Saturday, February 28, 2009

More ID nonsense. Florida's turn at bat

Florida State Senator Stephen Wise introduced senate bill 2396. The bill "Requires that the instructional staff of a public school teach a thorough presentation and critical analysis of the scientific theory of evolution and certain governmental, legal, and civic-related principles."

That 'critical analysis' is code for intelligent design. Florida is not the only state with an anti-evolution bill on the floor right now, but if this passes and Florida gets rid of teacher tenure any teachers wishing to even try to oppose this trash might not be around long enough to challenge it.

This, by the way, is not Sen Wise's first flirtation with teaching ID in public schools.

A novel idea.....for Mississippi anyway

Mississippi state legislature is considering a bill (House Bill 234) to create a sex education program for the state's public schools.

As the state with the highest birthrate among teenagers and third highest teen pregnancy rate you might think nobody could possibly be against this. You, of course, would be wrong.

Meet State Senator Lee Yancey, a Republican from Brandon. Mr. Yancey voted against the proposal in committee. According to this article Sen. Yancey said he's aware of the need for young people to be better informed about sex and its consequences. However, he's opposed to schools teaching children how to use contraceptives.

What? Okay, try not to think about that statement too hard. It will hurt your brain. The article goes on to quote Sen. Yancey as saying:

"What everybody's afraid to say is what method would they use to demonstrate how to use a prophylactic?" Yancey said. "Is that something an eighth-grader or sixth-grader needs to see?"

Yes Sen. Yancey, that is something an eighth-grader or a sixth-grader needs to see. I am sure Sen. Yancey is basing his opinion on something, but it does not seem to be any type of experience working with middle school students or the CDC data that says Mississippi is number 1 in births to teenage mothers. So once again. Yes, Mr. Yancey, that is something sixth and eighth graders need to see.

Google Earth and Geology

I have used Google Earth in the classroom before as part of a project students were doing on biomes and climate. Appearently, though, geologists have kicked it up a notch.

Kim Hannula at a blog called All of My Faults are Stress Related (best name for a geology blog ever) has a great post about using google earth in geology research.

Teaching under the Sword of Damocles

It appears the Florida Legislature is considering ending teacher tenor. The plan is being sold as an effort to help schools get rid of ineffective or poorly performing teachers. It is a familiar argument, one often used against teacher's unions and teacher tenure. When presented well it even sounds noble. After all, who could argue against getting rid of bad teachers. Oh won't someone please think of the children.

The problem of course, is it will not get rid of bad teachers, it will get rid of teachers who do not see eye to eye with the administration.

First let's put the myth to an end. Teachers, even teachers with tenures, can be fired for legitimate reasons. Getting rid of tenure for teachers only serves to make it easier for administrators to fire teachers for other reasons.

Now, I am certainly not going to argue that all school administrators are bad. In fact I've worked with some truly great administrators. But the fact is there are many administrators out there who care more about maintaining the status quo than the quality of education the students are receiving. Often these are people with what some would call old fashioned ideas about what a school environment should look like. Straight rows of desks occupied by silent students reading or filling in bubbles on multiple choice test sheets. Classrooms as sterile environments.

The problem is that more and more we are finding this is not the most effective learning environment. Students engaged in physical activity in the classroom, inquiry learning, and true open discussions often provide the most engaging and effective classroom environments.

While students typically respond best to teachers with those types of classrooms, all too often administrators do not. As a result, the teachers both students and educational researchers would call the best or most effective teachers are often the very ones administrators would like to get rid of the most.

So while this change in law could possible result in some truly great teachers losing their jobs, a far more drastic effect could be in making teachers fearful of experimenting with these techniques. It could push all teachers to a state of mediocrity. Getting students actively engaged in learning is not always a clean, easy process. It is something that takes practice and patience on the part of the teacher. If a law is passing in which teachers feel any slip up or temperary loss of control may result in unemployment we are more likely to see self censorship on the part of the teachers as far as trying new techniques is concerned.

Denying teachers due process in firing procedures could also make more teachers at risk because of person, political, or religious views.

Of course, none of what I've written so far even addresses the question of how do we evaluate the effectiveness of a teacher. My guess would be standardized test scores. Because when talking about the life of a child, really, what matters besides standardized test scores?

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Math teachers don't have to deal with this

So why is this attitude (in the form of creationism) always being pushed on science teachers.

As a professional educator, all I can say is "Wow"

Schools in Volusia County Florida are hoping to recruit volunteer substitute teachers.

The article presents this idea as an effort to save money. Facing a massive budget shortfall Volusia County plans on allowing anyone who passes the required background checks to become a volunteer substitute teacher.

No worries though, they will get a one day training session on classroom management and procedures before they are fed to the wolves.

I saw no mention in the article about a shortage of subs, just lack of money. So presumably there are enough certified, professional teachers to fill the slots, but no money to pay them.

Right now I only have two major problems with this, but I'm sure I will come up with more as this idea stews in my head.

First: This is taking jobs away from certified teachers who are currently subbing. Typically (though certainly not always) these are recently graduates looking for permanent positions. Subbing allows them to get their foot in the door, experience working in various districts, and most importantly gain valuable experience before they are charged with running their own classroom. It also helps administrators who are able to evaluate potential teachers based on dealing with them as subs instead of just a job interview.

A one day training session on classroom management and procedures? Wow. Good luck with that.

There is no mention of restricting these volunteers to day-to-day work versus long-term assignments. I would hope they wouldn't be used for any type of long term assignment, but with the current situation in Florida (state-wide budget meltdowns) I certainly won't make any assumptions.

I should note, the teacher's union is supporting the plan. No surprise there, right now when there are not enough subs, the regular teachers pick up the slack, typically by giving up their prep periods or doubling up classes. This will definitely alleviate some of the stress currently put on the union teachers.


As reported in the Dallas News

Researchers at Texas State University have found that an overwhelming majority (94%) of Texas school districts provide students with no sexual education beyond abstinence. 2% of the districts offer nothing at all, leaving a grand total of 4% of school districts in Texas teaching students about pregnancy and prevention of sexually transmitted diseases. They go on to call the abstinence-only programs "shockingly poor".

Now, "shockingly poor" is not how I would describe abstinence only education only because "shockingly" implies an expectation of it not being so poor. Perhaps "obviously poor" is the phrase they where searching for.

Texas spends $18 million a year on these programs, and yes, that money is coming from your federal tax dollars. So, what do we get for all that money?

Among the key findings:

•Sex education materials regularly contain factual errors and perpetuate lies and distortions about condoms and STDs.

•Most school districts do not receive consistent local input from their school health advisory councils – including parents – about sex education.

•Shaming and fear-based instruction are standard means of teaching students about sexuality in many schools.

•Instruction on human sexuality often promotes stereotypes and biases based on gender and sexual orientation.

•Some classrooms mix religious instruction and Bible study in sex education programs. Such policies could violate the U.S. constitutional prohibition against establishment of religion in public schools.

Jonathan Saenz of the Free Market Foundation seems not to like empirical science. He questions the criticism of the program and is quoted in the article as saying "The reality is that abstinence works. If two people decide not to have sex, that is sex education that works 100 percent of the time."

Mr. Saenz, let me break it down for you. Nobody is questioning the effectiveness of abstinence itself. People are questioning (and rightly so, although some would argue the question has already been answered) the effectiveness of abstinence-only education. The reality is spending $18 million a year to teach more students than any other state abstinence-only education has resulted in (according the a 2006 report compiled by the Guttmacher Institue)Texas having the 5th highest rate of pregnancy among 15-19 year olds and the 2nd highest rate of live births by 15-19 year olds in the country.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Monday Night Music Break with the Ramones

Title: Spider-man
Artist: Ramones

Ahh, two of my favorite things, the Ramones and Spiderman. Enjoy.

Fun for nerds

Several other designs here, and you can buy them as shirts, buttons, and stickers.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Monday, February 16, 2009

Monday Night Music Break featuring Zombina and the Skeletones

Artist: Zombina and the Skeletones
Title: Zombie Hop

Since last Friday was Friday the 13th, why not celebrate with a little horror rock. Enjoy.

Louisiana says science not welcome; Scientists say Okay

The president of the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology recently sent a very polite letter to Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal informing him they will not be holding their 2011 annual meeting (or any others) in New Orleans.

This decision was in response to the passage of Louisiana's Science Education Act. The Science Education Act is actually a direct attack on evolution that was heavily pushed by the Discovery Institute.

Louisiana Coalition for Science issued a press release with all the information, and a pdf of the letter sent to the governor.

For those who don't think this is a big threat, SCIB has more than 2300 members and its 2009 meeting that just ended in Boston brought over 1850 scientists and graduate students to that city for 5 days. A nice boost to any local economy.

In March the National Science Teacher's Association will be holding their 2009 annual conference in New Orleans, and while I understand it is too late to change the venue for that, it would be nice if in the future they followed suit and also boycotted states that attack science education.

As much as I love the city of New Orleans, and as much as it desperately needs money right now, I am in full support of the SICB decision to boycott the state. If they are going to trash science for political gain the scientific community should refuse to help subsidize their budgets.

So kudos SICB. If they spit in your face, kick 'em in the wallet.

Celebrating Darwin Day with 1000 Steves

I'm still recovering from my RoboCop marathon, but felt compelled to share some fun news. Over the weekend The National Center for Science Education announced the 1000th Steve to join their Project Steve.

For those unfamiliar with Project Steve, it is the NCSE's parady of the creationist tradition of compiling lists of "scientists" who disagree with evolution. The idea was that making an actual list of scientist who support evolution would be ridiculous, so they began compiling a list of scientists name Steve (or some variation) who support evolution.

The kilosteve was attained by adding Dr. Steven Darwin (how awesome is that), a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Tulane University to the list.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

So stupid it hurts.

Ray "Where does the banana fit?"Comfort discusses evolution with Pat Robertson. This might make you sick (or stupid).

How painful was this video to watch?

I have in the past (okay, it was today) watched all three RoboCop movies in one day. Some people have told me they think RoboCop is the darkest, most depressing movie ever. To them I say, "You obviously haven't seen RoboCop 2". I managed to make it over 3 hours through this marathon of misery without putting a 45 caliber hole in my skull when something strange happened. I began to notice the serious social commentary and strong undercurrents of humanism in this anticorporate manifesto. I saw the beauty of the RoboCop movies.

My RoboCop ecstasy came to an abrupt end when the makers of RoboCop 3 appearently decided RoboCop needed a jetpack so he could fly. It was like running a marathon only to get a sharp kick to the nuts within sight of the finish line.

I would rather go through all that again than hear Ray Comfort's "Missing female" argument one more time.


Thursday, February 12, 2009

Darwin Day

There is a fundamental principle in science that evidence is all that matters. As scientists we do not accept ideas simply because of the person proposing them, we evaluate the evidence. Among the anti-science crowd you will often hear the argument that Charles Darwin is held in almost a sacred position. That to deny his ideas is sacrilegious. This is not just false, but also offensive to scientists. And it is destructive the dialogue between the scientific community and the general population.

So when scientists celebrate "Darwin Day" (Darwin's birthday) it must seem to some as if the scientific community is in fact proving the point of the science deniers. Again, this is not the case. Darwin Day is a day to celebrate science, and the process of science. Yes, it is intended as an honor to Darwin, but not for the reasons some would claim. It is NOT to celebrate the birth of the man (as some kind of god). It is NOT to worship him.

Charles Darwin is held in high esteem among scientist for the work he did, more so than for his idea.

Charles Darwin was not the only person to propose the idea of descent with modification. He was not even the first. The reason he is given so much credit and is so well remembered is the evidence he collected and published. Darwin gathered evidence from all over the world (quite a feet in his day). He spent the better part of his life gathering and analyzing data and evidence before publishing his idea. Within the pages of Origin of Species you will find examples domestic dogs, pigeons (wild and domestic), earthworms, beetles, birds of South America, prehistoric fossils from all over the world, and most famously, the island biogeography of the Galapagos Islands.

Charles Darwin published a ground breaking idea, but more importantly he had the research and evidence to back it up. In the 150 years since the publication of Origin of Species we have discovered much about biology, medicine, geology, paleontology, anatomy, and the all the other sciences. Obvious Darwin could not have predicted these advances or used the evidence we now have. But in that time we have discovered nothing to contradict the basic premise of his hypothesis. A hypothesis that is now a valid scientific theory which ties all of biology together.

So it is right that the man's work should be respected as not only one of the most influential and important ideas in the last 200 years, but also as a stellar example of how science is supposed to work.

So today, Feb 12th, 2009. It is the 200th birthday of Charles Darwin, and the 150th anniversary of the publication of Origin of Species. Take some time to read or investigate a little about how evolutionary theory influences our modern world.

Here are some good places to start:

This is and excellent editorial about evolution and the current debate from the Guardian. I would love to see American journalists saying some of these things

Seed compiled a short selection of some ideas that have arisen as a result of Darwin's work

Nature has dedicated its weekly podcast this week to a Darwin theme. Featuring poetry, science, and info about the man himself.

Here is a pdf from the magazine Nature titled "15 Evolutionary Gems". It is well worth a look.

And New Scientist put out a list this month of their top 10 evolution articles