Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Open Notebook Science @ UNM Physics, Round 3 -- If you have technology for us to try, let us know

2009 fall semester has started at UNM and I'm teaching Junior Lab (Physics 307L) for my 3rd and "final" time*. I've described in an earlier post the open science aspects of this modern physics undergraduate lab course. In a nutshell, it's a typical modern physics lab course with an important twist in that we operate completely using open notebook science (ONS). I still believe (but don't have proof) that these students are at an excellent stage in their careers to learn skills and habits in ONS. We've been through about a week of the course, and already I can see that we again have a great batch of talented students! I wish I could fast forward a decade to see what they're going to be achieving in the future. Right now, though, you can see their mug shots on our course people page on OpenWetWare.

The thing that inspired me to dust off this blog is the realization that even though we've already started the semester, there's no reason we can't continue trying new things throughout the semester. So, if you're aware of new (or old) technology that you think would be good for ONS, I think we have several students who would be interested in testing it out in a real ONS atmosphere. If you do, please post a message here, or on the friendfeed thread. As noted earlier, OpenWetWare is the foundation for our ONS. But we've started to include other tools as well, many of them integrated into OWW thanks to Bill Flanagan's hard work. One big change this year is that I think students are likely to use Google Docs as a way of recording spreadsheet data. Tables in WikiMedia are just too annoying. And now, Google Docs are easily embedded in OWW pages. You can see an example of an embedded spreadsheet in Tom Mahony and Ryan Long's open notebook.

There's another thing that I'm excited about that may make ONS much easier for us. Currently, the standard method for uploading photos or other documents to OWW is inconvenient. It can take a good minute to snap a photo of your experimental setup and then go through a convoluted process of emailing it to yourself, saving, uploading to OWW. I think we're close to a good solution that leverages Evernote's nice application for mobile phones. I recently discovered that you can easily make public notebooks in Evernote, and that these public notebooks have a nice RSS feed. Tom Mahony noticed that there is a MediaWiki widget for embedding an RSS feed in a page. He even implemented a test public evernote feed in his OWW notebook (see this page). So, now we're to this point:

  1. Snap photo with mobile phone, using Evernote application. (Actually can be any kind of note, photo, voice note, etc.)
  2. Photo is stored by default in your public notebook (or you move it over manually).
  3. RSS feed embedded in OWW shows new content.
Only step #1 requires user involvement. But the problem is that currently the image is not actually displayed or uploaded in OWW, and there isn't a good way to selectively show only relevant parts of the feed. But it seems to me those are very solvable steps. I think this will be a very nice feature, because over the past couple years, I've seen all my students struggle with barriers to getting information into their electronic notebook. So, any steps that are removed are a big deal.

* The tradition in the department dictates that I must demonstrate teaching diversity in order to obtain tenure. There is also the belief that instructors become bored and their teaching stale after 3 semesters of teaching a course. I think these are fairly common beliefs in physics departments around the country, and it means that next fall I'll have to teach a new course. I find this policy de-motivating and inefficient, and will do my best to help the policy evolve over the next many years.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Soap film interference: One of my favorite homework assignments for conceptual physics

This weekend I posted one of my favorite homework assignments for my conceptual physics students.  You can read the assignment on OpenWetWare.  There are a variety of questions and activities related to the thin film interference colors in soap bubbles, including an easy kitchen experiment using a coffee mug.  Based on experience, most of the students who submit answers (it's completely voluntary) will not upload photos or videos.  However, a few of them will, and I really enjoy seeing what they do and sharing it with everyone during lecture!

OK, I'll leave this blog entry short, as I also have to finish writing a quiz before the end of the night.  Oh and also get some writing done on a proposal before my international would-be collaborators wake up!

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

5th Lecture, Wave intereference, standing waves, resonance, sound

I felt like today was a really good lecture. Almost every time I looked at students' faces for feedback, I saw most of the class interested and focused. I felt like it was a class session that "clicked" and I believe that's true. I wish I knew the magic ingredient! Actually, I don't think there was a magic ingredient. I don't have any scientific evidence, but my feeling is that were a few key ingredients to making today's class effective:
  • Fascinating physics. Waves are fascinating. Wave interference is even more fascinating. On top of it being fascinating, I think the topics were new to most students.
  • Solid demos and applets. The core demos today were the wave table (fantastic) and the flame tube (not as fundamentally solid as the wave table, but gets a tremendous boost from using fire). The core applet was again the Falstad ripple tank, which we used for study of wave interference. I've already mentioned how awesome that applet is. But I should mention it again. That applet is awesome.
  • Solid youtube videos. We looked at some resonance things, culminating in the famous Tacoma narrows bridge collapse.
  • I was having fun and I think I provided good context and connection of all these things. Besides their facial expressions, I also got direct feedback after class from a few students saying they enjoyed the class. I could be wrong, of course, but I really feel like people learned.
So, below, I've embedded the slideshare slides from today. I don't want to go over ever slide, but I'll point out a couple things that seemed to work well (besides the general things above).

  • I think the students enjoyed looking at the "student answers" to the homework question. I've been doing this for a couple years, and I think it's related to "just in time teaching (JiTT)" that I learned about at the new faculty workshop. It's actually quite time consuming to do this, though, and even after about 3 hours that I put into reading through their answers, I didn't feel like I was completely fair in picking the "best" answers. But I explained this to the students, and I think they are fine with that. Also, by the way, I thnk that while 3 hours is a bunch of time to spend on something like that, I do feel it's worth the investment.
  • I think that demonstrating wave interference with the wavetable was very effective. I asked for a student volunteer, and Ashley was quick to jump up and help. We were easily able to synchronize two counter-propagating traveling waves on the wave table. When the waves met in the middle, the amplitude clearly visually increased. Furthermore, the constructive interference was large enough amplitude for the rods to hit the table and make a "ding" sound. I love the "ding" sound, because I feel like it announces to the whole room that the waves interfered to produce a bigger wave. Thanks, Ashley, for your help with this demo!
  • The video of someone creating standing waves with the wavetable was effective. I'm not talented enough to do this live in front of the class, so the video is very helpful. I think you can find the videos here.
OK, that's my update for today. I'm very happy that I think it was an effective class, and I'm also very happy for another reason that I can hopefully blog about in about 30 days!

Saturday, January 31, 2009

4th Lecture, Oscillations and Intro to Waves

Last Thursday was the 4th lecture of the semester, where we went over oscillations and introductory waves (slides are embedded below from slideshare). The demos I used were the wave table (I love it), mass on a spring, anchored slinky, and rubber tube stretched across room (also great). The killer applet is the ripple tank applet from falstad. I felt like students were bored already with Brownian motion--not sure whether any liked going over those quiz questions. I also felt a bit boring going over the details of oscillation and wave terminology, but it's sort of necessary. I used to "debrief" from my lectures on my private wiki, and I think I've now transitioned to using this blog. I'll give my commentary in general order of slides:

  • Brainstorming on waves I think is effective--keep this exercise next time.
  • I use the wave table a lot--to demonstrate speed, frequency, energy transfer, etc. I think any of those uses are very effective, judged by the focus of the students on the demo. I tried a new question this year, I said, "so what do I have to do to make the wave travel faster? Shake faster or slower?" Most students shouted "faster" and I didn't hear anyone say "it doesn't matter," so I think this was a good learning experience. The wave table is also good when I can shake the first rod, and get a wave to travel down and make the last rod hit the table with a "ding." I then ask the students to describe what happened. It's fun to have them realize / describe how the energy flowed from one wave into a sound wave into their ear, etc. I have no data, but I feel like the mesmerizing effect of the wave table puts people in a good frame of mind for learning about waves.
  • I'm pretty sure they really liked the ripple tank applet. I'd really like to know if any students with computers in class were using the applet at the same time I was. If you've never seen this applet before, you should check it out.
  • The note about earthquake seismic wave speeds from the TA, Zhang Jiang, really needed a youtube video or an applet. My verbal explanation just wasn't very interesting, I don't think.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

3rd Lecture, Brownian motion, energy, conservation of energy

I just uploaded my lecture slides to Scribd (see below) and realized (finally) that Scribd was hacking them up, and not providing the pptx files for download. This is a problem. I probably should just upload them to OWW and provide a link to my students. I had in mind that other people may like to "discover" these, but they're so garbled on Scribd that I think people would be turned off. I did notice that Scribd recognizes images from Flickr and Wikipedia and replaces them with the page they came from. That's pretty cool...although in both cases I noticed, I had attributed the images and provided links, so removing them wasn't appropriate, in my opinion. Any thoughts from people on the best way to share lecture slides? 1/31/09 SJK Note: I got advice from J-C and Cameron to use slideshare, so I've switched to that.

OK, now some comments on today's lecture. First, I'll say that I spent a bunch of time learning names before today's lecture. I think I know about 50 out of 150 students, and within a few lectures, I think I can learn most of them (say 120). The first student who asked a question today, I knew his name, and he said, "wow, that's impressive," and I though to myself, "yes...yes it is." Yes I am tooting my own horn. Not because I'm good at learning names (I stink, actually), but because I think it's a really good thing to do in terms of building a classroom community and I'm achieving it. I think it improves the learning atmosphere and students like it. I think also it vastly increases my enjoyment of teaching. One of my talents is to get real happiness out of students' successes. Knowing their names, and even better, knowing a little about them magnifies this effect greatly.

I have no idea at this point whether students liked today's lecture or any part of the course so far. I had assigned them to read Feynman's lecture about conservation of energy, which I love. I asked them via show of hands who found the reading (like 4 pages) illuminating, and NONE of the >120 people raised their hand! Ouch! That's really good to know, of course. I made the common mistake of putting the students way out of their context of understanding. I love the Feynman piece, but I've been through graduate school in physics. This is many of these students' first science course in college. The irony is that during my first lecture, I led them through that fantastic exercise (Wason selection task), which demonstrates how important context is. Whoops & sorry! I'm not too worried, though, as I am pretty confident that the upcoming topics are going to be pretty interesting and illuminating.

The big demo today was the nose basher. This is the one where there is a bowling ball hung from a hinge on the 20 foot ceiling. The unlucky person (me in this case) holds the bowling ball up against his face, let's it swing down and away, and back again. Of course, it does not bash his face (but please supply youtube videos if you know of other results). But the ball moves remarkably fast when it is mere feet from the face. It's alarming. And quite crowd-pleasing. The demo actually doesn't prove anything per se. But it's so entertaining that I think it's a great backdrop for talking about conservation of energy and energy flow. A student, Brandy, even pointed out that the ball was like an inch from my face, not exactly touching it on the return. This was a great way to point out transfer of energy to the air.

The other demo is the "rattleback," the asymmetric wooden thingy that only likes to spin in one direction. We have a big one that's easy to see. It's a great toy, just fun to observe. And like Nose Basher, it's a good backdrop for discussing energy well as the fact that conservation of energy doesn't let you predict everything about energy flow. I first saw this demo when a famous physicist gave a keynote lecture at Cornell in 1997 or so. He named the rattleback as one of his 7 wonders of the world. Another of his was the "green flash." I don't remember the other five, but they too have probably been solved in the post-wikipedia age :) I remember liking the rattleback, because I had previously noticed it with many telephone handsets (they exhibit the spin / rocking reversal). I tell my physics 102 students what telephone handsets are and explain to them the concept of the "home phone."

Next up on Thursday, we start talking about waves. Two key demos. First is the "wave table." This is such a beautiful demo device. It makes wonderful waves. If I had one of these in my house or office, I would probably spend 5 hours a day waving it. The second is the Ripple Tank applet from Paul Falstad. It's a fantastic applet for demonstrating countless wave phenomena.

Monday, January 26, 2009

2nd lecture in conceptual physics course, atoms and Brownian motion

Last Thursday was my second lecture in the conceptual physics course, and the first "real" lecture in terms of physics concepts I'd want the students to remember. I liked how Feynman started out with atoms in his lecture series, so when I started this course, I figured I couldn't do any better than he did. (Although I was recently told by a leader of physics education at U. Minnesota that Feynman's lectures were not effective at all in terms of the learning of the Cal tech students...whoops!) I had assigned the students some reading from Feynman's lecture and also from our textbook about the structure of matter.

I've posted the lecture slides on Slideshare. Before getting into Brownian motion, we did a brainstorming exercise where students suggested things that are in the room, and I tried to classify them in real-time using powerpoint on the overhead projector. By the time we'd finished, the students had come up with many of the things which we'll study this semester and I had tried to classify them in terms of concrete versus abstract and complex versus fundamental. I didn't tell the students the classification system, and they were able to guess what it was after watching me file things away. I don't know if this exercise accomplishes much, but the students seemed engaged. At the end, I pointed out concepts on the page and how they were interconnected and there is no obvious order in which to approach the concepts. I then used this an explanation for the order in which we're approaching things: matter, waves, light, sound, etc.

In terms of Brownian motion, I like the "molecular motion" overhead demonstration. This is a device that sits on top of a regular overhead projector and has a corral that can shake ball bearings. Unfortunately, I didn't get to practice with the demo, and the ball bearings I chose were not well shaken at all. I'd wanted to demonstrate Brownian motion by putting a big ball bearing in with a bunch of small ones, but I pretty much crashed and burned. Hopefully the Brownian motion applets we'll see tomorrow will make up for this. I definitely got lots of laughter, and being laughed at is better than being slept at, in my opinion.

The laser speckle demonstration worked very well in my opinion. I described this a bit in my previous post. As far as I could tell from a show of hands, everyone in the entire room could easily see the shimmering laser speckle pattern on the wet paint. We'll revisit this again later in the semester when talking about interference. Thank you to Dan Ralph @ Cornell Physics for showing us this demo back when I was in grad school!

I'm not sure whether students enjoy the discussion of scanning tunneling microscopy or not. The reason I include it is because I think it's yet another great demonstration of the existence of atoms -- you can practically see them.

Tomorrow's lecture will be about Brownian motion (discussion of homework question, applets) and introduction to energy and conservation of energy. The in-class demos will be the "rattleback" and the nose basher.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

First lecture in conceptual physics course, Wason selection task was effective

Yesterday I presented my first lecture of the semester in Physics 102, "Introduction to Physics." The alternate course title I like best would be "Conceptual Physics," and others are "Physics without Math," "Physics for Poets," "Why the Sky is Blue," etc. You can find my syllabus on Scribd. Here are the goals stated in the syllabus:

The primary goal of the course is to help students develop a better understanding of a variety of physics concepts that they experience or hear about in their every day lives. We will strive for true understanding of the concept versus tiresome memorization of facts and trivia. This may lead to a heightened enjoyment of everyday physics wonders (such as rainbows, sunsets, waves, phases of the moon), improved ability to understand technological issues (such as energy shortages and sources, nuclear power and radiation, cell phone communication), and a deeper understanding of future scientific material including biology, chemistry, geology, medicine, and possibly a subsequent more advanced physics course!

I like these goals, but they are not measurable, really. I did not take the time this semester to implement pre-testing and post-testing assessment as I had hoped. Perhaps partially the reason I didn't is I'm still quite annoyed that this is the last time I'm going to teach this class for a number of years. Our department has a custom of switching courses every 3 years, and also I was told that I need to show diversity in teaching in order to get tenure. I strongly disagree with both of these notions, but well, you know...

In any case, the goals are to have fun learning some physics concepts and to come away from the course with a positive impression of physics and science and an ability to enjoy learning about them. I don't have rigorous data, just informal student feedback (thank you emails, which I absolutely love to receive) and the scantron feedback forms. But this anectdotal evidence indicates that our goals were achieved the first two years. Plus, I have really enjoyed it and felt good that many students learned a lot and enjoyed the course. The only negative is that it takes a lot of time, especially the first semester I taught the course, where I developed about 28 powrepoint lectures from scratch, 75 minutes each--that utterly kicked my ass. I would like to put all of my powerpoint lectures on Scribd, in case they could ever be useful to someone else. The only thing keeping me from doing this is that I know I've missed attribution of some of the pictures I've "borrowed" for my lectures. Plus, I definitely don't have copyright on many of the non-CC licensed images I've used. Any comments on how to deal with this? I have in mind that I could try to correct this as I present the lectures this term, but realistically, that's not going to happen.

I did post my yesterday's introduction slides on Slideshare. I think the only stuff I use is from wikipedia and I attribute it. Overall, the lecture went well and I had a great time. Once again, the students are fantastic and I am sure I will enjoy getting to know them and seeing them succeed. I have some comments on a couple specific things from yesterday.

Wason Selection Task

One thing I do during my first lecture is take pictures of all of the students while they are doing group discussion. This accomplishes a number of things. First, it gets them acquainted to talking with their neighbors, which we do several times / lecture. Second, it allows me to practice learning names over the next couple weeks. I have each group write down their names along with physical description and then I go around the room taking photos of the group and telling them their group number. It will take me a couple hours to put the names with the faces in powerpoint, and then a couple more hours of studying. Combined with interacting with the students, I've been able to learn quite a few of their names. I did pretty well with 120 students last year, but this semester I have 154 students registered, so I'm nervous whether I'll be able to do this or not. I think it's important, though, and the ability to talk to people by name adds a lot of value for students. Incidentally, I'm helped by the fact that students tend to sit in the same areas every day, so I'm basically making a seating chart without imposing one. This is a technique I learned from TA training, and it works really well. Thank you to whoever did TA training at Cornell Physics in 1996!

OK, so in order to carry out this exercise on the first day, I need an entertaining puzzle for the students to debate with each other. The first two years, I tried using the Monty Hall paradox. That worked pretty well, but this year I switched to the Wason selection task. I was REALLY happy with the way this turned out. First, I had them use their iClickers with the number / color version of the selection task. Since most of them did not yet have iClickers, I also had them shout out their answers (surprisingly, it's pretty easy to poll 150 students this way, and the shouts matched the iClicker graphs). Most people got the puzzle wrong (which is what always happens), and after debating, a consensus developed on the "wrong" answer (to flip over all the cards). The reason I liked this puzzle so much is because when I showed the same logic puzzle with the beer / under 21 version, then entire class immediately picked the correct answer. I could then show the two questions next to each other and blab some stuff about how learning is contextual. I think it does demonstrate that, but the important thing is that they probably had fun while I took photos and probably remembered the exercise in a positive light and some probably even tried it out on their friends after class. I'll definitely use this for my next large class.

Wireless in the classroom

Someone on friendfeed recently posted an article talking about either the perils or opportunities of wireless in the classroom. It turns out my classroom has wireless for the first time, so I brought this issue up with the students. I basically told them I was worried about the possible distraction, but that the worry was far outweighed by the possible benefits it could have. I was telling them I didn't really know how we'd leverage it, but that I encouraged people to use it. While saying this, I saw a Mac laptop in front of someone, so I said, "Like you, Mac Guy (I don't know their names yet)'re probably already checking out our facebook page, aren't you?" He said, "Yeah! actually I am...I'm looking at photos of you." (At this point I realized that there must be a bunch of embarrassing photos of me on facebook.) I said, "like what?" and he said, "Some marching band photos..." I made a perfect dramatic pause and then addressed the class, " already knew I was a dork." This drew much laughter, which made me happy. OK, that little anecdote was unnecessary, but it was funny if you were there. This wireless experiment will be interesting throughout the semester. The one thing I have in mind is that we look at a lot of applets during lecture, and I'm hoping the students will be trying them out themselves while I'm showing it on the projector. I can see that this could turn into mayhem, but I also feel that the level of learning will be much higher if they can play with the applet themselves. We'll see!

Tomorrow we'll do the first real physics lecture, where we'll talk about the structure of matter, focused around Brownian motion. The two demos will be a demo that shakes ball bearings on an overhead projector (to give an idea of molecules in a gas) and a demo where we look at laser speckle off wet and dry paint. This latter demo is really cool and easy to do, and I find it a fascinating demonstration of Brownian motion without need for a microscope. I learned it from Dan Ralph during his graduate solid state physics course at Cornell back in 1997-ish. You'll need to see it with your own eyes (maybe I can take a video of it?), but the laser speckle pattern on dry paint does not change if you keep your head still. On wet paint, the pattern shimmers, due to the microscopic latex particles undergoing Brownian motion. So, basically you can see evidence of Brownian motion with a cheap laser and paint. Laser speckle is a great demo, because you can see it from any distance away, and it's fun to look at whether or not it's shimmering.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Panic! Classes start Tuesday. Course goals for conceptual physics course.

I apologize for the long delay between blog entries. Well, I suppose that will continue now that the fantasy time of Winter Break has ended. I finished up teaching Junior Lab in mid-December (my previous blog described the open science fun we have in that course). On Tuesday is my first lecture in Physics 102. I think the official title is Introduction to Physics, or possibly Introductory Physics. But the unofficial titles are more descriptive: Conceptual Physics, Physics without Math, Why the Sky is Blue, Physics for Poets, etc. This was the first course I taught at U. New Mexico, back in August 2006, and I love teaching it just as much as Junior Lab, though it is very different.

One of the senior professors here, Carl Caves, gave me some advice about Physics 102 that I liked. He said that he views the audience not as students that need to "think like physicists," but rather as our future voters, senators, and representatives who will have to make decisions about the worthiness of funding science. Of course, I received this advice a couple weeks after I was already completely overwhelmed with the course--but fortunately, his advice fit well with decisions I'd already made, so I was comforted. The fact that these students will impact my research funding is actually not a motivator for me, though that is true. (I'm actually still undecided on the merit of always arguing for increased federal spending on university research no matter what--and you can berate me about this in the comments if you'd like.) But it is very important to recognize that these students are different than the students in Junior Lab who have chosen to major in physics. They are not going to be practicing scientists (most of them) and thus, the goals are very different. Here are the goals I came up with and put on the syllabus I handed out to the students in 2006:

"The primary goal of the course is to help students develop a better understanding of a variety of physics concepts that they experience or hear about in their every day lives. We will strive for true understanding of the concept versus tiresome memorization of facts and trivia. This may lead to a heightened enjoyment of everyday physics wonders (such as rainbows, sunsets, waves, phases of the moon), and improved ability to understand technological issues (such as energy shortages and sources, automobile safety, nuclear power and radiation, cell phone communication) and a deeper understanding of future scientific material including biology, chemistry, geology, medicine, and possibly a more advanced physics course!"

I don't think that is so bad, especially considering I had about 2 weeks to prepare, never having taught a course before (aside from TA-ing), and receiving little guidance beyond the course number I was to teach, the classroom times, and the course description. Actually, that's not true, I did manage to meet with one of our star instructors, Kathryn Dimiduk (now at Cornell), and she gave me all kinds of very good advice. Nevertheless, I don't think those goals are so bad, considering how unprepared I was. The funny thing, though, is that those goals will pretty much be the same goals I profess on Tuesday, unless I find some time in the next five days to revise them. This is going to be very difficult, given that I have a mini-grant due Friday. Consider this your glimpse at my standard state of affairs. I have no talent for managing multi-tasking better than this. Could I have spent time over the break preparing for teaching and grant writing, instead of learning how to blog, signing up for FriendFeed, and meeting many new people around the world? Yes, I could have. Would it have been better? I don't know, I am a very good rationalizer.

With that in mind, "couldn't I be actually preparing for teaching right now instead of composing this interminable blog about panicking about teaching on Tuesday?" Yes, but in writing this blog, I am consciously and subconsciously thinking about complex teaching issues that will arise next week, and thus I am spending my time even more effectively than if I were to simply focus on the task.

OK, so what is wrong with my course goals? My problem is that they are not measurable by either me or the students. Or maybe they are, but I don't measure them very well. I came away from the "New Faculty Workshop" last November with the highest priority goal of implementing assessment in the courses I teach. A key element of assessment is to have a pre-test at the beginning of a course so you can assess the actual learning that has been achieved. The only assessment I have used are exams and the end-of-course instructor assessments. Neither of these have a pre-test, and thus they don't provide any information about learning. I now view the need for pre-tests as obvious from a scientific point of view, but I, along with many other scientists who are teachers, have not really approached education scientifically in the past.

There exist some research-based pre- and post-tests for physics, such as the somewhat-famous "Force Concept Inventory." But I am not aware of any tests which are well aligned with my "non-math" conceptual physics course. We do not use anything beyond arithmetic, really--just proportionalities or "if this increases, does that decrease or increase" kind of questions. (BTW: I was delighted to discover that there are many important physics concepts that can be learned without algebra...I feel like I could easily teach two semesters without mathematics!) Furthermore, if I were to write out goals that were measurable, some important goals would not involve physics concepts. Some may be more general science concepts. And I certainly would like to measure enjoyment and desire for learning about physics and science.

So, this is where I stand now. If you do know of any battle-tested assessment tools for this kind of course, I would very much like to hear about them. Or, even if you have any suggestions for questions I could pose that could be used as pre- and post-test questions, I would love to hear them!
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