Tag: twitter

10000 tweets

I recently posted my 10,000th tweet on Twitter where I interact with my communities as @polarisdotca. (That’s “Polaris” for the North Star plus “.ca” in words to show my pride of being Canadian.) It was right in the middle of the Vancouver civic election so briefly I stepped away from my election conversations to tweet

What have I said in 10,000 tweets? I discovered Twapperkeeper about 6500 tweets ago so pushing that archive through Excel, grep (with excellent help from @aquillam and @anthonyfloyd) and Wordle, there are a few words that stand out:

Top 100 words in my tweets.

I think this is a pretty good picture of how I use Twitter. The 2nd biggest word is “astro 101”. That comes from the #astro101 hashtag I use on any tweet related to teaching the general education, introductory astronomy course typically called “Astro 101”. No surprise there — that’s a big part of my job.

The other 2 most common words: “Thx” and “RT”.  The first is pretty obvious and, true to character I guess, “thanks” are the subject of my 10,000ths tweet. I’m pleased to see “RT”. RT, shorthand for “retweet”, is how you bounce another twitter user’s message to your followers. It’s how you invite new readers to join the conversation. And that’s what I think Twitter is all about: connecting people through common interests.

Speaking of people and conversations, who do I talk to most? Here’s a wordle of the 100 tweeps I interact with more frequently. What a great group to be associated with!

I have most of my conversations with these folks.

I’m learning that hashtags, like #astro101, are one of Twitter’s most powerful tools. They tag messages with keywords so you can easily pick up and follow a conversation. They also identify the content of your tweets to your followers, the people who read your messages. If I’m not in the mood to follow #edchat or #canucks, I can quickly filter those messages out. I try to add useful hashtags whenever I can. I say “useful” because there are some very clever tweeps who are very good at the “I use hashtags for sarcasm and/or irony” game. Only very occasionally can I come up with a zinger so most of the time, I leave that to the pros. Here’s my most frequent hashtags. They, too, give a good picture of my, well, a good picture of me:

These are the hashtags, or keywords, I use most frequently. Makes it pretty clear what I do, where I work and where I play.

Once again tweeps, and readers too, thanks for helping me learn, making me laugh and for the friendship.


Preparing for our peer instruction workshop

It’s Sunday morning. On Tuesday, I’ll be running an all-morning-and-maybe-into-the-afternoon workshop in my department, Physics and Astronomy, at UBC. My science education colleagues and I, all part of the Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative, are working hard to be proactive, rather than reactive, when it comes to transforming the way we (that is, my teaching colleagues, faculty, university, WTH go for it, post-secondary educators) teach science.

The workshop I’m running with my colleague Cynthia Heiner (@cynheiner on Twitter) is about effective peer instruction. Er, think-pair-share. No, clickers. Or…

That’s the first thing I thought carefully about before putting this workshop together (originally for the CWSEI end-of-year conference last April): the title.

This learner-centered instructional technique of posing a multiple-choice question, getting students to individually choose an answer and then pairing up to discuss with each other why they made those choices, most of the world calls it think-pair-share (TPS). Eric Mazur branded it, or at least popularized it, as peer-instruction (PI). My university, like many others, runs these episodes using clickers. So, what to call this workshop? I made a choice and have diligently stuck with it:

Effective Peer Instruction using Clickers

i>clicker classroom response system

My colleagues are calling this a “clicker workshop” but I don’t want to give it that label. You see, about half of 20 people who have registered are grad students. I’m thrilled! One way to transform science education is to train the next generation of instructors. And when they head off into the rest of the world after graduation, some will get academic jobs that include teaching. And some won’t have clickers: they’ll be forced to use – gasp! – colored voting cards.

Many instructors use these coloured ABCD cards instead of clickers.

Like a lot of instructors do. Successfully. I don’t want these eager new faculty members to ever think, “Oh, I can do clickers but you guys don’t have them, so I guess I’ll just lecture.” So, this workshop is about effective peer instruction. Sure, it’s customized to using i>clickers to collect and assess the students votes, but the goal of the workshop is how to “choreograph” an episode of peer instruction so it maximizes student participation, engagement and learning.

To be honest, I’m pretty confident about content of the workshop. I’ve spent a lot of time with, and talking to, Ed Prather and his team from the Center for Astronomy Education at the University of Arizona. And I consider myself fortunate to have regular conversations, 140 characters at a time, with @derekbruff, @RogerFreedman, @RobertTalbert, @jossives, @Patrick_M_Len, @etacar11, @astrocarrie and other tweeps using peer instruction and other learner-centered instructional strategies.

If there’s one aspect of the workshop, and peer instruction, that I don’t feel I have a good handle on, it’s clicker points. With i>clickers, the system records who voted, not just how many chose A, B, C, D or E, so it is simple to reward clicks with points that contribute to each student’s marks. There are lots of options: a point for any click, a point for picking the right answer, both, points only if there is a second vote, no points,… It’s an over-constrained problem with too many competing and complementary factors:

  • students will participate if they get marks
  • unless they perceive the marks are simply for attendance
  • giving too many (any?) marks for right answers inhibits students from listening to their own ideas, relying instead on their supposedly “smarter” neighbours
  • if students engage and contribute to the class, shouldn’t they be rewarded?
  • effective peer instruction promotes learning and success on exams – isn’t that reward enough?
  • what about the voting card people? They can’t give points but they’re successful.
  • Or are they? Everyone in the field is well-aware of “card fade”, the drop in participation throughout the term as students (and the instructor?) loose their enthusiasm for voting.
  • a million other reasons and arguments…

Yeah, I’m struggling. But I took a big step towards clarity last week because of a post by my friend @jossives, “So long clicker participation points“, and a comment by @brianwfrank

I think, for an instructor who is new to running discussions among and with students in lecture, it’s pretty much fine to use points for “clicking”, espceially as a safety net….Ultimately, I think the direction an instructor should likely head is away from points for clicking

I really like that, and it’s the approach I’m going to promote at the workshop. What Brian says echoes my conversation with Ed Prather last week when he said, roughly, if you’re really worried about your policy for handing out clicker marks, you’ve already missed the boat. You have to convince your students that peer instruction promotes learning and success, and keep reminding them, and then “walk the walk” by putting nearly-identical assessments on their homework and exams. Ed, never one to mince words, concluded, “If you’re unwilling to do that, then you can worry about points.” I added, “unwilling, or unable…” Ed can get full participation of his 800 (yes, eight zero zero) student astronomy classes because he has incredible “presence” in the room. Some instructors, especially new ones, struggle with keeping their students focused. Throw in a new teaching technique that the new instructor is still learning, and you can’t blame the students for disengaging. So, clicker points to reward their effort for a few terms, until you are so confident with peer instruction, you don’t need that “safety net.”

There’s one last component of the workshop that I’m nervous about: getting the participants to authentically participate

  • veteran clicker users: I don’t want them to just fall back into their usual routine. I want them to genuinely try new things, like not opening the clicker poll until the students are prepared or, and this one has had the biggest backlash already, turning to the screen and modeling how to answer the questions, perhaps by “acting out” some of the concepts.

    Theatre of Dionysus (by nrares on flickr CC)
  • newcomers: effective peer instruction choreography take some “performance”. You’ve got to put yourself out there and lead the episode. I have to create an environment where the grad students don’t feel like they’re making fools of themselves in front of the faculty.

This will take some gentle yet firm cajoling at the beginning of the workshop. To the veterans, I think I’ll ask them to model our choreography for the benefit of the others, especially the newcomers, so they can get a clear experience of the workshop.

Alright, T-45 hours until the workshop. Tomorrow will be full of last minute details and working out the choreography of our choreography workshop with my co-presenter, Cynthia. Those of you following me on twitter at @polarisdotca will be the first to hear how it went. The rest of you, 1) why aren’t you on twitter? and 2) you’ll have to wait for a follow-up post.

Sending bottle rockets to new heights (of learning)

My Twitter streams crossed this morning and before I even got to work, a blog post about kids, STEM, learning science, teaching science and rockets was practically spilling out of my head.

It started with a tweet from @physorg_com (h/t to @andrewteacher and @fnoschese) about this column “Don’t show, don’t tell? Trade-off between direct instruction and independent exploration” The researchers gave pre-schoolers a new toy with varying amounts of instruction and then watched what they did with the toy. The kids who were shown how one part of the toy worked could replicate that action, usually, but didn’t find all the other cool stuff the toy did. Kids who didn’t receive explicit instruction figured out much more about the toy. It’s a nice article – have a look if you have minute or two.

The article reminded me of my own experiences with the PhET physics simulations and some research the PhET developers have done (damn, can’t find the ref but I’m sure Wendy would be happy to point you in the right direction). The least effective way to use the sims is to give students a recipe (“Do this. Now click here. Measure this. Now do this. Now this….”) Better but still not terrific is just letting the students play with the sim (“Here’s a cool sim. Play for a while and see what happens.”) The most effective way to use the sims, in their studies anyway, is to give the students a goal or challenge (“Make the light bulb shine the brightest!“)

The other crossing Twitter stream started with @mrsebiology

The ensuing conversation with her and @irasocol reminded me of how I throttled up our UBC Summer Camp bottle rocket activity so it was much more than just something to fill the kids’ time.

Image by richpt on flicker (CC)

Bottle rockets are a popular activity with kids and families. My friends at the H.R. MacMillan Space Centre run Saturn 5 Saturdays where families bring a 2-litre pop bottle and build and launch their rockets. [Update 30 June: the next Saturn 5 Saturday is July 16, 11am – 2 pm. Thx @AskAnAstronomer] The rockets blast into the air, the kids (or leaders!) get soaked. They chase the rockets as they plummet back to the ground. It’s great fun.

But suppose you have the time, manpower and goal to make the activity educational, not just entertaining.  The recipe method (“Build the rocket like this: fins, nose cone, give it a name, now stand back as I launch it. Wheee!”) is fun, yes, quick, yes. Educational, not so much.  There are two ways we turned our rocket activity into a learning experience:

1. A rocket science experiment: What makes the rocket go highest?

How much water do you put in the rocket? More fuel = higher launch, you’d think. And how much pressure is best? Again, bigger is better, right? We made one set of tokens that read “low pressure”, “medium pressure” and “high pressure”. A second set has “empty”, “1/3 full”, “2/3 full”, “full”. One by one, the rocketeers pick one of each, setting the parameters for their launch.

After the launch, the group will decide if it was  a good one. Once, we tried using inclinometers to measure the maximum height of the rocket but that was waaaay too messy and confusing.  Instead, before they start launching, I ask them for 3 adjectives to describe bad, okay and great rocket launches. The group decides on words like “lame!”, “ok”, and “awesome!” Their rockets, their results, their words.

Then it’s onto to sending the rockets skyward on a ribbon of water.  After each one, we record the result in the matching cell in our results table:

low pressure medium pressure high pressure
1/3 full awesome!
2/3 full
full lame!

As the Table gets filled in, we start making predictions and then testing them.  It’s pretty funny to watch the full, low pressure rocket. The rocketeer and the rest of the group know what’s going to happen — when you pull the release on the launcher, you hear a tiny “pop” and the rocket falls over. It’s no surprise that the higher the pressure, the higher the rocket goes. But it is surprising that the 1/3 full rockets go the highest. There’s an interesting compromise being having lots of fuel and getting that fuel off the launch pad. The thrill of discovery is pretty cool.

And none of that occurs in the recipe method where the leader takes the rocket from the rocketeer, fills it 1/3 full (we already know that’s the best volume, you see), and then launches it. Don’t tell them the answer. Perhaps, don’t even shepherd them to the solution. Instead, provide them with tools and feedback so they find their own way. (Oh geez, that was the thread on physlrner this morning in response to this interesting “Socrates = Border collie” post.)

2. Add a parachu–, er, safe return system

After watching that many rocket launches, some kids start to get bored. You’re outside so let them go off and play tag or hide-n-seek for a while. But some rocketeers are aching to launch again. And again. And again. So turn up the challenge.

I usually bring out a box of “stuff”: cardboard, file folders, string, tape, plastic bags, elastics, etc. and tell the kids they can launch again but only after they’ve added a parachute to get their rocket safely back to Earth. They usually form small groups by themselves – two head are better than one. @mrsebiology tweeted back “the parachute option is part of the ‘final exam’ challenge.”

This morning, though, I had a great conversation with @irasocol about this added challenge. Perhaps saying “parachute” gives too much away and directs them too much. Who knows what they might think up — the space shuttle is a glider, right? Ira tweeted

Yes, I--, er, my son, has this amazing Lego space shuttle set.

Which got me thinking, in the real world, we don’t care about the rocket, just the astronauts. The next time I run one of these rocket activities, here’s what I’m going to do: Give each kid a Lego mini-figure and challenge them to get the astronaut safely back to the ground. Capsule with parachute? Sure. Glider strapped to the side of the rocket? You betcha. Another idea I can’t even imagine? Absolutely!

There you have it, some ideas on how to throttle up your bottle rocket activity into an opportunity to engage in science, problem solving, engineering. Oh, it’s still fun. But now, so much more.

Do you have your own ways to send this activity to new heights? Please add a comment and share them with us!