Archive for May, 2009

Followup on FL Virtual School and evolution assignment

Tuesday, May 26th, 2009

The St. Petersburg Times education blog The Gradebook asked the folks at Florida Virtual School about the issue of students using the online school to opt out of course material they or their families don’t like. Unfortunately, I’m still just a bit confused. The blog posts says:

In response to Monday’s Gradebook post, the Florida Virtual School just issued a statement saying its teachers do not allow FVS students to opt out of lessons in which they disagree – in this case, one involving evolution.

That sounds fine. But then the post goes on to include a direct quote from FVS Chief Learning Officer Pam Birtolo:

“Just as they can in traditional public schools, parents have the right to request that their child be allowed to opt-out of lessons with which they disagree.”

That’s odd. Birtolo then goes on to say in the quoted statement:

“We do not modify our course content or the relevant tests based upon requests by parents or students. When these special circumstances arise, parents are notified that their child will receive a zero for the missed lessons.”

So, I don’t understand. Parents can ask to opt-out, but the school does not modify course content based on those requests. Something doesn’t compute for me here.

It also needs to be pointed out that parents actually do not have the right to request an opt-out for anything and everything. Florida Statutes allow for only two opt-outs in science courses:

Any student whose parent makes written request to the school principal shall be exempted from the teaching of reproductive health or any disease, including HIV/AIDS, its symptoms, development, and treatment.

No surgery or dissection shall be performed on any living mammalian vertebrate or bird. Dissection may be performed on nonliving mammals or birds secured from a recognized source of such specimens and under supervision of qualified instructors. Students may be excused upon written request of a parent.

Apparently, the FVS student in this specific case did the assignment, so the whole issue of opt-out in this instance is moot. But we here at Florida Citizens for Science have been hearing about schools throughout the state dealing with opt-out requests concerning the teaching of evolution. One such case is here. The bottom line is that there are no legally recognized justifications for allowing evolution lesson opt-outs.

Creationism OK at Florida Virtual School?

Friday, May 22nd, 2009

Florida Virtual School is a popular way to attend school in our state without having to step into a classroom. Students can take online courses to supplement their current traditional school workload, or students can take pretty much all of their courses online in the homeschooling tradition. According to this St. Petersburg Times story about Florida Virtual School from a year ago, the system is even considered its own school district. The classes are free to Florida kids. My teenage daughter is going to take a stab at an online Algebra class over the summer.

Sounds pretty cool, doesn’t it? Sure it does. The newspaper story even relates how Virtual School teachers can tailor instruction to individual students, which is something that can’t always happen in the traditional classroom. But what if such individualization goes a bit too far? Take a moment to review this previous post of mine about a concerned teacher (in a Florida public school) wanting to know what the rules are for parents wanting to shield their students from lessons on evolution. Can the students opt out and complete an alternate lesson? The answer turned out to be a resounding no. Such opting out is not allowed.

However, it looks like some parents may be turning to Florida Virtual School just so that they can keep their kids away from instruction they don’t like. I’m sorry to have to do this, but I need to direct your attention to the WorldNetDaily. A story is posted there about a family that decided their daughter shouldn’t have to be subjected to an evolution assignment. Read what happened:

When the subject of evolution was addressed in Kristin Lockhart’s marine science course, she was given an assignment to create a marine life that would evolve and adapt to its environment over time.

“I spoke to the teacher and told her we don’t believe in evolution. We believe in creation,” Lockhart explained. “I told her my daughter was going to do this assignment in terms of creationism, which she did. The teacher had no problem with it, and she got an ‘A.'”

She got an A. Anyone care to join me in complaining to the Florida Virtual School management?

This & that, the grumpy edition

Thursday, May 21st, 2009

— First of all, since I’m a part-time college student slowly working my way toward becoming a science teacher here in the Sunshine State, I’m particularly irritated by this bit of news.

The state Board of Education more than tripled the fees for teacher certification tests, from $150 to $480.

Gee, thanks. I can just feel the love you have for teachers, Florida.

— Here is a story online at Seed magazine written by NCSE’s Josh Rosenau concerning a looming battle over science textbook content in Texas. It’s an OK story, but what bothers me is:

… my colleagues and I worked hard to influence the Texas School Board over the months of hearings, providing them with a statement signed by 54 scientific and educational societies opposing “any effort to undermine the teaching of biological evolution and related topics.” We worked with local activists to organize constituents and political honchos who educated board members about the importance of evolution to science education.

Yes, NCSE folks were invaluable in helping out in Texas. But “we worked with local activists” is the only shoutout to all the hard-working Texas citizens-for-science-type folks? I’m sorry, Josh, but that’s kinda insulting, in my humble opinion. [edited to add: As explained in the comments, it was the editors who decided to slice out mention of specific groups due to space limitation. Sorry, Josh.] I spoke with Eugenie Scott about Texas events when she was here in Florida earlier this month. She had a lot of positive things to say about the dedication, knowledge, expertise and connections the local folks brought to the table. Much more credit needs to given to them.

— If you are heading for some water fun, watch out for the critters!

“The more that Florida’s boaters know about manatees and how to operate their vessels safely in waters that are shared by manatees, the better the chance we have of reducing the number of watercraft injuries and mortalities for this endangered species.”

— And some critters of the air deserve respect as well: Ospreys. They know what makes a relationship work.

Researchers know ospreys mate for life but take separate vacations.

“Some have suggested that’s how they can mate for life,” he says with a chuckle. The birds migrate separately and the males return to their breeding grounds a few days to a week before the females.

— You might not want to tick off a mockingbird. They hold grudges.

— Animal evolution gets a bit too much attention. Some University of Florida researchers would rather figure out the mysteries of plant evolution.

Treating science like a rock star: “This changes everything”

Tuesday, May 19th, 2009

Darwinius masillae is getting a big publicity tour despite having been dead for quite a while. The ultimate coming out of retirement stunt.

On Tuesday morning, researchers will unveil a 47-million-year-old fossil they say could revolutionize the understanding of human evolution at a ceremony at the American Museum of Natural History.

But the event, which will coincide with the publishing of a peer-reviewed article about the find, is the first stop in a coordinated, branded media event, orchestrated by the scientists and the History Channel, including a film detailing the secretive two-year study of the fossil, a book release, an exclusive arrangement with ABC News and an elaborate Web site.

“Any pop band is doing the same thing,” said Jorn H. Hurum, a scientist at the University of Oslo who acquired the fossil and assembled the team of scientists that studied it. “Any athlete is doing the same thing. We have to start thinking the same way in science.”

Congratulations to Eugenie Scott

Monday, May 18th, 2009

Eugenie Scott Executive director National Center for Science Education and friend of the Florida Citizens for Science has been named to Scientific Americas top ten people who have recently demonstrated outstanding commitment to assuring that the benefits of new technologies and knowledge will accrue to humanity. Scott, who describes herself as “Darwin’s golden retriever.” has emerged as one of the most prominent advocates for keeping evolution an integral part of the curriculum in public schools in her role as head of the nonprofit National Center for Science Education (NCSE).

Well done Genie

Florida is lagging in science ed study

Monday, May 18th, 2009

A new study was recently released: Taking the Pulse of Bioscience Education in America: A State by State Analysis. Essentially, the study takes a look at science/biology scores per state in ACT, NAEP, AP along with other factors to see how well middle and high school students are being prepared in the life sciences for possible future careers in the biosciences. The breakdown of the states looks like this:

— Leaders of the Pack: Connecticut, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Ohio, Vermont, Wisconsin
— Second Tier: Colorado, Delaware, Illinois, Maryland, Missouri, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah, Virginia, Washington
— Middling Performance: Alabama, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Indiana, Kentucky, Maine, Michigan, Montana, South Carolina, Wyoming
— Lagging Performance: Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas, West Virginia
— Not Rated: States that do not participate in the NAEP science assessment were not rated.

If you take a look at the maps included in the full report, you will see that science education performance — high or low — is a regional phenomenon rather than an individual state one. But that shouldn’t be used as an excuse for Florida, which has been trying to attract the bioscience industry for a few years now. Our state is right there at the bottom of most of the study’s indicators except for Advanced Placement course participation.

There are problems across the nation, though:

On average, only 28% of the high school students taking the ACT , which is a national standardized test for college admission, reached a score indicating college readiness for biology and no state reached even 50%.

Science teaching as a profession

Sunday, May 17th, 2009

The Research Corporation for Science Advancement published a report recently called Science Teaching as a Profession: Why It Isn’t How It Could Be. I’m not aware of many studies that specifically examine the profession of science teaching in our public schools, so this is an interesting look at what is going on. The authors are up front about their methodology, which might be lacking a bit in objectivity as far as studies go. But what they discovered is nonetheless an intriguing breakdown of the state of science teaching as a profession and what might be done to improve it. I haven’t read the whole thing yet, but it seems that the primary solution the authors suggest is that teachers need to step up and take control of their profession. They need some ownership over what they do. I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts in the comments concerning this publication.

Our proposition is simple but revolutionary. Until and unless science teachers are given back substantial control of the subjects they teach, including curriculum content, pedagogy, pacing and assessment, and successfully recruited into leadership at the school, the district, the state, and the national levels, we won’t have robust student achievement.

We narrowed our original question—how to stem science teacher attrition—to this one: What would it take to return science teaching to the elite, highly respected professional status it once enjoyed (and still does in many other countries)?

Life’s First Spark Re-Created in the Laboratory

Saturday, May 16th, 2009

A fundamental but elusive step in the early evolution of life on Earth has been replicated in a laboratory.

Researchers synthesized the basic ingredients of RNA, a molecule from which the simplest self-replicating structures are made. Until now, they couldn’t explain how these ingredients might have formed.

“It’s like molecular choreography, where the molecules choreograph their own behavior,” said organic chemist John Sutherland of the University of Manchester, co-author of a study in Nature Wednesday.According to Sutherland, laboratory conditions resembled those of the life-originating “warm little pond” hypothesized by Charles Darwin if the pond “evaporated, got heated, and then it rained and the sun shone.”