Wednesday, April 29, 2009

NCLB Shown to be Ineffective... again.

The newest Nation's Report Card is out for the Math and Reading topics. Although gains have been made in both areas, they are strongest for the nine year old level. By the time you've reached the high school level, gains have been pretty marginal since the 1970's.

But don't let that from people saying it's effective. The education secretary, Margaret Spellings is quoted in the NY Times as saying,
It’s not an accident that we’re seeing the most improvement where N.C.L.B. has focused most vigorously.... The law focuses on math and reading in grades three through eight — it’s not about high schools. So these results are affirming of our accountability-type approach.
Wonderful. We give kids a boost early on, but still allow our education to drop the ball by the time they complete high school. That's great!

One other interesting thing I found in the Report Card is that although the gender gap in math and science is usually reported to be large, the report card shows it to be small, at least in terms of math. Although it grows by the high school level (but only to 6 points out of 500 in the most recent year), it suggests that females aren't going into science and technology fields due to a lack of preparation or ability. Rather, the lack of females in these fields is more due to cultural stigmata drawing females into other lines of work. Something for teachers to keep in mind.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Things that don't work

I was going through my folder of links on things to write about, and found this article from the summer of last year that made me chuckle at just how wrong it turned out to be. Out in Iowa a bunch of people from the "Invincible America Assembly" got together to meditate and solve all of Americas problems. They predicted that they would send the stock market soaring via "harmonious waves" with the Dow surpassing 17,000.

HAHAHAHAHA! Nice timing. Predicting your voodoo would fix make a utopia right before the economy went in the shitter.


But to make the guy sound even dumber, consider this quote:
We have control over things we didn't have control over before. That's the progress of science
Wha? He claims to be using science?!

Sorry pal. Science works.

Jedi Cops

News stories pop up from time to time about the "Jedi" religion over in the UK. But this story mentions there's a number of them that are police officers in Scotland!

I just giggle at it, but one comment stands out to me:
As long as they don't try to start using ' the force' to try to solve crimes, I'm sure it's harmless.
I doubt they'd be that silly. But then again...

But whatever. Just as long as the cops are Jedi and not stormtroopers.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Not Just the Christians

In the three years I've been running this blog, I've seen an alarming numbers of botched exorcisms from Christians. I've never suspected that this was the only religious organization partaking in such archaic superstitions, but only that it popped up more in the media due to the fact that the media I observe is American, which is, by and large, Christian.

And I was right. A Buddhist man critically injured his son trying to expel demons from a statue he bought.

Friday, April 03, 2009

The problem with labs

Looking back on my time spent in college and recalling some of the best and most interesting times I had, there are several instances that stand out. Surprisingly, to some, most of them were the labs and research I worked in. Whether it was the tedious photometry of 1,500 stars in a cluster during my internship, or the laborious pouring over journals and trying to come up with a future research plan for my flare star research or even the advanced physics labs in which we spent far too much time for far too little credit demonstrating principles we had long since taken for granted, that final result of getting an answer and knowing that it was meaningful was a wonderful feeling of success.

So what is it we teach in high school labs?

Thinking back to the labs I did in high school, I can only remember about three labs. One was rolling blocky cars down inclined planes and trying to measure the force of gravity. One involved some pulleys and who knows what the point of that was. The last was spinning electrons in a magnetic field in some manner that caused them to scintilate and the diameter of the circle could be measured to determine the mass of the electron.

I always liked labs at that point, but in reflection, it was for a very different reason. It was a free day or two to not have to think. All we had to do was blindly measure what we were told, plug it into the equation we were given, and pop out numbers that were off from the values we should have been getting by, quite often, nearly an order of magnitude.

I can't be certain that my high school experience is completely indicative of the situation in the majority of schools (although Time magazine did choose my high school as representative of American high schools in 1999 when they did an expose on what life in high school is really like since Columbine), but assuming such conditions are common, I see two major problems with this.

The first is that such labs don't hold the students accountable for why they do anything they do in such labs. There is little connection between what is taught in the lecture portion, and how the lab was created to illustrate or test the concept in question. Pick up any journal article and there is always a lengthy section right at the beginning setting up the theoretical framework before any description of methodology in an experiment is even approached. Yet this has always been absent from my memory of high school labs as well as the introductory astronomy labs I taught during my time at KU. While I was able to insert this material in my own labs via my lectures prior to the start of lab, this, as best my memory serves, was completely absent from any labs in lower levels.

The other thing that is similarly neglected in high school labs is something that actually stands out like a sore thumb: The amount of error. Error in measurements is, of course, unavoidable. Whether its due to inherent limitations in tools, or variables that cannot be constrained at such levels (eg. how do you try to approach friction and drag in carts when the math needed to do so is at least two years of college beyond what most high school students will ever obtain), the order of magnitude errors I discussed earlier are often just swept under the rug.

So what does this tell students? The message is that science is sloppy. Measurements can be wildly different and it's ok.

What's not included, but I feel should be, is at the very least, some sort of quantitative analysis of the error involved. In my own classroom, I've seen this attempted, and the way I've always seen it done for low level classes is wholly disappointing. In most low level classrooms, the method to determine error is that you take the difference between the "True" value and your value, and divide it by the "True" value. This gives the amount that you're off.

But since when does real science have a "True" value by which to compare the derived value?

Never. And we wonder why people nod in agreement when creationists push the notion that science is dogmatic when we're the ones putting ideas of "True" values in their head?

This methodology seems entirely counterproductive. While equations to determine error are obviously beyond the capabilities of high school students, I feel there is still a solution.

Although the capability to carry out higher mathematics is certainly constrained to such students, what I do not feel is limited is the ability to show the qualitative reasoning behind the math. Even the concepts of calculus aren't beyond the capabilities of students.

To give an example: In the lab I taught at KU, we had an assignment in which students were required to measure the position the sun set along the horizon throughout the semester (ie, the azimuthal angle). One of the questions we required students to address was "When was the rate of change the fastest?"

To those that have taken a calculus course, the answer is instantly obvious: the highest rate of change is the point on the graph with the steepest slope.

While, as an instructor, I can point this out to students and they'll swallow it, the point becomes even more convincing when a bit of dimensional analysis is performed and I demonstrate that the slope of the graph does indeed give the correct units for the rate of change!

Similarly, I feel that, even if an important equation is, in a quantitative sense, too difficult for a student, we should at least approach it qualitatively, and then do the quantitative bits for them. In other words, the instructor should solve the equation for the given lab so that students (once they understand what the equation is doing) may simply plug in the necessary numbers.

This alleviates the problem I have presented; Instead of telling students that there is error and doing vague hand waving claiming it's "friction" or other ways of sidestepping it, it lets students know that, in real science, not only do we consider the error in our techniques, we can even say how much!

There is, of course, another, probably simpler solution: Get rid of labs with such high inherent errors. Instead, find labs that can be easily constructed with minimal tools that still result in high accuracy measurements.

My favorite lab I've seen along this line is one involving measuring the speed of light with nothing more than a bag of chocolate chips, a microwave and a ruler. I've done the experiment myself and even gone through complete error analysis. The result I got for it had less than a 1% error and fell, within significant digits and the error bars, right on top of the canonical values of the speed of light!

Now why didn't I ever do this in high school?

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Life - Or something like it

Bah. Almost 4 months since I've posted anything here. Certainly a new record.

As I pointed out back in November, my life has largely taken me away from the topics about which this blog is ostensibly centered.

However, as things often go, life is beginning to take me back to topics on which I feel are worthwhile to blog about.

I've mentioned my attendance at conventions several times in the past, and this past month saw yet another con come and go. This one was Naka Kon 2009 and was my first con I've attended as a staff member (game room overlord if anyone cares). Aside from that duty, I also managed to get myself roped into MCing the cosplay competition (Note to self: Next year, wear gel insoles in costume's shoes).

But perhaps most pertinent was the panel I prepared. It's something I'd been working on for nearly 5 months and went over astoundingly well. The title was "Science of Anime". The idea was to take various phenomenon I'd noticed in anime that were certainly not realistically possible, and use science to show just how nonsensical they really were. The title was patterned off the series of TV shows with titles like "Science of Star Wars" or the "Science of Batman" which occasionally pop up on the Discovery channel. In reflection, I really wish I hadn't named it such (and I'll probably change it in the future) because those shows try to rationalize obviously fictional events with scientific principles but stretch them so implausibly all over, that it's right back into the realm of science fiction. The shows are cute, but ultimately I'm not a fan of them. Thus, I think my future title will be "Anime Mythbusters - Where everything's BUSTED".

Anyway, the panel was videotaped, but since it was in a dark room with a powerpoint, the room is too dark to see me, and the screen is to bright and is overexposed. So the video is worthless. I'm working on getting the audio ripped and making a video with just the slides, but it'll take awhile longer since the person doing my editing work's computer doesn't like the codecs I used to export some of the videos. I'll make a post when it's up on Youtube (or perhaps somewhere else).

Life is also working to take me towards a new career. For the past 9 months, I've been working as a waiter to pay the bills until my lease is up and I can look for a real job somewhere else, but now I'm planning on moving back to St Louis and am planning to teach high school physics (and astronomy if the school offers a course in that area). As such, physics and astronomy education have been on my mind quite a bit recently and I have ideas for a few posts on that topic that I'll likely be writing up when I find time. I've already done an interview with one school district and have resumes out to a few more. Hopefully things will go well.