Friday, April 18, 2014

(From the Westminster Robotics blog)
In their first year in the FIRST Lego League competitions, one of our junior high school teams (Robocats 3) qualified at the Clayton State University Tournament (January 12, 2008) for the Georgia state tournament to be held at GA Tech February 9, 2008.

They began the year as an all-girls team of four (three 8th graders and one 7th) and added two boys early in the fall semester 2007. Despite scheduling conflicts, declining participation, and other difficulties, two of the girls persevered, discovering that even when everything else fell apart around them, they were strong and determined enough to see it through on their commitments.

Over their four months of robot design and development, they evolved a technically complicated NXT robot with some quite sophisticated approaches to solving the many missions in the 2007 FLL Power Puzzle Challenge. While they had many operational difficulties with the performance of their robot in Saturday's tournament, the students hit home runs in the Robot Design and Teamwork categories and they won the Project Award, proving that performance on all fronts is necessary for true team success.

Concerning their only weak spot from the tournament, they know their robot could and should have performed much better. They are re-energized and more determined than ever to refine their NXT robot to fix their shortcomings before the January 9th tournament.

This has been one of the most spectacular experiences in my 18-year teaching career. I am more convinced than ever that we must put our students in open-ended situations where they use what they know to find creative, original solutions to problems and they solve them on their own with appropriate minimal assistance and guidance from those around them. These two girls found a way to conquer a litany of obstacles stacked against them and they emerged confident, energized and determined. Look out world!

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

A Hands-On Workshop on 21st Century Innovation at Prospect Sierra

Join us for an evening of food and excitement to collaborate with your closest friends in using 21st century tools and techniques to design "the next big thing!" (And I will supply premium pizza to fuel your creativity!)

  • about some of the unique aspects of 21st century design challenges.
  • how challenging and enjoyable the creative innovation process can be, and how these techniques and practices can be applied to otherwise dull and rote curriculum materials.
  • How an innovative educational challenge can mirror real-life challenges in the 21st century work-place.

  • using valuable technical tools that can leverage your (and your students') talents in managing 21st century challenges.
  • collaborating to leverage the diverse skills of your team members.
  • reporting and presenting your great inventions to the "industry"

The evening workshop will run from 6pm to 9pm on an evening in December to be determined

The event will be held in the Prospect Sierra Avis Campus Tech Lab

Note that this is NOT just an event for the nerdy science types. Many diverse skills and talents are necessary, and even critical, to collaborative 21st century success. Any and all staff or faculty members in the school community are invited. If space and resources allow, we MAY open the event to either SOs of school staff or even outside participants from other schools in the East Bay. Please leave your name, email, and the number of attendees in a comment below if you would like to participate.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

I don't feel like a tomboy at all

The WISE-sponsored Wired Cats are getting press at the FIRST national Championships! Check out this Atlanta Journal-Consititution article on the FIRST national championships, entitled "Girls embrace inner 'nerd' with robotics" where our favorite robotics team from the Westminster Schools figures prominently!

"Grace Williams (right) and Meredith Kolff of Westminster High School chat with members of other teams during the competition. 'There's a sense of community' among competitors, Williams said."

"...In the Milton team's first couple of years, the only females who participated were girlfriends of team members. Crowe, a computer science and math teacher, jokes that she had to "harass" girls into joining.  That hasn't been a problem at Westminster, a team in its first year that was started by two female students, Meredith Kolff and Grace Williams, and whose sponsor is Valerie Bennett, a physics teacher with a doctorate in mechanical engineering.  Kolff came to last year's competition with Bennett and was 'blown away and decided we needed a team, [and] came back and recruited Grace.' Kolff said she has learned plenty about 'electronic stuff and drive trains.'  Williams is helping to start teams at other schools, including at Westminster's sister school in Kenya.
'I don't feel like a tomboy at all,' Williams said. "FIRST is something I can do being me."

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Build Your Own EnerJar

Several folks have asked me recently about energy measurement projects for various Environmental Science classes. Here's one that's a step above the most common ones I have seen. Matt Meshulam and Zach Dwiel, two EE students at Washington University in St. Louis, have put the hardware and software designs for their award-winning EnerJar.

It's a great combined software/hardware project with a green focus for those students who get through mastering the basic circuit board design and software development skills stages. With somewhere around $10 of parts, you can build this simple voltage, current, power, power factor, energy consumption...(really anything you want to program the PIC controller to measure) meter. Just pluc something into a power receptacle through the EnerJar and it will measure and display whatever data you want on its nice red LEDs.

Matt and Zach are planning to have preprogrammed PIC micro-controllers for sale so that hobbyists can go directly to building the jars if the computer interface and download steps seem daunting. Given the eager response on their web site, I imagine some intrepid soul will soon have pre-fabricated PC Boards that the less-intrepid can simply stuff, solder, and plug in.

Do check it out, complete with step-by-step instructions.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Westminster Students Place First in Regional Science Olympiad

Breaking News:

From Ken Gibson, one of Westminster's favorite Physics teachers:

Our Science Olympiad team really came through this Saturday at the Southern Polytechnic State University regional SO tournament! Westminster not only placed FIRST, but medaled in 22 of the 23 event.
Also, every team member won at least two medals!

Go Wildcats!

For those of you who could not attend, here are some images from the Science Olympiad Site.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The Wired Cats

Hi all,

Here's a quick update on the Wired Cats (the 2008 Westminster Robotics club) and their recent exploits in the First Robotics competition. For their first year in action, they look to be putting in an incredibly strong effort. The team had the robot up and running more than two weeks before the final deadline, and the design is proving itself to be quite robust.

They now have a couple of nice sites up, at Westminster Robotics blog, and the Wired Cats web site that really tell great stories of teamwork and innovation. Here are some of my favorite highlights.
Pre-season start: building the team computers from scratch in the WISE Lab.
Week 2: A Working chassis by the end of week 2
Week 3: An excellent concept on the drawing board, but will it work?
Week 4: Yes, high school students CAN use power tools safely once OSHA qualified!
Week 4: Lot's of holes to drill and tap. That's teamwork!
Week 4: "Don't worry, I'll MAKE it fit!"
Week 4: The pieces coming together
Week 4: It has an arm!
Week 5: A Working Robot

Check out this video of the Robot in action!

Go Wired Cats!

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Aquatic Bio-Systems and Resources

Since both Westminster and Berkeley Montessori have ongoing marine and fresh-water aquatic projects, I couldn't resist posting a recent online discovery that should prove a very valuable resource.

For years, I have seen to many aquariums that looked something like this one, with colored gravel and plastic plants. That the fish survived was a testament to the power of Darwinian evolution to produce incredibly hardy commercial goldfish.

The more adventurous hobbyists typically could sometimes manage to keep a few live plants from turning to mush and clogging up the filters, but they still ended up looking something like this:

But not long ago, I stumbled upon a fellow named Takashi Amano, who had become an international sensation for his incredible planted fresh water aquaria. Look at few of his tanks and see what is possible if you REALLY understand the chemistry, life-cycles, plant and animal respiration, the physics of illumination and filtration, and the overall ecology of the bio-system. (click on the images to see higher resolution versions.)

Check out a more extensive gallery of Takashi Amano inspired work here.

For some time, my built-in reaction was, "wow, pretty cool, but I'm not a retired Japanese watch maker with thousands of hours to invest in an aquatic version of a bonsai forest." But over the last few years, the "Planted Aquarium" community has emerged along with a body of literature articulating the detailed science and techniques to maintaining truly balanced ecosystems on a miniature scale that can thrive like never before.

Better yet, a commercial franchise, "Aqua Design Amano" has grown up around the practices starting in Japan (naturally) and finally reached American shores through a distributer call "Aqua Forest Aquarium!" You can now order all of their recommended equipment, supplies, plants, chemical supplements necessary to create and maintain these fabulous bio-systems through the AFA online portal here. The web site is a great starting point complete with some starter FAQs.

At some level it sounded great, but I've had enough middling success with fresh water tanks that I remained skeptical at the level of effort necessary to achieve such amazing results. But browsing the web site, I discovered that they had recently opened a retail store in San Francisco. So I hustled on over last week to discover a store with the most amazing fresh water environments I had ever seen in person (and that includes places like the Monterey Bay Aquarium). Here are some recent photos of what I saw in the store.

Everything was laid out very nicely for anyone to come in and pick up either entire kits or individual items (all of which are available online) necessary to recreate the exact environments on display, along with some nice reference materials. The equipment, from the tanks, to the lighting, filters, CO2 systems and substrates, was generally of exceptionally high quality, and priced to match. In some cases, less expensive substitutes that should suffice (for example cheaper tanks, and alternate metal halide lamps with similar bulbs for much less, and also here at Marine Depot) but there is no arguing with their success, and the setups were stunning in a Japanese minimalist sort of way.

The tanks, for example, while more expensive than the garden-variety tanks you can get at the Pet Warehouse, are designed with thicker-than-usual glass and fabricated without an external frame. The bare glass look is very clean and really focuses attention on the eco-system without obstructing the view with black plastic. It will likely come down to an aesthetics for the price sort of trade off for each individual purchaser. My next tank is, without a doubt, going to use their substrate materials, and I haven't seen a more beautiful tank in the nature-as-art category.

Here are some of the books that were on prominent display (click on images to go to amazon purchase pages):

Encyclopedia of Aquarium Plants

Aquarium Designs Inspired by Nature
Ecology of the Planted Aquarium: A Practical Manual and Scientific Treatise for the Home Aquarist, Second Edition

Nature Aquarium World Volume 2
Nature Aquarium World: Book 3 (Nature Aquarium World)

Setting Up Themed Aquariums: Fish and Plants in Harmony

The best part of the visit, though, was my extended conversation with Marjorie, clearly one of the store managers. She was very forthcoming about the details and secrets of how to approach every step of the process including how to attack a pernicious algae problem I was having in one of my tanks. The whole thing seems entirely doable with not much more, if any effort than the garden variety tank.

The net result of this exploration is that there are ENDLESS hands-on science opportunities throughout the process of setting up, maintaining, and optimizing one of these environments, from chemical analysis, design and construction, aquatic landscaping, botanical studies, fish breeding and genetics, even art and design in the plant/rock/wood selection and layout....the list goes on and on.

I could imagine a whole semester long class sequence with rows of small tanks, one per student or small team of students, where each team can select a particular part of the world where they will recreate the water, plant, and animal conditions and see if they can't develop a complete thriving ecosystem.

All the while, they can take chemical and data, learn to use chemical tests, PH sensors and do data analysis on the whole lot. You could even go so far as to link either aquarium micro-controllers or computers to the tanks to control the heaters, lights and pumps.

Another approach might be to have a large team create a single larger environment of their own, perhaps going to TAP Plastics to get Acrylic aquarium walls fabricated according to their own custom design. Any other suggestions?