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.

My digital textbook wish list

"Principles of Physics" from Kinetic Books

One study suggests that tablets, e-readers, online learning, and pricing are leading a shift that will make one out of five textbooks digital by 2014.

My physics students gave up the old paper books in 2008 when we switch to our new “text” from Kinetic Books. I’ve been quite happy with the product. The new system still provides students with traditional text but it also includes narrated animations, interactive problems, virtual labs and online assessments. Our digital text provides content in a variety of ways by helping each student learn new physics concepts in a style that works best for the individual student.

Even with their multimedia capabilities, digital textbooks have a lot of room to grow. Here are a few things I’d like to see:

  1. A system that starts with an interview of each student. It finds out what the student’s interests are and generates the book’s content around this profile. If the student plays the saxophone, then his unit on waves will feature music. Another student who likes to fish might see ocean waves as the focus of her waves unit.
  2. Open the books up for socializing. The digital books should allow students to see what other students are saying about the material as they move through a unit. Students vote up what they liked and found interesting. A student could highlight parts of her text and leave comments about that section for her teacher, just her friends or study group, her entire class or all the students in the world using the same digital book. No earthquakes in Wisconsin, that’s okay. Your friends in California can give you some perspective.
  3. Allow students to add content. Now your text comes with the stock photo of a hailstone along with the other five that were submitted by students.
  4. Collaboration is a must. Imagine laboratory investigations and projects that allow your students to have partners in another part of the world.
  5. Access the digital book anywhere. The worst thing is five digital books that run on five different platforms. I want a digital textbook that wants to be everywhere- much like magazines that have successfully gone digital. You can get content from Wired magazine via your computer, phone, iPad and TV. Textbooks should offer students the same flexibility.

Use a Wiki to create a collaborative study guide

Final exams are next week so that means many of my students are anxious about reviewing the semester. In the past, I’ve given students a packet that outlined the learning objectives for the past semester. From the students’ perspective, this is quite the passive experience.

This year I’m trying something different. I created a rough outline that students can add to, update and modify online. It is essentially a Wikipedia’ for my semester review.

Review via Wiki

I’m using the wiki that our school’s SharePoint service provides; it allows me to track what changes are being made and who’s making them. It also let’s me see which students are actually looking at the study guide.

However, you don’t need SharePoint to do this. Here are two other places you can get started with your own wiki.

Count stars, report results, collaborate worldwide

The Great World Wide Star CountNext Monday is the start of the The Great World Wide Star Count. From October 1st through October 15th, you can report how many stars are visible in your location’s night sky. With these data, this project can determine the amount of light pollution in different parts of the world.

Why do we care about light pollution? Light pollution is a strong indicator of wasted energy. Lights, contrast, and glare all impact the number of stars that are visible in a given location. Only the brightest stars are visible when there is a lot of nighttime lighting. Many people in the urban locations have never seen the Milky Way.

The project is an opportunity to encourage astronomy education and great example of collaboration via the web.

Carpool with Google’s My Maps feature

mymap2.jpgI took some time to play around with Google’s new My Maps feature. Now you can create personalized maps for just about anything. Last month I created a map for me and my wife before we set off on vacation to celebrate our ten year wedding anniversary. It really helped me plan for the trip. The map gave me a perspective of several unfamiliar locations.

Google also lets you open your map in Google Earth. If you have Google Earth installed, simply click the view_as_kml.png KML icon at the top of your map and you’re off. If you’re not familiar with Google Earth, this is an easy way to get started.

That was for fun. Now let’s put the map to work. I created a map for our science teacher organization’s upcoming board meeting. I put a pin for each person invited to the meeting with a pop-up bubble containing their role in our organization, picture and contact information (that’s why I’m not sharing this one).

With a tool like this (and current gas prices), I suspect several meeting-goers will be inspired to carpool.

Networking with Yahoo! Teacher

Brian Bartel and I finished our 52nd podcast episode for the Wisconsin Society of Science Teachers. We celebrate a year of podcasting with an interview with Derek Baird. He talks to us about Yahoo’s soon-to-be-released service Yahoo! Teachers. Yahoo! Teachers lets you create projects with other teachers and network with colleagues in your discipline.

Running Time: 18:40

Listen now:


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Show Notes:

No Time to Search—Try ChaCha

chacha Today, a student asked me if Florida had a sales tax. So I thought I’d put ChaCha to work. ChaCha is a new search engine that uses social searching.

As well as traditional algorithmic search, ChaCha offers the ability to have an on-site IM [chat] conversation with a “guide”, who will then go out and find the information for you. They’re launching with over 2500 guides, including college students and stay-at-home moms. What’s more, these users need to climb a hierarchy before they can get paid.

I typed my question into ChaCha’s and a guide began searching. When I came back they had the answer.

Give it a try . Enter a question and choose “Search with Guide.”

Stop blocking teachers

I recently stumbled upon a story at the Science Friday website. It was an interesting article about a new plane design that hopes to produce aircrafts that are super-silent and even more fuel-efficient. As a physics teacher, I thought this audio program was worth sharing with my students. I was about to download the audio program when, much to my dismay, I was blocked by our schools’ filtering software.

This is not the first time my school has blocked something that was obviously educational. It is almost a weekly occurrence for me. Some days I’m persistent; I fill out the necessary form to request that the site is unblocked but persistence takes time. As we all know, time is a precious commodity in any teacher’s day. Some days I just give up.

Where do all these restrictions come from? Much of it is related to the Child Online Protection Act (COPA), which was passed in 1998. While the intent of COPA was to protect students, it has taken the control from teachers and placed into the hands of your IT department. In my opinion, this matter is only getting worse. On July 27, 2006 the Deleting Online Predators Act (DOPA) was passed by the U.S. House of Representatives. With the fears stirred up by horror stories about sites like, this bill may require school’s to prohibit access to websites that allow online profiles, social networking, chatting and other online collaboration.

At first this may sound fine – I don’t need to chat online at work! But consider the implications. Any site that allows chatting could be blocked. This means all discussion boards, forums, and comment sections can be prohibited. Any site that allows users to create an online profile could be blocked. That would include sites like the College Board’s AP Central or even NSTA’s SciLinks. Any site that allows users to create an online journal could be blocked. This will ban any blog such as ScienceBlogs. It was the need for collaboration among scientific researchers that spawned the invention of the Internet but now science teachers and students may be locked out of this opportunity to collaborate.
We hear reports about the digital divide in this nation that explains how inner city schools are at a disadvantage because they lack the funds to purchase adequate classroom technology. I believe that this is a problem, but I also think we are overlooking a more subtle issue. The fact is that we allow ourselves to be treated like children. The students’ Internet access is our Internet access. If a teacher’s access to emerging resources is continuously restricted, it is easy see how schools will always remain at the back of the line in regards to technology.

DOPA does allow exceptions to its restrictions if the content is for adult users or educational purposes. However, it doesn’t include language that requires schools to provide systems that differentiate an adult’s access from a student’s access. I understand that we need to protect our students and in some cases overprotect them but teachers are a different story. We have the degrees, licenses and experience that show we know what is appropriate for our classrooms. We should not have to grovel to our IT departments for permission to use a certain teaching method.

DOPA will eventually go before the Senate for approval. Please contact your Senators to express your concerns with DOPA. In the meantime, go bug your IT department about technology in your classroom—we’ve all earned the right to.

Find favorite Podcasts with social networks

digg Before you start creating your own podcast, I think it is important that you first listen to a few.

To get started I’d like to recommend one of my favorite tech sites:

Digg is a user driven social content website. Ok, so what the heck does that mean? Well, everything on Digg is submitted by our community (that would be you). After you submit content, other people read your submission and Digg what they like best. If your story rocks and receives enough Diggs, it is promoted to the front page for the millions of visitors to see.

Digg is predominately a tech news website but it is moving into other areas such as politics and science. What I like best is it’s new podcast section. Digg makes it really easy to shop around for shows just for you. Watch this video to learn how.

Give Digg a try. (note: you’ll need to register to try out the podcast section. Don’t worry, it is safe and painless.)

Working together with

deliciousWhat is it? is a social bookmarking website — the primary use of is to store your bookmarks online, which allows you to access the same bookmarks from any computer and add bookmarks from anywhere, too.

Big deal. I already have Favorites.

On, you can use tags to organize and remember your bookmarks, which is a much more flexible system than folders.

Tags? I don’t get.

Tags are one-word descriptors that you can assign to your bookmarks on to help you organize and remember them. Tags are a little bit like keywords, but they’re chosen by you, and they do not form a hierarchy. You can assign as many tags to a bookmark as you like and rename or delete the tags later. So, tagging can be a lot easier and more flexible than fitting your information into preconceived categories or folders.

Some neat ways to use tags

Could I use this with students?

Friends, coworkers, and other groups can use a shared account, special tag, or their networks to collect and organize bookmarks that are relevant — and useful — to the entire group.

Let’s say I wanted my students to work together to find information on light bulbs. Each student could tag links with the same tag, let’s say “EHS-lights”.

Now we have a way to share all the links when we visit:

Get started with today