April 2009 Archives

United States Government & Politics

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Recently I wrote about American Government 101 and the need for a well-informed public. It got me to thinking that the Advanced Placement Exams will soon be offered by the College Board. One of the facts (and the College Board is amazingly good about providing facts) is that usually the lowest average score across all the tests--almost three dozen tests on two dozen subjects--is in United States Government & Politics. Not Calculus BC, not Russian Language and Culture, and not Art History. United States Government & Politics! Yikes.

I admit to having a bias toward the social sciences--I was a history major after all. I find the result upsetting. I did a little digging around to see what could be curdling the results for so many of the roughly 200,000 individuals who take the test each year. Again, I am always impressed with the amount of information that the College Board provides. I poked around a little and found sample tests and review guides and a highly informative guide to the test. The test covers six general areas with the preponderance dedicated to the institutions of the national government; two major sections are devoted to the institutions: "Institutions of national government" and "Constitutional basis for federal government." Other areas are "Political beliefs and behavior," "Organizations for public influence," "Civil rights and civil liberties," and "Public policy." Seems pretty straight forward but as I looked over the sample questions it came back to me how daunting dual federalism and the establishment clause were to me when I took Civics those many years ago.

I suppose my second bias is that I love our American Government materials. Take a look at Jerry Rosenberg talk about federalism or Matthew Dickinson discuss voter behavior. I think you will love it too.

Thinkwell's Stars: George Wolfe

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Some time ago I wrote about our mathematics megastar Edward Burger. Ed is an outstanding scholar and teacher, and a good friend. Now I want to take this opportunity to introduce you to our Biology author, George Wolfe. You can read George's official biography on our site, by selecting About the Author. I want to tell you about a guy who has found a way to unite two of his great loves: science and teaching. George loves science--biology especially, but all science really. He quickly gets enthusiastic if you ask him a question or provide a new fact. It's just so much fun to talk with him. And George loves teaching young people. He has welded these two loves into a wonderful career as a bringer of knowledge to youth across the world. Take a look as he talks about The Nature of Light.

George is now the Director of the Loudoun Academy of Science, a magnet school for students gifted in science and technology located in Sterling, Virginia. When the school was opened in 2005, George was selected to help establish the program and manage its creation. It keeps him hopping but he still finds time take students on amazing trips to explore sea caves and other wonders.

It is a cliché to say that George is the type of person you would love to chat with over dinner, but it is true. I have enjoyed many meals with him and came away from every one of them refreshed, informed, and happy. My only regret is that he has yet to treat me to one of his home-cooked gourmet meals. Maybe soon?

I'm not sure where George gets all his energy, but I do know where he gets his motivation: science and teaching.

American Government 101

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In the movie The American President, Michael Douglas lectures the White House Press Corps and the nation on the attributes and difficulties of our democracy. I think one of his key points is that America is not easy. It requires a lot of effort, talent, understanding, and--above all--attention. We are witnessing a piece of history unfold before our eyes at the moment as the federal government tries to cope with an economic meltdown and understand how the crisis came about. At the same time many voices are calling for investigations into multiple levels of governance in the last few years. Every day a headline screams about some regulatory failure or lack of control. These are indeed scary and angst-ridden days.

The good news is the United States possesses flexible and enduring institutions that have withstood many powerful tests. Within days of the ratification of the Constitution, challenges arose--domestic uprisings, foreign wars, and inept office-holders. After almost seven decades of wrestling with internal differences, the nation suffered the pain of civil war. During the Great Depression we tested the very bounds of our institutions to address economic disaster; in both World Wars we tested trading our civil rights for security--and still our institutions and our rights came through. Indeed they have survived and evolved. My point here is that it is profoundly important that all of us understand and appreciate our institutions of government. Thinkwell offers a wonderful course in American Government as do many publishers. And there are many free resources available online, including USA.gov. Probably most of all, you can read the United States Constitution. If you have not read the Constitution recently you should take a few minutes. It is filled with wonderful things, such as balance of powers, civil and equal rights, and the description of our institutions that have served us for more than two centuries.

10 Years Young

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A couple of weeks ago I celebrated my 10th birthday with my friends at Thinkwell, and I wanted to share some photos of my celebratory luncheon.

First, here I am next to an already enjoyed plate of BBQ and the ever-so-delightful meatloaf muffins that my friend Claire made for me. They were incredibly tasty!

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Check out all the people who came out to celebrate!

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Me again!
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A big thanks to everyone who made this day special, and for all the spectacular treats and bones!

Thanks for reading!


If you would like to be invited to Scout's Birthday next year, please send her an email at Scout@Thinkwell.com. She is also accepting treats at this address.

Thinkwell's CFO On the Importance of Math

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It's hard to imagine getting through life without knowing some math. We have to do quick mental arithmetic to compute tips we leave at restaurants. Our restaurant servers then use their own mental math to know if they are happy with what we left. Some people use math more than others in their jobs.

As the Chief Financial Officer at Thinkwell, I wind up using a lot of math every day. As a person whose job involves finances and investing, I also get asked a lot about what caused the current credit crisis and the woes on Wall Street. I want to believe that I know more about the math involved in financial transactions than the average person does.

Back in the 1980s, I worked for a supercomputer company, and that company sold ultra-fast computers to several Wall Street investment firms so those firms could try to calculate the risks, and the expected profit rewards, in making investments. These Wall Street firms hired people with PhD degrees in math and science, and nicknamed those people "Rocket Scientists." Wall Street hoped that Rocket Scientists could predict the best way to make money on Wall Street. The Rocket Scientists used supercomputers to simulate millions of possible future investment outcomes, and calculated estimates of what profit to expect from investments.

I thought back then that my math skills were pretty good, but the Rocket Scientists I met on Wall Street ran mental circles around me. By the year 2000, after about 15 years of studying and analyzing the problems, these Rocket Scientists had created some powerful mathematical equations that described most of the risks involved in investing in bonds, the debt borrowed by governments and corporations. Wall Street used this math to calculate how to insure against losing money on bonds, and they had good success.

The Wall Street companies next tried applying those same equations to bundles of home mortgages -- those mysterious investments that we now read about called "Credit Default Swaps" (CDSs) and "Collateralized Debt Obligations" (CDOs). I just read a fascinating article by Daniel Roth in the March issue of Wired Magazine, called "Recipe For Disaster: The Secret Formula That Destroyed Wall Street." As Mr. Roth explains in his article, the senior managers of the Wall Street firms didn't know as much about math as the Rocket Scientists who created the equations for measuring the risk of investments. That ignorance proved disastrous for all of us. Because the executives approving these investments weren't math experts, they allowed their companies to apply the Rocket Scientists' math formulas blindly, even in circumstances these equations were never designed to handle.

The business people believed that the math calculations showed that they had totally insured themselves against the risks in investing in home mortgages. They placed hundred-billion-dollar bets on home mortgages based on false assumptions. The executives even ignored the math experts who tried to tell them that the math wasn't right -- probably because these same executives didn't understand the math themselves. Because they believed that they had protected themselves against risk by doing what some bad math calculations suggested, Wall Street managers were later amazed when the outcome of their investments didn't agree with what the numbers had predicted. They blinded themselves with misused math.

As a result, some of their companies lost hundreds of billions of dollars and are no longer around today, including at least one of the companies who bought my supercomputers more than 20 years ago. Worse for America, a lot of people who invested their life savings on Wall Street have seen their retirement savings wiped out. Worse for the rest of the world, the resulting recession has caused the economies of other countries to suffer as well.

So, If you are a student and you are telling yourself that you won't need to know math when you're running your own multi-billion dollar Internet business some day because you'll just hire a Rocket Scientist to "do the math" for you, think again. You ought to know more math than the people who will work for you. Or at the very least, you should know enough math to know what questions to ask a Rocket Scientist. Make them "show their work," just as our math teachers made us do. Will you know if their answers are correct? Your future income might depend on your math knowledge more than you imagine.
I noticed a blog post at the Chronicle for Higher Ed on the Sloan foundation ending grants for online education. This development is unfortunate, though in some ways not entirely surprising. Online education is not quite a fledgling industry anymore. Many companies have sprung up to explore the space. While the loss of the grants comes during a tough time in business overall, online education continues to grow as a business and is playing an ever greater role as a teaching mechanism. Other folks are concerned that the advancement of innovation might slow down, but with new web 2.0 tools emerging every week, I don't think the pace of change will decrease.

Online Courses For Struggling Students

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A recent op-ed at USAToday.com highlights the need to help underprivileged, low-income, and minority students at colleges and universities. It nicely contrasts the interest of many of those institutions in keeping their athletes eligible with their efforts to help other members of their student body, who perhaps are not athletes but nevertheless have many of the same needs.  Florida State and Middlebury College are identified as having solid programs for helping a broad range of students. These types of programs are ripe for technological improvement. Not only do online courses and supplementary materials have a clear benefit in their ability to reach all students, but they also provide students, faculty, and administration with the necessary data to closely monitor the progress and success of an imperiled group.

Maine's Laptops

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At EdWeek's Digital Education, this post talks about a new educational technology initiative in Maine. While Maine's program of 1 laptop per 7th-12th grader sounds admirable, I hope it isn't implementing/adding technology for technology's sake. 

The Digital Education post questions whether the hidden infrastructure costs of rolling out so many laptops are truly being covered. Do they have a plan for the students to take advantage of distance learning, learn to program, learn Excel, get homework help, or do something else with these laptops beyond playing games and chatting on Facebook? If there is no clear plan in place, Maine, feel free to call us--we can help out!

Good Things Happen

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Early Monday morning of this week, I received an email from one of our authors. He was responding to a request he had received from a student. The student explained that he was impressed with the educational videos we offer and was edified by the knowledge. However, the student was troubled. He had downloaded the videos from one of the many sites that offer copyrighted materials for free. At Thinkwell, we know these things happen; we have seen videos and multimedia lessons from our calculus, biology, and trigonometry courses offered on such sites. Obviously, we wring our hands--we are in business to sell materials, and we offer many places to see samples of our work, such as YouTube, Facebook, and our demo page. Frequently, we wish the world were different. 

But this email was different. The student explained that his faith prohibited such use of copyrighted materials and that he could not profit from knowledge gained from such a source. Clearly this young person was tortured by his own actions. It brought great pause to me on a Monday morning. This young person stood by his principles, and it was impressive and refreshing. My hat is off to him--actually, I was flabbergasted. We all make mistakes, but few of us are strong enough to admit them and try to correct them. This gentleman did, and I admire him for it.

YouTube Education Online

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Via CrookedTimber, we see that YouTube has finally established an education-focused site. Only two- and four-year colleges and universities can post their lectures there, but it offers a great opportunity for the everyday user to get at what, until now, was often very proprietary content. 

(In fact, we do YouTube! For a taste of Thinkwell on YouTube, see our channel at http://www.youtube.com/user/ThinkwellVids. Comment, rate, and subscribe away!)

We over here at Thinkwell believe that much more is required of online learning than just the lecture portion of a course. Feedback, interactive problems, and measured results create the proper atmosphere for online education. However, these lectures on YouTube Education do offer a great chance for prospective students to try before they buy. Trying to decide between UT and A&M? UCLA and UC-Berkeley? Check out some lectures online!

Delivering Education Online

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Edweek's Digital Education blog found another gem recently. Specifically, it talks about manipulatives--objects that students can play with inside the educational software they use (original blog post here). This type of interactive program--integrating well-known methods of learning with a new interface--demonstrates the evolution required of technology and education. 

Often technology is rolled out in the classroom just for technology's sake, but products like the ones listed at Dave Wetzel's original blog post are moving in the right direction by enhancing learning and promoting technology at the same time.

About this Archive

This page is an archive of entries from April 2009 listed from newest to oldest.

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