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Archive for May, 2011

Dead body

Our First Dead Body for the CSI Class

My trip to the NSTA conference in San Francisco came right in the middle of our Intersession period at Walden School of Liberal Arts. The most difficult time of the school year is the stretch from Presidents’ Day through Spring Break. The weather is still too nasty in Utah to do very much outside, and so most students (and teachers) get a little stir crazy with cabin fever. I call this period of time “The Doldrums.”

At Walden School, we break out of the doldrums by putting a two-week Intersession period at the end of the third term, with specialty classes that are high-interest and out of the ordinary. I teamed up with Eric Beecroft, our social science teacher, to create a Crime Scene Investigation (CSI) class that combined parts forensic science, criminology, psychology, and electronic data collection.

Photographing the scene

Photographing the crime scene

We started on Monday, March 7 with a general class meeting to go over the requirements, set up teams, and train them in group communication skills. I used an exercise I had written up years ago while a master’s student in organizational behavior at Brigham Young University (I’ve been through a few career changes). It has groups of six students solve a murder mystery aboard the Carob Bean Queen. Each student receives a sheet of paper that has a description of the crime and suspects, but what they don’t know is that each paper is slightly different and has information that will clear one suspect. The only way to solve the crime is to cooperate and communicate as a group to pool their information.

On the second day, we had a volunteer made up to look like a dead body and I planted evidence in a field just south of our school. It had snowed the night before, but this day the sun came out and melted the snow, leaving ideal conditions for footprints. I carefully set up the evidence, with various shoes used to represent the  suspects. I had another student dress up as a homeless person pulling a cart through the field (to leave some unusual tracks). We planted fake ID cards, bullet casings, hair and fiber samples, and I even had the butcher at a local supermarket same me some beef blood which I splashed liberally around the scene (so we could test for blood using hydrogen peroxide).

Taping the scene

Taping off the crime scene

While I was planting the evidence, the students were watching a presentation by the medical examiner’s office. She brought slides. After she was done, the students came out in groups (the lead detectives and photographers first) to document, collect, and catalog the evidence. We even did plaster casts of some of the footprints, although a batch of plaster was ruined because the students let it set up too much before trying to pour it into the footprints. Despite our warning to watch where they walked, most of my carefully laid footprints were trampled by the investigators. They could have solved the crime just by carefully looking at the footprints and drag marks, but fortunately we had other lines of evidence. As it was, it took them a couple of days to realize that there was a missing person in addition to the dead body. The second victim was finally “found” some distance away on Friday.

Cataloging evidence

Cataloging the evidence

On Wednesday, the analysis of the evidence began as they looked at hair and fibers under the microscopes and started testing for blood, checking fingerprints and lip prints, and trying to put it all together. Meanwhile, other teams were looking at paper evidence (ID cards and documents) and electronic evidence. We had even created fake Facebook accounts, travel tickets, bank records, etc. Most of this was to point to various suspects and leave some red herrings to confuse the issue. Those suspects were brought in on Wednesday and Thursday for interviews and fingerprinting. I had to leave after an hour on Wednesday because I had to get to the airport for the NSTA conference.

On Monday, once I returned to Utah, we finished analyzing the evidence and I made sure the students understood the ideas of criminology and burden of proof, such as motive, means, and opportunity as well as keeping a tight chain of custody of evidence. Some evidence had to be thrown out because it had not been put away properly while I was gone. On Tuesday we summarized our findings, recommended a suspect be arrested, held a mock arraignment for that suspect, and tested the students on their participation.

Analyzing the evidence

Analyzing the evidence

If I were to rate this, my first attempt to teach a forensic science class, I would have to say it went well. Some of the students weren’t as helpful or worked as hard as they could have (they had to be told what to do and where to go instead of taking initiative). We had less of this than I feared we would, due mostly to setting up careful roles and team memberships at the beginning and choosing some responsible students as Lead Detectives, who could then keep the other students focused. Our greatest problem was that the students worked out the culprit too quickly and we had to throw out some additional evidence to keep them guessing. The comments I’ve heard since are that the students had fun and enjoyed the activity. We had a fairly large group for Walden (about 22 students in both junior high and high school) so it was a challenge to have meaningful tasks for all of them all of the time.

I think this went well enough, and there was enough science and analysis involved, that I might try to teach a whole semester course in forensic science at some future time.

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On the final day of the NSTA conference in San Francisco, I woke early and packed up, then went to find breakfast. I ran into Julie and Gary Taylor at the Hilton and we ate together at Mel’s Diner. Nancy Takashima (also of SSEP) joined us later. I then went to the last two sessions. All of today’s sessions were at the Moscone Center since the conference was winding down and only a few sessions were left. I wondered how many people would be left and felt a bit sorry for those sessions who’s fortune it was to be selected for Sunday morning, but actually the attendance was fairly good, since these sessions were the only thing going on (the dealer’s hall had closed the night before).

Chemistry Education Digital Library

Chemistry Education Digital Library website

The first session I attended was on the Chemical Education Digital Library, a series of chemistry resources available for educators online, with everything from the American Chemical Society to 360 ° models of molecules to living textbooks. It looks like a great resource, and when I have the time I plan on exploring it more thoroughly and perhaps submitting some of our videos and materials. Here’s the link: http://www.chemeddl.org/

The final session I attended was on digital storytelling through student video projects. The presenter (Roger Pence) gave some great rationale for using student-created video projects and also showed some of the handouts and other resources he uses with his students. He does this with sixth graders, and so the level of sophistication is lower, but they do research, write a script, record narration, and then chain images and videos into a final short project. Many of his tips will be useful for me as my students get deeper into creating their own videos next year.

I returned to my hotel and finished packing and checked out. The shuttle van picked me up and after we collected a few more passengers, we drove out to San Francisco International Airport. As I was waiting in line, I saw Martin Horejsi in line ahead of me, and we discovered we were on the same flight to Salt Lake. He would then connect with his flight to Missoula. We arranged seats next to each other and waited to board. Martin writes a column for The Science Teacher along with Eric Brunsell on Web 2.0 technologies in the classroom, and Martin was finishing a blog post for the NSTA site that included video clips he’d taken with his iPad of the dealer floor, including the robotic arm that was solving a Rubik’s Cube. It was fun to see him applying the very technologies he was writing about to create the blog. You can check out his post at: http://nstacommunities.org/blog/2011/03/13/high-tech-highlights-nsta-2011/

Screenshot from X-Plane

SR-71 from X-Plane's flight simulator game for the iPad

On the flight, I used Martin’s iPad to play a flight simulator game, but had to stop because I was getting a bit motion sick. Apparently trying to fly an SR-71 while flying on a commercial jet is just too much for my inner ear. Now that I have the award money from Explore Mars, I plan on using part of it to purchase an iPad 2 over the summer and use it to both explore and create apps and eBooks. One course I hope to teach next year is on game development using the Apple SDK and have students create small games for the iPad that would be useful for chemistry teachers to use for review of units.

I said goodbye to Martin at Salt Lake and my wife and kids picked me up. While waiting, I watched an episode of Star Trek: Enterprise on my MacBook Pro, which I had downloaded from iTunes. I remember a time when I taught with Mac Classics with 9 inch black and white monitors and dot matrix printers, and I was the only teacher at my school with any experience on computers. Times have changed – now we all must teach to digital natives who grew up with these tools. I am still amazed that I can sit in my classroom or a hotel room without any physical connections or books and find almost any information I need (including the two screen shots I’ve used in this post). I am literally pulling data and images out of thin air. It seems like magic to me.

If I were to summarize my visit to San Francisco and what I got from it, I would have to say that I especially focused on programs to get my students involved in authentic science projects (such as MESDT, GAVRT, and the Mt. Pisgah stellar spectra project) and project-based learning; on new technologies such as the iPad and how it can be used in science education; and on ways of teaching chemistry and doing demonstrations and science night activities. I made good contacts, met interesting people, saw some old friends, and came home re-charged and excited to continue teaching.

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My presentation

My Presentation at NSTA

On Saturday, March 12, I attended a presentation by Howard Lineberger on the Mars Exploration Student Data team program his students have participated in. It was at the Hilton Hotel, so I hopped the conference shuttle bus over. My students at Mountainland Applied Technology College had participated in this program during its first year in 2003-2004. We used dust opacity measurements from the Mars Global Surveyor probe to predict Martian dust storms. Now the program measures the geochemistry of Martian rocks using the CRISM instrument on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. I’m glad to see that the program is still going, and I hope to get my students from Walden School involved next year for an astrobiology course I plan on teaching.

Measuring Mars

Teachers measuring the Mars model during my presentation

After the session, I rode the shuttle back to my hotel and prepared for my own session. I was in the Marriott hotel in the same room where many of the space science workshops were being held (and where I attended the Mt. Pisgah Observatory session the day before). The session before mine was by Pamela Wheffen, a Solar System Embassador who’s name I’d heard before. I didn’t get to hear her session because I didn’t want to interrupt, so I was pacing outside in the hall with my box of Mars stuff.

I was hoping to improve on the number of participants compared to my session on Thursday, and I was pleased to have about 15 people come and participate. I got all of my materials ready and walked through the Keynote presentation, then we tried out the three methods of measuring and recording the altitude data. This presentation is on my Mars to Model lesson that was submitted to Explore Mars’ competition (although I had submitted the proposal long before I heard of the competition).  A terrain made of clay or paper mache is placed in a box with holes drilled in the lid in a grid pattern (and it was a real pain to drill all the holes the other day). Using a lollipop stick, the height of the terrain is measured from the lid down using three techniques.

Clay model

A physical model of the Mars terrain

The first method uses color bars at intervals on the lollipop stick, and whatever color it comes to, the students record using colored markers on a graph paper sheet. This creates a color-coded topographic map of the terrain, and is appropriate for younger students. The second method uses a lollipop stick with marks in millimeters and numbers are recorded on a graph paper. Modeling clay is rolled out onto a piece of cardboard and drinking straws are cut to the same lengths as the terrain measurements, then stuck in the clay, thus creating a physical model of the terrain. This is appropriate for middle grades. The third method is for high school students. Using the same millimeter stick, the numbers are recorded into a .txt file, then converted to a grayscale image using the Image-J software from the National Institutes of Health. I then use GIMP or Photoshop to clean up the image, then move it into Daz3D Bryce to convert it into a virtual 3D model of the terrain.

This was quite a bit to demonstrate in one hour, but I had already given this presentation at the Utah Science Teachers Association conference in February, so my timing came out just right. It went very well, over all.

Financial District

Skyscrapers in the financial district, San Francisco

After my presentation I cleaned up my materials while the next group prepared. It was a duo from Texas presenting on lesson plans and activities (which they provide on a CD) on cosmology, which was quite cool and very useful for me in my astronomy courses. I then returned my stuff to my hotel and went and got some lunch of a meat pie and soup, which I ate in a small park between the Hilton and the Moscone Center. It felt nice to be outside in warm sunshine. I decided to skip the next session and went for a walk around the financial district of San Francisco. When I got to Market St., a St. Patrick’s Day parade had just ended and there were costumed dancers walking around, and a group of bike riders who weren’t costumed at all . . . and people taking photos of them. I’m definitely not in Utah anymore!

I walked back to the Hilton and attended the last part of the afternoon session, just more or less picking a session at random because I wanted to see the next session that would be in that room. After the session, I called my wife and found all was well at home, then went back in for the last session on creating hands-on activities for rural students in Vermont. I was just getting settled when someone walked in that I hadn’t seen in six years: Dave Seidel from JPL. I had worked with Dave for several years as part of the Solar System Educators Program and the NASA Explorer Schools program. He has been moved up to Assistant Director for Education Programs at JPL, which doesn’t surprise me at all. There are some great memories of those years and my involvement in NASA’s educational programs, and Dave was at the heart of it all. I remember at the educator conference at Cape Canaveral for the launch of the Mars 2001 Odyssey space probe that Dave set up a conference call with Arthur C. Clarke in Sri Lanka, since this probe was named after his book. Dave was the person who called Sir Arthur, and he read out the questions we had submitted the night before, including one of mine. I also remember at the NES workshop in 2004 on robotics how he set up a movie evening in the Space Flight Operations Center. We sat in the visitors’ gallery and he played “Angry Red Planet” on the center screen while telemetry from various probes was coming in on the other two screens. It was the perfect setting for such a movie, and we all laughed our heads off at the appearance of the Bat-Rat-Spider-Crab and the female astronaut walking around Mars in high heels. I recall the puzzled expressions of the controllers in the ops center as they tried to figure out what this movie was all about. Yes, Mars is Red. And its Angry . . . It was great to see him again. He showed me some incredible online programs and data sets JPL has been posting, and some layers for Google Earth that can track satellites in real time, etc.

Downhill on Cable Car

Riding the Cable Car down from Nob Hill

After the sessions, I decided to take the cable cars over the top of the hill to fisherman’s wharf and Pier 39. I ate at the wharf (clam chowder) and walked around Pier 39, buying some kooshy caterpillars that light up when shaken for my sons. It was chilly but not cold, and fun to ride the cable cars again. I had forgotten just how steep some of these hills are.

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My last post had me still in San Francisco at the NSTA national conference. That was March. Now it’s May, and I don’t quite know what happened to April. Let me try to catch up on myself and this project.

Me and Explore Mars

Chris Carberry, Myself, and Artemis Westenberg of Explore Mars

Back in San Francisco, I had just been awarded 3rd Place in the Mars Education Challenge by Bill Nye (yeah, that guy) and by the Explore Mars Foundation. That was on Thursday, March 10. On Friday, March 11 I attended a number of excellent presentations including one on an online student science project from Mt. Pisgah Observatory to classify stars based on their absorption spectra. Thousands of photographic plates with the stars’ light refracted into spectra have been digitized and made searchable. A spectrum from a star can be compared against standard spectra for major stellar classes and subclasses. I will incorporate this activity into my astronomy classes.

My second session was to be over in the Moscone Center on how to use the iPad in science education, a subject I’ve talked about here before, but when I got there the room was packed and people were standing in the aisles and flowing into the hall. This isn’t too surprising – as I saw later that day at the nearby Apple Store, the lines were very long (all the way around the block) and Apple employees were handing out fruit (apples, of course, and oranges) and granola bars just so people wouldn’t pass out from lack of food for waiting so long. The reason: the iPad 2 came out that day.

Apple lines

Lining up for the iPad 2 at the Apple Store in San Francisco

Instead of the iPad session, I went next door to a good session on project-based learning in the classroom, where a junior high in Lincoln Parish in Louisiana has created a program that is completely project based, yet covers all core curriculum. I found out more about it from the presenters afterward.

I had planned on going to more sessions, but since I was in the Moscone Center it seemed a good time to check out the dealers exhibit. The exhibit hall is a huge, cavernous space with the big name companies jockeying for prime spaces by the main entrance and smaller companies along the aisles in the back corners. I was ostensibly looking for the Explore Mars booth, but I systematically covered the floor and visited anything that caught my eye, picking up a lot more materials to take home than I really wanted to. I was glad I left some space in my suitcase. I finally found the Explore Mars booth on the NSTA aisle (the competition was sponsored by NSTA) and I reported in to Artemis and Chris, who said that the first place winner had arrived and that we would have another small presentation later that afternoon.

I went to lunch, finding a place about a block away called Mel’s Diner. As I sat down at a stool at the counter, the person sitting next to me turned to me and said, “Well, Dave, how are you?” It was Eric Brunsell, who now teaches at the University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh. I first got to know Eric through the NASA/JPL Solar System Educators Program (SSEP), the same group I had dinner with the night before. Eric was with Space Explorers, the group that managed the training sessions for SSEP. We had a good talk about what he’s been doing and on the problems currently being faced by teachers in Wisconsin, where the governor is trying to destroy the teachers union and cut teacher benefits and retirement.

Down to the Bay

Looking down to San Francisco Bay from the top of Nob Hill

Back at the Moscone Center, I reported in at the booth and met Howard Lineberger, the first place winner. Andrew Hilt (2nd place) and Howard and I stood with Artemis and Chris and officials from NSTA for more photo ops, and were interviewed by Chris on camera on our feelings about Mars exploration. Chris and Artemis had to go to another reception, so they asked us to man the booth until the end of the day. Andrew and I talked to anyone who was interested about the competition and showed them our lesson plans.

Chinatown

Chinatown in San Francisco

Afterward, we decided to walk up to Chinatown for supper. We headed to my hotel to drop off my stuff, then to Andrew’s hotel, then we walked up Nob Hill. We wound up going too high (it is quite a steep hill and we got a good leg stretching) and had to wander back down to the east into Chinatown. I found a really good Chinese bakery, where we sampled the yedz (coconut rolls) and I later bought a koushu binggan (kind of a graham cracker cookie). We found a promising SzeChwan restaurant and had supper. I found out the Andrew and Eric Brunsell are friends and have worked on common projects together. Small world! We also compared notes on our astronomy classes. We walked back down to where our hotels were, and I said goodbye (Andrew is heading home tomorrow). I found a good souvenir cable car ornament for my wife, then headed back to my hotel.

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