STEMmED People Make Me Proud

Make me proud of the joyful collaborative spirit that produced eight years of extraordinary life. Well, it’s time now to fold our dear project STEMmED (STEM EDucation) which has been running since 2009 in two editions separated by one year of self sustain. It’s not an easy process, this one, charged as it is of emotion and of pressure, because the project represents a focused, collaborative effort of a great group of people who believe in what they do.



STEMmED Collage, by Doribel Rodríguez.

STEMmED Collage. Image by Doribel Rodríguez.

This project has been a second home for all these years, and that means more than anything, the people I have been working with daily for so long. We won a federal US Dept. of Education HSI-STEM Grant in 2009 and another in 2011, so we have been working at this for over 8 years now, considering that the process of writing the Grant proposal began in early 2008.

Fascinating. This is what helped me stay mentally sane and hungry. I can certainly list the things we accomplished during the project’s tenure: lab remodeling, creation of learning spaces for students, course redesign, research, faculty improvement, school pipeline, student support services (tutoring, mentoring, labs), etc.

But what I’m particularly proud of is the fact we have sought to implement a model for learning centered around students. Look at the project design and sequencing: First we remodel labs, because within labs faculty and students can do pedagogical activities and research.

Concurrently we redesign courses, to take advantage of lab remodeling and the revamped faculty-mentored research students were beginning to do. The course redesign contains blogs, open blogging strategies and other Web 2.0 magic that reinforce the student-centered model. We then shake and complete the model by plugging in the school pipeline, with so many (over 1,500!) students from grades 10-12 we tended with tutorials, workshops, and other science and tech-related activities.

Plus, let’s not forget that students helped us in every imaginable way during this time: they have been working as assistants in admin, computing, research, tutoring and mentoring, and teaching. If this isn’t a student-centered model, I don’t know what is.

I am proud of that.

As part of the professional development activities we organized for faculty we had people of the caliber of Jim Groom, Mike Wesch, Alan Levine, Mario Núñez, Dolors Reig, Martha Burtis, Daniel Altschuler et al. come and visit us. That honors me, I mean the confidence vote these people made with us. With all, a friendship was borne and to date is bringing me happiness and growth, as well as to all our staff and collaborators and students.

Also, the participation of practically all faculty of our Science Department was a big motivation trigger. We began with a dispirited faculty and we grew together loving the research and the teaching and the novel things we were happy to concoct with them.

But I want to disclose fully what it has meant for me to work in this for so many years. The people around me. Students: It’s great to see them happy and making these spaces their own. Fantastic. Our three full-time employees, Aurelio Ceballos (flew away in December ’15), Gladys Chévere and Bernabé Soto. They have been uniquely good, professional and brave during these years. Thanks for sharing your knowledge and skills with us, guys! Bernabé has been instrumental in the course redesign process, media and instructional technology; while Gladys has been running everything smoothly all.the.time. Yes, and she also has been taking care of the financial component. I am in debt.

Also, working with Roberto Bouret, our superstar Maths tutor, made us and our students very happy. Roberto was a pillar of the House of Science, and a bit also a therapist for many students.

Last (but not least!) my dear Staff. I have been working side by side with these four guys  at all times. We have been sharing all decisions, all ideas, and of course, the good and the difficult moments. The stress and the happiness. I don’t want to be rhetorical but I lived through this thanks to Doribel Rodríguez, Mayra Alonso, María Lázaro and John Olmo. They devoted much more than their time, passion and energy and knowledge to this project and to my personal sanity. It’s been a pleasure!

Now, it’s my hope that students will continue to use the spaces we have built, and faculty enjoy a clearer, richer dialogue with students.

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Theology of The Nonexistent God: Finding He Who Is Not

Fascinating. If finding an existing God already proves difficult to many, imagine a nonexistent one! A whole theology built around a nonexistent god would then seem byzantine at the very least.

“The world,” we read in the Gnostic Gospel of Philip, “came about through a mistake.” The demiurge who made it “wanted to create it imperishable and immortal,” but eventually he “fell short of attaining his desire, for the world never was imperishable, nor, for that matter, was he who made the world.” The Gnostics believed nonexistence to be a mark of perfection, and coming into being a form of degradation.

Now, what I find most fascinating here is the apparent contradiction of a nonexistent God: He Who Is Not. Wow. This is powerful. A fully dematerialized god. In fact, one god quite difficult to meet, if at all possible. So, the nature of nothingness of this god seems quite similar to the nature of the mathematical concept of the empty set: a set void of anything. Not even space void is so absolutely void as the empty set. Yet, the empty set does exist.

But what is also fascinating to me is the absolute metaphysical blabbing that can bring philosophers to state this, the most profound and light concept of He Who Is Not. Sure, the lightness of it all makes it even more unbearable. But also fun.

Oxymoron? It would seem so, but let’s not be that quick to jump to conclusions. In the end, saying “He Who Is Not” implies naming Him. But the simple act of naming someOne or someThing Does Not Make Him/It Be. Example: The famous (if nonexistent) flying spaghetti monster who lives–I am assured– on some orbit on the dark side of the moon. Since unobservable, nobody can disprove the assertion (Apollo missions did not see It, which of course does not prove Its nonexistence). Still, the burden is on proving the assertion, which of course cannot be done. Also, naming the monster does not make it pop into existence. So, He Who Is Not: We do name a He and we state that He has a property, namely that of nonexistence? Wrong!!! If He Is Not, Then He Hath No Property. Saying He Who Is Not is just a language trick. However, it is fascinating to me how absence of existence gets extrapolated into existence of absence and hence, the adoration of the latter.

Does this seem like the famous Gödelian game of “I never tell the truth”?? No, I think it’s much less deep. But not for this reason, less fascinating. It’s the old game of trying to trap the unbound into our modest language technology.

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Mechanical Doll Terror

It’s pure terror: A moving mechanical doll is advancing toward you, and there is nobody else in the room. Not many have used this imagery to tell stories in cinema, while a lot of directors have used the simpler (but not less scary) image of a static (sometimes talking or grinning) doll.

Nevertheless, the image of a doll somehow, when extrapolated from the right childish context, gives the creeps. What scares is the difference factor: the common element in a completely unfitting context.

This is what impressed me after viewing again one of Dario Argento’s classics: Profondo Rosso, or Deep Red (1975), not really an horror movie, but a mix between a classic whodunit thriller  and some gothic elements.

What’s the creepiest mechanical doll ever? Tick tock, tick tock. […] Not familiar with the mechanical porcelain terror that I’m speaking of? Take a look below in the clip:

Oh yeah. I should have also mentioned that there was a pretty gnarly teeth bashing scene in there, as well as some groovy over-the-top soundtrack music from the band Goblin. Only sweetens the deal if you ask me. The focus is on that random mechanical doll in the cute little tuxedo though.
[Both quotes from]

As usual, the Web is full of mementos of films with dolls (mechanical or not) being used as horror motifs. Here is one Short History of Creepy Dolls in the Movies and here the 8 Horror Movie Dolls That Will Give You the Creeps.

Enjoy this, now that you’re at it (from Richard Attenborough’s Magic).


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Teacher Quality

While reading the book Mindware. Tools for smart thinking (link to review) by Richard Nisbett, I came across a couple of nice paragraphs worth citing. Nisbett is reasoning on incentives and discusses the effects of the so-called loss aversion (humans abhor losing an opportunity). I am interested in the paper since it deals with an incentive for teachers which is completely material, i.e., dear old money itself. However, it is interesting that money by itself would not suffice. Read on:

In this paper, we demonstrate that exploiting the power of loss aversion–teachers are paid in advance and asked to give back the money if their students do not improve sufficiently–increases math test scores between 0.201 (0.076) and 0.398 (0.129) standard deviations. This is equivalent to increasing teacher quality by more than one standard deviation. A second treatment arm, identical to the loss aversion treatment but implemented in the standard fashion, yields smaller and statistically insignificant results. This suggests it is loss aversion, rather than other features of the design or population sampled, that leads to the stark differences between our findings and past research.

The paper itself is:

Roland G. Fryer, Jr & Steven D. Levitt & John List & Sally Sadoff, 2012. “Enhancing the Efficacy of Teacher Incentives through Loss Aversion: A Field Experiment,” NBER Working Papers 18237, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
Link to paper (pdf). Link to summary.

Now, when I read such “studies” I can’t but be reminded of Neil Postman’s words about social science: “I do not believe psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, or media ecologists do science”. Well, I am joking here, but the Postman quote is real and full of sense (from a paper titled “Social Science as Theology“, Etc., Vol 41(1), 1984, 22-32.).

What do we make of this? That teachers are but pawns in the midst of a field dominated by forces they do not even see or control? Aren’t we all. However, this sounds really spooky and I resist the linking of the concept of teacher quality with the results of students’ test scores:

This is equivalent to increasing teacher quality by more than one standard deviation.

I believe this is misleading and I really don’t like the word “science” being applied to studies of this kind: if nothing else, because there is no causal link at all, just a correlation. If I add two plus two together and remember that in some institutions administrators request “personal retention rates” for each teacher’s classes and tie those with teachers’ “performance”, then I must conclude we are deeply wrong. The analytics movement, with all its good faith and interesting proposals may be but another route to simply more control, without serious implications to students’ learning.


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Trail Of Magic

Some time ago Seth Godin wrote a very concise and powerful post on the appreciation of the “trail of magic” a student produces in her career (from No direction home).

Can you show me a history of generous, talented, extraordinary side projects?

Have you ever been so passionate about your work that you’ve gone in through the side door?

Are you an expert at something that actually generates value?

Have you connected with leaders in the field in moments when you weren’t actually looking for a job?

Does your reputation speak for itself?

Where online can I see the trail of magic you regularly create?

Alas, famous colleges and the industrial-education process rarely bother to encourage this. [my bold]

No extra words are needed, I think. I love the metaphor because looking at all the work students do within their formal education means getting in awe at the passion, quality and depth of the worlds they try to share.

This resounds deeply with Gardner Campbell’s idea of Wisdom as a teaching outcome (see his Understanding and Learning Outcomes), and of course, with the academic portfolio. The beauty of a portfolio of self expression through Domains of One’s Own is that each students owns (at least, rents!) the space through which he publishes. Thus, a portfolio does not stay put in some Dean’s archive, but acquires a life of its own. Which means the trail of magic goes with (and beyond) the student.

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