Sunday, November 23, 2014

Skepticism and Science


Framing a context for the value of content.


Being a skeptic is for scientist a core state, the value of skepticism is rooted in the need of science to ask questions and on having in mind that whatever model we have now to explain a phenomenon is only temporary an it can, and most likely, change in the future. The interconnectedness between the phenomenon and the surroundings does not allow the invention of models to be separated from the anthropomorphic view of the person creating the model. Therefore it is necessary to see what is the context of the people developing these ideas. Culture in general and language in particular restrict and guide the construction of hypothesis and theories. 

Science education is more than teaching a set of rules given by theories or the transmission of content boxed in a set of models. Science education has to develop the connection with previous experiences in our society. These connections allow the student see how these ideas, hypothesis, and theories were developed and how they apply to our lives. As an example I can mention when teaching and explaining how the periodic table of the elements work I made the connection with my previous research on rare earths (aka Lanthanides) and the noble gases (aka inert gases). Not only teaching the names of these elements but having a story behind their nomenclature and behavior allowed the student get a feeling of discovery and a sense of awe of God’s creation. Knowing becomes an individual's integral status of relationship with his/her own history and environment.

What is necessary to know about the students when teaching science?
These students have gone to the traumatic experience of ‘directed’ education where ‘educators’ have induced in these students indoctrinated thinking void of ‘critical thinking’ which for the context of this writing is scientific skepticism. This scientific skepticism is so much needed in today’s society.

In his book "Think: Why You Should Question Everything" Guy P. Harrison (for a link to his website click here http://www.guypharrison.com/ ) warns about the lack of critical thinking in our society and teaches us that thinking like a scientist is the only way to avoid being swindled by crooks, kooks, and demagogues selling all sort of silly, and wrong ideas. Including commercial products that are harmful to us and to our environment. Being critical thinkers is a matter of personal security and wellbeing.

The need to develop critical thinking, i.e. skepticism in my students is what drives me to be critical and skeptical, and to teach with a sense of awe and feelings of discovery at every step even when the topic at hand seems to be old and fully developed like the idea of the periodic table. We know that the periodic table as it is normally presented is not at all perfect and even though is highly useful it need some explanation and adaptation. At the same time students need to know that new ways of presenting the idea of 'periodicity' of the elements (in some cases by the use of a 'table') are currently being developed as this link shows. Click here for the link.
  
The question now becomes, how the context of an idea can be used to reflect on the value and accuracy of the model proposed by it?



Sunday, November 9, 2014

Difficult Concepts in Science

Learning scientific concepts has an inherent difficulty that arises from the fact that they are expressed in common language terminology but with a specific meaning. For example the word 'difference' that the dictionary definition would state as: "not equal", in mathematics is specific to the idea of a quantitative value 'A - B' "the result of arithmetic subtraction" (Mac's dictionary). In particular chemistry uses symbolism to express these differences, a capital Greek letter Δ (delta) for major differences like the difference in temperature, between two physical states; and lower case δ (delta) for minor/slight differences like the one encountered in electromagnetic polarities within the atom. These major differences are of extreme importance when looking at energy changes during physical and chemical reactions, and they can be expressed as difference in enthalpy, entropy, volume, or any other variable of state that only depends on the values at the end and beginning of the process not on the path that the change followed from initial to final state. Of course we can also apply the idea of big difference when dealing with non conservative phenomena that is dependent on the path followed, such as when dealing with friction generated loss of energy during a process.

It sure become critical in the discussion of these phenomena to keep in mind the definition of all variables and parameters in the process, and these is what makes these concepts difficult to understand.

So, I think, I have to start with the definition of definition!
From my Mac's Dictionary:
 Quote
"definition |ˌdefəˈni sh ən|nouna statement of the exact meaning of a wordesp. in a dictionary.• an exact statement or description of the nature, scope, or meaningof something our definition of what constitutes poetry.• the action or process of defining something.the degree of distinctness in outline of an object, image, or sound, esp. of an image in a photograph or on a screen.• the capacity of an instrument or device for making images distinct in outline [in combination high-definition television.PHRASESby definition by its very nature; intrinsically underachievement, by definition, is not due to lack of talent.
A definition is astatement of the meaning of a term (awordphrase, or other set of symbols).[a] The term to be defined is the definiendum. The term may have many different senses and multiple meanings. For each meaning, a definiens is a cluster of words that defines that term (and clarifies the speaker's intention).
A definition will vary in aspects like precision or popularity. There are also different types of definitions with different purposes and focuses (e.g. intensional, extensional, descriptive, stipulative, and so on).
A chief difficulty in the management of definitions is the necessity of using other terms that are already understood or whose definitions are easily obtainable or demonstrable (e.g. a need, sometimes, for ostensive definitions).
dictionary definition typically contains additional details about a word, such as an etymology and the language or languages of its origin, or obsolete meanings. "

As a noun definition is a statement of the exact meaning of the word. Exact in the sense of providing meaning that not only is accurate but precise so one can use the meaning repetitively within different contexts. But as 2 above: provides a degree of distinctness characterized by its relationship to the topic. Within a metaphor the words "atomic view" and "microscopic view" can be interchanged without changing the intent of those words, while in the description of an item, atom and microscope are completely different.

With this in mind let's retake the idea of 'atom' for an initial analysis of what constitute a difficult concept in science. The last sentence in our definition of definition it is stated that additional details about etymology should be given, so atom mean without a parts from the Greek, so we infer it is the smallest part of the world, but we now know that the atom has parts, protons, neutrons, electrons, that themselves are made of smaller parts (subatomic) components such as muons, mesons, quarks, bosons, and others with a variable set of colors and flavors as you find out in Wikipedia.

So the question about understanding what an atom is becomes inherently complicated and a simple explanation of what an atom is becomes elusive. One can of course simplify with models or analogies but it must be understood that the simplification will undoubtedly produce inaccuracies and misinterpretations that can, if magnified lead to critical errors of understanding. One example of this could be the lack of understanding many people have regarding the significance of 'orbital' as a 'mathematical' description of the probable localization of the electron around the nucleus within the atom. An electron that is modeled as a small particle (dot in the drawing) but mathematically is represented by a wave or probability function as stated by the Schrödinger equation http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Schrödinger_equation.

As an educator I have to make sure that the student understand the complexities of nature as well as the difficulties of concepts describing the behavior and properties of phenomena within nature while at the same time providing students with mechanisms, formulas, and procedures that will permit them apply their skill to the solution of basic problems, even without a full understanding of the deep meaning of the phenomena.

This is the art of making difficult concepts easy to understand.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Online Content Education

As I think about the title of this post, "Online Content Education", I become aware of the apparent contradiction or stress between the words content and education. Transmitting information -bits of facts and data could be considered "Content Education" but is it education in the sense of a formative process? What about the need to think critically, or the ability to communicate complex ideas?
These require added context and have to be developed during the learning process.

Science teaching appears to be one of the topics where content is well defined, and measurable outcomes could be designed for specific subjects. For instance in chemistry  one can teach the periodic table and assess learning outcomes by developing questions that directly reflect if the student understands the periodic table.

It seems like a simple task; understanding the periodic table seems like a topic that can be boxed into a simple set of questions. Questions that would have a 'right' answer, which can be stated within a multiple choice set of questions where all but one are wrong. We can do that today easily within an 'online' format expanding access, allowing students who otherwise wouldn't be able to learn.

On the other hand if content is not the only thing, how will online instruction be detrimental to learning? In today's The Oregonian I read a guest column by Ramin Farahmandpur (Professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy in Portland State University's Graduate School of Education) that clearly articulates how students in online classes lose the opportunity given by classroom discussion and interaction. Prof. Farahmandpur uses the word 'shortchange' to describe the loss of learning opportunities during online instruction and mentions how Western Governors University (A well known online private non-for-profit organization) had in 2012 the lowest graduation rates according to the CBS Money Watch Report. To read more click the following link  http://www.oregonlive.com/opinion/index.ssf/2014/10/online_education_leaves_much_t.html


Friday, October 10, 2014

Content and Context in Higher Ed

Science is supposed to be about content. Concepts, hypothesis, and theories are used to understand how the world works and to develop technology that is fundamental for the betterment of our society. Many would say that this last is why science is so important, and why we should as a society support its progress. Who could be against the advances of modern medicine, and engineering?
This view of science lead to the assumption that teaching science should be simply the transmission of ideas, the teaching of content. So we can always test that it is happening by a simple question: can the student solve such and such problem? Questions like "what is the temperature if .....?" are the standard questions in any assessment of student knowledge.

In a way this is OK, this will allow the student to be a "problem solver" but, will s/he be a "critical thinker"? I think that this is not enough. If we are not critical thinkers our ability to solve problems will be also impaired.

This week I'm teaching gas behavior in my general chemistry class. The mathematical expression that relates volume, pressure, amount, and temperature is known as the 'ideal gas law" PV = nRT. Working with this formula amounts to simple algebra, should not give much trouble. It looks like there is no context. So why should I talk about Robert Boyle a fellow of the Royal Society http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Boyle who in the XVII century developed what is now known as Boyle's law relating the volume and the pressure of a gas, or Jacques Charles http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jacques_Charles a French aristocrat, member of the Paris Science Academy, who lived through the French Revolution and was probably the first to fly an unmanned balloon full of hydrogen in 1783. Charles Law relates temperature with volume of a gas and even though it was Gay-Lussac who published in 1802, Charles was given credit for his unpublished work.

It seems to me that this honesty in the scientific world has become less of a norm, I'm sad to say.

Then we have Avogadro http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amedeo_Avogadro  (always concerned with the amounts of substances) lived the last part of the XVIII and first half of the XIX centuries. He of course saw the relationship between the amount of gas and the volume. Now we know this relationship as Avogadro's Law.

When in the late 1800's these laws where condensed into one: The Ideal Gas Law PV =nRT
Water vapor engineering was born. And "steam' energy became the driver of the second industrial revolution 1840-1870 by introducing "steam" engines to trains and boats transforming transportation.

Now the question I have is: why should students learn about all the history when learning how to solve problems with PV =nRT? Is the ideal gas law going to change if circumstances change? What can I learn from the fact that many minds where involved in the development of the "law"?

Are the answers to these questions self evident?

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Opening Opportunities - Freedom to Flourish - A Counter System


It is a fact!

More and more students are coming out of high-school ill prepared. In my previous posting here I talked about an article in the Oregonian (10/7/14) where the average low SAT scores of Oregon high school graduates is mentioned. This is -as with any problem- an opportunity. And Warner Pacific College is stepping up to the challenge!

This is what WPC's president Dr. Andrea Cook has to say about it: "At Warner Pacific, we develop significant relationships with our students, and believe it’s an essential means of educating, challenging and serving students who might otherwise not finish their education. The reality is our educational system has been designed for advantaged people. In order to make education more fully accessible, we need to create a “counter system” that grants access to a wider population—that’s what we’re about." (Quote from the 'president's message in WPC website  http://www.warnerpacific.edu/about/presidents-message/ ) 

We are proud of the approach we are taking helping students that come from underserved cultures and backgrounds and helping them succeed and flourish. WPC is opening opportunities by recognizing the need for change in higher education. By embracing these challenges and turning them around making them opportunities.

The world is in dire need of STEM graduates in particular and in need of higher education in general, so this is how we can be part of the solution. Bringing the opportunity to study science to a population that is not normally served to do so is of great importance. It will of course create problems as these students are not well prepared for the rigor of the sciences curricula. But there are many things in favor of the success of these students, one is their eagerness to succeed, their gumption for life, their capacity for adventure, and their freedom to flourish!

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Unprepared Students

The Oregonian today in their front page has and article about Oregon's students not having good SAT scores. http://www.oregonlive.com/education/index.ssf/2014/10/most_oregon_high_school_studen.html#incart_river Therefor not being ready for college, so what is the meaning of this when they actually go to college? Are colleges prepared for unprepared students?
What are colleges doing to bridge the gap between what is supposed to be the preparation of these students and what in reality is?
It seems that not much, at least not much in respect to structural change. No doubt there have been many isolated actions that are trying to address the issue such as having level 90 classes as pre-requisites for unprepared students. But these isolated and non-structural attempts to help students are not part of the widely recognized view of the need for change.

This is what I have been thinking can be done:

1. Accept that they come to college unprepared. Closing our eyes to the problem is of course not going to help. Blaming teachers for the students' undesired performance will not help the students.

2. Redefine the purpose of the first year. One objective of the redesigning is to group students in a way that they can get the benefits of peer support and tutoring.

3. Train professors teaching the freshman class on technologies and didactics relevant to the needs of these students.

4. Redesign curricula for the college years in a way that some majors may finish in less that the standard four years and some will finish in more than the standard four years.

5. Make college more affordable by redesigning the classroom time relationship to the credit hour that has been in place for decades.

Without a doubt I know there are other things we should do. Even though right now I can't think what these are!

In science we see how developments are happening at a vertiginous speed. Science education can not afford continuing without a change. Even though we have to recognize that many new teaching technologies have been developed around the idea of "active" learning and Process Oriented Guided Inquiry Learning (POGIL) but these have been within the so called 'traditional' curricula, within the traditional 'credit hour' scheme. We have to change that.

OK, we have to change that, but where do we start? How do we start? Who should start?

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?