Science fairs aren’t open to everyone

President Obama reacts as Joey Hudy of Phoenix, Arizona, launches a marshmallow during the 2012 White House Science Fair. Photo: Kevin Lamarque, Reuters

At this week’s White House Science Fair, President Obama showcased young scientists and inventors and urged girls to pursue STEM fields. “We’re not going to succeed when we’ve got half the team on the bench,” he said. “Especially when it’s the smarter half.”

“Diversity is important,” said Jo Handelsman, associate director for science at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. “We need more STEM workers, and we need to recruit the best talent of the world, and some of the talent will come from people who have not been traditionally involved in STEM.”

Science fairs have “became an exercise in privilege,”writes Carl Zimmer, a science writer, in STAT. Girls aren’t excluded. But children who don’t have educated parents and access to high-quality labs won’t go very far.

Veronica was able to carry out her science fair experiment in a Yale lab.

Told her seventh-grade science fair experiment required expert supervision, the author’s daughter was able to use a Yale lab. Photo: Carl Zimmer

His daughter decided to compare different ways to clean a toothbrush for her seventh-grade science fair.  She planned to brush with a new toothbrush,  clean it with water, lemon juice or vinegar, then see how much bacteria grew on a Petri dish.

Her proposal required filling out “an avalanche of confusing paperwork,” Zimmer writes. It was considered “so potentially dangerous that Veronica would have to carry it out under the supervision of a trained expert, who would first have to submit a detailed risk assessment.”

Most kids would have quit there. But Zimmer knew a Yale microbiologist who agreed to let the seventh-grader work in his lab. She ended up winning an honorable mention at the stair fair.

“When you look over the projects that win the Google Science Fair and the Intel Science Talent Search these days, it’s clear that they’re mostly the products of very bright, motivated students lucky enough to work in university labs where they can take advantage of expertise and equipment,” Zimmer writes. Kids without those connections are out of luck.

Algebra II vs. ‘numeracy’

Teach “numeracy” for 21st-century citizens instead of Algebra II, argues political scientist Andrew Hacker in The Math Myth: And Other STEM Delusions. The algebra-to-calculus track is a waste of time for everyone but future mathematicians and a few engineers, he argues in a New York Times op-ed.

Calculus and higher math have a place, of course, but it’s not in most people’s everyday lives. What citizens do need is to be comfortable reading graphs and charts and adept at calculating simple figures in their heads.

Teacher Wars‘ author Dana Goldstein, hated math in high school, she writes in Slate. She’s sympathetic to Hacker’s argument that requiring students to learn abstract math is driving up dropout rates, especially at colleges that serve disadvantaged students.

“We are really destroying a tremendous amount of talent—people who could be talented in sports writing or being an emergency medical technician, but can’t even get a community college degree,” Hacker told her.

He teaches at Queens College, part of the City University of New York system, which enrolls many students from low-income families. Fifty-seven percent of CUNY students fail the required algebra course, according to a 2009 faculty report. The failure rate fell to 44 percent (still very  high), when students were allowed to substitute statistics, a later study showed.

For two years, (Hacker) taught what is essentially a course in civic numeracy. Hacker asked students to investigate the gerrymandering of Pennsylvania congressional districts by calculating the number of actual votes Democrats and Republicans received in 2012. The students discovered that it took an average of 181,474 votes to win a Republican seat, but 271,970 votes to win a Democratic seat.

Goldstein found Hacker’s argument “pretty convincing.” However, her math-loving husband, a computer programmer, wasn’t sold. “Math helps us understand the world around us!” he said.

Daniel Willingham, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Virginia, also was dubious “about any call to make math—or any other subject — less abstract.”

Some community colleges are using Carnegie’s Statways and Quantways courses — statistics and numeracy — to move more remedial students to college-level  math. I think it makes sense for students who aren’t pursuing STEM careers. But I’d hate to give up on algebra in high school. That shuts the door early.

Elite degree doesn’t matter for STEM grads

Graduating from an elite college doesn’t boost earnings for science, math and engineering graduates, conclude Eric R. Eide and Michael J. Hilmer in the Wall Street Journal. A prestige degree does help business and liberal-arts majors, according to the Journal‘s analysis of a survey of graduates.

STEM grads with a degree from a low-priced state university earn as much as those from elite private schools, they found.

The analysis controlled for “factors that might influence earnings, such as family income, race/ethnicity, gender, marital status, SAT score, postgraduate degree and age at graduation and more.”

In STEM fields, “curriculums are relatively standardized and there’s a commonly accepted body of knowledge students must absorb,” write Eide and Hilmer. Employers seem to be looking for skills rather than prestige.

Assessing a job applicant’s competence is harder if the degree is in what we used to call “fuzzy studies.”

College graduates’ “well-being” — financial security, health, sense of purpose and other factors — isn’t related to their alma mater’s selectivity, size or whether it was public or private, concluded the Gallup-Purdue Index in 2014.

Gallup will use its Well-Being Index  to certify universities that produce the happiest graduates. George Mason is the first university to seek  certification.

No math, no money

Payscale’s new College Salary Report ranks colleges and universities, as well as majors for all degree levels, by alumni salaries.

Once again, petroleum engineering tops the list of bachelor’s degrees with the highest earnings. According to Payscale’s survey, petroleum engineering graduates start at $95,401 and reach $150,000 in mid-career.

It’s followed by Nuclear Engineering, Actuarial Mathematics , Chemical Engineering and Electronics & Communications Engineering.

Math teachers can tell students that all but one of the top 40 majors on the list require strong math skills. However, Government majors rank at #20 with a starting salary of $46,900 and a mid-career salary of $102,000.

Low-paying majors involve counseling, social work, ministry and, at the very bottom, early childhood education.

“TEM” degrees raise earnings, but “S” degrees may not, especially not with just a bachelor’s degree, writes Ben Casselman on FiveThirtyEight.

Engineering majors are nearly all high-paying. So are most computer and math majors, and math-heavy sciences like astrophysics. But many sciences, particularly the life sciences, pay below the overall median for recent college graduates. Students who major in neuroscience, meteorology, biology and ecology all stand to make $35,000 or less — and that’s if they can get a full-time job, which many can’t.

Zoology, with a median full-time wage of $26,000 a year, is one of the lowest-paying majors.

‘Girly tech’ tries to make coding fashionable

A New York City-based startup hopes its programmable friendship bracelet will motivate girls to learn to code, reports Benjamin Herold in Education Week.  Jewelbots users will be able to “program their bracelets to light up when their friends come near, communicate in Morse-code like languages, integrate with their social media accounts, and more.”

CEO Sarah Chipps previously founded and led a national nonprofit aimed at teaching women to develop software.

Nancy Butler Songer, dean of Drexel’s education school, told Ed Week that Jewelbots are “very cool,” but don’t require real programming to get started. It’s easy to set up the bracelet to vibrate or light up when a friend is near.

However, motivated users “can download a free app that allows for more complex functionality (think: added colors, coordinating with groups of friends, etc.),” writes Herold. They can also use an arduino, or small microprocessor, “to write and upload their own code to program the bracelet in myriad ways—for example, to light up when your friend posts a photo of you on Instagram.”

Chipps, the company’s founder, compared Jewelbots to the uber-popular computer game Minecraft, in which users can either play in an existing online universe or write their own modifications, create their own worlds, and even set up their own servers.

“It’s a super-profitable game that has taught tens of thousands of kids how to code,” she said. ” We’re trying to do the same thing, just targeted towards girls.”

Some complain that “girly tech” perpetuates stereotypes.

Girls get engaged when they can use programming to solve real-world problems, said Lisa Abel Palmieri, who created a renowned coding- and computational thinking program at a girls’ private school in Pittsburgh.

“The best way to engage girls in coding and STEM is by making learning contextualized,” she said. “We should help them understand what the big picture is and how learning technical things can help improve the lives of others.”

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.

Updating the Magic School Bus

Has The Magic School Bus reached the end of the road? asks Alexandra Ossola in The Atlantic. After all, the popular science series requires kids to read.  That’s so 20th century.

I recently came across a copy of a relic from my childhood: The Magic School Bus Inside the Human Body. In it, Ms. Frizzle, the “strangest teacher in the school,” shrinks down her class (and their bus) so they can travel through the human body. They see the digestive system hard at work, blood cells up close, and muscles in action, with quips from characters in the comic book format.

School Bus, which debuted in the mid-1980s, made it to video in the ’90s.

Despite the shift to digital devices, “the heart of science communication still hinges on narrative,” argues Ossola. But the story may be told through video games, movies and websites.

Girls in particular are captivated by stories, including those that involve science. . . . By integrating STEM and narrative literature, educators hope that more girls will stick in those fields.

This year, I gave GoldieBlox engineering kits to my six-year-old niece and five-year-old step-granddaughter. Each kit comes with a story about how Goldie and her friends design and build something to solve a problem.

 

Less praise, more young scientists

Too Many Kids Quit Science Because They Don’t Think They’re Smart, write Alexandra Ossola in The Atlantic

“For most students, science, math, engineering, and technology (STEM) subjects are not intuitive or easy,” she writes. (Barbie said it: “Math is hard.”) Overpraised children aren’t prepared to struggle, Ossola argues
Praising a child’s ability or talent too much makes them unwilling to take on challenges that might test their intelligence, Carol Dweck, a Stanford psychology professor, tells Ossola.

By contrast, talking about a child’s actions — “their hard work, trying many strategies, their focus, their perseverance, their use of errors to learn, their improvement” — builds resilience.

 . . . we found that when we gave kids lots and lots of praise then discontinued it, they either lost motivation or they did a variety of strange and distorted things to get the adults’ approval back. . . . When you praise someone, you are making their actions and performance yours. So they’re looking over their shoulder and not owning their work.

Employers and career coaches have told Dweck that workers require constant validation and feel crushed by feedback. “We’ve created several generations now of very fragile individuals because they’ve been praised and hyped. And feel that anything but praise is devastating.”

Atlantic‘s Left-Brain America has more on STEM education. Here’s a story on introducing math and science concepts to preschoolers.

 

School choice isn’t enough

School choice shouldn’t just be about “which one” but also about “what kind or how much or even whether or not,” writes Michael Mazenko in the Denver Post.

American education is almost exclusively designed to prepare students for university study and bachelor degrees. Even kindergarten teachers talk to kids and parents about “college readiness.” The added emphasis on STEM subjects in recent years narrows the focus even more.

Excluded from the system, however, are students who would prefer to learn a trade and work in skilled labor. Excluded are the kids who focus predominantly on the arts. Excluded are students who won’t sit passively in rows for 12 years completing worksheets and bubbling in standardized tests. Excluded are many children who don’t fit the “common” profile with “common” goals and standardized dreams.

Public education “should be offered as an opportunity,” writes Mazenko, a high school English teacher. It shouldn’t be a “mandate.”

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.”