Sunday, October 26, 2014

Subversive Professional Development

This year I have a new job. I'm still at Divine Child High School, but now I am overseeing our 1:1 iPad initiative. This year all of our freshmen have iPads. Next year it will be freshmen and sophomores and we will keep adding a class a year till the entire student body is 1:1. I'm not planning on going into any of the technical details nor do I plan on starting a debate about the best device for a 1:1 deployment. I want to talk about the educational side of my new job.

Besides being responsible for the technical aspects I'm also responsible for staff professional development. I want to share one of the projects I've been helping with. Most of our 9th graders take a class we call Integrated Science. The teachers of this class has never been particularly satisfied with the textbook offerings from the big publishers. So I convinced them to look at what ck-12 has to offer.

ck-12 makes free Creative Commons textbooks. More importantly they allow teachers to take the different materials and assemble them in any way they see fit. So, basically you get to create the textbook you want to match the course you're teaching. Not only can you take the ready made materials, you can also go in and edit them. It's a great way to get started making your own textbooks without having to start from zero. I was able to convince the two Integrated Science teachers to use ck-12 rather than buy a new iPad ready textbook for this year.

I used to teach the course years ago, so I offered to help. ck-12 doesn't really seem to have a way to collaborate very easily so we split the content up. We made a different book for each unit, downloaded as ePubs and put them into an iTunes U course for distribution. Included in each unit in iTunes U are all the other documents and assignments students might need.

From the teaching standpoint having a textbook you made yourself is awesome. However, one problem is you don't have all the associated support materials assembled for you already. For this we are using Google Drive. We have a folder called "Integrated Science Teachers Manual" where we put in the unit overviews and skills/standards and such.

I volunteered to create the first unit for a couple of reasons. The first is that I know a lot more about Astronomy than either of the other teachers, but I also wanted to create a model for them to see what was possible. I tried to make the first unit as student centered as possible with assignments designed to make students use their iPads as both learning and content creation tools.

I call it Subversive Professional Development because the teachers involved have had to get much better at using Google Drive, they've had to learn to build a course in iTunes U, and have had to learn more about the possibilities afforded by having a room full of iPads, all without any formal training sessions. They've also gotten a chance to see how open ended student centered assignments can drive education. My next goal is to track their progress and see if they can keep this up through the rest of the school year.

One of the best parts about this whole process is I've heard from some of the other teachers that they may want to do the same thing once their students have iPads. Needless to say, I am very excited by this prospect. Some teachers in my building are beginning to see that they themselves can dictate their curriculum and use a textbook to support that curriculum rather than the other way around.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Getting Started with 3D Printing - Lets make something

OK, it’s been a couple of weeks since my last post. I’ve decided to do an instructional post to break things up a little. One of the projects I had my physics students work on last year was an engineering/design problem. I simply asked them to create an accessory for their cell phones. This idea was not original to me, but I honestly can’t remember where I got it from.

In order to actually make their own accessories my students needed some sort of program to create a 3D model. Our school doesn’t currently have drafting or CAD classes, so I was left with only a few options. We have no CAD software and even if we did, my students wouldn't know how to use it.

I settled on cloud based solution, Tinkercad, for my students. Tinkercad is very simple, which also means it lacks many functions you’d expect in a traditional CAD program. It is also run in the cloud so it can be slow at times, but on the plus side if your computers have Chrome there is also nothing to install. This can be a huge plus in an educational environment. I use Tinkercad at least in part for almost all my 3D printing projects.

The basic idea behind Tinkercad involves building models by joining together simple shapes. Shapes can either be solids or holes. It seems like this would be a difficult way to create anything, but as it turns out you can create some very useful models with this very simple idea.

I originally found this phone stand on Thingiverse. I like it because it holds the phone up a little higher than most of the ones I've seen. I'll show you how easy Tinkercad is to work with by recreating it. We'll talk about the phone case in a future post.

If you have students create accounts for Tinkercad please steer them away from using their Facebook or Twitter accounts. In the past I've had a few students create accounts at home using their Facebook credentials. We block Facebook, so they were unable to access their accounts at school.

Go Back to earlier parts in the series: Part 1, Part 2

Sunday, October 05, 2014

Getting Started with 3D Printing - Part 2

This is part two in my ongoing series of articles on 3D printers for the classroom. Click here for part one.

I don't know about you, but I have virtually no training in 3D modeling software. How should a classroom teacher start with their new 3D printer? Personally, when my printer arrived I spent a lot of time looking for cool designs online. The main repository I used and still use is the Thingiverse.1

The best way to start with your new printer is to find some models that other people have created and printed successfully and print them your self. There are lots of great ones to choose from. Some of which are simply models for demonstration while others may be tools or puzzles. My printer came with two spools of plastic. I burned through them and called it professional development. I really did learn a lot from this. You should probably do the same thing. Print stuff because you think it might be fun, useful, or you just want to see how it prints. I think the nerd word for this is experiential learning.

The bottom line is, it doesn't really matter what you print. Print small stuff, big stuff, stuff with lots of small details, stuff with overhangs. Start with the default settings on your machine, then change them to see how it affects the final print. This will begin to give you a sense for what you can print and what you can't. I also kept a small scale handy so I could determine the mass of my prints and then figure out the material costs. If I buy a 1 kg spool of plastic for $48, then each gram of plastic used is 4.8 cents. So a 20 gram part costs about $1 in materials.

Don't worry if you'll never use these early prints in your classes. One of the first things I ever printed was a replacement cup holder for my Ford Focus. While it had nothing to do with teaching it did begin to show me the power of having access to a 3D printer. I also got my first experience with warping2, a problem that plagued a lot of my early 3D printing.

During my learning process I did manage to print a few tools to be used for teaching, including a Macro Extension tube for my camera so I can take extreme closeups without having to buy a $400+ lens, an adapter to hold my iPhone to a telescope, an adapter for my Canon camera that works both with our telescope and our instructor microscope. But mostly I printed random stuff like an iPad sound reflector, games to play with my son, Higgs-Bosons, Pan Tail Duck call, and a bunch of other stuff.

If you feel you must print something useful try these:
  • Triangle "Missing Square" Puzzle: It's a good critical thinking exercise. Print one and play. You may have to do a little sanding to make it fit perfectly.
  • Wind Puzzle: Not sure if this one is a Bernoulli effect demonstration or some other fluid dynamics principal. Either way it's fun and my students love it.
  • Microscope Mount for iPhone 5: I modified an iPhone telescope adapter to work with our student microscopes. If it doesn't fit yours I'll teach you how to modify it in a future post.
  • One Small Step: Cool desk placard showing the first footstep on the moon on one side and the moon in relief on the reverse.
  • Lincoln Life Mask: The Smithsonian is starting to publish 3D models of their artifacts online. You can see how the presidency aged one of our greatest leaders.
  • Air Powered Rocket Car: This one presents good learning opportunities. It's the first one I printed that required "supports"3.
Back to Part 1 or Continue to Part 3.

1. Now I should say that many people have philosophical objections to the Thingiverse. Thingiverse was started by Makerbot. Makerbot had it's origins in the Open Source Hardware movement. At some point Makerbot moved away from Open Source and was later bought by Stratasys, a large traditional 3D printing company. However you feel about Makerbot's abandonment of Open Source or their later acquisition, the Thingiverse is a great place to find cool models to make.

2. Warping can happen with larger prints. The corners of the print lift off the build platform. Sometimes the part will still be usable, but more often it will not and sometimes can lead to the whole print coming unstuck resulting in a completely failed print job. I'll talk about what to do to deal with warping in a future post.

3. FDM printers build from the bottom up. For some prints you will have parts that can not be printed because there is nothing below them to hold them up. Supports are typically a series of thin "walls" added below these areas, designed to be easily broken off the final print.

Thursday, October 02, 2014

Getting Started with 3D Printing - Part 1

I’ve had a 3D printer in my classroom for a couple of years now and it is totally awesome. Last year I wrote a blogpost answering a question I received as a tweet. The question was, “What resources or designs do you wish existed for teachers/students when you got your printer?” I’ve decided to do a series of posts from an educator’s point of view to create the resource I wish I'd had when I first got my 3D printer.

There are a lot of emerging technologies that are capturing attention today. Of all of these, I think 3D printing has the most power to inspire students. I managed to get the first generation MakerBot Replicator a couple years ago and every time it’s running in the back of my classroom it acts as a student magnet. Some would just stand and watch a print run from start to finish if I’d let them. I have to say it is pretty awesome to watch an object get made seemingly out of nothingness.

When I got my printer, it cost just under $2,000. Today you can get a pretty respectable machine for under $500 and if you want to go into the $2,000 to $3,000 range you can get a really nice printer. If you’re in the market for one I would highly recommend picking up a copy of Make: Ultimate Guide to 3D Printing. The last two years Make Magazine has done a great rundown on the consumer grade 3D printers that are available. If I was going to buy a new printer, this is where I’d start.

The main thing you need to know, is there are two broad categories of 3D printers you might consider for your classroom, Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) and Stereolithography (SL). My printer does FDM so that’s what I’m familiar with and able to speak to. I really want to try SL, because it’s totally cool. The most common printers in classrooms today use FDM, but this may change in the future.

In a nutshell, Fused Deposition Modeling printers melt plastic and push it out through a nozzle like a hot glue gun. The nozzle in this case is much smaller and hotter than a glue gun, however. The printer builds the object up one layer at a time.

Stereolithography printers use a liquid resin. The resin solidifies when a light is shined on it. These printers also build an object one layer at a time, but the do so a bit differently. The light source in an SL printer will either be a laser that traces a path similar to an FDM printer or a DLP projector that will simply project an image of the whole layer at one time. Once the layer at the top of the liquid solidifies, the printer lifts the growing object and the next layer is illuminated.

If you’re looking for more resources to get you started I’d recommend:

Continue to Part 2 in the series.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Reflections from Blended Learning in the Classroom

I've been taking an online course through REMC called Blended Learning in the Classroom. As a part of the required work are a number of reflections and such. I've not been blogging much lately, so I figured I'd share some of these reflections.

Student with Whiteboard

The Prompt: Share at least one reason why creating a collaborative community within the online portion of your learning environment is important.

I may get in trouble here, but I'm going to say that creating a collaborative community within the online portion of my learning environment is not important. In the past I would have agreed that an online community was important, but in going through the beginnings of this module I found my feelings changing. This is due partly to the readings and partly to reflection on my past experiences.

Building an online community of practice has been one of the things I have been struggling with since reading Brown & Adler (2008) 5-6 years ago. The best experience I ever had with this was years ago when I used Ning to create a social network for my physics classes. This was only a partial success at best. Only a small number of students, three out of 90, really joined the community. Those students truly got a lot out of our Ning. My other students would go in only to make the required posts and responses. The next year I had only one student who tried to engage in a meaningful collaborative community online.

While I don't believe there has to be an online collaborative community in a blended class I do believe every course should include a collaborative community. As pointed out by Misanchuk & Anderson (2014) both Vygotsky and Moore and Kearsley highlight to the importance of collaboration between students. Vygotsky contends, "All higher-order functions originate as the relationships among individuals.” While Moore and Kearsley contend that learner to learner interactions are just as important as learner to content or learner to instructor interactions.

There is no real reason why, in a blended environment, that a collaborative community could not be built in the face to face portion of the course rather than the online portion. It is important to create a strong community that fosters collaboration. If this can already be done within the four walls of the classroom why do we need to force it into the online portion of the class?

I think part of the problem I've had in the past relates to the fact that all of my students see each other every day at school. The online community has always been extra. Virtually all of the community building I would like to see happen online is already happening in the face to face portion of my classes, making the online portion a bit superfluous.

There may still be some benefits to shifting community to an online environment, however. It would allow all discussions to be archived, shy students may feel more free to speak up, and all students would be able to have a voice. However, when techniques like Modeling Discourse Management (Desbien, 2002) are employed many of these concerns can be addressed in the traditional classroom removing the need for an online community.


Brown, John Seely, & Richard P. Adler. (2008). “Minds of Fire: Open Education, the Long Tail, and Learning 2.0.” EDUCAUSE Review, vol. 43, no. 1 (January/February 2008): 16–32 retrieved from:

Desbien, Dawin. (2002). Retrieved from article.pdf

Misanchuk, Melanie, and Tiffany Anderson. (2014). "Building community in an online learning environment: communication, cooperation and collaboration." Abstract. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Mar. 2014. Article.pdf