Final Look at 2019: School, Science and Education

The badass looking six-seat Tesla cybertruck (Image Credit: Tesla)

The 2010s draws to a close on the heels of a rather tumultuous 2019: obnoxious American president Donald Trump got his ass impeached by the House of Representatives no thanks to one alleged “quid pro quo” phone call with Ukraine, the tit-for-tat trade war between US and China granted a mere reprieve courtesy of a slipshod 'phase 1' ceasefire, Brexit going full steam ahead after Boris Johnson thoroughly crushed Labour in the December British general election, Japanese emperor Naruhito's ascension to the throne (marking the beginning of the Reiwa era), state-owned Saudi Aramco oil processing facilities at Abqaiq and Khurais being severely hit by drone strikes, an undeterred Aramco proceeding to list on Riyadh’s Tadawul exchange months later - even attaining a record $2 trillion market capitalization (just for a few hours though), former Wall Street darling WeWork's IPO ambitions dealt a devastating blow over massive valuation cuts, still ongoing pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong pitting citizens against both lawmakers and the police, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s unpopular citizenship law seeing many take to the streets, a most violent weekend in May where Israel and Gaza militants battled each other to the tune of at least 23 deaths......

May celebrities alongside ordinary folks who departed prematurely owing to suicide (K-pop stars Sulli, Goo Hara and Cha In Ha), tragic gun violence incidents (victims of Virginia Beach, El Paso, Daytona Beach and Texas Church mass shootings) as well as natural disasters (those who perished in Bahamas' Hurricane Dorian, China's Typhoon Lekima, Japan's Typhoon Hagibis, New Zealand's White Island volcanic eruption, Mozambique's Cyclones Idai and Kenneth) among numerous others retire peacefully in the afterlife.

On a cheerier note, heartiest congratulations to Kenyan Eliud Kipchoge on becoming the world's first person to run a marathon in under two hours (at an absolutely blistering pace of 21.18 km/h), former world no.1 golfer Tiger Woods for capturing the 2019 Masters at Augusta (thus ending his 11-year majors drought), Liverpool for winning the Club World Cup, the Champions League, the European Super Cup and also emerging unbeaten in 50 successive top-flight matches at Anfield (clinching the English Premier League title also appears imminent at present) and tech billionaire Elon Musk on the unveiling of his really tough cybertruck (never mind those inconceivably fragile windows shall we?); then of course I mustn't neglect sneaking in a mention about tenacious youth climate activist Greta Thunberg who was named Time Magazine's Person of the Year.

How DARE you nearly forgot to pay tribute to moi??? (Image Credit: Reuters)

Hang on, "hats off" too to ultra chubby North Korean leader Kim Jong Un for procuring a handsome white stallion capable of tolerating his hamburger-sized frame without crumbling sideways. Hopefully poor horsey didn't end up as his supper thereafter.

This weird winter dictator bullshit is obviously photoshopped.......who cares anyways because it's so darn laugh out loud hilarious. (Image Credit: Thomas Gaulkin And Heribero Arribas Abato)

Without further ado, let's review developments around the globe surrounding science and education this past year.

For the first time ever, immediate surroundings of galaxy M87's supermassive black hole were captured by a network of eight telescopic sites under the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) Collaboration; even more encouraging news came in the form of a $12.7 million grant awarded by the National Science Foundation to upgrade the EHT's existing capabilities - might astronomers and astrophysicists therefore be able to expect higher resolution pictures of M87 and other supermassive black holes in the foreseeable future?

If only the late Richard Feynman could see this. (Image Credit: EHT Collaboration)

Equally laudable was NASA's New Horizons probe successfully completing a flyby of a double lobed 'snowman' (previously named Ultima Thule, now known as Arrokoth) 6.5 billion kilometers away in the Kuiper Belt on 1 January; more images are expected to be released when observational data collected by the probe is gradually downlinked in the next 2 years.

Back on earth, AI made yet another evolutionary leap of sorts when the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence's Aristo software passed an eighth-grade science test with a 90th percentile score. While the test attempted excluded examining one's ability to interpret diagram-based questions, nevertheless this particular achievement served to demonstrate how far AI has come since 2016, when all programs then competing for an $80,000 carrot dangled by the Allen AI Science Challenge flunked spectacularly.

Separately, in what could be construed as a medical breakthrough, the revolutionary CRISPR cas9 gene-splicing technique gave hope to millions suffering from sickle cell disease when researchers at the Sarah Cannon Research Institute in Nashville, Tennessee, announced they had used CRISPR to modify patient's bone marrow cells before reintroducing them back into the body; subsequent results appear promising given these modified cells begun producing healthy haemoglobin within months.

Might constructing an 'artifical sun' for the sole purpose of harvesting its energy strike you as frightfully ambitious? Apparently China did proceed with developing such a device - originally called the HL-2M nuclear fusion reactor. According to local news reports, it has already been completed, and is slated to commence operation sometime in 2020.

Damn thing looks ugly yet impressive, yeah oxymoron much. (Image Credit: Xinhua News)

Moving on, classroom affairs galore.

Legislation/curricula some schools introduced certainly raised eyebrows, such as Harry Potter books getting banned altogether by a catholic school in Nashville on account they could possibly conjure "evil spirits", male students being allowed to wear skirts at the New Taipei Municipal Banqiao Senior High School, a pornography themed module to be made available shortly to University of Exeter students and khat calligraphy planned for incorporation within the Standard 4 Bahasa Malaysia syllabus as far as Malaysian schools are concerned.

A few teachers also courted controversy by virtue of their opinions and actions; check out Valley View Elementary School's second grade educator Alyssa Rupp Bohenek who scribbled utterly discouraging remarks on a student's Math assignment, an unnamed member of Lakeland Senior High School's teaching staff inappropriately boasting about being capable of amassing a 1,000-person body count if he were a school shooter, Duke University's assistant professor Megan Neely losing her graduate programme directorship after a callous e-mail dispatched urging students to refrain from speaking Chinese and rookie Maths instructor Kelsie Schmidt at Beulah High School having no qualms transmitting X-rated images to a 17 year old student via Snapchat, even imploring him to play naked hide and seek with friends.

Smile Kelsie, you are now charged with luring minors by computer. (Image Credit: Facebook)

Then there was the FBI's "Varsity Blues" operation which laid bare that humongous college admissions bribery scandal, in the process ensnaring over thirty parents - amongst whom were prominent corporate head honchos and well known Hollywood actresses. Meanwhile in Hubei province, China, a mother almost literally died of a heart attack after her son couldn't solve a Maths problem. Oh please do take deep breaths and chill your tits mommy.

Bizarre sightings abound: student jumping into shark tank at South Bay aquarium on a dare, the remains of a Chinese teacher who went missing for more than 16 years finally being discovered buried under a school and one cow seen crashing a lecture at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT-B) in Bombay to name a few.

Right here in Singapore, National University of Singapore (NUS) undergraduate Monica Baey caused quite a stir when she took to social media to openly chastise authorities over what she felt were excessively lenient punishments meted out to the man who filmed her in a hostel shower; her dogged pursuit of adequate justice for sex offenders sparked institutional change as universities scrambled to review disciplinary frameworks and reinforce victim support schemes. Another brouhaha arose with regards to the cancellation of a Yale-NUS module (titled “Dialogue and Dissent in Singapore”), consequently seeing playwright Alfian Sa’at engaged in a testy threeway 'he said, she said' exchange with Yale-NUS College and the education minister.

A screenshot of Monica Baey's Instagram Story (Image Credit: Monica Baey)

Not long after, the Ministry of Education (MOE) received brickbats for withholding a student's original PSLE results slip owing to $156 worth of outstanding school fees - despite one politically correct explanation proferred in the days that followed, many netizens evidently remained unappeased. (In any case a good samaritan helped clear the abovementioned arrears, and the child's original results slip has since been released to her.)

Dismay no doubt erupted when Singapore lost pole position at the 2018 OECD PISA rankings to China, but it was a rather unsettling survey metric citing more than 70 per cent of Singaporean teens being fearful of failure which had people opining we are possibly stuck in an unenviable one step forward, two steps back situation.

Initative-wise, I ain't charmed by the MOE's impending full subject-based banding rollout across secondary schools - IMHO this reeks of merely repackaging the old to pass off as new; regardless time will determine its overall efficacy. Thumbs up however for them plans to better support students with special educational needs, rejuvenate older junior college campuses plus provide more pathways for Insitute of Technical Education (ITE) students to upgrade their skillsets.

Once again I have reached the end, therefore bow out I must to rest up in anticipation of the new year. Thanks for reading; here's wishing y'all a splendid 2020. Peace.

(The above was also featured in the 8th February 2020 edition
of the Carnival of Mathematics )