Engaging with the written word

Have you thought about how you engage with the written word?  Sometimes, it is words combined with pictures on a screen – Instagram, memes, blogs, etc.  Sometimes, it is a personal experience with paper and pen.  Sometimes, it is a tactile experience with a magazine, book or newspaper.  The written word can appear in a glance, or can be deeply pondered.  But, it has become apparent that how we engage with the written word is very different that it used to be.  And, may be highly dependent on how the information is presented.

Blog post graphic book

During the past week, I have encountered numerous stories discussing how reading has changed.  How we as learners, educators, and consumers of the written word interact with the messages and ideas being conveyed.  Our society has changed.  We read mostly in snippets, brief interactions.  And, this is driven by our devices: computers, smart phones, tablets, billboards, ads, etc.  We may or may not actively engage with a more complex reading format: a longer article, or a book.

This change in reading behavior presents a significant challenge to educators, how do we get students engaged with the text to think more deeply about an idea?  How do we get individuals to really comprehend the information being presented? How do we encourage an imagination?  There is obviously no clear answer.

Add to this the fear of the summer time reading slump, i.e. not reading over the summer; and we have to consider how individuals engage with reading.  For parents, there are some resources that are available.  Local summer reading programs at the public library.  Many school systems send home summer reading lists.  And, then there are organizations like Reading is Fundamental or Unite for Literacy. So, access to reading is available.  The trick is to engage in the activity.

Reading is a skill that needs practice.  We also need to engage in different types of reading, because our comprehension skills are different based upon method of interaction with the words.  It is time to encourage some quite time with a physical book in addition to reading an e-book.  We also need to engage in the act of writing, note taking, and pondering.  Perhaps if we do that more ideas and solutions may appear.

Basic Laboratory Skills

I have been working on a laboratory course that can be taken as a self paced course at home or to be used by teachers in a small classroom, a cooperative school system, or even a regular classroom/laboratory setting. The idea behind this course is that you don’t need to have a lot of expensive laboratory equipment to be able to gain some essential hands-on laboratory experience and investigate a variety of chemical concepts.  Of course, you still need to be safe, and you still need to use good technique; but expense and specialized items should not be a barrier.

Thus, I have set off on this adventure, and have been very surprised at what I have found so far.  If you look at the current education standards there does not seem to be a list of laboratory techniques that students should be exposed to or master while in elementary, middle, or high school.  There is a lot of discussion about observation, understanding of concepts, and reviewing/analyzing data, but nothing related to a hands-on technique based experience.  There are comments about the importance of the laboratory experience in science, but not  anything specific about the fundamental skills that should be obtained.  Of course, this presents a challenge.  To do science, you need to have some basic skills.  But, we haven’t articulated what those skills are.

When I teach Kindergarten students, I tell them that scientists observe, measure, and predict.  Of course, this is a simplified version of the what we really do – but it boils the scientific process to the essentials.  Scientists observe their surroundings and phenomena.  Then formulate a hypothesis about what they are observing, and develop an experiment to test that hypothesis. During the experimentation, they gather data through more observation and measurement.  Finally, they analyze the information obtained, re-evaluate the hypothesis, and start the cycle again.  Also, at some point communicate their observations, findings and conclusions.

From this assessment of the process, three things stand out:

1) Observation skills are necessary.

2) Communication skills are necessary.

3) Measurement skills are necessary.

Hopefully, the first two skills are readily addressed through many aspects of the educational process.  Even very small children are making observations about their surroundings and are trying to communicate about what they see.  Parents and teachers are always working to improve these skills. These skills have to be refined a bit for the scientific process, i.e. note taking and scientific writing, but there are being worked on throughout the learning process.

Measurement is another matter.  For many of us, measurement comes naturally.  How many yards of fabric is needed for a pattern?  How many miles is it to the next town?  How tall am I?  Or, the old adage: measure twice cut once when building something.  However, due to changes in our society, measurement is not as routine as it once was.

Think about it.  We buy prepackaged sandwich meat, and don’t go to the deli counter.  Thus, if you had to cut/slice a ham for two pounds of lunch meat (and actually calculate how much that would be at certain price per pound), would you be able to do it?  How many people make a recipe from scratch?  (Do you know how many teaspoons there are to a tablespoon?)  When was the last time you bought nails, not to mention nails by the pound?

Even when we do measure, we don’t necessarily worry about precision.  If we are a little over or under, it usually doesn’t make a big difference.  But, in scientific measurement; precision is important.  Thus, those skills associated with measurement become very important.  Precision in measurement is communicated by the use of significant figures.  And, the concept of significant figures is lost on most individuals.

A number is written to communicate the measurement; 3 is fundamentally different from 2.54.  These numbers are communicating a different level of precision.  (2.54 is the number of centimeters to an inch; 3 is a rounded 2.54.) For most measurements, the level of precision is not of particular note or issue – unless we are paying for the difference.  For example:  Today’s price per ounce of gold is $1246.01.  This means every one tenth of an ounce is worth $124.60.  So, the difference between 3 and 2.5 is $623 – which is not trivial.  Thus, precision is important.

Measurement and the precision of the measurement are extremely important.  Thus, measurement and the precision of the measurement need to be taught and perfected as they are incorporated into both the language and the process of science.

So, get those students out there measuring with devices – rulers, thermometers, measuring cups, graduated cylinders, scales, balances, tape measures, protractors, etc.  Look at the precision, i.e. the markings on the devices.  Look at how precision impacts the result.  A little error in our measurement can result in huge problems later.  So, how that error gets magnified over time.  Look at the implication of error.  And, learn this essential skill.

Story and the Art of Story Telling

If you read various leadership articles, you are likely to have found a number of items related to the “Art of Story Telling.” From a leadership perspective, the idea behind this is that people are more in tuned to messages conveyed via a story. If you want to provide a lesson or a concept – you can put it in a story, people will pay attention, and are more likely to retain the information and get what you are trying to convey.

But there is more to “Story.”  Story throughout all of history has been used to convey – historical events, to entertain, to perpetuate culture, to convey cultural morality, and to pass on family. In general – a culture is defined by its stories. If you think about the stories that are traditionally studied in school – Aesop’s Fables, Greek Myths, and Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. You can see how story has been used.

There are religious stories – the Old Testament Bible stories – Daniel in the Lion’s Den, Jonah and the Whale, and the Garden of Eden – as well as the New Testament Parables. In Native American culture – there are the Mother Earth stories. And, you can even follow certain themes throughout all cultures – there are common flood stories, and there is always a creation story.

Some stories have been preserved – the Bible, the Qur’an, and many epic poems (Beowulf, Gilgamesh, King Arthur, and others). But, many stories and possibly the most important ones are not usually written. These are the stories that hold families and/or clans together. The tales of how we as individuals are molded and taught. These stories are unique to the personal histories of each family.

For the last several years, my husband and I have noticed that our Society has lost the art of story telling – beyond the “Big Screen” and the television. Children don’t hear Mother Goose, Aesop’s Fables, or the traditional Bible stories unless a special effort is made to convey these through a lesson plan at school or Sunday School. We have seen that when the stories of the overall culture – the cultural fabric or quilt have disappeared – the quicker the disappearance of the family stories particularly the ones told from generation to generation. And, these are even more likely not to have been recorded.

I suppose that this is a result of losing the extended family. In most cases, we don’t live down the street from Grandma anymore. Great Aunt Mary is in Arizona for the winter. Even brothers and sisters are removed by several states. Closely knit communities have seen the “kids” move to the cities because of they don’t want to farm or the mill has closed to get a job. We have lost the time around the kitchen table or the campfire where the stories flow. How did you get that scar on your knee? Why did we live in that particular house? How did Grandpa come to live in that town? Are being lost faster than your current cell phone goes out of date.

We are losing this trait so fast – that there are articles about it for leaders. There are courses in journal-ling. Our Society has to make an effort to revive something that has been a part of being human since language was invented. This is evidenced by the fact that Museums like the Smithsonian have programs where people come to put down their oral histories or a particular story about a topic or an event. We see organizations like the American Chemical Society collect particular personal stories about why they chose to be come chemists. These are efforts being made because we are losing a part of us. We are losing what brings us together and we can very possibly be losing ourselves. Our personal story is what makes us who we are, but it is the grounding, the enrichment of the stories of how our great grandparents, grandparents, parents, and families that really tell us so much more about why we are the way we are.

(Also published on Leadership in Practice)

A fun way to look at Spring!

Now that spring is here – spring fever is here as well.  Part of spring fever means that everyone wants to get outside and do something.  Photography is a great way to get outside and explore.  With digital cameras readily available – we don’t necessarily think about how cameras work any more – we point and shoot.  But camera technology is built on fundamental physics and whether or not you are using a traditional film or digital camera the physics is much the same.  The only real difference is how the image is recorded and stored. 

Light still passes through a hole and is projected on the recording surface.  Lenses are used to help focus the light onto our specific medium.  To help study the concepts of physics used in cameras – building a pinhole camera out of simple materials that you can find in your home is a wonderful activity.  Depending upon how complex you want to get – you can even make a working 35 mm camera out of a match box.  Here is a link to 23 different pinhole cameras that you can build at home.


Exploring Weather and Other Fluids

It is spring time in Oklahoma – so that means weather (severe weather) is just around the corner. And, it also means some really cool science that can be done to explore concepts like Archimedes’ Principle, Bernoulli’s equations and principles, and Pascal’s Law. Here are few links to keep you busy:

Here is a quick weather book of experiments

One for Archimedes’ Principle

And another for Pascal’s Law

Time to Heat Things Up

The Polar Vortex has been in the news lately and many of you have experienced some very cold temperatures.  But, just as the weather is warming; we can do a bit of hands-on science to look at the properties of heat.  Thus, we can heat things up a bit!

On Jan. 13, 1864, Wilhelm Wien a German Physicist who received the 1911 Nobel Prize in Physics was born. His work on the theoretical nature of heat allowed Max Planck to resolve the problem of radiation in thermal equilibrium and allowed for the development of techniques to measure high temperatures.  This makes it a perfect week to focus on “heating” things up a bit.

Heat can be transferred three ways: conduction, convection and radiation. Here are a few resources to help you explore the heat transfer.

From the University of Wisconsin – Here is an animated activity.

Science Games from Science Kids

From NeoK12 – Heat Transfer Games, Activities and Lessons

And finally from Discovery Education and Siemens Science Day – An Downloadable Experiment.

Have fun exploring how things heat up or cool down as the case may be.

Making Butter is all about Physics

The author of “CookWise” and “BakeWise” writes about the science behind various aspects of cooking and/or baking.  For some food items, its all about the physics.  For biscuits, it is about the steam generation.  For butter, it is all about the agitation and breaking of the suspension.

I have recently started looking into the physics of making butter – and while there are great hands-on science activities that relate to making butter – there is not really a good explanation of what is happening on a microscopic level.  (Here is a very good making butter hands-on activity from the Scientific American) But even this experiment doesn’t really get down to the basic science of what is happening.  One of the Dairy Science pages comes out and says “exactly how churning works is unknown”.

So, while there is no definitive reference for exactly what is happening, here are a couple of aspects of the overall process:

1) Whole milk – whether from goats, cows, sheep or other mammal – is a complex mixture of water, proteins and fats. In addition, the mother is also providing other essential items including vitamins, minerals and enzymes.  (You can go to the Milk Composition Website to learn more.)

2) Milk that you purchase in today’s grocery stores have been pasteurized and homogenized. The pasteurization process requires the heating of the milk to kill the “bad” bacteria, i.e. those bacteria that cause illness in humans.  Homogenization is a physical process, by which the larger molecules, primarily fats, are broken down to allow them to remain in suspension.  If you can purchase milk from a local dairy, you may be able to find non-homogenized milk. Non-homogenized milk will separate into layers, i.e. a cream layer and a milk layer.  (This is a physical separation using gravity.  A commercial dairy uses a centrifuge to perform this separation and provides a milk with a consistent fat content. It is still a physical process based upon the density of the material.)

3) Milk can be considered a colloidal mixture.  A colloidal mixture is a fluid in which “particles” are suspended in a liquid, or dispersed throughout.  You can think of milk as being a mixture of water, butter fat particles, protein particles, etc. suspended and floating around in the container.  It is essentially, a liquid with very small solid particles floating in suspension.  This is a bit different than an emulsion.  An emulsion refers to two separate liquids, with droplets of one liquid floating in another liquid, for example oil and vinegar salad dressing.

So, what is happening when we make butter?

First, making butter requires “churning” or mixing of the cream. We have started with a physical separation of the butter fat into the cream layer and now have begun agitating it.  As the churning progresses, air is mixed with the cream to form a foam, i.e. air is trapped among the butter fat particles forming a stable suspension.  As the churning process continues, the “whipped cream foam” falls, i.e. the foam is no longer stable, because the butter fat particles have now begun to aggregate into larger particles and are no longer able to form the foam lattice.  The churning continues until large clumps of butter can be seen and collected using a strainer.

The entire process appears to be based on aggregation of the the butter fat particles by increasing the amount of individual interactions between the particles through physical agitation.  It is apparent that the collisions between butter fat particles under these conditions is inelastic, hence the aggregation of the individual butter fat particles.

Hopefully, this brief explanation will allow you and your aspiring kitchen helpers – to play with physics and enjoy the tasty result!