Category Archives: science education

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

Too Hard

School is back in session and I have a whole new group of kiddos, including 2 sections of honors chemistry.  These are the top kids in their class; these are the kids who most likely want to go into science (either get a degree in science or are pre-med).  They are smart kids who believe a B is failing.  Then they get to honors chemistry.

I’ll be the first to admit that chemistry is hard.  It’s this weird combination of math and concepts and application that most students don’t see in high school.  I don’t just require them to know the information, I require them to apply that information to new and interesting situations.  Not all classes do that.  History is just names and dates to these kids.  English is just writing some stuff down.  Math is just solving for x.  And it’s easy for them.  Suddenly they find themselves in a situation where it’s not so easy.  They don’t have all the answers and they don’t always know all the answers right off the bat.  It’s frustrating to them.  I totally get that.  I’ve had classes like that.  But I truly believe that those type of classes made me a better student, and maybe even a better student.

I had a class in college that was super hard.  It was called terrestrial arthropods and it was a 400 level class.  It was the only invertebrate class that semester and I needed it to graduate at the end of the semester.  I dreaded that class.  For a week before classes started, I seriously debated if I should drop it and take a different class the next semester.  But that would delay my graduation and I was done with school.  So I took the class and I got an A.  It was the most difficult, time consuming A I even received.  It was also the best A I ever received.  I actually worked for that A.  I put blood and sweat into that A.  I fucking aced that class, damn it!  It taught me something (I mean, besides how to ID an insect and how spiders breathe):  just because it’s hard doesn’t mean I can’t do it.

Ok, back to chemistry.  So, I hear students talk in the hall.  One thing I hear my honors students say is “that class is too hard”.  And I have to think to myself “Too hard?  We’ve done, like, maybe two things.  They had to count significant figures and design a lab.  If that’s too hard, well shit…”  I hear it a lot in class too: “That homework was too hard.  That test was too hard.”  I’m trying to figure it out.  Is it really too hard, or do they just not want to do the work?  Sometimes, I’m not sure.  I don’t think it’s too hard.  It’s not easy, to be sure, but too hard?

My knee-jerk reaction is to make it easier.  “Ok, I’m sorry it’s too hard.  Here, let me hold your hand while I walk you through this step by step.”  I want them to enjoy my class.  I want students to want to take the class in the future.  I want students to do well.  That’s when I realize that I’m already doing that.  Students do enjoy my class.  Just today a student was telling me that they “loved this class” even though they weren’t sure about it in the beginning.  I would be doing my students a disservice if I made it any easier.

My message to students is a simply one: Try harder.  I know somethings it’s difficult and you don’t understand.  Take a break.  Go watch a show, listen to some music, play a video game.  Then sit your butt back down and figure it out.  Life isn’t going to get any easier and if you give up on something just because it’s “too hard” at first, you’re going to miss out on a lot of stuff in life.  Besides, your A in honors chemistry will mean a lot more to you than in any of those “easy” classes.  You just have to work at it.

Some of them can actually think for themselves

I have the pleasure of being the Science National Honor Society sponsor at my high school.  As the sponsor, I arrange trips for the students to engage in community projects.  Some of those projects involve students teaching elementary school kids about science.  Some of the projects involve the students pulling weeds in order to help native habitats.  And some of the project require students to interact with grad students in order to learn more about science.  In all of those projects, I’m super proud of my students.

Today, I took about 20 students to ASU to hear presentations from grad students at the Institute of Human Origins.  The grad students walked my high school students through the basics of human evolution.  Then they asked my students to arrange a set of skulls from oldest to newest.  My wonderfully fantastic students were not only able to put skulls in a mostly correct order, they were able to justify why they chose that order in the first place.  And their reasoning was sound.  Given what they knew and what they just learned, they were able to work together and solve the problem.  They impressed me and the two grad students who were leading them through the lesson.

It’s easy to become jaded when you teach.  You see a lot of students who give up, who don’t challenge themselves, who don’t try hard, who don’t leave their comfort zone.  It’s easy to think that they are lazy and stupid and that the future is doomed.  It is easy to give up on humanity and turn your back on the younger generation.  Then you see students work together to solve a problem.  You see them think it through and put thought into their decisions and take each other’s opinions and critics in order to accomplish a goal.  And you realize: things are not doomed.  There are smart students out there, smart young people who will go on to be smart adults and contribute their knowledge to the collective good of humanity.  They talk about their future with such optimism in their voices and in their eyes.  They are excited about college and learning and becoming better.

It’s easy to forget that not all of them will become parents at 15 and work at McDonald’s for the rest of their life.  I’m glad I get to see those students who will really change the world.  It makes my remember why I want to be a teacher.  Why I want to stay a teacher and inspire students to continue their education.  I’m glad I get to be their sponsor and see them use their skills to solve problems.

What Students Really Need to Hear

I just said the same thing to my classes today because they didn’t do some homework. The point wasn’t that they didn’t do their homework. The point was that they didn’t even try because it was “too hard”. That thought drives me nuts! As I told me students: Step up and figure it out. Life’s hard, get a helmet.  This essay is exactly what I wanted my students to hear.  The point of school isn’t the academics, although those are good things to know, the point is to step up and learn to overcome difficulties.  Thanks for writing it. 🙂

It’s 4 a.m.  I’ve struggled for the last hour to go to sleep.  But, I can’t.  Yet again, I am tossing and turning, unable to shut down my brain.  Why?  Because I am stressed about my students.  Really stressed.  I’m so stressed that I can only think to write down what I really want to say — the real truth I’ve been needing to say — and vow to myself that I will let my students hear what I really think tomorrow.

This is what students really need to hear:

First, you need to know right now that I care about you. In fact, I care about you more than you may care about yourself.  And I care not just about your grades or your test scores, but about you as a person. And, because I care, I need to be honest with you. Do I have permission to be…

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I’ve been listening to this podcast called Generation Anthropocene.  They do a really great job of discussing human impact on the planet.  There’s a common theme on their podcast: what is nature?

It seems like such a simple question with such a simple answer.  Most people probably picture the plains of Africa or the jungles of the Amazon or maybe the forests of Yellowstone.  In Phoenix, maybe people would think of White Tanks or the Superstition Mountains.  They’re not generally going to think of the park down the street or the vacant lot in their neighbor.

Yep, I’m wildlife

When asked to picture wildlife. maybe people would think of gorillas and wolves and pythons and tigers and lions and bears.  I doubt people would think of pigeons or house sparrows or rats.

Yet those things belong to nature as well.  That vacant lot that just sits between the grocery store and the dry cleaners – yep, that’s nature.  That annoying pigeon that poops all over your patio – yep, that’s nature too.  Those termites chewing into your house – nature.  Those gophers digging holes in your backyard – nature.

In urban America, we are so consumed with our day-to-day lives that we fail to notice that nature is all around us.  All we have to do is look up and observe.  Maybe I’m a bit bias about this – I’m a wildlife teacher after all, but I think it’s important to notice that we are not above nature.  We are not apart of nature.  We are very much a part of nature.  Just because we can manipulate our surroundings doesn’t mean that we aren’t affected by those surroundings.  We need to look up from our iPhones or Androids and appreciate that bee that is flying from flower to flower in the small garden in front of our offices.  We need to see the nests in the palo verde in the Fry’s parking lot.  We need to watch for the Red-tailed Hawk resting on the electric poll.  It’s important.

This semester, my goal is to give my students the tools to notice the wildlife around them.  I think if we can appreciate the little bits of nature around us, maybe we will be more likely to try to save them.  Which means maybe we’ll be better consumers and better voters.

Or maybe we’ll just appreciate the beauty of ants traveling in a line in search for food.  Because for me, that’s enough.

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