STEM Beats - March 2013

This Day in STEM -- March 29

March 29, 2013

Today marks a watershed anniversary in chemistry and pharmacology -- as well as the birth of what is beeing seen as one of the biggest healthcare crises in modern history. Today in 1886, Civil War vet John Pemberton mixed the first batch of Coca-Cola.  

A pharmacist wounded in 1865 fighting for the Confederacy, Pemberton struggled with pain, eventually becoming addicted to morphine. Wanting to ease his dependency, he searched for a medicinal cure, eventually creating what he dubbed "Pemberton's French Wine Coca." This drink was alcohlic, and contained coca, kola nut, and damiana, a spicy, sugary shrub often used as tea and incense. 

French wine coca was extremely successful, but temperance legislation passed in 1885 meant he needed to produce a nonalcoholic version to stay in business. He came up with Coca-Cola, which, while nonacoholic, still contained coca, or cocaine, and kola, which contained caffeine. Cocaine stayed a part of the recipe until the early 1900s. The full recipe for Coca-Cola remains a closely guarded trade secret to this day. 

Pemberton began selling Coca-Cola at a pharmacy counter in 1886, and another drugstore owner, Asa Candler, bought in a year later and eventually purchased the company in 1891. At the time of Pemberton's death in 1888, French Wine Coca was still outselling Coca-Cola; as we all know, though, that quickly changed. Coca-Cola became one of the most popular beverages in the world, with several offshoots and imitators also becoming incredibly popular. However, the high caloric content has come under fire in recent years, with many charging that the drinks' increased consumption has led to record levels of obesity in the U.S. and abroad. The next 125 years in Coke history should prove very interesting, indeed. 

Tags: This Day in STEM

STEM in the News: March 26, 2013

March 25, 2013

It's been a rich week in STEM news. Read on to find out about high-school hackers being recruited by the Department of Homeland security, the continually knotty issue of high-school women in STEM, and the coolest nine-year-old on the planet. 

Partnership blends Science and English Proficiency EdWeek, March 25

Science, as our Vital Signs showed, has fallen by the wayside in recent years, pushed out by pressure to teach English, math, and target at-risk populations, like ELL learners. But a unique museum partnership in a California district is using hands-on science instruction to target English proficiency and help English language learners master the language, with successful results. 

Luring Young Web Warriors Is Priority. it's Also a Game. New York Times, March 24

In pop culture, hackers are often portrayed as trying to get in to the top-secret government computer programs; now, Uncle Sam wants the hackers to keep the bad guys out. The Department of Homeland Security, tasked with keeping foreign hackers out of the country's infrastructure -- including defense databases but also assets like the power grid -- is in need of at least 600 more computer security experts. To recruit them, security experts have started recruiting and training prodigious high schoolers with competitions focused on simulated computer war games. Major companies, like Raytheon, are helping with the effort. 

STEM Career Programs Lack Female Participants, Study Says, EdWeek, March 22 

Women comprise only 28 percent of enrollment in Career and Technical Education (CTE) programs nationwide, according to a new study. Advocates point out that even if girls are opting into lower-paying career tracks (like childcare), this only further entrenches the longstanding gender gap. However, a new law, the Perkins Career and Technical Education Act, which promotes and rewards female student participant in CTE courses, is beginning to make a difference. 

Girls Excel in the Classroom But Lag in Entry to 8 Elite Schools in the City, New York Times, March 22 

New York City is renowned for its citywide, STEM-centric magnet schools, like Bronx Science, Stuyvesant, and Brooklyn Tech. But a new citywide analysis shows that those elite schools often have a disproportionately male student body -- despite the fact that girls regularly outnumber the number of boys taking the admissions test, and outshine boys in other metrics of success, like high-school GPA. The eight STEM-focused schools all admist solely on a standardized test; meanwhile, humanities-leaning schools that admit students based on a portfolio of work, tend to admit a higher percentage of girls. 

Google Engineer Says Vietnamese 11th Graders Know Enough Computer Science to Pass Their Interview Process, Good, March 22 

Where computer science classes fit has been a matter of debate recently in the U.S., but the argument is settled in Vietnam: It starts in second grade, and from there is a mainstay of the curriculum. As a result, a Google engineer writers, Vietnamese 11th graders could pass the initial interview at Google to become a software engineer. It's food for thought as we take a hard look at the needs of businesses and the subjects students are taught in schools. 

5-Year-Old Girl Discovers New Species of DInosaur, Scientists Name It After Her, Jezebel, March 25

Finally, one young woman does what most kids only dream about: She got a dinosaur named after her. That's right. A dinosaur. One that she discovered at the age five. The young girl, Daisy Morris, has long been interested in animals and fossils, and has a large collection of fossils at home. She was walking with her family on a beach on the Isle of Wight when she found the piece of pelvis, and sent it in to paleontologists in 2008. Last week they announced that she had indeed found something new. In her honor, the species of dino will forever be known as the Vectidraco Diasymorrisae. Now 9, her friends think it's "cool" that she discovered the species. So do we, Daisy. 

More Questions STEM from Brown Center report

March 25, 2013

The Brown Center for Education Policy at the Brookings Institution released its annual report on the state of American eduation last week, and the results were of the analysis -- which looked at international scoring, ability grouping, and advanced math in eighth grade -- produced more information, but more questions, regarding math education today.

First up, the report took at look at the ever-scrutinized international comparisons. An initial brush shows that, despite much anxiety, the news about math performance is generally fair: On the fourth-grade TIMSS exam, for instance, U.S. students generally scored slightly above average, and had a 23-point gain since 1995. But context mattersand the report also points out that many of the countries that have started using TIMSS in the last decade have largely been developing countries or countries that are just beginning to develop public education, making most comparisons apples and oranges. Surprising, it found that Finland, the darling of many in education, scored roughly the same as the United States on the TIMSS exam, though it greatly outpaced the U.S. on the PISA tests. It's doubtful this variance would reflect poorly on Finland, though -- if anything, Finnish admirers will likely view this as further proof that standardized tests are too subjective to be of much value. 

The report mapped TIMSS results in certain states onto state NAEP results, and found that typically they correlated. A few states, like Massachusetts, scored much higher than the national average and was on par with the stiffer international competitors. Interestingly, the report was able to link states with stronger standards -- which were also more likely to be in line with the standards in the highest-performing countries -- to higher scores. As an earlier study also found that the Common Core State Standards align closely with the standards of some of the highest-performing states. Provided support for teachers is provided in the implementation of Common Core, this could mean big improvement for students in the United States. 

Algebra in eighth grade, long a contentious issue, also merited a section of analysis. While states have mainly been successful in getting nearly more students to take algebra in eighth grade --47 percent of eighth graders nationally took algebra, up from 16 percent in 1990 -- but researchers couldn't find a link between increased enrollment in algebra and better performance on NAEP. Further, the analysis found evidence -- though could not establish causality -- that the influx of students taking algebra and pre-algebra has led to both those courses being watered down. This is further backed up by the latest NAEP transcript analysis, which found evidence of 'course inflation' in high school. 

The report was an illuminating update, and touched on many trends that get heavy play in education debates. But ultimately, as with many things in the education sector, progress, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. 

Tags: math, standards

This Day in STEM -- March 22

March 22, 2013

If you remember the spring of 1997, you probably remember Hale-Bopp Comet. Bigger and brighter than most previous comets, Hale-Bopp made its closest approach to earth on March 22, 1997. 

Hale-Bopp, discovered by amateur astronomers Alan Hale and Thomas Bopp simultaneously in 1996, was 1,000 times brighter than its famous cousin, Halley's Comet. Visible for more than 18 months in the Northern Hemisphere, it was one of the largest known comets, with a tail more than 25 miles in diameter. Since it appeared just as the Internet was gaining popularity, news of sightings spread quickly -- by the end of April, 1997, more than 70 percent of Americans had seen the comet. 

Unlike Halley's Comet, which is a short-period comet that appears once every 75 or 76 years, Hale-Bopp only appears once every several thousand years, making it a new discovery in the 90s. It is suspected to have come through the solar system in 2215 B.C., when it had a near-collision with Jupiter. Given its long orbit, it was observed intensively during its 1997 loop, and was determined to have a sodium in its tail, which had not been observed in comets previously. Although the discoveries were plentiful, the comet is not expected again until 4385

As a tragic coda, 39 members of a San Francisco-based doomsday cult committed mass suicide on March 26, 1997, believing that by doing so, they would reach an alien spacecraft following Hale-Bopp. 

Tags: This Day in STEM

STEM in the News: March 19, 2013

March 18, 2013

If it's Tuesday, it must be news roundup day. Here are some essential pieces in STEM education this week. 

UTeach Math, Science Program to Expand with $23 Million Grant Ed Week, March 18

UTeach, a collaborative teacher-certification program that works with education schools to train teachers in specific STEM subjects, is about to undergo a massive expansion, courtesy of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. The institution recently awarded the program a $23 million grant, which will allow it to expand to 10 new universities from its current 35. Already the recipient of a Race to the Top award -- and a member of CTEq's STEMWorks Database -- the program enables math and science majors to also earn a teaching certification in four years. And, according to the program, nearly 90 percent of those grads go on to teach, creating a stronger pipeline of STEM-ready teachers.

Math, Reading Gaps by Gender Persist, Ed Week, March 15

While it's old news that girls outperform boys in math and girls return the favor in reading, a new study explores those gender gaps in a little more depth. The results, based on 10 years' of PISA data, were surprising. Worldwide, for instance, the gender gap in reading (where girls have the advantage) was three times that of the math gender gap. In math, the gender gap is most pronounced between the highest scorers: High-achieving boys outperformed high-achieving girls by the greatest margins. In reading, though, this was inverted, meaning the lowest-achieving boys lagged far, far behind even the lowest-achieving girls. And, the study found, the gender gaps in the U.S. were among the greatest in the world.

What's this mean? In the classroom, it means that interventions with high-achieving girls in math and low-achieving boys in reading are most likely to yield a strong bang for the buck. Policymakers should be looking at those groups closely, as well. Both boys and girls need both math and reading to be successful, and persistent gender gaps ultimate hurt both.

Better Colleges Failing to Lure Talented Poor New York Times, March 16

Much of education policy is focused on ensuring that opportunity gaps between rich and poor students are minimized and eliminated, but a new study shows that high-achieving low-income students -- who should theoretically be attending the same selective four-year universities as their wealthier peers -- often instead opt to attend community colleges or less selective four-year schools nearer to home. The trend is more pronounced in small metropolitan and rural areas, and long-term leads to widening income inequality in the U.S. The schools they attend have fewer resources and lower grad rates, perpetuating a cycle of low earnings. These students represent an untapped resource, and the study, one of the broadest conducted, will hopefully create enough waves of change to make a difference for institutions and, most importantly, for students. 

Why Do Some Students Struggle With Math? Daniel Willingham, March 18

What makes math hard?