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?