Tuesday, August 23, 2011

"What's next?": How dopamine helps us predict the future

Fascinating new research from Jeffrey Zacks at WUSTL on the role of the mind-brain dopamine system (MDS) in making predictions about the future that keep the mind-brain's stream of consciousness as smooth as possible (as reported by Tony Fitzpatrick):
“When we watch everyday activity unfold around us, we make predictions about what will happen a few seconds out,” Zacks says. “Most of the time, our predictions are right.
“Successful predictions are associated with the subjective experience of a smooth stream of consciousness. But a few times a minute, our predictions come out wrong and then we perceive a break in the stream of consciousness, accompanied by an uptick in activity of primitive parts of the brain involved with the MDS that regulate attention and adaptation to unpredicted changes.”
I've written in the past about computer modeling suggesting that the dopamine system is involved in predicting future outcomes and how that may relate to the experience of pleasure. It's also known that dopaminergic medicines are sometimes effective in treating attention dysfunction, though our understanding of why has been limited. The evidence is growing that our model of dopamine is limited if we think of it only as mediating a pleasure-reward pathway and this new information supporting dopamine's role in making predictions certainly fits in an evolutionary context better than pleasure-reward.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Four more reasons to watch Sesame Street's 42nd season: S, T, E, and M!

Via John Eggerton at Broadcasting & Cable:
Taking its cue from the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) curriculum being pushed by the Obama administration, the iconic show will add a "Murray's Science Experiments" and work investigation and experimentation into the episode themes.

The new theme of the season will be "Let's find Out."
 Very much looking forward to watching some of these with my son.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Challenge Based Learning

I'm attending Apple Academy this week, a pull-out-all-the-stops professional development event for small cohorts of education professionals.  I'm feeling extremely grateful to be here.  Yesterday was "Day 1", and for me the highlight was a presentation on Challenge Based Learning.  It's a new paradigm for student learning prompted by the limitations of traditional instruction and the exponentially increasing access to digital tools for consumption and creation:
Students today have instant access to information through technology and the web, manage their own acquisition of knowledge through informal learning, and have progressed beyond consumers of content to become producers and publishers. As a result, traditional teaching and learning methods are becoming less effective at engaging students and motivating them to achieve.
 So what is it?
Challenge Based Learning is an engaging multidisciplinary approach to teaching and learning that encourages students to leverage the technology they use in their daily lives to solve real-world problems. Challenge Based Learning is collaborative and hands-on, asking students to work with other students, their teachers, and experts in their communities and around the world to develop deeper knowledge of the subjects students are studying, accept and solve challenges, take action, share their experience, and enter into a global discussion about important issues.
We watched a video of some students and teachers from Australia who selected the big idea of "resilience" and took on the challenge of helping communities who'd been affected by a natural disaster. What struck me most was that these students, through this process, were empowered and passionate about making a difference in their world, learning their required bits along the way in the framework of the challenge they selected, the solutions they implemented, and the analysis and evaluation they engaged in along the way.  There's more information at this Challenge Based Learning section of Apple's website, including ideas for challenges and many other videos of student and teacher experiences.  We saw a data table that showed that students and teachers alike self-reported huge gains in many aspects of modern goals for learning, most particularly in the realm of leadership.  I have more to learn about this, but from what I've seen so far, it's a very compelling model - not only because students are learning "the material", but more so because it appears that they're learning to care!

What would school "look like" if our highest purpose was to help students learn that they can make a difference?

Friday, August 5, 2011

Hearing what we see: silent reading and direct speech

From Rebecca Greenfield at The Atlantic Wire on brain activity during silent reading:
People who imagine voices may not be so crazy after all. While glossing over dialogue in books, readers will speak the voices--as they imagine the speaker--in their heads, a Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience study finds. The transcript of an Obama speech features his deep cadence in your head. Or Hermione sounds like Emma Watson. That sort of thing.
First author on the work is Bo Yao, a postgraduate student working on his PhD in Psychology at the University of Glasgow.  The experimental design is unique and the conclusions are powerful: silent reading of direct speech causes a strong "top-down" activation of parts of the auditory cortex, giving rise to the sensation of an "inner voice" for the text during the reading process.  In other words, it is not unusual that we hear what we see when what we see are words that directly represent someone else's speech.  Sounds a bit like synesthesia, doesn't it?

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

STEM education dilemma infographic dilemma

I like graphs. A lot. I find beauty in simple-to-understand representations of complex data (for example, Horace Dediu's analysis at Asymco of the ongoing post-PC market transition).

So you can imagine how delighted I was to find the infographic at GOOD.is entitled "The STEM Dilemma". There are some nice representations there: the number of 9th graders that end up earning an undergraduate degree in a STEM field is only 6.1% (a tiny dot), and STEM-capable teachers earn only about 71% of the income that their peers do in other jobs (a much smaller pie).  I believe these visualizations can be important tools in our work to help get folks invested in working towards improving STEM education outcomes.

Given my role in high school education, I was particularly interested in the analysis of 12th grade U.S. students in terms interest in STEM and proficiency in math.  That is, until, I noticed that the percentages add up to 104.6.

An infographic without accurate information is just a pretty picture.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Teaching to change minds: what's the role of text?

So, what do you think are the best ways to help students learn challenging topics? Does text have a place in the modern classroom? Think about your own work as we - in the northern hemisphere, anyway - begin preparing for the upcoming 2011-2012 school year. Are your lessons hands-on, and is that enough?

You'll have a better understanding of why I'm asking you to think about your own answer to that question once you read Marie-Claire Shanahan's recent blog post (cross-posted to Scientific American) about the qualities of text that are most correlated with conceptual change.
Both Tippett and Guzzetti were able to look at several comparisons in how refutation texts were used: texts on their own, texts used with classroom discussions, texts read before and after classroom demonstrations, and texts used with writing activities. Given how powerful direct experiences can be, I was surprised that both of the reviews showed that the most effective strategies were always combinations that included text and that text on its own was more powerful that any of the other methods on their own (e.g., discussions and demos). This says a lot about the power of what we read.
Put another way...

You might think that hands-on activities and discussions are enough. But according to research, that's just not true. Best practices in teaching for conceptual change integrate quality texts with hands-on work to directly elicit, confront, and resolve misconceptions.

Great information to keep in mind as we head back to the classroom.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Better living through fluorescent tattoos

Via Alexander George at Wired:
Dr. Heather Clark, associate professor of pharmaceutical sciences at Northeastern University, is leading the research on the subdermal sensors. She said she was reminded of the benefits of real-time, wearable health monitoring when she entered a marathon in Vermont: If they become mass-produced and affordable for the consumer market, wireless devices worn on the body could tell you exactly what medication you need whenever you need it.
Current data is limited to using the mouse as an animal model for monitoring sodium levels. As noted in the post, future applications could also extend to sensing glucose levels for diabetics - which is particularly exciting given that insulin-dependent diabetics must prick their own skin multiple times daily in order to determine blood glucose levels and thereby calculate the appropriate insulin dosage.

Also check out Amy Dusto's post at Discovery News, which has a great microscopic picture of the "microworm tubes" that do the sensing.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Big wave surfing in the information ocean

The other day while in the car I heard a piece on NPR noting Marshall McLuhan's 100th birthday. McLuhan's seminal "The Medium is the Massage" (1967) was a big influence on me during graduate school, particularly in the development of my thesis research. My favorite quote:
It is a matter of the greatest urgency that our educational institutions realize that we now have civil war among these environments created by media other than the printed word. The classroom is now in a vital struggle for survival with the immensely persuasive "outside" world created by new informational media. Education must shift from instruction, from imposing of stencils, to discovery--to probing and exploration and to the recognition of the language of forms.
Even though more than four decades have passed, the struggle continues between the classroom and the outside world. I believe that part of this struggle is self-made: schools are structured by the choices we make, and we have chosen a model for education that creates a boundary between the classroom and the outside world. With that said, I also see the establishment of a boundary as one of the key elements of vitality, in the living sense of the word; a membrane is a necessary structure for living things. How, then, does the cell manage the challenges of separation? It uses energy to make its membrane semi-permeable. With respect to the outside world, some aspects remain in balance, while others are actively included and others are actively excluded.

With this analogy in mind, the struggle between the classroom and the outside world can be re-framed. What informational media do we wish to maintain in balance? What informational media do we wish to include in greater proportion? What informational media do we wish to exclude? However, even if we can answer these questions, I believe that McLuhan's argument is that they are fundamentally less important than another question: how will we process the informational media that we bring into the classroom space?

In thinking about this question, I want to bring up another McLuhan reference: he was the first to use the word "surfing" to describe the way that people access and process the new and various forms of informational media he observed - in relatively small pieces, with rapid, multi-directional changes in motion. Although "surfing" is still a commonly-used term applied to how we access and process information waves, there's now a new type of in-water, sport surfing that wasn't possible during the time that McLuhan lived: big-wave surfing.

As legendary big-wave surfer Ken Bradshaw (seen above) described for the PBS program "Nature", big-wave surfing emerged in the 1990's as a result of the development of "true personal watercraft" that allow surfers to be towed-in, so as to catch these monstrous waves as they break (at speeds that made them previously uncatchable).  I hope you've watched the video, not only to see his accomplishment, nor simply to be in awe at the raw power of the ocean, but also to observe the movement of a big-wave surfer like Ken Bradshaw.  Unlike the small-wave surfers with moves that are short, quick, and multi-directional, big-wave surfers are powerful masters of holding a line, taking a direction, and harnessing the massive power of the wave behind them.

With this in mind, I believe that the development of true personal computers (smartphones and tablets) allows us to access information waves that are analogous to the monstrous swells of ocean water that big-wave surfers seek out. The problem, though, is that many people have jumped right into the big waves - email, web, texting, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and so many other sources of information on very agile devices.  Bradshaw notes that big-wave water surfers tend to be in their late twenties or in their thirties, with lots of experience and progression through varying levels of difficulty.  Yet while some big-wave information surfers have experience in smaller-wave information surfing on a desktop computer, or perhaps even larger-wave experience through having a laptop, many don't (or don't have much), and most have jumped right in rather than developing skills in progression. Even though information surfing is different from water surfing, water surfing isn't the only kind of surfing with negative risks.

The Economist, in the article "Too Much Information", notes some of the potential downsides of unsuccessful big-wave information surfing: anxiety, lowered creativity, and lowered productivity. Just as Bradshaw describes the danger of the "triple hold", this trifecta of risks is dangerous to both personal and professional well-being. Techniques suggested for successful big-wave information surfing include focusing, filtering, and forgetting. Successful big-wave water surfers practice their craft with training and thoughtfulness and appropriate rest; with the same approach we will be able to harness the power of these giant sources of information, and develop those same skills in students in our classroom. Wouldn't it be awe inspiring to see our graduates holding a line and mastering the force of such giant waves of information?

Monday, July 25, 2011

"Are you saying my brain is British?"

Neuroscientist David Eagleman visits The Colbert Report to discuss his new book "Incognito". The interview is light on the science but heavy on the funny. Looks like another good book to add to the reading list.

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
David Eagleman
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Monday, July 18, 2011

A new book on evolution and the brain: "Brain Bugs"

"Brain Bugs" by UCLA researcher Dean Buonomano is a new book exploring the ways our brains succeed and fail as they navigate the challenges of our modern world. Presented recently on NPR's Fresh Air, it seems like someone on their team is focusing on books that make neuroscience more accessible, which is exciting when the excerpts are as compelling as this one from the article:
Both declarative and nondeclarative forms of memory are divided into further subtypes, but I will focus primarily on a type of declarative memory, termed semantic memory, used to store most of our knowledge of meaning and facts, including that zebras live in Africa, Bacchus is the god of wine, or that if your host offers you Rocky Mountain oysters he is handing you bull testicles.
How exactly is this type of information stored in your brain? Few questions are more profound. Anyone who has witnessed the slow and inexorable vaporization of the very soul of someone with Alzheimer's disease appreciates that the essence of our character and memories are inextricably connected. For this reason the question of how memories are stored in the brain is one of the holy grails of neuroscience.
Memory is one of the most interesting areas of neuroscience to me given my work in education and my personal experience of powerlessly observing my aunt's early decline over the past 8 years as a result of an unknown form of a dementia-inducing neuromuscular disorder. Dr. Buonomano's research at UCLA focuses on how synaptic networks make computations, with a specific interest in how the brain perceives intervals of time. In "Brain Bugs", Buonomano addresses the wider topic of how evolution shaped our brain, and how the pace of evolutionary biological change has not kept pace with change in our modern world.

"Brain Bugs" is available in hardcover and in digital format (Kindle, iBooks).

Friday, July 15, 2011

IEP meeting of the future: "Can I see that fMRI again?"

Nirvi Shah at Education Week's blog on Special Education notes the recent release of a report on the potential role that neuroscience could play in improving special education services.   Though much experimental work and analysis remains to ensure that ideas for improvement are supported by evidence before implementation, the potential shines through:
But when that research does catch up to the classroom, the results could be dramatic, said Monica Adler-Werner, who works at Ivymount School.
"My guess is that as much as what we're doing now is cutting edge, we'll look back in five years and see it as very primitive," she said. "We're at the beginning of a revolution in human understanding."
I can't wait for the first time I sit in an IEP meeting and read through a diagnosis that includes functional brain imagery!

(Also of note - I didn't know before reading Shah's post that George Washington University has a doctoral program that integrates neuroscience and special education. Her post provides the link if you're interested.)

Thursday, July 14, 2011

100kin10 STEM teaching initiative

Jason Koebler at U.S. News and World Report's Education blog reports on the recently-formed 100kin10 coalition formed by the Carnegie Corporation of New York:
100kin10 will focus on three challenges of improving STEM education: increasing the supply of qualified teachers, keeping teachers in the classroom with incentive programs for top performers, and getting the public to realize that STEM education is an important issue.
I think increasing the capacity for communication and knowledge sharing among the many great minds working on STEM education issues will have a very positive impact on reaching our goals. I'll be sharing this networking opportunity with the STEM organizations I'm involved with - I hope you will, too!

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

"Synesthesia" - A short film on blended sensory perception

Although it was made in 2009 and released on YouTube in early 2010, it's only recently that I've seen this short film by director Terri Timely entitled "Synesthesia" (via both kottke.org and laughingsquid.com).

Inspired by the neurological condition of the same name, Timley's film applies artistic license to the phenomenon of blended sensory perception.  Not shown in the film is the most common form of synesthesia, in which letters and numbers are perceived directly and involuntarily to have an inherent coloration - for example, "A" might be purple (though research shows it's most frequently red).  I've had the pleasure of teaching a student with synesthesia who had this type of perception; you can read and listen to the perspectives of two synesthetes (via MIT), and even see their colored alphabets.

Research on the areas of the brain involved with synesthesia is ongoing, with functional imaging studies and work with stroke patients serving as leading sources of information.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Scary, lonely, and wicked hard

From "The educational value of creative disobedience" by Andrea Kuszewski at Scientific American:
The lucky few are the ones who are too stubborn to follow the rules arbitrarily. They suffer the consequences for their rebellion, but might have a supportive other (typically a teacher or non-family adult) that provides just enough encouragement to keep them on their path, even when it proves to be treacherous. Walking that path alone is scary, lonely, and wicked hard.
Let's not let these students walk the path alone. Take a few minutes to read the whole article - it's excellent.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Compass of Pleasure

Via NPR's Fresh Air

From the excerpt:
It is now becoming clear that addiction is associated with long-lasting changes in the electrical, morphological, and biochemical functions of neurons and synaptic connections within the medial forebrain pleasure circuit. There are strong suggestions that these changes underlie many of the terrifying aspects of addiction, including tolerance (needing successively larger doses to get high), craving, withdrawal, and relapse. Provocatively, such persistent changes appear to be nearly identical to experience- and learning-driven changes in neural circuitry that are used to store memories in other brain regions. In this way, memory, pleasure, and addiction are closely intertwined.