Category Archives: Teaching

SRHS Girls Who Code

Discovering The Crisis in Computer Science

Last week, a group of 16 girls, myself and one other instructor were invited to attend the showing of the documentary film CODE: Debugging The Gender Gap. This excursion was hosted by the Mill Valley Film Festival and included a post showing discussion with the filmmaker Robin Hauser Reynolds. We traveled to the Lark Theater with another group from our neighboring high school Terra Linda. Our group represented all the currently enrolled girls in STEM courses that offer some exposure to the field of Computer Science. The Terra Linda group was composed of both boys and girls who participate in an after school “coding” club, but none of these students are actually enrolled in a course that offers them academic credit in computer science because no such course is offered at Terra Linda.

IMG_2531Once we arrived, we sat back and watched an inspirational, sometimes shocking, movie about the state of Computer Science education and the lack of opportunities afforded young women in this ever important career field. Although there are many companies and academic institutions that are attempting to address these issues, the United States still lags behind many countries and the numbers, especially for girls and under represented populations, are still appalling.

The Numbers Are Bad For Everyone

For example, according to the movie (and some quick research I conducted), only 10% of all American high schools actually offer any courses in Computer Science, and only 5% offer the AP Computer Science exam. One would think that the numbers in California must be better than the national average because, after all, we are the center of the technology boom, right? Well, according to the numbers presented by ECS and the College Board, California isn’t doing very well either: “In California, less than 1 percent of all advanced placement exams taken in 2011 were in computer science”. The shocking thing about this statistic is that since 2011, there has actually been a decline in the number of students taking Computer Science courses in high school.

They Are Worse For Girls (and Abysmal For Students Of Color)

To make matters worse, the numbers of girls who took the AP Computer science test made up only 21% of the the original 1% of AP test takers. That’s .21% of all students taking AP tests. Of the over 320,000 AP tests taken in 2011, about 3100 were AP Computer Science, and only 650 were girls. That’s really bad, but consider that in 2011, of the 3100 AP Computer Science test takers, 29 were African American.

The Numbers In Marin Are Bad Too

The numbers of students being exposed to Computer Science in the San Rafael School District is somewhat typical of the national trend, but it does seem a bit strange considering our proximity to Silicon Valley. We have tech firms all around us, but so little of that energy and intellectual power seems to be trickling into the public school system.  Oddly enough, its not just a problem in the public school system. Many of the prestigious private schools in Marin don’t offer robust Computer Science programs either.

Terra Linda doesn’t have a single Computer Science course, and San Rafael just added one two years ago which is strictly an introductory course to the field. Neither high school offers an AP Computer Science course. The middle schools in our district are starting to offer some exposure to coding, but still are lagging far behind where they need to be.

Some Possible Reasons

There are some reasons for this that are systemic and institutional. For so many years, No Child Left Behind emphasized Math and English to the detriment of almost every other content area. Students were enrolled in double Math and double English classes in order to get their scores up on state wide tests, and enrollment in other classes like CTE and Art declined. Another problem is teacher certification. In the state of California, the AP Computer Science class is considered a Math class, so only teachers certificated to teach Math can actually teach this course. There has been a push to change this, through a supplementary authorization, but currently in the state, even if you have a degree in Computer Science, you can’t teach the course unless you have a credential in Math. The other problem is more philosophical. I am not sure if we should be seeing Computer Science as its own separate endeavor, but rather should be seeking to integrate CS into Math and Science and Econ. curriculum.

The other problem is actually due, ironically, to how financially successful a person can be if they possess a Computer Science degree (or other technical degree). Its hard for school districts to attract a teacher with these skills when they can get a job working in the tech industry that now typically have starting salaries in the six figure range.

What’s Next – SRHS GirlsWhoCode

After getting off the bus, the girls were clearly affected. And I wanted them to consider doing something about it, but I wanted them to take charge. I knew their ideas would be better than mine, and so the girls got together for a post viewing meeting and discussed what they wanted to do at our school to address this problem. The other instructor and I left them alone, and they proceeded to come up with a plan. They captured their ideas and now they are set to meet with the school’s counseling staff. These girls are an amazing group of highly motivated and talented people and I have no doubt that they are going to come up with a great plan. I’ll be updating this post as soon as an official plan takes shape. I look forward to helping them debug this problem.

Building The Central Force Model

From Lines To Angles, and Particles To Rigid Bodies

We dove straight into circular motion with the 2nd year students this past week. The primary focus of last year was linear dynamics and although we did study objects that moved along curved paths (projectiles), we were still looking at two-dimensional motion as being composed of two component motions along straight lines.

In the second year program, a good part of the first semester is dedicated to looking at objects that rotate around a central axis. There are two major shifts that will be introduced. The first is the introduction of an entirely new coordinate system – polar coordinates. The students spent most of last year learning about two dimensional vectors in Euclidean space, but this year, we will see that for objects traveling in various curved paths, a polar coordinate space can actually be much easier work with. The other shift will introduce students to collections of particles composed into continuous rigid bodies. This requires some significant changes in how the students view an object’s orientation in space and how an object’s mass is distributed. No longer can we assume that the object’s mass is located at a single point in space. In both cases, we are adding to the complexity of our conception of the universe by adding new representations of both space and the objects that inhabit that space.

Observing Circular Motion

In the modeling pedagogy, a new concept or collection of concepts is introduced using a paradigm lab. These labs are meant to introduce students to a new phenomenon and to be the launching off point of the actual building of a conceptual model.

Using the video analysis and vector visualization tools of LoggerPro, I had the students track the motion of a Styrofoam “puck” that was placed on our air hockey table (yes, we actually have an air hockey table that was donated to the school!) but was also attached to a thin thread to a fixed point on the table. The students used the video to track the motion of the puck as it essentially traveled in a circular path.

Although the lab is a bit tricky to set up, the ability to not only track the position of the object in two dimensions, but also the ability to attach velocity and acceleration vectors to the object is really helpful in engaging students in a great conversation around why the acceleration vector points to the inside of the circle. It also allows us to discover a whole new set of mathematical functions for describing motion. After tracking the position of the puck, we are ready for a class white board discussion.

The Graph Matching Mistake Game

I ask the students to draw the motion map of the puck’s motion in two dimensions including the velocity and acceleration vectors. I then ask them to include the graphs created by LoggerPro. LoggerPro produces a really interesting position vs. time graph in both the x and y dimensions. At this point the class knows the drill, and they use the mathematical function matching tool in LoggerPro to match the graph. I ask the students to include on their whiteboards the function that they think best fits the plotted data. This is where it gets really interesting.

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Notice in the above photo that the students used a polynomial function. I then ask the students to use Desmos to plot their graphs. Then I ask them to zoom out on the graph.

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This is where they discover how this function can’t explain the position vs time data for an object that continually repeats the same path. Some of the students in the class recognize that the data is better explained using a sine function. Because not all the students have been introduced to this function, it presents an opportunity for some students to teach the other students about how these functions work.

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I allow the students to explore the sine function in Desmos, asking them to change the coefficients of the function in order to discover how these coefficients affect the graph.

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The next step is to investigate more thoroughly the relationship between the acceleration and the velocity, as well as introduce the benefits of using polar coordinates to describe how an object’s position changes when you are dealing with an object that is traveling in a circular path. Desmos has the ability to change the graph type from the x,y coordinate plate to a polar representation. We discuss the difficulty of representing an object’s circular path using x(t) and y(t) functions as opposed to r(t) and theta(t) because r(t) is just a constant.

Next up, trying to answer the question: “If it’s accelerating inward, then why isn’t it speeding up towards the inside of the circle?!” Once again, the difficult concept of inertia…

Building the Electrical Current Model with The Amazing $25 Programmable Power Supply

Not Just For Teaching Robotics

Thanks to the generous donations of supporters of the Physics Academy, we were able to purchase a new set of Arduino Uno micro-controllers for use in this year’s robotics competition. As I was planning out the unit on teaching DC circuits, I realized that some of our DC power supplies might need to be replaced. I got to thinking – could the Arduino replace these hulking, expensive power supplies?

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The answer has been (with one caveat) – yes. The above power supplies are nice, no doubt about it, but they are big, costly ($199) and they are not as nearly as extensible as a micro-controller.

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The Arduino micro-controller can act as a fixed 5V power supply, or using its PWM pins, you can vary the voltage from 0V to 5V with a resolution of about 20 mV. The other advantage about using the Arduino is that it gives you a chance to teach a little bit of programming too! In our case, it allows for a great introduction to robotics well before we are ready to start our unit on robotics.

The one disadvantage is that you can’t test any circuits that need over 5V of electrical potential difference, nor can you test things like motors or other higher current (> 40 mA) circuits. We didn’t find this to be a big problem, but if you do, you can actually purchase a shield (an attachment that fits on top of the Arduino) from Adafruit Industries that allows you to use a higher voltage, higher current power supply that is controllable through the Arduino.

Mapping Electrical Potential (Voltage)

One of the first activities that the students do, which is a great activity from the AMTA curriculum repository, is to have the students “map” the voltage between two metal bars that are partially submerged in water.

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Using the Arduino as the power supply, the students use a multimeter to check the voltage at specific locations on a grid that is placed under the transparent pan holding the water. These numbers are recorded into a spreadsheet. Excel has a great tool for doing a 3D map of the values.

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What results is a really nice visualization of the potential isolines and the spacial variance of the voltage, and thus the electrical field.

Ohm’s Law – A Flow Model

We then move from voltage maps to flow model. The students investigate how voltage, current and resistance are related to one another. The students begin by investigating the current flowing into and out of a resistor, and most are surprised to find that the current in the same flowing into a resistor as it is flowing out. They expect that current should be “used up” by the resistor – causing a bulb to glow for example. When they find that this is not the case, they either think that they have done the experiment incorrectly or that perhaps the multimeter is not precise enough. This confusion comes from the idea that they are expecting current and energy to be equivalent.

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The hydrology analogy is introduced as a possible model for describing this phenomenon. We discuss the movement of water past a water wheel, and how the water flowing into the wheel is equal to the amount of water flowing “out” from the wheel. Students quickly realize that the wheel still turns, not because the water is “used up”, but because the water looses energy.

The final challenge for the students is to confront the oddity that is parallel circuits. This is made a bit easier by thinking about the flow model, but the confusion with parallel circuits stems from the idea that a battery is a constant current supplier – which of course it is not. The Arduino, just like a battery, will increase the amount of current flowing from its digital output pins when more pathways are added for the current to flow. This is where I would be careful to make sure however that you don’t approach the 40 mA limit. If you do, you can get some weird results in your observations as the Arduino will naturally cut off current draws around this range to protect its electronics.

Conclusion

The switch to the Arduino has been quite successful, and as stated before, it launches the students into the robotics project with a knowledge that the Arduino is simply a controllable power supply. They learn very quickly from that point on that the Arduino can also act like a voltmeter too! Using its analog input and switching the digital pins to be input pins, the Arduino can also mimic the functionality of a multimeter. If you are considering new power supplies, I would recommend looking into this as an option.

Investigating The Projectile Particle Model

The Class Designs The Deployment Experiment

The video above shows the recent deployment activity where students predicted the vertical position of a projectile (a Hot Wheels car) as it traversed a known horizontal distance. The student predictions are identified by green sticky notes on the the left hand side.

The students first had to work out the problem on their own whiteboards before being given the sticky note that indicated the vertical position as measured above or below the red line. Most groups calculated the same position with two groups noting a sightly different prediction!

In this deployment, I set up the ramp, and told them that they had a photogate sensor at their disposal. They had to design the experimental procedure. A great discussion followed, and the class was quite successful as you can see (the students who had the significantly different prediction were able to hunt down their mistake – so everyone felt that the model “worked”).

Analyzing Projectile Motion in Video and Code

Prior to the deployment, students were asked to use a video camera to record the motion of a projectile. This is a great experiment to do with LoggerPro or some other video analysis tools that allow the students to track the position of the ball or some other projectile.

The students have also been learning how to simulate constant velocity and constant acceleration particle motion in Processing. We extended this to now include projectile motion, and the students analyzed simulated projectiles and compared the data gathered in the real universe to that gathered in the virtual universe. I will be writing about this process in more detail soon.

A Modernized Bridge Design Contest

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Modernizing An Old Classic

We have just completed the second project in the Academy for the 2014-15 school year. It was a huge success! This project takes a classic physics project and “upgrades” it by incorporating modern engineering design technology and fabrication techniques.

We started with a great project that is now available online through Engineering Encounters. This was a project that was originally published by Stephen J. Ressler of the United States Military Academy. It is a rigorous approach to designing and building bridges from file folders:

https://bridgecontest.org/resources/file-folder-bridges/

Its a great project with an incredible set of resources, background information, and step by step instructions. Unlike less rigorous and involved bridge design projects (using toothpicks for example), this project has the students building compression members (beams) and tension members (cords) and gussets to better model real world designs and to give the students the opportunity to learn and make decisions about which members to use in different parts of their own designs.

The only issue that we had with this project is that it requires the rather tedious process of having students trace out the unfolded beam designs onto file folder material and then use scissors and  blades to cut out each beam and cord. But we have a laser cutter! There had to be a way to incorporate both 3D CAD design and our laser cutter in order to modernize this process. We also knew that Autodesk Inventor had some really amazing tools for analyzing design structures.

From Sheet Metal To Manila Folders

Autodesk Inventor has an amazing set of tools for designing sheet metal parts. Using these tools, an engineer can construct 3D models made of folded metal parts made from just about any thickness of metal stock. Once you have designed the folded metal part, Inventor will create a flat pattern design for you that you could then send to a CNC plasma cutter to cut from sheet metal stock. You would then fold the part up manually and you would have your folded part.

Inventor gives you the ability to custom define the thickness of your stock, and some of the parameters around how it can be bent. We defined our stock to be as thick as manila folder paper. The next step is a bit tricky, but with the help of a great video I came across from Rob Cohee, we were able to define custom folded paper beam stock that the students could then use to build out their frames. Once again, Inventor has an amazing set of tools for defining structural frames (called The Frame Generator) that can then be populated with any kind of structural beam. You can also define your own structural beams that can be used to populate your frame.

I have included a video below that we use with the students to help guide them through this process:

Using the frame generator tool in Inventor also allows the student to miter and trim the beam members, which allows the students to focus on design rather than getting lost in the time consuming process of calculating the cut angles. The following video shows you how this can be done:

Once the students had designed the bridges, it was time to prepare the flat patterns and have the laser cutter do the work of cutting them out.

Fold, Glue, Repeat. (Some Assembly Required)

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The students prepare their flat pattern cut-outs for the laser cutter and then you let the laser “rip”! Its awesome to sit back and watch this machine cut. I never get sick of watching it! Having the students do this would take SO much longer, the cut parts would be less accurate, and as all CTE teachers know, one of the most dangerous tools in the shop is an Exacto blade.

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Some might argue that the “manual” process of cutting all these beams out by hand is “good for the students”, but we feel that saving time here allows us to use that time in other areas, such as virtual testing.  Before the students get to build their design, we ask them to use Inventor’s frame analysis tools to help them analyze potential weaknesses in their designs. The following video shows just how amazing this tool is:

Once the students have done their analysis and cut their construction members, its time for folding and gluing, and folding, and gluing, and … At this point our project does not differ from the Engineering Encounters project. The students use a sheet of paper (actually two 11 x 17 sheets) with an elevation view (printed from Inventor as a CAD drawing) glued to a board as a guide for assembling the beams, cords and gussets:

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This process goes relatively quickly as the students have done all the prep work to make sure that the pieces all fit together. Once again, this really demonstrates how modern technology can allow the students to focus their attention on design.

To Break Or Not To Break

Once the bridges are assembled, its time to test them out. The performance metrics for the contest are not actually based on the strongest bridge but rather a more realistic approach. We have attached a monetary value to each beam, gusset and cord. The bridges are then tested to a set value – the required load. The bridge that holds that load and is “manufactured” least amount of money is then given the highest marks.

Once the bridge has been tested at the required load, we then give the students the choice to see just how much the bridges can hold before catastrophic failure. Most students (encouraged by both peers and staff!) decide to take their bridge to the limit.

Its always a fun way to end the project!