Thursday, July 31, 2008

There is Something to Learning by Doing

The Drs. Eide linked to a paper from a study where there are significant differences between children who were taught via thinking/listening and those who were taught by doing, as well as a third group that was told how to do a task and also had hands on learning for the task. Those students who learned by just doing and those who learned by both listening and doing scored nearly twice as high on assessments as those who just were taught through listening. This is something I think many teachers have experienced at some point, but there is some research to support one's instincts in the classroom. This is the type of result that should be placed on all teachers' radar screens, where regardless of the subject one teaches, lessons need to have a physical component, whether it is experimentation in science, manipulatives or collection of data in math, or role playing or acting out something from a topic in history or language arts. One of the present key phrases in education circles is active participation, and the evidence suggests this is to be emphasized since physical involvement in a lesson literally turns on portions of the brain necessary for memory.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Emergence of Spacetime

One of the more intriguing ideas I have seen in some time is summarized at Scientific American, in an article entitled "Using Causality to Solve the Puzzle of Quantum Spacetime." The concept is this:

"To put it differently, if we think of empty spacetime as some immaterial substance, consisting of a very large number of minute, structureless pieces, and if we then let these microscopic building blocks interact with one another according to simple rules dictated by gravity and quantum theory, they will spontaneously arrange themselves into a whole that in many ways looks like the observed universe. It is similar to the way that molecules assemble themselves into crystalline or amorphous solids."

For a number of years, string theory (which evolved into superstring theory, then M-theory...) has been a leading candidate for Einstein's dream of unifying quantum mechanics with relativity, the two pillars of modern physics. However, despite an enormous intellectual effort from hundreds of theoreticians, no testable predictions have been produced. It is mathematically advanced, to say the least, and very difficult to comprehend conceptually with the 11 dimensions it now resides in. Coming from an experimental background, I have always had doubts of such a cumbersome theory which cannot produce physical tests. I would like to think there is something a bit more simple, which does a better job of being able to produce results consistent with quantum mechancs and general relativity, both being well-tested and investigated theories over the past century. This emergent model is 'simple' and has so far, in computer simulated 'experiments' at least, produced interesting results. One of these results is that the number of dimensions being N = 4 naturally arises from the emergence of spacetime (in a nonperturbative model, no less). Adding matter to space leads to naturally warped geometries, consistent with solutions to Einstein's field equations is another result. And yet another result is that at small size scales, spacetime takes on a fractal nature. See the latest technical article if interested. It will be interesting to see where this type of model leads in the next year or two, as work continues to probe the subtleties of the model and find out if actual testable predictions arise from the model.

Friday, July 18, 2008

The 5 Grand Challenges in Basic Energy Sciences

Today, Al Gore gave a major speech where he offered a national challenge similar to that posed by President Kennedy back in the 1960s, where he called for the U.S. to put a man on the moon within a decade, even though there was no infrastructure and limited knowledge as to how to complete such a task in place. Gore called for America to get itself to an energy budget completely reliant on renewable energy sources within a decade. This is a tall order, and whether or not U.S. policymakers take up this or any similar challenge to lift our dependence on foreign oil, solving our energy problems will require innovation and our science and technology base's best efforts. Coincidentally, Gore's challenge is made just after a report from the Basic Energy Sciences Advisory Committee (BESAC) of the Department of Energy's Office of Science was released. The BESAC report identified five 'grand challenges' for the scientific establishment to take on in order to develop energy independence.

The five grand challenges revolve around the quantum world, and are listed as:
1) control material processes at the level of electrons;
2) design and perfect atom-and energy-efficient syntheses of new forms of matter with tailored properties;
3) understand and control the remarkable properties of matter that emerge from complex correlations of atomic and electronic constituents;
4) master energy and information on the nanoscale to create new technologies with capabilities rivaling those of living things;
5) characterize and control matter away - especially far away - from equilibrium.

In a future post, I will expand on what these challenges focus on.

Time to Think About Impending Fresh Water Crisis

Of the 6+ billion people on the planet, it is estimated that around 1 billion do not have access to clean, fresh water on a daily basis. In the U.S., there are signs of shortages in numerous locations around the country, where combinations of drought, agricultural irrigation, insisting on having golf courses in the middle of deserts, and rising populations are draining water supplies to the point where there needs to be restrictions during good portions of the year. I fear we have already fallen into a pattern of not anticipating severe trouble both nationally and internationally and thinking about long-term solutions. Such a pattern has already put us in near crises with social security, the health care system, long-term debt issues, energy sources, climate change, and so on, where we have known of issues and problems for decades but refused to do the necessary work to find solutions to those problems. Now they are all upon us with, apparently, not too many policymakers who are willing to take on the leadership roles we need to get us through these problems. Water supplies should, in my opinion, be next on this list of 'MUST ADDRESS NOW' issues.

There is a fine article in the August issue of Scientific American dealing with this water issue. The numbers are impressive, but one that stands out is that the minimum amount of water a person needs for one year is 1000 cubic meters, which is one-fifth of an Olympic-sized pool. Multiply this by the 6 billion people on the planet, and just the shear volume of water necessary for every person is staggering. Obviously, as rivers and freshwater lakes dry up, potential disasters await. Besides the health issues associated with dehydration and lost crops, the potential for future outbreaks of war are real. The U.S. military, for instance, has begun to develop response scenarios to military conflict in anticipated regions around the world, including in the Mideast and sections of Asia that depend on the water runoff from mountainous glaciers for their drinking water; some of those glaciers are either melted or may be gone in just a few years as climate change picks up its pace.

Technologies exist that allow for the desalination of sea water, and some larger plants have been built overseas. It is likely a matter of time before the U.S. will build such plants along the national coastlines. Perhaps it is prudent to consider this future use of the coastal waters before we try more offshore oil drilling. I don't think today's policymakers who are pushing for such drilling have ever considered such a possibility because rarely do you hear anyone in Washington ever mention anything about water shortages, but imagine what a major accident or spill would do if we rely on seawater as drinking water. I believe water is a priority over oil. But water and energy relationships do not stop here. Many of the rivers where there are hydroelectric plants run the risk of dropping in water level, and may one day cease producing energy at their capacity. This is a potential problem in the western portion of the country, and new energy sources will need to be added to that portion of the power grid. Wind and solar sources are obvious candidates. Another option may be fuel cells, where one of the byproducts is in fact pure water. This is how NASA vessels, for example, combine energy sources and fresh water needs.

In the end, this is a major problem that will continue to grow not only in other parts of the world, but in the U.S. as well. Action needs to be taken, but our track record for attacking major problems has thus far been depressingly poor. It will take public pressure and demands for action to get policymakers to step up, and I encourage everyone to contact their congressional representatives and demand that they begin addressing big issues both in the near and long terms. It will take some amount of time to plan, design, and build the infrastructure needed for clean water (as well as new energy sources), and decisions need to be made now.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Children Get More Sluggish with Age

American children have been found to become much more inactive with age, concluded a 6-year study published in the July 16 Journal of the American Medical Association. While in this day and age this is to be expected, the extent of the sluggishness is eye-opening. The study tracked 1000 children from 2000 to 2006, and measured the amount of activity this cohort engaged in. About 90% of the children got a couple hours of exercise on most days when they were 9-years old. By the time this same group of children were 15-years old, only 3% got this same level of exercise on a regular basis. Fewer than one-third of 15-year old children got the minimum amount of exercise recommended by the government, which is one hour of moderate to vigorous activity.

Physical inactivity is linked with greater risks for many health problems, including heart disease, obesity, high blood pressure and diabetes. It is well publicized how there is a near epidemic of child obesity for American children, and the dramatic results of this study seems to suggest why we see so many children with more mature health problems. Because of this, it is so important that state Boards of Education maintain physical education requirements at all levels of public education, and that local school boards and administrations insist on maintaining quality health and physical education programs. I know some districts have reduced their PE programs in order to free funds and time for test prep required by No Child Left Behind, but this is another example of the importance of providing a 'well-rounded' education and set of experiences that will help develop good life skills and habits, and requires us to get out of a 'all test all the time' mentality in the public school system. It is also a time when parents need to step up and get their children physically active. In my mind, there is no good reason for 5 and 7 year olds to have televisions in their bedrooms, or allow whole summer vacations spent playing the latest video games, which many children effectively do. Schools cannot replace parents for something like this, especially during the summers. But this is an important issue, which can also help with new efforts in preventative health care; a little physical activity and common sense today with young children leads to fewer long-term health issues, and may in fact reduce health care costs for everyone years from now. We'll see how seriously Americans take these threats.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

More Differences between how boys and girls process same information

Another thank you to the Drs. Eide at Eide Neurolearning Blog. A recent post shows how smart girls and smart boys, as defined by matched scores on IQ and performance on a verbal comprehension task, process the same verbal information differently. They show some nice functional MRI (fMRI) images from a girl and a boy, where girls use connections between their left superior temporal gyrus connection to left hemispheric language areas, whereas boys relied more on the connections between the right superior temporal gyrus and left inferior frontal gyrus to connect to left hemispheric language areas.

Without knowing much at all about the neurobiology of all this, I suspect this fits with other data and studies I have read, which all seem to suggest a common conclusion: boys take longer than girls to process and learn the same material. Some have suggested that one factor of boys performing more poorly in classes (in terms of grades) when compared to girls is that, because they take longer to process and learn material, boys are more likely to not complete homework. If they miss an assignment, or turn one in incomplete, most teachers are likely to either not accept it or give it a lower grade. What would happen if boys had a longer time to complete homework? Or take tests and other assessments? Would the gender achievement gap seen in some areas of studies and age groups begin to diminish? This would be an interesting question to answer. It is time more educators at all levels look long and hard at cognitive science and research, so we can best work the brains of individual students to maximize learning for everyone.

A Really Nice Example of Socratic Questioning

One of the oldest formal teaching techniques is from Socrates, where he taught others by answering questions with more questions. This 'Socratic questioning' is one of my personal favorites techniques simply because it works. Students tend to be very responsive because it is a naturally engaging and active type of learning, and it keeps a student's interest because it typically starts with that student's original question, so he/she already has some level of interest or curiosity because it has already sparked a question.

To demonstrate how this works, check the transcript from Rick Garlikov. He did an experiment where he wanted to teach a 3rd grade class how to do binary arithmetic, but he could only answer questions with more questions. It is a very well-done lesson, and I can understand his excitement when students began to master the arithmetic because I have been in this situation is what teachers dream about every day when something 'clicks' with students.