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Nurturing Curiosity and Success in Science, Math, and Learning: An interview with author Alan Kubitz (otherwise known as my dad)

It may be odd for a child to say they’re proud of their parents, but I sure as heck am proud of my dad, Alan Kubitz.  He has just published an enlightening new book, called Nurturing Curiosity and Success in Science, Math, and Learning.  (It’s his second, following The Elusive Notion of Motion: The Genius of Kepler, Galileo, Newton, and Einstein.)

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For those of you who haven’t had the luck to meet my dad, here’s a  quick snapshot: he’s a retired electrical engineer and a bona fide Renaissance Man, whose interests include history, jazz, science, book collecting, and blogging. He helped me with many math and science classes in my adolescence (just one of the reasons he was inspired by write this book), and he also happens to be one of the wisest people I’ve ever known.  Read on to hear about his new book, about Steve Jobs as a role model, and about why even techie types need  the humanities.

Give the two-sentence overview of your book.

The basic premise of my book maintains that America’s oft-publicized poor student performance in science, math, and general learning is less the fault of our schools and teachers and more the fault of the students and their parent/mentors. Innate curiosity and a “learning attitude” are key traits that must be nurtured at home, and my book is a common-sense guide which shows parent/mentors how to instill  in their students a respect for school, learning, and the power of knowledge.

Early in the book you make the comment that you can’t succeed in science and math just by wanting to have a high-paying job somewhere down the road; you need to have a genuine interest in the subject. How can parents help cultivate that interest?

The short, but complete answer is….read my book, for it deals with several key aspects of parenting/mentoring and the learning process of students! I can summarize the book’s main points, however. The most effective way for parent/mentors to launch and keep their students on a successful learning track is by being good examples themselves of dedicated learners and student nurturers. This book is intended to help those parent/mentors who have ignored that advice, and now see the results in their students’ attitudes toward school.

Children quickly sense the difference between adults who truly live and espouse a “life of the mind” and those who telegraph to them, “Do as I say (re: learning and study) and not as I do.” Nurturing Curiosity and Success in Science, Math, and Learning details a recovery strategy for parent/mentors striving to turn around under-achieving, struggling students. The book will be particularly helpful as a how-to template for prospective and preschool parents: The earlier the parental buy-in to the techniques presented, the better the likely outcome for their student.

I wonder how often disinterested, under-achieving math students have heard a variation on the following from parent/mentors: “You need to study harder in math class and up your grades – it’s important for college and to get a good job, someday.” You might as well be talking to the wall; it will not work.  Students must be shown by example – at an early age – why math is important….and fascinating! In chapter five of the book, I include a math problem I call “The Power of Math: The Lottery Prize Choice” whose unlikely result is bound to surprise students while demonstrating the real-life power of mathematics. Such an approach to stimulating curiosity and a respect for knowledge is the key to winning over those students who are half-heartedly studying math and are prone to wail, “Why do I need to learn this stuff, anyway?”

One more related point: I advocate that parent/mentors and teachers have a heart-to-heart talk with their young students by the third grade. That is the time to impress upon them the need to take school and studies seriously – especially science and math. In the book, I discuss the importance of a dose of “fear of failure” as a second-tier student motivator. Science and math are very hierarchical in nature; a poor grasp of fundamentals due to poor study habits early on portends a nightmare experience later as the subject-matter difficulty escalates. Tell younger students that advanced science and math will be very difficult and challenging at times. Assure them that, by adhering to the plan I propose for dealing with those troublesome times, they will succeed and come to appreciate the “joy of science and mathematics.”

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You make the comment that it’s easy to fall into a kind of “technological complacency,” forgetting the history of how far we’ve come.  Why is that historical perspective important?

Without knowing the past, we cannot fully appreciate the present or accurately forecast the future. That is especially true in the case of science, mathematics, and the technologies they have spawned. Just think about it: Those technologies completely define the way we live our lives today! What seems commonplace today to youngsters and even some adults was quite beyond the common imagination only 50 years ago – less than one human lifetime. Seniors “get it” in a much deeper sense than young people because they are eyewitnesses to the impact that scientific inquiry and new knowledge have had on their lives. It is an important responsibility of the adults-in-charge to impress such an important perspective upon their young.

Students blessed with a mature, historical perspective on technology will be increasingly receptive to the  “joy of science and mathematics” – the realization that today’s commonplace technology comprises one of finest jewels in the crown of human achievement. That realization can only come from knowledge of the darker past when humans were enslaved by their ignorance of nature’s workings. If you were to ask me what has changed the most in 2,000 years, here on earth, I would say, “Technology and our insights into nature.” What has changed the least in 2,000 years? Basic human nature! Finally, and along those lines, the human struggles and scientific quests of luminaries like Galileo Galilei, Isaac Newton, and Albert Einstein make for some of the most engaging reading imaginable.

 “Do not force-feed your student; rather, make him/her hungry.” That was one of my favorite lines in the book.  Say more about that.

There are successful students who became knowledgeable solely by “grinding through” their studies. This is not a recommended model for students in school, for it rarely works and seldom produces comprehensive, creative knowledge and thinking. Parent/mentors who literally force-feed school and learning into their students by brow-beating or using material rewards as a carrot are missing the boat.

Wise parent/mentors recognize that the ideal and most comprehensive learning emanates from a burning “desire to know and understand” on the part of the student. The task of parent/mentors is to nurture in their student curiosity – a hunger to “know.” For students studying science and math, that hunger manifests itself in a yearning to understand the laws of nature and mathematical logic. Nature’s ways are constant everywhere and always in the universe. What is more, the laws of nature are demonstrable and provable – a fact of considerable significance! To understand nature through a competence in science and mathematics is to move closer to the creator while grasping a significant subset of the absolute “Truth,” that less-provable and elusive challenge pursued by the world’s philosophers and religions. I believe that the great names in science and mathematics were invariably motivated by that very desire!

While science and math are the focus of the book, I know that you also have a great personal respect for the humanities.  As the world becomes more and more focused on technology, what role does a study of the humanities play?

Coming from a scientific/engineering background, I am continually amazed at the “staying power” of man’s fascination with himself. The endless appeal of “human personality” and man’s desire to “know oneself and others” continues to maintain a high ranking among the most tantalizing of natural mysteries which titillate our curiosities. Even in this Facebook and media age where we have, by now, seen and heard it all regarding human behavior, the cult of personality competes favorably for attention with such intriguing scientific topics like Einstein’s relativity, black holes, and quantum mechanics. I suspect that will continue to be true as long as man survives even though fundamental human nature has changed little over the last two thousand years!

Given all that interest in ourselves as a species, we best begin to understand the human condition through the liberal arts; that, more any other factor is what defines the importance of studying the humanities. On a different level, a solid liberal arts education facilitates the organization of thought processes, making it one side of the coin called “critical thinking”; the flip side of the coin is represented by the logical, cause-and-effect processes so necessary for science and mathematics. Clear and logical expression in word or print requires a significant dose of both disciplines.  Additionally, solid writing skills inevitably emanate from extensive reading – part of the liberal arts package.

I just received my copy of Fareed Zakaria’s new book, In Defense of a Liberal Education. Zakaria knows of what he speaks; he is, in my opinion, by far the best news analyst on television, in large part due to his outstanding insight and presentation skills. Just an aside: I am a huge fan of the author, David McCullough, and his ability to eloquently tell a true story.

What I find fascinating is that there seems to be a sort of growing mythology around the idea of the Silicon Valley entrepreneur.  I don’t think it was there when I was a child, but now someone like Steve Jobs has become an iconic figure for many kids (to the extent that one of the kids at my son’s school dressed up like him for Halloween!).  Do you think that people like Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg are becoming role models in their own right, and is that a positive thing?

The “role model” has been with us for a very long time, Ginny. Publicity mills were much fewer when I was young, so the public knew their role models via their claim to fame. Little information was available about their true personal qualities. “Fluff” personalities with little talent were not fawned over like they are today – don’t get me started on that! The role models children adopt says a lot about their attitudes, their maturity, and their perception of “excellence.”

In bygone days, accomplished sports figures like Babe Ruth and Joe DiMaggio (baseball), Jesse Owens (track), and Joe Louis (boxing) were your typical role models. Even earlier, the inventor, Thomas Edison, was a household name – the forerunner of present-day corporate legends like Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg. Role models are generally people who have beaten the odds to achieve something almost unimaginable. Charles Lindbergh certainly qualified in that sense after his solo trans-Atlantic flight in 1927. Who could have guessed that Apple Computer would result from two young guys named “Steve” tinkering in a garage. People are attracted to the accomplishments of their role models. Albert Einstein was the most recognizable figure in the world in the nineteen-twenties, only because the public understood he had revolutionized physics and our concept of reality with his two theories of relativity. The public gravitated to the enormity of Einstein’s accomplishments even though virtually no one really understood them.

Of course, role models exhibit human failings and vulnerabilities, some in very egregious ways. Certain of Steve Jobs’ personal characteristics, which were so instrumental in building Apple Computer, did not always qualify as endearing attributes. Silicon Valley tech workers in Apple’s earlier years were used to hearing stories of Jobs’ very brusque treatment during interviews of candidates whom he quickly decided were not meeting his expectations of excellence and were thus wasting his time. Few were hired and most dispatched, unceremoniously, to the so-called “Bozo” bin. Albert Einstein was second only to Isaac Newton as a scientist, yet he set a terrible personal example as husband and father.

Truly great role models who reflect both great personal accomplishment and attributes to emulate are much rarer than the popular variety. How many have ever heard of Michael Faraday, the great, early nineteenth century physicist who truly is the “father of the electrical age.” He was the complete role model package for youth – an exemplary, humble and kind human being and a scientist whose reputation in physics ranks only one level below that of Newton and Einstein. His only drawback as a role model: Not much charisma!

Personally, I think it is OK for youngsters to be attracted to people who are high achievers – people who earned their fame and fortune through honest hard work, talent, and imagination. Any personal shortcomings of these people should be evaluated separately with the help of parent/mentors. Yes, Einstein was a great scientific success…but at the steep price of failing in his role as family man.

One more comment regarding the liberal arts: What do Albert Einstein, Steve Jobs, and Mark Zuckerberg surprisingly have in common? A distinct appreciation of the liberal arts! Einstein was a profound philosopher and a music devotee (violin). Steve Jobs began his short stint at Reed College as a liberal arts major. Mark Zuckerberg entered Harvard as a psychology major – not a computer science geek. Facebook exists so successfully today not only because of great computer code, but because Zuckerberg recognized the psychology behind its conception – our human fascination with one another.

 I really liked how you talked about your own role models, including your track coach in high school.  I knew the story of your hard-earned success as a hurdler, but I didn’t know about the touching inscription that your coach wrote in your yearbook in 1958.  Even as our world grows bigger thanks to science and technology, that personal connection, one person encouraging another, is as powerful as it ever was. Can you say more about that?

Yes, that personal connection of which you speak is the key to all of our human experience, is it not? After a successful senior year as San Mateo High School’s varsity track team hurdler, my coach wrote a very personal note, ending with the comment, “Success can’t escape you if you apply yourself as you did in track.” My high school track experience was one of the highlights of my life – the first affirmation in my young life that hard work will pay-off and that, for most of us, it is a prerequisite for great success. Would that all youngsters could have that affirmation, early in life.

Coach Wagner left his mark on me and countless other boys he coached by being, as you say, “one person encouraging another.” His example as a long-time coach, along with my parents and their tremendous influence, personify the importance of the human connection. Fittingly, this is precisely the theme of my book – the importance of parent/mentors nurturing their young for success in school, learning, and life. In the end, the book is as much a common-sense guide to good parenting/mentoring as anything else. That is what it is all about.

If what you’ve read piques your interest, Nurturing Curiosity and Success in Science, Math, and Learning is available for purchase at Amazon.com and at the author website.  And check out Alan’s weekly posts about science, music, history, and life at his  blog Reason and Reflection.  

He is risen …

 

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…He is truly risen!

Happy Easter!

Garden glories

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I love tulips better than any other spring flower; they are the embodiment of alert cheerfulness and tidy grace.

– Elizabeth von Arnim, Elizabeth and Her German Garden

 

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Backyard surprise

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I looked out into the backyard yesterday, and what did I see?  A little clump of freesias blooming in the middle of an empty flowerbed.

I planted those bulbs ages ago, even before having kids.  Somehow I always forget that they are there until some day in the spring, when I happen to look out at that part of the yard and find a beautiful surprise.

Now they’re in the living room.  I can see them as I sit here at my laptop; when I get closer, I can smell them.   It makes me happy to think that a little bit of digging on a fall afternoon can bring such lovely, lasting rewards.

What in your life is bringing you joy today?

The best way to say thank you

 

My husband and his mom, sometime in the seventies

My husband and his mom, sometime in the seventies

It was gray and damp, that Thanksgiving Day in 2001, but the weather didn’t matter.  It was the day my husband proposed to me, in the middle of a hike, right before a big family dinner.  I was sitting on a log and he knelt down in the dirt and produced a ring.  I, in turn, produced incoherent babbles of surprise and joy.

We headed from the hike to my parents’ house, where we called Scott’s family and had the fun of sharing our euphoria with them.    Ever since, Thanksgiving has had a warm place in my heart.  It was a day when I had something new to be thankful for, a day when Scott’s family first became part of mine.

This year, Thanksgiving will have a different feel.  Over the holiday weekend, we’ll be having a funeral Mass for Scott’s mother Joan.  Her death was a surprise; though she was having some health issues, she was still active and vibrant.  No one expected the sudden seizure, the ten days in the ICU, the lungs that finally gave way.

Her death has given me so many things to ponder.  Not just the reality of death, or the nature of heaven, though those have been very much on my mind.  Rather, it makes me think about how we can honor the people we love and have lost.

And Joan was eminently lovable.  She was a strong woman, but it was a gentle strength, a solid core clothed in kindness and graciousness.  She donated so much time to her community; her volunteer work kept her busy, but not too busy to write thoughtful handwritten cards to family and friends.  From the first time I met her, she welcomed me with such warmth, making me feel instantly at home.

And I miss her.  Though our homes were far apart and our visits were not as frequent as any of us wished, she was so much a part of our summers and holidays.  The album of my memory is full of snapshots: Joan playing badminton with her grandsons, Joan laughing over a funny story about the boys, Joan humming as she cooked dinner in our kitchen weeks after my oldest son was born.  I remember that last memory with such fondness.  Joan was so happy to be there, visiting her new grandson, and the soup she made was a tangible expression of her love.  Taking care of others was something she did very, very well.

When I think about how to honor Joan, how best to show her that I love and miss her, the answer is clear:  I can honor her by loving her son, by being the most supportive wife I can be.  As a mom myself, I know that there is no dearer wish for a mother than to see her son end up with someone who thinks he is the cat’s meow. I think I do a decent job of showing Scott how much I love him, but the daily stresses of life can sometimes make me snappish and self-absorbed.  That’s something I’d like to change.

Because the guy who proposed to me on Thanksgiving thirteen years ago is the guy I would choose all over again, in a heartbeat.  As the holiday comes around once again, I realize that I am deeply grateful to the woman who raised him and made him the man he is.  Though I miss her, some of her best qualities live on in him.

And all this points to a simple, beautiful truth: The best way to say thank you is to love, and to love completely.