Friday, November 18, 2011

Building Cider Presses with a Physics Class

At the beginning of the year I had this great plan for my Experimental Physics course. We could build cider presses in the fall (tis the season), and use them as a vehicle for learning about simple machines, force, and torque. Sounds brilliant, right? Engaging! Interesting! Culturally relevant!

Buuuut yeaaaa... Oh dear. They're still not done and it's quarter 2 now (yikes!). We have the school harvest festival on Tuesday, and we were hoping to get them TOTALLY completed by then. That may still happen - we just have some pieces that need to get welded and then attached, and BOOM. Done. And I, for one, will be very pleased to let them go. Btw, we're auctioning them off... more news on that to come.

With the imminent end of this gigantic process just around the corner I've been reflecting on how I would do this differently next time. Let's just say, there were several things I would do differently should I do this project again. Here were the problems and their potential solutions.

1. The groups were too big, thus too many people were unengaged.
Next time, the Maximum group size: 3
2. This was pretty much the first thing we did as a class, so I didn't know people's strengths, personalities, and group dynamics.
Next time, I wouldn't do a giant project right off the bat.
3. This class does not meet for 1.5 periods like my other physics class. There's less time in general, soooo...
Next time, I don't have a solution for this :P. Maybe require more out-of-class work to be done on these presses?
4. I allowed them pretty much free reign to choose a design for their presses. They looked at other people's plans, but in the end each group really did their own thing. This made the process much longer and more complicated, potentially more valuable, as well, but not when you have a limited amount of time.
Next time, I would have a more cut & dry plan that everyone follows....

Really? Did I just say that? I think really what I want is to have more time, more flexibility. I like Amir Abo-Shaeer's model where kids are required to put in x-hours of time into the class, and they can come in whenever to get stuff done, so long as they get it done.

Truth be told, I don't know if I would do this project again, unless I was teaching specifically an engineering class. I was thinking about proposing that, but (sssshhhhhh...) I've never taken any engineering courses. Lots of math and chem and physics. Bio even. But no engineering.

While I'm talking about dreaming of other courses, I've been thinking about the possibility of teaching a course I would call "the science of survival", but I'll leave that for another post.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Retrofitting the school's basement into a root-cellar

We grow a lot of our own food here at MHS, but of course you can never have enough local food, and one of the limiting factors to local food being served in the cafeteria is storage space. We would grow more if there was a good place to store it. I have fond memories of a box of potatoes being stored in a air-conditioned closet just off the computer lab that also housed a Scanning Electron Microscope. Frankly, there's just not enough room in that closet with the SEM.

So my students took on the challenge of designing and mathematically modeling a root cellar for the school. We found an appropriate site, a portion of the basement accessible by a bulkhead, that we could retrofit to become a passively cooled root cellar space*.

The kids were totally pumped! They dove into that math, the concepts, modeling the heat flow, taking data down there. It was awesome. They came up with a plan. We met with the principal, the head custodian, and a grant writer. They were all on board - provided that we do all the necessary fund-raising, and got all the necessary permits.

All of that momentum and positivity slowed to a dead hault when we met with the building inspector to make sure that we could permit the retrofit, and then his analysis was a total buzz-kill. (That's gotta be a tough job, to be fair: telling people their idea is literally "not permitted"). Not only could we not have students down there, but we would not be allowed to put up any walls to portion off the space. It's frickin HUGE down there, and there was no way we could passively cool the entire space to the necessary temperatures. Why not? There was  no sprinkler head down there. There was also no standard-sized doorway into the space. The bulkhead on the outside leads to a mini-door, maybe 4 ft tall. Bummer. Not exactly up to code for what we wanted to do down there.

So I thought the project was dead. Great idea. Impossible logistics.

But when I ran into the head facilities guy, Thom Wood, who was also at the meeting with the city building inspector, I was shocked to hear his impressions of that meeting. I was all "Bummer about the sprinkler system, and the no building walls down there, huh?" And he was all "What do you mean? We can easily just add another sprinkler head for like $100, no big deal. Also, I was thinking we should call up that company from Barre that cuts cement. We could get them down there to cut the foundation so we can have a standard-sized door." I was aghast with delight. What!? This was possible again? Sweeeeeeeet! Thom Wood: unexpected hero of the day!

So we're still working on it. Here's where things stand presently: one of last year's juniors is still working on this with me as an independent study. We've continued to meet with Thom Wood who outlined the process of getting all the necessary permits, starting with the zoning permit, since we'll need to build a little shed over the now-existing bulkhead. We've met with the city zoning permit guy and he was like "You don't need to present this to the Design Review Board. Just send me a letter with sketches and a description of the outside." No problem, sir. No problem.

The student got that done, and now we're on to the Building Permit application, which will be a little more mmmm... in depth. But hopefully we'll have that done by December. We're still chugging. I love this stuff!

This is what the bulkhead looks like now.
This is the student's rendition of the bulkhead with the shed-entrance to the root cellar over it.

*"What the heck is a root cellar?" is a question I run into more frequently than I would have expected. It's a cool space (usually 35-50 degrees Fahrenheit) used to store vegetables like carrots, potatoes, cabbage, onions, etc. It was how people stored food before electric refrigerators were available. Typically built into the side of a hill, or a basement, the naturally cooler temperature of the earth helped to stabilize the temperature at a slightly below comfortable level.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Peer Tutoring Update

The peer tutoring program is up and running! WOO HOOO! Well... halvesies anyway. Specifically, we have started to match people up with one-on-one tutors; they've started to meet, and the feedback thus far is VERY positive. *whew* :) win-win-win (if you will).

The drop-in tutoring: meh, not so much. I think if we had a school larger than 350 students for 4 grades, we might actually have enough students to cover every period and be able to keep that room open, but as it is, it just hasn't come together - though not from lack of willingness on the part of the students.

Perhaps if we had a good start-date for that it could still get off the ground, but what we're finding is that some students we would otherwise have put in the drop-in room, wind up being the only one available for one-on-one tutoring a particular student. And THAT is where we think the real benefit occurs. So, I guess the one prong of this fork is eating the other. (Bad analogy? maybe. But I'm leaving it for now).

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Starting a Peer Tutoring Program

According to a survey we administered in the spring of 2010, the majority of students prefer to receive help from their peers! Thus confirming what I or any person in a high school could've told you without the survey.

We teachers also know that probably the best way to understand something is to have to teach it.
For some reason I despise the phrase "win-win-win", but, for better or worse, it applies to this situation. Kids who need help get it. Kids who know stuff are pushed to get it better. Teachers who don't necessarily have lots of extra time at school get freed up a little bit. Sweet.

But I'm sure I don't have to make a case that a peer tutoring program is a good idea. It's pretty much self-evident.

We're launching it tomorrow at the class meetings. I'm pretty sure this program is going to live and die by its PR. We need a critical mass of kids who both want and need help, so we've gotta get the kiddos to sign up. There will soon be a blurb on the school website, going home to inboxes everywhere in the "eNews", and every teacher and guidance counselor will be given soft & hard copies of the forms for signing up and the forms for requesting help. We've also developed an agreement form that outlines that tutors won't do the work FOR the tutee, etc.

We're trying a two-pronged approach. We're creating a Drop-In space manned by seniors who are "generalists" and can help read through a paper, or give quick advice on a math problem, etc. In addition we'll be matching kids to meet one-on-one (in some teacher's unused classroom perhaps?) on a weekly basis.

In case this is interesting to you, I'm just going to copy/paste the forms we're using here. Feel free to steal them for your own purposes.

Peer Tutoring Form

Signing Up to Receive Help

Return to ______________________

Name ______________________________ Grade ________


Requesting help for quarter(s) ______________

When are you available? (example: period 3 on Mondays & Thursdays, period 6 MWThF, after school Wed):


____ Once a week

____ Twice a week

____ More often if possible

Primarily needs help with (check all that apply):

____ Homework

____ Quiz/Test Preparation

____ General Understanding

____ Other: ________________

(optional) Referral from _______________________________


Return to _______________________

Name__________________________ Grade____

Type(s) of tutoring I am interested in (check one or both):
____ One-on-one tutoring (where you are matched with a specific student)
____ Drop-in tutoring (where anyone needing help drops by for assistance)

I would like to tutor during

____ first semester ____ second semester ____ both semesters

I am available to tutor at these times (for ex. per. 3 M/Th, per. 6 MWF, after school Wed)

I am interested in helping with the following courses (circle):
NOTE: it is not necessary that you remember everything about a subject to be a tutor.

Science courses: ________________________________________________________

Math courses: _________________________________________________________

Social Studies courses: ___________________________________________________

English courses: _______________________________________________________

World Languages: Language # 1______________ Level(s): ___________
Language #2 ______________ Level(s): ___________

Other such as writing/editing, music, technology skills, lower grade levels: ______________________________________________________________________

Teacher endorsement:

I believe that this student will be a capable peer tutor: __________________
Additional comments by endorsing teacher (optional):

NOTE: If you are accepted and fulfill your tutoring obligations, this community service will appear on your MHS official transcript that is included in college applications.

Peer Tutoring Agreement

We, _____________________ and _____________________, enter into the
MHS Peer Tutoring Program and agree to the conditions as outlined below:

The “Learner” and the “Tutor” will...
  • Meet in _________________ (location) on________________ (day(s)) at ______________(time of day or period) for the duration of quarter ____(1,2,3,4).
  • Communicate with each other in the case someone needs to miss a session.
  • Make up a session promptly if one is missed.
  • Communicate immediately with ___________________ (see contact information in last bullet below) if either person does not arrange or attend a make-up session.
  • Work productively and stay focused on learning.
  • The tutor will not do the work for the learner, but rather help the learner understand the material and find his or her own success.
  • Turn in the Tutoring Record below at the end of the quarter.
  • Maintain confidentiality regarding tutoring sessions
  • Communicate with _______________ if tutoring is not working out for any reason.

Tutoring Record
DateToday we worked on …(example: conjugating verbs)Initials Initials

Signed, ______________________________ Email ____________________

Phone _________________

Signed, ______________________________ Email ___________________

Phone __________________

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Rural Teaching: Breaking the Isolation

It behooves us as teachers to be the best we can be. (Wait, am I in the army? Ok, no.) But it's difficult to critically analyze one's own teaching when... say, you're the only physics teacher in the school. For all anybody else knows you could be espousing that cherenkov radiation was Newtonian Mechanics and no one would be the wiser. Not that anyone would really do that, but the point is we could be totally missing the mark and subsequently go unchecked.

Also Cherenkov Radiation is really eerie! Check it out:

Here is where I must confess: I am addicted to feedback. I need other teachers to lay their eyes on my plans, my students' work, video of my classroom, and I crave their thoughts. Not because I doubt the value of my own work, but because there is so much to be gained in the exchange of ideas and views. If we are going to move the profession of teaching to a healthier plain of existence it must be a collaborative effort.

And just because I'm the only one at my high school is not a good enough reason to not get what I need. If I'm not getting what I need, it's because I'm letting myself starve. I refuse to be a victim of my own choices.

This is why I'm starting a Central Vermont crew of physics and chemistry teachers. It started with my friend (and first year physics teacher) Meghan and I last year getting together because she had curriculum ideas and advice for chemistry (and it was my first year teaching chemistry), and I had curriculum ideas and advice for her teaching physics. This year she has moved on to a different school, and it has taken two people to fill her position. It looks like this crew of four (the two new folks, Meghan and I) will be the crowd that starts this. I'd like to invite some other local physics/chem teachers. We'll just have to see where this goes.

My fear is that we'll meet a few times and then it will peter out. Here are my hopes for this group: That we would

  • each come away feeling challenged and inspired
  • each come away feeling like we helped someone
  • get recognition or credit from our school districts for this work (not sure how yet?)
  • get some kind of sponsorship from a local bar or restaurant
  • have good mojo. You know... that we'd actually get to know and like each other.

Next Meeting: September 21st. I'll let you know how it goes.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Mysterious Optical Phenomena (that are so tasty!)

My research into diffraction and holography has thrown me into a vortex of new ideas that are eating my brain. I will list them here along with my favorite line from their corresponding wikipedia articles.

Parhelic Circles "Even fractions of parhelic circles are less common than sun dogs"
Anthelion "How anthelions are formed is disputed."
Solar Glories "Glories are not conclusively understood."

Saturday, August 13, 2011

What is Science For?

Diffraction & Holography will just have to wait because there's something I need to post about like right now.

I recently spent a week in the woods at the Roots School, which is a place where people who are skeptical about "progress" can gather to learn primitive skills. I went almost directly from low-tech living to a science teacher's convention and the transition was simply too much for me. I broke down in tears on the southbound train taking me deep into the contiguous suburb that exists from Boston to Washington DC. Awesome. It was too much. I had lost faith that science as an institution was good. Science had become the enemy, particularly as I thought about the applications of scientific principles in the modern world. Would my students go on to invent the next equivalent to a nuclear bomb? Genetically modified crops that destroy entire species of insects or lack the capacity to reproduce solely for the purpose of making a corporation lots of money? I might even go so far as to throw skepticism on the Lowell Wind Farm project that will displace the native bear population. Where do we stop? And how do I know if my students will be any better prepared to make morally sound decisions with their science? How do I know that they won't sell out and use their science for their own benefit at the cost of public health or wellbeing? Yes, it was questions like these that ate my mind at that moment. What was I doing with my life? Would it actually lead to genuine good?

While I was trying to discretely get my emotion out through my ocular aqueducts the lady across the aisle from me turned to me and said, "hey, would you mind holding my sleeping kid while I go to the bathroom? Oh goodness! I'm so sorry to have bothered you while you were having a moment. Don't worry, I have moments all the time." I thought it was somehow fitting that while I struggled to believe that the future would be good with all the science I was stuffing into kids' heads that I got to hold a small child.

At the science conference people agreed that science posed a potential danger, certainly, but that in the end science was just a tool. The analogy that became popular was one of a chainsaw. Certainly science is neutral, neither itself good or bad, just a tool in our hands, but a rather powerful tool. As a science teacher it was my job to pass out chainsaws to students, and instruct them on how to use them. However, very few science teachers, engage their students in dialogues regarding appropriate use of the chainsaw. Is it good to use in the house? with small children? etc. You get the picture.

I will put it out there that one fellow actually espoused the idea that "science will save us." I didn't tell him this, but I find that idea laughable. Here I will quote Einstein: We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.

It seemed to me that science was a blind and wandering child in the woods, aimless and stumbling. And the medical field had the distinct advantage of having clear goals. Where was the rest of science and technology going? What, then, are the goals of technology? At the time I would have said that it is goal-less.

But last night I had a conversation with a friend at a party about this topic, which I feel like shed a little light on the situation.

"Wouldn't it be great," I said, "if all science and technology were aimed at simply being delightful, making life more beautiful. Perhaps it could be used to make art or toys. Or perhaps it could be used to build relationships or make life more funny. Science should just really be used to make people happy. It seems like the aim of technology is to save us labor and time, when really, as long as it's not abusive or under compulsion, labor can be satisfying."

"Well, that's just the trouble" My friend said, "That is the goal of technology right now, to make people happy. The trouble is people don't know how to be happy."

POW. There it is. Technology is currently attempting to make us happy. But we just don't know
what makes us happy. We're not here talking about pleasure, you know: being drunk, high, or having sex. We're not even talking about cream-filled doughnuts or green jello. We decided we'd call that pleasure. But what about happiness? I asked him, "What makes you happy?"

He said he didn't know. He was one of those people. It's an important question, but he didn't know the answer.

So at the risk of looking like a sap I will make a short list of times I can remember being really happy:

  • Sitting with my friends, Amanda, Will, and Dan at Fresh Tracks Farm while the sun was setting over the winery hills, talking about life and the summer.
  • Making strawberry jam or relish or canning beans with my mom and my sister
  • Discussing scientific developments with my Dad
  • Standing still in the woods behind my parents house listening to the wind in the trees
  • Eating out on the deck at my parent's place
  • Walking anywhere in the woods and hearing a wood thrush
  • The first time (or any time really) you finally get a flame going from a bow drill
  • Reading C.S. Lewis and quietly having your mind blown
  • Laughing and laughing and laughing with my friend Biz
  • Learning about evolution and fossils at the Natural History Museum
  • Hucking a frisbee deep to someone in the end zone
  • Seeing kids' faces light up when they finally understand
  • Imagining, assembling, and troubleshooting a machine until it finally and blessedly works
  • Running laps around the church basement and rolling on the floor with laughter with Naomi, who is 4 years old
  • Writing poetry or music that I enjoy but don't feel compelled to share
  • Expressing myself through music to God
This is what life (and technology) are about. I think I may have my students do some exercise something like what I just did, making a short list.

True Confessions of a Physics Teacher

I know what you're going to say. It's my job to know these things.

But I will confess, there are so many things to know in physics that it's easy to sort of mmm... pass by topics or ideas that are less intuitive, particularly if they're not that interesting. I've finally come to accept the fact that I haven't grappled with certain standard ideas in physics enough to "own" them in a way that I can explain to students. So this is both a record of my confession and my repentance, meaning I'll list the topics here that have eluded me to some degree and I'll write a bit about them after
I've researched them properly and feel like I own them.

The Hunter and the Monkey Problem
I know... this is classic and I really should already own this, but whatever. Here we go. Here's the gist as put by this website.

When hunting the wiley Stuphedwithstuph Monkey the hunter is always faced with a problem. The Stuphedwithstuph Monkeys have developed a sixth sense that allows them to let go of their branch the instant that a bullet leaves the muzzle of a gun. The age old question among hunters has been "Where should a hunter aim to actually hit the Stuphedwithstuph monkey?
A) Above the monkey.
B) Directly at the monkey.
C) Below the monkey.
The hunters have always believed that they should aim beneath the monkey so that the monkey will drop right into the path of the bullet. Individual hunters all disagree when it comes to how far below the monkey they should aim. Since no one has ever successfully shot a Stuphedwithstuph monkey the question has remained unanswered. Where should you aim?

I feel like that website has done a good job of explaining the correct answer, but here's my shortened version. If you aim at the monkey and there were no gravity you'd hit it, right? If the bullet starts to travel along that line and the monkey lets go at the same instant, both the monkey and the bullet will have deviated from that original line (B in the picture) by the SAME AMOUNT because gravity is working on them equally. Thus, it doesn't matter how far away you are, given enough time and space to fall, the bullet should eventually hit the monkey if you've aimed directly at it originally. At least that's how it works theoretically...

Ok, that took a little time... and in attempting the next topic: diffraction and holography I got bogged down in Instructables and subsequently got inspired to make a ferrofluid. So here are some other topics I hope to research and post about soon:

Diffraction and Holography
Fresnel Lenses
Capacitors in (RL circuitry)
something about standing waves bothers me. Not sure what exactly it is yet.
Virtual Images and the Eye

Friday, August 5, 2011

So This Is How It Starts... Church Planting 101

This is terrifying. No way around it. But let me explain a little background first.

I helped start a church in Burlington. I invested a lot in that group, and leaving it was really difficult. It was 45 minutes away, and frankly, it's just hard to be in community with people 45 minutes away. You'd think that I could find something delicious church-wise here in Montpelier, but you'd be wrong. So for three years or so now I've been keeping my eyes and ears out for the possibility of starting something new. I've been in a variety of iterations of Bible studies and discussion groups and established churches all of which were precious and valuable in their own way, but they all stopped eventually (or I stopped going). No judgement. I enjoyed those iterations for what they were.

But it seems now that I have a core group of spiritually homeless Christian folks who would like to start something in the Montpelier area. I know this may sound shallow, but I think it's actually kind of important: We're all in the same demographic. Specifically, we're all mid-twenties, young professionals, relatively open-minded to what church means and looks like.

Truth be told, there are at least 13 others who I would like to invite once we have something more established, but we'll see... let's not get too far ahead of ourselves.

Another point I feel is important: In no way do I want to "steal" people from established churches. Of those 10 folks only two regularly go to church elsewhere, so I want to be very sensitive about what I may be asking of those two... we'll see. No pressure. Let's not burn any bridges. Even so, I'm not including myself in that count. I will need to have a difficult conversation with the pastor of the church I currently attend and for which I lead worship. I'm sorry, but it's just not home. I think they'll understand.

We have no real pastor for our group, though we do have the blessing and potential oversight of an area pastor, so it might be nice to involve him somehow, though I'm hesitant, because in no way do I want his or any currently established pastor's influence in the structures we set up for ourselves.

I write this for my own good as well as anyone reading this... here are my "must haves" in a church. (I feel like I'm writing a personal ad). haha.

Church should:
  • Engage people with multiple learning styles (ah, differentiated church)
  • Rely primarily on social construction (People learn through talking with each other, finding meaning for themselves)
  • Be about something in the community (feeding the homeless, CSA's for low income families?, etc.)
  • Be intellectually and spiritually stimulating
  • Be a safe place for people to disagree, be heretical, & express doubts (Don't belittle someone's thinking on account of it being different).
  • Be a place where all voices matter and can be heard (maybe the pastor isn't always the one who leads)
  • Be FUN! (I think we may need to sponsor a condiment war - see below: chocolate sauce vs. ketchup)
  • Must love dogs
This is my list, but I KNOW that I will need to be open to the lists of 10 other people. We will need consensus... at least on some core issues.

I met with two of them yesterday, and three more this coming Saturday. One more on Sunday. So far it's looking like meeting Sunday afternoons at 3pm may be best time to gather as a whole group. The couple from yesterday volunteered their place to start. Welcome to church in Montpelier. Now, I've never given birth, but I hear that at some point during labor there's an uncontrollable urge to push. It seems like we might be about there now...

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

A Series of Educational Reality Checks

Today I spent eight hours in a room with educators from VT, NH, and RI and some folks from Measured Progress as we reviewed questions for this coming year's NECAP assessment - VT's state science assessment: fascinating process. It's humbling and infuriating for the same reason. Humbling because there have been a handful of questions that I just simply didn't know, and infuriating because... well, I have, what I consider to be, a functional adult life not knowing these things. Which drives home to me a question I have muttered to myself on and off recently: why do we teach these things? I mean, these specific things? I know, I know. They're supposed to build up to further knowledge - things people will need in college, but I just don't know that I buy that. I'm not sure that's a good enough reason.

Amir Abo-Shaeer made a point at our Knowles Science Teacher's meeting that although every dutiful high school learns about logarithms, they really aren't that useful in the real world. Most people will simply never use them for anything functional. He referenced a TED talk in which Stephen Wolfram made the point that humans are really good at solving complex problems and thinking creatively, but not good at calculating. But calculators are really good at calculating and really bad at thinking creatively and solving complex problems... So... shouldn't we teach that - and let calculators do the rest? I love it. (To be fair, I watched the TED talk, and didn't get that out of it, but I'll leave it to you to hear for yourself):

One of the things I love about Amir's comments is that they're like a series of reality checks. Is this really worth it? (and the answer can be no). Is this the best it can be? How can it be more practical? I think John Dewey (the pragmatist educational philosopher) would approve of such an honest line of questioning.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Root Cellar Update

After school ended we finally got the city building inspector to come by and take a look at the basement space that we hope will host the root cellar. He said roughly what I expected him to say: No Students. We will only be permitted to build this thing if it’s faculty only. But then he said some things I did not expect him to say. Specifically, we were not permitted to build walls within the 70’x30’ space. What? There’s no way I can passively cool a space this large to temperatures low enough to preserve food. No way. We would need an air conditioner, and then it may as well be a walk-in refrigerator. Boo. Why? Because of the sprinkler system. Each space would need its own sprinkler head. Gr.

I thought this was the end.

By chance I ended up in Tom Wood’s office (he’s the head facilities coordinator, the only other person on the tour with the building inspect

or), and he seemed to have an entirely different impression. He’s an architect, so maybe he sees opportunity where I road blocks. Regardless, he said, “oh yea, we can just add another sprinkler head for like $100 easy.” Oh… ok. “And we may as well cut the foundation so that the bulkhead entrance from the outside is really a standard-sized means of egress.” Oh! Um… ok! And as long as we’re cutting the foundation we may as well do everything necessary to bring it up to code for children to be down there as well. (And suddenly the sun was shining and happy rainbows broke out over the capitol building... as seen from the high school parking lot)

Meanwhile Tom has put together a line-item in the budget for constructing such a space, totaling roughly $15,000. He said it was mainly put in because the administration would need something to reject some part of his proposed budget, but nonetheless, it was in there. So I told Tom that I could definitely write grants to allocate the $15,000.

It seems I have an unexpected ally in Tom Wood! WOO HOO!

This year I will write grants. And probably next year we will build it.


Debriefing Conversations With A "Genius"

In my last post I mentioned that KSTF brought in MacArthur Genius Amir Abo-shaeer, who, among other accomplishments, started an Engineering Academy at his school in California. I will admit, I was skeptical at first. That doesn’t sound all that amazing, right? I mean, I have known KSTF fellows who have started engineering programs at their schools. But after I herad him speak to the whole crowd after lunch, I realized this guy really has a fresh approach and something to say. There was an opportunity to attend a Q&A session later on, after which I stuck around to ask him more questions. He and I stood outside the ballroom chatting it up, while we both missed the subsequent speaker, whom we were all slated to attend. Here are a smattering of things I understood from those conversations:

Project-oriented not Unit/Standard-oriented. His curriculum is fundamentally different from any curriculum I've heard of (though I will admit this thought has occurred to me and I dismissed it as impossible), in that he teaches big projects that require an understanding of a variety of physics principles. So each project might have elements from what would otherwise be more than one "unit", but over the course of the year, all the projects will have required any understanding of all the physics principles normally covered in a physics class.

Depth not Breadth. To be fair, he doesn't cover a ton of principles, but he does go into the ones he does cover in detailed depth.

**New thought: I need to create an Alumni survey for those students who come back to visit, to assess what pieces students remember, found useful, did they remember the concepts they learned when they needed them in class? Did they end up referencing my notes at all? What was the most memorable thing from their physics class experience?

No Throw-Away Projects. He only has students do projects that for which the end result is something of an extremely high quality. For example, he has students create a baby mobile, that's so cool looking that they can be sold in a toy store, or auctioned and the money given to a local charity. People want these things. He also has them create a water feature. These items can go for up to $500, but the pieces to create them cost as little as $35. These are items that students, again, could sell they are of such high quality. One of his students reflected to him that after this kind of project he said, "After experiencing this course, I realize that the rest of my education up until this point has been worthless." That's a great endorsement for his course, but not necessarily what we're going for. Amir came to education from mechanical engineering, and he reflected that if we have these students for 13 years and professionals have come to expect that by the end of those years they essentially know NOTHING. That is unacceptable. He thought about it in terms of "man-hours" and if he was an employer with access to this kind of resource he would certainly be using it to do something productive in the world.

Tutoring Model: Some of his students needed funds to travel for a physics competition, but they couldn't afford the trip. They could've just set up a car wash, but instead he set up a tutoring program. So donor's dollar does 3 things: it helps he kid go to the competition; it helps a student who needed the tutoring, it pushes the tutoring student to know the material better and be an educational leader. Why let your dollar only do one thing? 3 birds. 1 dollar.

Follow Up: If donors support a project at the end of the project he spends like $35 on a nice frame and put together a digital collage of pictures of the project and types up a nice letter thanking the donor to go with the pictures. Of course the business ends up hanging it up somewhere in their office, and people see that. He sees this as an investment in future projects.

PR: Every single project he does he gets PR for. A team of students writes press releases and they make t-shirts. Students also meet with donors. But of course he was trying to raise 3 million dollars for his new institute. I'm not sure I need to do that. But I would like to have students write press releases. What a great natural authentic assessment.

Non-Profits Should Have Some Overhead. The backstory here is that he started a non-profit specifically to fund his classes. But I'm applying it to the non-profit I work with, the Vermont Sustainable Heating Initiative. Getting to the point: large-scale donors want to see that you have low overhead, but not NO overhead. The Vermont Sustainable Heating Initiative currently donates ALL of the funds it receives to helping low-income families. He confirmed something I have suspected for a while. We need to stop doing our own books and actually PAY someone else to do that for us.

I'm sure there are probably other things that soaked in, but those are the things I can think of for now. Clearly I have a lot of work to do before school starts! :)

For a little more info on Amir Abo-Shaeer check out these youtube interviews or check out the book written about him and his classes: The New Cool

Sunday, July 31, 2011

KSTF: Like a Shot in the Arm

My long hiatus from blogging here has really been due to the lack of internet at my abode. Though I don't regret this, I am pleased as punch to now have internet tethering through my phone. I sincerely hope that this means I will get back to blogging. Truth be told: I miss it.

Today I have the delightful task of doing absolutely nothing on a train from Philadelphia to the simple city of Montpelier. I'm pretty sure that some of the folks whom I told about my method of travel thought I was a little touched to choose an 11 hr train ride over a 2.5 hr flight. But I see it as a gift. How often do you get to just be quiet and do simple sedentary things? As a teacher/
ultimate player/non-profit founder/church goer/environmental activist, not much.

I'm returning from the Knowles Science Teaching Foundation summer meeting, my 7th (or 8th?) time attending. And by now, I have extremely high expectations for this meeting. I was a little worried when the first session wasn't quite what I had hoped for, but I made the best of it, and the rest of the weekend blew me away it was so inspirational and curriculum changing.

At the moment I'd just like to jot down some notes about sweet things I'm taking away from that meeting while the memory of it all is still vibrant. Let's start with the easy things first.

KSTF Fellow Geoff Gailley showed us how to build small hydroponic systems, which I'd like to modify as a semi-primitive water filter using sand, charcoal, etc.

KSTF Fellow Aaron Debink taught us these super-easy pin-hole cameras for a unit on the particle model of light. Here we are using our new creations!

On an entirely different note, for some time now I have been using Logger Pro, but I never knew that including error bars on your graphs in Logger Pro was as simple as turning on a button. In fact, my friend (and fellow KSTF Alum) Charley has created a jing to help remind his students how to do that when they forget. (Link to come soon!). That way they can include a best fit line and see if it "hits the points" within the error bars. I have labored over a useful way to teach error bars, but resisted since it was more tedious than it was valuable. Hopefully this will resolve that issue.

Everyone in KSTF is deeply invested in the style of teaching known as modeling, and though I teach the four basic functions, I don't do much with explicitly teaching students to differentiate between them using data until their in the trenches of some other experiment. However, my friend Bradford spends time doing this using four experiments between these variables:
  • Weight on a spring and its stretch (linear)
  • Length of a pendulum and its period (quadratic)
  • The length of a written paragraph and the width of that same paragraph (inverse)
  • Distance of a sheet of paper from a projector bulb versus the size of its shadow on the screen (inverse squared)
As soon as I heard about these four experiments I knew I was going to steal them all. I can already see how I will frame the project for my students. This is going to be a new staple.

KSTF flew a master teacher in from California to speak to all of us, and to call him a master teacher would be an understatement: Amir Abo-Shaeer recently won the MacArthur Genius Grant for his work in physics teaching. Yes, that's right, he's a genius teacher! I have a LOT to say about what I learned from my interactions with him, but one simple piece I can capture here for now is that I need to ask last year's juniors to come back and work as teaching assistants in my classroom. This accomplishes three things: It provides another voice and pair of hands that can help students learn, it helps free me up to help more people, and it pushes the students themselves. They will gain a deeper understanding of the material and they gain experience as an authority figure which requires a higher level of responsibility.

Ok. That's probably good enough for now. More to come later... I'm certainly not done debriefing this meeting.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Students Start an Organization for Art about VY at GIV Winter Weekend

I'm here at the Governor's Institute Winter Weekend with 74 highly-motivated students from all over Vermont. I'm working with the Engineering strand, most of which is currently building rocket stoves, and a small handful of which is working creating a website for people to post art related to Vermont Yankee.

Now I've never built rocket stoves with my students, but I'm tempted to do so this year in conjunction with our study of energy. The trouble is that most of the students have covered the topic in chemistry (which is not to say that they remember it). It would be a way for us to get some hands-in experience with efficiency and biochar. I'm definitely interested in getting students to make and understand biochar.

These kids are so efficient in their work that this is mainly what I've been doing:

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Allan Baer's Stand-by Power Project

As if my students weren't doing enough cool stuff, Allan Baer's here (as I type) presenting to my students a new project that looks at stand-by power usage.

Allan's done this project before in the Galapagos and basically worked miracles there, bolstering education, taking his students to tv stations, and presentations before the UN, and influencing national legislation in Ecuador through a refrigeration replacement program. In his words, he basically "got drafted" by the National Science Foundation to do the same type of work in the United States.

I'm not sure how we were so lucky to connect with this guy, but I'm pretty excited about this for a number of reasons:
(did I mention I love lists?)

1) I love data.
2) I love students taking their own data.
3) I love students taking data relevant to their own lives.
4) I love students taking data relevant to other people's lives and then presenting to them, and making change in the world as a result of their findings.

So good. All these pieces for me add up to a sweet project.

Allan Baer says, there was only one stand-by power study done in the United States on the household level (as opposed to in a lab). And apparently that one study only sampled 10 household. So if even one of my classes does this study we will have a more telling sample size than the most credible study on the topic to date! Very interesting. Super-exciting.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Air Quality Device at MHS

My Chemistry in the Community class has been hoping to measure air quality around Montpelier with a fairly sophisticated device, recently acquired, used, from a school in CT. It can read levels of CO2, CO, SOx, NOx, particulate matter, radiation, temperature, relative humidity, and a variety of other things. The students, working in groups, have devised questions to pursue answer about the air quality in Montpelier, and we've determined 5 sites at which the air will be measured with this device hopefully every year for the next 10 years.

Where are the lucky sites?
1. Hubbard Park
2. The intersection of State & Main streets
3. The College Green at VCFA
4. Montpelier High School
5. Somewhere high up on North Street

These sites represent a variety of elevations and traffic/population densities represented in Montpelier.

Now if we could only get the dang machine to connect to a computer.... :P

(I'm afraid that what I'm actually teaching students is that "real science" requires fancy equipment that mostly doesn't function)

Monday, February 7, 2011

Transitioning to a New Church

For about three years now I've commuted to go to church. I know. I bought a place so near to my work that I didn't have to drive even all last winter (I know, I'm crazy), but good church communities are like wild blackberry bushes. They're a delight to find and you certainly keep a mental note of the location and keep going back. So I've been commuting the 50 minutes or so to attend St. Andrew's regularly on weekends to participate in a delightful blackberry bush-like church.

But this hasn't exactly proved sustainable for me on a few levels. It's quite a bit of travel time. It means I don't end up hanging out with the people there very much, so I'm only loosely in community with them. I can't really invite my interested friends to church cause it's such a time commitment. And as any good gardener knows, the proximity of your garden to your front door directly affects its productivity. So being in charge of the "church garden" from 50 minutes away wasn't, perhaps, a great plan.

Of course, I wanted to see St. Andrew's grow into health, and with regular attendance over 40, and our finances starting to become sustainable in the foreseeable future, I feel pretty good about their future. Meanwhile, what blackberry bushes do we have here? I'm sure there are lots of good churches, but I hadn't found one I felt at home at until recently. Well, feeling "at home" may not be quite the right word.

My former youth pastor, Tom Friedrichs, recently took over the Alliance church in Barre as well as continuing to pastor his own church in Orange. Every Sunday he races from the 9am service at Barre Alliance to the 10:30am(?) service at Orange Alliance. Barre Alliance had been in kind of a tough spot, so he called me up to say, "hey come play music for Barre Alliance." So I went, and though it's no St. Andrew's, they are in an unusual and interesting spot where they are highly flexible and open to change - quite a delightful opportunity.

I mean how often do you find a church (particularly in Vermont) who is open to new ideas? Gosh. It's awesome. I mean, fair enough, they were in a tough spot for a long time. Shockingly since Tom took over preaching and I started coordinating the music they've more than doubled their congregation. WHAT? Yes. More than doubled.

St. Andrew's knows that I'm stepping down from my position on the leadership team in March when my term is up. But until then I'll be doing double duty.

So far I've been able to influence the meeting time at Barre Alliance, advocating for discussion questions during church, but how do I influence them to be more green. Granted the culture of this church is significantly different than the hip young progressive culture of Burlington, VT. This is a church where I had a lengthy dialogue about whether or not it was appropriate to have an American flag on the stage. In the same Sunday I had to call out a guy for not recycling (his excuse: "Well, I'm a bachelor". My response: "Do you care about people? Then recycle. Living alone has nothing to do with whether or not you recycle.") as well as calling a different guy out for burning his garbage (me: "dude, that's so not cool. Don't burn your garbage, dude."

So they've got a little further to go. That's ok. I guess I can make a bigger difference here by teaching them how to set up more sustainable systems for themselves. We'll do it as a church at first and hopefully they'll see this as a value at church and thus a value for their day-to-day lives.

Root Cellar at the High School

As you may have read, Montpelier High School has a fantastic local food program, largely thanks to Tom Sabo, who has spearheaded the many facets of this work. Each biology class grows food at some point during the year in the school's greenhouse, which is then sold in the cafeteria. The Earth Group at the high school is in charge facilitating the composting program, so that food scraps are sent to Vermont Compost, who then gives us a deal on dirt to grow more food.

In the past my physics students did a study of renewable energy to supply the greenhouse its electrical needs, and so now we have a grid-tied photovoltaic system atop the greenhouse which provides more than the demand of the greenhouse.

And now ... the next layer of awesome: a root cellar!In case you're not familiar with the concept, root cellars are basically natural refrigerators. It turns out that the ground maintains a temperature between 50-55 degrees Farenheit, depending on where you are and how deep you go down, which is already pretty cool, but there's a way to get it to 35-45 degrees, which is more suitable for storing veggies. All that's necessary is having an air inlet (low to the ground) and air outlet (closer to the ceiling). Thus hot air will escape out to the outdoors and denser, cool air will come in through the bottom inlet. Thus keeping your veggies at a nice cold temperature.

But root cellars don't just have to be dug into the side of a hill, they can also simply be a part of one's existing basement. All you need is a window or bulkhead or some other way for air from the outside to come into the space. Enter Montpelier High School.

Of the limiting factors preventing us from growing our own and buying more local food is storage space. With the addition of a root cellar, we could grow more, and buy more food in bulk in season from local farmers to serve our students.

It turns out, that MHS has one bulk head that leads to a space underneath the stage. We've had local root cellar expert, Richard Czaplinski, come down there to check it out and he thinks it will work. The administration is on board and the students are pumped.

Benefits:My students get to use thermodynamics to model the heat flow using equations for equilibrium, insulation R-values, and Q=mC∆T. It's an open-ended problem with no right answer that means something to our community, so it's authentic. Indeed, I do not know what the "right" answer should be. So we'll see what they come up with.

Mold & Asbestos. I spoke with the new facilities guy, Thom Wood, about the potential for mold and asbestos down there. So far the word is that he doesn't think that space was ever tested for asbestos. He and the principal are "pretty sure" it's safe, though I have another friend who is "pretty sure" there's asbestos down there. Hm. So we'll need to get it tested for both Mold and Asbestos by Crothers Environmental. So we'll see what they say.

Permitting. Thom also brought up that it's not technically a "habitable" space, but it probably doesn't need to meet the same codes as, say, a classroom (with natural light and ventilation), because basically it's like a large closet. Thom said he would speak with the fire marshal to figure what we would need to do to make it up to whatever code we need to meet.
*whew* I think it's going to happen. There are some nay-sayers, but I believe them to be under-informed.

My students are presently off and running with the project, we'll have some initial calculations soon I hope! :)

This is my physics class and I meeting with the Principal, Heat Custodian, the Service Learning Coordinator, a local grant writer: