Why march for science?

This April 22 there will be a March for Science in Washington, D. C. and many other marches in support around the country. The March for Science is motivated (at least in part) by the sense that science is not valued or supported by the current administration. This sense has led various scientists to back up government data on private servers, leak to the press notices of gag orders from superiors and create “rogue” Twitter accounts that spread the rod about environmental damage and climate change.

I’m not sure how much I speak for scientists in general, but I’m not the protesting type. I (and I suspect many scientists) need good reasons to march. Here I am presenting a few reasons that I think are worth making some noise about. Clear goals are also important because without them we risk marking a lot of noise without any concrete plan for the next step. Another concern is that with only a vague agenda we risk placing science too clearly on one side of the partisan divide. Science has received bipartisan support in the past. I’m not saying we should avoid every controversial topic or “political” topics. I think, however, we can have goals that are not based in the traditional left/right political divide.

The agenda I’m proposing has two broad strokes. First, the practice of science should be adequately funded as well as supported by government and institutional policies. Second, science should be valued by society and used to inform policy. These are, I hope, good reasons to march for science.

Part 1: Supporting the practice of science

To properly support the practice of science in the United States the following are needed. These are not in any order of priority. I feel they are all necessary and important.

Financial support for NSF, NIH, NASA and the DOE

The bulk of the basic research in our country is funded by the United States government through these government agencies: the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, the National Aeronautic and Space Administration and the Department of Energy (which includes the National Labs). Without adequate funding for these agencies, very little basic science is going to get done. Grants from these agencies also provide for the education of most of the future scientists in the U.S. as well. In other words, without these agencies there is not future of science because there won’t be any scientists.

Freedom of travel for international scholars

Many foreign nationals come to the United States to attend school or to do research as post-doctoral fellows (“post-docs”). While here they contribute strongly to the scientific output of U.S. labs and many stay and are productive in science for many years. The lab I worked in during graduate school was about half international scholars from many countries including Germany, Switzerland, U.K., Spain, Italy, China, and Turkey. These scientists deserve to be able to visit their families at home and know they will be able to return to finish their school or their research.

There is a second group, scholars who live abroad but come to the United States for conferences and to meet with collaborators. These scholars ought to have assurance they will gain entry to the U.S. without harassment. In graduate school, I had a collaborator from Germany, and his two visits to the U.S. were times of enormous progress for our research. Recent treatment of scholars will only serve to convince international scientists that visiting the United States is not worth the trouble, harming the practice of science in the U.S. and around the world.

Government data should be freely available. Government scientists should be free to publish their work

No government should decide what results do or don’t get published, regardless of whether that data supports or refutes certain policies of that government. The practice of science requires that scientists be able to evaluate one another’s work. If a piece of science is bad it will be found and criticized by other scientists, then empirically shown to be correct or incorrect. This method of verification requires the free flow of ideas and, more importantly, data. The selective release of data from government labs will also draw into question any data published because other scientists will question the motives behind the data release, undermining the work of all government scientists under all circumstances.

Programs that foster diversity, inclusion and equity in science should be funded and promoted.

The progress of science is harmed without the contributions of scientists from all backgrounds. The quality of science as well as the application and communication of that science is improved by broad participation, particularly by individuals from groups that are and continue to be under-represented. At times things are said in the communication of science that are hurtful to one group of people that could easily have been avoided in an environment where people of diverse backgrounds can be heard.

For reasons I’m not sure I understand, the idea that people of all backgrounds should have their contributions valued and their concerns addressed, and that we should have programs, checks and policies that evaluate how we’re doing has been labeled “political” and there are those who think it has no place in the March for Science. I disagree. It’s not political, it’s just the right thing to do.

Programs that promote student-centered and inquiry-based teaching should be supported

As scientists who value the research of others we should take the lead in moving away from lecture as the basis of teaching toward techniques that have been proven over and over to be more effective. We should support programs (like the POGIL Project) that help secondary and college instructors learn how to more effectively teach their subjects. Better teaching will lead to more students be successful in science and engineering courses and help those in general education courses gain a better understanding and appreciation of science, becoming more supportive citizens of science later in life.

Part 2: Valuing Science

Basic science should not be used as an example of “government waste”

We all have heard of the duck penis study and the shrimp on a treadmill study which have been help up as examples of waste in government spending. As scientists we know that basic research has to follow its own path and can lead to many breakthroughs later that aren’t apparent at the beginning. We need to emphasize this fact to the public. We should also remind the public that all federal basic research funding undergoes rigorous review before funding. Scientists must demonstrate in their funding application that their study is a good idea (“intellectual merit”) and will have broader impacts for science and society.

As scientists and supporters of science we should push back when politicians use science as an example of “government waste”. A prime example of this is my own U.S. Senator James Lankford who issues an annual report on waste. I intend from now on to scrutinize and criticize that report as it applies to science and I encourage others to do so as well.

Public policy should be based on science, not pseudo-science

We have strong evidence that smoking cigarettes causes cancer, and thus we have government policies that deter smoking such as high taxes on tobacco and restrictions on advertising. However, we also have evidence that high rates of immunization are necessary to protect us from terrible diseases and yet many states allow parents to opt out of immunization for no medical reason at all. The practice of non-medical opting out needlessly endangers the lives of all children, not just those who are unvaccinated. This is a situation where government policy, based on evidence, is necessary to protect everyone.

Another example is climate change. I will admit that I was deeply skeptical of climate change for many years, but the evidence keeps mounting that it is a real effect, that it is already happening and that it is caused by humans, largely because of the burning of fossil fuels. Action to mitigate climate change requires government intervention due to the magnitude of the problem (it’s literally global) and the urgency of taking action. There are many policies proposed to reduce carbon emissions and stem climate change. Some of these policies are more liberal and some are more conservative. But we have to push our representatives to accept that climate change is happening and require them to take action.
My goal in writing this post was to find goals that all scientists and supporters of science can agree upon. What have I left out? What have I not adequately defended? Comments welcome.


Whirly-gigs and the role of carbon dioxide in climate change


Solar engine or “whirly-gig”

Pictured here is a device known as a radiometer, although I like to call it the whirly-gig. When you put the whirly-gig in bright light (especially sunlight) the vane inside the glass suddenly starts to turn on its own.

Here is a video of the whirley-gig placed in a sunny spot . We know that objects don’t just move on their own, so where is the energy coming from to make the vane spin?

On the bottom of the device the manufacturer has provided a description of how it works which I’ve shown below.


This description makes a common mistake that I often hear. Notice that it says the vanes spin because the “dark side absorbs heat”. However, that’s not true. This is because heat is a transfer of kinetic energy at the level of atoms and molecules. You get some molecules warm and they move faster, then bump hard into other molecules which transfers some of the kinetic energy, and so on. This cannot be the case for the sun because the space between the Earth and the sun is a vacuum – it’s almost completely empty of atoms and molecules. Heat cannot be transferred through a vacuum.

So how does the sun’s energy make the whirly-gig move? Through a different means of transferring energy – light. In this case, infrared light (that which is beyond the red side of the visible spectrum) from the sun is absorbed by the black side of the vane. When infrared light strikes a molecule, that molecule jiggles. That jiggling is kinetic energy, so in other words, the infrared light makes the molecule hot. That molecule transfers heat to other molecules around it. The air around the vanes gets hot and expands, pushing the vanes and making them spin. Since black absorbs more light of all colors than does white, it is the black side of the vane in the back when the vane is spinning because the black side is the one getting the push from the now warm air behind it.

This same effect is why you get hot on a sunny day when you’re wearing a black shirt. Your shirt if absorbing infrared light, which is converted to heat by the now wiggling molecules, and you feel hotter. It’s also why snow in the shadow of a house or tree melts more slowly. It’s just not getting an infrared light to help get it’s molecules moving to return to the liquid state. It’s also how heat lamps work or those high efficiency space heaters that don’t have a fan – they don’t need it because they aren’t making air hot then blowing it at you. The energy reaches you at the speed of light! I wonder if anyone has used that as their tagline…

Another fun property of infrared light is that while it can make molecules jiggle, the opposite effect can also happen when jiggling gets converted to infrared light. In fact, any object (not at absolute zero) will produce infrared light. We get a glimpse of this when we get a stove burner hot enough to glow red. The burner is glowing before that, just in the infrared which we can’t see. The ability to “see” infrared light is how night vision goggles work – they sense the infrared light produced by bodies of different temperature and then display images on a screen but in visible light. The emission of infrared light by warm bodies is why it gets cooler at night, particularly on a clear night. The warm surface of the Earth produces infrared light that escapes into space. Since there is no sunlight at night to replace the energy lost, the Earth’s surface cools down.

All of this would be just a nice bit of science if it weren’t for one problem. Carbon dioxide is an amazing absorber (and re-emitter) of infrared light. Imagine the case of a clear night when infrared light is leaving the Earth’s surface and cooling it down. Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere absorbs infrared light, both coming in and going out. At night, some of the inferred that would normally be heading out into space gets captured. The carbon dioxide then radiates back some of that and some of that gets back to the Earth’s surface where it does its thing and heats up whatever it strikes.

Now, a certain amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is good. If there were no carbon dioxide present in the atmosphere our planet would be much colder overall. But it’s a delicate balance. The problem is that we humans have been upsetting that balance since we started burning coal, oil and natural gas to power our engines and homes starting about 200 years ago. Every time we burn fuels like coal and oil we get energy out of them. That energy is released because of the formation of strong bonds in the two compounds that form, water and carbon dioxide. The strength of those bonds and the mass of the atoms in them, however, is what makes them very good at capturing infrared light that strikes them.

How much carbon dioxide are we talking about?  In 1958 Charles Keeling began sampling the air on an isolated mountain in Hawaii to find out. Just since then, the concentration of carbon dioxide has gone from just over 300 parts per million to over 400 parts per million. That’s a 28% increase in under 70 years. This is not a natural change. It’s a change due to all six billion of us producing a lot of carbon dioxide by burning fossil fuels.

The same energy that you see manifest in the spinning of the whirly-gig is the same energy that warms up the planet after traveling to us from the sun. Once that energy, in the form of infrared light gets here, and some of that energy leaves the planet, also as infrared light. But some of it gets trapped by carbon dioxide and other molecules in our atmosphere, an atmosphere that we’ve altered to a degree that too much of that infrared light stays here on Earth.

That is the (long) and complicated reason why excess carbon dioxide is the origin of human-caused climate change. If you have questions or comments, especially ways to improve this post, please leave them below. Note that posts are moderated.

Lessons for political discussions from science education

The 2016 Presidential election has made everyone more aware of the growing political gulf in the United States. We have a natural desire to explain to those around us how we feel, to get others to change their minds, or at least help others empathize with our political positions. But we also need to find better ways to talk to one another.

It may seem surprising, but I believe those of us who teach science using research-based methods have something to contribute to this discussion. Every day we step into the classroom, we attempt to convince our students of the need to learn something and the need to learn it in a way that may seem unusual or unnecessary to them.

Here are a few ways that lessons from science education might be applied to political discourse.

  1. Misconceptions abound. In teaching science we often find that students have misconceptions  — ideas that differ or contradict scientific understandings. One famous example from physics is the rock on a string. Many students believe that if you swing a rock on a string and the string breaks, the rock will keep moving in a circular manner. In fact, it moves in a straight line in the direction it was traveling when the string broke. In this case students do not have sufficient experience with this situation and are relying on their intuition about motion. In other cases misconceptions come from misunderstandings or poor prior instruction. If you have only studied rocks on strings in calculations for circular motion you may start to forget the reason for the string.

    The analogy to political discussions is not perfect here. Misconceptions in science correspond to a provable truth. In politics we are arguing between various choices which may be more right or less bad than others.  That said, I think the analogy holds. If you are intent on having productive political discussions it is important to remember that the person you are talking to has different experiences than yours. They may have different intuitions about politics or they may have had personal experiences that strongly orient their views. Those views may be so different from your own that they cannot understand your perspective, or you theirs.

  2. Discovering misconceptions requires discussion, patience and a lack of judgement. When I used to lecture I never even knew my students had misconceptions, at least until I gave an exam. While reading their answers to the exam I would wonder “Where did that come from?” I now teach very differently, with my students working in small groups, and often it is only when I am sitting with a group that I realize a misconception is preventing students from learning. The trick is, no one ever raises their hand and says “I’m having a misconception.” They ask an unrelated question which requires several steps of back-tracking to discover that the real problem is an (incorrect) assumption that they did not realize they had made. This back-tracking requires a great deal of patience on the instructors part, but also a lack of judgement. If you tell a student one of their misconceptions is stupid, they are unlikely to engage with you in that in-depth discussion again in the future.

    Some misconceptions in the political sphere are going to seem pretty obvious,  but my guess is that most people have a more nuanced views that you will only discover with long, non-judgmental discussions.

  3. Misconceptions are extremely difficult to overcome. In science classes we find that simply telling students the correct concept does not overcome their misconceptions. Students may be able to parrot back an explanation for a day or two, but a week later on an exam they revert to their prior (incorrect) understanding. In other words, it does no good whatever to tell someone they are wrong. They either will not believe you, or will revert to their prior belief after you end your discussion.

    How do you overcome misconceptions? In science class students have to undergo what is called a “conceptual change”. In a conceptual change students must receive and trust evidence which is completely incongruous with their prior understanding. If the evidence is merely somewhat incongruous, the student will revise their old understanding to fit the new information. To evince conceptual change you must also a new way of thinking that is substantially better. If it is only marginally better, the student reverts.

    In the political context, all the facts and numbers in the world will do no good whatsoever. If you don’t believe me, count the number of times you have ended an argument by giving a statistic, upon which the other person admits that you were right all along. If you come up with a number greater than 2, well, I suspect you’re kidding yourself. You have to find an example of a case that the person can believe, and which is completely incongruous with their previous stance. If this sounds hard, it is. It’s difficult in science class where I know what the damn chemicals are going to do when I mix them. People are much harder. But if you know this going in you have a greater chance of being heard and understood.

  4. Jargon is your enemy. The absolute worst way to teach science is to begin with vocabulary. If you define all of your terms then try to teach, you’ve lost. In other words, I could explain oxidation and reduction, molecular orbital energies and radical species before I start talking about what a flame is. Or, I can talk about flames in everyday language and then, if necessary, introduce the fancy language of science. The language just gets in the way and make exciting topics really dry and boring. I’m hopeful that someday the textbook companies will catch on to this, but that’s a topic for a different post.

    In terms of politics, don’t start with the phrase “single payer” or “earned income tax credit”. The other person’s mind is trying to figure out what you mean by those words and doesn’t hear you while you advance your well-crafted, convincing argument. Worse, those words may have a negative connotation for the listener, in which case they’ve already tuned you out.

  1. Things don’t change in a day. It is pretty frequent that a student, two or three years later, will drop by to tell me that they were discussing a topic in an advanced class when a concept from my class “suddenly clicked”. Learning doesn’t always happen within the tidy confines of a semester or a classroom. Sometimes it takes someone else saying it differently (or, infuriatingly, saying it the exact same way) for a student to learn something.

    The same is going to be true with political discussions. Someone might disparage your information, or your logic or you emotions now, but sometime in the future they might suddenly grasp your argument and embrace it as their own.

I hope this is a helpful way for us to find new ways to approach political dialogue. If you have thoughts or ideas, please share in the comments!

The Carrot Incident: Address to the OCU 2016 graduate commencement

GradSpeechSmThe following is the prepared version of the address I gave at the Oklahoma City University Graduate Commencement on May 7, 2016.

If you would rather watch the speech, it begins at 24:00 here.

When I was asked to give the graduate commencement address, I started thinking about my own graduate commencement. I spent five years in the alternate universe that is grad school, but that was coming to an end and I had to decide what to do next. My choices were to either stay in science and move to a new lab somewhere else, or I could do something different.

In the back of my head I’d always had this crazy idea about teaching high school science. For advice I turned to a very influential person in my life, my high school chemistry teacher, Cynthia Macarevich. When I took chemistry from “Mrs. Mac” just down the street here at Northwest Classen, it was an epiphany.  The angels sang, the light shone down and I knew that chemistry was the thing I both loved and was good at.  And I wanted to be the kind of teacher that made his students feel the same way.

Macarevich was very encouraging and told me she’d contact some friends. About a week later I had first an interview, then a job offer to teach science at a brand new school, Harding Charter Prep High School, here in Oklahoma City. The moral of this part of the story is, be nice to your teachers, they may get you a job someday.

By the day of my own graduate commencement, the day I got this hood, I knew I was going to be a high school teacher. I was excited and maybe a little over-confident, because I was going to be the best science teacher ever. The reality, of course, was somewhat different.

I struggled through my first year of teaching, which is always the toughest, then one day my second year of teaching in my intro chemistry class and I was giving a lecture about color. As an example I was using beta-carotene, the compound that gives carrots their orange color. I had this whole back story about not all carrots being orange. Some are in fact white or yellow, even purple, and the orange color we have today was carefully selected by growers in part to please the royal House of Orange, which my students were also studying in European History. In the middle of what I thought was this great lecture a student raised his hand and said “OK, I’m confused, where do carrots come from?” This caught me off guard, but I started to say “You know, you put the seed in the soil and you water it,” when the student interrupted me, “Wait, you mean carrots are plants?”

I paused a moment and said “Of course they’re plants.” After another pause I said “Who was your biology teacher last year?” I already knew the answer, of course, but the student had to think about, then he said “You were!”

This was a turning point in my teaching career. It bothered me for months. This moment, which I now think of as “The Carrot Incident”, crystallized a year and a half of frustration, of realizing I was not seeing the results in my students I wanted. In spite of the hours I spent working on my lectures and preparing clever lab experiments for them, they weren’t learning. This was obvious to me every time I graded an exam. When my students did “learn” I had trouble pushing them past the level of memorization. They weren’t learning science in my class. Most of the time they were copying down notes and failing to make any sense of them.

The Carrot Incident forced me to begin to rethink the way I was teaching. You see, I couldn’t blame anyone else for this. I was this students’ teacher, and I had every opportunity when I taught biology to have my students grow plants from seeds, to water and care for them, to measure and observe their growth, to study their flowers, to pollinate them. It would have been a simple, inexpensive and really effective project, but one that never occurred to me. I could have had them handling real fossils and not just talking about them, I could have had them doing reactions and making measurements instead of focusing so much on symbols and equations. In other words, I could have had them doing science instead of telling them about it.

I was also beginning to realize I had been making a lot of assumptions. I was assuming these kids would be able to learn the same way I did. I was also forgetting that I grew up in a house with garden in the back and helped out with planting, harvesting and at least sometimes eating what came out of the garden. I was beginning to realize that I had layers of assumptions and biases about what teaching looked like and that I would have overcome these to become a better teacher.

As a new teacher you wonder “Maybe it’s just my students”, but one year I had the opportunity to be a grader for the AP Chemistry exam. That year they locked 250 of us in a barn at the Nebraska State Fairgrounds for 7 hours a day in absolute silence. Over 8 days we graded 100,000 exams.

I was assigned what I thought was a simple essay question, but most students (mind you, theses are the best and brightest high school students in the nation) received either 0 or 1 out of 8 possible points. These were not blank pages, these were page after page explanations that were completely wrong. Not just a little wrong. The exact opposite of correct. We had a lot of what we called “hard earned zeros”.

Other people grading that question were outraged at what they were reading. They kept saying, “Well, what I tell my students is….”.  And I wanted to scream “Apparently, it doesn’t matter what you tell your students.” Because out of the 1500 or so answers I scored that week, 2 papers were completely correct.

But that’s just it. What you say in a classroom setting doesn’t matter. The research is quite clear on this. What matters is creating an environment and situations in which students can talk and discuss their own ideas and confront their own misconceptions. It turns out that a bunch of people had already reached the same conclusion and figured out what to do about it.  And I was lucky enough to wander into a workshop they were giving at an American Chemical Society conference in 2005.

I learned from that workshop and many others how to teach in a completely different way. I almost never give a lecture anymore. My students walk into the classroom, sit in groups of 3 or 4 and work through activities that I’ve written. Those activities ask them questions that force them to look at data, then analyze, question, and argue with each other about the data. Somewhere in the middle the activity will introduce a new concept or an equation, then the students will apply that new knowledge, and walk out the door with the same chemistry they would learn if I were lecturing. I walk around and answer questions, usually with more questions. But most of the time I hide in the corner and listen as they figure it out on their own.

Along the way they learn not only the chemistry but also how to work with other people, how to manage their time and, most important, how to begin to be independent thinkers.

Getting used to teaching this way has taken a lot of reorganizing what I think it means to be a teacher. You have to understand that we are all part of, and are products of, universities. And universities are steeped in tradition. The university grew out of monasteries in medieval Europe, and you’ll notice that we’re still wearing their clothes. But we’re not just wearing their clothes, we’re still using their teaching methods.

The use of lecture in universities pre-dates the printing press in Europe, but it is still held in highest esteem in academia. We honor people by asking them to give a talk. Since I got this award my students have been teasing me that it’s funny that I, of all people, have to get up today and give a lecture.

Chemical education researchers have shown that after 5 minutes of a lecture about 90% of the students in the room have become distracted. So, graduates, I want to make two points, and then I’m done.  First, if you have kids, please plant a garden with them, or at least a window box or even a little container in the window. Their science teachers will thank you later. Every spring, Jennifer and I involve the kids in planting our garden. My son’s favorite thing to grow just happens to be purple carrots.

My second point and final point is that even though most of you will not become teachers or professors, you will be leaders in your company or your hospital or wherever you find yourself. And at some point, you will realize that something you have assumed, something you took for granted about your field, is completely wrong. You will have a Carrot Incident. And when you do, you will be frustrated and confused, but then you will start to see everything in a new light and suddenly you will realize that all of the evidence has been there, staring you in the face. You will also look around and find there are others who have the same problem, and then you can get to work figuring out how to do things in a new and better way.

Graduates, I wish you the best of luck, and Godspeed. Thank you.

Why particles matter

NaCl models

NaCl is an ionic compound consisting of a lattice of positive and negatively charged ions. Many students hold the misconception that it and all compounds are molecular compound.

The idea of atoms is the single key idea that separates chemistry from the alchemy. Atoms provide a non-magical explanation for the central tenants of chemistry from stoichiometry (the masses of compounds in a reaction are proportional to one another because of the ratio of atoms) to intermolecular forces (the properties of atoms within molecules explain boiling and melting point of compounds) to kinetics (the rate and energy of collisions between atoms controls the speed of reactions).

Given the importance of atoms it is odd that we do not focus on them more. We tend to focus more on number crunching and symbolic representations (think reaction equations) than on atoms. That, however, is changing as the research on misconceptions and multiple representations has forced us think harder about what it means to educate young chemists. Students need to learn to represent atoms, ions and molecules to gain a deeper and more expert-like understanding of chemical phenomena.

In 2014 I wrote an article for the Journal of Chemical Education’s special issue on the new AP Chemistry curriculum. That curriculum has a strong emphasis on particles – and in particular particle diagrams – not seen in more traditional curricula. I felt like that aspect of the curriculum was going to be tough for teachers to know how to approach and so wrote the article to fill that need.

My article about particle representations in the Journal of Chemical Education is now available as an open access article. It is free to read it online and distribute in any way. The only thing I ask is that you attribute the work to me when you share it. Otherwise I hope you will find it interesting and helpful to your practice of teaching chemistry.

How I stopped lecturing

How I stopped lecturing

When I finished graduate school I made an usual choice.  Instead of pursuing a post-doc I moved back to my home town, Oklahoma City, and became a founding teacher at a charter high school. And there I taught science the way I had been taught science, from high school through grad school. I lectured nearly every day. I also conducted labs that were similar to labs I had encounter in my own education, mostly labs that practiced skills and calculations we had already learned in lecture.

After two years of teaching this way I came across two problems. The first was my students weren’t learning anything from my lectures. Obviously this was my students’ fault (or perhaps their middle school teachers’ fault), since my lectures were nothing short of brilliant. The second and more bothersome problem was that the way I was teaching science had very little to do with how I had practiced science as a graduate student. In grad school I took on a project that had only vague rules to it. There was a chemical system (iron oxide nanocrystals) and a technique (I won’t bore you with the details), but that was it. The project was guided by speculation about previous data, then planning experiments, then collecting data, then speculating about the data, then planning more experiments, then more data. This problem bothered me more because there was no way to blame my students for this.

Somewhere in my brain, an idea was half forming, that maybe we could teach science starting with data. About the same time I had a disconcerting interaction with a student which convinced me that my students were learning very little and harboring significant scientific misconceptions (such as that carrots are not plants). Then I attended an American Chemical Society meeting in San Diego and attended a Chemical Education session that seemed to be mostly about AP and General Chemistry. The session was all about a teaching method I had never heard of called POGIL. I didn’t fully understand it, but later at the expo I met Jim Spencer, who helped develop the POGIL method and who pushed a book into my hand (under the unhappy eye of the textbook salesman) and said “Here, take this, you need to do this.”

POGIL would turn out to revolutionize my teaching. In that workbook were activities for students to be used in small groups in which the students were provided data and had to draw conclusions from it. In other words, they had to learn from the data rather than from me. The students finally had to do what I did in graduate school – construct their own understanding, starting from data. I immediately tried it with my students, and remember very clearly one of my most difficult, disengaged students telling me, “Dr. P, this is good.”

I had some fits and starts implementing POGIL the next year, but eventually I had a system down. I found that I was more successful writing my own activities for my students because at the time there were only college-level texts and I was working with sophomores and juniors at an urban high school. By my fourth year of teaching high school I was using POGIL nearly every day, either in lecture or lab. I now teach at the college level and I almost never lecture except on days when I have to convey algorithmic problem solving techniques like unit conversion. Otherwise my students work in small groups on the POGIL activities I have written and, without giving a lecture, my students learn the material and more. They also learn how to work in a group, to pace themselves, to take ownership of their learning and assess whether or not they understand. They learn not only the chemistry, but also a set of skills for being independent scholars.

While I was teaching with POGIL at the high school the POGIL Project, a group that teaches about and promotes the use of POGIL, began fostering projects for high school teachers that eventually produced workbooks for high school chemistry, high school biology, AP Biology and most recently a lab manual for AP Chemistry. Hundreds of teachers around the country are now using POGIL every day to enhance the education of their students. I was lucky to be a part of the early work on this, and I owe it to Jim Spencer for giving me a book and the POGIL Project helping me see a way to teach in some way other than through lecture.

If you want more information on POGIL, you can watch this video and visit the POGIL project’s website.

Learning and the ladybug picnic

My son and I were watching Sesame Street, and an (updated) version of the The Ladybug Picnic. The ladybugs appear one at a time, with three on each of four sides of a picnic blanket. My son (who is 5, and about to enter Kindergarten) says “Did you ever notice that four threes is twelve?” After he did this he counted it out on his fingers to confirm it and proved to me (and himself) that he was right.

My son has no formal education in multiplication. He doesn’t know anything about times tables, and would not know what an “x” between two numbers (or a dot, or any other symbol) means. He was given a set of data (in this case an image of four sets of three ladybugs), made an observation and double checked his conclusion.

I was delighted by his observation because (1) I am a proud papa and (2) it exemplifies my own teaching. I teach by having students work in small groups of three or four on inquiry activities that I design. Each activity starts with data − a graph, a table, an animation, or a set of molecular models to play with. Each day in class, my students talk, argue, and discuss the meaning of that data, and develop a better understanding of the material than they would if I just told them about it. It was affirming and exciting, then,  to see my son make the same sort of connection I help my students make in chemistry. If you give students the right data and a little prodding it is truly surprising what they can learn .