Category Archives: Cool

Desmos is another great math tool

Yesterday I wrote about g(Math), a tool for adding formulas and graphs into Google docs, like an equation editor on steroids. Today I’m going to talk about Desmos, a full-featured, web-based standalone graphing calculator.

Desmos can be run from the website, or installed as an app in Chrome. You don’t need an account to use it, but if you create an account you can save your work – even saving a copy to Google Drive, which is nice. The interface is clean, with the list of functions down the left side, and a large central grid (which can be switched between Cartesian and polar) to display functions. It responds well to double touch, so using it on an interactive whiteboard is easy.

There are many, many saved examples on the Desmos site which highlight it’s capabilities – including animation and drawing pictures with multiple equations.

I’ve started using it to illustrate the parabolic functions of acceleration, finding the roots, intersection of functions (solving two equations and two unknowns), and illustrating standing waves and beat frequency. I’ve just scratched the surface – there is a lot more that can be done with it, I just need to find the time to figure out what all else it can do. But for teaching transformations of functions? Just throw in a function with sliders and watch what happens. It is a very user-friendly interactive tool.

It’s teacher friendly, student friendly, works beautifully on the interactive white board, it runs animations, and it’s fun. What’s not to like?


Real EdTech, Part Deux

Yesterday I posted about using portable everyday technology to do simple but spectacular things.

But wait, there’s more!

One of my students was with me in the library two days ago when I posted the microscope video on YouTube. Not only did he subscribe to my channel and post a question about what he was seeing in the video, he also told his friends about it. So when we did the activity in class the following day, almost everyone brought smart phones and wanted me to show them how to do microscope videography.

How cool is that?!

Real Educational Technology

I have mentioned before how I became a convert to smart phones – indeed, I have become a full-fledged cyborg with mine – and I still keep finding new ways to use my iPhone for education.

Just today I got so excited with what I was looking at under the microscope I decided I had to share it. So I whipped out my phone, captured a bunch of clips, edited them, and then posted the result to facebook and YouTube, all from the phone. Now THAT is real-world, authentic educational technology.


(PS – go full screen. It’s high res!)

Check Out Project Noah!


I’m not sure why it took me so long to discover Project Noah. It is a citizen science community that, in their words, is intended to be “a fun, location-based mobile application to encourage people to reconnect with nature and document local wildlife”. Essentially, you take pictures of animals and plants, and upload to the Project Noah website. But it is based around smartphones. With the app installed on your iPhone or Android, users can snap anything interesting (or mundane, too) and upload. You have the option of identifying what you have uploaded, or requesting identification. The location information can optionally be attached to help learn more about geographic distribution. There is also a social network for chats and discussion, and even patches for accomplishments.

The images and locations are searchable online, so it can be used by amateurs and researchers alike, and as they say their “ultimate goal is to build the go-to platform for documenting all the world’s organisms and through doing this we hope to develop an effective way to measure Mother Nature’s pulse.”

I uploaded my first image today of a snail (me: “Oh! Gotta take a pic of this snail!” My wife: “Geek”),  and I took the time to double check the identification and enter that information. I think there is potential for this to be used in the classroom in many ways – an image resource, a class project or hands-on biodiversity lesson. Having to take a few minutes to identify and classify what has been found is an extra layer of analysis and engagement which requires a bit of patience, but pays off.

Of course, now that I have my first upload, I’m hooked. And, as with my snail picture, I expect to be called a geek a lot more often…


Okay, so I’m flipping my class

There has been much on flipping classrooms in the edusphere recently, and it is gaining steam. While I had made a few attempts with mixed results, I felt it was time to jump in with both feet. Here’s the why and how, and some initial impressions…

Over the last few years, but this year more than ever, I have noticed a growing disconnect between students and school. I get the sense that students feel lessons are something to be tolerated, and work simply an obstacle that has to be surpassed before they can get on with their lives. Not all, but enough that it sets a tone. I have also noticed that when they have things to do in class they are much more engaged, as long as the doing starts at the beginning of class. If I begin with even a 15 minute mini-lesson before giving them things to do the assigned work/activity/questions automatically becomes “homework”, and therefore not immediately important. I realized that by flipping the class I could assign lessons for at-home consumption, and the start class right off with doing. I also realized I needed to get students doing more questions more frequently – written, verbal, or whatever – so that they could get a better handle on what they do or do not understand.

So the plan was to start with the final unit in grade 9 Science, which is Astronomy. My colleague and I would record lesson videos and post them in BlackBoard for the students, along with copies of the notes, additional links and resources, and the expectations/objectives/standards of the lesson. In class we would start off with a few questions on the content of the video lessons, and move into an activity applying the concepts.

The lessons themselves consist mostly of my Colleague, Ross, and I narrating and explaining a the points of a lesson on Powerpoint. The screen is recorded using Camtasia 5 (which we bought a license to years ago and no one else in the school uses it) , while Ross and I appear onscreen thanks to the keep in front feature of AMCap. We can switch to other simulations, images, videos, or web pages as necessary. I did a few on my own, but I find it MUCH easier when I can talk with someone. It just flows more naturally.

So far, my impressions are that it improves the efficiency of delivery, allows the students who miss class for sports or other reasons to catch up more easily. Despite my hopes that each lesson could be kept to under 15 minutes, that is not always the case – my longest single vid is 20 minutes, and some of the lessons are three vids of 7-10 minutes each. With feedback from the students, I now post two separate modules for each lesson, one called “at-home part” and the other “in-class part”.  They are numbered (eg 4A and 4B), and colour coded the same to help identify they are together.

It is hard work. Though I have the Powerpoint lessons from previous years that can be modified fairly easily, filming them in advance, editing and posting them along with notes and resources, and putting together activities and questions for class is hugely time consuming – the first time.

It is enlightening – while editing the videos I realize just how often I say “Okay, so, um…” in 10 minutes. This will make me be more conscious of how I present, and will help me improve my skills for any type of presentation in future.

Not all the students have fully bought in – some show up to class without having viewed the lessons, and need to waste time playing catch-up. But then, these are also students who typically tune out during an in-class lesson, so they are no further behind, and can in fact catch up more easily.

My next steps are to tighten up the sequence, to get better flow between the videos, the question sets and the activities, and to get the students involved with the videos.

I have been assimilated

(…and no, that is not why I haven’t posted anything in a while)

I have been assimilated. I have become a cyborg.

Allow me to explain…

The term Cyborg is a contraction of cybernetic organism, and basically refers to an organism that has extended or enhanced abilities due to technology. Since I am an organism, if I enhance my abilities through technology, I become a cyborg. A few months ago, I purchased an iPhone…

It really didn’t take me long to get hooked. I use it frequently throughout the day to check weather reports, look up information, use maps, perform calculations, take and share pictures and video, check email, check twitter and facebook, browse my feed reader, check my bank balance, make shopping lists, and see when the next bus is arriving. I even occasionally make phone calls with it. And that’s just the personal use stuff. I also use it in class to record events, upload snippets to Evernote, set timers, operate my computer remotely, collect data, and a host of other uses, all conveniently at my fingertips without having to sit down at a conventional computer keyboard. My ability to retrieve information, or to catalog, or record and share information has increased substantially and dramatically thanks to this technology, so I am being quite serious when I say that I have become a cyborg.

This transition also gives me a substantial insight into the perspective of my students. We talk about the disconnect between a student’s outside world and that of the classroom, but until I became a cyborg it was an academic point. Now I better understand, first hand, the feeling of accessibility smart phones provide, and the sense of disorientation when that access is removed – and I have only had my iPhone for three months! For my students who have been using this technology for a significant fraction of their lifetimes, the separation anxiety is undoubtedly much stronger. So when we instate rules banning smart phones in class we are not just hobbling our students, we are then increasing their anxiety by threatening them with punishment (or worse – confiscation!) if they violate those rules.  It really must seem arbitrary and barbaric.

Like the fictional characters Hugh and 7 of 9 on Star Trek, I am quite capable of leading a disconnected life. There are times when it is necessary, and times when it is just much better to do so. I think that is the message that needs to be relayed. Without being heavy-handed, students should be encouraged periodically to perform mental and hands-on tasks without the use of technology, to help them recognize that they can function without it, so it is less stressful when they are required to do so.

We are only two years in to the second decade of this century. The degree of integration of technology into our lives with only increase, and it will do so rapidly and exponentially. And while the technology can be a temptation and a distraction, it won’t be long until K-12 education is the only place that technology is disallowed. If education has not caught up with the times by then it really will be absurd.


Welcome to the 21st Century

I have heard people say that hey would love to have lived in the renaissance, when all that new knowledge was being discovered, that it must have been such an interesting time. Perhaps. But please – this is the 21st Century, folks!

How many of you remember this from the movie Wayne’s World:

OK… First I’ll access the secret military spy satelite that is in geosynchronous orbit over the midwest. Then I’ll ID the limo by the vanity plate “MR. BIGGG” and get his approximate position. Then I’ll reposition the transmission dish on the remote truck to 17.32 degrees east, hit WESTAR 4 over the Atlantic, bounce the signal back into the aerosphere up to COMSAT 6, beam it back to SATCOM 2 transmitter number 137 and down on the dish on the back of Mr. Big’s limo… It’s almost too easy.

That was funny in 1992. But it is now two decades later, and what was amusing for its implausibility then has become the norm now. For example, I don’t have a thermometer at my house. Instead, I have a computer in my pocket (masquerading as a phone) that uses satellite data to locate itself, then accesses the internet wirelessly to look up the temperature (and weather for the next few days) in my location, all displayed on a high resolution hand-held screen. Why? Because it is easier than buying a thermometer!

Yes there are political and financial concerns (and, hey, there were none of those in the renaissance, right?). But the rate of technology is advancing so fast, we casually perform tasks that would have seemed magic a scant decade ago.

I, for one, am very happy to be living in this century.

A Digital Analogy for Transcription and Translation

I have often referred to DNA as the cell’s “hard drive” – it is an information  storage medium, but does not itself process the information. Recently a student in an introductory course asked how that information is used, so I extended the digital analogy this way:

On your hard drive, information is stored magnetically. The direction of the magnetic field designates a binary coding system of 1’s and 0’s. So let’s say the following sequence is stored on your hard drive:

01010100010010000100100101010011001000000100100101010011001000000100 000100100000010100000101001001001111010101000100 01010100100101001110

This information can be copied to a flash drive, where it is still stored as 01010100010010000100100101010011001000000100100101010011001000000100 000100100000010100000101001001001111010101000100 01010100100101001110, but there is a subtle difference. In the flash drive, it is not stored magnetically. It is stored electronically. So the same information is copied (transcribed) to a slightly different medium, just as the information on DNA is transcribed to mRNA.

Now we can take that same information on the flash drive, and send it to the printer. The printer will receive the string of 1’s and 0’s, interpret them, and then spit out a piece of paper that says:


The printer translates the binary code (1’s and 0’s) to ASCII code in the form of letters, the same way a ribosome translates the mRNA code into amino acids and polypeptides.


Indications of chemical change

Some of my students were away when I demo’d chemical changes and how to identify them, so I took a few minutes to record the demos so I could post them.

This is the result: