Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Engineering Instruction for Kids: Start Innovation Early

It's said that in engineering lies the future of mankind. Every innovation, every grand design has its roots entrenched in engineering knowledge. All things considered, this is a dynamic and hugely diverse field to join. Currently, forward thinking educational forces are realizing that in order to progress children's education and learning at a faster rate, it's necessary and beneficial to introduce kids to the basics of engineering as early as possible.

The benefits of this early introduction to computer science and engineering are plentiful. While it is highly unlikely that every child will go on to become an engineer, it has been proven that being taught to think like an engineer at an early age increases brain function and problem solving skills. It is skills like these that will help developing children to become more successful. Early training in problem solving helps to broaden developing minds and creates a structured approach to learning that will be invaluable even when studying other subjects at school and beyond.

When teaching young children engineering skills, there should be no pressure and no criticisms. One of the most successful methods involves children exploring the ins and outs of common, familiar items. These items include building blocks, marbles and strips of shaped wood. Desks are moved aside to create a zone where young engineering students can explore the possible combinations of these materials to complete set goals. The goals are as simple as ensuring that a marble reaches a bucket, but it's essential that students use the materials provided to make this happen. They are given free reign as far as creativity goes, which often results in some truly spectacular, sprawling arrangements. Children are encouraged to explore new, different ways of getting the marble to its destination.

With such promising programs in place, it is important to find out what types of environmental support structures could be introduced. There are four useful steps that have proven hugely useful in promoting this early learning and problem solving ability.

  1. Involve Young Children in Solving Design Problems.
Young children will benefit from being encouraged to find solutions to challenges that have been placed in front of them. The sense of purpose is a great driving force that in itself encourages children to formulate solutions to the problems set before them. The danger lies in over-simplifying the tasks so that the challenge is diminished. It is far better to pose a real challenge and offer a supportive environment where questions are encouraged.

     2.   Models That Enhance Learning

When explaining concepts that may be a shade too complex for children to immediately grasp, it is invaluable to have a visible, real world example solution to demonstrate. This helps children grasp what is expected of them and gets them excited to get their hands dirty. It is one thing to stand in front of a class and lecture them about the way a ball rolls down a hill, but actually showing them the ball rolling is an entirely different approach which has been shown to be massively beneficial. Young minds learn better through observation, not by instruction.

    3. Repetitive Work Is More Effective.

Engineering is a highly repetitive occupation that requires designing and revisiting designs in order to find the best operational solution to any given problem. It is this repetition that is so helpful to young learners, who learn to refine and improve designs until they are satisfied that they have mastered the task. By reaching the same solution by differing methods, lateral and creative problem solving skills are instilled.

    4. Take Your Time.

It is important that time becomes less of a factor in the problem solving process. Time constraints result in undue pressure and feelings of imminent failure, which effectively switch the learner's brain off. The learning process is far more effective when the focus is switched from time limits to task completion. At a young age, a child is far more likely to succumb to pressure. It is when this happens that learning ceases and is replaced only by panic. Allowing a pressure free environment allows the full absorption of the material at hand.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Common Core Math Problems

In a feeble and rash attempt to defend Common Core math standards, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan apparently insulted millions of middle class suburban moms by saying opposition to the Common Core is simply a result of "“white suburban moms who — all of a sudden — their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were, and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought they were.” That's certainly not the diplomatic approach I would suggest, especially when critics are raising legitimate concerns about the Common Core drafting and implementation. Arne Duncan seems to be expressing an ignorance of just what the standards say and why they may present problems.

On the other hand, Washington Post education blogger Valerie Strauss offers an extensive and valid criticism for "Why Young Kids Are Struggling with Common Core Math." And her criticisms are worth considering. The most serious issue is, of course, the potential ignorance that the standards reveal about the learning stages and styles of young children. While the Common Core proposed to offer deeper and more thorough teaching, it may simply be inappropriate. Strauss has addressed this issue regularly, notably in her Eight Problems with Common Core. And all concerned parties should at the very least have knowledge of her criticisms. That said, it's also important to acknowledge the claims that the Common Core is simply a step in the right direction in terms of standards actually being learning goals, as they should be.

That said, CC in theory is not a bad idea. It was an attempt by people to create a standard "floor" per grade level, so a kid who moved from Arizona to Illinois would be at roughly the same "grade level" no matter what. And it was an attempt to align grade level standards in literacy and math to some "standard" common to high performing nations, as well as better prepare kids for college and career. And, at least in math, the claim was that kids would "go deeper" and understand math "conceptually" in order to achieve "mastery" at each level. Thus, in theory, it's not a bad idea. And, in many ways, I am not opposed to CC, and have actually done a fair amount of promotion and staff development for at.

However, critics are crying foul for numerous reasons. The "standards" have never been tested with any data to prove they produce better results. They are not actually linked with any "international standard," of which there is none. They were created by a consortium of private interests, including textbook and resource producers and private testing organizations like the College Board. Thus, experts in the field including school districts and state boards were not consulted or involved. Two of the prominent voices on math verification committee, including a Harvard math prof, who were asked to sign off on the results (but were not included in creating them) refused to do so. They criticized the standards as a "move to the middle" that has lower expectations and is geared toward preparing students for community colleges and lower level institutions. Thus, the needs of advanced students are greatly compromised by this approach.
The standards were basically adopted and implemented in 45+ states with simply the signature of the governors, and there has been little support for training on the new standards. And if the teachers don't buy into the ideas, it's certainly a tough sell. Additionally, the very concept of "mastery" at any given level is seriously disputed, and it contradicts much research into how people actually learn. For example, we intro paragraphs and topic sentences at third grade, but as material complexity increases, so does the challenge of crafting a topic sentence. Thus, I have no expectation that my students "master irony" in one year. Finally, there is a serious pushback against the federalist component, as local control of schools is a foundation of the republic. We don't have a national education system, but the White House used Race-to-the-Top funding as basically a bribe - or stick - to force adoption. So people have a big problem with the federal government dictating to individual school districts what they have to teach.
It is a complicated issue, and while I actually support the theory, I am suspicious and disappointed in the manner in which the CC has been forced upon schools.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Can ACT-Aspire Challenge PARCC on State Assessments

Since the adoption of the Common Core, a primary concern for many educators and parents has been the impending assessments associated with the "national standards." For, if state governors and school chiefs have determined the need for continuity of standards - in case a kid moves states and because all kids are applying to the same colleges - states will need some way to confirm proficiency.

Enter the PARCC Consortium.

PARCC, the Partnership to Assess Readiness for College & Careers (as well as SB, the SmarterBalanced testing group, and also an artificial butter substitute), was commissioned and given a grant of somewhere around $350 million to develop standardized assessments for grades 3-11. It has been, apparently, a monumental undertaking, as seen by the long years it has taken to even get a few samples. Of course, Bill Gates claimed that this new system of accountability would also bring competition to the marketplace to testing.

Enter ACT with a new program designed for grades 3-10 called ACT Aspire, which leads logically to the ACT for 11th graders. The benefit of something like ACT is that it is familiar, and it leads logically to a test that kids and parents understand. It also leads to the only test that kids, parents, and colleges care about. Additionally, ACT Aspire can be given any time during the year, and it can be taken care of for all grades in less than a day. For these reason, among many others, ACT Aspire seems like a reasonable and viable alternative to the PARCC.

Of course, the idea of ACT challenging PARCC is now a moot point, after the huge educational conglomerate Pearson, Inc. won the contract to produce PARCC's tests. Pearson also produces and manages ACT.

So, what now?

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Country and Hip Hop "Mixing" It Up for Some Good Tunes

It may seem like the strangest pop culture marriage around, but the recent - and increasingly common - collaborations between the stars of country and hip hop are producing some quality music that is fresh and classic at the same time. This merger of uniquely American musical styles caught my attention today, as I was driving across the Dam Road in Denver on a beautiful day and heard the song Cruise by Florida Georgia Line with a remix featuring Nelly. And I really liked it:

The blend of country and hip hop is actually a lot more obvious and reasonable than many would expect. Both genres represent a culture of inveterate story telling and exceptional rhythms and choruses.  They are also both distinctly American genres, telling truly vivid American stories. Themes of pride and love are integral, and it was only a matter of time before a couple of renegades in their genres would cross the lines. The first examples I heard were Brad Paisley and Nelly getting together for Over and Over, and Kid Rock joining Sheryl Crow for Picture.

With Nelly now joining the Florida Georgia Line, he is establishing a niche for collaboration, and opening up whole new audiences. I am impressed with his openness to such innovation. Of course, growing up in the Midwest, Nelly was always going to have bit of a country drawl to his songs. And his use of Smokey and the Bandit motifs in his video for "Ride Wit Me" indicated a bit of country even in his earliest writing. And I would say that his collaboration with Kelly Rowland on Dilemma, while truly an R&B song, actually had a real "country" feel to the tone and story.

Of course, we shouldn't forget other collaborations that fuse the genre for one singer. In that I'm thinking of Jason Aldean's Dirt Road Anthem. Aldean's collaboration with Ludacris on this song actually angered many country music purists, but in true renegade fashion, both artists persisted and produced a quality song.

Finally, no discussion of this cross-cultural collaboration would be complete without mentioning the most controversial example - The Accidental Racist featuring Brad Paisley and LL Cool J.

So ...

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Secession is the New Thing in Tea Party Politics

Prudence will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes.
So, Thomas Jefferson said - but he never expected (irony) the rise of the Tea Party in contemporary American politics, where every political disagreement is a "Sky-is-Falling," "country-is-ruined" sort of conversation.  These days, some Americans believe the nation is so politically divided that a divorce is the only solution.  Thus, secession talk has rumbled up from the fringes, and it has begun to gain attention in nearly every political conversation - especially in Texas and Colorado.

While in Texas, more than a hundred thousand people favored seceding from the United States, the secession forces in Colorado simply want to create a 51st state out of some rural counties because they don't like laws being made by the urban centralized government in Denver. Apparently, it mostly comes down to gun laws and alternative energy regulations. You know, not any "light and transient causes." This is real end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it sort of stuff. If people in Weld County, Colorado can no longer buy ammo clips with more than fifteen rounds, they're going to need to radically alter state lines for the first time since 1820. As it stands, the future of the 51st state of North Colorado is in limbo, as the eleven counties split on the decision to secede.

As a Coloradan, I find the whole secession talk a bit ridiculous, especially for the "light and transient causes" argument.  Of course, as I've noted before, there's a cynical part of me that simply wonders why we don't let Texas secede.  And, I'm not the only one who feels that way. A recent piece for the Huffington Post ponders the issue of Texas, and almost satirically comments on 10 Things We'd Lose if Texas Secedes.  Obviously, if we consider seriously the criticisms made of Texas, it might not be a bad thing to be done with the Lone Star State. And it might be fun to see yellow roses go it alone. Certainly, it has been the fantasy of many, and it's worth imagining, if just for posterity's sake.

Truly, secession talk really is the sour grapes of the political world, and in direct conflict with the American spirit. It reminds of the kid who doesn't like the way the game is going because he's losing, and so decides to "take my ball and go home."

Monday, November 4, 2013

Pomegranate Season is Back - Don't Miss Out

As we head into the fall season each year, I always lament the end of the summer fruits. That is until I remember that pomegranate season is coming. If you haven't noticed the luscious red fruits of Greek myth in the supermarket yet, keep your eyes open for the ruby goodness. For there is good reason to give in to the temptation of Persephone.

The taste of the pomegranate is reason enough to dive in, but we'd be remiss if we didn't recount the numerous reasons to eat the fruit of the fall. Rich in antioxidants - as if it weren't apparent by the rich, ruby red color - the pomegranate is a vitamin unto itself. And, healthy choices gurus like Dr. Mark Fuhrman offer plenty of support for why you should eat pomegranate.

Certainly, the best way to eat pomegranate is seed-by-seed.  However, pomegranate is a great accent for many things as well, and the phrase "pomegranate flavor" is infused with everything from tea and desserts to delicious lamb dishes at the finest of restaurants.  And, we all know the marketing of pomegranate juice by Pom, which was well-documented by Morgan Spurlock in the Greatest Movie Ever Sold. Pom took an obscure fruit that many people were wary of and turned it into the hottest new product on the supermarket shelves. It was truly a bit of masterful marketing.  In the end, though, eating fresh pomegranate is the best way to enjoy it. However, if picking the seeds apart is too much for you, pomegranate seeds can be purchased already separated.  It will cost you, though.  Whole Foods is selling containers of seeds for ... $17 for less than a pound. Wow.


Sunday, November 3, 2013

Going Postal & The American Dream

Another mass shooting this week …. several actually. And, as Colorado prepares for the trial of James Holmes' of the Dark Night shooting, and the town of Sandy Hook levels the elementary school where its shooting took place, and Los Angeles tries to figure out why a guy from New Jersey targeted TSA agents at LAX, we continue to question and wonder, "Why?" What the heck is going on? And, for those versed in mass shooting lore as writer Michael Kimmel is, "Why Is It Always a White Guy?"

Michael Kimmel, a distinguished sociologist, attempts to answer his own question in a new book, Angry White Men: American Masculinity at the End of an Era. And, he has some fascinating ideas - and data - about the "roots of modern violent rage."  Certainly, people have heard the eerie background of serial killers in American history - most, if not all, are middle class suburban white males. Generally, though, there is a common history of abuse in the families, or at least something that may have instigated the development of a sociopath. Mass shooters, Kimmel posits, also have common backgrounds, and he believes it has much to do with the contemporary age economics of America.

Interestingly, mass shootings were pretty rare - even non-existent - up until the 1980s. And now they happen with frightening regularity.  Even the phrase, "going postal," associated with such mass violence has historical precedence.  As Kimmel notes, Between 1986 and 1997, forty people were murdered in at least twenty incidents involving postal workers. Before 1986—nary a one.  So what happened? According to Kimmel, it has everything to do with economics and the frustrating myth of the American dream:
No, they were driven crazy by the sense that the world had spun so far off its axs that there was no hope of righting it. Underneath that sense of victimhood, that sense that the corporations and the government were coconspirators in perpetrating the great fleecing of the American common man, lay a defining despair in making things right. And under that despair lay their tragic flaw, a deep and abiding faith in America, in its institutions and its ideals. Like Willy Loman, perhaps the quintessential true believer in the ideology of self-made American masculinity, they believed that if they worked hard and lived right, they, too, could share in the American Dream. When it is revealed that no matter what you do, no matter how hard you work, that dreams are for Disneyland, then they morph into a tragic American Everymen, defeated by circumstances instead of rising above them.
Stack and Sherrill believed in that America. They believed that there was a contract between themselves, and guys like them, and the government “of the people” that is supposed to represent us. They believed in the corporations that they worked for, confident in the knowledge that they could support a family, enjoy a secure retirement, and provide for their families. That contract was the stable foundation for several generations of America’s working men—an implied but inviolable understanding between businesses and workers, between government and employers. They had kept the faith, fulfilled their part of the bargain. And somehow their share had been snatched away by faceless, feckless hands. They had played by all the rules, only to find the game was rigged from the start.
It is disturbing to say the least. And with the current state - and direction - of the American economy, it may appear we should expect more, not less, carnage.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Is Jon Stewart "Just a Comedian"?

Jon Stewart is a tremendously talented, incredibly witty, brilliantly insightful ... what?

Without doubt, Jon Stewart is a well-known former stand-up comedian who has crafted a unique brand of humor grounded in mostly political satire and social criticism. The Daily Show is a top-rated commentary and interview program that is popular among the younger news watching set, and it undoubtedly serves as a source of "news" for many. And among politicians and other news commentators, Stewart is hard to ignore. Yet, occasionally his commentary - especially when it seems to depart from his own ideology and criticizes Democrats and social programs - becomes fodder for the right-wing who declare that when "even Jon Stewart" criticizes the issue, it must be bad.

Stewart takes exception to this caveat, and regularly reminds people that he is "on the Comedy Network" and he is "just a comedian."  This back-and-forth banter has been front and center in recent weeks, as the Affordable Care Act comes under fire for huge problems for people seeking to enroll via the government's website. In response to the media using his criticism as "evidence of failure" of the ACA, Stewart has responded harshly. However, some are not willing to let Stewart off the hook so easily, even as we laugh at his response to a call for owning up to responsibility. To the issue, Elias Isquith calls out Stewart in a piece for, arguing "Sorry Jon Stewart: You're Not Just a Comedian."  Isquith argues - with reasonable credibility and criticism - that Stewart is not simply another late night joke teller in the vein of Leno or Letterman or O'Brien. And that much seems obvious. Whether Isquith is correct or not, this issue is not new. For, any Stewart fan must recall his infamous pleading with the overmatched hosts of CNN's Crossfire during the 2004 Presidential campaign.

Stewart made many logical claims - and was wildly entertaining even if he didn't mean to be.  Since the earliest days of The Daily Show, Stewart has been mining the political world for the richest of humor via satire and scathingly sarcastic criticism. However, the presence of a sharp political mind with a clear agenda has always been clear. So, what is it:  comedian or political commentator. Or both. Or neither.

Maybe we should ask Bill O'Reilly:

Friday, November 1, 2013

Should We Boycott Enders Game?

How to separate the artist from the art?

For as long as people have been crafting entertainment for others, the viewing public has faced a dilemma when the beauty of the art is seemingly contrasted by the flaws of the creator.  That controversy comes front and center this weekend with the release of the film version of Ender's Game, a hugely popular sci-fi story first published in 1985. So many sci-fi fans grew up on the brilliance of Orson Scott Card's story of a child who must save the world - a theme common throughout literature and most recently developed in Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, and The Hunger Games. This challenging theme is well analyzed by Laura Miller recently in a review for

The problem with the release of Ender's Game is all the press coverage of Orson Scott Card's other writings which are aggressively anti-homosexual. Card - a devout Mormon who grew up in Salt Lake City and graduated from Brigham Young University - has been an outspoken critic of gay marriage and has written some rather disturbing views on homosexuality.  These views have led to a call to "boycott the movie" so Card does not receive any further royalties.  And, this is the point at which fans and critics alike must conclude how to deal with unsavory elements of an artist that seem so disparate from what fans love about the art.  Sean Means of the Salt Lake City Tribune analyzes this complicated issue with some great history of troublesome artists.

Certainly, artists can be tortured souls whom make themselves difficult to love.  But does the life of the artists outside the art compromise the value of the creation? Sean Means poses this question about Card's life against examples such as composer Richard Wagner and his alleged anti-Semitism, Michael Jackson and his alleged sexual abuse of children, and Roman Polanski who was accused of sexual assault of a 13-year old girl and fled the United States to avoid charges. Certainly, artists can live edgy and controversial lives. Ernest Hemingway was a notorious drunk whose abuse of women and prejudiced views make him difficult to defend as a man. But does that compromise the art? What if the art seems to so beautifully contradict the public image of the artist?

As Means argues, "Ultimately, it will be the viewer's choice whether to embrace the tolerance message of Ender's Game or reject the film" based on a decision to not separate the man from the art.