Friday, July 29, 2016

What Is The Corpse Flower Sensation? And Why Is Viral Science A Learning Opportunity?

Source: National Geographic

It's rare that a single flower becomes a viral, stakeout sensation. We admit that we've been fixated. While YouTube eyes are currently obsessed with a grotesque and freakish bloom, educators may be missing an opportunity.

Yesterday the New York Botanical Garden (NYBG) announced that after a decade of cultivation, the Amorphophallus titanum finally began to bloom. Commonly known as the "corpse flower," this plant from Sumatra in Indonesia exudes the smell of rotting meat as it opens. The putrid odor and the otherworldly shape are keys to its appeal, as its startling height. The flower has notched the Guinness World Record for the tallest bloom in cultivation at over 10 feet (and even larger in its natural habitat).

The New York Botanical Garden first hosted a successful bloom of the corpse flower in 1937. A second emerged in in 1939, but generations have past to witness the third revelation of this dreamy, rancid blossom. Visitors have been lining up, and online watchers have been glued to the YouTube livestream, mostly because the scare appearance lasts for only 24 - 36 hours.

Why is this floral oddity relevant for teachers and students? On a basic level, this quirky natural artifact offers countless avenues for science learners to explore biology, botany, morphology, behavior, pollination, inflorescence, germination, dormancy, regionality, and cultivation. For example, the bloom is not actually one large flower. Instead it comprises a leaf-like ring of outbursts surrounding a central column.

On a higher level, the fascination with this shy and fetid flower speaks to every teacher's desire (and angst): how can we make make learning relevant? How can we pinpoint the moving target of our contemporary kids' attention spans? If they are attracted by a weird plant, what can we learn from this momentary buzz to inform our curricula?

Is it too much to ask that a daily lesson is unexpected? Is it pandering to give students something to anticipate, to look forward to? The allure of the NYBG "Corpse Flower Cam" lies in the waiting. It rests in the charisma of the macabre. Why does a flower smell so bad? What is the evolutionary attraction for carrion creatures that will come and spread the pollen?

Source: NYBG; Chicago Botanic Garden

Source: University Of Wisconsin-Madison
In other words, all classes should unfold like a mystery. Children ought to be rapt in the one-in-a-million stories: the collapse of the Spanish armada, the elegance of Euler's identity, the chance of penicillin's discovery, or the lightning of a boy's forehead.

For locals, the occasion to visit a monstrous plant that reeks of spoiled flesh is priceless. Would that all of our classes were as exhilarating. For the rest of us, this is a neat moment that we should remember in September, to excite STEM learners and to wake up the drowsy kids who don't think our "Do Now" exercise lives up to their Snapchat feed.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Visualizing The National Parks - Celebrating 100 Years Of America's Wonder

Source: National Geographic

On August 25, 2016, the National Park Service (NPS) turns 100. After a century of shepherding America's splendor, the Park Service and its personnel will rightfully be feted as dedicated, humble stewards of our country's most precious landscapes.

Personally, we have been lucky enough to visit many of the nation's 59 parks on all points of the compass. Each site has never failed to live up to its consecration as a place of American rarity, pride, and beauty. From the unspoiled trails to the popular overlooks, every curated destination within the wilderness is a testament to the work and vision of the Parks Service.

Source: National Park Service

This august anniversary introduces many opportunities to weave the Parks into authentic classroom lessons. For example, the "Every Kid In A Park" initiative seeks to connect our nation's youth to its most treasured spaces. Additionally, a wide range of visualizations now provide easy ways to incorporate the centennial into state standards and skill-based curricula. At their least, these videos and graphics offer terrific kick-offs to a morning's discussion. At their best, these charts and illustrations support critical student proficiencies. They also bring to life the gorgeous panoply of natural wonder that would make any Disney confection blush.

To start, the "Find Your Park" website gathers videos and social media interactions of everyday first-person testimonials about the grandeur of America's vistas. As a companion, the NPS has opened its Geographic Information Systems (GIS) data to the public, for educators and graphic artists to tap in building models of terrains and visitations.

Some of the best renderings of the National Parks come from the Works Project Administration during the 1930s New Deal. These art deco posters from the Federal Arts Project capture the majesty of the otherworldly settings in colorful and appealing travel enticements. National Geographic has assembled a nice collection of these posters from the Library Of Congress.

Source: National Park Service

In a video homage, the outdoor outfitter O.A.R.S. has put together a stunning tribute to the Parks, told through the stirring words of Theodore Roosevelt. As befitting its founder, the NPS takes seriously its safeguarding of America's geology. It invites students of energy, minerals, and paleontology to explore the singular contours and cliffs through open online access and badging of restoration and geoscience. These resources are terrific for earth science and environmentally minded teachers to investigate with their students.

Source: FiveThirtyEight

In math and statistics, the minds at FiveThirtyEight (who usually spend their time worrying about political polls and baseball ERAs) have analyzed the popularity of each park. They crafted crisp graphs and charts for STEM educators to draw from in ranking the visitors to each venerated location. As they note, "the U.S. national parks have never been so popular," and the Great Smoky Mountains continues its reign as the most-visited National Park, due to its location and exquisiteness.

Source: FiveThirtyEight

In probing the specifics beneath the Great Smoky Mountains' charm, researcher John Farrell raked the Instagram API to determine where in the Park photographs were most frequently snapped. His visualization layers social media atop traditional coordinate geography to present a new picture of the Park's usage. He includes similar map mash-ups for other coast-to-coast sites.

Source: John Farrell

For its part, the NPS has put together its own retro advertisement, in the classic style of antique movie reels or 1950s television ads. This wry film is a perfect nod to the 100-year heritage of the organization. It also displays a warm embrace of every citizen who passes through the Parks' gates.

Digging deeper into the soil and flora, Luke Easterwood, Michael Gelon, Hadar Scharff, and Matt Soave have analyzed the Parks' Vegetation Inventory. They built a visualization series to "encourage insightful discoveries" through the Tableau interface. These charts and graphs drill down to specific physiognomic classes and leaf phenology details.


In order to help navigate the Parks, the Sierra Club has designed a System Map based on the urban subway template. This seemingly humorous rendering actually gives travelers a valuable guide in planning their vacations and in connecting the dots between regional marvels.

Source: Fast Company

Source: David Hockney
Finally, the purest representations of America's National Parks have always come from the minds of the country's painters. Beginning with the light portraits of Thomas Moran, many artists have sought to capture the glory of glaciers and geysers. Most recently, David Hockney scratched a series of brilliant sweeps on his iPad in his "Yosemite Suite." These personal, stylized views prove to any viewer that the nation's Parks are love letters to its wilderness. They are the last vestige against urbanity and a hallmark of global distinction.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Teaching With Cartoons - A Visual History Of Donkeys, Elephants, Parties, & Politics

Source: Politico

Our students are avid consumers of politics and history. They always ask, though, how the Democratic donkey and the Republican elephant became the icons of the respective parties. Both animals, however strong and noble, seem somewhat incongruous to the preferred imagery of political ambition.

Political cartoonists throughout the ages have captured these two creatures in brilliant colors and tart commentaries. Skilled artists have swayed society's opinions through targeted visual satires. For their part, educators have consistently embraced these editorial cartoons as terrific tools in teaching primary sources, points of view, pictorial language, and symbolic metaphors.

Source: Politico

The curators at Politico, one of the sharpest websites for up-to-the-minute political news, have gathered together a stunning gallery of historical cartoons in honor of the Republican and Democratic conventions. They trace the legacy of the donkey — from Andrew Jackson's anti-elitism, to Woodrow Wilson's internecine war, to Hillary Clinton's divided constituency. They map the evolution of the elephant — from Thomas Nast's first salvo, to William McKinley's bandwagon, to Donald Trump's hair on fire.

Source: Politico

Both compendiums of cartoons provide excellent resources for teachers in history, government, civics, social studies, English, and language arts classes. The collections include many seldom-seen images. They also offer terrific examples of illustrations to practice the skills of graphicacy and to follow the four critical steps in analyzing an image.

Source: Politico

Source: Politico

Check out the Democratic cartoon collection here and the Republican cartoon collection here.

For other ideas about teaching with political cartoons, we recommend:

Source: Politico

Source: Politico

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Visualizing The Science Of Summer Sports - STEM Animations And Motion Graphics

Source: Tim McGarvey

Both STEM and sports get a bad rap. In the corridors of learning, science is sometimes seen as esoteric or irrelevant, while sports are seen as base or quotidian. Kids are often repelled by the former and drawn by the latter, mostly due to a misunderstanding about the intersection between math and athletics, between technology and physicality.

Fortunately, the possibilities of animations and motion graphics have helped visualize sports in riveting, educational ways. On both the professional and personal levels, data-driven graphics can bring to life the genuine learning benefits of athletics in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) courses.

Source: Spov Design + Moving Image

In digitally nuanced videos, physics meets the real-world. Body kinesthesia moves from the static textbook page to vibrant video overlay. The visualizations can layer equations and statistics atop everyday pastimes. Sports heroes become humanized in analyzing the biology and chemistry that make them great. Familiar backyard games become elevated by realizing the arcs and velocities necessary to score a goal.

Furthermore, these stunning artistic creations validate the requisite addition of the "A" to STEM. A complete "STEAM" approach, including the Arts, proves the value of imagination, design, and narration in producing such compelling animations.

Source: Tim McGarvey

We've explored before the benefits of sports science in the classroom:

The following motion graphics and animations take the discussion even further, looking for fresh avenues to incorporate the personal interests of students into their science and math educations. These videos are great kick-offs to a morning's discussion, and they are valuable context-builders for putting formulas, trajectories, and graphs in their rightful, real-world contexts.

Source: Vit Zemcik

Stunt Junkies: Extreme Sports: TMBA, Inc

Stunt Junkies: Extreme Sports: TMBA, Inc from Tim McGarvey on Vimeo.

Sports Animation Sequence

Sports Animation Sequence from Spov Design + Moving Image on Vimeo.

Wimbledon: Tennis In An English Garden

Wimbledon: Tennis in an English Garden from Vít Zemčík on Vimeo.

Going Outside: The Physics Of A Curveball

Going Outside: The Physics Of A Curveball from DIY on Vimeo.

Sports Science: Calvin Johnson Edition

Sports Science: Calvin Johnson Edition from Ryan Fuller on Vimeo.

The Physics Of Surfing - Trailer

The Physics of Surfing - TRAILER [720] from K2 Communications on Vimeo.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Using Technology To Turn Historical Photographs Into Animated Wonders

Source: Alexey Zakharov

Educators have always sought to add visual interest to their lessons, to support learning modalities and to provide illustrative examples of the topics under consideration. From postcards to prints, from filmstrips to YouTube, the power of pictures and movies to aid learning is undeniable. Now, various digital tools and editing applications are enlivening "flat" images in thrilling fashion. The animation of historical photos is bringing primary sources to life in ways unimagined by teachers and students a decade ago.

"The Old New World" (Photo-based animation project) from seccovan on Vimeo.

Often called 2.5D, or "the Parallax Effect," the rendering of motion within a still photograph allows the eye to traverse the image in a more fully realized manner. The forced examination of details, as foregrounds and backgrounds snap into focus, invites viewers to explore the entire depth of field. In adding movement to static characters, the past becomes relevant as observers imagine the seconds preceding and succeeding the camera's shutter. A crescendo of action added to a familiar scene places the spectator within the historical moment. Each detail now becomes tangible and palpable. Each setting contains nuance and fluidity.

Even more interesting for educators to consider are the ways these adaptations of primary sources reinforce the critical questions about dealing with pictorial artifacts: What role does the photographer or editor play in staging a photo? What is intentionally included, removed, or modified within a scene? Is any artificial capture of a moment truly "real," and how much scholarly skepticism should students lend to every research source?

Adobe Photoshop, After Effects, and Audition are some of the most common tools to render photographs and paintings from 2D to 3D. The History Channel (and several truck commercials) use these effects regularly in their productions. Some excellent tutorials exist (where else?) on YouTube to practice creating these styles of videos (here and here).

Fukushima - Images by Rebecca Lilith Bathory from chris lavelle on Vimeo.

At their most advanced, these animations ask us to reconsider the historical and the artistic record as changeless constants. At their most basic, however, these videos are just neat. They are inviting and clever. They lure in students and others to enjoy the study of history even more.

For other ideas about creating animations, check out:

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Visualizing The 2016 Conventions - Interactive Tools To Learn About Parties & Politics

Source: 2016 DNCC, 2016 Republican National Convention

The quadrennial political conventions of the Republican and Democratic parties offer a mix of serious-minded civics and high-octane pageantry. For students, teachers, and outside observers, the 2016 extravaganzas provide important forums to dissect the details of the delegates and to hear our nation's leaders speak directly to us.

Whether for use now in July or for lessons in the fall, a host of valuable visualizations exist to explain the esoteric proceedings. These interactive infographics and animated videos touch on a range of learning standards. They also let users explore the conventions at their own paces and levels.

History And Civics

Political conventions as currently staged are relatively new phenomena on the historical landscape. The explainer video (above) from The Guardian supplies a helpful tutorial in the germination and the evolution of party gatherings.

Source: Independence Bunting

The "National Conventions 2016" infographic from Independence Bunting also does a good job of summarizing the essential facts for this year's stagings, with an emphasis on the numbers and statistics beneath the process.

Source: The Economist

The Economist goes back to the nineteenth century with a year-by-year pictorial timeline of candidates and events that marked each party choice. The Economist also delves into personal identification by visually outlining the liberal or conservative leanings of current and past voters.

Delegates And Primaries

Source: 270 To Win

The political site 270 To Win aggregates polling and election data to compile data-driven maps and charts. These are excellent tools for both social studies and mathematics education.

Source: 270 To Win

For example, the colorful U.S. map of Democratic delegates combines month-by-month coding with primary and caucus breakdowns. The Interactive Republican Delegate Calculator presents similar information in an enlightening statistical table.

Maps And Geography

Source: DiscoverPHL

On their convention pages, each political party provides engaging information about their host cities. The Democrats link to a multi-layered interactive map of downtown Philadelphia. The Republicans include similar Cleveland maps, but they also include a hoverable floor plan from inside the Quicken Loans arena.


Streaming And Social Media

Source: Engage

The official websites of the Republican and Democratic Conventions will be streaming live the gavel-to-gavel coverage. Social media is also in play, with the Engage "Scorecard" tracking Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other mentions in real-time. For a comprehensive look at news and opinions, The New Yorker is posting a continuous series of cartoons, histories, and graphics about each convention.

For other teaching ideas about the 2016 election, check out:

Monday, July 18, 2016

10 Ways Pokémon Go Augments Real-World Education & Student Learning

Source: Pokemon Go iTunes

In just ten days, the cultural sensation of Pokémon Go has attracted over 20 million players. It is the most popular U.S. mobile game ever, surpassing Twitter in daily active users and crashing its Niantic host server.

For those who are over the age of 30, or who have been been in a self-imposed digital blackout, or who did not luck into an 11-year-old at a Sunday BBQ to explain the intricacies, here is a one-sentence description of Pokémon Go: the goal is to explore one's neighborhood, using virtual GPS map data, to catch as many animated creatures as possible, building up their strength to defeat other players in head-to-head duels. For a more complete (and accurate) rundown, here is a better explanation, as well as a helpful video.

Source: Pokemon Go

With little marketing or publicity, the enormous success of Pokémon Go speaks to an obvious and inherent appeal. The game combines popular culture, virtual reality, physical movement, problem-solving, and person-to-person competition. Teachers, for their part, are breathing a sigh of relief that this app debuted in July, so children (and adults) can spend the summer getting it out of their systems. But educators also appreciate the many learning opportunities that exist within the Pokémon Go app.

As with all sudden fads, a host of important caveats have emerged this past week, including safeguarding private information, respecting hallowed locations, and ensuring personal safety. Also, as with most fads, this one game will not revolutionize education. That being said, here are 10 ways that Pokémon Go can support the skills of contemporary learning:
  1. Visual Literacy - The essential premise of the game is to interpret a virtual world. Users must recognize symbols and signifiers, which are the building blocks of visual literacy. Students must decode the augmented reality (AR) by "reading" images and internalizing pictorial stimuli. This fundamental skill is known as graphicacy.

  2. Map Decoding - The only way to succeed in the game is by following a colorful map, which by definition necessitates a proficiency with direction, navigation, and geography. Much like the geocaching craze, Pokémon Go draws from the Google Maps API to turn everyday sites into Gyms and Stops.

  3. Problem Solving - This Poké-distraction employs the best of gamification. It requires critical thinking, advanced planning, strategic puzzling, and dealing with uncertainty to keep all of the animated balls in the air.

  4. STEM & Big Data - Educators have been wrestling with the world of Big Data for years. Here, the foundation resides in math and numbers; how much combat power does each creature have, how much candy and/or stardust is on hand, and how long until an incubation period ends?

  5. Collaborative Learning - The app offers a mild distraction for a single user, but the expanded components come alive when a player engages with other combatants. In face-offs and in personal conversations at community sites, the game subtly draws students into cooperative play.

  6. Financial Literacy - Perhaps one of the most under-heralded benefits of the game is the tutelage in budgeting, saving, and allocation of resources. Players accumulate Poké Coins and consider micro-transactions, as they earmark incense, lures, and other commodities. The game is already hitting the FinTech world by storm.

  7. Physical Education - It's no secret that Pokémon Go promotes activity to walk and engage. Users must progress a certain number of kilometers before they can hatch an incubated egg. The app relies on the phone's sensors to distinguish between physical and automobile movement.

  8. Social Media In The Classroom - This app furthers the benefits of social media in learning. It encourages the emerging discipline of the Digital Humanities, as it also promotes crowdsourcing, sharing, teaming, and student avatars.

  9. History & Civics - A blessing of the game is that most Poké Stops are local landmarks. The designers have placed an emphasis on points of historical interest. In order to move up in the challenge, users must acknowledge the civic value of nearby, consequential events.

  10. Language & Lexicons - The superimposition of an animated Pikachu atop a real-world venue inspires countless prompts for creative writing. Also, the Pokémon creature world embodies an encyclopedia of names, abilities, and vocabulary that together accomplishes what all good reading does: it builds a facility with language and meaning.
Full disclosure: we are Pokémon novices, and for years we have never understood what our seventh graders were talking about at the lunch table. But admittedly, we are excited by the potential. For other ideas about apps and augmented reality in learning, check out:
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