Posts about science education

I was Interviewed About Encouraging Kids to Pursue Engineering

Amanda Moreno interviewed me about Encouraging Kids to Pursue Engineering over on the Knovel Blog.

What can parents do to cultivate an interest in science in their kids early on?

John Hunter: Ask questions. Answer questions. Explain how things work. Explain why things are done the way they are. Kids want the attention of their parents, and when they are younger they are constantly trying to get it (dad look, mom look, watch me!). They have similar feelings when they are older, but are not as forthright about saying what they want. If you take a sincere interest in their questions, you’ll motivate them to continue pondering how the world works. Make it fun to learn. Kids have an intrinsic motivation to learn. Keeping their curiosity alive is the first step.

So, on the university level, professors generally aren’t student-centric enough. What other factors are discouraging students in the classroom?

JH: I have one belief that is close to heresy. I don’t see why publication has to be so important for professors (if what we are after is good teachers, not authors). …

Read the rest of the interview.

Related: Backyard Wildlife: Sharpshinned HawkQubits Construction ToyWhat Kids can Learn By PlayingEncouraging Curiosity in Kids

Eliminating NSF Program to Aid K-12 Science Education

Changing American science and engineering education

In exchange for funding for their graduate studies, Kahler and other fellows contribute to the science curriculum in local primary and secondary schools from kindergarten through grade 12. Kahler taught science at Rogers-Herr Middle School in Durham.

He also taught for two summers in India, and in Texas, as part of Duke TIP, the Talent Identification Program, which identifies academically gifted students and provides them with intellectually stimulating opportunities.

Through these teaching experiences in different locations and cultures, Kahler observed several factors that affect the quality of education in American schools. One important factor is the training of teachers. Unfortunately, teachers are sometimes expected to teach science without having received an adequate background in the subject.

STEM fellows helped to address this problem by contributing their expertise and by helping to increase the scientific literacy of students and their teachers.

Kahler says that NSF GK-12 has a strong, positive impact to change this because it simultaneously improves the educational experience of students in primary and secondary school and trains graduate students to communicate and teach effectively.

Unfortunately, the NSF GK-12 program is no longer in the NSF budget for 2012.

Sadly the USA is choosing to speed money on things that are likely much less worthwhile to our future economic well being. This has been a continuing trend for the last few decades so it is not a surprise that the USA is investing less and less in science and engineering education while other countries are adding substantially to their investments (China, Singapore, Korea, India…).

As I have stated before I think the USA is making a big mistake reducing the investment in science and engineering, especially when so many other countries have figured how how smart such investments are. The USA has enjoyed huge advantages economically from science and engineering leadership and will continue to. But the potential full economic advantages are being reduced by our decisions to turn away from science investment (in education and other ways).

Related: The Importance of Science EducationTop Countries for Science and Math Education: Finland, Hong Kong and KoreaEconomic Strength Through Technology Leadership

I Always Wanted to be Some Sort of Scientist

A nice simple post by a soon to be Dr. of Genetics and Molecular Biology on what being a scientist is like for her. I like her take, which I think is much more accurate than some of the generalities people use. The main reason people (men or women) become scientists because they want to be scientists.

photo of almost-Dr. Caitlin

Photo the almost-Dr. Caitlin

The truth is science requires you to be social. We share ideas, techniques, and equipment. A good scientist knows her limitations and uses someone else’s expertise when her own is not enough. The modern scientist communicates not only through conferences and journals, but also through blogging and Facebook.

When a non-scientist (usually my parents or some other close relative) asks me about what I do, they inevitably want to tie it back to how I’m curing a disease and saving the world. I am not curing a disease or saving the world.

I study science because it’s cool. I study basic science — asking questions for the purpose of learning the answer. That doesn’t mean what I do isn’t important. Lots of ground-breaking medical advances have been made just because someone asked a question no one else thought to ask.

To all you ladies fighting the good fight in other fields, keep at it, because the numbers are going up for women with advanced degrees.

I’ve always wanted to be some sort of scientist. When I was in elementary school I wanted to be a paleontologist because dinosaurs are awesome (and so was “Jurassic Park”). When I was 11, I read the Hot Zone and knew I wanted to be a biologist. Though there were times that I flirted with the Dark Side, i.e., medical school, but mostly only because when my teachers figured out I was good at science they said go to medical school. No one even suggested becoming a scientist.

Great stuff. Good Luck, Caitlin.

Related: Movie Aims to Inspire College Students With Tales of Successful Minority ScientistsKids on Scientists: Before and After Talking to Real Live ScientistsWomen Choosing Other Fields Over Engineering, Math, Physics and Computer Science

Bacteria Living Inside Animals Cells

Interesting discussion on the bacteria living inside our cells. For example, many plants have bacteria that get inside the root system and then help fix nitrogen for the plant. Some sea slugs take the chloroplasts from algae they eat and incorporate it themselves, allowing them to get energy from light (photosynthesis): they become photosynthetic slugs.

Adults need science education more than kids do is also a good segment. And I agree strongly that we (as individuals and society) lose a great deal when we fail to help people enjoy learning about science during their whole lives.

I also like the usability of this widget above, where it lets you include the internal links easily into a video.

Related: Symbiotic relationship between ants and bacteriaBiologists Identified a New Way in Which Bacteria Hijack Healthy CellsUsing Bacteria to Carry Nanoparticles Into CellsThe Economic Consequences of Investing in Science Education

H-index Rank for Countries: for Science Publications

The SCImago Journal and Country Rank provides journal and country scientific indicators. As stated in previous posts, these types of rankings have limitations but they are also interesting. The table shows the top 6 countries by h-index and then some others I chose to list (the top 6 repeat from my post in 2008 – Country H-index Rank for Science Publications). The h-index provides a numeric indication of scientific production and significance (by looking at the citations given papers by other papers). Read more about the h-index (Hirsh index).

Country h-index h-index (2007) % of World
total Cites

1,139 793     4.5% 87,296,701
United Kingdom

689 465     .9% 21,030,171

607 408     1.2% 17,576,464

554 376     1.0% 12,168,898

536 370     .5% 10,375,245

527 372     1.8% 14,341,252
Additional countries of interest
18) China

279 161 19.4% 5,614,294
21) South Korea

258 161     .7% 2,710,566
22) Brazil

239 148  2.8% 1,970,704
25) India

227 146 17.5% 2,590,791
31) Singapore

196 .01% 871,512

Related: Top Countries for Science and Math Education: Finland, Hong Kong and KoreaWorldwide Science and Engineering Doctoral Degree Data Top 15 Manufacturing Countries in 2009Science and Engineering Doctoral Degrees WorldwideRanking Universities Worldwide (2008)Government Debt as Percentage of GDP 1990-2009: USA, Japan, Germany, China…

Help Science Education in Tanzania

Students in Tazania using a microscope

Diana Hall, a physics teacher from Bell High School, Ottawa, Canada is spending 6 months in Tanzania helping build a more active science program. This reminds me of my time in Nigeria (while my father taught Chemical Engineering at the University of Ile Ife to help build a strong university program). It is great to see all the good that people are willing to do.

The objective of the Do Science, Tanzania project is to share teaching strategies and equipment with science teachers and students in Moshi, Tanzania. The goal is to facilitate a more active science program and to inspire students to continue studying beyond the secondary level.

The photo shows students at Reginald Mengi Secondary school, Tanzania, getting their first experience with microscopes in the classroom. There are over 210 Form I (freshman in high school, for you USA readiers) students in 4 classes. The 4 classes had an introduction to the microscope by preparing slides and viewing onion cells.

Working with science teachers is a big part of do Do Science is about. Their blog discusses a recent meeting where 50 science teachers from the Moshi area attended a workshop. The teachers at the workshop modeled thinking exercises, conducted sample labs, investigated computer simulations and interfacing equipment, looked at some DVD resources. and networked.

You can help by donating equipment or money. Or if you are a science teacher with workshop and leadership experience who would consider spending some time in Tanzania as a facilitator?

Related: Learning Design of Experiments with Paper HelicoptersFund Teacher’s Science ProjectsScience Education ResourcesWays to Help Make the World Better

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$60 Million in Grants for Undergraduate Science Education

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) is challenging colleges and universities to think creatively about how they educate future scientists, science teachers, and a scientifically-literate public. The Institute has invited 215 undergraduate-focused colleges and universities from across the country to apply for a total of $60 million in science education grants. I am very happy that HHMI continues to help provide support for science education.

Sadly USA government leaders (local and national) have chosen to cut the importance they place on science education over the last few decades we have coasted on the gains we made in the 1960s and 1970s. That is no way to succeed. Thankfully a few foundations, with HHMI probably leading the way, and some great schools have kept the USA in a leadership position, but that leadership shrinks each year. And at the primary and secondary school level the USA dropped far back in the pack decades ago for science eduction The top countries in primary and secondary science education are now Finland, Hong Kong and Korea.

Since 1988, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute has awarded $820 million to 264 colleges and universities to support science education. Those grants have generally been awarded through two separate but complementary efforts, one aimed at undergraduate-focused institutions and the other at research universities. HHMI support has enabled more than 80,000 students nationwide to work in research labs and developed programs that have helped 95,000 K-12 teachers learn how to teach science more effectively.

The new grants will range from $800,000 to $1.6 million over four years for individual institutions and up to $4.8 million over four years for those applying jointly.

Related: Science Courses for the Next Generation$60 Million for Science Teaching at Liberal Arts Colleges in 2008The Importance of Science EducationGenomics Course For College Freshman Supported by HHMI at 12 Universities$600 Million for Basic Biomedical ResearchScience and technology leadership

The biggest change in the new 2012 competition is the requirement that applicants focus on a single educational goal that unites their proposed science education program. In the past, HHMI’s grants have allowed applicants to submit projects in four categories: student research, faculty development, curriculum and laboratory development, and outreach. Although schools were not expected to put forward a program in every category, Asai notes the modular design of the grant competition often led schools to “check the boxes” rather than encouraging them to think strategically about how these activities can help them reach an overarching science education objective.
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Top Countries for Science and Math Education: Finland, Hong Kong and Korea

The 2009 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA)* report has been released. The report examines the science of 15 year olds from 57 countries in math, science and reading. The main focus of PISA 2009 was reading. The survey also updated performance assessments in mathematics and science.

The Asian countries continue to do very well for several reason including tutoring; they have even turned tutors into rock stars earning millions of dollars. The results show that the focus on student achievement in sciences has had an impact in Asia.

The emphasis is on mastering processes, understanding concepts and functioning in various contexts within each assessment area. the PISA 2012 survey will return to mathematics as the major assessment area, PISA 2015 will focus on science.

Results for the Science portion (rank – country – mean score)(I am not listing all countries):

  • 1 – Finland – 554
  • 2 – Hong Kong – 549
  • 3 – Japan – 539
  • 4 – Korea – 538
  • 5 – New Zealand – 532
  • 6 – Canada – 529
  • 7 – Estonia – 528
  • 8 – Australia – 527
  • 9 – Netherlands – 522
  • 10 – Taiwan – 520
  • 11 – Germany – 520
  • 14 – United Kingdom – 514
  • 21 – USA – 502 (up from 489 and 29th place in 2006)
  • OECD average – 501
  • 25 – France – 498
  • 46 – Mexico – 416
  • 49 – Brazil – 405

Results for the math portion (rank – country – mean score)(I am not listing all countries):
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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

All About Circuits

All About Circuits is an online textbook covering electricity and electronics. Topics covered include: Basic Concepts of Electricity’ OHM’s Law; Electrical Safety; Series and Parallel Circuits; Physics of Conductors and Insulators; Solid-State Device Theory; Binary Arithmetic; Logic Gates; Switches; Digital Storage? It is a great resource. Enjoy.

Related: Textbook RevolutionOpen Access Education MaterialsHigh-quality Curricula and Education Resources for TeachersOnline Mathematics Textbooks

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