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.