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Pi Day 2020 and Thoughts on Coronavirus

A weird pi day this year, as the world shuts down around us to prevent the spread of coronavirus / covid-19.

Things have moved super fast this week, from out-of-state field trips being cancelled a week ago, to local colleges and universities shutting down early in the week, to our engineering advisory board discussing backup plans (thinking of them as a good precaution but not likely to be needed) for a virtual senior capstone symposium on Wednesday, to Friday’s systemwide professional development being cancelled on Thursday morning so teachers could spend the day preparing “packets of work” for the unlikely event of a school closure at some future time, to the state superintendent and governor announcing school closures later that afternoon.

Our math department had purchased t-shirts for the math teachers (in whose ranks I am grateful still to be an honorary member), which say “Pi Day inspires me to make irrational yet well-rounded decisions.” Due to pi day falling on a weekend this year, we were all planning to wear them Monday. But now with no school Monday (officially we are out for two weeks, 3/16-27, though there’s every chance it could be extended longer; other states and districts that have cancelled school seem to be out for at least a month) there won’t be a chance to celebrate the day with students as I have for the past fourteen years. In fact, we didn’t have a chance to see our students after the decision to close schools was made, what with Friday being school-staff-only for professional development / packet planning, and school closure beginning Monday.

This could be the chance to experiment with online learning, but as I mentioned our district has gone old-school, requiring teachers to prepare (with short notice) two weeks’ worth of work to be photocopied and distributed. The argument is that using digital tools can increase inequity, since many of our students do not have computers or internet access at home. This “digital divide” is certainly real: many of our students do lack a desktop or laptop computer needed to run engineering software like Autodesk Inventor or CNC Base, or Python or Java coding softwares. But at the same time, I feel that inequity is also being increased by us only providing hastily-prepared written packets, while other counties and school districts do use richer online learning tools. Even a perfectly-prepared packet of work, that excellently scaffolds instruction for students from one page to the next, teaching new concepts in clearly written language, which may be a rich learning experience for self-motivated students with good reading comprehension skills, will not adequately teach students like those at my high school who read on an average of a fourth-grade reading level, who may not have English as their first language and are still learning it as a second or third or fourth, who learn more from demonstrations and hands-on projects, who demonstrate amazing ingenuity in the projects and work they are able to accomplish but often do poorly on standardized tests like the SAT, the engineering EOC exams, the AP exams, in part because of the heavy reliance on long questions and reading. When instead, we could be using online tools that allow for video instruction, interactive feedback, discussion fora, and screenshare videoconferencing to teach in a more audiovisual and interactive way instead of only relying on the static written word. I don’t know if the inequity of packets is more or less than the inequity of digital, and I know there is no good solution here, but I feel bad that Baltimore may be making the wrong choice, which puts our students even further behind.

I wasn’t sure today if I would do my traditional pi day email & blog post. I haven’t written a blog post since last pi day. And I figure, there can’t be any new pi facts or cool things that I haven’t already shared with you all over the past nearly two decades. Well, as I finish typing this it’s actually past midnight into the Ides of March here, though I figure it’s still pi day somewhere (specifically anywhere west of US Eastern Time and east of the International Date Line) so I can still count this as a pi day post. Although it hasn’t been much on pi facts & figures, more of a reflection on current events.

Some news about me from the past year:

I travelled to India with my friend Matt last April; it was amazing! Had plans to do one or more blog posts but never got around to it; you can see some photos on my instagram page.

I took a semester sabbatical from teaching to finish up my master’s degree in computer science with Georgia Tech. I am now officially graduated! 🙂 It was tough structuring my time so that I could work from home and not be distracted, but somehow I pulled it off. Guess it was good practice for the next two weeks or more of remote work and social distancing.

Anyway, hope you all had a happy pi day! I celebrated with a crab pie from Matthew’s Pizzeria in Baltimore. And stay safe/healthy/well!

Nick

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Sept/Oct Week Recap

Lots going on this past week!

Patterson held our 7th annual Community Fair and Back-To-School-Night last Thursday:

fair1

At the fair, we set up tables for engineering / computer science pathways, and for our STEM clubs (robotics, coding, cyber, engineering). I ran into Rudy Ruiz, formerly Baltimore City Schools’ executive director for college & career readiness and a supporter of our annual EDD Symposium, who is now with the Maryland Business Roundtable!

fair2.jpg

Friday was a chaotic day. With computers down all day for reimaging, we did code annotation in AP CSA, binary/octal/hexadecimal in AP CSP, and sketched out arc initials in CIM. We hosted our first monthly Patterson Girls (Who) Code mentoring lunch!

Monday back into the groove of things – my two engineering colleagues were out on a Manufacturing Week field trip to Northrop Grumman, where students assembled 3D-printed components into a “fidget cube”. AP CSP students coded their first apps in MIT App Inventor! (A “magic trick” app where a rabbit pops up out of a hat and a musical “ta-da” sound plays.)

Today was a long day, but a good one. AP CSA students are manipulating strings to use names and input information to create a new alien / science-fiction name for themselves. AP CSP students moving on to their second app. And in CIM we began our skills tracking system, which I will soon write a whole post about this year’s version of standards-based grading. CTE department meeting after school. Coach class and working with a colleague on 3D-modeling with Autodesk Inventor software. Saw a colleague engineering teacher from another Baltimore high school who stopped by. Then, leaving around 7pm, saw this sunset:

sunset20171003

#days18-21 #teach180 #180blog

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Emotional Day

Lots went on today.

A new-teacher colleague with mixed emotions after finding out a student she called home to report misbehavior was homeless.

Students so excited to research careers related to computer science that I had to drag them on to the next activity.

A fight in the cafeteria during lunch time.

A fire drill after lunch.

Our principal coming on over the public address system to say (as transcribed by another teacher, who posted the below message on facebook):

“I need this message to be translated in every language we have in this building.

We all have to be here, and we have to be here together, so we might as well love each other. There is enough violence in your lives at home, and where you come from. We do NOT need that violence here at school.

We are all here together as one family. Every staff person here, every teacher here, loves you. We all want you to have a chance at life.

With that being said, everybody take a deep breath.” He paused. So he could breathe. So we could all breathe.

“Everybody take a second to think about somebody they love.” Again, he paused.

“Now let’s send that love everywhere, to everyone.”

After school, ten students stayed for coach class / tutoring help, a possible record for me for after school coach class (though not for after school clubs, nor for lunch coach class).

Day 8, over and out.

 

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Day 3

Today was a fun day in every class!

AP CSA – Students had turned in a simple Java class (program) yesterday with five print-line commands, in which they print out the traditional “Hello, World!” statement, then their name, then 2 truths and 1 lie about themselves. Today they stood up at the front of the room, read their 2 truths and 1 lie, and we had to guess which was the lie. 🙂 A fun get-to-know-each-other type of activity based on the new programming language we’re using. [Thanks to Jerry, our master teacher this summer at training, for sharing this idea/activity!]

AP CSP – We did the “intelligent paper” activity from the CS Matters in Maryland curriculum, in which I make extravagant claims about a piece of paper being more intelligent than any of the humans in the room, because it will never lose a game of noughts and crosses. We get to discuss algorithms and artificial intelligence, and what intelligence even means!

CIM – As a team-building exercise that also connects to manufacturing, students work together in an assembly line fashion to mass-produce origami balloons. Here are a few of them in action:

balloons!

After school – Seven students showed up for after-school tutoring / coach class! On the third day of school!! I think that’s a record in my time teaching. Maybe I make the class too difficult… or maybe I’m just an awesome teacher who inspires his students to really care about learning… (the truth is probably somewhere between those two extremes). This is the first year I assigned summer homework, for both of the two AP compsci classes, and I’m giving students a couple days/weeks to make sure they are caught up with the summer homework, while also basing the first few weeks’ quizzes on those topics, so that probably has something to do with it.

7CoachClass.jpg

I got home and cooked a good meal for supper, so all in all, a great day!

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Daily Agendas on Google Docs

I’ve been doing this with a few classes for the past two years, but this year made the move to all: I keep a Google Doc with the day’s agenda for each class. This is useful as a central location from which all of the day’s activities can progress, with links to assignment documents, links to online quizzes, links to videos, and links to resources all embedded in there. In review surveys at the end of each class, this has consistently been a highlight and something they really appreciate. For example: “The links on the agenda and the directions that gave us to do what we had to do”, and “Somenthing that I really liked about this class was the agenda because if by any reason you was absent you just have to go to the online agenda and you can make up from your home.”

Because of these reviews, this year I’m moving to all classes having an online agenda. Combined with the fact that I’m a fan of the tinyurl.com website for shortening and choosing your own url, I was laughing with a few of my students this afternoon that today I had my students use 5 different tinyurls for these agendas (and of course have to keep them straight in my head):

CSP_Agenda

[Year 12, Day 2 post]

 

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Year 12, Day 1

First day went well, got to see many students I know already, plus a few new ones (teaching in a pathway means I get to know the same students over 3-4 years).

The first task for my first period computer science students was to set up all the computers:

classroom_setup.jpg

Then we reviewed multimedia versions of the course syllabi:

APCSAsyllabus_front

Links for syllabi for AP Computer Science A (shown above), AP Computer Science Principles, and Computer Integrated Manufacturing.

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Year 12, Day 0

This week teachers headed into school to prepare for next week and students’ return. This will be my twelfth year!

My teaching this year will include more computer science than ever before:

  • AP Computer Science Principles (full year)
  • AP Computer Science A (full year)
  • Foundations of Computer Science  (spring)
  • Computer Integrated Manufacturing (fall)
  • Precalculus independent study (fall, three students, three separate periods)

I’ll also be working with our new engineering teacher and our librarian+new-computer-science-teacher to help them with their lessons, and collaborating with two geometry teachers around standards-based-grading.

Extracurricular activities and competitions:

  • Coding Club (app development, cybersecurity, & more)
  • Women’s Transportation Seminar’s “Transportation You!” Mentoring Program
  • TRAC bridge builder competition
  • CyberPatriot competition
  • STEM Competition
  • possible (in my mind, I want to do each of these this year): Cyber Movie Mondays, Saturday AP & PLTW study groups, Girls Who Code club
  • probably several others…

Ongoing projects that will occupy some of my time this year include:

  • Comp Hydro (teaching hydrology and flooding through computational simulations & modeling, in partnership with the Baltimore Ecosystem Study)
  • MyDesign (engineering design process app and learning management system, in partnership with NSF & the University of Maryland)
  • Internet of Things project to measure air quality and other environmental factors in schools (in partnership with Cool Green Schools, Johns Hopkins University, and Morgan State University)
  • Continuing work toward my Master’s Degree in Computer Science (taking “Artificial Intelligence ” course this semester)
  • Baltimore City Engineering Alliance, a nonprofit 501(c)(3) we created to provide opportunities to Baltimore City students to further their engineering education, and for which I am treasurer

School starts for students on Tuesday, after Labor Day for the first time in my twelve years here teaching in Baltimore. Wish us luck!

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Cold

[Back today, on a two-hour-delay, after two snow days off, for a start to a new semester and new courses. This semester, by the way, I am teaching Principles of Engineering and AP Calculus.]

Cold classrooms & burst water pipes have been the norm the last few weeks at my school.

I am one of the lucky ones whose classroom heater usually works (noisily, but at least it provides heat). Several colleagues have bought multiple space heaters (paid for out of their own pockets) just to keep their classrooms tolerable. Other teachers have pretty much moved shop for the season into different classrooms, ones that do have heat. I’ve heard of three water pipes freezing & bursting over the past three weeks – one that flooded an entire floor of the building, one that flooded the auditorium, and one today in the aerospace engineering room next to mine (which we’re currently using for equipment storage – I couldn’t imagine teaching in that room with temperatures as low as they’ve been!). While working on the biggest pipe break, water was turned off to 3/4 of the building and restrooms were out of order, for a period of several days.

Students from my school, including several whom I teach, have written letters to the school superintendent (CEO) and local newspaper.

I know we’re not alone. There is a similar situation at other city schools, including Epiphany in Baltimore’s. “This is an education equity issue,” he writes. I wholeheartedly agree.

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Ups and Downs

This comes from a conversation I had recently with a college friend. I thought I’d share my personal reflections on teaching in the below message more widely.

I’ve transitioned slowly over the last seven years, from teaching all math, to half math / half engineering, to all engineering this year for the first time. Over the last six years that I’ve been involved on the engineering side of things, I also helped build, grow, and strengthen the engineering program at my high school.

While there have been some issues with students at my urban public high school (few do any homework; it is challenging to motivate all of them to do engineering and math; poor attendance; one kid swung at me last year with scissors), these are minor compared to my frustrations with administration and with the direction teaching is headed in.

To make a long story short, my dissatisfaction comes largely from dealing with a dysfunctional school administration and an outright evil district administration.

But also, more generally than my own local problems, and tying in perhaps with the national mood, I do believe standardized testing, and the more recent trend to hold teachers ‘accountable’ for student gains in standardized testing, is lessening the creativity and fun of teaching that I really enjoyed five years ago.

This is not to say I don’t still find fun in the job. Last week, I really loved teaching a group of three students some programming and number base conversions they need to compete in a virtual robot maze competition coming up soon. And a few days ago I was talking to a student about the types of bridges for more than an hour and that was great. And a month ago I got to really geek out with another math teacher as we worked together to figure out an explicit formula for the number of triangles of all sizes in a triangle subdivided into smaller triangles with n on a side. And yesterday I brought a group of students on an engineering field trip that was awesome! [Another example not in the original message: the pride I feel in what my fall semester manufacturing students accomplished.]

But still, I am feeling more and more frustrated. I’d say I do enjoy teaching still, but not all the b.s. that comes with it.

Anyway, only one more day until spring break! Yay!

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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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