Final Look at 2016: School, Science and Education

The biggest shocker on the world stage without a doubt came in the form of one Mr Donald J. Trump, who bulldozed over one very, very ambitious Hillary Rodham Clinton in the November United States Presidential Election by gobbling up the lion's share of electoral votes-this despite her securing nearly 3 million more in the popular vote territory. A final desperate attempt to sway majority of the electoral college into voting for the former Secretary of State obviously proved senselessly futile, as even more electors ran away from Clinton as compared to Trump on Monday, 19 December 2016. What lies in store for everyone as the Trump administration takes charge next January? Will he deliver on his isolationist threats in a bid to put the great back in America once more? Or will he take a step away from all the pompous election rhetoric and strike a more conciliatory stance with the rest of the world? What exactly will Time magazine's person of the year (anointed "President of the Divided States of America") do as the new incoming Commander-In-Chief? It's anyone's guess. But if anything is certain, it sure as hell will be that Mr Trump isn't always going to play by the rules.

The New incoming US President. Imaginary devil's horns or not, suck it up. (Image Credit: Time Magazine)

While grandma Hillary is sobbing away loudly, at least she can take comfort in the fact the FBI have decided to close the investigation into the e-mail scandal without pressing any criminal charges. Understandably, her supporters are not taking things lying down, demanding for heads to roll (in particular FBI director James Comey's) on grounds her campaign was somewhat derailed no thanks to last minute baseless assertions raised by the Feds. Still, she is free to roam and ain't gotten her ass thrown into jail - isn't that cause for cheer? Maybe she should consider the much more unfortunate circumstance of Korea's President Park Geun-hye and count her blessings. President Park has fallen into a shithole so deep as a consequence of getting way too chummy and trusting with a Choi Soon Sil, to the extent numerous accusations have been volleyed at her for being tediously manipulated by Choi, both mind and soul. Her political career is now pretty much in tatters after majority of standing MPs voted to have her impeached. Hundreds of public apologies aside, her nightmares have only just begun. She will need a lot more than good luck and a steady stream of prayers to tide her over.

Clearly female leaders aren't having it easy in 2016. Another case in point: German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) faltered big time in the September elections, culminating in her losing governmental control of Berlin. Then only just very recently, the deadly truck attack at a Christmas market led Germany's far-right leaders to pin the blame squarely on her seemingly over liberal migrant policy.

On a lighter, completely irrelevant note, Darth Vader returns to the big screen in a Star Wars flick reasoned to have taken place between episodes III and IV. He didn't disappoint as James Earl Jones voiced him once more with the menace and cruelty expected of a longtime cult villain. And that one scene where he showed up to effortlessly slaughter them rebels sure makes it more than worth the ticket admission price. Beyond that, congratulations to martial arts superstar Donnie Yen for becoming the first Asian to have a Star Wars Hot Toys action figurine produced in his likeness. Step aside Jackie Chan and Jet Li.

I'm one with the Force. The Force is with me. So is Hot Toys. (Image Credit: Hot Toys)

Still on the topic of rock-stars and movie gods, Bob Dylan was quite literally rendered "speechless" after it was made known that he had won this year's Nobel Prize in Literature. For two whole weeks following the official announcement by the Swedish Academy, he kept completely mum and made no acknowledgement of his win whatsoever, leading many to chastise him as being rude and arrogant. In any case, he has also confirmed that he will be a no-show for the actual presentation ceremony in Stockholm, Sweden due to pre-existing commitments. Being a prick once more? You decide.

Chanel's legendary creative director Karl Lagerfeld literally digitized the world of fashion when he unveiled a gorgeous visual setup featuring meticulously conceived mock-up data centers and models fronting robot gear in his October Spring ready-to-wear presentation at Paris’s Grand Palais. Bits and bytes never looked so good till now, honestly.

Fashion re-imagined. In a discrete sense that is. (Image Credit: Associated Press)

2016 also marked the departure of numerous famed celebrities and well loved country leaders from this world, including actors Carrie Fisher (of the Star Wars movies) and Alan Rickman (of the Die Hard and Harry potter movies), musicians David Bowie, Prince and George Michael, as well as the highly revered Thailand King Bhumibol Adulyadej. Such is the frailty of life, and the eventuality of death which ensnares each and everyone of us. May their souls rest in peace.

Now that we are sufficiently warmed up, I reckon it is an opportune moment to begin examining events that have taken place during the course of the year and impacted the scientific and educational communities significantly. Shall we?

For the very first time in the history of Physics, gravitational waves were actually detected by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) in Louisiana and Washington, confirming longstanding rumours and opening up new exciting frontiers in the science of Black Holes amongst other stuff in the Astronomy realm. A definite candidate for next year's Nobel Prize? Fingers crossed for now.

Speaking of the Nobel Prize, Mathematics won in a big way given that Topology featured extensively in the research efforts of the three physicists who shared this year's top honours in Physics. Heartiest congratulations to David Thouless of the University of Washington in Seattle, J. Michael Kosterlitz of Brown University and Duncan Haldane of Princeton University.

Then again not everyone in academia enjoy happy outcomes. Some get thoroughly inconvenienced by their field of work, like the next chap's rather unpleasant personal experience I am about to share.

What happens when one can't tell the difference between terrorist codes and Differential Equations? A plane gets grounded for an extended period while an Economics professor of Italian descent was interviewed by security personnel. All because an ignorant woman reported him for scribbling away somewhat furiously and also looking a tad too Middle Eastern for comfort.

Professor Guido Menzio gets racially profiled and accused all because he was seen scribbling away. Plus he looked Middle Eastern. (Image Credit: Washington Post)

Artifical Intelligence gave us humans a drubbing of sorts when Google DeepMind’s artificial-intelligence program, AlphaGo won 4 out of 5 rounds against the world's top GO player Lee Sedol at the Four Seasons Hotel earlier in March this year. Is Director James Cameron's scary Skynet hypothesis in the Terminator movies therefore becoming an accurate prediction of the future? Opponents of smart gadgets/devices will certainly imagine the worst and conjure up scenarios of mankind being completely outsmarted and eventually enslaved by technology.

Meanwhile, the Mechanical Engineering folks at Purdue University are seeking to empower non-technical folks with the ability to design and create stuff with the development of MakerPad, a system that allows for the scanning of 3 dimensional objects by means of depth sensing cameras and subsequent storage of data for a physical recreation/modification of the objects themselves. IMHO, super cool stuff.

On the education front, the US College Board found itself mired in controversy when it proceeded forth to administer SATs around the world despite possessing intimate knowledge of security breaches which involved leaking of test contents. The reputation of American college education was further thrown into doubt as Reuters uncovered possible instances of Chinese students blatantly cheating by using ringers in varsity examinations.

How should the country India be construed in textbooks? In the state of California, attempts to revise and update the history curricula for sixth and seventh graders have hit a serious snag, as scores of educators and students have come forward to protest the writing committee's interpretation of Indians as South Asians. Judging by the gargantuan amount of impassioned pleas and online petitions, this simmering debate looks like it will last for quite a while.

In 2012, a dad was cheered by the internet community when he blasted 9 rounds into his daughter's laptop with a .45 in the name of teaching her proper decorum and manners. This year, a badass mum put up her 15 year old girl's truck for sale on Craigslist after the kiddo skipped school and turned all rotten. World's meanest mum she self proclaims. I say best parent of the year.

In a much sincere effort to deliver the gift of education to refugee students, The Platform for Education in Emergencies Response (PEER) was established.. While current endeavors are mainly focused on helping those trapped in the Syrian crisis, the longer term aim is to eventually being able to reach out to the needy in every corner of the world. Kudos to the brains behind this lofty vision.

Striking a decent balance between religious demands and sentiment of the common folk is no mean feat, as is evident from the heated debate in Germany on whether Muslim girls should take part in swimming lessons alongside boys. Stemming from a court case involving an 11-year-old Muslim girl of Moroccan descent who was accorded an “unsatisfactory” grade due to her refusal to participate in school swimming lessons on religious grounds, the country's constitutional court eventually ruled against her.

Over here in Singapore, there is much to celebrate. Young swimming ace Joseph Schooling won the nation's first Olympic gold medal ever when he pipped American Olympic legend Michael Phelps to finish first in the 100m Butterfly event at this year's Rio Olympic games. Paralympians Yip Pin Xiu and Theresa Goh subsequently brought an equal measure of pride to the little red dot when they netted two golds and a bronze respectively at the Rio Paralympics shortly after.

Singapore's proud son: Joseph Schooling (Image Credit: USA Today)

In academics, our 15 year-olds also did us proud by securing pole positions in all three test categories (reading, Mathematics and Science) in the latest Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). While we cheer this monumental achievement, does that mean we are doing everything right by our students? In all honesty, I believe it is still pretty much work in progress. We should take a moment of pause and seriously ponder whether such success was achieved at the expense of the well being of our kids. Just look at the alarming number of teen suicides which happened in 2015 (The Straits Times: "Last year's total of 27 was twice as many as the year before and the highest in 15 years.")

The annual Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) is perhaps the clearest demonstration of Singapore's never ceasing obsession with grades. Each year anxious parents ready their 12 year olds in a year long campaign (read: tuition, tuition and more tuition day in and out) for the first major national assessment of their lives, scrambling once more to compare scores and discuss secondary school placement strategies when the results are released. This year isn't any different, except one particular mother (who happened to run a popular local education forum) chose to deny her boy a Nintendo DS for not meeting a previously agreed upon target, and apparently said some rather unkind stuff to him in the aftermath. Consequently the online community ripped into her, and she did herself a great disservice by flip-flopping when giving her side of the tale.

And as they say, that's all folks. I have served up as much as I possibly can in one single breath, so it is only fair I am allowed to retire a bit for now. As always, I hope you have taken something away from all the ramblings here. Wishing everyone out there a blessed Christmas, and a happy 2017. Peace.