Weakest students hurt worst by shift away from face-to-face teaching

The January 21 New York Times featured a thought-provoking critique* of online courses by Susan Dynarski, a professor of education at the University of Michigan. She cited growing evidence that the trend away from classroom training in high schools and colleges hurts less proficient students who need ‘hand-holding’ from skilled teachers. However, research suggests that the greatest harm comes from courses going fully online. “Blended” training, which presents the opportunity for interaction with a flesh-and-blood teacher, evidently overcomes this disadvantage.

An interesting wrinkle on blending face-to-face with online education comes from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. They offer free online courses on economics. Students who do well can apply for a master’s program which requires only one semester of class on MIT’s Cambridge campus to graduate. This weeds out those with weak academic skills, whereas many high schools mistakenly go the opposite route—students failing face-to-face classes get sent to remedial online classes.

“For advanced learners, online classes are a terrific option, but academically challenged students need a classroom with a teacher’s support.”

-Susan Dynarski

*”Online Courses Fail Those Who Need Help”, p3, Sunday Business Section.

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Ear, ear: 7-year-olds hear 70% from right versus only 55% of speech to left

Jo Craven McGinty, the Wall Street Journal “Numbers” columnist, provided in the February 3rd issue the surprising ‘heads-up’ that children understand much less of when spoken to from the left than from the right.  The difference in comprehension stems from a discrepancy in lengths to which speech must travel through the brain.  This had been thought to become moot as nerves develop—the “right-ear-advantage” (REA) becoming clinically insignificant by adulthood.  However, as reported by WSJ, new findings presented by Auburn University researchers in December to the Acoustical Society of America, indicate that even at ages 19 to 28, a challenging communication may be understood at a rate of 40% more when delivered to the right ear.

The Remarkable History of Right-Ear Advantage published in the January 2018 Hearing Review reveals that REA returns with a vengeance at age 60 and beyond.  Perhaps a podcast will be produced to speak on this phenomenon.  If so, I plan to put the sound bud into my right ear.

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Statistics and advice on New Year’s resolutions

  • The Statistic Brain offers these two morsels on New Year’s resolutions:
    • Losing weight leads the list of at over 20%. Self-improvement comes in a distant second.
    • Less than 10% of people achieve their resolutions. However, people who make resolutions are 10 times more likely to attain their goals than people who don’t.
  • “Ditch New Year’s Resolution Day” will be observed on January 17—the most common day that people give up on their goals according to Psychology Today. They recommend going with monthly resolutions.
  • Experimental results reported in this article on “The science of keeping your New Year’s resolution” from yesterday’s Washington Post provide good news for those who make it through one entire month without being derailed from their resolution. It turns out that by doing so, along with being willing to forgive yourself for a few slip-ups, you are likely to succeed over the long run. (P.S. I recommend that you follow the link above and check into two suggestions that will enhance your success for building up good habits:  ‘”Piggybacking” and “Temptation Bundling”.)

All the best in 2018 for accomplishing whatever goals you hope to achieve.

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2017—A prime year for statistics

To cap off the year, I present half a dozen wacky new statistics:

  • 2017 was a “sexy” prime, that is, 6 years beyond the last one in 2011 (six in latin is “sex”).
  • By 2050 the plastic trash floating in the oceans will outweigh the fish. (Source: Robert Samuelson, “The Top 10 Stats of 2017”, Washington Post, 12/27/17.)
  • University of Warwick statistician Nathan Cunningham debunked the “i-before-e except after c” rule based on evaluating 350,000 English words: The ratio of “ie” to “ei” is exactly the same for the after-c words as it is for all words in general. Weird science!
  • After digging into data compiled by the National UFO Reporting Center (NUFORC), Sam Monfort, a doctoral student in Human Factors and Applied Cognition at George Mason University, concluded that UFOs are visiting at all-time highs. Americans sight UFOs at a rate that exceeds the worldwide median by 300 times. Far out!
  • In May, an Australian cat named Omar was confirmed by the BBC as the world’s biggest at nearly 4 feet long and over 30 pounds. My oh meow!
  • Nearly a thousand people dressed up like penguins at Youngstown, Ohio this October to break the world’s record. Coincidentally, National Geographic reported on December 13 that the fossilized remains of a giant, man-sized penguin, were found in New Zealand. Eerie!

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No reason to worry yourself to death over downturn in USA life expectancy

National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) researchers announced this week that life expectancy for a baby born in 2016 fell 0.1 percent to 78.6 years.  First off, this reduction is so miniscule that it cannot be significant.  It definitely is of no importance per se.  I do, however, concur with those who cite this statistic as a call for alarm by it being driven down by the epidemic of opioid deaths.

The trick to interpreting statistics on life expectancy is to keep in mind it has a mathematical value that changes as an individual gets older.  For example, men like me at age 65 can expect to live to age 84, primarily because we made it through high-mortality childhood and the perils of being a young adult.  Look up your expectancy at this Life Table from the Social Security Administration’s (SSA) Office of the Chief Actuary and give yourself a year or two extra by it being a bit dated (me being optimistic in the continuing advancement of medical care).

If you want to be more precise than the SSA tables, check out the calculators posted here.  One to avoid is the “How Long Have You Got?” calculator, which comes with the caveat that “each time we’ve tested this calculator we are expected to pass away on the same day”.  On the other hand, I think you will like the results from the Easy Surf life-expectancy calculator*.

“It is not death that a man should fear, but he should fear never beginning to live.”

– Marcus Aurelius

* Evidently by the domain “.cc” this comes from someone living in Australia’s Cocos Keeling Islands—a paradise on earth where one might live long and happy as you can see here .

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Weapons of mass destruction scaled down for classroom warfare

During our freshman year in my Christian Brothers military high school, my buddy Bob sat behind me in first-hour home-room in prime position to snipe spit balls at me.  When I reacted to the sting by backlashing at him, the teacher—Brother Thomas—would admonish me for disrupting the class.  Devious!  Nevertheless, I had to hand it to Bob for his ingenuity for classroom warfare—my superior by far.

I shudder to think what Bob could have done with the technology revealed by John Austin in his trilogy on Mini Weapons of Mass Destruction , which begins with spitball warfare and culminates in siege weapons of the dark ages.  For example, check out this video of a classroom firearm sent to me by a PhD student from the Institute of Technology of Buenos Aires.

Inspired by Austin’s books, this Argentinian and conspirators set up a designed experiment that varied three factors:

  1. The length of the arrow (short 20 cm – long 25 cm)
  2. The width of the “barrel” (narrow 11 mm – wide 17 mm)
  3. The initial position of the arrow (p0 the firing pin will slightly hit the arrow – p1 the firing pin will push the arrow along the last 5 cm)

Bob’s spitballs did little harm in comparison to this weapon.  At this rate, turtle-necks will come back into fashion, only now being made from Kevlar.  Anyone who makes it through school at this rate will certainly be the fittest for surviving and ready for the dog-eat-dog corporate world.

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Costa Rica — the happiest place on Earth

Life-sustaining Costa Rican “broccoli” tree towering over rain-forest trail on the slopes of the Arenal Volcano.

The latest issue of National Geographic awaited me upon my return from a wonderful vacation in Costa Rica.  Based on my pleasant encounters, it was no surprise to me that this Central American country came first on the feature article about “Happiest Places”.  Costa Rica also ranked #1 on the Happy Planet Index (HPI).  See the Today.Com video here for the heads-up on what distinguishes Costa Rica and other joyful places around the world.

It seems to me that the recipe for happiness varies quite a lot, but one aspect of Costa Ricans that I like is them living “pura vida”—the pure, or simple, life.

“What I argue for are statistically driven things you can do to optimize your environment so you’re more likely to be happy for the long term.”

– Dan Buettner, Minnesotan author of The Blue Zones of Happiness (Source: The Atlantic.com “A Lazy Person’s Guide to Happiness”

P.S. The top 25 happiest USA cities are ranked here — the hometown for Stat-Ease came in at #22. 😊

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Algae World News: Red snow melts glaciers

Just in time for our first snow in Minnesota when we eagerly bring out our cross-country skis and sleds—both self-propelled and motorized, comes this news of a melt-inducing microbe.  I’ve seen and tasted the resulting “watermelon snow” up in the Rockies.  It seemed harmless enough—a natural frozen novelty.  But a simple comparative experiment by Alaskan researchers showed a 17% increase in melting where the snow became darkened by the algae stain.  On the positive side it will be watermelon snow-cones all around.

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‘Roid rage

Let’s not get caught off guard by an Earth-killing asteroid. As Dylan Thomas said: “Do not go gentle into that good night, …rage against the dying of the light.” 

That is the mission of NASA.  If you are reading this, chances are that Asteroid 2012 TC4 whizzed by today at 30,000 miles per hour—closely monitored by a network of observatories. Check out the details at this NASA website. They take asteroid defense very seriously.  Their defense plans for redirecting asteroids will be tested out in 2022 on a double asteroid Didymos B as explained here.

Keep in mind that asteroid 1950DA, about three-quarters a mile wide—big enough to destroy our planet, has a 0.1% chance of hitting the earth 2818.  In case NASA does not succeed in their defense efforts, start digging now and you might get hunkered down enough to survive for a short while after that.

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The hero of zero

Breaking news about nothing: Dating done with the Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit now puts the invention of the number zero 500 years earlier than previously believed.  As explained in this post by The Guardian, the hero of zero is Indian mathematician Brahmagupta who worked out this pivotal number in 628 AD.  Isn’t that something?

The development of zero in mathematics underpins an incredible range of further work, including the notion of infinity, the modern notion of the vacuum in quantum physics, and some of the deepest questions in cosmology of how the Universe arose – and how it might disappear from existence in some unimaginable future scenario.

– Hannah Devlin,

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