Smart Performers

The NY Times has a nice piece on Natalie Portman… and that fact that as a student at Syosset High School on Long Island back in the late 1990s, Ms. Portman made it all the way to the semifinal rounds of the Intel Science Talent Search competition with an investigation into a new, “environmentally friendly” method of converting waste into useful forms of energy. She did this while maintaining the straight-A average she’d managed since grade school, as well as being a rising movie star. Portman later went on to Harvard University to study neuroscience and the evolution of the mind. According to one of her professors, whether as a student in her class or a research assistant in her lab Portman never once asked for an extension or to be excused from her responsibilities. If she was scheduled to appear on the Letterman show, for example, she would finish her paper early.

The article mentions some other famous super-bright actresses:

Hedy Lamarr, the actress habitually regarded as “that most beautiful woman in Hollywood,” was a rocket scientist on the side, inventing and patenting a torpedo guidance technique she called “frequency hopping,” which thwarted efforts to jam the signals that kept the missiles on track.

Danica McKellar, who graduated summa cum laude in mathematics from the University of California, Los Angeles, where she helped devise a mathematical proof for certain properties of magnetic fields — a theorem that bears her name along with those of her collaborators. She also writes popular books about math with clever PG-13 titles like “Math Doesn’t Suck” and “Kiss My Math.”

Mayim Bialik who starred in “Blossom” and now plays a neurobiologist on “The Big Bang Theory,” … and who has a Ph.D. from U.C.L.A. in … neurobiology. “I tell people, I am a neuroscientist, and I play one on TV,” says Dr. Bialik. She did research on the brain chemistry of patients with a genetic condition called Prader-Willi syndrome, and she loved being “hooded” for her doctorate while she was “very, very pregnant” with her second child. “Better pregnant and getting a doctorate,” she said, “than pregnant at your high school graduation.”

I love stories like this!


Meme: Appreciating Teachers

A teacher somewhere in your neighborhood tonight is grading and preparing lessons to teach your children while you are watching television. In the minute it takes you to read this, teachers all over the world are using their “free time”, and often investing their own money, for your child’s literacy, prosperity, and future. Re-post if you are a teacher, love a teacher, or appreciate our teachers.

[h/t miss_mimsy. We know so many teachers and are so appreciative of their hard hard work.]


Bugs in the System

A few articles related to bugs in the system, either literal or figurative ones…


Wednesday News Chum: Children and Education, Barbie and Teen Driving

Ah, Wednesday lunch. Time for some chum to chew upon. I’m not sure if there’s a theme in these items yet — perhaps you can find it.

  • From the “Government Intrusion” Department: The New York Times has an interesting article on the National Children’s Study. This is a multi-billion dollar study authorized by Congress whereby the National Institutes of Heath will be following newborn children from before birth to age 21. The study’s goal is to examine how environment, genes and other factors affect children’s health, tackling questions subject to heated debate and misinformation. To do this all sorts of data will be collected. For exampel, quoting from the article, for one pregnant woman… “Researchers would collect and analyze her vaginal fluid, toenail clippings, breast milk and other things, and ask about everything from possible drug use to depression. At the birth, specimen collectors would scoop up her placenta and even her baby’s first feces for scientific posterity.” Here’s another quote, regarding the specimens collected: “Specimens include blood, urine, hair and saliva from pregnant women, babies and fathers; dust from women’s bedsheets; tap water; and particles on carpets and baseboards. They are sent to laboratories (placentas to Rochester, N.Y., for example), prepared for long-term storage, and analyzed for chemicals, metals, genes and infections.” It sounds like quite an effort, and for some, quite an intrusion. So, the real question: to what level are intrusions appropriate (with informed consent, of course) in the name of science?
  • From the “Pick a Career” Department: You know that flighty-blond Barbie. She can never seem to settle on a career, be it Astronaut or Doctor. So what is she doing this year? Voters have made her a news anchor and a computer engineer (the latter, the article notes, was designed with the help of the wonderful organization SWE). An interesting article in CurbedLA notes what careers were not chosen: in particular, they declined to allow her to pursue a career in environmentalism, surgery, or architecture. With respect to the latter, the Mattel spokeswoman stated that Barbie’s target audience (girls aged three to eleven) could not understand the complexities of an architect’s career. (Oh, SWE, did you hear that? Perhaps we need Civil Engineer Barbie). The article also mentions a professor at University of Buffalo, who put together an “Architect Barbie” exhibition at the University of Michigan as a response, with students and faculty creating their own archiBarbies (including a pregnant Glass Ceiling Barbie).
  • From the “I Picked The Wrong Day To Become a Woman” Department: More bad news for the girls out there. According to the Chicago Tribune, Allstate Foundation’s “Shifting Teen Attitudes: The State of Teen Driving 2009” report indicates that 27% of girls admit to speeding at least 10 miles over the speed limit, vs. 19% of boys. Also, 16% of girls report that they are very aggressive while driving, up from 9% in 2005. Meanwhile, 13% of teen boys admitted to being very aggressive while driving, vs. 20% in 2005.
  • From the “School Days, School Days” Department: A trio of interesting articles related to high school…

    In Arizona, school officials in a Tucson suburb took notice of the long bus rides… and decided to do something about it. According to the NY Times, they outfitted the bus with free WiFi. Surprise, surprise. The bus has become rolling study hall. Although some students do play games, many use the time to get a jump on homework assignments, do research, and yes, socialize on Facebook.

    In Utah, the school districts are facing a significant budget shortfall. One legislator’s solution: Make 12th Grade Optional. Basically, the proposal would offer incentives to encourage students to graduate early. The thought behind this is that most seniors take their senior year off. Hmmm, perhaps in Utah.

    But eight states are going even further: they are permitting students to enter community college after 10th grade. These states (Connecticut, Kentucky, Maine, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Vermont) are introducing a program allowing 10th graders who pass a battery of tests to get a diploma two years early and immediately enroll in community college. Students who pass but aspire to attend a selective college may continue with college preparatory courses in their junior and senior years. Students who fail the 10th grade tests, known as board exams, can try again at the end of their 11th and 12th grades. The tests would cover not only English and math but other subjects like science and history. The new system of high school coursework with the accompanying board examinations is modeled largely on systems in high-performing nations including Denmark, England, Finland, France and Singapore. It’s a pilot program. I’m not sure it’s a good idea, but then I’m a traditionalist.

Hmmm, I guess this post did have a theme after all.


College Planning and Civics Education

Today at lunch I saw an article in today’s USA Today about the update to the FAFSA form that supposedly makes it easier to fill out. Now, I’ve never filled out the form yet, although I will be facing it in a few years, but it is currently on my mind. This is because, based on an interesting talk given by Sam Mikhail at my daughter’s high school, we’ve begun working with his company to plan for the eventual FAFSA and applying to college. I’m doing this for the same reason we go to a CPA for our taxes: growing up in a family with CPAs as parent, we know that sometimes you need to plan for the presentation–that is, structuring your assets in the correct way to maximize benefits legally. You do this with taxes when you use your 401(k)s or 403(b)s, or use tax-free funds, or even pay your mortgage in one tax year vs. another. So just as I could do my own taxes but choose not to in order to get maximum benefits, I’m doing the same here. Plus, Sam will be working with our daughter (in fact, they are meeting this afternoon) to help her learn what to look for in college visits, and how to pick the right college for her interests. Teens seem to instinctively not listen to parents in this area, so having a neutral third party should help. I should note that they do more than fill in the FAFSA; their services are detailed here.

So why am I writing this note. I’m not sure, other than the fact that it is on my mind and was triggered by the change in the FAFSA.


In a related note, does anyone read the comments that are posted in response to articles in places like USA Today and get worried about our society? I read them, and all I seem to see are angry people that look down on others for being stupid, or that seem to like to blame all the ills of the world on their favorite target (usually Obama or Al Gore). These are the folks that believe “Global Warming” means it gets warmer everywhere, without realizing the real notion is climate change with wider climate shifts. These are the folks that see an article about earmarks being reduced in quantity by one-third, and castigate Obama for not bringing them to zero immediately. These are the folks that expect instant, perfect action, from their leaders, without realizing that that mantra of a representative republic is “progress, not perfection”. If they want leaders that give them instant perfect results, they should move to a dictatorship, where the dictator can dictate what he wants and is by definition perfect. With representative government, there are by nature comprimises to get legislation passed. But go read the comments to such an article. These are also often the folks that feel that people should get what they deserve (if not more) [in the sense of “oh, you got no aid because you were to stupid to fill out a form”], and in general don’t show compassion and give the benefit of the doubt to others. It just leaves me disallusioned.

I sometimes fear that the country is in the poor shape it is in, including the divisiveness and partisanship, because true civics education is so poor. I think much of the country just doesn’t understand how the country works, both in terms of the idealized process (i.e., how representation should work) and in real-life.


Musings on High School Stress

My daughter is going crazy.

No, not literally. But stress-wise, yes. She’s at school from 7am to 7pm, constantly working on homework (luckily, we don’t have to remind her to do it), studying, studying, studying. She comes home, takes a nap, and then works to midnight and does it all again. In tenth grade, she’s occupied with two AP classes (stats and world history), honors classes, and working on the technical crew for the performing arts program.

Gee, I didn’t have that schedule until college.

So, over lunchtime, I’ve been wondering what we’re doing to our high school students. Certainly, this isn’t the 1950s idyll of high-school that we saw in movies like Grease, American Graffiti, or popularized in TV shows like Happy Days. Who has time to hang out at the burger joint? It doesn’t fit my recollection of high-school in the 1970s: I don’t remember that much stress or work, and certainly not as many AP classes. We had perhaps four for the entire school, and kids didn’t start taking them until 12th grade. Most kids didn’t do AP (I never did).

Our children are stressed (and we then wonder why they snap). They can’t have fun on their summers: they have to build their resume to get into a good school (as well as making money to attend it). Extracurricular activities are measured not in the energy but in the points for college. They can’t explore what they want to do; they have to make up their minds earlier and earlier.

So why are we overstressing our youth? Is it to prepare them for the stressed business world? Is this really the lesson we should be teaching? How does the life of a high-school student today differ from when you went to school (and I know I have folks reading this who were in high-school in the 1960s if not earlier, as well as folks who are currently in high-school or just graduated)


Your Daily Quota of Chum

Today brings a few intersting bits of chum… certainly worth chewing on…