Posts Tagged ‘ science ’

U.S. Teens Lag Behind Asian Students in Education Rankings

Wednesday, December 4th, 2013

American teenagers are continuing to slip in the rankings of high school achievement internationally, according to the results of the 2012 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA).  Americans were found to be roughly average in science and reading, but below the international average in math. NBC News has more:

Vietnam, which had its students take part in the exam for the first time, had a higher average score in math and science than the United States. Students in Shanghai — China’s largest city with upwards of 20 million people — ranked best in the world, according to the test results. Students in East Asian countries and provinces came out on top, nabbing seven of the top 10 places across all three subjects.

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan characterized the flat scores as a “picture of educational stagnation.”

“We must invest in early education, raise academic standards, make college affordable, and do more to recruit and retain top-notch educators,” Duncan said.

Roughly half a million students in 65 nations and educational systems representing 80 percent of the global economy took part in the 2012 edition of PISA, which is coordinated by the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, or OECD.

The numbers are even more sobering when compared among only the 34 OECD countries. The United States ranked 26th in math — trailing nations such as the Slovakia, Portugal and Russia.

The exam, which has been administered every three years to 15-year-olds, is designed to gauge how students use the material they have learned inside and outside the classroom to solve problems.

U.S. scores on the PISA have stayed relatively flat since testing began in 2000. And meanwhile, students in countries like Ireland and Poland have demonstrated marked improvement — even surpassing U.S. students, according to the results.

Top Talkers: Teenagers are making no progress on international achievement exams, the 2012 Program for International Student Assessment results show. Jon Meacham, Julie Pace and Mike Barnicle discuss.

“It’s hard to get excited about standing still while others around you are improving, so I don’t want to be too positive,” Jack Buckley, commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, told the Associated Press.

Image: Students taking a test, via Shutterstock

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GoldieBlox Debate Highlights Play, Gender Issues

Tuesday, December 3rd, 2013

As the holiday shopping season heats up, so does the debate over GoldieBlox, the toy marketed to girls and promising to encourage them to develop “STEM,” or “science, technology, engineering, math” interests in girls.  The public conversation about the toy, which some parents love but others say are neither gender neutral nor imagination-inspiring, is bringing to center stage a decades-old debate over how girls learn, play–and are marketed to.  Time.com has more:

This earnest educational toy might have gone unnoticed amidst the babies and Barbies if it weren’t for a hit viral video ad campaign showing little girls getting bored with a princess show and leaping up to create a giant Rube Goldberg machine out of toys.

The ad — which earned over eight million views on YouTube before a new version was posted due to a legal dispute over music use — has reignited a simmering debate: are playthings that encourage girls to become moms and beauty queens to blame for the dearth of women in the sciences? And if that’s true, what’s the best way to create toys that encourage girls to develop engineering and science skills? Some think building toys appealing directly to girls like GoldieBlox is the answer, while others want a more gender-neutral approach. And there are those who want to blow up the current pink-and-blue aisle segregation of toys altogether.

Most experts agree that the pink aisle does have a negative impact on girls’ interest in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) subjects. “Wanting to be a doctor or architect or cook, that really begins when you’re young and walking around with a stethoscope or playing with an Easy Bake oven,” says Richard Gottlieb, CEO of toy industry consulting firm Global Toy Experts.

Gender identification begins around preschool, when children’s brains are most susceptible to definitions of gender according to Lise Eliot, a neuroscientist and the author of Pink Brain, Blue Brain. And when youngsters enter the aisle labeled for girls, the only STEM options they’re really offered are chemistry sets that help create makeup or building blocks to construct pet grooming shops. (By contrast, boys’ chemistry kits usually allow them to create anything from icky goo to things that blow up to food.)

By the time kids reach third grade, there’s a real divide between boys and girls when it comes to STEM-related ambitions. A 2009 poll by the American Society for Quality of children 8 to 17, 24 percent of boys said they were interested in a career engineering, but only five percent of girls said the same. And that gap continues with adults: Just 11% of engineers are women—a fact that GoldieBlox’s creators note prominently on their site—and only about a quarter of STEM degrees go to women and it’s not about aptitude. Several international studies have shown that the gender difference in math and science are a by-product of culture, not biology. But quantifying cultural influences is complicated. The United States has one of the biggest gender gaps in math and science scores, but it’s impossible to know how much of an effect changing the toy aisles would have. In parts of Asia for example, there are plenty of dolls in the stores, but there’s a much smaller math gender gap for a host of other cultural reasons, like a better gender balance of teachers in schools.

We do know however that in the U.S. the pink aisle has gotten much more pink over the years. Global Toy Experts conducted a survey of 1,700 American moms three years ago asking them to compare the toys they played with growing up to those that their daughters were playing with today. They found a 25 percent drop across the board in girls playing with toys that would be considered gender-neutral or male (like construction or science kit toys).

True, as toy stores have gotten pinker, women have made more progress in the workplace. All those cute little vacuum cleaners and mini baby bottles haven’t discouraged girls from going to college or excelling in academic fields other than science. Women make up the majority of undergrads and are entering law school in equal numbers to men. So it’s clear that gendered toys aren’t entirely to blame for the dearth of female engineers—a myriad of reasons from lack or mentors to childhood development contribute as well.

But the lack of STEM role models for young girls in popular culture is something that experts say is an issue when it comes to changing girls’ attitudes toward math and science careers in the first place.

“There’s Bob the Builder, Bill Nye the Science Guy, Jimmy Neutron—they’re all boys with IQs off the chart. That’s intimidating for all kids, but particularly for girls who suffer from this thing called math anxiety where they have really, really high standards for themselves when it comes to math,” says Debbie Sterling, creator of GoldieBlox who thought of the toy after graduating from Stanford, frustrated with how few women there were in her chemical engineering program there. “If they don’t get an A+ on something, then they think they’re just naturally not inclined or born with it.”

Sterling’s solution to this problem was to create a toy designed for the way girls think. Goldie is a female role model who neither fit the born-genius trope (Goldie makes mistakes and learns from them) nor the nerdy anti-social brunette girl with glasses—a stereotypical character found in many kids’ shows. (Think Velma from Scooby Doo or Gretchen from Recess.) Another set of Stanford grads has also gone that route. Their invention, Roominate, offers girls the experience of building a working circuited dollhouse in pastel colors.

But why make science and engineering toys girly at all? Why not just make all of them gender neutral? “I love the GolideBlox toys. I think they’re really smart,” says Elizabeth Sweet, a doctoral candidate at the University of California Davis, who has studied gender coding in toys. “But I think that by sort of highlighting and simplifying the differences between boys and girls, these things may have the unintended effect of further reinforcing the stereotypes that girls are inherently less capable and need extra stimulation.”

Image: Girl, via Shutterstock
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11-Year-Old Boy Wins Prize for Developing Advanced Sandbag

Friday, October 11th, 2013

An 11-year-old Florida boy has won the top prize at a major science fair with his invention of a sandbag that could save property and lives in the event of saltwater floods.  More from NBC News:

“Living in Florida, I’m keenly aware of hurricanes and saltwater flooding,” the Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge grand prize winner Peyton Robertson, who is a sixth grader at the Pine Crest School in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., told NBC News.

“Super-storm Sandy really got me concerned about how people can prepare for that damage from flooding. But today, the most common method of flood protection is sandbags. They are really heavy and difficult to transport and leave gaps in between the bags. So, I redesigned the bag,” he explained.

Instead of sand, his bag is filled with a mixture of salt and an expandable polymer. When dry, it is lightweight, easy to move and easy to store. Once the bag is positioned, such as to create a barrier around a house, users hose it down with water. The polymer absorbs the water, swells and fills the volume of the bag.

“I use salt so they are heavier than any approaching seawater … but the twist is when you add salt to the bag it reduces the swelling of the polymer so you need to recalculate how much you put in,” Robertson explained.

In other words, the young scientist, who is already taking pre-calculus and trigonometry, realized an interaction between his super-absorbent polymer and salt that required him to calculate the precise mixture to add to the bag so that the full volume fills when water is added.

The bags also have a novel interlocking mechanism that connects them at their midpoints in order to prevent gaps that floodwaters can penetrate.

Robertson tested the bags in the bathtub and a kiddie pool where they easily outperformed traditional sand-filled sandbags. He next hopes to test them “in a real hurricane situation because that is the only way to figure out what glitches or whatever might be in the solution.”

As winner of the Young Scientist Challenge, he was named “America’s Top Young Scientist” at an award ceremony on Tuesday that also comes with the $25,000 check, which he can spend however he pleases, though has expressed interest in saving it for college.

Image: Sandbags, via Shutterstock

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Boys’ Classroom Misbehavior May Hurt Grades

Monday, February 11th, 2013

Boys who act out or otherwise misbehave in their school classrooms may actually be doing themselves an academic disservice, a new study published in The Journal of Human Resources suggests.  The study found that in many classrooms, boys earned lower grades than their standardized test scores would have predicted, because their teachers hold their behavior against them.  More from NBC News:

According to the study, disruptive behavior may indeed be working against the wiggle worms of the world.

[Study co-author Jessica] Van Parys and co-researchers analyzed data from the National Center for Education Statistics involving about 6,000 mostly white, black and Hispanic students from around the country who were followed from kindergarten through fifth grade, starting in the 1998-1999 school year.

Students were given tests in reading, math and science, while teachers also rated students’ abilities in all three areas, as well as rated them on classroom behaviors. The study found that when assessing kids’ academic abilities, the teachers factored in their classroom behaviors.

This ultimately helped the girls and hurt boys. The girls scored about 15 percent higher in behavior (also called ”non-cognitive skills”), which meant they earned better grades than boys, even though they didn’t score as high on the tests.

“Our point is that teachers take into account other factors, either consciously or unconsciously, when they rate the child’s ability on all kinds of subject areas,” Van Parys said. “It’s hard for teachers to be completely objective when they’re giving an assessment.”

Image: Boy in school, via Shutterstock

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Scientists: Baby Humans, Rats, Cats Learn to Walk Using Similar Neurons

Tuesday, November 22nd, 2011

Baby human beings and a number of other animals share the neural mechanism in the brain that allows them to walk, new research published in the journal Science has found.  The development of human locomotion branches off from the other animals, which include cats, rats, and guinea fowl, as the animals mature, with larger-brained animals such as humans taking longer to learn to walk independently than smaller-brained animals like rats.

The “stepping instinct,” where a newborn baby automatically lifts his or her feet when they are rested on a surface, was found by researchers to have its roots in a neural pathway that is also found in the animals studied.  Researchers say that the discovery can help further the development of tools to rehabilitate people who are paralyzed or otherwise cannot walk.

“We have a common history … a common ancestral network, which originated locomotion in the first animals, the first vertebrates,”  study co-author Francesco Lacquaniti, scientist at the University of Rome Tor Vergata in Italy, told CNN.com.  “Mother nature did not discard what it had. It does not scrap hardware,” he added. “Indeed, the adult locomotion of adults is unique. But it seems to derives from common ancestry, as for the other animals.”

Image: Baby walking, via Shutterstock.

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