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Pivot interactive: The future of lab notebooks?

July 13, 2017

I’ve come to believe that the very best software out there is written by teachers who have a deep understanding of a subject and pedagogy. Sadly, I only have a small handful of examples of this:

  • Desmos, the world’s best graphing calculator and math learning platform. It’s a no-brainer that they have math teacher extraordinaire Dan Meyer serving as Chief Academic Officer.
  • Pear Deck, the best formative assessment tool I’ve used. I’ve come to think of it as a window into student thinking. Again, Riley Lark, a great former math teacher serves as the CEO of this company.

I’m glad to say that I think there’s now a third piece of software that is a teacher created a transformative tool for learning, namely Pivot Interactives, created by Peter Bohacek, an incredible physics teacher from Minnesota and his colleague, Matt Vonk, from the University of Wisconsin at River-Falls.

I first met Peter when he spoke to the Global Physics Department about the work he was doing to create Direct Measurement Videos (DMVs) back in the early 2010s. Sadly, I think the recording has been lost to history. Direct Measurement Videos allow students to make direct measurements of physical phenomena using tools (stopwatches and ruler) inside the video. They’re incredible.

Here are some examples of Direct Measurement Videos

Peter has also worked with Carleton to create an entire library of DMVs. Over time, they’ve also improved their player to the point where the latest version allows you to even move a ruler within the video. This library is an incredible resource, and I’ve run many classes where students work in small groups to figure out the physics of a hockey slap shot, a steel ball spinning around a glass bowl, or a disk falling from a string.

Peter and Matt have just released the next evolution of Direct Measurement Videos, creating an online platform for scientific investigations, Pivot Interactives.

Pivot Interactives consists of two parts: 1. A library of tremendous video labs, and 2. a tool for online making lab investigations of your own, with or without video. I strongly encourage you to go and create a free trial account to check out some of the labs to see just how good they are.

A Fantastic Library of Labs

I’ll describe one that I find to be magical—Electromagnetic Induction Demonstrator (I don’t think you can access this without creating an account).

Here’s a photo from the video—Peter and Matt have built a tricked out air track glider that carries a wire loop that will pass through a seriously powerful magnetic gap.

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When the loop passes through the gap, there’s a nice deflection of the voltmeter. The lab goes on to explain a bit about electromagnetic induction. One of the great features of Pivot Interactives is that you are free to take a pre-existing lab like this and modify any element of it to suit your tastes. If you’d prefer to skip the theory and have the students just jump to trying to make measurements, you roll your own version in seconds.

Now, here’s the cool part—in the upper right corner of the video, you have a toolbar that gives you three measurement tools—a stopwatch and rulers to measure horizontal and vertical distances. You also get an empty that you fill in with the things you measure. Everything has been filmed with a high-speed camera, and you can step through the video frame by frame to make your measurements.

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To get multiple data points, you can access videos of multiple trials from right in the player. As you enter points into your data table, they are automatically plotted on the graph below, which auto scales, and allows you to do a linear regression of the data. You can even add extra columns for quantities that you calculate.

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And because this was created by a physicist, Pivot handles uncertainty beautifully. There’s a popup to add error bars to each of the quantities in your graph, and questions with wonderful physics teacher wisdom (and a bit of snark) that read “As always, using the phrase ‘human error’ will cause the device you are using to burst into flames.”

A Powerful tool to write your own labs

So far I’ve only spent about half an hour working with Pivot Interactives, so please keep that in mind in both understanding how easy this tool is to use, and that there are probably lots of incredible features I haven’t even discovered yet.

Pivot lets you create your own interactive activities. I see this as an electronic lab notebook that we can use for almost all of our traditional labs in physics. I’m going to show you how I might create an interactive for the traditional buggy lab that stats so many intro physics classes. Once you click on “New Activity” you get presented with an interface that asks you to describe the objectives of the activity and lets you add interactive sections—data tables, graphs, questions, videos and more.

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It’s super easy to build up an activity just by adding sections and components:

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Once you’re done designing, you can save and preview your activity:

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This tool is so easy to use, that I think you could practically create an activity on the fly during class if an interesting idea comes up in discussion and you want to send the class out to measure it. I’ve done something like this with Desmos Activity Builder, and this level of quick adaptability is another sign that this is a great, well thought out tool—it will let you quickly put an activity in the hands of students.

To get students into this activity, you first need to create a class, and there’s a simple enrollment process to get them into the class with a code similar to most LMSs. You can add the activity to your class, and then you’ll be able to see and grade all of the student responses. Since I’ve only been playing with this for a short time, I haven’t had an opportunity to test how it works with a class. Peter tells me that you can see students’ work anytime after they press a save button, and they might add real-time saving similar to Google Docs and Desmos Activity Builder in the future.

Get started now

Again, it’s easy to create an account on Pivot Interactives, and right now, access to the software is free. After August, Pivot will be working with Vernier to sell student subscriptions to use the software. Yearly student subscriptions cost $5/student for high schools or $10/student for colleges, which I think is completely reasonable to support fantastic software like this.

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