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Borneo Day 6: Wednesday, July 26

Physics class

The physics class at SMAN 1 Mandastana. I gave all the students a MAVEN postcard. I taught two astronomy activities on this day. The teacher is standing next to me with the NASA sticker.

Today Craig and I taught lessons in our subject areas. He taught the spaghetti tower engineering project and the DaVinci helicopter activity. I taught two astronomy lessons: the human orrery and the parallax activity.

Martapura River at dawn

The Martapura River at dawn, taken from the entrance to our hotel.

We had worked out what we would be teaching with the physics teacher the day before. When we first met the teachers on Monday, I noticed that she was the only female teacher not wearing a hijab, for whatever reason, and that she didn’t seem as carried away in the general hoopla about having us here. I could see that I needed to convince her that this would be a good experience for her students, so I asked Nazar if we could meet with her and discuss what we wanted to do. She warmed to the idea of teaching engineering and astronomy, and that we would trade off with another class so that both would get the lessons. We decided on the details and were good to go.

Laying down planets

Laying out the planet rings for the human orrery activity.

I set up in her classroom this morning, preparing the materials I had brought with me all the way from America in my blue suitcase. I had the string orbits and space probe for the orrery and the materials for making sextants. I also had my final presents for students, the remaining NASA stickers, postcards, and bookmarks. My suitcase will be much lighter after today.

As the first class started, I introduced the idea of the planets and how they were called the Wanderers by the Greeks. I asked them for the Indonesian words: Earth is Bumi and the other planets are essentially the same words as English and Latin. Then I asked for the name of the sun and this one surprised me: it is Mata Hari. I asked if it was the same name as the infamous World War I spy that lived in Paris, and they said yes. She was a Dutch woman who had lived in Indonesia with her husband and studied dance here when her marriage fell apart. She took the name of the Sun as her stage name.

Space ship arrives at Mars

The spaceship arrives at Mars after a six month journey. Now it has to wait there until Earth comes back around, and then a six month return voyage. We simulated all of this through our human orrery.

I described how Ptolemy worked out the motions of the solar system based on a geocentric model with deferent and epicycle circles like a spirograph. They understood the translations given by Nazar, but no one has seen a spirograph before. No matter. I plunged onward. I explained that Ptolemy had been brilliant but wrong, and that Arabic astronomers had gotten better observations and that Copernicus created a heliocentric model based on them. I certainly put Nazar to the test. I asked for volunteers to be the planets and Mata Hari, and then we went outside into the courtyard.

We laid out the string orbits in as circular a pattern as possible, then I ran the simulation calling out “Two weeks.” They certainly know what that means now. I pointed out how Mercury is fastest and Mars slowest. Then I showed how a space probe or human mission would take 6-8 months to reach Mars, starting when Earth is 90° from Mars and overtaking it, then arriving at Mars on the opposite side of the Sun. Astronauts would have to wait until Earth came back around to the same position before starting back, a 30 month round trip. At the end, I had students stand around the circles as zodiac constellations and demonstrated how retrograde motion works as Earth overtakes Mars.

Measuring stars

Students at SMAN 1 Mandastana measuring the angles from planets to stars in our parallax activity.

It was a hot activity out in the sun in the courtyard and we were all grateful to get back inside, even if the classroom isn’t air conditioned. I handed out Mars MAVEN postcards (I still had quite a stack) and the students insisted that I sign them as an autograph. That took a few minutes. Then we took photos again.

Mata Hari in 2010

Mata Hari in 2010. She was born from Dutch parents but moved with her husband to Indonesia, where she learned Javanese dancing. After divorcing and moving to France, she started a career as an exotic dancer and took her stage name from the Bahasa Indonesia word for sun, literally “eye in the sky.” She was accused of being a German spy and was executed in 1917 by the French.

After we traded classrooms, I was in a math teacher’s class and I taught a second astronomy lesson, this one a bit more challenging. This is the lesson I developed on how we calculate the distance to nearby stars using trigonometric parallax. I introduced the idea of using the tangent function to find the distance to the star based on the parallax angle created by the star’s apparent wiggling back and forth compared to the background stars because of the Earth’s revolution around the Sun. I had to ask the Indonesian word for star, which is bintang. There is a beer in Indonesia (popular on Bali but not so much elsewhere, because Muslims don’t drink alcohol) called Bintang or Star Beer.

Measuring stars 2

Helping students measure the angles to simulated stars in our parallax activity.

I divided the students into groups and handed out the wooden dowels, protractors, tape, string, and beads I had brought. The built the sextants, and then they drew up stars and planets on the cardstock with the markers I brought. Then we headed outside to the courtyard again. I used two meter sticks we had borrowed from the physics teacher (kept in the teacher’s lounge because they are very valuable and she doesn’t want them broken) and laid out and measured the planets on one line and the stars on another perpendicular line. I explained how to measure the angles with the sextants, and the math teacher helped her students figure out the process. The girls jumped in a lot more willingly than the boys (no surprise there), who were more willing to stand in as stars. Once we had at least two measurements from each planet to each star, even though not all groups had all measurements, we headed back inside as we were all getting heat stroke. I hadn’t thought of the problem with the heat, and the poor girls were roasting in their hijabs.

Measuring stars 3

Measuring the angles to stars from simulated planets using a sextant. It was a hot day, so once we got a few measures for each planet to each star, we headed back inside to do the calculations.

The students pulled out calculators (I hadn’t needed to bring the ones I had) and set to work on the tangent calculations once I had explained the formula. They seemed to all understand it, and had obviously worked with trig functions before. I drew up a table on the white board and we added their measurements, then their calculations. They results were exactly as expected, fitting the pattern much better than any class I’ve ever tried this with. The further out the planet, the better the results compared with the actual answers. The further out the star, the less accurate the results. We talked about why and how the tangent function reaches infinity the closer you get to 90°, so being off by even a degree for the further stars means great differences in the tangent function.

As you can imagine, this lesson took a bit longer than 90 minutes, but the teachers said to go ahead and continue because the students were really getting into it. I don’t know how many hands-on physics activities they normally do – I didn’t get to see the Fisika lab room or any equipment, but if they only have two worn out meter sticks, it can’t be that well equipped. Considering that astronomy isn’t regularly taught in high school, they seemed to have a pretty good grasp of basic astronomy, which leads me to think it is taught in junior high or elementary school. I saw some mechanical orreries in one of the elementary classrooms we visited in Jakarta, so it must be taught at some point.

Calculating answers

Students calculating the tangent function to find the distances to the simulated stars.

It was audacious of me to try to teach these lessons, which are hard to teach even in America. That they were so successful was beyond anything I could have hoped for. I saw some real comprehension in the students’ eyes; I actually taught them something new. I knew the language barrier would be a challenge, but Nazar’s English is good and we managed to communicate. It helped that I learned a few Indonesian words, enough to show my desire to reach them. The students reciprocated by listening and following instructions well, and they seemed to truly appreciate seeing how trigonometry really can be useful, or how simulations and kinesthetic activities can help to demonstrate science concepts.

Calculating star distances

Students calculating the distances to stars using the tangent function for the parallax activity. Their answers were the best I’ve ever seen in this activity, and showed the expected pattern that the more distant a planet, the more accurate the answer. The more distant the star, the less accurate the answer.

It also helped that science really is a universal language. Its concepts remain the same throughout the world; only the specific words change, but because many of them are based on Latin, they are fairly easy to understand and interpret across our two cultures. I have great gratitude to Nazar and the other English teacher for helping to translate the words, and to the science and math teachers for having already laid the foundation of math and science concepts. None of this would have worked otherwise.

Calculating star distances 2

Finding the distances to simulated stars using trigonometric parallax. These students at SMAN 1 Mandastana in Borneo did a great job with the parallax activity. It was a great honor to teach one of my own lesson plans here.

Craig’s engineering exercises also went well, although he did not see the level of creativity and divergent thinking one might expect of American students. Whether or not these types of activities will be used by the science teachers remains to be seen. One day of demonstration is not enough to overcome a lifetime of teaching habits. We won’t be here long enough to follow through, but at least we provided lessons that were unforgettable and truly lived up to our hype as master teachers.

Craig and David with teachers

Craig Hendrick and David Black with teachers at SMAN 1 Mandastana.

I don’t consider myself to be a great educator compared to many teachers I have met, but there are moments when I do well and this was one of them. As my message came through across barriers of culture and language, using concepts that are hard for even English native speakers to understand, I realized that I can be an excellent teacher, after all. We all rose to the challenge, partly because we dared to do what should have been impossible. At least at that moment, I felt deserving of the accolades and respect I have been shown here.

Physics class 2

The second class of the day. I did the parallax activity with them, and they did a fantastic job. I’ve decided that science is truly the universal language.

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Nuremburg Chronicles Empedocles

Anaxagoras and Empedocles, from the Nuremburg Chronicles

In my last post, I showed the statistics of what this blog has accomplished so far. I feel very good about where we’ve been, but now it’s time to describe where I plan on going this coming year.

Given that I am not teaching chemistry this school year, my work on the Elements Unearthed project has slowed down a bit as my attention has been diverted elsewhere by the astrobiology projects (the podcasts and CLOE animations) and other projects that I’ll describe next week. I anticipate teaching chemistry again next year, and I am in the process of writing up a series of grant proposals (all of which have to be done by Feb. 1) that, if successful, will provide funds for purchasing some iPad tablets and probeware that will allow us to do some environmental field research.

fluorite and emerald

Fluorite and emerald crystals in the collection of Keith Proctor

In the meantime, I have a large backlog of videos that I have taped of various mine tours and interviews I’ve done across the country. I need to edit these into final videos and report on them in detail on this site. In order to keep myself on track, I’ve created a schedule for when I’d like to do each video and the topics I’ll cover here as I work on them.

This January, 2012, I am going to start at the beginning and look at ancient chemistry and our knowledge of the elements in prehistoric and early historic times. Then in February, I will start to work on my Greek Matter Theories videos. I have previously created all the script and narration and have even set up the video files and begun the graphics and animations. It’s high time I finished these. I’ll start with an overview of the Greek Ideal in philosophy and science, then talk about Thales and the Miletian School, then Parmenides and Zeno and the Eleatics. In March, I will talk about Heraclitus and Empedocles and the atomic theory and Plato. In April, I’ll move on to Aristotle, Epicurus, and the debate on elements versus atoms, ending in the theology of St. Thomas Aquinus and how atomic theory came down through the Middle Ages.

In May and June I’ll discuss the practical side of chemistry, with a look at ancient crafts, including metalworking, glass making, and other medieval technologies, including a detailed look at Agricola’s De Re Metallica (which I have many photos of).

Dalton molecules

Diagrams of molecules by John Dalton

By July I should have the funding I need in place to start the field research. My plan is to partner with another school, perhaps Tintic High School or Wendover High School, to travel out to nearby mining sites and use the probeware and iPads to collect and record data on soil and water environmental conditions, such as the pH of soil and runoff water near old mine dumps. I’m especially interested in seeing if the EPA efforts to mitigate contaminated soil in and around Eureka, Utah have been successful. I’ve talked about those efforts in previous posts (especially here: https://elementsunearthed.com/2010/06/09/the-legacy-of-the-tintic-mining-district/ ), so I won’t talk about them again now. We would use GPS coordinates and GoogleEarth to set up a grid of sample sites both in and out of the recovered area. We would sample the surface and two feet below ground. It would require several trips and coordination with local students to gather the data, but it is a project that would fit very nicely with the research I’ve already done. If I can get enough money together, I would like to rent a portable X-Ray Fluorescence Spectrometer which can read element abundances nondestructively on the site.

In preparation for all this, I need to make one more trip to the Tintic district in June to photograph and videotape the mines in the southwest area, which were the first mines discovered, including the Sunbeam and Diamond mines. One of my great grandfathers, Sidney Tanner Fullmer, died as a result of injuries suffered in an accident while working in the Diamond mine, leaving my grandmother an orphan to be raised by her aunt and uncle. So this history has a particular interest to me.

One thing I plan on doing, if we can work out a partnership, is to set up an evening in Eureka at Tintic High School where townspeople can come in with photographs and tell their stories of mining and life in Eureka before and after the EPA efforts. We’ll scan the photos and videotape the recollections, then combine all that with the video I’ve already done of the Tintic Mining Museum and local area. Ultimately, my students will help me script and edit a three-part video on the Tintic District, perhaps even done well enough that we could market it to KUED, the PBS station in Salt Lake City.

Tintic load site

Ore loading platform in the Tintic Mining District

The months July, August, and September will be dedicated to this effort and will result in the best documentation created so far on video of the history and present of the Tintic Mining District.

October will be dedicated to Zosimos of Panopolis and such Arabic alchemists as Jabir ibn Hayyan. November will begin a discussion of European alchemists, from Roger Bacon and Ramon Llull through the Middle Ages. I’ll draw on the many photos I’ve taken on alchemical texts at the Chemical Heritage Foundation. The history of alchemy will continue through December, 2012 and on into January, 2013. In February and March, 2013, we’ll discuss the emergence of modern chemistry through Boyle, Priestley, and Lavoisier through Dalton, Avogadro, Berzelius, and others.

In April through June of 2013 we will switch gears and talk about nucleogenesis and the origin of the elements, then the physicists and chemists that have helped us understand the structure of the atom and quantum mechanics. From there, I will probably begin to talk about individual elements and how they are mined and refined, with examples of the mining districts where they come from, such as the history of the Viburnum Trend in Missouri and the lead mines there, or the gold mines of Cripple Creek, Colorado. I really do have enough materials now to keep this blog going for at least two years. And I’ll be gathering more all the time. I will also dedicate occasional posts to my efforts as a chemistry teacher and to science education in general, including my experiences at conferences, etc.

Van Helmont

Portrait of Joannes Baptista van Helmont

Well, it is an ambitious schedule. I hope to do at least one post per week, probably on weekends. I hope to complete at least one video segment every two months or so. Next week, I’ll start us off with an overview of the history of chemistry.

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Once each year I like to go over the statistics for this blog in detail to see what posts have been the most popular, which search terms are finding this blog, which videos are most watched, etc. I’m not doing this just for an ego trip, but to be able to report the impact this site is having. I have had some very generous sponsors over the three years this blog has been running, especially the American Section of the Société de Chimie Industrielle (which paid for my fellowship in 2009) and the Chemical Heritage Foundation, which provided such a wealth of resources in its collections on the history of chemistry. It was during the time of my fellowship that this blog really began to find an audience, and it has been growing ever since.

Stats for the Elements Unearthed

Monthly Stats for the Elements Unearthed Blog

So here is where this blog stands: As of today, there have been a total of 67,620 visits to this site. As seen by the histogram, the number of visits has shown a definite annual pattern consistent with the school year – visits are lower in the summer when school is not in session, rise in August and September, stay high in October and November, dip a bit in December due to Winter Vacation, then rise again in January and February and peak in March, then gradually decrease as the school year winds down in April and May. This same pattern has repeated for the last three school years, but has grown each year. Last year, in the 2010-2011 school year, my best months were slightly above 3000 visits. Now they are topping out above 4000 and I hope they will hit 5000 by March.

Granted, compared to some popular blogs with thousands of hits per day, 5000 per month doesn’t sound like much. However, I am pleased – this is a rather esoteric blog dedicated to the history of chemistry and chemistry education. The yearly pattern shows that I am reaching my intended audience of high school students and teachers. This is also shown by the types of searches that reach my blog.

Although there are always some unrelated search terms that somehow reach my blog (the biggest ones are “Ocean City, New Jersey” and “Punxsatawney Phil” because I visited both places in 2009 and showed some pictures), by far the majority of search terms are related to chemistry and its history or to science education in general. I’ve gone through the search terms and compiled them into categories, mostly so that I can make plans for the future. Here are the top searches that reach this blog: (1) Greek Matter Theories (3473 searches) with Aristotle, Democritus, and Thales being the biggest ones; (2) the Periodic Table of elements (2288); (3) beryllium (1600); (4) Alexandre Beguyer de Chancourtois (1397) – this is a bit surprising, but apparently my animation of his telluric screw periodic system and description of his work is one of the few sites out there about him; (5) the Tintic Mining District (1041); (6) the history of the periodic table (868); (7) science education (862), especially using iPads in science classes; (8) early modern chemistry (822), including Lavoisier, Boyle, Priestley, Dalton, and Newton; (9) alchemy (732), with love potions, Khunrath, Basil Valentine, Zosimos, and Maier the highest; (10) water and wind turbines (618); (11) strange attractors (586) – this is another odd one, since I only mentioned it once, but it was in my most popular post; (12) mercury (554); (13) early technology (514), such as Roman glass, Pliny the Elder, Agricola, Neri, and others; (14) mining in general (455) – such terms as overburden, open pit mine, ball mill, and headframe; and (15) Cripple Creek, Colorado (315).

Top Posts for this blog

Top Posts for the Elements Unearthed Blog

The videos that I have created for this project are posted on this blog (under the video tab) and on YouTube. The History of the Periodic Table, featuring Dr. Eric Scerri of UCLA, is my biggest hit so far. All parts of this video have been watched a total of 11,474 times as of 1/7/2012. There are even a few derivative works on YouTube that take parts of my video – a section on Henry Moseley, for example – and combine it with parts of other videos with Bill Nye, etc. I’ve had quite a few comments on how useful this video has been for chemistry teachers out there, and I am very pleased with the results so far. There is also a version with Portuguese subtitles done by a professor in Brazil; I’m not sure how many times that has been seen. My separate video that showed only some animations of the periodic table has been watched 416 times.

The second most popular videos have been the two parts on beryllium – its properties and uses, and how it is mined and refined. It has been watched a total of 3219 times, with the separate video on the geology of beryllium watched itself an additional 153 times. The Discovery of Synthetic Diamonds has been watched 745 times and the demonstration of Glass Blowing 754 times. These have been the most popular videos related to this project.

In conclusion, the most important question is: Have I succeeded in my attempt to bring the history of chemistry and chemistry education to the general public, and specifically to teachers and students? All indications, based on these statistics, are that I am succeeding and that that success is continuing to grow.

The last several posts have been about astronomy and space science education, and although some search terms have reached these posts, not many have. For various reasons, not the least of which is that I want to keep this blog focused on my original intent, I am starting a new blog which should be up and running by Wednesday night on space science education and resources for teachers to use now that we are in the golden age of astronomy. I will be doing quite a bit of education outreach on these topics over the next few years, if all goes well, and they deserve to have their own blog. I will include links here once that is ready to visit. I will post to this new blog once per week on Wednesdays.

The statistics also point out which topics have been most popular, and give me direction on what to post about in the future. In my next post, I will give you a schedule of what I intend to discuss over the next year and a half and when I will have the related videos completed. I will try to post once per week, probably on weekends. I have much more material from my fellowship at the Chemical Heritage Foundation that I haven’t shown or discussed here yet, and I look forward to digging into it all. I have also visited many sites related to mining and refining of the elements which I have only mentioned in passing. It’s time to edit all that footage and photos into videos for this site and YouTube. I expect the next few years to be busy, productive, and rewarding and to reach even more people than I already have.

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Foam demonstration

David Black presenting foam demonstration

Yes, I know this is late. The new school year is about to start and I am only just finishing up the last school year. This post will describe the Grand Finale of the school year for my science classes, which was our First Annual Science Showcase at Walden School.

We had been working toward this all year, as you have seen from previous posts. Students in my astronomy and chemistry classes joined into small groups (2-3 students) and chose topics based on what interested them and what materials and equipment I had available. Then during first term, they conducted background research. My chemistry students created posters and several of them contributed posts to this blog. During second term, the teams condensed their research into a script for a presentation or mini-lesson on their topic which was to include explanation, background, and some type of demonstration or hands-on activity. The teams practiced and refined their scripts, then I divided the teams in half. Half of each class presented their demonstrations/lessons to their peers in class, and I had their fellow classmates fill out an evaluation form with Likert-style point scales and room for comments. The other half presented to our elementary classes and wrote evaluations on themselves. In astronomy, the students merely presented for the elementary classes once.

science night assignments

Assignments for Science Showcase

During third term in chemistry, the teams went over their evaluations and improved their scripts. I had them start to create Powerpoint slide shows or add YouTube videos to increase the depth of their presentations. Then the teams presented again – those that presented to their peers now presented to the elementary classes and vice versa. Evaluations were again filled out, with even more detail. I also wrote up my own detailed suggestions for each team.

copper group presenting

Copper group presenting at Science Showcase

Finally, fourth term, we made our final preparations and practiced and set up our Science Showcase on May 16. I also asked the astronomy students to return and reprise their presentations, and had my geology students help out. Since our school is small, many students presented twice (and got extra credit for it). We set up an invitation for the parents and had it e-mailed out to the whole school mailing list. It took a lot of preparation, and wouldn’t have been possible without the support of the Air Force Association Educator Grant, which helped to pay for materials and supplies that were used up each time we presented (like plastic cups, red cabbage, white glue, etc.).

Schedule for science night

Schedule for Science Showcase

We set up the evening to be in three classrooms and outside on the school’s back patio (for the dangerous or messy presentations). The teams were assigned carefully so that those who were doing more than one session could make it to each one. Some students also got credit for helping film the sessions, making sure the refreshments were done (homemade root beer and ice cream, which were actually presented at two sessions), acting as hosts for each room, etc. For four sessions we had four presentations going at the same time, or about 16 topics altogether.

Dry ice group

Dry ice group presenting at Science Showcase

It was a bit frustrating to get the students all there on time (an hour early) and a few things I wanted to do didn’t get done, but overall the night was a huge success. I had about 30 students involved, and there were about 40-50 other people who attended, some other students, some parents, some siblings. A few of the sessions were too short, and the student hosts in each room didn’t watch the clock well enough, so the schedule got a bit messed up by the end, and we had to take a break for refreshments. The homemade root beer (we already had dry ice) and ice cream (another presentation) went over well. Some of the sessions only had a few in the audience, others were packed.

Flame test abstract

The last session was done by Jerry and Karl on properties of the elements and how fireworks are made, and in addition to the methanol flame test, Karl had made his own sparklers. He’d looked up a recipe online, but I didn’t have all the exact ingredients, so we substituted and experimented for a few days and came up with a viable recipe, one that actually works better than commercial sparklers. It was nice to have a grand finale, so to speak.

Homemade sparkler

Homemade sparkler demonstrated at Science Showcase

We videotaped and photographed everything, and I am still trying to capture and compile the video. I have only two weeks left until school starts, and my goal is to put together a final 15 minute video of all our presentations for the year before school begins so that I can show it to my next classes and post it here.

Solid rocket booster

Toasting the Runt: A solid rocket booster

As an assessment of the evening, I didn’t have any kind of feedback forms, but based on overheard comments, feedback from parents and other teachers, and general excitement of my students, I’d say the evening was a great success. Everyone had fun, most of the presentations worked well, the students came through very well, and I saw some genuine learning and expertise displayed by my students. Certainly they have come to feel comfortable using lab equipment and presenting to their peers and others. What they presented they have now learned deeply and will never forget, long after stoichiometry and thermochemistry have faded away. For our first year doing this, we have set up a good foundation. There are things that can be improved, of course, and I hope to get the other science teachers involved this coming year. At least now my students know what to expect.

Homemade root beer

Homemade root beer

I hope to have several students display their science experiments, where they designed, observed, and analyzed their own data for science fairs. My one science fair student displayed his computer game project and it was well attended and received. Next year, as we are involved in authentic NASA research, we’ll have more students doing the real thing. But more on that next post.

Moon craters

Moon formation and evolution demonstration

Josh shows game

Demonstrating the "Salt the Slug" game

Silver group presenting

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titration

Students preparing for an acid-base titration

My last post told about our school’s trip to Moab in March and about the discovery of uranium in that area by Charlie Steen. Since then I have not been as active on this blog because I have been spending much of my spare time finding and applying for grants and now preparing for my fall classes. The last term in chemistry was also fairly hectic as we went through several units, including acids/bases, electrochemistry, and thermochemistry.

Titration equivalence point

Finding the equivalence point in an acid-base titration

The grant game isn’t a very fun one to play. There are many losers and only a few winners, and a great deal of effort is required for what is often no reward at all. Unfortunately, as science teachers, we know that to do the engaging, exciting hands-on activities that are the hallmark of good teaching, we often need funds well beyond what our school districts can provide. During difficult financial times, when district budgets and state tax revenues are shrinking, more and more of us are applying for ever scarcer opportunities. So it becomes a numbers game; the more grants you apply to, the more your odds of success for a few of them. Sometimes you luck out.

During the period between March and May, when classes ended for the year, I applied to three grants. Two I haven’t heard back from yet (the Dreyfus grant program and the Presidential Award for Excellence in Math and Science Teaching [PAEMST]) but one, the McCartney-Dressman Grant, sent me a form e-mail last week saying we had not been selected. There were over 400 applications. In many cases, including this one, grant monies have stipulations such as requiring the schools to have a high number of underrepresented students, which means having a certain percentage of students with minority status, or classified as poor by the percentage applying for free or reduced lunches, or by being in an urban or rural geographical area. Walden School is located in Provo, Utah, which is not rural or urban, and although some of our students are on free or reduced lunches, the percentage isn’t particularly high. In other words, we’re not considered underrepresented. I knew that going in, but decided to try anyway.

For the PAEMST program, this is the first year in 15 that I have qualified. To apply, one has to be a science or math teacher (at least 50% load) in a public or private school and the application process is pretty intimidating. I went to a presentation at the Utah Science Teachers Association conference this last February, and found that in addition to a lengthy essay with supplemental exhibits, one has to also provide a 45 minute video of teaching that has no breaks in it – just one continuous lesson. This is harder than you might think, even for a video professional like myself (maybe especially for me) because I want good quality video as well as good quality teaching. I filmed my chemistry classes on two different days doing activities – one was testing Charles Law that gases expand when heated by having them measure the diameter of balloons as they were dipped in water of different temperatures. That video looked good and had some good comments by the students, but as I moved the camera the video started and stopped on its own, so I couldn’t use it.

Molarity problems

One of the requirements of the PAEMST application: Provide proof of student learning

Then I videotaped my students doing a lab testing the voltages between different metal electrodes. Not as interesting, perhaps, but it went well enough. I got some nice letters of recommendation from a student, a fellow teacher, and my school’s director, wrote up the essay, created a ten-page supplement document, and sent all of this off by the deadline in May. Now the people in Utah have to decide which applications to send on to the national selection committee, and we won’t find out if we’ve won until next May (a whole year). Then in December, 2012, if I’m selected, I get a trip to Washington, D.C. to meet President Obama (maybe – sometimes the president doesn’t show up to present the award named after him) and receive a check for $10,000. Yes, it’s quite a process and if I don’t make it (I don’t know how many actually finished applications – probably ten or so) then I have to wait for two years (2013) before I can apply again as they alternate high school and elementary teachers. Each state gets one math teacher and one science teacher per year (although sometimes the national committee doesn’t select anyone from a state if they feel none qualify).

Charles law lab

Results of the Charles Law lab

As I was looking over the list of previous Utah awardees, I came across the name of a teacher I used to teach with at Juab High School. Janet Sutorius is an excellent math teacher who has also participated in the NASA Educator Workshop program at Dreyden Field Research Center at Edwards Airforce Base. Even after I left Juab HS, I did a workshop presentation with Janet on NASA educational programs at a state conference. Here is a nice article about Janet as an alumnus of Brigham Young University: Janet Sutorius Presidential Award. Other past awardees I know include Duane Merrill (I learned how to teach conceptual physics from him), Ron Cefalo, and others. These are all excellent teachers and role models for me.

The fact that I’ve been out in the wilderness teaching multimedia for ten years means I haven’t been in the spotlight for science teaching (even though I was doing all the NASA stuff). I was actually better known outside of Utah than inside. I did present at the USTA conference frequently, including this year. Many of the people I worked with as a NASA/JPL Solar System Educator had been Presidential Awardees, and when I asked about the program they all said I should apply. But I had to be an official science teacher before that could happen, and this year is the first time since Juab High School. I think I have a strong application – I’ve certainly done more on the national level for teacher professional development that anyone else I know in Utah, but that is just one dimension they look at. I think my content knowledge is excellent, and I’m strong on the other dimensions as well. Anyway, win or lose, I have tried. There have been many times in the past when I have applied for similar programs and thought I could never be selected but was. Maybe this will be one of those times. I just wish I didn’t have to wait so long to find out!

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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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The Mosser Hotel

The Mosser Hotel, San Francisco

The last two weeks have been crazy busy as our third term has ended, our Intersession classes have begun, and I’ve prepared to travel to San Francisco for the National Science Teachers Association Conference.

During Intersession our history teacher at Walden School (Eric) and I have put together a CSI class, coming up with a scenario, clues, evidence, witnesses, etc. On the first day, we trained the students what to expect and divided them into groups, including three students to be lead detectives. I also ran them through my old “Murder on the Carob Bean Queen” activity, where they must solve a paper mystery that requires group collaboration. On Tuesday we planted the evidence, including a very well made up dead body, multiple sets of footprints, and various physical clues. I even got some beef blood from the local supermarket and splattered it over the scene (getting quite a bit on myself – I was a bit overenthusiastic on how I smacked the container). While I was doing this, Eric had the students inside with a guest lecturer from the medical examiner’s office. She brought slides. I was glad to miss it. Then we took the students outside to the crime scene and had them collect the evidence. They did pretty well, except they only got two footprints cast, the rest of the prints either being ignored or obliterated as the team walked all over the scene. Wednesday we started cataloguing and analyzing the evidence, as witnesses started to come forward and the crime started shaping up.

Lobby of the Mosser

Lobby of the Mosser Hotel, San Francisco

At the same time, I was busily getting my bags packed, last minute changes on the presentations ready (including quick videos of Cripple Creek and my students’ chemistry demonstrations), and all the details done that must be done.

On Wednesday afternoon, I flew on a small Skywest Puddle Jumper from Salt Lake to SFO. I sat by a pre-teacher from Louisiana State, behind two other teachers, and they behind yet another teacher, all going to the conference. There must have been quite a few more on the same plane. We teachers are quite the gregarious bunch.

The plane flight was uneventful, and in between chatting with the other teachers I watched an episode of Star Trek Enterprise on my laptop. There’s just something oddly fulfilling about watching Star Trek on a laptop computer while flying at 35,000 feet. We had a nice view of San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge from the air as we circled around to land. I rode into San Francisco on a SuperShuttle van with yet more teachers to the Mosser Hotel. I selected the Mosser because it is inexpensive (about $60 per night, which is really good for a San Fran hotel). The drawbacks are the tiny rooms and shared bathrooms, but the beds are comfortable and the hotel staff friendly. After settling in, I walked over to the Moscone Center and picked up my registration packet. I found a Mexican restaurant in the Metreon, and sat with a teacher named Matt who teaches in an ex-patriot school in Bangladesh. We had an interesting conversation about the challenges of teaching in a country with such severe poverty and population issues; he tried to paint a picture of just how terrible the traffic is, for instance, and how prone to disasters of every sort the country is.

San Francisco skyline

San Francisco Skyline from the Moscone Center

After dinner, I returned to the hotel and crashed. It was a long day, and tomorrow will be very eventful. I present the Elements Unearthed project, and I have a reception to go to where I’ll receive a “major award” (although not from France or in a box marked “Fragilé”). Just thought I’d end on a note of suspense . . . .

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