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Free Stuff for Teachers, Homeschoolers, and Students - 2011
An Educators' News Feature
August 23, 2011

When I was working as a regular columnist for various Mac-centric web sites, I found my most popular columns were often ones that featured free stuff. Off and on over the years, I've continued to put out various columns that are compilations of freeware, free web sites, and open source applications that have appeared on Educators' News and might be useful to teachers and students. The columns usually appeared as a year-end roundup sometime in December. I decided last year that such a column might really be more useful to readers at the beginning of the school year and am continuing that practice this year.

So once again, here's a look back at the freewares, free web sites, open source applications, and a few other goodies that have appeared on Educators' News over the last twelve months or so. It's roughly organized by month, although I've combined a lot of similar postings to make a more coherent and less redundant read.

I hope you find something that may be of benefit for you and your students.

August, 2010

Mirror Paint

MirrorPaint for OSXMirrorPaint for iPhone/iPadAs you check web sites, links, and applications to make sure they haven't changed or totally disappeared from the web (a few did!) before publication, you're sure to get a pleasant surprise or two. When writing last year's Free Stuff for Teachers, Homeschoolers, and Students, I decided to include a reference to the Mac-only freeware, Mirror Paint. I had been pleasantly surprised when I wrote about it in February, as I found that programmer Robin Landsbert had added a Mac OS X version for the children's favorite kaleidoscope drawing application. I could only hope for an iPhone or Windows version.

When I again checked Robin's site, there were links to both a MirrorPaint Liteicon and a 99¢ MirrorPainticon version for the iPhone/iPod Touch/iPad. I quickly downloaded the 99¢ version for my grandchildren, who universally love it, and sent a quick note of thanks to Robin for porting the app to the iPhone. Even though it was getting late in the UK where Robin lives, I got a quick response to my email:

Yes, it was only a few months ago that I ported MirrorPaint to the iPad first and worked out how to "miniaturise" the user interface to work on the iPhone and iPod Touch. It has been a reasonable success so far with a few hundred copies sold, so won't give up my day job just yet! However it is just a hobby, so I am quite happy just to have people use it. I am glad your granddaughter enjoys it.

The First of Many Astronomy Sites

NGC 5792A press release last August led me to the first of many impressive astronomy sites I'd link to over the 2010-2011 school year, the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. It is an ambitious astronomical survey to "map one-quarter of the entire sky in detail, determining the positions and absolute brightnesses of hundreds of millions of celestial objects. It will also measure the distances to more than a million galaxies and quasars." It provides both amateur and professional astronomers a system that allows users "to come to the data, do their analysis, and basically bring back only their results," without downloading massive amounts of data onto individual systems.

While great for astronomers, the SDSS also allows those of us who may be astronomy challenged to find some really cool sky images. The About the SDSS and Getting Started pages are good starting points for exploring the site.

I began with the Galaxies page and didn't get very far before I was zooming in and out and pulling down images of NGC 5792. NGC 5792 is a spiral galaxy that we see nearly edge-on. The bright red star in the images is actually in the Milky Way and very close to us compared to the distant galaxy. The combination makes for a very interesting photo.

The press release was more about site co-creator Alex Szalay winning the Science Prize for Online Resources in Education (SPORE) for creating "the massive database and associated Web site portal [which] allows users to visually explore and research almost the entire visible night sky without having to wait for access to a giant telescope." SPORE was developed to single out the best online materials available to science educators. And the site definitely accomplishes one of its purposes of providing students and astronomy enthusiasts the excitement and the thrill of getting close to and even participating in "real research, problem-solving, and discovery."

September, 2010

OOo4Kids (Open Office for Kids)

OOo4Kids word processorOpenOffice For Kids (OOo4Kids) reached version 1.0 towards the end of August (2010). Designed for children 7-12 years old and based on OpenOffice source code, the children's office suite is available for Mac, Windows, and Linux in thirteen different languages.

I've tested and reviewed this suite previously here and in last year's Free Stuff for Teachers, Homeschoolers, & Students and found it to be a very useable alternative to Microsoft Office products. Larger document display sizes along with options for easy or beginner toolbars (and more advanced options) are a plus. The default save in word processing is to the open office format (.odt), but it can also save in the older Word format (.doc), although not to the newer .docx. It will, however, open documents saved in the newer format.

spreadsheetpresentationI asked the app to open my current garden seed inventory (a rather long spreadsheet) and an old PowerPoint presentation (an absolute monster) as a test. It opened both without incident, although the PowerPoint took several minutes to open. The spreadsheet module now handles documents longer than 128 lines, a limitation in previous versions.

Currently at version 1.2, OOo4Kids should fill the bill if you're looking for a free office suite for elementary students.

Since I'm writing about OpenOffice open source software already, I'll insert that the full suite is currently at version 3.3. Obviously, it's a good, free alternative to Microsoft Office. NeoOffice, a full-featured set of office applications (including word processing, spreadsheet, and presentation programs) for Mac OS X based on the suite, is at version 3.2.1b. I did mini reviews on both OpenOffice and NeoOffice in The Freewares of 2009.

Cool iPhone (iPad) Star Finder

Brain Young's Star GuideBrian Young, a controls and sensing engineer, has brought what appears to be a really cool app to the iPad and iPhone (3GS or better). His Star Guideicon uses "your device's sensor suite, the magnetometer, accelerometer, and GPS, to determine the orientation of your phone relative to the celestial sphere" and "displays the constellation at which your device is currently pointed."

I can only offer this app as a suggestion, as my iPhone is a 3G, and lacks some of the sensors needed to use Star Guide. The app does appear to be getting good ratings on iTunes, and I think the concept is terrific. Brian maintains a web page about this app and his iPhone Apps for Astronomy that are still under development.

Unfortunately, astronomy apps such as Star Guide have pretty limited usefulness for daytime classroom instruction. I can imagine, however, students on an overnight camping trip, equipped with iPads and Star Guide, getting some good use out of the app.

Star and Planet LocatorI should mention that the Edmund Scientific Star and Planet Locator is still available for those of us without the latest iPhone. It sells for just $3.95 directly from Edmund (although you can pay over $18 for one from Amazon). I've worn out a bunch of them over the years and still keep one in my office desk and in my travel bag. And of course, there's the free, open source Stellarium application for Mac, Windows, and Linux that is great for identifying objects in the night sky.

Since I'm on a roll on astronomy stuff here, let me add that there's also a pretty high tech (and expensive) planet locator from Celestron. Their SkyScout Personal Planetarium will identify what you aim it at and even give a canned, audio mini-lesson about the object. It can also guide you to celestial objects in the night sky. My wife got me one several years ago, and I really like it. Celestron also offers two SD expansion card lessons, Astronomy for Beginners and All About the Stars.

Reminiscing a bit, one of the coolest activities we ever did with city kids on a camping trip didn't involve downloading or buying anything. We took the kids out to the basketball court on a moonless night and then turned out all of the lights at the camp. We had the kids lay on their backs and let their eyes adjust. Over the twenty or so minutes it takes for the pupil to fully dilate, exclamations of wonder and delight filled the air as the kids began to witness the Milky Way, many for the first time in their lives. Questions of "What's that star" were followed with the wonder of how difficult it becomes to identify constellations when the full background of stars becomes visible under totally dark viewing conditions.

Google Sky Map

When frequent contributor Tom Rademaker saw my posing about the Cool iPhone (iPad) Star Finder, he sent along info for a similar app for Android users. Google Sky Map is still in beta, but can chart the night sky in the direction your Android OS device is pointed. Users may also choose objects from a list of planets, stars, etc., and the application will guide them to the area of the night sky where the object should appear. Tom related that his son and young grandkids (ages 8 and 6) use Google Sky Map "all the time."

October, 2010

NASA Image of the Day

I pretty well get blown away by beautiful astronomy shots and have to limit myself to publishing just a few each month on Educators' News. While there are lots of NASA sites with lots of gorgeous imagery, the NASA Image of the Day site often catches my attention, possibly due to their RSS feed. The stunning composite image of the Antennae galaxies, A Galactic Spectacle, is typical of the content from the site. The image was assembled from imagery from the Chandra X-ray Observatory (blue), the Hubble Space Telescope (gold and brown), and the Spitzer Space Telescope (red).

Antennae galaxies

Each image carries a fairly readable (by common folk) description. I paraphrased their stuff on EdNews:

Located about 62 million light years from Earth, the Antennae galaxies "take their name from the long antenna-like 'arms,' seen in wide-angle views of the system. These features were produced by tidal forces generated in the collision" of the two galaxies (NGC 4038 and NGC 4039). "The collision, which began more than 100 million years ago and is still occurring, has triggered the formation of millions of stars in clouds of dusts and gas in the galaxies. The most massive of these young stars have already sped through their evolution in a few million years and exploded as supernovas."

When I wrote a feature story in 2002, Out of this World Desktop Photos, one really had to work at it a bit to find really good space images suitable for use as wallpapers or desktop images or to use in the classroom. I used to plaster my room and the hallway outside my room with fantastic space images with get my special ed kids interested and reading. It worked!

Now, it's almost too easy to quickly find incredible space images. Isn't that great!

The "Year" of the Solar System

The recent launch of the Juno mission to Jupiter makes Dr. Tony Phillips' The Year of the Solar System (YSS) from last October still relevant. NASA then had just proclaimed The Year of the Solar System "to mark an unprecedented flurry of exploration which is about to begin." With a bit of humor, Phillips noted that, "Naturally, it's a Martian year." He quoted Jim Green, Director of Planetary Science at NASA headquarters, as explaining:

During YSS, we'll see triple the [usual] number of launches, flybys and orbital insertions. There hasn't been anything quite like it in the history of the Space Age. These events will unfold over the next 23 months, the length of a year on the Red Planet. History will remember the period Oct. 2010 through Aug. 2012 as a golden age of planetary exploration.

Solar System MontageThe rest of Dr. Phillips's article on Science@NASA chronicles the extraordinary list of planetary exploration events to come during the period. Uncharacteristically, the article didn't have a solar system illustration! To remedy that omission, I did a fruitless search of my hard drive, followed by a much more productive internet search for drawings of our solar system.

After bouncing around several space sites, I finally did a search of NASA Images for "solar system" and immediately came up with two great photo montages of the solar system. I really like the organization of pages on NASA Images, as they include a description of the image in a column on the left with the image presented to fit the browser window, but also zoomable to pick up detail. And of course, one can download either a low or high resolution copy of the image.

When I was done downloading and opening the images in Photoshop, I faced the pleasant problem of which montage to use for a daily posting on Educators' News. I solved that problem by simply using both (and adding both to my desktop photos rotation on my main computer).

Solar System Montage

BTW: The image shown above is about one-fifth the size of the image I downloaded. Try downloading the full size image (4206 x 3306 pixels) and zoom in on the planets. You'll be surprised at the clarity of the image.

While rummaging around the hard drive for solar system photos, I ran across my old worksheets for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory's Welcome to the Planets CD. I obtained a copy of the CD shortly after I switched from teaching regular education to special education. With the new job came a Macintosh LC III computer, which we kept in near constant use with our students. Even though we didn't have an internet connection at the time (1995), we used the CD and a web browser to simulate browsing Welcome to the Planets on the computer for some of our older special ed kids. We also used the CD's multimedia presentation, as it had what for its time was an innovative approach in providing audio narration of its text.

Jupiter Jupiter 2 Jupiter questions

Since our kids could be pretty random in their approach to the material, I also developed a set of easy worksheets with lots of gorgeous planet photos, to go along with the lessons. I pulled the materials together into a PDF in 1999 and released it for download online. It's still available for download from our Freebies page. If you have a PDF plug-in loaded on your web browser, you can see the files online here. Over the years, it's been downloaded thousands of times, with over 300 downloads so far this year. Since it's getting pretty long in the tooth (last updated in 2000), I wonder if folks aren't using it as a bad example of outdated stuff left online. But...the pictures are still smashing.

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory has updated their Welcome to the Planets page several times over the years, so it's still fairly up to date.

Environmental Public Health Resources

One of my favorite teacher resource sites, WGBH's Teachers' Domain, announced a new collection of Environmental Public Health resources in October. Resources in the new section "examine how technological advances have impacted our health and how people have acted to improve health conditions in various parts of the world." It currently includes 14 new resources for grades 6-12.

Factory Farming and Organic AlternativesHaving farmed for a few years and still an avid gardener, I took a look at the Factory Farms and Organic Alternatives resource. I was a bit surprised at how brief the included video was, but could see how it would be a good introduction to a classroom lesson. The Background Essay (included with each feature) was considerably more impressive. I was also pleasantly surprised when I clicked on the Standards link and was presented with a list of Indiana science standards (Indiana chosen because of my login info), sortable by grade level. Common Core Standards correlations are to be added later this school year.

Eradicating Malaria with DDTI also took a look at the Eradicating Malaria with DDT resource, which traces the battle against malaria in the 1940's and provocatively suggests that wiser spraying methods with DDT might help eradicate the disease in Africa, where it is still prevalent and causes many deaths. The included video and background essay are excellent, although I'm not sure one could do a fair lesson on this subject without including Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, which was omitted from this lesson.

Other current features in the section include:

  • Clean Water Systems in Mexico
  • Contaminating the Rockies
  • Dead Zone
  • Don't Mess with Mercury
  • Environmental Justice in Dallas
  • Hazards at the Coast
  • Hazards in the City
  • Hazards on the Farm
  • John Snow: Pioneer of Epidemiology
  • Malaria
  • PVCs and Dioxins
  • West Nile Virus Outbreak in NYC

There's another entry about the Teachers' Domain on page 3 of this column.

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Science Nation

Science Nation is an online magazine from the National Science Foundation that carries brief feature stories about research and researchers across a wide variety of science topics. I've regularly linked to the interesting stories on the site since its launch in June, 2009. Each issue includes an online video (typically around 2.5 minutes in length), a text version of the narration, the option to download and save the video in Quicktime format for later use, and related sidebar stories and links.

The eclectic range of titles on the site should provide something of interest for nearly every learner. The most recent posting, Mind Mappers, talks about "studying brain structure and trying to understand how the architecture of the brain supports our behavior, our thoughts, our memories, our way of thinking." The video of one of my favorites, Make Way for Ducklings, is embedded at right.

When visiting the site, be sure to check out the Archive link at the top of the left sidebar listing of current "issues." It will take you to the 2009 and 2010 titles.

Science of NFL FootballScience of Football

An eSchool News site of the week posting, NSF, NBC team up with the National Football League to help teach science, led me to an intriguing science and athletics site. From the article:

To help engage students in science education, the National Science Foundation (NSF) and NBC Learn have joined with the National Football League to create a 10-part series of videos on the Science of NFL Football. The videos, running three to five minutes each and supplemented with lesson plans, are available for use in middle and high schools free of charge.

I watched a couple of the short videos and found them...somewhat instructive and entertaining. But the site also adds one more tool to the teacher's goodie bag of free tools.

Calendar Project

Alice CalendarI have mentioned this one several times on Educators' News, but thought I'd bring it up again here, as this project does require a bit of lead time. When I was teaching special ed, we used to put together coloring calendars based on DLTK's Free Printable Custom Calendars every December. We'd have our kids color a monthly calendar page every other day or so and then bind them together for a take-home calendar gift late in December.

SpongeBob CalendarDLTK has lots of themed calendars. We used their cartoon character calendars and let the kids choose which one they wanted. The options included dinosaurs, Dragon Tales, Hello Kitty, Pooh, Strawberry Shortcake, Veggie Tales, and a couple of mixed character ones that picked up SpongeBob SquarePants, Monsters Inc., and a few other kid favorites. The activity was a great success.

I'm not sure how the folks at DLTK get around copyright issues with the images, but the site has been there for years without much change. Note that you may have to take screenshots of the calendars, as saving them as PDFs sometimes cuts the calendar into two page documents (but not always)! Even though operating systems include a screenshot grabber, I use Ambrosia Software's Snapz Pro X on Macs and Techsmith's SnagIt on PCs to get a little more control of my screenshots. Neither one is free (or even close to it), but both have proved to be worth their price.


ShouteSchool News's New web site combines project-based learning, social responsibility tells about a new site and program, Shout, that seeks to help "educators and students to take an active role in global environmental issues." The new portal was created by a partnership between Microsoft, the Smithsonian Institution, and TakingITGlobal.

Beginning in November [2010], teachers from around the world will find the first Shout challenge, which addresses the issue of deforestation. Each challenge will kick off with an online event for teachers and students featuring Smithsonian scientists. Once teachers start a challenge, they’ll be able to connect with millions of other educators, access related curricula and best practices, and connect their students to others around the globe though online collaboration.

The first theme in the Shout series, Live with the Land, kicked off on November 16, 2010, with a Smithsonian virtual conference. Events have been posted about every other month since the kickoff. The next event, Celebrate the Land, is scheduled for September 21, 2011.

While exploring the Shout site and a related Taking It Global site, DeforestACTION, it appeared that Shout is targeted for middle and high school students, while the DeforestACTION challenge activities were more for primary and intermediate students. I didn't run into any Microsoft "gotchas" that often are embedded on their sites that rule out Linux and Macintosh users, but also had trouble getting a feel for how teachers might effectively integrate this resource into their instruction. But it's worth a look.

Continued on page 2 (November, 2010 - March, 2011)
Jump to page 3 (April - August, 2011)

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©2011 Steven L. Wood