Sunday, April 28, 2013

Encyclopedia of Life

A very interesting website described as: "an online evolving library of all life on the planet," the Encyclopedia of Life is a source of podcasts and articles useful for many types of listening, reading and discussion activities.


The podcasts are about 5 minutes long, so they're very practical to use in the classroom or to assign for homework. The narrator is easy to understand, speaking very clearly and at a balanced tempo. In addition, each podcast has a downloadable script in pdf-format.

Very useful for teachers are the educational materials in each section. The EOL Podcast Guide for Educators includes "an overview of the podcast and features of each episode and links to relevant educational materials."

There are also interviews ("Meet the scientist") of the people involved in each of the topic areas.

An example I used was the segment with an interview of Edward O. Wilson, in which he talks about how he became interested in ants. My robotic engineering students found this interesting because we had looked at material about how "robotic swarms" were inspired by the swarm behavior of ants. My biomedical engineering students were interested in segments focusing on scientists in their field. This material led to a discussion of how scientists and engineers become interested in their field, and this, in turn, inspired students to talk about how and when they became interested in their own field of engineering.

Podcast with E.O. Wilson:
Podcast script:

Monday, April 22, 2013

Cheetah Robot text to improve reading skills

I often have students read articles about innovations in their field. This promotes class discussion and helps focus them on model text types (for example, process descriptions: see Posts 2, 7, 16, for example). In addition, I use these texts to work on students' reading skills. An example I used recently is an article from MIT's website: MIT 'cheetah' robot rivals running animals in efficiency (March 8, 2013), which describes their "Cheetah Robot" and the energy-efficient motor they are developing for it.

Link to article:

When I assign an article for students to read, I also give them a list of questions about the topic as well as language features to look for in the article. This helps to focus them on features they might not otherwise notice, and also provides points of discussion for the classroom. And, quite frankly, it also increases the chances that students will actually read the text carefully before the lesson!

The language features I like to focus on are those that are somehow related to the text type (description, process, explanation), and the innovation itself (in this article: movement, energy, improvement, e.g.). Here are some features that I had students identify in this article, with only a few examples of each (there are many more for each feature):

Areas of the text that explain or give examples:

  • about the size and weight of an actual cheetah
  • such as a push, or a change in terrain
  • such as energy lost through a heavy-footed step
  • simulating the structure of tendons along a bone
  • also known as cost of transport
Words/phrases that collocate with "energy":
  • wasted energy
  • minimize energy waste
  • energy dissipates
  • capture this energy
  • reduce energy loss
Verbs of what researchers "do":
  • design
  • propose
  • analyze
  • simulate
  • hypothesize
Examples of language that indicates change:
  • quickly adjust
  • respond to outside forces
  • minimize
  • (further) reduce
  • made a huge difference
  • fewer gears
  • less machinery
  • more efficient than
  • more powerful
  • simpler
Verbs of movement:
  • outpace
  • trot (continuously)
  • gallop
  • traverse
  • move along
The feedback I've gotten from students indicates that they appreciate the focused work on vocabulary and how it helps them learn vocabulary relevant to their field. In addition, they practice a way of reading a text that they hadn't done before.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Ethical consumer to ethical engineer

An article in the blog “Ask Jack” in the technology section of The Guardian focuses on an interesting question: how can an ethical consumer buy an ethical tablet, or is there any such thing as an ethical tablet?

In my university’s engineering programs all students take courses in ethics. This is fairly standard now, since all types of engineers have to consider the public’s health and safety along with technical concerns in their profession.

However, my students sometimes find it difficult to see how ethics is relevant to them. So I try to find cases and information that they can relate to.

This article allows the group to consider ethical issues from the point of view of the consumer (which students are) as well as from that of the engineer (which they will be). In fact, there are so many issues involved in buying a tablet, that it is very difficult to be an ethical consumer in this case.

Issues raised in the article include the conditions in the factories where tablets and their components are produced, the companies supplying the raw materials, tablet design related to recycling, and marketing considerations. Of course, the features of the tablet itself are very important for the consumer, so these issues must also be taken into account.

The author ends by suggesting various ways to improve working conditions in factories that produce these devices, but adds, “…the whole consumer electronics industry needs to clean up its act.”

At this point students can brainstorm ideas for how this could be done. This can lead to a greater awareness of ethical considerations of their future (or current) workplace, and which issues are most important to them.

Link to article: