Tag Archives: math

Spurious Correlations – Visual Graphs Demonstrating no relationship whatsoever!

What does the number of people who drowned in pools have to do with the number of films featuring Nicholas Cage?

Or World-Wide non commercial Space Launches have to do with the number of sociological doctorates awarded in the United States?


Absolutely nothing. They are spurious correlation, “mathematical relationship in which two events or variables have no direct causal connection.”

Check out the website Spurious Correlations for simple graphs that highlight how easy it is to confuse a correlative relationship with a causative one. The site is managed and maintained by Tyler Vigen, a law student at Harvard. An excellent visual resource for teachers of statistics, economics, social studies, civics, science, and more.  


SXSWedu – Can the Liberal Arts Survive in an Age of Innovation?

The next session I am attending is a topic near and dear to my heart as a liberal arts major, “Can the Liberal Arts Survive in an Age of Innovation?” The speakers are David Maxwell, President of Drake University, Liz Willen,

The seven liberal arts – Picture from the Hortus deliciarum of Herrad of Landsberg (12th century); Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The seven liberal arts – Picture from the Hortus deliciarum of Herrad of Landsberg (12th century); Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Editor of the Hechinger Report, Michelle Weise, a Senior Research Fellow at the Clayton Christendon Institute, and Scott Kinney, President of the Capella Education Company.

Quite famously, the President dissed the Liberal Arts not long ago with a sleight directed at Art History. Although he then followed up with a letter of apology to an upset professor. At the same time, he highlighted an issue in higher education. How do we resolve Liberal Arts with workforce readiness in higher education? Many educators, administrators, and law-makers are focusing on changes in education with a greater emphasis on STEM, leaving the Liberal Arts behind.

David begins by reaffirming his belief in and support of the Liberal Arts and Sciences in higher education. They have a long tradition in education. They are narrative tools that describe the world around us – help us to understand who we are, why we are, our place in the order of things, and our record in the human condition. They are proof of the fact that we were here. They are also how we try to answer the “big questions” in the world. However, he does acknowledge that the Liberal Arts alone are not sufficient in preparing students for the broader world. Preparation for a professional workforce is a necessary but not sufficient outcome of higher education.  We must ensure that our graduates can fulfill their personal and professional aspirations and needs. Sadly, we cannot get away from addressing the financial model of college – especially as costs for higher education is increasing at such an exponential rate. David also expresses his concern that the discussion about higher education and jobs seems to only be “about jobs.” Our objective is not simply job training – but to prepare students for meaningful personal lives, professional accomplishments, and global citizenship.

Michelle next steps in to discuss her concerns about the “myths” of Liberal Arts – namely that the Liberal Arts are the antithesis of workforce/vocational training and that increased technology means the need of the Liberal Arts. This is the result of the division in this country between colleges and technical schools – that technical schools are where we learned how to do “mechanical thinking/acting” and that higher education was where we “learned to know.” Of course, college is no longer a luxury good, it’s a necessity. Additionally, college costs are becoming more prohibitive. Also, in a knowledge economy or learning society, learning is becoming work and work is becoming learning. A college degree is not enough for the learning economy of our time. We cannot let students assume that a liberal arts degree will “sort itself out” due to buzzwords like “critical thinking” and “creative problem solving.” The pursuit of passions has become a privilege, even a luxury good. Academics has never been good at proving its relevance to industry. As the cost of academics continues to rise, the onus will be put on higher education institutions to prove their relevance and return. Whoever can link non traditional pathways and preparation for the workforce, will fill a great need.

Scott Kinney of Capella University, a for-profit online institution, feels that his institution (and similar) have a role in addressing this issue. You can still receive the benefits of a liberal arts education and come out prepared for the workforce. Scott argues that no matter what happens in Liberal Arts Education, we need to do a much better job of serving non-traditional students who are looking to be job-ready immediately upon graduation. Scott states that 75% of currently enrolled students are “non-traditional” (I guess that makes them “traditional”?). Embracing a non-traditional student needs to be a focus and can be the solution for the issue of resolving Liberal Arts with Industry. Scott argues that we determine outcomes/competencies and then build curriculum around that. He also argues that we have to focus on lowering the price and raising completion rates.  Additionally, we must connect that with job readiness – that they enter the workforce with the necessary skills and competencies. Scott argues that we need to navigate job competencies in conjunction with employers.

Liz (our moderator) asks David if the for-profit model by Scott’s institution is in conflict with the traditional model at Drake. David is surprisingly in agreement with the other members of the panel. He feels that colleges must do a better job at preparing students for careers, we must fit the needs of all of our students, and that we need to work with employers to ensure that they get from their students what they need. Michelle also highlights the challenge of enacting change from within an institution – especially at Colleges and Universities where tradition is so valued. Additionally, Scott highlights that job preparation does not undermine Liberal Arts objectives – you can still hold discussions on novels and works of art. David states that the real issue is “How does learning take place? What is assessed and how is it assessed?”

Ultimately, Liberal Arts is vital to the human experience, but we must find a way to effectively merge it with our modern needs. However, I would argue that it’s dangerous to make education solely about training for jobs. Education is about developing sophisticated thinking and learning skills.

Jackson Pollock Demonstrates Physics in his Strokes

Jackson Pollock, the man who brought American art to the forefront of the field and one of the father’s of the abstract expressionist movement, was not applying slap-dash, free-flung practices in his famous ‘splatter paintings.’

A group of physicists and mathematicians have released a carefully analyzed study of his work and have concluded that:

They found that Pollock’s drizzles, drips and splashes could be explained by physical phenomena known as jets, drops and sheets. Each is governed by the laws of fluid dynamics, which Pollock exploited using careful technique and manipulating the thickness of his pigments and paints with water and solvents, according to the researchers.

Their findings were published in a recent edition of Physics Today. While many people examine Pollock’s splatter paintings and think “My six year old could do that!” Science would seem to disagree!

“By pouring paint in this continuous jet fashion or by dripping it, he incorporated physics into the process of painting itself,” study researcher Andrzej Herczynski, a physicist at Boston College, said in a statement. “To the degree that he did and to the degree he varied his materials — by density or viscosity — he was experimenting in fluid dynamics, although his aim was not to describe the physics, but to produce a certain aesthetic effect.”

Read more about the article here at MSNBC or in Physics Today (with a paid subscription or single buy for the article).

America’s Crisis – Our Inability to Educate Science & Math Majors

Anyone who has watched the evolution of modern education can readily note the fact that America is lagging (and has for a while) behind other countries in terms of graduating math, science, and engineering students. What is the cause of this divide? Why is America, with undoubtedly the most prestigious and accessible University system, failing miserably to educate its students in the maths and sciences?

While I by no means support the notion that there is anything ‘less’ about a degree in the Humanities (after all, my undergraduate and graduate degrees are in the Social Sciences), we cannot ignore the reality that we are losing an important segment of educated professionals that are instrumental to our success as a country.

Low graduation rates among science and math undergraduates affect how the United States competes globally. Fewer biology and math majors means fewer doctors and engineers later.

UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute (UCLA being one of my alma maters) has just published the results of a multi-year study on this very phenomenon. There are many contributing factors, namely lack of access to a good education in K-12 and ill-preparation in high school for college level math and science education.

“I think one of the most disturbing realities about the American educational system is the inequalities that exist within that system. Where you live happens to be important. What state you live in, what district within that state you live in, what school within that district you go to, even what classroom within a given school … it really matters. And what I mean by that is, you are not necessarily expected to learn the same parts of mathematics at that grade level or the same science.”

“One international study of 12th-graders found that for those students in mathematics who were at the highest level — the kids who take calculus, AP calculus or regular college-level calculus — essentially came near the bottom of the international distribution against their peers. In science and physics, we were dead last. So even those students who we think of as our absolute best are not competitive internationally.”

Another factor at the post-secondary level is that students are often not given support and direction; their classes are designed to ‘weed out’ kids who should really be offered tutoring or investment. Math and Science majors graduate in much lower numbers and over a longer number of year (5-6 years to complete an undergraduate degree compared to 4-5 years for Humanities or Arts degree). With the rising cost of college education, those two additional years can spell tens of thousands of dollars of debt.

Science and math programs are designed and taught to winnow down the number of students. University tenure systems often reward professors who conduct research and publish their work, but not those who teach well.

Some new programs, such as the STEM at the University of Maryland focus on providing students with one on one attention between faculty and students.

We in America have accepted that science is just not for everybody. We send messages to students all the time that, ‘This is not really for you,’ ” he said. “One of the reasons American (students) aren’t more excited about science is that adults themselves aren’t excited. Most (students) have been weeded out before they even get to college.”

Hrabowski said many people assume they’re not smart enough to study science or math. His response?

“No. Your teacher wasn’t innovative enough.”

Read more about the problem, new initiatives and potential solutions in this CNN article: “Why Would-Be Engineers End Up As English Majors” and “How the U.S. Lags in Math, Science Education and How It Can Catch Up.”

NPR – Teacher’s Voices

My friend and Colleague Daniel Schneider added his voice to an NPR podcast on public teaching in Arizona. Dan and I have worked together at Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Talented Youth program. Check out the podcast interview here.