Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Jarnal (vs the Gimp) for screencasting

I've been putting more thought and research into better ways to do my screencasts/lecture capture and I've stumbled onto Jarnal.  It's a straight-forward whiteboard editor but it comes with some handy extra features (see below).  For screencasting it's biggest downside is that it doesn't have a pressure-sensitive option for the pen tablet I'm using and at first I thought that would be a deal breaker.  The reason is that with the whiteboard feature in Elluminate I always thought my handwriting looked awful, especially compared with how it looks when I use the Gimp to capture my writing.  Here's a comparison of a simple equation done in Jarnal and the Gimp:

Notice how the Gimp is lighter but also crisper.  The strokes look just like my handwriting on paper while the Jarnal one looks darker and blockier.  That's due to the lack of pressure sensitivity.  Now, of course the main point is that they are both legible!  So, even though I think it looks uglier after using it for a while, the other features that Jarnal bring to the table have convinced me to go with it for screencapturing in my courses this coming spring.

The first feature I really like (compared to the Gimp) is the ease to add extra pages as I need them.  In Jarnal it's a simple mouse click; in the Gimp it's a whole bunch of mouse clicks that generates effectively a different file.  With the Jarnal approach I can make a single document and upload it along with any screencast I make.  In the past I could do that in principle (and in fact I did on rare occasions) but it always was a little bit of a hassle to save, keep, and upload all the files.  Jarnal exports a single pdf file that I can easily share with my students.

Jarnal also greatly reduces the tool choices from the mammoth set that comes with the Gimp (remember, that was designed for photo editing).  I really like the simple pen and highlighter choices and the small list of color choices fits me just fine.  It's also easy to draw straight lines and to paste in photos (both of which can be done in the Gimp but it takes more mouse clicks).

Jarnal's big selling point is that it's great for annotating PDFs.  I have started to use this feature when commenting on student papers.  You can mark right on them just like you would with your red pen.  Also, it's really easy to add in extra pages, which I've done both for adding in a quick drawing to get my point across, and for adding in the rubric pdf page along with my scoring of the paper.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Teaching Naked

It appears I didn't try enough different search terms a year ago to look into resources for my new way of teaching.  I stumbled on this July article from the Chronicle of Higher Ed thanks to a tip from my buddy Jim Bonilla.  He and I were in a meeting to address technology in teaching and after I shared how I taught Modern Physics last semester (and plan to teach two courses this coming spring) he mentioned the concept of "Teaching Naked".  The article he pointed me to was published back in 2006 and is a great read along with the Chronicle article (and video!).

It seems that Professor (Dean) Bowen has worked with former colleagues at the University of Miami of Ohio on the concept of using class time to enhance the educational experience rather than to provide content.  He's a music professor (which might explain how I didn't find him last year --- "screencast physics" was a common search term for me) and he gives lots of examples of how he's changed his teaching style to move in this direction.  One of the things that he talks about that resonates well with me is the comparison with fully online teaching.  There both content and interaction have to be done outside of the classroom but in "Teaching Naked" you provide content outside of the class and then, usually, run discussions in class.

One of the disappointing things about finding this is the negative response in the Chronicle comments.  It reminds me of some of the conversations I've had with my own colleagues.  But, on the bright side, it's great to find someone with such a similar philosophy to mine and who has been successful implementing it.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

I'm now the proud owner of a Pro account.  Here's one way I use it:


Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Screencasting in Sound and Music

Next semester I'm teaching PHYS 1140 Physics of Sound and Music which is a course for non-science majors.  I plan to use the same organizational structure that I did in last year's Modern Physics course.  I'm a little nervous about being able to motivate the students to put in the time outside of class but I really think it'll pay off for them (and me) if I can make the class time useful for all of us.  I have two ideas for that.

First I'm going to try to do a demo in every class.  That's going to take some planning but luckily I have all of j-term free (with the exception of chairing the tenure and promotion committee) to do that so I think there's a chance I can pull it off.  Since the screencasts and the book will be taking care of the material I think it'll be fun to start each class (after the quiz, of course) with a demo and then have the students talk about the physics it represents.  I'm sure there will be some days when I'll be lazy and use a computer simulation instead but even those can be pedagogically useful (in fact I've recently read an article that makes the case that the cleaner simulations do a better job of teaching but that's another blog post).

Second I'm going to try to emulate Google's Moderator software with the questions students post.  That way the class can "crowdsource" the questions and rank the best ones.  That way it'll be ok if I don't get to every question from every student.  I've got some work ahead of me to pull that off but I've done something similar in the past so hopefully I can get it done in time.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

leaf evidence

leaf update

It appears that one lawn bag holds between 40,000 and 50,000 leaves. The boys have renegotiated for $1/bag from now on. They're not dumb, those two. here's the description of the project

Leaf math

The leaves have definitely fallen and I'm going to have my kids do some counting for money. I figure $1 for every 100,000 leaves should do the trick. Of course, it only counts if they get the leaves in the bags!

So how do they do it? Powers of ten, that's how!

First I have them each make a pile of 100 leaves. Then I have them make a new pile that seems the same size. If that one ends up within 5% of 100, I approve it and then they make 10 piles of 100 leaves. Then they gather that together and take a good look at how big that is. Then they make 9 more such piles and look at what 10,000 leaves look like. Then they make 10 piles of those to see what one dollar looks like. My guess is that one of those paper garden leaf bags will hold somewhere around a dollar's worth. For my yard that'll mean no more than $10-$15 out of my pocket, a clean yard, and kids who can brag to their teachers that they counted to a million over the weekend.

Monday, June 1, 2009

My evaluations for this course

VALUE Why did you take this course? (Check the most important one). NUM
1 Required course within my major/minor/program/certificate 4
2 Elective course counting toward my major/minor/program/certificate 0
3 Hamline Plan designation 0
4 General Elective course 0
AVG: 1 STD: 0 MIN: 1 MAX: 1 4
VALUE The instructor effectively communicates his/her knowledge of the subject. NUM
1 Strongly Disagree 0
2 Disagree 0
3 Moderately Disagree 0
4 Neither Agree nor Disagree 0
5 Moderately Agree 0
6 Agree 2
7 Strongly Agree 2
AVG: 6.5 STD: .58 MIN: 6 MAX: 7 4
VALUE The instructor presents this course in an organized fashion. NUM
1 Strongly Disagree 0
2 Disagree 0
3 Moderately Disagree 0
4 Neither Agree nor Disagree 0
5 Moderately Agree 0
6 Agree 1
7 Strongly Agree 3
AVG: 6.75 STD: .5 MIN: 6 MAX: 7 4
We had a topic outline at the beginning of the semester and we made it through just everything with some minor changes at the end of the semester.
VALUE The instructor creates an environment conducive to learning for all students. NUM
1 Strongly Disagree 0
2 Disagree 0
3 Moderately Disagree 0
4 Neither Agree nor Disagree 0
5 Moderately Agree 1
6 Agree 1
7 Strongly Agree 2
AVG: 6.25 STD: .96 MIN: 5 MAX: 7 4
The online screencasts were helpful to me but some students may not learn as well as having a regular lecture style course.
VALUE The instructor's teaching method encourages me to learn actively. NUM
1 Strongly Disagree 0
2 Disagree 0
3 Moderately Disagree 0
4 Neither Agree nor Disagree 0
5 Moderately Agree 0
6 Agree 0
7 Strongly Agree 4
AVG: 7 STD: 0 MIN: 7 MAX: 7 4
We had to read the sections before hand, have a summary typed up, and have at least one question to ask on the material before class. He also asked questions frequently during the class period.
VALUE The instructor challenges students to meet high academic standards. NUM
1 Strongly Disagree 0
2 Disagree 0
3 Moderately Disagree 0
4 Neither Agree nor Disagree 0
5 Moderately Agree 0
6 Agree 1
7 Strongly Agree 3
AVG: 6.75 STD: .5 MIN: 6 MAX: 7 4
This course was very time consuming outside the classroom.
VALUE The instructor provides feedback that enhances my learning. NUM
1 Strongly Disagree 0
2 Disagree 0
3 Moderately Disagree 0
4 Neither Agree nor Disagree 0
5 Moderately Agree 0
6 Agree 1
7 Strongly Agree 3
AVG: 6.75 STD: .5 MIN: 6 MAX: 7 4
We get feedback everyday on our questions in class and our labs have a lot of comments on them.
VALUE The instructor willingly provides assistance to students. NUM
1 Strongly Disagree 0
2 Disagree 0
3 Moderately Disagree 0
4 Neither Agree nor Disagree 0
5 Moderately Agree 0
6 Agree 0
7 Strongly Agree 4
AVG: 7 STD: 0 MIN: 7 MAX: 7 4
He was always willing to help with homework or conceptual problems.
VALUE The instructor clearly explains how my learning will be evaluated. NUM
1 Strongly Disagree 0
2 Disagree 0
3 Moderately Disagree 0
4 Neither Agree nor Disagree 0
5 Moderately Agree 0
6 Agree 2
7 Strongly Agree 2
AVG: 6.5 STD: .58 MIN: 6 MAX: 7 4
VALUE The instructor is an effective teacher. NUM
1 Strongly Disagree 0
2 Disagree 0
3 Moderately Disagree 0
4 Neither Agree nor Disagree 0
5 Moderately Agree 0
6 Agree 1
7 Strongly Agree 3
AVG: 6.75 STD: .5 MIN: 6 MAX: 7 4
VALUE This course provides a valuable learning experience. NUM
1 Strongly Disagree 0
2 Disagree 0
3 Moderately Disagree 0
4 Neither Agree nor Disagree 0
5 Moderately Agree 0
6 Agree 0
7 Strongly Agree 4
AVG: 7 STD: 0 MIN: 7 MAX: 7 4
Group Summary for questions of type "Strongly Dis/Strongly Agree":
AVG: 6.73 STD: 0.51 MIN: 5 MAX: 7 40
Group Summary for questions of type "Why did you take the course?":
Please make additional comments to be read by the Faculty Personnel Committee and the Dean of the College.
The new way of teaching that this professor has provided forces students to try learning on their own by reading the book. But the teacher is also willing to provide personal assistance for when we struggle and can't learn certain things in the book by ourselves. The online resources that the teacher provides for us would be even more efficient for the student and professor in a crowded class. The class teaches the student to learn how to study modern physics on their own and gives assistance for when we struggle to do that. I could also apply this to any other class which is nice.
This was a new way of teaching that I learned to like a lot. It forced me to prepare for class ahead of time.
Comments made by the student in this section will be read by the instructor only.
What features of this course most effectively helped you to learn?
The learning provided online.
The ability to get nearly unlimited help on assignments, and not having to turn those assignments in. Also, the oral exams were a very effective method of evaluation and forced us to study material more.
What changes, if any, would you recommend to improve this course?
Rarely the online resources were not explicit enough. The supplementary material sometimes had miscalculations.
The class is very time-consuming, when factoring in the time needed for reading, studying for quizzes, screencasts, and lab projects; it makes it very difficult to balance other classes. If there were some way to merge any of those things together to ease the time requirement, that would be very helpful.
More lectures in class
The following questions were added by the instructor, and pertain to this course only. They will be read by the instructor only.
Which aspects of the course did you like the most?
The requirement of typing up a summary and asking questions outside of class helped me to be more prepared. The use of mathematica was also very helpful to learn this material. I also enjoyed the subject matter covered in this course.
The reading became more interesting as we went along.
The lecture format, not having to turn in homework, and the oral tests.
I liked how the summaries forced me to read and how the screencasts could be paused.
Which aspects of this class did you like the least?
The amount of time needed to be committed outside this course was a little too much. To watch the screencasts, read the book, and do the summaries along with other classes is something that I feel not a lot of students can handle.
The class quizzes.
The time commitment. I had several very difficult classes this semester, and time management was extraordinarily difficult. This class, while not overly difficult, was still incredibly time-consuming.
This way of doing class takes up a lot of time. We are basically attending a class and a half because of the screencasts.
VALUE Doing the summaries and questions enhanced my learning. NUM
1 Strongly Agree 3
2 Agree 1
3 Neutral 0
4 Disagree 0
5 Strongly Disagree 0
0 Not Applicable 0
AVG: 1.25 STD: .5 MIN: 1 MAX: 2 4
The summaries were moderately helpful, as they had us review the big concepts in readings. The questions were even better though, as they let us get help on just the things we did not understand.
This requirement of the course helped me to be more prepared for class
I've experianced not reading and reading and when you don't read in this class you will be lost in the lectures. If one doesn't have time to read, they should at least watch the screencast, that helps a lot too.
Please comment on the use of screencasts and only answering questions in class.
I really liked the use of screencasts for this course because we can go back and hear a mini lecture anytime on blackboard. However, I felt like I would have grasped the material even better if we had an in class lecture as well because we can actually interact with you but not the screencasts.
It was an effective way of filling the holes in the reading
Effective; I personally learn better from books than lectures, and it was useful to supplement that with specific questions to the instructor.
I wish there were a few lectures in class on the basic overview of the topic. Sometimes it helps when you see it firsthand on the board.
Please comment on doing homework quizzes daily instead of turning homework in.
Having the quizzes daily forced me to try and fully understand the problems rather than simply looking up equations in the book. I feel like some of the time I did gamble with not doing one of them since it was a one if four chance though.
Perhaps it would be more fun to do class quizzes sometimes and homework other times. The professor would let us know which in the beginning of each class.
Preferable to set homework assignments, since we can receive mroe assistance on them.
I enjoyed the daily quizzes more than homework. Being quizzed on the material meant you actually had to know how to do it instead of knowing how to copy a formula from your book as most people do when they turn in homework.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

using jing for feedback

I just had another example of how to use screencasting to aid in teaching. I had several students emailing me with problems they were having with various software projects and instead of emailing them back with written comments I simply opened their software, turned on Jing (the screencasting software I use) and talked about what I saw regarding identifying and diagnosing their problems. I then uploaded the screencasts to and emailed the students back with the link. Very quick and painless!

screencasting in modern physics wrap up

The semester is just about over and I thought I'd post some of the lessons I've learned:

Preparing material

As I've posted before (here here, and here) I'm posting mini-lectures online ahead of time and requiring students to view them along with reading the book before each lecture.

  • I found that doing the detailed screencasts before the overview screencast worked the best because I wouldn't repeat myself as much.
  • I averaged 4 detail screencasts for each class. Each one is capped (by the software) to five minutes though I rarely used that much time
  • I liked that I could really focus and put down exactly what I wanted to say in these. When I compare that to how I used to lecture I would often not consult my notes enough and realized later that I forgot to say things.
  • I'm not interrupted with questions and so don't lose track of the important things I'm trying to get across (note that in class all I do is answer questions, see below)
  • I could save even more time in class if I posted screencasts with homework hints
  • I feel that the solutions sets (I screencast these as well) are much more useful to students as I can say what I really mean. In the past I would write terse descriptions of the equations etc but now, since I'm talking, I can be much more thorough
  • I started by posting both the screencasts and the screen-shots of what I was working on (especially when I used my wacom tablet to write notes). However I reasoned that the students would probably learn better if I just put the screencasts up and encouraged them to take their own notes (especially since they could pause the recording to get all the details right). I don't actually think the students did much of this, though

In class

I would tend to go to class with just a list of the questions the students submitted, a four-sided die (to pick which homework problem they need to do as a daily quiz), and a piece of chalk.

  • I didn't feel like I needed to prepare much because the screencasts were usually pretty fresh in my head. This tended to work fine because I would really just answer their questions anyways.
  • I would answer their questions pretty expansively. What I mean is that I would paint the large picture again to make sure all the students understood the context of all the questions. This enabled me to essentially relecture the material but I skipped all the details except where they were confused.
  • For the daily quiz sometimes I would change the numbers around but mostly I just left them alone. The students were split, some did very well almost every day and some, well, didn't. One in particular told me that he wished we had turned homework in instead because the one time they did that he did very well. I asked why that was and he said because he actually worked at all four problems. When I asked why he didn't do that every day he smiled and said that he gambled most of the time.
  • We did five "class quizzes" throughout the semester. I would pose a question and they would have 10-15 minutes to put the answer on the board. Then I would ask 4 follow-up questions to random students. As in previous classes it was fun to watch them work through both figuring out the problem and guessing what follow-up questions I might have.


They did about as well on written tests as in the past but much better on the oral exams. I chalk this up to the ease of studying from screencasts but hopefully their comments from the student evaluations will shed some light on that.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Modern Physics screencasting update again

This week we're having our first exam. The oral part was yesterday and they did very well. The format is the following:

  • All 5 (yes, I know, only 5) students take the oral together
  • Each student gets 10 minutes to complete a problem on the board.
    • The problems are chosen from homework problems and derivations in the book
    • There are five possible problems so all are done by someone
    • If they get stuck it costs them 5 points (out of a total of 100) to get unstuck by me
  • They then answer one follow up question from each of their classmates.
    • In the end they all ask 4 questions worth 5 points each (if I don't like the question, they don't get the points
Each of the problems that they had to do could be found on Blackboard as a screencast. Four were homework problems that were found under the solutions folder and one was the Bohr derivation that I did as a supplemental material screencast when I covered Bohr.

I gather they studied by watching the screencasts because they did very well. Tomorrow is the written test so we'll see how well they're learning using this approach.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Modern Physics screencasting update

This is an update about my use of screencasting in Modern Physics.

The class has now started and things are going well so far. I'm using Jing exclusively for the screencasts but instead of hosting them on I'm just posting them to BlackBoard. So far Blackboard isn't complaining about the files sizes (between 0.5 and 5 MB) and hopefully it won't complain about the cumulative total (about 15 MB so far). I like using Bb for several reasons. First I'm worried about running out of room on (2GB total) but also because I think I'll reserve that space for screencasts for a more general audience (like my screencast that show how to use my grade page or my summary page that all students use). Second I like how you can control when students have access to the screencasts. Of course I could host the screencasts on a Hamline server and just put in an external link in Bb (that I could control access to) but the students might get lucky and guess the url of other screencasts that I'm trying to control. Third I really like how you can track the viewing by student to know if they're actually making use of the screencasts.

Here's what I'm doing for a given class period. I type up a general outline of the material, careful to skip any details that warrant a separate screencast. I then make any additional screencasts for any details I feel might be confusing from the book. Finally I make a screencast for every homework problem (and make sure they don't have access until after the quiz on the homework given in class).

In class we do a quiz on a randomly selected homework problem (using a four-sided die so that students don't waste time trying to guess which problem I'm going to pick) and then I answer any questions they have about the reading that they've posted on my summaries page (link above). If there's time I answer any further questions and give them hints on how to do the homework problems.

The response from the students so far has been cautious optimism. On the first day when I introduced the basic concept one student said that it seemed like I was putting the responsibility on them to learn. I took that as a positive comment. On the second day all but one had used all the screencasts (the one who hadn't thought he didn't have Bb access) and said they "liked it". I'll continue to get feedback from them and adjust as we move forward.

A feature I'd like to start using is to have students use Jing to post questions to me. They could either use Bb or they could use my grade page to post those. Imagine being able to listen to a student showing where they were having problems in, say, Mathematica rather than getting their notebook and trying to discern their syntax!

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Quantum mechanics without imaginary numbers

I've been thinking about how the Schroedinger equation intimidates students because it is inherently complex:
-\frac{\hbar^2}{2m}\nabla^2 \Psi + V\Psi=\uc{red}{i} \hbar \frac{\partial \Psi}{\partial t}
(note the red i). This has led me in the past to say things like "quantum mechanics is weird because apparently the universe is both real and imaginary" and "we can only see the real parts". Now that last quote especially is suspect since what we can "see" is really the magnitude squared of the wavefunction:
which corresponds to the probability density of finding something in a particular location. But I'm coming around to a position where even the first quote above is suspect. It seems to me that you can rewrite the equation as two coupled equations:
-\frac{\hbar^2}{2m}\nabla^2 \Psi_1 + V\Psi_1=-\hbar \frac{\partial \Psi_2}{\partial t}
-\frac{\hbar^2}{2m}\nabla^2 \Psi_2 + V\Psi_2=\hbar \frac{\partial \Psi_1}{\partial t}
Note how the 1's and 2's switch places. What I've done here is renamed the real part of \Psi as \Psi_1 and the imaginary part of \Psi as \Psi_2. Only here I'm just numbering them and not really giving any preference to either. These two equations are totally equivalent to the original equation and what it says about the universe is that for every object you need to keep track of two things. In the end to make predictions about the object you'll need \Psi_1^2+\Psi_2^2 but note that I don't need imaginary numbers at all!

I think interpreting those two equation is of interest as well. Essentially the spatial curvature of one produces temporal changes in the other and vice versa. That's actually pretty cool as you could stare at a snapshot of both the two and predict what's going to happen in the next moment of time.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

screencasting software

Well, the news came out last week about Google Video being shut down. I was not exactly happy given my plans for screencasting this coming spring semester. So I've spent the week trying to find some other alternatives. Here I'll put in a few of my findings. TeachTube Teachertube has similar lack of limits to file size and total number of uploads as Google Video. It's optimal resolution is half of Google's (320x240 vs 640x480) but Google actually reduces your videos to 320x240 after some processing anyways. You can mark you files as private and embed videos just like Google too. They have a semi-malfunctioning feature where you can upload support files to go along with the video. Overall it seems like a decent alternative to Google. Btw, the malfunctioning part is that when you click on the support files you're taken to a page with EVERY support file listed. WinFF I don't like the default file size that camstudio produces so I'm starting to use winFF to reduce it by roughly a factor of 2 by converting to .mp4 format from the avi format. The quality once it's on Google seems about the same. Jing Just today I started using Jing on my mac (it works on macs and windoze). It's pretty slick as the screen capture that it does seems to have very small file sizes (3.5MB/minute for full screen) AND they host your screencast for you at for free! You get 2GB of space and 2GB/month bandwidth which is pretty good. What I really like about it is how easy it makes everything. You can keep it running in the background and when you make a video the controls are obvious and then when you're done it immediately puts it on for you. All with one piece of software! There's also no delay between uploading and being able to view it. Plus they don't do any post-processing to reduce the quality. Of course the biggest downside is the 5 minute limit on videos but I'm willing to work with that! Elluminate Live This is software that Hamline has paid an academic license for. It's actually very slick. I used it yesterday during an interview I was a part of and I was very impressed. It's designed for online courses and I'm planning to use it immediately for my ongoing online course. I really like how you can grant microphone privileges to anyone logged in and how students can "raise their hand". It keeps track of who raised their hand first. Very cool. It also lets you share other windows on your screen so it would work very much like a screen cast. Well, we'll see how it goes this week . . .

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Almost two weeks without tv

I don't really miss it. This past weekend there were a couple of times where just vegging in front of it sounded good but I knew there wasn't really anything on. On weeknights I've been busy cleaning the kitchen, brewing my iced tea for the next day, checking the discussion boards for my online class (online quantum mechanics, sounds fun, huh?), reading books, and posting to my blog. The boys are usually in bed by 8 and I go to bed around 10:30 so it's just 2.5 hours to fill. Dexter season 2 came in the mail recently and I am pining for it. I can't decide if that's allowed or not. I suppose I know deep down that it's not but it does sound like fun to watch. At least I wouldn't be watching commercials and I could pause it any time to deal with anything that comes up (I've been getting the evil eye from my wife for not responding to the kids when the tv's on). There's really no single show that I miss. I know Law and Order will always be there for me and things like seem to have the oldies but goodies so I don't feel like I have to watch something the night it premiers. Of course this is all during my j-term at Hamline when all I'm teaching is my online course. Once the spring semester starts I'll probably just use the time to get work done (like grading, the bane of my existence). We'll see.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Cereal with less than 10 g of sugar

In our continuing efforts to keep the kids healthy, I've decided to enforce a hard threshold of less than 10 g of sugar per serving in their cereal. I came to that number mostly arbitrarily but it's worked out pretty well. Almost every cereal you would think of as a sugar cereal has 10 or more and almost every healthy cereal has less than 10. We get plenty of stares in the cereal aisle at the grocery store. The boys pore over the ingredients list of all the cereals hoping to find one under the threshold. The first time was the most fun when they were happy to find some surprises:
  • Honeycomb is over the limit but Chocolate Honeycomb isn't
  • Fruity Pebbles is over the limit but Bam Bam Fruity Pebbles isn't
  • Life is ok
  • Fruit Loops is way over
  • Any raisin cereal is WAY over (that's weird)
Buddy (9) argues quite often about cereals that have exactly 10:
Why can't we get ________?! It's 10, that's just one more than 9 and you let us get 9! (not 9 factorial, of course) It's just a tiny bit more!
I respond that there has to be a limit somewhere and that I'm not really all that happy about 9. We've had that conversation a number of times.

Update (12/13/2009): General Mills apparently reads my blog They're going to reduce the sugar in many cereals down to 9 g just so I'll buy more.  Cool!

Saturday, January 10, 2009

My new diet

I'm trying to be a little more healthy this year so I'm trying to follow my new diet more closely. It's actually very simple: if it's homemade, you can eat all you want. I figure that all the weird preservatives and other added chemicals (like the ominous MSG, for example) in packaged foods can't be good for you so even if the homemade food is not that great for you, if you fill up on it you'll hopefully be less likely to eat the pre-packaged stuff. I'm also trying to kick the fake sugar habit by drinking iced tea when I can (with just lemon added). I've been thinking about the diet for a while (probably since back when I was on the South Beach diet) but the momentum really got going when the big boys and I watched a cooking show on PBS that showed how to make homemade macaroni and cheese. The boys actually said it looked good! I jumped all over that and we went to get the ingredients right away. I don't think we made it that night but it was pretty soon afterwards. They did like it, though not as much as they thought, and I pigged out (it's homemade, after all). That night I didn't snack on anything! My goals for dieting are three-fold: 1. fit into my clothes (not that big of a deal since I can always just buy bigger ones); 2. Be able to run up and down the basketball court or play at least 5 games of SocCourt without needed to fall over and hyperventilate; 3. actually I was going to say stay below some embarrassing weight but I find that if (2) is fine, I don't actually care. I'll admit that tonight we had Mickey D's for dinner but I'm still trying my best to eat healthy things when I can.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Screencasting in modern physics

This is a continuation of my earlier post on screencasting. Here I'll talk about my plans to use screencasting in my upcoming Modern Physics course for sophomore physics majors at Hamline. Here are some of the contributing factors for why I decided to do this:
  1. I never feel like I work enough examples in class (often I won't do any!).
  2. I would like to do more all-class quizzes. I first saw these in my HS physics course with Mr. Erpelding 20 years ago. You come in, ask a question, and expect the answer on the board after a fixed amount of time. After the allotted time you ask random students follow up questions. In the end everyone gets the same grade. In HS we'd take the whole period but I've done it in as short as 10 minutes.
  3. Sites like have made it difficult to know if students are doing their own homework. I always encourage my students to work together but in the end I want them to own it. I was at a Physics Chairs conference this past summer (sounds like fun, huh?) and a lot of people were trying to figure out what to do to combat this. A number of times people talked about quizzes taking the place of homework in the gradebook but the common response was that class time is too precious.
  4. This past summer in my graduate classes I assigned four homework problems a night. Instead of grading all of them as I've done in the past (continually falling behind as I teach them for 8 hours a day every day for two weeks) I rolled a four-sided die every morning and then used that homework problem as the quiz the first thing in the morning. That way I only had to grade one problem per person per day. The students commented that they liked the system as at night they just needed to make sure they understood the problem and didn't have to obsess about every point possible. The four-sided die was fun because the students knew that it was completely random and they didn't need to waste time trying to guess which problem I was going to pick.
Ok, so here's the plan: For every class I will type up my notes (as usual) but then I'll record and post a screencast of the notes. Effectively it'll be a lecture without an audience. Students will be expected to both read the book and watch the screencast before class. They then use my online summary web page to submit a summary and a question about the material. In class I'll simply do four things: 1. Give a quiz on a random homework problem from the previous day, 2. answer any questions they've posted, 3. work some examples on the new material, 4. give an all-class quiz. The plan addresses all of the concerns above as I'll have plenty of time in class since I won't be lecturing the new material. Some concerns I have include:
  1. The student's exposure to my lecture does not allow interactivity (they can post their questions to my summary page but they'll have to wait for class for the answer)
  2. If the students don't do the work outside of class they'll fall behind quite quickly. In a recent class I committed to not talking about material students didn't ask about and I stuck to my guns by continuing to ask both homework and exam questions about that material.
  3. Can I stay on top of all those screencasts?
For the first one above there's been some interesting research done recently. Apparently students in a similar class felt that the flexibility they had in being able to watch the screencasts whenever they liked (and the ability to pause and rewind) outweighed the lack of interactivity. I'm currently optimistic about this experiment. I'll add more posts about it when the semester starts.

Thursday, January 8, 2009


I've recently taken up screencasting to aid in my teaching. I started with a fully online class I taught last fall and I'm planning to do a lot more of it in an in-person class this spring. I use free software on windows machines (Camstudio) that can record a portion of screen while also recording your voice. It saves the movie as an .avi file (ugh) but then I upload it to google video and they turn it into a flash movie (just like youtube). A few cool things about how I'm using it:
  1. You can set the software to have the region being recorded follow your mouse around.
  2. You can highlight your mouse so it's easier to see.
  3. Google Video does not have a limit on either file size or total number of files uploaded
  4. Google Video has a desktop uploader so you can upload a bunch at a time
  5. Google Video allows you to set the movie as private so only those you give the address to can see it.
In this post I'll talk about how I used it in the fully online class and in a future post I'll talk about how I plan to use it for an in-person class. Homework: In my online class I set up groups that work on hints for the rest of the class on single homework problems. I provide for them the solution to that problem and a screencast of the solution. I simply pull up the pdf scanned copy of the solution and record my voice describing the calculations while pointing at the appropriate sketch/equation/description. The students tell me that they learn much more from that than simply reading the solution as sometimes I'm a little terse with my descriptions and often I skip (trivial?) algebraic steps. Lectures: Each week we cover a chapter in the text. Before the week starts I type up my notes on what I call a Daily outline (here's an example). That system allows me to easily typeset equations, put in Mathematica calculations (that are adjustable on the fly!) and link to any animations I've made. I also put in links to other cool descriptions. Then I make a screencast of the page (see below for that same example) where I can fill in the details and walk the students through any external links.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

SocCourt is my new sport

First, I just noticed that the title rhymes (plus I got to spell rhymes which is always fun). Ok, so what is SocCourt, you ask. Well, imagine Racquetball rules with a soccer ball. You use any part of your body except your hands to return the (volley) ball. (sorry, just noticed that this video doesn't seem to load anymore) Simple rules beyond the racquetball ones: 1. The ball can hit you or the floor twice before the return shot. Examples include bouncing twice with a single hit, bouncing once and juggling once before the return shot, hitting you once, bouncing, and then the return shot. 2. You have to bounce ball before "serving" it 3. [goalie rule] if a ball hits the back wall without bouncing you can try to catch it before it bounces twice after the rebound from the back wall. When you catch it your feet must be in the front-most section of the court. If you catch it in the air, you have to land in that section. You have to be in control of your body as you can't touch the front wall. 4. Use a volley ball. My buddy Leif and I broke a light when using a soccer ball. The volley ball is lighter and you can't drive it as hard (since it's smaller and harder to hit square). I learned a variant of this game from a physics major (who happens to be the captain of the Hamline women's team) where we couldn't use the "bounce twice" variant above. It was a lot of fun but as we got better we found that a good serve could smoke the opponent. The two-bounce rule really helps extend the rallies. The coach of the women's team likes his team to do this in the off season as it helps with having good command of your touches, especially the first touch. I really enjoy this sport. I want to play it all the time and I find it's really challenging. My strengths are that I can juggle quite well (a p.r. of 1,234 set earlier this year) and I play racquetball well so I know where to stand. One cool feature Leif and I have come up with is that if the volleyball has stripes you can really see the spin well. It's a lot easier than picking up the spin on a racquetball, that's for sure.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Books my kids read

We're using Google Spreadsheets (and the cool built-in form generator) to keep track of the books we read.

iPod fun

As my winter vacation comes to a close, I realize that I won't be able to play as much with my new Jesuschristmas gift. There's some history here: Last year my wife and I decided not to get each other anything but I surprised her with a KitchenAid Stand Mixer (it was a big hit). This year she paid me back with an 8GB iPod Touch. Needless to say I've really been enjoying it. Here are a few of the highlights about this cool product:
  1. There's all kinds of free applications online at the iTunes App Store
  2. My woeful music library only eats up about 4GB of space leaving plenty of room for the aforementioned free applications
  3. It works seamlessly with my mac laptop
  4. Now that I'm planning to take the bus to work (more on that in a later post), I've got something to keep me entertained.
As for the applications, people have really made full use of the features. The coolest apps make use of either the built in accelerometer and/or the touch screen. There are a few "balance the ball through the maze" apps out there that are fun and of course some flying/rolling/running ones that use the accelerometer. As for the touch screen, my wife and I are in a furious battle for the high score in Wurdle which is a Boggle clone where you trace out the words with your finger. Thinking of uses for work, I thought the accelerometer could be quite fun. In Modern Physics Lab I have students interface two 2-axis accelerometers and have them retrace my steps in the computer. There are some limitations but they learn a lot about interfacing and integrating streams of data. I thought it would be fun to play with the iPod in the same way. Well, first off, there are a few apps out there that do this kind of thing. There's a free one that turns your iPod into a level complete with angle readings. This makes it clear that what's inside is actually a force reader, not an accelerometer as it's feeling the direction of gravity's pull even when you're holding it still (that's the image above). I also found a few apps where they are encouraging you to use it in your car so that you can rate your hotrod's acceleration. But I was disappointed as I looked around for an accelerometer-based tape measure. Essentially if you know all the accelerations taken as you move the iPod from one location to another you can integrate the raw data twice to get the position (in all three dimesions!). I thought that would be really cool. To measure a room, say, you'd place your iPod down on the floor in one corner and then start the program and move it to the opposite corner and stop the program. You'd get all three dimensions in one shot. Well there's a guy who wanted to do this but he's frustrated with the level of noise he found. Of course there's a digital round off problem (he found it to be about 0.1 m/s^2 which isn't too bad) and there's lots of jitter as you're holding it. I'm pretty sure, however, that appropriate software algorithms could correct for a lot of that. In fact I was recently reading how the first accelerometer based gaming consoles struggled until appropriate filters were put in to get rid of the jitter. I think for now I'll keep having my students do their projects but eventually I might look into making my own iPod app to act as a 3D tape measure.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Reading for tv

We're trying to keep our boys from just watching tv all day here at the end of vacation. We've gone to having them bank tv minutes by either reading or playing outside. So far today they've cycled through reading for 15 minutes and watching for 15 minutes. It's funny because they both obviously enjoy their books but the retro spider-man series on is too enticing. As usual Jesuschristmas is over and they'd rather watch tv than play with their new toys. Oh well. At least school starts again on Monday.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Diaries for boys

The boys and I tried to find a store (online) that sold diaries with locks FOR BOYS. It turns out that's hard to do! We decided to go buy a journal from a bookstore and we'll jury-rig (is that how you spell that?) a lock using the tiny padlocks Santa brought them for Jesuschristmas (inside joke, ask me). Of course, any lock we do will be pretty easily breakable so I told them that at least they'll know if someone broke the lock. Janet says that having a pre-dated diary is limiting in the number of pages you get so I think we'll get blank ones. I'm really curious to see if they keep it up. When I asked Buddy (9) what his new year's resolution was he asked what they were for. We told him they were things people did to improve themselves and he immediately talked about improving his writing. My guess is that comes from school. That's when we suggested a diary so hopefully he'll stick with it. Charlie (6), of course, jumped on the band wagon right away. Update: we found some nice journals/diaries at Barnes and Noble. Both boys are pretty excited about it for the moment. Update: Cool ways to get your kids started in a diary