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Make Lunchtime Fun!

If we want to make lunchtime fun, why not allow students to choose anything they want to eat? Of course we recognize the absurdity in this statement; we have actually taken great strides to ensure that students eat a nutritious lunch.

So shouldn’t that same logic also apply to learning? Too often, I hear teachers proclaim they want to use technology to “make learning fun.”  Of course, this can be a dangerous proposition if the goal of infusing technology in the classroom is to simply entertain students. Furthermore, this mentality can undermine the foundational idea that technology is a tool.

As educators, it is important that we help guide students in their technology diet. We need to realize that there can be ’empty learning’ with technology in the classroom. Like junk food, some EdTech can be highly enjoyable, but may not offer a lot of educational nutrition. Even websites that offer educational content can often be riddled with toy ads and other distracting content (to follow the analogy, they have too many preservatives or prizes inside).

So how might an educator evaluate the nutritional content of technology used in the classroom? Perhaps one way is to follow the Triple E Framework.

The Triple E Framework attempts to define what it should look like, sound like and feel like to integrate technology tools into teaching in order to meet and exceed learning goals.  The framework is based on three levels, Engagement in learning goals, Enhancement of learning goals, and Extension of learning goals.


One of the many shining points in this framework is the proper use of the word engagement.  In the framework, engagement means that student brains are engaged whereby they are motivated to become active learners. Furthermore, the framework goes beyond engagement and challenges the technology to not only enhance learning goals but to extend student learning.

Check out this research-supported model, and run your next technology activity through their evaluation tool.

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ParentingSo far this summer the best book that I have read is a short and insightful book by Illah Reza Nourbakhsh: Parenting for Technology Futures, Part I.  Every parent, teacher, administrator and school board member should read this book.  It is a short and fulfilling read, and is only $2.99 to download the Kindle book.

Avoiding the wildly popular concept of tech literacy, Nourbakhsh argues that students must have technology fluency – where students understand technology so deeply that they influence the future of technology instead of being techno-consumers.

Nourbakhsh also affirms that the teacher is an important and necessary component for improving student attitudes – one that can’t be replaced by any technology.  Parents should engage their schools and the teachers of their children to discuss the role of technology in schools.

In addition to providing parents with ways to engage the educational system, Nourbakhsh provides a recipe for parents to encourage tech fluency at home that includes participation, co-learning, allowing your child to teach you tech, and using technology interwoven with creativity.

By being mindful of technology in the home and at school, and by actively working to be aware of recent trends in technology futures and in education technology, you will set your child up to have the best possible chance to have a tech fluent future.  In a time of economic uncertainty and social upheaval, thanks to massive income inequality and robot-triggered underemployment, that tech fluency is the best insurance policy to insure that your child will not be a victim of technology, but rather an innovator who helps reinvent the future of technology for a better world.

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We recently had the opportunity to talk with Illah Reza Nourbakhsh (author ofRobot Futures) about robots now and in the future.  As robots are getting easier and cheaper to make, Illah describes the growing problem of robot smog:

We talk a lot about smog in general as kind of a pollution, this haze that is a distraction from what you hope, in terms of what you want to see around you, and the air you breathe that has long term health consequences.  And one of the interesting things about robotics is that [] you can build robots.  But as more and more people build robots of every kind, the physical world that fills with robots of our own creation feels more and more like the digital world when people started making all sorts of websites with really bad flash animations on them…

You can get a 3-D printer – and they’re getting cheaper and cheaper – and now you can start building these things.  And you have your Arduino, so you have your brain for your robot, and now you can have a body, and yeah, wifi is getting cheaper, [] so your little robot that you build on your 3-D printer can be online relatively quickly, it can be controlled online, it can send pictures online, it can move around in the physical world.  And oh, by the way, it can fly.  Flying robots are getting cheaper really fast.  For $10, $15 you can make a robot that flies.  So now you go take a walk in the park, and the walk in the park is like looking at really bad flash pages on the web.  You keep seeing these moronic robots.

Immediately, I began to draw parallels in education.  As schools have greater access to technology and online tools, there is a real danger of creating edtech smog.

EdTech smog happens where students use technology with no real purpose or aim.  There might be a hope that students will better understand technology concepts and operations in using a specific tool.  However, no matter the enthralling wonder that the tool summons from limited student attention, we are still left with an educational outcome that has no real purpose.  As moronic robots have the potential to fill our physical landscape, moronic technological distractions can also fill our digital classrooms.

Edtech smog is nothing more than using technology as a distraction from what you hope your students should learn.

Illah has some ideas of how educators might have students use technology to solve a real problem. Listen to this clip to hear his thoughts that speak to appropriate technology integration:

P.S. In his blog, co-host Dale Basler puts Voki and Animoto at the top of #EdtechSmog list.  What’s on your list?

After using the iPad2 and the Apple TV to mirror iPad content through my LCD projector, I realized that this setup can be used as a wireless document camera by using the built-in camera app on the iPad2.

The Setup:

First of all, I setup a ‘stand’ for the iPad, so that it could project anything underneath it.  Being a science teacher, I have access to plenty of lab stands and clamps (I actually wrapped the two metal rods in electrical tape to protect the iPad2 from scratches).


I gently rested the iPad2 on the stand, being careful to center the camera on the lab table below, and secured it with a large rubber-band.



I found that I needed a wide stand so that students could fit their whiteboards underneath without difficulty.


This system is also flexible, as it is wireless.  I can carry it back to the lab and showcase individual student work to help direct a laboratory investigation.  Taking a picture, I was even able to annotate over a photo by importing it through an app like the Educreactions Interactive Whiteboard app.


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5a23195uA recent Phi Delta Kappan article caught my eye about using TV in the classroom: Teaching with television: New evidence supports an old medium, by Deborah L. Linebarger.

In the article, Linebarger cites research affirming that TV can be used effectively in the classroom – especially where it supplements, rather than supplants, good instruction.

There are some obvious benefits in having videos that enhance a lesson.  I recently was watching Fabric of the Cosmos – a four-hour series on PBS featuring Brian Greene.  The third episode (Quantum Leap) showcases the weirdness of the quantum world.  In just 20 engaging minutes, Greene is able to beautifully illustrate concepts that I could never replicate in class (and it’s free online too).

But Linebarger also reveals a reluctancy that teachers might have in using TV:

Those who choose to air video content in the classroom risk being called lazy, if not accussed of educational malpractice.

This brings to mind the movie Bad Teacher, where Cameron Diaz exhausts her supply of “education-like” movies so she doesn’t have to prepare a lesson.  While this hyperbole is funny, it speaks to the fear that some educators might have in letting TV do the teaching for them.

So how can teachers use TV (perhaps the term video is more appropriate) effectively to supplement good instruction?  Here are some suggestions:

Watch Segments.  Many full-length videos are not appropriate for viewing in the standard 50 minute classroom.  However, with digital media on DVDs and online, it is easy to watch shorter segments – specifically tailored to your classroom content.  Paid services like Safari Montage and Discovery Education Streaming make this even easier, as their videos already are ‘chopped’ up for this purpose.

Use the Remote.  When watching longer videos, I think it is important to use the pause button often.  Not only does this insert physical breaks for the students, I can take the time to discuss the curricular importance of a scene and use informal assessment techniques to gauge student learning.

Don’t turn down the lights.  While it is tempting to turn down the lights while watching content, this is a sure-fire signal for many students to disengage from the lesson.  If possible, try to have some lighting on to remind students that watching the video is an active experience.

Stay current.  Amassing a collection of videos as permanent features in your curriculum might be enticing, but it can encourage you to stick with outdated and irrelevant content.  Take time to preview new content that might replace older content (however, there are times when I specifically use outdated content in science as a way to discuss how science changes).

Above all, make sure to evaluate the purpose of using any video in the classroom.  If the video truly enhances learning by supplementing good instruction, then it can be a wonderful educational resource. Linebarger sums it up nicely in her closing remarks:

Television can never replace teachers.  But Teachers can use television well, taking advantage of its strengths.

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at right). Of course, everyone knew that it WAS an M&M, and that a mistake was made when the candy was made.  Nonetheless, I started thinking about when typos matter and when they don’t.

Our district has been implementing a writing initiative, realizing the importance of writing and communication in our students’ futures.  Personally, I would have advocated for a “communication initiative” over a writing initiative.

As many educators are seeing “texting” language crop up in assignments, some of the immediate implementations in this initiative have been to make sure that students monitor their writing for spelling errors and common grammatical errors.  While these are definitely important components of good writing, are they more important than properly conveying a message in their writing?

Furthermore, if students can use tools to correct their spelling and grammar, then are we wasting valuable classroom time focusing on these skills?

It made me think about a conversation with Dr. Theo Gray about students using Wolfram Alpha (a computational knowledge engine) to solve math and science problems.  He mentioned that it is important that students learn the fundamental concepts, but that rote skills become less important if a tool can do them for you.

Should we apply this to spelling and grammar in schools?

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For more than a decade, I have made a fire-breathing pumpkin for my chemistry students around Halloween (see footage from 2008).  After seeing recent posts about making a Flamethrowing Jack-O’-Lantern, I have decided to share how it’s done.  It’s really quite simple, once you have all of the equipment.

Watch the Video:

1. Obtain the Equipment:

  • pumpkin
  • candle
  • carving utensils
  • rubber tubing/funnel (or turkey baster*)
  • cork-borer (same size as rubber tubing)
  • lycopodium powder*

The lycopodium powder is the hardest to obtain (unless you are a science teacher).  I ordered mine from Flinn Scientific.


2. Carve the pumpkin and insert the candle

I like carving a large mouth and eyes (remember the flame comes through every hole).  I used a bunsen burner to add a little detailing.

3.  Bore a hole in the back of the pumpkin

Ideally, this should be a few centimeters above the top of the candle.  If it’s too low, then you’ll blow the candle out.  Insert the tubing through the hole, and attach the funnel on the end.


4. Add the Lycopodium powder and BLOW!

(*during trick-or-treating tonight, I substituted the hose/funnel for a turkey baster, which worked quite well)


The demo works because Lycopodium powder has a high surface area.  When aerosolized, it easily ignites with a flame.  This is actually similar to what happens in a grain elevator explosion:

The work there also tends to be dangerous. Farmers take their grain to elevators to be stored, and sometimes processed, before it is marketed or sold. Fine, highly combustible grain particles flow through the buildings as corn and other grain are moved. A spark from equipment or perhaps a cigarette can ignite the dust, sending a pressure wave that detonates the rest of the floating dust in the facility.

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bildeMy local newspaper recently interviewed me about cheating and cell phone use in the classroom (read the article).  While cheating and scientific integrity are important topics to talk about later, I have been thinking a lot about my new cell phone policy this year.

Overall, I am confident that allowing cell phones in the classroom was the right decision.  I encourage students to use their phones appropriately in labs and lessons, and even prompt them to search for answers (they seem to like texting queries to ChaCha most) There is no more hiding (at least much less) their texting shame underneath their desks.  While I have had to address using their devices at appropriate times, I haven’t had to confiscate a phone yet.

While the reporter got most of interview correct from what I said, the best quote came from my assistant principal:

We know they’ve got them, so it’s just teaching them to be responsible with them.

And that’s the idea.  I trust that my students realize the power of their devices, and that they can make decisions to use them in an appropriate manner.

Most importantly, I think that students feel more respected.

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ACT Science.  Scary stuff, right?  You can’t even use a calculator! (because  you really don’t need one).

You can be tested on biology, botany, zoology, microbiology, ecology, genetics, evolution, atomic theory, inorganic chemical reactions, chemical bonding, reaction rates, solutions, equilibrium, gas laws, electrochemistry, organic chemistry, biochemistry, and properties, states of mattermechanics, energy, thermodynamics, electromagnetism, fluids, solids, light waves,  geology, meteorology, oceanography, astronomy, and environmental sciences!

But in actuality, the ACT Science reasoning section is more about interpreting data, graphical analysis and weeding through scientific jargon than actual science content.  Sure, a broad knowledge base in each content area will help you cruise through the question more quickly, but simple reasoning and analysis will get you the right answer every time.

The best way to prepare for the science section is to review your basic graph reading skills and make sure you are still aware of the concepts that surround them (John Smith).

Here are some general tips:

  1. There are 40 questions to answer in 35 minutes, which equates to less than a minute per question.  Skip hard questions and come back to them later if needed.
  2. Read the questions BEFORE reading the narrative.
  3. There are usually 2 bad answers – cross them out, and focus on the two best choices.  That leaves only a 50/50 chance.
  4. Don’t leave anything blank – there is no penalty for guessing.
  5. Mark up your test – take notes, highlight sections in the passage, and sketch on your graphs.
  6. Don’t get confused by the terminology.  Focus on the reasoning and analysis.
  7. Look for extremes in charts and graphs.  Most graphs will require you to estimate your answer.
  8. Be aware of different viewpoints – especially in developing hypotheses and drawing conclusions.

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