Now it’s those crazy dangerous physics teachers

Here’s another sad story of hysteria used to water down science teaching. David Lapp does a simple and dramatic exercise, the ballistic pendulum experiment: fire a bullet into a block of wood, and from the masses of the two objects and the movement of wood, calculate the velocity of the bullet. That sounds pretty cool to me, and seems like a clever and dramatic way to get students to see the utility of simple math. Now, though, people are practically shrieking penal codes at the poor guy and whining about the terrible example he is setting, putting those poor school kids in danger.

“It’s just absolute madness, from my point of view,” said Feinberg, one of the founding members of the National Emergency Assistance Team, which has responded to most of the school shootings in the country. “It is not only crazy in concept, in light of the world we live in it is absolutely irresponsible.”

Guns are common objects, and a lot of the kids probably have at least one in their household. A lot of those kids have probably been out shooting: they have held a gun near their face, aimed it in the direction of a target, and pulled the trigger. They may have gone hunting with a parent, a situation far, far riskier than the controlled setting of a classroom. Mr Feinberg has no control over what they experience outside the school, and seems to have no idea of what those kids are doing in real life anyway. The virtue of this exercise is that it takes something familiar and uses it to reveal the mathematics of matter and motion.

The phrase that bugs me is “in light of the world we live in”—what world is that? One where if a teacher uses a gun responsibly as a tool, kids will be inspired to…what? Learn physics? What “irresponsible” lesson does Mr Feinberg think was taught?

Anti-science ain’t just on the Right

Here’s a controversial topic to discuss, especially for a science blogger.

Science is overrated. This is my contention.

Last night in chat I evidently hit a nerve by (perhaps not so) casually suggesting that maybe it’s not the end of the world that fewer and fewer American students are going into the sciences.

I read that first bit, and you may be shocked to learn that I’m willing to agree. There are some really good arguments to support the position. Science is hard, and it’s true that the majority of people aren’t going to be able to grasp it. We’re oversubscribed and overextended right now, too: more students are going through the science mill than can ever acquire jobs doing science. If every PI is taking on one new graduate student and one new postdoc every year over a career spanning 30-40 years…well, that’s a situation that is rather ruthlessly Malthusian. It is definitely not a practical career, either—the excessively long training period and relatively low salaries mean that, in a purely economic sense, it would be more profitable to plunge into a blue-collar job straight out of high school. It’s also not as if science is the only rewarding career of value out there, and no other work can possibly be as satisfying or productive. My own kids are all going on into non-science careers, and I say, good for them.

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Finals are over!

For my students, at least—now I just have to buckle down and do a lot of grading over the next few days.

I made my poor Human Physiology1 students suffer through a long comprehensive exam. For a lark, my son Connlann2 took the final, and I have to publicly shame him. I don’t normally publicize exam scores, but he got a mere 12.5%3 right! And he answered most of the questions that demanded a short answer with limericks. This is disgraceful; what do they teach students in those Wisconsin schools?4

1This is an upper level biology elective, packed full of pre-meds.

2Who is a freshman English/theater major at UW Madison.

3He did take some freshman biology course out there.

4I shall have to yank him out of that terrible place, and either enroll him in our superior local university or put him to work digging ditches.

Horowitz can’t count

His book, The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America, apparently only contains 100 professors. While some might argue that this is an indicator of his sloppiness, I prefer to think of it as his offering of hope: those of us aren’t in the book can now dream that we were supposed to be in there, and it was just an oversight that we were left out.

Repeat after me: I am the 101st Professor!


If you’ve been wondering where I am today, I’m dyin’ here, man. I’ve been grading freshman essays and quizzes all day long—my eyes are fiery red orbs and my brain is liquefying, but I’ve only gotten about halfway through the massive pile. This is going to be an agonizing week, I can tell…and it doesn’t help that I’m going to have to pack up in the middle and zoom down to Madison to bring my son home for the summer break (maybe I should make him grade some of these papers…).

It also doesn’t help that I put a trick question on the last quiz, one that was trivial to answer if the students had actually done the reading, but there was no way you’d guess it if you hadn’t, and 90% of the students missed it. Hey, gang, Aldo Leopold was writing about the compass plant—how many times did I tell you to read that chapter of A Sand County Almanac? There will be more questions like that from the readings on the final exam, I guarantee you that.

Now I’m all cranky as well as bleary eyed. I think it’s time for me to tune out until tomorrow, when I’ll hit these stacks of papers again.