Saturday, May 28, 2011

This is a good teacher

Being a teacher wasn't something I've always wanted to do. As a kid, I went through the regular career choices of fireman, baseball player, astronaut, and the like. When I entered high school, I was thinking more along the lines of some kind of scientist. So I loaded myself up on science courses graduating with 5 and a half science credits.

But in that time, two of my science teachers planted the seed of teaching in my mind simply due to their passion of sharing the universe. One was my astronomy teacher, Brian Yates, who moved to another school shortly after I graduated. The biggest influence, however, was my physics and advanced physics teacher, Phillip Wojak.

Like most students, I have fond memories of his classes and his humor. When creating problems involving objects from platforms with initial upwards velocities, he generally drew it being dropped from a hot air balloon into an ocean in which he always sketched a triangle in the water. He would then ask what the triangle was. Initially we assumed it was a shark fin to which he'd reply, "No. It's a drowned witch." I still have all of my notes from his class, sketches included.

Mr. Wojak was a long time teacher at my high school and has been there 44 years, long enough that he had taught Mr. Yates when he'd attended that school and it showed. But at long last, Mr. Wojak is retiring, at least partially.

Still living in the area, I've seen him occasionally when I went back to the school to visit as well as around town, at the grocery and the like. I've let him know just how much he's inspired me, but his outstanding performance is one that cannot go understated.

Mr. Wojak is still, far and above, the most influential teacher I've ever had.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Backhanded Help

I don't know how many people haven't yet heard about Damon Fowler's case yet. The short version of it is that a school was sponsoring prayers during graduation ceremonies. A student at the school, Damon, pointed out this was illegal and promised to contact the ACLU should the school continue.

The school, not being completely stupid, backed down and removed the prayer, but this caused public outrage. Community members started meeting at the local church to figure out how to worm prayer back into the ceremony, teachers publicly slandered him, and Damon started receiving death threats.

At the "class night", apparently a dress rehearsal for the graduation ceremony with senior awards mixed in, the school had its "moment of silence" which was anything but silent as the school allowed a student "leading" the moment of silence to lead the audience, instead, in prayer. Then, at the graduation itself, she did the same thing.

In the meantime, Damon's parents have promised to no longer help him pay for college and have apparently abandoned him, throwing his stuff on the lawn and then leaving for an unplanned "vacation".

Fortunately, the atheist community has done a fantastic job of coming together to support him. Currently, he's received nearly $10,000 in donations for a college fund.

To be fair, it's not only the atheist community that's decried the actions of those antagonizing Damon for enforcing Constitutional law. Many Christians have condemned them as well.

Well, kinda....

Here's a perfect example. In this article, a pastor chastises Christians who behave like so, but in doing so, says the following:
The power of evil through Satan is largely at work to hinder the love of Jesus in this world.
Translation: Don't be a jerk, but this kid is Satan.

Big help there.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Math Anxiety

According to this article a recent study has shown that math anxiety is a very real phenomenon with measurable physiological reactions.

Duh.

However, the article goes on to prescribe the cure: "focus on the process of learning math instead of simply trying to get students to churn out the right answer... A classroom culture where students aren't afraid to fail and are encouraged to learn by talking through wrong answers is optimal."

As someone that's actually in the classroom, these sorts of answers just piss me off. It's not that there isn't a lot to be gained when students are willing to fiddle with an equation for a bit, or look over incorrect answers to learn to spot mistakes and learn from them. There absolutely is.

The problem comes in that students aren't willing to. All too often, students feel they've spent far too much time on a problem already, and having to look it over a second time is asking far too much. They're done. Time to move on. I've always offered students the option to take their homework, identify mistakes, correct them, and resubmit it for a good portion of the lost credit back. But even with this generous incentive, student's don't participate.

As far as process based learning, this too is a fantastic idea... but again overlooks the reality of the situation. Memorizing a set of steps to solve a quadratic equation by completing the square isn't nearly as good as teaching a student why completing the square works and having them work out the process behind the steps. But the reality is that this is a far deeper level of learning. Memorization of a few steps is the foundational level of Bloom's Taxonomy. Applying them is only the third. But a full understanding such that a student could fully understand the methodology is near the very top. And unsurprisingly, that deeper learning takes more explaining, more examples, and more time, which is often at a premium in the classroom.

And even if I had that time, students again, don't want it. It doesn't feel solid enough for them. As a recent example, I concentrated heavily on the concepts of solving quadratic equations in my algebra II class. Explaining, the zero product property with factoring, and why when you complete the square, you need to take half of the coefficient on the linear term and square it, going through the derivation of the quadratic formula. The steps were, of course, all there, but it got so lost with all the rest, the student failed the test with a 40%.

I let her have another week to study and again, concentrated, initially heavily on the theory behind the machinations, but again, she made it clear she was utterly confused. So on the last day, I had her write out a list of the steps for each method, use them as a guide on a few practice problems, and suddenly, she was immensely confident. On her retake she scored a 96%.

So what's the lesson here? Distilling math into rote memorization of simple processes lead to significantly decreased anxiety and subsequently, higher test scores. Of course, I fully realize that if tested on these methods in a year, this knowledge will be nearly completely gone. It's not an ideal situation, but given the alternative, frustration and failure, I'll take the battles I can win and hope that even if the process isn't fully remembered, it's easier to learn a second time around and crystallization comes then when the knowledge and experience base has been expanded.

It's not the best solution, but it's reality.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Go Out and Discover

Today's Astronomy Picture of the Day is M 104, the Sombrero Galaxy. It's quite striking because of its nearly edge on profile and the prominent dust lane. You can click on the picture and blow it up. Which is cool because there's a lot more to see when you do.

In particular, even before enlarging the image, I noticed a really neat pair of galaxies. These two stand out to me because they're spiral galaxies that appear to be interacting. But what's really interesting is just how similar the two appear to be. They're the same size, similar surface brightnesses, and a similar color (a distinct blue, unlike many of the other galaxies in the field which are notably reddish).

Hidden in the fog of M 104 was another galaxy I liked. This one stands out because, just like the galaxy behind which it's lurking, it too has a prominent dust lane. Galaxies of a feather, or something like that. This galaxy, like many others is quite red, but I can chalk some of that up to the scattering and absorption as the light passes through the ISM of M 104.

Regardless, I was passingly curious about these little guys and wanted to know if there was anything exciting going on with them. So I pulled up the Aladin Sky Atlas with the SIMBAD overlay for object identification and.... there was nothing. Neither of these objects even have a designation.

It's times like these I'm suddenly struck and reminded of just how big our universe is. We catalog and explore millions upon millions of stars and galaxies, but there's always more waiting in the wings, waiting to be explored. A cosmic frontier just waiting for us to go out and discover.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Here's Why Math is Important



Class question: What percents are they actually calculating.

Monday, May 09, 2011

"Spiritual" Scientists

A recent paper, written by Elaine Ecklund on a hefty grant from the Templeton Foundation, suggesting scientists are frequently more "spiritual" than people give them credit for has been making the rounds, giving faitheists and accommodationists fits of glee.

Jerry Coyne dissects it pretty well but the paper, and his commentary reminded me of a clip from one of my favorite youtube videos. In it, Phil Hellenes discusses the amazing insight science provides and how it provides an amazing connection. As he puts it
When I looked at the galaxy that night, I knew the faintest twinkle of starlight was a real connection between my comprehending eye, along a narrow beam of light, to the surface of another sun. The photons my eye detects, the light I see, the energy with which my nerves interact, came from that star. I thought I could never touch it, yet something from it, crosses the void, and touches me.
This inspiring and moving feeling is all too common among scientists, and as Coyne and Hellenes rightly point out, that's precisely what the authors of the new study seem to be abusing. Again quoting Hellenes
That night under the Milky Way, I who experienced it, cannot call it a religious experience for I know it was not religious in any way. I was thinking about facts and physics, trying to visualize what is, not what I would like there to be. There's no word for such experiences that come through scientific and not mystical revelation. The reason for that is that every time someone has such a "mindgasm" religion steals it simply by saying, "Ah. You had a religious experience." And spiritualists will pull the same shit. And both camps will get angry when an atheist like me tells you that I only ever had these experiences after rejecting everything supernatural.
This is right on the money. It's not that these scientists are necessarily "spiritual" in the traditional sense, that they believe in supernatural "spirits", but rather, they stand in awe at the beauty of our universe, recognizing it as completely natural. When asked if there's "something larger" than them, the honest answer is "yes". It's called the universe. But it's not mystical nor magical. It's real and we can observe it.

But saying these things allows for the words to be taken out of context and usurped by those trying to shoehorn the religious gibberish together with the empirical reality. They can piggyback on these terms because our language lacks the tools to separate the secular emotions that well up within us from observation as compared to the ones we invoke through fantasy. This gives rise for sneaky shills like Ecklund a perfect opportunity to muddy the waters through equivocation.

A Thought From Feynman

I'm doing a bit of research and I came across an interesting piece. It's an adaptation from Richard Feynman's commencement speech at Caltech in 1974 in which he discusses what he calls "Cargo Cult Science". In other words, things that sound scientific, but aren't.

In one portion, something stuck out at me:
Millikan measured the charge on an electron by an experiment with falling oil drops, and got an answer which we now know not to be quite right. It's a little bit off, because he had the incorrect value for the viscosity of air. It's interesting to look at the history of measurements of the charge of the electron, after Millikan. If you plot them as a function of time, you find that one is a little bigger than Millikan's, and the next one's a little bit bigger than that, and the next one's a little bit bigger than that, until finally they settle down to a number which is higher.
This is an important lesson to remember. When something new is discovered in science, there's often a great deal of uncertainty to it. But after thorough investigation, it generally settles down on an answer, even if that answer is quite different than the initial estimate.

Yet the gasbag Ray Comfort seems to think that's a problem. He's repeatedly complained that the Big Bang can't be true because astronomers have been furiously revising the estimates and made some pretty significant changes as we've beaten down the errors and refined techniques. He proposes that things that are eternal and unchanging are inherently better because you can't trust that darned Big Bang since the estimates keep changing.

Similarly, I guess Ray can't acknowledge the charge of an electron. Even though it's a fundamental quantity that underlies so much of electronics and physics and if it were wrong, they would crumble, if the estimate changes, it can't be trusted to exist in the first place.

This kind of thinking isn't just wrong. It's abhorrently stupid. There's no good response for such abject lunacy. The best we can do is point out the flaw and mock it, dissuading others from thinking it's a tenable position.

Saturday, May 07, 2011

Go Follow JT

JT Eberhard, the founder of Skepticon, has migrated to a new blog. So far it's been excellent and it's been largely free of the entirely idiotic trolls that plagued his previous Xanga.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Religion as Intellectual Neoteny

Yesterday at Why Evolution is True, Jerry Coyne responded to criticism from Patrick McNamara in which McNamara took issue with Coyne's characterization of religion as a sort of wish fulfillment.

McNamara's argument was that if religion were merely fulfilling wishes, why would people wish for all the restrictive practices religion incorporates? I think Coyne did a pretty good job addressing the issue, but I feel there was another point that should be made in response to McNamara's question. It's really more of an observation, but I think it strikes at the heart of what religion is.

The observation is that in childish play, children will often have a wish and then create stipulations for fulfilling it that are entirely non-sensical, but more importantly, both positive and negative. For example, if a child wants a new toy, they often imagine that if they avoid stepping on cracks, it will be given to them.

It's entirely analogous to what religion is doing: They want eternal life, and suddenly, there's a restrictive system of rules set up to achieve it. The difference is that with these childish games, kids are pressured to grow out of it. With religion, they're pressured to stick with it.

So why do children do this? I can't offer a complete explanation, but I think it comes from the realization that if you want something, you must offer something in return. In the helplessness of a child with little resources available, they have nothing else to offer except self-constructed rituals. Thus, they offer this up as "payment".

As adults, we grow out of it, generally realizing that if you really want something, there's ways to get it that actually work. For example, saving up and buying it. Futility gives way to practicality.

But for the wish of eternal life, what payment could ever be offered for such things? No price could be put on it and as such, could it be that some prefer to continue ineffective rituals?

Perhaps, and if so, I think we should again take a lesson from what it means to grow up in other respects: Sometimes, the things you want just don't exist. A child may want a rocket powered dinosaur that can travel through time. An adult might too. But as an adult, we realize such things make little sense and thus, wouldn't waste our time on them. Now if only we could over the other ridiculous ideas to which we offer hollow rituals.

So to answer McNamara's question, humans create restrictive religious practices that are, in themselves negative to attempt to achieve a positive wish due to the immature inability to simply accept that the object of the wish isn't achievable.

And this isn't the first time I've seen arguments about the intellectual postponement religion imposes. If you're familiar with Brenda Frei, one argument that she made that's stuck with me is that she often encounters children making intellectually backwards arguments for religion full of logical holes and childish reasoning. Which is fine, given they're children. But she'll also encounter grandparents, well beyond the stage we'd expect such arguments, using them just the same. They've never grown out of them.

Thus, it would seem that one of the potential effects of religion is intellectual neoteny, at least in some, self-contained areas of thinking.

This is by no means a fully formed hypothesis and suffers from a developed sense of causality (ie, religion is the cause, or is it the effect, or is this a chance correlation?), but it's an interesting charge that I think could display itself in many more aspects.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

New SciEd Blog I Like

Tom, over at Dealing With Creationism in Astronomy recently turned me on to the dot physics blog written by a science teacher at the university level. I've read about a month's worth of archives now and found several posts I really liked.

The first was this one, on "flipping the classroom". I think I first heard mention of this strategy at dy/dan, but it's one I think is pretty interesting: Have students learn the general lecture portion at home from a web video (either one you created or from one of many other sources) and use class time for more targeted, individualized learning. I've wanted to try this out sometime, but the lack of internet access among my students has prevented me from doing so.

The other post I really liked was this one, on the problem with "professional development" which points out how teachers are required to keep going to courses to "improve their teaching" even if they already have the skills. The comparison to the Cargo Cults is pretty spot on and is a reminder of how disconnected the ones making the policies are from the reality of the classroom.

So this blog has made it onto my RSS feed and I'll be putting a link to it in the sidebar. Check it out!