Monday, August 20, 2012

presenting at Destination Innovation 2012

Today I'm presenting at the Destination Innovation 2012 conference at the Banff Centre on "Makers and the DIY Revolution".

If you want to follow along with the conference, the Twitter hash tag is #Dest_2012.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

ISTE12 Conference Closing Keynote

The closing keynote was by Dr. Willie Smits from DeforestACTION together with Liza Heavener and  Chris Gauthier about "global collaborative projects with, for, and by students around the world". Dr. Smits talked about some of the projects that they've been involved in, and some of the work of the foundation.

It wasn't particularly technology-focused, but it was somewhat interesting and applicable to education. It was good to hear about some of the things they are doing, and the tool Earthwatchers that crowdsources students to analyse satellite photos and watch for logging and other related activities to make a difference in the world.

There were many comments on Twitter that this should have been the opening keynote rather than the closing one. Unfortunately, as is often the case, many people had left the conference by the time the keynote started. I suppose the advantage was that there was more seating space and the Wi-Fi worked much better than at other keynote events this week.

A Balance Between Consuming and Sharing

As I've tried to blog about my experiences here at the ISTE conference, I've been forced to think about the balance between gathering or experiencing and making things public for others. It takes time and some effort to digest and to sit and write about what I'm seeing, hearing, and learning.

During this conference I've occasionally found myself writing about one topic while attending a session on something completely different. This has perhaps been detrimental in that I've probably missed some things when I've not been fully present. Task switching is a skill that I'm still working on developing futher.

Over all I think this process been helpful for me, though, to summarize things to help clarify my own thinking.

I'd certainly recommend blogging in general as a way to communicate ideas and share back what you've received. However I think blogging is almost essential when attending a conference that many people are unable to be at, or one as large as this with more sessions than one person could possibly attend.

As the conference winds down, I need to go back over my notes and see what hasn't made it into blog posts or Twitter posts to make sure that I'm sharing as much as I can. I've also realized that this is not just about sharing with others, but also sharing with the future me when I look back at these posts in September.

Meeting People at the ISTE Conference

I've been meeting a lot of great people here, and of course spending time with people that I already know. It's interesting, though, to see the differences in "famous" people here at the ISTE conference. Keynote speakers from other conferences, and even authors who's books are being sold here, are often walking around as attendees. I passed Marc Prensky, from the keynote panel, wearing a conference lanyard and walking with a couple of other attendees. I resisted the urge to ask if I could get a picture with him. I also sat and chatted for a few minutes with Dean Shareski, a past keynote speaker at the ATLE conference, and Steve Dembo, an upcoming keynote speaker at the ATLE conference. On the street I passed Scott Kinney, a former ATLE keynote speaker. I've also seen posts on Twitter by David Warlick, who will be the keynote speaker at our division professional development day, and I've also seen Gary Stager around.

On the other hand, Dr. Mayim Bialik (a mainstream celebrity) was much more guarded. Her time was protected and proscribed, and only certain people were able to get a photo taken with her. Don't get me wrong, she came across as very friendly in the keynote panel and during the session she helped present, but I'm sure if she would have been stuck talking to a thousand people if she hadn't been sheltered.

I have been able to talk to a number of great people here, though. Yesterday I ended up sitting beside Brett Kopf, the very enthusiastic Co-founder of remind101, a service that I often recommend for teachers. I also waited in a line and had a good conversation with John Lindsay, the husband of flat classroom author Julie Lindsay. A few people that I've met and interacted with in person and/or on Twitter are Jenn WagnerStacci Barganz, and Amanda Pelsor.

I've also appreciated the opportunity to spend some time with people I know in person, such as Todd Kennedy and Treva Emter from the ATLE, and of course people from my own school district:
Faye McConnell, Director of Education Technology and AISI
Donna Griffin, Innovation Facilitator
Aaron Tuckwood, Technology Consultant
Les Sereda, Media Specialist
Tim Knell, Director of Technology Services
Scott McFadyen, Chief Financial Officer
Ali Nazarali, Support Analyist
Shawna Jenkins, Literacy Consultant
Dianne Molzan, Student Support Consultant
Jenn Cowie, Teacher

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Keynote: Dr. Yong Zhao

I'm a fan of Dr. Yong Zhao, he's an engaging speaker and had the audience laughing often. I like his ideas about the problems with standardized testing and how they seem to be negatively correlated to innovation and other useful things.

He talks about how China's education system is admired by many countries, but actually seems to be stifling creativity and entrepreneurial spirit. Instead, he proposes a "future-oriented education starting with each child instead of an authoritative prescription of knowledge and skills." 

In his opinion, things that matter are diversity of talents, creativity, entrepreneurship, passion and confidence.

There were great quote and one liners. I've taken these from Twitter and/or paraphrased them:
"Literacy shouldn't be the national goal; it should be the floor, not the ceiling."
"I would like common core as long as it's not common or the core."
"China has best education system and worst education system combined: High test scores, low creativity/innovation"
"The US education isn't in decline, it has always been bad."
"The problem is, American teachers care more about students than they do about math."
"Our kids are too happy and confident to be good at academics."
"American schools kill creativity less effectively."

Monday, June 25, 2012

Poster and Table Sessions

This afternoon I went to a number of poster sessions and table sessions. I like the concept of poster sessions for topics where you just want some quick information about a topic, or a few minutes to chat with a presenter about a topic. In the time frame of an hour-long session, I was able to have a lot of conversations and get a lot of information about topics I'm interested in, rather than hearing about a single topic.

However I'm not as convinced that the table sessions, for research paper presentations, are as good of an idea. The room was a little small to have seven simultaneous presentations The presenter at my table was trying to play some videos, but even with her little speakers it was very difficult to hear them. On the positive side, though, having about ten people at a table made for a more intimate session and more willingness of participants to ask questions, and I certainly found it valuable to hear about "Gaming in the Classroom: Implicit through Portal 2 Explicit Knowledge".

Some highlights of the poster sessions were:
MCSD Podcast Library
Rubric for Assessing the Quality of Online Environments
Online Roller Coaster Creator for teaching math
Creating Games with eToys

Exhibit Hall at the ISTE Conference

The vendors exposition at this conference is certainly impressive. There are more than 500 vendors, and many of them have big, lavish booths. There's everything from little software or website startups to big well-known hardware vendors. There are things to play with, and many ways to share your contact information so they can get in touch with you and share information about their products and services. Perhaps even more than you'd like them to. There are raffles to enter (see the above comment about sharing your personal information), and swag to collect if you're interested. 

Thankfully unlike events such as E3 and car shows there are no "booth babes", but there are some notable uniforms or costumes that border on inappropriate.

For the most part, though, the exposition hall is worth visiting, especially if there's a particular product or service that you're interested in checking out or talking to someone about. The vendors are all more than happy to talk about their company and how they would be a great fit in your school or school division.

After a quick lunch, though, it's time for me to head back to some sessions. Unfortunately I shouldn't spend the whole day playing with Lego and other toys.

Session: Learn Math and Science with Dr. Mayim Bialik

As much as I don't mind commercials and sponsorship, this session was very on-message with respect to how wonderful Texas Instruments is. I have to agree that I like TI calculators and data collecting instruments, but the Nspire is still a little expensive. I know it's not as costly as an iPad or a decent laptop, but those are devices that you can use in non-math and science classes. Of course a TI calculator will survive a drop off of a desk.

The presenters in the session were very good, though. They were good at highlighting the importance of math and science and talking about things like assessment, empowerment, and fostering student engagement. They also, of course, showed off the features of the calculators, probes, and software.

I also think they did a good job of catering to the fairly diverse audience. They briefly explained the terms that they used, without being pedantic. The Q&A session afterwards with Mayim was good too, she addressed issues such as encouraging girls to pursue STEM, learning styles, time-limited assessments, bridging science and arts, and even bridging math and science.

Kickoff and Keynote

The start of the ISTE 2012 conference has come and gone. I attended the kickoff with Mario Armstrong and others. Fun costumes, a couple of prizes given away, and generally a good event.

Not to complain, though, but I think a number of bad decisions were made regarding the opening keynote. With only an hour and a quarter set aside for it, there was over half an hour of fluffy videos, ISTE representatives and politicians, and Qualcomm Executive Vice President of Global Market Development Peggy Johnson, while Sir Ken Robinson, Marc Prensky, and Dr. Mayim Bialik sat quietly. I understand that ISTE probably spent a lot of money producing the videos, and there are many people who need to welcome us to the conference, but I found it frustrating.

Imagine if things had been reversed, start with the stars and follow them with ISTE leaders and politicians. Many people were leaving while Sir Kin Robinson was still speaking, how many would stay in the room if it were someone they hadn't heard of?

And with respect to the seating, there wasn't nearly enough in the hall, and every second person had to lean forward in order for our shoulders to fit. Nor was there even enough in the "overflow", thankfully they were able to get the video stream up and running soon after things started.

As well, I know that it's hard to have a robust Wi-Fi connection for this many people, and they did a fairly good job, but this is something that can be improved.
The opening keynote event sets the stage for the whole event, and I was disappointed with this one. Hopefully this doesn't reflect poorly on the rest of the conference.

The highlight of my day, though, was Skypeing with my kids and having them show me the artwork that they painted for me today. And they hugged the computer to give me a hug good night.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

A day in San Diego before the ISTE conference

As I write this I'm sitting in the window of my hotel room looking at the San Diego city lights and across the bay toward Coronado. The pool below is glowing blue, and the Dole receiving dock lights are shimmering on the water. It's the end of an eventful day of being a tourist around San Diego.

This morning I wandered down to the Gas Lamp quarter in search of breakfast, pancakes, and sun screen. Deciding to forgo a taxi ride to Sea World, and still unsure if I wanted to go, I bought a full-day transit pass and caught the trolley. After changing trolleys downtown, the end of the line was at Old Town San Diego, which seemed as good a destination as any for now. After less than an hour, though, I had decided that I wanted to see Sea World, so I hopped on a bus in that direction.

My first impression of Sea World was that I'd probably be waiting in a lot of lines. There was a line to buy the ticket (a "fun pass" is good for the rest of the year, and it's the same price as a single-day admission), there was a line to get through the security search and into the gate, there were lines to take photos with the people dressed as characters, and there were long lines for the rides. I went on the tower ride first to have a look at the whole park, and see the surrounding area, but didn't go on any other rides today. I did, however, get to see the major shows as well as all of the exhibits. Shamu and the other Orcas are much bigger in real life than I had expected. The sea lions were funny, and the dolphins were amazing, although the dolphin show seemed to be more about human acrobats than animals. In the exhibits, I got to hold a star fish and a horseshoe crab, and pet a turtle. All in all a great experience.

Another trip on public transportation back to the hotel, and I need to get in touch with my family about something that I had forgotten to do for an event that was happening back home, and track down my boss here to get my ticket for the baseball game. After talking to my wife but leaving for my boss, I was going to sit down for some supper when DG found me and invited me to join her and our boss.

The Padres game was a good, I had never been to a professional baseball game before. The stands seemed quite empty, but apparently there were over 30,000 people there. I ducked out for two innings to Skype with my wife and daughters, but I guess I didn't miss anything too exciting. I guess that's why I don't watch baseball on TV.

After the game we took another little walk along the marina to enjoy the view of the bay and the multi-million dollar yacht  parked there. It's clear that I'm not in that socioeconomic class, since I had to look up how to spell the word "yacht".

It's been a great day, and I feel like I've seen a lot of San Diego, but it's hard to be away from home. I miss my wife and I miss my kids already. I love how they give my hugs on Skype, but I'd rather be home with them. Home is where the heart is, and my heart is with them.

Friday, June 22, 2012

First post #iste12

I've safely arrived in San Diego for the ISTE 2012 conference. Air Canada was great, I watched a few movies on the in-flight system and apart from an engine not starting initially on one plane, things went smoothly.

I've checked into a hotel across from the convention center, and already had a swim in the pool. I'm looking forward to some preconference activities, and the start of the official conference on Sunday.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Do They Need a Computer?

(This is a cross-post from the EIPS guest blog at

I’ve often been asked if a mobile device, such as a tablet (usually iPad) or smartphone, is enough for a student to bring to school rather than a laptop. My usual response is that they are good alternative devices for someone who already has access to a traditional computer. There will always be things that you can only do, or can do more efficiently, on a computer.
A while ago I talked to a student who had written a 2,000 word essay on his smartphone. I’ve seen animated short films produced entirely on an iPad. In a meeting full of adults, most of them will be using a tablet or a phone. You can accomplish a surprising number of things using only a web browser and camera, and perhaps some platform-specific apps.
That being said, a student who has only a mobile device will be at a disadvantage. Particularly in secondary grades, there will be things that they can’t do on their handheld. Ideally students should be able to choose what they want to use for a particular activity. In my house there are many kinds of devices; family members can pick up, or sit down at, whichever is available and suited to the task.
In 2010 Steve Jobs was quoted as saying that in the future, “[personal computers] are going to be like trucks, less people will need them.” My brother-in-law has a truck that I can borrow when I need to move heavy stuff… do you think we should get to the point where students with handheld devices can just borrow school computers for their heavier tasks?
David Hay is currently working with the Alberta Initiative for School Improvement (AISI) project in EIPS and can be found online at If he wasn’t in education, David says he would be home with his kids!

bringing technology to the ISTE conference

I've been thinking a fair amount about technology that I'll bring to the ISTE conference. Since I'm flying there and I will be walking a lot, size and weight are concerns. At this point I'm thinking an iPad, maybe my Android phone (without a SIM card in it, since I won't have an international plan), and a Samsung Series 5 Chromebook. I'm also probably going to bring a waterproof point-and-shoot camera.

The two main devices (iPad and Chromebook) have great battery life, and should allow me to do everything I need to do down there. The phone will allow me to try out Android apps that I come across, and act as a Skype/Hangout device when I'm out without the other two.

What electronics do you usually travel with?

Friday, June 15, 2012

blogging from the ISTE conference

I've decided to post at least daily from June 24th to 27th about what I see at the ISTE 2012 Conference. Stay tuned here for updates.

ISTE is the International Society for Technology in Education.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

assessment and no zeros

Following an Edmonton teacher's suspension for "ignoring his principal’s repeated directions to follow the school’s no-zero grading practice", there has been a lot of discussion about assessment. I just wanted to link here to a couple of blogs that I think best express opinions from educators who are using assessment properly.

Zero-Knowledge Proofs by John Scammell
for the love of learning by Joe Bower
Teaching on Purpose by Cherra-Lynn Olthof

For the most part I agree with them, so it's easier to link to them than to re-invent the wheel.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Print a 3D Key Fob from an Image or Logo

I've also published this as an Instructable and uploaded the related files to Thingiverse.

Print a 3D Key Fob from an Image or LogoLet's say, hypothetically, that you need to design a 3D printable key fob for an event this weekend. First you check Instructables and Thingiverse to see if anyone has done it already. Unfortunately no one has, so you come back and read this Instructable. Don't worry, though, it's not that difficult. This basically involves converting a black and white image to vector format and extruding it into a 3D shape.

Through the process of modelling a key fob, students will be able to explore a practical application of geometry and algebra.

Instructors can also take this opportunity to remind students about the importance of respecting intellectual propertytrademarks, and copyright.

Software and Hardware Requirements

For converting the image to a vector graphic, we'll use Inkscape (with the Better DXF plugin or R12 plugin).

To extrude the vector graphic into 3D and add the key ring attachment we'll use OpenSCAD.

Preparing the file for printing will involve ReplicatorG or similar software.

Making a physical model will require a 3D Printer (e.g. MakerBot) or a service such as Shapeways.

Setting up Inkscape and "Better DXF Output"

Download and install Inkscape from If you're running Windows you can use the installable or portable (no install required) version.

To install the "Better DXF Output" extension, download the file Extract the three files and put them in "C:\Program Files\Inkscape\share\extensions" (if you installed the Windows version) or "...\InkscapePortable\App\Inkscape\share\extensions" (if you're using the Windows portable version) or "usr/share/inkscape/extensions" (if you installed the Linux version).

Start up Inkscape and you should now be able to save drawings as "Better DXF Output" files. We need to use this extension because OpenSCAD requires R12 DXF files, and Inkscape 0.48 and newer exports R13 DXF files.

Converting the Image to a Vector Graphic

This is probably the most difficult part, but it shouldn't be too hard. We're going to import the logo into Inkscape, trace it, clean it up if necessary, and export it as a DXF file for the next step. If you already have a (R12) DXF file of your logo, you can skip this step.

1. Under the File menu chose Import... and select your logo file. Hopefully it's a single colour (e.g. black and white) bitmap.
Converting the Image to a Vector Graphic

2. Click on your logo, then under the Path menu choose Trace Bitmap...
Converting the Image to a Vector Graphic

3. On the dialogue box that comes up, click OK and then close it. If all goes well you should now have a path object above your original bitmap.
Converting the Image to a Vector Graphic

4. Move the path object out of the way, and delete the original bitmap. Move the path object back to the bottom left (0, 0).
Converting the Image to a Vector Graphic

5. If there are parts of the image that you don't want, under the Path menu choose Break Apartand delete the unwanted parts
Converting the Image to a Vector Graphic

6. Select everything that remains and under the Path menu choose Combine.
Converting the Image to a Vector Graphic

7. Resize the path object to the size you'd like your key fob to be by typing the size in the W (width) or (height) box. Make sure your click the lock button first to make sure you don't change the aspect ratio of your logo.
Converting the Image to a Vector Graphic

8. Under the File menu choose Save As... then choose Better DXF Output (*.DXF) from the dropdown menu. Name your file logo.DXF and remember when you save it so that you can use it for the next step.
Converting the Image to a Vector Graphic

Creating a 3D Model

Now that you have a DXF file of your logo, we need to make it 3D.

Go to to download the program for LinuxOS X, or Windows and install (or unzip and run the portable version).

Run OpenSCAD and paste in the following code (or download the attached logo.scad file).

width = 50; // the x size of the logo
length = 40.572; // the y size of the logo
logodepth = 2; // how far in the z direction you want the logo extruded
backdepth = 1; // thinckness of the back of the key fob
padding = 3; // how far from the edge you want the logo
holewidth = 10; // the size of the ring attachment on the top

color("green") translate(v = [0, 0, backdepth]) linear_extrude(height = logodepth) import(file = "logo.DXF");  // importing and extruding the logo

minkowski()  // this is a transformation that adds a second shape (the cylinder) around the outside of the first shape (the cube)
 cube([width, length, backdepth/2]);  // a cube to go behind the logo
 cylinder(r=padding, h=backdepth/2);  // rounding the corners of the cube

 translate(v = [width/2, length+padding, 0]) cylinder(h = backdepth, r = holewidth/2);  // the outside of the key ring attachment
 translate(v = [width/2, length+padding, -1]) cylinder(h = backdepth+logodepth+2, r = holewidth/2-2);  // cut out the inside of the key ring attachement
 cube([width, length, backdepth+logodepth+2]);  // cut out so that we don't overlap with the logo

Rendering the 3D File

Make sure your logo.DXF file from the previous step is in the same folder as the OpenSCAD program, or specify the location in the  import(file = "logo.DXF") line.

Put in appropriate values for the variables at the top of the code (width, length, etc.).

Under the Design menu select (or press F5) and it will show you what your design looks like.
Rendering the 3D file

Under the Design menu select Compile and Render (CGAL) (or press F6) and it will create a rendering of your design. Then select Export as STL... under the Design menu to save your completed 3D model in a format that can be used for printing.
Rendering the 3D file

Printing Your 3D Model

Now that you have an STL file of your 3D model you can generate G-code and print as you normally would (likely using ReplicatorG), or you can order a printed part from an online service such as Shapeways.

The first time I made key fobs we needed 90 copies for a series of sessions I was teaching, the MakerBot Automated Build Platform was very useful for this.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Apple TV case

Playing around with a CNC router yesterday I built this:

Sunday, March 25, 2012

a new (free) party game like "the telephone game" and "draw something"

A friend just told me about a party game that's a little bit like Chinese whispers (the Telephone Game) combined with Draw Something.
  1. Each person gets a pencil and as many pieces of paper as there are people around the circle. As a group, pick a theme, such as "song titles" or "household things".
  2. On their first piece of paper everyone writes the name of one "thing" and then passes it to their right.
  3. On a new piece of paper they draw the "thing" that they were just handed, and pass that to the right.
  4. They guess the name of the "thing" depicted in the drawing they were just handed.
  5. Play continues until you have your first "thing" back. Talk about how different it is.
As an example, let's say Allen writes the word "Apple" and passes it to Ben. At the same time, Zack writes the word "Zebra" and passes it to Allen. Ben attempts to (silently) draw an apple and pass the drawing to Chad, while Allen tries to draw a zebra. After going all the way around the circle, Allen might be handed a drawing of a watermelon and Zach might get a drawing of a dog.

accessibility switch-enabled Wii controller

Full write-up coming soon, but here are some photos. I estimate that I spent about $45 on the project.

Monday, March 12, 2012

using Inkscape and Gcodetools for CNC plasma cutting

I like SheetCam for generating G-code for a CNC plasma cutter from DXF or SVG drawings, but I prefer free and/or open source programs that students can use on their own computers. Inkscape and the Gcodetools plug-in achieve that.

Version 0.49 of Inkscape will include Gcodetools, but until then we have to extract the contents of the Gcodetools download (using a program such as 7-zip) and put them in the appropriate Inkscape directory (probably c:\Program Files\Inkscape\share\extensions\ on Windows).

Once you have this set up, start up Inkscape and check under the Extensions menu for Gcodetools.
If it's not there, close Inkscape, make sure the files are copied to the correct directory, and restart Inkscape.

The process for creating G-code from a drawing follows:

Open (or create) a drawing in Inkscape. Make sure the bottom left corner of your drawing is at the bottom left of the document. As an example, I'll be making an arcade controller top for mounting buttons and a joystick.

Convert all objects to paths. Keyboard shortcuts to do this are <Ctrl><a> (to select everything) then <Shift><Ctrl><c> to convert objects to paths.

You should now have only "objects of type Path".

Now we need to set some orientation points. Click on the Extensions menu and select Gcodetools then Orientation points....

Change the Units to inches (in) and click Apply then Close.

To specify that you're going to use a plasma cutter, click on the Extensions menu and select Gcodetools then Tools library...

Select plasma and click Apply.

This will create a green text box with your tool definition in it.

You will be able to edit the text to edit it and change things like your feed rate. For now all we want to do is remove some of the "gcode before path" lines. Double-click that text box and delete everything but the line "M03 (turn on plasma)" so that it looks like this:

Next you will need to select all of your objects again (press F1 to use the arrow tool again instead of the text tool) and choose Prepare path for plasma...

This will bring up a window allowing you to create lead-in and lead-out paths, as explained in this article on You'll probably want a short in-out path to make a cleaner cut and to show you which direction the torch will be cutting. Remember that the units for the length are inches. Click Apply create the paths and click Close to close that tool once it has finished.

If you don't like how the in-out paths look, you can undo it and try again until you get something that looks like this:

You can now select and delete the objects in your original drawing so you will just see the cut paths.

Now select Path to Gcode....

Click on the Preferences tab to make sure you will be saving the file onto your flash drive (e.g. drive e:\).

Select the Path to Gcode tab and click Apply. Read through any warnings that pop up, but you should get some usable G-code.

Open the file in Notepad or a similar text editor, and it should look like this:

The one thing you'll want to change is to delete the M3 on the fourth line of the file. M3 is the Gcode for turning on the torch, and we don't want it to turn on until the torch has moved into position. You can eliminate this step by having an empty file in your output directory (e:\ or wherever you specified earlier) that is called header.txt (edit: the empty file should just be named header with no extension).Your output file will then look like this:

Open that output.ngc file in Mach3, make sure everything looks as you expect, set up the torch (talk to your Instructor about the torch settings), and click Cycle Start (or press <Alt><r>). You may need to click (or press) this again every time the torch fires if it's set to pause before cutting. 

Hopefully everything will work for you and you'll have a nicely cut metal project.