Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

Calculus: The Musical

December 8, 2011

On Tuesday a friend invite me to join him for a show at Huge Improv Theater called Calculus: The Musical. It was a small production. Two actors portrayed many different characters, there was no intermission, and there were several frenzied costume changes during the show. Both actors played guitar at points, and one had several pieces on an electric keyboard. It had all the elements that I love in a musical comedy: Witty characters, fast-paced dialogue and action, a dash of slapstick, various overdone accents, a multimedia presentation, a blending of musical styles (from classical to rap and a lot in between), and a man playing Sir Isaac Newton talking to a little action figure of himself (“Little Isaac”) and then having the action figure answer back in a higher-pitched version of his true voice. Okay, that last was specific to Calculus: The Musical and not at all something I look for in musical comedies.

As the name might imply to those among you who are particularly quick-witted, it was about calculus. As a mathphobe who never made it all the way through a calculus course I was worried that all of the jokes would go right over my head. I did miss some of them; several times my friend’s giggling indicated that something humorous had transpired on stage after some dialoguey gobbledygook about derivitives, functions, limits and infinite series. But the writer managed to incorporate calculus without making the storyline completely unintelligible to the uninitiated.

You can listen to songs from the musical at maththeater.com. Here are the lyrics from the only song that I can actually claim to have understood entirely. It’s called 5 Sizes of Numbers:

There are 5 sizes of numbers,
Big Infinity and small Zero,
And the Finite in the middle,
They’re the ones, I’m sure you know.

But now we look between Finite and Zero.
To numbers so small, they’re nothing at all,
But still a little larger than a Zero.
Their name is Infinitesimal.

On the other side of Finite,
There are numbers too large to say,
Infinites are what we call them,
They are big, in every way.

But they will never quite be Infinity,
They’re not quite as big, not even close.
We’ll use all of these numbers in Cal-cu-lus,
The numbers, I love the most.

It only gets nerdier from there. They have a song about Bernhard Reimann in the style of Eminem’s Without Me. Just sayin’.

Calculus: The Musical has been touring nationally for six years, and it stopped in Minneapolis only for a couple of days. But they have shows scheduled from now through May of 2012 in different parts of the country. I had a good time, maybe even learned a thing or two, and it reminded me that I really need to stop procrastinating and start reading that copy of Jennifer Ouellette’s Calculus Diaries that I got for Christmas and have left languishing on my bookshelf for the last year!

A Sad Day in the Science Classroom

December 2, 2011

I opened up the Star Tribune to a sad story. From the Star Tribune:

Thursday morning, ninth-graders in the second-hour science class at Maple Grove Junior High School had turned their desks toward the science table where teacher Matthew Achor conducted experiments for the class final.

The first time the teacher dropped a match into a jug of methanol, Neuberger said the experiment seemed to work. “It made a loud boom and a little flame,” he said. “Everyone thought that was cool and clapped.”

Neuberger looked down at his paper to begin writing down his observations. “I’m pretty sure he was starting it up to do it a second time,” Neuberger said. “And the next thing I know I’m on fire.”

Several students were injured during this science experiment. One of the students, Dane Neuberger, was severely injured with second degree burns to his face.  All of the students are expected to make a full recovery, and according to the article it doesn’t look like Neuberger will need skin grafts. Only minor damage was sustained to the classroom.

Details are slim in the article, but it sounds like the appropriate actions were taken after the explosion. A fire blanket was used to wrap Neuberger and an ambulance was called immediately. The room was evacuated and the fire department was called to investigate. The article doesn’t discuss the type of bottle or the amount or type of methyl alcohol employed in the experiment.

The science behind what was being taught.

The purposes of this experiment could be to demonstrate an exothermic reaction, oxygen supply in combustions (if a narrow-necked bottle is used as heat, flame and gas exits the bottle, fresh oxygen is sucked back into the bottle, re-igniting any remaining methanol vapor), detonation velocity, expansion of gases, etc.

This video shows the experiment as performed on four different alcohols:

The way it works is that liquid methanol is put into a bottle and allowed to evaporate, leaving methanol vapor in the bottle. Heat energy – a match, in this case – is added to the bottle, causing a combustible chemical reaction. Visible flame and a loud whoosh” is heard during the reaction. The methanol vapors are ignited, and liquid by-product (H2O) is left in the bottom of the bottle.

In the article above it’s mentioned that this teacher had been performing this experiment for years, and I found several online mentions of this as an acceptable high-school chemistry-level experiment. Some sites perform the study outdoors, some indoors. I do not remember this experiment performed when I was in junior high or high school.

Science teachers – Do you use this experiment in your classes? What safety precautions do you employ? For the rest of you – Do you remember this experiment from your days in the chemistry classroom? Did you have any larger-than-intended explosions?

Academic Animal Dissection, FY!

October 17, 2011

This morning I saw one of my Facebook Friends showing off a t-shirt that really annoyed me:

Image shows a cartoon frog with the words “cut class, not frogs!” and “Don’t dissect.” “peta2”

Of course it’s a PETA shirt, which is one mark against it, but it’s the joyous anti-intellectualism of the message that first slapped me in the face. The cutesy message about cutting class makes me want to take a shower. Remember this summer’s marketing disaster for  JCPenny –  the “I’m too pretty to do my homework so my brother has to do it for me” t-shirt? Same sort of thing, but more gender-inclusive; Everyone can be anti-learning with this shirt! 

I’m making a lot of assumptions in these next couple of sentences, but they’ve held true in my experience. Don’t skip class – you miss out on interesting, important information. I’ve found that when I skipped classes, it was harder to grasp the big picture, and so the subject seemed more out of my grasp. Once this downward spiral starts, it’s easy to just pretend that the material is boring or irrelevant because you’re missing an entire hour’s worth (at least) of facts or information! Also, whatever you’ve missed is probably going to be on the test, and you’ll feel a lot less stressed and like more of a superstar if you do well on the test…you know, rather than failing it.

Second – do dissections! It’s not gross, it’s not weird, it’s cool as hell! You are looking at the internal workings of the machinery that drives a living being! The National Science Teacher’s Association supports animal dissection and believes that it can help students develop skills of observation and comparison, discover the shared and unique structures and processes of specific organisms, and develop a greater appreciation for the complexity of life.

The wet lab portions of my high-school and college A&P classes were amazing! Seeing how fine the nerves were, how intricate the cardiovascular system, with all of the tubes going into and out of the heart and through the lungs, and understanding how long the small and large intestines really were as they moved through my gloved hands for a length of time that seemed to go on forever – these experiences fueled my interest in anatomy and inspired me to ask questions in ways that I doubt a computer program would have. So much of what we do these days is digital, and I suspect performing a necropsy on a computer screen would be just another game for me.

So, I was feeling a little grumpy about the “cut class, not frogs” shirt. But this morning on Twitter I found a perfect way to raise my spirits. A teacher at Gaffney High School in Gaffney, South Carolina is requesting donations to help fund dissections in her classroom:

My Anatomy and Physiology students attend a high poverty school that has limited resources and monies available. They are juniors or seniors who have identified their career path to be in the health science field. Some have set goals to be lab technicians while others strive for their doctorates. All of them want to learn and are interested in the structure and function of the human body. We have an enormous amount of fun learning and utilizing the limited resources we have.

My Project: Future nurses, health care professionals, and doctors will be inspired to pursue their dreams by having hands on experience with preserved specimen dissections. Dissection tool kits, virtual dissection tutorials, and basic specimens of sheep eyes, hearts, and brains will create a curiosity of the structure and function of the human body that will last a lifetime.

Science is a difficult and intimidating subject to many teenagers. My goal is to remove these obstacles by providing lessons that motivate my students to learn and strive for a college degree. Hands on activities and labs are the pathway to see my students excel not only in science, but also in their life.

If you can spare $5 (or a few $5!) and you’re feeling sentimental about your old frog dissection days, why not stop by her website and help out? At the time of this posting, Mrs. Greene is only $109 away from meeting her goal.

(notes on) biology video

April 4, 2011

This video is awesome on so many different levels. Aside from the unique video style and sound, there is an underlying message that we all have different learning styles. Oh yeah, and ROBOT ELEPHANT!!!

(notes on) biology from ornana films on Vimeo.

Thanks to my FB buddy, Rico, for the heads up.

Poopy Nuclear Reactors

March 23, 2011

I saw this on Street Anatomy. I was really excited to watch it because…yeah – how do you explain the science of the nuclear reactor crisis in Japan to children? My initial reaction – it’s FREAKING WEIRD and HILARIOUS. But it’s also not too bad of an explanation. Little kids don’t know much about nuclear reactors, but they do know poop.

And as one of the commenters said on youtube: “Kudos to the Japanese for taking the time out to calmly explain this to the kids. Not like the fear mongering thats so rampant in the States.”

From Street Anatomy (via HuffPo)

If you’ve been watching the news recently, you most certainly know that Japan has quite a problem on their hands with their nuclear power plant they have been trying to cool down. One can only imagine what it must be like to live it and hear it all day, everyday since the quake. In an effort to educate and quell the fear among the kids that have to live through this terrible event, they made this funny video to help children understand what’s going on.  What better way to explain science than by equating the problem with certain bodily functions? I wonder how accurate the translations is, but the concept is simple and light. If I were a kid, this would most likely make me feel a bit better; hang in there kids!

Michael Shermer at U of MN

October 21, 2010

Last Thursday (10/14/2010) I went to see Michael Shermer speak at the University of Minnesota’s Willey Hall (timely write-up fail!).  Dr. Shermer was presenting “Why People Believe Weird Things”.  His visit was sponsored/organized by the Campus Atheists, Skeptics and Humanists (CASH) group at the U of M. 

Michael Shermer

I liked the lecture hall set-up – the back wall is rounded and the room focuses the audience’s attention down to the center of the room where the speaker is presenting.  But instead of having one screen and the people on the sides getting cruddy views, the room has two gigantic screens angled so that no matter where you sit you’ll have a decent view of the material.

Map of Willey Hall

Before the talk Dr. Shermer checked his set up, then hung around up front chatting with people.  The presentation started about 15 minutes late, but that was okay because people kept streaming in.  Dr. Shermer was introduced by the CASH activities director, and then we were off.  

He started by telling us about Skeptic Magazine and the Skeptic’s Society and he did a quick review of the topics covered on the screens up front. 

The pre-talk display was these six covers of Skeptic Magazine, of which Michael Shermer is the Founding Publisher

One of the comments that Dr. Shermer made early on really stuck with me.  He presented the idea that smart people are very good at rationalizing their non-intelligent choices and beliefs.  I think that, like anyone, skeptics can make poor choices when we weigh evidence against our personal beliefs, and we choose gut over facts (I’m still struggling with Penn and Teller’s BS episode on recycling).   In the Q&A at the end of the talk, someone asked him to give some examples of the weird things skeptics believe.  He chose politics – ask a liberal why they believe what they believe, and they’ll tell you it’s because they’re right about x topic, and that yes, they believe that 50% of Americans who vote for Republicans/conservativism are wrong.  Confirmation bias, anyone? 

Dr. Shermer showed this slide during his talk.

Dr. Shermer was all about using the humor to get ideas across.  He was discussing the need for science education in America, and used this video got a LOT of laughs:

After that Dr. Shermer dug into some basic cognitive science topics like association learning and patternicity.  He gave a broad-level overview of some neuroscience studies that have attempted to explain where and what in the brain may be responsible for patternicity.  He showed some great illusions that illuminate how our brain handles facial recognition, and he presented his idea for how this might be related to the phenomenon of déjà vu.  He demonstrated how granularity, shading and camera position in photos can be used to trick our brain into making assumptions about what we’re looking at, and even into seeing things that aren’t there.

Crazy crate  Crazy crate

Jerry Andrus’s 3D impossible crate

Emergence

Nice doggy

Our Lady of the Chicago Underpass

Next he discussed agenticity: the tendency to believe that the world is controlled by invisible intentional agents.  This moved us further into the realms of conspiracy, skepticism and pseudoscience.   Dr. Shermer believes that human agenticity is behind animism, aliens, the 9/11 Conspiracy, JFK’s assassination, etc.  He discussed mind versus brain (“Mind is just the thing that the brain does”) and the brain’s role in creating near-death experiences and out-of-body experiences, as well as the phenomenon of sensed presence, or the feeling that someone is in the room with you. 

He also demonstrated how the priming effect works with a fun example.  Do you remember the hysteria in the 1980s when some people thought that if you played rock and roll records backwards you could hear satanic lyrics or chanting?  Dr. Shermer played Stairway to Heaven forward and backward for us.  When he played it forward he put the lyrics on the screen.  Then he played the song backward – without lyrics.  It sounded like a bunch of gobbledy-gook.  Then he played the song backwards for us again, but this time with these devised lyrics on the screen:

So here’s to my Sweet Satan.
The other’s little path
Would make me sad,
Whose power is faith.
He’ll give those with him 666.
And all the evil fools,
they know he made
us suffer sadly.

And it sure sounded like they were singing those words when we listened to it again.  Fun with tricking the brain!

Dr. Shermer managed to fit in a few more topics like why cold reading works (when someone goes to a psychic they’ll remember the hits (5-10 hits), but forget the misses (200-300), synchronicity, confirmation bias and expectation violation.

At the end of the talk we had about 30 minutes for Q&A.  There was a good mix of Q&A topics – cognitive neuroscience, pseudoscience, belief, atheism.  Nobody was too bumbling, although there were a few cringe-worthy seconds here and there while people rambled or struggled to get their question out.  There were no confrontational questions.

A few of my favorite moments from the Q&A

  • Dr. Shermer using Good Kirk vs. Bad Kirk to explain why emotions are necessary to decision-making.  Good Kirk is pretty accurate portrayal of what would happen without emotions.
  • “Don’t teach people what to think, but how to think.”
  • Someone asked if we could we erase memories like in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.  The answer started out pretty party line (“We don’t yet know how we store memories, so we don’t yet know how to erase them), but somewhere along the line he managed to get to “Aliens are going to be so incredibly different from us.”  I don’t remember how we got there, but in reading my notes it seems like a fabulous non sequitur.

I enjoyed the talk, both the material and the way Dr. Shermer presented.  I’m really happy that the Campus Atheists, Skeptics and Humanists (CASH) were able to organize the talk and the $4 entry fee was very kind.  Next year CASH is bringing Jen McCreight from BlagHag to the U of M – yay!

Oh look – it’s Health Reform!

September 23, 2010

The Health Reform bill’s birthday would be March 23, 2010, which is the day President Obama signed it into law. But today does mark a major milestone of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA).

Today on September 23, 2010 the American people can say hello to new rules for playing the game of health insurance coverage, and the new rules are definitely in our favor. 15 new provisions of the PPACA go into effect TODAY. 

This is a lovely video that explains the challenges of the old health care system, all of the things that went into effect immediately after President Obama signed the PPACA this past March, all of the changes that happen today (Phase I), and it provides an overview of the changes that are slated to go into place in 2014 when Phase II is rolled out. 

It’s worth nine minutes of your time to see all of the wonderful advances in health insurance that have been earned for the American people.  And while it is a cartoon, I believe that this video simplifies the subject without dumbing it down.

There is also an easy to navigate White House website devoted to health reform, which I enjoyed browsing last night.  There is a section containing personal stories of people who are benefitting right now from changes made to health insurance and medical coverage.  There is an entire page that lists myths and facts of health reform – what it is and isn’t, what it can and can’t do.

VA Firearm Safety Classes

May 5, 2010

Yeah for Kindergarden!  Who doesn’t love kindergarden????

8am – Play Time!
9am – Snack Time!
10am – Sing the Bananaphone Song!
10:30am – Learn the Colors!
11am – Lunch Time!
11:30am – Play Time!
12:30pm – Nap time!
1:30pm – Gun Safety Class!
2:00pm – Play Time!
2:30pm – Snack Time
3:00pm – Go home with Mommy(ies) and/or Daddy(ies)!

Hey wait…what’s that at 1:30pm?

Virginia lawmakers have tasked the Virginia Board of Education to draft a firearm safety education class for elementary students.

I think it’s a great idea.

As long as we have guns all over the place, we might as well teach children to respect the damn things and to not be afraid of them.  We teach kids to not play with fire, not walk alone after dark, not hang around swimming pools without adult supervision, we might as well teach them not to look down the wrong end of Daddy and Mommy’s hunting rifles and/or pistols.  Gun safety, I’m all for.  I don’t know if teaching kids how to shoot guns should be under the educational system’s purview; I think I’d have to go with the family’s wishes – maybe it would be an extracurricular club or an elective class?  The VA board of education hasn’t yet released any details about whether they would offer training in the use or maintenance of guns.