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.

Add QR codes to student login card at

UPDATE (2/1/2017): See the note at the bottom of this post.

Here is a bookmarklet that will add QR codes to the student login cards for your class.


Below is a video explaining how to use this bookmarklet.

I was recently informed by a couple teachers that the bookmarklet doesn’t work. After some investigation, I figured out why. As a security measure, new browser standards have been set that prevent many bookmarklets from working. This security measure is called a Content Security Policy or CSP. The bookmarklet will only work if you disable CSP for the page before running it.

Steps in Chrome:

  1. Install the Disable content-security-policy Chrome extension
  2. Load the printable sign in cards page at
  3. Click the disable content security policy icon to disable CSP
  4. Reload the page
  5. Use the bookmarklet as shown in the video above
  6. Click the disable content security policy icon to re-enable CSP

The Internet built my daughter an app

In May, my nine-year-old daughter suffered a stroke. The stroke weakened the left side of her body severely. However, with therapy she has managed to improve each week. Because of the stroke, she has a lot of tone in her arm. This causes her arm to pull up close to her body instead of naturally resting down and at her side. She has to make a conscience effort to put her arm down and we are frequently reminding her.

One day I got an idea. Could we use sensors to measure when her arm is up and use a vibration to remind her to put her arm down? After a little digging online, I quickly learned that the Pebble smartwatch has an accelerometer that could be used to detect orientation.

As a physics teacher, I understand accelerometers and I have a little bit of programing experience but I had zero experience with the Pebble watch. So I reached out to the community of Pebble enthusiasts and developers in the Pebble Forums. I explained my situation and asked if my idea was even possible.

What happened next was truly remarkable. Within a day, I had a response explaining that my idea was possible. By the next day, another user made me a working prototype app. I learned how to install the app on a Pebble watch that my good friend loaned me. I made adjustments to the code using an online development tool called CloudPebble.

Watch app triggers a vibration in this position
Watch app triggers a vibration in this position

Another user offered to merge the app into a watch face “so the watch doesn’t have to look like it’s only there for the stroke.” From here, things really took off. With my feedback, we added several other features such as a learning mode so the app could be used by others in similar situations.

Info screen gives us feedback
Info screen gives us feedback

This experience has shown my daughter the true power of the Internet. She saw that it is so much more than a place to consume media. The Internet allows total strangers from all over the world to work together. She learned that people will volunteer their time and skill to create new things and help others.

It is the best lesson about the Internet I could ever hope for her to learn.

Kids from the 1980s answer “What is a computer?”

Watch this clip from Sesame Street where young students from 1980s describe a computer and what can be done with one.

I love their answers:

a computer is something you write on

[with a computer you can] make designs

you can make pictures with it and it helps you read

it’s not human

[a computer doesn’t have] feelings

It can think but you have to tell it what to do, we are [doing the thinking]

By now, the kids in the video are about forty years old. They are my age. We grew up working with a computer. The focus was on what we could do with a computer. What could we write, design or create with a computer.

I wonder if today’s students have the same focus? Are we shifting from a ‘what we can do with a computer’ toward ‘what can a computer do for us’ mindset?