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8th Family Mathematics and Science Day

Posted: November 4th, 2018, by Marina Milner-Bolotin

Visitors young and older were fascinated by demonstrations and experiments they participated in during the day! (Photo credit Marina Milner-Bolotin).

Prof. Valery Milner (Department of Physics and Astronomy) shows families how an infrared camera works. Photo credit: Paul Joseph/UBC Brand and Marketing.

 

For more photos click here.

On Saturday, November 3rd, 2018, we had an amazing 8th Family Math and Science Day. My Mathematics Education colleague Dr. Cynthia Nicol and founded the event in 2010 and it is going strong!Despite the weather, we had almost 400 guests, more than 130 volunteers and lots and lots of fun. This event is becoming a feature in our Faculty and our teacher-candidates are becoming very comfortable leading mathematics and science outreach events. In addition, the kids in the community are waiting for it. We had a few innovations this year: University Transition School students took part in the event and it was fantastic. We had a Virtual Reality exploration room. We had a lot of innovative stations created by teacher-candidates, faculty and staff. We know that our teacher-candidates will be using these ideas during the practicum.

This year we have been supported by the UBC Faculty of Education and Department of Curriculum and Pedagogy, UBC Teacher Education office and UBC Professional Development and Community Engagement Unit, David F. Robitaille Mathematics and Science Education Endowed Chair, Pacific Institute for the Mathematical Sciences, and UBC Department of Physics and Astronomy, UBC Faculty of Science. We are grateful to our sponsors.

And here is some feedback from the families who attended the event this year:

Dear Marina,

I would like to thank you for organizing such a great outreach program. I am a grade three student and I love math and science. I really enjoyed the UBC math and science program this year and last year as well. Next year, could you have it a little bit longer and maybe have it  two or three times a year? It was really good and I enjoyed it but it was too short! Thank you!

Sincerely, A.

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Dear Dr. Milner-Bolotin,

This event was fantastic! Well organized, amazing volunteers, and so many activities and experiments to explore. You brought Science world to UBC with the great advantage of eager volunteer students giving a personal, one on one experience for each child. Send your team a big thank you!

B., R., R. and N. K. 

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Hi Marina,

Just wanted to say how impressed I was with all the volunteers that you had manning the stations this year! They were so enthusiastic and knowledgeable! I was also amazed by the high school volunteers–they were able to interact with my young kids so well! Thank you for hosting this event every year–I’m sure it’s a HUGE amount of work! Our homeschooling community appreciates this and looks forward to it every year! 

Warmly, Y.

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Marina, Volunteers and Team,

A huge and sincere thanks to all of you for organizing yesterday’s event.  It was our first time and our family enjoyed all the hands on discoveries. My 6 3/4 year old son’s favourite was the circuit made with play dough and watching the led light come on. My 9 year old daughter like making the flowers and touching the alive and non alive animals.  They also like playing the math games. Thank you.

The A-D Family

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Hi Marina,

Thank you very much for today and all your efforts to arrange this event which I know how much time and work was needed to be done for all. This event is a unique and comprehensive strategy, which engage everybody from kindergarten to parents and adults. Everyone was enjoying, learning and engaging with science and math. 

Thank you and have a great weekend. 

S.

 More photos can be found here.

 

Feeling Proud of my Students!

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

These are BC physics teachers who are also my former or current students. This is so exciting to see them loving their profession and coming back to learn more. I am so proud of them!

Today I participated in BC Association of Physics Teachers Professional Development event. It was a very successful event and I wrote about it on the BCAPT web site. However, what made it especially memorable and special for me is that I had an opportunity to meet my former students who are now physics teachers in British Columbia and to introduce them to my current teacher-candidates. Knowing that I made a difference to physics teaching in BC by supporting the next generation of physics teachers is very exciting.

Interview with Anna Maria Tremonti from CBC’s The Current

Posted: October 3rd, 2018, by Marina Milner-Bolotin

Fall Welcome

Posted: September 21st, 2018, by Marina Milner-Bolotin

As we are celebrating the first day of the fall and are wondering what the winter has in store for us, I cannot think of a better science connection to the inevitable change of seasons than a very famous study by Philip SadlerA Private Universe. I use it in my undergraduate and graduate courses as it inspires us to see within us how we understand (or do misunderstand) the world and to appreciate how our students do that. It also teaches us to think about what we know and if to remember not to try to hide our ignorance by fancy words. I have watched this movie so many times, that some of it has been imprinted in my mind. For example, how the students have been taking so many advanced science and physics courses, and yet they cannot explain why we have seasons or why the phases of the moon happen. What troubles me more is that how professors or students at Harvard University instead of admitting that they don’t know, try to hide their ignorance by very vague and purposefully complex words. Is university education a way to teach students how to hide their ignorance? This brings me back to another very inspiration colleague – Dr. Eugenia Etkina. Many years ago I was invited to take her graduate course. There she taught us that we have to understand the concept first and only then to be invited to learn and use a word to describe it. I talk about it with my students today – ideas first, specialized words to describe these ideas – second…

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Happy Fall to everybody!

Beijing Science Festival

Posted: September 17th, 2018, by Marina Milner-Bolotin

During the last few days I was invited to take part in the Fifth Beijing Science Festival (BJSF) that took place at the Beijing Olympic Stadium. It was my first time to participate in such a big and so well organized event that aims at engaging children and the general population in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

The view of the Bird’s Nest and the Cube at the Beijing Olympic Stadium (by Marina Milner-Bolotin)

Today I flew back from Beijing and I had a moment to reflect on my very brief, overwhelming, but also very powerful experience. During my visit I was able to see and be a part of the science outreach event on a grand scale that I have never experienced before.

It is hard if not impossible to describe the magnitude of the BJSF without experiencing it. It is about 800 times bigger than our UBC Family Math and Science Day, it is free and open to anybody in Beijing or outside of it. So many families come to participate over the weekend – I saw parents, grandparents, entire families, as well as young couples who I suppose decided to have a date there. During the week, many school students came with their teachers. I could see groups of kids in uniforms running around and enjoying the day.

On Monday, many schools took their students to the Science Festival – these students are from the same school as they wear the school’s uniform.

In addition, many secondary students volunteered during the event and it looked like they enjoyed it as well. They also had an opportunity to speak a little English with us. Hundreds of companies, educational institutions, and governmental agencies took part in this event. The government of China allocates funds for inviting science educators from other countries (that is how we could come), so the exchange of ideas not only inside China, but also on the larger international level is a very big part of it.

As I mentioned earlier, it takes place at the Beijing Olympic Stadium, so the venue is huge, well known, and has many attractions in addition to the BJSF – museums, etc. The BJSF has about 250,000-300,000 visitors during the four days of the festival (this is about 1/3 of the population of Vancouver).

I represented UBC and Canada as every country was invited to have one booth of science activities to inspire young people. The booth of science experiments I brought with me was very popular and the organizers already invited me to come again next year. I think we are doing a very good job with the science outreach here, as the stream of visitors to my booth was always very high. Considering that this is the biggest science festival in China, it is very exciting to know that we were represented (together with the US, many European, Asian and African countries).

While I am a little bit overwhelmed and tired now, I am proud to be able to represent Canada and UBC and make us known for our science outreach. I also met many amazing STEM educators from all around the world. So I hope this will open new collaborative opportunities. All in all, it was a great opportunity and a big inspiration. I hope we will go there next year as well.

Science and curiosity allow you to communicate with people even if we do not speak each other’s language…

Teaching with Technology Interview on Breakfast TV

Posted: September 5th, 2018, by Marina Milner-Bolotin

Last week (the last week of August), I was asked to be interviewed on Vancouver Breakfast TV on the topic of technology use at university. It was a long interview, but they obviously had to cut it down to a few lines. Here it is:

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New Year and the Homework Battles

Posted: August 31st, 2018, by Marina Milner-Bolotin

As I am writing my last blog post this summer, I have noticed a number of new posts online on the “stop-homework-before-it-stops-us” movement. The movement, or at least the way I understood it, aims to abolish homework in our schools as it has very low value (if not a negative value) in the eyes of many parents and obviously students. In the view of the people behind this petition, the homework is boring, not-interesting and after all useless. The movement organizers cite a number of reasons why the culture of homework should be abolished, as you can see in their petition.

I am not going to argue about the strengths and weaknesses of the petition, as I think anybody who reads it carefully can see that the organizers probably didn’t have the time to do their homework in carefully checking the validity of their arguments. They also keep citing the same few papers not even paying attention to the research that produces the results they do not want to hear about. I also would say that they conflate three very different arguments: (a) we need to abolish homework because it is often useless, (b) teachers do not know how to assign meaningful homework that will be useful for the students; (c) students’ homework grades do not represent their ability to do well in the course.

In my previous post, I brought an example of a very different approach of an Israeli physics teacher – Dr. Ilya Mazin. It is of course not surprising that my views on education resonate much more with his approach to education. Notice how he assigns homework and what his students think about it:

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What I would like to talk about here is how the abolition of homework argument is going against what I have learned over this summer and what I am observing during the US Open Tennis 2018 Championship that is going on right now in NYC (I am a tennis fan, so it is a big gift for me to be able to watch this amazing tennis).

This summer I was very lucky to participate in a German course in Freiburg, Germany. I took it because I wanted to speak German to be able to travel in Germany and communicate with friends and colleagues. I took the course as a student – as a beginner, which was also a great experience for me as a teacher. In the course, we were all adults and we were given lots of homework, even though we had daily classes (6 hours a day). The homework was checked the following day and our difficulties were discussed and explained by peers and the teachers. I think for us homework was a crucial part of the course. We were able to practice concepts and ideas and to see for ourselves what we understood and where we had difficulties. So I was grateful we had that homework and I can attest that for me the course would have been much less powerful if not for that. I would have been very surprised if they didn’t assign homework. I have to admit that the homework was useful not because it as homework, but because it was a well-thought-out homework. It allowed us to practice new skills, reinforce them and check what we understood and what we still had to learn. It also gave us a chance to feel proud about our small accomplishment. As we all know, self-efficacy (a belief in your own ability) is built on small successes.

The second example I would like to discuss is a US Open Championship that is happening right now. I was lucky to watch amazing matches by Federer, Nadal, Sharapova, Muchova, Raonic, Williams sisters and others. I cannot even imagine how hard these people had to work to achieve this level of the game. What if their parents many years ago asked their coaches not to assign homework to their children. After all homework is boring. And having some tennis playing experience myself, I can say that learning to play tennis means working for hours on small technical aspects of the game. Sometimes it can be boring. But there is no other way – it has to be meaningful to you, you have to know what you are practicing and why you are doing it, but it is not always fun. As Malcolm Gladwell wrote some time ago – there is no escaping 10,000 hour rule.

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And if you are wondering what is the glorious aria (in the background of the Ilya Mazin’s interview) that you have heard so many times but you cannot pinpoint where it came from, it is the famous Giuseppe Verdi’s (1813-1901) aria from La Traviata: The toast to love!

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By the way, Verdi is an example of a genius who was not accepted to the Conservatory in Milan, but who was lucky to find a person who supported his education nevertheless. Just read the Wikipedia entry about him and see how much work was put into making Verdi into one of the most prolific opera composers. Talent was not enough! Verdi would not have turned into Verdi if not for his tremendous dedication and hard work. And this is what we need to teach the students – hard work is as important (if not more important) than talent.

So in summary, I would like to ask the parents who are pushing for no homework schools – how would you like to teach your students the discipline, the value of hard work and to acquire complex skills that do require practice? If the students are not going to have any homework, where will this work be done? Or maybe in the world of google and the ubiquity of information, we can google up all the skills?

Meanwhile, I have to stop, as I have to go and do my German homework and I have to prepare for my first week of school. After all, teachers have to do lots of homework to prepare for school… Or maybe I should start a petition to abolish “homework” for teachers and university professors?

On Physics Teaching, Learning and Making a Difference

Posted: August 22nd, 2018, by Marina Milner-Bolotin

When I watched this video (in Hebrew), I knew that I had to make sure that my students – future physics teachers can watch it as well. This motivated me to contact an Israeli physics teacher – Dr. Ilya Mazin and ask him if it would be OK for me to translate it into English. I also had to learn how to add subtitles on YouTube and to spend hours (yes, hours) making sure I can convey the meaning of the video in English with as few typos as I could. I will use this video during my first day with physics teacher-candidates this September. I hope it will inspire them and will open doors for an exciting year of learning.

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On New Academic Year Resolutions

Posted: August 21st, 2018, by Marina Milner-Bolotin

For most of us, new year resolutions are associated with the “unrealistically” high expectations and activities we will fail to keep up with by the third week of January. Lose 20 lbs by the end of the first week of January, cook from scratch each and every meal and only eat healthy, wake up at 5 am and exercise daily, read daily and never waste time on the internet. These are all great, but they are most often created to make us feel good about us and our future and not to feel sad about another year’s passing… This is the reason I do not have grandiose new year resolutions and if I do, I try to make them as realistic and easy to follow as I can – big things are often achieved when one perseveres and works on big goals step by step (or as they say in German “Schritt für Schritt”). For example, I decided that my Fitbit will help me walk every day 11,500 steps or my Duolingo app will keep me accountable for learning languages daily – even for only a few minutes a day. It doesn’t mean I will be running marathons by the end of the year or speaking German fluently, but I will become gradually better.

However, for me, new year starts not only once a year, but twice or even trice a year. Once in January, once in September, and once in late September or early October. Probably the most exciting “New Year Celebration” for me begins in September when I meet my new students. For the last quarter century, I have been a teacher. I have been teaching in different capacities and in different countries – in middle schools, high schools, at university Science Faculties, as well as at the Faculty of Education. I think since I started working with new science and mathematics teachers at UBC, my September New Year has become the biggest celebration of all.

So what am I looking for this new academic year? What do I expect from myself? What would I have liked to see in my classroom? And what are my new academic year resolutions that I hope I will be able to keep?

  1. My first resolution is to slow down and to learn to listen to my students. I hope to be able to inspire my students to become the best physics teachers they can be. I do not need them to be like somebody else or like me, they need to understand their own strengths and weaknesses and learn to be the best they can. To help them to do that and to keep improving myself, I would like to be better organized and most importantly to learn to slow down and to listen better to my students. So my new academic year resolution #1 is to learn to listen better. I know it is often hard for me as I am trying to do more, and to share more, and to show more. But I often forget to slow down and to listen. This year I will try to keep working at it by forcing myself to listen actively and not to try to interrupt my students or to respond right away.
  2. My second resolution is to keep learning and to make sure I am not only doing the things that I am comfortable with. When one teaches for a long time, we become comfortable with the way we are doing things and we often stop learning new things. I do know a lot about science and mathematics teaching and learning but I have even more to learn. I promise to myself to keep learning from my students, colleagues, literature, and the world around me.
  3. My third resolution is to allow myself and my students more room for error: to make mistakes, figure them out, and let go of them. Sometimes we are expecting too much from ourselves and this also makes us less willing to take risks. I think we have to take risks in education and risk taking means we might make mistakes. I hope that this year I will be more forgiving to myself for making some small mistakes. To achieve this goal I will need to make an additional new year resolution.
  4. My fourth resolution is to work on creating an environment of trust and respect in my courses. I will keep working at building an environment of trust in my classroom. Trust means reliance on integrity, strength, ability of a person, an expectation of confidence and hope. I am convinced that trust is a key of being an effective teacher, or being a Teacher with a capital T. I have to work my hardest to establish the environment of trust in my courses where we collaborate to support each one of us to become the best educators we can be.

I would like to wish all my students and colleagues a wonderful new academic year. May it bring you joy, personal fulfillment and satisfaction.

This is how September 1st looked like in the country where I grew up – in the Soviet Union.

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!

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