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10 Remarkable Teachers for National Teacher Day

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May 7 marks National Teacher Day, part of a weeklong celebration for educators who work tirelessly to make certain we can still function in the event the Internet happens to break. (Let’s face it: knowledge is way more impressive when you can display it without glancing at your smartphone.)

While virtually all teachers are worthy of your applause, there are a few who have gone above and beyond the call of duty. Here are ten lessons from some of the most remarkable classroom leaders working today.

1. A Teacher Gone Postal

Dan Stroup, an eighth-grade Bible Studies teacher at Heritage Christian in Indianapolis, isn’t content to see his students vanish into high school and beyond without some parting words—a lot of parting words. For 30 years, Stroup has written a personalized letter to every single one of his current and former students on their respective birthdays. That’s 2800 letters per year, and it grows with each new class. Stroup spends three hours per day composing; remarkably, his correspondents say he’s able to recall specific details about their families. “I just want them to know that I knew them and that I cared,” he told CBS. Message(s) received.

2. Blind Leadership

Though hereditary glaucoma took his sight at the tender age of 3, Jim Hughes didn’t perceive that as a deterrent to his dream of teaching history in high school. Unfortunately, administrators did: After sending out more than 100 job applications, only Farmingdale High School in Farmingdale, New York responded.

It was a shot in the dark, but it worked. Because Hughes can’t rely on flashy PowerPoint presentations or generic handouts, both he and his students engage one another verbally, prompting more direct interaction than in a typical classroom. And though Hughes would find it difficult to catch anyone taking a shortcut, he needn’t worry: According to a student, his classes are far too respectful of him to ever contemplate cheating.

3. Getting a Bad Rap

A frustrated math teacher in a poorly-performing San Diego school, Alex Kajitani began imparting lessons utilizing rap and hip-hop lyrics that he would perform in front of classes. While his students were understandably horrified by the image of a middle-aged man spitting rhymes about geometry, the unorthodox approach worked: Test scores began outpacing those of other, well-financed schools in the district, and Kajitani was named California’s 2009 Teacher of the Year. He now circulates a series of “Rappin’ Mathematician” lesson plans for fellow educators.

4. and 5. Age is Just a Number

If some students respond a little better to teachers with some mileage on them, then it’s likely Agnes Zhelesnik’s class hangs on her every word: At age 99, she is considered the country’s oldest educator, imparting lessons on home economics in North Plainfield, New Jersey’s Sundance School—a career she picked up at the tender age of 81.

At the other end of the spectrum, 15 year old prodigy Adora Svitak has been guest-lecturing on writing for more than 300 schools since age 7, including a TED talk and a side gig as a blogger for The Huffington Post. She’s also written three books and can command up to $10,000 for corporate speaking gigs. Feel free to be inspired. (Or shamed.)

6. Getting Graphic

What to do with a restless group of students who would rather be playing video games than reading The Adventures of Tom Sawyer? Dyane Smokorowski’s answer: give in to them. Smokorowski, a language arts teacher at Andover Middle School in Kansas, tasked her pupils with taking the narrative and characters of Mark Twain’s novel and adapting scenes into a series of playable games on a class website. In addition to delving deep into Twain’s work, students have to be resourceful in math, computer science, and teamwork. Smokorowski, who was named the state’s 2012 Teacher of the Year, hopes the completed site will be able to teach other children about the components of literature. If she’s right, Call of Duty: Huck Finn might not be far behind.

7. The Sound of Music

At South Carolina’s privatized Kindermusik classes, toddlers and preschoolers enrolled in the music curriculum are often attended to by Bryann Burgess, a 23 year old non-degree graduate at the University of South Carolina who was born with Down syndrome. A former assistant at the facility, Burgess worked with the school’s owner, Ally Trotter, to gain her license as a full-fledged Kindermusik instructor. In addition to teaching children, Burgess has also acted in local plays and hopes to makes music education her lifetime pursuit.

8. The Teacher Who Needs to be Walked

Baltimore’s Yorkwood Elementary has added one curious addition to their lesson plan: regular sessions with Bella, a hefty Golden Retriever/Poodle mix brought in by owner Natalie Keegan. In feeding Bella, responding to her behaviors, and seeing how she reacts, children in a special-needs class are getting valuable lessons on compassion and humanity that bleed into their social interactions.

The program, Kids 4 K9s, is being funded by billionaire George Soros in the hopes that students who might otherwise exhibit distracting or antisocial behavior will be soothed by Bella’s companionship. While the statistics for Yorkwood aren’t in just yet, research has proven it’s incredibly difficult to act tough with a giant ball of fur nestled in your lap.

9. Twitter Teachings

Hollenbeck Middle School’s Enrique Legaspi has surprised students by asking them to leave their cell phones on and available in class—the Los Angeles history teacher reads Tweets out loud during lessons, allowing shy students a voice and integrating technology that they’re likely to try and use surreptitiously anyway. Legaspi claims interaction is up, students feel less insecure about answering incorrectly, and the class is more engaged. #Guyisontosomething

10. A Teacher—and Organ Donor

Attendees recently sat through what appeared to be an otherwise unremarkable parent-teacher conference at a Mansfield, Ohio elementary school. Then Wendy Killian dropped a bombshell: the teacher was willing to see if she was an organ donor match for 8-year-old Nicole Miller, one of her students who had fallen gravely ill due to a genetic disorder that affects her lone remaining kidney. Nicole’s parents had exhausted all other avenues, and 18 other volunteers were deemed incompatible. But Killian was a match, and weeks later, both were in the operating room.

Killian’s generosity is admirable, but not entirely unexpected: A blood platelet transfusion saved the life of her own son when he was just an infant.

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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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