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October 2009

Teaching science to K-8 students

The September/October 2009 issue of Scientific American Mind has an article on how "recent studies from neuroscience and psychology suggest ways to improve science education in the U.S." ("A new vision for teaching science," by J. Randy McGinnis and Deborah Roberts-Harris) The authors quote the results of the 2006 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), which found that "the average science score of U.S. 15-year-olds dropped below that of teens in 28 out of 57 participating countries." (This Excel file from the OECD website contains much more information on the results, for those of you who are interested.)

The authors summarize the findings of two recent reports, "Taking science to school" and "Ready, Set, Science!", which advocate an absolute (rather than relative to other countries) level of science proficiency based on the following four targets:

  1. "students must be able to know, use and interpret scientific explanations of the natural world,"
  2. "they must be able to generate and evaluate scientific evidence and explanations,"
  3. "they must be able to understand the nature and development of scientific knowledge,"
  4. "they must be able to participate meaningfully in scientific activities and discourse."

Two points the authors make particularly resonated with me:

  • Science is currently packaged to students as "a collection of unproblematic facts", leading students to believe that "most knowledge results from direct observation." This gives them a distorted image of what scientists do and deprives them of the excitement of discovering knowledge.
  • "[T]he most successful route to mastery in any subject follows a spiral path, in which students regularly revisit and refine their conceptual underpinnings [of a topic across grade levels]." This has been called a "spiral curriculum" in the education literature and builds upon the fact that "students master an idea more readily when they have some foundation of knowledge to build on."

According to the authors, even young children can develop abstract thinking skills in an age-appropriate fashion; it was previously believed, because of a 1958 (that is, five decades old!) study, that "no form of instruction could hasten the onset - typically at age 12 - of logical thinking." This led to the current focus on memorization, rather than understanding, for elementary and middle school students. But new studies show that this development really depends on "a child's prior learning experiences."

The article is full of valuable information, including: comments on the weaknesses of the U.S. science curriculum ("the [U.S.] curricula lay out too many discrete pieces of knowledge, with no hierarchy or meaningful sequencing [...] countries that teach fewer topics overall produce higher scores" in the PISA study), an example of how the reports' recommendations can be incorporated into a fifth-grade science class, and potential issues that could slow down the adoption of these groundbreaking ideas.


On reading workshops

The New York Times ran an article in late August about a new trend in education: letting middle school students decide which books they want to read in class ("A new assignment: pick books you like", August 29, 2009, by Motoko Rich). The students do not choose books for the whole group; instead, they select the book they are going to read on their own and discuss it with their teacher. This approach is known as "reading workshop", and predictably generates a wide range of book selections (from young-adult chick-lit to "The Bluest eye" by Nobel-Prize winner Toni Morrison), as well as heated discussions among educators about the dumbing down of reading, in a futile attempt to make it more enjoyable for students who simply do not care.

Opponents say that the tradition of reading a novel as a class "builds a shared literary culture among students, exposes all readers to works of quality and complexity and is the best way to prepare students for standardized tests"; of those three arguments, I found the second one most convincing. (According to the NYT, students' choices in the reading workshop included "James Patterson's adrenaline-fueled “Maximum Ride” books, plenty of young-adult chick-lit novels and even the “Captain Underpants” series of comic-book-style novels.") Proponents of the reading workshop argue that "[l]etting students choose their own books, they say, can help to build a lifelong love of reading." (To which one wants to retort that a lifelong love of reading People is not necessarily better than not reading at all. Thankfully, the rest of the article did an excellent job convincing me that the approach has merit, when students are offered a limited amount of choice in their book selection and the teacher still nudges them toward high-quality works. More on that below.)

While I find myself opposed to students reading comic-book-style novels in English class, I do not care for "the classics". I was never forced to read the American classics, since I only arrived in this country for graduate school, and I've never particularly missed not reading Moby Dick. (Here is what I've picked up about the book from my extensive other readings: (1) it has a famous opening line, "Call me Ishmael", (2) the narrator, Ishmael, is a sailor on Captain Ahab's ship, (3) Captain Ahab is obsessed with finding a whale called Moby Dick, (4) the book is lengthy and full of digressions. Now, do I really need to know more than that?)

In my case, I had to read the French classics, by Balzac, Zola, Hugo, and other luminaries who have left their mark on French literature. I don't remember whether I enjoyed reading them or not, mostly because I was already reading so many books outside school that I didn't pay much attention to what I had to do for French class; fifteen years later, I read almost exclusively nonfiction books written by contemporary authors, and it is hard to tell whether the French classics I was forced to read as a fifteen-year-old have had a measurable influence on my considerable reading in the English language.

I read very little fiction, and I believe high schools should consider a broader range of reading materials, such as inspiring biographies and even articles from the best newspapers and magazines, to help students develop an interest in reading. I am not sure whether English courses would be an appropriate venue for that, but the best biographies have plenty of excellent writing and could provide a wonderful way for teachers to show students how to analyze the facts, ask pertinent questions and not take everything at face value.

But after its somewhat extreme example of reading workshop, the NYT journalist moves on to a more convincing illustration of the approach, in the classroom of the founding director of the Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University. Students and teacher "gave short talks recommending books"; "[d]espite the student freedom, [the teacher] constantly fed suggestions to the children. She was strict about not letting them read what she considered junk. [...] But she acknowledged that certain children needed to be nudged into books by allowing them to read popular titles". Some research studies indicate that "giving children limited choices from a classroom collection of books on a topic helped improve performance on standardized reading comprehension tests."

Then the journalist returns to the teacher introduced at the beginning of the article, showing her in her reading workshop and giving us more details about her work, and we start sharing the woman's enthusiasm for a new approach that could engage her students more deeply and make them lifelong readers. (That woman was so dedicated that she "spent about $1,000 of her own money buying books.") The first few paragraphs of the article brushed over the teacher's efforts, making it easy to dismiss her method as absurd and move on to another news item; by the third page, though, I found myself rooting for her and delighted to read that "[o]f her 18 eighth graders, 15 exceeded requirements, scoring in the highest bracket. When the same students had been in her seventh-gradeclass, only 4 had reached that level." I hope most NYT readers will have stuck with the article to the end, to see what a wonderful, dedicated educator that woman is, and how much potential lies in reading workshops.


Shutting Off Opportunities

Paul Krugman has an insightful op-ed in the October 8 issue of the New York Times, entitled "The Uneducated American." He argues that America's economic success is linked to the quality of its educational system; the funding of public education, however, has suffered from "the view that any and all government spending is a waste of taxpayer dollars."

I did not know that "these days young Americans are considerably less likely than young people in many other countries to graduate from college," but a 2007 article from Inside Higher Ed provides many statistics to support that claim, including: "Although the United States ranks among the top 5 countries in the proportion of young people who enroll in college, it ranks 16th in the proportion who finish college." In 2001, the New York Times wrote: "For the first time, the United States' college graduation rate, now at 33 percent, is not the world's highest. Finland, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Britain have surpassed it." (As an aside, that article starts as follows: "Teachers in the United States earn less relative to national income than their counterparts in many industrialized countries, yet they spend far more hours in front of the classroom, according to a major new international study." But I digress.)

Also, 29,000 of the 273,000 jobs lost last month were in state and local education, "bringing the total losses in that category over the past five months to 143,000." This is surprising because education is usually viewed as a safe sector during recessions, on the grounds that children always need to be educated. Krugman points out that "education is mainly the responsibility of state and local governments, which are in dire fiscal straits. [...] As a result, education is on the chopping block." This has had dire consequences for college students from families with limited means, who can't afford to pay thousands of dollars in tuition fees for four years, and sometimes spend two years at community colleges before transferring into a public school for their junior year. (See this October 2009 article in The Chronicle of Higher Education.) More than most, those students rely on education to give them a better future, and are deprived of this opportunity by the current budget crisis.

In related news, BusinessWeek ran an article earlier this month about how the economic crisis is affecting young people's career prospects. It echoes many of the themes we have heard throughout the summer; see these two old posts of mine for more details: Post 1, Post 2. About Post 2 - I wonder how some of the graduates who turned down offers because they believed a better job would come along are faring now. Companies are definitely hiring college students; the first-round interviews at Lehigh are in full swing and some second-round interviews are already taking place. But entry-level hiring is a highly choreographed enterprise, where students submit their resume through the school's career portal and first-round interviews happen on campus. It is not clear whether last year's unemployed graduates looking to fill one of these positions can attract the attention of the human resources departments through any other channel. Hopefully universities, some of which have garnered praise for their efforts to help jobless alumni, let them return to campus for the career fairs and give them access to the same resources they would have if they had stayed in college for a fifth year.

BusinessWeek concludes: "The unemployment crisis among the young is not as dramatic as the financial crisis of a year ago. But it may turn out to have longer-lasting effects."


It's the smart people's fault, stupid!

I read the op-ed "Wall Street Smarts" in the New York Times this morning, where Calvin Trillin recalls a conversation he recently had at a bar with a gentleman who offered to give him the reason "why the financial system nearly collapsed in the fall of 2008." The reason can be stated as follows: "The financial system nearly collapsed because smart guys had started working on Wall Street."

The stranger observed that "income [among attendees of his 25th college reunion] was now precisely in inverse proportion to academic standing in the class" - in part because A+ students tend to go to graduate school and earn, as judges or professors, much less than the average Wall Street employee. (There is a case to be made about enjoying intellectual pursuits and the feeling of contributing to society instead of purely monetary rewards, but Trillin has a point.)

Trillin then provides some reasons as to why smart people started working on Wall Street, as explained to him by this anonymous bar patron. I particularly liked the following quote: "When the smart guys started this business of securitizing things that didn’t even exist in the first place, who was running the firms they worked for? Our guys! The lower third of the class! Guys who didn’t have the foggiest notion of what a credit default swap was. All our guys knew was that they were getting disgustingly rich[.]"

This echoes Felix Salmon's conclusions in his Wired article, "Recipe for disaster: The formula that killed Wall Street," about which I wrote here. While Salmon did not comment on the academic prowess, or lack thereof, of the quants' managers, he did write: "[T]he managers empowered to apply the brakes didn't understand the arguments between various arms of the quant universe. Besides, they were making too much money to stop."

As an academic, I did appreciate the point that the stranger in Trillin's column makes about top students focusing on lesser-paid intellectual endeavors. Most professors like to encourage their star undergraduates to give graduate school a try, although of course, as people who have trodden down the academic path and presumably found satisfaction in that career choice (otherwise we would no longer be there), we might not be the most objective advice-givers.

At the same time, I do feel that super-star students are more at risk of disillusionment than most when they enter the workforce, in part because they have to work with, and sometimes work for, people who are not as "on top of things" as they are. Of course, I have had many outstanding students thrive in industry too (Lehigh students are famously well-rounded), so the situation is a lot more nuanced than "average students can face the real world but top ones can't," but the lack of interference from higher-ups does play a role in the appeal of academia, and maybe of judgeships too. There is certainly a financial price to pay for this greater freedom. I like to think, though, that the greater freedom (flexibility in work hours, autonomy in research topics, choice of research assistants), and of course the feeling of contributing to the greater good, are rewards big enough.

In any case, Trillin's column is wonderfully written and I encourage everyone to read it.

E-learning in high schools: the BLOSSOMS project

(Today's post is a re-run of a post I wrote as a blogger for the INFORMS annual meeting in San Diego.)

I attended the semi-plenary by MIT’s Richard Larson this (Sunday) afternoon, on an initiative, called BLOSSOMS, that he recently started with other educators using funding provided by the Hewlett-Packard Foundation and the Sloan Foundation. BLOSSOMS stands for Blended Learning Science or Math Studies and is spearheaded by MIT LINC (Learning International Networks Consortium).

The idea behind BLOSSOMS is to develop videos about science topics that high school teachers show in the classroom. A key aspect of the videos is that they are cut into well-defined parts (the screen fades to black between segments) to allow teachers to discuss the ideas presented in the footage with their students, before starting the video again. Larson explained that he (and the other people involved with the project) views the videos as “teaching duets” between the educator who is shown on the screen – professor or graduate student – and the teacher & his or her students in the classroom.

I particularly liked Larson’s point that some high school teachers dislike any environment that takes students out of the classroom and in front of a computer for one-on-one interactions. They do not want to be bypassed, for understandable reasons. So while BLOSSOMS’s videos can be downloaded from the Internet, they are also available on CD-ROMs and videotapes. The “teaching duets” are designed to create a high level of engagement in the classroom and keep the teacher in control.

Another interesting aspect of the project is that educators in partner countries – especially Jordan and Pakistan – have also contributed their share of videos. This is important because members of developing countries wanted to take an integral part in creating this online repository, and not just receive videos from the US telling them how to teach this or that subject, no matter how good the videos are. Jordan and Pakistan have some excellent professors too, who have thus been busy creating videos for high school audiences.

Larson treated us to a video showing his former graduate student, Karima Nigmatulina PhD’09, introducing graph theory to an intended high school audience through the famous problems of the seven bridges of Königsberg and the Chinese Postman Problem. It is important to note that the videos are not only aimed at schoolchildren in far-away countries, but also at high school students in the US. Because the Ministries of Education, both in Jordan and Pakistan, have been highly supportive of the project, it has been easier to spread the word about BLOSSOMS there than in the US, where education is not as centralized and curricula are determined at a state level. To quote this afternoon’s slides, the overarching goal is to “give every young person a quality education regardless of his or her place of birth.”

The videos also include teachers’ guides, which explain the activities recommended in the videos in more details; in addition, transcripts are available on the BLOSSOMS website. (I believe that some of the videos, possibly all, are also translated in Arabic.) As a next step, Larson plans to move the site to a Web 2.0 version where viewers would be able to comment on the videos and rate them, to better showcase the videos that are judged outstanding by users. But what he would particularly like is for other INFORMS members to create operations research modules for BLOSSOMS – operations research is a great way to get teenagers interested about math using practical problems. Of course, INFORMS members would not be left to their own devices. For more information in contributing a video, please click here and here.


Pittsburgh's revival

The Economist has a very positive article about Pittsburgh's transition from steel town on the decline to vibrant city of the twenty-first century in its September 17th edition. While the article was written as background to the G20 summit (which took place in Pittsburgh around the same time), it is not the first time the magazine has good things to say about the second largest city in Pennsylvania - see for instance this article from September 2006.

Some excerpts from the 2006 article: "Many of the graduates from Pittsburgh's 34 universities—led by Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh—do stick around, and some of them are finding work in cutting-edge scientific fields." The article also refers to "a pleasant and affordable region with an improving mix of industries and enviable demographics." The 2009 article stresses the importance of health care and education in Pittsburgh's revival. ("Now the University of Pittsburgh Medical Centre (UPMC), an $8 billion health-care conglomerate, is western Pennsylvania’s biggest employer, with 50,000 people.") The rest of the article contains many other valuable statistics and emphasizes entrepreneurship and innovation.

Pittsburgh's rebirth is recognized not only by The Economist but also by Forbes ("Forbes magazine recently named Pittsburgh as one of America’s best cities for job growth.") and EIU, a sister company of The Economist, "which ranked it the most liveable city in America." Since Philadelphia is somewhat overshadowed by New York City (only two hours away by train and a magnet for young graduates in the area), the Pittsburgh success story may emerge as Pennsylvania's greatest source of pride.


Today in History, From the Engineering Pathway

Here are links to recent posts from the "Today in [Engineering] History" blog that I have particularly enjoyed:

I absolutely love the "How Everyday Things Are Made" website hosted by Stanford's Innovative Alliance for Manufacturing, which has a lot of informative videos and was featured in the "National Manufacturing Week" post by Alice Agogino. Make sure you watch the video on how jelly beans are made.

Also, since Google bothered to change its regular image to a barcode today because the barcode was patented 57 years ago (October 7, 1952), I'll mention that I wrote a post a while back about the scanning of the first barcode in June 1974 for the Engineering Pathway, post that was updated today in honor of the event. Thanks to Alice for pointing it out. A blog post in the Christian Science Monitor mentions the lesser-known fact that the barcode patented in 1952 consisted of a series of concentric circles. To see for yourself how ugly that looked, click here.


More on Quant Models

In an article published mid-September, the New York Times investigates some of the mathematical models at the center of the financial crisis. An issue, according to the article, is that they insufficiently took into account "human behavior, specifically the potential for widespread panic." The journalist emphasizes that "model[ing] the mechanics of panic and the patterns of human behavior" will become a new avenue of research and quotes a professor of finance at New York University about liquidity risk.

The issue of incorporating human behavior into finance is currently investigated by a team of researchers at Cornell including Jon Kleinberg, who hopes "to take this understanding of contagion and use it as a perspective on how rapid changes of behavior can spread through complex networks at work in financial markets."

In contrast, Andrew Lo from MIT "focuses on applying insights from disciplines, including evolutionary biology and cognitive neuroscience, to create a new perspective on how financial markets work." You can learn more about his adaptive-market hypothesis in this Wikipedia page or, in a lot more depth, in this research paper.

A professor at the Santa Fe institute investigates instead "models of markets, institutions and their complex interactions, applying a hybrid discipline called econophysics." The idea behind econophysics, as explained on this Wikipedia page, is to combine models and methods originally developed by physicists to solve dynamics problems, in particular under uncertainty.

Another interesting fact in the article is that it mentions MIT finally started a master's in finance this Fall. I am not sure what took them so long.


The Economist's New Columns

The Economist started two new columns in recent months: Banyan, about Asia, in April, and Schumpeter, about business, last month. This is in addition to Lexington about the US, Charlemagne about Europe, Bagehot about Britain, Buttonwood about finance, as well as the Economics focus column, also in the finance section, which will hopefully receive a more inspired name in the not-so-distant future, and business.view, only available online.

Not every section has a column: The Americas, Middle East and Africa, International, Books and Arts, and Science and Technology make do without one. (These sections are typically a bit shorter than their counterparts with columns, except for the Britain section.) I believe that The Economist should have a column about science, engineering and technology. This would be the perfect way to start a conversation about science and engineering, and promote scientific literacy.

Technology plays an increasing role in today's world and affects everyone, sometimes in an indirect, unexpected manner - a fact emphasized in the fictitious case study of Harvard Business Review's October issue, where hackers find their way into a hospital database and ask for a ransom in exchange for patients' electronic medical records. People cannot question, say, the safeguards in place regarding their own data as patients if they do not know which questions to ask.

With respect to science and engineering, the issue of food-borne illnesses, for instance due to E.coli contamination, which is described in this recent article in the New York Times (you might never eat a hamburger again), or the research topics investigated by Technology Review's "35 Innovators under 35" would make great starting points for columns. People who are neither scientists nor engineers rarely discuss these matters, but benefit from research advances - and are affected by epidemy outbreaks or security breaches - all the same. The Economist has never shied away from presenting complex, technical topics in its finance section; it is time it took the same approach to science and engineering. I even thought of a name for the column - Da Vinci. Of course. Who else?