Sunday, February 26, 2006

Likely the Ultimate Challenge for High School Science Students - Real Research

Over the past eight years, I've been fortunate to work with some of the more curious high school science students you could hope to meet. These are the type of student who wants to know how and why things work the way they do. Being only in high school, there is still a sense of naivete, but at times an overwhelming need to know. It is one thing to simply tell these students what the answers are, or to point them to a book or article and say 'read about it,' but it is quite another when they want to explore and discover the answer for themselves by doing science. This is something that tends to be lost in science classes - actually doing science.

Lab work is essential in science classes at all levels simply because that is what makes science science. Science tries to answer questions based on physical evidence. If this is absent, there is not so much that separates science from two other great realms of human thought, philosophy and religion, which often ask the same questions as science. Unfortunately, the more teachers I meet from all over and from all grade levels, there seems to be a shortage of lab work happening in science classes. I try to avoid this as much as possible and as time permits (as well as having appropriate resources...this is a major reasopn many teachers have to limit their lab activities). But even typical labs in science classes do not give students a taste of what the science process is like. Often students know the answers to what they are about to do in a 'lab,' and often the labs are of the cookbook variety, with fill in the blanks that guide students through a standard procedure. Depending what the goal of the lab is, that may be fine, but it still does not constitute a more realistic science experience.

What I try to offer as an opportunity any student of mine can take on is independent science research. This means finding a specific question in whatever area of study that a student is interested in, and then providing the chance for the student to become the scientist. He or she will need to read through (ultimately) primary literature in journals to learn what is known about their topic. They will need to design their own experiment and/or computer simulation to set up controlled experiments that will provide data that can be used to find the answer to the question. They need to build the experiment or write the computer code and troubleshoot it. They need to collect the data, analyze it and see if there is something that statistically indicates a potential answer, and draw conclusions that are consistent with the data. And most will then write up a paper on their research and submit it to various competitions, most notably the Intel Science Talent Search (the 'Nobel for high school' since five past winners have actually gone on to win the Nobel). This is the science process. It involves long periods of time to get things working, it takes trial and error and persistence when things inevitably do not go as planned the first few times around. It involves searching for bugs in an apparatus or computer algorithm. And it involves the student being creative and using common sense, as well as flashes of brilliant thinking and analysis. And sometimes it involves pure luck, such as being at the right place at the right time. Some of history's greatest discoveries were made by such 'luck,' such as the discovery of X-rays.

This is, in my mind, the ultimate experience for a high school student, and likely for the college undergraduate student. In my own schooling, I was like the vast majority of high school students and did not know there was any chance at all of doing actual research. I never heard of any contests, simply because my teachers were not aware of them. I did not get a chance to learn what science really is until I was an undergraduate and began to do research in a professor's lab. I quickly learned the excitement as well as the frustration that comes along with the process of discovering the ways of the universe. High school students do not need to be 'gifted' or the top in their class. Often it is the kid who comes across as an average student who does the best work in the lab due to their creativity and work ethic. It is one thing to be able to solve any and all problems on paper, but quite another to try to put together a pysical contraption that will allow you to probe Nature. Some of the most brilliant students, some who are truly gifted individuals, I have worked with did not have what it takes to be a productive scientist (at least experimentalist) in the sense they relied on theoretical knowledge and derivations but could not quite figure out how to get reliable measurements that could test to see if their predictions were correct. This is why it is essential for any teacher who wants to invite students to do research to make the opportunity available to everyone, because there are often surprises in the student who wants to take on the challenge and who will do well and enjoy it.

For those who are interested in learning what type of work high school students are capable of, check out a sample of papers I have put online. There are also links to a few of the major competitions, as well as some notes for how to get started, etc. Slowly but surely, there seems to be another school in the Chicago area I am aware of that has at least one or two students blazing a trail into research, and that is a good sign. As the potential demise of U.S. science and technology leads becomes more prevalent, this is one way to begin training the next generation of American scientists, doctors and engineers. Get to them at an earlier age and begin allowing them to explore the world like real scientists do, prior to college. It is rare, but not out of the question, that a high school student will make an important discovery that professionals have overlooked. These youngsters can be brilliant and clever and creative when given a chance to let loose and break away from the standard world of high school science classes.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Something Most of Us Do Not Do Anymore

A recent post on Eideneurolearning reminded me of something that is obvious once one thinks about it, but is very easy to overlook about modern society. We, in general, do not write much anymore. The average high school student struggles temendously to think of topics when given the chance to write about what they want (and they certainly complain when topcs are given to them after such a struggle). The Eides comment that Abraham Lincoln read everything he had the chance to, and wrote about a tremendous number of topics as he grew up. Some historians have commented that this helped him determine his values and politics, as he actually took time to reflect on what he had read and what his initial thoughts were. I certainly do not see many students doing anything remotely like this, but it is a good strategy for 'finding oneself,' certainly with one's thoughts and shaping opinions. This is largely why I take the time to post anything on the blogosphere, particularly politically oriented topics. It helps me to see some thoughts in print so I can reflect on them, and perhaps discover some new angle or point of view which, prior to the process, was not at all obvious to me. I also enjoy any comments from others who have taken the time to consider certain topics. The other reason I post at all is to share some items and discoveries I personally find interesting.

Writing about what one has read or observed and taking the time for personal reflection seems to be a lost art and strategy, and one that educators may want to keep in mind and have students do from time to time in order to develop their own opinions based on information gathered from other wise and intelligent people. It is increasingly important now that students get a large amount of their research information from the Internet, where the vast majority of material, including the blogosphere, is unreliable in the sense that the material is not peer reviewed. Some times experts have difficulty finding accurate and reliable sites about new topics that are online, so how can we possibly expect nonexperts to find good information? Students are quickly forming the opinion that if it is online it is trustworthy, and that is a potentially dangerous system to have when it comes to research for academic purposes. Reflection about what one reads online is important, and finding multiple sources to doublecheck information and data needs to be emphasized in this online age.

ADDENDUM: Not only are the Eides thinking of this, but Zenpundit's latest also touches on writing and introspection, etc. Check it out.

Stardust being Analyzed

Back in January, a spacecraft which did a fly-by of a comet returned to Earth with the first collected samples of materials from outside the our atmosphere since Moon rocks were last brought back by Apollo 17 in 1972. The NASA star dust mission now has samples being studied, where scientists are looking at dust presumably left over from the time the solar system formed some 4.5 billion years ago. The dust was captured by a substance known as aerogel, which is 99.8% empty space. I've seen this in labs before and it looks like a dim fog in a bottle; very cool stuff! Scientists can extract tiny particles that are trapped in the aerogel. Some of these dust particles are ten times or more smaller than the width of a human hair, and such studies will allow us to get a better understanding of how the solar system was formed and from what early materials it was formed.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Our Use of Light

I was having a conversation with a colleague at school when the topic of light came up, and how our use and manipulation of it has allowed us to reach a level of knowledge and understanding of our universe that is really remarkable. Understanding the properties of light and being able to detect light has allowed us to explore the world of the big and small, over a remarkable range of size scales (if you have never seen it, do check out the 'powers of 10' site...very cool!!), so we are at a point in human knowledge where we can not only begin to wonder about how the universe began and how it is put together (man has always wondered about these things), but actually test ideas and learn some of the truths about these questions.

By light I refer to not only the obvious visible light our own eyes detect, but rather all the forms of electromagnetic radiation within the larger spectrum. Radio and microwaves, infrared (i.e. radiant heat) and ultraviolet, x-rays and gamma radiation are all exactly like visible light, only with different wavelengths and frequencies. When it comes to exploring the solar system and beyond, the only information we have comes from these forms of energy. This is the only way to gather any data at all...we detect the tiny amounts of energy in the form of little packets (both a particle and wave) called photons that make it to the earth over countless numbers of miles of space. We cannot physically make it to the places we look in the universe, but in some cases we literally rely on handfuls of photons from the most distant objects we know about and can gather an enormous amount of information from that ancient light.

With light we can determine what stars and galaxies are made of. Putting light through a prism fortunately breaks apart into the rainbow, and by carefully looking at the rainbow of the light from heated elements we see unique patterns appear for each chemical element. For instance, light from hydrogen will break up into four visible lines, one that is red, one that is a blue-green color, a bark blue and violet color. No other type of atom will make this pattern of colors, so when we look at an object that is a billion light-years away and see that same pattern, we know it is hydrogen. Even looking at light from the sun tells us that stars are the producers of the heavier elements we are made of. Carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, all the way up to iron, are made in the nuclear furnaces of stars. Elements above iron are produced when stars explode, and these elements then fly out into space, available to form other objects.

Not only can light allow us to know what distant objects are made of, but we can tell how objects that are seemingly at rest are actually movng at great speeds. The great distances between objects in the universe gives the illusion of everything remaining fixed in a static universe, for it takes far longer than a human lifetime for a distant star to change position to our naked eyes. This effect even fooled Einstein originally, when he included a cosmological constant in his general relativity equations. However, Hubble discovered, through an observation of star light and a common wave phenomenon called the Doppler effect, that stars and galaxies are really moving at high speeds away from each other. Just about everything we can see with our telescopes outside our own Milky Way galaxy has a 'red shift,' meaning they are moving away from us and causing light waves to stretch a bit to become more reddish in color. This is no different than a police car with its siren on moving away from us and hearing a decrease in the siren's pitch, as the sound waves are stretched out because of the relative motion between the siren and us. This observation has led us to Big Bang models of nothing less than the creation of the universe...remarkable! Since Hubble's breaktrough observations dating back to the 1920's and 30's, we have added the capabilities to look not just at the visible portion of the spectrum, but the entire range of light. Detecting radio and microwaves from around the universe has allowed us to test predictions of Big Bang theories (such as the cosmic microwave background radiation distributions) with ever better precision. Looking at frequencies above visible light, in the x-ray and gamma regions, has allowed us to search for the most violent and powerful objects we can imagine, black holes. By looking at light to determine the motion of stars within galaxies, we can compare that motion with our known laws of gravity to conclude that there needs to be more matter than we can detect with light, so now scientists speak in terms of dark matter and dark energy. Again, remarkable that we can even begin to ponder these concepts by looking at the few photons that happen to make it to earth! Only one of our senses can be used to explore space, and by employing a bit of technology to help our sense of sight we can talk somewhat intelligently about how the universe came to be.

While light has helped us observe the macrocosmic heavens, we also use light to develop an understanding of microcosmic world of the basic constituents of matter. The development of quantum mechanics came directly from a few scientists' attempts to understand a basic feature of light. When objects are heated enough, they begin to glow. When one looks at the light emitted by heated objects, we quickly find a particular distribution of the brightness of colors (i.e. blackbody radiation). The only theoretical way to explain this required the introduction of a concept where light had to come in packets (Max Planck, 1900), rather than being a continuous wave, and quantum theory was born. Einstein used his genius to develop relativity and the theory of photons, beginning in 1905. The other key use of light to develop what eventually evolved into quantum mechanics was Niels Bohr's theory to explain the characteristic patterns of light from each element mentioned above. The only explanation for such patterns requires electrons to orbit a nucleus with a particular, finite set of energies. Whereas objects orbiting the sun can have a continuum of values of radius and energy to chose from, electrons orbiting nuclei are restricted to very specific values; those values are quantized. Quantum mechanics continues to be one of the areas of study in physics, and its effects and consequences have moved into the worlds of chemistry and biology, as well as engineering and technology. All of this has been possible by a few observations of light. As with space, light is our only sense that is relevant in the study of the microcosm, whether it is loking at the nature of atoms with spectroscpes or by using microscopes to discover new things about cells.

Perhaps in the future we will have the technologies to add to our observational arsenal. Perhaps we will one day open new astronomical fields of neutrino astronomy or gravity wave astronomy (check out, for example, the LIGO experiment). Perhaps nanotechnology will develop nanomachines that will allow us to extend our sense of touch to the world of the small, so we can add to ur sense of sight in this realm. Time will tell, but it is nice to step back for a moment and reflect (no pun intended) on how relatively simple and basic observations of light have brought us to where we are in our understanding of the universe.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Recommended Post on Metacognition

A nice post on metacognition, or the ability to "think about thinking," is on Zenpundit. Nice one, Zen!

State of the Union, Part II: More Science and Math Teachers?

In the State of the Union address last week, the president made mention of the fact that to remain competitive in a global economy we need to maintain our science and technology advantage, and that to do this he wanted to add tens of thousands of science and math teachers in K-12 education. I wrote about this in an earlier post, with a concluding prediction, "I am afraid this was just a statement for show and politics, with no plan at all as to how we will accomplish it."

Unfortunately, it is looking like my prediction is indeed correct (I was hoping to be wrong). The Bush budget plan came out this week, and all reports I have seen state that there is no money in the budget for any programs for trying to recruit new teachers for science and math. In fact, it appears that money is being cut overall for education. So it goes....

Friday, February 03, 2006

Sign of the Times - International Patents at Record Levels

A big topic in the blogosphere is the rise of countries like China, India, and others in science and technology. One measure of the trend of the rest of the world's attempts to cut into the large lead the U.S. has enjoyed in these areas since after WW II is the number of patents issued to inventors of various countries. A new report has international patent requests at an all-time high, with the largest increases by South Korea and China. The U.S. still has one-third of all patent requests, but that level has dropped in recent years and the trend is towards Asian countries making gains. It is no surprise, as those nations have been producing huge numbers of science and engineering students and graduates, many of whom received advanced degrees and training in the U.S. before heading back home. Look for this trend to continue, certainly in the short-term.

A Common Question About String Theory

Talk about weird and abstract physics, and string theory is likely the ultimate poster child. The question that always comes up deals with the extra dimensions string theorists have concocted. The prediction is that we live in a universe wth 10 or 11 dimensions, rather than the 4 that Einstein used in general relativity. But where do these numbers come from? Probably the best explanation I have seen taht is not full of te advanced mathematics is on the Scientific American website. I quote it below:

Moshe Rozali, a physicist at the University of British Columbia, explains.

"These numbers seem to be singled out in the search for a fundamental theory of matter. The more you probe the fundamental structure of matter, the simpler things seem to become. In developing new theories that can encompass the current ones, scientists look for more simplicity in the form of symmetry. In addition to being elegant, symmetry is useful in constraining the number of competing models. The more symmetry there is, the fewer models that fit that symmetry exist.

One useful such symmetry is called supersymmetry, which connects matter in the form of fermions with force carriers in the form of bosons. This is an elegant symmetry relating seemingly different aspects of our universe. Although this symmetry is still theoretical, the Large Hadron Collider, scheduled to start operation by the end of the decade, will look for it experimentally. Fermions and bosons differ by the property known as spin. In quantum units, fermions carry half-integer spin, whereas bosons have integer spin. Supersymmetry relates the spin of particles differing by one-half. For example, the electron, which has spin ½, is thought to have a partner called the selectron, which has spin 0; in this sense the electron and the selectron are mirror images. All their properties are related to each other by the symmetry. So, too, the boson and fermion can be related in this symmetry.

But there can be more than one supersymmetry, just as there is more than one way to position a mirror. A single supersymmetry connects a boson to a fermion. If there are other such symmetries, they connect more bosons and fermions and thereby unify more aspects of our universe. For example, with additional supersymmetry, the electron and the selectron would have additional partners of spin 0 and 1. The symmetry would also restrict the form in which these partners can interact with each other.

Ultimately, though, too much symmetry simplifies the theory to the point of being trivial. All the particles are unable to interact with each other or with our measuring devices. This is certainly not a good thing for a theorist to construct ,so the goal is to get the greatest amount of symmetry that still allows for interesting physics.

A guide in this pursuit is a theorem devised/put forth by physicists Steven Weinberg and Edward Witten, which proves that theories containing particles with spin higher than 2 are trivial. Remember each supersymmetry changes the spin by one half. If we want the spin to be between -2 and 2, we cannot have more than eight supersymmetries. The resulting theory contains a spin -2 boson, which is just what is needed to convey the force of gravitation and thereby unite all physical interactions in a single theory. This theory--called N=8 supergravity--is the maximally symmetric theory possible in four dimensions and it has been a subject of intense research since the 1980s.

Another type of symmetry occurs when an object remains the same despite being rotated in space. Because there is no preferred direction in empty space, rotations in three dimensions are symmetric. Suppose the universe had a few extra dimensions. That would lead to extra symmetries because there would be more ways to rotate an object in this extended space than in our three-dimensional space. Two objects that look different from our vantage point in the three visible dimensions might actually be the same object, rotated to different degrees in the higher-dimensional space. Therefore all properties of these seemingly different objects will be related to each other; once again, simplicity would underlie the complexity of our world.

These two types of symmetry look very different but modern theories treat them as two sides of the same coin. Rotations in a higher-dimensional space can turn one supersymmetry into another. So the limit on the number of supersymmetries puts a limit on the number of extra dimensions. The limit turns out to be 6 or 7 dimensions in addition to the four dimensions of length, width, height and time, both possibilities giving rise to exactly eight supersymmetries (M-theory is a proposal to further unify both cases). Any more dimensions would result in too much supersymmetry and a theoretical structure too simple to explain the complexity of the natural world. "

So these numbers of dimensions really are derived and not pulled out of a hat. Scientists have looked for the past couple decades for evidence of supersymmetry, and up to now no direct evidence has been found for all the new SUSY partners it requires. The hunt for supersymmetry, as well as the search for the Higgs boson and new types of matter that could be categorized as 'dark matter,' remain the top goals for particle physicists as the commission date for the LHC at CERN moves ever closer.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

State of the Union: More Science and Math Teachers

I did not get a chance to see even one second of the SOTU speech last night, but one initiative I heard about was the president's call for 70,000 more science and math teachers for public schools. I assume this is in response to the efforts put forth quite successfully in places lke India and China, where there is an enormous push to crank out new engineers, mathematicians and scientists in order to compete with the West, particularly the U.S. While anyone who knows me knows I think this is a necessary step for the U.S. to maintain our lead in science and technology, it is also likely an unrealistic goal as long as teacher salaries remain the lowest among any profession in the U.S. Other fields of study pay much more than one could make in teaching, and many of our best and brightest have been going into those areas of study (business, law, medicine, and even journalists make more on average). Zenpundit touches on this topic, as well.

I did want to address one question I have heard a few people bring up, inculding one of the comments to the Zen post, and that is "Why should Americans want to study math and science in the first place? Why should it be a national priority?" It does seem silly to pursue teaching math and science if you come at it from a purely economic perspective. But it is absolutely in the best interest of the nation to get a strong base for the next generation of scientists, engineers and mathematicians. I would argue it may be the single most important issue raised in last night's address, simply because almost everything else Bush addressed depends on science and technology.

To win the war on terror, for example, will require us to constantly improve on telecommunications and surveillance technologies of all types. Our military response to any potential conflict is built around our lead in technology, which in turn stems from science research. As we delve deeper into a digital world, where health, insurance, financial, government, military, and all other types of records is being digitized and placed in supposedly secure databases, we will always need to push the envelope to develop the next generations of encryption and security hardware and software. This is built around mathematical algorithms and technology. The president called for a push for cutting our dependence on oil. This will only happen when we get serious about developing new and more efficient methods of production for alternative sources of energy. We cannot imagine all the possible uses and paths we may one day take when it comes to nanotechnology and molecular biochemistry. Medical and agricultural research needs to be maintained. In short, our entire economy is built around the products of science and technology. We will need some number of our best and brightest to go into all of these fields, and we simply are not seeing the numbers majoring in these areas with the current crop of college students. Or reliance on foreign students and scientists to keep our research infrastructure and programs intact is showing signs of weakening as well, as more of them head back to their own countries.

In the end, it is a nice thing to say in the state of the union to show you (finally) realize it is an upcoming crisis (and something nice to say in an election year), but I don't see it happening until there are financial incentives for students to pursue it. It all starts in K-12 science education, particularly in high school and AP type classes, where serious students in technical areas get hooked before they go to college. There is already a shortage of qualified high school science and math teachers, which must have some correlation to the shortage of college students in these areas, and within the next 15 years or so we will need to be prepared for the consequences if the present trend does not change. But it will take money, and with continuing record deficits and spending and permanent tax cuts (i.e. less revenue), the Bush proposal is meaningless and unrealistic. I am afraid this was just a statement for show and politics, with no plan at all as to how we will accomplish it.