Monday, December 15, 2008

In light of Sunday’s Houston Chronicle article about Houston Independent School District (HISD) magnet programs that suggested that support for magnet programs waning both locally and nationally, I would like to stress how important it is that support our magnet programs because they represent the some of the best schools in our city and provide school choice without funding private schools and igniting divisive church/state issues. HISD Superintendent Dr. Saavedra‘s statement that “only 27% of magnet students transfer to schools with higher academic ratings than their neighborhood schools” is either wrong or perhaps reflects that so few HISD schools have high academic ratings. In 2008, no zoned high schools received TEA exemplary status, however, there were 5 magnet high schools that received this highest academic rating. All 5 of these exemplary high schools were magnet schools with their own campuses. Every student at these 5 schools, Carnegie Vanguard, DeBakey High School for the Health Professions, East Early College, Eastwood Academy, and the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts (HSPVA) transferred from a zoned school with a lower academic rating since no locally zoned high schools in HISD are exemplary.

Any student in Houston can apply to these 5 outstanding high schools since they are not restricted by the geographical boundaries that have lead to such high disparities in our American educational system. Admission criteria vary amongst the schools and they are not all about test scores (for example there is no academic requirement for HSPVA). These schools represent the economic, racial, and ethnic diversity that make Houston such a dynamic city. These schools belong to every person in our school district and, as such, should be supported by all HISD board members. A serious effort should be made to inform families, especially those with limited resources, that their children can attend these schools.
HISD needs to invest in programs that work. Rather than encouraging students to attend their local schools, why not replicate or expand these successful programs? Large locally zoned schools that do not require any commitment from the students and their parents, other than showing up on the first day of school is a school model has resulted in high dropout rates and a huge achievement gap between wealthy and poor students. In a time when Houston’s population is growing faster than any other city in the nation, HISD’s enrollment is shrinking. Perhaps the magnet schools can serve as a mechanism to attract and retain students in our school district.

I have been very impressed with the quality of education that my children have received through the HISD magnet programs. My daughter is a senior at HSPVA and my son is a sophomore at Carnegie Vanguard. I want all Houston students to have the same educational experience my children have had and attend schools where the teachers are master in their subjects, where the curriculum is stimulating and engaging, and where the students and their parents all feel honored be part of educational excellence. It is time for a renewed investment in the 30 year old magnet program. Otherwise, HISD’s enrollment and quality will continue to decline as the most motivated students, most educated families and the most gifted teachers will continue to leave the district. This continued erosion in of one of the largest school districts in our country will result in greater inequities in our society.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Identifying what matters

I attended a Houston Independent School District (HISD) board meeting last night to hear if they had decided to build a new facility for my son's school. However, all of this debate over buildings just drives home the fact that facilities do not enhance learning. The chart shown on the right illustrates the importance of different variables in determining student achievement. This graph is from Dr. John Hattie's analysis of the New Zealand school system (see shows that a student’s own ability (for example as measured by an IQ test) is the factor that correlates strongest to high student achievement – not a very surprising result. However, the next important factor is the teacher, not school, principal, home, or peers. Teachers make the critical difference in student learning, therefore we need to ensure that all children are taught by effective teachers. We need to invest in high quality teacher professional development and create a system where teaching is a well paid, highly honored profession.

The highest paid jobs in HISD are not in the classroom, but rather in administration. The HISD superintendent’s salary as of July 2008, was $442,556. An article in the Houston Chronicle just announced that the new head of HISD’s human resources (named Department of Human Talent) will receive a salary of $145,000 (she was a teacher for 4 years). The highest pay grade in HISD is for a 12 month teacher with a PhD and 27+ years of experience is $86,000 It is not clear how many, if any, of the 12,000 teachers in HISD have a 12 month appointment and that level of experience.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Out of field teaching in High Poverty Schools

The disparity among the quality of our schools is heartbreaking. Some of this is a result of complex socioeconomic issues. However, teachers cannot teach what they do not know, and therefore, poorer American students are receiving instruction from teachers who are less effective teachers.

The Education Trust just released a report that analyzed prevalence of out of field teaching in US middle and high school classes based on the most recent US department of Education School and Staffing survey data (2003-2004). Out of field teachers were defined as teacher’s lacking certification or an academic major in the subject they are teaching. Not surprisingly, out of field teaching was much more common in high poverty schools , i.e. schools where 75% of students receiving reduced or free lunch. Twenty-seven percent of the core courses in these high poverty schools are taught by out of field teachers while that rate is fourteen percent in low poverty schools (15% or fewer students receiving free lunch). Mathematics is particularly problematic with 41% of math courses in high poverty schools being taught by teachers without state certification or an academic major in math or a math related subject like engineering, physics or math education.

American schools are not broken, just fractured. While there are many factors that lead to the relatively low ranking of American students in most international comparisons (e.g. in mathematics the US ranked 24th of 29 countries that participated in the 2006 Programme for International Student Assessment), it is clear that American students from our wealthiest schools are quite competitive as indicated by their high achievements at the university level. We need to provide economic incentives for the best teachers to take on the challenges of our inner city schools and we need to provide teachers who may lack content knowledge with the opportunity to gain content knowledge in the subjects that they are teaching. Recruitment bonuses for teachers at underresourced schools and high quality teacher professional development courses can help mend this fractured system.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

How do we teach chemistry so that it is real and relevant?

A few weeks ago I went to an innercity high school to observe a teacher that had been a participant in our professional development classes. This teacher is outstanding and was doing her best to engage 16 year old, economically disadvantaged students in her lecture on the structure of the atom. She used inquiry based methods, including “what do you know, what do you want to know, and what have you learned” prompts before, during, and at the end of class. She also used fun, exploratory techniques like modeling the Rutherford Gold Foil Experiment using a bowling ball as a model of the nucleus and having students throw tennis balls (see image). The students were enthusiastic and seemed to be learning about atomic structure – that atom is mostly empty space, that most of the mass is in the nucleus, protons are positive, etc.
She then lead the students through an introduction to electron orbital theory, which was less exciting but still very well taught.

At the end of what was an inspiring chemistry class, the teacher asked if there were any questions. One girl raised her hand and asked “Are there atoms inside me?”

How can a student who has taken a semester of 11th grade chemistry, a 10th grade in biology course, and 9th grade integrated physics and chemistry course, not understand that everything, including our bodies, is composed of atoms? How can we have this huge disconnect between what kids memorize for tests and what they really comprehend about science and our world?

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Our Self Assembled Universe

Often, after a presentation about the exiting developments in nanotechnology, a common question I am asked is "How are things made at the nanoscale?"

This is an insightful question because the person asking it has understood that at the nanoscale, where are working with molecules that are 80,000 times smaller than the diameter of a human hair, the idea of moving and attaching one molecule to another would be a tedious if not impossible task.

Other, more specific questions are:
"Are there nanomachines that build these nanomaterials?"
"How do we position the 60 carbons in a buckyball to get that soccer ball shape?"
"How long does this process take?"

The rather simple answer to these questions is that under certain conditions many molecules just self assemble - they make themselves. This process of self assembly is very fast and is analogous to molecules sticking together. Rather than forming covalent bonds, self assembly exploits weaker bonds (like hydrogen bonding) but because there are many many bonds, these self assembled structures can be very strong. Examples of naturally occurring self assembled structures include the collagen that makes up our bones and hair, DNA that codes our genes, and proteins - the stuff that makes us alive.

Self assembly happens at a very fast pace, at the speed of an electron, and millions of molecules can attach in very specific fashions using simple rules. Yet the result can be very intricate structures (like snowflakes) and new materials like buckyballs. To make buckyballs, we just have to blast carbon monoxide or another carbon source into a furnace that is at the right temperature and pressure for the carbons to take on its soccer ball shape because carbon is obeying some simple thermodynamic rules to minimize its energy. As nanotechnologists, our job is to understand what these rules are and try to create the environmental conditions that will promote nature's ability to build itself. We live in a self assembled universe.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

"My mother measures stuff when she makes a cake. How do you measure the atoms and molecules when you make a nanoproduct? Do you follow a recipe?"

This was a question poised to me by Science Weekly for an issue on Nanotechnology. I was thinking about it yesterday as I watched a CBS film crew record a synthesis procedure for Nanorust in our university cafeteria. Nanorust is a technology that may be used to clean water because the nanometer-sized iron oxide particles bind to toxins like arsenic and then can be removed with a low powered magnetic. The procedure to make nanorust was modified from a traditional laboratory protocol to a kitchen cooktop method by substituting household products like olive oil and measuring cups for the chemicals and tools were normally order specifically for the laboratory. The goal of this Nanorust project is to freely provide the recipe to individuals or companies in developing nations so that they can use this nanotechnology to solve one of the most important global challenges: clean water. And yes, it is a recipe. The difference between kitchen chemistry and laboratory chemistry is often just the language we use (a chemist might say “now we add the water soluble fatty acids” while a cook might just say “I need some soap”) and the tools that we use (a chemist might use a transmission electron microscope to look at their products while a cook might just use their eyes, nose and yes, tongues).
Here is the Nanorust protocol
Olive oil and rust for magnetite nanocrystals
Cafer T. Yavuz
A. Soap making Process

1. In a crystallization dish or a similar container, weigh 100 g. of the liquid oil (if not liquid gently melt it and keep as melted).
2. In a 50 mL vial (or a cup) weigh 15 g. of crystal drain opener (or caustic soda, or sodium hydroxide, or potash).
3. Add 30 mL of tap water and shake (or stir) until all solid is dissolved (CAUTION: solution gets hot!). While still warm pour it into the liquid oil.
4. Stir with a spoon (or a magnetic stirbar) for about 15 minutes (or until tracing occurs – tracing is the visible tracks of stirring).
5. Let it sit open to air in a hood (or ventilated area) to dry and cure for couple days (or a week).

B. Oleic acid from soap with commercial vinegar

1. Weigh the dried soap (i.e. 60 g.)
2. Check the vinegar’s acidity (i.e. 9%)
3. Use 1 mL of acid for every gram of soap (i.e. 60 mL of acid, 650 mL of commercial vinegar with 9% acidity)
4. combine them in an erlen (or a big glass/steel jar)
5. Heat and stir them until all the chunks are dissolved (it may boil – takes about 15-30 minutes)
6. Turn off the heating and cool the solution down. You should see the two layers separating from each other.
7. Separate the top yellowish layer by a separatory funnel (or a spoon, syringe, anything that works) into a clean glass/steel jar.
8. Heat and boil the yellowish cloudy solution until it clears
9. Cool down and store as Fatty Acid Mixture (FAM)

C. Magnetite nanocrystals from rust and fatty acids

1. Collect the rust by shaving off of the rusted tools.
2. Grind the rust into fine powder.
3. Mix 1 grams of rust with 20 grams of fatty acid mixture in a glass or steel container (erlen or pan) and provide stirring.
4. Cover the top of the container with a loose cap for proper ventilation (reaction smokes and steams). This method produces 50-90 nm nanocrystals but if you want to make them smaller (~15-20 nm) you have to use a steam/pressure cooker instead.
5. Start heating and timing. It should be cooked at around 2 hours (or less) until complete/dark black solution with little or no smoking.

D. Transferring oily magnetite nanocrystals into water

1. Grind 10 grams soap (made above) into a 100 mL of water
2. Boil the mixture to dissolve while vigorously stirring (takes about 20-30 minutes)
3. Filter off the undissolved soap
4. Take a spoonful (3-5 grams) of black waxy mixture into 40 mL of the soap-water solution
5. Stir and boil the mixture for 30 minutes (add more water if significant loss of water observed)
6. Filter the solution to get rid of unreacted magnetite
7. Magnetically separate the nanocrystals (time varies: smaller crystals need overnight or couple days, larger ones need couple hours)
8. Once on the magnet gently swirl some water on the crystals to clean them
9. Redissolve in water (or ethanol, etc.)

Sunday, November 16, 2008

What is this nanoed blog about?

On this blog, I hope to post answers to questions that I am frequently asked about nanoscience and engineering and share some the research findings on nanotechnology. I will also discuss science education in general - some of the problems and potential solutions as well as interesting articles and science activities that I come across.

For example,Sir Harry Kroto, who won the Nobel Prize in 1996 with Dr. Rick Smalley and Dr. Robert Curl, has a great video where he discusses the discovery at