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Build Your Own Camera and Explore the Science and Engineering of Photography


As the number of gadgets and gizmos available for purchase grows, there is a decreasing number of opportunities for kids to build their own toys. It’s not only a matter of convenience; it’s become increasingly difficult for do-it-yourself projects to compete with cheap mass-produced products that incorporate fancy electronics. We’ve featured DIY resources and social networks in the past, but most of the instructions on these sites won’t help you build anything too fancy. Now, with the Bigshot that changes.

The project helps you build your own digital camera using a kit they provide, while exposing you to the science and engineering of photography. The accompanying site is extremely well-designed and is filled with educational materials covering everything from the camera construction process to the science of optics. Of course, the allure of building and owning your own digital camera is undeniable, and for $89 is worth exploring if you run a science club or simply want to excite the child engineers in your life.

A Video Game Company Recruits, Trains, and Reaches Out to High School Students

The desire to create their own video games is one of the top reasons why kids give programming a try. As a result, teaching programming through computer game creation has become increasingly popular. One can now easily find books and after school programs that follow this trend, but as tempting as this approach may be, it suffers from false expectations. A student who wants to learn how to make video games doesn’t realize that computer science educators are more interested in teaching him how to program than in helping him create something that resembles the slick professionally-produced games that he plays at home. Of course, the initial excitement of creating your own computer program may compensate for unmet expectations, but it’s not clear that this is a good trend.

What if, on the other hand, students could create real modern video games alongside industry professionals? That is the idea behind Pipeline, an outreach effort by Valve, a major video game company. They have recruited a group of high school students who are working alongside their much older colleagues on video game titles that will be sold to millions of players around the world. These students are not only exposed to the video game industry, but are sharing their experience with their peers through the Pipeline website. This may be the easiest way to learn about what it actually takes to make a professional video game. Learning to code is important no matter what your goals are, but if you’re interested in joining the video game industry, signing up for Pipeline will give you a realistic view of the work and knowledge required to do so.

Euclidean Geometry As a Game In Your Browser

Euclidean Geometry Game

Euclidean geometry is one of the most beautiful math topics that is part of the standard school curriculum, yet it is consistently butchered by standard teaching practices. Even more surprising is that straight edge and compass constructions are usually excluded from geometry classes instead of being used as a way to lure students in. Using a compass and straightedge to construct a geometric figure feels like playing a game and has the added benefit of being a hands-on activity.

Using paper and pencil has been the traditional way to do constructions but software makes it a great deal easier, especially in the age of sloppy handwriting. Although a number of geometry software packages exist, none is as simple or as addictive as this web app. No download is required and you can immediately start constructing the shapes that are offered as challenges on the right side of the app page. The challenges are ordered by difficulty and you gain points when solving them. Although the app lacks instructions, it shouldn’t take more than a few minutes to get a hang of how it works. If you teach geometry, do your students and yourself a favor — let them try out a few challenges and they’re likely to get hooked not just on the game, but on geometry as well.

Better Explained: A Site That Develops Your Intuition

better explained

When learning mathematics, you need a concrete mental representation of the often extremely abstract ideas that you need to internalize. Unfortunately, most math books, even good ones, don’t provide the needed intuition. Fortunately, Kalid Azad has come to the rescue with Better Explained, a site dedicated to helping anyone learning a new subject develop a way to think about it in intuitive and concrete terms.

The math topics covered include basic arithmetic, probability and statistics, exponents, complex numbers, and even advanced topics like calculus and the Fourier Transform. Better Explained is not comprehensive, nor is it rigorous; its goal is to give its readers the kinds of insights that will enable them to jump start further in-depth learning on their own. Khalid’s tone is that of a student who at one point also struggled with the given concepts and is a welcome change from the often austere tone found in textbooks and lectures. The site features excellent articles on programming and a few other topics, but it certainly stands out for its clear and concise math articles.

Wolfram Alpha: A Computational Knowledge Engine with Educational Applications

wolfram alpha logo

Sometimes one discovers a tool that is incredibly useful, yet surprisingly not as widely known as it should be. Wolfram Alpha, an intelligent search engine that responds to queries with answers as opposed to a list of links, has been around since 2009, but many teachers and students still haven’t heard of it.

This is surprising because there might not be another online tool that is as applicable in as many academic subjects as Wolfram Alpha. Because it is based on Mathematica, one of the top computational software packages used by scientists, mathematicians, and engineers all over the world, it is clearly extremely good at answering math questions. Beyond complex numeric computations, it can do symbolic computation (like factoring polynomials) that is much harder than simply crunching numbers. This computational power applies to mathematics and all of the sciences (is math a science?) but Wolfram Alpha is more than just a fancy online graphing calculator.

It is actually an intelligent system that taps into a myriad of online data sources that enable it to answer questions in almost any field. For example, suppose you wanted to know the identities of the characters in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. A simple query would yield the answer and provide additional details. To give a sense of the scope of it’s knowledge engine, Wolfram has conveniently created a page of sample uses that covers a wide range of human activities. If you have never heard of Wolfram Alpha, you will be surprised when you first use it.

NRICH: An Organized Collection of Math Enrichment Problems and Activities


If you liked the expository writing in Plus Magazine, you may enjoy Nrich, a sister project from Cambridge University. The site features hundreds of math problems and activities organized by grade and ability level, as well as by topic. Although Nrich has a section for students, teachers who need to prepare lesson plans may find it more useful. The site content is closely aligned with US and British math curriculum standards, which should make it particularly appealing to educators.

An outstanding feature of the site is it’s emphasis on math enrichment topics that are usually outside a standard school curriculum, yet close enough to it to be relevant in a regular math class that needs to follow strict education guidelines. Another welcome aspect of Nrich is that professional mathematicians, not just math educators oversee the project, making sure that it is both mathematically sound and relevant. There is even a forum for those who need math help. Nrich may not be the easiest site to navigate, but it does contain a convenient topic directory that organizes all of the content. This project is worth exploring and should contain something useful for anyone teaching or learning math.

Plus Magazine: A Collaboration Between Mathematicians and Educators

plus magazine

Unfortunately, too many of the English language math textbooks that students see on a daily basis are written exclusively by professional educators without any serious input from mathematicians. As a result, these books are too much about teaching procedures and not enough about inspiring future mathematicians and scientists. At the other extreme, textbooks (usually at the college level) written by mathematicians tend to be dry and extremely dense. They may present all of the necessary definitions, lemmas, and theorems, but there is not enough room left for applications.

Plus Magazine, a University of Cambridge project is an attempt to correct this situation. It is an online publication that features articles, podcasts, book reviews, and news stories that makes mathematics relevant to those who are don’t grasp its importance and it is a collaboration between full-time educators and full-time researchers and practitioners of mathematics. You can find an article on why the violin is so hard to play and learn about the research of a recent Abel Prize winner (one of the top awards for mathematical research). The site also includes a collection of interesting nonstandard math problems and quite a bit of the content is related to physics. This should be a useful resource both for teachers and high school students.

Instructables: A Place To Learn Do-It-Yourself Engineering


An oft-repeated maxim is that learning by doing is the best type of learning. As easy as it is to believe, it seems that humanity, at least the part living in the developed world, is quickly moving in the direction of complete dependance on complicated gadgets designed by high tech companies that recruit brilliant scientists. Even if one wanted to build something, how can it be possible to compete with the world of highly advanced industry? As it turns out, the point is not to compete but to learn how to hack — hacking, not in the sense of breaking into computer systems, but in the sense of making things. That is the idea behind, Instructables, a site devoted to collecting community-generated do-it-yourself projects. Whether you want to make complex origami sculptures or your own boat, there are numerous visual guides and detailed instructions to help you out. Each project, is effectively a hands-on lesson and can be a starting point for further exploration of physics, math, and engineering principles.

Cut-the-Knot: A Hidden Treasure Trove of Mathematical Miscellany

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The Web may contain almost every possible problem, puzzle, and article imaginable, but it’s decentralized nature makes it’s hard to locate good content in a sea of endless tutorials, amusing pictures, and commercial promotions. If you’re trying to find extracurricular mathematical materials you need to know where to look, but more importantly, what to look for. Knowing an erudite guide makes life much easier. Alexander Bogomolny, a professional mathematician and curator of mathematical recreations and other topics, is that guide. His site Cut-the-Knot is an enormous collection of fascinating articles, illustrations, and animations covering a wide range of mostly non-advanced mathematics. One of the defining features of his articles are the interactive Java applets that illustrate a problem or principle. The site has been continuously updated since 1997, which makes it among the most comprehensive such repositories online. Unfortunately, because it was created more than fifteen years ago, its age shows in the design and technology used (Java applets are no longer the preferred delivery mechanism for interactive media). Although Cut-the-Knot has garnered over twenty awards, including one from Scientific American, it is not as well known as it should be. If you’re looking for a source of enrichment for regular math classes this is one of the best places to start.

A Search Engine for Massive Open Online Courses

catalog of online courses

The number of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) is growing rapidly and it is becoming increasingly difficult to keep track of available courses as well as their starting dates. Class Central is a site that attempts to alleviate this problem by cataloging available courses and offering a search engine to help you find what you’re looking for. You can filter courses by those that have just been announced, those starting soon, those in progress, those that are already completed, as well as by whether they are self paced; the latter being especially convenient for those who don’t have a lot of spare time. Obviously, keeping track of every possible online class is a complicated task as more individuals start creating their own courses through online learning platforms like Udemy, but Class Central does a good job of tracking the largest online course providers most of which offer courses taught by faculty members at top universities. We will continue to highlight individual courses that we think merit special attention, but this is a good place to start your online education search.

(Photo credit: opensourceway)