Astronomy Project – Day 5

I worked a little bit tonight on my code while Lindsey got to bed early while the baby napped. I added a menu at the beginning of the program which prompts the user to select either Stars or Planets. Then, they can put their choice in.

This is a short-term implementation for a few of reasons:

  1. For users without the PyEphem library, I need to see if I can push a download or package the data somehow.
  2. I don’t want to have a ton of menus to go through
  3. The star library is pretty small. It’s good enough now, but I need to find another one to tap into.
  4. The code is “chunky.” I want to go through and streamline when I’m more awake.

I keep thinking about how much more I’m learning working on this project as opposed to when I tried to learn Python using arbitrary lessons. It’s really driving home the idea of interest-based learning and it’s not something I’m going to forget any time soon.

If you want to see and try the new code, you can fork it on GitHub.

Astronomy Project – Day 4

I’ve been dabbling a little bit every day with this project and I’ve made some big changes since day 1.

First, with some help from Brandon Rhodes on StackOverflow, I got the function to print the altitude/azmiuth data for a planet when you run the script. This is still hardcoded for South Bend, but that’s where I live, so it makes sense. Down the line, I’ll make this a variable a user can use to set their locality.

Next, I found a python module to pull the current date and time when requesting the planet’s location. Since the Earth moved, it didn’t make sense to display the position based on date alone. Now, it will read that information from the computer and give more accurate results. Because I did this during the day, I used the sun as my object so I could check it’s position in my program vs other databases and calculators online. And this is where my brain started to hurt.

If you’re not familiar with astronomy (and I’m still learning) you can display position in a few different ways. The easiest (most popular?) way to describe position is using altitude and azimuth coordinates. The altitude is the angle of the object above the horizon and the azimuth is it’s angular distance around the horizon. So, if it’s position is 30o, 270o, it would be 30 degrees above the horizon looking due west.

You can also use celestial coordinates, right ascension and declination. RA is the angular distance from the celestial equator. In other words, if you stand on the equator and look up, you’re looking at RA = 0. The declination, on the other hand, is the direction north or south of the celestial plane. To me, this is much harder to conceptualize in my brain, which is why I prefer alt/az descriptors.

So, back to the code. I got it to print alt/az data, which was awesome. So, to make sure it was working correctly, I checked it against some other tools, and that’s when I ran into problems.

So, I went back to the code and changed it to print out the RA/Dec instead of alt/az to see what would happen.

Which was better.

I need to find some way to improve my alt/az calculations. I don’t know if it’s my location data or if there need to be adjustments to conversions, but I’m getting funny answers. For now, I’ll keep it in RA/Dec because the entire point of this program down the line is to pass this data to a telescope, so it doesn’t matter which one is easier for the user to look at. We’ll see.

If you want to see the current code, here’s the current dev code base. If you’re a python coder, feel free to fork and contribute.

Astronomy Project – Day 1

This is kind of a long story, but stick with me, because I’m excited about it.


Earlier this year, I set a goal for myself to learn Python. I started on learning, but I didn’t really have any practical application for what I was doing.

Rising Action

I’ve always enjoyed astronomy, looking at the stars and planets, and more recently, trying to take pictures of them in my back yard.

I’m planning on buying a telescope in the near future, and part of that is going to include a simple motor to make sure I can aim it accurately and efficiently.

I’m also starting a master’s class in a couple weeks at MSU which is focusing on the maker culture idea and its implications in the classroom. Rather than purchasing a textbook for the course, we’ve been asked to buy a Raspberry Pi, Makey Makey, Squishy Circuits Kit, or a LittleBits kit.

And that’s when I had my stroke of insight. (I won’t be presumptuous and say genius. Yet.)

My project this fall is going to be going back and actually learning Python to create a program on the Raspberry Pi which can be used to control my telescope.

After doing some searching, I even found a Python library, PyEphem, which is a database of astronomical data put together (in part) by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Those are the guys that landed Curiosity on Mars. They know what they’re doing.

I know this is going to be a crazy six weeks of learning, working, and applying that to the classroom. While working full time. And raising my daughter.

Bring it on.

The Conflict

I’ve already started by looking back at the Python I’d already learned to see if I could begin to tap into what I’ve already found. I’ve got a public Github repository to hold all of the code as I write. Right now, it’s five lines of code that allow you to pick a planet and a date (even a future date…awesome) and it will tell you which constellation the planet appears in.

If you’ve got experience with Python, I’d really love to have your input as I go through the process.

I’m not expecting to have this totally done by the end of the semester, but I know I’m going to be learning a ton that I’ll be able to take back to the classroom someday.

Where is all the time? #ds106 #4life

I saw a post this afternoon about a new section of #ds106 starting for a five-week summer course. I’ve dabbled in the Daily Creates from time to time, which included my very first-ever animated GIF,

My first animated GIF.

My first animated GIF.

and I’ve enjoyed those a lot.

I’ve decided that I’m going to jump in these next five weeks as an Open Online Participant. Jim Groom is teaching the course, and he’s taking it on a Twilight Zone trip. I remember watching old episodes with my dad when the SciFi channel wasn’t spelled “Sy-fy,” and I was still young enough to be freaked out by “To Serve Man.”

Another episode stands out in my head…it had something to do with a stopwatch. A Google search later, I found what I was looking for. A man is given a stopwatch that can stop time. After becoming more confident in his new powers, well, let’s just say he ends up with a lot of time on his hands.

Who's got time anymore...

Do you have a second to spare?

Time is on my mind with this because of the time I’ll need to put into the class over the next month. And, with a house renovation starting Memorial Day weekend, I might be wishing I had a stopwatch of my own…

Adaptive Science Curriculum

I’ve been following Dan Meyer for about 15 months. I don’t teach math, but the way he talks about teaching math makes me want to teach it. If you’re not familiar with his writing and development of Three Act Math, you should read the linked post and go check out his site dedicated to free materials.

Recently, he’s moved into developing web-based “textbooks,” if they can even be called that. Essentially, he’s taking intuitive knowledge of math (draw a square) and then directing the user through the process of either confirming their previous understanding or correcting their misconceptions. What really caught my attention was this activity on squares. Stop reading now, check it out.

Dan teamed up with a teacher/programmer named Dave Major (who also wrote a post about the squares activity). I really began to think about how this could be done in science.

Flipped Learning is all over the web. I use it, my friends use it, and we’ve all seen some amazing things happen in our classes. Honestly, I think video is reaching a point where it can help move us into meaningful digital learning spaces, but it isn’t enough. We all know that.

I’ve been thinking a lot about how to move content into adaptive digital environments, much like the Better Best Squares activity. PhET simulations by UC Boulder are a good first step, but there is still a disconnect between the task (usually paper based) and how the student interacts with the program.

I’m wondering how we can begin to make responsive programs like the squares example for science. One thought, initially, is that simulation parameters could be set by a student, much like the square they draw. Every following step would be A) integrated with the class responses, and B) based on the initial setup.

How else could we do this in science? Are there any programmers that would be interested in trying to build some kind of pilot program? Any teachers that would be interested in writing curriculum for this project? Let me know in the comments.

Spring Service Projects

This spring, I’m asking my homeroom students to perform some type of service project. The type of project is up to them, but I’ve encouraged them to think as locally as they can. Whether that’s the school or the neighborhood they live in doesn’t matter to me.

I have a couple that already have ideas to build off of, but I’d love to see some other types of projects that were successful. If you have some examples (or know people with examples), I’d appreciate your feedback on the form embedded below.

Full Immersion

My wife showed me this video the other night. If you haven’t seen it, consider taking thirty seconds to watch it. I’ll wait.

At the time, I was entertained. The ending really surprised me, and the video itself was engaging. But, as soon as it was over, I wasn’t thinking about buying a refrigerator or dishwasher any more than I had been before the clip.

How often are our classrooms like this? For me, I’m constantly asking myself whether or not a particular tool or activity is a gimmick (edutainment, if you will) or if it really has substance. There’s a very fine line between the two, and I’ve definitely been duped in the past.

To determine if its going to make a long-lasting impact, I have to be able to connect it to the unit-at-large. How will the tool or activity come full circle from the initial hook? I think Dan Meyer does this better than anyone I know with his Three Act Math website. He begins with a short video or image that prompts a question from the students. Teachers then work to scaffold through the questions to help students build meaning. I’m amazed at not only how thorough his work is, but also that he shares it for free. (For proof that these aren’t gimmicks, check out Dan’s post from December 12.)

In science, I need to make the move to labs before instruction. Terie Englebrecht wrote a short post earlier this week about how she’s moved to labs before instruction. Students move through the unit having been exposed to the “real” part of the content. I stink at this, and as I work on bring labs to the front of the cycle, I need to really make sure to build a program that feeds back on itself.

If you have ideas or suggestions on how to accomplish this, I’d love to hear about them.

Bragging on Students

I love opportunities to brag on students that do some great work.  As often as I can, I’ll send something in to Twitter or other teachers in our school.  It’s always great sending something out, but it’s even better when it is a student that blindsides you with an amazing project…and that happened to me today.

I assigned a research project where students picked any topic, as long as it related to chemistry.  They chose three essential questions and then did a project sharing what they learned.  A lot of students build a Blogger site or a Wix page, and some did powerpoint presentations in front of a small group of students.  Others chose to do videos, and the video I’ve linked below from a student really blew me away with its simplicity and the personality of the student that comes through.

Take a couple minutes to watch these…I’d love to be able to pass some comments along to this student about her work.