February 20, 2006

Our Son Has Been Abducted by a Robot

We haven't seen him for three days now, as he's sleeping on a friend's floor and spending all day as a member of Team 1538, the High Tech High Robotics Team. Last Saturday was the first outing of HTH's robot as well as a dozen others from local schools. It made the local paper, and was lavishly photographed. Bill Gates and Oprah Winfrey secretly visited the team last week and taped a segment for a future show. The kids are learning engineering, blogging about the experience, and generally throwing themselves into it full bore. Alex's role, and his senior project, is to create a video documentary about the team.

It's all part of the FIRST robotics competition, the next stage of which is a huge event in Las Vegas in which robots will be competing and cooperating with each other in a basketball-like game. We went last year and it was incredibly fun. The founder of FIRST, Dean Kamen, is the inventor of the Segway and was a student at WPI in the 70s when I worked there. He was a standout even then. After taking a couple of years of coursework, he stopped going to classes and instead began hiring some of the faculty as consultants as he began his own business.

Anyway, the HTH robot gets packed in a box and shipped to Las Vegas tomorrow, and until then it's the full time obsession of these dozen kids. We look forward to getting Alex back again for awhile tomorrow night.


February 17, 2006

Veronica Mars Surveyor

A couple of weeks ago I was touring a potential new faculty hire around the SDSU campus. As I turned a corner, suddenly everything was unfamiliar. There were banners displayed labeled "Heritage College" or something like that and I wondered if some re-org had happened when I wasn't paying attention. Turned another corner and things got clearer. There were video cameras, boom microphones, large white reflectors to control the sunlight, and actors walking across the quad in front of the Campanile Tower. They were filming an episode of Veronica Mars.

I've never watched it, but I feel the same kind of civic bragging rights as when Simon & Simon was set here back when I first moved to San Diego. I mean, how many shows are filmed in Waterbury, Connecticut?

So what are the educational technology implications of all this trivia? I just noticed a link to a Wayfaring Map of Veronica Mars Locations which is a great example of the use of Google Maps to clarify a story. The Wayfaring site lets you create your own annotated maps and share them online. Since I'm teaching my class for pre-service English teachers again, I find myself looking for applications of technology to literature. The Wayfaring site would be a great tool to analyze Joyce's Ulysses, or Homer's Odyssey. I could even do one about Thurber's Secret Life of Walter Mitty which took place, more or less, in my home town Waterbury. Yet another daydream.


February 13, 2006

StarLogo: TNG

Holy smokes! This is going to be a great tool for my games class next fall. The wizards of MIT recently announced StarLogo TNG, the next generation of the long running Star Logo 2 software. Forget what you know about Logo as a single abstract "turtle" going forward 50, right 90. Like the original Star Logo, this version allows you to set zillions of turtles on the loose so that you can simulate phenomena like the flocking of birds, the spread of disease, the bottleneck at the I-5/805 split or other complex decentralized behavior that emerges from simple rules.

What's new in TNG is that the world is 3-dimensional and the turtles are animated and a lot more turtlescent. They don't, in fact, have to look like turtles at all and the backdrop can be grimy and Quake-like, or sunny and Teletubbyish, or whatever you want.

It's only out for Windows now, but a Mac version is imminent. I can't wait to give it a try.


February 12, 2006

The Algebra of Real Estate

Long before the web existed, I was a math teacher... the first job I ever loved. Sometimes I wish I could return to that now that there are so many cool new things to inflict math on. The latest case in point: Zillow.com.

Try it out. Type in your home address and see how much it says that your house is worth. What about your neighbors? Your old boy friend? The house you grew up in?

Clearly, since most homes are not actually on the market, there is some math going on in the background to estimate these prices. Wouldn't it be a terrific inquiry exercise to try to figure out what the underlying equations are? Zillow gives you the lot size, house size, number of bathrooms and bedrooms and year built. For a given neighborhood, could you hold everything constant except for one of these and plot that against the price? Could you develop equations that show the value of adding a bedroom? If there are outliers, is there an explanation based on location within the neighborhood?

Could be fun.


February 11, 2006

TCEA Reflections

Well, I shouldn't just gripe about presenter rudity without turning the spotlight on my own presentations in Austin. I had two. First up was an introduction to QuestGarden
which seemed particularly appropriate since QuestGarden debuted in very early beta form in a workshop at TCEA a year ago.

I got off to a rough start since the data projector didn't arrive until three minutes before the presentation was to begin. I usually reboot my computer once the projector is attached to clear out any cruft that had accumulated in RAM over the previous few days. But I didn't do that and so midway through the talk the dreaded spinning beachball on screen let me know that Firefox had stopped responding to my wishes. Had to restart and tap dance through the long process of getting back to where I was. Since the demonstration of QuestGarden, the heart of the session, was cut short, it was not a completely satisfying experience for me or the audience. I'd give myself a C+.

The second presentation was called GeoTeleWikiPodBlogCasting for Understanding and this is the first time I've given it. I began with a quick review of some of the coolest applications of geotools, wikis, blogs and podcasting, then cautioned against doing things just because they're cool, and then went on to speak more generally about how these tools and sites can be applied well to teaching and learning. Unfortunately I didn't pace it right and spent too long on the examples. That cut short the time I had to cover designs and strategies for teaching which was really the most important part. No technical problems, though, so I'd give it a B.

I've got a list of things to do to bring both presentations to an A grade next time so it wasn't a total loss.


Ripples in the Pond

One of the great and scary things about teaching is that you never know exactly what will happen when people actually use what you teach them. I'm delighted to see that Jerry Foust, a teacher enrolled in our masters program, has gotten himself into the news. Music teacher adds podcasting to curriculum says the headline. Kudos to youdos, Jerry!


February 10, 2006

A Rude Dude Presenter

Update: On the advice of my usually wise wife, I've revised this post by removing the name of the offender. I still stand by what I wrote, but have decided to focus on the rude act rather than on the actor. My point in writing this, really, was not directed at the presenter but rather the audience. We shouldn't enable this kind of thoughtlessness by politely standing by. A few years ago I watched another presenter knowingly go way over his time until someone in the audience stood up and pointed out to the speaker that he was cutting into the next guy's session. Half the audience cheered. We (in the audience) should do that more often.

One of the featured speakers at TCEA is someone who is everywhere on the speaker circuit these days, rebuilding the buzz as the release of his next book draws near. His first book was required reading in my games class several years ago so I was looking forward to hearing him speak. Yesterday I hustled over to the convention center for his 8:00 a.m. session.

Not a bad presentation, done in Lessig style with few words per slide, but it was mostly the same familiar stuff: thanks to a life of game/video/rich media exposure, kids are wired differently from the rest of us and must therefore be taught differently. Yeah, OK, maybe.

But here's my beef. Sessions at the conference were scheduled for 45 minutes with a 15 minute break in between. By 8:45, he was nowhere near the end of his slides, so he asked the audience if it was OK if he just kept on going past his time slot. Several hands were raised in assent, and he forged ahead.

Dave Thornburg was sitting next to me in the back row, waiting to go on stage at 9:00 with a presentation about Linux and he, understandably, was not OK with the presenter expanding his domain. Dave walked up to the front of the room and spoke to him, he nodded and then resumed.

By 8:55 the speaker was still plowing through his slides, (there were 160 of them, he told us proudly) and was clearly not about to stop until he got to the last one. Dave got up and stood right next to the stage waiting for the hint to be taken, but the slides just kept on coming until the stroke of 9:00, the last one supposedly being a punchline of sorts that just had to be shown. That left Thornburg with a time slot shortened by the time needed to get the other presenter unplugged, off stage and himself set up. The presenter was completely unapologetic.

Rude, rude, rude. An inconsiderate ass. Note to program chairs of future conferences: schedule people like this at the end of the day or give them a facilitator with a stun gun.

February 02, 2006

Anticipating the Future

I'm in St. Louis today, attending a meeting of the advisory board for eMINTS which is always a source of new ideas for me. We spent last evening working our way through an activity called The Implications Wheel, something I'd never heard of. Our task was to generate some insights into the future. What lies ahead as eMINTS continues to grow? What are the opportunities and perils that lie ahead?

We were broken into tables of 4 or 5 people. Each table had a mix of backgrounds, and each group was given one first-order implication to deal with. From that we had to think about at least five things that might happen next, and from each of those second-order implications we had to do the same thing again. With all the brainpower in the room, we were able to surface a lot of important issues and it was interesting to see how some of the same basic themes came up all over the room, even though we each had a different starting point.

I'm usually a bit skeptical about group processes like this, but the Implications Wheel impressed me as a technique with a lot of potential. When time permits, I want to read up some more about it.