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2012 April 16

Squishy Circuits, for family science night

Mylène recently posted a good description of an electrical building project suitable for young kids (she did it with a Brownie troop): K-12 Engineering: Squishy Circuits Tips and Tricks.

A few years ago, when my son was in 5th and 6th grade, I helped run a Family Science Night at his school.  We did a lot of fun activities, but never tried squishy circuits.  I did keep on-line notes about what we did do and web resources we found at that time.  Perhaps these notes may be useful to someone planning a family science night at an elementary or middle school.

2011 November 24

Harry Potter’s World—junk science at NLM

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 00:06
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I was recently pointed to a site at the U.S. National Library of Medicine that uses a popular literary figure to inspire kids to learn real science: Harry Potter’s World Renaissance Science, Magic, and Medicine.  They have both an English-class lesson plan (7th–10th grade) and a science-class lesson plan (7th–11th grade). I was prepared to praise them for this integrated curriculum, which seems to me like an excellent way to try to bridge C.P. Snow’s two cultures in academia.

But I glanced quickly down their list of resources and saw Human Mendelian Traits and Human Mendelian Traits for Teachers. A quick look revealed that both were propagating serious myths about human genetics—myths that have been comprehensively debunked at Myths of Human Genetics.

Unfortunately, the myths form a core part of the lesson, and so there is not a lot salvageable once the myths are removed.  I think that it may be appropriate for the NLM to take this lesson plan off their site until they can rework it into something consistent with what is known about human genetics.  They are not doing anyone a favor by putting their brand name on junk science.

2011 November 16

CS ED Week 2011 Dec 4–10 has announced the 2nd annual Computer Science Education Week, for 4–10 December 2011.

They are asking colleges to do outreach activities:

  • Offer Engaging Computational Thinking Courses for Non-Majors
  • Visit youth in formal and informal settings
  • Host an Open House at Your College or University for High School Students
  • Entice Non Majors and Community College Students to Learn about Computer Science

and to sign a pledge saying what they are doing for CS Ed Week.

They also have exclamations for K–12 teachers:

  • You and your students can change the world through computing!
  • Move Beyond Computer Literacy!

which they back up with a few suggested activities and resources.

They also have sections for parents, students, and administrators.

They seem to have put a bit more thought into the CS Ed week this year than last, with a fairly consistent message:

Computer science education means far more than learning how to use a computer, building a spreadsheet or even creating a webpage. It’s about problem solving, computational thinking and abstract reasoning across a broad range of subjects. You can incorporate these concepts into your curriculum—no matter what subject you teach—and prepare students with the skills for success in the new knowledge economy.

I wonder what (if anything) is happening locally.

2011 July 25

Testing insanity

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 14:15
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John T. Spencer has just posted Testing Insanity: Amount of Days Spent Testing containing pie charts about allocation of the scarcest resource for teachers: instructional time.  (For grammar mavens out there, I point out that “amount” should only be used with uncountable nouns—I assume he mixed “amount of time” with “number of days”.)

If his numbers are correct, and I have no reason to doubt them, his school spends fully 28% of their instructional time on testing, not counting the time wasted on test prep.  That seems excessive.

For comparison, I computed how much time is spent on testing at the university.  Comparisons between middle school and college courses are always misleading, because of the difference in how student time is structured.  A middle-school student is expected to spend 30–35 hours a week at school and another 5–6 hours a week on homework, while a college student is expected to spend 9–10 hours a week in classes and another 30–40 hours on homework.  This reversal of time allocation makes comparisons of homework loads and in-class time allocation tricky (and is often the hardest adjustment for new college students to make).

With that caveat, here is my calculation.  A typical 5-unit course at UCSC has 35 hours of lecture plus 3 hours of final exam.  Some courses have discussion sections as well, but these are usually optional and only lightly attended—they can be regarded as supplementary help rather than primary instruction time for most classes (for classes with mandatory discussion sections, the class time increases from 35 to about 46 hours).  A lot of faculty give up one or two lectures for mid-term exams, that is 1.17, 1.75, 2.33, or 3.5 hours.  So the highest exam load for a course is 6.5 hours out of a total of 38 hours, or 17%.  Quizzes and clicker questions could bring that as high as 25%, but I don’t thing that John Spencer was including quizzes and teacher-generated assessments in his count—just exams imposed from outside.

Many faculty, including me, see exams as a poor way of assessing what students have learned in a course—particularly in courses intended to teach skills like computer programming, electronic design, lab skills, writing, or research skills.  For these courses, projects, term papers, and programming assignments done outside of class time are the primary assessments, and little or no class time is used for assessment.  (See Skills at the Center for more discussion of teaching based on skills rather than on testable factoids.)

I do see a need for standardized exams to let parents and colleges know how much the kids are really learning, but the cost in instructional time has gotten ridiculously large.  Continual testing is no substitute for teaching and learning.

2011 June 20

Rethinking Science Fairs (7 mostly bad ideas from John Spencer)

Filed under: Science fair — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 11:50
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John Spencer wrote an article (in his own blog and in the TeachPaperless blog): Rethinking Science Fairs (7 Ideas). He comes from a decidedly English-teacher view of the world, and seems to have missed the point of science fairs entirely, so his suggestions make almost no sense.  For my views on science fair, see some of my previous posts, or all the posts I’ve tagged with “science fair”.

Let’s look at his ideas one by one:

1. Quit giving awards: Instead of simply celebrating the individual achievements, highlight the collective research that the entire group accomplished.

John may really believe that individual effort should not be recognized and that only the group ever matters. Perhaps John also believes that all single-author writing should be abolished, and only committee reports allowed to be published.

I have seen teachers seriously propose that all awards (academic, athletic, citizenship, artistic, … ) be abolished from schools, and that no student ever get recognized for doing anything good.  I’ve never been clear how this helps students learn that there is value in doing things well.  Indeed, the main goal of such teachers seems to be to hammer down anyone who sticks out, and make sure that all students end up uniformly mediocre.

Given how little celebration there is of individual academic effort in most places in the US, though, I can’t see how this will help promote science learning and effort from students.  In collective research at the school level, either one person does all the work (and doesn’t get recognized for it) or very little actually gets done.  What is the incentive to spend much time working on a project that 29 other kids are also doing?  Large group science projects would make more sense if there were projects in which 30 kids could all meaningfully contribute (like a theater production), but I can’t think of any middle-school science projects big enough for that to work.

2. Broaden the definition of science:  My project was fictitious.  I get it.  However, I had a love of social science and sociology that a teacher could have tapped into for a more alternative, human-oriented project.

Behavioral science is usually the biggest category at science fairs, so I’m not sure what change he is asking for here—that only behavioral science be allowed?  That social activity without a science component at all be allowed?

3. Allow fiction: I’m not suggesting that we abandon scientific inquiry.  Yet, I can see a place for students proposing theories through allegorical science fiction.  Let a kid write a scientific dystopia where he or she examines some of the values inherent in science.

Spoken like an English teacher, who sees fiction as a suitable replacement for science.  I have no problem with English teachers having author fairs and celebrating writing, why do they object to celebrating science? Allegorical science fiction is a fine thing (I’ve read plenty of it), but it is no substitute for doing science.  Science fair is not the place for proposing “theories” (which have a very different meaning in science than what John is using the word for), but for doing experiments to test the predictions of a specific model.

4. Encourage collaboration: Rather than sharing experiments after the fact, let students collaborate in multiple projects throughout the process.  A student who becomes an expert in data analysis, for example, could lend his or her expertise in other projects.  Similarly, students could modify experiments based upon the observations of others.

Most science fairs (all the ones I’ve ever judged for) allow students to work either as individuals or as small groups. Collaboration is indeed encouraged by many teachers, though only in small groups—large group projects run into serious logistic difficulties, accomplishing less and less as the group gets bigger. I’ve talked about group projects before—group sizes that are optimal for science-fair-sized projects are from one to three students, depending on the project.

John’s proposal that students specialize (doing just data analysis , for example) seems more appropriate for college students than for middle-school students, and more appropriate for projects too large for middle-school science fairs.

5. Modify the presentation component: instead of simply boards or papers, allow for podcasts, websites, blogs, videos and social media reflection.  Create discussion groups where they share their data verbally in a group.

This makes some sense, as the poster presentation is a bit of a limitation on science fairs.  Most of the posters produced bear little resemblance to the posters used at real scientific conferences (except at the high school level, where many students are working with college professors on real science).

Google science fair has experimented with other media—entries had to be done by creating a Google web site, with either a 2-minute video or 20 slides in a Google Docs presentation (not both).  The constraints of these media were even more restrictive than the standard poster, and I know kids who looked at the Google contest as an advertising contest rather than a science contest (and so decided not to participate).

Podcasts and social media reflection are really poor ways to convey the content of a several-month scientific investigation, which is what a good science project is.  A blog recording the daily progress of a project would be an interesting accompaniment to a science fair project, but what is really needed is a solid written report.  It is indeed unfortunate that most science fairs do not judge the reports—indeed in many cases the judges do not get copies of the reports nor time to read them.

I don’t know why John thinks that “sharing data verbally in a group” is a good idea—chatting about data is such a tiny part of a science project (in the real world as well as science fair) that it has almost no point.  When scientists get together to talk, discussions of data only come up when the data are surprising—much more often they talk about methods for gathering data, models that arise from the data, and new experiments that can test those models.

6. Make it a real fair: In other words, instead of simply walking around and checking the grades of each project, create a festival.  Make it a carnival of inquiry.  Bust out the pond water.  Take out the magnifying glasses.  Let children experience the joy of scientific discovery.

John is talking about a different sort of event—one that is also quite common.  I organized a few of these as “Family Science Night”.  They are fun and get kids interested in science—great events and excellent edutainment. They are the advertising, while science fair projects are the work.  Perhaps John believes that science education should be only the entertainment part, and not the work of actually doing large projects.

7. Go global:  Let students compare similar experiments across the world.  Have students develop a shared experiment using Skype, social media, blogging, shared documents and video and then encourage hard dialogue about the cultural conflicts they experience.  Science can become the common ground for crossing the boundaries of presuppositions.

Why should “cultural conflicts” be what students talk about rather than the science itself?  This sounds like John only regards social interactions as interesting, and believes that the only point of science is to give people an excuse for socializing.  There are many easier ways to get at cultural conflicts, if that were the goal.

Running collaborations remotely adds a huge communication overhead to a project.  The science component of science fair projects would have to be scaled way back in order to accommodate this overhead.  If playing with social media is the goal, perhaps some other project could be devised—one that would actually benefit from geographic separation.  Sacrificing science on the altar of social media seems the wrong way to go.

All of John’s suggestions seem to be to take the “science” out of “science fair”.  O, I get that he doesn’t like science, but why take it out of one of the few places it is left in public education?

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