Category Archives: science education

Disney Does It Again

Moana’s theatrical debut was Thanksgiving weekend, so of course, like the faithful Disneyite I am, I went to see it that Wednesday.  And Disney hit another one out of the park – home run for all the points.  Moana follows the title character in her journey with Maui, demi-god and hero-of-men, and HeiHei, a dumb chicken, to restore the heart of Te Fiti.  And it is delightful.  If you haven’t yet, run out and go watch it.

Warning: SPOILERS AHEAD!!!!!!!!!!

Moana is an amazing character.  She’s the next chief of her people and actually takes her responsibility to heart.  She wants to go beyond the reef that protects her island but she turns away from her needs to be the daughter and leader her father and people expect her to be.  She still dances with the waves with her grandmother, but she still helps in the day-to-day administration of her people.  When needed though, she doesn’t shrink away from her destiny and follows the ocean to find Maui and return the heart of Te Fiti.  Moana is a refreshing Disney “Princess” (in a dress with an animal side-kick, thus princess) because she actually admits at one point in the film that she has no idea what she’s doing, she doesn’t know why the ocean choose her, and she really isn’t anything special.  She’s just a girl who loves her family and loves her island and loves the ocean.  Which makes her very special.

Maui isn’t quite your typical side-kick either.  In the movie version of the legend, Maui is a shape-shifting trickster who stole the heart of Te Fiti as a gift to humans.  As a result, he lost his magic hook and can no longer shape shift.  He definitely does not want to help Moana put the heart back and tries everything to get away from her, including stealing her boat, throwing her off her boat, and tricking her into going to realm of monsters.  In the end, though, he comes to recognize that Moana is just the girl to succeed on their mission and helps her out.

The third star of this movie is the music.  The songs were written by Lin-Manuel Miranda (who wrote, among other things, Hamilton and In the Heights), Opetaia Foa’i (founder of the group Te Vaka, a contemporary Pacific music or “South Pacific Fusion” group), and Mark Mancina (worked in the music department for Disney movies from Lion King to Brother Bear and Tarzan).  This soundtrack is a force of nature by itself.  The original songs capture with their beautiful lyrics and the Pacific Island sounds.  It doesn’t hurt that new comer Auli’i Cravalho, voice of Moana, has a powerhouse of a voice.

In the end, Moana is a wonderful addition to the Disney collection that will inspire young girls to go after their dreams while keeping their family in their hearts.


5 years and beyond

A new study shows that 17% of teachers leave after 5 years in the profession.  That number might be a little low due to the recent recession too.  A previous study had shown that up to 50% of teachers left the field after just 5 years.

I completely understand why.  I’ve been a teacher for 5 years now and I get it.  I know there are a lot of people out there who understand that teaching is difficult.  There are a lot of people who really appreciate teachers for what they are doing and how hard they work.  I know that there are a lot of other professionals who work just as hard as teachers do.  But unless you are there, in the classroom, you really can’t understand what I do on a daily basis.  I don’t want to complain about it, because I do enjoy my work, but I just want to say that I understand why people choose to leave after 5 years.

I teach HS chemistry.  It wasn’t the subject I thought I would be teaching (I have a degree in zoology for crying out loud) but I’ve come to absolutely love it.  I’m even in the process of completing a MS in chemistry education to both further my education and to help my students earn college credits for taking my class.  I want my students to get everything they can out of my class.

But sometimes I really wonder what the heck I’m doing and if it means anything at all.  I was doing a lab on intermolecular forces and polarity the other day and my students where… just not getting it.  This is after we’ve gone over polar bonds, polar molecules, intermolecular forces.  They’ve had demos and reading and group work and computer simulations.  We’v had class discussion and they’ve written about it and answered bell work about it.  We’ve been doing this for a week and still… they are not making the connections that I want them to make.  I get that it’s only been a week and I know that it is difficult stuff.  That doesn’t make it any less frustrating to me.  Because it is frustrating when you pour your heart into making these lessons and making sure that it is fun and engaging and hits all the DOK levels and all the learning styles and all the Blooms levels and all the other stuff that your principal and mentor and college degree says should be in a lesson to make it a good lesson.

Your students are frustrated too.  Because they can see that you want them to understand and expect them to understand and they still don’t.  So they blame you.  You didn’t teach it.  You went too fast.  You didn’t help them.  Or maybe they blame themselves.  They are too stupid or just “not good at science (or whatever subject)”.  They give up because they think it doesn’t matter and no one cares.

Except I do care.  I care a lot.

So I understand why teachers leave after 5 years.  I want to remind those teachers of all the good times.

I have a wall in my classroom of all the notes that students have left me.  I read through those every time I’m having one of those “nothing I do matters” days.  They are notes saying that I’m a good teacher, that I made a difference in one student’s life.  They are notes saying I was fun and the student enjoyed my class (even though it was hard).  They are notes telling me that the student didn’t like science before my class but now they do.  They are notes reminding me that what I do does matter, even if a student still doesn’t understand polarity at the end of the day.

I met up with some former students at ASU the other day.  They were all taking chemistry at college and they said something about how their college class is basically my class, just a little deeper level.  But they get it this year and were really glad that they took my class their senior year.  Oh, and they still have all of my notes and they’ve been really helpful.  They are also dying inside and haven’t slept in a few days, but chemistry is easy this year.

Maybe I don’t connect with every student.  Maybe there are some students who don’t like me or hated my class.  But there are more students who liked my class, who enjoy me as a teacher, and who think that what I’m doing matters.  These are the students I want to stay for.

In January, 2017, I will officially have been a teacher for 5 years.  But I won’t be leaving this profession.  Even if it is only for those few students, I matter.


Everything to say, nothing to write

I haven’t really written anything since the end of the summer.  This happens a lot to me.  I think I have these great things to say and then life catches up to me and suddenly I have no time for anything but work and school.

There are so many times I’ve wanted to sit down and write something: a story, a blog post, an opinion piece, whatever.  But I find myself thinking “who will even read this”?  Ok, I know people will read it (and big thanks to all of you who do!), but I feel this imposter syndrome when I have things to say.  There’s this idea that I’m just this nobody with nothing important to say.  Or nothing original to say in any case.  I’m never sure who to get past it.

I feel like this is the reason I haven’t tried to publish many things yet.  The one time I’ve tried, my story was on the short list but cut for the final draft.  We build these protective walls around us to keep that kind of thing from being painful.  I told myself that it doesn’t matter anyway because I’m not a written, I’m a teacher.  I don’t have any ambitions to get my work published.  So I don’t write, I don’t submit, and I let the creativity bottle up until I feel like I’m going to explode.  Probably not a healthy outlet, to be sure.

I always set these goals for myself – two blog posts a month, 1000 words a week, submit to at least one publication a month, run every other day.  I’m horrible at keeping goals.  I don’t know how people do it, honestly.  I find that I just shrug it off and put it in the back of my mind.  Out of site, out of mind, no stress kind of thing.  I’ve tried to change this, but I’m not really sure how.  I don’t have a lot of motivators and the things that do motivate me, video games, tasty baked treats, pumpkin spice coffee, are things that I will do or eat anyway.  I don’t feel the need to limit myself because I didn’t do x, y or z.

So my blog sits for months at a time old posts and barely any traffic.  So my stories sit for months at a time with blank pages and lost ideas.  So the world never sees my words or my imagination.  So I just let the ideas rot in my mind and never put them to page.

What does it matter anyway?  The earth is going to be swallowed by the sun in 10 billion years.


Why? Why not?

I consider myself a scientific skeptic.  I try to look at claims with a healthy dose of science and evidence.  I like to consider what the evidence says before I make up my mind about things.  I like to take a step back and ask “wait, what’s the proof for that?”  I like to doubt things it they sound implausible.

Of course, that often translates to my friends and family as being a doubter, as being contentious, as being difficult, as not believing in things.  I think my friends and family see me as being a nay-sayer to the things they believe such as homeopathic medicine, global warming, and the existence of ghosts.

I got into skepticism due to two podcasts: Science…Sort Of and the Geologic Podcast.  I wasn’t always a skeptic.  I believed in ghosts and spirits and Bigfoot and the conspiracy behind global warming.  And then I started listening to these two shows and they talked about science and skepticism in an easy-to-understand way.  Those podcasts lead to others such as Skeptoid and The Skeptics Guide to the Universe and to more involvement with local skeptic groups.  That involvement lead to more research and more understanding of how important it is to examine things critically and not take claims at face value without good evidence to back it up.

This, of course, has lead to family and friends to start saying “there was a study about this” when they tell me things.  Great, I’m glad there was a study about it.  How good was the study?  How controlled was the study?  Did you actually read the study or just the reporting on the study?  What conclusions did the researchers reach?  Where those conclusions in line with the data they actually collected?  It’s a nuanced process that needs to be followed.  I understand that can’t be for everything.  I’m not going to doubt it when someone tells they hit a deer or they feel better when eating a gluten-free diet.  I just also don’t like to take everything at face value.

Sometimes it’s hard to describe why this is important to me.  I think George Hrab said it pretty well in his TEDx talk, so I’m just going to leave that link here.  The video is about 23 minutes, but it’s well worth the watch if you are interested in learning why skepticism is important.

GWC-keep-calm-and-question-everything-3Sometimes it seems like it is all pointless and why should I care.  But most of the time, I think it’s important to continue to inform people that they shouldn’t believe every miracle cure or health claim or wonder product out there.  They should stop and say “hey, wait a second, how does that work?”.  It’s okay to question how a product works and to demand that a product or procedure has been rigorously tested to ensure that it actually does what it should do or prevent what it claims to prevent.  So I’ll keep questioning and just hope that my family and friends realize I’m not trying to be a jerk, I’m just trying to make them understand that science is complicated and claims should require evidence.

Image credit: www.quotehd.com and larochecollege.blogspot.com and globalwomenconnected.com


On Science

I had an interesting conversation with someone over winter break.  We were talking about science and how, in opinion, there are some problems with the way we treat scientists in this country.  Mostly, I was talking about how researchers are pressured into publishing their findings before someone “scoops” them because of funding models.  This causes professors at universities to write grants most of the time while their doctoral candidates are running the labs.  PHD comics does a great job of showing the life of a grad student in a satirical, funny way.  And while the comic is just that, a comic, many graduate students I know (especially in the sciences) talk about the realities of being a scientist today.

Back to the conversation I had.  I was telling this person that scientists are pressured to publish and because of this pressure, there are have problems with some scientists faking their data.  There was a notable case where a physicist faked some of his data in published, peer reviewed, papers.  The Schon scandal along with other, more deliberate studies show that there is a problem in how we evaluate peer review studies in this country.

The first thing my friend said was “And how do they expect us to believe that GMO is safe to eat?”

What?  I’m talking about physics studies and you jump to GMO.  Totally different fields of studies.  That’s like me saying “We need to help the rainforest” and you replying with “Well, I do yoga.”  They don’t relate at all.

I think that is the problem with science communication in this country.  People seem to think that all SCIENCE is done in a box and if one part of SCIENCE is flawed, than all of SCIENCE is flawed.  Of course parts of science are flawed, because PEOPLE do science.  Science doesn’t happen in a vacuum or a box, it happens because people are passionate about it.  So of course there are going to be flaws and biases and bad data.  That doesn’t mean we throw it all out.  That means we have better checks in place.  Instead of pressuring people into publishing, let them double and triple check their results.

A second problem is how scientists communicate with the public.  Many scientists would hesitate to say that we “absolutely know” or it is “100% safe”.  Most would say “the likelihood is high” or “it is possible but highly unlikely”.  People don’t like those qualifiers.  People want something to be 100% safe or 100% right.  Maybe this is more a fault of education in this country.  We often treat science education as “this is fact” when science isn’t about facts at all.  Science is about likelihoods and probabilities.  For example, I teach my students about the probability of finding an electron at a certain place at a certain time.  We can’t know for sure that the electron is there, but the probability of finding it is high.  That doesn’t sit well with students, or with most people.  They want to know for sure where the electron is.  I think scientists and educators need to do a better job explaining why we can’t know for certain if something is or isn’t.

Mainly, I think people need to realize that science isn’t this one caught all thing that is done perfectly all the time.  Scientists are human and make mistakes.  Their mistakes need to be recognized as part of the scientific process, not crucified for not being perfect.  After all, no one stopped driving because Volvo recalled their trucks.  We shouldn’t throw out all of science because a few people have made mistakes.  We should learn from those mistakes, help fix the system that caused those mistakes, and continue forward.  That is, after all, how science works.


A welcome relief

Fall break is almost upon me.  Tomorrow, students will file in to take their midterms.  There will be joy and confusion and tears, but mostly there will be relief that we are halfway through the semester.  Plus, we get a week off.  A very much needed week off.

This semester, like most of the others, has been rough.  But this semester has been rough for a completely different reason.  I feel like I finally almost have the hang of this teaching thing.  I have a schedule for grading papers and writing tests and giving feedback.  I know what my lessons are going to be and can just create minor tweaks for the new class.  This semester, a lot of that goes out the window.

You see, our district went one-to-one.  That means that every student got a laptop this year.  And it is great!  When it works…  There are the usual problems of handing out 1600 new devices to students: the WiFi isn’t powerful enough to support all the devices, not all the software is unblocked on the student devices, the testing software we have doesn’t quite work yet, etc, etc, etc.  But it has always changed the way I teach my class, and I’m not really sure how it has changed it yet.  I’m stuck in this weird limbo where I want to use the technology but most of my lessons rely on pen and paper.  In order to completely change to paperless, I need to redo many of my lessons.  I also want to give the students more freedom.  Gone are the days where I tell the to create a drawing on a piece of paper.  Now they can create something using almost any medium they can find.  The challenge is helping them find the resources and guiding them on how to use new software and programs.  It’s not easy when I have to do all the leg work first!

On top of all that, I started a graduate program at South Dakota State University in chemistry education.  Nothing makes you feel stupid like taking advanced level chemistry classes.  This stuff is hard!  I mean, I have a pretty good grasp of the content I teach, but suddenly I’m also learning how to calculate the energy change of an electron as it moves from n=1 to n=2.  I suddenly have a kinship with my AP students who feel like they are barely keeping their head above water in my class!

So it will be nice to go to Disneyland with my mom and cousin and just relax for a few days.  Of course, I also have homework I have to take with me, but I can still enjoy many hours of carefree singing and skipping before I hit the books and dive into the real of the weird.


YES, I will take students to Disneyland

Students learning about sound and how Imagineers use sound design in rides

YES – youth education series. It’s a series of programs offered by Disneyland and Disneyworld for students. They teach students leadership, encourage working together, and – my favorite – teach students how to use science to make rides. So I took 29 juniors and seniors to Disneyland to learn about Imagineers and science.  

Some people might think I’m a little nuts traveling 5 hours in order to take students to an amusement park, but I really enjoy it. Some of these students have never been out of state before, let alone to Disneyland and I always love watching people experience the park for the first time. 

The YES programs at Disneyland offer students a chance to learn how science can actually be used in everyday life.  It’s a great opportunity and I hope to continue doing it for many years to come. 

Students modeling magnetics in order to discover how magnetics inrides


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