Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

My last post ” The Journey Inward” was based on a passage from Pico Iyer’s book ” The Art of Stillness”. Iyer’s book was a TED publication, and it surprised me to know that TED is more just than short talks. Apparently, some of the talks have companion books which, like the talks, are short and pithy and meant to be read at one sitting. The Art of Stillness is a pocket-sized book, only 64 pages long, actually even shorter when you consider that it has several atmospheric photographs of sunrises and desolate Icelandic landscapes. It can be read in 45 minutes to an hour.

After I read the book, I discovered it was an extended version of Iyer’s TED talk, so I went to YouTube and listened to the talk.I enjoyed it, perhaps a little more than the book. Iyer is a fluent speaker and I admired his presentation and the way he seemed to use just the right word every time. The book was more detailed but not as seamless.

Afterwards, I got to musing about the ways in which we absorb information. It seems to me that we are moving away from reading  and towards watching videos. Perhaps it is only to be expected since so many of us are gravitating towards watching TV in lieu of reading books or magazines or newspapers. We get our news from TV , we watch sports on TV  and even the online newspapers we dip into have an ever-increasing amount of video content. In education, the runaway success of the Khan Academy is an illustration of this trend; MOOCS and online college courses are another. In my library, too, I see increasing amounts of shelf space given over to videos at the expense of books.

There is nothing wrong with getting information from videos and, in any case, it is impossible to arrest the relentless march of technology. If people feel they can assimilate better by watching a video , they will do so. However, when they do this exclusively or when they stop reading I feel it takes away from their critical thinking ability,and their writing skills. Videos are fine for quick assimilation of basic skills and information but there is a tendency among viewers to accept what they see as gospel. For more complicated subjects, the printed word is a must. Reading slows down the process of assimilation but, in doing so, it also makes the reader think more deeply, more critically. In addition, the reader subconsciously learns to appreciate good writing and to incorporate what he learns into his own writing… if he is a thoughtful reader, that is.

When I was still working, ten , fifteen, twenty years ago I was struck by the poor quality of the memos I came across daily. These memos were written by people whose mother tongue was English, almost all of them college graduates. It was sad to note how the writers, who were perfectly competent in their professional capacity, could not compose even a short paragraph without mistakes in grammar as well as composition. In the years since then, the standard of writing has fallen, if anything. People in this country are very good at expressing themselves verbally, but in writing …unfortunately, no.

I had thought that the fault lay in our education system where the quality of instruction leaves much to be desired, particularly in the subjects of math and science. The teaching of English is better but not by much. That is a whole different subject and I don’t want to get into it here. What I’ve come to realize is the pernicious effect of watching videos instead of reading. Just as calculators and computers have eroded math skills, TV and the social media are harming the way our youngsters think and write.

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In” My Daughter’s Homework is Killing Me”, a recent article in Atlantic Monthly, Karl Taro Greenfield writes about his daughter’s struggles with homework. Greenfield’s daughter Esmee is an eighth grader at a selective public school in Manhattan and routinely slogs through four hours of homework every weeknight. Weekends do not bring much respite as the homework assignments continue unabated. In order to cope with the workload, Esmee’s mantra is ” Memorization, not Rationalization”. In other words, she relies on memorizing because there is not enough time to understand the material. Even so, Greenfield writes that Esmee sometimes goes to bed around midnight, pretends to sleep, then secretly gets up to study for another hour or two, No wonder she sometimes trudges off to school , exhausted and teary-eyed.

Reading Greenfield’s article reminded me of the time my own children were in middle school more than twenty years ago. My son too was a very conscientious student , just like Esmee, and it was a rare night that he went to bed before we did. I remember one night he was still beavering away at 1:30 AM and I ordered him to get some sleep and upset him no end. Finally , we struck a deal ; he agreed to knock off at 2 AM  after another half hour of work. 

My son turned out all right and I’ve no doubt that Esmee will too but … is this the sort of school experience we want to subject our children to ? Greenfield likens their workload to that of an office-goer who works all day and then has to put in another four hours of work at home. Can someone who has to keep to such a grueling schedule retain a love for learning ? I think not and it is no surprise that even good students do not look back fondly on their schooldays.

Why is it that our children are assigned so much homework? And why is it that some parents would be happy if the homework load was further increased? Greenfield ties it to the perception that our kids are falling behind in comparison to East Asian kids, kids from South Korea, japan , Singapore etc. That and the parents’ idee’ fixee that more homework will lead to better grasp of the subject and better grades. Unfortunately, they couldn’t be more off base. Beyond a certain level, more homework only causes resentment and boredom. Worse, it forces students to memorize rather than understand ; it’s the very opposite of what one would want. In my opinion, rote learning is good only at the elementary school level particularly when it comes to things like the multiplication tables. That is why I feel Kumon classes are good for younger students but not afterwards when they have developed good study habits.

This is what I feel about the homework our students are assigned:

1.The biggest problem is that each teacher assigns homework as if he is the only one doing it. The math teacher doesn’t seem to realize that his students also get homework assignments from the Science teacher, the English teacher, the French/Spanish teacher, the history teacher and so on. It is the cumulative workload that is staggering.
2.Subliminally, teachers seem to have bought into the idea that homework is good but more homework is better. As I’ve already said this is a fallacy. Studies show that there is no correlation between the amount of homework and student performance. I wish teachers would give more meaningful homework but less of it. In other words, HW that actually reinforces the precepts that you are trying to convey.
3. Teachers seem to have forgotten what it was like when they were kids in school. I work with some kids( mostly high achievers) and some of the homework assignments are difficult beyond belief. In math, for instance, students are asked to calculate the areas of irregular figures some with dimensions like 14-11/32 and 9-3/8 Yes, students should be comfortable with fractions but is n’t this a bit too much. In English Lit, teachers sometimes miss the forest for the trees. In discussing Kurt Vonnegut’s stories, students are quizzed on post modernism, meiosis( bet you don’t know what that means!, I didn’t) and the like but they are not told what the title of the short story ” Tom Edison’s Shaggy Dog Story” means. Literature is dissected and analyzed to death and , as a consequence, students do not develop a love of reading. I asked one student what she read for pleasure and she said ” Nothing. I don’t have the time.”
4.( Some/ many)Teachers speak from both sides of their mouth. They decry the lack of parent involvement but when parents do take an interest in their children’s schoolwork, they are blown off. When Greenfield brought up the issue of homework with his daughter’s teachers, they were unsympathetic , to say the least. They either acted as if they had no control over it or said that she needed to be better with her time management skills. One even suggested that if she was having difficulty keeping up she should go to a remedial class.

I can’t help feeling that all this homework and testing ( two midterms every term!) and discussion groups ( which the teacher observes but does not participate in ) are convenient ways of getting out of doing actual teaching. What I would like to see is
a) less but more meaningful homework.
b) more time spent in class actually teaching the material
c) more empathy from the teachers. Less insistence on rules (Greenfield writes about his daughter getting a C even though all her answers were correct; her crime, not writing them down in a segregated column on the right hand side of the page).

US college education is reckoned the best in the world but school education leaves a lot to be desired. The blame for our students falling behind the kids of other countries usually falls on our kids( lazy, unmotivated) and their parents ( uninvolved) but some of it should also be assigned to teachers and the education system.

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( I can write about this subject with some authority because I have taken a keen interest in the SAT ever since my own children were preparing for it. For almost two decades, I have been helping students with the test and advising them about college admissions).

Earlier this month, the College Board announced long-awaited changes to the SAT.The new format SAT will debut in 2016 and the changes, which are wide-ranging, are mostly for the better. Here is a summary of the major changes:

_ The test will revert to the 1600-point scale. Instead of three areas of testing ( Math, Reading Comprehension and Writing each worth 800 points, for a total of 2,400 ), the revised format will test candidates in Math and ” Evidence based Reading”, 800 points each, total 1,600).

_ Math questions will test students on linear equations, complex equations or functions, ratios and proportional reasoning. Calculators will be allowed for only part of the test.

_ The emphasis of the test will be to reinforce basic skills in math and reading and make it more relevant to the skills needed in college. For instance, evidence based reading will require students to not just select the right answer but to justify it by choosing the quotation from the text that gives the best supporting evidence for their answer. The source document will have to be analyzed for evidence reasoning, persuasive or stylistic techniques. At least one reading passage will be from the nation’s founding documents or discussions of such texts.

_ The test will be available on paper as well as online.

_ The essay will be optional.

_ There will be no penalty for wrong answers.( At present, a quarter point is deducted for each wrong answer).

_ Low income students will receive fee waivers so that they can take the test and apply to up to 4 colleges at no cost. The College Board is also partnering with the Khan Academy to provide free online practice problems and instructional videos on how to solve them.

My first reaction on reading about the decision to change the SAT format was ” What took you so long ?” Anyone who is familiar with the SAT will agree that some of the questions, particularly in the sentence completions and reading comprehension passages were unfair, seemingly designed to trip up the student than to measure basic skills. Sometimes it felt as if the preparers were showing off their own knowledge, by including little used words like ” arcane” or British-English words like ” treacly” or “purveyor”. Not one in 50 American adults know the meaning of these words. What chance does a high school junior have? I’m glad the new SAT will focus on words and language skills that the student is likely to need in college and in real life.

The introduction of ” Evidence based reading” is also to the good because it focuses on the interpretation of reading material and why a particular answer choice is correct. In the current reading passages, some of the correct answer choices are subjective or else too difficult to arrive at in a limited amount of time.

I have mixed feelings about the deletion of the multiple choice writing sections. On the one hand, most high schoolers have very poor grammar and this section at least forced them to study it. On the other hand, most colleges seem to disregard the writing scores and consider only the Math & Reading scores when reviewing college applications. That being the case, there was really no point to retaining the Writing sections.

Making the essay optional is also a good idea. In the present format, the essay was the first section in the test and the many students who are not good at writing got off to a bad start which affected their performance in the rest of the test. Essay writing however is a good indicator of critical thinking and organizational skills which are central to doing well in college.By making the essay optional rather than dispensing with it entirely, the new test will give a chance to better students to showcase these skills. I hope , however, that future essay prompts will be easier; some of the present ones are unfairly difficult and would flummox even college graduates.

In the math section, dropping geometry questions and instead emphasizing arithmetic and algebra is a good idea. Except for those who intend to major in science and engineering in college, students have no further use for geometry. Algebra , on the other hand, requires logic skills and is a good indicator of college success. I also applaud the restriction on the use of calculators which will now be allowed only for part of the test. Many students are far too dependent on calculators and this inhibits their fundamental mathematical skills. Perhaps this new requirement is the first step in weaning them away from the use of calculators.

The attempt to make the test affordable for low-income students is laudable and the partnering with the Khan Academy in this endeavor is a stroke of genius. It should be a boon for motivated low-income students.

While the College Board may genuinely have been motivated by a desire to make the test more relevant, there is no doubt that they also had one other incentive to do so – the growing popularity of the ACT. For the first time last year more students took the ACT than took the SAT. The ACT was more popular with students because they felt it was easier and because they did not like the SAT deducting 1/4 of a point for wrong answers. ( That explains why the SAT is dropping that requirement). In my opinion, The math in the ACT is slightly easier but the reading sections has its own pitfalls. I do not feel the ACT is ” superior” or that it is a better measure of basic skills but that is another story and will not be discussed in this post.

Overall, the changes to the SAT are for the better. My one worry is that , in trying to make the SAT more popular with students, the College Board will dumb down the test to the point where it is irrelevant. Without analyzing sample tests, it is impossible to know if my concern is legitimate. Only time will tell.

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The SAT has been under fire almost continuously from a number of sources. Its critics include educators, parents, students, college admissions officers and education “experts”. Some of the criticism is well deserved but much of it is egregiously wrong and one wonders at the mindset of the people who make it.

These are the main criticisms of the SAT.
_ It is not a good predictor of college success.
_ It favors the rich who can afford to hire tutors and take the test multiple times if they so choose.
_ It does not take into account what poor students have to overcome.
_ The GPA is a more accurate assessment of academic ability.
_ Students who are poor test takers are at a disadvantage when they take the SAT.
_ The test is too rigorous and subjects students to intolerable pressure.

Here is my take on the SAT and why it will continue to be a part of the college admissions process.

The main reason the SAT (or the ACT) is necessary is that it provides a common yardstick to measure the ability of students nationwide. Without it, there is no way to compare students in different parts of the country. The GPA is a good measure of a student’s high school academics but a 4.0 GPA in a good school in suburban N.J. is very different from a 4.0 GPA in rural Arkansas. If the SAT did not exist and college admissions relied only on the GPA, there would be rampant grade inflation as schools tried to give their students a leg up in the race to get into a good college.

The SAT is only one part of the student’s college application. If it were the sole criteria for college admission then, yes, that would be wrong. However, in addition to SAT scores, college applications require the complete record of high school courses taken and grades, college admissions essays, personal statements, recommendations from H.S. counselors and a listing of extra-curricular activities and volunteer work. Taken together, they provide as complete a record of a student’s capabilities as is humanly possible. Because the application is so comprehensive, students have an opportunity to explain how their circumstances might have affected their academics. For instance, if a student has to work park time to support his family financially, it can be stated in the application and will be taken into account by admissions officers when assessing his academics.

It is true that tutoring can substantially increase a student’s SAT score. However, it is not essential . A motivated student can work either on his own or with his friends and still achieve good scores. We are all familiar with the stories of Vietnamese refugee children ( and others) who arrived in America knowing no English and in three or four short years graduated as valedictorians and achieved stellar SAT scores. It should also be noted that some schools offer either free or very affordable SAT prep courses and that their number is increasing everyday. No matter what is done, well to do students will always have an advantage over others not just because they can afford tutoring but because of a stable home environment which encourages studying. However, truly motivated students can surmount the obstacles in their way.

The SAT is not a good predictor of college success but nothing really is. To do well in college, a student must have a good work ethic, curiosity, critical thinking and good math and language fundamentals. The SAT does provide a good assessment of basic skills, particularly in math and critical thinking. It is not as good in measuring language skills but the proposed changes to the exam beginning 2016 will improve it in this area too. The complete college application does provide a fairly good assessment of how a student will do in college but it is by no means fail safe. No matter how well a student does in high school, there are any number of reasons why his college performance may drop off. Some students succumb to partying and other pleasures. Some are intimidated by the level of competition or by being on their own. Others fall in love and let it affect their academics. Any number of things may change.
BTW, some firms ask job seekers for their SAT scores, so I guess they are a good measure of something. ( I don’t agree with this practice because a college graduate is very different from what he was in high school 4 or 5 years earlier when he took the SAT).

As for the criticism that the SAT stresses out students and affects their performance, all I can say is ” Welcome to the real world.” The parameters of the test are well publicized and they have plenty of time to prepare for it. In life, you don’t get to pick and choose what kind of test you would like to take. Or when you would like it. One letter in the NYT pointed out that the test is administered at 8:30 AM, a time when students are barely awake and not at their best. Does the writer realize that most jobs begin at or around that time and that workers do not get dictate when they start work?

True, the SAT does last for almost 4 hours( 3:45, to be exact) but this is nothing compared to what young people will have to face when they go for job interviews. These interviews often last the better part of a day , even a full day or more, and the stakes are much higher. THAT is real pressure.

Yes, in spite of all its detractors , the SAT is here to stay. This is not to say that it is perfect. Far from it. However, it IS pretty good and the proposed changes will make it better.

NEXT: The Changes to the SAT.

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In his TED talk, Feats of Memory Anyone Can Do, science journalist Joshua Foer describes some amazing feats of memory. People who memorize hundreds of random members after looking at them only once. People who recall the names of dozens of strangers ,or  are able to remember the exact order of the cards in 36 packs of shuffled decks of playing cards after studying them for an hour. He met all these people while covering the U.S. Memory Championships , an event most of us didn’t even know existed. Amazing as these feats are, it is even more amazing to hear that these people think of themselves as having only average memories. They are able to perform these feats because they have trained their memories using well known techniques , some of them 2,000 years old. Without intending to, Foer inadvertently proves his point that anyone can perform these feats. He practices for months, returns as a competitor the following year and WINS the championship.

While it is true we can pull off these feats of memory, is there any reason to do so ? At one time, before there were books , when knowledge was transmitted orally from generation to generation, a prodigious memory was definitely an asset. It was also useful in unexpected ways. Foer relates an anecdote about Simonides, a poet in ancient Greece , who had been hired to recite his poetry at a banquet. He had just completed his declamation and exited the hall when a violent earthquake demolished the banquet hall, killing everybody inside. The bodies were so badly mangled that they could not be identified. However, Simonides was able to reconstruct from memory exactly who had been sitting where and make it possible for the deceased to be identified and given proper funerals by their relatives.

This however is a one-off. With the invention of the printing press, photography, computers and cell phones we can look up data rather than memorize it. When we are with youngsters and there is some point no one is sure about, they simply pull out their cellphones and get the information by pressing a few buttons. Is there any point then to training your memory?

In some professions there is. In chess, the top players have studied thousands of previously played games and are able to dredge up positions from these games in the blink of an eye. They are also able to visualize the positions on the board  four and five moves ahead. It is a necessity if they are to do well. Memory is also important to card players. In poker and blackjack, yes, but also in contract bridge. I remember reading a story about the late Charles Goren, an icon of bridge players everywhere. One Monday , he was relaxing around the pool with a group of friends when they decided to test his memory. They bet him that he could not remember the cards he had played over the past weekend. Goren thereupon proceeded to recreate from memory 140 deals he had played. He was able to tell them the cards each player had been dealt , how the bidding went and how the play went. Good players can perhaps recreate one such deal immediately after they have played it. Goren did it for one hundred and forty deals and was able to remember the card layouts 48 hours after they had been played. What’s even more remarkable is that he did it without any special preparation.


But bridge and chess are only two activities where prodigious memories are useful. I don’t know that there are (m)any others. In most cases it is easier to look up the data that you need. So … memorize or look it up ? There are arguments to be made either way.

On the one hand , it is not as if memorizing ” uses” up brain capacity or overburdens your brain to the extent that it affects your overall performance. The brain is very capacious and it has been found that memorization occurs in a different part of it. It is not like filling a pitcher with water until there is no space for any more. Also, the effort of memorizing data is in itself beneficial because it means you are reading the material with greater attention and presumably with greater understanding.

The major disadvantage of memorization is that you cannot afford to be less than perfect. Let’s say you memorize a phone number. If you trying to remember it and get even one digit wrong, your memorization is useless. This is a trivial example. If the material being memorized is vital information, do you dare trust your memory to remember it perfectly ? Another disadvantage is that all these feats seem to involve short term memory. I do not think these people are able to remember data indefinitely, or for more than a few days. If so, there is no point in these efforts since the data may be needed at some indeterminate point in the future.

This is not to say that training your memory is absolutely without reward. An analogy can be drawn to those who compete in spelling bees. The kids who compete in spelling bees use many of the same methods to learn and remember the spellings of words. Many , even most, of the words are arcane and will never be of use in their entire lives. Yet, in preparing for these bees, the youngsters develop good study habits and do much better at school than most of their classmates. Participating in these bees also teaches them to think on their feet, perform well under pressure and gives them confidence. Indirectly then, participating in these bees is a major reason for their success, academic and otherwise. So it is with memorization. Merely trying to memorize improves the intellect in numerous little ways and enables us to make connections which we might otherwise have missed. For instance, learning the multiplication tables by rote or being able to convert fractions to decimals to percentages in your head gives you tremendous confidence about everyday math.

Foer says in his lecture that 15 to 20 minutes of daily practice can do wonders for the memory. It is time well spent especially if you use your new found memory selectively for what is important to you.

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Item:The Khan Academy is a wonderful non-profit educational website that is revolutionizing the way people learn. It was founded by Salman Khan, who was educated at MIT and Harvard, and quit his hedge fund job in order to set it up. He originally came up with these video lessons to teach his young cousin Algebra but they increased phenomenally in popularity. In just over five years , Khan Academy has produced 4,300 video lessons, attracted 1.5 million subscribers and its videos have been watched over 300 million times. One reason for the popularity of the videos, quoted by many respondents, is that they could grasp the concepts on video but that they had been unable to do so when they read a textbook.

Item :A prominent West Coast University recently unveiled a free online course on personal finance, a MOOC which attracted over 13,000 subscribers. The course material is pretty basic and includes topics such as mortgages, interest, and saving for retirement. All of this material is available in books , but many of those who signed up for the course said that they preferred watching a video to reading a book.

These are two isolated instances but they are part of a wider trend: people , particularly the younger generation, do not like to read and prefer to get their information from videos. This is different from the discussion of whether reading the printed word is better than online reading. The young prefer not to read. Period. They prefer to listen rather than to read. Hardly surprising , given the ubiquity of computers, TV, videos and video games.

Now, there are those who will argue that the means by which information is communicated is immaterial, as long as it is communicated. Some of them are , undoubtedly, those who used to say that grammar was unimportant, that what really mattered was that the message came through. We all know what that has led to ;today, many high school graduates, even some college grads, are barely able to write a coherent paragraph.

If communication were the only goal, it is true that the medium doesn’t matter. But there are other considerations. It seems to me that those who get their information through reading are able to obtain a more nuanced view of the subject. Reading may be slower, but it allows time for reflection. I also think that more complicated ideas can best be understood by reading, over and over again if necessary. The more advanced a subject is, the less chance there is that it will be the subject of a video. This is not to say that Video lessons are bad . Not at all. They are very good for reaching a large audience efficiently and for teaching the basic concepts. The disadvantage , as I see it, is that they cause us to become lazy and gradually to lose our taste for reading.( The other disadvantage is that watching something on the screen invests it with a certain authority and we swallow it unquestioningly. However,this applies to TV news and is a whole other topic).

The biggest negative of watching videos is that it causes us to lose our ability to both read and write. Video lessons are communicated in the simplest language possible to make them easily understood. This is only to be expected but it also means the vocabulary of inveterate video watchers is usually limited. English is a language of nuances, and words with multiple meanings. For instance, the term ” normal American” is not the same as ” ordinary American”; ” the public domain ” is quite different from ” the public eye”. These differences are lost on those who watch videos , and only read when they absolutely have to. This,of course, carries over to their thinking and to their writing, both of which are hampered by their limited vocabulary.

Ironically, even as the younger generation is turning away from books and reading, older people are discovering a renewed interest in reading. e-books are making it cheaper and easier for people who want to read. And, at the same time, writers are finding it easier to publish their books thus leading to an embarrassment of riches for the reading public. Kindle and other electronic readers make it possible for people to ” own” books at almost half price. Unfortunately , all this is lost on younger people who are accustomed to getting all their news from TV and Yahoo and read few books that are not required reading.

This is really too bad because reading opens up possibilities like nothing else. I’m not a teacher but , for the past 20 years and more, I’ve observed many children and tutored a few of them. Almost without exception , I’ve seen that those who have gotten into the habit of reading are more mature in their thinking and in the way they write. This is reflected in their SAT scores , their school and college performance, and in their post-college careers. They also are well-rounded individuals better equipped for this post industrial , globalized world.

If you would do your kids a favor , take them to the library and introduce them to the wonders of books. It doesn’t matter what they read ( as long as it isn’t an exclusive diet of graphic novels) ; this is their time to find out what they like and perhaps the foundation for a future career. However , if you want to nudge them in a particular direction, you can do so, gently.

Remember : It all begins with reading.

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1,428 Americans ( so far) have signed a petition to the White House website We the People urging that the government  “Secure resources and funding, and begin construction of a Death Star by 2016”. A Death Star , of course , is a manmade armored planet , the size of the moon , which will be capable of pulverizing entire enemy planets with fearsome death rays . It exists only in the fertile mind of George Lucas and , even without the yawning “fiscal cliff” , we just do not have the resources or the technology to even dream of  bringing it to reality. The cost of a Death Star , were we capable of fabricating one , is a whopping $ 15.6 septillion , or 1.4 trillion times the U.S national debt. Even the cost of the steel required to build this monster is a prohibitive $ 852 quadrillion . I can’t wrap my head around terms like  , septillion, quadrillion  and trillion but I don’t need to know them exactly to figure that building a Death Star is a non-starter. Any ninth or tenth grader should know as much but , still , 1,428 adults  thought fit to sign this ridiculous petition.

The same day that Yahoo featured news of this petition , the Siemens Foundation announced the winners of its annual national science contest.Top individual honors, and a 100, 000 $ prize ,went to 17-year-old Kensen Shi of College Station, Texas. He combined two previous algorithms into a new and more efficient one that helps robots find a safe path around obstacles.The runner-up was Jiayi Peng, 17, a senior at Horace Greeley High School in Chappaqua, N.Y., who won second place for her work building and studying a model that simulates the neuron network in the brain.

Top team honors went to a trio of seniors, Jeremy Appelbaum, William Gil and Allen Shin, from George W. Hewlett High School in Hewlett, N.Y., for their research on a protein linked to tumor formation. They will share a $100,000 scholarship. Second place team honors went to Daniel Fu and Patrick Tan of Indiana, who created new math techniques that make it easier to analyze networks of genes and proteins in the body. The networks are responsible for body rhythms involved in things like sleep. They will share a $50,000 scholarship.

Did you notice something about the names of the winners ? Of the seven, six are Asian Americans and one is a Jewish American. I mention this only to make the point that mainstream Americans still shy away from the sciences . It should be apparent by now that the future belongs to the scientists and the engineers and the technocrats and yet most young Americans don’t seem to see the writing on the wall. The only technology that they are interested in are the latest video games.and social networking. And that is why we have people who think the Death Star can actually become a reality.

Thank God for the people like those who entered the Siemens contest , the winners and the non-winners  because it is they who will determine the future of this country and whether we can be competitive in the global marketplace. I am heartened to read that Jiayi Peng, the only female competing for individual honors, said she’s interested in studying math or physics in college. We need many more like her!

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I first heard of Michael Sandel in connection with two lectures he was to deliver in Tokyo. The lectures were free ; admission tickets were handed out on a first come – first served basis .  So great was the demand for these lectures that some of these free tickets were being re-sold by scalpers for $ 5oo apiece. Imagine that.. $ 500 to attend a lecture  by a university professor !! Intrigued , I read up on Professor Sandel.

Michael Sandel , 59, graduated from Brandeis and went on to get a doctorate from Oxford where he was a Rhodes scholar . He is a political philosopher and educator who has taught at Harvard for more than two decades and his course on   Justice  has been attended by more than 18,000 students . It is the most popular course taught  at Harvard ; in fall 2007 , 1115 students took the course. The course was recorded in 2005 and  an abridged version  Justice : What’s the Right Thing to Do ? is available online absolutely free. It is this course that I ‘m currently enjoying and which I recommend that you check out  , if you haven’t already done so. It consists of 12 lectures , each about 55 minutes long . Each lecture explores a single topic and is divided into two parts so you , the viewer , can take a break if you so wish.

The course introduces students to the ideas of philosophers such as Aristotle , Emmanuel Kant , Jeremy Bentham , John Stuart Mill and others . It explores such topics as placing a dollar value on human life , individual rights vs. freedom of choice , and compensating for injustices such as slavery and segregation.In other hands , these topics might result in boredom but not when Prof. Sandel tackles them .

Professor Sandel employs the Socratic method , laying out a scenario  and asking his audience what they think is the right course of action . Whatever the answer is , he asks more questions which cause the students to think for themselves and examine their beliefs . The first lecture tackles this moral dilemma : If you had to choose between killing one person to save the lives of five others and doing nothing , what would you do ? Most students respond that the choice is clear-cut ; that sacrificing one life to save 5 others is the right thing to do . The professor then ups the ante : what if they had to kill the person themselves ? And so it goes …

I’m explaining the subject very poorly, but then words cannot describe the artistry of Professor Sandel’s classroom style. No wonder that his student audience is entranced , hanging on his every word .He has a very engaging personality and a calm unhurried way about him that makes his listeners immediately like him . When he speaks ,   his diction is so clear ,his explanations are so lucid , his train of thought so logical and his choice of words so perfect that his audience is swept along  with him .  The situations he postulates are also riveting. In the first lecture , for instance , he asks the students to imagine a runway trolley car whose brakes have failed. Directly in its path are five workers who are marked for certain death unless the trolley car can be diverted . The driver  notices that there is a spur to one side where only one man is working. If he can guide the car onto the spur ( luckily, the steering wheel is working)  , the five workers will be spared at the cost of the lone worker’s life . What should the trolley car driver do ? The answer is easy and most everyone agrees that he should swing the trolley onto the spur . Then Professor Sandel involves the students more directly in the decision-making : Imagine that you are standing on the bridge above the trolley line . Everything else is the same as before : speeding runaway trolley car, five workers in danger etc.  Imagine that next to you is a very fat man leaning over the side of the bridge  and you realize that if you tip him over in the path of the trolley car , it will be brought to a stop ( loud laughter from the students! ). NOW what’s the right thing to do ? This time the answer is not so easy to come by . And so it goes . Each question makes the audience think more deeply as Prof. Sandel introduces the philosophical argument he wants to explore.

Then again , there are other reasons  to sample Professor Sandel’s lectures . For one , it gives us ordinary folk a chance to ” attend” a lecture , to ” sit ” among the students in a Harvard classroom. No matter what the U.S News and World Report rankings say in any given year , Harvard has a cachet which no other college has and this is a golden opportunity to see what it’s like . It’s also a chance to see what  typical Harvard undergrads are like  and , secretly , see how one stacks up against them ; perhaps dream of what might have been if only one had taken the SAT more seriously. ( LOL). Actually , I was mightily impressed with the student attendees at Prof. Sandel’s lecture . I thought that in, their responses to Prof  Sandel’s probing questions , they were poised and articulate far beyond their years . However,  THE main reason to check out this online course is to see a great teacher in action as he brings arcane philosophical concepts to life and illumines  the minds of his listeners.

To access Professor Sandel’s course , click on   www.justiceharvard.org  or google Michael Sandel  and check out his achievements and the other lectures available online. There are some BBC podcasts that seem very stimulating.

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The April21st- April 27th  issue of The Economist is a must-read for anyone at all interested in the world of tomorrow. The changes of the last twenty years  were staggering but they are going to be dwarfed by what is coming. The lead article in The Economist is titled ” The Third Industrial Revolution “ and it paints a picture of a vastly changed world , like something out of science fiction.

The first Industrial Revolution ( 1750 -1850) saw a transition from a manual and draft-animal based economy to machine-based manufacturing . It was distinguished by the use of steam power , generated primarily by the burning of coal and ,by the mechanization of textile manufacturing , better transportation and the use of metal machine tools . The second Industrial Revolution ( 1850  to the 1920’s) began with the introduction of steam-powered railways and ships and accelerated  with the development of the internal combustion engine and electrical power generation . Henry Ford’s introduction of assembly line manufacturing was another big advance .

 The two Revolutions began in Great Britain , technologically the most advanced nation of the time , but quickly spread to the rest of the world . The exact time periods covered by these revolutions are in some dispute  since the changes took place over a period of years but their importance in the course of history is not . During these periods there were dramatic improvements in the living standards of most of the populace as well as marked changes in the lives of humans.

The article in The Economist argues that the Third Industrial Revolution has already begun and that its impact will be no less than those of its predecessors. Exciting new technologies such as ground breaking  software, new materials , better robots , new processes ( such as three -dimensional printing), nanotechnology  and a plethora of web-based services are changing the face of manufacturing. For instance , instead of taking lots of parts and welding or screwing them together to build a product, it will be possible “to design a product on a computer and ” print” it on a 3-D printer which will create a solid object by accreting successive layers of material”. I can’t get my head around the idea but apparently it is ,or soon will be, a reality ; it is not a pipe dream . Already , 3D printing has been used to create hearing aids and parts for military jets . With 3D printing , anything can be manufactured anywhere , in quantities small and large . The new factories will be smaller and will require fewer workers  and the new “factory” workers will be engineers , designers IT specialists , marketing staff and other professionals . Labour costs will be much lower and there will be less need to export manufacturing jobs to low-wage countries. It is predicted that 10 to 30% of the goods that America now imports from China could be made at home by the year 2020.

The above was gleaned from the lead article in The Economist but there is much more detail to be found inside the  issue in the  16 page Special Report. It makes exciting reading. Do try to read it if you can.

As should be plain , these changes in manufacturing will affect other aspects of society since they will cause fundamental changes in the ways we live and work.It will be exciting to be part of the change  and it will also be challenging.

I am one of those who has been more interested in the past  than in the future. As a child , I was more taken with King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table than with Flash Gordon ; as an adult , I read historical novels ,not science fiction . However , reading these articles in The Economist has , for the first time , made me wish that I was a sixteen year old looking forward to  my career , not  an older adult looking back on it .

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