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Sep 27

Reported by Sandrine Ceurstemont, New Scientist TV editor.

How do we know we live in three dimensions? In this One Minute Physics episode, animator Henry Reich explores the concept of multiple dimensions and shows one way to test that we live in a 3D world.

The video is part of a series of animations that explains a physics concept in just 1 minute. You can watch the last episode on the sound of hydrogen here.

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Jan 15

Reported by Rory Cellan-Jones, in BBC news, 26 Nov. 2011.

The campaign to boost the teaching of computer skills – particularly coding – in schools is gathering force.

Today the likes of Google, Microsoft and other leading technology names will lend their support to the case made to the government earlier this year in a report called Next Gen. It argued that the UK could be a global hub for the video games and special effects industries – but only if its education system got its act together.

The statistics on the numbers going to university to study computing make sobering reading. In 2003 around 16,500 students applied to UCAS for places on computer science courses.

By 2007 that had fallen to just 10,600, and although it’s recovered a little to 13,600 last year, that’s at a time in major growth in overall applications, so the percentage of students looking to study the subject has fallen from 5% to 3%. What’s more, computing science’s reputation as a geeky male subject has been reinforced, with the percentage of male applicants rising over the period from 84% to 87%.

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Sep 15

Reported by Ars Technica, Wired Science, 13 Sep. 2011.

PhD Comics Movie

Earlier this year, graduate students suddenly found themselves deprived of a major source of procrastination when updates of the Piled Higher and Deeper Comics suddenly reduced to trickles. The hiatus led to a widespread speculation that Jorge Cham, the creator of the comics, fell victim to (*gasp*) procrastinitis after advocating for the habit over many years through his worldwide speech tour titled “the Power of Procrastination.”

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Sep 12

Reported by , New York Times, 3 Sep. 2011.

CHANDLER, Ariz. — Amy Furman, a seventh-grade English teacher here, roams among 31 students sitting at their desks or in clumps on the floor. They’re studying Shakespeare’s “As You Like It” — but not in any traditional way.

At the start of the school year, Amy Furman tries to inspire her students at Aprende Middle School to write. “I start with pens and pencils,” she says, but computers help the students edit their thoughts and work.

In this technology-centric classroom, students are bent over laptops, some blogging or building Facebook pages from the perspective of Shakespeare’s characters. One student compiles a song list from the Internet, picking a tune by the rapper Kanye West to express the emotions of Shakespeare’s lovelorn Silvius.

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Jan 31

Reported by Jermey N. A. Matthews in Physics Today, January 2011

Businesses, nonprofit organizations, and the White House are betting on K–12 STEM teachers to forestall the “gathering storm” forecasted by the National Academies.

For US Education Secretary Arne Duncan, the 2009 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) scores, released last month, were a wakeup call. Once again, US high-school students ranked near the middle of the pack in science, math, and reading, the three areas of focus for the PISA, which tested 15-year-olds in more than 75 countries. In a press release, Duncan said that a slight increase in US students’ science ranking from below average is “not much to celebrate.” For a knowledge economy, “being average in science is a mantle of mediocrity.”

An astronaut exploring Mars is shown in this drawing by a third-grade student at Randolph Elementary School in Arlington, Virginia. The student’s teacher, Matthew Tosiello, is a graduate of the Sally Ride Science Academy, which provides no-cost professional development workshops to elementary and middle-school teachers. (Image courtesy of Randolph Elementary School, VA.)

Duncan also took aim at what he felt distinguished perennial PISA front-runners South Korea and Finland from the US. “[Their practices] show clearly that America has to do much more to elevate the teaching profession, from the recruitment and training of teachers to their evaluation and professional development.”

Duncan’s response reflects the Obama administration’s support for initiatives that aim to recruit and develop K–12 math and science teachers. Last September, President Obama unveiled his administration’s plan to recruit more than 10 000 new science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) teachers in the next two years. He also announced the launch of Change the Equation, or CTEq, a nonprofit coalition of more than 100 businesses working together on STEM education outreach.

Educate to Innovate

The teacher-recruitment campaign was inspired by a new report on STEM education from the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) and will be coordinated through, a Department of Education website. “Improve STEM teaching” is listed as one of the three “critical” goals of CTEq; the nonprofit coalition supports teacher-development programs such as the Sally Ride Science Academy, which gives elementary- and middle-school teachers tools for encouraging students to pursue math and science careers.

The PCAST report also urges federal support for a national master teachers corps that “recognizes, rewards, and engages the best STEM teachers and elevates the status of the profession.” Among other recommendations are that corps members’ salaries be supplemented by about $15 000 per year. The administration is taking the PCAST recommendations seriously, says physics Nobel laureate Carl Wieman, who was recently appointed associate director for science at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. ”Of all the  recommendations, the idea of developing more and better-trained STEM teachers is one clearly embraced by everyone, from the president on down to me.”

Physics Nobel laureate Carl Wieman, a long-time education activist in science, technology, engineering, and math, now heads the science office at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, which is in the process of responding to a report on STEM education from the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. (Image courtesy of the White House.)

The PCAST recommendations echo those in the 2005 National Academies’ Rising Above the Gathering Storm report, which highlighted the nation’s low international standing in math and science education. In September 2010, the Academies released an update—subtitled “Rapidly Approaching Category 5”—that praises the bipartisan passage in 2007 of the America COMPETES Act for promising more funding for science research and education (see Physics Today, September 2007, page 34). But the Gathering Storm update also exposes an educational system that is still lagging and that has produced, for the first time in US history, a generation less educated than the previous one.

The industry coalition CTEq is one of several initiatives in the Obama administration’s “Educate to Innovate” campaign, which also includes an annual White House Science Fair and National Lab Day, an annual celebration preceded by year-round collaborations of citizens with STEM teachers on classroom projects. Teacher recruitment and development programs are supported by CTEq members through funds or volunteers. For example, Agilent Technologies, Amgen, and Bayer fund the NSTA New Science Teacher Academy, managed by the National Science Teachers Association, to provide new teachers with mentors and other resources. “Our impact per dollar is much greater when we focus on getting science teachers more excited and competent in what they’re doing,” says Lynn Nixon, global education program manager at Agilent Technologies Foundation.

Beyond the officially sanctioned White House efforts, several other teacher-focused initiatives stand as model programs. They include the Center for Nanoscale Systems’ Institute for Physics Teachers (CIPT) at Cornell University, which since 2001 has been offering high-school physics teachers summer workshops on contemporary topics such as nanotechnology, photonics, and optical communication. In addition, the CIPT maintains an online database containing instructions for 40 lab experiments and an equipment lending library that allows the more than 1300 CIPT alumni in the US to borrow power supplies, multimeters, and other materials needed for the experiments.

“Last year we had over 200 requests for hardware,” says CIPT’s director of education programs, Julie Nucci, who adds that the CIPT-developed experiments are being translated into Spanish in collaboration with the University of Puerto Rico. Nucci says the CIPT is pursuing alternative funding to replace its current NSF grant, which expires in September.

Arts major to physics teacher?

Whereas the CIPT is training current high-school physics teachers, the PhysTEC program focuses on nurturing new ones. Working through university physics departments, PhysTEC attracts physics and engineering majors and helps them get certified as high-school physics teachers (see the article by Theodore Hodapp, Jack Hehn, and Warren Hein in Physics Today, February 2009, page 40). The PhysTEC program is managed by the American Physical Society and the American Association of Physics Teachers and supported by the American Institute of Physics (AIP, which publishes Physics Today). At least 17 US physics departments have adopted the program since it began in 1999.

“There’s a need for about 1200 new physics teachers per year to meet the demand of the more than 1 million students now taking high-school physics, and we’re still only producing 400,” says Theodore Hodapp, APS director of education and diversity. Many current high-school physics teachers aren’t trained physicists. According to AIP’s Statistical Research Center, 54% of the roughly 27 000 high-school physics teachers in the 2008–09 school year did not have a physics degree. That percentage doesn’t include those who were subsequently certified to teach high-school physics. “Sometimes it’s easy to look at numbers and to overlook what’s important, which is making sure that the teacher has the ability to actually teach,” says center director Roman Czujko.

“Give us a successful teacher, and we’ll teach him or her physics,” says Robert Goodman, 2006 New Jersey Teacher of the Year and director of the New Jersey Center for Teaching and Learning, which provides curricula, pedagogical tips, and classroom technologies to local high-school science teachers. The industry CEO turned physics teacher says his approach is to take skilled teachers from any discipline, including from the arts and other humanities, who have an interest in becoming science educators and train them using a curriculum he designed that teaches physics before chemistry and biology. “Physics first” has also been advocated by others, including Physics Nobel laureate Leon Lederman (see his Reference Frame in Physics Today, September 2001, page 11). In the year since the New Jersey center started its teacher recruitment and training initiative, Goodman says the number of physics teachers in Newark has already tripled.

The American dream in peril

Programs like Goodman’s are preferred by politicians who favor local advancement of education policies. “The federal government shouldn’t legislate [education] reform,” says Representative Roscoe Bartlett (R-MD), a PhD physiologist and former professor. To promote STEM, the federal government can inspire the nation by inviting scientists to the White House and recognizing them in other visible ways, Bartlett says. “Although most of the Nobel Prize winners in science still come from the US, we aren’t producing nearly enough scientists anymore. Now, the bright young kids are going into law and political science. We have enough lawyers and political scientists.”

The federal government can partner with local school districts through grants to help teachers prepare for the higher national standards expected for the future, says University of Maryland physicist James Gates, who cochaired the PCAST STEM education report. But no matter who’s pulling the education policy strings, “there’s a real crisis here,” says Gates. “We’re not talking about STEM just to produce more scientists and more engineers. We’re talking about it in order to give our economy a shot at producing the American dream for future generations. If we don’t get this right, the American dream is going to die.”

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Oct 21

Reported by Benedict Carey in The New York Times, September 6, 2010.

Every September, millions of parents try a kind of psychological witchcraft, to transform their summer-glazed campers into fall students, their video-bugs into bookworms. Advice is cheap and all too familiar: Clear a quiet work space. Stick to a homework schedule. Set goals. Set boundaries. Do not bribe (except in emergencies).

And check out the classroom. Does Junior’s learning style match the new teacher’s approach? Or the school’s philosophy? Maybe the child isn’t “a good fit” for the school.

Such theories have developed in part because of sketchy education research that doesn’t offer clear guidance. Student traits and teaching styles surely interact; so do personalities and at-home rules. The trouble is, no one can predict how.

Yet there are effective approaches to learning, at least for those who are motivated. In recent years, cognitive scientists have shown that a few simple techniques can reliably improve what matters most: how much a student learns from studying.

The findings can help anyone, from a fourth grader doing long division to a retiree taking on a new language. But they directly contradict much of the common wisdom about good study habits, and they have not caught on.

For instance, instead of sticking to one study location, simply alternating the room where a person studies improves retention. So does studying distinct but related skills or concepts in one sitting, rather than focusing intensely on a single thing.

“We have known these principles for some time, and it’s intriguing that schools don’t pick them up, or that people don’t learn them by trial and error,” said Dr. Robert A. Bjork, a psychologist at UCLA. “Instead, we walk around with all sorts of unexamined beliefs about what works that are mistaken.”

Take the notion that children have specific learning styles, that some are “visual learners” and others are auditory; some are “left-brain” students, others “right-brain.” In a recent review of the relevant research, published in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest, a team of psychologists found almost zero support for such ideas.

“The contrast between the enormous popularity of the learning-styles approach within education and the lack of credible evidence for its utility is, in our opinion, striking and disturbing,” the researchers concluded.

Ditto for teaching styles, researchers say. Some excellent instructors caper in front of the blackboard like summer-theater Falstaffs; others are reserved to the point of shyness.

“We have yet to identify the common threads between teachers who create a constructive learning atmosphere,” said Dr. Daniel T. Willingham, a psychologist at the University of Virginia and author of the book “Why Don’t Students Like School?”

But individual learning is another matter, and psychologists have discovered that some of the most hallowed advice on study habits is flat wrong. For instance, many study skills courses insist that students find a specific place, a study room or a quiet corner of the library, to take their work. The research finds just the opposite. In one classic 1978 experiment, psychologists found that college students who studied a list of 40 vocabulary words in two rooms – one windowless and cluttered, the other modern, with a view on a courtyard – did far better on a test than students who studied the words twice, in the same room. Later studies have confirmed the finding, for a variety of topics.

The brain makes subtle associations between what it is studying and the background sensations it has at the time, the authors say, regardless of whether those perceptions are conscious. It colors the terms of the Versailles Treaty with the wasted fluorescent glow of the dorm study room, say; or the elements of the Marshall Plan with the jade-curtain shade of the willow tree in the backyard. Forcing the brain to make multiple associations with the same material may, in effect, give that information more neural scaffolding.

“What we think is happening here is that, when the outside context is varied, the information is enriched, and this slows down forgetting,” said Bjork, the senior author of the two-room experiment.

Varying the type of material studied in a single sitting seems to leave a deeper impression on the brain than does concentrating on just one skill at a time. Musicians have known this for years, and their practice sessions often include a mix of scales, musical pieces and rhythmic work. Many athletes stick to that line of thinking and routinely combine their workouts with strength, speed and skill drills.

The advantages of this approach to studying can be striking, in some topic areas. In a study recently posted online by the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology, Doug Rohrer and Kelli Taylor of the University of South Florida taught a group of fourth graders four equations, each to calculate a different dimension of a prism. Half of the children learned by studying repeated examples of one equation, say, calculating the number of prism faces when given the number of sides at the base, then moving on to the next type of calculation, studying repeated examples of that. The other half studied mixed problem sets, which included examples all four types of calculations grouped together. Both groups solved sample problems along the way, as they studied.

A day later, the researchers gave all of the students a test on the material, presenting new problems of the same type. The children who had studied mixed sets did twice as well as the others, outscoring them 77 percent to 38 percent. The researchers have found the same in experiments involving adults and younger children.

“When students see a list of problems, all of the same kind, they know the strategy to use before they even read the problem,” said Dr. Rohrer. “That’s like riding a bike with training wheels.”

With mixed practice, he added, “each problem is different from the last one, which means kids must learn how to choose the appropriate procedure – just like they had to do on the test.”

These findings extend well beyond math, even to aesthetic intuitive learning. In an experiment published last month in the journal Psychology and Aging, researchers found that college students and adults of retirement age were better able to distinguish the painting styles of 12 unfamiliar artists after viewing mixed collections (assortments, including works from all 12) than after viewing a dozen works from one artist, all together, then moving on to the next painter.

The finding undermines the common assumption that intensive immersion is the best way to really master a particular genre, or type of creative work, said Dr. Nate Kornell, a psychologist at Williams College and the lead author of the study.

“What seems to be happening in this case is that the brain is picking up deeper patterns when seeing assortments of paintings; it’s picking up what’s similar and what’s different about them,” often subconsciously.

Cognitive scientists do not deny that cramming can lead to a better grade on a given exam. But hurriedly jam-packing a brain is akin to speed-packing a cheap suitcase, as most students quickly learn – it holds its new load for a while, then most everything falls out.

“With many students, it’s not like they can’t remember the material” when they move to a more advanced class, said Dr. Henry L. Roediger III, a psychologist at Washington University in St. Louis. “It’s like they’ve never seen it before.”

When the neural suitcase is packed carefully and gradually, it holds its contents for far, far longer. An hour of study tonight, an hour on the weekend, another session a week from now: such so-called spacing improves later recall, without requiring students to put in more overall study effort or pay more attention, dozens of studies have found.

No one knows for sure why. It may be that the brain, when it revisits material at a later time, has to relearn some of what it has absorbed before adding new stuff – and that that process is itself self-reinforcing.

“The idea is that forgetting is the friend of learning,” said Kornell. “When you forget something, it allows you to relearn, and do so effectively, the next time you see it.”

That’s one reason cognitive scientists see testing itself – or practice tests and quizzes – as a powerful tool of learning, rather than merely assessment. The process of retrieving an idea is not like pulling a book from a shelf; it seems to fundamentally alter the way the information is subsequently stored, making it far more accessible in the future.

Roediger uses the analogy of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle in physics, which holds that the act of measuring a property of a particle alters that property: “Testing not only measures knowledge but changes it,” he says – and, happily, in the direction of more certainty, not less.

In one of his own experiments, Roediger and Jeffrey Karpicke, also of Washington University, had college students study science passages from a reading comprehension test, in short study periods. When students studied the same material twice, in back-to-back sessions, they did very well on a test given immediately afterward, then began to forget the material.

But if they studied the passage just once and did a practice test in the second session, they did very well on one test two days later, and another given a week later.

“Testing has such bad connotation; people think of standardized testing or teaching to the test,” Roediger said. “Maybe we need to call it something else, but this is one of the most powerful learning tools we have.”

Of course, one reason the thought of testing tightens people’s stomachs is that tests are so often hard. Paradoxically, it is just this difficulty that makes them such effective study tools, research suggests. The harder it is to remember something, the harder it is to later forget. This effect, which researchers call “desirable difficulty,” is evident in daily life. The name of the actor who played Linc in “The Mod Squad”? Francie’s brother in “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn”? The name of the co-discoverer, with Newton, of calculus?

The more mental sweat it takes to dig it out, the more securely it will be subsequently anchored.

None of which is to suggest that these techniques – alternating study environments, mixing content, spacing study sessions, self-testing or all the above – will turn a grade-A slacker into a grade-A student. Motivation matters. So do impressing friends, making the hockey team and finding the nerve to text the cute student in social studies.

“In lab experiments, you’re able to control for all factors except the one you’re studying,” said Willingham. “Not true in the classroom, in real life. All of these things are interacting at the same time.”

But at the very least, the cognitive techniques give parents and students, young and old, something many did not have before: a study plan based on evidence, not schoolyard folk wisdom, or empty theorizing.

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Oct 19

Image via wikipedia commons

It has been confirmed by the mainstream media that Benoît Mandelbrot, the father of fractal geometry and one of the most famous mathematicians of all time, has passed away about a month shy of his 86th birthday. EDIT: The New York Times has confirmed the news.

Matt Blum remembers the rare and amazing privilege of hearing Mandelbrot speak when he came to visit his high school about 20 years ago: “Even at my science-and-technology high school, most of the students didn’t know much about Mandelbrot, but I’d been fascinated by fractals for years and had brought a copy of his seminal work The Fractal Geometry of Nature for him to autograph, and we chatted for a few minutes. I was a bit starstruck — I was 16 or 17 at the time — but I recall that he asked me what kind of fractal-related work I’d done, and showed genuine interest when I told him that I’d played around a lot with the Mandelbrot Set and some variations on the Sierpinski Gasket. In retrospect, I realize this could not possibly have been of much interest to him, but he took a few minutes to make me feel like an intelligent human being because a mathematical genius wanted to hear about what I was working on”.

After the jump, enjoy an awesome video based on Jonathan Coulton’s awesome tribute to Mandelbrot and his most famous subject of study (which was not actually discovered by him, despite its name).
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