The Very Spring and Root

An engineer's adventures in education (and other musings).

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September 2012

Six Women Who Changed Science – And the World



Minimal Posters – Six Women Who Changed Science. And The Word.

I want these in my room.

Ken Robinson: Schools Kill Creativity [TED Talk]

Sir Ken Robinson makes an entertaining and profoundly moving case for creating an education system that nurtures (rather than undermines) creativity.

Creativity expert Sir Ken Robinson challenges the way we’re educating our children. He champions a radical rethink of our school systems, to cultivate creativity and acknowledge multiple types of intelligence.

“If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original.” (Ken Robinson)

Uwingu and Funding for Science/Exploration

I caught the word from Dr. Pamela Gay (on whom I have a giant nerdcrush) about a new start-up that is trying to change the way science and exploration are funded. Uwingu is in the middle of a fundraiser on Indiegogo right now. Details are sparse, but the generally idea seems to be that it is a for-profit company that will use a combination of donor contributions and revenue-generating projects to maintain a fund for supporting exploration and education ideas related to space and science. Their stated motivation is that government funding for R&D seems to be getting slashed all the time, and they want to take matters into their own hands:

Tired of seeing space research and education always the victim of governmental budget cuts? Want to see a change in space funding and increased funds for space exploration, science, and space education? Uwingu LLC wants to effect these kinds of changes in a new way.

I’m actually really curious to see how this turns out, and I wish them all the best; any new venture in science and exploration based on peaceful discovery certainly deserves support. However, I’m a bit skeptical that this is a solution to where we are with R&D as a country.

Private space exploration and private R&D is an important and growing sector of the space industry, and it should be. I’m really proud to have friends working for Space X and similar companies that are pushing forward on opening up space and the associated economic frontier to more people. But there is something very unique about government research and exploration that is, almost by definition, lacking in the private sector: a focus on the public good. When I was a NASA research engineer, all of my research was, by law, made as widely available as possible. My papers were not even subject to copyright protection.

The research that is performed and funded daily by agencies such as NASA, the Departments of Energy and Defense, the NIH, NOAA, EPA, and many others is disseminated broadly. These new ideas and technologies are, by and large, are made freely available to and inform the activities and decisions of academia, private industry, other government agencies, and even other governments. With the exception of classified or ITAR information withheld for national security reasons, the general public receives the benefits and the world improves as a whole.

The crew of Apollo 11 (rest in peace Neil Armstrong), though Americans landing on the moon in an American spacecraft, did not claim the moon on behalf of the US Government, patent the landing method, or copyright their scientific findings. In fact, they didn’t even mention their country of origin on the plaque they set in the surface of the first other-wordly body our species has visited:


JULY 1969, A.D.


Would we be able to say the same if the first explorers on the moon had been from BP or Lockheed Martin or Big Pharma?

Mad props to the founders of Uwingu for getting such a project off the ground; I think we are going to see some really innovative things come out of this endeavor. But we should be cautious about throwing all of our eggs in the privately-funded science basket. No matter how well-intentioned and responsible, a private for-profit company is not the same thing as a national science or exploration program.

Efforts like Uwingu are necessary and welcome, but they are no replacement for a robust, publicly-funded, diverse, and national vision for science and exploration.

A scientific landscape controlled solely by a patchwork of for-profit interests and private agendas could make for a dangerous, or at least more fragmented and segregated, human society.

Neil Gaiman on Rejection

The best reaction to a rejection slip is a sort of wild-eyed madness, an evil grin, and sitting yourself in front of the keyboard muttering “Okay, you bastards. Try rejecting this!” and then writing something so unbelievably brilliant that all other writers will disembowel themselves with their pens upon reading it, because there’s nothing left to write. Because the rejection slips will arrive. And, if the books are published, then you can pretty much guarantee that bad reviews will be as well. And you’ll need to learn how to shrug and keep going.

Neil Gaiman (via leap-before-you-look)

Madam First Lady

Catching up on #2012DNC videos… can I just reconfirm that our first lady is a wonderfully intelligent and genuinely classy woman.

[…] when you’ve worked hard, and done well, and walked through that doorway of opportunity…you do not slam it shut behind you…you reach back, and you give other folks the same chances that helped you succeed.


Success isn’t about how much money you make, it’s about the difference you make in people’s lives.

-Michelle Obama

Damn straight.

I Cannot Bear Your Suffering”

Three colleagues (one of them my roommate) wrote this last week in the dining room over dinner. You know, like ya do.

“I Cannot Bear Your Suffering”
Malcolm Jamal King, Juliet Buesing, Janella Isaac.
Composed and recorded August 29th, 2012
(Boston, MA)

Literacy in the Science Classroom

I’ve been thinking a lot about literacy across the curriculum since I took a class called… well, Literacy Across the Curriculum. As a science teacher in training, I suppose one might wonder why I would want to think so much about literacy, but the more I do the more I realize how important it will be.

Literacy as a goal is an important prerequisite for science instruction as it is a primary means by which science content is accessed. In other words, a student’s aptitude for, learning of, and/or inclination towards science may be irrelevant if they are unable to read the textbook, write what they know on an exam, or share their thoughts with peers. This means that it isn’t enough to simply focus on content. Literacy as the means by which science is accessed in effect makes it my job as a science teacher to ensure functional literacy in my students.

Literacy as a process is also an important tool that may be used to open up many oft-neglected aspects of science education. I am saddened and/or annoyed when I come across people who assume science is little more than crunching equations, sitting at a computer, or conducting solitary experiments in an isolated laboratory. But given how education and the media present science to the public, who can blame them?

Science which is politicized suffers from accusations of manipulative agendas, and the science which touches on contemporary social issues is often labeled as “controversial” or “disputed.” Human-caused climate change, the link between vaccinations and autism, the veracity of Darwinian evolution, ethical considerations of genetic engineering, the origins of our planet and universe, the appropriateness of funding for scientific endeavors — these are all issues in contemporary American life that are highly interwoven with scientific research and discourse. There are many more examples ranging from the mundane to the cosmic. Nearly every aspect of daily modern life is influenced by science, yet in many cases, science education can remain far removed from a place of relevance in students’ lives.

It seems to me that as education experiences a push towards increasing quantification in the name of accountability, the scientific and mathematical disciplines have been particularly susceptible to a systematic gutting of all that is not quantifiable. The ease with which certain aspects of science and math (e.g. numeracy and equation solving) may be quantified has made it just as easy to push out the “fuzzier” aspects of these two disciplines, reinforcing a negative feedback loop of misconception regarding what science actually is.

Real science cannot ever be de-politicized or de-socialized. Science is always conducted towards some end, and these ends are driven (and funded) based on socio-political objectives and needs. To isolate science from the other disciplines and focus purely on its quantitative aspects is to strip science of its essential humanity, and relegate it to the safe sterility of some abstract laboratory in the public imagination.

Ironically, it is imagination that is perhaps the most neglected aspect of science education. Science is two-sided in this fashion. On the one hand, study of what is, how the world works and our relationship to it. On the other, it must also be an imagining of what could be. The latter aspect is the core of what drives innovation, research, and scientific progress, and it is tied intimately with cross-disciplinary, out-of-the-box thinking.

This will be a major focus of my residency year I think. Lot’s to try and figure out here, maybe for the rest of my career.