Science Saturday – Boulder, CO

If you happen to be in or around Boulder, Colorado Saturday, September 29, you won’t want to miss Science Saturday at the Twenty Ninth Street Mall. Seven science labs and several companies will be offering interactive exhibits, installations, demos, activities, plays, and more in an all day extravaganza to educate kids of all ages about sustainability and climate change – and it’s all FREE.

September 29 – Twenty Ninth Street Mall… kind of easy to remember. Read more about Science Saturday.

More re: what to do about educational prospects for rich and poor

In his book Tearing down the gates: Confronting the class divide in American education, Peter Sacks thoroughly documents how much more difficult it is for low-income students to get the best out of school and from there get to the best colleges. He offers some ideas for helping the system change. Probably to win over those who expect it, Sacks does update the age-old international and economic competition argument as an incentive to change, but the reader senses that down-deep he believes the incentive is a simpler, and dare I say moral, one: we are all better off when we are each well-enough off.

And let’s face it, I recently read that foregoing college leads to an average of $260,000 less in earnings over the course of a lifetime. (I will try to find that citation.) Of course college costs about half that much…Anyway back to the main point, here are two more things I found surprising and intriguing in the book:

1. Many colleges use Early Decision or Early Admission (apply early and get the decision around December) to fill up to a third of their next entering class. Still they recruit heavily for the spring admissions round, in part because having lots of applicants means they accept a smaller percentage–means they get more people to reject!–and so they look more “selective.” Sure, you never do know, but just choose one or two “stretches.” It costs money even to apply and you want to be careful not to pay for the privilege of being a chump.

2. I sense some real (commercial?) potential in Dayle Mazzarella’s binder system and his distillation of various learning theories. Mazzarella ported his coaching strategies into the classroom. In this way he sees everyone as having potential, but also he says people don’t learn “holistically.” By this I think he means both they don’t learn the whole thing at one time, but also that we don’t learn deductively (give a definition or rule then an example, badabing you learned it)–we learn inductively (encounter things, and encounter similar ones over and over until we build our own definitions and rules).

Mazzarella has teachers who work for him distill their best instruction into collective, shared binders. So what each teacher has learned in their inductive way is available to all teachers in the department. I would think this strategy also makes it more likely for each student to get “good” teachers. Of course, much of the value is in the collaboration itself, in the sharing, in the method of making the binders. That could be a professional development course. (I am not suggesting just copying and sellling the binders as is!)

One more point Mazzarella shared, on p. 203, is that students need an emotional attachment to their school as a gateway to their futures. That’s what helps them tolerate a subject they might not enjoy for its own sake, like algebra or Milton…
Glean much more at the book’s own blog.

Education Prospects for Rich & Poor

For months I have held onto the May 2007 edition of The American Prospect (TAP) waiting for Peter Sacks’ newest book to come out, anticipating especially that I would be able to write about the chart on TAP‘s page A19 while discussing Sacks’ tome. Oh me of little faith, of course Sacks included the same data in his book. The chart from the National Center of Education Statistics shows that who attends college has more to do with income level than achievement level. In fact the low income top achievers have about the same chance of attending college as bottom-rung achievers from high income families (78% and 77% respectively). An affluent low-achiever is more than twice as likely to go to college as a similar achiever from a poorer family.

Sacks’ book, Tearing down the gates: Confronting the class divide in American education, is a densely researched examination of how class differences snowball from stroller/preschool choices until by the high school years it may be too late to get even an award-winnning but low-income science student into college. It will be impossible to do his book justice in the brief format we use here (so I encourage readers to leave comments!). At times in reading this book I was eager to find out what happened to the real-life students as I can be to find out what happens to characters in a novel–just couldn’t put it down, or when I did, felt distractedly eager to get back to it. There was even some suspense–for example, for about 180 pages I waited to find out if there is any alternative ranking system to the US News and World Report “beauty contest,” entertaining the idea of proposing that Mr. Sacks start one. Turns out the newsmagazine Washington Monthly does rank colleges according different criteria, including how many low-income students they enroll and other measures of commitment to the public good. He highlights MIT as an institution showing it’s possible to do both well, attaining #1 ranking on Washington Monthlys list and #7 in US News and World Report.

I have more to say about highlights and gleanings from Sacks’ work, but no time right now. I’ll be back to add that later (it’s been so long since I posted anything…been trying to finish this book–it was so exciting and seemed like the next thing I wanted to write about!).

Exercise your Brain… Or Else

WNYC Public Radio has a great podcast called Radiolab – fascinating and well-produced science-themed shows (much like This American Life, which I also love, except the focus is on science rather than stories). A recent Radiolab podcast about zoos includes the story of a New York biologist who studies wild chickadees, which every Autumn begin hiding seeds throughout the forest so that there are thousands of seeds hidden in thousands of hiding places when the snow finally comes. They can then find all their hidden seeds and survive the long harsh winter.

This biologist caught a bunch of wild chickadees and split them into two groups – one group he put in large cages and the other group he set free, to go about this process of hiding and then subsequently finding the seeds in the Winter.

Afterwards, the biologist did a brain comparison between the two groups of birds and found that in certain brain regions the wild birds had developed twice as many new neurons than the caged birds. He theorized that the new neurons would show up in both the wild and the caged birds on a regular (daily?) basis, but because the wild birds needed and used the new neurons in all their seed-hiding and seed-finding activities, the neurons remained – they stuck around. The caged birds, whose needs were all taken care of by the feeders in the cages without their expending any brain power, simply lost those neurons.

My father used to tell me that your brain needs to be exercised, otherwise it will get rusty, and I always thought that there was perhaps some truth to what he said, at least metaphorically. But I had no idea just how close to the mark he was with this statement.

Check out Radiolab – you and your kids will love it.