This is Your Brain On Awesome Thoughts on the world from a student of the mind


Ten things you need to know about science

One of the most powerful trends of the last hundred years has been the increasing amount of "science" that exists in our classrooms.  Compared with centuries ago, our students are learning more about the empirical method and the natural world than ever before.

And yet, these fields are still held to a different standard than the old, established disciplines of literature or art or philosophy.  This is perhaps best-personified in the kinds of information that are considered to be "essential" to a well-rounded education.  It's rare to find someone who hasn't been taught the basics of Shakespeare, yet quite common to meet a college student with no idea of how basic physics works.

Perhaps one reason for this is that scientists haven't made clear what are the most important things to know.  When you look at such a diverse field, it can become difficult to figure out what facts are "essential" and which are best left to those with a strong interest.  To that extent, here is an interesting article that tries to detail the "essentials" in an attempt to provide a foundation upon which non-scientists can build their knowledge.

For those who just want a quick glimpse at what they came up with, here's the short list:

  1. Evolution
  2. Genes and DNA
  3. Big bang
  4. Relativity
  5. Quantum mechanics
  6. Radiation
  7. Atoms and nuclear reactions
  8. Molecules and chemical reactions
  9. Digital data
  10. Statistical significance

I don't agree with all of their choices on the list (not that they aren't important, I just wish they had included a basic understanding of the brain in their list, given the large number of misleading and "pop" articles on neuroscience), but it's certainly a good start.

Hopefully, the future will bring with it a culture in which it is just as shameful to be ignorant of Mendeleev as it is to be unversed in Steinbeck, where a knowledge of classics includes a knowledge of classical physics.  A well-read mind is a powerful one indeed, let's make sure we keep such an idea up-to-date.

The Financial Times article


Now this is how you show statistics

So this isn't technically about science, although it's about a field that is of extreme importance to science: statistics!  I feel like stats is one of those fields that is, upon first glance, incredibly boring...however, if you spend the time to delve in a bit deeper and figure out the many things that stats can tell you, it becomes fascinating.

And thank god that there are people like Hans Rosling around to do just that.  You may have seen a number of his TED talks in which he uses historical data to illustrate the history of the world with beautiful clarity.  Well, he's got another video out, and it's a doozy.  It comes from BBC Fours special program "The Joy of Stats" in which Professor Rosling takes us on a statistical tour that covers all kinds of different topics.

One of the coolest thing about stats (and number crunching in general) is that they allow you to reveal hidden patterns within seemingly random and jumbled data.  The more you look at the world, the more you realize that it tends to be both predictable and noisy at the same time.  Statistics are a way for us to make sense of this ambiguous universe, sketching out the underlying rules behind a seemingly uninterpretable world.

It is rare these days to find a person who is knowledgeable and engaging enough to get people excited about stats, but take a look at the above video and you may find yourself a convert!

via BBC Four


Textbook madness!

It's been a while since I've posted...I've been busy settling into the Bay Area and gettin my research on!

Anyways, here's an article that I'd hope any district supervisor or educational policy board would read.  It comes from a gentleman named Tamim Ansary, who's been working as an editor for textbook publishers for many years.

As if you didn't guess, his opinion of the textbook industry is less than a glowing expression of appreciation.  He makes a lot of really interesting points about why it's so difficult to make a "good" textbook, and explains some quirks of the textbook market that sort-of put things into perspective in terms of what forces are shaping the market.

Take a look at this article, and think about what you might be able to do to help push our school system in a better direction.  Certainly, ineffective textbooks aren't the only thing putting a damper on education, but as the foundation for many of our curriculum, they'd be a great place to start.

via Edutopia


A scientific approach to learning

Obvious though it may seem, we have a long way to go before we can say that our theories about learning and teaching are grounded in any kind of empirical science.  Currently predominating much of our academic pursuits are a mishmash of "tried-and-true" methods that have been passed down over the years, loosely held together with anecdotal evidence and folk-scientific theories.

Now, that's not to say that all of that is necessarily wrong, but if we're going to make a statement about the best way to teach others, let's try and be thorough and meticulous in making sure that it actually works.

Such was the topic of an article that recently appeared in the New York Times.  In it, the authors cite a growing body of research that may lie counter to what has traditionally been held as good study habits.  Certainly, a lot of it provides solid evidence for things we already know (like breaking your studies up into shorter, more frequent sessions is more helpful than cramming), but there were a few curveballs in there as well.

One in particular that I found interesting was the context and manner in which people study.  A long-held tenet of good study habits is that you need a quiet, isolated location to get your work done so that you can concentrate fully on the task at hand.

Interestingly, researchers have found that the opposite may be true.  While concentration is certainly necessary to study well, learning information in a variety of contexts with various kinds of external stimulation might be a better way to learn.  This is likely due to the fact that your brain naturally associates all kinds of daily experiences with one another, and by pairing information with a number of different settings, you are increasing its presence in the memory of your day to day life.

Another new method comes in the form of breaking up the topics that you study in one period.  While many scholars have stressed that learning is best accomplished through total immersion in a subject, research suggests that switching between different (but somewhat related) subjects leads to greater overall recall and performance.

While such tidbits of knowledge don't necessarily call for a total restructuring of our educational system, I think that it's very important that educational policymakers and teachers pay close attention to what science is able to come up with when it comes to teaching others.  It may not have the wisdom of centuries being passed down through the generations, but it's just as important.

via The New York Times


Bard College just got my attention…

In an age when it seems that schools and universities are cutting important programs across the board, it's good to see an example of a useful course of study actually being created.

Incoming freshman at Bard College, a liberal arts school in New York, will be required to take a "Citizen Science" program during their first years.  Such a course will entail learning about the scientific method, covering modern issues in science, and understanding how empiricism and a scientific approach to the world can be applied to all kinds of life's problems.

This sounds like a pretty awesome program, and assuming that they pull it off well, hopefully it will inspire many more colleges to do the same.  One of the things that I love about science is the extent to which it connects lots of different aspects of life that seemingly have nothing to do with research or academics.

By having a solid understanding of logic, the use (and misuse) of data, and basic statistics, students of all academic approaches will learn to make better decisions and separate the legitimate claims that people make from the utter nonsense that is often thrown around the media.  Teaching these basic principles (and others involved in the scientific method) to students outside of the scientific disciplines is a great step towards more well-rounded students and will help bridge the gap between the scientific community and the general public.  Bravo, Bard College!