Tuesday, 26 April 2016

Not just an ordinary pair of gloves

Two University of Washington undergraduates have won a $10,000 Lemelson-MIT Student Prize for gloves that can translate sign language into text or speech.

The Lemelson-MIT Student Prize is a nationwide search for the most inventive undergraduate and graduate students. This year, UW sophomores Navid Azodi and Thomas Pryor — who are studying business administration and aeronautics and astronautics engineering, respectively — won the “Use It” undergraduate category that recognizes technology-based inventions to improve consumer devices.

Their invention, “SignAloud,” is a pair of gloves that can recognize hand gestures that correspond to words and phrases in American Sign Language. Each glove contains sensors that record hand position and movement and send data wirelessly via Bluetooth to a central computer. The computer looks at the gesture data through various sequential statistical regressions, similar to a neural network. If the data match a gesture, then the associated word or phrase is spoken through a speaker.

They honed their prototype in the UW CoMotion MakerSpace — a campus space that offers communal tools and equipment and opportunities for students to tinker, create and innovate. For Azodi and Pryor, that meant finding a way to translate American Sign Language into a verbal form instantaneously and in an ergonomic fashion.

“Many of the sign language translation devices already out there are not practical for everyday use. Some use video input, while others have sensors that cover the user’s entire arm or body,” said Pryor, an undergraduate researcher in the Composite Structures Laboratory in the Department of Aeronautics & Astronautics and software lead for the Husky Robotics Team.

“Our gloves are lightweight, compact and worn on the hands, but ergonomic enough to use as an everyday accessory, similar to hearing aids or contact lenses,” said Pryor.

Monday, 25 April 2016

Learning and Emotions

Emotions enhance or interfere with learning.

Achieving change is emotional as well as intellectual. Emotions can enhance the learning process or interfere with it.

Our emotional system drives our attention, which drives learning and memory. Specifically, how a person “feels” about a situation determines the amount of attention he or she devotes to it. Students need to feel an emotional connection to their tasks, their peers, their teachers, and their school. For an increasing number of students, school is a place where making emotional connections is more important than anything else. This is especially true for so many adolescents where a feeling of belonging almost overshadows all other desires and is often the most important factor that keeps them in school.

We generally focus on cognition when we teach and tend to ignore emotions. Yet, students must feel physically and emotionally secure before they can process information. Threats are counterproductive because they stimulate emotions that interfere with thinking skills. Examples of negative emotions are humiliation, shame, guilt, fear, and anger, which become “paralyzing experiences.” When students are anxious, their emotions interfere with thinking and disrupt the learning process. In short, negative emotions are counterproductive to learning.

Some knowledge of how emotions and thinking are intertwined is important because in every encounter there is an emotional subtext. Within a few moments of seeing or hearing something, we react. There is a very subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, liking or disliking. The brain evolved this way for survival. In case of a dire threat, we needed an immediate response. Not much time was allowed for a rational decision. “I’ll get it or it may get me.”

The emotional brain still reacts before the thinking brain. Sensory signals from the eye or ear travel to the thalamus. The thalamus acts as a relay station for information and branches to both the neocortex, the thinking or cognitive part of the brain, and to the amygdala. The amygdala is an almond-shaped ganglion (mass of nerve tissues) perched above the brain stem adjoining the temporal lobe. The amygdala stores our emotions, especially fear and aggression. It is our emotional memory since the time we were infants. But there is one long neuron connection from the amygdala to the gastrointestines. That is why you may have a feeling that seems like it emanates from the pit of your stomach. It does!

Friday, 22 April 2016

How to teach … immigration

Educating students about the UK’s diverse mix of cultures promotes inclusion and tolerance. Take your pick of our resources.

London is made up of more than 270 nationalities with more than 300 languages now spoken in the capital’s schools, so what does it really mean to be British?

Teaching students about the UK’s diverse population is a good way to promote inclusion and tolerance in class, and there are plenty of ideas on how to tackle the topic of immigration on the Guardian Teacher Network.

A good place to start is by exploring the history of immigration and emigration to and from Britain with this lesson plan by Teaching Resources Support, suitable for key stage 3 students. Another lesson by TrueTube asks what makes Britain British? Students could work in groups to create a timeline from the 1st century to the present day, showing how Britain has been a multi-ethnic country for most of recorded history.

An accompanying lesson plan discusses the benefits and challenges of living in a multicultural society. Students could create a word bank of terms such as segregation, integration, diversity, prejudice, identity, isolation, extremism and discrimination.

The lesson includes instructions for a fun game called Turnabout, which tests debating skills. You’ll need a few prepared statements for and against immigration such as: “We should all be free to live where we choose”, “People should live and work in the country where they were born”, and “Multiculturalism is good for Britain”. Students must present their argument from one point of view until a bell sounds, signalling them to change their stance.

Working in groups, you could ask students to explore why people migrate using these three lessons from the Geographical Association. They are for secondary students and cover migration, migration within the EU and the case of refugees and asylum seekers. Get students to think about any emotions you might have arriving in a new country. What are the benefits of immigration? Are there any challenges that might have to be dealt with in the communities where immigrants live?

Saturday, 16 April 2016

‘Mindfulness’ defuses stress in classrooms and teaching

Pilot data show training programs can be a boon to teachers — and their students.

The bell rings at 7:40 a.m. in a public high school in New Jersey, and science teacher Laura McCluskey begins the first of what she calls “five shows a day.” On some mornings, those shows are more difficult than others. That’s due in part to a heavy load of paperwork, something that consumes large amounts of her time and energy.

Then there are the other, outside events that happen in McCluskey’s life. These can be stressful events that happen to everyone, such as family issues or health problems. In many professions, a person could stay in her office until she felt like interacting with people. But as a teacher, “I can’t hide behind a cubicle until I’m ready to be social,” McCluskey says. Instead, she has to be in front of a room full of teenagers all day.

“I have no choice but to be on my game,” she says. “My best game. Every day.”

McCluskey sometimes finds that difficult, however. So her daughter suggested she look into Calm Clarity. It’s a workshop offered in Philadelphia, Pa. Founded and run by Due Quach, the program teaches participants about the brain’s role in our behaviors. Participants then learn exercises in mindfulness.

Mindfulness means paying attention to the present moment with a non-judgmental attitude. It helps people leave behind stressful events from the past — or anxiety about the future — while they focus on the task at hand. McCluskey decided to take a two-day workshop. And she wound up with the tools she needed to fully focus on her teaching. Other educators have taken similar steps to become more mindful. Studies show the practice can have major benefits for teachers — and their students.

A social-emotional approach to learning

The classroom can be a very stressful environment, says Patricia Jennings. She’s an education researcher at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. “There are so many demands,” she says. “A teacher has to keep track of many children doing different things. At the same time, she has to remember and relay content within the allotted time.” Add in the kids' emotional states and their relationships with each other, she says, and it's a recipe for tension.

Friday, 8 April 2016

School libraries face a bleak future as leaders try to balance the books

Libraries are suffering at the hands of budget, curriculum and digital demands.

But we must not underestimate this vital resource.

I remember my school library: it had two floors with spiral staircases, individual study cubicles and a classroom on the upper floor. It was attached to the sixth form block, giving the students easy access to a study facility. One particular memory is of a Puffin Books sale – I could even tell you the books I bought (and still have).

This was in the days before personal computing so the only source of information – apart from other people, TV or radio – was books. There was something tactile about walking up to a shelf, looking along the spines and selecting a book which you hoped would answer the question posed in your homework or choosing a work of fiction by reading the blurb on the back.

In recent years the picture has changed; the proliferation of personal electronic devices means information is instantly available almost anywhere and the printed word is in decline. Libraries as we knew them are changing: public libraries now provide access to the internet in addition to their DVD lending sections; many school libraries have also followed the electronic route and have been re-named “learning resource centres”.

This is not just a name change. This new title has changed the focus of school libraries too. Books are no longer de rigueur; some senior leadership teams seem to feel their students are no longer interested in real books and are replacing them with electronic equivalents. Some teachers are reporting that their school libraries are closing and the remaining books, after many have been thrown away, are being transferred to classrooms or corridors, where there is no space for quiet study or reading.

A survey by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) suggests teachers are concerned about the future of school libraries. Almost all of the 485 school staff who responded to the survey said their school still had a library. But 22% said their library had suffered at least a 40% cut in funding since 2010 and 21% said their budget is insufficient to encourage pupils to read for pleasure. This is not helping pupils’ literacy skills: removing the very objects which children need to access regularly will lead to even less opportunity for them to engage with non-fiction and fiction, which fires the imagination far more than the pre-constructed world in a computer game.

Sunday, 3 April 2016

Creative writing in the classroom: five top tips for teachers

English teacher, Alan Gillespie, shares his advice and resources on how to teach creative writing.

1. The rules of writing

I always tell students that there are no set rules for writing and they can write whatever they like. I don't subscribe to the notion that all good stories must have, for example, an attention-grabbing opening, a turning point, a twist at the end and an extended metaphor. Incorporating these into writing doesn't automatically mean a story works, and you will read wonderful writing follows none of these rules. Pupils should be aware of what they are, of course, and why and where they might choose to use them, but it shouldn't be prescriptive.

That said, there are two rules of writing that I encourage them to follow. These rules are: "show, don't tell" and "all adverbs must die". Not the most original rules, perhaps, but if kids can master them their writing becomes much more powerful.

For "show, don't tell", I display a selection of sentences that tell the reader something and ask the pupils to rewrite them in a way that shows the same information. For example, "the man was angry" could become, "the man clenched his fists and hissed beneath his breath". It's about unpacking the emotions and finding ways to let the reader see the story for themselves.

When teaching "all adverbs must die", I concentrate on the importance of giving the power to the verb. "I ran quickly" becomes "I sprinted". "I shouted loudly" becomes "I screamed". Once pupils realise the potential in this, they quickly kill adverbs and load the power of the action onto the verb.

2. Characterisation

Not the most original method I'll wager, but this is tried and tested. Pupils divide a page in their jotter and give each quarter the headings likes, dislikes, motivations and flaws. These need to be explained and discussed; I use Homer Simpson and Edward Cullen as models. What makes these complex and rich characters? What makes them get out of bed every morning? What stops them from achieving their ultimate goals in life? How would they react in various situations?