eSchool News article

I was interviewed a few weeks ago for the Curriculum section of this  week’s issue of eSchool news.   The article is by Laura Deveney and titled Project Based Learning Moves into Classrooms.   I first learned about Project Based Learning through a summer workshop with the New England Board of Higher Education PBL Program.  I participated in the Photon PBL program and build a photosphere with my students for Watt’s My Light.

Problems with The Scientific Method and how I teach

As I prepare for parents night here at BUA, I often get questions about the pedagogy employed in my classroom.   I often turn parents to this article from Science Service, (who publish Science News) about the problems with the Scientific Method.  There are some nice quotes from Heidi Schweingruber,  director of the Board on Science Education at the National Research Council.

“In the future, she says, students and teachers will be encouraged to think not about the scientific method, but instead about “practices of science” — or the many ways in which scientists look for answers.”

“In the past, students have largely been taught there’s one way to do science,” she says. “It’s been reduced to ‘Here are the five steps, and this is how every scientist does it.’“

But that one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t reflect how scientists in different fields actually “do” science, she says.

“Ninety percent of the experiments I did as a scientist didn’t work out,” says Bill Wallace, a former biologist with the National Institutes of Health.

You may have noticed the article also quotes a mild mannered physics teacher from Melrose.

NI Elite Educators

This week in physics we have started playing around with programming LEGO Mindstorms robots using LabVIEW.  I received a note today about an announcement from National Instrument, the maker of LabVIEW, that I am on their list of Elite Educators.

What kinds of things can you do with National Instruments toys?  Here is myRIO with Tetrix, which is the metal version of LEGO.

LEGO is #1

Today I gave my Webinar comparing VEXIQ to EV3.  You can catch it on the O’Reilly site. It should be archived soon.

On the way into school, I heard that LEGO has now surpassed Mattel as the largest toy company in the world.  This is partly due to increase sales and mechandising due to the LEGO movie. You can read about this in the Wall Street Journal or USA Today.  I was excited to read that there is a second LEGO movie in the works and a LEGO Ninjago movie in the works.  The LEGO Movie is touching for those of us who perhaps work too hard and need to remember to spend more time ‘playing with LEGOS’ with our own kids.

1st day of classes and catch my robotics Webinar!

Today was the first day of classes.  In physics today we learned to use InterLACE with an activity called LEGO Serious Play. The students build something to represent themselves from LEGO and shared it with their peers.

This year I am also teaching ASERP (or the Junior STEM Seminar) for the first time in over five years.  21 kids in the class! Wow!

This week I have been busy preparing for the Webinar I am presenting on Thursday.  The Webinar is being put together by O’Reilly, one of the distributors for my LEGO Mindstorms book.  The title of the Webinar is LEGO EV3 vs. VEX IQ Robotics, a Comparison in Sensor Control Systems.


Some cool physics questions

Can you explain how these work?



Thursday and Friday at U-Design

Thursday was a busy day finishing our rockets.  Everyone finished their Estes rockets and most people started their bottle rockets.

Thursday afternoon Glynn Holt talked to us about his experiences at NASA and what it was like to go through the astronaut training program as a Mission Specialist and the details of his experiment which did get to fly on the Space Shuttle.

We finished the week building and launching our rockets.  We launched the Estes rockets early Friday morning, and only lost two of them into the Marshes this year.

Glynn Holt and his students showed us a lot of cool acoustics experiments Friday morning.  After that, we went across the hallway to  explore the laboratory of the BU Rocketry Team. Many thanks to Ben Ha for giving us a tour of the lab.

David gave a nice talk on navigation and how to read a flight map Friday afternoon.  We did an activity where using the flight maps we did a flight plan using way points.

After the navigation exercise we went to launch our bottle rockets.  We didn’t have too many complete bottle rockets, but those we had went quite high.  We used a rocket launcher from Edmund Scientifics.  This is a nice backyard launcher, which goes up to 60 psi.  If you want to hard core bottle rocket launcher, you need a Big Foot  which will take you up to 100 psi.

Wednesday at U-Design

I began the day discussion air flow, air foils, and the phenomena of lift.  Using some simulations from NASA we examined how air flowed over an air foil to create the lift which allows planes to fly.

Computer drawing of an airliner showing the lift vector.

After my explanation using the computer simulation, we had a demonstration of the Wind Tunnel by Aaron Y. who is an undergraduate in the BU department of Mechanical Engineering. (That is not Aaron in this picture).  The giant wind tunnel in the back of our teaching lab has a row a manometers which measure the air pressure at various points in the air foil.

David Campbell demonstrate a Wind TunnelThe Airfoil Surface Pressure Experiment, mounted in the Instructional Wind Tunnel

At 11AM Professor Grace returned to demonstrate the Smoke Tunnel.   The Smoke Tunnel allows smoke to flow over an air foil so we can visualize the flow of air over an wing.

At 2PM we received a tour of the BU Satellite program from Professor Fritz.  In BUSAT BU undergraduate students are building a real satellite which they hope will launch into space.

For projects today the main goal was to finish up our airplanes.  In the afternoon we switched gears and started working on Rockets. Most of the students began working on their Estes Rockets. I like to order my rockets from HobbyLinc.  You can buy most rockets for $10-20.  The engines cost a few extra dollars, but the rockets are reusable, as long as you don’t lose them in the trees, river, roofs of houses….  Most of the students built Alpha rockets, although some of the kids built either the Baby Bertha or the Voyager or  Eagle.


Tuesday at U-Design

As we were building our airplanes today our mood music was actually listening the Boston Logan Control Tower.  You can listen to ATC streaming live here.

In the morning, many of our students were busy finishing their Cadet Balsa planes.  Others started building some more advanced White Wing Biplanes.

We also visited the Boston University Smart Lighting Center where the students learned about new LED lighting methods.

In the afternoon students continued to work on their airplanes.

In the afternoon, Joe Estano  showed us a working jet engine. This small jet engine only exerts about 25 lbs. of force but was LOUD!

Small Working Jet Engine

Then, our mentor David Millner gave us a lesson on how to fly a plane.  He explained the instrument panel and gave us a lesson on how to play Flight Simulater.


He showed how the instrument panel on a Cessna 172 works.  We explored the function of the following instrument in the below diagram (going clockwise): Airspeed indicator, the attitude indicator, the altimeter, the turn & slip coordinator, the Heading indicator, and the Vertical Speed indicator.  He demonstrated how these instruments work on Flight Simulator on the projector.   You can by a home copy of  Microsoft Flight Simulator which we have been using in class for less than $20.  Joysticks can be bought for $20 but Rudder Pedals are more expensive at about $100, although they are not necessary.

We finished the day with an explanation of how Jet Engines work by Professor Sheryl Grace.  We got into the mathematics of jet engines and did some calculations on the efficiency of jet engines.

Day 1 at U Design Camp

Today we started out building White Wing airplanes.  White Wings are specially designed paper airplanes, usually with a balsa wood fuselage.  They have been engineered for amazing flight and when launched with a rubber band can stay aloft for over a minute!   We built the White Wing Skycub which you can order online.  The students were encouraged to alter their Skycubs by bending the elevators or ailerons to alter the aerodynamics of the airplane.  Could they make it roll clockwise or counterclockwise, pitch up or down, yaw left or right?

WhiteWings Trainer

We then went on to build balsa wood rubber band propeller airplanes.  We used the  Sky Streaks by Guillow.  Guillow is actually a local company based in Wakefield, MA.   They make lots of custom designed balsa planes for advertising your company.   They have been around for almost 100 years!

In the late morning we went on a tour of the BU Robotics Helicopter lab of Professor  Mac Schwagger

This is an interesting lab where they are researching autonomous quad-copter flight.  You can buy a quad-copter in the mall which is controlled by joysticks.  The new challenge is to have a quad-copter than can fly with nobody at the joysticks.  Amazon wants to have autonomous drones which will deliver packages to your door!



In class I presented a brief lecture on aerodynamics.  For this, I used a few NASA simulations. These simulations are a great way to play around and think about why airplanes work!

In the afternoon we began working on our advanced Guillow airplanes.  10 of the students chose to build the Cadet airplane, an advanced airplane which will take a few days to build.  5 of the students chose to design their own planes from the Guillow Design Studio.  The designers tested their airplanes outside to see whose could stay aloft the longest period of time.  They are now busy improving their design.

I also gave showed them vacation videos from my midlife crisis in zero gravity at NASA at the Houston Space Center.