Posts Tagged education

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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A curve in the road to grade inflation

The New York Times Sunday Review features an opinion by Wharton School Professor Adam Grant as to Why We Should Stop Grading Students on a Curve.  He asserts that his peers now give over 40% of their grades at A level—a percentage that has grown steadily for the last 30 years as detailed in this March 2016 report by  I am not surprised to see my alma mater the University of Minnesota near the top on the chart of Long Term Grade Inflation by Institution, because, after all, we pride ourselves on being nice.

During my years at the “U” most classes were graded on the curve, which Prof. Grant abhors for creating too much competition between students.  However, it worked for me.  I especially liked this system in my statistical thermodynamics class where my final score of 15 out of 100 came out second highest out of all the students, that is, grade A.  Ha ha.  This last week President Obama chastised the U.S. press for giving Trump a pass based on grading on the curve.  I see no problem with that. ; )

I do grant Grant an A for creativity in coming up with a lifeline for struggling students.  He allows them to write down the name of a brighter classmate on one multiple choice question.  If this presumably smarter student gets it right, that question earns full credit. My only suggestion is that whomever gets called in the most for providing lifelines should be graded A for being on top of the curve. But then I see nothing wrong with rewarding the best and the brightest.

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College textbooks up over 1000 percent since ’77

Bernie Sanders say it’s time to make college tuition free.  That would really be radical.  A more attainable goal is to make textbooks more affordable.  According to an NBC story posted just prior to the current school year, college textbook prices have risen 1,041 percent since 1977, now amounting to over $1200 per student per year.  My high school classmate Mark Perry, Professor of Economics at University of Michigan, warns that:

“College textbook prices are increasing way more than parents’ ability to pay for them.”

This tide of expenses for books has been slowed somewhat by the advent of rentals, e.g., $34 for one semester versus $157 to buy Montgomery’s 8th Edition of Design and Analysis of Experiments.

Another way to save that no one dreamed of in ’77 is by buying an e-textbook—Montgomery’s DAOE book costing only $67 in this format.

However, the big breakthrough in reducing the cost of college comes from the University of Minnesota’s Open Textbook Network (OTN), which began offering textbooks for free three years ago. Students over this period saved an estimated 1.5 million dollars, primarily over the past year.*

Professor Gary Oehlert of U Mn School of Statistics—a long-time advisor to Stat-Ease and author of A First Course in Design and Analysis of Experiments**—provides this endorsement of this worthy initiative by my alma mater: “There are several other similar open textbook depositories (OpenStax, etc), but OTN was one of the first to have reviews for the books as well as perhaps being the only one to have a support model for obtaining serious reviews of the books. It also has a broader range of texts than one might anticipate, with math books ranging from high school level through some fairly advanced topics.”

Powerful forces from for-profit publishers and authors who prefer being paid for their hard labor will naturally restrict the spread of free books.  Even so, the OTN will certainly put a damper on the rampant inflation of the cost of texts.  That will be a big relief for hard-pressed students and their parents.

*Source: “One for the Books”, Minnesota Alumni magazine, Winter 2016, p.12.
**Freely available here under Creative Commons license

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Technology advanced beyond any hope for healthy curiosity

I am watching the Syfy’s series “Childhood’s End” this week.  It is based on a science fiction novel by British author Arthur C. Clarke, one of my favorites growing up.  One of the main characters is a very bright boy who at the end of the premier episode last night becomes an astrophysicist, despite this scientific profession being made entirely superfluous by the advanced technology of the alien Overlords.

This morning Robert Scherrer, the chairman of the department of physics and astronomy at Vanderbilt University, lamented in an editorial* for Wall Street Journal that children no longer have any reason to be interested in science, mainly because most of our household gadgets fall into the category of magic—alluding to Clarke’s observation that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

“The world’s now placid, featureless, and culturally dead: nothing really new has been created since the Overlords came. The reason’s obvious. There’s nothing left to struggle for, and there are too many distractions and entertainments.”

― Arthur C. Clarke, Childhood’s End

*How to Raise a Scientist in the Xbox Age


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Crater Experiment Makes a Big Impact

Craters are crazy and cool.  One that is quite amazing was created by the Barringer Meteorite that crashed into Arizona about 50,000 years ago with an explosion equal to 2.5 megatons of TNT.  Based on this detailing of what a 2 MT bomb would do I figure that Barringer would have completely wiped out my home town of Stillwater, Minnesota and its 20,000 or so residents, plus far more beyond us.  The picture my son Hank took of the 1 mile wide 570 foot deep crater does not do justice to its scale.  You really need to go see it for yourselfMeteor Crater as the two of us did.

Because of my enthusiasm for craters, making these rates number on my list of fun science projects in DOE It Yourself.  As noted there, members the Salt Lake Astronomical Society wanted to drop bowling balls from very high altitudes onto the salt flats of Utah, but workers in the target area from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management objected to the experiment.

Kudos to science educator Andrew Temme for leading students through a far more manageable experiment shown in this video.  In reply to me asking for permission for providing a link to his fantastic impact movies Andrew gave me this heads-up.  “I attended a NASA workshop to get certified to handle real moon rocks and meteorites at the NJ State Museum in Trenton.  This lab in the educator guide suggested mixing up your own lunar powder and throwing objects to simulate impact craters.  When I got home I ran the lab with a few of my classes and then made the video.  I used a Sony handheld camera that had a slow motion setting (300 fps).”  Awesome!

The other day I went up to the 9th floor of my condo building in Florida and tossed a football down on to the parking lot.  I am warming up to heaving a 15 pound mushroom anchor over on the beach side from atop one of the far pricier high rises along the Gulf.  However, I have to wait until the turtle nesting season is over.

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Online courses attracting cheaters?

According to the authors of the recently published statistical study “No More Excuses-Personality Traits and Academic Dishonesty in Online Courses” (Journal of Statistical Science and Application, V2 (2014) 111-118) cheaters now run rampant across most college campuses.  With the number of undergrads taking classes online—4.3 million and growing fast, opportunities for academic dishonesty are expanding.  Surprisingly, this experiment showed less cheating in the virtual than in the traditional classroom settings; indicative, perhaps, of those going online being more motivated to learn, rather than just achieving credits.  This is good to see.  Also, I was happy to learn that this and other similar studies found Americans being less accepting of cheaters and applying higher standards for honesty than most other nationalities.  Along those lines, US News and World Reports in this June posting advises students to “Think Twice Before Cheating in Online Courses,” particularly when being proctored by webcam.  The lady pictured with a cheat-sheet written on her arm might never get the chance to roll up a sleeve.  That’s just too bad.

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Oh, oh—sociology professors say that “most of what we do for our kids at schools doesn’t matter”

Read this New York Times essay on why Parental Involvement Is Overrated and weep for all the time you spent helping your child become well-educated.  It doesn’t help that

“most parents appear to be ineffective at helping their children at homework.”

Many a time my kids asked me to help them do math, which I really dreaded—not because I could not come up with the answer, but due to the constantly-changing way schools taught it.  After being told many times that I got the right answer the wrong way and thus provided absolutely no help, I began bearing down on studying the latest-and-greatest math book first before working out the problem.

By the way, I made the student go through the materials with me—that made this an effective approach for parental mentoring, or so I thought.  Now I wonder if I should’ve even bothered.

However, one time one of my daughters did say that my way of explaining a puzzling math problem made a lot more sense the either the teacher or the book.  That’s one time out of hundred other times that my good deeds did not go unpunished, but like the single outstanding golf shot out of hundred bad ones in any-given round, I remember this fondly. 🙂

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Kids & Science

I am heartened to hear of great work being done by current and former colleagues to get K-12 kids involved in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM).  For example, Columbia Academy, a middle school (grades 6-8) in Columbia Heights (just north of Minneapolis), held an Engineering and Science Fair last month where two of our consultants, Pat Whitcomb and Brooks Henderson, joined a score of other professional engineers who reviewed student projects.  Winners will present their projects this summer at the University of Minnesota’s STEM Colloquium.

Also, I ran across a fellow I worked with at General Mills years ago who volunteers his time to teach middle-schoolers around the Twin Cities an appreciation for chemistry.  He makes use of the American Chemical Society (ACS) “Kids & Chemistry” program, which offers complete instructions and worksheets for many great experiments at middle-school level.  Follow this link to discover:
– Chemistry’s Rainbow: “Interpret color changes like a scientist as you create acid and base solutions, neutralize them, and observe a colorful chemical reaction.”
– Jiggle Gels: “Measure with purpose and cause exciting physical changes as you investigate the baby diaper polymer,* place a super-absorbing dinosaur toy in water, and make slime.”
– What’s New, CO2? “Combine chemicals and explore the invisible gas produced to discover how self-inflating balloons work.”
– Several other intriguing activities contributed by ACS members.

Kudos to all scientists, engineers, mathematician/statisticians who are engaging kids in STEM!

*(The super-slurpers invented by the diaper chemists really are quite amazing as I’ve learned from semi-quantitative measurements of weight before and after soakings by my grandson.  Thank goodness!  Check out this video by “Professor Bunsen”, which includes a trick to recover the liquids that I am not going to try.)


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Educational system turned upside down by distance-based learning

I’ve been watching with interest the trend for ‘flipping’ classrooms; that is, using time together for working on homework and leaving the teaching to web-based and other materials (books, still!) for students to teach themselves on their own time.  At the college level this new educational approach for is gaining momentum via massive open online courses, called MOOCS.

For example University of Minnesota chemistry professor Chris Cramer will teach this 9-week MOOC on Statistical Molecular Thermodynamics starting next month.  Follow the link and watch him demonstrate a thermite reaction.  If anyone can make statistical molecular thermodynamics interesting, it will be him, I think, so I enrolled.  It’s free, thus there’s nothing to lose.  Also, I still feel guilty about getting an A grade in the stat thermo class I took 30 years ago—the reason being it was graded on a curve and thus my abysmal final score of 15 out of 100 got rated highly as the second highest in my class.  As you can infer, it was not taught very well!

P.S. I recently unveiled a distance-based lecture series on design of experiments called the DOE Launch Pad.  It augments my book (co-authored by Pat Whitcomb) on DOE Simplified.  Contact me at mark @ statease .com to sign up.  It’s free for now while in pilot stage.

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Time to lighten up on homework?

The Wall Street Journal’s Market Watch this Friday posted the data shown in this chart.  For the 11 countries shown** you can see why WSJ seconds the call by French President Hollande to ban all homework.

Students would party hearty but this laissez-faire approach will not fly with those blessed with ambitious parents.  Nevertheless the call for less homework, fueled by new data from the National Center for Education Statistics, reinforces other studies going back at least a decade.

It will be interesting to see what emerges as a consensus for a the happy medium on amount of homework assigned.   Four hours per night seems way too much, especially at the 8th grade level.

Meta-analysis of hundreds of studies done on the effects of homework shows that the evidence supporting the practice is, at best, modest. Homework seems to be most useful in high school and for subjects like math. At the elementary school level homework seems to be of marginal or no academic value.

– Malcolm Gladwell

*See the report here

**I took out Saudi Arabia, whose result of 34% below average, given 11% being assigned over 4 hours of homework per night, fell far below even these very off-putting predictions–an outlier statistically.

Acknowledgment: Thanks to Devan Govender for alerting me to this issue.

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