The Very Spring and Root

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

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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.



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.



Science is not just for crazy geeks with high-tech, multi-million dollar equipment. With a little thought and a few simple experiments, we can all come to a much deeper understanding of the physical world around us.

Adam Savage walks through two spectacular examples of profound scientific discoveries that came from simple, creative methods anyone could have followed — Eratosthenes’ calculation of the Earth’s circumference around 200 BC and Hippolyte Fizeau’s measurement of the speed of light in 1849.

“How Simple Ideas Lead to Scientific Discoveries” was animated by the TED-Ed Animation Team (Jeremiah Dickey, Biljana Labovic, Celeste Lai, Kari Mulholland and Franz Palomares)



BTR Announces Host Schools

BTR has posted the schools with which Cohort X will be working this next year. Looks like since I’m on a high school physics track, I will be at either Burke High School in Dorchester (where I had my final interviews on Selection Day) or Boston Community Leadership Academy in Hyde Park (now in Brighton, but moving).

Some quick stats from the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Burke High School (public high school):

  • Minority: 92.6%
  • First language not English: 38.7%
  • Limited English proficiency: 25.1%
  • Low-Income: 75.9%
  • Special Education: 20.4%

Boston Community Leadership Academy (pilot high school):

  • Minority: 98.9%
  • First language not English: 53.7%
  • Limited English proficiency: 26.8%
  • Low-Income: 84.8%
  • Special Education: 14.6%

Nervous of the challenge but excited to face it. Burke for example: 0% pass rate for the just 10 students who attempted the AP Physics (Mechanics) exam. Overall only 7% are testing at “proficient” or higher in science by Grade 10. Looks like there’s work to do… saddle up.




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