School Breaks and Math Skill Loss

With spring break on the mind, it is easy to get distracted from work and school.  Maybe you are dreaming of vacation plans, or maybe you are just dreaming of sleeping in.  Either way, probably the last thing on your mind is school and math.  However, it turns out, these breaks in learning can often lead to catastrophic losses in math skills.  Obviously summer break is going to have greater consequences (some research suggests you lose up to 2.6 months of math skills over summer break…read more here), but preparing to stay busy over breaks can be an easier habit to build over the week of spring break.

You can start by introducing students to different math games.  You can also just have students work on math problem sets, but they are probably not going to be as excited about that.

Here are some sites with some math ideas:

Prodigy Game Blog

Scholastic Game Ideas

More Math Games


Monty Hydrogen and the Quest for the Holy Fusion Reaction

By Terry Caston

It is the year 1820, just around the dawn of the industrial revolution. The world population is about 1 billion. You were probably born on a farm, work hard every day growing all your own food, and you may never leave your hometown your entire life. If you wanted to say happy birthday to granny who lives across the country, you sent a letter in the mail months in advance. If you wanted to read a book when the sun went down, you lit a candle-which you probably made by hand. Flash forward. It is the year 1920, and the world population is about 1.8 billion. You might live in the countryside, but you could go to the big city for a job in a factory. You may be lucky enough to ditch your horse and buggy for the brand new invention, the car. Want to say hi to granny, you could pick up one of those rotary phones, and you could turn a light bulb on to see at night. Fast forward again to today, the world population is about 7.2 billion. It doesn’t really matter where you were born because we have planes, trains and automobiles. Want to talk to granny? Just # or ‘like’ her latest Instagram post, but not Snapchat cause granny doesn’t know how to snap. Want to do anything at all, just ask your phone.

The quality of life has increased dramatically over time, and this is largely due to the availability of energy to power our lights, machines, phones, cars and devices. However, as the population of this planet increases, we put more strain on the global supply of fossil fuels and the environment. You’ve probably heard somewhere on the news, or heard someone talking, or read in an article something about the energy crisis, and this is a very real problem. The gasoline from your cars and the coal and natural gas burned in power plants to keep our phones charged pump dangerous gases into the atmosphere. These gases are clearly a major contributing factor to the rise in temperature of the planet. Water levels will rise and coastal cities will flood, super storms will become more violent, and resources will become scarcer causing more competition and violence to attain them. At current usage rates, it is likely we will run out of oil, gas and coal in your lifetime. Sound scary? It is.

But we humans are pretty good at solving problems, and there is so much free energy around us. Wind powers giant wind turbines to create energy. Solar panels use energy from the sun to create energy or to heat giant tubs of water to evaporate into steam and power turbines. We dam rivers to run water over turbines in hydroelectric power plants. We even use heat from the earth to turn water into steam and power turbines. However renewables only account for 10-20% of the energy generation on the planet, and that demand keeps going up and the developing world industrializes.

Then you’ve got nuclear energy. Every nuclear power plant today is a fission reactor. With fission, we take really big atoms like uranium and plutonium and break them down into smaller atoms. Fission creates massive amounts of energy, but it also creates massive amounts of nuclear waste which has to be put into barrels and buried for millions of years. There is also a limited supply of nuclear fuel, maybe a couple hundred years, and the safety and security risks around the radioactive waste make nuclear fission unpopular. It doesn’t look too great, but there is one energy source that is the holy grail of holy grails and would solve all of the world’s energy problems tomorrow.

Can you think of an energy source that is so powerful that at 93 million miles away it will literally burn your retinas out of your eyes if you stare at it for too long? The sun operates by nuclear fusion. This is different from fission which was discussed above. Where fission is splitting a really big atoms, fusion works by smashing two very small atoms together like hydrogen, and making helium. When you smash these two hydrogens together, the resulting helium atom is just a tiny bit lighter than the two hydrogen atoms. You’ve heard 2+2 = 4, this is more like 2+2 = 3.999999. That tiny little bit of mass is converted completely into energy. Ever heard of that famous Einstein equation E = mc2? The E is energy (what we want). The ‘m’ is mass (that tiny little bit of difference between the hydrogen and helium). And the c (this is the important part), the c is the speed of light. That’s 670,600,000 miles per hour. And then it’s squared. That’s a lot of zeros. So moral of the story, tiny bit of mass is A LOT of energy.

So where do we find the fuel for this magical fusion? What has hydrogen in it? Water! Have you ever seen a picture of earth from space? We have A LOT of water. And remember how fission had nuclear waste? Well there is much less nuclear waste from fusion, and the waste is safe to humans in hundreds of years, not millions of years. Can you imagine a world where we had an almost infinite energy supply (fusion) from an essentially unlimited fuel supply (sea water)? Energy would be free. Wars over oil and fossil fuels would stop tomorrow. We would stop burning fossil fuels, and the only place you’d find gasoline powered automobiles would be museums. So great, fusion sounds awesome, why are we wasting time reading this blog, let’s go fuse some stuff now right?

Wrong. We’ve been working at this for a long time, and it’s not easy. You’ve got to get two positively charged atoms together, and they don’t want to get close. Ever tried to push the positive side of two magnets together? It’s kind of like that times on a much bigger scale. In order to do this, we have to heat the reactants up into a material called a plasma, and that takes a lot of energy to start. The only places we’ve been able to create the conditions to start fusion on Earth are in thermonuclear explosions. The sun can do this because it’s really big and has gravity on its side but much harder in a lab. You’re essentially making a tiny star in the lab. Then you have to contain the little star which is a whole other set of engineering challenges. This was in fact the entire premise behind the 2004 movie Spiderman 2, where Dr. Octopus makes a fusion reactor, and then he goes crazy. We’ve been able to create fusion reactions on Earth as a proof of concept, but only for very short periods of time, seconds, before the reaction stops. Though people have been seriously researching fusion since the 1950’s, commercial fusion power plants are still out of reach. This is a problem that will probably be solved by the next generation of scientists who are middle school students today, so if you really want to save the world and think about going into fusion research, I guarantee the vine or snapchat of the first sustainable fusion reaction will get a lot of likes.

A Lifetime of Curiosity

by Robert (Bud) Talbot, PhD

Dr. Talbot’s STEM of choice is Science with a focus on physics education. He now works for The University of Colorado Denver, as an assistant professor of science education in the School of Education and Human Development. Dr. Talbot helps to recruit and train new secondary school science teachers, and does research on teaching and learning science at the university level. In his spare time, outside of work, Dr. Talbot loves to run, work with technology (especially amateur radio!), engage in citizen science projects, and do sciency things with his 6 year old twin daughters. If there was one thing he wished he had known before college about STEM, it would be “how being scientifically literate shapes the way you do anything and everything in the world!”

He studied for many years to get where he is, first at Indiana University for degrees in Geology and science education (BS and MS), then at the University of Colorado Boulder for a PhD in science education, researching how to develop tests and surveys to be used in science teaching and learning.


My bio is above, but that is not who I am. Here’s the truth about me: I’m a geek and I’ve always been a geek. I love geeky things like technology, computing, and amateur radio. But I also love to be active. I’m totally obsessed with running and I love to dig deep into all of the data related to my running: GPS tracks, heart rate, power output, pace- lots of numbers! All of this geekery was instilled in me early on. I was lucky enough to grow up in a family where we spent a lot of time outdoors, camping, hiking, taking crazy roadtrips. Did I mention maps? I LOVE maps. They are everywhere in my house. Anyway, back to my childhood. My mom told me that I once went to the public library at the age of 6 and asked for a book on “splitting atoms.” Of course I don’t recall that, but I bet it was a cool book. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was well on my way to being a science teacher.

Materials and Methods

Degrees can only tell you so much about a person’s STEM career, here’s my actual journey: I thought I wanted to be an accountant when I started college. My brother in law was an accountant and I really looked up to him. But the classes turned out to be really boring! Then I discovered Geology. What fun! Maps, rocks, lots of camping and hiking. That was the best. So now I was on my way to being a geologist. Well, I ended up taking a few years off from school before finishing (long story…) during which time I realized that my true passion was trying to help others see how cool science was. I was always asking questions and getting others to geek out with me. So it seemed natural that I should be a teacher!

I went back to school and became a high school physics and Earth science teacher. It was a great experience, and I was fortunate enough to learn a lot and build lasting relationships with many of my students. I know that my work made a difference. After seven years of teaching, I yearned for more learning and to work with teachers, so I went to graduate school in Boulder. It was there that I learned about research on teaching and learning, which prepared me for the job I now have as a professor.


Right now, I am focusing on undergraduate science education at my job as an assistant professor. We help other professors to think about better ways to teach biology, chemistry, and physics at the university, and investigate the impacts of innovative teaching on how students learn. Our main focus is to help students in these courses succeed and become prepared to pursue their future goals. Our work is making a difference!


I love science education, and especially physics, and here’s why: it really helps me to see how important it is to have a scientific worldview. I can apply scientific reasoning to any aspect of my life. Not only is that fun, it is useful. Many of the skills and dispositions that we use as scientists (like curiosity, research methods, and writing ability) are useful in all aspects of life. And my interest in physics and Earth sciences lets me do lots of fun things in my spare time, like amateur radio (my callsign is W0RMT), and participating in citizen science projects (check out CoCoRaHS, mPING, CWOP, SETI@home, and LHC@home).

Science is everywhere, and it’s fun and useful. It leads to a lifetime of curiosity!   

For the Love of Legos…An Engineering Story.

Scott Volchko, PE

Introduction– Who I really am

I’ll admit it upfront, I am close to the stereotypical engineer. The quiet, introvert type whose mind is always wandering, but how did I become a STEM kid? I still kind of wonder today. I don’t remember the day I decided to become a mechanical engineer, but I’ve always been fascinated by what I’ll call machines, my generic term for anything with moving parts.

I am the son of an elementary teacher and a systems analyst, but I think I have to go back one more generation to really find out where the engineer inside me came from. Although my grandparents were retired from the time I can remember, both my grandfathers were builders. My maternal grandfather was a welder and my paternal grandfather was a machinist and machine assembler. Both of them taught me from a young age how to use tools, make repairs from whatever was available and take care of your machines… most notably boats, cars, and yard equipment.

As I was growing up, much to my dad’s dismay, if there was something to take apart, I took it apart. Sometimes the machines went back together, but most of the time there was carnage. When I wasn’t destroying things, Legos were my media to build, take apart and build again. Since I’ve always liked cars, I usually built cars and garages for my cars. I was probably about 12 years old when I decided to build a Lego truck and mount a C6 Estes model rocket motor in the bed. Let’s just say I should have used the Kragel.

As a grown engineer, I still love machines and building. I have restored cars, worked on boats, started tinkering with wood working, and most importantly still buy cool Lego sets wondering why they have an age range and not just a minimum age. Can you ever be too old to play with Legos?

Materials and Methods– How I got here

My first formal dive into the science world came as a member of my high school Science Olympiad team. The two years I competed in the Science Olympiad were also the first two years that my high school participated. To say we were not prepared would be an understatement, but everyone on the team learned a lot. We had prepared for some of the competitions and walked blind into others doing our best. Since I went to a smaller high school, the only AP class I took was calculus. We had two other AP classes, but what STEM kid wants to take AP english or history?

Just before my search for colleges started I bought a 1968 Chevrolet Camaro project car and started tinkering. As I previously mentioned, I don’t remember when I decided to become a mechanical engineer, but I was always working to figure out how parts were made and what the engineer had in mind 30 years before when the car was designed. Over time I just decided I wanted to design cars and mechanical engineering seemed like the profession to get me there.

My college search took me around the Midwest to a few Big Ten schools, Notre Dame University, Case Western Reserve University, and Kettering University. Finally, I narrowed down my decision to Case or Penn State and chose Case for its small size and location. My opinion of the most important thing you can do as an undergraduate is get involved in extra-curricular activities you are passionate about. My activity was Formula SAE and much like Science Olympiad, we were building a new program from the ground up. We took two years to build one car, but learned a ton and finished all events in the competition. I stayed at Case for a fifth year and earned a MSME degree, researching with NASA on space micro-propulsion devices.

Results– What I do now

Well this is simple, I am a Mechanical Engineer! My first job out of college was obtained through the Formula SAE program. I was hired to work at a large automotive OEM as an automotive designer then went on to a small to medium sized materials company as both a product and a process designer. As an automotive designer, I was responsible for design of parts or complete systems for automotive fuel systems. As a designer the slate is often clean and ready for innovation. As an automotive designer, I received six design patents, most of which are driving around on highways around the globe.

My current role as Manager of New Product and Process Development for a small materials company gives me the opportunity to both design products and then be part of the production process, helping define manufacturing processes as required.


Discussion– What truly is a Mechanical Engineer

In my opinion the definition of engineer or the field of engineering, regardless of the specialty, is a problem solver. Education in engineering is all about learning the tools to solve problems. Every engineer takes courses in other engineering disciplines to get a basic understanding of each field, just enough to be dangerous.

So what is a mechanical engineer? Mechanical engineering is probably the broadest field in engineering. A lot of engineering disciplines are really specialized versions of mechanical engineering. Within the broad scope of mechanical engineering there is also product engineering, process engineering and test engineering. Think about the objects you interact with every day in life starting with your toothbrush, the water faucet, the floors you walk on the shoes you wear, and the car you ride in or drive. Mechanical engineers had a hand in all of those objects at least in the background making sure these objects were designed right, performed their desired function correctly and that there was an efficient manufacturing process to make the products.

The final component and often overlooked part of an engineering education is the business component. In every business there will be pressure from accounting and finance to reduce expenses and pressure from sales to reduce price and increase quality. As a mechanical engineer, it’s always best to go into a design, test, or process development with an idea of a budget in mind and only deviate from the budget if you feel there is a safety problem or the product will not meet the customers needs.


Programming to a Different Path

By Benjamin Chodoroff

Benjamin Chodoroff’s STEM of choice is sort-of math and sort-of engineering: computer programming. He started writing computer programs on his TI-85 calculator in 9th grade, and got interested in building websites for anti-war organizations. He found a career as an independent contractor building small database applications & prototypes for all sorts of clients. After work, he plays with radios, learns about programming theory, and mentors new programmers.

I took a circuitous, but not so rare, path to my career as a computer programmer: I started learning on my own in highschool, not really realizing that it could potentially be a lucrative career. I programmed little scripts to make my life easier, built websites for friends, and automated tasks for small businesses, but never really took it seriously — the reward of figuring out a complex puzzle & understanding large systems was reward enough.

During highschool, I was very lucky to be friends with another computer programmer. While we did enroll in an as-of-then-brand-new AP computer science course, we were much more interested in learning everything we could about programming on our own. We were very different types of students in school, but neither of us found the inspiration and fun in our classes that we found while building our own projects.

After high school, we were both lucky to find meaningful and challenging careers as programmers without college degrees. While he worked in enterprise software development, I consulted with small businesses, building them websites and databases. I started to help out with free software projects, which has become a fulfilling and consistent aspect of my day-to-day work. I did study at colleges a bit, but didn’t take any engineering or CS courses — it never occurred to me as something I would go to school and learn when there were so many people willing to pay me to build something already.

I sometimes run into issues where I think to myself, “this might be easier if I’d taken a course in this-or-that theory,” but it’s pretty rare. When it does happen, I have a great excuse to dive into some books, ask a friend, or simply discover a solution on my own.

Sometimes I wonder what would’ve been different about my life if there were more programmers in my middle or high schools, or if there were active FIRST robotics programs — I bet there would’ve been more, and more diverse, software developers popping up!

I didn’t have many mentors until very recently in my career. It’s only been over the past few years that I’ve had the chance to work with people significantly older than me. With programming, it’s easy to rely on reading books & articles on the web in lieu of having a mentor, but you miss out of some of the more esoteric skills, like how to manage client relationships & how to balance work and free time.

I love working as a programmer — I’m forced to learn new things all the time, and I deeply enjoy doing so. The prospect of being too out-of-date might be daunting sometimes, but after a while you realize the the core concepts never change — you just have to learn how to apply them to new things, all the time.

My Job Wasn’t Even Around When I Was in School…

By Chris Hall

Introduction– Who I really am

Math and Science were always my favorite subjects in school. My parents really helped foster that love and encouraging me in those fields. Those subjects came easy to me in school, whereas English and history, not so much. I loved Capsela which is a construction toy with gears and motors. Sort of like LEGOS with motors. I grew up before computers were mainstream. That’s right, I never had one in my house before going off to college. Nintendo was the first of any type of computer I had at home, and I fondly remember playing the original Legend of Zelda with my brother watching me.

I was also full of energy and loved sports, and wanted to get involved in whatever I could. I played soccer, baseball, and basketball when I was little, and then moved onto track & field in high school. To this day I am still training and competing in athletics, now as a cyclist.

Materials and Methods– How I got here

I fell in love with physics in high school. I was always looking for answers. Science, especially physics, seems to have an answer for everything. I loved challenging my family at dinner with in depth questions like where the universe came from? and what is time?


It also helped I had a very cool high school physics teacher. He was very laid back, we even called him ‘Ron’. We even got to launch model rockets one day for class.

Results– What I do now

After spending years writing software to help solve problems and making people’s lives and jobs easier, I moved into management because I thought I could do a better job than any other manager I had. I watched managers struggle with effectively managing software developers. Developers were a new breed of employee who were very creative and talented, but also introverted. I liked the challenge of motivating developers as well as helping clients figure out what IT solutions they really wanted.

My job consists of running meetings in my pajamas from my home office over Skype. I have a wireless headset so I can find time to run down to the kitchen for a quick snack. I go into the office once a week to meet the team for lunch at my favorite Denver sandwich shop…Heidi’s. I am an expert at running meetings very efficiently to help the team reach its goal. I am also an expert as creating a team environment working with remote employees (probably also working in their pajamas). I help foster collaboration by encouraging small talk before meetings, and asking trivia questions at the end of meetings. During the meeting I show graphs, charts, and task lists to keep people on target, but the trivia is usually the highlight 😉

Here I am at my home office.

Chris 1

Here I am experimenting with how far I can lean the bike before it slides out.

Chris 2

Discussion– Passion for the subject

I love IT Management, and here’s why:

Being a manager, I get to work with a lot of smart people doing a lot of very interesting things. Rather than doing just a few cool things on my own, I enjoy creating teams to make significant achievements and advancements in their fields. I really enjoy the people aspect of management where I get to help great people achieve amazing results which they can’t do on their own.

My analytical side loves data and tracking the team performance to more accurately predict results, such as when software will be ready to release. I create custom estimation methods to best match the team. When we release a version, I get to see how accurate my estimates are. From there I can make adjustments for the next version and the process continues.

The New Scientist on the Block: the Data Scientist

By Will Lansing!will-lansing/ezbb2

Introduction– Who I really am

I have always loved science, though when I was young it seemed more like magic. Science was dinosaurs roaming the Earth millions of years ago being wiped out by a comet that had been flying around in space for billions of years. The sheer scale of everything in Science amazed me and still does. Science was making “new” discoveries every night. I remember using my grandfather’s (Pap as we called him) telescope to look at the moon at night and was fascinated by the fact that the moon moved so quickly out of the view of the telescope. Later in school this fascination was turned in to amazement when I learned how more than 300 years ago Isaac Newton created a formula to precisely (although not as precisely as Einstein) calculate the orbit of the moon and other planets. There was no doubt in my mind back then that I was going to be either an astronaut or some kind of time traveling dinosaur hunter.

Fast forward a few decades and I am most certainly not an astronaut and I have yet to travel back through time, though I think we can all agree that this blog post would be a lot cooler if I had. Although my love for Science has not changed, I do have a new focus in both Technology and Math. With the incredible rate at which the speed of technology is increasing (see Moore’s Law) and the amount of data that is being collected, I find myself in a relatively new and exciting field as a Data Scientist, but more on that later.

Outside of my pursuits in STEM subjects, I am a husband, father of three girls, and the owner of an ever increasing number of pets. I am an avid reader of presidential history and a second degree black belt in Ju Jitsu. I truly enjoy learning and plan to apply for courses to start a Masters of Applied Statistics this fall.

Materials and Methods– How I got here

The Sciences were always my favorite subjects for as far back as I can remember (except Biology, blah). In high school I was able to expand upon this with classes in Chemistry and Physics where our teacher allowed us to perform all kinds of experiments that resulted in things catching fire or crashing down to earth (and if we were really lucky both at the same time). Although my passion had always been with Science, I wasn’t sure what kind of “real” job I could apply it towards, so I left for college and declared as a Political Science major with expectations to go on to Law school. I was only part way through my first semester when I started to seriously doubt my decision to go into Law. Luckily I was able to pick up an Intro to Programming class during that semester and by the end of the first semester I was ready to make the jump to Computer Science. The major focused on the key principles and practices of computing, and the mathematical and scientific principles that underpin them. There was a lot of math, so so much math. Calculus 1, 2 and 3, Discrete Math, a year of Statistics and Linear Algebra. I did my best to hold my head above water, but I never understood how most of these classes applied to programing.

After graduation I started working for R+L Shared Services as a Programming Analyst. My primary job at the time was to write reports against databases for the business to use in order to make decisions. The problem in most cases was that the data was either in too many different reports, too old, not accurate, or not understood enough to be used. At that time the IT department was creating reports but most of them were just being ignored by the business.


After a year or two of generating reams of unused reports, the IT department and business started to work together to identify critical data needs for the business and establish guidelines for the way that data should be used. I began working with a team to develop a data warehouse, which is a single place to pull data into from all the other source systems in the company. By putting all the data in one place we could speed up reporting and ensure that when a user in Sales ran a report it would match the same numbers as a user in Finance pulling a similar report. This may sound like a simple process but it has taken almost 10 years to develop it to the place that it is now. Each day the data warehouse parses hundreds of millions of rows of data to ensure the business is able to look at trends in our data to try to determine how the company is performing.

This now brings us to the most exciting and challenging part of my job; we know how the company has been performing, but how will we perform in the future…enter the newest scientist on the block, the Data Scientist.

Results– What I do now

Past performance does not necessarily predict future results. This is such an important fact that the government requires mutual funds (the people that manage all your parents’ money) to basically write that statement on anything they give to investors. What that really means to me as a Data Scientist is I can’t look at past numbers on how the company was performing in a vacuum. We have to consider many other variables that may have had some effect on the company such as economic indicators, fuel prices, job reports, etc.

Remember all those math classes that I didn’t understand why I needed, well I wish I had paid a bit more attention in them. We are constantly applying different mathematical principles from many of the different fields in mathematics such as regression analysis, derivatives, correlations and many others.

In order to predict what may happen in the future, we build what is called a predictive model. To build the model we must first determine what we are trying to predict and the timeline for the prediction. For example, if we were to try to predict the amount of time it would take a driver to deliver items to customers tomorrow, we would need to know how long it has taken in the past, what the weather conditions will likely be, what day of the week it is (because no one really works on Fridays), how many items the driver has to deliver, how heavy the items are and possibly the time of the year. We would then estimate the time and after the driver makes his deliveries we would record that actual time and validate how well the model did. We do this by looking for correlations and causations (if you don’t get the joke below, then hopefully I can explain this in a later post) in the data and adjust our model for any issues or biases that we have.


The model that I have described above is relatively simple given the short timelines involved. The models get much more complicated and contain a lot more room for error the further you look into the future. You can think of it like a weather forecast, if the weather channel tells you it is going to rain today, it probably will, if they tell you it will rain 2 weeks from today, you probably don’t need to run out and buy that umbrella quite yet.

So how do we become better about making predictions, we let computers figure all this out for us.

Discussion– Passion for the subject

Machine learning may sound like something made up for the new Star Wars movie, but the idea has been around since the late 1950’s. The idea is to teach the computer to learn new things without explicitly programing it. How does this factor into the future of predictive analytics? The idea would be to build a base model that the computer then runs simulations against using other information that it has. The computer would then modify the model based on patterns it recognizes on its own to make a better prediction. Machine learning is already a staple at tech giants like Google and Apple (think map recommendations and Siri) but it is now also becoming common place in many businesses and the possibly are nearly limitless.