Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Make your own toys

I made one of these spool tanks when I was in Cub Scouts way back before they ever put a man on the moon. I believe it was one of the first things I ever built. It was fun to play with. It taught me some things about simple machines. I used a real knife to carve the notches in the spool and didn't cut off my thumb!

Mechanical Toys is a site that has directions for making a spool tank, a rubber band gun and a bunch of other cool toys. There are photos and diagrams for building most of the projects mentioned (some have a coming soon message). There are also links to other mechanical toy sites.

Now if I can only find a wooden spool in the junk box in my garage.

[Image captured from Mechanical Toys Page:]

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Second Language

The Fischbowl recently had a link to this article: Rensselaer to Require All Engineering Students to Study Abroad. It has an interesting discussion about engineers needing a second language because "their eventual careers may require them to collaborate with international clients or co-workers".

I told a teacher I was interested in a science career when I was around 12, he recommend I take German as a second language because so much research was coming out of Germany. Another teacher in high school suggested Russian might be useful to someone going into science for the same reasons. I wonder what language I might recommend to a student today asking me the same question? Chinese? Japanese?

In the late 90's I had a principal who looked into setting up a Chinese language class at the middle school where I was teaching. She was unable to find a teacher who fit our needs at the time so it never came to pass, but she was already thinking ahead of the curve. I know that in a lot of schools, World Languages have taken a back seat to kids trying to meet all their academic requisites. Is it time to re-think our school policies towards a World Language? Should it be an elective or required? Do we need to look beyond the traditional German, French and Spanish?

[Image: Chinese word for luck captured from]

Monday, April 28, 2008

Clothing Color Palettes

One trick I've use in the past when students are having a difficult time creating a color scheme for a web page is to have them borrow a palette from nature. Pick a picture of a flower or a tree or a mountain vista and then open it up in Photoshop. Use the eyedropper tool to grab the color hex number for three to five colors. Create a second layer and then draw a thick line of each color across the picture. Does it look good with the picture? Hide the photo. Do the color swatches look good together?

Instant color palette!

I ran across a site that does something similar, Wear Palettes. It takes outfits that are posted on another site that are considered fashionable and then uses those photos to create a palette.

Fashion is not my thing.

Clothes are not my thing.

The women in my life will attest to my poor taste in clothes and attrocious color sense. Yet there are lots of kids who are into clothes and fashion. Here is one way to help them bring an outside interest into their web design projects.

All kids struggle (OK maybe only I struggle) with matching their clothes in the morning. Getting them to think about their clothes gives them another way to think about color and design.

[Image captured from Wear Palettes:]

Friday, April 25, 2008

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Planning for Presentations

Another slideshow from Rowan Mahanan about putting some thought into who your audience is before creating a presentation.

Some good tips here.

[Image captured from slideshow "Planning to Present" by Rowan Mahanan]

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Free Range Children

While standing on bus duty before school I am able to observe the following scene; a long row of cars that winds down out of the parking lot and sometimes as far as several blocks away from our school dropping off students. Now we have bus service for kids that live a certain distance but if I had to guess, I'd say that only about half of the cars dropping of kids are bussed kids. Those of us on duty often refer to this as the "parade of parents."

Some of these kids live within walking distance. Some of them would ride the bus if their parents didn't bring them every day. My school isn't the only one. I live a few blocks from an elementary school and the same thing happens there every day. Our neighborhood is a typical suburban neighborhood. I'd say the crime rate is low. In the past ten years I can think of only one serious incident that involved students. Yet safety seems to be a major parental concern.

These are reasons I've heard from both parents and kids.
  • Not safe to walk to school
  • Don't want kids to be picked on by other kids on bus, on street....etc.
  • Only time of the day we get to spend time together.
  • It's too cold to walk.
  • It's too hot to walk.
  • It's too far to walk.
  • I don't want my (son...daughter....child) standing around in the cold waiting for the bus.
  • If I don't bring them, they won't go.
Safety is probably the biggest worry amongst parents. I'm an old guy who grew up walking to school. We had bullies. We had perverts. We had drug dealers. I survived and I was a weak, over weight kid who lost the only fist fight I was ever in.

I don't have children so I don't feel comfortable giving parents advice on this but I was intrigued by this article called, Why I let my 9 year old ride the subway. There is a website that has sprung up along with it called, FreeRange kids.

As I walk my dog in the park and don't see any kids playing on the playground equipment or using the big grassy area for baseball or soccer, I wonder if we are being too protective? I can't imagine what my childhood would have been like if I had been limited to my house and yard. Much less rich, I expect.

[Image: Flickr: Creative Commons-Attribution: "Easter long weekend stuck in some traffic" (91RS);]

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Paper Pop Ups

I was trying to create a little pop up birthday card for a friend and was having some trouble making it do exactly what I wanted. I have several pop-up books that must be buried at the bottom of a box somewhere, cause they weren't to be found.
"Oh well. Guess I will have to Google."
Found on my first try. It had an example of the fold I was trying to remember and it is a informative little site I will keep in my bookmarks. Robert Sabuda is a children's book author with several pop up titles on his resume (and many others he has written and illustrated). If you are a fan of pop ups you will find something here that will delight you. If you aren't and you work with kids, why aren't you? Pop ups are a great way to reinforce a variety of skills. Geometry. Simple machines. Art. Design.

I used pop up design and building with my sixth grade tech students to help them think in 3-D and it was a cheap way to help them learn the design process. They can design, build, test, re-design and build again over and over again. All for the price of a few sheets of paper and some tape. Plus they had a cool little project they could take home and hang on the fridge!

The page that I am still poring over is the extensive list of pop up books that the author maintains. It has the books I use as a reference and several others I want. He briefly describes each book and lists the advantages and disadvantages of each. This is a great find!

[Image "popup oz"; captured from]

Monday, April 21, 2008

Shift Happens

I was at a district training last week and the presenter showed Karl Fisch's "Did You Know" as an activity to bring us back on task after lunch. Many of the teachers and staff in the room had not seen it before. I was a little surprised as it seems like I've watched it so many times now. I'm thinking it might be time to show it in my own building to get people thinking.

Several folks asked if I would send them the link for the presentation. Since I went to the trouble to gather the links, thought I'd post them also.

  • This is the YouTube link (same as embedded below).
  • Many districts have blocked YouTube so here is a download page where you can find the presentation in several formats.
  • A link to a wiki page that gives more information on the presentation.
  • A link to Karl Fisch's blog, The Fischbowl.

This is a great conversation starter for any meeting or class. It will generate all kinds of comments and opinions from the group.

[Image created by Al Gunn]

Friday, April 18, 2008

Funny: I need a napkin!

My brother and I used to mock musicals as kids saying that they were "fake" and that "no one would ever just break into song." After watching this video created by Improv Everywhere, I've changed my mind. This is the world I want to live in...where at any moment, the world would become a musical and I would become Julie Andrews and.....and.....we'd all be just so darn perky!

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Design Squad

Read an article in my most recent issue of The Technology Teacher (april/2008) that made reference to a television show that I wasn't familiar with called the Design Squad. The program is built around a group of teenagers that are given a design challenge each week. I tuned in today to watch an episode called the "PVC Kayak Challenge". In my area Design Squad plays on Sunday mornings. No wonder I never saw it on my schedule. Luckily, I have Tivo and was able to watch it in the afternoon rather than get up early. I enjoyed it and thought it would be a fun show for school kids also. It is kind of like Junk Yard Wars only aimed at a younger age group and less dangerous challenges.

After the show I went to their web site and found a wealth of information including a set of challenges that could be utilized in most classrooms. I saw several that I'd done in the past and many that I'd use if I were still running a technology lab. Give the web site and the show a look-see...I think you will find a few ideas you can use.

[Cheng, Jack. "Excite Kids About Engineering." The Technology Teacher Apr 2008: 26-31.]
[Image captured from Deisgn Squad website:]

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

History of Digital Storage

In my Apple IIe days, I remember bringing in several examples of floppy disks to show my students including a big 8 inch floppy (shown in the picture) that a parent had given me . At some point in the mid eighties another teacher in my building wrote a grant to buy a hard drive to store the files for a bbs (electronic bulletin board) he was running. It was a whopping 128 mgs and cost over a grand. When I talk to my students about this now, it is one of those quaint bits of history. Interesting but quickly forgotten. It must have been like this for my mother when she used to tell me about switching from kerosene lamps to electric lights. It was interesting but I didn't really feel it in my heart. None of my students understand that heart thumping excitement as all the geeky teachers in the building (all three of us) gathered around that heavy, big 128mgs of monster technology and felt like we were looking into the future.

Maybe it's because I'm older and less prone to giddy flights of excitement, but I don't ever get that same big rush from the next new thing anymore. Maybe I'm jaded? Maybe I've seen too much change? It's fascinating to me.....after all I still am a geeky guy. Perhaps when I am laying on my deathbed and all the data from my life is playing back before me from a memory chip the size of a pin head, I can brag to the angels dancing with me there about how much change I've seen. (That might make me giddy?)

Thanks David Warlick's for the link that took me down memory lane. (Sorry for that pun...but it was just too good to pass up!) This site would be great to show to your kids when you talk about the old days. Be prepared though, they might laugh and call you things like "geezer".

[Image captured from]

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Dodging Bullets

Two things happened recently that made me come to the conclusion that Powerpoint pretty much forces you to give one type of presentation. First, I was helping my wife prepare a talk for her job. Powerpoint in the way it is set up was forcing her to create the talk in a specific fashion. Multiple bullet points and a print out of the slides to give to the audience. She was used to seeing presentations like this, didn't like them, but was having a hard time breaking away from that format.

Pretty much every Powerpoint I see is built with numerous slides with lots of bullet points. The presenter reads what is on the slides. The slides are printed out and given to the audience. Every time, I walk away thinking, "why didn't they just send us the presentation and save us the time."

The second thing that influenced my viewpoint was watching this slideshow by Rowan Manahan, Dodging bullets in Presentations, where he pretty much put my thoughts into words. He takes wordy slides and shows how they can be re-created to support your presentation. The focus should almost always be you and your content. Your slides should emphasize your points. I admit there are times when data heavy presentations need to be made but there has got to be a better way than watching graph, after table, after chart projected up on a screen.

What I would like to see is a program that asks you to identify your audience, determine what type of presentation it is and then ask you to write out your script before you ever see a slide template. I'm sure I am paraphrasing one of the more knowledgeable presenters I have blogged about but my thinking is that your presentation should first be able to stand without any slides. Get to the point where you can give the talk with only a few notes. Then look at what kinds of graphics would best support or emphasize your points. If you are going to give your audience a handout, make it from scratch and don't rely on the nifty "print handouts" feature in Powerpoint.

I'll be teaching Powerpoint next year to high school freshmen and am thinking that before my students even open Powerpoint they will need to prepare a speech and give it to the class. Then, and only then, will we open the program and look at ways to enhance their speeches.

Any thoughts?

[Image taken from the slideshow "Dodging bullets in presentations" by Rowan Manahan]

Monday, April 14, 2008

Technology Lesson Plans

I was exploring the Association for Career and Technology Education (ACTE) website and found this section of technology lesson plans.

Here are a few sample titles with brief descriptions:
  • Scale Drawings :Students sketch an enlargement of a cartoon using geometry and ratios. Secondary.
  • The Barbie Bungee Drop: To create a mathematical model or equation relating the distance a Barbie doll will fall and the number of rubber bands making up the bungee cord. Goes with Barbie Bungee Drop. Middle school, secondary.
  • Cereal for all: Students take a cereal box apart to determine the total surface area of the box and how much material is needed to create the box. Secondary.

The lessons download as word documents and anyone can access this area of the site. Some of the plans have more information than others. I would have liked a bit more narrative and a listing of standards being taught. Overall though, I thought if I were looking for ideas, this would be a perfectly acceptable place to get started.

[Image captured from homepage of ACTE:]

Friday, April 11, 2008

Funny: Anyone...anyone...anyone?

The famous scene from Ferris Bueller's Day Off that makes every teacher cringe and every student say, "Yeah. I had a teacher just like that."

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Typing a panagram

If you ever took a typing class than you probably had the experience of typing:

The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.

This phrase is an example of a pangram, a sentence that contains all the letters of the alphabet. When I taught keyboarding to middle schoolers I often used this phrase to help kids see which letters were giving them problems. My typing teacher back in my old high school did the same thing for me. (To me?)

I used to make up my own pangrams to spice things up a little. It gets boring typing the same thing over and over again. I was reminded of this when I ran across Pangramaday, the website of a person that writes a pangram each day. They are much more poetic than the lame ones I created. They'd be fun to add into your drill and practice. The kids will think you are awesome. Parents will think you are clever. Principals will congratulate themselves for hiring you. All this praise because of a simple sentence that turns your youngsters into speed typists.

Some examples from the site:
  • Thunderstorms beat a quickstep across the valley; forget what quiet jazz existed.
  • I noticed his glazed pompadour had acquired a killer swoop; a foxy wave befitting a jester.
  • Albuquerque nights project fake moonlight over wide expanses of brazen sky.

I got curious if there were any other panagram sites out there as Pangramaday doesn't have a lot of choices as of yet. The author is going to add one each morning but he has only been writing them for a few weeks. I searched and here are a few examples out of the thousands of pages about panagrams available.

[Image is my own creation...yes I know I just typed the alphabet in Photoshop and added a triangle. But it's a nice shade of green don't you think?]

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Is it possible to multitask?

The video below demonstrates how our brains filter information. It was made to promote cyclist safety. The point being that if you are concentrating hard on one thing, other things, like a cyclist, won't be noticed.

On more than one occasion while my wife has been driving we will pass one of those folks dressed up as a hot dog or a taco or a fluorescent haired clown advertising a local merchant.

After passing the clown, I will say something clever like, "Cute clown?".
She replies, "What clown?"
I say, "The clown on the side of the road waving the big 4-x-4 sign on a stick."
"There was no clown."
"Yes there was."
"No way!"
"Yes way!"

You get the idea. This has happened often enough, that in any similar circumstance where one of us should have noticed or seen something, we often say...."Didn't you see the clown?"

My reason for bringing this up is not to air my marital issues ( I love my wife even if she can't see the clown) but to point out this brain filtering mechanism. And to ask the question, can we truly multi-task? Or are we really serial-tasking very quickly? If this is a skill needed in the workplace, is there a way we can better prepare kids to handle it? Is there a way for me to re-train my 50+ year old brain without some sort of mental implosion?

[Image:Flickr: Bahman:]

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Bing Bang Boing

Saw this video on Boing Boing about a 70s era toy and wondered how I could not have any memory of it. Granted I was off to college at the time but still.....seems like it's something I would have bought for a nephew or at least snuck off to the toy store to investigate.

It reminds me of the Chaos Toy that came out several years ago which is essentially a kit of various components that allows you to build Rube Goldberg type machines. I had one that I used in my 6th grade tech class. I also have one in storage that my wife asks me every year if we can donate to somebody.
I reply, "No. A thousand times NO. No one will appreciate that toy like me. Perhaps I could be buried with it? Or even better, at my eulogy, set it up to bounce gumballs into my open casket."

I am thinking more and more that most of the mechanisms in a toy like the Chaos Toy or the Bing Bang Boing can be reproduced out of simple materials. Wouldn't it be more fun to construct your own home made kinetic machine? I think so.

After doing a quick search, I found this guy that agrees with me who built a Bing Bang Boing for his kids.

[Image created by Al Gunn to represent the perfect funeral set up for a geeky technology teacher. Better than a Millenium Falcon shaped coffin!]

Monday, April 7, 2008

UK online safety study

Ars Techica had a post about a recent British study that is "an independent review of how parents and children are being affected by the rise of new technology." I particularly like the following analogy. Byron, the author of the study, suggests that parents should treat technology as they do more traditional areas of childhood development, and makes two informative comparisons: crossing the street and learning to swim. Each of these is associated with risks, but parents manage them in stages, with education, followed by supervised exploration that ultimately leads to allowing children to explore largely unsupervised. Technology largely presents a problem because it lacks the intuitive and widely understood aspects of education and risk.

The full text of the article is available here.

[Image:Flickr: maveric2003:Eric Chan: "Kids on a rope";]

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Acid Test for Browsers

The Acid3 test page will check to see how compliant a browser is to web standards. If you are teaching web design, your students will eventually run into a situation where a page will open fine on one browser but will not look right on another. The Acid3 test is a fast way to show your kids these differences graphically. The picture shown here is what the page is supposed to look like. My understanding is that at this point no browser is 100% compliant. Try it with your current browser and see how close it comes.

If you want more details about the organization that put the test together or the whole issue of web standards, check out the Web Standards Project site.

[Image captured from ACid3 Test reference page:]

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Google on Internet Safety

The Google Blog had a post last week on internet safety with a variety of links. I've included a video they created in partnership with Common Sense Media here that is featured on that posting. If you are looking for some safety related sites you can share with parents or colleagues, this might be helpful.

[Image created in Photoshop. Quote is from a character on the TV show "Hill Street Blues" that aired in the 1980's]

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

You wouldn't believe me anyway...

I was going to write a long essay on how to solve all the problems facing technology education. But who would believe anything I write today?