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Teaching Science and Math with Real World Examples

I ran across a great post at Technocrat titled If We Taught English the Way We Teach Mathematics.
"Suppose that those classes, from elementary school right through to high school, amounted to nothing more than reading dictionaries, getting drilled in spelling and formal grammatical construction, and memorizing vast vocabulary lists -- you never read a novel, nor a poem; never had contact with anything beyond the pedantic complexity of English spelling and formal grammar, and precise definitions for an endless array of words. You would probably hate the subject."
This is a great point, and the post goes on to talk about why it's not just a lack of "real world" examples that makes math and science such boring, intimidating subjects.  Here's the perfect example of how a real world example definitely did not help one student with physics: [youtube]cIIwwCi2zwk[/youtube] So if memorizing facts and formulas is no use, and contrived, often bizarre examples are no help, how should we teach math and science? I'm not sure I have any great insights, but I can give you three examples of what has worked for me. First, I think it helps to have (or to project to your students) an attitude that allows for the real value and usefulness of science and math.  This does not mean that great teachers and students have to be died-in-the-wool atheists or materialists.  But I do think there are some basic ideas without which science and math will never be meaningful or interesting: 1.  The world is more complicated than it might seem; 2.  We can figure out the way it works; 3.  We can put the knowledge to use. As Richard Feynman explained:
"For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled."
Doing some googling to uncover the source of the quote leads me to a post on Edward Tufte's homepage, Grand truths about human behavior.  There you'll find a collection of quotes that express this notion better than I can. Second, you cannot study physics, geometry, biology, or any similar subject in isolation.  When I was in high school a lot of the stuff we went over in math class junior year didn't make sense until I took physics senior year.  In college I took calculus I and II as a computer science student and did fairly well, but I forgot everything I had read the day after each final exam.  When I took discrete math, though, the class was so much more interesting because I could see how it applied to CS. Physics od SuperherosFinally, one great way to teach science is through storytelling.  This is a case where extensive Bible study might be perfect preparation for giving a science lecture - Jesus knew 2000 years ago that parables were much more effective teaching tools than lists of facts and figures (or commandments). The facts of the story are not nearly as important as the lesson and the exercise in creative thinking.  One great example of this is The Physics of Superheros by James Kakalios.  This is a great book - the author talks about the origin stories and powers of various super heroes and uses these very fictional examples to illustrate real physics.  He does not do so by brutally criticizing Stan Lee and insulting Superman.  Instead he uses the "miracle exception" to the laws of physics represented by each super power to tell a story about how the world really works. Thanks to The Adventures of the Accordion Guy for pointing out the post on teaching math like English.

300: Homophobic Propaganda for Bush’s Upcoming Invasion of Iran?

The movie 300, based on the Frank Miller graphic novel, has earned $70 million at the box office, breaking some records. But if you read some of the commentary out there you might not be too interested in seeing it. All the villains are gay. All the good guys are white and the bad guys are black. The whole thing is just Frank Miller's thinly-veiled cheering for Bush to invade Iran. Etc. Now, 300 is definitely not a historical documentary. But I don't think the criticisms mentioned above are completely true-although I can certainly see why many people may have jumped to them. First off, any movie about war coming out in the year 2007 will inevitably be seen as a commentary or allegory for the current War in Iraq. That's understandable, but probably not reflective of the intent behind this particular movie. In fact, 300 (the novel) came out in 1999, well before the current Bush presidency. Ah, but isn't Frank Miller known to be somewhat right-wing, and couldn't he have updated the movie to better reflect his clash-of-civilizations views today? Miller has said that 300 is largely director Zack Snyder's film. Although he seems more-or-less pleased with the result, he plans on directing any movies based on his books himself from now on. Second, it is hard to equate 300 Spartans repelling an invasion of their homeland by a technologically and numerically superior force of Persians with the current Iraq War or any planned invasion of Iran. That is, unless you switch the metaphorical teams. The United States is clearly the superior, invading force in the Middle East. Leonidas personally leads his Spartans against Xerxes' forces and is able to succeed because of superior tactics and knowledge of the terrain. This has been the exact opposite of the current administration's handling of war. Insurgents have used their knowledge of the neighborhoods of Baghdad to their advantage, and are using asymmetrical warfare tactics with unfortunate success. Where was the scene of Leonidas getting into the Laconian Air National Guard and avoiding combat? The charges of homophobia are largely based on two things - the "boy lovers" crack about Athens and the notion that Xerxes was portrayed as gay. Many have pointed out that the Spartans most likely had just as much pederasty as the rest of Greece at the time, so the joke didn't even make sense to anyone with a little historical context. True enough. But I would like to point out that sexual relationships between men and young boys are not the same as homosexual relationships between consenting adults. You can condemn child molestation without being homophobic - in fact, many gay organizations make this point themselves. As for how whether or not Xerxes was gay - I can see where that interpretation comes from, but I guess I didn't interpret it that way. Critics cite the makeup and jewelry, but that to me seemed like obvious symbols of decadence and Xerxes' facade of otherworldliness (and therefor godhood). There is one scene where Xerxes puts his hand on Leonidas' shoulder which some have said looks like a come on - to me, the scene looked more like an attempt at paternalism on Xerxes' part. He was, after all, offering Leonidas control of Greece in return for acknowledging Persia's rule, as you would offer your son the keys to the car if he respects your curfew. This is all not to say that 300 was a perfect film. My biggest criticisms were: 1) Although the vast majority of 300 is an almost miraculously successful translation of comic art to live action, the freakish characters like Ephialtes were overdone and looked a little ridiculous. Why would the Immortals look like the orcs from Lord of the Rings? What was with the giant fat guy with axes for hands? 2) All the mentions of fighting for freedom were a bit much. I get the point, that the Greek city-states fought dearly for their freedom from external rule, but most modern viewers will think the Spartans were talking about the modern idea of freedom - that is, personal political and economic freedom. Sparta wasn't exactly a shining example of this kind of freedom, built on the slavery of serfs working the land. There was some democracy, but only for the few. 3) One of aspects of the story of this battle that made it interesting was the fact that Leonidas knew he was doomed. According to Herodotus, an oracle had told the Spartans that they would either lose their kingdom, or lose their king. So beyond the incredible odds, Leonidas would have gone knowing there was no chance of return. In 300 instead they draw a distinction between the mysticism of Persia and the rationality of the Greeks. It's an interesting choice, but I kind of missed the fatalism of Herodotus' telling. 4) I thought the scenes back in Sparta of Gorgo's attempts to get support for sending the whole army were a good addition, but it was more than just 300 Spartans fighting this war. Thespians and Thebans fought and died with the Spartans and Athens was busy preparing to fight Persia at sea. Adding a bit of larger context, even indirectly could have made this a better movie. Any film worth watching will inspire different interpretations and criticisms, but I recommend you watch 300 before taking some viewer's criticisms (including mine) to heart.

Super Heroes vs. Real Life

Super heroes. We see them in movies, watch them on TV, and if you're a nerd, read about them in comics books. The Internet is home to countless arguments over which super hero has the best powers, whom could beat up whom, and what would happen if Lois Lane and Superman finally did hook up. It used to be that the life of a super hero was predictably unrealistic. Most super heroes are more likely to travel through time and fight dinosaurs than run out of toilet paper. In the past decade there have been a number of comic books that took on this dichotomy and tried to depict what life would really be like if you were invincible, but otherwise just a normal guy. This hasn't really filtered down to popular television and movies, with the possible exception of the TV show Heroes and to some extent the Spider-Man movies. That's why today, we're going to look at some of the rare depictions of the real life of super heroes. There is nothing more real than the Real World, so we need look no further than Real World: Metropolis: [youtube]C1Ic1eaUVOE&NR[/youtube] At the end of the last X-Men movie, Magneto found himself powerless, but even worse, out of a job. Luckily, Starbucks is always hiring: [youtube]4y8v7kkpQm4&NR[/youtube] Super heroes, like rock stars, travel the country and get all the chicks. So how do they come to terms with their illegitimate children? [youtube]gkhaCLx6vys[/youtube] Some super heroes have indomitable will power, but that doesn't mean they always bring their A-game to the softball match against the Legion of Doom: [youtube]4yal8GOOXlU[/youtube] Here's the part where I was going to put clips from The State and Robot Chicken, but Viacom in their faceless, corporate wisdom has pulled those videos from YouTube. Good move Viacom! I bet now instead of seeing free advertising, all our readers are running out to buy your DVDs. Finally, although none of us have had to dig ourselves out of our own grave (having been drugged and put there by Kraven the Hunter), pretty much everyone has had to outdance a cow. How will Spider-Man handle that situation? [youtube]ijc_0Hk_8Zo[/youtube]

Deviant Artist Becomes World’s Greatest Fan-fic-er

An artist named *spacecoyote posted two "fan-fic" anime-style drawings of The Simpsons and Futurama characters to the popular art site Less then a week later, she was signed on to work for Bongo Comics - owned and created by Matt Groening (creator of both series) on anime-style Simpsons comics. She also might be working with 20th Century Fox as well. How's that for a nice little bit of happiness from this "Web 2.0" world? Post some junk online that you think your friends might dig and instead of a lawsuit (more common) you get a job? Please do check out *spacecoyote's drawings - I especially like her realization of Marge, Patty and Selma in the Simpsons drawing. Here's the official deviantART posting on the topic if you'd like to leave her some props.

What Villians are Thankful For

In a recent artIcle on, superheroes said what they are thankful for this Thanksgiving. In order to give equal time I recently asked supervillians what they are thankful for this season.
Blob Blob I am thankful for my friends and family...what are you surprised I didn't say food. You bastards I have a genetic disorder why must you be so cruel.
Joker The Joker I am greatful Batman is too much of a pussy to kill my crazy ass. What do I have to do, shoot his best friend's daughter and paralyze her... oh wait I did that and he still did nothing. What a fag!
I'm thankful you stupid humans haven't invented plastic bullets yet. I mean really, even if you ran at me with a pointed stick I'd be screwed.
Dr. Polaris
Dr. Polaris
I'm thankful copyright infringement doesn't apply to comic book powers. But seriously we're totally different he's a mutant and I got my powers from exposer to magnetic field or something like that. Also my costume totaly kicks as, how does he even look like a magnet?
Lex Luthor
I'm greatful for the dumbasses in this country who voted for George Bush. If the're dumb enough to vote for him then surely they'll elect me. Luthor in 2008!
Gorilla Grodd
Gorilla Grodd
I love the Animal Planet channel. Its the best free porn ever!