Category Archives: Education

February #WATWB: Bicycling for the Climate

We are the World LogoI’ve written about adventure cycling for the We are the World Blogfest before, when I wrote about my friend Jasmine Reese, who is cycling across the country and around the world with her dog and her violin.

This month I want to call attention to another adventure cyclist, local resident Tim Oye, who is riding for Climate Ride, a nonprofit that organizes events to raise awareness and support for “active transportation” and environmental causes. Tim’s ride will take him through Death Valley this coming week.  Tim will also be giving a presentation at my church on Saturday night.

Environmental advocate and Sunnyvale resident, Tim Oye, is biking across the US to talk with adults and kids about Oceans, Plastic, and Climate Change. While bicycling 4500 miles from San Francisco to Boston, he will stop to give a talk about bicycling across the continent, how day-to-day human activities affect our oceans, and what we all can do to save our environment for our kids. With a degree in Chemistry from Harvard and after more than 30 years in high tech doing product development at Apple, Sun, and Adobe, Tim switched careers to pursue environmental advocacy and public service. He is a certified bicycling instructor with the League of American Bicyclists, a coach instructor for the American Youth Soccer Organization, a 4-H leader, and on the cutting edge of going zero waste.

I worked on “Anything But a Car Day” at my son’s school last year. It is an initiative to promote kids biking to school safely. My son biked to middle school. Now, in high school, he lives close enough that he can walk.

GrahamABCDay

I like to bicycle and I used to ride my bike to work when I had a shorter commute, but I am not as hard-core as these adventure cyclists. We can’t all do everything but we all can do something!

Bike

The “We Are the World Blogfest” (#WATWB) shares positive news on social media. Cohosts for this month are: Inderpreet Uppal Shilpa GargSylvia McGrath , Peter Nena, and Belinda WitzenHausenPlease check out their WATWB posts and say hello!

WATWIC-Bright-TuqBlk

Advertisements

High School, Again

It’s 6:45 am but it might as well by 1:45 am. Or 2:45. It’s dark as night out and i have to go to work.

I started a new job in January. I am a teaching fellow in a highly academic, STEM-focused school, training to become a Biology teacher. I’ve spent the last 5 years teaching science part-time with a small educational non-profit. While this was good for my family life and my music-making, it was time to go back to work full-time again. My daughter is in college and my son is in high school. They are both pretty self-sufficient now.

As I walk through the noisy hallways of the school, which is located in a converted office building, I am surprised and a little dismayed by a feeling of deja vu. This is a private independent school (which means I can teach here without a teaching credential) whereas I went to a public school in a more typical public school building. But it’s no secret that I didn’t enjoy high school very much the first time around. I was 2 years younger than my peers and a social late bloomer. I have realized in retrospect that I was suffering from at least social anxiety, math anxiety, and their granddaddy, performance anxiety. Awareness of all of these, as with many mental health issues, is much better nowadays, as is treatment. But this time of life can still be fraught for many teens, especially here in hyper-achievement-oriented Silicon Valley.

Some folks have even asked me, why do this at all? I have a PhD, so perhaps I could get another biotech or project management job. Perhaps. But when I did work in those fields I felt like there was something missing: a human connection, a child-like joy in learning new things. I felt that joy intermittently in music, and with my kids, but rarely at work. I was stuck forever looking for my “passion” in all the wrong places.

Teaching, though, makes sense. In a weird way, it’s like coming home. There is something very primal, and comforting about having a bell schedule and class periods that are the same every day. The subjects are familiar too. While cutting-edge science has marched ahead, high school physics and math remain much the same. They are learned at younger and younger ages though; the AP Calculus I learned as a senior is taken here by sophomores and juniors. And, as Christa McAuliffe said, it touches the future. I’m here now as a teacher in midlife because I wasn’t ready before. I only came to like teaching after I became a parent and taught in a number of informal, non-school settings like church and Girl Scouts. It’s time, after all those years, to face down that anxiety and defang it.

Tomorrow is another day. The alarm rings at 5:45.

Motion

December 20th 2018 was my last day at my old job. I worked as an instructor at the educational non-profit, Science from Scientists, for over 5 years. Fittingly, my last day took place at Lipman Middle School, the same school I started in when I moved to CA in 2015.

parkinglot1stday
View from the Lipman parking lot, my first day, in 2015

Nestled on the side of San Bruno Mountain in Brisbane CA (pronounced “Briz-bane,” not like the “BRIS-bin” in Australia), Lipman is in an idyllic environment. Like many public schools in CA, it comprises a collection of smaller buildings, which students walk between and among to get to classes. (One aspect of school I always disliked when I was a student was the “closed campus” rule that students couldn’t leave the grounds during school hours. If they did, even to go to, say, the pizza place across the street for lunch, they faced severe consequences. Suspension for getting a slice of pizza—a strange prison-like mentality.)

parkinglot2016
Almost the same view, a year later

Lipman, though, has an outdoor classroom the woods, and we were able to do some of our SciSci lessons outside. Beanbag tossing with prism goggles could get a little rowdier than usual outside, and no one would mind.

beanbagthrowing
Tossing beanbags at a target while wearing prism goggles. “Altered Reality”

Other days, we fished, we looked at the moon, we made DNA origami, and we built models of brains.

Our last class before Christmas break was a lesson called “Rover Restraint.” Many schools do this: students have to build a contraption to keep a raw egg from breaking when dropped from a height of around 8 feet. In our version, we compare it to landing a Mars rover like Curiosity.

And to keep expectations in check and the playing field level for everyone, we limit the planning and building to one class period, using only the materials we bring with us from SciSci. I stand on a stool and drop each entrant from the same height. This procedure usually leads to a nice mix of some eggs cracking and some surviving, and a range of designs and budgets, making it relatively straightforward to pick a winner. (The winning group gets a nice set of SciSci pencils!)

Onward and upward! I’m going to miss Lipman, and Rover Restraint. This post is 2 weeks late for Dr. KO’s Mundane Monday prompt, Motion.

parkinglot2018
View from the parking lot in 2018 during the devastating Camp Fire, 180 miles away

 

Thursday Doors: Mural

I started a new full-time job last week. I’ve been too busy with it to blog about it in detail–too busy to blog at all, in fact. But I wanted to get started again with this week’s Thursday Doors.

Behind the school where I work, there is an astroturf “lawn” and a basketball court. There are also some picnic tables for the students to eat lunch. And a door.

sciencemuraldoor

Students painted this mural, with names of famous cultural figures, next to the back door last year. I like how they included two genders and several nationalities. I spend a lot of time looking at this mural when I’m supervising student lunch.

I have showed a school, with murals, in Thursday Doors before. That school was a more typical California public school, with a lot of separate buildings.

treepainting

My new school is different. It is located in a former office building in San Jose. Architecturally it is unusual for a school too, with a lot of windows but not much in the way of athletic facilities. These students are more interested in science than sports anyway.

sciencemuraltable

Thursday Doors is a weekly feature allowing door lovers to come together to admire and share their favorite door photos from around the world. Feel free to join in on the fun by creating your own Thursday Doors post and then sharing it, between Thursday morning and Saturday noon (North American Eastern Time), on the linky list at Norm 2.0’s blog

Thursday Doors: Birthday Library

For my birthday this year, I got my own Little Free Library. I’ve wanted one for almost as long as I knew that they existed, but I had been a little intimidated by the cost or by the thought of having to build one myself. Then I was also not sure about how to put it up in the yard. It seemed like a lot of effort.

But I really like these little libraries, and I’ve included a few in past Thursday Doors posts, for example here.

img_3119

This library sits outside the UU church of Palo Alto, which I have attended a few times. There is another outside Brewer Island Elementary School (where I taught about photosynthesis this morning), painted blue like the school.

And I recently found a geocache in this Little Free Library in Redwood City, in a neighborhood near Roy Cloud Elementary, where I am teaching tomorrow. It kind of looks like an elf lives there.

ElfLibrary

I wish I’d been more systematic about taking pictures of all the libraries I’ve found, especially the ones where I’ve found geocaches.

Because finally, I am going to have my own! I got an unfinished one for my birthday. Right now it is still sitting on the floor in the front entryway, next to the shoe rack.

LFLUnfinished

But it is pretty close to being ready to go. And, because this is Thursday Doors, notice the nice doors on it! My husband ordered it from LittleFreeLibrary.org. The post came the next day. It is extremely tall (I include some of the room furnishings for scale):

LFLPost

I’d like to paint it with some kind of music theme, or space/sci-fi theme. But the picture hasn’t quite crystallized yet. And it looks like I will have to dig quite a deep hole for that post!

Thursday Doors is a weekly feature allowing door lovers to come together to admire and share their favorite door photos from around the world. Feel free to join in on the fun by creating your own Thursday Doors post and then sharing it, between Thursday morning and Saturday noon (North American Eastern Time), on the linky list at Norm 2.0’s blog

Mundane Monday: Assembling the Bones

This week’s Mundane Monday theme is “bones.” For this theme, Dr. KO has a nice picture of an alligator snapping turtle skeleton, which you should definitely check out (also, raise your hand if you knew before this that there was a such thing as an “alligator snapping turtle.” My hand is not up). At first I was concerned I wouldn’t have anything for this week, and then I remembered. This is a great lead-in to the topic that’s been on my mind recently: Back to School!

I have not had much time for blogging lately because my teaching job has started up again. I teach middle-grade science with a non-profit organization called Science from Scientists. Regular school, including my kids’ high school and college, started already a while ago, but SciSci gives the teachers and students a week or two to get settled in before we start our visits. This year I have two completely new schools and two new co-Instructors to work with. I’m also going back to two schools I worked with last year and liked.

One of our most popular lessons at SciSci includes the dissection of an owl pellet. Most of my prior exposure to owls has been via children’s fiction, and I first learned about the pellets as an adult when I taught this lesson.

53-49302-mister-rogers-with-owl-and-cat-puppets-1528306507
Mr Rogers’ neighborhood had an owl in it!

Owls don’t poop. They eat their prey whole and digest it in the gizzard, a second stomach. They absorb nutrients like we do from the soft parts of the prey, and eventually regurgitate a pellet containing the indigestible bits (mainly fur and/or feathers and bones). This is a YouTube video of the process that we show our students. It was taken in Ontario in 2014:

Will you ever look at Hedwig quite the same way again?

harry_potter_and_hedwig

One of the many cool things about owl pellets is that you can dissect them and find out what the owl has eaten. If you buy the pellets from Carolina Biological Supply like we do, you usually find a mouse skeleton, maybe two, in the pellet. Occasionally you might find a bird. The prey animals can be identified by the skulls, and sometimes a large portion of the skeleton can be reconstructed.

AssemblingBones
Students dissecting an owl pellet and reconstructing a skeleton

These bones are quite small, but very interesting!

BirdSkeleton

 

Amazing New Brain Map of Every Synapse Points to the Roots of Thinking

Dave Wolf is on a roll this month with posting cool neuroscience articles! This study, from a team at the University of Edinburgh, is a real tour de force that takes advantage of modern technology in neuroscience. I can imagine that some day that we will be able to map the human synaptome, non-invasively, and in real time. Then we would finally have the tools to address more fruitfully questions such as the nature/nurture debate, how mindfulness changes the brain, even the nature of consciousness and transcendent experiences. Check out author Shelly Fan’s other work too!

author david wolf

By Shelly Fan – Aug 14, 2018*

Imagine a map of every single star in an entire galaxy. A map so detailed that it lays out what each star looks like, what they’re made of, and how each star is connected to another through the grand physical laws of the cosmos.

While we don’t yet have such an astronomical map of the heavens, thanks to a momentous study published last week in Neuron, there is now one for the brain.

If every neuron were a galaxy, then synapses—small structures dotted along the serpentine extensions of neurons—are its stars. In a technical tour-de-force, a team from the University of Edinburgh in the UK constructed the first detailed map of every single synapse in the mouse brain.

Using genetically modified mice, the team literally made each synapse light up under fluorescent light throughout the brain like the starry night. And similar to…

View original post 1,306 more words

Film Review: Fallen Kingdom, The New Modern Prometheus

This year, 2018, marks the 200th anniversary of the publication of Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. The classic novel was written as a parlor game in 1816, the year without a summer, by the teenage Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (later Mary Shelley).

FrankensteinCover
Wordsworth Classic Edition

The Governing Myth

FrankensteinHRWEdition
HRW Edition

Her story of Dr. Victor Frankenstein and his monster casts a long shadow. Its adaptations in popular culture have become what author Jon Turney calls “the governing myth of modern biology“: a cautionary tale of overreaching by a scientist that ends in tragedy and death.

A central tenet of this myth is that the monster, cobbled together from dead body parts and animated by electricity–created by man not God–is against the natural order of life. The story’s horror comes not just from fear of dying at the monster’s hand, but from a more primal sense that the universe itself will not abide this creation or those that created it. In the words of Ian Malcom, “Life finds a way.”

The Myth Updated

attenborough_miracle_on_34th_st
Richard Attenborough in Miracle on 34th Street. Image: Jurassic Park wiki

The original Jurassic Park updated this governing myth for the 20th century. Instead of electricity and magnetism, the sexy new science to be harnessed is genetic engineering. And instead of a humanoid monster killing everything its creator loves, we have dinosaurs. But the same hubris, greed, and willful ignorance remain–along with the same sense of wonder and naive good intentions.

In a humanizing scene, John Hammond (played by Santa Claus from the remake of Miracle on 34th Street) explains to Dr. Sattler that he wanted to bring magic to children with Jurassic park, just as he did years ago with a flea circus. But his park is collapsing, melting all around him, along with his ice cream and his dreams.

jurassic-park2
Jurassic Park Ice Cream. Image: Popcorn Cowboy

John Hammond, like Dr. Frankenstein before him, gets his comeuppance by the end of the book (although it takes a few movies to finish him off). And, the other craven greedy villains such as Donald Gennaro and Dennis Nedry become dinosaur food quickly and spectacularly. While of course the cute kids, Hammond’s grandchildren, survive.

Leaving the island of the dinosaurs after his misadventures, protagonist and good guy Dr. Alan Grant looks out of the helicopter to see modern pelicans flying as they should. His theory of dinosaur-to-bird evolution has been validated. His skepticism about Jurassic park itself has been vindicated, too, at great cost, and all is back in balance.

giphy
Image: GIPHY

Life found a way to put humans in their place.

Science, not Myth

The original Jurassic Park had unforgettable characters, amazing effects, an awesome music score, and was thematically resonant with Frankenstein, a timeless classic of English literature.

1-extraction-mr-dna
Image: Jurassic Park wiki

Jurassic Park also, almost unique among modern science fiction movies, contained a testable scientific hypothesis. The story spawned a virtual cottage industry of scientists looking for ancient DNA in amber until the half-life of DNA molecules was calculated several years ago. These results showed definitively that Jurassic-era DNA could not have survived long enough to be reconstructed to clone dinosaurs. Real-life Henry Wu wannabees will have to make do with trying to bring back animals more recently extinct.

The Myth Transformed

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom is like Jurassic Park‘s ugly stepsister, a monster cobbled together crooked from all the shiny parts of the original. Its dinosaurs are bigger, badder, and uglier. The heroes are hiding out in remote cabins and ineffective non-profit organizations. The benevolent-ish grandpa, this time named Ben Lockwood, isn’t Santa Claus. He’s an invalid who is being taken advantage of by his underlings.

And the cute grandchild, Maisie? There’s something otherworldly about her too. She lives by herself, except for an elderly governess, in a creaky old mansion above a museum, and looks and talks like English musical child prodigy Alma Deutscher.

Most of the plot of Fallen Kingdom will surprise no one. People stand there, mouths open, until they get lunched by dinosaurs. Greed and hubris are again on display in ever-uglier forms. A plucky child escapes death by dinosaur and makes a fateful decision. The audience will probably cheer when a particularly horrible example of humanity tries to take a trophy from a dinosaur he thinks is asleep and then loses his arm, and his life, in the process.

What is different in Fallen Kingdom is that while the body counts pile up, balance is no longer restored to the movie’s universe. The otherworldly Maisie turns out not to be Ben Lockwood’s granddaughter at all, but a clone of his deceased daughter. The flying creatures Owen sees at the end of Fallen Kingdom aren’t Dr. Grant’s friendly pelicans. They’re pteranodons.

pteranodon04
Image: Jurassic World Universe

In their race to save and weaponize the most clever and aggressive dinosaurs, the humans of Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom abandon another of their creations, the gentle plant-eating brachiosaurus. This is the same species that first evoked awe and wonder in the original Jurassic Park. The scene where a brachiosaurus calls to the retreating human ship as it awaits its own death on the island has become an audience tear-jerker. “That scene represents the ending of a dream that started 25 years ago,” says director J.A. Bayona.

I think this scene represents a new reading of the Frankenstein myth for modern scientists. Frankenstein’s creation does not start out cruel and murderous. He only becomes that way when he is abandoned by his creator. Hank van den Belt, a Dutch professor of philosophy, writes in Science magazine that Dr. Frankenstein’s greatest moral shortcoming was that he did not assume responsibility for his own creature and failed to give him the care he needed. Owen’s conscience is similarly pricked when he realizes how he may have failed to give Blue the care she needed.

Modern audiences for Frankenstein sometimes confuse the name of the scientist with the name of the monster. This confusion mirrors the increasingly monstrous behavior of the scientist. Dr. MG Bishop of King’s College Hospital in London is quoted in the same issue of Science:

Read the book and weep for those we have rejected, and fear for what revenge they will exact, but shed no tears for Frankenstein. Those who think, in ignorance of the book, that his is the name of the Monster are in reality more correct than not.

SadBrachiosaurus
A sad brachiosaurus awaits its death on Isla Nublar as the last rescue boat leaves

In Fallen Kingdom, life as we know it no longer finds a way back. Instead, the worst impulses of human nature have found a way to transform nature itself.

This review also appears in slightly edited form on Movie Babble

 

Book Review: The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

The Hate U GiveThe Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I will start by thanking PJ Lazos at Green Life Blue Water, who introduced me to this book, The Hate U Give, a debut novel by Angie Thomas. I might not have read it without her excellent review; I was initially turned off by the word “hate” in the title and by the prospect of YA fiction preachiness. Those concerns were completely unfounded. This novel is a great read: sad, funny, forgiving, and wise. And Starr, the viewpoint character, is a strong and relatable voice.

The novel’s plot comes straight from tragic headlines. Starr is the only eyewitness to her black friend Khalil’s shooting at the hands of a white police officer. She tells the story to the media and eventually testifies before a grand jury. The officer who killed Khalil is not indicted. But those are only the bare bones. The meat of the story is about Starr’s conflicts due to straddling two worlds: the inner city ‘hood where she grew up and still lives, and the wealthy, mostly white, suburb where she goes to private school.

I am not qualified to speak to its authenticity regarding African-American culture, but because of Thomas’ skill at writing vivid characters and dialog, I found most of the book very easy to understand and relate to. I especially appreciated the way the author was able to walk the reader through Starr’s thought processes as she moves from being a terrified, silent teenager to a more mature activist, ready to speak her mind and shine a light on injustice. At first I was a little impatient with her reticence; it seemed self-defeating to me and I wondered where it came from in such an otherwise bold and self-aware character. But then even Starr herself shared the same impatience, and she was a self-aware enough narrator to figure out and explain the effects that fear, conditioning, and loyalty had on her. These insights are not something one can understand merely from reading headlines on the news.

After I finished the book I realized that it contained characters that touched on almost every point of view, and that those choices must have been deliberate. There was a heroin-addicted parent, a clueless and mean white girl, an abusive drug kingpin, an activist female attorney, a set of fiercely protective parents, an upper middle class black family jokingly referred to as the Huxtables, a well-meaning white boyfriend, an Asian friend and ally, and a strict family matriarch. In fact, if you watch the TV show “Black-ish,” you may recognize the broad outlines of many of these characters, or at least their quirks. But at the same time each character had his or her own unique voice that made the novel fresh and original. The author has a wonderful ear for dialogue that never sounds forced or confusing, in spite of the liberal use of slang. Reading this book is like being a part of Starr’s extended family.

I was also initially a bit wary of this book because I was afraid it would be a downer, something to feed despair and hopelessness about the brokenness of our world. Nothing could be further from the truth. Young people like the author and the real communities represented by Starr and her friends can point the way forward and give us all hope for the future.

View all my reviews

Thursday “Tors”: Brandenburg

So I am here in Berlin, and I have wifi. Woot!

“Tor,” which sounds a lot like “door,” is the German word for gate. (It’s also the German word for “goal,” which you’ll be hearing a lot of with the World Cup about to start). The most famous Tor in Berlin, and perhaps in all of Europe, is the Brandenburger Tor. According to wikipedia, “the Brandenburg Gate was often a site for major historical events and is today considered not only as a symbol of the tumultuous history of Europe and Germany, but also of European unity and peace.”

I lived in Germany for 8 months in 1983. I graduated from high school young and took a gap year between high school and college, living with my family while my professor father took a sabbatical at the Freie Universitaet in Berlin.

This is what the Brandenburger Tor looked like back then, in a picture I took with a Kodak Instamatic. You could only see the back of the chariot on top, from a distance, behind the Berlin Wall, and the whole structure was pretty dirty.

“Achtung! Sie verlassen West-Berlin”

“Attention! You are leaving West Berlin,” the sign informs you, in case you were confused about the concrete wall, the no-man’s land, and the guard towers nearby.

BrandenburgGateWall
Brandenburg Gate from the West, May 1983

(Admittedly, the faded color printing doesn’t help, but it’s held up surprisingly well for 35 years.)

This is what it looks like today, from the other side, on the famous avenue, “Unter den Linden.” The gate itself has been cleaned up, the wall is gone, and there are tourists everywhere.

IMG_3514

This souvenir shop now hangs the opposite sign over its door: “ACHTUNG Sie verlassen jetzt Ost-Berlin” (Attention you are now leaving East Berlin). Our kids, who weren’t yet born when the wall fell, don’t remember anything different. To them, Berlin’s Tor has always been open.

Achtung

Thursday Doors is a weekly feature allowing door lovers to come together to admire and share their favorite door photos from around the world. Feel free to join in on the fun by creating your own Thursday Doors post each week and then sharing it, between Thursday morning and Saturday noon (North American eastern time) at Norm 2.0’s blog here.