Monday, February 20, 2012

Math at Dinner

Tonight, my wife and I went to dinner at Penn Station.  The kids are at their grandparents for the night.  I found this ad on one of the tables.  With permission, I took it home.
The top of the ad.
The whole ad, unfolded.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Rick Santorum Helps Me Out (Mathematically, That Is)

I was looking for an interesting graph for my College Algebra students today, and this is one that I came across.  It shows the poll numbers for the Republican Primary candidates in Michigan.  The graph comes from Talking Points Memo.
Image from
To put it mildly, I am not a supporter of Rick Santorum's politics.  With that said, this graph is interesting mathematically.  It has a local minimum, local maximum, and inflection point (which is hard to see).  What else could I ask for?

Comments are off to head off any political bickering that is not math related.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Sharing My Toys - Technology Evaluations

One of my jobs for this semester is to evaluate a few pieces of technology and judge their usefulness for distance learning.  The three gadgets I'm working with are the Apple iPad 2, LiveScribe Echo pen, and Sony Bloggie Camera.

Apple iPad 2
My iPad 2 connected to a monitor via a VGA Adapter
I've had the original iPad for a while, and this fall I got an iPad 2.  I've been using the iPad 2 for a while, and I pretty happy with it.  The addition of two cameras was a big improvement over the iPad.  Also, the Reminders that came with iOS 5 finally gave the iPad 2 all the functionality of my old Palm Pilot.  This iPad has 64 GB of storage, and comes with wi-fi but no 3G.  One objection I have to owning a smart phone is paying for a data plan, so living without 3G is just fine by me.

Strengths for Students:
  • The battery life is incredible.
  • Versatility is possible through thousands of apps.
  • It is dependable and stable.
  • Facetime and web browsing are useful for online classes.
  • Cameras are good for recording students' work.
  • It is small and portable.
  • Everybody wants one.
Strengths for Teachers:
  • Same as for students.
  • Keynote is good for displaying PowerPoint presentations written on a PC.
  • Apple has a high level of control of the software available.
  • No Flash Player is available.
  • You must interface to a computer to activate the iPad.
  • Touch screen keyboards and autocorrect are a horrible combination.
  • Extra accessories are required to bring it up the functionality of a cheap netbook.
I would like to play with a few Android tablets in the future for comparison.  On the whole I would recommend its use.  If I were able to give myself over to the cult of Apple, I could get even more use out of it.

The nickname of my iPad is "Tricorder".  I'm starting to realize how much of a Trekker I really am.

Livescribe Echo Pen
The Livescribe Echo Pen with Notebook
The Livescribe calls the Echo Pen a smart pen.  Inside of the pen is a camera which is able to track the position on the paper and the pen records the writing on the page and the audio at the same time.  It is possible to upload the audio and writing to a PC and save it as a PDF document with embedded audio or as a pencast.  The latter is a product of Livescribe.  This pen has 4GB of storage, which is good for several hours of recording.

I've been using it to take notes at meetings.  The first meeting I used it in was a particularly contentious faculty meeting, where I got some background audio that the speakers might not have wanted recorded.

I also want to use it to create short videos on solving problems for my students.  The goal of the videos would be to model good homework habits to students by capturing my writing and audio in real time.  There are other ways to accomplish this goal, but the Echo Pen makes it very easy.

Benefits to Students:
  • Student can record lecture notes to get the audio and not worry about writing down every detail.
  • Allows students to e-mail written notes for distance learning classes.
  • Has several apps that can be controlled by touching the pen to certain places on the notebook.
  • Battery life and storage capacity is excellent.
  • The audio can be accessed through the pen or through the computer.
  • Writing can be saved to a PDF document.
  • The pen is small and rugged.  You can carry it in a backpack and not worry about it getting damaged.  Notebooks are also more rugged than a tablet or laptop.
  • You can still write with the pen even if the batteries die.
Benefits to Teachers:
  • Same as for students.
  • The pen only works with the provided paper.  It is possible to download and print paper from Livescribe, as well as buying special notebooks.
  • The apps are useful, but controlling them through the paper can be cumbersome.
  • It is not possible to directly export the writing as any other format than PDF or pencast.
  • The rechargeable batteries are at the top of the pen, throwing off the balance. 
I would recommend this for any student.  The price is pretty good, and it could withstand the abuse that a typical high school student would deal out to it.

Continuing with the Trekker theme, my pen is nicknamed "Yeoman".

Sony Bloggie Camera
Sony Bloggie Camera
This is the one piece of technology that I asked for from the college.  It is Sony's version of the famous Flip camera.  I wanted it to have it to shoot videos in the style of Dan Meyer.  In fact, I got to shoot video of Dan Meyer with it.  I've put it to pretty use so far, and I wish I had more opportunities to use it.  The 4GB of memory is good for two hours of High Definition recording.

Smart phone cameras work about as well as the Bloggie, but you only pay once for the Bloggie.

A video from the Bloggie is below.
Benefits to Students:
  • Not many.  You don't want to give a camera to student because you never know what you'll get back on that camera.
Benefits to Teachers:
  • The camera is easy to carry.  You can use it to capture candid moments.
  • The camera records in HD.
  • The camera can take photographs while recording video.
  • There are several different resolutions available.
  • An on board USB interface make connection to a computer easy.
  • Battery life is limited.  Recharging is only possible through the USB interface.
  • The only storage is internal memory.  It is not possible to augment the memory with an SD card.
  • The camera only records for 30 minutes at a time.  You need to restart recording for events longer than 30 minutes.
  • The camera does not have as many controls as a control freak like me would prefer.  White balance is a real problem.
Overall, the Bloggie does well for amateur video.  It will not work for professional video.  The ease of use and cost make it a worthwhile addition to the technology collection of an academic department.

The Bloggie does not have a Star Trek related nickname.

These are the gadgets I'm working with right now.  I'll share if I have any new revelations or new gadgets to share.

Friday, February 10, 2012

The Really Long Arms of Anthony Davis

Anthony Davis (image from
I've been helping to beta test Dan Meyer's 101qs website.  I'm posting this picture here so I can post it over on 101qs.  The original source can be found here.

Anthony Davis is a candidate for the NCAA Defensive Player of the Year.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

A Trip to the Morehead Space Science Center

Last Friday, the Math, Science Organization, which is the science club at my college, visited the Space Science Center at Morehead State University.  We usually visit once a year.  The students enjoy visiting the Star Theater.  The faculty enjoy visiting the labs.  Everybody enjoys dinner at Pasqualle's afterward.

The tour was given by Eric Thomas, who was very generous with his time.

One of the additional purposes for our trip was to return the Space Cube.  Last year, Dr. Bob Twiggs gave our college the opportunity to put an experiment on the International Space Station.  That would make our community college the first to do so.  Unfortunately, the time and financial costs are too high for us to take advantage of Dr. Twiggs' generous offer.

The space cube with some donated components

One of the projects that the Space Science Center is work on is launching weather balloons.  A weather balloon launch costs around $700.  That fits very well into a community college.  We are trying to make arrangements with Mr. Thomas to tag along on some of their flights.

The end of the tour was a demonstration of their planetarium, the Star Theater.  For the astronomical portion we saw one of the programs on the different galaxies and a demonstration of the capabilities of the planetarium with images from the solar system.  Afterward, we were treated to a laser show featuring rock from the Eighties.  This year, I managed to stay awake through the whole show.  Two years ago, I fell asleep and snored through the show.

Pictures from the trip follow.

Did somebody say "Road trip"?

The Moon over the Space Science Center

These are CubeSats which are one of the major focuses of the Space Science Center

These are the students who attended the trip, with advisor Mr. Scott Stauble (bottom of stairs) 

Eric Thomas shows the group a model of the CXBN nano satellite

A view from inside the anechoic chamber

Mr. Thomas talks about the S-band receiver for the radio telescope

A view of the 21 meter radio telescope from the control room

Dinner at Pasqualle's

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Who is the Un-Khan? A Four TED Talk Showdown

Oddly enough, on the day that Proposition 8 was struck down in California, the meatiest thing I read on the internet today came from Dan Meyer.  In his post What Silicon Valley Gets Wrong About Math Education Again and Again, he argues that computer companies or educational technology companies make the mistake of limiting the mathematics that student learn to fit the available technology.  Basically, the companies are starting with the answer and then looking for the question.

The limitations of using computer technology for student assessment is that higher comprehension can be measured.  Computers can mark correct a problem that is multiple choice, a number, or an algebraic expression.  If you want to talk about a more complex problem, you have to compress it into one of those formats.

My experience with computer based assessment entirely fits Dan's complaints.  We've been using MyMathLab in our transitional (a.k.a. developmental) algebra classes for several years.  We don't rely on it exclusively for student assessment.  In fact, we kept some pencil and paper homework as part of our algebra redesign with the Emporium model.  I've noticed that the students are finishing the MyMathlab homework and struggling with the pencil and paper homework.  Most of that is due to the fact that the students don't have to read the instructions with the computer homework.  The computers prompt them for the required information.

More to Dan's point, we don't use MyMathLab in College Algebra because we use a modeling approach.  We would prefer that the students are able to find a best-fit line for data than solve an absolute value inequality.

Dan's post got me to think about the alternatives to computer based delivery and assessment of mathematics, of which I can think of three.  The debate begins now, in TED Talk format.

Salman Khan

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I will have him. (image from
The poster child for computer based instruction is the Khan Academy.  The effectiveness for the Khan Academy is hotly debated, to say the least.  I'll let Salman Khan speak for the pro computer delivery side.

From the title of this post, it's clear that I'm not a supporter of Salman Khan.  I believe that he is making an honest attempt to contribute to education.  My complaint is that he is just delivering traditional lectures in YouTube format.  It's not fundamentally any better.

Whenever Khan Academy is mentioned, there are two people who are often brought up as alternatives.  They are the next two participants in this debate.

Conrad Wolfram

And to prove my sincerity, I will now kill one of the prisoners. (image from
Conrad Wolfram has a completely different approach to the future of mathematics education than Salman Khan.  His view is to move all of the computational tasks from the student to a computer.

I've critiqued Wolfram's approach before.  To summarize, I think this method encourages students to rely too much on trial and error and does not require them to understand the mathematical underpinnings of the computer program.  In my opinion, a modeling only approach creates as many problems as it solves.

(For the record, at our college the modeling is limited to college algebra.  The other algebra classes are taught in a more traditional format.)

Dan Meyer

 Khan, I'm laughing at the "superior intellect." (image from
Dan Meyer is often mentioned as an alternative view to Salman Khan.  Whenever I'm reading a discussion on the Khan Academy, I'm usually the one who drags brings in his name.

Meyer's approach to teaching is more Socratic than Khan and Wolfram.  He encourages direct instruction when it is warranted, but he is known for using multimedia to prompt questions from his students.  Formulating good questions is his passion.  (Meyer is unique in this list because he is the only one with teaching experience.)

The final person in this debate is the one person who I think could pull off a computer based curriculum and make it work.

Will Wright

 V'ger... expects an answer.  (image from
Will Wright is the creator of the Sim City games and Spore.  His education was at a Montessori School, and  he credits his education as inspiration for his games.

The Montessori connection is what first brought Wright to my attention.  I'm a big supporter of Maria Montessori, and have written about her before.  I don't like to say "ahead of her time" often, but I don't hesitate to use use it to describe her.  (More on that in a future post.)  I would also apply "ahead if his time" to Wright as well.

The beauty of Wright's games is that the notion of winning is completely up to the player.  The games are more simulations than games in the traditional sense.  However, inside of Spore are achievements that players can unlock.  The achievements give feedback to the players that they have accomplished something.  Achievements are uploaded to the spore website so players can share their progress.

In addition to the achievements, players are able to create their own environment.  The amount of customization increases as your creatures evolve.  Creations can be uploaded to the spore website for players to share as well.

Applying the nexus of creative play, open ended game play, and player achievements to education would be a powerful tool.  Jane McGonigal has the same idea (her TED Talk is here).  I think that if there is anybody who has the technical knowledge and creativity to put the pieces together, it would be Will Wright.

I'm not aware of Wright making a push into the educational world in the same way as Bill Gates.  However, he is thinking about education.  One video is here.  Even if he is not involved directly, perhaps there is a way to take inspiration from his work to bring his style of game play into the educational arena.

Here are four different approaches to educational technology.  Some approaches are better than others, but each brings something to the discussion.  I would encourage any educator to think about their students when using any technology.  The real drain on student learning is when we as teachers forget our audience and start applying "one size fits all" solutions.