About swanson

Kris Swanson is Planetarium Resource Teacher at Poinciana Elementary STEM Magnet School in Boynton Beach, Fl.

EarthKam – First Images

The first day that students task the EarthKam camera onboard the ISS to take images is always a bit exhausting and challenging, but then most good things are, right? I’m working with third graders this week, so they need a little extra support but are certainly capable of getting the job done. Along with being capable, they are pretty excited for the most part! They get how amazing it is that we have the ability to take images from a camera in a space station 300 miles up, traveling at somewhere around 20,000 MPH while sitting in my Planetarium Classroom in Boynton Beach.

I have set some things up to help them get going. As I said in the first post, most of what I do comes directly from the EarthKam manuals and resources on their website. Because my time with students is limited to 40 minutes a day, I’ve streamlined the process by setting up a database with my students names and the codewords that EarthKam sends me for each image. I stuck the Targeting Sheet from the EarthKam website into the database, and print out a sheet for each code number with a student’s name already on it. I received enough codewords this mission so that each of my third graders can take 4 images.

I set up the laptops my students will use so that they are on the EarthKam site, they just need to login and get to work. As the students come in we discuss what they are going to be doing and I give them their “targeting challenge” for this mission. This week is a pretty general challenge designed to allow my students to become more familiar with the diversity of our Earth’s geography. I’m asking kids to take images of 4 very different parts of the Earth, getting as many different continents and oceans as possible.  Once the images come back, we will be analyzing them for what we can see, and placing them on a world map. I’ve used a physical map in past years, but I’m thinking about switching to a Google Map this year.

I’m asking the students to just choose targets from the first 4 sets of orbits, and hopefully we will get their first image back by Thursday so they can begin analyzing it. The rest likely won’t be back until the weekend. We will work on analyzing and mapping them in the weeks to come.


A Week of EarthKam

This week my third graders and I will jump into one of my favorite little adventures – imaging our Earth from Space. I don’t have a spacecraft capable of bringing my 90 or so third graders up into orbit, nor has our funding request to the school district come through for the Panda I satellite. Fortunately, the combined efforts of NASA and the wonderful folks at the Sally Ride Foundation give us an opportunity to task a camera peering down from the ISS’s Cupola down upon our beautiful planet.

I’ve shared this opportunity with my students, usually 3rd-5th graders, for the past 6 years or so and we have a completely different and completely amazing experience each time. If you are reading this today (Monday, Oct 21 2013) go and sign up quick to do this with your students. If not, you can sign up as an educator and they will let you know when the next mission is taking place. Either way, go to http://earthkam.ucsd.edu and get your name in.

So this week I’m going to document the process my students and I go through. The EarthKam site has great manuals and guides to get you and your students going with the technical aspects of the process. My blog is going to focus more on what my students and I do to participate in the project and how we integrate the images we take into other learning. With my third graders, working with EarthKam for the first time, we are going to use the images and the process of taking them to learn some geography. We are starting today before the imaging begins with continents, oceans, and the basics of latitude and longitude.  We isn’t really accurate, I’m not at school today so a substitute is running all of the 3rd graders through the EarthKam Oceans and Continents lesson, available on their site.  

Tuesday is the first day we will begin imaging. I’m going to ask the students to find places near the boundaries of continents and oceans, like coastlines and mountain ranges that separate continents. We will identify the features in images, along with whatever landforms, climates, cities, and anything else we can find in the images once they are taken, along with identifying where on a world map they were taken. The goal is to give these 8 year olds a better idea of the size and diversity of our world. In an educational environment where the politicians, state DOE officials, and other “leaders” have determined that math and reading can only be learned by ignoring social studies and science until middle school, this is a rare opportunity for students  to learn about the world outside of our school building.


Minecraft Redstone and ComputerCraft Links

Hey Digicampers – here are some links to help you explore Redstone and ComputerCraft. Use them to help you make something awesome!

If there is something you are not sure how to do, one great place to always begin looking for answers is the MinecraftWiki!





In case you have website problems, here are the first to programs:

For the password door:

while true do
 term.setCursorPos(1, 1)
 print("Please Enter Password:")
 input = read("*")
 if input == "password" then
  redstone.setOutput("back", true)
  redstone.setOutput("back", false)

For the first turtle:

print("Refueled turtle!")
while turtle.detectDown() do
    print("Digging down!")
    print("Going down!")
    print("Digging forward!")
    print("Going forward!")

Minecraft Camp

I’m a few weeks away from beginning my second year of teaching Video Game Programming camp at Digi-Camp in Boca Raton, Florida run by my old friend Mark Stansell. We had a great time last year focusing on Scratch, and having the campers remake some old classic video games as well as create new games of their own. After talking things over the last few months, Mark and I decided to add Minecraft Modding and creating games and adventures inside of the game to the camp hoping we could fill two weeks of sessions.

The response has been pretty amazing. We are full, we have a waiting list and may open up a second class for the second session. We are even adding Minecraft to our Robotics / VGP camps at Poincaina in July at the request of campers. Ok, we get it – Minecraft is big!

I plan on having kids do more than just play and create things inside of Minecraft, I want them to start learning how to “mod” or modify the game itself. The challenge is that I’ll have a wide range of kids both in age and experience with Minecraft, programming, and gaming in general. But hey, they’re kids – if they want to figure something out bad enough, they likely will!  I want them to be able to create their own skins and texture packs for sure (to change how the game looks), and would like for them to maybe use some of the more interesting mods like computercraft and Custom NPC which involve some in-game programming. Teaching Java is out of the scope of the week, so how much can we do without it?

So as I narrow down what I want to do during the camp (I’ve thought of way more than a week’s worth) I’m in the process of listing the mods, external software (or at least types of software) and other items I want to install on the server and client workstations. Figuring this out ahead of time will in some ways drive what we do, and how we can adapt to directions the campers want to go in.  Focusing on free, here is where I am so far…

External Software:

  • .png Editor for skins, textures, etc… Paintbrush on Mac, ??? on PC
  • Text Editor – TextWrangler for Mac, ??? on PC
  • .jar File Management – The Unarchiver and standard folder compress for Mac, ??? for PC
  • Quicktime for Mac to capture demo videos

Mods (need to run on Digi-Camp’s MinecraftEDU server with Forge):

  • ComputerCraft
  • Dyn-Map
  • My Town
  • Custom NPCs

I’m looking forward to the camps, and will post updates on what we do and how it all works. Mornings in Scratch 2.0, afternoons in Minecraft, sounds like fun.

Finding the Comet

Over the last week and a half or so, most students learned a little bit about comets in general and comet PANSTARRS in particular during Planetarium class. I showed students how to find it, but warned them that it would be tricky. Turns out that it is tricky enough that I haven’t been able to find it myself! We always seem to have low clouds hanging over the marshland in at Loxahatchee preserve, Lake Okeechobee, and the Everglades, pretty much blocking the lower 5 or 10 degrees of the Western sky at sunset, so you only have a small window of time to see it. It’s not too large or bright as it is, so finding the comet is a bit challenging!

If you want more information about the comet, check out the PANSTARRS pages at Astronomy or Sky and Telescope magazines. If you don’t find it, worry not. Another comet should be passing Earth in late fall, and it promises to be bigger, brighter, and easier to find!

The image below shows where PANSTARRS will be at about 7:45pm on March 16th- note that the sky then will still be in twilight, much lighter than in the image. The comet will get a little higher and move a little bit towards the North each night after the 16th. It will probably also get a little dimmer each night.


Comet PANSTARRS in South Florida, March 16th 2013

MicroGravity eXperience

Two weeks ago I got a phone call from NASA Johnson Space Center… you know, “Houston.”  “Mission Control.” Yeah, that Johnson Space Center.  It was a phone call to let me know that my team of teachers from Poinciana and nearby Atlantic High School had been accepted to participate in the MicroGravity eXperience program. We are one of 7 (I think) teams from around the country to get to do this during this round.

What is it? We proposed an experiment where gravity was the variable and explained how we would use the experiment to help teach our students. Now we get to, with advice and help from NASA, build this experiment, run it with our kids this spring, then bring it to Houston ourselves this summer and FLY WITH IT IN THE NASA MICROGRAVITY TRAINER!!! Yes, I’m talking floating around inside of a 727 as it dives at an extreme angle over the Gulf of Mexico! Flightsuits, 0g. OMG.

Our first bi-weekly online class was Monday, and so I think that it’s all just sinking in that it is happening. I’m pretty excited as is the rest of the team of teachers. Aside from the whole 0g thing, two other aspects of this experience have me pretty excited as well. The first is the potential to do some “real” science with my students. I’ll write up a detailed post about the experiment itself in a few weeks as I get into building the apparatus, but what it is doesn’t matter as much as the process and experience that the students will get from it. Kids can tell “real” from canned. I don’t know what is going to happen and will be learning too, and that fact always seems to bring out more learning from my students.

The second thing is the involvement of the rest of the Poinciana community and some of the surrounding professional engineering community. One of Poinciana’s parents, Dan Cane, owns a local software company called Modernizing Medicine. He is involved in the local engineering community and has recruited some of his employees and employees from other companies to help out with building the experiment – help I very much appreciate. Beyond this project, I am hoping that this may be the beginning of a stronger relationship with local STEM related industries and Poinciana. I need help to get more of our kids into programming, electronics, and general Making stuff as they are doing in various Makerspaces around the world and through projects like Mozilla’s Webmaker Program and CoderDojo. I’m hoping that the relationships built through the MicroGravity program may extend on to even bigger and better things.

Clear Skies Tonight!

5:30 Update:  Yes! Skies are clear, scopes are out! Now we just need the sun to set and Astro Night is a go!  Hope to see you out here 6:30 – 8:30! Remember to park in the main parking lot and use the Aftercare door to get in.

If you can’t make it, no worries… we will have more Astro Nights in February.


Ok, I spoke too soon last week when I called for clear skies a few days ahead. Lesson learned – stay quiet Mr. Swanson. It’s Friday though, and things are looking really good for tonight… maybe as beautiful as it was last night.

We should have a beautiful waxing gibbous moon, a clear shot at Jupiter, and the Orion Nebula all in our sights! Looking good, check back at 5:30 – 6:00 for final update!

Breaking News!  I’m happy to announce some special Astronomy Nights the Week of March 11-15th to observe Comet C/2011 L4 (PANSSTARS) which should be visible and brightest that week. It may even be visible without a telescope, but should look even better with one. We will likely setup on the redtop this week. More details on exact nights and times (it will be early, soon after sunset) will come in the next month or so. Comets are very unpredictable which makes planning for them difficult… but they are also lots of fun!