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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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About a year ago I wrote a post about the grant game. Since returning from the NSTA conference in Indianapolis I have been writing as many grants as I can, both medium and large. Altogether, I have written seven different grant or program opportunity applications since September 2011. I have been quite successful this year, winning three of the seven.

The first success was to be selected, along with Carolyn Bushman of Wendover Jr./Sr. High School, as an Airborne Astronomy Ambassador for NASA’s SOFIA project. Much of the details are on my other blogsite, www.spacedoutclass.wordpress.com, since it is about astronomy instead of the chemical elements. I found this out in January, and was even interviewed by the local Fox news station (but the story never aired). From February through May I prepared for this opportunity by taking an online astronomy course through Montana State University. We will be flying aboard SOFIA (the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy) sometime this school year. We are still waiting to hear which group of astronomers we will be teamed with and when we’ll spend a week at NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center preparing for our night flights.

what if prize winner

Website describing my lesson plan for the What If Prize competition

The second success I had was the What If Prize competition. It involved writing and submitting a lesson plan related to astronomy that also involved engineering, math, and technology. I figured my chances were small, given it was an international competition, but it gave me an excuse to update my lesson plan on using trigonometric parallax to measure the distance to nearby stars. I was very busy all last fall editing a video for the Utah School Boards Association and finally got the video done and sent to the DVD duplicators three days before the What If deadline. I had two days to re-write the lesson plan, create new graphics, etc. and submit the whole thing right at the deadline (Dec. 31 at 12:00 midnight). I heard people shouting “Happy New Year!” as I hit the submit button. Then four months passed with no word and I had almost forgotten about the whole thing. I had finished the new version of the lesson plan, which was my real goal. But then, in April, I received an e-mail that I won first place! Here’s the website:  What if Prize announcement.

The award includes a $2000 stipend toward professional development costs. They gave a list of possibilities to apply to, and one certainly caught my eye: a week-long workshop on astrobiology in Hawaii.! But the deadline for that had already passed (Drats). I decided to create my own professional development opportunity and do something to advance the Elements Unearthed project and this blog. I have been neglecting it lately as my teaching career has moved more towards astronomy and astrobiology, but now I have the funds to come back to the story of the elements.

This is what I have decided to do: take about $1750 of the award and use it to travel through Colorado, visiting mining towns and taking as many mine tours and visiting as many museums as possible over a two-week period, documenting the whole thing on video. I have wanted to do this for several years, and did accomplish part of it two years ago when we visited Cripple Creek Mining District in 2010. The remaining $250 will be used to learn how to program apps for the iPad and how to write iTexts.

One of the sponsors of the What If competition is MIT BLOSSOMS, a program to create a series of STEM lesson plans on video that can be distributed freely online and in physical form to worldwide audiences, especially to schools in other countries that may not have Internet connections. I’ve spoken with Dr. Dick Larson at MIT about my parallax lesson plan, have written up an outline and complete script, and began filming it in June (the outside shots). I’ll continue to film it this August and September as my astronomy class begins. It was interesting figuring out how to use Walden School’s building as part the setting for the video, but the final results should be fun.

ACS Hach website

Website for the ACS Hach grant award. This year’s winners have not yet been posted.

My third success I found out in late June. I had applied to the American Chemical Society for the ACS Hach grant for $1500. We have been selected! (The website URL is ridiculously long. You can Google “ACS Hach grant.”  They should announce this year’s winners soon). It will allow me to move forward finally on the project to document the Tintic Mining District and to test the effectiveness of the EPA Superfund clean-up there. We will collaborate with Greg Thornock of Tintic High School, and our students will work together to do two things: to collect and analyze soil samples inside and outside the remediated zone to see if contamination still remains; and to interview local residents, collect photos and stories, and use it all to complete the video my students at MATC began in 2009. My ultimate goal is to edit and produce an hour video in three segments, on the early years (1869 to 1893), the middle years (to 1955), and the later years. Hopefully it will be good enough to air on KUED, Salt Lake City’s PBS station.

These last two successes will provide a great deal of material for this blog and for my chemistry class. Over the next several months, I should be adding at least three posts per week, as well as guest posts from my students. This has already been an incredible year, but my astronomy and chemistry students will have a rich selection of projects to work on and a chance to do some real science. I’ll report our efforts here.

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