The Merlin

January 17, 2012

Phobos-Grunt: one look and gone!

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , — Matt @ 10:40 pm

Well, on Saturday we trooped out to see if we could see the errant spacecraft, Phobos-Grunt, on one of its final orbits. I was pretty sure we’d have only a few remaining chances–the ground track prediction from Heavens Above was changing daily. I dragged the family out and looked to the south. Despite the light pollution, Jupiter was high in the sky, with Venus lower to the West.

And saw nothing.

Actually, that’s not true, we did see a high satellite moving south. Annabelle noticed the Seven Sisters, and Fiona caught a glimpse of Cassiopeia (the big “W”).

But we saw no sign of the doomed Russian Mars probe. When I looked up the sighting opportunities for later–I recalled that the 17th would be a good time–I saw that there were NO MORE flyovers to be seen.

And indeed, after about 10 am on Sunday the 15th, Phobos-Grunt fell to earth, or rather to sea. On Phil Plait’s blog, Emily Lakdawalla of the Planetary Society has a video chat explaining what is known about the crash into the Southern Pacific Ocean.

Too bad–we were rooting for at least a piece of it to land in our back yard. Ah well, there will be plenty more pieces of space junk. Maybe we’ll get lucky next time.

January 11, 2012

Python Computer Games with Annabelle, part 1

Filed under: Computer Science — Tags: , , — Matt @ 10:24 pm

Several times this year I’ve been dismayed to hear Annabelle say that she thinks she’s not very good at math. After asking her why she thinks this is I’ve learned that she worries that she has not memorized math facts as well as other kids in the class, and that she has to count on her fingers. While rote arithmetic is not something I’m interested in drilling the kids on, there’s something to be said for getting this out of the way so that the child can take the facts for granted. Doing this has been made less painful (it seems to me) by the availability of computer games that drill them.

Watching how kids interact with these math websites, though, it’s not been clear to me whether the appeal of the games is only due to the splashy action that is layered on top of the basic drilling, or if there might not be an intrinsic satisfaction to getting the answers right. It occurred to me that there might be an extra layer of satisfaction that would accrue from using a math facts drilling game that the child has written herself. Even if the game was a simple terminal text interaction, the fact that the program behaves as the child designed it to should make playing it that much more fun.

I proposed to both girls that together we develop a series of quiz-like games, and that the normal limits that we parents put on screen time would not apply for games that they wrote themselves. This seemed to be a fun idea, although we all realize that it may take a long time to develop such a game, and that by the time we’re done (or before then) interest may wane substantially.

My main goal is to get across at least some basic concepts of computer science. I’d like to do this over many very short sessions, so that the girls’ attention spans are not taxed and that the project remains fun. I’ll be developing the sessions in parallel for both Fiona (5th grade) and Annabelle (2nd grade), and there will be, obviously, some important differences in approach. The content presented by the quiz program will vary as well: Annabelle wants to learn her times tables, while Fiona has been working on State Capitals. But the core of the program we develop should be the same for all kids regardless of age. A secondary goal is to entice the kid into using a simple quiz program to drill themselves on elements of their schoolwork. Since the project to make a quiz game in Python from scratch will take some time, I set a modest immediate goal of having Annabelle understand what a computer program looks like, and how it can be modified to run in a way more to her liking. (more…)

Look to the Skies! Interplanetary spacecraft to fly over (or into) San Francisco this weekend

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: — Matt @ 2:40 pm

Updated below.

A spacecraft is about to crash-land on our planet.

Last November Russia launched an incredibly ambitious mission to Mars, called ‘Phobos-Grunt’. (Phobos is the larger of Mars’ two little moons; ‘Grunt’ is the Russian word for soil.) The spacecraft was to have landed on Phobos, collected “soil” samples, and returned to Earth, giving planetary scientists a unique window into the processes that formed the solar system.

Unfortunately, Phobos-Grunt never made it out of Earth orbit: a booster rocket failed to ignite, and doomed the craft to eventual crash-landing.

As with many astronomy stories, I learned about this from Phil Plait’s excellent blog Bad Astronomy. His post on Phobos-Grunt includes some absolutely amazing photos from the amateur (i.e., expert) astronomer Thierry Legault. Legault specializes in imaging spacecraft from the earth, and his entire ouvre is well worth exploring. (He has a photo of the Space Shuttle Endeavor transiting the sun on one of its last orbits, among other stunners).

It turns out that there is a website that tracks the movements of objects in orbit, and allows you to predict when and from where they’ll be visible. Heavens Above‘s predictions for Phobos-Grunt over San Francisco show that there is one minute or so this Saturday evening where the dying spaceship may be visible. Because of the vagaries of the atmosphere and the craft’s tumbling through it, these predictions are not very precise. (In fact, it’s not at all clear where and when the probe will re-enter and crash.)

Still, I plan to be with the kids, looking Southwest at about 6:20 Saturday night to see if I can get a glimpse. I’ll report my observations next week, and hope any readers here do the same.

Update: Since the path of Phobos-Grunt is so chaotic, predictions change almost by the hour. Saturday the 14th is now not the best time to look for the craft. Instead, look to the West on January 17th at 5:43 pm, to follow a track moving to the Northeast. This will certainly change in the coming days, though. Your best bet is to keep an eye on Heavens Above.

January 7, 2012

The Merlin

Filed under: Welcome! — Matt @ 8:06 am

Welcome to The Merlin, an online journal of our efforts to teach Science and Math to our children.

Each of us was at some point in our childhood inspired by a specific person or people to find joy in the world of science and math. I was fortunate to have parents and teachers who were excited about the natural world, and who transmitted that excitement to me.

My fondest childhood memories include the times when my father–an engineer who has always been interested in math and computers–showed me the rudiments of geometrical construction, how to use his already antique slide rule and (later) his programmable calculator, and how to solder circuits onto a single-board 6502 computer. I’m not sure if I learned, much less retained, many of the details he was showing me, but the effect of these discussions was to impress me with how deep even basic math is, and how much fun it can be to explore.

As a family we spent many weekends tidepooling at Point Reyes. Or we’d hike around the shell mounds at Coyote Hills, or visit the Lawrence Hall of Science, or shoot rockets off in the Laney College parking lot. I also remember elementary school field trips to the Oakland Museum, which at the time had an entire floor representing a transect across California’s ecological zones. A summer science camp at the Chabot Observatory not only gave us the opportunity to play in the planetarium, but to net Daphnia from the pond and onto a microscope slide and, occasionally, to play primitive games via teletype terminals hooked up to the mainframe computer. Later at Chabot, volunteer teachers showed students like me how to grind and polish a telescope mirror. (I still have mine–and still have plans to someday finish the telescope.)

The feature common to all of these childhood experiences is the presence of adults who took me seriously, and who started with the assumption that I wanted and was able to learn. They engaged my innate childhood curiosity, and playfully conveyed the elements of their intellectual lives that they found exciting.

This project- and play-based approach to teaching and learning is especially important for math and science. Those subjects are weighted with such heavy reputations that children often become intimidated before they have the chance to discover that math and science are simply elegant ways to ask questions about the world.

Teaching in a project-based or play-based fashion takes a lot of work, though, and requires that teachers have time to interact with their students one-on-one or in small groups. While I have been impressed by the energy and passion of the teachers my daughters have had so far, I am concerned that resources are becoming less available for the kind of project-based, small group instruction that is needed to allow a connection between student and teacher.

I am also dismayed when I hear about proposals to eliminate honors classes in San Francisco middle schools. These are often accompanied by credibility-straining assurances that ‘differentiated learning’ in math and science can take place in a completely heterogeneous class. In theory this may be true, but it is hard to believe that teachers under increasing pressure to address the needs of the lowest-performing students will simultaneously be able to challenge the students who are at the higher-performing end of the spectrum.

Every child deserves to be challenged to reach their full potential. It is falling on the parents and other community members to provide more of this challenge.

At Sunset Elementary school in San Francisco the Principal and PTA strive to emphasize science education. We have a wonderful outdoor science curriculum that takes place in our small teaching garden. We are introducing kids to artistic expression using computer technology. We have a lunch-time science opportunity every week, and every week we send students in grades K-2 home with a “Science Sack” that contains materials encouraging exploration with their parents of (for example) mineralogy, sound, or embryology.

But we can do a lot more. We can of course spend more time sharing our interests with our own children, but we also need to make sure that all children are challenged, regardless of their parents’ education, interest or available time.

On this blog we will be documenting our experiences in sharing our passion for science and math with our children and other kids in our community. We’ll present these as experiments, describing our goals and methods, and measuring how well we’ve met those goals by interviewing the children. Some of these experiments will be failures, but we will learn what works and what doesn’t.

Throughout the process, we plan to include links to the resources we use, and hope to solicit advice from our readers and stories about their own experiences.

Please join us, check back frequently, and let us know what you think.


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