The SHEM Homeschool Convention (and some awesome questions)

This past weekend, I spoke at the Southwest Home Education Ministry Convention in Springfield, Missouri. It was a well-organized, well-attended convention with many excellent speakers. I had a total of seven sessions, including two with Diana Waring. One of the things that I love about doing conventions is that I get a chance to speak with a lot of people one-on-one. I personally think that’s where I can help people the most. It’s also a chance for me to be incredibly blessed.

After my very first talk at this convention, for example, a young lady came up to me to tell me that she is a nurse today because of my courses. I thanked her and told her that I was very happy my courses prepared her for college so that she could become a nurse. She immediately stopped me and emphatically told me it was much more than that. She said that before she started using my courses, she hated science. After using my courses, she not only loved science, but she realized that God wanted her to use science to help others. She said she would never have even considered becoming a nurse had it not been for learning science from my courses. I kind of teared up right there and told her I had no idea how I could thank her for telling me that.

Usually, it’s conversations like that one which I enjoy most at these conventions. However, as much as my conversation with this young lady (and many other such conversations throughout the weekend) were a blessing to me, I have to say that the most enjoyable part of the convention was a session I did with the teens. The organizers of the convention wanted me to do something different from a normal presentation, and they actually suggested that I do something related to acting, since they knew I write and perform dramas for my church. However, I told them I had no idea what I would do for a drama workshop, so I suggested a question/answer session.

The organizers decided it was a good idea, so they put it on the schedule and then put out notices telling teens that they would have a chance to ask me any questions they wanted to ask. I had a “backup plan” in place in case there were few (or no) questions, but from the moment the session started, I knew there was no need for it. Not only were there an enormous number of questions (so many that I had to cut them off after an hour and 15 minutes so the next session could start), but the teens were incredibly enthusiastic! Below the fold, you will find three of the excellent questions they asked me, along with a rough approximation of my answers.

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The 2013 Midwest Homeschool Convention (and abiotic oil)

I spent this past weekend speaking at the 2013 Midwest Homeschool Convention in Cincinnati, Ohio. The crowds were huge, and there was a lot of enthusiasm amongst both the attendees and the speakers. It seems to me that this convention was much like the conventions I remember from ten years ago: lots of enthusiastic homeschoolers listening and talking to lots of enthusiastic speakers about the joys, troubles, and triumphs of home education. It was wonderful.

I spoke a total of seven times on six different subjects. Two of my talks were given with Diana Waring, and I enjoyed them the most. She and I have different styles that seem to complement each other really well. As she puts it, I provide the “analytics,” and she provides the “warm fuzzies.” I am not sure that’s exactly right, but it’s probably close. We gave the same talks in Greenville, SC, and we will be doing them again in Springfield, Missouri and Kissimmee, Florida.

As is typically the case, the most interesting part of the conference for me was interacting with the attendees. I had a rather constant stream of parents and students coming to my booth to talk with me. Many of them asked questions, and I hope my answers provided some help. Others came by just to report on how they (or their children) were doing with my courses. I was really impressed to meet one young lady who had completed all of my textbooks! I have authored or co-authored eight texts, and most students get through five of them. Some complete six, and a very few manage to cover seven, but this young lady had gotten through all eight of them. As a result, she has already taken the equivalent of a year of university-level biology, a year of university-level chemistry, and a year of university-level physics. That’s pretty impressive!

I take questions from the audience in all of my talks, and at the end of one of my evolution-related talks, a man asked a question about abiotic oil. He had read a book by Dr. Thomas Gold entitled The Deep Hot Biosphere, which tries to make the case that both oil and coal are not fossil fuels. In other words, they are not produced by decaying dead things. Instead, they are produced by chemical processes in the earth and simply reworked by living organisms. I read that book many years ago, and while it is definitely worth reading (even today), I personally think that it really overstates the case.

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Another Study that Confirms Homeschool Graduates Outperform Their Peers in College

A happy graduate (Click for credit)

Last week, I spoke at the Great Homeschool Convention in Greenville, South Carolina. It was very well attended, and other than a fire alarm that interrupted one of my talks, it ran really smoothly. I gave two brand-new talks at this convention, and they were both done with Diana Waring, whose high school history curriculum is truly wonderful.

One of these new talks was on the myths that you find in textbooks. It started off with the myth that ancient people thought the earth was flat. There is simply no truth to such an absurd idea. As early as 200 BC, natural philosophers knew the circumference of the earth, and the earliest Christian writers who mention the shape of the earth (such as Basil of Caesarea – c. 330-379) mention the spherical shape of the earth as an accepted fact. No one thought that Columbus was going to sail off the edge of the earth. His problems getting funding involved people not thinking he could carry enough supplies to make a voyage all the way around the earth. The other talk was based on a study by Dr. Harold McCurdy, which I have already discussed here.

While the talks I gave were enjoyable, as usual, the most interesting thing that happened occurred as a result of someone asking me a question. One of the solo talks I gave was called Why Homeschool Through High School. As a part of that talk, I discuss studies in which homeschool graduates are compared to graduates of traditional schools when it comes to their performance in college. Not surprisingly, the homeschooled students do much better in college than their traditionally-schooled peers.

After the talk, a homeschooling parent who is also a college professor asked me a very interesting question. He asked me if any study had attempted to measure not the performance of homeschool graduates at the college level, but instead the preparation that homeschool graduates have when they arrive at college. After all, he said, a student can perform well at the college level even when he is unprepared, as long as he has the ability to learn on his own. I told him that the studies I had seen focused on performance, but I would take another look at the literature and see what I could find.

Well, it turns out that such a study has been done. It is a PhD dissertation, which is why I hadn’t seen it in the academic literature. It was done by a student at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, and it at least partially addresses the question that the homeschooling parent asked.

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Hippopotamus “Sweat”

This circus poster promoted the myth that hippos sweat blood. (Public domain image)
I am currently in Thailand, speaking at a family education conference. There are a lot of incredibly wonderful families here, and not surprisingly, some of them feel a bit overwhelmed at homeschooling their children in Asia. To all those homeschoolers in the United States: be thankful for all the support that exists where you live. Home education is difficult enough when there are support groups, easy access to curriculum, and homeschooling conferences that showcase multiple speakers and vendors. Imagine trying to homeschool with without such luxuries. That’s what these families do every day.

Because I am one of the few speakers at this conference, I have been giving a lot of talks. However, my favorite thing to do is answer questions. As a result, one of my scheduled times with the parents was simply a question/answer session. It went really well, and I hope I helped these parents with their unique situations. I was also scheduled for two sessions with the teens, and I made one of them a question/answer session as well.

When you offer a one-hour time slot for questions and answers, there is always a risk. What if the attendees have no questions? What if they have a couple of questions, but not nearly enough to last for an hour? I honestly didn’t think this would be an issue for the parents, since they face so many challenges homeschooling where they are. However, I did worry about the teens. While I was sure they had lots of questions, I was afraid they wouldn’t be “brave” enough to ask them in a group setting. To reduce the risk, then, I offered free candy for every question. Not surprisingly, the teens ended up having plenty of questions.

One of the reasons I love answering questions is that I often learn something new in the process, and this conference was no exception. The second question I got from the teens was:

What is the color of hippo sweat?

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Homeschooling in Wadsworth, Ohio

On Monday of this week, I was invited to speak at a meeting of the Kingdom Way Homeschoolers in Wadsworth, Ohio. It was held on the Wadsworth campus of the The Chapel, which was a wonderful venue. The auditorium had really excellent acoustics, and it had a nice, open feel to it. The back wall of the stage had a modern design on it, and the design was backlit with different colors. Once the technical support person (who was superb) put up my presentation, a young lady then changed the colors of the backlighting to match the color scheme of my presentation. I thought that was a very nice touch.

The title of my talk was Why Homeschool Through High School…and How to Get It Done. In the first part of the talk, I went through some data that indicate students who are homeschooled through high school are better prepared for the future than their traditionally-schooled counterparts. In the second half of the talk, I went over some “nuts and bolts” related to homeschooling at the high school level. I discussed the basic subjects that should be covered and gave some suggestions regarding how you might cover those subjects.

This particular talk was a bit longer than most of my talks, because I covered a lot of ground in it. However, the large crowd was very patient and seemed to enjoy the talk. As is typically the case, I took questions at the end of the talk, and they were quite good. There was one in particular that really got me thinking. A gentleman asked about apprenticeships and trade schools. Since my talk was focused on university preparation, I thought he was asking me to talk a bit about what to do with students who aren’t university-bound. I told him that just as I am a fan of having university-bound students take a few classes at a local college or a few AP classes to give them a preview of what university will be like, I also am a fan of having non-university-bound students do apprenticeships or take classes at a local trade school to start career exploration.

That really didn’t address his question, however. He wanted me to specifically compare the two. For a non-university-bound student, which would be better: some sort of apprenticeship or taking classes at a trade school? I had never considered that before, and I told him as much. However, I was happy to “think out loud” for him.

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Same Chemical, Different Chemical Formula?

In my previous article, I discussed a chemical found in both the great orange tip butterfly and the marble cone snail. I made the statement that the researchers were surprised to find that the chemical was identical in both species. A commenter asked a good question: When would the same chemical be different (across species or not)? I thought the best way to answer that question was with a new post.

When most of us think about chemicals, we think about simple molecules like water: H2O. The chemical formula of water tells us that there are two hydrogen atoms linked to one oxygen atom. In a glass of water, there are all sorts of molecules like this, and they are all identical. If we do something to change the chemical formula of the molecule, we come up with a completely different chemical. For example, if I were to add one more oxygen to the molecule, I would get H2O2, which is hydrogen peroxide. It is utterly different from water, so in molecules like these, even a change of one atom makes a world of difference.

However, the biological world isn’t quite the same. The molecules are incredibly complex, often composed of thousands of atoms. Consider, for example, proteins. These are large molecules made by linking smaller molecules, called amino acids, together. When amino acids link up together in a specific way, they tend to make a specific protein. An example would be the protein known as cytochrome c. It is a relatively simple protein found in almost all living organisms. It is simple because, as proteins go, it is rather small. In most living organisms, cytochrome c is composed of “only” about a hundred amino acids.1 That might sound like a lot, but there are proteins in living organisms that are composed of more than 25,000 amino acids!2 So as proteins go, cytochrome c is rather “simple.”

There are many ways to picture a protein, but one way is called a “ribbon diagram.” In this way of picturing a protein, you get a three-dimensional view of the overall backbone of the protein. Here is the ribbon diagram for cytochrome c:

The ribbon diagram of cytochrome c, with the active site pointed out (Click for credit)

The green ribbons represent the structure of the backbone of the protein, and they are composed of many amino acids linked together. The gray bars represent the active site, which is where the protein does most of its work.

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Did Butterflies Evolve from Sea Snails?

The great orange tip butterfly has a toxin in its wings that is identical to the toxin used by the marble cone snail. (Click for credit)

A former student of mine recently alerted me to a study that was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The authors were studying the proteins found in the wings of a great orange tip butterfly, Hebomoia glaucippe. As they sorted through what they found, they were surprised to find a toxin known as glacontryphan-M.1 The fact that it is a toxin wasn’t surprising to them. After all, Monarch butterflies have cardiac glycosides in their bodies, which are toxic to many birds.2 It is thought that this is a defense mechanism, because birds that eat a monarch butterfly and get sick are unlikely to eat more monarch butterflies.

Here’s what’s surprising: the toxin is also found in a sea snail known as the marble cone snail, Conus marmoreus.3 You can see how it gets its name:

The marble cone snail (Click for credit)

The marble cone snail uses the toxin for hunting. It injects the toxin into its prey, paralyzing it. That makes the prey very easy to eat. Obviously, the researchers were surprised to find the same toxin in two separate species that are supposed to be distantly related in terms of evolution. More importantly, they were surprised at the fact that the two toxins are chemically identical.

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Homeschooling in Savannah

Me hanging with Paula Deen. She was thinner than I expected...
On Tuesday, I spoke in Savannah, Georgia at the Family Education for Christ yearly kickoff event, which marks the beginning of the academic year for many homeschoolers. I spoke at the same event about six years ago and was excited to come back this year. The city of Savannah is gorgeous and steeped in history, and the food is amazing.

Speaking of food, before the event, my wonderful hosts took me to The Lady and Sons, which is Paula Deen’s restaurant. The food was nothing short of incredible. It started with hoecakes and garlic/cheese biscuits. It was followed by pulled pork, which had probably the sweetest barbeque sauce I have ever tasted. I was then “forced” to eat dessert, which was banana pudding mixed with vanilla wafers. As you can see from the picture, I am no stranger to eating a lot of food, but this meal filled me to the brim!

After lunch, we took a driving tour of the city. The historic section is filled with squares that hold plant life and monuments to famous people or events. What makes the city gorgeous, however, are the trees that fill the squares and line the streets. Many of them are covered with Spanish moss, an epiphytic plant. This means it grows on trees but does not act as a parasite. Instead, it just gathers water from the air and from rainfall. The moss hangs down from the trees, producing the illusion that you are in a deep, medieval forest, even though you are in the heart of a city.

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The Northeast Homeschool Convention

This past weekend, I spoke at the Northeast Homeschool Convention, the last of the 2012 Great Homeschool Conventions. While it had the lowest attendance of all the Great Homeschool conventions, there was a lot of enthusiasm, and I had a great time talking to (and with) home educators and their children.

For example, I had a wonderful conversation with a young lady who had just finished her junior year of high school. She told me that she really liked physics, but she didn’t like the mathematics associated with it. As a result, she had a hard time deciding what she would major in when she went to university. After talking with her for a while, I told her that it sounds like she enjoys science in general, not specifically physics. I suggested that she should go for a “natural science” major, which is common at many universities. Then, as she pursued that major, she might find the specific area of science that has the right mix of characteristics for her. During the course of the conversation, I found out that she was attending the University of Washington on a full-ride scholarship in gymnastics!

Of course, in addition to speaking with home-educating parents and their children, I also spoke to them. I gave a total of six talks at the convention, and (as always) I had a question/answer time after each. One of the talks was called Life and Its Amazing Design. In that talk, I discuss how the design I saw in nature convinced me of the existence of God, even when I was an atheist. I also discuss how that same observation convinced noted atheist philosopher Dr. Antony Flew that God does, indeed, exist.

Those who try to shut their eyes to the design that clearly exists in nature often try to point out what they think are “bad designs,” and vestigial structures are often given as examples. The problem is that very few vestigial structures really exist. In the talk, I discuss how at one time, evolutionists thought there were as many a 83 vestigial organs in the human body.1 However, over time, important functions have been found for all but one (the male nipple). In the course of making this point, I highlight the function of the appendix, as biologists still misinform the public that it is a vestigial organ.

During the question/answer time, a student said the common evolutionary response is that vestigial structures don’t have to be useless. Instead, they can evolve to perform some new function as the old function becomes unnecessary. I agreed with him that this is the common evolutionary response. However, I cautioned him that this is a very new response. It is certainly not what evolutionists thought throughout most of the history of the evolutionary hypothesis.

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Rapid Change in Lizards: An Example of Post-Flood Diversification

An Italian wall lizard such as the ones analyzed in the study (Click for credit)
Nearly a week ago, a student sent me a web article about a study that slipped by me in 2008. According to the student, the study has been used by Richard Dawkins to show that evolution can produce entirely new structures in animals. This bothered the student, and he asked me to take a look at the web article to see what I thought of the study. Of course, the first thing I had to do was find the actual scientific paper upon which the web article was based. Once I read through the scientific paper, I thought it provided a great example of what young-earth creationists think happened after the worldwide Flood.

As I have mentioned previously, young-earth creationists are in debt to Charles Darwin, because he allows us to understand how an ark filled with two of every kind of animal (and seven each of the clean kinds) could produce all the biological diversity we see today. In case you aren’t aware, God did not command Noah to put every species of animal on the ark. Instead, He instructed Noah to take every kind of animal that needed protection from the Flood onto the ark. We young-earth creationists think that “kind” is a much broader term than “species.” For example, there are many species of cat today (tigers, lions, jaguars, domestic cats, etc.). However, we think that God created only one kind of cat.1 As a result, only two cats went on the ark, and all the cats we see today have descended from that one pair of cats.

This is why Charles Darwin is so critical to a young-earth understanding of biological history. We think that variation and natural selection are what produced all the species of cats we see today. As the one pair of cats went out from the ark, they reproduced, and their progeny spread out. As the progeny encountered new environments, they adapted to those new environments via variation and natural selection, just as Darwin envisioned.

Where we differ from modern evolutionists is that we think biological change is limited by genetics. There is a certain amount of information in a genome, and varying what kind of information is expressed in the organism will produce all sorts of diversity within a genome. However, it is not possible to add information to a genome, so it is not possible to fundamentally change a genome. Thus, while a specialized cat (like a tiger) can come from two unspecialized cats (such as those that were on the ark), there is no way that a horse can come from those cats. The genomes of horses and cats are too fundamentally different.

The study this student sent me provides a perfect example of how that works and how quickly it happens when the environment demands it!

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