The Very Spring and Root

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

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Roxanna Elden on hanging in there

Roxanna Elden, as interviewed on NPR, said exactly what I needed right now:

ELDEN: First of all, you have to hang in there because you have to know that it’s that time of year. And also, it helps to know I think, the great teachers of the future know they’re not great yet. They want so badly to be everything that these students need them to be, but at the same time they are very hard on themselves when they fall short. So if you have those moments where you’re wondering – like what I wondered was, you know, how did these teachers get – these kids get stuck with a teacher like me, that can actually be a sign of kind of a point in your growth. It’s a low point that it still points in becoming a teacher that you hope to be.

I was pretty hard on myself earlier this week when I was grading lab reports. It was just so painfully clear in retrospect how I should have structured the lab differently. Seems like the students did learn about applying some experimental techniques, but there are still some raging misconceptions about acceleration. Considering the amount of time and effort it took on the part of both students and instructors to arrive at only a small amount of apparent learning, this was a costly error. However, it was valuable too, and I just need to keep that in mind and make the right changes for next time.



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:

HERE MEN FROM THE PLANET EARTH FIRST SET FOOT UPON THE MOON

JULY 1969, A.D.

WE CAME IN PEACE FOR ALL MANKIND

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.



Giant Uterus Heads for GOP Convention

A Facebook dialogue involving my friend, listed here as ASW:

SG: can we all grow up

ASW: The link is a joke, utilizing humor to cope with a heinous situation, a technique used by humans for thousands of years in situations where the only other option is to cry. In this way, it is a very adult approach to dealing with politicians who are so juvenile and ignorant that they have no concept of elementary biology, and ignorant and savage enough to condone rape! Yes, please, let’s all grow up.

SG: Yes they where wrong to say what they did about rape but that is not the grow up way to handle it not the way all republics believe as a Christian it is wrong to kill unborn children

ASW: As an American it is wrong to force your religion on everyone in the country. I can’t imagine having an abortion myself, that doesn’t mean it’s okay for me to decide what someone else should do with their body. This country was founded on the very premise of freedom of religion, and it is a shame how many people forget that very basic right. It is spectacular that we live in a country in which you and I can have this conversation, and that I can post a corny political joke on my fb without risk of flogging. I think that those rights are absolutely worth fighting/arguing heatedly for. On that note: Insisting that a woman who has been raped must cope with every painful moment that comes with carrying and giving birth to a child that she in no way asked for, in addition to the lifetime of psychological pain & shame that she will have to cope with anyway, is an atrocious misuse of power which says “it’s OK to abuse women, they are powerless semi-humans anyway.”

Yeah. What she said.



Review of “Green Grass, Running Water” by Thomas King

Green Grass, Running WaterGreen Grass, Running Water by Thomas King
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Brilliant.

View all my reviews



Was the Big Bang Like Freezing Ice?

ikenbot:

Was the Big Bang Like Water Freezing into Ice?

How did the universe begin? The Big Bang is traditionally envisioned as the moment when an infinitely dense bundle of energy suddenly burst outward, expanding in three spatial directions and gradually cooling down as it did so. Now, a team of physicists says the Big Bang should be modeled as a phase change: the moment when an amorphous, formless universe analogous to liquid water cooled and suddenly crystallized to form four-dimensional space-time, analogous to ice.

Image: The Big Bang may have been the moment that a water-like universe froze to form the ice-like universe we see today, a new theory holds.

In the new study, lead author James Quach and colleagues at the University of Melbourne in Australia say the hypothesis can be tested by looking for defects that would have formed in the structure of space-time when the universe crystallized.

“Think of the early universe as being like a liquid,” Quach said in a statement. “Then as the universe cools, it ‘crystallises’ into the three spatial and one time dimension that we see today. Theorized this way, as the universe cools, we would expect that cracks should form, similar to the way cracks are formed when water freezes into ice.”

If they exist, these cracks should be detectable, the researchers said, because light and other particles would bend or reflect off of them as they trek across the cosmos.

The notion that space and time are emergent properties that suddenly materialized out of an amorphous state was first put forth by physicists at Canada’s Perimeter Institute in 2006. Called “quantum graphity,” the theory holds that the four-dimensional geometry of space-time discovered by Albert Einstein is not fundamental; instead, space-time is a lattice constructed of discrete space-time building blocks, just like matter looks continuous, but is actually made of building blocks called atoms.

Originally, at extremely high temperatures, the building blocks were like liquid water: they contained no structure, “representing a state with no space,” the researchers wrote in their paper. At the moment of the Big Bang, when the temperature in the universe dropped to the space-time building blocks’ “freezing point,” they crystallized to form the four-dimensional lattice we observe today.

The math describing the theory checks out, but “the challenge has been that these building blocks of space are very small, and so impossible to see directly,” Quach explained. From the human vantage point, space-time looks smooth and continuous.

However, while the building blocks themselves might be too small to detect, the physicists hope to observe the boundaries that would have formed as regions of crystallizing building blocks butted against one another at the time of the Big Bang, creating “cracks” in the universe. More work is needed to predict the average distance between the cracks — it isn’t known whether they are microscopic, or light-years apart — in order to characterize their effects on particles.

The research by Quach and his team is detailed in this month’s edition of the journal Physical Review D.



Yeah. Right about now.




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