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A valuable but often overlooked skill: analytics

In many ways, the standard high school curriculum is largely unchanged from decades past. Math and science courses in particular have remained the same, although it’s easy to understand why: calculus remains calculus, physics remains physics, a…

9 wild-sounding college courses

When some people think of academia, they tend to imagine stuffy little offices piled high with old textbooks, or perhaps elderly lecturers droning in a monotone before an audience of bored note-takers. However, in truth academia is a living, breathing organism that not only observes mainstream culture but interacts with it and strives to understand just what it is we humans are up to and why. As a result, they sometimes end up with course offerings that might sound unusual, or even silly. Whether or not they are silly is in the eye of the beholder, but just for fun let’s take a look at some current and recent offerings.


1. Game of Thrones-related courses

Well, this one was certainly inevitable. A TV show that has slashed and stabbed its way to the top of the ratings would certainly be noted for its cultural significance. Here is part of a course description from the University of Virginia: “We will compare the ways in which HBO’s approach to the Game of Thrones phenomena both changes and cements aspects that Martin created.


2. Street-fighting mathematics (MIT)

One can’t help but associate the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) with the absolute bleeding-edge research and deep thinking in all things technological and mathematical. So what is all this talk of “street-fighting mathematics?” You’ll be relieved to know that it has nothing to do with combat. Actually it’s a course that trains students how to do advanced mathematical calculations in their heads. Which is actually pretty great.


3. Arguing with Judge Judy (Berkeley)

Judge Judy’s TV show is extremely popular, and has earned its eponymous star a net worth in the tens of millions of dollars. But this course isn’t about the judge, or about the legal system. Instead, it looks at the rhetorical and logical devices that are routinely employed on the show: “Did you hit the plaintiff?” respondents often say, “If I woulda hit him, he’d be dead!” This reply avoids answering “yes” or “no” by presenting a perverted form of the logical strategy called “a fortiori” argument “from the stronger” in Latin. In other words, it explores the use of logical fallacies on the show, and how similar fallacies are routinely used in society at large.

4. Philosophy and Star Trek (Georgetown)

Oh, you knew there was going to be a Star Trek course on this list. Few television shows have had as big an impact on human culture as the decades-old, multi-media Star Trek universe. Just as the show asked some fairly deep questions about the human condition, so do many of the Star Trek-related courses. This one at Georgetown certainly uses the show as a vehicle for asking about the self and free will, among other things. And in case you thought it might be an easy course, Professor Wetzel at Georgetown requires class participation and four thousand-word essays.

5. Social significance of clothing (Princeton)

Clothes make the man, so they say. But just what do our clothing choices say about us? This course at Princeton, apparently no longer offered, points out that clothing choices identify us as members of groups, subcultures, organizations and other aspects of society. Among other issues discussed are (or were) court rulings related to wearing religious headgear in the military.


6. The undead .. live! (Cornell)

Vampires. Once the stuff of trashy B-movies, vampires have climbed out of a once obscure niche and into a seat at the cultural big kid’s table, being now intertwined with action, romance and more. This particular course is quite unique, using vampire-related stage plays to take a look at the vampire phenomenon and what motivates it, not just in our modern era but throughout the generations. It’s worth noting that the course description emphasizes the requirement that all class assignments must be properly-constructed and -structured.


7. #SelfieClass (USC)

Welcome to the 21st Century. Selfies are a big deal these days, or at least they are pretty much everywhere. But what do our selfies say about ourselves? What do they say about how we express ourselves? There are many questions to ask. This course at the University of Southern California tiptoes into the strange realm of the selfie. Yes, students need to take selfies as part of the coursework. And yes, the course title is a hashtag.


8. Toy design major (Otis College of Art and Design)

You might not have heard of Otis College, located in Los Angeles. It’s not a big institution, and its offerings are for the most part unremarkable. They do, however, offer one of the more unique majors out there: toy design. It’s hard not to describe the major as being anything less than very cool, with included courses covering life drawing, visual communication, prototyping and more. It’s hard to know what the job prospects are in this field, but toys have always been a major part of society — and what could be more fun than designing toys?


9. Wasting time on the internet (UPenn)

We consider it time wasted: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and more. But just what is it we’re doing online? How much of what we do in these “time wasting” activities comes from the heart? If we were to assemble a narrative based only on our social media postings, would it be a novel? In addition to reading required texts, the course description advises that “students will be required to stare at the screen for three hours, only interacting through chat rooms, bots, social media and listservs.” The description adds a final note: “Distraction, multitasking, and aimless drifting is mandatory.” You may not have put much thought into your online content, but it sounds like this course will make you think about it in whole new ways.

Helping quiet kids succeed in school

It’s not easy being an introvert. You’re subject to all the same obstacles and struggles as anyone, including trouble at home, difficulty concentrating, and just plain hating school — but on top of all those everyday concerns you have a layer that makes school’s casual socialization much more difficult. Speaking up in class, participating in group work, answering questions on the board, all these things (and more) can be a source of stress, anxiety and, even reduced grades. So how can we help these struggling students?


Shyness isn’t the same as introversion

Understanding the mechanism is a good start. In general, shyness is where a person is afraid to speak up, where the act of public speaking can easily generate embarrassment and even shame. It is frequently associated with a lack of confidence, even self-esteem. Introversion, however, is more of a personality alignment, in which someone is just happier with their own company and a generally lower appetite for social interaction. Introverts can also be shy, but they are still different things.

Try shrinking the audience

If a teacher is aware of shy/introverted students in the class, a useful technique is to slow down the process of public speaking. Instead of simply pointing to someone and ordering them to stand up and start speaking, take a pause and ask the students to think about their answer. This will give the more withdrawn students a chance to calm down and collect their thoughts. Furthermore, adding a partnering step can also be a big help. Have students try giving an answer to a fellow student before giving it to the whole class. That act of speaking to just one person, hopefully a friendly person at that, can really take the edge off and make it easier to address the class.

Employ social media

This is one scenario in which social media can be a huge benefit in the classroom. Even the shyest of student is likely to have a much easier time communicating through text-based chatting or posting to platforms like Facebook or Moodle.

Be careful about comfort zones

Some teachers and parents may feel the goal should be to reverse their student’s shyness/introversion by forcing them out of their comfort zone with required recitations or speeches. However, this approach can be extremely dangerous, and indeed can cause real trauma.

Instead, be gentle and gradual. As mentioned above, addressing individuals or small groups can be a great way to expand a student’s comfort zone, so that over time they’ll be better equipped to grow their audience. It is true that being able to speak to large numbers of people can be a valuable life skill, but acquiring that skill has to be a gentle process. The mere thought of standing on a stage and addressing a crowd can truly be a terrifying prospect for some people.

Above all else, it has to be emphasized at all times that shyness and introversion don’t in any way lower the value of a human being. Ensuring that every young person accepts that truth is critical to advancing in life.

Head injuries and high school sports

The discovery of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is fairly new, and as a society we’re still coming to grips with it. In retrospect, it’s quite amazing how casual we’ve been about head injuries, with high schoolers routinely told to “walk it off” after a hard hit. Such an approach was rarely questioned. Now, however, awareness of CTE is beginning to affect how we perceive participation in many activities, ranging from firefighting to military service. This is leading to a reassessment of high school sports and just what risks may be involved.


To begin with, the current body of medical knowledge holds that CTE results from hard blows to the head — not just once or twice but many times. When one sees it in, say professional football players, we’re talking about incredibly powerful hits from huge, extremely strong athletes. So if you slip on some ice and hit your head you shouldn’t assume you’re going to get CTE a few years hence.


It’s very difficult to know what sort of damage a teenager sustains while partaking in high school sports. Not everyone sustains hard blows to the head, and not everyone gets them frequently. However, a new study suggests that just one season of high school football may be enough to cause the kind of brain abnormalities associated with CTE in later life. However, these findings are preliminary, and should not be taken as directly causing CTE or other chronic brain problems. All research is still relatively new; more time is needed to fully understand the interaction between blows to the head and any resulting injuries.


One potentially heartening study may bring a bit of hope. If you think back to your classmates in high school, how many went on to have early-onset dementia or signs of traumatic brain injury? Is there even one? Well, the Mayo Clinic recently published a study that looked at students who took part in high school sports in the 1940s and 1950s and found that, on average, they were no more likely to have brain issues later in life. This suggests that, while there may be risks involved (and data is still being gathered on that), there’s no reason to throw the baby out with the bathwater. After all, high school athletics are known to offer a long list of benefits to physical and mental health. In addition to improving overall physical health, being active also helps combat stress, and often boosts grades.


In other words, there is, as yet, no reason to worry. However, in the long term, there may, depending on research, be changes in future to high school sports. For now, keep at it, have fun — but exercise caution.

5 Great video channels for the holidays

When young people are home for the holidays, they might be tempted to binge-watch something awesome. In truth, it’s still not known whether binge-watching boosts learning, harms it or has no effect at all. One thing’s for sure, however: consuming programs loaded with educational content is beneficial. It shouldn’t be forced, and if at all possible it should be a shared experience, with parents watching with kids. But the Internet is bursting at the seams with amazing video content. Just be aware of the suggested recommendations on screen time from the American Academy of Pediatrics.


1. NASA Live Streaming

Nobody does video imagery like the good old space program. Among their offerings is a YouTube channel that contains lectures, presentations and documentaries, plus a multimedia page with other assorted content from their many activities (Flash required). They also have a wonderful Ustream page that features a live stream from the International Space Station — sometimes it’s dark, even black, as the station passes over the night side of our planet, but it can also be spectacular. You might be able to find the ISS stream on smart TVs and plug-in boxes like Apple TV or Amazon Fire.


2. C.G.P. Grey’s YouTube Channel

CGP Grey is a very busy individual. An educator with dual Irish/US citizenship, you’ll find a homepage, multiple podcasts, and a YouTube channel. The YouTube channel in particular is just amazing, featuring many short videos that explain everything from the Star Trek transporters (“beam me up, Scotty!”) to who owns Antarctica. Educational and entertaining, Grey’s content is definitely worth checking out.


3. Numberphile

Yes, okay, a YouTube channel about math sounds horrendously boring. But the truth is, there’s so much more to mathematics than equations on a blackboard. The Numberphile channel goes to great lengths to demonstrate and explain mathematical concepts. Whether your youngster loves math or hates it, they’ll benefit from watching Numberphile.


4. CrashCourse

High school is full of subjects, some of which can be a real struggle to grasp. Sitting in class and trying to follow along can be such a challenge. CrashCourse to the rescue! They have an amazing collection of videos that explain a vast array of concepts in everything ranging from math to history to economics to literature. It’s a great way to introduce youngsters to subjects they’ll be studying in future semesters, or to just dip their toes in the educational waters to find what interests them.


5. MIT’s News Channel

This one’s for the geeks! The renowned Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is home to some of the most advanced scientific and technological research on the planet. They offer course materials for free, and their news channel is guaranteed to fascinate your science/tech nerd. The news channel consists of short videos that explain some of the bleeding-edge research taking place at the university. A definite must for anyone considering a STEM career.

These streaming outlets are, of course, just a small sampling of what’s available online. This list should be sufficient to get anyone started on finding amazing content while home for the holidays, but always remember there’s a lot more!


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