The Hardest Things Are Worth Doing Right

The title of the post comes from Camp Roger. Camp's have a lot of hard problems to solve. There probably is not a lot of math in the problems, but sometimes there is. I sent a link to the post entitled Pleasantly Frustrating by Joe Bower to my camp director. The post, and its title reminded me that the hardest things are worth taking the time to do right.

In view of my change to allowing WolframAlpha into my physics class has made problem solving just plain frustrating to many students. So where is the balance between solving real problems, complicated, multiple step problems  and just being frustrating students? What is a pleasantly frustrating physics problem?

In my change of the course to look at a real problem, energy in Nicaragua, I have tried to solve the pleasant part by making the problem really real, hoping that the focus on the small steps would come from a bigger purpose. I must not be holding that purpose in front of them correctly yet, because at least the mathematical problem solving is still mainly frustrating. This is something to continue to work on.

WolframAlpha in Physics

For about a year and a half now I have been using WolframAlpha (WA) in class. Students may use it for any assignment or assessment. This changes the problems that you assign. Drastically.

Many easy problems can be simply cut and past into WA and solved. So what becomes important is assigning problems that get at the real skills we would like students to have from problems. Problems that they have to break apart and digest and put together the simple things that WA can solver for them. This is not unlike what I do when I solve problems in my own work.

What I did not know until now was how little of that kind of problem solving I used to teach. I assign many fewer problems that are much harder and require a ton more thinking. Since this is not what I am used to many of my old methods of teaching problem solving are not working as well. Here is the punch line: WA is making me think that I need to have my students talk more about the problems they are solving. This technology is making me see a need for my students to be more social. I should have read Frank's post more closely.

There are so many complaints out there that technology makes us less social, but I think in the end it frees us to be more social. But it is hard work getting there.

Mathematical Standards

As a part od every inquiry unit there have been mathematical standards. This keeps the rigor in the course. I am convinced that you can teach using inquiry and also have rigor. I am struggling with how to do this better.

I had a student after that inquiry on heat, temperature and phase change send in this scribe post. Essentially she is asking why I teach it backwards, inquiry first then math. I actually brought this up in all my classes as both a new kind of scribe post (less words more thought) and just to ask the question, why do you think I would do this? Amber reflected on the original reflection. So did another student.

Physics teaching, may be more than any other subject, is fraught with balance problems. It seems so hard to leave behind the "rigor" in exchange for the true rigor that is learning. This journey to energy in Nicaragua is making it even harder because both are required. There  is no way of not having your math in order if you are going to make something. A number of students proven that just in making solutions to stay at one extreme temperature for a long time. On the other hand if all that is learned is memorized algorithms quickly forgot, what have I helped the student reveal about themselves to the world?

Any insight would be appreciated.

Gene Norris

I have been using Bluefire Reader to read ePub books from the library on the iPad. I have not checked this many books out from the library in years.

I love Pat Conroy's  storytelling and I have been reading My Reading Life. My favorite book by him is the must read teacher book, The Water Is Wide. I ran across this quote about his favorite English teacher, "'Mr. Norris acted like I was the most important girl in the world.' she said. 'You were. That was Gene's secret. All of us were.'"

I am starting a collection of quotes the exemplify what I am currently calling a posture of the image of God. This posture is a combination of two ideas that I have been toying with. In the Kalyanpur and Harry's book Culture in Special Education the propose that special education teachers need a, "posture of cultural reciprocity." Their idea is that you cannot understand the needs of a student and their family until you have some handle on what is cultural to both you and the student. Since you are the teacher you are the one who has to build into your life a posture of always looking to learn about those around you. The book is another must read.

I tied this idea to one I got from CS Lewis in The Weight of Glory [PDF], "There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations - these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit - immortal horrors or everlasting splendors." This caught my attention because of another quote, this one unattributed brought to me by a professor this summer, "There is a part of who God is that only gets expressed through who you are."

Teaching means to have a posture of the image of God. Whoever you run into has some piece of the image of God that you will only see by looking closely at that person. As a teacher I need to work to bring this unique piece of God's image out in each student. This is the task of revealing the immortal, of helping students, "know fully, just as [they] have been fully known."

Gene Norris had a posture of the image of God, whether he knew it or not.

Inquiry Three: Investigating Extreme Temperatures

I know it has been a while. Life. One post a day, every day of break. A goal.

At the end of my last entry on the project to Nicaragua I asked where I should head. I headed in the direction of investigating heat energy. I thought this was the easiest on ramp to understand the most we would need to understand about energy to begin to build efficient and useful devices for energizing Nicaraguan schools.

The challenge I presented the student with was this. Produce a graph of a temperature held steady for 5 minutes above 103 Celsius and 15 minutes below -3 Celsius. I allowed them to use our Vernier GoTemp! probes and let them start writing grants.

My idea is that this would make them innovate a little and that the students would take one of two approaches. They would either take the path of finding something with a freezing or boiling point in the range and let said item freeze or boil for the allotted time. This would emphasis heat being different from temperature. It would show that heat can do work as well as increase temperature. It would make it clear to groups that heat is energy stored microscopically, which was one of the standards of the unit.

The other approach I anticipated was that students would pick something to depress the freezing point (like salt) or increase the boiling point (like salt) and then take away or add heat as necessary to keep the temperature stable. This would be a different approach and would emphasis that heat is constantly flowing from hot to cold (heater to water when making the solution hotter, water to room when you remove the heater). This also was a standard.

There were many interesting experiments. Much success and some failure. I had hoped that the presentations would show students both concepts and I encouraged groups that had chosen one method on the cold experiment to try the other method for the hot experiment.

At that point we were off to the races. Here are the rest of the standards for the unit.

Random Question about Food Energy

On Dec 18, 2010, at 10:26 PM, Emily  wrote:

> Just a random question... if you eat food warm vs cold do you receive more energy from it because heat=energy???

Great question. Off the top of my head the answer is no and yes a very
little. No there is not more energy to run your body in hot food. The
Calories in food do not go up when you heat up food. However, cold
food like ice cream does reduce your body temperature a little
requiring your body to use more chemical energy than it would have to
keep your body temperature up. This is where it is important to
remember that Calories for food are big C calories which are really
kilocalories. Eating cold food might use up a couple of small c
calories, several order of magnitude less than the the chemical energy
you are taking in. Ice cream is still a very high net calorie food,
celery is very low in net calories. Ice cream is more tasty than

Drawing Graphs

These students are doing problems. Very traditional problems. Yet they are drawing graphs to start. This is one of the things that starting with inquiry does. Since they started with graphs of data they are more likely to draw graphs of problems, which better mimics how real problems are solved.

Caught Cheating

There is a cheating scandal going on at UCF, with two sides to the story. What does this say about us as humans? Teachers should approach everyone, students and other faculty alike, searching for the image of God uniquely revealed in that person. This posture or approach does not have to stem from faith, but the lesson I think is the golden rule. Neither side wanted such public treatment of the real issues at hand. Students are very busy and any edge is important. Professors cannot possibly be effective with 400 students in a room. Ostensibly, everyone in the class, professor and students alike, wanted to know more about the truth of a subject. To know more about the truth of a subject you need to find out what others think, what the image of God revealed in them has to say about the subject. How could each side have looked for the best in the other in this situation to move everyone towards the goal of learning something cool, rather than shutting down the learning in favor of accusation? This is a hard question worth answering.

Doing What Works

Click through and listen to this teacher on using presentations to asses student learning. He lays out perfectly what a valuable use of class time presentations can be if they teacher is working hard to make them valuable. I particularly love that he is going to the groups and telling them ahead of time what his questions will be. This makes the kids feel empowered and motivated to learn.

This tab was to the right of my twitter tab, so I think I owe a debt of gratitude to @fnoschese for this link.