Archive for January, 2007

Darwin and sexual jokes

Friday, January 19th, 2007

Darwin day is coming up next month. And serving as a precursor of sorts, a rare orchid Darwin had connections to is blooming and on display here in Florida. Darwin had made a prediction about long moth tongues that was proven true after his death: the Predicted Moth. The orchid is at Selby Gardens and the story is in the Herald Tribune.

SARASOTA — As a seductress, it’s the plant world’s equal to Marilyn Monroe or Angelina Jolie.

But the Comet Orchid, now blooming at Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, is loyal to only one. And her pollinator must be well-endowed to drink her nectar.

When Charles Darwin discovered this orchid, found only on the west coast of Madagascar, he predicted one day entomologists would find a moth with an 18-inch-long tongue.

The prediction was the stuff of sexual jokes, and Darwin got the reputation for being daft.

Darwin was proved correct about 40 years after he died, when a Madagascar moth was discovered with just such a tongue. Its Latin name means the predicted moth.

Science on the FCAT; More Fs?

Tuesday, January 16th, 2007

Changes to this year’s FCATs, including the importance of the science tests, are prompting dire school grade predictions.

There could be a record number of failing schools in Duval County and around Florida this year unless local school districts find a way to improve student achievement in two categories being added to the school grading formula.

Science achievement and learning gains for the lowest-performing students in math will be calculated into school grades for the first time, based on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test that begins next month. Science has been included on the FCAT for several years, but those results were not factored into school grades.

The grading change threatens to lower school scores dramatically in Duval County and across the state, according to projections compiled by the Florida Department of Education that applied the new formula to last year’s scores.

Local school officials say they are aware of the projections and are working hard to minimize any decline in school grades.

However, there have been setbacks.

This month, the School Board approved $106,000 to purchase fourth-grade science textbooks for fifth-grade classrooms after teachers complained that textbooks purchased last summer for fifth-graders did not adequately prepare them for the FCAT.

The main concern is the science test, which 11th-graders will take in roughly six weeks. To spur improvement, Brennan implemented weekly FCAT mini-lessons so students can review materials that may appear on the exam.

“It’s a lot of science but we have to get it into them before the test,” he said.

Staver vs. Ruse

Thursday, January 11th, 2007

(edited: I feel sillly. It was just pointed out to me that this story was published back in 2005. Better late than never, eh?) The Orlando Weekly has dueling interviews up in a story about intelligent design versus evolution. First up from Orlando is the Liberty Counsel’s Mat Staver. Then Florida State University’s Michael Ruse steps up to the plate. It’s obvious that the article’s author, Jeffrey Billman, was standing on the side of real science, so this isn’t your typical unbiased news story. (You have to love it when an author can’t resist throwing in a mention of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.) But Billman does let Staver speak his piece. Staver uses the standard creationist playbook as he claims evolution is not good science, can’t be tested and that intelligent design deserves to be presented in the classroom. For instance:

Staver: Evolution can’t be tested either. You can’t test either intelligent design or evolution. You can’t go back and replicate either one of them. And with that in mind, in the final analysis, whether it’s evolution or intelligent design or any other theory of the origin of the universe that you conclude, I think you have to ultimately approach the final step by faith.

False. Evolution can and is constantly being tested.

Staver: Certainly evolution does not fall into the same category as the law of gravity and if it did, that would be a different story. But it doesn’t. … There are a lot of different questions by evolutionists themselves regarding missing links or the inability to explain a brand-new animal phylum in a strata that has no precursor.

Gotta love the whole missing link complaint. Oh, and be careful of that gravity thing. I hear that it’s riddled with problems that can be better explained another way.

Staver: I think more and more scientists themselves are beginning to question Darwinian evolution, and in fact you have 52 Ohio scientists, 49 of which hold doctoral degrees, that recently in 2002 signed an affirmation that says where there are alternative scientific theories in the area of intelligent design … that students should be permitted to learn the evidence for and against them, and that science curriculums should encourage critical thinking of all these different ideas.

Was Steve on that list?

Ruse has a good time hammering intelligent design.

Ruse: Well, let’s go back to intelligent design first. I think it’s religion, period. I mean, if you would judge it as science it wouldn’t be very good, but [that’s] like saying Marilyn Monroe is not a very good man. As far as I’m concerned, Marilyn Monroe isn’t a man, period. And I would want to say the same of intelligent design.

Nationwide science standards

Wednesday, January 10th, 2007

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) recently issued a statement lauding a proposal to establish voluntary nationwide standards in math and science.

Under the SPEAK Act proposal, voluntary, nationwide U.S. content standards in science and math would be developed by the National Assessment Governing Board (NAGB), with public input. States choosing to adopt the new standards would then receive federal funds to implement them and to enhance data systems related to No Child Left Behind goals.

The goal of the new science-testing requirement is admirable, Roseman said. Unfortunately, she added, tests in some regions are not well-aligned to the key science concepts that students need to know at each grade level. In some regions, for example, the integrity of science education has been eroded by efforts to insert non-scientific concepts such as “intelligent design” into science curriculum.

Here is what I assume to be the actual language of the bill.

If this SPEAK Act actually moves forward, how long do you think it will be before the anti-science brigade launches the first attempt to worm intelligent design into the mix? This is worth keeping an eye on.

Here is Senator Dodd’s release about this.

Carnival time

Wednesday, January 10th, 2007

The 101st Carnival of Education is open for your reading enjoyment. Two of my posts are included.

Science mentors needed

Monday, January 8th, 2007

If you have some time, why not become a science mentor?

 The science mentoring program I LOVE Science is looking for volunteers for Hellen Caro, Blue Angels, Edgewater, Myrtle Grove, and Montclair elementary schools.

I LOVE Science was launched in partnership between former State Rep. Holly Benson, Gulf Power, The Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition and Cox Communications.

The program has recruited more than 200 volunteers who spend one hour per month in area fifth-grade classes doing hands-on science experiments.

For details or to help, call Nancy Stanley in Escambia County at 439-2623 or Anita Holmes in Santa Rosa County at 983-5046.

Science teacher one of only four honored

Saturday, January 6th, 2007

Congratulations to science teacher David Rodriguez for his recent honor!

Science teacher David Rodriguez is getting ready for a trip to Vienna, Austria, in April. It will be his second trip, and he’ll bring back information and lessons he’ll relay to his students.

Rodriguez, who teaches at Swift Creek Middle School, is one of four American science teachers selected by the Washington, D.C.-based American Geophysical Union, an organization for professionals involved with the earth, oceans, atmosphere, space and planets.

“Physicists and other scientists from all over the world will be there,” Rodriguez said. “They bring in scientists to talk to teachers, and they tell us things we can use in a classroom. It’s called the GIFT Conference, for Geophysical Information for Teachers.”

Life in middle school

Thursday, January 4th, 2007

The New York Times has an interesting article up kicking off a series about education in middle school. I agree that there can be very real difficulties in trying to reach these students. I have two kids in middle school and I’ve noticed a dramatic difference in both of them since entering middle school.

My daughter was always a decent student in elementary, but in middle school her grades literally plummeted. We’re talking Ds and Fs here. Social life and worrying about her appearance took priority over academics. I can see the truth in the article’s observation that these kids don’t—probably can’t—think past tomorrow. My girl can’t see past her next phone call. I know that most of her problems are self imposed, but not all of them. Recently, the girl was threatened by a much bigger boy and then slapped hard across the face by him! She actually temporarily lost hearing in one ear it was so hard. What did the teacher do? He referred them both to the office.

My son complains that his math class is so rowdy that he can’t concentrate on the schoolwork, and that the teacher is spending more time lion taming than teaching. My son is very easy going and makes friends everywhere he goes, but to our surprise he has yet to make any friends this his first year of middle school.

Throughout elementary school we as parents felt we had a good grasp of what was going on in the school concerning our kids. But then the jump to middle school left us very much in the dark. Teachers leave it up to the kids to communicate back to the parents, but they, of course, don’t. My wife and I found that we have to make extra effort to get into contact with all the teachers our kids have and try to maintain a link with them. Otherwise, we have no idea what the heck is going on. It’s been a culture shock for the kids and for us.

It seems that middle school tries to treat kids as more mature and better able to handle themselves than elementary school, and so gives them more responsibility and freedom. From what I’ve seen, that is a huge mistake. If anything, the kids need tighter controls at least during the first year or two. I would like to know more about single-sex classrooms as that concept seems promising. I know my daughter is way too distracted by boys and the time wasting antics that involves. I also like the idea of middle school students sticking with just a few teachers, possibly making it easier for parents to establish and maintain an overview of what the kids are up to.

From the article:

Sit in with a seventh-grade science class at Seth Low, a cavernous Brooklyn middle school, as paper balls fly and pens are flicked from desk to desk.

A girl is caught with a note and quickly tears it up, blushing, as her classmates chant, “Read it!” The teacher, Laura Lowrie, tries to demonstrate simple machines by pulling from a box a hammer, a pencil sharpener and then, to her instant remorse, a nutcracker — the sight of which sends a cluster of boys into a fit of giggles and anatomical jokes.

“It’s the roughest, toughest, hardest thing to teach,” Ms. Lowrie said of middle school. “I’ll go home and feel disappointed with what’s going on and I’ll try a different tactic the next day.” As for the nutcracker, she sighed, “I should have used a stapler.”

The most recent results of math and reading tests given to students in all 50 states showed that between 1999 and 2004, elementary school students made solid gains in reading and math, while middle school students made smaller gains in math and stagnated in reading.

In New York State, grade-by-grade testing conducted for the first time last year showed that in rich and poor districts alike, reading scores plunge from the fifth to sixth grade, when most students move to middle school, and continue to decline through eighth grade. The pattern is increasingly seen as a critical impediment to tackling early high school dropout rates as well as the achievement gap separating black and white students.

“If you don’t get them hooked into school here, by the time they leave they’re gone.” said Barry M. Fein, the principal of Seth Low.

Mr. Fein spent a recent evening counseling a student who had used a blunt kitchen knife to slash her face and arms: Her wavering self-esteem, it seemed, had ebbed to a low after two friends went out to lunch at McDonald’s without her.

“You handle stuff like that and you go, ‘O.K., now you want me to raise test scores?’ ” he said. “They don’t really think past tomorrow.”