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.
This past weekend, I spoke at the California Homeschool Convention, which is one of the Great Homeschool Conventions. Many home educators attend conventions like this one to get advice from various “experts” on homeschooling, and for this convention, it seems that even the convention center where the event was held wanted to put in its two cents. The facility put out the sign shown on the left, and it was the first thing most people saw as they drove into the convention center. Obviously, the advice is sound, and I hope that the attendees took it to heart!
I gave a total of six talks at the convention, and most of them were for the teens. However, there was one, entitled “What Are They Doing Now?“, that is specifically for the parents. The talk focuses on homeschool graduates and what they are doing with their excellent education. First, I share some statistics, such as the fact that homeschool graduates are more likely to have college degrees and more likely to be in college than their non-homeschooled peers.1,2 I then turn to a discussion of some individual homeschool graduates who are, literally, making the world a better place.
The homeschool graduates I talk about are all doing amazing things. For example, one is a medical doctor and bioethicist, another is an undercover operative for an intelligence agency, and still another is part of a non-governmental organization that is making better nutrition available to those in third-world countries. Many of them have impressive degrees, and many of them skipped university and started making a positive difference in the world right out of homeschool.
One of those who started changing the world right out of homeschool is named Sydnee. At the ripe old age of 17, she felt the Lord leading her to an orphanage in Monrovia, Liberia. This was not part of some organized trip, and she didn’t know anyone there. She simply felt the leading of the Lord, convinced her parents, and ended up going to that terribly dangerous country because she wanted to help those who had no hope. The orphanage specialized in adopting these children out to parents in developed countries, giving them a chance for a safe, happy life. Sydnee thought the Lord wanted her to be a part of such a life-changing ministry.
Yesterday, I had the distinct honor of speaking at the 2012 SEEK graduation ceremony. As I told the graduates, I do a lot of speaking around the world on many different topics, but speaking at homeschool graduation ceremonies is my very favorite kind of speaking engagement. I thoroughly enjoy being a part of such an important time in the lives of students and parents, and this specific graduation ceremony was particularly enjoyable. The event was efficiently organized and ran like a well-oiled machine, but more importantly, it was inspiring and uplifting.
It began with a short welcome by a graduate named Jensen. When people speak in public, they often take on a completely different personality. Sometimes, this is good, and sometimes, it is awkward. Jensen simply didn’t do that. He came up and welcomed us as if he was talking to each one of us individually. His personality came shining through in his welcome, and it set the tone for what was a very real, very enjoyable evening.
After a sincere opening prayer given by another graduate named Troy, we were treated to a graduate (Joe) who played and sang “If I stand,” by Rich Mullins and Steve Cudworth. Now I play the piano well enough so that I don’t offend anyone, and I thoroughly enjoy listening to those who can really play. I also sing in a way that doesn’t offend too many people, and once again, I love to listen to those who can really sing. Well, this student could really play and really sing, and he could do them both at the same time! The song, of course, is chock-full of meaning, and the chorus says it all:
So if I stand let me stand on the promise that you will pull me through
And if I can’t, let me fall on the grace that first brought me to You
So if I sing let me sing for the joy that has born in me these songs
And if I weep let it be as a man who is longing for his home
Last week, I had the privilege of of speaking to the Bolling Area Home Educators (BAHE), a group of military homeschoolers who live on the Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling near Washington, DC. In other words, I got the opportunity to speak to heroes and their families. These brave men and women sacrifice so much in order to keep up safe, and those who choose to homeschool their children sacrifice even more. The nature of military life often means one spouse is gone for extended periods of time, which means that the spouse who stays at home must carry the burdens of parenting and educating alone. In addition, homeschooling is made significantly easier when you have a consistent network of other homeschoolers in your area. Because our military heroes rarely stay in one location for more than a few years, a military homeschooler rarely has the consistent support network enjoyed by most other homeschoolers in the U.S.
The trip got off to a very military start, because a good friend of mine has his private pilot’s license, and he agreed to fly me there in a Cessna Cutlass 172RG. Since we were flying into the DC area, there were all sorts of restrictions related to where we could fly, and he was actually given instructions on what to do if the fighter jets came to escort us out of a restricted area. Since there were so many restricted areas, I assumed we wouldn’t see any actual military traffic. It turns out that I was wrong.
We were flying towards the Manassas Regional Airport at an altitude of 5,000 feet. There was a solid layer of white clouds at around 2,000 feet, well below where we were. As we were flying, air traffic control told us to be aware that there were two F/A-18 jets doing some maneuvers in our area at about 3,000 feet. We scanned the sky below us and sure enough, we got to see them flying around! Of course, they were flying so quickly that they were hard to follow for any length of time, but it was amazing to watch from our point of view!
Once the bird’s-eye view of military maneuvers was over, we landed, and it was time to get a ground-level view of military life and homeschooling. Because the guest housing at Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling was full, we ended up staying in the guest quarters at Fort Belvoir, another military base in the D.C. area. It was very interesting to see life on the base from the inside.
I spent the past weekend in Cincinnati, the site of the Midwest Homeschool convention. This was the original Great Homeschool Convention, and it is one of the most popular homeschooling conventions in the nation. As usual, the attendance was huge, and I gave a total of seven talks over a period of 2 and a half days. There was a steady stream of people coming to my booth to ask specific questions, so when I wasn’t giving a talk or answering questions on stage, I was generally answering questions at my booth. It was very busy, but I had a blast!
I got to meet the Sleepy Man Banjo Boys at this convention. These three young men started posting videos of their bedroom practice sessions on YouTube (an example is given above), and because of their incredible talent, the videos almost immediately went viral. The videos have millions of views, and the Sleepy Man Banjo Boys have appeared as musical guests on The Late Show with David Letterman and the Today Show on NBC. In addition, when they appeared on the Mike Huckabee show (Fox News), they were so popular that they were invited back the very next week. They are the only musical guests to appear in back-to-back episodes of that show.
These talented young men are homeschooled, so it was natural for Great Homeschool Conventions to invite them to appear. They gave a great performance, and later on, I happened to be dining at the same restaurant as they were. As a result, it was my honor to meet them personally. Not only are they excellent performers, but they are also genuinely fine young men who have the right priorities in life. They are just another example of what wonderful things can be accomplished as a result of the individuality and flexibility of home education.
Over the past weekend, I spoke at the Midsouth Homeschool Convention, which is a part of the Great Homeschool Conventions series. It was held in Memphis, TN, so pictures and tributes to Elvis were abundant everywhere except the convention itself. I didn’t give as many talks at this convention as is typical, so that left more time for my favorite part of a homeschool convention: talking with students and parents.
Since I am not selling anything at homeschool conventions these days, my booth in the exhibit hall looks rather odd. It consists of a plain black-and-white sign that just has my name on it, an empty table, two chairs, and me. In contrast to most of the other booths that try to attract people in with color banners, comfy couches, potted plants, and videos, mine looks pretty bare. The CEO of Home Educating Family thought it was just too bare, so he added one “decoration.” On my plain white sign, he wrote “The Doctor Is In” and gave me a sticky note that said “OUT.” When I left my booth, I could cover the word “In” with the sticky note. Perhaps it doesn’t sound funny to you, but I thought it was hilarious, and I used it the whole time I was there. I regret that I did not take a picture of it before I left.
Although the bulk of this post will deal with a question I got in one of my talks, I do want to mention one thing that really impressed me. It turns out that during the conference, some low-life broke into several of the vendors’ vans. While most vendors didn’t lose much, one vendor’s van was loaded with an iPad and some other important technology, so they were looking at a serious financial loss. In order to help them out, several other vendors took up a collection. Now these vendors are all competitors. If you buy a math course from one vendor, that probably means you won’t buy a math course from any other vendor. Nevertheless, the vendors all gave generously. That really impressed me. Even in business, Christians should put compassion first, and that’s what I saw happening in Memphis.
On Friday and Saturday, I spoke at the Christian Home Educators of New Hampshire convention. It was held at a very nice resort in the town of Laconia, New Hampshire. The resort was right on a lake, so the views were beautiful. Indeed, my Saturday talks were held in a large room that had huge windows and a great view of the lake. I expect people were enjoying the view more than my talks! Even so, there were some great questions, and because it was a smaller convention, I got to spend a lot more time talking to people one-on-one.
The conference started on an incredibly memorable note. I was sitting at a table in the vendor hall waiting for my first talk to begin, and a young woman who was in her 20’s came up to me and asked if I was Dr. Wile. When I told her that I was, she introduced herself, giving me her married name and her maiden name. I seemed to recognize the maiden name, but I couldn’t place it. Then she told me her story. Back when I owned a publishing company, I used to have a “Science Question of the Week” competition on the company’s website. I would post what I thought was a challenging science question, and I would invite students 18 or younger to answer the question. After 12 questions, whoever had the most correct answers got to choose from a list of four prizes, typically bought from the Edmund Scientifics catalog.
This young lady told me that she was a past winner of the contest. That, of course, told me why I recognized her maiden name. She said that she chose a Galileo thermometer as her prize and had treasured it for many years. Well, not too long ago, she was cleaning the shelf where it was stored and broke it. Even though she is now an adult with young children of her own, she actually sat down and cried over the loss! Her grief must have been evident, because her husband ended up buying another one to replace it.
Her story meant a lot to me. I thoroughly enjoyed my time working on the Science Question of the Week, but I had no idea that it meant so much to (at least some of) the students who participated in it. It just goes to show that when you work with students, you never know how you will touch them. Never in a million years would I have thought that the contest meant so much to a student that even as an adult, she would be emotionally affected by the loss of a $30 prize. Teachers and homeschooling parents, take this as a lesson. The things you do that you think are small and insignificant might affect your students in an incredibly powerful way!
Last Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, I spoke at the 2012 Southeast Homeschool Convention in Greenville, South Carolina. It was the first of the Great Homeschool Conventions, and I enjoyed myself immensely. I got to “catch up” with several of my colleagues who also work with home-educating families, but most importantly, I got to speak with homeschooling students and parents. The very first time I spoke at a homeschooling convention, I noticed a distinct difference between homeschooled students and their publicly- and privately-schooled peers. While most publicly- and privately-schooled students actively avoid interaction with adults (especially adults who are teachers), most homeschooled students actively seek out such interaction.
I will never forget an experience at that first homeschooling convention. I was sitting in my booth, and a teen came up to me and said, “You’re a scientist, right?” I told him, “Yes. I am a nuclear chemist.” His eyes brightened up, and he said, “Great! I need to ask you something.” He then sat down and asked me a very detailed question about the nature of light. While he had some misconceptions about the subject (don’t we all?), I was pretty impressed with his knowledge. More importantly, however, I was impressed with how he sought me out and was perfectly comfortable discussing science with me for what ended up being well over half an hour. In addition, he was very careful to avoid monopolizing my time. If someone else came to my booth, he would indicate to me that I should pay attention to this new person, and he would wait until I was free again.
Since then, I have come to expect such interactions at homeschooling conventions. This one was no exception. I ended up having a long talk with a teen who really wanted to understand how gravity can affect the passage of time. He had read about the strong evidence indicating that time passes more slowly in the presence of strong gravitational fields and more quickly in the presence of weak gravitational fields, but he wanted to understand why it actually happens. Of course, without the appropriate mathematics, it is rather hard to understand, but I explained it to him as best I could. He seemed to get it in the end, and he was very appreciative of my time.
I talked with homeschooling parents as well. One set of parents came by my booth and told me that their daughter was pursuing a PhD in biology. They said she credits my books with sparking her interest in science and preparing her to excel at university. Obviously, that made my day! I asked them what her PhD thesis would be about, and as near as I can tell, she is working on the phenomenon of horizontal gene transfer between organisms from different biological kingdoms. It sounds like fascinating work, and if my experience with homeschool graduates is any indication, she will probably be incredibly successful at it.
Back when I was on the faculty at Ball State University, I was cleaning some platinum foils that I was using in my research. I brushed them with ethanol and then put them in a flame until they glowed red hot. By accident (which is often the way scientific truths are discovered), I found that if I passed a platinum foil back over (but not into) the ethanol while it was hot but no longer glowing, it would start to glow red hot again. When I pulled it away from the ethanol, it would stop glowing, but if I put it near the ethanol soon enough, it would once again begin to glow. I was fascinated by this effect and played with it for quite a while. The next day, I was teaching chemistry to a class of gifted-and-talented high school juniors, and I showed them what I had found. Then I gave them the “explanation” for it.
Platinum is a known catalyst, which means it tends to speed up a reaction without being consumed. In addition, alcohols are known to decompose into another class of organic molecules called “aldehydes,” and that happens quickly in the presence of the right catalyst. Thus, it was “obvious” what was going on: the platinum was catalyzing the decomposition of ethanol vapors into aldehyde vapors (specifically, acetaldehyde vapors), and the energy released by that reaction heated the already-hot platinum sufficiently to start it glowing red again. The students oohed and ahhed over the effect, and they dutifully wrote down my explanation in their notes. At the end of class, however, one of the students patiently explained to me that my analysis couldn’t be correct.
You see, she had done something I hadn’t bothered to do. She used the appendixes in the back of her book to calculate the energetics of the decomposition of ethanol into acetaldehyde, and she found that the reaction actually absorbed energy. It did not release energy. Thus, it could not be heating the platinum! Needless to say, I was rather impressed with this young lady’s analysis. The next class period, I told all the students that I was wrong and that I would look into the real explanation. However, I couldn’t find anything in the chemical literature that was relevant. As a result, I asked the young lady if she would work under my NSF research grant that summer and figure out what was really going on. She was surprised that I thought she could figure something like that out, but she said she would be happy to try.
It took her only a few weeks to learn what was really going on. Yes, the platinum was catalyzing the decomposition of ethanol into acetaldehyde, but that wasn’t what was causing the effect. Instead, the other product of that decomposition, hydrogen, was reacting with the oxygen in the air to make water. That reaction released the energy which caused the platinum to heat up enough to glow red hot again. This young lady’s work was so solid and elegant that we published a paper on her explanation of the effect.1
Why am I telling you this story? Because a friend of mine alerted me to an article that brought it all back to me in vivid detail.
Of course, the bigger question is whether or not such debates make any difference at all. Do any minds actually get changed as a result of a debate? I can tell you that mine did. I was an atheist at one time, and what led me down the road to accepting the truth of Christianity was an “Atheism versus Christianity” debate that I attended. The debate made me actually investigate the evidence for the existence of God, and when I did so, I found the evidence to be overwhelming. As a result, I ended up believing in God and, eventually, I came to realize that He is the God of the Old and New Testaments. However, I often wonder if a debate has changed anyone’s mind on the creation/evolution issue.
Well, I received an E-MAIL from a homeschool graduate who is now a biology major pursuing an MD/PhD. He says:
I was home educated from preschool all the way through high school and thoroughly enjoyed all of your science textbooks throughout high school…In fact your biology textbook was what got me interested in science in the first place.