Sunday, September 21, 2014

Diversity and Leadership in Science

Mariette DiChristina Editor in Chief of Scientific American wrote in the last issue (October, 2014) a very insightful editorial titled 'You're Invited'. In it she exposes the need for collaboration in any successful endeavor and mentioned the changes in communication that she has leaded, including inviting bloggers and participating in international forums like the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. In the same issue another editorial 'Preferential Treatment" the fact that 'good intentions are not enough to end racial and gender bias' exposes the situation within science as is commonly perceived in other fields.

Then in page 42 an article by Katherine W. Phillips (Paul Calello Professor of Leadership and Ethics; and Senior Vice-Dean at Columbia Business School) "How Diversity Works" articulates how "being around people who are different from us makes us more creative, more diligent and hard-working".
The same will apply to learning science.

Learning is an individual task but it is best accomplished in the company of others with which one is interacting intellectually. Challenging questions, and time will allow the ideas to evolve and consolidate. In the interest of creativity and motivation having views from different perspectives and cultures for sure will be nurturing.

The question is then: how can we go beyond good intentions? As Phillips write 'the first thing to acknowledge about diversity is that it can be difficult."

How can having students in a class that have a diverse level of experience in the topic help all to a better understanding?

Monday, August 11, 2014

The Heart of Teaching Science

In the book "The Heart of Higher Education" Palmer and Zajonc with Scribner analyze the need to move to an 'integrative education'. In it they mention research supported by The Carnegie Foundation ( that shows the value of community.

Palmer and Zajonc give a solid philosophical foundation for 'Integrative Education' by looking at the ontology, semantics, pedagogy, and ethics of the teaching-learning process. This book is a must read for those involved in higher education today, as we experience a revolution in the way we conceive the reality of our world.
I am not going to go further talking about the book as a great review can be found here!

One aspect of the changes we face in the way we teach and learn science is connected to the way we interpret reality, the way we see how the world is made. Moving from the "atomistic" world view that supports individuality, to the quantum field theory that supports the idea of a relational reality, a community.

When students learn about concepts, ideas, as isolated bits of information in a linear fashion, students will be able to articulate a worldview that is not changing, chaotic, and in some ways messy. But we know that the world in which we live is changing, chaotic, and messy, so how is the knowledge acquired in this fashion going to help the student go out into the real world and be efficient and able to work in ethical way.

Bringing ethics here seems to be a bit of a stretch but Palmer and Zajonc give excellent examples of why this is. Examples of real life like those in charged of the Enron fiasco were highly educated accountants and economist in the traditional sense, as those in charge of the Holocaust (many with Ph.D.) were educated by higher ed institutions in Germany. A lack of ethical education in these cases is evident.

Hard learned habits are difficult to change, the classical atomistic view of the world has been around for centuries now, and is deep in our consciences; so as we move to a newer quantum-field view of the world we have to be intentional about ways to move forward.

Chemistry is not isolated, as the other sciences are not isolated so how do we teach it in a relational way without losing rigor? Without losing the need to develop skills to solve complex problems?

I know the way is not clear and it appears messy, but do we have a choice?

Thursday, July 17, 2014

The Science of Teaching Science

Asking questions is the foundation of knowledge. The difference between relevant knowledge and knowledge that is not transcendental is the deepness of the questions that generated those ideas. Of course now I have to define what do I mean by relevant knowledge and transcendental so I can then say how one is supposed to learn how to develop skills to ask the proper questions. Implicit in the idea of relevant knowledge is the fact that ideas that might be considered knowledge are not based on an objective reality, they are based on what can be labeled as "an ideology" created for the benefit of a particular group in our society.

As a teacher then I have to ask how can we teach others how to ask questions that lead us in the direction of finding relevant knowledge. Historically ideas have develop basically in relationship to our information of the world that surround us, understanding how nature works has driven humanity in the quest to know the laws that govern all phenomena, including human behavior.

So going back to the question: How do we ask questions? We'll have to acknowledge that the question is not simple at all. The complexity comprises relationships, contexts, circumstances, and time. The same issue can be analyzed in different ways according to these aforementioned characteristics.

Then at last one has to be able to evaluate and assess how teaching had and impact on the student's learning.  Using the "Scientific Method" it is possible to predict based on the formulation of hypothesis and the concordance of prediction with the observed effects what we call objective data will define the success of the theory in which these hypothesis are formulated. When there is observable contradiction or lack of connection between the predicted (theoretical) results and the observed one has an non-objectable reason to say that the premises are false and that the theory in question is defective. But how do we do that with teaching? How can we apply the scientific method to teaching?

To answer this question one must have clear objectives that have to be measured. What in pedagogy is called a "learning objective" with specific definitions within the context of the subject matter. Traditionally these objectives have been measured by testing students. Testing students has been a way to evaluate teaching performance. The issue with this approach is that it is not clear what is the question. The simple question: Is the teacher good? Is parallel to: Are the students learning? But is not helping in the discovery of what is objectively effective teaching. There have been many studies and publications about effective teaching and they, for sure, provide insight about points of reference and techniques, philosophies and strategies but do not provide a sense of scientific methodology that one would expect in a scientific publication. As far as I can see they provide valuable information about what has been observed and characterized as teaching excellence but more research is due.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Western Culture and the Scientific Method

    For the first paper I ask my students in Environmental Studies to write about the connection between the Scientific Method (SM) and Western Culture (WC). The main idea that I am seeking in this paper is the understanding that we know the world we live in through a logical process based on experiential information, what one can label as "experimental observation."
    Leading my students to first recognize the historical importance of the Greek philosophers as the founding minds behind reason and logic I set a context based on values center on the idea of truth. Then in class we have a conversation about objectivity and subjectivity and why technology emerges from the need to parametrize information. Thus units of measurement come to exist and methodologies are developed not only to measure but to produce goods.
     Later we see how after the middle ages with the renaissance Descartes and Galileo among others established a system that we now call SM in order to contextualize and create a frame of reference for the ability to predict phenomena based on observation more than on the calendar. Just to clarify, many predictions before the scientific method were based on calendars created on past experiences. Such a predictability was based on the assumption that natural phenomena was unchangeable but at the same time there were some natural phenomena like the weather that seemed unpredictable.
    In this day and age being able to predict has become even more important, though much of the research done today is still on the phase of understanding how things work. What I want to teach my students is the intrinsic value of knowing the truth about something, and to understand that there are levels of knowledge about everything we see around in the world.
    What would be of the world if we were not interested on the truth?

Sunday, May 18, 2014

The Science You Need to Flourish

     The first paper I ask my students in Environmental Studies PHS 100 is to write about the relationship between Western Culture (WC) and the Scientific Method (SM). In this paper I expect students to define WC and to explain what the SM is. Then I expect them to see why they are intrinsically interconnected and why we couldn't have the modern society that we have today without having means to find what is the truth about the reality in which we all live.

     The first thing we find when looking for definitions of WC is about its origin in Greece where Greek philosophers used reasoning to find the truth about reality. We could argue that this was not the base for eastern philosophies were insight about physical reality came through meditation. A later development of the "logical" reasoning was the development of the SM where experimental or experiential knowledge was used to understand nature and thus be able to control it. The best and simple example of this is the knowledge developed around gas behavior (in particular steam) that was the base for the industrial revolution.

     Knowing how things work, how nature works has been, is, and will be of such an importance that one can't disregard the impact in our society's wellbeing. Of course these ideas, the use of the scientific method is not by any means exclusive of the physical sciences one can find examples in other areas of human endeavor such as business or social work; but the physical sciences represent the best examples of how our society has moved and progressed to have better technologies and improving the standards of living in our society.

     Looking at those who have flourished and created empires in the business world we find that most of them were producing a new product, a new way of doing based on a more profound knowledge of our society. Perhaps in some cases this knowledge was not apparent or exterior but was intuitive. I am thinking now of Mark Zuckerberg creator of Facebook or Jim Wales co-creator of Wikipedia.

     Now at Warner Pacific College we are focusing on helping our students to "flourish." We are doing everything possible to enable them to lean in a way that they can become the leaders that our society needs. We need to help them understand the world and help them to use the knowledge acquired about the world so they can innovate and create, in a word: Flourish.  

Monday, May 12, 2014

Revolutionize Education or Replace it?

Our education system was started many years ago with a particular purpose and need. Our society has changed from the industrial type of production to a service type of production. So our educational system has to change or be replaced in order to accommodate the needs of our society today and in the future. 
This video showing an interview with Seth Godin clarifies what is going on and opens the discussion to find what a new system should look like. As Seth said here in this interview -it is not about a conspiracy theory- but we have to understand why those in industry and commerce are not longer supporting the education of the general public as they do not need anymore the kind of trained workers they used to require for factory schedules and for providing the income for a consumer society.
I can think of one personal example. As soon as my daughter finished her BS in Physics about two years ago, she started working at Boeing. Her schedule is not based on the production line but on the needs for her team's research. Today for example she had to leave for work at 5:30 AM because the testing required her to do such. Some times she works from home as today we are connected from almost anywhere in the world. In fact I am writing this post more that 100 miles away from my home or my office. Scientists in particular as they are in the very creative endeavor of discovery and analysis must have the freedom to organize their schedule accordingly.

Science students today are feeling the disconnection and becoming very uncomfortable with the traditional classroom setting. They want to have an active participation that in a way the traditional lecture is blocking so we the teaching professors have to change the way we teach. That is why I'm trying to implement Process Oriented Guided Inquiry Learning (POGIL) and Flipping my classroom.

So can we teach science adding to content-education the flexibility of schedule?

Monday, April 28, 2014

Coaching VS Teaching

Recently I have been exposed to a series of articles, papers, and ideas about coaching. What makes a good coach? and how the attitudes of persistence, resistance, and acceptance are significantly important in the coach's career.

It looks like the idea of coaching started in Oxford in 1830 where tutors "carried" their students through tests. To read more about the origins click here. So the idea of coach as carrier began at that time, now of course is used in several ways from instruction to management. In sports of course is also related to organizing a team to compete and win.

To compete and win in sports is a metaphor for learning today in a competitive environment where testing is used to advance education and to obtain the certificated that allows the student to professionalize his/her life. So here is where I want to compare and evaluate the values of coaching in the teaching-learning environment happening within the traditional classroom setting and its implication in the online environment. How can we be efficient teacher/coaches through online relationships. What kind of substitutes can we find for "body language" and other personal interactions and how can we use these personal interaction in an effective coaching/teaching in the classroom.

When ever I start a new class I go around shaking hands and greeting my students one by one to have a personal touch as I give each one a welcoming letter where I explain the mechanics of the class as well as the context in which the class will develop, including of course expectations. I articulate what I expect from them and what can they expect from me. After this introduction I always mention that the reason I shake hands is because I believe that if you can't touch them you can't teach them. We will have a high-tech high-touch class.
Unfortunately for many students the teacher's role puts the teacher in an adversarial position. Many see the teacher as the enemy and think that the teacher is there to block and stop them by examinations. Testing is seen as a barrier, as an obstacle created and managed by the teacher. Students do not see the teacher as a supportive instrument in their education. They don't see the teacher as a coach that will carry them through the process of learning.

So the question is how can a teacher become a coach? What kind of didactic instruments are there to change the adversarial relationship into a constructive collaborative relationship. How can we create a "trusting" environment where the student feels confident about relying on the teacher that is now seen as a coach?