STEM Beats - February 2011

Will Watson Revolutionize Testing in Education?

February 27, 2011

Even if you aren't much of a Jeopardy fan, you most likely heard about the rout that took place on the show the week before last. An IBM computer named Watson soundly beat two all-time Jeopardy champions. After day two of the three-day drubbing, we pondered what effect Watson could have on education. Not surprisingly, the folks at IBM have thought much deeper on this question than we have.

Stanley Litow of IBM believes Watson could revolutionize educational testing. Here's what he toldThe Chronicle of Philanthropy:

In the United States of America, we have something called the common core standards that have now been developed in more than 40 states. We’re now developing new standards in science, math, history, and English. But if you’re still stuck with the same multiple-choice testing, even if you have higher standards, it won’t raise people up, it will dumb things down so people base their teaching and learning on those multiple-choice tests.

The technology behind Watson blows that up. It says you could have long-answer questions, you could have the ability to grade lengthy paragraphs of information. If the testing system incorporates that, it will allow teachers to test to higher standards and children to learn at higher levels. And it will save lots of money in what is currently a very ineffective and inefficient testing and assessment system.

Could Watson save us from the bubble test?

Disclosure: IBM is a member of Change the Equation.

(Hat tip to the Huffington Post.)


Tags: computer science, technology

Urban Districts Lag in Science

February 25, 2011

In the past few months, we've had to endure a steady drumbeat of middling to bad news about how US students are doing in math and science. Yesterday came the news that students in many of our largest urban districts are doing much worse than the uninspiring national average. Surprising? No. Depressing? You bet.

The 2009 Trial Urban District Assessment in science found that almost three out of every four fourth graders in Detroit scored below basic in science. What's worse, students seem to lose ground as the go through the system. A jaw-dropping four fifths of Detroit's 8th graders were below basic. Things were barely better in Cleveland and Baltimore.

The differences among cities are every bit as interesting as the big headlines. One urban district, Austin, Texas, was on par with the US average in both fourth and eighth grades. Charlotte and Jefferson County (Louisville, Kentucky) met the national average in fourth grade but were lower in eighth. Fourth grade Black students in Boston and Charlotte did better than Black students nationally.

Why do some districts to better than others with certain groups of students? The answers to that question might yield some big insights into what works in urban education.


Tags: science, minorities

SAS and Activision Show Us Cool Jobs in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math

February 24, 2011

 Activision and SAS. You could hardly find two companies that are more different. Activision is a leading publisher of video games. SAS is a leader in business analytics software and services. But both companies agree on one very critical point: Jobs that require math and science are very cool.

Both companies shared first prize in a groundbreaking video contest to show just how exciting jobs requiring science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) can be. We at Change the Equation (CTEq) sponsored the contest among our 110 corporate members to inspire more young people to pursue such jobs. CTEq is a non-profit, non-partisan CEO-led initiative to improve STEM learning in the United States.

Our members are united by a profound concern about the lackluster performance of American youth in math and science. In 2010, only 43 percent of U.S. high school grads were ready for college work in math, and a mere 29 percent were ready in science. And the latest international tests of math and science confirmed, once again, that U.S. students lag far behind students in other developed nations.

News like this brings home the point that far too many of our students are missing out. They're missing out on economic opportunity, to be sure, because jobs that use STEM skills pay well and fuel much of our economic growth. But they're also missing out on much of the most important and thrilling work of the 21st century. That's a message we have to send to our young people. The winning videos did just that.

Take the SAS video, for example. Your typical teen doesn't know what "business analytics" is. But the video makes it vivid. We hear SAS employees explain how they keep bad guys off the streets, fight climate change, improve cancer research, and create smart phone apps -- and that's just a start.

Unlike SAS, Activision is already part of the teen lexicon.There's hardly a teenager alive who doesn't know that Activision makes games. But Activision's video goes far deeper than that, showing the math, physics and complex anatomy beneath the sights, sounds and action that draw so many kids to gaming in the first place.

Both videos drive home the point that jobs requiring math and science defy the stereotypes that discourage too many young people from taking higher level courses in STEM. If we don't get that point across to many more of our kids, they could face a very grim future, indeed. 
So take a look at our winning videos -- and share them with your friends.


Tags: video, math, science

MIT and the Smithsonian Team Up on a Science Mystery for Middle Schoolers

February 23, 2011

If you know a kid in middle school, tell her to mark April 4th on her calendar (or whatever a middle schooler's equivalent of a calendar is). That's the day when MIT and the Smithsonian will launch a new online game where players use science to solve an environmental mystery and thereby avert disaster.

From the press release:

VANISHED is a first-of-its-kind experience where participants become investigators racing to solve puzzles and other online challenges, visit museums and collect samples from their neighborhoods to help unlock the secrets of the game. Players can only discover the truth about the environmental disaster by using real scientific methods and knowledge to unravel the game's secrets.

Players will have access to real scientists as they hunt down clues, and they will be able to join an online network of other middle school students who are trying to solve the mystery."Kids from all across the country can work together to form a scientific community just like you would in the real world and try to solve this puzzle," says Caitlin Feeley of MIT.

Vanished already has a website where you can sign up to get news of the game. There's not much to see there yet, only some appropriately cryptic messages and an ominous countdown: less than 3,500,000 seconds before the game begins!

(Hat tip: Eduwonk).


Tags: science

Change the Equation Basks in the Presidential spotlight

February 22, 2011

In a speech at Intel's campus in Hillsborough, Oregon last Friday, President Obama named Change the Equation as a part of the nation's strategy to "win the future" through better education in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). He could hardly have found a better backdrop for his message that US students' success in math and science is vital to kinds of innovation that fuel our nation's economic growth.

Intel came in for heaps of praise from the President. He noted that Intel "was one of the four companies that initially joined our administration’s nationwide campaign to boost math and science education here in America, as part of a new organization called 'Change the Equation.'” He also applauded the work Intel has done in Oregon and elsewhere around the country:

You’ve started programs that get kids interested in engineering and technology as early as elementary school....  You’ve sponsored mentoring and engineering competitions for poor and underserved high school students.  Your employees tutors in nearby schools and universities.  You’ve helped train 7,000 Oregon teachers over the last 10 years.

Intel has trained many of those teachers through K-8 Math Progressions, a CTEq Featured Program that began its life as Intel Math.

Here's a video of the president's remarks:


You can read a transcript of these remarks here.