Learner-Shaped Technology

October 15, 2008

Discussing the reading in class. Students as designers.

Filed under: books,general,mars,science — Mike W @ 2:34 pm

I’m truly impressed by colleagues who can effortlessly lead an engaging class discussion about a particular reading. I’m not that person. It’s a lot of work for me. While I find myself comfortable discussing concepts like conservation of momentum, acceleration, and projectile motion in class, I often feel out of my element when pulling together a strategy for discussing an outside reading for a book like Case for Mars (see earlier review). I really wanted to move beyond my current strategy of “summarize the 3 main ideas that grabbed you most”, which seems to inspire a pretty shallow read and makes me feel like that teacher in Ferris Beuller’s Day Off.

I thought I’d share something that seemed to work.

Engaging Ideas, by John Bean, has some great ideas for lesson design, including focusing on problems as an entry point. There’s a ton of literature out there on problem-based-learning, but something about Bean’s style (concrete and concise) seems to resonate with me and spur new ideas (almost as much as going on a run). When a friend first recommended this book, I initially thought it wouldn’t be helpful for a science teacher. Man, was I wrong.


The Case for Mars chapter we read focuses on strategies for getting to Mars and outlines contingencies provided by different plans. It’s fairly content rich, and I’d decided that I wanted to present the students with a mission mishap and ask them to analyze the options offered by each of the mission plans. After sharing my struggle to come up with a good problem with my teaching partners in crime, Sarah, our creative and talented TA, said, “Let them come up with the problem themselves and exchange it with another group.” Brilliant!

Here’s the scenario we presented to the students (zubrin-contigencies.pdf).

From my perspective a great deal of learning took place during the session, and the seemingly minor change of having the mishap designed by the students made a real difference. I don’t have a control group for comparison, so in the future I’d like to see what happens with the same assignment when I generate the problem. 10 bucks says it doesn’t go as well.

Some highlights:

  • Students were diagramming the different plans, flipping back through and rereading the book, and critically analyzing each of the options. I don’t think this happens as readily if I just say, “Read Chapter 4.”
  • The portable whiteboards seemed to help students organize and efficiently present their ideas. You can make these on-the-cheap from materials at Lowe’s or Home Depot (see below). They’ve been willing to cut these to size in the store.
  • Students were teaching one another. I asked a lot of questions. I know I’m supposed to do that anyway, but the context of the problem made it flow more easily.
  • It set the stage for more accountability and a different (and better) approach to future readings.
  • They did a great job critically analyzing each of the plans and were able to concisely share their thought processes and conclusions at the end of class.
  • Tech required – whiteboards, books, caffeine.
  • Their mishaps were much better than mine would have been.
  • I had fun.


Cut this into pieces and you have pretty cheap, portable whiteboards.

Thanks for the great lesson idea, Sarah!

August 3, 2008

Mars Books

Filed under: books,general,mars,science,technology — Mike W @ 10:47 am

Because books are perhaps the best educational technology around, I thought I’d share some good reads related to Mars. Comments below:

clipped from www.amazon.com
Zubrin does a super job of outlining an economically feasible and sustainable approach to Mars exploration. This is one of the texts we’ll be reading for the Mars course in the fall. A great read and no shortage of controversy.

The Case for Mars: The Plan to Settle the Red Planet and Why We Must

The Case for Mars: The Plan to Settle the Red Planet and Why We Must (Paperback)
clipped from www.amazon.com
This one looks pretty intimidating when you first flip through it, but Kargel makes the geology of the red planet understandable and incredibly interesting. The spectacular images and graphs really enhance the discussion, and you can tell he’s passionate about this stuff.

Mars - A Warmer, Wetter Planet (Springer Praxis Books / Space Exploration)

Mars – A Warmer, Wetter Planet (Springer Praxis Books / Space Exploration) (Paperback)
clipped from www.amazon.com
This covers the history of mapping Mars and is really well written and in-depth. My only suggestion is that it needs more images and maps. I often found myself visiting the map on the inside cover of the book to orient myself to a feature being discussed in the book. The plastic protective cover from my library copy made that map hard to get to, and I ended up tracking down maps on the internet instead. Who wants to be sitting at the computer though when reading a great book? Not me. A fascinating look at Mars mapping, but it could be much better with maps that support the discussion.

Mapping Mars: Science, Imagination, and the Birth of a World

Mapping Mars: Science, Imagination, and the Birth of a World (Hardcover)

  blog it

August 2, 2008

Mars Phoenix converts a Twitter skeptic

Filed under: mars,science,technology,twitter — Mike W @ 9:32 am

I’ve been very skeptical about educational uses of Twitter, but I have to admit that a little lander on Mars has changed my mind. This fall I’m teaching a course for non-science majors that centers around exploring the physics, chemistry, and geology surrounding a manned space mission to Mars. When I found out the Mars Phoenix Lander was providing mission updates via Twitter, I decided to take the plunge.

The lander (through a ghost writer) sends out tweets, sometimes several times a day, with mission updates which I follow through Twitterific (screen shot below).

Twitter Mars

One of the objectives for the course is for students to get a real sense of the scale, terrain, and environment of Mars. That’s not something that gets accomplished through a single lesson. Having the students subscribe via Twitterific or text message updates (I haven’t sprung for the extra $ to get into that) seems like a great, subversive way, to weave Mars into the daily lives of students. Phoenix “tweets” have often led me on a curious quest for more info, and I’m hoping it will do the same for students.

I was psyched to learn that the mission had been extended (through a tweet, of course) to the end of September, so I can use this for at least part of the upcoming semester. Here’s just one example (of many) of a great pointer from Phoenix, which can be used to address common misconceptions about the cause of the seasons.

Mars midnight sun

Clipped from JPL site.  See http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/news/phoenix/images.php?fileID=15091 for full story.

Oh yeah, here’s a link to the famous Private Universe video showing interviews with Harvard grads that demonstrates just how tenacious this misconception can be.

If Twitter can help, I’m in!

Link to Mars Phoenix tweets / twitter page 

May 18, 2008

Costa Rica Day 6 and home

Filed under: costa rica,general,gis,mapping,science — Mike W @ 4:05 pm

See flickr for all the pics from the trip.

Got up early to go with a crew over to Firestone. They were casting nets to catch leaf litter for another study on the property. I caught up with some email and talked to Susannah briefly before heading back for more GIS instruction. I really learned a lot. Warren is a great teacher and very patient with all of us. We turned data we gathered with the clinometers and compasses into latitude and longitude using start and finish anchor points we took with the portable GPS devices and COMPASS software. Then we imported all the data from the surveys we had done to see the additional trail maps. It was way cool! All of the points help GIS interpolate elevation, slope, and aspect information, so we get a better handle on both the Hacienda Baru and Firestone property.

eric mapping

I took a quick walk by myself on the trail to the playa (beach). We ate a quick lunch, packed, and took a different route back to San Jose. This road was paved, but very curvy, with some drops that were pretty impressive. I was happy for dramamine and decided it wasn’t worth watching all the crazy passing we were doing on hair-pin turns.

Carol on steep cliff

We stopped at a little over 8,000 ft on the way up and climbed a peak for some great views (see flickr). On the way back into the bus, we ran into a young guy from Japan who had biked from Calgary Canada!! He was looking for a place to pitch a tent for the night. He seemed to be in great spirits for such a long uphill ride with crazy traffic all around.

Mike and Jose Luis

We went out for dinner in San Jose, which is hopping in the evening. Jose-Luis and I (picture above) crossed a street and got stuck in the middle of the road. No one let us go and just honked and whizzed past. I later asked Eric to teach me how to curse in Spanish. I have a couple of phrases in my back pocket that might serve me well in the future 😉 I’m on the plane home to Atlanta, then I drive back to Greenville. Can’t wait to be home, but it was a great trip!

Costa Rica Day 4 and 5

Filed under: costa rica,general,gis,mapping,science — Mike W @ 3:56 pm

It’s Thursday night before dinner. Just catching up on the events of the last couple of days. Wednesday we surveyed most of the day – the main trails of Haciendu Baru in the morning, then up the slopes towards the overnight camp during the afternoon. The afternoon trip was especially beautiful, and we met up with the group that had hiked up to the top of the ridge, then back down, to connect the surveys.


We saw monkeys in both the morning and afternoon. They were especially active during the late afternoon hike back down the ridge. See flickr for snapshots. I didn’t take too many photos since we were so busy. Surveying got easier as we went. The challenge was getting a decent compass reading on some of the steeper slopes. The work was tedious but pretty rewarding when we saw the final survey. Stayed up late talking GIS with Kate, Travis, and Warren.


Thursday morning. Not feeling well at all. We had a choice to stay for detailed GIS instruction or survey in the river or up near the overnight camp towards the Firestone property. I volunteered for the latter if they needed bodies, but they had enough, so I stayed put. Probably a wise choice based on how I was feeling, but it sounds like both groups had great and strenuous hikes. As the groups left, they caught site of a baby sloth in a tree near the trail. We went over to snap some pictures. It was really close, so I got some great shots. Man, they don’t even look real and are definitely low energy – like me on Saturday morning.

Rain moved in just as the groups were returning. The group that went up to the overnight camp ran into an fer-de-lance. Pedro, the guide for this section, lightly stepped on the head of this highly venomous snake and pinned it with a forked branch, while the rest of the group snapped some photos. Keith said he’d send the shots, and I’ll post his pics soon. It looks like the snake was hot on the trail of lunch, a garter snake, and his would-be prey was also caught on film.

A little more GIS work in the afternoon. I opted out of gathering GPS data on the nearby trails and volunteered to pick up the group hiking the 5k road back to Baru in the car as the storms rolled in. They were pretty close by the time I caught up with them. Pretty low energy day, but I learned a lot of GIS details.

Haven’t had access to phone or internet since Tuesday, so I hope Susannah and the kids aren’t too worried. But there’s really no way to contact them. Hopefully I can put in a call on Friday to them from the Firestone station.

We take a trip back to San Jose up the steep side tomorrow, then head out Saturday morning for home. It’s been a great trip so far! Can’t wait to see Susannah and the kids though.

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