Tuesday, March 31, 2015

A First-Grade Class Considers Tiktaalak

by Edward Hessler

When I first watched University of Chicago paleontologist Neil Shubin visiting his daughter's first-grade class, the physical setting reminded me of David Hawkins’s description of an ideal science classroom. He described it as classroom-laboratory-library-atelier. And Hawkins was also arguing for the importance of early science (today STEM) experiences.

The discovery of the fossil,Tiktaalik roseae is certainly one of the most exciting recent finds. This transitional fossil shares features with its fish ancestors and features that are recognizably amphibian. For these reasons, Tiktaalik roseae is commonly referred to as "fishapod."

Neil Shubin, one of the co-discoverers, brought the fossil to his daughter's first-grade class, and a record of the lesson may be seen in Shubin's video of the experience, Young Students Recognize a Transitional Fossil. The introductions, daughter of her father and father of his daughter, are a delight.

The result is simply lovely. Young minds and hands at work. Engaged in scientific reasoning. Using evidence. And Shubin is very effective at helping them think about what they see and then what to make of it. He is a warm, interested, friendly, and responsive teacher.

In It's a Fishapod, biologist Sean Carroll provides the details about the discovery and its meaning.

Hawkins's essay, Nature Closely Observed, was published in Daedalus (112 (2) 1983). The link is behind a firewall. If you have access to JSTOR it can be viewed on-line. It is still worth re-reading, so next time you are on a college/university campus, it should be in the library, or ask a local/school librarian to get it for you.

One experience — a lesson and or classroom visit by an expert — does not a concept or scientific process make, but it is a beginning and also, in this case, age/developmentally appropriate. It is also about collecting data (observational) and using that evidence to reason about these data.

Support for introducing the concept of common ancestry to young learners may be found in several documents on science standards: Minnesota Academic Standards--Science, the Next Generation Science Standards and the Framework for Science Education.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Re-discovered Waterways: the Canals of Great Britain


By John Shepard

A week navigating a classic narrowboat along the Llangollen Canal in western England and northern Wales is time travel. The destination: an extraordinary moment in the history of western civilization’s relationship with its water resources—a sliver in time that, if largely forgotten in North America, is being wholeheartedly celebrated in the United Kingdom. 

Wedged between the birth of the industrial revolution and the rise of the railroad, the period when canals ruled the land didn’t last very long. But in the United States, between 1816 and 1840 more than 3,300 miles of canals were built east of the Mississippi River. In the U.K., where early canals for irrigation and a few for transportation date to Roman times, an incredible 4,800-plus miles of canals were built between 1760 and 1850. Industrial canal systems also grew like arteries across the European continent during this period.  

These canal networks represented one of early industrial society’s great efforts to control surface waters in service to human enterprise. The canal craze was fueled by the need to transport cheaply and safely resources required for manufacturing as well as the goods produced by newly mechanized industries. As inadequate road networks were in their infancy, a solution evolved from river navigation (rivers being the first true highways) by channeling water through networks of constructed canals. The canals sometimes paralleled rivers to take advantage of their relatively gentle gradients, but offered more controlled and consistent navigation conditions than did free-flowing streams. Also, engineering advances made during the 1700s that gave rise to tunnels, locks, dams, aqueducts, and reservoirs enabled builders to overcome major barriers thrown up by the landscape. 

The U.K.’s canals, which were mostly financed by industrialists, were key to the country's preeminent industrial power during Queen Victoria’s reign. Britain's colonial empire was, in turn, funded by this industrial wealth. In the U.S., states and eventually the federal government joined private companies in building canals that connected the eastern seaboard with the vast interior, a critical step for economic growth and westward expansion.

Piloting the Isadora—our 7’ wide, 52’ long rented narrowboat with two staterooms—felt like navigating a giant pencil. Throughout our 43-mile journey, the winding channel was often barely wider than our 15-ton, diesel-powered vessel. We meandered through rolling English farmlands and followed the contours of Welsh valleys to eventually parallel the River Dee until we reached the canal’s source just upstream of the idyllic highland town of Llangollen. A tow path, harking back to the canal’s earliest days when boats were pulled by horses (and today popular with cyclists, strollers and dog-walkers), was a constant companion. Steering our cozy houseboat by a tiller at the helm demanded vigilance through blind turns and one-way-only passages beneath dozens of graceful stone-arched bridges. We encountered about 30 narrowboats daily, despite it being off-peak September; testament to the growing popularity of recreational canal boating along the 2,000 miles of navigable canals and waterways in the U.K. today, all of which are managed by the Canal and River Trust. Some narrowboats, with their roof-top container gardens, wood stoves, and solar panels, were clearly long-term, off-the-grid residences.

Crossing the Pontcysyllite Aqueduct.
We also negotiated two of the Llangollen’s hand-operated locks, two lengthy tunnels, and two magnificent aqueducts, including the longest and highest aqueduct in Britain, the World Heritage Pontcysyllite Aqueduct. Completed in 1805, its 1,000-foot span across the River Dee valley cradles the canal's water in an iron trough beside a tow path, both of which rest atop a series of graceful iron arches and stone pillars. 

The lack of a railing on the canal-side of the aqueduct gave the helm an unobstructed, dizzying view of the valley floor 125 feet below. Keeping a grip on the tiller, puttering along at less than five miles-per-hour (top speed for a narrowboat), it was the perfect place to marvel at the ingenuity embodied by a human-made river that traverses the sky as well as the land. 

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Mississippi River Institute Monday, July 28: Mississippi River Boat Trip & Forest Inquiry

July 28, 2014 - Day One

by Steven Beardsley

Opening Activity

Today marked day one of the 2014 Mississippi River Institute. Participants showed up bright and early to start off a three-day experience focused on inquiry and professional development. We began the day with instructor introductions and a fun ice-breaker activity that focused on building the skill of observation. In the activity, participants paired up and guessed three things that their partner changed about their outward appearance. This activity sparked off what we would be doing later in the day, making observations while on the boat using four of our five senses (smell, touch, sight, and hearing).

Over 70 Teachers on the First Day

Magnolia Blossom Boat Trip
Lyndon points out various phenomena as we travel down the river
We spent the first half of the day on the boat Magnolia Blossom, listening to park ranger Lyndon Torstenson from the National Park Service talk about the history of the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers. The boat cruise was filled with a variety of people fishing along the river edges, some people on motor boats, and others walking along the sandbars. We spotted a couple of great blue herons and, more notably, a couple of bald eagles and bald eagle nests. The boat trip revealed a great deal about how humans have impacted the river through locks, dams, and bridges. We learned that the creation of the Twin Cities, Minneapolis and Saint Paul, is linked to the history of the river. Minneapolis became the milling capital of the country by harnessing the power of nearby waterfalls, while Saint Paul became a port city for ships traveling down the river. Overall, the journey engaged our senses and allowed us to raise questions about certain phenomenon like -- why are there more bald eagles and great blue herons out now as opposed to years before?

Directed Inquiry
David explains Forest Inquiry and Question
The second half of our day was spent doing "directed inquiry." In this part we divided into two groups, one led by David, Karl, Sam, and Maria; and the other led by Sil and Ed. The former was a forest inquiry designed to gather data about the local ecosystem through a transect line that ran 100 meters from the river. The latter involved analyzing the water cycle in the trees. I participated in the transect line activity where we were given the question: “How does the forest ecosystem change as you move away (perpendicular) from the river?” My group tried answering this question by identifying various trees along different 10 meter markers from the river while calculating size by determining the diameter at breast height. We compared our results in the end, leading to further questions and ideas about how to use the activity in the classroom.



Concluding Thoughts

Results from various groups
The first day involved a beautiful boat trip down the Mississippi River and research within the flood plain forest. I learned a great deal about the importance of experiencing the Mississippi River first-hand before engaging in directed inquiry. It’s important to have a big picture understanding of the area before investing time in a particular research topic. I like to think of it as getting a chance to enjoy nature and feeling inclined to learn more about it and the various processes at work. Working together to answer and come up with questions is even more enjoyable with that common experience and makes the learning all the more satisfying. 

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Science in the State of the Union


by Edward Hessler

National Science Education Standards of 1993
Educators, especially those in K-12, may recognize the name National Research Council, which, in 1996, published the second of two sets of science education standards. Because the covers of the National Science Education Standards were a burnished gold, the publications were sometimes referred to as "the golden rule." The very first set of national standards was published by the American Association of Science's Project 2061 in 1993. The name was a reference to the year of Comet Halley's return, a reminder of the time required for genuine reform in science education.

By JonRidinger (Own work)
[CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)],
via Wikimedia Commons
The National Science Education Standards and the Project 2061 benchmarks were replaced in April 2013 by the Next Generation Science Standards: For States By States. I really appreciate the coda following the main title since it calls attention to the considerable involvement of science educators across the United States. Twenty-six states and their representative teams worked with a 41-member writing team to develop and see them through to completion. A Minnesotan was a member of that writing team.

Next Generation Science Standards 2013
The Next Generation Science Standards are based on a National Research Council publication, A Framework for Science Education. It is worth reading and having on-hand as a resource. The Committee on a Conceptual Framework for New K-12 Science Education Standards was chaired by theoretical physicist Helen Quinn, best known for her work with Roberto Peccei on the strong force. Now retired, you can read a little more about her in the blog Grandma got STEM.

All of these efforts at setting standards have aimed to focus on a limited set of core ideas and practices rather than coverage of content. Think of it as uncovering rather than covering. The framework, consisting of three dimensions, broadly outlines the knowledge and practices (replaces terms such as skills/inquiry/scientific inquiry) that all students should learn by the end of high school.

It is important for all to have some knowledge of basic scientific facts, concepts, and vocabulary. These help us as citizens to understand legislation which has science content, analyze science in the news and participate in discussions on science-related issues, personal and social. An understanding of how ideas are investigated and analyzed is at least of equal importance, perhaps more.

Scientific Literacy in the State of the Union
An example of the value and use of scientific literacy may be found in the annual State of the Union address by the president of the United States to the joint-session of the U. S. Congress.  For several years the National Academies have published a scientific guide to these addresses. This year's may be found in the NAP Guide to the 2015 State of the Union Address.

See page for author [Public domain],
via Wikimedia Commons
The National Academies--science, engineering, medicine, and research council--are described as "where the nation turns for independent, expert advice."  These academies, through the National Research Council, produce reports that are used in shaping policy and informing citizens. President Abraham Lincoln signed a congressional charter in 1863 forming the National Academy of Sciences to "investigate, examine, experiment and report on any subject of science." As science grew in importance, the other arms of the academy were added to its charter and all were subsumed under the National Academies title.

Science is well-rooted in our history. The framers of the Constitution of the United States wrote that the federal government had the duty "To promote the Progress of Science and the Useful Arts." When those words were written in the 18th century, agriculture was regarded as the most important of the "Useful Arts." President Thomas Jefferson's instructions to Meriwether Lewis provide early evidence of this duty. (These are the words of a scientifically literate citizen of the Enlightenment, and evidence, too, of Jefferson's keen knowledge of the natural world.)

2015 Review of the State of the Union Address on Science for students
Pete Souza [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
A review of the 2015 annotated State of the Union address which relies on published National Research Council reports, shows the deep interpenetration of science and society and may provide students with an idea of some of the paths one may pursue in science, engineering. and medicine.

Still, there is the so-called dismal science, economics, which reminds me, perhaps not loudly enough, that policy is decided, in the end, not by science, which provides the best information possible at the time, but by the values of policy-makers and us. A few weeks ago, Justin Wolfers, in a fascinating column in The Upshot (New York Times), wrote about the triumph of economics over other social disciplines in congressional policy debates.

Wolfers chose as a metric, first noting its basic softness, the use of newspaper mentions.  He was able to do this through the use of a great tool--the NYT Chronicle--which you may access in his column. It takes you to a page with a graph where you can enter science or engineering or medicine or technology etc. and view mentions from 1850 to 2010 and compare and contrast the results.  Each line in the resulting graph is color-coded to the word labels above the graph.