An (over)abundance of caution?

As I write this, many schools across the nation are considering whether to return to virtual learning as the COVID-19 Omicron variant is picking up steam. It should be no surprise to anybody that this has resulted in much wailing and gnashing of teeth from those who believe either that we should continue school no matter what happens or those who feel like even the most infinitesimal risk of illness should close schools. At this moment, my school has decided that we’re going back, though this is, of course, subject to change as conditions change.

I think most people agree that there are conditions where schools should be stopped. The real question on most people’s minds is where we draw the line between an abundance of caution keeping us out of school when it’s reasonable to do so, and an overabundance of caution keeping us out of school even when it’s not necessary. Certainly, teachers and students would both like to have some idea of where this line lies.

Unfortunately, there’s no single line. Different communities have different ideas of what’s safe, and within these communities you may see next door neighbors having vastly different ideas of what’s right. This also doesn’t even keep in mind other factors such as:

  • State, local, and CDC guidelines for schools
  • Infection rates, both based on hard numbers from testing and anecdotal evidence (which can sway public opinion).
  • Local beliefs about the appropriateness of vaccination.

And doubtlessly many more.

So, what do we as teachers and students do, given all of the factors involved. Simply put, we trust the people who make these decisions. Though I consider myself to be somebody who keeps track of the news fairly well, I don’t have the same resources available to me to make the call for cancellation and I certainly don’t have the time to digest it all. I have to trust that the administration of my school is making the right decision based on the information at hand.

That last phrase is an important one: “based on the information at hand.” Sometimes we may find out that the people who make these decisions have needlessly closed schools, and other times we may find out that they left them open when they should have been closed. Given that we’re learning more about COVID every day, it’s not at all surprising that we might learn that what we all did was wrong. Remember, hindsight is 20/20, and it’s easy to say that somebody should have done something given updated information.

My advice to all of you is to trust the people who make these decisions. They know more about the situation than you or I do, and they very much want to keep both students and faculty safe during the pandemic. Nobody is perfect, but anybody who has devoted their lives to helping kids, as they have, will always make an informed and considered decision. We can count on that.

Demo idea #1

Note: The following is going to be the first in an anticipated series of demos and/or labs that aren’t conducted much, if ever (or, at least, they’re new to me). Please keep in mind that all of the ideas in this series are based on my first impressions of how an idea may be turned into a demo/lab and are not complete demo/labs. As always, this means that if you do any demos or labs based on these ideas, you assume full responsibility for whatever happens, either good or bad.

Because I occasionally get an email with some variant of the question “Where do you get your ideas?” I figured I’d give you folks a window into how I think about new activities. Some of my musings eventually make it into the classroom while others do not, but all of them help me to think about how I can make my classroom more instructive and interesting. Think of this as a look into how I brainstorm – if I remember, I’ll let you know the eventual result of this consideration if/when I use it.

Today’s idea involves the Leidenfrost effect, which is what occurs when a small drop of liquid skitters around on a hot surface, such as water droplets dancing around on the top of a hot skillet. This effect is caused when the extreme heat of the surface causes the bottom layer of the droplet to vaporize, forming a vapor cushion that causes the droplet to float over the hot surface. Read more about it on Wikipedia here.

Of course, when I was in my kitchen I didn’t look up anything online to see what happens. I just looked at the little drops of water dancing around the top of the skittle and thought to myself “it’s cool that surface tension of the water keeps the little droplets together as they dance around, even though the water is at or near the boiling point.

This led to the idea of a lab or demo or something:

  • Do the demonstration with water droplets and have the students guess why the droplets hold together instead of flying apart.
  • Do the demonstration with a variety of other liquids and have the students guess why these droplets either hold together or blow apart. When surface tension comes up, see if there’s a correlation between surface tension and how much droplets hold together.

Now, there are a few things here that I feel I should mention off the bat:

  1. I don’t know that this will actually work, because I just thought of it yesterday in my kitchen. If it doesn’t work, that doesn’t necessarily mean this is a bad activity – just that this phenomenon is more complicated than just surface tension. I have to think about that a bit to see if it’s a demo-killer if that’s what happens.
  2. Coming up with other liquids might be tough. Isopropanol or ethanol are pretty good choices, but for their flammability. I suppose that if you use a hotplate (no open flame) and a very small droplet of either, it shouldn’t really be a problem. I may try this on my own to see what happens – my gut feeling is that if I prepare for the assumption that all of the alcohol in there will instantly explode in the most violent way possible, I should be OK. A fume hood seems like a good bet, with the kids standing back a little ways.
  3. How to measure surface tension? If we compare surface tension to polarity, then I suppose we’d rank the liquids by dipole moment. I hope there’s a tolerable correlation between droplet size and dipole moment.
  4. How to measure droplet cohesion? If that’s the metric that we’re using to determine how well surface tension and/or polarity holds together the droplets, we really need to find some way of figuring out how to do this. Given that the little particles skitter about so much, I’m guessing this may just have to use qualitative and relative observations rather than absolute sizes.

In any case, that’s the first musing that’s come out of my head for the coming school year. I want to again state that this isn’t something I’ve seriously researched at all, and definitely not something that I’ve played with in the lab, so any work you do in developing this should be undertaken in the knowledge that, by reading this, you’ve fully assumed responsibility for whatever happens.

If you should make this into a lab or demo, I’d appreciate it if you’d let me know so I can share it with others!

Try this one crazy trick to get your students excited on the first day of school!

OK, I’ll admit it – there might have been an element of clickbait to the title of this post. However, unlike most clickbait, I’m actually going to deliver on my promise of excitement and action.

The first day of school is the most boring all year. The students know they don’t actually have to do anything but pick up a piece of paper that tells them what they’ll be studying and how they should write their school projects. Maybe there will be an activity where everybody tells the group their favorite flavor of pudding. Whatever it is, there’s nothing much happening.

To keep this from happening in our classes, we chemistry teachers are lucky that we have a subject that requires no preparation or preconceived notions in order for the students to get started. All the students need is goggles and curiosity and they can do something interesting from the very first day. That’s why, on the first day of school, I like to give them a lab.

And not a gratuitously easy lab, either. For example, this year I’ve been remodeling my kitchen and have about a zillion little knobs from each of the drawers and cabinets that’s I’m getting rid of. My first day of class will consist of a quick introduction, the ritual passing out of a syllabus that we’ll discuss at a later time, and the following question: “What element is this knob made of?”

And no, I won’t give them any prior hints or information about how to get started.

As you might guess, an activity like this is somewhat disruptive to the boring first day of school. Instead of being a passive recipient of useless paperwork, students will be expected to use their own creativity and knowledge to figure out what the knob is made of. Some of them will do well, some will have trouble, and some won’t even know what to do. Each of these is A-OK and to be expected.

Your students who know what to do will be energized by the exercise. Finally, we get to do something cool on the first day of school! Finally, a class that in which I can finally use my brain! This is real science!

Other students may feel a little demoralized because they don’t know what to do – don’t worry, because this is normal and to be expected. Actually, that’s what you can come out and say: “Don’t worry if you have problems with this, or if you can’t come up with the answer. That’s normal and to be expected.” Followed by “Use your creativity and you don’t have to worry about a grade.” Your students will undoubtedly be surprised to find out that not only are they not going to be punished for not living up to the example of the curve-breaking kids*, but they’ll actually be rewarded simply for doing their best. Remember: The kids who have trouble are your target audience, and if you can get them confident that they simply can’t screw up, they’ll take the opportunity to shine.

So, what do you do on the first day of school? You listen, learn, and nudge students into exploring. No judging or recriminations are allowed. Just let the kids explore in the environment you’ve provided them.

I don’t know what difficulty level of chemistry I’ll be teaching next year, so I’ve got a variety of different questions to ask the students, depending on whether I’m teaching general chemistry or AP. For example, I might ask the general chemistry students what the knobs are made of, the honors chemistry students if the knobs are made of the same material as the drawer hand pulls, and the AP chemistry students whether these knobs are alloys of two or more metals and, if so, what alloy was used. The question may be different, but the basic idea is the same: If you let the students work at solving an open-ended and creative problem, they’ll be a lot more interested in chemistry than if you tell them that 42% of their grade will be tests.

Try a lab the first day of school. At the worst, the kids will think you’re a science nut, which is never a bad thing. However, far more likely is that the kids will realize that you’re really excited about science and that you’re excited to get them involved, too.

*Yeah, I remember you, Donald Kim from Algebra II in 1987. And I haven’t forgotten.

How to get ready for the next school year

With the school year winding down, some of you teachers are thinking about the many ways that you can get ready for the next one. After all, every day we spend relaxing is another day wasted away from school!

OK, this might not actually be the case. However, there are some ways that we can get ready for the coming school year that help make us to better teachers while still allowing us to do whatever activities we enjoy over the summer. Here’s how to manage this feat:

  1. Get some rest. Yep, if you want to be ready for the next school year, you have to make sure that you’ve gotten enough rest from the last one. Take time off, go visit your families, take the kids to Licensed Character Theme Park, and get sunburned at the beach. You’ll be glad you did.
  2. Keep your mind open to things that might be useful for your teaching. These things can be big or small, developed ideas or very rough ones. Spend two minutes a day considering the events of the past 24 hours to see if your students might benefit from hearing about it.
  3. Write down whatever you found in #2 above. If you just have a simple phrase in mind, write it down. If you’ve got a whole lab in mind, write it out as best you can. I’ve had a Post-It in my home office with the words “vinegar pennies” written on it for a couple of years – I haven’t done anything with it yet, but I may have a stoichiometry lab in the making.

I’ll give you an example of how this works with some events that happened to me this past week.

  1. I’m trying to make the house look nicer and was replacing the pull knobs in the kitchen. Maybe this isn’t exactly “getting some rest”, but I was enjoying doing it.
  2. At one point I had a big bag of metal knobs in front of me and I wondered what they were made of. Perhaps this can be made into a lab!
  3. I wrote down the words “What’s the knob made of, first day?” and put it in my home office. From this I knew to pursue the idea of a first day lab activity where the kids try to figure out what the knobs are made of. This may or may not actually become a lab, but if it doesn’t, it may spark another lab. (And either way, I’ll post the resulting lab on the site when I finish it.)

So get relaxing, have some family time, and kick back by the pool. And if you see something interesting, make a note. It might just be your next exciting lab!

The best that academia has to offer

Our news today comes from MIT, where this article ( has uncovered some huge news. Published in Nature and titled “The Universal Visitation Law of Human Mobility”, the world of sociology and our understanding of human behavior have been changed forever. Here’s the epiphany:

People visit places close to their houses more often than they visit places far from their houses.

Hold on a second… I think I must have missed something. Let me check my notes.

Nope, it turns out that many researchers from all around the world have actually spent lots of time and money figuring out that people tend to travel close to home more than they travel further away from home. Personally, I visit the Target a couple of miles away from my house more often than the Safeway down the street, but I visit the Wal Mart four miles away less often than each. I guess science has succeeded again!

Fanta Orange 330ml x 4 | Approved Food
Why not pick up a Fanta while you’re at Target?

The problem with articles like this is not that they’re simply stupid. I mean, yes, they’re stupid and they tell us intuitively obvious things that aren’t really all that interesting anyway. The problem with these articles is that they give nonscientists the idea that this is what scientists actually do for a living. Instead of working on things that matter, the man on the street gets the idea that scientists are more interested in figuring out how often we visit 7-11 than in trying to find a way to keep grandma’s cancer from metastasizing.

Now, as science types ourselves, we know that the types of scientists who publish articles like these have a few characteristics which make this impression faulty. For instance, the “scientists” who publish these articles aren’t really what we might refer to as scientists at all (I don’t think “social scientist” is a thing) and even if they were, they wouldn’t be the right kind of scientists to do cancer research. Still, perception is everything and I think we can all agree that this is one perception we can do without.

So MIT, maybe save articles like this for the Ig Nobel prizes rather than publishing them as straight news. And don’t worry about grandma – the cancer researchers are still on the job!

What high school graduation means

Though this is the time of year for high school graduation ceremonies, there’s one question that never really gets asked: What does high school graduation actually mean? Every student has their own past experiences and their own futures ahead of them, so how can high school graduation possibly have the same meaning for everybody? And if it doesn’t mean the same thing for everybody, what does it mean?

Instead of trying to force some generalization, I’m going to use examples from friends and former students that I hope will help all of us to understand graduation and why it’s so important (names changed, etc.):

  • Abdul was excited to finish high school so he could go to college and start figuring out his life.
  • Bailey was excited to finish high school so she could move far away from her awful parents and do literally anything else.
  • Cade was excited to leave high school because he was scheduled to head out to Marines boot camp in a month or so. He wanted to show his Marine father that he had what it takes to be a Marine, too.
  • Deserae was sad about leaving high school because her parents said that she had to find a job and pay rent. She figured that she should have some time to have fun before that started.
  • Eric didn’t much care about graduation, because he spent all of his time with his band anyway.
  • Faith was excited about graduation because her family had worked together to ensure that she could afford to be the first one to attend college.
  • Gallagher was excited about graduation because he would be the first person in his family to attend college, even without the support of his family.
  • Hanako was scared about graduation because she hadn’t yet told her boyfriend that she was pregnant and didn’t know how her parents would react.
  • Ian was blandly excited about graduation, mainly glad that summer had come so he could go to the beach.
  • Jade was excited that she could go off to college and no longer have to hide her sexuality from her parents.
  • Keith was happy that school was over so he could play games online all day long.
  • Laila was glad that having a high school diploma would allow her to go from waitressing to a higher paid office job.
  • Macon already had a part time office job and was glad that his diploma would earn him another $0.50/hr.
  • Najwa spent most of her time volunteering with her church and was glad that graduation would give her more time to help others.
  • Oscar liked to get drunk. Finishing high school meant that he had more time to get drunk.
  • Paola liked to get drunk and decided to use graduation as a starting point to get sober.
  • Quentin was excited that his dad would never again bug him about his high school grades.
  • Rachelle was scared because she didn’t know whether she’d ever again have any friends once she went away to school.
  • Salako was scared because he didn’t know whether he’d have any friends once they went away to school.
  • Tami didn’t think much about graduation. She was taking it easy.
  • Umberto wasn’t sure whether he really had much of a future and was considering harming himself.
  • Victoria knew that Umberto was considering harming himself and made it her goal to keep him safe and get him through the hard time. She wished that graduation had never come.
  • Walter didn’t know what to do. He was glad graduation had come because it would give him the driving force he needed to try something new.
  • Xia was excited about going someplace where nobody knew her so she could reinvent herself.
  • Yakub wasn’t excited about graduation, but was excited about going away to the same college as his girlfriend.
  • Zaida really wished her boyfriend wouldn’t follow her to college.

Twenty six stories of twenty six people. All of them starting a new chapter in life. Whether you’re one of these people, or have a totally different story, I hope your graduation is a happy time for you.

Inappropriate Apparel, Part 2

It’s pretty rare that I get to write two blog posts in two days about the same topic, but here we are. Apparently the clothing worn by teen girls is more controversial than I thought.

Today’s story comes from St. John’s, FL, where teen girls have had their yearbook images photoshopped to hide any evidence of cleavage. You can read an article about this here.

In and of itself, this isn’t particularly concerning to me. After all, teen girls clearly shouldn’t be showing their breasts to anybody, much less posting them in the yearbook. However, let’s look at a before/after picture of one of the young women in question:

Hide the wife and kids!

If this were a private school, it would be fine for the school to take whatever steps they thought were necessary to ensure that the students were in their desired learning environment. That’s kind of the whole point of a private school: To give parents a school where their moral values are supported.

For public schools, things are a little different. Based on my last blog post where I discuss this in greater detail, the question about whether these steps were reasonable really boils down to “Is the clothing something that can be reasonably considered prurient by the contemporary standards of the community?”

My only answer is this: Have you ever been to St. Augustine, FL? I was down there about a month ago and despite the fact that the weather was only 60 degrees, I saw a large number of people – women and men – wandering around in outfits that would make the girl in the above picture blush. While I understand that people don’t want to see the cleavage of a high school freshman, I don’t think that this picture demonstrates anything that can be considered inappropriate in a public high school. Frankly, I think this is rather a nice outfit for a school photo.

According to the articles I’ve read, 60 girls had their photos changed in this general fashion. Not having seen them, I have no idea how many of them were actually inappropriate – it’s likely that a few of them were genuinely inappropriate and should have been left out of the yearbook. However, based on the picture above, it also seems likely that many of these pictures showed nothing but nicely dressed young women who wanted to look nice for their yearbook pictures.

Oh, Florida! You’re so wacky!

Inappropriate Apparel?

Our story today is about Olivia Melentree, a senior at Pitman High School in Turlock, CA. She was suspended from school for wearing a crop top and leggings to school, and then arrested when she came back to the school to apologize for her clothing choices. You can read the story here, which also shows the clothing that caused all the trouble.

I can only imagine the trouble that we’re in store for regarding the dress code. Students believe that they should be able to wear whatever they want and that their classmates should keep their eyes to themselves. Parents generally dislike the clothes, but usually side with their kids. School administrators hate these clothes and respond very poorly to them. And the media just wants to blow everything out of proportion.

Before we can talk about this particular dress code, I think it’s valuable to talk about why people like dress codes and think they should be enforced:

  • Dress codes help students shape their lives morally: The thinking here is that students who wear inappropriate clothes may have this inappropriateness spread into other parts of their lives. Eventually, a student wearing revealing clothing may exhibit behaviors that are clearly immoral.
  • Dress codes keep male students from being distracted: When female students wear revealing clothes, it’s thought by advocates of this theory that the male students will be completely unable to control themselves and lose focus in class. More extreme versions of this theory suggest an increase in sexual assaults and general misogyny.
  • Dress codes teach students what is acceptable in the real world: If crop tops and leggings are allowed out in the real world, then they should be allowed in school. One article I read on this issue had a student point out that “we show more skin in our bikinis than we do in our school clothes,” suggesting that dress codes are far too strict.

So, what’s the right answer? Fortunately, you have me to tell you what to think.

  • In my mind, the moral argument mixes correlation with causation. While I will admit that sex workers and other poor role models tend to wear skimpy clothes, I think it’s probably pretty safe to say that the behavior drives the clothes choice and not the other way around.
  • The argument that male students shouldn’t be exposed to bare skin is a little more reasonable. As a former teenager, I can say that the hormone-addled young mind of a teenage boy tends to wander when it sees a female wearing something considered unreasonable (though I think arguing that misogyny and sexual assault as consequences seems to go way too far). In my mind, there’s some point where skimpy clothing on young women inherently disturbs the learning process and should be guided by the school. Where this line is drawn is up for debate, as we’ll discuss.

The best way to determine what dress code is reasonable for a school is to examine the culture of the school in question. Some schools are in conservative areas where midriff-bearing clothing is considered obscene and unreasonable – in areas like this, it makes sense that such clothes are banned. In schools with more liberal thinking, perhaps clothing such as this would be reasonable in the public forum, with a line to be drawn where things are no longer reasonable. And, of course, in private schools the school environment is decided by administrators and parents who can decide whatever they think is reasonable based on the values a school is trying to teach. In short, different schools will have different standards based on the values of their community.

This reasoning is very much in line with the Miller v. California ruling (1973), which made the current standard for whether something is considered pornography – many of the issues of morality vs. free speech are the same in pornographic materials and school dress codes. In this decision, the Miller test was devised which defines whether pornographic speech is allowed. Justice Warren Berger, in his opinion, stated that for something to be considered pornographic, it had to fulfill three conditions, of which only the first is relevant here:

  • (1) whether the average person, applying contemporary community standards, would find that the work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest;

This really gets to the crux of the matter, stating that contemporary community standards determines whether something is considered obscene. Now, it should be obvious that the standards for clothing will be considerably more conservative than those for pornographic materials. However, deciding whether wearing a midriff-revealing shirt in class is unreasonable given contemporary community standards is something that I think any community can debate and eventually decide together.

As for having a young woman arrested for her clothing in school, let’s just say that this seems a little extreme. Of course, I don’t know what the exact circumstances are, but it’s reasonable to expect that no matter how much of one’s belly is showing (and it wasn’t much), it’s strange to think that putting somebody in handcuffs is a reasonable remediation.

Then again, maybe that matches the community standards of Turlock, CA.

Commencement Address, 2021

Those of you who have been on the site for some time know that I occasionally like to write a commencement address for the benefit of graduating seniors. Since nobody has ever actually asked me to do this, I figure I’ll just post it here. Make sure to tell the graduate in your life about this.

Dear Class of 2021:

I am proud of all of you. Despite all of the hardships that you’ve endured in the past year, you’ve made it to your graduation. From COVID-19 to Karen to having to sit in your house and play video games instead of waking up early to go to school, your struggle has been great.

In order that you might start the rest of your life off properly, I’d like to share with you some of the nuggets of wisdom I’ve collected in my nearly 50 years of life. I’ll assume your teachers would have told you this stuff if you’d been in school, but since you weren’t, the task falls to me. This is good stuff, so pay careful attention.

Advice that will make your life happier, healthier, and generally more awesome:

If you ever find yourself asking if you need to pee, the answer is yes. This becomes more important the older you get.

Whenever you hire somebody to work on your home, make sure that the workers’ truck has a lot of ladders on it. The very best home improvement people have separate ladders for all occasions – benefit from their laddering experience!

If you want a watch that keeps good time, get a quartz watch and not an automatic. Yes, I know that a Rolex costs $10K and a Casio costs $10, but the Casio really and truly keeps better time. It doesn’t do much for your social standing, though.

When you finally meet that certain somebody you want to spend your life with, have them check your work on everything you do. They should check measurements when you measure things, airline reservations before you hit “enter”, and social plans to make sure you’ll be in the right place at the right time. This won’t make the measurements any better, mind you, but at least you’ll share the blame with somebody else.

No matter how fascinating you find them, nobody wants to see your origami or card tricks. However, I’ve learned that if you do the pulling your thumb trick in a crowded elevator, at least one person will laugh.

Whenever anybody tells you that there are two types of people in the world, try not to be either of them.

Everybody says they care about the environment, but when you want to talk about the time you switched to LED bulbs nobody wants to hear it.

When you try anything worthwhile in life, remember that there will always be somebody there better than you. However, there will also be a ton of people way worse than you, so don’t worry about it.

I hate to break the news to you, but your mom is not a good judge of who the handsomest boy or prettiest girl in the world is. If you want an honest opinion of how you look, Google search a picture of your face and see what types of people it thinks you look like.

Don’t actually do the last trick. It will destroy your self confidence forever.

Graduates, I hope this information will make your life better. If not, contact me and I’ll return my commencement address speaking fee.

Getting free teaching software

As I know you all read in the last post, I’m a big fan of free and open source software (FOSS). This is not only because it doesn’t cost anything, but because it’s something that you can use and enjoy in whatever way you like (the “freedom” part of free). Not too bad.

Last post I promised to describe how you can get good free software for your classroom. Here are the easy steps you need to follow:

  1. Install the Linux operating system on your computer. Yes, I know you didn’t actually do this after the last post. However, if you’re going to get free stuff, you have to get the right program. Go install Linux, or at least think about it when browsing your free software options below.
  2. Take a look at what free education software is out there. This will require your friend Google. Just head over to Google and search for “linux chemistry software”, “linux education software”, or whatever subject you’re interested in getting software for. In my own random search, I found something called “KStars”, which is an astronomy program. I’m not entirely sure what it is, but since it costs nothing to upload, I’ll check it out.
  3. Install the software: This part can be a little complicated. Fortunately, the wise Linux user knows to ask for help through the magic of Google and then just do whatever it told you to do. “How do I install KStars” gave me exactly the information I needed. Just follow the directions and you’ll be fine. After three typed commands and two minutes of downloading, I had KStars.
  4. Play with the software: After about a minute, I was able to get an image of what the sky outside my window looks like. Or would look like if it wasn’t cloudy. Or daytime. Check it out:

Anyhow, I recommend you check out the world of free and open source software. I’ve been using it instead of Windows for nearly a decade and I don’t miss it at all. Plus, I’ve got the coolest molecular drawings of everybody in my neighborhood, thanks to free software.