Skepticism in the Classroom
Over the years, I and others have presented much material on the topic of “Skepticism in the Classroom”, and I thought that it would be worthwhile to summarize it here. In the last few years, I worked closely with the James Randi Educational Foundation’s Educational Advisory Board to generate a number of skeptical lessons for classroom use. In addition, the JREF has recently released an e-book titled “Magic in the Classroom” to which I have made some contributions.
Concerning specific lessons that I have presented at national conferences, which I include below, some of the material is from my presentation at The Amaz!ng Meeting 9’s “Skepticism in the Classroom” workshop, while the rest comes from the American Association of Physics Teachers summer meeting in Omaha, Nebraska. I have also continued making these presentations at more AAPT meetings, as well as the NSTA’s Winter 2015 Meeting in Chicago. I didn’t act alone in these endeavors, as I worked in conjunction with two of my skeptical teaching colleagues, Barbara Drescher and Dean Baird.
For reference, all of Barbara’s lessons from TAM are available at her ICBSeverywhere blog, and Dean’s lessons from AAPT and NSTA are available at this link over at his Blog of Phyz. I share my lessons with you below, so feel free to use, adapt, and share them as you wish:
**START HERE** Theres’s a Dragon in My Garage! – This is a make-believe story I tell my students on the first day of school to get them to understand the nature of science, and we constantly refer back to it all year. I borrowed the story from Carl Sagan’s Demon Haunted World, a book I highly recommend :)
1. Astrology Debunking Activity and Solutions – This activity allows you to test out the notion of astrology with your students in a controlled manner. It illustrates pretty clearly that astrology doesn’t really work.
2. Bed of Nails – I’ve made a very detailed blog post already on the subject (at the link). However, at the end of that blog post the Youtube video of the moron cutting his arm with a razor sharp machete doesn’t work – try this one instead [warning: not for the squeamish!]
3. Board Breaking & Karate – This is another subject on which I have written before (click the link). However, included in my blog analysis of the topic are some additional materials: an article about the physics of karate and a notesheet that I use in my classes to illustrate the physical principles behind this not-so-miraculous feat.
4. Einstein Cranks – This is a link to a blog post I wrote earlier about how many physics cranks and pseudoscientists abuse physics and the rules of science in an attempt to promote their nonsense.
5. EMF Woo – These are a collection of blog posts I have made over the years regarding the nonsense and pseudoscience surrounding EMFs (electromagnetic fields). These posts – and the lessons associated with them – range from addressing claims of low-frequency EMFs inducing cancer to ghost-hunting woo (and the companies that promote such nonsense).
6. ESP Claims – Here I have collected a couple of lessons dealing with the claims of ESP and psychics. Most notable are the notesheet for James Randi’s Secrets of the Psychics video and an article from Skeptical Inquirer magazine I have my students read on the issue. You can find Randi’s excellent video for free on Youtube…
7. Glasswalking – This is just a blog post and video of why it is that walking barefoot on broken glass won’t cut you, provided you don’t slide your feet. Hint: nothing paranormal or supernatural is required!
8. Haunted Lab – Every year around Halloween I do a special, exploration-based lab that incorporates a lot of cool physics concepts in with some debunking of paranormal claims. It’s great fun!
9. Hot Stuff! – In this collection of lessons I address pseudoscientific claims from the standpoint of thermal physics. Specifically, I have my students learn about how firewalking isn’t paranormal, and I also have them look at the claims that a man uses his “chi” to avoid getting burned when he puts molten lead into his mouth!
10. Magnetic Therapy – This lesson is an article and notesheet regarding this time-honored classic of alternative “medicine” woo.
11. Mega-Woosh Water Slide – A couple of years ago, this Internet video went viral, supposedly showing a man making a near-impossible jump across a valley using a huge water slide. Well, it wasn’t real, but a basic analysis of physics also shows it is highly implausible as well.
13. Optical Illusions – This is a really broad category: it includes a PowerPoint I give on illusions and pareidolia, an article I have my students read on so-called “mystery lights”, and some stuff about how spirit orbs are not what New Agers claim.
14. Ouija Board – At the link is a blog post I wrote on a lesson I use involving magnetic fields to get students to question the claims behind Ouija boards.
15. Pyramids & Aliens – These lessons focus on addressing claims by various UFOologists that aliens built the Egyptian pyramids. I have my students read an article from Skeptical Inquirer on the subject, then I give them a lecture on the physics of how humans (using simple technology) can build a pyramid, given time and a large workforce.
16. Movie Physics – In this end-of-the-year lesson, I get my students to think a bit skeptically regarding the physics presented in various movies.
17. The Physics of Santa Claus – This is a humorous lesson about applying some critical thinking and the laws of physics to one of our most beloved myths, Santa Claus. I have assembled a blog post on this lesson, and if you like you can access the PowerPoint file here. Also, please note that there is an updated version here. (**Note: this PowerPoint file is not mine originally; I totally stole it – credit is given on the first slide)
It is our hope that through these workshops we can get more and more teachers to consider pursuing these skeptically-oriented topics in their own classrooms. If you have any questions or skeptical resources for education that you would like to share with me, please let me know by going to the Contact page.