Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

Students Make Film About Vaccines – Get Harrassment

Tuesday, August 12th, 2014

It’s always nice to see young people with a passion for science, reality, skepticism and advocacy.   In Carlsbad, CA, a group of highschool students in a journalism class made a film about vaccines and vaccine denialism.  (It’s on the correct side of it)

Via NBC San Diego

More than a dozen current and former Carlsbad High School students have found themselves in the middle of the long-running vaccination debate after they produced the film Invisible Threat.

The film debuted online August 1, more than a year after it was completed.

Students tell NBC 7 that’s largely due to the backlash they’ve faced, even during the production stage.

Brad Streicher worked on the film his junior year. The current USC student and NBC 7 intern said the idea came from the San Diego Rotary Club.

People there were impressed by two previous films they’d worked on and wanted the high school broadcast journalism class to do one on the immune system and immunizations.

“We ended up telling Rotary we’ll do the film but only on our terms, which means we were going to approach the film from a journalistic standpoint,” said Streicher. “We wanted to make sure whatever story we were telling, it would be unbiased and we would attack it from both sides of the argument.”

The Rotary gave the students $60,000 for the project with that understanding, according to Streicher.

Months into the film’s production, students say they started to received e-mails and online comments harshly criticizing their work.

People called the project “pro-vaccine” and “propaganda.” At one point the teacher and director of the film, Douglas Green, proposed the students stop the project. The students refuse.

Here’s a video about the production and the students behind it:


Student Experiment Proves RF Kills Plants… or not…

Wednesday, December 18th, 2013

A recent story that has been making the rounds is one that seems to have it all:  brilliant young aspiring scientists, underdogs shaking up the world and fear of wifi and phone RF radiation.

Via the Daily Dot:

Your wireless router could be murdering your houseplants

Are you slowly killing your houseplants? Probably! But there might be a reason (other than neglect) why they’re all yellow and wilty: your Wi-Fi router.

An experiment by a handful of high school students in Denmark has sparked some serious international interest in the scientific community.

Five ninth-grade girls at Hjallerup School in North Jutland, Denmark, noticed they had trouble concentrating after sleeping with their mobile phones at their bedsides. They tried to figure out why. The school obviously doesn’t have the equipment to test human brain waves, so the girls decided to do a more rudimentary experiment.

They placed six trays of garden cress seeds next to Wi-Fi routers that emitted roughly the same microwave radiation as a mobile phone. Then they placed six more trays of seeds in a separate room without routers. The girls controlled both environments for room temperature, sunlight and water.

After 12 days, they found the garden cress seeds in the routerless room had exploded into bushy greenery, while the seeds next to the Wi-Fi routers were brown, shriveled, and even mutated. See for yourself:

Teacher Kim Horsevad told the Daily Dot that her students did the test twice with the same results. She was quick to point out that while the students did the experiment to test only one variable to the best of their ability, it is a high school experiment and this isn’t a professional study.

“Some of the local debate has been whether the effects were due the cress seeds drying up because of heat from the computers or Access Points used in the experiment, which is a suggestion I can thoroughly refute,” Horsevad said. “The pupils were painstakingly careful in keeping the conditions for both groups similar. The cress seeds in both groups were kept sufficiently moist during the whole experiment, and the temperature were controlled thermostatically. The computers were placed so that the heat would not affect the seeds, which was verified by temperature measurements. Still, there may be confounders which neither the pupils or I have been aware of, but I cannot imagine what they would be.”

Well, the photos are certainly pretty dramatic, but that does not mean that this should be considered hard confirmed science. After all, it was not peer reviewed and was done by high school students. That said, it’s the message rather than the messenger, and it’s not impossible that non-professionals could discover something to shake up the scientific world.



The Problems With This Experiment:

I am all for teaching students about science through hands-on demonstrations.  But in this case, there are a few things missing that are critical.   One of the most important is the basic idea that all experimental results should be viewed critically, but especially when they fly in the face of established science.  It can be summed up in the statement “extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.”  If something is well established by science and your experiment seems to indicate something else, you should probably examine your experiment critically and repeat it (perhaps several times) before jumping to the conclusion that you have valid results.

Even professional scientists who try very hard to control their experiments.  For example, last year, scientists at a neutrino observatory in Italy took measurements which seemed to indicate the neutrinos were traveling faster than light.  They scratched their heads and checked their equipment repeatedly, repeated the experiment and finally concluded there were no flaws in their methodology and indeed they did record neutrinos exceeding the speed of light.  Then, however, they found there was a loose cable.  Oops.

Many studies have been done on RF radiation and biology and the results refute this.  Even if we assume that there could be an effect, it is all but unthinkable that it could be this dramatic.  If this was the case, then it would seem impossible that plants could grow near high power transmitters, which they clearly do.

Given that it flies in the face of logic and established science, anyone who gets these results should look at them with an abundance of caution and only consider them valid after repeated examination and conducting the experiment several times.

There are a few obvious things that could account for this:

High School Chemistry Demonstration Gone Wroing

Tuesday, May 21st, 2013

One of the great benefits of the proliferation of cameras on phones and devices is that so many wonderful events of every day life are not captured and uploaded to the internet.

Here’s a great one from a high school chemistry class.

Now I’m all for hands-on learning, because it shows how science can be fun and helps demonstrate basic principles.   I’m not sure exactly what they are demonstrating here, but I’m guessing that it’s the fact that methane gas, the primary component of natural gas is both lighter than air and flammable.

What could possibly go wrong?    My first concern would be that they could inadvertently set fire to the ceiling.   Hanging ceiling tiles are supposed to be fire resistant, but that only means they will usually char slowly and self-extinguish.  They can still, under the right conditions, catch fire, and there are exampled of hanging ceilings that, for whatever reason, did not seem to meet the standards for fire resistance.   Hence, given the low elevation of the ceiling and the potential to start a fire, I would not consider this an entirely safe demonstration.

Thankfully, that did not happen.   However, something even funnier did…

I have no idea whether the teacher kept his job. My guess would be that he did, since teachers unions tend to be quite protective and he didn’t seem to have done anything overtly indefensible. (like an inappropriate relationship with a student or stealing from the school) But regardless, it’s pretty certain that he had some real egg on his face after this, and that by the time they got to the valve to shut down the sprinklers, there was a pretty huge mess to clean up and some substantial water damage.

One should remember that as far as chemistry demonstration mishaps go, many have gone far worse than this one!

Facilitated Communication: A Dangerous Psuedo-Science

Thursday, January 31st, 2013

For those who do not know, I work at a program which, among other things, provides services in training autistic persons.   I admit that I’m not an expert in the area of autism, and there is much that I do not know or understand, but my experience in this area has exposed me to some very disturbing psuedoscientific claims.

One of the most disturbing that I have seen is something known as “Facilitated Communication.”  Facilitated Communications (Or FC, also known as assisted typing, assisted communications, alternative and augmentative communication and by other similar terms) came about in the 1970′s after the hypothesis was advanced that persons with autism do not have any kind of mental, emotional or cognitive disability, but instead are perfectly capable of understanding and interacting with the world as anyone else, but cannot do so because their body will not let them or because the interface between their brain and body somehow distorts their actions.

This idea is entirely false.  Autism does not involve any physical disability and persons with autism generally have perfectly functional fine motor control and are entirely capable of manipulating objects, typing and so on.   In reality, autism is a developmental condition that has an especially pronounced effect on the development of social skills and communications.   Persons with autism commonly lack the ability to communicate and to properly perceive and display appropriate social cues.

The effects of autism can be extremely mild or severe.  Indeed, there is an entire “spectrum” of possible effects and different individuals experience these differently.  Some individuals are perfectly capable of following directions, interacting with others and behaving normally in most situations, but do experience some level of difficulty in social situations, anxiety and difficulty with subtle cues.  Others are more severely disabled, unable to understand basic communications or conduct themselves in a normal manner.  Some become obsessed with repetitive behavior, are prone to being withdrawn or cannot understand basic tasks and normal instructions.

It’s not uncommon for autistic to be speech impaired.  Again, this runs the gamut.  Some can speak as well as anyone else, while others have trouble finding words and correctly using grammar.   It’s not uncommon for communication-impaired autistic to become extremely agitated when they are asked to speak more than a few brief words.  Some autistic are able to understand spoken communications with reasonable accuracy, but cannot find the proper words to express concepts back.

It is important to recognize that these issues are not the result of some kind of physical problem.   Although genuine pathological speech difficulties can exist in autistic, this is not the reason why severely autistic persons cannot communicate easily.  The problem exist regardless of the medium.   An autistic person who cannot find the proper words to speak will not be able to find the proper words to type or point to them on a chart.

Facilitated Communications ignores this proven fact.  Its champions claim that autistics simply need some help in getting their fingers to the correct key or the correct letter on a chart.   As such, a “facilitator” is provided whose job it is to help guide their hand to the correct letter.   Of course, this presents a huge problem.   As long as the facilitator is guiding their hand, it’s impossible to know whose choice it was to pick a given letter or word.   In fact, in many cases, just looking at the action, it seems undeniable that the facilitator is the one moving their hand.

This does not mean that the facilitator always knows that they are making the decision, the ideomotor effect plays a big role and can make it seem very convincing, even to the facilitator, that the words are coming from the disabled individual.   Worse still, most disabled individuals embrace the attention and praise that facilitated communications offers them, even if they are not really communicating.

Regardless of what the facilitators and clients may say (and you can’t tell who is saying it anyway), double-blind studies have provided rock-solid evidence to contradict these claims.

Here is an excellent video on the subject (though twenty years old):


Periodic Videos: You NEED to be watching these

Tuesday, January 8th, 2013

There is no denying that there is some great science content on Youtube, but one of the absolute best series of videos is from “Periodic Videos,” which dubs itself “Your ultimate channel for all things chemistry.”  It lives up to this claim and then some!  The videos are produced by the University of Nottingham, which should really be commended for its effort in public outreach education via Youtube.

The videos are about chemistry in general and especially about the elements.  What makes these videos especially unique is that they go to great lengths to actually provide hands-on demonstrations with samples of the elements being featured, even in cases where the element is so rare, reactive or radioactive that it is not normally available for direct observation.  In some cases, videos were made while the element was not available and then new versions were created once the facilities or samples necessary for the demonstration could be secured.

Here are a few of my favorites:

  • Fluorine (version II, with actual fluorine) – An element which is so reactive that it is very rarely seen in its raw gaseous form.   It will react with damn near anything, making it very difficult to store and work with.
  • Gold at the Gold Bullion Vault of the Bank of England – It’s pretty amazing that they were able to get access to film here.
  • Difficult Elements – This describes some of the more difficult elements to obtain.  I was floored to hear that thorium has become extremely difficult to obtain due to regulations in the UK and elsewhere.  Thorium is naturally occurring and is commonly used in welding rods and some other products.  It is less radioactive than uranium.   I myself have had no trouble at all obtaining thorium nitrate, but apparently thorium metal is another story.  (although you could produce it from thorium nitrate with a series of reactions.)  In any case, it goes to show that regulations are often not based on sound science.
  • Plutonium – Yes, they did go to see plutonium, at a laboratory at Sellafield.  Not in its elemental form, but still very fascinating.  Also learn about the IPPu club.
  • Radioactive Lab – Some great scenes of many the equipment in a laboratory equipped for radioactive chemicals, including negative pressure gloveboxes and some of the safety procedures used.

I could really go on for ever with this, because these videos are so good.  I must have lost hours watching these, but then again, it’s a lot better than losing hours watching Jersey Shore.

Bill Nye Takes Flack Over Creationism Comments

Wednesday, August 29th, 2012

As you may have heard, Bill Nye “The Science Guy” has been called a lot of nasty names and made the subject of a great deal of controversy after stating that creationism does not belong in US classrooms and that science should include teaching of the fact of evolution.

Here’s a video of Nye on a recent television newscast. It shows part of the original video and his explanation for the comments:

I’ve had the chance to meet Bill Nye and order a hamburger with him, and I can say, at least in my experience, he’s a pretty respectful and nice guy. Like all guests at The Amazing Meeting, he was only there to share his experiences and be part of the community – he was not getting paid for it. Bill Nye has been a popularizer of science and an advocate for strong science education.

He’s really not an overly confrontational type. Unlike some others who have been associated with the skeptic movement, Bill Nye never really goes out of his way to stoke the fires of controversy or get attention by making a scene. He’s usually pretty respectful. Unfortunately the fact of the matter is that creationist interests have been fighting hard against good science education in the US and there’s only one side that any competent science advocate can take.

Are Bill Nye’s comments controversial? Some would think so, although it’s sad. His stance that evolution is science and creationism is not has been stated by nearly every major scientific organization in the United States. Many have used uncharacteristically strong language in their rejection of the notion of creationism or “intelligent design” in school curriculum. Not only that, but creationism can’t be taught in US public schools – at least that’s what numerous courts have ruled. Numerous school boards and even state education departments have tried to worm it in, but every time it has been brought before a competition judge, it has been shot down.

The fact that this is still controversial is just beyond me. But if you have any doubts, just search YouTube for the recent video responses to Bill Nye’s comments. They are so stupid, I won’t even dignify them with a hyperlink!

Political Correctness in Education: It’s getting out of hand

Saturday, March 31st, 2012

If there’s one thing I don’t care for, it’s political correctness:� the forbidding of certain words, concepts or ideas because they might offend or the forcing of topics to be dealt with in a manner that attempts to sugar-coat them to whatever extent necessary to stop people from being upset.� Granted, it’s wrong to use overtly offensive terminology or derogatory practices, but sometimes you have to deal with the fact that reality is not as everyone wishes it was.

It’s always been a problem in education, but recently it’s gotten way way out of hand, and it seems to be happening around the world.

In the UK, schools are now banning children making “best friends.”

Via the Sun:

TEACHERS are banning schoolkids from having best pals — so they don’t get upset by fall-outs.
Instead, the primary pupils are being encouraged to play in large groups.

Educational psychologist Gaynor Sbuttoni said the policy has been used at schools in Kingston, South West London, and Surrey.

She added: “I have noticed that teachers tell children they shouldn’t have a best friend and that everyone should play together.

“They are doing it because they want to save the child the pain of splitting up from their best friend. But it is natural for some children to want a best friend. If they break up, they have to feel the pain because they’re learning to deal with it.”

Russell Hobby, of the National Association of Head Teachers, confirmed some schools were adopting best-friend bans.

First, I’d like to know how you can ban kids from having a “best friend,” although I can see how you could force them to drive their unacceptable relationship underground. I wonder what the punishment is for making a “best friend” or not spending equal time with all. And what if you’ve already established a friendship before entering the school?

This is the height of absurdity on every level. It’s perfectly natural for some kids to gravitate toward a play buddy or have a friend who is closer than the rest. Most people have a small inner circle of close friends who they associate with more than the rest of their peers. Clearly some of these relationships will end, either because kids drift apart or because they have an argument or falling out. That might or might not be unpleasant, depending on the circumstances, but really, that’s just life.

I’m not entirely surprised by the policy, however. It seems to be perfectly in line with where society is going.


Time to Revive the Nuclear Energy Experiment Set?

Saturday, October 29th, 2011

Between 1949 and 1951, the company Ac Gilbert produced and sold the “Atomic Energy Lab,” a kit of nuclear and radiation-related experiments intended for use by children in the same way that chemistry sets are used.  The kit included a sample of uranium-238, a Geiger counter, cloud chamber, spinthariscope and some other items used for educational experiments with radiation.  It also included at least three small radioactive sources.  It was modestly successful, likely due to the rather steep price of the set – $50, which would be equivalent to about $460 today.  (about 325 EUR, 285 GBP, 430 AUD)

The AC Gilbert set was certainly the most elaborate and complete atomic energy set sold, but it was not the only one. The American Basic Science Club produced a similar lab set around 1960, and Chemcraft produced a lab set in the late 1940′s to early 1950′s. In the 1950′s, some Chemcraft chemistry sets also included radioactive materials and experiments that could be done with radiation.

I have always thought that these sets were an incredibly good idea and a really excellent way to acquaint young people with the basics of radioactivity and, importantly, demonstrate that radiation is common and not something to be feared. These lab sets were extremely safe. The amount of radioactive materials present in the experimental sources was microscopic and not at all dangerous. The uranium ore or uranium compounds included are not a radiological hazard and are only a toxicity hazard if they are ground up and snorted or otherwise inhaled, and even then, are less toxic than an equivalent quantity of something like lead.

There’s really no better way to get a kid acquainted with science than to actually do some hands-on activities. They improve understanding and retention and allow them to participate directly in making exciting observations. Anyone lucky enough to have had one of these labs as a child probably grew up with a healthy understanding (and not fear) of radioactivity.

Sadly, the world has changed since the early 1950′s, and today most people seem to run around with rampant radiophobia. If something is “radioactive” (which nearly everything is) then it’s seen as being of the highest danger. Nothing is believed to be more environmentally destructive, more dangerous to health, more disastrous, more hazardous and more terrifying than radiation. The idea that at one time children were allowed to learn with materials that produce radiation significantly above background levels fills some with horror and others laugh at just how stupid everyone must have been fifty years ago.

Here’s some of the things that have been said about the AC Gilbert Atomic Lab:

From the Daily Grind:

World’s Most Dangerous Toys: Gilbert U-238 Atomic Energy Lab
If you thought choking hazards in toys were bad then spare a thought for American kids in the early 50′s.

Introducing the Gilbert U-238 Atomic Energy Laboratory. This toy lab set was produced by Alfred Carlton Gilbert between 1950 and 1951 and sold for $49.50US (which is equivalent to about $380 – $400US dollars today). So if you were lucky enough to have well off parents back in the day you may well have been ‘lucky’ enough to get your hands on this radioactive fun set.

From Liveleak:

Very bad toys: Atomic Energy Lab usa ca. 1960
t’s unclear what effects the Uranium-bearing ores might have had on those few lucky children who received the set, but exposure to the same isotope
U-238 has been linked to Gulf War syndrome, cancer, leukemia, and lymphoma, among other serious ailments. Even more uncertain is the longterm impact of being raised by the kind of nerds who would give their kid an Atomic Energy Lab.

From Cracked

The 8 Most Wildly Irresponsible Vintage Toys
#1. Atomic Energy Lab

As a kid, did you ever swallow or at least put in your mouth a small piece of a toy or play set? Did you grow an extra arm because of it? No? Then you probably didn’t have the Atomic Energy Lab.

You see, there was a different approach to nuclear power in the ’50s and early ’60s — atomic energy was our friend and the way of the future, and it would never do anything to hurt us. However, it’s still hard to believe that anyone would entrust kids with radioactive material (even in small doses).

Yet, the Atomic Energy Lab kit produced by the American Basic Science Club came with real samples of uranium (which is radioactive) and radium (which is a million times more radioactive than uranium). Since the mere presence of radioactive material in a children’s product clearly wasn’t insane enough, some of the experiments detailed in the manual also required kids to handle blocks of dry ice. Dry ice, by the way, has a temperature of minus 109.3 degrees Fahrenheit, and it’s recommended that it only be handled while wearing gloves (none were included).

Okay, they’ve got a point about the dry ice, although it’s reasonably safe to handle with basic precautions. Still, I’m downright offended by the way that people completely ignorant of what radiation is or the dangers can sit there and smugly dismiss the idea of a radiation experiment set as being insane. It’s often ranked the most dangerous toy of all time, but in fact, it’s not dangerous at all for any normal 12 year old to learn from a microscopic amount of a radioisotope or a little bit of uranium ore, which they may well have sitting in their backyard anyway.

I’ll go one further:  Not only do I think this was a great idea and a very positive learning experience, I also think that there has never been a better time for something like a radiation and nuclear energy lab set!  Having a set that had a good variety of experiments would be fairly expensive but not unaffordable.   It would be targeted at ages 12 to adult and could also be something science departments at schools might be interested in.

I’m seriously considering doing it!  I’ll take the flack for selling kids a horrible cancer-causing evil material if I have to, because somebody has got to do it, and if I get enough interest I may very well start putting some kits together.


Michele Bachmann And The HPV Vaccine

Sunday, September 18th, 2011

(Browsers that cannot view embedded content, click here for the original Youtube video.)

You may notice that there’s something a bit off here.�� Claims that vaccines are a dangerous conspiracy purported by horrible pharmaceutical companies are usually associated more with the Loony Left of the political spectrum, while Bachman is decidedly on the Loony Right side of the isle.� It’s interesting to note that different ridiculous beliefs tend to come from different sides of the isle.�� Vaccine conspiracy theories tend to center on mistrust of corporations and capitalism in general and are often part and parcel of theories of how the military and big corporations are killing us with fluoride, chemtrails and depleted uranium, which means we all need to embrace the “natural way” and move back to mud huts where we can practice free love and drop acid.

You’ll notice, however, that Backmann is not opposed to vaccinations in general, but is singling out one vaccine which apparently has a nearly magical power to steal the innocence of sweet lovely little twelve year old and make them retarded.�� The reason that conservatives are so opposed to the HPV vaccine is that it’s seen as somehow encouraging sex or that requiring it is somehow offering a government endorsement of premarital sex.�� It’s an extremely warped view when one considers that they’re effectively saying that they are so opposed to what they consider to be offensive forms of sex that it’s worth avoiding a vaccine that could wipe out most cervical cancer.

Her sentiment seems to have been touched off in part by the state of Texas adding the HPV vaccine to the required immunizations for school admission for girls.�� This was done by another Republican presidential candidate, Rick Perry.�� Some have accused Perry of taking pharmaceutical money for this policy, it really does not change the fact that it’s a good idea to have girls vaccinated.�� If he did do so because he was paid off, then all he can be accused of is doing the right thing for the wrong reason.

Student Faces Disciplain Over Uranium

Friday, September 2nd, 2011

This is the kind of story that really burns me up.�� General fear and ignorance by both authorities and the public is once again making life unnecessarily problematic for someone who didn’t do anything wrong.

Daytona Beach News-Journal:

Stetson student found with uranium on DeLand campus
Stetson University officials confiscated a package containing low-grade uranium from a student Thursday, DeLand police said.

Volusia County’s HAZMAT team, DeLand police and firefighters were called to the scene. Authorities discovered that the amount of uranium was small enough that it could be possessed legally.

Police said there was no immediate threat to the campus, but the Public Safety Office was temporarily sealed off as a precaution.

According to Cindi Brownfield, Stetson spokeswoman, possession of uranium falls under the university’s weapons policy, and the student will go through Stetson’s judicial process.

DeLand Deputy Chief Randel Henderson said in an email that police are “conferring with the FBI as a routine protocol.”

And also, here’s a clip from a local news station:

Uranium found in Stetson University dorm room: