American Music Education Initiative (AMEI)

The American Music Education Initiative (AMEI) of theNational Music Foundation is designed to identify, recognize and support thecreative educational accomplishments of teachers who use American music in theclassroom. Teachers are invited to sendin examples of their lessons that use American music. The lessons can be forany subject, in any grade K-12; they can use any type of American music.

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Ecology/Environmental Science Teaching Award

Sponsored by Vernier Software and Technology, theEcology/Environmental Teaching Award will be given to a secondary schoolteacher who has successfully developed and demonstrated an innovative approachin the teaching of ecology/environmental science and has carried his/hercommitment to the environment into the community.

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Easy A’s on the internet

In a striking example of unintended consequences, a move by Cornell University to give context to student grades by publicly posting median grades for courses has resulted in exactly the opposite student behavior than anticipated.

Cornell’s College of Arts & Sciences originally set up a web site in 1997 where median grades were posted, with the intention of also printing median class grades alongside the grade the student actually received in the course on his or her permanent transcript.

Administrators thought students would use the information on the web site to seek out classes with lower median grades–because, they reasoned, an A in a class that has a median grade of B-minus would be more meaningful than say, an A in a course where the median was A-plus.

However, when Cornell researchers studied about 800,000 course grades issued at Cornell from 1990 to 2004, they found that most students visited the site to shop for classes where the median grade was higher. Plus, professors who tended to give out higher grades were more popular. Students with lower SAT scores were the most likely to seek out courses with higher median grades.

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Webkinz shift away from ad-free has a price

When children log onto Webkinz.com, the popular virtual world for children who buy Webkinz stuffed animals, they can send messages to their friends, decorate their virtual rooms and take trivia quizzes.

Now, they may also see advertisements.

The Webkinz site began running movie ads on its site in October, with ads for “Bee Movie” and later for “Alvin and the Chipmunks.” The ads run on the right side of the home page after users log in. The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, an advocacy group based in Boston, is demanding that the site remove the ads.

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Cisco readies online entertainment platform

Cisco will introduce next year its Entertainment Operating System (EOS), a platform for delivering multimedia content to online communities.

EOS will be the first major product of Cisco’s push into helping media companies connect with their customers. It will combine a delivery system, a social networking platform and a set of tools to help consumers find the content they want, said Dan Scheinman, senior vice president and general manager of Cisco’s media solutions group.

It will go on sale in 2008, he said.

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Key states take up evolution debate

The perpetually contentious debate over evolution in the nation’s schools is growing louder in two big states, each of which exerts enormous influence over the multibillion-dollar textbook industry and ultimately, therefore, over curricula and science instruction from coast to coast.

In Texas, biology professors have rallied in support of a state official who says she was forced to resign because she sent an eMail message promoting a lecture that was critical of intelligent design. The controversy comes as science standards in Texas are due for a 10-year review in 2008.

And in Florida, state officials are poised to adopt new science standards that would use the term “evolution” for the first time—although the new draft standards have drawn a flood of public comments, many of which are critical of the proposed changes.

How these debates play out in such key battleground states has huge implications for the nation’s students, at a time when many believe science teaching in the United States is facing something of a crisis.

U.S. students were outperformed, on average, by 16 other industrialized countries in science on a recent international exam, sparking new calls to improve math and science instruction to keep the nation competitive in the global economy.

It’s widely accepted within the scientific community that evolution is the foundation for all biological studies. And that was the gist of a letter stressing the importance of teaching students about evolution, sent by biology professors from across Texas to Texas Education Commissioner Robert Scott on Dec. 10.

“It is inappropriate to expect the [Texas Education Agency’s] director of science curriculum to ‘remain neutral’ on this subject, any more than astronomy teachers should ‘remain neutral’ about whether the Earth goes around the sun,” the letter stated.

“Far from remaining neutral, it is the clear duty of the science staff at TEA and all other Texas educators to speak out unequivocally: evolution is a central pillar in any modern science education, while ‘intelligent design’ is a religious idea that deserves no place in the science classroom at all.”

More than 100 faculty members from the universities of Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Texas State, North Texas, Houston, Rice, and Baylor signed the letter.

“I’m an evolutionary biologist, and I and many others simply feel that good evolution education is key to understanding biology as a whole,” said Daniel Bolnick of the University of Texas (UT), who started collecting signatures last week.

The professors sent the letter in response to the departure of long-time education veteran Chris Comer, who said evolution politics were behind her forced resignation last month as the state’s director of science curriculum.

Comer said she came under pressure after forwarding an eMail message that her superiors felt made the agency appear to be biased against the instruction of intelligent design. Intelligent design holds that the universe’s order and complexity is so great that science alone cannot explain it.

UT integrative biology professor David Hillis said Comer’s ouster shows the country is slipping into “scientific illiteracy.”

“It is extraordinarily unfortunate and inappropriate that religious views are dictating hiring and firing decisions at the Texas Education Agency,” he said. “This is an enormous black eye in terms of our competitiveness and ability to attract researchers and technologies.”

Texas education officials say Comer’s resignation came after repeated acts of misconduct and insubordination. Scott and other officials declined to comment specifically, because they reportedly feared being sued.

“I am really frustrated with the issue, knowing the truth and not being able to talk about it,” Scott said.

According to TEA documents, Comer’s superiors recommended she be terminated because of comments she made about the agency’s leadership and her failure to get approval for making presentations outside the agency.

The documents show that Lizzette Reynolds, the agency’s senior adviser on statewide initiatives, notified Comer’s superiors after Comer forwarded an eMail message announcing a presentation by an author who argues that creationist politics are behind the movement to get intelligent design theory taught in public schools.

“This is something that the State Board, the Governor’s Office and members of the Legislature would be extremely upset to see because it assumes this is a subject that the agency supports,” Reynolds said in her eMail to Comer’s supervisors.

Comer said her only recent reprimand was in February, after she attended a meeting of science educators without getting prior approval.

“Did I question them when they said things that I thought were wrong? Yes, I did that,” Comer said Dec. 10. “I did speak up for myself. I was not a shrinking violet. But then, as the director of science, I thought it was important [for them] to hear my expert opinions of what is going on.”

Next year, the Texas Board of Education begins a review of the state’s science curriculum, which will set standards for classroom instruction and textbook selection. The board’s chairman, Don McLeroy, has lectured favorably in the past about intelligent design, according to the New York Times.

Sunshine State standards

In Florida, the state’s public school students for years have been studying “biological changes over time,” a phrase widely considered a euphemism for “evolution,” but proposed revisions in state science standards for the first time would use the actual word “evolution” for the same concept.

The new standards also would require more in-depth teaching of evolution and other topics while setting specific benchmarks for students to meet.

The pending changes have drawn a flood of public comments, both pro and con, that reflect how sharply divided the nation’s citizens are over how evolution should be taught. A Gallup poll released last June said the country is about evenly split over whether the theory of evolution is even true.

Some people say they oppose the teaching of evolution or want schools to teach religious ideas of creationism or intelligent design to explain the origins of life as well.

Other objectors, such as St. Augustine, Fla., parent and education activist Kim Kendall, deny a religious motive but say they just want teachers to offer evidence that contradicts as well as supports evolution.

Kendall is organizing opposition to Florida’s new science standards, which were developed by two committees of scientists, educators, and other citizens. One panel framed the standards, and the other wrote them.

“They’re being very dogmatic,” Kendall said. “[Schools] do need to continue to teach evolution, but they need to allow the teachers to teach both the faults and the supports of evolution.”

Scientists and many educators say the evidence supporting evolution is overwhelming, and it does not conflict with religious beliefs.

“We’re looking at a scientific theory as opposed to a belief system,” said Rick Ellenburg, Florida’s 2008 teacher of the year. “I’m a religious person, and I don’t see a conflict in my life. Within the realm of what I teach, it’s pretty much a non-issue.”

Ellenburg, who is Presbyterian, teaches science at Camelot Elementary School in Orlando and served on the committee that wrote the new standards.

Arguments for inserting skepticism, rather than religious concepts, into evolution lessons emerged after a federal court ruling nearly two years ago struck down the teaching of intelligent design in Dover, Pa., biology classes, said Michael Ruse, director of Florida State University’s program on the history and philosophy of science.

“This is strategy No. 4,” said Ruse. He says it’s a wedge issue seen as a step toward introducing religious ideas in public schools.

The first strategy for evolution opponents was to prohibit teaching it. In the 1925 so-called Scopes Monkey Trial, a teacher was convicted of violating Tennessee’s evolution ban, although the verdict was overturned on a technicality. Courts, though, later ruled evolution could be taught.

The next strategy was to get the biblical account of creation taught as well, but courts rejected that, too, in the 1980s, Ruse said. Then the focus shifted to intelligent design.

That strategy also hit a legal roadblock when the Dover judge ruled intelligent design was religion masquerading as science, and teaching it in the public schools violated the separation of church and state.

Since then, evolution opponents have had other setbacks, including a decision by Ohio’s school board to eliminate a passage in its science standards that critics said opened the door to teaching intelligent design.

The Kansas state board last February repealed guidelines questioning evolution, the fifth time in eight years its standards have changed as religious conservatives and a coalition of Democrats and moderate Republicans have traded power.

A suburban Atlanta school board also abandoned its effort to put stickers in high school science books saying evolution is “a theory, not a fact,” and South Carolina’s Board of Education rejected a proposal to require students to “critically analyze” evolution.

The Georgia and South Carolina cases are examples of the fourth strategy, according to Ruse, who described it as presenting evolution as an “iffy hypothesis” instead of what it really is—a scientific theory “that’s accepted like the Earth goes around the sun.”

In Florida, old and new arguments alike are being made on a state education department web site, at public hearings, and in letters, phone calls, and eMail messages to members of the state board of education.

The board was expected to vote on the standards in January, but the decision likely will be put off until February to accommodate two more public hearings, one scheduled for Jan. 3 in Jacksonville and another for Jan. 8 in Fort Lauderdale.

Board Chairman T. Willard Fair, who heads the Urban League of Greater Miami, said he had never received more correspondence on a single issue, but he declined to discuss his views.

“I’m keeping a fairly open mind,” said board member Donna Callaway, a retired Tallahassee middle school principal. She has a Southern Baptist background and her correspondence has been overwhelming against the evolution standards, but Callaway said she believed it should be taught in some manner.

Some Southern Baptist ministers have expressed opposition, but spokeswoman Lauren Urtel said the Florida Baptist Convention had taken no position and had no comment.

Board member Phoebe Raulerson, a former Okeechobee County school superintendent, said she couldn’t comment because she hadn’t yet examined the proposal and public comments.

At least one board member, though, strongly supports the standards.

“Evolution is well accepted in the scientific community as a fact,” said Roberto Martinez, a Coral Gables lawyer. “This is not a discussion on religion.”

The other three board members did not return telephone messages left at their homes or offices or were unable to schedule interviews in time for this story.

Education Commissioner Eric Smith said it would be inappropriate for him to comment until the standards are finalized.

Many supporters say the standards are compatible with their religious beliefs, including Joe Wolf, a Presbyterian deacon from Winter Haven who also serves as president of Florida Citizens for Science.

“What we really support is the teaching of strong science,” Wolf said. “Part of that has to be the teaching of evolution. Evolution is the foundation of biology.”

The standards are being updated on a 10-year cycle that in the future will go to six years, but advocates say changes also are desperately needed to improve Florida’s poor performance in science and prepare students to compete on a global level.

The Fordham Institute in 2005 gave the current standards an F, saying they are “sorely lacking in content.” Florida students also score below the national average on college entrance tests, and the gap has widened in recent years.

The present standards have been criticized for being “a mile wide and an inch deep,” covering too many topics for students to fully understand them, education officials say. The new ones would be narrower but deeper.

The writing committee might make changes after reviewing public comments. Dec. 14 is the deadline for submissions to the web site.

There was little dissent on evolution in the committees except for framer Fred Cutting, an aerospace engineer from Clearwater.

“Students should learn why some scientists give scientific critiques of standard models of neo-Darwinian evolution,” he wrote in a letter to both committees.

Cutting has attended intelligent design meetings but said he’s “not coming at this from a religious point of view.”

The new Florida standards are based on those in other states and nations considered leaders in teaching science.

“We’re not talking about crazy, wacky stuff,” said Sherry Southerland, associate professor of science education at Florida State University. “This is the fundamental science the rest of the world learns.”

The science standards review web site keeps the identity of people making comments secret so they will not feel intimidated, said Mary Jane Tappen, the state education department’s math and science director.

Few seem to have held anything back. A couple of opponents characterized the standards as “communistic” or the work of “liberal wackos.” One supporter, though, urged that the state not “bow to the demands of these religious fanatics.” Some suggested evolution be taught but continue to be called something else to avoid controversy.

Southerland, who served on the framing and writing committees, was dismayed evolution has overshadowed other parts of the standards she says are more important, but Tappen said the debate had been positive.

“It’s a good thing that so many people are concerned about science,” Tappen said. “At least we have their interest—and they know we have new standards.”

Links:

Texas Education Agency

Texas Board of Education

Open Letter to Texas Education Commissioner Robert Scott

Florida Department of Education

Public Review and Comments on Proposed Revisions to Science Sunshine State Standards

Florida Citizens for Science

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Sensors in space transform research

In a computer lab at the University of Alabama, Birmingham (UAB), anthropology professor Sarah Parcak scours satellite images for hidden Egyptian archaeological sites half a world away.

With the help of new technology that is revolutionizing research in such fields as archaeology, public health, and social science, Parcak and her collaborators are hoping to map the sites and explore them before urbanization and development destroy them.

In UAB’s new $150,000 lab, equipped with 10 computer workstations running a series of geographic information system and remote sensing programs, Parcak can travel the world, zooming in close enough to note the outlines of forgotten settlements, some buried beneath modern cities.

She has identified more than 100 previously unknown ancient sites, including a lost temple buried beneath agricultural fields, a major town in the East Nile Delta dating to the time of the pyramids, a large monastery from 400 A.D. in Middle Egypt, and a massive, largely buried city beneath a field on the East Delta dating to 600 B.C.

The far-ranging investigation uses eyes in the sky that can read not only visible light reflected from the earth, but other forms of reflected radiation, such as infrared and microwaves.

That view from the sky is matched up with on-the-ground investigations: traditional earth-digging archaeology in which spotted sites are excavated, dated, and mapped using GPS technology.

“This technology is changing the way we do archaeology,” said Parcak, who travels to Egypt two or three times a year working with her husband, Greg Mumford, who also teaches anthropology at UAB.

“The field of remote archaeology has advanced quite rapidly with the introduction of high-resolution satellite images,” she added.

Although the technology Parcak uses is much more advanced, she compares its use of high-resolution satellite images to Google Earth’s.

The satellites use infrared technology to “see” beneath modern towns and settlements.

“By manipulating the data on a variety of computer screens, you can make things appear that you wouldn’t see with your naked eye,” she said.

Parcak said she tested the technology on a modern settlement that she knew had an archaeological site underneath, to test its effectiveness. While the technology has a more difficult time seeing beneath the ground in very cultivated areas, it works very well in the desert, she said.

Parcak–whose work is the subject of a Discovery Channel special that will air later this school year–has been working with the technology for about six years.

The idea for the lab came out of Parcak’s undergraduate coursework at Yale, where she used similar technology and approaches. It got traction when she hired on at UAB and talked to her former dean, Tennant McWilliams, about the concept. McWilliams and Parcak formed a partnership with Max Michael, the dean of UAB’s School of Public Health, to sponsor the Laboratory for Global Health Observation.

Public Health was interested in the power of satellite imagery for applications to modern-day disease, and Parcak is advising researchers there as they put the imagery to work.

With the satellite imagery, researchers can chart temperature variations to spot breeding grounds for malaria-carrying mosquitoes in East Africa.

Looking for particular chemical signatures in the imagery, they can detect pollutants in the soil and water in Sri Lanka.

Cases of West Nile virus can be mapped, and researchers can investigate their proximity to tire dumps, which seem to be a favorite breeding ground for the mosquito that carries the virus. Health disparities and disease outbreaks can be mapped, monitored, and better understood.

“It’s such a cool idea,” Michael said. “To me, the fun part of this is when you start making the connection between the technologies, the ideas just start coming. It was the best of the collaborative interactive spirit at UAB.”

Parcak’s research interest is not in the revered and well-studied monuments, such as the great temples of Giza or the Temple of Luxor.

“We’ve got a pretty good idea of how the upper 1 percent lived,” she said. Instead, she wants to know how and where the common folks lived.

Despite all the archaeological attention Egypt has received at the well-known sites, Parcak estimates that only 0.01 percent of the archaeological sites have been identified and studied for a civilization that spanned 6,000 years and covered a land mass of 387,000 square miles.

Parcak’s work has been focused on the flat flood plain of the Nile. That landscape is dotted with sandy mounds atop which people settled.

“Any time you see a significant change in elevation, you are going to find an archaeological site,” she said.

The satellite imagery is helping create a better understanding about how the Mediterranean coastline and the course of the Nile have changed through time and how settlements shifted accordingly.

Soils from ancient settlements are detectable because they have a higher organic content, which tends to retain more water. “Archaeological soils are chemically different than other soils,” Parcak said.

Besides her research, Parcak is teaching an intensive introductory class on the use of satellite remote sensing. Students are learning how satellites can be used in health as well as social science research.

According to Parcak, UAB’s investment in the remote sensing lab is paying off. Currently, the lab’s various research endeavors have produced grant applications that could bring in $1.7 million in external support.

Link:

University of Alabama at Birmingham

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