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Change the Equation Blog

The CTEq blog is the voice for STEM learning, offering insightful research and fun facts. We welcome your thoughts and encourage you to post your comments.

Friday, March 22, 2013 - 10:52

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. 

Monday, March 18, 2013 - 12:01

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?  

Thursday, March 14, 2013 - 08:32

Elementary and middle schools are filled with "holidays" you don't actually get to celebrate in the real world -- Cinco de Mayo, anyone? -- but chief among them, obviously, is Pi Day. Only celebrated in fifth- through tenth-grade math classrooms, Pi Day, for the uninitiated, is celebrated on March 14th and honors pi, the mathematical constant found in the ratio between a circle's radius and diameter --- 3.14. Pi Day in middle school meant fun math songs (although my fifth-grade teacher never let us sing that one), math games, and, of course, pie. 

While it's unlikely that you'll celebrate with a slice of apple or cherry today -- though your coworkers wouldn't mind that gift -- here are some fun pi facts in honor of Pi Day:

 

1.) The symbol for pi, π, has only been in use for math for the last 250 years.

2.) Pi is the most recognizable mathematical constant in the world. 

3.) There is a Givenchy cologne named Pi, which celebrates the "intelligent, visionary and sexy" man.

4.) Pi is an irrational number, which means that its value can never be truly known. It continues forever in a seemingly random sequence. Computers cannot fully calculate it, and there are at least 6.4 billion digits. 

5.) The Great Pyramid at Giza appears to follow the porpotionality of pi. This has fascinated Egyptologist ands mysticists for centuries. 

6.) The current 'pi champion' is Lu Chao of China, who memorized pi to 67,890 decimal places. 

7.) One of the earliest appearances of pi is in the Rhind Papyrus, c. 1650 B.C.

8.) Albert Einstein was born on Pi Day, 1879. 

9.) Pi has factored into plotlines in Star Trek, the books The Da Vinci Code and Foccault's Pendulum, the Carl Sagan novel Contact, Alfred Hitchcock's movie Tom Curtain, and the Sandra Bullock movie The Net. The 1998 thriller Pi, about a paranoid mathematician, earned Darren Aronofsky the Directing Award at Sundance.

10.) The Greek mathematician, Archimedes of Syracuse, was so engrossed in unlocking the mysteries of pi that he did not notice that the Roman forces had captured Syracuse during the Second Punic War. Focused on is work, when an invading Roman soldier interrupted his research and ordered him to go meet the invading general, he declined, saying he needed to finish work on his diagrams. Furious, the soldier killed him.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013 - 14:43

More students than ever are enrolling in rigorous math and science courses -- but that label probably doesn't imply what parents and students think it does. A new report, released by the National Assessment of Educational Progress and part of an ongoing high-school transcript study, showed that while almost every member of the high school class of 2005 took Algebra I, as few as one in four students were actually presented with the type of material that would prepare them for college. 

The report's release brought together a panel of experts, including CTEq's own Linda Rosen, to speak about the implications of the study. Panelists acknowledged the results are sobering -- parents, students, and policymakers have long assumed that these courses comprise the first step on a college-ready track, and more and more careers will rely on a greater knowledge of algebra in the years to come. The analysis found that students are taking more math in high school, but if the class doesn't cover the subject meaningfully, there will be trouble down the pike. Labelling every ninth-grade math course "Algebra I" won't increase proficiency or knowledge. 

The report, which looked at textbooks and transcripts, determined that of the material in a standard Algebra I textbook, only two-thirds of it was related to algebraic topics. The last third was devoted to elementary and middle school concepts. Roughly the same breakdown was seen in geometry textbooks. Of the students enrolled in an "honors" course, 73 percent of them were using materials more suited to an intermediate math course. 

Part of the problem, of course, is preparedness: If students enter high school unready, presenting them with too-rigorous material would set them up for failure. Hopefully the Common Core standards, which are more rigorous than several states' standards and, more importantly, create a standard understanding of algebra and geometry, will help rectify the "title inflation," as Linda dubbed the trend. But it's clear that we need to start thinking about how to ensure quality in order to ensure that students are receiving the best education possibe. 

Tuesday, March 12, 2013 - 10:52

It's Tuesday, so we must have a STEM news roundup. Below, all the best of STEM over the past week.

Computer Coding: It's Not Just for Boys

The STEM gender divide isn't just a problem in the United States; it's in Europe as well. In Britain, girls comprise only 8 percent of test-takers for the computer science A-level (the highest high-school exam). This New York Times article takes a look at the issue in London, including a few tech start-ups, like Little Miss Geek, that aim to increase the number of girls choosing STEM paths. 

STEM Education Must Start in Early Childhood

JD Chesloff, executive director of the Massachusetts Business Roundtable, wrote an op-ed in Education Week about why early-childhood STEM should be a priority of policymakers, teachers, and philanthropists. 

Habitudes of STEM Leaders

What makes someone STEM-successful? This HuffPo article explores the mindsets and attitudes that make one a STEM leader. Note that none of them include "memorizing pi to the fifteenth decimal." 

Growing STEM in Rural Communities

Unlike urban or suburban schools, where there are plenty of nearby STEM companies and professionals to engage students, rural communities often have a tough time developing partnerships to engage students. EDWorks recently visited a local school and discovered one often-untapped, yet completely logical, partner: Local farms.

Physicist's proposal study uses science to prove why girlfriend should say yes

And finally, one extra-heartwarming STEM piece of news: To propose to his physicist girlfriend, an Australian physicist 'published' a case study of their relationship. Citing evidence from when they met -- introduced by a "social node" -- onward, and concluding that "projected happiness is upward with high confidence," he proposes that they "continue the study indefinitely." Most creative and romantic use of STEM we saw this week? We say yes.

Monday, March 4, 2013 - 17:06

As the D.C. area braces for what may or may not be an incredible late-in-season storm, we bring you all the STEM news that's fit to clip. 

State Councils Propel STEM Education, EdWeek

Education, like politics, is local, and many STEM initiatives have recently emerged from states. EdWeek takes a look at how state initiatives are changing the on-the-ground STEM game. See if your state is included. 

'An Angry Black Woman's Rant on the Future of STEM Education,' TedxBaltimore

Professor Roni Ellington of Morgan State University spoke last week at the TedxBaltimore conference on diversity in STEM education. A mathematician with a PhD in math education, her work focuses on how marginalized students persist and succeed in STEM fields. Take 10 minutes to listen to her ideas on how to persuade students to pursue 'hard' subjects and how to empower teachers and provide students with agency in STEM education. 

From C++ to She++, Huffington Post

The shortage of women in technology is well-documented, and often a concern for those looking forward in the field. But as columnist Sejal Hathi, the problem of women in male-dominated fields "isn't just a women's issue: it is a national security issue, a human right's issue, [a] generation's shared issue." She highlights an important concern: We must view women's success in STEM communally in order to move forward. 

The PhD Bust: America's Awful Market for Young Scientists -- in 7 Charts, The Atlantic

The title of this post is devastatingly clear: It's tough to get a job as a young, newly minted PhD. While within STEM the outlook has been grim in life sciences for a while, even formerly safe fields like engineering are beginning to take a hit as well. 

Should We Give Visas to Immigrants Who Create Startups? 

The question of immigration and business innovation has been in front of Congress for a while. Last year, for instance, the House voted on a STEM visa bill, and President Obama has included it in his immigration-reform bill. Kansas Senator Jerry Moran recently proposed extending a path to citizenship to job creators, or any immigrant who created a startup with capitol investments over $100,000 and employed at least two people. While not directly STEM-related, it's not a stretch to imagine that many of these startups and jobs would focus on technological innovation. 

Monday, March 4, 2013 - 10:36

Last week, Horizon Research released the 2012 National Survey of Science and Mathematics Education, a representative survey of STEM-focused teachers across the range of subjects and grade levels. And the results, while they'll surprise few involved closely with math and science policy and education, there are still plenty of important lessons in the rich report. A few quick ones are summarized below. 

1.) (Math + Science) < Reading/ELA 

Most policymakers will tell you that a budget asserts priorities; in schools, allocated time does the same. According to the survey -- and EdWeek has a great to-the-minute breakdown -- K-3 classrooms typically recieve 19 minutes of science instruction per day (as a note, most classrooms don't do science daily) and 54 minutes of math instruction, but 89 minutes of reading and language arts instruction. There has been a statistically significant drop since 2000, which CTEq's own Vital Signs data also confirmed. In the upper grades, STEM makes some gains but doesn't quite catch reading. While ensuring that students learn to read before third grade is essential so children can make the switch from "learning to read" to "reading to learn," as many districts institute automatic retention policies at third grade, a shaky foundation in math and science in the early years will lead to trouble down the road, too. 

2.) Professional development needs a meaningful boost 

Professional development is necessary for replenishing skills and knowledge, but few teachers report having participated in enough professional development to make an effective impact. Without a sustained time investment, PD has little chance to be meaningful for teachers, and most educators report attending only a few hours' worth of PD over the last three years. In elementary school, for instance, only 59 percent of teachers receiving any science professional development in the last three years -- and 15 percent had never received any science PD. Further, of those teachers that had received any science professional development in the last three years, most (65 percent) received six hours or fewer. Split out, that's approximately 2 hours of science PD a year. Without investing meaningfully in training teachers, it's unlikely that the relatively time allotted will increase.

Math and secondary teachers fared better -- nearly a third of middle school teachers reported spending more than 35 hours on math PD workshops in the last three years, for instance -- but a greater investment in ongoing, intensive professional development is needed at all levels. 

3.) Equity and technology matter 

... but it's tough to make direct correlations. There were a few anticipated discrepancies -- for instance, classrooms with the lowest percentages of non-Asian minorities were also the most likely to not have graphing and scientific caculators. And high-achieving classrooms are more likely to receive resources, creating a self-perpetuating cycle. But rural schools spend more per pupil on math and science education, compared to suburban or rural schools; similarly, spending on science equipment varies erratically. The quartile of schools with the lowest percentage of students in poverty receives the most money (predictably), but are followed with the third-highest quartile of schools in poverty. The second-lowest quartile receives the least --  so, the schools with the highest levels of poverty spend more on science than the schools in the second-richest quartile. Given these idiosyncracies, correlation and causation are unclear, but it's a good starting point. 

Friday, February 22, 2013 - 09:26

The new MetLife Survey of the American Teacher should give us pause. It reminds us yet again that common academic standards could hit real speedbumps if teachers and principals don't get the support they need to put them in place.

One big challenge may be overconfidence. More than nine in ten teachers were "confident" or "very confident" that teachers in their school have the "academic skills and abilities to teach to the Common Core State Standards." Some studies, by contrast, paint a different picture. As Catherine Gewertz notes, they find that teachers often don't excel at teaching the kinds of higher-order skills Common Standards emphasize.

Part of the problem might be the way MetLife worded the question. Teachers may feel they have the academic muscle to teach to Common Core, but their pedagogical muscle may have atrophied from years spent on lower-order skills. For many teachers, the reality of Common Core may come as a shock.

That poses big problems for principals and teachers alike. Principals in the MetLife survey seem to be suffering something akin to shell shock. Three quarters of principals say their jobs asre too complex, seven out of ten say their job responsibilities are not very similar to what they were just five years ago, and half say they great stress at least several several times a week.

Teachers are in a similar boat. They are about as likely as principals to report suffering great stress, and their job satisfaction numbers have plummeted since 2008. These numbers needn't surprise us. Teachers and principals alike have experienced a perfect storm of new reforms and budget distress in the past five years.

But the answer is not to dial back on reforms like Common Core. Despite media reports that teachers don't like common standards, the MetLife survey joins previous surveys in finding solid teacher support for Common Core. The bigger issue is support. School veterans have gotten used to seeing wave after wave of reform surge and then recede. THey're weary of reforms that come with little coherent support to ensure their success. Our state Vital Signs reports found that many math and science teachers, particularly those who teach low income students, lack the resources they need.

Teachers in the MetLife Survey made it very clear that they would welcome such resources, which include coaching, teaching materials, and tools to track their students' process. Yet it's still devilishly difficult to figure out whether states are actually on track to providing such resources. If Common Core supporters don't want this reform to recede like so many others before it, they had better be vigilant.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013 - 15:35

It's been a big week for space and STEM -- we wrote last Friday about Galileo's birthday, Google celebrated Copernicus' 540th birthday yesterday, and today's the anniversary of the first time an American went into orbit. Fifty-one years ago today, astronaut John Glenn made his famous flight. For such a short month, quite a lot of historic events happened in February! 

Thursday, February 14, 2013 - 15:56

Happy birthday, dear Galileo!

Today, one of history's most prolific scientists and mathematicians, Galileo Galilei, would be 449 years old. Galileo was an equal-opportunity STEM achiever, working in pure and applied science and mathematics. He discovered Jovian moons and improved a new invention called the telescope. He championed heliocentrism, and invented the compass. 

The son of a well-known lutenist and music theoretician, Galileo grew up in Florence and Pisa, and was educated at a monastery and the University of Pisa. Although his father originally wanted him to study medicine, he discovered geometry, and the rest was history. He studied physics and mathematics, and In one famous thought experiment, he imagined dropping objects of different masses from the Leaning Tower of Pisa to prove that objects fall and accelerate at the same rate. After hearing about the invention of a telescope, he immediately invented a new, improved version. Eventually, using evidence gathered with the telescope, he supported the Copernican theory that the sun sat in the center of the universe.  

This belief -- as well as the brashness with which he presented it -- eventually landed him in hot water. In 1616, he was prohibited by Church authority from speaking out about Copernican theory. As a strict Catholic, he abided by that rule. In 1623, though, when Pope Urban -- whom he considered a friend -- was appointed, Urban allowed him to write about astronomy, provided it was objective and didn't advocate. However, the piece that came about, Dialogues Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, was anything but objective, and Galileo was put on trial for heresy and sentenced to house arrest. He spent nine years under house arrest, defying the church's orders that he not have visitors nor publish any original scientific work, and died in 1642.

Galileo's inventions and discoveries have withstood the test of time. His work in motion and mechanics set the stage for later thinkers like Isaac Newton. He was one of the first to find order in the natural world, and many consider him the father of modern science. 

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