STEM Beats - October 2011

Life Imitates Art: Solving Crimes with Math

October 31, 2011

Before it got canceled in 2010, Numb3rs was a favorite TV show among math geeks everywhere. After all, the show featured a geeky mathematician who used math to solve crimes in LA. Purists could of course object that the show took more than a few liberties with the math it portrayed but, hey, beggars can't be choosers.

Now it seems life might be imitating art. A group of mathematicians at UCLA is working with the LAPD on models that can solve violent crimes. They have created an algorithm to identify which street gangs might have committed unsolved crimes. In a city where one small area is home to some 30 rival gangs, that's no small feat.

According to a UCLA press release, their algorithm is showing promise. In tests, they have "placed the correct gang rivalry within the top three most likely rivalries 80 percent of the time." They have managed to choose the top gang rivalry 50 percent of the time, which is far better than chance.

The algorithm isn't perfect yet, but its creators say they are working to refine it. As it is, it can help police narrow the field as they search for culprits.

The study's lead author, a doctoral student named Alexey Stomakhin, says he has "the best job in the world--working with great young mathematicians and having an impact on society." Just more proof--in case you needed it--that math is cool.


Human Tutors Make a Dramatic Difference in Math

October 27, 2011

Consider it a victory of man (or woman) over machine. Human tutor beat computer tutors hands down in a set of turnaround schools in Houston. Students who worked with the human tutors—one adult to two students—raised their performance in math the equivalent of five to nine extra months of schooling. The computer tutors? They didn’t come close.

Some of this stands to reason. If they’re well trained, humans can grasp and adapt to the nuances of what students need, academically or otherwise. Computers are getting very good at continuously assessing students and adapting questions accordingly, but they can’t yet build the long-term relationships that can keep struggling kids on the path to success.

Friends of technology in schools needn’t despair. Computers are coming into their own as tools that empower teachers to spend less time on lecture or drill and more time addressing their students’ diverse needs. Some teachers are “flipping” their classrooms, letting computers take care of lectures at night while spending class time doing much more applied, one-on-one work with their students.

Human tutors are no easy fix, and the Houston model isn’t your garden-variety tutoring program. The tutors work with kids every day. They’re recruited from top-performing schools, receive thorough training and earn a base salary. And the two-to-one ratio ensures that every student gets individual attention. All of that costs far more than computer tutors do.

Still, the story out of Houston is very encouraging. Success stories like that are all too rare.

Science: the Forgotten Stepchild of School Reform?

October 26, 2011

Brace yourself for some shocking statistics. In California:

  • Only 44 percent of elementary school principals think it is likely that their students would  get strong science instruction in their schools.
  • Only one third of elementary teachers feel prepared to teach science.
  • Forty percent say they spend less than an hour a week teaching science.
  • A whopping 85 percent say they haven't received any professional development in science in the past three years.

These are among the findings of a new study on the state of science education in California. The authors note that the state's 4th grade science scores (PDF) place it near the bottom of the nation. They speculate that the state's accountability system, which focuses mostly on math and reading, has drawn schools' attention away from science.

The problem isn't limited to California. The national Schools and Staffing Survey found that, in the U.S. as a whole, elementary teachers on average spent 2.3 hours a week on science in 2008, a big drop from the three hour average in 1994. Parhaps not as dire as California, but bad enough.

if states adopt Common Standards in science--and if common tests follow, as many believe they will--schools may well have to reassess how much time they spend on science..



Tags: standards, STEM & the states

A New Way to Judge High Schools

October 25, 2011

In the coming years, we'll judge more and more of our high schools by how well they prepare their students for college. As our data systems get better, that will become easier to do.

New York City is a case in point. This year, the city’s school report cards include three new measures: the share of students who pass college-level tests or classes, the share who enroll in college the year after they graduate, and the share who would not require remediation at any CUNY colleges. The results so far aren’t pretty: Only one in four students who enter high school are ready for college four years later, The New York Times reports, and fewer than half enroll.

Some states are making it easier to judge schools on their students’ success in college. Rather than merely predicting how their students will do, states with robust data systems are actually building the capacity to follow their high school graduates’ progress through college.

The results of such analysis can be surprising. A preliminary review of such data in Florida, for example, found that graduates from many highly-rated schools were not staying in college. By contrast, graduates of some schools that had not fared very well on state rating systems were doing better in college. The standard measures of school success haven’t always held up particularly well.

New York City is glimpsing the future.  In ten years, we may well be measuring schools by how well their students actually do after they graduate, not just how well we think they’ll do.


Two More Days to Vote for the Most Innovative Program

October 23, 2011

Many of the world's most innovative people in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) live and work in the United States. It's troubling, then, that so many young people in this country never meet or learn from any role models in the STEM fields. It's downright perverse that the young people who need such role models most are least likely to have any exposure to them.

Ashoka Changemakers is trying to change that, and they're asking for your help. With their partners TheOpportunity Equation and Carnegie Corporation of New York, Ashoka challenged anyone to submit ideas for tapping "untapped talent in community partners and engage students, particularly our highest-need students, in rich...STEM learning." In other words, how do we give students more access to all that STEM talent that exists outside of our schools?

The Ashoka challenge yielded ten finalists, and you can vote for the idea that you think deserves the "People's Choice Award." The winner of that award will get $20,000--with generous support from the Noyce Foundation.

You have to cast your vote by Wednesday, October 26, so act fast! (I have some favorites, but I'll keep them to myself).