Archive for October, 2009

Lots of this n that

Thursday, October 29th, 2009

National High Magnetic Field Laboratory at FSU awarded grant to build record-breaking superconducting magnet. It will be about 45 percent more powerful than the strongest superconducting magnets available today.

Draper Laboratory opens shop at USF Tampa. According to the National Science Foundation, USF is the fastest growing research university in America.

A Local (Florida) Halloween Houdini Seance From A Surprising Source. “If he was going to come back for anyone, it would probably be skeptics and magicians like us.” Weirdthings.com will be streaming the seance live along with randi.org (The James Randi Educational Foundation site) and itricks.com.

Students from Howard W. Bishop Middle School and Lincoln Middle School enjoyed the University of Florida’s physics building for “Math and Science Day.”

Be careful in those science labs! Headline: “Scare In Classroom During Science Experiment

Check out NOVA’s new beta site on evolution. And here are some other great ways for families to educate children about evolution.

New study finds that top-performing students have showed a marked decline in STEM interest since the 1990s.

Why eat Halloween candy when you can do science with it all?

Coming Next for (National) Common Standards: Science and Social Studies?

Miami students teach themselves AP chemistry ’cause school doesn’t offer it.

And finally, can anyone tell me about the “Rosewell Haunted Brick”? I found mentions of it on the web but no explanation.

Carl Sagan Day

Monday, October 26th, 2009

Carl Sagan Day: A Celebration of Astronomy
WHEN: Saturday, November 7, 2009 noon – 10:00 pm
WHERE: Broward College Central Campus 3501 SW Davie Rd., Davie 33314
SPONSORED BY: The Center for Inquiry Fort Lauderdale, FLASH, the James Randi Educational Foundation, and Broward College

WHY: Carl Sagan was a Professor of Astronomy and Space Science and Director of the Laboratory for Planetary Studies at Cornell University. He served as an advisor and consultant to NASA, and played a major role in the establishment of SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence). He was a Pulitzer Prize winning author and most familiar to the public through his COSMOS series on NOVA. In addition to numerous awards, recognitions and honorary degrees for his outstanding contributions, he is acknowledged as one of the most effective public faces of astronomy and space science throughout the world. Asteroid 2709 was named after him. Sagan died in December 1996.

To celebrate his legacy on the 75th anniversary of his birth, and to increase public involvement in the excitement of astronomy and space exploration, a local coalition of science and reason-based organizations announces the FIRST ANNUAL CARL SAGAN DAY. It is particularly fitting that we celebrate this great scientist in 2009, the International Year of Astronomy.

We  hope not only to make Carl Sagan Day an annual event, but to have other groups celebrate this day each year. We hope to have November 9 (his birthday) officially designated at CARL SAGAN DAY.

WHAT: A full day program, including teacher workshops, children’s activities, showings of the COSMOS series episodes, food, magic shows, displays, planetarium programs, telescope workshops, games, door prizes, star-gazing, and many surprises. Scheduled keynote speakers include James Randi, Dr. Phil Plait (the bad astronomer), and David Morrison (Senior Scientist at NASA’s Astrobiology Institute and former student of Sagan’s). These speakers as well as science faculty from local colleges and universities will also be available for small group discussions.

The event is free to all*. Final details, including the schedule of events and speakers, will be available at the event website, www.CarlSaganDay.org. A fund-raising pre-event dinner and reception will take place on Friday evening, November 6 on Broward College’s South Campus in Pembroke Pines.

Contact Dr. Jeanette Madea at carlsaganday@aol.com or 954-345-1181 for further information. More information will be available at www.carlsaganday.org.

*There will be a reduced admission fee to the planetarium programs.

Senate report on STEM education

Thursday, October 22nd, 2009

An interim report was completed by the Florida Senate Committee on Education Pre-K – 12  (pdf document)recently. Its purpose is to examine math and science education in our state. As reflected in the report, Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education is a major concern. Our own state exams (FCATs) and comparisons with other states and countries point to the fact that there are serious deficiencies in this area. The report correctly explains how STEM skills are incredibly valuable to the state; that’s were the jobs are. If decision-makers want to prepare Florida for any type of solid economic future, there has to be an emphasis on preparing tomorrow’s workforce for those jobs. Being able to read and write are, of course, high priority, but STEM skills are just as vital. And beside the report’s emphasis on money and jobs, STEM skills are also increasingly needed by each and every individual student working their way through school and into adulthood. The world is obviously full of technology and the science behind it. Students need to know how to make the most of it all.

The report outlines how Florida is way behind when it comes to math, and especially science. For example, the report provides the cold numbers from the most recent science FCATs: 56% of 3rd graders are below grade level in science understanding, 60% of 8th graders are below grade level in science understanding, and 63% of 10th graders are below grade level in science understanding. What the report doesn’t mention is that these figures are pretty much the same as the previous year; there was no real improvement. Those figures are certainly ugly, but are they accurate? I’ll discuss that a little later.

So, the report tries to briefly explain how important STEM skills are, and goes on to show how bad things are in Florida. So, what do we do? It seems to me that the education committee didn’t do much homework. I don’t see any proposed solutions here.

An entire page of this report is devoted to efforts to produce better teachers. I can’t help but wonder if this is a backhanded slap at current teachers. Teachers are taking a lion’s share of the blame for low student achievement and failing school grades, and it looks like this report is going along with that trend. No, the report doesn’t come right out and say “the teachers are the reason our kids are failing science,” but the report also doesn’t offer any justification for why there is so much focus on Florida teacher quality in the report. The report cites two Internet resources that are general in nature and don’t offer any statistical information specific to Florida. The Senate report writers seem to have just latched onto these sources as “great ideas” and didn’t bother to go the extra step of connecting the sources’ information to what is going on in Florida. If they did take that step, they didn’t include it in the report. Don’t get me wrong. Teacher quality is an important element of an improved STEM program, and anything done to bolster that quality is a good thing. But this report is holding up teacher improvement as a major slice of their solution to Florida’s STEM woes without first proving that it’s even a problem. The attention is welcome, but the emphasis as it is presented in this Senate report falls flat without much more concrete Florida-specific information.

As an aside, I noticed that the cited sources suggested better pay for teachers, especially since the recommendations for more rigorous preparation puts an extra burden on aspiring teachers, and yet this Senate report neglects any mention of compensating teachers for their extra effort and time. Additionally, what will Florida do to make teaching STEM subjects here attractive to highly-qualified teachers? Keep in mind that an oft-used anecdote is that college graduates with all of their new science training are likely to go into other science-related fields other than teaching because the pay is higher and the stress is lower. This is not addressed anywhere in the Senate report.

The Senate report does focus quite a bit of attention on general literacy, which is good. As the report points out, science and math have a unique vocabulary. Struggling with that vocabulary will definitely result in struggling in STEM subjects overall. There is also discussion of making science and math education relevant to students, connecting that education to real-world applications. The report states that students disengage when the subject matter has no meaning to them. Then there is mention of Florida’s new FCR-STEM, which is a statewide research project headquartered at Florida State University. FCR-STEM is an effort to coordinate communities, businesses and the education system and use that network to improve STEM education. And the report also praises our new state science and math standards. Yea us!

Finally, there is an options/recommendations section of the Senate report that leaves me feeling empty. Essentially, instruction should be more relevant to students, instruction needs to be more rigorous, teacher training needs to be better, reading skills need to be emphasized, and make sure STEM-related funding is being spent wisely.

I’m guessing that this report is not meant to be comprehensive or detailed. The recommendations are vague, which probably means that it’s up to individual lawmakers to come up with the specifics. A bill of this nature has already been filed in advance of the next legislative session: HB 61. It’s meant to strengthen graduation requirement in math and science among other things. However, Paul Cottle at his Bridge to Tomorrow blog argues that the proposal doesn’t go anywhere near far enough. I love how the Senate report writers went nuts including tons of footnotes. It made me think of a student trying to impress a teacher by dazzling the teacher with tons of links and references. But a closer look at all those report footnotes turns up either just an unnecessary listing of existing Florida programs, or general national reports and papers that have little specific to Florida. Where’s the real research homework, folks?

I think that the Senate report utterly missed out on at least one element that would possibly help properly assess Florida science education: kill the high school science FCAT. I’ve explained on this blog several times just how irrelevant that test is. It doesn’t affect students at all, so they have little incentive to take it or treat it seriously. The test covers multiple science subjects that students may have long forgotten, forcing teachers to stop their own instruction to spend time reviewing other science subjects in preparation for the FCAT. Does the dismal pass rate of the science FCATs, especially the high school one, accurately reflect students’ actual science knowledge? Not likely. End of course exams are the sensible way to go in order to provide a real sense of what students know in the upper grades. Only when we have a reliable information foundation can any meaningful reform take place. (The Senate report briefly mentions end of course exams, but only in one sentence at the end of the document. It’s not supported by any discussion anywhere else in the report.)

Bottom line: I’m not impressed with the Senate report. Where’s the beef?

(Paul Cottle isn’t impressed with the Senate report either. “Their conclusion:  Don’t do anything for now – it’s too hard.”)

Spitzer Space Telescope Discovers Largest Ring Around Saturn

Thursday, October 8th, 2009

Well all you science teachers who teach astronomy time to get your text books and add a new ring around Saturn. Spitzer Space Telescope has discovered an enormous ring around Saturn — by far the largest of the giant planet’s many rings. The new belt lies at the far reaches of the Saturnian system, with an orbit tilted 27 degrees from the main ring plane. The bulk of its material starts about six million kilometers (3.7 million miles) away from the planet and extends outward roughly another 12 million kilometers (7.4 million miles). One of Saturn’s farthest moons, Phoebe, circles within the newfound ring, and is likely the source of its material.  On a more personal level, my daughter Dr Joannah Hinz (senior research advisor with Spitzer) was involved with some of the imagin work on this project.

“Ardipithecus Ramidus” Extends Human History

Friday, October 2nd, 2009

An ancient human-like creature that may be a direct ancestor to our species has been described by researchers. The assessment of the 4.4-million-year-old animal called Ardipithecus ramidus is reported in the journal Science.

The most important specimen is a partial skeleton of a female nicknamed “Ardi”. One of the lead scientists on the project, Professor Tim White from the University of California, Berkeley, said the investigation had been painstaking.   “This is not an ordinary fossil. It’s not a chimp. It’s not a human. It shows us what we used to be.” White stated.

Pasco school board candidate wants alternatives

Thursday, October 1st, 2009

School board elections for a newly opening seat in Pasco County are still a way off, but some candidates are already popping up. One of them is John Tracy, president of the Faith and Family Values Republican Club of Pasco County. Take a wild guess what some of his issues are.

Although he does not have a specific agenda to speak about yet, Tracy said voters could expect him to consider all issues from his world view — that of a Baptist pastor who believes in the Bible. He supports offering alternatives to teaching evolution in science, for instance, and he contends that the role of religion in U.S. history must be presented accurately.

His organization is here. His personal website is here. I couldn’t find mention of science education on either site, though. If you find it, please let me know.