Evolution (but not Religion) in the Biology Classroom

“Now that I’m homeschooling, I’ll be teaching the boys creationism, of course.”

The chuckle I’d expected from my father didn’t come. He paused, unsure what to say. My decision to homeschool my older had somewhat unnerved him, as it wasn’t the typical path, but he was never one to meddle in my life. I’d rarely even seen him pause like that, processing thoughts that were likely previously thought unthinkable. Creationism? How could that be?

“I’m kidding, Dad,” I reassured him, a bit surprised he’d even thought it was possible.  He exhaled but still looked a bit shaken. He was then a Biology professor at a state university and is still today a liberal Presbyterian. He is committed to science while believing in God, and he finds no conflict between science and his religion. I was raised with both, understanding evolution and believing in God, never seeing conflict between them. And while I left my belief behind about a decade ago, it wasn’t because of science.

What does it mean to understand biology through the lens of science? It means to understand that from the simplest species to the most complicated, natural selection drives the changes to that species. Genes copy with errors, and errors can wreak havoc with life or increase the chance of an individual surviving to reproduce. And that’s what life (in the biological sense) is all about — making more of a species. From antibiotic resistance in bacteria to the form and function of the mammalian eye to the modern human today, evolution is the driver. It’s wily driver, without direction or purpose. Every slip of DNA’s copying mechanism is random, with ‘goodness’ or ‘badness’ relative to where the alteration occurred, what (if any) effect it has on the organism, and even the environment in which that organism lives.IMG_0986

To teach biology without this understanding is to miss much of what biology is. To limit evolution to that bacteria’s antibiotic resistance or the finch’s beak is to mangle the very mechanism of change in the living world. It’s akin to teaching composition without discussing grammar. Evolution is how change happens, and biology can only be fully understood by appreciating that overarching truth in science.

So a few weeks back, when I tucked into evolutionary biologist’s David Barash’s recent opinion piece in the New York Times, God, Darwin, and My College Biology Class, I found myself nodding along. Barash begins his undergraduate animal behavior class with what he calls “The Talk.” This lecture affirms that his class with look at all of biology through the lens of evolution, a statement I make on my biology syllabus for the classes I’ve taught my sons and their friends and that other families have used as well. I admittedly have an advantage, as my students are known to me and from families where creationism isn’t part of the curriculum. And so evolution simply permeates the class, with religion rarely brought up. It is, after all biology class.

Barash’s classes are more diverse than my tiny home classroom, and I imagine my father’s were similarly diverse. College biology may be the first place conservative Christians rooted in creationism or, its euphemism, Young Earth creationism, may first experience biology through that lens of evolution in a way that affirms the process rather than denies its validity. That could easily put a student on guard, worried about veracity of the rest of the course or thinking about at least part of his or her faith. I’d agree is seems wise to warn — or at least inform — the class of the lens in place. That should be sufficient.

IMG_0538I can’t recall any reference to religion in any of my biology courses in either my Catholic high school or Catholic university. Religion wasn’t mentioned, and no one every asked, as far as I recall, if it should or shouldn’t be discussed in the science classroom.  Barash takes the offensive, as he starts with a talk about religion and science. He doesn’t stop at stating that evolution is the underpinning of biology, and that all will be discussed through that lens. He does not hold, as I do (and as does Stephen Gould) that science and religion are “non-overlapping magisteria,” meaning they have separate domains and are, therefore, compatible understandings in a single human being. Instead, Barash tells his students that religion and science do overlap in domain, and that accepting evolution demands deconstruction of any belief in “an omnipotent and omnibenevolent God.”

After discussion of the complexity created by natural selection and the illusion of humans as central in the living world, Barash settles into theodicy, an issue far afield of the evolution he sets out to explain. Problems with theodicy (the attempt to reconcile suffering in the world occurring in the presence of an omnipotent, caring deity) contribute to many a person of faith’s loss of that faith. Veering from science, Barash steps broadly into religion, confronting students with the news that if they buy evolution, their faith will likely fall, provided they’re thinking deeply enough:

The more we know of evolution, the more unavoidable is the conclusion that living things, including human beings, are produced by a natural, totally amoral process, with no indication of a benevolent, controlling creator. (Barash)

As an agnostic who sees science through the lens of evolution and the universe as a mystery we ever so slowly unwrap, origin somewhat understood, but only with the most tenacious grasp, I find myself irritated with Barash. Like other militant atheists (and I’m assuming he is an atheist), he forces a narrow lens on what God must be to the believer: God, it seems, must be creator of all, simple and complex, pulling each string and guiding each change. God must create humans as separate, with some of God’s supernaturalness in humans but not other creatures. God must be absent given suffering in the world.DSCN0653

About a decade ago, I left my faith behind. But I didn’t lose it in the science classroom, and I didn’t lose it because I understood that the complexity of life is due to evolution, the roll of the genetic dice paired with environmental pressures. I didn’t lose faith because I understood the long arc of evolution that brought humans into being. I lost it in part to the theodicy question and in part to long thought about what made sense to me. Science wasn’t part of my musing.

My father, a biologist who understands and teaches science through the lens of evolution, a man of faith who is dedicated to helping others of faith, understands that science and faith need not be in conflict. He hasn’t lost his belief, despite decades of science study as a researcher, professor, and interested human being. He, like Barash and I, understand the complexity produced by evolution’s often slow hand, and he is unbothered by the lack of supernatural gene in humans. And the theodicy question? He’s obviously found a way through that one, all while appreciating the science of evolution. And at what cost to his science classes? None.

Barash’s mistakes, in my opinion, are two-fold. First, his view of what God is to a believer is myopic and simplistic. Views of God, gods, goddesses, and divine forces in the universe are as diverse as there are people who believe. Second, his approach is arrogant and presumptive. To tell people who believe just how their faith will be undone is an act of assumed superiority and completely without regard to the personal nature of an individual’s faith. Will some conservative believers, steeped in the absoluteness of a seven-day creation myth struggle as they take biology in a college classroom where evolution is the common currency? Probably. But many believers of all flavors won’t struggle one bit, content with their separation of science and religion.

DragonflyBarash wants to warn his students that, should they retain their faith, they will do so only with “some challenging mental gymnastic routines.” How a nonbeliever can begin to step into the mind of a believer and predict whether the wonders of evolution will deepen or destroy the faith of another is beyond me. Yes, science can challenge faith, especially a conservative faith resting on a supreme being pulling the strings and putting humans above all else. But faith, in many forms, can sit comfortably with the scientist, causing no sacrifice to the scientist’s understanding of the universe and the living things inhabiting it. Barash’s talk forwards his own atheist agenda, and that, in the classroom, is going too far.

I believe in freedom of speech and freedom of religion, but when at the front of the classroom, I believe you have a responsibility that includes knowing your boundaries. If you’re a biology teacher, teach science. Unabashedly teach evolution and say that you’ll do so. Talk about complexity. Ignore creationism, as it’s not science. And ignore God, whether you believe or not, as faith isn’t part of science. Encourage students struggling with the concepts to discuss their struggle with classmates, their religious leader, their God, or anyone who will listen and let them sort through. But stay out of the wonderings and wanderings of their faith.

I teach biology through the lens of evolution. I’m an agnostic. My father, on a far larger scale, did the same for decades. He’s a Presbyterian. It works.


Cross-posted on Finding My Ground, my personal and religious blogging home.

October 16: Opposing viewpoints are welcome as long as they are on point and respectfully presented. I’m glad to have a conversation that is respectful. All comments will be held for moderation to assure conversation remains civil. 


Curriculum for Teaching Science and Scientific Thinking (Essential Skills Series)

See Essential Skills for a Modern World for an overview of this series on science and critical thinking skills.  I discuss science and scientific thinking in the post Follow the Ant. The recommendations below are based on my experience educating my sons and myself over the last decade. In my next post, I’ll explore other resources for fostering scientific thinking and increasing scientific understanding. 


Okay, you’ve followed the ant. Well, perhaps you’ve considered sending your kids out to follow the ant, asking them to return and fill you in, but hopefully you’re thinking about your children’s science education in more practical terms. Here’s a bit of assistance.

Choosing curriculum

Formal curriculum isn’t the most essential part of a child’s or adult’s science education , but I do know it’s what comes to mind when we think about teaching science. For the youngest students, I’d not bother with formal curriculum. Explore the world together. Follow your child’s interests or introduce him to yours. Go to the library and explore the science sections for children and adults. Watch science shows for kids and for adults, but mostly DO science by interacting with the natural world.

When you start selecting formal curriculum, be choosy. Insist on a curriculum that puts science at the center and avoids other agendas. (The scientific process is quite different from theological thinking. Mixing them makes for a poor education in both. Don’t do it.) Look for curriculum that requires the student to ask questions and to think about possibilities. Many texts intended for schools simply don’t do much of that, nor do many of the big-name publishers for homeschoolers. Inquiry science is the formal name for science that puts questions and thought before answers, and, frankly, it’s hard to find. Worry less about tests, as far too many ask for facts rather than concepts applied to new situations, and scientific thinking is a process, not a series of facts. Yes, facts are important, but divorced from doing science, they don’t create scientific thinkers. Look for questions higher up Bloom’s taxonomy, where questions require application of facts, analysis, evaluation, and creation.

Hands-on experiences that do more than show a taught concept are crucial to teaching the observational skills and thought processes necessary for developing strong scientific thinking. After-the-lesson demos may strengthen fact retention but they don’t stimulate the “why” brain as well that the same demo before the lesson. At least some of the labs and hands-on opportunities should require the learner to design the experiment, ideally formulating the question from observations they’ve already made. It’s fine if not all do. There is plenty to learn from cookbook labs, including technique and the range of possibilities of how to answer a question.

Many lab manuals and texts don’t have this focus, either because of the classroom logistical issues when children ask questions and figure out a way to search for answer (for standard curriculum) or parental ease (homeschoolers are often looking for ease of delivery, understandably). If your favorite option doesn’t do this, alter the experiments a bit. Instead of passing the lab worksheet to your child, read it over and think. What’s the question the lab asks? If I give my child that question and the materials in the lab (plus a few — be creative) without the instructions but with plenty of time and some guidance, could my child find a way to answer the question? (In a later post, I’ll give some guidance on altering labs to be more student-driven and aimed at developing scientific thought.)

Even if your curriculum is full of cookbook labs that you’re uncertain of how to alter, don’t despair. Just ask questions not answered by the text directly. Don’t be afraid to ask the ones you don’t know the answers to, and don’t worry about settling on a single answer. You’re better off wondering and wandering to more sources to search for more answers. After all, a good amount of scientific work is research in response to a scientist’s questions. Again, refer to Bloom’s Taxonomy. Model asking questions that apply, evaluate, and analyze rather than simply require remembering and understanding. Your children will soon do the same.

Here’s a short list of options to consider. It’s not exhaustive. All assume parental involvement. (I’ve not looked for early learner science curriculum in many years.)

  • Building Foundations for Scientific Learning (Bernard Nebel, PhD): Written for parents and educators, these books are designed for non-educators with little science background guiding learners in pre-high school science. Suggested materials are inexpensive and easy to find. This is NOT a workbook or text but rather a source for the instructor.
  • Middle School Chemistry (American Chemical Society): While designed for schools, this curriculum is an easy-to-use, sound introduction to the fundamentals of chemistry for young learners. The materials are easily obtained, and the lessons are clear for both learner and teacher. Here’s my review and materials list.
  • Biology Inquiries (Martin Shields): A full complement of inquiry-based biology labs for middle and high schoolers with clear directions for the instructor and plenty of questions for the students. The materials are generally available through Home Science Tools and your local drug store. (I teach out of this book when I teach Quarks and Quirks Biology.)
  • Exploring the Way Life Works (Hoagland, Dodson, Hauck): This is a text, but it’s the friendly type. This is the text for my Quarks and Quirks Biology course, used along side Campbell’s traditional Concepts and Connections to fill in some details. You’ll not find any fill-in-the-blank questions at the end of each chapter of this thematically arranged book that moves, in each chapter, from the very small to the very large.
  • CPO Science: CPO’s labs offer some fine opportunity for inquiry learning, and the texts are clear and easy to use. However, they often require specialized lab materials. The science-comfortable homeschooling parent can often improvise, but this may be a barrier to some. It’s worth a look on their student pages, however, at the student record sheets for examples of how questions about observations can lead to deeper thinking. (Here’s my review of CPO Middle School Earth Science. I’ve used Foundations in Physics and Middle School Physical Science as well, and find them all similar in style and strong in content.)
  • Just about any curriculum you like to use, with some modifications: Inquiry can happen alone but it’s fostered by community, even if that is just parent and child at the kitchen table or in the backyard. Take the curriculum you’re using now and read through it ahead of your child. Before your child reads, ask questions about what your child thinks now, or perhaps ponder together how something might work. Search online for a demonstration that will encourage thinking before the informational part of a lesson. Ask questions that reach beyond remembering and understanding. Yes, this is harder than presenting the book and some paper for answers or simply doing the labs as given, but scientific thinking isn’t fostered by multiple choice and fill-in-the blanks. It takes conversation.

There’s more to learning science and scientific thought than curriculum, and even a terrific inquiry-based curriculum only the starts the gears of the young scientific mind. My next post will discuss other tools for teaching scientific thinking that you just might want to include in your science learning at home. While you’re waiting, go outside. Watch the ants or the clouds (and see where the ants go when the clouds come). Ask questions. Look for answers. Science is everywhere.




Follow the Ant (Science and Scientific Thinking)

This is the first of two pieces on skills needed to function well in a complicated world. This time, I’ll explore science and scientific thinking.  I’ll list and discuss some resources for encouraging scientific learning and thought in a short post to follow. After that, I’ll explore critical thinking. As always comments are welcome, especially the good resources kind. For the introductory post, read Essential Skills for a Modern World.

Science. Let’s start with what science is not. Science is not the sum of memorized facts about DNA, Avogadro’s number, Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, electron orbitals, the gravitational constant, and tectonic plate movements. It’s not equation-spouting, not those about projectile motion or glycolysis.  It’s certainly not about memorizing who did what when, taking the worst of some history classes to a subject that already is viewed by some to be hard. Science (and math) are too often feared from an early age and far too often taught to young children by people who learned to fear them when they were young.

Science is asking questions about the natural world, musing about answers, carefully and thoughtfully considering what scientists in the field have found before, experimenting as exploration and/or confirmation, and then asking more questions. Children do much of this naturally, watching the world and acting upon it, our carefully timed commentary providing a factual base with context. We name flowers and the birds as our children wonder at them. We explain the tides, the rain, the stars, and the bruise on the knee.

Unless we don’t know. Then, if we’re not distracted by what’s for dinner tonight or whose socks are on the floor again, we look it up — we do research. Better yet, we include the questioning child in the looking up process, or perhaps we pass the job to them. “Hmm. You could research that,” became my phrase as my children’s questions outpaced my answers and library (and before Google was such a dear friend). It didn’t take long before my prompt was unnecessary. “I’ll look that up,” became a usual child-offered solution to his curiosity.

Often, once their question is answered, the exploration is done. But sometimes the questions keep coming. Then, if we’re brave and unafraid of messes and more unanswered questions that will follow, there are experiments. Kids experiment naturally, often asking the next question after repeating an experiment a number of times. (Water and dirt make mud. What happens with water and sand? What happens if I let the mixture dry overnight?) Many science curricula squash this question-experiment-question cycle by providing only experiments (or, more appropriately, demonstrations done by kids) that have answers provided. These cookbook-style experiments are easy on those teaching and have predictable “correct” answers while teaching children what we don’t want them to learn about science: When you enter an experiment, you should know how it will end.

Scientists don’t do it that way. Scientists overflow with curiosity, the sort that takes them to the internet, the library, their bookshelves, the scientist down the hall, and, eventually, to the laboratory. No one source gives them the question or the route to answering it. Relying upon their own experience and the procedures and findings of those who came before, they formulate both the question and experiments, perhaps expecting a particular outcome but never wed to finding it, lest they see what isn’t there or guide the experiment to give the desired answer. And often, quite often, the results aren’t what they hoped or expected, leading to more questions, more experiments, and more research.

“But my child isn’t going to be a scientist. Why does this sort of science education matter?”

DSC00031It matters because, whatever line of work our children pursue, science permeates their modern world. Climate change. Nuclear reactors and bombs. Gene therapy. Stem cells. Invasive species. Missions to Mars. Ebola, TB, and malaria. Alternative energy sources. Water contaminants. If we are to be responsible citizens in this complex world, lobbying and voting for or against legislation on all those issues and more, we need to understand a good deal of science as well as how science works. We can’t vote on what we don’t understand, and we can’t simply vote against something that scares us or will increase our taxes or personal expenses. We need some understanding of the way our universe works to even read about the risks of radiation leaks from nuclear power plants, and we almost always need to research more before we go out and vote on laws.

If we want our children to be able to make responsible and safe personal (and, eventually, family) health decisions, they must be able to read the latest article on gluten or vaccinations or DNA testing and hold up the latest article to careful scrutiny. Junk science and junk reporting abound, especially in health and medical science. In an era where prescription drugs are advertised on TV and pseudoscience, especially about health, fills the internet, we need more than ever to think like a scientist. How many people were in that study? What was the control? Was it double-blinded? Were the researchers funded by Company X, Y, or Z, who just happen to produce or sell drug A, supplement B, or treatment C? Has the study been replicated by someone else somewhere else? Are the results statistically meaningful and practically meaningful?  What questions does this piece of reporting raise? Where can I find out more?

“But I don’t know that much science! How can I teach my kids when I don’t know a beta particle from a leukocyte and couldn’t tell you what’s going on when I take a breath anymore than explain why a bowling ball and a marble, when dropped from the same height, hit the ground at the same time.” 


Start the way your children started. Look at the natural world with new eyes, seeing the ant on your deck as a subject of study rather than occasion for a call to a pest management company. Find the moon every evening, noticing where it is at the same time each night. Watch bread rise and eggs cook.

Then, ask questions. Why does the ant follow the path it does? Where does the ant live, and what does it eat? When does the moon vanish from sight, and just where in the sky is it when it does? Why does it change shape, at least to our eyes?  What’s in those bubbles in my bread, and why do egg whites turn white and firm when cooked?

Next, look for answers about what interests you most. Research the phases of the moon. Read a book about the science of cooking for answers about egg whites, rising bread, and more.  Use reputable sources (applying your critical thinking skills, to be discussed in a future next post), eschewing the junk science and poor reporting found in books, internet sources, articles, and, too often, those around us who also aren’t sure about science. (Charlatans and the simply not scientific abound.)  Be persistent, especially about what is new. Science has a working edge, and it’s at this edge that most mistakes (and poor science reporting) seem to occur. But even old ideas can be wrong or in need of tweaking, so follow the years of research and debate as you read and explore. The way our universe works doesn’t change, but our understanding of it certainly does.

And follow the ant. Watch her (and it is almost definitely a ‘her’), seeing where she goes and whom she meets. Even if she joins a throng of fellow ants, watch your ant as best you can. Does she lead, follow, or neither? Why do you think this behavior occurs? How does she interact with the other ants around her, and what happens after interactions?

Then feed the ant. Set out, on a small index card, a smudge of jelly and place it near the ants.  A few inches away, place another card with chicken or a bit of egg yolk, perhaps, something filled with protein and fat rather than sugar. You pick, as it’s your experiment, but pick with reason and logic. Then sit and watch. Watch longer than you think you can, returning at regular intervals if you must look away. See what happens. What do these ants like? What do they do with the food? How do they find it? Do all of them go for it, or only some?

When the sun sets and the ants return to their home, think. Ask more questions. Consider more ways to find answers. Find a fantastic book or reliable website on ants (see below), and read what interests you. There’s no test, no final paper for which to study. There is only a world to watch and explore and research to read and ponder as you explore the natural world through the lens of scientific exploration and thought.

Ant Resources:



Teaching Other People’s Children

Thompson Lab 10.2:  And the color change after

I never planned to teach children. At different points as a kid, I wanted to be an archaeologist,  an astronaut, a brain surgeon, and a social worker (although I didn’t know what they did). So naturally, I spent college as an English major. My inner scientist emerged a few years later, and I found myself as a Physician Assistant with an inkling that writing professionally and teaching in a PA program would come later.

It’s eighteen years later, and I write for free, don’t teach at the Univeristy level, and do teach children, my own and Other People’s Children. Oh, and I still practice as a PA. Of all those, it’s teaching other people’s children that’s stretched me the furthest and taught me the most.

My movement into the education of offspring other than my own (beyond a bit of Sunday School) started four years back, beginning what is now known as MacLeod Biology or Quarks and Quirks Biology.My older son, then 12, was ready for high-school level biology, and I had a history of flaking out on labs and formal science study. His buddy, another gifted kid, needed Biology as well. I knew I’d not flake with two, so after a summer of reviewing biology books, chatting with my biology professor of a father, and making then unmaking plans, I started teaching my two charges.

October 2010 031I’ve not looked back. Teaching someone else’s child increased my follow-through as well as my drive to find supporting materials for classes and labs. I did, after all, have two hours once a week to fill, and being responsible for the education of another’s offspring brought out the more responsible  me. I kept a list of labs, videos, assignments, and readings on a website, thus (ideally) fostering some independence on their part as well as a record of what we’d done.

Delighted with our success, the boys and I moved on to high school level chemistry. I was nervous. Where biology offered the comfort of the familiar, chemistry brought the promise of review. My chemistry over 20 years old, dusted off only in the context of medicine and revisited only lightly as a homeschooling parent of children under the age of 13. I expected a rough time of it and was surprised how quickly the material returned. My son and his friend brought enthusiasm for the subject matter. I brought the discipline that comes with maturity and far better discernment when working with fire and potentially hazardous materials. They distilled spirits, made black powder (not an official lab, but safely done), and regularly reviewed lab safety while learning an impressive amount of Chemistry. As a teacher, I honed my test design skills and learned when to stretch my students. It was a fabulous year.

Last year, without a science to teach (having drawn the line at physics), I taught six weeks of bioethics and team taught six weeks of research paper writing. With a group of ten, classroom management issues appeared. Faced with a spectrum of skills and experience, I was stretched further than previously to make a concept clear in several different ways for the varying learning styles of my students. When teaching them to write a research paper, I learned to discard global expectations and simply work with each student individually, attempting to improve a few skills during our six weeks of writing.

The lessons learned with those students led me to start teaching writing one-on-one this school year. Most of my writing students are profoundly gifted, and some also have a learning disability. Familiarity with my home-grown versions of twice exceptionality gave me only a hint of how to start approaching other people’s children with similar challenges. The first weeks or even months with each student can be littered with my missteps and mid-course corrections, and patient parents, tired from the battle, become my allies as we pick our way through the labyrinth of their children’s complicated minds. Generally, we find a way through, a pace that works for the family, and perhaps even a bit of rhythm.

Teaching writing to other people’s children informed my work with my own sons’ writing. As one who loves to write, my older son’s writing challenges and resistance have frustrated me. After teaching other people’s children,  I began to think differently about the process of teaching him to write. I now work with him through Google Docs, making notes in the margin and through the text, just as I do with my distance students. This seems a bit less personal than red marks all over a paper. It provides some distance we both need, which helps both of us.

IMG_0162This year also found me teaching physics and physical science. Both boys needed the material, and both had a friend or two also in need. My one and only physics class was 25 years back, but, alas, several of the topics we’re covering were not in that semester of coursework (electricity seemed to be a second semester offering, for example). It’s work. Hard work at times, explaining what I’ve just only figured out. But teaching as I’m learning drives me to reach deeper understanding faster than if I were learning the material on my own. Additionally, I’ve become more familiar with the workings of the universe. More of the world makes sense, and that delights me.

Teaching other people’s children offers an opportunity to share what you love, to hone a skill that’s been dormant, or to learn new material, even the type that scares you. It broadens your appreciation for the differences between kids and between homeschooling families. It can even help you educate your own children more effectively, if you can bring the patience cultivated from that experience back home. That’s the benefit the whole family can appreciate.

Summer Break?

I’ve moved past the “Whew! It’s over!” stage that began Memorial Day weekend. The first few weeks of summer, I luxuriated in my new freedom from coaxing kids through assignments and planning lessons. Then I started to approach a few of those nagging projects: the doors that needed painting, the mounds of paperwork on my desk, and church committee work. Once the fun of all that wore off (yes, there are still more doors needing a coat of paint), I moved on to start preparations for fall. No, they aren’t complete. No, I don’t know exactly what each subject will look like for my kids (although here’s my guess for my older and my younger). Specifically, I have two new projects (and another hatching project) that keep me occupied and occasionally stressed during these hot and hazy days of summer.

As mentioned in my preliminary plans for my older son, I’m teaching Physics this fall. No one could be more surprised than I. Biology was my first foray into planning and executing a lab science course for more than just my own child, and I had fun. It is my domain, scientifically, and I thoroughly enjoy the exploration of the living science and sharing that exploration with others.

Chemistry was the logical next step, and I felt some trepidation planning that one. My last Chemistry class was two decades earlier, and while I understood the basics of the science, I didn’t have the same passion about it. But my son and his friend had an enormous amount of excitement about the course, which promised dangerous chemicals, controlled explosions, and liberal use of flames. Their excitement was contagious and made planning easier.

But after Chemistry, I swore I was done. No Physics, I told them and myself. And last year, my older took a year off from lab science, instead doing a Meteorology and Earth Science study while I focused my energy on subjects other than science.

But Physics was due. With nine other credits at a local University scheduled for my older son this fall, I knew college-level physics at the same institution would be overwhelming. I also knew we’d both fare better if his Physics study included someone other than just him. Science is collaborative, and bouncing ideas off of lab partners mirrors the intra-lab confabs that occur in professional science. Plus, I’m more consistently prepared when my audience extends beyond my offspring. (Call me a bad mom, but it’s true.)

So mid-August, I’ll begin an Algebra-based Physics course for four high schoolers, ranging from 14 to 17 years old. We’ll meet weekly for three hours or so, spending time on assignment review, lecture, and labs. Once a month, more or less, another dedicated homeschooling parent will make the class sing, encouraging experiment design and implementation with plenty of support and wisdom. With a true love for Physics, he’ll provide the heart for the science that I find a tad intimidating. I’m grateful beyond words.

As the lesson plans unfold, I’ll add them to a page on the top of this blog. This may not happen every week, so if you’re interested, visit Don’t Touch the Photons for the most up-to-date lesson and links. Keeping a webpage for a class keeps crucial information about assignments in the hands of students and forces me to plan ahead, which are both convincing reasons for me to make the effort.

My other summer endeavor falls well within my comfort zone. I’m offering writing coaching/tutoring to a handful of students. A few are local, but most are scattered around the country. While I’ll rely somewhat on Michael Clay Thompson’s Paragraph Town and Essay Voyage, I’ll likely create my own materials based on the needs the kids present. For some students, I’ll be planning a course and carrying it out, available via email and Google Hangout (a Skype-like setting where documents can be shared and marked up together). For others, I’m assisting on a project assigned by someone else. I’m quite excited as I start this journey, anticipating steep learning curve for me while hopefully delighting in the growth of young writers.

My own writing projects often takes a back seat, and this summer proves to be no exception. This is avoidance, of course, and a fear of starting without the whole picture in front of me. I have a few larger projects in mind (read: books that want out of my head), including one that would likely spring in one direction or another from my writing here. I see some holes in the books available for homeschooling families, and I’d like to try to fill one. If that sounds vague, it’s because it is still fuzzy to me. I’m not sure what I’m waiting to have happen — what moment of clarity I await  — but I seem to be in a holding pattern.

As I watch myself procrastinate, I understand my children a bit better. Their stalling and occasional downright opposition to assignments (often the writing sort) stems from a similar place. Both admit to fears about starting when the whole project isn’t clearly in mind. Both suffer the sort of perfectionism that makes task initiation difficult or even impossible. I’m open about my own “stuck” times, sharing what worries me when I can’t start and what, if anything, I find to help me along.  And that, perhaps, is a perpetual fourth project: better understanding my children. The stakes feel high, but the timeline is long.

There’s plenty to do this summer. Along with two definitive projects, one incubating work (with duct tape on the egg as a precautionary action to ward off failure), and a lifelong quest, there are vacations to take, friends to see, gardens to tend, books to read, and clouds to watch. And those other doors? They’re not looking that bad after all.

Review: Real Science 4 Kids (Chemistry 1 and Biology 1)

We’ve been through plenty of science curriculum and learning supports.  From living books to documentaries, Bill Nye to NIH free resources, Singapore Science to mom-designed courses, we’ve tried a range of ways to bring science to life while teaching sound scientific thinking. For the evolution-teaching family, the options designed for homeschoolers (simpler labs, generally) are fairly slim.  Even with a disturbingly well-equipped home lab, it’s a stretch to use regular classroom texts at home.

So initially, I welcomed Real Science 4 Kids, by Dr. Rebecca Keller.  It didn’t teach evolution (see more on her and my musings about her approach in Curriculum Choices of Conscience), but it didn’t teach creationism or intelligent design either, and since our introduction to the series was Chemistry Level 1, I wasn’t initially concerned with that omission.

At this writing, Real Science 4 Kids consists of 3 levels, each with a varying number of topics.  I’ll limit my discussion to Level 1 Chemistry and Biology, since these are the only books I’ve used with enough rigor to evaluate them.  My older son did the first chapter of Chemistry Level II some years back, but that’s an insufficient experience by which to gauge that series and is under complete revision.

All the Level I subjects require a textbook, a lab workbook, and a teacher’s guide.  The teacher’s guide contains some notes on running the experiments, answers to all the questions, and some additional information on the subject matter.  The texts are attractive, multi-color hardbacks with large font, which is easy on young and old eyes.  Each text consists of ten chapters that align with ten labs and a few brief questions about the chapter, both of the latter found in the lab book.  At full retail, a year of science (Chemistry, Biology, and Physics) for Level I runs about $216 new (Astronomy is available without a teacher’s guide).  That’s a pretty pricey elementary science curriculum.  Used copies abound, but a new lab book for each student is necessary unless the child uses a separate notebook to do the written work.

Keller has numerous additional books, called Kogs, that extend science into vocabulary, philosophy, art, technology, critical thinking and history.  Samples online didn’t impress me, although I was taken with the idea of extending science across the curriculum, as some programs do with literature or history. My borrowed copy of the Language Kog to accompany Chemistry I didn’t hold my interest enough to introduce it to my son.  It introduced some roots, used them in words, and asked kids to give the definitions.  I expect more from a $27 book (and that’s just for one 10 chapter softcover consumable book)  For a full set of Kogs for Level I Chemistry, language Kogs for Physics and Biology, the tests (available soon), and study folders (available soon), and you’re in another $350.  Whoa.

The books are attractive for kids and parents and hold resale well (good, given their high price).  The experiments are highly homeschooler-friendly, requiring (mostly) basic household items, although a bit of specialty shopping online is needed for a few labs (a voltmeter for Physics and living protists and Red Congo stain in Biology, for example).  Two of the labs for Biology require planning and introduce animal life into your home: raising tadpoles into frogs and observing butterflies develop from caterpillars.  The first results in pets that are likely to live beyond when your children go to college (We did the tadpole thing on our own four years ago.  The frogs are still with us, and, according to a biologist friend, likely to spend up to 30 years with us.  No more experiments that require estate planning.)  The second requires timing your lab to meet shipping regulations of butterfly egg sellers.  These are exceptions, however, and one could omit growing living creatures that need prolonged care with a decent video or book on metamorphosis.

The labs book also contains a few questions about the text material.  Most of these are definitions or classification questions, and only on the most basic parts of the books material. Few if any require any critical thinking about the subject, making connections between topics, or analysis of information.  This is a serious downfall of the series.

I think Real Science 4 Kids continues to grow in the homeschooling community because it introduces high-level vocabulary to young children.    Sure, throughout Chemistry, you’ll see atoms and molecules introduced, however there’s no discussion of states of matter, a basic of any chemistry education.  Instead, this text includes titration, polymers, starches, cellulose, kinesin, along with dozens of other chemistry topics.  They’re interesting, but without a better grounding in chemistry basics, they’re like building a house on a sand — it’s just not going to stand.

On the whole, I found the chapters to be little more than 4 to 5 page introductions to a large subject with little focus on the hows and the whys.  Science is far more that what.  Science requires an understanding of how the world works and a grounding in scientific thinking.  I’d rather see far less terminology and far more grounding in the basics of the way the world works along with the tools to think like a scientist.  I’d like to see more inquiry based learning, where the learner asks a question and, with a good amount of guidance initially, figures out how to design an experiment to answer the question.  I’d like to see discussion of controls and variables as well.  Singapore Science does these well, teaching  scientific thinking grounded in the basics of matter and energy.  (That’s another review for another day.)

In short, Real Science 4 Kids is an attractive product with labs geared toward the homeschool lab.  It’s expensive and won’t span too many years of science education, and it tends to focus on vocabulary acquisition rather than deep understanding.  It’s free of any references to evolution or the origin of life, which sells books but also, in my opinion, leads to an incomplete education if used as the only biology or astronomy text.

I’d like to say I’ve found something equally easy to use at home with greater depth and an undercurrent of evolution, but I haven’t.  Singapore Science, with modifications to many labs, is a better bet, in my opinion, but that’s a fairly large task.  A recent find from the American Chemical Society, Middle School Science, is a far superior chemistry offer, and is online for free.  It’s inquiry-driven, the supplies for labs are easy to obtain, and it is the most sound chemistry program I’ve ever seen.  More on that when we’re farther along.

Disclosure:  I’ve received no compensation in money or materials for this review.

AP Tests: Changes are a Comin’

Changes are coming.  The College Board, the parent of the AP (Advanced Placement) line of tests that allow high school students to test for possible college credits in subjects like Biology, American History, Music Theory, and Calculus, is making significant changes in their AP US History (APUSH) and AP Biology exams.  The January 7, 2010, New York Times notes the changes, which will be reflected in the 2012/13 school year, with more emphasis on depth of thinking and somewhat less on rote memorization of facts.


As my older son approaches traditional high school age with several high school level classes under his belt, homeschooling high school and what happens after what we’re calling “high school” weighs heavily on my mind.  Should he take classes at our local public school?  If so, which classes?  Should we just skip ahead to a conveniently located, welcome-to-homeschoolers, affordable university for dual enrollment classes?  Should he do Advanced Placement courses, and, if so, should he study on his own, online, or in a classroom?  Caught up in the desire to assure that he has myriad options open, these questions swirl around my brain at inconvenient times, such as 4 am.

Despite the Advanced Placement fever that consumes much time, energy, and pixels on some of the homeschooling high-school related list serves, I’m not an AP fan myself.  I took the AP Calculus BC some 20-plus years ago, received a 4 and commensurate college credit, and pursued a highly desirable in the want-to-be-unemployed set English degree.  My high school AP calculus class was well-done, not rushed, and inspired me to work hard, think thoroughly, and enjoy math.  I have no complaints.  I still hold that AP, for math at least, is of value in the right circumstance.  I feel markedly differently about many of the other AP offerings, especially outside of math and physics.  Especially in literature, history, and biology.

The 8th edition of Campbell's Biology for AP is 1393 pages long.  And any of it could be on the test.

The 8th edition of Campbell's Biology for AP is 1393 pages long. And any of it could be on the test.

History and biology at the college level do require a fair amount of rote memorization of facts, dates (for history), and terminology (for biology).  Unfortunately, facts alone aren’t sufficient for a college-level understanding of these subjects.  When treated as vast memorization projects, I think the bigger picture is missed.  Biology is, after all, a science of living systems, operating together, influencing one another.  Last year I taught high-school level biology to my older son, then 12 and his 13-year old peer.  Both are exceptionally bright boys, ready for higher-level content.  Both learned a vast amount of terminology and facts.  But they never could have taken the AP after my class alone, and that’s fine with me.  Unlike the rather cookbook-like labs required for AP Biology study (one doesn’t have to actually do the labs but they are fair game for the test), the boys did largely inquiry labs.  Inquiry science involves asking questions or being posed with questions and designing a suitable lab to answer those questions.  Such work takes a fair amount of factual knowledge, but additionally, it requires critical thinking, planning, and (what is, in my opinion, missing from the current AP Biology courses) true scientific thinking.  In real life science, there isn’t a plan set in front of you.  There are questions, often self-designed, but no recipe to follow.  It’s up to the scientist to design the experiment, report results, and, generally, ask more questions and design more experiments.  And if that’s what scientists do, that’s what we should be teaching our children in schools and at home from the start.  To quote Ms. Frizzle,”Take chances! Make mistakes!  Get messy!”  Hopefully the new AP Biology will allow for more of that philosophy.

While experimentation with history is not yet a possibility, thinking critically and relating historical events to each other and to present day happenings is mental equivalent.  After all, why do we study the past?  The fascinating tales of events of centuries and millennia ago is a compelling reason, but the best reason to study history in-depth is to better understand our world now be seeing where we (and everyone else) comes from.  Through history study, we gain appreciation for the sheer variety of ways to approach living in society, along with each way’s strengths and weaknesses.  Certainly some memorization of dates, names, and events is necessary, but far more important (in my opinion) is the ability to explore the past with the aim to improve understanding of the present.  When so much teacher and student time is dedicated to memorization of facts,  the forest is easily missed for all the trees.  While little of the NYT article discussed proposed APUSH exam changes, the move to categorize history into nine time periods and seven themes hopefully will aid students (and their teachers) in thinking more holistically about history.

APUSH for Dummies? I doubt the new exam changes will make that true.

I’m not against memorization, but I do hold that learning a subject well involves far more critical thinking and “playing” with information than rote learning.  A class dedicated to pushing mass amounts of facts into a child’s head is likely to have little time remaining for these same facts to be explored in-depth and chewed over.  As with of American education, the AP system perhaps sacrifices depth for in favor of breadth.  American education is often said to be “a mile wide and an inch deep”, and my take is that many AP classes (which, like or not, teach to their corresponding AP test) are largely about breadth.  I’m sure there are exceptions (even beyond math and physics), but biology and US history, very popular AP classes, are so broad that deep thinking is likely a casualty, at least for most students.

I know AP courses are necessary for applying to some colleges.  I know students count on AP credits to lower their college bills or just create more room for advanced or interesting material in college.  I am aware that, for the brightest students, these courses hold the only challenging material in many high schools.  Fine.  But for my home schooled, gifted, and inquisitive learners, these aren’t a priority as we map out our years before college.  We’re more likely to use college courses for dual enrollment (and I know controversy about that abounds) distance learning, and self-designed coursework, assuming both stay home through high school.  I realize that as they grow and the AP tests evolve, I may change my stance.  Also, since this is their education, not mine, they’re welcome to take AP classes and tests if it suits their needs and wants.

I’m encouraged by the changes in AP proposed by College Board, and encouraged for what those changes could mean for high-ability high-schooled aged learners learning in and out of school.  Changes are coming.  May they encourage our brightest children to think critically and deeply.

Have an opinion about AP testing, the new or the old?  Share away!

It’s Not Your Mother’s Health Class

That's an owl, but not the kind I'm talking about.

Our Whole Lives (grades 7 – 9) starts this weekend at our Unitarian Universalist church.  OWL, as it’s called, is a sexuality education program, has programs for preschoolers through adults, although our church (like many) offers it to only one age group.  OWL, offered by Unitarian Universalist and United Church of Christ congregations around globe, addresses human sexuality in age-appropriate ways while valuing responsibility, self-worth, sexual health, and justice and inclusivity.  I’m all for that, but I’m still not ready. 

My formal sex education consisted of a copy of “Where Did I Come From?”, handed to me by my mother in third grade.  I’d already dug around for information, so the book offered little new, aside from a somewhat disturbing (to my eight-year-old mind) cartoon of two rather heavy-set appearing adults making love.   With the mechanics (mostly) understood, I filed the information to the back of my mind until puberty hit.  At that point, I counted on the resource most kids turn to:  friends.  Okay, books, too.  Teen and adult romance, anatomy-focused nonfiction, and a few looks at a friend’s parent’s copy of  “The Joy of Sex” (complete with line drawings) gave me a bit more of the picture.  Perhaps surprisingly, my best information came from my Catholic high school, where sex and birth control were addressed in three classes:  Biology, Conscious Formation, and Marriage and Family.  You read that correctly.  I learned about birth control in Catholic school.  Three times.  Sex education?  Check.  Sexuality education?  Not quite. 

As I’ve posted before (Life Lessons), my boys and I have had plenty of discussions about the mechanics of sexuality and birth around here.  I’ve answered questions, shown videos, shared books, and interjected comments when watching media.  Sex is open for discussion here, as is gender identity, homosexuality, reproduction, love, marriage, procreation, birth, breastfeeding, and more.  I’ve work hard to create an atmosphere where the boys can have a healthy understanding about their bodies, appreciate the differences in bodies of men and women, and feel welcome to ask questions.  

So why am I anxious about OWL?  OWL essentially takes this openness into a slightly larger forum, encourages learning of the facts, and facilitates discussion.  All good stuff, in my book.  My concerns rest mainly in my contribution to the audience.  My older son, despite being 13.5 years, is completely prepubescent (and has many late bloomers on his dad’s side)  and (nearly) violently opposed.  He’s concerned that he’ll be too embarrassed (so will the other kids) and that he’s just not interested (probably true, although he is 13).  I’m concerned because he’s so opposed. 

But he’s going.  He’s going to learn from someone other mom about his body works.  He’s going to learn how the female body works, too, since he’s statistically likely to pair up with one of those types some day.  He’s going to discuss gender identity, traditional and nontraditional; to discuss the wide spectrum of normal sexual expression and the role love, respect, and safety play in that expression.  He’ll learn that sexual feelings are normal.  He’ll learn about relationships. He’ll learn that sex can have unintended consequences, and that sexual intercourse isn’t advisable until older.  He’s attending to develop a fuller view of human sexuality than I received, either at home, in school, or (surprise, surprise) from friends.  

But now he’s anxious and a bit upset.  While trying to maintain equanimity, I’m struggling to find ways to reassure him that while it may be uncomfortable at points that it’s likely to be safe, interesting, and, perhaps, fun.  Perhaps I’m reassuring myself, too, that despite his mental unease and prepubescent body, this is a suitable age for him to participate.

Biology 2009/2010 Outline Completed

I’ve finally gotten around to posting the complete outline for Biology, as taught to my son(12) and his friend (13).  I’d like to call it a labor of love, but it was sheer determination and stubborness on my part that saw the project through.  They learned a ton, easily passed their unofficial New York Regents test for Living Environment/Biology (which my father, a professor in Biology, assured me was a good standard to hold for an initial (non AP) biology class).  Neither child loves biology despite my efforts, and that’s okay with me.  They’ve been exposed, thought deeply, learned to write excellent lab reports, and worked on their study skills.  I’m proud of both of them and honored to be indentured on for their exploration of Chemistry this fall.  Plans for that will appear when I stop waffling about which text to use.  I’m looking at least three, including Thinkwell, and completely undecided.  I guess I know what I’ll be doing in August.  I hope these plans are helpful to someone out there.  Please feel free to contact me with questions, as I’m sure I’ve left some lab links and the like out.  Enjoy!

Life Lessons

This three-week-old foster is a recent womb graduate. Yes, his mom probably did eat his placenta, but he has yet to ask about it.


“No, I didn’t eat the placenta,” I reply to my younger as we watch In the Womb:  Dogs.  It’s a reasonable question, given our video fare lately.  We’ve eagerly viewed most of National Geographic’s In the Womb series, including the episodes on multiples, exotic animals, cats, and the original show (single human pregnancy).  His interests in animals and, to a lesser extent, in anatomy, led us to this series and a host of interesting conversations. 

My younger’s fascination with animals began about four years ago we acquired two guinea pigs.  We read books on their diet, housing needs, behavior, and health.   Many of the  books included a chapter on mating and birth, which my son just incorporated as other interesting animal behaviors.  He was fuzzy on the mechanics behind mating:  he never asked for clarification, and I felt a don’t ask, don’t tell policy was appropriate for my four-year-old.  He noted that our guinea pigs couldn’t mate and produce offspring, so I know some science made it through.   

Then one day, I hear, “Mom, when people mate, is the boy on top?” 

How to answer that?  I think I managed a strangled,  “Sometimes,” before changing the subject.  I may have even offered the questioning child some chocolate to derail that line of questioning.  My older son had also asked the questions around age four,  soon after his younger brother was born.  During pregnancy, he absorbed all the details about sperm, eggs, fetuses, umbilical cords, and the like, with the particulars of conception unmentioned (again, don’t ask, don’t tell).  In the drop-off line to Montessori, he sprung the Big Question:  “But how does the daddy get the sperm to the mom’s egg?” 

We were two cars from the front of the drop-off line.  I gave a quick one-liner of the mechanics to which my older exclaimed, “Gross,” and hopped out of the car and ran into school.  The topic didn’t come up for two more years.  Again, I gave the same one-liner and received the same reply.  By the time he turned eight, his father and I’d discussed the process in more depth with him, and that was the questions stopped.  Fast forward to age 12, mitosis and meiosis long since covered but the reproductive system waiting for study (no lab).  The time had come for a refresher, so after assigning the reproduction chapter in Campbell’s Concepts and Connections and while I had him trapped (without his brother) on a long car ride, I reviewed the basics of conception and puberty.  His visible interest was zilch, but I was determined to at least get the science end discussed.  

My younger’s yet to endure an intentional facts of life lecture.  His curiosity about the natural world leads us into many discussions about sexual and asexual reproduction, or, in the vernacular, who does what and how.  Fostering cats brought more books into the house, meaning more chapters on reproduction and development.  Inquiries about the fathers of the mother/kitten groupings we had were a bit uncomfortable, since they coincided with my divorce.  That was my baggage and not his, but the absence of the father cat tripped me up more than the anatomy and physiology of cat mating. 

Enter In the Womb: Animals.  Never mind the birds and the bees.  This video took us through mating, conception, in utero development, and birth of an elephant, dolphin, and dog.   We were both riveted.  While I knew that, as early embryos, we all look pretty much alike, I had no concept of the, ahem, procedural variations that led to the embryo.  The timing of mating and ovulation, which I understand fully in the human, is entirely different in other animals, where mating can actually induce ovulation.  (Those of you with years of furry pet experience and rural living background may be laughing at my naiveté.  Go ahead, giggle at the city girl.)  Birth, however, is remarkably similar across the mammals.  Nesting behavior, visible discomfort (or, in my experience, pain),  and, finally, new life.  It amazes me every time.  

And then there was the placenta.  My younger guy knew mammal moms generally eat the membranes and placenta after the birth, an instinct that provides oxytocin to the mom.  That oxytocin helps the uterus contract, which decreases bleeding, causes let-down in nursing mothers, and increases bonding.  Any mom who remembers that relaxation associated with breastfeeding a baby can thank oxytocin.  Although controversial in some circles, most moms giving birth in hospitals receive a dose of Pitocin (synthetic oxytocin) after delivery to increase uterine contractions and decrease bleeding.  I received it after both births. 

But, as I told my younger, I never ate my placenta.  I was ready to launch into information about placental uses and disposal (we have friends who have planted them under trees, and a bit of internet research turns up other endpoints for this essential part), but he was done with placenta and back to the miracle of puppy birth.  And since he didn’t ask more, I didn’t tell.