Gas station without pumps

2010 August 24

Digital natives

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 23:43
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Brad King makes the argument that there are no digital natives, and that college students are basically clueless about computes.  I think he may be right.

The theory of the “digital native” is that kids today have grown up around computers and learned how to use them instinctively, the way they learn to speak their native languages.

Of course, one only has to read a couple of college freshman papers to realize that even with 12 years of schooling, a lot of students have no mastery of English.  So it should come as no surprise that most college students have no idea how to do anything other than play games and use Facebook on their computers, and perhaps use their word processors, though often they seem not to have figured out how to use the spelling checker or be able to create cross references and tables of contents—some of the most fundamental operations of the programs.

If you want students to use computers in a more sophisticated way, like writing a computer program to analyze data or creating a web page that accesses data from a database, then you need to give them explicit instruction, and lots of it.

Some students have found useful tools on the computers or on the web, and gotten proficient at using them.  A smaller set have created new tools or made improvements to existing tools.  These students should be treasured, as they are much rarer than you might think.

2010 August 22

Cool interactive visualization

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 06:03
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I’m usually more fond of static graphics than interactive ones for scientific visualization.  A good graphic has a particular story to tell, and the creator of the graphic should put some effort into figuring out the best way to view the data to make that point.  Sometimes a single view does not suffice to make the point clearly, and something more interactive is needed.  This is often the case for 3D protein structures, so presentations often use a molecular viewer with highlighting provided by the author.  (There is a collection of such images using jmol as the viewer on proteopedia, though I find the server access and download time so long that I rarely bother to go there, especially as only a small fraction of the protein structures have hand-done scripts for making a specific point.)

I recently came across a different interactive graphic that clearly presents a complex data set that would be hard to capture in a single picture.  It shows the age distribution of different countries at different times, and has been set up to compare different countries.  It is rather cool to move the year slider and see the baby-boom generation as a pulse in the (US) distribution moving forward and dissipating.  In other countries, the baby boom is a little later than in the US, and not dissipating as much.  Indeed, in Italy the peak of the baby boom is about 7 years later and there is enormous drop in the birth rate after then baby boom.  For exploration, I would have liked to be able to superimpose different years, and not just different countries, but this graphic is surprisingly effective at showing the differences in population structure in different countries (though data from some of the less developed countries would have been useful for comparison).

The change in the US population structure and the projections for how that population structure is expected to change for the next 40 years do suggest that we are likely to need to make some modifications to Social Security, as the fraction of the population past retirement age is growing rapidly.  The least disruptive change would be to raise the retirement age gradually, so that roughly the same fraction of the population remains in the workforce.

2010 August 19

High school engineering

Filed under: Robotics — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 19:04
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Every high school in the country has science and math classes (though quality varies quite a bit), but few have engineering classes.  I’ve written before about the confusion a lot of people have about the difference between science and engineering, but in this post I’ll talk about the need for engineering education at the high school level.

One group that is attempting to increase high-school engineering education is Project Lead The Way, which sells a multi-course high school curriculum for engineering called Pathway to Engineering. They claim to be reaching 350,000 students, but I wonder if that is the number of students in schools that offer their curriculum, the number of students enrolled in PLTW courses this year, the number of students who have finished the full PLTW curriculum, or the number of students who once registered for one of their courses. The number could mean any of those things, and the impact is quite different in each case. I also wonder how expensive their curriculum is and whether any of their courses count for the University of California admissions requirements (no mention on their web site). If not, it could be very difficult for a California high-school student to fit them in to an already crowded schedule.

There are also single-course curricula, like that sold by the Infinity Project.  Such a course is easier to fit into a college-prep schedule, but it is not clear how effective one course is in increasing the number of students choosing engineering majors and succeeding in them.

On a smaller scale, Northrop Grumman has an outreach program for middle school and high school teachers, reaching a couple dozen a year.  It would be useful for some organization (like the IEEE) to collect a list of all such industrial outreach programs and put them on a web page where teachers could find them.

The IEEE as the world’s largest engineering organization (indeed, the world’s largest professional organization) has a long-standing interest in engineering education.  They published a nice article about the Engineering Academy at Hoover High School in April this year.

Hoover High School is not unique—there are several high schools affiliated with the Academy of Engineering, as well as many other high schools using the  term “Engineering Academy” to describe a possible track through their high school.

Curriculum development is still going on. In 2009, the Engineering Education Service Center had a contest for elementary, middle school, and high school curricula, and distribute the winning entries on their website.

Even schools that have no formal courses in engineering often offer robotics clubs, often participating in competitions like BEST Robotics and FIRST Robotics.

Unfortunately, the high school my son will be attending offers none of these programs.  They don’t even have a course in computer programming, even though half the county works for Silicon Valley!

2010 August 16

Value-added teacher ratings

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 15:18
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Yesterday the LA Times published a story about assessing all the LAUSD teachers by a value-added approach.  They will be publishing a database of rankings for 6,000 elementary school teachers later this month, after giving teachers a brief period in which to comment on their rating.

Unfortunately, the article does not give the technical details of how the “value added” is calculated.  There are hints that it is done by looking at the average difference between the achieved score for the students and the expected score for the same students based on prior achievement scores (perhaps using percentiles).  It makes some difference what scale the scores are on and what the ceilings are for the tests.

For low-ceiling tests (as most state tests are), a teacher of gifted students who are already hitting the maximum scores on the tests will always be seen as having no value added, because the students can’t show their improvement.

Quite predictably, the teachers’ union is outraged over the LA Times publishing the data, going so far as to call for a boycott of the newspaper, though the Times appears to have acquired the data quite legally through Freedom of Information Act requests.  The union is worried that teachers will be penalized for poor performance on the rating system, and that the seniority-based system on which teacher promotions have historically been made is in danger.  They do have a good point that the tests used are a far from adequate measure of how much learning has taken place, but they are much better than having no measure of student performance, and much better than the cronyism of personal evaluations by the principal, which is the current system.  Tests before and after an intervention (teaching the students for a year) are the standard way to determine whether an intervention is successful.

One reasonable critique of the method used is the assumption of causality:  “Teacher A’s students on average advance more than Teacher B’s students”  implies “Teacher A is a better teacher than Teacher B”.  This is a reasonable assumption, but is not guaranteed to be true.  There are a lot of reasons why a class may perform better or worse that are not related to the teacher.  Still, the approach of averaging over at least three years and only looking at large differences should eliminate a lot of the one-time artifacts and minor statistical fluctuations.  Systematic biases in the assignment of students (for example, if one teacher gets a lot of hard cases and other gets a lot of teacher-pleasers) can certainly distort the picture.

Teacher bloggers will soon be ranting and raving over this move by the LA Times (see, for example, Rational Mathematics).  I expect most will question the validity of the tests, as that is the easiest target.  Personally, I think that the non-random nature of the selection of students for each class is likely to be a bigger source of error.  The response in Education Week‘s Teacher Beat is more measured, pointing out some of the other conclusions (which are well supported by other studies), such as that who the teacher is matters more than which school, and that paper qualifications have little correlation with effectiveness (measured in this value-added way).

I see one other danger, and that is that any ranking system will always put someone on top and someone on the bottom.  If there are huge differences in teacher effectiveness (as there seem to be between the extremes), this is not a major problem, but the risk of amplifying small differences in effectiveness to large differences in rank (particularly in the middle of the pack) is high.

Does anyone have more detailed information about the methods used in the LA Times ranking system?  I suppose the thing to do is to contact “Richard Buddin, a senior economist and education researcher at Rand Corp., who conducted the statistical analysis as an independent consultant for The Times.”  The RAND staff page for him gives contact information for him, as well as his CV.  His credentials certainly look good, and this is not the first time he has analyzed student performance to measure the effectiveness of teachers.

Summer Theater Camps

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 11:13
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My son has been interested in acting for many years.  Before entering high school he has been involved in 38 theater productions or classes, starting in preschool at age 4.  About a third of these of these have been school-related shows,  but 21 of the 38 have been summer camp or after-school classes with the same group of teachers.  The group started as  children’s theater classes for Pisces Moon, a theater group known for somewhat edgy productions, and classes were at the Broadway Playhouse, a small theater in the Art League.  In 2007, the children’s classes reorganized as a separate non-profit and converted an industrial space on the Westside into a teaching and performance space, the West End Studio Theatre (WEST).  Classes are now held at both the Broadway Playhouse and WEST.  The group now goes by the name West Performing Arts, West End Studio Theatre, or West Performing Arts Academy, depending where on their web pages you look and which of their several programs you look at.

There are several groups in town that do productions of musicals with children, but WEST is the only one that consistently puts on non-musical productions.  They work with kids from kindergarten through 12th grade, mostly in mixed-age classes that have a 3–6 year age range.  Unlike most of the other kid’s theater classes in town, they tend to do short, intense camps: 2 weeks at 4–8 hours a day for a production, rather than months of less frequent rehearsal.  Although the production quality varies, depending mostly on how much total theater experience the kids have had, they manage to put on some pretty impressive shows, particularly with the teenage classes.

This summer, for the first time, my son was old enough for their Teen Conservatory, which is done in cooperation with Shakespeare Santa Cruz, a professional summer repertory theater.  In addition to seeing all three plays that SSC was performing this summer, the kids had discussions with the SSC actors, backstage tours, lectures from the dramaturges, and daily classes from some of the professional actors.  They even got daily instruction in unarmed stage combat (learning a routine about half the length needed for the first level of certification in stage combat).  The camp was pretty intense, running 6 days a week, with some days running over 12 hours (because of seeing evening shows).  At the end of 2 weeks, the students presented a short showcase of the work they had done (Shakespearean sonnets as monologues, a couple of ensemble scenes, some stage combat, and several 2-person scenes).

My son also participated in WEST’s First Conservatory, a one-week program for grades 6–9 (there were 5 kids who did both the teen conservatory and the first conservatory programs).  This middle-school program was a little less intense and worked with modern theater instead of Shakespeare. Each student did a monologue from the Spoon River Anthology and did one two-person scene from You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown!, The Importance of Being Earnest, Pride and Prejudice, A Perfect Analysis Given By a Parrot, or Waiting for Godot.  The performances were quite good, especially so since they were the result of only one week’s work.

I am very impressed at how quickly they teachers at WEST manage to get a group of kids working together effectively. Some of the other theater groups he’s worked with are nowhere near as good at it. I’ve commented before about the difficulty of doing group work in school, with the observation that group work is only effective if the work genuinely requires a group effort.  Theater productions are particularly valuable experience, because the production only works if every kid does his part.  Having even one or two slackers on the cast can ruin the show, and the behind-the-scenes work of the costumers, set builders, and tech crew is also important.  I’ve been very pleased that my son has had this opportunity to work repeatedly with a highly functional group, in a variety of ways (from very minor parts to lead).

During the school year, the WEST group keeps teaching, mainly with afterschool productions, but they will also partner with schools to do productions at the school.  They have close ties with Alternative Family Education, the local umbrella used by many homeschoolers, and do fairly intense theater classes for homeschoolers as well.

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