Well, I’ve been tinkering with computer code and bits of electronics to try to get stuff for my big class (Physics 151) working properly. I’ve set up a dedicated laptop computer (it’s an ibook…. it’s running Mac OS X) to handle all the teaching and admin tasks for my undergraduate classes and everything works like a dream….but not at the same time. Sigh. So the classroom is equipped with IR receivers that then are connected to the computer. What I can then do is ask questions (or play games…or some combination of the two) of my class and they can respond with the personal response units that they have in their possession (bought elsewhere)…..I can then flash up the results in real time, discuss them, etc… It’s a great way of getting real-time response to whether what you just taught them actually makes any sense to them at all. Real in-class interaction.
The problem is that the receivers connect via to an RS-232 serial cable plug. My computer needs a little dongle that turns the standard USB port into such a port. I have one. I installed the driver software. I plugged it in. It works.
The other reason I’m using this particular computer is so that I can present all my lectures with the added functionality (and downright niceness and coolness) of Keynote. I was using pdfs (generated by Keynote) on my previous windows-based (hissss) teaching machine (and I refuse to use Powerpoint). This program is way superior to either. Well, I have lots of overlays, multiple builds, etc, and I like to walk around and wave my arms about and that way keep the class interested as I lecture. I don’t want to stand by the computer like a statue to trigger all that functionality, and so I use a wireless device to control the computer from afar, freeing me to be animated. It’s the same one I use when I give other presentations (research seminars, etc) from my main (research and other stuff) powerbook, so I know it well. It’s great. It works.
The problem is when you have them working at the same time. Then one or the other is not actually working. Sigh. This is not good, since one wants to project the questions one wants them to answer from one’s presentation, and then run the answer-gathering software, at the same time, etc….. you see the problem.
Well, I think I might have it sort of fixed now (after hours of playing with it)……It seems that there is an ordering issue that I have to remember…. need to test it a few more times, as the next big class is tomorrow.
In the meantime, here’s something else from the class’ first day. The first class is usually taken up with logistics of explaining how the course works, etc….there’s a lot to tell them since we have several components, and several ways of getting points toward your grade…. the other thing we do is as five questions to be answered on a tear-off front page of the syllabus and handed back to us.
We care most about the first question:
- Why are you signed up for this section instead of one of the other ones? If you have a course conflict please identify the course.
- How big is an atom? (Use any units you prefer.)
- How far is it to New York? (Use any units you prefer.)
- How far is it to the nearest star? (Use any units you prefer.)
- How many people holding hands would it take to form a line stretching from Los Angeles to New York? (Rhetorical Supplement: How hard might it be to get that many people!?)
Well, you don’t care about that one, but it does help us determine how to balance things between different sections (same stuff, different lecturer). I could use the help right now, since I have 185 or so students in my section (there are people sitting on the stairs), while the other section has 75. So we want to know why! The fact that my colleagues’ section is at 9:00am while mine is at midday is clearly a big part of the problem…..Several of the answers had “I’m not a morning person”.
But then there are four other questions. Bear in mind that these are freshman-level students. We’d like them to get into several useful habits, as budding engineers and scientists: (1) Ability to make useful estimates and rough computations (2) Having a good sense of the relative sizes of important things (3) Realizing what’s a convention and what’s not…. It’s simply interesting to see the answers to the following questions (compiled by my colleague Chris Gould (yes, he of the aforementioned Science Fair)):
My favourite answers (some of which I’d not heard before from previous years) include:
“One atomic unit.”
“Really small, but bigger than subatomic particles.”
“Six hours on Jet Blue”
“By car, it’s three days, depending upon how many breaks you take.”
“Really, really, really small.”
“Farther than I could walk.”
“One astronomical unit.”
“If George Lucas is lecturing on campus at the moment, it wouldn’t be too far.”
“About the size of a ping-pong ball in comparison to a football field.”
“Is this a trick question? Atoms aren’t big!”
“It would be very difficult but not unprecedented. It was attempted in the Simpons and they failed, so it would be very difficult.”
“100 really tall giants.”
“Regular sized people …. or dwarfs…. be more specific.”
“The population of China, because China can do anything. They’re huge.”
“To be horrible and answer the rhetorical question, if we get enough money to pay them it would be easy (if we get cheap labor from Japan or India, it would be even easier)…..(but plane tickets might be expensive).”
“It depends. I have a 6’8″-ish wingspan. If it were a bunch of babies, it would take – a lot.”
“It would be a lot of people, but my neighbour would like to point out that his arm span is way longer than a baby’s, so it all depends.”
So there you have it. It’s going to be an interesting freshman physics class with at least have of the 185 being budding comedy geniuses…. I love this job!
(Feel free to add your own answers.)