Archive for May, 2007

Solar powered kids need some gas!

Wednesday, May 30th, 2007

Some high school kids in Miami need your help. They want to participate in the Dell-Winston School Solar Car Challenge, a 1,600-mile race from Texas to New York.

They spent a lot of time and effort designing and building their solar-powered car, the Solar Knight. They’re the only Florida team signed up to participate in the challenge.

But they need some gas.

While the solar car does not need any gasoline, their two support vehicles must stop daily to refuel. They are also looking for a truck and minivan — rental or dealership donation — to pull their 20-foot trailer and carry the team members. Add to that room and board for 12 people for 18 days.

To help, e-mail Allan.Phipps@broward or call 954-817-0110. Learn more about the Solar Knight at

Let’s help this Florida team!

Launching eggs wins out over graduation

Wednesday, May 30th, 2007

I got a press release from Boynton Beach Community High School about a couple of students who decided that sending raw eggs sky high was more important than attending their own graduation. Here’s the press release:

Two seniors from Boynton Beach Community High School made a hard choice: mortarboards, or model rockets. Both were members of the school’s science, engineering and math club. And the world’s largest model rocket design contest was the same day as graduation. To participate in the prestigious Team America Rocketry Challenge (TARC) in Virginia meant missing graduation ceremonies. But TARC offered a shot at more than $11,500 in prizes and scholarships, an apprenticeship with NASA, and an all-expense paid trip to the International Paris Air Show in June 2007. (more…)

Weekend book festival to feature science

Tuesday, May 29th, 2007

If you have kids and are in Marion County this weekend, stop by the Marion County Public Library. They’re hosting an annual book festival that features science as its theme. It looks like a lot of fun!

“I make tea bags fly. I levitate ping-pongs, and I blow up toilet paper,” said [author Vicki] Cobb, who compares herself to the Pied Piper. “But, there is a lot of real science involved in what I do. Instead of bringing children into the world of science, I bring science into the world of children… I see myself as a teacher, but I’m not teaching. I entertain and I motivate.”

Not all animals eat out of a bowl

Saturday, May 26th, 2007

A biology teacher attracted some attention recently when he showed students a boa python eating a rabbit. Live. It seems that a video of the demonstration shot by a student was posted to YouTube and the video may have been the spark that prompted this newspaper story. School administrators were quoted in the story as disapproving of the feeding demonstration.

A class was studying reptiles and a student brought in his pet boa python. Somehow it was suggested that anyone who was interested could watch the boa python being fed its usual meal: a live rabbit. The teacher arranged for the feeding to be held after school hours and attendance was voluntary. No one had to be there who didn’t want to be there. According to the story, the teacher even warned the squeamish to stay away.

I’m not bashing the school admistrator’s religious beliefs, but rather his silly inanity in the statement: “The school uses lessons and curricula that teach respect for God’s creative handiwork, and this event does not support that.” Snakes eat rabbits. Welcome to nature. Snakes don’t shop at the market for cans of rabbit stew.

If the teacher held the demonstration during school hours or made attendance mandatory in some way, then maybe that wouldn’t be a good thing. But that wasn’t the case here. If the teacher made a point of prolonging the feeding, thus torturing the rabbit in some way, I could see a reason to be upset. Maybe there was a chance that happened here, but I imagine such an action would have been mentioned in the story. If the snake owner usually fed the snake something else, like eggs or something that wasn’t all cute and fuzzy, but then this time made a big show out of using a rabbit, then I could see another reason for being upset. But the story stated that rabbits were the usual meal. In running through all of these what-ifs, I am trying to find some reason to sympathize with the administrator or anyone else who might have complained. Honestly, I don’t see what the problem is.

I see all too often people seeming to think nature is all about sunshine, flowers and singing birds. Quite the opposite is the case. Showing curious kids “nature, red in tooth and claw” in a straightfoward manner seems like good science to me. Don’t overdramatize it or tell kids its fun to torture rabbits. Just show nature at its simplest. Snakes eat rabbits. What’s the big deal?

edited later to add: The original story had said the video had been taken down, so I hadn’t tried looking for it to view. However, it appears that a copy is still out there.

I have to admit that the teacher and other adults should have tried for a bit more calm from the kids. There’s a lot of hootin’ and hollerin’, which is what I’m sure the administrator and others are offended about, moreso than the snake being fed. There’s also the little comment towards the end where someone says, jokingly, that they’ll collect a dollar at the door.

However, it was after school, and kids will be kids. I’m sure the teacher just wasn’t thinking about YouTube and how it would make the event appear to the casual observer, let alone someone in charge.

Why are science FCAT scores low?

Thursday, May 24th, 2007

Low science FCAT scores (see previous post) were mentioned in many news stories yesterday and today, and a few even made that element the story’s hook. (“But scientists they are not.”) There is no in-depth analysis of the problem, though, that I have found. Mainly, it’s all about reading, writing and math taking the focus away from science. But that will change, they say. I think that’s a flippant response at best. There are challenges unique to teaching and testing science that need to be examined.

A previous story talks about how doing poorly on the science FCAT carries no consequence for the students. Some schools apparently resort to bribery just to get enough kids to sit in their seats to take the test. Another story points out that college professors see kids coming to them from high school who seem to think science is all about memorizing facts. There are reports of poor science lab conditions, such as here and here.

So, is this all about just tearing a little time away from other subjects so as to give science more attention? I don’t think so.

As I thought about the problem and read through the previous stories, I considered a few obstacles to performing well on science FCATs beyond even what the stories reported. I’m just writing out loud here, so to speak. Feel free to point out any errors in my thinking.

Keep in mind that reading and writing FCATs evaluate reading and writing. A no-brainer, right? But the science test involves a lot of reading and writing, too. If a student is not good at reading or writing, then that can spill over into standardized science testing. Making things even more complicated, science has its own vocabulary that needs to be absorbed and recognized on the printed page. A child might comprehend the ideas behind photosynthesis, but might struggle on a test when they don’t recognize the word itself. The word “theory” has one meaning in common usage, a guess or hunch, but has a different meaning in scientific use.

I know that some science subjects rely heavily on solving equations, so a poor math student might do that much worse on a science test. I can speak from experience on that matter. When I was a high school student in advanced physical science, chemistry and physics, I did fine on the overall concepts, but sweated through all the actual calculating.

Reading, writing and math skills build gradually throughout a student’s school career. For example, you start with the ABCs and steadily add more knowledge and experience until you can read and understand a novel. Can the same be said for science? There are many fields all shoved under the broad science heading. There are some elements common to science overall, but the individual concepts and vocabulary diverge quite a bit from field to field. Does astronomy build on a previous biology course? For the most part, no. Couple this problem with the fact that the science FCAT is only given in three grades. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think that this means a student faces one test covering a couple of different science fields of study. I’ve heard some science teachers complain that they have to spend valuable classroom time reviewing an unrelated field with their students right before FCAT time. For instance, a biology teacher might have to go over earth science material that was taught a few grades ago.

My final thought relates back to the earlier mention of poor science labs and kids thinking science is about memorizing facts. Science is about curiosity and exploration. It’s about methodical experimentation, which takes time and substantial effort to do right. It’s about getting out of the chair and poking and prodding things. I’m definitely not disparaging the other school subjects, but reading and writing and even math is typically done at a desk in silence. Schools need to understand that science is not like that. It should also be recognized that science knowledge might not be best measured with a pencil and little bubbles in a test booklet.

Simply devoting a few more minutes in the day to the science textbook isn’t going to raise science FCAT scores. To see science properly taught and learned, we have to link hands with the other subjects (mixing in some science with the reading, writing and math instruction and vice versa) while at the same time stepping outside of the commonly accepted bounds of the traditional classroom. Devoting more time to science education is good, but we also need to devote more thought to what we’re doing and how we’re doing it. Only then will we see a significant change for the better.

Please feel free to leave your comments on why you think our science FCAT scores are so low. I’m interested in hearing what you have to say.

2007 science FCAT scores

Wednesday, May 23rd, 2007

Florida’s science FCAT scores were released today. For those who don’t know, the FCAT is the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test given annually to all Florida public school children in grades 3 through 11. The FCAT is supposed to measure what students have learned about reading, writing, mathematics and science. The test results are a big deal, because each year all schools receive a letter grade based on these results. Of course, schools strive for As and Bs, but can really feel the heat from both the State and their local communities if they get Ds or Fs. Things get real bad if a school fails several years in a row, leaving the door open for the State to come in and take over the running of the school.


The science FCAT has been given to students in grades 5, 8 and 11 since 2003. For the first couple of years, the test was given to 10th graders, but 2005 it was moved up to 11th grade. Since 2003, the science FCAT scores were no big deal since they didn’t count towards the schools’ letter grades. However, this year they do for the first time. This has worried a lot of school districts since school grades can take a dip if the low 2006 science FCAT scores were any indication of what was to come in 2007.


For easy comprehension of the scores, the FCAT results are divided up into five categories. Students who score in levels 1 and 2 can be considered failing or real close to it. Level 1 means: “This student has little success” with the content. Level 2 means: “This student has limited success” with the content. Every student, parent and teacher hopes for level 3 and above. Essentially, level 3 means a student has some understanding of the material, but might not excel in the subject. Levels 4 and 5 are hit by those students who really mastered the material and know what the heck they are talking about.


The good news for 2007 is that science FCAT scores improved over all previous years. Fifth graders leapt from 35 percent being at level 3 or higher last year to 42 percent at level 3 or higher this year. That’s a very encouraging sign and shows a wonderful commitment to science education at the elementary school level. Eighth graders climbed 6 percentage points to 38 percent this year, and 11th graders inched up 2 percentage points to 37 percent passing at level 3 or higher.


The Florida Department of Education understandably likes to highlight such gains and tries to focus on those level 3 and higher percentages. However, shifting the focus to the other end of the level scale reveals the bad news. Well over half of our public school students don’t understand science. Take a look at the high school juniors: 63 percent scored at only levels 1 or 2.


The question here is why is science comprehension so low? I honestly can’t answer that. I have no doubt that in the coming years the science FCAT scores will get better, as they have in most other subject areas. But it’s discouraging to compare science scores this year to math and reading scores from way back in 2001. Even as low as the math and reading scores were back then, our science scores now are generally worse … much worse.


It’s going to take a continuing commitment on the part of every concerned Floridian to push science education into the spotlight both in the schools and in the public eye. Florida Citizens for Science is here to help in that endeavor. Our members are playing an active role in the review of the science section of the Florida Sunshine State Standards taking place this year. We are developing ideas big and small to publicize the importance of science education and help our students and their teachers. We are always open to ideas and assistance; so don’t be afraid to speak up!


Florida Department of Education: FCAT results link.

Florida teacher heading to Space Academy

Monday, May 21st, 2007

Fourth-grade teacher at Laurel Oak Elementary School, Jodi Vidaurri, is heading to the Space Academy for Educators program in Huntsville, Ala., this summer. This story tells us why this “spacy” teacher deserves it.

Vidaurri lobbied to have her new school, Veteran’s Memorial Elementary, named “Columbia” in honor of the ill-fated space shuttle that broke up over Texas in 2003, killing all seven astronauts on-board.

Her Laurel Oak Elementary students are always clued in before every rocket launch and asteroid brush. They can not only pronounce terms like “nebula”; they also know what it means.

But for the 28-year-old teacher, teaching about space from afar isn’t good enough. She wants to speak to her students from experience.

Combining space with lessons is nothing new for Vidaurri. She participated in a space education program, Project Launch, at Florida Gulf Coast University, where she is attempting to earn her master’s degree in curriculum and instruction, with an emphasis on environmental science.

Vidaurri used the information she obtained during Project Launch to conduct learning labs with students. This year, she asked students to represent the planets, and spread them across the school to demonstrate the distance each planet is from the sun.

“Fifth-graders are tested on science they learned all through elementary school,” Vidaurri explained. “If they don’t remember the information from a book, next year, when it comes time to answer these questions, they can relate to some hands-on experience.”

Congratulation, Vidaurri. Have fun!

Dental Faith Healer

Sunday, May 20th, 2007

OK, I know this is not about science education, but I just couldn’t pass this up. I’ve heard of faith healers, of course. But I didn’t know they specialized.

So, here we have a dental faith healer. He prays for your teeth and they straighten out or miraculously grow gold fillings … some in the shape of crosses. Please tell me this is a parody story. Please.

Jones’ claims have led to him being dubbed the “spiritual tooth fairy” and “God’s dental assistant.” But he is not the only evangelist tending to followers’ teeth and claiming alchemistic results.

Known as the “gold fillings” phenomenon, worshippers across North America, Asia and the United Kingdom have reported that precious metals — some in the shape of the cross — have appeared in their teeth after visiting healers.