Archive for the Education Category

New Habits

Posted in Education, Science on May 5, 2008 by Mike Procario

There is a nice article in the New York Times about creating new habits. It discusses the advantage to the brain of stretching yourself to keep your mind sharp. I taught myself to use the vi editor a couple of years back just to prove to myself that I could. It was clear to me that my older colleagues were loath to learn a new editor as we switched to using Unix when I was a postdoc. I wanted to prove that I was still capable of picking up something new. It looks like this type of exercise is useful as are lots of other ones that are less technical.

“Getting into the stretch zone is good for you,” Ms. Ryan says in “This Year I Will… .” “It helps keep your brain healthy. It turns out that unless we continue to learn new things, which challenges our brains to create new pathways, they literally begin to atrophy, which may result in dementia, Alzheimer’s and other brain diseases. Continuously stretching ourselves will even help us lose weight, according to one study. Researchers who asked folks to do something different every day — listen to a new radio station, for instance — found that they lost and kept off weight. No one is sure why, but scientists speculate that getting out of routines makes us more aware in general.”

A Small Teaching Breakthrough

Posted in Education, physics on November 3, 2006 by Mike Procario

Helping my daughter with her high school physics homework is a much different activity than lecturing to 200 students. I had a real insight last night into the kind of mistakes that students make. The problem was a classic block on a turntable problem. The turntable accelerates at a constant rate and the question is how long before the block slides off.

In this problem the mass of the block was not given, and that was a real stumbling block for my daughter. I told her to just write down m for the mass and keep working. Later in the same problem she needed the angular velocity and was given the angular acceleration. I said just find the angular velocity using the acceleration. I assumed that she would write

ω = αt

but she said that she did not know the time. I pointed out that she was looking for the time. I got very excited at this point. I had discovered a fundamental problem she was having. Her bad habit of plugging in numbers immediately actually prevented her from doing this problem. I probably got too excited. She started to cry.

Since the beginning of the year I have encouraged her to solve the problem symbolically as far as possible and substitute in numbers as late as possible. In general she has ignored my well thought out fatherly advice and tried to plug in numbers as soon as possible. After she calmed down I explained how her way of doing things prevented her from solving the problem. I hope this lesson sticks.

Virtual Laboratories

Posted in Education, Science on October 20, 2006 by Mike Procario

An article in the New York Times discusses a review by the College Board of the role of virtual laboratories in advanced placement.

“Professors are saying that simulations can be really good, that they use them to supplement their own lab work, but that they’d be concerned about giving credit to students who have never had any experience in a hands-on lab,” said Trevor Packer, the board’s executive director for Advanced Placement. “You could have students going straight into second-year college science courses without ever having used a Bunsen burner.”

I think as a pedagogical tool these virtual laboratories are a great tool. They tend to constrain the mistakes that students can make. Becoming skilled in a laboratory is an important hurdle for future scientists, but for non-scientists it the effort is probably too much work for the benefit. In a previous post I mention the advantage of doing a bunch of conservation of momentum measurements. I think simulated collisions would do a very good job at teaching the concept.

Teaching Again

Posted in Education, physics, Science on October 18, 2006 by Mike Procario

My youngest daughter is taking algebra based physics in high school. The middle one is taking AP calculus in high school, and the oldest is taking honors calculus-based physics. They are keeping me busy.

My youngest was asking me about conservation of momentum problems last night. The book did something that I liked. It did not ask for actual numerical answers, but instead asked if the available information was enough to solve the problem. For example, you know the masses and momenum of two objects before a collision and the velocity of one after the collision. Can you find the velocity of the other after the collision. After doing a few of these I instructed her to write the equation for conservation of momentum.

m1v1i + m2v2i= m1v1f + m2v2f

Now cross out each item that you know and ask if there is only one unkown left. I get to cross out both terms on the left side since I know the initial momenta and I can cross out m1,m2, and v1f. I am left with just v2f so I can solve for it.Well it turns out that writing that equation which is just second nature to me is a big stumbling block for a new student. I immediately switch to abstract thinking. There is a lot of content in my choices of labels. 1 and 2 indicate that there are two different mass objects and they can have different velocities. The i and f indicate that the velocity can change in the collision. The fact that there is no i and f on the masses means that objects do not stick to gether or fall apart.How does one encourage that conceptual leap? Do you do many concrete examples and hope the student begins to infer the abstraction or do you lead them through it?

Update: I think some experimental introduction is probably the best approach. Measure a bunch of momenta before and after a collision and see that the momentum is always conserved.

Are Boys in Crisis?

Posted in Education on April 9, 2006 by Mike Procario

There have been many articles on the trouble that boys are having in school. Today I saw one disputing that. As usual I find the situation is a little more subtle and a little more complex than either side admits. Today's article states.

Although we have been hearing that boys are virtually disappearing from college classrooms, the truth is that among whites, the gender composition of colleges is pretty balanced: 51 percent female and 49 percent male, according to the National Education Association. In Ivy League colleges, men still outnumber women.

I have no doubt that the authors, Caryl Rivers and Rosalind Chait Barnett, can support that fact. It is most likely true. However, a recent opinion piece in the New York Times by the dean of admissions of Kenyon College stated that many elite college have to work to maintain a 50/50 male-female ratio on their campuses. The article is no longer freely available at the New York Times, but I found this reprint.

Rivers and Barnett do admit to problems with non-white boys.

But among blacks, for every 100 males who graduate, 139 females do. Florida's graduation rates among all students show a striking picture of race and class: 81 percent for Asians, 60 percent for whites, 48 percent for Hispanics and 46 percent for blacks.

In my experience there are still problems with middle class boys. I have three daughters so my experience is indirect. My oldest daughter won an internship at the National Cancer Institute (NCI) in Frederick, MD. The program takes the best high school students from around Frederick County, Maryland and brings them into NCI's labs to get experience with real science. Frederick County is majority white and increasingly suburban, but the the number of girls who won internships was strikingly large. I do not remember the exact count, but just the impression, "Where are the boys?"

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Are the Ivies Worth It?

Posted in Education on April 4, 2006 by Mike Procario

The Washington Post Magazine has an article questioning the value of an Ivy League education. I have a significant amount of experience with the Ivy League. I am an alumnus of the University of Pennsylvania. I did my postdoctoral research for Harvard, although since we were collaborating with Cornell I actually was located in there, so I have experience with three of the eight Ivies.

I think that that perception that the Ivies were a guaranteed ticket to success grew at the same time that the Ivies were losing their dominance. In my field of physics when I look at faculty members who are 10 to 20 years older than me, I see almost exclusively graduates of the Ivies, MIT, Caltech, and Chicago, but when I look at the people who got faculty jobs around the same time as me as the universities represented are much more diverse with all major research universities represented including the large state schools. This seems to be consistent with the article's reporting on CEOs.

A study by the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania (an Ivy) found that in 1980, 14 percent of top executives at Fortune 100 companies received their undergraduate degrees from an Ivy League school. That figure was down to 10 percent by 2001. At the same time, the percentage of executives with undergraduate degrees from public colleges and universities climbed from 32 percent in 1980 to 48 percent in 2001.

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Harvard Shmarvard

Posted in Education on March 7, 2006 by Mike Procario

I agree with the sentiments expressed in this review of Getting In Without Freaking Out. In particular I think the section about how irrational the admission process is should be pounded into the heads of both perspective students and parents. The most prestigious schools have so many high quality applicants there is almost nothing you can do to guarantee your admission.

I have long preached the irrationality of the admissions process for the most selective schools. Many of the people they don’t accept are just as smart and talented as the ones they do, which is one reason why some of their wait lists are longer than their accept lists. Matthews takes this one step further and encourages parents to assume always that the process will at some point hurt their kid for no good reason. “Railing against the inevitable amount of random unfairness to which your child will be subjected will only make you crazy,” she says.

I saw a documentary about the admissions process at Georgetown as my own daughter was applying to colleges. The admission committee struggled to make distinctions between many very good students with only limited information. Different people on the admissions committee would draw completely opposite conclusions from the same material. In one example, a student with an excellent academic record and high standardized test scores was also a serious ballerina. One committee member found thought this student showed an excellent work ethic that would lead her to do well at Georgetown while another thought that she was really more interested in ballet and would not be able to handle the college workload while pursuing dance.

One can get a quality education at a variety of institutions. I received my B.A. from the University of Pennsylvania, an Ivy League school, and my Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin, a large state university and a Big Ten school. There were many more students at Wisconsin, but in my area of study physics the top students there were competitive with the Penn students and the education they received was just as good. At a big school like Wisconsin a student needs to show a little more initiative to make sure he or she is taking the best classes like honors classes and seek out the extra opportunities like research experience.

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