Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Learning And Earning: It's About Basics

We all know the importance of getting a college education. It's truly amazing just how big a difference it actually makes to one's financial bottom line.

According to a recent article at washingtonpost.com:
"... while families at all educational levels have benefited from rising home values and stock market gains, the better-educated have enjoyed skyrocketing wealth, with college graduates recording an average net worth four times greater in 2004 than that of high school graduates."

The article goes on to report that while the incomes of families headed by college graduates have improved substantially in recent decades, real incomes of families headed by those with only a high school diploma have actually fallen by as much as 11 percent during the same period.

In another article, the Associated Press reported U.S. census data showing that, on average, college graduates in America earn almost twice the income of those with only high school diplomas (the ratio increases to nearly three to one for those with advanced degrees).

Nowadays, education is indeed the coin of the realm, and financial security and comfort necessarily require a good, university-level education. However, this in turn now increasingly depends on better elementary and secondary education than that available to most children in America (hence the phenomenal growth of the private practice education industry, of which I'm a part). Our educational system is producing inadequate results at best, relegating more and more young American students to the middle or bottom rungs of the ladder of international academic competitiveness. Because of an accelerating trend toward second-rate achievement in American schools, our teenagers will likely face increasing competition from more capable, better trained, more highly motivated foreign students clamoring to enter top American universities in the coming decades.

Our personal and national economic interests lie, therefore, in providing excellent basic education for our children, and on the rapid resuscitation of failing U.S. public schools. First of all, this means funding of good, public preschool programs for all youngsters in America, since universal preschool is by far the most powerful and cost effective way to quickly improve results in our schools, restore educational parity with the rest of the world, and ensure our future standing in the world economy.

Ultimately, American parents are the ones accountable for the success or failure of their own children. Following the bad examples of governmental leaders, corporate heads, sports figures, and others, Americans are becoming dishonest softies, for whom "playing by the rules" is only for fools, "discipline" and "rigor" are bad words, and "taking the easy way out" is the accepted norm. Parents who care and who know better simply cannot allow their children to fall behind in school. I'm always rather amazed and somewhat disheartened when perfectly capable high school students come to me for academic coaching addicted to their calculators (still not knowing their math facts by heart), unable to hand write legibly or organize their papers, etc. – that such basic deficiencies have been allowed to go uncorrected for so long.

In the current educational climate in America, often characterized by systemic sloppiness, grade inflation, cheating, corner-cutting, and general mediocrity, a good report card no longer guarantees actual competence or real accomplishment. Today, parents simply must take an intense interest in their children's early academic achievement. Without being obsessive, parents should micro-manage the progress of their children through the 6th grade, at least, to insure full mastery of essential academic skills. Otherwise, we as a nation risk losing the race in the new global market place. A cursory glance in the rear view mirror already shows China, India, and a host of other nations quickly gaining on us, threatening to take the lead.

More and more, it's all about basics.

And more than ever, it's more important than ever before.

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Copyright © 2006-present: Christopher R. Borland. All rights reserved.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Writing: It's Back!

Our culture's focus on academic basics (the "Three R's:" reading, writing, and 'rithmetic) shifts in both direction and intensity as the world around us changes.

Buoyed in past decades by the Cold War, the U.S./Soviet space race, and the development of personal computers, "'rithmetic" never falls far out of favor (although recent shifts toward questionable pedagogy and educational policy have contributed to a precipitous drop in America's mathematical competitiveness, leading in the last several years to a desperate hyper-focus on the need to improve math and science instruction in the U.S.; read my post titled "Mediocrity in Math Instruction," here).

Reading returned to prominence about 20 years ago, as the disastrous effects of "whole language" instructional theory became obvious and the specter of a generation that couldn't read lead to crash literacy programs and the return of "old fashioned" phonics.

Now that we've awakened to the new text-based Internet age, and while the need to read well remains unsurpassed, good writing skills are quickly becoming indispensable. As textual information begins to fill our lives more and more, the ability to communicate easily, effectively, and convincingly in writing is taking on an importance similar to that given to speaking and presentation skills during the recent heyday of the telephone, radio, and television. Whereas in the 20th century one strove to cultivate effective personal communication skills and a "good phone voice," what will matter as much or more to the next couple of generations will be the acquisition of excellent remote communication skills and a "good email voice." Those living during the first part of the 21st century will need superior writing skills that combine the powerful vocabulary and grammatical training emphasized during the 1960's and 70's, the informal, easy self-expression popularized during the 1980's and 90's, and the conciseness and brevity demanded during the "age of email" of the 2000's and beyond.

After suffering years of insult, injury, and neglect ... writing is back ... stronger than ever. It's finally time to welcome good, fluent writing skills into the American cultural mainstream once again.

An editorial on the increased importance and essential inter-relatedness of reading and writing appeared recently in the L.A. times – read it here.

Here's to the return of sentence diagramming, choosing the right word, and the crafting of a well-turned phrase!

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Copyright © 2006-present: Christopher R. Borland. All rights reserved.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Mediocrity In Math Instruction

In an effort to improve the average level of mathematical competence among American students, a new experiment has been under way for several years in our schools.

Called "Whole Group" instruction or "Whole Math" by some, this movement is based on the laudable idea that all students should function at or above a minimum acceptable level of mathematical competence.

What this means in practice, however, is that all students, regardless of innate ability or interest, are made to move at the same pace through the math curricula. Bright students must wait for low achieving students to catch on or catch up, before being allowed to move into other more advanced topics. In this system, the needs of students at or near the bottom are deemed to be more important than those of the top students in class, and advanced pupils with the most talent are held hostage by the least able and slowest moving ones.

Whereas the blatant unfairness and obvious unworkability of this system is recognized in the realm of reading instruction, where students have long been grouped according to ability in order to better meet the widely varying needs of slower and brighter students alike, the same common sense has not, unfortunately, prevailed in the teaching of mathematics. Championed by the current leaders in math education, including the National Association of Teachers of Mathematics, the doctrine of "Whole Group" instruction and "Math for the Masses" has become a sort of political correctness within the math education community. Dissenting opinions and opposition to this crazy idea are stridently fought back as "repressive" and "old school." One would never dream of forcing an advanced early reader to stunt his or growth in a lower level reading group, yet this is exactly what happens in school as children are taught mathematics.

Although the goals of egalitarianism and equal opportunity are very important, so is accepting the reality that not all people are equally talented or similarly motivated in all things. While inflexible, permanent "tracking" is unfair and definitely not the answer, neither is permanent "anti-tracking" that shackles the best and brightest students to the heels of the slowest and least interested ones.

A recent opinion piece in the Philadelphia Inquirer does a good job of dissecting the issue. Read a reprint of the article here.

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Copyright © 2006-present: Christopher R. Borland. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Are Hard Times Breeding Language Snobbery?

I confess. It does bother me when I encounter grammatical mistakes in advertisements, uttered nonchalantly by media personalities, or written on public signs or forms.

Perhaps that's to be expected ... I am an academic coach, after all.

But are heightened levels of stress and anxiety due to the current world economic crisis making irritated and obnoxious language snobs out of more regular folk?

Obsession with others' language blunders may, in fact, to be on the rise. As personal circumstances fall increasingly beyond our own control, it can be strangely consoling for many to know the "right way" to say or write something and even to browbeat others into adopting correct usage and orthography.

A recent piece at msnbc.com explores this idea more deeply:

But while blunders and bloopers have ever exasperated the spelling snobs and grammar grunions of the world, our recent woes — housing foreclosures, massive layoffs, rising debt and war — may be ratcheting up the pressure some feel to seize control of something (anything!), even if it’s just a properly placed comma.

“Hanging on to some kind of rule might be comforting to people,” says Bethany Keeley, a grad student from Athens, Ga., who runs The “Blog” of “Unnecessary” Quotation Marks. “People are looking for something they can control and ‘What should we do about our foreign policy?’ is a lot more complicated a question than ‘Should the period go inside or outside the quotation mark?’”

While it's obvious that too much language nagging is too much, I think it's clear that sloppy usage can go too far as well.

In recent years, leaders and role models in government and elsewhere have practically made a career out of mangling language ... and seem almost proud of it, denigrating those who prefer to speak or write with care and skill (See Bushisms and Palinisms).

The moral?

Neither a language snob nor slacker be.

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Copyright © 2006-present: Christopher R. Borland. All rights reserved.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Wikipedia Begins Flagging Revisions

Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia anyone can write and edit, one of the top ten sites on the entire internet, the wonderfully useful if not fastidiously veracious repository of aggregate human knowledge, is becoming civilized.

There's a new sheriff in town, and his name is "Flagged Revisions."

Before the new content management system began governing changes, anyone could, in a manner of seconds, edit a Wikipedia article read by the entire world. The possibility of inaccurate or biased revisions has indeed sullied Wikipedia's reputation among academic purists. But with entries that are generally reliable and contain useful links to expand one's knowledge quest quickly and productively, Wikipedia has become the first stop for many amateur researchers and is now the "go to" site for those seeking basic information on topics and questions of general interest. (Following in Wikipedia's footsteps, even the venerable Encyclopedia Britannica has now begun experimenting with user-generated content.)

After malicious revisions to Wikipedia falsely announced the deaths of Senators Edward Kennedy and Robert Byrd, however, Wikipedia creator Jimmy Wales called for the swift introduction of Flagged Revisions to prevent such vandalism in the future.

New York Times technology writer Noam Chohen explains:

The new system, called Flagged Revisions, would mark a significant change in the anything-goes, anyone-can-edit-at-any-time ethos of Wikipedia, which in eight years of existence has become one of the top 10 sites on the Web and the de facto information source for the Internet-using public.

The idea in a nutshell is that only registered, reliable users would have the right to have their material immediately appear to the general public visiting Wikipedia. Other contributors would be able to edit articles, but their changes will be held back until one of these reliable users has signed off, or “flagged” the revisions. (Registered, reliable users would see the latest edit to an article, whether flagged or not.)

Click here to read Cohen's entire article.

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Copyright © 2006-present: Christopher R. Borland. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

10 Ways To Cut College Costs

The cost of college is showing no sign of leveling off, and already causes too many students and parents too many sleepless nights.

Bankrate.com recently offered readers "10 alternate ways to cut college costs" in an online article by Christina Couch.

Tips include getting college credit in high school (fewer college classes means smaller tuition bills), qualifying for free money, transferring from a (low cost) community college, or living in-state for a year to get the best tuition rates.

The article referenced above is an excellent place to start for those interested in cutting the cost of higher education (these days, that's nearly everyone).

Read it here.

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Copyright © 2006-present: Christopher R. Borland. All rights reserved.

Monday, June 01, 2009

No Child Left Behind – Except The Gifted Ones

I admire the liberal, egalitarian goal helping all America's children to achieve academic success. Unfortunately, in our zeal to leave no child behind, we may in fact be leaving the entire nation behind.

With our limited resources, common wisdom now dictates that the special needs of gifted students be sacrificed in order to provide for those of lower achieving kids. Programs and energies previously directed at nurturing the best and brightest in our schools have now all but dried up, blown away by the erratic and often irrational winds of political correctness.

Certainly our culture benefits by raising the floor, but doesn't it also benefit by raising the ceiling? Isn't it just as important to make sure that the next generation's great thinkers, planners, inventors, and creators in all fields be given the educational stimulation and support they need throughout their early academic careers to fully develop their special abilities? Is it not the extraordinary capabilities of these individuals at the far right end of the bell curve – when their exceptional talents are not allowed to atrophy as in our current educational environment – that create many or most of the breakthroughs powering the progress of nations? Do we not still need to rely on the promise of such breakthroughs in fields such as medicine, computer science, energy production, etc. if our country is to continue to remain a world leader?

From a recent Washington Post article by Joann DiGennaro:
The ugly secret is that our most talented students are falling through the cracks. Not one program of such major governmental agencies as the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation or NASA specifically targets the top 5 percent of students who have demonstrated academic excellence and have the greatest potential for becoming our inventors, creators and groundbreaking scientists. An international assessment of math problem-solving skills of 15-year-olds in 2004, along with more recent studies, found that the United States had the fewest top performers and the largest percentage of low performers compared with other participating countries. By the time students reach 12th grade in math and science, they are near the bottom or dead last compared with international competition, according to the Education Department. These are the critical years for supporting students in science and math, for it is when they make career-determining decisions for college studies.

The blade must be strong, but the cutting edge must also be sharp in order for a tool to be truly useful. Sacrificing one necessary outcome for the sake of another is a foolish strategy, one that's bound to fail.

We as a nation should be willing (eager, in fact) to invest the resources necessary to accomplish the twin goals of leaving no child behind and holding no genius back.

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Copyright © 2006-present: Christopher R. Borland. All rights reserved.

Friday, May 01, 2009

Starting Salaries For The Multi-lingual Exceed $100K

I'm the father of a teenager, and I often wonder how to advise my daughter about her future.

As the 20th century fades away, what can we expect of the era that will replace it? How best to play her cards as an American student at this point in time? What ought to be the emphasis of her education? Which careers should she investigate, and what specific skills must she acquire, in order to be best positioned to profit personally and professionally in the coming decades?

Of course, no one really knows. But it seems fairly certain that being multi-lingual is going to be hugely beneficial to any American professional or would be world-citizen in the first half of the 21st century. The trend toward the globalization of economies and the "mashing" of cultures is accelerating and expanding exponentially, as the internet continues to transform international commerce and communication. The end of the "age of English" may in fact be at hand. As new economic and political realities challenge the hegemony of English speaking nations, which languages are poised for ascendancy? Aside from obligatory Spanish, which foreign languages are likely to most greatly benefit Americans of the future? Mandarin? Hindi? Japanese? Russian? German?

Two "sleepers" worth considering are Indonesian and Arabic.

I've chosen to mention Indonesian not just because I'm married to an Indonesian national and speak some Indonesian myself, but because Indonesia is the world's most populous Muslim nation and the fourth most populous nation overall, and is fast becoming "China's China" (the country to which China now outsources much of its own manufacturing). A country rich in natural resources (an OPEC member, etc.), Indonesia is set to become the next big economic player on the world stage, if only a way could be found to overcome the rampant, systemic corruption that so discourages foreign investment there.

Arabic, however, has more immediate drawing power. Those fluent in Standard Arabic can now attract starting salaries well above $100,000 per year, following the recent explosion in demand for Arabic translators. An article last year in Newsweek highlighted this hot new college course of study:

"'Once upon a time, studying Arabic would have placed a student squarely in the "What are you gonna do with that?" camp. But enrollment in U.S. college Arabic courses grew 92 percent between 1998 and 2002—and, spurred by 9/11 and the Iraq war, has probably doubled since then,' says Gerald Lampe, president of the American Association of Teachers of Arabic.

... Nawar Saddi, 23, received daily calls after posting his résumé on Monster.com. "Last year I was getting offers of $130,000," he says. "This year it's $180,000."

Wow!!

Read the entire article here.

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Copyright © 2006-present: Christopher R. Borland. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

The Stanford Laptop Orchestra

The personal computer has transformed the world of music.

Just as iTunes transformed the commercial music industry, new hardware and software tools have fundamentally changed the way in which university music departments teach the art of musical composition and performance.

The Stanford Laptop Orchestra (SLOrK ) is a bold experiment by Stanford researcher/programmer Ge Wang that combines the flexibility of Apple MacBook laptops, multi-channel speaker arrays made out of Ikea salad bowls, creative computer programming, and visionary imagination into an intriguing mix that makes for some pretty interesting sounds.

Paul Craft writes in the Stanford Daily:

The set-up is relatively simple. Members of the SLOrk operate black Apple Macbooks, which are connected via a series of cables to a spherical speaker system and control box for volume, among other things. Depending on the piece being played, the set up can include a joystick and other accessories.

The laptops themselves are, as the group’s title suggests, the heart of Wang’s vision. Ensemble members — the “musicians” — use a variety of different programs and configurations to create a variety of different sounds, ranging from a human-like voice to percussion to the ambient noises of a casino. SLOrK relies on a coding language that Professor Wang developed while at Princeton known simply as “CHUcK.” The language is made specifically for music and sound use, prototyping an instrument in a matter of minutes. “The computer itself is not an instrument. We have to craft it into one,” Wang said.

Read the rest of Craft's article here.

An interesting posting in the Pro section of the Apple site further details SLOrk's innovative joining of laptop and audio technology.

For video articles on SLOrk, and to hear the orchestra live in concert, click here and here.

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Copyright © 2006-present: Christopher R. Borland. All rights reserved.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Save Thousands On Textbooks



Textbooks demand scandalously high prices these days. It's nothing for math and science texts to cost more than $150 apiece, and list price on some books has soared to more than $200! That means that today's college students can easily spend well over $1000 or more on textbooks alone in a single year.

Excerpts from a recent article in the Pittsburg Post-Gazzette:

Like college tuition, the price of textbooks has soared faster than inflation. From 1986 to 2004, textbook prices nearly tripled, according to a Government Accountability Office report in 2005.

Nationwide, the GAO figured that textbooks were about a fourth of the cost of tuition and fees at four-year public colleges and universities and as much as three-quarters of the cost of tuition and fees at two-year public institutions.

Fortunately, there's a simple way to avoid falling victim to the college textbook extortion racket: ditch the college bookstore ... and buy new, used, or previous editions online!

Over the course of a four year college education, this tip plus a little disciplined research could easily save students and parents thousands of dollars.

Start by putting together a reliable list of the exact titles and ISBN numbers of all textbooks you'll be required to obtain for your classes during the upcoming semester (give yourself more time to save money and avoid problems by doing this as far in advance as possible).

To begin shopping, first search for the books you need by title, author, and/or ISBN on Amazon. It's possible to save nearly 30% or more when buying new books through Amazon or other online book dealers instead of at college bookstores, and even more (over 70%!) by buying used books online (at amazon, just click on the "... used" link a few inches below the title on the book's product page).

In addition to amazon, a host of online textbook price comparison sites like DealOz, CheapestTextbooks, and BookFinder enable one to directly compare prices of new and used textbooks offered for sale online at drastically reduced prices.

The latest edition of a given text is, of course, going to be the most expensive. But if the course instructor will allow students to use a previous edition rather than the most current one (it doesn't hurt to ask!), you could save nearly 70% on a brand new book by buying it online.

When buying textbooks online, whether new or used, it's a good idea to buy only from highly rated merchants (DealOz and Amazon provide this important information when doing book searches; CheapestTextbooks and BookFinder do not); otherwise, if your books don't arrive in a timely fashion or in acceptable condition, you may have to procure them again in great haste and at full retail price through the college bookstore.

And don't forget the option of selling your textbooks after you no longer have a need for them! Amazon makes this easy, and doing so could recoup much of the money you've had to spend (even after highlighting and marking your books, you'll still be able to get something for them by passing them along to another buyer).

The movement to lower textbook prices is growing fast. Some university professors are fighting back, opting to use free and low-cost online resources rather than force students to get ripped off at the college store. Aside from saving a pile of wallet green, buying used books online is also environmentally greener than purchasing brand new books to be used only for a short time and then discarded.

Save a bundle ... buy texts online!

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Copyright © 2006-present: Christopher R. Borland. All rights reserved.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Tutoring Gets Outsourced

It had to happen!

With rates for in-home tutors in the U.S. averaging around $60 per hour, and video conferencing software coming along that allows people across the globe to hold productive meetings on each other's computer screens, it was only a matter of time until enterprising companies found a way to outsource private tutoring of American students to India.

Now, for about $25 per hour (less than half price), a student in San Francisco can work with a tutor in India over the internet utilizing modern voice and conferencing software to communicate essential academic questions and concepts.

Apparently, the arrangement works quite well for many students, especially for those whose parents are unable to afford the higher cost of hiring a private tutor to work in person with their son or daughter.

Of course, nothing beats a face-to face one-on-one sit down with an expert private teacher. So much of communication is non-verbal, and many students will find internet tutoring to lack the fullness of instruction and personal quality that only live sessions with local tutors and coaches can provide. Students with learning differences or disabilities will almost certainly find that impersonal online sessions with tutors untrained and inexperienced in handling these difficult issues are inadequate to meet their specialized needs. Still others will want to be able to go into greater depth and detail than is possible through a remote, online connection with a teacher continents away.

But for simple questions, occasional sessions, or a low cost way to meet the needs of struggling students, online tutoring offers a viable alternative that may be worth considering for many families.

An excellent article recently appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, and offers a starting point for those interested in finding out more (to go to the article, click here).

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Copyright © 2006-present: Christopher R. Borland. All rights reserved.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

U.C. Berkeley For Free

Made possible by the miracle of the internet, a movement is now well underway among some of the greatest universities in the world to make their courses freely available to anyone with an internet connection – not for profit, but simply to disseminate knowledge for the betterment humankind. (See earlier post on the "OpenCourseWare Movement" titled: M.I.T. for Free.)

Today, those interested in learning informally and independently from some of the best colleges and professors on the planet can essentially audit many courses at institutions like M.I.T. and U.C. Berkeley online. Whether done in one's spare time for the pure pleasure of learning, or in a more structured way to gain greater expertise in a particular academic area, the potential for personal and professional growth is tremendous. Whether an advanced high schooler in Larkspur, California, a budding computer genius in Helsinki, Finland or a poor villager in Kuala Lampur, Malaysia, the collective knowledge of mankind is now beginning to be offered online without cost or registration, worldwide, for the benefit of all concerned.

Additionally, by taking these online peeks under the hood at the engines that power famous universities in the U.S. and abroad, one begins to get a feel for what it may be like to attend this or that college, to take a course with this or that professor, a valuable plus for anyone soon to make critical decisions about which university, major, or professors to select.

Below is a short sample of U.C. Berkeley courses that anyone can audit, for any reason, for free, online:

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Title: Introduction to Nonviolence
PACS 164A: Lecture 14

Date: Fall 2006

Instructor: Michael N. Nagler (Professor Emeritus of Classics and Comparative Literature)

I spent an hour late this morning peeking into a terrific U.C. Berkeley class given by renowned professor Michael N. Nagler, as he delivered an enthralling lecture about the successful efforts of the 1930's Pashtuns, who, lead by Abdul Ghaffar Khan in what is now Pakistan, manned the "army without guns" that nonviolently fought and finally helped defeat the British colonizers and win their people's freedom.

I learned that Ghaffar Khan, an ardent Muslim and follower of comrade and contemporary Mohatma Ghandi, was a strong believer in the absolute compatibility of Islam with the tactics and philosophy of nonviolence, a belief that carries with it critical importance and special relevance today:

"I am going to give you such a weapon that the police and the army will not be able to stand against it. It is the weapon of the Prophet, but you are not aware of it. That weapon is patience and righteousness. No power on earth can stand against it."

– Abdul Ghaffar Khan

I find it hard to describe what a thrill it was to listen to Professor Nagler, a remarkable instructor and world-class expert in this particular field, teach on the power of nonviolence as a political and cultural force ... to be able to sit in on this fascinating class.

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Title: Physics for Future Presidents (Physics C10)
Lecture 04: Gravity and Satellites II

Date: 2/2/2006

Instructor: Richard A. Muller (Professor of Physics)

From the course description:

"The most interesting and important topics in physics, stressing conceptual understanding rather than math, with applications to current events."

In this lecture, Prof Muller talks about escape velocity, and other topics germane to the space program, etc.

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Title: General Human Anatomy (Integrative Biology 131)
-- Lecture 30: The Eye

Instructor: Marian Diamond

Professor Diamond takes a look at "the cells that built the Golden Gate Bridge, that built the pyramids, that built the Palm Pilot ... the two main cells in your cerebral cortex that are responsible for all of your behavior."

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Click here to see the complete catalog of U.C. Berkeley courses available on YouTube.

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Copyright © 2006-present: Christopher R. Borland. All rights reserved.