Constant Velocity Card Sort

Autumn is here one day then gone the next on campus. We’ve had this odd up/down temperature fluctuation this week, which has made for many foggy days. Monday, as I walked home, I was struck by the fog rolling in over the nearby hill and enjoyed a high of 58°F. Today, it’s 80°F and sunny. Oh, and by the way, that building on the right is the dorm where I live.

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Ok, that’s enough rambling about autumn in the Pioneer Valley. Let’s look at some physics.

My colleagues and I created a card sort for our students and the results were wonderful. The students have been working with five different representations at this point and our card sort left out only the data table. Here’s one page from the sort:

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While sorting today, students chose to work together in so many different ways. My favorite was this group that turned their sort into a kind of Go Fish game — each kid took all the cards for one representation and read off important details to ask for that card from the others. For instance, “do you have one with a velocity of +6 m/s and a starting point of -3 m?”

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Many thanks to Kelly O’Shea and Brian Frank for sharing so many card sorts over the summer. Their work inspired us to create our own.

If you use and improve ours, would you let me know? Constant velocity card sort (on Google Slides).

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A Cost-Effective Robotics Learning Platform

I’ve put together a basic two-wheeled Arduino robot platform that comes in just under $60.

I like that the chassis is aluminum so it’s reusable year-to-year. Alternatives I considered (here, here, and here) are laser cut plastic and are similarly-priced. This chassis is specifically designed to work with micro DC Motors, which are admittedly a weird size, but I love their compactness. I’m not sure how kids will attach the line sensors we’ll inevitably use at the start of the year to build a line-following robot.

The caster wheel makes for a simpler design than adding two more wheels. It’s easiest to start the kids with two-wheel drive so that the third point exists for balance only. Some robots use a swivel wheel but I find the robot sometimes get stuck with the wheel in an awkward position.

The Adafruit Motor Shield has been flexible for my entire year of robotics. We’ve also used the SparkFun Motor Driver Shield, which tops out at 2 DC motors.

Here’s the parts list:

Pololu Wheel 60×8mm Pair for FEETECH FS90R/FT90R Micro Servo – Black
Anodized Aluminum Metal Chasis for a Mini Robot Rover
Pololu Ball Caster with 3/8″ Plastic Ball
DC Motor in Micro Servo Body (x2)
Adafruit Motor/Stepper/Servo Shield for Arduino v2 Kit – v2.3
Adafruit METRO 328 Fully Assembled – Arduino IDE compatible – ATmega328

Do you have suggestions or improvements?

Most Fun Exam Ever? Robotics Class

Alternate title: Forget blue books, we’ve got heat guns

It’s time for the winter trimester exams. Given that robotics is a new prep for me, I’ve carefully considered what my exam should look like. My design goals were roughly as follows: 1) mirror the type of learning we’ve done this year, 2) but not rehash old material, 3) uphold my emphasis on deferring to the documentation, and 4) be achievable by a range of students in about 2 hours.

Below is the exam as I’ll give it to the students. At the end is a video demonstrating my thermometer (which will *not* be given to the students).

Objective

Create a thermometer that reads and displays the temperature.

Detailed requirements:

  • display the temperature on a physical scale in °C
  • distinguish temperatures to a resolution of 5°C (as in, the user should be able to tell 25°C from 30°C)
  • run a self-test on startup to show the thermometer’s possible range of values (as in, hit the lowest temp on your scale and the highest on startup)

Provided Equipment20180304_142436.jpg

  • servo motor
  • digital temperature sensor and pull-up resistor
  • breadboard with plenty of jumper wires
  • Arduino Uno compatible board with USB cable
  • paper, pen, ruler, scissors, tape
  • heat gun

Permitted Resources

  • You may use any resources of your choosing, with one exception — no consulting with live humans. This means internet searching is allowed but emailing a friend is not.
  • You may borrow sample code from the internet, so long as you cite it and link to the source.

Submission Guidelines

Please submit a Google Doc writeup of your finished product.

  • Introduction that explains the project and gives photos of the finished product (60% of the points) & a video (or link) in which you fully demonstrate the thermometer (10% of the points)
  • Describe how the digital temperature sensor works (in terms of the scientific principle it operates on) (10%)
  • Your commented code (15%)
  • Wiring diagram or description (5%)

Student Submissions

Open Thread: Teacher Pro-Tips

What’s your favorite, probably under-appreciated teacher advice?

Here’s mine:

Hole punch every paper you give students.

Copying a quiz? A class assignment? Whatever it is, put holes in it for their 3 ring binders before you hand it to the kids. Their organization will be miles better.

What’s yours? Put ’em in the comments.

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Symbols From the LGBT Movement

I led a workshop for students to highlight moments from the (US) LGBT Movement (since 1950). Students had a chance to look at protest buttons, signs, and logos as well as read a few sentences about each. We then arranged them on a timeline and discussed them — I was fortunate to be joined by several adults & students with significant experiences with the timeline. The workshop closed with students making their own modern-day-old-fashioned-protest buttons.

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The 1970s section of the timeline we created during the workshop.

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How is it possible that as a country, we’ve achieved virtually none of these platform points from the 1979 March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights?

Make a copy or explore my slides or view the slides below.

We had amazing questions from curious kids:

  • How did it happen that lesbians, gays, and bisexuals came to work with transgender people? The first category is about sexuality and the other is about gender.
  • What does pansexual mean?
  • What happened to you if you told during Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell?
  • If gays are men and lesbians are women, how come this Ellen picture says “Yep, I’m gay”?

The LGBT kids who attended told me they appreciated the chance to learn their history (my main goal). The non-LGBT kids, that they had a chance to ask some questions and generally learn something new. I’m eternally grateful for the opportunity to teach those 40 students about LGBT history.

Build a Mobile

My classes just wrapped up studying balance. Students built (metaphorical) models to describe their understanding of center-pivot balance as well as off-center and massed-beam balance.

The project I assigned them was to build a mobile with a group of three or four members that both reflects who they are as individuals and is centered on some theme that unites them. Here are a few of my favorite mobiles.

EmojiMobile

“Emoji” shown next to the mobile diagram submitted by one team member. This mobile used relatively light weights and intriguing balance points (often quite far off center) to create the most interesting looking product in class. Nice attention to detail, the end product is pleasing to the eye, and the students all could demonstrate why it balanced.

 

BlackAndWhiteMobile

“Black and White” was a unique approach because instead of tying off masses, the team used clothes pins. The mobile was infinitely adjustable and pretty much was a rock-solid construction.

InitialsMobile

“Clay Figures” used a combination of materials, but especially clay, to share their interests. Fun fact about using clay to balance a mobile — as the clay dries, the balance can be thrown off as happened here. Two weeks later and most levels of the mobile are no longer balanced.

Materials:

  • 1/4″ and 3/8″ wooden dowels
  • A variety of string/twine/small diameter rope
  • Lightweight materials that can become masses on the mobile — don’t exceed 2kg overall if you expect to hang the thing in your classroom

What order should I have done this in? I saw two options:

Math first, building second: students draw a mobile, decide on which masses and will go where. Confirm that it should balance theoretically. Then get out the materials and build.

Building first, math second: students create a balanced mobile by trial and error. Then, apply the model of balance they created earlier in the course to prove why it balances.

We did option 2 and I was partially satisfied with the results. Several students reflected afterwards that they’d have preferred option 1 because they would’ve had an easier time building (that’s debatable, I think).

How to Get Hired in an Independent School

untitled-drawing1This is part of a three part series about the hiring process in independent schools from several perspectives. This post tells my hiring story as a physics teaching candidate. John Burk shares two posts:

Advice for a physics job seeker from someone who just helped to hire three — gives John’s advice to teaching candidates as someone who evaluated applicants to for his physics openings last year.

Some thoughts on running a physics teacher search — how John conducted his search for physics teaching candidates last year.


I’ve taught in both public and independent schools over the past fourteen years. A surprising part of my experience has been how different the hiring processes are. This post will walk you through my own recent independent school job search. I share this in the interest of explaining the process should you ever be a teaching candidate at an independent school.

Let’s start where many stories do, at the beginning.

November: Resume & Outlining My Search

In November, I first considered moving out of state but only if the job opportunity was amazing. I loved the school I was in and didn’t need to go anywhere.

I updated my resume, lined up references, and contacted a search firm. I recommend having three references handy. It’s always tricky if you’re not ready to tell your current employer that you’re looking. If you’re heavily involved in #MTBoS or other online networks, consider a reference from that world.


Pro-tip: Keep your resume current. Better yet, post your resume on your personal website and review it annually.

Bonus pro-tip: Consider putting section at the top of your resume that says, “ask me about my favorite topics.” It’s a chance to list keywords that can start conversations. For instance, Twitter and blogging professionally are important to me and nearly every interviewer has asked me about these.


While I went with a search firm, you don’t need to. You can also search a variety of job postings in a relatively few number of spots. Here are some that I know of and like:

If you’re on Twitter, reach out to teachers in the region(s) you’re considering. Find out the names of the schools in the area and their reputations. See if you know anyone at these schools. Use your network!

From the outset though, I had to overcome some serious impostor syndrome. It’s weird, too, because on a day-to-day basis, I feel pretty good about my teaching. When I started looking around, several job postings seemed out of my league. Because I didn’t attend a prep school, it was easy to think working in one wasn’t for me. I’m here to tell you, independent schools want to hire physics teachers from a variety of backgrounds. In fact, “didn’t attend a school like ours” could be exactly what the school is looking for. For example, you stand to bring in fresh ideas, a diversity of viewpoints, and a chance to connect uniquely with students.

Generally, though, they’re looking for you to have a Bachelors in physics, engineering, or a related field. If you’ve been teaching awhile, they’d like you to hold a Masters, too. I haven’t encountered any resistance that my Masters is in teaching, not science. Government teaching credentials are pretty much never required in independent schools.

To recap, November was about getting my resume ready and figuring out what type of school I was looking for.

December: Job Postings & Phone Interviews

In December, I began to see postings that interested me. I narrowed my interests and started talking to schools in phone interviews.

The phone interview (sometimes a Skype interview) is typically about half an hour long and acts as an initial screener for the school. They’re looking to decide which finalists to bring to campus for a full interview.

As a candidate, my goal in the phone interview was to get a feel for the working environment. Sometimes the phone interview will be with an individual and other times with a search committee. Often, you’ll be speaking with someone in the science department.

Definitely prepare questions for the phone interview. My phone interview questions included:

  • How do teachers collaborate on planning?
  • Does your school have a GSA (Gender and Sexuality Alliance)?
  • What does life look like for a transgender student at your school?
  • What is the duty structure? (I was interviewing exclusively at boarding schools where duties are a significant part of the job.)
  • What is the teaching load?
  • Tell me about the pedagogy of the “average” teacher in your department. What do the extremes look like? (As a left-of-center teacher, I want to know that my approach to teaching will both be welcomed and that I won’t be the most extreme in the department.)

After I got off of my phone interviews, I realized that even the fanciest schools in the country still saw value in me — a public school educated kid from the middle class. This is a great moment to suggest to others from a similar background this: many prep schools are looking to hire a diverse faculty. If you’re wondering why a fancy school unlike anything you ever attended would even be interested in you, consider that could be exactly why they’re interested you.

January: The On-Campus Interview

I was invited to campus to interview in mid-January. If your trip requires travel, the school will pick up the tab.

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Fact: Every great interview outfit involves a bowtie.

Chances are, you’ll have at least six different appointments around campus plus be asked to teach a sample lesson. It’s not uncommon to meet with the head of school, dean of students, director of diversity, athletics director, human resources and a group of teachers in the department where you’re interviewing.


Dress code pro-tip: Look up photos from the school on social media. Seek out the faculty in these photos to see how they dress.


When you get your schedule, research the people you’re interviewing with. Find something about them or their office on the school’s website. For instance, I prepped for my conversation with the director of inclusion by learning what affinity groups are offered and come in ready to ask specific questions about their GSA. Some folks will have social media presences and it’s a huge compliment to say “Tell me more about what you said on your blog last week.”

Some interview questions I was asked stand out in my memory:

  • What’s the last thing you read?
  • What three words would your students/colleagues use to describe you?
  • Why are you leaving your current situation?
  • Why are you interested in our school? (Do your homework on the school so you can give a detailed answer — what are they known for? what is their mission statement? what extracurricular programs do they have that you’re into? what technology is available?)
  • What questions do you have? (y’all, this is probably the most important — be ready with some. I like to ask about how collaborative the department is and how the school as a whole supports LGBT students)

Also, it’s vital to come with your own interview questions. Here are a few to start you off:

  • What caused this position to open up?
  • Tell me about the teaching philosophy in this department.
  • What are the extracurricular expectations here?

The on-campus interview is exhausting and repetitive.


Interview pro-tip: Have elevator pitches ready so that you can tell similar stories all day. When the group comes together to discuss you, hopefully they’ll have some common experiences. For example, I talked about how I was looking to move because I’ve been in Atlanta all my adult life and am ready to see a new region of the country.


The Sample Lesson

Many schools ask prospective teachers to present a sample lesson to a group of students or other teachers. You will likely be given a topic.


Sample lesson pro-tip: Ask if they can give you a recent homework assignment so that you can make sure you hit the right difficulty level.


Choose a lesson that highlights who you are as a teacher. My thing is hands-on, experiential education — students make things in my classes. So when choosing sample lessons, I choose small projects to build. My sample lessons include the battery/bulb/wire challenge and building a timing circuit using a 555 timer chip and capacitors. (What is it with me and getting electricity sample lessons?)

The benefit of my hands-on sample lessons is that they put the spotlight on how I interact with students over how I lecture. Even with kids I’ve just met, I’m better at relating than I am at lecturing on any topic.

What’s your thing?

My interview committees have generally appreciated seeing how I relate to students over my academic chops. Something to keep in mind.

Thank You

Show appreciation. I take cards with me and write thank you’s on the plane ride home. Send an email thank you immediately and send the card when you arrive home.

The Hiring Timeline

The interview process will vary school to school but know that the independent schools generally lock in their new hires earlier than the public schools. Other points of note:

  • Hiring season is approximately January through March.
  • Boarding schools like to fill their open positions early in the season and all independent schools usually like to go on spring break having made most of their job offers.
  • Public schools, on the other hand, generally hire later in the year — usually interviewing February through May.

Use Your Network

My network was a huge help in this process. Big shout outs specifically to three people who were huge helps in my job search. Seriously, guys, thank you.

Reach out to your network, both local, and online. We’re here to help you find the job that’s right for you.

Good luck. You got this.

By the way, my search ultimately led me to small-town New England, where I couldn’t be happier. Where will your search take you?

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I was seriously asked last week if I had a coat because “winter is coming.” I don’t think the asker was a Game of Thrones fan, either, just concerned for my ability to survive a New England winter.