Girls outscore boys on engineering test

Eighth-grade girls outperformed boys on the first national test of technological literacy, reports Education Week. The Technology and Engineering Literacy (TEL) exam, part of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), was designed to measure problem-solving skills rather than knowledge.

Technology and engineering are stressed at Girls' Middle School, a private school in Palo Alto, CA.

Technology and engineering are stressed at Girls’ Middle School, a private school in Palo Alto, CA.

Overall, 43 percent of students tested as proficient or advanced.

The largest gaps were the familiar ones: Black, Latino, low-income and urban students did significantly worse.

Students were given “a series of virtual scenarios aimed at testing their problem-solving abilities and their ability to use information about technology and engineering to develop solutions,” writes Jackie Zubrzycki.

There was no evidence that the gap in scores was due to girls’ reading ability, said Peggy Carr, the acting commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics.

As they take the test, students work through multistep scenarios that range from creating a historically accurate museum exhibit about a drought to developing safe bike lanes in a city. Students are provided with background knowledge about the topics before they are asked to answer questions about them: One of the scenarios included a background video about iguanas before students were asked to design an ideal iguana habitat.

. . . on a task related to designing a bike lane, 76 percent of students successfully identified components of a safe bike lane, the first step; 64 percent were able to identify potential adjustments to a sample set of bike lanes to make them safer by, for instance, expanding the lanes; 45 percent were able to successfully redesign the route using an interactive tool. But a smaller portion, 11 percent, could explain the rationale behind the route that they chose.

NAEP plans similar scenario-based tasks on other exams, starting with social studies or history.

Nearly two-thirds of test-takers said they’d learned about solving problems and fixing things at home rather than at school.

When I grew up, girls weren’t supposed to fix things and my father believed that Jews couldn’t fix things, so I didn’t learn much about how things work. Other than magic! I do have good problem-solving skills — if background knowledge is not required.

Take a look at the TEL task video and see if you think this is a useful way to measure technical and engineering skills.

‘Computational thinking’ in every class

Fifth graders sketched designs for “Rube Goldberg machines” that would turn on and off lights or feed a pet fish. Each team member “spent a few minutes sketching out how one part — a marble run, say, or a Lego Robotics kicking foot — would operate within the machine,” then handed it off to the next person, who’d design the next step, writes Chris Berdik for the Hechinger Report.

Each fifth grader designs one part of a Rube Goldberg machine. Credit: Chris Berdik

Each fifth grader designs one part of a Rube Goldberg machine. Credit: Chris Berdik

In the affluent Pittsburgh suburb of South Fayette, “computational thinking” is integrated into every grade and class.

In the past five years, South Fayette has created STEAM (science, technology, engineering art and math) labs where K-12 students can work on coding, 3-D printing, computer-aided design and robotics.

“Computational thinking means breaking complex challenges into smaller questions that can be solved with a computer’s number crunching, data compiling and sorting capabilities,” writes Berdik.  That problem-solving approach can be “used in everything from textual analysis to medical research and environmental protection.”

The elementary school STEAM lab is filled with “markers, clay, straws, motors, pipe cleaners, bottle caps, sensors, felt and wires,” writes Berdik.

. . .  one class of second-graders recently learned how to use simple circuits to make a game in which the correct answer to a double-digit math problem would light up a little bulb.

“Last year, we did a digital storytelling project in here using stop-motion photography,” (STEAM teacher Melissa) Unger said. “It was spring, and the kids were learning about the life cycle of a butterfly in their regular classroom. So the teachers took that technology piece out of here and back to their classrooms, where students created animations of the life cycle.”

In Anthony Mannarino’s seventh-grade technology education class, “students have created everything from model planes to gears to more ergonomic handles for pots and pans.” Their designs are printed on 3-D printers. Students learn “habits of mind,” such as persistence.

“Whatever you design, there’s a lot of math,” one student said. And there’s plenty of trial and error. “I printed a case for my phone, and the first time, it was a couple millimeters off,” the student explained. “So I had to fix it and print it again. You have to keep trying until you get the result that you want.”

In middle school, a STEAM coordinator helps teachers weave the technologies into their lesson plans.

Students have made apps to help learn foreign languages. They have parlayed a science lesson on energy into the building of tiny, electrified, energy-efficient houses. They’ve used Scratch to animate their writings from English class and mixed music lessons with coding to build digital bands.

High school students can take technology entrepreneurship and human-centered design, as well as Advanced Placement programming. South Fayette students have won awards for their designs, such as  a “geriatric walker that deploys an extra stabilizer when helping someone get up from a chair and sounds an alarm when the walker is tipped beyond its center of gravity.”

Profs: Few high school grads are ready for college

collegereadiness-1

Most high school graduates aren’t prepared for college or work, according to a survey of professors and employers by Achieve. Three-quarters of  graduates say their high school did not set high academic expectations.

Among faculty members who teach at four-year colleges, 88 percent reported at least some gaps in their students’ preparation, including 34 percent who reported large gaps in preparation. At two-year colleges, instructors felt 96 percent of students had some gaps (including 34 percent with large gaps), according to the Achieve poll results released July 22.

Employers, too, believe students leave high school without the skills needed for typical jobs at their companies (82 percent believe there are some gaps and 48 percent report large gaps in readiness), the Achieve survey showed.

More than three-quarters of college instructors were dissatisfied with students’ abilities in critical thinking, comprehension of complicated materials, work and study habits, writing, written communication, and problem-solving.

Sixty-one percent of employers “request or require new hires to get more training in math, reading or writing — nearly a 20 percentage point increase from what employers surveyed said 10 years ago,” reports Caralee Adams for Ed Week.

Employers used to do more on-the-job training. Now they require more years of schooling, expect workers to be ready to be productive, get disappointed and blame colleges.

Students need early counseling about the need to take challenging courses in high school, said survey respondents.

Teens must save the world from ‘DUST’

NASA has launched an alternate reality game called DUST to get teens excited about analyzing data, testing theories and communicating ideas. It’s also supposed to attract girls and minority teens to STEM problem-solving. (I wonder why the kids in the promo trailer are white.)
NASA's 'DUST' Gets Students, Young Women Excited About STEM

In the game, dust from a meteor shower puts every adult in a coma. “It is up to the players, whose target ages are 13-17, to save the world [and their parents’ lives] by the end of seven weeks of play.”

Players receive new parts of the story and science clues every few days through social media, email and game apps. They interact with other players and with fictional characters.

NASA, Brigham Young and the University of Maryland developers collaborated on the game with help from college students.  Middle schoolers tested mobile apps and the player community website.

It’s not your dad’s math teaching

Any parent who opposes Common Core standards is saying, in effect, “‘I do not want my child prepared for life in the Twenty-First Century’,” writes Keith Devlin, a Stanford mathematician. They don’t realize how much educational needs have changed in the last 30 years, he argues.

Fortune 500 executives were asked for the most valued skills in a new hire in 1970 and again in 1999, notes Linda Darling-Hammond in a 2013 paper, Devlin writes.

Writing, the top skill in 1970, dropped to 10th place, while skills two and three, computation and reading, didn’t even make the top 10 in 1999.

Teamwork rose from number 10 to first place. The other two skills at the top, problem solving and interpersonal skills, weren’t listed in 1970.

Common Core math standards, which include “make sense of problems and persevere in solving them,” align with those 21st-century skills, writes Devlin. Today’s children “need a very different kind of education: one based on understanding rather then procedural mastery, and on exploration rather than instruction,” he concludes.

Even in my day, when we were trying to beat “Ivan,” people wanted kids to understand math. If Core math leads to deeper understanding, rather than dizzier confusion, parents will climb on board.

Still, I doubt that 21st-century employers really want to hire people with weak literacy and math skills, as long as they’re team players with pleasant personalities. As for “problem solving,” I agree with a comment by Ellie K:

Employees who can’t read, write or “compute,” i.e. know arithmetic, geometry and algebra, aren’t going to be able to solve problems, contribute as members of teams in collaborative settings nor communicate effectively.

In a 2014 Linked-In survey, employers rated problem-solving skills and being a good learner as the two most important skills for a new hire, reports Business News Daily. Employers also value strong analytical and communications skills, but speaking well is more important than writing. “Only 6 percent of employers said they’re looking for strong mathematical and statistical skills.”

Employers also want workers who can collaborate effectively and work hard.

Via Laura Waters on Education Post.

 

Student-centered math aids problem solving

When excellent math teachers use a “student-centered” approach, students are more engaged and do better on problem-solving tests, concludes a new AIR study.

Example of student-centered problem from AIR report

Example of student-centered problem from AIR report

“A traditional teacher might simply explain, for example, how to graph a line, step-by-step, using y-intercept and slope . . . .and give students a tool box of procedures to tackle any problem,” writes Jill Barshay on the Hechinger Report.

“A student-centered teacher might turn the classroom floor into a giant graph-paper grid and ask the students to become data points and walk to where they should be plotted.”

Researchers found 22 highly regarded high school math teachers in New York and New England. Half were traditional teachers and half used many student-centered approaches. “The more a teacher used student-centered approaches, the more his or her students learned, and the better they did on an exam of complex problem-solving that resembles the PISA international test for 15-year-olds,” reports Barshay.

Traditional math problem from AIR report

Traditional math problem from AIR report

However, student-centered teaching may not work well for all teachers or all students, said AIR researcher Kirk Walters.

“Student-centered approaches may hold promise,” he said. However, the study looked at excellent teachers with largely middle-class, high-performing students.

I’d guess that effective student-centered teaching requires more teaching skill.

Math reform on steroids

Common Core standards aren’t supposed to tell teachers how to teach, writes Barry Garelick in Education News. However, Common Core math is “a massive dose of steroids” for the math reform movement.

Reform math has manifested itself in classrooms across the United States mostly in lower grades, in the form of “discovery-oriented” and “student-centered” classes, in which the teacher becomes a facilitator or “guide on the side” rather than the “sage on the stage” and students work so-called “real world” or “authentic problems.” It also has taken the form of de-emphasizing practices and drills, requiring oral or written “explanations” of problems so obvious they need none, finding more than one way to do a problem, and using cumbersome strategies for basic arithmetic functions.

. . . math reformers believe such practices will result in students understanding how numbers work—as opposed to just “doing” math. In fact, reformers tend to mischaracterize traditionally taught math as teaching only the “doing” and not the understanding; that it is rote memorization of facts and procedures and that students do not learn how to think or problem solve.

“Forcing students to think of multiple ways to solve a problem” doesn’t guarantee they understand what they’re doing, he writes. Students’ explanations often “will have little mathematical value.”  They’re demonstrating “rote understanding.”

Nations that teach math in the traditional way do quite well on PISA, even though the exam reflects “reform math principles,” writes Garelick. “Perhaps this is because basic foundational skills enable more thinking than a conglomeration of rote understandings.”

In this video, a teacher shows how to explain why 9 + 6 = 15 by “making tens.”

‘Curious’ in a google-it world

Ian Leslie plays with his baby daughter.

Ian Leslie plays with his baby daughter.

In a wired world, it’s easy to access information. That can discourage “true curiosity,” writes Ian Leslie in Curious: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends on It 

Leslie criticizes Sir Ken Robinson’s wildly popular TED talk on how schools squash creativity, notes Philip Delves Broughton in a Wall Street Journal review of the book . Sir Ken wants children to master “learning skills” rather than knowledge.

This is dangerous nonsense, Mr. Leslie asserts, an insidious argument for workforce training dressed up as respect for the individuality of the child. “It’s a philosophy that has made its way deep into the educational mainstream,” writes Mr. Leslie. “It can be found wherever you see an approving reference to students ‘taking control of their own learning’ or a teacher criticized for spending too much time on instruction instead of allowing children to express themselves. A report published on the website of a British teaching union states plainly, ‘A 21st century curriculum cannot have the transfer of knowledge at its core.’ “

Children’s “natural appetite for learning” needs to be “fed with knowledge by teachers and adults who know something of the world,” argues Leslie.

“Diversive curiosity, the attraction to everything novel,” is easily satisfied, writes Broughton. “Epistemic curiosity, a deeper desire to understand a subject from top to bottom, may lead to a lifetime’s study and even profound discovery.”

The sheer abundance of information at our disposal risks turning us into a society of glib know-it-alls, ignorant of our own ignorance.

. . . Mr. Leslie cites a question recently posted on the social-news and discussion site Reddit: “If someone from the 1950s suddenly appeared today, what would be the most difficult thing to explain to them about today?” The most popular answer was this: “I possess a device in my pocket that is capable of accessing the entirety of information known to man. I use it to look at pictures of cats and get into arguments with strangers.”

Knowledge makes us smarter, Leslie writes. “People who know more about a subject have a kind of X-ray vision; they can zero in on a problem’s underlying fundamentals, rather than using up their brain’s processing power on getting to grips with the information in which the problem comes wrapped.”

‘Brain Busters’ win First Lego

A tornado, hurricane or earthquake has devastated a town and wiped out communications. Where can people go for help? Look for the giant balloon.

The Brain Busters — a team of six boys from Sherborne, Massachusetts — has won FIRST LEGO League’s global innovation award for their idea: After a natural disaster, suspend a large sign from a helium balloon that can be seen at long distances.

The Brain Busters’ “love math, computer programming, engineering, and problem solving,” they write. “We built a full scale (100’ high!), working model that we have deployed in high winds, snow storms, and extreme cold.”

State emergency management officials hope to put the idea into use.

More than 500 FIRST LEGO League teams submitted their ideas.

Runners up were the Robotic Raiders of Williamsburg, Iowa, who devised the Cyclone Survivor board game to teach how to prepare for, survive and recover from a tornado, and RobotTec of Santiago, Chile, who designed the Tsunami Evacuation System, which uses retro-reflectors and three-color LED lights on major streets.

Simple math made complicated — for a reason

The Common Core makes simple math more complicated in order to teach understanding, writes Libby Nelson on Vox.

In the past, “students had this sense that math was some kind of magical black box,” says Dan Meyer, a former high school math teacher studying math education at Stanford University. “That wasn’t good enough.”

Students will learn different ways to multiply, divide, add, and subtract so they can see why the standard method works, writes Nelson. “They can play with them in fun, flexible ways,” says Meyer, who blogs at Dy/Dan.

Using a number line for subtraction lets students visualize the “distance” between two numbers. A father’s complaint about a confusing number line problem went viral on the Internet. Nelson provides a clearer version. 

Students put the two numbers at opposite ends of the number line.

Screen_shot_2014-04-17_at_5

It’s 4 steps from 316 to 320, 100 steps from 320 to 420, 7 steps from 420 to 427.

Screen_shot_2014-04-17_at_5

Then they add the steps together: 4 + 100 + 7 = a distance of 111. LearnZillion, a company that creates lesson plans for teaching to the Common Core standards, has a 5-minute video explaining this technique.

“Students should be able to understand any of these approaches,” said Morgan Polikoff, an assistant professor of education at the University of Southern California who is studying how the Common Core is implemented in the classroom. “It doesn’t mandate that they necessarily do one or the other.”

“A key question is whether elementary school teachers can learn to teach the conceptual side of math effectively,” writes Nelson.

If not, number lines and area models will just become another recipe, steps to memorize in order to get an answer, Polikoff says.

This is a real risk: Many elementary teachers are strong on reading and weak in math (and science). Perhaps we need math/science specialists in elementary school who understand their subject deeply and can teach kids to understand too.