Food Science

tea pic

After a morning of grading I needed to get away from the screen for a few minutes. So I went to McDonalds where I could get a coffee, soft drink or tea for a dollar. Being close to lunch I needed more volume and wanted more sweetness than a coffee so I got a tea. They have, as you can see in the picture, both sweetened and unsweetened tea.

I have purchased sweetened tea in the past, but it is SO sweet that I can’t drink it straight. So I usually get a “half sweetened; half unsweetened” tea. It must happen a lot because when I go to the drive-through the cashier often has a special term for it, calling it something like: “One large ice tea; cut.” In any case, this time I was making the tea myself.

Now the problem with this tea is that it does not naturally mix. Recalling some demonstrations as a science teacher, the sweetened tea should be significantly denser than the unsweetened tea. The question arises then; should I put in sugared tea, then unsugared? or vice versa? Or should I add a little of one; a little of the other; a little of the first, and so on until my cup is full? Which sequence is likely to cause the best “mix.”

If I put in the sugared (denser) tea first, it will sit on the bottom while the unsweetened (less dense) tea sits on top. The result will be that the tea will be introduced to the cup in layers that will not spontaneously mix. I will have to mechanically mix them to produce a homogeneous solution. That is, I will have to stir the tea with a spoon or shake the cup. This is not a significant effort, but  I hope to find a way to do it without mechanical agitation.

If I add the less dense fluid then it will be on the bottom when the denser solution is added to the cup. The result, I think, is that the denser tea will “fall” through a less dense tea, even as the less dense tea, which is more buoyant, rises. This will produce a modest convection that will mix the tea to some degree.

As an anecdotal conclusion, based on my perception rather than objective, measurable data, I can tell you this method is satisfactory: add the low density tea (unsweetened) then the high density tea (sweetened.)

I also make sure the tea squirts into the cup along its circular, inside surface -as I add both teas – so that a modest vortex does, in full disclosure, provide some degree of mechanical mixing, making the tea as heterogeneous as possible.

Not very Vicarious


40 years ago, as an eleven year old, in Regina Saskatchewan, my mom and dad gave me an opportunity, “What instrument would you like to take lessons on?” Interestingly, in some kind of metaphysical symmetry, I asked my son the same thing this year (he is 11 now.) Probably without any coincidence, at events separated by 40 years, we both answered “Drums!”

And both of us were denied: me because of the noise in the house, and the lack of portability, since we traveled back to Thailand from Saskatchewan. I took guitar lessons for that year. Bentley was denied because we had a piano but did not have drums.Until now! Thanks to Craigslist we now have drums! A 7 piece drum set in immaculate condition (thanks to the previous, fastidious, owner!) They also sent along 5 pairs of drum sticks, a metronome, several self-teaching books with CDs and a music stand. We happily accepted the whole thing! And Bentley and I both are enjoying it. He is goofing around a little bit (we are looking for a drum teacher now). I am on lesson 4. And my left shin hurts from playing the “high hat” in 1/8th notes. Hopefully as time goes on my muscles become used to it and don’t hurt after practice. I am starting to read drum music and teaching it to Bentley.

We both are having a lot of fun, but Bentley is certainly not having more fun than his dad!


Quality comes from effort; not from “magic”

Jays Logo Ideas

Making stuff is so much fun that I sometimes get carried away in the “Wahoo!” and overlook the nuts and bolts. One of the fundamental processes I want my students to take away from my class is to an awareness of the “design cycle.” I got this term first from some MYP (International Baccalaureate) colleagues who taught a class my daughter took in middle school called “Design Technology.”

In my class students are not tested on knowing the steps of sequence, but I want to lead them through the process (and later require their documentation of this process in their own development). I want them to think specifically about “revision.”

I was thinking about this yesterday: These days, we see so many advertisements of polished products, we see polished dramas on TV, we see polished people advertising razors and lipstick. We begin to subtly assume that this is normative. What we overlook is that this is the end product of a lot of development. A lot of money and time and revision went into the final product.

Students need to know that making great products (essays or posters of paintings or baskets on the basketball court) is the direct result of effort over time. This sometimes is included as an aspect of a “growth mindset.” I want students to realize that they can do many things if we put time and effort in. One thing I took away from Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers, was that the difference in “ability” is really a difference in time spent. Individuals who spend more time developing a skill end up more proficient than those who spend less time.

Quality is not the result of magic; quality is the result of work.

Polished Objects

Build Understanding Logo 3One of the things which I want my students to practice when they are making stuff, whether virtually or tangibly, is the idea that a great design is not epiphany, but is the product of multiple iterations. In other words, making great things requires trial and error.

Valuing mistakes is sort of what this boils down to. We live at a time when we use tools (iPhones), we wear clothes (Nike), and we see (on TV), that the world around us is “fantastic.” Somehow we internalize this to mean that we should do fantastic stuff. What we write, what we make, what we do should be fantastic.

Of course the polished objects we use (Samsung phones, Levi jeans and Toyota cars) everyday are the result of careful research and development. “Development” means that the thing grows (in quality) over time as we “work on it.” We know that cognitively. But minute to minute we expect that WE should not require the development phase. We expect of ourselves that we are so amazing that what comes out of our mouth should be exemplary; what we draw should be brilliant; what we make should exceed all expectations.

But this is not so. Great art (Michelangelo’s “Pieta,” or Frank Lloud Wright’s buildings) requires sweat and tears to make. The product is the result of development. Development takes time.

So back to my students. I want them to learn that: (1) Making great stuff takes effort and time, as you develop your idea; (2) All early efforts are steps toward a better product; (3) Not stopping at the first iteration is the key to making great stuff.

[Images from


“Technology” means … (?)

8b Mousetrap Kimberly building

Kimberly using online resources to assist in her design and build of her 2015 “Recycled Mousetrap” car.

This school year I began teaching “technology” in Bellingham, Washington. Technology is such a broadly used term (often as a synonym for “computers”) that the job seemed quite open ended initially. And that has been good for the program.

In the first semester I adopted the previous curriculum: 6th grade – media, 7th grade – coding intro (programming), 8th grade – Lego robots. This was functional, but over the course of the semester I learned that students do not take these courses in sequence. This means that a students taking “Robots” in grade 8 for the first time may have no coding experience – and a large part of Robots is the programming! In addition, while “coding” is part of grade 7 curriculum the kinesthetic learning aptitude of most of my students was not a good fit for sitting in front of a screen; they needed to use their bodies and DO things.

So in semester two I am making all my courses more heterogenous. All the sections are getting to do 3D design and printing; all will be introduced to coding; then in the third part of the course we will branch out: 6th to do media like stop animation and podcasting; 7th to make functional machines (like trebuchets to complement their study of machines in science and medieval history in social studies and 8th to build Lego robots and have fun competing in Sumo wrestling.

Stay tuned as this all unfolds! It is a group of great kids (that is growing weekly as I get transfers into the course).



A Downside of Security

WP login screen.PNG

Since my last post in Malaysia, I have been unable to return and edit this blog. Ok; full disclosure: I forgot my password. That is no big deal. Unless you have taken pains to make your site secure. This blog was made “more secure” by a secondary verification protocol. If I forgot my password, say the instructions, verification over the phone, by text, would protect me.

Protect me from myself what was I did not foresee. When I moved to Seattle in summer 2014, I did not have access to my Malaysian phone number. So all those, “I forgot my password” buttons that I punched, took me to a window which assured me that my code, sent via SMS would let me log in. Off course, WordPress sent those codes to Malaysia. I, however, was trying to access my blog from Seattle. “Two roads diverged [on the information highway]…”

But today I was able to chat a WordPress Happiness Engineer and she “engineered” happiness for me! After several strategies (thinking of alternatives is indeed a skill of the 21st century) she got back into my account. I can’t thank her enough!

I’m home!



Fishing for Work

Flyfishing in Korea


Finding a teaching job is a lot like hunting: hence “job hunting” I suppose. You research, get the right equipment, make a plan then do the work and capture your prize.

At least ideally.

On the other hand, my sister pointed out it may be more like fishing. It requires a lot of paraphernalia: portfolios, coat and tie, computer and printer, FedEx envelopes, etc. There is a lot of preparation: organizing resume, soliciting references, researching alternatives and potential locations.

Eventually you need to cast. Whether you are fishing with a worm and bobber, trolling behind a boat or casting flies, you need to get your hook in the water. This point reminds of Red (from the Red Green show), “Remember to keep your stick on the ice!”

Depending on your fishing style, true to job searching, you need to work your hook. If bobbing, keep it in the water and keep an eye on it. Check occasionally to make sure bait is still attached. Pay attention; watch for movement.

If casting flies you need to find your rhythm, watch your footing and cover the target area. This is one thing that makes fly fishing so much fun; there is always something to do.

The movement itself can be its own reward. Even if there are no trout rising, you can still cast and practice. Work on getting more distance; work on a softer landing. Try different casts to avoid the brush behind while getting maximum distance up the water.

It also matters what the trout are eating. If you are casting the wrong fly you will get a lot of exercise and practice but no fish.

I think I am treating the process a bit like fly fishing; hopefully; with some artistry. But if not, at least I am getting better at casting. Cast, drift, reel in line; cast, drift, reel in line, cast again …

So far the hypnotic aspect eludes me. Lot’s of sweat; the only bites are insects biting me instead of fish on the line. I might have timed it wrong. Or it might be the timing is right. Maybe the insect hatch indicates trout are on the rise. Maybe I can expect a beautiful trout to be watching carefully under the surface for a big fat fly to touch down. “Be patient,” I remind myself.

“Do the work.”

Cast; drift; pull in the line.

Cast; drift; pull in the line.

No fish rising, but the pole is flexing beautifully; the line and tippet are collaborating into perfect arcs. The light is falling amber through the alders. It’s beautiful and one fragment of this scene is my volitional creation, born of many casts. Probably made better for doing more casting than reeling in. I’m just going to enjoy it.


Bentley’s Car

jay and Bentley It is probably no surprise that we chose a widely recognized car brand as the name for my son’s car: “Bentley.” Cub Scouts has this event every year and this year Bentley wanted to do the event again. One of the challenges in these events that require a lot of parent involvement is how much should a parent do and what should the child do?

This year I took a page from my science teaching mentor, Chuck Caley from Toledo, Washington. As a new teacher Chuck ran the Science Olympiad program at Toledo after school. He did all kinds of amazing engineering events. Watching him, as a new teacher, I thought he contributed too much to kids’ projects. Mentally I chided him, thinking that his sons would learn more if he did less. It took me several years to learn that my master teacher was right and I was wrong.

When children are given complex tasks to do they often see the objective as insurmountable. A good teacher will scale the task for students so they can achieve a piece at a time. A great teacher will scale the task as well as provide some modeling for students. Chuck was a great teacher (he retired June, 2013.) He did a lot of work with kids and, when they were out of ideas, did a lot of work for kids. But the results speak for themselves. Chuck’s two sons went into computer science. The first went into programming (if I recall correctly) and the second was applying for graduate studies in robotics the last time I talked to them.

These days I do as much as is needed to help capture Bentley’s interest. With the car I cut out the pieces, then we painted it: he painted it. The paint was accidentally an oil based paint that took 2 weeks to dry. After that we used an acrylic spray paint (grey as you can see above.) I painted it for him and he sanded it between coats. I did not know how much this was appropriate, but one day a couple friends came over and I noticed Bentley took them both out on the porch and showed them how he was sanding his car to make it very smooth.

That was a heart squeezer! He did not have the skills and ability to cut out the car on the band saw or to use spray paint to make a smooth coat, but he COULD sand; and he took that task to heart.  I was so proud of him and based on that I saw that we hit the sweet spot on this project.

The day of the race I still had not put the wheels on. I had a plan, but I was ruminating on it and a bit afraid of the risk until, at the 11th hour, I had no choice but to get it done. These wood blanks for Pinewood derby cars have a groove in the bottom for the nail-axles. The problem with that design is that a bit of a knock, like a child dropping a car, causes the axle to mis-align and then the car does not work properly. We had that problem last year.

I decided to bore new axle holes. I think this is against the strict pinewood derby rules, but our program here permits more latitude. So I bored new axle holes about 1/4 inch above out outside the original axle grooves. I used a drill press and got them situated exactly right.

This proved to be an excellent idea. 10 minutes after going to the derby with his car, Bentley runs breathless into my office calling, “Dad! Dad!” Somehow his car had been damaged and one axle was SO bent that the wheel was tight against the side of the car and would not roll. Thankfully our engineered axle holes saved the day! I popped out the bent nail-axle, grabbed a new nail-axle and pounded it back into the hole. Since the holes are drilled, they were still perfectly aligned. So perfectly aligned, that with a little graphite lubricant and weighting it right to the 142 g maximum mass (141.7 g technically) with hot glue and washers, we created a winning vehicle. The winning-est vehicle that afternoon with a streak of wins and no losses. Wow! He even beat cars in dens ahead of him (the Webelos).


Learning from Assessment


One of my interesting opportunities for the past several years has been to work as an assistant examiner for the the IBO marking Extended Essay, Biology and Environmental Systems and Societies (ES&S) exams.

When I taught in Korea (2007-2012) I entered the IB world for the first time. To an teacher who grew up in – and then taught in – American schools, it was a shock to my system. My course (Biology) had a written syllabus with specific things to learn and understand. My job as a teacher was to make sure students understand and use that information on their IB Diploma Programme exams. In the USA, and still in most American schools, teachers have a wide latitude of opportunity. In Physical Science (usually grade 9) I should teach physics and chemistry, but whether we studied light or not in the electromagnetism (I love building circuits with wires and cells and lamps) unit was teacher discretion.

I like the discretion. I agree with the philosophy that understanding 2 things deeply is more valuable than scanning highlights of knowledge about 20 things. But the IB prescribes the learning goals and teachers pick and choose which parts their students learn at the peril or exam marks. In a sense the whole modern American struggle with education boils down to his choice:

  1. Is it more valuable to have a valid and reliable measurement of student understanding at the end of high school and so we need to have assessments that can do that and – by implication – a way to identify and teach students for preparation.
  2. Or, are individual students so unique and do their skills, abilities and personhoods vary so much (and need to be fostered so dissimilarly) that we should prevent standardized education and customize education for each child.

Honestly, I see that value in both sides. If you listen to Sir Ken Robinson talk about the industrialization of education, he will likely persuade you toward option 2 (customization.) However, customization and validity in measurement are almost opposing paradigms. The more unique a system/person is and the more uniquely they are treated the less comparable the measurements of their performance are.

So I guess the punchline, which I had not intended to come to, but which my writing here leads me to, is that as individual students, parents, teachers and institutions we need to decide what is our long goal. If the long goal is personal development then customization is probably a preferred route. If our goal is ultimately comparison, like college entrance or minimum skill set in preparation for hiring, then standardization is the goal. And standardization is not only about comparing kids with kids; it is about making sure teachers are providing valuable feedback.

So this brings me back to marking for the IB. My challenge is that as one of thousands of examiners worldwide, I try to apply the criteria in a standardized way to an enormous range of products. Everything from university level research (actually Master’s level research in university labs in some cases!) to growing beans on the kitchen windowsill. The uniform criteria must be applied uniquely to each paper through clear understanding of the requirements. Perhaps this is a way of standardizing and validating measurement while providing opportunity for personal development.

I like that idea!

Dalat Science Fair 2014 – another great one!


I saw this on Twitter the evening after I got back to my office from Dalat’s 2014 Science Fair. It made me sad because we just had a FANTASTIC time at our science fair!

For those who hate science fair and may need some fresh life, let me offer some ideas about what make a science fair valuable for learning and just plain fun.

  1. CHOICE.  In our science fair at Dalat, students have had choice in the last two years for what work they want to do to enter the science fair (at least in high school). So far we have offered two options: (a) participate in the construction/engineering contest or (b) do an experiment in your current subject. Student who are frustrated with the tedium of data collection and mathematical analysis can do the kinesthetic learning of a producing a product designed to achieve a certain goal. On the other hand students who find manual work tedious and love the elegance of data can collect and process numbers to their hearts content.
  2. SCAFFOLDING. For the engineering competition this year in grade 9 for example, ALL the students build a paperclip trebuchet and then all the students build a drinking straw trebuchet. After this students could choose the classic experiment route or engineering for science fair. “Builders” had additional time in class to design and work on their trebuchets. This developed skills over time (each trebuchet had increasingly challenging requirements. (i) first paperclip trebuchet had to throw a distance equal to the width of the base (easy!) (ii) drinking straw trebuchet had to shoot more than one meter. (iii) Science Fair trebuchet had to throw a distance equal or greater than 12x the length of the arm.
  3. ORGANIZATION. There are a LOT of details for a science fair! If you want to start one start small; begin with one class or one course (if multiple sections.) Making rules for competition is challenging and requires multiple iterations to get them right – especially if you always change your events (like I like to do). This year, my 5th or 6th science fair, my original rules for Trebuchets were unintentionally super-challenging. At the 11th hour we had to revise the scoring; literally days before the event. But it worked! And kids had a LOT of fun and made memories with each other.
  4. ASSISTANCE. We have an amazing team at Dalat. My principal is incredibly supportive of science generally and this event specifically. I have a brand new colleague this year who jumped in with both feet. It was hard for him to let the curriculum go a bit while he focused on the challenge of running engineering preparation and experimental work in his classroom at the same time! for a couple weeks! He did it well – as he does nearly everything! Another teacher picked up the ball and helped me with scoring details, made a competition-bracket scoring system and showed me how to program spreadsheets to produce scores and data. Lastly, this event took 2 days of occupying the gym the WHOLE time. Our athletic department was fantastically patient and moved everything into the very hot, sunny heat of Penang in the dry season – just to help our event run well; which, of course, it did.

I hope if you have an ailing or tedious science fair that you are able to turn in around and have a lot of fun. Ours is a TON of fun! Come and see next year!