Point and click and describe – a lesson idea for engineering students

This lesson idea is based on what is called the Descriptive Camera, a camera which takes a picture and outputs a description of that picture.

Show students the following picture and say “Tell me something about this?”:

Follow up question – “What else can you say?”

Give them 3 minutes or so to respond. Write up on a board any engineering/interesting lexis.

Show them the next picture:

Ask them to label the above photo with the following:

  • Beaglebone(embedded Linux platform)
  • Thermal printer
  • Status LEDs
  • USB webcam

You could also elicit other electronic components seen in the photo e.g. power wire(red and black wires), signal wire (green, yellow, black wire), USB connector, power connector, Ethernet connector, breadboard.

Now divide students into two groups, A & B. Explain that each group will get a different text. Group A’s text will explain what the device is, why it was made and the results of the device. Group B’s text will describe how it works.

Group A text:

The Descriptive Camera works a lot like a regular camera—point it at subject and press the shutter button to capture the scene. However, instead of producing an image, this prototype outputs a text description of the scene. Modern digital cameras capture gobs of parsable metadata about photos such as the camera’s settings, the location of the photo, the date, and time, but they don’t output any information about the content of the photo. The Descriptive Camera only outputs the metadata about the content.

As we amass an incredible amount of photos, it becomes increasingly difficult to manage our collections. Imagine if descriptive metadata about each photo could be appended to the image on the fly—information about who is in each photo, what they’re doing, and their environment could become incredibly useful in being able to search, filter, and cross-reference our photo collections. Of course, we don’t yet have the technology that makes this a practical proposition, but the Descriptive Camera explores these possibilities.

After the shutter button is pressed, the photo is sent to Mechanical Turk for processing and the camera waits for the results. A yellow LED indicates that the results are still “developing” in a nod to film-based photo technology. With a HIT price of $1.25, results are returned typically within 6 minutes and sometimes as fast as 3 minutes. The thermal printer outputs the resulting text in the style of a polaroid print.

Matt Richardson, Descriptive Camera.

Group B text:

The technology at the core of the Descriptive Camera is Amazon’s Mechanical Turk API. It allows a developer to submit Human Intelligence Tasks (HITs) for workers on the internet to complete. The developer sets the guidelines for each task and designs the interface for the worker to submit their results. The developer also sets the price they’re willing to pay for the successful completion of each task. An approval and reputation system ensures that workers are incented to deliver acceptable results. For faster and cheaper results, the camera can also be put into “accomplice mode,” where it will send an instant message to any other person. That IM will contain a link to the picture and a form where they can input the description of the image.

The camera itself is powered by the BeagleBone, an embedded Linux platform from Texas Instruments. Attached to the BeagleBone is a USB webcam, a thermal printer from Adafruit, a trio of status LEDs and a shutter button. A series of Python scripts define the interface and bring together all the different parts from capture, processing, error handling, and the printed output. My mrBBIO module is used for GPIO control (the LEDs and the shutter button), and I used open-source command line utilities to communicate with Mechanical Turk. The device connects to the internet via ethernet and gets power from an external 5 volt source, but I would love to make a another version that’s battery operated and uses wireless data. Ideally, The Descriptive Camera would look and feel like a typical digital camera.

Matt Richardson, Descriptive Camera.

After each group has finished reading ask them to find someone from the other group to explain in their own words their text. Tell them that people from Group A should start the exchange. Also tell them that Group A will need to ask Group B to explain to them two things – the word Mechanical Turk and the abbreviation HIT.

Monitor and feedback as necessary.

Then get the groups to swap their text, each now reads the new text and writes 3 comprehension questions. The groups now find a +new+ person from the other group to ask the questions to.

Again monitor and feedback as necessary.

Various lexis could be followed up e.g. ask the students if they know what GPIO is and if they can point it out in the second photo above.

Additionally the following  video (up to the 3:44 mark) could be shown:

Example video comprehension questions: What additional reason did the inventor give for developing the prototype? What extra information did you hear from the video?

Various extensions could be done e.g. students can find out more about Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, the origins of the word.  Or a  discussion on whether students would buy such a device if commercialised. Or get students to describe the three photos shown at Descriptive Camera themselves.


Was I just Dogmed, did I just Do Nothing Teaching?

The three commandments of Dogme ELT include being materials light, conversation driven and emergent language, e.g. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dogme_language_teaching.

The one principle in Do Nothing Teaching could be said to be an inverse principle, eliminate everything that is not necessary in a lesson instead of adding unnecessary things to a lesson – http://kevingiddens.posterous.com/pages/dnt-foundations.

What happened in a one-to-one class recently could be a case of no materials, all conversation. A class that eliminated everything but the necessities.

I had seen this student, who can be described as a B2/C1 level, the previous October. That time we had worked on verb + preposition, prepositional phrases, verb + to/-ing, adjective + preposition and written skills. Apart from the written work all the rest was based on two grammar books.

This time the class started off by her explaining the reason her company had sent her for some more English training. Her boss was apparently unsatisfied with the way she was managing her multi-national team particularly in conference calls. The student felt that she did not have the English necessary to resolve conflicts, motivate team members and get them to participate at meetings.

Yikes I thought! I ain’t no business coach! To imagine her situation I asked her about the primary stakeholders in her project teams which I white-boarded. She described four main ones. As she was doing this I was desperately trying to figure what book I could use to help. I soon realised that no book could help and when I did that I began to relax a little and decided to just see first what her real need was and see if we could explore solutions to it.

I found that we could do langauge work on the way she asked questions to her team members and the way she restated and summarised information. This language work turned out to be less important than the social skills and organisational factors at play in her “problems” in managing teams. This exploration took the large majority of the three hours.

In order to change subject we did talk about her family life, the education of her son, education in the UK and France, her passion for cooking and relaxation therapy. We also talked about the French elections and how in general people felt negatively about the meaning of the democratic vote. How their voices don’t seem to make a difference. This somehow nicely brought us back to how similarly people in work teams won’t feel invested unless they see concrete effects of their contributions.

This led onto whether her company had systems to publicly recognise contributions from employees, they did not. Which also reminded the student of an incident she had very recently where one of her project contacts was very surprised when she praised them for meeting a tough deadline. Finally she was stunned when I asked whether she recorded her conference calls, she had not thought of that, she would look into it.

To be honest I did not feel I had taught her anything but simply acted as a kind of facilatator and interested party. It was a strange feeling because at the same time we did use a hell of a lot of English with some minor corrections and recycling of language. It also did not feel like a lesson where I had coasted along, just going through the motions, watching the clock.

What had I just been through? Was it teaching? Was it just chatting? I am still at a loss to describe exactly how I feel about this “class”. Can I apply what I did to my group classes?

No materials? All conversation? Eliminate everything that is not needed?

Note – I had written this post some time ago and sent it for a possible post on another blog but obviously did not pass muster!


Mike Harrison articulates an interesting question regarding whether one does dogme or whether dogme does you!

Another update:

In fact post eventually approved for DNT challenge see here: https://kevingiddens.wordpress.com/2012/04/16/dnt-challenge-was-i-just-dogmed-did-i-just-do-nothing-teaching-written-by-mura-nava/#comments

Jigsaw listening with BBC Engineering Connections

Engineering Connections with presenter Richard Hammond is a BBC series (though originally on  National Geographic Channel) about general engineering. Each episode looks at an engineering structure/technology as developed from earlier/other technologies.

The sometimes surprising connections lends itself naturally to an engaging lead-in. So for the example of the Formula One (F1) racing car episode (Series 3 Episode 2) one can project the following phrases taken from the introduction of the episode:

  • A revolution in artillery
  • A new design for a jet engine
  • An ancient boat
  • Protective armour
  • Swords

and ask students how these five things are related. After some time for responses and letting the students know that they are all related to a F1 race car,  there is inevitably a lot of curiosity about how some of the 5 things could be related. The lead-in could be extended to include a discussion of the various hypotheses students may have.

Students are then put into 5 groups and assigned one of the five connections to watch and take notes on. They need to be able to explain to the class afterwards the details of how their connection is related to the topic of the episode. If you have fewer than 5 groups, each group could be assigned to more than one connection or one of the connections could be seen by all groups.

The length of each connection in an episode averages to about 8 mins (a typical episode is generally about 50 mins in total).

The class discussion involves a lot of language related to engineering lexis as well as general English lexis. And even more importantly students are motivated enough to get their classmates to explain more clearly their feedback allowing them to practice concept checking questions, rephrasing etc.

The only downside is that I don’t personally like Richard Hammond and in some of the series his inane grinning can grate!

Contemporary process; even French students not into wine-making

I had been struggling to find an interesting and modern example to use to demonstrate the passive voice in writing about processes. Previously I had used a ‘how to make an X-wing fighter from two Paris metro tickets’ which  turned out marginally better than using wine-making as the process!

So I was glad to see a tweet (hat tip @chadsansing) which led me to an article on a project that turned a set of library steps into a giant game. And as a bonus the text accompanying the video used the passive voice. Authentic, interesting text, not made-up, stiff, out of date prose!

Lesson idea:

There are a number of great images to lead-in at Photos by Michael Newman and Photos by Kennedy Library.

For example using this image:
Taking a turn

one could start by asking – What do you think is happening here? This would then lead onto eliciting various vocabulary needed for the writing task – stairs, tin cans, (tennis) ball, balloons, game, etc.

Before, during  and after photos could then be used to encourage thinking about the procedure which goes from an empty staircase to a game via electronics and collaborative work.

This video of the event could be shown next:

Students would be told to write up a report of the event as if they were a journalist for a newspaper.

Finally a gap fill could be given of an actual write-up:

Four flights of seventy-two stairs ____  _______ into a giant game board using 1,200 feet of wire and 48 Internet-connected tin cans _______ with green and gold helium balloons at DIY: Physical Computing at Play. These were our targets.

The customized game ____   _______ after we invited designers and web developers Michael J. Newman and Scott Hutchinson to Kennedy Library at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, to present at Science Café, an ongoing community series. They made a couple of drives up from L.A. to find inspiration and check out our Brutalist building. The two saw our dramatic stretch of concrete stairs and knew they’d found their game board.

At the event, participants built and tested simple circuits then rigged our staircase using the wire, cans and balloons. Then we aimed and threw tennis balls down the stairs, hoping to knock over the cans, which acted as live switches on foil tape.

Cans _____   _______ to a breakout box by 25’ wires, and a live site updated the score whenever a can from either the green or gold team ____  _____  ____. Working with the library’s IT group, the site ___   ______ on digital displays throughout the building as well as on participants’ mobile devices. Cal Poly linked to the scoring site from the university’s home page.

Use these words: to be (x5), transform, decorate, conceive, attach, knock over, share

As an additional activity one could use the following interview as a listening quiz:

Online whiteboard to enhance reading activity

The scale of the universe is an amazing interactive animation showing the universe from the smallest to the largest. It was created by 14-year-old twin boys.

I decided to use it in a reading activity alongside trialling the use of an online whiteboard.

As students explored the scale of the universe they had to note down

  1. 5 new things they discovered
  2. make notes on 10 objects
  3. write down 10 new words they met

I told my first group  to write the above into an online whiteboard – DabbleBoard (now defunct, see picture below, names removed to protect the hopeless).

It turned out that I should have advised them to first open up a notepad, use that and then copy paste into whiteboard. Since they had difficulty entering text directly and which would disappear occasionally.

Another issue to be aware of is the temptation for them to fool around drawing over their classmates words and such like. Although this is the other side of the coin of using such a tool.

I am not sure if I would use an online whiteboard for a reading activity again. I plan to try it with a video listening activity where students would invent some comprehension questions, write them on the whiteboard and then try to answer their classmates’ questions.

Dabbleboard reading activity
Dabbleboard reading activity

(Dabbleboard reading activity)

Additional note –  a good thing about Dabbleboard is that you don’t need to invite users by email, guests can just go to web link for the whiteboard, this saves the need to collect emails.

Update 1:

Dabbleboard is somewhat buggy and you risk losing drawings, so I cannot recommend it for now. I guess I will go back to Google docs! If anyone can recommend a good online whiteboard which doesn’t require participants to login let me know!

Update 2:

Recently did this activity again and recorded the shared Google document groups used to answer the task questions (revised questions to two). The recording below is of a low intermediate group.

Update 3:

Nathan Hall () has been writing about online collaboration tools which you can read about here and here.

Film extract to illustrate international communication

A quick post describing an activity that uses an extract from an independent light-hearted comedy movie called Big Dreams Little Tokyo.

The extract is from 1:01:19 –>1:12:08. It shows a business meeting between a Mexican business man and his Japanese counterparts mediated by two young translators (one of whom is the films’ hero).

Need to point out to students that since extract is from a comedy film some behaviour is exaggerated for comic value. Total extract length is about  11 mins and you can stop the video after the Mexican guy toasts everyone and drinks the sake.

Earlier in the lesson I had boarded the stages of a typical meeting (see photo below). Before playing the video I asked students to note down any communication issues/behaviour corresponding to the different stages – these are indicated in green in the photo)

  • Greetings/Introductions – [update *Cantinflas (what Mexican man says to Spanish interpreter)], Dress of Mexican man, not wearing a sombre suit, red shoes; Time – Mexican man annoyed to have arrived early; Japanese wearing dark suits; there are 4 of them; they make a small bow; they present business cards very formally; Mexican does not have business card
  • Small Talk – there is no small talk outside restaurant but there is in restaurant – Japanese guy asks Mexican guy about eating Japanese food, Mexican guy ask the same about Mexican food; Mexican guy ignorant of Japanese custom of removing shoes; Japanese guy uses humour; length of response to joke; hierarchy demonstrated when 4th Japanese man is prodded to laugh by one of the three main Japanese characters: the small talk extends into the eating of the meal, Mexican guy glad when Japanese guy indicates start of meeting
  • Meeting behaviour – Mexican guy is very direct, the Japanese interpreter wisely turns comments into indirect comments; Mexican guy shows a contract, which is a big no-no in Japanese business etiquette;
  • Closing meeting – indicated by drinking sake and saying kampai, use of alcohol in business meetings

There may be other relevant observations as well.

The two groups tended to show strong interest in the extract and it seemed to clarify the aspects of business communication covered earlier in the class.

The activity lasted about 30 mins – can be longer if you get students into groups to write down ideas instead of whole class feedback as I did.

meetings stages and film extract
meeting stages and film extract

(photo: meeting stages and film extract)

* Thanks to one of my colleagues for finding out that Cantinflas is the name of a famous Mexican comedien. A great example of a word I had no idea the significance of until now due to lack of cultural knowledge.

See this related post on cultural English.

How to explain a word using corpora

The very best teachers have a magical ability to help students with vocabulary, they can effectively go beyond one or two aspects of a word to maybe cover four or five. But even the superteachers, I doubt, can cover say twelve aspects (Shaw 2011). This is where corpora come in handy.

A corpus is a database of text of everyday language. This database is searchable which makes it useful to  language teachers and learners.

In one of my classes students had some difficulty with the word bandwidth. I had set this as one of ten words to find the meanings of the week before. During a vocabulary game bandwidth was used and it seemed to stump most. And even the ones who managed to come up with a reasonable definition were still frowning over their understanding of the word. Meanwhile all I could add to help them was to give them some collocates (actually only two ‘high’ and ‘low’).

I have been pondering using corpora in my classes so thought a blog post may clarify some possible uses.

Fortunately a new interface to the Corpus of Contemporary American English was released sometime in January 2012. This interface is called Word and Phrase.info.

Plugging bandwidth into the word search bar gives me the following screen:

bandwidth search result
wordandphrase.info search result

(wordandphrase.info result for bandwidth, click image to enlarge)

1. Shows the wordnet definition.

2. Shows collocates and surprisingly (or not as may be the case) my use of ‘low’ as a collocate is not listed.

3. Shows the frequency in the five registers.

4. Shows examples of the word as it appears in the texts in the corpus.

Immediately one can see in one screen a wealth of interesting information. For example bandwidth has no synonyms, it is most frequent in the academic context, high is the most common collocate followed by available.

If I had been able to show that in class it would have been great (or not if this was the first time they had heard of a corpus!).

I think this post has clarified a bit my thinking on corpora and maybe helped a reader or two of this blog.

For a great series on corpora check out Jamie Keddie at onestopenglish.com (apart from the introduction you do need to be a member to access the rest of the series).


A few related posts courtesy of Rachael Roberts/‏@teflerinha.

Rachael Roberts/ ‏@teflerinha post Some user-friendly concordance ideas

Mike Griffin/@michaelegriffin post Using online corpus tools to check intuitions

Leo Selivan/@leoselivan post Essential lexical tools

The Real Thing: using corpora to write language training materials by Bill Mascull