Looking for hive mind help on a course

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Actually, on two courses.  The school I’m at (Newark Academy) ends the year with a nine-day “June Term”, wherein students take one class for six hours a day.  June Term classes are supposed to be experiential and rigorous, and maybe a bit weird.  All teachers are supposed to suggest courses; I made three idea proposals and the committee liked two of them.

Now I have to formalize my thinking and write an actual proposal for each.  I’m still (as of 2017 July) in the spitballing stage and thought I could benefit from some outside input.  If you have the time and interest, please follow this link to a Google doc where you can share your thoughts.  (NB: It’s an open edit document so please be civil to one another!)  I am particularly interested in ideas for field trips and for how to organize six-hour days when it can’t be lecture-and-response.

The two courses, by the way, are The End of the World as We Know It: A scientific approach to catastrophe and Seven Days Plus Two: The Art and Science of World Building in Fiction.  The first will be a modified form of a course I ran at Hun, but I think it will need a fair bit of work.

re: Sexism in science: Peer editor tells female researchers their study needs a male author – The Washington Post

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Apparently the study was so flawed that only a man could fix it.

Just ’cause, you know, it isn’t science without at least a trace amount of testosterone spilled on it.

Or — and this seems more likely to me — the editor is himself hard up for papers with his name on them, and desperately hopes that he’ll be the man they chose for co-author.

Source: Sexism in science: Peer editor tells female researchers their study needs a male author – The Washington Post

One sentence can pull you out of an entirely fine essay

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By Godot13 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

I actually agree with most of what Fareed Zakaria writes in his Washington Post op-ed “Why America’s Obsession with STEM Education is Dangerous“.  We need balanced, robust, well-rounded education, not narrow business-driven training.  It will take many different vantages points to see solutions to the problems we face in this hardest century of human history.  Students of mine often express shock (and perhaps a little betrayal) when they complain about, say, their history teacher and ask me “Don’t you think it’s just a waste of time?” only for me to reply that it is one of my favorite subjects.  As a physics guy, I obviously think we need more and better science teaching, but I also think we need more and better teaching in the humanities and the arts.

Having said that… boy, does this one sentence put me in a slow burn:

No matter how strong your math and science skills are, you still need to know how to learn, think and even write.

It angers me that Farakaria, with a vast platform, falls into the stereotypical thinking that these skills — learning, writing, thinking — are somehow not part of the math/science pool.  In actuality, of course, scientists, engineers, and coders practice those skills constantly.  While there are surely scientists who cannot write, there are English majors with the same problem.  STEM thinking isn’t the only kind of thinking we need, but it is thinking.  It is both disingenuous and insulting for him to imply otherwise.

I know it’s a small piece of a larger argument, but it still rankled me.

Lunacon 2014 (1b): Alternate Technologies in Historical Fiction

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Panelists: Russ Handelman, James Cambias, Paul Calhoun

And here he is, That Annoying Guy From One Seat Over.  This archetype shows up at every con, like a restless spirit.

One of the panelists pointed out that, more or less by definition, this would actually have to be about alternate historical fiction.

Examples of a missed technology:

  • Handelman: Could steam locomotives have happened 50 years earlier?
  • Cambias: Once you have cloth and fire, you can have balloons.  Why did they wait until the 18th century?  (Some people think the Mesoamericans had them.)
  • Calhoun: complex calculators like the Antikythera Device.

All in all, Calhoun was far and away the least effective panel member.

Technology needs a use before it will be adopted.  Muscle power is effective and cheap — you only get machines when the application is impossible or expensive to do with muscle.

Technology that disrupts existing power structures will be resisted by the people in charge of those structures.  Until the modern age, societies were not tolerant of that disruption, so change came very slowly.  If you want an industrial revolution in ancient times, you’re going to have change the form of antiquity.

Handelman mentioned a book called The Most Powerful Idea in the World, which posits that the Industrial Revolution occurred in England because the English had invented patent law.  I wonder if the century of civil war and ongoing disruption was also vital.

Then, there was a fire alarm and we had to flee the building.  That cut the session short.

The Political Asymmetry of Weather

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So, the East Coast is in the middle of a record heat wave.  How come we haven’t heard any hyperventilating media types announce that this “proves” global warming is true?  After all, when we had a little snow in February, it was declared “snowmageddon” and offered as the final nail in the coffin of the “global warming conspiracy”.  So now that the thermometer is over 100 several days in a row, all those people will admit they were wrong, won’t they?

‘Cause otherwise, it’s a tacit admission that they made those statements only to score political points, degrading our discourse and endangering our children’s futures for nothing more than transient political advantage. And a disingenuous selfishness of that magnitude is too awful to be true, isn’t it?

Isn’t it?

Shouting in the wind

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I know I’m not going to convince anybody, and this is far from the most important place to make this point, but I feel like I have to weigh in:

Record snowfall does not “disprove” global warming.

To advance the opposite proposition seriously, you’d have to do one or more of the following:

  • Fail to understand the different between “global” and “local”.  Being cold here says nothing about the global aggregate.
  • Fail to understand that “weather” is not the same thing as “climate” and that transient variations in daily conditions do not equate to long-term large averages.
  • Be in the pocket of Big Oil and other industries with a vested interest in making sure we do nothing, ever, because it might someday mean that they reap only ridiculous profit levels rather than the truly obscene ones they get now.

More than likely, most people braying that this is God’s message to Al Gore are committing all three mistakes at once.

Joking about Science

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I regret the simple me-too-ism of just posting a link to an article, but this piece over at Project Syndicate is a nice, short reflection on how jokes scientists make (about their own profession) illuminate the two distinct views we hold of science (as relating to truth and utility).  Short, easy to read, and worth the time.

As an aside, doesn’t “Project Syndicate” sound like an effort to produce an open-source organized crime gang?  🙂  Crime 2.0, baby!

Throwing Out the Textbook (Part II)

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(Part I gives the background.)

Since the date to order a textbook has long since passed, I’m pretty committed to not going with one for “Space Science & Astrophysics”. I’ve taken the plunge. The problem is, I don’t know exactly what the course should look like now. Most especially, I don’t know of a good way to evaluate the students. I do not want long papers to grade every week! Also, although Scientific American articles are written for “the intelligent layperson” and so should be within the reach of 12th graders, there won’t be the same organized, coherent narrative that a textbook can give. In other words, when you know that you’re going to cover tides in detail in Chapter 5, you can arrange Chapter 3 more intelligently.

I won’t have that luxury. It would seem that that would lead to more lecturing, a proven-bad way of teaching. I will have to lecture somewhat but I want to minimize how much. One thing I’ve considered is throwing it back onto the students. There are tons of sites dedicated to popular astronomy and astrophysics. Perhaps I can give them weekly worksheets with terms and ideas they need to research. Certainly class participation is going to carry a lot more weight than usual in my class, because a lot of what we handle is going to have to be tailored to what they bring to discussion. There will almost certainly be papers of some sort. I am also considering weekly quizzes just to ensure that people have read somewhat. Finally, each quarter will conclude with some sort of group project/presentation. What’s worked well in the past have been things like The Pluto Prosecution as well as a detailed project on Exobiogenesis.

An intriguing possibility is that I will have functioning laptops for each student. This opens up the chance to do actual web-based instruction — but what would that look like? How can it be used to enhance the course? Most especially, web-kits often take a lot of time to develop, and I’ll be doing this largely seat-of-my-pants.

What has me concerned most is tests. How much objective stuff can I put, when their sources are likely to be wildly divergent? And what would be the most effective way to assess the objective content? For the past two years, I’ve used a mixture of multiple-choice and fill-in questions, and (I have to admit) I’ve been immensely dissatisfied with both.

So… anyone have any thoughts on how to assess this class? All suggestions will be deeply appreciated.

Throwing out the Textbook (Part I)

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(You can skip to Part II.)
Some of you might remember that this is nominally a blog about education. It’s time again to shunt aside all the personal and political things I like to blog about, and to instead post about my classes. I do this in part because school starts soon and I am still up a creek regarding one of my classes, and thought that the great wide Internet community might offer some ideas.

Here’s the situation: For the fifth semester I will be teaching “Space Science & Astrophysics”, a 16-week overview of the discipline intended for seniors at my prep school. Due to the vagaries of our curriculum, many if not most will be taking this course to complete their science requirement — and hence will not have taken regular HS physics beforehand. For the past two years I’ve used The Cosmic Perspective by Bennet, et al. (I’ve been using 4th edition but I see they’re up to 5th now.) I really liked the book, actually, and still think it’s a fantastic textbook for its audience … but its audience is not survey-level 12th graders many of whom have not had physics. As I observed even my best students falling behind in the reading, and as I considered the $125 price tag, I grew guilty and frustrated. So I decided to shake things up.

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Old nuggets

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Anyone checking the frequency of blogging for this site need not be told that I am not a natural diarist. I keep trying to start a regular compilation of my thought but never quite get in the habit. I have a journal I’ve carted from DC to Stanford to Bensalem to Princeton. With my recent move still unfolding in slow motion in my new apartment, I came across that book, which I have not touched since (at latest) 1998.

Only two pages have any writing, dating from late 1992(!) with the interesting heading “Thoughts on Teaching”. Since that means that those two pages were, in some way, the progenitor of these blog entries — that this little blue notebook is the ur-Mongrel Dogs, I thought it appropriate to record them here, before ditching the book that’s been dogging me for fifteen years.

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