Monday, May 28, 2018

10 Basic Science Lessons

   I get to work with about 80 high school students this summer. That might sound like a nightmare to some people, but I really like young people. I am teaching a science class I created called "Sciencepalooza." I didn't actually come up with that name, but I do develop the course curriculum each summer.

   In the college classes I teach, there are a few basic lessons I always cover for my students during the normal academic year, and I teach many of these same things to my high school students. I wanted to post some of these topics on here, just in case this helps anyone plan a class, or maybe this will start a conversation about what the most important science-related topics are that we should be teaching to our young people.

   Science literacy appears to be at great risk in the United States. Why don't we have more scientists in our highest government offices? We desperately need people in high power positions to support scientific education and research. 

   Here are some basic science topics I hope my students can learn to help stave off the encroaching ignorance:

1. The Scientific Method. I usually go through the steps of the Scientific Method, and then give a super-simple example of how we all actually use the Scientific Method in every-day life. 

2. Famous Scientist Quiz. I just type up a list of twenty or so famous scientists in a matching-style quiz with their major contributions. Of course there are MANY scientists you could put on a quiz like this. Benjamin Franklin is always on my list. So is Carl Sagan, Charles Darwin, Nikola Tesla, Kary Mullis, Albert Einstein, Galileo Galilei, Alexander Fleming, and Wernher von Braun. 

3. Hypothesis v/s Theory. People mess these up all the time. A hypothesis does not have much (or any) evidence to support it yet. A theory has a LOT of evidence to support it, and it is generally accepted as THE TRUTH by the scientific least until someone provides highly convincing evidence that we were wrong. When people say,  "I have a theory...", what they should really say is, "I have a hypothesis." 

4. Bacteria v/s Viruses. This is a big deal. When people get sick, it is usually caused by a virus. (The common cold and the flu are caused by viruses.) Bacterial infections, such as a sinus infection, are usually localized and don't cause symptoms that affect your entire body the way a virus does. (Unless the bacteria have spread throughout the body, which is not good.) Key point here: antibiotics will NEVER work on a virus. If you are sick and it is due to a virus, there's not much a doctor can do for you. Also, some viruses actually stay in our bodies FOR LIFE. An example is the chicken pox virus, which can go dormant for many years in our bodies, and then it can re-erupt later as the painful shingles. This is also a good time to talk about vaccines and how there is NOT a single solid study that indicates there is a link between vaccines and autism. 

5. Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs). I have a really graphic PowerPoint with pictures of STD infections that I show my high school students. I talk about the STDs that are caused by bacteria and the ones that are caused by viruses. The viral-based STDs are generally the ones you get stuck with for life. We don't know how to get rid of viruses if you catch one, but we should have an antibiotic that could help you get rid of a bacterial-based STD. I also usually call my local health department to get statistics on what the current local outbreaks are. It seems to really make an impact on my high school students when I say things like, "Russellville has more cases of gonorrhea than any other STD." 

6. How to do conversions, especially metric v/s English units. The United States continues to cling to the old English system of pounds, feet, miles, etc. Learning how to convert English units into metric units is a very important skill. After all, do you remember when one of our NASA Mars orbiters burned up in the Martian atmosphere because someone did not convert English units to metric units? It was akin to setting $125 million dollars aflame. Students love this story. 

7. How to make a basic graph. I usually give the students a small dataset, some blank paper and colored pencils. I teach them about the independent variable (or test variable), and how to identify the dependent variable. I review what the x and y axes are, and how to label them. Then we usually look at examples of some really poorly made graphs so they can learn to identify a meaningful graph. We also look at pie charts and talk about how all the pieces should equal to 100%.  

8. The most common statistic: The t-test. What is a p value? It may be challenging for the students to grasp this concept in one sitting, but we have to try. I know  professors who struggle with basic statistics. Statistics is a basic and critical tool for scientists. The more you understand statistics, the harder it is for anyone to feed you garbage. 

9. How to look up a peer-reviewed science journal. Google Scholar is my favorite search engine for scientific papers. There are others, but this one is a great place to start. 

10. How to check to see if you've found a predatory journal. Scientists are under intense pressure to publish their work, so of course there are plenty of people around who are looking to take advantage of them. You won't ever need to rely on mainstream media to explain science news to you if you know how to look up peer-reviewed journals. You can learn to interpret the papers yourself, but you need to make sure the papers haven't been published by someone using shady criteria.  Librarian Jeffrey Beall created the best resource I know of to make sure you are not referencing a predatory journal.  

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