Khan Academy – DIY Education


Khan Academy is a website dedicated to giving a world-class education to everyone free of charge. That’s a tall order for just one website, but on many levels it delivers. The site is broken into three main parts: WatchPractice, and Coach.

  • Watch – This section contains over 2,000 instructions videos on topics such as algebra, biology, economics, history, calculus, finance, chemistry, and many more. The videos are well organized and broke up by scope and sequence.
  • Practice – This is the part of the site that drew most of my attention. You can see a screenshot of this section at the top of this post. The practice section is a step-by-step math tutor that begins at basic addition and goes all the way to trigonometry concepts. As students progress on the knowledge map, the site gives hints and links to instructional videos on the current topic and awards students with badges and high scores for getting problems right (this is what has hooked one of my students who simply thinks the site is a game, muahahaha).
  • Coach – Want to use Khan Academy with your whole class? This is where you can set up a virtual classroom to manage what students are working and track their progress. It’s a great way to keep everyone on the same topic, but let them go at their own pace.

With tons of pay-to-use resources out there it’s amazing that something like Khan Academy exists, but I’m glad it does. It allows students to learn in their own time and with over 2,000 videos there is sure to be something that will work in your classroom. It’s a win for everyone, except people who make math textbooks. I wonder what they’re thinking right now…

Worried that computers will one day take over the world? Well, rest easy for now, as they’re just getting to their feet, or in this case, wheels.

Box Car 2D is an online program that uses a genetic algorithm to try and create a car that can go the farthest in a given time (without falling apart). After each round, it creates another car using some random data and also the data from its best attempts. Its selection process for the two parent cars can be changed and you can find more out about the algorithm here.

Not into car evolution? Fret not, you can also intelligently design your own car and choose different tracks from strait speedways, mountains, to even a huge jump.

How can I use this in my class?

This is a great introduction to topics such as genetic crossovers, Punnett squares, and learning algorithms.

Ah, time for the old’ soapbox once again. This time we turn to Sir Ken Robinson who talks about how we still use a school system that was created for the industrial revolution, and the effects that have on our world today. This is a fantastic and insightful video that takes on many issues in a 12 minute time and has created many hotly contested points amongst some educators.

Ever wanted to make a Hipposarusphant? How about an Owligatorantula? Perhaps you’d just like to see how a 16 legged, 8 armed ant-eaters would look moving around. With the Spore Creature Creator, you can make all that and more. Spore, created by Maxis (of the Sim games fame) is a game about life, the universe, and everything. Although the main game includes the full creature creator (and it can also be purchased from their site here) we’re going to look at two free alternatives to making lifeforms.


Spore Creature Creator Trial

This demo includes limited parts to create creatures with, but can still be a great tool to use. Creating a creature is simple (the body can be shaped like clay and features like arms, legs, and eyes are all drag and drop). After making a creature you can ‘test drive’ it by watching how it moves and choose different animations for your creature to act out. How the creature reacts depends on its features.

Here are some video links to get you started on creating creatures:

  • Making a creature
  • Coloring a creature
  • Test drive mode


Spore 2D

While not as impressive as the real creature creator, this online version is easier to learn and doesn’t require a program to be installed to use. It lacks the test drive mode to see how a creature behaves (one of the most interesting parts of the creator), and instead includes a mini-game to hit rocks using the creature.


How do I use this in my classroom?

Having students create a creature to present to the class is a great way to get them to think about how and why animals are classified into different groups. After modeling how the program works and giving time to create a creature, students would be asked to share their creature (the tutorial video shows how to save creatures and load them on different computers quickly) and describe how it would be classified using the following guiding questions:

Is your creature an invertebrate or vertebrate? How do you know?

What classification does your creature fit under? (Bird, fish, mammal, amphibian, etc) Why does it fit in this class?

What does your creature eat? Is your creature a herbivore, carnivore, or omnivore?

What is your creature’s habitat? What makes it able to live there?


The Soapbox – San Fransisco Bay Area Cellphone Shutdown

This wasn’t the update I had planned for today, and it certainly wasn’t the planned picture either (although it is all kinds of classy). This update comes on the heels of news last Thursday that the San Fransisco Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) shutdown cellphone service to stop protesters. The protests were in response to an incident where a man was shot and killed by BART police. Now normally, this sort of thing wouldn’t be enough to spark protests, but this latest mishap was preceded by an unarmed man being shot in the back (who died the next morning) by a BART official in 2009. Now, I’ve never been to San Fransisco myself, much less played the Russian Roulette that they call public transportation, but something tells me that it’s okay that people are angry about events such as these. Let them don their wool-knit caps from the DAV and scream at trains until it’s time for True Blood to come on. What’s the harm in that? To BART, apparently a lot…

For a few hours during the protests in the subway stations, cellphone service was shut down. Not just for those protesting, but anyone at the platforms during that time. Want to call home and let them know you’re unharmed? Sorry. Want to call your doctor’s office and tell them you’re gravely injured? ‘Tis but a flesh wound. What’s worse is that BART had no indication that cell phones were being used to promote the protests, but rather blocked service as a preemptive measure. That, interestingly enough, is frowned upon by the constitution. It seems odd that just months after similar service shutdowns in places like Egypt (yeah, I went there, just like 3000 other bloggers have) that we have similar tactics being used in the United States. Well, you know the old saying, “One man’s oppressive regime is another man’s civil protection” or something like that. Now, obviously I’m being a bit one-sided to the situation, so allow me to give a counter-point…

There are always people like this guy. Thousands of them, in fact. Packed underground and inches from a 4-ton chunk of metal going over 5o miles per hour. Idiocy is always a safety concern, and more so when there are a whole bunch of people is not a whole lot of space. For now, the protests have lost some momentum and both BART and free-speech groups are in an awkward détente. Still, it poses an interesting question: should the government have the right to disable cell phone service in certain situations? Much like technologies of yore have dealt with before, cell phone and internet communications are still experiencing the growing pains of their teenage years. They want to be independent and not have their parents watching over them constantly, but they still make really stupid decisions. In any case, what do you think? Was BART right to stop cell service or should we prepare for a grim future?

Binaural Audio – How Sound is More Than Listening


Ever get the feeling that you’re being distracted so that someone or something can sneak up behind you? How do you know to turn around and look even when you’re looking the other way?

Interestingly enough, our ears do a lot of work to help us know which direction sound is coming from. Sound doesn’t just come into our ears, it vibrates all around us and inside the holes in our heads (students, please feel free to tell your teachers that their heads are full of holes. Teachers, you already know this about your students). Our ears hear the sounds coming into them from the outside world and hear those same sounds bouncing inside the holes in our heads. Your ear takes this information and sends it to a part of the brain that analyzes it to find out where the sound came from. It measures the amount of time the sound takes to get to each ear as well as the frequency of the sound.

This amazingly complex process (that I severely dumbed down for time’s sake, sorry audiologists) is called sound localization. Normally, when sound is recorded it only comes with the information that has passed through the microphone. When we hear it through speakers our brains aren’t given the original information of where specific instruments are located in a room, how loud they are compared to other sounds or that super awesome rumbling feeling.

There is a way, however, to record sound that will trick the brain into thinking that the sound is coming from the same room. Binaural recording uses microphones placed in a dummy head to recreate the sensation of sounds bouncing around and inside a person’s noggin. Let’s give a listen…


You have to wear headphones for the effect to work. It will not work with speakers.

Virtual Haircut – Best one to start with. Very interesting effects and explains some of the basic concepts of binaural audio.

Matchbox – A recording of a match being lit and of a matchbox being shaken. Short but very well done.

Sparkler – A lit sparkler being moved around.

Walking Down a Street – a 23 minute clip of the streets of Catania, Sicily near the Vincenzo Bellini statue.

Thunderstorm – Great clip of a thunderstorm coming in as it starts to rain.

These effects won’t work perfectly for everyone. Each person’s head is shaped differently and those subtle differences in size and shape affect the way we hear sounds. Regardless, binaural audio is an interesting way to show how our ears do much more than just take in sound. In many ways our ears allow us to explore parts of our environment that no other sense can and tell us not only what a certain sound is, but where it is coming from as well. 

Thanks to Duen Hsi Yu, Qsound, and Terzo Orecchio for these amazing recordings.

What Teachers Make – by Taylor Mali

As it’s getting close to the end of yet another school year it can be hard to draw on the excitement found back in August. For most, standardized testing is in progress or just wrapping up and the administration is already busily handing out mountains of forms for next year. With this in mind, today’s soapbox is an inspirational video from a few years back by Taylor Mali, a teacher, and poet, who has been speaking for many years on the importance of educators and even has a personal goal of creating 1,000 teachers by his inspiring poems.

Attention: This video, albeit awesome, contains some language and actions that aren’t for the kiddos.

I’ve seen comments on various posts and blogs saying how horrible it is that Mali calls himself a teacher after flying the Bronx salute, but really I think it’s horrible that we call some people teachers who aren’t as impassioned and verbal about what they do. Luckily, those making the negative comments are in the vocal minority, but it still brings up an interesting point. After watching the video the first time I was taken aback by the fact that it would end like that and I wasn’t sure if it was amazing or offensive. Had I seen this video when it first came out in 2006 I would have been shouting it atop the crests of Old Faithful while riding a surfboard made from buffalo fur. (Those were wild days…) It makes me wonder if those of us in education sometimes blur morality modeling to the point we become more reserved, or if reserving opinions is simply a function of wanting to keep our jobs. I wasn’t going to post this video for fear of backlash until I received a message from my wife. It was simple, yet empowering, and I’m not entirely sure she knew that such a simple message would lead to a resonance cascade in my mind. After seeing the video her message was a simple “I like it :-D ” and the thought stuck. After all, I like the video too, and I have a website where I post things that I like that are related to education.

So there you have it. If you somehow managed to make it this far into the post I have two things to say and a picture to show you. First, you’re awesome for making it this far and get the Apples for Geeks gold star for listening to others (or read as the case may be). Second, if you read all of that, it’s come to my attention that you may, in fact, have time to take up a hobby like knitting, skiing, or whale hunting…just letting you know. Finally, there’s this…