Hug a high school teacher today!

My morning was spent at the local high school today, talking to the biology classes about the evidence for evolution. This wasn’t in response to any specific worries—in fact, talking to the instructor, it’s clear that they’re doing a decent job of covering the basic concepts here already—but that my daughter is in the class, and she thought it would be fun to have her Dad join in the conversation. I will say that it was very obliging of the Chronicle of Higher Ed to publish this today:

In a packed IMAX theater in St. Louis last month, a middle-school teacher took the stage and lectured some of the leaders in the American scientific establishment. In a friendly but commanding style honed by three decades in the classroom, Linda K. Froschauer told scientists that it was time for them to get involved in elementary and secondary education.

“Go home. Identify science teachers in your own neighborhood. Offer to help them,” she said. “Go to the board of education and speak up.”

Excellent advice! It gives an overworked teacher a brief break, lets you see what’s going on in the classrooms, makes the students a little more familiar with college faculty, and maybe it makes a few of them think and gives them a tiny bit more background. It was generally a very positive experience, although it does make me appreciate the work our secondary ed teachers have to do.

I gave a very informal lecture in which I confronted the whole ‘controversy’ about humans evolving from apes. I brought along a few transparencies and a human skull, and gave them an overview of three lines of evidence: transitional fossils, similarities in genes and chromosome structure, and “plagiarized errors”. I kept it fairly simple, using little of the technical vocabulary and defining what little I had to use, but tried to introduce some important concepts, like the taxonomic hierarchy and diagnostic characters and repetitive DNA and pseudogenes. I was also impressed that the students asked good questions, so I think they were grasping what I was talking about.

Boy, but high school teachers have a very different burden than I do. Having to give the same talk 3 times in a row is challenging—I was getting bored with me! The students also range in ability and interest far more than I’m used to…there were many who were attentive and curious (more than I’d expected, which is a very good sign), and there were some who were bored and rather disruptive (but not as many as I’d feared.) I tried not to completely neglect the troublemakers and engaged them a few times with questions, but I had it fairly easy since the regular teacher was there to hover over them and keep them in line. There’s a bit of drill sergeant rigor required in high school teachers that I don’t need at the university as much, I think.

I’d do it again, gladly…as long as I’ve got a few weeks to recover between days at the high school. The grade schools are where we have the most need to get more science into play anyway, so it feels like a productive birthday for me when I can talk to a few 10th graders. And any high school teachers out there—you’re doing an important job, and those of us up in the ivory tower of the university really do care about what’s going on in our schools. Don’t be shy about asking your local college science departments if we’d be willing to contribute in your classroom, I think there is a fair number of us who’d be happy to share our perspective.


  1. Tbernie says

    PZ, Thank You. In a couple years, at least one of the kids you spoke to today is going to be asked “why did you major in Biology?” and they’re going to remember what you gave them by taking the time to share.

  2. says

    Having taught at the HS and College level both, I can tell you that you’re dead on with the “drill-sergeant” observation. And it’s worse when you’re their regular teacher and not some “special guest”.

    And thanks for reminding me that contacting my local science teachers is on my professional development to-do list.

  3. says

    I did it once and I was exhausted after giving only two lectures in a row! I also had quite a positive experience re students’ involvement and asking smart questions – this was not an easy thing to do.

  4. says

    I learned things from some great teachers that came back to me at the strangest times, sometimes in the middle of a firefight, but were always helpful at the time (10th grade chemistry saved my ass more than once). I owe them a lot. We should pay them like we do our sports figures, at least a decent wage. There’s some good folks iin NYC schools that put their lives on the line to teach our future generations and are given far too little recognition and compensation.

  5. KEn says

    One of the best reasons to do this may be just exposing kids to scientists and showing them that we’re not that weird.

  6. says

    With the idea in mind of supporting our teachers, I introduced the following resolution at our precinct caucus:

    “Whereas ‘academic freedom’ means the liberty and the ability to distinguish data, facts, evidence, and theories from anecdotes, opinions, false claims, and agendas, be it resolved that that Minnesota science curriculum shall be guided by the standards set by legitimate scientific institutions that participate in internationally-accepted standards of the scientific method and the publication of peer-reviewed articles, and not by individuals or groups applying outside pressure to schools, school boards, teachers, students, or to students’ parents.”

    Before all said “aye,” one guy cheered. He and I are delegates!

  7. wamba says

    sometimes in the middle of a firefight, but were always helpful at the time (10th grade chemistry saved my ass more than once)

    I hope you’re speaking metaphorically.

  8. says

    Wamba, if I know The Fixer, he’s speaking literally. I’d be curious to hear the stories, though, F-man!

    And PZ, is your department (or your town) too small to have an outreach program to area high schools? I’m actually one of the coordinators for the program for my university’s chemistry department, and we do a fair amount of outreach to local high schools in under-served (read: poor) districts. I’m in a much bigger metropolitan area than you are, though.

    It’s really cool to see high school and younger kids take an interest in the chemistry demonstrations and their explanations, and I like to think that I can help make chemistry (and college) seem a little more interesting to them. To all the grade school teachers out there, PZ is right – plenty of college professors (and grad students like me) are more than happy to come talk about what we do all day.

  9. wamba says

    Science explained … by William Shatner?

    “Scientists are a strange group in that they catch glimpses of something that is mysterious and wonderful. They can’t quite put their finger on it, so they grasp at something.
    “It’s a step-by-step process. You climb on the backs of giants. Only rarely are there leaps. Scientific advances mostly are incremental. If enough time goes by, a decade goes by, suddenly, that increment, you take year one to year 10, looks like a giant leap. So here we are 30, 40 years after `Star Trek,’ and it looks like it was extraordinary, the advances we’ve made.”

    As scientists recount the ideas and inspiration they gained from “Star Trek,” Shatner struts, blusters and soliloquizes about the impact of the show, hamming it up as much as he ever did as the melodramatic Kirk.

    “I’ve always had sort of an ironic view of life,” the 75-year-old Shatner said. “My belief system is that when this is over, it’s over. That you don’t look down from heaven and wait for your loved ones to join you. There may be some soul activity, but I’m not sure about that. But what I am sure about is that your molecules continue and in due time become something else. That’s science.

  10. Will says

    Man, I wish I could have been there. I’m a 10th grader at a Catholic high school, (I, myself, am not religous.) and my teacher decided to skip teaching about evolution since it was “controversial.” But, unfortunately, you can’t take out evolution from the textbook and expect us to get it! I’m a pretty smart guy, but its like teaching trigonometry without teaching the law of sines. Shit, its like teaching trigonometry without teaching what a triangle is.

  11. says




    Explosives, and what makes ’em work, is basic chemistry, ain’t it now, perfesser? ;)

  12. says

    Oh, and if you want to read stories, get Special Operations. It’s as close to reality as I can get without calling it non-fiction. If you’re interested (and don’t feel like risking $25, email me and I’ll send a .pdf.

  13. says

    I know of what PZ speaks — in many ways.

    I have produced a PC-based molecular simulation and visualization program that I sell to into the HS and college markets. I often get asked by HS teachers in the Twin Cities to demonstrate the program in their classes and tie it into what they are teaching.

    I agree that it’s an exhausting experience.

    It’s also an exhilarating one….

    I’ve done this under

    Ideal conditions, such as at Wayzata HS, which has a physical plant equal to any small college, and an AP Chem class full of focused, serious students who followed me politely and attentively.


    Nonideal conditions, such as at North HS in Minneapolis, where you have to push your way through the metal detector on the way in.

    The latter experience refreshed my faith in the “power of the human spirit” (TM).

    The first time I did it at North, it was to a combined group of 2 or 3 chem and bio classes — about 60+ kids crowded in one classroom. About half-way through the class a couple of security guards came into the room and physically dragged a couple of students out. I guessed that it was drug-related — I was too busy and exhausted to ask later.

    On the other hand, there was a core of kids who are as bright and motivated in that room as you’ll find anywhere. Some asked me to drill deeper into the subject. Some were eager to learn more about the technical details about how I wrote the program (Did you use C++? Did you use OpenGL or Direct3D? etc.).

    There were several kids with fire in their eyes who would have stayed with me for 8 hours if I had had enough material.

    But there was one girl in particular who really made me realize why what I was doing was important.

    I bring “manipulatives” with me to relate the molecules and their behavior to real-world materials and objects (butane lighters, propane tank, motor oil, vaseline, bar of wax, HDPE milk bottle to talk about the alkanes, for example). One of the demos that I do is a molecular dynamics simlation of a box of ocatane molecules squiriming around on the screen — and I talk about octane ratings, etc.

    So, there was this one girl sitting near the front… whispering and talking to her friends, reading a magazine, etc. I try to engage kids like that by asking them questions or asking them to take a turn running the program. She didn’t respond to any of this.

    Anyway, after an exhausting hour+, the kids were filing out and a bunch came up to ask more questions. Guess who was among them?

    What was her comment?

    “The next time I fill my car with gas, I’m going to be thinking about those octane molecules jiggling around in my gas tank.”


    I walked out at the end of the day physically wiped out, with a HUGE smile on my face.

    As PZ recommends, If you get a chance give it a try. It’s really rewarding!

  14. vandalhooch says

    PZ thank you. As a high school science teacher, I really needed and appreciate this entry.

    We start Evolution as a formal unit next week. It will run throughout the rest of the school year. Informally, I’ve been trying to lay the proper groundwork. My students have been shown all the key pieces already and next week we do the big reveal. Every year, I get hammered with doubts and anxiety from my students. I work hard at building an appropriate classroom atmosphere where discussion can happen without escalating into insult. I also work to earn my students’ trust. I don’t shy away from topics and I give frank and open responses all year.

    It’s my favorite time of the year and also the most dreaded. There is always the spectre of obstinate student or parent that could pull the class into darkness, destroying the entire year’s work. So far, there have only been minor difficulties, but the threat remains.

    Vandalhooch (Mr. Rawlins)

    PS I love this site, I constantly use bits and pieces (definitely not everything) of it in my lectures and as jumping off points for student projects. Keep up the excellent work.

  15. SEF says

    exposing kids to scientists and showing them that we’re not that weird.

    But they got PZ! ;-)

  16. Ed Darrell says

    Thanks, PZ! I’m not even a science teacher, but I appreciate your coming down into this particular trench to help out.

    We had a biology professor from a local university help us out in our high school debates on pollution prevention and cleanup. What I learned there was of immense help later in working with legislatures on a wide variety of issues.

    Good on that teacher for getting you in, too.

  17. Greg says

    I understand that there is often a lot more to choosing a job than the money it brings, but I’m not sure I agree that teaching in an institution where attendence is compulsory quite merits the honors of heroism. The idea that teachers are undercompensated particularly seems open to question. Its quite a platitude, but they get summers off and have a quite good standard of living compared to a lot of other jobs. Of course if you ask a teacher they are very unlikely to agree because no one ever feels like they are making quite enough money.

    Maybe it would be good to see more basic economics in the schools as well, but then whose interest would be served by teaching that an institution that can compel its customers to accept its services and is immune from competition will tend to degrade in quality while costs rise over time?

  18. Caledonian says

    Teachers spend a great deal of that summer studying and working on next year’s lesson plans.

    They also use up a significant portion of their free time grading papers and working.

    Your objection is akin to saying that professional athletes have it easy, since they only have to work for a few hours every few days or weeks when the games actually take place. The differnece is that professional athletes fulfill no meaningful role other than mindless entertainment, and teachers are instrumental in forming the next generation of a society.

    In short, I doubt very much that you do anything that even approaches the importance of being a teacher. Buzz off.

  19. Gray Lensman says

    Teaching is the second hardest job, after parenting, if you care about the people who will inherit our mess.

    Greg should have to teach any subject in even a good high school for a year. The first time he breaks up a knife fight will cause him to be less smug, I think.

  20. Dan S. says

    “I understand that there is often a lot more to choosing a job than the money it brings, but I’m not sure I agree that teaching in an institution where attendence is compulsory quite merits the honors of heroism.”

    Think about this, Greg. It’s a point that was touched on in passing in the post. Which is going to be easier, in at least some respects: teaching a class full of students who have chosen to be there, for whatever reason (and are at least relatively mature, sorta), or teaching a class of students who have to be there, whether they like it or not?

    If attendance was optional, yes, there would be kids who still showed up, and it would be a very different experience. (In some ways I admire most the kids for whom it doesn’t come easy (quite the opposite, even), who don’t even necessarily like the material, but keep working as hard as they can, day after day after day.)

    Greg’s mistake is quite common (if no less annoying for that). When it comes down to it, in terms of really understanding what teaching is like, even knowing teachers can come in a fairly distant second to first-hand experience. As is in the case in many professions of course . . .

    My wee little hypothesis as to why people talk about/treat teaching the way they do is two-fold:
    Everyone has experience with education that is at once both first-hand and very limited. After all, that first-hand experience is from the perspective of either a child or a teenager, neither known as the most perceptive of beings. What do they see? Teachers (apparently) start working at ~ 8. They stop (barring tutoring, clubs, coaching) at ~3. If a teacher is good enough, it looks easy, even effortless. If a teacher’s bad, it looks pointless and unpleasant (and leaves a nasty affective aftertaste). Most of the work goes on behind the scenes. For many folks, their last taste of k-12 education is as teenagers – think how that affects things!

    At the same time, folks are confronted with a difficult contradiction. On one hand, we’re a great nation of liberty and justice, where everyone gets a fair shot of the American dream, schooling is an important route to successs, and were we of course work to make sure that children get a good education. And then there’s reality. The ‘teaching is easy work /can’t do? – teach!/but teachers are lazy (and teacher unions not just imperfect but eeeeevil) bit is primarily a myth that provides a way to reconcile this unpleasant contradiction beofre it makes us feel too uncomfortable . . .

    I agree with Gray Lensman – it would be amusing, Greg, to see what would happen if you actually had to teach. Perhaps you’d end up ok at it – but oh, what a shock it would be . . . .

    It’s a problem, because the ‘teaching is a super-cushy easy job’ myth lures people into teaching who then hit reality with an audible splat. *Splat!*

  21. Dennis Lynch says

    I would just like to suggest – Extra credit for undergrads who take on this kind of assignment in their senior year. Prepare and give a science lecture, basic college level stuff to one or more science classes in the state.

    One area to concentrate on is the scientific method – observation, generation of hypotheses, falsification, hypothesis testing, peer review, etc. and what it all means. Give examples of psudo science – inductive reasoning, false logic examples (God creates order, there is order in the universe, therefor there is a God – ignores disorder, ignores other sources of order, presumes existance of god)

    Just one idea