Can We Build Hover Shoes?

Almost eight years ago, I was teaching a technology class to 6th graders — we dabbled in introductory programming, robotics, and debunking internet myths.

When the kids[1] saw the Household Hacker’s video “How to Build Hover Shoes“, they asked to give it a try. So I ordered the necessary materials and one kid donated a pair of shoes to the cause.

Soon after, we got to work — laying out the magnets, plugging in the soldering iron, locating a battery, a glue gun, and all. It didn’t take long before we were playing the sad trombone *wah, wah, wah*.

“Why Megan[2]? Did the internet lie to us?” they wanted to know. Looks like the Internet had given me the biggest teachable moment of my career!

The result was this charming video the kids wrote and produced themselves.

So, to Ryan, Peter, and Stephanos — I’m proud of y’all and I hope you’ve stayed curious.

[1] The school was tiny, and so was this class — just three kids.

[2] And it was also the kind of school where kids call teachers by their first names.

The Physics of the Challenge Course

This is the story of how I worked with other faculty to develop a project rich in physics, service learning, and experiential education. My colleague, also named Meghan, asked if I’d like to design a project with her that met these goals:

  • build empathy through addressing diversity in physical ability
  • learn the physics of forces through examples at the challenge course
  • design, analyze, and present building plans for new accessible elements

How would you re-present Islands so that someone in a wheelchair could participate?

On the first day of the project, we took the entire class out to the challenge course where we have four elements up for study. The objectives were twofold: 1) experience the element and 2) consider ways that those various physical limitations might not be able to participate in the element as implemented.

For homework, I had students read about types of forces and draw a force diagram of some interesting part of their Challenge Course experience.

Screen Shot 2017-03-01 at 7.24.08 AM.png

Here’s a student’s first stab at identifying the types of forces at play in her Nitro Swing experience.

And finally, I’ll adapt my lessons and examples about types of forces to include the challenge course examples. So, for instance, I’ll be sure to explain torque so that the students working on the Whale Watch (teeter totter looking thing below) and others on Islands can see how the physics works.

Finding balance in physics.

A post shared by Megan Hayes-Golding (@megtheteach) on

Student Version of the Project

The big questions: How does the challenge course work, according to physics? How can the elements be universally designed so those with a range of physical abilities may be full participants.

The learning goal: Understand and apply knowledge of forces through the study of the on-campus challenge course. You’ll work on a team to redesign an element that’s accessible by those with physical handicaps.

Tull Hall Challenge Course

I’m sharing videos of the challenge element being facilitated from start to finish. I find it useful to watch for how other groups go about solving the challenge as well as looking for spots where a physical impairment would make participation impossible.

  • Islands: move your team to the other side of the element by building bridges from provided boards that are too short at first glance.
  • Nitro: move your team to the other side of the element using a rope swing that’s just out of your reach.
  • Whale Watch: balance your team on the element in various challenges.
  • Challenge Wall: get everyone on your team up and over a wall that’s over 12 feet tall.


  • The Video: Your team will submit one video. One team member will be designated team lead on this part of the project and is presumed to have done the bulk of the video work, though everyone is expected to contribute.
  • The Proposal: Your team will submit a written proposal. One to two team members will be designated team leads on this part of the project and are presumed to have done most of the proposal work.
  • The Presentation: Your team will make a presentation to the Discovery Faculty in which you summarize your video and written proposal. One team member will be designated team lead for this part of the project and is presumed to have done most of the work on it.

Submissions Should Include

Your video and proposal must address all of these questions. Your presentation should address only those you feel are most important.

  1. Introduction
    1. Element name (include alternate names if applicable) and several photos of it.
    2. What’s the team-building point of your element? In other words, what is it supposed to teach a team? Be specific.
    3. What’s the trick to solving your element? In other words, what’s a team got to realize to succeed?
    4. Show us the element in action. Definitely show people working toward a solution on it, and people failing at it in all the common ways folks will do.
  2. What’s the solution for your element? Is there more than one?
  3. Fully describe the applicable physics behind your team’s element. You’ll be working with either Islands, Nitro, the Challenge Wall, or Whale Watch.
    1. Explain via free body (aka, force) diagrams
    2. Good challenge course elements have high perceived risk and low actual risk.
      1. What are the actual risks we must protect against? What sort of injuries could occur if we don’t?
      2. What is the perceived risk in this element? How can we heighten this sense of doing a risky thing so the challenge is more authentic and thrilling?
  4. How will you adapt your element so those with physical handicaps can participate?
    1. What mobility issues will you adapt for?
    2. How does the physics change? How does it stay the same?
    3. Is there anything else in the challenge course area that could be a potential challenge/hazard for the client you are designing for? What suggestions would you make to the Discovery team/Westminster do to address these challenges/hazards?

The Challenge Wall


Some of the best we could find but by no means complete:

Conflict Resolution / Equitable Work Expectation

Group work can be a challenge to participate in. When a team member doesn’t contribute, it can leave the remaining folks resentful at having to do the slacker’s job. Then the slacker gets credit without earning it. It’s not fair so I expect everyone to pull their weight in the project.

In an effort to allow a group to work as a team as well as keep everyone accountable, you’ll submit a project survey at the end where you’ll rate & rank your teammates’ contributions. Please attempt to resolve team conflicts among yourselves but know that you can bring your concerns to me.

Grades for the video, proposal, and presentation are group grades UNLESS significant team conflict is brought to my attention, in which case you’ll be graded on the portion of the project you led.


Making & DIY Culture: A JanTerm Course

This January, I’ll be co-teaching Making & DIY Culture, a JanTerm course at my school. Today I’m sharing the projects my teaching partner and I have chosen for 2017. The course is 18 days long, students take one course in that time, and we have several field trips planned in addition to these projects. I want to stress that pretty much every project here is something we found online. Links in the titles.

Wooden Crate

The project: Build a small crate using hand and power tools.

Why we chose it: This project serves a utilitarian purpose — students need a crate to hold parts while other builds are in progress and overnight. We also want to teach them to use the mitre saw, a hammer, and a drill.


Toy Take Apart

The project: Cut open and disassemble mechanical toys such as Tickle Me Elmo. Learn how they work. Reassemble working components into something else.

Why we chose it: We first learned of the Toy Take Apart from our lower school Design Thinking teachers but weren’t sure last year how the big kids we teach would respond. Yes, it was that popular. Kids hack apart mechanical toys to find motors, gears, speakers, and voice boxes. We challenge them to then reassemble those components into something totally new.


Plush Monsters

The project: Use Arduino LilyPad platform and felt to stitch a working circuit inside of a small plush toy.

Why we chose it: These little guys are so precious, they speak to a different type of maker than the more famous electronics or woodworking projects, and we get to to teach kids to sew. Side note: the most challenging part of this project last year was teaching 15 year olds to thread a needle. Who knew?


Glass Cutting & Etching

The project: Repurpose and personalize empty glass bottles into drinking glasses or candles.

Why we chose it: I’ve been dying to try this, so we added it. After a schoolwide wine bottle drive, we’re ready with over 100 empties (English teachers drink more than the rest of campus, combined, btw). My teaching partner and I have tested parts, but not all, of this project — which makes her nervous and me excited to finally get a personalized drinking glass.


PVC Trebuchet

The project: Build a working tabletop trebuchet out of PVC.

Why we chose it: We want kids to have some experience working with PVC and everyone loves a trebuchet project.


Arduino 8×8 LED Matrix

The project: Solder up a working LED matrix that’s controlled from an Arduino.

Why we chose it: It’s Arduino, a platform I love. Sure, LED matrices are available pretty cheaply but it’s got just enough soldering and Arduino programming in it to be interesting.


Raspberry Pi Photo Booth

The project: Brighten up parties with a photo booth based on the Raspberry Pi platform.

Why we chose it: Because Raspberry Pi was missing from the course and it’s a popular platform for makers, the end product is usable by our school community, and it scales fairly well to a group of 4 students. We plan to split the group so 2 kids work on the RasPi and 2 work on the housing & props.


Thrift Store Lamp

The project: Design and build a lamp out of nontraditional materials. Given $10 in thrift store materials and a make-a-lamp kit, can our students make a whimsical and usable lamp? Fingers crossed.

Why we chose it: This is our final project and pulls together several skills we taught during the course. It’s also our first time giving the kids so much flexibility with the design process.


Answer-Dependent WebAssign Questions

WebAssign is the most flexible question-writing engine I’ve ever seen. Today, I want to share how I whipped WebAssign into submission yet again.

I wanted to make a question where students self-report which type of musical instrument they built and the rest of the question asks them about that instrument. After looking up answer-dependent questions, I learned the documentation suggested they were for numerical values only. Writing my question took some wrangling but everything was documented (thanks, anonymous WebAssign tech writer!). Here’s the end result, an answer-dependent non-numerical question:


The question is shared on WebAssign under QID 3736476.


Help! Looking at HTML/CSS/JS, 15 Years Later


Sublime Text editor

How would you teach html/css/js to students from grades 7 to 12 so they can create websites? Asking for a friend. Oh, and this friend tells me they meet for about two hours a week.

I was a webmaster before becoming a teacher. I ran a corporate website, organized early electronic marketing, and even set up webinars for my employer — from 1996 to 2004. Does that qualify me to teach a club of girls how to code for the web? Only a little, I’m learning. I don’t have to tell most of you that the web was a vastly different place 15 years ago than it is now. I’m working with a club leader, another teacher with similarly rusty html and strong google skills. Our base knowledge is so ancient, we’ve lost count of the depreciated tags we’ve run into.

Introduction: A First Web Page

I love to let kids dive in on new technology, so here’s how I structured a one-hour lesson on writing web pages:

  • grab a good text editor: I’ve been using Sublime Text for Mac
  • start with these four tags: paragraphs, links, headings, images
  • learn a tiny bit of style notation: colors and fonts
  • be ready to show whatever your club asks to learn — W3Schools has had an open browser tab on my computer all semester
  • practice! make the world’s tackiest web page — sure it’ll look like MySpace or Livejournal but don’t worry, these kids don’t remember those days

Kids were super-excited about what they’ve learned. The younger ones are mostly interested in background colors, text colors, and fonts. We’ve played with these ideas for a few weeks and I think they’re almost ready to understand the value of separating content from presentation with css.

Next Level: Bootstrap, Templates, and Editors?

So this brings me to the weekend. We’re ready to take the girls to the next level. We figure that means finding some web space, teaching them about ftp and designing off of a web template.

Apparently Bootstrap is the “most popular HTML, CSS, and JS framework for developing responsive, mobile first projects on the web.” Sold. Well, it’s free, so does it even make sense to say “sold”? Anyhow, there are even free templates that use Bootstrap over at Start Bootstrap. I downloaded the Business Casual theme and started making a personal project website to practice.

Are there other frameworks I should look at before showing Bootstrap to the girls?


  1. Where do you go for basic web hosting? I’m looking for ftp access and NOT a wysiwyg-only interface.
  2. Who online is doing the best job teaching html & css? Looking for inspiration. We’ve used codecademy’s lessons but want to stay away from “welcome to club, now go follow a tutorial on your own” for now.
  3. Got any industry-standard tools I need to be showing the girls?
  4. Are you a woman who codes, especially for the web? Want to be a guest at a meeting?

How I Set Up My First WebAssign Quiz

So I gave my first WebAssign quiz today and am happy with the set of options I chose. Maybe you’d like to see what I did?


The questions are a mix of ones I wrote and ones from the textbook. Below are screenshots of one randomization of the quiz. All questions are pooled to allow different versions AND make retakes easier.

Screen Shot 2016-08-31 at 7.45.16 PMScreen Shot 2016-08-31 at 7.59.17 PMScreen Shot 2016-08-31 at 7.59.39 PMScreen Shot 2016-08-31 at 7.59.48 PM

I’m really proud of the animated GIF of a ticking grandfather clock. There’s another one in the deck of a transverse wave being drawn out.

Quiz Settings

Here are settings I chose:

  • Submissions Allowed: 2 (during the quiz, in class — every kid gets a free redo on every question but I do take points off)
  • Submitting Answers: Question Parts (if I have a three-part question, I want kids to be able to check their answer on each part as they go along)
  • Feedback: Scores Assignment: Off (turn off students’ ability to see their numeric grade, though individual answer scores are shown — helps relieve anxiety over a grade that I haven’t finalized yet because I haven’t looked at the work)
  • Automatic Point Adjustments: Deduct 75% for each submission used beyond 1 (this didn’t do quite what I want, so I’m switching to “assign penalty for an incorrect answer” next time)

Quiz Taking Rules in My Class

This is my first year using WebAssign but I have a few routines I like that I’m figuring out how to do: 1) kids need more than one attempt at quizzes because they’re developing their knowledge, 2) kids should get immediate feedback on quizzes so as to not delay that learning cycle, and 3) retakes shouldn’t require me to write another quiz.

#1 is the biggest change from last year. I need more time to think on this one. Here’s how I’ve run quizzes the last few years:

  1. quiz day: open notes, get immediate feedback because quiz is computer-scored, and make corrections to anything you got wrong and are able to correct.
  2. overnight: I look at the papers students turned in. There were several ways to earn partial credit, but it all came down to showing work. Typically, students earned 1/4 to 3/4 credit based on the paper.
  3. next day: first opportunity for a quiz retake. On Moodle, the questions were sorted into categories and randomly selected, so a retake quiz was no extra effort. I’ve done similar in WebAssign using question pools. One retake per quiz AND it must be used by the unit test.

I have a few details to work out but the quiz experience was excellent from my POV. I’ll get student feedback tomorrow.

Physics First without the Supporting Math?

The question in front of me now is “How do I teach a Physics First course to a student inadequately prepared in mathematics in a setting where most other students are so prepared?”

Middle School Math

I teach Physics First in a school with strong middle school math preparation. Our middle school teachers have modified their Algebra I courses in a few ways to prepare kids. Most notably, in Algebra 1, students apply trig ratios to solve right triangles and they see it again at the start of geometry in 9th grade. In contrast, the local public schools have put trig ratios in 10th grade mathematics.

If a kid went to our middle school, chances are high that they are competent with all the math needed in my physics class. Trig is the most obvious accommodation. Here’s all the mathematics topics I need physics students to have:

  • Solve an equation for any unknown. The hardest equation in my course is for thin lenses and spherical mirrors: \frac{1}{f}=\frac{1}{d_{o}}+\frac{1}{d_{i}}. Solving for anything in the denominator is always problematic for the kids who struggle in math, so this one’s a doozy because it also always gets them on order of operations and fractions.
  • Work out how two variables relate. For example, for F=ma, if I double m and hold F constant, what happens to a? The hardest ones are the quadratic relationships such as in K=\frac{1}{2}mv^{2}
  • Have solid Cartesian graphing skills. Some kids will scale axes weird (using data points as increments, so every line looks like slope of 1). I include in this computing the slope and y-intercept of a line.
  • Estimate a best fit line from the graph of a messy data set (in freshman physics, we don’t use the fancy computational best fit methods) and then find the slope and y-intercept of that line
  • Understand slope as a rate of change.
  • Detecting a quadratic relationship from a data set using first differences (we spend a lot of time talking about the concept of an increasing slope on a f(x)=x2 graph)
  • Solve a right triangle for either an unknown angle or an unknown side

Additional Reading: “Mathematics Underlying the Physics First Curriculum: Implications for 8th and 9th Grade Mathematics

Unfortunately, students who transfer in for upper school here often don’t have this math. As we open up to more kids from wider socioeconomic and geographic areas, we must set them up for success in the upper school.

Helping transfer students succeed, then, is my task. I have three main ideas for supporting transfer students of mine. But really, I don’t have good answers or plans in place to support the unprepared. This post is more about getting the problem description out there.

Support #1: During Class

To get the most out of my class time, students need to be able to work together and with me. To me, the during class support is all about building a kick ass class culture. Ideally, my students are comfortable being open about their struggles, with me and each other.

My class culture isn’t where I’d like it to be. In the past, students worked with groups of their choice — which leaves out new kids more often than it includes them. Then I moved to working in table groups which I mostly selected. Still a no go. If you’re the only one not getting it at a table of three others who do, you’re just going to copy along rather than slow down the group to ask for explanations (and feel like you look dumb).

I can’t help but think several of the ideas Sara van der Werf presented at Global Math Department will be useful. The Pursuit of 100% Engagement: Practical ideas to get you closer. Specifically, she talked of how she models group work from the start of the year, including building norms and taking pictures. Also, she spoke of creating quality group or partner tasks. Where the former is about developing student habits, the latter is about changing up my game to get students working together. I like this balance.

How do you support students during class? Seriously, I feel like this is my weakest of the three supports here.

Support #2: During Office Hours

We have a half an hour per day set aside as office hours. Students drop in to any class they need and ask questions. In my room, I most often have students asking about a homework problem or retaking a quiz. Students who came through our middle school are already familiar with the setup and use it from day one.

Transfer students are often new to the idea of office hours. I need to get them in early in the year for office hours. It took me entirely too long this year to build a relationship with one of my students to where they’d ask for help. I’m leaning toward setting mandatory office hours, coordinated between the student, math teacher, me, and the grade chair.

Support #3: Building a Team

Every student has an advisor (aka homeroom teacher), a grade chair (who handles half their class’ students), a math teacher, and a physics teacher. That sounds like the basis of an excellent student team. What if I could do the following?

  1. Every new-to-our-school student gets a Team that includes the math teacher, the physics teacher, and the advisor. The team would meet once at the start of the year, possibly with counseling or whoever has the kids’ records from the last school. They then keep in touch throughout the year. This is pretty much happening informally after a kid gets into academic trouble, the change is being proactive with the team.
  2. Every new-to-us freshman gets mandatory office hours in math and physics for the first 9 weeks of school, at which time the SST determines if it needs to be continued.
  3. Everyone on a Team gets some training in researched-based interventions that might not be obvious. Maybe even instead of “sage on the stage” type training, we just hold a roundtable to decide what our own best practices are at our school. Might be received better by the teachers in a roundtable format.

Final Thoughts

I’m not saying that all transfer students struggle in my class. However, my data suggest that when a kid struggles, there’s a good chance they’re a transfer. How, then, do I give these kids the kickass experience they deserve?

What strategies have you seen work? Who should I be reading? Who should I be following on Twitter? C’mon friends, tell me what you know!

(oh and today’s T-minus-3 days till kids return on my 13th year teaching)