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Arriving at Logan International Airport in Boston

Arriving at Logan International Airport in Boston

I’m trying to catch up on topics I haven’t written about this year before the year ends. This post will cover my trip to Boston in April to attend the National Science Teachers Association annual conference, where I presented on my experiences flying on SOFIA (the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy). I wrote notes during the sessions I attended, but have never reported on them here. It’s about eight months overdue.

40 Berkeley, a hostel in the Copley Square area of Boston

40 Berkeley, a hostel in the Copley Square area of Boston

I hope you don’t mind that this comes across as a travelogue; my intent is to show what it’s like to attend an NSTA conference and the kinds of activities you can expect if you are thinking of attending. There are so many sessions, tours, and activities to choose from that you can focus your schedule to learn specific things, as I did.

The sign for 40 Berkeley, where I stayed on my trip to NSTA in Boston.

The sign for 40 Berkeley, where I stayed on my trip to NSTA in Boston.

The conference was held on April 4-7, 2014 at the Boston Convention Center. I had received a professional development grant from the American Chemical Society that paid most of my way there. I had $750 to spend on this conference. That meant airfare, hotel, and meals. I couldn’t save too much on airfare (it is what it is), so I had to save on hotel costs. I did a thorough search of all possibilities and found a place that was barely affordable in a decent location near where I could catch a conference shuttle bus. It is called 40 Berkeley, and is a hostel with individual rooms and a nice hot breakfast served daily.

My room at 40 Berkeley. It was rather spartan, with only a bed, dresser, small closet, radiator, and window (with broken blinds). They give you one towel to use in a common bathroom. But they do serve good hot breakfasts downstairs.

My room at 40 Berkeley. It was rather spartan, with only a bed, dresser, small closet, radiator, and window (with broken blinds). They give you one towel to use in a common bathroom. But they do serve good hot breakfasts downstairs.

I flew to Boston on Wednesday afternoon, April 3, right after school and arrived at Logan Airport around 11:00 pm (I lost two hours going east). I had to wait a while for my shuttle van, and enjoyed the drive through Boston. This was my first time here, and when I saw Boston listed as the site of a future NSTA conference several years ago, I decided I would get here somehow. Now I’m here, although not in the fall.

Dining room at 40 Berkeley. They serve an excellent hot breakfast cafeteria style.

Dining room at 40 Berkeley. They serve an excellent hot breakfast cafeteria style.

I got to 40 Berkeley about midnight. They have a 24-hour desk, so I got my room and headed upstairs to the sixth floor. It is a bare bones room – just a single bed and a small dresser and a closet. The blinds were damaged and couldn’t shut in places, and I had trouble figuring out the radiator. The room was too hot, so I had to open the window to be able to sleep. But I did sleep.

My walking route from 40 Berkeley to the shuttle bus at the Marriott Copley Place.

My walking route from 40 Berkeley to the shuttle bus at the Marriott Copley Place.

After showering in the common bathroom, I got dressed and headed down to the basement for breakfast, which was served cafeteria style and was actually quite good, with choices of eggs, bacon, sausages, waffles or pancakes, juice, and more.

The view from my route along Appleton St. in Boston, April 4, 2014.

The view from my route along Appleton St. in Boston, April 4, 2014.

I then walked southwest down Appleton St., crossed over Columbus Ave. to Canton St., across the biking path to Harcourt St. and picked up the conference shuttle bus in front of the Boston Marriott Copley Place. By the time the bus arrived at the convention center, it was already past 8:00 and the first session was already going. I decided to wait in line to get my registration packet, nametag, and presenter ribbon. I did make it in to the very tail end of a session on a model racecar activity. I mostly wanted a place to sit down and look through the conference book to plan out my day.

Designing a helmet to protect a "brain" (egg) while being wearable.

Designing a helmet to protect a “brain” (egg) while being wearable.

This was the only day I would not have any responsibilities, so I packed lightly with just my camera bag and computer bag with my smaller computer and no notebook. I decided I could take notes on the computer just as easily, and it would save having this huge weight hanging from my shoulder all day, which had killed me in San Antonio last year. I knew it would grow heavier as I added the conference booklet and materials from vendor booths.

I walked around the edges of the conference center and at 10:00 attended a session about eCybermission, an engineering design challenge program that I have thought about having my students compete in. We worked as teams to design a “helmet” that would prevent “brains” (an egg) from getting splattered on impact while being relatively easy to wear. Our design did not do its job. The brains splattered. But it was fun to see some of the designs that did work. We had been given a tabletop full of materials, ranging from paper and tape to pieces of egg cartons, but when we went to drop our design, it flipped sideways and landed right on the egg.

A Wascally Wabbit on the dealers' floor at the NSTA conference in Boston, 2014.

A Wascally Wabbit on the dealers’ floor at the NSTA conference in Boston, 2014.

The presenters did mention a recent book on teaching engineering by some guy named Eric Brunsell. I’ve known Eric since 2000 when we were all part of the Solar System Educator Program at JPL. I didn’t know he’d written a book for NSTA, but up until recently he and Martin Horejsi have been writing a monthly column on using Web 2.0 in the science classroom for The Science Teacher.

I had half an hour to the next session, so I hit the dealer’s room, which was centrally located. I didn’t stop for anything, just headed straight to the SOFIA booth and checked in. They had things covered pretty well, and told of plans for dinner tonight. While I was there, Martin Horejsi stopped by to say hi. The Solar System Educator Program is always well-represented here.

A dark matter halo around a cluster of galaxies distorts the light due to gravitational lensing.

A dark matter halo around a cluster of galaxies distorts the light due to gravitational lensing.

I was a bit late for an interesting session on Dark Matter. They did the old gravity simulator activity, but then went into a great discussion of potential dark mater candidates, including MACHOs, WIMPs, black holes, brown dwarfs, and neutrinos. Apparently all of these fail as an explanation for some reason or other. I had thought neutrinos were the leading candidate; if they have even a minute amount of mass, there are so many of them that they would really add up. But I learned that even at their highest possible mass, neutrinos could only account for about 20% of the dark matter known to exist. As I tell my students, whoever solves this problem will win a Nobel Prize or two.

They also described how we know that dark matter exists, through measuring the rotation rate of stars in galaxies and seeing that if luminous matter (baryonic matter) is the only mass in galaxies, then the stars are moving too fast and would fly right out of the galaxies. Something that doesn’t interact with light, yet has mass, is keeping all of the baryonic matter contained. It also creates the filamental structure of galactic clusters in the universe and the voids between.

Danger Shield sensor board mounted onto an Arduino controller (underneath). Our setups were similar. Notice the three manual sliders and LED readout. Various types of sensors can be attached.

Danger Shield sensor board mounted onto an Arduino controller (underneath). Our setups were similar. Notice the three manual sliders and LED readout. Various types of sensors can be attached.

I attended a session on Maker Science with Arduinos. These are microprocessor controllers or mini-computers similar to Raspberry Pi computers, only about $35 each, which can be programmed with Python. I had seen these in action controlling an off-the shelf RC car, turning it into a remotely operated robot for acquiring 3D data on soil crusts in the Mojave Desert by Geoff Chu and a group of roboticists from NASA Ames Research Center back in 2012. Since I was teaching computer programming classes that semester, I wanted to learn more about them. We learned how to control an LED light on the board and change the timing for a loop to make the light blink. The presenters also showed how to hook up and initialize a Danger Shield from SparkFun Science, a $20 electronics board that attaches directly to an Arduino and provides inputs for USB based sensors. I need to get one and try it out.

I went to a session next on Project-Based Learning Using Technology, but it was disappointing. They didn’t use any technology to actually teach the class – not even a powerpoint – and their handouts had typos and poor layout and what was listed showed me fairly quickly that I was much further along than they were in using tech in my classrooms.

I skipped out and headed back to the dealer’s room to go through the exhibits more thoroughly. I have seen many of these displays before but gathered what I could from them – I wanted to travel light, so I didn’t collect many handouts. There were a few things of interest, such as a new magazine by the ACS for high school chemistry teachers that I might want to submit articles for.

Downtown Boston in the evening, as seen from the shuttle bus.

Downtown Boston in the evening, as seen from the shuttle bus.

On my way out I ran into Cheryl Sotelo from the NASA Educator Workshops days. She was the Educator Facilitator for NASA Ames and I was the Facilitator for JPL from 2002-2004. I had last seen her when we said goodbye and had a praline toast at the casino on the coast of Gulfport, Mississippi back in 2004 as we finished up the NEW planning workshop. So much has changed – the NEW program is essentially gone, with only a ghost of an online presence anymore. The casino itself was wiped out by Hurricane Katrina a year later. She is in Washington, D.C. this year as an Einstein Fellow, a program I hope to participate in a year or two from now.

I went to one final session on Making as Learning, and how this ties in to STEM, but found it was fairly basic stuff. I am trying to get grant money to purchase a 3D printer for my school so that my 3D students can begin to print out what they have created, and we can begin to teach engineering design and prototyping. What we have been doing already in my STEM-Arts Alliance program surpasses much of what I am seeing here today.

As you can see, this first day at NSTA I focused on technology, engineering, and the maker movement and how I can bring these ideas to my own classes. There have been some very valuable ideas, and more than one presenter has mentioned a book by Stager and Martinez that I need to check out.

Boston buildings in twilight as I walk back to 40 Berkeley. Do you notice the anomaly?

Boston buildings in twilight as I walk back to 40 Berkeley. Do you notice the anomaly?

I caught the shuttle bus back to the Marriott and walked back to 40 Berkeley to drop off my stuff and rest a bit, then walked back to the Marriott for dinner. The SOFIA group met upstairs in the attached shopping mall at Legal Seafood. It was good to see Dana Backman and Coral Clark again; Pamela Harman couldn’t make it. There were a few of us Cycle 1 ambassadors there and a few of the new Cycle 2s that were announced in January. The food wasn’t as good as I would have expected for the price, but we did have a good conversation. I walked one of the Cycle 2 ambassadors back to her hotel, which was only a few blocks away. I’m afraid I talked her ears off, and probably came across as completely full of myself. I just get too excited about the projects my students are working on and what we’ve accomplished this year and want to share. After dropping her off at the front door of her hotel, I walked on around to 40 Berkeley, which was just a few blocks away. I had a quiet remainder of my evening watching Star Trek on Netflix on my computer.

Most of my other activities focused on aerospace education, so I will eventually report them in my other blog: http://spacedoutclass.com after I catch up what I need to in preparation of my AAS trip in January. I will do one other NSTA blog here on the walking tour I did across Boston on Saturday evening. It’s not really about chemistry education, but it probably works here best.

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Soda springs palms

Palms planted at Soda Springs on Zzyzx Road

In this blog, I have been reporting on activities we did during the Mojave field study that have to do with chemistry and the elements, but since the purpose of the field study was to look at Earth analogs for possible Martian organisms, much of what we did is and will be recorded on my other blog site (www.spacedoutclass.wordpress.com). I will do much more with that site in late July as I prepare to teach astronomy this fall. At that point, the “wordpress” portion of the URL will be eliminated and the site will go “live” so to speak. I have many topics that need to be written about, including more on the Mojave experience.

Preparing the weather balloon

Chris McKay (in denim jacket) and CSU students preparing the weather balloon for launch.

But meanwhile, our last day in the Mojave was Friday, March 23. We prepared and launched a weather balloon, then each group presented their interim reports on the results of the study. I helped Mary Beth talk about the geology and soil chemistry analyses, and I also presented the 3D model of the test soil sample I worked on with Geoff Chu and his group (more on this in the other blog). I plan on having students at Walden School take the grayscale images and the actual altitude data and create 3D models and textures for each crust site which can be manipulated online.

I also took the opportunity to interview Dr. Rakesh Mogul, who was with CSU and is the organizer of this event, but is now moving to the NASA Office of Planetary Protection. He talked about the protocols that NASA uses to determine now clean a space probe needs to be so as not to contaminate a planet with our microorganisms and so as not to mess up our science results when looking for life.

Weather balloon

Weather balloon after launch.

Once I had packed up my video equipment and other gear, I drove back to Utah, stopping in Las Vegas to drive through on the Strip. It has been about 15 years since I’ve actually done this, and it’s changed quite a bit – gotten larger, more crowded, and not very enticing for me, since I don’t gamble (I’ve taken too many operant conditioning classes in college to ever do that). It was a long drive back, but the trip was very much worth it. All told, I took about 15 hours of video, which will now take some time to capture and edit. I hope to do at least some of it (the interviews) this summer.

I wasn’t home for long (about four days) before I flew out to Indianapolis for the annual National Science Teachers Association conference. Much of what I did there was related to space science and astronomy (including attending a luncheon where an astronaut spoke; the awards ceremony for this year’s Mars Education Challenge, where I was asked to be the official photographer while Bill Nye introduced the winners and handed out the awards; and my own presentation on the SOFIA Airborne Astronomy Ambassadors program). However, I did attend a number of excellent sessions that were related to chemistry and the elements.

Above the clouds

Above the clouds on the way to Indianapolis

On Thursday, March 29 I had to take the local buses from my motel out by the airport to downtown, and I was slightly late for the bus and had to wait 30 minutes for the next one, so I was a bit late getting into the conference. I went to the first session I could find in the booklet that was near where I was standing in the convention center and that sounded interested. It was a presentation on an activity that introduces the periodic table to students. The room was packed and I had to sit on the floor while the presenter talked. Something about him looked familiar, and suddenly I realized that the presenter was John Clark, a fellow SOFIA AAA. I had seen his photo on the discussion board.

John Clark and the SOFIA team

John Clark and the SOFIA team from NASA Ames and the SETI Institute

His activity is done early on in a chemistry class, and involves handing 3 x 5 index cards to each student. They decorate their card, choose a name for their personal element and a symbol, then decide on properties of their element that describe their own personalities from a list, such as “science nerd” or “techy” or “drama king.” Other properties could be chosen from a list, such as number of electrons, etc. The students group themselves into “element” families according to the properties they selected, such as the colors they choose. From this they create a type of periodic table of their class, which the class as a whole has to discuss and justify. Not only does this get the students thinking about elements, properties, symbols, and other aspects of the periodic table, but it helps the teacher get to know the students better.

cloud chamber

Cloud Chamber

I also attended a session by April Lanotte on how to build your own cloud chamber, which worked quite well. I’d tried to do this with a kit in the past, but could never get it to work. The secret is to not allow any air in or out as the internal air must be saturated with alcohol fumes and cooled with dry ice before stray cosmic rays can be seen or radiation from an alpha or beta source as vapor trails in the alcohol gas. She had built hers out of an aquarium that was carefully sealed. She also showed us amore sophisticated digital cosmic ray counter. She is an Einstein Fellow this year, and I also attended a number of sessions on that program and on the Presidential Award program.

Another session I attended was by L. Diener (I didn’t catch her first name) on the science of chocolate. Since my students and I just finished videotaping a tour of Amano Artisan Chocolates in our town (more on this later), I was interested in attending and she presented a simple activity about solubility and chocolate. Take a piece of chewing gum, such as candy coated Chiclets, and chew it for a few minutes until the flavor begins to decrease. At this point your saliva has dissolved all the sugars and flavors that are water soluble. Then take a Hersey’s kiss and chew it with the gum. Suddenly the remainder of the gum dissolves in your mouth, because the chocolate’s cocoa butter will dissolve the remaining fat soluble portions of the gum. But as soon as the chocolate has melted and dissolved in your mouth, the gum will start to re-solidify, although there will be less of it. It can be a big gross to feel this happening in your mouth, but it is a great way to talk about food science and how various substances do or don’t dissolve in each other.

David Black by the NSTA sign

David Black by the NSTA sign, Indianapolis Convention Center.

It was a busy conference. I walked through the dealers’ room and priced sensors and probeware for both the Vernier and Pasco systems, hoping that I’ll get some grant money to be able to use sensors with an iPad. I ran into old friends, such as Martin Horejsi (we were on the same flight going to Indianapolis, as he has to fly to Salt Lake from Missoula to pick up most connections) and Eric Brunsell. They were the only people from the Solar System Educators Program that I saw. But I did get to know some of my new associates, the SOFIA AAAs.

Downtown Indianapolis

Downtown Indianapolis

 

I did get a chance to do something quite unusual. I was selected (how I don’t know) to sit in on a panel discussion on NSTA’s The Science Teacher journal and on the NSTA website. We were given a nice luncheon, then were asked a series of questions by Tyson Brown, whom I had known before back when I was doing the NASA Explorer Schools program. It was a fascinating discussion, and I put in a plug or two for Martin and Eric’s column (Science 2.0). There were several people in the back of the room writing notes, and one looked familiar. Once we opened up the journal and started going through it, I realized who he was – Steve Metz, the editor. I have decided that I really must submit an article as soon as possible. But my schedule has become so crazy that I’m not sure when that will be or which of several possible topics to write on. For our participation in the panel, we also received a $50 certificate to use in the NSTA bookstore.

Dealer room at NSTA conference

Dealer room at the NSTA conference. Eric Brunsell is in the black shirt at the left of the photo.

Much of what I did and learned will be written (eventually) on the other blog site, as it is more related to astronomy than chemistry. There is, however, one other presentation I went to that I want to discuss here, and that was a lecture on ingenuity and creativity given by author David Macaulay. He is writing a book on how ingenuity has brought about marvelous ideas and inventions through the ages, and he basically walked us through his own creative process in developing the book. When I first started teaching in California, I taught world history for several years and used films based on his books Cathedral and Pyramid in my classes. They were very well done, and he has since created such books as The Way Things Work.

Between this lecture and the panel discussion luncheon, I did a lot of thinking while waiting for the bus on Sunday morning (only to find it doesn’t run on Sundays, so the motel’s shuttle van driver took me downtown instead). But while waiting, I thought of several ideas for books and series of books I could write for NSTA Press, such as how to use authentic science data in the classroom. I’m doing more of this all the time, and many of the sessions I chose to attend were based on real data analysis. I realize that in some ways what I am doing is unique, since I blend science and computer graphics/3D animation technologies. Yet the one session I attended Sunday morning was all about this – the art of science, and Randy Landsberg of the U. of Chicago showed examples of collaborations between artists, the Kavli Institute for Cosmological Physics, and the Adler Planeterium, including an incredible animation taking the viewer to the edge of the universe and another showing cosmic ray showers from the Pierre Auger data. I scribbled notes as fast as I could, and I still need to check up on all the possibilities. It was invigorating to see that others are pushing the edge and blurring distinctions between art and science, which is one of my goals as well.

It was an incredible conference. I was very involved, learned much, brought back many ideas, and made good connections.

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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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Marriott Hotel

Marriott Hotel in San Francisco

On Thursday, March 10, I experienced my first full day of the NSTA Annual Conference in San Francisco. It was a remarkable day for me, for several reasons. I attended some excellent sessions with ideas on how to improve my teaching of chemistry and integrate technology into my classroom, I presented a session on this project (The Elements Unearthed) and the Science Demonstration Program at Walden School, and I received an important honor from a well-known person.

Periodic Paint Swatches

Periodic Paint Swatches: An Introduction Activity to Periodicity

All of my sessions today were at the Marriott hotel, right across the road from the Mosser where I stayed. My first session taught me an easy to implement idea on how to introduce the periodic table and the idea of periodicity of the elements using paint swatches from a hardware store’s paint department. Students are given a variety of basic hues with variations in tint and shade and are asked to put them into a meaningful two-dimensional array. In educational parlance, we would say this type of activity is de-contextualized (that is, removed from the context or content of the lesson far enough that students can easily relate to it). The presenters (Jesse Wilcox and Scott Moore) went further to suggest how to do the next step: an alien periodic table with missing elements very similar to what I already do (more contextualized), before introducing the actual periodic table (full context).

My second session was by D. J. West, a Senior National Science Consultant with McGraw-Hill, on good websites, sources, and ways to integrate Web 2.0 technologies into the classroom. He mentioned quite a few that I hadn’t heard of, and I now need to check them out and start using them.

My third session was on ways to improve Back-to-School Science Nights, which we will be doing in May.  Bruce Wear gave many ways of improving my planning and execution that I hadn’t thought of and which will come in handy. He presented about 25 steps and ideas, and he also showed some simple activities for physical science demonstrations that will be useful if I teach physics next year.

After lunch, I attended a session by the folks at Google on how to use Google Earth, including many features such as how to access new layers of data that can be found freely on the Internet. They mentioned that when natural disasters strike, they try to act quickly to provide before and after imagery, such as images of New Orleans before and after Hurricane Katrina. Little did we know they would have need of such fast data updating just the very next morning. I loaned the presenter my MacBook Pro video dongle, and they promised to send me something (what I don’t know).

The Google session was in the Pacific C room, which was where my presentation was to be held, so I stayed and prepared. I had finished creating some sample videos of my student’s presentations and of my visit last fall to Cripple Creek, Colorado. Here’s the Cripple Creek Video (which I will add to the downloads page along with the chem demo videos over the next few days).

I knew my presentation would be pushing the hour limit, but I wanted to show recent progress. My title was “Sharing the Stories of Chemistry in Your Community Through Video.” Perhaps a bit esoteric, so I knew my audience would be fairly small. I also knew I was going up against Bill Nye the Science Guy, who was speaking as the Executive Director for the Planetary Society. Despite all this, my presentation went well; I had six people there by the end and one stayed after to talk more about what I was doing. I had been promoting my session rather shamelessly all day, and quite a few people expressed interest, but not many of them came. At least they have my e-mail and can contact me if they want information.

I took my computer back to the hotel, then walked back to the Marriott for the reception I had been invited to. This was from 5:30 to 7:00. It was for ExploreMars, the organization I’ve mentioned that is promoting the human exploration of Mars within the next ten years. Here’s the press release:

http://www.exploremars.org/education/MEC_FinalPressRelease.php

Artemis Westenberg and Chris Carberry were there to make the awards. They began just one year ago, and one of their first projects was to create the Mars Education Challenge, where high school teachers create curricula and lesson plans that promote Mars exploration and science as part of regular classes. I had submitted several lesson plans at the end of January, and I was notified on March 2 that I had taken third place in the contest, which not only means a nice award check but some money toward my travel expenses to this conference. It was a very nice day when I got the e-mail saying I would receive this award (I did quite the dance of joy in my classroom)!

Major Award

Third Place Award for the Mars Education Challenge, presented to me by Bill Nye

The second place winner, Andrew Hilt, and myself were there to receive our certificates and checks – handed to us by Bill Nye himself. So maybe Bill competed with me for attendees at my afternoon session, but he kind of made it up to me. Andrew and I both said a few words about why we were competing and how we decided to do this. Andrew is from Wisconsin and spoke about the controversy there where the governor is trying to eliminate the teachers’ union and cut back on salaries, benefits, and retirement in a misguided attempt to cut expenses by cutting back on education (which will only come back to haunt them). He mentioned how under-appreciated teachers are, and how hostile many people in Wisconsin are just because teachers ask for the same rights to collective bargaining that other workers have. I spoke on my visit to the launch conference for the Mars Odyssey probe, and how I watched the moon rise over the Atlantic Ocean, and decided then to dedicate myself to promoting Mars education, just as ExploreMars has done.

I ran into several Solar System Educators during the day and Nancy Takashima invited me (or I invited myself . . .) to dinner at Buca de Beppo. I was a bit lake because of the reception, but had a chance to talk to Shannon McConnell from JPL, who is now the lead education director for the GAVRT (Goldstone Apple Valley Radio Telescope) program. Julie and Gary Taylor, Nancy, Martin Horejsi, Kay Ferrari, and others were there, and it was fun to get back together with them even though I am not active in the program any longer. But now I’m back in a high school setting, teaching science once again, maybe its time to get hooked back in.

It was quite a busy and exhausting day. I learned much, shared much, was rewarded for my time and efforts, and met up with old friends. A great day!

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Philly from air

Flying in to Philly

I’m going to try the “instantaneous blog” style of posting today. I’m back in Philadelphia for the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) annual conference at the Pennsylvania Convention Center. I flew in yesterday from Salt Lake City and was met by a friend at the airport who drove me to another friend’s house where I will be staying (I have to do these things on the cheap, and saving over $100 per day on hotel fees is one way I could make this work). I’ve attended six sessions today, four of which have been excellent (as in useful for me professionally or for my project) and two that have been good but not quite as useful.

Philly City Hall

City Hall in Philadelphia

The first was on NASA’s Astrobiology program, presented by Pamela Harman of SETI (her office is just down the hall from the legendary Frank Drake of the Drake Equation) and Leah Bug, who was with NASA’s Explorer Schools program back when I was a facilitator for the program at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. She is now at Penn State, and I haven’t seen her since 2004, but it was good to catch up again. I attended because I love all things NASA and especially anything that might relate to the nearby stars and exoplanets, and even more so an interdisciplinary subject like astrobiology, which combines biology, evolution, astronomy, planetary science, and chemistry together.

Philly skyscrapers

Skyscrapers in Philadelphia

The second session was sponsored by ISTE (International Society of Technology Educators) about a school district that truly gets the idea of using technology to help students be creative. I talked with Ben Smith, one of the presenters, afterward and got his advice on how to sell this project to teachers and get the ball rolling. He’s found that having students be creative by building their own videos (on physics, chemistry, or other subjects he teaches), he has to teach content less than before since the students are taking the digital tools and expressing themselves creatively. They are engaged, and they learn the content they need on their own without him having to pour it into them through a lecture or some other ineffective technique. It takes standards of content rigor to make sure the students find out the depth of information they need, but it has been working. He gives them the tools, provides enough training to learn the basics of using them, then gives then a very open-ended topic (“Tell me about waves”) and lets the students run with it. And his test scores have gone up (always good to know).

The third session was in the Marriott by Gigi Naglak and Shelley Geehr of the Chemical Heritage Foundation to kick off their “It’s Elemental” video contest for students, where students (individuals and teams) will submit short (3-5 minute) videos on an element that they sign up for in advance. Videos will be judged in two rounds. Those making it to the final round will be judged by an august group of scientists and media specialists (including a Nobel chemistry winner) and the overall winners will receive a free trip to Philadelphia next spring, to coincide with the International Year of Chemistry. Gigi and Shelley asked me my recommendations last summer for how to kick off the contest and what the levels of equipment needed by teachers would be, and I hope to be able to help out more as they roll out the website this summer. I also hope to have some student groups submit their videos and win!

Exhibit Hall at NSTA

NSTA Exhibitors' Hall

The fourth session was by a coalition of teachers, media experts, scientists, and museum directors in Omaha called the Omaha Student Media Project, where a group of 16 students and 16 teachers attended a two-week workshop to learn video editing and science reporting skills, then created videos on viruses and infections and how they work. I talked quite a while with the museum person about how this coalition began and how they sold it to the school district and got media involvement. It’s given me some good ideas for how to sell my project and build a similar coalition in Utah.

I attended two other sessions on video podcasting and new media literacy, which gave me some good information but weren’t as useful as I would have liked. I will be going to a video program in about 20 minutes over at the Loews Hotel, so I need to sign off. I haven’t visited the exhibitors’ hall other than poking my head in and realizing I will need a plan of attack before attempting it. I hope to make some valuable contacts there. I’ll be presenting The Elements Unearthed project on Saturday at 9:30 in D-17. I’ll post again tomorrow.

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