Sex ed: Too hot to handle?

“There is probably no subject that has posed greater headaches to teachers than sex education,” writes Jonathan Zimmerman in his new book, Too Hot to Handle: A Global History of Sex Education.

“And no other topic illustrates the complexity and emotion that lies at the heart of the debates about parental, local, and federal control over education,” writes Jessica Lahey in What Schools Should Teach Kids About Sex.

In many U.S. districts — and around the world — students get “a smattering of information about their reproductive organs and a set of stern warnings about putting them to use,” writes Zimmerman, an NYU professor of history and education.

I learned in sex-ed movies that teens only have sex because of peer pressure. Nobody really wants it.

Young people can go online to sites such as, which has drawn 1 billion users since its launch in 2006, notes Lahey. Here are popular recent questions.

Learning about reproductive biology isn’t enough, sex advice columnist Dan Savage tells Lahey.

We should be teaching the real things that can trip people up, things that can ruin people’s lives or traumatize them, like what is and isn’t consent, and what is and isn’t on the menu, and what are you or are you not comfortable with, and how do you advocate for yourself, and how do you draw someone out and solicit their active consent so that you don’t accidentally traumatize someone? We need to talk about sex for pleasure, which is 99.99 percent of the sex that people have, and that’s 99.99 percent of what’s not covered …

Savage analogized the state of sex education today to a driver’s education class that focuses exclusively on the mechanics of the internal combustion engine, with no mention of brakes, steering, red lights, and stop signs. “That’s sex ed in America. We hand kids the keys to the car, and when they drive straight into walls, we say, ‘See? See? If we’d only kept them a little more ignorant, this wouldn’t be happening!’”

Diversity makes it harder for people to agree about how to teach about sex, says Zimmerman. Values vary. Globalization doesn’t mean liberalization, he writes in a New York Times commentary. “Globalization has served to curtail rather than expand school-based sexual instruction.”

Dissecting a frog: When virtual isn’t enough

Dissecting a frog is a middle-school rite of passage, reports Will Huntsberry on NPR.

Students get their first look inside a frog in Rob Glotfelty's life sciences lab at Patterson Park Public Charter School in Baltimore. Will Huntsberry/NPR

Baltimore seventh graders get their first look inside a frog.
Will Huntsberry/NPR

At Baltimore’s Patterson Park Public Charter School, Rob Glotfelty’s life sciences lab contains a stack of “dead frogs, vacuum-sealed and piled five high,” writes Huntsberry. “Once those seals are broken, these leopard frogs emit a pungent odor.” And they’re slimy.

In 1987, a 15-year-old California refused to dissect a frog in her biology class and took her case to court. California and nine other states require that students be given an alternative to dissecting a real animal.

Glotfelty uses computers to help his seventh-grade students understand anatomical theory. But they look forward to dissection, he says. It’s the real deal.

“There’s something visceral and important about the real thing,” says David Evans, executive director of the National Science Teachers Association. “What does this particular organ feel like? How stiff is it? Is it compressible?”

Glotfelty’s students have cut open an earthworm, and later a chicken wing. Frogs are a step up. The teacher reminds the class what they’re studying. Not frogs. Humans.

Frog dissection diagram

Frog dissection diagram

Taylor Smith says she doesn’t like science. She thought cutting into an animal would make her throw up.

Instead, she uses tiny scissors to cut through the frog’s collarbone. Taylor and her lab partners lay the organs on a sheet of paper. “I’m not a chicken anymore,” she says. “I like this.”

“The smell was awful, but it was worth it,” says Melissa Torres-Gutierrez.

Think big — and get rid of history, chem, etc.

Dividing courses by subject matter — history, biology, chemistry, etc. — is old hat, argues Eric Horowitz on Pacific Standard. Except for English and math, all subjects should be taught as “themes that hold some of the keys to succeeding in modern society,” he writes.

The women’s suffrage movement could be part of a class on Evolution, Horowitz suggests. A class on Justice could include To Kill a Mockingbird.

A class called Evidence could touch on all areas of science, but also history, statistics, philosophy, and psychology.

Human Behavior or Relationships could be organized around novels driven by the relationships between characters, but also include content from biology or chemistry, psychology, and lessons on social-emotional skills.

Even straightforward scientific context from chemistry and physics would be better suited to courses organized around ideas like Cause and Effect or Complex Systems.

Specialization can wait till college, Horowitz believes. In high school, students should be taught how to analyze real and hypothetical situations. “What is happening and why? What might have prevented it? What are the likely consequences?”

Could history or science teachers organize and teach thematic, interdisciplinary courses?

STEM split: Women choose bio, but not physics

Two-thirds of Princeton’s molecular biology majors are female, but 76.2 percent of physics majors are male, reports The Daily Princetonian.

The most female-dominated majors for the class of ’16 are art and archaeology at 92.9 percent, psychology at 87.3 percent and comparative literature at 81.3 percent.

The most male-dominated majors are mathematics at 86.7 percent, philosophy at 77.8 percent and computer science at 77.3 percent. History, politics, sociology, classics, music — and astrophysics — are roughly even.

Students like STEM but don’t succeed

Nearly half of  students say they’re interested in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields — including health care — when they start college, but few will earn a STEM degree, according to a Complete College America report.

Forty-eight percent of recent ACT takers express interest in a STEM major, reports ACT. Forty-one percent of new four-year students and 45 percent of two-year students choose a STEM major, including health sciences, according to National Center for Education Statistics data. Four-year students favor health science, biological science and engineering, while two-year students are interested in health sciences and computer science.

Most don’t make it.

Among 4-year students, 57% of students who choose health sciences and 59% who choose computer science never complete a credential in that field.  The problem is more profound at 2-year colleges where 58% of health science and 72% of computer science students leave the program without a credential.

Those who stick with STEM complete college-level math in their first year, the report finds. Quitters don’t. They also complete few science courses.

Complete College America proposes scheduling college-level math and a majority of STEM courses in the first year to keep students on track. That will help only if students are prepared to pass college math, which many are not.

Nursing is a dream career for many young women from working-class families. Perhaps their brothers dream of being computer techs. It takes a strong foundation in math and science to turn those dreams into reality.

More try STEM majors — and quit

More students are trying — and quitting — STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) majors, reports USA Today.

Interest is up, says UCLA Professor Mitchell Chang. Persistence is not.

Many students aren’t prepared for the rigors of introductory chemistry and calculus, says Clemencia Cosentino de Cohen, a senior researcher at Mathematica Policy Research. Women are more likely to drop the major.

“If women get a B, they think they’re failing. A man gets a B, and he’s happy. They say they’re acing the class,” Cosentino says. “Women who go into hard sciences, they’re very driven, they’re very high achieving, and if they’re not performing at that very top level, they become discouraged, and they think that it is not for them.”

Tough grading in science classes leads to attrition, a 2010 Cornell study found. STEM students realize they can work less and earn higher grades in liberal arts courses.

The S in STEM has been oversold, writes Washington Post columnist Jay Mathews.

“Employers are paying more, often far more, for degrees in the fields of technology, engineering and mathematics (TEM),” College Measures President Mark Schneider wrote in his report, “Higher Education Pays: But a Lot More for Some Graduates Than for Others.”

But “evidence does not suggest that graduates with degrees in biology earn a wage premium — in fact, they often earn less than English majors,” Schneider wrote. “Graduates with degrees in chemistry earn somewhat more than biology majors, but they do not command the wage premium typically sought by those who major in engineering, computer/information science, or mathematics.”

A TEM bachelor’s degree qualifies a graduate for a good job. An S bachelor’s degree usually isn’t enough on its own, though it can be the first step to a medical degree.

Higher ed pays — for engineers, nurses

Higher education pays — for technical graduates, concludes a new study. However, “The S in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) is oversold,” the report found. Biology and chemistry majors can expect to earn as little as liberal arts majors.

64 years after failing biology, a Nobel Prize

At the age of 15, John Gurdon ranked last in his biology class at Eton. “It would be a sheer waste of time” and “quite ridiculous” for Gurdon to pursue a career in science, wrote his teacher in 1949. “If he can’t learn simple biological facts he would have no chance of doing the work of a specialist.”

Sixty-four years later, Sir John Gurdon won the Nobel Prize in Medicine for his research on stem cells.

The school report sits above his desk at the Gurdon Institute in Cambridge, which is named in his honour. It’s the only item the scientist has ever framed, reports The Telegraph.

The “blistering criticism” common 60 years ago may have been “more motivating – and helpful – than the consoling lies doled out to youngsters today,” writes Allison Pearson in Praising the school of hard knocks. The years after World War II were tough for Britain.

Telling children they were marvellous when they were bottom of the class and careless was not going to improve their chances.

By the Seventies, when I was at school, teachers were still allowed to write reports you could cut your hand on. “Allison has no interest and no ability in this subject,” observed my needlework teacher, a ferocious female with a face like a Ford Anglia. . . .

In today’s climate, Miss Harper would probably be suspended for damaging my self-esteem, even though she was absolutely right.

. . . We can already start to see where the Age of Praise has got us. Encouragement that fails to discriminate between the excellent and mediocre has been devalued. Our children have grown cocky and thin-skinned, poorly equipped to enter the global race . . .

By contrast, Max Davidson thinks teachers should encourage students, recalling that young Albert Einstein’s teacher predicted in 1895,  “He will never amount to anything.”

His daughter’s chemistry called her “a legend” when she was 15. “Her confidence rocketed – until she compared notes with her friends and found there had been five legends in one class.” Still, he prefers too much praise to dream-stomping criticism.

The Onion also takes on harsh teachers in Seeds of World War II Planted in Beijing Middle School Gym Class.

Struggling to teach science

American Educator’s new issue includes: An Evolving Controversy, subtitled The Struggle to Teach Science in Science Classes on biology teachers under pressure to teach religious alternatives to evolution; World-Class Ambitions, Weak Standards on the 2012 state science standards, and Knowing Ourselves, How the Classics Strengthen Schools and Society.

Boys dominate AP physics, computer science

Most STEM fields are likely to remain predominantly male. Boys take more AP physics and computer science exams, while girls now dominate AP biology (59 percent), notes Curriculum Matters, who’s been reading the AP Report to the Nation. While Calculus AB exam-takers are evenly split, 59 percent of those who tackle the more advanced Calculus BC are male.

Males make up 58 percent of AP music theory exam-takers, 74 to 77 percent in physics and 80 to 86 percent in computer science.

Gender differences were minor for Chemistry, European History, Latin, Statistics and U.S. Government and Politics.

In The Big Bang Theory, three males are physicists (theoretical, experimental and astro) and one is an engineer, while the female scientists are biologists.