What killed our interest in math?
Is it our love for instant gratification? Or was it our ability to outsource our left brain to ‘calculating machines?’
No excuses are good enough. After all, the country that created the first graphing calculator, Japan, ranks 5th place in Math in the ‘PISA’ test (Programme for International Student Assessment), which tests Mathematics, Reading and Science among 15-year-olds in 72 countries. The test is administered every three years. In this latest ranking, the US, unfortunately is nowhere in sight.
In Math, we are way below Malta, the Czech Republic and Vietnam and some 40 other nations. In Reading, we rank 24th, with countries such as Estonia, and Macao doing better. Singapore tops Math, Reading and Science. What killed math in the US?
I only ask this question because we are in the midst of student evaluation, and I am seeing an increase in student’s interest in programming. Yes, math is hard, but we seem to be entertaining ourselves to death, with ‘watching’ more than doing. Coding, and using mathematical concepts requires students to work through a problem. An ‘algorithm‘ is after all a mathematical construct.
This unhappy news of declining performance comes despite us having excellent hands-on, interactive resources such as Khan Academy. One recommendation is to “teach a lot less but focus at much greater depths,” says the director of education and skills at OECD.
Buried deep in the report are some good indicators of what works in the successful countries. It says, for instance that
students score higher in science when they reported that their science teachers “explain scientific ideas”, “discuss their questions” or “demonstrate an idea” more frequently.
and that raising students’ expectations of working “in a science-related occupation” have greater bearing on the outcomes than material and human resources.
Translated. Investing in new books or fancy devices won’t move the needle unless schools empower (and hire) teachers who could passionately ‘explain’ and ‘discuss’ the subject matter.
Sometimes you don’t need text books to learn a skill.I don’t usually advise young people to skip university, but I know of many folks who have learned incredible skills, never having stepped into a classroom for the past 20 years. One friend fixes BMWs as a hobby (sometimes has about 10 in his driveway). Another runs a mid-sized marketing communications agency, but has built and operates an eco-resort. The former never went to engineering school. The latter never took a class in architectural design or management.
And my point is, we often hone our skills in our garages, and our basements.These are our ‘labs.’ No one gives us a certificate for these long hours of professional development.
Here’s a related example: Children learning about science and tech on a farm. Think of it as a STEM lab in Nebraska.
Cows. BMWs. Conservation. Plenty of knowledge out there, not found in books and lectures.
True story: Recently I took a small group of students to visit a lab, and while breaking for lunch on some garden benches, they began climbing the trees nearby. They were getting a bit noisy when a lady walking by stopped and looked up into the branches. I thought I would get asked to get them to ‘behave’. But the lady smiled and said loudly to others passing by, “Look! look! children are playing on trees again!”
It took me a few seconds to figure out what she was really saying – that having seen so many kids today plugged into screens, it’s thrilling to see them having fun scampering up trees. (Side note: this was outside a Mars Space lab in Tempe, Arizona, and we were on a field trip to see a whole lot of technology!)
I keep this in mind when I introduce students to new technologies. Last week, I began a lesson on animation, and as subject matter, I returned to the ‘Rube Goldberg Machine.’ We don’t always need screens for this. (Unless we need to check out the many Rube Goldberg contests like this.). How could we turn students into makers, and innovators, problem-solvers and scientific thinkers?
A Rube Goldberg Machine (or ‘contraption‘) teaches us a lot about levers, gravity, kinetic energy, and chain reactions among other things – such as precision, iterative design, and learning from failure. All it takes is some lengths of wood, string, paper cups, shoe boxes, old clothes hangers, marbles and/or ping-pong balls, rubber bands and cardboard tubes.
I like to get them to ‘design’ their machine first, and see what they come up with – then set them on a building mission! We could use a drawing app, but paper and pencil work just fine!
Image on right – One of the manyprojects from a 7th grade class – found here
In teaching technology we like to say that it’s OK mess up the first time. This is counter to how we like things to run smoothly – neat transitions, good closures etc. A formula, in other words. Even when doing a demo, you probably want your audience to see the end result.
But I’ve realized that in many lessons – life lessons, not class lessons– the worst thing you could do is to have something perform flawlessly.
Take this ‘Earthquake ‘simulator’ we built here. The plan was to simulate tectonic plate movement that brings down buildings. This was for our STEM Night, which happened on 21st April. A rickety contraption that would shake-rattle-and-roll using a power drill. We quickly ran into a few issues. The wheel you see here was cracking.With two hours to go to the ‘earthquake challenge’ we implemented Plan D – Duct tape. Which looked messy, but it worked. In a sense, I loved that uncertainty; an opportunity to tell students that this ‘problem-solving’ stuff we go on about, is real, even for us.
The next day, FOX 10 News showed up. More issues, with the weather guy and a camera pointing at our ‘machine’.
- Problem #1: The drill that drove the wheel, had been taken home!
- Problem #2: Reporter Cory McClousky wanted to repeat the ‘quake’ and of course, it failed. On camera. Nice!
- Unrelated issue. Behind the earthquake simulator was the solar oven we used the previous day. I had left my coffee cup inside while we were waiting. A solar oven, in case you haven’t heard can reach up to 250 degrees in 30 minutes. So does the plastic cap, as you can see here, which warped out of shape.
You cannot plan these things. What looks bad, actually informs the story. McClusky’s parting line about the solar oven was: “We’re burning coffee cups in here…” Indeed. You can’t touch this.
If you’ve ever complained about classrooms being stuck in the industrial age, here’s a glimpse of a different kind of class. It’s Hi-Tech space with a factory-floor setting. Perfect for digital natives, huh?
I took my robotics students here last Tuesday, to a place called HeatSync Labs in Mesa, Arizona. Not the kind of ‘lab’ they had in mind – but in a shocking way! It is what’s known as a ‘Maker Space’ where kids come to ‘learn by doing’. They didn’t want to leave!
You see, a Maker Space like this is more like a mad scientist’s garage, than a classroom, with a variety of machines, tools and material just begging to be used. If you recall how HP began in a humble garage, you’ll see why a tinkerer’s tool-shed like this is what classrooms ought to be like if we are to motivate the next generation of inventors, astronomers and mad scientists like Bill Hewlett, Dave Packard. Or the next Thomas Edison (who barely went to school, please note).
Having worked with 6-12 year olds for four years now, I know how hungry they are for science. Especially science that comes to them in unexpected packages. OK, so in one corner of the lab there was a 3-D printer, an artifact from our all-too-digital present. But someone had used it to produce intriguing pieces such as this plastic cube (right), with gears!
In 75 minutes my students probably got more about science that any slick PowerPoint presentation. This was about experimenting, making mistakes, and asking ‘what-if’ questions. This was about rummaging through bins, and peering through scopes, working with laser-cut stamps they mounted on blocks of wood. And not a tablet in site!
At one point, Eric Ose who works there took me aside and told me, awkwardly, “I am not used to young people here asking permission to do things.” Meaning, this was a space that people came and just tried things out, used material lying around, and worked on their own pace. Of course there are guidelines – especially safety guidelines, as when watching laser cutting, or operating the 3-D printer.
But the real house rules are this: Try something out. Make things. Break things. Revise. Start from scratch. Discover. Build something impossible!
Note: If your students have never been to one I urge you to make it your next field trip. Many cities have these community run spaces. (Map)
Last week someone sent me a link to a video for GoldieBlox, a toy company, that features toys for kids (and parents) jaded by the Princess theme that has taken over the toy industry in this country for that past few years.
I had never heard of the company before, and it was a serendipitous discovery, because of what I have been working on with my students –a Rube Goldberg idea. More about this in a moment.
While most girl’s toys have been Disney-fied, Goldieblox’s products are engineering-inspired. One of their blog posts (titled “An Apology To My Future Daughter”) gives you the reason d’être:
“I apologize that I’m going to have to lie to you. I’m afraid there is a 99.99% chance you won’t grow up to be a princess. I’m afraid I would rather you become an engineer…”
So back to the video, an advertisement, nonetheless, which communicates sans words why science and engineering could be fun for kids, Levers, pulleys, wheels, ramps..all made from everyday objects to create something fantastic. The storyline is about kids who are bored with Princess-saturated television, and go on to create a contraption that uses everyday objects in the home to… turn off the boring fare on TV! If Disney’s princess-fantasy machine has numbed parents’ toy choices, Goldieblox’s ‘Princess Machines’ tries to reverse the trend.
No voice-overs required.
However, another communication issue flared up. Not about toys or machines, but about copyright. In November Beastie Boy’s filed a lawsuit against the use of its song (parodied), “Girls.” That’s a whole other communication issue worth unpacking since it is involves ‘fair use’.
My guess is that the band would drop the charge, once it realizes the bigger picture –beyond a viral ad -of empowering girls.
It won’t help, once the rest of the media begin to see story angles such as “Why Beastie Boys Isn’t pro Girls.”
It’s been a slow process, but the words ‘expertise’ and ‘research’ are now being used in the same sentence as blogging. A whole new window is opening up with Research Blogging, and Science Blogging.
- ScienceBlogs.com calls itself a ‘digital science salon’ –with features such as The Angry Toxicologist !
- ResearchBlogging.org is another site aggregating blogs from contributors –assigned ‘icons’ to indicate their peer-reviewed status.
Research Blogging calls itself a site for those tired of “science by press release” and needing to find peer-reviewed research.
Why is this worth paying attention to? These are the early signs of scientific rigor being lent to social media. They bring credibility to the strategies we evangelize. Here’s how one science writer, Nick Anthis discusses a study:
“The results were astounding. Across the blogosphere, scientists had started new collaborations, enhanced their scientific work, advanced their careers, been able to communicate science as never before, and had been offered a whole array of new and unique experiences and opportunities in part or in full due to their blogs.”