Teacher Lee Briggs on technology in today's classroom. Brought to you by Weekly Reader.

Gone Fishing

One of the great things about teaching in Greenwood, Wisconsin, has to be our outdoor classroom. I grew up surrounded by forests as a kid—named trees, watched birds, and fished in rivers. When Greenwood Elementary was built, an administrator with some forethought fenced off a small pond, planted some fruit trees and allowed the area to go wild. Protected by the fences from deer, a nearly perfect example of Wisconsin wilderness exists right behind our playground.

Went fishing with my students the other day in our little pond. Now that springtime has sprung, our little patch of wilderness is home to a brood of ducklings, a great blue and small green heron, a clutch of rabbits, a red fox, a few kingfishers, and more noisy warblers and testy red-winged blackbirds than can be counted. We made fishing rods out of sticks, used bent pins as hooks and hot dogs as bait. Before long we pulled in dozens of bullhead cats and one very upset turtle. I know that I am a technology teacher, but there are days when I am glad to be unplugged.

Please note: You can now find me on Facebook: www.facebook.com/LeeBriggsTech

One of my favorite websites is HowStuffWorks.com. I like HowStuffWorks for its content almost as much as I like it for having a name that actually describes what it does. HowStuffWorks is home to countless videos and articles on topics as broad as genetics, bullfighting, gravity, and notorious Victorian-era gentleman-villain Adam Worth. Their podcasts alone are fantastic to listen to on any car trip, let alone their great videos. While looking around their site I discovered their video podcast “Stuff to Blow Your Kid’s Mind” with topics such as gravity, magnets solar power and salt.  These great, simple-to-understand videos describe complicated concepts, such as Einstein’s theory on space-time and gravity.

<a href=”http://videos.howstuffworks.com/howstuffworks/51310-stuff-to-blow-your-kids-mind-gravity-video.htm”>Stuff To Blow Your Kid’s Mind: Gravity</a>

If you have students that delight in peppering you with questions, this might be just the site for you!

Rocket Summer

I am a huge nerd. As a kid, I got turned onto model rocketry by my fifth grade teacher, Miss Hanson. As with a lot of my interests, I surged ahead, devouring everything I could on the subject, building countless rocket kits and losing every single one to trees and wind. I even went so far as getting fellow nerds together for a “rocket club.” We met in my parents’ basement. My mom made us sloppy joes.

Then, like so many things, I cast away my childish interests only to have them come back to me as incredibly useful in my teaching career. As an end-of-the-year project, our fifth grade students are building easy-to-assemble rocket kits; a half-hour and a coat of paint and they are ready to go. What is more interesting is the project our sixth grade students are engaged in. The sixth graders’ rockets are made from scratch. They consist of a sheet of construction paper, a file folder, a paper clip, and a drinking straw. Total cost: $.12, not including the disposable rocket engines. As fun as building rockets from scratch can be, launching them can prove to be interesting; things like poor build quality and strange fin shapes can make for unpredictable (but exciting) launches.

I got the idea from the topic of a previous post: Sylvia’s Super Awesome Mini Maker Show

The subject of rockets could not happen at a better time. A wealth of YouTube videos capture amazing launches from home builders, and the news is full of Space X’s new rocket that may be replacing the space shuttle.

Here a few ways to get started on rocketry; it makes a great summer school activity.

First, make sure you have a launcher, launch pad, and engines. You can choose to buy rocket bulk-packs for your students (great for beginners), or have them choose from a list of rockets (more advanced students), or build them from scratch like I did (at your own risk).

There are lots of good places to buy your stuff, but I go with a website called eHobbies. They have lots of experience working with teachers and youth groups and work with several manufacturers. I bought rockets, engines, and launching equipment made by Quest Aerospace. They even have starter kits put together for teachers who want to start a rocketry program.

If it seems intimidating, don’t worry. It’s not brain surgery, only rocket science.

I have a rather obsessive pattern of learning new things. I only started learning about QR codes a few weeks ago and I’ve already discovered two exceptional tools for using the fancy phone-candy.

The first is an all-around awesome site from popular QR-code reader Kaywa. This easy-to-use site creates QR codes that generate text, SMS messages, phone numbers or links. The text option alone has dozens of possibilities: creating stickers of questions to put into the margins of books or label a class library. Remember the tests we used to make using colored cellophane that reveals answers? This could make a fantastic 21st century spin on an old idea.

For example: What year did Wisconsin become a state?

Answer correctly and get a jelly bean!

You could also easily add links to paper books that connect students to online material, just as you add links to web pages. Instantly you could make every book a ‘smart book’ by connecting it to online resources.

For example: This could easily be attached as a label to the back of Little Women:

The second resource comes from Classtools.net, and is an automatic QR code scavenger hunt maker. It makes a great introductory activity for students. Just pop in questions and it creates QR codes to post around your school. The site also has great additional resources.

Butterfuel?

Had a really fun activity this week; not exactly technology, but it was a really fun science lesson on alternative fuels.

We had just finished a unit in science on alternative energy. Being that all my students are burgeoning gear-heads, they were most interested in biodiesel. Biodiesel is a very broad term for diesel fuel that is at least partly made from natural oils such as vegetable oil. We decided that we were going to brew up a batch. Sort of.

I started by asking my students what we have a lot of in Wisconsin. Overwhelmingly the answer was dairy cows. Oil is basically a fat, and milk (especially Wisconsin milk—this is home to the happiest cows in the world) is anywhere from 3% to 5% fat. If you let that fat rise to the top, you can skim off cream, giving you cream and skimmed milk.

Now cream is about 40% fat, much better, but still a long way from being pure enough to burn. As any visitor to Colonial Williamsburg will tell you, you can then take that cream and churn it to make butter and buttermilk. The buttermilk can be used for pancakes, and the butter is now 80% fat. But it still has too much water to burn.

Here comes the fun part. You heat up the butter and allow all the water in it to boil off, paralleling the distillation process of oil refining, but in reverse.  After about 30 minutes, when your room smells like butterscotch, you have pure, 100% golden butterfat, also known as clarified butter, or ghee to fans of East Indian cooking. And ghee burns…. 

Powered by saturated fat.

Next year we’ll see if we can’t get some corporate sponsorship (hello, Paula Deen!) to feed a steam turbine on the stuff and charge up a go-kart battery.

I was first introduced to the idea of genetics when I was a high school freshman in biology class. I found the idea of recessive and dominant traits fascinating. It was also reassuring that the things that made me weird (being able to roll my tongue, my hitchhikers’ thumb, being the only blue-eyed child in my family) were not really my fault. They were my grandmother’s fault.

Now, I find Mendel Squares fascinating; my students, not so much. However, they are of an age where things like hair color, eye color, and all those inherited traits are becoming more interesting to them. Most of my students are also farm kids and so the breeding of animals is something talked about, even if the logic behind it is unclear.

Enter a great game that I was only able to touch upon in an earlier post: Thingdom. A game created by The Science Museum in London, Thingdom was created to teach children about genetics in a very approachable and fairly age-appropriate way.

The game is simple enough. You create a small, multi-colored blob-shaped creature called a ‘thing’ and then slowly raise it up like a virtual pet; feeding it, petting it, and making it dance. The real fun happens at around 5 minutes when the little bugger screams out: “I WANT TO MATE!” With cute little hearts all around.

After the giggling has passed, the science starts. You are challenged to breed your ‘thing’ with other things in order to get a desired trait from the babies, such as stripes, blue color, or size. Children are shown how recessive and dominant traits combine to increase the chances of traits. Students are not allowed to proceed until they have completed such tasks as breeding a thing to have large size, fuzzy fur, or spots. This explains to students in a fun, age-appropriate way how children inherit traits from their parents. It also helps explain such questions as how human meddling created both the Great Dane and the Chihuahua.

Shortcuts

I am descended from the dairy-men of Wisconsin, perhaps the most stubborn people in all the world. My father remembered getting electricity in the barn for the first time; in the mid-sixties. They only used one lightbulb because there was a fear that too much light would spook the cows. Years later, my father got eye surgery on only one eye, because he wanted to try it out for a year before he committed to this new-fangled Lasik thing and risked his good eye.

I must have inherited some level of that stubbornness because I did not immediately jump on the QR code bandwagon. It seems far too gimmicky, something put together to promote movies and sell coupons for laundry detergent. Certainly not something I could see being used I my classroom.

But my mind changed a little when I came across an issue last week where I wanted to easily link to a bunch of files on my Dropbox account. Dropbox added a great feature a few weeks ago that lets you share any file you have just by right-clicking it and selecting ‘get link.’ This is great for me, because now when I want to send videos or whole files to a group of people, I don’t have to muck around finding a website to host them all or even worry about if my audience has Dropbox.

The only problem is that the link to the file is really long, so long that I would have to email it or link it on my blog, not something that I could easily put on a business card or a worksheet. So then I turned to a great URL-shortening service called Goo.gl. It takes a long web address and makes it into a much, much shorter one. It also, for some reason, gives you a QR code. Copy and paste that code into a business card, put it into a PowerPoint, or attach it to a flyer, and you have instant file distribution. This comes in handy if you have a classroom full of iPads or other tablets in a BYOT (bring your own tech) environment. Want students to download today’s homework, or view a video? Using a shortened URL or a QR code can help make that easier.

I wrote in a previous article about a project in which my students and I got a bunch of old, donated desktops, took them apart and rebuilt them into ‘frankencomputers’ running various forms of Linux, my favorite being Puppy Linux because it’s easy to install on even the oldest computers.

Recently, though, the pile of old computer parts that I had been building in one of the back rooms came the attention of the custodians and I was forced to clean house. Needless to say, my mess has been relocated, at least partly, to my classroom. Then, about two weeks ago, during our classroom spring cleaning, I ordered my students to set up one of the computers permanently on a lark. It was dubbed the ‘farm truck computer’ by my students.

Taking the farm truck computer for a spin

For those not in a rural district, most homes have two trucks: the ‘new truck,’ or the truck that you take into town and use on vacation to tow your boat; and the ‘farm truck’ or the beat up old truck that used to be the new truck. The farm truck is the one that you don’t bother washing, usually because soap would only wash off the protective layer of dust holding the all the rust together. To give you an idea of what one of these trucks is worth, my father once bought a load of hay for his hobby farm and the farmer threw in a farm truck to sweeten the deal. But every country kid knows that the farm truck is also a lot of fun, you don’t have to be nice to it, you can drive it through snow banks, grind the gears to your heart’s content, straight pipe the exhaust and grind the gears right down. If you happen to kill this truck, no one would miss it.

So it was true with our computer, a ten-year-old Dell running an OS off a CD. No one would miss it. It was a simple machine meant to tool around on. But you know what? It’s been great! The machine does only a few things, but it does them well; it gets on the internet, runs Flash (which is more than I can say for my iPad), and gives a place in my room for students to take their AR tests or look up their spelling words. But, it’s also so boring and slow that they can’t use it for anything fun. The cost of this incredibly useful little machine? $0. Every piece of its hardware was donated (as I am sure any computer repair shop would be happy to do) and the total cost of the software was $.10 for the CD the OS runs on. If it breaks down (which is unlikely) it costs the school absolutely nothing, and no one, except maybe me, would miss it.

Maker Kids!

Last year I talked about the ‘maker’ movement, a subculture of hackers and tinkerers and DIY culture that encourages amateur innovation. Events like the Maker Faire have found champions in such names as the Mythbusters and even President Obama, who invited young Maker Faire veteran Joey Hudy and others to demonstrate their creations at the White House, leading to one of my favorite presidential photos ever:

How did this thing get past the Secret Service? (Photo: AFP/Getty Images)

The maker movement is something worth looking into. It welcomes children as a fundamental force in innovation, teaching kids about math, science, engineering, and programming through invention.

I came across two really great sites this week that can help your more tech-minded students get into invention, giving them a few great weekend projects or just a few really great science fair projects.

The first is DIY.org, a website and app designed for kids that gives them a safe, supervised place to share their creations with the world and get feedback from the online community of builders.

The second is a great video podcast called Sylvia’s Super-Awesome Maker Show. This little girl not only builds some really neat things, but in the true spirt of the maker movement shows others how to follow in her footsteps. Learn how to make your own backpack buddy, build a paper rocket, or craft your own silly putty!

I recently read an article on Wired’s Geek Dad Blog that focused on two interests of mine. The first was on crowd-sourcing, the act of taking large jobs or fundraising operations and using the power of social media to generate the funds or the manpower to make that job a reality. The second issue related to school funding, but more on that later.

Crowd-sourcing has had a lot of success with sites like Kickstarter.com that allow users to post an idea and have perfect strangers put up small contributions to help make that idea a reality. Most of these ideas are what you would expect from artsy Internet types, such as funding documentaries or comic book projects, while others are people trying to get their cake-pop business off the ground.

The author of Geek Dad, Jonathan Liu, made the point that his daughter’s school, like so many others are facing real budget cuts. Sadly, not many taxpayers are willing to vote in referendums to increase school funds if it means higher taxes during already tough times. Why then, he asks, can’t we crowd-source education and ask people to chip in to provide school programs they same way we ask them to support some guy’s idea for organic, live culture sauerkraut?

Thankfully, there is already a good answer to this issue. DonorsChoose.org allows teachers and non-profits to post their ideas for projects and requests for funding. Donors then make contributions and teachers receive a gift card to make the purchases they need. The donors get to see the results of their charity on the website and through thank-you notes written by the students that received the funds.

Next time you‘re thinking of selling magazines or holding a bake sale, remember that there are people out there who care about education, perfect strangers who are willing to help out. Give DonorsChoose a shot. What have you got to lose? And if you have had success with DonorsChoose, tell us in the comments!

Tag Cloud