Jonathan Bird's Blue World

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Jonathan Bird's Blue World is an Emmy award winning educational program that explores the wonders of the world's oceans.

The program airs on public television, but the website also has webisodes on the site for you to view. They also have an educators' section with study guides for each episode, sea stories and web links. You can even book him to come to your school and do a presentation (for a fee). He is very dynamic and you can see an example of one of his presentations.

Some of the episode topics include: Sharks, whales, airplane graveyard in the sea, tropical fish, manta rays, and much more. There is also a section with videos describing the SCUBA gear that they use when filming and exploring the oceans.

There is also a blog,, where they post information and news.

I found the program to be well done and very interesting and the resources on the site for educators were great. Definitely a great resource for your classroom.

On a side note, I actually went to college with Jonathan at WPI. He was two years ahead of me, but was in a band with a friend of mine. He's a great guy and it's great to see another engineer doing educational work.

some of the episodes:


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Leo Lionni wrote, who died in 1999, wrote and illustrated many classic children's books.  I've used several of his books to inspire pre-college philosophy discussions. One that is particularly helpful for introducing questions of political and social philosophy is Frederick, the story of a family of five field mice who are gathering food for the winter. 

Everyone is working hard to bring in as much food as they can, except Frederick. Frederick seems to spend his time staring at the meadow and half-asleep, dreaming. When the other mice ask him what he is doing, Frederick replies that he is gathering "sun rays for the cold dark winter days," "colors . . . [f]or winter is gray," and "words . . . [f]or the winter days are long and many, and we'll run out of things to say."

The story makes no mention of the reaction of the other mice to Frederick's behavior and explanations, except at one point to describe as "reproachful" the tone in which they ask him if he is dreaming. Once winter sets in, the five mice hide away in an old stone wall, and have plenty to eat and stories to tell. Lionni describes them as a "happy family." As winter continues, however, there is less food and more cold, and much less chatting among the family members. Then they remember Frederick's fall activities and they ask him about his supplies. Frederick proceeds to describe the rays of the sun and colors, and begins reciting poetry. The family realizes that he is a poet.

The story raises in a wonderfully subtle way questions about what is valuable work in a society. In a family of five, one member failing to gather food means much less food for the family. Is Frederick's work of gathering ideas and words and images as important as gathering food? What are the responsibilities of family members to each other? Is Frederick meeting his responsibilities? If Frederick doesn't gather food but instead spends his time thinking in preparation for giving to his family in a different way, is he entitled to an equal share of the food? Is what Frederick is doing work? What is work? Are some forms of work more important than others?

The story provides an opening to discussing with children questions about the nature of the social contract, the role of the individual in a community, and the relative value of different kinds of contributions to communities. And it's a lovely story with delightful illustrations!

How much philosophy does a pre-college philosophy teacher need to know?

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I'm working on a review article for the journal Teaching Philosophy, writing about five books that have been written in the past few years about pre-college philosophy. In the course of reading these books, it's been interesting to me to observe the range of views about the level of training necessary for a competent pre-college philosophy teacher.

This is a real issue, as most K-12 teachers in the US have had little exposure to philosophy. Some philosophers and educators with experience in pre-college philosophy think that there are only a few rules for conducting philosophical discussions and that even teachers with little background in philosophy can successfully introduce philosophy to their students. Others argue that extensive preparation in how to teach philosophy and a solid familiarity with the history of philosophy is necessary.

I come out somewhere in the middle, I think. I think there is a significant difference between introducing philosophy to elementary school students and teaching a philosophy class for high school juniors or seniors. For teaching younger students, I think that what is essential to leading a philosophy session is a philosophical ear. By a philosophical ear, I mean the ability to recognize when a philosophical issue is being raised (by a student, a story or film, etc.). Certainly, extensive exposure to philosophy texts and discussions is useful to the development of a philosophical ear, but I don't believe that this kind of background is essential. I think that teachers who have had even a little experience with philosophy discussions can, with strong skills in facilitating student discussions and a good curriculum, facilitate philosophy discussions among elementary school-age children.

This is not to say, however, that any teacher can pick up a pre-college philosophy curriculum and lead productive philosophy sessions with children. Many teachers, in my experience, are too much invested in the "teacher as repository of wisdom and students as vessels to be taught" model to be able, without a great deal of training and commitment, to introduce philosophy to their students.

As students get closer to upper-level high school age, I think the requirements for successful philosophy teachers grow, for two reasons. First, in my experience, high school students (and particularly those who have not had any exposure to philosophy in earlier years) are more reticent about engaging in classroom philosophy sessions than are younger children. The philosophy teacher who has had strong preparation for how to teach philosophy and at least some exposure to philosophical texts is more likely to be successful at involving students in high school philosophy discussions. Second, students at this level are capable of analyzing much more complex philosophy questions, and teachers familiar with these questions will be able to facilitate fuller, more sophisticated discussions. I am hoping that, with the growing interest among philosophy departments around the country in high school philosophy classes, there will be greater opportunities for high quality instruction for potential high school philosophy teachers in the future.

iTALC - computer management

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iTALC is a free, open source, computer management system. It enables teachers to control student computers, including monitoring what the students are doing, remote control to help users, lock out workstations, send text messages to students, remote power on/off and reboot and more.

It is extremely easy to install and use. It took me less than 10 minutes to download and install the admin version on my computer. I loaded the software and the key onto my network drive and then logged on to each computer in my room (there are 8) and installed the client version in less than 3 min for each computer. It then took a few minutes to set up the main system on my computer with all the classroom computers linked.

iTALC is similar to systems like LANSchool, but free.

The wiki is also very helpful with the installation and set up.

PDF Online - free PDF Services

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PDF Online is an online service that has both fee and FREE services relating to PDF files.

One of the free services is "Doc2PDF" that will convert a document to a PDF file. You can only convert files up to 2GB (to convert files up to 10GB you need to subscribe to the premium version).

This is good for people who don't convert many files to PDF. If you want to convert a lot of files to PDF, I suggest CutePDF.

The other free service is "PDF to Word" which converts your PDF documents to RTF Documents for viewing and editing Word. It works very well and fast. After uploading your file, it will convert it and then leave a link for you to download with the converted file.

Another way to do this is with PDF2Word.

PDF files are very handy for sharing files and posting files online. The ability to create them or edit them is very useful for teachers.

Tech Training Wheels

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Tech Training Wheels is a great site created by a group of Google Certified Teachers. They have created some excellent tutorial videos on topics like embedding videos in a Google site, Managing navigation of a Google site, using Sketchup and documents, among others.

They have a community part set up on the site and encourage users to upload their own tutorials.

It is a great site for newbies or even experts to find new tips and ideas.

Interactive Engineering for 9-11 year olds

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Engineering Interact is a great site with interactive lessons for 9-11 year olds that help them explore and learn science and engineering concepts.

The activities fall under the following topics: Light, Sound, Forces and Motion, Earth and Beyond, and Electricity.

The activities are in game form and are well done. I played with two of them and had fun myself.

There is also information about how engineers use the science of that particular topic which is a great way to show them why the topic is important.

I was very impressed with these games and I can actually see them being used for older students up to freshman in high school as a fun way to learn or review the topics.

It was created and is supported by the University of Cambridge Department of Engineering.

The games and activities require FLASH, so you won't be able to use these on an iPad or iPod Touch.

What is a child?

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I read an interesting article this week by Tamar Schapiro on "What Is a Child?" In a discussion about the possible justifications for what we generally believe are adults' special obligations to children, for "treating someone like a child," Schapiro (looking to Kant) suggests an understanding of the word 'child' as a status concept. The idea is that someone counts as a child when that person lacks the independence necessary (in the ethical realm) for governing himself in accordance with his capacity for reflective choice.

Schapiro suggests that childhood is in some respects analogous to Kant's notion of a state of nature in the political realm, where we need certain normative concepts (like rightful ownership and justice) that are lacking because there is no common political authority in which to ground such concepts. This makes a state of nature inherently unstable and requires that people in that state "pull themselves together" into a unified political state. In a similar way, Schapiro contends, children are like a state of nature in that they need normative principles to be able to make moral choices, but do not yet have a developed will on which to base these principles. An individual becomes an adult when she has "pulled herself together" into a unified reflective agent able to make choices about her desires.

An adult, Schapiro claims, "is one who is in a position to speak in her own voice, the voice of one who stands in a determinate, authoritative relation to the various motivational forces within her." In order to be considered a fully developed agent, one does not have to have worked out principles for any conceivable practical issue but must have a "plan of life." This basic structure, which Schapiro calls character, determines the relation between the pursuit of one's desires and the impulse to relate to others in mutually acceptable ways. Children lack this structure, and so, the argument goes, the distinction between adults and children is one of kind: adults have characters and children do not.

Childhood, therefore, is a "normative predicament" because children need adult help to govern themselves until they develop character, the unified perspective that allows them to exercise effective authority over themselves. Part of the way children develop this, proposes Schapiro, is through play, in which children “try on” selves to develop what is like to speak in their own voices and control their own worlds.  As adults, we are obligated to help children escape their predicament by doing what we can to help them "work their way out of childhood." 

This is a complex argument for which I am only providing a sketch, but I wonder about it. First, I question the definition of an adult as someone who has constituted herself as a unified reflective agent and can thus speak "in her own voice." It seems to me that the development of this normative structure does not occur in ways consistent with our ordinary judgments about who is a child and who is an adult (which in general depend solely on age). There are people we would characterize as adults (they are over 21) who do not have this kind of developed structure, and there are people we would characterize as children (they are under 17) who do. 

Second, while the notion of play as “trying on selves,” has much to offer, it does not apply to many people characterized as children (most people over age 10, for example). Schapiro acknowledges this and notes that we think of adolescents “as people who are characteristically ‘in search of themselves’ . . . [who] carry out this search by identifying themselves in a rather intense but provisional way with peer groups, celebrities . . . and the like.” But being "in search of oneself” and "identifying with peer groups, celebrities, etc." is applicable to many adults as well. Does a person who falls within this description lack a “plan of life?" If so, would we have to hold that they should be "treated like a child?" And doesn't in some respects the process of "trying on selves" and developing a "plan of life" last a lifetime?

Finally, I'm reluctant to characterize childhood as a predicament out of which adults have an obligation to help children find their way. While I don't romanticize childhood as a time of innocent bliss or something, I do think that there is a special quality about the life of children that is positive, that as adults we remember with fondness and even wistfulness (see Proust, for example). For example, in my experience doing philosophy with children, I have observed that children often have particular access to creative ways of understanding the world because of their openness to the mysteriousness of human existence. Likewise, I'm hesitant to grant Schapiro's idea that children are different in kind from adults because they lack character. In my work with children, I have found them reliably capable of reflective deliberation and often quite clear and consistent about the internal principles by which they make choices among their desires. I think that children are often capable of "speaking in their own voices." I am just not convinced that all children lack character, or that all adults have it.

HP buys Palm - What could that mean for education?

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image from Precentral -

On Wednesday, April 28th, 2010, HP announced that they would buy Palm, the maker of webOS and the Pre/Pre+ and Pixi/Pixi+ smartphones.

Palm, the company that actually launched and popularized early smartphones with it's Treo line, had struggled for many years and then was buoyed up by the release of it's new operating system, webOS. webOS is well liked and critically acclaimed, being described as the most elegant, user friendly, smartphone OS out there. It's synergy system keeps users always up-to-date and in sync with other services. It is also the only one that does true multitasking. In spite of webOS's initial excitement, Palm was unable to capitalize on that and sales of their new smartphones have not been as good as they thought and the company has been struggling. Enter HP.

HP, one of the largest technology companies in the world and a major computer manufacturer, is planning on keeping webOS and most of Palm's team and run them as a separate business unit. They are planning to scale webOS across multiple platforms, and in interviews have discussed a webOS powered tablet and slate. HP's global scale and financial strength combined with Palm's webOS will allow HP to "participate more aggressively in the fast-growing, highly profitable smartphone and connected mobile device market."

So, what does this have to do with education? One, Palm's webOS is a great platform and easy to use. HP can expand the market of webOS further into education. HP is talking about new devices like tablets and slates which will be great for the education market. This also means more competition in the market place which benefits consumers by lowering prices. webOS is extremely easy to develop apps for. Most high school computer science students (and many other students) already know web languages, which is what webOS is based on. This means that students could develop their own apps for educational purposes. With HP backing webOS, we will also see more and more developers creating apps for it. Palm has great support for developers also. HP and Palm have some very talented developers and engineers and the combination of both should lead to some very innovative products in the future.

Palm and webOS already have a lot of great apps for education and more are available all the time. webOS is easy to use, powerful, has a great web browser, supports Flash, has thousands of apps, supports 3D graphics, has true multitasking, and is easy to develop for.

HP and Palm have always been good towards education and I don't see that changing. HP already is involved with education through partnerships, discounts on products, and resources for students and educators. HP has their Teacher Experience Exchange which has lesson plans, resources, discussions, and more for educators. HP also offers free online technology training for educators. Palm has the Palm Foundation which provides financial and product-donation assistance to high-quality, effective non-profit organization. Palm also encourages developers to create educational applications.

In short, I feel that HP's purchase of Palm will lead to many good things for education - a great operating system on new devices with great potential and use in education.