Tag Archives: science

Save the endangered tree octopus!

6 Feb
Tree Octopus

Tree Octopus

It’s a well-known fact that new animals are added to the endangered species list on a regular basis, and sadly, we can’t save them all.  Species are going extinct at an alarming rate.

Today I present to you one of the latest that is sure to be on the endangered list soon: the Pacific Northwest tree octopus (Octopus paxarbolis).  This awesome creature resides in temperate rainforests and lives a double life; they’re amphibious mollusks!  They are extremely intelligent with amazing eyesight.  They use their tentacles to climb trees in a form of locomotion called “tentaculation”.  Sadly, their breeding numbers are decreasing at an alarming rate due to “decimation of habitat by logging and suburban encroachment; building of roads that cut off access to the water which it needs for spawning; predation by foreign species such as house cats; and booming populations of its natural predators, including the bald eagle and sasquatch”.  (Info from the Official Save the Pacific Northwest Octopus site)

Hopefully, most people can spot the humorous and ridiculous points in the above story.  But can our students? 

The current student population consists of mostly tech savvy kiddos, usually much more so than we are ourselves.  They’ve grown up with computers, the internet, DVD players, Playstations, cell phones, mp3 players, etc.  They know the basics of using search engines to quickly find information.  Surely this is a huge advancement and advantage compared to the way we had to research our projects and research papers “back in the day”.  Yet teachers know that students will often go for what’s easiest (or, what gets homework and projects done the fastest) without bothering to stop and think if what they have found is valid or reliable. 

Researchers at the University of Connecticut conducted a study involving the aforementioned tree octopus.  The goal?  To test students’ ability to evaluate information they find online.  The results?  Sobering.  “The students not only believed all of the fabricated information, but also insisted on the existence of the octopus, even when researchers explained all the information had been made up.” (From dailymail article)

If students are going to continue to use search engines and the internet in general, teachers must incorporate ways to show them how to do so properly.  We need to teach them how to validate the content they find online.  Much of what has been taught in the past on reading critically is, of course, still applicable. 

  • What is the nature of the information being presented?  Is it original data, summaries of original data, anecdotal, etc?
  • Is the information current?
  • Are sources clearly documented?
  • What are the credentials of the original information and the sources listed?
  • Is the information verified by others in the field?
  • What is the purpose of publishing the information?  Is it geared to simply inform, sell a product, entertain, etc?

There are several good articles (on the internet! ha) about validating information and reading critically.  Here are a few, in no particular order:

Assessing and Validating Information Found on the Internet

Critical Reading Tips from Indiana University

E-how article on validating internet info

Evaluating Internet Information from Johns Hopkins

Fellow teachers, I urge you to broach this topic when an assignment comes up in which you know students will be using the internet for research. 

P.S.  Also, if we all teach critical reading and validation, then Wikipedia can be used.  It is not the devil.  🙂

France frets over transgenic bacteria labs for teens

31 Jan

pGLO labThere’s a debate brewing in France over letting teens perform transgenic labs in the classroom.  This has become a common lab in introductory biology courses in college and in many high schools across the United States as well.  Scientific supply companies like Biorad sell kits for this type of lab that let you add a plasmid with genes for green fluorescent proteins (as well as a gene for antibiotic resistance to ampicillin) to Escherichia coli bacteria. 

When I saw the news article, my eyes nearly bugged out of my head, and I started laughing.  My freshmen (14-15 year olds) are performing this lab this week!  The debate in France centers around whether 15 and 16 year olds should be allowed to do this.

Certainly I can understand the concern about antibiotic resistant organisms escaping into the environment.  The reality is, though, that biotechnology is very interesting to the students, and it gives them a way to associate the abstract knowledge of DNA with something more tangible and practical.  What’s the big deal about learning the human genome if you don’t understand what we can then do with that knowledge?

P.S. If you do the pGLO lab or something similar with your students, show them why GFPs are cool by introducing them to some of their uses at the GFP site.

Virtual Dinosaur Dig

24 Jan

The Smithsonian has a cool virtual dinosaur dig where students learn how fossils are uncovered, transported, and then assembled.  Neat stuff!


I feel so hopeless right now.

22 Jan

This school year hasn’t gone as planned.

Don’t get me wrong.  It hasn’t gone badly.  My classes are good and well-behaved (for the most part), and the students seem to respond well to my style.  Yet I haven’t been able to try any of the new things I envisioned for the year.

Part of the problem is that I’m at a new school.  In some ways, I feel like a brand-new teacher again.  The norms and values of the school as a whole are very different from my previous workplace.  At my old workplace, there were a lot of passionate teachers.  There were also, unfortunately, a lot of people who shouldn’t even be in the teaching profession.  At my current job, the faculty seems good overall, but they don’t necessarily seem passionate.  There are some people that I think may not even like kids. 



They aren’t bad teachers, though, necessarily.  Yet it’s still a very different dynamic than what I am accustomed to.  At my previous workplace, differentiated instruction was really pushed (some might say “crammed down our throats”).  New ideas were always being presented and tested out.  I have lectured more at this new job than I’ve ever lectured before.  I mentioned to my fellow subject matter teacher the other day that I thought we should have the kids do more projects.  They appeared aghast at the idea. 

I keep telling myself, “Maybe next year”.  But what about this year?  It hasn’t been bad, but I don’t know that I’ve grown much either.  I’ve wanted to set up a Moodle all year and have gotten absolutely nowhere.  The teachers here don’t seem very interested in trying new things, so I haven’t been able to get much tech support, either.

I’m frustrated.  I’m lonely.  I know no one likes a new person who comes in and starts changing things dramatically, and I understand and respect that.  But when does that end?

Teaching science as religion

22 Jan

How do you teach science?

Most science teachers ideally incorporate projects, research, and inquiry into the curriculum.  Honestly, to what extent do we do that?  We spend a lot of time also teaching the history of science and performing traditional “cookie-cutter” labs.  We tell our students what the currently accepted theories are and then we test them over it, expecting them to have all of the “facts” memorized.  And, if you’re in the public school system, you hardly have time for inquiry and what-not since you are essentially forced to teach to a standardized test.

So (brace yourself), how is this fundamentally any different than teaching religion?

In many circles those two words, science and religion, don’t get along so well (which in my opinion is silly, as the two are not mutually exclusive, but that’s a topic for another time).  The last thing many science teachers want to hear is that they are, in fact, teaching religion. 

If we don’t make the students actually PERFORM science though, how is it truly different?  Telling the kiddos that Mendel mated pea plants and found a 9:3:3:1 ratio when he crossed parent plants that were heterozygous for two traits…teaching that the world came into existence as a result of the big bang…teaching that there is a teeny tiny organelle called a mitochondrion in your cells that basically helps you produce energy…these are all explanations that can be memorized.  Very little of it is usually taught in such a way that the students come to this idea on their own. 

And, taking this idea one step further, if this is how we teach science, is it any wonder that some students choose NOT to accept the currently accepted theories of evolution and the big bang?  We often present it as memorizable facts–just like their parents and pastors do for creationism.

Bottom line: we need more project based learning, research, and inquiry in science classes.  Make the students think, make them hypothesize, make them research, make them collaborate.  Make them DO science.

Science education’s great loss

6 Jan

Recently the science education world, and more specifically the world of biology teachers, lost a great colleague, Kim Foglia.  Ms. Foglia was an extremely generous and well-known AP Biology teacher who shared everything online (ExploreBiology) with other science teachers, many of whom she probably never even met.  Many biology teachers around the world were, and are, incredibly grateful for the help and support she provided other teachers by sharing her ideas and lessons.  Many of us are probably better teachers in many ways because of her.  She will be missed.

DNA and Enigma

28 Nov

Those of you who happen to be World War II buffs probably know a lot about the enigma machine.  This machine was used before and during WWII by the Germans to encrypt and decrypt secret messages.  In the 1930s, Polish cipher experts began working on breaking these codes and passed the information to the British before WWII began.  enigma machine

There is a neat website you can use with your students called “Enigma and the Code Breakers“.  Here there are pictures of the machine, a description of how it worked, and more.  REALLY interesting stuff. 

There is also a site with an Enigma simulator (make sure your Java is working properly) that you can have your students go to, type in a message, and then see how it would be encoded.  Neat!

So, what does this have to do with science, and more specifically, DNA? 

I used these sites this year at the start of our DNA unit to demonstrate what it means for something to be encoded, what a code is, what decoding means, etc.  I used it in conjunction with this BBC “Decoding Humanity” site and had the students compare how both enigma and DNA are codes. 

I imagine you could probably use this type of information in conjunction with a history teacher at your school to create some sort of neat cross-curricular unit. 


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