MIT Stem Pals
Sending thoughts
December 2012
Please forward this to friends and colleagues interested in STEM

Live Probability Experiments to Engage Learners
Dick LarsonMost STEM Pals readers have probably heard of the “5 E” pedagogical model: Engagement, Exploration, Explanation, Elaboration, and Evaluation. Probability and statistics provide a wonderful playground in which to design lessons with the 5-E approach. Without Engagement as a starter, too much of the teaching of probability and statistics involves rote memorization of arcane formulas from textbooks. Students can become bored, disinterested and may tune out entirely from learning such amazing material, concepts that arise every day in so many aspects of our lives. The future is uncertain, and knowledge of probability and statistics provides a way to think about that, to cope with and plan for uncertainty.

So, how to do this in a class? One way is to conduct live probability experiments. One simple example is to give a “Heads-Tails” fair coin to each student in the class and then have each student flip the coin under a given scenario. For instance, you can start the class by asking the students about flipping the coins until the first Heads occurs, and then they stop. We are interested in the number of flips N until we see that first Heads. Have an active discussion about this, which hopefully eventually includes the idea of a histogram showing an empirical distribution of the number of flips N until the first Heads. That is, Johnny may get Heads on his first flip. Sallie may take 5 flips to see her first Heads. Read more.

Training Teachers for New Standards: Could the Japanese "Lesson Study" Method Help?
Elizabeth MurrayThere was so much interest in James Stigler’s cross- cultural reflections on the need for American students to struggle more that I wondered what other interesting ideas Professor Stigler might have. For this I only had to look through an article written by Stigler in 2010 for Education Week, entitled “Needed: Fresh Thinking on Teacher Accountability." The article was written in response to a new accountability system favored by Arne Duncan and Bill Gates that developed measures of effectiveness to get rid of bad teachers and increase the pay of good ones. Stigler questioned the wisdom of that policy.

As an alternative, he brought up the method of “Lesson Study” which originated in Japan and is currently used in many countries around the world. Simply put, "Lesson Study" is exactly what it sounds like.  You teach a lesson and study what happens. In Japan, lesson study is employed by groups of teachers (usually a department), not a single teacher, which places the emphasis on the process and the student response, and not on the performance or personality of any individual teacher. Read more.


gingerbread men
Keeping the Wonder of SCIENCE and MATH Alive

Rick McMasterMost of the time people expend very little effort in relating science and math to their everyday life yet every year around this time there is at least one story about how Santa Claus (aka Saint Nicholas) is physically able to deliver gifts around the world in a mere 24 hours. NORAD even tracks his progress on a web site.

Sometime between the ages of six and fourteen children stop believing that a jolly man in a furry, red suit brings the gifts that they receive. At the upper end of this age range, children also stop believing that science and math are subjects that they can master. They lose the wonder about how the world around them operates and trudge through classes in algebra, biology, chemistry, geometry, trigonometry, and even calculus and physics. I believe that this shift occurs, in part, because we try to get across concepts that are abstract and removed from the everyday experience and interests of the students. Read more.

A Dose of Inspiration: Recommendations for TED Talks on Education
Megan RokopOne of the most rewarding parts of being a science educator is being able to inspire excitement in students. But we science educators need our fair share of inspiration as well. So this month I offer up suggestions for a quick dose of inspiration for educators, through a few selected TED talks I have recently enjoyed watching.

  • Neil Turok weaves a talk out of three very different topics that all converge: his research as theoretical physicist studying the big bang, his personal history growing up in Africa, and the math & science academies he has recently started for students throughout Africa (i.e. the “AIMS” academies, or African Institutes for Mathematical Sciences)
  • Temple Grandin elucidates how her mind works and how she learns, given that she is autistic. She gives fascinating examples of how she “thinks in pictures,” and discusses how her decades of work with animals have benefitted from her way of processing information. She now travels the country giving talks about how students possess various kinds of minds, and she offers up tangible suggestions on how to reach those students who are often hardest to reach.

Read more.