Welcome to an American institution of higher learning

Rob Helpy-Chalk has a horrific video of a student being repeatedly shocked with a taser…for not exiting a UCLA library quickly enough. If you’d rather not listen to a hand-cuffed young man screaming in pain, you could just read the story. There are a few campus police officers who need to be sacked immediately and publicly; there are no excuses for their abuse of power.

A summary of the MnCSE Science Education Saturday

My day was spent in the Twin Cities attending the inaugural public meeting of the Minnesota Citizens for Science Education (MnCSE), and I can safely say now that Science Education Saturday was a phenomenal success: a good turnout, two top-notch talks, a stimulating panel discussion, and an involved audience that asked lots of good questions. You should have been there! I expect that, with the good response we got today, that there will be future opportunities to attend MnCSE events.

I’ll just give a brief summary of the main points from the two talks today. I understand that outlines or perhaps even the powerpoint files will be available on the MnCSE page at some future date, but give the organizers a little time to recover from all the effort they put into this meeting.

[Read more…]

Demand higher standards for homeschooling!

Spank me and make me cry. Or just read this freakin’ terrifying article about homeschooling kids. First, start with the arrogance of Patrick Henry College:

“Christians increasingly have an advantage in the educational enterprise,” he says. “This is evident in the success of Christian home-schooled children, as compared to their government-schooled friends who have spent their time constructing their own truths.” The students, all evangelical Christians, applaud loudly. Most of them were schooled at home before arriving at Patrick Henry—a college created especially for them.

Then take a look at what their truths are like.

These students are part of a large, well-organised movement that is empowering parents to teach their children creationist biology and other unorthodox versions of science at home, all centred on the idea that God created Earth in six days about 6000 years ago.

Their “advantage” and “success” is completely artificial, the product of years of gutting standards so they can cultivate these little, self-satisfied, ignorant homeschooled kids in a hothouse of ignorance…and then they need to set up special colleges to maintain the illusion that they know anything.

Home-school parents are able to teach their children this way thanks mainly to a group called the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA), a non-profit organisation based in Purcellville—like Patrick Henry College (PHC), which the HSLDA founded. In the 1970s and early 1980s, the practice was largely illegal across the US. “The mechanism that was causing home-schooling to be illegal was teacher certification,” says Ian Slatter, director of media relations for the HSLDA. In 1983 two evangelical attorneys, Michael Farris and Mike Smith, founded the organisation to defend the rights of home-school parents. They fought to remove requirements that parents be certified to teach their own children. Through an impressive run of legal battles and political lobbying, they managed to make home-schooling legal in all 50 states within 10 years. “We rolled back the state laws,” says Slatter.

At my department, we just got the requirements for state licensure of education students, and we’ve been given the task of making sure our course content delivers what future teachers will need. It’s not trivial getting licensed to teach; but any idiot can declare themselves to be a teacher for purposes of homeschooling, and apparently many idiots do.

Please. Can we bring those laws back?

…there is virtually no government regulation of home-schooling. “Some states say you need a high school diploma,” Slatter says. “But we really don’t have many problems getting people, shall we say, qualified.” In Virginia, for instance, parents need a degree to teach at home, but there is a religious exemption, so those running a home-school for religious reasons don’t need a degree. In contrast, a public high school teacher must have a bachelor’s degree, and in some states a master’s degree, plus a state-issued teaching certificate. Thirty-one states require teachers to take additional exams to show proficiency in their subject matter.

A religious exemption? A religious exemption? I call that the freedom to abuse children. This is shameful. The article talks about how, if they only get enough people to adopt homeschooling and pull their kids out of the public school system, public education in the US will collapse—and they speak of this as a good thing.

I’m serious. We need to stop this. I think any politician who professed to be concerned about educating the children of this country, by supporting the NCLB, for instance, ought to be required to support increasing the qualifications and standards for homeschooling…and if a district doesn’t have the resources to monitor the competence of homeschool teachers, they ought to simply refuse to allow the kids to be pulled out of school.

Otherwise, we’re going to increase the percentage of idiots like creationist Jay Wile in our next generation.

“Home-schoolers are going to be leaders in their field,” says Wile. “They are going to change science and how science is done.”

That’s a horribly true statement.

(via Jim Anderson)

Vote for Retrospectacle

Wow. Our very own Shelly Batts is a finalist in competition for a blog scholarship. Help out a promising young neuroscientist and Vote Shelly!

It is also an interesting turn to make blog popularity, as measured by a poll, the deciding factor in awarding a fairly substantial sum of money. I hope they’ve made the voting fairly secure.

Dang, I’ve also been contacted by one of the other nominees—you should actually look over the field of candidates and make an informed decision about which one you favor. Vote for the best blogger!

Blackboards vs. Whiteboards


I got a query about this old article of mine, which stirred up a good bit of discussion back in the day, since it is on a subject truly important to academics…so I thought I’d resurrect it and see if my more recent and larger audience can be driven to equally passionate arguments pro and con.

Yesterday’s Star Tribune has a front page article on the University’s steady abandonment of blackboards.

When Prof. Lawrence Gray enters a math classroom at the University of Minnesota, his teaching tools are his brain and a stick of chalk.

He stands at a blackboard and chalk flies over the smooth black surface, spreading strings of equations like weeds. He turns and gestures to his class, taps the board with the chalk for emphasis, swipes a spot clean with an eraser and races on.

Replace Gray’s blackboards with whiteboards or, worse, a tablet computer that projects numbers onto a screen, and you might as well tie his arms or gag him. He’s among an army of professors who want to keep their blackboards despite the university’s push to eliminate flying chalk dust that can foil today’s expensive classroom technology.

Eh. I don’t have a lot of sympathy. There is a tactile difference to chalk and dry erase markers, but I think it’s largely more a matter of familiarity and personal comfort and obstinate resistance to change that’s fueling the opposition, not anything necessary to teaching. And math in particular—it’s strings of symbols on a surface. Dry erase markers produce higher contrast, bolder lines; I would think that they would be superior to chalk, once the instructor gets used to them. I can use either, and tend to favor video projection, anyway.

Although…there is one place where I would favor the chalkboard. One of my pleasantest memories of my undergraduate education was my comparative anatomy course. I and many of my fellow students would always show up early for class, because Professor Snider would come in 10 or 15 minutes before it started, armed with his own personal box of colored chalk. And then he would start drawing. He’d sketch in these elaborate diagrams—skull bones of reptiles, birds and mammals, a hindlimb with the muscles pulled apart to show their attachments, a time-series of kidney development. One thing you can do with chalk that is impossible to do well with a dry erase marker is shading, and he’d carefully color-code all the parts he was planning to talk about that day. It was like watching a good sidewalk artist at work. And all of us students would be sitting at our desks with our collections of colored pens and pencils, filling in the pages of our notebook before he started talking, because we knew that once he started explaining things there wouldn’t be time to draw.

And at the end of class, he’d take an eraser and quickly destroy all of his work. It was a marvel. The ability to blithely obliterate a beautiful creation because one can create it quickly and at will is a real talent.

There aren’t many people around who do that kind of thing anymore, but I’d be willing to fight for the retention of blackboards to protect them.

The other thing he did that I’m really trying to work towards is that he would only have at most a half-dozen of these diagrams on the chalkboard, and that would be his whole lecture, taking apart and explaining each one in depth. In these days of easy, instantaneous page flipping with computers and video projectors, I’ll easily zip through 20 diagrams in the same amount of time. I don’t think I’m teaching better for it, though, and it’s always a struggle between teaching students one thing very, very well or teaching them a dozen things rather more superficially…which you would think should be a no-brainer decision (depth of understanding is always to be desired!), except that I’ve got a list of a thousand things I’d like them to leave the class knowing, and chopping it down to a dozen is painful enough.

What’s on your desktop?

Female Science Professor is polling her readers on what’s on their computer desktop. It’s not a weird question pulled out of thin air: she noted that male professors may be more comfortable showing pictures of their families than females, who have to be more sensitive to the stereotypes.

It’s not a scientific poll in any sense of the word, but just out of curiousity, let’s see what emerges.

My answer was “Other.” My desktop image right now is of a hypothetical cephalopod-like alien swimming in a methane sea beneath an orange-red sky. What would fit her hypothesis, though, is that my desk has a keyboard drawer that I don’t use (my office computer is my laptop), and that’s filled to overflowing with…pictures of my family.

Mixed feelings

A revised curriculum at Harvard may include a required course in religion, as Jim Downey has brought to my attention. There isn’t enough information in the article to decide how to regard this decision, though; I don’t object automatically to requiring college kids to learn to think critically about religion, and I would hope that a course at Harvard wouldn’t be anything like a tutorial in Jebus-praising at Pensacola Christian College, but who knows? The summary is impossibly vague.

“I think 30 years ago,” when the school’s curriculum was last overhauled, “people would have said that religion is not something that everyone needs to know,” said Louis Menand, a Harvard professor and co-chairman of the committee that drafted the report. “But today, few would disagree that religion is supremely important to modern life.”

In the same way that knowledge of cholera and dysentery would be supremely important to a 19th century city dweller? It sounds like any of a number of courses would fit the requirement of discussing “the interplay between reason and faith“, so it doesn’t sound like much of a change to me…except, of course, that it would be treated as a PR coup by the religious.