“What is your vortex collision?”

As the Stink Squad gets closer and closer to educational experiences in science investigation that are engaging, authentic, and impactful, I’ve been thinking about the timelines of science. At camp, we have five days (yes, FIVE) to enable students in practicing meaningful science. In labs and other types of investigations in schools and colleges, the timelines of science often range in length from 30 minutes to a few class sessions to a semester. But science research often takes longer than that. For example, the NIH typically funds research projects for four years! Can we create authentic science experiences for students without at least engaging in the idea of prolonged experimentation? What are ways we can help students consider extended investigations? How can we give students the tools to deal with long-term problems? How do we prepare them for the months and years that they might spend with data (or a life experience) that is “almost there?”

While I’ve been thinking about this, one of my favorite youtube channels, SmarterEveryDay, run by a mechanical engineer named Destin Sandlin, posted a video about a fluid dynamics investigation that has been going for three years! He discusses recreating what’s called a “vortex collision,” the direct impact between two masses of swirling fluid (in this case, water with food dye), and trying to understand the rings that the impact creates. There are a lot of science-y words in the video that I don’t totally understand, but one of my favorite things about Destin’s videos is that you don’t really need that information to understand the main ideas of his videos, which usually relate to developing and nurturing a love for science. Here’s Destin’s video about his three-year fluid dynamics project:

Near the end of the video, Destin says the following:

“So three years, and a bunch of ink, and an aquarium? No, this is so much more than that. This is what taught me persistence. For you, [for] example, what is your vortex collision? Is it something at school that’s hard? A subject? Is it a project at work that you don’t think you can overcome? Is it some skill you want to learn? What is the thing you have to overcome and how are you gonna do it?

This is a huge part of the reason that I think helping students consider long-term problems is important, not just for developing research scientists. Everyone has a “vortex collision” in their lives, often multiple. Can we use science education to give students some of the tools to persist through challenges and adversity? And beyond that, can we do it in a day? A week? One school year? I hope so, but I’m still grappling with it.

In some ways, though, this video is unsatisfying. So Destin got the video of this cool phenomenon. So what? Destin doesn’t make a single conclusion about his anchoring phenomenon even though he spent three years studying it. How is that possible?! And I think that this is a huge theme that students should consider in science investigations and in life. Every step of the way is just that: a step. Science doesn’t end, and three years just leads to a new stepping stone. Every investigation leads to the next investigation. What are the best ways we can engage students in investigations that don’t end and give them practice considering the next step?

Even more than those questions, though, I hope you will consider what your vortex collision is. Like Destin, I want to know, “What is the thing you have to overcome and how are you gonna do it?”

A Productive Week!

Let’s get personal this week, à la my friend Ellen’s awesome blog! I made two really cool things this week, and I’m so excited to share them!

Part I:

The first is the Stink Squad’s BlockUmentary, which I made with (the aforementioned) Ellen and Alyssa (whose blog you can find right here)!

This project, more than most things I’ve worked on in the past, was such an exercise in collaboration, and it was so exciting to learn how so many people combining ideas and working together can create something so much better than any of them ever expected! I also learned how to give up a lot of control which was really hard for me, but I also learned how to lean on and rely on other people, which can be so freeing! If you haven’t had an experience with group work yet where you’ve really engaged in true collaboration with other people, TRY IT! Trusting other people and their ideas can be a skill, just like any other, that requires work and is so rewarding to exercise.

The next incredible thing about this project was the enthusiasm the ~25 students who watched this showed from just the very first clip! The way this little movie connected to students interests, cultures, and identities was amazing! I just want to highlight my three favorite things I heard students say while watching and let them speak for themselves:

  • While the clip of the bug’s leg was on screen:

“OH MY GOD, IT’S A STINK BUG!”

  • After the BlockUmentary ended:

 “It looked like a movie!”

  • During the very last clip of Sodus Jr./Sr. High School

 “That’s my school!”

Part II:

The second cool thing that I made this week is a comic strip about my friend Brittney’s discovery that started her project modeling heterogeneous metal-oxide catalysts with metal-oxide cluster molecules. I struggled a little bit with this one because I was already familiar with the chemistry, even though I didn’t know the story of the project very well, so finding ways to make the chemistry accessible wasn’t easy. I think I did an ok job, but still could have done more. I tried to make it so you could gloss over the chemistry and still understand the story, but I wonder if I could have made it so the reader could actually understand this complex chemistry to a certain extent! That’ll be my next goal! Here’s the comic:

To learn more about this chemistry, check out the Matson Lab Website! The chemistry they do in the Chemistry Department at the University of Rochester is unique and important, not to mention really interesting!

And finally, just as a reminder to myself that these kinds of personal posts about smaller moments in my life are important, here’s a quote that I just heard for the first time yesterday in a knick knacks shop in the 1,000 Islands:

“Cherish the little things, for one day you will look back and realize they were the big things.”

An Intersection of Heightened Language

While reading about the language of science in Brown’s “‘It Isn’t No Slang That Can Be Said about This Stuff’: Language, Identity, and Appropriating Science Discourse,” I noticed one quote in particular, spoken by a student named Marquelle, about the need for some students to, essentially, turn science language on and off depending on context:

“[Y]ou can’t take it to every class and just talk like that. ‘Cause most people wouldn’t understand it. So it’s like it’s got its own little slang to it, when you talk about science, than when you talk normally.”

This reminded me of a clip from an interview with Lin-Manuel Miranda, the writer of the rap-musical, Hamilton, who discusses the initial intent to include dialogue in the musical, an aspect that was eventually almost entirely eliminated from the show:

“We start with heightened language—this heightened hip-hop speech. And there was a version of Act 1 of Hamilton where we’d have songs and then we would break into scenes and there’d be like, “Hey, I’ll see you at the dinner” dialogue. We realized it didn’t work with Hamilton because when you have an opening number that is this intense, heightened speech, to go back to, “Oh, I’m going to have some water,” you can’t drop the ball.”

And if you listen to “My Shot,” the third song from Hamilton, you can hear exactly what Miranda means when he mentions heightened language. Miranda believes that Hamilton’s story was meant to be told with rap music, and critics consider “My Shot” proof beyond a shadow of a doubt that hip-hop belongs in musical theater.

I understand Miranda’s point about the disconnect between “heightened language” and everyday speech, but I would argue that there are lots of different kinds of heightened language that we can tap into in many different ways. And I hope this isn’t my bias toward rap music coming through too much (because I grew up listening to Busta Rhymes and Eminem and think that Kendrick Lamar, Kanye, George Watsky, and Lin-Manuel Miranda are some of the greatest musical minds of our time), but I think that there can be an incredible connection between the heightened language of science and hip-hop.

Julien Turner, a student at Morehouse College, demonstrates this connection with his music video, “XY Cell Llif3,” in which he describes advanced biology concepts using rap. If you want to watch the whole thing, I recommend it, but the segment I’ve linked to below combines long, multisyllabic science jargon with triplet flow, a rapping style that’s currently dominating trap music. I think this combination is a perfect intersection between the heightened language you would find in a science textbook and the heightened language you can hear on most pop radio stations!

In “Cabinet Battle #1” in Hamilton, Miranda uses the rap battle format to tell the story of a cabinet meeting in which Hamilton and Jefferson debate a financial plan that will have the federal government assume states’ debts. In chemistry, Alfred Werner developed a theory that described metal ions as having multiple groups of atoms (or ligands) bound directly to it, rather than bound to each other in a chain (Figure 1). While Werner’s model wound up being correct—as confirmed ultimately by analyzing crystals grown of these metal-containing molecules—many journal articles were published back and forth between Werner and Jorgensen, another chemist who disagreed with Werner’s theory. For every article Werner published about his theory, Jorgensen published a contradicting paper, reinterpreting Werner’s data to show how it fit the “chain” theory instead.  In the same way Miranda feels Hamilton’s story was meant to be told through hip-hop music, I feel science stories like Werner and Jorgensen’s story were meant to be told through rap battle.

Figure 1. Werner’s model of a metal ion with ligands bound directly to it (left) and the conflicting “chain” model (right).

This isn’t all to say that I think rap music and science are the only two things that belong together or the only examples of heightened language that we can find and link together. In fact, I think that going into a school, urban or otherwise, and suggesting students exclusively interact with science through hip-hop music is not only cliche, but also makes assumptions about students’ interests based on stereotypes. Rather, I think it’s important to find these connections between science language and other heightened language that might already be a part of our students’ identities to show the world that this isn’t a phenomenon that’s unique to the sciences or academia. Everyone has experience with some form of discourse that is elevated, whether it is by multisyllabic words, rhythm, music, poetry, images, or anything else! Let’s tap into that!

As a final thought, I want to design an assignment for students that calls for them to make a connection between science and something that interests them or that they are passionate about. Whether that’s painting a picture related to a chemistry concept that they learned, writing a short story about an atom, or performing a rap song about biology, I want my students to engage in science in ways that are natural and unique to them.

Thanks as always for reading!

What’s in a name?

What’s in a name? I would argue, everything.

A mantra that I have always lived by is, “the loudest word a person hears is their own name.” I used to use names as a tool for getting the attention of the students I was teaching or the people I was leading in a club, but I’m starting to learn that they might be even more important than that and that we might be underselling them.

In chemistry, names can be the difference between life and death. The function of chemical nomenclature is to eliminate ambiguity when discussing different chemical compounds. Even two molecules that have all of the same atoms and the same order of bonding between those atoms may be different in the ways they are oriented in 3D space. As a result, we need to refer to those two chemicals using different names, so that we are considering their different identities when we discuss them, despite their extreme similarities.

In the case of enantiomers, two molecules that are mirror images of each other, we use one name to describe one molecule (by adding “R” to the beginning of the name) and another name to describe the other (by adding “S” to the beginning of the name), and this is really important in chemistry! Think of your right hand and your left hand. They are mirror images of each other, just like enantiomers are, and if your body treated each hand in exactly the same way as the other, in terms of deciding where to send what nutrients or how to send the proper signals to pick up an object, you would run into all sorts of trouble! An example of this in chemistry is a drug that is commonly called Thalidomide, which has an “R” form and an “S” form (Figure 1).

Figure 1. The structures of both enantiomers of thalidomide. Each is a mirror image of the other.

While the R enantiomer of Thalidomide can be used as a therapeutically active drug for quelling morning sickness in pregnant patients, the S enantiomer is ineffective and actually causes birth defects (a term for which we need an alternative, by the way). When the drug was originally used in the 1950s and 60s, both enantiomers were often present, causing severe health issues in many families across the United States.

Resource: International Journal of Biomedical Science about Thalidomide and other drugs like it, whose enantiomeric forms and their names matter!

I think that the names of the people around us are just as important and are just as linked to identity!

Part of making science accessible to the people (especially students) around us is incorporating the identities of these people into the science we teach! In “Cultural Processes in Science Education: Supporting the Navigation of Multiple Epistemologies,” Bang and Medin describe their work collaborating with Native American communities to incorporate the identities of Native American students into science instruction. By using language that echoes the cultures and theories of knowledge students identify with—in ways like referring to learning about plant ecology as, “remaking relatives”—educators are able to tap into those students’ identities, better involving them in science and helping them learn that science is already part of their culture (in what they learn from their elders, parents, and communities).

I don’t know how we can begin to do this kind of work if we can’t connect to our students as individuals and begin to tap into their identities in the first place. I think this is where using names all the time, in every conversation can come into play. If a student’s name is the loudest word they hear, you engage them, acknowledging their differences and their world, when you use their name. We can make better connections between our students’ cultures and the cultures of science if we can make better connections between our students and ourselves. And this all starts with a name.

-Sam

P.S. A lot of this “name” stuff that I’m discussing is kind of my own conjecture at this point. If anyone knows if research exists to support or challenge this or where we could start to look for literature about names and identities, please share it! I’m really interested in learning more about this topic. Thanks!

P.P.S. Still workin’ on that blog theme thing, so thanks for stickin’ it out!

Getting started

Pushing a dresser on a carpet

I think most of us have had that experience where we’re trying to move something heavy—like a dresser—on a high-friction surface—like a carpet floor—and we’re pushing and pushing, and it just won’t budge. Sometime after  we’ve started getting sweaty but before we’ve totally given up, we somehow naturally find that perfect position for putting as much force as possible into pushing that dresser. And it moves! And once we get it moving, suddenly it’s not so difficult anymore! I used to think it was some sort of weird game our minds were playing on us until I learned about the difference between static and kinetic friction.

The force of friction (Ff) in both cases is equal to the force the floor exerts on the dresser (Fn or the normal force, usually equal and opposite to the force of weight of the dresser) multiplied by a coefficient of friction (μ), which is specific to the two surfaces that are rubbing together. The coefficient of friction is also affected by whether the objects are moving relative to each other or not, which I think is completely bizarre, but it’s absolutely true! μK represents the coefficient of kinetic friction (when the dresser is moving relative to the rug) and μS represents the coefficient of static friction (when the dresser isn’t moving relative to the rug). See Figure 1, below.

Figure 1. Free body diagrams representing the forces acting on a heavy object on a high-friction surface, while moving relative to the surface (top) and not moving relative to the surface (bottom).

The really interesting thing is that the coefficient of static friction is almost always larger than the coefficient of kinetic friction, meaning that the force of static friction is also almost always larger than the force of kinetic friction. And that’s why it’s a lot easier to push the dresser once you’ve already gotten it moving: the force of friction is smaller!

Resource: Khan Academy video about considering static vs. kinetic friction intuitively

Pushing ourselves to do something new

Starting a new experience or journey is a lot like static friction. We don’t know what to expect, we’re stuck doing things the same way we’ve been doing them (like the “ruts” Salman Khan discusses in the linked video above), and sometimes we’re nervous about change! And that’s what the first week of Get Real! Science, my new graduate program in Science Education, has been like for me. Getting out of old learning habits, learning new ways to think about things that I’ve taken for granted my whole life, and pushing myself out of my comfort zone have all been challenges. But each new experience has gotten me moving, learning, and growing, and I can feel the static friction starting to fade into kinetic friction.

One of the most exciting things I’ve started learning this week is that science learning is a cultural practice and that, as educators, we can engage students from underrepresented minorities (Figure 2) and high needs schools by creating instructional tools and frameworks that connect with those students’ cultures.

Figure 2. Infographic explaining the term “underrepresented minorities” from the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics.

This leads me to my goals for this blog!

My first goal is to constantly consider science as a cultural practice in my posts. If I can get into the habit of thinking about who I am inviting to join my science community with my teaching, hopefully I can do a whole lot more inviting and do it in an inclusive and empowering way.

My second goal is to hold myself accountable for taking a stance. I often try to be a people pleaser and sometimes the result of that is my not taking a stance on polarizing issues. This is the kinetic friction part of Get Real! Science, to me. Once I’ve started moving, I’ll be done with static friction, but that doesn’t mean I get to stop pushing. By writing down my thoughts, I hope to make decisions and form opinions with greater intention.

My third goal is to ALWAYS include a science analogy (with the science part being either the thing that’s explained with the analogy or with the science part being the thing used to do the explaining). Just like plants need roots to serve as a foundation for their growth, we need to foundations for creating science knowledge. What better foundation than the things we experience and know in our everyday lives? Also, science analogies are really fun.

These goals combined make up my one large goal for this blog, which is to start and continue conversations that are focused on positive change in science and science education. I think the “start” part speaks for itself, but the “continue” part really emphasizes the need for follow-up. It’s not just about getting the ball rolling; it’s about pushing it and rerouting through all of the twists and turns!

-Sam

P.S. Two more minor goals: come up with a “sign off” and change the theme on my blog…