STEMbeats Blog

When the Poor Get Poorer

March 23, 2011

In tough times, the poor get poorer. That's a major message of a UCLA study of California schools during the downturn. "For every dollar a low-income school raises," the study found, "a high-income school raises $20."

The study should be treated with some caution. It focuses on only one state, and the sample of 277 schools is a bit small. Still, it offers a stark reminder that low-income schools can fall even farther behind in lean times.


When Life Imitates Art...

March 20, 2011

...Or cartoons, as the case may be. A group of "scientists, engineers and balloon pilots" (yes, there is such a thing) recently got together to see if a bunch of helium balloons can lift a house high into the air. Their inspiration? Disney-Pixar's animated movie Up, which features just such a scenario.

It turns out that, yes, a lot of helium balloons can indeed lift a house high into the air. This rather audacious experiment is in the first episode of the National Geographic Channel's answer to Myth-Busters, a new show called How Hard Can it Be?

As this video demonstrates, the balloons carried the house, which weighed more than a ton, to impressive heights. Yet the video doesn't show how the house made it back down again, or where it landed. (Seems a tad worrisome.)

Any theories?


Using Technology to Cope with Disaster

March 18, 2011

If you want to see how technology and innovation can help us cope with disaster, have a look at Google's swift response to the terrible events in Japan.

Many Google engineers are devoting as much as one day a week--a full 20 percent of their time--to efforts to help the Japanese people. (Google famously lets employees spend 20 percent of their time on work outside their usual area of focus.)

One product of this strategy has been the "Person Finder," a tool Google employees created in the wake of the earthquakes in Haiti last year. This tool allows people to search for loved ones after a catastrophe. Since last year, Google has deployed the "Person Finder" after earthquakes in Chile and New Zealand as well as Haiti.

CNN reports that Japan's People Finder already has almost 250,000 records, "more records than all of the previous Person Finder sites combined."


Google is a member of Change the Equation.


Tags: technology

Are You Smarter than a 17 Year Old?

March 17, 2011

By the tender age of two, Evan O’Dorney’s strong interest in math was already established as evidenced by his desire in checking math textbooks out of his local library. This week Evan took top honors in the Intel Science Talent Search for his mathematical project in which he compared two ways to estimate the square root of an integer. According to an Intel news release, Evan discovered precisely when the faster way would work, and his research led to him solving other equations useful for encrypting data. The Intel Science Talent Search is one of America’s most elite and demanding high school research competitions which honors high school seniors with exceptional promise in math and science. That’s right. Evan is 17.

Earlier this week, Evan and nine other high school seniors, out of a group of 40 finalists, received top honors from Intel for satisfying their endless curiosity by exploring how the world works and developing solutions for global challenges. The accomplishments of this group of 40 young men and women are mind-boggling—more than the average person could hope to have extolled in their late-in-life obituary.

Intel CEO and Change the Equation member Paul Otellini praised the “creativity and leadership” of the 40 winning mathematicians and scientists and said that they “hold tremendous potential to move our country forward. They are already addressing real-world problems like cancer treatment, disease prevention and national security. We need to identify the common characteristics that inspired these high school seniors to successfully revitalize math and science education nationwide.”

Nearly 1,800 students nationwide entered the competition. Wouldn’t it be great to have a crystal ball so that we can see what these kids will accomplish in the next 20 years? Watch out world!


Tags: math, science

A Tale of Two School Systems

March 16, 2011

The United States sometimes seems like two different countries. There is the country of students who perform among the best in international tests. And there is the country of students who perform much, much worse.

The Thomas B. Fordham Institute recently took a close look at results from these tests. Here's Fordham's Mike Petrilli:

  • In raw numbers, the United States produces many more high-achieving students than any other OECD nation. In both reading and math, the U.S. produces more high achievers than France, Germany, and the United Kingdom combined....
  • Proportionally, Asian American students are the best readers in the world, and white Americans are bested only by Finns and New Zealanders


  • In both reading and math, the U.S. produces more low achievers than France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and the United Kingdom combined.
  • Approximately 50 percent of black American students are low-achieving in math—a higher proportion of students than is found in any OECD country save Chile and Mexico. In reading, only Mexico does worse.


The US is big enough to produce lots of "scientists and entrepreneurs," Petrilli argues, which is why it has been able to remain innovative even while a large share of its young people doesn't do very well in school. Yet Petrilli wryly notes that China and India are big, too: "when they starting taking the PISA exam we might discover that their high-achieving students outnumber ours many times over." Shanghai's students may have given us a taste of things to come when they trounced students from every country in the OECD.

Petrilli adds that US inequity cannot do us much good in the long run. "It’s hard to imagine the U.S. maintaining its economic strength—or social cohesion—while miseducating such a large number of its youth."

Rather than leveling the playing field, schools often compound the disadvantages of poverty.Low-income students of color often start behind when the enter school, and they are much more likely to be taught by teachers who lack degrees or certifications in their fields. They have much less access to rigorous AP courses. They often attend troubled schools with very high teacher turnover.

The US will pay a higher and higher price for these inequities as countries like China educate more and more of their students. We cannot expect our size to compensate for our failings.


Tags: math, science, minorities