Recently I was asked: What is the greatest challenge/frustration you’ve faced as a teacher?

My response:

Repeated efforts to apply one-size-fits-all policies to education are the greatest challenges I face as a teacher.

I have a big skull. If I had a superpower, it would be turning regular hats into yarmulkes. “One-size-fits-all” hats don’t even come close to fitting my massive dome. If the one-size-fits-all concept doesn’t work for simple as straightforward as head size, how could it possibly work for an entity as complex and intricate as education.

A school contains a tremendous diversity of learning styles, teaching styles, personalities, and intrinsic motivations. In fact, I can’t think of anything for which a one-size-fits all approach would be less suited for. Dealing with the continuous and seemingly increasing stream of standardized tests, rigid standards, politically-motivated teacher certification requirements, and unnecessary paperwork that a one-size-fits-all mentality pours upon teachers is absolutely soul crushing for teachers and students alike.

5 Great Videos to Show Your Physics Class (Plus 5 great follow-up videos too!)

I’ve collected more than 70 Physics-related videos to use in my classes throughout the year. Some I use to drive problem solving, some I use to motivate or inspire a class discussion, some I use to teach content, and some I don’t end up using at all. Below, I’ve collected 5 of my favorites to show to my classes, each with a brief explanation of how I use it and why I love it, and a follow-up video you can use to extend/expand your lesson:

1) World Record Blob Jump
A great demonstration of conservation of energy: three guys jump on to the blob, one gets launched off. Great “strobe” diagram/image and numerical data displayed at the end make ths video useful for both qualitative and quantitative use. (Follow-up video: “human sandbag” bungee jump allows jumper to bounce to nearly the same height he jumps from.)

2) Boeing 747 Performs a Rejected Takeoff
This video brilliantly captures the transformation of mechanical energy to thermal energy–a transformation that is often very hard to depict. Show this video to your students to drive home the idea that friction generates heat, or play it (on mute) and challenge them to explain what’s happening. (Follow-up video: fiction welding.)

Screen shot 2014-02-25 at 11.24.31 AM

3) Shopping Cart Fail
A normally bland topic–inertia–becomes a humorous and engaging conversation starter with this video of shopping carts falling out the back of a truck. I love the fact that the shopping carts really stay put, shadowing the place where the truck had been parked. And I love showing students early on in the year that Physics can be spotted in all sorts of places. (Follow-up video: unloading a truck with Newton’s 1st Law.)

4) Floating a Tinfoil Boat in Mid “Air”
The “air” is actually sulfur hexaflouride, a gas so dense (about 5 times denser than air) that it can float a small tinfoil boat. This video can drive home the point that gas has mass or initiate discussions about buoyancy and density. (Follow-up video: Adam Savage of the Mythbusters inhales both helium and sulfur hexaflouride.)

5) India’s Wall of Death
This music video is really a mini-documentary of the daredevils who ride motorcycles and small cars around the cylindrical track at the Allahabad fairgrounds. Great launchpad for questions about circular motion. (Follow-up video: guy walks/dances on the walls of a Gravitron amusement park ride.)

I hope you find these videos useful for your classes! For more, check out the Physics Video Collection I referenced at the top of the post.

Green Skittles: Video-driven problem solving for teaching probability

Here’s a new set of resources I made, modeled after Dan Meyer‘s 3-Act Tasks, that teachers can use to introduce or teach probability:

Intro Video: Play this video first to generate curiosity and student questions.

Followup/Discussion/Problem Solving: Students will, hopefully, have questions about the likelihood of so many consecutive green Skittles coming out of the bag first. Have students use math to answer their questions. They’ll probably need some additional information regarding the variety of Skittle colors. Here’s an image breaking down the color distribution of the first package that gets dumped onto the plate:


Depending on the assumptions students make, the probability of getting four consecutive colors out of the bag of Skittles will vary, but will most likely range from 0.008 to 0.0016. So, what’s more likely? That I lucked out while shooting video, that I must have done a ton of takes before I got the video I wanted, or that something nefarious is afoot–some shenanigans going on?

Reveal Video: When you’re ready, show the students this:

Sequel: Show the student the image below to initiate another discussion or as homework. Shake-a-day is a popular bar game where I am from: ask the bartender to play and he’ll put you’re dollar in the jar and hand over a cup of dice. Rules vary from bar to bar, and are simplified for the sake of the image below, but in general you get a few rolls to get 5-6 dice to all land on the same number. If they do, you win all the money in the jar. Something I have noticed through extensive “research:” the amount people win seems to always be significantly lower than they amount one would expect given the odds of winning. My personal conclusion: the probability of winning legitimately is much lower than the chance that something nefarious is afoot! Are bartenders in cahoots with their customers, skimming from the jar, or turning a blind eye to dishonest players are keeping those jar amounts low?

Shake-A-DayHopefully you or someone you know will find these resources useful in their classroom!


The 24 Coolest Research Telescopes/Observatories, Ranked by High School Students


The results are in! The Hubble Space Telescope is the coolest telescope in the world, remaining just barely cooler than the yet-to-launch James Webb Space Telescope, according to high school seniors.

Sixteen students in my Astronomy class do a telescope research project every year to conclude our unit on “The Tools of Astronomy.” To ensure that every student is happy with the telescope s/he is assigned, I have my students spend 10-15 minutes browsing this hyperlinked table of telescope information, then rank their level of interest in studying each telescope on a scale of “very interested” to “very uninterested.” “Interest in researching” does not necessarily equate to “coolness,” but it’s likely to be closely correlated.

Since I used this Google Form to collect their responses, I was able to quickly calculate a coolness score for each telescope/observatory, in order to 1) satisfy my curiosity, and 2) make sure that all of the “coolest” telescopes get assigned to students. The results are summarized in the table above.


• Space-based telescopes are very cool. The 4 coolest telescopes are all space-based, as are 8 of the top 15.

• Radio telescopes are not that cool. All 5 radio telescopes included in the survey fall in the bottom 7.

MIT’s Haystack Observatory, which I thought would score highly due to it’s proximity to our school (only ~45 minutes away,) came in last place. Don’t take it personally Haystack! Just to be included in the survey means that you’re one of the 24 coolest telescopes in the world!

• Even with small sample sizes and unscientific methodology, I can still entertain myself.

Bonus Telescope Joke: What does an astronomer say during sound check?
Keck 1, Keck 2… Keck 1, Keck 2…

Need to Reach Your Students? Text Them. (Don’t Email!)

Three years of student polling data yields some overwhelming results: If you need to get in touch with a student, text message is the way to go, and email is not. Below are the results of my informal/not-that-scientific poll of about 150 of students over the past three years.

Contact Me Poll results

A Generation Gap
That students are best reached via text message isn’t surprising. My family, my friends, everyone I know is best reached by text message–why should students be any different. What I do find surprising, however, is just how little emphasis students today put on email. Email is, in most cases for me, just as efficient a means of reaching a friend or family member as texting. But for students, email is a distant afterthought. Significantly more students ranked Facebook as a better means of immediate communication than email. Even calling a landline was ranked higher. In short: adults are tightly connected to their email inboxes, teenagers are not.

Teachers Can Text Students
There are a bunch of reasons why a teacher would need to reach their students after hours. I text my student to let them know the clouds have rolled in an canceled our Astronomy observation night, to give students timely reminders about class logistics, and to run bonus trivia challenges that extend learning beyond the classroom. So how do you go about texting your students? They probably don’t want you to know their cell phone number, and you probably don’t want them to know yours. Solution: Remind101. Remind101 is a free and amazingly easy to use service that allows teachers to send text messages to their classes. Remind101 serves as an intermediary between teacher and student, so no phone numbers need be shared. And the platform allows you to text from your phone or from the web, and allows you to schedule messages to be sent at whatever future time you specify. Remind101 just might be my favorite EdTech tool I’ve discovered over the past few years.

Four Ways to Clean Up YouTube for Classroom Use

YouTube is a tremendously powerful learning tool, and, frankly, a necessity for any teacher’s toolbox. But there are some headaches associated with using the service in the classroom, chief amongst them the distracting interface. Teachers are leery of incorporating YouTube videos into their lessons when they know it will be flanked by advertisements, comments, and recommended videos that can be distracting, inappropriate, or even obscene. Here are a few ways teachers can deal with this issue:

Embed the video:
Embed the video on your own website (or elsewhere). Students won’t see any comments unless they “click through” to watch the video on YouTube. If you uncheck  “Show suggested videos when the video finishes” no recommended videos will pop up at the end. In-video advertisements will still be present. How to embed a YouTube video or playlist.

Disable those awful “Annotations:”
Annotations almost never add anything of substance to a video, unless that substance is aggravation. Turn them off for all video you watch while logged in by going to your YouTube playback settings page, unchecking the “show annotations on videos” box, and clicking save.

Clean up the user interface with YouTube Options for Chrome extension:
Install this Chrome extension and you’ll be able to hide the video name, video description, comments, suggested videos, playlist sections–just about anything. You can also use it to hide ads, set size and quality defaults, disable auto-play, and more.

Download any YouTube video:
Host the video on your own to completely control it. Paste the URL of any YouTube video (or many other video hosting websites, such as Vimeo, for that matter) at and you’ll be able to download it in a variety of formats. If you just need the audio of a YouTube video, use (or for long videos.)