STEM Beats - March 2011

Are We Telling 'Em What They Want to Hear?

March 30, 2011

Arthur Eisenkraft from UMass Boston doesn't mince words. He thinks some states are lying to kids. "They're being told they're doing all right at science," he toldThe Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, "and how is the child supposed to know the state is allowing him to pass a test that is not the same as other students are taking around the country?"

He's referring to the fact that many state tests are creating a sort of alternate reality, a world where amost every child does just fine in math and science, thank you very much. And then there's the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which tells a very different story.

Take Tennessee, for example. The state says 90 percent of its 8th graders are proficient in math. According to NAEP, only 25 percent are.

Individual students never see their NAEP scores, but the do see their results on state tests. So while most young people in this country have heard the message that U.S. students as a whole don't perform very well in math or science--NAEP tells us that much--their states tell them that they themselves are clearing the bar. So they draw a logical conclusion: "I'm OK, but all those other kids are doing terribly."

Not every state sets the bar low. Three states in particular--Massachusetts, South Carolina and Missouri--have set the bar quite high on their state tests. That's an act of real courage.


Tags: science, math

A Genius That May Have Gone Undiscovered

March 29, 2011

Last week, the Indy Star ran an uplifting story about a 12-year-old boy who can recite pi to almost 100 digits, is taking advanced science and math courses at Indiana University, and is already in line to become a professional researcher supported by grant dollars. He aspires to correct and extend Einstein's Theory of Relativity, disprove the Big Bang Theory, and fashion a theory of his own to describe the beginning of the universe.

One of the most striking aspects of the story is how close the boy came to living a life of silence and withdrawal. Diagnosed early on with autism, he did not speak at all for his first few years. His parents remained devoted to him and, with the help of experts, drew out and nourished his genius. (Doctors now feel that he has Asperger's syndrome, a milder form of autism.) When he was still in elementary school, he began to withdraw again--a sign of boredom that prompted his parents to enroll him in college.

In less fortunate children, disengagement is often misread as a sign of laziness or lack of ability. How often does ability go unrecognized?


Tags: math, science

A Gym Membership for Nerds and Visionaries

March 28, 2011

"It amazes me that nobody's done this yet.... It seems like a dumb, obvious idea that there should be these things all over the place."

That's Jim Newton talking about an idea that you probably wish you had come up with 10 years ago. He's the founder of TechShop, a huge facility full of high-end industrial equipment where anyone can pay "as little as $100 a month to...invent whatever they can imagine." Think of it as a gym membership for nerds and visionaries.

By putting so much industrial power into the hands of, well, anybody, Newton hopes to create what one website calls "an entrepreneurial uprising." One example of a new product that began life at a TechShop: a smart phone that allows anyone to accept credit cards. The company that created the device now processes over $1 million in credit card transactions a day.

If the TechShops live up to their promise, it could become easier than ever before to make it big with meager capital but generous smarts. So now a kid with a few hundred bucks can build a high tech prototype. But if she wants to succeed in that kind of venture, she had better brush up on her math, science, engineering and technology skills.

Let's hope that Newton's great idea spawns many, many more.


Tags: technology

The Case for College

March 27, 2011

It's a perverse state of affairs: At a time when more people aspire to college than ever before, college seems farther out of reach than ever before. Some conclude that college itself has become a bad investment, and that the push to get many more young people into college is wrong-headed. That conclusion jumps the gun.

This is not to argue that the college critics don't have a point. College tuition and fees have continued to rise much faster than inflation over the past 10 years. It's hard to imagine a more pitiable figure than the first generation college grad, who, saddled with crushing debt, tries to land a job in the current market. That is, until we consider the huge numbers of college dropouts who have only debt to show for their foray into college.

College costs are weighing heavily on more than just low-income students. Almost three in four college applicants surveyed by the Princeton Review this year said "the economy has affected their decisions about college." Eight in ten of their parents expect to spend more than $75K on four years of tuition, room and board. (The Review drew its survey sample from people who bought its college guides, so the sample might skew towards wealthier families.)

Such bracing numbers have fueled strong criticism of the "college for all" agenda. Many young people who struggle to get BA's for which they're neither financially or academically prepared, the argument goes, would be much better off going to technical school. The broader argument? Some kids--smart and motivated kids at that--are just not cut out for college.

That may well be true, but we have to consider just who does and doesn't go to college. How many upper middle class parents would say that their kids are not cut out for college? How many of their kids would agree?

The reality is that class and income still determine who does and doesn't attend college. Low-income kids have fewer role models, less money, and less knowledge about what it takes to get into and succeed about college. All too often, they also leave high school without the academic foundation they need to succeed in higher education. Unless we change those conditions, we will succumb to what Anthony Carnevale has called "the intergenerational reproduction of elites and a society of BA haves and BA have-nots." Say what you will about the value of a BA, it is still a gateway to the lion's share of high paying jobs.

So let's not simply push low-income students into expensive BA programs whether or not they have any chance of succeeding in them. But above all, let's not give up on the goal of preparing all students for college regardless of where they live or how much money their parents make.

We can't count ourselves successful until income has nothing to do with college attendance and success.


Massachusetts Raises the Bar

March 24, 2011

Note to next year’s high school freshmen: If you want to attend a state university in Massachusetts, you had better have four years of high school math under your belt by the time you graduate. Massachusetts has joined 10 other states in beefing up math requirements for admission to college.

What would four years of math look like? According to the Boston Globe:

The plan mandates that public universities’ admissions standards require students to take algebra I and II and geometry or trigonometry or comparable course work. They must also take math during their senior year in high school.

The Globe reports that the state's Board of Elementary and Secondary Education recommended that high schools require four years of math. Since then, the number of schools following the recommendation has risen from 74 to only 94.

Massachusetts has already set the highest K-12 proficiency standards in the country. Officials hope that a higher bar for college admissions will prompt more students to take more advanced courses and reduce the need for remediation in college.


Tags: math