Friday, June 30, 2006

Gore Gets the Science Correct, According to Experts

To the many doubters I have talked with about Al Gore's documentary on global warming and climate change, "An Inconvenient Truth", all the climate experts surveyed by AP say the science is accurate. Many believe the film is, without having seen it, a doomsday, political comeback in the making for Gore, and that he would be apt to exaggerate scenarios and the science to make a more dramatic impact on the public. This is a logical thought when any poltician is involved, because it is largely their job to spin a topic to their advantage and shape public opinion. While I have not yet had the chance to see it, I certainly plan to because it has received good reviews, and in my case I am most interested in the science of climate change. It si good to hear GOre got it right.

The article referenced notes that many of the top science agency directors (appointed by the president) have not yet seen it, and the president simply refuses to see it...this subject truly is an inconvenient truth for current policies, and it is easier to simply ignore some potentially devastating consequences (leave that to future presidents and generations to worry about) than to anger friends in the oil and industrial sectors.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Getting New Teachers into Public Schools: Teach for America Model

A recent Chicago Tribune editorial praises the recruiting efforts of the Teach for America (TFA)organization. This group recruits graduating college students to commit to two years of teaching in public scools in 22 regions throughout the country. With 3500 current teachers in 1000 different schools, TFA has produced 14,000 teachers altogether since 1990. Last year alone there were 19,000 applications to TFA, which is impressive considering the salary falls into a $23,000 - $43-000 range, often well below the starting salary these students could make outside of education. Often the teachers coming through the TFA program will put in their two years and then move on to other careers, but some two-thirds will remain in teaching beyond that required period. TFA is looking to expand into more states and regions of the country and continue to increase the number of teachers it provides to our schools, as we see shortages of qualified teachers in many areas of the country, as well as continued high attrition rates where about half of all new teachers will leave the profession within their first 3-4 years.

Chicago Public Schools Makng a Push to Promoting Science Research

I just completed a series of workshops with a couple dozen high school science teachers from the Chicago Public Schools (CPS). These teachers have been involved in the Chicago Science Fair, which is the main thrust of science research in city schools. The Science Fair, which has been running for over fifty years, gets literally thousands of students to do projects at all grade levels, but the level of work is typically of the 'cookie cutter' variety, which means projects tend to be recyccled each year and have known answers. Many times the research is a standard experiment that is done in the classroom at some point. In most cases the outcomes are either known or can be guessed at fairly easily. However, new goals for research programs throughout the city now include getting more teachers and students to pursue possible projects of a more advanced variety, where students try to do more original work and get into 'real' science. Ultimately, CPS wants to see more submissions of student work to the major national competitions such as the Intel Science Talent Search (also known as the 'Nobel Prize' for high schools, as six former participants have actually won Nobel Prizes!) and Siemens Competition in Math, Science and Technology.

It is truly remarkable the quality of work high students are capable of doing under the right circumstances. If given doable projects, truly advanced work can be done by bright, motivated and curious students. The obvious and serious problem we have in high schools, though, is a lack of resources and expertise to develop doable projects that yield some level of original work and results. The workshops I led this week focused mainly on getting resources organized and developing strategies for the development of ideas and opportunities for students, and CPS is providng resources and time for teachers to go on and develop their own research programs. This new level of commitment in one of the largest school districts in the nation is most welcome as the U.S. seeks to increase the numbers of stdents who move into technical majors in college and beyond. It also may provide a necessary boost to science programs as the No Child Left Behind school ratings will include science scores for the first time in the 2006-07 school year. I encourage all students and teachers who have an interest in research to check out this website in order to begin developing ideas of your own.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Importance of Teacher Quality

A new study on the effect of teacher quality in the classroom was highlighted in this past Sunday's Chicago Tribune (Metro section). It was a comprehensive study that supports anecdotal evidence from teachers, administrators and parents that has been around for years, and shows conclusively how important it is to have high quality teachers in the classroom, particularly for poor and minority students. Schools from Ohio, Illinois and Wisconsin were evaluated at all grade levels, and teacher quality proved to be most important in the high schools.

My first question on any study like this is how is 'high teacher quality' defined. In this study, five factors were included in the definition: average college entrance exam score of all the teachers in a school, results on the teacher licensing test of basic skills in a particular state, a national ranking of college attended by the teachers, years of experience, and number of teachers with provisional credentials. I'm not convinced that college entrance exam scores are always a good indicator (I've seen former students who scored lower than they wanted, but then blossom in college and beyond, for instance), as well as national rankings of colleges attended (I know some outstanding personnel from smaller, 'no-name' colleges), but this is what they went with.

Results for poor Illinois schools (50-89% poverty rates):
For elementary and middle schools, students who have teachers of:
High quality 56.4% pass state test (ISAT)
Middle-high quality 53.6% pass
Middle-low quality 53.2% pass
Lowest 10 percent 43.8% pass

For poor high schools:
High quality No low-income high schools in this category had high-quality teachers
Middle-high quality 32.5% passed state test (PSAE)
Middle-low quality 27.0% passed
Lowest 10 percent 13.7% passed

This is a large discrepancy for the high schools, where subject matter is more advanced and more important, and teachers who are energized and competent are vital. Poor schools tend to have the largest minority populations (and are located in cities), and the fact they typically pay less and have worse conditions for teaching than wealthier suburban districts leads to those schools further demise. The kids are the ones who pay in the end, and do not get the same education that their peers in wealthier districts receive. Although this has always been 'known' by those of us who have taught in both types of districts (in my case Chicago public high school as well as a wealthier district in the North Shore region above Chicago), it is good to see those gut reactions supported by the data. Hopefully studies such as these will spur on continued policy debates regarding education and how to help those schools that truly need reform.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Even though it is 06/06/06, let's not forget 06/06/44

Everyone I have seen today is talking about 06/06/06, the release of the new version of "The Omen," and Satan worship. Let's not forget, however, those who fought on D-Day and helped with the final push to defeat Nazi Germany. We still thank you for your sacrifice...

Creative Team Formation

Whether you work in academia, business, education, the fine arts, construction, or just about any other field, chances are you have been a member of some sort of team charged with solving a problem or to create something new. Within the last couple of years, team formation has been looked at through the lens of network theory, and there are some new and interesting findings.

A group out of Northwestern University (NU), led by Prof. Luis Amaral, has looked at how effective creative teams are formed. Their data sets included looking at the teams that have created Broadway musicals for the past century and the publication records of the top journals in the areas of social psychology, economics, ecology and astronomy, each over the last half century. I'll just summarize their findings here, but the full paper (published in one of the top science journals Science, April 29, 2005) is available online; select the PDF file for the article entitled "Team Assembly Mechanisms Determine Collaboration Network Structure and Team Performance."

The model used in the analysis distinguishes between veterans who have been involved in creative collaborations before and rookies, who are about to see their names appear in print for the first time. What is interesting as far as what leads to success (for plays success is getting to Broadway, and in publications it is to be published in a top journal) is two parameters: the fraction of the team that is composed of veterans (or incumbents, as used in the paper), and the propensity of the veterans to use their connections within the field's network and select agents they have collaborated with in the past. What the research shows is a phase transition, from one regime where you find a large cluster connecting a substantial fraction of agents in a particular field, and another regime where there are large number of isolated clusters of agents. Veterans tend to make up the large clustered, well-connected portion of the network (and are more likely to be hubs within a network), and rookies tend to be more isolated since they have not yet had the time nor experience to become embedded within the larger network (tend to be in the periphery of a network). The size of successful teams tends to vary within the scientific fields studied, but for the Broadway case, the team size averages seven members of a team. It is also important to realize that regardless of the team size, teams tend to be embedded in a larger network because of the fact that veterans on the team tend to know others within the field that may be collaborating elsewhere.

The network formation of the model used by the NU group does indicate a scale-free architecture to the larger network, where hubs are formed due to the rookies' desire to 'make a name for themselves' and wanting to be associated with better known veterans in the field. This is called preferential attachment in network language. For teams that do not make getting veterans to join the team a priority, success is less likely and the network these teams belong to are much more idolated from the rest of the field. However, as the desire to include veterans on the team increases, teams are more successful, and in addition, coalesce into a well-connected single cluster, where links between separate teams exist because of the veterans' links to past collaborators who belong to other teams. This phase transition shown in the data and predicted by the network model is clear evidence for what has been called the "invisible college" proposed by other researchers since the 1960s (and a Wikipedia article about the Royal Society claims Robert Boyle used this term as far back as 1646). The invisible college is the web of social and professional contacts that link, say, scientists across universities.

The main, generalized conclusion from the formal application of network theory to a social system such as creative teams is that to be successful a 'dream team' needs to be built with a majority of veterans who have not necessarily worked together before. Staying with the same collaborators over and over again can actually hurt the creative process and performance of the team (i.e. you need some new blood from time to time, and this can take the form of a rookie or another veteran from the larger network who you may not know very well, to keep the creative juices flowing). In other words, change is good for the creative process to work well.

Much of this seems intuitive. Many people change jobs after a few years because they become bored and simply need a change to spice up their career. Over time, members of teams within a company may find it more difficult to stay productive if no change ever takes place, regardless of past success and creativity. It is rare to find teams of performers who are successful over long periods of time because they have trouble finding something new to keep their audience interested. Normally an athletic team consisting mostly of rookies and other young players, and few veterans, will not find success; rather, it takes a mix of established players (veterans) and some new blood to be successful. And each year or every other year, teams may want to get rid of some of the younger talent and bring in some different young talent or another veteran who would be new to that team, in order to remain successful. This is precisely what the Chicago Bulls did in their dynasty years with Michael Jordan as the main hub. It is truly interesting that applying network theory to team formation shows this is the scenario needed to have the highest chance for success. It pays to dip into the larger network and make some changes in team structure in order to remain fresh and creative.

It may be worthwhile to contrast this with what Howard Gardner writes about for creative individuals who make groundbreaking discoveries. As brilliant as Albert Einstein was, and his nearly individual burst of creativity in physics from 1905 to about 1925, he was largely unproductive in the second half of his career because he isolated himself from the rest of the scientific establishment (i.e. network) and rarely collaborated.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Mediciexity Defined

Check out a most interesting post at Zenpundit, entitled Creating a Culture of Mediciexity. This gets into the definitions and the interplay between numerous concepts such as vertical and horizontal thinking, resilience, complex thinking and the Medici effect (the creation and/or innovation that happens at the 'intersection' of multiple disciplines working and collaborating on the same problem). Zen's concluding paragraph is:

"Is mediciexity a permanent condition ? No. Like the historical Renaissance it is a moment in time that emerges, is enjoyed and then passes, hopefully leaving a legacy in its wake. However, an organization can build a resilient, institutional culture that nurtures and encourages moments of mediciexity and helps them to come to fruition repeatedly. How ? By embracing change; by honest and regular self-reflection; by a steady engagement of horizontal thinking; by welcoming a regular flow of " new blood" or at least ideas; finally - and this is absolutely critical in my view - by investing in the time and space for " unproductive" intellectual free play that is to human creativity what air is to the body.

Mediciexity is what we need to aspire for to thrive in the 21st century."

Zen and I have discussed and written about these ideas for some time now, and I could not agree more (as, hopefully, a long-term project will spell out that we are working on). I have seen this interplay of ideas firsthand on many occasions. In scientific research, check out the make-up of research groups at a university. One professor I've known for a number of years has a large research group made up of postdocs with chemistry, biochemistry, and physics degrees, a computer scientist, and graduate students who are working in biology and physical chemistry. The professor is a chemical engineer. Bringing together people who are vertically trained (i.e. experts in a specific field) in a variety of fields and allowing them to sit down and bounce ideas off each other and bring in multiple perspectives about how they would approach the same problem tends to lead to a collective horizontal thinking process, where creative ideas and possible solutions to the problem are hatched (and which no one individual in the group would likely ever develop on his or her own) and, often, innovative products are the end result.

The days of research that is just biology, just chemistry, or just physics, are numbered; it is along the lines of saying that most of the 'easy' things have largely been done in many of the major disciplines, and much of the interesting and important work is being done at the interfaces between disciplines. This makes me think of a post I did last September on econophysics. Economists are finding it valuable to work with physicists in order to learn and employ mathematical and simulation tools to economic models. Many believe that the 21st century will be the age of biochemistry and molecular biology (which will require more people who are trained in biophysics and physical chemistry since they are working at the molecular and smaller size scales; we can throw nanotechnologists into the mix as well as mathematicians and computer scientists!). So in science, at least, bringing in a variety of thinkers into a group has been going on for some time, but it is really beginning to take hold with the masses, as research is supporting the validity of this method of developing a creative process. My next post will expand on this last statement.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

NAEP Science Scores for 4th, 8th, and 12th Graders

The NAEP Science scores from last year are now published. Fourth grade students saw increases, 8th grade students were flat, and 12th grade students had a decrease in scores. An additional disturbing result is that there was a widening in the achievement gap between black and white 12th grade students. Below is from the NSTA Express email:

"Science achievement scores released last week in the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) show improvement among fourth-grade students in science, but scores for eighth-grade students remain flat and twelfth-grade students decline. Considered the “Nation’s Report Card,” NAEP released the latest science performance scores of students at grades 4, 8, and 12. The test was administered in early 2005 by the Department of Education to more than 300,000 students across the nation and on military bases around the world.

According to the NAEP study, fourth-grade students’ achievement scores rose four percentage points since the last assessment in 2000. There were also large gains in the number of students moving into the Basic performance level, and minority students—particularly blacks and Hispanics—made impressive increases.

The scores for eighth-grade students have remained flat since 1996 with students losing ground in the physical science area, and most gaps between minority and white students remain unchanged. The achievement scores of twelfth-grade students declined three percentage points since the 1996 assessment. No significant changes in the scores were reported by racial/ethnic groups since 1996, and there was a significant widening of the gap between whites and blacks.

NSTA issued a press release responding to the NAEP report. President Mike Padilla was quoted in numerous news stories. To read the NSTA Reports Online Exclusive article on the NAEP report, visit;
to read the NSTA press release, go to"

This is discouraging news as the nation also faces declining numbers of American students going into science and other technical fields. With our economy driven by technology and science innovation, and the rest of the world putting increased emphasis on producing their own science personnel and infrastructure, the U.S. has its work cut out for itself if we want to remain ahead of the world and competitive in the global marketplace.