Add your timetable to Google Calendar

Timetable on Google Calendar A couple of years ago, I switched from a paper diary to Google Calendar and have never looked back. This year, I went one step better by adding my timetable to my calendar as well. It would take a while to add over 1000 events to the calendar one at a time, though, so I wrote a quick Google Sheet/Script to automate it: https://drive.google.com/open?id=1I9In6vG2B0C-jVHePxzbko8hKFujh60HsIEgqVLZMKA Just edit the sheets to match your own timetable and school day timings hit the “add my timetable” button. Takes no more than 10 minutes. Enjoy!

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Writing an Android App…For Beginners!

A fortnight ago I decided to see if I could learn how to write an Android app…and yesterday I finished and published it (see it here and on the daydrop page, above)!  Given the steep leaning curve, I thought I’d write down the most important “things to know”, in case it’s helpful to anyone else thinking of writing their own app.

Experience

I already had some experience of coding, most recently in writing a web app using HTML, PHP and MySQL.  These three are not needed at all to write an app, but the underlying principles of how to write any code are.  Your learning curve will be even steeper if you’ve never coded at all before.

Android Studio

Android apps are a bundle of code (function) and resources (appearance).  You write the code and create the resources, but the whole thing is logistically coordinated by a free “software development kit” (SDK) from Google, called Android Studio.  (You’ll need to download and install this, following the instructions here.)   You write all your code within the Android Studio application, together with the designs for all of the different screen displays of your app, and you also store all of your resources (e.g. graphics) within its folder structure.  Android Studio will help you to test your app throughout your writing and, when you’ve finished it, will collect it all together into an “Android Package” file (.apk) which is what you upload to Google Play when you publish your app.

When you first Open Android Studio, it looks horrendously complicated. However, you only need to focus on a few key areas of the folder tree that it shows you:

  • the “Manifest” lists all of the the things your app can do and needs;
  • the “Java” files are your code;
  • the “layout” files are what your screen looks like;
  • the “menu” files are for the Android Action Bar drop down menus;
  • the “drawables” and “mipmap” folders hold your graphics;
  • “values” hold your styles/sizes (font sizes, colours, etc) and your user-visible text (the words on any screen).

Note the separation of all these differnt aspects.  This modularity allows you to very easily change what your screen looks like on a small-screen phone compared to a 10″ tablet, or to translate your app from English into Spanish, while not having to rewrite your code or publish different versions of the app.  You just provide alternative resources for different situations and Android takes care of the rest.  It’s a very good set up.

Programming languages

Your functional code is written in a programming language called Java, which is one of the most prevalent programming languages used in the world today.  (It has no connection at all to JavaScript, don’t muddle them up!)  Java is “object-oriented”, which takes some getting your head around if you’ve never experienced  the format before.  I found this book quite helpful in that regard, although it only covers Java generically and doesn’t include anything about the hundreds of Android-specific “classes” and “methods” on which your code will depend.  Note  that the Java coding software (JDK) is different to the Java running software (JRE).  You probably already have the latter installed on your computer (your web browser needs it) but you will have to install the former as part of the installation of Android Studio.

Your layouts are written in XML, which is tag-based, like HTML.  I didn’t use a book for that, as it is much more intuitive.

For both, my greatest resource has been the StackOverflow website.  Google whatever it is you’re stuck on and then read all of the answers from that website!  I haven’t yet read anything anywhere near as useful on any other website at all.

App basics

Every screen your app’s user sees is called an “activity”. Every activity stands alone – it has its own Java code, it’s own layout, it’s own menus (although you can reuse layouts and menus if you really want to). To switch to another activity, the Java code of the current activity sends a message (called an “intent”) to the Android system requesting that the system starts the new activity.  The fact that it is the Adroid system that is in ultimate control, and not your app, is one of the powers of Android: because you can request to start an activity from a completely different app, or you can allow other apps to start any one of your activities.  For instance, one of my activities starts the “capture video” activity of the device’s camera app, before coming back when it is finished.

In the absence of an intent to start a new activity, the Java code of the current activity sits and “listens” for events, like button presses, etc, and you write into your code all the different things it should do when those events happen.

Testing

You’ll do this constantly as you go, by pressing the “run” button inside Android Studio.  It is a lot easier to do on a real device (connected by USB cable), but Android Studio also provides dozens of emulated devices as well (although these do tend to run a little slow, I have found).

Publishing

And that’s the “making”.  To publish it on Google Play, you’ll need a Google account, on which you’ll need to activate Google Wallet if you want to sell your app for money.  You then pay Google a one-off $25 (£16) fee, upload some artwork, screen shots and explanatory text and hit the “publish” button.

Then try your best to spread the word.  🙂

Kinematics resources

A collection of my favourite resources when teaching kinematics.

Here is a collection of my favourite resources when teaching kinematics.  If you use different ones, please add them in the Comments at the bottom.

Distance- and Velocity- Time graphs:

The Universe and More Graph Game

and

PhET simulation (The Moving Man)

(PhET has dozens of high quality applets, if you’ve not seen them before.)

Vector addition of velocities:

Mythbusters clip (via YouTube)

Deriving the Equations of Motion for Uniform Acceleration:

My own worked derivation (via YouTube)

Introducing projectiles:

The Mega Whoosh (beware!) (via YouTube)

Simple practice with projectiles:

PhET simulation (Projectile Motion)

Independence of vertical and horizontal motion:

Mythbusters clip (via YouTube)

The Monkey and the Hunter:

Alom Shaha’s Monkey and Hunter videos (National STEM Centre video)
(Teacher instructions version and student version)

and

Stage show clip from University of Minnesota
Also available on YouTube here.

(Both have parent pages, full of other videos, incidentally:
National STEM Centre Physics Demonstration Films and
University of Minnesota Physics Outreach Programme )

Worked examination questions:

DrPhysicsA Worked example questions (via YouTube)

Eclipse resources

Here are two PowerPoint presentations I’ve put together for teachers at my school to use with their classes prior to Friday’s partial eclipse (20th March).  Feel free to use/modify them for use with your own classes it they’re any use to you.

This one is basic, aimed at tutors getting their tutor groups in the mood:

Eclipse for tutors

This one is aimed more at science teachers able to talk their classes through the slides (see slide notes).  The underlying original images are taken from Google searches or this PPT that John Hudson has put on TES Resources.  Sorry, that’s the best I can do by way of acknowledgement!

Eclipse for science teachers

Fingers crossed for clear skies!

Why it is right to remove assessed practical work from GCSE sciences

Why I applaud Ofqual for standing their ground over internal assessment of practical skills in GCSE and A-level Sciences

When Ofqual suggested in December that the new GCSE science qualifications should not contain any assessed practical work, I couldn’t believe it.  As a science teacher, this was music to my ears and it seemed too good to be true.

Against this rare appearance of optimism when considering edicts about curriculum matters, I later felt anger and confusion when both the Education Secretary and national science organisations (reported here) objected to the decision.  How could they disagree?

Having reflected, I can now see that we are coming at the decision from opposite directions.  As a teacher, to me “no assessed practical work” translates to “no internal assessment”, whereas perhaps to other stake-holders it perhaps sounds a lot like “no longer any need for any practical work in science education”.  The key difference that needs to be appreciated, however, is that internal assessment never has and never can work and it is vital that it is removed completely, once and for all…but this does not necessarily lead to practical-free science lessons.

In my experience, it is very rare for an officially-produced document to contain so much good sense, but when I read Ofqual’s consultation I agreed with nearly all aspects it, with the bottom line being, for me, that internal assessment is fundamentally incompatible with an accountability framework.  You can’t ask teachers to impartially conduct assessments with their students when it affects both their own pay progression and also the whole school’s standing in national league tables.  This is not to suggest that the majority of teachers break any rules, just that they are incentivised into devoting an unhealthy amount of time to playing the system to the maximum to give their students the very best chance.  This isn’t practical work, it is hoop-jumping.  It is further compounded by incredible systemic flaws, eg assuming equivalence between different controlled assessments; 50 raw marks being equivalent to 100UMS (ie just 10 raw marks, internally assessed, are worth half an entire GCSE grade overall); poor marking guidance allowing an inordinate amount of subjectivity; controlled assessments being common across different GCSEs (e.g. Physics and Additional Science), with the grade boundaries a compromise for both…  (All of that based on AQA’s GCSE controlled assessments, which is what I teach.)

Even pre-2006, when we assessed practical work via essays using “POAE”, it was still hoop-jumping:  you gave students tick-lists and made them keep rewriting it until they met the criteria.  Now we run intensive off-timetable days in which we knock out the assessed components, interspersed with intensive prep lessons moments before each component.  It’s nonsense how the assessment has been allowed to drive the teaching.  “Teaching”, not “Teaching and Learning”, incidentally — there is no learning associated with controlled assessments.

To non-teachers, I would emphasise one more important thing:  it is only through delivering these internal assessments, day in day out, class after class, year after year, that you can truly understand the inappropriateness of any hypothetical system of internal assessment.  It is fundamentally opposed to both the prioritising of learning and the use of the outcomes for accountability.  The situation has always been better at A-level, because cohort numbers are smaller and the range of ability is smaller and higher, but at GCSE it is unsalvageable.

So, I am very happy indeed to lose internal assessment.  The danger, of course, is that the systemic incentivisation to devote curriculum time to only that which improves grades is still there and without practical work being a benefit to grades there is the very real possibility of schools abandoning it.  This is especially true when placed alongside shrinking budgets and the expense of laboratories, equipment, consumables and technicians.  But this isn’t what Ofqual has suggested either:  there is an explicit statement that conducting practical work will give students better access to 15% of the marks on the written examinations.

This is a compromise, of course, and we are yet to see either the details (what practicals will be chosen?) or the application of the Law of Unintended Consequences.  Perhaps the practicals will not be ideal?  Perhaps schools will simply demonstrate instead of allowing full-class practicals?  Perhaps exam fees will go up, squeezing budgets further.  Perhaps the exam questions will be shockingly poor (we’re certainly seen enough of that over the years).  Time will tell, but I cannot see how any future situation could possibly be as flawed as the current situation (famous last words!) and so I am very happy to try a different approach.

So I am delighted to see Ofqual standing their ground, despite so much criticism from such established bodies.  As a pracising teacher, I will ensure that practical work remains at the heart of what I do, but I and my students will no longer be shackled by such flawed assessment principles that have so negatively distorted the curriculum and the rigor of its assessment for the last 20 years.

Excel UMS function

Over the past decade, my departmental recording spreadsheets that track student data have evolved into pretty sophisticated affairs, making full use of Excel’s functionality to make my life easier.

As a teacher, though, Excel does lack a function that I use all the time — converting a raw score into a standardised score. In the most common circumstance, this means interpolating between grade boundaries to produce either a “UMS” score or an FFT-style score.

For instance, a student scores 34/90 on a paper with grade boundaries of 31 (grade C, 96 UMS) and 43 (grade B, 112 UMS). A score of 34 is therefore a B, but how many UMS? More than 96, but less than 112. The exact figure requires “linearly interpolating” between the 96 and the 112:

Student’s unified score = 96 + [ ((34 – 31) / (43 – 31)) x (112 – 96) ] = 96 + [ 3/12 x 16 ] = 100

Excel can do this, but it is a little cumbersome to type in every time, especially when all the numbers need collecting from different places first.

Instead, I wrote a custom function to do it for me:

Student’s unified score = UMS (student’s score, grade boundaries, ums values, decimal places)

All it does is the calculation above, but without the headache of having to code it every time. The only downside is that you have to save your Excel spreadsheet as a “macro-enabled” spreadsheet, with the extension .xlsm, but that’s a small thing.

Here’s an example of the function in use: UMS Function.xlsm

Feel free to copy the code into your own spreadsheets if you can find a use for it. To see the code, click “Developer” on the ribbon, and then “Visual Basic”. (If you can’t see “Developer”, you need to add it by clicking on “File” -> “Options” -> “Customize ribbon” and select the “Developer” check box.)

Note: when opening macro-enabled spreadsheets, it is a feature of Excel to disable macros and require users to choose to re-enable them each time. This is an annoying but prudent security feature, as it is possible to write macros that harm your computer. A sensible response is to leave the macros disabled on first opening a new file and to look at the macro’s code (as above) to check there’s nothing malicious going on. You can then reopen the file and choose to re-enable the macros knowing that it is safe to do so.

Note, the grade boundaries for the above are taken from AQA’s Uniform Mark Scale Converter Tool. Don’t get me started on 34/90 qualifying students for a B grade…

Inspirational posters for the classroom wall

I made these A3 posters to get students thinking about the bigger picture. I tweeted some (low res) pictures a while ago, but have recently been asked for the original templates, which are print quality. So, here they are:

A3 portrait posters (.pptx file)

A3 landscape posters (.pptx file)

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