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Above Ground Level

 Follow along with my various adventures through the official blog of AGL Initiatives.

My New TED-Ed Lesson

September 3rd, 2013


Early this summer, I submitted a video idea to TED-Ed, the makers of these fabulous animated lessons. To my surprise and excitement, they selected my idea to create a video on the perplexing “moon illusion” – the phenomenon in which the moon appears larger when it is rising/setting than when it is overhead.

The first step in the process was to write a script, then the TED-Ed team selected an animator who created a storyboard version of the video before producing the finished product.

I’m super excited that I finally get to share this awesome video with you all. The animators and the TED-Ed team did such an awesome job turning this concept into an amazing piece of educational artwork. Enjoy!


When students don’t try, standardized tests don’t work.

August 20th, 2013


I really don’t like standardized tests. Ever since I became a teacher, I’ve found the notion of a norm-referenced national standardized test to be completely antithetical to the idea that each learner is unique with his/her own set of gifts, experiences, and passions. Over the past several years, I have been looking for a logical proof to demonstrate once and for all that standardized tests and the data they generate have virtually no value. Well, I’ve finally found the proof, and I want to share it with you.

The proof is simple. If a student earns a 70% on a standardized test, there is no way to know whether that student has mastered only 70% of the content or whether that student was just trying at 70% of their capacity. For this reason, a standardized test can only be used to measure a student’s maximum potential for a given (unknown) level of effort. The big (wrong) assumption is that every student is trying at 100% of their ability every time they take a test – all teachers knows this isn’t true.

The data is only useful if we know each individual student. This simple fact highlights the path toward the proper solution, which is individualized instruction – something we have all been preaching (and not been doing) for a very long time. If we truly took the approach of providing an individualized educational experience for every student, we would realize that we don’t really need or want standardized tests anyways.

But what about data? Don’t we need data? Well, good data is easy to generate if we ask the right questions. What if we asked, “How many books have you read in the past six months?” or perhaps “On a scale of 1 to 5, rate how much you enjoy reading.” Now that is data we can really use!

The more we test, the worse this problem gets. Students (and teachers) are already frustrated by school. Forcing students to take standardized test three times a year to “show growth” only exacerbates the problem and will undoubtedly produce worthless data. Teachers are asked to pour through this meaningless data and change their instruction accordingly. Handicapped by “analysis paralysis” teachers will innovate less and begin simply teaching to the tests. Is this the future of education you were hoping for? Me neither!

The simple solution is to make tests engaging.
If students can be motivated (authentically) to take the standardized tests seriously, then the testing data will be authentically useful. Here are a few ideas to get the ball rolling:

  1. Make standardized tests fun to take!
  2. Give authentic, meaningful, intrinsic (or even extrinsic) rewards to students who demonstrate improvement.
  3. Change the language and expectations. Let’s tell our students (especially our poor students) how amazing and smart they are. It isn’t fair to have high expectations for students if we don’t believe it ourselves.

We can do this – let’s go team!


STEMbite: Dealing with Friction

July 24th, 2013


Friction is an essential part of everyday life. From walking down the street to playing cards, friction makes it possible.

Check out this STEMbite video that explores just how amazing this incredibly ordinary force can be.


EduTubers To Watch

July 22nd, 2013


YouTube is full of great educational content. You can learn just about anything from just about anyone. Many of the most popular EduTuber Channels (Vsauce, Veritsaium, and SciShow) are related to science and technology.

As a new EduTuber myself, I’ve been exploring some up and coming educational YouTube channels in an effort to find some new friends.

Of course, to keep your children both entertained and educated takes some effort. And I bet you try so hard to do exactly that but find that they say “I’m bored!” after 5 minutes of any other seemingly interesting activity, except…yep, watching YouTube videos. What better than the glimmer of new technology and moving pictures on a screen to keep children engaged and also make them learn in the process?

And I bet they wouldn’t want to be interrupted even for a few seconds during their watch time, so why not consider upgrading your Internet to enable a faster connection? All your devices can run at the same time, which means they can watch videos on the iPad while you work on your laptop! It’s a win-win situation if you ask me. You can click here for more details on that, but for now, let’s see what’s actually interesting for kids on YouTube.

Here are three awesome channels that I’ve discovered recently. I respect each of these channels for a different reason, but I would love to meet the minds behind each one.

SmarterEveryDaySmarter Every Day represents a fascinating mix of topics ranging from guns to bugs to space. Destin, the show’s host, is an absolute genius who clearly practices what he preaches: “In a world of talkers, be a thinker and a doer.”
MelodyShadowMelody Sheep I first encountered this channel’s tribute to Carl Sagan “A more glorious dawn” and proceeded to show it to every student and every class I ever taught thereafter. This is why autotune was invented!
coolschoolCool School is a totally ridiculous channel. At first, you just wonder if they are a little amateurish, then you realize that they are and that it’s hilarious. This channel is sure to keep the toddlers and the adults both entertained.
I have a feeling this list is going to continue to grow, but for now, check out these three videos – a sample from my three new favorite channels.


What plants can teach us about engaging kids.

July 16th, 2013


As a science teacher, I’m always trying to keep my students engaged and motivated to learn. When I look at the natural world, I see a fascinating analogy between how plants engage animals and how teachers engage their students.

There are lots of ways that teachers can entice their students to want to learn (besides smelling nice and having treats in the front of class). I like the strategies outlined in Dan Pink’s book Drive.

Pink argues that intrinsic motivation comes in three situations: When we have autonomy, when we’re allowed to master a new skill, and when we work toward some larger purpose.

Watch this awesome animated talk in which Pink makes his point clear.

I can’t help but wonder what change we would see in education if every student (and every teacher and principal) had the opportunity to work with autonomy, toward mastery, and with meaningful purpose.

Frankly, I think we would see a lot of problems disappear.

For more STEMbite videos, visit and subscribe.


STEM and The Simple Mysteries of Life

July 14th, 2013


Everywhere I look, I see math and science – even in the most ordinary places, like pouring a glass of soda or taking a shower.

That’s precisely what makes the STEM disciplines so amazingly awesome. Even the simplest situations can give rise to incredible complexity and surprising conclusions. Moreover, the exact same math and science that describes a simple situation (like why the curtain keeps creeping into your shower) can also apply to a really complex situation (like why supersonic jets can skim along the upper reaches of our atmosphere). In both cases, Bernoulli’s Principle is at work.

Over 400 years ago, Isaac Newton showed that the laws of nature which govern the sun, moon, and stars (the complex stuff) also govern apples, baseballs, and bullets (the simple stuff) here on earth. The universality of the laws of nature should continue to surprise and amaze us every day.

One of the reasons that I love making STEMbite videos is that we can examine the science and math of simple, everyday situations. But that doesn’t make our conclusions simple. Instead, the concepts learned in these deceivingly simple videos give insights into the profound nature of the universe itself. Trust me, I know – I have a masters degree in astrophysics!

When you want to see the complexity of the distant universe, look for something simple and familiar nearby.

For more STEMbite videos, visit and subscribe.


Why Speeding Doesn’t Help (Much)

July 11th, 2013


I’m addicted to speeding, but the more I learn about math, the more I realize that speeding just doesn’t make sense. Watch this STEMbite to learn why speeding doesn’t really help all that much. After all, getting out of the speeding habit might just save you having to contact someone like the Hanover Reckless Driving Lawyers.

The inverse relationship curve shown at the end of the video is particularly important, since it illustrates that the relationship between time and speed results in diminishing returns the faster you travel.

So now, who’s ready to start a petition to change all speedometers to “hours per mile” instead of “miles per hour”?

Yeah… me neither.

For more STEMbite videos, visit and subscribe.


STEMbite Careers

June 19th, 2013


STEMbite continues to grow and flourish. In the past week, there have been a number of new references to STEMbite in the blogosphere – on edudemic, edutopia, and more.

Perhaps most exciting, though, is the first ever “STEMbite Careers” video that was recorded this week with a pharmacist friend at my local community hospital.

I’m super excited to use STEMbite to illustrate that math and science is everywhere around us – even at work! Keep your eyes for more STEMbite Career videos in the future…

For more STEMbite videos, visit and subscribe.


Teaching with Glass

June 10th, 2013


Cross-Posted on Kyle Pace’s Blog. Thanks, Kyle!

I’ve had Google Glass for about two months now – one of the only teachers in the world to have the futuristic device. If you’re jealous, don’t be. There isn’t all that much Glass can do yet. You can take pictures/videos, search, get navigation, or check your messages, but you can already do all that with your smart phone. So, when it comes to Google Glass, we have to wonder: What good can it really do for us in education?

When I applied to Google’s #ifihadglass contest, I only had a vague notion that I would try to use Glass to capture science in everyday life and share that with my students.

I work extensively in the world of online and blended learning where video content is an essential element of every course. I’m often frustrated, frankly, by video lessons that are long, dry, and boring. Sure, the videos contain all the content, but they don’t make learning interesting or fun. To me, Google Glass offers a unique opportunity to bring a new perspective (quite literally) to online video lessons.

Using Glass, I have created a video series called “STEMbite.” These engaging bite-size videos show the science and math that can be found in everyday life, all from a unique first-person perspective. As students ride along in my head (scary, I know), they can start to see the world as I do – a place full of amazing applications of math and science. Rather than try to explain all of the content, my goal is to motivate and inspire students to learn more and pursue science and math in their own time through books, documentaries, or even blogs like Here’s a favorite example:

Through these videos I hope to bring back the enthusiasm and excitement that math and science deserve, all the while training our students’ minds to start wondering about the crazy science that surrounds them in everyday life.

To see more STEMbite videos, visit


STEMbite Live Success!

June 6th, 2013


I am happy to report that our very first STEMbite Live broadcast was a complete success. Many thanks to Bill Van Loo, Brad Waid, and Drew Minock who shared their time and students with me for this proof-of-concept event. Check out the brief teaser below, which shows what the broadcast was like.

I hope to continue with more STEMbite Live events in the year ahead, perhaps even visiting some STEM businesses or research facilities along the way. Stay tuned for more fun with STEM!