Reminders from a Victoria Teen

My current life as an independent math and physics tutor had its roots in the toys of my youth. I was reminded of this by a story on CBC Radio One this morning when the host interviewed Ann Makosinski, who is now a Grade 12 student at Saint Michael’s University School (SMUS) here in Victoria.

Ann became well known in science-education circles after she won a top prize in Google’s 2013 science fair for her invention of a flashlight that is powered by the heat of a human hand. Her story has been told by The Huffington Post, BC Business, The Province and other news sources. Several videos, including some TEDx talks, about her and her invention can be found online.

This one

is my favourite because of the electronics workbench scenes.

What I liked best about this morning’s CBC story were the parts where Ann said that her earliest toy had been a box of transistors, that she subsequently built some of her own toys with a hot-glue gun, and that now at 17 she is glad she does not have her own phone because of how distracting it would be.

Since Christmas has just passed, this reminded me of some DIY electronics kits I received as gifts when I was in my early teens.

This is the bottom of one of the first radios I ever built.

Physics Tutor's Early Radio

ABSC Regen Bottom

I used it earlier this month while tutoring one of my online physics students to show her what inductors can look like. Unfortunately, by current standards this would probably be regarded as a death-trap and many people would be horrified to find it in the hands of even an older teen.

This is the first piece of electronic test equipment I ever owned. I built it from a kit that my parents bought from Radio Shack. Back then the instrument was called a Volt-Ohm Meter (VOM) but these days it would be referred to as a multimeter.

Physics Tutor First Instrument


Even though I now own newer and more sophisticated multimeters I still find myself using this one at least once a year.

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Electromagnetism Example for Tutoring Physics

This is the time of year when the students I tutor in Physics 12 here in Victoria are studying electromagnetism. Since I am always looking for new ways to make everything I teach relevant to my students, I was very pleased to find this article from Stanford University about how researchers there are finding ways to electromagnetically transfer power to medical implants deep within the human body. This should have particular appeal to those thinking about becoming doctors but I plan to tell all of my students about it as soon as school resumes in January.

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A Future Physics Tutorial Example

In the course of a routine year of tutoring physics I cover many topics but, because of the BC high school and UVic curricula, most of that time goes into kinematics and dynamics. Every year I help my students with the inevitable examples of cars, sleighs, baseballs and other objects they are familiar with from daily life. Space exploration has always been a favourite subject of mine and all students have seen videos of rockets in flight so it’s always fun for me to talk about those for a change of pace.

Starting in 2016 I should have an exciting new example to use when talking about momentum and Newton’s laws of motion. If all goes according to plan, April of that year should see the launch of the world’s first fully functional solar sail spacecraft, to be called LightSail-1. Of course even today I can show my students, especially the online ones, video simulations of what the spacecraft will do but if the mission gets enough publicity my future students should hear about it through the media before they hear about it from me. That familiarity will make it much easier for them to relate to when I use it as an example for tutoring them in physics and showing them diagrams like this…

Tutor physics with solar sail example

Please click here to learn more about this exciting mission from The Planetary Society and to read about some of the background like the failure of their ambitious earlier attempt to launch a solar sail mission from a Russian submarine by using a converted ballistic missile.

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Programming for the Sake of Mental Skills

Tutor recommends learning programming

“Word problems” often appear to strike fear into the hearts of the students I tutor in physics and, to a lesser degree, mathematics. Long ago, when I was a student I noticed the same thing among my peers. It baffled me back then but puzzles me less today.

It has always seemed to me that word problems should be easier than ones that simply present an equation and say to solve it. Unlike a more abstract question that contains little more than symbols, a word problem provides a physical context that makes it possible to leverage real world experience and intuition. How could anyone not like that?

The answer is that word problems require students to get out of their comfort zones and do more thinking. More specifically, they require students to make a leap from the familiar to the abstract.

To start with, word problems require students to read exactly what the questions are saying. Normally every single word matters and has been chosen with care in order to avoid ambiguity. In physics energy means the capacity to do work. There’s nothing psychological about it. It has nothing to do with enthusiasm or how much sleep you got last night. “Work” means exerting force through a distance. It has nothing to do with potentially exhausting activities like reading books or writing essays. The scary part though seems to be that word problems require the mental feat of expressing a physical question in the abstract language of mathematics.

Unfortunately, there is no magic way to teach this transformation from words to mathematical symbols. Tedious theories of education aside, it still comes down to the way most skills have to be learned, by repetition and variation. That’s why math and physics students have to do so many problem sets. It’s very much like music students having to practice, practice, practice.

However, I have noticed something interesting. Many students take optional computer programming courses in school but those are very rarely the ones who come to me for help with math or physics. One reasonable interpretation is that being naturally good at those subjects is what makes them want to learn programming. The interpretation I prefer is that the skills developed when learning to program include those very skills required to produce a symbolic representation of a real world situation, as is demanded by math and physics word problems.

This Guardian article has some good ideas about helping kids get an early start with programming.

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Science Game for Christmas

Board game to tutor stem with

It’s still only November but this tutor heard his first Christmas song a few days ago and Victoria has snow flurries in its 24-hour weather forecast so I suppose the time has come to say something seasonal.

As a kid I always wanted science gifts for Christmas but such items were rare way back back then when STEM (the acronym educators now use for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) referred to a part of a plant. Today, however, “edutainment” is big business and items that can reasonably be called “science gifts” are easy to find, some of which actually offer very good value for money.

One item that caught my attention recently was not a telescope, microscope, or even a potato-powered clock. Rather, it was this board game designed to teach its players about 17th century European scientific discoveries.

To quote its manufacturer, “In The New Science, you play the role of one of the great scientists from the scientific revolution in 17th century Europe. You are attempting to publish your remarkable scientific discoveries in order to gain prestige, be seen as the finest mind of your era, and consequently be appointed the first President of the Royal Society.”

This looks like a lot of fun and I can think of many students who would learn things from this that they would not learn in school but which would help them to understand science as human endeavour rather than just a collection of facts, laws of nature, and equations. If students understood what science really is, an exploration of the natural world, they would be much more likely to approach it with enthusiasm and to see it as a plausible route for finding their their places in the world.

Did I mention that I have been a very good boy this year? Hint! Hint!

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