Author: Adam Blankenbicker

Why I don’t believe in science…and students shouldn’t either

As I have been preparing for my last post on SciEd, I’ve reflected on why I became a science educator to begin with.  And I realize it’s because I strongly believe that knowledge is an important tool to improve our lives and it should be shared with others.  This is strange however, because even though I have this belief, I don’t believe in science. So why am I so passionate about something I don’t believe in?

Science and Belief

Science is how we describe the natural world, and if you search the web for “what is science,” three words tend to come up more often than others: observation, experiment, and evidence. Observations and experiments may not be perfect, even at the limits of our technologies, and interpretations may be flawed, but it’s the evidence that supports, or doesn’t, an argument that is the most important.  And we choose to either accept it, or not.

I wanted to get an on-the-spot response from a scientist, so I asked one of my colleagues at work, Dr. Briana Pobiner, a paleoanthropologist, “You believe in evolution, right?”  I was surprised by how quickly she answered “I don’t believe in evolution – I accept the evidence for evolution.” The believing isn’t what makes evolution true or not, it’s that there is evidence that supports it.

Many people will distinguish a belief from knowledge, in that knowledge requires evidence, and truth does not.  Illustration: Jonathon Rosen

Many people will distinguish a belief from knowledge, in that knowledge requires evidence, and belief does not. Illustration: Jonathon Rosen

There are plenty of other scientists out there that don’t like the use of the word “believe.”  Kevin Padian, of the University of California, Berkeley, wrote an open-access article about science and evolution, entitled “Correcting some common misrepresentations of evolution in textbooks and the media.” He states:

“Saying that scientists ‘believe’ their results suggests, falsely, that their acceptance is not based on evidence, but is based somehow on faith.”

The closeness of belief to faith, belief in something without proof, seems to be a reason a number of scientists disapprove of the word.  It does tend to introduce religion, which describes the supernatural, something that science cannot accomplish.

Padian continues:

“…it is about the quality of the evidence: scientists accept their results as the best explanation of the problem that we have at present, but we recognize that our findings are subject to reevaluation as new evidence comes to light.”

This same sentiment of evolving understandings can be heard in Holly Dunsworth’s audio essay “I Am Evolution” on NPR’s This I Believe (ironically, I might add).

I reached out to Holly and she told me that there were a number of “science-minded” individuals who did not agree with her essay.  They “think that ‘to believe’ is different than ‘to know’ because ‘knowledge’ to many is based on facts and ‘belief’ is not, so the verbs knowing and believing are therefore different.”  Where I agree with this perspective, Holly disagrees.  But she goes on to say that just having the belief or knowledge is fine, no matter what word is used.  (New: Please read Holly’s response to this posting here.)


Teaching process of science, not belief in science

Science, as we know, is not just some body of facts.  It is a detailed process of observation, experiment, interpretation, review, and even a little bit of luck and chance.  And unlike a linear list of instructions, it is an ongoing, iterative process that can jump to any other step in the process, as illustrated at Berkley’s “Understanding Science” webpage.  This is how science should be, and usually is, taught.

Unfortunately, it is impossible for every teacher in every school out there to reproduce every experiment for their students to have a first hand account of the evidence.  This means that in almost all classrooms there is a degree of memorizing facts to understand particular concepts.  So to an extent you might say that the teachers and students need to have some faith in the publisher that those facts are real, and the other scientists who reviewed the research we also legitimate.

Not every student can repeat every experiment ever done, but new advances are built upon this previous knowledge.  Photo by Cameron Bennett

Not every student can repeat every experiment ever done, but new advances are built upon this previous knowledge. Photo by Cameron Bennett

But we do manage to continue advancing despite of this.  Leaps and bounds in technologies and scientific research are made by building upon previously vetted and accepted research.  Every generation keeps learning newer technologies and up to date research earlier in their education.  Sometimes these new leaps and bounds may produce new evidence that causes us to reevaluate our previous findings.  But this is still a part of science, an ongoing and dynamic process that continues to bring new questions and answers.

So, no, I do not believe in science.  Maybe you could say I believe science.  But for sure, I accept the evidence produced through science and that its findings may some day change.

But what about you — do you believe in science?

Category: Science teaching, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 132 Comments

Why is climate change education important to our health?

“Even if climate change isn’t real [but we know it is], aren’t the benefits of cleaner air, water and land worth all the effort put towards cleaner energy, reduced resource use and all general “green” practices?”  I can’t remember where I first heard this, or the exact quote, but it makes one think.  As much as this concern is about nature and ecology, it also has direct and indirect consequences on human health, as well.


Let me count the ways…

The following resources are just a few that describe how climate change will affect our health, and the fourth contains interviews with people around the world about how the changing climate has affected them.

Environmental Protection Agency

The Interagency Working Group on Climate Change and Health

World Health Organization and World Meteorological Organization (Especially if you like maps and charts)

Practical Action (Global climate change interviews)

In summary, the above links break down into direct and indirect consequences of climate change, including diseases (malaria and cholera), extreme weather events (storms and heat waves), pollution of air and water (ground level ozone), and food security.

The World Health Organization and World Meteorological Organizations co-published a report on how change will affect human health.

The World Health Organization and World Meteorological Organization co-published a report on how climate change will affect human health.


Where does it fit?

At great risk of contradicting what I wrote in a previous post, Rolling your eyes at climate change education, I see this as a subject that fits well into a number of standard middle school (ages 11-14) and high school (ages 14-18) level classes — in addition to earth science, health and biology seem obvious fits.  However, any climate change education in formal or informal environments needs to be to the point, and not overbearing, as many students are already exposed to climate change on a regular basis.  For teachers it may be too much to continue adding content to an already bursting-at-the-seems curriculum, so don’t be surprised if you don’t find this topic in every district.

If it doesn’t make its way into school, where else does it fit?  As hot a topic as it is, news outlets provide pieces here and there, as do educational networks such as Discovery Channel or National Geographic, with entire specials dedicated to climate change.  It’s hard to hide from climate change education, formally or informally.


Why do we learn about climate change?

Sometimes it’s hard to tell if climate change education is making a difference.  Greenhouse gas emissions keep rising despite advances in technology, and we regularly witness, and sometimes participate in, practices that are not the most environmentally friendly.

Albeit many people do make conscious decisions to mitigate climate change in a small, personal way, but if not to “fix” climate change, are we only learning about how it will affect our health in order to prepare for the changes ahead?  Malaria in new areas, more super-storms, drought and heat waves, floods, food security threats – just a sample of what is in store for us in the future.  Scientists are predicting which areas and populations will be greatest affected in the near and far off future.  The most well known, and one of the earliest, of these predictions is probably forecasting which cities or states are going to become underwater with sea level rise.  And most people are at least somewhat aware of more frequent heat waves.

The maps show the number of days per year with peak temperatures above 90°F from 1961 to 1979 and projected for 2080 to 2099. By 2100, north Florida is projected to experience more than 165 days per year (over six months) over 90°F. Source: USGCRP (2009)

The maps show the number of days per year with peak temperatures above 90°F from 1961 to 1979 and projected for 2080 to 2099. By 2100, north Florida is projected to experience more than 165 days per year (over six months) over 90°F.  Source: USGCRP (2009)


The fruit of our efforts is still to come

The bright side is knowing that climate change education as we know it is less than 10 years old.  I never learned about it in school (I graduated high school in 2000) and I would presume that nearly all adults about my age and older did not grow up with climate change as part of their upbringing – and we’re the ones driving the world right now.  In another 15 or 25 years I would expect that those becoming young adults and professionals will finally be able to act upon all of their years of climate education and realize that their actions have consequences, whether they affect them directly or indirectly.  Then we will see if we are only learning about climate change to prepare, or to “fix” it, too.


Category: Science teaching, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 8 Comments

Making good use of Hollywood’s bad science

Maybe it was destiny, but when I was a freshman in high school in 1997 the movie Dante’s Peak, starring Pierce Brosnan, was released.  Why was it destiny?  For those of you unfamiliar with the movie, it was about a seemingly quiet volcano near a small town, which begins to be become active and subsequently produces a cataclysmic eruption that decimates the town.  I went on to get my M.S. in geology, focusing on volcanic hazards.

I was on the edge of my seat the entire time.  Pierce played a volcanologist from the United States Geological Survey, who despite his boss’s insistence that the volcanic activity was nothing more than a stomach rumble, had a gut feeling that the volcano was going to be the next Mt. St. Helens.  And of course, he was right.

Movie poster for Dante's Peak, the movie which might have caused me to pursue volcanology, perhaps under false pretenses.  Image Fair Use through Wiki.

Movie poster for Dante’s Peak, the movie which might have caused me to pursue volcanology, perhaps under false pretenses. Image Fair Use through Wiki.

However correct Pierce was in predicting the eruption of Dante’s Peak, it was years later that I learned the movie was not the most scientifically accurate.  I left the theater believing that all volcanoes had hot springs that would boil people alive, erupt basaltic lava flows (think Hawaii) and dacitic pyroclastic flows (a la Mt. St. Helens) at the same time, and cause a lake to become so acidic that it would dissolve a grandmother’s legs as she pushes her family to safety in a boat.  Granted, many of the events that happened in the movie might happen at a given volcano, but not all at the same time.

Just two and half month later Volcano was released.  In this movie a volcano erupts in Los Angeles along a transform fault (unheard of), not a convergent of divergent tectonic settings, like the Cascades and Dante’s Peak or the East African Rift, respectively.

Sure, movies have that creative license to add drama, but not everyone knows where the line is between truth and fiction.  This is a great teaching moment to point out inaccuracies, because left unattended these moments will lead to misconceptions.

Benefiting from Science Misconceptions in Movies

More recently on our radars is probably The Core, released in theaters in 2003 during my junior year in college.  By the time I saw this flick, I had taken a number of geology courses and knew a few things about how the Earth functions.

As geology students, we were obviously curious what this movie was about.  When the movie made it to DVD, we got together and watched it as a group, laughing about giant diamonds and how seismic waves would actually travel through a molten core.  As fun as the movie was to watch in a group, drinking some beers of course, it was a great learning experience.  Each of us would try to be the first to identify something as inaccurate or wrong, and if we were wrong, shame on us.  Where we weren’t exactly sure how accurate something was, we would debate it, using the knowledge we had learned in class.  Here is a little overview of the good and bad science in The Core.

For those of you interested in the astronomical side of science misconceptions, Phil Plait comments on several examples on his webpage Phil Plaits’ Bad Astronomy.

Not a misconception: these giant gypsum crystals were found in Mexico, not on the set of The Core. Photo by Alexander Van Driessche

Not a misconception: these giant gypsum crystals were found in Mexico, not on the set of The Core. Photo by Alexander Van Driessche

Over the decades, there have been a number of other science-inspired movies.  Having a geology background, it’s a little easier to for me to pick out the instances in geology-themed movies where there is something wrong or inaccurate.  Unfortunately, it’s not the same when I watch a movie like The Day After Tomorrow, Twister, Outbreak, or Contagion.  I know there is at least some truth to these movies, but for any non-specialist, identifying where creative liberties were taken, if any, is very difficult.  I imagine that for someone with a minimal science background it is even more difficult.  Nonetheless, these are just a few movies in a near-endless list where learning opportunities abound in identifying and correcting misconceptions.

In schools, why not have biology students write a report about the inaccuracies in Anaconda (although just a few years ago titanaboa was unearthed).  Open the semester of a climate science course with a discussion about misconceptions in The Day After Tomorrow.  Finish a course on paleontology with a competition of who can identify the most dinosaurs in Jurassic Park (1, 2, or 3) that were not from the Jurassic period.  The Tyrannosaurus Rex happens to be from the Cretaceous period, after the Jurassic.

Science and Science Fiction

About two months ago, fellow Sci-Ed blogger Atif Kukaswadia, posted a great piece about using science fiction movies as opportunities to learn science.  In particular, I enjoyed Atif’s reference to an MIT paper on comic book superhero physics.  Both science-based and science fiction movies have their place in learning environments for identifying the right, wrong, plausible, impossible and inaccurate.  Some questions that science fiction movies offer are “Is that possible?” or “What is required to make that possible?” Science-based movies let us ask “Is that true?” and “How do we know that is correct or incorrect?”

Cristina Russo, also a Sci-Ed blogger, commented on how documentaries and nature films may also create some misconceptions or be misleading.  Among other points, this piece takes a closer look at pieces meant to promote conservation, yet use storytelling techniques to make a more compelling movie.

Scientific inaccuracies abound in movies and TV, and all for the sake of good entertainment.  This is fine.  Although they do inspire students be become scientists, there are also unintended consequences.  After watching The Core, it’s not likely that someone out there is going to try to get to the Earth’s core by building some supposedly indestructible vessel, but it is likely to leave the idea in impressionable minds that the Earth is something it is not.  This is where we need to identify these misconceptions and turn them into learning opportunities.

If you have any favorite scientific inaccuracies in movies, I would love to hear about them.


Category: Informal Science Education, Science communication, Science teaching, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

My Top 3 Geology Education Models

I love models. Specifically dynamic, non-digital models. I love building something and then seeing it work. And apparently, lots of other people enjoy them, too. There’s something about seeing something work in real life (if still a model) rather than on a screen that drives home a process and helps people really understand what’s at work. Whether it be science, technology or engineering, models are necessary for designing better products, and understanding processes we can’t always observe directly.

Geology, in particular, is a science that requires models to study hard-to-observe processes. Geology may happen too slowly, over millions of years, or too quickly.  The scale may be too big, or too small. Geologic processes can occur unexpectedly or they might just be too dangerous to get close to. Models help scientists study these processes, but they also help students and adults of all ages understand processes – and get them excited about learning, too.

Instead of writing specifically about the benefits of models in the context of science education, I wanted to share a few of my favorite geologic models that I have been able to develop over the years to get people excited about learning geology.

#3: Tectonic Forces

My current work at the National Museum of Natural History includes developing geology programming for a new education center that we will be opening this Fall, called Q?RIUS.  (Can’t pronounce it?  Just say “curious”.) When the website it up, I’ll be sure to let you know.

One experience in the works involves modeling how tectonic forces cause layers of rock to fold and fault through compression. Many universities do this in their geology courses, and post their videos online. In a museum setting, however, these models need to be developed so that even a 5th grader can operate it with minimal, or no supervision.

The model I have put together with the help of NMNH geologists and the exhibits department still needs some minor improvements, but most of the visitors who have tested the prototype have become really excited about tectonic forces. They have made strong connections between the model and the geologic structures they see in mountains and road cuts.

The model is a thin, rectangular cell, constructed of clear plexi-glass. The top is left open so that visitors can deposit layers of colored sand and flour. On one side are three rectangular bars that slide inwards, compressing the layers of flour and sand causing them to fold and fault.

NMNH Geologist Ben Andrews tests out a model to teach about tectonic forces.  Photo by the author.

NMNH Geologist Ben Andrews tests out a model to teach about tectonic forces. Photo by the author.

My favorite visitor comment came from a girl in middle school who said it was fun and interesting to see something like this because diagrams and digital animations, like what they see in school, don’t feel real. Feedback like this affirms the importance of physical models as part of the learning experience.

#2: Landslides

The summer in which I was finishing my master’s thesis I signed up to teach a weeklong course in geological engineering to high school girls from around the country that came to visit Michigan Technological University. The program was called Women in Engineering, and fortunately I was granted the opportunity to lead this session despite not being a woman.

Each day for one week I would lead two two-hour-long sessions, repeating the same content, so by the end of the week the whole session went as well as it could have.  Sessions were filled with multiple experiences, but the wrap up at the end was modeling a landslide, or a failed dam. In this demo I had to do quite a bit of prep work, but it was worth so much more than the effort. I was able to access the concrete lab, where I shoveled buckets of sand into a large sieves to isolate 2 grains sizes of sand. Dirt was collected from outside the building, along with some pebbles.

The geological engineering lab had a number of metal containers, about 60cm long, 20cm wide and 20cm deep into which we made dams and hills. At one end students layered the sand with thin layers of dirt and saturated them as they built up their structure.  On the top they placed a thicker layer of dirt. To add some scale and context, we had them place Monopoly houses and hotels on the slope.

High school girls made models of landslides in Women in Engineering.  Photo by the author

High school girls made models of landslides in Women in Engineering. Photo by the author

At the back of the dam or slope was space to allow us to pour water, which would begin seeping through the structure, over-saturating it. Now gravity would take over, and over the next five minutes we would slowly watch the top layer of dirt become wet and begin to slowly sag and slump. I would ask the girls to look for signs of impending disaster, but I’m pretty sure they were only waiting for their Monopoly house to fall over with the landslide.

#1: Volcanic Clouds

My first experience teaching was as a Peace Corps volunteer in Guatemala.  I was in the environmental education program, and was also able to conduct my research for my master’s degree on Santiaguito, the local volcano. At first, my focus was on the volcano and working with the country’s geological and meteorological institution, INSIVUMEH. But I soon became excited about getting others excited about learning science.

Both of the schools I worked at were very small (one teacher) and were located on plantations that butted up right to the flanks of the volcano. I thought this provided an opportunity to teach something about a very personal subject. About every hour or so the volcano would have a small eruption, producing a small cloud of ash that would float away, so I asked my students why the ash cloud floated away and didn’t just fall to the ground.

Answer: buoyancy. To explain why, the classes made large cubes out of tissue paper which were lightly glued together. Each face was about 1.5m X 1.5m. At one corner of each cube we left an opening into which we injected hot air with a hair dryer. Despite the logistical difficulties of creating three large cubes in a tiny classroom, we were able to complete the project, and early one morning before it warmed up we went out onto the soccer field and began blowing hot air into the cubes.

Well, the first two cubes didn’t take flight, so I was understandably getting nervous.  Fortunately the third and final cube was a success.  Even before it lifted off, those holding it down could feel it beginning to pull upwards as we were filling it with hot air.  After the countdown and release it began to lift slowly into the air and the younger kids began to trying to jump up and catch it.

Hot air-filled cubes stay afloat for the same reason as volcanic clouds: buoyancy.  Photo by the author.

Hot air-filled cubes stay afloat for the same reason as volcanic clouds: buoyancy.  Volcano Santa Maria looms in the background, with the active Caliente Dome of Santiaguito behind the palm tree, just to the right.  Photo by the author.

Oh, and right after it took off, the volcano erupted.

Let’s Model!

Kids, adults, students of all ages, and lifelong learners can all benefit from using models.  One thing to keep in mind when teaching with models, however, is that they are not perfect analogies, but certain aspects of them are relevant to understanding a physical process; a case in point is the volcano and the buoyancy of the hot air balloons.  Nonetheless, just as important as helping us understanding science, models are very successful in getting people excited to learn science, whatever it might be.

Category: Informal Science Education, Science Museums, Science teaching | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

STEM and Liberal Arts: Frienemies of the State

When I was getting ready for college, I knew I was going to pursue a degree in some area of science; I never even considered a liberal arts degree.  To be honest, I did my best to not take any liberal arts courses I didn’t need to.  Even studying abroad in Australia satisfied my “foreign culture” credit so I didn’t need to study another language.  I did take Spanish in Grad school knowing I was going to be working and living in Latin America for 2 years.  Otherwise, these classes were at odds with my science and I didn’t want to waste my time on something I wasn’t going to use.  I had no idea how they could be used in the future or how they can fit so well together.

Even though the interdependence between the liberal arts and sciences has recently become a focus in those areas, there seems to be a political battle going on which is supporting STEM education over the liberal arts.  As much as we admire the arts (music, painting, reading, design, journalism) STEM education has been getting a lot of attention.  Much of this disparity in support can be seen in government funding.

What’s up with funding the liberal arts?

North Carolina Governor Patrick McCrory made a statement on the radio back in January saying “I think some of the educational elite have taken over our education where we are offering courses that have no chance of getting people jobs…” referring to liberal arts courses, such as gender studies. “…if you want to take gender studies, go to a private school and take it. But I don’t want to subsidize that if it’s not going to get someone a job.”  (audio: minutes 5:25 – 6:25).  There’s a lot more in this interview, but this was still said.  How likely is it that liberal arts areas, such as gender studies, played a key role in advancing women in the STEM fields?

These comments obviously caused quite a stir among liberal arts teachers and professors throughout the state, maybe even more so because of the then-potential sequestration.  Opinions abound throughout the internet on blogs and news outlets about how important the arts are in education, and I’ll get to that in a few moments.  But what about the numbers?  How much money goes towards STEM education?

When planning the 2013 federal budget, the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) put together a summary of STEM education called “Preparing the 21st Century Workforce”, which includes a 3-year history of federal STEM education funding.  FY2013 calls for $2.951 billion in spending across multiple departments including Agriculture, Defense, Homeland Security, and NASA towards STEM education.  The others are included in the list below, and the patterns in this table are interesting in themselves.  Specifically how each department decides to use that money for education varies.  Among their methods probably includes lesson plans for teachers, internships, outreach events and online content.  I am sure there is much more, too.

Table from "Preparing the 21st Century Workforce"

Table from “Preparing the 21st Century Workforce”

Unfortunately there is no document that summarizes a federal plan for supporting arts education.  If you find one, let me know and I can insert that in here later.  The White House website does, in fact, have a page dedicated to Champions of Change in Arts Education, along with the many other CoC categories.  However, The Chronicle of Philanthropy reported that The National Endowment for the Arts received only about $155 Million for FY2011, and a decrease to $135 Million for 2012.  The caveat here is that this is for the arts, not art education.

With these numbers, what kind of signal is being given on the national scale, if not just North Carolina?



I don’t think there is any doubt that we need people trained in arts and humanities to improve our lives.  Artists and designers add flavor to our society by adding color and edges to things that would otherwise be bland.  Writers and journalists bring the world news to us and allow us to escape from our lives for a few moments and visit a new world.

But how does a liberal arts education fit in with STEM?  A great summary of this synergy is found in The Chronicle: Higher Education, in a commentary by Boston College professors Mary Crane and Thomas Chiles.
“Science matters at a liberal-arts university because the problems facing our global community will not be solved by scientists alone.”  “…while an issue as complex as global climate change needs scientists to identify its root causes, it also needs faculty members in the humanities and social sciences to evaluate its impact on human populations and societies, and journalists to communicate this information to the wider public.”
If you believe that research is done only for the sake of discovery and not sharing knowledge, then maybe the liberal arts do not matter.  But knowledge and discovery should be shared; science is not the answer to the world’s problems, but it does provide us with information to make informed value-based decisions.
Mercedes Benz's advertisement beautifully combines STEM and the arts.

Mercedes Benz’s advertisements beautifully combines STEM and the arts.

Working in museum education I have discovered another important role the arts play in STEM education; with all the types of people in the world, and all their various interests, art is another way for the non-scientific public to access science.  STEM-to-STEAM provides some other examples of where art allows students to enter science through non-traditional methods, including Sesame Street and Reading is Fundamental.

The liberal arts has two main roles in STEM education and producing a more scientifically literate public; one as a way for people to access the sciences, and two as a way to communicate the sciences.

Fellow PLOS blogger Johanna Kieniewicz has some great arts and science posts on the subject, as well, in her blog At the Interface: Where art and science meet, specifically Why scientists should care about art.  Some people are inherently interested in the numbers, experiments and results; some connect to science by having a personal interaction with a scientist.  Others see the art in science, or how science is art.

Category: Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Rolling your eyes at climate change education

I recently had an eye-opening experience at work at the National Museum of Natural History. A couple of colleagues and I went into the exhibit halls to ask groups of teens about what they would find interesting to learn more about in a museum. We had a number of preselected topics and we selected a few for each group or individual we spoke with. When asked about climate change, one group responded “Climate change?  That again?” with a roll of the eyes. “We’ve been learning about climate change as long as I can remember.”

This is not to say they did not care about climate change — in fact, they did care a great deal.  This group simply seemed to have experienced too much climate change education, and it got me wondering how many other students out there have lost interest in climate change, and why.

I later asked some of my teenage relatives, receiving a similar response. One began learning about it in third grade, with interest. Then three years later he began losing interest, perhaps because it was overkill and perhaps because his interests seemed to move on as he got older.

Is there too much climate change education? How much climate change education is there in schools, anyway? Are kids sick of learning about global warming, increased super storms, and melting glaciers?  More importantly, is there more quantity than quality in climate change education? Do kids see it as a “school topic” rather than a global crisis?

We found the museum visitors’ responses surprising and enlightening. As we did their response to our next question: “What will Earth be like in 100 years?”  Their response: “Yeah, that sounds pretty interesting.”

Fascinating.  Just this little change in perspective seems to make a big difference.  And it got me thinking…

How much is out there about climate change?

Before I continue, let me be clear that I have no problems at all with climate change education, and none at all with the lessons I mention below.

Peterborough (United Kingdom) has its own climate change game designed and made by Peterborough City Council and students at Hampton College.

It seems as though there exists a lesson plan for climate change for every age group from kindergarten through college. And outside of school curriculum the topic is covered by non-profits (Alliance for Climate Education), universities, government institutions (NASANOAAFREE), and more. I was easily able to find lesson activities for grades 6-8 and 9-12 at the University of Madison, Wisconsin’s online Water Library No sooner did I find Climate Change Education, a web portal that collects curriculum resources.

In 2010 the National Science Foundation announced the launch of a climate change education partnership with schools, universities, zoos and aquariums, and other institutions across the country.

As far as state science curricula, I first went to look in California, who I thought would surely have some mention of climate change in its curriculum.  Well, the science frameworks for grades does not mention “climate change.”  For grades 9-12 the framework states:

  1. Students know how computer models are used to predict the effects of the increase in greenhouse gases on climate for the planet as a whole and for specific regions”
  2. “Human activity, such as the burning of fossil fuels, is increasing the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. This buildup can potentially cause a significant increase in global temperatures and affect global and regional weather patterns.”
  3. “The greenhouse effect is important to Earth’s climate because without that effect the planet would be much colder and more like Mars. But if the concentration of absorbing gases is too high, trapping too much heat in the atmosphere, excessive heating could occur on Earth, producing global warming and a climate closer to that of Venus.”

I found no mention of climate change for grades K-8, which I found surprising.

I then went to check out Tennessee because I had come across a report that describes how the state will allow teachers to “teach the controversy” about evolution and climate change.  But, all things considered, I found more than I expected when I read Tennessee’s environmental science curriculum for grades 9-12.

  1. “Describe how gases in the atmosphere affect climate.”
  2. “Explain how human activity is related to ozone depletion and climate change.”

In K-8 however, there was no mention of the word “greenhouse”, and the only mention of “climate” was “The earth is surrounded by an active atmosphere and an energy system that controls the distribution life, local weather, climate, and global temperature.

It doesn’t seem like there is too much climate change education happening in Tennessee or California.  I would say too little.

In Maryland, only grade 8 environmental education covers climate change.

Interestingly, when I looked in Maryland, there was a direct mention for grade 8 environmental science in humans affecting climate change and other natural cycles.  But I couldn’t find any mention for grades 9-12.

At this point it seems as though there is very little, in my opinion climate change education happening.  However, the National Research Council has put together a framework for K-12 science education.  The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) will be using this framework as states develop new science standards.

Grade levels aren’t broken down grade-by-grade, but “by the end of grade 2, 5, 8 and 12”.  This framework is much more explicit in emphasizing climate change.  When it comes down to climate change (pages 196-198), grade 2 does not cover the topic, though grades 5, 8 and 12 progressively get more involved, from conceptual to models.  (I intentionally did not quote their text because it gets a bit long.)

A new concern

Did you notice it?

There is a lot of climate change educational resources out there between non-profits, government agencies, even camps, museums and aquariums for all age levels.  Probably more so than a teacher can fit into his or her classroom every year, for every grade.  Even in the states’ educational frameworks climate change is mentioned only briefly.  With the little mention of climate change in school frameworks, why are students becoming burnt out on climate change?  Maybe I missed something, but there are possibilities.  Climate change could be the “example” given in classrooms about some math problem or writing topic.  Maybe it’s just that the topic is covered so much more in informal environments than in formal learning environments.

Has anyone else talked with students who aren’t interested in climate change anymore?  And how much climate change education is enough before becoming too much?

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The Metric System, the United States of America, and Scientific Literacy

Here’s a quick quiz: I weigh 71 kilograms, and am about 1.82 meters tall.

a.) Do you have an idea of about how much I weigh and how tall I am?

b.) Am I taller or shorter than you, and do I weigh more or less than you?

If you don’t live in the United States of America, Liberia, or Burma, you most likely can answer both of these questions pretty much without any hesitation. If you do live in one of those three countries, then without the help of a calculator, or a quick search on Google, chances are you would have to think a bit about question “a,” and would struggle with question “b.”

The issue.

There is a huge disconnect between the science that we do (SI units, commonly interchanged with the Metric System) and how we live our daily lives, (U.S. Customary Units, not Imperial Units). Is it possible that people are turned off by science and technology because they don’t understand the metric system? And is it possible that this makes us less scientifically literate as a country?

One of my favorite comic strips, Fox Trot, by Bill Amend, consistently brings up math and science humor.

I think the answer is most definitely. While U.S. scientists are used to converting units, an ideal scientifically literate society includes artists, public servants, business owners, and waitresses — people who don’t have to use the metric system on a regular basis — translating units is one more barrier to understanding the math and science that is used in research.

The only examples that come to my mind where the metric system is in common use in the United States are:

  • Miles-per-hour/Kilometers-per-hour speedometers in our vehicles
  • A 750ml bottle of wine
  • A 1-liter (1,000ml) Nalgene bottle
  • The 100 meter dash
  • 2 liter soda bottles
  • 5k and 10k runs/races
  • Most food nutrition labels (How many people actually read those?)

Yet all science is done in the language of SI units. If the goal is for the non-scientific public to be able to engage regularly and enthusiastically with science, wouldn’t it make sense for scientists and non-scientists to speak the same language?

To really make SI units and the metric system commonplace in the United States requires more than a little effort on our part. Imagine how many local, state, and federal authorities would be required to change millions of road signs, food packaging, gas station signs and sports fields. And on top of that, does the general public want to make the switch?

Some selected history.

The reasons that hold us back from converting range from stubbornness to cost (a 1996 concern in the Journal of Professional Issues in Engineering and Education Practice). In 1975, thanks to President Gerald Ford and Congress, the Metric Conversion Act was passed which would have led to the metric system being the preferred system of weights and measures in the United States. This act created the United States Metric Board, which was abolished in 1982, by President Reagan.

From The United States and the Metric System, NIST LC 1136: “The efforts of the Metric Board were largely ignored by the American public, and, in 1981, the Board reported to Congress that it lacked the clear Congressional mandate necessary to bring about national conversion. Due to this apparent ineffectiveness, and in an effort [by President Reagan] to reduce Federal spending, the Metric Board was disestablished in the fall of 1982.”

Some readers may be familiar with the “We the People” petition that the White House website hosts. As of this moment, over 35,000 people have digitally signed a petition to make the metric system the official system of weights and measures of the United States. Possibly another act from the federal government is needed to really get things moving again.

A more detailed history can be read here.


Thankfully, the metric system has been taught in schools and this should continue. From my experience, however, it was only as a way to solve given problems. Physics was taught in the metric system, as was chemistry. But when I got to my algebra class, and even in shop class, (a prime opportunity to “feel” what 50 centimeters was), we measured 20 inches (not the same, by the way). I would recommend that all rulers in school should all be inches and centimeters, though I must admit I attended a science teacher workshop and we were given 12 foot tape measurers to take back home.

Should we discourage these words? Image from another blog post about the metric system.


When I learned Spanish, my most effective learning was not being told that café meant coffee — I was given a cup of café and told “este es café,” or “this is coffee.” We shouldn’t miss these tangible opportunities to become friendly with the system.

The next time you go to your doctor’s office and they take you height and weight, ask your doctor for the numbers in metric, and you will have that personal connection to some part of the metric system. Do you check the weather online or use online mapping? Change the units to Celsius and meters. These are a few simple changes people can make to become more familiar with the system.

You don’t have to look long to find bloggers who are asking why the United States has not yet converted to the metric system. One I found particularly interesting is a blog created in 2012 which focuses on documenting the creation of a documentary about how the United States was going to convert to the metric system, but never did. The blog is appropriately named “More than a mile behind.” Keep your eyes and ears open for this one.

The world and us.

I have always believed that no matter what language you speak, science and math are the same in any language. If we’re not speaking the same scientific language as scientists from other countries (many of whom have made the effort to learn English), we might be isolating ourselves scientifically. So with that, I’ll leave you with a clip from The Simpsons.

P.S. Even rocket scientists mess up.

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Informal Science Education in Museums – Learning by Accident

I thought I would kick off my contribution to this blog with a brief introduction to my area of interest in learning science and natural history in museums settings.  I’ll share a bit about myself and ask and answer a few questions.

My path into informal science education was far from direct, informal in itself.  I had imagined myself in academia, researching and teaching geology at the university level. But approaching the close of my undergraduate degree, I had trouble deciding between Peace Corps and grad school, but happened upon a new program that allowed me to conduct my research while serving in the Peace Corps. My area of interest was volcanic hazards, and I found myself working at a volcano observatory in Guatemala. My other main responsibility was integrating an environmental education curriculum in a few local schools. I was hooked, and since then I’ve continued in education with a number of non-profits, as a substitute teacher, at the Boston Museum of Science, and now at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.

So, what is informal education? Why informal science education (ISE)? And why natural history and science museums? What roles do they play in public understanding of science?

What is Informal Education?

Cristina touched on this in her recent post, but basically any learning outside of a classroom environment might qualify as informal learning. There’s less pressure to learn in these informal environments, so they can actually be fun. Human beings are naturally curious creatures; we want answers. We want to know why. Think of the child who asks her father “Why is the sky blue?” — and really, we want to know answers to our own questions, not necessarily the questions a teacher asks in school.

Why informal science education?

New discoveries in science and technology are constantly happening, as well as policies surrounding science and technology. Some of them completely revolutionize what was “common knowledge” a decade ago. Pluto was still a planet. Water on Mars. Anyone can have their DNA coded for the cost of a decent high-def, flat screen TV. And when did those come about, by the way?

The 95 Percent Solution, a 2010 article by J.F. Falk & L.D. Dierking is among my favorite articles about science and education. According to Falk and Dierking, contrary to what was a common assumption until recently, most of a person’s science education is done outside a formal environment; less than 5 percent of a person’s life is spent inside a classroom (and that’s including science, history, gym, art and more). The authors conclude that the best way to increase to the public‘s understanding of science is in the remaining 95 percent of their lives. This can be on TV (Bill Nye, Mythbusters, NOVA, etc.), magazines (National Geographic, Popular Science), nature centers, or science and natural history museums. It’s not that people would be learning for all of that 95 percent, but within that time are great opportunities to teach and learn. Even while walking through a park on the way to work, contends a report by the National Research Council (Learning Science in Informal Environments: People, Places and Pursuits), will “contribute to people’s knowledge and interest in science and the environment.”

Figure: From Falk & Dierking, 2010


Why Science and Natural History Museums?

More and more, these institutions are being seen as valuable educational supplements for schools, as well as for those who have already completed their formal education. Other media (TV, radio, books) don’t provide the opportunity to interact or participate with actual objects or other people; they are very passive learning experiences. Museums provide the opportunity to handle real objects, solve problems, and interact with others – and potentially all at the same time, too. Remember how we ask our own questions? Natural history and science museums are perfect places to ask our own questions, and try to discover the answer.

So, what really is the role of these museums? Obviously, they have more than any one single role, especially when you consider the range of audiences that attend them. So let’s start working up the ladder, beginning with the youngest visitors.

Children and families:

Children are a funny story. They want to come to museums because it’s fun and new. Almost everything a child experiences is new to them, and when they are able to see, touch, hold, or create, they are able to satisfy their natural curiosity.  They begin to ask questions, such as the infamous “why?” In some instances, a parent may need to give their child a little push, but most children seem to be entertained and enjoy their experience. Little do children know, however, that their parents are secretly trying to get them to learn something. And parents typically seem to enjoy themselves as well, and learn a few things along the way.

Students and teachers:

A school field trip to the museum, science or otherwise, is all but standard practice in most school systems. For students it’s a break from the ordinary – a chance to break free from their teachers (if deemed responsible enough) and explore on their own. Though some museums will provide field trip guides that help facilitate and focus a school’s experience. Long days in the classroom can cause some students to lose interest, but when they come to a museum and see real animals, beautiful rocks and minerals, and fossilized skeletons, or are able to create robots or use giant hands-on models, their level of interest returns.

Ror teachers, it’s also a break from the ordinary.  No matter how long those bus rides to and from the museum might be, they know their students have experienced something that they otherwise would not have experienced in their classroom. Which is in fact how we plan a museum experience: as something that only a museum could allow you to experience.

Young Adults:

A number of centers across the world are keeping their doors open later into the night to host special evening events for teens and young adults to mingle around science. Even though the main reason young adults come to these events is to hang out with friends, or make new ones, in a fun environment, learning is bound to happen; it is an unintended consequence, though important nonetheless to a greater public understanding of science.

Concerned Citizens and Enthusiasts:

Science and natural history museums around the country maintain and partner with a number of citizen science and enthusiast programs. Project Bud Burst, FireFly Watch, Frog Watch, are just a few, and you would be hard pressed to find a science or natural history museum that doesn’t have a relationship to a project.  And in addition to citizen science, a number of museums will host forums about emerging issues in science in technology.  Provocative issues about the food system, nanotechnology, hydrofracking and climate change are just a few issues that museums will hosts discussions around.

Entertaining, yes. But also educational.  Author teaches about lightning and electromagnetism at the Museum of Science in Boston. Photo is a gift from museum visitor.

There is a lot of learning that goes on in the world, and a lot of it is not even intentional — it just happens. Informal learning experiences, such as those in science and natural history museums, are ideal places for people to learn without the pressure of a classroom setting, where visitors ask their own questions and can explore on their own. They cannot replace the structure that schools provide, but they can provide a break from the ordinary and give that “wow” moment. These environments have a lot to offer, and can be a lot of fun.

But be careful, or you might learn something…

 Adam Blankenbicker is an Education Specialist at the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History. Before entering informal science education, he earned his B.S. in Geology and Geological Oceanography with a Minor in Mathematics at the University of Rhode Island in 2004. In 2009 he completed his M.S. in Geology at Michigan Technological University in a program that allowed him to do research while serving in the United States Peace Corps in Guatemala, near the Santa Maria-Santiaguito volcano complex. After returning to the United States he continued his work in formal and informal education with the Massachusetts Audubon Society and the Museum of Science in Boston, MA. He is interested in active, participatory learning for all types of learners and what informal science education centers are doing to educate and engage the public in science.

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