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December 28, 2005

Ten years ago today...the first Gizmo!

One decade ago I was a graduate student studying radioactive nuclear beams. These were the early days of the web. Netscape 2 was in beta form and was loose on the web. It was the first browser to support the new technology called plug-ins. Plug-ins allowed content other than text and images to be put on the web and viewed within the browser window. Netscape was waking up the web.

Netscape 2 startup screen
Startup screen of Netscape 2.

In December 1995 I heard about the Shockwave plug-in that was getting ready to be released. I got rather excited, since I’d played with the multimedia program called Macromedia Director 4 a year earlier when working on a “future of the education and the web” project for an education course I was taking (unbeknownst to my advisor). The web had started to bore me by 1995 with the text/image limitations. Being able to bring full multimedia to it sounded sweet.

Made with Macromedia logo
Logo associated with Macromedia Shockwave content.

During the holiday break I wanted to re-learn Director, and the programming language associated with it. I sat down and tried to create something that would help in a physics class I was teaching that semester.

On December 28, 1995 I walked in to work and showed my first “Gizmo” to a few people that were there that day (things were pretty slow during the holiday break - but physicists always seem to be at work). No one seemed really excited by it, but I thought it was cool. In between experiments at the Cyclotron I started putting together a few more of these web-based simulations, and putting them up on a website.

First shocked science
Image of my first Shockwave creation, December 28, 1995.

The original URL of the site was http://www.nscl.msu.edu/cycrip/science/ and it sat on a cute little Mac IIsi on the desk in my office running MacHTTP to serve the content to the world. Two weeks later I had three Gizmos up on my site.

First version of explorescience
Site on Feb 10, 1995.

An inclined plane, a reflex tester, and an air track. The oldest version of the site I still have on an old CD is from February 18, 1996. A week later a fourth Gizmo was added - a density lab. Three of the four Gizmos still work despite the changes in technology since then (what did you have on your desk in 1995?). They run rather quickly, since I never worried about gigahertz computers back then.

Old version of ExploreScience
View of the site on Feb 18, 1996.

In mid-January (just three weeks after putting the site up) I got an email where someone was interested in paying me to develop more educational multimedia using Shockwave. They had never seen anything like it before on the web. As a poor graduate student I jumped at the chance to earn some spare cash.

My career was taking a turn, but it wasn’t easy to see at the time.

My research continued and eventually became a thesis (1.3 meg PDF). That thesis led to a post-doc position and eventually to a faculty position. During this time I continued to play with my site in my spare time. When first hosting the site on the Mac IIsi the stats files started filling up the hard drive every night (I think it had a 10 meg hard drive…don’t remember for sure). If I didn’t remove the stats file every day the computer hard drive would fill up and a bad crash was the result. The site was moved to http://www.ppsa.com/science/ during 1996. In 1997 the site got its own URL of http://www.ExploreScience.com.

ExploreScience chooser bar in 1997
main explorescience logo in 1996
Logos from the site in 1996-1997.

The number of visitors continued to increase. In 1997 the web was really starting to explode and the site continued to receive awards. My fifteen minutes of fame had begun. My favorite of all time was the review by Yahoo when I was one of the picks of the week (March 9, 1998).

You cross the line and tumble into a shocking world of science gone mad. Raman Pfaff, mild-mannered scientist, has trapped, untangled, and illustrated the laws of physics. His creation: Explore Science — a shockwave-laden experience of sights, sounds, and interaction with scientific theory. Observe harmonic motion, mouse genetics, and the physics of golf. Abandon, if you dare, the world of two-dimensional textbook illustrations, and enter Raman Pfaff’s interactive world. Reality begins to swirl, dance, and coalesce…

The site was included in numerous magazines and newspapers including USA Today and Popular Science, and recognized on many sites such as Exploratorium, Yahoo, and ENC. It even made it into the Sunday Comics section of many national newspapers one weekend in 1998.

award in 1998 for ExploreScience
An award from Exploratorium.

Time continued to roll along. I was a professor with a joint appointment in the physics and education departments of a small university. Due to some unfortunate situations, I was having to teach a double course load, as well as take part in a reaccreditation process.

In the middle of that year I heard from someone that was trying to get a startup company going. The web was still in startup mode and many people had creative ideas. The new company would create math and science content for the web. Right up my alley. At this same time came another potential academic job at a school I really liked (a place that gets snow!).

The wheel of life was turning a bit more quickly.

Decision time came and the startup company was the choice. That was in 1999. Right about then the web had reached a "bubble" and the money stopped flowing to web-based companies. For six years we continued to be the “roaches of the internet.” No one could get rid of us no matter how hard they tried. My multimedia skills continued to improve and hundreds of Gizmos have made it on to the company site.

In March 2005 a really large company bought our tiny little company. My fifteen minutes of fame has ended (or is almost over). The academic world seems far away, as are the days of being a graduate student.

me in news story from Daily Progress
Image from Daily Progress article.

It is amazing what one little plug-in can do to your life. The day of December 28, 1995 has shaped my life for the past decade.I wonder what tomorrow will bring. Or the next decade. I constantly play with new technologies. Will one of them have as much influence as the Shockwave plug-in on that one day ten years ago?

I hope so.

Posted by Raman at 01:57 PM in Our History | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

December 22, 2005

Issues with Firefox 1.5

NOTE: This posting is only for international users that are trying to use Gizmos with Firefox 1.5. It should be noted that we do not officially support this browser.

For those that use Firefox, the most recent release (1.5) seems to have a bug for some international users. If you do use this browser Shockwave is influenced by your locale settings. If you have the decimal symbol for numbers set to a comma (the mainland european default), you will experience the bug you are seeing. Set the decimal symbol to a period and it works again.

On a PC go to your Control Panel and open the 'Regional and Language Options'. On the first tab, press the 'Customize button'. In the Numbers tab, change the 'Decimal symbol' character to a period (.). Ok these settings and restart Firefox 1.5.

For additional technical information on this browser bug you can read more on this posting at Aldo's Blog.

Posted by Raman at 06:47 PM in Site Status/Known Issues | Permalink

December 20, 2005

Holiday Office and Support Schedule

ExploreLearning's offices will be closed from Friday, December 23 thru Monday, December 26, and again on Monday, January 2. Customer support hours (telephone 434-293-7043 and email support@explorelearning.com) will be curtailed from Tuesday, December 27 through Friday, December 30. We promise to get back to you as soon as possible when our offices re-open on Tuesday, January 3, 2006.

During this period, you can still activate a 30-day Free Trial directly from our website and instantly have access to our full library of ExploreLearning Gizmos.<.p>

Thank you for your support and we wish all of you Happy Holidays.

Posted by ExploreLearning at 10:08 AM in Site Announcements | Permalink | Comments (0)

December 13, 2005

"When Techies Don't Get It"

In his blog The Blue Skunk, Doug Johnson posts a "must read" piece for anyone who is involved in education technology: When Techies Don't Get It. The post is a reaction to piece written by a fellow school technologist entitled When Teachers Don't Get It.

This is sage advice for anyone interacting with teachers: "Please treat me as an adult learner when it comes to technology 'training.' I want an IEP, not a boot camp, where I am expected to endure classes on technology of small relevance to my style of teaching or my curriculum."

Posted by ExploreLearning at 01:38 PM in Edu/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0)

December 09, 2005

It's Snowflake (Gizmo) Time!

Well, here in Charlottesville, we've already had two snowstorms in the past week, which is a lot for this part of the country, especially this early. Our Gizmo maker and talented photographer Raman Pfaff snapped the image below the other night on Charlottesville's Downtown Mall. (The ExploreLearning World Headquarters are just one block from where this photo was taken.)

Charlottesville snow at night

Meanwhile, if you're looking for something fun to do with your students in these days just before the Holiday Break, why not try out Raman's Holiday Snowflake Designer Gizmo? With the snowflake designer, you can cut virtual paper on the computer screen with round dot or square dot "scissors" of various sizes before using physical paper.

Posted by ExploreLearning at 11:43 AM in Fun/Humor | Permalink | Comments (0)

December 08, 2005

New Version of RNA and Protein Synthesis

thumbnail image of earthquake GizmoWe are pleased to announce a revised version of the RNA and Protein Synthesis Gizmo. With help from Steve Uyeda, a high school teacher in Tucson, Arizona, we have changed the animation to more accurately show how amino acids are joined together to form a protein. Check it out!

Posted by krosenkrantz at 09:12 PM in Site Announcements | Permalink | Comments (0)

December 07, 2005

Visual Complexity

Have you ever played the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon game where you try to connect Kevin Bacon to any other actor by naming movies that connect them? Have you ever thought about a map showing where your friends live, and where their friends live, and so on?

These are both examples of taking data and visualizing it in a specific way. Although I often don't think about it, my connectedness to the rest of the world is unbelievably complex, and I stumbled across a site that is beautiful in design with an amazing amount of data laying beneath it.

Be sure to drop by the VisualComplexity web site when you get a chance. It will brighten your day.

Posted by Raman at 08:49 AM in Web/Tech | Permalink

December 02, 2005

New Science Gizmos Posted!

We are happy to announce a mountain of new content has been posted today!We continue to add to and enhance our Gizmo library. (Included in here is our first foray into "3D" for science Gizmos. It's some pretty amazing stuff!)

Check them out! (And watch for more to come in coming weeks. We're well on our way to meeting our goal of 40 new Gizmos this year!)

Brand-New Gizmos:

(Note: If you're viewing this page in a popup, taking the links below will close the popup and open the Gizmo Details page in your main browser window.)

New Exploration Guide and Assessment Questions:

New Assessment Questions:

And finally, as we mentioned earlier in the Buzz, we also posted a new and improved Circuits Gizmo today.

Big stuff is afoot in the ExploreLearning development wing!

Posted by Dan at 06:10 PM in Site Announcements | Permalink | Comments (1)

New Version of Circuits Gizmo Released!

As mentioned in a previous post to The Buzz, we've been hard at work on a new version of the popular Circuits Gizmo -- and we're extremely happy to announce that it is now live on the site, completed with updated Exploration Guide and assessment questions.

Use the link below to get there quickly:
Circuits Gizmo

In addition to eliminating a bug with the previous version's handling of certain 'short' circuits, the new version includes:

  1. circuits can have multiple batteries
  2. an ohmmeter to measure resistance -- also, you can now directly control the precision (# of decimal places displayed) of all the meters          
  3. fuses

Let us know what you think!

Posted by Paul Cholmsky at 03:13 PM in Site Announcements | Permalink | Comments (0)

December 01, 2005

Gizmos Take Suburban Houston!

Spring ISD teachersI presented Gizmos to a group of about 25 algebra teachers in Spring ISD, Texas (just north of Houston), a couple weeks ago.  They were a fun and lively group!

We talked Gizmos and how they fit into an inquiry-based classroom.  Inquiry is a term that keeps coming up for us.  It is gaining more and more attention as an effective and research-proven teaching method, and Gizmos are a perfect tool for students to use to investigate questions raised in an inquiry lesson.

From a teaching perspective, the teachers were fans of our algebra-tiles-based Gizmos such as the Modeling One-Step Equations Gizmo.  They liked how zero pairs are represented, and also how the Gizmo illustrates adding one to both sides of an equation.

Spring teachers working with a GizmoFrom a fun/challenge perspective, the Spring teachers got hooked on the 3D and Orthographic Views Gizmo!  This Gizmo is a one-of-a-kind, and is terrific practice for students in visualizing three-dimensional figures.  The fun and addictive challenge is this: Can you build the given figures in the fewest blocks possible?  It's easy at first … until you get 3 or 4 questions in!  (Tip: Be sure to read through the Exploration Guide.  It contains many tips about how to use the Gizmo that you probably wouldn't figure out on your own.)

Anyway, I had a great time with a fun group in Spring, Texas, and it felt like a well-used staff-development day.  Good math teaching is alive and well in Spring… and we hope Gizmos can become a bigger and bigger part of it!

Posted by Dan at 02:30 PM in Road Trips , Training and Professional Development, Using Gizmos | Permalink | Comments (0)