Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Worth 1000 words

Today I went back to the Aleluya School to observe Prof. Rizzotto's physics and math classes. Physics came first:
Plugging away at a complex problem.
 These students are in their second year of physics, during which they study electricity and magnetism. They're in the sciences track at their school, which means they get a total of three years on physics. Right now the class is in the middle of Coulomb's Law applications in 2-dimensions. Many of the problems are complex, requiring multiple steps to get the final answer.
Prof. Rizzotto lending a hand
 Today was all about helping the students run through some sample problems. Prof. Rizzotto and I worked our way around the room coaching students through problems. As always, I was impressed by how hard the students worked.
5th year students hard at work
 At the end of the day most groups were humming along on their own. Though they might not think they're ready for the upcoming test, the reality is that these girls have the process wired.

The second class I visited was a 6th year math course. Prof. Rizzotto had promised the class a surprise, and he delivered. He brought in a truncated cone (a lampshade) and told the students that they needed to take measurements and end up with a drawing showing exactly how much fabric was necessary to make the shape and how it should be cut. Before class we discussed group sizes and decided to have the students work in groups of 3. I would like to be able to share some action shots of the girls hard at work, but this proved to be impossible because they weren't too keen on having their pictures taken and preferred to ask me questions about the task at hand. At the end of class they posed for a group shot, which was awesome.
Group shot of 6th year students
Toward the end of the class one group, the first to close in on a solution, started putting their work on the board. I was working with a different group who had nearly solved the problem. I commented on a number written on their paper and said it looks right and pointed to the board, where the other group's work was written with the identical number. The student explained to me that she didn't want to look at the board because if she does then she won't figure it out for herself. Way to go!

It was really good to be in the classroom today. I finally feel like I can spend more time thinking about the problem solving and less on the words I need to use to hey my point across. I think that the girls would agree that my Spanish is far from perfect, but steadily improving. They were really helpful... among other things, today I learned how to say:

decompose: descomponer
radius: radio
similar: parecido
cone: cono
sin: sino
cos: cosino

Julio and I went shopping for whiteboards today. Hoping to have them up and running soon!

Monday, April 23, 2012

Nerd Alert

A while back I read an interesting bit on the use of technology in the classroom. Here's what Kate has to say:

You don't go, "Oh here's this cool technology let me shoehorn it into my classroom." Instead you go, "I think I have thought of the best way to teach this, and it would be impossible in an analog world, but I know enough about the technologies to realize this idea." You don't go to a twenty-minute inservice about and go "I'm going to make an lesson." You use for your own purposes, or you suspect its utility and put it in your back pocket, until your awesome instruction idea needs in order to exist. Your lesson is the fuel and is the oxygen.

When I read this I thought that it made sense. From time to time I stumble across stuff that I think will be useful in my teaching. I usually bookmark cites that look neat, but I rarely find myself going back to them. When something clicks, it happens really fast and I can see an instantaneous way to incorporate this tool into my teaching (or life). Otherwise it goes into the shoebox for later on with the rest of the junk floating around in my brain.

A couple of things that I've borrowed from others and think are worth sharing:

This is an actual snapshot of my board w/o the url. is similar to sticky notes, but accessible from multiple machines. It saved me from the avalanche of sticky notes and random pieces of scrap paper that was threatening to consume my life. No test pits had to be dug- simple salvation.

 Hint: bookmark it. If you navigate away and then type in again your stuff disappears, so you have to go back into your history and dig it up.

- lets you draw an equation using your mouse and then translates this not only into a professional looking image, but also into text that can be pasted into a .tex document. Way cool- can't wait to use this from a smartboard.

This example shows how some students write down the quadratic formula... which isn't quite right.

-This equation editor accomplishes basically the same thing, only with buttons rather than by drawing.

-Courtesy of Carolina, from the PER group at Monterrey: Mendeley. The best way I've seen to read articles, highlight text, and create a painless bibliography. Period. If you're doing a lot of reading of pdf files, this program wants to be your bff.

-For language learners, check out If its dictionaries don't have what you need, then the forums probably do. I've seldom been disappointed.

Note: the translation for your specific locale might be a little bit different due to differences in dialect. For example, in Argentina one never hears about camiónes, but rather about colectivos. Luckily for you, wordreference hit that one out of the park.

Google Translate is also a good tool, but no substitute for a brain.

Yesterday I played tennis and then went to my mentor's house for carne asada, which is the Argentine equivalent of bbq. It's cooked in a special wood-fired oven and usually features a number of different cuts of beef. Delicious!

Wednesday, April 18, 2012


The past few days have been pretty exciting. On Sunday I struck out on my own in search of adventure. I started the day by taking a bus up to El Volcán, a town about 2 km outside of town. The river was pretty neat looking and I walked around a lot, but didn't find the hike I was looking for (probably because I didn't know where to look).

So I headed back toward town and caught a bus up to Potrero, where I've been before. I walked around town for a while and eventually found a stream, which I followed until the pavement ended. I kept going until I found nice shady spot to eat lunch. A family was coming downstream and their son bragged to me about seeing the waterfall further up. Not to be outdone by a 4 year-old, I took off my socks and shoes and wade upstream until I found the waterfall. He's right- it was cool. Well worth the wading. And the waiting!

On my way back I ran for the bus and caught it- now I finally know that a short jog is well worth not having to wait an hour for the next one!

On Monday afternoon I went back to visit Aleluya again.  This time I gave a conceptual survey to the 6th year students, which is roughly equivalent to the senior year in US schools. They weren't thrilled about, just like my students never are. I think it went as well as it could given the circumstances, and the students set the stage pretty well for their younger counterparts to take it on the following day. I promised that the next time I come I won't make them take a test! I'm also hoping to get some pictures of the classrooms and students when I go back later this week.

Monday night was one of the highlights of my week- I made my way to the local climbing gym (FB and homepage). I didn't have any gear but had a great time- everyone was really nice and it was a good workout. There are some strong young climbers there, and Mauricio kept making up problem after problem for us to work on. I'm hoping to track down a pair of climbing shoes, but in the meantime I'm looking forward to Saturday, when the gang is taking a trip to climbing outside. Plastic never really agrees with my fingers, so I can't wait to get out.

On a cultural note, I continue to be fascinated with the cars here. Not that I'm really a car buff, but in the US it's not too common to see a Ford Taurus from the early 80's in pristine condition. With the high import duties there seems to be a lot of motivation for Argentines to fix their vehicles or make do rather than buy new ones. Some of the models here are really similar to cars that are sold in the US- the Nissan Versa has an Argentine doppelganger called the Tilda. There are some cars that are available in Argentina but not in the US- I've seen several Volkswagens that are new to me. In particular there is one called the Amarok, which is a pretty sweet looking truck (if you're into that sort of thing). (Snowcat included?)
The VW website lists the average fuel economy as 7.6 liters/100 km. Any intrepid students out there looking for a challenge? Tell me how this compares to the US Ford F-150, which boasts a highway mileage of 23 miles/gallon. Just to make this interesting (and to see if anyone is reading), the first student (American or Argentine) to provide an apples-to-apples comparison in the comments section will find themselves the recipient of a prize, which has yet to be determined but will be awesome.

Continuing on the topic of fuel economy, most of the cars here are small. The taxi's in most cities back home are the size of a Chevy Impala or a minivan. Here they're Chevy Aveo's, which an average size vehicle. Many of the cars on the road are smaller. A CRV or RAV4 looks pretty big by comparison, and a 4Runner is monstrous. No minivans either... many people ride scooters or motorcycles here, partially because the fuel is so expensive. They also tend to have an easier time moving through traffic jams, but that's not always the case. Kids ride on the scooters with their parents on the way to work or school- you can fit a whole family on if you play your cards right! Helmets are officially required, but not always present. Oftentimes you'll see the helmet worn in a fairly relaxed fashion: tilted up on the head you you're looking out from below the mouthguard, carried under the arm, or strapped to the back of the bike! Some of these bikes are pretty impressive- I saw one last night on my street where the seat flips up to reveal a sound system hidden beneath, replete with neon accent lighting. However, I've only seen one or two Harleys, which looked absurdly large in comparison to the nearby scooters.

Finally, yesterday I attended my first class of Spanish for non-native speakers. It was an impressive turnout: an Italian instructor who lived in Spain for 15 years (and speaks French and English and some Portuguese as well) and students from: Iceland, Austria, Germany, Thailand, China, France, US, and finally, 3 students from Brazil. I felt like I learned a lot, not only about Spanish, but also about where everyone else was from. It was reassuring to talk to other outsiders who are as confused by some of the Argentine customs as I am. We commiserated a bit and ended up having some really good conversations. I'm looking forward to our next class!

And finally, apparently I'm slightly famous:

Sunday, April 15, 2012


On Friday night I attended the annual anniversary party at the Aleluya school where I visited earlier this week. My friend Marcos is a teacher there and also works at the university (this type of arrangement is very common) and he invited me to come along. This is a big deal- all the students have the day off to prepare and their families all come and watch. I was running a shade late and forgot my camera, which is arguably the biggest mistake I've made so far during my time here. So I don't have pictures of my own, but I'm hoping to post some shortly from other folks.

Let me begin by saying that this school isn't a typical Argentine school. It's a private religious prep school for girls, which means that the students are very motivated. That being said, I was blown away by last night's events. Every year the anniversary celebration has a different theme, one which usually incorporates the Virgin Mary in one way or another. This year's theme was her appearance in different Latin American countries. The presentation started off with a narrative and then transitioned into a dance where all of the senior girls formed different groups and performed a traditional dance for their chosen country. I can't dance at all, so the time and effort it took to learn something as intricate as these moves is even more impressive.

After the dances were over the crowd moved inside the gym. All of the students had worked to decorate the gym- some on the gym itself, but mostly on the long tables set up around the gym. Each table was decorated for one of the countries- complete with flags, typical food, small shrines, you name it. They were gorgeous.

What impressed me the most wasn't that these girls were driven to do something way above and beyond a typical celebration, but more that it was all about different countries and cultures and that they had really embraced this role. Some of the girls asked me if we had anything similar to this back in the US. I thought about it- we have small units on different cultures that are taught in foreign language classes, but nothing as comprehensive as this where the whole school is involved at once. I tried to think of situations where the entire school is involved in a group effort, and the closest I could come was pep rally during homecoming week. It's not a great fit: though they have certain things in common, the focus of the pep rally isn't on celebrating other cultures- it's more a celebration of school spirit combined with lots of noise. Not that this party was quiet...

After dinner and the presentation of awards to deserving teachers (congrats Marcos, Daniel, and others!) and also to the groups who had done the best job decorating their tables, the real fiesta started. The DJ cranked the music and it turned into a dance party complete with blinding strobe lights and the Argentine equivalent of silly string- a can of compressed air that shot tiny bits of confetti into the air. The students dragged their teachers into the fray (myself included- they wouldn't take no for an answer). It was surreal.

After leaving the party in the middle of a downpour, Marcos took me to a weekly gathering of his friends where they eat carne asada and play cards. The asada was spectacular and everyone was really welcoming. I enjoyed talking with folks from outside the university and learning more about their city. All in all, it was a great night. I hope to be able to edit this post and add some pictures- so check back soon.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Down to business, and other things

Monday was my first day of real work, as my father-in-law would say. That isn't to say that I haven't been getting work done, but from my apartment rather than from an office, so this was my first day at UNSL. So far it's going pretty well. I've been introduced to most of the department here and Julio and I worked out some of the details of my project. I also touched base with a couple of local physics teachers, most of whom work both here at the university and also at a local secondary school. I visited my first school this morning, and it was great to be back in a classroom and interacting with students. Hopefully I'm going to meet with some other local teachers later in the week, and I have my first graduate class this coming Friday. I've missed two sessions already, so I'll have some catching up to do, but it sounds just about perfect for my project. I'm going to take some pictures of the university and of my office- I'll post them soon. Definitely a lot of work to be done, but it's good to get started trying to figure things out before I've committed myself to a certain methodology for my project.

I managed to take a couple of pictures today of a small memorial in the building where my office is. This memorial is to some of Los Desaparecidos that were affiliated with the university. One in particular was a Physics instructor... there's a lot more to this story and I'm not doing it justice; there's no way I could possibly do so in this limited space. I plan on revisiting this later after I'd had a chance to discuss it with some friends.


This past weekend was a long weekend for many Argentines. Lots of folks were out travelling around, and San Luis was packed during the evenings. On Saturday I went to Silvia's for lunch- she taught me how to make Milanesas. You start with a really thin cut of beef, salt it, and then soak it in a mixture of egg and oregano before coating it with fine breadcrumbs and cooking it. It can be topped with a variety of things when served: a sauce made from tomatoes, a cheese sauce, ketchup, or mayonnaise. It was delicious and I enjoyed seeing the process from butcher to plate. My only regret is that I wasn't quick enough with the camera to document the process!

On Sunday I went on a trip back up to el Potrero with Julio and Ayesha. We went to Julio's brother's place, where we had lunch. It was another great meal: milanesas, pasta, and ice cream for dessert. Afterwards we went for a drive around the small village and took a dirt road up to this Refugio: equal parts restaurant, bar, and hotel. It was pretty spectacular, but definitely off the beaten path. The view was awesome and the people very welcoming. I was very impressed by their lawnmowers.

Afterwards we stopped by Ayesha's sister's house, where she was staying with her family and some other relatives for the weekend.  They were super nice and very welcoming, before I knew it I was being given chocolate easter eggs, a cup of coffee, and chatting with Ayesha's nephew about his upcoming trip to London. It was a marathon afternoon but it's really good to see different places outside of the neighborhood around my apartment. There were wild parrots flying between walnut trees- quite different from the traffic that goes by my front door every day. The plaza near my house is called Plaza Pringles (scroll down if you follow the link- some good pictures here).
The plaza is usually very busy and full of people, except in the early morning hours when I took this shot.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Comfort Food

Yesterday I finally arrived in San Luis after a crazy trip. First I was stranded in DC after a delayed flight caused me to miss my connection, and then the airline lost my baggage (which will hopefully arrive tomorrow). I was exhausted, but happy to see my friend and fellow Fulbrighter Silvia and my mentor Julio when I walked into the airport. They took me to my apartment to get settled. The apartment is good, but definitely not too spacious. It's really close to the center of the city though, and it's got all the basics.

Julio took me out to buy a cell phone and groceries, and then I slept a bit before Silvia picked me up for dinner at her place with her son Fernando. Today I did some reading in the morning before Julio picked me up. We went for coffee where we met up with one of his colleagues, who teaches at both the high school and college. He was at the coffee shop doing work along with his daughter, who was working on an assignment for her statistics class. It was great to chat with a fellow teacher and he helped me refine my ideas a little bit. He also invited me to come visit his school and is willing to work with me on my project, which is fantastic. Afterwards Julio showed me around the university and then we went back to his house for lunch, where I met his wife Ayesa and her son Carlitos along with the family dogs.

This evening Julio and Ayesa took me to Potrero de los Funes, a park up in the mountains near town. As we drove up we stopped at one point and there was a family finishing up a climbing trip. It was great to know that there is climbing of some sort so close to town, even if I don't have gear or transportation. It's basically a ring of mountains around a reservoir, but the kicker is that there is also a Formula 2 racetrack around the lake. The track has stores and restaurants on it, as well as cabins, hotels, and a theater. We stopped at one of the larger hotels, which is adjacent to the theater, and walked down to the floating bar/restaurant. We just looked around and I took some pictures of the fish, which apparently like the lights of the bar.

We drove a bit further along and stopped at a restaurant for a light dinner of pescados, which is basically appetizers. It was perfect after the large lunch earlier in the day, and I learned a lot about their families and jobs. They also helped me understand the way that the Argentina education system works and had great suggestion s about courses for me to take at the university. It goes without saying that the food was excellent.

In fact, I ought to explain the title of this post. I'm not really a foodie, though I certainly enjoy eating. During my travels so far things have gotten hectic and stressful, but it seems like at just the right moment something pops up that keeps me going. Lately it's been food.

A superb burger in Boston with my brother before flying out on Tuesday was the start. The pad thai I had before leaving the states helped mitigate the frustration of being stranded (along with the great company, of course). After landing in BA and discovering that my luggage had been lost I was tossed in a taxi and rushed across the city to the domestic airport, where I learned that the "reservation" that the carrier I had flown on from the US didn't actually exist. I was put on standby and rushed through security where I finally arrived at the gate with less than 2 minutes to spare before I would have missed the flight. I didn't have time to eat or even think about eating, but on the plane the in-flight refreshment was the Argentine equivalent of a Moon Pie, which was an extraordinary pick-me-up. Last night after a really long day I was feeling pretty beat down. I discovered the Argentines secret weapon: dulce de leche. Traditionally it's eaten with bananas, but it also makes for a terrific caramel apple. What a way to end the night.

Aside from missing my family terribly, life here is pretty good. I'm excited to get started next week but it's nice to have some time to get my thoughts organized. I can't wait to get my luggage!

p.s. in my original post I wrote that I ate "pecados," which translates to eating sins. Luckily a friend corrected me. The proper word is pescados, which I image are tastier.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012


Today something happened that restored my faith. I was trying to take a shuttle to the National Air and Space Museum, which cost $0.50. It finally arrived and I boarded, handing the driver a $5 bill only to be told that only $1's were accepted. I was given 90 seconds to find change or lose my ride. I ran over to the waiting line for the bus that goes to the city. I started asking people for change for a 5, and nobody had it. Then a guy traveling with his daughter waved me over and asked what I needed. I explained and he just gave me a $1 bill and told me not to worry about it. Given how bumpy this trip has been so far, this was an unexpected bright spot. The museum was neat and I got to see a lot of cool planes in addition to a nifty IMAX about tornadoes.
Stearman Biplane
Every time I see a plane of any sort I am reminded of my grandfather, who is a pilot and plane buff. He used to take my brother and I to plane shows when we were growing up and I even got to fly with him a couple of times. He would love this museum and especially the great selection of biplanes like the Stearman above, which he used to fly.
Requisite shot with shuttle. It was huge!
After the museum I went out to dinner with some friends, who drove the whole way out to Dulles after long day of work to take me out. Afterwards they took me back to the airport and sent me off in person. It's hard to explain how good it was to catch up with good folks who I don't get to see as often as I'd like. No matter how hard I try I can never manage to pay for a meal when I visit them, despite the fact that they were doing me a huge favor. Good food and excellent company make for a terrific sendoff!


Yesterday I left home for Argentina. I flew out of the Adirondack Regional Airport on this plane:

There were 6 passengers and two pilots. I've flown on this flight before, and sometimes there is only one pilot. Then a lucky passenger (usually the heaviest), gets to sit in the copilot seat. I got to sit there once, and it was cool. I don't know of many other commercial flights where you get the chance to talk to the pilot and see all of the instruments when you're flying. You also have to weigh all of your baggage (including carry-ons and latop bags) and report your own weight so that they can make sure that the plane is balanced. 

Anyway, while we were flying I decided to take a video of Saranac Lake from above as we flew over. The only option I had was an ipod, which actually took a decent video in the end. It was really shaking, mostly because the flight was bumpy. I can share the whole video if anyone is interested, but the part I liked the best was this bit: 

The deal was that when I looked out the window all I could see of the prop was a massive blur. However, when I panned forward with the camera it picked up the individual blades of the prop, almost like a strobe light would capture a moving object in a dark room. If I had been able to get to my bag I would have shot a high speed video for comparison. Oh well, maybe on the return trip. 

So the question I pose to any students (or other interested parties who happen to stumble across this post) is this: how fast was the prop rotating? What might you need to figure this out? Think about frame rates, etc. (2nd generation nano). Would this video look the same if the plane were moving at a different speed? What if we hadn't had a tailwind- any difference?

Unfortunately, my next flight was delayed and I missed the connection to Buenos Aires. The next one doesn't leave until tonight, so I've got a day to kill. I'm hoping to get some work done and maybe visit the Air and Space Museum near Dulles- so check back for more stuff soon. Hopefully my next post will be from Argentina.

Sunday, April 1, 2012


As I sat down to write, I realized that what I had to say didn't constitute a full entry. Accordingly, this post is a compilation of my thoughts over the past 2 weeks.

T-1,209,600 seconds
Courtesy of Historic Saranac Lake 
It's 2 weeks before I leave for Argentina, almost to the minute. I've been working on a couple of presentations to use while I'm down there. I put together one about Saranac Lake that turned out really well: thanks to Mark Kurtz, Adirondack Rock/Cloudsplitter Guides, Historic Saranac Lake, BETA, and the Adirondack Museum for letting me use your images.

I also started my snowboarding season today with some spring conditions at Mt. Pisgah. Unfortunately, given the recent weather it looks like it might also be the end of my season! Here's to good company, fun times, and, courtesy of the M. family, an incredible wipeout! If only I caught it on tape...
The 'gah, courtesy of Andy Flynn and Denton publications
Note: in this picture there is much, much, more snow than there was during our excursion.

I'm starting to get ready- I haven't actually begun packing my bags, but I started making a list.! Still plugging away on other preparations- not too much exciting news on that front.

T-604,800 seconds
Making progress on the research project front. I've been in contact with the Modeling folks at ASU and they're helping me arrange to administer a conceptual exam electronically. My mentor, Dr. Julio Benegas,  helped get the Spanish versions to WebAssign, a company based here in the US so that they can be incorporated into their library. This is good news because it means that Physics Education Research (PER) folks working with students in Spanish will have the ability to administer the exams, and in turn examine their own conceptual gains. It's undoubtedly a huge boost to my project, but it's also a good step for the PER community in general.

This afternoon I started working on using tables in Beamer- good times. I've also been reading some interesting articles for my project. No bombshells yet, but definitely some things to think about. For example, a large survey of university students of different genders found statistically different experiences in high school physics. Does this mean that they actually had different experiences? No, the authors believe that they just interacted with the teacher differently, learned using a variety of mechanisms, and used different techniques to study. Thing is something to remember when I ask students about their experiences in class- perspective has an influence on how we experience events.

I did some intervals up the neighborhood hill on my bike today. Not terribly exciting, but it's good for a quick workout.

T-260,000 seconds
This morning I sent a link to this blog out to some friends and family. It's amazing the responses I've gotten- great to hear from everyone! And it's also worth noting that the traffic is encouraging as well- it's kind of a lonely feeling when the only visits your site gets is from sites like buygenericsfromindia, instant-online-refills, and instanttrafficrobot2.

Still working on my presentations. I spent a while the other day figuring out tables in Beamer, and I'm psyched that I finally understand it. By the way, if anyone needs a little bit of help working in a foreign language, I highly recommend word reference. Google translate is ok, but doesn't really make you think. It's also not perfect. Not that I claim to be, but thinking about the translation and context improve my own understanding as I go. This is a great side-effect of getting the job done!

T-143,000 seconds
I'm nearly packed- just trying to figure out the best way to stay under the weight limits for baggage. Books are incredibly heavy- I had hoped to bring more, but it's not in the cards.
I also wanted to take a moment to say thanks to all our friends and family that have been helping us out and are making this trip work- we couldn't do it without y'all and are extraordinarily lucky.

I said goodbye to Lynn and Grant tonight when they left for a short vacation in warmer climes. Heart-wrenching doesn't quite do it justice. I can't wait for them to be able to join me in San Luis- I wish Emma could come too!

p.s. If you're wondering about why I used seconds to measure the time remaining before I leave, it's because a friend of mine believes that everyone ought to know how many seconds are in a day (~85,00) and in a week (~600,000). Just trying to help make you a more well-rounded person.