The Very Spring and Root

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

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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…

Whither Science Fiction?

Science fiction, like so many aspects of the world right now, feels like it is on the cusp of a major shaking up. One year ago, Neil Stephenson provoked a flurry of discussion with his article on the decline of bold and innovative ideas in our contemporary society, and science fiction in particular. More recently, Jonathan McCalmont posted am extensive assessment of a the state of science fiction, provocatively entitled “Cowardice, Laziness, and Irony: How Science Fiction Lost the Future,” which has drawn fire for criticizing the science fiction publishing establishment and some of the most lauded authors in the genre.

I don’t agree with everything in either of those articles, but I do agree that science fiction is due for a makeover. What has been done was brilliant in its way — generations of writers and artists who dreamed of what we could be and warned us against what we could become. But so much has changed about our society and I don’t think that the media establishment, including traditional publishers, have changed with it. Innovation is ultimately driven by and for people, and who we are as a people no longer conforms to where the genre has been.

I am particularly interested in the perceived narrow appeal of science fiction. Why is the stereotype sci-fi geek a particular race, class, gender, and personality? Is it because the genre is inherently of interest only to this set of people? Or could it be that what gets published and awarded attracts only that set, who are the ones that rise up in the genre and in turn become the publishers and awarders?

Put more specifically, does the current portfolio of literary science fiction published in the United States actually reflect the current cultural, linguistic, socioeconomic, and gender demographics of literate Americans? I really don’t think so. So why is anyone surprised that the appeal of the tried and true seems to be waning?

The tide is changing however. New periodicals like Lightspeed Magazine for example are embracing new publishing models, going with solely electronic format and easy mobile web access from the very beginning. They also explicitly embrace diversity in their submissions:

We believe that the science fiction/fantasy genre’s diversity is its greatest strength, and we wish that viewpoint to be reflected in our story content and our submission queues; we welcome submissions from writers of every race, religion, nationality, gender, and sexual orientation.

In a similar vein, The Future Fire has been accepting submissions on an anthology call entitled We See a Different Frontier. They are more blunt about their purpose:

We See a Different Frontier will publish new speculative fiction stories in which the viewpoint is that of the colonized, not the invader. We want to see stories that remind us that neither readers nor writers are a homogeneous club of white, male, Christian, hetero, cis, monoglot, anglophone, able-bodied Westerners.

I don’t know where this is going nor am I sure that it will necessarily be better. But I seem to have discovered a love for writing fiction during a major shift in social attitudes, which has made me think about my experiences and personal perspective in interesting ways.

It’s definitely going to be a writing weekend…

Edit 10/13/12: Repaired the link to McCalmont’s article.

Um, Yes Actually, We Should Learn Hard Math

Andrew Hacker has written a mind-numbingly inane Op-Ed for the New York Times, entitled “Is Algebra Necessary?”, in which he opines:

A typical American school day finds some six million high school students and two million college freshmen struggling with algebra. In both high school and college, all too many students are expected to fail. Why do we subject American students to this ordeal? I’ve found myself moving toward the strong view that we shouldn’t.


Yes, young people should learn to read and write and do long division, whether they want to or not. But there is no reason to force them to grasp vectorial angles and discontinuous functions. Think of math as a huge boulder we make everyone pull, without assessing what all this pain achieves. So why require it, without alternatives or exceptions? Thus far I haven’t found a compelling answer.

Can I just highlight the absurdly self-centered fallacy of Hacker’s perspective? I would love to hear the logical contortions this “writer and social scientist” might present if I asked him why I should have been required to learn history, literature, government, and the arts if I was in school to be an engineer. I can think of no concrete argument (taking Hacker’s premises as the foundation) which could possibly justify why any of these subjects should be necessary for technical professions.

Maybe I missed something, but I thought the whole point of education was to expose us to new ideas and make us well-rounded citizens, prepared to critically analyze the information being presented to us, reflect on our role and potential in society, and be able choose among many paths later in life. Hacker seems to have a more short-term and utilitarian view of the purpose of schooling; one that I find blindly compartmentalizing and reductionist.

I’ve gotta hand it to him though — lowering your standards to the point where they are already met is a pretty effective method of removing things that are hard from your life.

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.


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

“Just” a Teacher

EdWeek recently ran an interesting article on the social status of teachers in this country vs abroad. The opening paragraphs of the article got me thinking right away:

One of the most troubling things that the 2010 National Teacher of the Year, Sarah Brown Wessling, hears about her profession can be summed up in a single observation: the idea that she and other top-performing colleagues are “just” teachers.

The word “just” serves as a reminder of a subtle mindset among some in the United States that a career in K-12 teaching, while considered noble, is nevertheless somehow seen as beneath the capacity of talented young men and women.

The response that I have received to my decision to change careers from research engineering to teaching has been mixed. Family and close friends have been overwhelmingly supportive, and I am grateful for that; I’m certainly going to need all the positive thoughts I can get. Even the colleagues here at NASA, the ones whom I will soon be leaving, have responded in large part with inspired encouragement. For example, even though I am not leaving for 4-5 more months, three coworkers have already stopped by with donations of references, materials, posters, and objects for my future science classroom.

However, NASA is itself a place full of intelligent, passionate, idealistic people, so perhaps one shouldn’t be surprised at this kind of a response from my coworkers. The general public response when the subject has been brought up is more along the lines of “Wow… that’s pretty cool. But that’s insane. Why would you do that?”

Certainly there are very practical reasons to not do what I did, but the underlying problem is an ugly one: why should it have to be such a sacrifice to teach? As much as people say they see individual teachers as noble and pursuing high calling, the same people seem on the whole opposed to putting through the reforms we need to address this.  Because simultaneously, these same people (us, we) are the voters, who are reluctant to raise salaries for a profession which as a collective is increasingly being perceived as bureaucratically bloated, ineffective, and even overpaid.

I don’t buy it. There may indeed be areas of mismanagement, wasteful bureaucracy, and antagonistic protectionism that need fixing, but on the whole I think JFK had it right:

Modern cynics and skeptics … see no harm in paying to those whom they entrust the minds of their children a smaller wage than is paid to those to whom they entrust the care of their plumbing.
— John F. Kennedy

It’s half a century later… and here we still are.

How do we make it so that a qualified engineer deciding to go into teaching isn’t a big deal, isn’t seen as something crazy, but is maybe even lauded as an achievement? I don’t think all of that has to do with money, though money certainly is a factor. There’s also the concept of professionalism, which implies a sense of individual discretion in the approach to the objective. There is independence from criticism arising from external entities. There is the perceived selectivity of entry. Addressing each of these will require a hard look at training, standards, personnel practices, and how the money gets spent. Only in conjunction with this can we credibly ask for the commitment to increase spending on education overall.

Beyond all this though, is a more fundamental issue: there must be a respect for the end result of the service being provided.

I shared the above article with Dr. Christian Gelzer, a historian and former professor of history. He is also someone I count as a valued confidante and mentor. I quote his response below, with permission:

If you denigrate a pursuit, as Americans have done for teaching for generations and generations, what more can one expect? I still point to Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life as a pivotal work on the subject because he traced a genuine animosity toward intellectual activity from the late Colonial period on. Even better, it won the Pulitzer that year, most ironic. Think of all those who “made it” without book learnin’ and you’ve got a list of American greats, including Andrew Carnegie, Steve Jobs, and Bill Gates, to list but three. Even Thomas Jefferson had a warm spot in his heart for people of the soil, far warmer than he ever had for those who created factories (stuff that took brains). This isn’t a recent problem in the US and it won’t be fixed in five lifetimes, I’ll wager. The culture simply does not, has not, and never will value the likes of JQ Adams or those who—and I think this is integral to the problem—would pursue a calling or career not because it gives the best income, but because it rewards the soul and contributes to the commonweal one is a part of in a nation. Those are downright impolitic things to say.

I was a teacher, albeit at a different level, and I was forever frustrated by the abject indifference my former profession held for teaching—indeed, I was warned many times not to say that I liked teaching when I went on a job interview. I was never taught how to teach, doubtlessly because my mentors could not have cared less about the act, and because they probably assumed we’d all pick up what little we needed to get by by stumbling through it the first time. I enjoyed teaching, I relished trying to figure out how to get students to understand why we keep harping on the Romans so many centuries later, or why looking for the ones who make the decisions about things can be really rewarding, even when the culprits (I say that fondly) had the peculiarities of Nikola Tesla. You could no sooner make someone a teacher in 6 weeks than you could make a carrier-qualified F-18 navy pilot in 6 weeks, and anyone who says so or thinks so is as dumb as a bag of hammers. But will we as a nation, as a people ever come around to the idea of having our children aching for the chance to become a teacher?

I have to agree in large part with Christian’s sentiments. A culture that has devolved to, for example, demand that a candidate for office mask, or even apologize for, the fact that he or she is an educated intellectual is not a culture which will be sustainable as a democracy. Yet this this happens all the time today. See if you can count how often President Obama has been characterized as an “out-of-touch liberal elitist” for his “condescending and professorial” manner. Sure, he is remarkably well-educated; but regardless of one’s politics it says something when demagogues can successfully apply those labels to him despite the fact that he grew up well outside of the elite class in a single-parent home, slept on the street in an alleyway the first night he moved to Harlem, and was working as a community organizer in the south-side projects of Chicago.

How do we turn around that culture? Is it even possible to associate status with knowledge in a country in which some educators make as little as $20,000 or so per year and our celebrities and athletes make hundreds of millions? Not that those figures need to be reversed, but the the distance between those extremes should at least be… well, less extreme.

The money issue and the rigor issue are controversial subjects full of heated debate today. What is sobering is that they seem to be only the surface expression of a much deeper problem. And I have no idea what to do about that.  All I know is I’m going to try and be the best educator I can be, and hopefully the path forward will become clearer as I go.