Category Archives: Mostly Science

Responding to “Scientific Evidence That Disproves Evolution”

Simpsons Jesus Fish

When I teach my students about the evidence for species change I am often confronted by parents (and students, teachers, and school board members) who want to influence what students will learn. I know that there are people in my community that view the teaching of species change as a threat to their particular brand of Christianity. They may not always confront me face to face, but recently a certain letter was shared with my wife, the local Presbyterian minister. As a geology minor and physical anthropology major in college, she is well qualified to rebut this letter, but she handed it to me and said something like “Why don’t you deal with this?” The letter begins “As far as scientific evidence that disproves evolution, here are a few science absolutes to consider.” As a science teacher who has a solid faith in the Word of God, I have many questions about this document and what it aims to achieve.

What is the purpose of a letter presenting “scientific evidence” against species change?

Before I discuss the specific arguments in this letter, we should first think about why such a letter exists. The letter is addressed to local ministers and youth pastors and aims to provide scientific evidence that these leaders can use to help defend their members against “the claims of naturalistic Darwinian evolution.” The main goal of the letter is to provide “evidence for the existence and activity of our Creator God.” Furthermore, the author of the letter believes that we should defend the Bible against claims that it is “outdated, inaccurate, unscientific, and out of touch with reality.” The writer ends their letter by offering their services to any congregations or individuals who are interested in “nurturing solid faith in the Word of God.” In short, the letter appears to be an attempt to portray belief in the Bible and perhaps God Himself as completely at odds with current scientific theories of biological evolution.

What is “naturalistic Darwinian evolution” according to the author of this letter?

We should also consider the writer of the letter and their use of the phrase “naturalistic Darwinian evolution.” Clearly this phrase is used to represent a belief system that is contrary to that of the author. Knowing what I know of the author, I’m going to assume that “naturalistic” means “without God” or perhaps even “against God.” “Naturalistic” could also mean “random” or “unguided.” “Darwinian” usually refers to Charles Darwin (not Erasmus) in a way that presents his ideas as some sort of alternative theology that replaces God’s central role in Creation (even though Darwin (both of them) credits a Creator). “Evolution” is probably the stickiest word in this phrase. Does the author refer to the fact that species can change over time? Does the author mean to discuss the Big Bang or the origins of life? Unfortunately, the author’s use of the term “evolution” is used as a stand-in for many separate scientific concepts including biological evolution, the origins of life, and the origins of the universe.

What do biologists really mean by the term “evolution?”

Species can change over time. In Charles Darwin’s famous words evolution is “descent with modification.” This is really the only acceptable answer to the question “what do biologists mean by ‘evolution’?” We are not talking about the origin of life or the origin of the universe. Biologists focus on whether or not species can change and adapt to new environments over time. To say that an organism “evolves” is to say that it may have very different features multiple generations from now than it does in the present time. Those features are defined by the particular genetic makeup of individual organisms and how likely those features are to aid or hinder the survival and reproduction each individual. Collectively, those features (traits) that are successful in certain individuals will be increased in frequency within an entire population of that organism. Over time, accumulated changes may allow one population of organisms to become significantly different from a separate population of that organism, giving rise to an event known as speciation. In short, biologists have observed that species can change over time and give rise to new, distinct species.

What evidence is presented against species change?

The letter that was delivered to local churches presents 8 lines of evidence that are said to disprove evolution. Only 4 of these lines of evidence pertain to biological evolution. Three other arguments are aimed at explaining the act of creating the universe and so do not directly address species change. A fourth argument argues against current hypotheses of the origins of life and also does not address species change.

There is considerable overlap between the 4 arguments against species change so that all the arguments can be summarized in the following two statements:

  1. Species change is so complicated that you could never understand it, therefore it does not happen the way they say it does.
  2. New information is required to create new species. There is no new information, therefore no new species can arise.

This letter does not describe any evidence for the hypothesis that species of living organisms cannot change and have not changed since they first appeared upon the Earth, i.e. that species have not evolved. While the arguments presented are therefore only in the negative, they are still worth refuting.

The argument from complexity

One common argument that is often used against modern scientific understandings of phenomena is that Nature is so complex that we could not possibly understand it. The argument from complexity used in this letter appeals to the individual and their experience, knowledge, and their sense of “rightness” of a particular belief. This relies upon the perception that if I don’t experience it or understand how it works, then it does not happen the way that other people describe it. Capital S “Science” in this mindset refers to all the “experts” who have tried to explain the world but have failed or have been wrong multiple times. In the words of the Apostle Paul:

Professing to be wise, they became fools

Romans 1:22

Global climate change is thought by some to be so amazingly complex that we could never understand how humans are affecting the planet. Likewise, there are so many complex biological systems of interacting atoms, molecules, cells, tissues, organs, organ systems, organisms, populations, communities, and ecosystems that some believe that we could not begin to understand how living things work.

But the argument from complexity runs into an unfortunate reality: just because I don’t understand how something works doesn’t mean that no one understands how that system works. In many cases several people have joined together to bounce ideas off of each other through thought and experimentation and have collectively reached conclusions about the most likely mechanisms behind a certain phenomena, for example that diseases are caused by infectious pathogens such as bacteria and viruses. Just because an individual has not personally observed bacteria doesn’t mean that they don’t exist. The existence of bacteria as pathogens is not a matter of faith, but it may have seemed that way at first to the general population when their role in disease was first discovered. The argument that Nature is too complex and that we will never understand whether species change or not does not take into account the fact that many thousands of people have made this study their life’s pursuit for the glory of God through understanding His Creation.

Great are the works of the LORD; they are studied by all who delight in them.

Psalm 111:2

The argument about biological information

Let’s be clear from the start that this argument is based on incomplete or false understandings of what DNA is, how it can be changed, and what the results of those changes are. DNA studies in the last few decades provide perhaps the strongest proofs of species change and so have been rightly targeted for dismissal by those who would argue against biological evolution. But do their claims stand up to the evidence?

The most erroneous claim made by the author of this letter is that mutations are “part of the entropy we observe in the genome” and that “mutations are always negative.” The letter goes so far as to say “positive mutations are a myth.” Before fixing those misconceptions, let me first try to understand the views of the author of this letter. I believe that a summary of their ideas might go something like this:

  1. DNA does exist and it provides information to cells and organisms in a total package called a genome.
  2. Mutations exist and are changes to the original DNA information.
  3. DNA is “ridiculously complex” (see the discussion above) and existing genomes could only have come about through Intelligent Design.
  4. Therefore, any change to the DNA (mutation) is a deviation from the Design and therefore mutations “only mess up already existing information.”

First of all, there is no proof one way or another that God designed each and every genome of every individual creature on the planet. Proof of such intervention is impossible because issues of causation by God are in the realm of belief and not open to scientific investigation. It is possible, however, to believe that God uses mutation of DNA as a mechanism of Creation of new species, but again, this is a belief, not a statement of scientific fact.

It is a scientific fact, however, that DNA can easily be changed, even over the lifetime of an individual organism or indeed individual cells. Our modern understanding of cancer biology is built upon the foundation that environmental damage to DNA can cause changes in the information found in certain cells that cause them to divide inappropriately. Cancer biology is certainly an area where the author of the letter and I will agree that DNA information can be “messed up.”

But what about DNA changes from generation to generation? Does the author of the letter mean to say that since we are different from our parents we therefore are less human, as we have inherited some slight differences in our DNA from that of their parents (although most differences are the result of recombination of the parental genes)? Are Adam and Eve the only true humans and everyone since has somehow polluted the original DNA? What about people of different races? Whose DNA is the stuff that God designed? I’m pretty sure I don’t like where that line of argument will end up.

Let’s instead look at a case where mutations have been documented in humans, and beneficial ones at that. Can you drink milk? Or are you lactose-intolerant? Technically, the term should be lactase-persistent because nearly every human can drink milk as an infant. So why can some people drink milk as an adult and others can’t? A mutation. Studies have shown that multiple human populations who live in close proximity to dairy animals have independently developed mutations that allow milk to be digested as a major source of nutrition. Current estimates are that only about 35% of adult humans on the planet carry this type of mutation. Is this ability to drink milk “new information?” Are these 35% of humans a new species or are they a polluted offshoot of the true human line? The author of the letter makes a bizarre statement that relates to beneficial mutations like these that reads as follows:

“There are a small percentage of mutations that are admittingly “beneficial”, but not “positive”. Beneficial in that loosing, an enzyme, or trait occasionally adds to the fitness of the organism, but it is technically a loss of information, not a gain, therefore not a “positive” mutation (one that adds new information to the code). Positive mutations are a myth. Mutations are always negative.”

-from the letter to pastors

It will help the conversation at this point if we examine what the DNA code is and what might constitute “new information.” As the letter reminds us, DNA is made of 4 digits, called bases, that come in the flavors of A, T, G, and C, to use their symbolic abbreviations. These 4 bases are joined together in a linear sequence of bases that run up and down the middle of a molecule that looks like a twisted staircase, the famous double-helix. It is the order, or sequence, of bases in DNA that provides the information to each cell as to how to build correct proteins for each job that needs to be done. Each three bases in a row create what is known as a codon that codes for which amino acid needs to be inserted into a new protein. For example, the DNA sequence that reads CACGTGAAATGT might look like so much nonsense to us, but a cell at work will use it to build a protein that begins with Histidine-Valine-Lysine-Cysteine amino acids in that order.

What then constitutes “new information?” Since the sequence of bases in DNA directly determines the order of amino acids in the resulting protein, a change (mutation) in the sequence of bases results in a change in the information used to build a protein. Therefore, every mutation is new information. Does every mutation change the DNA information in a meaningful way? No. Some mutations are silent due to the fact that some changes (like CCT to CCG) result in no difference to the protein produced (both code for Proline). Some mutations are quite noticeable however, especially if the chemistry of the protein produced causes it to take on a wildly different shape in its finished form. Such changes have been observed in regulatory proteins that control when lactase enzyme is produced and also in diseases such as cystic fibrosis and sickle cell anemia.

This discussion hasn’t even scratched the surface of how the information in DNA can be changed via massive interventions from viruses and chromosomal rearrangements and duplication. Single base changes (point mutations) are not the only major changes happening to the information stored in DNA. And what if all of these changes occur in cells of the germ line that are used to make new babies? Those babies will be different than their parents. Through multiple generations over time with accumulating changes to the information in DNA eventually there will come a point at which the resulting proteins function so differently in vastly different combinations than before that the resulting organism is different enough from its original ancestors as to be considered a member of a new species.

What if species really do change?

What happens when my students study biology and find that the massive weight of evidence from astronomy, geology, fossils, comparative anatomy, vestigial structures, embryology, DNA, and biochemistry indicates that the earth has changed in measurable ways and that all life has changed over billions of years along with the changing surface of the planet?

The author of this letter and I have the same goal: to bring people to begin to know and understand Jesus Christ and the God of all Creation. I have an additional goal as a science teacher, and that is to encourage students to develop scientific habits of mind. In particular I want students be able to collect and analyze data and, most importantly, I want them to be able to change their minds when presented with new evidence. However, a student’s faith journey and their acquisition of a scientific mindset are usually very disconnected.

A trivial fix would be to never teach “controversial” topics in a biology class, and therefore never expose students to these ideas. That would shield them for the moment from observations that show that species do change over time. This is the approach often taken by home-schooling parents and some teachers at both private and public schools. However, willful, planned ignorance regarding certain scientific observations is contrary to the mission of a science teacher and so that is not an option in my biology courses.

I could do as some suggest and “teach the controversy” or “teach both sides.” Certainly this approach has appealed to some school systems around the country who have tried to legislate the teaching of “Creationist” ideas alongside those of the “Darwinists.” But this is a false equivalence. Only one of these two supposedly antagonistic schools of thought has any scientific data to support its claims, namely that species have changed and continue to change in response to environmental variables. A science classroom should be a place where data is collected and analyzed. Philosophical topics that are not testable such as God the Creator, Jesus the Redeemer, and True Love belong in philosophy or religion classes that are equally valid educational experiences for our students.

When my biology students investigate these issues, they are faced with two scientifically testable possibilities that are mutually exclusive: either species of living organisms can change and have changed over time in response to changing environmental conditions OR species of living organisms cannot change and have not changed since they first appeared upon the Earth. Any other discussion of Who created them or how is outside the realm of scientific inquiry.

How to lose a Christian

The way to destroy belief in Christ and in God the Creator is to convince someone that if they accept that species of living organisms can change and have changed over time then they cannot believe in God, the authority of the Bible, and in the humanity and divinity of Jesus Christ. The most obvious goal of the letter that my wife received is to refute every scientific argument that might support species change. But what if a student sees through some of the fallacies and outright inaccuracies present in these so-called scientific arguments? What if they learn that species do change?

Christians who rely upon anti-evolution arguments to help people believe run the risk of alienating all future students if their arguments are not based in actual science. Anyone who learns the basic facts about how mutations and chromosomal rearrangements occur will raise their eyebrows about an argument that says that all mutations will have negative consequences. If a student studies about the rise of lactase persistence in certain populations they will learn that drinking milk in adulthood is “new information” in terms of human DNA sequences. How many scientific facts will it take to break their faith? Consider the following quote from conservative writer Michael Gerson


“…they (Evangelicals) made a crucial error in picking evolution as a main point of contention with modernity. “The contest between evolution and Christianity is a duel to the death,” William Jennings Bryan argued. “If evolution wins … Christianity goesnot suddenly, of course, but gradually, for the two cannot stand together.” Many people of his background believed this. But their resistance was futile, for one incontrovertible reason: Evolution is a fact. It is objectively true based on overwhelming evidence. By denying this, evangelicals made their entire view of reality suspect. They were insisting, in effect, that the Christian faith requires a flight from reason.”

Michael Gerson, “The Last Temptation”
https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2018/04/the-last-temptation/554066/

It would be better by far to encourage students to engage with the scientific community, read peer-reviewed research, analyze data for themselves, and to treat that scientific knowledge gained as a way of understanding God’s Creation. What is taught in Bible Study, Church, Sunday School, and Youth Group should not set students up to have to choose between their faith and an understanding of how God’s Creation works as experienced through their science classes at school.

Resources:

For a much more thorough discussion of some of the arguments presented above and for inspiration for how to integrate the teaching of science and the practice of faith I will direct you to these texts:

The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief

Origins: Christian Perspectives on Creation, Evolution, and Intelligent Design

Seeing Seesaw Journals in Action

As I mentioned in my last post, I’d grown dissatisfied with my Google Sites portfolio system for documenting student learning and was looking to try out something new. That new thing is Seesaw and so far I’m pretty happy with the switch. This post will try to set out some of my current thinking around why I switched and what is working better (or worse) with the new system.

In past years, my high school science students would create personal blogs at free sites like WordPress and Google Blogger, publish the results of their learning activities in blog posts, then collect links to their work into a standards-based assessment portfolio in Google Sites. Everything students did was visible online and families could subscribe to their blog feed to follow what students were producing for class. On the teacher side of things, I would subscribe to every student blog using an RSS feed reader, read and evaluate blog posts, and respond to students with (hopefully constructive) comments using a grading spreadsheet that I developed.

At some point in time last school year, I decided that maintaining the portfolio Sites felt like an extra chore on top of the work that students were already doing by posting to their blogs. In fact, many students said exactly that, sometimes even to my face. Also, the self-reflection that I thought the portfolios would bring was not really happening, at least not for most students. My intention was for students to review their blog posts to see which work met certain standards, but far too often I found myself merely commanding students as to which blog posts needed to be on certain portfolio pages.

The grading spreadsheets I built and maintained for every student certainly felt like an extra chore for myself as well. I would give reasonably detailed feedback on most every piece of work, yet sometimes even in our 3rd or 4th quarter of school I would have students be surprised that they had a grading document. In other words, many students never saw (or paid attention to) the shared grading doc with comments for improvement.

These minor and not-so-minor annoyances led me to look for some other system that could:

  • publish student work online for a wide audience, including the teacher (me) and parents/families
  • facilitate standards-based assessment and reporting
  • be compatible or native to mobile devices (have a suitable web version or app)
  • allow for improvement/editing of published work
  • minimize the number of different services and sites that each student has to manage

With these criteria in mind, I was essentially looking for a blog-like service with standards-based portfolio properties to it. I remembered reading about Seesaw portfolios a while back and thought that that service might match up pretty well.

Why hadn’t I tried Seesaw before now? Honestly, when I first encountered their service I was put off a bit by their strong focus on marketing to the elementary school level. My first impression was that the teacher was in charge of documenting stuff that students made and that wasn’t where I wanted to be with my very independent high school learners with their fancy personalized blogs.

I have tried it out this year, though. In fact, I went all-in with every class at once switching over to using Seesaw from the start of this school year. Common wisdom would be to try it with one class, but I figured if I liked it, I would be switching everyone over midyear, which would be annoying.

Here is the current workflow for students and I using Seesaw’s Journal:

  1. Students carry out experiments and other learning activities in class and online (the majority of lab guidelines and activities are shared with students via Schoology.com).
  2. Students create published versions of Google Docs, slideshows, online concept maps, etc. to document their labs and other learning.
  3. Links to the public version of their work are posted in their Seesaw Journal using either the web-based version or the mobile app.
  4. The Journal entry sits in Seesaw awaiting my “approval” (their words, not mine). I get notifications for these “in limbo” entries.
  5. When I find time to grade, I call up Seesaw’s list of unapproved Journal entries.
  6. I click on a student’s submitted work, which pops up in a separate tab.
  7. I review their work.
  8. I add comments on the work directly into our school’s online grade book (Infinite Campus) so they are visible to students and parents. I also assign Complete-Partial-Rework ratings as published by Paul Strode in https://mrdrscienceteacher.wordpress.com/2017/08/28/my-classes-are-pointless/
  9. I click back into the Seesaw tab in my browser and use their “tag skills” function to mark the major skill standards that I see in evidence in that particular Journal entry.
  10. I approve the work and it becomes a part of their Journal.

Here we hit one of the major differences between the student blogs and Seesaw: student work is not immediately shared to the entire Internet. Only that student’s teacher, families (via a special access code or teacher permission), and fellow students can see Journal posts. There is an option to add Journal posts to an open class-wide blog, but I haven’t set up the public blogs yet.

One other clear difference from using blogs is the degree of teacher control. As their advertising indicates, in Seesaw the teacher can do nearly all the work of adding items to the Journal and as such Journal posts live inside a space controlled primarily by the teacher. One of my philosophical reasons for choosing blogs initially was that the blog could travel with the student, especially a WordPress blog that they could keep with them even after graduation. I suspect that some students might miss that functionality, and indeed I have a few older students that are keeping a blog and posting their blog links into Seesaw.

There are a few minor annoyances that I’ve picked up on, but by no means are they deal-breakers. For example, Seesaw seems to expect me to nearly instantly approve student Journal entries and will send me a reminder email if I leave an entry unapproved for more than a day or two. The app sends out notifications and emails for a weekly review of each class that I find unnecessary, but there’s probably a toggle somewhere to turn that off.

My biggest complaint of Seesaw is that the Google Drive integration can sometimes get in the way. Usually we build Google stuff then make it public or “publish to the web” which gives us docs and slideshows that look pretty sexy online and as students edit them they automatically update.  Seesaw has an annoying habit of noticing that our links come from Google and offers to convert our links into pdf files, which are not nearly as friendly. I have to train students to click “continue” rather than the tempting blue button on the left.

I totally understand why this pdf publication setup works for younger kids who don’t know how to mess with sharing or publication settings in Google Drive, but it does get in the way. If a student uploads a Doc as a pdf then makes changes, they have to upload a new version to the Journal and then there could be at least two versions of the same assignment posted to their Journal, which complicates things if the teacher is trying to use the Skills standards-based grading module.

The Skills module is an optional service that also happens to be a paid add-on. I’m using the trial version so far, but I’m betting that I’ll want to keep it around, even at the price of $120 per year. I set up my 7 major performance skills across all my classes and can tag each Journal entry when I see each skill on display. I can rate a Journal entry from 1 to 4 stars per standard and Seesaw will give me a color-coded display of each student’s most current performance and how many times I’ve observed a certain skill.

The downside to this lovely system of color-coded standards-based feedback is that students do not see it. I might be able to share an individual student’s chart of standards for face-to-face conferences about final grades, but otherwise this is just a tool for teachers and not a means of feedback to students. It would also be nice to be able to change how the color-coding is determined, i.e. set it based on the last measurement or as an average of scores for the standard.

Overall, I’ve been very impressed with Seesaw and it certainly has streamlined my courses to some extent. We use just three major online services for instruction and feedback, namely Schoology, Google Apps, and Seesaw, all of which have mobile apps for those students without computers and/or wifi at home. Seesaw also features a Seesaw Family app so that parents and others can observe and comment on student work. We are in the very early days of implementation, but I’ve had several parents sign on and several more indicated interest at our parent conferences last week. I’m interested to see what happens going forward once more parents get involved.

Accept or Deny: A March for Science Story

Like many of my fellow educator-scientists, yesterday I had the honor and privilege of joining a March for Science. Since I live in a small town in the middle of “what mountains? they told me there would be mountains!” Colorado, I had to travel to Denver to join up with the big city folks and their March. 

Bright and early yesterday morning, I packed up my daughter and her friend (both currently my biology students) and we hit the road for the 2 1/2 hour drive through the moonscape that is eastern Colorado. We were rewarded for our efforts with a pretty steady sprinkle of rain the entire drive, which is a blessing in these parched high plains. 

We decided to take the RTD commuter train from near the airport, so I suppose we did our part in using public transportation on Earth Day, but mostly I didn’t want to try to fight thousands of people for parking downtown.  A smooth 1/2 hr later we pulled into Denver’s Union Station at which point we headed down the 16th Street Mall towards the Capitol. 

While on the ride in, I’d felt a little self-conscious about carrying a big sign on a stick, but once we hit the Mall we fell in with lots of other sign-carriers of all ages who were heading in the same direction. 

Our timing was spot on and we managed to cross paths with the March just as it got underway. 


We joined in the March and headed towards the Capitol plaza where the size of the crowd really became apparent. 

We stopped by several tents set up for the “teach-in” on the Capitol grounds and got to see some fun demos with Tesla coils, liquid nitrogen, and the classic crush-a-can with air pressure. We were surprised at the heavy presence of secular humanist organizations and wondered where the religious scientists’ tents were.

We wandered up the Capitol steps just in time for some of the major speeches of the day, most given by state reps. 

The crowd up at the top of the Capitol steps by the speakers seemed strangely sparse, but then I realized that we had beaten the crowd up the hill so they were behind us. 

One of my key takeaways from the speeches was that we collectively need to move the conversation away from belief vs nonbelief for the biggies like climate change and evolution. Instead, we should use the terms Accept or Deny, as several speakers did.  

Belief is something to be treasured, something to fight for because it’s important to how we view the world. But belief is inherently non-falsifiable. This is fundamentally different from how science operates. 

Science requires us to provide proof that certain phenomena operate as we think they do. Piles of evidence are put forward, sorted out by peer-review, and modified over time as new evidence arises. This results in a Theory built by consensus across multiple individuals, many of whom have competing beliefs about the issues at hand. But in this scientific consensus, the opinions don’t matter, the data does. Individuals, corporations, and elected officials can either accept the reality of the world as measurements indicate or they can deny the validity of that data.

Is the Earth warming up over time? I might wish that it were not but countless observational studies tell me it is.  Do species change over time to become different than their ancestors? Absolutely, even though we can hold different opinions about Who or what is behind the mysteries of why certain species exist today. 

As I wrap up another school year with a major Evolution unit in my biology classes, I’ll try to use this Accept or Deny language a lot more and try to help students do the same. 

If only we could do something for those folks who proudly deny every inconvenient truth…

A Most Disturbing Edge

As I approach my 7th blogoversary, I could take the easy way out by simply creating a “best of” collection here on the blog so that you, dear reader, wouldn’t have to wade through the morass of scribbles about my journey as a semi-pro science teacher.

But I won’t. Instead I’m going to tackle yet another Edge.

My current definition of an Edge is this: it is arriving at that place where your feet are pretty firmly grounded in an established reality and you find yourself needing to take the very next step, yet there is no obvious way forward except an uncomfortable drop into an unknown and unfamiliar place.

As I write this at the end of 2016 I find that the creepy unknown place I’m stepping off into is one where external forces have intruded even further into my day-to-day teaching. Poverty, ignorance, family crises, and other stumbling blocks for student learning have always existed but now I have a new problem:

Many prominent role models are teaching my students behaviors that are completely at odds with my vision for who I want my students to be.

Fake news abounds, denial of established facts is the new normal amongst presidential tweeters, and anti-intellectualism in the guise of populism is winning the minds of people everywhere.

How is a science teacher to respond?

I’ve worked very hard up to this point in my career to try to do right by my students by inspiring their innate creativity while teaching them a logical framework with which to test out ideas and support them with facts.  Good old Claims-Evidence-Reasoning. Science.

But we seem to be heading into a post-science world, one where it’s less acceptable to fact-check than it is to fire off a tweet or two to “prove” your point. When it simply does not matter to the Tweeter whether they have their facts straight or not, we have a problem. This is what we have to combat.

There will be multiple opportunities (sadly) over the next few months for us to apply the burden of proof to those who would ignore it. EPA controls aren’t necessary? Prove it. Global warming isn’t man-made? Prove it. We have to be willing to challenge the Tweeter himself in class by modeling a critical review of positions and policies adopted by those role models now in power.

I can easily picture using past and future tweets as a springboard for discussions about the use of reputable sources of information. I can have students do their own digging and fighting though the fake news to find the real facts. I will convince my students that scientific problem solving is a vital part of their lives even as others would seek to teach them otherwise.

In my biology classes we will soon be discussing the Eugenics Movement in America. This is a topic that I have students explore once we have a bit of Genetics under our hats. Students know enough about the basics of heredity to be able to apply their knowledge to issues of race, poverty, immigration, and how science was used and abused in the pursuit of social engineering.

The topic of Eugenics feels especially relevant this time around, though, what with the newly resurgent alt-supremacists and Wall-builders seemingly in charge. Students have often felt threatened or confused by this unit in past years, but I suspect that there will be an unfortunate immediacy to the discussion now.

But it’s a discussion that I need to have. If your classes look anything like mine (poor, rural, 50% minority), we certainly need to equip our students to stand up for themselves using whatever tools we can give them.

Idealistic? Of course it is. But if you or I want to claim to be science teachers then we’ve already waved a banner of idealism at anyone watching. That banner says

I will teach you to think for yourself.

For that, dear reader, is the best possible outcome of all. When the tweetstorm of the current social engineers is confronted by critical analysis from our own students and they push back in constructive ways, we will have done our jobs.

It’ll be a long road to get there, but for now it is enough to just take that one step off the Edge.

Makerspaces Inside a Traditional K12 School: Challenges and Opportunities

Hi-Five Machine

 

How do we reconcile the freewheeling spirit of makerspaces with the traditional sit-and-get, control-freak management of most public schools?

Makerspaces are trendy at the moment as evidenced by articles like The ‘Maker’ Movement is Coming to K-12: Can Schools Get It Right? and The Nerdy Teacher’s new book. The Education Week article reminds us that many K-12 teachers are turning towards “making” and away from standardized curriculum and testing. I’ll be getting the book soon to see what Nick has to say as well.

But what exactly does “getting it right” look like in a K-12 setting? Should we enable student-driven learning and a “do-it-yourself, only-if-you-want-to ethos” like the Maker movement? I won’t claim to be doing it right, but I am trying out something. You can judge for yourself and perhaps take away some ideas to try.

Since 2011, I’ve been creating a makerspace in my high school that goes by the official course title “Physics” but sometimes gets referred to as “Phunsics.” Basically, I allow students to design and build whatever projects they want to, within some constraints of budget and safety. We’ve built everything from boats to rockets to Arduino-powered pianos. Students and I have had our fair share of successes and failures with the course, but it has grown immensely in popularity and I now run two sections of the course during the school day.

If you are thinking about getting onboard the Maker movement, here are the challenges that I’ve faced in building a DIY makerspace inside a traditional public high school physics course:

Lesson planning: A DIY philosophy does not co-exist with lesson plans that tell students what to make. I’ve started the year with some pre-planned projects like the Marshmallow Challenge or the Physics 500, but after the first week students are on their own and no lesson planning occurs. Instead, my role becomes that of coach and advisor and my primary job is to help with technical questions, keep students focused on their projects, provide materials, and maintain a safe construction environment for all. If your school requires you to turn in daily or weekly lesson plans, be prepared to explain why you don’t have any.

Multiple simultaneous projects: A DIY makerspace will allow students to follow their own interests. This means that with 18 or so students per class and two class sections, I’m looking at managing around 10 unique projects, and that assumes that students only work on one project at a time. Be prepared for a lot of mental gear-shifting as you help manage a diverse set of projects.

Lack of teacher expertise: I quickly found that student interests do not always line up with my strengths. This pushed me into uncomfortable territory at times. But I have had a huge opportunity to model real learning for my students as I tackled my lack of knowledge and skills along with them. A makerspace allows (forces?) you to model your skills as a lifelong learner for students. Several alumni of Phunsics have reported back that they appreciated the makerspace because they learned how to learn by taking the class.

Physical space: With 5-6 projects per class period, I have run into the lack of physical space in which to operate. This is especially true if students build a full-scale trebuchet or go-cart (been there). To solve space issues, I have had students working in no fewer than four different classrooms simultaneously (my room, chemistry/physics lab, outside, and shop). Be prepared to run around like a crazy person to keep track of where students are and what they are up to. You’ll need to think about the tools required, where they are located, and storage of the projects themselves. Chances are you’ll need to be very flexible in terms of what constitutes the makerspace “classroom.”

Behavioral issues: With great power comes great responsibility. Not all students will play nice with the departure from their normal classroom jail cell, especially if said jail cell is now spread out over two or three workspaces with one teacher. Typical teacher management strategies like busywork and pop quizzes don’t work when the content of the class is student generated. Instead, relationship-building and the occasional behavioral intervention are the tools of choice.  My general sense is that I have the greatest behavioral issues with those students who are either unwilling or unable to develop projects on their own and expect me to feed them projects. I usually deal with such situations by pointing students to Instructables and having them pick two or three interesting projects to mimic. Generally though, student groups form around one or two strong leaders that can usually pull the weight of project creation and implementation and keep everyone in the group busy. I also use the Google model of 80:20 time (80% work, 20% creative play) which works pretty well, especially when students are reminded that they are over their 20% goof off limit.

Supply shortages: A makerspace is student-driven, which means that student projects will be varied in their material needs in both consumables and in equipment and tools. From week to week, I don’t necessarily have a clue as to what materials we might need down the road for projects, because students have not communicated a need for them yet. We are in a constant cycle of brainstorming, materials purchasing, and production, and often times its the purchasing step that is the delay. If the project requires hardware and lumber then students or I can get to the local hardware store pretty quickly. But if we’re building an Arduino-powered weather station, then we are going to have to wait until parts arrive in the mail. This is especially problematic for schools like ours in a small rural town with few major stores and relatively limited budgets.

Non-traditional assessment for traditional grades: Given that my makerspace exists inside a traditional school, letter grades need to be issued to keep admin and parents happy. My grading scheme for Physics resembles an interview in that when end-of-term grades are due (and along the way for sports/activity eligibility) I ask students to defend what grade they think they deserve. They are required to explain which projects they have worked on and what their individual contribution to group projects has been. We also have a set of grade criteria that are negotiated at the beginning of the school year. This year’s grade level criteria can be found here.

Documentation of work completed:  I was challenged early on to keep everything that we do in the class as public as possible, and we’ve mostly succeeded in keeping up with our social media responsibilities. At first I kept a separate blog on the trebuchet project. Some years students have kept a class blog like https://phunsics2013.wordpress.com but lately we have moved away from blogs. We currently have a blog or two (here’s one) but the major posting of student work is happening at LJHS 3rd Hour Physics and Sausee Phyx on Facebook.

I’ve learned a lot over the years of running this makerspace and have become a much better Maker myself. While its frustrating sometimes that student motivation can be an issue even in the most student-powered course on campus, I’ll continue to keep on offering this space where students can learn how to learn. Keep an eye on our Facebook pages for details of our future shenanigans.

Student-Designed Courses: Phunsics Year 3 First Semester Recap

Previously in this space I wondered about my sanity plans for continuing to allow students to more or less run their physics class as an open workshop or maker-space. As it turns out, I did indeed decide to continue the student-designed format for this class for two main reasons. First of all, this year the physics class got scheduled for 7th hour, which is at the end of the day when students are at their most brain-dead and need to be up and moving around. The second and perhaps more important reason is that I knew most of the students coming in to the class in August and by looking at the roster, I could guess that a traditional math-based physics curriculum was going to flop. That’s no slam on these kids, they’ve got lots of talent, but I recognized that to try to do a more traditional physics prep at the end of the school day with this particular group of students would be a waste of their time.

Fortunately for all concerned, the choice to let students use their time in my class as they see fit has paid off quite well so far this year. The Phun6 students formed teams and have pursued several projects of their own choosing. However, this group has been more private in their sharing of their projects compared to the last two Phunsics classes. Instead of creating a public-facing blog, they chose to make a private Facebook Phun6 group where they’ve been updating each other and myself as to what they have accomplished.

Since there’s a bit of mystery surrounding this year’s Phun6 team, I thought I’d use this post to bring you up to speed on some of the projects that they’ve tackled this year so far:

-We have resurrected and refurbished the potato cannon from Phunsics 2011:

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-We have created a pendulum wave machine:

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-We created some conductive and nonconductive squishy circuit dough and built circuits:

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-We built model rockets and tried out a two-stage design:

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-We built V2.0 of the Phunsics quadcopter from scratch, got all 4 motors to spin up, and even got it to hop on a short flight before we killed one of the motors and most of the propeller blades:

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-Several Phunsics alumni from School of Mines stopped by to check out the quadcopter and lend a hand in determining our next steps to get it flying:

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-We built and launched a rocket-powered car (prototype shown):

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-We constructed a Reuben’s Tube for visualizing music and sound waves with fire :

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Here’s a Vine of some of the pitches tested.

-We modified the flame tube setup to run two tubes simultaneously, one for bass and one for treble. While very impressive, the bass tube pressures kept blowing out our flames:

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-We are nearly finished building an air-powered marshmallow gun:

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-We produced a video of the “12 Days of Physics” documenting our adventures (and mishaps) during the class so far:

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We might publish the video to YouTube when we get back to school in January or maybe we’ll decide to spare you the exposure to our out-of-tune guitars and amateur singing.

Looking ahead to next semester, one of the groups has plans to help a wheelchair-bound friend of ours by designing an attachment that will make it easier to connect a regular wheelchair to a power-assist Firefly unit. That project is just getting started, but has the potential to be really useful to someone and might even lead to some limited commercialization of the product if we do a decent enough job at it.

Thanks for reading, and stay tuned for what they manage to dream up next semester!

 

When the batteries die, break out the crayons

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This is a cautionary tale about what happens when educational technology fails. Of course, tech breaking down is nothing new, but reliance on technology in a 1:1 learning environment introduces some complications that you might not have thought about.

Not so long ago, I would have ranked myself up there on the list of folks who knew how to do educational technology pretty well. I had managed to score a cart of MacBooks so that each student could be guaranteed 1:1 access during class time at least, and I went about implementing some fancy new strategies like student blogging. I even got tagged to write an article in Edutopia about it in 2010, so I was doing something at least marginally interesting with technology at the time.

A year later I was able to convince my tech coordinator and principal that I could really use a class set of iPads since my hardcopy Anatomy textbooks were falling apart and there were some new apps appearing that would let my students get their textbooks electronically. When the district bought some new iPad2’s, I snagged a class set and went on to check them out to students in my own mini version of a 1:1 program for about 40 students at a time. We used the Inkling app to buy 30 copies of Hole’s Anatomy on the iPads and shelved the old textbooks, definitely a win in most #edtech circles.

Fast forward to this school year, 2014-15, in which I’ll need to use the same laptops that’ve been around in my room since 2008, but now add in the fact that our technology coordinator spent the summer closing up shop as he left for a new (less stressful and well deserved) job so no new technology hardware purchases were made nor any older units repaired. This means that several macs that I sent in for a missing key or sticky mousepad are now completely AWOL, as are several iPads that needed minor repairs, as are multiple batteries from the Macs (the removable variety) since I pulled several for disposal at the beginning of the summer.

I should also mention that I have 46 Anatomy students but only 38 working iPads and only 30 Inkling textbook licenses, so the tradition of loaning an iPad to every Anatomy student ended this year.

This is when I realize how spoiled I’ve been. I have always been able to get all the technology that I felt that students needed to learn in a “modern” classroom. But now that a lot of that technology is powerless (literally) to help my students, what’s a tech-nerd to do without technology? How does a very functional 1:1 implementation carry on when it is no longer 1:1?

We’re going old-school, of course. My Juniors and Seniors in the Anatomy class are coloring. ON PAPER (using study guide packets, and, yes, I see some irony in that after slamming packets in a previous post). We’re using a hardcopy textbook again. Its from 2004 and most are falling apart in some way.

But here’s the fun part: I think coloring diagrams of the human body has a place in an anatomy course, and I forgot that in my quest for the latest gadgets. I think students poring over a list of terms and deciding their locations in a particular type of tissue, organ, or system has a lot of merit as a learning tool. Its not that the iPad can’t do that, but I honestly rarely saw my students using the iPads that way. If you give a student a handout to help them learn about the human body, there is pretty much only one use for that handout, but if you give them an iPad, it gets a little more complicated. If you were a student with an iPad, would you choose to read an anatomy text on it instead of using one of the other thousands of apps that it could run? Maybe, if the teacher forced you to, but I never did think that forcing kids into certain apps was the best use of iPads, which meant that our fancy Inkling app textbooks went largely unused, I’m sorry to say.

This year represents a chance to take a much lower-tech approach to teaching Anatomy, a return to how I used to teach it in some ways. Oh, I’ll still use technology for the class. In fact, we’ve already got our blogs set up and will eventually set up our assessment portfolios online too, as we’ve done for the past few years. The only difference might be in the kinds of artifacts we post there. Expect to see some more coloring, and, who knows, maybe some better test scores as well.

 

To What Extent Should a Course Be Student Designed?

This post about my Physics/Phunsics class has been rattling around in my head for more than half a year now, and its a tough one. The reason it is tough is that it involves failure, and I don’t really enjoy writing about failures. Semi-clever ideas and things that work, yes. Failure, no.

Let me come right out and say it: the Phunsics class just didn’t work well this year. Or did it?

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I’ve described this class before but it is one where students have free reign to use my class time and resources to learn and pursue whatever projects they desire. I’ve been pretty intentional in keeping a maker-space approach to this class and most likely it should be labeled an engineering class in terms of what students get to do, but I’ve kept the Physics label for various reasons. If Google has the 80-20 approach, this class is more like 10-90, where 90% of the time is unstructured creative time.

Total freedom is an amazing thing. Except when its not. I received a lot of feedback on my first experiment with this kind of class from other teachers that basically said “that would never work with my students” and “mine need more structure than that.” Well guess what, this year I was the one making these comments. The class started off fine, with our brainstorming sessions and creation of a structure for the course in terms of how we would report what we were doing, but soon I found myself much more in the role of policeman than I would have liked. Many students had a lot of trouble staying dedicated to any kind of project for very long because, and this is painfully obvious to me now, unstructured creative time is self-motivated, self-disciplined time. The nature of this class demands that multiple projects are happening at the same time, often in different locations around the school building (classroom, physics lab, shop, outside) and there is only one of me to be there looking over shoulders at what is happening. If a student doesn’t feel like doing anything on a particular day they don’t have to, but, in all honesty, the occasional day spent goofing around doesn’t bother me. However, when entire weeks, quarters, and even semesters go by with nothing to show for it, that’s when unstructured creative time is clearly not working for that student.

So did I put on the brakes and change the nature of the class? Nope, because not everyone was screwing around.

Some students built a successful duct tape boat: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6mUo4eWEiRk

Another group got very far into building a quadcopter drone before technical challenges got the better of them.

But even with our successes, there were many, MANY, times that I was ready to walk into class with “official” lesson plans. At one point during the second semester I had even gone so far as to dig through my folders of physics worksheets to decide where to begin again with me in total control of what happened in class. But something always held me back. There were just enough students who were thriving with the course format that I felt that I couldn’t yank the rug out from under them.

And that’s how we got the Arduino/Pi Piano project finished, the chemistry mobile built, and the epic Rube Goldberg machine fully operational.

Piano demonstration: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N8fbXNU01HM
Kool Aid Machine walkthrough: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OUKQi7Nn5cw

So was it worth it? Does having a few successful projects mean that a student designed course was successful? Did everyone learn something, even through failures and in some cases failure to launch?

These are not just rhetorical questions, as I am teaching the Physics class again this coming school year. I have a couple months this summer to decide whether or not to scrap the student-designed class in favor of a more traditional teacher-led setup. Should my experience with a few unmotivated students be allowed to alter how I run this class? Therein lies my quandary: Physics or Phunsics?

Clearly this is a big “To Be Continued…”

Learning About Evolution in a Climate of Science Denial

This rant about learning the facts of evolution will make a lot more sense if you realize that I’m a Christian, specifically a Presbyterian, a member of the Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians (ECO). I also have degrees in Molecular Biology and Neuroscience and have studied Philosophy of the Biological Sciences at the University of Arizona. You should probably also know that my wife, recently the Moderator of the Presbytery of the West in ECO, graduated with her degree in Physical Anthropology with a minor in Geology before becoming a minister of the Word and Sacrament.

Why start off with a pedigree like this? Because I want my readers to know that I can wholeheartedly share information about the fact of evolution in my science classroom without casting one shred of doubt upon my life of faith. I want you to know that my wife has an equally easy time reconciling her job and her faith with the facts of changed and changing species and a changeable Earth. Its possible to “believe” in both religion and science.

Now to the rant: here’s an observation from 15 years of high school science teaching:

The science teachers that I’ve known seem to fall into three general categories (with apologies for pigeonholing people on a very complex issue):

  1. Classroom Evolutionists: Regardless of/in spite of/because of their personal beliefs about God and science, these folks jump in and teach the facts and theories of evolution with the understanding that evolution is a capital-T Theory and as such that means that there is a massive amount of evidence and philosophy of thought that students should engage with when learning about evolution. These are the teachers who routinely point out that there are state and national standards that support, if not require, that students learn about evolution in school.
  2. Equal Timers: These folks think that science teachers should somehow present “both” sides of the “evolution debate” in their classrooms. These teachers show the Ken Ham/Bill Nye debate in class to prove that there is indeed a debate, and that there are exactly two sides to this issue. These teachers often share alternative sources of information that usually paint the scientific community as “Darwinists” that follow “Darwinism” (which does seem to be a real religion, judging by those bumper stickers of fish with legs).
  3. Conflict Avoiders: These folks recognize that evolution is a central idea in biology, but they just don’t feel that they can accurately teach about evolution without betraying their faith or the faith of their students. For these teachers, evolution is recognized as a state standard, it is listed in the curriculum, but at the end of the year, and often the evolution unit simply does not happen as the school year runs out of time.

I’m not going to argue with the Classroom Evolutionist approach, because that’s my style. I’ve been working on the “Argue from Evidence” skill with my classes even before the NGSS appeared. If students don’t leave my biology class with at least a basic understanding of the multiple lines of evidence that the earth has changed, species have changed, and will continue to change, then I haven’t done my job very well.

I’m not even going to argue with the Equal Timers, because I can’t change their minds. Their religious beliefs are so important to them that any challenge to their perceived precepts is met with denial of the facts. I value and share their faith, but I can’t shut out the results from thousands of years of scientific inquiry into the nature of the universe and our place in it.

I am going to take issue with the Conflict Avoiders, however.

Please take the time to get educated about what evolution is and isn’t so you can feel comfortable discussing it with students from a variety of religious (or not) backgrounds. To help you out, here is your summer assignment:

  • Go check out BioLogos to help your students learn that this isn’t a two sided brawl between atheists and Christians.
  • Go read The Language of God by the nearly godlike Francis Collins, Human Genome stud and Director of the NIH.
  • For a little fiber, read Dawkins’ Blind Watchmaker to get a sense of why atheists love evolution too.

Conflict Avoiders, it is a terrible thing to let time run out on your biology class without having helped students learn the science behind species change, the “descent with modification” that continues in our lives and in all of God’s creatures. You might as well let time run out on your Earth Science class without having discussed the merits of the evidence for the human impact on global climate change.

Science deniers arise when we deny them the chance to learn about these and other core scientific principles. Let’s please not make any more science deniers. There are plenty in the world already.

Creating Google Sites for Student Portfolios: A Shared Biology Portfolio Template

I’ve received some requests recently to share the biology portfolio that I use with my students. Here’s a quick note about how to use my template to set up a Google Sites portfolio for students to use.
 
  • In experimenting with student-managed portfolios, I’ve found it best to create a Template Site that students can use to create their portfolio. If you have a set of standards for your class that you want students to reflect upon, then a template is the easiest way to make sure that those standards are part of their portfolio.
  • You’ll want to try this yourself first, especially if you want to modify my template site for your own set of standards. I’ll break this up into teacher and student instructions, which might be the same if you don’t use Google Apps for Education (GAFE).

Teacher instructions for creating your own template Site from my biology portfolio template:

The location where you publish your portfolio template depends upon whether you are using GAFE or regular Google Apps. GAFE users: I would make the template within your domain for students to find. Regular Google users need to post the template to Google’s Public templates like I did. You could even just point students to my public template if you don’t want to create your own.

  1. Log in to Google Apps (either a personal account or GAFE) and find Google Sites from the App chooser.
  2. Once in Sites, click on Create.
  3. At the top of the Create New Site page should be the option to “Browse the Gallery for More” templates. Click on this.
  4. If you are in GAFE, your district-wide templates appear first (this is usually the easiest place for you to put a template for students to use).
  5. For now though, you are looking for a public template, so click on Public>Schools and Education in the “Select Site Template” window.
  6. You are looking for a site template called “Skills-Based Biology Portfolio.”  Searching for “Biology” in “Schools and Education” templates will usually find it.
  7. Select the Skills-Based Biology Portfolio template to use for your Site. This will give you an exact copy of the site that I give to my biology students.
  8. Give it a name (which also determines the address URL) and you are ready to start editing it.
  9. Once you’ve edited the Site to your liking and you are ready to share it with students, go to More Site Options (the gear icon)>Manage Site.
  10. Under Manage Site>General there should be the option to “Publish this site as a template.” Click that.
  11. Give your Template a name and description then click “Submit.”
  12. Done! Now you have a template that students can find either within your GAFE domain or in the Public templates.

Student instructions for creating a portfolio Site from a teacher-created template:

  1. Log in to Google Apps and find Google Sites from the App chooser.
  2. Once in Sites, click on Create.
  3. At the top of the Create New Site page should be the option to “Browse the Gallery for More” templates. Click on this.
  4. If you are in GAFE, your district-wide templates appear first. Find your course’s portfolio template.
  5. Select the portfolio template that you want to use for your Site.
  6. Give it a name (which also determines the address URL) and you are ready to start editing it.
  7. Share the URL of your site with everyone who will be reviewing your portfolio.

Here’s a little screencast that I whipped up for the portfolio setup from the student’s perspective:

Setting up a student portfolio from a template

Let me know if you want me to post any of my other portfolio templates (Anatomy, Chemistry, AP Biology) to the Public templates.