The Very Spring and Root

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

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Debrief from the NSTA National Conference

Thanks to the BTR Avengers team, I was able to attend the National Science Teachers of America national conference here in Boston last April. I was floored by how large the conference was — taking up three hotels in South Boston, beyond the large Convention Center itself. NSTA was easily eight times the size of even the largest conference I ever attended in my former profession, the annual AIAA Aerospace Science Meeting. I suppose there are far more science teachers and vendors to same than aerospace engineers.

Highlights:

I got some great ideas for project-based learning around sustainable energy from KidWind. They have complete lesson plans and materials online for FREE, as well as awesome turbine kits available for purchase. Though I did conclude this school year with a unit on sustainable energy, I was not able to plan enough in advance to incorporate any of their materials. Maybe next year. I’m particularly interested in their equipment that would allow me to do wind turbine blade design competition.

I sat in on a session about the DuPont Challenge science and technology essay competition. Students write 700-1000 word essays about any of the following four challenges:

  • Together, we can feed the world.
  • Together, we can build a secure energy future.
  • Together, we can protect people and the environment.
  • Together, we can be innovative anywhere.

I’m seriously considering incorporating the essay into my 11th grade Physics classes.

I’m also excited about the Toshiba Exploravision competition, which I am planning to implement with a colleague as a joint Honors Physics / Honors ELA interdisciplinary project for next year’s 9th grade Honors cohort. The competition asks students to envision how a particular technology might change 20 years from now, research the technology, and propose/present their persuasive argument. The task combines many of the 21st Century Skills while simultaneously addressing several NGSS and Common Core standards in a creative way.

Finally, though I think I’ve been pretty good about using technology in the classroom so far, I will be ramping it up next year. Science reflective journals? Hit me up on Vine now, students. Show me what you learned and why its important. Six seconds of clips… go.



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.



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?



Our Choice

“Those worlds in space are as countless as all the grains of sand on all the beaches of the Earth. Each of those worlds is as real as ours. In every one of them, there’s a succession of incidence, events, occurrences which influence its future. Countless worlds, numberless moments, an immensity of space and time. And our small planet, at this moment, here we face a critical branch-point in the history. What we do with our world, right now, will propagate down through the centuries and powerfully affect the destiny of our descendants. It is well within our power to destroy our civilization, and perhaps our species as well. If we capitulate to superstition, or greed, or stupidity we can plunge our world into a darkness deeper than time between the collapse of classical civilization and the Italian Renaissance. But, we are also capable of using our compassion and our intelligence, our technology and our wealth, to make an abundant and meaningful life for every inhabitant of this planet. To enhance enormously our understanding of the Universe, and to carry us to the stars.”

– Carl Sagan, Cosmos episode 8, “Journeys in Space and Time”



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.



Six Women Who Changed Science – And the World

ikenbot:

hydrogeneportfolio:

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

I want these in my room.



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.



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.



This is sooo visually fascinating. I’m not really very knowledgeable about biology, but I did always enjoy dissection day and getting see firsthand what the insides were all about. There’s something very sterile and academic about a formaldehyde-soaked frog cut open wide though… seeing this photo on the other hand is simply beautiful.

Nature is so cool guys.

wnycradiolab:

The wild and wonderful glass frog




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