Tech Salad

With Crunchy Bits and Bytes

Month: December 2012

When In Doubt…

A few years ago, Mrs. Abbott and Mrs. Blackburn brought their Language Arts and Latin students together in a very interesting cross-curricular project to study the origins of words.  Now that we have so many new tools that let us create animations very easily, I would love to see a reprise of the project. Here’s the video that sparked this idea.


Winning Program

This week I’ve been working with Deb Cross to put the finishing touches on a contest entry. If we win, we get funds to purchase all sorts of goodies for our media center.

In the contest rules and judging criteria, we are told we need to showcase a program that encourages students, teachers, and all community stakeholders to engage in the development of 21st Century Skills. The essays are all written, and we are working on our video. There is so much to include that we are having a tough time staying under our five minute time limit.

This is the best kind of problem to have. Too much good stuff and not enough time to talk about it. I am so proud to be a part of Goochland County Public Schools.

Social Science

How does STEM work in the real world? Actually, how does anything work in the real world? It is all social. Nobody develops something from beginning to end without researching what has been done before and what others are doing at this very moment.

Think about Watson and Crick and the race to define the structure of DNA. They were competing against others to be the first. But, at the same time, all the scientists involved in the research were sharing what they knew. In the end, these scientists knew any advances in medicine that resulted from this work would benefit all of us, not just the winners of the race.

Now we have tools that let us do the same in our classrooms. Sharing is incredibly easy.

In the past couple of weeks, I have brought two new pieces of equipment into my office. First, I received two Vernier LabQuest2 sets, along with temperature probes, distance sensors, and light sensors. These devices let students access all data collected using a browser. I tested it out on my iPad and was having so much fun I had to tweet about it.

The second was a gift from a friend who knows I just love little bugs. He sent me two ProScope digital microscopes with all their lens attachments so I could take my macro photography of insects to a whole new level. Of course, he also knew I’d be excited to share with teachers and students. The day after the microscopes arrived at school, I had lots of people stop by to look at all sorts of crazy things magnified 50 to 200 times. Here is a sample: John Hendron’s eyebrows at x50.

Just like the Vernier equipment, the ProScope microscopes can be set to distribute data to a set of iPads in a room, making exploration of microscopic structures social and fun.

I do not have concrete plans for using these devices yet, but I have tons of ideas and a few teachers interested already. Check back in the spring. We’ll be having lots of fun.

Into the Woods

I just returned from an outing with a group of students in Mrs. McKenzie-Mohr’s Life Science class.  We went exploring in the woods behind the tennis courts, searching for decomposers and symbiotic relationships between organisms. Unfortunately, the weather is cold and dreary right now and we had to cut our adventures short. We still managed to see lots of interesting things.

I brought my two Ollocip lenses with me, one for my iPhone, and one for an iPod Touch for the students to share. On our way back to the building, we stopped to look at a dandelion. We talked about the way dandelion seeds take advantage of the wind to spread and grow new plants.  Then we searched our clothes for hitchhiker seeds that spread by attaching themselves to people and animals walking by.


This was the first time we went out to look at organisms through a macro lens. We will be doing this at regular intervals between now and the end of the school year to see how organisms, dormant during the winter, emerge and repopulate the area surrounding the school as the weather warms up again. We will also compare the biodiversity of a square meter of grass close to the woods and adjacent to the football field to get an idea of how human activity (fertilizers, weed control, mowing) affects the variety of organisms present in our environment.

I’m really excited to be working with this group of students to help them explore the world with their own eyes instead of relying on textbook images.

The New “Reading a Book”

Here’s your challenge: try to get through an entire day in a school without someone telling you kids’ attention spans are not what they used to be. Inevitably, this comment is followed by a string of lamentations of what cannot be done in schools any more because kids will lose interest and get sucked into whatever is going on in another browser window, on their phone, outside the classroom window…

If you are reading this, you likely read other online sources of information. And maybe, for you, reading a book resembles Nicole Cliffe’s experience. She tried to read a book like she used to, you know, before iPads and things. I laughed a lot reading her account, not just because the leaps in her mind from one thing to another are so funny, but because she described exactly how I read these days. From looking up words, to verifying facts on Wikipedia, to comparing pictures of people on IMDB, I read books in fits and start. And this is me, a person who grew up with no Ineternet and has just acquired these habits as an adult.

This is how we live. We can’t make it go away, and we can’t assume it is all bad. As Ms. Cliffe concludes,

Maybe what’s happening, right, is that people used to be able to know just enough. You could read the book, and know THAT AMOUNT about the feuds of Eastern Kentucky, and feel pretty good about it. But now, of course, you’re aware of what’s left to know, the overwhelming, “Nothing”-esque tide of data you’re flicking past. That any single fragment of this or any book represents thirteen years’ worth of information you do not have, but could have, if you wanted to. So how much do you actually want to know? What things are you content NOT to know?

Instead of confining students by setting limits, we could structure learning activities to take advantage of  this non-linear, interconnected branching off of interests to go beyond books, and even beyond our pacing guides. I’m not saying it is an easy way to run a classroom, but over time, we could get there. It requires flexibility and giving up the tight control many of us like to have as teachers.


Connecting the STEM Dots

In October, I clicked on a link in a tweet and discovered hexaflexagons. I watched a couple of videos from Vi Hart’s channel on YouTube, and then I set out to make my own.

When I left my office to find a teacher, I took my best hexaflexagon in my pocket. I finished my task, and on my way back to my office, stopped to say hello to Mrs. Falconer (blog). She had taught Math last year, so I showed her my hexaflexagon. Then I showed her one of the videos I had watched.

Mrs. Falconer was excited, and although she now teaches Social Studies, she came up with a perfect way to bring hexaflexagons into her classroom: the mathematicians mentioned in Vi Hart’s videos were very active in the 1920’s, a period Mrs. Falconer will be covering with her students anyway. So, instead of focusing just on Jazz and flappers, why not talk about the incredible advances in math and science? This is the time when Planck, Bohr, Heisenberg, Einstein, and so many others worked out ideas we find all over textbooks and applied science today.

As I watched Vi Hart fold her hexaflexagon on the screen a second time, I was not so focused on how to make one myself. I had already done that. My mind drifted and I found myself thinking that proteins fold themselves up in the same way the paper folds for making a hexaflexagon. I thought I’d look into it, but I moved on to whatever happened in my next email and forgot about it.

Then, today, I read about a robot developed at MIT that can change its shape by folding itself in different directions. At a glance, the little robot looks like a metal version of the strip of triangles that is folded to make a hexaflexagon. And, yes, the robot is intended to mimic the structure of proteins in how they fold themselves. Eventually, this little robot prototype could end up serving as the basis for something really great. In my mind, it is all connected.

When we talk about STEM in schools, we focus too much on test scores, as always. How are we doing compared to the kids in China? Can we answer dozens of problems on a bubble sheet in a limited amount of time? I think this is the wrong approach. We should show kids that math, science, and engineering can be fun and beautiful, like decorated hexaflexagons and tiny transformer robots. We need more teachers like Mrs. Falconer. She is willing to deviate from her rigid curriculum and pacing guide just a bit to give her students an experience that might lead to a meaningful a-ha! moment in the future.


I had heard of Wallwisher many times, but I had never taken the time to explore. This week, at VSTE, I attended a session on formative assessment, and the presenter shared her use of Wallwisher for quickly getting feedback from students.

I have created a wall to collect ideas from visitors to my blog. I guess if nobody writes on the wall, we will know nobody ever really reads my blog… Hmm…


Wallwisher is a very easy tool to use. that allows a teacher to set up a digital bulletin board where students can post answers, ideas, opinions, any kind of feedback. And, posts are not limited to text. If you are adventurous, jump right in and give it a try. If you’d like a bit of help, let me know. We’ll get together and plan something fun.

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