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?

Saturday, March 21, 2015

The Joy of Learning -OK Google: What is an Arrhenius acid?

This past Friday (3/20/15) I started my G-Chem class by getting out my cellphone and asking it: What is an Arrhenius acid? ....The phone replied: "According to an Arrhenius acid is a substance that when added to water ..." and continued with the whole definition including the definition of that of a base. So I asked my students: Am I here to tell you what an Arrhenius acid is? They moved their heads in the negative! Then I replied: "you are right I am here to tell you why you want and need to know about Arrhenius acids and bases and to help you make a connection between acid base chemistry with your whole life. This is one underlying principle of 'liberal arts' education. To see the context and to understand the relationships and connections of particular concepts within and without the topic on study.

Today's technology allows us to have instantaneous access to information, so information should not be the outcome of a lecture. It has been said that information is not knowledge, so class time should not be use to transmit information, it should be used to develop knowledge and to develop the skills necessary for oneself to create relevant knowledge. The teaching professor is there to guide inquiry and to set limits of time during the exercise of exploration. Learning science is complicated, I guess as learning anything that has many facets, but one can always try to stop the fragmentation of ideas through a holistic approach. Meaning that on can not separate individual steps of the solution of a problem with the overall context of the question being addressed. One can look at the solution of the problem as a simplified model or metaphor but one has to be conscientious of the fact that things are more complicated than that. Any particular and individualized solution of a problem has to be framed within a context and other consequences like secondary effects have to be at least noted, if not explored. This makes teaching science a difficult but enjoyable task, as challenges like puzzles are inherently attractive to the inquisitive mind. This is one important role of the science teacher: make challenging concepts appear like games in the journey that life is.

In my previous post, I mentioned the importance of 'joy' in learning, even to the point of saying: "If you are not having fun,... you are not learning!"
 It seems simplistic in the light of many that believe that things that matter have to be hard to learn, difficult to understand, and that should take a long time to comprehend. I agree but have some reservations about the attitude that one must have while going through the process of learning. And I am including the activities of teaching as part of the learning process. The teacher must be having fun as s/he teaches or s/he will not be able to have and create the energy to deliver a well intended lesson. It might be said that this happens all the time with everything we do in our lives, that no one person that is successful has been doing the things that leaded to the success with an attitude contrary to his/her joy and satisfaction. A recent blog at "Class Teaching" use a perfect metaphor with playing a computer game called Manic Miner. In this post Shaun Allison @shaun_allison takes a step by step approach to make a parallel between playing a game with several levels of difficulty and learning. It sure is a great pedagogical insight.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

If You Are Not Having Fun You Are Not Learning

Once in a while I remind my students about the joy of learning. Remembering this is very important when you are having a hard time learning new ideas. Ideas that are complex and difficult by their own nature and by the fact that it's not easy to contextualize them with our daily lives.
I have used the poem by Wang Ken "Song of Joy" as an inspiration to encourage my students to enjoy learning. I stress and emphasize this so much in my classes that in fact I call homework "Homejoy!"
  • Pleasure is the state of being Brought about by what you Learn.
  • Learning is the process of Entering into the experience of this Kind of pleasure.
  • No pleasure, no learning.
  • No learning, no pleasure.
(Wang Ken, Song of Joy.)

Many books and articles have been written around this idea, one in particular is "The Power of Mindful Learning" by Ellen J. Langer. (For more link here.)
And recently a new edition of "Experiential Learning" by David A. Kolb. (link here to read more.)

Of course we must not forget the seriousness of learning and the fact that it can be hard to do, but keeping in mind that successful endeavors require more than just the material means to accomplish, we have to remind ourselves that attitude is critical for success.

Did you see the Seattle Seahawks game against the Green Bay's Packers? 

A good example of how attitude -having fun- produces good results!  

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 ) 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:
"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 equationödinger_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.