Physics of Little Mermaid- Passion Projects- The worst or best science teacher?

For the past 16 years, students have been asking me for ideas for their physics projects. While some have great ideas almost immediately, the tendency is to go to the internet, and duplicate someone else’s work. As a teacher, this is not as exciting.

When a students asks for help to be inspired, I ask them what they do after school, on weekends, for extra curriculars etc… In short, I am trying to find their passions.

Let me tell you a story of two students who started my physics class in September, both seriously considering Medicine and both have a passion for theatre. This year, the school play was “The Little Mermaid”.

In September, Arielle arrives in my physics class after a successful semester of my chemistry 12 class previously, with strong considerations for Medicine. She wanted to do a project. I wanted to expose as many different skills and possible careers to my students as possible. Ariel’s mom works in design, with 3D CAD and landscape architecture. We had a new 3D printer to explore. Together, we decide that she will design her ideas for props and sets for the Spring play. I believe that both Arielle and Arielle’s mom would say that the physics project brought them a bit closer, despite being extremely close already, because they had a better appreciation of what mom does every day. (#Better family dynamics though physics projects?)

I was expecting a few different designs for the boat or an under the sea scene. What I got was a to scale, to the very seat 3D virtual rendering of the theatre, the steps, the side rooms, the stage and the audience seating. She 3D printed the stage and some props so that she could use them to pitch to the director and the stage designer. This was about what I expected. The additional “wow” for me was how she used the 3D virtual space. She would place the props on the stage, and then pretend she was an audience member in the front left, or back right or directly in the center to see what the audience would see. Ariel would then make adjustments to placements, and props so that every audience member had a rich experience. The Physics and Engineering and CAD design was great.

Then the design part comes out, She starts talking about colours, fabric swatches, costume design etc. These are areas which she had never explored before despite being in multiple school musicals. She comments, “I think I like this design thing, and I think  I might be good at it”. Although she did well in the traditional tests and labs of Physics 11, and although she continued to Physics 12, she also adjusted her class schedule so she could take a graphic arts design class, largely because of the passion she found while doing her physics project.

Does that make me the worst science teacher ever for pushing kids away from Physics, or does it mean something else?

We will come back to Arielle in a bit.

Eric took Physics 11 from my colleague, Chris Ryan, also with the intentions of Medicine. Eric too has a love and talent for theatre. I have seen him in many productions since he was in Oliver in middle school. During this second semester, he was in my Physics 12 class.

Near the end of the semester, he comes up to me with wet eyes. He talks about how he was uncertain about me and my teaching at first, but then recognized that I was teaching him more than physics “subliminally”. How to solve problems that they have never seen before, that being young means you know stuff and have skills, but are not brain washed, so use the respectful rebelliousness of the teens and twenties to think differently and can change the world now, not later. During his Student President farewell speech, he quotes me. It was my turn to get choked up.

Both Eric and Arielle are now in need of a Physics 12 project. The video from above is a portion of what they did.

Arielle has decided to pursue theatre studies, and possibly use it to help at risk kids. She is on her way to DISNEY in Florida for some summer workshops shortly after she graduates later this week.

Eric is moving with confidence and competence into medicine. He says that although he is humble, he thinks he might be a young person who can change the world. He is on fire.

Every year, I set up a video camera and allow students to do a little video reflection of the class, of me and of themselves. I promise I won’t watch them until after graduation. I am just chomping at the bit to see if they did a video and what it contains.

I like having my own sons hang around with both these kids. Surround yourself with the best people. And the cool thing is, they are not the only very cool kids in my class. I am fortunate and our future is bright.

Doing little passion projects can allow students to apply their diverse talents to my curriculum, uncover an unknown passion, and change a kid’s life. I am most fortunate to have been doing this kind of thing for 16 years now. In 2016, I am even more fortunate to be at the ground level of Now there is a concrete framework and sequence to help bring passion projects and 2020 skills deliberately to the forefront, rather than by happenstance as I used to do.

I wonder what next year will bring, when my own sons are in my Physics 11, Physics 12 and Science 12 classes??


Spanning the Ocean Travel Brochures (updated)

SPANNING the Ocean Partnership- “We are gonna be BEST friends!”

Riverview High School exchange students used Nureva SPAN and Microsoft SWAY and SKYPE to span the ocean and partner with year IV and V primary students from Pheasey Park Elementary in the UK. Their task was to form a partnership where they would both learn valuable curriculum by building electronic travel brochures.

There is an active exchange program at Riverview High School, New Brunswick, Canada. There are students from nine different countries around the world attending school at RHS in Canada trying to learn English, under the guidance of Ms. J. Crozier. Their abilities range from very basic vocabulary, to getting ready for university studies in English. Their final oral test happens to be in a British accent, so finding British people to speak with and listen to would be useful.

Gareth, a primary teacher from Pheasey Park Elementary in the UK (@GarethHancox), David (@davewhy) and I (@ifoggs) have done some projects together in the past around Engineering Brightness ( but we wanted to expand from Engineering and Science. Their elementary students have a requirement to study geography. They need to learn about different countries and it might be helpful to learn from someone first hand. Let’s work together to make travel brochures.

A partnership is born. We divided up the project into a series of steps based upon our previous experience.

Step #1- Introductions. Students need to build a relationship with each other before they can be expected to get to work. Too many times, teachers are excited to get right to the academic work at the expense of building relationships. talks about the importance of relationship building in their Action1: “Go SLOW to Go FAST”. Each student gave a one sentence introduction of themselves to the combined class connected by SKYPE. One of the UK girls exclaimed over SKYPE, “We are going to make friends, BEST friends!”

Step#2. Learning Vocabulary. Our exchange students needed to learn some vocabulary prior to our next interaction. They spent a few days learning things like “currency”, “attraction”, and “events”. Scaffolding the vocabulary and creating a word wall would be crucial if we wanted students to converse in the next session.

Step #3- Designing the brochures using SPAN/SKYPE. This day was a brain storm or ideation session between the students to determine the various parts that should be in a travel brochure.

We connected the classrooms with two pieces of technologies, Skype and SPAN. SKYPE is a familiar technology used for voice. However, students needed a common digital work space that was large enough to hold all of the possible headings, pictures and ideas. While there are many digital work spaces out there, the SPAN WALL has a unique physical size that allows students to view the large amount of content simultaneously. SPAN also does not require either school to be a GOOGLE School nor an O365 School. It allows students span both sides of the ocean to contribute digital sticky notes, pictures, drawing and headings to a common space using their individual devices or an interactive surface. Students use the SPAN system to brainstorm all the important parts of a travel brochure.

Step #4- Building Small Group Canadian Travel Brochures. In an attempt to have students practice their vocabulary, the RHS exchange students worked in small groups to build a travel brochure about a Canadian city, their temporary home. They chose Vancouver and Quebec City. The exchange students spent three days building their travel brochures using the ideas from the SPAN brainstorming session. SWAY, a cloud based Microsoft presentation package, contained their work. They spent a bunch of time with pictures of restaurants, hotels and activities. There was little text. After three days, they were at a point where they needed some feedback from the UK students.

Step #5- Feedback on Canadian SWAYS by SKYPE. The exchange students had three pieces of technology running. SKYPE provided voice, the SPAN wall was running to display the results of the last brainstorming session and the new SWAYS were projected for critique. The exchange students presented their SWAYS on Vancouver and Quebec City to the UK kids and in return, the UK kids gave us a list of the things that they liked, particularly the video and the range of possible hotels. They also gave us a list of things that could be improved. They wanted to know about celebrities, currency, more activities, languages etc..  They wanted more text. In addition, the UK students had some interesting questions like, “Why was the Queen of England on Canadian currency and why was the French flag flying in Quebec?”

Step #6- Using the Feedback. The exchange students used the feedback, laptops and interactive surfaces to improve on their Canadian travel brochures in SWAY.

Step #7. Global Travel Brochures by Individuals. The exchange students built their vocabulary and their capabilities by working in groups for the past few weeks. At this point, it was time to expand the travel brochures to a global scope and to have individuals produce their own individual works. They produced travel brochure SWAYS on their home countries of China, Japan, Turkey, and the Philippines.

Step #8. Links to all of the Canadian and the Global Travel brochure SWAYS were given to the UK students. Although the technology exists for shared editing privileges, we purposefully did NOT give editing privileges to the UK students. The point was to have students talk, listen and write. If we gave them editing privileges, the UK students would most surely expertly edit the SWAY and get to a better final series of brochures sooner. However, they would miss out on the process, the conversations about geography and the English. The social constructivism would not be maximized.

This brings us to the present. As of today, the UK students are working their way through the brochures. Next steps would have us use SKYPE, SPAN and SWAYs to receive feedback from the UK students, to have students talk to other students and produce another iteration of their work.

We started this project fairly late into the semester. It was a great success, particularly for a first attempt. Successful enough that next year, we will base much of the semester around repeating this project, but starting much earlier in the semester.

The RHS exchange students practiced listening and speaking English, while the UK students were learning global Geography during the editing and feedback sessions. Each tool and each group member from each school had a particular job to complete as we spanned the ocean for learning. This was a productive partnership that will continue next year with a new group of students that would not have been reasonable without user-friendly connected technology.