Category Archives: Education

Imma let you get that training in the trades, but also … get your liberal arts degree!

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This is the new mantra: “Not every kid has to get a college degree. It is a great idea to get training in the trades.” This is wrong. Everyone should get college level liberal arts education, and for most, in the form of a degree. And of course, the trades, variously defined, is a very good place to be. Our society should make the choice to do both the common expectation, and affordable.

To be clear, that “liberal arts degree” might be an AA, a BA, or a BS, depending on your particular situation. And you shouldn’t have to pay for it, or at least, not much. Or it might be something equivalent to a degree, and it might be obtained in any of number of different ways. But for the most part, when educators speak of the “liberal arts” we mean the classes one takes for an associates degree or to meet the distribution requirements for a bachelor’s degree. For some students, a good chunk of this can happen in high school.

This idea that a college education is only for some is a pernicious falsehood. The premises of the statement are largely incorrect, and it is the same kind of civilization ending policy that gave us Trump and McConnell. Maybe not everyone needs a college degree, but in fact, that is the status quo already. About 39% of Americans ever get a four year degree or higher. About 66% get some college. So, the number of Americans (and we are typical of industrialized countries) who get at least a portion of a liberal arts program may be about half, depending on how one counts. So, why are we speaking of “you don’t really need a college degree” like this is a new strategy that is going to save us from something? The truth is, the fact that so many Americans are not more liberal-arts educated than they are is a problem we need to address and fix, not one that we need to exasperate with platitudes.

Anyone can benefit from liberal arts learning. At a societal level, this is how a generation makes that transition from adolescence to thoughtful adults prepared to contribute in this complex world. The mantra in question tells us to separate our youth into two categories. One includes those what will be richly endowed with knowledge and ability sufficient to contribute to our various national conversations, to understand the law, history, civics, science, literature, language, arts, enough to have a meaningfully enhanced appreciation of the world around them. The others might achieve this state of contribution, or not, and if so, achieve it without the same resources and help everyone else gets, because we told them no, this is not for you.

Indeed, people may be excused in this educationally bifurcated future for assuming those in the trades have a lesser grasp of these important things, maybe even a lesser right to contribute to the conversation, a diminished right to be heard and, why not, no real claim to the voting franchise.

(Have you ever had the sense that a person “in the trades” who also has a high level of post secondary education has done something subversive? Well, that feeling is real because the subversion is often real.)

There is a window of time, of two to four years, when a person is both ready and available to engage in this liberal arts project. There is variation in when a student is mature in learning and can thus engage in this kind of education. Ask any experienced high school or intro college teacher. Variation among high school juniors, for example, in how well they do in a particular advanced subject is not explained by their native intelligence, but rather, by their stage of maturity with respect to learning. The high school junior who just does not grasp AP biology might be a biology wiz as a college frosh, and from there, be your next Nobel Prize in Biology recipient. (Oh, and there really needs to be a Nobel prize in biology, by the way.)

That defines the opening of that window: ready to learn in all the ways one normally would be. The closing of the window (and this is of course an oversimplification) comes later, when the individual is beyond the introductory level in their education, working on a major, or graduate work. Or maybe they are starting up a business and are fully occupied with that, unable to be taking two night courses. Or family matters, or some other thing. Very few people are set up to take two or three courses at a time for a couple of years at any arbitrary point in their lives. This tends to happen only during that window, in that age range.

(As an aside: I did not go to college. I got a college degree on my merits, graduated in the top of my class of 10,000 at the University of the State of New York Regents College, then went on to get my MA and PhD. So I’m very highly educated, but not traditionally so. At a later time, I was a principle in a program at the University of Minnesota to support adults who were decidedly past that window of maturity and opportunity, to get their as yet unfinished degree. I served variously on the board of advisers, as a faculty advisor, a student general advisor, and director of admissions. In that capacity I was among a handful of people across the country actively supporting and working in favor of non traditional education. I say this here and now so that you, dear reader, understand that I appreciate non traditional approaches as much as anyone, fully embrace them, and I demand that non traditional approaches be part of any education system.)

For most, this window typically opens any time during the first year of Highs School (rare) and it can run as late as the last year of college (rare). For most people, this two or three year period happens somewhere between the start of the third year in high school and the end of the second year in college, and that is also when the “lower division,” or “liberal arts” courses, in both advanced high school (AP, etc.) and intro college, are most available to everyone.

Go into a trade, fine. Tell your kid into going into a trade, fine. Make sure to tell everyone in ear shot that this is what everyone should do after your careful study of education and society’s professional and avocational needs. Fine! The trades are where many, maybe most, people should be, and this should be a good way to go. And there should be more unionization, and more respect for the people that actually make civilization work.

But going into the trades should not sentence someone to a significantly reduced general education. At present, we don’t sacrifice high school for the trades, though there is a move to do that. What I’m suggesting here is that we embrace the basic liberal arts as part of our paid for and well attended to expectation for most people, regardless of the direction they have chosen, including trades, professional training, a military career, business, or any other thing.

But training in a trade with no liberal arts education produces a high proportion of adults who are not really ready to help us as much as they could in this whole civilization thing, and who effectively then become a burden on our system of government and politics. Thomas Jefferson pointed out that the ability of the people to self govern is closely linked to education. It is generally understood that public opinion is often simply wrong on the facts or easily manipulated by nefarious actors, and it is also understood that these effects are a product of differential education as much as anything else. (There are multiple factors, of course.) An education system that sorts out our children is a burden caused by policy intentionally and intentionally promoted, promulgated to produce a large angry, aka “populist,” middle and working class voting base that for the most part comply with the wishes of those who push for this policy.

Part of this is, of course, keeping college expensive, and using tax based funding to support private colleges that are generally out of reach of regular people. The 1%ers, the 10%ers, and the wanabee-%ers, strategize to make good education (at all levels K through PhD) deferentially available for the rich, mainly through private offerings, and to keep public education inadequate and use as little public money for it as possible.

The “go into a trade, it is the thing to do now” trope is simply more of this, and it is exactly what the Koch Brothers want you to say, think, and embrace.

Everyone deserves the opportunity to get that basic liberal arts education.

A few years ago I was tasked by the University of Minnesota to visit a giant military base where we expected thousands of troops standing down from the front lines in the Middle East to return for redeployment or homecoming. My job was to make contact with soon-to-be veterans or reservists who needed to fill out their education to obtain a BA/BS, certificate, or maybe a Masters.

It turns out that the large number of military personnel expected went to a different base, and only special forces soldiers arrived at my location.

Several had MAs. More commonly, though, they had PhDs or were working on their PhD. Most of the MA-only holders planned some sort of further graduate education, including law. Not a single one had only a bachelors degree or less. Not one.

Guess what folks. The most intense trade of them all may well be that of professional soldier. The top echelon of professional soldiers go way beyond a handful of liberal arts classes. This is not an accident, it is by design. It is also paid for.

Just like Medicare, this is a micro example of a way of doing things that is very very good but that we do not do. But we should.

Go into the trades. Meanwhile, society owes you a BA (or AA or similar). Good for you, good for all of us.


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How to get a few percent of college paid for with one small trick

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Without paying a dime for it, the United States Congress can cause colleges across the country — maybe not all but most — to write off the cost in tuition to students for at least a few percent, on average, of a college degree, and the colleges don’t have to pay a dime either (though they would lose a bit of income, they would also shed a corresponding amount of expense). Continue reading How to get a few percent of college paid for with one small trick


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How to be a better LEGO architect in 1001 easy lessons

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Some of the earliest LEGO sets were for buildings or some sort of structure, and to this day architecture forms a core part of the LEGO panoply. If you build an architecture project from a kit, you’ll see that they are highly engineered. In order to make a LEGO project look like something other than a concoction of random bricks made by some kids having fun (which is, of course, just fine), serious planning has to have happened.

Most of the LEGO books I’ve seen are pure idea books. If you wanted to build a project based on what you see in the books, you have to either have a huge collection of LEGO parts very well organized, or you have to be prepared to order several specific bricks that are called for in the books.

But that is the wrong way to play with LEGOs. The books demonstrate concepts, give you ideas, guide you to become a better LEGOer.

Very few LEGO books that I’ve seen are clearly this, clearly about methods and techniques, as The LEGO Architecture Idea Book: 1001 Ideas for Brickwork, Siding, Windows, Columns, Roofing, and Much, Much More by Alice Finch.

How does this work? Let me give you an example. Say you want to build a building with nice columns. There are many different kinds of columns out there in architecture land, and you can imagine that there are different ways to build each one, and which method you use depends, in turn, on the scale you are working on. Say you want to build columns that would go with a building that would work well with the assumption that the building will be used by minifigs (the small LEGO people that come with many kits). Finch gives you sixteen pages of ideas for columns, starting out with these two:

Or maybe you are in need of some curved walls:

Or stained glass:

Or towers:

You get the point.

LEGOs are bricks, and bricks are used to build buildings, and The LEGO Architecture Idea Book: 1001 Ideas for Brickwork, Siding, Windows, Columns, Roofing, and Much, Much More is a really helpful guide to developing the methods and techniques for doing that.

The wizzard behind the book, Alice Finch, is one of the top LEGO builders in the world, famous for her extensive renditions of Harry Potter’s world and other major projects (see below). This is a great book for the aspiring LEGO builder, and an excellent choice as a holiday gift for your LEGO-loving offspring.


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Kids Learn Coding with Scratch Cards

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First, in case you don’t know, “Scratch” is a programming language and environment.

Its mascot is a cat, of course, but the name “scratch” supposedly comes from the use of scratching by disk jockeys. Scratch was first developed at MIT back in the early 2000s, and has advanced considerably since then. You now see the basic format of this language either duplicated or mimicked in many different environments.

Scratch can be an online langauge or you can run a stand alone version, but the former is easier and better. To get started, go here and follow instructions.

If you want (your kid or you) to learn scratch fast, you may want to consider getting the cards produced by No Starch Press. You can get ScratchJr Coding Cards for ages 5 and up, or the much more advanced Scratch Coding Cards for kids 8 and above.

The idea is simple. You put the stack of cards on your desk next to the computer, which is tuned to the MIT Scratch site. Then you try out the stuff in the cards. By the time you are done you (or your kid if you step aside and allow access to the computer) will be pretty good at scratch programming.

I used the 3 year and above cards with Huxley, and we are about to start on the 8 and above cards, although he is very advanced and we are likely to skip past the first several.

By the way, Scratch runs on the web so you can access it from any sort of desktop or laptop computer including Chromebooks,a nd there are iOS and Android versions. It runs on the Kindle Fire as well.


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The Ultimate Science Stocking Stuffer, Also Fights the Patriarchy!

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From Hypatia of Alexandria to Katherine Hayhoe, women have made and continue to make important contributions to the physical sciences. Now, you can get the “Notable Women in the Physical Sciences” deck of cards to celebrate them!

Here’s the deal. Continue reading The Ultimate Science Stocking Stuffer, Also Fights the Patriarchy!


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A Great Echo Math Skill-Building Skill

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An Echo is a small round robot that lives in your house, and that you can give commands to, converse with, get to run your devices, and learn from.

(See this review of the Echo and related devices.)

An Echo “skill” is an app, essentially, which you can turn on and have available at any time to do whatever it is that that skill does. You can safely think of the word “skill” as equivilant to “app” for most purposes. Continue reading A Great Echo Math Skill-Building Skill


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Is Blood Ever Blue? Science Teachers Want to Know!

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According to one of the leading experts on the human circulatory system, blood flowing through veins is blue.

I’m not going to mention any names. All I’ll say is this: A person I know visited a major research center last year and saw a demonstration of organ removal and some other experimental stuff. A person also visiting asked the famous high-level researcher doing this work if blood was ever blue. What he said was not recorded in detail, but it was very much like this statement I found on the Internet:

… human blood is red as soon as it is oxygenated. Blue blood flows through veins back to the heart and lungs…..
[source: Some Guy on Yahoo Answers]

My friend was disturbed by this, as s/he had been teaching high school students for years that blood is not blue. Her understanding of the situation was that people thought blood was blue because standard anatomical drawings and models depict arteries as red and veins as blue, and because if you look at your veins they are blue. Obviously veins are not clear, but if you don’t think that out you might assume that you were seeing blue blood.

Continue reading Is Blood Ever Blue? Science Teachers Want to Know!


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Math Mystery Book That Is Bilingual

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You can solve mysteries with math, and you can do it in either English or Spanish, with One Minute Mysteries – Misterios de un Minuto: Short Mysteries You Solve With Math! – ┬íMisterios Cortos que Resuelves con Matem├íticas!, by Yoder and Yoder.

The original version of this book was all English, and was a best seller. This new version obviously gives you mucho mucho mas and math to boot.

The One Minute Mysteries series is well known and widely loved, and is recommended by the NSTA.

Have a notebook or a pile of blank paper and some writing instruments handy because you will need them to work out some of these problems.

This is for kids age 10-14, and is a well written, well constructed, well printed resource. I strongly recommend it if your family has young ones around that age, regardless of their math level. Also check out One Minute Mysteries: 65 Short Mysteries You Solve With Science! and One-Minute Mysteries and Brain Teasers: Good Clean Puzzles for Kids of All Ages.


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Back to School Science and Culture Stuff

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I usually write my annual back to school post earlier than this, but I was distracted by various events. There are three themes here.

1) You are a science teacher and I have some stuff for you.

2) You have a student in a school and you want to support the school’s science teacher.

3) You have a student-offspring or elsewise and are looking for a cool back to school gift.

First, for themes 1 and 2, a mixture of traditional back to school blog posts and some items that may be useful and happen to be on sale at the moment so now’s your chance.

My For Teachers Page has posts providing some science content in evolutionary biology (about Natural Selection and some other topics)

On the same page are essays on teaching philosophy, supporting life science teachers, and evolution and creationism in the classroom, including this famous video.

Books that teachers might find helpful. Consider sending your kids in to school with one of them, focusing on evoluton-creationism and climate change-denial:

Classic text on fighting creationism: Evolution vs. Creationism: An Introduction by Genie Scott

This book should be on the shelf or in the classroom for every teacher in science, or even social science. It is essentially the highly digestable (and illustration rich) version of the IPCC report on the scientific basis for climate change, written by one of that report’s famous authors: Dire Predictions, 2nd Edition: Understanding Climate Change

Teachers and parents of kids in school are in the trenches in the war on science. So you need to know what the war on science is and how to fight it. So, read Shawn Otto’s book The War on Science: Who’s Waging It, Why It Matters, What We Can Do About It

The Manga books on science and math. See this review of Regression Analysis, where you’ll find a list of others. Most recent and hot off the presses is The Manga Guide to Microprocessors

A handful of recent science for various ages (Links are to my reviews):

The Outdoor Science Lab for Kids
Monarch Butterflies and Milkweed: An amazing new book

The Grand Canyon: Monument To An Ancient Earth. Great new book.

And finally, how to not get caught plagiarizing, and what does that pillow that says “A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops” really mean? Not what you think!

And now for the fun part, the toys. Amazon is having a huge sale on refurbished devices that you may want to have. I assume they are getting ready for the holidays or something. Go to this link to see what they are

I myself got a Kindle Paperwhite E-reader a while back, and I love it. Then, for her birthday, I got one for Julia. I recommend starting out with the one with “special offers” which are basically ads that are not there when you are reading. The device is cheaper this way, and if the ads really annoy you, you can pay them off to upgrade to the no ad version.

I’m seriously thinking about getting Amanda one of these refurb-Kindle paperwhites. She likes the Kindle just enough for a refurbished one, maybe not enough for a new one…

At the very least, when you meet your teacher at the beginning of the school year, say to them what I say or something like it. “If you ever get hassled by anyone — parent, administration, other teachers — about teaching real science, let me know, I’ll be your best ally. Of course, if you are a science denier or a creationist so the situation is turned around, let me know, I’ll be your worst nightmare …” Then kind of pat them on the shoulder, flip your cape to one side, get on your motorcycle, and drive off.


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September 16th Is Buy A Teacher A Book Day

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OK, not really, I just made that up. But it should be! As all the kiddies are going back to school, especially yours if you’ve got ’em, and you are going to have your first meetings with the teachers (Parent Night, Conferences, etc.) over the next few days, this is a good time to bring your kid’s teacher(s) a nice book.

A book on the Evolution Creation Debate for your kid’s biology teacher, or school administrator. A nice science activity book, not necessarily to use in class, but for the elementary school teacher to get some ideas from.

Some ideas:

A local guide to birds or trees or something for a teacher that is known to take the kiddies out to the pond in the back of the school to collect stuff. Or a bird related book for the art teacher would be nice. That sort of thing.

One nice book, that I just reviewed, is Climate Change Discover How It Impacts Space Ship Earth. Related would be Mike Mann’s pictorial version of the latest IPCC Report’s science volume. Genie Scott’s book on Evolution vs. Creationism.

A kid’s book on global warming or one on evolution would be nice for the elementary school teachers.


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