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.