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.

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

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 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 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  (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 ) 

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. 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?

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?

Friday, April 25, 2014

Keeping current and valuable to your clients or employer

For any professional his/her knowledge, skills, aptitudes, and attitudes are his/her assets. It is important therefore to be current adapting to newer information, knowledge, technologies, and methodologies. As the value of our services depend on how well adapted to the present moment. As with any asset knowledge is time related, and as many things knowledge can get old as groceries in the supermarket or outdated as a ball game ticket of the previous season.
Currently I am reading a book published in 2000 by Andrew Hunt and David Thomas titled "Pragmatic Programmer" (ISBN 0-201-61622-X) and even though it has been several years since the book first appear some of the basic ideas as all good basic ideas have not been outdated. I have to admit that some of the websites, programs, and social media have indeed advanced and other not mentioned in the book have been created. but overall is a great book that I highly recommend even to those not interested in computer programming.
The main argument of Hunt and Thomas is based on the market for stock, where diversification, managing actualization, balancing high-risk-high-gain stock with low-risk-low-gain, and building your portfolio are used to help the reader find how to grow and manage risk at the same time that s/he builds a "personal" portfolio. The book is full of good advise like read a good book every month, a non technical, not related to his/her field so s/he can understand human nature better in order to better satisfy the needs of his/her clients or employer. As one thing is for sure, once one is outdated one will not longer serve the needs of clients or employers.
One aspect of building yourself as a portfolio is the need to network, getting wired the authors say! By this one can understand that belonging to professional networks, one will be able to see what are the current trends, one will be able to explore new and exciting ideas that might be the foundation of new skills. Think of those who learned "Java" when it was in its infancy and was easy to learn and to get onboard. Even though learning it was a high-risk endeavor some did get onboard and now they are at the top of this widely use technology.
So two question I ask now: one, how am I keeping current and valuable to my clients and employer?
two, How can I teach my science students skills that help them to keep current?

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

A Crisis in Science Education?

This month's issue of Scientific American has the front-page: A Crisis In Physics? with a featured article by Joseph Lykken and Maria Spiropulu titled Supersymmetry and the Crisis in Physics. Reading the article reminds us that science is continuously advancing and new ideas are always replacing old ones, even in the case that the old ones are not that old at all! This situation is one to take into account when teaching science. One has to be able to transmit to the learner that ideas, methods, and processes in general can be improved and that even basic knowledge (things thought to be true in the absolute) are in fact ideas that can be improved and in some cases replaced by better models of reality.
The fact that we have now so many of these hypothesis that have been proven to exhaustion and that are the subject of most content in science education makes it difficult to instigate in the student a sense of healthy skepticism. It is almost impossible to provoke the need for inquiry of things that the teacher is showing as tried and true and based on solid evidence without falling off the cliff of complete ignorance and denial. One doesn't want to teach that the theories of gravitation, evolution, electromagnetism, plate tectonics, etc. are false, but that they have many details unanswered and more research has to be done. Some of these "details" can be huge concepts of deep intrinsic interpretation that could at a point change the way we understand the reality of our world. No better example than "String Theory" that is trying to explain what is that we are made of.
My question now is how can I teach basic "principles" that have been proven to work so far and at the same time create a safe environment for my students to ask anything?

Monday, April 7, 2014

Old-school Teaching

Reading this blog reminded me of when I went to school. Those days seem to be simple and not many "politically correct" rules were used. For example if a teacher thought that one student was saying or doing a "dumb" thing, the teacher was free to say so. Now of course you can't say to a student in front of the class: "that is a dumb thing!" We are now using the so called Pygmalion or Rosenthal effect where greater expectations are supposed to enhance the behavior and performance of the student. So instead of saying "that is a dumb thing to say"; we say "that is a great idea but have you consider ....this or that".. It looks like greater expectations are in some way paradoxically working against improved performance because we are not emphasizing "hard work" as a necessary investment in improving oneself. The need to have a "carrot and a stick", a pull and a push, incentives and coercion in order to balance the needs with the outcomes in the educational process.
Do you think that in some ways we should have some punitive measures along the way during the course, so we don't have to wait until the failing grade is given?
Like in the days when a list of the top and bottom students was posted in the classroom?

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Richard P. Feynman

It sure is hard to know, but I think that Richard Feynman is the most brilliant U.S. born scientist of all times. As far as I know Feynman (Nobel Prize in Physics 1965) is not the one with the most honors, or prizes but I have the feeling that he is the one with the most interesting life. For one, he's the one with a great sense of humor that can be sampled reading his book: "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman". This autobiography written only a few years before his death in 1988 is an invaluable - priceless account of what an "extraordinary and ordinary" his life was. Paradoxical as it sounds his life is a reminder that all our lives are extraordinary and ordinary at the same time. Ordinary and common as we all do the same things and extraordinary and particular as we all do our own things.
So, teaching (in particular teaching sciences) is an art where the teacher has to find the balance between the ordinary and extraordinary in each student. The extraordinary and the ordinary in each element of knowledge being transmitted and developed in the classroom. The extraordinary and ordinary of each moment in time spent with the students, both in the classroom and outside of the classroom.
I know that in most cases we act intuitively and don't pay much attention to these apparent contradictions between the ordinary and the extraordinary but it looks like to me that we have to be more intentional looking for this paradox. It seems to me that one way to be intentional about this is to have the students be aware of what you are looking for and to make them take ownership of this process; or at least partners. Richard Feynman was an genius that knew that he was just like anybody else, that may be the source of his genius and, important for me, the source of his good humor and great personality.
Now I have to find a way to learn about the extraordinary and ordinary of each of my students! Do you have an idea how to do that?

Friday, March 28, 2014

Ready to Learn

Scientific ideas have been evolving since the beginning when humans started to make sense of the realities that surround us. Along the way there have been times when a dramatic and revolutionary shift on paradigm occurred. For westerners the Greek philosophers were the starting stone for their use of logic and reason as a means to know. Then in the middle ages several geniuses became the stepping stones helping us cross to modernity by their use of measurement and experimentation; the scientific method was developed. Finally as we reach the shores of post-modernism more genius minds have become the cap-stone for inquiry with a touch of irony. These cap-stones are not to cap or stop knowledge from advancing but to give support for a much deeper understanding of reality.
So how can we teach science today based on the history and complexity of our understanding of the world? In fact even the word "world" is inadequate as today we know that our "world" -our planet is just a very small, insignificant dust in the vast -immense universe of ours. So the one thing I want to use from the introduction to the way we teach science (it may apply to the way we teach anything) is the following: Knowledge is interconnected! Ideas cannot be learned if there is no foundation -previously developed- and there is no reference or context for this new concept or idea. Giving the limitation of time students must bring some understanding of the subject that allows them to learn more about the subject, of course this doesn't apply to introductory courses which by definition assume that the student has no previous knowledge of the subject.
Should entrance examinations be applied to every single course that is not introductory?

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The Chemistry of Teaching Chemistry

The word "chemistry" has been used as defined by dictionaries as "the emotional or psychological interaction between two people, especially when experienced as a powerful mutual attraction: as in their affair was triggered by intense sexual chemistry" Or "interaction between people working together; specifically: such interaction when harmonious or effective chemistry
> (Merriam-Webster) retrieved 3/25/2014.This interpretation of the word has been so useful that even some dating services use it as a advertising tool. One even use it a the name for their dating agency. Why they use the name chemistry? Why is that they want to show some kind of scientific foundation? Why would clients rely on a (pseudo-) scientific explanation of how the dating system works?
The answer my friend is blowing in the wind! Science gives confidence! One might think that because something is scientific it will be supported by factual observation of reality. When one expresses the opinion that there is some chemical interaction in the brain that makes one like someone is because there is ample evidence that there are bio-chemical reaction in the brain as the mind is elucidating.
So the question is how do we develop a chemistry in class? How can a professor instigate and encourage an emotional/psychological interaction between the students and between the students and the professor? The answer is not simple or direct. There must be hundreds of didactic techniques and teaching tricks. I will share here in this space some of the ones that I have used in recent years, such as POGIL (Process Oriented Guided Inquiry Learning) developed by chemists and Flipping that has become wide spread and multidisciplinary.
Chemistry has been known to be the weed-out tool in the liberal arts, as a winnow tool to show students what their true calling is, as many come to the hard sciences without the preparation, talent, or true desire for these disciplines. They come because they are told "is the right thing to do" and parents want their children to go to medical school so they can make money. Of course all of these reasons are the wrong reasons to go to college.
Once the student realizes that his/her calling is not in the hard sciences they will be free to choose among a myriad of options within the liberal arts or business. These hard sciences are in many ways magnets that bring students to college and help admission number to go up.
So thinking about chemistry, the science; how do we use the chemistry of the classroom, the emotional relationship created and developed by the professor to enhance learning and enjoyment of the science? Can one enhance a "chemistry" of support of learning difficult subjects? If so how can we do it?

Monday, March 24, 2014

Anti-science in higher ed

Within some religious organizations an anti-science sentiment has been dominating for many years; scientist and the public at large have in general been aware of this and to a certain extend ignoring it as something unimportant and in many ways insignificant due to the small impact that this marginal groups have in our society. But as time has passed more and more people (many completely unaware) are siding with this anti-science movement. It seems that this assertion is unfounded as one sees continuous references by important people in government and in business that supporting science or as it is now called STEM (for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) is a matter of "National Security" but in fact there is more (much more) talk than walk.
We at Warner Pacific College are trying to support students to be able to engage in a constantly changing world, as declared in our mission statement. This means that we have to be scientific both in the way we teach as in the subjects we teach. But, what do one means when saying "scientific"? This is indeed a tricky question. Can one say that history can be taught scientifically? One may argue that: No, history can't be taught scientifically. Scientifically means that one follow the scientific method which among other characteristics has the ability to predict phenomena based on the observation of facts and the establishment of hypothesis. It would be a stretch to say that you could do that in historical events. But I am open to be taught and corrected!
As financial resources become more and more scarce the push to minimize the investment in science is taking hold in higher education. With the excuse that STEM is financed by outside sources the push to minimize internal support is gaining momentum in many colleges and universities. This is more evident in smaller institutions that do not have a trajectory and prestige within the scientific endeavor, and thus are more in danger of succumbing to this kind of pressures.
Is there any hope that this trend will change?

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Changes of Heart

The last couple of weeks gave us the opportunity to enjoy a theater play here at Warner Pacific College. The play "Changes of Heart" by Pierre De'Marivauz not only is a very enjoyable play but more important it has a very insightful message. The play; quote from the program: "The prince loves Silvia, but Silvia is quite sure that she loves Harlequin, though she kind of likes the Guardsman (the Prince in disguise), but she definitely, absolutely, positively, does not love the prince-she thinks. Meanwhile, Harlequin, who is totally in love with Silvia, also likes Flamina, and food." is a metaphor for the indecision that  young people have as they look up to their future careers.
As we have many Freshman coming to college undecided of what major to pursue and more often than not even changing major in their first semesters. There are many angles to analyse in this metaphor, one being the lack of preparation students have for the major that they think would like to graduate. This is the most challenging aspect of students in the "hard" sciences. It is a well know fact that in general more than 30% of students that come to college thinking of graduating in these sciences switch major finding what is better fit to their character and liking. The problem is aggravated when first-generation, low-income, underserved students are pursuing these majors that normally require an integrated support starting with a family that has the resources to forge, and remediate, the skills that these programs require.
With trending changes in our society today, attendance of these unprepared students is in the rise and strong positive proactive measures have to be adopted by colleges in order to satisfy the demand. Warner Pacific college is taking the initiative partnering with other association like ACT SIX  to foster a healthy environment for these students. WPC is also intentionally opening our doors to underserved-urban students so they can be exposed to a Christ-Centered, Liberal-Arts education increasingly necessary in this ever changing world.

The question we have today is:

How do we increase the options for these students without having an irresponsible impact in the college budget?

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Gadgets or tools?

How many times are we teachers annoyed by students using their "smart" phone, tablet, laptop, or any other electronic gadget in class? We tend to have fairly strict rules related to their use during class and in most cases I find it possible to control. But the question is: Are we taking advantage of these gadgets? Can we transform them into tools that can enhance learning?
Much ink and recycled electrons have been used talking about this issue but it seems to me that more is necessary. So I'll share a coupe of ideas that I have toying with.
One is to develop an app for my class. This app will allow them to connect to my class using their smartphone where ever they are and when ever they want to learn. They can have access to files like power point presentation shared in class, or to videos uploaded to Vimeo or YouTube explaining concepts and providing content for the class. These videos can be the ones I am producing myself or they can be those provided by others in YouTube, TED talks or Khan Academy.
The other is enhance communication using all means available. We already have and use a "Moodle" site as a course management system, where information about the course is centralized. Students have continuous access to the syllabus, and to other materials. Students have access to chat rooms, forums, and other platforms for peer interaction and discussion, of course also a way to get help from me. WE also have a FB page for studying chemistry, a Padlet Wall for announcements and other information that might be relevant to their motivation, a Google+ group for us to have video conferences through a "hangout". Finally I just want to share the QR for my webpage.
What other tools do you use in class?

Friday, February 21, 2014

Education as Transformation

One is led to believe that as we are educated we are transformed. So my question here is what do we mean by transformation and how much can one be transformed without losing the essence of who we are?
I have no doubt that some personality traits must be eliminated, when they are negative elements in the behavior of the individual. But thinking that one must reinforce and develop the good traits of personality that allows the individual to be a good member of our society, a good citizen, and to prepare him/her to perform in a constantly changing technological world, one can see that the need for transformation (in this sense) is what we are talking about.
So transformation as maturation/preparation can be addressed in education. I believe that this context will allow to clearly define the curriculum for transformation in a way that will work with and not against the needs of the student. This point is particularly critical as we know that students come to schooling from a very diverse background and personal history. So the need to personalize curriculum becomes now a days very important. How can we personalize education when schools have limited resources? How can we do it when it looks like the tendency today is that of normalization, standardization, and homogenization? Can we have individualized education through the use of technology? 
Here I will say one thing about the last question. I think -YES. We could develop programs that using today's technologies could help individual students get the education they need to acquire or develop a level of understanding that permits them to perform providing the services required by society. Which means that as students get into the market economy of society they will be able to provide the service required (in other words -get a job) and be productive, constructive citizens.
This if course doesn't mean that we would not have standards for graduation, what it means is that the ways and means to get to those standards are going to be tailor made for each individual.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Boundaries and Expectations

     Many of the techniques in conflict resolution apply to teaching, especially teaching subjects that are outside of what some people consider ordinary such as science. Of course science is and should be an ordinary thing and learning it should also be considered ordinary, but it is not in general. So I suggest that setting boundaries and establishing expectations is the first step in having a good relationship with students, of course this will be independent of subject matter but I think is especially important when teaching science.
    It is common practice to require students to satisfy a minimum of competency when entering a class but in science this can be accomplished with a simple set of questions in a test. This will be the first boundary in this context. A minimum standard of knowledge for that course, both in regards to the subject and on the mathematical language required for the subject. Here is where most students fail: mathematics. The problem I think lies in the way that math is taught traditionally. Taught as an independent subject even though as examples of its implementation is common to see problems from physics like the displacement-velocity-time relationship used in differential calculus, or the simple algebra that relates mass and volume with density. But the problem arises when these mathematical concepts are applied to areas outside the traditional examples like the ones mentioned before. One area in particular that is troublesome is chemistry. It is not common to see in math courses examples from chemistry so when a student is in a chemistry class doesn't see how it can be applied. This is where establishing expectations for the course is important.
     On the one hand the student must be clear on what is expected from him/her; and on the other what is the student to expect from the class, his/her peers, his/her professors and tutors, and the auxiliary material such as textbooks, and web related instruments. Addressing the first point: "what is expected from the student" is in particular difficult for several reasons. One reason of course is that students are a diverse group of people and not all have the same level of commitment or preparation. So when we think about the expectations we generalize and that might be a problem because students may feel that is not about them in particular and will not see the need to personalize the requirements established in the expectations until is too late, once the student starts to struggle in class due to the lack of preparation or commitment.
     The only way I see to make the student aware of the personalization of the requirements in to do it regularly in class and not depend on the first day of class, as we normally introduce the syllabus and talk about the course in general. The teacher has to do it then but he/she has to go back to these expectations and boundaries regularly during the semester, and it has to be done intentionally and openly. What I do is to have one of the lab sessions designated to one-to-one interview where I explain clearly what I expect from them and what they can expect from me, at the same time it gives me the opportunity to learn what is their level of awareness regarding the difficulties of the course and the need for them to know and use all the resources available outside the classroom.