Posts about Education

Learn About Biology Online

Very cool site for learning about biology. I have tried the courses offered by Coursera but they are too structured for my taste. I want to be able to learn at my pace and dip into the areas I find interesting. Coursera is more like a real course, that has weekly assignments and the like.

Survivebio is a resources that matches my desires exactly. You can go and learn about whatever topics you desire, when you desire. The site offers webcasts, games, flashcards, chapter outlines, practice tests and a forum to discuss the ideas.

In this webcast, Paul Andersen discusses the specifics of phylogenetics. The evolutionary relationships of organisms are discovered through both morphological and molecular data.

The aim of the SurviveBio web site is to aid AP (and college) biology students. But it is also a great resource to learn about biology if you are interested in that topic. Hopefully they will add more webcasts. The site uses webcasts from Bozeman Science which has a huge number of very good videos on biology and also, chemistry, physics, earth science, statistics, anatomy and physiology.

Related: Great Webcast Explaining the Digestive SystemsCell Aging and Limits Due to TelomeresHuman Gene Origins: 37% Bacterial, 35% Animal, 28% Eukaryotic

Given Tablets but No Teachers, Kids Teach Themselves – Having Never Seen Advanced Technology Before

In a repetition of an experiment I have posted about here on the Curious Cat Science and Engineering Blog before (Letting Children Learn – Hole in the Wall Computers): Given Tablets but No Teachers, Ethiopian Children Teach Themselves

The experiment is being done in two isolated rural villages with about 20 first-grade-aged children each, about 50 miles from Addis Ababa. One village is called Wonchi, on the rim of a volcanic crater at 11,000 feet; the other is called Wolonchete, in the Great Rift Valley. Children there had never previously seen printed materials, road signs, or even packaging that had words on them, Negroponte said.

Earlier this year, OLPC workers dropped off closed boxes containing the tablets, taped shut, with no instruction. “I thought the kids would play with the boxes. Within four minutes, one kid not only opened the box, found the on-off switch … powered it up. Within five days, they were using 47 apps per child, per day. Within two weeks, they were singing ABC songs in the village, and within five months, they had hacked Android,” Negroponte said. “Some idiot in our organization or in the Media Lab had disabled the camera, and they figured out the camera, and had hacked Android.”

Nicholas Negroponte has tendency to overstate the fact from what I remember. I don’t think what he claims as “hacking Android” here is what a real scientist would claim as than is a write up of the results of the experiment. He could well mean they updated a setting or some similar thing. It is a shame to mislead when the bare facts are so cool. And possibly he isn’t misleading – I just am worried he is.

Also what does 47 apps per day mean? I can’t understand how you can usefully (including entertainment do that in any sensible way) – I doubt I use 15 applications in a month and I use the computer hours every single day. Makes me worry that “using” is not a very enlightening piece of data – instead just trying to make it seem like using 47 must mean they are engaged; it seems more likely to me to mean they are not used successfully so they have to go try something else or they are counting “used” in ways we wouldn’t.

Once a week, a technician visits the villages and swaps out memory cards so that researchers can study how the machines were actually used.

These kinds of experiments are very cool. They show how intrinsically curious we are are. Sadly our schools often beat the curiosity out of kids instead of engaging it.

Related: What Kids can Learn (look at the same idea in 2006)Providing Computer to Remote Students in Nepal (2009)$100 Laptops for the World

2012 Gordon Prize for Innovation in Engineering and Technology Education

I have posted on the Olin College of Engineering several times. I really like what they are doing. Innovation in engineering education will pay high dividends, especially providing a focus on the nexus of engineering and entrepreneurship.

Olin College of Engineering’s three founding academic leaders, Richard Miller, David Kerns and Sherra Kerns, received one of engineering’s highest honors – the Bernard M. Gordon Prize. The $500,000 prize is awarded by the National Academy of Engineering to recognize innovation in engineering and technological education.

“This team of educational innovators has had a profound impact on society by improving the way we educate the next generation of engineers,” said NAE President Charles M. Vest. “Olin serves as an exemplar for the rest of the engineering world and a collaborative agent for change.”

Armed with one of the largest gifts in the history of higher education, the F. W. Olin Foundation recruited Richard Miller as Olin’s first employee in 1999. To help build the college from scratch, Miller recruited the founding academic leadership team including David Kerns and Sherra Kerns later that year. Together, they developed a vision for an engaging approach to teaching engineering and a new culture of learning that is intensely student centered.

To insure a fresh approach, Olin does not offer tenure, has no academic departments, offers only degrees in engineering, and provides large merit-based scholarships to all admitted students.

Perhaps the most important contribution the Gordon prize recipients made was the creation of a profoundly inclusive and collaborative process of experimentation and decision-making involving students in every aspect of the invention of the institution. This is illustrated by the decision in 2001 to recruit 30 young students to spend a year as “partners” in residence with the faculty in conducting many experiments together before establishing the first curriculum.

“As entrepreneurs, we learn to listen to our customers. Olin’s innovative approach was co-created by enterprising faculty, inspired students, and a dedicated staff, as well as collecting and integrating innovative approaches from more than 30 other institutions worldwide,” said David Kerns, current faculty at Olin and founding provost and chief academic officer of the college from 1999 to 2007.

With the extensive help of a collaborative team of faculty and students, and the guidance of the late Dr. Michael Moody, a novel academic program emerged. Some of the features include a nearly gender-balanced community, a strong focus on design process throughout all four years, extensive use of team projects, a requirement that students repeatedly “stand and deliver” to the entire community at the end of every semester, an experiential requirement in business and entrepreneurship, a capstone requirement outside of engineering, and a year-long corporate-sponsored design project in which corporations pay $50,000 per project.

Related: Illinois and Olin Aim to Transform Engineering EducationWebcast: Engineering Education in the 21st CenturyImproving Engineering EducationHow the Practice and Instruction of Engineering Must Change

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Numeracy: The Educational Gift That Keeps on Giving

I like numbers. I always have. This is just luck, I think. I see, how helpful it is to have a good understanding of numbers. Failing to develop a facility with numbers results in many bad decisions, it seems to me.

A new article published in closed anti-science way, sadly (so no link), examines how people who are numerate (like literate but for number—understand) process information differently so that they ultimately make more informed decisions. Cancer risks. Investment alternatives. Calories. Numbers are everywhere in daily life, and they figure into all sorts of decisions.

People who are numerate are more comfortable thinking about numbers and are less influenced by other information, says Ellen Peters of Ohio State University (sadly Ohio State allows research by staff paid by them to be unavailable to the public – sad), the author of the new paper. For example, in one of Peters’s studies, students were asked to rate undergraduates who received what looked like different test scores. Numerate people were more likely to see a person who got 74% correct and a person who got 26% incorrect as equivalent, while people who were less numerate thought people were doing better if their score was given in terms of a percent correct.

People make decisions based on this sort of information all the time. For example, “A lot of people take medications,” Peters says. Every drug has benefits and potential risks, and those can be presented in different ways. “You can talk about the 10 percent of the population that gets the side effect or the 90 percent that does not.” How you talk about it will influence how dangerous the drug seems to be, particularly among people who are less numerate.

Other research has shown that only less numerate people respond differently to something that has a 1 in 100 chance of happening than something that has a 1 percent chance of happening. The less numerate see more risk in the 1 in 100 chance—even though these numbers are exactly the same.

“In general, people who are numerate are better able to bring consistent meaning to numbers and to make better decisions,” Peters says. “It suggests that courses in math and statistics may be the educational gift that keeps on giving.”

Related: full press releaseBigger Impact: 15 to 18 mpg or 50 to 100 mpg?Data Doesn’t Lie, But People Can be FooledUnderstanding Data: Simpson’s Paradoxapplied statistics is not about proving a theorem, it’s about being curious about thingsEncouraging Curiosity in KidsDangers of Forgetting the Proxy Nature of DataCompounding is the Most Powerful Force in the Universe

Top Online Graduate Engineering Programs in the USA

Online degree programs are growing quickly in popularity in the USA. Over 6 million students took online courses in 2011. The costs of traditional education continue to rise at extremely high rates – schools have done a horrible job of dealing with this. I personally, don’t understand how they have done so horribly on this measure. Administration costs have exploded. Building vanity projects that costs tens of millions of dollars add little to student achievement and waste limited resources driving up costs.

We really need to find administrators that will reduce administrative staffing levels and costs. Let some schools continue on the ego driven spiraling costs, but let us at least find some who will focus on reducing education costs and providing good education at reasonable costs. For engineering, more than maybe any other discipline, I can excuse some of the costs. But given the universal failure to manage costs I think the failure to manage costs is the primary issue (the extra demands for spending on engineering education, I understand).

The failure to stop the lavish spending has greatly increased the demand for online education. Given the unreasonable cost increases for traditional education many are priced out of considering that option. Given how unable schools have proven to be at providing good education for reasonable rates the last few decades it is reasonable to assume online education will continue to gain popularity. I don’t see the top tier schools facing much competition from online efforts (even if some students are drawn away there are plenty wanting to upgrade their school choice at whatever the cost – as the administrators know as they continue to drive up costs).

One danger is that online education is hardly a proved commodity yet. Both in terms of what you learn and the acceptance and desirability of degrees. So right now students are having to make guesses that are more challenging with online programs than the traditional choices. US News and World Report has selected 3 online engineering master’s programs for the honor roll.

Related: Engineering Education in the 21st CenturyHow the Practice and Instruction of Engineering Must ChangeGlobal Engineering Education Study

Encouraging Curiosity in Kids

How do you help make your children scientifically literate? I think the biggest thing you can do is encourage curiosity.

One way to encourage curiosity it is by answering their questions (and not saying: I am too busy, don’t bother me, don’t ask me?, stop asking why…). I know adults are busy and have all sorts of stuff we are trying to get done; and the question about why I need to wash my hands doesn’t seem worth answering. But I think anytime a kid is asking why is an opportunity to teach and encourage them to keep being curious.

It is very easy to shut off this curiosity, in our society anyway (we do it to the vast majority of people). The biggest difference I see between adults and kids is not maturity or responsibility but curiosity (or lack thereof in adults) and joy (versus adults who seem to be on valium all the time – maybe they are).

As they grow up kids will have lots of science and technology questions that you don’t know the answers to. If you want them to be curious and knowledgeable, put in the effort to find answers with them. You have to help them find the answers in a way that doesn’t turn them off. If you just say – go look it up yourself (which really they can do), maybe the 2% that are going to become scientists will. But most kids will just give up and turn off their curiosity a little bit more (until eventually it is almost gone and they are ready to fit into the adult world). Which is very sad.

Once you get them used to thinking and looking things up they will start to do this on their own. A lot of this just requires thinking (no need to look things up – once a certain base knowledge is achieved). But you need to set that pattern. And it would help if you were curious, thought and learned yourself.

Photo of kids intently studying on a Malaysian beach

My mom with a group of Malaysia kids apparently intent on learning something. I am there, but not visible in this photo. Photo by my father.

While walking in the park, see one of those things you are curious about and ask why does…? It is good to ask kids why and let them think about it and try and answer. Get them in the habit of asking why themselves. And in those cases when no-one knows, take some time and figure it out. Ask some questions (both for yourself – to guide your thinking – and to illustrate how to think about the question and figure things out). If you all can’t find an explanation yourselves, take some time to look it up. Then at dinner, tell everyone what you learned. This will be much more interesting to the kids than forcing them to elaborate on what they did today and help set the idea that curiosity is good and finding explanations is interesting.

It is fun as a kid if your parent is a scientist or engineer (my father was an engineering professor).

You often don’t notice traits about yourself. In the same what I know what red looks like to me, I figure we both see this red shirt you see the red that I do. But maybe you don’t. I tend to constantly be asking myself why. If I see something new (which is many, many times a day – unless I am trapped in some sad treadmill of sameness) I ask why is it that way and then try and answer. I think most of this goes on subconsciously or some barely conscious way. I actually had an example a few months ago when I was visiting home with my brother (who is pretty similar to me).

As we were driving, I had noticed some fairly tall poles that seemed to have really small solar panels on top. I then noticed they were space maybe 20 meters apart. Then saw that there seemed to be a asphalt path along the same line. I then decided, ok, they are probably solar panels to power a light for the path at night. Then my brother asked why are there those small solar panel on top of that pole?

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Ten Things Everyone Should Know About Science

As the writer of this blog (which is located at engineering.curiouscatblog.net) I am a strong believer in the importance of scientific literacy. Neil Degrasse Tyson stated the importance very well, as I mentioned in a previous post, the scientifically literate see a different world

If you are scientifically literate the world looks very different to you. Its not just a lot of mysterious things happening. There is a lot we understand out there. And that understanding empowers you to, first, not be taken advantage of by others who do understand it. And second there are issues that confront society that have science as their foundation. If you are scientifically illiterate, in a way, you are disenfranchising yourself from the democratic process, and you don’t even know it.

The Financial Times has complied a list of the 10 things everyone should know about science

  1. Evolution – previous posts: Evolution is Fundamental to Scienceposts tagged: evolution
  2. Genes and DNA – tags: genesgeneticsDNARNA
  3. Big bang – tags: physics, posts mentioning big bang
  4. Relativity – General Relativity Einstein/Essen Anniversary Test – posts mentioning relativity
  5. Quantum mechanics – Quantum Mechanics Made Relatively Simple Podcasts, Quantum mechanics
  6. Radiation
  7. Atoms and nuclear reactions
  8. Molecules and chemical reactions – posts on chemistry
  9. Digital data – I must admit, even reading their comments, I don’t understand what they are thinking here. There certainly is a great deal of digital data and the future certainly going to involve a great deal more, but this just doesn’t fit, in my opinion.
  10. Statistical significance – Seeing Patterns Where None Exists, Statistics Insights for Scientists and Engineers, Correlation is Not Causation post on statisticsexperimentation

It is a challenge to create such a list. I agree with most of what they have. I would like to look at changing the last 2 and radiation, though. I would probably include something about the scientific method rather than statistical significance. Another area I would consider is something about bacteria and/or viruses. You can maybe include them under genes, but viruses and bacteria are amazing in the very strange things they do with genes and I think that is worthy of its own item. Another possibility is thinking of separating out a second spot for things related to the scientific method – causation, randomized testing, multivariate experiments… I would also consider one, or more of the following or something related to them biology – chlorophyll, the the life of bacteria in our bodies, something related to human health (how drugs work, medical studies…), etc..

The Ten Things Everyone Should Know About Science

Evolution through natural selection remains as valid today as it was 150 years ago when expressed with great elegance by Charles Darwin in The Origin of Species. The mechanism of evolution depends on the fact that tiny hereditable changes take place the whole time in all organisms, from microbes to people.

An important feature of Darwinian evolution is that it operates at the level of the individual. There is no mechanism for natural selection to change the species as a whole, other than through the accumulation of changes that lead to the survival of the fittest individuals.

The rate of evolution varies enormously between different types of organism and different environmental circumstances. It can proceed very quickly when the pressure is great, as, for example, with bacteria exposed to antibiotics, when drug-resistant mutations may arise and spread through the bacterial population within months.

Why does it matter? Evolution is coming under renewed assault, particularly in the US, from fundamentalist Christians who want creationism to be taught in schools. Although evolution has had virtually unanimous support from professional scientists for at least a century, polls show that American public opinion still favours creationism.

Related: Poor Results on Evolution and Big Bang Questions Omitted From NSF ReportNearly Half of Adults in the USA Don’t Know How Long it Takes the Earth to Circle the SunScience Knowledge Quiz

Bronx High School of Nobel Prize for Physics Laureates

Bronx physics

Bronx Science owes its historic status to the fact that seven future Nobel-prize-winning physicists went through its doors – more than any other high school in the world and more than most countries have ever achieved. The school, which opened in 1938, was founded by the educator Morris Meister, who believed that if a school put bright students together, it would kindle ill-defined but valuable learning processes. The school seems to have proved him right: according to the Bronx laureates, their physics learning took place mainly outside the classroom.

Leon Cooper, who shared the 1972 prize for work on superconductivity, recalls physics lessons as boring, and was far more enchanted by his biology classes, which lured him to stay late after school designing and running experiments “until they threw me out”. Indeed, the school’s basic-physics textbook was written by a certain Charles E Dull, whose work, though widely used in US high schools, lived up to his name. The future particle physicist Melvin Schwartz, who shared the 1988 Nobel gong, once told me his classmates’ excited discussions – not his teacher – were what first awakened his interest in physics.

[today] the school’s most fearsome physics module – Advanced Placement Physics C – is tougher than most college-physics courses. Its dynamic instructor is Ghada Nehmeh, who was born in Lebanon and studied nuclear physics. Diminutive – smaller than most of her students – and scarf-clad, she jumps rapidly from lab table to lab table, helping piece together equipment and analyse results. Famous for being ruthlessly demanding, she tests the students on their first day by assigning them 40 calculus problems, due back the next day. “I’d never seen derivatives before,” says Kezi Cheng, a senior interested in theoretical physics. So Cheng did what most Bronx Science students do – she asked her classmates to give her a crash course on the subject. “They’re always willing to help.”

Sounds like a great place to go to school. The article also has some good anecdotes about how these students learned by seeking knowledge themselves not passively sitting and being lectured to.

Related: Science Education in the 21st CenturyFeynman “is a second Dirac, only this time human”The Nobel Prize in Physics 2009Letting Children Learn, Hole in the Wall Computers

The DIY Movement Revives Learning by Doing

School for Hackers

The ideal educational environment for kids, observes Peter Gray, a professor of psychology at Boston College who studies the way children learn, is one that includes “the opportunity to mess around with objects of all sorts, and to try to build things.” Countless experiments have shown that young children are far more interested in objects they can control than in those they cannot control—a behavioral tendency that persists. In her review of research on project-based learning (a hands-on, experience-based approach to education), Diane McGrath, former editor of the Journal of Computer Science Education, reports that project-based students do as well as (and sometimes better than) traditionally educated students on standardized tests, and that they “learn research skills, understand the subject matter at a deeper level than do their traditional counterparts, and are more deeply engaged in their work.” In The Upside of Irrationality, Dan Ariely, a behavioral psychologist at Duke University, recounts his experiments with students about DIY’s effect on well-being and concludes that creating more of the things we use in daily life measurably increases our “feelings of pride and ownership.” In the long run, it also changes for the better our patterns of thinking and learning.

Unfortunately, says Gray, our schools don’t teach kids how to make things, but instead train them to become scholars, “in the narrowest sense of the word, meaning someone who spends their time reading and writing. Of course, most people are not scholars. We survive by doing things.”

I am a big believer in fostering kids natural desire to learn by teaching through tinkering.

Related: Build Your Own Tabletop Interactive Multi-touch ComputerHome Engineering: Building a HovercraftScience Toys You Can Make With Your KidsHands-on High School Engineering Education in MinnesotaAutomatic Cat Feeder

Letting Children Learn – Hole in the Wall Computers

The hole in the wall experiments are exactly the kind of thing I love to lean about. I wrote about them in 2006, what kids can learn.

Research finding from the Hole in the Wall foundation:

Over the 4 year research phase (2000-2004), HiWEL has extensively studied the impact of Learning Stations on children. Hole-in-the-Wall Learning Stations were installed in diverse settings, the impact of interventions was monitored and data was continually gathered, analyzed and interpreted. Rigorous assessments were conducted to measure academic achievement, behaviour, personality profile, computer literacy and correlations with socio-economic indicators.

The sociometric survey found:

  • Self-organizing groups of children who organize themselves into Leaders (experts), Connectors and Novice groups.
  • Leaders and Connectors identified seem to display an ability to connect with and teach other users.
  • Key leaders on receiving targeted intervention, play a key role in bringing about a “multiplier effect in learning” within the community.
  • Often girls are seen to take on the role of Connector, who initiates younger children and siblings (usually novices with little or no exposure to computers) and connects them to the leaders in the group

I believe traditional education is helpful. I believe people are “wired” to learn. They want to learn. We need to create environments that let them learn. We need to avoid crushing the desire to learn (stop de-motivating people).

If you want to get right to talking about the hole in the wall experiments, skip to the 8 minute mark.

Related: Providing Computer to Remote Students in NepalTeaching Through TinkeringKids Need Adventurous PlayScience Toys You Can Make With Your Kids

Poor Results on Evolution and Big Bang Questions Omitted From NSF Report

Evolution, Big Bang Polls Omitted From NSF Report by Yudhijit Bhattacharjee

The section, which was part of the unedited chapter on public attitudes toward science and technology, notes that 45% of Americans in 2008 answered true to the statement, “Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals.” The figure is similar to previous years and much lower than in Japan (78%), Europe (70%), China (69%), and South Korea (64%). The same gap exists for the response to a second statement, “The universe began with a big explosion,” with which only 33% of Americans agreed.

The USA continues to lag far behind the rest of the world in this basic science understanding. Similar to how we lag in other science and mathematical education. Nearly Half of Adults in the USA Don’t Know How Long it Takes the Earth to Circle the Sun.

Jon Miller, a science literacy researcher at Michigan State University in East Lansing who authored the survey 3 decades ago and conducted it for NSF until 2001. “Evolution and the big bang are not a matter of opinion. If a person says that the earth really is at the center of the universe, even if scientists think it is not, how in the world would you call that person scientifically literate? Part of being literate is to both understand and accept scientific constructs.”

I completely agree. People have the right to their opinions. But those opinions which are related to scientific knowledge (whether it is about evolution, the origin of the universe, cancer, the speed of light, polio vaccinations, multi-factorial designed experiments, magnetic fields, chemical catalysts, the effectiveness of antibiotics against viral infections, electricity, optics, bioaccumulation, etc.) are part of their scientific literacy. You can certainly believe antibiotics are affective against viral infections but that is an indication you are scientifically illiterate on that topic.

2006 NSF chapter that included the results
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