The Very Spring and Root

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

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October 2012

Ozzie Osmium

I just keep coming up with occasions to use this wig. Originally it was for an 80’s party. Then it was perfect for pulling a stunt in Newport Beach at which I strutted into a fancy Italian restaurant by the ocean with an entourage of groupies after visibly getting off a private yacht, wearing this wig and talking like I was on tour in the ‘States. We got seats at the piano. The third occasion involved tequila, AC/DC, and accidentally getting dragged to a sorority cocktail mixer (and I offer no further details).

Now, finally, a legitimate academic purpose.  Apparently, every year for Halloween, the science department at my residency school dresses up as elements from the periodic table. Naturally, I saw an opportunity to claim a new role for this adventure-inducing collection of fake hair.

So today I was Osmium…. the heaviest metal. Rock on.

(As an aside, we did resolve the objection that, although Iridium is a metal with a higher atomic mass, very rarely do we find a single atom of a substance. The solid structure of pure Osmium is much denser than that of Iridium, hence making Osmium the heaviest metal as it would be found or used.)

Oh yeah, and the pink was to cap off breast cancer awareness month. The students and staff raised a lot of money for the cause, thanks to the independent initiative of one of my students. Good stuff.


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.

PHOTO: Despite Sandy, Soldiers Stand Guard At Tomb Of The Unknown Soldier : The Two-Way : NPR

This is a profoundly inspirational example of dedication to duty. If they can maintain the tomb sentinel through a hurricane, I can certainly make it through the teaching disillusionment months of October and November.

PHOTO: Despite Sandy, Soldiers Stand Guard At Tomb Of The Unknown Soldier : The Two-Way : NPR.

Creative Engineering

“We believe that technology plus creativity equals art and innovation.”

– Adam Sadowsky.

Neat talk by Sadowsky at Google ZeitGeist on some of the crazily creative engineering projects that they have put together recently. Who says science and engineering folks don’t have an artistic side?

And I actually have an indirect connection to the work these guys do… A few of my former colleagues at NASA Dryden competed as Team Aerospace on the show Unchained Reactions: Fire and Ice. I was actually originally on the team as well, but couldn’t make the filming dates due to the fact that a play I was acting in was opening that weekend!

Anyway, their innovative ideas got noticed by others, and they’ve been working with Brett Doar (the guy doing the demonstration at the end of this video) on some upcoming big-budget ads (which they can’t tell us about yet).

Ain’t No Party Like a Teacher Party

Tantalizing hints that Akil might be at the party, or at least showing up to it soon.

Last weekend, one of my BTR colleagues hosted a Halloween party. Yup. Ain’t no party like a teacher party, especially when nerdy costumes are the order of the day. Naturally, my co-resident Akil and I had to come up with geeky ways to represent Physics. When it turned out that he wasn’t going to be able to make the party after all, we hit upon the perfect costume for him.

Before the party, we were both very vague about whether or not Akil would be showing up at all. We made contradictory statements, and framed the question in terms of theoretical possibilities (note: this does not improve one’s social standing). Then, on the night of the party, I showed up with a pad of post-it notes and started posting cryptic messages all around the party, such as:

“Akil was probably here.”

“We are almost certain that Akil exists.”

“The effect of Akil’s presence is evident in the behavior of the cohort but he has not yet been observed at a social function.”

“If Akil doesn’t exist, we don’t know what to do.”

“This social interaction only makes sense if we assume Akil started it.”

…and so forth. Of course, Akil never actually shows up to the party (as per usual). Give up? He’s the Higg’s Boson! Bwaaaahahahaha….

Maxwell’s Demon shirt. A little too abstractly nerdy in retrospect.

Yes, I know, very clever, thank you.

Mine was much less easily explicable, and hence not as big of a hit. It also didn’t help that I threw it together in about an hour. I walked down to Goodwill and found a plain white tshirt, snagged some markers and a pair of devil’s ears from CVS, and put together a poor man’s Maxwell’s Demon costume. It even included two “pockets” of energy. Ha. Haha. Hahaha.

Anyway, bonus points for still remembering the Boltzmann Entropy Equation and the Boltzmann Distribution Equation (on the back of the shirt), right?

Ah, nerding out.

It’s Snowing on Venus: Students as Sense-Makers

Oh yeah, almost forgot to post it here. My latest blog post for BTR was posted about a week ago: It’s Snowing on Venus: Students as Sense-Makers.

Here’s a teaser:

As I enter deeper into the “disillusionment” phase of the new teacher cycle, I’m certain that there will be times in which I doubt myself and the systems in which I find myself. But it’s moments like these, in which students show that they are brilliantly capable of making sense of science on their own terms, that provide the islands of inspiration that I know will keep me going.

It’s an outbrief of sorts from one of the clinical interviews that I am conducting with specific case study students throughout the year.

Lesson Plan: Introduction to Newton’s Second Law of Motion

[7 min] Do Now

Review from 1st Law, introduce 2nd Law:

In which of these cases do we have balanced forces? Explain why.

  • A cat is moving with constant velocity towards his date.
  • A car is moving with constant acceleration to pick up more physics homework.
  • A cow is at rest, taking a nap.
  • An apple is hanging from a tree.

Share out and discuss. Bridge the transition between Newton’s First Law and the idea of net force into Newton’s Second Law.

[1 min] Making Clear the Objective

Objective: You will derive the relationship between force and acceleration from simulated experimental data.
Criteria for Success: Graphs of data will show proof of Newton’s 2nd Law of Motion.

[12 min] Simulation: Newton’s Second Law

We will be using the simulation of Newton’s 2nd Law located at:

Set: show horizontal force, show total force.
Turn friction off.
Turn on graphs for acceleration and velocity.

Use students to run simulation and call out the data for their classmates to record.

We will be using a simulation. For each trial, record the following:

  • mass of the object
  • force applied to the object
  • acceleration of the object

Run the simulation for the dog (25 kg) with three forces: 50 N, 100 N, 200 N. Ask the students to make a prediction before the last one. Make sure to reset the simulation and graphs before each trial.

Run the simulation  for the textbook (10 kg) with the same three forces.


[15 min] Graphing the Data

Turn and Talk:
What was the independent variable and why?
What was the dependent variable and why?
What was the main control variable and why?

What do we put on the y-axis? What do we put on the x-axis?
The independent variable of our experiment always goes on the x-axis (Force). The dependent variable of our experiment always goes on the y-axis (Acceleration).

Work with your partner:
Draw 2 graphs. Don’t forget units and labels!

  • Acceleration vs force variable for the dog
  • Acceleration vs force variable for textbook


[15 min] Analyzing the Data

We seem to have found a correlation between two variables, force and acceleration. Let’s see if we can define a relationship between them.

Find the slope of each graph and write it next to the plot.
Find the inverse of the slope for each graph and write it next to the plot.

Do we see any patterns? Does the slope look like a variable we recognize? How would I write the equation of this line?

a = 1/m F   →   F = m a

[2 min] Summarize Findings

Newton’s 2nd Law of Motion:
The acceleration of an object is directly proportional to the net force acting on the object. The acceleration will be in the same direction as the net force. The acceleration is resisted by the mass of the object.

F = m a

Estimated Instructional Time: 52 min


[6 min] Exit Ticket

The catapult on an aircraft carrier can can accelerate a fighter jet from rest to 56 m/s in just 2.8 s. If the fighter jet has a mass of 13,000 kg, what is the force required?

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”

Review of “Anathem” by Neal Stephenson

AnathemAnathem by Neal Stephenson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In terms of interest, the plot is little better than decent. Also, the characters are fairly flat. Why five stars you may ask? Sheer force of ideas — in quantity and quality. Anathem exemplifies one of my favorite roles of science fiction as a genre: to play with the possible and to spur highly intelligent imagination.

This is a difficult book to review without spoilers, and I’m not going to even try. However, Though knowledge thereof is not necessary to understanding the book, I can recommend Anathem highly if you enjoy any of the following subjects: mathematics (particularly geometry and topology), quantum physics (particularly the many-worlds / world-branching hypotheses), Latin, the structure of religious orders, hierarchies of thought, philosophy, metaphysics, the sociology of religion, cycles in history, individual spirituality, and/or political intrigue.

I think it is destined to enter the canon of Great Science Fiction Novels That Any Self-Respecting Fan Should Have At Least Read.

View all my reviews

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.