Tori Miller, Homeschool Graduate and Elementary Education Major

Tori Miller, a homeschool graduate I have in one of my university courses.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I first learned about home education when I found out that my top students at Ball State University were graduates of homeschooling. After taking a long hiatus from academic life to write textbooks designed for homeschoolers, I am once again “dabbling” in academia as an adjunct professor of chemistry and physics at Anderson University. I am once again teaching homeschool graduates in my university classes, and I continue to be impressed by them.

As a part of a new series on this blog, I decided to interview one of my current students, Tori Miller, who is in a physics class I am co-teaching. Entitled “Teaching STEM in the Elementary Classroom,” it gives future teachers specific tools that they can use to incorporate science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) into their lesson plans. While you might find it odd that a homeschool graduate is studying to be a school teacher, I think it is awesome!

Tori was homeschooled K-12, and although she has only been at Anderson University for two years, she is technically near the end of her junior year because of all the college credits she has earned. Initially, she was thinking about studying accounting so she could help her father in a family business, but she decided she wanted to work more directly with people. If you meet Tori in person, you will see why. She is friendly, outgoing, and always willing to lend a helping hand.

Once she decided that she wanted to work with people, she gravitated towards professions where she could help make the world a better place. She considered nursing, but says that science is not her strong suit, although you wouldn’t know that from her performance in my class. She settled on education because she thinks that she can do a lot of good there, and she hopes that she can bring the values that she learned through homeschooling to the classroom.

I asked Tori about how she thinks homeschooling prepared her for university life. She says it produced a good work ethic in her, and it also taught her about taking responsibilities seriously and having respect for authority figures. She also says that homeschooling gave her a desire to pursue a higher education, since she was taught to appreciate learning and was also encouraged to make life better for those around her.

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No, These Researchers Did Not See a Single-Celled Organism Evolve Into A Multicellular Organism!

A green algae in a predator-free environment (far left) and other environments with predators. (click for credit)

A student sent me an article from Science Alert, asking me about its rather bold claim:

Scientists Have Witnessed a Single-Celled Algae Evolve Into a Multicellular Organism…Most of us know that at some point in our evolutionary history around 600 million years ago, single-celled organisms evolved into more complex multicellular life. But knowing that happened and actually seeing it happen in real-time in front of you is an entirely different matter altogether. And that’s exactly what researchers from the George Institute of Technology and University of Montana have witnessed – and captured in the breathtaking, time-lapse footage below.

Over the course of my scientific career, I have learned that many science journalists are terrible at science and not much better at journalism, so I did what I always do when I read about science in the popular press: I found the scientific article upon which it was based. Not surprisingly, the study didn’t do what the article claims. It did find one interesting result, however.

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Homeschoolers: Hear From The Only Person Alive Today Who Lived With C.S. Lewis

Douglas Gresham, the stepson of C.S. Lewis, will speak at two of the Great Homeschool Conventions this year.

It is 4 o’clock in the morning, and I just got off the phone with Douglas Gresham, the stepson of C.S Lewis. Dr. Lewis adopted both Douglas and his older brother, David, when he married their mother, Joy. When Joy lost her battle with cancer, Lewis continued to raise them. As someone who has read every one of Dr. Lewis’s works, I was thrilled to have the chance to speak with his stepson. However, I had to call him at 3:00 AM my time, because he lives in Malta and was only free in the morning. I originally thought I would go back to sleep and write about the interview later, but I simply cannot. My conversation with him was so spiritually and intellectually stimulating that I am simply too excited to go back to sleep.

Why did I call Mr. Gresham? He is one of the featured speakers at the Great Homeschool Conventions in Texas and Ohio, and I was asked to interview him regarding what he plans to share with the attendees. Seems a simple enough task, right? Not when you are talking to someone like Douglas Gresham. For example, I asked him what he plans to speak about, and here is what he said:

I never prepare my lectures. I just pray lots and ask the Holy Spirit to guide me…I am not 100% sure what I am going to talk about, but I am sure it will be what the Lord wants me say.

That’s the kind of man Mr. Gresham seems to be: A man who takes the guidance of the Holy Spirit very seriously.

For example, he told me about how he felt the Lord calling him to stop farming (something he had been doing off and on in his adult life) and start a Christian psychotherapy and hospitality ministry. Essentially, he and his wife, Merrie, purchased an estate and converted it into a place where people who needed help could stay. They accepted anyone who had nowhere else to go, and they didn’t charge them anything. While he was being trained by Dr. Philip Ney to start the ministry, he met a young woman who was pregnant and very worried about raising a baby. While they were talking, she admired a ring that he was wearing. Without even thinking, he took the ring off his finger, gave it to her, and told her that it was for her daughter. He did not know the gender of the child, but he simply felt the Holy Spirit telling him to do that. Well, the woman did have a daughter. She is now a wonderful young woman who wears that ring every day.

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A New Category

Me and a homeschool graduate who studied chemistry at university.

I really enjoyed preparing for and writing my previous post about homeschool graduate Dr. Nathan T. Brewer. If the statistics are correct, it was one of my most-read posts this year. As a result, I decided I would try to do some more writing about homeschool graduates and what they are doing these days. I have already scheduled an interview with a student who is currently in one of my university courses, and I am collecting contact information for other homeschool graduates. I hope to find out what they are doing, whether or not their faith plays a role in what they are doing, and what their honest opinions are about how homeschool prepared them for life beyond high school. While my natural inclination is to interview homeschool graduates who went on to some form of higher education, I hope to interview many homeschool graduates who participate in a wide range of careers.

While thinking about this new project, I realized that I have already written about homeschool graduates several times, so I decided to add a new category:

Homeschool Graduates

While the articles mostly focus on studies that have been performed on homeschool graduates, there are also some articles about individuals. Enjoy!

Dr. Nathan T. Brewer: Homeschool Graduate and Nuclear Physicist

Dr. Nathan T. Brewer

When I was on the faculty at Ball State University (in the early 1990s), I started encountering a unique group of students: homeschool graduates. I knew nothing about homeschooling, but I was impressed by what I saw. Not only were homeschool graduates excellent university students, but they were also at university for more than just the chance to get a degree and get a good job. They were there because they recognized that God had given them specific gifts, and to honor Him, they needed to develop those gifts and use them to make the world better for other people. My experience with them inspired me to start working with homeschooling parents, and eventually, I began writing homeschooling curriculum.

Since that time, I have been constantly impressed with the homeschooled students and homeschool graduates I have encountered. They are still my best university students, and I expect that they will do great things. Yesterday, I had a chance to chat with one who is, indeed, doing great things: Dr. Nathan T. Brewer. He is currently doing postdoctoral research for the University of Tennessee and is employed by Oak Ridge National Laboratory. He is part of a team that is trying to understand the structure of the atomic nucleus by synthesizing new elements.

His proud mother informed me about his work via Facebook, so I contacted him, and he sent me a copy of the paper that he thinks contains his most important scientific work so far. In that paper, he describes experiments that he and an international team of scientists performed to show an alternate method of producing the heaviest-known element, which is named Oganesson in honor of Russian nuclear physicist Yuri Tsolakovich Oganessian. He thinks that this method shows the most promise for synthesizing even heavier elements, and it also helps us further understand how these exotic nuclear reactions happen. While all of this might sound unfamiliar to you, it is very important work in the field of nuclear physics, and I am impressed that someone so young has been a successful part of it.

While I am fascinated by the science he is doing, I thought my readers would be interested in the fact that he was homeschooled from grades 6 through grades 12, so he graciously agreed to take time out of his busy day to speak with me about topics that are of interest to homeschooling parents.

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Why I Am Glad That I Homeschooled

My favorite picture of me and my little girl. It was taken in Capetown, South Africa in 2004, when we were on a homeschooling speaking tour.

My little girl turns 40 this month. I am not sure how to take that. In my mind, she is still that 16-year-old girl who loved Dan Marino, computer games, and ice cream cake. Where in the world did the time go? As I think about all the wonderful (and not-so-wonderful) times we have experienced together, I see a lot of mistakes that I made in parenting her. There are definitely things I would do differently if I could turn back the clock to the day we adopted her. However, the one thing I know I would not change is our decision to homeschool her.

We started homeschooling her as soon as we could, and the reason was simple: she was the classic example of a student who “fell through the cracks.” When she was having a good day, she learned well. When she wasn’t having a good day, she didn’t. As a result, there were large, gaping holes in her education. Not surprisingly, then, when she took the PSAT test, she scored in the bottom 35% of the nation in math and the top 25% of the nation in English. She wanted to get a college degree, because as far as she knew, no one in her biological heritage had one. Getting a degree would provide a tangible break from her past. However, with those scores, she would have a difficult time getting accepted to college, much less succeeding when she got there.

As a result, we spent most of her homeschooling in “educational triage.” We identified the holes in her education and then filled them. When she took the ACT (one of the standardized tests used for college entrance) early in her senior year, she scored in the top 5% in English and the top 30% in math. As a scientist, I decided that the numbers were the ultimate evidence that the decision to homeschool her was a good one. She ended up being accepted at Butler University and graduating with a degree in sociology (which, of course, she doesn’t use).

In my mind, then, homeschooling was all about academics. Our daughter wanted a college degree, and the only way we could prepare her for college was to homeschool her. Even after she had graduated college, I still thought that homeschooling her was all about academics. However, as time went on, my view of the matter began to change. As I celebrated the successes in her adult life and helped her deal with the failures, I started to notice that our relationship was very different from the relationships that most of my friends had with their adult children. Our daughter actually wants to spend time – lots of time – with us. For example, right now, as she is about to turn 40, she is on a mother-daughter vacation. When my wife suggested the idea to her, she was thrilled. At Christmas, I gave her a little picture book that had old and new photos of me, her, and my wife. When she opened it, her husband said, “Look at how her face just lit up.”

Why do I have a daughter who loves to spend time with me and her mother? If you ask her, it’s because we spent so much time together when she was young. In these days when children are separated from their parents by school, after-school activities, and other distractions, it’s hard to form a deep family bond. When you homeschool, you are not only using the best possible educational model to teach your child, but you are also doing something very few families do: you are spending a lot of time together. In the long run, that makes a huge difference!

Does that mean everyone who homeschools will have a great relationship with their adult children? Of course not! There are many, many factors that play into how people bond with one another. However, probably the most crucial of those factors is time that you spend together. The more time you spend with your children, the better you get to know them. Looking back on my homeschooling my little girl, I recognize that she got an incredible education. More importantly, however, we all got an amazing gift: lots of time to enjoy one another and grow closer together. Of all the wonderful things I can say about homeschooling, that is the most important.

A Cure For Cancer? Probably Not!

Cancer cells from human connective tissue (click for credit)

I started seeing it on my Facebook feed Tuesday. I started getting messages about it on Wednesday. It’s a news story of great interest to many people, and the headline says it all:

A CURE FOR CANCER? ISRAELI SCIENTISTS SAY THEY THINK THEY FOUND ONE

The news outlet that published the story is the Jerusalem Post. After it was published there on Monday, U.S. news outlets picked up the story. I suspect that nearly everyone in the U.S. knows someone who has been afflicted with some form of cancer, so the interest is understandable. The problem is that the story is almost certainly not true.

As far as I know, the Jerusalem Post is a credible news organization. Also, the people who have made the claim (Dan D. Aridor and Dr. Ilan Morad ) are credible people. Nevertheless, the claims are not credible, especially when you investigate them.

Aridor and Morad say that they are using “phage display” technologies to target proteins that are typically produced by cancer cells. This allows them to eliminate cancer cells without affecting healthy ones. This is already an active area of cancer treatment research, so the technique is a valid one. They claim that they have a special variation on the technique that will allow them to offer “a complete cure for cancer” within a year or so. If that sounds too good to be true, it probably is – especially when you see what the claim is based on.

Essentially, they say they have tested their technique on mice, and it works very well. Unfortunately, they have not published their results, so it is hard to know what that really means. They claim they don’t want to spend their time and money on writing up a publication. Instead, they want to concentrate on the research necessary to perfect the technique. That is understandable, and they might also be afraid that others could use their publication to “copy” their technique and beat them to the punch.

So let’s give them the benefit of the doubt. Let’s assume that they tested their technique on mice, and it was found to completely eliminate specific types of cancer in mice with no discernible side effects. That still doesn’t mean it will work in people! The gap between animal studies and human studies is huge, which is why many treatments that worked incredibly well in animals do very poorly when used to treat people. Now, of course, it makes sense to test a treatment on animals first, but to claim that a technique can go from early animal trials to human treatment in a year is naive, at best.

Also, to make a blanket statement that it will be “a complete cure for cancer” is silly, since there are so many different forms of cancer. It’s possible that their technique might be a great cure for some forms of cancer, but the idea that it will treat all (or even most) forms of cancer seems shockingly inconsistent with what we know about the nature of cancer itself.

Of course, no one will be happier than me if I am wrong. I have had skin cancer removed, and my wife recently had a cancerous breast tumor removed. Thus, a cure for cancer would clearly make me very happy. Nevertheless, I don’t think there will be one within a year, and even if there is one, I suspect that it will only be able to treat specific types of cancer.

These Climate Scientists Predict Global Cooling

Global Temperatures past, present, and future, according to three climate scientists. (Figure 3 from the study being discussed)

The majority of climate scientists think that global temperatures have risen over the past century mostly because of human activity. However, there are some climate scientists who think that the small changes we have seen in global temperature are mostly the result of natural variations that exist independently of people. Others simply say we don’t have enough information to know how much human activity has played a role in the process. Add to that the unreliability of much of the early data regarding global temperatures, and you end up with a picture that is far more murky than what most media outlets and politicians want you to see.

A recently-published study might help to eventually shed some light on how much human activity affects global temperatures. It comes from four climate scientists in China who are affiliated with The Climate Center of the Zhejiang Meteorologic Bureau, the Earth Science School of Zhejiang University, and the Shanghai Climate Center. They are convinced that the vast majority of the changes we have seen in global temperatures are due to natural variations, and those variations are buffered by the oceans. As a result, they have tried to analyze global temperatures from that perspective.

Since global temperature data sets don’t really agree with one another, they first had to choose which global temperatures they would actually use. They chose the Global Land Surface Temperature Anomaly Index (GLST) as compiled by the NOAA. They then tried to find correlations between those data and the Sea Surface Temperatures (SST) as compiled by the Hadley Climate Center. The correlations they found led them to develop a mathematical equation that would reproduce the GLST data. While the idea of finding a single equation that would fit all the GLST data might seem like an impossible task, it is not. One phrase I often hear from my nuclear chemistry colleagues is, “It only takes four parameters to fit an elephant.” In other words, if you have enough parameters in your equation, you can fit just about anything.

Of course, for something as complex as global temperatures, it takes more than four parameters. In fact, their paper indicates that it took 20. However, with their 20-parameter equation, they were able to reasonably reproduce the global temperature data that they were analyzing. The results can be seen in the image at the top of the post. The jagged, grey line indicates the data, and the smoother, black line indicates the results of their equation. As you can see, it does a pretty good job of fitting the known data.

Does that mean their equation is a good explanation of global temperatures? Not at all. It is simply an equation that has been forced to fit the data. What I find interesting, however, are the temperatures it predicts for the future. According to the equation, the earth has hit its maximum temperature for a while, and over the next 100+ years, the average temperature of the planet will cool. Do I think that prediction is correct? There is no way I can adequately judge that. There are simply too many unknowns in climate science for anyone to make a reliable prediction about what is going to happen in the future. Perhaps we will eventually learn enough about climate science to change that, but right now, the uncertainties simply preclude reasonable predictions.

However, here’s what I will say about this very interesting study: The authors assume that that the vast majority of the temperature variations we have seen are the result of natural processes. If, over the next 30 years, the data continue to fall in line with the predictions of their equation, that will lend more credence to their assumption. If not, that will indicate that either their assumption is wrong, or that some of the natural variations which cause global temperature changes are too long-term to show up in a century’s worth of unreliable temperature data.

Regardless of the outcome, I do think that this paper, while simple in its approach, is a valuable addition to climate science.

Big News in Epigenetics!

The Grand Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone National Park holds bacteria like the ones in the study being discussed.
(click for credit)

The more we learn about creation, the more it surprises us. While it is true in all areas of science, it seems particularly true in genetics. When I was at university, I was taught as definitive fact that each gene in my DNA determined the makeup of one protein in my body. We now know that is false. I was also taught as definitive fact that the only way a parent can transmit a trait to its offspring is through the sequence of nucleotide bases in DNA. As a result, if a new trait appears in a population, it must be due to a change in the species’ DNA sequence. We now know that is false. For example, I was taught as definitive fact in university that cave fish are blind because of mutations to their DNA. We now know that is false, at least for one species of blind cave fish.

So we now know that there are ways to inherit traits that go beyond the DNA sequence that you inherit from both parents. For example, we know that if you train mice to fear a certain smell, the next generation can inherit that fear. It’s not that the parents train the fear into their offspring (the offspring were raised separate from their trained parent). They actually inherited the fear. How in the world can a parent pass on a fear of something to its offspring? That’s what the field of epigenetics (which literally means “on top of genetics”) wants to find out.

We know that it has something to do with how an organism regulates the activity of its genes. An organism can alter chemical aspects of the DNA that are not related to its actual sequence, and that alteration can decrease the use of a gene, increase the use of a gene, turn a gene off so that it is not used at all, or turn a gene on so that it will start being used. For example, most people are not born lactose intolerant. After all, they drink their mother’s milk or a milk-based formula. Milk digestion requires the enzyme called “lactase,” which is coded for by a gene. While everyone has that gene turned on at birth, in some people, it gets turned off later on, causing lactose intolerance. Nothing has changed in the person’s DNA sequence – the gene is still there and has not been broken. However, that gene has been turned off by epigenetic mechanisms. It is thought that this process is responsible for epigenetic inheritance. To some extent, we must be able to inherit the “off” and “on” status of our parents’ genes.

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Another Reason to Doubt the Global Climate Models

The study discussed in this article was performed in Puerto Rico’s El Yunque National Forest.

If you have been reading this blog for a while, you probably know that I am very skeptical of climate models that predict the consequences of rising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. Initially, this was due to my own experience with large-scale computer models. In my early scientific research, I both wrote and used them, so I know how much their results are affected by the assumptions programmed into them. As time has gone on, my skepticism has increased, since it has been demonstrated over and over again that the climate models do not line up with the most relevant data.

Why do the climate models compare so poorly to the appropriate data? Mostly because they contain many assumptions that have not been tested. Typically, these assumptions neglect the idea that the earth has negative feedback mechanisms, which are the hallmark of nearly every well-designed system. As time has gone on, many such negative feedback mechanisms have been found, and they typically run counter to the assumptions programmed into the climate models (see here, here, and here, for example). It seems that a graduate student from the University of Virginia (Stephanie Roe) has found yet another of earth’s negative feedback mechanisms.

There is a lot of dead, decaying matter on the floors of the tropical forests of the world. As that dead matter decomposes, it releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Well, decomposition is driven by chemical reactions, and chemical reactions speed up with increasing temperature. So, as the world warms, what should happen to the rate of carbon dioxide produced by decomposition? It should increase, right? That will release more carbon dioxide into the air, which will accelerate warming. This is an example of a positive feedback mechanism. In such a mechanism, a change promotes a process that amplifies the change. This particular positive feedback mechanism is programmed into the climate models that are being used to predict the consequences of increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

While that assumption makes perfect sense, the real world often works differently from our simple assumptions. That’s one reason Stephanie Roe decided to test it. She went to Puerto Rico’s El Yunque National Forest, where the US Forest Service set up infrared heaters in different parts of the forest. Those heaters were programmed to keep their surroundings 4 degrees Celsius warmer than the rest of the forest. Those parts of the forest, then, should behave like the tropical forests will behave if the earth warms by an average of 4 degrees. In addition, there were parts of the forest where identical, non-working heaters were placed. They served as control areas – they stayed at the normal temperature of the forest, but they had the physical structures of the heaters present. Roe introduced various kinds of dead matter (both native and non-native) to the forest in both the warmed sections and the control sections. She then collected samples later to test the rate of decomposition in each.

What did she find? She found that the result was precisely opposite of what is programmed into the climate models. The warmed areas of the forests had slower rates of decomposition than the control areas. Why? According to her research, it is because the warmer parts of the forest were drier. The process of decomposition is accelerated strongly by moisture, so the loss of moisture slowed down the decomposition more than the higher temperature sped it up. Thus, according to her research, increased temperatures should reduce the amount of carbon dioxide produced by decomposition. This, of course, is an example of a negative feedback mechanism: a change promotes a process that decreases the rate of change. Once again, such mechanisms are the hallmark of designed systems, so it is not surprising that it exists here on earth.

The more we learn about climate, the less confidence I have in the predictions of the climate change doomsayers.

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