The Very Spring and Root

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

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July 2012




Boom. Roasted.

I love the Mountain Goats.

Jedi/ninja lizard. This is amazing control of one’s own center of gravity. I love how the the lizard contorts to allow the mouth to take the straight line, shortest path from rest to food, despite the requirement to completely change body orientation. Point A —> Point B (lunch).


Just really cool.

Man Up: Be a Teacher

Something about my visit to the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative a couple of weeks ago stuck with me, and it’s only recently that my percolating thoughts on the matter have condensed into something bloggable.

During the welcome presentation, a gentleman from the board of DSNI (or possibly DSNCS) came in to say hi. He spoke briefly but warmly. On the way out he turned and added: “And by the way. Fellas. Where you at? Stand up, stand up. [applause] Fellas, I’m glad you’re here. Ladies too, but fellas… thank you for being here.”

At the time, I was caught off guard by the attention and the words. I think that was the first time it really directly occurred to me that I might want to think about what it means to be a male teacher.

Among my reading since then has been G. Jeffrey MacDonald’s article in the Christian Science Monitor, “Too Few Good Men.” The following passage really hit a chord:

On the one hand, a recent survey shows that men continue to shun the field of early childhood education for seemingly timeless reasons: low pay, low status, and stereotypes about teaching youngsters as being a feminine endeavor. Add to the list a heightened fear of being accused of sexual abuse, and the result is a field saddled with a mounting image problem when it comes to recruiting men.

On the other hand, many children without a father at home crave a male presence in the predominantly female domain of elementary school. And as the push for more male teachers grows, a chorus of voices is delivering a fresh case for why men should consider teaching youngsters: They need what men have to offer uniquely as men.

“We all need someone to emulate,” says Bryan Nelson, a former teacher and director of MenTeach, a Minnesota-based organization for the recruitment of male teachers. “Men show boys what they could become. And girls need to see a nurturing male in order to see what kind of men they’d like to have in their lives.”

I then tried looking at Census data to help me characterize the issue in my head, and discovered via KidsCount that 55% of Boston’s children are growing up in a single-parent home (2010). Of all single-parent families, approximately 84% (nationally) are headed by women. One estimate puts the proportion of fatherless homes in urban communities at around 70%.

So the upshot is that there has been a dawning realization over the last few weeks that this isn’t just about poverty, good science education, and closing the achievement gap — in many cases, I might actually be one of a very few men, and perhaps even the only male role model, consistently in the day-to-day life of my students.

By no stretch does that mean that I should, or even can, replace a father figure. But it does mean that I have the potential to create a profoundly positive or negative impact on how my students, of either gender, view men and deal with men in their adult lives. I will be part of a fabric that can help fight gender role stereotypes, strengthen character, and redefine what “manhood” means to the next generation. That’s a humbling and empowering thought.

Unfortunately, the story doesn’t end there. The flip side of the male teacher issue hardly needs explication. Just Google for “male teacher” in the news. As Lauren Cox puts it in “The Mistrusted Male Teacher” :

Nelson, who took a graduate fellowship at Harvard to study men in secondary school teaching, found that overzealous suspicions of sexual abuse are one of the top three reasons why the teaching profession doesn’t draw more men. From his research, the other two reasons are perceptions about men’s nurturing abilities and low social status combined with low pay.

Graham Holley, chief executive of the Training and Development Agency for Schools (U.K.) spells it out more explicitly:

“In my view, the biggest obstacle is society’s attitude. Men are deterred, partly because there is a prurient element of society that questions the motivation when men wish to work closely with young children.

“That is an immensely sad indictment of the way, in this so-called enlightened century, we can still be so uncritically suspicious of people who share the most selfless of motives: to help improve young lives.

“This fear of being labelled a pedophile is the single biggest deterrent to men who would otherwise consider teaching in our primary schools”

(quoted by Martin Beckford in The Telegraph)

That particular quote is for primary school, in which we have the most severe dearth of male teachers, and you can find plenty more with a simple internet search. While I acknowledge the particularly high need for male teachers at the primary school level, I also couldn’t search for “Male High School Teacher” (or any variants) without having to wade through news media on sexual abuse, teacher-student sex scandals, and harassment allegations.

As an unmarried male in my twenties going into a high school classroom, this clearly has an effect on how others will perceive me and how I perceive my roles and boundaries. The implicit message I’m getting is “Toe the line, or you’re done. Even if you do toe the line, you might be done anyway.” That is, even if I do nothing wrong, the system appears to have perception bias and suspicion against me from the start. How do I reconcile this with what everyone agrees is a huge need for more healthy and appropriate adult male relationships with youth?

On the one hand, I have a powerful chance to be a much-needed positive male role model for my students, including adolescent female students. On the other hand, I may have to be fighting a constant uphill battle against society’s perceptions of the teaching profession as it relates to masculinity.

This is whole thing is not a light subject it turns out, and by the way I haven’t even taught yet, so I’m sure this will be an evolving reflection over the next few years and perhaps beyond. I don’t have answers to these questions, and maybe I won’t for a long time. I’m still excited for the challenge though.

On a more amusing note, Nelson (quoted in Cox, cited above) also appears to hold a dim view of the effect my career transition from research engineering to teaching will have on my dating life:

“And if you’re a single man and you’re going out to date somebody, when they ask you ‘what do you do?’ it just doesn’t have the same cache [sic] as saying I’m an engineer or a scientist.”

I guess I wasn’t aware that science nerds and enginerds were a particularly hot commodity; though to be fair, I don’t think I ever tried the “hey baby, I’m a rocket scientist” line at a bar. The times I could have had… ah well, too late now. Guess I might as well work on that positive male role model schtick and see what that does for me. It’s not like it’s rocket science — in fact, I think it might be harder.



Family Portrait: Han, Darth, Leia, Luke, Chewie, annnnnnd R2D2.


Love!  This should be in a textbook next to a paragraph about size variation in humans.

Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, has died of cancer at age 61

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.


The wild and wonderful glass frog

Can I just say, I am so thankful for pita. Otherwise I would probably be just eating straight hummus and drinking olive oil. And that would just be awkward in public.


Why Should You Be Scientifically Literate?

Side Note: With all of these recent scientific discoveries and observations like the Higgs Boson particle being found, or the recent Venus transit that wont occur again until 2117, or fresh news of more evidence towards Dark Matter’s existence and its implications I thought it would be great timing to highlight the importance of science news, information, and being a part of the community as a citizen. Scientific literacy seems all the more important as our technologies become more advanced and scientists alongside their tools begin to find out new groundbreaking things. Provided below are my favorite excerpts from Robert M. Hazen’s ‘Why should you be scientifically literate?’. Give it a read, become aware of one of the duties we as citizens should have taken up long ago, becoming literate in the world of science.

Road to Discovery of Self & Reality

by Robert M. Hazen

Why should you care about being scientifically literate? It will help you

Understand issues that you come across daily in news stories and government debates

Appreciate how the natural laws of science influence your life

Gain perspective on the intellectual climate of our time

We live in an age of constant scientific discovery — a world shaped by revolutionary new technologies. Just look at your favorite newspaper. The chances are pretty good that in the next few days you’ll see a headline about global warming, cloning, fossils in meteorites, or genetically engineered food. Other stories featuring exotic materials, medical advances, DNA evidence, and new drugs all deal with issues that directly affect your life. As a consumer, as a business professional, and as a citizen, you will have to form opinions about these and other science-based issues if you are to participate fully in modern society.

More and more, scientific and technological issues dominate national discourse, from environmental debates on ozone depletion and acid rain, to economic threats from climate change and invasive species. Understanding these debates has become as basic as reading. All citizens need to be scientifically literate to:

— appreciate the world around them — make informed personal choices

It is the responsibility of scientists and educators to provide everyone with the background knowledge to help us cope with the fast-paced changes of today and tomorrow. What is scientific literacy? Why is it important? And how can we achieve scientific literacy for all citizens?

What is scientific literacy?

Scientific literacy, quite simply, is a mix of concepts, history, and philosophy that help you understand the scientific issues of our time.

— Scientific literacy is not the specialized, jargon-filled esoteric lingo of the experts. You don’t have to be able to synthesize new drugs to appreciate the importance of medical advances, nor do you need to be able to calculate the orbit of the space station to understand its role in space exploration.

— Scientific literacy is rooted in the most general scientific principles and broad knowledge of science; the scientifically literate citizen possesses facts and vocabulary sufficient to comprehend the context of the daily news.

— If you can understand scientific issues in magazines and newspapers (if you can tackle articles about genetic engineering or the ozone hole with the same ease that you would sports, politics, or the arts) then you are scientifically literate.

Admittedly, this definition of scientific literacy does not satisfy everyone. Some academics argue that science education should expose students to mathematical rigor and complex vocabulary. They want everyone to experience this taste of “real” science. But my colleagues and I feel strongly that those who insist that everyone must understand science at a deep level are confusing two important but separate aspects of scientific knowledge. As in many other endeavors, doing science is obviously distinct from using science; and scientific literacy concerns only the latter.

Surprisingly, intense study of a particular field of science does not necessarily make one scientifically literate. Indeed, I’m often amazed at the degree to which working scientists are often woefully uninformed in scientific fields outside their own field of professional expertise. I once asked a group of twenty-four Ph.D. physicists and geologists to explain the difference between DNA and RNA — perhaps the most basic idea in modern molecular biology. I found only three colleagues who could do so, and all three of those individuals did research in areas where this knowledge was useful. And I’d probably find the same sort of discouraging result if I asked biologists to explain the difference between a semiconductor and a superconductor. The education of professional scientists is often just as narrowly focused as the education of any other group of professionals, so scientists are just as likely to be ignorant of scientific matters outside their own specialty as anyone else.

Why is scientific literacy important?

Why should we care whether our citizens are scientifically literate? Why should you care about your own understanding of science? Three different arguments might convince you why it is important:

— from civics — from aesthetics — from intellectual coherence


The first argument from civics is the one I’ve used thus far. We’re all faced with public issues whose discussion requires some scientific background, and therefore we all should have some level of scientific literacy. Our democratic government, which supports science education, sponsors basic scientific research, manages natural resources, and protects the environment, can be thwarted by a scientifically illiterate citizenry. Without an informed electorate (not to mention a scientifically informed legislature) some of the most fundamental objectives of our nation may not be served.


The argument from aesthetics is less concrete, but is closely related to principles that are often made to support liberal education. According to this view, our world operates according to a few over-arching natural laws. Everything you do, everything you experience from the moment you wake up in the morning to the moment you go to bed at night, conforms to these laws of nature. Our scientific vision of the universe is exceedingly beautiful and elegant and it represents a crowning achievement of human civilization. You can share in the intellectual and aesthetic satisfaction to be gained from appreciating the unity between a boiling pot of water on a stove and the slow march of the continents, between the iridescent colors of a butterfly’s wing and the behavior of the fundamental constituents of matter. A scientifically illiterate person is effectively cut off from an immensely enriching part of life, just as surely as a person who cannot read.

Intellectual Coherence

Finally, we come to the third argument — the idea of intellectual coherence. Our society is inextricably tied to the discoveries of science — so much so that they often play a crucial role in setting the intellectual climate of an era. For example, the Copernican concept of the heliocentric universe played an important role in sweeping away the old thinking of the Middle Ages and ushering in the Age of Enlightenment. Similarly, Charles Darwin’s discovery of the mechanism of natural selection at once made understanding nature easier. And in this century the work of Freud and the development of quantum mechanics have made our natural world seem (at least superficially) less rational. In all of these cases, the general intellectual tenor of the times — what Germans call the Zeitgeist — was influenced by developments in science. How can anyone hope to appreciate the deep underlying threads of intellectual life in his or her own time without understanding the science that goes with it?

Full Article

Mechanisms of white matter changes induced by meditation.

Link: Mechanisms of white matter changes induced by meditation.


by Deric Bownds

Diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) is a noninvasive MRI-based technique that can delineate white matter fibers in vivo, measure white matter’s structural plasticity to demonstrate that training or learning alters brain white matter. Fractional anisotropy (FA) is an important index for measuring the integrity of white matter fibers. In general, a higher FA value has been related to improved performance, and reduced FA has been found in normal aging and in neurological or psychiatric disorders. 

Just to be a little more clear, DTI is used to image the diffusion of molecules, particularly water, in the brain. FA is a measure of how directional the diffusion is at any one point. Because diffusion is directed by cell membranes, this is very useful for understanding the structure of the brain.

Posner and collaborators now show more details about changes that occur with only 4 weeks of meditation training (One suspects these changes might reverse after cessation of meditation practice?):

Using diffusion tensor imaging, several recent studies have shown that training results in changes in white matter efficiency as measured by fractional anisotropy (FA). In our work, we found that a form of mindfulness meditation, integrative body–mind training (IBMT), improved FA in areas surrounding the anterior cingulate cortex after 4-wk training more than controls given relaxation training. Reductions in radial diffusivity (RD) have been interpreted as improved myelin but reductions in axial diffusivity (AD) involve other mechanisms, such as axonal density. We now report that after 4-wk training with IBMT, both RD and AD decrease accompanied by increased FA, indicating improved efficiency of white matter involves increased myelin as well as other axonal changes. However, 2-wk IBMT reduced AD, but not RD or FA, and improved moods. Our results demonstrate the time-course of white matter neuroplasticity in short-term meditation. This dynamic pattern of white matter change involving the anterior cingulate cortex, a part of the brain network related to self-regulation, could provide a means for intervention to improve or prevent mental disorders.

Here is their description of the integrative body-mind training (IBMT) used:

IBMT involves body relaxation, mental imagery, and mindfulness training, accompanied by selected music background. Cooperation between the body and the mind is emphasized in facilitating and achieving a meditative state. The trainees concentrated on achieving a balanced state of body and mind guided by an IBMT coach and the compact disk. The method stresses no effort to control thoughts, but instead a state of restful alertness that allows a high degree of awareness of body, mind, and external instructions (5, 16, 19). RT involves the relaxing of different muscle groups over the face, head, shoulders, arms, legs, chest, back, and abdomen, guided by a tutor and compact disk. With eyes closed and in a sequential pattern, one is forced to concentrate on the sensation of relaxation, such as the feelings of warmth and heaviness. This progressive training helps the participant achieve physical and mental relaxation and calmness.

Large increases in FA were primarily observed in the corpus callosum – the bundle of nerves connecting the two brain hemispheres – and surrounding areas (ACC). In other words, meditation seems to lead to increased communication between the two hemispheres.

Our neighborhood is so cool.


Daytime Lightning on Saturn Spotted by Cassini Spacecraft

A NASA spacecraft orbiting Saturn has captured an amazing view of lightning in broad daylight on the ringed planet.

The Cassini orbiter captured the daytime lightning on Saturn as bright blue spots inside a giant storm that raged on the planet last year. NASA unveiled the new Saturn lightning photos Wednesday (July 18), adding that the images came as a big surprise.

“We didn’t think we’d see lighting on Saturn’s day side —only its night side,” said Ulyana Dyudina, a Cassini imaging team associate at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, in a statement. “The fact that Cassini was able to detect the lightning means that it was very intense.”