A Day Playing with WebAssign

Here’s what I learned from a day writing questions in WebAssign — I’m a fan of its randomized question-writing engine. It’s quite flexible and can do just about everything I want with the feature.

As a long-time Moodle fan, I think I’ve been convinced to make the switch to WebAssign. Lemme show you some of the stuff I learned:

Randomized Questions

I can write randomized (Moodle calls them calculated) questions. Here’s what that looks like to the student:

Screen Shot 2016-06-24 at 6.01.13 PM

Numbers in red are randomized — everyone gets a different value within the parameters I’ve set.

WebAssign supports all the usual question types such as multiple choice, numeric answers, and matching. (By the way, the second part to the above question above uses a new-to-me feature: physPad, a symbolic equation editor. More on physPad later.)

When coding these randomized questions, I can do something like this:

$v = randnum(342,348,1);

which means make the variable ‘v’ be a random whole number from 342 to 348.

Because the WebAssign authoring system is based on Perl syntax (I’ve used it before), I found it fairly straightforward to adapt to the code. Below is a question I wrote with a multi-part randomized set of questions. In case you’re wondering, line 2 shows a weird workaround for randomizing numbers less than one.

Screen Shot 2016-06-24 at 6.07.29 PM

WebAssign’s question writing interface is also its programming interface.

I’m impressed at WebAssign’s documentation, which includes video introductions and fully-documented details. Check out “Create Numerical Questions” for example.

Multi-Part Questions

I mentioned multi-part questions above. These were tough to do in Moodle, though possible. Multi-part questions are important to me because I can string together several questions into a coherent whole. Here’s another I wrote:

Screen Shot 2016-06-24 at 6.06.09 PM

Multi-Part questions are natural friends with the randomized question feature I loved on above.

With more time, I’m eager put together smart multi-part questions that help  students move from concrete arithmetic to symbolic algebraic problem-solving.

physPad is Promising

Oh, so working with numbers is too juvenile for you? WebAssign also has a feature to write symbolically. Below is an example from the student POV:

Screen Shot 2016-06-27 at 5.05.57 PM


The interface is similar to most WYSIWYG equation editing software out there, plus obvious keyboard equivalents do what you want (for instance, I used the slash key to create the fraction above instead of the physPad button).

I’ve played with some answers that are mathematically identical but look different symbolically and the system was smart enough to recognize a correct answer in several forms. I’m eager to push the limits with physPad.

Direct Measurement Videos Included

Peter Bohacek’s Direct Measurement videos are the bomb and they’re a resource available to WebAssign users.

Screen Shot 2016-06-28 at 12.40.25 PM.png

This is a screen grab from a Direct Measurement video.

The Verdict?

WebAssign is robust. Combine the question-writing interface with the numerous supported textbook question banks, and I think I’ve got myself a pretty good  system for online testing and homework. WebAssign may replace Moodle for me this year.

Summer Institute on Experiential Education

I’m just back from the ISEEN Summer Institute on Experiential Education in the classroom. After four days of thinking deeply about teaching experientially, I’m motivated to share some thoughts here.


The science cohort included bio (left), physics (center), and chem (right) teachers.

The Wikipedia: Experiential education article gives a great overview. Though experiential education (EE) has become synonymous with outdoor education these days, I think EE can be more general-purpose.

The ISEEN Summer Institute brought together about 60 classroom teachers from the US, Canada, and Hong Kong.


Also at the Institute were arts and math teachers.

You might remember experiential education and John Dewey from your history of education course. He’s the guy who started the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools and wrote…a lot…about education reform. More recently, David Kolb extended Dewey’s work.

Kolb says that to gain genuine knowledge from an experience,

  • The learner must be willing to be actively involved in the experience;
  • The learner must be able to reflect on the experience;
  • The learner must possess and use analytical skills to conceptualize the experience; and
  • The learner must possess decision making and problem solving skills in order to use the new ideas gained from the experience.

These requirements form the Kolb Cycle for Experiential Learning, pictured below:

Screen Shot 2016-06-20 at 11.11.42 AM

Later, the Association of Experiential Education (AEE) suggested The Eight Principles of Good Practice for All Experiential Learning Activities.

At the institute, I was challenged to demonstrate Experiential Ed in action with a classroom activity. My choice was pinhole photography because our location was beautiful and sun-drenched.

  • Concrete Experience: I started my class off with camera obscuras built out of toilet paper tubes, foil, and parchment paper. Even outside the world of experiential ed, many of us are putting the experience first — it’s our hook.
  • Reflective Observation: Reflection is the means by which a student makes sense of their experience. There are so many ways to reflect, including journals, portfolios, role plays, games, model construction, and discussion. Taking a page from the Math Forum, I asked the teachers what they noticed and what they wondered. We all noticed the image was upside down. We also noticed it was hard to see the image unless the viewing screen was dark.
  • Abstract Conceptualization: According to Saul McLeod, “reflection gives rise to a new idea, or a modification of an existing abstract concept.” You can conceptualize through lecture, experimentation (a form of further experience), solving problem sets, etc. Based off of the notice and wonder comments, I showed everyone how the camera obscura works. In a traditional classroom, this stage of the cycle is the most prominent and almost always precedes any experiences (such as labs) students might have.
  • Active Experimentation: According to Saul McLeod, this is when “the learner applies them [abstract concepts] to the world around them to see what results.” We built pinhole cameras, took, and developed photos. The teachers were encouraged to experiment with exposure time. The amazing results are below.


Want to know more? I put together this framework for planning experiential ed lessons alongside the pinhole lesson.


Sunrise in Santa Fe.


About Orlando

pulse we are orlandoI help out with the LGBTQA affinity group at school. It’s called United and after Orlando, we decided to send a message to the kids. Below is that message.


We now know that the shooting early Sunday morning at the Pulse in Orlando is the biggest mass shooting in American history. The country is rallying around our community, sending their thoughts and prayers out to those affected at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando.

Sunday was a hard day for many of us. I encourage you to reach out to us, a counselor, or your parents.

How are we, your faculty, getting through this tough time?

  • Limiting our time reading the news. It’s gut-wrenching news that is best consumed in small doses.
  • We’re highly selective in choosing our news outlets. Sources I trust include Huffington Post, the BBC, and Al Jazeera.
  • Scrolling past and not engaging in the hateful rhetoric we read.
  • Donating blood if we qualify. The Red Cross here in Atlanta lists their eligibility requirements on their website. It is true what you’ve read that gay men who’re sexually active are barred from donating, making this time especially painful.
  • Attending a vigil. People are coming together to remember the dead and console the living. If you’re considering going to one, you may want to attend We Are Orlando: Vigil and Community Gathering at the Center for Civil and Human Rights on Tuesday night at 7pm. In this difficult time, gathering with community can be a great comfort.
  • Reaching out to our friends — in person and online — to talk. I encourage y’all to reach out to each other for support.

With the world asking how they can help, Instagram user @adriennemareebrown said it well, “listen to queer people of color. This hate crime happened in diverse Orlando at Latinx night at the Pulse. That very much matters.”

Also, you may hear folks suggesting that this was an act of Islamic terror. Please don’t believe the rhetoric. I love how David Klion on Twitter said it: “There will be attempts to pit two vulnerable communities, LGBT and Muslims, against each other. Resist them.”

Above all, know that you are loved, you are safe, and that you are going to be ok.

If you or a friend need immediate help and are feeling depressed, suicidal or all alone, PLEASE call 404-730-1600 in Atlanta, a local 24 hour Mental Health Helpline or the Trevor Helpline at 866-488-7386, a 24 hour GLBTQ Youth Crisis Hotline Line. Both are free and 100% confidential. Talk to a trained counselor that will help you find local resources. If you want to talk to another LGBT youth, call the Peer Listening Line at 800-399-7337. It is staffed Monday-Friday from 5:00 PM till 10:00 PM ET.


Ms. Hayes-Golding

Dr. Stewart

Ms. Dracos-Tice

And all your other LGBT Faculty


Transgender & Gender Nonconforming Students

Subtitle: a 15-minute primer for educators.


cisgender & transgender: Sociologists Kristen Schilt and Laurel Westbrook define cisgender as a label for “individuals who have a match between the gender they were assigned at birth, their bodies, and their personal identity”[1]. Transgender people experience a mismatch between their gender identity or gender expression and their assigned sex [2].

gender nonconforming: “refers to people who do not follow other people’s ideas or stereotypes about how they should look or act based on the female or male sex they were assigned at birth” [3]. I am a gender nonconforming woman.

genderfluid, & genderqueer: This is the gender identity for people with a non-binary experience [4]. Miley Cyrus identifies as gender fluid, for example.

FTM & MTF: Abbreviations used by some trans people, meaning “female to male” and “male to female”.

Areas That Require Thought

  • Gender segregated spaces such as rest rooms and locker rooms, but also including graduation, homeroom, and health education.
  • Policy and records includes all the legal areas related to a student’s school life. This includes the name on official transcripts. Check out the GLSEN webinar below to learn several areas NOT in official policy, including yearbooks and class rosters.

source: GLSEN’s webinar on Supporting Transgender and Gender Nonconforming Students

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cisgender

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transgender

[3] http://srlp.org/resources/fact-sheet-transgender-gender-nonconforming-youth-school/

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Genderqueer

What’s the Job You Didn’t Get?

If I hadn’t become a teacher, I would’ve liked to be a human-computer interaction (HCI) engineer. What would you have done if you hadn’t done what you do?

HCI isn’t too far from what I do for a living now — I think about how someone will come at a problem and predict how they might interact with it, then guide them along to a solution.

h/t to Colleague Eliot for the idea, computer scientist-slash-teacher who would’ve been an economist. Leave yours in the comments.

Chalkline with Megan Hayes-Golding.

Tales from the Chalkline
A podcast on social justice in the classroom, hosted by Anne Schwartz

So I was going about minding my own business last week, vaguely aware of a conversation about podcasts & social justice in the classroom. Anne, a woman of action jumped on the idea and got one started. I think it fills a niche in the community and look forward to hearing all the episodes.

Anne and I talked about my LGBTQA advocacy in and out of my classroom. She did a fabulous job, especially in asking amazing questions.

My favorite, among many great questions: What are you good at?

a brand new line.

Alright Friends, Here we go!  This week I talk to Megan Hayes-Golding!

Episode 1

This week’s syllabus:

To Read: For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood… and the Rest of Y’all Too: Reality Pedagogy and Urban Education by Christoper Emdin

To Listen: the get. With Ivy and Rhiana

To Watch: The West Wing for no reason other than because always.

Additions from Megan:

Stonewall Activity Whitewashing Activity Video

Person Megan Thinks everyone should follow: Frank Noschese

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Class Observations Quantified

Classroom Observation Protocol for Undergraduate STEM (COPUS) is an instructor observation protocol that logs how much time students and instructors are spending on different types of work in a classroom. I gave it a quick 15 minute review this morning.

The observer logs what students are doing (listening, answering instructor question, individual thinking, worksheet group work, etc) and what instructors are doing (lecturing, moving through classroom, 1 on 1 instruction, administration, etc). The protocol’s developers have distributed an easy-to-use tally sheet for logging data.

Screen Shot 2016-01-26 at 11.12.14 AM

A portion of the observation data sheet used by an observer using COPUS.

At the end of data collection/observation, you have quantified data for how the class, instructor included, spent their time. The result is a pie chart like so:


Andy followed up to say there’s now a web app that creates the graphs for you!

h/t Andy Rundquist

Automating Greenhouse Irrigation

We’re installing robotic sprinklers in the school’s greenhouse! And this post details the project to date.

Step 1: What physics can we do in the greenhouse?

Last spring, when our garden manager Emily approached me about creating a project that brought together her garden and my physics classes, I was interested.

“What does the greenhouse need?” I asked Emily.

She rattled off a few ideas, including improved irrigation. I didn’t see an obvious connection until I started poking around the Arduino world. Automated irrigation, managed by the inexpensive microcontroller, is a popular thing these days.

As the project started to take shape in my mind, I imagined kids learning about electrical resistivity. We’d experiment with some of the ways the soil can vary resistivity, including the geometry of the sample and the water content. I grabbed a soil sample and a multimeter. In my mind, we were going to see a clear relationship between the variables of distance between the probes or moisture content and resistance. Instead, the readings were all over the map. Oh no!

Step 2: Find one physics principle to hang your project on.

I thought we were sunk after that one test with the soil sample. I needed some good news, and soon (it was about a month before the planned kickoff date). To be completely honest, this was the low point of the planning process.

When I started researching the project, I’d started off looking at the Soil Moisture Sensor sold by SparkFun. From there, I found Vegetronix sensors and control boards.

My much-needed good news came in the form of Tim at Vegetronix in his Techno Gardener video:

What I saw was an easy lab experiment where we could vary water content of soil and measure different voltage outputs. That’s all I needed to go forward.

In terms of a physics principle, we talked about resistance in class, even completing a light bulb lab meant to explain series and parallel connections. I explained that some soil moisture sensors measure resistance/resistivity. Our sensor, however, measures something called the dielectric constant, which is beyond the scope of this class. Yeah, it was a little hand-wavey. Still, the electric circuits needed to connect the sensors to their control boards and to the solenoid sprinkler valve are relevant.

Step 3: Kickoff the project with enthusiasm.

I brought greenhouse manager Emily in to classes to introduce the project. She explained to the kids that they’d form a company to build an irrigation system for her as a client. She explained that she and Joey, the garden managers, must water everything inside the greenhouse approximately every other day.

Emily brought in James from our facilities department to teach the kids about how our campus draws water from an underground aquifer to irrigate all the green spaces on campus. She also brought in Joey, the garden manager, to teach kids about plant types that we grow in the greenhouse as well as about the raised beds we’ll be installing into.



5th Period, James, Emily, and Joey.



James shows 5th period the 500 gallon cistern installed in the greenhouse that is our sole source of water through the winter.

From here, I encouraged the kids to choose a role they want to fill within the “company”. They could choose to be electricians, plumbers, or technical writers. My teams aren’t even, which is ok with me. Every kid has a job they chose, which was the important part.

Step 4: Concoct a lab for kids to learn about the sensor.

In classic one-sentence lab form, I asked the kids, “How does the moisture sensor indicate soil moisture to us?”

Job roles became useful at this point — I taught just the electricians how to hook up the sensors to a multimeter (their first time using either). After showing them on one lab station, I sent the electricians out to set up the other lab stations, referencing mine as a working example.

Meanwhile, the tech writers and plumbers did internet research aimed at several questions I anticipated them having:

  • How do we wire up a moisture sensor?
  • What’s the sensor’s output? ____ to _____ volts, which correlates to ____ to _____ amount of soil moisture.
  • How does the sensor work? hint: see vegetronix.com
  • If you wire the probe incorrectly, what’s the output look like?
  • Can wiring the probe incorrectly damage it?
  • What other ways are gardeners automating their watering? (like, what about low tech options?)
  • How would you describe the moisture level in soil? Is there some industry standard way of doing this?

We did the lab in lab groups, which are made up of several different job titles.

One aspect I loved when kids did the sensor lab in class was how they had to figure out a smart way to describe moisture content. Kids quickly realized that it was insufficient to note how many milliliters of water they added to their differently-sized soil samples.

Next Steps: Rubrics & time to work.

So here we are, Thanksgiving vacation, and I’ve just started the project with the kids. My next tasks are to finish off documenting what I expect from the kids in term of work products plus the rubrics I’ll assess them with.

We have about five class days remaining dedicated to installing and documenting the project.

I have no idea how (or if) this project is going to turn out. We’re into it for about $600 in materials and about two weeks total of my class’ time. At worst, we had that one lab where we learned about multimeters, voltages, and sensors. My fingers are crossed that this project turns out better than “at worst”.


A Daily Digital Diary: Accessible Short-Form Blogging

Based on a talk given at the GISA Conference on Nov. 2, 2015.

I post a picture and 2-3 sentences every day from my classes. There are several benefits of this practice I think you might appreciate: 1) I reflect daily on how class went, 2) my teacher portfolio practically builds itself, and 3) I get feedback from teachers around the world.

Join the #teach180 movement by posting a photo a day from your classroom. The easiest way is to Tweet your picture with the #teach180 hashtag. My talk outlines several other methods, too, including Instagram and traditional blogging platforms.

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How do you start? Two simple steps:

  1. take a photo of something interesting happening in your classroom
  2. share the photo
  3. repeat as often as you like

When I told them I was giving this talk, several #teach180 bloggers shared their reasons for using this format:

  • “Writing is hard. Submitting a photo with a tweet is something I can actually do.” –Paul Martenis, @Mr_Martenis
  • “A full length blog is overwhelming to me. I can commit to 140 characters.” –Sheila Orr, @mrssheilaorr
  • “180 blogging gives me something easy to focus on – a full-length blog feels (to me) like it needs to be deep and insightful whereas a 180 blog could easily be a photo and 5 sentences (and often evolves into more). It feels more consistent, too.” –Nicholas Chan, @sergtpeppa
  • “[It’s] easier to post & follow, less time commitment” –Ben Wildeboer, @WillyB
  • “[Daily photos] give me a nice summary of the school year. I often refer to photo collections from previous years to verify pacing or other kinds of special events.” –Jonathan Claydon, @rawrdimus
  • “[The 180 blog is a] snapshot of a day, vs in depth. Much easier to maintain, and interesting to compare year to year where I am in my curriculum.” –Heather Waterman, @watermanphysics

Also, what kind of teachers would we be if we didn’t offer advice on joining us? Here are tips to help you get started and stay with it:

  • “Post length is a killer. Keep it short and sweet. A picture’s worth a thousand words, right?” — Frank Noschese, @fnoschese
  • “I’d advise to not worry about missing days (or weeks). Don’t try to catch up, just jump back in where you are.” — Ben Wildeboer, @WillyB

  • “Really it’s just working on forming a habit. I carry my phone around with me and it’s been the easiest way to remember to take a picture on a regular basis. It also encourages me to have a classroom that has a lot of picture worthy moments. 180 days of worksheets is no fun.” –Jonathan Claydon, @rawrdimus

  • “Get your students in on the action by publishing their user-submitted photos.” –Me

  • “Be open to sharing not just learning tasks. Also include school culture, funny students, etc.” –Frank Noschese, @fnoschese

  • “Workflow: Take photo with smartphone, share photo to WordPress media library (not “new post”), write actual post on a computer. Have backup photos for those days you forget to take a picture or when it’s a quiz day.” –Frank Noschese, @fnoschese

Will you join us? Add yourself to the #teach180 Google Form (view the participating blogs here).