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Posts tagged ‘science’


Rubik’s cubes, Probabilities, and Patterns

One of the most interesting things to study is the question of “what are the chances of that happening?”  We hear about “an infinite number of monkeys could type up Shakespeare’s Hamlet, given enough time”… but teachers are unlikely to be able to buy up an infinite number of monkeys and typewriters (not to mention an infinite number of editors to look for the patterns of letters that are words in the play, “Hamlet”) on a teachers’ salary.

Understanding and using patterns is an important part of scientific inquiry and research.  The human brain tends to see patterns in all sorts of things (shapes in clouds, for instance, or star patterns) — some of which is just coincidence or culture and some of which is meaningful.   One of the most important activities in science is separating out patterns that are coincidence from patterns that are meaningful.  One of the simplest ways of teaching this is by using something that a teacher can easily purchase for a few dollars — a Rubik’s cube.

Show the cube to the kids and define the “solved” puzzle as the “scientific answer.”  Ask them what the odds are of having any one color (say, blue) land face up — and you can easily answer that it’s one chance in six.  Ask them to count the number of squares on each face (this will vary depending on what kind of cube you have.)

From this point you can:
* demonstrate percentage of color on surfaces and compare to the percentage of the “solved” cube
* have a number of students scramble cubes (have them all take the same number of “scrambling turns”) and graph the number of colors on each face and look for patterns
* talk about processes and patterns to solve cubes
* figure out how to make patterns (such as checkerboards or cube-within-cubes) on each face (this one takes a long time)

Some challenge patterns here:

An introductory video by Mr. Buffington (math teacher) on Rubik Cube probability is here:


Turning Classrooms Into Video Games

2013-05-19 10.23.03

One thing that teachers continually explore is “how do I make my classroom even better for the students.”  Teaching can be a very frustrating but very rewarding profession, IF you are prepared to deal with change.  Students have many different learning styles, students have many different abilities, AND our society changes how we learn and what we prefer as time goes on.  You (as a teacher) also have your own style, and learning “what works for me as a teacher” is all part of the training process for teachers.

The preferred way of teaching when I was little was similar to the first teaching methods:  make the kid sit still and repeat, punish them if they don’t do it right.  It’s brutal, but the result of this kind of teaching is that my generation is one of the best educated generations ever.

And it’s not going to work in today’s society.

So teachers, like Paul Anderson, are trying new strategies that work better in today’s schools

His TED talk covers a method being tried by a number of teachers across the nation: turning the classroom into a video game by going from teacher-centric to student-centric types of learning.  It isn’t a “magic bullet”, though, and he’s careful to point this out.  It requires a lot of planning on the part of the teacher and an understanding that reading sophistication may be a barrier to some of it.  He doesn’t mention it, but another consequence can be loss of control in the classroom (and other teachers and administrators getting on you because your classroom is noisy and disrupts other teachers so that they can’t teach.)

If you’re interested in trying this, here’s some links to get you started:

Things to think about:

Report from a teacher

Article on revitalizing education with games

A game using Algebra.  (Okay, all you Algebra-terrified people… come play.  Yes, even if you’re an adult.)

Using gaming to engage girls (I can go along with this.  I’m female.  I game.  Works for me!) Gaming can be used to revitalize girls’ interests


Frogwatch at Trinity River Audubon Center starts up!

As part of my “Community Science Investigations” project, I’m starting up this year’s Frogwatch for both Trinity River Audubon Center and Dogwood Canyon Audubon Center (because, surprisingly, in what I thought was a “frog free” environment, we DO have frogs.)  I’m particularly interested in this after the severe drought of last year.  So we’re doing a “pond watch” of the ponds here at TRAC on the third Thursday of every month.


Some general resources for frog-watch folks:

Trinity River Audubon Center:

Project Frogwatch homepage:

USGS Frog Call
Frog calls of Tennessee (overlap with Texas species, and this is phone friendly)

Snakes and frogs found at Spring Creek Preserve in Garland, TX:

And the TPWD Amphibian Watch homepage:


Facebook Helps Researchers See How Friendships Form

An interesting press release which correlates loosely to something I’m studying.  For me, an important “take away” lesson is that unless you are a public figure to some degree (a web comics artist, for instance), your circle of friends and acquaintances will all tend have very similar opinions about many things.


This is why so many people tend to think the whole world shares their view about everything.


T’aint so…

Long-term study analyzes social selection and peer influence in online environments

Image showing college students' tastes and social networks on Facebook.

College students’ tastes and social networks on Facebook.
Credit and Larger Version

December 19, 2011

New research funded by the National Science Foundation and published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by three Harvard University sociologists examines how we select our friends and the role that friendship plays in transmitting tastes and new ideas.

Relationships are basic building blocks of society, and understanding who befriends whom can therefore provide insight into patterns of social segregation, mechanisms for the reproduction of inequality, social support (including mental and emotional health), and access to job opportunities. Some have even viewed these relationships as a means to influence behavior whether to control obesity or target advertising. But is it really that easy, even on the Internet, to make friends with people who have different cultural upbringings, different interests, different backgrounds and different tastes in movies, music and books?

“At the end of the day, we have to ask ourselves how much of online interaction–and friendship formation in general–really is about reaching out to new people and learning about totally new ideas and perspectives that don’t really interest us,” said Ph.D. candidate and coauthor Kevin Lewis, “as opposed to seeking out those perspectives and ideas we already like?”

Lewis and another Ph.D. candidate, Marco Gonzalez, coauthored a paper along with principal investigator Jason Kaufman, which used Facebook to examine whether people become friends because they resemble one another or whether people become more like their friends over time.

They found people’s individual tastes influence the formation of friendships much more than a person’s individual, pre-existing tastes spread through his or her friendships.

“One feature of Internet relationships that is particularly amenable to our research question is the extent to which it fosters users to communicate their own taste preferences and consumption patterns,” said Kaufman. “Such self-presentation is a normal part of everyday life, but sites like Facebook encourage and codify it.”

Using a unique, four-year, longitudinal study based on the Facebook activity of a cohort of college students, the researchers studied whether tastes in music, movies and books spread among friends over time. They discovered that students who like certain kinds of music and movies are indeed more likely to become friends on Facebook, but the “diffusion” of tastes through friendship ties was extremely rare.

Friends befriended others with whom they shared interests; they did not generally adopt new interests because had developed new friends.

The finding challenges other, recent, highly-publicized research about the importance of peer influence.

“Given the prior research on social epidemics, we found the nearly complete absence of peer influence effects to be rather striking,” said Lewis, the project’s first author and a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard.

“Some of the prior social epidemic research has also recently come under fire on methodological grounds,” said Lewis. “The researchers may be finding so much peer influence because the kinds of models they are running aren’t appropriate and they are misinterpreting their findings.”

“Though many prior studies have attempted to disentangle these two mechanisms [selection and influence], their respective importance is still very poorly understood,” the researchers write in the report “Social Selection and Peer Influence in an Online Social Network.”

“In contrast, the method we used is basically the first tool that is able to disentangle the two processes in a statistically adequate fashion,” Lewis said.

“Our research is unique in that it uses data on a complete social network of respondents–a cohort of students from the same college,” said Kaufman, “and tracks the evolution of that network over time. Because members of the network were, at the same time, listing what they perceived to be their ‘favorite’ music, movies and books, we were able to closely examine the co-evolution of both their social networks and their cultural tastes.”

Then, using state of the art statistical methods, the researchers were able to tease apart the contrasting effects of selection and influence. And they also discovered that simple generalizations don’t always hold. For example, the role books played in friendship formation was different from other forms of media.

The researchers found tastes in books don’t seem to influence Facebook friendship formation in the same way as tastes in music and movies.

Watching a movie and listening to music are things that can be done with peers, allowing opportunities for social interaction, bonding and meeting new people, but reading typically is a solitary pursuit.

But if a student’s friends liked “indie/alt” music, the student was less likely to adopt the same tastes, presumably because the value of “indie/alt” taste comes precisely from being the only person among one’s friendship group that likes it.

In contrast, though, the researchers also found that students whose friends expressed tastes in “classical/jazz” were significantly more likely to adopt such tastes themselves, so interest in some musical genres diffused among friends. With these few exceptions, though, preferences did not generally appear to be “contagious” among Facebook friends over the duration of college.


Media Contacts

Bobbie Mixon, NSF (703) 292-8485

Program Contacts

Regina E. Werum, NSF (703) 292-2690

Principal Investigators

Jason Kaufman, Harvard University (617)-461-8389


Kevin Lewis, Harvard University (617) 461-8389




Google’s Self-Driving Car Has Accident

There’s been a lot of buzz about the facts (and non-facts and speculation) over at Jalopnik, but the basics of the story are that one of Google’s self-driving Prius cars has been involved in a street accident in a California city.  The number of vehicles involved varies, and it’s said by Google that the car was being manually driven by a human being at the time of the accident.


But all’s not QUITE as it seems.  It appears that self-driving cars must still have a human at the wheel in order to be allowed on the streets.  These automobiles aren’t actually non-directed robots — you can’t simply turn them on, upload a program, and let them drive around and take photos.  This New York Times story talks about how these cars are being driven and what it’s like to ride as a passenger in the vehicle.  And it actually sounds like a lot of fun!  I think that if I had a few million dollars to invest, I’d hotfoot it over to the nearest dealership and buy one of those in a heartbeat!


The concept of a human-robot driving team does have quite a bit of appeal to me, particularly in cases where there’s a long road trip or traffic is difficult.  I don’t know if it’s allowed for the human to nap while the car drives, but it strikes me that such a system would actually benefit long-haul truckers.  It’d certainly improve safety (which Google says is their goal.)


I do wonder, though, whether the automated system might “get in the way” in unexpected ways.  As an example, our GPS systems are wonderful and work beautifully most of the time, but there’s a number of instances where we actually need to override their suggestions and not follow blindly along.




Why Does Life Expectancy Vary So Much in High-Income Countries?

We’re living longer, but in part that depends on exactly where we’re living.  Life expectancy of those over age 50 in the United States has been rising since the 1980’s — but much more slowly than similar high-income countries, such as Japan and Australia — in spite of the fact that the United States spends more on health care than any other nation. The National Institute on Aging and the National Research Council teamed up to examine the evidence about the causes.

These causes are presented in Explaining Divergent Levels of Longevity in High-Income Countries.  Some of the aspects, such as current obesity levels, are not novel observations.  But two more unusual factors identify the United State’s history of heavy smoking as one big part of the picture and a lack of universal access to health care in the U.S. as a second factor.

However, the report shows evidence for the success of Medicare since the main causes of death at older ages — cancer and cardiovascular disease — show that cancer detection and survival appear to be better in the U.S. than in most other high-income nations, and survival rates following a heart attack also are favorable.

Explaining Divergent Levels of Longevity in High-Income Countries identifies many gaps in research. For instance, while lung cancer deaths are a reliable marker of the damage from smoking, no clear-cut marker exists for obesity, physical inactivity, social integration, or other risks considered in this book. Moreover, evaluation of these risk factors is based on observational studies, which — unlike randomized controlled trials — are subject to many biases.

Available as a free PDF here: