A Simple Cheating-Prevention Idea, for Teachers with Students Sitting at Tables

With just two pieces of cardboard and a pair of scissors, you can partition a table which seats four into four sections — one per student. This makes cheating much more difficult, and that’s a good thing for everybody. No tape is needed; each piece of cardboard holds up the other one.

cardboard privacy screens for tables of 4 students

Other materials can be used as well. For one-time use, posterboard is adequate. For something more permanent, wooden boards are recommended.

Zome: Strut-Length Chart and Product Review

This chart shows strut-lengths for all the Zomestruts available here (http://www.zometool.com/bulk-parts/), as well as the now-discontinued (and therefore shaded differently) B3, Y3, and R3 struts, which are still found in older Zome collections, such as my own, which has been at least 14 years in the making.


In my opinion, the best buy on the Zome website that’s under $200 is the “Hyperdo” kit, at http://www.zometool.com/the-hyperdo/, and the main page for the Zome company’s website is http://www.zometool.com/. I know of no other physical modeling system, both in mathematics and several sciences, which exceeds Zome — in either quality or usefulness. I’ve used it in the classroom, with great success, for many years.

My Australia Story


I once got into a huge argument, as a 7th grade student, in a “talented and gifted” section of Social Studies. The issue:  how many countries are there in the continent of Australia?

The assignment was to choose a continent, and draw a map of it on a full-size posterboard. I had worked for hours on this map, only to get it back, ruined, for the teacher had taken a red ball-point pen, slashed through my line “state and territorial boundaries” in my map’s key, and had written, as a correction, “not states — COUNTRIES.” She also docked points from my grade, but that was a minor issue, to me, compared to her ruining my map. She could have, at least, written her incorrect comment on the back of my map!

When I confronted her about her mistake, she maintained that the political divisions you see above are independent countries. In my opinion, “Northern Territory,” especially, doesn’t sound particularly sovereign, and I said so, but she may not have understood the definition of “sovereign,” for that did not work. Confronted with this absurd situation, I proceeded to grab the “Q” volume of a nearby encyclopedia, and began reading the article about Queensland, loudly enough for the entire class to hear: “Queensland:  one of the states of Australia….” I freely admit that, at the time, my goal was to embarrass and humiliate her right out of the teaching profession — for the benefit of her present and future students. I’ve changed my approach, a lot, since then.

A huge brouhaha ensued, and we ended up taking each other to the assistant principal’s office:  her, to report a disruptive and defiant student; and me, to report an incompetent teacher, who, in my view, at that age, should have been fired on the spot. Dealing with this situation was probably one of the stranger, and more difficult, situations of that assistant principal’s career, for he knew that Australia is both a single country, and a continent — but he could not, for political reasons I did not yet understand, agree with me in front of this teacher. As for me, I was simply incredulous that someone could be a certified social studies teacher, and not know this basic fact about world geography. The whole scenario, to me, was surreal.

The assistant principal handled it well. To the teacher, he said, “You can go back to class — I’ll handle Robert.” He then “handled” me, after she left, in the only way that could have possibly worked:  with an apology, and a polite request to do my best to endure her ignorance until the upcoming end of the year. I respect honesty, was being given a request, not an order, and he had conceded that I was correct. I therefore chose to cooperate — with his polite request.

If he had not taken this approach, I likely would have added him to the list I had, at the time, of people (a mixture of administrators and teachers) whom I was trying to drive out of the education profession, for the benefit of all — but he did the right thing, thus earning my respect.

As for the teacher, I survived the rest of her class, brain intact, and assume she is now retired, this being well over thirty years ago. I’m now in my twentieth year as a teacher, myself, and am pleased to report that average teacher quality has dramatically improved since this fiasco happened. (I wish I could say the same about average administrator quality, but there are, at least, a few competent people working in that field, as well.) During my years of teaching, I haven’t encountered a single teacher who lacked this basic bit of knowledge about world geography. In fact, I count, among my colleagues, many of the smartest people I know.

I am glad, however, that I don’t have to call the teacher in this story a colleague. I simply cannot respect willful, stubborn ignorance, especially in the face of evidence that one is wrong. When one of my students catches me making a mistake, I do the right thing: I thank them, make certain everyone understands the correction, and then we move on with the lesson. That’s what this 7th grade teacher of mine should have done, as well.

A True Story of a Young Aspie Getting in Trouble with “Show and Tell”

In elementary school, in the 5th grade, I managed to get in trouble for a “show and tell” project. As usual, getting in trouble was not my objective, but it happened anyway. This was decades before I learned I have Asperger’s, but, looking back, none of this would have happened were I not an “Aspie,” as we call ourselves.

This image, which I found here, is very much like the poster I made, by hand, and used for this project:

nuclear chain reaction

That was the “show” part of this “show and tell” project. For the “tell” part, I explained how nuclear chain reactions work, and then explained how nuclear bombs are made. It’s very simple:  you have two slightly sub-critical masses of uranium-235 or plutonium-239, and physically bring them together, so that the total mass exceeds the critical mass. At that point: boom.

The hard part, of course, is actually obtaining the U-235 or Pu-239, for those aren’t things you can simply buy at the local hardware store. Ironically, I did know where to find both uranium and plutonium — at the very same university, about an hour away, where I’d spent far too much time conducting mostly-unsupervised experiments with both elements, along with lots of liquid mercury, before my tenth birthday. (I still suspect that all that radiation may have turned me into a mutant.) However, I also knew that the uranium and plutonium there would not have nearly enough of the correct isotope of either element, making this information irrelevant to my “show and tell” report, and so, for this reason, I did not tell them where to find the uranium and plutonium I had previously used for experiments.

I didn’t figure this out in class that day, since I’m not particularly good at “reading” emotions, facial expressions, and body language, but, apparently, I really upset, and scared, my teacher. This became apparent when she called my mother, and, later, my mother asked me to tell her what I’d done in school that day. Being excited about the “show and tell” presentation I’d given that day, I immediately told my mother all about it. When she told me the teacher had called her, concerned about me explaining to my class how to build atomic bombs, I was confused, since I didn’t understand, at all, why what I had actually said posed any problem. To explain this to my mother, I simply said, “But, Mom, I didn’t tell the class where to actually get the uranium-235 or plutonium-239! I don’t know where to find those isotopes!”

This was enough to convince my mother that I had not, in fact, done anything wrong. She called the teacher back, and simply asked if I had, or had not, included that critical bit of information: where to find the actual fissionable material needed for a nuclear bomb to work. When the teacher replied that I had not done that, my mother’s response was both sensible, and logical:  “Well, then, what’s the problem?”


Postscript, for those who might be worried about the childhood experiments I mentioned above: at around age 40, I asked a physician about my worries regarding early exposure to mercury vapor and radiation. He told me that any problems I might have, as a result of such experiments, would have already showed up by then, and that I could, therefore, stop worrying about this. Thus reassured, I did exactly that.

My Complete List of Complaints About My New School

For the last three weeks, for the beginning of my twentieth year as a teacher, I’ve been teaching at a different high school. I am much happier, now, due to this change. This being a personal blog, it is my policy not to name my school, nor school district, here. However, I see no problem with posting my complete list of complaints about this new school. Here it is:


How To Make Tic-Tac-Toe Interesting


How To Make Tic-Tac-Toe Interesting

Tic-tac-toe, played by the traditional rules, is so simple a game that few people with two-digit ages ever play it — just because it’s boring. It is so simple a game, in fact, that chickens can be trained to play it, through extensive operant conditioning. Such chickens play the game at casinos, on occasion — with the rules stating that if the game ends in a tie, or the chicken wins, the human player loses the money they paid to play the game. If the human wins, however, they are promised a large reward — $10,000, for example. Don’t ever fall for such a trick, though, for casinos only use chickens that are so thoroughly trained, by weeks or months of positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, and punishment, that they will not ever lose. You’d be better off simply saving the same money until it’s cold, and then setting it on fire, just for the heat. At least that way you’d be warm for a little while, and that certainly beats the humiliation of being beaten, at any game, by a literal bird-brain.

With a small, simple alteration, though, tic-tac-toe can actually become a worthwhile, interesting game, even for adults. I didn’t invent this variation, but have forgotten where I read about it. I call it “mutant tic-tac-toe.”

In this variation, each player can choose to play either “x” or “o” on each play — and the first person to get three “x”s or three “o”s, in a row, wins the game. That’s it — but, if you try it, you’ll find it’s a much more challenging game. I am confident chickens will never be trained to play it successfully.

Consider the board pictured above, which happens to match a game I lost, to a high school student, earlier today. Red (the student) moved first, starting with the “o” in the center. I was playing with a blue marker, and chose to play an “x” in a corner spot. This was a mistake on my part, for the student’s next move — another “x,” opposite my “x,” effectively ended the game. I had to play next — passing is not allowed — and my playing an “x” or an “o,” in any of the six open spaces, would have led to an immediate victory by the student. If you study the board, you’ll see why this is the case.

Mutant tic-tac-toe is a great activity for semester exam week, at any school. Students who finish final exams earlier than their classmates can be taught the game quickly and quietly, and then they’ll entertain themselves with this game, rather than distracting students who are still working on their tests. What’s more, students have to really think to play this version of the game well, especially when they first learn it — and isn’t getting students to think what education is supposed to be all about, anyway?

Can a Public School Student Read a Bible in Class?


Can a public school student read a Bible in class?

Yes, but not loudly, waving it around, while I am explaining the safety protocols for laboratory use of silver nitrate in chemistry class.

It’s dangerous stuff, as you can see here:  http://www.sciencelab.com/msds.php?msdsId=9927411.

Did this actually happen? Of course — I don’t think I could make up a story like that. It happened in a different class than the one I am teaching this year, though. The student’s name is being withheld, to protect his identity (and my job).

Which State Is South of Arkansas?


Which State Is South of Arkansas?

This really happened, in a geography class I took, long ago, in an Arkansas elementary school.

Teacher: “Which state is south of Arkansas?”

Me: “There are six: Oklahoma, Missouri, Tennessee, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas.”

Teacher: “No, Robert, that’s wrong.”

Me: “No, YOU’RE wrong. I’m right, and I’ll prove it.” I then got up, walked to the large classroom map of Arkansas, and ran my finger downwards on the map, six times, along the arrows you see above, while shouting, “South! South! South! South! South! South!” It’s true: from some point in Arkansas, you can travel, due South, into some part of any of the six adjacent states.

The teacher called my mother. Her response? “What’s the problem? He was RIGHT, wasn’t he?”

On Calculator Use and Abuse


Calculator_casio (1)

Calculators are important tools.

Well, so are guns.

Everyone acknowledges that, if guns are going to be used at all, certain safety precautions are essential. While it generally is not a matter of life and death, the same thing is true of calculators.

I have seen — multiple times — students multiply or divide some number by one, using a calculator, and then be genuinely surprised when they got the same number with which they started. I have also seen a bright student calculate the mass of an atom, and get an answer larger than the mass of the earth. When I informed him of this, his reaction was predictable: “But that’s what the calculator says!”

These are examples of calculator abuse. Aside from avoiding errors, such as the “planetary atom,” it’s also important not to abuse calculators because such an act is insulting to one’s own brain.

Some people treat calculators as if they are omniscient and infallible. They aren’t. They’re small, simple, narrowly-focused computers. The human brain is also a computer, but a far more advanced one. The calculators are our tools, not the other way around.

Here are some tips to prevent calculator abuse:

1. Know how to do arithmetic without a calculator. If you don’t know, learn.

2. Use calculator-free mathematics when appropriate. If you need to know what six times eight is, for example, it insults your own brain to consult a calculator. Don’t do it!

3. Calculator-free mathematics is not to be called “mental math,” for the simple reason that ALL math is mental. Also, if you ever meet anyone claiming to have invented that insipid phrase, kick that person immediately.

4. If you have contact with children, promote the use of calculator-free math to them. This is most important, of course, for parents and teachers. It is no service to a child to raise them to be dependent on a calculator.

5. Finally, when you do use a calculator, don’t be too trusting of the little thing. Check your answers, constantly, by using estimation. Say, for example, you’re multiplying 109 by 36. That’s “a bit over a hundred” times “a bit under forty.” Since forty hundreds is four thousand, the answer has to be in the ballpark of 4,000 — and if a calculator disagrees, the calculator is wrong, probably because a human pressed at least one incorrect button. You will press incorrect buttons on occasion — we all do — and it’s important to have a method in place to detect such errors. This estimation-method is both simple and effective.

All these principles boil down to this: be smarter than your calculator. They aren’t actually very intelligent, so this is neither difficult, nor unreasonable.

Hi there. I’m RobertLovesPi.

RobertLovesPi is the name I use on the Internet, and I come to WordPress as a refugee from Tumblr, where I have grown tired of what I call the “reblogging-virus.” I am here to get a fresh start.

I am interested in a great many things. It would be silly for me to try to list all these topics here and now, so I won’t do that. My interests will become apparent as this blog progresses.

Regarding demographic basics, I was born in 30 B.G. (“Before Google”), but have become so accustomed to life in cyberspace that it now seems, to an almost scary degree, as if I am a native. I am 44 years old at the time of this blog’s inception, and work as a teacher of science (as well, sometimes, other subjects, varying from year to year) at a high school in Arkansas. It doesn’t take much math to figure out that this blog is starting in the year 14 A.G. (“Age of Google”) on my preferred calendar — if one knows that, unlike with the conventional calendar most Americans use, there is a Google Year Zero, also known as 1998 CE. And, yes, I invented the Google-based calendar myself. Why not?

As for my cyberspace name, it isn’t a joke. I really do love pi. Just don’t spell it with an “e,” please. If you do, that refers to someone else.

Also, my favorite number isn’t 3.14, no matter what your geometry teacher told you. And, no matter what I Kings 7:23 says, it certainly isn’t exactly 3. This can be proven with nothing more than a coffee can and some string.

Evidence is important to me, for I have been fooled before. I try my best to keep myself from being fooled again. If you want to persuade me of anything, be prepared to show me the evidence.