Category Archives: science

Dizziness

Check out this week’s Diagnosis column in the Times Magazine, enjoy the suspense before reading on.

I absolutely remember myself – and most of my friends – having that lightheaded, dizzy feeling upon standing up.  Since everyone experienced it and it went away in seconds, no one ever worried about it, but nor was it ever explained.  And I never noticed that it pretty much went away post-adolescence (then again, in my teaching life I rarely sit down for long periods of time).  So interesting to have both an explanation and to realize that in extreme cases, it could actually be quite scary, as it was for the patient in this column.  And the fact that it happens after a growth spurt makes so much sense…

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News of my death…

has been greatly exaggerated. I’m feelin’ you, Mark Twain. All my posts lately are about how busy I am, and how that’s what’s keeping me from doing any real writing for you… but there will still be plenty of writing next year, and much of it related to education, too. More on that late-June-ish. And if what brings you here is not the education stuff at all, there’ll be who-knows-what dropped at a dark barker. If all goes exceptionally well, there’ll even be pieces published on real, tree-killing, high-gloss paper.

But yes, it is goodbye to teaching. Or at least, goodbye for now. TMAO says it’s a false promise to leave indicating one’s possible return when that might just be a rationalization or a fantasy or something. But teaching science has been good to me. It’s been full of challenges, adventures – dead lobsters, dead crickets, LEGO robots, homemade musical instruments, and more, and let me meet a few hundred interesting people who are fast on their way to becoming adults.

I ran into one of those young people on the bus the other day. He was in our school, perhaps illegally, in the very first year. Illegally because he was supposed to get services that we couldn’t provide. He was kind-hearted, didn’t read or write all that well, loved science but could be infuriatingly lazy, drove us up the wall, and thrived at the same time. He’s a junior in high school right now, teaching chess to little kids at a camp this summer – he always was a super-star chess player – and was talking about taking the SATs and the Chem Regents and starting college visits pretty soon. He wants to be a chemical engineer. How do I capture what it feels like to sit on a bus next to this young man, talking about his future, thinking back on the three years that I taught him, knowing the long odds for a kid from the South Bronx, a Dominican male with special needs, becoming an engineer, and yet knowing that he is already far along that path and can now see it unfolding in front of him. This kid is going to make it, and I played some role in that, and what’s simultaneously remarkable and reassuring about it all is that among the students who have graduated from my school, he is not an exception (I don’t have any data to back this up, just a few anecdotes and a sense). (The fact that he wants to go into a science-related field is just icing).

But it’s been a hard year, and the eighth hard year in a row, and at a certain point this winter, every cell in my body was telling me it was time for a change, physically, mentally. Time to make space in my life for healthier relationships, for the trazillions of interests that I have besides education, for pursuing writing in a serious way, for slowing down and redirecting my energy, at least for a while. I’m turning 30 next week: I guess that’s part of it. And then I saw an opportunity, and soon there was a job offer, and then I accepted, and then I told my boss, and then I wrote a resignation letter, and here we are. My new team met yesterday for a few hours, and reality got a bit realer, some initial planning was sketched out… well, I really can’t share more than that but be patient!

Still, I wish I could annotate this post in multi-colored post-its and add all the things that I’m leaving out (for now)… thoughts about why teachers stay and why they go, about my own personal reactions to stress and whether the problem is me or the job or the particular version of the job that happens in certain kinds of classrooms and schools in the city, about where I hope life might go next and the ten-thousand things that might come as next steps. I’m leaving, but I’m not going anywhere.

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Scientists who want to be Baptist ministers…

Saturday night, a friend and I attended the Music & the Brain event at the Abyssinian Baptist Church.  The gospel choir sang several numbers that got your hands clapping and head bobbing.  The minister of the church gave a short introduction, followed by Brian Greene (of Elegant Universe fame, and the organizer of the World Science Festival, of which this was a part).  Greene was the first to say that though now he is a Jewish physicist, he hopes to be reincarnated as a Baptist minister.

Several first graders from the Thurgood Marshall Academy gave short presentations about important African-American scientists and doctors and the prejudice they had faced or overcome in order to do their work, and then there was a libation ceremony, pouring libation to the ancestors.  A member of the church explained the ritual and invited us to respond ASHAY (sp?) as the libation was poured, and then to call out the names of ancestors who have been important in shaping who we are.  People started calling out names.  Quietly, because I felt both drawn to and shy about this ritual, I said my grandmother’s name.  She went to Wellesley College and would have been proud to see how far her grandchildren – but perhaps especially her granddaughters – have come in our lives.  She would be voting for Hillary Clinton, for sure.

Then Oliver Sacks spoke.  He writes incredible books about neurology, for those who don’t know, and has a new book called Musicophilia which I very much want to read but haven’t bought or borrowed yet.  First he said that he, too, wouldn’t mind being a Baptist minister.  Then he talked briefly about different ailments and how music can help people – from freeing people with Parkinson’s disease to move and communicate, to helping Alzheimers’ patients, and others with memory loss, to unlock memories.  He talked about singing Happy Birthday during his first meeting with patients with aphasia – loss of language – and how they can often sing along with it, even those who have not spoken in several years.  Music can be used, though it takes a  long time, to encourage neuroplasticity in patients like this, so that other parts of their brains take over the lost functions.  There are musicians who have lost their memories of everything but music, those who move with a jagged gait but can play sonatas on the piano.

The evening was a strange and fascinating mix of religion, science, art, bringing together people with diverse interests and making connections between us.  Most of the audience had probably never been to the church before.  Many of those who were from the church primarily to hear the choir might have been introduced to Oliver Sacks for the first time.  I learned about the pouring of libation and a bit of the history of Gospel music.

Lingering question: there was a guy in the audience, near the front, whom I could see clearly from my seat in the balcony (the church was packed to overflowing; we sat in the windowsill).  He was probably in his thirties, longish, wavy red hair, thick black glasses, reddish beard.  I am so certain that he’s someone I’ve heard of, perhaps an author whose books or articles I’ve read, perhaps an up & coming young scientist whom I’ve seen featured in some article or another.  But I can’t for the life of me figure out who he is.  My friend agreed that he looked familiar… anyone?

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My favorite headline ever!

Monkeys Control a Robot Arm with Their Thoughts.

Basically, scientists implanted sensors over 100 neurons in the monkeys’ motor cortex, then programmed a computerized arm to respond to different firing patterns.  The monkeys were trained using biofeedback, but in a matter of days could control the arm on their own, and even used it in ways that they were not trained to, for example, licking the robot finger when some food stuck to it.  Cool.

That said, yet more evidence that biological body-brain systems are still better:

After several days, the monkeys needed no help. They sat stationary in a chair, repeatedly manipulating the arm with their brain to reach out and grab grapes, marshmallows and other nuggets dangled in front of them. The snacks reached the mouths about two-thirds of the time — an impressive rate, compared with earlier work.

Emphasis mine.

(Then again, if you took a youngster just learning to use his or her hands to feed him/herself, it would probably take more than a couple of days to reach this level of accuracy… I wonder if the monkeys will continue to improve their accuracy rate as time goes on?)

I am still waiting to be able to control children with my thoughts……

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Imagine you have a magic marker (washable) in your hand…

now draw a capital letter E on your forehead.  Go ahead, raise your hand to your head and draw it.

Did you draw it facing me (so I could read it), or facing you (so the little guy in your head could read it)?

If you read this week’s New Yorker, you know why I’m asking… there was a little piece about researchers who believe that the direction you draw your E reveals something about whether you are, at that moment, a perspective-taking kind of person (who would draw an E for others to read) or thinking from your own perspective primarily (the inward-facing E).  They hypothesized that people with more power would draw the inward-facing E, and people with less power would be more likely to take others’ perspective and draw the outward-facing E.  They primed people to feel powerful by having them write about a time they were completely dominant over someone else, then primed others to feel less powerful by having them write about being completely submissive to someone else, and sure enough, the first group was much more likely to draw the inward-facing E.

The journalist writing about it asked a lot of famous, powerful people at the Time 100 (most influential) banquet, and all but one drew outward-facing E’s.  But a banquet is a pretty other-oriented event, don’t you think?  Also, they were allowed to draw on post-it notes placed on their foreheads, and I think paper implies a reader and has a more clear front and back directionality than a forehead does (if that makes any sense).  So that’s my take on that.  Interestingly, the SNL ladies were the only ones who refused to participate… who knows why, but I would have thought that comedians would be interested in every odd facet of human behavior  – isn’t that their fuel?

Part of the reason I’m so interested in this question, even though I’m not convinced that it’s a good way to measure how powerful someone feels or how much they take another’s perspective, is that I had the strongest reaction: of course I’d draw the outward-facing E.  I can’t even imagine the other ones.  And I figured everyone else would feel the same way.  But when I started asking colleagues and friends, the first three I asked all drew inward-facing Es!

To me, my outward-facing E is a sign of the importance of communication and relationships for me… what’s the point of drawing a letter that no one can read?  my subconscious thinks.  We are who we are through the web of connections extending out from us, through the people we affect, help, inspire… well, that’s how I often feel, anyway.

What was your E?  What’s your take on this?

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The teaching has been good…

We’ve hit a point in Weather & Water where it’s one fun experiment after another, starting with the old “differential heating” experiment, comparing how water, soil, sand, and air absorb heat.  The FOSS method for this experiment was subtly different from my old method, and worked a hundred times better.  I had the kids write lab reports, and while many did not turn in first drafts, those who did turned in really, really good first drafts.  I’m excited to grade their final drafts over vacation.  It’s interesting, the Science Expo really made a positive impact on their understanding of the process of doing an experiment and writing about it.  They are still awful at identifying variables, but I don’t sweat that because in part it’s their young, developing brains struggling with cause and effect and abstraction.

We also did an experiment with aluminum and steel bars, placed in hot water, with liquid crystal temperature strips taped to the top of each bar.  As heat moved up the bar, the temperature strip changed color.  It was dramatic, easy-to-understand, and simple.  Sweet.  Their understanding of heat, radiation, and conduction seems pretty solid so far.  Right now, I’m lovin’ FOSS.

Meanwhile, I have a double-size enrichment cluster on Fridays, with another teacher: Chemistry.  I’ve put together a fun series of experiments for them to do (it’ll cost a fortune in materials, even though many are household products, but it will be worth it) to capitalize on their excitement while still teaching solid science concepts.  Last week, we started off with the vinegar & baking soda experiment, because it’s everyone’s favorite, but they had to test different variables that might speed it up or slow it down.  It was a bit rushed but very successful.  Since it’s a big, excitable group and it’s Friday last period, I let them choose groups but those groups are going to be in a competition based on points earned for doing a good job completing the lab worksheets and for behavior.  This week will be a surprise for them when they realize that some groups earned 2 points per person while others earned nothing at all!  I think it will help them focus and get more out of it, while still working with friends and having fun.

This week’s revelations:

I like teaching science.  I knew that, but this year has been a lot of change in both curriculum and in the habits of the kids, and for a while, I lost touch with what’s fun and challenging – but also easy! – about my job.

My kids – minus a few with very serious social-emotional-behavioral problems – are starting to perform like kids at my school typically do in the fall of sixth grade.  This year’s group came in a bit behind, but the gap is closing.  The work is much better.  We’re moving forward so much faster.  Then again, the weakest students might be farther behind than ever, especially those with poor attendance or who have been suspended multiple times.  But that issue is so much bigger than me and my teaching, I have to let go a little bit.  I help them as much as I can, and I ponder the broader, longer-term strategies & policies that might help them, but today, this week, this month, I let it go a little.

I’m still digging out from the pile of work and obligations.  Posting will be infrequent for the duration, bear with me.

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And on the ninth day…

the kids are preternaturally good.  And they ask questions.  If everyone on Earth gathered in one place and started running, and then stopped suddenly, would it affect the rotation of the earth?  (Help?!  My physics isn’t what it should be for this kind of question).  What is a black hole?  My dad burned his hand, do you know what to put on it to make it better?  How come we are so slow in making progress in science?  (Really: a sixth grader asked that.  Do you mean “we” like us in this classroom or like Us, I asked, waving my hands to indicate all of humanity.  Well, like the cavemen, that was a long time ago, but we haven’t made that much progress, he said.  Who are you comparing us to?  I asked.  I mean, how do you know we haven’t?  Then a little speech about change being hard, a bit of Galileo, it all led to a discussion about people in power sometimes making change even harder).  Some stuff edging up to My Church Doesn’t Believe in Evolution (and Neither Does God).  A bit from me about science and religion not necessarily being in conflict.  This is so much better than anything extrinsic.  Meanwhile, the temperature strips taped to the globe were not heating up, not changing color, in the light of the lamp meant to demonstrate solar heating and the angle of the earth.  It hasn’t changed color, I said.  Notice that I didn’t say, It didn’t work, I say, modeling scientific attitudes – no such thing as a failed experiment, just different results than what you expected.  But in my head, I’m thinking, Sh*t, it didn’t work!

I’m bluffing my way into Sony Wonder tomorrow with twelve kids.  Don’t ask, just pray for me.

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