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Eugenie Scott, Brandon Haught, Bertha Vazquez in Orlando this month

Tuesday, October 3rd, 2017

I’m reproducing here an edited notice that the National Center for Science Education sent out recently about a central Florida event coming up:

NCSE’s founding executive director Eugenie C. Scott will be speaking on “Race, Science, and Society” at 4:30 p.m. on October 21, at the FREEFLO Freethought Florida Conference, held at the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel at the Orlando Airport, 5555 Hazeltine National Drive in Orlando.

A description of her talk: “The concept of race in biology or anthropology refers to groups of populations in a geographic region that share some characteristics. As such, races, as open genetic systems, are neither permanent, stable, pure, nor are they discrete units. The concept of race to most Americans, however, includes most of this list, and thus has no scientific foundation. Yet socially, race is extraordinarily important in American society, and misunderstanding biology and genetics can have serious consequences for our society. How should we approach this subject to both reflect science as well as our social needs?”

Among the other speakers at the conference will be high school science teacher, author, and Florida Citizens for Science communications director Brandon Haught, speaking on “Evolution and Climate Change and Schools, Oh My!” at 3:05 p.m. on October 21.

A description of his talk: “Attempts to influence science education, especially lessons on evolution, have been ongoing since the 1920s here in Florida. Amazingly, the fight rages on even today. Two new state laws are the latest salvo in this never-ending battle. One law changes the way textbooks and instructional materials can be reviewed and challenged by citizens. The other law allows students and all school personnel to express religious viewpoints free from discrimination. Proponents of these laws have gone on the record to boldly state that they will both be used to attack the teaching of evolution and climate change at the local school board level. Additionally, the Florida Department of Education started the process of reviewing and approving new science textbooks that will be used in classrooms for several years to come. This talk will focus on the origins of the new laws, their potential impact, and what concerned citizens can do to defend quality science education here in the Sunshine State.”

Also speaking is Bertha Vazquez, a science teacher in the Miami-Dade County Public Schools and director of the Teacher Institute for Evolutionary Science, which holds workshops around the nation for middle-school teachers. She will be speaking on “What Is It Like to Teach Evolution in the United States?” at 3:35 p.m. on October 21.

Conference registration starts at $120 ($45 for students). For further details, visit: http://www.freeflo.org/

It can’t be done without you

Sunday, September 3rd, 2017

What can you do? How can you help? How can you make a difference?

I’m getting a lot of inquiries from folks wanting direction. They have the interest and the desire to pitch in but they’re not sure where to put that energy. With that in mind, I’ve created a to-do list. You can pick a whole bunch of things to do or you can just choose the thing or two that your busy schedule allows. But the main thing is that you find a way to participate that works best for you. Even if you’re doing a small part to help, you’re at least doing something.

What are the issues we’re facing?

What can you do? Here’s a to-do list to choose from:

  • You’ve reading this because you heard about at least one of the issues mentioned above. How did you hear about it? Now think about the many other people who haven’t heard about it. It’s time to spread the word. Post on social media. Bring it up in conversations with friends, colleagues and family. Ask any organizations you’re a member of to consider advocating for one of the issues. Write letters to the editor. The bottom line is to spread the word. This becomes a numbers game. If you tell 50 people, then maybe five will be interested and maybe one or two will be very active. But it all starts with you.
  • We posted about the start of the state’s science instructional materials review and approval process. Sign up if you have the qualifications.
  • The real fireworks will happen over instructional materials at the school district level. Contact your local school district. Let them know you are willing to help them review and select science instructional materials when the time comes. Let them know you’ll be willing to serve as the hearing officer if any complaints come forward. Make sure they know who you are and that you are there to help, not cause problems.
  • Become familiar with your school district. When are the school board meetings? Can you access the school board meeting agenda online or somewhere else before meetings? Can you access the meeting minutes after the meetings? Are the meetings recorded? Are they broadcast live? Who are the school board members? Have any of them ever expressed anti-science sentiments or pro-science comments?
  • Become familiar with your local residents. Are there any who frequently complain to the school board who might now use the new instructional materials law to amplify their complaints? Are there any organized groups who have or possibly will be loud? (Check this list on the Florida Citizens’ Alliance website and this list, too. Are any of those groups or individuals in your area?)
  • The new instructional materials law was created and pushed by a group called Florida Citizens’ Alliance. They were dominant during the last state legislative session. They were a constant presence in Tallahassee, meeting lawmakers face to face and speaking at every relevant hearing. We need to counter-balance that influence. Do you have any contacts with state lawmakers? Can you contact your local representatives now to ask them questions and express your concerns while they’re in your home district (as opposed to sealed up in Tallahassee when the legislature is in session)?
  • We here at Florida Citizens for Science are an all-volunteer force. None of us are working on this full time. That means we need more people willing to stand up and take on a role. All of the above ideas are wonderful and could make an impact, but they’ll be even more powerful if they’re coordinated and tracked. We have an idea for a “county watch” committee that will collect and sort a lot of the above information. Then we can better match people up with others in their area, keep track of activities in potential hot spots, and better deploy resources without wasted duplication of effort. But all of that takes committed people willing to invest the time and energy.
  • In conjunction with any of the above to-do items is doing your homework. Our blog is jam-packed with lots of valuable information. Read it. If you would like to help index all of that information for better ease of use, then do it and send me what you’ve compiled. In other words, if you see something that can be improved to make our work more efficient, then please roll up your sleeves and pitch in. I would love to make the blog more user friendly for quick research but I don’t have the time to do it. Do you?

We’ll add to this list as more ideas pop up. No, it’s not comprehensive. That’s why we need you. Help us to help our schools.

Guest Post: The IMPACT Summer Program

Wednesday, August 2nd, 2017

I’m happy to present this guest post submitted by Amanda I. De Cun, MPS Candidate Marine Ecosystems and Society, Intern with the Department of Ocean Sciences at RSMAS University of Miami.

The STEM field has become increasingly popular and important in the past few years. Encouraging grade school students to participate in STEM activities have been shown to make an impact in their chances of high school graduation and being accepted into college. In fact, one program has seen first-hand what a difference STEM immersion can do for a student.

One program that has made an incredible impact on Miami-Dade County high school students since its inception in 1999, has been the Frost Science Upward Bound Math and Science program (UBMS), funded by the U.S. Department of Education. UBMS understands the importance of science in the classroom, but has also realized that under-resourced students often miss out on a science focused curriculum in school as well as lacking science role models in their lives. To defeat this problem, the UBMS program enlists students from Title 1 schools in the Miami area and enrolls them in a four year, after school, weekend and summer program geared towards STEM curiosity. The program inspires these under-resourced students the opportunity to see a world of post-secondary study, motivating them to complete high school and become the first generation in their family to be accepted into college.

The UBMS program provides these students with access to mentors, interactions with scientists and technology as well as a six-week summer program called IMPACT (Integrated Marine Program and College Training). In partnership with the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, these students are able to immerse themselves with marine science curriculum through activities with the university such as shark tagging expeditions, outdoor field experiences and field trips to state parks and marine sanctuaries and conduct research projects mentored by graduate students and M-DCPS teachers.

The IMPACT curriculum always includes the theory, practice and tools associated with different subjects ranging from oceanography, marine biology, geology, and ecology, meteorology and resource management. At the end of their six-week summer program, the students are given the opportunity to present their projects and are recognized by museum staff, scientists, families and peers for their dedicated accomplishments.

This summer, I was given the opportunity to present and give a lecture to these students during their six-week IMPACT program at the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science. As a current RSMAS graduate student, I am fulfilling my internship requirement under the direction of Dr. Vassiliki Kourafalou, a professor in the Ocean Science department, who is currently doing research with funding from the GoMRI project (Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative) which is a “10-year independent research program created to study the effect, and the potential associated impact, of hydrocarbon releases on the environment and public health, as well as to develop improved spill mitigation, oil detection, characterization and remediation technologies” (Gulf of Mexico Research Intiative 2013). In easier words, to understand the effects of oil on the environment and how to be better prepared in case another oil spill like the Deepwater Horizon explosion were to happen again.

During my internship, I spent most of my time researching and understanding the work related to the GoMRI project, created lectures and presentations for high school classrooms and attended outreach events. I felt really lucky to be given the opportunity to present to these IMPACT students, because coming from a previous career as a high school biology teacher, I understand the importance of communicating science to young people, while making them interested in it at the same time. To be invited by the outreach coordinators at IMPACT and asked to be a small part of an amazing program like UBMS, was extremely gratifying. Knowing I made a positive impact on these students is a feeling that every teacher, volunteer, outreach coordinator, mom, dad, whoever it may be, wants to feel and experience.

With over 1,000 students participating in their program since 1999, 98% have graduated high school and 95% have been accepted into a post-secondary institution of study, with the majority pursuing STEM fields (UBMS 2017). The UBMS program has made it extremely clear that when you provide students with the necessary tools to succeed, they will, in fact succeed.

This is not “needless fretting”

Saturday, July 29th, 2017

An editorial was published in a few papers recently, including the Gainesville Sun, opining that Florida’s new instructional materials law isn’t something to get all worked up about: Needless fretting over textbook law.

The doomsdayers among us believe Scott and the measure’s supporters have thrust open an educational Pandora’s box, exposing school districts to the “anti-science” whims of flat-earthers and climate-change deniers.

To them we reply: Deep breaths, folks, deep breaths.

There are some elements of the editorial I agree with. I agree that this law won’t wipe science subjects like evolution and climate change out of the state’s public schools. I agree that a lot of the news coverage, especially the headlines attached to the stories, are overblown and sensationalist. I believe trouble will likely only pop up in a few spots around the state where small yet vocal groups are already causing headaches.

But I disagree with the overall tone of the editorial, which is essentially saying don’t worry, this is no big deal.

This law probably isn’t a big deal when you look at it from a statewide perspective. But it’s a huge deal when you look at it from the local school district perspective. Even if only one school district decides to allow anti-science instructional materials into their school (due to a sympathetic school board majority or relentless pressure that eventually forces a school board into compromise), that’s going to potentially impact the education of hundreds or thousands of students for years. This is not just alarmist hype. I wrote the book on this topic. It’s happened before here in the Sunshine State and the chances of it happening again are now very high with the passage into law of the instructional materials bill and the religious liberties in schools bill.

Keep in mind that the group mentioned in the editorial, the Florida Citizens’ Alliance, took credit for writing the bill. They took credit for recruiting legislators to sponsor the bill. They took credit for helping to successfully navigate the bill through all of its committee stops and votes. They took credit for helping it become law.

Why in the world would they go through all of that effort?

The law’s authors and supporters said:

“Darwin’s theory is a theory, and the biblical view is a theory, and our kids should be taught both in a balanced way,” [Florida Citizens’ Alliance’s Keith Flaugh] said.

And that goal was repeated:

“The science here is not proven on either side,” Flaugh said. “There are lots of scientists on both sides of that equation: Creationism versus the theory of evolution. They’re both theories. And all we’re asking for is both sides of the discussion in a balanced way be put in front of the students.”

And it was repeated yet again:

“We’re not trying to ban books,” said Keith Flaugh, founder of the Florida Citizens’ Alliance, which pushed for that state’s bill.

He said his group is seeking balance in school instruction, including teaching both evolution and creationism and the various arguments about climate change.

Those quotes lead me to the next point I want to make. The editorial questions why nearly every news story focuses primarily on science education.

The whole reason why the media is fixated on the science aspect of this law is because we here at Florida Citizens for Science — who specialize in science education, of course — were vigilant and aggressive. We brought the pitfalls of this law to the media’s attention and we made it incredibly easy for them to report on it, having done most of their work for them.

I’ve lamented to a few reporters that no one has stepped up to defend the other academic subjects under attack. There apparently is no Citizens for Civics organization out there, for instance. And many reporters should shoulder some blame for not bothering to do their own digging and questioning about those other academic subjects. The Alliance is much more focused on civics and history and religion than they are on science.

But science became the media’s focal point because evolution and climate change lessons in schools are hot button topics and we constantly monitor those topics and immediately take action, such as alerting the media, when problems pop up. Florida Citizens for Science would likely have never been involved in this fight if the Alliance hadn’t included science topics in their long list of “objectionable materials.”

Whereas I agree that many news stories have gotten some facts wrong and over hyped the impact of the instructional materials law, I disagree that we’re engaging in “needless fretting.” I appreciate that the news coverage has highlighted this issue because now citizen science advocates across the state are aware of the laws and are ready to act if needed. We’ve been flooded with correspondence, membership requests, and social media followers.

And the interest has led to yet more calls from reporters (I know that a few more stories are currently in the works). I make sure to emphasize to those reporters the facts of this issue, not the hype. We want reality-based awareness of this issue, not the-sky-is-falling screaming.

This is not “needless fretting.” This is citizen activism provoked by very real attacks on science education.

Announcement: Florida Citizens for Science meeting July 15

Saturday, July 8th, 2017

Florida Citizens for Science will hold an interim meeting to discuss the many science education developments since we held our regular annual meeting back in January.

Date: July 15 (Saturday)
Time: 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Place: Room 2702 USF Marshall Student Center, 4103 Cedar Circle, Tampa, Florida 33620

The event announcement is also on Facebook.

We will have a structured “open forum” meeting to discuss the following:
**Seeking members willing to serve on the Florida Citizens for Science Board of Directors, willing to form and serve on committees, and willing to take on other active roles.
**What actions to take in response to new Instructional Materials law.
**What actions to take in response to new Religious Liberties in Schools law.
**What actions to take when the Florida Department of Education starts the science textbook review/adoption process.
**What actions to take in response to consistently poor results on annual state science assessments.
**Guage interest in reinstating our annual fundraising campaign for science supplies requested by Florida teachers on Donors Choose.

We will attempt to make the meeting accessible remotely via Skype, Google Hangouts or some other video conferencing method. If anyone wishes to assist in setting this up, please let us know.

We will ask all participants to stay on topic. We will politely yet firmly cut off comments/discussion that ramble or get off topic. Please review the list of topics and prepare any remarks or suggestions you have ahead of time so that the meeting can run smoothly.

The fight will now be won or lost where you live.

Monday, June 26th, 2017

Unfortunately, the devious Instructional Materials bill, which creationists and climate change deniers absolutely love, is now signed into law by Governor Rick Scott. This means our fight is only just now beginning. Each and every one of us has to be on alert. You must keep an eye on your local school board and everyone who brings forth a complaint about textbooks. If you don’t, we truly lose. At this point the fight is at the local level. If you’re not there and willing to stand up for sound science education, then we’re done.

Are you ready?

Edited to add: If you’re not familiar with this new law, please read through our Instructional Materials bill blog category. In a nutshell, the new law will allow any resident, not just parents, to protest against what’s found in textbooks, including coverage of evolution, climate change, vaccines, etc. On top of that, school districts must appoint a hearing officer to consider such complaints. It’s bad news all around.

To make things worse, a separate bill was signed into law earlier concerning Religious Liberties in schools. Part of that new law states: “A school district may not discriminate against a student, parent, or school personnel on the basis of a religious viewpoint or religious expression.” We already know for a fact that at least one organization will combine both laws in their crusade against what they view as in balanced inaccuracies in Florida textbooks. The group’s leaders have gone on the record with their intentions.

“[Florida Citizens’ Alliance’s Keith] Flaugh said his group will use it in conjunction with the instructional materials bill to contest textbooks that demonstrate ‘bias toward Islam and seldom mention Christianity,’ and promote those that push for a Christian view of the origins of life. ‘Darwin’s theory is a theory, and the biblical view is a theory, and our kids should be taught both in a balanced way,’ he said.”

Unfortunate students stuck in the middle of a debate they don’t understand

Wednesday, May 31st, 2017

wnyc_square_logoNew York’s flagship public radio station WNYC recently broadcast/published stories about conflicts over teaching evolution and climate change in classrooms across the country. I spent quite a long time talking with a reporter about the situation here in Florida, especially in relation to the Religious Liberties and Instructional Materials bills approved by our state legislature and awaiting the governor’s signature. The first couple of stories went live today.

One story is on a show called The Takeaway: New Law Would Let Citizens Fight to Get Climate Change, Evolution Out of Florida Classrooms. It’s an interview with Glenn Branch from the National Center for Science Education. Overall, it’s a good, informative story. But I feel some nuance was missed, as indicated in the story’s title. Even those who promoted the bill have said it’s not about getting subjects they don’t like out of the science classroom, but rather trying to balance them with other views. And the bill doesn’t directly impact the curriculum but rather just the instructional materials, such as textbooks. I’m not sure if the reporters who I’ve talked with aren’t understanding that or they are choosing to simplify the topic for their audiences.

upset-studentThe other story is on a show called The United States of Anxiety: “Would you debate gravity?”: climate change in the classroom. The main story can be played right at the top of the page, but there are several other audio clips further down the page, including mine roughly halfway down. My clip features some fumbling pauses in the beginning because I was trying to think of the best way to tell my story without providing too much detail that might identify and embarrass or upset the story’s subjects if they were to happen to hear it. The main point I was trying to make was that some poor students find themselves stuck in the middle between a teacher and his/her family. The student brings a question to me but as I delve deeper into the question with the student it becomes clear that the student is just relaying it from a parent and doesn’t even understand the question.

But there was more that I told the reporter that didn’t make it into that 28 second clip. I said that’s a horrible situation for the student and I refuse to use the child as a messenger. Instead, I decline to answer the question, explaining that I want to hear questions that the student comes up with, not the parent. What I teach is a very basic foundation and this is probably the first time students are hearing about climate change in an academic setting. The questions the parents come up with are full of misleading inaccuracies and outright false information that would take forever to try to explain to a child who has just learned for the first time from me what the greenhouse gases are (other than carbon dioxide) and what the albedo effect is. Honestly, I think the students are relieved that I take that stance.

With that in mind, I want to point out that if the instructional materials bill is signed into law by the governor, we’re going to see the situation I described much more often.

I was told that more clips from my long interview might be used in other stories still to come.

Heartland’s junk mail arrives in Florida

Friday, May 26th, 2017

Today was my last day of school with students for the year. After saying a final farewell to my students, I wrapped up my day with my usual trek to the mail room and I found a little gift in my mailbox:

heartland

For those of you who don’t know, it’s climate change denial garbage from a conservative think tank. This New York Times Op-ed explains.

The book is unscientific propaganda from authors with connections to the disinformation-machinery of the Heartland Institute. In a recent letter to his members, David L. Evans, executive director of the National Science Teachers Association, said that “labeling propaganda as science does not make it so.” He called the institute’s mass mailing of the book an “unprecedented attack” on science education.

Judging from the responses of educators I know who have received “Why Scientists Disagree About Global Warming” in recent weeks, most copies of it are likely to be ignored or discarded. But if only a small percentage of teachers use it as intended, they could still mislead tens of thousands of students with it year after year.

Knowing that the other science teachers at my school received the same package, I sent an email to my department explaining what’s going on and pointing them to the National Center for Science Education’s material that refutes Heartland’s junk. I’m glad I did. I later spoke with a fellow teacher who didn’t know anything about Heartland. With that in mind, I advise that all teachers educate their coworkers when this junk mail shows up!