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Monday, June 24, 2013

To high school students who hate high school (and to those who love it). Some things to do this summer.

Every day, high school students get to this blog by typing “high school is useless” or something similar. I worry about those kids, but I also worry about the kids who think high school is very important, who study all the time, and who obsess about getting into a “good college.”

The good news is that it is summertime. Now you can forget about school and actually learn something. The teacher is you. (Your teacher will really always be you. If others in your life can help, great, but it will still be you in the end.)

So what should you do this summer? Here are ten suggestions:

  1. start a business 

This is, of course, easier said than done. That having been said, my five year old grandson, Max, ran a lemonade stand the other day, made some money and was very excited about it. Think about how people make money where you live. Think about what services are lacking where you live. Think about what people need that you could provide. Maybe your business could be on the web and sell to people like you. What would you buy from someone like you? They don’t teach how to start a business in high school. They should but they don’t. 

2 learn a real skill

What constitutes a real skill? Computer programming is a real skill. Glass blowing is a real skill. Carpentry is a real skill. Playing music is a real skill. Building something is a real skill. Pick something that sounds appealing and find out how to learn to do it. Then practice a lot.

3 play sports

Why is this important? Because sports teaches you a few very important things that school misses. One is how to lose. Another is humility. No matter what sport you pick there will always be someone better than you at it. Sports teaches you to try harder. Sports teaches you how your body works and how to make it work better. All stuff school ignores that is very important.

4 invent something

What is missing in the world we live in? Think about it. The world is constantly changing. Who will be helping make the changes of the future? Why not you? See what is wrong out there and try to fix it. Ask what you wish you had and figure out how to invent it.

5 hang out with small children

Why does this matter? Because probably you are going to be a parent some day. Schools don’t teach parenting skills. (I have no idea why not. Why do they think parenting isn’t worth teaching?) Volunteer to help take care of kids in some way. You will learn a lot about them and about yourself.

6 do some real science

Is there something you are curious about? Now is the time. Science isn’t about memorizing facts they teach in school. Science is about investigation and discovery. Science is about finding evidence and causes. Do some real science. Investigate something. Think about the health of your parents. The habits of your dog, the growth of trees, water, airplanes, cars. It doesn't matter what. Find out how they work. Figure out what might make them work better. This is real science.

7 read

Yes. Read. Sounds like something your teacher would tell you. In this case they would be right. If the only thing you read all day is texts and web sites, you are not reading. Read something complicated. Read about something that requires logical arguments, gets your mind spinning, forces you to provide counter arguments, and makes you want to discuss it with people who know more than you do. It doesn't  matter what you read about. It does matter that you think about something new in a careful reasoned way. And it also matters that you talk about what you have read.

8 learn a language

Learning a new language can teach you a great deal about how your mind works and how your culture works. The only real way to learn one is to go somewhere where they speak that language and speak only that language for a while. When you are young it is easy to learn a language. Spend the summer learning a language and you will never regret it.

9 meet someone new

I don’t mean a new person who is like all the people you already know. Find someone from a different culture, a different world, who has nothing in common with you. Find out about them. Hang out with a different group. See the world from someone else’s perspective. Everything you know about the world, everything you are most sure of, will be shaken up if you do this. This is a good thing.

10 be bored

Sit quietly. Turn off all electronics. See what happens to your mind. Let it go while you are doing nothing -- absolutely nothing  -- for an hour. You will be amazed at what happens when you shut it all down and let your mind wander. You will find out what you really think about things.

Try this stuff. It will put school in proper perspective for you.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Universities have to stop this nonsense about research and majors; Southern Utah?

As it happens I spent last week at a resort in Southern Utah (my wife’s choice.) We did various outdoor activities, sometimes with guides in a place that looked like this.

I spoke at length with one of the guides about his life. He is a young kid and I was wondering what his plans were. I assumed he wanted to continue to live in the area. He said he did. I asked him what else he was doing. He told me he was student at Southern Utah University and that he was majoring in botany.
I know universities pretty well, but I had managed to miss this one. What I didn’t miss was the idea that he was majoring in botany. Really?
I looked up SUU and found their botany major page which includes the following testimonial from a successful graduate.

Name: Vicki Tyler
Graduated: 2002 Double Major
Biology/Zoology & Communications/Public Relations
Current job: Natural Resources Specialist,
Bureau of Land Management
"I would put my education at SUU up against almost anyone’s! I loved the undergraduate research opportunities and feel I had the opportunity to do some research that most students only get to do at a graduate level. If I could pinpoint one thing that I really learned from ALL the professors in the SUU biology department, it was “application” - putting those things we learned to use in the real world. This alone has benefited me more than you will ever know, and has enabled me to compete for a variety of wildlife/biology related jobs. Keep up the good work SUU!"

Apart from the fact that this woman wasn’t actually a botany major, I couldn’t help but wonder how many jobs there are with the Bureau of Land Management. But what caught my eye is what she said about research. This is consistent message from all the top universities. Research is what they teach, not job skills. But SUU? Surely this isn’t a hotbed of research nor is that what their students should be learning.

When I questioned our guide about the wisdom of being a botany major if you want to continue to live in Southern Utah, he told me that his friends thought he would be better off as a chemistry major.
So I checked the SUU successful graduate page for chemistry majors. Here is the man they have up there:

Name: Joseph E. Carpenter
Graduated: Class of 2005
Current job: Graduate Research Assistant
Princeton University
"The diverse opportunities for research and rigorous academic requirements at Southern Utah University provided the training and knowledge base that have enabled me to achieve my highest academic goals."

Now, as a professor, I recognize this version of success. He got to go to Princeton so he is the best they can even think about producing. (The fact that he is still a graduate student 8 years after graduation I will ignore.)
Note again the emphasis on research. I guess SUU is just a research mecca. Somehow I missed it.
But my guide didn’t want to be a chemistry major to do research. He heard he could get a job in pharmaceuticals. Is there is pharmaceutical company in Southern Utah?  
Universities around the world are doing their students a serious disservice. They act as if the most likely and best job a graduate will get will be in research and that students go to a university in order to become researchers. This is very sad, a waste of money and a waste of human talent. There relay aren’t that many researchers, but there are a lot of unemployed graduates.
There aren’t that many employed art historians either, another possible major at SUU:

Name: Kari Elizabeth Lowell
Class of: 2010 Southern Utah University
"My experience with the art history program at SUU has opened my eyes to a new way of viewing and interpreting art from past decades. The professors in the art history department are very knowledgeable, inspiring, and personal."

Notice that this art history graduate is not employed. Why is there an art history major at SUU?
I checked one more, economics. Another success story:

Name: Jeff Dotson
Class of: 2002 Southern Utah University
Current job: Assistant Professor of Marketing, Owen
Graduate School of Management,
Vanderbilt University
"I loved my experience in the Economics department at SUU! The quality of instruction and personal attention provided by the faculty was excellent. Not only did they help me gain a solid understanding of the fundamentals of economics, they helped me develop a passion for the subject that ultimately led me to graduate school. As a graduate student I was as well, if not better prepared for advanced studies than the majority of my peers."

When I was at Yale I used to remark that Yale was in the professor training business. That is not so terrible because professors have to be created somewhere and Yale is one of those places. Occasionally, I suppose, SUU creates a professor as well. And, that is seen as a great success of the system. However there are 7000 students at SUU and there will not be very many professors produced out of that group.
Now, I know nothing about SUU. Never heard of it before. And that is precisely my point. Take a look at any university and you will hear about its excellent track record in research and how it teaches students to do research. They can’t all be excellent research places and research is not all that important to the average student. 

SUU ought to try counseling its students about job opportunities before they select a major. All schools ought to do that, but believe me they don’t. 

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Milo takes a computer class and eventually will learn Powerpoint. Yippee!

My daughter sent me a report on a conversation she had with Milo last week:

My Daughter: I sent Papa a list of all the stuff you're going to learn in your computer class up through 5th grade.

Milo: I bet he hated it.

Right Milo. 

I hated it.

Here for example, is the 4th grade computer class (which as it happens is more of less the same as the 3rd and 5th grade computer class):

the 4th grade year will look like this:

                Review log-in procedures 
                Microsoft Word
                                  The basics - opening and quitting
                                  File management & navigation - Save As + Open: saving a file properly (proper name, location, etc) and finding the file and opening it up on a different occasion
                                  Basic typing review - proper way to capitalize, using “Shift” for certain punctuation, 1 space between words, etc
                                  Practice typing - copying a document
                                  Formatting 1 - margins, when to use the return key, etc
                                  Formatting 2 - Bold, Italic, Underline, etc
                                  Formatting 3 - changing font size & style
                                  Practice formatting - using typed document & changing font style, size, bold, etc

                The internet
                                  The basics of Firefox/Chrome - the buttons, address bar, tools, etc
                                  Searching using Google - what the results mean, pictures, etc
                                  Downloading pictures - proper naming and saving procedures
                Combining Microsoft Word and the internet
                                  Inserting pictures found on the internet into a Word document
                                  Formatting the picture in Word - size, position, etc
                                  Formatting the complete document - text and pictures

                Microsoft Powerpoint research project
                                  Basics of Powerpoint - how to create, format, etc
                                  Creating a practice Presentation with text, pictures, animations, etc
                                  Using the internet for research - proper searching techniques, identifying reputable sites, etc
                                  Taking the information gathered on the internet and creating a Powerpoint Presentation conveying what they have learned - text, pictures, animations, etc


This is computer education in the New York City Schools? We could teach kids to program you know. Or we could teach them to build apps. Or to create art. Or to build robots.  Or to create a web site. Or to create music. The list could go on and on.

But, you know what Milo learned yesterday? How to create a hashtag.


Twitter is now part of the curriculum. As far as I can tell kids have been able to learn to tweet all by themselves (for better or for worse.)

So, we can’t modernize the curriculum because of Common Core and when we can do something small, like add a computer class, it is to teach stuff like Powerpoint.  

School is getting worse all the time.