Research vulnerable to viruses; Study: Computer worms can – and do – disable scientists’ systems

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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A crippling virus swept across the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston last month, disabling all it touched and stopping doctors from treating some patients.

It wasn’t the sort of virus that could be stopped by surgical masks and drugs. Rather, it was the Sasser worm, a computer virus that infected more than a quarter-million computers worldwide – including a third of M.D. Anderson’s systems.

A new report from the state auditor’s office says the cancer center’s vulnerability to electronic attack isn’t unusual.

In a study of some Texas research institutions, including the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas, auditors found significant security holes in the systems used to gather, analyze and store research data.

The vulnerabilities include many of the same security flaws found in private businesses or homes. Anti-virus software isn’t always updated. Passwords are sometimes easy to guess. Backups aren’t made often enough.

But the unique nature of academic research creates a unique set of problems, said the audit’s manager, Ron Franke. Corporate research is often done in a locked-down, tightly secured environment. “The academic environment tends to be much more open,” Mr. Franke said. “Not only is sharing information OK, it’s encouraged. That openness brings its own set of challenges.”

The biggest challenges tend to be in the most decentralized areas of an institution’s research operations, he said. The more that security is left in the hands of individual researchers or departments, the more at risk they may be.

Among the solutions cited in the report:

* Standardized security plans for researchers and better data security training.

* Better network security, particularly on easier-to-access wireless networks.

* Improved security standards at the user level, including more rigorous use of security patches.

* Better backup plans, with backups stored at an off-site location.

Mr. Franke said the study found no evidence the state’s research labs were being specifically targeted for invasive data attacks. But, he said, universities had historically been attractive targets for hackers because they host massive computing resources. Once compromised, those resources can be used to launch further attacks.

The report, released Wednesday, makes no estimates on how much it would cost to bring security standards up to an acceptable level. But, Mr. Franke said, the institutions studied have already begun to make changes in response to the audit’s findings.

UT Southwestern would not allow any of its security personnel to discuss the report with the media. But spokesman Philip Schoch, in a prepared statement, said medical center officials had “corrected many of the problems identified … and are vigorously addressing those issues remaining.”

Research is big business for Texas institutions. The three that were the primary focus of the study – UT Southwestern, UT-Austin, and the UT Health Science Center at San Antonio – received more than $774 million in research funding in fiscal 2003.

Texas researchers have suffered through a number of high-profile data losses in recent years. Perhaps the most notable came with Tropical Storm Allison in 2001, which flooded large parts of Houston. Along with the loss of thousands of research animals and tissue samples, scientists at the Baylor College of Medicine and the UT Health Science Center at Houston lost 10 years of data on spinal cord injuries.

Column: In science, girls still face hurdles

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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As physics teacher Chris Bruhn found out, the videotape doesn’t lie.

He thought he treated all his students the same, boys and girls. In his earlier days as an aerospace engineer, he’d noticed how few women had followed his career path. Now he was determined to make sure girls felt comfortable in his classroom.

But when he set up a video camera and watched himself teach, he discovered something.

“I would let the boys interrupt the girls when the girls were speaking,” said Mr. Bruhn, who taught this year at both Woodrow Wilson and W.T. White high schools in Dallas. “But I wouldn’t let the girls do the same. So the girls learned to be quiet in class, and the boys learned to be loud.”

For decades, we’ve heard about the gender gap in math and science. Those subjects are for boys, the stereotype went, let the girls do well in English. Well, good news: Girls have just about closed the math gap, if scores on this year’s TAKS tests are any evidence.

And while the science gap persists, there’s hope that a little teacher introspection – and perhaps a few VHS tapes – may yet close it.

“Kids are told their entire lives that science is for boys,” said Jo Sanders, a Seattle-based education consultant. “That’s the message they get on television, in the movies, from their parents, from video games. That’s what teachers are up against.”

Ms. Sanders is working with AP Strategies, a Dallas-based educational nonprofit, on something called the Gender Equity Project. It’s sponsored by the Dallas Women’s Foundation and Texas Instruments.

First, though, the numbers.

School officials are used to slicing and dicing their test scores by race and poverty. The state requires them to. But a different story emerges if you slice them by sex.

Girls have taken a substantial lead in subjects that involve writing. The female passing rate on the English language arts TAKS this year was 10.5 percentage points higher than the male rate. The gaps were smaller but still significant in writing (6.5 percentage points) and reading (3.4). In math and social studies, boys and girls essentially tied. But in science, boys still have the edge, by 6.3 percentage points.

Since last fall, Ms. Sanders has been working with a group of 14 Dallas science and technology teachers on examining the ways they teach their subjects to girls. One of the assignments was the self-observation Mr. Bruhn did.

“I noticed that when we did a lab experiment, the boys would typically monopolize the equipment,” he said. “The girls would see themselves as the note takers.”

Other teachers found similar gaps – some the result of teacher attitudes, some the result of student attitudes. Studies have shown that many science teachers call on boys more often than girls in class. When they call on boys, they’re willing to wait longer for an answer than they are with girls. And they often let boys talk more and more often.

“I was extremely skeptical at first,” said Walter Dewar, AP Strategies’ executive vice president and a former high school math teacher. “But I think it’s true that most science teachers’ teaching styles favor males.”

None of that makes them bad people.

“These are well-meaning teachers,” Ms. Sanders said. “These stereotypes have been pressed into all of us for many years,” she said, the result of cultural hints large and small that science isn’t for girls.

Why have girls achieved parity in math but not in science? Ms. Sanders suspects it’s because the women’s movement has focused on math more and for decades. Science and technology haven’t been in the gender spotlight for nearly as long.

She also said girls tend to do better in subjects that are less abstract and theoretical. Girls do well in biology, for instance, but less so in physics.

The best part? Once teachers and students are conscious of their habits, stereotypes aren’t that hard to beat, Ms. Sanders said.

I can already hear the men in the audience: “But what about the boys?”

Girls have an even bigger edge in literary subjects than boys have in science. Why do people care so much about the girls who don’t know a phylum from fusion and not about the boys who can’t string together three sentences?

Jo Sanders agrees with you.

“There’s been a movement focusing on math and science for girls,” she said. “There’s no comparable group standing up for the boys. There should be.

“Whether we’re talking about boys or girls, it’s not healthy for society if half the population thinks some subject is automatically not for them,” she said.

TAKS stakes rising for fifth-graders; Next year’s students are first to need math, reading for promotion

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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You have to hope the fourth-graders at Rockwall’s Jones Elementary liked their teachers this year. They’ll be seeing them again soon enough.

The school is shifting its fourth-grade reading and math teachers up a grade next year – in part because school officials want to provide every advantage for a group of kids who will face obstacles unprecedented for Texas fifth-graders.

Next year, they’ll have to pass both the reading and math portions of the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills to be promoted to sixth grade. So while school’s out across Texas, the state’s elementary schools are already searching for ways to clear the newest hurdle thrown at them.

In Rockwall, one solution is to move the teachers.

“These teachers already know the parents, they already know the kids, and they know exactly where they are,” principal Sylvia Miller said.

Next year also is the first time Texas students will have to pass a math test to be promoted to the next grade. When this year’s fifth-graders tried, 75,000 fell short.

“There’s still a lot of work to be done,” said Paula Moeller, the Texas Education Agency’s director of mathematics.

That means a new set of pressures for teachers. “You know that everybody’s looking at you,” said Jose Pinter, a fifth-grade bilingual teacher at Duncanville’s Hardin Intermediate.

Under the old TAAS test – which was retired in 2002 – there was plenty of pressure. But it was a diffuse pressure shared by all teachers in the tested grades. Under TAKS, certain grades come with special stresses.

Third grade went first. Starting last year, third-graders had to pass the reading test to be promoted to fourth grade. For thousands of teachers, springtime became a stressed-out push to get students above the testing bar on their second or third try.

This year, high school juniors and their teachers faced the pressure, as students were required to pass the TAKS graduation exam for the first time.

Fifth grade is next. This year, 79 percent of fifth-graders passed the reading test. They did slightly better on math – 82 percent.

Tougher standards

But next year, kids will have to answer more questions correctly to pass as Texas phases in tougher standards. By next year’s standards, the passing rate on both reading and math would have been 73 percent this year.

As with third-grade reading, students will have up to three chances to pass the fifth-grade exams. But that creates another wrinkle: To make room in the testing calendar for the retakes, the math test will be given three weeks earlier. The reading test will be given two months earlier.

Put it all together and it means less time to prepare for the same test and more questions to get right to pass.

Schools are reacting in a variety of ways.

Some, like Rockwall’s Jones Elementary, are looping teachers across multiple grades. Others are shifting away from having one teacher instruct students in all academic subjects. Instead, fifth-graders are taught by separate math, English, science and social studies instructors, who rotate from class to class.

“That departmentalizing is more common now than it used to be,” Ms. Moeller said.

Some educators also are recommending that schools scale back the amount of math review they do at the start of fifth grade.

“We’re suggesting they start immediately with new fifth-grade skills rather than review fourth-grade material,” said George Christ, an elementary math consultant for the Texas Education Agency’s Region 10, which includes Dallas.

He said such review material would include multiplying three-digit numbers and subtracting basic fractions.

The fifth-grade math TAKS also includes a large number of multi-step word problems, which can make strong literacy skills just as important as computation ability. “If kids can read well, they’ll do well on the test,” Mr. Pinter said. “It’s getting the right information out of the problem that’s key.”

It’s unclear how fifth-graders will react to the high-stakes exam.

“Fifth-graders are right in the cross,” said Wilma Cook, a math curriculum specialist in Fort Worth who taught fifth grade for a dozen years. “They’re just old enough to be independent but still too young to be the grown-up. You’ve got both sides.”

‘They feel the pressure’

Mr. Pinter said fifth-graders may feel the stress more than third-graders did with their high-stakes test. “Third-graders are innocent,” said Mr. Pinter, a former third-grade teacher. “They’re not afraid of making mistakes. Fifth-graders are more aware of their abilities. … They feel the pressure.”

One thing these kids have in their favor: They’re veterans of high-stakes tests. Next year’s fifth-graders are last year’s third-graders – the first class that had to pass that grade’s reading TAKS hurdle to be promoted.

They passed with flying colors. Ninety-four percent passed on the first or second try.

“These kids are so used to testing by now,” said Joyce Price, Hardin Intermediate’s principal.

This group – the senior class of 2012 – will get one more chance to be at the cusp of Texas education reform. In 2008, they’ll be the first class that has to pass eighth grade’s math and reading TAKS to enter high school.