It’s been a week since 17 people were killed at Douglas High School in Parkland, FL.  In that time there have been funerals, tears, and grieving.  You know, the usual sort of thing that happens when over a dozen people are slaughtered by a lunatic in a school.

What’s not usual, however, is that the students of Douglas High School seem to be getting annoyingly vocal in expressing themselves about the matter.  After past shootings, the survivors have generally been shown on TV as Grieving Victims (TM), which provides nice ratings for the evening news channels.  These survivors, on the other hand, are getting annoying by actually speaking out against gun violence.  Some have even started their own anti-gun violence charity, called “Never Again MSD.”  It’s really quite inconvenient for the talking heads and politicians.

Some pundits, fortunately, have shown the courage to stand up for the second amendment.  Dinesh D’Souza has been quoted by the Washington Post as calling this “politically-orchestrated grief.”  Similarly, when these kids were shocked after the Florida state legislature decided not to even discuss anti-gun legislation, the same pundit said that it must have been the “Worst news since their parents told them to get summer jobs.”

So, here’s the big question:  What gives these kids the right to speak out against gun violence?  After all, it’s self-evident that policymakers have studied the issue a lot longer than they have, and have far more experience in crafting legislation.  What could possibly make them reasonable voices for gun control?

  • The first amendment.  The second amendment says that Americans have the right to bear arms.  The first amendment guarantees freedom of speech.  It’s ridiculous to try to defend the second amendment by denying the first.
  • The first amendment (part 2):  I read somewhere online that since many of these kids are younger than 18, they don’t enjoy the same right to speech under the constitution that adults do.  Sorry, but that’s not true.  No matter how old you are, you enjoy the same constitutional freedoms.
  • They’re not overreaching.  It is completely unreasonable that anybody would claim to understand the workings of gun legislation within the span of a week.  Fortunately, these kids aren’t pretending to completely understand anything.  They haven’t made any concrete policy statements – instead, they’re simply asking people to consider doing something about gun violence.  I don’t think this is too much to ask.
  • They’ve been shot at.  When students go to school, they should expect to get homework, lousy lunch food, and the occasional embarrassing interaction in the hall.  What they shouldn’t expect is to have 62 grains of 5.56×45 full metal jacketed goodness launched toward them at over 3,000 feet per second.  I don’t think it’s unreasonable for students who have experienced this to say inconvenient things like “What can we do to avoid having 62 grains of 5.56×45 full metal jacketed goodness launched toward us at over 3,000 feet per second in the future?”
  • They have the responsibility to act.  OK… I’ll admit it, they don’t have any unusual responsibility to act against gun violence.  Nope – we all have the responsibility to discuss this issue.  Even yelling at each other is better than the non-interactions we seem to be fond of.

Let’s dial it back a bit.  17 kids died at Douglas High School, but an average of 102 people die on the roads every day.  Though terrible, isn’t this tragedy insignificant in the main scheme of things?

Well, I guess it depends.  If you’re looking at numbers alone, it’s true that we should be a lot more afraid of dying in a car crash than we should be do die in a school shooting.  However, in the past, we’ve taken lots of steps to make cars safer for the occupants.  Seat belts, crumple zones, airbags, and other measures have halved the per capita vehicle death rate since 1970.

What steps have we done to halve shooting deaths?  Until the answer is “everything we can,” these kids should keep talking.


Sexual Harassment in Schools (Part 1)

Part 1:  Employer/employee harassment in schools

As of this writing, Matt Lauer of the Today show and Garrison Keillor of Prairie Home Companion fame have been accused of sexual harassment and been removed from the media.  This seems like a good response.

I’ve noticed that (as of this writing), there haven’t been women accused of the same sort of employer/employee sexual harassment.  In the most recent statistics I’ve been able to find (, more than 3/4 of all educators are women, but I’ve never heard of women harassing men in the schools.

When considering this, I came up with a few theories about why men harass women.  Let’s take a look:

Theory 1:  The biology of men is more likely to make them harass then the biology of women.

There’s no doubt that men and women are biologically different from one another.  However, is this difference in biology responsible for this different behavior?

My guess, based on the fact that neither male staff nor female school staff seem to be significantly harassing one another (at least, I haven’t found any statistics on the matter) would suggest that this isn’t the case.  There are incidents of harassment on both sides, but by the lack of good data I could find, it would seem that these numbers aren’t particularly high on either side.  Men and women are biologically-different, but it doesn’t appear that this has anything to do with biology.

Theory 2:  Men have always harassed women – the current harassment just reflects the way that society has always been.

I’m going to reject this theory straightaway.  I’m not going to deny that men have always harassed women, because it’s pretty clear that this is the case.  However, I’m looking more for the reason why men would harass women in the first place, and this theory seems to presuppose that there was a time when this didn’t happen.  Why did it start?

Theory 3:  Men abuse their power.  Women would do the same thing if given a chance.

I found it hard to find any very good data about whether men in positions of power are involved in sexual harassment more than women in similar positions.  If you Google this, you’ll see what I mean – most of the results asking about the rates of women harassing men lead to articles which have a “men are victims, too” message without supporting data.  This isn’t going to work.

Let’s take a look at the rates of sexual abuse of students by teachers.  Looking at the stats ( we can see that, while male teachers are responsible for a bit more of the abuse than female teachers – 57% vs 43%, there’s the confounding factor that there are far fewer male teachers than female teachers.  This suggests that male teachers are far more likely to harass female students than female students are.  My conclusion from this:  Given a power imbalance, males are more likely to commit sexual harassment than females are.

So, where does this leave us?

It looks like males harass women more than men, and that it probably has a lot to do with an imbalance of power between the abuser and abused.  Which is pretty much what people in the media have been saying.

How to handle this:

Given that there doesn’t seem to be a lot of colleague sexual harassment in the schools, you’d think that nothing needs to be done at all.  However, given that sexual harassment of anybody is so prevalent, we need to take reasonable steps to ensure that the harassment that does happen is dealt with quickly.  Some ideas:

  • Train people about sexual harassment.  Men need to realize what sexual harassment actually is.  Some men think that it’s OK to pat women on the butt, while other men think they’ll go to jail for telling a female coworker that the new haircut looks good.  Some women think that a pat on the butt isn’t that big a deal, while others feel threatened by less serious acts.  Let’s get everybody on the same page so we can agree about what we’re fighting against.
  • Encourage people to report harassment.  If suspected harassment happens, it should be reported.  It should be easy to report harassment and it should be emphasized that it won’t result in negative consequences.
  • Let everybody know that investigations are intended to find the truth.  I get the feeling from talking to women who have been harassed that many of them didn’t report it because they felt as if it were kind of a borderline issue and they didn’t want to ruin the man’s life if it turned out to be a misunderstanding.  If we explicitly make clear that these investigations are meant to simply find out what happened and not to destroy the accused, this might go a long way in removing this problem.
  • Let the punishment fit the crime.  If a man commits a violent sexual assault, prison is clearly the way to go.  However, if a man commits a lesser act of harassment (perhaps an older teacher makes casual sexually-derogatory statements about women in general), perhaps it’s more appropriate to educate them about why this isn’t right, or to move them to another workplace and keep a close eye on them.  Though I don’t have any stats to back it up, I suspect that some of the less extreme acts of sexual harassment are due to stupidity or insensitivity on the part of the harasser, rather than through a desire to victimize somebody.
  • Don’t let this be the flavor of the month:  In education, we tend to change what we do every 10 years, whether it needs changing or not (who remembers CBLs?)  Sexual harassment is not like this.  Training seminars today can’t be stopped when somebody decides there’s no problem.  There is a problem, and we need to continue addressing it.

Now that I’ve solved this problem, stand by for Part 2, which will discuss how to deal with harassment between teachers and students.


What to do about guns?

As most readers undoubtedly know, there was a mass shooting at a country music festival in Las Vegas on Sunday.  At this writing, 58 people lost their lives and over 500 people were injured.  This is a terrible, terrible tragedy.

Of course, immediately after the shooting there were politicians who started using this tragedy to advance their own political agendas.  Hillary Clinton tweeted the next day about how silencers should be banned, despite the fact that they would have had no impact on what happened.  Congressional Republicans have said that there’s no reason for a “knee-jerk” response to what happened (Chris Collins, R-NY; many others have echoed this sentiment).  Basically, the two parties have made up their minds and are advocating the following:

  • “It’s premature to be discussing legislative solutions, if any.” (Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.  This viewpoint essentially says that it’s unreasonable to expect people to behave rationally in the immediate aftermath of a massive shooting.
  • “This must stop – we must stop this.” (Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-AZ).  This viewpoint believes that this shooting should be a call to action to gun control.

They’re both right.

The Republicans are correct in saying that we shouldn’t make important policy decisions when we’re emotional.  Emotional people behave irrationally, and irrational people have the tendency to make irrational decisions.  This helps nobody.

The Democrats are correct in saying that we need to do something.  People are talking about the role of guns in society, and to deny this fact is to deny reality.  Plus, does it really matter when a mass shooting happens?  Does the issue change in importance as time passes?

So, what do we do?

I propose the following solution:

  • Set up a firm date around the start of next year to discuss gun control in a definitive way.  We’ll make a commission, etc.
  • The commission should consist of people who are accepted as impartial by both parties.  When the commission has spoken, neither party will be able to claim that the vote was rigged.
  • Most importantly, the commission will consist of people who are kind of confused about the role guns should play in our culture.  We don’t want people who are rabidly pro-gun and we don’t want people who have spent their lives trying to ban them.  In short, we want people who aren’t sure where they stand and can be convinced by impartial evidence.

So, who are these commission members?  I nominate myself for the job.  I don’t know whether guns should be legal, and if so which guns should be legal.  My resume includes the following items:

  • I think guns are kind of fun:  If you’ve never held a gun in your hands and fired it at a range, you really don’t understand why gun owners have such an attachment to their guns.  It’s truly fun to put little holes in targets while making a lot of noise.  On the other hand, I don’t feel any particular need to make shooting a big hobby of mine.  It’s fun, but not really worth the money to do it.
  • I don’t own a gun:  I kind of want a gun, but my wife said I didn’t need one.  She’s right – I live in a safe neighborhood without armed marauders.  I don’t feel any need to go behind her back and get a gun, but if she changes her mind I’d be OK with it.
  • I think that a lot of the people arguing for and against gun control are missing the point:  The NRA wants to repeal the “Safe Students Act”, which designates schools as gun-free areas, while gun control activists try to avoid saying “second amendment” whenever possible.  Both groups have their agenda and neither is interested in trying to see the other’s side.

In short, we don’t need experts to decide what’s right.  We need people who are both smart and impartial to decide gun policy.

Just as important as the commission members is the questions they’ll have to answer in the course of their investigations:

  • How many people are killed or injured in an unjustified manner with firearms?  If somebody is breaking into your home and you shoot them, this would qualify as justified.  If you get mad at the guy who steals your paper and you shoot them, this would not.  you get the idea.
  • How many people are saved through the intervention of guns in the hands of private citizens?  How many violent crimes are prevented either through the use or threat of use of firearms?
  • What guns should be allowed?  Are rocket launchers OK?  How about .22 squirrel guns?  Or the .50 cal Desert Eagle?  Or suppressors?  Or hunting rifles?
  • How many guns should one person have?  One gun?  Five guns?  A gun collection?  A huge armory?
  • Who should be allowed to have guns?  Everyday people?  Convicted felons who have served their sentences?  Soldiers who have been treated for PTSD?  People with a history of mental illness?  People under the age of 21?
  • What effect would bans really have?  Let’s work under the assumption that a particular bit of legislation was passed.  If this were to happen, how would it affect the answers to the questions asked above and how would that change our feelings about gun ownership?

It’s pretty obvious that an impartial committee such as this will ever be formed.  For that to happen, people on both sides will have to admit that there’s room for compromise on this issue, and that some of their beliefs may not be right.  Doing so would probably cause politicians on both sides of the aisle to have huge heart attacks.  Unfortunately, I think we’re stuck for now with posturing over reason.

See you at the next mass shooting!


Flipped classrooms

I recently got an email about flipped classrooms:

After looking over your site and your lesson plans, you seem to do the normal lecture/lab during class time, with homework assignments to take home.  This is how I set up my classes right now as well and it seems to work well.
However, a math teacher in our school is going to be implementing a flipped classroom approach next year.  Just was curious what your thoughts are on the approach and the effectiveness of this in a science classroom?  I love how the approach creates more time for the students to have hands-on project time/lab time/discussions in class, and that it creates more student-based learning.  But I figured I would reach out to someone who has more experience, and probably a lot more interaction with other science teachers, before I implement anything too drastic in my classroom!

I’ll be totally honest:  I know very little about flipped classrooms.  I know a little bit about what they are, but I’ve never seen them used in practice and I’ve never used them with my own students.

When people are interested in trying something drastically new in their teaching, I like to have them ask themselves the following questions to figure out if it’s really a good idea:

  • Have you seen it work?  If you’ve never actually seen anybody teach using a particular method, I would suggest doing so before you try it out.  Though research™ may support one method over another, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to teaching.  When you see another teacher having success with the students in your area, then you know that it’s at least possible to use it well.
  • Are you unhappy with what you’re doing now?  If things are going swimmingly in your classes, then it makes no sense to switch to something else.  If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
  • Is it possible to significantly improve?  If what you’re doing now works, then there may not be much room for your students to improve their understanding of the material. In a case like this, you may just want to tweak what you’re doing now.  On the other hand, if you’re just not reaching your students, it’s almost certainly the case that something needs to change.
  • Can you make the change?  When I read this question I asked myself a hard question:  Would I be able to change to this method if I was asked to?  Honestly, I think I wouldn’t be very successful.  While I like to think of myself as an innovative powerhouse, I’m not sure I could wrap my brain around such a drastic change.

The answer to your question, then, is “it depends.”  It depends on how you answer these questions and it depends on your own circumstances.

Ultimately, the whole thing boils down to the question “How do I want to teach?”  This is something that we’ve all experienced in our first few years teaching, where we tried something and it bombed, then we tried something else and it bombed… for a couple of years or so.  Eventually we found something that works and, with variations over time, that’s how we keep doing things.

However, people change and grow.  Personally, I am quite happy and comfortable with how I teach.  If you’ve grown into the type of teacher who wants a new challenge, or thinks that something new would energize you, then a change is certainly warranted. Just like your first years of teaching, it won’t be easy and sometimes it won’t be fun, but if it’s the right decision for you, it will ultimately be far more rewarding than continuing your current methods.

Personally, I wouldn’t pursue a flipped classroom.  However, the fact that you’re asking the question at all makes me think that it might be a good idea for you to give it a shot. That’s something you have to decide for yourself.


Dear Stephen Hawking: Stop Embarrassing Yourself

It seems lately that every time I read the news there’s some new pronouncement by Stephen Hawking that we need to get humanity into space soon if we don’t want the human race to die.  He started off saying that it needed to be within 1000 years, and now we’re down to 100.  I wouldn’t be surprised if next week he didn’t put out a press release saying that we’ve got 37 days to get humanity into space or we’re all doomed.

Now, before you think I’m going to argue that Stephen Hawking is an idiot, let me first say that I have the utmost respect for the man and for his accomplishments to science.  I may not actually have any idea what any of these accomplishments are, but I know black holes are in there somewhere.  And lots and lots of math.

The problem I have with Stephen Hawking’s pronouncements is that he simply doesn’t know what he’s talking about.  He’s a very good astrophysicist and possibly the smartest man alive.  However, his field is environmentalism or space travel or asteroids or whatever – his field is astrophysics.  It’s true that he’s a smart guy, but he’s no more qualified to make big pronouncements about the end of the world than I am.  And, in turn, I’m no more qualified to make big pronouncements about these things than anybody else.  I’d be willing to bet that nobody really has what takes to make big pronouncements like this because we simply don’t have enough information about the issue.  Humanity may be ending and it may not.  To say that we’ve got some particular deadline before the plug is pulled, however, implies a level of precision that we simply don’t have.

A similar thing came up in 2014 when Mr. Hawking stated that there is no God and that His existence simply isn’t possible.  I’m not sure what Mr. Hawking’s background is, but I can say that my Master’s Degree in Theology, when combined with my scientific knowledge, makes me a little more qualified to talk about God than Mr. Hawking.  So, let’s hear what I, a learned person and arguable expert, has to say about this issue:

There’s no verifiable evidence for or against the existence of God.  To say that “He exists” or “He doesn’t exist” is premature.  To say anything else is a judgment call based in non-scientific reasoning.

See what I did there?  With my fairly good knowledge of both science and modern theology I was able to definitively say that I don’t actually have any reason to believe in God or not.  I mean, I do believe in God, but this is not based in science – to say that my belief is in any way scientific is 100% wrong.

I wish Mr. Hawking would have the modesty to realize that perhaps he doesn’t know everything.  He may very well be right that humanity will die if we don’t move to Mars next week and he may very well be right that God doesn’t exist.  However, he has no evidence to state either of these opinions as facts.  For now, he’ll have to admit that its what he thinks and not what he knows.  And in science, that matters very much.


It’s time to retire the TI-83

If you have a look on Amazon, you’ll see that everybody’s favorite calculator, the TI-83, costs $89.99 USD.  If you want to live it up a little and get the TI-84 Plus, you’ll be out $99.99.


The specs for the TI-84 Plus are very impressive, sporting as processor that works at either 6 or 15 MHz and either 48 or 128 MB RAM (depending on model), with 24 MB accessible to the user.  Pretty slick stuff.

I’ve heard that the reason we keep the TI-83/84 series around is that teachers know how they work and that schools get good prices on them.  Just for fun, let’s see what alternatives to the TI-83/84 are available:

  • The Raspberry Pi Zero:  If you were to make the switch to this little device, you’d get four times the RAM and 67 times the processing speed.  Bonus:  You’d be able to buy 20 of them for the price of one TI-84, plus you could run a full-version of the Linux operating system on it.  (Note:  There are several other, much burlier, versions of the Pi, but the cost may be prohibitive – at $35 each).
  • Chromebook:  For $20 more than the TI-84, you could buy a refurbished Samsung Chromebook, running a 1.6 GHz processor and with 2 GB RAM and a 16 GB SSD. Bonus:  They are fully functional, fast computers.
  • Smartphone:  If you’d like the functionality of a graphing calculator at a fraction of the cost, just about any smartphone will do.  If you were to buy any smartphone and run it on Wi-Fi instead of getting a cellular plan, you could get the same functionality as the TI-83/84 series calculators for less than half the price.  Bonus:  Angry Birds!
  • Windows Stick:  I know I sound like a cheerleader for Linux sometimes, so let’s see what we could get in a Windows computer.  Head over to Amazon and search for “Windows Stick” and you’ll find a brand new stick computer running Windows 10 for just over $97.  Bonus:  You could use it to literally do all of your other classroom jobs.
  • One of those dollar store calculators:  You can get a four-function calculator at a dollar store that does about 99% of what you’d ever need from a calculator.  Bonus:  For the price of 1 TI-83, you could buy enough for three classrooms full of kids.

I know that some of you are unconvinced.  However, ask yourself this question:  How often have my students actually needed a graphing calculator, and how often could they have gotten away with a much cheaper scientific calculator?  The only real difference between the TI-83/84 and the $9 TI-30 scientific calculators is the graphing function.  Do we, as educators, really need to make our schools and students pay an extra $80+ dollars each because graph paper is hard to find?

It’s time for Texas Instruments to move along, or at the very least to provide technology that fits the price tag.

It’s time to talk about something important

My son’s Cub Scout pack is going on a camping trip tomorrow and despite my hatred of the outdoors and everything that exists there, my wife has told me that I, as the cubmaster, have to attend.

Like a good cubmaster, I headed off yesterday to the campsite to see what sort of activities and such were available.  It’s a nice place with real bathrooms, campfire pits, and even elevated platforms for the tents.  I even bought a straw hat to wear during my cubmasterly duties.

Unfortunately, I decided to push my luck and check out the hiking trail.  Though I’m used to hiking trails being made of packed dirt, or perhaps crushed gravel, this hiking trail is a knee-length ribbon of lawn.  I’d never seen anything like it before, so I walked in about fifteen meters to have a look.  Yep, the whole trail looked like that.  Weird.

It wasn’t until I got back to the car that I realized that I’d picked up more than a sense of puzzlement by the odd surroundings.  I’d picked up ticks.  Lots of them.

As somebody who hates everything that’s not climate-controlled, I was not surprised to find that my short walk on a weird lawn had produced terrible results.  That’s the sort of thing that the outdoors is famous for.  What did surprise me was the speed with which my pants and shoes were mobbed by the little bloodsuckers.

Because ticks are the most awful things on the entire planet earth, I thought I’d pass along some tick-related information to help you, should you ever be locked out of your house and/or car:

  • Ticks spread a lot of really scary diseases.  Lyme disease is the most commonly-known of these, but there’s also one called Q-fever that sounds pretty terrifying.
  • DDT kills ticks.  We must do whatever we can to bring back the use of DDT in the United States, even if it means the death of every single bald eagle.
  • There’s a tick called the Australian Paralysis Tick, which demonstrates once again that every single bit of wildlife in Australia is terrifying.
  • I just thought of what it would be like if a tick stuck to your eyeball.  Now you’ve got that idea in your head.  Awful, isn’t it?

There are literally several other facts I could mention about ticks, but I don’t feel like looking them up.  Though I have, traditionally, not been a fan of President Trump’s policies, my experience with ticks has caused me to embrace his “murder every living thing on the planet with toxic gases and pave over their corpses” environmental policy. And until these ticks are gone, I want to encourage you to support it, too.