Monday, December 29, 2008

U.S. needs science and math teachers

Yet another study has come out that confirms what many others have concluded over the past couple years, and that is U.S. middle schools and high schools need many more teachers over the next decade. Specifically, it is estimated that schools are going to need some 200,000 plus science and math teachers to fill in positions. Keep in mind that it is already a bad situation in middle schools, where surveys have shown more than 40% of science teachers are not certified in science, but have been quickly converted from other areas of study they were originally trained in. This does not bode well for the U.S., nor for children, who need to be prepared for a globally competitive economy which, of course, is becoming more and more dependent on science and math. The need for massive teacher recruitment, training, and retention is upon us.

President-elect Barack Obama has identified this issue as one of his priorities for education when he officially takes office. Because of economic conditions, it is unclear what is fiscally possible because he would like to offer up to 40,000 scholarships for science and math teachers who would, in return, commit three years of teaching in high-needs schools. There would be a focus on teacher support and mentoring, seeing how something like 40% of new teachers leave the profession within three years (which is why I always scratch my head when I hear so many people complain how easy teaching is and how easy teachers have it, but that's just me). This is an ambitious plan that may or may not happen because there will likely be no money available for so many scholarships, so alternatives need to be figured out, stat.

One option is the concept of virtual science departments, which is something I am very interested in and have begun to think about, along with a number of education professors and think-tanks. There needs to be a paradigm shift in education that makes better use of technologies that already exist and can help expand educational opportunities and level the playing field so rural and inner-city children have similar learning experiences to those from wealthier suburban schools. In addition, the possibility to begin personalizing education to better-match individuals interests, and therefore increase student engagement and learning in and out of schools, will become a reality. I will be posting more about this in the future, as well as remote science experiments being developed for a global iLabs Network, being developed by MIT and Northwestern University. This network will allow high schools and universities to access physical experiments, for which they do not have the resources to do, from other locations and facilities that do have the required hardware and software, via the Internet. This is in the first stages of development and testing, but in the next couple years will begin expanding the lists of possible experiments all schools have available to them.

There is so much to do, and little time in which to do it, if the U.S. is remain at the top level of science, engineering and technological innovation, and have a work force that can keep the country competitive with good jobs in the future.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

There is a Correlation between Child's IQ and Birthweight

I found an interesting, short article on Scientific American. There is a direct, positive correlation between birth weight and IQ scores for children at the age of seven. I am not sure if this is true or not, and will look into it, but if one assumes that larger babies have correspondingly larger brain mass, this would seem to make sense. A newborn is literally moving from one world into a brand new world, and will naturally be overwhelmed by the huge amount of environmental stimulus. More brain mass should allow the infant to better comprehend, learn and adapt over time. The effect is more pronounced for boys than for girls, but the effect is significant for both genders. There are several other related articles that can be linked to off this article, so I recommend checking those out if you are interested in this topic.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Guess: What am I?

This comes from the site A student brought this to my attention. To what do you think this is referring? Thanks, MC.

"WARNING: This Product Warps Space and Time in Its Vicinity.

WARNING: This Product Attracts Every Other Piece of Matter in the universe, Including the Products of Other Manufacturers, with a Force Proportional to the Product of the Masses and Inversely Proportional to the Distance Between Them.

CAUTION: The Mass of This Product Contains the Energy Equivalent of 85 Million Tons of TNT per Net Ounce of Weight.

HANDLE WITH EXTREME CARE: This Product Contains Minute Electrically Charged Particles Moving at Velocities in Excess of Five Hundred Million Miles Per Hour.

CONSUMER NOTICE: Because of the "Uncertainty Principle," It Is Impossible for the Consumer to Find Out at the Same Time Both Precisely Where This Product Is And How Fast It Is Moving.

ADVISORY: There is an Extremely Small but Nonzero Chance That, Through a Process Know as "Tunneling," This Product May Spontaneously Disappear from Its Present location and Reappear at Any Random Place in the Universe, Including Your Neighbor's Domicile. The Manufacturer Will Not Be Responsible for Any Damages or Inconvenience That May Result.

READ THIS BEFORE OPENING PACKAGE: According to Certain Suggested Versions of the Grand Unified Theory, the Primary Particles Constituting this Product May Decay to Nothingness Within the Next Four Hundred Million Years.

THIS IS A 100% MATTER PRODUCT: In the Unlikely Event That This Merchandise Should Contact Antimatter in Any Form, a Catastrophic Explosion Will Result.

PUBLIC NOTICE AS REQUIRED BY LAW: Any Use of This Product, in Any Manner Whatsoever, Will Increase the Amount of Disorder in the Universe. Although No Liability Is Implied Herein, the Consumer Is Warned That This Process Will Ultimately Lead to the Heat Death of the Universe.

NOTE: The Most Fundamental Particles in This Product Are Held Together by a "Gluing" Force About Which Little is Currently Known and Whose Adhesive Power Can Therefore Not Be Permanently Guaranteed.

ATTENTION: Despite Any Other Listing of Product Contents Found Hereon, the Consumer is Advised That, in Actuality, This Product Consists Of 99.9999999999% Empty Space.

NEW GRAND UNIFIED THEORY DISCLAIMER: The Manufacturer May Technically Be Entitled to Claim That This Product Is Ten-Dimensional. However, the Consumer Is Reminded That This Confers No Legal Rights Above and Beyond Those Applicable to Three-Dimensional Objects, Since the Seven New Dimensions Are "Rolled Up" into Such a Small "Area" That They Cannot Be Detected.

PLEASE NOTE: Some Quantum Physics Theories Suggest That When the Consumer Is Not Directly Observing This Product, It May Cease to Exist or Will Exist Only in a Vague and Undetermined State.

COMPONENT EQUIVALENCY NOTICE: The Subatomic Particles (Electrons, Protons, etc.) Comprising This Product Are Exactly the Same in Every Measurable Respect as Those Used in the Products of Other Manufacturers, and No Claim to the Contrary May Legitimately Be Expressed or Implied.

HEALTH WARNING: Care Should Be Taken When Lifting This Product, Since Its Mass, and Thus Its Weight, Is Dependent on Its Velocity Relative to the User.

IMPORTANT NOTICE TO PURCHASERS: The Entire Physical Universe, Including This Product, May One Day Collapse Back into an Infinitesimally Small Space. Should Another Universe Subsequently Re-emerge, the Existence of This Product in That Universe Cannot Be Guaranteed."

Very clever!

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Some Major Problems and Issues Requiring Science to Solve

President-elect Obama's choices for his primary science team are some of the more important selections he will make. Here is a post written a year ago that outlines why I would make that statement.

When one thinks about the variety of problems we face as both a national and global society, it becomes clear that science will be looked to to develop answers and solutions to many of these problems. It is also clear that we need to think of this as science in the broadest sense, as all areas and disciplines will need to contribute. This goes to the heart of the definition of consilience, as numerous areas of knowledge and expertise will need to mix together if we are to make solid progress in finding effective solutions.

To get the ball rolling, consider the following broad issues/problems. All of these will require contributions from a variety of scientific and technical areas of study...multidisciplinary tasks galore:

* Quality of air and water
* Fresh water supplies for much of the west and southwest
* Disposal of solid wastes (everyday garbage)
* Modernization and maintenance of national power grid
* New energy sources, better energy efficiency and conservation
* Climate change (both at an understanding level as well as preparing for consequences)
* Improved electronic encryption algorithms as we digitize everything (medical, financial records, etc)
* Transportation infrastructure
* Telecommunications networks, both development and maintenance
* Continued improvement and progress in computing technologies
* Mass electronic data storage
* Medical treatments for the disease of your choice. This includes stem cell issues, genetic engineering, drug R&D, and so on.
* Military related technologies
* Improved search technologies for earth-crossing asteroids (something I have yet to hear policymakers talk about publicly, but there are literally many thousands of sizeable objects that cross earth's orbit we should try to identify and monitor)
* Food supplies and quality control
* Disposal of nuclear wastes, nuclear proliferation issues
* Nanotechnology in general
* Security technology of all types
* Robotics
* Implementation of educational strategies and structures based on brain research and learning theory to best prepare the next generation of workers
* Continued development of network theory, game theory, etc., and progress in our understanding of complex systems for physical and social applications
* Materials science and development

I encourage comments with additional major issues that are technical in nature and subject to progress via scientific avenues; this is not at all a complete list. What we cannot forget is that further inclusion of other areas of study are intimately connected with just about everything on the above list, such as ethics, state/national/international law, economics, political science, sociology, public policy, military concerns, all areas of engineering, business/industry, job creation, international relations, anthropology, and countless subfields that fall under these larger areas of specialization.

The quicker we as a society recognize and realize the complexity, multidisciplinarity, and difficulty level of finding both short-term and long-term solutions to problems found in any of these areas, the better off we will be. The next president will need to address all of these during the course of an administration, as will every other prominent political figure in every nation across the globe. We will not be able to ignore any of them, and these loom as multi-generational issues that need to be solved. This will require leaders who are able to connect with the masses and communicate the seriousness of the issues, as well as move his or her nation toward a mindset of long-term planning and policy, something we seem to not be very good at.

We need to find and create massive numbers of people who are trained in the all of the sciences, mathematics, engineering and technology, and all the other fields mentioned above to remain competitive in a global marketplace, as well as the maintain and improve the quality of life for future generations. It is challenging work, but do we have any other choice but to address these challenges? Does our consumption-based and entertainment-driven society have the backbone and means to deal with these issues? Will we leave the world in better condition for our kids and grandkids than what we inherited?

Selections of Science Advisers Show Obama Wants Change in Science Policy

The general public will likely overlook the latest appointments President-elect Obama has made today. In naming science advisers, the public largely does not connect the dots of what those selections tell us about the President's views or the path the President wants to follow into the future. There are very few scientists who have 'big names' and there is next to no conversation or debate among average Americans about these selections as there are when, say, Secretaries of State and Defense are named. Those much more notable Cabinet positions have popular, 'big name' individuals at the helm.

Obama is appointing Harvard physicist John Holdren to the position of science adviser, who is the go-to person on science policy. A Harvard marine biologist, Jane Lubchenko, will direct the National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration (NOAA), whose primary concern now is climate change. These two individuals are big names in the scientific world and are both experts in climate change. Two other scientists who will co-chair the Council of Advisers on Science and Technology are Nobel laureate and former director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Harold Varmus and MIT professor Eric Lander, an expert in human genome science.

While not household names, this is an impressive team. It also tells us something that will be an ENORMOUS difference with the respect and role science plays at the top of government policy: there actually will be respect for science and a respect for open inquiry, and a goal of gathering facts, data and evidence for policy decisions. The Bush administration has been notorious for ignoring science that contradicts the path ideology laid down, particularly in climate change policy (or a complete lack of such policy, as it turned out). The Bush White House routinely ignored policy initiatives and edited out of papers those scientific findings and evidence from government scientists that contradicted Bush policy. I suspect the world is breathing a collective sigh of relief as well with these appointments and the use of science Obama has in mind. I also would imagine that, while not interested in a formal position within the administration, former Vice President and Nobel laureate Al Gore will play a big role in the development of policy and gaining public and global support for U.S. leadership in its approach to one of the great crises humans have ever collectively faced.

I applaud these selections in the form of a standing ovation, as I am sure scientists all over the world are doing this morning. Science is going to lead the way in the solutions to an enormous number of incredibly important problems and issues. My next post will be a re-post of something I wrote a year ago. While largely under the public radar and fanfare, these are some of the most important appointments Obama will make, and will have a lasting impact on how we are able to attack significant problems for decades to come. I sense a renewed energy and enthusiasm and sense of urgency in the scientific community is upon us.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Inefficiency when Multi-Tasking

The Drs. Eide found a study showing what happens in the brain when driving and talking to someone else...not on a cell phone, but to someone else in the car. It turns out that this type of multi-tasking, just listening to another person while trying to drive, involves visual and spatial areas of the brain that are also needed for driving. In other words, listening robs attention and capacity from the parts of the brain required for safe and effective driving. Cell phone use while driving certainly does the same sort of thing, but we are just learning what happens physically in the brain that makes cell phone use so distracting and dangerous.

I should mention that I often, at stoplights, observe how many cars drive by with cell phones to the driver's ear. My record so far is seeing 8 cars in a row with drivers with a phone to the ear. The illusion for those individuals is that the cell phone conversation does not affect the driving, so there is no danger. We need to change this myth with the hard data and evidence of studies such as this to show multi-tasking is not as hardened as we want to believe.

I am looking forward to seeing additional studies related to classroom participation and learning while there are side conversations that disrupt other students.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Genius in a Group-Think Era?

Found an interesting article off Yahoo. It asked the question if Albert Einstein is the last great genius. This is a legitimate question in an age where 'group-think' is becoming the rage. There are obvious benefits to mass collaboration, largely making use of Web 2.0 tools and applications, and the best set of examples I have found are in the book Wikinomics.

One would like to think that individuals can still make a difference. I suspect this will still be the case, but less frequently than in the past. Ideas can blossom so quickly once numerous people share concepts and possible solutions to problems, but I would argue that there lies a chance that group-think may, in some cases, have one idea catch on that leads the pack on a path that ultimately runs into a dead-end. The notion of 'trends' and 'fads' hold true, and the 'latest craze' idea can attract most minds of the group. It may turn out that it will take an individual or small subset of the larger group to break from the group mindset, think outside the box, and develop an original idea that becomes the next focus of the group. Perhaps a good structure to a mass collaboration is to have numerous subsets working on different aspects of the problem from different points of view, so as to resist the temptation to fall into a 'fad' mentality. This falls in line with 'Mediciexity.' One example of the 'fad' mentality may be string theory. The concept of the 'string' is attractive to solving the ultimate questions of the universe, and over the past couple decades many of the most promising and powerful theoretical and mathematical minds have become part of that 'group.' However, all these years later there is not a viable, i.e. testable, theory that fits into the experimental realm of physics. Time will tell if this mass collaboration is worth it in the may end up one brilliant idea, from one brilliant person, completely separated from the string theory group, will end up being correct. Individuals may still change the world.

Perhaps the notion of individual genius making its mark in the modern mass collaboration age is evolving to the point of the genius required to form the right group. Web 2.0 technology has been applied in an unprecedented way by Barack Obama and a small, few person group of advisers. The creativity, forward-thinking plan and then the discipline and message-delivery by Obama himself has taken a young, smart, but relatively unknown and inexperienced politician whose future was supposed to be a decade away (according the group-thinking of the more traditional political parties)to the presidency. It still takes individuals or very small groups to develop a concept and start the larger group/collaboration, so perhaps this is where we will see genius more often than not.

There will always be a place for individuals, so we need to be careful not to push young minds, which tend to be the most creative and open to new ways of thinking, entirely into a group-think mindset...they still need to be encouraged to think for themselves, be skeptical of the group, and not be afraid to offer up 'outside the box' thinking and creative solutions. I want my students, at least, to never shy away from individual interests and ideas, and to not just go along with the latest fad if they don't agree with it. As always, I am not a proponent of going with one way of doing something, but rather using variety; not to fall into a 'whole language only' or a 'phonics only' way of learning, but rather taking the good things from each and using them. Variety, in this case group-think and individual-think, and the good that comes from each, is the spice of the new Web 2.0 life.