Thursday, December 31, 2009


I hope everyone is able to enjoy the new year, and remain happy and healthy so you can pursue all your goals and dreams!!

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Importance of Imagery for Memory & Learning

Thanks to the Drs. Eide for a post on imagery studies and how they play a role in memory and learning. If you reflect on instances when there is some physical activity or complex calculation or cognitive exercise you need to do, can you remember a time when you tried to 'see' yourself doing it ahead of time? It may seem to be an instinctive process or action, but I certainly have imagined doing a tough calculation prior to a math test, or have caught myself imagining myself playing a tough trumpet lick on a bus as we drove to a music contest. Professional musicians and athletes often refer to this mental practice since they are on the road so often, without the ability to physically practice like they are used to doing. Read a good article on this topic here.

Mental imagery is something that can help build memory for particular actions or cognitive activities, largely because neuroimaging experiments show as much as 90% of the neurons that are used in the actual, physical activity are firing in mental imagery exercises. To the brain, imagery is not so different from the real thing. Imagery can help us with the following:

- not only visualizing what the activity is, but also gaining spatial, auditory and kinesthetic information and practice and memory for that activity;
- helps with activities with high levels of organization, multi-steps, and decision making;
- positive imagery has a positive effect on real performance results: for example, golfers do 30% better on putting when positively imagining sinking putts, and 20% worse when imagining missing putts;

For readers, 60% of 5th graders report naturally using some imagery during 'think aloud' breaks in reading stories. It appears to be a natural reaction, even for children, to try and 'see' the scenes that words are trying to convey in order to develop memories of a story that we, ourselves, are not part of in reality. Humans are more visual creatures, as I like to tell my own students, and it is important to remind and also teach students how to visualize physical events and experiences. In fact, in problem solving in physics, I try and teach as an essential part of every single problem to draw a picture and mentally 'see' what is happening in the problem. We use a technique that requires making pictures and labeling all forces on the picture, and then use the picture to actually set up the math (for F = ma problems). So science and imagery are naturally connected, just as reading, writing and imagery are connected. Memory improves when visualization and imagery are used for stories or for how physical events play out in reality. The experimental finding that a good majority of the brain used for the physical activity is used in imagery, too, begins to explain why this process works.

Imagery is used extensively in elementary grades, and the combination of mental imagery with drawing pictures and other hands-on, physical activities makes for a powerful way of building memory and learning. We tend to actually decrease the use of imagery techniques as students progress into higher grades. Perhaps imagery is used most extensively in science classes by the time students get to high school, but it seems as if the use of imagery and hands on activities decreases significantly in literature and history/social studies classes, at least via anecdotal evidence and through conversations with students. Perhaps this is something educators need to consider more in practice.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Hypocrisy in Government? Perhaps a bit....

At least there is some media coverage bubbling up about the hypocrisy of Republicans who are fighting the Obama/Democrat attempt at health care reform. A good number of the Republican Senators who are leading this fight, who argue that they worry about a huge increase in the federal deficit with a 'government takeover' of health care, were the same ones who sponsored and supported and voted in the Medicare prescription drug program that passed a few years ago under Pres. Bush, when Republicans also had control of the Congress. That plan was truly a giveaway to the drug industry, as it was entirely deficit funded. It has added over a half trillion dollars to the deficit since its inception, and also provided the infamous 'doughnut hole' in funding for drugs for seniors.

Check out the article at But now, the resistance to health care reform is based on a lack of evidence as far as how it is funded. There are savings built in and, yes, some tax increases on the wealthy, that help pay for the reforms. In fact, not only does the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) score it as cost neutral, but actually will reduce the deficit by some $130 billion over the next decade. Projections may or may not be accurate depending a whole series of assumptions that are made, but this is generally the official budgetary analysis that is provided to the Congress for bills that are being considered.

While I am singling out the GOP on this one, as I and most people I know are so completely frustrated by the circus that is called the Congress, let me make it clear that both sides show this type of hypocrisy in the name of partisanship battles. It just depends who happens to have majority power during a particular political cycle. It is part of the game called politics, and it is at least beneficial to be aware of the game. We will see what happens.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Health Care Reform on the Way?

Despite unanimous disapproval from the GOP, the Senate has passed its version of Health Care reform. Now, the House and Senate begin the task of taking those two bills to conference committee to try and strike a final deal on a final bill, to be ultimately signed into law by the President.

It is a long, messy process to say the least, with obvious bitter feelings on many sides of the issues facing our health care system. And although whatever happens in conference committee, you can be sure there will still be universal votes against it from Republicans. There were numerous attempts to try and get portions of the bill to hook in some small number of those on the right, ranging from abortion language to dropping the public option to better language and policy favoring small business, but it really doesn't matter in the end because it had become and is clear nothing would gain any support on the right. I like to think this is not true, but there is something to the first set of comments from Rush Limbaugh immediately after Pres. Obama was sworn into office, where many on the right simply want to see the Obama agenda fail at all costs, period.

I try to listen to the arguments and complaints by the Republican leadership, who are out there every day stating why health care reform will destroy the economy and our childrens' futures, but evidence does not support their claims. Just the fact that some 30 million presently uninsured Americans will be able to obtain some level of health insurance, so one severe injury or illness does not bankrupt them, is a good thing. Can we agree on that? We haven't heard the right bring out CBO numbers lately because the 10-year projection is that it does pay for itself and trims $130 billion from the national debt. There are benefits and incentives for small businesses, which will drive the eventual job creation in the country, which is why some allies of small business have endorsed the plan. We'll keep hearing complaints about how seniors are going to start dying off early from non-existent 'death panels' that some on the right still throw out there for fear-raising purposes, or that Medicare is being raped - this despite the fact that the AARP endorses the plans. If there was any significant detrimental effect on seniors, this endorsement never happens...the language cannot be all that bad, apparently. And most importantly, if there were serious threats to the quality and extent of health care in the country, the AMA never endorses the plans - but they have, so this suggests it can't be all that bad. In fact, many doctors I know still think the best thing that could happen to control costs is some sort of public option, or at least what many other nations do, which is make insurance companies be not-for-profit organizations.

It is only a good thing that insurance companies will no longer be able to have entire divisions devoted to searching for needles in the haystack for their customers pasts so they can have an excuse to deny coverage when the customer needs it the most. It is only a good thing when insurance companies can no longer drop coverage without warning when a necessary procedure is too expensive. And it is only a good thing when it becomes illegal for someone with a 'pre-existing condition' to finally be able to get coverage that will not bankrupt them. If these were the only changes in the end, it would be worth the effort.

Change is not easy. Hell, small change at the local level is never easy, let alone big change at the national level. There is no such thing as a perfect bill in any policy area at any level. There are too many interests and too many emotions that arise to make much more that 50% of the country happy in anything nowadays. So I hope the Democrats push on and pass this, since it is now pointless to hope for any support from Republicans. There are some good things in the bill that will help millions of Americans. If the projections are at all accurate, not only is this going to be cost neutral, but actually lead to some savings. Does more need to be done in the near future to further reduce health care costs and the rates at which those costs are going up? Absolutely. Could the process have been handled better on both sides of the aisle? Absolutely. Are there still going to be critics and those on the far right demanding the Democrats be burned at the stake? Absolutely. But this could be an enormous first step in a multi-step process. Nearly a century after Pres. Teddy Roosevelt called for health care reform, we might get some necessary, very much overdue changes within the next month or two, depending how long the bills are debated in committee. It is time to get it done.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Scientific American Top 10 Science Stories for 2009

Check out the Scientific American Top 10 scientific stories of 2009. Always a good time debating top 10 lists. Perhaps the lead next year will be the discovery of the Higgs boson, either at Fermilab or CERN.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

A Map of the Whole of Science

My good friend Zenpundit sent me the link to the map of science below. It is a wonderful tool showing topical and paradigm links between the major disciplines of science. You can click on the map and zoom and move around the map to read the topics that make up the links. It is truly worth viewing up close to see all the various areas of science and research. Have fun!

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Wasting Food - Something to Ponder After We Over-eat on Thanksgiving

I personally enjoy the Thanksgiving holiday, for it is a good chance to be with family and reflect on how much they mean to me. There is also a side benefit, one where we are able to dine in the extreme with an overabundance of delicious homemade turkey dinner. As with any large meal, particularly with numerous children participating in the festivities, I cannot help but notice there is a good amount of food being thrown out, as stomachs fill more quickly than the original estimate one's eyes make just prior to eating. But until I read a story summarizing a new estimate of how much food Americans throw out, I had no idea of the true waste I have witnessed.

Americans throw out approximately 40% of the food produced in the U.S. This is a staggering number, but it is the result of a study done by researchers at the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. This translates into 1400 calories of food per day per person, or some 150 trillion calories per year of wasted food and nutrition. This is happening in a time where, with the economic crisis that has unfolded since 2007, an additional 2 million Americans have been added to the rolls of those who do not have enough to eat every day, going from 4.7 million to 6.7 million people just in two years. This is an estimate from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Worldwide, about one billion people go without adequate amounts of food.

There is an oversupply of food in the U.S., and it has led to some noteworthy health problems such as widespread obesity, increased amounts of heart disease and diabetes, and I would hypothesize our poor diets with food excess play some role in the shorter life spans Americans see when compared to other wealthy nations, where diet selection and choice is healthier than what many Americans choose.

As a citizen in the wealthiest nation the world has ever seen, I am thankful for the opportunity to walk into countless stores and be able to select as much food for myself and my family as we can stand. Our grocery stores are considered in many countries around the world to be centers of unimaginable volume of food that will not ever be realized in those countries. Perhaps it is time to recognize this overabundance and figure out how to better distribute food in order to use the waste we now produce to actually be put to use and feed some of those billion hungry world citizens, many of whom are children. Many experts argue there is enough food being produced worldwide to feed the global population, but the way it is distributed and managed and taken for granted in certain regions of the world leads to vast waste. We can and must do better, in order to allow as many individuals to have the opportunity to enjoy the life given to them, rather than going hungry and having no hope of pursuing their dreams. Let's try to become more thoughtful of how much food we waste, and begin to trim the volume of food we take each meal. Let's purchase what we will actually consume, and let's encourage restaurants to actually serve smaller portions than the mountain of food a typical meal includes, and which so few costumers can actually finish without being bloated.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Farthest Object Ever Observed

At some 13 BILLION LIGHT-YEARS from Earth, this gamma ray burst is now the most distant object ever observed. At roughly 600 million years after the Big Bang, we are seeing the remnant of one of the first generation stars that formed after the universe was created. Gamma ray bursts are among the most energetic events known to scientists. Truly remarkable!

Saturday, October 17, 2009

My Class Blog

At the start of the school year, I started a separate blog specifically for my physics classes. It will be a work in progress, of course, with one aspect being a variety of 'how to' videos for numerous physics problems and topics. The latest, for example, is 'how to do multi-body systems with tension,' which can be confusing to students who are first exposed to such problems. The videos are actually screencasts with voice, made with ScreenToaster, which I recommend to all teachers. This online tool, along with a tablet computer, is truly a powerful combination for producing useful presentations that can be embedded online. I have already used such screencasts for students who miss a couple days due to illness or college visits, where examples done in class and then put online have allowed them to catch up immediately. I plan on making an online library with all sorts of examples, notes, and demonstrations so students can review at their leisure, whether it is just to remind themselves of what went on during class, or reviewing for a quizzam, or catching up when absent. It is also a good tool for parents to check out if they are interested in what happens in their child's class.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Tens of Thousands Die Young Who Do Not Have Health Insurance

A new study has come out in the American Journal of Public Health, and health records and data suggest some every year nearly 45,000 uninsured Americans between the ages of 19 and 64 die early due to complications with their health, which would likely have been prevented had they had private insurance. This group of people do not have private insurance, and even when public health clinic are available, this does not contribute as much to sustained health as seeing one's own doctor. In general, there is a 40% higher risk of death for uninsured compared to insured Americans.

There is a summary article of how the study was done in Scientific American. If this is not motivation for our political leaders to get something done this year to reform how we run our health care system, I don't know what will.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

New Record High Ocean Temperature

Because I live near Chicago, and we are having one of the most comfortable, meaning coolest, summers on record, I do hear a number of people mentioning that 'global warming' is indeed not real. However, we need to remember that a key concept is carried by the word 'global' and that local weather can be entirely misrepresentative of warming. This is why 'global climate change' is a more accurate phrase, with climate replacing warming, that captures the essence of what the vast majority of scientists who study climate are worried about. Some areas of the world are expected to continue warming, however there are some areas that are actually expected to cool.

But key components of the global climate system are the oceans. Ocean currents help transfer energy, in the form of heat, around the world and help drive climate. The news continues to be a source of concern to scientists, as a new record high temperature was recorded this past year for the world's ocean temperatures. The largest increases have happened in the Arctic Ocean, which is why ice sheets continue to melt at high rates. The moral of the story is to not let local weather fool us into thinking we are suddenly in the clear.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Asteroid Hunters

When the dinosaurs went extinct some 65 million years ago, it is widely believed that a large impact between the earth and an asteroid was responsible. There is evidence for such an impact near the Yucatan Peninsula. In 1994, for the first time in human history we were able to watch the Shoemaker-Lavy comet impact Jupiter. The Jupiter impacts, where some of the impact areas were larger than the earth itself, and studies of moon crater rates, showed us that large impacts do still happen, even though the inner solar system is not as crowded as it was millions of years ago with asteroids in earth-crossing orbits around the sun. Most scientists who study these events agree that the earth will ultimately experience another large impact with an asteroid.

While this is popularly the stuff of science fiction, with Hollywood movies such as Armegeddon, it is a serious topic when considered by scientists. Yes, there could, and likely will, be an impact one day in the not so distant future, between earth and a larger asteroid. And if that happens, there would be catastrophic, global consequences.

In 2005, Congress assigned NASA the mission of identifying 90% of the estimated 20,000 larger earth-crossing asteroids by the year 2020. In this case, 'large' would be asteroids with a diamter of 460 feet or more. This sized rock is large enough to survive passage through the atmosphere and devastate a large region on the ground. Of course, as this size increases, so does the impact energy and devastation area. The goal is to plot orbits and try to identify any that are on a possible collision course with the earth in the near future (within several decades worth of time until impact). To date, some 6000 have been identified and catelogued.

However, NASA reports conclude that the funding Congress was supposed to be providing to carry out this mission has never been given to NASA. In order to find such close objects to earth, a different network of telescopes is needed to accurately track such objects. It is to NASA's credit that they have been able to find 6000 at this point without the telescopes and funds.

With limited funding, it is doubtful NASA will be able to accomplish this mission, and little is being done anywhere else in the world regarding this issue. With enough warning time, there are possible interventions humans could make to save the earth from an impact event, and this is the purpose for beginning the NASA asteroid hunting mission in the first place. This is a mission worth completing.

Thoughts on Afghanistan

My good friend Zenpundit has posted the single best analysis of what we should be doing in Afghanistan that I have seen. A realistic set of goals for a truly tough situation. As this has been transitioning into 'Obama's war,' I hope the new administration will develop a strategy similar to Zen's.

Monday, August 10, 2009

When Emotion and False Statements Drive Policy Debates

Publicity hound Rush Limbaugh comparing Pres. Obama to Adolf Hitler, and Sarah Palin stating the health care proposals coming out of Congressional committees promote suicide, take away health care from those who need it most, and says Obama's "evil plan" has "death panels" that will control what happens to those who are close to dying, have made the headlines this past week. That was by design. The more outrageous the statement, the more press coverage. And the more you can get the masses all riled up since just about no one ever does their own research for little things called facts. Democrats trying to hold town hall meetings across the country are being forced to cancel them due to unruly crowds and, in one case, death threats against the Congressman. The millions being spent to crush any type of reform whatsoever is making some progress, it seems, even though the main claims are inherently false, particularly the wild claims by Palin.

I am putting a Comcast news article below verbatim, since it does a fact check that completely contradicts what the far right campaign of fear mongors have been spreading daily.

"WASHINGTON — Former Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin says the health care overhaul bill would set up a "death panel." Federal bureaucrats would play God, ruling on whether ailing seniors are worth enough to society to deserve life-sustaining medical care. Palin and other critics are wrong.

Nothing in the legislation would carry out such a bleak vision. The provision that has caused the uproar would instead authorize Medicare to pay doctors for counseling patients about end-of-life care, if the patient wishes. Here are some questions and answers on the controversy:

Q: Does the health care legislation bill promote "mercy killing," or euthanasia?

A: No.

Q: Then what's all the fuss about?

A: A provision in the House bill written by Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., would allow Medicare to pay doctors for voluntary counseling sessions that address end-of-life issues. The conversations between doctor and patient would include living wills, making a close relative or a trusted friend your health care proxy, learning about hospice as an option for the terminally ill, and information about pain medications for people suffering chronic discomfort.

The sessions would be covered every five years, more frequently if someone is gravely ill.

Q: Is anything required?

Monsignor Charles Fahey, 76, a Catholic priest who is chairman of the board of the National Council on Aging, a nonprofit service and advocacy group, says no.

"We have to make decisions that are deliberative about our health care at every moment," Fahey said. "What I have said is that if I cannot say another prayer, if I cannot give or get another hug, and if I cannot have another martini — then let me go."

Q: Does the bill advocate assisted suicide?

A: No. It would block funds for counseling that presents suicide or assisted suicide as an option.

Q: Who supports the provision?

A: The American Medical Association, the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization and Consumers Union are among the groups supporting the provision. AARP, the seniors' lobby, is taking out print advertisements this week that label as false the claim that the legislation will empower the government to take over life-and-death decisions from individuals.

Q: Should the federal government be getting involved with living wills and end-of-life questions — decisions that are highly personal and really difficult?

A: It already is.

The government requires hospitals to ask adult patients if they have a living will, or "advance directive." If the patient doesn't have one, and wants one, the hospital has to provide assistance. The mandate on hospitals was instituted during a Republican administration, in 1992, under President George H.W. Bush.

Q: How does a living will work, and how is it different from a health care proxy?

A: A living will — also called an advance directive — spells out a patient's wishes if he or she becomes incapacitated. Often people say they don't want to be kept alive on breathing machines if their condition is terminal and irreversible.

A health care proxy empowers another person to make medical decisions should the patient become incapacitated.

There's also a power-of-attorney, which authorizes another person to make financial decisions for someone who is incapacitated.

Such legal documents have become standard estate-planning tools in the last twenty years.

Q: Would the health overhaul legislation change the way people now deal with making end-of-life decisions?

A: It very well could.

Supporters of the provision say the main consequence would be to formally bring doctors into a discussion that now takes place mainly among family members and lawyers.

"When you execute a legal document with your lawyer, it ends up in your files and in the lawyer's files," said John Rother, a senior policy and strategy adviser for AARP. "Unless the doctor is part of this discussion, it's unlikely that your wishes will be respected. The doctor will be the one involved in any decisions."

The American Medical Association says involving doctors is simple common sense.

"There has been a lot of misinformation about the advance care planning provisions in the bill," AMA President Dr. James Rohack said in a statement. "It's plain, old-fashioned medical care."

Q: So why are some people upset?

Some social conservatives say stronger language is needed to protect seniors from being pressured into signing away their rights to medical treatment in a moment of depression or despair.

The National Right to Life Committee opposes the provision as written.

"I'm not aware of 'death panels' in the bill," said David O'Steen, executive director of the group. "I'm not aware of anything that says you will be hauled before a government bureaucrat. But we are concerned ... it doesn't take a lot to push a vulnerable person — perhaps unwittingly — to give up their right to life-sustaining treatment."

The White House says it is countering false claims with a "reality check" page on its Web site,"

Would it not be wonderful to debate issues and ideas on merit, facts, and evidence? To take testimony and advice of experts in the field and make informed decisions? Whether it comes from the right or the left, shame on those who knowingly and blatantly state lies and exaggerations, who spend more effort and creativity on what names they will call their opponents than on new, original ideas if they think the other side is so wrong.

Do we really want to keep the status quo? How has that been working? How is it working for the 50 million uninsured, who may be finaincially ruined if someone in th efamily is seriously ill? That is a national embrrassment. Are we happy spending twice as much on average as the rest of the Western, industrialized world on health care, while having lower life expecancies, higher infant mortality rates, more obesity, and higher cancer rates? Keep in mind all of the other countries in this category insure every single citizen while having results we ae striving for as far as actual health goes.

Let's try to have an honest would that be for change?

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Wikipedia for Schools, With a New Twist

When it comes to the use of Wikipedia as a primary research resource for school reports, many teachers do not allow it for fear of inaccurate information. At least in the sciences and other technical topics, I have yet to find any articles that are not accurate, and I do not mind if students use it. But like anything when it comes to research, one wants to ideally confirm information with multiple sources.

To help alleviate the fear factor many teachers have, there is a largely unknown version of Wikipedia that is specifically for schools. It has about 5500 articles on major topics in the main subject areas, and what is different is that each article has been reviewed for content accuracy by educators and is appropriate for children. What's more, the founders are purposely limiting the size of the site and offer a downloadable option, so you can copy it for free to a DVD or flash drive. The file size is about 3.5 GB. This version also provides school districts across the country an interesting option for one group of students.

I would imagine most districts have some number of students (primarily from low income homes) who have a computer at home, but their parents are unable to afford high-speed Internet access. Or perhaps a rural school district lies in a region of the country that still does not have infrastructure for high-speed Internet access. Districts have the option of purchasing DVDs and making and dispersing copies of the site to those families for use at home. This is the equivalent of providing a 20-volume encyclopedia (something like 34,000 images and 20 million words), for free, to eligible families. I could also imagine having students making the copies and/or dispersing them to families as a community service project.

This is another technological tool that will help level the playing field for students across the country who have not been able to have the same exposure to information due to location and socioeconomic status, and I look forward to still other innovative ways to continue to break down information divides that may still exist. If interested in this site, downloading instructions are available here.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

iLabs - Working to Improve STEM Education and Level the Playing Field

Just over one year ago, Northwestern University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) collaborated and won a $1 million dollar grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to develop the iLab Network. This is a network of university groups from around the world that will develop and implement remote experiments that are accessible over the Internet. Students from anywhere around the world with Internet access will be able to make use of real equipment to get actual data from the experiments. Teachers and students can request accounts at

High school science programs tend to have traditional equipment, with some relatively small number of electronic sensors, from companies such as Pasco or Vernier, but the sensors are for fairly basic measurements and applications, such as temperature probes, voltmeters, pH meters, and so on. It is difficult to do sophisticated experiments that require hardware that is much too expensive for a high school to afford. Besides a lack of equipment, time is also a major factor for high school science labs because it is difficult to do involved measurements in a 45-minute period. But colleges tend to have such equipment.

Many college courses have made use of remote labs for the past decade. This was in part to save class time for moving through material and allowing students time to collect data remotely on their own time, and often from their dorm rooms since it was online. Lab reports could then be completed over some given time period and turned in either with hard copies or through email. Only recently has the effort to put more sophisticated and interesting experiments online for high school access been made, and the iLab Network is ready to be at the forefront of this effort.

The first experiment to have a full curriculum and access for high school students is the effect distance has on radiation intensity. Many high schools do not have radiation sensors such as Geiger counters, let alone strong radioactive samples. An experimental setup at the University of Queensland, Australia, has been used by my classes and those of several of my colleagues in a pilot test, and students have been able to collect real data (as opposed to computer simulated data, which likely would have been used had it not been for the iLab) in just a few minutes, analyze it, and do fits of the data (typically with MS Excel) to determine the mathematical relationships between counts of radiation and distance between the strontium-90 source and the Geiger counter. Students are able to design the experiment around their selection of several parameters of the hardware, such as the distances to be used, the number of trials, and the exposure time of the Geiger counter to the radiation for each trial. Once an experiment is submitted and runs, it takes only minutes to finish and have an Excel file with the data available. Students can submit their experiments any time, and even if they are not online the files will be saved in the student's account for future access.

Other iLabs being developed include neutron spectroscopy (using a neutron beam from a nuclear reactor at MIT), a shake table to simulate earthquakes, various advanced circuits analyses, polymer crystallization, and a heat exchanger experiment. All of these are not possible in high schools, although they deal with highly interesting and engaging topics. And the vast majority of high schools do not have major research universities in their neighbohoods to conveniently and physically access the equipment necessary for these experiments. But remotely, everyone will have a chance, whether they go to school in a wealthy suburb, the inner city or in a rural community. I am personally excited by the prospect of evening the playing field for science classes in all communities. Having taught at an inner city school for several years, I can appreciate the opportunity iLabs will be presenting to science programs and their teachers and students.

One other aspect of these remote labs I want to point out is that remote experimentation has been vitally important for a number of scientific disciplines for years. High energy physics and nucelar physics have had researchers from around the world be able to access hardware and the collected data, and biologists, geologists and meterologists have used remote sensors and experiments in the field for years. This is a common experimental and analytical process for professional scientists and engineers, and the technology is filtering down to high schools, providing students with new opportunities to investigate topics that were once limited to books, lectures, and an occasional computer simulation that provides only theoretical, ideal data. iLab data is real, physical data, just as scientists would collect and need to analyze, complete with statistical uncertainties and the 'noise' of reality.

I look forward to continuing to work with the iLab principals for the benefit of students around the world, and I am curious as to what will be the next batch of remote iLab experiments. Check out other articles in the online Converge magazine, an NU press release, and Evanston Now.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Young Children and Reasoning

The Drs. Eide have a recent post relating research results about young children, as young as 2 years old, and their ability to reason. For those of us who come through teacher training/certification programs, this cannot be! We are told that Jean Piaget found reasoning comes in developmentally at ages near 12-13 or so. But it appears Piaget was wrong on this one. I certainly recommend anyone in education to check out the article as well as second post by Dr. Peter Gray at Psychology Today about how young children are capable of reasoning in playful environments, where creativity is being encouraged and the experience of play allows children to reach conclusions that they typically would not if just being asked directly and more seriously as we may do in school. It appears children do not yet have abstract thinking or reasoning until they are closer to teenage years, but rather depend on experience to reason things out.

The research centers on how children answer syllogisms, introduced long ago by Aristotle, and more specifically, counterfactual syllogisms. The example provided is:

All cats bark (major premise)
Muffins is a cat (minor premise)
Does Muffins bark?

If a child is asked this in a straightforward, more direct or serious tone of voice as a teacher or other adult would likely do, they will not abstractly or logically see that Muffins will bark. Instead, young children will say no, that Muffins meows or purrs (as my own young children said just now when I asked this as a straight question as part of a normal conversation). This is their experience with our cat, so the notion they should answer that a cat barks does not make sense and they do not take it to mean anything in their answer. But when I presented the same syllogism (and others with a similar structure, such as: Penguins are black and white...some old TV shows are black and white...therefore some penguins are old TV shows) when we started playing a game we called 'Imagine That,' where snails move fast and cheetahs can't catch zebras any more since zebras could both fly and turn invisible (that was my 6 year old daughter's premise), my kids did indeed begin answering with the logically correct answers. It was interesting to do the experiment and see it happen first-hand.

The authors of the two posts wonder if we are underestimating children in school settings (which I would say, from my own experience, we certainly do fairly consistently! It is amazing what children can do when not restricted and put in a good frame of mind, and simply allowed to explore opportunities.), and how research that stems from this finding may lead to improvements in methodology in the classroom, from Pre-K through elementary and middle school. In fact, I found it interesting that, in the Gray article, developmental and cognitive psychologists now reject a distinction between concrete and abstract reasoning, since abstract concepts become interpretted and processed based on concrete experience. The argument is centered on the notion that imagination combined with your own daily experience can lead to the ability to think and reason abstractly.

What does this mean for educators and parents? I leave with a quote from the Dr. Gray article:

"My overriding point here is that play automatically induces hypothetical reasoning. It leads us to think about pretend worlds, where anything is possible, and to reason about those possibilities, rather than to limit our thoughts just to things that are true in the immediate here and now. In this way play promotes the kind of thought that is crucial not just to all of theoretical science but to all planning about the future, in which we must imagine possible events and think about how we might deal with those events.

Please do not draw the wrong conclusion from this little discussion. I am not arguing that it is a good idea, educationally, to induce playful states deliberately in children in order to improve their reasoning, as the researchers did in their experiment. Children play naturally, and it is through natural play that children practice reasoning. Children who are manipulated into play by teachers who think that this will improve their reasoning will soon learn to resist the manipulations. Play, in the long run, is only play if it is self-chosen and self-directed. Children practice reasoning in their own ways, through their own self-chosen play; we can't do it for them and shouldn't try. All we need to do, as I have argued in previous installments (e.g. Sept. 30, 2008, posting), is to provide places where children can play and explore safely and naturally, with others in age-mixed groups. They will take care of the rest."

Let children develop naturally, for their reasoning skills and abilities will develop...but we some times need to get out of their way and allow them to have some fun along the way in order for this to happen. :-)

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Control of Weather - Do we want to go there?

The History Channel just had a program dealing with human control of weather, and with a special emphasis on the weaponizing of weather. I only caught the last few minutes and therefore missed the details of the show, but for decades there have been serious scientists, military leaders, and politicians all the way up to the White House (including discussions in the Johnson, Nixon and Bush II administrations), who have contemplated ways to use the weather as a weapon. This progressed up to the point where militar leaders predict by 2025 the U.S. Air Force will have control of weather, and one can contemplate wars that consist of hitting a country with a 'natural disaster' that cripples the enemy country without needing a single shot from more conventional weapons being fired. This would also allow the country that made the attack to have plausible deniability, since they could claim that the weather event was an act of God, and one of those natural weather anomalies that cannot be predicted nor controlled.

There is an article in the Spring, 2007 Wilson Quarterly which summarizes the history of this concept of controlling weather. The formal name is climate engineering. My worry is our lack of knowledge of complex systems, and the numerous unintended consequences that could be realized. The fact that we are unable to predict weather more than a couple days in advance is evidence of our ignorance of global complex systems. Weather is not a local phenomenon, but is instead linked to what the atmosphere and oceans and cosmic environments are doing. We would be playing with proverbial fire, IMO. There is much to learn.

Monday, July 20, 2009

An Interesting Set of Observations About Education, Courtesy Dr. Tae Kim

A friend of mine, Dr. Tae Kim, who has been at Northwestern University most recently, has an interesting set of ideas about the state of education in the United States. Check out a recorded version of his last lecture, Building A New Culture Of Teaching And Learning, at:

It is about 30 minutes in length, but worth the listen when you have time.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Scientific and Engineering Marvel - Landing Men on the Moon

On July 20, 1969, the United States landed men on the moon. The Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped on the moon, and made history. Scientific American has a series of articles about the trip, and the 40th anniversary of the mission.

There is a good summary of the history of getting to the moon at Wikipedia.

Memorization in Schools

As part of the discussion taking place about the need for 'Big Picture' thinking and learning in our educational system, part of the argument against what is presently happening in classrooms has been too much memorization in order to do well on the next test. But good points are brought up that there is a need for memorization. Perhaps the best example is how medical doctors need to memorize human anatomy, which is obviously relevant and vital to a doctor's work.

I wanted to make the distinction, though, between the two types of memorization that educators need to worry about: short-term versus long-term. We should be looking for the latter type in education, rather than the former.

Here is my full comment on my friend Zenpundit's post about big picture thinking:

"The notion of memorization has come up in a few comments. I agree that a certain type of memorization is necessary in education, and that is memorization for the sake of learning and eventual application (i.e. long-term memory). The example of medical doctors needing to memorize human anatomy is a prime example. But this is very different than what takes place in, say, most history classes, which is memorization for the sake of passing the next test. This is why most cannot come up with dates and events, because the focus of the individual was solely for the short-term when they ‘learned about’ those dates and events in school, in order to pass the test.

Students freely admit this, and I and most of my teacher friends know this to be true because we did the same thing when we were in middle school and high school. There was no importance/relevance given to us to make us want to try and raise the level of our learning to long-term memory, and many teachers will explicitly state ‘you need to know this for the test.’ If that is all that is required, and if that is all the motivation students are given, then of course we should expect nothing more than short-term memorization.

I tell my students on a very regular basis that they need to challenge me as a teacher…ideally on a daily basis. They (students) need to ask me, and often they do, "What is the point of me wanting to learn this stuff today?" If I cannot give them any reason that will some how connect to their life in any way, then I need to ask myself if this should really be in the curriculum. They may not agree with my argument or reasoning as to how it affects them, but they at least will acknowledge my effort to make a connection. Why should students need to learn something if it truly does not matter for them in any way? A lack of relevancy inevitably leads to short-term memorization for the vast majority of students."

In a high-stakes testing environment, we are teaching to the test. And we've got to change how we approach this by offering students the reason for learning what we are teaching them, by giving them reasons beyond "doing well on the test" for them wanting to learn the material and skills. We are absolutely shooting ourselves in the foot with the approach we have been forced into in our classrooms, and many students are being ripped off in terms of the quality of their education.

WE MUST AVOID BECOMING A TEST MERITOCRACY AT ALL COSTS. It leads to a largely short-term memorization approach from students, devoid of creativity and innovation and application of long-term learning and strategic thinking.

Good Discussion Going on About 'Big Picture' Education

I recently posted about a topic started by the Drs. Eide, regarding the lack of 'Big Picture' thinking, teaching, and learning in our educational system. These two posts were then picked up by my good friend Zenpundit, after we had a good discussion over lunch a few days ago. Himself a stellar educator and deep-thinking analyst, Zen took the baton and presented his support of the notion that we are regressing in education, largely driven by the implementation of No Child Left Behind and high-stakes testing, and this has all led to a wonderful discussion thread you can follow from Zen's post.

Zen and others have brought up the near desperate need for high-level thinkers who have been trained and educated, at least in part within a 'big picture' framework, because this is precisely what is required for long-range, strategic thinking, planning and implementation. Society has largely been focused on short-range, today-to-tomorrow thinking and planning, and this is not at all what is required in this day and age. Many tend to forget, or worse have not been exposed to, history; perhaps this is because much of what we are taught in history classes boils down to memorizing dates and facts, rather than true analysis of cause and effect of particular policy or action that led to specific consequences, which in turn led to other may be guessing, correctly, I am implying a lack of big picture thinking in history, too.

This type of longer term strategic thinking is and has been for some time largely absent from our policitical leaders. This is driven from the need to post today's and yesterday's results and accomplishments, rather than where such and such policy will lead us in ten, twenty or fifty years from now, because of the desire to extend one's career by winning the next election. And why do politicians do this? It is like any other market - politicians sell the electorate what the electorate wants to hear, and that is short-term results, because that is how the electorate has been trained to think in school.

I like what was posted at Red Herrings regarding this discussion:

"I think the problem in many ways goes even deeper. How much has a focus on the minimum required effort, intellectual instant gratification and a lack of any kind of emphasis or training in long-term thinking affected the very culture of the United States and contributed to a range of problems from obesity and political apathy to over-spending and the credit crisis.

How we teach becomes how we learn, and how we learn becomes how we think. We teach to the test. We learn the minimum required to reach the minimum standard. We think no farther than the next chapter, the next test, the next evaluation, the next paycheck, the next credit card payment. We have stopped thinking about year five much less year twenty five of a thirty year mortgage, and the same thinking horizon applies to health and political decision making. It isn’t about intelligence. There are many very smart people out there who are very good, very fast, thinkers, and if we have gained any kind of skill in dealing with “complex, dynamic, fast moving situations” it is only because we are in a constant state of flux, constantly in crisis mode, and constantly trying to squeeze advantage at best and survival at minimum, out of the bad situations we constantly find ourselves in. That takes skill and inventiveness, but not everyone is that quick, innovative or lucky. However, long-term, strategic thinking in advance of a crisis could have prevented those situations from ever adversely impacting us or even turned them into opportunities to further our goals."

I highly recommend reading through the various comments and links to posts about this topic.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

A 2-Year Science Course for Grades 9-10. What do you think?

My previous post addresses why I think we have a need to include some amount of the 'Big Picture' to classes. We need to show students why what they are studying matters, how it applies to their world, and why we need to focus on real learning for students. I have thought about what a big picture science course might look like, and below is a basic draft of one possibility. It would be integrated and team-taught over grades 9 and 10 in high school, and it addresses in a logical (at least in my mind) order the connection between many different disciplines in science. I am curious to learn what you think about it.

First Year
I. Ingredients for a Universe
A. Size Scales – Powers of Ten; From Big to Small, Science Studies it All!
B. Observation and Scientific Process
C. Big Bang – What is it, and what evidence supports it?
D. Energy – Basics and Examples
E. Matter – Basics and Examples (include E = mc2)
F. Forces – Basics (Newton’s laws) and Examples
G. What is Physics?

II. Atoms
A. What are they?
B. Electric Force
C. Nuclear Forces
D. Molecules (and introduction to bonding, valence electron concepts)
E. State of Matter - Gas
F. Gravity
G. Phase transition – Gas to Plasma (new state of matter)
H. Stars – Heavy Atom Factories (nuclear reactions)
I. Evolution of Universe – Simplicity to Complexity (quarks/electrons to atoms to gas clouds to stars to supernovae to heavy elements to planets to solar systems to galaxies to superclusters)
J. What is Astronomy?

III. Periodic Table
A. Patterns in Nature
B. Organization of elements based on patterns of chemical properties
C. Why does it look like it does? What those electrons are doing…
D. Significance of the Table…more on bonding, intro to reactions (both chemical and nuclear)
E. What is Chemistry?

IV. The Solar System
A. Formation of Planets
B. States of Matter – Liquid & Solid
C. Behavior of Planets – Kepler’s laws of Planetary Motion
D. The Structure of Earth
i. Land (include core, plate tectonics)
ii. Water
iii. Atmosphere
E. Chemical Reactions
F. What is Geoscience?

V. Life
A. What is Life?
i. Characteristics of Life
ii. Chemistry of Life
B. First Life on Earth
C. The Cell
D. Genetics
E. Evolution of Life – Simplicity to Complexity (build off the previous series: simple molecules to polyatomic molecules to organic systems to molecular networks to simple structures to cells to tissues to organs to organisms…)
F. What is Biology?

Summer Supplements
I. The Math – algebra practice; basic trig of right triangles
II. Summer readings and/or project

Second Year
I. Motion in Everyday Life
A. Basics of Vectors
B. Applying Newton’s laws of Motion – Equilibrium vs Nonequilibrium
C. Applying Conservation of Energy
D. What is Engineering?

II. Thermodynamics
A. Energy in Chemistry
B. Entropy
C. Types of Chemical Reactions & why reactions happen in the first place
D. What is Physical Chemistry?

III. Electricity and Magnetism
A. Electrostatics
i. Field and Force
ii. Potential and Electrical Energy
B. Electric Current and Origin of Magnetism
C. Power Generation – Faraday’s law
D. Bioelectromagnetism
E. What is Biophysics?

IV. Communication
A. Intermolecular
B. Cellular (not the phones…at least not yet)
i. Cell-Environment
ii. Intercellular
C. Nervous system
D. Waves
i. Properties & Phenomena
ii. Sound
a. The ear
b. Sonar for animals
iii. Electromagnetic Radiation
a. Visual communication, the eye
b. Radar, satellites
c. Astronomical communication
E. What is Biochemistry?

V. Science for the Citizen (for political, economic, environmental issues): Applications of What We Have Studied That Affects Your Life on a Daily Basis (Relevancy of the science; prior knowledge, personal experience, self-discovery, project-based, choice of what to study, possible careers in science and technology, etc)
A. Global Climate Change
B. Genetic Engineering (including stem cell research)
C. Energy Sources
D. Nuclear Power and Weapons Proliferation
E. Computer Security
F. Food and Water Supplies
G. Medicine – Fighting Disease, Bioterrorism
H. Intelligent Design and Creationism vs. Big Bang and Evolution
I. The Next Generation of Space Exploration
i. Back to the Moon, to Mars?
ii. Protecting the Earth
J. Ethics in Science and in Public Policy related to Science
K. When Does Life Begin? The Abortion issue
L. Where will the jobs be for your generation? Why you should care about everything you have studied in this course…

A Need for some 'Big Picture' Exposure in Education

I am glad to see posts such as the recent one by the Drs. Eide, entitled "The Paradigm Shift for Big Picture Thinking." They argue for, and I agree entirely, that:

"Instead of training for compliance, careful rule-following, and exact memorization or a paragon of crystallized intelligence, we need to make more room for 'big picture' thinkers - while still recognizing the need for basic skills and knowledge."

When I talk with students (juniors and seniors in high school) about how different subjects and classes are taught, invariably it comes down to great amounts of memorization. Most students, when you engage them in real conversations about the education they receive, will open up freely and get right to the point...because of the continued emphasis on grades and GPAs by colleges, students feel the need to focus first on memorization and get the grade on the test, and then move on to the next topic without much concern with what was just studied. When this is the case in school, has true learning just occurred? Likely not, if students are unable to recall and actually apply concepts that were covered in the past. I personally would love to change my job title from 'teacher' to 'learning facilitator,' or something similar. Teaching happens everyday in every classroom. But if student learning does not take place, what is the point? Teaching and learning are not the same thing, and I for one want the latter over the former!

To make matters worse, as students rely so heavily on memorization and short-term success on tests (and this is driven home even more in the 'high stakes testing' environment we find ourselves in in the era of No Child Left Behind, as resently implemented), those students, many of whom are gifted, as the Eides point out, who prefer complexity in their learning, are not benefitting from the way many (most) classrooms are run. By complexity, I mean those students who want to 'see the big picture.' Those students who want to know why something works, and how it is related to the material that was studied last semester as well as to the material that was covered in another class. For example, I love when students in my physics classes come to me asking about how to interpret and apply a particular integral result which was just studied in calculus class, or how Einstein's theories changed political and military history, as studied in a history course. Those moments happen every so often, as a result of student curiosity and their wanting to truly learn about the material rather than memorize something for the test, and good teachers recognize such moments when they happen...that is what I want school and the education process to be like for every student. I guarantee we (i.e. society) will be the beneficiaries if we can figure out how to do this systemically.

How can change, or the paradigm shift the Eides are referring to, like this occur? I still firmly believe it won't ever happen until we get state boards of education together with teaching colleges and work together to change how teachers are trained. They need to be taught in this manner in the colleges so they have practical, real-world models to think about and employ when in the classroom, rather than the enormous amount of theoretical psychology that has been in traditional certification programs (and which I personally have never used in an actual classroom). Master teachers of this strategy need to be the ones to work staff development sessions rather than outside consultants who are preaching the traditional single-topic methodologies I think we should be using, but together with other methodologies (example: I've been to how to use phonics sessions, and how to use whole language sessions - I have yet to go to a session that gets teachers thinking about and trained in how to use the best of phonics and the best of whole language to get the most bang for the buck). Teachers need to learn how to do more coordinated team-teaching so kids are exposed to the interplay between math-science-reading-writing-history-art-technology.

Too many students are missing out on seeing the 'big picture' of what they study, and therefore have a difficult time in answering the question every student asks at some point, and that is - What is the point? of what I was just shown in class. This is then the lead to the next question - What is the point of school itself? We owe it to them to be able to answer this question, as more and more educators are unable to provide a good answer.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Some Thermafrost thawing, and some resulting Methane gas can be trouble

Just a quick post. Scientific American has an article outlining some research into the methane gas being released from thawing thermafrost up in Alaska. If all of the thermafrost were to thaw out, tens of billions of tons of methane gas might be released. This is truly significant since methane outdoes carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas by a factor of 25.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Prof. Yong Zhao Has it Right About Education: Mistake Obsessing About Test Scores

Michigan State professor of education Yong Zhao has been speaking at a number of conferences about education, education reforms, achievement gaps, No Child Left Behind (NCLB), technology in education, and so on, and I could not agree more with one of the main points he consistently stresses: "The point of education is NOT to produce high test scores." He makes what is, in my opinion, a key observation about our national obsession of comparing American students scores in math and science with those students in other countries. When such comparisons are made, typically the U.S. is in the bottom half of the countries that take the test. He asks the question, "Does such an achievement gap, while real, really matter, except for national pride?" He, like I have for a number of years, argues this 'gap' is not so important. What's more important is summed up nicely in an article he wrote for Phi Delta Kappa's journal Edge:

"Instead,we are becoming obsessed with test scores
in a limited number of subjects, which in essence is
the adoption of a single criterion for judging the success
of students, teachers, and schools. Once we
adopt this single criterion, and we are well on our
way, we will kill the most important and soughtafter
commodity in the 21st century — creativity."

I firmly believe there are some key reasons as to why the U.S. is the only superpower in the world, and included in this set of reasons is our often publicly pummeled and criticized public education system. We have been, until recently (i.e. up until the NCLB era), using a system where children do not have to take tracking tests at young ages (such as around the 5th grade) that will determine their academic and professional lives, and where students can take electives in all subject areas, where the student determines what he or she is good at and enjoys, and then has the ability to go to college or a trade school or into the work force and pursue their self-selected area of concentration. Creativity is encouraged, children are taught to take risks on occasion, and there are normally support systems in place to allow individuals to learn from mistakes and still have chances to move on. There has been a lack of 'high stakes tests' that determine a person's future, with only SAT and/or ACT exams approaching this level of testing. For those who go to college, there are hundreds of majors, all of which are available to pursue if one wants to, and there are more opportunities to get practical experience in one's chosen field as well as to get involved as undergraduates in research, internships, study abroad, and so on. Variety, exposure to multiple points of view, discovery of interrelationships between disciplines, and opportunities and rewards for creative solutions to problems are all part of the educational process. But limiting subjects of study and putting in single-assessment structures dampen, if not eliminate, all that is good and different within our education system. The U.S. has dominated in innovation, technology, science and economic development for the last six or seven decades because of what and how our children learn in school.

I have argued this, too, in the past, ranging from the reality of 'late bloomers,' the need to avoid becoming an exam meritocracy, and even how other countries are rethinking their test-focused education systems to add features of the U.S. education system. I anxiously await how the Obama administration will modify NCLB, particularly with how education is assessed. Will we stay with limited, snapshot tests that further restrict other curricula and limits creativity, or will the focus be on student growth (which can be measured) and ability to continue to not only emphasize math and reading, but also the arts, social studies, science, business and languages, so children can see a variety of disciplines that all affect our society and allow for interactions that encourage collaboration and innovation? I suspect there will be a change towards the latter, which I feel is absolutely the right thing to do for individual students learning as well as for the continued advancement of our country.

Year of Science Site - Very Cool

Although we are half-way through 2009, I highly recommend checking out the 2009 Year of Science, which features a new theme each month. The present theme is Oceans and Water. Other months will feature physics, chemistry, geoscience, technology, astronomy, climate, sustainability, and much more. Very cool site for adults and kids, with a Fun Zone for the youngsters to look at, scientist features and cutting-edge research highlights.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Beginning to get serious about tapping into oceanic energy

There seems to be an acceleration in plans to tap into the enormous energy naturally supplied by oceans, both tidal power and power from the deep oceanic currents. Check out a Scientific American article that begins to outline the plans to fast-track R&D in the American Northwest. The concept is completely analogous to wind farms, where 'windmills' are submerged into ocean current and 'blown' into spinning turbines just as terrestrial windmills and generators work. A challenge that becomes more of an issue in water is the effect on sea creatures of all types that benefit from ocean currents for food sources.

A second challenge that is relevant to both land-based and ocean-based mills and generators is the complete lack of infrastructure to transmit energy from the source to cities. This is precisely why the Obama administration dedicated down payments in the stimulus package for the initial development of some of this infrastructure, as well as money for modifications to the power grid in order to handle new energy plants and sources. As I tell my students who are now graduating high school and are interested in engineering and the physical sciences, it is a good time to be entering college and, in a few years, the job market, as we necessarily need to begin transforming the country's infrastructure and the way we produce energy. It is an unbelievably large task from both the research and applications sides of the business, but one in which we must accept and succeed as quickly and as efficiently as possible.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Add more challenges to Obama's list...Somalia and Yemen

President Obama has come into office facing as many big challenges as any President in my lifetime, to be sure. And the list continues to grow, with the recent addition of a flu pandemic and a legacy-building opportunity to select a Supreme Court Justice. Obviously, beyond the economic meltdown he is trying to contend with, there are major foreign policy challenges in Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, North Korea, and the ever-present Israeli-Palestinian conflict. All of these are important in the fight against terrorism as well as nuclear proliferation and stability in unstable portions of the world. But as luck would have it, two more nations are, in my opinion, about to make the list of major problems: Somalia and Yemen.

These nations have certainly been on the radar screen, with the attack on the USS Cole in Yemen and the Somali pirates. However, growing evidence and international concern are showing that these largely lawless nations are home to ever-increasing numbers of Al Qaeda fighters, with Yemen being the most recent making headlines. I am fairly convinced the blinders our previous administration had on Iraq is the primary reason this has been occuring, as a lack of attention and resources in other parts of the world has taken its toll. There were multiple years of time for al Qaeda and other militant groups to establish themselves and begin gaining more recruits in impovershed areas of the world. We must hope for large-scale success in Pres. Obama's attempts to re-establish our alliances with the rest of the world and win support in assisting us in breaking down new militant networks and financing, for we certainly cannot do this alone.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Venice to Build Algae Power Plant

The city of Venice, Italy, is taking a step in the truly green direction. There is a plan to build an algae power plant that will produce up to half of the city's energy. This is impressive, and also shows how efforts in other parts of the world are much more forward looking and advanced than what we Americans have been doing.

Producing energy from algae is not new. It began with research by none other than the US Department of Energy in the 1950s, but obviously there were political obstacles that never led to actual production. However, with some effort and extended research, there are some advantages to such power production, which includes taking carbon dioxide from the energy release process and feeding it back into the growth of new algae for future energy use. Researchers believe this can ultimately be close to a carbon neutral process, which is why there is a growing amount of interest in this energy production scheme. We are clearly close, since actual plants will indeed be built overseas.

Friday, April 03, 2009

Gregorash for Woodland School Board

Dr. Lawrence Gregorash is running for a second term on the Woodland District 50 School Board. As a true leader and a major influence for the continued improvement of the K-8 district, including being a leading voice that pushed through the strategic plan being followed by the district, we need Dr. Gregorash back on the board to continue on a positive path. Vote on April 7!

Local Elections on April 7

Local elections for mayors, village officials, school board members, and so on, take place next Tuesday. This round of elections tends to have poor turnout, even though "all politics is local." I wonder what tiny percentage of voters even know who their local trustees are, let alone school board members. But these offices are vital to how any small community runs, ranging from local tax rates to city ordinances to quality of life issues like parks and libraries, which in turn affects our property values and quality of schools for our children. It is important to have your voice heard when so many immediate issues are in play. Educate yourself with local news outlets about the issues and who is running, and get out to vote.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Disspelling a Myth - Public Schools do Better in Math than Private

A study coming out of my alma mater, University of Illinois, concludes that public school students perform better in math on standardized tests than students from private schools. Check out a Science News article outlining the results.

This is a comprehensive study that used data from 270,000 4th and 8th grade students from 10,000 schools, so the results are significant with little in the way of statistical uncertainties. The researchers looked at five factors to see which correlated more positively to achievement. Those factors are parental involvement, school size, class size, teacher certification and instructional practices.

School size and parental involvement did not correlate significantly with achievement. However, small class sizes do correlate positively with achievement, and small class sizes are more prevalent in private schools. Certainly, the general public perception of private vs public schools is that everything private tends to be better, with the possible exceptions of the elite, wealthy public schools (such as a New Trier or Stevenson in the Chicago area) or magnet schools in urban areas, such as Walter Payton Prep in Chicago. But typically the strerotype is private is better in general.

So if small class size is more typical of private schools, how can public schools end up doing better than private in mathematics? It lies in the quality of the teachers and in the trend to adopt research-based, modern curriculum. Many private schools apparently still adopt traditional "back to basics" methods of learning mathematics, built around rote memorization and 'drill and kill' problems. Newer curricula are built around understanding concepts, problem solving and applications of math. Private schools also do not require or are mandated to have certified teachers, and tend to offer smaller salaries that are not competitive for top teachers. The research suggests these are the two driving forces that lead to better achievement, at least in mathematics.

Like anything else, though, there are outstanding private and public schools, and there are other schools that are in dire straits. This is an interesting study that not only concludes something that goes against common perceptions, but I think it more importantly gives insights into factors that make for better learning experiences for students. The evidence that curriculum and teacher certification and expertise are significant drivers for learning supports efforts among school districts for robust and focused staff development programs and collaborative efforts between universities and school systems for continual development and improvement of data-driven/research-based curricula. One other piece of this puzzle is, in my opinion, using cognitive science research in larger capacities with the development of curriculum as well as in-class practices, where we provide more ideal environments for students that are literally targeted at students' brains, and how our brains make the inner connections that lead to learning. This includes understanding differences between male and female brains and how they are 'wired,' where genders learn differently. There is still much to do, and hopefully both public (where 90% of our children go) and private schools use such research to better educate our children.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Geothermal energy production costs on par with that of Coal

A new study suggests that the energy production costs coming from geothermal sources is now on par, and perhaps even cheaper, than the costs associated with energy coming from coal burning plants. This is important in this day and age of multiple billions of dollars from the stimulus package being destined for alternative energy sources. A summary can be found at Scientific American online.

Power production through turbines and generators is based on running pressurized steam through the turbine, which in turns spins loops of wire inside a magnetic field, thus inducing alternating voltage and currents. This is then brought into your town or city through the power grid. I don't think there is any doubt from any groups associated with the energy sector of the economy that the power grid needs serious work, and that there is a need for the U.S. to expand its energy portfolio. But how to go about reforming the energy sector is under intense debate from competing industries and other stakeholders. I am glad to not hear the "drill, baby, drill"groups on TV every evening, because that is not the answer long term. A well-balanced portfolio is necessary, and the dominant source of power will likely be based on local abundances of fuel or energy source. The south and southwest will likely have, in the next couple decades, a much higher percentage of its power coming from solar technologies relative to the north, and the north will likely have higher percentages of its portfolio using nuclear or wind. Certain areas of the country will make use of local geothermal or hydroelectric resources, and some may still rely more on fossil fuels.

One idea I would like to see researched is tidal power and the use of ocean currents to power generators. At some point, when drinking water becomes one of the major issues for certain portions of the U.S. and other countries, that same tidal or oceanic power is used by desalination plants along coastlines. This would certainly be cheaper than extending the power grid out into the oceans. It is an upsetting time for many as they consider the large increases in energy on a global scale, as China and India continue their march to becoming industrial and economic giants, but at the same time there is such an amazing opportunity to expand energy sources and see what some creative thinking will develop in the next 10-20 years. I do think Pres. Obama got it right to include some financial resources for new energy development in the stimulus bill, because in time the energy sector should be a major creator of good, technical jobs in the U.S. This all ties into national security and economic development, as well as manufacturing revival of some factories that will be needed to build the massive amounts of new infrastructure that the U.S. and most of the rest of the world will require as energy production expansion continues at rapidly increasing rates that match population increases globally. It is also a necessary step in protecting the environment and addressing global climate change. A good portion of the U.S. and global economies will, in fact, be 'energy economies' as we hear the president say so often.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

I Agree with Newt Gingrich...did I just say that?! Mexico - a major security issue waiting to happen

Newt Gingrich was on ABC's This Week with George Stephanopolous, and during a discussion about unforeseen problems the new Obama administration may encounter during its first year, Gingrich brought up the issue of Mexico and the near civil war that is presently underway between the government and the powerful drug cartels. Gingrich argued something that I have wondered about, largely due to the seemingly complete lack of American press coverage given to this issue - when will the U.S. get serious about a major problem right on our border?

With record numbers of homicides in Mexico, and some in southern border towns of the U.S., drug money from our completely failed 'War on Drugs' program of the past two decades is financing the terrible violence in Mexico. For a short summary of the problem, check out this article. When will we learn, or simply admit, that simply locking drug offenders in violent prisons is not the answer to our drug problems in the U.S.? When will treatment and educ ation programs take the lead, which tend to show much better results than the 'lock 'em up, I am tough on crime' mentality that we have had, making not even a dent in the drug flow or usage in the U.S.?

I have no idea what will work in Mexico, but I do agree with Gingrich (and this does not happen very often) that this issue may come up during Obama's first year as something the U.S. will need to get seriously involved in if violence continues to spill over the border and if it becomes an increasing issue with gang activity in the U.S. I fear it will become such an issue, which is something we cannot afford at the moment with the economy, unemployment, Russia, Iran, Iraq, Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Afghanistan, crumbling infrastructure, health care, entitlements and war on terror issues Obama is inheriting (and let's no forget another continuing problem we have not heard much from, a nuclear North Korea).