Thursday, January 12, 2017

Linear Thinking and Hub 4 CIS^2

In his book "The Biology of Belief" Lipton does a great job shifting the paradigm of nucleo-centered biology to membrane-centered biology and uses quantum physics as a powerful tool to argument for the shift. (For a Youtube video of this book click here) The importance of this new way of looking at how cells function is that it gives the environment a critical roll in the behavior and development of cells and organisms in general. Environmental stimuli are critical in the way we think. In a similar way John Medina in his book Brain Rules tries to articulate principles that explain why the mind works the way it does. (To see the rules click here.)
When one thinks about how to learn something or how to teach something we normally assume many things and ideas that should not be assumed. For instance the fact that we are all different, we are different at the nanoscopic, microscopic, and macroscopic levels, meaning that there is a genetic, organic, and environmental difference. Paradoxically we all -at the same time- aspire to unity, homogeneity, and similarity. How can we work with this paradox in education? It really looks like the old nature versus nurture dilemma but it is not. This paradox provides with an integrative approach to understanding how we survive and thrive in our work, family, and society in general.

Changes require changing, as I belive Yogi Berra would say, so what kind of changes do we have to do in order to have a positive influence in the changes that inevitably are going on.
So far linear thinking has guided us here. In many ways our society is based on linear thinking, but that is not longer (maybe hasn't been for some time!) the case. We need to thing more organically. We need a non-linear -web like- way of doing things. The Internet has proven the efficiency of this model. But has also opened possibilities for wrong doing. This is where there is a very important role of education in guiding the changes that are occurring.
I have developed an idea for a setting; an idea for a context and an environment. I call it Urban Hub 4 CIS2. Urban Hub for Creativity, Innovation, Sustainability, and Stewardship. In this Hub 4 CIS2 people will join others in their pursuit of learning. Means and attitudes will be there to help all who want in the achievement of their goals. Including of course academic and vocational counseling to those who need it as some will need some help in defining their goals, objectives, and aptitudes to accomplish them. Students will flourish as they find their strengths and institutions will prosper as they increase the efficiency in which they serve their constituents. It is a win-win-win proposition. The individual wins as s/he becomes more involved, aware, and engaged with is his/her (hir) success. The institutions win as they become more effective, solid, and sustainable. And, of course, we all -society- wins as it becomes more just and equilibrated.   

Sunday, January 8, 2017

More Trust

It has been a long time since I posted on this blog, and it was about Trust. In it (click here to review) I mention how leadership is based on trust. But then I was not thinking so much about institutional trust, the trust that people have on institutions. Indirectly of course there is a relationship between personal/individual trust within an institution and the trust that refers to the institution. Now I want to address how trust in the institution affects the way we trust each other. In particular the trust that is necessary between educators and students to guarantee student success. (If there is any way to guarantee student success it is through trust.)

As we live in a continuous changing world we have to be aware of types, and areas where these changes are taking place. This analysis and awareness is difficult because the orthodoxies of life give the impression that there is some stability and the Status Quo dominates our actions, behaviors and aspirations. There is a strong inertia in our ability to read history and to understand who we are based on were we have been. Specially when, regarding education, there are norms established by accreditation institutions.

At the forefront of changes in education is the one related to science. STEM not only has fed changes with a lot of energy but in a way it has guided the direction in which these changes have occurred. Changes in medicine, energy, transportation, communication, and in general how we relate to our environment. We can't continue teaching science in the same way we have been teaching for the last 300 years. There are some paradigms like the definition and use of the scientific method that can and should continue to be adopted, but the delivery of these paradigms might (most like shouldn't) be different.

Paradoxically it looks like some of the changes that are occurring appear to move backwards. To some kind of original intent in our society. For example it looks like we are going back to the idea of personal prestige rather than the prestige of the institution. We have never lost the personification of some institutions as we clearly identify individuals with some corporations. More so if this institutions are of recent creation, say Microsoft is clearly identified with Bill Gates, but with older institutions where their founders are long gone is not that easy. Who can identify a person with GM, GE, Ford, MIT, or Harvard? If you are not in that area of business for sure you will not know who is in change of these macro-organizations. Who knows who control Twitter, PayPal, Uber, Airbnb, or the WWW? Again if you are not in the business you will not know. But... For sure you know what these are and what do they do, as most likely you are one of their users. (Note that I didn't mention Facebook!)

A recent TED talk by Rachel Botsman (Jun, 2016) discuss the implications of technology on the way that we trust each other, the way in which we grade and evaluate each other, including services provided by institutions. This is having a direct impact on the way we learn and teach. We now have institutions providing information and knowledge that in some cases is certified through MOOCs. These courses and certifications are from well established (accredited) institutions such as MIT, and others through their own systems of delivery (MIT OpenCourseWare) or through independent delivery systems such as edX, Coursera, and others.

Now, the question is how can we be ready for these changes. As an academic my interest has been on how can I be a better teaching professor? What kind of organization is better to confront the challenges of today? How can I be part of the strengthening of the organization? The answers to these questions are complex, and require deep analysis. But most importantly the answers require a sense of hope and optimism.

As an organization we have to become in many ways what Brown-McNair et al. in their book "Becoming a Student-Ready College".

A body of people focused on serving a diverse population of students.

Friday, October 2, 2015


Over the years humans have developed ways of relating that is chemically based on hormones of love, compassion, gumption, and trust. Oxytocin has been identified as the chemical produced in response to the feeling of safety and protection one get when living in a community where the leader is satisfying their needs.
In the classroom we have a similar situation when learning something that is challenging. The leader, in this case the teacher, has to make sure that students are aware of the value, the 'worth' of their education. Teaching science is specially challenging due to the complex nature of its language, not only math is involved but particular nomenclature and vocabulary that comes from an intricate historical evolution.

In his book 'Leaders Eat Last' Simon Sinek explores the importance of understanding the relationship between how one feel in some environment (like work) based on the behavior of the leaders of that environment. Underlying this behaviors are chemicals (Endorphins, Dopamine, Serotonin, and Oxytocin) generated by our body. For a short version of his book have a look at his presentation in Youtube

So why am I thinking about this in relationship to my teaching?

It seems clear to me that when students come to class are in search among other things of a leader. The teacher as a coach has to be dependable and more important has to be a leader. A leader that has gain the trust of their students.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

New Ideas for The New Academic Year

Over summer I had the opportunity to read a lot about teaching in general and in particular about higher ed. The two main areas in pedagogy that made an impact on my thinking are: constructivism and individualism.

The first one, constructionism (constructivism), refers to the idea de we learn building on top of other ideas. As more complex phenomena is understood based on the relationships that it has with simpler experiences.

The second one, individualism, is based on the idea that we all are different and thus have our own ways of learning new concepts. This last area has to be viewed within the context of the similarities that we have just because we are humans and our brains basic functions are the same. The subtle differences then come not from the basic functions but from how this basic functions relate.

The problem is that these relationships are non-linear and in our organizations we have a lot of linearity like the way we design courses in the 100, 200, and higher levels. One may assume that the 100 level is for nomenclature development, while the 200 level allow for the solution of problems that require quantification. Higher levels will introduce the synthesis and analysis beyond quantification but including it.

As I am teaching General Chemistry at the 200 level and Organic Chemistry at the 300 level, I can put into practice these ideas and as I move along I will write about it giving specific examples.

Do you have any examples of these ideas.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Continuously Changing Learning Objectives

Teaching science is challenging for a lot of reasons one of which is that learning objectives are shifting with changes in our scientific and technologic reality. Take for instance the development of robots. Robots have been in the mind of futurologist, technologist, and industrialists since the beginning of the industrial revolution (maybe before) mainly to replace humans doing unpleasant tasks.

Reading Diane Ackerman's book The Human Age I am exploring the idea of the possibility of self aware robots.

Image form Amazon
This exploration made me think about the problem of teaching a subject like chemistry that is being transformed by the use of "artificial" intelligence. Computer models that can replicate chemical reactions and gather data that is retrofitted to the algorithm so through many fast iterations a final reactant can be identified as the best. For an example of a computational drug design look at this youtube video 

In this video you can see as the molecule is modified to fit in the dock the enthalpy of the hydrogen bond which is a measure of fitness is calculated and displayed.

Of course these experiments can't be done by someone without basic knowledge of bonding, atomic and molecular orbitals, molecular structures, and thermodynamics. But all of these concepts are there in cyberspace and constitute 'knowledge' that is universally shared. The main problem is that now there is no way we can teach everything that is available in any branch of science, like it was the case a century ago. The issue, for me, becomes how to structure a systematic process where students will learn basic concepts that include how to get the necessary information from the internet. The cloud becomes the hub where students transit for the interconnection of ideas and tests. Hypothesis are explored in this new environment where collaboration becomes the norm and communication (including of course the proper language) the most powerful tool.

So, the question becomes: how much time should be invested in learning and developing searching and communicating skills?


Thursday, May 14, 2015

What is there in the vocabulary

     One may wonder why is having a broad vocabulary important in science? How would understanding the meaning of a word helps grasp the concept referenced by the word? Is the understanding of the meaning of a term necessary to solve problems where the term is invoked?

     These are not trivial questions, but it appears that they are, based on the fact that we use a lot of terminology which meaning depends only in the context where the terminology is used. For example let's think about the word "attraction". Take a moment and think about the word. Then you realize that in order for you to thing about the word attraction you have to construct a sentence like: two bodies experience gravitational attraction due to their mass. Or, two bodies feel romantic attraction due to their psychological compatibility.

     Are these two examples of attraction similar? I dare to say, no! They are very different with respect to the way that the ideas of force and feelings have completely different mechanisms thus the solutions to the problems presented in each case will have very different results and conclusions. Let's expand this argument for the sake of clarity. In the case of gravitational attraction one knows that the force is proportional to the mass of the bodies involved. Therefore one can write a formula that simply states this attraction as a function of mass like this: Force of attraction between to bodies at some distance is proportional to the product of the masses of the bodies. F(at some distance) ~ m1*m2  or F~m1m2; where m1 and m2 are the masses of the bodies. The next step is to remove the proportionality symbol ~ through experimentation and change the proportionality to an equality like the following where the distance factor is introduced: F = k (m1m2/r2. The r2 indicates that the force decreases with the square of the distance r.

Now let's try to do the same with the romantic attraction. What factors would we use for the 'psychological' feeling that these two bodies experience, can we talk about these feelings like forces?
Or the metaphor will completely get out of hand? The opposite was the case when in the seventeen century Isaac Newton suggested that two bodies 'attracted' each other through gravitational forces. 

The French much given to romanticism were completely opposed to Newtons ideas for many years because they could not come to terms (pun intended) with the idea that inert bodies like rocky planets could have feelings and 'attraction" was before Newton used in the sense of the later example. Now of course we have blurred the line between the metaphorical meaning and the 'literal' when we use the term force to indicate desire, need, or even thought.

So what is there in the vocabulary? Why do we have to teach a bunch of terms in science classes?

How can the lack of understanding of the terminology involved in a particular discipline hinders the understanding of difficult concepts?

The answer to these question surely will lead to better pedagogy of science teaching and learning.

Do you have a term that is you favorite?

Saturday, April 25, 2015

The Anthropocene

Geologist have named geologic epochs using many names like "Holocene (recent)" in the Quaternary era less than 1.6 million years. For more information about geologic eras and the time scale you can click here. But it is time to name the present epoch based on the influence that we have as humans in the geologic record, so geologists from the distant future say a few million years from now will refer to. The Anthropocene is a good name, I have just read it in Diane Ackerman's book "The Human Age: The World Shaped by Us." To read a NYT review of the book click here.
The name has been proposed at least from the 1969's and it is supposed to imply that humans are in fact changing the characteristics of our globe in the same way that other conditions, mainly physical, characterized the other periods of geologic history. Like carbon (coming from living organisms deposited in strata) giving the name "carboniferous" (360 to 286 MA) period in the Paleozoic era. By the way this was for some geographic areas where the oil extracted now was formed.

What has this to do with teaching science?

For one it shows that vocabulary is important and nomenclature gives information about the subject. But most important is to see how everything is related and the historical-sociological-economical aspects of learning have to be taken into account when preparing a lesson plan. For the example above the use of MA (mega annum) for millions of years as a unit of time measurement is a good example of developing a vocabulary as we learn about the science in question. This developing of vocabulary has to be based first on previous knowledge and second on the time that it takes to practice using such a new concept. This need for having enough time becomes a critical element when dealing with class preparation. Apart from class preparation but related to it is the student's preparation. This is why is necessary to have clear and consistent sequence in the science curriculum. When students struggle with difficult concepts mainly because they don't have the basic vocabulary it is necessary for the teacher to slow down giving time for students to develop it. But at the same time the paradox arises when "time' is constrained to a syllabus giving a set content.

With today's diversifying student body this elements will have to be revisited and new structures, synchronous and asynchronous have to be developed.

My question for today is: Do we have time for this transition?