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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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