Tag Archives: Science Education

Back to School Science and Culture Stuff

I usually write my annual back to school post earlier than this, but I was distracted by various events. There are three themes here.

1) You are a science teacher and I have some stuff for you.

2) You have a student in a school and you want to support the school’s science teacher.

3) You have a student-offspring or elsewise and are looking for a cool back to school gift.

First, for themes 1 and 2, a mixture of traditional back to school blog posts and some items that may be useful and happen to be on sale at the moment so now’s your chance.

My For Teachers Page has posts providing some science content in evolutionary biology (about Natural Selection and some other topics)

On the same page are essays on teaching philosophy, supporting life science teachers, and evolution and creationism in the classroom, including this famous video.

Books that teachers might find helpful. Consider sending your kids in to school with one of them, focusing on evoluton-creationism and climate change-denial:

Classic text on fighting creationism: Evolution vs. Creationism: An Introduction by Genie Scott

This book should be on the shelf or in the classroom for every teacher in science, or even social science. It is essentially the highly digestable (and illustration rich) version of the IPCC report on the scientific basis for climate change, written by one of that report’s famous authors: Dire Predictions, 2nd Edition: Understanding Climate Change

Teachers and parents of kids in school are in the trenches in the war on science. So you need to know what the war on science is and how to fight it. So, read Shawn Otto’s book The War on Science: Who’s Waging It, Why It Matters, What We Can Do About It

The Manga books on science and math. See this review of Regression Analysis, where you’ll find a list of others. Most recent and hot off the presses is The Manga Guide to Microprocessors

A handful of recent science for various ages (Links are to my reviews):

The Outdoor Science Lab for Kids
Monarch Butterflies and Milkweed: An amazing new book

The Grand Canyon: Monument To An Ancient Earth. Great new book.

And finally, how to not get caught plagiarizing, and what does that pillow that says “A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops” really mean? Not what you think!

And now for the fun part, the toys. Amazon is having a huge sale on refurbished devices that you may want to have. I assume they are getting ready for the holidays or something. Go to this link to see what they are

I myself got a Kindle Paperwhite E-reader a while back, and I love it. Then, for her birthday, I got one for Julia. I recommend starting out with the one with “special offers” which are basically ads that are not there when you are reading. The device is cheaper this way, and if the ads really annoy you, you can pay them off to upgrade to the no ad version.

I’m seriously thinking about getting Amanda one of these refurb-Kindle paperwhites. She likes the Kindle just enough for a refurbished one, maybe not enough for a new one…

At the very least, when you meet your teacher at the beginning of the school year, say to them what I say or something like it. “If you ever get hassled by anyone — parent, administration, other teachers — about teaching real science, let me know, I’ll be your best ally. Of course, if you are a science denier or a creationist so the situation is turned around, let me know, I’ll be your worst nightmare …” Then kind of pat them on the shoulder, flip your cape to one side, get on your motorcycle, and drive off.

Teachers: Be on the alert for this anti-science mailing!

A well known anti-science “think” tank has sent around, to teachers, a mailing including an antiscience book, a movie, and nice letter and, oddly, a pamphlet exposing the fact that the mailing is entirely politically motivated.

Most science teachers will ignore this. A few science teachers are science deniers, and they already had the material in the mailings. So, I think this was a huge waste of money and effort. But it happened and you should know about it, and you should warn anyone you know that is a teacher.

The real concern, in my opinion, is not this falling into the hands of science teachers. The science teachers will recognize this for what it is. The concern is this mailing in the hands of non-science teachers who are not inoculated against it, who may then wonder why their colleagues down the hall are not “teaching the controversy,” as it were.

The Heartland Institute, famous for supporting research to prove that smoking is not bad for people, and more recently for promoting research that climate change is not real, has sent this mailing to many thousands of teachers. I’ve heard the number 300,000, but that number is probably from Heartland, and they lie all the time, so I don’t believe it.

The Heartland Institute

…is a Chicago-based free market think tank … that has been at the forefront of denying the scientific evidence for man-made climate change. The Heartland Institute has received at least $676,500 from ExxonMobil since 1998 but no longer discloses its funding sources. The Union of Concerned Scientists found that “Nearly 40% of the total funds that the Heartland Institute has received from ExxonMobil since 1998 were specifically designated for climate change projects.”

David Padden founded The Heartland Institute in 1984 and served as its Chairman between 1984 and 1995, co-chairing with Joseph Bast. Padden was also one of the original members of the Board of Directors of the Cato Institute…

In the 1990s, the Heartland Institute worked with the tobacco company Philip Morris to question the science linking second-hand smoke to health risks, and lobbied against government public health reforms. Heartland continues to maintain a “Smoker’s Lounge” section of their website which brings together their policy studies, Op-Eds, essays, and other documents that purport to “[cut] through the propaganda and exaggeration of anti-smoking groups.”

In a 1998 op-ed, Heartland President Joe Bast claimed that “moderate” smoking doesn’t raise lung cancer risks, and that there were “few, if any, adverse health effects” associated with smoking.

The mailer includes the book “Why Scientists Disagree about Global Warming, with three authors including Craig Idso, Robert Carter, and Fred Singer, with a forward by conservative columnist Marita Noon.

Idso is the head of an organization who’s stated purpose is to “separate reality from rhetoric in the emotionally-charged debate that swirls around the subject of carbon dioxide and global change,” which means, in this case, to deny the basics of atmospheric physics. He has numerous ties with the oil industry. Carter died in 2016. He advised several climate change denying organizations and filled the print media with many anti-science op eds and editorials. He has openly admitted that he is a paid shill of the petroleum industry. Singer is an actual former scientist but recognized by his colleagues as an anti-climate science spokesperson. Singer has been on the Heartland Institute payroll for quite some time.

The book is full of lies and misdirections. It is mainly an attack on the “scientific consensus” on climate change.

You have probably heard a lot about the “climate consensus.” Since the attacking the consensus is the main objective of this mailing, I’d like to spend a moment on that topic. Feel free to skip down to the bottom of the post for suggestions on what books would be good for your favorite science teacher to have in his or her room, in case you want to participate in a sort of grass-roots counter mailing!

In most scientific endeavors, where new discovery is being made, a period of uncertainty, perhaps confusion, perhaps vigorous competition among ideas, is usually followed by a period of growing consensus around a particular scientific idea (a model, a theory, a set of methods and interpretations of findings, etc., depending on the science).

The growth and establishment of consensus is one of the key objectives of science. Scientists know that consensus is powerful and even limiting; an incorrect consensus can mislead researchers and be very counter productive. For this reason, scientists take consensus pretty seriously. Like a jury deciding on innocence or guilt of a person accused of a very serious crime, scientists don’t want to make a mistake. However, scientists are more like a civil case jury than a criminal case jury. We are not required to reject an otherwise well developed case because someone has raised doubt about one tiny aspect of it. Rather, we arrive at consensus using the preponderance of evidence, like in American civil law.

And, once consensus is established, it does not become dogma. Rather, it becomes a dart board, always hanging there in sight, always subject to attack and interrogation. (OK, I know that nobody interrogates their dart board. Maybe it is more like an Elf on the Shelf. But I digress.)

Consider “continental drift” (aka plate tectonics). When Alfred Wegener proposed his theory that continents move around in the early 1900s, he noted that many others had suggested similar ideas. Wegener proposed a comprehensive model of what may have happened in the earth’s past, but he lacked a good mechanism for it. So, the middle of the 20th century involved a period of criticism of his theory, with the idea eventually being more or less thrown out. One of the key features of plate tectonics is how the two kinds of Earth’s crust interact, but geologists did not yet know that the Earth has these two kinds of crust. “Deep sea” exploration had found submerged continental crust, and that looked like regular crust, so it was assumed that the land under the sea was the same as the land on the land.

I note that even though oceanic crust was not understood in the 19th century, Darwin had observed, during the voyage of the Beagle, that a set of islands in the Atlantic, which are actually a bit of ocean crust thrust above the sea surface, was very odd, and that with more study, may cause us to think novel thoughts about rocks.

Even though the theory was eclipsed, some people still thought it was a good idea.

So, we went from nobody getting continental drift, but with a few people mentioning it now and then, to a surge in thinking about it, to a widespread rejection but with a few people thinking it might be valid. I oversimplify, but it is safe to say that by the middle of the 20th century, even though “continental drift” had been a conversation in science since even before science could be said to exist, there was no consensus.

The later part of the middle of the 20th century, however, saw more and more evidence mounting. Rocks were found to be absolutely identical in the evidence of how they formed (that is the main way geologists divide up rocks) across large areas. For example, there are rock formations in South America, South Africa, India, Antartica, and Australia that clearly were once part of a single geological formation all on the same continent. This required that the continents had moved, and in this case, that these particular continents were all attached to each other at one (or more) time.

Also during this period, deep water oceanography was advanced and the actual sea floor was observed and sampled. Mid ocean ridges were discovered and documented. This is where the continents were spreading.

Meanwhile, the dynamic of continental crust subducting under other crust were being figured out, and the significant movement of continents right now (like around the Pacific) became the only way to explain, for example, Japan. The fossil record, which demonstrates a complex biogeography of evolution and movement of species, either restricted by being on different continents, or able to move around large areas that are now on different continents, started to makes sense only in the light of the emerging and increasingly detailed theory of continental movement. Research on how the Earth itself works as a planet, below the surface, eventually allowed for, if not definitively providing, a means for the continents to move.

Plate tectonics (the process) and continental drift (the historical events) eventually became consensus science.

Climate change, the processes by which climate patterns form and change over time, including the role of CO2 and other greenhouse gases, and the potential contribution of human release of fossil Carbon as CO2 or Methane in causing significant change in climate, was consensus science at least a few decades ago. But agents of the petroleum and coal industries preferred citizens (voters and consumers) and governments (regulators) to not act on this already happening climate change. They funded libertarian and conservative front groups and others to manufacture doubt about climate change. For this reason, five years ago, to pick a date, the casual observer could not tell, depending on who they listened to and what they read, whether or not climate scientists were all on the same page.

A group of rather brave and smart scientists decided to do something that had not been done very much before, and that had never been addressed with a fully committed research program: Measure the consensus.

I have a few comments on that, but the best way to learn all about this effort is to check out “The Consensus Project.”

Normally the consensus over a scientific issue forms and all the scientists know about it. That is part of what being a scholar of science is about. You learn to learn about the developing arguments, the fights, the building consensus, the overturning of ideas, all of it, over historical time, recent decades, the present, as you study to become a scientists and you continue to keep track of this information as a working scientists.

Scientists know what consensus means, and they know its limitations and what questions remain. Today in geology nobody is working to disprove the idea that Cambridge Argillite and its sister rock in Norway match up and were once part of the same sea basin prior to the opening of the Atlantic Ocean, because that fact can only be wrong if everything we know about rocks is wrong. But others are working on, and arguing about, important details of the deep layers of the Earth and how they act in moving continents around.

But the scientists studying climate consensus were forced into the position of addressing consensus, as a concept or as a measure of the maturity or stability of a particular scientific construct, because the bought and paid for deniers forced them to do so with their politically motivated anti-science (and anti environmental) yammering.

There were actually two groups, and their work is often confused. The less widespread but excellent analysis that happened first showed that almost 100% of scientists agree on the basics of global warming related science. The more intensive analysis showed that nearly 100% of the literature agreed on the basics of global warming. In both cases, they were a couple percent short of full consensus, but I note the following:

1) The research was conservative, biased a little towards including items or people on the non-consensus side, in order to be unassailable.

2) The research was done with scientists and peer reviewed papers over a period of time, and the work ended (most of it) a couple of years ago. So, a figure like “97%” reflects, perhaps, the state of the field in 2010 better than 2017. The last few years have seen the total wiping out of certain non-consensus generating observations (like the so called “pause” in global warming). In other words, if this work showed a 3% non-consensus, I expect at least half of that to have gone away by now.

3) The deniers and their works, if they are scientists and if the work is peer reviewed, are of course considered in such studies, so that accounts for a half percent of so.

4) In normal society, something like 8% of people believe they were abducted by aliens. About 1% or a bit less probably believe they are aliens. (That works out nicely.) Among scientists, there are always going to be a few oddballs. There is a tenured professor at Harvard who is a UFO-ologist. There was until recently a tenured professor in Washington who thought Bigfoot was real. There are probably one or two geologists who think plate tectonics is fake. Science is lucky that the oddball number is low compared to society in general. But it is not zero.

The Heartland mailing asks teachers, “How do you teach global warming?”

Let me ask you that now, if you are a teacher? I’d love to know how and if, and using what materials and methods, you address climate change and global warming. Let us know in the comments!

Meanwhile, please let any teachers you know about this mailing. Feel free to share this blog post with them. And, if you are not a teacher but know one, or if you are a parent with a kid in school, consider sending the teacher a note, and if you feel up to it, a book! (But not the one Heartland sent!)

I do have some suggestions for you. There are many books on climate change and global warming, and they have tended to differentiate themselves so that there is remarkably little redundancy. Here, I’ll note a handful of recent (all are very current) books that serve a variety of different purposes. I’ve reviewed most of these on this blog (see links below) if you want more info on them.

Dire_Predictions_Mann_KumpDire Predictions, 2nd Edition: Understanding Climate Change by Michael Mann and Lee Kump.

The UN’s IPCC periodically summarizes the state of scientific thinking on climate change. It is a huge report written for an expert audience. This book turns that report into something accessible by the average person, and does so with excellent graphics and other material. This book should be on the shelf in every science classroom.

Explore global warming with graphics, illustrations, and charts that separate climate change fact from fiction, presenting the truth about global warming in a way that’s both accurate and easy to understand. Respected climate scientists Michael E. Mann and Lee R. Kump address important questions about global warming and climate change, diving into the information documented by the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) and breaking it down into clear graphics that explain complex climate questions in simple illustrations that present the truth of the global warming problem clearly.

My review

Screen Shot 2017-03-31 at 11.10.24 AMA Global Warming Primer: Answering Your Questions About The Science, The Consequences, and The Solutions by Jeffrey Bennett.

This is the book sent around to teachers by the National Center for Science Education. It is an excellent overview of climate change and human impacts, using a unique approach that will work especially well in both high school science and social studies classrooms.

Is human-induced global warming a real threat to our future? Most people will express an opinion on this question, but relatively few can back their opinions with solid evidence. Many times we’ve even heard pundits say “I am not a scientist” to avoid the issue altogether. But the truth is, the basic science is not that difficult. Using a question and answer format, this book will help readers achieve three major goals: To see that anyone can understand the basic science of global warming; To understand the arguments about this issue made by skeptics, so that readers will be able to decide for themselves what to believe; To understand why, despite the “gloom and doom” that often surrounds this topic, the solutions are ones that will not only protect the world for our children and grandchildren, but that will actually lead us to a stronger economy with energy that is cheaper, cleaner, and more abundant than the energy we use today.

Climate Change: What Everyone Needs to Know® by Joe Romm.

This is more for the parents and teachers than the students, but it could be an excellent choice for an environmental science class. Romm discusses many of the pragmatic aspects of global warming, for the average individual, which is not seen as intensively developed in other books.

This book offers the most up-to-date examination of climate change’s foundational science, its implications for our future, and the core clean energy solutions. Alongside detailed but highly accessible descriptions of what is causing climate change, this entry in the What Everyone Needs to Know series answers questions about the practical implications of this growing force on our world:

· How will climate change impact you and your family in the coming decades?
· What are the future implications for owners of coastal property?
· Should you plan on retiring in South Florida or the U.S. Southwest or Southern Europe?
· What occupations and fields of study will be most in demand in a globally warmed world?
· What impact will climate change have on investments and the global economy?

My review.


Climatology versus Pseudoscience: Exposing the Failed Predictions of Global Warming Skeptics by Dana Nuccitelli.

Dana examines climate change by comparing what people, both real scientists and the fake ones, predicted, with what happened. He does other stuff too, but that is my favorite part of this book.

28 Climate Change Elevator Pitches: Short Explanations on the Scientific Basis of Man-made Climate Change by Rob Honeycutt.

This is hot off the presses. Again, this is more for the teacher and parent than the school setting, but since it is new I wanted you to know about it. My review is here.

Science Books For Early Readers

We went to the local library the other day to find books in the range appropriate for Huxley to read. It isn’t sufficient to say he’s in the first grade. Between preschool and second grade, there are (in English, anyway) probably about four or five levels of reading ability, and kids move through them fast. In addition to that, there are who the heck knows how many different scales, developed by various individuals and organizations, to reflect reading levels. It is so complicated that there is actually a company that you can pay to tell you what reading level a book is.

dk_book_on_otters
So we asked the librarian to help. I should mention that this is a good library and the librarian seemed generally competent. But she wasn’t able to help much. It turns out that reading level is not part of the Library of Congress system. Or so I surmise.

Personally, I think this confusion stems from the apparent fact I noted above. Kids, when they start reading, go from chimpanzee to NYT reader in a couple/few years. There are many levels of ability in there, and really, of course they are not levels but rather arbitrary stages imposed on a continuum. Or a set of continua. The problem of categorizing early reading books is so difficult because all the different systems that attempt this run aground at the early end of the scale, and thus, so many different appearing systems. This is why, when you put tile on a wall, you don’t start on the bottom. You start a few rows up, and work your way down and up from there. That way you will not be foiled by the lack of level at the base, and your only cost is having to cut every one of the bottom tiles. This may seem like a digression but some day you will thank me for that information.

Anyway, I recently got a good look at a sample of DK Publisher’s “Learn To Read” books, which are have six categories, pr-1, 1, 2, 3, 4, and “Adventures.” OK, that’s a bit clumsy, but the key point here is that the numbered levels, 1 through 4, are consistent and meaningful categories.

Let me give you some examples of the text by reading level, followed by links to a selection of the more science oriented books. There are many books at each level, dealing with LEGO themes, super heroes, and other things.

dk_book_volcanoesLevel 1: Beginning To Read
Example Text:

A butterfly flits from leaf to leaf.
On each little leaf she lays one or two eggs.
She squeezes the eggs out of her body.

(From Born to Be a Butterfly.)

Example books:
Bugs Hide and Seek
Tale of a Tadpole
Jungle Animals
Sea Otters

Level 2: Beginning to read alone

Example Text:

The air ambulance plane rescues injured people from places that are difficult to reach.
It can deliver people to the hospital much faster than an ordinary ambulance can

Example Books:
Eruption!: The Story of Volcanoes
Space Quest: Jump to Jupiter
Dinosaur Dinners
Spaceships and Rockets

dk_book_on_rainforestLevel 3: Reading alone

Example Text:

Emergency dispatchers often stay on the phone until help arrives. They talk to callers to keep them calm. Most importantly, they tell the caller what to do until the emergency services arrive.

Example Books:
Rain Forest Explorer
Hope for the Elephants
Rocket Science

Level 4: Proficient readers

Example Text:

Ride the little train that climbs high into the Alps in Switzerland, and you will be treated to some of the finest mountain scenery in the world. From a small alpine town, the red train makes a steep climb up the Jungfrau mountain and past a famous peak called the Eiger. Many climbers dies on the sheer north face of the Eiger before it was finally scaled in 1938.

Example Books:
Dinosaur Detectives
Earthquakes and Other Natural Disasters
Secrets of the Mummies
Big Fantastic Earth

You can see changes in vocabulary, sentence structure, tone, topic, etc. Not visible in these samples are change in typeface (larger to smaller) and the overall structure of the books. The lower levels tend to have pictures and words. The higher levels add captions to the pictures, sidebars, etc.

DK books are always good, and they do a pretty good job with science. I won’t quibble with details on little kids books (such as the lack of attention to biogeography and central evolutionary paradigms). These are a far sight better than the science books I had access to when I was a kid!

DN Lee Is Now A Book! #STEM

DN Lee used to be a mere human, a biologist and a great person, but still, just a human. But now she is a book!

Urban Biologist Danielle Lee (Stem Trailblazer Bios) is part of a series exploring, well, STEM trailblazers.

You Probably know of DN Lee from her famous blog now at Scientific American but formerly at Scienceblogs, The Urban Scientist.

After earning degrees studying animal behavior, Danielle Lee wanted to share her love of science with young people. Through urban outreach she has brought budding scientists into professional labs. She’s walked them through the steps of the scientific method. And she’s shown them that science doesn’t have to be intimidating. In her popular Urban Scientist blog, Lee shares backyard science and outreach work. She also writes about her own research and other women and people of color. Discover what this influential scientist is doing to encourage the next generation of scientists.

Congratulations Danielle!

From the mouths of babes: “We’re worried. Please debate science.”

I had previously mentioned the ScienceDebate ad with the kids asking for a science debate. Here is some local coverage on the story (the ad was made here in the Twin Cities) including an interview with one of the stars, Susanlyn Singroy. (I don’t agree with everything she said, but what the heck, she’s asking for a debate, and is up for it!)

Here is the coverage.

More about ScienceDebate.org here.

If the Candidates Talk About Big Science Issues …

… maybe they’ll actually do something about them.

Remember the Democratic and Republican party debates that were held just before that major international meeting about climate change, participated in by every country in the world? Of course you do. Do you remember the candidates’ responses to the questions about climate change posed during those debates? No, you don’t. Not a single question about climate change, or any other big science issue, was asked.

When we think about the big science issues, climate change is often one of the main topics that comes first to mind. But there are many other big science issues that should be more openly and full discussed by candidates in the ongoing US Presidential election, as well as other state and federal elections. ScienceDebate.org has been collecting questions by interested citizens. Here is a sampling (go HERE to see all the questions and submit your own).:

  • How would you reduce our pollution from fossil fuel combustion and encourage more American jobs in energy efficiency?
  • Will you support science-based tobacco product regulation, and so stop FDA ban of e-cigarettes, a low-risk alternative that reduces smoking?
  • How should we manage global population growth?
  • What policies will you put forth to ensure scientific literacy?
  • How do we ensure adequate clean fresh water for the US in years to come?
  • Will you support substantial funding for high capacity energy storage and enhanced long distance electrical grids?
  • Will you support a person’s right to obtain genetic information about them that has been collected by government funded projects?
  • Will you bring back the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA)?
  • How would you address the world’s aging nuclear arsenals?
  • What steps will you take in dealing with the threat that current agricultural monocultures pose towards biodiversity?
  • What policies will best ensure that America remains a world leader in innovation?
  • How would you ensure that government policy is based on evidence and science rather than ideology or personal opinion?
  • What actions would you support to enforce vaccinations in the interest of public health, and when should exemptions be allowed?
  • Do you believe that basic research should receive government funding, or should it all be left to the private sector?
  • Given states’ rights, do you justify a ban on stem cell research in states that support it?
  • We lack cyber security, from voting machines to governmental systems. How would you address cyber security?
  • There is a distinct correlation between “fracking” and increased seismic (earthquake) activity. What are your views on fracking?
  • How would you make the NIH a more efficient funder of government health efforts?
  • What steps should the United States take to protect our population from emerging diseases?
  • What would you as US president do to harden the American electrical grid against severe EMP events?
  • What Will You Do to Reduce The Human and Economic Costs of Mental Illness?

As Shawn Otto recently pointed out, science is central to a large number of our policy challenges, but there are almost no scientists in Congress (about a half dozen during any given term). In fact, we don’t necessarily need a lot more scientists in Congress, but we do need to have science savvy people in elected office. What better way is there to ensure a higher level of science awareness than to make science policy a normal part of our election cycles, through debates, policy statements, and the journalism that covers those elections?

ScienceDebate.Org has been pushing for an actual science debate for a few POTUS elections now. They have had great success in getting their message out … most people have heard of the organization by now. And, there have been some successes in getting the candidates to address science. For example, when President Obama was challenged by Governor Mitt Romney, the two of them produced science policy statements.

This year is different from previous years. For the first time, climate change, one of the big science issues, is part of several national level campaigns. Oddly, the US press seems to be moving very slowly in addressing the fact that more and more citizens are concerned about this and other science issues. But with a bit of a push, the big networks and major journalistic outlets can be convinced to press candidates to address these issues.

Look again at the list of science policy questions above. My impression is that when a lot of people hear about a science debate, they imagine something different, where the candidates are asked science questions, to test their science literacy. That is not what the sciencedebate.org project is about. Candidates for national office, as well as state and local office, are expected to understand economics, crime, international relations, health care, and all sorts of other academic areas. They are not tested on their ability to write the equation for Pareto Efficiency, tactical strategies for dealing with a hostage situation, to speak widely spoken foreign languages, or demonstrate that they can conduct a liver transplant. They are asked about policy, like those science questions listed above. Not only should candidates be able to do that, but the people who are considering voting for them (or not) should have a good idea of how a given candidate will address these issues, or at least, to have evidence that the candidates have more than a vague idea of what these issues entail.

Sheril Kirshenbaum notes,

On Wednesday we’ll watch another Republican presidential debate, but how much do you expect to hear about topics like mental health and climate change? Funding for biomedical research and energy? Research innovation and global leadership? Given these are the issues that will impact the way all Americans live for decades to come, why are they so often the exception in debates, rather than the expectation?

ScienceDebat.org has produced a very compelling commercial that makes this point, and if you agree (and you know you do!) please pass this around on the usual social media for people to see. Here it is:

Here is something you should know: “ScienceDebate.org and Research!America, a group that advocates for medical research, commissioned a national poll that showed that 87% of likely voters think the candidates ought to be well-versed on these issues. The group held online exchanges between President Obama and his opponents in 2008 and 2012, each time making nearly a billion media impressions. “This cycle, we’d like to see one on national television,” said the group’s chair, science writer Shawn Otto. ”

As noted above, you can submit questions to Science debate, and you can support the effort in other ways as wall (like, for example, giving them money!).

Others who are joining the call for a science debate are talking about this commercial:

DeSmogBlog: Presidential Debates Ignore Climate Change, So Children Are Demanding Answers
EcoWatch: Kids Demand Presidential Candidates Address Climate Change
Yale’s Climate Denial Crock of the Week: Candidates Should not Avoid Science Debate
PZ Myers at Pharyngula: Do we want our politicians to address science issues? (and here at Scienceblogs)
Eli Rabett at Rabett Run: Questions, Bunnies Got Questions
Media Matters has this writeup.

And, of course, ScienceDebate.org organizers Shawn Otto and Sheril Kirshenbaum have posts on this as well.

STEM Kids Holiday Presents Ideas

I know a lot of you are looking for ideas for science-related children’s presents for Christmas or whatever holiday you like to celebrate this time of year. I have a couple of ideas, and hopefully you will add some of your ideas below. Not everything that helps encourage the skills of scientific tinkering is found in a science kit, and I’ll provide a few ideas for toys that do this. Also, some of the best science experiments are found by using things that don’t come in kits, but by following the advice in books. So I’ll suggest a few books as well. Purely science kits or tools are of course an important addition to the tool box, but not everything has to be an actual science kit. A toy that is simply a toy, but that has a pro-science theme, is also a good idea, and I’ve got some suggestions there as well.

Science Experiments for Kids

There are many items out there that are explicitly science kits, such as biology kits or chemistry kits, and I’m not comfortable making specific recommendations for that sort of thing. There are many options, across a wide range of qualities, and many turn out to be fairly disappointing. I do recommend going for kits that are very specific in what they do, and not very expensive. These kits seem to serve the purpose well enough, and not a lot of investment is made in case they are not quite up to snuff.

61HAQTA55SL._SX375_BO1,204,203,200_For many, the best option may be a book that outlines science experiments you can do with common (or sometimes less common) household items.

Vicki Cobb’s “See for Yourself!: More Than 100 Amazing Experiments for Science Fairs and School Projects,” which covers a wide range of physics, chemistry, and biology. You can extract DNA, build a charge or current detector, experiment with sound waves, and experiment with sensory processing. Many of the experiments are, as the title suggests, suitable for use in a science fair, and many of the projects are adaptable so your junior scientist can include their own creative ideas (which might include combining two or more experiments). Most of the experiments include useful context and additional notes on how to alter or elaborate on the project. It is hard to pin down an age range for this book, but with adult involvement, there are experiments that will be fun for pretty little kids, and on their own, kids from middle school through high school will find it useful.

(Also by Vicki Cobb: Science Experiments You Can Eat)

bio-coverAt a somewhat higher level are the DIY lab books. Robert Bruce Thompson has produced these:

I have read and worked with the Biology and Chemistry books, and they are excellent. These books are actually designed to meet the requirements of a typical chemistry or biology course that might be taught in high school, and for most labs, require getting some higher end gear (all of which can be ordered or acquired, with information in the books on how to do this). So these are pretty serious books.

Toys That Teach: Logic, engineering skills, experimental thinking

Especially for younger kids (pre-K), some of the skills we wish to develop in support of science learning are probably best acquired with non science toys. For example, the basic wooden train tracks (originally invented, I think, by Brio, but now in many forms including Thomas the Tank Engine, Chuddington, Imaginarium, etc.) require the development of the critical skills of patience, planning and forethought, and some basic engineering and design skills. An inexpensive way of getting started on this is to buy a set that includes massive numbers of wooden train tracks in an expansion pack . You can get at a somewhat pricy price train engines that will run, battery powered, on the tracks such as Fisher-Price Thomas the Train Wooden Railway James Engine. Designing tracks that will allow these engines to run without falling over requires more care and planning, which adds an element of learning.

350-944993-847__1There are numerous toys/games that are not explicitly science, but like the train tracks are expandable and rebuild-able, requiring the development of similar skills, using marbles and tubes and shoots etc. For his birthday, Huxley got one such toy that we were very impressed with. Rated for kids 8 and above, the Techno Gears Marble Mania Glow In The Dark Galatic Adventure Play Set can be assembled by adults for younger kids to play with. While assembly (several hours) is a part of the learning experience for older kids, younger kids still learn process, causality, sequencing, as well as fine tuning (you have to mess around with the chutes and tubes to make them all work, but in ways that teach about dynamics) even without assembling them. Uses lots of batteries.

LEGO Science

Part of nudging the offspring in a scientific direction is just about making science part of the fun they are already having. LEGO is a classic toy, and has a lot of science oriented sets, even if sometimes the science is a bit odd. For example, Lego has the LEGO City Arctic Base Camp set, which is a bit pricy (because it is big) and has many sub-components such as smaller ATVs, a research camp, and a drilling truck and helicopter. All of these components (I’m pretty sure) can be obtained as separate smaller and more affordable kits, so one can pick and chose and spread it out over a few holidays. The fact that the toy is all about scientists collecting paleoclimate data and studying melting glaciers is the reason to get this kit. Having said that, the science itself is, frankly, very funny since the mini-fig-scientists seem to specialize in extracting giant ice-enclosed crystals more likely to be found in the dilithium power sources of a Star Ship.

5702015119283-2The Arctic research kit is part of the City series, which matters if you are keeping track of realistic scales.

A rare LEGO item that looks interesting but that I’ve not seen is the LEGO Cuusoo 21110 Research Institute. This is one of the many LEGO science kits designed by LEGO fans and then produced by LEGO because other LEGO fans liked it enough.

Microscopes for kids

If you are going to get one science related toy for kids, and the kid does not have a microscope, then you should probably get a microscope. I’m going to recommend two types, but there are many options out there.

qx5_microscopeFirst is a USB microscope. There are many kinds out there, and which one you get may depend on age, how many different individuals will use it, and if you already have one. We have the Digital Blue Computer Microscope Digital Camera – QX7, which is simple to use, hooks up easily, is not expensive, and seems pretty sturdy. This is entry level. One thing to note: Software that comes with this sort of microscope is generally useless, may not work, and is more troubler than it is worth. Just hook up the microscope as though it was an external camcorder and use it that way. You’ll be able to use your system’s (or installed) cam software to take stills or movies.

The other kind of microscope I recommend, and you should have both kinds, is some sort of simple hand held pocket microscope. We have the Carson 60X-100X MicroMax LED Lighted Pocket Microscope (MM-200), and it is fantastic. Give it to a bunch of kids and they will run around everywhere taking turns looking at things up close. Whatever pocket microcope you get should have a light in it. (I think they all do, but check).

Go back to the Illustrated Guide to biology experiments noted above, or other references, to find out what higher-end microscope (and related equipment) you want to go beyond these entry level items. Our higher-end microscope is actually a late 19th century design using reflected light. And, now and then, Amanda brings Huxley into the lab to show him the big fancy scopes. When he is a bit older, we’ll get some real optics, such as a medium level binocular scope with a camera.

Electronics

Getting back to the basic idea that learning patience, planning, forethought, and integrating these skills with something creative and productive, as a way to start out in science, I suggest one or more electronic project kits. People of a certain age will remember the old fashioned kits, using telegraph board style wires to hook up components fixed to a large board in different ways to produce various circuits. These days, this approach is replaced with something that reflect the process of building more accurately. I suggest a Snap Circuit kit. There are many levels, and as far as I can tell, one can upgrade from a given level to several different higher levels, with upgrade kits. The total cost is less if you go for the higher level kit right away, but that is pricy, and the difference in cost between serial upgrades and getting the biggest kit at the start is not very large.

Screen Shot 2015-11-23 at 10.29.29 AMFor this reason I recommend starting with the Snap Circuits SC-300 Electronics Discovery Kit, not the lowest end, but not very expensive. From there you can easily upgrade to a higher level kit, or, get a second specialized kit, such as the Snap Circuits Alternative Energy Green.

A few words of advice on Snap Circuits. When working with Huxley, staring at late age 3, I insisted that about every other time we played with them, we followed the instructions exactly to demonstrate this or that feature of electronics. The other times, he was free to do whatever he wanted as long as he did not make a short circuit with the battery pack, and always installed a switch in the off position while working with the circuits. In truth, there was no real danger in breaking anything (probably) or getting shocked or anything else untoward, but this helped him learn that circuits needed to be handled a certain way for effectiveness and safety. Eventually, Huxley started to design his own circuits to demonstrate complex switching, parallel vs. serial setups, etc.

Also, after observing this for a while, I realized the whole thing would be more fun with a few additional switches, so I separately ordered some of them. Then, a student of Amanda’s, hearing of Huxley’s interest, gave us his old set, so we suddenly had two of almost everything. Huxley really has learned quite a bit about how electricity works, mainly by working with the power supplies (battery packs), various switches, and, mostly, the small electric motor.

I’d love to see your suggestions, or commentary about your experiences, in the comments section!

Climate Science As A Second Front for Biology Teachers

The American Biology Teacher has hosted a guest editorial by Glenn Branch and Minda Berbeco of the NCSE. The editorial points out that climate science is under a similar sort of anti-science attack as evolution has been for years, though generally with different (less religious) motivations. Also noted is the problem of fitting climate change into the curriculum, especially in biology classes. Indeed, biology teachers are already having a hard time getting the standard fare on the plate. In recent years, for example, the AP biology curriculum has jettisoned almost everything about plants, which were previously used as examples of physiology owing to both their relevance and the relative ease of using plants in biology labs. Branch and Berbeco note that climate change has not made its way that far into the biology classrooms, but there are already anti-science efforts to keep it out.

… a backlash against the inclusion of climate science – and anthropogenic climate change in particular – in the science classroom is under way. For example, when West Virginia became the thirteenth state to adopt the NGSS in December 2014, it was discovered that beforehand a member of the state board of education successfully called for changes that downplayed climate change… Nationally, according to a survey of 555 K–12 teachers who teach climate change, 36% were pressured to teach “both sides” of a supposed scientific controversy, and 5% were required to do so.

Minda_BerbecoI interviewed Minda Berbeco, who is the Programs and Policy Director at the National Center for Science Education, about climate change in the classroom.

Question: Should Earth System Science (which would include climate change) become one of the core areas of science teaching in high schools? If so, are there efforts underway to move this along?

Answer: Absolutely, Earth systems are a core concept in the Next Generation Science Standards, which are being adopted across the country right now. Understanding Earth systems is central to understanding the world around us, and intersects every other type of science from biology to chemistry to physics. Climate change is, of course, an important piece of understanding Earth systems, as it too intersects these other topics and is a compelling topic that relates directly to how humans can impact the planet.

Question: My background is more in biology but as a palaeoanthropologist I’ve studied several areas of what would might be classified as “Earth Science” or even “Physical Science” so I’m more comfortable with a cross disciplinary approach. Since climate change is normally considered a physical science (in college or advanced studies) and high schools tend to stick with the silos (clearly defined disciplines), shouldn’t we expect climate change be taught in physical sciences or geology rather than biology?

Answer: As a biologist, I’m always really surprised by this question, as there are many people who think that climate change only intersects the Earth sciences. This is a very one-dimensional view and completely ignores not only how climate affects organisms and ecosystems, but also how organisms and ecosystems in turn affect climate. It turns out that many biology teachers across the country agree with me, since we are finding that a significant number of them are teaching about climate change, even when it is not in their state’s science standards.

Question: I think it might be true that among high school science teachers, we see denialism of evolution to a higher degree among physical science teachers than biology teachers. This may not matter too much since evolution is rarely taught in physical science classes, though it certainly can be disparaged or denied there. Since climate change might fall under the preview of physical sciences in some curricula (as would geology and earth systems), will we see a larger amount of, or a new kind of, conflict among the teachers themselves as climate science is more widely addressed? (and by extention among administrators whom we need to support teachers under fire)

Answer: I’m not sure who challenges evolution more, physical science teachers or biology teachers – obviously because evolution is more often covered in biology classes, that is where we tend to hear about it. As for climate change, the challenges that we see actually have less to do with outright denial, and more with teachers genuinely not realizing what the evidence shows or trying to bring in “both sides” as a critical thinking exercise, knowing that the evidence clearly demonstrates that humans are largely responsible for recent climate change. We don’t have students debate “both sides” of whether mermaids exist or that viruses cause disease, so why would we do it with climate change? Plus there are far better questions to ask about climate change, like how it will impact animal migration or the spread of disease, that scientists are actually asking. Why not have students study that?

Question: You note that the motivations for denying evolution vs. for denying climate change are different. But given that there is a link between certain political affiliations and things like secularism (or anti-secularism) there is some overlap in who is involved and to some extent why they deny science. (Denying science is convenient for a lot of reasons.) Are you concerned about future alliances forming in the anti-science world that may strengthen attacks on climate science in public schools?

Answer: Certainly there is cross-over between different groups who disagree with what the scientific consensus shows on climate change and evolution, and alliances can form as a result of that. This can backfire as well though, as many people who deny climate change would bristle at the thought of working with a creationist. They have somehow convinced themselves that with regard to climate change they know better than the overwhelming majority of the scientific community, but when it comes to evolution, of course the scientists are right. It’s a little mind-boggling to imagine, but it is something that we’ve seen quite a bit.

Question: Both evolution and climate science are brought into social sciences (or other non-hard science areas) in schools in the form of debate topics. (see below) Typically these approaches involve the presumption of there really being a debate. Which there isn’t. Is NCSE monitoring this, or addressing this problem in any way?

Answer: We definitely pay attention to these sorts of things, and we are not fans of students debating “both sides” of the science, as it elevates non-science to the same level as science. Although having students debate the science of climate change is clearly counterproductive, having students debate issues in climate change policy is fine. There are a lot of options, from energy efficiency to carbon taxes, making it an ideal topic for a social studies or government class. Climate change is an issue that students will have to deal with as adults, so it makes sense to try to give them practice in a government class on how they will navigate the policy decisions that will need to be made. We’ve seen science teachers connect with social studies teachers to address this issue, where the students learn the actual scientific evidence in their science class and then debate the policy options in their social studies class. This is a totally appropriate approach and is an interesting way of showing students how science can inform policy.

Question: I think nearly all biology teachers know that the official line is that evolution is for real, so even if a biology teacher is a creationist they know that they are going off script to deny (or avoid) evolution. Is this true for climate change? Are teachers who have classes that might include climate science all aware of the fact that climate change is not a scientific issue (it is mainly well established science)? Or are many of these teachers under the impression that there is a debate?

Answer: Unfortunately, there have been many groups who have spent a lot of time and money attempting to undermine the science in the public’s eye, and teachers are just as susceptible to these efforts as anyone else. We’ve rarely run into a teacher who has malicious intent when teaching incorrect information about climate change. What we find more often is that they are not familiar with the evidence or take it on as a critical thinking exercise, having students debate “both sides”. Like I said earlier, we are not big fans of this approach.

For those interested in resources that might be useful to science teachers, or the parents of kids in public schools, see THIS PAGE. For those who wish to know more about the activities of the NCSE, or who are concerned about anything going on in your local school or your child’s classroom, visit the NCSE web site. Also, please not that the NCSE Climate Change Bumper Sticker contest is still seeking submissions!

Should the Smithsonian and Other Museums Blow Off Big Fossil?

Let me start off by saying something you may not know. The big corporations and the 1%ers you have learned to hate fund many of the projects you’ve learned to love. I have not checked lately, but Murdoch and FOX corporation for several years in a row funded at a 50% or 60% level virtually all of the National Geographic specials produced. Major museums known for their great exhibits are often funded by the very corporations or individuals that the people who love those exhibits are (often justifiably) suspicious of. The great importance of private corporate or individual funding is also a factor for art museums, cultural entities like the Opera or Symphony, and of course, sports teams.

This is also true of educational institutions. You see this most obviously at schools of business or management. Say you want to visit the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota. It is named after Curtis Carlson, who was Chair of the Carlson Companies (Radisson). Curt also owned TGI Fridays. You might park in the Toyota Parking lot. Perhaps you are going to a meeting at the Medtronic Dining Room followed by a lecture at the Honeywell Lecture Hall. Later, for entertainment you might catch a game at Target Field, or Target Center, or the Xcel Energy Center. Or perhaps you’ll visit the Opera or Symphony. While you are there, be sure to check out the Wall of Donors to see the numerous large companies (mostly Minnesota based) or wealthy individuals who make big donations there.

Well, OK, you probably already knew that large corporations and wealthy individuals are footing the bill for many of the trappings of our civilization, including educational enterprises, and ranging from academics to high culture to sports.

Lately there has been concern that the mix of large donors and missions of various institutions represents a conflict of interest, especially with regards to climate change and global warming.

We’ve seen the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics as a conduit for moving money from Big Fossil (large corporations that depend, we presume, on the rejection of climate change science) to scientists who produce roundly criticized work used by climate change denialist in Congress (via the mechanism of Congressional testimony) to avoid implementing science-sound energy and environmental policies.

It has been argued that the David Koch human evolution exhibit at the Smithsonian inappropriately downplays the critical role of human caused climate change as a problem facing our species. The exhibit does mention future challenges, and a warming planet, but conveniently leaves off the anthropogenic part.

A couple of years back, the University of Minnesota bailed out of showing a documentary on the Mississippi River, which included quite a bit of material on pollution of the river caused by agriculture, allegedly because Big Ag interests pressured the administration. It has been suggested that was only one of several examples of The U bending to the agricultural industry.

Recently there has been a move to ask natural history museums to reduce or eliminate funding from Big Fossil, and to ask folks like the Kochs to not be on their boards of directors. This makes sense because of the potential conflict of interest, but it could also be a form of institutional suicide if the funding from those sources is both very important and irreplaceable.

How much of the science done by major academic institutions is influenced by funding? It makes sense, for example, for Big Ag to fund laboratories, graduate fellowships, and research at these institutions because they benefit from the training and research. But it might also make sense for Big Ag to influence what research is done, perhaps who gets the results, and most importantly perhaps, what research (or results) is NOT funded, or repressed. Same with Big Fossil. Same with Big Pharm. Same with Big Whatever.

And, of course, the same can be said of large museums. I can name one large museum (but I won’t) that totally avoids human evolution (but not necessarily evolution in general) because there are private donors who don’t think humans evolved. The aforementioned human evolution exhibit funded by Koch is probably a mild example of bias. I’ve seen a lot of human evolution exhibits, and so far the few that are quite willing to challenge visitors’ religious or other anti-science beliefs were entirely state funded, as far as I know.

I think it is appropriate to ask the Smithsonian to dump the Kochs and their ilk as donors and board members, because such stark request can form the core of an activist approach that could cause positive change. But I also think we need to recognize the difficult position these institutions are in. We need not only to tell them to change how they do things, but to suggest alternative approaches and facilitate those approaches. Big educational exhibits at museums should routinely be funded by public money, as many already are. Perhaps private donations should be funneled through third parties that are devoid of nefarious intentions and shady ties. One approach in the US might be to tie tax benefits to such a thing. You can get a tax benefit from donating to a museum to produce an exhibit, but you get a better tax benefit if you donate to the NSF or NIH museum exhibit and educational endowments, which are in turn distributed via the usual mechanism of carefully developed requests for proposals with peer review. That would let the Kochs have part of their cake and we (the citizens) get to eat the other part.

The way research, education, and public engagement is funded has become a problem. What do you think? How should we solve this problem?

Publishers Remove Climate Change Denialism From Texas Schoolbooks

I just got this press release for the Texas Freedom Nettwork, passing the good news on to you:

PUBLISHERS REMOVE CLIMATE CHANGE DENIALISM FROM TEXAS TEXTBOOKS; PUT EDUCATION AHEAD OF POLITICS

Texas State Board of Education must still vote on adopting the revised textbooks

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
November 17, 2014

Publishers have agreed to correct or remove inaccurate passages promoting climate change denialism from new social studies textbooks proposed for Texas public schools, a coalition of science and education groups announced this afternoon. This news comes as the State Board of Education prepares for a second public hearing on the proposed textbooks and a final vote on which texts to approve for Texas schools. The textbooks will likely be sold in other states as well.

Publishers Pearson Education, WorldView Software and Studies Weekly Publications had already submitted to Texas education officials revisions to textbook passages that included inaccurate information about climate change. The original passages cast doubt on the overwhelming consensus among climate scientists that climate change is a real and growing threat and that human activity is the primary driver of the problem. Today publisher McGraw-Hill confirmed to the Texas Freedom Network (TFN) that it will remove a deeply problematic lesson that equated unsupported arguments from a special interest-funded political advocacy group, the Heartland Institute, with data-backed material from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a Nobel-winning organization of scientists from around the world.

“We applaud these publishers for responsibly listening to scholars and the tens of thousands of people from across the country who have signed petitions insisting that the textbooks put education and facts ahead of politics,” TFN President Kathy Miller said today. “We hope they will stand firm in their decision and resist pressure from politicians on the state board to lie to students about one of the biggest challenges facing our planet.”

Petitions calling on publishers to correct their textbooks collected more than 116,000 signatures. The petitions were sponsored by the Texas Freedom Network, National Center for Science Education (NCSE), Climate Parents, Daily Kos and CREDO Mobilize.

Josh Rosenau, programs and policy director at NCSE, also praised the publishers’ decisions to remove the scientifically inaccurate information from their textbooks.

“Pearson, McGraw-Hill, and other publishers did the right thing by making these changes,” Rosenau said. “They listened to us and the nation’s leading scientific and educational societies, ensuring that students will learn the truth about the greatest challenge they’ll confront as citizens of the 21st century. These publishers should be proud.”

Lisa Hoyos, director of the national organization Climate Parents, noted the importance of telling students the truth about climate change at a time when the science is under political attack across the country.

“There is a dangerous attack on climate science in our country, from Congress to the classroom,” Hoyos said. “We are thrilled that Pearson and McGraw Hill chose to stand with students, and to remove misinformation about the causes of climate change from their texts. These publishers need to resist any pushback from climate deniers on the the Texas State Board of Education and to commit to tell nothing but the truth in the materials they produce for our kids.”

The State Board of Education will hold its second public hearing and take a preliminary vote on the proposed textbooks on Tuesday (November 18). The board is set to take a final vote on Friday. The textbooks will go into classrooms beginning in the 2015-16 school year.