Jul
17
2009

To the Moon

Apollo 11 liftoff from launch tower camera

Apollo 11 liftoff from launch tower camera

Where were you on July 20, 1969?  I put that question to my friends and family last week and I got a wonderful collection of answers. A common element in all their stories was a small, scratchy (typically borrowed) black & white TV set, with a large group of people, crowded around to watch the flickering images of the first walk on the moon. Breathlessly.

I was 11 years old and a camper in the Feather River Canyon in California, attending a two-week summer camp. Apollo 11 landed at 4:18 pm EDT, so that would have been 1:18, California time, just after lunch.  I remember crowding into a room behind the camp’s dining hall with a hoard of other people, straining to see the small black and white TV screen.  The only broadcast they could receive in that remote location happened to be in Italian (go figure) and so, between the scratchy image and the fact that no one present understood Italian, we had to piece together and narrate what we were seeing.  I can remember the distinct feeling that this was history in the making.  This was something special. And this was something that I would always remember.  

At 10:56 EDT, Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon, and the world watched.  Buzz Aldrin, emerged soon after. Over 2 ½ hours, the two astronauts collected 47 pounds (!) of lunar surface material and re-entered the lunar module.

We Choose the Moon site.

We Choose the Moon site.

Just as the folks at the John F. Kennedy library hoped, their re-creation web site, We Choose The Moon, is tuning Americans into their memories of the historic mission. This is a wonderful site, well worth the visit.  It’s a real-time mission reenactment, tracking the actual mission events (with historic images and footage), just as they happened 40 years ago. You can follow newsroom feeds, monitor the flight path, get updates from mission control (via twitter or from the Mission tracker widget on your web page or social media site).  It’s a very good example of the kind of teaching that can be done with new technology.  My only gripe about it is that they missed the opportunity to make it a 2.0 site by failing to invite people to share their memories and embellish the site with their perspective.  Too bad.

Aldrin's boot.

Aldrin's boot.

After you’ve taken a look at that site, take a look at some of the other, amazing online teaching resources in NASA’s vaults and others – it’s just incredible, what’s available online. NASA has just released newly restored Apollo 11 footage – excerpts really – from the take off, to the landing, and the lift-off back to earth.  You can find it in this New York Times article, along with a hilarious “hoax” video (scroll down to find that one) – and, yes, apparently some people still think that the whole thing was a hoax.  And, in case you wanted to compare, here’s the actual landing footage (pre-restoration).

 

Here’s a QT movie of the mission, put together by NASA.  And the official NASA site on the history of the mission. NASA has also posted the private taped conversations between Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins, recorded aboard the command module, Columbia, and the lunar module, Eagle, along with an audio database of other recordings. You can find all kinds of downloadable images, videos and pdfs (from NASA) and here is the Apollo 11 image gallery (some great stuff to be found!). To get a better sense of the lunar landscape, here’s a QTVR image scape of the moon taken by Apollo 17 and first published on anniversary #35 of Apollo 11.  Use your mouse have a look around and around and around. The Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum’s Apollo 11 site has lots of information on the mission, the crew, the spacecraft, the landing site and some amazing images. Discovery Channel has an impressive archive of videos of the various NASA missions – lots of fun to explore there.  Just for fun, you can pick up a Lunar Module service manual or a space suit replica (for $9,500) on eBay. 

Unfortunately, as we learned from NPR this week, NASA isn’t the best steward of history. Check out this 7.16.09 story explaining how the original tapes of the Apollo 11 moonwalk probably destroyed during a period when NASA was re-using old magnetic tapes to reuse them for satellite data.   The newly restored video that I mentioned earlier was actually pieced together from a variety of sources, the best of the various broadcast clips.

Earthrise.

Earthrise.

The Apollo 11 mission fulfilled President John F. Kennedy’s inspirational goal of reaching the moon by the end of the 1960’s.  But it did so much more for all of us.  It gave us the first images of the Earth, taken from the moon. Images that undeniably changed our perspective on our fragile planet and the need for stewardship. The mission showed us men, closely encased in technology, operating dials, levers and computers to sustain their lives in an inhospitable environment. The mission gave us courage to strive for things that might seem unattainable.  It made us explorers again.

Jul
16
2009

Jaguar Conservation and Google Earth

Südamerika - Peru - Manu Nationalpark - Jaguar by Meseontour (creative commons)

Südamerika - Peru - Manu Nationalpark - Jaguar by Meseontour (creative commons)

I just returned from a participatory media workshop that I organized for a group of high school biology teachers at Washington University in St. Louis.  They were there for the summer institute portion of a very special masters degree program called the Life Science for a Global Community, funded by the NSF.  These 30 teachers will work together, over the next two years, to expand their science knowledge and improve the quality of their teaching in a program that combines face-to-face summer courses (at Wash U) with online courses, taken throughout the academic year.  They are a wonderful group – very curious, quick to learn, and high energy.

The program’s director of professional development, Phyllis Balcerzak, invited me to organize a workshop for this year’s cohort on new media tools, as applied to teaching biology.  I had two sessions with the teachers – the first was a hands-on afternoon to experiment with wikis, podcasts, photos, and video.  The second was an optional hands-on workshop with the virtual world of Second Life, conducted with my colleague, Liz Dorland.  As usual, when I do these workshops, I ended up learning more from the teachers than they learned from me.

I was so struck by their observations – what was easy, what was hard.  Better ways to do things.  Creativity in the face of student (and parent) objections.  Clever ways to use the new tools (one of the teachers works with deaf children and makes video – to show signing – content units).  They took to the tools well but kept a healthy dose of skepticism in making decisions about what would work with their students and what was worth their time.

Google Earth screen showing the place-markers of the JCUs.

Google Earth screen showing the place-markers of the JCUs.

In order to get into this LSGC program, candidates have to submit a project that speaks to their creativity and teaching horse sense. One of the “students”, Brant Reif, a high school teacher from Valley High School in West Des Moines, Iowa showed me his projects and I just had to share it here. The project, The State of the Jaguar, is a lab investigation that examines the status of the jaguar in Central and South America, with the hope of preventing it from becoming an endangered species.  He taped into existing data from the Wildlife Conservation Society to create a KMZ file (KMZ – or compressed keyhole mark-up language – is a file format used for displaying geographic data as an additional layer in an Earth browser, like Good Earth) for Google Earth and then wrote up a lab activity where students assess the distribution and status of the jaguar in several sites, current threats to the jaguar, identify priority areas for conversation, and then compare their recommendations for conservation areas with those of research scientists.  Whoa.  Call me impressed.

He walked me through the Google Earth layer (KMZ file) he created, zooming in to show key topographical features and to click on related photos. He created about 20 markers (from which the student could choose), that linked the actual data with images and cleverly crafted journal entries that made sense (from the data and the surrounding terrain/features) to give the students a sense of presence.  For instance, you might click on a geographical site and read entries like, “Saw scat today…” or “Spotted a single jaguar near a farm…”.

In each Jaguar Conservation Unit (JCU), students are asked to estimate the percentage of the area threatened by a set of factors (habitat loss, hunting, human activity, insufficient prey, etc).  To get a better estimate of the threats to each JCU, the students pool their data with data from two other students. When they’ve completed all the data tables, they use them to estimate the priority that each JCU should be granted. Assigning a “3″ if they feel it is low in need of conservation efforts, a “2″ for one in need of some conservation, and a “1″ if it is high need.

I asked Brant how the lab worked with his students and he explained that they loved it, but it took longer than he’d thought.  The students didn’t read the directions and so wasted a lot of time figuring things out or failing to see important information (sound familiar?).  Brant already had a plan for how he was going to address this next time (demo one JCU site in class and have the students just pick three to investigate, find new ways to make sure they read the directions).

There’s so much to love about this activity, it’s hard to know where to begin.  First off, the clever and very specific use of a powerful tool. Google Earth has so much potential but it takes a carefully crafted investigation like this one (on a topic important enough to the course to be worth the effort) to harness it and make it relevant to the study of biology.  By zooming around from location to location on the virtual Earth, Brant’s students got a sense for the enormous distances, the inaccessibility of the region, the topography, the land’s relationship to water, the proximity to major cities, and the conservation issues.  The fact that he connected the investigation to real data gave his students a feeling for how we know what we know and the way scientists work.  The students had to make important judgments and decisions – but they weren’t left hanging at the end – they had a real-life index with which to compare their decision making (at the conclusion, he asks them to explain any differences between the conservation ratings they’ve given and the actual ratings).  I also liked the way that Brant mixed media types – in addition to Google Earth, he used photos, snippets of a National Geographic video, excel for the data tables, and text to create the master document.  And there was a storyteller’s flare to the whole thing (which Brant modestly assigns to the National Geographic article he references).  The student lab introduction reads like this….”At dusk one evening, deep in a Costa Rican forest, a young male jaguar rises from his sleep, stretches, and silently but determinedly leaves forever the place where he was born.”

A wonderful, shining example of new media tools used to improve teaching and learning.  In the true spirit of the networking, Brant says he’ll be happy to share the lab and the KMZ file with biology teachers – you can contact me if you’d like them emailed to you.

Jul
04
2009

21st Century Skills

updatedrainbow_smI’ve been thinking a lot about “21st Century Skills” lately.  Mostly because the publisher of our high school biology program has asked us to add a section to the front-end of the textbook on the topic.  Seems a bit ironic to put such content into a print medium, but that’s ok.  People will at least read about it and, maybe, they will want to dig further.

Since that’s a phrase I’ve heard a lot lately but wasn’t sure I completely understood, I asked our editor what exactly is meant by “21st Century Skills”? She sent me to a web site called Partnership for 21st Century Skills, citing it as the definitive resource on precisely what these 21st century skills are all about.   The Partnership for 21st Century Skills is an advocacy group with the intention of rallying federal resources (Department of Education), businesses (publishers, network providers, hardware/software manufacturers), administrators, and educators around the idea of bringing 21st century skills to schools.  Here’s a quote from their mission statement:

There is a profound gap between the knowledge and skills most students learn in school and the knowledge and skills they need in typical 21st century communities and workplaces.

To successfully face rigorous higher education coursework, career challenges and a globally competitive workforce, U.S. schools must align classroom environments with real world environments by infusing 21st century skills.

Sounds good.  And when you read their materials there’s not much there to disagree with…creativity and innovation, problem solving, critical thinking, flexibility, self-direction, social awareness.  Those all sounds good.  But I thought that this “21st century skills” thang was about technology skills, social networking, and participatory media?

Well, there are technology skills listed on the web site too –  information literacy, using technology tools to access, manage, and evaluate information – but they feel awfully general and, to my eye, they get lost in a sea of impossibly wide-ranging, “achieving-world-peace” kind of goals.  It sort of reminds me of Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegone where “all the  children are above average”.   How can a school administrator or a classroom teacher be expected to apply this?  So many (many!) hoped-for skills here and not a lot of specifics. I worry about the mandatory media skills for future survival getting lost in the ocean of other goals that one might want to have for our students – a sort of unfortunate dilution effect.

So what to put in this front section of our book?  What would I want to put forward as fundamentally important media literacy skills, from my perspective?  Let’s make it real by making it personal.  My kids. When I think about the media literacy skills that I would like for my children (and I attempt to be precise and reasonable about it). Here’s what comes to the top:

How to distinguish between dependable and undependable information.  In a networked world where everyone is participating, the commentators number in the hundreds of thousands, and its all happening at lightening speed, I want my kids to be able to readily distinguish good information from less good.  

How to read (really read) in linked environments.  Reading linked text calls for a different set of skills.  There are new neural pathways to be laid down in order to keep track, make sense, remember, and connect.  I want my kids to be able to read with focus and attention but also to be able to skim, parse, suss, and then dig in when they need to.

How to search, tag, and organize.  My kids will need to know how to find information on line, yes – but beyond that, they will need to understand folksonomy and tag their information for later retrieval and sharing.  They will need to know how to use tools to organize, store, and manipulate information.  

How to find teachers and mentors.  For any problem with which you might be struggling, there is an expert out there somewhere who will be able and willing to help you.  Our networked world is a perfect way to map solution to need.  But getting the word out there about your need (framing the question), finding the right coach/mentor/teacher, and then making the most of the connection (in whatever form it takes) all require unique and nuanced skills.

How to edit in shared knowledge environments.  Whether its Google Docs, a classroom wiki, an Elluminate session or wikipedia, citizens of the world will need to be able to edit, contribute, constructively critique, and collaborate in these shared environments.

How to create a digital footprint.  I want my kids to understand how indelible the web is and that photos and videos uploaded, stories told, or blog entries posted will not only be around forever but might be shared, linked to, mashed up, amplified, and viewed by many.  But my hope here is not just to avoid the pitfalls and dangers.  I want them to be safe – yes – but I want them to go beyond that and learn how to build a lasting digital profile of which they are proud.  One where a future employer will type their name into the search engine of tomorrow and say, “nice.”

To understand the network effect.  I want my kids to fundamentally grasp what a network effect is – how to create it, leverage it, and ride it.  To understand, down in their bones, how much more valuable something is the more people know about it and use it.

I didn’t find any of these specifics on the Partnership web site.  Maybe they are there, in some form or in one of the many downloadable pdfs, but I gave up after swimming in a sea of generalities. Or maybe it’s the name given to this idea  – 21st Century Skills — it just seems so, well, HUGE.  And in its hugeness, ineffective.   I’m sure my list is not complete (and would love to hear your suggestions on what to add) but it’s a start – and its specific.  I think I know what I want to include in that textbook section. I think I know what I need to talk to my kids about this afternoon.

Written by rheyden in: Teaching Tools | Tags: ,