Thomas R. O'Donnell

Archive for the ‘STEM’ Category

What’s ahead for the March for Science Iowa; what sparked dissent at the event

In STEM on April 27, 2017 at 11:50 am
The science commandments, from a March for Science Iowa participant: Thou shalt: Question, Research, Hypothesize, Test, Analyze, Conclude. Thou Shalt NOT: Jump to Conclusions on "Alternative Facts," Illogical arguments, Ideology instead of Reason.

The science commandments, from a March for Science Iowa participant. He had his wife and child with him, too.

I wasn’t sure what would happen last Saturday. More than 1,300 people were committed via Facebook and more than 900 people followed the @MarchForScienceIA Twitter handle, and we got some press on WHO-TV and in the Des Moines Register. Nonetheless, I couldn’t guess how many actually would show up for the March for Science Iowa at the Capitol.

I contributed (in money and time) to the march and was there to help (my job, with my wife and son, was to man the barricades at each end of Finkbine Drive on the Capitol’s west side). If a thousand people gave up a beautiful Saturday afternoon to support science, I would be thrilled.

As the march started, I stationed myself at the corner of Finkbine and Grand Avenue and used a handheld clicker to count the passing participants. At times it looked like the troop of colorfully dressed, T-shirt-bedecked and sign-bearing activists would peter out, but a new horde would appear. I clicked furiously to keep up.

When the last had gone by, the readout was 2,025. I know I missed dozens more and organizers put the crowd at 2,500, give or take a couple hundred.

It was a great event – an enthusiastic and orderly crowd and a gorgeous day. Participants heard energizing speeches (at least one with some controversy sprinkled in) and educational talks. Organizers already are considering how to capitalize on the momentum.

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Stepping up in Iowa to support science, facts and evidence

In Government, STEM on March 15, 2017 at 7:13 am
A postcard to President Trump from Deborah Bunka, via the March for Science Iowa Facebook page.

A postcard to President Trump from Deborah Bunka, via the March for Science Iowa Facebook page.

I authored this post, which first appeared on the Iowa Starting Line blog. – TRO

Even before he was elected, commentators and experts noted a strong anti-science streak in Donald Trump’s rhetoric. Now that he’s been inaugurated, they’re calling him the most anti-science president ever. Trump is enacting an agenda that, at best, selectively supports scientific evidence and research.

With the appointment of Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt to run the Environmental Protection Agency, it’s clear that climate change will be downplayed or dismissed in the Trump administration. Pruitt took a moderate stance in his nomination hearings, but now is proudly revealing his anti-science views. Earlier this month he said he disagrees with the overwhelming evidence that carbon dioxide is a primary contributor to global climate change.

Trump and Pruitt are putting their words into actions. The administration has offered a plan to cut the budget for the EPA’s Office of Research and Development by 40 percent. The EPA as a whole would get a 24 percent cut. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), a major climate research agency, also would get a severe reduction. Other proposals under consideration would roll back Department of Energy financing for energy efficiency and renewable energy and for research on reducing carbon dioxide emissions.

Trump’s disdain for sound science goes beyond climate, however, and spans political parties. He’s given credence to the disproven notion that vaccinations cause autism and met with noted anti-vaxxer Robert F. Kennedy Jr. (of the famed Democratic family).

It’s easy to pick on Trump, but in truth his election and views are just the culmination of years of attacks on science, evidence and research – attacks that aren’t solely from conservatives. Now, scientists and those who value research and evidence as a foundation for sound public policy are fighting back.

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March for Science: Iowans organizing rally for research

In STEM on January 30, 2017 at 7:08 am
A March for Science Iowa comic by designer Miles Greb (@goldrushcomic) via the March for Science Iowa Facebook page. I think the model looks like a dark-haired Scarlett Johanssen.

A March for Science Iowa comic by designer Miles Greb (@goldrushcomic) via the March for Science Iowa Facebook page. I think the model looks like a dark-haired Scarlett Johanssen.

Jordan Shaw was a lab technician working in food safety a few years ago when one of his supervisors, a researcher working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, published a study comparing eggs from organic and free-range chickens to standard eggs.

Time published her results: there was little difference in terms of safety or quality between the different eggs.

When the magazine posted the story on line, Shaw was stunned. “The comments on that were just unreal, like ‘you can’t trust the USDA because they’re the idiots who made the food pyramid,’” said Shaw, now a food safety consultant living in West Des Moines.

That made Shaw consider how to help the general public better understand science. “What we’re seeing now, really badly, is that science is elite, it’s liberal, all this stuff, and the problem is our populace just doesn’t understand, honest and truly, what is peer-reviewed science.”

His alarm increased when he read reports that the Donald Trump administration was suspending research grants and communications from key government science offices, especially those associated with the environment.

So Shaw – and others across the state – are taking action. They’re planning an Iowa version of a national march in Washington, D.C., to support science and research.

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Mucking about the Des Moines River with Project AWARE – and getting some science to boot

In Government, STEM on July 17, 2016 at 6:16 pm
One of at least two nearly complete car frames volunteers wrestled from the lower Des Moines River during Project AWARE July 11-15.

One of at least two nearly complete car frames volunteers wrestled from the lower Des Moines River on Project AWARE.

I was waist-deep in chocolate-brown water, my feet sunk ankle-deep in gooey Des Moines River mud, and I was gripping the waterlogged backrest of an overstuffed recliner, helping wrestle it onto the floor of a green fiberglass canoe.

It was my first day on Project AWARE (A Watershed Awareness River Expedition) on the Des Moines River through Van Buren County in southeast Iowa. My wife and I had paddled for only an about hour before finding ourselves drenched and grimy as part of a canoe and kayak armada helping clear the river of an amazing assortment of garbage, big and small.

And this was our vacation. We were among hundreds of volunteers who took time off work for the event’s 14th annual edition, July 11-15, sponsored by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) with help from numerous sponsors.

It’s dirty, smelly work, but paddling the river also can be serene and picturesque, and it’s a terrific chance to meet like-minded, outdoorsy and friendly people. It’s no wonder volunteers return year after year, each time on a different river segment. It’s like RAGBRAI on the river, without the crowds and mass partying.

A healthy dose of Iowa science – and history – also is imparted over the four nights that volunteers camp along the route. During our time on the project, we learned more about the natural history of the area where we now live part-time. Read the rest of this entry »

Big bots storm castles in Iowa competition

In STEM on April 4, 2016 at 7:35 am
FRC robots mix it up on the playing field at Cedar Falls' McLeod Center.

FRC robots mix it up on the playing field at UNI’s McLeod Center.

It was mechanical mayhem in a medieval milieu.

In Cedar Falls March 24-26, 52 teams of high school students (mostly from the Midwest but also three from China and one from Brazil) pitted their mechanized marvels (OK, I’m laying off that bottle of Old Alliteration) in the FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC) Iowa Regional tournament. Eleven Iowa teams competed.

At the McLeod Center, where the University of Northern Iowa Panthers usually chuck balls at baskets, robots instead fired “boulders” at mock parapets. It was just one of several missions the machines, each built from scratch, carried out on a theme of attacking and overcoming a castle’s defenses.

This was Iowa’s first FRC regional competition. Teams that did well in Cedar Falls will go on to the championships in St. Louis at the end of April.

My son, Thomas, is on Team ASAP (4646), a collection of Des Moines-area students, and I attended the three-day robot bash. It was a raucous, nerdy – but cool – celebration of technology and engineering. I knew before I got to Cedar Falls what the robots had to do. How they did it, much less that they did it at all, was extraordinary and inspiring. Read the rest of this entry »

Roundup: Pitchman or teacher, Borg mussels and tell-all textbooks (with videos)

In STEM, University research on October 19, 2015 at 12:15 pm
The cover to John Cisna's book about his diet experiment and leap to fame, via Amazon.com.

The cover to John Cisna’s book about his diet experiment and leap to fame, via Amazon.

So much science, so little time.

The last few weeks have seen Iowans and Iowa universities garnering attention for so many controversial, strange and cool science-related ventures it’s hard to keep up. For example:

  • An Iowa high school science teacher’s experiment with a McDonald’s-only diet made him famous. Now health advocates say his presentations to students around the country are thinly veiled commercials for the fast-food chain.
  • University of Iowa engineers are coming out of their shells to flex their electronic mussels. (Ba-dump ching!)
  • And teachers are using digital textbooks to spy on their students’ performance – with an eye on improving it, an Iowa State University professor says.

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Iowa approves NGSS as opposition fizzles

In STEM on August 10, 2015 at 7:38 am
An April 2015 photo at California's Lake Isabella. Once a tourist destination, the lake is going dry in an inexorable drought. Climate scientists say such severe weather episodes are more likely as global warming persists.

An April 2015 photo at California’s Lake Isabella. Once a tourist destination, the lake is going dry in an inexorable drought. Climate scientists say such severe weather episodes are more likely as global warming rises. Photo credit: Chris Wronski via photopin (license).

Thursday’s meeting of the Iowa Board of Education was almost as notable for what didn’t happen as for what did.

The board voted to adopt a modified version the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) as the science criteria for Iowa students in kindergarten through 12th grade. It was unanimous.

In adopting the standards, the board followed the recommendation of two Iowa Department of Education panels. The most recent one worked since last fall to weigh numerous sets of science education standards – including those Iowa currently uses – and chose the NGSS. The board of science educators and industry representatives said the NGSS are best suited to help Iowa children grasp not only science’s fundamentals, but also how science works and how to weigh evidence, making them better prepared to learn on their own and judge competing scientific claims.

The outcome was not completely unexpected, but the way it happened surprised me. It could foreshadow a change in the debate over science and climate change.

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The Des Moines Register catches up on the Next Generation Science Standards: a critique

In STEM on May 6, 2015 at 7:05 am
Cover of Science Comics, April 1939, via the Digital Comics Museum.

Science Comics, April 1939, via the Digital Comics Museum.

It’s taken months, but the Des Moines Register finally caught up with deliberations over Iowa’s adoption of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

On Sunday, reporter Mackenzie Ryan did a big takeout on the Iowa Department of Education (IDE) study of the standards, which would replace the current Iowa Core standards in science. It ran across the top of the front page – and as a former Register reporter, I will say you can’t do better than lead the Sunday paper, which has the biggest circulation of any day of the week.

There’s even a video on line of Ryan discussing the story and visiting a West Des Moines engineering class. (The class has more to do with Project Lead the Way, an initiative to coax more students into engineering, than with the NGSS, but never mind.)

So the Register focused a lot of attention on the issue – one that your faithful correspondent and others have reported on for months. That fact, and the fact that it was a rather weak story (as I’ll detail below), has me scratching my head about why editors thought it deserved such prominent play. Perhaps there wasn’t anything better to run.

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NGSS moves forward in Iowa; skeptical review team member discusses why he voted no

In STEM on April 20, 2015 at 7:42 am

How to Read the Next Generation Science Standards from Achieve on Vimeo.

After months of work, an Iowa Department of Education (IDE) review team last week signed off on a recommendation that the state’s schools teach the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) as an update to the current Iowa Core standards.

It’s a victory for science advocates over conservative opponents, who don’t like the NGSS’ focus on inquiry over rote learning and inclusion of lessons on evolution and human-caused climate change.

The team of science educators and business leaders will meet again next month to draft a report to the Iowa Board of Education, which has the final say. Opponents are likely to put up resistance again there. One press report indicates some board members may be leery of diving into the evolution and climate science controversies (which really are non-controversies among scientists). Conservatives may try to exploit that hesitation.

The team formally endorsed only a portion of the NGSS document and its decision wasn’t unanimous. Two members voted no.

In fact, one of those two consistently voted against the standards at the team’s March 24 meeting.

His objections and the review team’s choice to adopt only part of the standards, leaving the rest as “supporting material,” provide insights into how the NGSS are structured and what they’re designed to do.

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Next Generation Science Standards gain attention and near approval

In STEM on April 13, 2015 at 7:25 am

Iowa Department of Education logo

Some interesting things have happened in the month since I last wrote about Iowa educators considering the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

If you’ve been reading along (and you have, haven’t you?), you’ll know that an Iowa Department of Education (IDE) team is studying revisions to the Iowa Core science education standards. After considering several sets of standards, including some from other states, the team focused on the NGSS as a baseline for new Iowa requirements. You can read more about the deliberations and associated surveys, forums and issues in my previous posts.

This followed an earlier IDE task force that reviewed the NGSS and endorsed them as acceptable for Iowa.

The two groups approved the NGSS despite loosely organized opposition from social and political conservatives. They object to the standards’ emphasis on inquiry-based, hands-on science understanding as opposed to rote memorization. But they may object even more to their inclusion of evolution and human-caused climate change as accepted science. Which they are.

In the next month or so, the team will devise a recommendation for the Iowa Board of Education to consider. It meets again on Tuesday, April 14, at the Science Center of Iowa boardroom in Des Moines.

Here are the new developments:

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Review panel data finds strong support for the Next Generation Science Standards

In STEM on March 10, 2015 at 7:45 am
Chart showing sentiment toward the depth and breadth of the Next Generation Science Standards among Iowans in an unscientific survey.

Chart showing sentiment toward the depth and breadth of the NGSS among respondents in an online survey.

Often, the loudest voices get the most attention in a debate. For instance, there’s organized, motivated opposition to Iowa’s adoption of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) and the Common Core State Standards.

But the loudest voice doesn’t always represent the majority.

Data gathered from an Iowa Department of Education team reviewing the state’s science education standards indicates there’s strong, if not overwhelming, support for adoption of the NGSS as a base for revised Iowa standards – the base concepts K-12 students will need to grasp to advance and graduate.

Significantly, much of the support comes from the state’s teachers and administrators – the people who will have to implement the framework while applying their own judgment and expertise.

Even at four forums around the state, where you might expect opponents to come out in force, the number of speakers in favor appears to outnumber those speakers opposed. (Although, at least at the meeting I attended, only a fraction of those present actually addressed the education officials.)

The review team was established under a governor’s executive order, which directed the education department to review all the state’s standards, now called the Iowa Core. Over the last month the review team has gathered comments from parents, teachers, administrators, and others via a survey and the forums.

On Thursday the review team met to review the comments and survey results. After they got them, I got them. Now you can read them, too – if you care to invest the time.

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Why you shouldn’t fear the Next Generation Science Standards

In STEM on February 25, 2015 at 7:23 am
A man lights a cigarette. If local schools can dictate what science is taught, what's to stop a North Carolina school from teaching that cigarettes aren't unhealthy?

If local schools can dictate what science is taught, what’s to stop a North Carolina school from teaching that cigarettes are safe? Credit: Nightsongs via photopin (license)

This is the last week Iowans can provide comments to an Iowa Department of Education panel that is reviewing the state’s science teaching standards.

As I’ve written before, the panel reviewed several sets of standards before deciding to consider the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) as a basis for Iowa’s revised guidelines. The panel had one open forum on February 11. The last two are this week: tonight in Dubuque and Thursday in Sioux City.

The panel also is collecting opinions via a survey. If you support the teaching of accurate, evidence-based information in Iowa schools, you must take it now, because opponents are arrayed against the NGSS.

Through all this, I’ve puzzled over one question: Why do people fear standards?

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Parents pack Waukee forum to comment on Next Generation Science Standards

In STEM on February 17, 2015 at 7:32 am

If you were in Waukee at a forum about the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) last Wednesday night and knew nothing about them, you may have come away thinking they’re a government plot to dumb down science for our kids and brainwash them.

Or you might have left thinking they’re evidence-based, objective guidelines that will help children understand how science works and how to apply those principles throughout their lives.

An Iowa Department of Education team is considering using the NGSS as a base to set new standards for what Iowa youths should learn about science.

To gather public input the team of educators is holding a series of forums around the state. I attended the first one, at the Waukee Community School District offices, on Feb. 11.

As I’ve written in previous posts, I fear conservative forces will attempt to scuttle the standards, at least in part because they teach evolution as the best explanation for Earth’s biological diversity and human influence as the best explanation for climate change.

What I heard on Wednesday did little to ease my fears and much to exacerbate them.

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Make your voice heard (again) on the Next Generation Science Standards

In STEM on February 9, 2015 at 7:52 am

After dropping off the screen for more than a year, the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) are back in the spotlight.

A team of educators is reviewing Iowa’s science standards – what concepts they should know or what skills they should demonstrate. After considering several different criteria, ones either proposed or used elsewhere, it settled on the NGSS as the foundation for what kids will learn in science classes across Iowa.

Maybe more importantly, the NGSS outlines how students will learn, hoping to set them up to learn and work with facts and technology we can’t forecast.

Now the team is gathering feedback on the standards from educators, parents and students, through an on-line survey and four forums – the first of which is this Wednesday afternoon.

Like the last time a state panel considered the NGSS, the survey and the forums could be an opportunity for conservative opponents to come out and torpedo the effort.

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Talkin’ science talks and Cyclone Survivor

In STEM on June 12, 2014 at 8:11 am
Gray wolves looking cute.

Canis lupus: the gray wolf, once roamed Iowa. Credit: Steve Jurvetson, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters via Compfight cc

A quick post to spread the word about two lecture series now in progress for folks living in Central Iowa. If you have a Friday night or Saturday afternoon free, they’re great destinations for engaging talks on wildlife, astronomy, biology and more. They’re at no charge and in beautiful settings.

I’ll also note the accomplishments of a Williamsburg FIRST LEGO League team in this year’s Global Innovation Award competition.

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