Her First Science Fair

Science Fair Project

American public schools in general aren’t that good at teaching math and science.  Actually, I could probably have stopped that sentence with “American public schools in general aren’t that good” and gone to lunch, but it’s a complex topic.  We made the choice years ago to put Laurel in public school, knowing their drawbacks — without really getting into it, we do believe in public education.  You can’t treat it as a black box with a slot labelled “insert child here” that dispenses educated young adults out the bottom, but it’s something you can work with.  And it gives us some time to save up money for private high school when the time comes, if necessary – high school being a significantly different academic and social proposition than elementary school.  On that one, we’re waiting to see.

But, as mentioned, public schools are pretty crappy at math and science — indeed the fact that they’re even considered separate subjects as opposed to fundamental approaches to dealing with the world bothers me.  Many of San Francisco’s public schools are already dealing with severe literacy problems, and their resources are devoted much more to those issues.  Nonetheless, the slightly-unofficial organizations that surround SFUSD have been running monthly STEAM nights at Laurel’s school, and after two months on the ‘A’ part they finally got to the ‘S’ by holding an extremely informal science fair.

Laurel’s class has been learning basic arithmetic and skip-counting (translation for those of us educated in the 70s and 80s: “counting by Ns”).  So we entered a project wherein we built a machine to do those things.  One of the best ways to learn something being to each it to someone else, especially a student of exceptionally low intelligence, something at which computers excel.

In this case, the pupil was a little microcontroller board, with a couple of buttons for addition and subtraction and a display for alphanumeric output.  Laurel provided the pseudocode (or “software story” as we called it, at right in the photo above), we worked together on deciding what inputs to have and what they should do, and I translated her pseudocode into C.  There were a lot of off-spec discussions about what to do, for example when there wasn’t room on the display for the number, whether to wrap back to 0 or stop, whether to support negative values (a concept she only vaguely grasps at his point).  She typed up the simple “how to use” instructions which almost everyone read, and I wrote up a more elaborate “instructions for grownups” section which ended up going mostly unused.

One of our more involved design debates concerned whether to reset the total to 0 when changing the skip value.  Doing so, I argued, would make it more clearly a device for performing skip counting proper.  Laurel disagreed and wanted to keep the outstanding total and start adding/subtracting from there.  We went with her approach.  In the event, the younger kids who checked it out at the science fair were a little confused, but the older ones saw its application as a general-purpose adder/subtracter, and several got quite big smiles on their faces when they figured it out.

All was not sunshine – Laurel, having had a full day of school, then an afternoon of doctor visits and public transit, was fussy and more interested in other people’s exhibits than her own, but we got plenty of folks coming by and at least a few had little “I’d like to do that” lights on in their faces afterward.

Coincidentally, her homework that day involved translating tally marks to plain numerals, something involving skip-counting by fives and then incrementing by ones, so her choice not to reset the total to zero when changing the skip value proved fruitful.  I let her use the machine to do the assignment, and she happily ran the algorithm out loud the whole way through.

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Not long now

In addition to the string-cheese-wrapper conundrum, I seem to have picked up a new absentminded habit: forgetting to close or lock the doors on public restrooms while I’m using them. Thankfully no one has barged in on me yet. Given the frequency with which I am using toilets these days, that’s nothing short of a miracle.

Our home-birth kit is done (early!). The midwife reports that our wiggly, squirmy little co-creation is now roughly five pounds or so, while the Web sites report that all its internal organs are basically ready to ship, and now all it’s doing in there is getting fatter.

I can tell you that’s not all it’s doing. It’s also performing diaphragm workouts (read: hiccups) 2 to 3 times a day, plus some kind of butt-gyrating exercises that would make Jane Fonda proud. Also, it has figured out how to press on all sorts of uncomfortable abdominal fasciae and nerve endings with its head. This, coupled with the fact that my pelvis has turned into one of those toys that collapses when you press on the bottom, makes walking rather more unpredictable than it was a year ago.

It seems like it should feel by now like we’re all set, but we’re not. Oh, we’re getting there. I mean, we got the car seat, but our midwife reminded us Friday that it’d be a good idea to have someone show us how to actually put it into the car. My mind has been in kind of a mental scramble since then, trying to work out how to fit that into our schedule. That’s just one example among many.

We’re about halfway through our birth classes, which are part pep talk, part practice. Jane (also one of my yoga teachers) is enthusiastic and a little naughty in her descriptions, and she’s introduced us to all sorts of useful things like how to cope when a chunk of ice clutched in our hand is about to give us frostbite, and how to get down on hands and knees while our partners push on various hypothetical sore bits. Homework has included giving each other massages, cleaning the toilet to a sparkling finish (apparently it makes a good labor location), and practicing various labor positions around the house. Given that I’ve heard some birth classes spent time discussing whether newborns should get their ears pierced, I feel like this one is relatively practical.

Devin and I spent part of Saturday learning how to resuscitate mannequin infants and children (the latter represented by adult-sized torsos and heads). The infants had these detachable breast-pieces that, when a small bag attached to the creepily o-shaped mouth was secured into them, rose and fell with each “rescue breath.” Everyone in the room — which included at least one hedge-fund consultant, two reporters and an epidemiologist — did a good job of reviving their mannequins, while also admitting they’d be likely too out of their minds to actually use these skills when encountering their own unconscious child. Even working on a rubber, baby-shaped replica is a little unnerving.

(Devin also got to practice the Heimlich maneuver on me, although the instructor basically said there’s no good way to perform it on a pregnant woman without harming her or the baby, and essentially advised me to switch to a liquid diet until the baby comes out to reduce the risk of choking.)

A couple of weeks ago, a friend of a friend of mine who is conducting a psych study on intentional conception, came by to interview Devin and I about our pregnancy, how we planned it, and so on. I forget what she asked me, but I started talking about how — no matter how much I understand the biology of conception and pregnancy, it still doesn’t totally explain: Where does the baby come from?

A book I read a while ago, The Wise Wound, has a quote somewhere in it about the womb being a doorway to another place, and how children enter this world through that doorway. I wish I could find the quote, but I can’t, so you’ll just have to trust my vague recollection instead.

Anyhow, so I was trying to explain this to the researcher, and how when I try to imagine that place on the other side of the doorway, I can’t — I am just awestruck. It reminds me a little of when I was a child and would look out into the night sky and try to comprehend how big the Universe is, and the thought was so huge that it scared me and I would have to go inside. Trying to imagine the place children come from is like that; not as scary, but no easier to contain cognitively. My mind just goes blank with wonder.

I spend a lot of time, lately, imagining who’s in there — what wormhole he or she came to us through, what s/he’ll be like, and what s/he came here to see and do and show us. It won’t be long now before we find out.

— Beth

For Science, Part 2

A couple of weeks ago I did the second half of the UCSF study I mentioned in July, the one about choices in genetic testing. It was a quick phone interview where they asked me a bunch of true/false questions about different chromosomal abnormalities to test what I’d learned, a bunch of values questions (“My culture tells me that life won’t give me anything I can’t handle,” etc.), and then some questions about whether I thought I had made the right choices. On those, I told them it was probably a little too soon to tell, since we won’t know for sure whether our tests accurately described the baby’s health until it’s born.

At the end of it, the woman asked me if I wanted to participate in another study, this one about “delivery choices.” I thought about it for a while, but decided sure, why not.

Yesterday I did the first third of that study, and it was totally different. They start out asking you whether you’re aiming for a vaginal birth or a caesarian section and give you a set of scenarios to work through based on your choice. (A little like a choose-your-own-adventure, in a way.) Since I chose vaginal birth, they had me weigh a variety of vaginal birth scenarios (ranging from one intervention — pitocin — and no other complications to a cascade of interventions ending with the baby on a respirator and me unpredictably pooping myself for years to come) against a pie chart that had x percent chance of vaginal birth with no problems and y percent chance of caesarian. If you picked the pie chart, which started out at 100% vaginal birth with no problems, then the pie chart split 50/50. If you then picked the intervention scenario on the other side, your chances of a c-section went down slightly. Click on the pie chart and it goes back up. You could have gone back and forth all day. It was frustrating.

Although the study wasn’t attempting to imply that choosing the one made the other outcome change, it had the effect of implying that, and it was really uncomfortable. They were testing how committed you are to your delivery method of choice, but putting some pretty artificial boundaries on things. I complained about a few things, one being that the study put “women who want an intervention-free vaginal birth” and “women who want a vaginal birth at all costs, even with complications” in the same category, and I consider them totally separate categories.

I also asked why it was telling me some of the risks/bad outcomes of the interventions, but none of the risks on the c-section side. She said they do that if women choose c-section as their preference.

Anyhow, then it got worse. Box 1 had the same list of various scenarios, from pitocin-only to baby-on-a-respirator, while Box 2 had the dreamy natural-birth (and yet still in a hospital) outcome. Only this time, you started out on both sides with a life expectancy of 81 years, and each time you clicked on your preferred outcome, your lifespan would shorten. Um. I asked whether this implied that choosing that outcome would result in your life being shorter, and she said no, it was meant to test how much of your life you’d give up in order to have the ideal outcome. (She said they tried it with money, but poorer women complained that it was biased against them. Devin asked whether you could have chosen a number of kicks in the shins or something instead.)

The problem with this one for me, aside from the hypotheticals, is that having a child makes me acutely aware of the desire to be alive for them as long as possible — in part because I know what it’s like to lose one of your parents when they and you are still pretty young. So in my case it basically forced me into saying, OK, maybe I’d rather have a c-section than miss 10 years of my child’s life, but I don’t think that really says anything about my feelings about surgery as a method of delivery.

In other words, I’m probably not the ideal candidate for this study because I have a terrible time with hypotheticals. I asked the interviewer if she’d seen “Blade Runner.” She hadn’t. Sigh.

I really hope the outcome of this study is rather different from the input … I am interested in seeing what they do with the data.

At any rate, the interview closed with a series of questions about my decision-making, how informed I am, whose opinions have influenced me the most in terms of delivery methods, and a few other things (they always seem to want to know whether you’ve been depressed or thinking of harming yourself — I wonder if they’ll correlate that to the data, or just throw responses from those women out). They’ll do a follow-up by phone 8-10 weeks after I have the baby, and then another in-person interview 6-8 months later in person. I can’t wait. :-/

— Beth

For Science

Within a week of making my prenatal appointment with my ob/gyn, who is part of the Women’s Health Center at UCSF, I got a letter in the mail asking if I wanted to participate in a study looking at how women make choices about whether to have prenatal genetic testing. I magnetted it to the fridge to think about, and before I knew it one of the researchers was calling me to find out if I would pitch in. Considering a) I like contributing to science and b) it paid, I answered her eligibility questions and said sure.

Yesterday I went over to meet the researcher. Now, let me back up and say that I love the UCSF Women’s Health Center. When you walk up to the doors, they open automatically and sense you coming from quite a ways off — which is probably going to be handy when I’m 9 months pregnant and waddling up that ramp. The main hallway is lined with these hand-made looking tiles with different herbs on them and lots of text, which is very appealing to a former typographer/designer like myself. There’s a little cafe and a nice garden outside with benches, not to mention the resource center, where a chipper lady shows you all the books you can borrow out, or will give you a complete tour of all the baby items and nursing bras they sell, or pile you on with pamphlets and info sheets, which she did the first time I went in there.

Anyway, so we went into the garden and the researcher told me I’d soon find out whether I was in the control group, which just does two interviews and nothing else, or the experiment group, which gets to play with a computer-education tool and can opt in for different genetic tests that might not be offered to typical prenatal patients. She asked me to respond to lots of questions — the first set was about my beliefs, and seemed to be testing my feelings about predestiny vs. choice/free will, as well as how I felt about a woman’s right to choose an abortion and other such things. The second set was about how I’d been feeling physically and emotionally so far in my pregnancy. The third set was about whether I’d known anyone with Down Syndrome (yes) or another genetic abnormality (yes) or had ever taken care of someone who couldn’t totally take care of themselves (yes). Then there were a series of semi-quizzes on how well I understood statistics and probabilities, how well I knew a list of medical and biological words, and whether I could fill in the blanks on a lengthy instruction passage telling someone about an X-Ray they were scheduled to have.

It was all reasonably straightforward, and toward the end she opened the envelope and discovered I’m in the group that plays with the computer tool. Since I failed to bring my reading glasses with me, I couldn’t do that part yesterday — I’ll likely go back next Friday to give it a whirl. I’m sort of curious what it will teach me about and what kinds of tests I’ll be offered that I haven’t already. (For example, another nifty UCSF thing: I am doing the majority of my trisomy blood testing at home next week; they send you a kit with lancets and some circles you blot your blood into, then mail it off to be tested so it’s ready when you go in for your nuchal-fold screening for Down Syndrome.) They’ll also cover any tests not covered by my insurance, which is nice. But they’re not pushing tests — they’re just matching your belief sets with the kinds of tests you’re likely to wind up choosing, and looking for different ways to explain those tests to women with different belief systems.

At least, that’s what they’re telling us they’re studying. :)

As I said, I’ll go back next week to play with the teaching tool, and then I talk to the researcher again at about 24 weeks for a follow-up interview. The researcher said she’s enjoying doing this study — she said she worked on a menopause study some years back, and many of the participants were really depressed, whereas all the newly pregnant women she’s talking to now are happy and excited. However, they’ve only interviewed maybe 120 women, and they want 1,200. I wish I knew more pregnant, local women who’d want to chime in.

— Beth