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Tweets from Disney World

December 22, 2010 3 comments

Before I jump into the main content of this blog entry, I want to apologize to my one regular reader. The intent of this blog is to discuss topics related to astronomy, science literacy, and the teaching of each. You will find some of this below. However, I recently took the family on vacation to Disney World. While there I tweeted various observations and just a few other things that came to mind. Those tweets were posted using my “personal” twitter account lrubbo, which I distinguish from my “professional” account, ScienceInTheSky. Those tweets were also posted on my Facebook page. I guess some people enjoyed what I had to say. In fact, it was requested that I gather up my tweets and post them on a blog somewhere. Since this is my only blog, here they are. So again I apologize that this posting deviates from my normal topics to something completely tangent, but all the same, I hope you enjoy my tweets from Disney World.

This trip was a long time coming. Ever since our honeymoon to Disney World, my wife and I wanted to return some day with our kids. When our oldest was born over ten years ago, we were one step closer but then our second came along four years later. Although we desperately wanted to go to Disney, we also realized it was only worth going when the kids were old enough to not only remember it, but to appreciate it as well. Now that the boys are six and ten respectively, it was time.

Day 1

Our original plan was to casually drive from Myrtle Beach to Orlando, stopping as needed. However, it also happened to be Coastal Carolina’s December graduation day and a few students requested that I be there. This meant a busy day and a rushed drive to Disney World instead.

Busy, busy day. Coastal Carolina graduation ceremony then heading down to Disney World.

Day 2

After arriving late the night before, today was our first full day at Disney World, which we spent at the Magic Kingdom.

Once again I find myself in Florida, also known as America’s wang.

This was a reference to the Simpsons for those that missed it.

I took $1.50 to the vending machine thinking it would be enough for a 20 oz Coke. I was short by $1.25.

Throughout our stay I would end the day by making Observations from Disney. These observations were summaries of what I learned about vacationing at a famous resort that draws in people from all over the world. What follows is the first in a series of Observations from Disney.

Observation #1 from Disney: A substantial number of people require a motorized cart to get around, most because of their obese weight.

Observation #2 from Disney: Bad car drivers seems to correlate to bad stroller pushers.

The place was a sea of strollers and Rascals and nobody knew how to drive either.

Day 3

Our second day on the property was dedicated to Epcot.

Holy Epcot ball, it’s cold today.

Unfortunately there were record low temperatures in Florida at this time. To make things worse, a brutal wind lowered the windshield temps to the teens. But this didn’t deter us. In retrospect I think it made things better because there was no waiting for anything.

I just saw a woman crash a stroller while talking on a cell phone. I can’t imagine what she’s done behind the wheel of a car.

I think each one of us was hit by a stroller at least once on the trip.

Observation #3 from Disney: Contrary to popular belief it can get cold in Florida. Very cold indeed.

Observation #4 from Disney: After riding Mission Space I’ve reaffirmed that I have no interest in personally traveling to space.

I’m a bit of a chicken when it comes to rides. I don’t like heights. This particular ride was a tightly enclosed, moving flight simulator that seats four—a seat for each member of our family. Between the visual effects and the motion of the ride I didn’t care too much for Mission Space. My youngest, however, loved it and wants to go back to Disney World for nothing else but to ride this one again.

Jupiter and the Moon pictured above the IllumiNations fireworks show at Disney’s Epcot Center. http://yfrog.com/gyfkqyij

IllumiNations is Epcot’s closing fireworks show. As an astronomer, we had a perfect viewing location. Just above the centerpiece—a huge television in the shape of an Earth globe—was Jupiter and a waxing gibbous Moon.

Observation #5 from Disney: The Disney dining plan is well worth the money. Also, making reservations at sit-down restaurants is a must.

I can’t stress this last one enough. Eating at Disney World can be very, very, very expensive. But if you plan ahead and invest in the meal plan, there are some nice restaurants to enjoy.

Day 4

Onto Animal Kingdom, the third of our four Disney parks tour.

Observation #6 from Disney: Animal Kingdom can easily be done in a single day.

Animal Kingdom isn’t quite a zoo. It isn’t quite an amusement park. It’s somewhere in-between. It’s in entertainment purgatory. That isn’t to say we didn’t enjoy ourselves. There were some fun rides and attractions, just not enough to demand a lot of time.

Observation #7 from Disney: A ride doesn’t have to move fast or have large drops to scare a 6 year old as we found out riding Dinosaur.

Heading into the vacation I thought my kids would love Dinosaur. In concept it’s a simple ride. You’re put into a Jeep-like vehicle with overdone hydraulics that takes you through a sequence of scenes filled with animatronic dinosaurs. The problem with the ride is that it’s dark and very loud. It was enough of a discomfort that none of us wanted to ride it again.

Observation #8 from Disney: Even though ESPN is the world leader in sports entertainment, ESPNzone’s sports arcade games aren’t entertaining

Since Animal Kingdom didn’t take a full day we wandered over to Disney’s Boardwalk which has an ESPNzone restaurant. The food was sub-par (since we weren’t playing golf this means it was bad). Worse yet was that the sports related games didn’t work. Moreover, I had the intent of buying all kinds of ESPN souvenirs, but there was very little to be found.

Day 5

The only park left, and our visit for today, was Hollywood Studios.

Observation #9 from Disney: For as much as we paid for this hotel room you would expect free internet. Sadly no. It cost $9.95 per day.

During our week at Disney we used 80% of our monthly internet time on the iPad. This is in addition to our iPhone usage. Luckily the 3G signal was reliable most of the time, which was good because there are some helpful Disney related iPhone apps: Disney World Park HoursDisney World Maps, and Disney World Dining.

I’m torn, do I pay $350 for a rare painting of Goofy as Darth Vader?

The Star Wars themed store had a painting of Goofy as Darth Vader. It was made for a recent Stars Wars convention and was #14 of 95. As a huge fan of Star Wars and Goofy I wanted it so badly. Unfortunately my Jiminy Cricket told me it probably wasn’t the wisest investment so I didn’t get it. I still dream of that painting today.

All lines and no rides makes Jack a dull boy.

After days of no lines, the weather was getting nicer and we actually had to wait more than five minutes to get on a ride.

Observation #10 from Disney: If your 6 year old says it was worth waiting an hour for a five minute ride, then it was truly worth the wait.

By far and away the longest wait we had to deal with was for Toy Story Mania. We waited 70 minutes to get on the ride. I blame his wait for why I didn’t get the Goofy Darth Vader painting because I had enough time to listen to my conscious. In the end, my son said he loved the ride and didn’t mind the wait. Enough said.

Observation #11 from Disney: it’s not MGM Studios it’s Disney’s Hollywood Studios.

I spent the entire vacation calling it MGM Studios, but its name has changed.

Observation #12 from Disney: My feet hurt. Bad.

Bonus Observation from Disney: We actually witnessed a mother try to bribe her kid’s way into a full attraction (the Jedi training).

This blew our mind. The Star Tours ride is closed for renovation. Instead they have the Star Wars: Jedi Training Academy going on. Unfortunately, to get in the show you have to sign your kid up, and with limited availability, this means signing up first thing after the park opens. Fortunately we realized this and were able to get our youngest into the 4:45 show. When the time came, we returned to the Jedi training academy and waited a few minutes for the show to start. While we were waiting, we watched a mom first plea with the Disney employee to let her son into the show. When that didn’t work she moved on to attempting to bribe him. Thankfully the employee, who boastfully told everyone he was from New York, turned the lady away.

Day 6

Having spent the previous four days visiting the four different Disney parks, we used the fifth day to repeat anything the boys really enjoyed. This meant spending the first half of the day at the Magic Kingdom and the second half at Epcot.

As the heard of humans moves toward the gate I have the urge to bellow out “Moooooooo”

WTFSM, don’t all these people have jobs to be at? And what about the kids, shouldn’t they be in skool?

I purposely misspelled “school” because we had pulled our kids out of school for this trip. By the way, WTFSM means “what the flying spaghetti monster”. The rest is up to you to figure out. I had meant to put OMFSM.

I just found out that the Pluto parking lot at Disney World has been demoted. You’re now only allowed to park motorcycles there.

For those that don’t get it, a few years ago the planet Pluto was demoted to what is now known as a dwarf planet.

I wonder how many chicken nuggets Disney serves per day. Using my kids as a measurement and extrapolating, I would estimate a gazillion.

My youngest would only eat chicken strips and even my oldest often defaulted to them as well. Fortunately for us our kids liked Disney’s chicken. They’d better for as much as the food costs at Disney.

Observation #13 from Disney: I wouldn’t have the patience to be a Disney employee. I couldn’t handle the complaining, obnoxious parents.

For the most part, we didn’t see any outrageous behavior. But the few times we saw something, it wasn’t a kid acting out. It was an adult. Amazingly almost every Disney employee wore a smile on their face and were warm and welcoming. I just couldn’t be like that.

Observation #14 from Disney: Damn this place is expensive.

Observation #15 from Disney: It’s funny how 2 days earlier we could walk onto almost anything but those same rides today had a 1 hour wait.

My oldest really enjoyed Test Track and so this was his choice for repeating a ride. During our first visit to Epcot there were no lines in the evening. We literally got off Test Track, went around, and immediately did it again, at most with five minutes between rides. This day was much warmer and the lines were correspondingly much longer. Using the FastPass approach we were able to get in a couple of more trips around the track but nothing like on that first day.

Observation #16 from Disney: This has been the best family vacation ever.

So, so true.

Day 7

Check out wasn’t until 11:00 so we started the day by having breakfast at the Grand Floridian, our favorite Disney breakfast place. Afterwards we spent the day at Downtown Disney, shopping and playing at DisneyQuest.

It’s time to check out and pay the Disney bill, which means I have to tell Joey the only way we could afford this was to sell my first born.

What’s the deal? These pants weren’t so tight when I packed them a few days ago.

The food was so good. I can’t tell you how much I ate.

There are four sad faces sitting at the breakfast table this morning.

Everyone of us had a blast. We can’t wait to go back.

I feel like an AFOL in a LEGO store. Oh, wait. I am an AFOL in a LEGO store!!!

Downtown Disney has a LEGO store. I remember during our previous visit on our honeymoon, my wife and I spent so much time there. By the way, AFOL stands for “adult fan of LEGO”. If you knew this the tweet made sense.

We just sprung a last second surprise on the kids, two days at the Nickelodeon Resort.

Oops, our bad. This turned out not to be a highlight of our trip.

Observation #17 from Disney: Although DisneyQuest costs two arms and one leg, there are some pretty cool arcade games there.

First off, DisneyQuest is a giant, five story arcade. It has everything from classic 1980′s games (of course it has Tron, which I played) to some high-tech simulators. Not only that, all the games are free, that is, after you pay about $40 per person to get in.

Observation #18 from Disney: I love LEGO stores and the one in Downtown Disney does not disappoint. http://yfrog.com/gzpt4ij

Observation #19 from Disney: Downtown Disney almost deserves a dedicated day to itself (and needs a lot of spending money).

Observation #20 from Disney: The Nickelodeon Resort is no Disney Resort.

After Disney we stuck around in the Orlando area to visit family. We thought we would stick with the kids resort theme and stay a couple of nights at the Nickelodeon Resort. Had we been on any other vacation, then the Nick hotel would have been great, but coming out of a stay at Disney, it wasn’t so great. It made use realize how the little touches Disney includes in their product actually mean a lot enjoying Walt Disney World. The Nickelodeon Resort was so disappointing that we left a day early.

Day 8

Our last day of vacation was spent driving ten hours home to Myrtle Beach.

On the road again

Home sweet home

It’s funny that we spent days in the Disney parks at the same time as @Nytemare88 and we only ran into each other once.

A friend of mine was at Disney World the exact same time as we were. We ran into each other first thing on the first day of their visit, but after that we never saw each other again.

A nice consolation prize for coming home from an awesome vacation is having Christmas only a week away.

For the first time in Rubbo family history we went an entire vacation without eating McDonald’s.

This last one is a huge accomplishment. We were actually about two hours away from being home when my oldest was begging for McDonald’s. We stuck to our guns and made it h0me where we had Domino’s Pizza instead.

Overall, this was a great vacation. Our family is already talking of a return visit in a couple of years.  We’re also talking about taking a Disney cruise, maybe to Alaska.  That would be cool.

Why I Envy the Academic Mercenary

November 22, 2010 1 comment

The other day I published a posting on my Reactions to Recent Examples of Academic Dishonesty. That posting is by far and away my most popular yet. I’ve received positive feedback through the blog comments, Facebook, and in person.  For those that have read it and gave me feedback, thanks.

What I wanted to talk about today is a follow-up to that blog entry.  Specifically, in the first example of academic dishonesty I’d mentioned that I was envious of the academic mercenary, a person hired to anonymously complete assignments, online courses, and even post-graduated theses.  I think some explanation is in order.

First off, I do not condone this person’s profession.  As I mentioned in the previous article, it sickens me to think that there are people out there willing to cheat their way through college to gain a higher economic or social status. By being an hired author this person is perpetuating a dishonest action. Yes, I know that if he’s not doing it someone else will.  But that’s just like the defense given in the second example of academic dishonesty: everyone else is cheating so it must be acceptable.

The hired author profession exists because there’s a market.  It’s very analogous to email spam. Although spam is inherently bad, it wouldn’t exist if there weren’t people clicking on those damn links or actually giving away their information in a Nigerian scam. To go back to the original Shadow Scholar article, the author describes how he got his start. His desire to write, coupled with a need for money, filled the needs of “lazy, Xanax-snorting, Miller-swilling classmates”. Thus a business was born.

So now, why do I envy this individual. While the nature of the business requires that the author stays anonymous, he’s getting paid to learn with very little consequences. Students pay thousands of dollars for this person to learn and write about all kinds of topics. If he turns in a subpar paper, so what. The client may not return for more business, but I’m sure there are plenty of others waiting in line to fill the void. In fact, from reading the article it sounds like there’s enough business that he gets to pick and choose which assignments he accepts.

Imagine this realistic scenario. Recently I’ve become curious about figuring out what the heck the Tea Party is all about. I’m suspecting there are plenty of requests from students needing assignments completed related to, or close enough to bend to, the topic of the Tea Party. So I agree to complete the assignment and in the process I get to learn about the Tea Party. Sure I don’t get a pat on the back in the form of a grade, but I do get paid a few thousand dollars to learn about a personal curiosity. It doesn’t get much sweeter than that.

Moreover, if I were an academic mercenary—which I still don’t condone—I would compile, heavily edit, and attempt to publish a good amount of my anonymous work. In fact, I’ve heard of many non-fiction books that were seeded by a series of correspondences, blog entries, or a compilation of magazine article. If the academic mercenary followed this path not only will this produce an income, the shadow scholar will become the desired publicly known author he’d originally set out to be.

I’m curious though, would it be consider plagiarism if the shadow scholar publishes material that was previously made public under someone else’s name? Would, or more importantly could, the original client that hired the academic mercenary sue over this?

Reactions to Recent Examples of Academic Dishonesty

November 19, 2010 10 comments

A serious problem that plagues college campuses is academic dishonesty.  To put it simply, it’s the problem of cheating. Academic dishonesty has taken on many faces.  It ranges from deceptive activities (like claiming a problem with internet connectivity prevented the completion of an assignment) to blatant plagiarism and even sabotage.  Although it’s possible to categorized the various examples of academic dishonesty, it’s not fair to rank the offensiveness of each type.  I would argue, however, that there is a spectrum of possible consequences that results from cheating.

Coincidently in the last few weeks a handful of stories relating to academic dishonesty in the collegiate classroom have come to my attention.

The Problem of an Academic Mercenary

The first I want to respond to is an article posted on the Chronicle for Higher Education by an anonymous author.  The Shadow Scholar: The man who writes your students’ papers tells his story is an essay meant to bring to light an underground world of plagiarism.  To summarize the article for those that haven’t taken the time to read it (yes, there’s some irony in this), it’s the personal account of an author that’s hired by students to write whatever papers, proposals, entrance essays, theses, dissertations, etc. that are needed but for which the students are too lazy or incompetent to do for themselves.

After reading this article I was pissed.  Pissed not at the author—who I actually envy—but at the clients.  It irritates me beyond belief that there are people out there who are publicly misrepresenting themselves.  They have arrived at a financial and/or social standing by using the work of others.  In short, they are dishonest people. But what really sucks is that in many cases they’re able to get away with it.

The anonymous author is right to point out that we have created a culture where cheating appears as a reasonable means to an ends.  Students are continually evaluated, graded, and assessed.  As the author found out for himself upon attending college, “How dispiriting to find out that college was just another place where grades were grubbed, competition overshadowed personal growth, and the threat of failure was used to encourage learning.” I love that last line.  Students must constantly deal with the pressure of failing and are sometimes willing to take dishonest paths in order to avoid it.

This is why I’m partially sicken to know that these clients exist.  Not only are they dishonest people, they probably don’t have the knowledge that their credentials would assert.  I would rather have a medical student fail out of school because of incompetence then to have them cheat their way through school only to eventually perform surgery on me. Likewise, I want an honest accountant to handle my financial future.  I want an honest person to educate my children.

Is it fair to place students into this highly pressurized environment and expect them to succeed? To some extent I would say yes. Again, I want my doctor, lawyer, accountant, educator, etc. to be able to handle whatever is thrown at them. On the flip side, I can also appreciate that educational institutions have missed the boat by over assessing and devaluing the education and personal growth of students.  Is there a middle ground?  Maybe.  Reed College has implemented a successful approach where grades are assigned but downplayed.  Instead students have close relationships with faculty members.  Through frequent individual conferences students receive guidance and personal evaluation.

It does amuse me to think about those that hire anonymous authors in another light.  These students pay a lot of money (about a semester’s worth of in-state tuition at a state university) for a service that’s not necessarily guaranteed.  If the hired writer does a bad job, what’s the recourse for the client?  If they complain they’re exposed.  In fact, the Shadow Scholar author even admits that “I don’t ever edit my assignments … So some of my work is great. Some of it is not so great.” It’s even laughable to think of the dishonesty the hired author has to portray to get business. “I say yes when asked if I have ever designed a perpetual-motion-powered time machine and documented my efforts in a peer-reviewed journal.”  Just an itsy-bitsy bit of critical thinking should make a student skeptical of the writer’s credentials.  Of course, these students probably either don’t care, or they’re in such a desperate situation as not to care.

As a professor, what am I to do to prevent academic mercenaries?  Say there’s a student that’s just short of incomprehensible in a face-to-face conversation but turns in an intelligent piece of written work. What evidence do I have to claim plagiarism? I would suspect that the argument, “in person you’re an idiot, but on paper you’re brilliant” won’t be enough to prosecute a student for academic dishonesty.  I need more evidence and I’m not sure where to get it.

One Approach to Dealing with Academic Dishonesty

This brings me to a second account of academic dishonesty.  In this story, a University of Central Florida marketing instructor, Richard Quinn, discovered that a large fraction of the students in his Strategic Management course were able to get a hold of the test bank from which the midterm exam questions were taken.  (Check out this YouTube video of Mr Quinn addressing his class about the incident.) Naturally, for those students that had, and used, a copy of the test bank, their exam scores were higher.  In fact, the first piece of evidence that something was afoot was a statistical analysis that showed a bimodal distribution, meaning there was an outside influence that skewed the data. (Hooray for math!) More supporting evidence came from a mystery student placing a copy of the test bank in a bin outside Mr Quinn’s office, thereby demonstrating that the test bank was floating around campus.  Lastly, some of the honest students (those screwed over by the cheaters) contacted the teaching assistants to complain about dishonest students who were bragging they aced the exam because they had the answers ahead of time.  In the end, it was clear that a substantial number of students had committed an act of academic dishonesty.

In response to the cheating, Mr Quinn decided to throw out the exam results.  A new exam was written, but not from an existing test bank.  Finally, students were given the ultimatum to either turn themselves in and be required to take an ethics course through Academic Affairs, or face the possibility of Academic Affairs prosecution which will most likely result in a permanent negative mark on the offenders’ transcripts.

In all fairness, there were two rebuttals from students.  The first can be seen in the video associated with the WFTV article, UCF Learns Hundreds Cheated On Mid-Term.  Did you catch it?  The second student’s defense is that, “This is college. Everyone cheats.  Everyone cheats in life in general. I think you’d be hard pressed to find anyone in this testing lab who hasn’t cheated on an exam. They’re making a witch hunt out of absolutely nothing, as if it were to teach us some kind of moral lesson.”  Umm, okay. It seems that the defense here is that because everyone else is dishonest it’s acceptable to be dishonest yourself.  Do I even need to counter-argue this point?

The second rebuttal has a little bit more teeth to it.  In this YouTube video students counter that Mr Quinn was dishonest in claiming that he wrote the exam; it’s acceptable to use “an available resource from a publisher” as a study aid; and it’s unfair to the honest students that they too are also being punished.  The suggested recourse for Mr Quinn, according to the makers of the video, “Just formally apologize for laziness and give ALL the students an extra letter grade higher on our final grades.”

I have to admit, there is a double standard in claiming to write the questions for an exam and then pirating them from a publisher’s test bank.  But, if you watch the video closely you notice that Mr Quinn claims to create the exam, which I would contest can be interpreted to mean he selects the questions.  He does, however, state that he occasionally writes bad questions.  If 100% of the exam comes from the test bank, then Mr Quinn is not being honest.  If he contributes his own questions, in addition to the publishers questions, then there’s no problem here.  I don’t have enough knowledge about the situation to distinguish these two scenarios.

Now for the big question, is it academically dishonest to use available resources from the publisher to study for an exam?  There are two answers to this question.  There are certain materials that publishers produce that are meant to be used by students as study aids outside of the classroom. In the case, it’s not cheating.  However, there are other materials that are for instructors’ eyes only.  These materials should not be used or even seen by students. It would be academically dishonest to use such materials as study aids, even if they are readily available. What is not clear from the information I can find is which of the two types of materials the exam questions were pulled from.  I suspect, based on the reaction of Mr Quinn and the students, that the questions came from a test bank meant for the instructors use only.

Personal Experiences with Academic Dishonesty

This last issue is one that hits close to home.  In physics and astronomy, we use textbooks that have end-of-chapter problems. It’s very convenient to just assign a handful of these and call it a homework assignment. What makes it even easier is that solutions sets for the problems are available from the textbook publishers. But these are exactly the types of materials that find their way into student hands.  Worst yet is that with the internet students don’t even have to get the entire solution set.  By simply copying the question into a Google search engine, answers to individual questions can be found.

Is the use of Google academic dishonesty? If a student is willfully using material that states that it’s meant for instructors only, and most of these materials do, then it’s clearly cheating.  It’s also cheating if the instructor, or the syllabus, explicitly state that the use of Google or whatever other resources are forbidden. This assumes, of course, that the students are modifying the information they receive from Google. If, on the other hand, they are simply transcribing what they found on the internet and turning it in as their own, they are committing academic fraud. They’re essentially using an academic mercenary without paying for it.

I can honestly say that I’ve never cheated.  I never saw value in it.  I’m someone that’s driven by gaining new knowledge. I’ve also come to realize that the best way to understand something new is by doing the work myself.  Consequently I’ve pulled all-nighters, I’ve turned in partially completed and sometimes crappy assignments, I’m embarrassed by some of the horrible typos in my dissertation, but I can proudly say that it’s my work.

As a college professor I have caught students cheating and I would be ignorant to think others did not get away with it.  It does happen. That doesn’t mean I don’t proactively attempt to short-circuit cheating.  There are a number of techniques I’ve tried, some have appeared to work while others have not necessarily had an affect.

One approach that I’m particularly proud of is using assessments that are not simple factual regurgitation. Most of my homework assignments, in-class activities, exams, etc. don’t ask students knowledge based questions like, “What does Kepler’s First Law state?” but rather application or analysis questions such as, “Why was Kepler’s Law so revolutionary?”  By requiring students to apply knowledge (i.e. going to a higher level of Bloom’s Taxonomy), they’re put into situations that are not readily available from other resources.  That isn’t to say that there isn’t support out there to answer these questions for students to “borrow”.  The hired mercenary is one example.  But if it’s a lot more work and/or if the student is under a time constraint, then these sources are less appealing.

I also have an advantage in that I teach relatively small classes, less than forty students a semester.  This affords me the opportunity to get to know my students individually. By about two-thirds of the way into a course I can assign final grades to within a half letter grade accuracy.  By personally addressing their questions, listening to them work in groups, and grading their assignments I’m able to build a fairly accurate profile for the abilities within the content of the class.  I can easily imagine that for a professor at a large state school, with classes of literally hundreds of students, students don’t have to struggle to blend into the scenery which allows for better opportunities for cheating.  I can what I’m saying is that one way to flag possible cheating is to get to know your students.

It would be nice if instructors could catch more offenders. Then we could send them to the chalkboard and make them repeat the mantra:

By the way, I solemnly swear that I wrote this article.  I’m sure there are plenty of my signature grammatical issues that support my claim.

The Force may be Found in all of Us

November 15, 2010 3 comments

As a parent of two young boys—and as someone that’s never fully grown up—I look forward to the holiday season.  It’s that time of year we get all kinds of cool new toys.  One of my favorite past times is to leaf through those huge toy ads.  The other day I was flipping through the Toys-R-Us Great Big Christmas Book.  At first, page 27 brought a smile to my face.  Right there, across the top of the page is the heading, “25% Off Amazing Science Fun!”

Science toys on sale!  How can you go wrong?  There are Do & Discover Science Kits, a CSI DNA Laboratory, microscopes, and my favorite, telescopes.  As a bonus, there’s even a selection of Star Wars toys that incorporate scientific principles.  But wait.  Read carefully the caption to the Star Wars Science: The Force Trainer:

“Move an object with your mind! Features a wireless headset that reads your brainwaves.” I had to do a double-take when I read this.  The same product at Amazon.com has a product description from the manufacture:

May the Force be with you. The Force Trainer by Uncle Milton actually allows you to control a Jedi Training Remote with your mind, by tapping into cutting-edge brainwave technology. Utilizing dry EEG sensor technology, the headset reads and interprets your brainwaves. The deeper your concentration and mental focus, the greater your ability to move the Training Remote up or down the Training Tower. Progress from Padawan to Jedi Master as you master the use of “The Force” through 15 levels of training. Increasingly challenging sequences are aided by training cues and instruction from the master of all Jedi Masters himself, Yoda. Additional STAR WARS sound effects confirm accomplishment and provide encouragement throughout your training. Advancement and current level of your training is displayed on the Training Tower control panel.

Or if you’re not one for words check out this video of a kid playing with the toy. Yes, it would be uber-cool if The Force really existed but coolness is not a required condition for existence.  Besides, can a kid’s toy actually measure brainwaves? At this point my skeptical senses started tingling so I did a little internet reading.

It appears that there are devices called electroencephalographs that use multiple electrodes attached directly to a patient’s scalp.  The electrodes are used in tandem to measure electrical potential differences.  As a physicist, this I can understand.  From the potential differences neurologists can directly monitor brain activity.  Electroencephalograms (EEGs) are used to diagnose seizer disorders, along with dementia, narcolepsy, and other brain afflictions.  I learned something new because of this toy.

But can a toy company package an electroencephalograph and sell it for $99.99, or better yet, at the sale price of $74.99?  Again, my skeptical senses are ringing off the hook.  From KidsHealth.com I found out that before performing an EEG neurologists recommend that patients stop taking certain medications, have a clean head, and to layoff caffeine up to eight hours prior to the test.  Yeah, good luck with telling your kid they can’t have caffeine eight hours before playing with their Force Trainer.  It gets worst.  During the EEG patients are asked to lie still for about an hour, or longer if the EEG is performed while sleeping. If you can get your kids to sit still for an hour please let the rest of the world know how.  Given these conditions I’m very skeptical of this toy’s abilities.

Let’s imagine for a moment that this toy does work—and according to a lot of the comments found on Amazon.com it does—does that mean each and everyone of us possesses The Force?  Not quite. By poking around the Uncle Milton Star Wars Science site it looks like the way this toy works is that it converts beta waves into a signal that’s transmitted to a standard levitating tube. (These can easily be made by blowing air straight up around a ping-pong ball.) The ball levitates higher with more concentration and falls with distractions. Beta waves are associated with active concentration and are most active during moments when a person sits still. With just the right concentration you’re suppose to be able to levitate the ball at a specified height.

It’s an interesting idea, but given the conditions normally needed for an EEG, I’m very skeptical of my Force abilities.  But as a good scientist, I should perform some experiments before making a ny final judgements.  Since I won’t spend $74.99 on this toy, if anybody wants to buy me one I’ll report back on my findings.

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Bad, Bad Operating System

November 10, 2010 Leave a comment

Check out this video showing a math teacher dealing with a troublesome operating system.

Did you notice the cheers when the Mac OS screen came up?  As a devoted Mac user I loved how this video starts out, but then the sacred cow had problems.  But of course this was all done in fun.

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Issues With A Paperless Class

August 31, 2010 Leave a comment

Since the release of the iPad last spring I’ve noticed an increase in the prevalence of e-readers, not only Apple’s entry but from anybody selling an e-reader.  When I surf over to Amazon.com the homepage has an advertisement for the Kindle prominently displayed.  Likewise, when I step into the local Barnes & Noble I’m welcomed by a display for the nook.  Based on the recent boom in e-reader devices it may be that we are in the beginning stages of a paperless book reading experience.  But how does this translate to the classroom?

Over on The Active Class blog is a nice post on teaching a paperless class.  Among the issues raised are the ease of interacting with a bound text and the general nostalgia of handling a book.  These issues tend to outweigh the convenience of a cheaper, more portable version of the same text.  As a result, there seems to be some resistance to completely transforming into a paperless class.

Referenced in the same Active Class blog entry is a posting on Mashable entitled Digital Textbooks: 3 Reasons Students Aren’t Ready.  This article adds to the discussion that an e-text revolution isn’t quite here because of the lack of a substantial cost savings, no universal standard, and a question of ownership of the downloaded material.

In the Physics Department at Coastal Carolina we’ve discussed the issue of promoting e-texts, mostly with the motivation of saving our students money.  Central in our discussion is the last point made on Mashable.  Physics majors need to keep their texts years after the actual class.  As a faculty member I still reference textbooks I used as a student.  So when a student elects to use an electronic copy of the text, the question arises, how longs does the student have access to it?  Will the material expire?  How is accessibility handled as students purchase new e-reader devices?  These are important questions that need to be made more clear before the large leap into the paperless class can be made.

For the non-majors—those students that typically celebrate passing physics and never want to look back—they can’t wait to sell their expensive books back to recoup at least some of the original purchasing cost.  With e-texts, it doesn’t seem that resell is possible.  If a student spends a substantial amount of money on a digital copy of the text, they would like to get something back at the end of the day.

The other large issue I see with going paperless is a reliable device for reading the material.  A few years ago—or even arguably a few months ago—the only readily available e-reader device was a computer.  A desktop limits the location of where an e-text can be read.  It’s also more restrictive in the physical positions a person can be in while interacting with the material.  (How many of us have a desktop that we can use while lying down.)  Laptops alleviate most of the desktop issues but they fall short in that laptop battery lifetimes tend to be short.  In my own classroom students that use a laptop during class are often tethered to the wall because their computer’s battery can’t even make it through class.  For these reasons, and those discussed elsewhere, I think students may be hesitant to embrace the e-text idea.

However, now that there are a number of more portable, long battery life devices out there, maybe the time for e-texts is here.  These new devices are cheaper than a traditional computer, which makes them more financially accessible to students.  They’re also more inviting as devices that can be more than just an e-reader.  In one composition book sized object you have not only an e-reader, but access to email and the world wide web in addition to a number of relevant applications.  Think of apps like The Elements and Star Walk to name just a few.

Still, there are issues of material ownership and universal access for electronic materials.  How long can students access digital texts?  Can one student use a Kindle while the next student use an iPad?  Also, students have to overcome the nostalgia factor of interacting and collecting bound texts.

My suspicion is that as these new e-readers become more prevalent in our leisure lives, we’re going to see more of a push to address the concerns over going paperless in the classroom.  In other words, as devices such as the iPad are used for things other than schoolwork, students are going to realize the comfort and benefits of going paperless with their textbooks as well.  More importantly, as publishers see sales of e-readers increase, they’ll see a window of opportunity and will in turn clarify issues with universal accessibility and expirations.  The business models will follow customers’ desires.

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