Utilizing Technology to Support Differentiated Learning #STANYS #flipclass #physicsed


It’s been awhile since I’ve gotten a good reflection up here.  I’ve been swamped finishing up the AP Physics 1 Essentials book, getting it converted to all the various formats (Kindle, Nook, iBooks, etc.), while simultaneously continuing work on the interactive iPad version.  As these projects are slowly beginning to conclude, I’ve been working on a presentation for the STANYS 2013 (Science Teachers Association of New York State) conference here in Rochester, NY.  My presentation is on Utilizing Technology to Support Differentiated Learning, where I take a quick look at three strategies all designed to promote independent learning in students while providing opportunity for those students to self-differentiate by skill level in specific areas as well as interest.

Since one of the three strategies involved flipping the classroom (along with self instruction and blogging), it seemed only right that I make a “flipped class video” version of the presentation.  I’m still massaging the presentation, but here’s the first take:

How Zilliondesigns Created My High School Physics Website Logo


I came across ZillionDesigns.com while looking for someone that could design a logo for my high school physics website. The service they are promoting is rather unique — on the site you’ll be able to submit a ‘contest’, for whatever you need to be done (logo, brochure, web template, business cards and other similar design service). You are able to select your budget and also adjust the prize amount. The higher the prize the more designs you’ll likely have to choose from. After you prepare a brief description of what you need your contest will be sent to the designers, who begin creating whatever you’ve asked for. As the designers provide you with work samples, you are able to provide feedback to help you get exactly what you need. The last step is to pick the design you like the most and announce the ‘winner’ of the ‘contest’.

ZillionDesigns.com offers many different packages, which start with logo and stationary all the way up to logo, stationery, web design and brochures.

I chose ZillionDesigns.com as the place to design my logo because I wanted to have a strong influence on what I’m getting as the end result.

Since with ZillionDesigns.com you are choosing from many different designers you can get exactly what you have in mind and are looking for. I also like the idea of a ‘contest,’ which in my opinion makes the designers work harder in order to win it instead just ‘completing another order’ that came in.

In summary – ZillionDesigns.com is a very interesting concept in crowdsourcing, especially if you like input into your design. It also allows you to control the costs carefully, which is a great feature. I used it to get my website logo designed!

AP Physics 1 Essentials Released #physics #physicsed #apb


Finally, after several years of research, organizing, outlining, re-outlining, writing, re-writing, writing again, and so on, I’m thrilled to announce that AP Physics 1 Essentials: An APlusPhysics Guide has been released!

3d book

AP1 Essentials is jam-packed with the knowledge and content required for success on the AP Physics 1 Exam.  More than 500 problems and deeper understanding questions, examples, and explanations.  Tons of illustrations and diagrams to make the book clearer and enjoyable to read.  And, of course, it’s interconnected with the APlusPhysics website, with video mini-lessons, online tutorials, student blogs, discussion forums, homework help, a video repository, downloads, you name it.  I believe this will be an extremely valuable resource for students undertaking their AP Physics 1 courses beginning in fall 2014 when the course officially begins.

Having said all that, though, I want to make a few items clear up front, as critics love to hammer certain points.  Number one, this book is a resource (as are the videos, web tutorials, etc).  Just that, and nothing more.  It’s not intended to replace strong classroom instruction, student exploration, hands-on activities and labs, deeper problem solving practice, critical thinking, and writing as thinking.  It’s another tool in the toolbox.  The giant change in the AP Physics course is a focus on building true student understanding rather than plug-and-chug problem solving, something that is VERY difficult to do in a short easy-to-read book.  Those skills need interactive discussions, refinement, challenges, and that’s where our job as teachers come in.  This book was never intended as a textbook for the course, nor as a teacher replacement for a “do-it-yourself-at-home” situation.  It’s designed to complement the course, driving home essential concepts and knowledge.  True mastery will require much more, however.  Applications both tangible and on-paper.  Further deep dives into what these concepts really mean and how they intertwine.  In short, strong professional instruction.

Second, this is a review/guide book.  For reasons of clarity, the organization of topics and chapters may not be what a student would typically see in a classroom setting.  Physics topics interconnect, and it’s very difficult (and perhaps downright incorrect) to teach any given topic in isolation.  What is kinematics without dynamics?  How do you have a chapter on work and energy when the entire course is about energy?  And for reasons of clarity, the order of chapters and material in chapters is not always what I would recommend as the order a teacher take in the classroom.  Interconnectedness and a re-entrant strategy through a course is highly prized and effective, but deadly confusing in a review book.  So the book is organized in such a fashion that a linear progression through the books hits the major topics in an order that requires a minimum of backtracking, yet may not be the most effective path to take in the classroom or the first-time through the material.  Again, this is designed as a review / guide book, another weapon in the arsenal to build understanding, not a stand-alone solution.

Third, students and teachers all have differing styles.  Many teachers are moving to the “modeling” curriculum, which is strongly supported by the new AP-1 course.  Many teachers are moving to “flipped classroom” strategies.  Others teach with inquiry and project-based learning.  None of these is the “silver bullet” that fixes all problems, and all of these have benefits and drawbacks.  I think it’s important for each instructor to develop their own style that works for them, while also recognizing that each student is different, and what works for one student may not work for another.  I try hard not to promote or criticize any single style of instruction.  There’s a time and place for all of them.  Instead, I recommend finding what works for you, and then each and every day, consider how you can stretch beyond what is comfortable to try something else and see if it works for you.  Teaching is a process, not just a profession.  To that end, I incorporate facets of modeling in the book and my classroom, I utilize some flipped class strategies in my classroom, though I wouldn’t call my classroom a “flipped class.”  I utilize inquiry, project-based learning, and tons of other strategies, as I see fit to best meet the needs of my students and my goals for that day/lesson/unit.  I even use direct instruction (oh my, he said it, didn’t he!!!) at times, though it is by no means the backbone of my courses.  And this book is designed as a complement to any/all of them, not an answer to any single one.

I wrote this book as a book I would want my students to have access to.  Of course, it would be supplemented with a number of other resources.  First off, I still promote the use of a legitimate full-length textbook.  You may not use it everyday, but I think it’s important students learn how to read and utilize a complex text.  In every class I teach, regardless of level, we work toward the day where we take one entire unit and work through it as an independent unit, where students are required to make use of the text productively, investigate a number of lab activities independently, and test their own understanding.  Secondly, the problems in this book are designed to provide essential concept understanding.  I highly recommend the use of additional problems sets, especially freely-available questions from past AP exams, as well as more open-ended and design-type questions where students aren’t just solving for a numerical answer, but are writing explanations as they think through problems and apply those basic concepts to new situations.  That is a major focus of the AP paradigm shift, and I believe is beyond the scope of any single text to promote in isolation, as building these skills is a highly interactive process.

So, a long-winded explanation of what to expect, and my recommendations on how I would use it.  Just the $.02 of a physics teacher who loves his job.  I want to again thank the many contributors to this work, and all the folks who have supported and encouraged this work.  It’s been by far the hardest writing project I’ve undertaken, and I think it delivers on all of the goals we initially set out with.  I hope you enjoy it!

AP Physics 1 Essentials – Coming Soon! #physicsed #physics #apphysics


After many, many long hours and tons of great feedback from physics teachers across the globe, I’m thrilled to announce the AP Physics 1 Essentials, a guidebook / review book for the upcoming AP Physics 1 course, is due for release in late August.  I began work on this project in the summer of 2010 when conversations at the AP Annual Conference in Washington, D.C., led to a number of different teachers talking about the need for a detailed course breakdown to support the change, followed by discussion of what the true cost of the change would be in terms of instructor hours, curriculum rewrites, resource revisions, etc.  It was obvious there was going to be a need for a guidebook for the course, and my goal was to provide a short “everything you need to know” book that was easy-to-read, fun, engaging, and inexpensive so that students could pick this up as a guidebook/review book without having to purchase entirely new textbooks to support the changing course.

I quickly picked up a following of fans eager to see the project succeed and more than willing to contribute what they could, from early draft versions of the Division of Content plans (which only vaguely resemble the final curriculum guides), to proposed and/or recommended formula sheets, to technical reviews, editing, “wish lists,” etc.  I’ve been amazed at the positive response and helpfulness of so many, that has allowed this project to progress through multiple obstacles, from revised content and organizational issues through technical hurdles such as a corrupt book file caught nearly 80% into the rough draft.  I guess this qualifies as checking the  “nothing worthwhile is easy” box on the project.


I’m grateful to my family for allowing me the many hours early in the morning, late in the evening, and during the summer to work on this effort.  As I write this, for example, I’m on vacation with my family.  It’s almost 6 am, I’m watching the Allegheny River flow past, and just saw a bald eagle fly up the river, not 30 feet from where I sit typing.  I also must thank the many physics instructors across the globe who have contributed in so many ways, from editing to hints to encouragement… but I need to say a special thank you to the APlusPhysics community.  The website began as a tool to use in my own classroom, and quickly grew so popular that I felt compelled to continue to expand it at the request of its users.  With more than 30,000 students using it EACH MONTH, I’ve been absolutely floored by the number of thank-you messages, letters of encouragement, and success stories contributed voluntarily by community members.  You guys set me on this path, made the site and the books successful, and it’s your encouragement and support that have kept me at this project through the wee hours of the night and long hours of frustration.

Moving on to the final product… I’m proud to say the book is finished.  Sure, it has a few more edits to make, a few more tweaks here and there, but everything is on track for a late August 2013 release.  My long-term goal was to have the book released one year before teachers began teaching the revised AP course, and it appears we’ll hit that deadline on the nose (with special thanks to the AP for delaying the change a year from the date I was originally told back in the summer of 2010).  I’m hoping you find it valuable to your courses and studies.  This book was written as the guidebook I would want my students to have for the course.  Not a full standard physics textbook, because my students don’t learn and fully read their physics textbook (except in snippets), but rather a book designed to be used as written, read AND understood, with tons of example problems and solutions.

Thank you so much for your tremendous support.  I hope you enjoy AP Physics 1 Essentials as much as I enjoyed the opportunity to work with you and so many other amazing people on this project.

Make it a great day!

Creating Screencasts – 2013 Update #edtech #flipclass


Hi Folks,

At least once or twice a week I receive an e-mail asking how I make my screencasts, and given these posts are a couple years old, and I’ve adjusted my methodology a bit in the past few years, it seems high time I provided an update on my recommendations for screencasting. So, here goes.

Screen Shot 2013-05-29 at 8.20.40 AM

For those using Windows PCs, not much has changed terribly. I still highly recommend Camtasia:Studio as one of the most cost-effective and easy-to-use software packages for screencasting (make sure you choose Education pricing for a 40% discount). It allows you to record what’s occurring on your screen, as well as your face (via webcam), and puts it all together with a variety of output options. It is my go-to tool when using a Windows system. Typically I create my presentation in Powerpoint, then load up Camtasia to record my walk-through of the presentation, and do a majority of post-processing in Camtasia. Finally, I upload to Youtube and also to the APlusPhysics.com site (many schools block Youtube, so having the videos in a separate place helps teachers provide access to all their students, regardless of location or device). A good example of a video created in this manner is the Kinematics Equations Regents Physics Tutorial.

About 18 months ago, however, I switched from the Windows platform to the Mac platform. The “why” of the change is a long story, and probably not of interest to most readers here, but the transition was much smoother than I expected, and although I realize you pay a premium on the hardware end, I’m much happier with the transition than I initially anticipated. Initially I tried quite a few different methods championed by other teachers using Macs, but everything I tried was either flaky, too complex, or required too much “work” during the presentation — and when I’m creating the screencasts, I want to focus as much of my attention as I can on teaching the material as effectively as I can, with as little focus as possible on technical aspects of screencasting. For those who have been making screencasts, you realize how challenging it is to try to take a lesson, concept, or problem-solving approach and condense it down into just what the students need to know to get started. My goal in my videos isn’t to replace the classroom or teacher, but rather take the repetitive basic content and condense it down into something the kids can do at home, leaving us more time in class for hands-on activities, exploration, extension, and challenge work.

Without digressing TOO much further, I soon decided I had to come up with my own method. After a bit of trial and error and the purchase of several software packages that just didn’t work out for me, here’s the method I came up with (and am quite happy with). First, I create my presentation materials in either Powerpoint or Keynote (I prefer Keynote on the Mac to Powerpoint on the Mac just for level of integration, but they’re pretty much equivalent). Once my presentation slides are complete, I export them in PDF form. Then, I import the PDF presentation into a wonderful Mac software package known as Curio (HIGHLY recommended and comes with amazing developer support), “Spread” the PDFs out onto various pages, and I use Curio as my background software when I run my screen capture.

Screen Shot 2013-05-29 at 8.50.34 AM

For the actual screen capture work, I went back to Techsmith’s Camtasia:Mac. It doesn’t have quite as many features as the Windows version, and post-processing is considerably less intuitive if you want to zoom, scroll, etc., but for the basics it’s pretty slick, and it also has one more GREAT feature that I love — the ability to remove a color from your recorded webcam video. This means you can do some basic “green screen” or “chromakey” work right in Camtasia:Mac. I’m not thrilled with the level of control of this feature, as there’s definitely some room for improvement, but it’s a great start and its easy integration right into the regular workflow makes it quick and easy to implement. The AP Physics C: Gauss’s Law video demonstrates a screencast created with this workflow. As an added bonus, Camtasia for Mac is also considerably cheaper than the Windows version, currently about $75 for an academic license.

Which leads us into the tricky part, the hardware. The most important part of your setup, from my perspective, is your writing input device. On the Windows side, for years I’ve used a Tablet PC (not an iPad or similar device, but rather a laptop computer that has a screen you can write on). These tend to be rather pricey (prices typically start around $2K for a decent system), and I haven’t had the greatest luck with them as far as reliability goes, despite attempts at buying high-end systems. What I consider a better alternative is the purchase of a separate input device, so that you can always upgrade / swap out the computer itself as needed, but continue using the input device from system to system.

Initially I started working with a Wacom Intuos tablet. It does what it’s supposed to, but I had a heck of a time looking at a separate screen while drawing on a separate input device. My handwriting was awful (even more awful than when I write directly on the screen), and I found myself stressing about the technicalities of the screencast as I worked. It just wasn’t comfortable at all. So, the barely-used system is sitting under my desk waiting for me to either put it up on eBay, loan it to another APlusPhysics contributor, or sell it for pennies on the dollar.

Shortly thereafter, I decided to take the plunge and purchased a Wacom Interactive Pen Display, model DTU-1631. I use this in my classroom each day as well, projecting the DTU-1631 screen on a digital projector, and writing my notes directly on the screen. This has the extra advantage of allowing me to capture all my class notes and publish them directly to our Regents Physics and AP Physics C blogs. It’s not the greatest monitor as far as overall image quality, and it’s certainly priced above where I think it should be (~$1000), but it works, and has become my everyday workhorse in the classroom. I’m pleased to see Wacom is coming out with some considerably upgraded interactive pen displays this summer, which may provide some further options.

I also invested in a system for home use this past fall, saving me the hassle of lugging the DTU-1631 back and forth from school to the home office regularly. Without the need to project the monitor, I decided on the Wacom Cintiq 22HD system. Again, the monitor image characteristics leave a bit to be desired in a high resolution monitor, but the ability to write directly on the screen at high resolution takes all the technical hassle out of creating screencasts. It’s not for the dabbler, however, as discount price is typically right around $2000.

Blue Yeti USB Microphone

Blue Yeti USB Microphone

As far as audio and microphones go, I continue to use a Zoom H2 Digital Recorder at home, which does a nice job of capturing audio cleanly at a price point around $180 with a bit of searching, but a year or so ago I purchased a separate Blue Yeti USB Microphone and I absolutely love it. It’s easy to use, has a tremendous cardiod mode, and provides awesome sound in a cheap, reliable manner. At a price point of roughly $100, I don’t think you can beat it, and it wouldn’t take much for me to trade in my more expensive Zoom H2 for a second Blue Yeti for the home office.

As far as webcams to capture the instructor’s face, just about any Logitech-type USB webcam will do. I’ve used a number of different webcams, most recently a Logitech HD Webcam C615 (due to its Mac compatibility). They do a decent job. For the higher-end videos using the chromakey (green screen) technology, I wanted something a little better, and found an outdated Canon ZR850 sitting in our closet. This mini-DV camcorder didn’t see much use in our house due to the advent of all the flip cam technologies, iPhones, etc., but I found that by connecting to my Mac through its firewire connections, I could get high quality, stable images fed directly into the computer and compatible with Camtasia. Certainly not a necessity, but a nice little extra.

Finally, in the interest of full disclosure, I do just a touch of post-processing on my videos outside of Camtasia. Although Camtasia has noise reduction algorithms built in, I had already purchased a license for the full Adobe Creative Suite (Master Edition) to build the APlusPhysics website, so thought I might as well use as many features of the software as I can. I use Adobe Audition to tweak the audio input from my microphones just a touch before final processing. This allows me to easily standardize volume levels, pull out 60Hz hum from the electrical system, and even remove a bit of the HVAC noise from my recordings. Certainly not necessary for a good screencast, but a little extra since I already had the software on my system.

There are certainly cheaper ways to do screen casting, and many great free to nearly-free alternatives. I’ve chosen this route with the goal of spending my time and resources up front to create high quality videos that I can use for years and years, tweaking and re-doing individual videos on a piecemeal basis to continually improve the quality of the video collection, as opposed to redoing the course year after year. There are certainly other strategies and workflows, but I’m hoping this may provide at least a start to others who are interested in screencasting without having to travel down all the mistaken paths I had to in developing this methodology. Make it a great day everyone!

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