Friday, May 20, 2005

Why math is important to the country


The United States lags behind other nations in the number of engineers graduated each year, says Norm Augustine, a retired chairman and CEO of Lockheed Martin Corp., A look at the numbers:
• United States : 50,000
• India: 100,000
• China: 100,000
• Japan: 200,000

The significant figure in there is not the US but Japan.
Japan is minting more engineers every year then India and China COMBINED!
India and China have half the population of the planet and Japan is stomping them in the creation of engineers, and completely wiping the floor when it comes to the US.

It is understandable that we are not graduating many new engineers, business keeps asking for more students, asking for more H1-B visas and the like. But when you look at the job postings of these companies it is not surprising that there is a backlash.

Companies are complaining but not putting their money where their mouths are. When you look at their jobs postings you see them asking for 5 years experience in over a dozen technologies, most of which are highly specialized and if you are experienced in one you wouldn't have had any time to have experience in the others. Though admittedly some of the problem is not with the hiring manager, he understands that, he really wants a set of engineers with all those skills combined not one engineer with all those skills, but HR doesn't understand, they get the checklist and eliminate everyone without all those skills. You can imagine what happens next.

In the very late 1990's it was obvious that tech was in a boom state, when secretaries and landscapers were trying to learn to program that was a warning sign I failed to heed. Just like when JP Morgan knew that it was time to get out of the stock market in 1930, because the shoe-shine boy was giving him stock tips.

Outsourcing isn't working all that well yet but they are learning, in 10 years they will have figured it out. Just like Japan did to the US car manufacturers and what Korea did to Taiwan in chip manufacturing.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

What should your children know by the time they are 8 years old?

In most news reports they report test scores going up except for a few poor districts. But when you look closer they are only reporting the percent change, sure a 19% increase in test scores is pretty good, but when I looked at the actual scores a 19% increase of an F- is still only an F+, better yes, but still a long way from actually being good.

It isn't that there aren't good dedicated teachers, there are many of them. It just that the public school system on the whole doesn't produce students that can read, write, do math or have many other life skills. And that is just not acceptable.

That is why I am homeschooling my daughter and why I am going to share our adventures with you.

What do I want her to know? There is quite a bit but I'm going to limit it to the time she is 8 years old.
By age 8 I want her to be able to:
Read on her own.
Do arithmetic.
Write in her journal on her own.
Read the scriptures on her own.
Learn a musical instrument.
Take part in a sports activity, like dance, gymnastics or martial arts.
Speak to a small group.
Be gracious.

There are so many I am going to have to stop short.

Something I need to do is to keep an eye out for her talents. God has given everyone talents and usually more then one. By watching her interests I hope I can identify them and then help her nurture them and hone them.

Grab hold of reality and give it a 90 degree twist

Something that has really helped me out of some tight spots has been to "Grab hold of reality and give it a 90 degree twist"

If I found myself thinking in circles I would do something to shake things up, to think outside of the box and all that.

I would ask myself silly questions like:
If I had 'Star Trek' level technology how would I solve this problem?
If I had $1billion dollars how would that help?
If I was a geologist how would I make this box work best for Brazilian Pythons?
If it was the size of a bread box how would that help? Sometimes thinking about the box worked wonders.

Basically change the nature of the game so winning isn't what everyone might think it was.
That leads into Creative Think, which has put a fun little app on their site based on Oblique Strategies, a product I am unfamiliar with but not the concept, as I have shown.

These are great little short sketches that help you break out of your rut. Reload Creative think or press the button to get a new one.

For example, and I like this one,

"What concerns me," remarked the philosopher Epictetus, "is not the way things are, but rather the way people think things are." If you think you're creative, you'll act that way -- and vice versa. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy. As you think, so you are. In what ways are you creative?  What strengths do you have that you can apply to your issue?

Now, if your children are driving you crazy or you are frustrated because you want to do some special little thing for yourself and you just can't get to it because of a thousand little interruptions, this can help change how you think about the situation. It won't change the situation but it can change how you see the situation and then the inspiration can come.

Thanks to 43Folders for the links.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

3 Keys To Teaching Math

When you boil it down there are really only three keys to teaching math or anything really.
1. Concept: The idea behind what is being taught. For example: Numbers are a shortcut we use instead of quantities.
2. Problem: A common problem that requires understanding of this concept. For example: How do we keep trade of all the toys we have? A great way to use this is to add in history, when Isaac Newton was working out gravity he invented Calculus to explain what he was trying to say more easily then anything that was available at the time.
3. Practice: Using several related problems to see how the concept is applied. Algebra becomes a lot easier once I realized that a curve is nothing more then all possible solutions to a particular equation. I have to graph dozens of equations before that piece of inspiration came to me.

In most schools lectures generally start with the concept followed by lots of practice but ignore how the problem relates to real life. So students start asking, "what is this good for?" and too often the answer from the teacher is, "I don't know. " with a subtext of "I'm not going to find out what it's good for, I just got to get through this material for the test, if you pass the test I don't care any more." Which is why students start asking, "Will this be on the test?"

Some schools use just practice, hoping your children with somehow figure out the concept on their own, this is called discovery learning. Admittedly this happens all the time in real life but the people who do this are generally and rightly called geniuses. Discovering something for the first time is hard, really hard, amazingly hard, That is why the Nobel Prize is such a big deal, but once it is solved it can be really easy to do once you know all the things that went into the problem in the first place.

The combined lifetime efforts of Kepler, Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Einstein and a hundred other has brought us to our current understanding of the universe, which is taught to kids in a few hours of Astronomy class. Trying to have all children do that from scratch is a silly waste of time.

How to use them

How you use these depends on how your children learn. Some children prefer to be given a problem to solve, other like the concept first and a few like to work things out for themselves from practicing. It will also depend on which subject that you are teaching as well. Obviously it is best to use all of them together.

"What would you do if..." is a great way to start. People like to solve problem, especially those that interest them, that is understandable since if a problem is related to something they have interest in they will retain thirty times the material then just a lecture, then you can bring in the concept to help them solve the problem and then the can practice solving other related problems.

Another great way is the historical approach. For example, If you were studying Ancient Greece or introducing circles or finding out more about the Earth you could use this story: Eratosthenes of Cyrene figured that the Earth was round, but how big was it? Well, he had a friend in a distant city with a well that was directly under the sun one particular day a year. He found out how far the cities were apart and measured the shadow in a local well on the same day. He was able to calculate the Earth's circumference to be about 25,000 miles, modern measurements put the Earth's circumference at 24,902 miles. He was off by only 98 miles or about 2%.

This is a great introduction for circles, pi, angles, measuring, averages and history.

Then do some practice to make sure that the concept sticks and to show how it applies to different but related problems.

This should make you a much better teacher.

Monday, May 09, 2005

School Arts isn't quite dead yet.

With all the auto shops, fast-food joints and boarded-up houses in the vicinity, it is somewhat disorienting to find Mr. Longest operating out of a $17 million performing arts annex, part of a recently completed $50 million renovation of New Albany High School that was financed by property taxes. With its airy glass lobbies and soaring curved roofs, its 24-hour radio station, television broadcast center, huge indoor pool and student bank, the building could be mistaken for the centerpiece of a college campus. But it's a public school. Despite local poverty (one-third of New Albany's 2,000 students are eligible for free or reduced-cost lunches), residents rejected a tax cut - by a ratio of eight to one - in order to pay for the improvements. Steve Sipes, the principal, said they had done so because the arts at New Albany had over the years brought a measure of pride, comparable only to that generated by the sports teams, to a city that's seen better days.

Mr. Sipes's superintendent, Dennis Brooks, who has occasionally borrowed costumes from the theater department for Halloween, concurred. "Arts programs nationwide are suffering because of the pressure No Child Left Behind has put on schools to move more resources into math and English," he said, referring to the federal law mandating testing standards. "If we were forced to do that here, you'd have quite a fight on your hands, because we agree with the research that says the arts help kids do better in school." Indeed, when Mr. Longest, who himself attended New Albany, was interviewed for the job of drama teacher in 1984, the crucial question everyone asked him was "Can you do the big musicals?"

It is so good to see a school sticking with the arts. and bringing it to the level of a sports team is even better. This is a great thing.

The story, not unsurprisingly, doesn't talk about the rest of the school, but I hope they are linking the play and all the work that goes into it into the rest of the curriculum. Learning by doing is far more powerful then sitting in a lecture. Doing it "for real" is even more powerful. Imagine studying waves and interference in physics class while trying to tame the audio board. History class comes alive while discussing the time when the play was first produced. The entire school could be studying the play while it is in production. Making it real is not so hard when you have everyone on the same page.