Archive for March, 2010

Tougher graduation requirements: do it right, not fast

Tuesday, March 30th, 2010

An editorial in the Lakeland Ledger cautions against setting kids up for failure in math/science education as bills requiring tougher graduation requirements moves through the state legislature.

Students who don’t receive the necessary groundwork for math and science courses in lower grades — and many American children don’t — could be heavily disadvantaged.

It’s too soon to know whether higher science and math requirements could raise high-school dropout rates, but Florida should take steps to ensure that they don’t.

Florida will need strategies to close those gaps, create engaging-and-effective math and science curricula, provide remedial help, design tests to measure performance, and hire a lot more certified math and science teachers. All of these have cost implications at a time when schools struggle for revenue.

Home-school science textbook story localized

Tuesday, March 30th, 2010

A TV station in Tallahassee did a story on textbooks used for home schooling. It’s an attempt to localize a story done by the AP earlier this month: “Top home-school texts dismiss Darwin, evolution“. The Florida TV station’s story is pitiful and woefully incomplete. The reporter didn’t bother to explain what sparked her story, and did nothing more than interview a home-schooling mother and her daughter. There was no attempt to truly report on this issue and give viewers the full and accurate story. Good grief.

Possibilities seem endless

Thursday, March 25th, 2010

Our very own Florida Citizens for Science treasurer, Kathy Savage, was featured in an article about a new program her high school is engaged in that promotes advanced science! Way to go, Kathy!

This cutting edge program [Bioscience Technology Program of Emphasis], which will be implemented in the 2010-2011 school year, will provide students the opportunity to select from three new strands of study: bioscience, biotechnology or biomathematics.

Savage said, according to a recently published paper by the Florida Council of 100, Florida is behind the curve nationally.

“Our state is pretty much near the bottom; I think we are second to last in science out of the 50 states,” she said. “We really have a lot of work to do, and our students are going to miss out if we don’t get them ready for these positions.”

“They are really marketing this as a medical city, this whole I-4 corridor as being cutting edge, with biotechnology, science, simulations, computer and optics, all types of things in our area that people don’t know about,” Savage said. “We feel our kids in this area need to take advantage of that, or else it will be filled by people outside our state.”

Up Date, FCS Seminar an Outstanding Success

Wednesday, March 24th, 2010

This passed weekend the Florida Academy of Sciences hosted its 74th Annual Meeting March 19-20 at Indian River State College, Fort Pierce. As part of that meeting, Florida Citizens for Science conducted a seminar:

For those of us who were visiting Indian River College for the first time, we were all very impressed with the excellent facilities in the conference room, with outstanding audio visual aids.

The meeting was quite well supported (around 30 people) made up of students, faculty members and several professors who were there attending the FAS conference.

All of the speakers, David Campbell, Debra Walker and Wes Elsberry did a wonderful job and were very well received, managing to get their points across in spite of the strict time restrictions placed on them by the ever vigilant Joe Wolf. In the last segment of the meeting Kathy Savage moderated an open discussion for ideas that would assist the FCS in promoting science education. The responses from the audience produce a lively atmosphere with some great ideas and suggestions. I received many positive comments from those in attendance and in all I think the seminar was an outstanding.success.

Scott in Tallahassee

Tuesday, March 23rd, 2010

OK, people … why are you not telling me about these events? Good grief! Eugenie C. Scott from the National Center for Science Education will be talking in Tallahassee Thursday. “The Once and Future Creationism: How Creationism evolves to fit the legal system.” Sponsored by the Tallahassee Scientific Society.

NCSE announcement here.

Tallahassee Scientific Society pdf flier here.

New study: How do Florida teachers feel about evolution?

Wednesday, March 17th, 2010

Florida science teachers’ jobs are in jeopardy if they dare challenge biological evolution in the public school classroom, claimed state senator Ronda Storms when she filed her Academic Freedom bill in 2008.

The bill says that “in many instances educators have experienced or feared discipline, discrimination, or other adverse consequences as a result of presenting the full range of scientific views regarding chemical and biological evolution.”

The problem with this claim was that no legislator who supported the bills in either the Florida House or Senate could offer any proof of such widespread discrimination. Even the senate staff’s own analysis of the bill stated as much.

According to the Department of Education, there has never been a case in Florida where a public school teacher or public school student has claimed that they have been discriminated against based on their science teaching or science course work.

We now have a way to refute claims that those teachers with anti-evolution views are being discriminated against. Even more significantly, we have some evidence that the opposite is true: teachers who support evolution instruction are the ones who face harassment and fear of unemployment. An important study “Florida Teachers’ Attitudes about Teaching Evolution” was published in The American Biology Teacher February 2010 issue. Samantha Fowler, an assistant professor of biology in the Department of Natural Sciences at Clayton State University, Georgia, and Gerry Meisels, Director of the Coalition for Science Literacy, University of South Florida, were interested in learning how Florida’s new state science standards – prominently featuring evolution as a Big Idea – were being received at the classroom level. The prior version of the science standards had not even mentioned the word evolution, and so the dramatic change in 2008 [For all the gritty details about the science standards revision process go here.] from no mention by name to Big Idea was sure to grab teachers’ attention. But to what extent?

Fowler and Meisels set three goals for their study:
Are Florida teachers really facing discrimination as claimed by the Academic Freedom bills’ supporters?
How comfortable are Florida teachers overall with teaching evolution?
How comfortable are Florida elementary school teachers with teaching basic evolutionary concepts?

Fowler and Meisels sent a carefully constructed and reviewed survey to teachers using contacts at the Building a Presence in Science program of the National Science Teachers Association. They received 353 useable responses. Roughly a quarter of them came from elementary school teachers, another quarter from middle school teachers, and about half from high school teachers. Suburban schools made up the bulk of responses at 66% with urban schools coming in at 21% and rural schools at 14%.

It was found that 74% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that they are comfortable with evolution being in the new science standards, and 20% said they are not comfortable. “Moreover, only 62% agree that they will use the new Florida science standards to justify teaching evolution,” Fowler and Meisels said. They did some number crunching and determined that as many as 532,000 Florida students who take classes where they are supposed to learn about evolution in some form have teachers who are not comfortable with evolution. Unfortunately, we don’t know what is going on in those classrooms. Are they skipping evolution? Are they teaching inaccurate information? Digging through the statistics offers some clues. “Only 72% of the teachers agreed that evolution is a central organizing principle of biology, and 17% felt that one can understand biology without learning about evolution,” Fowler and Meisels said. My guess is that there are plenty of teachers across the state who are using the old technique of just not being able to get to that chapter on evolution because they ran out of time in the course.

The subject of evolution inevitably crosses paths with religious beliefs, and Fowler and Meisels made sure to include it in their study. Only two-thirds of respondents said they disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statement: “Believing in God means rejecting evolution.” Additionally, 17% admitted to not believing that the earth is at least 4 billion years old. Fowler and Meisels didn’t mention in their text one statistic that stood out to me in their tables. They broke down all respondents into two groups: those who are comfortable with evolution and those who aren’t. Then the two groups’ answers to a list of questions are compared. Only 0.4% of those who are comfortable felt that creationists are more moral than noncreationists. On the other hand, 19% of those uncomfortable with evolution agreed that creationists are more moral. That’s not a statement on whether certain teachers have the professional knowledge they need to do their jobs but rather a statement on personal values that shakes me to my core. These are real people in our schools who feel morally superior to their fellow teachers. What can result from such an attitude? We’re going to get a taste of that later in this study.

One statistic that does address professional knowledge is whether respondents felt they understand evolution well enough to teach it. The difference here is striking, with 94% of those who are comfortable with evolution having that understanding while only 51% of those uncomfortable with evolution did. When the numbers are further broken down by grade level taught, it can be seen that teachers at the elementary school level are the ones with the least knowledge and confidence when it comes to evolution. Only 69% on the elementary level felt they understood evolution well enough to teach it, compared with 88% in middle schools and 95% in high schools. Two other lines in the table stood out to me when it comes to elementary school teachers:
— Agree that the Earth is at least 4 billion years old: elementary 61%, middle 85%, high 95%.
— Feel that those who believe in God do not accept evolution: elementary 27%, middle 22%, high 5%.

Fowler and Meisels said, “Now that evolution has become a Big Idea in Florida’s science standards beginning at the elementary level, helping these teachers become more comfortable with and knowledgeable about evolution is increasingly important.”

Finally, we arrive at the paper’s analysis of whether discrimination against teachers who don’t accept evolution is a real problem. The structured survey questions actually didn’t specify whether any criticism faced by teachers was for or against evolution, but were instead generic queries into any type of censure when it comes to evolution. The results indicate that teachers tend to take much more heat from parents and students than from fellow teachers or administrators. However, Fowler and Meisels included a section in their questionnaires soliciting teachers to write comments about their personal experiences facing criticism. Overall, there was an even mix of responses from both the pro-evolution and anti-evolution sides when relating experiences about fellow teachers. But relations with school administrators were quite different. Teachers who do include evolution in the classroom wrote about many experiences with hostile school administrators. “Conversely, no comments were made about teachers being forced to teach evolution when they did not wish to do so,” Fowler and Meisels said. This strikingly lopsided response led Fowler and Meisels to the preliminary conclusion that arguments on behalf of the Academic Freedom bills had no grounding in fact. Comments they received included:

“A former principal, who held strong religious beliefs, called me in to chastise me for mentioning ‘adaptations’ among birds … as was mentioned in our county environmental ed. workbook. The principal made it well known that I was to stop teaching this because it was ‘well known’ that God made the birds the way they were … and that they did not adapt as I had taught. ‘Your uncle may be a monkey,’ said the principal, ‘but mine was not.’”

“I had a screen saver which said ‘evolution happens’ scrolling across an image of the T-rex Sue and was told to remove it by my principal as it offended the religious sensibilities of a student. I was then told to ‘tread lightly’ when I approached the topic of evolution in class … In the end I was not rehired at the district.”

What lessons can be taken from this important and informative study? First of all, yet more study is needed since there are still a few uncertainties. Fowler and Meisels point out that there could very well be many more teachers who have some level of discomfort with evolution out there than this study has revealed due to the survey’s nonrandom sampling method. But the solution to several issues this study highlights is more initial education and ongoing training for teachers. Those who lack confidence in a subject are likely to pass along that fuzzy knowledge to their students, perpetuating a vicious cycle. Better science and evolution education is even more vital for elementary school teachers, because there is a lot at stake here! Take a look at the recent study “Eyeballs in the Fridge” that found many current working scientists first fell in love with science very young. Also check out another study done in California about the dismal state of science education in elementary schools there.

Teachers’ knowledge and enthusiasm can have a profound impact on students, especially the youngest kids. A teacher’s negative attitude toward evolution can turn students off to the subject, and even to science overall! As Fowler and Meisels state: “Teachers’ discomfort with evolution may adversely affect students’ learning through insufficient time spent on the topic and general verbal and nonverbal cues given by the teacher. Therefore, it is important to thoroughly explore the reasons for teachers’ discomfort so that remedies can be developed.”

(My sincere thanks to the folks at the National Center for Science Education for letting me know this study was out there!)

Way to go, Anthony!

Tuesday, March 16th, 2010

Anthony Bass, a senior at Seminole Ridge Community High School, kicked some serious science essay butt when he won NASA’s interplanetary Cassini Scientist for a Day essay competition … for the second time! His sponsoring teacher, Erich Landstrom, sent me a letter that U.S. Congressman Thomas J. Rooney had written congratulating Bass:

Today, I wish to congratulate senior Anthony Bass III of Loxahatchee, FL on his first place win in the nation-wide National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s essay competition for the interplanetary Cassini Scientist for a Day. The contest is sponsored by the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, CA.

Anthony’s winning essay for Target 1: Saturn & Rings, Grade 9 to 12, explored the relationship between the composition of Saturn’s rings and their formation. Most impressively, the senior from Seminole Ridge Community High School is the first-ever essayist to win their contest twice.

In his 1987 State of the Union address, President Ronald Reagan said, “Our children should master the basic concepts of math and science, and let’s insist that students not leave high school until they have studied and understood the basic documents of our national heritage.” The President and Congress have re-affirmed our national heritage as a
frontier nation, with space exploration being that frontier. This is a challenge bold enough to last many lifetimes.

Cassini Scientist for a Day challenges students to become NASA scientists’ studying the planet Saturn through the robotic spacecraft Cassini. Students examine three target images taken by Cassini and choose the one they think will yield the best science, supporting their choice in a 500-word essay. Nearly 400 students from 19 states and Puerto Rico entered the Fall 2009 contest, but NASA researchers were impressed most-for the second year in a row-with Anthony’s entry. Such an extraordinary accomplishment is as far from basic mastery of math and science concepts, as Saturn is from Earth.

Here is an excerpt of his writing: “Saturn is well known for its complex ring structure, which has become a wonder of our solar system, and yet we still do not know where exactly these rings came from. We are being provided with an ideal opportunity to photograph Saturn’s rings right now during equinox…. We would need to look for clues in the composition of the main rings and compare this data to the composition of Saturn’s other moons, in order to help us determine if it is really possible that these rings started as a moon.”

I am proud to publicly recognize Anthony for his amazing demonstration of repeated excellence. I extend my heartfelt congratulations to him, and to his parents and teachers.

In closing, I want to wish Anthony the best of luck this fall as he embarks upon the next phase of his education, pursuing degrees in both aerospace and astronautical engineering. The philosopher Plato observed, “The direction in which education starts a man will determine his future.” Anthony, your future will take you to the stars!

Thomas J. Rooney
Member of Congress

Go read Anthony’s essay here.

It’s coming!

Monday, March 15th, 2010

Our seminar, that is. The TCPalm was kind enough to publish a news release I sent them about our upcoming event on Saturday.

FORT PIERCE — A free seminar entitled “Attacks on Science, Science Education and Evolution” will be March 20.

Florida Citizens for Science is conducting the seminar in conjunction with the Florida Academy of Sciences’ 74th annual meeting at Indian River State College in Fort Pierce.

The evolution seminar will be from 1-3 p.m. in the Health Sciences Center. It will consist of the following four parts:

Evolution and the teaching of evolution with Dave Campbell, a high school biology teacher.

Myths about evolution with Debra Walker, an anthropologist and member of Monroe County School Board.

The anti-science of antievolution with Wesley R. Elsberry, a biologist who worked with the National Center for Science Education.