The Skeptical Teacher

Musings of a science teacher & skeptic in an age of woo.

Posts Tagged ‘high school’

The Real Meaning of Grades and the Importance of Standards

Posted by mattusmaximus on June 4, 2013

*Sigh*… at the end of nearly every single semester that I teach, be it high school or college level, I have to deal with the same thing over and over again: grade grousing.  After grades for the semester have been posted, it is inevitable that I have to address some kind of request from a (former – note the semester is concluded) student asking me to increase their grade.  Most notable are the requests from students who missed an excessive number of classes, failed to turn in the required work, or who performed abysmally on exams (or a combination of all of the above) – yet they feel they deserve a better grade anyway.

Rather than go on in my own words, I would like to pass along the wise words of Prof. Kurt Wiesenfeld, a physics professor at Georgia Tech (at the time the article was written) back in 1996.  These words are just as important now as they were then, and for those of us who consider ourselves skeptics and hold to high standards of evidence when confronted with extraordinary claims, I think the connection is obvious…

MY TURN

MAKING THE GRADE

© Copyright NEWSWEEK Magazine, 1996

Many students wheedle for a degree as if it were a freebie T shirt

BY KURT WIESENFELD

Kurt's PictureIT WAS A ROOKIE ERROR. AFTER 10 YEARS I SHOULD HAVE known better, but I went to my office the day after final grades were posted. There was a tentative knock on the door. “Professor Wiesenfeld? I took your Physics 2121 class? I flunked it? I was wonder if there’s anything I can do to improve my grade?” I thought, “Why are you asking me? Isn’t it too late to worry about it? Do you dislike making declarative statements” After the student gave his tale of woe and left, the phone rang. “I got a D in your class. Is there any way you can change it to ‘Incomplete’?” Then the e-mail assault began: “I’m shy about coming in to talk to you, but I’m not shy about asking for a better grade. Anyway, it’s worth a try.” The next day I had three phone messages from students asking me to call them. I didn’t.

Time was, when you received a grade, that was it. You might groan and moan, but you accepted it as the outcome of your efforts or lack thereof (and, yes, sometimes a tough grader). In the last few years, however, some students have developed a disgruntled-consumer approach. If they don’t like their grade, they go to the “return” counter to trade it in for something better.

What alarms me is their indifference towards grades as an indication of personal effort and performance. Many, when pressed about why they think they deserve a better grade, admit they don’t deserve one, but would like one anyway. Having been raised on gold stars for effort and smiley faces for self-esteem, they’ve learned that they can get by without hard work and real talent if they can talk the professor into giving them a break. This attitude is beyond cynicism. There’s a weird innocence to the assumption that one expects (even deserves) a better grade simply by begging for it. With that outlook, I guess I shouldn’t be as flabbergasted as I was that 12 students asked me to change their grades after final grades were posted.

That’s 10 percent of my class who let three months of midterms, quizzes, and lab reports slide until long past remedy. My graduate student calls it hyperrational thinking: if effort and intelligence don’t matter, why should deadlines? What matters is getting a better grade through an undeserved bonus, the academic equivalent of a freebie T shirt or toaster giveaway. Rewards are disconnected from the quality of one’s work. An act and its consequences are unrelated, random events.

Their arguments for wheedling better grades often ignore academic performance. Perhaps they feel it’s not relevant. “If my grade isn’t raised to a D I’ll lose my scholarship.” “If you don’t give me a C, I’ll flunk out.” One sincerely overwrought student pleaded, “If I don’t pass, my life is over.” This is tough stuff to deal with. Apparently, I’m responsible for someone’s losing a scholarship, flunking out or deciding whether life has meaning. Perhaps these students see me as a commodities broker with something they want – a grade. Though intrinsically worthless, grades, if properly manipulated, can be traded for what has value: a degree, which means a job, which means money. The one thing college actually offers – a chance to learn – is considered irrelevant, even less than worthless, because of the long hours and hard work required.

In a society saturated with surface values, love of knowledge for its own sake does sound eccentric. The benefits of fame and wealth are more obvious. So is it right to blame students for reflecting the superficial values saturating our society?

Yes, of course it’s right. These guys had better take themselves seriously now, because our country will be forced to take them seriously later, when the stakes are much higher. They must recognize that their attitude is not only self-destructive, but socially destructive. The erosion of quality control – giving appropriate grades for actual accomplishments – is a major concern in my department. One colleague noted that a physics major could obtain a degree without ever answering a written exam question completely. How? By pulling in enough partial credit and extra credit. And by getting breaks on grades.

But what happens once she or he graduates and gets a job? That’s when the misfortunes of eroding academic standards multiply. We lament that schoolchildren get “kicked upstairs” until they graduate from high school despite being illiterate and mathematically inept, but we seem unconcerned with college graduates whose less blatant deficiencies are far more harmful if their accreditation exceeds their qualifications.

Most of my students are science and engineering majors. If they’re good at getting partial credit but not at getting the answer right, then the new bridge breaks or the new drug doesn’t work. One finds examples here in Atlanta. Last year a light tower in the Olympic Stadium collapsed, killing a worker. It collapsed because an engineer miscalculated how much weight it could hold. A new 12-story dormitory could develop dangerous cracks due to a foundation that’s uneven by more than six inches. The error resulted from incorrect data being fed into a computer. I drive past that dorm daily on my way to work, wondering if a foundation crushed under kilotons of weight is repairable, or if this structure will have to be demolished. Two 10,000-pound steel beams at the new natatorium collapsed in March, crashing into the student athletic complex. (Should we give partial credit since no one was hurt?) Those are real-world consequences of errors and lack of expertise.

But the lesson is lost on the grade-grousing 10 percent. Say that you won’t (not can’t but won’t) change the grade they deserve to what they want, and they’re frequently bewildered or angry. They don’t think it’s fair that they’re judged according to their performance, not their desires or “potential.” They don’t think it’s fair that they should jeopardize their scholarships or be in danger of flunking out simply because they could not or did not do their work. But it’s more than fair; its necessary to help preserve a minimum standard of quality that our society needs to maintain safety and integrity. I don’t know if the 13th-hour students will learn that lesson, but I’ve learned mine. From now on, after final grades are posted, I’ll lie low until the next quarter starts.

WIESENFELD, a physicist, teaches at Georgia Tech in Atlanta.

From NEWSWEEK JUNE 17, 1996

Posted in education | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Halloween: The Perfect Opportunity to Promote Skepticism!

Posted by mattusmaximus on October 27, 2011

My favorite time of the year is almost upon us: Halloween! :D

I love Halloween not just because of the candy, the costumes, and the decorations (when else can you be a complete freak and it be socially acceptable?) but also because of the wonderful potential for promoting skepticism and critical thinking about various paranormal claims.  Let’s face it: at this time of the year, ghosts, witchcraft, psychics, and various other kinds of woo are on everyone’s minds, so why not take advantage of that fact and use it to inject the skeptical viewpoint on things?  I have found this to be a very effective teaching technique over the years, so that’s why I pass it along to you.

So in the spirit of the season (pardon the pun), allow me to share with you some links to various Halloween-ish skeptical resources that you can use, including a few of my earlier blog posts on the subject…

A Skeptic’s Halloween

Snopes: Halloween Legends

South Park Spoofs “Ghost Hunters”

Halloween Lesson, Part 1: Randi’s “Secrets of the Psychics”

A Historical Halloween & Skepticism Lesson: The 1938 “War of the Worlds” Broadcast by Orson Welles

Halloween Lesson, Part 2: The Haunted Physics Lab

Happy Halloween!!!

Posted in aliens & UFOs, education, ghosts & paranormal, humor, magic tricks, physics denial/woo, psychics, skeptical community | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments »

Educator Grants Available from the James Randi Educational Foundation!

Posted by mattusmaximus on October 16, 2011

I am happy to report that the James Randi Educational Foundation is now awarding education grants to help educators with the development and implementation of lessons and curriculum related to teaching skepticism and critical thinking skills.  Read on for more information…

… Right now, the JREF has a limited number of educator grants (up to $500 each) available to help offset the cost of developing or improving critical thinking and scientific skepticism programs in the classroom.  Preference is given to projects aimed at creating educational content related to science or critical thinking through examination of the paranormal and pseudoscience.

Funded projects can include (but are not limited to) working with JREF educational modules (and related media) or developing new content to be made available to the educational community through the JREF.

If you’re interested in working with the JREF to share critical thinking tools with your students at a time when it matters most, please reply and let me know. I’m happy to answer any questions you have, discuss your ideas for projects, and explain the simple grant application process. For more information or to apply, contact: mblanford@randi.org

Posted in education, skeptical community | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

JREF Provides Educator Grants for 2011 – Apply Now!

Posted by mattusmaximus on May 17, 2011

As a way of putting the ‘E’ in JREF, I wanted to pass along to you some info I received from my skeptical education colleague, Michael Blanford, that the James Randi Educational Foundation has opened up the application process for its 2011 Educator Grants.  These are grants provided to professional educators (elementary, middle, high school or college teachers as well as less formal educators) in the hopes that they will be able to develop and hone their teaching skills to help promote critical thinking.  Read on for more information…

Apply for 2011 JREF Educator Grants

The JREF awards grants to educators who are inspiring a new generation of critical thinkers. These grants help pay for developing and improving programs that teach critical thinking and scientific skepticism in the classroom and beyond.

We award grants to educators of children grades K-12 for projects that promote critical thinking through the examination of the paranormal and pseudoscience. Grants are not limited to traditional classroom teachers and those from museums, camps, community centers, and other informal educational institutions are encouraged to apply.

We’re accepting proposals for 2011 grants until July 1st, so please apply or share this information with a deserving educator you know. Here are the 2011 grant application forms and additional details.

So if you are an educator or know someone who is who might benefit from one of these grants, please pass the info along to them and encourage them to apply! :)

Posted in education, skeptical community | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

The Skeptical Teacher on Virtual Drinking Skeptically This Friday!

Posted by mattusmaximus on March 11, 2011

If you’ve been part of the skeptical community for some time, no doubt that by now you’ve heard about Drinking Skeptically, which is a nice way of saying “a bunch of skeptics get together in a bar and talk & drink”.  Well, in case you didn’t know, there is an online version called Virtual Drinking Skeptically, which is hosted by Brian Gregory pretty much every Friday night.  Brian often interviews prominent skeptics on his show, and the discussion is not always serious though it is always fun!  This week’s guest is yours truly – check it out :)

Special Guest: Matt Lowry – March 11, 9pm ET

Announcing “special guest”: Matt Lowry. He will be joining us on Friday, Feb 18th at 9pm ET for a few hours to answer your questions in ‘virtual’ person.

Matt Lowry is a high school & college physics professor who is dedicated to educating his students and the public about science, skepticism, and critical thinking. He blogs on these and other subjects at The Skeptical Teacher. In addition, he really likes to do wacky & dangerous physics demonstrations as a way of “sacrificing himself for science!” (Ask about him getting hammered & nailed – go on… ask)

You can take a look at a few of his crazy stunts here.

IMPORTANT: This will be an official “special guest” chat and will be run according to the these rules, so make sure to add it to your calendartest your setup for tokbox video, and get ready for an interesting evening. Oh, and put this on your calendar NOW!

Posted in humor, skeptical community | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Scientific Literacy Among Americans Is Better Than Thought… And Getting Better

Posted by mattusmaximus on February 27, 2011

Often you will hear scientists, skeptics, and cheerleaders for science lamenting the sad state of scientific knowledge among the population at large, at least in the United States.  We continually get the message that our children are not being properly educated in science as compared to other countries, and this leads to all manner of hand-wringing.  However, as some recent research suggests, it may not be true.  In fact, the state of science education and scientific literacy in the United States may actually be better than almost all other nations and – dare I say it? – getting better!

Scientific Literacy: How Do Americans Stack Up?

… according to a Michigan State University researcher, while Americans are holding their own, they are not even close to where they should be.

Participating at 3:45 p.m. PST today in an American Association for the Advancement of Science symposium, titled “Science Literacy and Pseudoscience,” MSU’s Jon Miller said that Americans, while slightly ahead of their European counterparts when it comes to scientific knowledge, still have a long way to go.

“A slightly higher proportion of American adults qualify as scientifically literate than European or Japanese adults, but the truth is that no major industrial nation in the world today has a sufficient number of scientifically literate adults,” he said. “We should take no pride in a finding that 70 percent of Americans cannot read and understand the science section of the New York Times.”

Approximately 28 percent of American adults currently qualify as scientifically literate, an increase from around 10 percent in the late 1980s and early 1990s, according to Miller’s research. … [emphasis added]

Now, I have to agree that an adult scientific literacy rate of 28% is unacceptable, especially at the beginning of the 21st century.  However, the fact that we started out at around 10% in the late 80s (yikes!) and have almost tripled the scientific literacy rate gives me some real hope for the future of our species.

Also, to put things into perspective, I’d like to show you one of the charts from the research paper (the original paper is available in PDF format here)…

So what has led to this almost three-fold increase in scientific literacy in the United States?  There could be a variety of factors at play here: better secondary and post-secondary education in science and related fields, the rise of the Internet, the increasing visibility of pro-science groups such as the National Center for Science Education and the James Randi Educational Foundation, etc.  Personally, I wouldn’t be surprised if all of the above had some influence on these results, and while it isn’t enough progress for my liking, at least we’re moving in the right direction :)

Posted in education, skeptical community | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Halloween Lesson, Part 2: The Haunted Physics Lab

Posted by mattusmaximus on November 4, 2010

If you recall, last week I posted the first of two skeptical lessons with a Halloween theme to them, and now I share with you the second one: the Haunted Physics Lab. I cannot take credit for this idea, as I borrowed it years ago from my colleagues in the American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT). What I did differently is to add a number of skeptically-oriented twists to it, such as why Ouija boards don’t work and why “ghost-hunters” are full of hooey when they claim EMF meters are detecting ghosts.

But don’t take my word for it, take it from an article by a local news outlet that interviewed me and some of my students about the Lab :)

Haunted Physics Lab Stirs Lake Forest Students’ Interests

Mix in the spirit of Halloween with some physics concepts and learning occurs.

By Jim Powers | Email the author

Jenna Schmidt considers herself to be a logical person.

So on Halloween, the Lake Forest High School senior walked into physics teacher Matt Lowry’s classroom dressed in a gorilla suit last Friday.

Compared to the rest of the advanced placement physics students in her class, she blended right into the backdrop. For the past six years at the end of October, Lowry has transformed his classroom into a Halloween-themed dedication to the world of physics.

Carrying her gorilla head in one hand, Schmidt took a look around the classroom and noted, “There is a lot going on. Usually it’s just one lab, but this is a lot to get through. It’s a lot of different types of physics topics.”

Lowry created 37 stations, each one devoted to a principal of physics from a Theremin which creates some of the eerily, high-pitched creepy sounds from horror movies to optical illusions to even disproving the aura of an Ouija board. …

I especially like how the article ended:

… Many students have seen an Ouija board before, but it’s hard to tell if it holds the same prominence it once did for slumber parties. Lowry’s station tests the opposing forces of magnetic fields using a magnet and a magnetic board underneath the Ouija board. Remove the Ouija board and the magnet and magnetic board continue to oppose one another.

“The demonstration is specifically set up to not only demonstrate a good physics concept about electro-dynamic induction, but it also shows the Ouija board does nothing,” Lowry said.

Crushing news for the spirit world.

Epic win :D

Posted in education, physics denial/woo | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Creating Skeptics: Why Every Kid Should Have a Teacher Like Matt Lowry

Posted by mattusmaximus on May 22, 2010

I wanted to toot my own horn a bit and repost a wonderful account of my recent talk at the Center For Inquiry Chicago titled “Teaching Freethought: How to Create a Skeptical Kid”. The account comes from Alan, a.k.a. the Jewish Atheist, who was in attendance at the event.  Alan’s other musings regarding myth, magic, and how easily believers allow themselves to be fooled are worth considering.  So, with that, I refer to you to Alan’s post…

Creating Skeptics: Why Every Kid Should Have a Teacher Like Matt Lowry

May 18th, 2010 by Alan

“Science, I maintain, is an absolutely essential tool for any society with the hope of surviving well into the next century with its fundamental values intact — not just science as engaged in by its practitioners, but science understood and embraced by the entire human community. And if scientists do not bring this about, who will?”

Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World

“We must trust to nothing but facts: these are presented to us by Nature, and cannot deceive. We ought, in every instance, to submit our reasoning to the test of experiment, and never to search for truth but by the natural road of experiment and observation.”

Antoine Lavoisier

Matt Lowry is the teacher you wish you had (and some of us were lucky to actually have had), be it in physics or literature. In Matt’s case it is physics, which he teaches in high school and college in Lake County, IL. I recently attended, in Chicago, his Center for Inquiry presentation on how he cultivates skepticism in high schoolers, through science.

His scientific knowledge is hugely impressive, as are his demonstrations – walking on burning coals, broken glass; lying on bed of nails – which powerfully hook kids on curiosity and skepticism. He teaches them Carl Sagan’s “Dragon in the Garage” analogy and lets them draw their own conclusions.

At Halloween he stages an interactive Haunted Physics Lab (including demonstration of the magnetic forces that make the Ouija Board seem to work), once again teaching kids that all magic is done by someone just a little smarter than you.

His high school students come from various religious backgrounds. Some actually believe the world is only a few thousand years old. Some come away enlightened (“My grandmother should hear this – she’s really into that Bible stuff”), others with only a seed of doubt planted. As Matt says, you cultivate wonder and skepticism and “take what you can get.”

I’ll come back to Matt’s clientele later (and remember, they’re somewhat self-selected — lots of kids stay away from physics classes; it takes an outstanding teacher to bring them in)….

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in skeptical community | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Teaching Freethought: How to Create a Skeptical Kid

Posted by mattusmaximus on May 6, 2010

Okay, shameless plug time :)

On Sunday, May 16th, I will be speaking to the Center For Inquiry Chicago on the topic of freethought, skepticism, and education.  Basically, I’ll be talking about my experiences as a science teacher & skeptic and how to promote critical thinking among high school & college students…

Teaching Freethought: How to Create a Skeptical Kid!

Sunday, May 16th 1-4pm
Location: Our usual place: Room 613 (behind elevators), University Center East building, 750 S. Halsted (UIC campus), Chicago

Teaching Freethought: How to Create a Skeptical Kid!with Matt Lowry, high school teacher and skeptic at large

Matt spends a lot of his in-class time teaching the art of meaningful skepticism to high schoolers.  He will give us some insight into his method of doing this!  He will also share his view of the many challenges that both science teachers and their students face when confronted with religious objections to the pursuit of scientific objectives.

Today’s presentation will be a stimulating follow-on to our recent day-long conference, “Dangerous Nonsense: Exploring the Gulf Between Science and its Impostors!”

Matt Lowry is a familiar face to many CFIers in Chicago. He is a high school physics teacher in the north suburbs, a part-time physics and astronomy college professor, and emphasizes critical thinking among his students at every opportunity. When away from the classroom, he also serves as the president of the North Shore Illinois chapter of Americans United for the Separation of Church & State, the leader of an online pro-science group titled Darwin’s Bulldogs, and the leader of the Vernon Hills Freethinkers meetup group.

A self-described skeptic, he believes in Carl Sagan’s adage that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence!”  He blogs at: http://skepticalteacher.wordpress.com/

Please come to this most interesting AFTERNOON meeting!  We provide the hot coffee, and we very much appreciate pastry and snack donations.

Non-CFI Members will be asked for a modest contribution.

Questions? Just call our (part time) office phone: 312-226-0420

Posted in education, skeptical community | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Evolution Banned from a Band Shirt in Sedalia, Missouri?

Posted by mattusmaximus on September 1, 2009

It seems that this story has been getting a lot of attention, so I wanted to mention my thoughts about it here.  Apparently, the band director designed (intelligently?) some shirts depicting the “evolution of a trumpet player” which didn’t sit too well with some creationist parents in the district…

**Aside: Dr. Steve Novella has a very interesting take on this situation over at the Skeptiblog.  Check it out!!!

That’s it… that’s the shirt that is “too controversial” for some overly uptight parents to have their kids wear?!  You’ve got to be kidding me.  As the article states:

Assistant Band Director Brian Kloppenburg said the shirts were designed by him, Band Director Jordan Summers and Main Street Logo. Kloppenburg said the shirts were intended to portray how brass instruments have evolved in music from the 1960s to modern day. Summers said they chose the evolution of man because it was “recognizable.” The playlist of songs the band is slated to perform revolve around the theme “Brass Evolutions.”

The band debuted the T-shirts when it marched in the Missouri State Fair parade. Summers said he was surprised when he received a direct complaint after the parade. While the shirts don’t directly violate the district’s dress code, Assistant Superintendent Brad Pollitt said complaints by parents made him take action.

Oh please, I cannot even begin to describe how inane all this is… so I’d better get started on it.  After venting my spleen about the stupidity of the situation, and the general spinelessness with which the school administration handled it, I shall pass along a constructive solution to this mess [hat tip to Dr. Kiki Sanford at The Bird's Brain blog :D ]

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in creationism, education | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments »

 
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