" science1. This is a gross misrepresentation of what it's actually like to be a scientist2.

In all reality, the official science schooling students receive is 12-16 years of scientific background knowledge that they might be able to use later. Background knowledge is important. It forms the framework for new investigations and observations. However, I've heard several research scientists note the hardest thing for them once they started their own investigations was switching from focusing on that which is known to that which isn't. Interesting and exciting scientific research happens on the border between the known and the unknown3.

I can remember a couple events from my childhood that helped foster my current insatiable curiosity for the world around me:

  • Cross-country skiing. There were literally miles of open fields behind my childhood home. I would go out skiing for several hours- out to the creek, the river, the field of tall grasses, and small forested areas- often causing my mother to worry I'd fallen into the river or been picked up by the police for trespassing. I can remember following animal tracks, sitting still listening to the snow-muffled sounds surrounding a small creek, and the shock when I encountered others out in what I considered "my wilderness." Above all, I learned how to observe.
  • Playing with fire. I was a first class pyro back in the day4. When I found some rare time alone at home I often took to burning things in the garage or shed. I was fascinated by how different materials burn in often weird and amazing ways. Did you know burning plastic drips from a milk jug make an amazing whistling sound as they fall? Or that a burning charcoal briquette is nearly impossible to stomp out? Amazingly, I never burned myself or cause serious property damage in my investigations. Looking back, I can see that what I was doing were essentially scientific investigations. They'd start with, "I wonder..." and conclude with an experiment (or quickly trying to hide what I'd been doing as my parent's car pulled in the driveway. "Smoke? I don't smell smoke!").

Michael Doyle does an amazing job on his blog communicating what's important in science education: "A few children chasing butterflies, mucking in the pond mud, and otherwise doing their best to confound our educational system." I'm giving a more investigative learning environment a go this semester. I'm not saying we equip every freshman with skis or hand them each of box of matches, but we need to do more than simply get through the standards. I was lucky to have a supportive home environment for exploration and learning (other than playing with fire, that wasn't supported much). Not all students have those opportunities at home. We can't expect a schooling system where students have to learn to be curious and investigative outside of school to be successful. We need to build it into the system.


Image credit: Myself. That's Mom & Dad skiing in the Huron National Forest near East Tawas, MI


  1. i.e. CS 9.0 INQ3: Formulate a testable hypothesis and demonstrate logical connections between the scientific concepts guiding the hypothesis and the design of the experiment.     (back)
  2. If you are a scientist, I'd love to hear your agreement or disagreement with this statement.     (back)
  3. I can't remember exactly where I heard these platitudes from research scientists, though I'm pretty sure it was a podcast: most likely Science Friday, Quirks and Quarks, or RadioLab. They're all good. Check them out.     (back)
  4. Sorry, Mom. Not that you didn't know about this already. I never did burn down the shed.     (back)