The Skeptical Teacher

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

Archive for June, 2013

Announcing the NEA Science Educators Caucus

Posted by mattusmaximus on June 28, 2013

If you are into public education, you might know that one of the largest teachers’ unions in the nation is the National Education Association (NEA).  Every year, the NEA holds what is called a Representative Assembly (RA) in order to discuss internal matters, lobbying issues, and whatnot.

NEAImage source

I was amazed to find out a few years ago that creationists have successfully infiltrated the NEA, because a colleague of mine who was our representative at the RA that year reported to me that creationists had a pretty strong presence in the vendor area of the RA.  *facepalm*

Well, I am happy to announce that there is now an effort among science teachers within the NEA to push back.  The NEA Science Educators Caucus is officially forming this year, and it is hitting the ground running by organizing at this year’s RA in Atlanta.  For more information on them, and to get involved, read the following information from Toby Spencer, co-chair of the group, and consider connecting with them at their Facebook page…

First, thanks for  committing to help improve science education in our union, in our classrooms, and in the legislature!  And thank you for your patience over the past school year, I know many of you are very interested in furthering our goals and spotlighting our most important issues. I’ve waited to email the group until I had good news to share…

AMAZING news, actually!  Colleen Keenan (CA) succeeded in convincing the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) to sponsor an Expo Booth this year in Atlanta!  NCSE will be staffing a booth for two days before the RA sessions begin.  They want our ideas!
Furthermore, we will have two NCSE speakers at our caucus meetings!  Dr. Eugenie Scott, NCSE Executive Director, will address us on July 1st at 4pm in our first caucus meeting.  She will focus on the legalities and politics of evolution.  On the following day, July 2nd, Dr. Minda Berbeco will speak to us about climate change, her area of expertise.
Drs. Scott and Berceco are asking us to give them some direction both for the exhibit booth and their talks.  Could you please reply with your suggestions.  We know evolution/creation brought us together, but we have an opportunity to expand and further our agenda this year.
Speaking of creation (!), we need to write a constitution and bylaws  this year, allowing us to elect officers.  We should create a budget and probably establish a nominal dues structure.  All your input will be appreciated.
I’d like to invite each of you to join our Caucus Facebook Group.  Please find us at  The facebook page is for any and all things, serious or funny.  Please join and post to the caucus page to say hi or to make suggestions.
We’ll likely need volunteers for the NCSE booth and for caucus operations.  Please be thinking about how you can help.  Any bright ideas to spark interest in our cause or in our caucus meetings? 
Please try hard to make our caucus meetings on the 1st and 2nd of July.  These are before the RA session days, so we won’t be crunched for time.  I’ll update you with meeting room location(s) when I receive them.  And bring a friend:  we are in membership GROWTH mode.  
Again, thank you for your patience and support.  Please send your ideas my way or post them to the facebook page.  I’ll be in touch soon.
And here is more information specifically on the caucus meetings that Toby mentioned…
Hi Everyone! I’m excited about our caucus meetings, NCSE speakers and booth, and membership drive this year. Our room assignments are in: July 1st @ 4-5:30pm in room A405 SectA and July 2 @12-1pm also in A405(A). We’ll have guest speakers from the NCSE both July 1+2. Please come! Then we switch rooms to B309(B) for the four days of the RA–those meeting times are 9-9:30am and at breaks. I’m sure we won’t need to meet every day of the RA, but that’s up to you! I’ll also email this info to the group. And if you’ve read this far…the ribbons are coming this week!
If you are a member of the NEA and you value solid science education in our public schools, please consider getting involved in the Science Educators Caucus.  If defenders of science education don’t stand up, then the creeping influence of creationists will go unchecked, and they will have a disproportionate voice on matters of importance to us.
Once more, here’s their Facebook page.  Look them up and get involved!

Posted in creationism, education | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Supreme Court Strikes Down Prop 8 and DOMA, Religious Right Collectively Loses Its Sh*t

Posted by mattusmaximus on June 26, 2013

Well, if you haven’t heard the news, here it is: today the United States Supreme Court (SCOTUS) struck down the discriminatory Prop 8 law in California outlawing gay marriage and aspects of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) which denied federal benefits to married same-sex couples.

**Applause!** 🙂

I applaud because, at it’s heart, these discriminatory laws are purely religiously based; that is, they have been pushed by those who wish to impose their particular religious belief upon the rest of us.  The religious right whack-a-loons want to use their narrow view of religion as the law of the land; in short, they wish to impose a theocracy here in the U.S.

If you have any doubt that the motivations behind these anti-gay laws are not rooted in fundamentalist religion, just look at the reaction of one of the biggest religious right-wing groups out there, the American Family Association, wherein they claim that this decision will lead to God’s judgement/wrath:

And everywhere I’ve looked so far, pretty much every religious right outlet is having the same reaction…


Of course, now that the religious bigots have lost in the courts, watch them start to get even crazier in the states. Expect to see different laws proposed placing more restrictions on gay couples getting married, “pro-family” laws, and similar nonsense. In short, the religious right is going to head into meltdown mode over this, but then they will only hasten their own collective demise because as they get ever more extreme and crazy, they will increasingly marginalize themselves from civilized society.

Posted in politics, religion | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Creation Museum Running Out of Cash and Going Extinct?

Posted by mattusmaximus on June 23, 2013

[**Update (6-25-13): It seems this blog post has come to the attention of none other than Ken Ham himself, who runs the Creation Museum.  If you are interested, you can read his response on his Facebook page.]

In an interesting, though not very surprising, development, it seems the Creation Museum in Kentucky is running out of money.  And it seems the problem is that, like creationism itself, there is nothing new or different about the exhibits at this “museum”. The irony is that Ken Ham and other creationists claim the Creation Museum is doing scientific work which proves creationism to be true, yet since the place opened 5 years ago nothing has changed and no new “creation science” research has appeared.

Creation_museum_triceratops_saddleNo actual scientific research, but your kids can “ride a dinosaur” just like Fred Flintstone did!  No wonder these morons are going out of business. Image source

My skeptical colleague Donald Prothero over at breaks this down into more interesting and revealing detail…

… In an earlier post, I discussed the decline in attendance and loss of money from Ken Ham’s “creation museum” in Kentucky. Now eventhey must pay attention to the problem, since the declining attendance has put a crimp in their budget and brought the fundraising for their “Ark encounter” to a standstill. Their problem, as I outlined before, is that their exhibit is 5 years old now and has not changed, so most of the local yokels who might want to visit it have done so. There’s no point to making the long trip and seeing the expensive “museum” again if there’s nothing new to see. (Unlike real science museums, which must change exhibits constantly not only to boost repeat attendance, but to reflect the changes in scientific thinking). As Mark Joseph Stern wrote on

“There could be another explanation, though. A spectacle like the Creation Museum has a pretty limited audience. Sure, 46 percent of Americans profess to believe in creationism, but how many are enthusiastic enough to venture to Kentucky to spend nearly $30 per person to see a diorama of a little boy palling around with a vegetarian dinosaur? The museum’s target demographic might not be eager to lay down that much money: Belief in creationism correlates to less education, and less education correlates to lower income. Plus, there’s the possibility of just getting bored: After two pilgrimages to the museum, a family of four would have spent $260 to see the same human-made exhibits and Bible quote placards. Surely even the most devoted creationists would consider switching attractions for their next vacation. A visit to the Grand Canyon could potentially be much cheaper—even though it is tens of millions of years old.”

So how did they deal with the attendance dilemma? Did they open some new galleries with “latest breakthroughs in creation research”? (No, that’s not possible because they don’t do research or learn anything new). No, they opted for the cheap and silly: make it into an amusement park with zip lines. Apparently, flying through the air for a few seconds suspended from a cable is the latest fad in amusements, so the Creation “Museum” has to have one to draw the crowds—and hope they can suck in a few visitors to blow $30 a head or more to see their stale old exhibits as well. Expect that by next year they’ll be a full-fledged amusement park with roller coasters and Tilt-a-whirls, just like so many other “Biblelands” do across the Deep South. [emphasis added]

And what do ziplines have to do with creationism? As usual, they have a glib and non-responsive answer:

Zovath’s response to the museums critics who wonder how zip lining fits with their message?

“No matter what exhibit we add, the message stays the same,” Zovath said. “It’s all about God’s word and the authority of God’s word and showing that all of these things, whether it’s bugs, dinosaurs or dragons – it all fits with God’s word.”

I was hoping for something more imaginative and relevant, like “zip lines make you feel like an angel flying down from heaven.”

Wow… so the Creation Museum, once-heralded as the bane of modern evolutionary science and other wickedness, is starting down the road of turning into a Bible version of Disneyland.  I just have to chuckle at this turn of events, because it seems as if, by failing to change and – dare I say – evolve thereby adapting to its economic situation, the Creation Museum may very well go extinct.

Good riddance.

Posted in creationism, economics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments »

“Skeptics Under the Stars 2013” Event in July!

Posted by mattusmaximus on June 16, 2013

If you happen to be in the upper Midwest in late July, I invite you to attend an event hosted by the Women Thinking, Inc: it’s called Skeptics Under the Stars (or SUTS)! Here’s more information…

SUTS 2013

Do you love astronomy, skepticism and the outdoors? You can enjoy all of that at once at the Third Annual Skeptics Under the Stars, a star party camping trip hosted by Women Thinking, Inc!

This year’s trip will include special guest Nicole Gugliucci, otherwise known as the Noisy Astronomer.

Like in past years, we’ll be staying on a private lake in Delavan, Wisconsin at the beautiful McIntyre Resort and visiting the Yerkes Observatory at Lake Geneva. Unlike past years, it will be the middle of summer so …there will be no need for winter coats. You can expect lots of astronomy, food, booze and great company.

To find out more and to get your ticket visit

If you have any questions, just send a facebook message to Jamie Bernstein or email her at

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Evolution and Climate Change Come to Kansas

Posted by mattusmaximus on June 14, 2013


The state of Kansas has been a high-profile hotbed of creationist activity for quite some time, with battles over state science standards including (or not including) even a mere mention of evolution and, in recent years, climate change.  The strategy on the part of creationists goes as follows: if we aren’t allowed to teach creationism, specifically one brand called young-earth creationism, then we’ll make it so that nobody can learn evolution, either.  Global warming deniers are also employing a similar strategy in many states.

Of course, in the budding 21st century, if enough states in the United States allow creationists and global warming deniers to drive the discussion, then this is a recipe for disaster in terms of our nation’s capability to generate well-educated young students who are ready to tackle the looming scientific and technological challenges of our age.

Enter the Next Generation Science Standards, which Kansas has recently adopted (mostly because they helped to actually write the standards), that mandate the teaching of both evolution and climate change in a manner which is broadly interwoven into the curricula of public school science classes…

Kansas science standards: Schools to teach evolution, climate change

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) – The Kansas state school board Tuesday approved new,  multi-state science standards for public schools that treat both evolution and  climate change as key concepts to be taught from kindergarten through the 12th  grade.

The State Board of Education voted 8-2 on for standards developed by Kansas,  25 other states and the National Research Council. The new guidelines are  designed to shift the emphasis in science classes to doing hands-on projects and  experiments and blending material about engineering and technology into  lessons.

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“I can concentrate on teaching processes — teaching kids how to think like  scientists,” said Cheryl Shepherd-Adams, who teaches physics at Hays High School  and traveled to Topeka to publicly endorse the new standards as vice president  of Kansas Citizens for Science. “I’m more concerned whether they can design and  analyze an experiment. That’s what science is all about.”

Past work on science standards in Kansas have been overshadowed by debates  about how evolution should be taught. The latest standards were adopted in 2007  and treat evolution as a well-established, core scientific concept, but Kansas  law requires the academic standards to be updated at least once every seven  years.

Though the new standards drew some criticism over their treatment of  evolution, it wasn’t anywhere as vocal or public as in the past. Together,  Democrats and moderate Republicans control the board, and social conservatives  wanting to inject skepticism of evolution into the standards were likely to have  found little support.

The same political factors blunted criticism of the standards’ proposed  treatment of climate change as an important concept that should be part to  lessons in all grades, rather than treated separately in upper-level high school  classes…

There has been some pushback from certain political quarters, which tend to be ideologically aligned with creationists and climate change deniers, that these standards are taking away states’ rights.  Nothing could be further from the truth, seeing as how the NGSS are NOT a federal mandate because they were written by states who volunteered to put them together.  So, if anything, the NGSS is actually strongly in favor of states rights!

Looks like public science education in the United States might just finally be evolving 🙂

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Kickstarter Project: Portable Planetarium

Posted by mattusmaximus on June 8, 2013

I love astronomy… so much so that it motivated me to major in physics (it’s the closest I could get to astronomy as an undergraduate).  I’ve taught astronomy at the college level, too, and I have to say that one of the most engaging things you can do is show students the night sky.  For this, going outside is best, but sometimes the weather and light pollution conspire to make night-time skygazing an impossibility.  And that’s where planetariums come in!

Enter Lauren Ard, a teacher who has a really great idea to take her portable planetarium on the road for teaching not just her students but also others (such as attendees at science fiction and fantasy cons) about astronomy and the night sky.  Lauren is attempting to raise some money for her effort, and I thought it was worth advertising her Kickstarter campaign in this blog post.

For more information, read on…

Portable Planetarium = Astronomy for All!

by Lauren Ard

Planetarium Kickstarter

A sun-inspired inflatable planetarium that will bring astronomical theater to local schools, youth groups, and geek gatherings.

The Cause

Kids just love inflatable planetariums; they get to crawl inside a space built just for them, one that has popped up right in their classroom or meeting place to show them the wonders of the sky. Regular classroom disruptions fall away as students become engaged in learning about astronomy in a new and exhilarating way. Kids relate to the fun and interactive medium of a portable planetarium in a manner that no other astronomy instruction can match.

According to the Resource Area for Teaching (RAFT), students retain learning longer when that learning comes from an engaging, hands-on activity. When they are captivated by a unique opportunity such as an inflatable planetarium, they are more likely to share what they’ve learned with family members and friends, deepening their understanding with each repitition. These activities also transcend language barriers with their visual appeal.

We need more exciting educational activities in order to fight the intellectual apathy so common in our students today (what RAFT calls “the engagement gap”)! As the pace of scientific research advances, the average person is faced increasingly with science and technology in his or her daily life. Yet, a study done by the University of Sciences in Philadelphia indicates that American students’ interest in science is drastically waning.

My inflatable planetarium offers kinesthetic and visual learning to students who are hungry for stimulation. The wonders of the night sky can be brought right into the classroom! Right here, you have the opportunity to help bring science to life.

The Story

Five years ago I was a middle school science teacher working at a Title I school. The school (and its students) had little money for field trips or fancy science equipment, but I longed to find a way to bring Astronomy to life for my seventh graders. Through much trial and error with my crappy sewing machine, I created the magnificent monstrosity you see on my cover photo.

Using a box fan (for inflating) and a $150 “toy” projector from Japan, I’ve given planetarium shows to thousands of students over the last several years. Even when I left teaching to become a mom and foster parent, I continued to give presentations to schools, youth organizations, and clubs.

The Goal

To build a bigger, better planetarium! Planetarium 2.0 will be able to fit 30 students instead of 15. It will be made out of more durable fabric. And it will be a golden yellow to represent our Sun! This way, the half-sphere shape of the planetarium serves a second purpose – to be part of a scale model of our Solar System (with the planets being represented by sports balls).

If I were to purchase a boring, black inflatable planetarium from a commercial company in the United States, it would cost at least THREE TIMES as much as my Kickstarter goal! By creating a planetarium myself, I am able to make the planetarium more fun AND more economical.

Click here to read more

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

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…



© Copyright NEWSWEEK Magazine, 1996

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


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 »

Epic Church-State Breakup on YouTube

Posted by mattusmaximus on June 3, 2013

I’m quite pleased to pass along to you a hilarious, and quite informative, YouTube video on the importance of church-state separation.  It features Jane Lynch (of “Glee” fame) and Jordan Peele (of “Key & Peele” fame), and it was put together by Americans United for the Separation of Church & State.  If you agree with the message of the video, “like” it, pass it along, and please consider signing AU’s petition!

Posted in humor, politics, religion | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

SkepchickCON at CONvergence this July!

Posted by mattusmaximus on June 2, 2013

I’m happy to announce that once again SkepchickCON will be taking place at CONvergence this July.  CONvergence is a four-day science fiction and fantasy conference held every summer in the beautiful Minneapolis, Minnesota area.  And specifically, SkepchickCON is a series of science and skeptic-oriented panels and events organized and run by those lovely ladies of skepticism, the Skepchicks. I will also add that yours truly will be appearing on a few panels as well 🙂

For more information on the various panels, events, speakers, and panelists – as well as an opportunity to contribute to SkepchickCON – read on…


Image source

SkepchickCON is the science and skepticism track of CONvergence, a four-day science fiction and fantasy conference held every summer in the beautiful Minneapolis area. This year, we’ll have panels on everything from food science and mythology, science vs. religion, and penises of the animal kingdom to a live riffing on Prometheus with Rebecca, PZ, and MST3K’s Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett.

We’re also hosting more interactive workshops than ever—bioluminescence with microbiologist Siouxsie Wiles, hands-on astronomy with Nicole Gugliucci, and geek art with Mad Art Lab.

Plus, every night, you can meet the Skepchicks and other scientists and skeptics in the Skepchick Sideshow party room, where we’ll have more info on science and skepticism as well as delicious chemistry demonstrations by mixologist Anne Sauer.

You get four days of science, skepticism, and all-around geektasticness for the cost of a CONvergence badge—$60 for all four days if you register by May 15, 2013. In addition to SkepchickCON events, the badge gives you access to everything happening at CONvergence, including all panels and workshops, multiple themed parties, the costume masquerade, and more. …

Click here to read more

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