Tag Archives: education

It’s amazing how difficult it is to get students to define a ‘fact’

ThumbTacksOver the years, I’ve found this idea to be much more slippery than I would have ever expected prior to teaching. As a biology teacher, these distinctions are incredibly important – along with the constant reminder that even ‘facts’ are slippery, changing things. Katie Schellenberg, JD, MA offers, in her recent Edutopia article, ways to establish rules for discussion.

Her article approaches this problem broadly by establishing a number of steps. Here, I focus on just two:

From “Fact, Feeling, and Argument: Helping Students Tell the Difference

Require Evidence

Even when you are discussing hot topic issues, make sure that evidence is required. This is a classroom, not a session of psychotherapy (although it can sometimes feel like that). When discussing particularly dicey issues, remember the importance of citing evidence for every declarative statement.

Explore the Difference Between Fact, Feeling, and Argument

Each about these three concepts and instill argument skills in your students to equip them with the abilitiy to “defend” each.

For example, ask questions to clarify if the student is asserting a fact, a feeling or an argument. How do we know it is a fact? A fact is a specific detail based on an objective truth. A feeling or an opinion is a value judgement that can neither be proven nor disproven. An argument is a way to utilize facts to validate your opinions, it can be considered a fact-filled opinion.

One major difference I see between our views is the ‘provability’ and implied ‘immutability’ of facts. As I said above, I see ‘facts’ as conclusion about evidence as we see it today. I think she has a more absolute view of facts than this.

Galaxies, galaxies everywhere - as far as the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope can see. This view of nearly 10,000 galaxies is the deepest visible-light image of the cosmos. Called the Hubble Ultra Deep Field, this galaxy-studded view represents a "deep" core sample of the universe, cutting across billions of light-years. The snapshot includes galaxies of various ages, sizes, shapes, and colours. The smallest, reddest galaxies, about 100, may be among the most distant known, existing when the universe was just 800 million years old. The nearest galaxies - the larger, brighter, well-defined spirals and ellipticals - thrived about 1 billion years ago, when the cosmos was 13 billion years old. In vibrant contrast to the rich harvest of classic spiral and elliptical galaxies, there is a zoo of oddball galaxies littering the field. Some look like toothpicks; others like links on a bracelet. A few appear to be interacting. These oddball galaxies chronicle a period when the universe was younger and more chaotic. Order and structure were just beginning to emerge. The Ultra Deep Field observations, taken by the Advanced Camera for Surveys, represent a narrow, deep view of the cosmos. Peering into the Ultra Deep Field is like looking through a 2.5 metre-long soda straw. In ground-based photographs, the patch of sky in which the galaxies reside (just one-tenth the diameter of the full Moon) is largely empty. Located in the constellation Fornax, the region is so empty that only a handful of stars within the Milky Way galaxy can be seen in the image. In this image, blue and green correspond to colours that can be seen by the human eye, such as hot, young, blue stars and the glow of Sun-like stars in the disks of galaxies. Red represents near-infrared light, which is invisible to the human eye, such as the red glow of dust-enshrouded galaxies. The image required 800 exposures taken over the course of 400 Hubble orbits around Earth. The total amount of exposure time was 11.3 days,

Galaxies, galaxies everywhere – as far as the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope can see. This view of nearly 10,000 galaxies is the deepest visible-light image of the cosmos. Called the Hubble Ultra Deep Field

As an example of what I mean by this:

Prior to Edwin Hubble’s examination of the Andromeda Nebula, no galaxies outside of the Milky Way were known. So, in the early 20th century, one could state as a fact that the Milky Way was the extent of the (at least matter-filled) universe. Today, we see this ‘fact’ as dated and supplanted by more recent evidence.

However, our solution is the same: Require Evidence.

I’m thinking specifically about discussions that emanated either from our reading of Neil Shubin’s “Your Inner Fish” or just the way that I commonly discuss molecular biology, which adheres pretty closely to Theodosius Dobzhansky’s central thesis from, “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.” The American Biology Teacher, March 1973:

Are theological principles facts? What about when they are brought up in the classroom as alternative “theories” of life? Interestingly, when I’ve asked for support for these ideas, I’ve been presented with Ken Ham‘s extensive publications for ‘Answers in Genesis.’

Honestly, I could have gone on all semester with this discussion if I had the time for it. This student introduced such a cornucopia of ideas to run with:

  • What is a reliable source?
  • What is good science?
  • What is evidence?
  • How do we interpret evidence?
  • How do we compare or decide between competing interpretations of the same data?

My head almost exploded in excitement about getting down to brass tacks. Fortunately or unfortunately, these ideas have been discussed ad nauseam over the years. On the one hand, a wealth of data was easily found to support or refute any number of claims, on the other, it was impossible for this discussion to ever find new ground.

In the end, we discussed evolution and creation for longer than I think is strictly appropriate in a science classroom, but I felt the conversation was justified in the sense that my students could benefit more from learning about how science is done than they could from knowing details of Kreb’s Cycle (but don’t worry, I taught that too).

If any of you reading this are teachers, have you had these conversations before (not necessarily about evolution, but just about separating opinions from theories, and how to form valid and true arguments, etc. )? If so, please let me know here what you discussed and how it went. I’d love to hear others’ experiences.

Leave a comment

Posted by on August 20, 2015 in Uncategorized


Tags: , , , , , , ,

A Farewell to Teaching?


I’m taking time away from teaching – at least for the Fall Semester –  to pursue new opportunities closer to Kansas City. (to which we recently moved house).

Teaching has been something enjoyable that I always wanted to explore, and when we moved from Philadelphia to Paola, Kansas in 2009, a terrific opportunity presented itself. Over the past several years I’ve taught:

  • General Biology
    • My bread and butter course. The more I taught it, the more I liked it and felt good about the story arc I had with it
    • First half of semester: The Cell and its workings
    • Second half: Reproduction, Genetics, and Cancer
  • Microbiology
    • I always thought that I disliked this class, but I think I enjoyed it, I just never felt great about pacing and felt like I was doing the helminths a disservice.
    • I approached this class for a molecular angle through the survey of life, then from an immunologist’s perspective to finish off
    • One of my favorite elements of this class was following an epidemiology sketch that put my students in charge of running a good analysis and containment of outbreak. I would love to include more about John Snow and the origins of epidemiology if I could
  • Medical Terminology
    • This class was a bust. I used it every day just to crank up for Patho, but it’s hard to generate a narrative about what is essentially a semester long vocabulary list
    • I think I would have liked this if I ever got a good handle on how to make it interesting; I love language, and etymology, but how do you fill an hour and a half with it?
  • Population Genetics
    • This was the smallest, most undefined course I’ve taught. We covered a number of topics including:
      • making relationship maps from DNA sequences
      • exploring allelic frequencies
      • looking at survival strategies

      This was a lot of fun and probably the most low-pressure class I’ve ever taught. It was more like a graduate seminar.

  • Pathophysiology
    • This is the core class that my nursing students needed.
    • I was leery of teaching it because it is not where my background was strongest, but it is interesting and I found myself spending hours filling in background for myself.I would be willing to bet that after a few more semesters it would be my favorite class to teach.

The big question now is: ‘What next?’

If anyone knows anyone who would hire an Immunologist / Molecular Biologist / Educator  / With interest in developing coding skills, please point them in my direction.



Posted by on August 15, 2015 in Uncategorized


Tags: , , , , , , ,

strutting and fretting

ImageI just signed up to take the Praxis exams on Biology and Chemistry. These are content knowledge exams for those who are interested in teaching these subjects at the High School level. I’ve been teaching biology for several years and have been immersed in it for about fifteen years before that, so I’m not terribly worried about that one (although I may need to read up on some botany, as I largely ignore it in my classes – my apologies to any botanists out there.) Despite some low-level understanding of chemistry and familiarity with organic chemistry, it does worry me. There’s a lot of potential information to cover and I have about three weeks to get re-acquainted with the subject.

Why am I doing this? A good question. Because adjunct teaching is neither fulfilling (you never feel a part of something, but merely an add-on), nor rewarding (financially).

-Whoa! Wait a minute, doc. You’re not seriously thinking of teaching in a High School as a way to get paid well, are you?

No. Just paid.


Kansas has what it calls an ‘alternative pathway’  to a ‘restricted’ teaching certification. It’s designed for professionals with strong backgrounds in math and science, and are interested in a career change to teaching.

It’s heavily advertised on the radio here (at least on NPR, the non-profit, public radio station). However, most school administrators I’ve spoken with are unaware of the program.

Further, I’ve also heard that taking on educators with restricted licenses means that these teachers cannot qualify as

In order to get into the program (in addition to the classes you’ve taken in the subject’s content), you have to:

  • pass these Praxis exams to prove you actually do know the content and not just a dusty piece of paper from University.
  • Find a school that needs you
  • Get that school to provisionally hire you
  • Enroll in a program to earn your certification while you teach.

So far, I’ve signed up to take the exams and found a school that is willing to entertain the idea of taking me on so long as I can teach both biology and chemistry.


What is not entirely clear to me is whether these restricted licenses are considered ‘full’ licensure. The ‘No Child Left Behind’ Law requires all teachers to be ‘Highly Qualified’ and then defines that as:

Highly Qualified Teachers: To be deemed highly qualified, teachers must have: 1) a bachelor’s degree, 2) full state certification or licensure, and 3) prove that they know each subject they teach.

ImageCurrently, I am proceeding under the understanding that these programs do talk to one another and that the restricted licensure will not leave someone unable to meet federal demands.

1 Comment

Posted by on June 1, 2014 in Uncategorized


Tags: , , , , , ,

Numbers – and Other Obfuscations (corrected)

ImageI’m afraid this is going to be something of an incomplete post.

Yesterday, on the local NPR station, several Kansas State Legislators were questioned about plans for this new year. One question that did elicit some discussion concerned the State Education Budget. Here in Kansas, there is some debate about the budget (not unlike the rest of the country). One specific item was how the state was budgeting for education. Currently, there is a dispute where schools are challenging the legislators in the courts over insufficient budgeting.

This is a big mess because now the Judicial branch is hearing a challenge about financial matters that are clearly within the jurisdiction of the Legislative branch – but this is not what interested me.

My interest was piqued when one Legislators were asked about whether they felt that the school budget was sufficient or not to meet educational standards. One Kansas Congressman (I don’t know who because information regarding this show is not yet available online) responded that Kansas is among the top 4 states in funding education. He then quickly added that this was based on the percentage of total State Budget going to Education.

In graduate school, a statement like this would bring a conversation to a halt. ‘What does that mean?’, ‘Is percentage of state budget an appropriate way to gauge spending?’, ‘what does it translate to in absolute numbers?’, ‘What is the best way to measure education spending?’, ‘How can we compare this to other states / countries?’, ‘Are these comparisons important? i.e. does spending correlate to results?’

I could go on for some time on just this question.

The only thing to do is to go find the real answers, which might lead into muddy water. What numbers should we even look for? I think the best place to start is to consider what the standard is for comparison between schools in terms of budget. The most common and apparently sensible answer to this is to look at spending per pupil. This should normalize other variables fairly well – who cares what the actual state budget is? I don’t even care what the educational budget is. If we were going to ask what dollar amount is sufficient to feed a school full of students, we would want to know whether we are feeding 1000 kids or just 10. Admittedly, there are economies of scale, but at least this gets us somewhere.

I got my numbers from National Center for Education Statistics. Also note that the data I found were from 2010, so a little ways back, but necessary if we want to make any comparisons. Using this site’s data, we can immediately see that Kansas ranks 26th of the 50 states in terms of spending per pupil. This is not exactly top 4, but that’s not to say the legislator was lying, just using numbers to his advantage.

Does it matter how much we spend on education? To answer that, we have to look for some data on school performance, grouped by state, from 2010. Luckily, there is a Pew-funded study that does just this giving us a fairly simple number grade from 1-100 (100 being best). I’m not sure if this is the best way to do this, but for a back-of-the-envelope it’ll suffice.

Using these data together, I grouped the states in order of spending per pupil and graphed that against the state’s grade provided by the Pew report. This gave a pretty predictable looking graph.


I had hoped to see something definitive, but despite the trend, the line these data make, gives an r-square value of 0.2. This is the number that tells us how predictive our line will be in the future as well as how well it accounts for the data presented.

This raises the question of whether we should have confidence in the line or not. In this case, r2 = 0.2 means that this line accounts for only  20% of the data. We would like to see this number as close as possible to 1.0, the number indicating that the line fits 100% of the data points and we should be confident of its predictive power.

Here, I have to admit that I am not a dyed in the wool numbers guy. I wish I was, but my faculty with math is weakening with each passing year since my undergraduate studies. I’m going to have to do some investigating into what we can interpret from these data. The trend is clear, the significance of this trend is not.

(Note – this post was corrected, I initially posted it with an incorrect conclusion due to late night foggy thinking)

Leave a comment

Posted by on January 7, 2014 in Uncategorized


Tags: , , , , , , ,

A cute video about the beginning of time

From the Ted Ed site:

“How did the universe begin — and how is it expanding? CERN physicist Tom Whyntie shows how cosmologists and particle physicists explore these questions by replicating the heat, energy, and activity of the first few seconds of our universe, from right after the Big Bang.”

Lesson by Tom Whyntie, animation by Hornet Inc

Leave a comment

Posted by on June 24, 2013 in Uncategorized


Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Release of ‘The Curse of Sisyphus’


The Curse of Sisyphus

The Curse of Sisyphus has been released and is available on the iTunes iBookstore. To celebrate the release, this, and its companion volume, The Thirteenth Labor of Heracles are both free until Sunday.

Zeus is not one to be trifled with. And Sisyphus has been a thorn in his side, defying him at every turn, yet escaping every punishment with uncanny cunning. But this time, the mortal has gone too far and Zeus has a special punishment befitting Sisyphus’ persistence.

The Curse of Sisyphus is the tale unlike others you may have heard about him before. Here you can find out exactly how Sisyphus defied Zeus yet again – and learn about the physics of motion, gravitation and orbit at the same time.

Leave a comment

Posted by on June 13, 2013 in Uncategorized


Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

A suggestion and a request

As you can see from my previous post, my general bio class has been delving into the molecular mechanisms of replication, transcription and translation. All of these processes were worked out in the latter half of the 20th century following the publication of DNA’s structure by Watson and Crick. Because Watson and Crick’s work was so seminal, it seems reasonable for me to make a couple of book recommendations relating to that work. ImageThe first is The Cartoon Guide to Genetics.  With a title including the word ‘cartoon’, it is tempting to dismiss this book, but you would be doing yourself a disservice. This is one of the most clearly written genetics books you can ask for. Despite the apparent simplicity, it is surprisingly thorough. I am presently considering making this book required reading for a genetics / ecology course I am planning.

Another book is James Watson’s The Double Helix. This book is short and an easy read, yet it puts you right in the center of the Imageaction – both scientific and personal – that surrounded the elucidation of this molecule’s structure.

This brings me to my request… As I mentioned above, I am working on a new course which will act as a second semester to my current general bio class. The main topics of this class will be inheritance, population genetics, the dynamics of populations and how all this informs our knowledge of evolution. I have a couple ideas already, but I thought I would open this space up to accept any suggestions the peanut gallery may have. If you have a book that you like that was a good read and brought up some interesting conversations, let me know and I’ll check it out.

Leave a comment

Posted by on April 30, 2013 in Uncategorized


Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,