Sunday, June 28, 2009

Travels in Africa

I have not been a good travel blogger. I had big plans to post
updates every few days, but that is much harder than I thought.
First, it's hard to find time to put pictures online and write an
update. And second, the internet connection is slow and unreliable as
I travel around. Connecting can be a pain. So, those are my excuses.
But, I will post better updates with photos after I get home. It will
be delayed news.

The short update is that we have been spending time exploring
Swaziland which is a beautiful country with rolling hills, mountains,
forests, river areas, etc. Stephanie took us to some great shops
where women create beautiful handmade things like baskets, jewelry
and weavings. The income helps them stay at home and care for their
household and make money at the same time.

We've also been taking trips into South Africa to Sodwana Bay
(Beach), Kruger National Park (game reserve), and the Drakensberg
Mountains (mountain hikes and more). I'll post more pictures later,
but here are a few snippets of my trip so far.

Tonight we are headed to the Confederation Cup Finals (soccer), USA
vs. Brazil, in Johannesburg, South Africa. I fly out tomorrow for

the beach at Sodwana Bay, South Africa

relaxing after a day of diving/snorkeling in Sodwana Bay with our South African friends

crafts at the market

handmade glass at the Ngwenya Glass Factory in Swaziland

the streets of Mbabane, Swaziland

Phophoyane Falls Lodge in Swaziland

Phophoyane Falls Lodge

Tintsaba, handmade baskets, jewerly and weavings that provide income for rural families

children learning outside a school in Swaziland

a zebra at Kruger National Park

a Kruger sunset

the Drakensberg mountains, South Africa

Friday, June 12, 2009

First full day in Mbabane

Thursday, June 11, 2009

We arrived yesterday in Mbabane yesterday after a morning at the
Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg. I learned a lot. To enter the
museum, you could only enter through the door marked with your
'category', white or black. In reality, Apartheid had four
categories, white, black (Bantu), colored and Asian. Everything was
segregated. One of the ultimate goals was to move all non-white
categories outside the cities and build high speed rails to transport
them in to work each day. There is so much more to it, but I will
save it for another time.

Today was our first full day in Mbabane. This photo is us having
lunch at Nando's, one of Stephanie's favorite lunch spots. In the
photo are Stephanie, me, and Amy. The three of us met in Japan when
we were all teaching English with the JET program. Stephanie is a
pediatrician who works here in Mbabane at an HIV clinic for children.
She gave us a tour of the clinic today. It has beautiful architecture
and is new and modern. It opened in 2006 with a grant from Bristol-
Myers. Stephanie also gave a presentation on malnutrition in children
to some of the student doctors who are visiting. She deals with many
patient problems that just don't exist or are very rare in the US.
Many of the resources here for children with HIV comes from foreign
aid. The HIV drugs typically come from the Global Fund or PEPFAR. The
Clinton Foundation donates PlumpyNut, a food source for children with
malnutrition. All HIV/AIDS care in Swaziland is free. Depending on
the statistics you use, between 25 and 40 percent of the population
has HIV. This trip is already an eye-opening experience. It makes me
very thankful for the resources and comforts I have at home. As Amy
said, "Thank you universe for my life."

The Swaziland landscape is beautiful. It's hilly and green with
concrete buildings all around that remind me of Mexico. I'm still
waiting for the sun to come out and really show the beauty. Amy and
Stephanie think it looks a lot like Scotland. The grocery store in
Mbabane has pretty much everything you could want. Stephanie's life
here reminds me of my life in Monterrey in some ways.

Tomorrow we are leaving for Sodwana Bay in South Africa. The others
are going to dive. I'll hang out by the beach. After that, Amy and I
are going to try and head towards Durban, South Africa. One of the
former students from my school in Mexico (ASFM) is in Durban with a
college group from Yale, so hopefully we'll be able to meet up. It's
such a small world. So, I will probably be without internet for
awhile, but I'll post again when I can. (Speaking of internet, I've
realized how much I take high speed for frustrating to
wait for each page to load....ugh!) I've posted more pictures on my
flickr account, so click the see more photos link on the side to see

Until next time....

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Day One

Tuesday, June 9th

I arrived in Johannesburg, South Africa this morning after a long journey that had me in 3 countries on 3 different continents in 24 hours. My route was Chicago - Raleigh/Durham - London - Johannesburg. I spent a few hours in London with a JET friend catching up, seeing the theater district, Trafalgar Square, Leicester Square, and eating Korean food. It was a nice way to spend a 12 hour layover. Thanks Jamil.

My flights weren't too bad. They still serve meals on international flights and the British Airways flight had a TV with many movie and music choices for each person individually. (Why is it that every non-American airline I've ever used is so much nicer than an American airline? Although nothing beats the video game controller that popped out the side of the seat on an Asian flight I took once.)

We are in Johannesburg for only one night until we fly out tomorrow for Swaziland. The South Africans I've met so far have been friendly and helpful. The security guard down the street appreciated that I smiled and stopped for a few minutes to chat with him.

The picture is my first meal here. I bought it at the supermarket down the street. It's not particularly African, but I have no idea what African food is yet. I will find out and share. Note that I had to pay for the plastic bag she packed my groceries in. Maybe we'd waste less if we had to pay for our bags at the grocery store. I don't know how much I paid though because I don't understand the money yet. I just held out my hand and let her take the right coins!

Off to Mbabane to see Stephanie tomorrow!

Monday, June 8, 2009

Blogging from cell phone

Enjoying a coffee before heading to joburg via london. To swaziland wed. Refreshingly, no starbucks there i think?

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Monday, June 1, 2009

Packing for a Trip

What Should I Take?

I am leaving next Sunday for Swaziland, South Africa, and London. I started gathering things I want to bring with me today. You would think I'd have the art of packing perfected, but it seems more difficult every trip I take. This time, I am determined to pack as light as possible forgoing fashion and extras luxuries. I hope I succeed. (My running shoes will make the cut...I can't lose everything I've worked for after 26.2! Besides the Bix and the Rock 'n' Roll Half Chicago are waiting for me.)

I called the hotel I booked for the first night to arrange airport transportation this morning. When a woman answered, I realized that none of my extra languages will work in South Africa. I quickly remembered to slow down my English to communicate with her. In the end, she told me that she had my reservation and to call back tomorrow to give someone the details of my arrival. As native English speakers, we are lucky. Many people in other countries do have some English ability. We call these countries assuming someone can help us in our own language. But, can others assume that about our country and their language?

Other preparations include buying extra health insurance and sharing my emergency contact information with the friends I am traveling with. My friend Amy brought these things to my attention. She looks at travel differently now that she has a career in a study abroad program for a university. We never thought about these things throughout all our Asian escapades.

I am getting excited for our plans to visit a game park, go diving/snorkeling on the coast, and learn about African culture in general. I hope to post updates and photos here when I have internet access. Thanks for reading!

Monday, April 13, 2009

Going to Africa - I need your input.

Mbabane, Swaziland
picture by Stephanie Marton

I am going to Swaziland in Africa for three weeks in June. Yippee!! A good friend of mine is a pediatrician in Mbabane, and I am fortunate to have the opportunity to visit her. Her experiences have been amazing, and I am excited to see her life there first hand.

When the idea of taking a trip to Africa became a reality (thanks to frequent flyer miles), I realized that I want to do more than just tour the country. I want to learn about education in Swaziland, connect with African teachers, share my skills and possibly turn this project into an independent study credit to complete a master's degree in instructional technology.

At the Illinois Computing Educators conference in February, I attended Sharon Peter's session "Professional Development Without Borders". Her presentation started the process of thinking about what I can offer teachers in Africa (and what they can offer me). She gave me many great ideas like bringing flash drives full of teacher resources. The schools Sharon worked in had computers, but bandwidth was an issue. She recommended downloading what I can here and bringing it on flash drives. I take my broadband connection for granted knowing I can download what I need when I need it. But, schools in Africa are not so lucky. I hope I can make contact with teachers in Mbabane before I go, so I can learn about challenges they are facing and how I might be able to help.

So, I need your help. Do you have any contacts who can help me? Do you have ideas or advice? I am still in the brainstorming phase and I also want to tailor what I do to match the needs of the area. With that in mind, this is my current to do list. It may change, but I wanted to share it so I can make it better with your input.
  1. Connect with Swazi teachers by searching for blogs. (K-12 and/or university)
  2. Download free teacher resources to put on flash drives.
  3. Download open source software that is useful for teachers and bring on CDs or flash drives. (Open Education Disc)
  4. Start a PayPal account and take donations for flash drives, flip video cameras and inexpensive netbooks (XO or others).
  5. Put together materials for professional development workshops for teachers (focusing on technology integration and/or science/math.)
Please help me solidify my plan. Thanks PLN!

Saturday, February 7, 2009

As the Yukili Evolve...on planet Newtonia

The semiotic domain of video games is new to me, but I started to get my feet wet this week playing Spore as a class assignment for the graduate class I am taking. I began playing the game in a frustrated state of mind as it took at least 30 minutes to install the game. After installation, Spore downloaded update after update before I could play. I spent the second 30 minutes alternately thinking "What? There has to be more than this. It's too easy," and "Why can't I get my creature to do this? I don't understand that." I did not read the manual at first. Manuals never make sense to me until I have already seen and touched the product. However, as I progressed through the first hour of play and began the second, I picked up the manual and read the sections that pertained to the stage of the game I was in. The game itself has a built in system for leading the player through each new thing. There are many pop ups that display at the appropriate time. The manual simply added a few things I hadn't noticed. And, I have a feeling I'll look at it again as I get to new stages. (Or maybe I should say IF I get to new stages.)

After hour 1

During the second hour of play, I was pulled into the game. It became more difficult. I graduated from the cell stage and became a creature and walked out of the sea.
The progression through the creature stage is taking quite a bit longer than the it did through the cell stage. More thought about what features my creatures need to achieve different tasks is required. It's as if the game was designed to let the players mess around and learn in the cell stage, but makes them get serious in the creature stage. (And, it probably was designed that way.) Once creature stage ends, I will no longer be able to vary its physical features. The next stage is the tribal stage and there will be different concerns. So, it's important to make the right decisions now, because those decisions will affect how my creature survives during the rest of the game.

After hour 2
In his book titled "What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy," James Paul Gee talks about the Design Principle on page 41. I can see why this is so important as I begin to play this game. If I become too frustrated with not figuring things out, I may just give up on the game. And if it is too easy, I will be bored and also give up. It's a fine line to walk between the two. And, I think a successful game (and classroom lesson) finds that line.

Playing Spore reminds me of another simulation I've mentioned on the blog before, Oregon Trail. I have a goal and I have to make decisions that affect my success in achieving the goal. One difference is the quality of the simulation. I loved Oregon Trail, but I never did quite figure out what the right combination of food, tools, etc. was in order to make it. It never connected for me. In Spore, I am already learning how to read the clues around me to make the right decisions.

I also started playing World of Goo which is a delightful game. I will post more about it another time. Meanwhile, here are some screen shots and videos from my experience so far in Spore.

Evolving in the Cell Stage from Heather Dowd on Vimeo.

A Siren Call from Heather Dowd on Vimeo.

Eating Meat from Heather Dowd on Vimeo.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

It's Official, I'm a Science Geek

It's not like I didn't already know that, but it's confirmed yet again. For my graduate class this semester, I needed to buy a video game to play and reflect on all semester. I looked at many of the games on Gamestop and Amazon, and in the end, I ordered Spore (a kind of evolution game) and World of Goo (physics based puzzle/construction game). I heard about Spore on NPR last fall and it sounded really interesting to me, someone who usually isn't interested in video games. This class is the perfect excuse to buy it. The user reviews on Amazon were not great, but I get the feeling that is because the game was so hyped up to everyone and people were disappointed with the final product. I was not aware of the hype, so we'll see how I like it.

I did look at some of the other popular video games that everyone talks about like Grand Theft Auto, Sims, World of Warcraft, and Halo...honestly. I wanted to step out of my comfort zone and try one of these. But the only thing I wanted to spend money on were the science games. Go figure.

World of Goo was a side purchase just for fun. I noticed it on a list of the best PC games in 2008 while looking for other reviews of Spore. The reviews for World of Goo were superb and I really like the graphics. I'll be playing Spore for class, but I may throw in a couple of posts on World of Goo as I get time to play it. (Crazy Machines is another physics/problem solving game we played a little bit during my first grad class. Physics teachers might be interested in World of Goo and Crazy Machines.)

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Games and Simulations in Education

Today was the first face to face session of the hybrid graduate class I am taking called Games and Simulations in Education. We will be reading, reflecting on blogs, collaborating on a wiki, playing video games, and connecting it all to education. I'm looking forward to it!

I am not a gamer. I don't really like video games. But wait. Stop. I think my view of what constitutes a video game is too narrow. I loved playing Legend of Zelda on the Nintendo. (My parents refused to buy us one, so we had to settle for only playing when visiting cousins.) I loved Oregon Trail and Where in the World is Carmen San Diego when I was younger. And, there was Strawberry Shortcake and Sneak 'n Peek for our Atari. Maybe I do like video games? I was excited to find out that we are required to play a game for this class. I have really wanted to play Spore since I heard about it on NPR. And the more I hear about some of these other games, the more I think I may just pick up another addiction. Uh oh.

I want to gain some exposure to more games in this class. I want to break the preconceived ideas I have about certain games. I want to learn about new games. I want to know how the design of games can be applied to an educational situation. Like mentioned earlier in class, gaming companies are not always interested in teaching anything, but they are interested in holding the attention of the players. Shouldn't we be interested in doing the same thing in education?

In Marc Prensky's "Don't Bother Me Mom - I'm Learning,", he says:
If you are game player today, all sorts of people are courting you, trying to get you to spend money for their game, and they know they have to work hard to do it.

As a game designer, you're focused on one question: How can I keep a maximum number of players on the edge of their seats for hours and hours?

If you publish games, you are always thinking about your audience. What do they like? What experiences can you give them that they haven't had or can't get elsewhere? What additional aspects of the players' lives can you relate to with a game? How fast can you incorporate the latest technologies? In short, what will sell your games to the player?
Aren't all of these things ideas we should be considering as educators? Maybe we need to do a bit more marketing for the learning we want to happen in our classrooms. I think we can learn a lot from digital games that we can apply to education. Digital games won't replace a teacher or a classroom, but why not learn what we can and make our classrooms a better learning environment.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Turn Your Lens Around

Many people in my PLN have been participating in a 365 photo challenge by posting a picture a day in 2009. (View more 365 photos at the EdTech 365/2009 Flickr group.) In that spirit, I thought I would pass on a little trick I learned from a photography teacher. If you have an SLR camera (one that has removable lenses), turn your lens around and see what happens. What you get are close up (macro) pictures with a very shallow depth of field. (The aperture is zero in fact.) I snapped a few today of things I found around the house for my photo a day posting. I haven't tried it, but I think you may be able to take a lens, turn it around backwards in front of a regular point and shoot camera and get the same effect. If anyone tries it, let me know. This is a good way to take close up pictures of things related to curriculum and then have students guess what they are. It could be an intro or concluding activity for a unit. Can you guess what my pictures are?

Maybe we need to do this in our classrooms as well. Turn things around to view them from a different perspective. Look closer and see what is there.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

7 Things Meme

I started this blog as a class assignment, and to be honest, I hadn't decided whether to continue now that the class is over. But then, two things happened. Paul Blogush linked to me in a blog post, and Wendy Sigele and Valaina Maher tagged me in the 7 things meme that is spreading around the blogosphere. So, I figure I can keep blogging...for now!

So, here it is. Seven things you may not/didn't/don't need to/don't care to know about me.

  1. I never wanted to be a teacher. After college, I went to Japan to teach English and fell in love with teaching and learning.
  2. I am NOT a shopper. I really really don't like it unless I get to go to my favorite store, Anthropologie, and not worry about price tags. (But that doesn't happen often, or ever.)
  3. When I want to forget about life, I play Rachmaninoff preludes or anything in a minor key on the piano. I'd rather take out a loan for a Steinway piano than for a car (but haven't done either yet.)
  4. I've lived six months or more in Australia, Japan, and Mexico (and of course my home country!)
  5. I went to Mardi Gras in New Orleans once.
  6. My sister is my best friend.
  7. I still have my "blankie" from childhood. Friends tease, but on the cold nights in Japan and Mexico in apartments without central heat, it made a great head warmer.
I tag Theresa White, Pam Nielson, Jennifer Dorman, and my friend Monna.