STEMbeats Blog

Words of Wisdom from Woz

April 10, 2011

Steve Wozniak, known to his friends (and everyone else) as "Woz," wowed Lucas Mearian from Computer World with his theory of learning. Woz has earned his chops as a commentator on schools. After co-founding Apple with that other Steve, he taught fifth grade computer science for eight years.

Like many other tech pioneers, he worries that schools aren't designed to foster the next generation of innovators. "A really innovative person is known for something that usually took an awful lot of thinking, maybe even over years, and a lot of development in a laboratory putting it together and getting it to work," he said at a recent conference. "And it's new and it's different. And it's not something you read about in a book." Math or science classes in schools are often at odds with that spirit of innovation, he argues.

First, Wozniak criticizes the push for right answers in such classes, which can stunt divergent or critical thinking. In that, he's not alone. (Transformative ideas seldom arise from the "right" answer.)

But his take on testing is pretty compelling. Here's how Mearian reports it: "The learning cycle between what is taught and when a student is tested on it is far too short, [Wozniak] proclaimed. Short learning-testing cycles, he said, are nothing like the projects that technology innovators are afforded in real life."

That, too, is not necessarily a new criticism of what's going on in schools. But when Woz says it, people should listen.


Will Rio Build this Magnificent Tower for the 2016 Olympics?

April 6, 2011

Will this magnificent structure greet visitors to the 2016 Olympics at Rio de Janeiro? That would certainly be very cool. It would be an observation tower, a waterfall, and even a source of energy. Solar energy gathered by day would power pumps to keep the waterfall flowing at night. The waterfall, in turn, would drive turbines and create more energy.

If we're to believe some bloggers, the tower is practically a fait accompli. It will start rising from the brazilian shores in no time.

Not so fast, says Brett Christensen. The "Solar City Tower" is just a proposal submitted by a firm from Zurich. Here's how the head of the firm describes it:

We don't have any confirmation from the local authorities so far and don't know if this project will ever happen! Therefore the design is in a very early stage and we are facing lots of technical problems. Even though we have done some research in this field, a solid cost estimation or an energy consumption of this building is not possible at the moment.

The description of how the building would work does seem a tad far-fetched. Still, it's a gorgeous concept and would be a stunning addition to the Rio coast.


Do US Schools Demand Too Much?

April 4, 2011

Depending on whom you ask, American youth are all loafing or all working themselves into the ground.

Two recent films about US schools pretty much sum up the two positions. Two Million Minutes portrayed even our best schools as posh holding pens for idle young people. More recently, Race to Nowhere painted them as pressure cookers that drive students to nervous breakdown.

Jay Mathews at The Washington Post takes a more nuanced approach. There is "harmful academic pressure on students in some college-conscious home." There are indeed some tiger mothers and fathers who, in league with schools, push students too far. But is this a national epidemic, as Race to Nowhere suggests?

Mathews isn't buying it. He cites data that teens in US devote 3 1/2 hours a day to TV and 42 minutes a day to homework. He points to the many hard-working teachers who sorely wished their students felt a bit more pressure to do well. And he notes that the problems that bedevil schools for the wealthy are worlds apart from problems that schools in poor communities face.

It's never a good idea to paint all US schools with a single broad brush. That said, as we compare our students with students in some of the top performing countries, can we really conclude that all or even most of them are being asked to clear too high a bar?


In Schools, Those who Need the Most Get the Least

April 3, 2011

The students who most need our best teachers are least likely to get them. A new study of teachers in 10 school districts finds that schools serving the wealthiest students have the highest share of effective English Language Arts and math teachers. (The study defined effective teachers as teachers whose students made the greatest gains on state tests.*)

Almost 30 percent of the top middle school math teachers were in the wealthiest** 20 percent of schools. In one district, the numbers were far more serious. A whopping 62 percent of the most effective teachers were in the wealthiest schools, and a mere 6 percent were in the poorest.**

Dismaying as they are, such inequities shouldn't really surprise us. A report published last year found that math classes in low-income schools are twice as likely as those in high-income schools to be taught by teachers with neither a major nor a certification in the field.

Yet such qualifications can be mere proxies for actual effectiveness. The newer study attempts to gauge teachers' success by measuring how much their students actually learn.

A word of caution: Critics of such studies argue that the tests themselves are flawed, and that estimates of teachers' effectiveness are very imprecise. Proponents, on the other hand, claim that we have no better way of measuring teachers' effect in the classroom.

But there's a further complication we don't often hear about: Good teachers might not be good no matter where they go, no matter what students they teach. Even if we could simply reshuffle the deck and send the "best" teachers from our wealthiest schools to our poorest schools, would those top teachers still do as well under such new conditions? That's not clear, though at least one study is trying to come up with some answers.

In all, we can be quite sure that students who need the most help are often least likely to get it. Big differences in teachers' pay, training, background--and maybe even their effectiveness--stack the deck against children in low-income schools.

We have to confront that problem head on.

* The study defined "effective" teachers as the top 20 percent as measured by their students' growth on state tests.

** The "wealthiest" schools in the study were actually the 20 percent of schools with the lowest share of students receiving free- or reduced-price lunch. The "poorest" were the 20 percent with the highest share of such students. The study itself did not refer to "wealthy" or "poor" schools.


Dr. Zakiah Pierre, Research Associate Extraordinaire

April 1, 2011

Check out the CENtral Science blog, which just ran a great profile of our very own Dr. Zakiah Pierre, research associate extraordinaire. Zakiah stands as living proof of our conviction that a background in science can prepare you for many different jobs. Zakiah recently got her Ph.D. in Chemistry from the University of Illinois. Rather than become a “bench chemist,” she opted to pursue her long-standing passion for work that allows her to “pave the way for our future engineers and scientists.” Her research here at CTEq helps us keep a bead on the most important issues and trends in STEM learning.*

Zakiah’s long-term goal? She plans to start a middle school that focuses on math and science. You can read it all here.

* "STEM" stands for science, technology, engineering and math.