Noticing Tools – New Apps from NYSCI

The New York Hall of Science (NYSCI) has just released a set of apps called Noticing Tools.

size wise app
Size Wise app lets you explore ratios and proportions

The suite of five apps gives educators and parents a new option for inspiring kids to want to learn math and science by using technology as a tool for creativity and collaborative exploration on topics ranging from ratios and proportion to fractions, physics, angular momentum, surface area and volume.

Beyond Pink and Blue

In “Beyond Pink and Blue” on the blog site for The Nation magazine, author Dana Goldstein writes about children and gender norms. She quoted me for a part of the article about tinkering, and how that kind of hands on learning helps students grasp scientific concepts.

Sylvia Martinez, an expert on educational technology, has written about how all children need to reinforce math and science concepts through “tinkering”—interacting with the physical world, as opposed to just learning at their classroom desks. (For example: collecting water samples to test pH levels, or reinforcing math concepts by learning basic computer coding.) It doesn’t work, Martinez says, “to explain everything to kids without them having any basis in experience. I’m trying to expand the idea of ‘tinkering.’ It’s not just going down to the basement and playing with stuff. You can play with data, ideas, equations, programming.”

Parents can foster this type of experimentation at home, but schools should also do their part. The problem is that in an age of increased focus on standardized test scores in reading and math, many schools are canceling computing and science courses or cutting down lab time.

“We’ve created math and science in school as very abstract,” Martinez says. “We’ve taken away a lot of hands-on experiences from kids in favor of testing. We’ve reduced a lot of science to vocabulary, where kids are being given vocabulary tests about the ocean instead of going to the ocean or looking through a microscope at organisms. If we taught baseball the way we taught science, kids would never play until they graduated.”

I’m really glad she got the idea in there that tinkering goes beyond “stuff” and extends into playing with concepts too. I also am glad that the conversation is about “what’s good for kids”, not just “what’s good for girls.”

I’ll be exploring that topic a bit more in the coming months, it’s been on my mind a lot lately!



Tinkering and “real work”

Last week I was invited to be a panelist at the National Council of Women in IT Best Practices summit. It was a great experience and I learned a lot! My session was about getting girls interested in STEM subjects and programming through “making stuff” and tinkering.

The session was really interesting and we had some great questions about how tinkering can fit into the school day, especially with so much focus on test results and career and college readiness. It seems that to many people, tinkering conotes a messiness and unprofessionalism that doesn’t apply to “real” jobs in scientific fields.

I believe just the opposite is true – tinkering is exactly how real science is done.

I like to think I have a unique perspective on this. After graduating with an electrical engineering degree I went to work at an aerospace company and ended up on a research project to create the GPS satellite navigation system. It was fun, exciting work and we were building something that was literally theoretically impossible. The hardware was too slow, the software didn’t exist, the math was only a theory, and existing navigation systems weren’t build to handle the precision we needed. The military pilots we worked with didn’t trust it either, creating interesting team dynamics. There were many days where we just sat around and talked through the problems, went to try to them out in the lab, and watched our great ideas go up in smoke. Then we did it again.

It was the essence of tinkering. We tinkered with ideas, methods, with hardware and software, always collaborating, always trying new things. There was no “right answer”, no “scientific method”, and sometimes the answers came from the unlikeliest sources or even mistakes. There were flashes of insight, fighting and battle lines drawn, crazy midnight revelations, and occasional 6 hour lunches at the local pool hall/bar.

I’m not suggesting that any of that is a good model for K-12 STEM education – but perhaps we should avoid squeezing all serendipity out of STEM subjects in a quest to teach students about a “real world” that exists only in the feeble imaginations of textbook authors. Tinkering is the way that real science happens in all its messy glory.


Prairie Elementary Filmmakers Save a Regional Nature Program

From Gail Desler (aka Blogwalker) in a school district near Sacramento, CA.

Prairie Elementary Filmmakers Save a Regional Nature Program | BlogWalker.

“I was there – at the Sacramento Board of Directors – on Wednesday, joining other concerned educators and citizens in a last minute effort to save one of Sacramento’s primo science programs: Spash.

Thanks to Splash, thousands of elementary, middle, and high school students have explored life in Sacramento’s streams and, in the process, have come to understand why taking care of our water supply is so vital to the community. However, the Board was ready to eliminate the program as part of their latest round of budget cuts.

We had our chance to speak out, each person being allotted 3 minutes to justify continued funding for the program. With Splash director Eva Butler leading the charge, I think the 12 of us who took our turns at the podium helped provide the Board members with an understanding and appreciation that for most kids, “Splash is their first experience with relevant science and things that live beyond the pavement in Sacramento’s streams and vernal pools.”

But it was clearly a team of 5th grade filmmakers from Prairie Elementary School (Lesley McKillop’s former 4th graders) who saved the program. In less than 2 minutes, their Saving Splash video (see snippets in the above TV coverage) provided a compelling argument that led to a unanimous vote to save the program.

A huge victory for students all over the Sacramento region – and a powerful lesson to our young filmmakers on the importance of taking a stand and the power of media to sway an audience.”

If you don’t know, California schools are going through some incredibly tough fiscal times. Yes, I know that’s true all across the US, but California school’s are especially dependent on property taxes, and California real estate was subject to some of the biggest bubble bursting in the country. So the fact that these young filmakers changed a decision in these times especially affirms the power of student voice.

Here’s another reason – the subject of water and the science behind it. The city of Sacramento is at the heart of the California Central Valley Delta. This inland water system is the ecological lifeblood of the state and nourishes one the richest agricultural areas in the U.S. On less than 1 percent of the total farmland in the United States, the Central Valley produces 8 percent of the nation’s agricultural output by value, most of it fed by human engineered water systems (source). Understanding water ecology is vital to Sacramento citizens. So this testimonial about elementary school students saving a science program with their media skills is no joke. This is not just media literacy, it’s science, politics, and ecology! This is certainly the “real world” that we want students to experience.

Thanks, Gail, for sharing Prairie Elementary Filmmakers Save a Regional Nature Program


Quote for the day

“Science is built up of facts, as a house is built of stones; but an accumulation of facts is no more science than a heap of stones is a house.” – Poincaré 1905

The disconnect in science education

Every year, Project Tomorrow administers the annual SpeakUp survey of students, parents, teachers, and administrators. Every year, we hear from U.S. students that they are fascinated by technology, love learning, and want more. Results from the over 300,000 participants in the 2008 survey should be available soon.

While we wait, let’s look at some interesting data from the science questions from 2007.

In the U.S., STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) is a hot topic these days. Pundits bemoan the lack of basic science literacy, blame American students for apathy, and predict we will be crushed by global competition. But who ever asks students what they are interested in or how best they learn?

In looking at the report, Inspiring the Next Generation of Innovators: Students, Parents and Educators Speak Up about Science Education, you immediately see the glaring inconsistencies in how students learn, what fascinates and excites them, how teachers want to teach, and what’s actually happening in classrooms. What does it mean for the future when less than 40 percent of these students see learning science as important for making informed decisions in the future? How does that square with the same students reporting that they “…are open to learning science and pursuing STEM careers—intrigued by opportunities to participate in hands-on, group-oriented, “fun” experiences, as well as by opportunities to meet with professionals and use professional-level tools.”

It’s obvious that students are experiencing a disconnect. They are interested and intrigued by science — but not in school.

  • Students report that their especially fun or interesting learning experiences using science and math have been hands-on and group-oriented.
  • Students are interested in pursuing careers in STEM fields — when they know about them.
  • When asked about the essential features of their imagined ultimate science classroom, the leading answer for students in grades K-2 and in grades 9-12 was “teachers excited about science”. Students in grades 3-5 were more interested in “fun experiments” (69 percent). Other highly essential features for students in grades 3-12 were “real tools” (standard lab and technology-based tools) and being able to do “real research,” including online research on computers.

Imagine that — students want teachers who are inspired and inspiring, who bring the classroom to life with real world tools and examples. These teachers are out there, students want and need them, but apparently are getting them too rarely.

This disconnect is reflected in the teacher responses as well.

  • Just 25% of teachers say they’re using inquiry-based methods with their students; methods that both educators and researchers argue are essential for the development of scientific literacy.
  • Only 16 percent of teachers reported they are assigning projects that help students develop problem-solving skills.
  • Teachers report that 21st century tools and projects would help — but lack the time and funding to implement them, and feel constrained by mandated curriculum.

But the biggest disconnect is that most K-12 school administrators don’t see this problem. Here’s the percentage of each category that gave a passing grade to their school for preparing students for jobs of the future.

K-12 Administrators: 57%
Teachers: 47%
Parents: 47%
Students: 23%

This perception gap is a crucial indicator that we are not only failing our students in providing the relevant, inquiry-based, hands-on science education they hunger for, but that we are fooling ourselves about it. What’s worse?

Full report (PDF)


Free NASA opportunity for California math/science teachers

NASA Ames Education and the Lewis Center for Educational Research, is conducting a special workshop for up to 25 science and math teachers from local schools February 26 – 28, 2009 at NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, CA.

This 3-day training program provides teachers with all the necessary tools to remotely access and control the Lewis Center’s, 34 meter, Goldstone Apple Valley Radio Telescope (GAVRT) from their classrooms. The GAVRT program involves American students throughout the world in real science using a hands-on, standard-based curriculum that helps middle and high
schoolers reach for the stars. Students participating in the GAVRT program will assist NASA by monitoring the progress of the LCROSS (Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite) during its mission to the moon in 2009.

The GAVRT training is normally $600 per teacher. However, due to a unique LCROSS scholarship opportunity, this workshop is currently FREE to 25 teachers! And, these 32 hours of professional development are recognized for state, district, and NCLB requirements. If you are teaching science or math in your classroom, you are qualified to apply for this unique program.

The training will include a special NASA Ames tour at that is not normally open to the public. Andrew Chakin, world-renown author of Man on the Moon – the basis of Tom Hanks’ miniseries From the Earth to the Moon will meet with the teachers to share his experience inspiring students.

For more information about the LCROSS Mission and the Lewis Center and GAVRT program visit : and

Applications are now being accepted for this exciting program. To enroll, immediately contact: Barbara Patterson at NASA Ames Research Center: barbara.e.patterson [at] 650-604-0494

Constructing Modern Math/Science Knowledge 2009

Ever question why technology seems to have gone missing in so many math and science classrooms? What happened to the “compute” in computing? Wondering what STEM really looks like?

Yes, technology, math, and science can be friends!

Constructing Modern Knowledge is organizing a one-of-a-kind educational event for January 22, 2009 at Philadelphia’s Science Leadership Academy. Constructing Modern Math/Science Knowledge is a minds-on institute for K-12 teachers, administrators and technology coordinators looking for practical and inspirational ways to use computers to enhance S.T.E.M. learning. Constructing Modern Math/Science Knowledge is a pre-conference event for Educon 2.1, an innovative conference and conversation about the future of education.

The presenters represent high-tech pioneers and seasoned veterans at the forefront of innovation in math, science and computing. Read more about them here.

Come to Constructing Modern Math/Science Knowledge and stay for Educon 2.1!

  • Early-bird registration (before December 15) – $100
  • Regular registration – $130

You may register for both Constructing Modern Math/Science Knowledge and Educon 2.1 with one click.


Physics Simulations Online

Passed on from Michael Steinberg of New York City – PhET Physics Education Technology – a terrific website full of fun, interactive simulations of physical phenomena. There are simulations for biology, physics, chemistry, math, electronics and more.

There are lessons and workshops for teachers, research support and lots of support materials.

The simulations can be run online or downloaded and run offline, and there is even an option to easily download all the simulations in one package.

These simulations look terrific and have easy to use controls and help integrated into each one. Unlike some interactive simulations, these have measurement tools built in so they can be used to support real science learning. Many of them have also been translated into many languages, and are open source so they can be modified if you want.

Check it out!


More on Flunking Spore…

Last week I blogged (Flunking Spore – video game failed by scientists) about Science magazine’s Oct 24 review of the new video game Spore that outlined the problems of looking at the game as a way to learn biology. Not only did multiple scientists give the game poor grades for science content, but a documentary promoting the game misleadingly used interviews with scientists that implied endorsement.

Now, Eric Klopfer and Kurt Squire, co-founders of the Learning Games Network, respected researchers and proponents of games in education, respond to “Flunking Spore.” In two articles (part 1, part 2), they tackle some of the objections, and provide a their point of view. While they agree that the basic science in Spore is not appropriate as a substitute for biology curriculum, they defend the game as a breakthrough in user interface and design.

Kurt Squire argues that Spore is easily recognizable to a veteran game player for what it is, a game of design, where the player is the master of a make-believe universe.

What I think gets lost here is that players actually have relatively sophisticated ways of interpreting games like Spore. While I share the author’s concerns about games reinforcing people’s naive conceptions about science, Spore, I would argue, is so clearly a design game that most “literate” gamers quickly see that it’s a design game, and regard it as such.

OK, I agree here. But most people who aren’t veteran game players won’t see this subtle point. We know that people learn a lot from games, but we don’t quite know what to call it. It’s not learning that can be described in the traditional vocabulary of school. This is a deep problem of games&learning not being equivalent to games&schooling. Spore wasn’t going to bridge that gap even if it was as educationally significant as advertised.

The problem I have is simpler than this.

The game is being promoted, mostly by National Geographic, as a game that teaches biology. Scientists were tricked into doing interviews that were used to promote the game as a way to learn biology. Shame on National Geographic for exploiting interest in games for learning to promote their programming.

As much as I understand the inclination to find the tiny nugget of learning in any game, I hope that Eric Klopfer and Kurt Squire would use their influence in the learning game community to address the issues of the misleading and patently false promotion of this game. Part 3, perhaps?