Teacher resources and professional development across the curriculum

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Displaced by Disasters

Floods, fires, earthquakes, and other natural disasters have driven humans from their homes throughout history. The problem is growing as world population rises and millions of people move to mega-cities, many of which are located in vulnerable areas. According to a recent report by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, a non-government research organization in Geneva, Switzerland, 27 million people on average have been displaced each year since 2008 by natural disasters.

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Image from Earth Revealed.

Climate change is worsening the problem by raising sea levels and increasing the frequency of catastrophic storms. U.S. students may remember images from Superstorm Sandy in the fall of 2012, which flooded large sections of lower Manhattan and caused at least $50 billion in damages. Climate analysts have calculated that if global carbon emissions continue to rise at their current rates, about 2.6 percent of the world’s population (177 million people) will live in areas that are at risk from regular flooding by 2100. No country is safe, but the greatest risk is in Asian nations such as Japan, Vietnam, Thailand and Bangladesh, where large fractions of the population live in areas that are vulnerable to coastal flooding.

Human vulnerability to disasters can be studied from several science perspectives. Unit 24 of Annenberg Learner’s Earth Revealed geology series focuses on coastlines, where the energy of ocean waves meets rocky landmasses of the mainland. Use this video to discuss issues that people living near shore should consider, such as erosion and how far back from the water to build. For more information on flood risks, the U.S. National Flood Insurance Program develops flood-hazard maps for U.S. communities that can be viewed online, along with videos from flooded communities.

Many people live in areas where they know there is significant risk of floods, wildfires, or other natural disasters. In unit 25 of Earth Revealed, see how scientists are studying the San Andreas Fault and residents of San Francisco have adapted to the risks of earthquakes in the Bay area. Teaching Geography, workshop 2, “Latin America,” part 2, discusses the risks that people living near Mount Tungurahua in Ecuador face. In addition, the Volcanoes interactive explores our ability to predict volcanic eruptions and steps that people can take to reduce the danger of living near active volcanoes.

Many cities threatened by rising seas are considering ways to adapt and make themselves more resilient in the face of floods and storms. One widely-cited example is the Netherlands’ Room for the River program, which is creating open spaces where the Rhine River can spill over during floods without threatening local communities. In New York City, a program called Rebuild by Design is proposing flood-protection strategies for the New York region, including protective berms around Manhattan and restored marshes and oyster reefs in New York Harbor to absorb the impact of storms.

At the Annenberg Space for Photography in Los Angeles, an upcoming exhibit called “Sink or Swim” will examine human responses to coastal flooding around the world, from sea walls to floating schools. The exhibit, which runs from December 13, 2014 through May 3, 2015, will show “how communities are rising up to meet the challenges” of climate change in densely populated coastal zones worldwide, says Annenberg Foundation Chairman of the Board, President and CEO Wallis Annenberg.

Learning from the 2014 Nobel Prizes

Perhaps the Nobel Prizes recipients don’t make the same headlines as baseball’s World Series challengers, but every October the stories behind their work are just as exciting. These are discoveries, theories, works of art, and acts of humanity that have been years in the making. The work touches us in fundamental ways and constitutes the “shoulders of giants” referred to by Isaac Newton. If you don’t quite understand the laureates’ achievements, you can see the fundamental principles and related concepts at learner.org.

MathIllum_rockpaperscissors

Learn how game theory applies to “rock, paper, scissors” in Mathematics Illuminated.

Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economics

Jean Tirole, a French theoretical economist, won the award for analysis of market power and regulation. Tirole studied how to regulate industries with a few powerful firms, such as telecommunications firms. You can hear from Nobel committee chair Tore Ellingsen on the significance of Tirole’s work.

Tirole’s work was based on the mathematical concepts of game theory, which you can learn about in Mathematics Illuminated, unit 9.  The online text provides familiar examples, including zero sum games, and prisoner’s dilemma. Watch the video to see how game theory even applies to “rock, paper, scissors.”

Once you have a handle on game theory, see how government regulations have been applied to big players in the auto, energy, and airlines industries in Economics U$A, program 7, “Oligopolies.” This program looks at how big industries manage to write the rules of the marketplace.

Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology and Nobel Prize in Chemistry

Several of this year’s laureates followed the principle of thinking small. The medicine/physiology and chemistry prizes involve looking at objects down to the size of a single cell or molecule. The Nobel Prize for Medicine or Physiology was awarded to three researchers who found the brain’s mechanism for establishing our position in space, a mental GPS-like system. John O’Keefe found that we carry “space cells” in our brains and May-Britt Moser and Edvard I. Moser expanded the concept to a grid in which these cells operate.  The Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded for work in microscopy allowing scientists to see down to this level at “super resolution.”

This level of microscopy has applications across all fields of science research. Wolfhard Almers at the Vollum Institute in Portland, OR explains how, using wave microscopy, he and his colleagues were able to isolate a single nerve cell to understand what it does after releasing a transmitter. His research is covered in Rediscovering Biology unit on Neurobiology.

“I still haven’t gotten over thinking it’s really cool, that I can go into work every day and take pictures of atoms and I can see individual atoms with this microscope,” says graduate student Tess Williams. The lab where she works at Harvard investigates the structure of superconducting materials. Find out more in Physics for the 21st Century unit “Macroscopic Quantum Mechanics.”

Nobel Prize in Physics

The three physicists who shared the Nobel Prize in physics gave new meaning to “keeping the lights on.” They invented a new energy-efficient and environment-friendly light source – the blue light-emitting diode (LED). In the LED, electricity is directly converted into light particles, photons, leading to efficiency gains compared to other light sources where most of the electricity is converted to heat and only a small amount into light. Explore the many facets of light and heat with your students in the workshop series Shedding Light on Science, especially unit 2, “Laws of Light.

Nobel Peace Prize

Indian and Pakistani activists Kailash Satyarthi and Malala Yousafzai attracted the attention of the international community to the issue of child rights and shared the Nobel Peace Prize. From the earliest waves of immigration in the U.S., children have been used as workers and denied a formal education. Thomas Rivera wrote about his experience as a migrant child agricultural laborer in the memoir, “And the Earth Did Not Devour Him/Y la Tierra no se traiga.” Read about Rivera’s background in American Passages, unit 12, “Migrant Struggle.” His translator, Evangelina Vigil-Piñón discusses Rivera’s work and its place in Chicano literature in the Learner Express: Language Arts modules.

Learner-Featured Scientist Pardis Sabeti Leads Ebola Research

Pardis Sabeti

Pardis Sabeti

Since medical professionals in Dallas diagnosed the first case of Ebola on U.S. soil on September 30, 2014, much of the news surrounding the science of the issue has focused on containment, quarantines, and potential treatments involving plasma transfusions. To a certain extent, sensational media coverage has dominated and created the fear of a potential Ebola outbreak in America.

The reality is that the threat of contracting Ebola in the U.S. is “exceedingly uncommon,” according to the CDC. However, the ability of the deadly virus to adapt and mutate is relevant to everyone on the planet, regardless of location. Fortunately, scientists are now tracking the genome of Ebola in order to understand its mutation and fight the virus.

After learning that Ebola had reached Sierra Leone, Dr. Pardis Sabeti, host of Annenberg Learner’s Against All Odds: Inside Statistics and computational geneticist at the Broad Institute and Harvard University, led an international team to better understand the 2014 outbreak, which is the largest in history. Sabeti has been studying the Ebola virus for the past five years. In early summer 2014, Sabeti and her colleagues collected virus samples from 78 patients in Sierra Leone in order to sequence the viral genome using the million-dollar DNA-sequencing machines housed at the Broad Institute. Their research, published in early September, found 50 mutations that arose as the virus spread in the early weeks of the epidemic. The study, which includes five authors who have since died of Ebola, stresses the importance of “genomic surveillance” in developing vaccines and therapies for this particular variation of the disease, which researchers believe originated around 2004 in central Africa before moving from Guinea to Sierra Leone in May 2014, all by human-to-human transmission.

Sabeti will be able to sequence more recent samples of Ebola once a thousand more vials of diseased blood, currently stored in freezers in Kailahun, Sierra Leone, are transferred to Harvard.

To help explain this type of genomics research to your students, Against All Odds: Inside Statistics, unit 29, details how statistics aided researchers in uncovering how a harmful genetic mutation, sickle cell anemia, actually acts as a source of resistance to Malaria. In addition, the video discusses how Sabeti used the Malaria study as a model in her research on the genetic sources in an individual’s resistance to Lassa fever, a virus that is similar to, yet less notorious than Ebola, and which kills thousands of people in West Africa every year.

In the Against All Odds video, Sabeti notes that thousands of people are exposed to Lassa but do not become ill, suggesting they may have some sort of genetic resistance to the infectious disease. Sabeti and her fellow researchers want to find what these protective mutations against Lassa fever are in order to develop new treatments.

Eric Lander is the head of the Broad Institute and is featured in Rediscovering Biology, unit 1, “Genomics.” In a recent New Yorker article, Lander responds to the question of whether or not Ebola will evolve into an airborne disease, saying, “That’s like asking the question ‘Can zebras become airborne.’” Lander points out that Ebola is very unlikely to evolve from a disease that is spread through direct contact to one that can survive in a dehydrated state and spread through the air. He does note, however, that Ebola could possibly become more contagious.

In Against All Odds, Sabeti describes the battle between human beings and disease as “The non-stop, evolutionary arms race between our bodies and the infectious micro-organisms that try to invade and inhabit them.” The relatively new technology of genome sequencing gives humans another powerful weapon in the fight against viruses like Ebola.

Citizen Science Tuesday: Monarchs Journey North

Written by Lisa Feldkamp, senior coordinator, new science audiences, The Nature Conservancy
Reposted with permission from Cool Green Science, The Science Blog of The Nature Conservancy (October 21, 2014)

liatris_01_aug2014_800What is Journey North and Why Should You Participate?

Migrating monarchs are one of nature’s wonders — they can travel up to 500 miles in just three days on their 2,500 mile journey from Mexico to Canada and back again over the course of a year.

And they’re also one of the few creatures that gains weight during migration — from 60mg of lipids (fat) when they start their southward migration to 140mg by the time they reach Mexico—because they glide on the wind instead of flapping.

“They’d never make it to Mexico otherwise,” explains Elizabeth Howard, founder and director of Journey North, which works to track monarch migrations. “In flapping flight, they would burn enough fat that they would starve in just 44 hours. Soaring and gliding they can go for 160 hours.”

But there’s a lot we still don’t know about monarchs. Which is why Journey North is looking for your citizen science observations on the backyard behaviors of this iconic and threatened insect.

Why is Journey North Important?

Monarchs are currently completing their journey south to their overwintering grounds in Mexico. But the migrations get more difficult with each passing year.

The migration and the butterflies are in danger because of threats like climate change and changes in agriculture that have limited the amount of milkweed, a key plant for monarch conservation

In recent years, the population has declined dramatically.

Your observations can help scientists determine the abundance of monarchs and find out if they are overwintering in new locations. The data could help them answer questions like, how do monarchs know when to go to Mexico, how do they know where to fly, and why do monarchs migrate?

Answering questions about when butterflies travel, where they go, and whether or not the timing of their migrations has changed could help scientists to understand how climate change impacts their journey.

It could also help in advising when and where people should plant milkweed.

monarch_fall2014_peak

Monarch Butterfly Migration Map Fall 2014. Courtesy of Journey North.

Journey North is also an excellent source of materials and facts for teachers and kids interested in the monarch migration. Even if they don’t pass by your area, you can track their progress on Journey North.

You can find out how to tell a male from a female or hear the story of a monarch that was blown off course all the way to England!

That’s not common, of course. In fact, migrating monarchs seem like they’re on a mission, according to Howard.

“It’s incredible the way they ‘beeline’ towards Mexico during fall migration,” she says. “When you see a migrating monarch, you know it. No matter how many times I see it I’m amazed. They fly overhead as if following an invisible roadway. One at a time, often a few minutes apart, they follow the same flight path.”

How Can You Get Involved in Journey North?

If you live where there are monarchs, just submit your sightings online.

If you aren’t sure where to find monarchs, here are two pro tips from Howard:

a. Find Nectar

If you want to see fall migration, find a large source of nectar. The best places are farm fields with blooming clover, alfalfa, sunflowers, etc. Stick around until sunset, watch the monarchs carefully, and you’re likely to see them gathering into an overnight roost.

b. Look for Little Butterflies

To find a field that’s rich with nectar you can drive around in your car. Watch for little butterflies — like sulphurs and cabbage whites — flitting above the flowers. They are much more numerous than monarchs and so are good clues that flowers are producing nectar and monarchs might be present.

Keep up with the monarch news or watch the maps to find out when monarchs come through your area.

There are many other things that you can do at home to help monarchs. For instance, plant milkweed, provide nectar plants, and avoid pesticide use.

Follow along with the migration online and get ready to record your observations for next year’s journey north!


Is there a citizen science project that you think deserves more attention? Contact Lisa Feldkamp, lfeldkamp[at]tnc.org or leave a comment below with a link to make a recommendation for Citizen Science Tuesday.

Opinions expressed on Cool Green Science and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Nature Conservancy.

- See more at Cool Green Science blog. 

Teach Your Students to Argue Effectively

TML_7_3Have you ever met anyone with uninformed opinions? Didn’t it make you want to explode (or at the very least, lament the decline of mankind by eating pie)? Reasoning is one of our most powerful assets. As teachers, we have the opportunity to prepare students for a good old-fashioned banter. We need to teach students how to effectively argue so that they can engage in productive thinking and be active citizens of their communities. Otherwise, we are at risk for producing students who limit their own learning potential by focusing on regurgitation versus critical thinking.

First, take a minute to read the CCSS Anchor Standards for Writing as it pertains to argument:

  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.W.1: Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.

When we argue, we are assuming a position with the purpose of persuading readers or rather, convincing them of our opinion; this is active work, work that requires agency on the part of the writer. This agency is what 21st century literacies demand of its citizens; for example, Franklin and van Harmelan (2007) write, “In Web 1.0 a few content authors provided content for a wide audience of relatively passive readers. However, in Web 2.0 everyday users of the web use the web as a platform to generate, re-purpose, and consume shared content” (3). Argument writing is a tool that enables and empowers students to participate in and contribute to various discourses.

Argument writing pushes students to go beyond just knowing content; it forces them to actually do something with the content. Arguing requires students to ground their thinking in evidence from the text; in fact, this evidence-grounding is one of the main instructional shifts in English Language Arts. Teachers need to spend more instructional time teaching argument writing, which encompasses teaching students how to opine and how to write persuasive texts.

Let’s consider the discipline of history: We want students to go beyond just reciting facts and dates; we want them to make historical arguments and interpretations. We also want them to become adept at using textual evidence to support their claims. Historians and social scientists actively study and inquire – they do not just regurgitate facts; they examine the evidence and create claims based on the evidence. We need to help students understand that data is a live entity and that it requires our careful and critical reading and crafting. (Questions like, “Whose history is being represented here?” and “Why is this history being told in this way?” help build students’ inquiry skills which promotes their argumentation skills.)

This semester, I asked my pre-service teachers (graduate students) to write a historical argument paper. Because of the CCSS’s emphasis on argument writing, I wanted to make sure that my graduate students knew how to create arguments since they would be required to teach their students how to do the same. The process for this task is outlined below: 

Steps and Tasks: Prompts and Instructions

1. Pick a topic: What do you want to study?

2. Design your inquiry question: Narrow your topic. This question should guide your research and examine your topic deeply. Consider specific perspectives and lenses.

3. Conduct research: Guided by your inquiry question, conduct research. Critically read primary and secondary sources.

4. Craft a claim or argument: The claim is essentially the answer to your inquiry question as a result of your research. It is important to craft your claim/argument after conducting research so that your thinking is driven by the data. This claim needs to be arguable, meaning someone can deny your claim and argue an opposite point.

5. Provide examples: Use research data to support your claim/argument. Craft examples so that they prove your point. Use linking words and phrases and be explicit about how your example connects to your claim/argument.

6. Craft a conclusion: Answer the question, “So what?” Your conclusion should not be a regurgitation or restatement of your points. This is your closing argument like in a court case. Connect to a bigger issue. Address implications.

 

Need more ideas? Find several resources to help teach argument writing on the Annenberg Learner website:

REFERENCES:

Franklin, T. & Harmelan, M. van (2007). Web 2.0 for content for learning and teaching in higher education. York, UK: Franklin Consulting.

CCSS website: www.corestandards.org

Ocean Science: Exploring the Depths (Part II)

LifeScience_2_JellyfishOcean exploration has sparked humans’ imagination for centuries. Current news stories about ocean issues tend to focus on problems like over-fishing, pollution and climate change, but new discoveries are also expanding our knowledge of ocean life forms and processes. Here are some examples that probe below the surface.

Marine biodiversity: The oceans contain an astonishing range of life forms. The Census of Marine Life, a decade-long project that explored the diversity, distribution and abundance of marine life, offers many resources, including videos, image galleries and maps. According to the census, there are about 250,000 known species in the oceans, and potentially millions of unknown species. Microbes account for up to 90 percent or marine life by weight. Elementary school teachers can use different ocean life forms to illustrate discussions about how scientists group living things into categories, as shown in Annenberg Learner’s Life Science, session 2, “Classifying Living Things.” For high school students, consult Rediscovering Biology, session 4, “Microbial Diversity,” and Unseen Life on Earth: An Introduction to Microbiology as background for examining the importance of microbes in ocean ecosystems.

Mapping the ocean floor: As recently as the 1960s, scientists knew virtually nothing about the ocean floor and had no way to study it at close range. This year the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) is celebrating the 50th birthday of Alvin, the first manned submersible vehicle built to study the deep oceans. WHOI recently published a special issue of its magazine, Oceanus, commemorating Alvin and recounting how its development inspired decades of deep ocean exploration.

Famously, scientists diving in Alvin discovered hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor, where water heated by volcanic activity beneath the seafloor rises up, carrying chemicals leached from rocks. To their surprise, they also found new life forms – clams, worms and mussels living around these vents, without access to sunlight. Use Earth Revealed, unit 4, “The Sea Floor,” to learn about geological features and life forms at the bottom of the sea. Complement this overview with a discussion of the challenges of designing submersibles to operate under the extreme temperature and pressure conditions of the deep oceans.

Lessons from Titanic: Scientists from WHOI also discovered the wreckage of the Titanic in 1985, using a sled-like vehicle called Argo that they towed behind a research vessel to photograph the ocean floor. WHOI’s Titanic resources include videos and photographs from the 1985 and 1986 expeditions that found and photographed the wreck. This article describes how WHOI scientists have made repeated trips back to map and analyze the site, and how those expeditions have driven advances in technology for imaging underwater.

In addition to historic questions such as how the Titanic broke apart, scientists have studied the wreck to learn how materials degrade underwater. The wreck is covered with icicle-shaped formations called rusticles, which are produced by tiny microbes that feed on iron. Unit 3, “Metabolism” of Unseen Life on Earth provides an overview of how microbes meet their energy needs in different environments. From there, explore lessons from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to see how chemical and biological processes are breaking Titanic down. Other scientists predict that within 30 years, the Titanic may be reduced to a heap of rusticles on the ocean floor.

 

(Ready to go back to the ocean’s surface? Read Ocean Science: Start Shallow, Go Deep (Part I).)

Ocean Science: Start Shallow, Go Deep (Part I)

HP_3_1_oceansWhile memories of the beach are still fresh in students’ minds, ocean science offers many hooks for seasonal lessons in all of the sciences. Oceans cover more than 70 percent of Earth’s surface and contain 97 percent of all water on the planet. But according to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the lead federal agency for protecting and managing the ocean, more than 95 percent of the underwater world has yet to be explored. Ocean scientists often point out that we know more about the surface of the moon than of the ocean floor. That’s true even though the ocean produces much of the air we breathe (from photosynthetic plankton, kelp and algae) and much of the food on our plates.

Many ocean life forms and events that are most familiar to students occur at the surface or in waters relatively near the surface, which are the focus of this post. Next month’s post, “Ocean Science: Start Shallow, Go Deep (Part II),” will explore science concepts in deep waters and on the ocean floor.

For biology classes, fall is a prime season to study migrations. Gray whales make one of the longest migrations of any mammal: roughly 5,000 miles each way between waters off Mexico in winter and the Arctic in summer. Currently the whales are still feeding in the Arctic, but soon they will start moving south to their winter breeding grounds. Learn about gray whales’ feeding habits and track their progress south on the Journey North web site. For more species consult Ocean Tracks, which shows the movement of elephant seals, white sharks, Bluefin tuna and albatrosses in the Pacific Ocean.

Fall is also high season for hurricanes, which are driven by heat transfer from warm ocean waters to the atmosphere. The U.S. National Weather Service’s official hurricane seasons for the Atlantic and Eastern Pacific oceans extend through November 30, and many major hurricanes have struck in September. Physics teachers can use hurricanes to illustrate basic concepts, including zones of high and low pressure, vacuums and energy transfers. Unit 3, section 5 of The Habitable Planet explains how ocean circulation patterns help to generate hurricanes and monsoons, another form of seasonal tropical storm.

To extend the lesson, ask students to consider how warmer ocean temperatures as a result of climate change may affect the frequency and strength of hurricanes. This is a complex question that has generated much debate among climate scientists. But according to a 2013 study by MIT professor Kerry Emmanuel, a leading expert on this issue (and featured scientist in the video for The Habitable Planet’s unit 2 on Earth’s atmosphere), climate change could make hurricanes both more frequent and more intense. For advanced students, the scientific debate over Emmanuel’s position shows how difficult it can be to show causal connections between climate change and complex weather events.

Oceans are also key links in broader climate patterns such as the El Niño Southern Oscillation, an event that occurs every three to seven years when trade winds across the Pacific weaken and warm water piles up against the coast of South America. El Niño events cause far-reaching impacts on weather, including heavy rains and landslides in North and South America and droughts in Asia. The National Weather Service is currently predicting a 60-65 percent chance of El Niño occurring during the fall of 2014 and winter of 2015. For details about El Niño, see Annenberg’s Weather interactive on the water cycle. Then look at NWS monthly weather forecasts for the United States to see how temperatures and precipitation in your area may be affected.

Oceans also can serve as a frame for chemistry lessons. Many ocean scientists are strongly concerned about acidification – changes in ocean chemistry that are driven by climate change, as seawater absorbs rising amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. According to NOAA, the acidity of surface ocean waters has increased by about 30 percent since the start of the Industrial Revolution, and could be 150 percent more acidic by the year 2100. This would represent a fall in pH value from approximately 8.2 to 7.8 or lower.

Acidification is already having harmful impacts on marine life. For example, shellfish farmers in the Pacific Northwest have reported that some organisms’ shells are thinning or are pitted and damaged. For an applied chemistry lesson focusing on ocean acidification, start with unit 10 of Chemistry: Challenges and Solutions, an overview of acids and bases. Then dive into “Sea Change: The Pacific’s Perilous Turn,” an award-winning multi-media series by the Seattle Times that examines how acidification could alter life in the world’s oceans.

Ultimately acidification can only be reversed by reducing carbon emissions into the atmosphere. In the short run, however, other strategies could help to mitigate the impact on ocean life. NOAA is working with university and shellfish industry scientists in the Pacific Northwest to monitor ocean chemistry and develop responses, such as reducing nutrient pollution from land, which also contributes to acidification.

Next month’s science post will explore the deep oceans for more science topics, including deep ocean life forms; the geology of the ocean floor; and the chemical and biological processes slowly breaking down the Titanic at its underwater resting site.

Inspiring Women in Mathematics

Courtesy: Maryam Mirzakhani Professor Maryam Mirzakhani is the recipient of the 2014 Fields Medal, the top honor in mathematics. She is the first woman in the prize’s 80-year history to earn the distinction. The Fields Medal is awarded every four years on the occasion of the International Congress of Mathematicians to recognize outstanding mathematical achievement for existing work and for the promise of future achievement.

Photo Courtesy: Maryam Mirzakhani, Professor Maryam Mirzakhani is the recipient of the 2014 Fields Medal, the top honor in mathematics. She is the first woman in the prize’s 80-year history to earn the distinction.

Maryam Mirzakhani of Stanford University made history earlier this month, becoming the first woman to win the Fields Medal in the 78-year history of the award. The honor, bestowed every four years to two to four mathematics researchers under the age of 40, is often thought of as the Nobel Prize for math.

According to the International Mathematical Union, the 37-year-old, Iranian-born Mirzakhani won “for her outstanding contributions to the dynamics and geometry of Riemann surfaces and their moduli spaces.”

Mirzakhani realizes that her unprecedented achievement transcends mathematics research. “This is a great honor. I will be happy if it encourages young female scientists and mathematicians,” Mirzakhani, quoted by Stanford News, said. “I am sure there will be many more women winning this kind of award in coming years.”

Even though, according to a 2013 National Science Foundation report, female students take precalculus/analysis and algebra II at higher rates than male students during their K-12 education, they lose that ground during their undergraduate education, earning only 43.1 percent of all bachelor’s degrees in mathematics and statistics. These disparities become even greater when students’ racial and socioeconomic statuses are taken into account.

Mirzakhani’s accomplishment is good news for educators, providing them with an example of a mathematics trailblazer to inspire students from underrepresented groups. While she is the latest to break through a long-preserved mathematics glass ceiling, Mirzakhani certainly is not the first.

Nergis Mavalvala

Nergis Mavalvala

One of the women benefitting from Mirzakhani’s work is MacArthur Prize winner and physicist Dr. Nergis Mavalvala of MIT. She and her team design experiments to detect ripples in the fabric of space-time known as gravitational waves. See her in Physics for the 21st Century, “Gravity.”

Sophie Germain

Sophie Germain

Sophie Germain (1776-1831) didn’t let the École Polytechnique’s policy against admitting women stop her from pursuing an education. Though she began her educational career submitting papers under the false name Monsieur Antoine-August Le Blanc, Germain gained the esteem and mentorship of prominent mathematicians and became well known for her work in elasticity theory and number theory. In number theory, a prime number (p) is a Sophie Germain prime if 2p + 1 is also prime. Explore the basics of prime numbers and number theory in Learning Math, session 6, “Number Theory.”

While the name Albert Einstein is synonymous with mathematical genius, fewer people have heard of Emmy Noether, a mathematician whom Einstein himself once called “the most significant creative mathematical genius thus far produced since the higher education of women began.”

Emmy Noether

Emmy Noether

Like many historic female mathematicians, Noether encountered unjust obstacles throughout her distinguished career. The University of Erlangen in Bavaria, Germany prevented her from fully participating in classes, allowing her to audit them instead. Despite her brilliance and the respect she garnered from her contemporaries, Noether spent years teaching without pay.

While Noether was widely recognized for her accomplishments by the early 1930s, in 1933 Germany’s Nazi government forced all Jews out of all government positions. Noether fled Germany for the safety of the United States and a position at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania, though she died just two years later at the age of 53.

Mathematics Illuminated, unit 6, “The Beauty of Symmetry,” discusses Noether’s eponymous theorem as well as her contributions to algebra and physics.

Dorothy Wallace, a content advisor for Mathematics Illuminated (units 6 and 10) and professor at Dartmouth College, is an accomplished mathematician and educator. Dr. Wallace contributed to the Mathematics Across the Curriculum project. Funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation, MATC aims to integrate math throughout the undergraduate curriculum using interdisciplinary courses and materials. Her writing and editing credits include Numeracy!, the ejournal of the National Numeracy Network and The Bell that Rings Light (World Scientific Press).

Another branch of mathematics, statistics, is used by computational geneticist Dr. Pardis Sabeti at Harvard. She has developed algorithms to detect the genetic signatures of adaptation in humans and microbial organisms. Learn about her work with West Africans who are vulnerable to deadly Lassa fever in Against All Odds: Inside Statistics, “Inference for Two-Way Tables.”

Pardis Sabeti

Pardis Sabeti

From the ancient Greek philosopher Hypatia to Mirzakhani, there are many historical and contemporary examples of women in mathematics to encourage female students interested in pursuing a career in the field.

Add to this list in the comments below.

Observe and Learn from Effective Teachers

Teachers take the stage every day in front of their students, striving to instruct, engage and guide. Being observed by a classroom of students is the norm. As Matthew O. Richardson points out in his journal article [1] for the National Education Association, “Teachers stand before others and put on a personal exhibition every time they lecture, lead a discussion, or guide a role-play.” Why is it, then, that the prospect of peer observation is potentially unnerving to many teachers?

TeachingMath_6

From Teaching Math, program 6, “Animals in Yellowstone”: Fourth- and fifth-graders develop number sense and meaning for large numbers by estimating how many bison, elk, and pronghorn they saw on a field trip to Yellowstone National Park.

While discussing the growing trend of peer-to-peer learning for teachers, Education World acknowledges that the practice of peer observation (which is becoming more widely discussed in both university, and secondary and elementary environments) is meant to be a collaborative form of professional development, not an evaluation tool. Education World notes that learning by observing can reap benefits for teachers, administrators, and schools. They quote Dr. William Roberson, who served as co-director of the Center of Effective Teaching and Learning at the University of Texas-El Paso, as making this bold statement:

Easily, peer observation is more valuable than other forms of professional development, if the proper context is created. If done well, it is carried out in a real, practical, immediately relevant situation. Compare that to attending workshops or conferences in which participants remain at a certain level of abstraction from their own classrooms.

Ideally, peer-to-peer learning allows the observing teacher to reflect on their own practices and methodology in, as Roberson puts it, an “immediately relevant situation.”

Are you thinking about working peer observations into your schedule next year? Here are some resources for observing teachers in your own school and for observing teachers at your convenience.

Using checklists to focus your observations on specific goals:

Using checklists is a great way to get the most out of your observation experiences. Start by having a goal in mind. For example, is your goal to improve classroom management, track student achievement, or create more engaging lesson plans? Then, focus your observation on ways to meet that goal. Checklists are useful for narrowing your focus.

Look at some examples of teacher observation checklists below. Even if the examples are not in your subject area or grade level, you can glean ideas for developing your own checklists.

  1. This observational checklist from Teaching Reading, Grades K-2 allows a fairly straightforward evaluation of a peer teacher’s methods of developing the essential elements of literacy. Observing teachers have space to comment on their colleagues use of shared and independent reading and writing, among other practices.
  2. The Literacy Development Chart, also from Teaching Reading, Grades K-2, allows ongoing observation of a peer teacher to see how an individual student “case study” develops and how a teacher supports their progress based on the student’s strengths and needs.
  3. The Key Questions observation form provides a more open-ended way for teachers to observe their colleagues. This example asks questions related to how students develop literacy skills. The form’s prompts include questions on how reading and writing are connected and how a peer teacher instructs students with diverse needs.
  4. Searching “classroom observation checklist for teachers” on Google yields many very useful checklist formats.

Videos for observing expert educators on your own schedule:

Finding time during the school day for such detailed peer observation is not always feasible. In addition, a teacher who wants to use observation as a means to improve their own practice may encounter other obstacles; a culture of trust and a willingness to participate has to be present in their school already. Don’t have opportunities to observe peers at your school? Learner.org provides video examples of effective teaching in most subject areas and most grade levels.

The Learner.org workshops in the list below can be streamed for free. Here are just a few highlights:

  1. Teaching Reading, Grades K-2 could be used in conjunction with the aforementioned observation forms as an alternative to watching live classrooms. The extensive video library includes 30 minute programs on classroom practices in action as well as student case studies of children in grades K-2.
  2. In The Art of Teaching the Arts, workshop 3, “Addressing the Diverse Needs of Students,” watch how three teachers adjust their teaching approaches for students with various learning styles and needs.
  3. Making Civics Real, a professional development workshop for high school teachers, illustrates an activist approach to the teaching of civics. For example, in workshop 6, “Civic Engagement,” observe a Human Geography class taught by Bill Mittlefehldt. Students work in teams on a service project to solve community issue.

Here are more resources showing effective classroom instruction that can be used for observations:

The Arts:
The Arts in Every Classroom: A Workshop for Elementary School Teachers
Connecting With the Arts: A Workshop for Middle Grades Teachers
The Art of Teaching the Arts: A Workshop for High School Teachers

Foreign Languages:
Teaching Foreign Languages, K-12 Library

Language Arts and Literature:
Teaching Reading, K-2
Inside Writing Communities, Grades 3-5
Making Meaning in Literature, Grades 3-8
Teaching Multicultural Literature: A Workshop for Middle Grades
Developing Writers: A Workshop for High School Teachers
The Expanding Canon: Teaching Multicultural Literature in High School

Mathematics:
Teaching Math: A video library, K-4
Teaching Math: A video library, 5-8
Teaching Math: A video library, 9-12
Insights into Algebra I: Teaching for Learning (middle and high school)

Social Studies:
Social Studies in Action: A Teaching Practices, Library K-12
The Economics Classroom: A Workshop for Grade 9-12 Teachers
Making Civics Real: A Workshop for Teachers (high school)

Science:
Science K-6: Investigating Classrooms
Teaching High School Science

While the best way to learn from expert teachers is to watch them in person, watching examples of excellent teaching in videos can be just as useful. In addition, you can observe these classrooms at your convenience and pause and re-watch sections as needed.

We are interested: Share your experiences using classroom observations to improve your instruction below the post.

[1] Richardson, Matthew O. “Peer Observation: Learning From One Another,” The NEA Higher Education Journal 16. No. 1 (2000): 9-20.

 

How to Share Ideas From Your Classroom

sharing ideasWe know you create amazing lesson plans and activities using Learner.org resources. Share them with other teachers on the Ideas From Your Classrooms section of our blog.

Submit your lesson plans and activities to blog@learner.org for consideration. We will post a new activity or lesson plan every Tuesday. Check back often to learn about fresh ideas from your peers.

Also, in the Ideas From Your Classrooms section of the blog, we encourage you to comment under lesson plan and activities posts, respond to questions about your classrooms, and support each other with knowledge and advice from your teaching experience.

 

How to Submit a Lesson Plan or Activity

Your plans and activities should state a clear objective, be well-organized, require minimal to no edits, and incorporate a Learner.org resource. (You may also refer to additional resources if desired.) The Learner.org resource you refer to can be a whole series, or part of a series such as an online textbook chapter or video program, an online interactive, or any other resources accessed free on our website. Series titles and urls must be included.

We look forward to hearing from you!

Please include the following information with your materials:

  1. Your name and email address
  2. Title of the activity or lesson plan
  3. Subject/ Class name
  4. Grade level
  5. School name or location (not required)

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