# Gas station without pumps

## 2013 May 16

### Storytelling to close the gender gap?

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 10:19
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In Closing the Gender Gap in STEM Fields With Stories, Bethany Johnsen wrote an

Making science classes more “like that” is also the suggestion of a recent Scientific American blog post, To Attract More Girls to STEM, Bring More Storytelling to Science. Its authors, teachers at a STEM-focused high school, argue that the reason for the gender gap in the STEM fields is not a shortage of girls with ability, but the failure of our science curriculum to engage their interest and kindle their passion. The remedy they propose—telling the stories of science—could lend the STEM fields some of the allure traditionally left to the humanities.

While I agree that the shortage of women in STEM fields is not due to a shortage of girls with ability (the dominance of girls at middle school and high school science fairs is clear), I’m not convinced that a story-based approach is going to work. History of science is not science, and stories about scientists are not science. Replacing science instruction in middle and high school with stories and history would leave students less prepared to study and do real science, and more likely to choose a humanities field in college.

Note that there isn’t a gender gap in biology (at least not through grad school—there is still some gender gap in paid jobs), so the problem isn’t with “STEM” as a whole, but more specifically with the math and computation-based STEM fields.  Even among those fields, there are wide disparities, with math itself coming much closer to parity than physics or computer science.  Why?  Is it something about the field, about the way the field is taught, about the culture of the practitioners, or about the culture of the students currently majoring in those fields?

Making the science instruction more interesting is a good goal, but the suggestion of the SciAm blog post “How many engineering teachers include a fiction book like Kurt Vonnegut’s Player Piano in their syllabi?” seems to me to miss the point.  Replacing science and engineering with fiction reading will not result in more students studying engineering and science—it will result in students studying literature and thinking that they are studying science.

The basic idea—to use a more story-telling approach to teaching STEM—is a good one, but I think that the stories have to be intrinsic to the science and math, like Dan Meyer’s The Three Acts Of A Mathematical Story, not stories about science, which seems to be what both blogs are advocating.

I don’t know how successful approaches like “Storytelling Alice” have been—it is no longer available though the web page claims it was successful:

A study comparing middle school girls’ experiences with learning to program in Storytelling Alice and in a version of Alice without storytelling features (Generic Alice) showed that:

• Users of Storytelling Alice spent 42% more time programming than users of Generic Alice.
• Users of Storytelling Alice were more than three times as likely to sneak extra time to work on their programs as users of Generic Alice (51% of Storytelling Alice users vs. 16% of Generic Alice users snuck extra time to program).
• Despite the focus on making programming more fun, users of Storytelling Alice were just as successful at learning basic programming concepts as users of Generic Alice.

Of course, Alice is not the most fun programming environment for middle schoolers (I think that Scratch beats it hands down), so the storytelling component may just have made it a bit better.  Has anyone ever attempted a Storytelling Scratch class? (I wasn’t able to find any equivalent to Storytelling Alice using Scratch in a very brief web search.)

The newest version of Scratch (2.0) runs as a Flash program in the browser, and has some new media-related features (like being able to interact with the video from the computer’s camera).  My son has played with it a bit, but I’ve not had time to explore the new features.  The Flash-based Scratch means that no installation is necessary to run programs, but that Scratch will not run on iOS devices (like iPads), which could be a limitation at many schools.  I understand that an iPAD app or HTML5 implementation of Scratch is planned, now that Scratch 2.0 has been released.

A better approach than stories about science may be to have more hands-on science and engineering, where students learn the science and engineering in order to accomplish something, not just to pass a course and get into college.  So far, most attempts along those lines have favored stereotypically “boy” goals (robot sports, for example, and video games), and so have not served to shrink the gender gap.

## 2013 March 30

### A physics teacher’s reaction to anti-science witch hunts

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 12:06
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Frank Noschese, a physics teacher, has written a rather amusing “letter to parents” on his blog Dear Parents | Action-Reaction, including such gems as

Giggle-inducing Scientific Terminology. Uranus, excited state, naked singularity, panspermia, ram pressure, Trojans, black hole, galactic bulge, hadron, space probe, parsecs, and 21-centimeter emission, to name a few. These are not “dirty words.” They are official scientific terms and we will need to use them in class.

The post as a whole mocks the anti-science attitude of the Dietrich, Idaho parents who protested a 10th grade biology teacher using the word “vagina” in the unit about reproduction. [http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2013/mar/28/idaho-teacher-under-investigation-way-he-teaches-h/]

I guess that Idaho is racing Kansas to become the most anti-science state in the United States.

## 2013 March 28

### Science Fair coaching session

Filed under: Science fair — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 23:34
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This afternoon the Santa Cruz County Science Fair tried something new: we had a coaching session for the students going to the California State Science Fair.  Of the 40 projects that were being sent on to state, about half were represented at the coaching session.

The first half of the two-hour session was spent as a large group.  Each of the judges who was there (in their new role of coach) introduced themselves briefly, then we went around the room having each student introduce their poster briefly (about 1 minute each).  Then students asked questions about the state competition—about what they could expect, about poster design, about what judges wanted to see, and so forth.  Since I was the only one there who had judged at state, I ended up answering a lot of the questions, but others got in good comments also.

One message that I think we got out this year was that at the state science fair, students tend to use bigger poster boards than is common at the County Science Fair, so that they can put more content on the poster and still use a large enough font to be readable.  (A lot of the posters had tiny fonts suitable only for close reading.)  The construction techniques for two of the larger posters there were shown.  One was just two ordinary science fair tri-fold boards stacked with PVC pipe glued on the back as a stiffener.  It is quite sturdy, but a bit unwieldy even when folded, since it is still 5′–6′ long.  The other was my son’s foam-core board, which is just as big, but folds up small enough to be carried like a suitcase and be checked as luggage (not small enough to be carry-on though.  I’ve provided detailed construction instructions for this design in a previous blog post (though that post shows the previous carrier box, not the new one that fits the board and surrounds it on all 6 sides).

After the group discussion we broke up into one-on-one sessions with the judges circulating around answering questions for whoever had questions for them.  I ended up doing some coaching for two of the students I had judged, plus one who was doing a bioinformatics project.  I also provided less detailed advice to several other students who had questions.  I got a chance to meet some of the students who I had not seen at the county science fair—I think that we have some potential winners at the state fair this year.

Based on the conversations at the coaching session, I think that we’ll see some changes to this year’s projects before state. But even if we don’t, next year’s projects are likely to be stronger, as these students share what they heard with their teachers and fellow students, as well as improving their own projects for next year.

The coaching session worked well enough that I think we should do it again next year—perhaps lengthening it to 2.5 or 3 hours, with the first 30–45 minutes for a group session and the rest of the time for 1-on-1 coaching.  We could also have used another 4 or 5 judges there, so that students with individual questions did not have to wait to get them answered.

## 2013 March 10

### Santa Cruz County Science Fair 2013

I spent Friday evening and all day Saturday judging at the Santa Cruz County Science Fair, which is always fun, but a little tiring.  This year I was the lead judge for the “Energy and Power” category, which had 14 projects in grades 4–5 and 14 in grades 6–8.  There were no high school projects in my category, and they decided to have interviews but not judging for K–3, so I ended up only talking briefly with the K–3 students and did not give them written feedback.  I interviewed 26 or 27 of the students in my category, and provided written feedback for each of them.  That written feedback is the most important part of the fair, and the judges in my category were all very diligent about providing detailed feedback, so most of the kids got 4 or 5 feedback forms.  In some other categories, a lot of the judges left without providing feedback, and a few kids ended up with no feedback forms. (I heard about it from some of the parents, because the administrator had left before the public viewing, and I was clearly identifiable as a judge—I wear a lab coat for judging science fair.)

The “energy and power” category is where all the lemon batteries end up, which makes it a rather sad category for judges.  Every category has a few projects that appear (usually very badly done) year after year. The lemon batteries are almost always terrible projects, with the students following rote directions from the web (in at least two cases this year, incorrectly) and having no understanding what they are doing.  I think that Science Buddies has a lot to answer for! The students seem to think that the power is coming from the fruit (rather than from the dissimilar metals) and that voltage is the same thing as power.

We also got the windmills, solar cells, wave generators, and thermoelectric devices. Those were generally a little bit better done—we actually had a pretty good solar cell project and a pretty good Peltier-device project. Because our fair does not have an engineering category (other than “environmental engineering”), we ended up with a number of the engineering projects as well (hovercrafts, ducted propellers, and the like).

There is a big need to train elementary school teachers (and to a lesser extent middle-school teachers) in science and engineering methods.  And I don’t mean the nonsense they teach about the “scientific method”, which bears almost no resemblance to any process of scientific or engineering work I’ve ever seen.  I mean that they need to know how to measure voltage, current, and resistance, and to be able to show kids how to compute power (it is not the same thing as voltage, nor is it the product of open-circuit voltage and short-circuit current).  Teachers should be able to show students how to build a simple calorimeter and measure energy from chemical reactions (like burning fuel). A lot of the students I interviewed were quite bright, but no one had ever taught them the basics they needed to be able to do their projects.  Nor have they been taught how to use the tools they have. I don’t want to see another student wrapping the loop for measuring AC current around a wire and claiming that they are measuring resistance, nor claims that lemon batteries produced 9 Amps at 1v.

Things I learned when I was 8–10 years old should be within reach of their teachers. I think that a few hours of professional development that involved them actually doing some measurements and learning the basics of some of the science and engineering projects would improve the quality of their students projects a lot. Every elementary school teacher should know how to use a hand saw, a drill, wire strippers, and a soldering iron, and they should be teaching the kids how to use them also.  (Yes, I can see the safety problems if you try to do it in a large class—but the safety problems in PE classes are far larger, but we haven’t thrown out all sports in schools because of it.)

Even just telling the teachers some basic ideas might help.  Some of the things I see repeatedly:

• Know what you are measuring (voltage is not power).
• Measure the right thing to answer the underlying question.
• Measure inputs as well as outputs (counting colonies tells you how many culturable bacteria or fungi were in your initial sample, which is useless if you don’t know how big the sample was).
• Don’t culture unknown micro-organisms (except in a lab with proper protection and sterilization equipment).
• Read (and cite) some material from the web. High school students should be going well beyond Wikipedia in their literature searches, but even a short Wikipedia seach would be a big step up for most of the middle school and elementary school students.  If Wikipedia is too difficult for an elementary school student (as it may well be), see if there is anything useful on Simple English Wikipedia.
• Good science fair projects take time, often with many false starts. There are way too many 1-week projects at the county science fair.
• Mentorship is good, but doing the work for the kid is not—especially not the interpretation of the results. This point is aimed more at the over-involved parents than the teachers—but judges have to be very careful, as there are some highly motivated kids doing things that look like adult work, but really are just the student.  (I remember an incident about a decade ago, of a kid in another category who was severely down graded by the judges in who thought they were judging a parental project, but I talked with the kid for 15 minutes later on and I was convinced that the work really was his alone.  I was angry at the judges for not being more careful in their judgements, but there was nothing I could do about it.)

It’s great to see the enthusiasm and talent of the K–3 group (which has been growing so rapidly that the hall that is rented for the Science Fair is no longer big enough), but that enthusiasm and talent seems to dissipate rapidly around middle school—there are still a lot good middle-school projects, but there are also a number of kids just going through the motions and only a few are continuing to do science fair once they are not required to.  I see more evidence of parental over-involvement at middle school than at elementary school (though that may be due to the selection processes at the different feeder schools, rather than inherent in the age groups).  I didn’t see any evidence of over-involvement in my category this year—if anything, I saw the opposite, with students not getting critical guidance so that they could do a really meaningful project.

One very sad part of the county science fair is how few high school students participate.  There are no school-level fairs in our county at the high school level, and little or no encouragement of individual projects.  This year I think we had 23 projects from high school students, out of a population of about 7500 high school students—about 0.3%.    According to the statistics from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the various STEM categories add up to about 6% of the workforce (not counting healthcare, which would double the number, and not counting several related occupations, like high-school science teachers, scientific sales, science and engineering managers, …).  So even with very conservative counting, we’re short by a factor of 20 in this county.  I’d be satisfied if even 1–2% of the high school students were entering science fair, but we’re nowhere close to that number, and the participation at the high-school level is shrinking, not growing, each year.

The problem is not strictly a local one—most places see a drop in participation from middle school to high school, but I don’t think many are as extreme as here.  There are some places in the US where high school science fair is big—what have they done differently?

Lots of organizations have seen the problem of high school students losing interest in science fair, and they have put up cash prizes and other incentives for high school students, but (in this county anyway), no one is taking the bait.  We need to find a way to get high-school students excited about doing science or engineering projects, and I don’t know what would stimulate that excitement.

Many (most?) of the good projects in middle school and high school came from home-schooled kids or kids getting a lot of after-school education from mentors or parents.  This may be related to the point that good science fair projects take time and require passion on the part of the students, and the local schools (public, private, and charter) don’t provide a good environment for projects that take time nor for students to show passion—way too much busywork and time wasted preparing for standardized tests.

## 2012 October 2

### Chapter 14 done

Filed under: home school — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 16:21
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We’re a week behind already, because we did not get any of the Chapter 14 homework done during the trip to Boulder, but we did finally get Chapter 14 done today. The twelve problems I assigned for Chapter 14 (plus one program) were too many, because they were almost all just plug-in-numbers-and-turn-the-crank exercises (despite having been given “P” for problem rather than “X” for exercise). I was rather tired last night and this morning when I did the problems, and I made a huge number of copying errors: copying the charge of an electron wrong (and using it for all the exercises that needed charge of proton or electron), copying the wrong line from a problem, copying numbers wrong from my calculator to the paper, … .  I don’t think I’ve ever had so many wrong answers. On only one problem when my son and I compared answers did we get different results that stemmed from his error rather than mine (and that was also a clerical error, not a conceptual one).

There was one problem that wasn’t just an exercise, though my son treated it as one.  That problem is 14P40 part c:

The electric field at a location C points north, and the magnitude is 1×106 N/C.  Give numerical answers to the following questions:

(c) where should you place a proton and an electron, at equal distances from C, to produce this field.

Locus of positions for electron with C at origin. The proton would be symmetrically located at (x,-y) for an electron located at (x,y). Locus plotted by Wolfram Alpha command “plot y/(x^2+y^2)^(3/2)=347.2E12″

The trivial answer places an electron to the north and a proton to the south, and students just compute the distance. But there are an infinite number of solutions and the locus of the solutions is an interesting one.  I don’t know whether the authors were thinking of this infinite set of solutions, or if they had only considered the trivial solution.

Since C is equidistant from the proton and electron, it must be on the perpendicular bisector of the line segment between them. Since the field points north, and we’re on the perpendicular bisector, the electron must be due north of the proton. If we do a 2D plot, putting C at the origin and the electron at (x,y), we get a formula of the form $y/(x^2+y^2)^{3/2}=347.2E12$, which we can ask Wolfram Alpha to plot for us. Note: I’m deliberately not providing the derivation for the number, so that students have to do some work before copying this answer!

The trivial solution is the one on the y-axis (not the origin). I had not expected to see the lower part of the curve, where the locus approaches the origin, but it makes sense. If we look at the formula in polar coordinates, we get $r = \sqrt{\sin(\theta)/347.2E12}$, where r is the distance from C to the electron (and to the proton), and θ is the angle from the horizontal axis (angle north of east). This parameterization also makes it easier to find where the x value is maximized by taking the derivative of $\cos(\theta)\sqrt{\sin(\theta)/347.2E12}$ with respect to θ, and setting it to 0. I get the maximal value for x as about 3.33E-08 m, at about 35.26°.

For very small angles, the electron and proton need to be very close together, though the solutions with them too close together are bogus, because classical electrostatics breaks down once quantum effects become significant.

The polar plot made by giving Wolfram Alpha “polar plot r=sqrt(sin(theta) / 347.2e12)” is cleaner and faster than solving for the x,y values directly.

For next week, we’ll have to read Chapter 15. I should have some problems selected before this weekend.

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