Monthly Archives: January 2012

A partnership with HOBOS

Prof. Dr. Jürgen Tautz
We are honored to announce a partnership with the HOney Bee Online Studies (HOBOS) Program, directed by Prof. Dr. Jürgen Tautz at Universität Würzburg, Germany, to promote science education through the application of IR imaging technology. HOBOS uses bees to stimulate students' interest and promote their inquiry skills, including enhancement of the ability to "think critically, integrate and synthesize knowledge, draw conclusions from complex material, understand the natural and physical worlds, grasp the processes by which scientific concepts are developed and modified, develop the mathematical and quantitative skills necessary for calculation, and analytical thought and problem solving." These are exactly our goals on the other side of the pond. We hope this international collaboration will help us integrate our resources to promote these shared visions.

Prof. Tautz is a renown biologist whose work have been widely reported by New York Times, BBC, and so on. HOBOS has been supported by UNESCO and nominated for the 2011 Cleantech Media Award.

Thermal vision is a critical technique in bee research. HOBOS currently provides an online IR camera that allows anyone to observe bees in real time. We envision that this partnership will allow us to jointly explore broader applications of affordable IR imaging (and other applicable technologies) in biology education. We are looking forward to the return of bees, bugs, and other insects in the spring to start this journey!

Apple’s textbooks and deeply digital learning

I was on the plane returning from Wednesday’s great Cyberlearning Summit when Apple went live with its announcement about iBooks 2 and its foray into the textbook game. This is particularly relevant, as it applies directly to the concerns about digital textbooks and innovation we’ve been addressing in our calls for deeply digital learning. I’m sure I’ll have more to come, but here are some initial thoughts about this announcement and its implications.

Innovation? In many ways, the announcement was an example of the many things there are to be concerned about regarding shallow innovations in digital learning. The main features touted about digital textbooks were the obvious ones. They weigh less. They don’t fray at the edges. They can include images and videos. You can highlight. You can jump to individual sections, pages, or chapters. These are all good features of digital books, but do very little to move us past the transmissionist pedagogy that textbooks represent so strongly today.

Openness? A second large concern raised by many in the ensuing blogosphere echoes relates to the lack of openness that these textbooks permit. Creation occurs principally or solely (for now) on a Mac, via Apple’s iBooks Author application, and books created with this are for use on the iPad only, not even for use on Mac computers. Somewhat understandable, all, since Apple is all about ecosystems, and the iPad is certainly an imaginably good tool for use in the classroom. However, the strictures extend further in ways that seem relatively unpalatable in the long run. According to the iBooks Author EULA, as Dan Wineman identifies, the mere act of creating books via this application is supposed to legally restrict where they can be sold or distributed. This ranges from surprising to shocking, depending upon your views, and the viability of such a model will remain to be seen. Further, the standard used for iBooks, while a thin wrapper over ePub3, is apparently a closed standard, and the application is unlikely to output in formats that permit content to be used and distributed as widely as should be possible for educational materials.

However, there is a slight silver (gray?) lining involved, as the EULA does make it clear that textbooks created with iBooks Author can be distributed for free at will, seemingly across platforms as well. As long as you don’t ever want to attach a price to the materials, this may provide an out. May is the operative term, however, seeing as Apple has certainly been known to change its terms on various whims in the past.

Deeply Digital possibilities? This is where things get a bit interesting. Taking all the former concerns into stride (which may well be too difficult to do for many), the most intriguing and underreported innovation may be yet to be discovered within this. The possibility of creating custom widgets for iBooks using HTML5 and Javascript holds intriguing ramifications. Depending upon the potential and limitations of these widgets, it may be possible to begin opening up aspects of learning that transcend the mundane and push toward deeply digital learning. It’s yet unclear, and will require some cracks from programmers (in our camp as well as others) to try to stretch the possibilities of these Dashcode widgets for the iPad to see what they can enable. True computational models and simulations, rather than basic interactive images or animations? Access to probeware and sensors? Outside access to tools and data streams? Potential for real-time formative assessment and reporting on student progress?

It’s likely that some, but not all, of these will indeed be possible, and the iPad is a beautiful platform to create things for with creation tools that are usually equally elegant. Whether these push the possibilities of technology toward capabilities that can truly make a difference for teaching and learning or whether Apple’s format and strictures will limit these examples to another small stride or shallow cut at innovative educational technology remains to be seen.

Simulation fitting of experimental results: A damped pendulum

The National Science Foundation recently awarded us a new grant to explore the concept of mixed-reality lab (MRL), which we proposed to combine the power of simulations and sensors to provide a new level of integrated learning experience that connects invisible science concepts with natural phenomena.

One of the proposed ways to integrate sensors and simulations is a strategy called "simulation fitting." When scientists observe something in the natural world, they typically build mathematical models to explain their observations. It is through this process that scientists make sense of their findings, understand the mechanisms more deeply, and derive new ideas for further investigations.

This is also an essential cycle of scientific inquiry we would like students to learn. The MRL project will explore how this "simulation fitting" strategy can improve science learning.

An example we have looked at is a simple pendulum. A swinging pendulum will eventually stop because of damping, which comes from two different sources: air resistance and bearing friction. Air resistance depends on the velocity of the pendulum whereas bearing friction doesn't.

My colleague Ed Hazzard has done a neat experiment that shows the difference of the two damping effects. His pendulum, under the normal circumstance, loses very little energy and can swing for a long time. To slow it down quickly, he attached a piece of paper to create a "sail," thus dramatically increasing the air drag. The result from a rotatory sensor shows the decaying of the rotational angle of the pendulum. In this case, the envelope of the curve looks like an exponential function (see the first image).

Launch the simulation.
Removing the "sail" and inserting some cotton into the bearing to increase the dry friction, he was able to amplify the effect of the dry friction. This time, the result of the rotational angle shows an envelope of a straight line, instead of an exponential curve (see the second image--it had two runs).

To understand these effects, we have created simulations that fit exactly the behaviors (see the third image). These simple simulations are based on solving Newton's equation of motion, with the only difference in the damping force: In one case it is proportional to the velocity; in the other case it is constant.

Our next step is to explore how to translate what we have done into a learning activity.

The world’s first website for IR imaging experiments launched

We have launched the world's first website dedicated to IR imaging experiments for science and engineering education:

This website publishes the experiments I have designed to showcase IR visualizations of natural phenomena. Each experiment comes with an illustration of the setup and a short IR video recorded from the experiment. Dozens of IR videos will be produced and added to the website as we move along. Teachers and students may use these YouTube videos without purchasing IR cameras (the price for the basic versions of which have come under $900 in the United States).

Among other things, we are developing a unique approach that uses affordable handheld IR cameras to visualize unseen energy transfer processes occurring in easy-to-do science experiments. Using this approach, thermal energy can be readily visualized through an IR camera. Other types of energy that convert into thermal energy can be inferred from thermal energy visualizations. This allows many invisible physical, chemical, and biological processes that absorb or release heat to be discovered and investigated.

By lowering the technical barrier to authentic scientific inquiry and presenting compelling visualizations of energy flows and transformations in everyday life, the tool will enable more students in diverse schools to develop a deeper understanding of energy concepts and their broad applications.

IR video: Chemistry on a piece of paper

This is a video recorded using an IR camera (FLIR E30bx) about what happens when you put a piece of paper on top of a cup of tap water. The tap water has been put in the room for a long time. The water in the cup appears to be blue under an IR camera because of evaporate cooling--water molecules constantly evaporate and take away thermal energy. The evaporated water molecules condense onto the underside of the paper and release heat. The heat conducts through the thin paper and shows up on the upper side. The heating effect fades because the condensation and evaporation of the thin water lay is reaching equilibrium, resulting in less and less heat release.