Camp Megan: Catapult Build

Welcome to Camp Megan, kids! Today’s campers are my niece Maddux and nephew Eli. Since this is our first day, we’re going to start simple by building a small wooden catapult. (Total ulterior motive: this project may show up in my physics classes next year.)

We’re building the Tabletop Troll from Storm the Castle. The provided directions are excellent — the kids and I found it simple to follow along just looking at most pictures.

Gather your materials


A few modifications from the pictured materials: swap wood glue out for hot glue because it bonds faster and swap twine for rubber bands cause I didn’t read the directions well enough.

What tools do we need?

We used a mitre saw, belt sander, and drill press because I have access to them in my school’s workshop. You would be fine with a mitre box and hand saw, a sheet of sandpaper, plus a drill.


Measuring provided a great opportunity to practice multiplication.

Fun math moment: I wasn’t sure I’d purchased enough wood — each kid had two 36″ pieces. Eli and I looked at the plans for the catapult and helped me modify the design to fit it all on the two pieces. In our design, the cross pieces are just 4″ long.


Eli, heading off to 5th grade next year, hesitated over the mitre saw because it’s loud and powerful. I made the first few cuts for him before he was comfortable.

When gluing the pieces together, we had trouble getting right angles, something the kids noticed right away. I used a carpenter’s triangle but it was tough to hold in place next to a hot glue joint. How would you suggest helping kids glue things “right”?


Here are the finished catapults. They take up 12″ x 4″ on the table.

Our original design called for screws, but the smallest I had split the wood, so we ditched them all together. The glue won’t hold up so next time I build these, I need to get tiny screws.

Build time

We spent 2.5 hours on this project.

Eli and Maddux test the catapults

Classroom use

I want to build a projectile motion project out of these catapults. Any readers out there want to share theirs?

My Trip to Maker Faire Bay Area: Saturday at Maker Faire

This is part 3 in a three-part series about my trip to San Francisco to visit Maker Faire Bay Area. I also write about our visit to Lick Wilmerding High School and to the Exploratorium in separate posts.

Maker Faire on Saturday

Attend Maker Faire Bay Area. We arrived half an hour before the gates opened to find hundreds already in line. (Pro tip: get there about an hour before opening time — that first hour we were there was much less crowded than later in the day.)

Highlights included:

  • tintype photography with Bruce Morton
  • Arduino projects that use force, range finding, and other sensors
  • make-and-launch air powered rockets
  • all the light-based exhibits in the dark room
  • a sidewalk chalking spirograph
  • make your own comic book button (a stack of comic books, scissors, and a few button making machines)

My three takeaways were:

  • That chalk spirograph looks like it’d be fun to build. Maybe we could work on this in the design or fabrication modules for the robotics team. Or maybe our forthcoming makers club might want to build one.
  • The build-a-rocket booth engaged a ton of kids while also allowing independent build because they posted good instructions all over the place. This kind of interactivity makes Maker Faire fun for the younger set.
  • I have a lot more learning to do surrounding Arduinos and sensors. My geocache has been in the workshop for about six months and it’s time to finish that off. Next project? Maybe a garden irrigation management system at school.

My Trip to Maker Faire Bay Area: Friday at Exploratorium

This is part 2 in a three-part series about my trip to San Francisco to visit Maker Faire Bay Area. I also write about our visit at Lick Wilmerding High School and Maker Faire Bay Area in separate posts.

Exploratorium Visit

Friday afternoon, we ventured to Pier 15 to visit the Exploratorium. Robin-Lynn, Kristin, and I spent 3.5 hours in this place and only left because they closed.

We played with all the exhibits. Ok, that’s a lie. We missed all sorts of exhibits in our short visit.


We played with light. Kristin teaches graphic design so we talked about how the primary colors of light differ from pigment. This simple shadow demo was fun.

Kristin and I joked around with this illusion of flying. From her POV, the effect could be quite convincing. From mine, it was mostly hilarious.

kristin mirror 2 kristin mirror

Robin-Lynn and Kristin made art at a huge swinging table. We wondered what it would take to recreate back in Atlanta — could it be scaled down?


The last thing we saw was also the best. A replica of a portable tent-based camera obscura:


To give a sense of scale, the door on the right is about 2m tall.


An aperture in the ceiling of the tent must’ve held a mirror to redirect light down onto this white table. Kristin didn’t mess with exposure much on this photo — the door was letting light in AND the obscura’s image was still vibrant.

This Feynman quote on the wall at Exploratorium belongs on our school walls:

I wonder why. I wonder why.

I wonder why I wonder.

I wonder why I wonder why

I wonder why I wonder!

At the Exploratorium, like at Lick, I made note of a few takeaways for my own practice. Here you go:

  • A reminder to always open with the hook, the thing of interest. We saw a gravity-powered calculator that could find square roots and a parabolic mirror that focused heat as well as light. Both would be great demos to show in my own physics classes.
  • We can totally build a tent-based camera obscura in August. Meghan and Kristin say they’re down for the attempt. I think we need to use heavy canvas or something like velvet that’s light-tight.
  • Exploratorium has a ton of free resources online that I need to explore: Geometry Playground, several iPad apps that I could use in the classroom — Sound Uncovered is one, and Snacks — aa way to create classroom versions of the most popular exhibits.

My Trip to Maker Faire Bay Area: Friday at Lick Wilmerding

This is part 1 in a three-part series about my trip to San Francisco to visit Maker Faire Bay Area. I also write about our trip to the Exploratorium and Maker Faire Bay Area in separate posts.


Last week, as we wrapped up classes on the 2014-15 year, my school sent me with two other teachers to Maker Faire Bay Area. The three of us are part of our school’s STEAM professional learning community. Our visit was meant to further our cross-curricular work with this great group of teachers. I liked how the three of us available for the trip were from different departments — it helped me experience all this great stuff through their eyes.

The three of us had tickets to the Faire, plans to visit a high school, and time carved out to see the Exploratorium science museum.

My colleagues are Robin-Lynn Clemmons (math) and Kristin Brown (photography). Here we are on the walk to the Exploratorium on Friday afternoon:


My colleague liked to introduce us as “a mathematician, artist, and a physicist” while we traveled around San Francisco.

Lick Wilmerding High School Visit

When this trip came up as a possibility, I knew I wanted to visit Lick. This school is amazing! It’s over 100 years old and was originally founded as a school of the mechanical arts, meaning it has a strong vocational history. Today, Lick is an independent college prep high school in the heart of San Francisco.

Our host at Lick Wilmerding was Colleen Nyeggen. She teaches physics and engineering classes.

Picture of Colleen and Megan

Another Tweep met in real life!

The first thing you notice when you walk down to Colleen’s classroom is the huge wall of windows she has — looking out over a courtyard of similarly-appointed classrooms. When this part of the school was built, the developers dug out space so that every room would have tons of natural light. Here’s a photo from the upper level. Those double doors in the lower middle of the picture are Colleen’s classroom.

The developers dug down to create what folks call the pit area. The result? Lots of light AND greenspace at an urban school.

We toured the “shop pit” area where all the tech arts classes and her physics classroom are housed. The entire area feels industrial and productive. We observed students working on projects ranging from jewelry, electronics, and woodworking.

shop storage in the table

This is the kind of workspace I envied while visiting Lick — the spaces are airy and incredibly neat. This table holds stock for projects.

Every freshman at Lick takes a course in the tech arts (what you might call shop) called Design & Technology, culminating in a project to build a lamp. Check out the Tech Arts Department page for samples of student work.

Colleen told us that the kids learn to operate all the tools on campus during that D&T course as freshmen. When they come to her engineering class and she wants them to design bridges, they already understand how to both operate the design tools and also how to join wooden parts without glue (see below).


To make space in their curriculum for these wonderful courses, Lick doesn’t offer AP or IB courses. The teachers we spoke with said their students still get into “top” colleges and they don’t see a downside to the decision.

I’d love to build new buildings and design new curriculum based on what we saw at Lick Wilmerding. Of course that isn’t happening, so I tried to distill what I learned at Lick into actionable items for my own practice. Here are those three main ideas:

  1. If you’re gonna do projects, you need storage space for works in progress. The tech arts rooms had plenty of storage space for unfinished work. They used broad shelves and all the vertical space available. Work was kept out of the way and appeared to be un-bothered by students.
  2. A reminder to myself that I shouldn’t simultaneously teach how to fabricate a thing while trying to teach about the physics of that thing (for example, the bridge builders in Colleen’s engineering class already understood designing in wood and cut on a laser cutter before she started with them on bridge engineering).
  3. Service learning offers a purpose to a student’s practice. For instance, the kids built seating and shelving around campus.

I wonder if there’s a way to facilitate school visits — either in person or virtually. Would you like help finding a school you can visit?

Course Feedback with a Twist

Are you happy with the course feedback process in your classes? I wasn’t and set out to improve it this year.

By way of background, here are screenshots of two old feedback forms:

Screen Shot 2015-05-07 at 11.08.47 AM

Fall 2013, I wanted to speak the kids’ language. Yeah, that didn’t go over so well. Also, the feedback was mostly useless, too.

Screen Shot 2015-05-07 at 11.09.34 AM

Fall 2014, I tweaked the questions but kept the same general feedback (except for the questionable slang usage).

Unsatisfied by the prior depth of feedback I grabbed a stack of sticky notes and asked each class to respond to only one question. The question answered below is “How did the homework and quiz retake policy work out for you this year?”

We shuffled the sticky notes around the room and I asked for a volunteer to start us talking by reading the comment in her hand. We talked, for example, about the problem of off days. Kids added their own thoughts to the original note. I think we discussed my one prompt and their thoughts for about 20 minutes. Every class got a different prompt.

Keeping all the kids engaged in the discussion was tough. I’d guess that about 75% of each class wanted to join the conversation. The rest played on their computers or phones, which didn’t bother me too much.

I’m definitely doing this again. One thing I’d do different is implement this at midterm so that the kids giving the feedback might benefit from it.

Why Am I So Gay?

In this wonderful TEDx talk titled “Why am I so gay?”, Thomas Lloyd presents three reasons (no, obligations) he has to be out:

In case you missed them, there were three:

1. Obligations to history.
2. The realities of his own identity.
3. Obligations to those yet to come.

The third one hit me hardest. This kid on the TED stage was telling me that I owe it to the next generation to be out so they might find their ways more easily.

The last few years, I found myself settling into a notion of the world as post-gay. Whatever, I thought, being queer is so mainstream now. I even suggested as much to my wife, Liz, at dinner tonight. I told her that kids these days aren’t interested in seeking out LGBT representation in popular media because they can find examples so easily. Her response? “No way. Look at how often one of your kids sends you a song or a video with a queer character. They’re excited to see themselves represented.” [Edit: I realize now that the number of fan-made videos on YouTube featuring LGBT couples is also a huge indicator of teen interest.]

Thomas went on to speak about the exhaustion we feel and loss that society suffers when we try to hide our identities. I agree that our creative energies should NOT go to hiding an affect that’s been ridiculed, to worrying over the sound of our voices, or to watching the pronouns we use to describe our crush.

Ever since seeing Thomas’ talk, I wondered what my creative energies were (because I never thought of myself as creative). Then it came to me: I’m choosing to put my creative energies to helping my students find media resources that reflect their identities. With that, I introduce Teen-Friendly Queer Media, a page of movies, TV shows, and books that are appropriate for the younger LGBTQA peeps.

My School Went Gmail and I’m So Happy

[I wrote this post for faculty in my department at school then figured my friends online could use the info. Definitely check out Boomerang — it just saved my butt by reminding me of an important followup I needed to make. –Meg HG]

Here are five different tools for Gmail that might make your email life a bit easier.

Want to yank back a message you regret sending? Enable Undo Send. I enabled it with the default delay of 10 s, which I found too short — I’d never realize my mistake that quickly. User-configurable cancellation period goes up to 30 s. There is no way to pull back an email once it’s delivered to an inbox.

Looking for something? That search bar at the top can also search your files under Google Drive. Enable Apps Search, also under Google Labs.

Did you like seeing unread message counts? Enable the icon, under Google Labs.

Get an email to pop up again later with Snooze. I haven’t tried this but plan to because I used to use the “Follow Up” feature in Outlook all the time to pop up later with a “hey, doofus, don’t forget this thing you said you’d do later.”

Delay sending an email so no one knows you’re up at 3am working. Or, so that folks think you’re at school at 3pm when you’re not. Install Boomerang. I’m not using this one yet but absolutely want to delay sending emails to parents for boundary-setting reasons.

Not a Gmail thing but may help if you have trouble staying focused. Stayfocusd is a browser plugin that blocks websites you choose at times you choose. I have a 30 minute timer set on weekdays that blocks after I use up my Facebook time.

What do you want to do in email?