November 19 - 25, 2006

This column will provide links to, plus quotes and summaries of, on-line articles that might be of interest to the Infidel community. Because is concerned with educational issues, the articles selected will help to inform and enlighten readers as well as entertain them. In order to conform to "fair use practices," only small segments of the articles will be quoted. One caveat: to read the entire linked article, readers may have to subscribe to on-line versions of newspapers or magazines.

This week's column bookends with reports regarding education in math and science. The first report shows the deficiencies in basic science knowledge of today's students, while the last report marks the life-long campaign of a science teacher to increase the numbers of women and minorities in the sciences, as a measure of social justice.

From The New York Times, regarding science education: not good news at all, though I'm happy to report that students my home state of Texas (in Austin and Houston) did better than their peers in other large U.S. cities.

Half or a little more of the eighth-grade students in Charlotte, San Diego and Boston lacked a basic grasp of science.
In six of the other cities — New York, Houston, Chicago, Cleveland, Los Angeles and Atlanta — the share of eighth graders without that knowledge was even higher, ranging from about three-fifths in New York to about four-fifths in Atlanta. By comparison, the corresponding share for the nation as a whole was 43 percent.

Among the 10 cities, only in Austin were the eighth graders who lacked a basic understanding in the minority, and just barely there.

“It’s a national disgrace,” said Rodger W. Bybee, director of the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study, which develops and evaluates science curriculums and promotes the teaching of science. “We as a nation should be able to do better than that.”

Read complete article here...

Maybe this new think tank can do something about the educational problem? From The Washington Post:

Concerned that the voice of science and secularism is growing ever fainter in the White House, on Capitol Hill and in culture, a group of prominent scientists and advocates of strict church-state separation yesterday announced formation of a Washington think tank designed to promote "rationalism" as the basis of public policy.

The brainchild of Paul Kurtz, founder of the Center for Inquiry-Transnational, the small public policy office will lobby and sometimes litigate on behalf of science-based decision making and against religion in government affairs.

The announcement was accompanied by release of a "Declaration in Defense of Science and Secularism," which bemoans what signers say is a growing lack of understanding of the nature of scientific inquiry and the value of a rational approach to life.

Find the complete article here...

From the web site sciencenow, an outgrowth of Science Magazine, news on breakthroughs in the study of Neanderthal DNA:

Two groups of researchers have done what many thought impossible: They have sequenced more than 1 million bases of nuclear DNA from a Neanderthal fossil. The data, reported this week in Science and Nature, support the view that Neanderthals diverged from our own ancestors at least 450,000 years ago. One group has fresh evidence that Neanderthals and modern humans may have interbred.

The breakthrough owes a large debt to a burgeoning field known as paleometagenomics, as well as to faster sequencing technology. Until now, researchers have gleaned genetic information from ancient fossils by painstakingly purifying DNA from samples before sequencing it. This ensures that DNA from microbes and other contaminants does not pop up in the final sequence. But with paleometagenomics, researchers can feed DNA information from an unpurified sample into a computer and have the computer filter out foreign DNA.

Jump to complete article here...

From The Christian Science Monitor, new thinking about size and survival of species:

Of intense interest to all is how humans, often said to be causing Earth's "sixth mass extinction," will affect evolution on the planet. As with naturally occurring global catastrophes of the past, human activity has suddenly changed the definition of evolutionary fitness. Some evidence indicates that the human "footprint" is leading not only to the selection of smaller species over larger ones and generalists over specialists, but also the dwarfing of individuals within a species. The ecological disturbance implied by such miniaturization has implications not only for the species themselves, which may disappear, but for humankind's well-being.

Conventional wisdom says that as lineages move through time, they tend to get bigger, not smaller. Small protohorses, for example, evolved in North America, crossed the Bering Strait when it was dry land and evolved into the larger modern horse in central Asia, even as they died out in the Americas.

This "bigger is better" process is known as Cope's rule, named after 19th-century paleontologist Edward Drinker Cope. This rule is based on what would seem to be the obvious advantages of largeness: the ability to fight off predators and take advantage of a wider variety of resources, larger and potentially more numerous offspring, and better metabolic efficiency. But heftiness is advantageous only when the going is easy.

Click here for the full article

Also from The Christian Science Monitor, a report from Britain, on why non-religious families send their children to religious schools.

LONDON – Church was never a big part of Maria Allen's life. She used to go as a child, but lapsed as a teenager. All through university and her 20s, she rarely gave it a second thought. She was a regular worshiper, she quips: once a year, at Christmas.

Then, she had a daughter, and things changed. Ms. Allen didn't suddenly find God. She suddenly found Britain's school system. And that presented a problem. She lives in a part of London that is short on decent schools. The best were either too far away or too expensive. The rest were poor. All except for one: a church school, right on the doorstep, with an excellent reputation. But to stand a chance of getting in, you have to go to church.

"We started going about two years ago, when my daughter was about 2 years old," says Allen, who says she quickly came to enjoy the community of St. Mary Abbots in London's Kensington district. "There are only a few good schools round here, and while state school education can be very good, it can also be very bad, and no one is going to take a risk with their child."

Find the complete article here

Some sad news, noting the death of Leon Henkin, who pioneered attempts to bring more women and minorities into math and the sciences, from the Los Angeles Times:

Leon A. Henkin, a UC Berkeley mathematics professor who helped pioneer programs aimed at increasing the number of women and minorities who study and teach math at the highest levels, has died. He was 85.

Henkin, who taught at Berkeley almost 40 years, died Nov. 1 at his Oakland home of complications related to old age, said his son Julian.

"He profoundly cared about social justice, and he had the deepest belief in the potential of students of all backgrounds," said Uri Treisman, a mathematics professor at the University of Texas at Austin who was Henkin's last doctoral student.

During the civil rights movement of the 1960s, Henkin organized a committee of distinguished Berkeley faculty members to address why more women and minority undergraduates weren't pursuing math or math-related careers, the university said in a release.

Read the full artilce here...

The Talk of Lawrence