kids

Down the Memory Lane: Math in K-12 Science Classes

Zinemin has a great post on understanding physics (and math) in high school.

I started writing a comment, then it got so long-winded that I decided (for once) to not hog other people’s comment threads with my verbosity, but to put it all in a post. Here’s what the comment would have been (Zinemin is a physicist, so some of the verbiage is more physicist-friendly than entirely general).

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I grew up and went to grade school and college in Europe, so my experience as a student is quite different from what I see that my kids and students experiencing.

I think I started falling in love with math sometime in primary school (we had grades 1-8 as primary school, then grades 9-12 as secondary/high school). I had a wonderful math teacher in grades 5-8 and I think that made a ton of difference. (By the way, all teaches in grades 1-4 were what would here be education majors, but to teach grades 5 and onward the teachers had to have a bachelor’s degree in the subject they were teaching.) My primary school math teacher made everything clear and I remember looking forward to practicing at home from the books of problems (we didn’t have homework in most subjects past grade 5, just collections of problems from which to work at home); I remember doing problems in algebra and proving congruence of triangles. I think this confidence that I gained in grades 5-8 never left me when it comes to math.

I started having physics as a separate subject in 6th grade. I remember one of the most appealing aspects was the fact that I got to use my beloved algebra; we did the basic mechanics stuff — motion with constant velocity or constant acceleration; ballistic motion. We must have done the concepts of force and energy, because  I remember making my dad teach me some basic trigonometry during the summer after grade 6th because I wanted to do inclined-plane problems. The physics lab was beautiful, I still remember these posters with the basic SI units, derived SI units, common prefixes. The physics teacher was excellent.

In high school I had a great math teacher throughout, and a great physics teacher in grades 11 and 12. My physics teacher in grades 9 and 10 sucked, when we covered thermodynamics and much of electromagnetism, and I still feel like I don’t know them very well. This is of course ridiculous, since thereafter I won awards in all sorts of physics competitions, I went on  to major in theoretical physics and get a PhD in a related discipline. Still, there is a faint visceral insecurity about those particular classical physics topics stemming from this wobbly initial exposure, even though I use thermodynamics and electrodynamics all the time in research and teaching.

I started loving chemistry in high school, because I had several excellent teachers who showed us what the underlying laws were and why. I even went to chemistry high school competitions (I could titer with the best of them).  During high school, I developed a deep distaste for biology because all that my two high school biology teachers ever made me do is cram and regurgitate their lectures back to them; I still occasionally have nightmares about answering questions about the nervous systems of nematodes. I never particularly cared about the nature/outdoors (the kid of the concrete jungle and all that), so all the botany stuff was lost on me. I really enjoyed what falls under basic cell biology (e.g. what different organelle do, the role of RNA). At one point, in perhaps sophomore year, we were learning about neural synapses, and based on what she taught, it seemed to me like I could think of synapses as little capacitors that can get charged of discharged; I don’t remember the details other than that I came up with this simple circuit-level model of how information travels through a network of neurons based on how I understood what she had taught and based on what I knew of electrical circuits; the teacher was very rude and dismissive, she said something about not being interested in my silly ideas and to take the stuff to the physics teacher, and that she wanted me to learn the material exactly as she had lectured. So yeah. I don’t like biology because my fee-fees were hurt. Even though intellectually I recognize the importance and difficulty of problems in biomedical sciences, something deep inside me cringes and shrivels whenever someone proposes a collaborative project that veers anywhere towards bio.

These early exposures seem to have a pronounced effect on how much confidence we gain, and confidence appears critical for later achievement. But I digress…

My Eldest is like an education experiment for me and my husband, because the system is very different from what we are used to and we have no idea what comes next. Where I went to school, the system was challenging and very good for smart kids, while average and below-average kids were left to just get bad grades or flunk and generally never do well. The US does a much better job catering to the average future citizen, presumably because the above-average ones are expected to find a way to excel anyway; they sometimes do, but they rarely do if they are poor.  (nicoleandmaggie write a lot about challenges in getting access to education for gifted kids).

In connection with Zinemin’s post, I am witnessing my Eldest in the US pre-college education system and it is appalling how little connection is made between math and any of the sciences. Eldest is a freshman in high school, and they have integrated science (won’t have physics separately till junior or senior year, and even so only as an elective). This year, so far he’s had a unit of physics here and there, but they do not use math at all. You should have seen how they covered light that we observe from different stars, and inferences about star temperature or distance from color and brightness; it made my skin crawl. The math needed for the Stefan-Boltzmann law or Wien’s displacement law is really not that hard, a high school student could understand the power emitted per unit area of what’s essentially a generalization of the heater on the stove goes as temperature to the fourth, or why the intensity decreases as inverse distance squared from a source (such as a lightbulb; or a star). But it was all very qualitative, completely hand-wavy, with vague concepts such as perceived brightness and actual brightness (no definition of either and no textbook; based on the problems assigned, I managed to decipher the two to be, respectively, the intensity of light here on Earth (power per unit area) and total power emitted from the entire surface of the star; the fact that one is called perceived brightness and one actual brightness and they don’t even have the same units makes me want to break something. Once I deciphered what was meant, I was able to help my son with the work, but you should have seen his resistance. He is very good at math and can definitely do the manipulations needed for the calculations (it was a problem with three stars and their perceived/actual brightnesses and sizes and distances from Earth, so very simple algebra was all that was needed). Eldest just didn’t understand why I would want to inflict this math on him when the science teacher didn’t do it, it wasn’t necessary, and everything could just be handwaved. This is the only physics unit I saw him have this year; he might have had more, he just didn’t need help (he has excellent grades overall). But from what he mentioned  in passing, most of the integrated science focuses on biology, a little chemistry, some geology and some astronomy, but nothing with even with a little math.

When I try to show my kid what I do for research, he zones out within 20 seconds because it is boring, and cannot understand why I would want to work on the stuff I work on because boooooring. This attitude appears common and continues into college. My undergraduate students still seem to think that they can be taught things in our physical science discipline without using math, as if math were some cruel curiosity that has no real use or connection to the concepts. It pains me when I hear this. Math is the language of nature and the fact that we can speak it is nothing short of miraculous.

Growing Pains

Parents of grown children always say that you’re supposed to enjoy the period when the kids are little, and that the teenage years are much harder. As all new parents, I thought my experience would somehow be different. I just knew my kids’ infant years were the hardest ever, and that I would do such a good job with raising my kids that the teenage years would be a breeze, because my offspring would be the best teens in the history of adolescence.

Eldest is a freshman in high school. He is smart and funny and kind; he’s the kindest person I know. But even if you have the world’s best teen, which I am pretty sure I have, those parents of grown children are still right. Why? Because, while your kid may be responsible, with a good head on their shoulders, not prone to imprudent activities that lead to physical danger, and channeling their energy into productive outlets, you as a parent cannot (and should not) protect them from coming-of-age pains.

When kids are little, there’s Tylenol and bandaid and kisses for small cuts and scraped knees. But there’s no pill or patch for disappointment or rejection. You give them space and offer support, try to be there when they need you. Intellectually, you know that’s all part of growing up, but it is very hard to watch your kid in pain and be unable to make it go away.

Whose Traits Are Your Traits?

You have your dad’s nose, or your mom’s eyes, or your uncle’s chin. You have your grandmother’s stubbornness or your grandfather’s love for the outdoors.

As you grow up, it seems paramount to the adults around you to pinpoint who exactly gave you which trait. I am not so sure that’s a very good idea.

For instance, my Eldest looks very much like my DH and has DH’s mild temperament and kind nature (or maybe it’s my dad’s laid-back attitude? ), but has the same sense of humor and affinity for idiotic puns as me.

My middle son is the spitting image of my sister and mother (who look very much like each other); he looks more like my sister than he does like me. He also has a lot of my sister’s personality traits. Or maybe they are my brother-in-law’s (DH’s brother’s) traits?

While I am OK with saying who got whose nose, because you have very little control over the shape of your nose (barring injury or surgery, of course), I am not so sure about any personality traits. Because let’s face it, that’s bullshit. It’s harmful and it pigeonholes the kids.

I have been thinking recently about all the information I received growing up. I am considered a daddy’s girl: I have a lot of my father’s characteristics, which really did not help my relationship with my mother because she spent a lot of time not liking him very much, and “You’re just like your father” was often used as an insult from mother to me.  My dad remains one of the most intelligent people I have ever met. I got my dad’s brains, sort of, his ability to do advanced math and physics, but also I got his skills for drawing and a much milder version of his ability to write. I also got his inability to sing and got his mother’s looks, which are much inferior to my mother’s family’s looks (that was communicated loudly and clearly). My father, however, was never particularly ambitious. So I must have gotten my ambition from my mother, who, granted, is a giant pain in the butt. You think I am intense? My mother is a freakin’ typhoon.

Anyway, at some point I realized that what this insistence has left me with is feeling that I have no good traits that are mine, just largely faint copies of my father’s; he, of course, was the original.  I know I am smart, but not as smart as dad (he was one of the early programmers in COBOL in the 70’s); I can sort of write, but not as well as dad, who is a published  writer in our native language; I can sort of draw, but not as well as dad, who I think had some cartoons published at some point in some satirical magazine. I think the only trait that I believe is mine is courage in the face of new experiences, because  neither my mother nor my father ever had the guts to emigrate when they could, as neither was able to cut the cord with extended family.

Nearly every other trait my father had first, and had it better.

Of course, this is all crap. I am objectively more successful than him in every way, professionally, personally, financially. But it is very hard to internalize that my personality traits are my own, not just some genetic hand-me-downs, in bulk, from their one true owner.

Maybe my middle boy has my sister’s nose, but he does NOT have her personality. His personality is his own.

Midlife Not-Crisis, Caffeinated

On the way to get my afternoon caffeine fix, I passed by a large bulletin board and noticed a flyer for a public lecture, sponsored by a local atheist, agnostics, and humanist group. The lecture will discuss how people who are not religious find meaning in life. The speaker is someone who was formerly a minister or a pastor (no idea what the difference is or when it applies).

First of all, coffee is the meaning of life. End of story.

After having paid $2 for a meaning-of-life infusion, I thought more about the flyer on my way back to the office.

I had the good fortune to grow up in a loving family, which was not religious. My husband’s family wasn’t either. My grandmother was nominally religious, which meant we celebrated Christmas and Easter at home, and they were fun occasions to get together with extended family and eat a lot. There was minimal, if any, religious aspect to these celebrations and we never went to church. All the core values I possess come from my family. What I see in the US, that so many people equate morals with religion, is completely mind-boggling to me.

Midlife is a very interesting period, which perhaps you wouldn’t think considering that it really is the age of plateauing. While in your youth you climb the hills of education, ambition, and romance , trying to achieve professionally and personally, the growth slows down for most people in early middle age. You see the panorama, with many obstacles now behind you; you see, fortunately or not, that there are likely no more big, exhilarating firsts in your future any more, not in the way in which the youth was replete with them.

But middle age brings a visceral grasp of what’s important in life. Here’s what it is for me.

  • My immediate family, and enjoying my kids as much as I can while they are still in our home.
  • Intellectual challenge, fulfilling the need to think and learn and brainstorm and discover.
  • The people who need my help, one way or another, for some amount of time (my undergraduate and graduate students).
  • Taking care of the body that is in good working shape right now, but alas won’t be forever.
  • Reconnecting with my roots: Rediscovering things that gave me great joy when I was young, like drawing. Dusting off a foreign language I used to speak. Pretending to write, like I do in this space. Finding ways to reconnect with a family that is very far away and very expensive to see regularly.

While this is not a hierarchy, the people I love are by far the most important. Now, that does NOT mean that I should quit my job to spend every waking hour with my kids while they are still little (although I occasionally wish I could somehow bottle the moments of their cuteness and preciousness forever, as SMBC nicely captures). But part of love is letting people live their lives unsmothered. The kids are their own people, with their own abilities, interests,  and friends; it is a privilege  to be able to be there and love them and be loved by them as they are growing up. You don’t have to sacrifice ambition and leave your job for the kids, that’s not what the kids need from you or what they ask of you. Kids need love and care, but they also need space. And they are perfectly capable of understanding that they are loved deeply and profoundly, but that the world does not revolve around them even if they are the center of the parents’ universe, and that other people have jobs and obligations that they have to fulfill… But I digress.

So how do people who are not religious find meaning?  A while ago I saw a documentary, and a woman in it said something that stayed with me. “Happiness comes from the experiences we share with the people we love.” Mano Singham, one of my favorite bloggers on Freethoughtblogs, says nicely in the linked post that precisely the fact that you have just one finite life is what makes all of it so special. To me, the meaning is about doing the best you can for the people around you and connecting with the wider world in ways that you feel are authentic; to me, it’s through doing science and other creative pursuits. And drinking as much coffee as humanly possible.

 

 

 

Xykademiqz Drowns in Swimming

A few weeks ago I posted on my disorienting foray into the Twilight Zone world of high-school athletics at Eldest’s new school.

It’s all very macho. The swim team recently went on a dads-and-boys daylong canoeing trip; some dads went, but DH didn’t go. (By the way, it’s not even clear that the kid will make the team as they haven’t had the tryouts yet, but everyone who showed interest was supposed to partake in these bonding experiences.) There was canoeing and apparently eating tons of burgers/hot dogs, with a side of hazing of the freshmen. Nothing  too nefarious: older boys stole the freshmen’s canoes, tipped them out into the water, later filled canoes with sand or water or mud or something, but I found my gut tighten as I was listening to my kid tell me about the day. Apparently, this is all common manly bonding Scheisse, and if movies are anything like the real stuff, fraternity hazing is infinitely worse. Being the gentle, kind-hearted mom that I am, I found myself wanting to punch someone’s lights out. I think I am way too high-strung, protective, and just socially anxious to survive my kids going to high school. And I really hope none of my kids attempt to join any fraternities.

But the boys’ high school swim season doesn’t start until the winter. In the meantime, Eldest has been swimming at a local club.

Freakin’ swimming has taken over my family’s life.

During the first week of September, they still wanted to swim outside, starting at 4:15 daily. So DH or I had to leave work early, pick up Eldest after school at 3:40ish then drive him to the pool, then organize the pickup of other two and go get him again two hours later. There are older boys who drive, but for younger boys apparently there will always be a parent available to chauffeur — because we’re in the 1950’s and women don’t work.

After the first two weeks things got better. They swim in a different pool every day, but at least it’s in the evening.

Here’s the kicker: at every home meet, parent volunteering is mandatory. That’s alright, take all the time you need to let the giant italicized oxymoron sink in.

I don’t want to volunteer. I work all the time and the weekends are the only time I get to spend with my kids, my husband, my vacuum cleaner, and my washer and dryer. That’s when I do grocery shopping and cooking for much of the week. Our weekends are the time to do chores and relax a little so we’d have the energy for the week.

I know there are people (unfortunately, mostly women) who don’t work or who work part time, and who are able and willing to volunteer at these events. I am not one of them and I detest the fact that so much depends on women’s unpaid work. And I hate it even more that I am expected to put in such unpaid work myself.

I am already paying good money so my kid would swim. I am paying extra for the equipment, team apparel and each meet. I will pay more if they need me to, but I DO. NOT. WANT. TO VOLUNTEER because what I do NOT have is time.

I played a team sport in middle and high school, I don’t think my mom ever came to see me play and dad came occasionally. That suited me just fine because it was MY activity, not theirs. I don’t understand this need for incessant involvement in everything kids do. Mandating parental involvement is just maddening. So I asked if I can buy my way out of volunteering; if not, I guess we won’t be signing the kid up for home meets, or may have to switch clubs.