Sara Does Science

Sporatically posting thoughts and amusements from a pretty rad (if I don't say so myself) lady physicist.
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Posts tagged "science education"

A few months ago, I had a conversation with a twitter friend about how a lot of the stunts on Jackass would make great examples to show in a basic physics class. Every time those fools collide shopping carts or propel themselves off ramps on various conveyances my brain starts to buzz with physics concepts like momentum transfer and energy conservation. After thinking back to some of the episodes I’ve seen (and the one movie) I realized you can teach almost all the concepts in a basic physics class just with using examples from Jackass, which would be way more entertaining than the usual examples I’ve encountered.

I’ve had some other pop-culture related ideas as well so I thought I would put together some of my brain storms into a small list of what I’m calling Low Culture Science courses. They may not be classy, but they’ll most likely be quite engaging!  

Class: ICP – Insane Clown Physics

Course Summary: This survey course tackles a wide breadth of scientific topics using the Insane Clown Posse song “Miracles” as the outline for the syllabus. This course will touch on subjects from both the hard and life sciences as we aim to answer the big questions asked in “Miracles” and correct some of the ICP’s scientific misconceptions.  We will deconstruct hands-on and multimedia examples in order to describe the science we encounter in the world around us. And we will also study contemporary scientific publications in order to demonstrate that scientists are not, in fact, lying mother fuckers.

 Homework Question: Go on YouTube and find a video demonstrating a phenomenon involving magnetism. Briefly describe the video and, within the context of your chosen video, explain what “fucking magnets” are and how they work.

 Final Project: Working in pairs, you will each pick either one topic or several, related topics mentioned in “Miracles”.  You will then write an original rap explaining the science behind your topic(s). Each pair will film a music video for their rap, which must include visual elements that relate your topic and instruct the audience on the science you are presenting. Extra credit for creative face painting.

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The Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting is an annual meeting devoted to connecting Nobel Prize awards winners and younger researchers in their fields. This year’s meeting is devoted to physics and Scientific American is currently profiling a handful of attendees in their “30 Under 30” series on up-and-coming physicists. Being both curious and a little jealous, I’ve been reading these profiles, where the subjects answer a few questions about their research and inspiration. One question is “Who are your scientific heroes?”.

This question caught my eye for a number of reasons. One is that I recognize the important of role models and heroes to someone interested in science. I really couldn’t connect with physics at all until I had a great teacher who not only taught the science well, but also made sure to connect our lessons to the scientists who originally discovered whatever physical principle we were discussing. So it’s been interesting to see who inspires other young physicists.

I was also curious to see what types of people were picked as “scientific heroes”. Are they mostly historical or contemporary figures? Are they physicists who may have affected the field more broadly or in a popular sense (ala Carl Sagan) or lesser known physicists who might be inspiring because they did important work within a specific sub-field of physics?

And the one that is my “hot button” issue:  How many women were named as scientific heroes? So far , zero. (To be fair, the series is only just beginning, but the lack of even one women among ten-or-so listed physicists doesn’t bode well.)

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Dr. Mae Jemison isn’t so much a Science Crush as she is someone who I am completely in awe of. Prior to a little research, I knew Dr Jemison was an astronaut and an advocate for science education and underrepresented minorities in STEM fields. But when I checked out her full biolography, I swear this women is one of the most accomplished people on the planet.

The Dr. in front of Mar Jemison’s name isn’t just for show. She was first educated as a medical doctor and went onto serve in the Peace Corp. Both of those those things require a way stronger stomach and way more toughness than I possess.

You think that might be enough of an accomplishment for someone’s life. After all, it takes a lot of work to become a doctor and you do a lot for other people through the Peace Corps. But for Dr. Jemison, that wasn’t enough. So apparently the next step was to become an astronaut. Why? Because of Star Trek. Seriously. (Because of her fandom she even got to star in an episode.)

She officially went into space on theEndeavorin 1992. It gave her a chance to rock these short shorts like I’m sure no other astronaut ever has.

Going into space is cool and everything, but it just wasn’t enough for Dr. Jemison. This just shows how amazing she is. Most people would say “Oh, I went to space, that’s enough accomplishment for this life” but not Mae.  Post-NASA she founded her own company to research and develop technology for everyday life. Yes, NASA was too passe for her, so she founded a company for new ideas and inventions.

She also founded an international science camp for children, an educational excellence program in honor of her mother, and a medical device company. In her spare time, Dr. Jemison dances, is a college professor, and speaks four languages (and hard ones, too: aside from English there’s Russian Swahili, and Japanese). And she pretty much looks like a model.

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, Dr. Mae Jemison goes well beyond the qualifications of a normal science crush. And while looking at all her of amazing attributes may have left me feeling a bit unaccomplished as I sit on my couch writing this in my pajamas, I’m glad that there are scientists out there like her.

I’ve been thinking a lot about science and younger students lately for two reasons. The first being that my adviser asked for my input on selecting a high school student that he and I will be mentoring this summer. The second is that the high school senior who worked with us last summer was a finalist for this year’s Intel Science Talent Search and I spent yesterday eagerly awaiting the ultimate results of the competition.

Students getting an opportunity to excel in science depends on a lot of factors. Many are socioeconomic. Others come from peer interactions and the public perception of scientists. Access to good teachers and role models (or the lack thereof). I often spend a lot of time considering both the educational and public interactions that students have with scientists because this is where I currently feel like I can make the biggest dent. My ideas are usually focused on changing perspectives of who can do science and making scientific subjects engaging. Today, a conversation with my adviser got me thinking of something else I want to add to this in the future.

I want students to be able to see how much most individual scientists don’t know.

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Documents reportedly from The Heartland Institute, a conservative think-tank known for climate change denial, have made their way to the internet. These documents detail a plan to portray climate change science as uncertain and controversial, so teachers just will give up on teaching it. Seriously. That’s the plan. It’s pretty awful, especially because the only controversy that exists about climate change isn’t a scientific one but a political one.

But today’s rant isn’t specifically about these documents. (But for more info on them, check out the Bad Astronomer blog post, which also links to other posts and the documents themselves.)

Nope, today’s rant comes from my interest in science education and all the thinking (and by that I mean slight panicking) I’ve been doing lately about having kids while not completely sacrificing a career.

There are lots of great science teachers out there. I myself have been lucky to have several. But I also was lucky enough to go to schools in a reasonably well-off area outside a big city. However, I know that not every teacher my future progeny (kid…kids…maybe?) has will have a scientific content background. Not every teacher might be enthusiastic about teaching. My kid could end up in a class with a bad kid that drains the teacher’s energy and the teacher is close to retirement and doesn’t care, so the whole class suffers. Basically, for whatever reason, if I have a kid, chances are that over 12 years of elementary, middle, and high school, not all the science teachers will be great ones. I will end up dealing with a teacher or two who is apt to fall pray to a Heartland Institute ploy because extracting the science takes too much effort.

Also, when teaching science to younger students, it can be easier to teach them lessons that simplify science, but end up leaving things out. I remember learning there were three phases of matter in elementary school: solid, liquid, gas. What about colloids, plasmas, Bose-Einstein condensates?! (Ok, maybe that last one is a little advanced.) I understand that for younger students, simplifying things can help them learn, but in my experiences, those simplified topics were never returned to and approached from a more advanced and nuanced angle. I realize now that I was left with misconceptions rather than science knowledge. So for controversial or even advanced and non-intuitive subjects, it might be easier for teachers to avoid them together or present an incomplete or perhaps incorrect picture.

And I can say that if my future offspring gets a teacher like this, then best case scenario: I can be a resource to improving science in the classroom, and worse case: the teacher hates me.

I value education and plan to play an active role in my hypothetical childrens’. This involves being familiar with their coursework and helping them not only with homework but with understanding different subjects (although I may be less effective with english/literature/art and useless at foreign languages and music). This will most definitely include science and math classes. I’m at a position where I am comfortable saying that I know a good amount of science stuff. Do I know every advanced topic? Heck no. But I am familiar with what a student gets taught in pre-college education and I also know how to intelligently research and learn about topics I’m less familiar with.

And that’s where I will become a nuisance. I am passionate about students (future spawn included) receiving a comprehensive science education that involves student engagement with and knowledge about the scientific process. I also won’t appreciate my kids being taught half-assed science. So if I have to supplement my kids education or correct mistakes in it, I will do so. I know I may end up with the kid that corrects the teacher or asks tough questions, but that’s ok. And if I have to talk with a teacher about his/her classroom decisions about different topics I will. Hopefully that could be parlayed into outreach or involvement in the class, or I could come off as offensive/stubborn/interfering. But I won’t let that stop me from giving my kid a comprehensive and correct science education.

Ok…that was a lot of ranting. Here’s the “Too Long; Didn’t Read” version. The following picture is my nightmare. And if I have a kid who reacts this way, I will back him/her up (on the factual stuff, if not the behavior) and the teacher will hate me.

So today’s crush is not who you think of when you think of a traditional scientists (also, she’s actually a mathematician). My sci-crush started out as an actress and then went to school for math. Now she brings glamor to the mathematics community and works towards making math more accessible to teen and pre-teen girls.

Science Crush Friday presents:


Most popularly known as Winnie Cooper from The Wonder Years, Danica McKellar is a role model of mine. (She was also in Sidekicks, which stared my very first crush, Jonathan Brandis…cue slight embarrassment) With a mathematical background she has made it a mission to get younger girls to have confidence and succeed in math. To this end, she has written several books: Math Doesn’t Suck, Kiss My Math, and Hot X: Algebra Exposed. I would love to be able to one day write books like this with physics in mind. I just wonder if my titles can be as catchy.

Not only that, but Danica has a theory with her name on it: the Chayes–McKellar–Winn theorem! How hot and awesome is that!?

Another reason Danica McKellar is a sci-crush: just look at her! She is one smokin’ mathematician and educator. If anyone completely explodes the stereotype of what a mathematician looks like, it’s her. And for that and her outreach and education, Danica McKellar is my science crush.