In An Age of Technology, Does Handwriting Matter?

A close-up image of a young boy writing in cursive.

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If you’re on Facebook at all, you’ve probably seen the image of cursive writing that reads something like “In the future, this will be a secret code.”

This meme was formed in response to the removal of cursive writing from elementary school curricula when the Common Core standards replaced handwriting with a goal of competency in keyboarding rather than penmanship.

For those of us who grew up in a bygone era, learning cursive was almost a rite of passage: “grown-up writing” enabled us to write more quickly than standard printing, and it also, at least in theory, offered neurological benefits to those who learned it.

But is handwriting really necessary in an age of technology?

Anne Trubek, a self-admitted “left-hander with terrible handwriting” who watched her own son struggle with penmanship, argues that it isn’t.

“The desire to write faster has driven innovations throughout history: Ballpoint pens replaced quill pens; typewriters improved on pens; and computers go faster than typewriters. Why go back?” she writes.

Having seen some school kids practically standing on their heads as they attempt to hold a pencil or pen, we can certainly understand where the view of handwriting as an unnecessary struggle has its origin. But the fact is, at least one study has shown that learning how to write is crucial to learning how to read.

Karin James, a professor of psychological and brain sciences at Indiana University, did functional MRI scans on children before and after they learned how to print. Before, “Their brains [didn’t] distinguish letters; they respond[ed] to letters the same as to a triangle,” she said. But after they were taught to print, they responded to letters differently and there was increased activation of an area of the brain responsible for our ability to read and process written language. Some experts also argue that cursive writing helps children learn how to spell and write better.

Ultimately though, even if schools end up focusing exclusively on keyboarding at the expense of teaching the ability to write quickly and legibly, the fact is that technology is not infallible and kids do need to learn how to write by hand. Whether that writing is in print or in cursive matters less than the fact that they know how to hold a pen and put letters onto paper. Being able to sign your name is also a good skill to have.

What do you think? Are you in favor of children learning to write cursive, or do you believe it’s an antiquated system of writing that isn’t necessary in today’s technological age? Let us know in the comments.

Robot Can Shoot Rocks with Lasers…On its Own

An image of Mars from the rover.

Image: Shutterstock

There’s a robot on Mars with lasers… and it gets to choose its own victims. This isn’t a science fiction story, and don’t worry, that robot doesn’t want to kill humans. The robot in question is the Curiosity Mars rover, which has been cruising around Mars and taking all kinds of samples for several years now. One of it’s many tools is called ChemCam, which is a laser system mounted on the top of its mast. ChemCam can zap rocks to find out their chemical composition.

This is an incredibly useful tool because it allows us to learn a lot more about those rocks than photos would ever tell us. For the most part, the rocks Curiosity shoots are chosen by scientists back here on Earth, based on what looks interesting from here. But they’ve recently uploaded some new software, called AEGIS, which lets Curiosity identify and target some rocks on its own. There are quite a few benefits of this.

For one, there isn’t always somebody on staff to keep an eye on Curiosity in case it stops by some compelling rocks. As such, there are certainly times when the rover wouldn’t be taking those kinds of samples, and that’s inefficient. No scientist wants to have too little data when they can possibly have too much, least of all NASA.

Another benefit is accuracy and time management. When scientists picked rocks in the past, they’d have to take several shots at them to make sure they hit them with the ChemCam laser. But the AEGIS system vastly improves Curiosity’s aim. That’s useful when it’s choosing its own targets, but it also helps when we’re picking those targets. With the AEGIS system, once a rock is chosen as a target (regardless of who is choosing it) the laser can hit it right on target the first time, and then move onto other samples more quickly.

Can Pokémon Go Be Used As An Educational Tool?

A young boy finds a Pokémon on his cell phone.

A young boy using the Pokémon Go app. Image: MichaelJayBerlin / Shutterstock

A quick summary in case there’s someone still out there who’s not familiar with Pokemon Go: The newest installment in Pokemon’s 20-year history of video games, the popular phone app requires players to walk around the real world to find virtual locations and virtual creatures, all the while collecting, strategizing, and battling. Immediately after it’s launch in July, it surpassed Twitter to become the most-downloaded app ever, and the largest mobile game in the history of the industry.

Creator Niantic wisely chose to release the walking-based game in midsummer, but as September approaches, parents and teachers alike are curious about the game’s educational potential. On the flip side of the coin, others are worried about privacy and safety risks.

The game features local landmarks across the country as Pokéstops—places where players collect in-game items—which educators are hoping will spur a widespread interest in students who want to learn about local history and resources. Players online have been talking excitedly about discovering features of their own towns that they’d never known before.

In the words of James Gee, a researcher in educational video gaming from Arizona State University, the app “enchants the environment.” After all, it is firing up a new interest in real world surroundings. The non-gaming generation has long bemoaned youth’s alleged lack of interest in their environment. With Pokémon Go, school-aged children can rediscover their home towns, and even organize outings and clean-up events in popular places.

Players can also use features of the game to track individual Pokémon, teaching them the concepts of triangulation and orienteering. Math, too, is a part of the game for those who want to calculate which of their Pokemon will evolve into the strongest creature at which level.

The biggest concern of detractors is that of safety and privacy (players have been accosted while following the game into unsafe areas, and game play requires your phone to be tracking you at all times). But with prudence and supervision, it will be interesting to see how education becomes the next thing to enfold this social mega-phenomenon.

The Benefits of Classroom Laptops

A photo of school-aged children using a laptop in a classroom setting with a teacher supervising in the background.

The use of classroom laptops has proven to increase performance in reading, writing, and science.

These days, a good laptop like Google’s Chromebook can cost less than a new math textbook. So it’s no longer an extravagant luxury for schools to provide one for each student. And the potential benefits of such a supply are worth a good look.

Michigan State University is one of those doing the looking. In a meta-analysis led by Binbin Zheng, 96 independent studies into school laptop programs were looked at. They focused on programs that distributed laptops to K-12 students to use across all their school subjects. After narrowing their scope to 10 studies with statistics that could be charted against one another, they released their findings.

The main points boiled down to these:

Whether or not laptop distribution programs help to bridge the income-education gap is not clear. Poor students’ grades increase from being given a laptop more so than better-off students’ grades do, but the better-off students’ test scores still remain higher.

Students of all demographics show performance improvements in writing, reading, and middle-school science when participating in a laptop program.

Teacher participation in the laptop programs are vital. If the teacher is not engaged in teaching students how to get the most out of their technology, the programs fail. To bolster this, teachers must be given strong IT support and training and be included in the program. When teachers are engaged like this, teacher-student relationships also improve, which may account for a percentage of the improved test scores.

Students who participate in laptop programs were found to write more in and outside of the classroom than students who did not.

These results of the meta-analysis all echo a 2013 study also led by Zheng on one-to-one laptop programs in two low-income, primarily Hispanic school districts. That study also showed that at-risk students used their laptops more frequently than other students.

Science Project: Insulation

Seal in water

This science experiment can help explain why seals like this one are comfy even in extremely cold water.
Image: Shutterstock

This is a good science project for children as young as preschool, maybe kids who are still learning their animals. In this one, we’re looking at polar bears, walruses, seals, penguins, whales–you can tailor it to your child’s interests.

How do these animals stay warm? Your kid probably knows how cold they can feel in an unheated pool, even on a scorching day. But these animals live in the water around ice and snow.

The answer, of course, is blubber, the layer of fat under their skin. It acts like a sweater, but how?

For this project, you will need:

  • A bowl of icy water
  • Vegetable shortening
  • A couple of latex or vinyl gloves
  • Plastic wrap

(The gloves and wrap are to make clean-up a snap.)

First, ask your child to put their hands into the ice water. Count or use a stopwatch to see how long they’re willing to keep their hands in the water. It probably won’t be long!

Next, put a glove on their hand. Have them use their gloved hand to scoop out a handful of shortening, and make a fist. They’ll probably like this part since it’s messy! With your own gloved hands, smear more shortening thickly around the outside of their fist, and then wrap all of that with plastic wrap.

Once they’re all coated and wrapped up, have them put their hand back in the ice water. They should notice right away now much less the cold seems to reach them. Time them again. Odds are good they’ll get bored before they’re too chilled to stay in the water. So this is a good time to talk about how the shortening is just like the fat that animals (and people) have under their skins, and it keeps them warm, even in cold water. Some animals have to get out and warm up from time to time, like walruses and polar bears, and some can just live in the water forever like whales, kept cozy by their blubber and thick skin.