Purdue welcomes new students with a dose of religious privilege

Going off to college is an exciting time. For many students, it’s the first time in their life that they’ll be far away from friends and family. That independence is awesome, but it also means you’re trying to awkwardly adapt to your new home, make new friends, and fit in. Universities often try to make this process as painless as possible, but my alma mater Purdue University missed the ball when they sent this email to incoming students (emphasis mine):

Welcome from Religious Student Organizations

You are about to become a Boilermaker – Congratulations!  This is an incredible place, not only to continue your education, but to experience all that the university has to offer through the plethora of student organizations.  We want to encourage you to think about growing in your spiritual life as well.  There are around 40 different religious student groups that offer places for worship, prayer, study, conversation, and fellowship, as well as opportunities to put faith into action through service opportunities, mission trips, and faith-based initiatives.

Please go to our website: www.campusfaith.info where you will find links to student ministries and organizations that are non-denominational, Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, Jewish, Muslim, ecumenical, etc.  You’ll also have opportunities to meet several faith groups during Boiler Gold Rush.  Groups will be at:

–Activities Fair: Tuesday, August 14, 11:00 am-1:00 pm, in the Armory
–Faith Fest: Saturday, August 18, 4:00-5:00 pm, on the Memorial Mall

Welcome to Purdue.
University Religious Leaders and Religious Student Organizations

========================================
Sent from the Office of the Dean of Students on behalf of the University Religious Leaders and Religious Student Organizations

Anna Biela, current President of the Society of Non-Theists at Purdue (the group I founded!) perfectly sums up why this email is inappropriate:

The Society of Non-Theists finds it highly inappropriate for a public university to endorse religion in such a way. We feel that incoming freshmen should not be pressured into joining a religious institution, especially not by the university itself. Rhetoric of this variety is alienating to non-religious students and can make them feel like outsiders before they even set foot on this campus.

And this has made at least one non-religious student feel like an outsider. The student who brought this email to my attention wishes to remain anonymous (I can’t imagine why in Indiana), but had this to say about how the email made them feel:

I was taken aback that this was one of the few emails chosen to be sent to all incoming students. Why not “Welcome from *all* student organizations”? The choice to send this email presumes that all incoming students are interested in spiritual growth; worse still, it tacitly implies that spiritual growth corresponds solely to organized religion. Overall, the email gave me the distinct impression that Purdue will not be a welcoming community for a student more likely to worship Carl Sagan than any deity.

That’s why this email is such a perfect example of religious privilege. It automatically assumed that spirituality is 1. Something everyone is interested in 2. Important and good 3. Worth promoting over other things. You don’t see the Dean of Students sending out emails to incoming freshmen on behalf of the Purdue Progressive Coalition. At the very least they could have been more inclusive by including an option for the non-religious students, or sending out an email for clubs in general and listing major themes (Academics, Activism, Religion, etc). But positively promoting religious groups alone is a type of endorsement that is inappropriate for a public university like Purdue.

I know some of you are probably thinking “Who cares? Who is this really hurting? Suck it up!” But I can tell you first hand how awful it feel to be a religious outsider, especially at Purdue.

Annual pro-life demonstration at Purdue, because all aborted fetsuses are Christian

When I came there, I felt like the only non-Christian on campus. I was constantly getting religious advertisements from groups in my mailbox. People were always asking me where I went to church, and some literally would stop talking to me and briskly walk away when they found out I was an atheist. Campus preachers were common. Students from Christian groups spot lonely freshmen in the dorm common rooms and offer up friendship if you’d just come to their Bible study. They prey on the desperation of lonely homesick students to convert them (which unfortunately happened to a good friend of mine).

The hand of God creating life…a piece of art in our Biology building

I co-founded the Society of Non-Theists to combat this notion that everyone on campus was religious, and to provide a safe place for students who were not. We’d get people screaming at our tables saying we’re going to hell. As President, I received hate mail. At graduation, I was treated to a choir repeatedly singing “Amen.” The one time we tried to use a public display case, it was vandalized.

By sending that email, Purdue has effectively labeled non-theistic students as “others” in an environment where they would already be ostracized.

Anna tells me the Society of Non-Theists will be meeting with the Dean of Students on Monday to address these issues and discuss making campus more inclusive in the future. I’m optimistic since the Purdue administration has always been fair to our group in the past, and I don’t think this email was sent out of malice toward non-religious students. But I do think they were unaware of the religious privilege they were promoting, so it’s good someone is pointing it out.

Fixing Math Education – or – How I Learned to Stop Lecturing and Love the Common Core Standards

This is a guest post by Mark Webster, continuing his tradition of guest posting for me during Blogathon. He is a graduate of Purdue University from the School of Science in the field of Mathematics Education and is currently a High School Mathematics Teacher in Indiana.

Please note that the author is representing general trends and personal experiences of a trained educator combined with popular evidence-based practices.  By no means is this exhaustive.  Please do not be butthurt. If you have evidence-based practices that conflict with anything I have said, please feel free to leave a comment.

There has been a lot of discussion on the problems in education, in general, but never do you hear a bigger cry for change in any other subject than you do in Mathematics.  Perhaps it is time to analyze the problem and line up some solutions.*

Who are the problems in Math Education?

Teachers are certainly not the only problem, but when deciding to figure out the problem, it’s always best to start inward.  In this post, I will be looking at what teachers need to focus on.

In our schools, there is still a lot of passive learning going on.  What is passive learning, you may ask?  Let me answer your question with another question:

When you imagine a math class, what do you think of?

Probably something like this:

**

A teacher, facing the board, not interacting with his students.  Many of us, myself included, have had experiences like this.  No teacher-student interaction. No checks for understanding.  No eye contact.  Perhaps, even more pernicious, there may not even be an analysis of the learning and long term progress of students.

Direct lecture-style math classrooms create an environment of passive learning.  The teacher says a bunch of words at the front of the board; maybe, if he is a more dynamic teacher, waves his arms around a little bit; and then throws quizzes and tests at you. (Multiple, if you’re lucky—on the college level, there is rarely regular assessment…but that is neither here nor there.)

Even worse, the math classroom suffers from a lack of student metacognition and critical thinking—an ailment in a math classroom that baffles me to no end, particularly because that is, more often than not, the go-to excuse that teachers trot out when a student asks them “When are we going to use this?”

Rarely is the question asked, “Is our children learning?”, the answer to which is, more often than not, either “No.” or “Not well enough.”  Now it is time to move beyond that question to “How can we help them to learn?”

How will the Common Core Standards help?

One of the country-wide initiatives that will be taking hold in the coming years, the transition to which will be complete in 2015, is called the Common Core Standards.  While there are standards for Math and English, for obvious reasons (Hint: I’m a math teacher) I will be only talking about the Math standards.

1. Stricter Math standards for the USA.

If you look on the national report cards, you might notice grades for the states are changing. Of the 50 states, only six of them have not bought into the common core standards.  If you or your children are students in any state besides Washington, Alaska, Texas, North Dakota, Nebraska, or Virginia, you will have (hopefully) heard of the change.  A common set of standards across the country will mean that students are learning with the same level of rigor and relevance in Indiana as they are in New York or Mississippi.

2. Increased focus on Critical Thinking

In my professional development and my own personal research on the PARCC exams, I’ve come across the same thing over and over:  The standardized tests of the past will not go away, but they will be refocused.  Instead of fifty “Math Problems” on a test, the student may be given five or six “Math Tasks.”  These tasks may involve, on the elementary school end, explaining the purpose of a step within a problem that they have completed for you, finding errors in simplifying a problem down and explaining what the error is, or even taking a newspaper article and analyzing it to take a position, using evidence.  Instead of focusing on finding an answer, the test will be concerned with how they can apply math to that answer.  How wild!

3. Broader, more targeted learning objectives

Most state standards and assessments have, in the past, been far more focused on students simply demonstrating their knowledge of a process, i.e. “Plot these two points and determine whether the slope is positive or negative.”  Common Core standards are far more broad and far more targeted.  Much like the National Counsel of Teachers of Mathematics standards, the Common Core standards concern themselves with specific domains of learning and applying them to metacognitive tasks.

Now, instead of plotting those points on the exam; they may, instead, be given a question that asks them to analyze, display, and track profit margins for a company and take a position on whether or not they will be able to afford to stay open in five years.

The accountability is changing from teaching mathematical processes to teaching thought processes. I approve of this, but does this really address the problems that we have seen above? I don’t think so.

So…How Do We Do This?

There are many champions of new processes within the Math Education community.  Many of you have heard of Salman Khan and his famous Khan Academy, fewer of you have probably heard of Dan Meyer***—some Math teachers even haven’t (A fact which breaks my heart.), and I’m sure even less of you know about the conflict of pedagogical styles that lies between them.

Let’s break them down:

Dan Meyer’s pedagogical philosophy, a project that began as WCYDWT? or What Can You Do With This? and has slowly morphed into something he calls Any Questions? is designed as a student-centered, inquiry-based, generally collaborative effort to force students to lead the discussion and gain ownership of the material by creating the payoff in the medium used to teach the material; and, instead of spoon feeding them concepts, force them to push through a mathematical task and create the demand for the material.

Salman Khan’s pedagogical philosophy, a project that began as a series of youtube videos, has become a website, and some might say a school, of its own.  The Khan Academy allows students to develop on their own, facilitates continuous improvement for the students at their own pace and on their own terms, and allows for constant pedagogical moderation.

Math teachers and parents alike have raised concerns about the methodologies that these two men have created.  Dan Meyer critics fight him because they believe his philosophy creates a lack of rigor.  Salman Khan critics fight him because his videos do just as much lecturing as one might see in a classroom, and do nothing to enrich and create ownership of the material.

Even with the miles of space between their two philosophies, it is worth the time to compare them and see a similarity:

These philosophies depend on a consistent foundation of what has come before.  The genius of Dan Meyer’s method lies in the students being able to work through the tasks because they are absolutely prepared to tackle it.  The utility of Sal Khan’s method is that because students get to a topic on their own terms, they are prepared to see it and they can meet it head on.

Without constant analysis and moderation of our students’ learning, we cannot teach to our fullest potential.  If we leave students by the wayside because we don’t know where they are, we have put a student in a hole that they may not be able to escape from.

*I’m by no means the first nor am I the most qualified person to look at this.  We’ve been overhauling since before I started teaching, but one more eye on the problem can’t hurt. Even if I’m not saying anything new, informing new people can’t hurt. Right?

**http://www.canyonville.net/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/Math-Class-620×270.jpg  Disclaimer: This picture is not necessarily an indictment of this teacher.  It is a photo that I found on the internet with a teacher that had his back to the classroom.  The fact that it took me about five minutes to find one is encouraging to me.

***Full Disclosure: I worship the ground upon which this man walks. The classroom ideal he has created is my personal mission.

This is post 28 of 49 of Blogathon. Donate to the Secular Student Alliance here.

How would you reform education in the US?

Sometimes I wish that when it comes to the institution of education in the US, we could just wipe the slate clean. I know that’s impossible, and that you have to work with the existing infrastructure and culture to make gradual progress. But if I could start from scratch and design a new educational system, these are some of the things I’d do:

  1. Raise teacher pay. I’m sure everyone here has had both wonderful and shitty teachers. One of the ways to reduce the number of terrible teachers isn’t to evaluate their performance of those of their students…but to actually pay them what they’re worth. Teachers are training our entire population how to think, yet they often have to work extra jobs just to pay the bills. I know too many people who were passionate about teaching and would have been wonderful teachers, but they went into other fields because they didn’t want to get paid diddly squat. We need to make the job more inviting to the best and the brightest by making it competitively priced.
  2. Less standardized testing. Standardized testing is basically bullshit. It doesn’t accurately measure intelligence or your likelihood of succeeding in college or your career. The only thing you can glean from looking at someone’s scores is their socio-economic status. Kids from rich areas with supportive families do much better than kids living in the ghetto with families who can’t even feed them. Hence why evaluating teachers based on their students is ridiculous. It discourages teachers from working in schools that need good teachers the most, and penalizes teachers who happen to get assigned lower level classes instead of the brightest honors students.
  3. Fail more people. Our country has become so obsessed with crap like “No Child Left Behind” and statistics that it’s forgotten the main point of education: To learn. Instead schools are constantly lowering their standards in order to graduate more students, lest they lose government funding. A high school diploma used to mean something. Now a college diploma doesn’t even assure you’ll get a job. Hell, people with biology PhDs have  a terribly bleak job market. We need to make these things mean something again. If you can’t read past an 8th grade level and can’t do basic algebra, then you should have to repeat the 8th grade.
  4. Promote vocational training. If you want to drop out of high school at age 16 because you know you’re going to be a chef or mechanic, then more power to you. We need to remove the stigma from people who have interests and passion and skill that’s not best used on memorizing Shakespeare (while obviously keeping the Shakespeare for those who want it). Lower the social pressure that says you need to go to college in order to be successful…since it’s simply not true.
  5. Teach how to think, not just memorizing facts. We have people who are college graduates without the slightest grasp of logic or the scientific method. People who can regurgitate the dates that wars occurred but not the politics behind why they occurred. People who can blindly follow instructions but who freeze up when encouraged to be creative or come up with their own plan. Science classes should be more about the process, and art classes should be embraced to foster creativity.
I’m sure I could come up with a million more improvements, but those are the ones that pop into my head first. How would you reform education?

This is post 21 of 49 of Blogathon. Donate to the Secular Student Alliance here.

Support Freethought Blogs by helping teachers and their students

Donors Choose is an amazing charity that helps fund projects for public school classrooms across the US. The fact that we need such a charity to make sure our children receive a proper education is depressing. Some classrooms, especially in areas with high poverty, don’t have the money to provide supplies as basic as pencils for their students – students who are on state subsidized lunches which may be the only decent meal they get all day. Others want their students to experience the same inspiring projects – like dissections or growing your own garden – as affluent schools, but need extra help. Donor’s Choose vets the projects to make sure they’re not a scam, and you make a donation to improve the education of these young students.

This cause is especially important to me for two reasons. One, both of my parents were teachers (they’re now retired). My dad taught high school history and special ed in a Chicago public school for 38 years, and my mom taught middle school art for over 30 years. I know they always went above and beyond for their classroom, and I can only imagine how much they spent out-of-pocket for extra supplies to enrich their teaching experience. Two, I was lucky enough to attend a very affluent school system. I want all students to have the chance to have the same experiences I did, because I know those experiences shaped me into a freethinker, a scientist, and a thoughtful human being.

It’s also a bit of a competition. All of the science blogging networks are competing against each other. Let’s show places like Science Blogs and Scientopia that Freethought Blogs is the awesomest! Or show the other Freethought Bloggers that Blag Hag is the awesomest of the awesomest – you can donate using the widget over at the top of the right column.

I’ve hand-picked the projects because they have some sort of personal meaning to me. You can donate to whichever fits your fancy, but in case you’re motivated by my reasoning, read on:

  • Building a Community of Learners Through Mosiac - Like I mentioned, my mother was an art teacher. Art is a huge part of my life, and it truly enriched my learning experience. I found it helped me with science, too – it made me a creative thinker, helped me plan ahead (art projects aren’t always spontaneous!), and gave me graphical abilities that really helps when it comes to presenting your research. This project is also near my home town in Indiana.
  • Science Olympiad Rocks! - Science Olympiad is an academic competition that I competed in for 4 years, and later volunteered for when I was in college. Students participate in events ranging from tests on genetics, to building a bottle rocket, to forensic investigation. SO was some of the most fun I had in high school, and was one of the main things that motivated me to become a scientist.
  • Fetal Pig Dissection - I’m not going to lie. When I was in AP Biology, the Fetal Pig Dissection grossed me out. But looking back I recognize how valuable it is to have hands-on science experiences like this. Life isn’t something you can learn by just staring at a text book. Bonus: It’s a class of all girls, and we need more lady scientists!
  • Women and Hands-on Science - Speaking of lady scientists… Heck, do I even have to explain? More lady scientists. MORE!
  • Help Deserving Student Have a True Biology Experience - Time to dissect some frogs! I still remember mine – it was full of eggs.
  • The Magic of Math - Help another all-girls classroom fall in love with mathematics. I wish I would have had something like this when I was younger – I grew up hating math because I was so frustrated while learning it. Maybe if someone had taken a chance and tried a different teaching method like this teacher is doing…
  • Let’s See - This classroom goes on monthly nature walks – how awesome is that?! Help make their trips more awesome by providing them with magnifying glasses and microscopes, so they can get extra close in their explorations.
  • Encouraging Girls to Excel at Mathematics - You know the drill.
  • You Spin Me ‘Round - Dude, this classroom wants to perform its own polymerase chain reaction! I didn’t do PCR until after my freshman year of college. Having hands on experience with genetic fingerprinting will hopefully show these students how awesome genetics is. It’s not just about Punnett Squares!
  • Drosophila Genetics - More awesome genetics experiments! This time the kids get to breed their own fruit flies and look for mutants. MUTANTS! What high schooler doesn’t want to do that?
  • Grow With Science - Okay. Sometimes I harp on how plants are boring. But this was the ONLY proposal on the whole site to mention “natural selection.” I feel like we should reward this teacher so they can have their garden for evolution experiments! Bonus – they’re in Seattle!
  • Those Genes Look Good! - Genetics is a hard concept to understand. You can’t exactly see genes with the naked eye. I know models helped me understand concepts, so help these kids understand too.
  • Evolution Literacy - A primary school teacher who understands the importance of evolution? FUND THIS CLASSROOM STAT!
  • Leaping Lizards! - This classroom in Indiana wants to raise anoles to help them learn about the scientific method. I wish I learned about the scientific method using a tank of cute lizards.
  • Manipulate This! - This classroom is from my home town in Indiana, and they want hands on tools to learn about math. Math didn’t start to click for me until my 5th grade teacher whipped out little cubes and pawns we could manipulate to balance equations. Some of us our visual learners!
  • Highlight Your Learning - Last but not least, this teacher has created a Writer’s Workshop to encourage a love in writing in their students. As a blogger, how could I not support this? It’s also one of the neighboring towns from where I grew up.
Again, you can use the widget to the right or go here to donate. Donations are open until October 22. Thanks so much for helping out!

Indiana does something right for a change!

They’re no longer requiring students to be taught cursive writing in public schools. Instead, students will learn to be proficient at typing.
The smug 5th grader in me wants to write my former teacher and say, “Ha! So much for ‘You need to know this if you want to get into college. You’ll have to use cursive every day there!’” Preferably I’d write it in cursive, to illustrate how my cursive handwriting still looks like that of a 5th grader thanks to never using it.

Anyway, congratulations Indiana on this progressive achievement. Now, if only you’d join us in the 21st century in regards to other issues. You know, little things like women’s health, gay marriage, fair teacher pay…

(Via Joe My God)

Another quarter has started

Which means I’ll be geeking away with new classes!

Proteomics – This will be interesting, mainly because I know nothing about it. Well, I mean, I know what proteins are, but I’m not familiar studying them in a large-scale way. We’ll see how it goes.

Introduction to Statistical Genomics – Just an introductory statistics course, so it shouldn’t be too bad. I heard it’s pretty similar to what I took in undergrad, so it’ll mostly help me actually remember what I once learned.

Science Communication – I’m really excited about this class! It’s about communicating science to the general public through science journalism, blogging, and public speaking – could I have found a better class for me? I’m taking it as an elective since it’s offered through the Communication Department instead of Genome Sciences. It should be a blast, and hopefully improve my science blogging abilities!

I also have our “Journal Club” training class – basically prepares us to give a less sucky presentation to the department later in the quarter. I’m not too worried since I’m a sick, twisted person who does public speaking for fun, so it should be alright.

Nifty new video about the Secular Student Alliance

I command you to watch it. And if my decree is not enough motivation, you should totally watch it because it has cameos by Richard Dawkins, Brian Dalton (Mr. Deity), and Hemant Mehta:

While watching this video, I realized yet another thing that makes the Secular Student Alliance so awesome. Out of all the people featured, I have only not met one, and that was the guy from Africa. And out of the rest, I consider the majority friends rather than acquaintances, and some of them as very close friends. So not only did the SSA help make my club at Purdue a success, but I’ve personally made connections that I’ll have for a lifetime.

I’ve come a long way from thinking I was the only atheist out there. Thanks, SSA!

Purdue to host intercollegiate Quidditch tournament

Why do all the awesome things happen after graduation?!

Purdue University is hosting an intercollegiate Quidditch tournament from 10:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday (Oct. 24), just days before the world debut of the final Harry Potter film, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.”

The Hogwarts-looking Windsor Halls will serve as the backdrop as caped contestants chase gold-clad human snitches and launch balls through custom-made hoops, all while dashing around on broomsticks trying not to be leveled by bludger-bearing beaters.

Several colleges will send players, including Purdue, Ohio State, Loyola University Chicago, Illinois State, Ball State, Bowling Green State University, Carthage College, Miami of Ohio and Transylvania University. Purdue’s invitational tournament is scheduled for the same week as the DVD and Blu-ray release of “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” Ultimate Edition, the movie in which Harry and Ron Weasley attend the Quidditch World Cup.

JEALOUS.

Of course, if the Harry Potter universe was real, my complete ineptitude in gym class would probably translate over into not being able to fly at all. Though if Ravenclaw can still have a decent team, maybe not all magical nerds are unathletic.

…*geek*