Physics & Physical Science Demos, Labs, & Projects for High School Teachers

Archive for the ‘Teaching Techniques’ Category

With weekly quizzes and so many additional concept quizzes, I was worried about the time it would take to grade everything.  I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how quickly I can get through a set of quizzes, it’s quick because I don’t worry about partial credit.

Each problem gets one of four grades:

  • 4 – The problem is done correctly, no errors
  • 3 – The student understands the underlying concept but made at least one or more mistakes
  • 2 – The student is starting to understand the concept, but clearly isn’t there yet
  • 1 – No real understanding
  • 0 – No attempt at a solution

Grading in the grade book is simple.  Students get the highest score achieved times ten.  If they do worse on a quiz, nothing happens to their grade.  When they get the first 4 on a concept, they get 40/50 in the grade book.  Get a second 4 and the 40 becomes a 50 and they are done with that concept.  The kids love to write “MASTERED” on a completed concept.

I’ve set up a spreadsheet (Gradebook – names are removed) in Excel to handle the grades.  Each student gets their own block.  When I enter a quiz grade, I change the header grade and change the color to  orange to remind me to change their grade in the school system.  Blue means the concept is complete.  Red numbers means the grade came from an after school quiz and not a weekly quiz.

The students use a Concept Checklist to keep track of where they are on each concept.  Every week or so I cut up my spreadsheet and hand out the pieces to make sure their scores agree with mine.  I plan to start a new spreadsheet each quarter since I can’t change the previous quarter’s grades.  So far, this is handling my grading requirements.

Next post – Setting up concepts and creating quizzes

(This is a follow up to a previous post on Standards-Based Grading.  I’m so pleased with the success, I started writing and created a monster post.  I’ve gone back and broken it into bite-sized chunks to scare off fewer readers.)

The first quarter is almost done and I’m incredibly pleased with my conversion to Standards-Based Grading (SBG).  I’m glad I started with Calculus, the kids have been an understanding group and open to trying something new.

I began by setting up the scoring, each concept was worth 10 points.  The only other grade they have is a weekly WebAssign grade.  Those are usually worth between 15 and 25 points.  I found the WebAssign was too heavily weighted and the concepts didn’t have enough impact, so I did some analysis last week and seven weeks into the first quarter I changed the concepts to 50 points.  I printed grade reports and noticed that the point change lowered everybody’s score.  I expected an outcry, but it didn’t happen.

I explained that with three weeks to go in the first quarter, any new concepts will get entered into the second quarter.  Since I will not have the option of going back and changing their first quarter grade later in the year, I needed to give them enough time to master the early material.  What I explained to them is that their grade report showed the lowest possible grade for the quarter.  They all have three weeks to bring their grades up to an ‘A’ and they all can do just that.

Suddenly it clicked and the kids are coming in during their study hall and after school.  The rule is they can take a single concept quiz each day; plus we have a quiz every Friday in class.  At first they were dreading the quizzes, now that they understand that a quiz can only improve their grade, they love the quizzes (well, maybe not love – I do make them rather challenging).

The students are motivated to learn the material, they finally feel like they have control over their grades.  I know this is creating a positive learning environment.  All of my calculus students that have me for physics asked me to switch the grading system in physics.

Next post – The Grading System

Last year, the course was actually called Robotics and Astronomy, or Robostronomy for short.  The intent was half-year of each.  The result was more like three weeks of astronomy and robotics all year-long.  Don’t get me wrong, I love astronomy.  It’s just, well, Robots took over the Earth.  Between the great things we could do with the MindStorm, and then the SeaPerch competition, we were all robots, all the time.  This year we are adding the First Tech Challenge.  Yep, Robots have taken over the Earth, and it looks like they landed in my classroom.

The goal here is STEM, that’s what opened the door for the robot invasion in the first place.  Clearly missing from our program these days is what we called in the old days, ‘drafting.’  Drafting isn’t done on a board with a T-square anymore, but you all know that.  Today, 3D mechanical Computer Aided Design (CAD) is available for free from Google (Sketch-up), and from a number of companies who cater to the high-end.  I actually know this industry well, I spent 25 years in the CAD/CAM/CAE industry (M for manufacturing, E for Engineering, meaning simulation).

So with some guidance from some friends at Drexel University, and a little research on my own, I decide to go with SolidWorks software.  All of the vendors have aggressively priced programs for the educational market, I think we are paying just $1000 for a 10-seat license.  What makes this software connect to the students is what we spit out of it.  The school invested in a 3D printer, specifically uPrint Plus from Dimension.

If you have never seen one of these, think Star Trek Replicator.  The replicator creates parts from ABS+ plastic directly from the output of the 3D CAD.  How better to teach engineering principles than to give the students a design challenge, have them work through designs and then fabricate it in the printer.  Here is a great video from a customer talking about how they use a 3D printer in their engineering design work.

My new printer is due here any day and I’m pumped up.  Yep, geek boy has a new toy.  Tea, Earl Grey, Hot!

I would like to have coffee available for the students while they work, but my administration frowns on kids having food and drink in the classroom.  But that is not where this story is going.

Last year, one of my students came into class second or third period and said how much he loves coming to my room.  I thought it was odd because he wasn’t a particularly enthusiastic physics student.  Then he said he loves the way my room smells.

Every morning I make a pot of coffee, often flavored with vanilla or hazelnut.  I never thought about the impact something like a nice smell has on making a student feel relaxed.  I’m still making coffee every morning, but this year I picked up a bunch of scented tea lights from IKEA.  These things smell so good, my son and I bought a pack of every flavor they offered.

I have heard stories of real estate agents putting a drop of vanilla on a warm oven at an open house to make the home subconsciously remind the potential buyers of home-made freshly baked cookies.  Maybe getting another one of their senses involved improves learning.

I do believe I spent more time searching for an appropriate image than I did actually writing this post.I’ve been following a fellow science & math teacher, Frank Noschese, and his writings on his blog “Action-Reaction.”  He has some great stuff that I am going to steal and use in my classroom.  One post in particular has really had me thinking, “My SGB Journey” (  He is talking about Standards Based Grading.  I knew nothing about this form of assessment, so I dug deeper.

I won’t lie, it took me several hours of reading to get the gist of it.  Frank refers to a post by Dan Meyers.  Follow that link and read through the comments.  Others readers had many of the same questions I had; reading the questions and Dan’s responses pulled it all together for me.

I haven’t got it all worked out just yet, but I plan on implementing this in my honors Calculus class.  My administration backs me on all of my adventures and didn’t bat an eye at it, “sure, go ahead.”  After all, this one isn’t going to cost them thousands of dollars (I’ll fill you in later). I’m going to steal everything I can from Frank while I work out the methodology and the glitches in a small and forgiving class, then move it to my physics class the following year.

Here is my understanding of the concept in a nutshell:  The course is broken down into approximately 40 key concepts.  Students are assessed on those concepts. Once they get two questions perfect on that concept, they no longer need to answer those questions on later quizzes because they have already mastered the concept.  They can keep retaking quizzes on the concept until they get two of them perfect.  In the mean time, class moves on.  (We hit the wall a few times in calculus last year where we didn’t move off a section for over a week because about half of the students didn’t master the concept.)  Students track their own successes and know what they need to practice and get tutoring on.  They can get a 100% in the class, but my guess is you still end up with a normal distribution curve because many of them will feel that a 60% or an 80% on some of the concepts is acceptable.  However, if they choose to work hard and improve their grade, they can keep relearning and quizzing on the material until they master it.

Frank and Dan both have their own grading system.  I would read their posts and decide what makes sense for you.  I’m just getting started on mine, but my guess is I’ll steal one of theirs and tinker later.

It’s going to be a bit more work the first time around and a lot more time tutoring and retesting after school, but my goal is for the students to master the material.  I want them to take the Calculus AP exam and knock it out of the park.  This seems like the right approach.  I’ve ordered the three books Frank has recommended, you can find them very reasonably priced on  I think I paid about $25 for all three including shipping.

I’d be really interested to know if any of you have used similar systems and how they have worked for you.  My gut tells me this is the right way to go.  I nervous at the increased workload (again).

As I sit here grading my final exams, I realize I am putting in way more effort than my students.  I am making a promise to myself and I intend to keep it.

My final exam next year will…

  • begin with a multiple choice section on basic concepts & terminology
  • have lots of basic problems with multiple choice answers
  • have a very small written portion – I’m keeping the Road Runner cartoon, it’s my favorite part
  • be graded in under two hours

One of the questions this year asked the students to discuss three principles used in their Rube Goldberg project and explain the application of the principle.  I was looking for concepts like inertia, momentum, kinetic energy, and force.  I just graded a paper where the principles listed were ball, dog, and ball.

If it’s multiple choice, I won’t have to learn that after a full year of physics, one of my students thinks “dog” is a physics concept.  I just wish it was a joke and not the truth.

There has been a lot of talk on the NSTA Physics list server lately regarding a way to teach a measurement lab.  I had one of my morning shower brainstorms.  My thoughts went to the story of the MIT students measuring a bridge using a unit of measurement called the “Smoot,” named for Oliver Smoot.

I think many of us teaching a measurement lab have the same problem.  The students don’t understand measuring or estimating.  Given an object, they will always have the same answer, regardless of whether it is right or wrong.  So I am hereby creating a lab using fictitious units.  We will use a willing volunteer from each lab group and declare his or her height to be one “Smith” or “Jones” or whatever his or her name happens to be.  We will then do some exercises to estimate fractional distances.  I think I will give them string and make them use a meter stick to get a measurement of the “Smith.”  They will need to figure out how to divide the string into tenths and hundredths and then estimate to the thousandths.  I won’t tell them how to do it, they are going to need to figure it out on their own.

My hope is that they will come up with their own method and get a better understanding of estimation.  The beauty of an inquiry lab is how little detail they get from me.  Personally, I’m excited about this one.  I think we are looking at a first or second day of school lab here.

Here is my first pass at the lab handout.  Lab 00 – Measurement Lab

You can read about Oliver Smoot and hear an NPR interview here.

This is my second time trying to write this post.  The first went so far off topic that it is banished to the unpublished file until it behaves itself.

As I mentioned before, I’m on the fence with extra credit.  I’m now totally convinced that anything purchased for extra credit is just plain wrong.  I don’t think there is a gray area here.  No pay-for-points.  I’ll play the benefit to society game because the results outweigh the costs.  I will provide extra credit when it works to my advantage.  If the students correctly answer their WebAssign problems 48 hours before the due date of 8am Monday morning, there is a 10% bonus.  For a very few extra points, I get far fewer Sunday night emails.  Instead, they want the extra credit, so they bring in the problem during school and ask for guidance.  The result is they are looking at the work early in the week rather than waiting until the last minute.  Am I tricking them into better study habits?  I’ll take that.

I do like the idea that extra credit is for work above and beyond the norm.  This brings me back to where I am right now, with a lot of kids in bad shape as the end of the quarter nears.  My fear is that the normal grade distribution will be badly shifted by an extra credit assignment.  I am a big fan of a normal curve, with an average at a C+.  I give challenging tests and curve up to make the class average about 77%.  The A’s earn their A’s, as do the F’s.

So what is an appropriate extra credit assignment?  Here are a few ideas I’m thinking about:

  • A 2000 word research paper on a Nobel prize winner in physics and the impact of the discovery on our every day life.
  • A video that teaches a physics concept, done so that I can use it in class.  It should be scripted, edited, and several minutes long.
  • For less points – Creation or redesign of a lab for use in future classes.

None of these can be group projects; they must all be individual efforts.  Points awarded for this level of effort should be valued at about 5% of the total quarterly points.

I’m right at the point where I need to assign these if I’m going to allow extra credit.  The quarter ends in about 12 days.  I could use some feedback.

I’ve been struggling with a moral dilemma.  At least I think it’s a more dilemma.  But I’m getting ahead of myself, where are my story-telling manners?

I’m not a fan of extra credit.  Here is how I lay out my thoughts on the matter to my students:

  • If you don’t turn in your work when it is due, extra credit is not for you.  (This will be the one and only rhyme in this post, I promise.)
  • I curve the grades.  I make the tests and quizzes challenging, then I curve the average up to a C+.
  • You want to do well in my class, do your homework, come in for tutoring, pay attention in class, take notes, study for the tests and quizzes.  Do your homework!
  • My course is designed so that honestly attempting homework banks enough points to overcome poor test scores.  Did I mention, “Do your homework?”

There are some students that do all their work, they really try, but their math foundation is shaky and/or they don’t test well.  If you work hard but fail tests, I tend to secretly award point at the end of the quarter for coming in for tutoring.  Most teachers won’t fail a student that really, sincerely tries, but doesn’t succeed.

Now, about that extra credit.  Generally I don’t like it, but sometimes it’s my idea, sometimes it’s a request from another teacher or administration, like…

Toys for Tots:  Bring in a toy, help another child and you help yourself.  This one, the ends clearly justifies the means.

Support school spirit:  Attend a basketball game and support our team.  It was only 5 points, the value of a homework, so sure.  After all, I am the boys soccer coach.  Go CHARGERS!

Warning – slippery slope, proceed with caution!

Students that volunteered to help other students with their science fair projects (as research subjects) and were picked were given points.  Many applied, but few were chosen.  So if you were picked, you got 20 extra credit points.  That made a big difference for a few lucky people.  Extra credit is now a lottery.  Buy your tickets at the door.

So how about these:

  • Points for bringing in a (usable) box of tissues for the classroom?
  • Buying a fish for the fish tank?
  • Buying batteries for the robots?
  • Buying white board markers for the classroom?

So now it’s all about the Benjamins.  (For you international readers, those are $100 bills.)

Where does it end?  I mean, I’d really like a boat.

This all started because the school purchases Expo markers for the white boards.  I stopped using them, they don’t erase well.  I’ve been purchasing Quartet fine tip markers from Staples when they go on sale for $1 for five.  Yeah, the sale just ended, sorry.  I like these, they don’t leave a residue when you erase the board, so I never have to spray the white boards anymore.  I thought about letting anyone who wanted extra credit go out and purchase two packages for $2 (the store limit), but my conscience got in the way.

See where this takes us?  I mean, sure I really wanted them to buy me more markers, but the fate of the free world is in my hands here.

But seriously, if only for a moment, do we assign extra credit projects or purchases for students that don’t do their work when it is assigned?  How about students caught cheating?  Did I mention that roughly 30% of our students qualify for free lunch.

An engineering degree, a Master’s degree, twenty years of corporate sales and eight years of teaching just hasn’t prepared me for this decision.

I really do want a boat, though.

This is year 5 teaching physics.  The first year I completely ignored significant figures (aka sig-figs), there was too much other stuff to do.  I think that was the right call back then.  Now, as the course becomes more defined and I focus on what the students really need to learn and understand, I’m becoming less tolerant of sig-fig abuses.

In our recent lab, the kids had to measure the height of the toy popper.  The poppers I have are 3/4″ and 1.5″ in diameter.  When students measure these using a mm scale, I routinely get heights of 0.01 meters and 0.02 meters.  The next step they calculate the acceleration and give me results to four significant figures.  I need to get a few stamps made up for grading.  One will say SIG FIGs, another will say SHOW UR WORK, and a third will say FORMULAS? since the kids seem to think I know what formula they are planning on misusing and abusing.  Maybe I can boil all of my grading down to a series of stamps.

The problem here is that I tell them repeatedly to measure to at least two sig-figs.  You can comfortably measure the popper to 10.0 +/- .5 mm on the scale.  I have to take most of the blame here, since I don’t do enough in the beginning of the year teaching them to measure.  I need to put together a lab that teaches them how to measure, weigh, and calculate.  Then I need to hold them to those standards for the entire year.  I don’t understand how students get to the 11th and 12th grade and can’t successfully use a ruler.

I often wish I could go back in time and see if I was as oblivious in 12th grade.  Was I this lost?  Every time we use the meter stick I instruct them that we only use the metric system in our class, and still a few will measure in inches.  (I’ve been saying for 5 years that I will spray paint over the inch scale soon.)  We did the Egg Crash Lab yesterday (big success), and more than a few of them couldn’t find “half a meter” on the meter stick.  If this was the first time they’ve used a meter stick, I would understand, but we use them pretty much every other week and we are six months into the course.  Maybe I’m just expecting too much.

What is interesting is as I’m becoming more aware of the problems with sig-fig abuses, I’m finding errors in other places.  The software that maintains our student records keeps the grades to 2 decimal places.  (This is essentially 4 sig-figs, although you can technically have a 100.00 grade.)  The system rounds the grade to a whole number for the report card, but it also rounds them before calculating a semester and final grade.  It should be averaging the entire grade, then rounding.  In addition, the system stores the grade point average to 4 decimal places which is essentially 6 sig-figs.  I noticed the problem when I recently calculated semester grades and many were off by a point from the system calculated grades.  To the student that is struggling to learn physics, that one point can mean a B instead of an A, or an F instead of a D.

To quote Zack from The Big Bang Theory, “that’s the beauty of science, there’s no one right answer.”  Bazinga!

“I hate WebAssign” is the most repeated phrase of the year.  I care, but I don’t care.  Let’s talk about the reality of high school:

  • Many kids don’t do their homework
  • Many kids copy their homework from the kid that does his/her homework
  • The kid that does his/her homework tends to do well in the class
  • The kid that copies his/her homework tends to not do well in class

WebAssign allows me to give them an assignment they can’t copy since each student gets a different set of numbers in the problem.  Oh sure, some still don’t do their homework, but the zero in the grade book is indisputable when we can pull up the WebAssign grade for Mom and Dad.  The kids have a week to do an online assignment.  No, the dog did not eat your computer.  No, you had a week to do it.  No, I don’t take late work.

My homework template was set up to allow up to five entries on an assignment.  At first, there was no penalty for getting it wrong.  I did an experiment in my calculus class and penalized them 10% for each incorrect attempt after the first two attempts.  The kids really resented that.  I think they felt like they were willing to keep trying, they didn’t want to be penalized for not quitting.  Lesson learned, next experiment.

Recently I tried a new approach (ah, the scientific method at work).  I started giving 10%-20% extra credit for completing the assignment 48 hours before it is due.  With the assignment due Mondays at 8am (the start of school), I was getting a bunch of  “help me” emails on Sunday evening.  The extra credit was an attempt to reduce these emails.  What I found is that more of the students were completing the work and doing it ahead of time.  Yahoo!  They will do their work if they feel they can boost their grade with extra credit.  The reality is most of them don’t earn the extra credit, but they get the points for doing their work, and these online assignments are equivalent to a quiz grade every week.

But wait, this gets even better (I’m smiling as I write this).  The kids think they outsmarted me.  Ready for this … they are getting together to work on the problems.  Oh, I don’t know, call it … a study group.  AAAHHH!!

The year is rapidly coming to a close.  Finals are over, clean-up has begun.  But as I am one to never leave well enough alone, I have decided to create a summer assignment for the incoming physics students.

So many good things are going on.  I will have three physics classes and only one conceptual class next year.  That alone is enough to bring a tear to my eye.  I want these kids more prepared so I don’t have to spend the first two or three weeks reviewing what they should already know.

So not only am I creating a set of summer assignments, oh no, I’m creating a blog with the summer assignments 0utlined and posted and they have to do review and quiz work at WebAssign.  This a just a ton of work for me since none of it currently exists.  As of today I have the blog and WebAssign structure in place, now I’m going to create the actual lessons and online quiz work.  The beauty of the blog and WebAssign is that I don’t need to have it all finished before school ends.  The work due June 30th is posted, now I’m working on the assignment for July 15.  The students will all have their accounts and password this week before they leave for the summer.

It all looks good right now, but I’m sure there will be glitches along the way.  Who else has done this?  What am I missing?

Marcie and I have been chatting.  She has this capacitor lab that she likes and said I can post it here.

The kids use the multimeter to measure the capacitance of some rudimentary parallel plate capacitors made from Al foil (Note: the Harbor Freight multimeters do not measure a small enough capacitance for this lab…it’s in the nF range).  I adapted this lab from somewhere but I can’t remember where are this point.  I have attached both the lab and the graphical analysis I make available to them.  I use this with my honors level class and they pretty much teach capacitors to themselves.  I try to do a lot with proportionality with them throughout the year so they can start to develop their own mathematical models (especially with straight forward things like this).  Although it’s a small step, having them develop their “own” models (or at least work through to find the equation) develops fundamental science skills necessary for research and enforces the fundamental content standards of NSTA.

Capacitance Lab

Excel Graphical Analysis

The capacitance lab paper is attached here, but due to WordPress limitations, the spreadsheet links to Marcie’s web page at school.

I want to do some experiments with wax paper rolling them into canisters and maybe plywood sheets of known thickness.  If I do, I’ll either add on to this post or create a new post with my results.

I wanted to build this robot, but we just didn’t get that far.  I’ll save it for my summer program at the community college.  After midterm exams, we came back to the robots for a final two weeks of programming.

First up was the touch sensor.  I liked this lesson, it added switch blocks (if-then) into the programming.  We used it with the “follow the line” activity, but the training software told the kids what to do.  This time they had to do it on their own.  By now, the CMU software has become only a guideline and a reference for the kids.  Their assignment was to teach the robot to move forward until it bumped into something.  When that happened, the robot was supposed to stop, say “sorry,” back up a little, turn, and start over.  This is actually an easy program, so while they were figuring this out, I build a maze out of textbooks.

Part two of this got tricky.  I stopped class and explained how you can find your way out of any maze by simply hugging either the right or left wall.  They had to try to get through the maze using the single touch sensor in the front.  Only one of my students got this to work, and I actually gave him the method.  I won’t give it away.  Most of the kids got frustrated because the robot would enter the maze and just bump around aimlessly.  I asked them to brainstorm a method of using two or more sensors to get through the maze.

The general solution was to add the ultrasonic sensor.  Rather than add the sensor to the front, we added it to either the right or left side.  The idea was to have the robot stay a certain distance from the right wall.  But if it hit something while following the right wall, it would need to make a left turn and continue.  This took a lot of trial-and-error for them.  It required two switch blocks, one first for the ultrasonic sensor, then one for the touch sensor, both of them together in a loop.

I made this more interesting by changing and growing the maze each day and requiring that the robot must enter the maze from point A and exit at point B, then do it in reverse.  This eliminated the possibility of somebody getting clever and just teaching the path to their robot.  I made it a point challenge, 50 out of 50 for the fastest combined time, 45/50 for completing the maze in both directions, 40/50 for completing it in one direction, and 35/50 for trying until they ran out of time.  Slackers got less, mostly 25/50.

The other final 50 point project was an ad campaign for a robot they had to design and market.  The kids had to come up with a feature set and figure out who they would sell it to.  They had 3 to 5 minutes to present their idea and tell us why their robot would solve our problems.  After the presentation, we discussed what in their design existed today, how some of the technology was 20 years old, how some of it is so hard to do.  I ended this with Michio Kaku’s new show How to Build a Robot.  Final Project

So what did I learn?

  • The CMU lesson software is a good starting point for a lesson, but I needed to add a timed point challenge at the end of each training sesson.  I will use the CMU lessons in the future, but not rely on them alone.
  • It’s really hard to put this stuff on a midterm exam.  Best to not try and give them graded programming challenges every day or two.
  • Keeping the kids out of the parts bins is a good idea as long as several classes are sharing the robots.  Next year when I have a dedicated class, it won’t be an issue.  But not letting them modify the robot  beyond the guidelines of the lesson was the way to go.
  • Number all the big parts to match the brick and bin.
  • I started to have the kids delete their programs from the computer and the robot so others wouldn’t cheat.  I don’t have a better way around that right now.  I’d like to use USB drives, but we’ve had virus issues, so that’s not allowed.  Ideally, LEGO will add password protection.
  • Invest in some NXT books.  I found a bunch on eBay and and went crazy.  If you are only purchasing one of them, buy the book “The Lego Mindstorms NXT Idea Book” by Boogaarts, Daudelin, Davis, Kelly, Levy, Morris, … .  This is the book I wish I had before I started the course.  It tells you how to do all those things you figure out a little too late, like making your own subroutines (it’s so easy) and how each of the sensors work (if you use more than one ultrasonic sensor at a time, they interfere with each other).  Also, books by James Kelly have some good challenges based around a storyline.  I think this would be a great way to introduce these robots to a middle school class.  I have the Mayan Adventure, his newer one is called The King’s Treasure; I’ll be picking that one up as well.
  • I will add the “My Blocks” early on.  Next time, after the kids complete the first task of programming the robot to travel in rectangle, I’ll show them how they can make a single “My Block” for a 90 degree right turn and just use it rather than cutting and pasting 5 blocks for each turn.  Hopefully, they’ll build their own library of additional blocks as the class progresses.
  • Download videos of LEGO projects from YouTube.  There are a whole bunch of different walking robots, Rubik’s Cube solvers, and an amazing Sudoku solver that you absolutely must see.  I plan to show the walking robots to the summer kids and let them go on their own to design and build their own walking creation.  The videos showed the kids the power of the “toys” they were playing with.  I will show these and other short robot videos, perhaps one at the start of each class, in an effort to motivate them into doing more.

I was worried I wouldn’t have enough material for the kids to do this for 6 hours a day for a week.  I’m pretty sure the projects and videos will make the summer session fly by.  It should be fun to let them experiment and build on their own.

I got a Promethean Board in my classroom this year.  It’s a love-hate kind of thing.  I thought maybe I would use it for everything, kind of like nailing in a screw.  I used it, some days more than others, some weeks only a few minutes a day.  My experience is only with this one brand.  I’m not familiar with any other brand of smart board.  I you have other experiences, please add your experiences and ideas as a comment.

Here are some of the great ways to use a smart Promethean Board:

  • Class warm up – sometimes I put up a word problem or a Next-Time question from Hewitt’s book, sometimes this is a science news web page or the astronomy picture of the day.  Sometimes it’s a short video that gets their attention.  Between these ideas, I can always have something to engage the students when they are entering the room.
  • Test review game for Conceptual Physics – I have ExamView software, it’s provided with my textbooks.  I typically use the software to create a sample test of all multiple choice and true/false questions.  I give out mini white-boards ** and divide them into groups.  The groups are competing for extra credit points.  The group with the most right answers might get 15 points, second gets 10, third gets 5, fourth gets none.  I used to make copies for everyone and hand them out.  Now read the questions off the board.  We can usually get through about 50 review questions in a class.
  • Simulations – There are lots of great web sites out there for this.  You can also use Physlets.  I run into a lot of problems with the sites being blocked by our security system.  Try them well in advance and maybe you can get them unblocked.
  • Crayon Physics – it’s a game that costs only $20, but it’s really a problem solving exercise.  Go get the demo and you’ll want to purchase the full thing.  I let the kids play it if there is free time.  They love to take turns and try to out-solve each other.  The full version has many more features than the demo version.  Worth the price.
  • Overhead slides – I now scan them and put them into a folder organized by chapter on the computer.  It’s a pain scanning them, but I no longer need to move the overhead into place and clean a spot on my board and expect a bulb to blow.  Plus I can mark them up without worrying about cleaning them up later.
  • Movies and science shows – A much earlier post discussed some of my favorites.  I like showing good movies because the kids start seeing science when they go to the movies – I haunt them.  Nothing like a big screen to watch Apollo 13, Time Warp, and Mythbusters.
  • Previewing a lab or other instruction set – I convert the file and put it on the board.  Then we read over it together, I highlight the important points and they can see where it is on their page.  I know, it’s remedial, but that’s my teaching life.
  • Programming Robots – We just finished playing with LEGO robots.  It was a pretty good experience, I’ll be updating the blog soon.  I would often run the NXT-G programming environment on the smart board to demonstrate how a function could be programmed into the robot.  It was much easier than going to 12 computers and endlessly repeating myself.

Here’s what just doesn’t work on my smart Promethean Board:

  • Doing physics problems.  I know, you’d expect to do all the work on the board.  There are some problems; the writing doesn’t keep up, it tends to skip and it writes too fat.  I am constantly changing pen color or size or something else to get the point across.  The result is not as easy as writing on a white board, but it’s worse now because I was waiting  for everyone to finish writing so I can clear the board and go on to the next problem.  Instead, I just do problems on the white board and keep moving.  They can look at previous problems and take their time copying.
  • PowerPoint.  Promethean has their own editor called Active Inspire.  You can’t just play Power Points in there.  You can run Power Point, but then you don’t have the tools that are part of the Promethean application.  You can import the Power Point as a flat file.  Active Inspire doesn’t have all the movement and other motions, so the files don’t really work right and you can’t recreate them in Active Inspire because it doesn’t have the functions.  I don’t typically give notes in Power Point format and I certainly won’t be creating them in Active Inspire.
  • Basically, anything you want to show interactively on the white board has to be brought into the Active Inspire software first.  Only it can’t import very much.  I found a work around with a small but outstanding bit of freeware called CutePDF.  When installed, you can choose CutePDF as your printer and write anything as a PDF file.  Then within Active Inspire, you can import a PDF.  You can’t edit the document, but you can display it.  That’s how I get the ExamView output into Active Inspire.  You have to do the same with a Word file and pretty much anything else.  I’m not impressed.

Let me be clear here – this was a good investment, but I don’t think it lives up to the all hype.  In my classroom, the Promethean Board was placed dead in the center of the white board area, my two boards were split and moved to either side of the interactive board.  It makes teaching a bit awkward and doesn’t let work flow from one board to another.  The far ends of both boards are hard to see for some of the students.  We were told about all the existing lessons that are available on Promethean Planet, created and shared by other teachers.  The site says 16,000.  I found 21 for physics, and those were basically short power point-like presentations.  A great majority of the lessons are for grade school.  Most of my frustration is from a lack of software features, the company needs to do a lot better.  I want to be able to create animations of a ball moving, adding text, etc.  It just doesn’t do this stuff well.

** Here’s a real money saving tip: You can make your own mini white boards.  Go to Home Depot or Lowe’s and pick up a 4 foot by 8 foot sheet of “tile board” for $10.  Then cut it into any size white boards you want; mine are roughly 9″ by 12.”

What’s New in 2013/2014?

Every year brings a change, this one is no exception.

I will be picking up the sophomore honors Algebra II class to keep them separate from the juniors. This should help accelerate them and put them on a stronger track towards Calculus. Looks like there will be only one section each of Physics and Calculus, but still two of Robotics & Engineering.

Hot topics this year are going to be the Common-Core Standards, Standards-Based Grading (SBG), improving AP Calculus scores, and somehow adding Python, maybe as a club.

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