We are the stuff of stars

January 21, 2017

It has been an abhorrent weekend, but I am trying to stay positive (hard as that may be when the newly minted occupant of the White House quotes (or paraphrases) an honest-to-goodness Batman villain in his inaugural address – and not in any ironic way either!  I was working today, but one of my colleagues joined the over one million people who marched in protest against Trump and his ilk … marches that stretched from Washington across the globe … all the way to the Antarctic.  To give Trump credit, as much as he divides our society, he has helped bring parts of society closer together.

That said, I am going to stay positive by sharing something neat.  As a young man, I saw Cosmos, the PBS mini-series that introduced me to that generation’s great communicator of science, the soft-spoken, poetic, yet tough Carl Sagan.  It was one of the greatest science lessons ever presented, and it sent a message of hope.

One of my favorite Sagan quotes (and he wasn’t even the first to use it), is one that teaches us that we are true citizens of the universe, for that is where we all came from:

Our Sun is a second- or third-generation star. All of the rocky and metallic material we stand on, the iron in our blood, the calcium in our teeth, the carbon in our genes were produced billions of years ago in the interior of a red giant star. We are made of star-stuff.

 

What the good doctor was poetically saying is that the very elements that make up our bodies were born in the extreme and often violent throes of the universe:  hydrogen and helium were mostly born from the remnants of the big bang that marked the birth of the universe.  Others were made in the cores of stars as they lived their life. Others were born in the supernova deaths of stars or in the massive collisions of stars… one of the great cosmic truths … often times an act of destruction is simultaneously an act of creation.

Dr. Jennifer Johnson, an astronomer at THEE Ohio State University, has come up with her own version of the periodic table, highlighting where the elements tend to come from.

Just in case you were ever wondering where the phosphorus that helps hold your DNA together, or the nitrogen that makes up the folic acid that leads to healthy babies, or the sodium and chlorine that allows a thought to come into existence … all of what we are really did begin out there.  In at least one way, we are as extraterrestrial as any alien species we might one day hope to encounter.

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When poets attack (standardized tests)

January 8, 2017

There is a subset of the population out there that adores standardized tests.  It is hardly a homogeneous group.  Some like them because they did well on them as young kids, turned out successful, and think that standardized tests must be good at predicting future success.  While using one example doesn’t make a compelling argument, there is some degree of logic present.  People who endorse private or charter schools love standardized tests because they will consistently point to how poor a job public schools do … provided they never look at changes in test data from freshman to senior year.  Others simply see no better way to measure student accomplishment.

However, there is at least one point that this all hinges on:  can we trust these tests.  Clearly, if the answer is “no”, then the entire argument of supporting their use becomes a moot one.  Having delved into arguments with some of these people, I can tell that some of them have never looked in depth at standardized tests before.

I have.  There are lots of problems with them, and rather than seeing these problems get better, they seem to be, at the least, staying the same.  I was, thus, attracted to this Washington Times article (which originally appeared in the Huffington Post) that really says something about what goes in with standardized tests.

Sara Holbrook is an author who specializes in young adult poetry.  Two of Holbrook’s poems (“A Real Case” and “Midnight“) ended up being used as part of the reading assessment on the Texas STAAR test.  A teacher (who might be being investigated for revealing test questions) wrote to her and asked her about one of the poems and how she might answer a question asked on the test.

As you might guess, Holbrook was unable to answer questions analyzing her own poetry.  If you read the article, she gives great arguments as to why this happened, but what it comes down to is that the test writers simply do not understand what they are writing about.  Keep in mind, at least with testing giant Pearson, question writers need not even have a college degree to write.  And grading the test … according to that same article, a college degree is required, but the want ad was posted to Craig’s List.

In short:  the question writers of these all-important tests may not have a college degree or any meaningful experience in the subject they are writing questions in, and even if they do, may not understand the subjects they are writing on to the point where they can write questions that actually measure what they purport to measure.

 

Keep that in mind the next time these all-important scores come out and describe a school.