Archive for December, 2009

Science education & Florida’s economy

Tuesday, December 29th, 2009

The Orlando Sentinel recently published an article about the sorry state of Florida’s economy. After depending on population growth and finally seeing that tank, the question is what does the state do now? The establishment of bio-tech centers (Burnham and Scripps, for example) looks promising, but there are some fatal flaws with this plan. That’s where education — with science education a big part of that — comes in:

The state has lagged behind competitors in nurturing the kind of educated labor pool required by high-tech manufacturing, information technology, bio-tech, renewable energy and other emerging industries.

Enterprise Florida, the state’s chief economic development agency, concluded as much in a 2008 report assessing Florida’s economic competitiveness. It said the state remains “an aspiring tech hub” that is hampered by weaknesses in the so-called “knowledge economy.”

Translation? Compared to competitors, Florida has fewer scientists, engineers and highly-skilled workers. Companies here spend less on research and development, the state produces fewer patents and venture capitalists invest less money.

“Florida’s knowledge economy,” the authors wrote, “underperforms both domestically and globally.”

State Sen. Dan Gelber, D- Miami Beach, said Florida has failed to create an educational system that prepares students for a 21st Century economy.

He and others would funnel more money toward all levels of education and beef up technical offerings for students who weren’t going to college.

Such a transformation isn’t going to happen overnight, if it happens at all. Florida’s leaders and decision makers are merely giving science education lip service. It’s going to take monumental effort to put science education on the right track in this state, and I am having trouble seeing that happen considering how easy it is to propogate anti-science garbage in the highest levels of state government (example, example, example). Also see the Bridge to Tomorrow blog for ongoing commentary on the progress — or lack thereof — of science education in Florida.

Tonight “What Darwin Never Knew”

Tuesday, December 29th, 2009

Just a reminder that the Nova’s two hour special airs on PBS tonight, December 29th.  “What Darwin Never Knew”  Check your local PBS station listings here. for times and availability.

“Your Inner Fish” Now for the Classroom.

Wednesday, December 23rd, 2009

I’m sure that we are all familiar with Neil Shubin’s book “Your Inner Fish   which wonderfully tells the story of evolution by tracing the organs of the human body back millions of years, long before the first creatures walked the earth. Now Shubin has compiled the figures from the book into a deck of PowerPoint Slides for use in the classroom. All the way from Tiktaalik to the “Meaning of it All” these are great educational aids.

What Darwin Never Knew

Monday, December 21st, 2009

Nova has a new two hour special which airs on PBS Tuesday December 29th.  “What Darwin Never Knew” offers answers to riddles that Darwin couldn’t explain 150 years ago. Development of embryology and secrets at the genetic level have confirmed the brilliance of Darwin’s insights while revealing clues to life’s breathtaking diversity in ways the great naturalist could scarcely have imagined.

Commissioner responds

Sunday, December 20th, 2009

FSU physics professor Paul Cottle had sounded the alarm in the Tallahassee Democrat concerning Florida’s leadership’s unimpressive “plans” — or lack thereof — for improving our “pretty much last in the nation” standing in science education.

Eric Smith, Florida commissioner of education, responded. I do commend Smith for taking the time and effort to speak up, but he really didn’t say all that much that’s encouraging. He praised our new set of state science standards. That’s fine, but those comments didn’t address any of Cottle’s concerns. Smith wrote about applying for funding from Race to the Top funds for teacher professional development. Cottle has already pointed out before that funding for such efforts is dismal; is this just more wishful thinking? Hopefully, not. And then the crux of the problem is finally brought up by Smith: end of course testing. First, here is what Cottle said:

On Nov. 11, Education Commissioner Eric Smith announced that Florida would ask the federal government to fund the development and implementation of statewide tests to be given at the end of high-school science courses in chemistry, physics and earth/space sciences. These tests, along with the biology end-of-course test already planned by the FDOE, would focus school districts’ attention on delivering quality instruction in science at the high-school level. But it didn’t take long for the FDOE to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. On Nov. 20, Assistant Deputy Commissioner Kris Ellington reversed the commissioner’s announcement by saying that the department had dropped its plans to ask for funding for tests in chemistry, physics and earth/space science, and instead would ask the Florida Legislature to replace the 11th-grade science FCAT — which tests all areas of science — with an end-of-course test in biology. This step will lead school districts to further de-emphasize instruction in chemistry, physics and earth/space science. Already, only 16 percent of Florida’s high-school graduates take physics, about half the national rate.

Then here is Smith’s response:

While it’s true that we are beginning with an EOC exam in biology, we are also planning to develop EOC tests for other high-school science classes that would include physics, chemistry, and Earth/space science.

And the details are? And the money is coming from where? When is this going to happen?

I do appreciate that Smith responded. But we are hungry for much more detail. We’re not just crying wolf, Mr. Smith. Your own department stated: “Florida students are pretty much last in the nation for science.” And the stats were there to back that statement up. We need to hear something much more concrete, sir.

End of course testing attempt II

Wednesday, December 16th, 2009

Bills have been filed in the state legislature that would push aside the FCAT (including the science FCAT) and replace those comprehensive tests with end of course exams. That’s a step in the right direction. The problem with the science FCAT is shockingly simple: ”There are a lot of kids who don’t care because they know it doesn’t matter.” It doesn’t count toward their passing to the next grade or graduating, but does count toward the schools’ annual grades. It covers multiple science concepts and subjects that students might have learned a few years previous and possibly forgotten. Science teachers in the 11th grade, regardless of subject, find themselves having to stop their own curriculum in order to review other science subjects just to give students a fighting chance, well, for those students who actually care, that is.

So, end of course tests make sense. But the way Florida wants to do it seems rather silly. The focus is mainly on Biology and “an additional high-level physical science course,” which snubs vast fields of science that could then be shoved aside. Paul Cottle has been sounding the alarm on that problem.

There is a red flag to keep an eye concerning even the Biology exam. “The test changes would be developed over the next three years by a educators, parents, community leaders and researchers.” Seems to me yet another opportunity to scream about the teaching of evolution. We need to stay on our toes!

Another story about the tests here. A blog post from the Sentinel School Zone here.

Last in the nation in science, but still twiddling thumbs.

Sunday, December 13th, 2009

Paul Cottle, professor and undergraduate director in the Department of Physics at Florida State University, has an opinion column in the Tallahassee Democrat outlining the dismal state of science education in Florida. No one wants to step up and do anything serious about this problem.

Florida students are pretty much last in the nation for science.

Such a declaration should be a rallying cry for the state’s policy-makers, since the twin goals of K-12 science education — scientific literacy for all and the education of a greater number of excellent scientists and engineers — are necessary steps for Florida to make the transition to an innovation economy.

But instead, Florida’s leaders seem to be stuck in neutral — or even reverse — when it comes to science in the state’s K-12 schools.