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[seul-edu] Remarks from a science educator

I have been receiving the SEUL/edu mailing list since it started up, I think.  It appears to be an appropriate time to try to organize my thoughts and make some remarks.  I have been a serious GNU/Linux user since at least 10 years ago; I cut my teeth on GNU msdos unix tools, especially demacs, which led me into GNU/Linux as soon as I arrived on an island with Inet service, enabling me to download.  My use of GNU/Linux started from a need: a good programmer's editor and text manipulation tools relative to my project to compile a database of animal names in the Caroline Islands (Micronesia).  

I am a science teacher, and have been since before I started using GNU/Linux.  I have tried over the years to keep on top of any available science software that I felt could be used in teaching science: my philosophy has centered around giving students useful tools.  GNU/Linux gave me access to tools to do just about anything I might wish to do, and I hoped to pass this along to students.  I am a science teacher, though, in a school district on Saipan (formerly I taught in Chuuk Lagoon, however); I am not a computer science teacher, and I am not an administrator.  I teach because of my science connections, and it is science that I teach.  

I have been frustrated to read the mailing list.  Few of the postings have been even comprehensible to me.  I am computer literate enough.  I have studied Fortran and Assembly language, and took a computer architecture course some years ago at the University Engineering Department level.  I have learned enough Emacs Lisp to write little text maniupulation programs; I even wrote a program with help from a linguist to sort Chuukese in arbitrary alphabetical order.  I have learned LaTeX to the level of expertise required to prepare camera ready copy for my lexicon---245 pages for publication.  I have learned to program in the GRI graphing language to produce Tide Calendars.  I have had to use mathematical programs like Octave, and statistics programs like the R language to work on the tide calendar.  Yet, at our school, students are taking only one computer course that I know of: Computer Literacy, which amounts to little more than an indoctrination into Microsoft programs like Word and Excel, to prepare them for the "real world." 
When it comes to the SEUL mailing list, however, I have struggled even to decide which SEUL/edu articles to delete.  Precious little has helped me.  Sometimes, however, the newsletters have been helpful. 

I mention this to punctuate the remarks I am making here about my sense
of loss, the "divide" between what SEUL ("SIMPLE End User Linux") (what
seems pretty complicated to me, I am afraid) is offering and what my
students need.  

We all are aware of computers as tools.  I am not the tool maker, like many of the readers here appear to be, or for sure the developers who have assembled this great Computing System are.  I wish to educate students about these tools, and what they can do, withing the context of a course in Science.  I have four Linux computers in my classroom and for the longest time, I have watched as students have struggled to make sense of the need to mount disks, between their playing of the increasingly sophisticated games!  Students are able to browse the Internet on our T1 connection.  But I have not found the easy graphing programs to enable the students to make graphs.  This is something I think SEUL could focus on, or that would definitely improve the useability of GNU/Linux in our science education arena.  

What have I found?  

Teachers do not want to take the time to learn GNU/Linux or any other OS.  

Scientists do not care whether their web sites are accessible to all: they are perfectly happy to post "Best Viewed with the latest version of IE."  They use QuckTime and Flash, etc., versions that are not available for GNU/Linux.  And even Debian hasn't made it easy to install these proprietary tools, which holds us back.

Textbook publishers have gotten a little better: they still write text generating software in M$ --- better to obfuscate?  Book publishers seem to think they have God on their sides: let the buyer/reader beware.  

Websites of book publishers are incredibly difficult to deal with.  The latest proprietary formats are used.  Password protection is way overzealous.  

Sites like "Fly Lab" which were once freely available are now proprietary.  These sites are tightening up the ante: free use once available for a month is now for one day, for evaluation.  Yet, one suspects that they were written using Federal grant monies.  

It is especially worrisome that science sites demand proprietary tools to visit and view.  This happens all the time, many times a day.  

I installed Crossover Plugin, which helped for some of my students; but to keep up to date even on this is beyond the means of my school district.  

Still, even so, I have had trouble with sound cards ever since, and integration with the OS or browser hasn't been very good.  I received a Greeting card from my sister last night that I had to visually enjoy, because even though I have alsa working for my new MBoard, for some reason I don't have the right plugin working.

Graphing: I can do publication quality graphs using GRI.  Gnuplot works ok, but for students it's difficult.  

I think some of my concerns may be a bit whiny, but it is definitely very difficult for me to get things working as I'd like, so students can use them.  Another factor is the need to teach these methods to students, to teach a new paradigm to students who have already been brought up on the M$ fodder they have seen in Elementary School.  

Typing this has given me some ideas on improving my methods of presentation, so students can learn how to graph using available GNU/Linux tools.  But when I read analyses about whether Linux is ready for the Desktop, I start to realize that the desktop is a long way from the Science classroom.  

However, there are definite advantages to what I have been doing.  Robustness.  I haven't had to reinstall over and over, unless I wanted to, and I could do so without having to trash home partitions.  We don't worry much about Viruses or Worms.  And the machines' uptimes are virtually unlimited, save by our desire to shut them down whenever we wish.  But all those CDs that came with textbooks, very few are useful.  When are IT people going to get it, that there are more than two Operating Systems?  Long after the Corporates, I'll wager.

And when I read that Microsoft---the Innovators so-called---are recommending typing in URLs that galls me.  I have been doing that for years.  

Comments from a science teacher who has installed GNU/Linux and has   refused to let M$ onto his machines.  I guess I was not part of the target audience for SEUL/Edu, 'cause I just don't get it. 

Alan Davis
Marianas High School

adavis@saipan.com                                     1-670-235-6580
    Alan E. Davis,  P. O. Box 506164 CK, Saipan, MP 96950, NMI

I have steadily endeavored to keep my mind free, so as to give up any
hypothesis, however much beloved -- and I cannot resist forming one 
on every subject -- as soon as facts are shown to be opposed to it.  
                                  -- Charles Darwin (1809-1882)

The right to search for truth implies also a duty; one must not
conceal any part of what one has recognized to be true. 
                                  -- Albert Einstein 

As we enjoy great advantages from the inventions of others we should
be glad of an opportunity to serve others by any invention of
ours, and this we should do freely and generously.
                                  -- Benjamin Franklin