Tuesday, March 12, 2013

150 questions on science

I have a seventh-grader—we'll call her Kristi—who has suddenly conceived a desire to go to TJ, i.e., Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology. TJ (also known by its more awkward, nerdy initials as TJHSST) is a magnet school, i.e., a special public school for the crème de la crème of local students. I was, to be honest, surprised at Kristi's desire: up to now, the girl has shown absolutely zero interest in (or aptitude for) science. Her performance on a mock "TJ test," which comprised a verbal and a mathematical component, was abysmal (10 out of 25 in both areas), and when I asked her whether she had been reading any books on science, she lied and said "Yes," but failed to name the title of a single book when I challenged her to be more specific. I also asked Kristi whether she saw herself working in a lab fifteen or twenty years from now, and she vehemently responded, "No!" All in all, I saw no logic in her stated goal of entering TJ, and I took her to task for that. "Maybe I'll go to TJ and become interested in science while there," Kristi said lamely. I found this to be the most ass-backward reasoning I'd heard from a student in a while. You see, most students vying for admission to TJ are already intrinsically motivated when it comes to science: they're curious about the world, and they want to help people by creatively solving current human problems. They eat, drink, shit, and breathe science. It's always at the forefront of their consciousness, and they don't shut up about it.

I have a student, a senior—let's call her Sybill—who fits that profile to a T. She's been accepted to MIT and is awaiting admissions results to Harvard. I tease her about coming back from Baaahhston with a Hahvuhd accent, and she just laughs. Sybill is amazing: strong-willed, motivated, and ferociously focused. She has already invented a shoe that generates power while you walk. Truth be told, I envy her drive and find myself lacking. I don't recall being nearly so self-directed when I was her age, although I did entertain vague notions about becoming a teacher back then. Anyway, I fully expect Sybill to Make It In Life, and I imagine I'll be buying one of her bestselling books someday; they'll be on the shelf at Barnes and Noble, right alongside some Steven Pinker monographs. Sybill is going places, and I have no fear for her future. She is, as the poet says in "Invictus," the captain of her soul.

If only Kristi could be like Sybill. Alas, Kristi is rail-thin, soft-spoken, timid, and possesses not an ounce of true passion. She's very good at being sulky and resentful on occasion, when she confesses that her Korean mom has pissed her off in some way (resentment of parents is a common theme among Komerican kids, who tire quickly of the Tiger Mother shtick), but aside from that show of emotion, Kristi's got nothing. All the same, she's one of my favorite kids, mainly because she's such a sweet, caring soul, but her sensitivity—I might call it oversensitivity—is a problem if she's really expecting to get into, and enjoy, a hyper-competitive environment like TJ. Her attitude on that score baffles me as well: according to one of my supervisors, Kristi, whose desire to try for TJ originates from herself and not from her parents, doesn't really care whether she makes it into TJ or not: if she gets in, she gets in; if she doesn't, she doesn't. This blasé, oh-well attitude, too, fails to fit the psych profile of the average TJ-bound student.

I read up on TJ through Wikipedia. The place is no fucking joke. I just don't think Kristi has any notion of what she's in for, and if, as I suspect, she's really not that into science, she's in for a brutal, four-year-long ass-kicking. Une vie misérable l'attend.

But if Kristi wants to go, then it's my job to help her pursue her dream. To that end, I need to baptize her, drench her, dunk her, drown her, in science. I need to get her thinking like a scientist, encouraging both her skepticism and her curiosity, two of the most powerful weapons in the scientist's arsenal. I don't think Kristi's much of a skeptic or a critical thinker; my reading of her is that she has the gentle, sensitive soul of a poet or artist, and would probably flourish better in that sort of freeform, touchy-feely, right-brained environment. Be that as it may, I have to believe that a person can be trained to think scientifically, so I've begun crafting a curriculum just for her. Today, for a few hours, I began by noting the fifteen major scientific areas that Wikipedia states TJ deals with. I wrote ten questions for each area. Here they are; see below. Do you think a semi-capable seventh-grader can handle them? I'd say yes: with just a touch of Googling and a bit of cognition, Kristi can easily find the answers to these questions and formulate responses in her own words. Ostensibly, I'm supposed to be helping her with the nebulous subjects of "reading" and "writing," but my plan is to move Kristi into a violently content-based curriculum in which reading and writing are both in the service of science, science, and more science. If she gets sick of the curriculum, she'll know she shouldn't apply to TJ.

My 150 questions, then:

(for TJ Prep)

A. Organic Chemistry

1. What is organic chemistry?
2. What is the difference between organic and inorganic matter?
3. What is a solution (chemically speaking)? How is a solution different from a mixture?
4. What are hydrocarbons? How are they different from carbohydrates?
5. Biologically speaking, why are organic compounds important?
6. Why is the concept of chemical structure important in organic chemistry?
7. What is the relationship between organic chemistry and the petrochemical industry?
8. What are the four principal analytical methods used in organic chemistry?
9. What are melting and boiling properties?
10. What is solubility?

B. Neurobiology

1. What is neurobiology?
2. How is neurobiology different (if at all) from neuroscience and neurophysiology?
3. Neurobiology is often considered interdisciplinary. With what other fields is it commonly connected?
4. What is trepanation? Why is it historically significant?
5. Name the major lobes of the brain, give their locations, and provide a rough description of their functions.
6. What is the cerebellum, and what does it do?
7. What is the brain stem, and what does it do?
8. What is a reflex?
9. Why might neurobiology be important for psychology?
10. Name five major neurobiological discoveries, from ancient to modern.

C. Marine Biology

1. What is marine biology?
2. Why is marine biology important?
3. Name at least four different marine habitats that marine biologists study.
4. From these four habitats: name at least two types of creatures that inhabit them (i.e., 8 creatures in all).
5. Name at least five major types of marine animal.
6. Name at least three types of marine plants.
7. What is a chromatophore, and what kind(s) of marine animal(s) has/have them?
8. What evidence do we have that octopi are intelligent? And how does an octopus breathe?
9. What are phycology, invertebrate zoology, and ichthyology?
10. Why do most fish and cetaceans seem to be similarly designed (long, thin bodies, fins, eyes at front of body, etc.)?

D. DNA Science (Genetics)

1. What is DNA science/genetics?
2. Why is DNA science important? Who is Gregor Mendel, and why is he important?
3. In a genetics context, what does inheritance mean? What is a Punnett Square?
4. What is the subfield of medical genetics about?
5. What is a genome?
6. What is selective breeding?
7. What is hybrid vigor?
8. What aspects of a human being are genetically determined? Name at least five.
9. What are nucleotides and why are they important?
10. What connection is there between genetics and criminology?

E. Quantum Mechanics

1. What is quantum mechanics?
2. Why is quantum mechanics important?
3. How does quantum mechanics differ from classical mechanics?
4. What is "the Uncertainty Principle"?
5. What is a wave-particle duality?
6. How is the quantum theory of gravity different from the Einsteinian theory?
7. Why is the quantum/Einstein conflict a problem for many physicists?
8. What is string theory? (Give a brief description.)
9. What is the Schrödinger's Cat Paradox?
10. What is quantum entanglement?

F. Computer Science

1. What is computer science?
2. What types of people might have need of computer science knowledge?
3. What are some of the major programming languages in use today? (Name at least three.)
4. What are computation and information processing?
5. What is the relationship between computer science and artificial intelligence?
6. Briefly describe software engineering.
7. What is information science?
8. What are some of the things you can program a computer to do? Name ten things.
9. What is the Turing Test and why is it important?
10. What is an algorithm?

G. Robotics

1. What is robotics?
2. What exactly is a robot? Does it have to be shaped like a human? Why or why not?
3. What is a servo? What is an actuator?
4. In what areas of life can robotics be useful? i.e., What jobs do robots already perform?
5. What jobs might robots perform in the future?
6. Robots aren't perfect. What sorts of things do robots today have trouble doing?
7. What are Isaac Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics? Do you think today's robots actually follow these laws? Why or why not?
8. What kinds of power sources do—and could—robots have?
9. What is the "uncanny valley"? Why is it significant in robotics?
10. What are some of the ethical issues related to robotics?

H. Microelectronics

1. What is microelectronics?
2. Define: semiconductor, transistor, capacitor, inductor, resistor, diode, insulator, conductor.
3. What is wire bonding?
4. What is an integrated circuit? What is a printed circuit board?
5. What is the difference between analog and digital circuits?
6. Why is the field of microelectronics important?
7. What are parasitic effects and why are they significant?
8. What relationship is there between microelectronics and computer manufacturing?
9. What relationship is there between microelectronics and robotics?
10. Microelectronics is a subfield of electronics. What is electronics?

I. Chemistry

1. What is chemistry?
2. Briefly describe the parts of an atom, and talk about those parts' electric charges.
3. Why do protons bond with neutrons and not electrons?
4. What is a chemical bond?
5. What happens when you mix water with pure cesium? Why?
6. What is PH, and why is it important?
7. What is the difference between chemistry and alchemy?
8. What relationship is there among plant biology, chemistry, and drug companies?
9. What is the difference between an atom and a molecule?
10. In a chemical context, what do the terms energy and entropy mean?

J. Prototyping

1. What is prototyping?
2. Define: Proof-of-Principle Prototype, Form Study Prototype, User Experience Prototype, Visual Prototype, and Functional Prototype.
3. Why prototype?
4. What is the difference between a prototype and a production design?
5. What are some limitations of prototypes? Name and explain at least two.
6. What relationship is there between computer modeling and prototyping?
7. What is the difference between a prototype and a mockup?
8. In computer science, what is a function prototype?
9. What is scale modeling, and why is it important in prototyping?
10. What does the term prototype mean in biology and metrology?

K. Optics

1. What is optics?
2. What contributions did Isaac Newton make to the field of optics?
3. In what way(s) does optics relate to human health? To marine biology?
4. What is the difference between geometric optics and physical optics?
5. What is the electromagnetic spectrum, and what are its major parts?
6. What is fiber optics and why is it important?
7. Define: diffraction, reflection, and refraction.
8. How does a microscope work? How about a telescope?
9. What makes a laser beam different from a flashlight beam?
10. Why do reflections in curved mirrors look different from reflections in flat mirrors?

L. Computer-aided Design

1. What is computer-aided design (CAD)?
2. What relationship, if any, exists between CAD and 3-D printing?
3. What are raster-based and vector-based graphics, and how are they different?
4. Why is CAD important? What is it used for?
5. What sorts of things can be designed using CAD? Name at least five things.
6. How can CAD help an amputee?
7. What relationship is there between/among CAD, prototyping, computer science, 3-D printing, and robotics?
8. Does CAD have any relevance to biology? Why or why not?
9. Does CAD have any relevance to entertainment? Why or why not?
10. Define: wireframe, solid modeling, graphics tablet.

M. Astronomy

1. What is astronomy? What is cosmology? What is the Big Bang Theory?
2. Briefly describe the subfields of planetology, cosmology, and orbital mechanics.
3. How is astronomy different from astrology? How seriously do legitimate scientists take astrology? Why?
4. How old is the science of astronomy? What ancient civilizations practiced it?
5. Why was the Catholic Church upset about certain astronomers' observations?
6. Who were Copernicus, Kepler, and Brahe? Who are Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking?
7. How many stars are there in the Milky Way?
8. What is the difference between observational and theoretical astronomy?
9. Explain gravitational lensing.
10. According to the latest theories, what occupies the center of our galaxy?

N. Biotechnology

1. What is biotechnology?
2. What are Frankenfoods, and why are they controversial?
3. Name and explain at least five ways in which biotechnology has proven useful to humanity.
4. Why is it important to map the human genome?
5. What is eugenics, and why is it controversial?
6. If scientists were able to create a "Jurassic Park" scenario (bringing back dinosaurs), should they?
7. Fermentation is a biological process harnessed by people. Name at least five foods or beverages that are products of fermentation.
8. What is computational biology?
9. What are Blue, Green, Red, and White Biotechnology?
10. What are some other ethical issues that people in biotechnology must deal with? Name at least two and discuss their importance.

O. Oceanography

1. What is oceanography?
2. How is oceanography different from marine biology?
3. What relationship is there between oceanography and the petrochemical industry?
4. In oceanographic terms, what relationship is there between plate tectonics and marine ecosystems?
5. Oceanography is interdisciplinary. With what other disciplines is it involved?
6. What is the Gulf Stream?
7. What is a continental shelf? What is the deepest part of the ocean? How deep is it, and what is the water pressure at that point?
8. Define: reef, atoll, archipelago.
9. For what can you use a bathyscaphe?
10. What connection is there between the oceans and global climate?

I plan to feed Kristi these questions only a bit at a time, so as not to overwhelm her. I expect her to write answers that vary from short to lengthy, according to the dictates of the question. Along with these questions, which are meant only to introduce her to the fifteen TJ fields, I plan to put Kristi on a strict diet of VSauce and TED Talks videos. On top of all that, I want to introduce her to the two science guys who've inspired me: Carl Sagan and Stephen Jay Gould (both dead, alas). I may also throw in a bit of Oliver Sacks (his The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat is excellent, and each chapter is very short). On top of that, I plan to introduce scenarios that require Kristi either to think outside the box or to think critically. Her desires needs to be circumscribed by a realistic consciousness of her cognitive limits.

Designing this super-comprehensive curriculum is a challenge. I'm doing it because I'm unconvinced that Kristi actually cares about science at all. She may prove me wrong, and that's what I'm hoping. I hope she drinks in all this information and, come TJ testing time, proves able to talk the language of science, and has a better idea of which scientific fields or subfields might be of interest to her. She, of course, has no damn clue as to how much effort I'm putting into all this, but you, Dear Reader—you do. And that's all that matters.

Well, OK, that's not all that matters, but you get the picture.



Charles said...

Dang. Some of those questions are hard. I would founder if I had to answer some of them off the top of my head.

I know you didn't really ask for feedback on the questions, but a couple of things did come to mind.

* Nitpick warning: I would reword the fourth question under "marine biology" as follows: "Name at least two types of creatures that inhabit these four habitats." When the sentence begins with "Of those four habitats," I expect the subject of the following clause to be (or the corresponding pronoun to refer to) one or more of those habitats (e.g., "Of those four habitats, which would be most likely to hold a frat party?").

* I know that Asimov's three laws have the word "robotics" in the title, but aren't they more related to the field of artificial intelligence than the field of robotics (although I suppose there is--or will be in the future--quite a bit of overlap)?

Anyway, just some thoughts for you to do with as you will.

(Also, you may want to check the name you used for the student in the first paragraph after the questions.)

Kevin Kim said...


re: student's name

Yeah, I pulled a Lorianne and revealed her real name, didn't I?! Fixed now.

re: marine biology

I've slightly changed the wording and significantly changed the punctuation. May not be to your taste, but it is to mine. You were right that the question was faulty as originally written.

re: Asimov

I think he's fine where he is, especially given the followup question. Robots have a purpose. Is it to serve? How do we justify killer robots, then?

John from Daejeon said...

I got lost when I saw 150 questions. While I'm no mathematics guru, I am sure that there are quite a few more than 150 questions. You have not only follow up questions, but what and why in the same questions as well as those wonderful why or why not open-ended additions. Then, when I saw the four different questions in N.9, I could no longer remember my own name. Of course, that shock could still be from my learning that there are only 6 continents and not 7 (well at least according to my South Korean students and their science textbooks) and that Pluto isn't a planet even though it has 5 moons--one now named awesomely named "Vulcan."

Kevin Kim said...


I'm quite sure there are more than 150 questions, too. But as I said, my purpose was merely to introduce these fields to a girl who, up to now, has really shown no interest in any of them.

Charles said...

re: Asimov

I guess it boils down to "robotics" being a field with somewhat fuzzy boundaries.

John from Daejeon said...

Maybe you can introduce this awesome young student to your student. She definitely made an impact on most of my students after a rough week for many of us at our academy.

Cassidy Hooper joins Kyle Maynard, who crawled up Kilimanjaro without arms and legs, and Nick Vujicic, whose disability would have him killed at birth in shame by parents in many crappy countries in our world, as three truly inspirational people who should make nearly all of us realize just how good we really have it.

Then, there's Nick's love story which is pretty extraordinary as well.