Tech Changes the World of Textbooks, Again!

There was a time when the Gutenberg printing press was high technology, and it’s products, printed books, were coveted by the erudite. Until then, humans over millennia had passed on knowledge through oral traditions, on tablets, palm leaves, stone pillars, animal hide, metallic plates, paintings on cave walls, etc.  

By Jost Amman – Meggs, Philip B. A History of Graphic Design. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 1998. (p 64), Public Domain,

Why are we talking textbooks? Subjects are changing and how they are introduced to students is also changing. Textbooks have been the bedrock of the modern education system, and now there seems to be major rumblings of change. E.g. Fundamentals of Information Science still teaches the student how to go about solving problems in the real world. This information might be delivered as a textbook or a digital download or as an audio file. Students who were curious about philosophy might today want to know about the intersection of philosophy and information science. Will textbooks and therefore education become a thing of the past? Let’s understand better.

Textbooks as we know them in the modern world

In the last 4-5 centuries, compulsory education for the young has been introduced across the world. As the Gutenberg press made mass publishing of books possible and affordable, primers and readers for standard education were introduced. Once structured higher education came into being and became affordable, more students opted for it. The market grew to encompass more specialized textbooks for the subjects taught. 

Did the ancient world have textbooks?

YES, they had!

Ancient civilizations which emphasized knowledge flourished for centuries. With their people traveling far and wide, cross pollination of knowledge sparked creativity. There was a time when written copies of educational texts were few and information was disseminated orally. 

Many of the written works of the ancient world were generally in the care of a few. Libraries were frequently storehouses of ancient educational texts and many were almost works of art; with the calligraphy and painting inside. 

Any change in how knowledge is passed on, always has people worried. When writing became commonplace in ancient Greece, the emphasis on memorization decreased, with Socrates fearing a weakening in the Greeks’ mental capacity to memorize and retell. By the way, we know this because Plato his student wrote about it in the Dialogues!

Student burden in the modern world

Education has always been a privilege for the elite few. This is probably the first time in modern history that so many people are opting for higher education all over the world. Ironically it is a period of falling enrollments for the seventh year in a row in the US. The reasons are varied, but one of the biggest deterrents is the cost. 

One significant component of this expense is textbooks. College Board estimates $1200 for textbooks in the average college budget in 2018-19. Students frequently buy textbooks out of money earmarked for boarding and they have also been known to go hungry to afford textbooks.

All textbooks are not very pricey but STEM books are more expensive than others; content creators say it’s more expensive to put together. An analysis commissioned by the Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance, summarized the problem and made recommendations to cope with the problem. 

Is tech shaking up things again

There are solutions to this problem. Students buy second hand books or they share and rent books. Alternatively, they might borrow a copy from the library. 

Tech is shaking up things in more ways than one. Here are a few:

  1. Online courses and etextbooks have made massive inroads into college education. The prices of etextbooks is falling fast. 
  2. Open Educational Resources are available with open license textbooks.
  3. Supplemental help with subscription based textbook solutions and Q&A is available at affordable prices. 
  4. Textbook publishers are bundling supplemental material and access to electronic platforms for online testing and homework submissions, via access codes. This is pricey, but students get their submissions reviewed immediately, have access to video material and TAs are freed up to help students.
  5. Libraries and their custodians are now negotiating affordable textbook availability, both physical and electronic, with the suppliers, thereby holding onto their traditional position of being a hub for knowledge. 

Where next?

Although the textbook business is in a flux it is agilely morphing to stay relevant. 

Tech in the form of the printing press birthed this industry and now tech might be the one which reshapes it to serve its primary purpose – helping the student acquire knowledge. 

Let’s wait and watch.  


Teaching Kids About Droughts

Should we talk of droughts with kids?

Is it too harsh to speak of such things with kids?

Will kids even understand?


Infographic credit:

In the infographic given about the drought situation in California, the lighter colors are the mildest form of drought and the darkest is the most severe.

In urban living, kids in general are not in sync with nature’s cycles, but in rural areas kids understand better, because the result of drought is more easily visible. Business and income gets affected. However well schools ‘teach’ the water cycle, households must discuss water and its source at home, for it’s a part of climate change and our survival.

Reasons why things like water cycles need to be internalized by kids:

  1. They have to manage these things in the future.
  2. Kids need to understand frugal and smart use of water.
  3. They need to understand the long term benefits of conservation and recycling.
  4. It’s a key part of the natural ecosystem that we inhabit.
  5. As aquifers run dry, land sinks, and this creates other far reaching problems.

As we go deeper into this century, scientists are talking of how water is going to be one of the most precious resources that everyone will fight over. Unfortunately, this will not be the first time in history. Its ironic that we fight over something that is free and plentiful – it’s in shortage because of our living in super dense cities, distribution, misuse and a lack of concern.



3 ways to teach STEM without teaching it

Should we teach STEM?

Are some aspects more about exploration, rather than teaching?

Do we facilitate kids enough to explore the world they live in?

Can we dumb down kids by ‘overteaching’ them?

Is there even a word like ‘overteaching’?


U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service [Public domain]

STEM was introduced in 2001 by scientific administrators at the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF). Originally SMET, it was rearranged to read STEM. Over time it became popular throughout the world. In the last few years when the importance of Art was emphasized, STEM morphed to STEAM in some part of the education world.

Some history

There rose across the country a belief that Americans were falling behind in education which would eventually lead to a fall in societal prosperity. Under-performance among students became the talk of Congress. The intersecting space between education, workforce, and prosperity in society needed innovation to unlock potential.

After much debate, STEM became a standard and the govt. decided to fund STEM focused initiatives to give education a much needed shot in the arm. Shareholders like teachers, parents, educators, policy makers etc. put on their thinking caps. Curriculum was designed and a framework was put in place.

Importance of STEM

STEM got its important place under the Sun. Definitions and modalities were debated upon, but the importance of STEM education was equally emphasized by all. So weren’t we teaching kids about science and technology through the last few decades?

We were – but the quality that had made us a great nation was no longer there. The education system needed an infusion of fresh ideas. We had to learn from other best practices. We had to make our curriculum more interesting and appealing with more activities.

Any psychology textbook about kids always emphasizes holding a child’s attention. With the proliferation of digital devices, this is one of the hardest things to do. Teachers have had to innovate and actually include a digital device in education to hold their attention. That in itself has been both a blessing and a disguise. Although it can distract, it also give teachers a medium to create immersive study material, supplemented by videos, audio clips and interactive material.

3 ways to teach without teaching

Get the kids into a habit of exploration. Get them interested in the world around. Help them see the many processes which go into keeping the world the way we know it. AskNatureNuggets are one of the best was to get younger kids to be more observant about the ecosystem we live in. Point out the innumerable ways we are all enmeshed – plants, animals, microscopic bugs, insects, rain, fires etc. This takes a child’s mind down the path of  how nature solves problems, and this then becomes the foundation for problem solving ability through their lives. Learning about STEM subjects is all about problem solving in the real world. 

Play is a wonderful way for kids to learn. It’s not happening just around toys or learning material. Kids learn through just living their everyday lives; with dishes, things they eat, their clothes, during physical play, carrying stuff, or just any other plain vanilla everyday activity. They explore with all their senses. It’s not uncommon to see young babies pop things into their mouths. There are also those kids who love to smell things before they decide if they want to eat it or not. Kids put out their hands to touch everything. If a kid’s climbing a tree, it learns to judge branches as it goes along; can this hold my weight or can it not? As these things are learnt, adults sometimes do not even realize that the learning is happening. We frequently miss noticing all this.

Questioning is a great tool for kids to gather information. Frequently parents and caretakers get annoyed with a child’s non-stop questions and tend to shush them. Don’t. This is how kids fill the gaps in their knowledge. E.g: They know a car takes them places, but with their questions they try to figure out how. They might not have the right questions, but they ask to fill small gaps. As they grow older, they ask deeper questions to understand better.

To wind up

Before you teach STEM, encourage your kids to explore, play and question. This in itself helps them learn the basics of science, technology, engineering and math. Observe how they learn; in fact you might not even be able to join the dots!

These are tiny ripples in their long life of learning. It’s easier to ‘teach’ the STEM subjects on a firm foundation of knowledge acquired on their own.

3 Magazines for STEM Enthusiasts

Ever since I wrote 3 great STEM Blogs you should read, I’ve been mulling over writing a series of posts suggesting choices that STEM enthusiasts would enjoy. All in ‘threes’. Why threes you might wonder? Not sure. Perhaps it’s because I don’t intend to create long lists. I would like site visitors to read through, enjoy the choices, and wonder what might come next.


“IMG_1255” by — Slavin is licensed under CC BY 2.0 

Since the birth of Gutenberg’s press, in the late 1400s the printed word has reigned supreme. Millions of books have been published. The publishing industry exploded, along with the paper and ink business. As schooling got formalized, there was a captive education market which had to be fed textbooks year on year, right from the age of six until say the teens, and occasionally beyond.

One of the most interesting formats generated has been the magazine – a great way to disseminate information readers might be interested in. Thousands of magazines have flourished and the topics they cover go from agriculture to miniature donkey talk(yep, it existed!) Fixed number of pages, issues which came out at fixed time intervals, contests, images, etc. People all over the world loved magazines. Some magazines like Reader’s Digest, National Geographic and Life were collected by people, with a huge market for reselling.

Magazines were how regular readers got to hear about people, things, DIYs, art, science etc. all things which were not considered ‘news’ and therefore did not warrant an everyday update. Journals are used by academics to keep updated, and magazines are for lay readers. Here are three magazines for STEM enthusiasts:

  1. Scientific American
  2. Discover Magazine
  3. Wired

All three have had print versions, which might have morphed to a bigger web presence today as the number of online readers have increased.

Go on, click on the links and enjoy the magazines.



Homework Help for Math

Here’s a funny thing – a lot of kids enjoy math in the younger years of school. They enjoy the oral additions, coloring in of fractions, counting in 2s, math songs, games, and a bunch of other math activities. In class they compete to finish stuff. Class participation is great. All this changes as they go to higher classes.

"math games" by jimmiehomeschoolmom is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

“math games” by jimmiehomeschoolmom is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 

A dulling of interest

The interest drops as kids are less enthusiastic about math class. Is it because math gets boring? Do teachers get boring? Is the curriculum too hard? What is it? It’s probably a bunch of things:

  1. Perhaps the math gets harder to relate to, unless teachers make the effort to make it relatable.
  2. Kids develop other interests and math has to remain interesting to be exciting.
  3. Teachers must use current scenarios in their examples. The same set of examples does not excite the entire class.

Is math needed?

Yes, math is needed. For everyday living. Kids need to negotiate through a world which uses math for money, measures, everyday trade in goods, cooking, travel etc. There are artists who work on art based on math. Frequently problem solving requires math or at least an understanding of math. The way our world is structured, math is intertwined with almost everything around us.

The older child and math

Many schools and parents have increased math games for kids hoping to sustain their interest in math. More than anything a good teacher can sustain interest. Humor works wonderfully. Frequently teachers use math jokes to introduce a lighter moment in class. They can spot a drop in interest in kids, find out the reason and fix it. Frequently its the difficulty at a certain stage that pushes a child to loose interest. A smart teacher can spot that and offer help. In high school kids can use some extra homework help once in a while.

Dedicated teachers guide students interested in math to participate in math olympiads. Training can be vigorous and exhausting both for the student and the teacher. In fact math based movies about this subject are quite popular.

To conclude, a good teacher can make or break the interest levels in math, in a classroom full of children.



Exploring weights

Here’s a riddle for you to try on the kids:

Which is heavier? A loaf of bread or a single bread shaped and sized brick?

You have a minute. Think hard. Read the question again. Understand it. Take your time, within the minute of course. Hmm….ready. Spit out the answer!

Prashant Shrestha from Kathmandu, Nepal [CC BY 2.0 (

Visually they might not look very different from each other. Try picking up a loaf of bread. Easy peasy. Now pick up that similar sized brick. Oops, not as easy as scooping up that loaf, right?

The brick’s definitely heavier.

Here’s riddle-2 about weights. Yep, a weighty day. Today. Which is heavier? A pound of rocks or a pound of loose cotton?

Visually they look very different. The pound of rocks occupies some space, but the pound of cotton – it looks like a tiny mountain! Go on, take a guess. Which is heavier? Most people would see the visual clue and forget about what was said. They would opt for cotton which occupies more space, and therefore seems the heavier one. Oops wrong again.

Both weigh the same. Remember? A pound was mentioned in riddle 2.


Why does this happen? It’s an illusion, which was observed and stated by a physician in 1891, and therefore got his name and is called the Charpentier illusion. It explains how two brain systems behave differently to create the illusion and have it persist. Some of it is actually still a mystery.

Why get the kids to try this?

Such experiments help kids explore and understand their surroundings with little effort required in setting it up. All such learning leads to kids getting curious about their surroundings, helping their creativity bloom. Also, playful learning is not easily forgotten as the kids explore and learn on their own, frequently getting others to try it, reemphasizing the learning. What we look at as play, is serious learning which the brain uses throughout our lives to come up with ideas and solutions.



3 Great STEM Blogs You Should Read

The Net has a lot of STEM blogs, but a few really stand out for their creativity, educational value and never-say-die-curiosity! Yes, STEM blogging is about being curious about everything around, wanting, no needing actually, to understand the wonderful world we live in.

It’s easy to organize some homework help for older kids, but our younger ones need more creative activities.

U.S. Air Force Col. Lance Whitfill, 97th Mission Support Group commander, looks on as a student controls a robot, December 6, 2016, Altus Air Force Base, Oklahoma. The STEM initiative hopes to inspire the next generation to take an interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. (U.S. Air Force Photo by Airman Jackson N. Haddon/Released).

Airman Jackson Haddon [Public domain]

So here are 3 blogs which do this very well –

  1. Babble Dabble Do

This is a very colorful blog with lots of activities which incorporate science and art. There’s science, engineering and design nicely categorized for for parents and caretakers.

2. Teachers Are Terrific

Great place for doable, easy and kid-tested STEM resources. Although primarily meant for teachers, others can also use it.

3. Little Bins Little Hands

Want a wonderful slime recipes for kids? This is the right place. Kids will love their cool recycling ideas. Some of their droid activities are wonderfully imaginative.

Keep such lists handy and use them as reference when you need to pull out a STEM activity as magically as a rabbit out of a hat.