data sonification

Listen to the data- Literally!

Recently, I have been completely absorbed by a new topic: data sonification.

My obsession began after listening to an episode of the O’Reilly Hardware Podcast. In the episode, guest Cameron Turner explained how researchers are turning on microphones to collect and analyze sounds coming from things like air conditioner units and commuter trains.

Another example explains how we can take data and convert it into sound. Turner shares the scenario of a data center where the silent internet traffic data is converted into sound to create a system for alerts and monitoring.

If you do a little digging online, you will find all sorts of beautiful examples of data sonification. From the movement of fish to the colors used in famous paintings, data sonification is helping us find new ways to observe the world. In a recent episode of NPR’s Science Friday, you can hear how scientists are developing new ways to use this data analysis technique.

As a science teacher, I often helped students use visual tools, such as graphs and drawings, to understand the data they collected. The chance to add an audio component to help solidify student understanding interests me. I see data sonification as a way for students who are visually impaired to make new observations.

Intrigued by the idea of turning data into sound, I decided to create my own sonifications. I found a free program called Sonification Sandbox that does exactly what I needed.

In the video below, I demonstrate it in action.


3D Model of Appleton WI

I printed a 3D model of my city

I’ve seen some great models of topography at Thingiverse. Below is a model of the U.S. that I use in schools regularly.

USA Terrain

I decided to make a model for my city- Appleton WI. I used Terrain2STL to get started. It is an easy to use website that lets you select an area on Google Maps and create an STL for download.

Terrain2STL at
Terrain2STL at

From here, I could have sent the file straight to the printer but there is a problem with my city- it’s SO flat.

To make my city’s model a bit more exciting, I needed to exaggerate the elevation so we could see more of the features around the river. To make the adjustments, I used Meshmixer from Autodesk. Meshmixer is an essential multitool for modifying 3D models.

First, I adjusted the scaling in the vertical so it was 20 times larger than the longitude and the latitude by using the Transform tool in Meshmixer.

Transforming the vertical
Transforming the vertical (click image to see full size)

This made the base of the model 20 times larger too. I used the Plane Cut tool in Meshmixer to trim down the base.

Trim the base with Plane Cut tool (click image to see full size)
Trim the base with the Plane Cut tool (click image to see full size)

That’s it! I exported the file and sent it off to the printer. You can download your own copy.

3D Model of Appleton WI
3D Model of Appleton WI

Watching Out for Ads in School

Ask your students how much they paid to watch the Super Bowl on TV and you’ll probably get a whole lot of blank stares.

The Super Bowl provides us hours of sports entertainment and even has a short concert in the middle. All of this is free to anyone with a television and an antenna.

Of course, some of the adults watching understand that it’s not completely free. High stakes commercials are rolled out during the big game with the hopes that we keep brand names like Kia, Budweiser, Pepsi, Skittles, and Snickers in our minds for the rest of the year. Our entertainment world is fused with branding with the intent to make us all life-long customers.

Sometimes the branding in our entertainment gets out of hand. Some viewers cringe when product placement is jammed into their favorite story line. Others identify with their favorite character’s taste in products and begin to notice those brands in the real world. Mission accomplished for the advertisers.

TV shows like "The Walking Dead" want views to see the Hyundai brand
TV shows like “The Walking Dead” want viewers to see the Hyundai brand

TV news reporting is where things get even trickier. Journalism is supposed to inform us with unbiased facts about our world. However, we begin to question the integrity of the journalism when we sense that the reporting may have been influence by a brand.

The advertising that enters our homes can be a challenge for parents but we can turn off the TV. When advertising enters the classroom our options become murky.

Children spend a large amount of their childhood in school. Brands are unavoidable when they are promoted by teachers for the next school fundraiser or flashing in the margins of the latest digital tool that they have been assigned to use. Things get downright despicable when the lessons present students with a commercial to watch before they work through the next level of a so-called online learning game.

Advertising and learning battle for students' attention
Advertising and learning battle for students’ attention

To often, commercialism in the classroom comes down to one word: free.

Teachers, already strapped for time, take a glancing look at a free online service and push it out to students. They may even tell students to create an account with the service while overlooking the fact that the service isn’t free at all. The students are the product. The service is free because, through branding, it is helping advertisers convert our students into customers for life. The students’ information and page views are providing the funds that keeps the free service free.

These are dangerous waters for schools to be in. When a service trades even a little bit of school time to promote branding, we should question the educational integrity of that service. When a child’s learning is laced with messages of consumerism that promote the idea that happiness is reached through consumption, we should question how these messages affect the child’s well-being.

Education isn’t entertainment. Unlike the Super Bowl, students cannot leave the room for the commercials. Parents aren’t there to hit the off switch. It’s up to teachers to make sure students are on the right channel.

Moving from 2D to 3D using Tinkercad and Google Drawings

The concept of 3D modeling can be a challenge for young students. They may have little to no experience with the idea of 3D. To change this, teachers can build upon the prior knowledge students already possess.

An Introduction to Dimensions (Get these slides)

However, almost all of our students have experience with crayons, markers, and colored pencils. Creations done with these tools are done in two dimensions. Starting with a drawing is an excellent place to introduce the term dimension and the directions labeled X and Y.

The next step is to give students an experience with computer aided drawing (CAD). I like to use Google Drawings because it is free to use, easy to learn, offers a vast variety of fonts, and is already available to many schools as a part of Google Apps for Education.

Before diving into a tool like Google Drawing, I feel it is important to have a discussion with students about how the features in computer aided drawing (CAD) programs can help the creative process. For example, last year I worked with fourth graders that were creating a variety of U.S. maps. We encouraged the students to experiment with different styles and colors. The students learned that trying out different ideas in a digital drawing was much easier since it didn’t mean that that they had to start over.

To move to the third dimension, students need to move their 2D drawings into a 3D modeling tool. For 3D design, I like to use Tinkercad. It also is free and easy to use. Works created in Google Drawings can be saved as a .svg file that can be imported into Tinkercad. Once in Tinkercad, designs can be stretched in the third dimension- the Z direction. Below is a video demonstration of this process.

Fewer students feel overwhelmed when they enter gradually into the world of 3D designing and modeling. By providing students a way to transition from drawings on paper to Google Drawings to Tinkercad, they develop a foundation that often strengthens their confidence to attempt more complex designs.

Google Sheets missing full Autofill; Text Mechanic to the rescue!

Let’s say you need a long series of numbers in your spreadsheet and you are trapped on a Chromebook. Yes, I could drag down to fill but this takes way too long if you have a long list of numbers.

I hate that Google Sheets cannot do what Excel can do below:

Excel wins at Autofill
Excel wins at Autofill

Fortunately, there is Text Mechanic– a website that provides a collection of text manipulation tools that work in your browser. I used the Generate List of Sequential Numbers tool get the series of numbers I needed.

Use Text Mechanic to Generate List of Sequential Numbers
Use Text Mechanic to Generate List of Sequential Numbers

From here, I can copy and paste my list into Google Sheets and start calculating.

Text Mechanic has some other great tools too. Take a look at Find and Replace Text and Add/Remove Line Breaks. They have been a big help.

Prevent related videos at the end of a YouTube video

Do you want to show a YouTube video but hate all those ‘related videos’ that show up at the end?

Screen Shot 2014-12-02 at 9.00.47 PM


Sure you can wait perched over the pause button to stop the video before they pop up but who needs that stress.

I made a little bookmarklet to make things a little easier.

Drag the link below to your bookmark bar.

YouTube Cleaner

Pull up a YouTube video (like this one) and click the bookmarklet (now in your bookmarks) to see it in action.