Wednesday, February 20, 2008

My conflict of interest disenfranchises my students

For the first time in my 22 years of teaching physics in the San Juan Unified School District, I am to have no voice in the decision of which textbook we will adopt for physics.

At our first adoption committee meeting, I disclosed that I knew (and had worked with) the author of one of the titles under consideration. Two meetings later, the district coordinator in charge of the meetings pulled me aside and expressed her concern that I had a conflict of interest. She advised that I should not enter into deliberations over the adoption of the high school physics textbook.

Do I really have a conflict of interest? I did work with Paul Hewitt on Appendix F (Additional Problems) of the previous edition of Conceptual Physics: The High School Program. I was given a one-time, contributor payment. And I am an author on the lab manual for Conceptual Physical Science, Conceptual Physical Science Explorations, and Conceptual Integrated Science. None of those lab manuals are connected to any textbook under consideration for the physics adoption.

I assured the coordinator that if every high school in the country adopted Hewitt's text, my profit would be exactly... zero. And if no one in the country adopted Conceptual Physics, my financial loss we be the same: zero. (Well, for a loss I suppose it would to be negative zero.)

However, the San Juan Unified School District sets a low threshold for "Conflict of Interest." Since I do receive a royalty payment from Pearson Education and Pearson Education does have a title under consideration, I am deemed to have a conflict.

Is the bar set too low? I know a teacher who grades teacher exams for National Education Systems (NES). Prospective teachers seeking certification must pass an NES exam. The exam involves written responses, and those written responses must be scored by readers. My colleague is such a reader. The compensation he receives comes in the form of a check. The check comes from Pearson Education, who acquired NES in 2006.

By SJUSD Board Policy, my colleague would have a conflict of interest in textbook selection if Pearson Education (who owns Prentice Hall and Addison Wesley, among others) offered any titles for consideration. The policy declares conflict for those who are "employed by or receive compensation from any person, firm, organization or any of its subsidiaries or controlling entities submitting instructional materials to the district."

I'd be willing to bet a nickel that my colleague could, in fact, serve on an adoption committee and enjoy input in the process. Completely undetected. The district has no vetting process. (Not unlike the lack of vetting that's common to Homecoming Dance Cleanup Committees.) They would not know of his clear and present conflict. And he wouldn't imagine that he had any such conflict and would not imagine any reason to recuse himself.

Amusingly, I was allowed a voice in our 2001 deliberations. I first and foremost advocated that each teacher be allowed to choose the book of his or her preference. My choice was a book that was, erm, dedicated to me! (Yes, Hewitt's Conceptual Physics.) In my defense, I made full disclosure of that fact to the district science coordinator at the time. But in a case of "no man is a prophet in his own land," she thought that I had simply doctored the dedication page to include my name. LOL!

This adoption is the fourth one I've been involved with and affords me the opportunity to work with my fourth district science coordinator. Just an observation.

Other observation: too bad my physics students will have no voice in the physics adoption process, just because I author a lab manual for courses they will never take.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Fooling our elders...

really isn't that hard to do. Nevertheless, the kids never seem to tire of it.

An email was forwarded to the staff of my school last week by a well-meaning colleague. She was amazed by a videoclip and corresponding story and thought it should be shared with the school's music and physics students. Here's the story and the clip.

Turn your sound on for this.

This is almost unbelievable. See how all of the balls wind up in catcher cones.

This incredible machine was built as a collaborative effort between the Robert M. Trammell Music Conservatory and the Sharon Wick School of Engineering at the University of Iowa. Amazingly, 97% of the machines Components came from John Deere Industries and Irrigation Equipment of Bancroft, Iowa, yes farm equipment!

It took the team a combined 13,029 hours of set-up, alignment, calibration, and tuning before filming this video but as you can see it was WELL worth the effort.

It is now on display in the Matthew Gerhard Alumni Hall at the University and is already slated to be donated to the Smithsonian. ENJOY

My colleague was so enthused, she added the claim that "this is not computer-generated" to her forwarding note.

But of course, I'm the jerk on your distribution list who assumes such thing are not what they are claimed to be. It turns out, sometimes things sent through "teh intertubes" are hoaxes. And this was, of course, one of them.

Having discovered the truth of the story and the clip with minimal google-fu, I copied and pasted the Snopes link into a "Reply to All," cringed a little bit, and sent it out.

Since I've done this before, the deluge of admonishing replies has abated somewhat. For the uninitiated, the way these episodes go is as follows: The person who sends the hoax is regarded as a happy-go-lucky victim with a positive outlook on life, but the person who responds with the truth is regarded as a curmudgeonly killjoy. It works like that every time. One respondent this time pleaded, "Please don't tell my children about the tooth fairy." (The only correct response to which is to feign total belief in the reality of the tooth fairy.)

I ran it by my AP students and they told me the clip's source just a few seconds into play. They dialed up the Snopes page in a few seconds more. To the eyes of those familiar with computer-generated images (CGI), the clip was clearly the work of microprocessors.

We had a little post-debunking discussion in which they agreed that the people who forward such messages have at least one thing in common. They are of a certain age. My students don't forward such things and don't get them from peers. They always come from an elder: an aunt, uncle, grandmother, grandfather, etc.

There's a thesis in there somewhere for an aspiring Ph.D candidate. My take? Few people under 30 would be fooled by this hoax, but many people over 60 would be. Between 30 and 60, it's a toss-up. But I could be wrong.

The hoaxters laid it on thick with all the proper names in their email message. Other than The University of Iowa and The Smithsonian, all other institutions mentioned are non-existent. Google "The Sharon Wick School of Engineering" or any of the others and you'll be directed to some version of this hoax. And for the record, the Hawkeyes are not amused. No word on what the creators of Animusic think of it.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Digital killed the Polaroid star

It's true: I'm posting this because I thought of a clever title. Clever to people who remember the first video ever broadcast on MTV, anyway.

But it's also true that Polaroid has ended production of instant film.

I grew up with film cameras in the 1970s. My father brought back a few Leica rangefinder bodies when he returned from his service in Europe during World War II. He taught me how to expose the film. He let me help with developing the film, and we printed the film in a plywood-walled darkroom he built in the basement of our home.

Oh, the chemicals (and likely carcinogens). But there was also the thrill of nursing an image to life, and the pride taken in the finished product.

So heck, I've looked down down my nose at Instamatics and Polaroids for most of my life!

Other priorities captured my energies in the 80s and 90s. I used a Weathermatic.

In 2000, I decided it was time I go digital. A once-in-a-career trip to Cornell prodded me along. After thorough research, I went with the Epson PhotoPC 3000z. And I was back into photography. Filters, add-on lenses, composition, technique, and digital post-processing--I was back in a game that had changed since I left it. And--what's this? Videoclips?

By 2003, I was ready to take the plunge into the nascent market of affordable digital SLRs. My mother had been shooting Canon and Nikon SLRs since the 70s, and had been producing great images for years. Also by 2003, digital SLRs had dropped in price from $30,000 to under $2000. The groundbreaking camera was the Canon EOS 10D.

The DSLR was more camera than I knew what to do with. I told people that I bought it because I wanted to be intimidated by my own camera. And I was. But the 10D was a forgiving teacher. And I worked at learning how to use it to capture nice images. Time, travel, the addition of lenses and filters, and learning a bit about Photoshop, and I've become a journeyman photographer.

Which brings me to the shiny new Canon EOS 40D that arrived this week. Bells, whistles, usability, and functionality all improved over the 10D. And the price dropped. New things to learn, more travels to trek, more images to record.

Oh and yeah, Polaroid instant film is no more. Hey, it's my blog and I can spin off on tangents if I want to!

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Giving credit where it's not due

I'm originally from Grand Rapids, Michigan. It was a nice place to grow up... in many ways. But it was--and still is--a very Christian community. An example of what passes for multicultural education in the public schools is learning how Christmas is celebrated around the world. Lessons on how Rosh Hashanah or Ramadan are celebrated in Grand Rapids? Not so much. And there's absolutely no love for the Flying Spaghetti Monster. (My public high school biology course was taught by a man who proudly proclaimed--in class--that he believed the Biblical account of Creation.)

So I probably shouldn't be surprised when the local news broadcast credits prayer for helping to save a heart attack victim. For those who follow the evidence, the only evidence for the "power of prayer" is that there is none. Indeed, heart patients who were prayed for suffered a greater rate of complications. For what it's worth, evidence for the claim that prayer was helpful for in vitro fertilization was completely fraudulent.

In its defense, I will hasten to add that Michigan is in the midst of a debilitating recession. It is one of two states that lost population last year. These are not conditions that drive communities toward rational though and critical thinking.

We see so many of these credulous, feel-good stories in the mainstream media that we generally don't take much notice. To get a sense of how much it stands out to people like me, imagine stories like this on your evening news: "Quick actions, witchcraft, help referee who collapsed," or "Quick action, pact with Satan, help referee who collapsed."

Don't get me wrong. I'm happy for anyone who's found their path. And if that path includes prayer, no worries. But to proclaim that prayer has a power that is specifically contradicted by evidence? That's irresponsible. And it's on par with the claims of psychics and other proponents of woo.

The "quick actions" mentioned in the story, two athletic trainers and an RN administering CPR, did save the heart attack victim. The prayers were a kind and thoughtful gesture, but deserve no credit in saving the man's life. Think of it this way: suppose three people were to collapse in heart attacks. One got the "quick actions and prayer," one got "quick actions" only, and the third got prayer only. Two of the three would stand a good chance of survival.

Friday, February 08, 2008

The new STAR Physics RTQs are up!

Here they are!

As always, let me know if you find anything objectionable in the new set.

UPDATE: No points will be awarded for finding the typographical errors in item #10 or item #64. The error in #64 though... wow! Not to worry: those will be fixed "with all deliberate speed."

A skyhook and roundtuit will be awarded to the first commenter who correctly identifies the previously-released RTQ that has now been retired. The CDE is not completely deaf to item criticism from the field.

Monday, February 04, 2008

TAM6: Let the registration begin!

Registration is now open for The Amaz!ng Meeting 6, June 19-22 at the Flamingo Hotel & Casino, Las Vegas. From the James Randi Educational Foundation:
You can't stop the Amaz!ng Randi, and he's at it again with his Amaz!ng Meeting. This time it's TAM 6 and just like in past TAMs he's lined up some heavy hitters for this one of a kind conference.

Don't miss this opportunity to meet some of the leaders in the Skeptic movement. Randi is bringing back such great speakers as Phil Plait (the Bad Astronomer), Penn & Teller, Richard Saunders, Dr. Richard Wiseman, Dr. Michael Shermer, Adam Savage (from the Mythbusters), Christopher Hitchens and Paul Provenza. That's not even half of the speakers scheduled to attend.

I attended TAM2 in 2004 and I was hooked. I haven't missed one since.

Check the TAM6 webpage for further details.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Yellow Alert: Physics STAR released items soon!

Sharpen your pencils and loosen up your typing fingers, RTQ critics. A new batch of Physics CST items is just about ready for prime-time. Expect 15 more items mixed into the existing 60 for a total of 75 Released Test Questions.

If you find anything objectionable in the new items, let me know. I do serve on the panel that looks at items before they go onto the test, so I appreciate the feedback.

Oh, and if you'd like to use these items to prepare your students for this spring's STAR test in physics, that would be OK, too.