Tag Archives: science education

How to measure oxygen

I wanted my honors chemistry students to see how chemists of old discovered the make-up of water using test tubes, batteries, and pushpins. The process would allow students to measure the amount of gas produced in each test tube and see it was a two:one ratio. All of this sounds great. Until I tested it out for myself…

The brass pushpins made hydrogen gas ok, but I couldn’t get oxygen. The silver ones worked a little better, but I still wasn’t able to produce oxygen gas. I tried salt water, I tried baking soda in water. I tried vinegar in water. I spent 3 straight mornings not grading or helping students, but trying to figure out this stupid lab. Jus when I was ready to give up, I found a site that reminded me graphic conducted electricity. So I made graphite water electrolysis devices.

Step one: poke holes in plastic cups.

Step two: insert pencil lead into said holes.

Step three: Use paraffin wax to secure the pencil lead.

Step four: Make thirteen more so that every pair can have one.

Step five: Test it to make sure it works

Step six: Cry when your 3rd hour class breaks the lead on half of them and you have to spend half of your lunch fixing them.

Step seven: Find out how much this set-up costs on Flinn Scientific and add it to you list for next year.

All and all I don’t think a single student got the 2:1 ratio of hydrogen to oxygen but they had a lot of fun setting it up and breaking apart the water. We’ll leave discussing just what the heck happened to Monday when I’m less frazzled from helping them set up the stupid thing correctly.

Oh, and if anyone knows a better solution to use besides salt, baking soda, or vinegar, please let me know in the comments!

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Flipping the classroom

This year I decided to experiment with my classroom a little bit.  I don’t like to lecture.  I find it boring and can see when the students just tune out.  So this year I decided I am going to flip my classroom.  So far so good.

So what does a flipped classroom look like.  Instead of students being bored to tears with a lecture every day in class and then going home and struggling with homework, we do the opposite.  I let them be bored at home and watch videos or read notes and we do the homework part in class where they can get more help.  This approach allows students to take their time with their notes, go back and re-read/watch the parts that were confusing, and jot down things that they need help with while at home.  Then they come to school and do the practice, lab, or activity in class to get a deeper understanding of the materials.

There are pros and cons to flipping the classroom.  The biggest con is the fact that some students will not actually watch the videos or read the lessons.  So far, I have found that a small number of students fall into this category.  I tie their lecture notes to a small participation grade which helps motivate students into doing their part.  I also make sure that what they are learning at home directly ties into what we are doing in the class the next day.  So far, students seem to understand the need to come prepared to class.  The other major con is the actual learning outcomes.  Much of the research about flipped classrooms is behind paywalls, which means I can’t access it as a teacher (which is its own problem in education and other fields).  The articles I do have access to touch on this problem but do not explore it directly, so I’m not sure if flipping the classroom is actually an effective way to reach students.  Alls I can do is look at how it affects my students and see if I want to continue next semester.

The pros are pretty great though.  I have time in class to help students when they are stuck on problems.  I have time to do more labs and hands-on science with students.  I have my students up and doing things or working together or actually doing chemistry in the classroom.  Those are all things that have been shown in multiple studies and reviews to help students (Carini, Kuh, & Klein, 2006; Chen et al, 2014; Lazonder & Ehrenhard, 2014; Jong, Linn, & Zacharia, 2013).  The more assistance and feedback students receive from their teachers, the better they do.  And if having them work more in class means I can give them better feedback, than I will continue to flip my classroom.

Flipping the classroom is definitely a difficult thing to do.  It requires lots of work on my end to create short videos for my students.  But it’s something I am going to continue doing for this semester.  I can look at test data and student data to see if this method works for my population of students.  Because in the end, it’s all about doing what is right for students.


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.


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.


The Interwebs are wonderful

There are plenty of trolls on the Internet.  We’ve all seen it in the comments on every social media site and every online article.  So much so that some major web publications are actually shutting down their comments.  People are jerks on the Internet.  They fight with each other.  They nitpick each other.  They are mean to each other.

And then there is a silver lining.  Amazing things can happen that make you realize that the Internet is a wonderful tool that can bring people together.  This is one of those stories.

I’ve been listening to a science podcast called Science..Sort Of.  It’s a fun podcast that deals with science in pop culture, science in academia, and fringe science.  There’s also some stuff about beer and movie trailers.  All-in-all, a fun listen.

I’ve made a few comments, left a few voice messages, and interacted with the hosts through various social media throughout the years.  I’ve developed a sort of friendship with these people that only the interwebs can create.  But that’s what makes the Internet so awesome.

About a month ago, I reached out to three of the hosts of Science…Sort Of to see if they would be interested in talking with some of my students.  I sponsor the Science National Honors Society chapter at my school and I wanted my students to get the opportunity to talk to real scientists about what they are doing and how they got into the field.  Three of the paleopals (title of the show hosts) stepped up to the plate and today my students got to interview them.

It went so well.  Much better than I could have hoped for.  My students had great questions and the paleopals had great answers.  Everything from why did you pick your major to what classes did you take in college to how is college different from high school, this interview opened up the eyes of some of my students and took away some of their worries about moving on into the big wide world of college, responsibilities and the future.

None of it would be possible without the Internet.  These are people that I started following because I like their podcast.  I follow them on Twitter and Google+, I like their pages on Facebook.  I’ve been able to interact with them through social media even though we all live across the country and have never actually met each other face to face.  Because of the interwebs, 11 high school students from a small town outside Phoenix, AZ were able to talk to and interact with two Ph.D students and an engineer in order to learn more about what options the future holds for them.  Because of the Internet, I could reach out to other who are willing to provide learning opportunities to anyone who asks.

This is a pretty wonderful thing. 🙂


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