ACT: Science, math mandates fail

Requiring higher-level math and science classes doesn’t raise math and science achievement, an ACT study concludes. New graduation requirements affect lower-performing students who tend to do poorly in more advanced classes.

Low-tech ‘duet’ blends video, teaching

Combining science and math videos by experts and active learning sessions led by the classroom teacher has made MIT BLOSSOMS “one of the most exciting and effective” blended learning ideas, writes Annie Murphy Paul on Slate.

There are no adaptive algorithms and no personalization. All it takes technologically is “an old television and VCR.”

Concord-Carlisle, Mass., teacher Sandra Haupt co-teaches with the Blossoms lesson “The Power of Exponentials, Big and Small."Sandra Haupt, a teacher in Concord-Carlisle, Massachusetts, co-teaches with the Blossoms lesson “The Power of Exponentials, Big and Small.” — Photo by M. Scott Brauer/Courtesy of MIT Blossoms

Richard Larson, a professor of engineering systems at MIT, got the idea from a teacher in rural China. She played a video of a science lesson for a few minutes, then taught an interactive lesson, then showed a few more minutes of the video.

Back in the U.S., Larson began creating “science and math videos that were designed to be interrupted, to be complemented by active learning sessions conducted by a classroom teacher,” writes Paul.

Larson himself starred in the first video, a lesson on triangles, random numbers, and probability that featured the professor sawing a yardstick into pieces. Today there are more than a hundred lessons available free on the BLOSSOMS website, covering topics in mathematics, engineering, physics, biology, and chemistry, all taught by experts in their fields.

Each lesson offers a series of brief video segments, plus a teacher’s guide to the classroom active-learning sessions. A lesson about mathematical models in epidemiology, for example, intersperses video segments explaining how infectious diseases are spread and controlled with role-playing exercises in which students see for themselves (via classmates who don red, green, or blue-colored hats) how taking preventive measures reduces the risk of contracting illness.

The lessons are now used in schools all over the U.S. and countries all over the world, including China, Malaysia, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Brazil.

BLOSSOMS is “teacher-centric,” notes Paul. The video and classroom teachers are “sages on the stage.”

Unlike other blended learning models, instruction isn’t self-paced. Students work as a team.

The “teaching duet” doesn’t threaten teachers, writes Paul. “Ed-tech enthusiasts who think they can do an end run around teachers will find that teachers are still the ultimate arbiters of what’s welcome in their classrooms: Witness the interactive ‘Smart Boards’ introduced with such fanfare into America’s schools, now functioning as so many expensive bulletin boards.”

Pretty or smart?

Verizon’s viral Inspire Her Mind ad is based on dubious facts and the dubious idea that girliness is the enemy of “pretty brilliant” in math, science and engineering, says Christina Hoff Sommers, the Factual Feminist.

That dad telling his daughter not to handle a starfish may know that 61 percent of marine biology majors are female. Maybe he wants her to consider a unisex field, such as chemistry.

Quantum entanglement for 5th graders

Massachusetts science teacher Taylor Gaar recites a poem about quantum entanglement.

STEM gets broader — and shallower

In a vain attempt to make STEM appealing to right-brained students, educators are ignoring and alienating the left-brained math and science guys, writes Katharine Beals in Out in Left Field.

Efforts to Inspire Students Have Born Little Fruit, reports the New York Times. The story cites President Obama’s Educate to Innovate initiative and the lack of improvement by U.S. students on the Program of International Student Assessment (PISA) tests.

Beals sees it differently.

. . . our schools, and our society more generally, are no longer encouraging and educating the kind of student who is most likely to persevere in STEM careers. These are the left-brained math and science types, more and more of whom face a dumbed-down, language-arts intensive Reform Math curriculum, and a science curriculum that increasingly emphasizes projects over the core knowledge and quantitative skills needed to succeed in college level science courses.

At the expense of encouraging this type of student, K12 schools are trying to broaden the appeal of math and science—by making them even less mathematical and scientific. And so we have algebra taught as dancefraction muralsphotosynthesis as dance, and science festivals featuring showy displays of gadgetry as well as theater, art, and music.

“The kind of student who finds these approaches engaging and enlightening” isn’t likely to persevere through a STEM major, she predicts. Those with the potential to be STEM specialists want to learn math and science.

At Auntie Ann’s school, the science fair used to require students to conduct an experiment. Now they can make a Rube Goldberg machine or a robot or research an environmental issue. “This year they’ve also connected it to an art exhibit to make it the full STEAM experience.”

It used to be the only time students did a research project and wrote a “serious paper,” she writes. Now students get full credit for writing 30 sentences. “The kids who did Rube Goldberg machines had nothing to write a paper about, so they had to write a biography of Rube Goldberg.”

STEM split: Women choose bio, but not physics

Two-thirds of Princeton’s molecular biology majors are female, but 76.2 percent of physics majors are male, reports The Daily Princetonian.

The most female-dominated majors for the class of ’16 are art and archaeology at 92.9 percent, psychology at 87.3 percent and comparative literature at 81.3 percent.

The most male-dominated majors are mathematics at 86.7 percent, philosophy at 77.8 percent and computer science at 77.3 percent. History, politics, sociology, classics, music — and astrophysics — are roughly even.

AP for average students

A Pittsburgh high school is “spreading the AP gospel” to average students, not just the high achievers, reports the New York Times. Brashear High, a school with “middling” performance, is collaborating with the National Math and Science Initiative, to get more students to take AP classes — and pass AP exams.

Brashear has offered A.P. classes in biology, chemistry, physics, computer science, calculus and statistics, but few among the school’s 1,400 students excelled. Last year, of the 159 enrolled in those classes, nearly two-thirds did not even take the tests, which normally cost $89 each. (Because of subsidies by NMSI and the school, the fee this year is as low as $9.)

Just 10 students accounted for the 13 passing scores of 3 or higher. No Brashear student has passed the chemistry exam since 2010, or scored higher than 1 in statistics in the two years that course has been taught.

NMSI uses teacher training, student study sessions and cash incentives to raise test-taking and pass rates.

In the first year of NMSI’s help, the number of passing scores on science and math A.P. exams jumps by an average of 85 percent, according to data from the College Board, which administers the A.P. tests. By the end of the three-year effort, the number has nearly tripled, on average.

Students get $100 for a passing score of 3 or better on the AP exam. The teacher also gets $100 — plus a $1,000 bonus for reaching a target number of passing scores.

Many Brashear students are struggling in rigorous AP classes this year, reports the Times. However, Principal Kimberly Safran has turned down most requests to drop AP. “Parents are beginning to understand that the rigor of the course and having the tenacity to complete the course are important for success after high school,” she said.

Advocates say students don’t have to pass the AP exam to benefit from the challenge.

“We think 20 out of 40 passing physics is better than 10 out of 10,” NMSI’s Gregg Fleisher said. “What typically happens is our pass rate usually stays the same, but the kids that were in class that were passing at 30 percent, now they’ll pass at 50 or 60 percent. And the kids who were never given an opportunity would pass at 20 or 30 percent.”

Teachers learn science so they can teach it

Many elementary and middle-school teachers who teach science didn’t study science much — or at all — in college, reports NPR. Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry offers  monthly science labs for teachers who want ideas, lessons and materials they can use in the classroom.

Teacher Jonathan Fisher, a philosophy major who avoided life science in college but now teaches it to fourth-graders, taught genetics to his class with an activity he learned here.

“The students used Styrofoam blocks and different body parts — so limbs and dowel rods and different-sized eyes — [and flipped] coins to figure out which genes would be passed on to their kids,” he explains. “The classroom couldn’t have been more excited.”

. . . Today, the teachers here at the museum will be given diagrams of cells, petri dishes, bottles of Glo Germ (a lotion that exposes bacteria on hands), and even instructions for a simple incubator that enables students to grow bacteria from their own dirty hands.

There’s little high-quality science teaching in the middle grades, says Andrea Ingram, who oversees education at the Museum of Science and Industry. “We either capture kids’ enthusiasm there, get them committed to science, or we don’t.”

At Sawyer Elementary on Chicago’s Southwest Side, Graciela Olmos is trying out a mechanical engineering lesson that she first saw at the museum.

Students at Sawyer Elementary in Chicago try out a mechanical energy lesson that their teacher learned at the museum's training program.Her eighth-graders roll marbles down incline planes and measure how far the marbles push a little Styrofoam cup.

At the museum, “They model for us, ‘This is how it’s going to look.’ And that’s something that we lack,” says Olmos. 

The school also lacks “science labs with gas lines and sinks.”

Olmos can’t focus strictly on science. “If my specialty is science, well, let it be science,” she says. “Don’t give me so many other things to do aside of that.”

Elementary schools should have science specialists who know their subject, says Joanne Olson, a professor of science education at Iowa State and president of the Association for Science Teacher Education.

‘Children of the Common Corn’

After watching a trailer for Scarlett Johansson’s new sci-fi-ish movie, science teacher Paul Bruno has been coming up with ideas for Hollywood movies on education at #EduFictionMoviePitches.

“The world’s scientists are debilitated by disease; laypeople race against time to cure them using only creativity.”

“By standing in the center of the classroom and filling a pail, a teacher inadvertently summons an ancient evil…”

“Children of the Common Corn”

Eric Horowitz jumped in:

“Futuristic sentient VAM computers go haywire and start trying to kill teachers with low ratings.”

Marc Porter Magee added:

“Minority Report 2. USDOE PreCogs predict bad teacher evals before they happen. PreFire teachers before grades slip.”

There’s more.

ACT: 10% of blacks are ready for college

Most black high school graduates aren’t prepared to succeed in college, according to an ACT study.

Only 10 percent of African-Americans met at least three of the ACT’s four College Readiness Benchmarks in 2013, compared to 39 percent of all graduates who took the test.

Sixty-two percent of African-Americans who started college in 2011 made it to their second year, compared to 73 percent of all  ACT-tested 2011 graduates.

Blacks were somewhat less likely to take a college-prep core curriculum in high school. “While 81 percent of Asian-American students and 71 percent of white students had access to a full range of math and sciences courses, only 57 percent of African American students had full access,” observes Ed Week‘s CollegeBound.