ABS Consulting Group, Inc.: Home | Blog | Resume | Speaking | Publications

Monday, June 25, 2012

NPR Mapping Experts Miss Teachable STEM Moment

Last week the NPR show OnPoint (based out of WBUR here in Boston) discussed the new world of maps. It was prompted by the latest plans from Google and Apple but touched on privacy, how we are less spatially literate and several other important ideas.

The guests were:

Still, as is so common in these discussions for the general public, this show missed what I consider an important educational opportunity.

About halfway through the one hour program a woman called in from Lexington, KY. I'll paraphrase her comment:
She said she'd given up on her GPS since it couldn't do the job of getting her where she needed to go. She's a horse trainer and travels to rural areas. She detailed how the device got her to the correct road, but then said the destination was just up the road 100 yards on the left. But in fact it was much farther down the road on the left.
Now, we geospatial folks can readily explain that. We know the error comes from how geocoded address ranges attached to road networks are used to "guesstimate" the actual location of a specific address.

Neither the writer from Wired (who may not have known this) nor the two GIS savvy professionals (who surely did) explained the math/science behind how geocoding is still sometimes done. Instead, we learned that addresses are better in more populated areas and that Google and other map providers welcome feedback to correct such errors. Those comments are indeed true, but why not explain a bit about how these magic black boxes work and how they can (and do and will!) make such errors? Why not engage in a discussion of how fairly basic STEM ideas are behind GPS and GIS? And, most important to me, why not explain something that even young people can understand since the math is pretty basic! Why not let them own this cool piece of knowledge? Getting one's head around such ideas is so important in building STEM confidence and STEM interest - not just for kids but for adults, too!

To be fair, there may be a good reason the discussants did not go "there, " of which I may not be aware. And, I know it's easier to critique a recording than it is to respond thoughtfully in real time. Still...

One final thought. The day this program ran my housemate came downstairs after listening to it and asked: "So what did you think of the mapping thing on Tom Ashbrook [he's the host]?" I explained I specifically hadn't listened to it live since these publicly focuses mapping discussions always get me frustrated. I listened to the podcast a day later and indeed became frustrated right on queue.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

The New Business and Packaging Models for Higher Ed

In recent weeks I've come across three new business and packaging models for education. These somehow benefit the schools financially, I must believe, but also offer the student yet another way to arrange learning on the calendar. What strikes me is the variety of offerings. I expect that in time, no matter how you want to arrange your study, there will be a school that will offer a package to fit your needs. So, what are some of these new models?

New Charter University

New Charter University, an online school has an "all you can eat" policy for courses. You can take as many as you want for a flat fee as low as $796 per term ($199/mo). Course material (texts) are included and there's even a try before you buy option. The school focuses on competency, meaning if you show you know the material, even before you take the course, you can place out.

- Chronicle of Higher Ed

New England College 

New England College is a small liberal arts school in Henniker, NH. This fall the school plans to launch an online liberal arts BA program. (The school already offers AA, BA and MBA in business and selected areas.) The twist? The school will offer seven seven week terms. The courses are indeed compressed, but if you take one at a time, that's seven courses a year! How that will work for students and faculty, let alone financial aid, I'm not sure. But I love the innovation! There's not much published about this degree, save in the school's job openings.

Hartwick College

Hartwick College is a small liberal arts school in upstate New York. Selected students (with good grades and motivation) can opt to finish their entire program in three years (at the same cost per year as for four years). Even better: there's no requirement for summer study! For now only a small proportion of students opt for that experience, but they are doing quite well per the school president.

- American RadioWorks podcast

Monday, June 18, 2012

Why are our Conferences Structured just like the Educational System We Want to Change?

I’ve attended probably a dozen geospatially focused conferences in the last six or eight months. I spent probably 70% of my time at these events listening to people talk while they flipped through PowerPoint slides. The presenters mean well. They put together their slide decks and for the most part speak to the topics they promised to address. But, they rarely asked the audience a question beyond “Can you hear me ok?” Further, they rarely looked up at the assembled audience at all. I wonder what their goal was in presenting the material?

My very favorite high school teacher, Mr. Marks, who taught me both 10th grade and AP chemistry, pretty much taught that way. He stood at the board and wrote equations. He spoke in a very metered way. He pointed to the giant periodic table to his right. He did ask us questions though. “And the charge on sodium is...?” And he looked into our faces to see if we were lost or following. I recall him saying, “I think Adena has a question,” fairly regularly. I know what Mr. Marks’ goal was. He wanted us to learn chemistry. He wanted us to do well and get into college. In my senior year he wanted us to get 4s or 5s on the AP exam. We did learn chemistry and I even went on to major in the subject, alongside geography, in college.

And, as much as I loved Mr. Marks, it pains me to suggest that I learned as much despite his efforts as because of them. It was tough to sit through four hours of chemistry lectures per week. We had labs and tests, but mostly Mr. Marks spoke and we watched, listened and took notes.

Spin back to today and I’m plunked down, in the dark, watching and listening to a variety of topics, some more interesting than others. Back in high school I could not be disrespectful, nor disobey my parents so I grinned and bore it. Besides, I wanted to go to college. It was not until graduate school that one of my professors, and I confess I do not recall the context but he was not angry, explained that if you are in classroom and are not learning anything you should leave. You should not waste your time. “Wow,” I recall thinking, “Really?”

I’ve attend a few “unconferences” in the past few years and there the “law of two feet” is in effect. It pretty much says the same thing Professor Gould said back then. (Peter, not Michael, for those who may be confused.) But we don’t do that at “regular” conferences. No. We sit politely and count the minutes until we can get up, stretch our legs, get coffee and maybe, just maybe, learn something by chatting with others at the event. Why do we continue to allow ourselves to waste time at conferences pretending to watch and listen to un-engaging speakers drone on while we learn nothing and are not invited to contribute in a meaningful way?

Today’s educators are looking to exorcise boring lectures from classrooms for the young (K-12) and old (college and grad school). The move in education is away from the instructor as “sage on the stage” spewing out knowledge, toward the instructor as “guide on the side” enticing students to learn from one another or via hands on activities they tackle. “Boring lecture stuff” is being cut to a bare minimum or pushed out of school entirely in what’s called “the flipped classroom.” Lectures are watched on video at home for homework and fun group learning with hands on projects and collaboration are done in class. Are we ready to have at least some of our sessions at our conferences mimmic this model?

I am. I’ve already suggested that one geo conference scrap its traditional lecture keynote for some group learning.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Flipping Bloom's Taxonomy in Geography/GIS

Bloom's Taxonomy

I didn't learn about Bloom's taxonomy until I started teaching in a graduate program. I liked the idea of  classifying skills from least to most complex - with remembering/understanding at the bottom and evaluating and creating at the top. In the graduate program we aimed for the upper regions of the pyramid used to visualize Bloom's thinking. But as Shelley Wright writes at Powerful Learning Practice, that vision may restrict educators to think, and thus teach, with the idea that to achieve those higher skills, the lower ones must be mastered first. She argues that makes little sense and that it's time to flip the pyramid and start at the top. In particular, she suggests starting with a top level skill: creating.

She offers examples from media studies, chemistry, and English. I'll describe the chemistry one since it has some geography in it (wait for it!). Students build simple testers to determine if different solutions (NaCl, HCL, sugar, etc.) conduct electricity. After experimenting with a dozen or so solutions they try to figure out why some conduct and some don't. By looking at the compounds' makeup, students might determine that those solutions that do conduct electricity have elements from from different sides of the periodic table. (Geography!) Further exploration may indicate that all of those that do conduct have metal as one of the elements and a non-metal as the other. Hmmm. Only then does the instructor start to introduce concepts like ionic and covalent bonds. Students do some research on their own (online, in textbooks, etc.), then revisit their own observations. That sounds like a great chemistry lab, full of evaluating and hopefully some creating in the form of making new solutions to test and predict the results.

Flipping Bloom's Taxonomy in Geography/GIS Lessons

Now, how might we use creation as the first step in a geography or GIS lesson? Here are some "off the top of my head and not fully thought through" ideas:

Cartography (Objective: learn basic parts of a map)

Have students draw (by hand, on paper) maps of well-known routes in school or in the area such as the route from the school's main entrance to the football field or the route from their locker to the lunch room. Have them pair up and swap maps. The assignment is to give advice to make the map better. A student might consider these questions about the partners map: Do I know what it's a map of? What's missing? What's extra? Each pair then offers the class one thing they agree needs to be on all maps. Hopefully, across the groups most of the key components of maps will come out (legends, title, scale bars, symbols, labels, etc.) Then the class can discuss whether all are needed on every map or not.

Analysis (Objective: learn basics of setting spatial criteria)

Either on a GIS or on with paper maps, have students spend a short period of time, in groups perhaps, do a site selection (though you need not call it that just yet!). Depending on what datasets are at hand, it might be finding a spot for a new Starbucks or where it'd be best to plant a certain crop or where one is most likely to find Indian artifacts. You should give them no guidance whatsoever, just tell them to do their best with the data they have. Have each group present its solution pushing them to answer "why" that location was selected. Write down all the criteria mentioned (even those that are seemingly irrelevant) on the board. Now have the class pick out the five most important criteria. Then have them weight them. Then, if possible, run that newly developed model on a GIS. The students can research site selection, learn the vocabulary and explore some of the functions used to do site selection via GIS (vector or raster).

Scale (Objective: learn the basics of scale, small and large and when to use each)

Hang a simple geometric black and white pattern (2' x 2') at the end of a long hallway. Give students a paper border (2" x 2") to look at it through. Give each pair a square piece of paper (maybe folded to have four quadrants). Have each pair stand different distances from the pattern (1', 2', 5' 10' 20' etc.) hold up their border and look through it to the pattern. They are to draw what they see through the border on the square piece of paper. The idea is to full up the paper with what is in the border. Tack the drawings in distance order (1', 2', 5' 10' 20' etc.) on the wall. What happens as you step away? Do you see more or less of the pattern and/or what's around it? Do you see more or less detail? Depending on the accuracy of the drawings (and the nature of the pattern) you might even be able to determine the scale (RF) for each drawing by comparing the length of a line on the original to one on the drawing. Following the exercise, students can research the concept of scale and perhaps suggest more accurate ways to scale the maps they made.

Does flipping Bloom's Taxonomy sound like a good idea for geography/GIS teaching and learning? Have you taught this way in the past? Did it work? Do you have any other "create first" types of geography/GIS lessons to share?

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Yikes! Robot Teacher Lectures, Engages Students!

Sometimes researchers simply ask the wrong question.

Researchers from UW-Madison explored ways to made lectures stick in the minds of students. And, sadly, they were successful.

The story telling robots, which worked one-on-one with students were most successful when they received feedback that the student's attention was drifting. That was measured by an EEG. When interest waned, the robot was programmed to do what a human teacher might: it raised its voice or moved its arms in a meaningful way related to the story.

Students who heard stories from a robot thus outfitted answered more questions correctly about the content than those with a robot which did not make such changes or did them randomly. The research was presented at the Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems in Austin, Texas, in May.

But is that the right question? Should the question perhaps be: How else besides via a lecture can a teacher, robot, or computer teach the content?

- New Scientist