Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Does Calculus Stand for Calculator Class?

By Alex Zahares, Intern, Spring 2012

My class supplies list for my junior year of high school included something I had never needed before: a scientific calculator that cost a little under $100. Armed with my daunting calculator, I faced Pre-Calculus with wide, equation-glossed eyes. But I started to relax when I figured out the magic of the calculator: punch in buttons and be rewarded with the answer. With the accessibility of my expensive gadget, I no longer found myself doing even basic math. For anything outside of the obvious equations, I let the machine handle it. Now, in my junior year of college, I sometimes struggle to remember what twelve times five yields. But why should I think about that, when I can just whip out the pre-programmed calculator in my iPhone?
In a recent article in the New York Times, writer Anna M. Phillips discusses the current use of calculators in classrooms and national exams. While proponents for the calculators point out how they allow students to focus more on problem solving and less on the actual calculating, there is a group of people who argue that a heavy reliance on calculators means that the students are just learning how to work the device, and not learning any actual math. Teacher Cara Lin Bridgman noted how an introductory calculus class she took at the University of Tennessee taught her how to get the calculator to arrive at the correct answer, but not how it got the answer. Michael Holmes, a college Chemistry professor, gave an anecdote to illustrate the issue. When he asks students to find the mass of a substance, and some students are given a negative number from their calculator, some don’t even realize that the calculator has made an error: mass is always a positive number.
PSG’s Senior Math Editor Tim Breeze-Thorndike comments, “If we teach students how to problem solve and help them understand how mathematics works before we allow them to use calculators, it could be great. We need to make sure that we don’t just teach them how to use calculators.”
Just as no English teacher would deny a student the dictionary to check the spelling of a word, no Math teacher would want to deny a student the chance to utilize a calculator. However, while most high schools still promote spelling tests, few insist on mental logic math tests. Students are becoming dependent on the calculator without knowing how the conclusions are being drawn, and having an unwavering faith in a computer only heightens the problem. If this worsens, will the average person know how to solve twelve times five without a calculator in 100 years?

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Newspapers for Kids

By Karen Parkman, Intern, Spring 2012

This past Christmas the only thing I asked for was a subscription to the Sunday New York Times. I’d fallen behind on keeping up with current events because my only news source was the Internet—and I avoid my computer when I’m not at my internship or doing schoolwork. After staring at a screen for most of the day, nothing feels nicer than setting my eyes on the printed word.  Now I spend my Sunday evenings curled up with a newspaper, a pastime that is rapidly disappearing in the modern world.
It’s no longer surprising to hear that the number of people reading newspapers is declining at an alarming rate, and fortunately that doesn’t mean people have stopped keeping up with the news. Thousands of articles are easily accessible online. This trend has made it easy for readers to stay informed (and it’s saved plenty of trees). Still, many parents and educators wonder how this shift will affect younger generations who will not be exposed to many print-based reading materials.
Addressing this issue are the creators of the extremely popular, curriculum-based educational game known in America as Brain Quest. In France in the late 1990s, Editor-in-Chief and co-founder Francois Dufour launched a series of daily newspapers for children ages 7 to 17 in an effort to lure kids away from the computer screen. His newspapers are the only existing dailies for kids in the Western world. Dufour says his goal is to encourage kids to read for at least 10 minutes a day by offering them information that is relevant and interesting. The journalism is serious and straightforward, but focuses on topics that kids will find appealing. With 150,000 subscribers, this approach seems to be working.
The Internet is sometimes portrayed as the harbinger of doom for the future of reading. There is so much reading material on the Web I can’t believe this is true. But these concerns are not unwarranted—if kids are exposed to only short, web-based materials, they’ll hardly have the patience to get through long, literary works. I’d hate to think the next generation could grow up without the insight and compassion gained from reading those books we all struggled through in high school, like Huckleberry Finn or Of Mice and Men. Dufour is addressing this issue by offering children something on paper to read that isn’t required.
Dufour thinks there will eventually be no use for print-based news sources, though the quality of the writing and the content will remain high as long as good editors stay in the business. Until that day comes, his company is using the news to get kids comfortable with paper—and introduce them to the satisfying feeling of curling up with a good newspaper.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Customer Service and Personal Shopping Collide

By Lori Becker, President & CEO

“I need a Personal Shopper! When can you start?” said the woman in the store that I was shopping in. It happens to me all the time. It doesn’t matter where I am, if I’m wearing a winter jacket and boots, carrying multiple shopping bags, or even if I’m in the ladies room, I am always mistaken for the store’s salesperson. Every time it happens, I do by best to help the person find the right department, the right size, the right color, or her “missing” spouse. It’s what I do. I help people.

Year after year, I ask myself, “Why me?’ and I’ve decided that it must be my customer service self shining through. I’ve owned a few businesses, including retail, and have put in a few years as a secret-shopper. Customer service is a big deal to me. Whether I am the customer or the service provider, I know without a doubt that the quality, or level, of customer service that a person receives sets the tone for the next transaction. Good service equals good feedback and repeat business and we all know what a lackluster experience leads to.

Customer service has as much to do with reputation as sales, marketing and talent. When it comes to my business, I believe that customer service starts at the top—with me. It’s my responsibility to hire the right people and to lead my team by example. And let’s face it—this job isn’t for everyone. The right person is someone who enjoys helping others, is upbeat, approachable, and thinks of problem solving as a guilty pleasure. He/she can easily identify and anticipate needs, knows how to apologize, and to deliver more than expected.

When it comes to my staff, I’m very lucky. They are all friendly people who enjoy going the extra mile for our clients, freelancers, and each other. We talk about all types of customer service experiences in order to educate each other and look at situations from another point of view.

So, the next time I’m approached while I’m shopping, I’ll do what I always do—I’ll lend a hand. And when I need some help, I hope that whoever helps me also feels that great customer service is worth providing and not a lost art. In fact, “Lost Art” would be a great name for my personal shopping service…

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The Trouble of Too Much Technology

By Alex Zahares, Intern, Spring 2012

When I was a senior in high school, I was so stressed that no amount of yoga, tea, or silence could calm my nerves. My mind was littered with grades, organizations, and college and financial concerns—weighing one incomprehensible amount of debt against another, or remembering which school’s food tasted better on a campus tour. It is from this personal experience that I know how, in the most emotionally turbulent years of their lives, high school students are forced to be, and do, so much. Luckily, I was able to survive it with morals intact, but some teenagers crack under the pressure and cede to the dreaded fallback of cheating.
Cheating has entered a new era. While cheating has always been a problem in schools, technology-based cheating is starting to be acknowledged as a problem in school systems around the world. A recently documented example of high-tech cheating that USA Today reporter Greg Toppo discusses is a YouTube video that shows students a way to use a soda bottle to cheat in a classroom. The video instructs the viewer on how to scan a soda bottle label and digitally alter the nutrition facts to store information, such as mathematical formulas. There are also security companies that sell tiny wireless ear buds that can be connected to cell phones and iPods, allowing students to silently call friends and receive answers without leaving the classroom.
Technology has grown so quickly that students are figuring out ways to cheat faster than teachers can learn how to prevent it from occurring. It isn’t even clear how much of this cheating goes undetected. If it is more prevalent than teachers are aware, there is further difficulty addressing and fixing the issue.
I don’t think a solution to the dilemma of high-tech cheating is to forbid technology from the classrooms. To do so would mean ignoring a great learning tool and resource. A potential way to manage and curb cheating is to look at the root of the problem, which is why students cheat in the first place. The primary motivators may be intense pressure to score well above the median or to be as well rounded as possible, and those elements don’t seem to be vanishing anytime soon. These pressures are indicative of the competitive college arena and job market, and as long as the stakes are high, there will be students who cheat. Until the stakes are lowered and the pressures are lessened, teachers will just have to make sure that all exciting gadgets are turned off when the pencils are out.