Fly, You Fools!

This semester, a few classes asked for bi-weekly review over the entire year so they can keep old material fresh. I was really happy to get these requests because it shows a higher level of maturity than I’ve seen lately and that they recognize that old stuff still applies.

State testing starts this week (blargh) so I decided to use Friday and today to do some review over forces with a paper airplane challenge.

We spent some time discussing balanced and unbalanced forces, what causes acceleration, and what forces might be acting on a moving aircraft. Then, I tasked groups of three with building aircraft that would 1) fly really far, and 2) stay in the air for a long time. It’s tough to do because you can either go right for the glide or shoot for something that handles projectile motion a little more effectively for increased distance.

Most groups split the difference with an in-between design which led to pretty consistent success on both counts.


The lab isn’t perfect. There are things I’ll change for next year. It would be great in the forces unit, but I think I’ll keep it as review because 1) it’s a good break up of the monotony, especially in testing season, and 2) we can apply material immediately rather than slogging through principles.

Plus, it’s hard to be discouraged with the state of education when you hear cheers about a paper gliding for 20+ meters down the hallway.

Here’s the document if you’re interested in running this with your students.

Learning as a Sum of Experiences

I’ve been working very hard this year to make sure students experience science – or the process of science – as much as possible. Physics and chemistry are real and they matter to us. It’s my job to help them see why they matter to us.

Placed into a school context, I ask students to prove that they’ve learned something. I grade based on standards with a very simple standards-based method (based largely on Frank Noschese’s writing): if you know it, full credit. If you don’t know it, no credit. I don’t fuss with percentages or sliding scales. The objectives (standards has a different connotation to students, more on that another time) weight in at 80% of their final grade. I still give tests and quizzes which can demonstrate the learning, but students are free to show me what they know at any time for credit.

I’ve run into an issue where students memorize snippets in hopes of earning the objective. It’s a checkbox to them. I’m trying to show that learning is more than the simple recitation of information. It’s the sum of the experiences and, more importantly, what you do with those experiences.

I get this way every time I give a quiz or test because I have to constantly reiterate the importance of learning, not just in “passing.”

The Earthquake Lab

Waves are tricky to teach. Students feel like they already have a ton of experience with them (you’ve been to the beach somewhere, I’m sure.) and that there isn’t a whole lot more to learn. So, I try to make it hands on and connect with other areas of interest.

For instance, I brought my guitar into school. Music is waves working well together. So, I fiddled around during class while they were working and had them make connections between the guitar and the theory of waves. A few days later, I moved into a NOVA episode about the 2011 Japan earthquake and resulting tsunami…more waves. Students were able to connect the abstract – longitudinal and transverse waves – with the concrete – P and S seismic waves. At this point I introduced the earthquake lab.

The Setup

Students broke into teams of four and assigned roles – Project Manager, Treasurer, Research Director, Architect – based on their interests. Their task was to build a building at least 40cm tall out of spaghetti, marshmallows, and tape which would stand up to an earthquake. I modified this doc (Word download) and gave one sheet per group.

The Challenge

When I assigned this task, I said the structure had to be at least 40cm tall, but I didn’t tell them that it should be as tall as possible. Some groups naturally went for it (one group hit 98cm!) while others played it safe. Next time, the height challenge will be added.

Also, if you look at the document, I dropped the line of credit to $4000, thinking it would make them think through their designs. I also limited their trips to the store (me) to two visits to really make sure they designed. Nearly every group was very intentional, but I still wish I had added the “economy” challenge to the height: tallest building you can make (at least 40cm) while staying cheap. Things to remember for next year…

The Shaker

The final hurdle was designing an earthquake machine that would shake every building fairly. I also wanted them to see the difference between P and S waves, so it had to shake on two axes. I tried to work through a couple of ideas which would have required cranks, drills, drawer sliders, and lots of engineering and instead landed on something sweet and simple: a tone generator on our LabQuest sets and a hacked apart speaker.


P Wave arrangement. Speaker is mounted below the platform.


S Wave arrangement: lateral speaker with the LabQuest hooked up.

I used some 10-gauge house wire and industrial strength hot glue to add some hooks to the speaker baffle. A small power source let me control the volume of the tone being generated. I drilled holes through a small whiteboard to mount on top of a speaker (P waves) and beside a speaker (S waves). We ran the P waves at around 25Hz and the S between 10-12Hz. The goal was to show students how properly-built buildings resonate with the shake, not fight against it.

It gave a pretty good shake…my speakers this year were a little small, but it worked well to show resonance. I think if we went for height next year, we’d get a few more building failures, which are just as important as building successes.

Thanks to Anthony Purcell for making sure I wrote this up. Leave a comment if you want tips on building your shaker.

Into the Deep End with Circuits (and Batman)

I’ve been looking forward to teaching electricity all year. I’ve never done it before and I was excited about the hands-on stuff you can do. Who doesn’t want to play with batteries and light bulbs?


I split the lab into two days. Rather than prescribing circuits, I knew I wanted to make it inquiry-based. There are limited variables with simple circuitry and I wanted students to find the connections and patterns on their own.

Day 1

I put together kits for students with a D cell battery, some Christmas lights I cut up the night before, and aluminum foil to serve as a “wire.” Each group was challenged to make five working circuits.

bring the light

The struggle was real. The success was even more real. Smiles all around; shouts of joy when the bulbs lit up or turned off when they were supposed to. Plus, lots of shrugging and smiling from me as I avoided answering anything, which was fun.

Plus, I got my favorite answer ever from someone on the last question…


The circuit diagrams were based on a model on the board with unlabeled components, which helped them struggle through drawing a nice, clear design. At the end of the day, most students could draw a diagram based on the apparatus they had built.

Day 2

Time to put the learning to work. I still haven’t taught anything about how to split the voltage across a series because I wanted them to make the leap of faith themselves. This lab required the students to read a circuit diagram to use the voltmeter and ammeter. To simplify (and reduce the stress of lab time) each group had to choose to measure volts or amps. If they finished early, I let them finish taking data on their own rather than swapping with another group.


Again, I refrained from answering direct questions as much as possible because I needed them to not only be able to draw a diagram, but read an unknown given to them. They rose to the challenge and, for the most part, were able to get at least one data set completed by the end of lab.


The struggle was real and the payoff was satisfying. The goal was achievable and success came quickly, which spurred more effort on the harder challenges. This lab is definitely a keeper for next year. To improve, I’m going to make a better connection between the labs…some groups said they didn’t see the pathway I was trying to set up. Either way, it worked great and I’m already looking forward to putting the pieces together next week.

To top off the great day, Batman swung by with a friend.


An Experiment in Process

This post outlines a recent lesson and activity I designed for my integrated chemistry/physics students. Fair warning: science ahead.

The Problem

I teach a class called Integrated Chemistry & Physics. It’s meant to serve as an all-around physical science for high school students (they need one life science and one physical to earn a diploma). Being such, it’s a light touch in a variety of topics in both physics and chemistry. It also provides a lot of opportunities for students to experience the ideas, particularly in physics.

I’ve run into an issue where lab activities designed for physics students often bog my group down in procedure and over-the-top data collection, which muddies the purpose of the lab. I wanted to simplify our usual acceleration lab to make it a little more accessible from a less science-oriented perspective.

The Plan

Simplification was the goal. The difficult thing about acceleration is that you need to measure distance and time accurately. Doing this without equipment becomes a challenge in teamwork, which was an added bonus for this activity. Rather than having one student use a timer, I decided to go with a metronome so everyone in the class could hear the correct interval. Students released a marble from the top of a slanted white board and traced the path of the marble as it rolled through an interval from the metronome.

I hadn’t taught anything about acceleration yet, so I had the students hypothesize based on the following statement:

The distance a marble rolls will double if the time is doubled.

It provided an interesting discussion point as students argued over whether the marble rolled at a constant speed. Many didn’t consider the fact that doubled meant every interval (0.25s to 0.5s is doubling the interval) or just a single block of time.


The whiteboards had a nice record of the length of each trial. I know precision is just about out the window, but the generalities were helpful in building an understanding of what acceleration is. As they were taking data, there were exclamations of, “I can’t keep up! It moves too fast!” Having the kinesthetic experience through manual tracking is something that is lost when tech is used to get more precision.

The Results

Because this was done manually, the data were all over the place. Depending on how well the group worked, some had negative accelerations at the top of the board and very, very high accelerations at the bottom. I’m a fan of error in data because it reinforces the fact that being careful in the lab is very important. I had each group report their average distance rolled for each interval and I was able to graph the class data as position vs time and speed vs time to highlight the difference in shape for acceleration between the two.



Further Discussion

The nice thing about this lab is that it had components of very close teamwork, kinesthetic experiences, an achievable task, and great error for analysis. While we were discussing group results, students were noticing that their results varied widely between each group. So, I took the class data and animated how the graph changed as more and more data are added to the set.

Students immediately saw that the graph approached the correct shape as more data were added. I’m hoping this starts to end the question, “How many trials do we need?” in future experiments.

Next time I run this experiment, I’ll probably use ticker tape cars to remove the variability in data. I liked that they had to physically move the pen faster as the marble accelerated, but it caused a lot of issues in data analysis the next day and may have even introduced some misconceptions about acceleration.

What suggestions would you have? What changes could keep some of the kinesthetic experiences and simplicity in structure but improve on the task as a whole?

Look Up! It’s a Space Comet!

I get really, really excited about comets. I remember seeing comet Hale-Bopp back in 1997 hanging in the sky and being amazed that those wanderers exist and that we have a chance to see them from time to time. This year, we’re lucky to have another comet swing by the Earth and though faint, may become a pretty good sightseeing opportunity as we move through January.

South Bend isn’t known for it’s clear winter skies, but last night I had a chance to go outside and do some comet hunting. C/2014, Q2 (also known as Lovejoy) has been below the equator until just recently. Additionally, it just brightened up enough to be seen in dark skies with the naked eye if you know where to look.

Head outside and look to the southeast. Find Orion in the sky, and then look below that for a slightly-lopsided box – that’s Lepus. Hover over the photo below to see a labelled image.

Lovejoy is moving higher in the sky over the next month, through Lepus and up next to Orion. The comet is still pretty faint, but it’s the small, greenish smudge in the photo and should increase in brightness as it moves closer to perihelion (nearest point to the sun) in late January. I don’t have a tracking mount, so my photos are all a little blurry, but I managed to get one that shows the comet’s nucleus and coma.

…and a little closer…

Why am I putting this on a blog about education and technology? A comet sparked my curiosity in space and is something that stands out very clearly even today. Our students live in a world of screens and media. We need to be the people in their lives who expose the bigger world at every opportunity. Not every student will think this is as amazing as I do, but that’s okay – we’re not there to make every student love what we do. If one student gets excited over something bigger than themselves, we’re accomplishing the mission of teaching.

Protein Permutations

Proteins are some of the most varied, complex, and mind-bending models studied in biology. Built from our genetic code, proteins have multiple levels of organization which can be modeled independently and corporately to learn about their functions based on their structures. Because of this complexity, proteins offer great fodder for the biology classroom and helps tie molecular genetics (DNA, RNA) into the bigger picture of our bodies as a corporate unit.

creative commons licensed ( BY-NC ) flickr photo shared by alumroot

Starting small

Protein is the direct result of your genetic sequence. The building blocks (amino acids) are coded in the strand and your body uses that template to build everything. A common activity is to have student decode the template and come up with a simple amino acid sequence – this is the primary structure. The sequence of acids themselves will determine the rest of the protein’s properties.

After the acids are sequenced, they form either an alpha-helix (spiral) or a beta-sheet (flat). The structure of the helices and sheets begins to give the protein its shape in space. As they are formed, hydrogen bonds and attractions or repulsions are realized and the macrostructure begins to fold into it’s functional shape. These are the secondary and tertiary structures of the protein, and this is where students often get confused. Each time a fold is made, considerations have to be taken for adjacent functional groups and their influence on every other part of the model.

Finally, a protein’s quaternary structure comes from its interaction with other protein subcomponents. Because these molecules are so large and complex, they often form in constituent pieces which then fit together into the functional macromolecule. Your blood, for example, is a protein called hemoglobin, and it’s actually four protein subunits working in conjunction with one another.

CC licensed (BY-SA) via wikimedia commons

Working with Students

A great way to have students think through the folding and conjoining aspects of protein formation is to use something like this origami-based activity where students fold a subunit in part one, and then join those units together to form a working structure in part two. They have to think through how the structure of one subunit contributes to the function of the macrostructure once it is completed. They also quickly learn that if proteins are not shaped properly, they will not function correctly.

Pedagogical Implications

Modeling in science is incredibly important. It’s hard to remember that everything we “know” about tiny structures like atoms and proteins comes from many, many years of environmental observation. We can’t actually see how a protein is folded, but we can make models based on how they interact with the environment. Students don’t realize this, and it’s important to point that out.

Everything in science is based on observation, yet we expect students to learn about structures and their functions, yet they can’t be seen. We have to teach them that first, observation is more than seeing something, and second, that models can help us make those observations. Show a student a physical model of a protein or a bone and ask them to describe what they see and feel and let the science happen. Giving them the experience of trying to fold a protein will help internalize the complexity of our bodies and what a marvel they are.

Too often, biology is complicated pictures, graphs, and data sets. It isn’t made real for students, and building models of blood cells from paper is one way to do that. Making the abstract concrete through modeling and analyzing the building blocks helps students see biology as something to be experienced rather than memorized is a big task, but it’s an important one.


Root-Bernstein, R. & M. (1999). Sparks of genius: The 13 thinking tools of the world’s most creative people. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Turnbough, M.; Martos, M. (2012, August 16). Venom!. ASU – Ask A Biologist. Retrieved November 18, 2014 from


I’m on bath duty each night. After dinner, the water runs, and Meredith gets really, really excited. The tub is full of boat, plastic chains, and foam letters which have a great feature of sticking to the wall when they’re wet. I’ve even discovered that, if thrown just right, they will stick on their own.

I don’t want to humblebrag, but I can get it to stick one out of seven attempts.

I managed to get a “G” to stick tonight and I started wondering why it stuck to the wall…is it cohesion or adhesion?

I’m still thinking through how to best explain this…which force is more prevalent? Is is one more powerful than the others?

When I taught adhesion and cohesion, never considered a problem like this…they were all straight forward because I had to assess the standard. I was afraid of confusing them. Now, I’m more afraid of what I missed because I didn’t confuse them.

How would you explain the picture? What would your students say?

Astronomy Project – Day 10

I made some quick additions this afternoon to my GitHub repo for this project, which I’ve renamed to PySky. I had to do some research on the Pyephem license before I packaged it with my code. It turns out it’s available to distribute freely with other software as long as I provide my source, so now, it’s packaged with my simple python script.

Update 9:08 PM 10/16/13

Looks like I wrote the post too soon. I was able to spend some time tonight working on the script after my wife went to bed and I was able to get both of my original problems solved. The updated script is posted on GitHub.

I was able to find a nifty little piece of code to help me manage responses to prompts so my code is a little cleaner. I don’t have to have as many conditionals (if, elif, else) in my functions anymore, which makes everything look a little bit nicer.

As far as my coding, I’m working on a couple things:

  1. Users will be able to set their location, rather than having it hardcoded to South Bend (which isn’t useful at all).
  2. The program needs to be able to save the location data for all lookups. I think a global variable is a good way to do this, but I need to learn more.

Things have been crazy lately, so I haven’t touched this in a while. I’m still also working on getting the hardware I need to get my Raspberry Pi up and running. The only video-out it has is an HDMI port. I don’t have a monitor that can take HDMI, and I’m having a hard time tracking an HDMI-to-VGA adapter down. I might need to turn to Amazon for this one.

BUT, I did get another crucial piece of hardware for this little jaunt that I’m very excited about.

Of course, it happened to come on the cloudiest day of the month so far. I’ll post more pictures of the scope in a later post.

Chemical Reaction Cards

I came in today and found out that every computer in the building is being used for testing for the entire week. That kind of threw off my plans. So, I came up with a quick activity I thought I’d share in case you’re in the same place with your chemistry.

We did an activity a week or so ago in which students placed chemical reactions into five categories based on their similarities. These, of course, were synthesis, decomposition, combustion, single replacement and double replacement. Today, we’re doing something similar with note cards. I’m hoping to see two things:

A) I’d like to see if they remember the indicators for each type of chemical reaction and B) They’ll copy down these representative reactions into their notes for reference as we move on in identifying reaction types.

Color coded cards. Photo is CC-SA by Brian.

I took example reactions and wrote each chemical down on an individual note card. I also threw in a couple of distractions to make sure kids were thinking about ion charges and bonding. I chose to put the balanced coefficient with the chemicals so kids have another clue to whether or not their reaction is correct (if it is right, it should be balanced).

They’re thinking and engaging with the cards, making critical decisions about which to include, and which to throw away. It is also forcing them to work together, listen to input, and make collaborative choices and then adjust based on feedback.

*UPDATE* – Since I’m doing this activity on the fly, I came across a problem I hadn’t anticipated. I noticed students were not putting the proper “punctuation” into their notes (plus signs and reaction arrows). To correct for this, I had them write them in neon marker on the tabletop to help them space the cards out correctly. You could also do this by including plus sign and reaction arrow cards in each set.