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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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While attending the WSST Annual Spring Conference this last weekend, I made sure to check out the Outstanding Science Trade Books for 2010 session.  Highlighting fantastic science books from Science Books & Films (SB&F) and NSTA’s Outstanding Science Trade Books, the organizers of the session also brought in hundreds of books from the collection housed at UW-LaCrosse.

Watching other people scribbling down book titles on scratch paper, I realized that there must be an easier way to remember these fantastic books (for my kids and kindergarten teacher wife).  I simply opened the Amazon Mobile app on my Blackberry, toggled to the Amazon Remembers tab, and started taking pictures of book covers.  They were instantly sent to my account, which promptly found all 13 book titles and displayed them in “Your Lists” in my Amazon account (see below).  Of course, I also got prices and a way to order each book.

Granted, I was searching for books – an Amazon specialty.  Still, this app has a lot of potential in that it identifies products from a crude smartphone picture.  Think about how Amazon could use this app to simplify our lives in making products that rely on personalized user input.  For instance, Amazon could make its own unviersal remote control.  The user could simply take pictures of all of their devices (TV, DVR, Blu-Ray player, etc), send them to Amazon and could send you a personalized remote – already pre-programmed.


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As bioinformatics grows up into a modern scientific discipline, the rules are being developed alongside its newest tools.  The scientific smackdown that arose from discovery of the collagen-like protein from preserved T-Rex protein only illustrates these developments.

To make matters worse, simple bioinformatics tools are already becoming outdated.  Instead of examining a few simple lines of As, T, Cs and Gs, scientists are more interested in seeing how these letters interact with each other in the diversity of cells across many living organisms.  For instance, some scientists are interested in gene regulatory networks, which can be thought of as “interlinked sets of genes that are regulated in a coordinated fashion in cells and tissues” (-PZ Myers, Pharyngula)

To understand the future and present of bioinformatics, our students must be savvy to navigate through the available (and free) tools that can augment their science education.

gene-gatewayBioinformatics Tools from the NCBI

The Gene Gateway workbook is a collection of five activities, complete with step-by-step instructions designed to introduce new users in using bioinformatics tools from the OMIM, Gene Reviews, NCBI Map Viewer, Entrez Gene, Gene Bank, Swiss-Prot, Protein Data Bank, and Protein Explorer.

Going Further: BLAST Activity with Insulin
Investigate the Insulin protein and the mutations which cause disease. This activity is an introduction to using and interpreting the Blast database. Inquiry extensions involve comparing human insulin to insulin in other species.  (From K12 Outreach – Fungal Genomics)

Using Jmol

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My school district has finally been able to distinguish a teacher from a student, at least in terms of their online access.

We recently received an e-mail explaining that teachers would be able to access previously blocked sites (i.e. YouTube and many blogs) for educational purposes.  In order to get this access, teachers will have to sign a form explaining they understand what “Acceptable Use” and “Educational Purposes” mean.

The district is responding to staff requests for increased access privileges. At this time, the district will provide access to the previously blocked resources of YouTube and external blogging. The district will open additional resources that are identified and approved for educational purposes.

To be clear, Websense (our internet filter) will still be in place.  When teachers come upon a site that is blocked through Websense, they will be able to pass through – offering them a gentle reminder that there is reasonable cause to have the site blocked in the first place.

Under the district’s interpretation of CIPA, students will not be granted this level of access.

Finally, I feel like a professional who can make decisions about what should and shouldn’t be used in the classroom.

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As we start a new school year, I challenge all educators to do more with technology in your classroom.  I wholeheartedly encourage you to use online tools that can increase your productivity, join social networks that can link you to other educators, and generally make the most of the hardware and software that is already available to you.  But I mostly encourage you to do what you do best – teach students how to think critically and analyze, no matter what medium they are using to access information.

We need to realize that newer technologies are simply tools that only change the way we interact with how we already live our lives.  That said, technology should not inherently change what we teach, but only how we teach.

While it is easier to dismiss new technologies that threaten to nudge us out of the ruts that we are comfortable with in teaching, the classroom is much more interesting and satisfying when we discover new paths to the same destination.

We will always have distractions in life and in the classroom.  Newer technologies have only merged a wealth of useful information with every other distraction in life.  The bottom line is that we have to teach how to sift through these distractions to harvest what’s useful.  As I mentioned before, teachers are already good at this; we simply have newer tools.

David Wolman summarizes this idea nicely in his article “When Tech Attacks” (Wired Magazine, September 2008)

“It’s naive to think that the digital age will magically remedy stupidity.  We need better schools, as well as a renowned commitment to reason and scientific rigor so that people can distinguish knowledge from garbage.  The web is not an obstacle in this project.  It’s an unparalleled tool for generating, finding and sharing sound information.  What’s moronic is to assume that it hurts us more than it helps.”


If you follow a lot of tech blogs, you’ll notice how a lot of writers talk about how they are frustrated with e-mail. You might wonder why they are so upset about something that has revolutionized how we communicate in the 21st century.

Clive Thompson from Wired Magazine blames the asymmetric nature of e-mail, in that it is “incredibly easy to send but often devilishly burdensome to receive.”

For example, in one minute I can send an email to a thousand coworkers asking them to review a document. Let’s say each recipient spends five seconds disgustedly discarding it. Boom: In just one minute, I’ve wasted 5,000 seconds — 1 hour, 23 minutes — of my organization’s time. Equally insidious is the growing plague of semi-meaningful emails — friend requests, one-word replies from your boss. Email apps weren’t designed to recognize such idiocies, which is why our inboxes become unruly messes, with important messages pushed offscreen and out of mind.

So as you are getting ready for the upcoming school year, make sure you use your e-mail account appropriately.  It’s so easy to send out a mass message to your school and district, but think aboutthe ramifications – will it be a semi-meaningful message, or will it waste others’ time?

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While listening to NPR the other day, my ears perked up to a story from On the Media called “The Pleasure Principle.” In it, Ethan Zuckerman (blogger and internet theorist) described a condition called homophily, and its potential danger while using the internet.

In short, homophily describes how we tend to flock together, seeking out ‘birds of a feather’. Perhaps Aaron Retica (NY Times) describes it best as “…our inexorable tendency to link up with one another in ways that confirm rather than test our core beliefs”.

Online, this tendency can be amplified. Ironically, with a wealth of diverse voices available to challenge our own ideas, we tend to use the internet to reinforce what we already believe – like an electronic pat on the back.

Thus, Zuckerman warns that homophily threatens to make us stupid. If we only seek out things with which we agree, then are we really using the internet as a tool to expand our own humanity?

This has obvious implications for anyone who has built up a social network like Twitter. I’ll be the first to admit that most of the tweets I harvest are from professionals involved in science or education (or both). And I can also see how easily homophily can infect my RSS reader too, as I direct it to intentionally pull out only RSS feeds that I want to read.

As I get the majority of my news from Google Reader, I have to wonder if my feeds are too homogenized and narrow-minded. I also have to wonder if my Twitter friends allow me to accept my own perspectives on life without confrontation or question. Are these tools just amplifying my own stupidity?

Of course, I am painting a fairly grim picture. Of course there are many benefits in developing social networks with kindred spirits; if anything, the internet is quite a useful tool in fostering this type of kinship. The danger lies in blocking out things that we need to see – diverse ideas, differing opinions and news from around the world.

Zuckerman suggests visiting sites like Digg, Reddit and StumbledUpon – sites that collect interesting stories and allow us to discover the world in its serendipity. I’d also suggest broadening your news feeds to include international news originating from different countries. Broaden your social network to include people from different professions and cultures. Allow yourself to be challenged by different opinions when people comment on your posts.

Why might we be concerned about homophily as educators? Think about it this way – you may seek out online diversity to become a better person, and in doing so, become a better teacher that is open minded, compassionate and has an abundant collection of fresh ideas. While you may not actually unearth a ready-to-go lesson plan, you may actually be able to share something about life that cannot be assessed on a standardized test.

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My district has recently installed Microsoft Sharepoint.  This is a dynamic tool (albeit from the MotherShip) that allows me to create and control groups where users can collaborate though shared documents, discussions boards, blogs, and wikis (and many other features).

My initial observations of Sharepoint made me realize that it has a distinct Microsoft footprint – heavy on tools, but clunky to use.  It reminds me of that spoof video fantasizing if Microsoft had packaged the iPod.  In any case, I futzed around with it for a while until I was semi-satisfied.

I have to admit – the discussion board is a powerful tool.  It engages my students on a level that they would not comfortable with in the classroom.  It challenges them to raise questions they would not ask in class.  It actually brings more discussion into the classroom.  And this was only after a week of discussion.  (NOTE: the power of a discussion board is not new to me, but this is the first time I am able to use one under my district’s IT reign).

This is exactly a tool I have been looking for, as I have a colleague in Sweden who wants to have our classes collaborate on a project.  Since SKYPE is blocked, this would allow the students to actually have that collaboration – supervised by me and my Swedish colleague.

Sharepoint is quite powerful in that it allows multiple configurations for its users with many layers of permission.  There are a few no-brainers that I already have setup to protect my students.  First – they can only post, but can’t edit or delete their entries.  This helps to reinforce the idea that once something is posted on the internet, it is always there.  Secondly, I don’t allow anonymous outside registration either – outside registration would have to be added by me or would have to be requested.

But I am not clear how to setup other student permissions/identities and if I should allow outside access for viewing.  I have a few options:

  1. Lock down the site so that ONLY students in my class can see and participate in the discussions
  2. Lock down the site as above, but allow it to be viewed by any student or teacher in the district
  3. Allow outside viewing, but protect student identities – make them create unidentifiable usernames
  4. Other options?

If you use student discussion boards, what advice do you have?  What are the benefits and drawbacks of these configurations?  I want students to be safe, feel free to speak their mind, but I also want to emulate the outside world as well.

You can see what I’ve done (and what the students have done) so far.  Their identities are protected – so I am currently using option #3.  Most likely, these settings will change in the future. [Link]

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This school year, I was fortunate enough to have an interactive whiteboard (from Interwrite) installed in my classroom. I was hesitant to get it at first, as I would lose some valuable front-board real estate to have it mounted.

However, once I started using it, I soon found out some interactive and intriguing ways ways to enhance my instruction. Here’s what I like about it:

    1. More Student Interaction. I often find myself working too hard. That is, teaching to my students instead of working with them so that they can teach themselves. The IW has really helped to get students out of their seats and truly be more interactive in the lessons. Students love to write on the board, and it’s a great way to get students to contribute to the class.
    2. New Technology WOW Factor. There are only a handful of IW’s in the school right now, and students still think it’s a pretty cool gadget. It’s like I have the iPhone of education hanging on my wall (sorry for the metaphor).
    3. Great for Graphing. As a science teacher, I always have my students collect and graph data to analyze in class. The IW allows me to display graphs and write on them for analysis. The ‘write-on-able’ feature and the fact I can go back or save make the IW far superior to an overhead and some markers.
    4. Import Work and other Media. The IW allows me to easily import many types of media. This is particularly nice when working with online or CD-ROM textbooks, as I can incorporate media directly from student texts into my lessons. I can also use non-digital media, as we have a copy machine in our building that will scan documents and e-mail them to teachers.
    5. Save and Export Work. As I mentioned, I was a little cautious about losing some traditional whiteboard space. But I found that the IW actually expands this space, and I can create multiple pages and scroll back and forth. I can also record my movements on the IW to export them as a movie, and export the pages to a PDF file.
    6. Demonstration and Interactive Use of Programs. I particularly like to use RasMol for molecular imaging. I can use the same basic mouse functions on the IW to manipulate the molecule on the board, as well as certain structures with the IW pen. Here’s an exported video of me manipulating a GFP molecule with the IW.
    7. Interwrite Board + SMART Airliner Tablet = Extreme Whiteboarding! I still use traditional whiteboards integrated with the IW. I can assign multiple tasks for student groups to tackle on their own whiteboard, then take a picture of each and upload them to view. The students can present it on the board as I bring up their whiteboard picture. All the while, I am sitting in the back and can correct or add comments with a SMART Airliner Tablet or wireless keyboard/mouse. Again, the students produce, review and critique their entire lesson with my guidance.

Picture of Student Work:

Add Media11-20-after

Picture of Corrected Student Work:


If you can’tafford an interactive whiteboard this year, check out the economy solution – made from a Nintendo Wii [Link].

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The Library of Congress has recently made a huge step in embracing such Web 2.0 concepts such as creativity, collaboration and sharing between users.

In an effort to provide better access to their collections, while symbiotically harvesting more information about those collections, the Library of Congress has created a Flickr page to host copyright-free pictures:

Out of some 14 million prints, photographs and other visual materials at the Library of Congress, more than 3,000 photos from two of our most popular collections are being made available on our new Flickr page, to include only images for which no copyright restrictions are known to exist…

…We want people to tag, comment and make notes on the images, just like any other Flickr photo, which will benefit not only the community but also the collections themselves.

More information is available on the Library’s Web site here and on the FAQ page here. You can read Flickr’s take here.

-from the Library of Congress Blog

While this is a tremendous offer, don’t forget about the slew of resources already available from the Library of Congress (including a section for teachers). Check them out for your classes and for yourself.

And there is also an underlying motive here. To help the Library on this project, Flickr has even created a new publication model for public collections called The Commons. Both the LOC and Flickr are hoping to encourage other public institutions to follow their lead. (In fact, the National Library of Australia is already doing a similar project with Picture Australia).

But of course, making these collections easily available has tremendous implications in education. This is a perfect way to teach about tagging and sharing in the classroom, while using historically important content without the worry of students accessing inappropriate content. And these pictures have no copyright restrictions, so they can easily be used by students and teachers in endless and creative ways in many classes. Too bad Flickr is blocked by Websense in my district.

What could you do with these pictures?

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