Tag Archives: science

Summer of Learning

(This post was mostly written last Tuesday, so dates referenced will be from then.)

So, last summer for me was a summer of travel. Over 10,000 miles round trip, from sea to shining sea, along roads new and old, long and short.

This year will be a summer of travel for my mind, instead. I have a number of different learning projects I am planning/attempting, from workshops to conferences, from in-person classes to online classes.  Nearly all of which is free!

Here are a few of my plans:

Fab Lab

Yesterday, I attended  a class which introduced me to our local Fab Lab at the Community College of Baltimore County (CCBC). A Fab Lab  (Fabrication Lab) is a community-driven and community-accessible location with computers, machines, and other tools needed for making things. A global network of more than 90 Fab Labs worldwide is run out of MIT. Artists, designers, engineers, inventors, as well as ordinary people with an idea they’d like to make  a physical reality, all use Fab Labs.

The Fab Lab at CCBC is a little over a year old. It has a 3D printer, a CNC router, a CNC mill, a laser cutter/engraver, and a vinyl printer. I made the following key chain using the laser engraver, with the help of the lab’s manager who was teaching me how to use the various machines and associated softwares & tools.

Laser Engraved Key Chain

And a sign for my Computer Integrated Manufacturing (CIM) class, done using the CNC router and featuring a picture of a robotic arm:

CIM Sign, milled from medium density fiberboard using the ShopBot at CCBC’s Fab Lab

Very cool.

VEX Robotics & Automation

Yesterday, today, and tomorrow, I’m in a training at the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC, just around the corner from CCBC and its Fab Lab above), where I’m learning more about VEX robotics and their role in the Project Lead the Way engineering curriculum. Including learning how the pieces fit together, the functionality of the various sensors & other pieces, and how to program the VEX kits in RobotC, a variant on the widely-used C computer programming language.

I had two groups of students (6 students total) who began using and programming with VEX/RobotC this year. I learned some of it with them, but really appreciate this chance to work with the automation kits myself and really learn it much more deeply.

It’s been fun so far! Here’s the testbed full of motors, lights, and sensors where we are learning how everything works and how to program:

VEX Test Bed

Tomorrow we’ll be unleashed onto some actual functioning projects!

Online Class(es)

I’ve begun an online computer science course, Algorithms: Design and Analysis I, via Coursera.

I’m planning this summer to learn a lot more about computer science / programming. I only took one CS course in college (CS101). Yet I’ve been somewhat into programming ever since programming the quadratic formula (and many other math-related programs, plus a few fun/game programs) into my graphing calculator in tenth grade. In college, I also used some simple computer programs to design some original fractals (Java) and search for patterns in continued fractions (PARI/GP). And I had many friends in both high school and college who majored in CS or related fields. Since I’ve been teaching engineering, several of the courses I teach have involved programming components (see, e.g., the VEX Robotics and Automation section immediately above).

So I figured I’d like to learn more about CS & programming. I signed up this spring for Coursera’s CS101 class, which (though I can’t find a source for this statistic) I think more than 100,000 people worldwide also took along with me. It included video lecture segments, mini-quizzes embedded into the videos, automatically-graded programming assignments, and discussion fora where students could help one another (since the professor could not interact with so many of us individually). It was a decent review for me, since it’s been years since I took CS101; I learned a few new things including some specifics of the JavaScript language as well as some things about how computer hardware works. Though it was very easy overall.

Coursera, along with a few other recent innovative websites like it, is being referred to as a MOOC: massive online open classroom (or course). Because its classes are free and accessible worldwide (“open”) and are enrolled in by tens or hundreds of thousands of students at a time (“massive”). Some people are talking about MOOCs as the next big step in the educational revolution; I can attest that the experience is much more like an actual class than just viewing lecture videos. I have yet to really engage the discussion fora for help, but I see study groups forming there, both in-person meetings based on geography, and Skype study groups being set up  based on time zone or language spoken. Many other people ask questions in the fora which are quickly answered by fellow students or volunteer teaching assistants.

If this topic intrigues you, check out the two articles linked above (the words ‘some’ and ‘people’). They are quite interesting and thought-provoking about the future of education!

This summer, I signed up for the Algorithms course, which looks like it will be much more challenging, though also like I will learn a lot from it. First I had to pick a programming language. I feel like a lightweight in several languages, from my experience in Java years ago, to knowing a little C based on my robotics teaching experience, to knowing a little Python based on using it to control a virtual robot and help it navigate a maze in an after-school club I advise. I spent this weekend taking a crash course in Python to catch myself up to speed. After that, so far in the Algorithms course, one week in, I’ve programmed a multiplication algorithm and programmed/analyzed the running time of a merge sort algorithm. I’ve spent dozens of hours on it so far, but am really enjoying it!

Both CS101 and Algorithms are taught by Stanford professors; Coursera partners with faculty from several universities.

On a lighter note, I’ve also signed up for this Udacity course that says it will be looking at/analyzing/explaining some cool physics problems, while also visiting actual historical locations in Europe of the scientists who studied them. I’m thinking it will give me some nice perspective and/or new ideas for teaching the physics-related sections of Principles of Engineering (POE).

Materials Science

Speaking of new ideas for teaching POE, I’ve also signed on to take a week-long materials science course at Howard University in Washington, DC. It is being sponsored by ASM International, a materials science/engineering professional society formerly known as the American Society of Metals. They provide free materials camps for teachers across the country at many different sites (see their website for more info).

I signed up for this because a) it’s free; b) it’s local – I can just catch the MARC train from Baltimore into DC; but mostly c) to learn more about and be able to teach the materials unit of POE better. I feel that the materials engineering unit/lessons in POE are often the dullest sections for my students. All of POE is quite difficult/challenging, with a lot of advanced mathematics and high-level physics concepts. But the other units I am able to better balance out between the difficulty of the concepts and the exciting projects we do. In this unit, students analyze properties of various materials, discuss what causes those properties, discuss how materials are used in manufacturing processes, do various materials-related math word problems, and use a stress analyzer machine to pull apart (stretch it until it breaks, called a tensile test) a piece of metal and then analyze its graph. While students love seeing the metal piece snap in two, I am not able to sustain that interest through the rest of the unit, which I take as a failing on my part. So, I hope to learn more during my week of Materials Mania, as well as to find ways of engaging students better in the topic.

Fullerene Nano Gears, image from Wikipedia

Hooray for the start to my summer of learning!

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Trip to BGE

Yesterday we took a tour of Baltimore Gas & Electric‘s Spring Gardens facility in South Baltimore.

We heard about the environmental protection efforts BGE has been implementing at that site. We learned about the history of BGE, back almost 200 years to its beginnings as a gas light company. We got to listen in on calls being handled by customer service agents (!). And then we discussed and toured their field of 572 solar panels.

Solar Panel Array at BGE Spring Gardens

We talked about how the solar panels worked, how much energy they generated, how it was turned into electricity used by the other buildings there, and how it was helping the environment.

This was awesome because our tenth grade students (the target audience of this trip) had just been learning about energy, power, and specifically renewable energy sources. They had recently built cars powered by solar panels, and also had created alternative-energy-fueled model power plants that distributed energy through circuits to model homes and businesses. I love the chance to make connections, both between classes and from class to the outside world.


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STEM 2010!

Last week was our third annual STEM Competition! I love STEM Days, and so do the students. In June, I summarized the day’s schedule thusly:

The overall structure of a STEM Competition at our school is as follows:  A brief orientation to the events and schedule, followed by teams of students rotating among six science, math, or engineering events.  After all teams have completed all six events, we gather together for lunch, during which scores are tallied.  Finally we hold an awards ceremony, with trophies for each student on the top three ranked teams, and certificates of participation for all.  Here is the letter we sent faculty explaining an earlier STEM Competition in more detail and asking for help judging events.

The Projectile Launcher!

The Projectile Launcher! Photo © Eric Ford

This year our theme (not all events tied in, but most did) was “Forces At Work and At Play!” The six STEM Day Challenges were as follows:

  • A – The Balloon Distancer!
  • B – The Rotini Roller!
  • C – The Projectile Launcher!
  • D – Volume: 3-D Oatmeal!
  • E – The Angel Hair Tower!
  • F – Cells! Cells! Cells!
The Rotini Roller!

The Rotini Roller! Photo © Eric Ford

In keeping with what we did in the spring, we kept it three to a team. That way there’s less chance of only some teammates working and leaving a group member out; each of the three is needed to participate in order to create a successful product. But, unlike the spring, we let students choose the teams from within their grade level instead of forcing inter-class mingling. Interestingly, a few groups tried to reprise their spring success by re-forming their team, and although those groups did not win, two of the top three teams were comprised of multiple grades!

This year, like every year, we opened it up to all academies at our school (and especially worked with the ninth grade teachers and administrators to have the 9th grade representing strongly). Every academy was represented in the competition, and I was proud to see one team with each member from a different academy (Professional Health, Arts, & Transportation)! Additionally, this time — for the first time ever — we extended invitations to two other schools with whom we share the Project Lead the Way program & advisory board. One of the schools accepted our invitation, and so we played host to a team of students from the Friendship Academy of Engineering & Technology, which was great! Their teacher, too, was able to observe some of the events. Since our annual STEM Competition is one of the things I’m proudest of in terms of my contribution to Patterson High School, I enjoy sharing the ideas and planning know-how that goes into it. I hope it is able to spread outwards to more schools in Baltimore and elsewhere.

The Angel Hair Tower!

The Angel Hair Tower! Photo © Eric Ford

As always, tons of preparation work went into the day. I was at school until 8:20pm the night before, doing various things including counting out packets of 50 angel hairs. We really appreciate the many many members of the Patterson family (teachers, administrators, hall monitors, department heads, an engineer from one of our industry partners, etc.) who helped out that day by judging an event, passing out materials, bringing in STEM supplies, or in other ways. Thank you!

{Again, in case anyone missed it the first time, here’s a direct link to the six events!}


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STEM Today

Today was our third annual STEM Competition (though actually our fourth one, since last year we held one in the spring as well as our usual in the fall).

It went great! As usual, some events were better than others, and we learned things that we can improve on next time. We had 21 teams of students, far more than ever, so it was a lot of work that we put in to prepare for and run the competition. But the students learned a lot and had a great time applying their science, engineering, and math skills to the six different challenges.

I plan to post more details this weekend, including descriptions of the events. But for now, to get a sense of the day you can look at my blog post from last year or check out my STEM resources page (which I should update again soon too).

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Brainstorming an Integrated Unit: Projectile Motion

As we go through our Year of Planning to become an Academy of Engineering, we are working on plans to try out an integrated unit. An integrated unit is where students are learning about a common topic across all their classes. The topic needs to be rich enough that it can tie together parts of the curriculum from math, science, literature, language arts, social studies, and engineering.

This idea is not new, and it has gone by other names (“interdisciplinary learning” among them). On a smaller scale, most of the engineering projects that I teach in the Project Lead the Way curriculum bring together a large subset of these subjects. For example, our Introduction to Manufacturing Project in CIM brought together writing and presenting skills (English), research into topics in the history of manufacturing (social studies), calculating costs and striving for efficiency (math), as well as constructing and programming an elevator that can be called to any of three floors (engineering).  But that was all in one course, instead of bringing in all those different classes. Our collaborative art-geometry fractals project is another example of small-scale building of units in different courses that spiral together around a common theme.

CIM Freight Elevator

CIM Freight Elevator

Next year, as part of the Academy of Engineering model, we may have interdisciplinary teams of teachers who teach the same groups (“cohorts”) of students. That will make integrated unit planning much easier, since the teachers on the team can get together during a common planning period, discuss the concepts, skills, and standards that are coming up in each course, and tailor the integrated unit to address those concepts/skills/standards for that particular group of students. Timewise, that will allow integrated units to be done more frequently (monthly?). And students will get to see connections between disparate subjects when the same topic/project is driving instruction in all four of their classes! This year, though, since we don’t have teachers who teach the same groups of students, we want to give it a try by having all teachers in our academy integrate a common theme into their lessons, sometime between now and the end of the semester. And we hope to try again in spring, improving our implementation of integrated instruction in the interim.

One possibility for our late-autumn integrated unit is the Bombs Away unit, developed by ConnectEd and posted on the NAF website (login required to see NAF curriculum). It takes a lesson on catapults and projectile motion, from the Principles of Engineering course, and ties it together with other academic subjects. For example: discussing parabolas in algebra, while learning about bombings in World War II in history, and debating the morality of bombings in English class. However, not all subjects have a lesson plan in the integrated unit (it was developed for California 10th grade courses, I believe).

So I hoped to do some brainstorming here with the help of my Personal Learning Network. Listed below are the courses being taught in our academy this semester (I hope I haven’t left any out). My goal is to get one or more lesson ideas for each subject that will connect to projectile motion or bombing. Can you suggest one or two?

  • 10th grade English
  • Chemistry
  • American Government
  • Geometry
  • 11th grade English
  • Biology
  • World History
  • Algebra II
  • Spanish
  • 12th grade English
  • Precalculus
  • Principles of Engineering
  • Computer Integrated Manufacturing
  • Digital Electronics
  • Design Technology / CAD
  • Leadership Education / JROTC
  • Art
  • Psychology
  • Economics
  • African-American Literature
  • Creative Writing
  • Robotics


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Science and Engineering Fest

A week ago, on Sunday 10/24, I woke up early, walked to Baltimore’s Penn Station, and got on a train to Washington, D.C. The moon was out as I walked in both cities.

Moon Over DC

Moon Over DC

Moon Over Baltimore

Moon Over Baltimore

In DC, I walked around exploring and sightseeing for a bit.  As they started to arrive and set up for the day along the National Mall, I talked with some of the mathematical groups represented at the first ever United States Science and Engineering Festival. I was wearing my NCTM shirt, so some of them thought at first that I was the NCTM rep. I got a pi temporary tattoo from the MAA. [Check out the MAA’s photos and field guide to math on the national mall here!] Later in the day, I took this photo of a mathy pyramid sculpture from the sculpture garden near the National Mall and the Smithsonian Natural History Museum.

Pyramid Sculpture

I met up with 35 students and three teachers from my high school, and we all had a great time playing with science and engineering at the interactive exhibits. The soccer-playing robots were great! And I enjoyed the rare-earth magnets which, placed in a line along a ruler with stops, were powerful enough to send the last one shooting at high velocity off the edge of the ruler! Many universities, associations, and companies that deal with the STEM fields were represented. The day was a huge success, fun for me as well as for the students. I hope the Science and Engineering Festival becomes an annual tradition!

I’ll leave you with two other cool sights: a chunk of glacier ice that had traveled all the way from Alaska to be there, and a marimba-playing robot that was featured this spring on the Colbert Report:

Alaskan Glacier Ice

Alaskan Glacier Ice

Jazz Robot

Jazz Robot

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