Archive for the 'In the Classroom' Category

Where did those anti-evolution resolutions come from?

Wednesday, January 16th, 2008

A lengthy article in the Florida Baptist Witness doesn’t come right out and say it, but the source of the anti-evolution resolutions seems to be:

Kendall [Kim Kendall, a leading activist opposing the standards and a member of First Baptist Church in Jacksonville] agreed with the idea of academic freedom in the classroom, she told the Witness in a later e-mail.

According to Kendall, the school districts in St. Johns, Baker and Taylor counties have composed resolutions against the proposed approach to teaching evolution. The resolutions request that the SBOE maintain academic freedom and integrity in the classrooms.

“After observing the framers and writers as they ‘refreshed’ the standards, we were disappointed to say the least,” Kendall told the Witness via email. “But we feel hopeful with our 7-member SBOE which will be making the final decision.”

Kendall said the president overseeing the school districts plans to send a copy of the resolution to further awareness in other districts and provide a template for them to use should they choose to do so.

Acknowledging that other districts may not follow suit, Kendall said she urges residents of other counties to encourage their school boards to form their own resolutions.

Science teachers need more than pay; they need guts!

Monday, December 3rd, 2007

This news article in the St. Petersburg Times provides a decent analysis of one possible reason Florida’s students do so poorly in science: shortage of qualified teachers. I like the nod the reporter made to the draft of the new science standards. He slipped in a mention of evolution’s inclusion and praised the standards’ improvement without bothering to go into all the controversy nonsense. But then the story moves on to outline the problem:

The state Board of Education annually puts middle and high school science teachers on its critical shortage list. Last fall, 10 percent of new science teachers, and 7.5 percent of all science teachers, were not certified in the appropriate field. That’s nearly 700 teachers.

Just last week, Florida State University and the University of Florida acknowledged the problem, announcing a $10-million program to boost the teaching ranks for science and math.

“We’ve got a huge gap,” said Christopher D’Elia, a zoologist who is interim regional vice chancellor of academic affairs at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. “There has been a real challenge nationwide finding teachers who are adequately prepared in their discipline.”

The article mentions low student performance on the annual FCATs and an American Institutes for Research study. I hadn’t heard of the American Institutes’ report, so I looked it up and saw that, yes, Florida is in the basement compared to other states.

In science, nine states are at the Below Basic level: Florida, Arizona, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Alabama, Hawaii, California and Mississippi.

And the report summary states what ought to be obvious:

The paper argues that the United States needs to substantially increase the scientific and mathematical competency of the general adult population so that the voting citizenry can better understand and reach a consensus on policies that address many of the world’s most pressing problems.

That’s a high, rugged mountain to climb, though. The report goes on to show how bad off the U.S. is:

According to the National Science Foundation (NSF,, the average U.S. citizen understands very little science. For example:
• Two-thirds do not understand DNA, “margin of error,” the scientific process, and do not believe in evolution.
• Half do not know how long it takes the earth to go around the sun, and a quarter does not even know that the earth goes around the sun.
• Half think humans coexisted with dinosaurs and believe antibiotics kill viruses.

On the other hand, according to the NSF, the general public believes in a lot of pseudoscience.
• Eighty-eight percent believe in alternative medicine.
• Half believe in extrasensory perception and faith healing.
• Forty percent believe in haunted houses and demonic possession.
• A third believes in lucky numbers, ghosts, telepathy, clairvoyance, astrology, and that UFOs are aliens from space.
• A quarter believes in witches and that we can communicate with the dead.

It seems to me that there is an element left untouched in the newspaper article. The focus seems to be on pay, but science teachers need much more than a few extra bucks. They need courage and support. Not only do science teachers need to be properly trained and qualified, but they also have to unapologetically teach real science, which means standing up to passionate parents and their kids who believe in all that pseudoscience. In just a handful of hours each week, the science teachers have to try to punch through all the misconceptions that pervade the students’ lives. The teachers have to withstand the pressure of ill-informed, politically motivated school boards, and in some cases the teachers’ own school administrations. All teachers, regardless of subject, have a lot of pressures to deal with. But the science teachers sometimes have additional obstacles to negotiate. If a teacher isn’t up to the challenge, you get situations like this:

“Money is not always the driving factor behind their decisions,” said Tracy LaQuey Parker, who directs the UTeach Institute.

But are those incentives enough? Not for Sunny Jiang, who earned a Ph.D in marine science in 1996 from USF. She didn’t consider a career as a K-12 science teacher, she said, because kids are expected to do little more than “swallow a science lesson and spit it out.”

“It’s different at the graduate level,” said Jiang, now a professor at the University of California at Irvine. “Students are challenged and taught in a way that encourages them to ask questions.”

Teaching kids to think is a brave endeavor. A science teacher has to have the training and the guts to do the job right.

Space Week

Thursday, November 29th, 2007

Science is a hands-on field of study. Kids need to do it to learn it. That’s where Space Week comes in.

Becoming the next generation of NASA astronauts was a goal on the minds of many of the 700 Brevard County sixth-graders who came out for the first day of Brevard Space Week at Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex.

The event, in its fifth year, teaches students about the importance and fun of math and science by showing how the subjects come alive at NASA.

Space Week is sponsored by NASA Education, Brevard Schools Foundation, Delaware North Parks and Resorts and Florida Chapter of the National Space Club. The program costs about $100,000 but the money comes from grants and donations by local businesses and technology companies and not the district budget, said Ed Short, the district’s elementary science resource teacher.

Shuttle astronaut Jon McBride presented an overview of Project Constellation, explaining how Orion, the new crew exploration vehicle — as well as the Ares 1 and Ares 5 rockets — will take astronauts and supplies to the moon.

McBride reminded students that they could be the commanders of these missions, but only if they focus on their education.

“You only get one chance,” he said. “These six or seven years are very important. Don’t mess it up.”

Take the science FCAT

Wednesday, November 7th, 2007

Have you taken the science FCAT yet? You can take the eighth grade exam posted by the Fl Dept. of Education to get a feel for what it’s like. I took the 45-question test and only stumbled over one answer because I had forgotten some things concerning potential and kinetic energy. Hey, it’s been two decades since the eighth grade for me; cut me some slack.

There were only two questions that required doing math. There were four questions requiring writing. The rest were multiple choice. It seemed to me that many questions practically had the answer in the question itself, but I freely admit that I’m not a teacher or an eighth grader. There was a lot of reasoning required, though, and I like how several questions addressed the very nature of science itself.

In the answer key, the percentage of students who selected the various multiple-choice answers is given. Question 5 surprised me, as it seems students didn’t know the difference between a galaxy and a constellation. A lever in question 7 really stumped students, which is disappointing. Somehow, students knew more about muscle cells (question 8 ), which I had to actually stop and think about, than they did simple machines.

Question 27 required a written answer and was about how an experiment should be done. Unfortunately, a full 50 percent of the students completely missed it. Also of note were the two questions requiring calculating, questions 33 and 34. Students bombed them with only 34 and 23 percent, respectively, getting them right.

I wonder why so many students thought that gene replication happens in the cell membrane (question 41).

Take the test and let us know how you did. Is this test a good way to assess eighth graders’ science knowledge or not?

Florida sex education study

Tuesday, November 6th, 2007

The University of Florida recently released the findings of a study on just how much and what kind of sex education is taught in Florida’s public schools. It doesn’t look good for Florida’s students. Even though most parents apparently want some type of sex education in the schools, the quality of instruction is seriously hit or miss and varies wildly in content across the state. No wonder levels of sexually transmitted infections and unintended pregnancies are going up in our state!

“Most people are aware that there are major cultural differences between, say, Miami and Tallahassee,” Bandiera said. “What we found in terms of sex education, though, is that these places may as well be on different planets.”

“More than half of sex educators used a ‘locally developed curriculum,’” Dodge said. “In reality this could be anything. Respondents to our survey reported using everything from formal state guidelines to random Internet information and outdated county curricula. In short, there appears to be no uniformity in terms of underlying value systems or philosophical foundations for sex education in Florida.”

Prism Project awards

Tuesday, October 2nd, 2007

The Prism Project is a regional campaign to promote science and math in Central Florida counties. The goal is to achieve a leadership position in science and math within 10 years. The Prism Project recently awarded three teachers for excellence in science, giving them $5,000 each.

Nancy Rehwoldt, a sixth-grade teacher at Surfside Elementary in Satellite Beach and Guytri Still, a science teacher at McNair Magnet Middle School in Rockledge, earned two of three regional PRISM Outstanding Teacher Awards for excellence as science educators.

Unfortunately, I don’t know who the third teacher is yet. The Prism Project website doesn’t list them anywhere that I can find.

Do candles burn in space?

Tuesday, September 11th, 2007

Space shuttle Endeavour astronauts hung out with some kids in Orlando recently to talk about their experiences in space. They had a lot of good, educational things to say, and they, hopefully, motivated some kids to pay attention to their school work.

Cmdr. Scott Kelly, a two-time space traveler with local ties to Volusia County, said flying in space was “cool,” especially the thrust of the liftoff and floating in space. But he also told them dreams can come true if they get an education.

Mentioned in that article is an interesting project teachers can get involved with.

When shuttle Endeavour lifted off for the international space station last month, its precious cargo included more than seven astronauts. In the payload bay were 1 million cinnamon basil seeds. A small amount of seeds were left behind for occupants of the space station to grow as part of a national challenge to teachers.

NASA is inviting teachers to order some of the seeds to grow in their classrooms as part of the STS-118 Challenge. Educators need to create their own version of a growth chamber, grow the seeds into plants and then send their findings to NASA.

The link provided in the story is wrong, though. Go here to find out about this Challenge.

One of the students asked the astronauts if a candle will burn in space. Do you know the answer? Think about it for a minute or two, then head over here for an answer.

Giving girls a little bit of encouragement

Friday, September 7th, 2007

Prompted in part by statistics showing how girls tend to lose interest in science and math, folks in the Treasure Coast are in the beginning stages of bringing a Sally Ride Science Camp for middle school girls into their area. It’s exciting to see so many people and organizations coming together to address a problem that could be easily ignored otherwise.

“The concept is really cool. I think it’s something that’s going to be unique to Florida,” said Kathryn Hensley, a St. Lucie County School Board member. “We know that girls sometimes need a little bit of encouragement in middle school to go into math and science.”

A study done in 2000 by the National Center for Education Statistics shows the number of girls and boys who like math and science in the fourth grade is about the same. But by eighth grade, twice as many boys as girls show an interest in these subjects.

More information on Sally Ride Science Camp.