STEMbeats Blog

Lessons from Legos

March 15, 2011

“It’s cool to see how a math equation can put a patch on a heart." That wonderful line comes from DeMarcus Hicks, a 12-year-old team member in a robotics competition here in Washington, DC. Marcus and his teammates used legos to build a robot that can perform open heart surgery (after a fashion).

Another teammate, 14-year-old Brittany Robinson, had this to say: “At those tournaments. we became a part of this really cool community. We got to see what other teams were building, how they were responding to the same missions.”

Hicks and Robinson both live in the troubled Anacostia neighborhood in Washington. They compete with well-heeled teams from the suburbs and have done very well.

Read the entire story in The Washington Post.


Happy Pi Day!

March 13, 2011

Happy Pi Day! Yes, Monday, March 14th (3.14) is Pi Day, for what should be obvious reasons.

What should you do to celebrate? That's up to you, of course, but here are a few ideas reported in The Chicago Tribune:

In an after-school pi event at Walter Payton College Prep, students will throw hot dogs on a floor marked with evenly spaced parallel lines. Why? Because the proportion of hot dogs that cross the lines when they fall works out to be approximately one over pi, said Payton mathematics chairman Paul Karafiol.

One highlight of many Pi Day events is a competitive recitation of the numerous digits of pi, which modern computers have calculated to a trillion decimal places.

If reciting numbers or tossing meat aren't really your thing, then there are surely any number of other things you can do to celebrate pi. For example, a musician named Michael Blake set pi to music, creating a lovely and complex melody.

If you're not as ambitious as Blake, then just take a few minutes to watch his brief video. Consider it a fitting homage to the beauty of pi.

Update (3.14). It looks like Youtube removed Blake's piece for an alleged copyright violation. The complaint was filed by another composer named Lars Erickson, who composed his own pi symphony. (We don't know whether his action was justified or not--consult your attorney).


Why Do We Think So Highly of Ourselves?

March 11, 2011

David Brooks thinks Americans are just a bit too full of themselves, and he cites research to back up his claims. He points to recent surveys that paint the US as a veritable Lake Wobegon, where every high school kid says he has above average leadership skills, every college professor thinks she has above average teaching skills, and every college student says he's easy to like. Ask young people about their ability in math and science, and you'll find a similar pattern. Why?

Brooks sums up findings from recent surveys of student opinions on math:

American students no longer perform particularly well in global math tests. But Americans are among the world leaders when it comes to thinking that we are really good at math.... Students in Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong and Taiwan have much less self-confidence, though they actually do better on the tests.

Many social critics blame this inflation of self regard on parents and teachers who boost young people's self esteem and trust that actual achievement will follow. Are the critics right? Perhaps.

Yet in the case of math, at least, our young people might be drawing a logical conclusion from the information they're getting. The vast majority of high schoolers have gotten the message that the US students as a whole don't do particularly well in math, but most think pretty highly of their own abilities. Thistension may reflect the mixed messages they're receiving.

US students don't do very well on the National Assessment of Educational Progress or the Programme for International Student Assessment, but they don't take it personally. Those tests are given only to a sample of US students, and the students who do take them don't see their individual results. Students can see their results on state tests, however, and state tests tend to set a much lower bar for success. It's all the easier, therefore, to blame all those other kids for our mathematical woes.

One way to bring our students back down to earth is to raise the bar on state tests. We can't expect them to strive for something higher if we're not being honest with them in the first place.


Tags: math, science

What It Means to Raise the Bar

March 10, 2011

Yesterday, Secretary Duncan warned that 82 percent of US schools could be labeled as "failing" under the No Child Left Behind law. He cited the number in testimony urging swift action on the law's reauthorization. Quite a few people have contested his data, but the fact remains that more and more schools will not meet "Adequate Yearly Progress" as the 2014 deadline to have all kids proficient in reading and math looms.

Some have argued that the law sparked a race to the bottom among states. If you need to get all of your students over the bar, it's awfully tempting to lower that bar. And indeed, the proficiency bar in many states is very low.

Even if No Child Left Behind drops or dramatically changes its "Adequate Yearly Progress" provisions, we'll still have to come to grips with widespread low performance. Most states have committed to common standards, and common tests are not far behind. If those states stay true to their commitment to raise standards (which means they'll have to set higher cut scores on more challenging tests), then we'll face the spectacle of plummeting student proficiency rates, even without No Child Left Behind.

No Child Left Behind may well create a big mess if sanctions kick in for huge numbers of schools around the country. Many have argued that the 100 percent proficiency target isn't reasonable.

But, as Secretary Duncan has often said, state leaders will need a lot of backbone to stay true to their commitment to high standards. We can't simply lower the bar and declare victory.


Cheating Our Students

March 9, 2011

Sometimes numbers do lie. That's the major theme of a breakout story in Sunday's USA Today. Reporters at the paper found more than 1600 cases where sudden surges in student test scores were fishy, to say the least. The big news was that, in the vast majority of cases, officials did nothing to investigate the anomalies.

Such evidence of cheating is without a doubt very shocking, especially when teachers and principals seem to be the culprits. But problems with state test results go far beyond cheating. Cut scores on state tests are often so low that the results of those tests are well nigh meaningless.

In the six states where USA Today looked for evidence of cheating, for example, 75 percent of fourth graders, on average, cleared the proficiency bar on their state math tests. Yet only 37 percent of those same students cleared the bar on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which many experts see as the gold standard for US assessments. We can't blame cheating for that gap, but we can blame low expectations.

Until recently, for example, the bar in New York State was set so low that many students could pass by simply guessing on all of the questions. The State Board of Regents raised their cut scores last year and saw their state's student proficiency rates plummet. The Regents took the courageous and principled stand that an honest assessment of student knowledge and skills was worth the bad press.

Yet in many other states, state tests continue to set a low standard. A mother who hears that her child is doing just fine is in for a rude awakening when that child tries to make it in college or a career.

The vast majority of teachers and principals would never dream of cheating. It's the tests themselves that may not be telling the truth.


Tags: math, science, standards