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A Little Museum Learning

Fossil hall

The week of Thanksgiving I took advantage of the tourist lull to visit the new Fossil Hall at the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History. More frequently called the Dinosaur Hall, the space reopened last June following more than three years of construction and was pretty crowded for the first few months after the grand reveal.

The new exhibition (that’s the main hall at the top) is certainly brighter and more open than the previous version. The layout is better. Information for each display is well written and interesting. As you would expect from the Smithsonian, the hall features some very impressive artifacts.

Screen Time Isn’t The Right Issue

Getting Online

Too much screen time is harmful for children.

Many teachers, parents, and others who work with kids have accepted this as the gospel truth. But where is the evidence of this “truth”?

Two UK researchers who have done a deep dive into the subject say it doesn’t exist.

If you had attended the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ international congress in London last week you could have been forgiven for coming away with the following thoughts. Addiction to Fortnite, the online game, is a real disorder; social media is depleting “our neurotransmitter deposits”; and “excess screen time has reduced our attention span to eight seconds, one less than that of a goldfish”.

Scary stuff! Only problem is, none of these claims is supported by facts or a drop of scientific evidence.

Some of those “reports” from the congress will wind up in news headlines and two-minute video segments, presented by commentators who “don’t know – or don’t care – that they are cherry-picking from an evidence base riddled with errors”. It sounds logical – and not a little scary – that screens are causing our kids to under-perform goldfish.

The research from the writers “focused on a sample of more than 10,000 preteens and teens, analysing1 nearly a decade of longitudinal data collected from British adolescents”.

And what did they find?

Well, mostly nothing! In more than half of the thousands of statistical models we tested, we found nothing more than random statistical noise. In the remainder, we did find some small trends over time – these were mostly clustered in data provided by teenage girls. Decreases in satisfaction with school, family, appearance and friends presaged increased social media use, andincreases in social media use preceded decreases in satisfaction with school, family, and friends. You can see then how, if you were determined to extract a story, you could cook up one about teenage girls and unhappiness.

But instead of seeing these results as disappointing – as they might be in a journalistic story sense – in science the lack of an expected finding is inherently valuable, making us reconsider, challenge and update our notion of how social media is affecting us.

By referring you to this article (and, in a post from last April, to a book whose author also makes the point that screen time is a poor indicator or child wellbeing) I’m not advocating for unlimited device use for anyone, much less kids.

As the authors note, there are “many good reasons to be sceptical1 of the role of Facebook, Snapchat and TikTok in our society”. But the more important factor when it comes to the wellbeing of children is the quality of the time they spend with these and other online activities. And that’s where parents and teachers come in.

Don’t just count the number of minutes kids interacting with a screen. Look at what they are actually doing with those devices.

At the same time, you may want to reflect on whether the stuff you’re doing on that smartphone is a good use of your time.


The picture, one of my favorites, is from our trip to Cuba in 2016. Even in a country that severely restricts internet access, kids and adults still spend a lot of time on their screens.

1. Those are not typos, only British spellings of the word. You know, the original English language. :-)

Photo Post – Science Festival

Last weekend, DC hosted the USA Science and Engineering Festival. This was the fifth biennial event, which started life in 2010 as an overgrown science fair spread across the National Mall and Pennsylvania Avenue. I have a few images on Flickr from that year, as well as from 2012 and 2016. Not sure why I missed 2014.

Unfortunately the Festival has turned into a commercial showcase dominated by government contractors, federal agencies, and the military. And, of course, everyone was into STEM. Sorry, arts people. I only saw one reference to STEAM.

Even with the excessive weaponization of science, there were some interesting exhibits and fun sights mixed in. Here are a few images from my time in the two huge halls, with the full gallery here

Super VR
Many exhibits featured VR and this young man seemed to be having a good time with whatever was in this world presented by the US Air Force.

 

Playing
A cadet from the US Naval Academy helps this boy with programming an Ozobot.

 

Squids 4 Kids
An organization called Squid4Kids based at Stanford University brought, what else, a squid for all of us to touch. It’s just as slimy as it looks.

Driving Lessons
And at the Army’s huge space, this young man was learning how to drive one of their vehicles using what looked like a standard video game controller.

What’s Your Attitude Towards Science?

Word cloud based on question

3M, the US-based conglomerate probably best known for their Post-It notes, recently released a report called the State of Science Index. They call it “one of the largest, most global studies” done in recent years to gain some understanding of the public attitude towards scientists and their work, surveying more than 14,000 people in 14 countries.

Overall, the general attitudes expressed were positive:

  • 87% said that their general attitude towards science was one of fascination, rather than boring.
  • The same percentage thought “the world is a better place today because of science” and were “hopeful” when they heard the word mentioned.
  • Two-thirds said they were “excited when thinking about the future impact of science on society” and that “science is very important to society in general”.

However, when you dig down into the responses, there is much to be worried about.

I don’t mind the 32% who said they were “skeptical” of science. Questioning claims made in scientific reports is a healthy approach to understanding complex ideas. Especially since most people get their science news from a TV news reader who likely doesn’t understand beyond the summary statement in their script.

Far more troubling than skeptics is the 27% of respondents who “do not see the point of needing to understand science as adults”. Plus the relatively large percentage of people who agree with statements like “If science didn’t exist, my everyday life would not be all that different.” and who fail to see a link between scientific research and “technology”.

In the US, these numbers parallel the around-30% in political poll after poll who refuse to accept basic scientific findings like the existence of climate change as major problem facing society. Or who believe that childhood vaccinations are some kind of conspiracy between doctors and drug companies.

These kinds of attitude surveys can be interesting, although they should also be read with some skepticism. But if you teach middle or high school students, you may want to give them the executive summary and ask them to reflect on the findings. How do their attitudes compare to those of the adults in this survey?

Of course, the 3M Index is looking at current opinions and only tangentially addresses the state of science education. However, how children are taught science during their years in K12 directly affects their understanding of science as adults.

There is a direct link between classroom science instruction that involves memorizing lots of facts and little direct interaction with scientific concepts and the 86% of respondents who say they know “little or nothing” about science. And the large percentage of those people who have no interest in learning more as adults.

Unfortunately, we tend to elect far too many of those people to leadership positions.


I learned of this survey through a discussion with former astronaut Scott Kelly on Marketplace Tech, a daily podcast about how technology affects our lives.

The image is from the executive summary of this report and shows the word cloud created when people were asked to complete this task: “Please fill in what you think science is in no more than two to three sentences. Science is…”.

The Weekend Collection

A small collection of good things to read and watch (didn’t have much time to listen last week) when time allows.

Read: I have a great deal of admiration for David Letterman. He’s an intelligent, very funny guy with a lot of class. All of that shows through in this conversation in which he offers his assessment of the current political landscape from his perch in retirement. The beard is still weird. (about 32 minutes)

Read: You go to a theater and probably don’t think about the device being used to project the movie. Unless something breaks of course. However, one writer at Vox says “the way a movie is projected can have a meaningful impact on your theatrical experience”. And presents the fascinating story of why and how. (about 10 minutes)

Read: Carl Sagan was a man ahead of his time. Although it was written more than 20 years ago, his Baloney Detection Kit, “a set of intellectual tools that scientists use to separate wishful thinking from genuine probability”, somehow seems very current. (about 9 minutes)

Read and Watch: Our short visit to Cuba last November is still swimming around in my head, sticking like few other trips I’ve made in my life. This short article and video is one of the best essays I’ve seen on the state of Cuban travel (positive and not so), and is worth a view even if you don’t plan to go. (4:24)

Watch: You’ve probably never heard of Marie Tharp but, as this wonderful animated film from The Royal Institution, a British charity dedicated to educating the public about science, explains, her work and determination proved the theory of continental drift and plate tectonics. Show this one to your middle and high school science students. (4:39)

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