Digital Sign – Powered by G Suite & Pi

I had the bright idea to suggest to my administration that a digital sign would be something to seriously consider.  The idea received a unanimous approval, but along the way I discovered having a digital sign in our hallways would be in violation of local fire code.  Instead of scrapping the project, a compromise was brought forward – pilot the use of a sign in our front office and see how it goes.

With no budget and a couple days worth of work and frustration, a simple digital sign emerged:

Apologies for the wobble, it was quickly recorded on my cell phone.

The sign itself is a TV that one of the administrators had in their room.  The rotating display is nothing more than a Google Slide presentation I created, set to auto-start and reload when done (with 10s in between each slide).  To power everything, a spare Raspberry Pi 2 (running Raspbian Jessie w/ Pixel) to start Chromium in kiosk mode when booted.

Setting up a static IP address was probably the hardest part in this project.  Online tutorials, even when followed exactly, didn’t seem to work.  I came to discover that Jessie needed a slightly different set of commands than required for prior versions of Raspbian.  Luckily, I found this tutorial from which helped me through setting up a static IP address (for SSH) on a wired connection (try as I might, I couldn’t get wireless to work, but wired was a snap).

Chromium and kiosk mode happened with the help of this tutorial from Open Source Hardware Lab.

It’s nothing fancy, but it certainly does the job.  I’d like to see a larger display – the little TV set near the back of our front office makes it difficult to read smaller text – but for the time being I think it’s going to work!


Bringing a Class Photo to Life with Augmented Reality

During casual conversation with a colleague, Mrs Heroux, it was brought up that one of their students was leaving mid-year because the family was moving to another part of the country.  As a parting gift, she was creating a class photo album filled with pictures from the school year.  We talked about having a recent class photo in the album, which jumped into having a class “goodbye” video that could be shown on the student’s last day.  And then…

Why not combine the two?  Why can’t we have a photo that talks back to its viewer, similar to the paintings/pictures in the Harry Potter series? We can, and we did, thanks to augmented reality.  Augmented reality (AR) is the integration of digital information with the user’s real world environment, all done in real time.  Using a smartphone or tablet & the appropriate app, users can look at a city block on their screen and be presented with information about the restaurants, buildings, etc. in their view.  Images of the human heart can come to live, pop into 3D space, where students can see the intricacies of how it beats.  Previously in a math class, I used AR to embed homework help into a math worksheet.

This time around, AR was used to turn a photo of students into a video of them saying goodbye to one of their friends.

Mrs. Heroux wasn’t quite seeing my vision, so I went about making a sample for them to see.  The teacher used an iPad to take a (shaky) spontaneous video of her class saying farewell.  I used their video, an old picture, and Aurasma Studio to quickly assemble a sample “aura” (what Aurasma calls their augmented reality experience).  When I showed the classroom teacher the sample, she flipped!  I was asked to come back and to be armed with a tripod this time around.

When it was all said and done, using the Aurasma app to view the class photo at the end of the picture book would cause the photo to jiggle in the viewfinder before it became a video of the class saying goodbye and wishing well one of their friends.  For good measure, I also created a couple QR codes for the family – one so they could download Aurasma and follow my channel (allowing them to see the aura) and the other to download a high-quality version of the video played within Aurasma.  Using GIMP, I made a new image showing both QR codes, some descriptive text below it, and set it up to print nicely as the final 4×6 photo in the picture album.

Overall, it was a quick & easy project, but one that I think will make a memorable memory a student can take where ever they end up.

Using an iPad & Aurasma to scan a photo.

Using an iPad & Aurasma to scan the trigger photo.

Watching the class video (the aura), which began playing when Aurasma recognized the trigger.

Watching the class video (the aura), which began playing when Aurasma recognized the trigger.

Google Forms & Generating Reports

A colleague recently approached me about documenting incidents of a student acting out in class.  It began with a question on using word wrapping for a cell in Google Sheets.  After a quick search online, I got him the answer he needed, but was curious on what he was up to.  When he showed me, I almost fell over – his administrator was having him document the incidents directly into a multi-column spreadsheet!  He admitted this was not an easy task but it’s what was set up for him.

Spreadsheets are a great way to house data, but horrible if you’re directly inputting large amounts of text.  To help him & his administrator out, I quickly put together a Google Form that collected the same information, but with a much nicer interface.

 Screen Shot 2015-04-27 at 9.33.09 AM Screen Shot 2015-04-27 at 9.34.12 AM
The original, direct-entry spreadsheet. Google Form front-end for a spreadsheet collecting the same information.

My colleague also commented that it would be nice to use this information to create a report that could be shared with teachers, other administrators, and parents.  It’s with a little more looking around that I came across the add-on Form Publisher.  Form Publisher is a Google Form add-on that automatically generates a Google Doc or Sheet (Doc in my case) from a template you create, for each form submission.

It’s remarkably easy!  I created a simple report template in Google Docs and included “markers” (form fields, if you’re familiar with mail merging) for where I wanted the spreadsheet data to be replaced.  The markers all have the syntax of “__##Your Form Question##__”.

Screen Shot 2015-04-27 at 9.50.21 AM

Screenshot of my Incident Report template.

Next, I ran Form Publisher.  I told the add-on where to find my template & which markers to use, set up a folder & naming convention to use for the generated reports, and added the e-mail addresses of the people who needed to be notified each time a report was generated.  That’s it!

Screen Shot 2015-04-27 at 9.55.42 AM Screen Shot 2015-04-27 at 9.55.58 AM Screen Shot 2015-04-27 at 9.56.28 AM
Pick the template.

Setup the folder & naming
for the generated reports

E-Mail addresses


Simple, quick, and it works like a charm!  Now, my colleague can easily record any disruptive incidents from any device thanks to a new web interface – no more fussing with a spreadsheet and manipulating the widths of columns so he can read what he’s writing.  Additionally, the information is stored in a spreadsheet and a neat, readable report document is automatically generated & shared with his administrators.

Bridge Technology II: Build, Destroy, Scream Real Loud!

In a previous post, I wrote about the work that I have my kids do prior to building and testing model bridges.  In this post, I address the fun part – the building & breaking.

One of my favorite projects in sixth grade is getting to build a bridge and then test it to failure. I was inspired by a civil engineering course I took as an undergrad at WPI, where we had to construct a raw spaghetti bridge to certain specifications and testing them to the point of failure.  In fact, during my first go-around at this project, I used raw spaghetti and hot glue in an homage to my experience (really, I never thought to use other materials).  Only once, never again, and for a couple reasons:

  1. I wiped out the local grocery store’s inventory of store-brand spaghetti in one fell swoop.  They weren’t happy.  I was told to never do that again (note:  if you do try this, give the store some notice and they’ll make a special order to help you out).
  2. I was finding shards of spaghetti all over my room for the next 18 months.

In lieu of raw spaghetti, a material that creates perhaps the most awesome visuals when it fails, I’ve also tried coffee stirrers and popsicle sticks.  Coffee stirrers are extremely flimsy and my students that year found them difficult to work with.  Popsicle sticks have been my go-to member material for the last 5 years or so; they are inexpensive, readily available in bulk, and make minimal mess when broken.

As for adhesives, hot glue has been old reliable.  Unfortunately, I work in a building erected in the 1950s.  My room has 3 usable outlets in inopportune locations, which are then rigged with extension wires and power strips so all the hot glue guns can be plugged in.  Safe?  Well… probably not.  This year, I switched to white liquid glue.  It doesn’t dry as quickly as hot glue, but holds well when it does. It won’t  accidentally trigger an electrical fire at the school, and doesn’t send as many students to the nurse as did the hot glue and the glue guns – two additional perks!

Students get a copy of the project rules and requirements before breaking into groups to plan their attach.  For years, I used to have students work in pairs – I figured they’d get more hands-on time during the build.  Alas, this gave me 12 projects in each class.  While this doesn’t sound like much, keep in mind that each bridge takes several minutes to set up, test, and ultimately destroy.  Doing it this way, I was able to go test an entire class worth of bridges in about a week.  This year, in an effort to speed things up, I allowed groups of 4.  I thought with twice the people working on the same project, the build time would be faster; it wasn’t. I thought I could coach students into pairing up and working on different pieces at the same time and then bring everything together for a final assembly.  This worked for the first day, but never again.  The kids wanted to watch and help on every part, which showed to be as efficient as having only two kids working on everything.  However, there were less bridges to test and I was able to bring my testing days down to only two!

Prior to the building, students created sketches and “blueprints” for the tops, sides, and bottom of their bridge.  These “blueprints” were full-scale drawings, allowing students to use them as templates.  Many groups strayed somewhat from their drawings, which was permitted and I applauded (well, when it was to solve a problem they were facing; when it was due to sloppy construction I became a little irked).  When building begins, each group receives their “budget” of 150-200 sticks and several mini-sticks of hot glue (or, one bottle of white glue).  I don’t allow students to borrow or use another group’s extra material; they are mandated to budget their resources and stick to it akin to a real civil engineering project.  After about a week of building, each group was set to test.  Groups needed a team name, a bridge name, a group photo (showing off their design), and record the weight of their bridge.  I rigged a testing station by stacking tables on top of one another and separating them to the desired 50cm gap.  Bridges rested on top of the tables.  A hanging contraption (a stiff piece of wood with hooks) is placed in the center of the bridge and a 5 gallon bucket hangs down.  Sand is slowly poured in while the team waits with baited breath until the bridge (or some part of the bridge) fails and the bucket crashes to the ground.  The bucket is weighed with a fish scale and recorded for a mini in-class contest.  I didn’t keep records for the spaghetti or coffee stirrer bridges, but have for the popsicle stick ones.  For popsicle sticks and hot glue, the class record is 106.7 lbs.  For popsicle sticks and white glue, the class record is 54.1 lbs.

Perhaps the most difficult thing for me is keeping the non-testing students engaged while we test the bridges.  I usually run the show – the pouring of the sand, the weighing, etc.  This year, I turned it over to the kids and hung out in the background doing crowd control, but that wasn’t ideal either.  I’ve tried having kids record predictions, film, or put the finishing touches on their creations, but it never fails to degrade into a loud non-paying-attention crowd with ill-spirited comments spewing forth from time to time.  I thought to run each test during lunch and recess time, showing a sped-up video version of the testing during class time.  Perhaps I’ll try that next time around.

For project descriptions and rubrics, check out these links:

Bridge Rubric 2011
bridgeProjectRubric (2008)
2014 Bridge Design Activity
2008 Spaghetti Bridge Contest

And here are videos of the testing phase (link goes to playlist, embedded video is of the playlist)

Ghosts of Classes Past

Typically at this time in the summer, a great wave of panic washes over me as the realization summer is almost over and I need to get my classroom (and myself) ready for the impending start of school.  My marvelous wife calmly reassures me all will be okay and pledges to assist in the clean-out of the previous year’s whirlwind exit and in the reset for the fall.  In the eight years as a classroom teacher, this panic has gradually lessened, but is still always there.

This year’s reaction is a bit different.  Circumstances presented themselves in unexpected fashion and, long story short, I found myself accepting a technology director position at my school.  As a result, I will be leaving my home for eight years and downsizing into a mini-closet of an office to run the nuts and bolts of the school’s digital infrastructure as well as support the staff in the integration of technology into their lessons.  Fun stuff!  I’m looking forward to meshing my tech background with my education career, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a bit anxious.

Anyway, before my replacement sets foot into my old classroom, I went in to re-organize the supply cabinets and pull my personal belongings.  What I thought was going to be a relatively quick pack-up turned into a gigantic trip down memory lane.  Personal mementos tumbled from manila folders lost to time and frantic attempts at organization – drawings my son made years ago, aging class photos of students now in college, thank you & happy birthday cards from students.  Piles of resources line my desks, resources I’ve designed or collected and personally culled through to supplement the gaps in textbooks.  Initially, I thought I’d box it all up and take it home; why not, they’re mine!  But, as I stare at it all, I can hear my wife’s voice saying  “Where the heck are you going to store all this?  And, what on Earth are you going to do with it all?”  Only select items made the cut to go home; the rest await to be useful engines for their new owner.  As I put away mouse and rat traps, memories of spur-of-the-moment Rube Goldberg demonstrations slam into my consciousness, as do impromptu lessons about why rat traps are more dangerous than mouse traps.  Containers of flour and cocoa powder flash me back to crater formation demos and the excitement that erupts from the class as I drop a 10lb ball into the bucket from over 2 meters up, kicking out debris all over the floor and onto those closest to the impact site.

In short, I wasn’t counting on having an emotional reaction to packing up and moving out of my classroom.  For the first time, the idea that I’m no longer a classroom teacher is sinking in.  Interacting with the kids on a daily basis, building relationships.  Hearing about their weekend adventures and letting them in on mine.  The demonstrations, the excitement they generate; watching a student have that “ah-ha!” moment and suddenly getting it.  The grading of papers; angry parents; disciplining students and catching dress code violators.  I’ll miss some of it, other parts I’ll do a jig over not having to deal with again.  It’s a bittersweet feeling.  It’s got me choked up…

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some photos to bring down to my new office.

2014-07-31 11.05.48

This photo was one of the first to ever adorn my teacher desk.  That’s me in my beloved 1995 YJ, with my son (3yrs old at the time) in his red Power Wheels Jeep, doing the Jeep wave.

2014-07-31 11.06.59

A foam hammer given to me by a student on the last day of school. There’s writing on both sides.  It reads, “Kids don’t learn things from practice and guidance… You’ve got to hammer it into them!”  I’ve used it as my “goodbye” hammer, gently bopping the students as they leave for the summer.

Bridge Technology Unit – Part I

As I am the only 6th grade science teacher at my school, ideas and suggestions are sometimes hard to come by.  I often turn to the internet my PLN to see what others are doing and borrow/get inspired from there.  Construction technology is a unit that I have found pieces for, but no example or explanation of how other teachers teach it.  It’s far from perfect – I’m forever tweeking the unit – but I want to share what I do in hopes it might help someone along the way.

At my school, there is no “technology” teacher dedicated to cover the technology portion of the Massachusetts Science/Technology/Engineering frameworks;  it’s done by the general science teacher (of which I’m one).  One of the standards I’m tasked with covering is standard 5 – Construction Technologies.   It reads:

5.1 Describe and explain parts of a structure, e.g.,
foundation, flooring, decking, wall, roofing systems.
5.2 Identify and describe three major types of bridges (e.g.,
arch, beam, and suspension) and their appropriate
uses (e.g., site, span, resources, and load).

5.3 Explain how the forces of tension, compression, torsion,
bending, and shear affect the performance of bridges.
5.4 Describe and explain the effects of loads and structural
shapes on bridges.

Before I begin my bridge unit, I teach a unit on forces and friction.  Here, we discuss balanced and unbalanced forces and their impact on objects; various types of friction; and Newton’s Laws of Motion – complete with demonstrations and opportunities for students to push, pull, and fling me around the room.  This establishes a collection of background knowledge that is useful when discussing tension, compression, and loads.

Building Big is a PBS miniseries hosted by David Macaulay, author of the book by the same title.  One of the episodes is on bridges, and this video serves as the entry to the unit.  It covers a variety of bridge designs, their history, and their uses.  Next, the class participates in a bridge webquest designed to have students research and gain understanding on four bridge types.  Several years back, I came across a webquest by Mike Whitman, a technology teacher in the Newton, MA school district, and I’ve been using it since (with minor tweeking).  I find the strength of this webquest lies in getting students to read between the lines and make logical conclusions based on the information they are presented; there is very little spoon-feeding of answers here, perfect for a sixth grade student.  From here, the class engages in an exploration and discussion about the forces, loads, and shapes using the interactive labs provided by PBS at their Building Big website.

The next phase in my unit has students designing their own truss bridges before they go and build.  Each bridge has a specific amount of material available for use – no more (this is to simulate working within a budget).  Also, each bridge must span a distance of 50cm and must support its dead load (its own weight).  To begin,  students first create rough sketches illustrating their side, top, and bottom (deck) designs.  Next, the class will use bridge simulation software to test out their designs and see where potential weaknesses may reside.  Traditionally, I like to use West Point Bridge Designer, but it only works on Windows & Apple machines, neither of which we have anymore.  This year, we used Bridge Constructor for the iPad.  Finally, just before the class builds their bridges, each group creates full-sized “blueprint” drawings of their side, top, and bottom pieces of their bridge, which will be used as templates during their build.

In the next post, I’ll talk about the building and testing process.

I’m Not Dead Yet…

I’ve had one hellova year, both personally and professionally, and blogging took a backseat to everything else unfortunately. This summer, I will post a few of the lessons/activities I wanted to talk about from the past school year and prepare for the one coming up.