Thursday, November 30, 2023

AI Controversies Increase Appetite for Computer Science Education

Artificial intelligence (AI) is the topic of the day. Previous blog posts have explored the benefits and challenges of chatbot AI (ChatGPT) in higher education. ChatGPT has been in the news again recently with the drama surrounding the firing and re-hiring of its founder, Sam Altman. A health insurance company has been sued by surviving family members for allegedly denying necessary medical care based on faulty AI algorithms, contrary to doctors’ medical advice. Recent negotiations with the Autoworkers Union and the Actors Union have centered on the impacts of AI on union members’ jobs.


So, it’s not surprising that more and more college students want to major in computer science, with a specific focus on AI. The number of graduates from the University of Washington’s Paul G. Allen School (their school for computer science) doubled in the past 5 years and tripled in the past 10 years. At other schools in the state of Washington, students in the computer science programs have tripled and quadrupled in the past 10 years.


Student interest in computer science is so high, in fact, that it’s overwhelming colleges’ ability to provide the desired education. At the University of Michigan, there is a separate application process for the computer science major, designed to limit the number of students in the program. The University of Maryland requires a minimum grade in the introductory computer science courses, and a minimum GPA overall, before a student can be accepted as a computer science major. At Columbia University, computer science majors no longer have to select a specialty within the program (like AI or software development), resulting in a reduction of overall class sizes and a more interdisciplinary student body.


Institutions of higher learning are not the only source of AI-related coursework. Amazon, the company, has a new AI Ready Initiative to provide free AI skills training to 2 million people around the world over the next two years (by 2025). The initiative includes new free AI and generative AI courses, and scholarships for 50,000+ high school and college students. These new courses supplement an existing curriculum of 80+ free and low-cost courses about AI and generative AI.


And if you want a little help filling out your application to get into the computer sciences and engineering program at the University of Washington, a student has developed a website outlining the rubric that the UW admissions staff use to evaluate applications. Should help you write an essay that focuses on what the college wants to hear?

Friday, October 27, 2023

Home Schooling Remains Popular Post-Pandemic

When schools were shut down during the height of the Covid pandemic, students’ learning went virtual. Most students logged onto classes hosted by the schools they attended pre-pandemic, and have since returned to the in-person classroom at their traditional schools. Some students/families, however, opted to switch education gears and embraced home schooling – a learning environment which does not usually include a traditional in-person classroom. Many of those students/families continue to practice home schooling.


As reported by the Washington Post, a recent poll “suggest[s] that American home schooling is evolving from a movement into a practice — no longer driven by shared ideology and political goals but by circumstances specific to individual families.” Some families avoid traditional schools out of fear (health fears about continued exposure to covid and other illnesses), safety fears (related to school shootings and bullying), or moral fears (related to the content of public school education).


But other families value the flexibility that home schooling provides, allowing a better mix of book learning, experiential learning and extracurricular activities. Home schooling also often better addresses the needs of students with special needs or learning disabilities. Not unlike the post-pandemic “work from home” movement, it’s all about creating a life that maximizes the value of the time you devote to each task.


Home schooling is also starting to look different than it did in the past. The pre-pandemic model usually involved a parent staying home to deliver the instruction him/herself or facilitating the students’ learning via online classes. Post-pandemic, plenty of families continue to follow that labor-intensive model. But for other families who want the benefits of home schooling but don’t want to be the teacher/facilitator, a marketplace is developing to coordinate the learning environment without actually being a “school.”


Another Washington Post article cites several options: A micro-school, where students are dropped off for the day and a “guide” (not a teacher) coordinates the students’ access to online lessons. Hybrid schools allow students to spend some of the day interacting with other students, and some of the day learning alone at home. Co-ops draw on the relative talents of member parents to cover all the academic disciplines.


It will be interesting to see what the future of home schooling holds.

Monday, September 25, 2023

NASA Launching New Website, Streaming Service and App


In a July 27 media advisory, the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) announced the upgrading of its and websites, with future launch of an on-demand streaming service (NASA+) and an upgraded NASA app to enable all people to access their world-class web content from any device.


You can watch a short video of the new website here. NASA encourages users to visit the beta website and provide feedback for improvement. My short visit to the beta website was very interesting. There was plenty of information about NASA activities (NASA News, NASA Newsletter, image of the day). There were collections on specific topics: Earth Information Center (satellite observations of earth), humans in space, earth and climate, solar system exploration, welcome to the universe. And perhaps most fascinating, there was NASA TV, providing live coverage of various NASA missions. Find the schedule of NASA TV daily programming here.


The upcoming NASA+ on-demand streaming platform will be family-friendly, free-of-charge and ad-free. It will include existing videos and some new series, all focused on NASA missions past and future. NASA says they will be “putting space on demand and at your fingertips.” NASA+ will be available through the NASA app on most phones, streaming media players (e.g., Roku, AppleTV, FireTV) and through the web on laptop and desktop computers.

Sunday, August 27, 2023

K-12 Virtual Public Schools Become Permanent Post-Covid


K-12 virtual school – aka learning online – became a necessity during the Covid pandemic. There has been a lot written since the pandemic ended about the shortcomings of that experience, but some school districts have also recognized its value. New York City, for example, has decided to make its high school-level virtual school program permanent, based on student demand.


I encourage you to read the full article on this in TIME magazine: Why the Nation’s Largest School District Is Making Virtual School a Permanent Option. But for those of who like to read the punch line first, here are my key takeaways:


·      Students value the “found time”, losing in some cases a multi-hour round-trip commute just to get to and from the physical school building.

·      Students value the ability to learn at their own pace, whether that be faster or slower than their fellow students in a physical classroom.

·      A flexible schedule allows students to pursue extra-curricular and enrichment activities when they are available (e.g., going to a museum in the middle of the day), or to balance employment with education.

·      A flexible schedule allows students to do their schoolwork at the time of day when they learn best (think night owls).

·      Virtual learning curricula are now designed to support various learning and communication styles (think introverts).


Here are links to some permanent virtual public school programs in the US:

·      Virtual Innovators Academy, New York City NY (currently 9th and 10th grade, planning to add one grade a year)

·      Jordan Virtual Learning Academy, Bluffdale Utah (K-12)

·      Atlanta Virtual Academy, Atlanta GA (middle and high school, part-time)

·      California Virtual Academies, Simi Valley CA (K-12)

Thursday, July 27, 2023

Lifelong Learning: So Many Opportunities, So Little Time

I’m several years into retirement and always looking for new things to learn. Not for credit or working towards a degree or certificate; just for the pleasure of new knowledge. They say learning new things keeps dementia at bay; I just say it’s fun.


Here are some examples of free and low-cost learning platforms for people of every age:


·      Open Yale Courses, introductory courses taught by Yale faculty, free. Example online classes:

o   Frontiers and Controversies in Astrophysics

o   Introduction to Ancient Greek History

o   Financial Theory

o   Philosophy and the Science of Human Nature

·      And my favorite, a course I’ve taken and learned a lot from:

o   The Science of Wellbeing


·      Harvard online courses, courses taught by Harvard faculty, free. Example online classes:

o   Introduction to Computer Science

o   New Ideas for Nonprofit Leaders

o   Contemporary China: The People’s Republic, Taiwan and Hong Kong

o   Fundamentals of Neuroscience


·      Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes, classes offered for seniors (50+) through local universities (often professors as instructors), varying costs. Check here to see if your local university hosts an Osher Institute. Example online classes:

o   Basic Watercolor Introduction (offered through University of Utah)

o   Yoga for Movement and Flexibility (offered through University of Utah)


·      Smithsonian Associates, classes offered through the Smithsonian Institution (the world’s largest museum, education and research complex), varying costs. Example online classes:

o   Achieving Balanced Compositions in Photography ($45-55)

o   Frida Kahlo: Her Art and Life ($25-30)

o   George Washington in Barbados: A Remarkable Journey ($20-25)

o   Inside Smithsonian Libraries: the Cullman Library ($40-50)


·      One Day University, offering hundreds of videos of past in-person lectures by university faculty, membership at $8.95/ month or $139/year. Example videos:

o   President Ike: The Legacy of Dwight D. Eisenhower

o   New Class/New Images: The Remarkable James Webb Space Telescope

o   The Amazing World of Frequency: From Bad Vibes to Good Vibrations

o   The Universal Timekeeper: Reconstructing History Atom by Atom



Just do a little googling on your own and you’ll be surprised how many different learning opportunities you’ll find online. Enjoy!

Thursday, June 29, 2023

The “Miracle” of Improved Reading Scores? Back to Basics


We’ve been hearing a lot recently about how elementary school students’ reading scores declined drastically as a result of pandemic shutdowns. And in the US, the southeastern (aka deep south) states have historically had low reading scores, even pre-pandemic.


So, imagine everyone’s surprise to hear about the “Mississippi Miracle,” in which several deep south states have dramatically improved their 1-4th graders’ reading scores, despite the pandemic. “Mississippi went from being ranked the second-worst state in 2013 for fourth-grade reading to 21st in 2022. Louisiana and Alabama, meanwhile, were among only three states to see modest gains in fourth-grade reading during the pandemic, which saw massive learning setbacks in most other states.” (AP article)


What explains this improvement in reading abilities in historically under-performing states? Two common-sense things:  (1) a focus on phonics, and (2) early screenings for struggling readers and learning disabilities. These states have trained their elementary school teachers in the science of teaching reading (formerly known as phonics), and have provided targeted resources to schools with the lowest reading scores. At least one state (Mississippi) has also stated clear expectations for students, parents and teachers: children will meet a minimum standard of reading abilities by the end of third grade or be held back.


One other critical component of the “Mississippi miracle” is its student-centered nature. Teachers meet children where they are in reading, and devise strategies to help each student address their own personal challenge(s) in learning reading. That could be a learning disability like dyslexia; it could be lack of opportunity to read and practice; it could be not knowing the basics.


Teaching phonics is a method well-suited to online learning, whether used by a teacher in a physical classroom to maximize the use of limited time, or whether used by teachers and parents as an adjunct to in-class learning. Find tried-and-true online phonics teaching resources (some free, some at a small charge) here and here and here.




Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Social Media Use Is Affecting Our Kids’ Mental Health


The US Surgeon General issued an advisory in late May suggesting that children and adolescents are over-using social media, and that this poses a risk of harm to their health and mental well-being. As many as 95% of teenagers aged 13-17 reported they used social media regularly, while as many as a third of teenagers reported they were on social media “almost constantly.” Observing that the teenage years support rapid brain and emotional development, Dr. Vivek Murthy said that “we are in the middle of a national youth mental health crisis, and I am concerned that social media is an important driver of that crisis – one that we must urgently address.”


The Surgeon General’s advisory contains several practical suggestions for making social media safer for children and teenagers. Policymakers should develop safety standards and find ways to limit access to harmful social media. Technology companies should become more aware of the negative impacts of their social media platforms and work with other stakeholders to improve systems to provide greater safety for child and teenage users. Parents and caregivers should become more aware of the nature and level of their children’s social media use and establish realistic guidelines for its use. Surgeon General Murthy intends to prohibit his own children from accessing social media until they are at least 13 years old, but may reconsider that decision and wait until they are 16 years old. Children and teenagers can raise their own self-awareness about how much and which social media they participate in, and learn to self-regulate their exposure to it. Finally, researchers should prioritize social media and youth mental health research to inform the development of best practices for social media use.


The American Psychological Association has recently issued its own health advisory on the harm of teenagers’ use of social media, highlighting the need for fostering social media literacy and digital citizenship. Digital citizenship curriculum materials developed in conjunction with the Harvard School of Education are available for just this purpose. Common Sense Education offers lessons plans and activities by grade level (K-12). The curriculum for grades K-2 addresses questions such as: How do we balance our time with technology? How do you stay safe online? What footprints are you leaving online? What are ways you can be kind online? How do you stand up for people you care about? How do you know something you hear or see is true?


It's been a very long time since I was in second grade. But I think I’d learn a lot from this curriculum. Our children’s mental health future depends on all of us raising our awareness about the benefits and pitfalls of social media use, and taking steps to manage it wisely.