Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Example of what young children are capable of doing

Hat tip to a former student for sharing an article about a class of 8-10 year old children in Britain, who did a scientific study of bees and ended up being published in a Royal Society journal. This is great!

This fits in nicely with my last three posts. This is a prime example of 21st Century learning. This is what our kids here in the U.S. should be doing, rather than largely ignoring science and the social sciences to put all the focus on reading and math, in order to do well on high-stakes testing for NCLB. This is multi- and interdisciplinary work, where kids learn that science, math, writing, reading, and communication are all related, and that the content being presented in school matters in the real world. This is giving them experience and practice and exposure to problem solving, critically thinking about data and observations, trial and error with experiments, trouble shooting, tinkering, collaborating, finding information with modern tools, and how one's work is presented to the world. It gives them a chance to discover things on their own, and allows them to be creative and innovative as they try to learn about and figure out a complex problem. This shows what young children are capable of doing, if only given the opportunity! We tend to UNDERestimate what kids can do.

If only we could do this on a large scale in the U.S., and actually prepare kids for their futures while making learning fun and engaging!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Is Uncle Sam Limping? Probably, because Politicians are in charge of education and keep shooting him in the foot

Another state bites the dust. Massachusetts took the step, where its teachers agreed to tie their salaries and promotions to test scores. I do hope there are some other criteria in this, but it is the latest instance of our test-crazed society that has existed since the introduction of No Child Left Behind some ten years ago. While testing has always been, and will always continue to be, a part of education and the assessment of what students are learning, it has bothered many educators for many years that testing is the primary, and for some who have a voice in the education debate, the only, means of assessing and 'fixing' American schools. This is what we will continue to get so long as politicians, almost all of whom have never taught in the classroom and do not have expertise in education, control the education system.

I've harped on this countless times over the years, and will continue to do so, especially since Sec. of Education Arne Duncan will be working with congressional leaders as they discuss the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). One can only hope that both sides agree that changes to NCLB must be made in how a school or district is assessed, with multiple measures considered instead of the present high-stakes test each state is required to produce.

We continue to regress in education by becoming like much of the rest of the world that has used high-stakes testing to determine what students will be allowed to do. But do our politicians pay any attention to the global trends that many countries have participated in over the past decade? Do our political leaders know that many countries, including numerous Asian countries that have been ahead of us on global standardized tests (such as Singapore, China, Japan, and so on), have been slowly breaking away from a content-focused test meritocracy system to one that encourages more student freedom and skills development? I know this to be true since I participated in a discussion at Northwestern University five or six years ago with a delegation from Singapore. I spoke to them about how I approach teaching physics, and how to include hands-on, experiential learning for students, and how to connect content to student lives and develop problem-solving skills for students. It was a truly interesting meeting, and testing never came up. This delegation made it clear that they wanted their education system to look more like that of the U.S., and could not understand why the U.S. wanted to look more like Singapore's and other Asian and European traditional school systems.

Content is important; at least certain content in each discipline. One needs foundational concepts and principles in order to build up off that foundation. But just look around at what current students are going to face when they get to college and beyond. Listen to what Bill Gates and others are telling educators, as well as just about every professor I know is looking at - they want students to have some basic knowledge foundation, but also skills sets, creative problem solving capacity, being able to work both alone and collaboratively across disciplines, and strong communications skills across multiple media platforms. This package of skills forms what many are now calling '21st century skills.'

I dream of the day when my junior students in high school will not be judged on if they remember an obscure vocabulary word from a physical science class they took four years earlier (and never touched that topic again). Rather, let them be judged more on what they come up with when posed an open-ended problem on how to best modify a bridge design that needs to span a specific geological feature, or how to take experimental data and develop an empirical formula that relates several quantities together, or something, anything, that makes one think critically, problem solve, and communicate the thoughts to the reader. When will we have student portfolios count in an assessment, where we can see a variety of skills and knowledge in action, and see growth over the course of a year?

If you build an assessment that requires 21st century skills, teachers will set up their classes to develop those skills and focus on appropriate content. They will then break away from a 19th century classroom of memorize, sit still and quietly for 6 or 7 hours in rows of desks, listen to mostly lectures, and do sets of worksheets. Why are we teaching and assessing the way we were taught and assessed decades ago? If we do not change the way we do school, we are simply setting our kids and the country up for disaster when they go out and try to compete against kids from other places in the world who will be properly trained and prepared for the new workplace. And what scares me most is that we know this to be true, and are simply ignoring the eventual outcome by continuing down this same pathetic path that provides only disincentives to be creative, innovative, collaborative, technologically inclined and competent, and figuring out more complex problems that are multi-disciplinary in nature.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Where do New Ideas come from?

Two terms we hear quite frequently in education are innovation and creativity. CEOs and other private sector leaders largely agree that these two 'skills' are essential for the present generation of children who are moving through the education system, as manufacturing jobs are largely gone and the economy is fast becoming one built around services and the flow of information, i.e. technical jobs that will be the thrust of job growth over the next couple decades.

But what exactly are innovation and creativity? The dictionary definition of innovation is 'the introduction of new things or methods,' while creativity is 'the ability to create meaningful new ideas, forms or methods' that are original and imaginative. So the key notion is the development of new ideas in whatever field one is working. A question naturally develops, which is where do new ideas come from? How do we begin preparing children now to be creative and innovative in the future? In the past, many would have first thought about the arts as being the training ground for creativity. Now, we realize that the development of the abilities and mindsets and skills necessary to be creative in every field of study is necessary.

Steven Johnson's new book, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, provides the argument that there are seven common themes that have led to the vast majority of great ideas throughout history. He gives numerous examples of such ideas, ranging from Darwin's development of the theory of evolution to the of the GPS system, from Google to the creation of the first mechanical computing devices centuries ago, and so on. It is an interesting read.

Here is a summary of the seven themes that lead to good ideas. Keep in mind there is certainly some degree of overlap and relationships between the themes, but overall they can be thought of as distinct concepts.

1. The Adjacent Possible: Even if you have an interest in some topic or problem, if there is not a good environment conducive to presenting the necessary pieces to solve the problem, good ideas will almost certainly not develop. You may be brilliant with some of the information (i.e. pieces of a puzzle) in your mind that is necessary to solve a problem, but if your surroundings are not able to provide the remaining pieces of information or experiences, you will endlessly search for them to no avail. If you are isolated from others who know something about your problem or issue, or if there is no means of gathering further information (which is becoming less of a problem with the advent of the Internet), or if your environment does not provide the physical infrastructure or supplies to finish building a new physical device, you will be unable to develop the Idea or solution to your problem.

2. Liquid Networks: Great ideas can develop when information is allowed to flow through a larger network. One possible network is a social network, or often and more specifically, a professional network. The focus of this is the ability to collaborate to solve problems. It turns out that there are almost no great ideas throughout history that have been developed in isolation or by an individual who did not need any help in the development of that great idea. One may think Newton or Einstein did their work in isolation, but this is not entirely true. Those two individuals come about as close as you can get to not needing a network to develop the laws of motion or relativity, but they relied on some level of feedback, reading others' work, and ultimately talking and discussing issues with close colleagues and friends.
An interesting study was done that looked at how research groups reach the coveted 'Eureka!' moment, where a new discovery is made. It turns out that these rare moments of discovery or problem solving almost never happen in the lab! Instead, the 'Aha!' are yelled out at the conference table, where members of the group are throwing ideas around and sharing results of their latest work over the past week. The person who figures it out needs to have input they have not thought about from the larger group or network, before the grand idea is formed.

3. Slow Hunch: This is the notion of wanting to solve a complex problem or answer a difficult, involved question, but needing long periods of time to find 'the idea' that allows you to solve it. This could be over a period of years. Darwin, for example, had all sorts of data and observations he mulled over for nearly twenty years; same for Johannes Kepler, and countless others. It takes percolation of ideas in one's mind before the right mix is found. Especially in the past, individuals would keep 'commonplace books' where they would write down all thoughts and experiments and notes from literature. They would review it frequently see where their thoughts have been and where they are presently. Now many people do similar things electronically, but the idea is the same. For inventors and experimentalists, the slow hunch is an analogue of tinkering. Whatever you call it, people have hunches they follow, some of which work and others that do not, but over time the right connections of ideas are made in the brain and 'the idea' forms. While it may seem like more of an 'Eureka!' moment, it was likely a slow hunch that evolved into the great idea.

4. Serendipity: This is the accidental connection. This theme stems from the many examples of artists and scientists and businesspeople who get the great idea in dreams. Thoughts and information are processed subconsciously, and the idea seems to come from 'out of the blue.' But it is something that has been thought about consciously and then develops during the stormy brain activity during REM sleep. Every so often the right synapses fire that connect the appropriate thoughts in the mind. In fact, brain studies in 2007 by Robert Thatcher show how busier, noisier brains do better on IQ tests, since the increased neural activity allow for more interactions of more synapses between neurons. If one gets lucky, the right combination of thoughts are processed during the chaos and the idea is hatched.
This notion of the accidental discovery can be accelerated and encouraged during brainstorming sessions, where ideas are being thrown around, some chaos is present, and someone puts out just the right example or bit of information that clicks, and the idea is born. There is an argument that the Internet and web surfing can encourage serendipity because it is so easy to go off on tangents during research that a new piece of data from a site you never would have guessed would be useful actually turns out to be the key to forming a solution or great idea. Taking walks and showers are other ways to encourage this, and the prime Eureka moment of Archimedes took place in the tub!

5. Error: I think of this as learning from trial and error us a powerful way to modify initial, likely incorrect, ideas or solutions, to form the correct idea or solution. As an experimentalist, I have experience with this. On paper, you think you have the perfect design to test something. You put it together, and it is a complete flop! You need to play with it, learn from any mistakes, and modify. Perhaps you need to scrap the design altogether. But that is OK, since you learned from the errors. Theorists of all disciplines must learn from errors in their predictions when in conflict with experimental data, and this is a way to develop new ideas to replace those which are flawed in the initial theoretical model.
Errors are helpful because they help eliminate some number of incorrect ideas, and allows us to explore other ideas outside of the set of those that are incorrect.

6. Exaptation: This is borrowing a mature technology or idea from, typically, a different field and putting it to use to solve a seemingly unrelated problem. Some have called Gutenberg's printing press the most significant invention of the past millennium. But he borrowed a technology from the wine producing industry of the day, which was a screw system for pressing the grapes. It turned out this inspired him to develop the model for the press, using the same screw system. In economics, mathematical modeling and functional solutions in physics inspired new economic modeling and mathematical solutions to statistical problems, to the point of there being a new subfield of econophysics. We are using natural designs in plants and animals to develop new ideas for manmade products, ranging from structures for robotics to membrane systems to aerodynamic designs.
A big part of this, in my mind, includes analogies. The use of analogies is powerful in teaching and learning, cognition, and in just about any field of study one can imagine. It is making something more familiar by using ideas or concepts from entirely different fields or contexts. I certainly agree that this theme is completely relevant to the formation of new ideas, as well as for learning about new topics.

7. Platforms: The last theme for forming good ideas is to have a foundational set of principles, concepts, ideas, thoughts, or rules and build off that foundation, or platform. Physics is one of the great examples. Classically, there is Newton's laws and Maxwell's equations. For centuries, those provided a platform to build from, and science and technology prospered. Ideas continuously develop as 'what ifs' of known problems and solutions. This led all the way to taking people to the moon. For the GPS system, it all began with Sputnik, when two engineers used the Doopler effect to pinpoint the orbital trajectory of the satellite. This one development got the military to ask them if it is possible to invert the system, and if one could use the technique for a satellite to pinpioint the location of a signal on the ground. Turned out it is, and our ballistic missile system was born. Years of playing with this technology platform developed into a 30-satellite GPS system (as well as weather satellite and radar systems).

Looking over this list, it seems fairly complete. Some are more obvious than others, but the production of good ideas is something one cannot predict. However, identifying circumstances and environments that increase the likelihood of good idea production is useful. Many of these ideas are already employed in industry, such as Google's 20% rule (all engineers must take 20% of their time and devote it to their own interests and research, where the slow hunch is encouraged), as well as in university research, where the development of multi- and inter-disciplinary research collaborations and research institutes are being formed (perhaps most famous is the Santa Fe Institute, which has a focus on complex systems analysis) and utilize several of the above themes. We can certainly implement some of these ideas into the classroom, to provide exposure and training to students about the skill sets they need when they move into college and beyond.

What is also clear is that regardless of the pattern(s) of innovation being used, these work best in open environments where ideas and information can freely flow in unregulated channels. This certainly means having an open Internet will be vital to the continuation of progress and the production of ideas that will, hopefully, benefit humankind.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Running for Woodland District 50 School Board in April Election

Well, I will be a candidate for one of the three seats for the Woodland School Board. The election is April 5, 2011. Check out my new blog dedicated to this at http://vondracekforwoodland.blogspot.com/. There will be more to come on this after the new year!

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Examples of 21st Century Education

One hears about 21st Century Education and Schools a lot as catch-phrases by politicians, parents and teachers. But how often is someone who uses this phrase able to give a good definition of what it means, or what they think it means? And, even more rare, how often is someone who uses this phrase able to give real examples of what they mean?

There is, in all fields I suspect, a phenomenon of 'great volumes of talk but of little action.' The notion of a 21st Century Education has been this sort of phenomenon in education the past few years. There is SO much talk about it, but little action. Many I have discussed this with point to getting X number of computers into a school or into a classroom, and then there is 21st century education happening since kids can then access the Internet. Well, I suppose this is part of it, but in my mind that is the beginners' definition of this phrase. But there is SO much more we must do. What about problem solving? Sure, but that has been around for a couple centuries already in schools. For 21st Century problem solving, let's add the word 'creative' to it. Then there is innovation. Then there is critical thinking, which has also been a popular education term for at least decades now.

These are common terms that are overused and poorly defined by most people who use them. What continues to be missing, though, from too many faculty meetings and conferences and workshops are real examples of what these mean, and much more importantly, what they look like, in real classrooms. To put it bluntly, I think all teachers should be asking administrators and education professors and themselves, "Give me something I can actually use!!" Well, here is a TED video that does just that. A real classroom teacher, who really gets it when it comes to what a 21st Century classroom looks like, and who gives real examples from her classes of what we can do with high school students. She is social studies and history teacher Diana Laufenberg, and it is a great example of what I think all teachers should see and think about.

If we continue to teach and run schools the way we were taught and learned prior to the late 1990s, we will continue to lose kids to the many distractions that exist in the modern world that are more exciting than the old teaching and learning paradigms, and we will continue to do a disservice to kids because we are not preparing them for their world.

Check it out.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Quick Thoughts on recent politics...

So, the GOP is now planning on blocking all legislation until the Bush tax cuts are extended for all brackets. President Obama and most Democrats want to extend the cuts, except for those in the top bracket who earn $250,000 or more. Two reasons the GOP give for wanting to extend the tax breaks is to help stimulate the economy and equity/fairness. The Dems argument is that by going back to the rates under the Clinton administration will save some $700 billion off deficits in the next decade.

Now, at the same time, the GOP has blocked extending unemployment benefits to some 2 million American workers, mostly middle and lower class workers, because those benefits are not paid for...and we can't have that, since living within our means is the overriding reason voters just gave Republicans control of the House. A second important item being held up is the START Treaty with Russia, which the President, military leaders, and four former Republican Secretarys of State endorse and state is in our national security interests.

I try to have an open mind on just about everything, and I find glaring holes and contradictions in the Republican. The first problem I find is that the Bush tax cuts have never been paid for. The cuts were given in a time when Clinton and a Republican Congress were able to leave a large budget surplus, and there has never been a worry about this large loss of revenue in the federal budget. Many economists note that this has played a large role in the budget deficits during the Bush administration and, now, the Obama administration. I do not agree that we should continue to give the wealthiest Americans, who have seen incomes explode during the past ten years and even during this recession while middle class workers have seen stagnant and even slight declines in income (when adjusted for inflation) during the same period. By placing a small tax increase to an old rate (and where we had one of the healthiest economies in our history) would not only pay for short-term assistance to millions of unemployed workers, but also contribute to trimming tens of billions of dollars from yearly deficits for years to come. After all, aren't we all supposed to sacrifice (I've heard some GOP leaders mention this, too)? By the way, if tax cuts are SO essential to revive the economy, why are we in a recession? Where are all the jobs? Shouldn't the wealthiest Americans be reinvesting all those tax savings back into the economy? They should have been doing this continuously for the past decade.

Obviously, the trickle down theory doesn't always work as advertised. And now we are being held hostage because of it, where literally nothing will get done until we continue on with an unpaid gift for the wealthy while millions of families get their Christmas present of a loss of unemployment checks that, for many, is the only money keeping them afloat while they continue to look for work. By the way, it is predicted that we'll have a new record high for bonuses for our top income earners - some $140 billion in bonuses, much of that going to those who helped cause the near collapse of the global economy. At least the GOP will continue to take good care of that extra income for those who do not need it, while sticking it to those who desperately need it. Merry Christmas.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

One Idea of How to Teach Math in the Modern Classroom - On Computers

Conrad Wolfram has a presentation about what he feels is a weak, antiquated way of teaching math in school. Instead of all hand-written work on paper, use computers to get students thinking about everyday problems. He argues that problems are dumbed-down in school, and that real-world calculations are not done that would better engage students, as well as lead to better math skills that are necessary in today's world. Because math is done on computers in research and the workplace, this would allow students to build the knowledge, tools and skills that are relevant in today's world, rather than the knowledge, tools and skills that were necessary 50 years ago in an age of agricultural and manufacturing jobs.

Personally I think he has a good point. However, I am convinced that doing just about anything one-way is not a good idea. Variety is necessary. There is something to be said for doing things by hand to learn process and the nuts and bolts of a computation. But I do think technology can be and should be used more frequently than is presently done, as this is a student's future. Also, not everyone will likely learn more if done on a computer. Some students do in fact enjoy pencil and paper problems, and can learn a great deal with this technique. I also think that many learn, or at least gain greater insights, interest and relevance of math through applications in something like physics. I know I finally got a grip on what calculus was all about after using it in physics, and many students have told me the same thing.

I am interested in your take on this as students...what do you think?

Good Advice to Look for Simplicity in Complex Problems

Scientist Eric Berlow gives some good advice on how to approach complexity and complex problems. With complex systems and networks, there can be a good deal of secondary and tertiary connections that might be considered 'noise' in the system, and rather than focus on a terribly complicated network map, he checks out the key components first, such as hubs in the network or looking for the first few degrees of connectivity of key components, to simplify the map. It is a short segment of a TED talk, but I found it as something that some of my students might relate to as they get into more complex problem solving; basically making things manageable. Check it out.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Elections in Lake County - Choose Bond and Seals

As the midterm election comes up on us next week, we must make important choices at both the state and national level for Congress. It is a period where being an incumbent, and this is something that appears to be crossing party lines, is toxic, regardless of the record of certain individuals. We are seeing as emotional a period as I have witnessed in my 41 years of life, to be sure.

If you live in Illinois State Senate District 31, I would urge you to vote for Michael Bond. He has done what he promised when he ran four years ago to become the first Democrat from the district to win the seat. He is a finance expert who has good ideas to help fight the state budget crisis...I just wish he was in the leadership and had some control of the agenda, for he is the type who does not care who comes up with a good idea - a good idea is a good idea, and the time for political games is OVER. He is serious about doing what is right for the state and for the district.

For Congress, the Illinois 10th district will hopefully, and finally, go to Dan Seals. I met Dan and have talked with numerous people who know him, and I am convinced he is an honorable man, who like Michael, wants to do what is right for the state and the nation. Both men have kids the same age as mine, and they have their hearts and minds in the right place. They will do what they think is right, and have it in them to oppose the leadership if need be. Their kids' futures depend on what they will end up voting for or against, and they understand that responsibility.

Vote Michael Bond and Dan Seals!!

Saturday, October 16, 2010

A Fantastic Video About Educational Paradigm Shift

Sir Ken Robinson gave a lecture about the reasons we need an educational paradigm shift for the age of globalization, which breaks from the current system built for the industrial age. It is a wonderful animated video! Do check it out.

Keep in mind there are no solutions offered as to how to implement the new paradigm into classroom learning and teaching, but I think this is precisely the type of presentation needed for policymakers, the vast majority of whom never have taught and continue to call for 'reform' that is simply a variation on a theme of the status quo industrial model. Even Race to the Top is stuck in standardization mode, so it will also likely fail to produce any changes in achievement, just as No Child Left Behind has failed to see any real improvements in academic achievement of children. When will the politicians see the light that many educators have already seen for some time????

Thanks to Zenpundit for linking to this and making me aware of it!

Saturday, October 09, 2010

"The Simple" Tend to be Not So Simple

What could be more basic or common in life than stepping up to a drinking fountain and taking a sip of water. A stream of water becomes a fluid projectile, and it lands on the metal surface of the fountain, splashing a bit, but nothing too extreme. At least, nothing too extreme at a first, quick glance.

I do an activity from time to time with students, as well as science teacher colleagues at some past workshops, where we reproduce the water fountain experience in an even simpler way. Simply take a large beaker full of water and pour it gently on a hard surface. When one does this and then begins to observe what happens a little more closely, they quickly realize there is more to this event. First, a smooth circular region appears around where the stream of water lands on the surface, and then at a certain radius, the water level dramatically lifts up. This is the well-known hydraulic jump. Most people have never paid attention to water from a faucet landing in their sinks at home, so this tends to be a surprise. But then, I will ask the students or colleagues to do something else. Make a list of any variables you can think of where the size and pattern you see could be changed. That is, what could the hydraulic jump depend on, and what are the variables you could select to investigate in controlled experiments to better understand this feature of fluid flow? Here is one list that developed from this simple demonstration of a hydraulic jump:

• The amount of water in the stream, or ‘jet,’ being poured out of the cup – this is the flow rate of the water;
• The height the water is poured from the cup – this determines the energy and speed at which the water hits the surface;
• The diameter of the stream coming down to the surface;
• The temperature of the water;
• The temperature of the surface;
• The material the surface is made from;
• Whether the surface is horizontal or sloped relative to the ground;
• The type of liquid being poured – one student said syrup being poured would look very different compared to water, so this would refer to viscosity;
• The strength of gravity – some students predicted the jump would look different if this experiment were performed on the Moon;
• Whether the surface is still or rotating;
• Whether the stream of water was laminar flow versus turbulent flow before hitting the surface;
• Whether the stream hit perpendicular to the surface or at another angle relative to the surface;
• The topology of the surface – differences would likely appear if there was a curve to the surface, instead of being flat;
• If there were any barriers or obstacles on the surface close to where the stream hit the surface;
• If there was more than one stream of water coming down – what would the consequences be if there were multiple, interacting hydraulic jumps?
• The size of the surface;
• If there were any horizontal vibrations of the surface;
• If there were any vertical vibrations of the surface.

Again, this long list catches even colleagues by complete surprise. After all, this is a very "simple" physical event - water pouring onto a surface. A simple pattern appears. But when one begins to really think about the phenomenon, clearly it is more complicated than one could initially imagine.

This is a wonderful way to get students to a new level of observation and thought. It is a wonderful way to get someone out of a textbook way of thinking and step into the complexities of reality. And I am a firm believer that getting students to be able to identify and accept more complexity than what is allowed for in standard textbooks at younger ages (such as in high school, if not middle school) is something we should look to be doing in education. I personally was not exposed to this way of thinking until my second year in college, and I regretted it because I realized I had been missing out on almost being forced to think more creatively about problems and analysis.

While it is vital to simplify problems by making assumptions and approximations, if for any other reason to be able to gain initial insights into the physical system and actually solve the resulting mathematics that appear in the theoretical models,
what we overlook by NOT considering the complexity include second- and third-order effects that can collect together to cause subtle differences in the system when compared to theoretical models. These higher-order effects are also regions to explore for new discoveries and insights into deeper, better models of how the world work. And beyond that, it allows students to have to think about how they could design experiments to test the effects of variables never considered in the textbook, and this usually requires the students to be innovative and creative in trying to solve such design challenges. If the students then actually try the experiments they develop on paper, they then have to troubleshoot their experiment, which inevitably does not work the first time they set it up.

Complexity is all around us, even in what we would categorize as the most "simple" systems. In an age where creativity and advanced problem solving is in decline even though such skills are some of the most important to have in this day and age, educators should not be shy about pointing out how to break-down the 'simple' to find the complex, and then allow the student to attack the complex and unknown with abandon, developing new ideas and getting their hands dirty trying out their ideas. There is A LOT to be learned by all involved in such a dynamic process!

Thursday, October 07, 2010

The Single Story - Leading to Bias and Sterotypes

There is so much to the old saying, "Variety is the spice of life." Exposing oneself to variety of any kind allows him or her to see the world in multiple ways. Possibilities to compare and contrast, to learn, to experience, and to react exist when one expands their knowledge of the world. But so many individuals do not take the time to go out of their way to expose themselves to variety in any aspect of life. When this happens, and individuals only experience one way of doing something or one way of thinking about something, that is, only see one story, then any variety that may exist escapes their view and cannot influence their thoughts and feelings in any way. Without such variety, it is easy to fall into the very human traps of bias and stereotypes.

Nigerian-born author Chimamanda Adichie does a beautiful job of capturing the essence of the single story, and the dangers in thought it presents. A lack of exposure to new ideas, new cultures, trips to locations never before traveled, new stories, and variety in any way, restricts thought and the notion of other possibilities. Too often bias and prejudice are the results due to a mindset that prevents one from making a realization that 'one size does NOT fit all.' Adichie offers personal stories to make such a case, and I find her story compelling and thought-provoking, as well as convincing. I recommend watching her presentation, and keeping an open mind that variety exists in all areas of life.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Creative Brains Tend to Work More Slowly - Good to Know for Educators

A post by the Drs. Eide points out research that shows the most creative brains work slower than other, less creative brains. There seems to be convergence of data and studies that show students who are creative, gifted, or who have ADHD or dyslexia, all have thinner prefrontal cortex patterns. The areas of the brain where, say, creativity depend, have numerous side-roads and neural branches that differ from pure intellectual pathways, that are described more as superhighways. The extended branching off of that 'superhighway' allows for a variety of different neural connections that can produce new thoughts and ideas. To me it seems like the situation where you are sitting in a meeting, very focused and engaged in the flow of information being presented (i.e. the superhighway of the brain is engaged with information flowing and being processed rapidly), but then for a few seconds or minutes you suddenly find yourself daydreaming or having new thoughts not related to the exact information of the presentation (i.e. taking an exit off the superhighway to some off-the-beaten path side-road). You find yourself 'snapping back' to attention to re-focus on the meeting. I suspect this is related to the model being proposed in this new research, where the daydream or new, distinct but unconnected idea comes from the off-road pathways in the brain.

The analogy then makes sense in terms of understanding why creative thought requires more time. It is quicker to travel on superhighways than going on side-roads.

Now put all this in the context of how schools are run. Our education system, more often than not, is focused on getting through content. Often there are fixed standards that need to be covered, or a fixed number of chapters in a textbook that have to be completed during the school year, and this is typically done regardless of the ability of the students to comprehend all that information. It is a race where not covering lots of material determines the losers of the race. But as a teacher, I am well aware of the effect of this - sure, lots of material is covered. But a good portion of that material is not learned. Many have questioned the logic of this approach in education: depth or breadth, which is more important? It is an endless debate.

With studies of creativity showing present students being significantly less creative than past generations of students, this may be a key step into understanding why. In our sprint to teach content, we are preventing young brains from having the time to take off-road excursions. Here is a case where we need to sit down, take a deep breath, and put all the various studies and research on the table to sort it out and determine how it all connects. What is the big picture brain research is trying to tell us when it comes to the education system? I don't think this has happened yet, but it absolutely must happen. I suspect there is a great deal classroom teachers can do differently to enhance and unleash creativity while still getting to content, but perhaps not as much content as we presently teach. In a world where creativity is one of the absolute essentials, educators need to get this right so students are prepared for their futures.

Are Students Prepared for Community College, Let Alone 4-Year College?

Through my School Board Association, I read an article pertaining to the necessity of vertical alignment between high schools and community colleges. With even state schools such as my alma mater University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign costing some $25,000 per year for in-state students, community colleges will continue to play a vital role in education and the training of our future work force. For many, going for two years to a community college is the only feasible way of affording college. Many students go for two years, while working full-time, to save for two years at a four-year institution, allowing the student to get a bachelors degree.

What is disturbing about the article is that 58% of students in community colleges are enrolled in at least one remedial course. When a majority of high school graduates, who are supposed to be prepared for basic college courses, are in fact behind standards and need to repeat high school material, there is a glaring issue that needs to be resolved sooner than later. The same issue exists at the K-8 to high school transition here in Illinois. For years it been known that the Illinois elementary and middle school test, ISAT, has standards that are not properly aligned with the high school standards as defined by the Prairie State Exam (PSAE). Half of the PSAE is the ACT exam, meaning every junior in Illinois is taking a primary college entrance exam. Many eighth graders who meet ISAT standards are being fooled that they are ready for high school, since high school standards are set higher. It is insanity at its finest. Now it appears as if the same is true for high school to community college transitions.

How difficult is it for the powers that be to sit down and align curriculum so that students have a clearly defined path through the entire education system? Everyone is off in their own little worlds, doing their own thing, and the students are the ones who are affected. By the way, the same study, which was done by Prof. Debra Bragg of the U. of Illinois, also found that 30% of students who attend non-selective four-year schools are also enrolled in at least one remedial course. These are discouraging numbers. And anecdotally, the many professors I know from top, selective schools (such as Northwestern, UIUC, UIC, U. of Chicago, etc) state almost unanimously that there are noticeably large numbers of students who lack basic skills in areas like science, to the point where they have had to modify their curriculum. The downturn in science skills is not a total surprise, however, since science has not been part of K-12 AYP tallies in No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Many districts have cut back on science, as well as social studies, because of NCLB.

The lack of preparation for community college is yet another issue that needs to be not only addressed, but fixed. It is not a well-publicized issue, but an important issue for the future.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Evolution in Action - Superbugs

I just read a report that describes the discovery of a new gene that, in bacteria, allows them to be resistant to just about all antibiotics and other medications we have in our biological arsenal. The gene, New Delhi metallo-beta-lactamase, or NDM-1,has been found in South Asia, and scientists are worried about the vast potential for bacteria with the gene to spread globally. International travel allows for this potential.

This is yet another good example of evolution in action. Bacteria, with their incredible exponential reproductive rates, multiply rapidly and, in some small percentage of cell divisions, have genetic mutations. Depending on which portion of the DNA mutates (i.e. which gene mutates), the mutated daughter bacteria can have new traits expressed in their phenotypes. Every so often, a mutated bacterium has a resistance to one of our drugs that will kill the previous type bacteria. As the older type are killed off by our drugs, the new mutant strains remain alive, and they then reproduce exponentially. Such change and variation is one of the prime actions in evolution. The rapid process that single-celled critters have for reproduction and genetic variation is why they were here long before humans existed, and why they will almost certainly be around long after humans are gone.

The new bacteria are presently most prevalent in India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan, and dozens of cases have been reported in Britain in patients who were recently treated in those Asian countries. We will see what becomes of this new threat in the weeks and months coming up.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Creativity on the Decline?

A common theme I come back to when I think and write about education and our school system is creativity. A growing consensus amongst educators, CEOs, scientists, and others is that the key skill/characteristic/trait one needs for the 21st century is creativity. But there is evidence that today's students are actually in decline when it comes to the ability to develop creative solutions to problems. This is outlined in a recent Newsweek article (many thanks to Linnea for pointing this out to me).

I can especially relate to the anecdote the author tells about an American visitor who is in China:

"Plucker recently toured a number of such schools in Shanghai and Beijing. He was amazed by a boy who, for a class science project, rigged a tracking device for his moped with parts from a cell phone. When faculty of a major Chinese university asked Plucker to identify trends in American education, he described our focus on standardized curriculum, rote memorization, and nationalized testing. “After my answer was translated, they just started laughing out loud,” Plucker says. “They said, ‘You’re racing toward our old model. But we’re racing toward your model, as fast as we can.’ ”

I understood this when I met with Singapore educators back in 2004 at Northwestern University. They were studying how the American system worked, and how, that's right, creativity was taught or included within a student's studies. With No Child Left Behind, I fear that we have prevented a generation of students from learning how to be creative in all disciplines. Neuroscience suggests creativity can be taught, and that it can be practiced. We have moved to a point where teachers are working with students about how to take a test, rather than how to do true problem solving and taking risks as to how they solve complex problems. Let's hope we realize this and do not repeat the mistake with the final version of Race to the Top.

The Drs. Eide have picked up on this same study. Their post is at

Monday, July 12, 2010

Is There a Shortage of Scientists, or Science-Related Jobs?

For some time, there has been a deep worry in the U.S. that we are quickly losing our lead in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (or STEM) fields of study to up-and-coming foreign rivals, particularly Asian countries like Japan, South Korea, India and, the one that gets the most attention now, China. China, for example, has been producing hundreds or thousands, if not millions, of scientists and engineers over the past decade, as their economic growth has been on a steep ascension for many years. The U.S. has been producing tens of thousands of scientists and engineers. Certainly, simply looking at the 'production' numbers, we have a need to worry about the future prospects of the U.S. maintaining its clear lead in STEM areas since World War II.

Furthermore, the 2005 report from the National Academies, Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future, was a tipping point for policy makers to lead a new charge into pushing for the production of more STEM graduates and a larger workforce to keep up with developing nations. But while the production numbers of the U.S. cannot compare to those in a country like China, is this the right number to be concerned about? Do we have a shortage of STEM talent, graduates, and workers, or are there other data to help mold a more accurate picture of where we are at the top levels of STEM fields to remain competitive and in a lead position for our economic growth and national security?

An analysis of such questions is done in the Miller-McCune story, The Real Science Gap. It argues that, if one looks at the whole picture, we do not have a shortage in numbers of PhD level STEM graduates, but rather we have no system in place to ensure that these graduates have appropriate research jobs when they graduate. For example, many are now saying there is, in reality, not nearly enough tenure-track faculty positions in American universities to accommodate the graduate students and postdocs in the pipeline. Such positions are the goal of most students who enter PhD programs, and such positions largely drive the pure research that takes place in the country to make scientific advancements. For the relatively small number of tenure-track positions that open up during the course of a year, many hundreds of candidates apply for those jobs. What used to be 1-2 year postdoc positions now extend into 3-6 year postdoc positions. I am familiar with several cases of this as I came up through a PhD program some fifteen years ago, and met a number of postdocs who were having trouble finding faculty positions. It is clear that many industry jobs for STEM graduates have been lost to out-sourcing and to the economic issues of the recession. A question becomes, will STEM jobs lost to the recession still be there as a recovery takes place? That remains to be seen as companies reorganize and develop updated strategies for their future research and development efforts.

There was a second report published by the National Academies in 2005 that I was not aware of, entitled Bridges to Independence: Fostering the Independence of New Researchers in Biological Research. This study reported that the average age of scientists who won their first NIH grant, went from the high twenties several decades ago to 42. This is a telling signal that many scientists are not becoming faculty with their own labs until they are significantly older than what used to be the case. And there is an argument to be made that an age such as 42 is already beyond the most productive and creative intellectual ages of one's twenties and thirties.

Here is a telling set of statistics from The Real Science Gap article:

"In fact, three times as many Americans earn degrees in science and engineering each year as can find work in those fields, Science & Engineering Indicators 2008, a publication of the National Science Board, reports. The number of science and engineering Ph.D.s awarded annually in the U.S. rose by nearly 60 percent in the last two decades, from about 19,000 to 30,000, the report says. The number of people under 35 in the U.S. holding doctorates in biomedical sciences, Indicators note, rose by 59.4 percent — from about 12,000 to about 19,000 — between 1993 and 2001, but the number of under-35s holding the tenure-track positions rose by just 6.7 percent, remaining under 2,000."

What seems to be lacking, in my opinion, in this discussion and debate is any sense of targeting fields individually. Some fields have a surplus of PhD students, with limited job opportunities within the field. My specialty field, high-energy physics, is likely one of those. Many Americans in this field have to go overseas to the CERN facilities in order to do their research, and one finds that the limited number of faculty positions that open up have those hundreds of applicants. In fact, Miller-McCune article states only nine faculty positions were hired nationally in particle physics last year! There are many hundreds of graduate students in the pipeline. However, if one thinks about fields that are likely to see growth, and will need highly trained STEM workers, think about a field like nuclear science and engineering. If the U.S. begins to build numerous new-age nuclear power plants, there will be a dramatic increase in the number of nuclear engineers needed to design, build, and maintain those facilities. This will also be a multiple decades area of growth. The need to study nuclear waste disposal, as well as be involved in nuclear no-proliferation work around the globe, will continue to fuel the need for more workers in these areas. Environmental engineering and positions related to the energy industry will need growth, as those appear to be the job-creation mechanisms in the global economy.

To generically say "we need more scientists and engineers" appears to be a misleading message to send to students who are interested in STEM fields. Perhaps it is time for the U.S. to develop a system that accurately reflects specific needs and projected areas of growth in order to guide the education system and its students, so they can pursue degrees that will actually result if jobs related to those degrees. As a high school teacher, I know we do not receive such specific information or guidance that will help us advise and guide interested students into fields of growth. Part of the reason for this is a lack of communication in general between the K-12 and university levels of education, as well as a disconnect between the STEM industrial complex and K-12 education - we need to know something about the jobs prospects in order to help students pursue degrees where there is a more likely payoff at the end of four years or at the end of ten or more years if a student pursues a doctorate degree. It also would help for high school teachers to be aware of the numerous jobs that branch off a primary STEM degree. Again, I have experience with this as I went into high school teaching rather than pursuing a university position after earning my doctorate. Thinking about and planning for a student's STEM future needs to find its way into his or her high school education.

As for the American K-12 education system, I do want to once more re-state my position that our top students can compete with any other nation on the planet in STEM areas. And one aspect of this issue that is often overlooked and ignored, precisely because of an obsession over test scores, is that American students are among the most innovative and creative thinkers in the world. Because our students have nearly unlimited access to information, because they study the arts and history, because there are opportunities to begin doing research while in high school and participating in numerous competitions in STEM fields, they have been encouraged to learn from mistakes and take chances to 'think outside the box,' or as I like to tell students, to 'think outside a textbook,' when looking for solutions to tough problems. I will gladly take a hit in test scores where students have to regurgitate information, if those same students are creative problem solvers and thinkers, and are capable of communicating and collaborating with each other in the most diverse society the world has ever seen.

There is a reason we are the lone superpower. There is a reason American scientists and engineers have produced the most patents, publications, and won the most Nobel Prizes. Our K-12 system really does play a role in that, and I hope the effects of No Child Left Behind and the upcoming Race to the Top does not hurt the creative side of education and problem solving too badly because of the need to assess students and districts strictly by snapshot testing that drives the system. Producing students who have the creative and technological skills and foundational knowledge base to feed into the top university system in the world, with a more focused sense of what degrees to pursue that will lead to related jobs, can help keep the U.S. in the elite group of STEM nations for decades to come. Students also need to be aware that there are more, diverse opportunities outside of becoming a professor, both in academia and in the private sector. I am confident we will continue to produce the best-trained students in STEM, and continue to have the top intellectual infrastructure on the planet for many years to come. We just need to use some of that creative brain power to build a system to ensure jobs are available to encourage interested students in pursuing technical fields.

Friday, July 09, 2010

Choice in Education - No Silver Bullet

Some anticipated studies have been released concerning the two main 'school choice' options many are advocating as the fixes to our education system. Those options are charter schools, which are receiving a lot of attention from the Obama administration and the development of Race to the Top, as well as in a recent talk given by Bill Gates, and voucher programs, long a favorite of the political right. Charter schools are public schools where children in the hosting district may apply via lottery, and these schools generally have themes around which they build their curriculum - it could be the arts, science, the environment, or others. Voucher programs will take monies from the public school district, give that money directly to parents, and then parents have the choice to use the money to send their children to any school, including private schools (regardless if they are secular or religious private schools).

The studies conclude that there are no statistically significant differences between those students who went to charter schools or were recipients of vouchers than their peers who were in the public school system. The charter study looked at a variety of charter schools across 15 states, and when students who won the charter lottery are compared to those students who did not win the lottery and had to attend the public school district, no significant differences in math and reading are found. The voucher system that was studied was the Washington, DC, program, which is the first federal program ever tried. While graduation rates were better than the public school rate, achievement was, on average, no better than what students achieved in the public schools.

This does not surprise me, as it does some others I know. Anyone who is involved in education understands that there is no silver bullet. We are dealing with students, who are human beings, and each individual student comes with his or her own 'baggage' from outside the school. Until we learn how to get effective and efficient with more individualized instruction and learning, it will be very difficult to achieve significant increases in student achievement across the board for the vast majority of students. There is no single model of education that will work for all students, just like there is no single physical health regimen that will work for all people. We go and see our doctors for our physical health and progress and treatments on an individual basis, simply because every body is different. We will not fix our children's mental and intellectual health until we 'see them' on an individual basis in schools, simply because every brain is different. Yes, there are great individual charter schools and great individual private schools who are involved in voucher programs, but there are also poor charters and private schools, too. Keep in mind that there are great public schools, too...I would put my students up against students from any other school (and in fact do in a variety of competitions), and they normally shine at the local, state and national levels. But there are also poor public schools.

But bottom line is, we are not there yet in education, and charters and vouchers programs are not, in and of themselves, the final solutions to our education problems.

Monday, July 05, 2010

H.B. Phillips - Forseeing the Future of Technological Progress

I came across a truly interesting quote from a mathematician, H.B. Phillips, who, in an article published in October of 1948 in American Scientist, said:

Advances will be most frequent when the number of independent thought centers is greatest, and the number of thought centers will be greatest when there is maximum individual liberty. Thus, it appears that maximum liberty is the condition most favorable to progress.

Phillips understood, as does every scientist and academician, that science and academia revolve around communication of ideas. When trying to solve the toughest problems in the most difficult realms of human thought and experience, even the Newtons and Einsteins of the world need to 'stand on the shoulders of giants' who lived or worked prior to themselves. Knowledge, ideas, problem solving, and innovation are mass produced industries - individuals can spark new, original ideas, to be sure, but to do anything with those ideas requires support from others. Even brilliant individuals need to learn about their area of work and interest, and learn what has already been done. This requires access to knowledge and previous thoughts and ideas about the subject (although the other avenue to discovery is the 'accidental' discovery).

In Phillips's day he would have had access to journals, book, conferences, personal correspondence using traditional 'snail' mail, and some telephone, telegraph and radio communication. The phone and radio networks, however, would have been more limited, of course, prior to global hook-ups and networks. Large information packets would have taken days or weeks to be passed along between individuals, as whole books and articles would have had to been physically delivered. He did not possess the Internet, fax machines, teleconferencing, virtual anything, or global satellite communication. But he understood the concept that is at the heart and soul of academic, technological and theoretical progress. Difficult problems involving complexity need multiple brains working on them to make progress in figuring out the complexity. His term 'thought centers' is, in my mind, a broad statement that presently could refer to any one of a collection of entities: individuals on the Internet, think tanks, research groups, R&D departments of industry, academic departments in universities, blog groups, and generally any type of grouping of people who are collaborating to figure something out.

The Internet provides unprecedented access to information. And anyone can plug into that information. Strangers communicate and bounce ideas around every day and instantly with each other. Information and progress have, as a result and as Phillips foresaw, exploded exponentially as the number of 'thought centers' increased. And what is perhaps most important, the free exchange of information and ideas that the Internet provides has been key to this progress. Innovation, creativity, and problem solving now have tools available to anyone with access to the world wide web to see rapid and original progress, as interconnectivity runs to all regions of the planet.

As crazy as the rate of progress has been over the past decade (as personal computing has blossomed), there is room for even more progress. The second condition Phillips talks about is 'liberty.' This would seem to indicate that there is a need, in present times, for individual freedom and access to information, as well as the continued free exchange of that information, outside any type of censorship or restrictions to information. We see such restrictions to access and to personal freedom in many countries around the world, with the obvious major example of China. What will happen when China alone gets to the point where some 1.6 billion more people have unfettered access to the Internet, journals, and other forms of information access, trying to solve the plethora of problems the world is facing? Time will tell, but I do appreciate when deep-thinking individuals identify trends and 'see' where the future is headed.

Friday, July 02, 2010

Examining the Beginnings of Modern Science

I am reading a very interesting book, "The Science of Liberty" by Timothy Ferris. Mr. Ferris argues that science was the thrust to liberal democracy, and while about a third of the way through, he presents a strong case for his thesis.

Beyond his main theme, I am also enjoying the history behind the founding of modern science thought and its process. This history includes the two most famous giants, Galileo Galilei and Isaac Newton. But some others, who most forget about, include Nicolas Copernicus, Johannes Kepler, William Gilbert, Francis Bacon, Rene Descartes, John Locke (a contemporary and good friend of Newton),and Robert Boyle. There are certainly a number of other important early scientists, but I find this group the most intriguing.

For centuries the Aristotelian approach to thinking about the physical world dominated. Logic and perceived common sense were the 'tools' through which one should reach conclusions about why things work the way they do. The classic example is dropping a heavy object along with a light object. Of course, without knowing anything about basic physics, most would think the heavy object should hit the ground first. Makes sense, in a logical frame of thinking, since gravity is obviously pulling harder on a heavy object. And that is the end of the discussion. For whatever reason, which is so foreign to modern thinking, no one simply picked up two different sized rocks and dropped them...no one did the experiment. At least there is no documented instance of this happening prior to Galileo's famous experiments. Tradition (especially religious), respect for past genius, a mindset that what was in books was the final word on a subject, and a culture that did not yet appreciate the notion of some process resembling experimentation, kept limiting advances in human thought, at least when it came to the physical world. Part of the reason for this was the fact that there was no formal public education for the masses. Smaller groups of the 'elite' and privileged, both aristocratic/governmental and religious, dictated life, kept the masses in a static intellectual state, and worked to maintain the status quo.

Liberal democracies did not exist in those times, up until the scientific revolution had begun through the work and sacrifice of the names listed above. Science is based on facts, physical evidence, open minded thinking, and the ability to test ideas and observe results of those tests. Science is a collaborative process. It relies on the exchange of ideas and findings, and allows curiosity to cross geographical and geopolitical borders. Science does not care what one's socioeconomic status is, but rather whether one has done careful, thoughtful and thorough work that leads to evidence that supports one's conclusions. It is a mindset, a process, and a culture all in one. There is no single leader, for everyone's work is put through the ringer of independent tests and possible rebuke by the rest of the scientific community. If a better idea or theory arises based on new experiments, then old theories are abandoned. Even the great Newtonian mechanics in Newton's Principia, which was the greatest singular piece of work in science history (for it formally established the power of the scientific process and showed the world what science was capable of), met its match with Einstein's relativity theories.

Wherever the word science is used in the above paragraph, substitute in 'liberal democracy.' Does it fit into such a description of characteristics? Largely, yes. Democracies depend on ideas being exchanged. Ideally, it depends on large educated groups of citizens and followers. It is a mindset, a culture and a process. There is no singular leader, but when someone else comes along with a better idea and can convince the masses that he or she is correct (and preferably with evidence that it is a better idea), then that person becomes the new leader. The founders of the early democracies, for example in the United States people like Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams either were scientists or endorsed the scientific process. The early Founding Fathers were all highly educated and committed to the principles first introduced and practiced with good results in the scientific revolution that began in the late 16th and 17th centuries. Liberal democracies did not exist prior to the science revolution, which still persists today. These are Ferris's arguments in his book.

One quote that sticks with me is from William Gilbert in 1600:
"In the discovery of secret things and in the investigation of hidden causes, stronger reasons are obtained from pure experiments and demonstrated arguments than from probable conjectures and the opinions of philosophical speculators...Men are deplorably ignorant with respect to natural things, and modern philosophers, as though dreaming in the darkness, must be aroused and taught the uses of things, the dealing with things; they must be made to quit the sort of learning that comes only from books, and that rests only on vain arguments from probability and upon conjectures."

This approach and way of thinking is precisely what jump-started the science movement and revolution that followed. Galileo and then Newton took this approach and ran with it, along with others who are not as well known, and world history changed forever. In keeping with this relationship between science and liberal democracy, we still hear about the "Great American Experiment" which is our own democracy. Science, and therefore democracy, is not static, but instead dynamic and evolving. If something works, it lasts, but when evidence shows it is not working, the machinery is in place to make change. Only time will tell where we will end up.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

A Wonderful Interview with Zenpundit

I wanted to put up a link to an interview of my very good friend, fellow teacher, and historian extraordinaire, ZenPundit (aka Mark Safranski), who was a featured guest interview on Steven Pressfield's site. Check it out!

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Physics Screencasts - How to Videos for AP Physics

Below are links to specific “How To” videos that are relevant to AP Physics, and are on my class blog. These show how to think about certain topics, and how to do certain problems. It has a voice-over and screencast from my tablet computer, so it is similar to being in class as we model how to do certain problems. These can be useful if you were gone the day we covered the topic, or need more examples with explanations, or want to review things from class prior to quizzams.

Student Independent Science Research


Air Friction – the math

Binary Orbits

Derivatives! What are they and how to do them.

Gravitational Potential Energy and Space Launches

Momentum Conservation – Why?

Moment of Inertia Using the Integral – Disks

Moment of Inertia Using the Integral – Sticks

Parallel Axis Theorem (finding moments of inertia)

Pendulum: Simple Harmonic Motion for small angles

Potential Wells

Quantum Numbers: Using Simple Harmonic Motion to help see where these come from

Rotations: Both Linear and Rotational Motion Simultaneously

Rotations: Collisions and Conservation of Angular Momentum

Rotations: NON-Constant Acceleration

Simple Harmonic Motion: General Derivation of sine, cosine solutions

Simple Harmonic Motion: Solving with specific initial conditions using phase angle

Special Relativity – mass and energy, where E = mc2 comes from

Tension problems with systems of objects: http://docvphysics.blogspot.com/2009/10/how-to-do-tension-problems.html


Ampere’s law applications

Capacitance – how to find capacitance for the 3 types of capacitors

Capacitor Circuits – How to find stored charge

Electric Circuit analysis

Electromagnetic Induction – how Induced Currents turn on (includes circulating E-field)

Faraday’s law – Changing area with constant B-field

Faraday’s law – Changing B-field with constant area

Gauss’s law with conductors

Gauss’s law with NON-conductors: charge density

Gauss’s law with NON-uniform charge densities

Integration of E-fields to get Potential

LC Circuit – similar to simple harmonic motion

Magnetic Flux – Rectangular loop next to straight wire with current

Magnetic force between two current carrying wires

Mass Spectrometers and Velocity Selectors – magnetic forces, F = qv x B

Point Charge Systems – finding total electric fields and potentials

Projectile Motion of Electric Charges

RC Circuits – Charging Capacitor (series RC)

RC Circuits – Discharging Capacitor (series RC)

RC Circuits – Resistor and capacitor in parallel

RL Circuits – Current as functions of time

National Core Standards Released

Over the past year, a national committee has been working on K-12 Core Standards for language arts and mathematics. I still need to look through the details, but here is a clip from the introductory material.

Core Standards http://www.corestandards.org/

(From Key Considerations, page 4 of document)

"Grade levels for K–8; grade bands for 9–10 and 11–12
The Standards use individual grade levels in kindergarten through grade 8 to provide useful specificity; the Standards use two-year bands in grades 9–12 to allow schools, districts, and states flexibility in high school course design.

A focus on results rather than means
By emphasizing required achievements, the Standards leave room for teachers,curriculum developers, and states to determine how those goals should be
reached and what additional topics should be addressed. Thus, the Standards do not mandate such things as a particular writing process or the full range of metacognitive strategies that students may need to monitor and direct their thinking and learning. Teachers are thus free to provide students with whatever tools and knowledge their professional judgment and experience identify as most helpful for meeting the goals set out in the Standards.

An integrated model of literacy
Although the Standards are divided into Reading, Writing, Speaking and Listening, and Language strands for conceptual clarity, the processes of communication are closely connected, as reflected throughout this document. For example, Writing standard 9 requires that students be able to write about what they read. Likewise, Speaking and Listening standard 4 sets the expectation that students will share findings from their research.

Research and media skills blended into the Standards as a whole

To be ready for college, workforce training, and life in a technological society, students need the ability to gather, comprehend, evaluate, synthesize, and report on information and ideas, to conduct original research in order to answer questions or solve problems, and to analyze and create a high volume and extensive range of print and nonprint texts in media forms old and new. The need to conduct research and to produce and consume media is embedded into every aspect of today’s curriculum. In like fashion, research and media skills and understandings are embedded throughout the Standards rather than treated in a separate section.

Shared responsibility for students’ literacy development

The Standards insist that instruction in reading, writing, speaking, listening,and language be a shared responsibility within the school. The K–5 standards include expectations for reading, writing, speaking, listening, and language applicable to a range of subjects, including but not limited to ELA. The grades 6–12 standards are divided into two sections, one for ELA and the other for history/social studies, science, and technical subjects. This division reflects the unique, time-honored place of ELA teachers in developing students’ literacy skills while at the same time recognizing that teachers in other areas must have a role in this development as well.

Part of the motivation behind the interdisciplinary approach to literacy promulgated by the Standards is extensive research establishing the need for college and career ready students to be proficient in reading complex informational text independently in a variety of content areas. Most of the required reading in college and workforce training programs is informational in structure and challenging in content; postsecondary education programs typically provide students with both a higher volume of such reading than is generally required in K–12 schools and comparatively little scaffolding.

The Standards are not alone in calling for a special emphasis on informational text. The 2009 reading framework of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) requires a high and increasing proportion of informational text on its assessment as students advance through the grades."

On the surface, I like what is stated here, as I agree and have argued for this sort of educational philosophy for years. I do hope in practice this approach still prevails. We will need to see what happens during the implementation phase with state Boards of Education. I am sure there will be much more to come on this one.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

A New Age - 'Creating' Life

Just published on the journal Science's online platform, a group from the Craig J Venter Institute has created a bacterium using an entirely synthetic genome. This is effectively the first time humans have created life from inanimate substances.

Everyone knew it was just a matter of time before this was done, and the future is now. However, while I am entirely for new scientific discovery and inquiry, this really is an eye-opening research result, where humans are 'playing God.' We need to have a very serious discussion on the ethics behind such research, and consider as best we can the unintended consequences of such research. While this was a case of creating a known bacterium, what happens when someone creates a new organism that literally is a brand new, never before seen life form? How can we know what will happen if something that never has existed in Nature comes out of a test tube? While we have that potential on a daily basis with mutations of existing single-celled organisms, this adds a new layer to the possibilities of life that could arise. Ever since humans have learned to genetically engineer organisms, there has been the potential of manufacturing new organisms that could become the ultimate biological weapon, or create scenarios that were once unimaginable. These are issues that most people are unaware of and don't consider, but this must change so political leaders from the global community can address the issue, sooner than later. With new global energy being put into nuclear proliferation, this is the next step in addressing matters that have profound effects on nothing more than global security and the future of human existence on the Earth.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Happy Anniversary - 50 Years of the LASER

Ah, the laser...this stands for Light Amplification of Stimulated Emission of Radiation. They are spread throughout our society, and most of us do not even realize it. Laser pointers. Security systems. CD players. DVD players. Construction. Grocery store scanners. Surgery. Industry. Making holograms. Telecommunications.

The laser was invented some 50 years ago, and the applications only become more numerous by the day. Check out Scientific American's tribute to this amazing device, first predicted in the 1920s by none other than Albert Einstein.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Some Thoughts on Where We Are...

Life right now is, in a word, interesting, is it not? The world keeps going 'round, the sun comes up in the morning and sets in the evening, and here in the Midwest we have actually had quite a nice spring thus far. I noticed a truly beautiful sunset this evening, after helping coach my son's first baseball practice of the year. What a way to get some perspective, to remember what is important in life, to see the boys out there getting dirty and having a truly enjoyable time playing a great game, with my daughter and countless other children playing in the background in a park.

I think we adults around the country need to enjoy such moments more frequently, take a deep breath more frequently, and remember what it is like to be caring, thoughtful, responsible, passionate as well as compassionate, and even a bit civil towards our fellow men and women in this country, as we consider, debate, and contemplate where we are as a country. Never in my life, which began in 1968 at the height of civil unrest with Vietnam, the civil rights movement, and shortly thereafter Watergate, have I seen so much of the polar opposite of what I just mentioned amongst adults. I've been relatively quiet on this blog about current events and politics, mostly because of a complete absence of time to dedicate to writing, but also because I am near speechless about the extent of incivility, irrationality, utter partisanship, and downright, for lack of a better word, hatred so many Americans have been showing towards each other in our body politic. As I say so many times to students as well as other adults who know me, we are in a greatly extended period where emotion seems to outweigh logic and honest debate of issues, regardless of one's political slant, ideology, and opinion.

We are in a time when the extremes of both the right and the left have forced themselves to center stage and have the microphone, throwing around accusations, blame, and doomsday rhetoric about our country. We see so many arguing the talking points that feed on emotion to try and drive the masses into a frenzy, never mind facts and evidence that inconveniently get in the way.

We see a time when decades of neglect and inaction on many fronts have finally managed to converge on us all at once, which has developed an environment where emotion is able to trump logic and common sense because of the scope and magnitude of the issues we now face simultaneously. There is an interconnected set of problems that need to be solved, some time very soon, if we are to avoid near catastrophe as a nation. And I do not want to be seen as being nothing but a partisan when I say this, because I truly say this in all sincerity and with as much an open mind as I can - President Obama is the only major player and person in a position of power I see who seems to understand the scope of interconnectedness of the many major issues we face. Think about it - who else has given speeches that go beyond one or two points? Who else makes a case for any sort of political solution to a problem without mentioning how it is related to multiple other problems and issues? I try to think of others who do this consistently, on either side of the aisle, but cannot think of anyone else (Bill Clinton comes to mind, but he is on the sidelines).

The economic collapse of the past couple years. Health care. Social security. Jobs. Energy policy. Climate change. Foreign policy, national security and two wars. The state of education. Immigration. Budget deficits and national debt. Tax policy. The role of government. National infrastructure. The American Dream and our standard of living.

This is all heavy stuff, each one being a major problem that requires serious discussion, debate, compromise, and both short- and long-term solutions. For any administration, taking on any single one of these over the course of a year or two and getting any sort of major deal on it would be a huge accomplishment. Well, having ignored just about every single one of these issues for multiple decades, there is a logjam on the presidential and congressional plates. We have someone who is willing to take on the political risk to actually confront them. Not because he necessarily wants to...but because he necessarily HAS to. And tough problems that require enormous amounts of work and effort and thought make the average person twist in the wind and want to run and hide. Tough problems we do not necessarily like to think about, precisely because they are tough, make many of us mentally adn intellectually shut down. Do you remember being a student in a math or science class, or some other subject you may have struggled in a bit, and you get to a topic or problem that simply does not make any sense when you first see it? What is your instinct? As a teacher, I see this most days of the week with a number of individual students...the tendency of many, perhaps most, is to step away and resist having to work on it. Serious thought...I am talking about the wrack your brain over a number of days or weeks thought about a single tough problem...is utterly exhausting. It can be entirely frustrating. It can lead one to want to quit altogether. It can lead to anger and emotional outbursts because it is easy to feel utterly stupid and inadequate when a solution continues to hide in the dark, and you are without a flashlight.

This is where we are with the problems we face, and the ugly side of problem solving is upon us. Emotional outbursts and anger have arisen from the collective 'wracking the brains over extended periods of time.' The issues are terribly complex. There are no easy solutions, period. Sorry to say, but "Drill, baby, drill!" really will not solve our energy crisis...simplicity, while desirable, is nothing more than wishful thinking and allows us to create catchy, folksy, bumper sticker quotes that dangerously puts the uninformed and short-sighted thinker into an emotional frenzy. Simply saying "Deport all illegal immigrants!" is not a real solution to our immigration woes. Nor is it practical...good luck hunting down 13 million people living in the background and shadows covering millions of square miles. Think about how hard it has been over a nearly ten-year period to hunt down just one person in a vastly smaller area on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. As much as I, too, am not thrilled with all I pay in taxes, simply cutting taxes is not the solution to our jobs and fiscal problems. It is just a tad more complicated than that.

Thinking in terms of the ten-word phrase found during political campaign season is dangerous, because it completely masks the complexity of the serious issues facing the nation. An example is energy policy. What you do with energy affects infrastructure, which affects the budget, which affects tax policy. It affects industry and the type of manufacturing that will take place in the country over the next few decades. This affects jobs. The nature of those jobs affects the type of education we must provide to our children, who make up the next generation of the workforce. What we do with energy affects global pollution, our standard of living and climate. The nature of pollution from energy production and distribution affects health care (for example, as I point out to students when they asked about Obama wanting to begin building new nuclear power plants, no one in the US has ever died from us using nuclear power over the past five decades...but tens of thousands become sick and die from the pollution of coal, oil and gas power plants each year...not sure why this is never pointed out in the media). What we do with energy affects foreign policy and national defense.

This is why I say "Drill, baby, drill" is nothing more than a catch-phrase for the masses you want to emotionally charge up and fool into thinking that this is a serious policy statement. Nothing more ever follows those three words in terms of anything that resembles a solution to a tremendously serious, complex issue that is interconnected and intimately related to numerous other serious, complex issues. This is why I say Pres. Obama, whether you agree or disagree with his politics and proposals for issues, is the only one I see out there even attempting to seriously recognize the complexity and severity of the nature of the interconnected problems.

By the way, so you know I am not a complete partisan who thinks Obama can do no wrong, I am disappointed that the President recently authorized new offshore oil drilling. The right keeps saying that with modern techniques and technology, this is a safe endeavor. Tell that to the people on the Gulf Coast, as we have a new disaster in the making from the offshore platform that exploded and is now causing a natural catastrophe of much of the Gulf ecosystem. As bad as this is going to be in terms of environmental damage to all sorts of species, I kept arguing during the campaign when McCain proposed all sorts of new drilling that, when you consider the long-term, this is going to also be our drinking water. There is an impending shortage of clean, potable water in many parts of the US (as well as many parts of the world), and we will have to begin using ocean water some day (sooner than we might think)for our own survival. But no one likes thinking about this issue, so it has been put on a back burner, just like we have done with health care, social security, energy, infrastructure, immigration, and so on. We are paying a heavy price right now for that lack of action and foresight, and we will keep being shortsighted with issues like off-shore drilling and the interconnectedness to other issues like drinking water. History does repeat itself; this is a cliche for a reason.

I am frustrated by the majority of our elected officials who are in campaign mode and who are, perhaps, incapable of thinking about more than one thing at a time. I am worried that short-sighted, emotional outbursts are drowning out facts, evidence, expert opinion and proposals to serious, complex issues, that quite frankly the average person may not be able to comprehend, nor wants to make an effort to understand. I worry about those who resort to name calling and who attack another person's character and integrity if they do not agree with one's own opinion or political slant. It does not make you a 'traitor' or unpatriotic if you do not agree with me. In my mind, if your intent is to help solve a problem and make our nation better, that makes you a patriot, plain and simple, whether I agree with you or disagree with you! Being able to peacefully disagree with each other is largely what makes America unique and great! Why do we want anything less than this? This is why a blanket philosophy of "You are either with us or against us" is so terribly dangerous and UN-American. This is where many Americans are on both the left and the right. My kids' future is up for grabs right now, and I desperately yearn for a day, very soon, where facts and evidence are valued, and where serious and rational thought, debate and compromise will show its face and put this emotionally, partisan-driven nonsense in its grave.