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Monthly Archives: September 2013

The Yearly, New SAT Scores Are In

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It’s enough to strike dread into the hearts of high school Juniors everywhere. Just three letters: SAT.

The College Board, which runs the SAT, just announced the results for the past year’s test. And The Atlantic says they don’t look good. Last year’s test takers, on average, did not earn a score of 1550, and are therefore not deemed “college ready.”

And minorities are still lagging behind white students in SAT scores, but are on the (slight) rise (check out that earlier Atlantic article link). According to the NYTimes, high-scoring low-income students, through the generosity of the SAT, will receive packets of information from high-ranking schools and have application fees waived for six schools. Which is kinda cool, but if the kids can’t afford the application fees, then they probably can’t afford the tuition. I hope some scholarship information is also sent to them.

By the way, the College Board also administers AP tests. They like to tie students who’ve taken AP courses to higher SAT scores (they don’t mention that college-bound kids are more likely to take AP or IB in the first place). Some might say that the College Board is pushing for AP courses for minorities, to increase scores, of course, not to give College Board more money.

How are SATs scored anyway? Students take the three-section, timed test and obtain a raw score. That raw score is then compiled with all other raw scores across the country and is (magically?) assigned a scaled score. This scaled score is what goes into a lot of students’ college applications. But wait… that means that students’ scores depend on who else takes the test (i.e., every other highly-capable, probably college-bound kid). You’re ranking the highly-capable against the highly-capable. And, by the way, 2400 isn’t always a perfect score… it’s just scaled that way (not to denigrate anyone with a “perfect” 2400; it’s still quite the feat). Wikipedia has a nice section on all of the scoring changes over the years (check out the “re-centering” controversy in 1995).

And I haven’t mentioned the ACT, but they’re pretty much in the same boat of scaling scores. It used to be that Midwestern schools required ACTs and other schools required SATs. Lately, students can choose which test to take, and there’s even a lot of advice on which might give you a higher score.

Wait… so the scores are scaled based on what they think the average kid should get? And then there’s shock that the average score isn’t increasing? Yearly increasing scores would mean either kids are expected to be learning more and more, or the test is easier and easier to study for. SAT prep courses are all over the country, even in Khan Academy. But a lot of test prep places are not free, which means you need some money. And with a lot of budget-tightening across the nation, it isn’t always an option to pay for test prep / higher scores.

Maybe there’s hope! There is a new movement in colleges to not ask for SAT or ACT scores. Why? There’s little to no correlation between these standardized tests and success in college. In place of the test scores, these schools often put more emphasis on essays or a portfolio… things that showcase the student’s skills rather than their tests.

Lunch Dates: Wil Wheaton

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Maybe there really isn’t such as thing as bad publicity.

If you’re not a Trekkie, or a fan of The Guild, or The Big Bang Theory, or a bunch of other stuff on TV, video, audiobook, and even book-books, then perhaps you haven’t heard of Wil Wheaton. One of his first screen-credits was in the animated version of The Rats of NIMH, which was my favorite book as a kid, although the movie scared the bejeebers out of me.

With a slogan of “Don’t be a dick!”, Mr. Wheaton must be aware of his characters’ sometimes questionable moral views. But there’s also “Be honest, be kind, be honorable, and always be awesome,” and “It’s not what you love, but how you love it,” which show up on a lot of specially-made shirts and posters.

Wil Wheaton is a huge proponent of technology-related stuff. His blog is full of things he’s thinking and doing. He brews beer. His Twitter feed is covered with a background that parodies the Neil deGrasse Tyson wavy-hands thing. He raises money (with his wife) for shelter animals. He’s got a beard and wears snappy t-shirts. He’s basically a Seattle-ite.

Questions to ask during lunch:

  • As a tech-loving guy, what do you think about Slashdot and Tested? Other tech favorites?
  • Do you also build stuff, like models and electric things, or stick mostly to web/computer/writing things?
  • Are you the kind of person who distinguishes between nerd and geek?
  • Having been on TV and a board game YouTube channel, you must be a nerd. Do you think of yourself as a nerd or a geek?
  • Do you encourage nerd-ness in your kids or was it inevitable?
  • You seem to have the dream nerd-life doing things like moderating a Comic Con panel for Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage. Do you like being a celebrity?
  • You attend various Cons, but from your blog, you don’t seem to like being in the public eye very much, and yet, can rally a lot of people at once. Besides some charity work, what do you want to do with that kind of power?
  • Who was/is your favorite character to play in a role?
  • Is it strange to play a version of yourself on BBT? Do people expect you to act in certain ways when they meet you?
  • Do you feel a sense of obligation to defend nerd-things (like commenting on the Discovery Network‘s truth-stretching/fiction for high ratings)?
  • What do you see as the biggest role for Hollywood (and other media) in terms of education?
  • What are your favorite shows? favorite educational shows? Least favorite and/or poser education shows?

I’ve gone and done it…

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I’m such a stalker fangirl closet nerd nerd.

I’ve already written about how much I like Dan Meyer‘s works. Some of his devoted fans are pulling a math challenge/working/learning experience together. Check out Exploring the Math/Twitter Blogosphere [“MTBoS (prounounced: [sic] mitt-boss)] as a thing you might also want to try. Even if you don’t want to try this, you should check out the people involved… some high-powered teaching goodness here!

I’ve signed up, so maybe I can start applying some of their eight weekly challenges to my own devices (and improvement!)

If you’re interested, the challenges start October 6, yo.

Lunch Dates: Joe Hanson

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I totally apologize for the mostly-unflattering gif, but I really like his shirt. And it reminds me of this.

Wanna see some neat science? Some weird science? Videos? Pictures? Gifs? Links to science articles you didn’t know you wanted to read? Commentary on current science topics? You need It’s Okay To Be Smart!

Joe Hanson is the keeper of this awesome Tumblr feed of science. Oh, and he also has a YouTube channel through PBS. It’s basically popcorn for your nerd-brain: you just keep wanting and consuming more. I actually use this page as a back-up for student who think they aren’t interested in science. We just scroll through and look at the amazing stuff that’s going on.

What’s the big deal about another science blogger? Besides being in awe of fantastic science videos and gifs, Dr. Hanson can write in complete sentences… paragraphs, even! With jokes and puns and sarcasm! And he can laugh at himself, which I think is a sign of strength of character. Oh, and he seems to enjoy what he’s doing, and even to be pretty darn excited by it.

Things to ask during lunch:

  • Congrats on the recent PhD! What did you think you’d be doing with it?
  • Why did you start a Tumblr? a science Tumblr?
  • Where do you see the Tumblr going in the next few years?
  • Are there topics you want to explore, more than just re-posting cool stuff?
  • I know you have certain websites you visit all the time, but how do you find new sources of information?
  • You also have a book list, but what do you consider essential reading for a nerd? for a non-science person?
  • What do you see as your role in the greater internet?
  • Do you consider yourself an educator, or part of a virtual/digital museum?
  • What is a good amount of science knowledge for the non-science person?
  • Are there parts of science that you’re less interested in? more interested? (You seem to have a lot of astronomy-related stuff, as least, in my head.)
  • What’s the coolest thing about being a recognized internet-guy?
  • You’ve already met a bunch of other fascinating YouTube-rs. Who else do you want to meet?

Clearing My Head With My Hands

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Being a science-person isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. People expect me to have answers to their vaguely science-y questions. In gatherings of artsy people, being the token science person is hard… kind of like a red-shirted Star Trek character: you know you’re on the fringe of the group, you’re definitely not quite fitting in, you have some sort of skill that the main group needs for a couple of minutes, but you won’t last very long as a person of interest. During college, I studied in Italy on an arts semester, which was the best part of my senior year. But, despite my art/science double major, I was the redshirted science person who had to explain why paintings fade over time and why acid rain affects particular statues more than others and why building the Florentine Duomo was hard.

It’s not all bad. I have lots of fantastic memories from Florence, and I highly recommend taking a term abroad if possible.

The thing is, I need some art stuff in my science stuff to keep my head clear. One of my hobbies is calligraphy. I just enjoy the patterns of piecing letters together with various brushstrokes and how letters can change depending on on pen angles. Serifs all the way, bay-bee!

But perhaps there’s something else going on. Cursive seems to help create more complex brain connections than mere curly scribbling or typing.


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from Maria Popova at Brain Pickings

Oh oh oh! Can you see me dancing around the room right now?

One of my goals for this blog is to help me teach the way Neil deGrasse Tyson speaks. Now I have the method!

Via It’s Okay to Be Smart (via Brain Pickings), there was a panel of science blog/video people:

Okay, if you’re not inclined to watch the entire thing, just after the 1-hour mark, Dr. Tyson made a surprise appearance.

At about 1:19, there’s this:

Dr. Tyson is so quoteable because he makes himself so! Why didn’t I think of that?!

Okay, new teaching drill:

  1. Think of buzzwords/vocab for the day.
  2. Think of 3 sentences for each word that are “…informative, make you smile, and are so tasty you might want to tell someone else.”

And some advice for science educators at about 1:35: BE THAT TEACHER who is later remembered by your students!

Showing the Women in Science

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I feel like I’m supposed to rejoice or feel vindicated when some large conglomeration “gets it right” and chooses a female CEO or female Congressperson or female… LEGO minifig. Then I realize it’s extra-good because the figure isn’t labeled “female scientist”, just “scientist”. Then, I’m mad at myself for needing to notice that detail. Then, I’m mad at LEGO for not having half of its figures in female form. And then, I feel repressed because this female scientist is only one of the collectors’ characters, not a regular-issue figure in the boxed sets. I don’t even think there is a science-set within the LEGO boxes.

No, there are not equal numbers of women and men in science (or many other “technical” fields). However, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of worry about the lack of men in nursing or secretarial work. I’m still waiting for the camo-colored knitting needles and wartime-scene counted-cross-stitch kits to get boys into needle arts. And why aren’t we worried about the lack of male baby dolls?

There are a lot of things to get mad about. I wonder whether anyone would notice a scientist character if LEGO only made male figures. I mean, there don’t seem to be any major news articles on the 15 other new LEGO minifigures. I’m not a minifig collector, but I think I’m more excited by the fact that there are LEGO Erlenmeyer flasks.

So, what should women celebrate and how should we do it? I like the xkcd advice of celebrating all people in their respective lines of work, not only the highest of the high.

Encouraging the Wrong

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Gerald the Sheep: Failure

I was poking through Dan Meyer’s blog, and clicked on a few links, and a few more. Like the good nerd-surfer I am, I read (and really liked) this idea from Emergent Math about letting kids get it wrong.

And I appreciate it on a few levels. The first being that kids should get wrong answers sometimes and then change their answers and it’s not only okay, but acceptable to revise things. Math (and most everything else, besides perhaps brain surgery and pen-and-ink drawings) can be played with and fixed and re-examined.

Science teachers are supposed to teach the scientific method. As part of tradition, students make hypotheses, test them, and evaluate the results. My teachers always told me that hypotheses can be correct or incorrect (and sometimes both), but the important part is the evaluation at the end of the report: if you don’t know why your experiment did or didn’t work, it doesn’t matter if you guessed correctly as to whether it would succeed or not.

A few years ago, my compatriot chemistry teacher came up with a lab for freezing point depression involving antifreeze. We ran some quick-and-rough large-scale tests to see if more antifreeze meant a more significant freezing point depression: totally worked! I made up the lab sheet, shrinking the amounts of antifreeze to 1/10th of the original (who wants to deal with large amounts antifreeze, which is hazardous waste?) We’d get some good graphing experience and some class data outta this plan!

The “micro”-scale version did not work. Not only did it not work, the class data gave absolutely zero correlation, and even across classes the results were chaotic and inconsistent. My students were ecstatic: “Guess we don’t have to write those lab reports, right?!” “Oh, yes you do!”


The truth is, I still have no idea why the lab didn’t work, and I haven’t tried to troubleshoot it. It probably had something to do with errors in measuring ice cubes, and/or antifreeze settling between classes. But I made them write reports so that my students would be familiar with having to give absolutely blind guess rationales for their prospective college labs. It also gave them experience with a failed lab. And for them to know that it’s okay for a lab to go completely sideways.

Recently, I’ve been thinking about doing the antifreeze lab again in its failure-guaranteed-state, specifically so that kids are sorta okay (or at least have experienced) a failed lab. At the high school level, students know that labs are supposed to work correctly (that is, with one expected successful outcome), and I think they need to know that stuff won’t always happen the way they expect. And, this “failure” isn’t at their hands, it’s on their teacher’s, which is probably a little gentler for some sensitive kids. But the big thing is, I want to know that they can actually think about the results and pose some possibilities for my errors.