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Psychic Backing Away From $1 Million Psychic Challenge

September 14, 2011 Leave a comment

File:Psychic reading.jpgA prolific Toronto-area psychic named “Psychic Nikki” recently made headlines by saying that she would be interested in taking the ‘Psychic Challenge’ offered by the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF).

The JREF offers a $1 million prize to any person who can demonstrate psychic abilities. What is the catch? Well there is none, really.

You just have to demonstrate a statistically significant ability to predict future events (beyond that of chance) in a controlled scientific experiment. The terms of the experiment are agreed upon by both the “psychic” and the JREF and the experiment itself conducted by a third-party.

Easy, right?

Unfortunately, of the hundreds of people who have attempted the test, none have been able to demonstrate that they are, indeed, psychic.

Enter “Psychic Nikki”.

On August 31, 2011, the CBC reported that Psychic Nikki was considering taking the challenge,

“I would say yes, I would take [the] challenge because I have enough faith in my own abilities if I was available,” Toronto-based psychic Nikki told CBC News.

“I am the real thing so I don’t have to worry about this stuff.”

The statement came after a high-profile challenge by James Randi to famous psychics to come and prove their abilities.

Psychic Nikki was quite confident. She has, by her own claim, predicted

the Sept. 11 attacks, the Japan tsunami and the deaths of Michael Jackson, crocodile hunter Steve Irwin and Anna Nicole Smith.

Though despite predicting these events, she did not bother trying to prevent any of them. You can actually check out her Twitter feed to see some of her predictions, which include:

I’m pretty sure people riot/protest in Paris every week…

Been 10 days, nuthin’ yet on that  one…

And my personal favourite,

The predictions are rather vague (excepting the Mona Lisa one), which is odd considering her website states that

She is an audient clairvoyant – the ability to see and hear and come up with specifics.

Psychics use specialized strategies to appear like they are foretelling the future. For example, they will make a large number of vague predictions (called “Shotgunning”), and then claim victory when any individual prediction comes close to the truth. Predicting an earthquake in California at some point will probably end up being true, but it is hardly convincing evidence of psychic ability.

Now, as revealed on the JREF website, Psychic Nikki has started distancing herself from the challenge.

The JREF called Nikki on Sept. 2, requesting an email address to send her information about the Million Dollar Challenge. After CBC News published a followup story on Tuesday, Sept. 6, Nikki returned the JREF’s call, leaving a message in which she promised “I will try to contact you in the next couple of days for sure.” The JREF called her back within an hour, again offering to send information about the Challenge and answer her questions.

A full week after Nikki promised to call the JREF “in the next couple of days,” she still had not responded.

She also commented on the challenge on the Dean Blundell show on September 9th. Most notably she said that

This test is controlled, that’s why I don’t want to take it

Which is basically the point. Once “psychics” find out that the test will be fairly testing their abilities, they either back away or ultimately fail the test. That is bad for business.

This is not at all surprising, but it is a bit refreshing to see it get coverage in big news outlets like the CBC. I expect that attention to this story will slowly dissipate once Psychic Nikki stops talking about it, but the point as been made.

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Ryan

Sloooow Going

May 16, 2011 Leave a comment

Posts have been slowing down a little as of late. This is due to a number of factors including my training for a 10 km run (6.21371192 miles for my American readers) which I completed in 1 hour and 2 minutes! I was hoping to get in under an hour, but considering a year ago I could barely run 2 km, this was a pretty big accomplishment for me!

Hurray for strengthening your cardiovascular system!

Posts have also slowed down because I’m actually get to do some physics-related stuff at work. We are developing a new toy for inspecting pipes and I get to look at data and read about Faraday’s law and play with magnets!

While completely fake, this explanation is still better than Insane Clown Posse's explanation of magnets working by "miracle"

But I could never forget about you guys. I still love reading and writing about science and that will never change, so I’ll be back to full form in no time.

But in the meantime, here’s 31 bad (and therefore, awesome) jokes for nerds. Enjoy!

Teaching Electricity and Magnetism: Part II

March 30, 2011 2 comments

ResearchBlogging.org
This is the second part of my posts about teaching Electricity and Magnetism (EM). Part I can be found here, which dealt with the confusion of students in learning electricity and magnetism together. Part II deals with a paper looking at ways to help improve teaching methods for EM. The paper is entitled “Using multimedia learning modules in a hybrid-online course in electricity and magnetism“.

When I was still TAing (about 2 years ago) the University was starting to implement a new way of performing tutorial sessions. They were going to do it online. This was done by the students logging into a virtual classroom with the other students and were able to type out questions to the TA. The TA was in a computer lab somewhere and outfitted with an electronic on-screen writing tool (don’t ask me what it’s really called) and would work out problems on their screen by hand, which the students were able to see in the virtual classroom.

When asked if I wanted to participate in this type of tutorial, I refused. Call me a dinosaur (I’m only 26, but whatever) but I wanted to be in the room with the students when I taught them.

But do online and multimedia learning tools help? Or are they worse? That was the topic of this study.

A multimedia learning module (MLM) was developed by the Physics Education Research Group at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign and implemented as a pre-lecture assignment to students in an introductory physics course. MLMs are interactive online exercises which include flash animations which introduced physics concepts to the students. The MLMs were about 12-15 minutes long.

So the goal of the study was to determine if using MLMs prior to learning the concepts in class resulted in better grades for the students and a better student experience. The study tried them out in an introductory Electricity and Magnetism course in the Fall of 2008 at California State Polytechnic University at Pomona.

They used two different sections of the course as the control group and the experimental group. The control group (N = 48) had only the traditional coursework. The experimental group (N = 34) used traditional coursework in conjunction with the MLMs. To make sure any increase in performance was not simply due to increased time spent on the material in the experimental group (i.e. classtime + time spent on MLMs) the amount of time spent in the class was reduced by one-third for the experimental group.

Students in the experimental group viewed the MLMs prior to learning the material in class. Both groups were approximately equal in academic performance  prior to taking the course, as determined by a survey.

Student performance after the term was measured by a multiple choice test, as well as the results of answering questions in class using a personal response system called a  “clicker“. Students were also asked to fill out a questionnaire to rate the usefulness of different aspects of the course, such as the textbook or the MLM.

Students who used the MLM showed an 8% higher normalized gain than those in the control group (45% compared to 37%) in their multiple choice test. In addition, students who used the MLMs answered a slightly higher percentage of in-class clicker questions correctly (60 +/- 4.0%) compared to the control group (54 +/- 3.0%). This leads to an effect size of 0.25, which is considered a small effect.

Finally, students rated the usefulness of the different course material on a scale of 1 (not useful at all) to 5 (extremely useful). Students in the experimental group rated the MLMs higher (~2.5) than the course textbook (~1.3).

So does multimedia course material improve student performance? Well these results show that it is no worse than traditional coursework. One thing to note is that any increased improvement of the group which did MLMs compared to the control group is very small. With a sample size of about 40 students in each group, it is difficult to draw any firm conclusions.

In addition,

It is worth mentioning that the comparison of final exam scores between students in the control and those in hybrid-MLM group showed no significant differences.

So at the end of the day, students did roughly just as well in both groups.

But this is an interesting study nonetheless. Probably the best thing to do would be to offer the MLMs as an optional and additional resource to the students, without cutting out the in-class learning time. Everybody learns differently, whether it be through visual stimuli, auditory or simply repetitiveness. The important thing is to make resources available so people of all learning styles can benefit.

I felt I could teach my students best face-to-face, so I declined to use the new fangled technology for online tutorials. But I understand they are still being used, and some students actually prefer them. So I guess in the end, this study showed that no single manner of learning is better than any other. Do what works for you and stick with it.

Sadaghiani, H. (2011). Using multimedia learning modules in a hybrid-online course in electricity and magnetism Physical Review Special Topics – Physics Education Research, 7 (1) DOI: 10.1103/PhysRevSTPER.7.010102

Teaching Electricity and Magnetism: Part I

March 29, 2011 2 comments

ResearchBlogging.org

When I was a physics TA, there were two topics which always got the students easily mixed up. The first was Newton’s Laws; students had a hard time knowing which law to apply in what situation. But with a little practice and teaching, they soon found that you could follow a very specific procedure to solving any problem involving Newton’s Laws, which helped immensely.

Electricity and Magnetism (EM) was different, however. There really is no set procedure for solving an EM problem. There are strategies and guidelines, but no step-by-step ways of solving EM problems like there is for Newton’s Laws.

I’m not the only one who has noticed this either. Two papers were published this month in Physical Review Special Topics – Physics Education Research. The first was entitled “Interference between electric and magnetic concepts in introductory physics“.

This study looked at the difficulty students had in determining which direction the force on a charged particle would be, if it were in either an electric or a magnetic field.

For a positive charge in an electric field, the force is always in the same direction as the field. If the charge is negative, the force is in the opposite direction of the electric field. Students generally don’t have a problem with this rule; that is, until you introduce the concept of a magnetic field to them.

In a magnetic field, the force on a charged particle is always perpendicular to the magnetic field lines. So when you get to the end of the term and you ask an EM question, students often (understandably) get confused which rule they should use.

The main hypothesis of the study, therefore, was that students have trouble because they learn about electric fields first, and then apply those lessons to working with magnetic fields.

You can test this hypothesis by seeing if the opposite is true. Does learning about the magnetic field first negatively affect the way students answered questions about electric fields?

The subjects (I mean, ‘participants’ hehe) of the study were students in an introductory physics course at The Ohio State University. The students were asked to answer EM related physics questions. They were split up between groups which had learned i) nothing about EM, ii) electricity but not magnetism, iii) magnetism but not electricity, and iv) having learned both. The order in which the questions were asked and some other variables were randomized for better results. Below is an example of the type of question the students were asked.

Can you get the answer to this question? For the left hand side the answer is 'e - Into Page' and for the right hand side the answer is 'f - Out of Page'

There are actually several results from this study, so if you are interested in them all I encourage you to read it (it is free to read). But the main hypothesis turned out to be true:

directly after instruction about magnetism, many students answer that the direction of the force on a charged particle moving through an electric field is perpendicular to the electric field, presumably by employing the same right-hand rule that was learned for magnetic forces. Thus, despite the fact that directly before magnetic force instruction students were answering electric force questions correctly, up to two weeks (and possible longer) after they learn about magnetic force, they answer electric force questions as though they were magnetic force questions.

So the authors actually showed that it is not electric fields or magnetic fields alone that confuse students, but after learning both they get them mixed up, which makes sense. It doesn’t seem to matter, either, which they learn first. After learning both electric and magnetic fields they still get confused.

The authors suggest (and I agree) that to combat this the instructor must frequently point out the distinction between electric and magnetic forces. It is a difficult thing to get a feel for, kind of like learning the offside rule in hockey.

A good strategy is always visual demonstrations. Take for example this video of MIT professor Walter Lewin demonstrating the perpendicular magnetic force (jump to around 46:40 for the demonstration):

So what else could we do about students having trouble with EM? What about online and multimedia tools?

That will be the topic of Part II of this series.

Scaife, T., & Heckler, A. (2011). Interference between electric and magnetic concepts in introductory physics Physical Review Special Topics – Physics Education Research, 7 (1) DOI: 10.1103/PhysRevSTPER.7.010104

The Beauty of Science

March 25, 2011 1 comment

Scientists don’t like pseudoscience because it diverts attention away from the awesomeness of the natural world. The natural world instills a sense of wonder in scientists because of its diversity and complexity.

Pseudosciences hate real science because it points out the how ridiculous their claims are. But many people are more familiar with pseudoscience (bigfoot, UFOs, psychics etc) and it is these pseudosciences which instill their source of wonder in the world. As a result, many people feel scientists “ruin their fun” or “take the wonder out of everything” when we try to explain why these phenomena really aren’t that incredible.

I believe it was Ned Flanders who once said:

Science is like a blabbermouth who ruins the movie by telling you how it ends. Well, I say there are some things we don’t want to know. Important things.

But in fact the opposite is true. Scientists see the beauty in all things. Whether it be a mathematical proof, a chemistry demonstration, or a physics equation. (I have often hear physicists refer to Maxwell’s Equations as “beautiful”).

Maxwell's Equations. You don't have to know what they mean to know that they look cool!

If you read the xkcd webcomic, you know that I was inspired to write this post because of the comic posted today

So just because scientists spend their day in a lab or in front of a computer screen, this doesn’t mean that we can’t appreciate the world around us. We probably appreciate it more than the average person.

It is sometimes said that scientists are unromantic, that their passion to figure out robs the world of beauty and mystery. But is it not stirring to understand how the world actually works — that white light is made of colors, that color is the way we perceive the wavelengths of light, that transparent air reflects light, that in so doing it discriminates among the waves, and that the sky is blue for the same reason that the sunset is red? It does no harm to the romance of the sunset to know a little bit about it.  – Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space (1994)

Why Am I Only Finding Out About This Now?

February 10, 2011 1 comment

I’m not sure how many people knew about this, but MIT started a revolution in 1999 when they started posting class notes and lectures online. Free. For anyone!

MIT OpenCourseWare

Now, MIT has course materials from over 2000 courses available on their website for you to download. Some have lecture videos and some even have the class quizzes and exams for you to take.

Apparently many other Universities are starting to get in on this trend too. MIT gained a lot of funding and publicity through their OpenCourseWare initiative, and other schools wish to do the same.

Of course, you can’t get a degree or interact with Professors. But still, free University lectures/notes? How can you go wrong?

I’m currently taking a refresher in Electricity and Magnetism with renowned professor Walter Lewin. Professors like this remind you why science can be so fun.

So maybe if you aren’t a huge nerd like me who misses school, this may not be so exciting.

But if you are so inclined, check it out. Some courses are also available on iTunes U (which I also just found out about) so you can download them to your iPod or iPhone and watch them on the way to work.

Happy learning!

No Children, But Science Getting “Left Behind” in the US

January 25, 2011 1 comment

In 2002, the Bush administration instituted the ‘No Child Left Behind’ Act (NCLB). The act was designed to institute standards-based education reform, in which standardized tests would be given to students all over the country, and largely increased funding in public schools.

Although some statistics show positive results, it is very difficult to measure success of the program since it was instituted in every state, giving no basis for comparison.  It has also been criticized for putting too much focus on the standardized testing, possibly encouraging teachers to “teach to the test”.

This teaching to the test problem has started to show itself in the science scores of many American students. Because NCLB focuses primarily on reading, writing and math, many other subjects get ignored.

The National Assessment of Education Project (NAEP) released the results of the 2009 Science assessment today. As reported by Science Magazine, the results are not good.

The 2009 assessment, which focused on science, found that 40% of high school seniors perform below the basic level in science and only 1% at the advanced level. Younger students did marginally better, with 29% of fourth-graders and 38% of eighth-graders falling below basic and 1% and 2% at the advanced level, respectively.

How does this compare to previous years? It is actually difficult to say:

Test officials, which call NAEP “the nation’s report card,” say the content has changed so much that the results can’t be compared with previous assessments in 1996, 2000, and 2005.

The test has been revamped in recent years to better reflect what the students learn in a particular grade, and also measure how students are able to apply what they have learned in the classroom to real life situations; a skill particularly useful in the field of science.

Science is simply not getting enough attention in the classroom. It seems to be getting passed over in favour of teaching more reading and writing skills.

Reading and writing are certainly important, but does that mean these subjects should be emphasized so much that other subjects start to suffer? This seems like the wrong direction in which to go when it comes to education reform.

So how does the US of A compare to the rest of the world in science, math and reading scores?

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) recently released its 2009 country rankings in these skills. The USA ranked 23rd of all countries tested in science scores. Shanghai-China ranked #1 in the science category, with Canada placing 8th.

Standardized testing has a lot of drawbacks. And although reading, writing and math skill are important, if students don’t learn how to apply those skills to their daily life then what was the point in learning them in the first place?

Simply regurgitating facts from a textbook is not an effective learning strategy. Application is how we truly get math and writing skills mastered, so science education should not continue to be neglected.