The Very Spring and Root

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

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Science and Engineering

We Need More Science Teachers

One more video posted from BTR, this one an interview on science teaching in particular and why we need more science teachers.



Applications open for Mars One, the first human space colony | Ars Technica

Artists conception of the Block II Space Launch System (SLS). By NASA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Want to travel to space and live on Mars? Are you willing to make that ticket one-way only? Ars Technica is reporting that  applications are open for Mars One, the first human space colony:

Mars One—the private space project that plans to be the first to send humans to Mars and leave them there—officially opened its virtual doors to would-be Mars residents, per a press release and press conference Monday. Today is the first day anyone who has ever thought it might be neat to put on a helmet and see Earth from outside its atmosphere can submit an application to be considered for the first permanent human colony on Mars. The Mars One foundation reports it has received 10,000 messages of interest about the program prior to this point. We’ll soon see how many of those translate to applications.

The Mars One project was started by Bas Lansdorp, a Dutch entrepreneur, with the goal of setting up a small human-inhabited outpost on Mars. The tentative schedule has supplies landing on the red planet in 2016 and the settlers in 2023.

Whoa. If you need a sign that commercial spaceflight is on the verge of a huge new era, look no further than this ambitious declaration.

The major hurdle is getting the mass up there. Climbing out of Earth’s gravity well takes up lots of energy, and that translates to high costs per kilogram of payload. Moreover, currently available launch systems simply do not have the capacity to launch enough at one time for large-scale missions to be practical. However,  With NASA’s Space Launch System (70 MT to LEO) and private heavy-lift launch vehicles like Space X’s Falcon Heavy (53 MT to LEO) coming online soon, long-range / long-duration missions (as well as space settlement) get much closer to being reality.

Ideally, we would want to reduce the material we launch from Earth as much as possible. Taking advantage of in-space resources, such as commercial asteroid mining, will be the key to establishing a long term space economy. That will require essential infrastructure, such as energy generation and orbital processing and construction facilities, to be put into place first. The Mars One project clearly doesn’t plan to wait around for such infrastructure though. In this case, the mission seems focused on a proof-of-concept to inspire blaze the trail.

With all of these private plans to forge ahead out into the black, it worries me that the policy side of the discourse seems to be severely lacking. Mired and gridlocked even with the basic problems of today, it does not seem as though our Congress is prepared, knowledgeable, or open-minded enough to even consider the basic questions at stake. As of now, there are few if any laws or legal precedents governing human and corporate conduct in space. Even more basic, no one seems to know who even has the right or authority to make such laws. It would be a shame, even dangerous for the future of the species, to allow unregulated expansion into the solar system.

  • Who has authority and jurisdiction over space?
  • How does one claim property in space? Can a private corporation simply land and claim a whole moon for example?
  • How will laws be enforced, assuming they exist?
  • Do international rules and identities apply in space?
  • How will the immense resources of space and the solar system be distributed, taxed, and/or appropriated?
  • Do people, especially workers, have rights in space?
  • Can corporations and private citizens declare war on each other for resources?

Space could be the next Wild West, only orders of magnitude more lawless and destructive to natural systems. If we are not careful, the bold dreams of colonizing the solar system and expanding humanity into the stars could quickly become tainted by exploitation, corruption, and greed. The action is happening already, whether we are ready for it or not — and we must engage with the issue now, at the outset.



Nuclear Power at a Crossroads

By Felix König (Eigenes Werk (own work) – Samsung S750) [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Building a sustainable energy future is going to take a lot of compromise. Among the sources of energy which I think are often mischaracterized by both proponents and opponents are nuclear power plants.

On one hand, many on the so-called environmental left do have a point in that nuclear power plants can be unstable and lead to dangerous leaks. The recent trouble with the San Onofre plant in California, the news that the nuclear waste units at Hanford are leaking (and actually may be too dangerous to even clean up), as well as the terrible fallout from the Fukushima disaster certainly lend credence to this thinking. Further, it should be no secret that the mining of uranium involves exploitation and environmental destruction of the poor countries in which most of the world’s fissile ore is found.

On the other hand though, I think that many on the environmental left fail to consider the huge positive impact that nuclear power could have on global warming and climate change. Nuclear fission does not produce any direct carbon emissions (the “smoke” rising from the cooling towers is actually steam, water vapor). The positive impact of near-zero airborne pollutants is huge.  For example, a recent paper published by the ACS1 highlights the advantages in clear terms:

Pushker A. Kharecha and James E. Hansen state that nuclear power has the potential to help control both global climate change and illness and death associated with air pollution. That potential exists, they say, despite serious questions about safety, disposal of radioactive waste and diversion of nuclear material for weapons. Concerned that the Fukushima accident in Japan could overshadow the benefits of nuclear energy, they performed an analysis of nuclear power’s benefits in reducing carbon dioxide emissions and air pollution deaths.

The study concluded that nuclear power already has had a major beneficial impact, based upon calculations of prevented mortality and greenhouse gas emissions for the period 1971-2009. Nuclear power could prevent from 420,000 to 7 million additional deaths by mid-century, and prevent emission of 80-240 billion tons of the greenhouse gases linked to global warming, the study found. “By contrast, we assess that large-scale expansion of unconstrained natural gas use would not mitigate the climate problem and would cause far more deaths than the expansion of nuclear power,” it notes.

The positive effects of near-zero emissions has a huge impact, both historically speaking and looking forward. Lifecycle greenhouse-gas emissions for nuclear are far lower than the energy sources we typically use (orders of magnitude lower, in the case of coal and even natural gas), and are actually comparable with photovoltaics2. Another notable advantage to nuclear power include the amount of power produced for near-zero emissions, on the order of 3000 MW (compared to 50 MW for a typical solar farm and about 350 MW for a typical wind farm). This value is generally higher than for even carbon-based natural gas (1000 MW) and coal (2500 MW) power plants as well3.

A standard utilitarian outlook will demand the follow-on question: Are the benefits worth the risks? However, I think this is the wrong question, because it assumes a static, linear type of world. The fact is, an overwhelming majority of the scientific community, and most reasonably-minded people, agree that we need a huge reduction in the amount of greenhouse gases that we currently emit. That said, no one really wants to destroy the environment, exploit poor countries, and create unstable systems. I think better questions might be:

  • How can we reduce the negative impacts of nuclear fission energy through technological and sociopolitical means?
  • Can we require energy companies to make a greater investment in safety technology for reactors?
  • Can we form coherent and sensible strategy for the storage and containment of nuclear waste?
  • Can we regulate the atrocious behavior of multinational energy corporations as it pertains to exploited countries, forcing them to comply with stricter (and therefore more expensive) controls?
  • What feedback-loop impact do the answers to the above have on the original constraints?
  • What percentage of our total energy portfolio should be sourced from fission?

I think that last question also gets at another perspective often missing from the debate — that solutions are seldom either-or. I suspect that neither “no nuclear power” nor “all nuclear power” will ever be a reasonable sustainable solution to our energy problems. As the present generation of reactors reaches design age and the construction of new reactors become mired in political hurdles, these decisions and tradeoffs need to start getting made in a clearheaded and reasonable way soon.

In the near to mid-term, I think nuclear absolutely will have to be on the table as part of the portfolio that gets us to a long term solution. Despite it’s temporary advantages, in the long run we will have to come to terms with the constraint that nuclear fission, just like hydrocarbon energy, relies on a finite resource: uranium and plutonium ore, which are extracted from the ground just like oil and gas. In this sense nuclear fission’s key role may be simply as a bridge to get us by until research and development of photovoltaics, solar/geo thermal, space power, and especially nuclear fusion allow for these much more sustainable energy sources to overcome their present technological hurdles, and eventually take over.

Show 3 footnotes

  1. The full paper is by Pushker A. Kharecha and James E. Hansen (NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and Columbia University Earth Institute), Prevented Mortality and Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Historical and Projected Nuclear Power.
  2. See slide 18 of Edenhofer, O., The IPCC Special Report on Renewable Energy Sources: and Climate Change Mitigation“, UN Climate Change Conference June 2011.
  3. I like to link sources, but these didn’t come from one place. Since the variability of power output is very high, depending on the size of the plant, I had to make an eyeballed average of looking up several examples.


BBC – Future – Science & Environment – Why everyone must understand science

Via BBC – Future – Science & Environment – Why everyone must understand science:

People feel excluded by science and debates about science, they use laptops, they fly in planes, use appliances in the home and they don’t know what’s behind this technology. That is a problem, as it turns people into the slaves of our technology. The less people know the more they are likely to be manipulated or influenced by people who may not have their best interests at heart.

I say amen. Articles, conversations, and thoughts about how much science and technology pervade our daily lives always remind me of how much more I want to be blogging about science accessibility. Certainly science education is a part of that, but only a part.

The “Science and Engineering” category on this blog was supposed to be for finding cool science that is going on right now and putting it in accessible terms for the general public. Also to add commentary, speculation, and in general try to be a bridge between the three largely separate discourses of education (via pedagogy), the classroom (via students), and science (via practitioners of science).

Sigh. I can make time, I can make time…



A Sense of Perspective

Every now and then, usually when something like politics or racism or injustice or terrorism or whatever else gets nasty, I find it helpful to get a dose of perspective. Thanks to ESO’s VISTA telescope, we have THIS:

It may not look like much at first, until you realize that those points of light are not stars, but whole galaxies. Process that for a minute: you’re looking at over 200,000 galaxies, each one with anywhere from 100,000,000,000 to 300,000,000,000 stars.

Oh, and according to BadAstronomer’s post about this deep-field image, this is only a 1.2 x 1.5 degree patch of sky. That means those 60,000,000,000,000,000 (sixty quadrillion) suns are in just approximately 0.004% of the observable area of the sky. And that’s just what we can see with our current instruments and given where we are in the universe. (You can get the full image from ESO.)

Yep.

Feeling humble yet? This is really why we do science and exploration.

By expanding the frontiers of what is possible, we move beyond present constraints to worldly solutions. By exploring, we discover more about ourselves, where we came from, and where we could be going. In doing the hardest things imaginable, we develop systems and methods and materials and technologies that rain down into all areas of human life.

And by always striving to look upward at the immensity of the beauty around us, we are constantly humbled into looking inward at how we can make our speck of the universe a better place for our fellow human beings.

If I ever find myself caught up in the mundane, wound up about something petty, or angry at someone or something else, despairing for humanity, or wondering why I should keep striving against something difficult… this is among the set of pictures I look at.

It’s good to keep a sense of perspective.



Preach.

In its encounter with Nature, science invariably elicits a sense of reverence and awe. The very act of understanding is a celebration of joining, merging, even if on a very modest scale, with the magnificence of the Cosmos. And the cumulative worldwide build-up of knowledge over time converts science into something only a little short of a trans-national, trans-generational meta-mind.

[…]

Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality. When we recognize our place in an immensity of light years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual. So are our emotions in the presence of great art or music or literature, or of acts of exemplary selfless courage such as those of Mohandas Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr. The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both.

Science may be hard to understand. It may challenge cherished beliefs. When its products are placed at the disposal of politicians or industrialists, it may lead to weapons of mass destruction and grave threats to the environment. But one thing you have to say about it: it delivers the goods.

Not every branch of science can foretell the future – palaeontology can’t – but many can and with stunning accuracy. If you want to know when the next eclipse of the Sun will be, you might try magicians or mystics, but you’ll do much better with scientists. They will tell you where on Earth to stand, when you have to be there, and whether it will be a partial eclipse, a total eclipse, or an annular eclipse. They can routinely predict a solar eclipse, to the minute, a millennium in advance. You can go to the witch doctor to lift the spell that causes your pernicious anaemia, or you can take vitamin Bl2. If you want to save your child from polio, you can pray or you can inoculate. If you’re interested in the sex of your unborn child, you can consult plumb-bob danglers all you want (left-right, a boy; forward-back, a girl – or maybe it’s the other way around), but they’ll be right, on average, only one time in two. If you want real accuracy (here, 99 per cent accuracy), try amniocentesis and sonograms. Try science.

Think of how many religions attempt to validate themselves with prophecy. Think of how many people rely on these prophecies, however vague, however unfulfilled, to support or prop up their beliefs. Yet has there ever been a religion with the prophetic accuracy and reliability of science? There isn’t a religion on the planet that doesn’t long for a comparable ability – precise, and repeatedly demonstrated before committed sceptics – to foretell future events. No other human institution comes close.

Sagan, C. (1996). The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. New York: Ballantine.



Pilot Plant in the Works for Carbon Dioxide Cleansing – NYTimes.com

NYTimes is reporting on recent developments in carbon gas capture technologies.

Now a Canadian company has developed a cleansing technology that may one day capture and remove some of this heat-trapping gas directly from the sky. And it is even possible that the gas could then be sold for industrial use.

Love it.

Should the cost of capturing carbon dioxide fall low enough, the gas would have many customers, he predicted. Chief among them, he said, would be the oil industry, which buys the gas to inject into oil fields to force out extra oil.

Does anyone else find anything ironic about the fact that most of the CO2 cleansed from the air would then be used to extract more hydrocarbons for us to burn, thus filling the air with more CO2? Still, it’s an improvement despite the irony — we’d probably burn that new oil anyway, so scrubbing some of the previous pollution before we do it is a net gain.

Gas capture would be extremely important in developing a rational price for carbon emissions, said Dr. Fox of the British mechanical engineering society. “Whatever it costs to take it out of the air and store it away,” Dr. Fox said, “that’s the price polluters would pay if they want to put carbon into the air.”

Bingo. Large industries would no longer be able to complain the value of carbon is arbitrary in a cap and trade program.

via Pilot Plant in the Works for Carbon Dioxide Cleansing – NYTimes.com.



Why Learn Physics?

MinutePhysics posted this video, entitled “Open Letter to the President: Physics Education”, to their YouTube stream.

Summary: The content of high school physics curricula generally stop at around the year 1865, which is an interesting observation. At first it seems quite logical that students should follow the prescribed path from kinematics to dynamics to electromagnetism and from there on to more complex topics if there is time (which of course there never is, so we never get to anything further).

But from another perspective, does one really need an understanding of dynamics as a prerequisite to an introduction to relativity and quantum? I actually don’t think so. The physics discoveries of the 21st century so profoundly changed our fundamental view of the universe and how we relate to it, that most of what came before seems absurdly limited in scope. Quantum Mechanics, for example, starts from very different conceptual foundations than does Newtonian Mechanics; thus, even though one came before the other chronologically, they really have nothing to do with each other conceptually.

I think it would be awesome to teach an introduction to contemporary scientific issues and understanding in high school. The inevitable counterpoint question will of course be, “but when will they use that?” I certainly admit that Newtonian Mechanics and classical electromagnetic theory, though limited in scope and not even technically correct by modern standards,  are far more likely to be “relevant to students’ lives” than quantum, relativity, particle theory, or cosmology. (In other words, Newtonian Mechanics are more readily applicable to every day situations even though their underlying assumptions and framework do not actually describe physical reality as we now know it.)

However, my (opinionated) rebuttal to this counterpoint is that it is, like so much of education policy, shortsighted and focused on the wrong things. What is the purpose of education? More specifically, what is the purpose of high school science education? What should my students be learning in my physics classroom? Though I certainly encourage STEM careers and want to prepare my students for college, the fact of the matter is that very few of them — even under ideal circumstances — will go on to choose further study and careers in science and engineering. If and when they do, they will receive specialized content instruction and training for it. So, yes they should have some introductory content knowledge, but ultimately what is more important for all of my students, including the STEM-bound ones, to come away with in their formative years as they emerge as adult citizens of the nation and world?

I would argue that the best answer to this question is: a sense of place. A perspective that the universe is a beautiful and endlessly fascinating arena full of challenge and discovery — and that therefore, on that principle alone, it is worthy of study and exploration. An understanding of the rigorous tools of scientific analysis and inquiry that have allowed us as a species to discard illusions and improve our lives. Further, a realization that they must use these tools daily as citizens in the modern world as a defense against manipulation by interests who would misrepresent science for self-serving ends.  And lastly, a cohesive story of our human quest for truth — the part that was grounded in empiricism and fueled by curiosity — which has brought us to our present understanding of what we are, where we came from, and where we are going.

Very little of this perspective, by the way, is captured in the present Massachusetts high school physics curriculum [PDF] or standardized accountability tests such as the MCAS. From what I have read, the Next Generation Science Standards are much, much better than what we have now and certainly a huge step in the right direction. But even these standards, on the cutting edge of what American K-12 science education policy is working on, remain far from the mark in my opinion. They remain somewhat impeded by the inertia of 150 years of “this is what we’ve always taught”.

It is only in the context of physics as the true “natural philosophy” — testing whether our human ideas hold traction with reality — that (properly) introducing the most contemporary physical understanding of the universe (alongside those which came before) to our high school students makes sense. Barring that framework for what physics education is ultimately for, I really doubt that our students will learn physics past 1865 until and unless they choose to do so in college — by which point it may be too late to engage them with it anyway. Which means of course, that it may be too late for the study of physics to contribute to the scientific literacy of the overwhelming majority of our citizens.

Keep fighting the good fight, MinutePhysics.



Recruiting STEM Professionals into Teaching

When I tell people that I went from working as a NASA research engineer to a transition into teaching physics in urban public schools, the response I most often get is something along the lines of “oh, how noble of you!” or perhaps “what a selfless thing to do!” I’ve been finding it difficult to react to these kinds of statements. There is nothing really wrong with this perspective I suppose, and I certainly don’t wish to appear as if I am ungrateful for the well-wishes of those who clearly intend to be positive and supportive of my career choice. But I have to confess to a nagging discomfort about what it feels like such statements imply.

Why is it assumed that my motivations for entering teaching were altruistic? That it is somehow a step down, or a sacrifice of some kind, or a service, for me as an educated and personally accomplished engineer to enter teaching? Why is this not applauded as a strong career choice to which I was aspiring and then achieved? I mean, it’s not like the BTR admissions process was a cakewalk; in fact, I don’t think I have ever been through such a rigorous screening (not even for NASA), nor have I ever before been in the same cohort with so many uniquely accomplished people as my present colleagues. And so far, teaching is among the hardest things I have done in my life — my no-kidding, dead-serious goal for last week was simply “suck less.” I’m certainly not here graciously bestowing my munificence on the yearning masses.

So why the implicit attitude that teaching is only for them that can’t do? Have we lost sight of the possibility that there could be so many reasons besides money or status to choose a profession? I chose teaching because I know it is an important profession that has a wide impact on people and our nation’s social well-being. I also like the daily challenge and creativity required when trying to manage the intersection of people and ideas all the time. These are important qualities for me.

I have no idea how to fix the tangled paradoxed of teaching entry, but I can say what I would ideally like to have in teaching as a profession. Want more trained scientists and engineers entering teaching? I can’t speak for everyone with a STEM degree, but here’s my stab at what my wishlist would have looked like for teaching just coming coming out of my undergrad with a Bachelors in Aerospace Engineering:

  • Actively recruit me. It probably hasn’t occurred to me that I could teach. Convince me based on how teaching is a meaningful, useful, and challenging career, and be able to truthfully tell me most of the following:
  • The offered starting salary need not be competitive with top engineering jobs, but it should be comfortable and secure.
  • Acknowledge that not all teachers are equal in effectiveness. My salary level above the baseline should depend solely on my merit as an educator.
  • Define merit as an educator as a combination of:
    a) Peer review of my teaching (by other respected teachers/colleagues, highest weight factor)
    b) Positive outcomes for students (prepared for future classes/college, increased scores on authentic assessments of skills that matter)
    c) Contribution to the field (making my practice open and public, publishing and sharing results from both innovation and failure in my classroom, attending conferences, collaborating with and assisting other teachers, mentoring, etc)
  • Acknowledge that not all teaching positions are created equal.
    a) Actively incentivize needed specialties such as STEM, ESL, and Special Education.
    b) Actively incentivize needed placements such as rural and urban schools.
  • Affirm that the following factors are irrelevant to student learning, hence irrelevant to my performance as an educator, and hence irrelevant to my pay/incentives:
    a) standardized test scores
    b) time in grade / time in service
    c) tenure
  • Don’t make tenure a given or a time-dependent milestone. Challenge me to earn it.
    a) The primary factor in granting tenure is the assessment of my peers and colleagues, my fellow educators.
    b) The primary factor in revoking tenure is the assessment of my peers and colleagues, my fellow educators.
    c) Grant me tenure only if I demonstrate the long-term potential to innovate and/or perform exceptionally. If I don’t need to excel to earn it, I don’t feel like it’s an achievement.
  • I recognize that teaching is it’s own profession and that content knowledge is not the same thing as knowing how to teach. But I’m an engineer and I already have a degree.
    a) Don’t try and get me to buy into theory; teach me to teach with case studies and a rigorous, practicum-based program that embeds me in the environment I’ll be teaching in. I’ll learn the theory I need to know through practice. I’ll read the textbooks if I decide to do a doctorate in education, not before.
    b) Don’t patronize me and risk a year of lost learning for students by letting me teach before I’m ready. I don’t want to be coddled — I want to be prepared.

Hmm. Acceptable list for now. I may revise it later. Thoughts from other STEM professionals or post-secondary students? What would teaching as a profession have to look like for you to seriously consider teaching? Would these suggestions improve or harm the perceived status of the profession to you and those with whom you interact most?



Gender Gaps in Engineering and Teaching

Katie Mangan over at the Chronicle of Higher Education has posted an article called In Terms of Gender, Engineering and Teaching Are Lopsided – Diversity in Academe. The article includes a photo and some quotes from me.

I don’t think it comes across well in the article, and this is probably just due to how I phrased things, but it’s not so much that I see myself as a role model for girls to go into STEM careers (for starters, I’m not female).  Rather, I see it as part of my job to ignore what society tells anyone that they can’t do and focus on bringing out what they can do. That includes women in STEM fields, among a vast array of other demographic disparities. Mangan’s article does draw needed attention to this important issues, and I’m glad I had the conversation with her.

To take a step back though and look at the big picture… I think the gender gap in any profession, including teaching and engineering, has a lot to do with the perceived status of the profession. That’s why I got raised eyebrows for my career move (that and maybe the salary hit) — not because engineering is “testosterone-fueled” as Mangan writes. (What does that mean anyway? That engineering requires testosterone to run? I disagree with that perhaps unintentionally reinforcing implication.)

The real question some people were wondering, whether consciously or not, was why would I want to voluntarily move from what society treats as a high status profession to one it treats as a low status one?

By extension then, we see the layer underneath: despite the advances women have made in graduation rates, they are still unconsciously relegated to lower status within almost any profession. It’s not a huge leap to predict from there that our highest status professions (doctors, law firm partners, CEOs, superstar athletes, engineers, etc) are going to be predominantly male. We can claim neo-liberalism all we want, but the statistics repeatedly show that our underlying assumptions and how we have chosen to structure society are still infused with inequities — among them, allowing women to reach their potential in all fields.

We have a long way to go, on so many issues. It starts in the classroom. Which is why I’m here.




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