When we weren’t scared of chemistry

“In their mid-20th century heyday, chemistry sets inspired kids to grow up to be scientists,” writes Wired. “Intel founder Gordon Moore, for example, credits a chemistry set with sparking his lifelong interest in science (not to mention some pretty neat explosions along the way).”

Vintage chemistry sets show how attitudes toward science have changed, says Kristen Frederick-Frost, a curator at the Chemical Heritage Foundation Museum in Philadelphia.

In the early to mid 1900s, there was growing optimism that science could solve many of the important problems facing the world, Frederick-Frost says. Chemistry kits reflected this enthusiasm, featuring what was new and exciting at the time: Plastics! Atomic Energy! Outer Space! It was common for the box of a kit to feature both an image of a young boy playing with the kit and an image of a scientist in his lab—the man the boy would grow up to be. “It’s about much more than chemistry, it’s about creating the ideal citizen through play,” she said.

Modern chemistry sets are obsessed with safety, writes Wired. “In one 1996 kit from the museum’s collection, the tiny vials of chemicals are just big enough to accommodate prominent warning labels.”

Another kit . . .  boasts on the box that it includes no chemicals. One reviewer mocked it as an “astounding oxymoron of a product” (to be fair, it does use chemicals, just ones you acquire for yourself in the form of household materials like vinegar and baking powder).

Some are trying to bring back more exciting chemistry sets. A Kickstarter campaign is funding “heirloom chemistry sets” modeled on a kit sold in the 1920s through 1940s, reports Wired.  “A competition sponsored in part by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation awarded $50,000 to a Stanford bioengineer who invented a a hand-crank chemistry kit.”

The Chemical Heritage Foundation has released a free iPad app called ChemCrafter that shows how to build a virtual chem lab and blow things up on screen.

It sounds . . . safe.

Honor student expelled for science project

A chemistry-loving, cello-playing honor student was expelled and charged with two felonies for her science project. Kiera Wilmot wanted to demonstrate a chemical reaction simulating a volcanic eruption. The Florida girl was charged with bringing an explosive device to school and discharging it.

She is a good kid,” said Bartow High School principal Ron Pritchard. “She has never been in trouble before. Ever.”

Kiera was sent to an “opportunity center” with easy classes and no homework, she wrote in the Huffington Post.

Prosecutors dropped the charges, but it will take five years to clear her record. That could interfere with her dreams of earning a degree “in technology design and engineering.” She wants “a career building robots that can do tasks like surgeries or driving cars.”

Opposition to “zero tolerance” policies continues to grow, reports Reason. The School Discipline Consensus Report  by the Council of State Governments Justice Center recommends scaling back suspensions and expulsions “handed down by school administrators over minor and even accidental rule infractions.”

Chemistry is no joke

Paris Gray’s yearbook quote reflected her mastery of the periodic table: “When the going gets tough just remember to Barium, Carbon, Potassium, Thorium, Astatine, Arsenic, Sulfur, Uranium, Phosphorus.”

That’s “nerd code” for: “So, when the going gets tough, just remember to [Ba][C][K] [Th][At] [As][S] [U][P].” (I’d bet she was a Breaking Bad fan.)

WSB-TV

When Jonesboro, Georgia school officials figured it out, the class vice president received an in-school suspension, was banned from the senior walk and was told her graduation speech would be canceled.

“Basically, it was me just saying start all over again,” Gray told the local news station WSB-TV.

A 1999 song by Juvenile, Back That Azz Up, has a somewhat different message, perhaps best translated by me as “I admire your posterior.”

After the story went viral, Gray and her family met with the school’s principal and the superintendent, who said she will speak at graduation after all.

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.

Fordham: New science standards need work

Next Generation Science Standards are coming fast. Public comment on draft 2.0 just ended. The final version is due out in March. Then states will be urged to adopt NGSS, as most did Common Core State Standards in English and math. It’s too soon, advises Fordham, which has been reviewing state science standards for years. “This important, ambitious, but still seriously troubled document” needs more work, write Checker Finn and Kathleen Porter-Magee.

In an effort to draft “fewer and clearer” standards to guide curriculum and instruction, NGSS 2.0 (like NGSS 1.0) omits quite a lot of essential content. Among the most egregious omissions are most of chemistry; thermodynamics; electrical circuits; physiology; minerals and rocks; the layered Earth; the essentials of biological chemistry and biochemical genetics; and at least the descriptive elements of developmental biology.

. . . Real science invariably blends content knowledge with core ideas, “crosscutting” concepts, and various practices, activities, or applications. . . . (But) authors have forced practices on every expectation, even when they confuse more than clarify. For example, high school students are asked to “critically read scientific literature and produce scientific writing and/or oral presentations that communicate how DNA sequences determine the structure and function of proteins, which carry out most of the work of the cell.” Here as elsewhere, the understanding of critical content—which should be the ultimate goal of science education—becomes secondary to arbitrary and peripheral activities such as “critical reading” and “oral presentation.”

Appendices explain “what is and isn’t present and why,” but the structure is “complex and unwieldy,” Finn and Porter-Magee write. “Will a fifth-grade teacher actually make her way to Appendix K to obtain additional (and valuable) information about science-math alignment and some pedagogically useful examples?”

Science students won’t have to learn much math, leading to “dumbing down,” especially in physics, they fear. And the “assessment boundaries” will ensure that students aren’t challenged.

The new standards don’t require chemistry labs, complains Harry Keller, a chemist. The word “chemistry” is never used, though “chemical reactions” can be found under physical sciences. Without labs.

Physicists also are dissatisfied, reports Ed Week.

Why we flipped chemistry class

Flipped Classrooms Are Here to Stay write two teachers who flipped chemistry classes at their Colorado high school. Jonathan Bergmann and Aaron Sams recorded lectures and told students to watch the videos as homework.

Our students were on a block schedule, meaning they had 95 minutes of class time every other day. Every other night our students watched one of our videos—either online, from a flash drive, or on DVD—as homework and took notes on what they learned. We conducted laboratory experiments during class just like we had always done, but instead of rushing through the lecture and setup to get to the actual hands-on work, we were able to use the entire period to conduct in-depth scientific experiments.

“Flipped” students earn higher scores on tests, they write.  Teachers can give more attention to struggling students in class. At home, “students can watch the instructional videos as many times as they need to, pausing and rewinding to take notes or read Powerpoint slides at their own pace.”

 As flipped teachers, we spend our class time answering questions, monitoring experiments, probing deeper into the content, and guiding the learning of each student individually.

Sorry, that story is subscribers’ only on Ed Week Teacher. Here’s another version that’s open to all.  Bergmann and Sams are the authors of Flip Your Classroom: Reach Every Student in Every Class Every Day.

I wonder: Would flipping work as well in other kinds of classes? If students won’t read the textbook, will they watch an instructional video?

Chocolate science is a motivator

Colorado students are studying the chemistry and biology of chocolate — including determining the DNA fingerprints of different cacao beans — at a summer camp hosted by the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. Most are entering eighth or ninth grade.

Chocolate was the key ingredient in labs and work sessions that covered forensics, thin-film chromatography, spectroscopy, DNA fingerprinting, robotics and cyber sleuthing.

. . . Students used tools such as microscopes and liquid chromatography equipment in situations that many college students don’t handle until a few years into their coursework.

“The Case of the Recipe Rip-off” focused on solving the fictional disappearance of a prized chocolate recipe. The story including feuding companies, counterfeit candy and even a murder.

Students enjoyed field trips to Patsy’s Candies and Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory. When I was in school, our only science field trip was to Volo Bog. No wonder I ended up as an English major.

The Center for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math Education designed the program with the chemistry and biology departments, and the UCCS Center for Homeland Security, reports The Gazette. Homeland Security? Are the terrorists trying to contaminate our chocolate?

Appreciate a teacher today

In honor of Teacher Appreciation Day, the 2011 teachers of the year were invited to a reception in the White House Rose Garden. President thanked them for their service and remembered his fifth-grade teacher, Mabel Hefty, who helped him adjust to school in Hawaii after several years in Indonesia.

Michelle Shearer, an AP chemistry teacher at Urbana High in Maryland, is the 2011 national teacher of the year.  A teacher for 14 years, she previously taught chemistry and math at the Maryland School for the Deaf. Shearer earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry at Princeton.

On her application, she writes that “chemistry is for everyone,” not just college-bound students or high school students.

The teaching of chemistry can begin in a preschool classroom with household materials, as young students marvel at the bubbles, color changes, and visual “magic” inherent to chemistry. High school students demand to know, “What does this have to do with me?” I display a collection of random household items (sunscreen, laundry detergent, motor oil, shampoo, etc.) across the tops of cabinets as a constant reminder to my students of the practical role chemistry plays in their lives.

My favorite teacher was Mr. Parker in fourth grade, but I also remember Miss Anderson, who taught Great Books in high school. Come to think of it, my chemistry teacher, Mr. Carmichael was excellent too.

10,000 math, science teachers, but how?

President Obama wants to recruit 10,000 new math and science teachers over the next two years to improve STEM achievement in line with an advisory council report.  The feds will develop “a new website and a partnership with Facebook to connect current and aspiring teachers,” reports Education Week, based on Secretary Arne Duncan’s conversation with Tom Brokaw on MSNBC.

In other words, Obama isn’t offering federal money to pay the salaries of new hires — or fund the early retirement of poorly qualified math and science teachers. He’s not talking about a federal bonus to lure chemists, physicists and mathematicians into teaching or jawboning districts to offer differential pay to teachers with hard-to-find skills. It’s a web site and a Facebook account.

Before the recent wave of layoffs, many middle and high schools, especially those in high-poverty and high-minority areas, have hired math and science teachers who didn’t major in the subject, Education Trust complains. I suspect the recession has increased the supply of well-qualified people interested in teaching math and science. Whether they’re able to get jobs is a different story.