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A filtered education March 3, 2014

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, homeschooling, math, older son, physics, science, societal commentary, teaching, younger son.
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The older son is a lot of fun.  Despite his statements that he has no desire to go into science, he seems to get and make a lot of science jokes.  I know he’s not a scientist, but I feel comfortable that he’s scientifically literate.  As he was homeschooled, I’m feeling pretty proud of myself.

I’m more anxious about the younger son, though.  This weekend, he brought home his science homework, which focused on optics.  The kids were studying filters, and one of the questions asked about what kind of light would you see if you shined a flashlight through a blue filter and then a red one.  I asked him what he saw, and he said nothing.  Unfortunately, he was told that he saw nothing because the flashlights just weren’t bright enough, but that what he should have seen was purple.

I’m pretty sure that if I had ever been bombarded with gamma rays in the past, I would’ve turned into She-Hulk at that very moment and started smashing things.  Fortunately (or unfortunately, if being She-Hulk happens to be a goal of yours), that didn’t happen.

I find it infuriating that, throughout my years of homeschooling older son and teaching younger son math, I have constantly been questioned about my ability to teach them.  The implication has always been that I may have a degree, but they are experts on teaching.  In fact, this particular teacher attempted to take me to task earlier this year about the younger son’s math curriculum…the same teacher who apparently doesn’t understand that light and pigments work completely differently.

After I managed to calm down, I explained that light filters are like sieves, except that they only let one size of particle pass through: nothing bigger can pass through the holes, but nothing smaller can, either.  After this explanation, the younger son was able to correctly explain that the reason he saw no light from his flashlight is that the two filters together had blocked all the light.

I’m going to be watching very carefully to see what kinds of scores he’s getting on his answers and whether the teacher realizes she made a mistake.  This was very disappointing.  There was a new science curriculum introduced this year, one which I was very excited about.  The focus was supposed to be on hands-on, problem-based learning, which is great for science.  Despite that, it seems that younger son’s science education may be lacking.  What good does it do to have a top of the line science education curriculum (or math…or anything else) when our teachers don’t understand what they’re teaching?  And how is it that these same teachers can justify questioning the ability to teach material that some of us understand far better than they do?

There is no crying in science February 7, 2014

Posted by mareserinitatis in science.
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This week has been a real roller coaster.  Some great things happened, but some really awful things happened, too: horrible, frustrating, gnashing of teeth type awful.  As I was contemplating one of these awful things, this popped into my head:

crying1

There may be no crying in baseball, but there is in science…just like sometimes, in science, there is laughter, excitement and giddiness.  But when there’s crying, there’s no use trying to convince yourself not to.  It will happen; it does happen.  And then you get over it and move on, just like the rest of life.

99 bottles of…oops January 28, 2014

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, physics, science.
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Yesterday, I was helping guide some cub scouts (specifically webelos) through their scientist achievement.  One of the things we had to discuss was Pascal’s law.  Unfortunately, the instruction set on this was pretty limited: read and discuss.  That, to me, means they likely wouldn’t understand it at all, so I felt like a demo was in order.

I decided to demonstrate the pressure change in a beer bottle.  The concept is simple: fill an empty bottle with a non-compressible fluid (so water works, air won’t) and tap on the open end with a rubber mallet or even your hand.  Of course, you want to do this over a bucket because the sudden change in pressure causes the bottle to break at the weakest point, usually the seam along the bottom, and spill it’s contents.

I did this demo for the first time in front of the kids.  (I had ONE bottle of beer.  No, I didn’t imbibe in front of them…I used it to bake bread.)  It worked like a charm.  If I didn’t trust physics so much, I wouldn’t have been okay trying it cold like that.

If you don’t have a beer bottle handy and would like to see this demo, there’s a good video on YouTube:

There are four lights! January 27, 2014

Posted by mareserinitatis in physics, science.
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It’s hard being a physicist.  Pretty much every place you look, you’re seeing some cool physical phenomenon that just screams, “Newton (or some other dead guy) discovered me!”  If you’re lucky, the screaming isn’t followed by an apple hitting you on the head.  Unless you’re a Klingon who is reciting love poetry; then that might be lucky.

Anyway, one such event occurred when I was looking into my coffee mug, which happened to be filled with hot water and a touch of coconut oil for flavor (and medium-chain triglycerides).  Some bubbles were sitting there on the surface, breaking up the layer of oil, and behaving like a lens.  There was an interesting image on the bottom of the cup, which you can see below.

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As you can see, underneath each bubble, there appears to be something that almost looks like a four on a six-sided die.  It took me a second to figure out what was going on.  Then I realized that, directly above me, were four lights.  If I shift my angle, you can see them quite clearly in the reflection, though the one on the bottom left is partially blocked by my phone.

lights_in_cup2

 

This was surprising to me because this lamp is newly installed.  Our previous lamp in this room had only one light.  It took me a bit to realize that this was why I was so surprised to see an image in the bottom of my cup: it really was something new.

The powerful prevalence of parachesis January 15, 2014

Posted by mareserinitatis in computers, engineering, humor, meta, papers, science, work.
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I was going through my to-do list for the week:

1 – Paper review

2 – Paper writing

3 – Patent application

4 – Proposal preparation

5 – Program simulation

How did I never notice before that just about everything I do starts with the letter P?

Oops…I forgot to add “Post to blog!”

And now I will publish…

At the book fair November 8, 2013

Posted by mareserinitatis in science.
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You could be a teacher October 16, 2013

Posted by mareserinitatis in career, education, feminism, research, science, teaching, work, younger son.
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math_teachers_tshirtAs we were settling in for the ride home after swimming, the younger son asked, “Mom, you’re good at math, right?”

The older boy snickered.

“I like to think so,” I responded.

There was a brief silence followed by, “Welllll………you’re good at math, and you’re a teacher…maybe you should teach math at a high school!”

What followed was a long explanation about how I just physically can’t handle the idea of teaching K-12.  Teaching 6 hours a day, grading, prep, etc.  Actually, it’s mostly the teaching.  Teaching more than 4 hours turns me into a puddle that can’t function until I’ve had a good night’s sleep.  Teaching high school is not the ideal profession for introverts.  There’s also the fact that, frankly, it would get boring to teach high school math after more than a year or two.  The math is what interests me more than the challenge of helping students to understand (though that is an interesting problem when the material is also sufficiently intellectually stimulating).  I think he gets it, but he still likes the idea of his mom as a math teacher.

This did bring to the surface some thoughts I’ve been mulling over.  Does he see me as a teacher because he already knows I teach or does gender roles have something to do with it?  I’ve been pondering this a lot because I get the sense that there are some academics who really do view teaching through a gendered lens and therefore think I’d be better off at a community or liberal arts college.  In fact, I imagine there’s a blog post where I discussed someone telling me as much, but I’m not going to dig it out now.

One thing that has occurred to me is that, if I want people to look at my research, I may actually actively have to avoid things that will stick ‘teacher’ into their heads when they think of me.  That is, it’s probably a good idea to actively avoid involvement in education conferences and societies except at a cursory level.  Teaching should be kept at a minimum.  I enjoy the service work component and the idea of exploring interesting aspects of STEM education.  I also really enjoy interacting with students (but not all day long).  I don’t like the idea that it means that my other abilities and accomplishments will be overlooked.  Maybe that’s taking things too far, but I don’t really know how to cement the ‘researcher’ thing into people’s brains unless that’s the only thing they see when looking at my CV.  Maybe once the ‘teacher’ version of me has been wiped clean, it’ll be okay to begin dabbling in serious educational research pursuits.

That’s obviously not what my son was worried about.  He simply wants me to have a job I enjoy…and maybe there’s a bit of an ulterior motive as he hopes I’d be home more during the summers.  It’s a nice idea, but the other nine months of the year probably wouldn’t be all that enjoyable for me…especially if doing research was secondary, or worse, nonexistent.

All that being said, I think that if I do ever become a math teacher, I want the above tshirt.  (You can get it here, if you’re curious.)

I wonder where that came from? October 15, 2013

Posted by mareserinitatis in family, science, younger son.
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Mike was helping younger son study for a science test.  After they were finished, Mike turned to me and said that younger son seems to have a very good handle on the subject.  The younger son, in response, said that he really likes science and thinks it may even be “his talent.”

I smiled at Mike and said, “Gee, I wonder where that came from?”

Younger boy, apparently not realizing that the question was rhetorical, said in the most definitive tone, “You, Mom!”

I sure wasn’t expecting that but I certainly appreciated it.  For the record, however, I’m guessing Mike had a little something to do with it, too.

Friday fun: The best videos I’ve seen this week September 20, 2013

Posted by mareserinitatis in Friday Fun, physics, science.
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In hearing about all the racism that surfaced regarding Nina Davuluri, I heard someone mention she’d done a Bollywood dance for her performance.  I had to check it out, and I have to admit that I’m very impressed.  Her kneeling spins are something else.

I wasn’t nearly as impressed with Bill Nye’s cha cha on Dancing with the Stars, but you have to admit it’s kind of cute (if a bit stereotyped).

And speaking of science and music (but not dance), I also came across this wonderful remake of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody called Bohemian Gravity.  I think this one is my favorite this week…it combines some pretty amazing talent with really amazing physics.

 

 

Academic freedom: “I’ve got no strings to hold me down” September 14, 2013

Posted by mareserinitatis in engineering, research, science.
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It’s no secret that I can’t stand the word “novel” when used to describe research.  (I talked about that here.)  Therefore, I was quite interested when I saw, in one of my newsfeeds, an article titled, “Academic spin: How to dodge & weave past research exaggeration.”  The post is about a discussion that biomedical journal editors at a conference had regarding some of the items that are being published and how to avoid hype and conflict of interest.  In general, the topic was interesting, but I had to pause at this paragraph:

Later, we heard from Serina Stratton that out of 313 trials studied, 36 required sponsor/manufacturer approval for text or publication and 6 had gag orders. Leading to some inevitable questions: why aren’t all academic institutions protecting researchers and trial participants from industry restrictions on academic freedom – and why aren’t potential participants being warned about this before they agree to be in a trial?

I’m afraid this may sound a bit judgmental, but I felt like the question about academic institutions protecting researchers and participants was a bit naive.

It is my observation that universities are very much gearing operations toward a business model and are less concerned about education.  (I’m not passing judgement, by the way…just stating my observation.)  Bringing in research money is a huge component of creating a successful university in the business model, and this is reinforced by things like the Carnegie rankings.  The level of research effort is one of those criterion for the rankings, and that is measured not in hours or publications but in research dollars.  (The methodology for these rankings is here.)  Being a RU/VH (research university, very high) is something nearly every university aspires to.  (It was a huge deal when my own university joined the ranks…despite the fact that no one outside the university seemed to realize it.)

But how does one become a tier 1 school when federal budgets are shrinking?  You have to fill the gap somewhere, and a lot of places do that by doing contract research for industry.  Given the choice between research funding and the prestige that goes with it versus academic freedom, it seems pretty obvious that the whole academic freedom issue is rather inconvenient.  The rankings don’t look at academic freedom, they’re looking at research expenditures.  Obviously, given the choice, the university is going to catapult whatever prevents receiving funding.

If you’re doing contract research for industry, there is almost always some limitation on academic freedom.  Companies are not going to fund research that doesn’t generate proprietary information.  Heck, a lot of them won’t fund research if they think the research might leak out and make them look bad.  Trade secrets are the norm in industry, and the choice researchers make when they work with industry is the loss of academic freedom.  This is a choice that is being pushed by the universities in general, however, because, like most businesses, decisions revolve around the bottom line.  Because of that, researchers understand that tenure, and for those on soft money, continuing employment, is heavily dependent on funding.  There are few researchers who are going to turn their nose up at a major funding source, even if that funding comes with some pretty serious strings attached.

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