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High Price of Forgetting our Past

Posted: July 2nd, 2018, by Marina Milner-Bolotin

Canada Day Parade on Granville Island.

Yesterday we celebrated the 151st birthday of Canada. OK, maybe not everybody, but I certainly did. In my personal or professional life, I do not feel as an immigrant to Canada, because I have been a part of Canada and Canada has been a part of me since the first moment I stepped onto the Canadian soil. For us, it was June 1st, 2004. In Canada, I started working right away and never felt that I was any different from the people who surrounded me – I raised my children, worked, volunteered, paid taxes, got involved in the community, made friends, built a home, became friends with amazing people, co-authored a physics textbook used by thousands of Canadian undergraduates, learned to use eh… and felt that Canada was my country. I especially felt proud in June of 2010 when we became Canadian citizens. This was a very big deal for us as we felt grateful to Canada for welcoming us and allowing us to become a part of the family. This was a moment we have been waiting for a long time. Having an opportunity to choose Canada as a place where I wanted to live and raise my family, I have always appreciated this country and looked at it as a place that was created by millions of brave men and women before me. I appreciate the freedom, the democracy, beauty and the history of this amazing land. I appreciate that I could express my political views, agree or disagree with colleagues, and neighbours, and not being afraid to be put in prison or losing my job for being out of line with the “correct, approved by the government, views” (like it is in many countries today where thousands of Canadian immigrants come from). I appreciate that I can vote, apply for any job I wish and not being afraid that my application would be rejected because I am Jewish, a woman, or an immigrant. I appreciate that I am not afraid to walk alone at night on Vancouver’s streets. I appreciate having neighbours who came from all over the world and getting to know the Canadians who were born and raised here. I especially value the peace in Canada, that the only kites I see in the sky are the kites of children enjoying the beautiful Vancouver summer and not of the terrorists trying to burn your land down. I appreciate that my kids do not need to risk their lives and serve in the army to protect their country from the people who want to eliminate it from the face of the Earth.

Yes, Canada (as any other country in the word) has its fair share of problems,including the times when the Canadian government didn’t allow Jewish refugees escaping concentration camps in Europe to come here. And we now love to criticize it, but not to celebrate what the Canadian people, natives, and the immigrants from all over the world, have accomplished in the short 151 years of our history is just alarming. We can all apologize for our wrongs, but not to celebrate our achievements is also a big mistake. And that mistake will have a very high price for the future of our country.

Yesterday, on July 1st (Canada Day), I got an email from a graduate student who asked me to read her work. She didn’t even mention the event or said Happy Canada Day. Canada Day was practically unnoticed by many of my other students, many of whom are Canadians and all of whom are, or will be, science and mathematics teachers. This makes me wonder. I have lived in other countries, Israel, USA, USSR, and in each one of them people felt proud of their history and of their country. They read the literature written by their compatriots, listened to the music, appreciated scientific achievements, appreciated the nature and knew the past of their people, and of course remembered the people who fought for their country. The role of the education system in raising people for whom patriotism is a meaningful concept cannot be overemphasized. Patriotism is the love for your homeland and it can be the country where you were born or where you live. You can have an adopted homeland (as I do), but you have to have a homeland. To me, it is the same as loving your family. I sometimes disagree with my parents, but I love them and appreciate what they have done for me. To me Canada is a homeland and I feel patriotic about it. I love this place even though I sometimes disagree with the political decisions made by its leaders, but this is why I go and vote in elections.

Unfortunately, many young people today (and some of them will become teachers) do not know and care much about the people who have contributed to the history of Canada. They are often indoctrinated with the sense of guilt for Canada’s past without any sense of accomplishments. This is a very unbalanced and dangerous approach. While in our history, there are dark moments, and some of them put our history in a negative light, we have to realize that we cannot judge the past using the current norms. Today many of us get a “hindsight 20/20 decease” and keep apologizing for everything that our ancestors have done wrong. This is how I felt 30 years ago in the former USSR, when as an 18-year old I blamed my grandparents, who lived through the pogroms, fought in the Great Patriotic War (WWII for the Westerners), lived through the depression and famine, and through endless prosecution of Jews,  for not resisting enough to communism or not doing more for ending the regime or even escaping it. I should not have judged their actions without having lived then and doing something myself. Then, as a young inexperienced “girl-woman”, I didn’t appreciate the times they lived in and had little understanding of the treacherous history of the country I happened to be born in. It took years of reading and studying history to realize the horrors of communism, the dictatorial regime and the consequences of the lack of the freedom of speech and freedom of thinking. Silencing the voices of “others” who you disagree with and not knowing history is a very volatile combination. I am very worried that this is happening in Canada today.

However, with all that, I did grow up to have an appreciation for the wealth and richness of the Russian science, engineering, music, art, language, and literature. These were the achievements of the people who came before me and I knew about them because I studied the history of the place I came from. I cared. With all the difficulty of finding the sources that were not influenced by politics in the Soviet Union, we were thirsty for them. We read Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago, as well as the works by Russian Classics such as Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and many others. And this was before the internet. We had to dig for this information. Unlike today, it was not openly available. While it is all available for free nowadays, why many of our students do not care to get informed?

While one can be against the current regime, appreciation of the history of your country and your people is very important. Of course, you can take it as an extreme and say that in the Soviet Union it was a communist propaganda (which it was) or Israeli patriotism is also a response to a continuing threat from its neighbours and thousands of years of exile, but it is not entirely true. I would like to ask: Why knowing and respecting the history of your own country and of the contributions of the many generations of people who came before you is not a good thing?

During the Canada Day parade on Granville Island, I saw many people representing different countries and cultures where Canadian immigrants came from – China, Japan, Latin American countries, and many others. However, I didn’t see much about the history of Canada itself (one Canada Post truck), about the poor immigrants of Europe who came to Canada and in 1867 founded the confederation. I also didn’t see much about thousands of Chinese immigrants who came here to build the railroads and who have been treated in the most inhumane way. This is also Canadian history. I didn’t see any mentioning of the achievement of Canadian scientists, engineers, astronauts, musicians, artists, writers, politicians, etc. Don’t we owe anything to them? Should they be remembered, or are we throwing away the history of our country in favor of multiculturalism? What are the consequences of not knowing and not appreciating the history of your own country? And this is happening at the times of an unprecedented access to information. There is no excuse for not reading and learning the history of your own country.

My Canada Day experiences made me reflect on the writing of our introductory university physics textbook. In it, we made a decision to include the scientific accomplishments of our compatriots. We wanted students to know that Canada has a story of contribution in science and technology and they can become a part of this story. We wrote about TRIUMF, about the harnessing of the power of water at Niagara Falls, about the Canadian Light Sourcethe Perimeter Institute, about many Canadian Nobel Prize winners, such as a UBC Professor Dr. Michael Smith, about Roberta Bondar and other Canadian astronauts, about the Signal Hill, the Bay of Fundy, and many other special places and people in Canada reflecting the scientific achievements of our compatriots and the beauty of our country. I think we have a lot to be proud of and it is important that our young generation knows about it.

The value of knowing where you come from also lies in the responsibility that it puts upon you. If you value the history of your country, you feel responsibility for contributing to it, for keeping the tradition, for leaving the country in a better place than you found it, for representing it with respect when you travel abroad or when you have guests over. I love my country and I am proud of its achievements. I appreciate them even more as some people who were born here, this is what it means to be an immigrant to Canada. I came to this country and my responsibility is to make it even better.

I think before one can be open to the world and other cultures, one needs to learn the history of their own country and the many contributions of the people who came before us and made our life here possible. I think it is our responsibility as educators to share it with our students. I know that I will be spending more time on learning about Canada and its history and helping my student-teachers to appreciate the country they will be teaching in. I think if you want to help the next generation to create a better future, we need to learn from the past. And I have a strong feeling that we often keep forgetting about it. And this amnesia will have a high price for our country. Happy Canada Day!

Another Year of Teacher Education Program

Posted: June 19th, 2018, by Marina Milner-Bolotin

An old school room at R. J. Haney Heritage Village and Museum in Salmon Arm, BC

A few days ago my husband and I happen to visit a very interesting place – an old school room at a museum in a small town of Salmon Arm in British Columbia –  R. J. Haney Heritage Village and Museum in Salmon Arm, BC  ( When walking around this classroom I tried to imagine how the children learned in those days and what the teacher’s life would have been. Many things I found we often consider innovative today – such as lots of blackboard space for group work, individual slates for doing activities by the desk and then showing the work to the teacher by raising the slate (think of clickers), books and resources for the students, many opportunities to share the work with other students, etc. I also found things that are slowly disappearing from our lives – writing in cursive, writing (with a fountain pan), using books and spellcheckers. This was an interesting experience. And it brought me back to how we educate future teachers.

This year I had an opportunity to teach 4 courses in our Mathematics and Science Teacher Education Program. As a result, I have spent a lot of time with our mathematics and science teacher-candidates and got to know many of them pretty well. So as we are coming to the end of my Inquiry III course, it is my final opportunity to interact with them as teacher-candidates, before they become my colleagues. It is very exciting! Here are some of my teacher-candidates blogs. They allowed me to share the blogs with them:

Karen’s blog

Erika’s blog

Joyce’s blog

Ashley’s blog

Billy’s blog

Murugan’s blog

It is a special opportunity for me to wish all the best to my students (mathematics and science teacher-candidates) who worked so hard to complete our teacher education program. I hope that they will become the teachers who will inspire their students and who will make a difference in students’ lives.

Is Technology a Universal Equalizer?

Posted: June 13th, 2018, by Marina Milner-Bolotin

As my research focuses on how technology can be used to engage students in meaningful mathematics and science learning, I continuously think about the educational (and societal) impact of modern technology. I also keep asking myself a simple question: why despite such a proliferation of novel and often free digital tools for education, we still face huge issues with learning mathematics, science, languages, and just having an educated population. While the words “critical thinking” will appear in many modern educational documents, I am not sure we are succeeding at helping our students become critical thinkers. Where are the educational breakthroughs promised to us by many educators who saw technology as a universal equalizer and the tool that will change everything? Why haven’t things improved or why haven’t they improved as much as we would have wished? I keep asking myself these questions and reflecting on my own learning, as well as on the experiences of my teacher-candidates who are soon going to become secondary mathematics and science teachers.

I love learning… and I love learning with technology (I think this is something my parents taught me and it is still there). I also try to learn new things outside of mathematics and science. Thus, in recent years, I became very interested in how technology can support us in learning new languages. A few years ago, my son challenged me to explore Duolingo, which I did. As I have been using Duolingo for more than 3 years, and I can now reflect on my own experiences with this tool (I have been trying to study a number of languages there and have completed two big courses and are working on a few others). Duolingo successfully combines what we know about language learning, the power of technology (audio, video, etc.), effective gaming elements, a learning community, and large number of volunteers to support lunguage learning. While it is not sufficient to become fluent in a foreign language, it gives one a great start and a connects us with the people who want to learn as well (a motivational element). To me, Duolingo was a big motivator for keeping up with the language.

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And now I am using other tools as well, such as Yabla, to help me make one additional step via watching online movies in foreign languages, and learning new things while also learning new languages. This is something one couldn’t have done if not for this new technology.

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I cannot make sweeping generalizations, but I think technology is not going to be a universal equalizer unless we educate students who want to learn. Otherwise, I have a feeling that technology is only going to increase the gap between the people. I would say it will increase the gap between the people who want to learn and who don’t.

Having a computer at your disposal doesn’t mean you will use it for learning. It has never been easier than today to entertain yourself to death (paraphrasing Neil Postman) and not to learn anything. Yes, we have amazing tools at our disposal, but what if one doesn’t want to learn, these tools will mean nothing? I see it over and over again in my own interactions with the students both at university and at K-12 levels. While the information is widely available and the tools for learning are available as well, many people are just not interested… Many of us just do not care… Learning online or not, requires an investment of energy and thinking power… It also requires patience and perseverance. Yes, there are many amazing tools to learn languages, mathematics, science or many other fields, but one needs to be motivated to learn them…

Maybe this is something we, as educators, have to try to do – to help kindle this thirst for learning in our students. Maybe we should show how we use technology to improve our vocabulary, to learn new things, to make sure we understand the ideas and not only gloss over them superficially. Maybe we should show the way to our students. I know that is what I experienced with my own parents. If not for them, I would not have been motivated to keep learning. If we don’t show our students with our own example that learning is important, this unprecedented wealth of modern educational tools will make little difference in helping educate the next generation of our children… So the availability of tools is important, but the desire to learn is what will make a difference in the 21st century. And teachers are to play a key role in inspiring our students to learn with technology…

Math & Science Teachers as Learners

Posted: June 8th, 2018, by Marina Milner-Bolotin

This summer I was asked to teach an Inquiry course in our STEM Teacher Education Program. The course is the last inquiry course that teacher-candidates take after they have completed their school practicum. As a result, they come to this course with much richer and more interesting experiences as compared to their previous, pre-practicum courses.

As part of this Inquiry course I decided to show teacher-candidates how an inquiry into a mathematics concept can span the subject borders and help us a much deeper understanding of the natural world. To do that I decided to explore the concept of logarithms and its applications into physics (decibels (dB)), chemistry (pH levels), earth science (Richter scale). The concept of logarithms has a very interesting history and numerous applications to everyday life – from the slide rules, to the understanding of natural phenomena that have a very vast dynamic range (change from super small to super big). I also have to say that I am a little biased towards logs as I still remember how my father taught me to use a slide rule (it is called a Logarithmic Rule in Russian). I even have a slide rule in my office. I am convinced that the inquiry into the history of the development of this mathematical concepts has a huge potential for mathematics and science educators. I also think that we should have a course on the history of ideas in mathematics and science to become a part of the Teacher Education Program.

In my Inquiry course, teacher-candidates also wrote (created) lesson plays where they imagined possible discussions teachers might facilitate in the classrooms in this context. I hope that the topic of logs helped us to explore how to facilitate inquiry in a mathematics or science classroom and engage students in meaningful learning.


Zazkis, R., Liljedahl, P., & Sinclair, N. (2009). Lesson plays: Planning teaching versus teaching planning. For the Learning of Mathematics, 29(1), 39-46.

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You can have your cake and eat it too!

Posted: May 26th, 2018, by Marina Milner-Bolotin

English is obviously not my first language, so I pay extra attention to proverbs and special expressions. English has many of them and the more fluent you are, the more comfortable you feel when you hear or use them. One of them is “you can’t have your cake and eat it too“, which means you cannot have two incompatible things. You have to choose either one or another.

However, sometimes, you do not need to choose. For example, you can do mental exercises for your brain and have lots of fun at the same time. In other words, you do not need to choose – fun or exercise… Let me explain. Let us say you are learning physics, languages, or you are learning to play a harp (as my friend Amanda is successfully doing) and you love it. You are having fun while doing it and it is clear you are thinking about doing it – so you are activating your brain. Doing these things is clearly a mental exercise… And now, scientists have found that you are also activating different parts of the brain while doing it. In other words, these activities help you exercise your brain while having fun. As a physics teacher, I am not naive to think that only physics activates your brain. But I do think that different activities activate different parts of our brain. So we cannot limit ourselves to one type of activity – be it physics, learning French or practicing to play a harp.

So, we have to remember that we have to activate different parts of our brains… And not surprisingly, this is something important for teachers to remember and to remind their students… If we only focus on one thing, we might become very good at it, but we might want to try other things as well… We will never know if we do not try.

Inquiry III course at UBC Teacher Education

Posted: May 24th, 2018, by Marina Milner-Bolotin

I am teaching a summer Inquiry course for future mathematics and science teachers. As I was planning this course I decided to make it as exciting and relevant for the teacher-candidates and for myself as I could. So every meeting I try to share some interesting teaching ideas with them and to learn from them as much as I can. Moreover, I try to share teaching ideas that cross traditional boundaries of subjects and cultures. For example, today we discussed Pythagoras’s cup. If you do not know what it is, take a look at this amazing video:

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I didn’t realize how many fantastic ideas you can bring together while talking about it. For example, a few students mentioned the idea of aquaponics, which I didn’t know about:

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For mathematics and science teachers to bring ideas together and to connect them to the everyday life is very important. This all would not have happened if my teacher-candidates didn’t want to participate. But luckily they do!

UBC mathematics and science teacher-candidates from Inquiry III course.

I have to say that the success of any course depends on the students as much as it depends on the teacher. I am lucky with the students who signed up for my course. Today as we walked around UBC and explored our beautiful campus, I was thinking that the next year these young people will inspire the next generation of students.

I hope the rest four weeks of the Inquiry III course will be as exciting as the first two.

40th UBC Physics Olympics

Posted: March 11th, 2018, by Marina Milner-Bolotin


We held our 40th UBC Physics Olympics today: . It was an extraordinary event. We had 6 very successful heats that the students were very excited about. We also had a record number of teams and students: 73 teams and 721 students. We had teams from all over BC and we had teams with more than 30 students.

In addition, I facilitated a professional development event for teachers that was attended by 35 teachers! We had two very successful BC teachers present their ideas: Mrs. Giselle Lawrence and Mr. Pouyan Khalili. Our event focused on new British Columbia science curriculum and on different ways of facilitating inquiry in a science classroom. The enthusiasm and excitement were in the air for the entire day – from 8 am till almost 6 pm.

Finally, we had a number of special guests – the journalists from the local newspapers, as well as the Dean of Science and the Head of the Department of Physics and Astronomy. It was a big celebration of four decades of collaboration between the Departments of Physics and Astronomy (Faculty of Science) and the Department of Curriculum and Pedagogy (Faculty of Education) that successfully engages students and teachers in physics. I am looking forward to the next 40 years!

FYI, here is a brief numeric overview of the 2018 event:

Infinity – The number of laughs and the level of excitement

1352 km – The distance from Terrace to Vancouver (the most remote school attending the event)

722 – Number of students attending the 40th UBC Physics Olympics

365 – Number of days we spent planning the event since the last year

108 – Number of medals awarded to top teams

82 – Number of team leaders (teachers and coaches) supporting the students

73 – Number of teams in attendance

71 – Number of volunteers supporting the event (faculty, graduate and undergraduate students)

40 – Number of UBC Physics Olympics we have organized so far

39 – The size of the largest team in attendance

35 – Number of physics teachers who participated in the Professional Development event

10 – Number of times Penticton Secondary School has won the overall event since 1977

6 – Number of heats (independent events during the day)

6 – Number of plaques awarded to the schools

2 – Number of pre-build events the students had prepared at home

2 – Number of large auditoriums we had to use to seat all the participants, coaches and volunteers for the final event.

1 – Number of Officers of the Order of Canada who facilitated our events (Dr. J. Matthews)

1 – The overall Physics Olympics Trophy

The photos from the event can be found here.

Presenting at BCAPT Professional Development Day

Posted: February 28th, 2018, by Marina Milner-Bolotin

BCAPT Panel on different professional paths for science educators.

This winter I helped to organize a professional development day for BC physics educators. We gathered at Capilano University and spent a day discussing how we teach physics, how students learn physics, and how we can use technology to engage students with physics in a meaningful way. To learn more about the event visit BC Association of Physics Teachers web site.

Photos from the event can be seen here.

Presenting at Conferences: Death by PowerPoint

Posted: February 28th, 2018, by Marina Milner-Bolotin

I always thought that effective communication is crucial for promoting science education. And even though I have been an educator for almost quarter of a century now. I always feel that I can be a better communicator of science. This is the reason why for the last eight years I have been actively involved in the Toastmasters International organization. It helped me improve my public speaking skills and also support future science and mathematics educators in improving theirs. Today I was invited to present to UBC graduate students about how to present at conferences. I decided to talk about how to use PowerPoint and how not to abuse it.

Here is my presentation: PPTDeathEDCPGradStudentsFeb2018

Teachers and Teaching in the Era of Change

Posted: February 7th, 2018, by Marina Milner-Bolotin

Participants (not all) of the first Israeli-Canadian workshop: Teachers and Teaching in the Era of Change.

For the last year my colleagues (Dr. Dragana Martinovic from the University of Windsor and Dr. Yifat Ben David Kolikant from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem) and I have been working to make our dream a reality. We had a dream of organizing a workshop where scholars, graduate students, teachers, policy makers, and administrators from Canada and Israel can work together to discuss the issues that in our view are relevant today in STEM education. We also wanted to invite colleagues outside of the STEM field in order to enrich our prospective and to learn how other people view the issues. Thus we build many bridges examining the topic inside out.

Unlike big conferences, we wanted to have a workshop where we can truly collaborate, discuss, argue, ask questions and get to know each other. We also had two fantastic keynote speakers and wonderful discussants for the presented papers. I think it has just happened. From February 5-7 we (30+ people) attended our workshop. It was one of the most engaging events I have ever experienced.  I think it was a a great outcome of a long year of work and collaboration. We are so grateful to our sponsors and all the colleagues who attended. I am especially grateful to my sister – Dr. Svetlana Chachashvili-Bolotin who not only participated, but also has supported us in many ways. I am so lucky to have a sister who is an educator, an academic and a very close friend. Thank you all! For more, please see here.

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