Monday, February 19, 2007

Math and Mentos: How E-Learning Can Learn from Numb3rs and YouTube

Podcast / downloadable mp3 file.

What happens when you couple a YouTube sensation with actual scientific information that helps us better understand the physical world around us? What you have is a fantastic learning opportunity, and a chance to change people’s lives as they develop a thirst for knowledge and a willingness to take a hands-on, participatory approach. Television programs such as Numb3rs ( ) and Bones ( ) make math and forensic anthropology suddenly amazingly revelatory. They give people a new way to see the world.

It’s not just about watching all the series on television, though. It’s also about how good television (and good instructional design) bring together current events and issues that people really care about, and then they relate them to a story. They build a narrative of explanation and engagement.

Here’s an example. Do you remember the summer of 2006 Diet Coke and Mentos craze? I remember jogging on a sidewalk bordering a par 3 golf course near where I live. It was littered with Mentos wrappers and 2-liter Diet Coke bottles. At first I didn’t know what it was about. Then I realized it was all about playing the cool mad scientist, creating exciting explosions.

What was the cause? Perhaps you remember the YouTube sensation -- (Entertainment for the Curious Mind) had posted “Experiment #137,” a wild experiment using 200 liters of Diet Coke and countless Mentos to create an intricate choreography of effervescing fountains, which was billed as a mini-Bellagio. The spectacular bursts of foam and liquid were accompanied by wonderfully retro techno, reminding one of “She Blinded Me With Science” (Thomas Dolby) or “We Are the Robots” (Kraftwerk). The video was posted and reposted on YouTube ( ) and was embedded in websites and e-mails throughout the world.’s next production was a euphorically successful “domino effect” -- Experiment #214.

Hosted by google video, almost 5 million viewers have logged in to see how 251 bottles of Diet Coke and 1,506 boxes of Mentos create explosions of liquid, not fire. It’s refreshing to see this rather than fireworks.

And yet, if one watches the videos alone, it’s somehow unsatisfying. What’s missing? It’s the explanation. They never say HOW or WHY the reactions happen.

The answers came one night in an unexpected way. The boxed set of DVDs I had ordered had arrived. I was watching Season Two of Numb3rs when the characters in the series re-enacted the Mentos and Diet Coke experiment for an Applied Math course, and accompanied the explosions with an explanation. The answer involves surface tension. There is extreme change upon the sudden introduction of a highly irregularly micro-pitted gum Arabic and gelatin disc into a liquid under pressure (due to the carbonation), where the only way for gas to escape is through a narrow neck after the contact of the two creates a rapid phase change. The way the surface tension changes is explained here. An alternative explanation is provided by AeonFlux ( /) than a person we can relate to. AeonFlux characters tend to be projections of fantasies and alter egos. On the other hand, human beings with human frailties make you feel as though the knowledge they are imparting is achievable as are their skills.

The Story. The mind makes meaning by means of stories. Predictable narratives, events, cognitive signposts, archetypes -- all help you remember just how the math worked and why.

Cause-Effect. The science experiment and the math equation do not exist in a vacuum. Instead, they reside within a causal chain, and it is one that allows the viewer (or the online learner) to insert the equation in an analogous situation. For example, in one of the episodes of Numb3rs, Charlie proposes that certain acts of violence set off chains and exhibit flock behavior. There may not be anything too revolutionary in the idea of murders and retribution, but the methodology used to analyze the events and the victims lead to being able to pinpoint the individual responsible for triggering chains and long series of retribution killings.

The causal chain also helps put order into chaos and helps us understand our often inexplicable world.

Instructional Design Idea: If you’re wanting to get the message across about a causal chain, one way to do it would be to have a high-impact introduction. It could be a series of giant dominoes toppling toward you. You see them coming. You see the math equation being written on a wall or etched into the air next to you. You jump out of the way, just in time…

Math Keeps Us Safe. Patterns protect us. We see this every time there is a severe weather alert. Doppler radar, wind sheer measures, etc. all form patterns. Although we may not understand the complex mathematical expressions, the differential equations, the probability and statistics, we do understand the basic expression of it. We understand that our ability to survive often hinges on our ability to detect, explain, and model patterns. Patterns often have predictive ability, which helps us immensely.

Math makes us feel secure.

High Impact E-Learning Intro: Flash image of a threat -- an approaching tornado? Numbers, equations could spin out from the vortex. A storm spotter enters a number in computer, makes a phone call. Flash of light, and the tornado transforms into a rainbow.

Humor. Math can be used to predict behavior, and to map affinities. Think of the claims of ( ) and ( )

An Attainable Paradise. Numb3rs takes place in an FBI office, at crime scenes, at a cool, shambling craftsman house, and a nicely manicured college. The college and the Epps home are refuges in a tough world. This is where the love is. It’s where the math takes place.

Partnering with Technology. Texas Instruments has partnered with CBS and has developed a website that ties with Numb3rs introduction, “We all use math every day.” Located at , the site includes a wonderful repository of activities that tie together with the episodes.

One example is a worksheet to help students learn how to apply math to flock behavior, which corresponds to an episode dealing with a change of gang leadership.

The “We All Use Math Every Day” ™ series is just one part of TI’s educational materials offerings:

One of the most appealing underlying messages of Numb3rs is that the creativity you have is what makes you special and desirable. E-learning techniques -- both online and through mobile devices - that engage the reader and use techniques from television series and YouTube phenomena to teach math are not just teaching a subject. They're making math and science exciting. At the same time, these approaches are teaching and modeling how to be successful and to connect life and learning in an increasingly confusing world.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Bilingual Distance Learning That Works: Needed Now

podcast / downloadable audio file

We are ignoring and/or imposing ineffective distance education strategies for our bilingual and non-English speaking populations. Right now, we have an urgent need to provide the kind of education and training that will benefit bilingual and non-English speaking populations in the United States, and we need to do it as quickly and effectively as possible in order to develop human potential, communities, and economies across the spectrum of socio-economic and demographic groups, professions, and vocations.

There are more than 35 million Spanish-speakers in the United States. This is a conservative figure, because there are no ways to accurately record the actual number of Spanish speakers, and by some accounts, that number increases by as many as 1,000 people per day. The USA has the fifth-largest population of Spanish speakers in the world.

Let’s put the USA Spanish-speaking population into perspective by examining the populations of Spanish-speaking nations:

Chile * 16 million
Peru * 28 million
Venezuela * 20 million
Mexico * 107 million
Guatemala * 12 million
Argentina * 36 million
(The World Fact Book, 2007 )

What happens when Spanish-speakers resettle in the United States? One of the first challenges is survival, which usually means depending on family members for support. Strong family ties and a willingness to work together to support family members have been tied to the success of individuals who come to the United States. Commitment to the extended family does not come without a price, however. It is often difficult for individuals to find time to take English lessons. Formal schooling and education may be sacrificed or delayed in order to work outside the home and earn money for the extended family. Many Spanish-speaking new arrivals to the United States are nothing short of phenomenal. Not only do they work to save money for their immediate family, they also tend to send money home to relatives who have stayed behind.

Education comes with a high price tag and great sacrifice. Although nine years of education are free and compulsory in Mexico and other Spanish-speaking countries, students are under tremendous pressure to discontinue their studies in order to earn money.

Mexico and other Spanish-speaking countries have long utilized distance education in order to provide education to remote regions. Technology utilized has ranged from basic book-based correspondence to television and Internet-based programs. Students are often organized in community groups so that they have the opportunity to meet with a local tutor or facilitator.

Bilingual programs have been developed and are supported in many regions of Mexico and Central America, where indigenous languages are still alive and well. Spanish is considered the gateway language, the language of commerce. When Spanish-speakers arrive in the United States, they often know two languages: Spanish and an indigenous language.

The realities of education should demonstrate to English-speakers that Spanish-speaking newcomers are adept at learning languages, familiar with the concept of distance education, and eager to learn. However, educational initiatives simply will not work if cultural pressures and realities are not taken into consideration.

Distance education for Spanish-speakers must accommodate the following realities:

**Technology – Internet cafes are common throughout the Spanish-speaking world and individuals are comfortable with communicating via e-mail; also downloading images, music, etc. But – time and access are definitely limited. It is best to have instructional content and activities developed for off-line access.

**Language – the best bridge is to offer courses in Spanish and also in English. Each course should have, at the very least, a glossary of Spanish-English terms to encourage the bridge.

**Training and Practical Application - the pressure to support one’s extended family makes vocational and technical training more attractive than liberal arts. That said, it is important to keep in mind that without solid foundations in basic skills (writing, reading comprehension, English as a Second Language, math), vocational training is not likely to be as successful as it could be.

**Reading and Writing – because of the pressure to discontinue studies, many students may need extra support in reading and writing courses. Developmental reading, writing, and math should form the foundation of all courses, even technical or vocational training.

**Situated Learning – Making lessons relevant and immediately useful to individuals is vital. It’s important to include items that are of public service and which help advance the community as a whole. For example, students studying vocational and technical topics may benefit from safety tips that are provided in an accessible manner.

Saving a life with bilingual training: A Possibility
Do you forget your training the moment you step outside the classroom? Chances are, you did not pay much attention to the content even as it was being presented if you were sitting in a classroom and were watching an interminable Powerpoint and listening to the professor read directly from the slides.

Receiving training or information while in the workplace, or on the way to work, makes more sense. Imagine tuning into a radio station or turning on your mp3 player and listening to safety tips as you go to the construction site.

For example, here’s an OSHA-based text on the four most common construction site safety risks:
Podcast in Anglo-inflected Spanish (it's Susan reading and discussing the OSHA standards in Spanish) .. click here

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