Archive for February, 2011

Commentary: Florida Science education takes the wrong track.

Monday, February 28th, 2011

Here is a good commentary at the Tallahassee Democrat website: Florida Science education takes the wrong track.

All students now would be taking biology, and many would end up taking only biology as a result of large failure rates (anticipated if you examine recent National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) and other similar results). What about chemistry? Good news there, but still bad news for physics, which generally requires chemistry as a prerequisite.

The two sciences that are, arguably, needed most by (at least) graduates who are headed to college are physics and earth sciences. These subjects provide the basics and applications of principles of energy, technology and engineering developments, hazards of weather and climatic change, space-borne applications, utilization and limitations of natural resources, and so many other things that are crucial to the growth of a diversified economy.

Recent stories of interest

Saturday, February 19th, 2011

Here is a story about a teacher who is trying to educate the general public concerning the realities of the teaching profession: “Critics abound, so Collier teacher offers insight into his profession“. I definitely applaud his efforts and appreciate how it seems that he is genuinely respected. This story is definitely worth a read. However, the story opens with a description of one particular lesson he taught in his American history class. The subject was the Scopes Trial. A student asks the teacher his personal opinion on evolution and creationism.

“Mr. Frye, what do you believe?” the student asks, prompting Frye to pause and think about his answer before he replies.

“Do I think of evolution as an explanation for the origin of the species? No, I do not,” he said, then explains his belief that evolution exists within species.

After he answers, Frye tells his students to think about it themselves.

“My purpose for bringing this up is not to persuade you one way or another,” he said. “I don’t have all the answers. So many people your age only have access to limited information. You have the freedom to learn, to grow, to expand your minds. It is one of the best freedoms we have. … I hope as a teacher I give you that freedom (to think).”

He was asked for his personal opinion, and he thoughtfully answered. I certainly don’t agree with the man’s answer, but he is entitled to his opinion. This description didn’t paint a picture of someone taking the opportunity to promote creationism or religion in general. He kept the answer short, sweet and to the point while emphasizing his desire that the students need to think for themselves. My only nit-pick would be that the teacher should have made it clear that he is not a scientist or a science teacher and does not have any expertise on the subject matter (I presume).

Evolution is not the story’s emphasis, though. So, don’t get too wrapped up in that aspect of it. The story is all about the challenges of being a teacher.

Another interesting story popped up: Middle school student claims teacher bullied her over refusing to dissect frog.

North Naples Middle School student Sarah Wingo didn’t sign up for a face full of frogs or ridicule.

But that’s exactly what the 13-year-old vegetarian claims she got Tuesday, after her science teacher sneaked up behind her with a bag of freeze-dried frogs and called her name.

“That’s when I turned around,” said Sarah, a self-described Justin Bieber fan and animal activist. “When I realized what it was I started crying. It was a shock. She dropped them on my binder and she walked away laughing.”


The teen and her parents claim her biology teacher bullied her about refusing to dissect a frog.

Unfortunately, the article only gives one side of the story. It will be interesting to hear what the teacher has to say about what had or had not happened.

Getting evolution right in museums

Thursday, February 17th, 2011

Great story about making sure museums depict evolution correctly, led by Florida Museum of Natural History’s Bruce MacFadden: Evolution: A Changing Definition.

Based on their original research, Darwin, Marsh and Huxley all believed that the evolution of Equus teeth was evidence for orthogenetic –– or straight line –– evolution of the horse. In other words, they believed that one species would evolve into another, and then go extinct resulting in almost no overlap between species. “This is a really convenient way to look at it,” MacFadden said. “But it is simply untrue. It has been disproven.”

In 1906, a paleontologist named J.W. Gidley discovered that there is in fact overlap between species, and that horse evolution is actually an example of branched tree evolution. His research was later confirmed by George Gaylord Simpson in 1950, and the current view on the evolution of horses has not changed significantly since then. “The question then becomes: if modern science tells us that horses are an example of branched evolution, why are some of the best and most popular museums in the United States still depicting them as orthogenetic in their exhibits?” MacFadden said. According to MacFadden, people spend only 10 percent of their lives recieving formal education, and the remainder of their lives amassing informal education, which includes visits to museums. “Over 50 million people visit the U.S. History Museum [in Washington D.C.] every year. These people trust museums to give them accurate, up to date information, and many museums just aren’t doing that,” he said.

Evolution targeted in newspaper commentary

Monday, February 14th, 2011

I don’t know who Paul James is, but he wrote a newspaper commentary for the Palm Beach Post about evolution. Judging from the title “Evolution doesn’t answer all of science’s questions“, it is already evident that the writer isn’t the most knowledgeable person in matters of science. Of course, James probably didn’t pick that headline himself; nonetheless, it does encapsulate his written thoughts. Here is his first paragraph:

The United States is losing its world prominence in academics, and science may be suffering the most. But two researchers at the University of Pennsylvania claim to have found the cause: high school biology teachers who do not advocate the theory of evolution.

I’ve read the book Michael B. Berkman and Eric Plutzer wrote on this subject, and I don’t believe either had stated that poor evolution education is the cause of the U.S.’s downfall in academics. It’s a sign or symptom, but I don’t think the authors had called it a cause. Maybe they said something different in their journal paper.

Another paragraph from the commentary:

Although the courts have ruled that creationism is not science, not all scientists would agree. In The Case for Creation, author Lee Strobel shares interviews with top scientists in their fields who have found evidence of intelligent design in cosmology, physics, astronomy, biochemistry and biology. Yet it is exactly the presentation of such scientific evidence the Penn State researchers find so problematic.

Any biologist worth his or her salt most certainly would and do agree. Creationism is a religious claim, pure and simple. Creationism cannot be tested, has no credible evidence and makes no useful scientific predictions. I’ve read The Case for Creation and found it to be nothing more than a overly long church bulletin. I was disgusted by the book’s advertising blurbs that claim Strobel used his hard-hitting investigative journalism skills to ask the tough questions on this subject. What a load of manure! He lobbed softball questions at his interviewees and either misrepresented or completely ignored the scientific counter-arguments.

James’ main problem with evolution seems to be that he claims it is devoid of any real meaning. Teenagers will take away from an evolution lesson that we are nothing more than worthless clumps of cells, he says. I think James misses the point of science. It helps us understand how the universe works. It’s not really meant to impart morals or meaning. However, I do think that evolution and biology in general does impart a sense of awe and wonder. It shows how we are connected to the life all around us, past, present, and future. To me, that is magnificent and meaningful.

Defending Darwin article

Saturday, February 12th, 2011

In honor of Darwin Day today, Florida Citizens for Science vice-president Jonathan Smith wrote an article for the Lakeland Ledger: Defending Darwin is Long-Term Effort.

If America is to remain the leader in global technology, the general public must come to realize the essentiality of science education, and understand the acceptance of the biological process of evolution to be factual and critically important. Failure carries the consequences associated with any country that rejects any scientific evidence simply to placate personal ideologies.

Teacher internship, day 22

Saturday, February 5th, 2011

It’s been a strange mix of fun and frustration.

During the first few weeks of my biology teacher internship I’ve done a lot of observing and assisting. Then I taught a few lessons that my host teacher had created. All of that went fine and I started getting comfortable with being in front of the students and dealing with their general teenage school-related problems: talking while I’m lecturing, not following instructions, trying to sleep, not having basic school supplies, etc. I’m definitely not an expert at handling these things yet; I just got a taste of it all. It took me a while to learn the names of about 60 students, but I think I finally have all of them memorized now. With those experience under my belt I finally tackled my very own lessons. I planned two days’ worth of instruction on “what is science” and the scientific method, and then I taught the lessons this past Monday and Tuesday. I also ran a “water on a penny” lab on Wednesday. Thursday and Friday were days of just assisting and teaching mini-lessons created by the host teacher.

During the planning of my lessons, I focused quite a bit of energy on making them engaging and active. I incorporated an interesting puzzle that changed when a new piece was later discovered to illustrate the nature of scientific theories. I used a “hypothesis boxes” activity where the kids had to guess the design of a maze inside a box while also trying to figure out what types of objects were in there. The purpose of that one was to learn about making inferences, forming hypotheses on limited information, and using quantitative/qualitative data. I used a video of a magic trick to encourage the students to make observations and pick apart the trick. I lectured on how scientists conducted experiments to test the hypothesis that some non-venomous snakes are coloration mimics of venomous snakes. I used my graphic arts skills to create a very nice slide presentation to go along with the mimics lecture, using interesting pictures and graphics. The lessons on the scientific method included Redi’s and Pasteur’s experiments that refuted spontaneous generation. After that, there was tons and tons of practice identifying control groups, experimental groups, manipulated variables, responding variables and controlled variables. (As an aside: I had always used independent and dependent variables. Apparently manipulated and responding are fairly new terms that I now have to get used to.)

It took me quite a while to put this all together and I really poured energy into it.

Then today the host teacher verbally reviewed a lot of the information in advance of a quiz given at the end of the class. She asked the class what a theory is. She asked them to recall spontaneous generation. She had them identify the various parts of controlled experiments. The kids acted like they had never heard any of this before. A theory is a guess, they said. Responding variable? What’s that? I was embarrassed and crushed as I sat in the back of the class and listened to the dead silence following each question the host teacher tossed out there.

There was more bad news once the 10-question quizzes were graded. Barely anyone chose the correct multiple choice answer to a question about what a scientific theory is. They still struggled with parts of controlled experiments. Overall, there weren’t many outright failed quizzes, but there were a significant number of 60’s, the lowest passing grade possible.

My host teacher and I discussed the results. She told me not to take it personally. The students struggled just as much with the material she had taught on Thursday, and she had also done all of that verbal review with them right before the quiz. We reflected on what I could have done better and one thing I didn’t do during my lessons was have the students write many notes. So, there is the possibility that even though I tried to illustrate the term “theory” through a hands-on activity followed by a short explanatory lecture, the students could have benefitted from writing out the definition of a theory in some manner to better implant it in their minds. Nonetheless, my host teacher decided that we need to push the schedule back a day or two to make room for some re-teaching before we administer the full chapter test.

Next week I will teach a two-day lesson on the properties of water. I’ve already planned out the lessons, and I once again used my graphic design experience to create a nice multi-page worksheet. This time those kids will definitely be taking structured notes using those worksheets! I still have to assemble some materials and make sure I know what I’m doing, which includes the running of a pH lab.

In the meantime, I will be planning a one-day lesson on enzymes and chemical reactions. Then after that I will be really getting into the thick of it. I’ll be completely taking over the class for two weeks; the host teacher won’t even be in the room except for occasional observations. I think the subject matter I’ll be starting out with then will be cells.

But right now I’m taking a short breather this weekend. I need to shake off the feeling of disappointment that gripped me today. That’s not to say that I’m discouraged to any great extent. I certainly am having fun planning lessons, and interacting with the kids is a blast when they’re actually alert and engaged. They’re certainly not dumb! They’re mainly just disinterested, and that’s the steel gate of an obstacle that teachers must somehow overcome. Anyone have a blowtorch?

Oh, and reading about how much Florida teachers are under attack didn’t lighten my mood any.