Tag Archives: Education

The Ultimate Science Stocking Stuffer, Also Fights the Patriarchy!

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!

Please Power Down Your White Privilege Now.

Back to school special:

I’d like to note that not every teacher who “moves to a school in the suburbs” does so for bad reasons. Some of them do so after being handed a $10,000 per annum pay cut and a contract with zero chance of a raise for the indefinite future or something else along those lines. In other words, while I strongly agree with Olivia Fantini, she may have some unexamined privilege of her own in blaming teachers for their own victimization.

Taxpayers, anti-tax organizations, and the elected officials bought and paid for by them are at the root of most of our problems in education. We used to fund education nearly well enough. Since the old days, it got more expensive and the basis for paying for it became, essentially, illegal in most states. THAT is where most of the blame should be placed.

Still a great video, though.

Electronics for Kids: Great new book for kids and their adults

The simplest project in the new book Electronics for Kids: Play with Simple Circuits and Experiment with Electricity! by Øyvind Nydal Dahl is the one where you lean a small light bulb against the two terminals of a nine volt battery in order to make the light bulb turn on.

The first several projects in the book involve making electricity, or using it to make light bulbs shine or to run an electromagnet. [/caption]The most complicated projects are the ones where you make interactive games using LED lights and buzzers.

Electronics for Kids: Play with Simple Circuits and Experiment with Electricity! does almost no electricity theory. Thankfully. It simply delves in to messing around with electricity (and in so doing, provides basic theory, of course).

This is a book about how to play with electricity, not how to get a Masters Degree in electricity. In other words, any kid, the ones who seem destine for a career in electronic engineering and the ones who don’t, can get along in this book because it does not assume itself to be a building brick to a greater career. Yet the projects are interesting and informative and educational, and any kid who does a dozen of these projects is going to learn.

This kind of activity, which should involve parents for most kids, is the cure for the sense of depression you feel when you go to the toy store and look at the “science” section and everything you see is crap. Just get this book, order 50 bucks worth of parts, and get to work-fun. Then order some more parts, probably.

No kids’ book on electronics would be complete without a batter made from something you get in the produce section.[/caption]This book for kids is very kid oriented, as it should be. One of the first practical projects you build is an alarm system to keep your parents the heck out of your room. You can make a noisy musical instrument. You can make a device that makes sounds some humans can hear (the kids, likely) and some can’t (parents).

Although soldering is done, it is minimal and, frankly, can probably be avoided by using alternative techniques. But really, it is not that hard and one should not be too afraid of it.

A lot of the projects use and develop logic circuits. Kids actually love logic circuits, I think because they end up rethinking a bit about how tho think about simple relationships. And, it is good to know this stuff.

Unlike many electronic kits you can buy (which can be quite fun and educational in their own right) this approach does not rely on ICs (integrated circuits) that produce magical results with poorly described inputs and hookups. There are some basic ICs, including gates, an inverter, flip flops, and a timer. These are very straight forward circuits that are mostly (except the timer) really just very fancy switches.

The web site that goes with Electronics for Kids: Play with Simple Circuits and Experiment with Electricity! gives you a list of all the parts used in the book, with enough information to find them easily on line or at a hardware or electronics store. The book suggests a multimeter, which is probably the most expensive thing on the list. (this one is perfectly good and is about 35 bucks.) Other tools include a soldering iron and related bits, a wire cutter, some scissors, tape, etc.

Many of the parts, including a breadboard, LEDs, hook up wires of various kinds, and pretty much all the resistors, capacitors, etc. etc. can also be used with the more sophisticated Arduino projects, should you end up going in that direction.

This is a really fun book. If you have a kid of the right age (maybe from six to 12, with 100% adult involvement under 10 years) get it now, secretly, get some parts, and work your way through several of the projects. Then, make it (and the parts) a holiday present. Then look really smart.

This chapter-end section give you an idea of the level of the projects. There is a lot of stuff in here. All doable, but it will take a while to get through it all. [/caption]Here is the overview table of contents (the book is much more detailed than suggested by this top level TOC):

PART 1: Playing with Electricity
Chapter 1: What Is Electricity?
Chapter 2: Making Things Move with Electricity and Magnets
Chapter 3: How to Generate Electricity

PART 2: Building Circuits
Chapter 4: Creating Light with LEDs
Chapter 5: Blinking a Light for the First Time
Chapter 6: Let’s Solder!
Chapter 7: Controlling Things with Circuits
Chapter 8: Building a Musical Instrument

PART 3: Digital Electronics
Chapter 9: How Circuits Understand Ones and Zeros
Chapter 10: Circuits That Make Choices
Chapter 11: Circuits That Remember Information
Chapter 12: Let’s Make a Game!

Appendix: Handy Resources

Women and Physics by Laura McCullough

Women and Physics by Laura McCulloch is a concise addition to the IOP Science Concise Physics series.

McCullough is an award winning Professor of Physics at UW Stout, and served for several years as the chair of that university’s Chemistry and Physics Department. Her research focuses on physics education, and gender and science. By both chance and design, I know a lot of people in this area, and I’m pretty sure IOP Science could not have had a better choice in authors for this important book.

How do you make a physicist? Well, you start with a child, and poke at it for 25 year or so until it become something, and maybe it will become a physicist. Meanwhile, the growing and developing individual passes through several stages. If the child is a male, those stages are called opportunities. If the child is a female, they are called filters.

McCullough writes,

When I walked into my physics graduate school on day one and there were twenty-four men and me, I knew that we had a problem. A problem begging for a solution, and because I am a scientist and what I do is solve problems, that moment was the beginning of what has been twenty years of research on gender issues in science for me. I don’t know all the answers, and I doubt the problem will be solved in my lifetime, but I know more than I knew then, and sharing that is part of the solution. Hence this book.

McCullough surveys and describes the filters, and the stages. She looks at how women are challenged at every stage. She describes what the field of Physics has done so far to remove gender biased barriers to women’s progress, and what needs to be done in the future.

I should probably mention that the sciences in general, the physical sciences in particular, and super-duper-especially physics (in its various forms) have a) not allowed women to progress fairly at any stage, ever, and b) still manage to have been shaped and influenced by the important work of a number of women. I’m sure you already knew that, but just in case, there it is.

This isn’t just about institutions. It is also about how individuals interact, about social and cultural stereotypes and biases, and individual decisions.

Here is how McCullough underscores the filtering process:

A little girl waits patiently at a science exhibit for another child to finish. Her brother butts in when he comes over to see it and she never gets her turn.

A young woman in high school physics is always relegated to be the record keeper and never gets a chance to play with the equipment.

A woman walks into her first day of physics graduate school and sees twenty four men and no other women.

A physics professor is called ‘Mrs’ by her students instead of ‘Dr’.

An assistant professor is placed on every departmental committee in order to
have female representation.

A woman makes a suggestion at her weekly research group meeting. Her idea is ignored. Three minutes later, a man makes the same suggestion and is applauded.

How many physicists are women? What does the process of filtering, which in some ways applies to all would-be physicists of any gender, do differently with women? How are these trends changing?

Two of McCullough’s core chapters are titled “What helps, what hurts: family and education” and “What helps, what hurts: family and career.”

These social and professional spaces are where the rubber meets the road. This is where, to use a physics metaphor for a social problem affecting physics, kinetic energy (desire and motivation) and friction (the status quo, power structures, the patriarchy) come into play.

Is there a “masculinist” and a “feminist” nature of science? This is the sort of question that can cause spit to come flying out of the heads of the most mild mannered seemingly non-sexist male scientists, especially in physics (many biological scientists know there are gendered features of science, at multiple levels). I suspect that in physics, this is mostly surficial gendering, which has profound impacts on women’s careers. In other sciences, human genders interact with other human genders, and non-human genders, in all sorts of ways. My own biological science with respect to humans had to be fully gender bound, as my field studies could only be done with male subjects. My female colleagues could only work with female subjects. I’m not sure if physicists have the same issues. I suppose we should consider ourselves lucky (maybe) that in the naming of quantum-level aspects of matter-energy, male-female gender was never employed (as opposed to color, orientation, strength, etc.) Imagine what cold have been…

But I digress. McCullough writes about this aspect of gendering in the physical sciences as well, as ingress to the topic of covert discrimination.

I regard this book as something of a manual for women in physics, and for men who may be, should be, mentors. It is for teachers of physical science (or, really, all science) in high schools and colleges. These are all people who a) already feel they know what is going on with gender discrimination, but b) often mistakingly ignore that this is a separate subfield of study and no, they don’t. Parents of kids (boys and girls) who are leaning into the sciences would benefit too, but they are probably not that likely to read an academic book like this. Note to self: Suggest to Laura that she write a version of this for the families.

Women and Physics is available now, go read it.

Climate Smart and Energy Wise

Climate Smart & Energy Wise: Advancing Science Literacy, Knowledge, and Know-How by Mark McCaffrey is a book written primarily for teachers, to give them the information and tools they need to bring the topic of climate change effectively to their classrooms. It addresses the Climate Literacy and Energy Literacy frameworks, designed to guide teaching this important topic.

The book provides basics on climate and energy, approaches to teaching about climate and energy, and of special interest for teachers, syncing the topics with existing standards. The main point of the book is to get teachers up to speed, but this is not restricted to teachers at a certain level, or for that matter, a certain topic, in that climate change and energy can be incorporated in a very wide range of electives and mainstream classes. The goal of teaching climate literacy is developed by focusing on the “seven essential principles”:

  1. The sun is the primary source of energy for Earth’s climate system.
  2. Climate is regulated by complex interactions among components of the Earth system.
  3. Life on Earth depends on, is shaped by, and affects climate.
  4. Climate varies over space and time through both natural and human processes.
  5. Our understanding of the climate system is improved through observation, theoretical studies, and modeling.
  6. Human activities are impacting the climate system.
  7. Climate change will have consequences for the Earth system and human lives.

And, similarly, there are seven organizing concepts for teaching energy:

  1. Energy is a physical quantity that follows precise natural laws.
  2. Physical processes on Earth are the result of energy flow through the Earth system.
  3. Biological processes depend on energy flow through the Earth system.
  4. Various sources of energy can be used to power human activities, and often this energy must be transferred from source to destination.
  5. Energy decisions are influenced by economic, political, environmental, and social factors.
  6. The amount of energy used by human society depends on many factors.
  7. The quality of life of individuals and societies is affected by energy choices.

There is a chapter on countering denialism, and a chapter on mainstream activism.

Mark McCaffrey is the Programs and Policy Director for these topics at the National Center for Science Education, and this book is an NCSE project. McCaffrey has blogged about the contents of the book on the NCSE blog; his first entry is here. In his own words:

…if well presented and handled with creativity and care, climate and energy issues are ideal interdisciplinary and integrating themes, potentially linking the sciences with mathematics, language arts, geography, history, arts, social studies and civics, and at the college level, bringing in psychology, sociology, writing and rhetoric, philosophy, business…. You get the picture.

Most importantly, climate and energy are topics that are imperative to teach if we are going to effectively respond to these challenges, and make informed climate and energy decisions.

Climate Smart & Energy Wise: Advancing Science Literacy, Knowledge, and Know-How is well written, well laid out, a good read but also an excellent on-the-shelf reference book for educators designing or updating courses. It is coming out later this month and costs only $25.00. A great gift for your favorite teacher!

The figure at the top of the post is from the book.

Who Are The Most Influential African Americans, Ages 25-45?

The Root 100 2014 is seeking your nominations. DEADLINE IS MONDAY. They are

…just about ready to celebrate the innovators, the trailblazers and the influencers in the African-American community who have caught our attention in the past year. [They] will announce The Root 100 of 2014 and celebrate these 25-45-year-olds who are paving the way in politics, entertainment, business, the arts, social justice, science and sports. Right now, it’s your turn to submit nominations for those you think deserve this coveted honor.

There will be many well-known figures on the list, but, each year, The Root 100 seeks to recognize those whose accomplishments may have gone unacknowledged on a national level. Our honorees are ranked according to a scoring system that measures reach and substance. Last year, our No. 1 honoree was then-NAACP President Benjamin Jealous, with about-to-be U.S. Sen. Cory Booker in second place. Both men’s public profiles have changed, so stay tuned to see what happens in 2014.

Other 2013 honorees included MSNBC’s new host Joy-Ann Reid, chef Marcus Samuellsson and Assistant U.S. Attorney Randall Jackson.
We will spend the next weeks collecting names, debating our choices and putting all the names through the stringent criteria we use to determine the best of the best.
The deadline is June 30th for you to weigh in. Submit the names of those you believe are making a difference in the black community. Just fill out The Root 100 2014 nomination form below.

Go HERE to nominate. I suggest a STEM related person.

Chaos in the classroom and how to replace it with learning

Can we replace Classroom Chaos with Learning-Centered Education?

K–12 education can be better. One of the most effective changes that could be made is to reduce the amount of chaos in the classroom and replace it with learning.

I spend several hours a year in various schools giving presentations on Anthropology, Evolution, Brainzz, and other topics. Plus, I know some teachers and have taught seminars specifically for teachers. For these reasons I have a sense of what happens in high school (and to a lesser extent middle school and elementary school) classrooms. What I am about to describe – “classroom chaos” – is found in every school that I know of, and it is appalling.

You might think that classroom chaos is the product of out of control students, or class sizes that are too large, or escaped animals (all of which are problems, of course). But that is not what I’m talking about. The following is a short list of the causes of classroom chaos:

  1. The Principal
  2. The Yearbook
  3. The Congress of the United States of America
  4. State Legislatures
  5. The College Board and other similar entities
  6. The Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion

The following is a complete list of entities that DO NOT cause classroom chaos:

  1. Teachers
  2. Students
  3. Guest Speakers

What are some examples of events that when they occur cause classroom chaos?

Imagine that a teacher is five minutes away from the end of the third class for the day (i.e., the same “prep” i.e. “AP Chemistry” being taught three times). The intercom system comes on because the principal has decided to make a school wide announcement about something. Everyone sits and listens to the principal and then class ends. The students in that class don’t get the learning that happened in the other classes for that last five minutes, which depending on the class might be very important. Also, the teacher is left to figure out how to adjust for this, which can be difficult because the three classes for this prep are now out of sync.

Imagine that all of the sophomores in the school are scheduled at the same time to take a test offered by a major testing agency. They must take the test as part of their overall high school-to-college tracking. So, sophomores, as part of their effort to demonstrate their learning, don’t get to learn what the other students (who are not sophomores) were learning in their mixed grade class that morning, and the teachers have to figure out a way of adjusting for this, possibly by spinning wheels for a while. But it may be quite difficult to make that adjustment, and it may just be the case that those sophomores have lost a learning opportunity. Ironically, that lack of learning may show up later in other standardized tests that they will, in the future, be pulled out of class to take.

Standards-related state-wide or national tests are scheduled for an arbitrary time of year that has little to do with when students learn the material being tested. This disrupts the entire schedule at a large scale. It is very common, for example, that an AP exam is scheduled nation-wide by the College Board to occur near the middle of the third of three terms in a school year for a particular school district. This means that either the students take the test several weeks after the end of their AP class, or before the class has ended, rendering the final weeks of the term moot in relation to that AP test. This actually costs students and their families money because AP tests are a way to avoid paying for some expensive college classes the students will be required to take later, and the grade one earns on the AP test determines whether or not the student can opt out of the required class. Also, the test itself takes up valuable teaching time. Certainly, taking an AP test is a very worthwhile endeavour, but state-wide standards-related tests are not worth the student’s time. Those tests are not there to challenge or educate the student, and are generally not used to evaluate the student, but rather, to measure and control the quality of the schools the students are in. These tests are the byproduct of a system of education that knows something about the problems it has but tends to find the clumsiest way to solve those problems. More to the point, the cost paid to improve education is unfairly borne by the students and teachers, and the cost is paid as lost learning.

There are a lot of tests that students are required or encouraged to take, including (depending on the state and district) a PLAN test, PSAT test, a state-wide test such as the MCA given in Minnesota, and AP tests), so the total amount of time taken away can be rather large. I’m not arguing against testing. That would be a different topic. But even if we assume that evaluation is important (and this could be the case) evaluation should not be done at the cost of damaging the learning environment.

In many schools, three or four students in every single classroom in every single class all day have to leave to get their ID photos taken, visit a guidance counselor for a mandated meeting, or get their yearbook picture taken. In one school I know of, over a period of several days each term, students are called via the public address system in small numbers based on the alphabetical position of their last name to attend a group guidance meeting, so for the entire day virtually every class is randomly interrupted and at any given moment there are students missing from the classroom. Imagine the equivalent disruption caused by the student. For example, imagine that two or three students put their ear buds in and ignore the teacher for half the class. They would not get away with that. Why does the yearbook or the administration get away with bringing students out of the classroom randomly like this?

In some schools, all the senior are excused from one class so that a senior picture can be taken out on the lawn. Some students leave their classes behind for extended periods for college visits at a career center. In many cases students are allowed to leave their last class early for extracurricular activities, such as debate team or sports. Then, there are the fire drills, tornado drills, and lockdown drills. (Corresponding to that sort of disruption, I could have added “Terrorists, spree killers, and arsonists” to the above list of causal agents!)

Pepfests shorten the schedule so that students can cram into a less than adequately sized auditorium to hear each grade level try to yell louder than the other (which really does nothing but create division between the grades), watch silly games like relays where kids hop in gunney sacks across a slippery floor, all while students increasingly show riotous behavior that quite frankly intimidates many teachers. (Note to parents: you should be able to send a note to the school excusing your offspring from this sort of event. Check it out.)

Less chaotic but still a time sink are shortened schedules or substitutes employed to bring teachers out of the classroom. Some schools have a “late start” day where all the class schedules are shortened so that some regular event like an advisory meeting can happen in the morning. Or, teachers are pulled from classes en masse and replaced with substitutes so they can attend to administrative functions. This category of disruption is actually a better solution to classroom chaos in some cases because all of the students and teachers are affected similarly and simultaneously, but it is still the case that when adding up days of instruction over the year, this should not be ignored.

In most schools, the pledge of allegiance must be recited every day at the beginning of one class, meaning that for this class, one of several in a prep, is always short. That’s like every fourth car in the car wash not getting it’s back end washed, or every fourth customer at the grocery store getting one item lifted from their packages on the way out the door. If it was really a “pledge” the students should be fine taking it once, perhaps on the first day of first grade. (Not to mention the fact that in many classroom many students are not American citizens, so pledging to the US flag may be a felony in their own country, but I digress….)

I’ll leave it to the reader to match the above list of causal agents to their various chaos-causing disruptions.

If we count the disruption for standards based tests, AP tests, and other non-test-taking disruptions, far more learning time is lost to classroom chaos than to snow days in a northern state during a very bad winter. School boards will have meetings at which they’ll belly-ache about snow days, and whether or not to extend a school year because there were too many of them, but the numerous systematic yet chaotic disruptions approved by the the school boards or required by the state are never or rarely discussed as a negative impact on learning. Also, consider this: Most, probably all, states mandate a certain amount of classroom time per year, but the policy makers who put these rules in place seem oblivious to the fact that there is no cap on the amount of classroom disruption. If, indeed, a particular state happens to mandate a minimum number of days of “learning” (instead of just a minimum number of “school days”) then there may be grounds for some sort of lawsuit. A state that mandates 180 days of learning time (explicitly stated as such) but then mandates several days of interruption of that time may be liable for breaking its own rules.

I teach college. Nobody interrupts my class but me. The idea of an administrator showing up in my classroom and making an announcement would be outrageous. I determine when the tests are scheduled and the manner of their administration. Over many years of teaching, I’ve had the police show up to talk to (or in some cases, take away) a student about a half dozen times. Even then, the police officers know to wait patiently until after I’m done with class before they move in. This happened to me just a couple of weeks ago. The police, these days, seem empowered to demand your ID on the street, search your house or car with rather bogus “probable cause,” have by their policies have de facto made dissent and assembly illegal, and have taken to using numerous novel forms of violence such as pepper spary and tasers on ordinary citizens exercising their constitutional rights. But they don’t mess with a teacher in the classroom … in college. But in high school? Anything goes.

Many of the reasons for the disruptions I’ve mentioned above are valid. Perhaps we need tests. Extracurricular activities are good, I assume. Advising is important and, if anything, there should be more of it. College visits are probably a good thing (though the methods colleges use to market themselves to students are highly questionable, but that’s also a topic for another time). But there is a problem with the way all of these things are implemented. It is is indubitably and demonstrably true that learning in the classroom is prioritized last and everything else is prioritized above classroom time. Students are not very subtly being taught a very significant negative lesson, or perhaps several such lessons. Learning is not as important as administration and bureaucracy. Learning does not require or involve continuity or focus. Society claims, and tells the students, that education is very important, yet learning in the classroom, a central part of education, is clearly not a high priority. This teaches the students that a central pillar of society is built on a lie. Educators and administrators would very much like society to respect education more than it does, to hold it in high regard and view it as a funding priority. This may be a difficult argument to make if we demonstrate to our students on a nearly daily basis for over a decade that everything is more important than learning. It should not be a surprise that so many citizen-taxpayers are cynical about education. The system of education was cynical about their learning day after day and year after year.

What is the solution? It is probably not possible to fully address these problems, but I have two specific suggestions that I think would go a long way. These suggestions are general and would need to be implemented thoughtfully and creatively.

First, make the classroom a sacred space, and classroom time sacred time. Those PA systems should only be used for emergencies. Only the teacher should be allowed to decide what happens in that room. Students are required to make the case that they have to pee, and thus get a bathroom pass; everyone else in or near a school needs to make the case for disrupting the classroom, and the expectation should be that they’ll be routinely denied. This may require that schools change the way they arrange their schedules. For example, guidance counselors could routinely have a late day. If classes are run from 7:30 onwards, guidance counselors can start their day at 9:30 and concentrate almost all of their activities that directly involve students during the time after classes are over. This will require creative solution for busing but educators and administrators are creative people. Figure it out. Another pragmatic solution is to routinely include a study period in each student’s schedule. This is the time that the student can carry out many of the various activities for which they are typically called out of class. This will require administrations to change the way they serve those student’s needs. Instead of students being called out of class for their ID photo, they are required to go to the photo ID office during their study period. And so on.

With respect to testing and the disruption this causes, large scale changes will need to be made. If we decide as a society (at the national or state level) that there will be tests given across many school districts, then we need to end our worship of “home rule” whereby every school district determines its own schedule. School boards may be unaware of this, but major calendric events such as Thanksgiving and the various religious holidays such as Christmas actually happen on the same exact schedule in all states, counties, towns, and districts across this great land of ours. Summer is simultaneous, it turns out, no matter where you are in the Northern Hemisphere. Child labor laws have almost entirely eliminated the requirement to let youngsters out of school to help with the seasonal harvest or work in the mills while the hydro power is strongest with the spring floods. We can have a national (or at least, state-wide) schedule, and in so doing, we can have things like AP tests and other tests administered in a sensible way. In addition, some tests can be given multiple times. It is difficult and costly to create multiple versions of a given test each year, but it is not impossible to have two or three AP tests to accommodate two or three different schedule paradigms among which school districts choose nation-wide.

Sports are a problem. Notice how many disruptions occur to classroom time. Are there similar disruptions that occur to sporting schedules? I don’t think so. It is apparent that sports trumps learning. This, I suspect, is a funding and community relations effect. When was the last time an irate parent beat up a principal because his child did not get to make up a physics lab she missed during an illness? I can’t remember that ever happening. When was the last time a parent assaulted a coach or threatened another parent over a perceived bad call on the playing field? I believe this happens almost daily in this country, now and then in a manner sufficiently spectacular to become a form of newsertainment. This prioritization of sports reaches across high school and college and life in general, with some high schools viewed as sources for top amateur athletes for various colleges, and those colleges viewed as sources for top professional athletes. Students with high athletic potential are each unlikely to become a professional athlete, and if so, are unlikely to do well in that profession, given the severe culling that happens as we breed or gladiators. But those students may be given a pass on their learning anyway, increasing the chance that they do poorly in life so that a very few may take the very important role in making a lot of other people rich and/or happy.

The fact that this appalling system of trafficking and exploitation also takes a higher priority in high schools is unacceptable. But even more unacceptable is the fact that sports takes a higher priority over education in high school than it does in college. In high school, a teacher is at the mercy of the sports teams, with students being excused (not by the teacher but by the administration) from class, and in many cases, being away from all of their classes especially if their team is doing well and enters playoffs. (Which is not necessarily a bad thing because it represents student success in an area important to them.) I’ve taught at a handful of different colleges including two with major commitments to sports. In the college setting, the athletic schedules are managed in such a way that they don’t interfere with the classroom schedule (though some classes, i.e. those taught late in the afternoon, are not taken by many athletes) and it is possible to not even know that you have an athlete in your class, with two exceptions. First, it is the case in both high school and college that when a particular team does very well and enters playoffs, they may be gone for several days. This is probably not avoidable, but if most of these other problems were fixed, it would be tolerable. Second, as a college teacher, I am actually asked to give permission to the student to continue engagement in athletics! If you don’t do well in class, you can’t play on the field. I’m asked, politely, by the administration or individual students to certify on a form that each athlete in my class is doing well enough academically to participate in sports.

So, the first thing to do to handle this problem is to prioritize education, learning in the classroom, the classroom time itself, the teacher as the effective monarch of the classroom, and then re-examine all the other needs from guidance sessions to photo shoots to sports and, especially, tests to have those needs be met in a way that does not cause classroom chaos. Figure it out.

The second thing to do is simpler but very important: Apologize. Humble the disruptions in relation to the learning. Stop assuming that anything the administration of a school, or a school board, or a state legislature, or any other entity wants to happen can happen at the expense of learning in the classroom, and when such a thing must happen at the expense of learning in the classroom, the entity causing the chaos must do so in a contrite manner and in parallel with a sincere effort to not let it happen as much, or at all, in the future. In other words, change the culture.

All we need to do to fix our system of education is …

… well, actually, you can start by shutting up.

Then, while you are sitting there quietly read this: Why Teaching Is Harder Than It Looks.

Then, add your advice about how we can fix our system of education to the comments below. But each suggestion must be paid for (with money) and fit into the schedule (by paying someone to do what you suggest instead of what they are at present required to do).

Which means, ultimately, there is one fundamental answer to improving our system of education: Throw money at it. For starters, stop taking money away from it. The, put more in.


Photo Credit: chrissuderman via Compfight cc

Using ScreenFlow and the Reverse Classroom

Next Fall, I will probably try something new in teaching an intro Biological Anthropology course: The Reverse Classroom. This is an idea that is being increasingly applied in High School settings. The simplest version of this idea is that classroom lectures are converted to an on line resource that the students access on their own time, and what would have been study or homework time is done in the classroom. In reality it is a bit more complex than this, because a “lecture” converted to an on line resource may, and probably should, be very different than an in-class lecture, and the activities that are done in the classroom would not consist of students sitting by themselves reading or doing some sort of work. The on line “lecture” would be broken into smaller-than-lecture bits, and involve more interactive tools, and the in-class activities would involve more group activities and tutorials. Also, I don’t intend to create a fully reversed classroom; I’ll use this technique for parts of the course, distributed across the semester.

Pursuant to this, I’ve been looking at tools to help make this work, and on the advice of Peter Sinclair, famous for his most excellent climate science related videos, I’ve obtained a demo copy of ScreenFlow
icon. ScreenFlow works on an iMac. It allows one to specify a window or screen to capture, while at the same time (optionally) to record video and audio off of the hardware built into the computer. So, for example, one can make a Libra Office Impress or Keynote
icon presentation, then “film” oneself giving the presentation. Your head, talking, and your voice are then joined with the presentation you are running through. Your talking head can be in a little box in the corner, the box can be moved, or it can be made invisible. Aside from the presentation itself, one can add text box overlays or other graphic elements. There is even a facility to have a text-to-speech insertion, so I can have a computerized voice read off part of the presentation, though I’m not entirely sure yet why I would do that. Maybe I can make a virtual heckler.

One can also get entirely out of the “presentation” (read “PowerPoint”) mode as well, by simply recording the display of graphics via a file viewer, or for that matter, PDF’s. I’ve done this sort of thing as a lecture tool to some effect. Using this method, instead of showing a presentation on screen in a lecture context, you show your computer’s desktop on which there are various files, perhaps even folders of files. Then, as part of the lecture presentation one opens web browser pages, graphics using a file viewer, sections of spread sheets, etc. etc. Incorporating a window with Google Earth, especially including a pre-programmed fly-over is a nice touch as well. So, you show a web page with a recent news report on some site, use Google Earth to fly from the site of the campus you are on to the location of the site, zoom in, discuss terrain and geographical context, then using the file viewer show a handful of photographs of the site, then open a spreadsheet page with some data, pull up a few graphs, and finally display a PDF file of a published report on that site for a detailed discussion.

Then, ideally, engage in a live Google Hangout with the site’s excavator and one or two other scientists who want to complain about the excavator’s findings for a steal cage death match showdown.

That method … the desktop based meta-presentation … would also be ideal for capture with ScreenFlow. And my head can be there in a box down in the corner being amazed at it all. Though it would probably be better to get someone else’s head.

ScreenFlow allows for quite a bit of editing of the captured screen activity, combining of different sessions, etc. And, I just discovered (but have not yet tested) ScreenFlow’s ability to use a Green Screen. So, not only can my talking head be down there in the corner talking, but I can make myself appear to be somewhere I’m not. A few hominids tooling around in the background, a fancy laboratory setting, the Library of Alexandria for my Carl Sagan imitation…. the possibilities are endless!

Have you used any sort of screen capture software to record lectures or other presentations? Are you familiar with ScreenFlow? Want to take my class and see how it goes?

Are Children "Natural Scientists" or not?

ResearchBlogging.orgNeil deGrasse Tyson if famous for telling us that children are natural scientists, and cautioning us to be careful not to ruin that thing about them. He makes a good case. No one ever thought, I think, that he meant that children were born resistant to the sorts of biases that scientists actively eschew, or with a developed sense of probability theory that all scientists need to evaluate their work and the work of others, and those other tools that scientists get trained in for several years before they can really call themselves scientists. He mean, rather … how shall I put this. Oh hell, you can see what he says here:

Now, there is controversy, and it is my job as your blogger to tell you about it. It starts with the video above and others like it, and is expanded on by a paper by Claire Cook, Noah Goodman and Laura Schulz in the journal Cognition called “Where science starts: Spontaneous experiments in preschoolers’ exploratory play” (PDF) which hast this abstract:

Probabilistic models of expected information gain require integrating prior knowledge about causal hypotheses with knowledge about possible actions that might generate data relevant to those hypotheses. Here we looked at whether preschoolers (mean: 54 months) recognize ‘‘action possibilities’’ (affordances) in the environment that allow them to isolate variables when there is information to be gained. By manipulating the physical properties of the stimuli, we were able to affect the degree to which candidate variables could be isolated; by manipulating the base rate of candidate causes, we were able to affect the potential for information gain. Children’s exploratory play was sensitive to both manipulations: given unambiguous evidence children played indiscriminately and rarely tried to isolate candidate causes; given ambiguous evidence, children both selected (Experiment 1) and designed (Experiment 2) informative interventions.

To make that just a tad more clear, here is a bit more from the same paper:

These results suggest that preschoolers distinguish, not only ambiguous and unambiguous evidence but also potentially informative and uninformative interventions. In cases where there was information to be gained, preschoolers spontaneously selected (Experiment 1) and designed (Experiment 2) actions to effectively isolate the relevant variables. Critically, the target experiments were not otherwise part of children’s exploratory repertoire; children almost never performed them given unambiguous evidence.

So, scientists seem to have found evidence that children have certain key behavioral characteristics that one would normally see in a growed-up scientist.

Also, we have the blog post “More Than Child’s Play: Ability to Think Scientifically Declines as Kids Grow Up” by Sharon Begley.

Since the 1990s studies have shown that children think scientifically—making predictions, carrying out mini experiments, reaching conclusions and revising their initial hypotheses in light of new evidence.

She discusses the above cited paper, and concludes:

… If even the youngest kids have an intuitive grasp of the scientific method, why does that understanding seem to vanish within a few years? Studies suggest that K–12 students struggle to set up a controlled study and cannot figure out what kind of evidence would support or refute a hypothesis. One reason for our failure to capitalize on this scientific intuition we display as toddlers may be that we are pretty good, as children and adults, at reasoning out puzzles that have something to do with real life but flounder when the puzzle is abstract, Goodman suggests—and it is abstract puzzles that educators tend to use when testing the ability to think scientifically. In addition, as we learn more about the world, our knowledge and beliefs trump our powers of scientific reasoning. …

Now, we have the dissenting view, from Matthew Francis at Galileo’s Pendulum, in his post “Children Are Not “Natural” Scientists“:

A pernicious myth, repeated with good intentions in many places and by many people, is that children are natural scientists. They are born with something that gets beaten or worn out of them by bad teachers, bad schools, bad educational practices, and then must relearn what it means to be a scientist later in life. Like many myths, there’s a mixture of truth and falsehood, but ultimately the myth is damaging and leads us into bad habits of thought.

One gets the impression that Matthew does not like the idea. He states:

“Thinking like a researcher” is not the same thing as a natural curiosity and mental plasticity — scientific research is very much a learned skill, in my experience, but I admit to being entirely ignorant of child development…

The answer, of course, may be more nuanced than simply “yes” or “no” to the scientific kung fu of children, and for nuanced answers we look to people like Marie-Claire Shanahan, who always has interesting and valuable things to say. Marie-Claire argued some time before this recent questioning of the issue arose that Students don’t lose their ability to think scientifically:

…school children and teenagers continue to understand the basics of experimentation very well. There are several resources for teaching the concept of fair testing in science. They usually begin with intuitive ideas related to general fairness, like using the analogy of a race where everyone must start at the same place and take the same route. Even the idea of a fair test experiment, though, gives a very simplified introduction to scientific investigations. What is much more difficult is, for example, the idea of a variable. And here’s where I disagree not just with Sharon Begley but with the authors of the paper. By trying to isolate which blocks will make the toy work, the children are not isolating variables. There is only one variable – the blocks – and the children have found an innovative way to try to test one block at a time.

… Even simple variables like length are more challenging than they seem. It is one thing to measure the length of a particular piece of string, quite another to conceive of length as a general property that can be measured or manipulated in any object. This especially true because it is also somewhat arbitrary, requiring the person doing the experiment to choose an operational definition (e.g., by defining length as the measurement of the longest side). There is no concrete thing called length. It is an abstract word that describes a type of measurement. Understanding that is much harder than trying to find a way to measure it in specific objects, which is analogous to what the children are doing in trying to find a way to test each block individually.

Personally, I don’t think there is a lot of disagreement here. Neil deGrasse Tyson is right: Children ruin things in their never ending quest to find out what they are. The cited experimental research demonstrates that children have certain aspects of the scientific method built in. Marie-Claire is correct in parsing out the fact that true adult scientists have created a discipline in which things that are hard to automatically address are seen to with methology and theory, things that people would not automatically think of on their own.

I’m reminded of some of my recent reading in the literature of Witch Hunting in the late Middle Ages and early Enlightenment in Europe. The argument went like this: There are typical characteristics of Witches that let you identify them. Thus, there is a list of interrogations one uses to spot the Witch. Part of the methodology is to torture the suspected Witch until she or he confesses. It seems like every time a Witch is found, the interrogation produces the same result, confirming the method. Everyone involved seemed to believe this; there is even evidence of individuals “realizing” that they must be a Witch because they confessed under torture to the accusations of the inquisitor. That’s how adults seem to think when left on their own. But at the same time thousands of Witches were being “found” and usually executed, other adults were busy inventing hydropower and figuring out that the Earth is round and that there are planets, and that various elements existed with specific properties, and so on and so forth.

Are children born pre-scientists? Probably. Do we ruin them? Maybe, maybe not. More research is needed.

Cook, C., Goodman, N., & Schulz, L. (2011). Where science starts: Spontaneous experiments in preschoolers’ exploratory play Cognition, 120 (3), 341-349 DOI: 10.1016/j.cognition.2011.03.003

What should be your college major?

A small college out east. Photo by wallyg.
I very strongly agree with the basic conclusion offered by a post at teenskepchick by Ali Marie, advice for those now looking at college: “…what’s the undecided student to do? My advice: community college.”. Ali discussed the problem of getting all the required courses in within a four year time span. The key problem she points out is that unless you know pretty much what you want your final major will look like you may end up having to take more than the expected number of courses and thus, have a hard time graduating in four years. I’ll add to that the following: Some of the courses you will want/need won’t be offered when you need them, and it is possible that something else will go wrong while you are busy prostrating to the higher mind and all that, causing you to be unable to complete the usual (e.g. 4) classes per term. Between switching interests, unavailable classes, and things going wrong, you won’t easily finish your four year degree in four years. I recommend that if you are looking into college, read Ali’s post.

I do want to add a few more thought, however.

The importance of Liberal Education Requirements

First, Ali discusses what are generally called the liberal ed requirements and does so with the usual dislike of the process. I want to put in a plug for the liberal education requirements that all colleges have. The purpose of these requirements is not to give you an exposure to a wide range of disciplines in order to help you decide on your major. Yes, it can do that, but that is not only not the main reason they exist, but also, they don’t do that good of a job of that in some cases. Take Cultural Anthropology for example. One reason that many advanced (junior, senior college and early graduate school) Social or Cultural Anthropology students always look so unhappy and eventually get permanent Academic Frowns painted on their face is this: They took the intro Cultural Anthro course, loved it, then went to major in the topic and found out the awful truth: What is taught in Anthro 1001 is not what Anthropologists do or think. It is what they hate about themselves. Once you’ve taken that intro class, and switch majors into Cultural Anthro, the rest of your classes will be about how everything you learned in Anthro 1001 is wrong, and moreover, that for thinking that it was cool, you are an asshole.

I’m sure this does not apply to all disciplines, but in some way…small, medium, or large…I think it applies to many. Even computer science, which one would think would be more logical and laid out, teaches at the intro level stuff you only need to know for the purposes of the exam, not to be in the field of computer science. When was the last time a proposal to implement a commercial web site, or a project to rewrite an operating system, used scheme? Never, that’s when.

The real reason for the Liberal Education requirements is to make society better by seeing to it that a larger proportion of the population leaves college not clueless about so many important things. Someone like Ali Marie probably does not need liberal arts much, but not because she is innately liberal or artsy, but because she’s probably absorbed all that on her own, being a writer and a nerd and all that. But this is not the case for many people.

For a few years, I worked in a program to help adults get their degree. I was on the board of advisors for the program while I was on the Anthropology faculty, and later, I worked directly for the program. This issue came home to me very clearly in many cases. We had many students who, in their own life’s work, including but by no means limited to taking courses and engaging in training programs, had learned way more than you need to learn to get a college education. But some of these students, maybe about half, had skirted the liberal arts. Go look at the internet. Check out the letters and comments on various news sites, or other places where people have the opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge and perspective. A lot of the annoying commentary we see is from either kids who have not yet taken a range of courses in the humanities, social sciences, hard sciences, and so on, or are people who are older but never did. As great as my students were (and they were all great) those who had skirted the liberal arts had bad attitudes about things like education, learning, international perspectives, and diversity. These are the people who can hear a presidential candidate say “we have to preserve our American Exceptionalism” and not throw up a little in their mouths. Until they take a full range of Liberal Ed courses. That helps them to throw up a little in their mouths.

How to pick a college major

The other point I wanted to make is about college majors. The answer to the question, “How to choose a college major” is a bit complicated, but there is another question that is closely related: “How to change your major from one subject to another.” The answer to that second question is: “Don’t”

Here is a reality that many college students, and sadly, many advisors, don’t know, or if they know about it, they don’t believe it: Your major is not as important as you think it is. It will be important for about two months after you graduate, then every month after that for the next two years or so it will reduce in importance until it matters not at all. When you are applying to certain programs you will have a better time if you have a certain major, but what is more important, are certain sets of courses that you’ve taken and other things you’ve done in college. Seriously. I know many of you in college today won’t believe this, but it is true.

OK, your major is not entirely irrelevant, but it is much less important than you might think.

If you want to go into a graduate program involving science, and your major is related to that science, but you have C’s on all of your tough, hard, grueling science courses and you have only the minimum required, then your application to a good graduate program is shit. If, on the other hand, you have a major in a field not that closely related to the science related field you want to study, but you’ve recently developed a sincere interest in that field, and you happen to have more hard science courses than required for your degree and they are all A’s, then your application is golden. All else being equal. Ultimately it is the argument that you make to the graduate application committee that counts, using a persuasive essay, showing excellent performance in certain (as mentioned) classes, and a few other things, not the argument that some committee at your college made to their dean to structure a major a certain way. At the same time, if your transcript has a lot of bullshit on it, then that’s what you have: A bullshit transcript. I once reviewed a transcript of a student who had nine semesters of golf and not much else. I did not take that student’s college career seriously, as clearly he did not either.

Yes, yes, of course, try to match your major with your interests and abilities and then aim for a graduate program or career that fall in line with that. The system is indeed set up that way. But the specific courses you take, how well you do in them, the balance of courses overall, matter about as much as what major you picked. Having the “wrong” major is not catastrophic, but taking two more years of college to get the perfect major may be. In other words, for the average college junior who is contemplating changing majors, the medium and longer term wise move is to put less value on the major than on the degree. It is the degree that counts, and within that framework, the specific classes you’ve taken and your ability to make a good argument (which is helped with good performance on on certain classes coupled with a lack of bullshit on your transcript) matters much more than you might think. I’m not talking about abandoning the system as it exists, I’m talking about calibrating. I’ve sat on admissions committees for both grad programs and undergrad programs and advised a lot of students, and it really is true that most of the time the major is a fetish not as valuable as people think it is when they are busy tearing themselves up over the details.

Is it good to take Community College courses?

Getting back to the point of Ali’s essay for a moment: I do think that taking a year off from college and taking one course at a time from a community college is an excellent strategy for a lot of students. Sometimes community colleges give deep discounts for your first class, so check into that. Also, if you are concerned that the teaching at community colleges is not as good as at the big research university down the street, then you need to recalibrate. Why would it be? Community colleges hire teachers, of which there is a great oversupply, based on their teaching abilities. MRU’s fire faculty if they focus on teaching. Until that changes, teaching at the Big U will be spotty, often wonderful but also often horrid, but the community college will rarely fall below a fairly high bar most of the time. This, of course, applies only to my own experience in Massachusetts, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. I don’t know what they are doing down in Mississippi and Texas.

Photo by wallyg

Romney on How To Fix Edumication

First, dismantle public school funding. That was pandering to the charter school people he was sitting with. Second, more “no child left behind” type policies. Third, increase classroom size. Because classroom size doesn’t matter. Fourth, cancel teacher improvement programs.

From the Washington Post:

During the roundtable session, Romney said there was no correlation between classroom size and student performance, citing a report by consulting firm McKinsey & Company. That sparked a debate with some educators and other leaders around the table.
“I can’t think of any teacher in the whole time I’ve been teaching, for 10 years, 13 years, who would say that more students [in the classroom] would benefit,” said Steven Morris, a music teacher at the school. “And I can’t think of a parent that would say I would like my teacher to be in a room with a lot of kids and only one teacher.”

Yes, some studies showed that but as far as I can tell, they were comparing class sizes that were too big with class sizes that were way too big. Turns out there is not much difference between totally broken and way totally broken.

Teaching After The Test: An argument for a national school schedule

First, a word about Nazis and Free Speech, and other matters: Catch up on the latest news about Repression of Nazis, and join the conversation about Free Speech and how sometimes it is better to shut up, over at the X Blog.

Today I am preparing a presentation and discussion for a course in AP Biology. Amanda and her colleague have been teaching AP Bio all year, and the test was just given, so there is nothing to live for any more as it were. I asked Amanda yesterday why the students even show up now that the test is over, and she looked at me funny and said “well, they’re required to.” … Oh right, high school.

Continue reading Teaching After The Test: An argument for a national school schedule