Archive for the ‘Education’ category

Neil deGrasse Tyson Would Dig This

March 8, 2014

The tech world’s hard split between information technology  and biotechnology is perplexing.  Despite their kindred values, these really smart people seem to live in parallel universes.  I found myself puzzling over this last year while attending the International Bioethics Forum sponsored by Promega’s  educational institute. Despite a stirling assemblage of speakers on the nature of creativity, none of those brainy ITers seemed to be present.

Perhaps this year’s topic at the forum will draw some venturesome folks from the software world. Here’s how Promega founder Bill Linton describes this year’s convocation:

When we recently talked, Linton explained that the annual forum always picked topics — What is the nature of life? What is the nature of death? — in which the answers weren’t settled. “Sometimes people would leave with more questions than they came in with,” he says with a laugh.

This year’s forum — “3.8 Billion Years of Wisdom: Exploring the Genius of Nature” — promises more of the same. Nothing conventional, but an examination of the “many beautiful examples of life forms accessing information that we simply cannot explain, but call ‘instinct,'” as the promo material says. It runs May 1-2 on the Promega campus.

This is the fifth year the forum has burrowed into consciousness. “There are different points of view of consciousness in nature and taking it a step further — not just of consciousness, but also of intelligence. Does the very embodiment of matter, particularly as expressed in life forms, exhibit a form of intelligence that doesn’t quite fit the human definition of IQ?” Linton asks.

“Nature seems to have evolved with the ability to combine intricate, amazing complexity in ways that are astounding and that we don’t understand,” he adds. The great controversy, he continues, is whether evolution is a blind, random process that sometimes produces advantageous mutations. “Or is there something else happening that is not totally blind randomness?”

This question certainly stopped me in my tracks.

Linton points to the statistical unlikelihood of a light-sensitive organ like the eye evolving in nature eight or nine times from completely different origins. “The fact is, it seems like nature wants to enhance its ability to take in sensory information, and then do things with that information. Some people say that the nature of the universe is trying to find a way to ask the questions: Who are we? What’s out there? Why do we exist?

“In a way, when we ask those questions, it’s nature [expressing] itself, because we are a product of this natural process. That’s pretty amazing for nature to have brought in this element of consciousness.”

The forum runs May 1-2 on the Promega campus in Fitchburg. To read more, please go here.

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Tech…It’s A Guy Thing

July 7, 2013

I’m not exactly Mr. Feminist, but I am the father of daughters, and there are times when I’m dumbfounded at how guy-heavy the software world is. This realization first hit me like a hammer last December  when I sat in a software entrepreneurism class at UW-Madison. I counted one woman among the 34 students. What gives, as I asked in this Isthmus story?

“There are a thousand reasons,” says Andrea Arpaci-Dusseau, a UW-Madison computer science professor who happens to be married to the co-teacher of the startup class. “It happens very, very, young,” she says of the disconnect between women and computer technology. “They make a decision that this is something they’re not interested in.

“Because there are so few women, it just perpetuates itself,” she says. “If we could get more women in the field, then it would be welcoming and enjoyable for women. But when the numbers are so small, it’s really difficult.”

Those numbers are sobering. The software class, offered both in the spring and fall, drew a total enrollment of about 90 students and just one woman, says Andrea’s spouse, Remzi Arpaci-Dusseau. (They met as computer science graduate students at UC-Berkeley.) “It’s terrible,” he says of the gender disparity. “We talk about it in the department all the time. We seem not to be serving 50% of the population.”

Overall just 11% of UW’s computer science graduates in 2012 were women, according to the registrar’s office. This is typical of women in computing at major American research universities. National data show that women composed just 14% of their computer science undergraduates in 2011.

The problem is found, to varying degrees, in other so-called STEM academic fields: science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Elsewhere in academia, however, young women are striding confidently to the front of the line like never before. In 2009, 57% of all undergraduate degrees in the U.S. were earned by women, according to the National Center for Women and Technology. Fifty years earlier, almost two-thirds were earned by men.

To read more, please go here.

(Not Really) Progressives

March 1, 2013

Politics is such a dismal swamp that I’ve tried to avoid writing about it in recent months. (You’ve been following my tech stories, right?) But the dispiriting news of how progressive stalwart Sarah Manski won a primary race for a Madison school board seat and promptly withdrew from the general election was just too much to take. Her name stays on the ballot, the other progressive candidate becomes the default winner, and the third-place finisher–a Latina whom progressives denounced as a rightwing flunky (evidence of this is sketchy)–is squeezed off the ballot for the April election.

Not a great day for democracy. I see a bigger problem with progressives struggling to deal with educational change and with independent leaders of color–notably, Kaleem Caire of the Urban League of Greater Madison– who do not toe the progressive party line. I write:

Like it or not, we’re in an era of change and choice in education. Extending public vouchers to private schools in Madison may be wild overreach by the governor, but Madison parents already have choices for schooling.

If they don’t like their neighborhood school, parents can open-enroll their child in any Madison school or even in a suburban district. They can pack up and move to a suburban district. They can enroll their kid in a public charter school like Nuestro Mundo. They can send their child to a private school. They can home-school. They can sign their kid up for one of the many online schools.

This is a good thing. As long as academic programs address state educational standards and meaningful accountability is in place, why shouldn’t parents be able to pick a school setting they feel best suits their child’s needs? More to the point, why shouldn’t the district’s response to the painful achievement gap demonstrate this flexibility?

Progressives struggle with this. In the face of the Walker ascendancy, they’re basically fighting a rearguard and probably losing action. They want to restore the old model that standardized education, tightly controlled alternatives, and protected teachers with an industrial-style union contract — and sadly also did a wretched job of educating black children. African American leaders like Caire are still expected to fall in line, despite the old system’s manifest failure.

Because he hasn’t, Caire is shunned. The latest instance is the upcoming ED Talks Wisconsin, a progressive-minded education-reform conference sponsored by the UW School of Education, the Center on Wisconsin Strategy, the mayor’s office and other groups. Discussion of “a community-wide K-12 agenda” to address the achievement gap is a featured event. A fine panel has been assembled, including Mayor Paul Soglin, but Caire is conspicuously absent.

How can progressives not bring the Urban League to the table? Agree or disagree with its failed plan for the single-sex Madison Prep charter school, the Urban League has worked the hardest of any community group to bridge the achievement gap. This includes launching a scholars academy, the South Madison Promise Zone, ACT test-taking classes and periodic events honoring young minority students.

But Caire is branded as an apostate because he worked with conservative school-choice funders in Washington, D.C. So in Madison he’s dismissed as a hapless black tool of powerful white plutocrats. Progressives can’t get their head around the idea that the black-empowerment agenda might coincide with a conservative agenda on education, but then clash on a dozen other issues.

To read more, please go here.

UW’s Man Of The Future

January 28, 2013

As someone who was clueless when the newspaper world was being upended by the Internet world, I’ve taken a late-life reportorial interest in the epochal changes ripping through American institutions.

David Krakauer, who runs the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery at UW-Madison, gets it. The guy understands how far reaching those changes are. I first heard him speak last February at a luncheon sponsored by the Wisconsin Innovation Network.

This Oxford-trained evolutionary theorist offered a sweeping take on the great trends rattling the UW. In particular: that the UW’s platform for undergraduate education was breaking apart. That the departmental model for intellectual inquiry was outmoded. That funding for research was in flux. And that rapid change was very much the order of the day. But as threatening as all this was, the opportunities — in teaching, in research, in bringing research to market to benefit the Wisconsin economy — were even greater.

This message, which I heard Krakauer give repeatedly with different emphases over the next 11 months, is a brash call for UW-Madison to reimagine its place in the world. Above all, it is to climb out of the silos of intellectual pursuit and embrace a more creative mash-up of disciplines — hard scientists working with poets working with social scientists working with entrepreneurs.

“David’s task of bringing people together across disciplines is an assignment in cultural change,” affirms Francois Ortalo-Magné, dean of the Wisconsin School of Business.

But given that great universities are almost medieval in their reverence for tradition, Krakauer, 45, faces a hellaciously complicated task. It’s “a bit of the immovable object against the unstoppable external forces,” admits Mike Knetter, president of the UW Foundation.

The fact that Krakauer is such an unbuttoned figure in the buttoned-down world of university administration may prove exactly the jolt that UW-Madison needs. Anyway, that’s the high-stakes bet UW execs made in selecting him to run a showcase experimental lab as part of the $210 million Discovery complex, which brings together researchers and entrepreneurs.

They got a guy who’s going to mess with people’s minds.

To read more. please see the Isthmus story.

The War Not At Home

August 8, 2010

It’s odd–no, disturbing–that the  United States can be involved in two wars, and so few Americans are touched by it. How can this be healthy for a democratic society?

My Isthmus column from  almost three years ago (featured  the other day at the alternative newspaper site) makes the case for a draft and national service.  The headline– “Madison’s military problem: It isn’t Army recruiting, but our attitude towards serving”–sums up my concerns .

The column begins:

Monday, Nov. 5, [2007,] wasn’t a good day for the U.S. military in Madison.

Over at the Doyle administration building, anti-war activists were lobbying the Madison school board to remove Army recruitment signs from high school sports stadiums.

Critics say the ads mislead impressionable young people and support unconscionable war-making. I have a problem with that.

I’m at a loss to understand how a sign asking, “Are you Army strong?” and giving a recruiter’s phone number represents a threat to young people. On a list of the top 2,000 baleful media images thrust before kids — have you seen the American Apparel ads pitched to teenage girls? — this ranks maybe 1,834th.

Over at East High, meanwhile, the military’s estrangement from the good people of Madison was in even starker relief.

Roughly 70 parents and students turned out for a “junior night” look at post-graduation prospects for college, technical school, and yes, the military. Not one participant stopped by the military recruitment table, Sgt. Frederick Hutchison of the Marines and Machinist Mate Michael Pflanzer of the Navy told me….

For more, go here.

Over at the Doyle administration building, anti-war activists were lobbying the Madison school board to remove Army recruitment signs from high school sports stadiums.

Critics say the ads mislead impressionable young people and support unconscionable war-making. I have a problem with that.

I’m at a loss to understand how a sign asking, “Are you Army strong?” and giving a recruiter’s phone number represents a threat to young people. On a list of the top 2,000 baleful media images thrust before kids — have you seen the American Apparel ads pitched to teenage girls? — this ranks maybe 1,834th.

Over at East High, meanwhile, the military’s estrangement from the good people of Madison was in even starker relief.

Roughly 70 parents and students turned out for a “junior night” look at post-graduation prospects for college, technical school, and yes, the military. Not one participant stopped by the military recruitment table, Sgt. Frederick Hutchison of the Marines and Machinist Mate Michael Pflanzer of the Navy told me.

My Life and Times With The Madison Public Schools

April 1, 2010

There’s nothing like parenthood for wiring you into education issues.  When my two daughters were in their K-12 years, I got a first-hand look at how the pedagogical fights in academia played out in my neighborhood schools.

This prompted a long essay in Wisconsin Interest in the winter  2007 issue. Given my previous post on the UW-Madison School of Education, this seems a good time to link to it.

Here’s how the story began:

Having kids is a lot like throwing dice. You never know how you and your mate’s genetic code will spill out. Snake eyes: The kid gets your mathematical obtuseness and your spouse’s fear of heights. Seven! The little tyke inherits your love of words and your spouse’s consummate sense of order.

Who knows how the dice will fall? It’s a crap shoot, so to speak. But that’s the nature component of spawning kids. The nurture element is another story. We try so hard to shape their environment to good effect.

How eye-opening, then, when I realized I had gotten it wrong with my older daughter….

Read here for more.


When ‘A’ Is For Average

March 31, 2010

Four or five years ago, a professor told me about the unusually high grade point average among students in the UW-Madison School of Education. I finally got around to checking out his tip for Wisconsin Interest. The story begins:

Lake Wobegon has nothing on the UW-Madison School of Education. All of the children in Garrison Keillor’s fictional Minnesota town are “above average.” Well, in the School of Education they’re all A students.

The 1,400 or so kids in the teacher-training department soared to a dizzying 3.91 grade point average on a four-point scale in the spring 2009 semester.

Read more here.


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